There had been rumours and speculation bubbling around the Los Angeles Kings since the opening weeks of the season. There was certainly enough in the air for Jake Muzzin to know he was a prime candidate to be moved before the Feb. 25 trade deadline.
But Monday’s news still came as a major shock to the system.
Four weeks out from the deadline, and in the middle of the Kings’ CBA-mandated bye period, Muzzin was blindsided by the deal that sent him to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It was a shrewd bit of business on both sides that may offer a hint of what’s to come in a distinct buyer’s market. Typically, we’d expect a team with an asset as appealing as Muzzin to hold on as long as possible, hoping to conduct an 11th Hour auction with competing bids.
Kings GM Rob Blake instead chose to set a price and pull the trigger once it was met, understanding that there’s no guarantee the return would improve at a time when so many other appealing names are floating around the market.
“I think once we understood the parameters of the deal, at least from our side we were comfortable doing it here today,” Blake told reporters on Monday night.
Now, he had a little extra impetus to act boldly.
The Kings are unexpectedly hovering in “Lose for Hughes” territory, and prepared to endure the emotional exercise of shedding the final vestiges of their Stanley Cup teams. Blake has other business to conduct before this year’s deadline — with Alec Martinez, Tyler Toffoli and Jeff Carter among his pieces still potentially in play — and couldn’t count on leaving everything to the final hour.
Hence the appeal of trading Muzzin for Toronto’s 2019 first-round draft pick, plus prospects Carl Grundstrom and Sean Durzi, right now.
That’s a fair haul for a retooling organization.
What Blake’s colleagues with assets to sell have to be asking themselves today is whether they would be wise to adopt a similar position. No one has a crystal ball that can say exactly how the market will play out, but there are only so many teams that can be labelled buyers this season, and of those teams there are even less that own a first-round pick in 2019 and might be willing to part with one.
First-rounders tend to be standard fare in deals that include a big fish, and we can now strike Toronto off the list of teams with one to dangle.
The one thing that’s become apparent in conversations with NHL executives in recent weeks is that many are bracing for a busy trade period. By sheer name value alone there’s a lot of possibility, with Wayne Simmonds, Artemi Panarin, Derick Brassard, Matt Duchene, Kevin Hayes, Sergei Bobrovsky, Mats Zuccarello, Jakob Silfverberg, Micheal Ferland and possibly Mark Stone among those available on the rental market, plus Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce, Colton Parayko and a long list of other attractive players with term still on their deals.
Viewed from 10,000 feet, it looks like supply will wind up outstripping demand. As attitudes towards asset management evolve and with the perceived value of late-season trades coming under more scrutiny, there are fewer teams than ever sitting on the fence and making these decisions based on what happens on the ice in the two weeks before the deadline.
We’ve already heard Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, for example, rule himself out of the rental market altogether — something that never would have happened five years ago from someone in charge of a team likely to remain on the playoff bubble into early April.
The prevailing winds would seem to incentivize making deals well before the 3 p.m. ET deadline on Feb. 25, lest you risk seeing the market disappear and get left holding an asset you’d rather have turned into futures. (Side note: I’m acutely aware that continued activity in the weeks ahead will make for an uncomfortable 10 hours of live TV on Sportsnet’s Trade Deadline show).
For the most part, the buyers are happy to get down to business early, too.
Only those who need to save every last day of cap space are likely in favour of taking things down to the wire. The Leafs, for example, will get Muzzin for the last 33 regular-season games this season rather than just 20 had they waited until Feb. 25.
“When we’re talking about trades of this nature I think the longer that you can have the player for, the better,” Toronto GM Kyle Dubas told reporters. “And I think especially coming back from the [all-star and bye week] break it makes it a little bit easier than if we were just immersed into a full schedule.
“It gives Jake a couple days with his family to kind of get a little bit organized. This is kind of a life-changing thing, of course.”
Dubas went on to call it “serendipitous” that everything fell in place right now. Given the certainty it guarantees both buyer and seller, and the extra time it provides the player to get used to his new surroundings, we may be seeing more serendipity soon.