A guide to the NHL trade deadline: Analyzing the most important decisions

HC at Noon debates the way the New York Rangers are handling their rebuilding situation, by sending out a press release, John Shannon is on board, but Doug MacLean is definitely not a fan.

Anyone reading this is presumably already well-versed with the individual players most likely to be available on the trade market and potentially on the move between now and the February 26 deadline.

So instead of rehashing that list, let’s instead try to prepare for the festivities by viewing things from a slightly different angle. Here’s a look at some of the most interesting teams to keep an eye on, and the important decisions they face that warrant additional consideration.

Accepting Sunk Cost and Taking Advantage of the Seller’s Market

Over the past handful of days, there have been two extensions handed out to incumbent GMs and news of both were received with raised eyebrows.

There are so many gaps in information that at this point it’s awfully difficult to say anything definitive about Pierre Dorion and whether he’s the right individual for the Sens job.

There’s certainly some red flags and reasons to be skeptical of him. He clearly misjudged how good his team was when he paid an exorbitant price for Matt Duchene this season, and the double whammy of trading a top prospect (Jonathan Dahlen) for Alex Burrows before giving the 36-year-old a multi-year extension was bad. Dorion generally seems to have an affinity for inexplicably giving depth role players those types of restrictive deals, which is one of my biggest team-building pet peeves.

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But ultimately, as has been the case for years, it’s difficult to know how much of the blame for those things can be laid at Dorion’s feet, and how much of it is an unfortunate byproduct of him being handcuffed by the financial black cloud that looms over the Senators organization (and will continue to as long as Eugene Melnyk owns the team).

Dorion has some big decisions to make in the weeks and months to come with everything involving Erik Karlsson, a potential Mike Hoffman trade, and Mark Stone’s next contract. The decision that may tell us the most about Dorion’s ability as a GM will be in how he handles Cody Ceci’s impending restricted free agency, and whether he’s able to cut his losses, or whether he can’t help himself from doubling down on a depreciating asset.

The Jim Benning situation in Vancouver is different. He’s been around since the summer of 2014 and has a longer track record of moves for us to evaluate. His brigade of local supporters are quick to bring up the fact that he took over an aging team that was already on the decline, and that he’s been slowly but surely building up the prospect pool from almost nothing.

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While Brock Boeser certainly looks like a home run pick (and then some), and Elias Pettersson is tantalizing fans with his tremendous overseas production and highlight videos, it’s fair to feel like Benning has left meat on the bone.

Despite the fact that a) his resume for the job was largely built upon the belief that his specialty was the draft and that he’d use it to rebuild the franchise organically, and b) the Canucks have been 26th in the league since he took over (only the Avalanche, Oilers, Coyotes, and Sabres have a worse point percentage), the team has somehow seen more picks shipped out than brought in under his watch:

Draft Picks In Draft Picks Out
1st Rounder 1 0
2nd Rounder 1 3
3rd Rounder 2 2
4th Rounder 0 2
5th Rounder 2 2
6th Rounder 1 1
7th Rounder 2 1
Total 9 11

That doesn’t pass the smell test. There are certainly ways to increase the chance of success by prioritizing certain skills and attributes in the prospects you’re selecting, but even so the draft is still something of a crapshoot. The best way to combat its unpredictability is to load up on picks, and use a volume-based approach to stack the deck in your favour.

The fact the Canucks have opted not to do so while bottoming out in the standings is a missed opportunity, and a legitimate criticism of this current regime.

The way they handled last season’s trade deadline was a positive step towards rectifying that, and a pleasant departure from what they’d done the year prior. There’s room for further positive strides to be made at this deadline, with Erik Gudbranson and Thomas Vanek (more on him in a second) sitting there as unrestricted free agents who would presumably draw interest from contenders as rentals. There’s been chatter the Canucks are considering keeping and signing both of them, but that has to be posturing in an attempt to drive the price up.

Even though Vanek has established a nice connection with Boeser, he will be an easier asset for the Canucks to part with and cash in on. He’s a 34-year-old winger who was sitting around looking for a suitor as late as September 1, and the fact the Canucks will get anything at all for him is gravy.

It’s not quite as simple with Gudbranson. It’s been less than two years since Benning essentially forked over a first, second, and fourth for him, which means he’s personally invested in the defenceman. It was a questionable move at the time, and has only gotten worse with the benefit of hindsight.

Being able to accept sunk costs and move on from past decisions is an important part of the job, but it’s also one that’s easier said than done. There’s a human element to all of this, and by parting with Gudbranson for a substantially lower price than the one he paid to get him, Benning would essentially be admitting defeat.

The thing is, that battle has already been lost. The only thing worse than taking that initial loss would be stubbornly doubling down on it by throwing good money after bad. Especially when the trade market is sorely lacking defencemen, and there are valuable assets out there to be recovered.

The (New York Sized) Elephant in the Room

Two of the most high volatile teams to keep an eye on leading up to deadline day play their home games in the state of New York.

The case for the Rangers as the powder keg for league-wide activity has been outlined by now. The team got out ahead of things last week and controlled the message, penning a letter to their restless fan base that suggested widespread changes were to come.

With a plethora of desirable assets to move – including rentals Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, and top defenceman Ryan McDonagh who still has a year left on his affordable deal – their apparent willingness to dive headfirst into the trade market is huge news for those hoping to see fireworks on February 26.

