THE FAR SIDE OF THE POND:
Trade Talk, or, I’m not a GM, but I Play One in This Column
By Chad Huebner
February 26, 2pm may not mean a hell of a lot to you (Unless you have a doctor’s appointment, or something like that, and even then, I hope it’s not for something serious, because I care. . . ummm, what the hell am I saying?), but it means a ton to NHL teams: it’s the trade deadline, silly-billy!
I’ve only begun to understand the intricacies of trades, and what factors go into them (“NHL Trading for Dummies” should be a book if it isn’t already), and will try to talk about what I consider the major issues this trading season. I’ll warn you this column is long and rambling, somewhat outrageous and sometimes hard to figure out, but so is Mike Richards’ contract. (12-year contract extension worth $69 million. . . why not make it an even $70 mil, what the hell, right?)
This is the question that is always asked around trade deadline time: will we see any blockbuster trades?
Along the lines of what just happened in the NBA, where I think Mark Cuban even traded the outfit he wore in “Dancing with the Stars”? I’d say no.
Trades will probably happen along the lines of the deal sending Stillman and Commodore to the Senators: players that aren’t necessarily superstars, but can help a playoff contender get the job done. With so many teams in the playoff hunt, be it jockeying for home-ice advantage, a division title or a playoff spot, not too many want to give away the whole kit and caboodle just for one or two players they’re in reality renting for the playoffs. There’s too much at stake in the NHL these days. There’s also a definite youth movement, so I’m sure GMs are very reluctant about giving up young prospects, because maybe one day, those prospects will become the next Crosbys, Ovechkins, Phanuefs and Toewses (or is it just Toews?).
Or maybe no one wants to take too much of a chance at all. After the Stillman-Commodore deal, we have Jaroslav Modry going from the Kings to the Philly Flyers. Sure, Philly needs help on the blueline. Heck in the midst of an eight-game losing streak where the team has plummeted from No. 2 to No. 8 in the Eastern Conference, the Flyers probably need Kate Smith to start belting “God Bless America” before home games (whoops, she died in 1986, so much for that). But Modry? The guy’s 37 and only has 500 PIM in 700 games and only 6 PIM in 19 playoff games. Not exactly a Broad Street Bully type of guy. I’d call this a “warm body” trade instead of a “jump starter”, which is what the Flyers really need now. I’ll hope, along with the multitude of Flyer fans, that the organ-I-zation is not done in the trade game (otherwise, don’t be surprised if Wachovia Center gets pelted with Molotov cocktails on Feb. 27).
What about those teams on the outside of the playoff bubble (picture, scenario, whatever term you want to use there) who just seem only a few points away? They might be in a position to contend, and wouldn’t want to deal away some prized player because, heaven’s-to-betsy, he might be the key to them making the playoffs. Well, let’s take my Blackhawks as a prime example. (Is this an example of favoritism? Answer: yeah, I’ll admit it this time.) They’re only eight points out of the last spot in the West with 23 games to go, and they only have to jump past five teams for it. Seven of those 23 games are against four of those five clubs, including a big stretch in late March where they play against the St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets four times. So, yes, the ‘Hawks are in a position to play for a playoff spot now.
But are they, really? Eight points is four wins, and that’s just to tie for the final playoff spot. That means a win streak of at least four games, something the ‘Hawks haven’t done in a while. They’d also have to hope the five teams ahead of them go into prolonged slumps. Maybe one or two of the clubs will do this, but all five? Now the odds seem more stacked against the ‘Hawks.
And if they do make the postseason by the skin of their teeth, so what? So they could get thrashed in the first round by the Red Wings? Aside from their first postseason birth in six years (which I’d still be happy for, don’t get me wrong) what else would they accomplish?
Again, and I feel like I have to re-emphasize this, because I’m sure some of the one-dimensional people out there who only see things in black and white will think that I don’t want the ‘Hawks to make the playoffs after so many years of losing and bitter feelings towards the club, I do. I do want the ‘Hawks to make the playoffs, and with great regularity and with a constant chance of winning it all, like the Red Wings, Senators, etc have these many years. It’s just that maybe the ‘Hawks will be in a better position (wait for it. . . ) NEXT YEAR.
