Monday, August 11, 2008

When Is The Best Time To Trade/Trade For A Star?

With the Olympics underway, there is admittedly less all-out focus on hockey for the time being here at Lions in Winter. We are, however,always on the lookout for something to comment on and discuss.

The other day as I was scanning some of my usual corners of the internet, I came across a great title for a piece by Spector on his blog: "When’s the Best Time to Trade/Trade for An NHL Star?"

Spector talks about the Bouwmeester case prompted him to post on this topic. Let me tell you, it shows. It should have been titled: "When is the best time to trade Bouwmeester?" or "Should Jacques Martin trade Bouwmeester?". As such, i don't feel so bad for taking his title (almost) and expanding on the issue to the point which I would have liked to have seen it discussed myself.

Sure, trading is down in the NHL. That is a fact. But, that doesn't mean we have to be resigned that our GM should follow the example of Florida's stumbling example. Personally, I don't think trading is outmoded either. A good GM for example can still exploit a weak GM in the right circumstances, even in the salary cap world, even (heaven forbid) outside of the two weeks that precede and incorporate the trade deadline. For me the matter is academic – there are certain factors that dictate the laws of the trade and these have nothing to do with Bouwmeester or how many defencemen Florida have or want.

Of course, any assessment of the timing of trades will be subjective. However, I like to think that the way I think about it is a little more scientific than waiting for the trade deadline...

Elements of trading

The first thing to understand in trading is that trades are completed based largely on perceptions – not necessarily on facts. A GM will inevitably watch his own team play more than any other. He will only have access to the current practice and training of his own team. In this way, the home GM will always have an advantage over his trading partner when it comes to his own player. This is especially true for the youngest players who have had less exposure around the league. Whereas an older player may have played 500+ games, played for multiple teams and been exposed to many of the league's GMs; a young prospect is really only known by the organisation in which he plays.

If a prospect is making giant strides, chances are the value in a trade would be low (see Brad Boyes). On the flip side, if a prospect is showing signs of dropping below expectations for himself, then the value to the home team could be increased in a trade. From my point of view, the first rule of trading is always to ship out players who are perceived to be better across the league at large than in the organisation. My classic example of this would be the big player that some GMs (see Bob Clarke) would drastically overvalue.

Trading a star can be tricky here as lots is generally known about that player, but it can be done. However, this kind of thinking can help you land a star for a lower price. A recent favourite here was the Alex Kovalev trade. Bob Gainey masterfully offered one of a group of prospects to the Rangers, including the Hamilton's leading scorer Josef Balej. The Rangers falling into the classic trap of unfamiliarity with the goods opted for Balej instead of Plekanec. Now, I don't know how the negotiation went, but by offering the offensive "jewel" of the organisation at the time, Gainey played on perceptions very well. Obviously, Balej never made an impact and Kovalev just had his most impressive all-around campaign. We won the trade in a landslide. Nice payback on NYC who pulled this overrated prospect stunt on the Expos two or three times a season.

The next element in any trade, I think, is realising that every NHL player will be trending. That is to say that a player will either be improving, remaining stable or getting worse. This is another bit of knowledge that only the home GM can know (at least at first).

To take advantage of the trending, ideally, a GM must trade a falling star before the rest of the league knows he is falling. This is a difficult one, since just offering a star for trade would raise suspicions in even the most amateur of GMs, I would think. The art here would be to get the other GM to ask you about the falling star – make him think it's his idea. In my opinion, this is an art that few GMs seem to have been able to master over the last few years. How Joe Thornton for example could fetch such a pathetic return can only be explained by the hesitation with which he was dealt with. Ditto for many Canadiens trades in the dark days of Rejean Houle, where all the world would know about the problems before we got the 4th round pick back for our captain.

A rule for trading, for me, is trading a player at peak value. The cardinal sin is trading them at the lowest ebb. Being a realist (even back in 2002), it occurred to me that the Canadiens' Jose Theodore probably overachieved. What's more his two trophies and undue credit for beating the Bruins in what was actually a fairly high-scoring series on the whole, made his value immense. If a GM thinking as I did had received a call for Jose's services and accepted, I am quite sure we'd be enjoying watching a decent goalscorer instead of remembering our suffering through David Aebischer.

Of course, in trades, there is also the element of organisational need . Trading from a position of need (after injury, for example) can be very costly. Whereas, trading with a partner who can only see their own current need can be very fruitful. When Nashville needed a star centre to put them over the top a couple of years ago, Philadelphia picked their pockets clean. Based on Nashville's experience, I wouldn't be trading for a star at the deadline. On the other hand, if you can find your Nashville to trade with, trade a star, by all means.

Contract status has always been a major factor too. In my opinion, free agency is still the number one problem here. The salary cap is a hassle for sure, but can be dealt with – at any time. Trading a player in the last year of the contract diminishes the value. This is certainly true the more games go by. By the trade deadline, you are talking about trading the player for 15 games and playoffs. History has shown that people won't pay as much for these players – unless, unless, unless they sense they are filling a great need (see Nashville). If the player is on an overvalued contract, waiting may be the only way to ship him, mind you (Bill Guerin), but most legitimate stars don't fit into this category.