If Rangers fans lust for change, I’m not sure the English language has a verb that properly captures just how desperately their Islanders counterparts want their team to do something. Those feelings seem to have reached a breaking point, with a group of agitated diehards recently banding together to quite literally put their money where their mouth is – they raised nearly $6,000 in less than 24 hours for a billboard that would get their message across loud and clear.

And their agitation is warranted. With just one playoff series win (and 11 combined wins) over the past 12 years, the organization finds itself at a unique high leverage point. All of the following things are true:

a) They have to find a way to convince their best player he can legitimately win there or he’ll walk for nothing this summer
b) They’ve accumulated a healthy collection of draft capital, including two picks in each of the first two rounds this year
c) Their best players are all currently making well below market value, with their top six forwards of John Tavares, Jordan Eberle, Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, Mat Barzal, and Anthony Beauvillier counting for a measly $20.3 million combined against the cap this season

All of that has made it harder to stomach the lack of urgency with which Garth Snow has approached addressing his team’s glaring defensive needs. While the Islanders’ offensive attack is nightmare fuel for opponents, it’s ultimately all for naught because they give it all right back on the other end of the ice. They’re on pace to allow nearly 300 goals against this season, which would put them right up among the most porous defensive teams the NHL has seen in the 21st century, and would be unheard of in today’s goal scoring climate:

Team Season Goals Against
PIT 2005-2006 310
PIT 2003-2004 303
WSH 2005-2006 300
PHI 2006-2007 297
NYI 2017-2018 296*
NYR 2000-2001 290
ATL 2000-2001 289
ATL 2001-2002 288
COL 2010-2011 287
TOR 2008-2009 286
BOS 2006-2007 285

*on 82-game pace for

The goaltending hasn’t helped matters. Prior to Thursday night’s shutout win they were 25th at five-on-five and 28th overall in save percentage as a team (mostly due to Thomas Greiss’ disastrous campaign). But an even bigger concern is that they’ve been getting hammered on the shot counter. No team surrenders more shots on goal against than their astronomical rate of 36 per game, and those woes have carried over regardless of whether they’ve been at even strength or on the penalty kill.

As such, it’s unlikely that there’s one single quick fix move out there for the Islanders that’ll alleviate all of these concerns, but that doesn’t mean they should just sit tight with what they’ve got. Especially since small strategically executed tinkering on the margins and the back-end would go a long way towards at least giving the top of their roster a fighting chance to take care of the rest.

Forget just missing the playoffs this season. Each day they do nothing and keep bleeding goals against negatively affects their future outlook as well.

The Atlantic Division Arms Race

It’s interesting how much the way we view the Eastern Conference power dynamic has shifted as the season has progressed. In the early going, the Metropolitan was widely considered to be the superior of the two divisions out East, largely due to its crowded and competitive nature from top to bottom.

But then a funny thing happened: as the season has gone along, the Atlantic Division has wrestled our attention away from the Metro. While it’ll still never be able to match the Metro’s intrigue in terms of who will make it and who won’t, the jockeying for position amongst the Lightning, Bruins, and Leafs up at the top may very well wind up being the most important subplot of the final third of the regular season.

The deadline should only spice things up even more, since there’s a very distinct possibility that all three of those teams could make a notable upgrade. Whether or not they ultimately do it remains to be seen, but they all certainly have the assets and flexibility to do something.

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In Toronto, the most prevalent need is on the blue line, though their biggest upgrades may come from internal options. By unleashing Kasperi Kapanen, Travis Dermott, and finally providing Nazem Kadri with a suitable running mate in Mitch Marner, the Leafs already look more dangerous and well-suited for the post-season than ever. The Lightning and Bruins have both been rumoured to be in on someone like Ryan McDonagh, which would obviously be a game changer if it came to fruition.

I’ll be curious to see whether the urgency for the Lightning to make that kind of a splash trade they’ve been linked to, but seemingly reluctant to make, changes now that there’s pressure being applied from the on-ice performance.

A couple of weeks ago the Lightning had a big cushion in the Atlantic, but thanks to Boston’s insane stretch of success since December, it’s suddenly become legitimately attainable for the Bruins to take top spot in the division.

No team in the league has been hotter during that time than Boston, which has ripped off a 30-game sequence of unparalleled dominance for the ages:

Last 30 Games
Record 23-3-4
Goals For 114
Goals Against 59
Shot Share 55.2%
Shot Share League Rank 1st

The reason why this race is noteworthy is because of the potential ramifications it’ll have on the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and how we handicap it. It’s also sure to raise more questions about the current seeding system, and how it can be altered to reward teams for regular season success.

If we were to reseed 1 through 16 based on point percentage, the Bruins would be first, the Lightning third, and the Leafs seventh. In terms of goal differential, those teams are second, first, and fourth, respectively.

To be the team that lifts the Stanley Cup, you’ll inevitably need to beat some quality competition, but surely it’s less than ideal that two of those teams will be forced to face each other right off the bat, with one of them being prematurely knocked out in the first round.

Especially when, as a current example (which is subject to change thanks to how close the race is), the Penguins would be facing the Flyers or Devils in their opening matchup. In this case, the Penguins at 12th overall would draw either the 15th- or 16th-ranked team in point percentage.

Just something to consider as business picks up here.

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