Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Letting Players Go For Nothing Vs. The Desperate Grab

Because I took some shots at Jack Todd, and I guess Andre Savard, I have found myself in several arguments on the merits and pitfalls of various moves across the years.

While I can't really argue when there's a clear disagreement about the worth of a player, there are places where I think my point of view needs better airing. One area that keeps coming up again and again in arguments (and it's really getting my back up now) is faulting the GM for all the players he lets go for "nothing" – supposedly in contrast to the massive yields he could have reaped in a last minute trade. I have never accepted this line of thinking, nor will I ever, probably.

But in the interest of at least seeming open-minded, I will lay out both sides of the case as I see it.

What is nothing?

"He let the player go for nothing..."

Ah, that old chestnut. Some people would accept it outright, not me. To start with, I think we have to be clear about what we actually mean by nothing. I'll take trade vs. no trade at the deadline to provide the example. Since we have such a convenient recent example in Cristobal Huet, I'll illustrate using his case.

Cristobal Huet was not let go for nothing, not in the immediate sense of the word. Bob Gainey traded him to avoid that eventuality. He was let go for a 2nd round draft pick that eventually became Mathieu Schneider (when combined with another pick) who then became nothing.

The initial trade
What is hardly ever mentioned in this trade is that another team was involved – the Washington Capitals. The Capitals (a team behind the Canadiens in the standings) needed a goalie to sure themselves up for a playoff run. Just like the Canadiens, the Capitals in taking on Huet would be taking on a player who might amount to nothing come July 1st. In fact that is what ended up happening.

So why did the Capitals trade a 2nd round pick for nothing?

Well, they didn't. Did they? What they traded that 2nd round draft pick for was 2 whole months of Huet's services – something which amounted to 13 regular season starts and 7 in the playoffs. They traded for an 11-2 finish to the season and an being an OT goal away from the second round. It's hardly nothing. In fact, it could be argued that the latter portion of the season and the playoffs is when you most want a star player like Huet was that season.

Now, in fairness, when Huet was traded Gainey was not trading away an 11-2 record with league-leading goaltending to be followed by taking Philly to the limit. What Gainey was trading was probably more like 6 or 7 starts as a back-up and an insurance policy against a rookie who might falter or crumble under fatigue (what a radical concept). He traded a back-up option that his coach might actually use, vs. the other young guy who hadn't earned any trust yet. Not, perhaps, 11-2 and playoff heroics; but hardly nothing.

At the time it seemed a lot to give up for a 2nd round pick. In retrospect, it looks like even more.

Speculating on returns

The other trading scenario in this game is the trade unmade – hanging onto a player for 20+ games of service, all in the knowledge that come July that player might leave town.

Here things get even more interesting, because unlike Huet, Recchi and Damphousse who have values attached that we can measure and evaluate after the fact, the hypothetical trade only gets imaginary value. It tends to get very interesting indeed because often what we imagine a GM can get and what he actually can get is separated by quite a gulf.

Here take the oft-cited (frustratingly often now) example of Mark Streit.

In 2006-07, Mark Streit had a breakout season scoring 10 goals and adding 28 assists to float well up the defenceman scoring leaders list for the year. While this misleading statistic made him a hockey pool favourite, those who didn't have wool over their eyes remember that a lot of those points came as a sometimes 1st, sometimes 3rd line forward (several with Koivu as his centre).

The trend continued in 2007-08 as Streit racked up a whopping 62 points. But again at the trade deadline, it was hard to dissect whether he was a forward playing at a good second line clip 58 GP, 43 Pts or whether he was actually an elite offensive defenceman being misused by his coach. Though it was clear he was a good player, I don't think anyone could have predicted the 19 points in 18 games that followed the Huet trade – a period that vaulted him to all-star contender.

So to those who lament losing the 62-point PP wizard for nothing when we could have traded big, I ask first for you to wind back the clock and remember the time spent at forward. Seeing as Mark himself had made it clear his goal was to make his next NHL season one spent on the blueline, what Gainey had on that day was more like a 50-point defenceman with inflated stats thanks to shifts with Koivu. He had value, but a couple of notches below.

