How the salary cap has made every NHL team a buyer on the trade market

Jets General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff speaks with the media following the Winnipeg Jets acquisition of Center Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues.

Seller. Buyer. Conventional terms we hear year after year at the NHL trade deadline. This team’s a buyer, this team’s a seller. This other team’s deciding whether it wants to be a buyer or a seller.

Good teams, teams heading to the playoffs and true contenders, are buyers. To be called a seller is to be in a bad position, to have failed to ice a competitive team and thus put in the position of having to dump veteran players under contract for futures.

The problem is, those terms don’t really apply anymore. Not in a cap world. Not in an environment where things like cap space, the number of contracts, entry-level deals and years until unrestricted free agency matter just as much as how many goals an established NHLer can score.

In 2018, all 31 teams are buyers. It’s just a question of what they’re buying.

Here’s an example. Earlier this week, we were all a little surprised when St. Louis, a team fighting for a playoff position in the Western Conference, decided to trade veteran centre Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets.

The question immediately was, why would the Blues be sellers? The reality, however, is that GM Doug Armstrong was buying. His team didn’t have a first-round pick for the June draft, having traded it to Philly to get Brayden Schenn, and was in need of some other assets. To buy a first-rounder, along with Providence College winger Erik Foley and a conditional fourth-rounder for the 2020 draft, Armstrong used Stastny and his expiring contract as currency.

Semantics? Maybe. But the Blues did the same thing last year, remember? They traded defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk, who was set to become a UFA, to Washington for a package that included 6-foot-4 left wing prospect Zach Sanford, a 2017 first-rounder and a conditional second-rounder in 2019. Armstrong later traded that first-rounder in another deal.

At the time, the Blues were much higher in the standings than they are now. Shattenkirk, however, was the perfect currency to use to buy the other commodities the Blues felt they needed.

So the Blues really weren’t sellers in either the Stastny or Shattenkirk trades. They were actually buyers.

Look at what Vegas did in the Derick Brassard deal. They used cap space, enough to cover 40 per cent of two more years of Brassard’s contract, to buy forward Ryan Reaves and draft picks. In another deal that brought Tomas Tatar to Vegas, a better way to look at that trade might be to say Detroit used Tatar to buy salary cap relief and three draft picks, including a first-rounder this June, all elements that will help the Red Wings in their rebuild.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Nothing is as valuable these days on the NHL market as cap space and first-round picks. Both are hard to come by. So deals that once looked to be teams selling off assets and settling for futures need to be looked at in a very different way.

In other words, the traditional ways of looking at NHL trades in and around the deadline simply no longer apply. Everybody’s buying. They’re just buying different things depending on the position they’re in and their organizational needs.

This is not a league of haves and have-nots, or a league where the best are significantly separated from the worst. The entire league is tightly packed, and movement from top 10 to bottom 10 isn’t nearly as dramatic as once was the case.

So it’s up to GMs to embrace the new world. Tampa’s Steve Yzerman seems to be a GM who gets it, an executive who is constantly evaluating the shifting value of picks, cap space and players under contract.

Last year, beset by injuries, the Lightning were struggling outside the playoff bubble in the second half. Many teams would have tried to add contracts for immediate help. Not Yzerman. He shipped out Ben Bishop, Brian Boyle and Val Filppula. He got a prospect, defenceman Eric Cernak, for Bishop, a second-round pick for Boyle and Mark Streit for Filppula, then flipped Streit to Pittsburgh for a fourth-round pick.

Was he selling off players? Or was he buying a prospect and picks, positioning the club for another acquisition down the road. Like Ryan McDonagh, who the Bolts got from the Rangers in a multi-piece trade this week.

Toronto demonstrated in several trades, like the deal that sent David Clarkson to Columbus, the trade with Ottawa that moved Dion Phaneuf to the nation’s capital and the Phil Kessel trade with Pittsburgh, that in a cap world trades come in all shapes and varieties. Toronto wanted cap space, picks and prospects, and used Clarkson, Phaneuf and Kessel to get them.

When Don Sweeney took over the Boston Bruins, he saw the team had strong veterans in Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask and Brad Marchand, but not nearly enough youth in the system. So he used Milan Lucic to buy a first-round pick from Los Angeles along with goalie Martin Jones and defenceman Colin Miller. He then traded Jones to San Jose to buy young forward Sean Kuraly and another first-rounder, this one in 2016.

The Kings pick turned out to be the No. 13 selection in ’15. The Bruins had their own pick at No. 14, and the No. 15 pick from the Doug Hamilton deal with Calgary. In rapid succession, the B’s took defenceman Jakub Zboril, winger Jake DeBrusk and forward Zach Senyshyn. In 2016, Sweeney used his own first-round pick to grab Charlie McAvoy at No. 14, then used the first-rounder from the Sharks later to select Trent Frederic.

It looked at the time like Sweeney was selling off veteran players in traditional NHL style. What seems evident now, however, is that he was buying much-needed first-rounders, using assets he had. Today, the Bruins are one of the top teams in the league, and have a bright future.

Maybe it has always been thus. Maybe Sam Pollock felt he was buying a shot at Guy Lafleur back in 1970, and the cost was sending Ernie Hicke to Oakland. Good purchase.

The point is, there are a lot more variables in the sport now at the NHL level than there were even 20 years ago. Trying to apply traditional words like buyer and seller to the NHL trade market pretty much just misses the whole point.

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