Generally, when rumblings that a team wants to trade a player start making the rounds, I find myself disliking the idea.
There’s a simple reason for that, really: every player’s career goes through ups and downs. Generally, when the player is at the peak of his value, teams are bullish on keeping him, and he’s likely to get a long-term contract offer. On the other hand, when he’s at his lowest ebb, teams are more likely to send the player away because he’s underachieving and failing to live up to expectations.
I would contend that is the way things usually work, although from the asset management perspective of an NHL team it is the reverse of the way things should work. A good player should be signed long term in the middle of a bad season; and a good player having a once in a career season should be shipped away to any team willing to bet that’s his true level of ability.
Establishing a player’s true level of ability isn’t a straight forward process, but there are some common tells and the process is easier for players with an established level of performance.
Consider Drew Stafford, one of two players (Tim Connolly is the other; we discussed him here) who appear to have fallen into disfavour in Buffalo and who are rumoured to be on the trade block. The following are Stafford’s numbers since his rookie season, prorated over an 82 game schedule:
Stafford’s totals this season represent his worst scoring rates in goals, assists, points, even-strength points and shooting percentage.
Why the decline? It isn’t age – Stafford is 24 years old and should still be on the upswing of his career. Additionally, it likely isn’t injury; Stafford has missed a half-dozen games to a pair of concussions but hasn’t had anything overly serious or career-threatening.
Part of it may be a tendency by Stafford to shoot from further out, as his shot totals have increased. Behind the Net shows that at even-strength play Stafford’s average shot distance has increased from 29.8’ in 2007-08 to 31.9’ in 2008-09 to 32.7’ last season. It seems plausible that as he has increased his shot totals he’s being less selective in where he’s shooting from, and his shooting percentage has decreased, although I doubt that explains the entire shift.
In any case, the player Buffalo is rumoured to be looking to trade is a 24 year old former first round pick who has scored at a 20+-goal/47+-point pace over every season of his career prior to this one. It’s reasonable to suspect that his current downturn is an aberration, and possibly even that it represents the low point of his career. As an NHL general manager, I’d be very interested in Stafford, since it’s likely that if he’s dealt he’ll be dealt at less than full value.