Former NHL player and general manager Brian Lawton was part of Sportsnet’s ‘Strategy Room’ on NHL Trade Deadline Day. In this exclusive blog to sportsnet.ca, he offers up some insight into the countless hours of preparations that teams and GMs put in before deadline day.
By Brian Lawton (@brianlawton9), special to sportsnet.ca
On the surface it would appear that not much actually happened on Trade Deadline Day in the “War Rooms” of the 30 NHL teams, but the reality is nothing could be further from the truth.
Trade Deadline Day is one of three critical days, the other two being the NHL Entry Draft and first day of the free agent period that showcase the inner workings of a NHL team — along with the life of a general manager and the fluid process of managing a hockey club. The NHL and its clubs have done a great job of providing more in-depth coverage highlighting the behind-the-scenes intricacies that are engaging fans like never before.
It just so happens these are the days most GMs look forward to because they provide an opportunity to better the current state of your organization. Having played in the NHL, I can honestly say it’s not always the same for the players but to their credit they accept the realities of the business in stride as we saw on Monday with players like Brian Rolston and Mike Commodore who spoke publically live on Sportsnet within minutes of being traded.
From the club’s perspective, if your staffs have done the work to properly prepare and you have luck on your side, you can significantly change the future of your organization. Sure the NHL is a results-orientated business so the pressure is high to build, improve and ultimately win but the good franchises know Rome wasn’t built in one Deadline Day!
Interestingly, the end result of the final number of trades doesn’t belie the fact that hundreds of thousands of preparation hours went into Monday’s work. And you can rest assured that is not a misprint on the total hours! You might think the number seems high but not really when you break it down: 30 teams with over 20 staff members each working 40 hours per week since training camp, over roughly 23 weeks, and bingo — over 550,000 man hours combined put into the punch line of … 15 Deadline Day trades!
So how do you the measure the end result of all this preparation and work? Not quickly if the Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins or Nashville Predators go on to win the Stanley Cup or if the New York Rangers bow out of the playoffs early. No disrespect intended towards the reigning NHL heavyweight champ John Scott!
So what exactly did all of those hours go towards?
Organizations need to use their time to properly manage, scout and analyze the marketplace in order to gather enough information leading up to the Trade Deadline Day. Then you create a large number of lists. It isn’t sexy or exciting but it is reality. They need to have lists of potential trade targets, lists of their players, other teams’ rosters, impending unrestricted free agents, top prospects outside professional hockey and, of course, what they will be having for lunch on Trade Deadline Day.
So you go through the process, work the phones, review your lists some more, debate who you need, who you want and who you think you can get until you realize time has run out and you almost got a million things done only to actually have done nothing or next to nothing!
So many GMs around the league venture out to their scheduled press conferences with their heads a little between their tails while they clean up and fix the tie in preparation to announce their team’s news. I am not making this up, as I’ve literally done this before.
“Great news. I believe in the group; I believe in the guys we have in this room to get the job done. We have decided to stand pat in a vote of confidence!”
Do the players — or fans for that matter — buy this? Maybe, but sometimes it is true and maybe sometimes not. You have to ask: what is the GM really saying?
To summarize, prices were realistically too high for me to justify pulling the trigger on a deal that makes us better today. And ultimately that is what you get paid for as the general manager of the club. Your leadership and guidance are needed through the good and bad times.
TOUGH DAY FOR GMS
Trade Deadlines are tough on GMs. They are expected and demanded to make all the right calls. I never felt like I had to be right all the time but I do believe you need to call more right than wrong to improve and even if you do you still may get fired!
In 2010, I was working for the Tampa Bay Lightning and had a chance to trade our first-round pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs along with, interestingly enough, Carter Ashton.
Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik, who I was working for at the time, is a very bright, classy and caring person that has really done a lot for the franchise since he took over. But during his first deadline, he was still very new to the hockey business.
Vinik didn’t want me to do anything foolish but was interested in making a splash early on. I quickly pointed out where our team stood and that it didn’t really call for us absorbing a lot of risk at the expense of trading our future assets. The club had been down this path previously and the result was a 30th-place finish prior to me being hired.
Over two years, we had continued to endure our lumps to rebuild and restock the cupboards in what felt like an endless process that required great amounts of patience and discipline to stick to the blueprint. It seemed like every day there were a number of opportunities to veer off the course to speed things up but we had resisted temptation and held steadfast with a firm belief in what we were doing.
To be fair to Mr. Vinik, it wasn’t a demand or anything like that but it was a request from the person that would be deciding my future in very short order! I took it very seriously.
So when the Maple Leafs came calling with an offer that involved Tomas Kaberle for Ashton and our first-round pick that ended up becoming Brett Connolly, I politely declined as I clearly didn’t want to go in that direction.
Even though our team was right on the playoff bubble and desperately needed an offensive defenceman, I wasn’t prepared to bail on what we were building upon through the draft.
Leafs executive Dave Nonis made that phone call at the request of Brian Burke. The Leafs were right on with their request but I still declined the offer and got fired 39 days later!
However, before I was let go, we were able to consummate what was termed as a smaller trade that I got lambasted for by the Tampa Bay media.
In the deal, we sent a very popular player in the locker room and a former client in Jeff Halpern, who was 33 at the time, to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for a draft pick and a struggling offensive player named Teddy Purcell.
Purcell would go on to score 51 points the following season and is currently on pace for 65 more points this season.