So instead of being able to fetch what free agent defender Brian Campbell did, for instance (Steve Bernier and a first rounder), Mark was in a more unproven zone. He probably fell into the league of Brad Stuart 2007-08 (a season removed from being a pretty reliable 30-point D) and Marc-Anre Bergeron (an offensive PP specialist coming off seasons of 35, then 46 points with no time at forward). Neither of these players was had for nothing (it was 2nd/4th and 3rd round picks, respectively), but neither did they return the moon.

Even assuming a generous and slightly deluded GM like Holmgren (who paid a 3rd for Modry that day), I don't think Streit would have fetched Gainey more than a 2nd round pick and a dead-end minor leaguer. Not a really franchise-changing moment lost for the Habs then.

Those last 20 games...

I have already touched on the idea that keeping a player beyond the deadline is not nothing as the infuriating ones imply it is. But there's more here. ot only is that 20+ games, it is also often the most important 20 games of the entire season.

Why? Because as frustrating as it is for fans of teams other than the Red Wings, nobody cares about anything other than Cups. And, as we know playing for the Cup isn't an open invitation, but an honour won by edging out rivals. Therefore, to trade a player, a good player, in the closing stages of the season, while the jockeying for position continues could result in missing an opportunity to luck all the way to a final (like the 2006 Oilers, say).

The 2006 Oilers might well have been on the mind actually when Bob Gainey stared down the barrel of the 2007 playoff race. That year, Sheldon Souray and Craig Rivet were both coming up for free agency and amateur capologists the world over could see that room was not there for both to be signed, not with Markov the priority.

We do know that Gainey had an eye on the future, because the smoke that indicated fire was all there to see. He was talking up his defencemen to any ears that would listen in hopes that he could get some return.

So to trade Rivet or Souray?

My choice would have been Souray, but it appears the GMs who were hearing both names chose Rivet. And like him they did, because that trade now looks like the best Habs deal in years.

Once Rivet goes a few days before the deadline, the question is no longer Rivet or Souray, but just trade Souray or not. At the time, views were mixed. Very much in the hunt for a place in February, Gainey must have wrested with the notion of trading one more of his most valuable players and risk missing the playoffs completely.

In the end, the Canadiens did miss the playoffs – a fact that makes the job of critical naysayers easy now. However, they missed on the very hurdle, on a 2-goal comeback by the Leafs in the final 20 minutes of the Canadiens season.

So you tell me, should Gainey really have given up his main offensive engine (who contributed 5 goals and 12 points over the 18 games post-deadline) when a playoff berth hung in the balance? Would we all really be talking up his-long-term vision then? Or might we, just might we criticise Gainey for giving up on a season where even the Ottawa Senators managed to finally get their playoff act in gear and become the third consecutive Canadian team in the final?

I wonder...

Damned if you do, damned if you don't

I think the reality of being the GM in Montreal is that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. With exception of that Gorges trade, which we all like now (but not so much back then), it's hard lot to please, these Montrealers.

But even in the uber-critical world of Canadiens fandom, talking about losing players for nothing is a petty game. A game I'd like to see the end of. I hope my case will convince at least a few of you of the same.

Summary of notable trades and non-trades

On a final note, I provide (because I did the research anyway) a list of some UFA dump trades and some stats from people who weren't traded – just for fodder:

UFA dump trades

SeasonPlayoffs?From HabsTo Habs
98-99Not closeMark RecchiDainnius Zubrus, 2 conditional picks
98-99Not closeVincent Damphousse1st (2000), 5th (1999)
00-01Not closeEric WeinrichPatrick Traverse
01-028th seedBrian Savage, 3rd (2002)Sergei Berezin
02-03Missed by 6 pointsJeff HackettNiklas Sundstrom, 3rd (2003)
02-03Missed by 6 pointsOleg Petrov4th (2003)
02-03Missed by 6 pointsDoug Gilmour6th (2003)
06-07Missed on last dayCraig RivetJosh Gorges, 1st (2007)
07-081st seedCristobal Huet2nd (2009)


PlayerSeasonRegS GPGAPtsPlOff GPGAPts
Alexei Kovalev08-0917118194213
Saku Koivu08-0919510154033
Alex Tanguay08-091769154011
Mark Streit07-08183161911134
Sheldon Souray06-07185712

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