Down Goes Brown: Then and now perceptions of June 29 blockbusters

Connor McDavid is projected to be the highest paid player in the NHL after he signs with Edmonton, will the Oilers be able to surround him with enough talent? Mark Spector joins Prime Time Sports to discuss.

Do you remember where you were one year ago this afternoon?

If you’re a hockey fan, there’s a good chance you do. That’s because today marks the one-year anniversary of the craziest 23 minutes in NHL off-season history. In less than the time it takes to deliver a pizza, NHL front offices delivered three of the biggest stories of the entire year: Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, and Steven Stamkos re-signing in Tampa.

Sports fan like to talk about days and moments that change everything, and it’s almost always hyperbole. But June 29, 2016, might qualify. We woke up thinking that certain players were untradeable, that the art of the one-for-one deal was all but dead, and that a superstar in his prime really could reach free agency and switch teams.

By the end of the day, none of those things was true anymore, along with thoughts like, “Nothing that happens in an NHL off-season could truly shock me.”

So yes, a lot changed in just 23 minutes. But a lot can change in 12 months, too, and some of the things we were left believing a year ago have evolved since. Today, let’s mark the anniversary of that wild day by comparing how things looked in the immediate aftermath of the madness compared to how they look right now.

The view a year ago: Trading P.K. Subban is the kind of thing that could come back to bite Marc Bergevin.

The view today: Trading P.K. Subban has come back to bite Marc Bergevin.

We’re not declaring winners or losers in the Subban/Weber deal yet — we’ve still got another decade or so to decide that. But when you look at everyone involved in that wild afternoon, you could make a case that nobody’s reputation has taken more of a hit than Bergevin’s.

Being the GM of the Canadiens may be one of the toughest jobs in sports, and Bergevin has been doing it for five years now, so it was inevitable that some of the shine would come off. But it wasn’t all that long ago that Bergevin was pretty darn shiny. He’d been named a finalist for GM of the Year in just his second season, and notoriously hard-to-please Montreal fans seemed cautiously optimistic about the job he was doing. He’d locked down Max Pacioretty on a fantastic deal, and got Carey Price at what turned out to be decent value. The Thomas Vanek rental hadn’t really worked, but Jeff Petry seemed like a smart pickup, and Habs fans seemed OK with the recent Andrew Shaw trade.

And then came Subban/Weber, a blockbuster so big that nothing else really seemed to matter anymore.

Many fans and analysts absolutely hated the trade, calling it a huge mistake, maybe even the worst in team history. That view was far from unanimous, and even today many Habs fans are perfectly fine with the swap.

But after watching the Canadiens make a first-round exit while the Predators rolled all the way to Cup final, everything Bergevin does is viewed through the Subban/Weber lens. And it didn’t help that it sure looked like the Habs were choosing Michel Therrien over Subban, only to fire the coach midway through the season.

By the time the 2017 trade deadline arrived and Bergevin was remaking the bottom of his roster on the fly, the skepticism was palpable, and today many Habs fans seem to be holding their breath over his attempts to trade Alexander Galchenyuk and/or acquire a top-line centre. Bergevin is facing more off-season pressure than any GM in the league, and his fan base seems a lot less willing to give him the benefit of the doubt than they were before that fateful day a year ago.

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The view a year ago: The Oilers don’t know what they’re doing.

The view today: The Oilers might know what they’re doing.

Here’s the other side of the criticism coin. While Bergevin was questioned about his trade, Peter Chiarelli was outright roasted for his. The Hall trade became an immediate punchline, with a consensus forming almost instantly. The Oilers had made a huge mistake. They needed to get a bigger return. The Devils had pulled off a robbery. One so-called expert even said Edmonton had finally “worked up the nerve to talk to the pretty girl across the street, then stepped right into an open manhole cover”. (That last one was me. Look, I’m a Leafs fan — bad trades are kind of an area of expertise.)

One year later, well, it’s funny what a 103-point season and a return to the playoffs after over a decade can do to perceptions.