Do I think we were lucky? Yeah sure, but isn’t everyone to some degree when you win in this business? But most importantly, I also knew we were prepared that day for success!
I hate when people say they wouldn’t change a thing from the past. I like to re-evaluate and see how I could have been better. I have made so many mistakes in life and business that failure isn’t as scary as it once was but in this particular case I feel the same way now as I did that day — NO THANK YOU!
Hockey hasn’t proven to line up statistically with baseball as there is still a lot of feel, intuition and gut instinct that goes into decision-making but there certainly is an evolution going on pushing hockey more in the direction of Moneyball.
That is when teams are spending more on analytics to provide a more-detailed approach on how we can improve our odds of making the right decisions in a game wrought with imperfections.
Now I know you’re thinking: You work so hard to manage, scout, analyze and come up with lists but how do you organize and utilize the information?
Let me show you some of the live examples we used at Sportsnet during Trade Deadline Day, which are very similar to what many of the NHL teams did in their preparations.
PLAYERS AVAILABLE LISTS
This is a list of players the general manager and his staff assemble from numerous internal and external conversations with other GMs to try and define the market.
This list is then put forth to the staff and ranked in order of importance to your club. The ratings are applied, challenged by the group and re-challenged again as you get closer to a potential deal. A lot of times when you see live looks into the team’s War Room, you see them debating over what the value of any given player is to your organization.
GMs understand that players are commodities that rise and fall due to a variety of factors such as health status, quality of coaching, culture of the organization, fit of the player to a certain style or brand of hockey, and the chemistry of the club. There are several factors that can make a player seem like the wrong fit for your group and the right fit for another organization.
Joffrey Lupul is a perfect example. He is a player that has succeeded, failed, failed and excelled again during his seven-year NHL career. Put him in the right environment with the right people and he is a very valuable asset to your organization.
This chart below is a small portion of all the players we compiled at Sportsnet that includes a group of centres that we believed may have been available for the right price on Deadline Day.
I pulled a sampling to illustrate two players that were traded and ranked close to each other (Paul Gaustad and Samuel Pahlsson).
The rankings are based off of a rating system where an ’8′ ranks as franchise player and so forth. We placed a high value on players that have good hockey IQ and character above all else. Having played in over 600 professional games and participated in over 1,000 professional practices, I have strong beliefs as to what makes an elite-level hockey player.
PAYING ATTENTION TO INTANGIBLES
Of course, I take into account all of the tangible factors that you hear most people discuss like skating, puck handling and shooting but none are as heavily-weighted as hockey IQ and character for me. The general manager is also asked to determine additional premium or discounted value based off the player’s age, contract amount, term and other factors.
Both Gaustad and Pahlsson were considered good options for a team looking for a veteran third-line centre and yet the two will give a completely different look and feel to their respective clubs.
Gaustad ranked at 5.7 , which represents a better-than-average third-line player. The debate at the table was wondering where Gaustad would tip the scales in favour of the Predators in the very competitive Western Conference.
Obviously, he brings a strong physical presence at nearly six-foot-five. He can skate and play against any of the big forwards in the Western Conference like the Sedin twins, Joe Thornton, Anze Kopitar, Marian Hossa, Ryan Clowe and David Backes.
I like the courage that the Predators showed and adding Gaustad is a big part of that. Time will ultimately tell if it all pays off.
Now Pahlsson was ranked as a 5.4, which means he grades as a slightly below-average third-line centre. He hasn’t played well since he left the Anaheim Ducks, where he did play a strong role during their Stanley Cup run in 2006-07.
Will Vancouver’s strong system and the better talent around him upgrade his performance? Will the Sedin twins give him an instant comfort level? We will find out, but either way, two fourth-round picks does not strike me as a high price to pay for the option.
As I said earlier, you don’t need to be right on all of your decisions but you have to make some to have a chance to be right or wrong. You win more in life by being aggressive so, in my mind, both GMs already won by stepping up to the plate and taking a swing!
I had an interesting conversation with New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello a couple of years back on how he determined when to make a move for his club and what the right value was to give up. It was right after the Ilya Kovalchuk trade and Lou told me:
“Once we determine what we need to make a run at the (Stanley) Cup we pay what it takes to get it.”
Kind of hard to argue with that logic when you have three Stanley Cups to back it up!
Predators GM David Poile was working from the same playbook when he made the Gaustad deal. Identify what you need and go out and get it when your team is in position to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
Overall, at Sportsnet, we produced mountains of information in an effort to be prepared just like the teams did. We had all the necessary depth chart information for the NHL teams with a heavy emphasis on the Canadian-based clubs. We completed draft grids for each team, detailed lists and rankings of all the available players, existing cap situations for each club, detailed expected needs of each club as well as charts detailing what the value should be for certain trades.
The work really paid off for us as several times we would get half a trade and have the other side nailed down before confirmation even came in.
Once the panel heard Tom Gilbert was traded to the Minnesota Wild, we had Nick Schultz as the first name back and on the Andrei Kostitsyn trade we had a second-round pick as the piece needed to get the deal done. No one on our staff was buying the Alex Radulov rumours for a minute.
Lastly, thank you to everyone at Sportsnet for helping to make this a great team effort. I was very pleased to find out the audience enjoyed the work of so many great people who worked during our Trade Deadline coverage.
Follow Brian Lawton (@brianlawton9) on Twitter.