Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What Happened on Deadline Day

What a whirlwind yesterday was. Well, as much of a whirlwind as watching paint dry for much of the day can be anyway.

Ladies and gentlemen, the 2011-12 NHL trade deadline has come and gone with a whimper rather than much of a bang. The players in the Canadiens organization will remain with the team at least until June, and no new NHL faces will be brought in.

In the hours that followed, there was great frustration and anger among Hab fans at what was perceived as an underwhelming day for general manager Pierre Gauthier. Let's break it down by looking at what did and didn't happen.

The Moves That Were Made

The Habs got the ball rolling yesterday by completing the day's first transaction, sending Andrei Kostitsyn to the Nashville Predators for a 2013 2nd round pick and the cancellation of the conditional 5th rounder they had given the Preds in the Hal Gill deal.

Reaction to the move was negative for the most part. Many did not want Kostitsyn to be dealt, hoping the team would be able to re-sign him. A player with reasonable size, capable of throwing hits, and skilled enough to score 20 goals even in Montreal is not all that easy to replace. And even if you can find such a player, he would likely cost you as much or more than Kostitsyn's new contract will pay him, even after his impending UFA raise.

But even those that did want to deal him before risking losing him for nothing - for the most part - expected more of a return. I had suggested previously that I expected Kostitsyn to be worth little more than a 2nd round pick, citing few comparables having been dealt this season as a caution against overvaluing him. The market was perhaps set by a deal on Saturday that sent Wojtek Wolski from the New York Rangers to the Florida Panthers for a third round pick and minor leaguer Mike Vernace. At 6'3", Wolski has a bigger frame than Kostitsyn, but has struggled even more with his consistency. Even this season, he was forced to spend 6 games in the American Hockey League as the Rangers were unsatisfied with his play and lacked a roster spot for him. Last season, Wolski scored 35 points in 73 games (.48 PPG) compared to Kostitsyn's 45 in 81 (.56 PPG). On their careers, 26-year old Wolski totals 250 points in 404 games (.62 PPG) while 27-year old Kostitsyn has 210 points in 379 games (.55 PPG). Reasonably even, though Wolski's recent decline would make me believe Kostitsyn's value was slightly higher in the scoring winger market. A 2nd round pick, then, seems like absolutely fair value.

So why are people upset? Because the same Nashville Predators gave up their first round selection to acquire fourth line center Paul Gaustad. Like Kostitsyn, Gaustad will be a UFA on July 1st, and is 3 years older. His career high is just 36 points, totaling 181 over 479 games. Could the Habs not have extracted a bigger premium from the Preds - a team that lacks scoring punch - for the Belarusian forward? All else equal, Kostitsyn appears to be the better player and thus should carry the greater value, but comparing them is virtually apples and oranges.

Gaustad is a 6'5" centerman, adept in the face-off circle. No one would confuse him for being an overly physical player, but he can take the body and drop the gloves at times. He's the type of guy teams go to war with. He won't earn as much money on his new contract as Kostitsyn, but there are likely to be far more teams in line to acquire his services. And that is likely what it came down to on deadline day. Supply and demand. Few teams called the Canadiens about Kostitsyn, while Buffalo was taking offers on Gaustad right till the last minute.

Is this at all Gauthier's fault? Maybe. Certainly it's a popular theory that the man who still runs the Canadiens' ship (the Tony Marinaro story about Geoff Molson calling the shots was basically completely disproven yesterday since Molson was with the players in Fort Lauderdale while Gauthier, Bob Gainey, and Larry Carriere set up a war room to deal with trades in Tampa) does not extract maximal value for his assets. We don't know what went on behind the scenes, but it's possible Gauthier only spoke with a handful of teams about Kostitsyn, rather than aggressively pawning his wares a la Brian Burke. That a deal was worked out with the Predators seems very convenient given the rumours linking the teams and the recent Gill trade.

The other move was the claiming of tough guy Brad Staubitz off re-entry waivers from the Minnesota Wild. Staubitz is a 27-year old 6'1", 210 lbs, right-handed enforcer who can play either left wing or left defense. Certainly not known for his hands, he has scored just 8 goals and 18 points over 196 NHL games to date. He has also racked up 432 penalty minutes in that span, undoubtedly the reason the Canadiens brought him in. Trying to get tougher? Not exactly, said Pierre Gauthier. But trying to find a balance in the line-up to compensate for the smaller, younger players who have established themselves in the line-up.

Since he was claimed on re-entry waivers, the Canadiens are only responsible for half off Staubitz's cap hit this season, meaning $287,500. Not that it really matters anyway, with the team far from the cap at this point in the season and Staubitz to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. Consider this an audition for the enforcer role; if he gels well, perhaps he figures into the longer-term plans, but if not, nothing lost.

What Didn't Happen

In all honesty, it was a strange, strange day. For the number of players said to be available, very few deals were actually reached. I'm not speaking just about blockbuster moves like Rick Nash either. For some reason, teams that seemed to have few reasons not to move pending free agents or to the contrary to add depth chose not to do so, standing pat.

