So much of what happens on the NHL trade market is governed by dollars. How much does a player make, how much time is left on his contract, how does his salary fit into a team's budget?
But with trade speculation heating up in advance of Friday's NHL entry draft/swap meet, here's an exercise that some of the league's deeper thinkers use when evaluating players who they might acquire via trade:
They strip the salary component right out of the equation and evaluate it strictly as a hockey decision.
For example, last summer the Florida Panthers absorbed what was thought to be an untradeable contract – Brian Campbell's eight-year, $57.143-million (all currency U.S.) deal that came with a $7.14-million salary-cap hit. Campbell had been playing for the Chicago Blackhawks, where he was no better than the No. 3 defenceman. For $7.14-million, he needed to be better than that.
Florida took him on, in no small part because the Panthers' new general manager, Dale Tallon, signed him to that contract in the first place, and Florida had oodles of salary-cap space to play with.
But the heart of the decision was: What could Campbell contribute to a Panthers team in the midst of a massive rebuild, and the answer was plenty. Campbell played on average 26 minutes 53 seconds a night for Florida. He scored 53 points, tied for second among NHL defencemen. He helped the Panthers end a decade-long playoff drought, and on Wednesday he capped off a successful season by becoming the first defenceman in 58 years to win the Lady Byng Trophy.
Tallon made a move that few of his peers would have considered, because they would have been stopped by the contract obstacle, and he saw beyond it. He saw what Campbell could do on the ice.
It's a precedent worth considering because in the next few days, there will be considerable chatter about two other defencemen on big-ticket contracts who probably could be had for the right price. That would Jay Bouwmeester of the Calgary Flames and Dan Boyle of the San Jose Sharks. Bouwmeester, 28, is signed for two more years at a cap hit of $6.68-million. Boyle, 35, is signed for two more years at a cap hit of $6.66-million.
Boyle had 48 points in 81 games to finish eighth in scoring among defencemen. Bouwmeester led the Flames in ice time with 25:57 a night.
The Sharks recently signed Brad Stuart to a contract and have Brent Burns to run the power play, which was Boyle's job for years. If they can pry Niklas Hjalmarsson out of Chicago, then it makes sense to shop Boyle and his contract, especially if they get a hint that Rick Nash might be interested in playing for them alongside his old Swiss-league pal Joe Thornton. The Sharks need to do something dramatic as their championship window closes a little more every year, and moving their de facto No. 1 defenceman might be what's required.
In Calgary, Bouwmeester's name is making the rounds because he is earning the sort of money that perennial Norris Trophy candidates make, without actually challenging for the Norris Trophy. Bouwmeester lacks a physical element to his game and hasn't shown any kind of offensive flair since arriving in Calgary three years ago (after scoring 12, 15 and 15 goals in his three final years with the Panthers).
If Bouwmeester earned a couple of million less, he would be considered a valuable asset, because he is positionally sound, can burn a lot of quiet minutes on defence, and never gets hurt.
The point is, if Calgary wants to move Bouwmeester to free up salary-cap space, there will be general managers interested in acquiring his rights, the ones who look past his being overpriced and focus more on what he can bring to a club on the ice.
So much of the trade speculation heading into the draft focuses on Nash or the Anaheim Ducks' Bobby Ryan or the Philadelphia Flyers' James van Riemsdyk. But there is value elsewhere and sometimes that value is hidden behind contracts that make a player appear untradeable. The Campbell deal last summer proved, once and for all, that no player is untradeable.
And sometimes, 12 months after the fact, the manager who pulled the trigger on a puzzling, unexpected deal looks like the smartest guy in the room.