Down Goes Brown: Eight tough questions NHL GMs face at deadline

Carey Price's game-saver, Mrazek's magnificent paddle and Andrei Vasilevskiy demonstrating why the Lightning traded Ben Bishop are all on display.

Today could be a busy day on the NHL trade market. Not as busy as tomorrow, of course, but the league has a long history of major deals going down the day before the deadline, as GMs get ahead of the last-minute rush and pull off their big moves 24 hours early.

That makes today an exciting day to be a fan. But it also makes for a tough day to write about the deadline, because whatever you come up with can be wiped out by a single move. Marc Bergevin isn’t doing enough in Montreal? Whoops, he just landed Matt Duchene. Some team should be looking at Marc-Andre Fleury? Too late, they just acquired Ryan Miller.

So instead, let’s play it safe and stay away from specific rumors by taking a step back to look at the bigger picture. Today, let’s get philosophical.

As a fan, it’s easy to get hung up on the numbers – stats, standings, cap hits and more. But NHL GMs have even more than that to think about. Many of the questions they face don’t have easy answers, but they can determine the direction that a team takes at the deadline and beyond.


Here are some of the bigger-picture questions your favourite team’s GM may be pondering as we count down to tomorrow’s deadline.

How do you put a price on loyalty?

As fans, we’re constantly told that pro sports are a business, and that we shouldn’t expect loyalty to play much of a role. We’ve certainly seen plenty of examples over the years where that was the case, and it goes both ways — think Martin St. Louis forcing his way out of Tampa, or the first-place Capitals banishing veteran Brooks Laich to the Maple Leafs to save cap space.

There’s not much room for loyalty in the hockey world. (Just ask Peter Budaj.) But can’t there at least be some?

This one gets especially tricky when players have no-trade clauses, and the organization will have to ask them to provide a list of teams or even waive the clause outright. There was a time when that seemed to be a relatively straightforward conversation – a player had the right to waive, and a GM had the right to ask them if they’d consider doing so.

But over the years, as more players negotiated no-trade protection and the clauses became a more common part of the NHL landscape, many teams have become more sensitive to the perception that players who are asked to waive are somehow being treated poorly.

That can all lead to some teams doing a strange dance where they try to create the perception that players are waiving clauses or providing lists without anyone on either side actually asking them to. We’ve seen that in Vancouver, where Jim Benning started off saying he wouldn’t ask anyone, eventually waffled, and now has already moved Alex Burrows and seems to have everyone in play.

It all gets a bit silly, but you can see where GMs are coming from. Moving on from a player who’s spent most of their career fighting and bleeding for your franchise — in some cases literally — isn’t as simple as just weighing the numbers and pulling the trigger. If we see some veteran trade bait stay put tomorrow, that could be

How much stock do you put in chemistry?

This question turns out to be pretty important, for one simple reason: Depending on how a GM answers, he may not want to make any deadline moves at all.

On the surface, a contending team’s GM’s job at the deadline is relatively straightforward. Improve your team as much as possible, without overpaying. That qualifier is the tricky part, of course, but the goal should be clear: Bring in reinforcements who make you better right now.

But those reinforcements mean somebody else has to leave, either as part of the trade or to make room on the roster. And if that departing player has been part of the team all season or longer, his absence is going to be felt somewhere. “Chemistry” has become the catch-all term for the fear that a move that makes you better on paper might still hurt you in the long run.

There’s probably some truth to it. It’s also probably true that GMs put too much stock in chemistry, and maybe even embrace it as a handy excuse not to do anything. Not everyone buys into the concept.

But there’s no doubt that it’s a factor weighing on the minds of the league’s better teams. Here’s Stan Bowman telling us “there’s something to be said for chemistry.” Then again, here’s Brian MacLellan of the league-leading Capitals pointing to the team’s 2010 deadline as an example of making too many moves and throwing off their chemistry, days before he pulls off a blockbuster to bring in Kevin Shattenkirk.

There’s something to be said for ditching the warm-and-fuzzy feelings and just making your team better. But any GM who’s a big believer in chemistry will have some balancing to do.

Does leadership trump on-ice performance?

Hockey people love them some intangibles. From listening to GMs talk, you’d think the sport was played in the dressing room instead of on the ice, because that’s where the focus seems to be. Whether it’s a star like Mark Messier taking over a room, or a quiet veteran depth guy who leads by example, we’re constantly reminded of how important leadership can be.

So when a GM has a chance to bring in somebody with roughly two decades of NHL experience, you’re going to be tempted to take it. Two such guys are available this week, in Jarome Iginla and Shane Doan. But there’s one small problem: Neither guy is having a very good season.

If you’re an NHL GM and you get a call from Joe Sakic or John Chayka offering you the services of one of the game’s most respected veterans, what do you do? Do you look at those paltry offensive totals and say thanks but no thanks? Or do you picture that player walking into your dressing room, leadership radiating off them like a faint glow, and talk yourself into ignoring the numbers?

There are probably some GMs in this league who’d lean towards the latter. No doubt, Sakic and Chayka are working hard to find them.

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Are some guys just winners?

Let’s do one more intangible, because this one may come up more than any other at deadline time. Do some players step their game up in the post-season, while others wilt?

There are two schools of thought. One is that the playoffs aren’t all that much different from the regular season. Sure, the intensity ramps up and the refs tend to let a bit more go, but it’s still the same sport. If you’ve got a guy with 500 games of regular-season experience that tell you he’s good, you don’t let yourself get sidetracked by the presence of 20 so-so playoff games.

