Trade Roulette – The Risks & Rewards of Caution in the Market

Posted March 29, 2013

George McPhee explains GM logic, with a heavy emphasis on hand gestures (File Photo)

At the end of every season come the questions that most fans dread.  While “Will my team make the playoffs?’ is the most immediate, right on its metaphorical heels is the equally painful ‘Who will be on my team next fall?’

As we are reminded with each trade-related press conference, the NHL is a business.  Players can come and go with the blink of an eye (Jason Arnott, we miss you! Jerome Iginla, WTF are you doing in Pittsburgh?!?).  Across the NHL, there are the journeymen – players who jump from team to team.  They spend a year or two, three if they’re very lucky, with a team before they’re off to the next city.  These players are usually the ones signed to keep their team “safe.”  They have one or two specialities, most often the kind that are most appealing when a team senses the opportunity for a deep playoff run.

Of course, the NHL is also the residence of homebodies, players who find a niche with a particular team and dig in until they become a piece of the local landscape.  They’re the type who score goals, make plays, and really hold a team together, no matter what line they’re on.  But today, we’re focusing on the journeymen, especially those on expiring contracts who are affectionately referred to as “rental” players.

Recently, there’s been a new trend on the rise in the NHL, and it’s one that threatens the existence of those short-term rental players.  Blame can be parceled to a range of sources – the new CBA, the aging demographic of certain sought-after positions, and even the desire for yet another cosmetic overhaul to the NHL’s image.  Regardless of the why, this shift is something worth keeping an eye on as the number of temporary gap-fillers slip into endangered territory.  Like any change in strategy, it is likely to benefit a few teams and work poorly for the rest.  It’s too early to tell which the Caps will be, but there’s no denying the risks inherent in the current trend towards heavy, long-term contracts that’s been bouncing around the league.

As the shortened season enters into ‘trade deadline’ territory, where teams will be forced to live with their choices for the remainder of the regular season (and for a fortunate 16, the playoffs), every General Manager in the league is testing the waters to see what their current rosters are worth.  Some are wheeling and dealing with an eye to May, while the rest are looking to maximize their returns and invest in the future.  It’s a frantic mix of contract signings, ‘this’ trade and ‘that’ trade, while a panel at TSN devotes twelve hours to speculation and analysis that is rivaled only by their annual UFA Day bonanza.

It takes a confident general manager to sit back and do nothing, especially for those teams on the bubble.  In recent years, the Caps have come down on either side of the action scale – three acquisitions in 2011, but no movement whatsoever in 2012.

The Rule Book:

There are some very simple, practical (if unwritten) rules that one should keep in mind when eyeing the trade deadline and playing armchair GM.  If you’re one of the lucky fans, your team’s GM will respect the established process and use common sense, despite the temptation and pressure of the open market.  So, what are these unwritten rules?  Well, here’s a quick rundown of what you’ll want to look out for.

  1. Know your limits.  Especially when it comes to money.  Put simply, don’t take someone you can’t afford. Look at your team, decide who needs to be signed and what you need to change. If you’re okay for goalies, chances are trading for nine years of Roberto Luongo is not your best option.
  2. Age matters. While players like Teemu Selanne and Jaromir Jagr have had impressive careers and continue to put up numbers you’d expect of a younger player, remember that they are the exception and not the norm. Likewise, not every eighteen year old will turn out to be Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos.  Use caution when buying, selling, or signing players whose value is still undetermined.  Gambling on an unforeseen exception can lead to costly losses.
  3. Think Long (or short) Term.  Do you need the push to get your team through a successful playoff performance, or are you looking for something to build on over time? This will decide if you look for a seasoned veteran or an up-and-coming prospect.
  4. Know your weaknesses. Does your goalie cover for holes in the defence, or are your wingers hiding a secret lack of depth at centre?  Chances are that you have an excess at one position and a need in another, so don’t be so quick to trade for the most talked about winger when he’ll just add to the pile you already have.
  5. Don’t trust the other GM. The Capitals have a history of coming out on top of certain kinds of trades, but that hasn’t always been the case. Hold your poker face until the deal is done, and then laugh at the trick you just pulled to get a number one centre for a tenth (seventh) round draft pick.
  • Bonus: Timing is everything.  This is often ignored because some teams are reluctant to make a move early, either because they’re uncomfortable with the idea or they think they’ll get a bigger return if they wait for the last second. This can sometimes be true, but it could backfire as well and force a lower price.

If your team’s GM follows these rules, chances are you’ll be happy come this year’s April 3rd deadline.  Or, at least as happy as one can be, relative to your team’s position in the standings.

Talking Things Through

Apart from trades, this is also the time when many players start to work on contract negotiations and the potential for re-signings.  It is often a source of anxiety for fans – Who stays? Who goes on the chopping block (looking at you, here, Michal Neuvirth and Mike Ribeiro!)?  Who gets released into the wilds of free agency?  It’s a stressful time of year, because even the most complete of teams have weaknesses they’re looking to erase and patch over.

Most teams, the Capitals included, have a number of players entering free agent status at the end of the year.  Whether they’re currently producing as expected or not, it can be hard for any fan (or GM) to say hail or farewell to another contract. Depending on the player in question, chances are that the price to keep them around is going to be more than their last contract.  Inflation, it’s a thing, and that whole notion of “experience” is an ever-acruing commodity.  Add in a few other factors and an already borderline price could go through the roof.  Paperwork season is always a troubling time, but if things are done well, it doesn’t have to be painful.

For the curious souls – Yes, there are rules for the Quest For More Paperwork, too.

  1. Don’t be afraid to let go.  For both fans and managers, it can be hard to look a player in the face and tell them to leave.  But when it comes down to agent-manager relations, you have to put your foot down.  Just because the guy has the best hair in the league does not mean he deserves a five year extension. Maybe cap the offer at four.
  2. Know the angles. Every agent has a trick up their sleeve; it’s what they’re paid for. Being one step ahead of them can save a couple million off the cap, and it won’t hurt your dignity, either.
  3. Always have a fallback, and don’t be afraid to have the trading block primed just in case. Until the trade deadline has passed, be ready to make changes in case things don’t go as planned.
  4. Don’t be afraid to sleep on it.  In the new era of long-term, high priced contracts it’s probably a good idea to sleep on your next one and see how it looks in the morning.  Yes, you might lose out on 2 months of bargain-basement Iginla, but you won’t end up with three years of Mike Cammalleri at $7 Million/year, either.

All of these guidelines can help a team to come out on top.  Unfortunately, emotion will always play a role in negotiation.  Some risks will still be taken, and some rules will be ignored.  It’s what makes deadline day and UFA day exciting, and things seem to get more and more outrageous with every passing season.

There’s a lot to be said for stability.  Having a core group of players that a team (and their fans) can count on and get to know can have enormous benefits – both on the ice and when it comes to PR.  But locking down too many bodies leaves a team with little room for improvement, and a team can never count on being able to trade out current assets for equivalent returns (anyone out there interested in Mike Green? Anyone? Bueller?).  So perhaps the best advice in the current era of wild over-signings and whirlwind trades is to hope and pray for moderation.  Who knows, George McPhee might still be in possession of some of that business acumen that netted the Caps top players for cheap in years gone by.

If nothing else, there’s always the draft, right?

M. Richter contributed to this report.