Why did it play out like that? All accounts seem to indicate that, early in the day anyway, the prices so-called sellers set for their players were far too high. Looking at the returns teams got in the days leading up to Monday, I wouldn't say that's far off. Teams may have been scared away from renting players at the risk of mortgaging too many future assets. But wouldn't supply and demand indicate that as buyers left the market and the deadline approached, the price for players would drop and most players would eventually be moved? Particularly speaking in the case of pending unrestricted free agents? Were the teams holding these players just too stubborn to budge, costing their teams entry draft picks in the process?

Did this happen to...
Jaroslav Spacek in Carolina?
Jason Blake in Anaheim?
Dustin Penner in Los Angeles?
David Jones in Colorado?
Sheldon Souray in Dallas?
Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau in New York?
Mikhail Grabovski in Toronto?
or Chris Campoli in Montreal?

I can't imagine there weren't offers out there for every one of these players, and yet they didn't move. The same could be said for non-UFA players rumoured to be on the market like Steve Ott, Derek Roy, or Roman Hamrlik. Lots of chatter in the media and on Twitter, but little action.

In some cases, these teams may still have playoff aspirations and thus are willing to risk losing the players for nothing. In other cases, the teams may be holding on to hope that they will be able to re-sign the player before July 1st. But so many names staying put indicates to me that something else may be up.

So what is that something? I'd suggest there is a changing of attitudes around the league now with management teams fully adjusted to the realities of the current collective bargaining agreement (just in time to hopefully reach a new one this summer). Teams may be understanding that proper management is no longer about spending mid or late picks on depth players at the deadline. The best way to run a team is to hold on to those picks and use them plus quality depth free agent signings to build a filled-out organization from the ground up. Teams are more often filling holes - even temporary ones - with their younger players, hoping to speed up their maturity by putting them into pressure situations, allowing them to gain valuable NHL experience, and at the same time enjoying cheap and talented roster plugs.

For an example of this, look no further than perennial contenders the Detroit Red Wings and their highly acclaimed general manager Ken Holland. Traditionally, Detroit might have sacrificed some lower tier prospects or late picks to add a couple of veterans for the playoff push. Sure, this year, they dealt a first rounder to repatriate Kyle Quincey, but he's only 26 and will be an RFA this summer - sticking around to help fill a bit of the hole on defense should Nicklas Lidstrom and/or Brad Stuart not return next season. But what did they do on deadline day itself? The Wings were involved in only a single deal and that was to actually trade AWAY veteran blueliner Mike Commodore to the Tampa Bay Lightning for a return that is likely to amount to nothing at all. Consistent with this theory, in speaking to the media, Holland was quickly to point to 23-year old defenseman Brendan Smith as ready to be pressed into service for Detroit down the stretch and into the post-season.

So maybe... just maybe... there were no teams interested in taking Campoli on deadline day. Perhaps teams would rather play their own Brendan Smiths or Frederic St. Denis or whoever they may have in their own system. Certainly it's possible that the general quietness of the day was caused just by a lack of sellers combined with a weak unrestricted free agent class to come this summer, and we may see more deals next February, but I would still expect the trend of fewer depth rentals to continue.

Evaluating the Day

Looking at Gauthier's work yesterday, I found myself somewhat underwhelmed. To be fair, Gauthier had few assets to deal with, as injuries to Travis Moen and Mathieu Darche tied his hands to an extent, while players like Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov being out may have also limited some avenues he could have explored.

I started Monday morning with two goals in mind: first to acquire an additional 1st round pick in 2012, and second to find a taker for Tomas Kaberle's contract. Unfortunately, neither came to pass. I would have loved to see the team add additional picks for Campoli or a guy like Petteri Nokelainen (who must have been worth SOMETHING if Gaustad and a 4th was equal to a first), or generally anyone who wasn't seen as part of the long-term plan (Hi Yannick Weber). But it didn't happen. A big concern for me is that players like Kaberle and Nokelainen are easiest to move at the deadline. Come summer time, there will be plenty of equal calibre (or superior) options available to teams on the free agent market, meaning no one is likely to offer up assets to take them from the Canadiens. It is frustrating that it may then be 9-12 months before Montreal can rid themselves of Kaberle's big contract.

So I found myself underwhelmed and frustrated. But unhappy? Not necessarily. I am pleased that the team holds their own first plus two second rounders for the coming draft, and their first plus three 2nd rounders in 2013. Not having drafted in the second round the past 3 years, the Canadiens system was pretty bare this season, and it will be a great time to restock. Sure, it's true that second round picks are not guaranteed to be future NHLers, but they also have the potential to be impact players. Plus one or more of the picks could be used to move up in a draft or to acquire other young players. So I find myself cautiously optimistic about the team's future on the prospect end, hoping for a top 3 pick this June to add an impact player to the roster in the near future. For the remainder of the present season, let's just keep hoping to remain in a lottery pick position, and to enjoy watching a Toronto Maple Leaf implosion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

IMO they should have brought up Ian Schultz to add a little toughness and size to the line up. There's only 19 games left so let's see what he can bring to the team. Zak