The Thrill is Gone from the NHL Trade Deadline
The NHL trade deadline day used to be an exciting day for NHL fans. Even the slowest deadline gave us the possibility of a star player changing teams. Playoff races and even Cup contenders could be decided by these deals.
But in recent years, deadline day has become a bust. This year’s best trade was a rare three-way deal involving the Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. The Lightning shipped center Valtteri Filppula to the Flyers for defenseman Mark Streit, then flipped Streit to the Penguins for a draft pick.
It was a creative way for the Lightning to shed Filppula’s bothersome contract. The move freed up $5 million in cap space for next season to put toward re-signing restricted free agents such as Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat. The Bolts also rid themselves of Filppula’s no-movement clause, which would’ve forced them to protect him in June’s expansion draft at the expense of exposing another player.
A slick move by Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, but hardly the sort of pulse-quickening deal fans expect at the trade deadline.
The few notable players available in this year’s trade market – defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and goaltender Ben Bishop – were dealt days before the deadline. By the big day, fading stars such as Jarome Iginla and Thomas Vanek were the only noteworthy names on the move.
It’s not unusual for talented players to be dealt leading up to deadline day. In the past, however, that day would dawn with still a couple of notable stars still up for grabs. Where they would go and how much teams would pony up to get them provided plenty of buzz for pundits and fans as the 3 pm ET deadline drew near.
That trend has changed in recent years. Nowadays, the few stars available are usually gone well before deadline day.
Parity among the teams contending for playoff berths is one factor affecting deals at the deadline. The expansion draft in June certainly affected this year’s trade market.
The biggest impediment remains the salary cap. Since its imposition in 2005, the cap has made it increasingly difficult to swing substantial deals on deadline day involving star players.
At first, the cap appeared to have little impact upon the trade market on deadline day. Mark Recchi moved from Pittsburgh to Carolina in 2006, Ryan Smyth from Edmonton to the NY Islanders in 2007, Marian Hossa from Atlanta to Pittsburgh and Brad Richards from Tampa Bay to Dallas in 2008, Olli Jokinen and Justin Williams in 2009 and Lubomir Visnovsky in 2010.
But things were starting to change by the dawn of this decade. In 2011 and 2012, the notables moved on deadline day were declining stars (Jason Arnott, Sergei Samsonov, Fredrik Modin) or second-tier talent (Dustin Penner).
Deadline day business improved in the two years following following the 2012-13 lookout. One reason was a new collective bargaining agreement containing a provision allowing teams to absorb part of a player’s salary in a trade.
On deadline day 2013, Marian Gaborik was traded from the New York Rangers to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Meanwhile, Jason Pominville was traded from Buffalo to Minnesota and goaltender Steve Mason was moved from Columbus to Philadelphia.
Gaborik was on the move again at the 2014 deadline, shipped from Columbus to the LA Kings. That date also saw the Tampa Bay Lightning ship Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers for Ryan Callahan, while Thomas Vanek moved from the Islanders to Montreal.
But since 2015, the deadline-day market was again limited to past-their-prime pending free agents and second-tier players. The notables moved at the 2015 and 2016 deadlines included Kris Russell, Mikkel Boedker, Alex Tanguay, Patrick Maroon, Niklas Backstrom, Jeff Petry, Braydon Coburn, Marek Zidlicky and Chris Stewart.
One reason is the marginal increases in the salary cap since the summer of 2014 left teams with little wiggle room to made deadline swaps involving stars carrying significant salary. General managers now look toward the offseason, when they have more salary-cap space, to make big trades involving star talent.
It’s been suggested general managers are also getting smarter, that they’re becoming increasingly wary of giving up assets on playoff rental players. That may be, but if they had more cap space to work with at the deadline, or no payroll limits as in the pre-cap days, it’s doubtful many would show the restraint they’re being lauded for now.
General managers could also be growing leery of making bad deals that fail to pan out. During TSN’s coverage of this year’s trade deadline, host James Duthie posited the decline in the movement of star on deadline day could be traced back to the Ryan Smyth trade at the 2007 deadline.
At that time Smyth was eligible later that year for unrestricted free agency. Leading up to the 2007 deadline, he was involved in intense contract negotiations with the Oilers. Neither side budged, resulting in his trade to the Islanders. It was a move all sides regretted.
While subsequent deadline day moves involving Hossa, Gaborik, Callahan and Vanek were also the result of breakdowns in contract negotiations, they’re occurring less frequently. In recent years, notables such as Kevin Shattenkirk this season, as well as Eric Staal and Andrew Ladd last year, were moved before deadline day.
The GMs involved in those moves evidently felt they wouldn’t get better offers by waiting an extra day or two. Perhaps they also wanted to avoid the brinkmanship that can lead to a regrettable move.
Failing to find better offers for a player in the final hours leading up to the deadline can sometimes blow up in a GM’s face. The Vanek trade in 2014 is a prime example.
New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow thought he could squeeze a few teams seeking a scoring forward into ponying up a significant return for Vanek. But when those clubs turned elsewhere, Snow was forced to ship the winger to Montreal for a marginal return.
Because of these factors, general managers no longer look at the NHL trade deadline with the same urgency as they once did. With fewer stars on the move, that means less excitement for hockey fans and pundits on trade deadline day.
It’s a trend that appears unlikely to change over the remainder of this collective bargaining agreement.