A general manager’s guide to the 2017 NHL trade deadline

Chris Johnston explains why the Vegas Golden Knights could get involved with the NHL trade deadline and talks about the battered and bruised Ottawa Senators.

In the lead up to the March 1 trade deadline, we’re going to lists of players who we figure will be available, and which teams are likely to be interested in those players.

But instead of speculating, I’ve decided to look at some of the overarching themes that apply to each team from a big-picture perspective to get ready for the deadline.

Here is some food for thought as March 1 nears:

THE SELLER’S MARKET

“Well, the problem is there’s not a lot of teams selling right now. There’s so many teams still in the hunt. Teams want to wait right until the deadline to decide whether they are buyers or sellers.”

In a recent radio hit in Vancouver, Canucks GM Jim Benning spoke about how there weren’t many teams selling at the moment because so many were still in the playoff hunt. This, of course, fanned the flames amongst the local fanbase that’s been voicing concerns about the team’s apparent lack of direction or plan.

Technically, Benning isn’t wrong. There are just 10 points separating 13th from 28th in the NHL standings, meaning the majority of the league is stuck somewhere in the middle. Aside from the select few teams at the top and bottom of the standings, it’s been next to impossible to establish any sort of separation. With the frequency at which we’re seeing pivotal games decided in extra time (three-point games), we shouldn’t expect that to change between now and the end of the season.

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Whether you like the point system or not, at the very least it’s provided yet another window of opportunity for smart teams to take advantage. With only the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes openly conducting clearance sales at the moment, the needle has shifted heavily in the direction of the seller’s market, where the demand is significantly outweighing the available supply.

If the majority of teams in that middle tier really are unwilling to make rental assets available because they’re still uncertain about their playoff hopes, that provides the sellers with extra leverage.

The Canucks, then, would benefit greatly if they decided to become a seller — and if Benning doesn’t recognize this it would seem to be a justifiable cause for concern.

You could lump a myriad of other teams here too, but the Canucks might be the most fascinating of the bunch just purely from a behavioural case study perspective.

At this time last year they were 24th in shot attempts and 29th in scoring chances, but were hanging around the playoff bubble because Ryan Miller was keeping them afloat. They infamously wound up sitting tight at the deadline, forgoing the opportunity to recoup assets for players such as Dan Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata, who ended up walking for nothing.

Flash forward a year and Vancouver is essentially in an identical spot. They’re 25th in shot attempts, 28th in scoring chances and are squeezing out points at an eerily similar pace. While they’re not flush with tantalizing assets, players like Miller, Alex Burrows, and Jannik Hansen (who, unlike the other two, still has one year left on his deal) are all generating various levels of buzz as trade targets.

Doing the right thing now won’t necessarily erase what happened last year, but it’d do wonders to instill confidence within the fan base that management has a plan for the future. The major quibble with Benning’s tenure has been his puzzling lack of interest in acquiring draft picks, considering the current state of the organization and his billing as a scout at heart.

THE LOTTERY TICKET

TEAM # OF PICKS: 10-YEAR TOTAL # OF PICKS: 5-YEAR TOTAL # OF PICKS: 3-YEAR TOTAL # OF PICKS THIS YEAR
CHI 90 44 27 10
PHI 72 42 29 10
CAR 73 39 27 9
NJD 68 34 23 9
BUF 81 44 24 8
TBL 77 40 27 8
TOR 76 39 28 8
EDM 78 39 23 8
WPG 77 39 22 8
SJS 69 37 22 8
DET 71 36 21 8
PIT 60 29 18 8
NSH 78 39 22 7
ARI 71 36 21 7
CBJ 71 36 21 7
DAL 66 36 18 7
COL 66 34 20 7
LAK 70 34 17 7
FLA 75 35 21 6
BOS 65 34 23 6
STL 65 34 23 6
CGY 65 34 20 6
MIN 63 32 17 6
NYR 61 31 19 6
MTL 63 31 17 6
ANA 69 29 19 6
NYI 73 32 18 5
WSH 62 28 16 5
VAN 62 32 18 5
OTT 66 29 17 4

Of all the things Stan Bowman deserves credit for during his time as GM in Chicago, I think where his team ranks in acquiring draft picks is near the top of the list.

There are certainly ways to increase your chances of nailing a pick – looking past most of the conventional red herrings with regards to size, and instead prioritizing skill and age-adjusted production at the lower levels. But at the end of the day, the NHL Draft is ultimately a crapshoot, and the best way to overcome the unpredictability of how an 18-year-old will develop is to stack the deck by hoarding as many of them as possible and playing the numbers game.

