Monday, March 25, 2013

The NHL Trade Deadline Doesn't Owe You Anything

It's become fashionable in NHL blogger circles to lament the death of trade deadline excitement.  Every year, we hear the same thing:  TSN's Trade Deadline Show is so boring!  Where's the action?  Where's the surprise?  It's just six guys in a studio, one of whom can't stop raving about big body presence.  People take the day off work in Canada to watch the events as they unfold, enduring the same ten second highlight package of Florida's best 2nd line forward twenty times to hear James Duthie announce that someone you've never heard of has been dealt for a 6th round pick.  If you're reading this and were planning to take off work, don't - it's likely that nothing much happens.

I get excited for Deadline Day too, but I get excited when my team signs undrafted free agents that no one's ever heard of.  Trades fire my inner gambler - I get to ruminate on whether a team gave up too much and what they can hope for out of this player.  It's obviously more exciting when my team makes a move, as I immediately begin to think about how this player slots into the lineup and where he presumably stands on the depth chart.  So I'm not saying Deadline Day is inherently boring, just that the NHL has changed a great deal since it was established as a national holiday north of the border.  Let's go down the reasons:

1:  The NHL used to be separated into two categories:  teams that could afford to sign their free agents and those that couldn't.

When the UFA age was 31 and there was no salary cap, there were usually only a few teams interested in players in July.  Everyone else sat by and let their franchises get picked clean.  Rather than sit idly, teams out of the playoff race would deal their UFAs at the trade deadline, and thus was deadline fever born.  This year, people thought Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry would be deadline bait, but both were signed to 8 year contracts instead; I'm pretty sure the motivation for signing was to ruin all our deadline speculations and fun.  Last year, we saw Ales Hemsky stay in Edmonton rather than find his way to a Cup contender like we'd all thought.  With the salary floor, it's hard to point to many franchises who straight up cannot afford a certain player.

2:  Teams didn't know about or did not care about the value of prospects like they do now

I say this glibly, but some of those deadline deals in the 90s and early 2000s cost teams substantial young players.  We seldom see this anymore - most players moved at the deadline go for a draft pick.  I've written elsewhere about the difference between a prospect and a draft pick, but prospects are usually worth more because they are closer to being NHLers.  This is why the Brenden Morrow trade is such a surprise - Joe Morrow seems like a darn good prospect, and they don't go in these sorts of deals.  Teams now hang on to their prospects because the salary cap makes them some of the most valuable commodities.

3:  If you want to make a big deal, you want to do it with as much time left in the season as possible

There are still some big names moved before the deadline - trouble for the TSN crew, they move days before.  If you are going to give up something significant for a player, you want more games with him to acclimate to your team. If Jarome Iginla is traded, I expect for it to happen well before the deadline - there's no reason to drag it out, his price probably isn't moving much, nor are his suitors getting more desperate.

4:  The NHL has more parity than ever

It's hard for teams to pack it in when they're a few points out of a playoff spot, and right now almost the entire NHL is 'a few points out of a playoff spot' if they're not already in one.  There are only 4 teams that currently sit more than 5 points out of a playoff berth.  With the loser point firmly in place, it makes it much more difficult for teams in 13th place to clamber over all the other clubs to earn a playoff spot, but the standings are deceivingly close.  It's a rare franchise that can pass on the chance at postseason play.

2008 seems to have been the acme of Trade Deadline fever - Marian Hossa, Sergei Fedorov, Brad Richards, Brian Campbell, Cristobal Huet, Bryce Salvador, Brad Stuart, and Adam Foote were all traded on Deadline Day.  It's time for TSN and the NHL chattering class to scale back the expectations - with fewer teams playing free agency chicken with their big-name players, a greater ability for teams to afford their stars (with 8 year deals instead of 7), and teams realizing that dealing for excellent players at the deadline is not always a panacea, deadline fever will be a thing of the past.  Sad for us, but good for the NHL:  It's an unhealthy league where excellent players are often on the move for future considerations.

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