The final factor for me is "short memory". Look across the league over the years and you'll see plenty of examples of short memory among GMs. A player after a good playoffs will carry amazing value for the summer for example. A player off to a poor start in the fall/winter may drop in value by a good prospect or two in return. Playoffs are the best at generating short memory gains. Trading for the playoff hero, in my opinion, is a daft move for 25 out of 30 teams in the league. yet, most GMs covet these players, nonetheless. Many of these examples manifest themselves in ridiculous signings rather than trades, but short memory plays a part in trades too. Going for someone who is already considered a star after a great playoff run might be OK, but trading for someone who isn't generally a star at this point is generally a move to be rued later on. Trading for someone who has had a bad stretch could land you a bargain, however (Erik Cole).

So when should a trade involving a star be made?

If you're a GM and looking to trade a star for another star, some key players or just prospects, I would focus on an in-season trade. Assuming your star is a consistent contributor with an established reputation (i.e., not Ribeiro), then your trade should be timed to maximise the return you can get. You will want to make sure you have proper recent scouting of the the team you are trading with (preferably NHL game action) and that you have a feel for trends and historical play as well as short-term success.

Probably the major factor by which you can ramp up your return is by targeting a team with need. From the point of view of need, the trade deadline can provide some of the very best opportunities to trade, given you have the right commodity. (If you are unfortunate enough to have a star who is the wrong commodity – goaltender 2008 – then you are barking up the wrong tree at the trade deadline with a trade). However, I happen to think that you will find more potential trade partners and just as much sense of need if you target January as the trade month. Teams desperate to make the playoffs will perhaps be hasty in giving away too much, and championship-hungry teams are always on the look out for stars, no matter what time of year.

If you're a GM trying to acquire a star, you need to be a bit more wily. Naturally, don't play into the other GM's hands by giving opportunity to scout properly, see your players or all that good stuff mentioned above.

If you're trading for a true star, one whose value is unlikely to fluctuate significantly, then I would do it in the summer. You can package one of your recent draft picks, a prospect who is not progressing as expected or hoped or someone whose lasting memory of the past season was playoff overachievement (Umberger). I'm happy to say, this is what Bob Gainey managed to achieve in his Tanguay deal – taking advantage of salary concerns and an overvaluation of the draft pool (in all likelihood) to land a consistent star.

Middle ground

Given the two windows of opportunity, you'd expect the GMs of the league to find some middle ground. if they did, we'd see some trades from October to December time. We don't. Why is this?

I think one factor is that GMs are generally not looking to make trades as it makes their lives more complicated. Why saddle yourself with a salary issue – it only makes more work. Considering that many GMs are also horrendous judges of talent (see the free agent signings this year), it makes sense that they would procrastinate until the very last second.

Another reason for this is the inconsequential nature of the NHL season. Why would a team bother to challenge Detroit in December and January when winning the league is so meaningless? History will show chemistry is the answer, but these guys have no memory for history, remember?

Mastering the trade

In those simple scenarios, the answer seems relatively simple. However, as we all know, things are rarely so simple. Most of the time, for instance, the star in question will not be a stable producer, but will be trending up or down. Most of the time, the perception of his value will be higher or lower than his own GM's assessment around the league. Mastering the trade requires mastering the art of anticipation, combined with a good eye for talent (and lack of it).

In fact, while trading a star or for a star can be beneficial, the trades that become landslides are often the unexpected ones. What's more, these trades should not be as restrictive as trades involving stars. These are the trades where rising stars are targeted, or falling stars are turned for a profit. The margin for a win in these exchanges is huge.

If anything, I would argue that these trades must not be done anywhere near the deadline. The deadline is a too cluttered for people thinking about trading their minor players. Owners either want to save a few million in the close of the season, or want to make a big impression with their fans for marketing in th playoffs. These are homework trades and should be happening from now until January. Again, they aren't. Probably for the same reasons as stated above.

Back to the Olympics, and I begin to realise that pursuit of excellence is a full-time job. There are no summer holidays, no off-seasons. To think that building a dynasty in these times is impossible is the same closed-mindedness that makes you skip your 2-minute race for fear that you'll be too tired for your 1-minute race. The excellent pursue excellence in all areas of what they do. The New England Patriots have proven that salary caps do not preclude dynasties. The Detroit Red Wings are making the case that hockey is not some special exception to that rule.

As with many facets of team management post-salary cap, trading is an area that remains to be exploited. There is no good reason why a "good" GM shouldn't be looking for trades all season long and well into the summer. I hope, as with all things, that the Canadiens are one of the first teams to step up to take advantage of other teams in this way. Sign and trade Mats Sundin? Trade a young winger? Trade some of those Minnesota Dmen? Wait to see how things develop and we'll be just like the rest – behind the eight ball (read Detroit) – again.

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