That’s a major reason why the Blackhawks have been able to survive so much roster turnover ever since their first Stanley Cup in 2010. Out of necessity, they’ve had to keep replenishing all of the established talent they’ve lost with young, cheap contributors. What’s especially remarkable is they’ve been able to continue hoarding those draft picks and replenishing their well of talent despite their annual status as a contender, which you’d think would lend itself towards mortgaging future picks for win-now rentals.

This hasn’t been lost on some of the more progressive front offices around the league, who have been trying to elevate their organizations to that lofty standard. I don’t think it’s an accident that teams like the Leafs, Hurricanes, Lightning, Devils and Sabres have all adopted a similar volume-based approach to drafting.

An interesting wrinkle to all of this is the specter of this year’s draft, which is reportedly held in low regard around the league. While it may be true that there isn’t a generational player like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews at the top of the class, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a plethora of intriguing talents that emerge later on.

If teams really are willing to part with draft picks more easily this year because of the perception of the draft, I’d gladly be in the business of collecting them and taking my chances.

BUYING LOW VS. SELLING HIGH:

Let’s play a little game. Here’s the five-on-five resume for a player who’s widely considered to be one of the top trade targets between now and March 1 because of how productive he’s been:

SEASON GAMES SHOTS/HOUR CHANCES/HOUR GOALS GOALS/HOUR xGOALS/HOUR
20072008 37 19.25 3.53 3 0.48 1.06
20082009 74 15.13 1.98 4 0.36 0.69
20092010 65 16.24 1.61 10 0.89 0.69
20102011 63 18.41 2.7 8 0.8 0.83
20112012 10 23.91 3.62 0 0 1.02
20122013 34 14.37 2.33 2 0.39 0.74
20132014 30 17.59 1.58 1 0.23 0.76
20142015 47 16.61 2.75 7 0.8 0.87
20152016 54 13.85 2.79 6 0.64 0.81
20162017 59 14.4 2.59 8 0.65 0.78

The player in question seems like a perfectly reasonable depth contributor, but why would someone who is tied for 190th in the rate at which they generate goals be of such interest to teams that are looking for an offensive infusion? What if I were to tell you this same player is actually on pace for ~30 goals on the year despite the pedestrian five-on-five output, which would smash his previous personal best by 10 goals?

This can be explained by peeling back another layer and taking a closer look at that same player’s power play usage and production over his career:

SEASON TOTAL POWER PLAY TIME POWER PLAY TIME ON ICE/GAME POWER PLAY GOALS
20072008 70:50 1:54 2
20082009 20:58 0:17 1
20092010 20:49 0:19 0
20102011 14:38 0:13 2
20112012 1:41 0:10 0
20122013 9:11 0:16 0
20132014 29:49 0:59 1
20142015 89:07 1:53 6
20152016 109:45 2:01 5
20162017 187:21 3:10 11

Those 11 power play goals this year not only nearly match what he did in the previous five seasons combined, but have him tied for third in the league behind just Brayden Schenn, Alex Ovechkin, and Wayne Simmonds.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, we’re talking about Patrick Eaves. At 32 years old (soon to be 33) he’s having a year unlike anything he’s ever had before, mostly because he’s being used unlike ever before.

It’ll be fascinating to see whether a team looks at Eaves’ counting stats this year and pays a premium because they think they’re getting a difference-maker who will move the needle for them on offence.

In Eaves’ defense, he’s been a useful supporting cast player for years, he’s the rightful owner of the league’s best beard, and is playing on a supremely manageable $1 million contract that’s set to expire. And while it’s one thing to receive an opportunity like he has, it’s another to actually do something with it. In the process he’s surely earning himself a nice contract on the open market this summer after having played for relative peanuts for the entirety of his career.

But this reeks of last year’s deadline, when the Coyotes were able to sucker the Avalanche into giving them some good assets for 20 games of Mikkel Boedker, who was made to look far better than he actually was. In what’s effectively been a lost season in Dallas, the Stars would do incredibly well to parlay their strategic usage of Eaves into anything resembling a similar return.

For a prospective buyer, doing your due diligence in making sure you’re not being deceived into buying an asset when it’s at its highest price and actually getting what you’re paying for instead is paramount, especially around this time of year.

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