The other school of thought is the one that most GMs seem to subscribe to, and it goes something like this: Some guys are made for the playoffs, and some just aren’t. Call it clutch, call it knowing how to win, or call it something else. But guys like Jonathan Toews and Justin Williams just have “it,” and you want as much of “it” on your team as you can get.

The whole concept can be taken too far – remember the great Dave Bolland UFA bidding war of 2015? – but it can prove irresistible in hockey circles. If you buy into the idea, then you’re probably also buying on guys like Patrick Sharp. And you want no part of somebody like Thomas Vanek, as we covered last week.

Somewhat oddly, the “some guys are winners” concept tends to be applied selectively. We love guys like Sharp with lots of Cup rings, but you never hear anyone call guys like Doan or Iginla losers for not having one of their own. And somebody like Ron Hainsey, with no post-season tract record at all, can still be attractive to a contender.

But for whatever reason, certain guys do get tagged with the dreaded “not a winner” label. And when they do, they can become deadline pariahs – or maybe bargains.

Is it really true that you can’t lose a player for nothing?

We hear this one a lot at this time of year. Some team has a player who’s coming up on UFA status and is expected to sign elsewhere. Suddenly, everyone agrees that they simply have to trade him, even if it’s at a discount. After all, you can’t lose an asset for nothing.

But is that actually true? A team that decides to hold onto a pending UFA isn’t really losing him for nothing at all. They’re getting six more weeks of regular-season work from him, and hopefully a long playoff run after that. That’s not nothing, and in the right situation it could be far more valuable than a third-round pick or middling prospect.

The strange thing is that a team that holds onto a pending UFA will get ripped for letting him walk for nothing in July, but a team that acquires that same player in a rental deal doesn’t face the same criticism. Apparently, it’s only OK to lose a guy for nothing if you surrender assets to get him first.

It goes without saying that the biggest name in this category this year was Shattenkirk. The Blues faced the same dilemma last year with David Backes and Troy Bouwer, and chose to hold onto both. That helped them earn a trip to the conference final, but ultimately both players left in the summer. Would it have been better to add some picks and prospects, even at the potential expense of that playoff run? That’s the question Doug Armstrong had to answer all over again this year, and after last night, we appear to have our answer.

How do you feel about tanking?

Yes, yes, the league has already made it clear that tanking doesn’t exist. But let’s just pretend that it did. Obviously, any team that’s selling at the deadline is no longer worried about winning as many games as possible the rest of the way. But what about the flip side – if the season is already hopeless, do you figure out a way to boost your lottery chances by losing as often as you can?

In a sense, that feels like it should be anathema to an NHL GM. You expect your players to give their all, right up until the final whistle. Shouldn’t you do the same? On the other hand, high picks have never been more valuable, as teams like the Oilers and Maple Leafs are currently demonstrating. Principle is nice, but it won’t land you a franchise player.

That’s the dilemma facing somebody like Ron Hextall. With the Flyers fading, he has half of his blueline and both of his goaltenders as potential rentals. If he were to move as many as possible, even at less-than-ideal returns, that would leave his team in pretty miserable shape. Those are the kinds of holes that could have a team plummet down the standings… all the way to those double-digit lottery odds.

That doesn’t mean Hextall will go full tank mode, but we’ve certainly seen teams pull this trick before. And there’s a reason: It works.

What comes first: The team, or my job security?

In theory, a GM who’s sitting on the buyer/seller fence should be asking himself a simple question: “Is my team good enough to win it all?” If so, you do everything you can to make the moves you need to make to get them there. If not, you throw in the towel and reload.

But for some GMs, there’s an unpleasant follow-up question: “If I admit that my team isn’t good enough to win, am I going to get fired?”

Fans don’t like to think about this sort of stuff, because we have to assume that the people who run our favourite team always have that team’s best interests in mind. Usually, they do. But at some point, human nature and basic self-preservation have to kick in. And a GM on shaky ground might feel awfully tempted to gamble with the future, knowing that if things go bad and there’s a price to be paid years down the line, they probably won’t be around to pay it.

If you’re a GM who could be on the hot seat – Garth Snow and Don Sweeney, we’re looking in your direction – then you’d probably like to think you’d do what was best for your team, consequences be damned. Your fans are certainly hoping so. But realistically, at least a few GMs around the league have to be wondering if there’s more at stake over the next few days than wins and losses.


Does any of this even matter?

We might as well save the big one for last.

To be clear, we’re not getting all existential here. Yes, we may all just be bags of meat and water wandering a speck of dust in a vast and unknowable universe, but we’re not going to get that deep today. Let’s dial it back just a bit.

But in an era of increased parity, where there are two or three truly bad teams and maybe a half-dozen elite contenders bookending a massive traffic jam of quasi-contenders who all have a roughly equal shot, how much impact can a trade deadline deal or two really have?

On one hand, it would seem like more parity would mean more reason to make a deal, since even a small improvement could lead to a big jump in the overall power rankings. In a system like today’s, small margins should be everything. Maybe adding a 20-goal scorer to your middle six moves you all the way from 20th to 12th.

But does that really matter? We like to think of deadline moves as being capable of altering the balance of power, and no doubt some do. But in most cases, the impact may be smaller than we want to admit. Realistically, maybe that guy you just gave up a second-round pick for improves your chances of making it out of the first round from 55 per cent all the way to 57 per cent. Every little bit helps, sure, but is that really worth giving up on a future asset that has a chance, however small, of turning out to be a true impact player?

At the end of the day, the NHL loves its competitive balance and touts it every chance it gets. But at times, it can feel like we’re all just flipping coins. And if that’s the case, then maybe it doesn’t make sense for GMs to spend weeks putting together deals that won’t matter as much as we think they will.

(Or maybe these guys are just big wimps. There’s that, too.)

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