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Globe and Mail sports reporter Eric Duhatschek.

Globe and Mail sports reporter Eric Duhatschek.

GMs can’t help but hear the siren song of NHL trade deadline deals Add to ...

In March of 1980, the New York Islanders made a relatively innocent two-for-one trade with the Los Angeles Kings, adding Butch Goring to play behind their No. 1 centre, Bryan Trottier, on a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations.

The Islanders gave up a useful defenceman, Dave Lewis, plus the first player they ever chose in the entry draft, Billy Harris, to complete the deal, but in the end it worked out spectacularly well. The Islanders won the Stanley Cup that year, their first of four in a row, and the following year, Goring won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

The Goring deal is often cited as the beginning of the modern-day fascination with the NHL trade deadline, proof to general managers you can add the missing piece of the Stanley Cup puzzle with a savvy 11th-hour tweak.

Of course, the subsequent 35-year history of trade deadline deals suggests just the opposite is true – that for every home run a GM might hit, there are far more strikeouts along the way.

Luckily for TSN and Sportsnet, who block off an entire day of programming to cover the action, there are just enough success stories mixed in with the abject failures to give the NHL’s trade deadline a weird magnified life of its own.

And it produces excellent TV ratings.

For weeks leading up to the deadline, which this year falls on Leap Year Monday, there is gleeful rumour-mongering and wild speculation about who’s coming and who’s going.

Players on expiring contracts playing for teams destined to miss the playoffs are the main targets. They can be useful “rentals” for clubs with Stanley Cup aspirations. Once in a while, teams may even slip in an actual hockey deal.

To long-time Nashville Predators’ general manager David Poile, the line that connects the Goring trade to the present-day frenzy has everything to do with how the NHL’s financial system changed after the 2004-05 lockout season.

In addition to adopting a salary cap, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association also amended free agency, giving players their freedom far earlier in their careers.

“What’s happened in the salary-cap era is, there’s been a model created for almost every team that nobody knows how to get out of,” explained Poile. “It’s not exact, but if you look at all the teams, it’s pretty close. You pay about 40 to 50 per cent of your payroll to five or six players – a goalie, two defencemen and three forwards.

“It means your entry-level players who can play are like gold, because they’re your least expensive players, so you really don’t want to trade them. Then you have your top players and a lot of them have no-trade clauses. In addition to that, there are two or three players on every team that nobody wants, either because they’re on bad contracts or they’re declining. So if you add all that up, how many players are really tradeable? How many are really in play?”

The answer is not many, which in the natural order of supply and demand, usually drives up the prices, sometimes to silly heights.

“In the previous era, when salaries were much lower, there wasn’t the same disparity between the highest- and lowest-paid players on your team,” continued Poile. “It meant deals were easier to make – big deals, multiplayer deals. ‘Here’s a player not playing very well for me – let’s trade an apple for an apple.’ Today, that concept doesn’t even exist.

“Thus, for managers, the two most important days of the year are the trading deadline and July 1 [when free agency begins]. That’s where you construct 75 per cent of your team – some other managers might say 90 per cent.”

Considering the overall volume of trading-deadline deals, only a handful directly paid off with Stanley Cup championship wins that same year.

In 2006, Jim Rutherford, then the Carolina Hurricanes general manager, made two such moves, landing Doug Weight from the St. Louis Blues in January and then adding Mark Recchi from the Pittsburgh Penguins at the deadline.

“Doug Weight was the big fish that year; we jumped in early and got him off the market,” recalled Rutherford. “Then Erik Cole got hurt in the course of that season, and we were still looking to fill out our forwards and Recchi was a very, very key piece to giving us a chance to win.”

Rutherford, who now runs the Penguins, is one of four current NHL general managers who were traded at the deadline during their respective playing careers (Jim Nill in Dallas, Ron Francis in Carolina and Marc Bergevin in Montreal are the others).

Nill was dealt in 1982 from the St. Louis Blues to the Vancouver Canucks and remembers how crushed he was when he first heard the news.

“Just because it was my first team,” said Nill. “I had the Blues’ logo stamped in my heart. I was devastated when they brought me in and told me. But then you go to your next team and it worked out well for me – we went to the Stanley Cup finals that year and you move on.”

Now that he’s a manager, Nill says the memory of that trade influences his actions at the trade deadline.

“Players who could become UFAs [unrestricted free agents] always have a chance to get traded, but I’ve talked to a couple of my players and told them there’s nothing going on,” said Nill. “They’ve got families. They’re in the moment, but they’re also worried about their futures. I think it’s important for them to know, if you take care of business and play as well as you can, everything else will look after itself.”

