Brian Burke once said that NHL general managers make big mistakes every July 1st. A limited talent pool and skyrocketing salaries allow players and agents to pit teams against one another and drive up bids, pressuring the teams to spend millions of dollars over value under the guise that a rival team wants the guy that the front office has fallen in love with over the last month.
Player movement in the NHL has become more restrained in recent years after days of shuffling after the lockout. The long-term boat-anchor contract became a reality after Daniel Briere signed an 8-year, $52M deal that gave the new Philadelphia Flyer $10M in 2008 and just $2M in 2015. The front-loaded deal, whether handed out for better or for worse, was a way of rewarding a team’s best players with a long contract that helped a team’s salary situation.
For the last week, much of the hockey blogosphere has piped up about Rick Nash and where he could go, but the reality is that there are not many teams that would benefit from Nash in the lineup. The teams that would benefit with a man who may score 150 goals over the next 5 years of his contract valued at $7.8M per season need to have cap space and the resources to spend Columbus’ way. There just isn’t a real fit for Nash on 29 NHL teams when you consider all the wrangling done to fit a star player into the lineup.
An NHL team will make a move for many reasons. Perception is a big one: one of the reasons the New York Rangers made such a big pitch for New Jersey Devils’ centreman Bobby Holik in the summer of 2002 is because the Devils, the cross-river rivals of the Rangers, had won two Stanley Cups more recently than the Rangers and Sather wanted to “buck the trend” so to speak, and pilfer resources from the Devils.
Reactionary moves are also an issue: the Flyers traded the cornerstones of their franchise this summer, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, to accommodate the new contract of Ilya Bryzgalov, after the years since Ron Hextall when Philadelphia has forced to withstand what is viewed as shaky postseason goaltending. Bryzgalov has been a dud in Philadelphia—only two goalies with 35 or more starts, Mathieu Garon and Corey Crawford, have a lower save percentage this season than Bryzgalov. Mike Smith, Bryzgalov’s replacement in Phoenix is fourth in the NHL in this category.
Heading into this season’s trade deadline, you begin to see parallels between February 27 and July 1. There were limited players available for hire at this season’s free agency, the best being Brad Richards, a goal-scorer who’s never broken 30 goals. Him and Bryzgalov were the two major signings from this summer. Mass amounts of dollars were handed out to Erik Cole, Joel Ward, Tomas Fleishmann, Ed Jovanovski, Tim Connolly, all within the first two days of free agency. With such a limited talent pool available due to the star players being locked up with their draft teams, teams can no longer make a team through free agency, and probably just destroy its cap situation for years to come.
For instance, had the Rangers not signed Brad Richards to an expensive deal worth roughly $6.7M, they might even have the space to trade for Nash, more expensive, but a younger and better goal scorer than Richards. When Nash’s deal comes off the books, the Rangers will still be on the hook for about $20M worth of space space for Richards, unless he retires (depending on what the new salary cap structure looks like next season).
At the deadline, what’s the talent pool? In previous years we’ve seen names like Marian Hossa or Bill Guerin or Nik Antropov or Olli Jokinen switch teams, we’ve seen a couple of the big names from this year in Tim Gleason and Vinny Prospal re-sign with their current teams. Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski and Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky remain the only “big names” on the table that could potentially impact a team’s season one way or another, but both teams are probably better off trying to re-sign their guys. Injuries to Ryan Suter and Tuomo Ruutu may mean that teams pay what they would for those two impending UFAs for players of lesser quality.
Draft picks and prospects, while not guarantees are still valuable commodities. Teams have been quite lucky in picking the right guys to deal (Angelo Esposito, Colton Teubert) away for their rental players, but you never know when a team may let their emotions get the better of them and deal away a Joe Colborne (although we still have yet to know exactly how he’ll turn out, and it’s not like Boston didn’t do well after the deadline) for a guy who won’t help your team all that much. With limited resources available, it may be worth team’s while to stand pat rather than overvalue players due to an emotional reaction to team needs.