Bottoms Up is a weekly feature on Backhand Shelf that admits that sometimes the underdog doesn’t win: sometimes they just lose and lose and lose some more. In this edition, the Hurricanes should have done something and the Oilers should have done nothing.
In last week’s Bottoms Up, I praised Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford for re-signing two of his impending unrestricted free agents, Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu, rather than trading them at the deadline. Both Gleason and Ruutu were signed to contracts with reasonable cap hits and were cheaper than trying to replace them in free agency in the off-season. But when I praised him for those deals, I was expecting him to do something at the trade deadline to position the Hurricanes for the future.
Instead, the deadline came and went with no movement whatsoever.
The team’s two remaining unrestricted free agents, Jaroslav Spacek and Bryan Allen, remain with the Hurricanes, meaning that the team could lose both of them with no return in the summer. For a team in 13th in the Eastern Conference, it’s completely baffling. While there’s talk of re-signing Allen, there’s no guarantee that he’ll stay with the team, while Spacek is almost certainly gone once the season ends.
The fact is that the Hurricanes are a team in the NHL basement and the only steps they took leading up to the trade deadline were to keep the players that haven’t been able to get them out of the basement. The inability (or unwillingness) to make a move at the deadline, even just to acquire a draft pick or two for Spacek, is baffling. At this point, the team will have to spend big in free agency, wheel and deal at the draft, or desperately hope that some of their high-end prospects can make big contributions next season.
With that said, there are a couple things going right in Carolina. Eric Staal, after an absolutely brutal start to his season, has been absolutely fantastic of late. He’s currently riding a 10-game point streak, with 18 points in that time. After just 10 points in his first 24 games, he scored 46 points in his next 40 games and is now on pace for a 71-point season. While he’s capable of doing better, he’s hampered by a lack of true first-line wingers.
Another good sign is that the Hurricanes have just 2 regulation losses in their last 12 games. Of course, they have 4 overtime/shootout losses in that span, but it’s possible that Rutherford looked at his team leading up to the deadline, and saw a team that just needed an addition or two rather than subtractions. While it’s still poor asset management to let Spacek (and Allen, if he doesn’t re-sign) go for nothing, Rutherford will earn some forgiveness if he can find Staal a winger during the off-season.
The Hurricanes were the only team in the NHL’s basement that didn’t make a move at the trade deadline, but it could be that they were on to something. The Edmonton Oilers headed into the deadline like the Hurricanes, having re-signed their biggest unrestricted free agent, Ales Hemsky. With very few unrestricted free agents worth trading, they actually could have been justified in doing nothing, like the Hurricanes.
The Oilers made just one move, but it was completely inexplicable, trading their best two-way defenceman for a one-dimensional defensive defenceman. For Nick Schultz, that one dimension is very good: he’s very good in his own end, blocks a lot of shots, and does good work on the penalty kill.
But Tom Gilbert played in every situation for the Oilers, averaging over 3 minutes per game on the penalty kill and over 2 minutes per game on the powerplay. He’s been mischaracterized as a purely offensive defenceman, thanks to a 45-point season in 2008-09, but he was playing far more of an all-around role in Edmonton and led the team ice time. He regularly faced tough competition at even strength and yet still had the second best Relative Corsi rating on the team, behind only Andy Sutton, who faces the weakest competition among Oilers defencemen.
So Gilbert led the Oilers in ice time, faced the toughest competition, and was still the second highest scoring defenceman on the team. In return, they got Schultz who was 5th on the Wild in ice time, faced the third toughest competition, and has 4 points this season. Obviously, point totals won’t properly reflect what Schultz brings to a team, but he wasn’t preventing goals particularly effectively either.
Schultz wasn’t being used in a shutdown role in Minnesota, as he wasn’t used against the opposition’s best players, but he still had one of the worst Relative Corsi ratings on the team. That’s partly because the Wild don’t really have any defencemen who can transition the puck up ice, so he wasn’t paired with someone who complemented his talents, but that’s what makes the trade even more baffling from the Oilers’ perspective. Schultz is the type of player who would have looked great paired with a player who could transition the puck well, such as, say, Tom Gilbert.