Today, the Oilers are a better team than anyone expected, and well on their way to contending for a Stanley Cup. Larsson played well in his first season in Edmonton, Hall didn’t shoot the lights out in New Jersey and Milan Lucic almost immediately showed up to fill the gap at wing. This sure doesn’t look like a team that had pulled off a disastrous trade.

So it’s fair to say that a large number of Oilers fans who were hyperventilating a year ago have talked themselves into the deal today. Others aren’t so sure. After all, just because the Oilers improved doesn’t mean it had anything to do with the Hall trade. Correlation does not imply causation, as you’ve no doubt been told if you’ve ever tried to argue about anything on the internet, ever. Maybe there’s some other reason the team got so much better.

And of course, there are plenty. Start with Connor McDavid, who played his first full NHL season and immediately won the Hart and Art Ross. Mix in a breakout year from Leon Draisaitl and (finally) some decent goaltending from Cam Talbot, and that explains most of the Oilers’ improvement right there. It’s possible that adding Larsson was only a minor factor. Heck, it’s possible that the Hall/Larsson deal actually hurt the team, but everything else was good enough to more than make up for it.

From a team-evaluation standpoint, this stuff matters. But in terms of public perception, it doesn’t, really, at least not now. The Oilers are good again, so Chiarelli gets a pass on just about everything that led up to it (including the Lucic contract, Kris Russell and all the rest). That’s just how this works.

But while the Hall/Larsson deal may not be haunting Chiarelli right now, it’s certainly had an impact on other GMs. We’ll get to that next.

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Jordan Eberle happy with time in Edmonton but pleased to get a fresh start
Originally aired June 28 2017

The view a year ago: The Oilers overpaid, because they gave up a great forward for a good defenceman.

The view today: The Oilers paid a fair price, because good defencemen should cost a great forward, if not more.

Or, to put it slightly differently: The Taylor Hall trade kind of broke the market for defencemen.

It was fascinating to watch the reaction to the Hall deal unfold in real time. Rumours had circulated for days that a move was imminent, but the trading partner was a mystery. When word came down that Hall could be headed to New Jersey, fans across the league were confused – the Devils didn’t seem to have any assets worth moving Hall for. Then Larsson’s name emerged, along with the possibility that other pieces were involved.

Finally, we found out that the deal was a straight-up one-for-one. And people freaked out.

And rightly so, it seemed, because the Oilers had just traded one of the best wingers in the league on a team-friendly contract for a defenceman who was seen as merely a good second-pairing guy. On top of that, the two players were only a year apart in age. From a pure value perspective, the deal appeared hopelessly lopsided. Even factoring in the Oilers’ desperate need for blue-line help, surely they could have done far better than that? It was, to put it kindly, a tough sell.

But then a funny thing happened. GMs around the league saw the Hall/Larsson deal go down, and apparently decided to reset the market for defencemen. Suddenly, inflation kicked in and prices soared. If you wanted to trade for a defenceman like Adam Larsson, the price was now a forward like Taylor Hall. And if you wanted to trade for a defenceman who was better than Larsson, well, good luck to you.

The result was predictable: The market ground to a halt. Not counting the Subban/Weber deal that came down minutes later, there wasn’t another trade for a top-four defenceman made in the entire league until the days leading up to the trade deadline, nearly eight months later.

That was despite plenty of big names rumoured to be on the market, including Jacob Trouba, Hampus Lindholm, Dougie Hamilton, Travis Hamonic and Tyson Barrie, along with teams like the Sabres, Maple Leafs and Stars having a clear need for blue-line help. Even as the season wore on and it became apparent that teams like the Ducks and Wild were facing expansion-related problems at the position, nobody blinked. Every trade rumour would start with the disclaimer that prices on defencemen were sky high, and it wasn’t hard to trace that back to the Hall deal.