Arguably, the most cost-effective trade-deadline deal was engineered back in 1997 by the Detroit Red Wings, when they landed defenceman Larry Murphy from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for future considerations. Murphy, who had previously played for Red Wings’ coach Scotty Bowman in Pittsburgh, helped the Red Wings win back-to-back Stanley Cups in his first two seasons with the team.

Nill, who was an assistant to general manager Ken Holland with the Red Wings when the deal went down, remembered how anxious the Leafs were to move Murphy.

“Larry was in Toronto, getting booed, and they didn’t want him. Kenny said, ‘Scotty Bowman’s got a good feel for him – and Scotty was right. He knew the type of team we were and he knew who he was going to pair him with – Nicklas Lidstrom – and that ended up working out really well.

“We played Philly in the [1997 Stanley Cup] final, when they had the ‘Legion of Doom’ line [comprised of Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg]. We had [Vladimir] Konstantinov and some other big, heavy guys, who played hard and we figured Scotty would use them against the Legion of Doom.

“Well, no, Scotty ended up putting Lidstrom and Murphy against those guys and they got so frustrated because they never touched the puck. All Lidstrom and Murphy did was move the puck, and flip it out, and we won the Cup because of it. That was the magic of Scotty – he had such a good feel for what would work.”

Just about every manager with any tenure has had his share of winners and losers at the deadline. Last year, the Kings’ Dean Lombardi gave up a first-round draft choice to Carolina for defenceman Andrej Sekera, who was not a good fit on the Kings’ roster and subsequently left to sign with the Edmonton Oilers. Lombardi freely admits that deal was a whiff.

But in 2014, he also acquired Marian Gaborik from the Columbus Blue Jackets, who went on to score 14 goals in 26 games to lead the postseason in goal scoring, as the Kings won their second Stanley Cup in three years.

Easier to overlook was a trade Lombardi made at the 2009 deadline, when he acquired Justin Williams from Carolina for Patrick O’Sullivan. Williams won two Cups with the Kings and also took home the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. And even if it wasn’t strictly speaking a deadline-day deal, two weeks before the 2012 deadline, the Kings acquired Jeff Carter from Columbus for Jack Johnson – and subsequently won the Cup that year, too.

In 2013, as a seller, Poile pulled off one of the great steals of all time – landing Filip Forsberg, a Calder Trophy candidate for the Predators in 2014-15 – and giving up only Martin Erat and Michael Latta to the Washington Capitals in exchange.

Last year, Poile was in buying mode and it didn’t work out nearly as well – the Preds surrendered a first-round pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli, both of whom were spare parts once the playoffs started and left the organization soon after their first-round exit.

But the Predators were in the process of putting up a 104-point regular season, finished second in the tough Central Division and were third overall in the Western Conference. Poile believed the group they had, given a little assistance, might be able to go on a playoff run.

“That’s your job – knowing that there is a time and a place to try that,” said Poile. “The feeling is there now more than ever before because of parity. You see teams that were picked to win a Stanley Cup – like Anaheim that got off to a terrible start and are now back on top. I mean, we’re only a few games over .500. We’re in the playoffs now, but we’re on the bubble, but I truly feel we can beat every team in the league. We haven’t …” said Poile, breaking off in a laugh.

“But if you remember how different it was 20 years ago. You could go into Ottawa when they were an expansion team [1992-93] or other places and you’d score five, six, seven, eight, nine goals. There were given wins in this league 20 or 25 years ago. That’s not the case any more. Whoever you think may be the worst team in the league is really not that far off. The threshold to make the playoffs, on our side right now, is about 62 points [earlier this week]. The worst team in the league has about 50. For three-quarters of the way through the season, that’s not much of a gap.”

Primarily, what seduces GMs to take those trading-deadline risks – even though they know the odds are stacked against them – is the pressure to win. In the 30-team era, a team has roughly three chances to win the Stanley Cup per century.

“What happens when Chicago wins three in six years or Los Angeles wins two in four, now the math is skewed,” said Nill. “Every team starts with a one-in-30 chance of winning, then that happens and the odds change.

“Every team is in a cycle nowadays. We all have about an eight-to-10-year cycle to win and when you’re in that cycle, it’s your time. If you’re the Chicago Blackhawks, it’s your time. If you’re the L.A. Kings, it’s your time. They’re going to make trades.

“I don’t think people realize how hard it is to win – and that’s the way it should be. But there’s pressure on all of us to win.”

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