Has the NHL's evolution killed the in-season blockbuster? | By Ryan Dixon

Last Wednesday, a slow NHL trade deadline turned screen-watchers into something like a group of people huddled at a bus stop waiting for a vehicle that’s long overdue. Every 30 seconds, someone looks at a watch. Nothing. Then, one breaks out from the group, shields their eyes with a hand and gazes down the road, hoping for something to rumble over the horizon.

Still nothing.

And on it goes, the hearty hanging in while others simply decide they’re better off walking.

Any person who did turn away from coverage of an unsatisfying deadline likely started thinking about how things used to be different. “Remember when…” is a game rarely played more enthusiastically than when sports fans get together. And because the mind can play tricks, a participant with nostalgic leanings—a condition common to sports folks—is often about as reliable as a cardboard roof. So with “good ol’ days” trade talk running rampant in the aftermath of a limp deadline, it’s worth a check of the facts to verify if hockey fans are within their rights to complain about transaction deprivation.

For no reason beyond the fact it was the year Doug Gilmour moved from Calgary to Toronto, here’s an examination of other moves made during the 1991-92 campaign. About five months before the 10-player trade headlined by Gilmour in January 1992, the Leafs pulled off a seven-player deal with the Edmonton Oilers that fetched Grant Fuhr. A couple weeks later, Edmonton sent Mark Messier to the New York Rangers on the eve of the new season. “Moose” won the Hart Trophy in his Rangers debut and fully resurrected the franchise a couple years later. Pat LaFontaine went from the New York Islanders to the Buffalo Sabres in late October 1991 and netted 241 points in his first 141 games as a Sabre. Future Hall-of-Famer Adam Oates became a Bruin in early February at age 29. The Pittsburgh Penguins, in a pre-deadline move that helped seal a second straight Cup, coordinated a beauty with in-state rival Philadelphia, acquiring Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson and Ken Wregget from the Flyers for a package centred on future 1,500-point man, Mark Recchi, who had just turned 24. To clear some room, the Pens shipped the second-greatest offensive defenceman of all-time, Paul Coffey, to the L.A. Kings.

Have your eyes stopped itching yet?

Before you ask, yes, 1991-92 is an outlier—the hockey trade equivalent of TV in 2007, when The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire and Mad Men were all creating magic. A confluence of things made that campaign so rollicking off the ice, most notably the fast-shifting NHL economics that had the Oilers selling off pieces of a dynasty. Then there’s the fact the Leafs had just been taken over by GM Cliff Fletcher, who had no intention of bunting the Buds back to glory—it was home run cuts all the way.

But while 1991-92 was exceptional, a spin through NHLtradetracker.com will confirm your suspicions that sweaters used to be swapped at much greater rates. And for all the mega-trades 25 years ago, it was a near one-for-one exchange that season that might best exemplify how the hockey world has changed. On Nov. 13, 1991, the Flyers traded Murray Craven and a fourth-round pick to the Hartford Whalers for Kevin Dineen. Both players were struggling out of the gate and, essentially, it seems like the teams said, “Let’s flip sputtering goal-scorers who are almost 30 years old and see what happens.”

That roll-the-dice spirit is in shorter supply today. And just as events conspired to create free trade in ’91-92, a number of things have combined to stunt the modern market.

Those were the days
The 1991-92 season saw a glut of trades headlined by the 10-player deal that made Doug Gilmour a Leaf.

The tangible ones you hear about all the time. There’s a give and take to the salary cap in that, while it has forced teams to move talent out in the off-season, it also ties their hands during the campaign. This year, the expansion draft has further suppressed action, as clubs are wary of picking up another player they could be on the hook to protect come summer.

There are also less quantitative influences at play. On the ice, the minimum standard to compete in the league has risen exponentially from decades past. Even 10 years ago, we heard stories of Sergei Samsonov introducing himself to a new coach by saying, “Hi, I’m Sergei and I don’t kill penalties.” Entirely accurate or not, you get the point. Today, front-line superstars model themselves after the obsessive, detail-oriented likes of Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. In short, backchecking is cool now. The same evolution has taken place upstairs.

“We used to have mavericks, now we have lawyers and bean counters.”

Sam Pollock deserves all the kudos he gets for building fantastic Montreal Canadiens squads through the 1960s and ’70s. He was a visionary who always kept his eye on the big picture, a man who would have made something incredible of himself in any circumstance. But let’s not confuse things: some of those one-sided trades in the post-expansion era were pulled off because the guy on one end of the phone had been in the business for 30 years, while the other had essentially just won a hockey team in a poker game and was looking for something—anything—to draw people into his building.

Even up through the early ’90s, you were more likely to find swaggering, go-for-broke types pushing their chips into the middle as opposed to hammering out a long-term blueprint. Whereas the draft is now universally seen as the best way to build a team, a large portion of the league back then just didn’t seem to have the patience for it. It wasn’t a young man’s game then the way it is now: Why hand a jersey to some skinny teen when you could go out and acquire a battle-tested veteran to lead your team?

Our best guess at what trade proposals look like today is one party asking for 24 hours to mull the deal over, then conducting meetings with five people who all have extensive backgrounds in the game, an Ivy League degree or both. It’s probable they would then run the numbers through an equation that looks like Will Hunting’s solution on that MIT chalkboard before finally making a decision.

We used to have mavericks, now we have lawyers and bean counters.

There’s also excruciatingly intense competition for the 30 jobs that come with decision-making power over an NHL team. How brazen do you want to be when you know that if a bold move blows up in your face there’s a boatload of people out there waiting to take your position, and the pool is only getting younger and smarter?

All quiet on the Western (and every other) front
Colorado centre Matt Duchene featured heavily in trade rumours, but the realities of league economics and the upcoming expansion draft put a damper on deadline day.

In a cruel twist, while trades themselves happen with less frequency, trade chatter has never been more prominent, reverberating through every nook in the hockey-watching world. Fans, like players and managers, have grown more sophisticated, too. They don’t just muse about A-listers being moved, but also what their team might get for its third-pair, right-shot defenceman and second-tier prospects. Of course, we—meaning media of all stripes—also have to take responsibility for whetting appetites over transactions that will likely never happen. While there’s some kind of chicken-or-egg dynamic at play, it stands to reason that fans cry out for more moves because there have never been more words devoted to stirring the pot. It’s tantamount to sending a volume of cookbooks to a starving man marooned on a desert island.

So where does that leave those of us who are hungry for more action? First off, don’t forget to count the blessings you have. Anyone going around claiming trades never happen hasn’t been paying enough attention to recent summers when—whether because of cap concerns or the desire to shake up a team—needle-moving players firmly in their 20s like Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall, P.K. Subban, Brandon Saad and Ryan O’Reilly have all been dealt. Trades happen, just less often. And when it comes to the big ones, the activity is almost entirely limited to a two-week period around the draft and the start of July 1 free agency.

If you’re hoping for a change to that pattern, you might as well be wishing for the return of the monstrous production we used to see from the likes of Gilmour, LaFontaine and Oates. Times change, and wide-spread competency is no friend of fun.

Photo Credits

Design by Drew Lesiuczok; Claus Andersen/Getty; Jim Cowsert/AP