So where does that leave us now? There are indications that the market might be coming back to earth. Hamonic was just traded to Calgry for picks, not Johnny Gaudreau. The Golden Knights are struggling to find a market for all those excess blueliners they picked in the expansion draft. And seeing the Penguins win a Cup with a patchwork blue line may have opened a few eyes.

Or maybe it’s just a case of markets taking time to correct themselves. Time will tell, and there’s still plenty of off-season left. Hall-for-Larsson felt unthinkable a year ago; maybe it will again before long.

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The view a year ago: Maybe having two monster trades drop on the same day could signal a return to the era of the old-fashioned blockbuster?

The view today: Yeah, not so much.

The beauty of Hall/Larsson and Subban/Weber was that they weren’t just big trades; for the most part, they were hockey trades. They weren’t primarily about rebuilding for years down the road, or fixing a cap problem, or some star demanding a move to a contender. Sure, Subban had a no-trade clause kicking in within days and contracts always matter in the cap era. But at their heart, both deals were about teams deciding “That guy on their team can help us more than the guy we have right now.” There was something old-school about that.

So you could have been forgiven for hoping that the deals had started a trend. After all, blockbuster hockey trades are fun. If these four teams could pull them off, why couldn’t everyone else?

Instead, the last year has come and gone without much in the way of major deals. The biggest trade since has probably been… what, Brandon Saad for Artemi Panarin? The Jonathan Drouin deal, or maybe Kevin Shattkenkirk’s deadline rental? The Rangers trading Derick Brassard or Derek Stepan? Those were all decent-sized trades, but none of them would exactly be called blockbusters.

All of that could still change in an instant. We could be minutes away from a major trade involving Matt Duchene or Dion Phaneuf or maybe some superstar we’re not even thinking about. As we learned last year, big deals can come out of nowhere. But 12 months after that lesson, it’s become apparent that the copycat NHL wasn’t interested in copying the swing-for-the-fences trade strategy.

The view a year ago: Steven Stamkos passed on coming home to the Maple Leafs so he could play for a winner.

The view today: Steven Stamkos passed on playing for a winner so he could stay with the Lightning.

OK, maybe we’re getting a little snippy here. Maple Leafs fans could pretend that they were fine with Stamkos shunning them to stay in Tampa, but the truth is it stung. The hometown-kid-comes-home narrative has always been irresistible in sports, and when the Lightning star made it to within days of free agency, it really felt like it could happen. Then… nope.

But still, it’s hard not to look back and wonder how a different Stamkos decision could have impacted the Leafs and Lightning in the season that followed. The idea of Toronto passing Tampa in the standings seemed unimaginable a year ago, when the Leafs were dead last and the Lightning were solidly among the league’s top Cup contenders. But it happened. How much did the Stamkos decision have to do with that?

There are two ways to look at it. One is that missing out on Stamkos helped the Leafs, because it freed up ice time for their younger players to shine. Auston Matthews ended up being better than anyone imagined, and Mitchell Marner and William Nylander were almost as good. Meanwhile, Nazem Kadri developed into a solid middle-six centre who could play a two-way game, and Tyler Bozak had a career-best year. How much of that happens if Stamkos is playing 20+ minutes a night in Toronto? And conversely, does the Lightning season play out differently if they don’t seemingly spend the entire year focused on their cap situation?

That’s one version of history. The less-dramatic view is that the Leafs were simply a team on the rise that would have been even better with a star like Stamkos in the lineup, while the Lightning were hurt far more by his injury than his contract. Tampa will get back on track with a healthy Stamkos (and a healthy cap), the Leafs will continue their rebuild, and everyone wins in the end.

That second option isn’t as interesting, but it’s probably closer to accurate. Sorry, Toronto. You’ll have to find your Leafs-based drama elsewhere.

The view a year ago: Whether it works out for him or not, seeing Stamkos spurn the Leafs will finally put an end to the “Everyone wants to play in Toronto” myth.

The view today: That Matthews-Marner-Tavares-Doughty-Karlsson power-play unit is going to be hard to stop in two years.

(OK, maybe just a little Leafs-based drama.)