As a Chicago sports fan, I can’t begin to tell you how much it pained me to write those two last words. There’s enough for a 5,000-word crying jag, but that’s for another day.
Anyway, there’s talk of the New Jersey Devils interested in Robert Lang and Martin Havlat. Lang is 37, and finishing the first year of a two-year deal. His numbers have fallen steadily since he turned 30, and despite his veteran presence with such a young club, he’d be the least of the two to be missed. Havlat, meanwhile, was brought to the ‘Hawks to give them a much-needed scoring star. Yes, he missed a ton of games this season, and has been slow to warm up his scoring touch, but he still adds another dimension to the ‘Hawks attack. Plus, his contract doesn’t expire until the end of next season. If you’d allow me to put on my Dale Tallon mask, I’d say the Devils could have Lang, but for Havlat it’d have to be for a pretty steep price. The Devils are well-known for a well-stocked farm system, so I’d want to fleece, er-negotiate with the Devils for some of their prime prospects if they want Havlat that badly. Otherwise, do a wait-and-see with Havlat until the end of next year.
(More about the Devils: here’s a team that gets it. They were once the laughingstock of the NHL in their red and green Christmas jerseys. They failed to make the playoffs-at a time where nearly everyone made the playoffs-their first five seasons. “A Mickey Mouse team” as a young Gretzky once coined them. Then in the late 80s, ownership and management changed, and they started building the team from the ground up. They won their first Cup in the strike-shortened year of 1994-95 against a red hot Red Wings team, and that was only the beginning. They won two more in 2000 and 2004, making the Finals another time-against Bourque and the Avs, of course-and have won at least 40 games each of the last 10 seasons. They give up marquee players like Scott Gomez and Jason Arnott, but are neck-deep in young talent and make shrewd moves so the marquee guys don’t go without some compensation. Oh, and they’ve been able to hang on to arguably the greatest goalie of all time in Martin Brodeur, who doesn’t seem to age and won’t be done until he holds every goalie record. Year in and year out, they’re always a factor, and the shoe won’t drop for a while longer. Is this a love fest for the Devils? Maybe. After all, they do wear the red and black as well as the ‘Hawks do. Back to the column.)
Okay, I’m taking off the Tallon mask. I wouldn’t want to be is his, any other GM’s shoes with a club on the verge of the playoffs. Plus, he’s got a lot of wrinkles on his forehead.
With Peter Forsberg out of the running as Hottest Trade Prospect of the Season, two other names have surfaced as potential “must-haves”: Mats Sundin and Rob Blake. Both have “no-trade” clauses, and if you’ve been listening to the experts, as I have, you’ve probably found yourself readily agreeing with what they say: Why would both guys want to leave their current teams? Sundin is the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’s been with Toronto for 13 seasons and counting, and during that time, has become the sole focus of the Maple Leafs offense. He’d be crazy to want to just up and move to a playoff contender. Kind of the same can be said for Blake, who’s in his second tour of duty with the Kings, bringing his grand total of seasons in L.A. to 14. There was that five-year period he spent with the Colorado Avalanche, winning a Cup in his first partial season with the Avs, but he came back to his original squad, and on a team that’s struggling to find star power, he’s the guy.
And so I nod my head at the time and agree with what the experts say.
And yet. . .
Why shouldn’t both of these guys waive their no-trade clauses and latch on with a Cup contender? There’s that whole “team loyalty” thing, which is stronger with Sundin than it is with Blake. But still, when you’re at or near the end of your career, and you’re on a team going nowhere and has gone nowhere for quite a while, wouldn’t you want to gamble and latch on with a team that has a legitimate shot of winning it all right now? Sundin’s 35, Blake’s almost 40, and it’s not like things are getting any better for the Maple Leafs and Kings anytime soon. I’m sure the majority of Leafs’ fans would cry outrage if Sundin went somewhere else, but you know what this all reminds me of? It reminds me of one Raymond Bourque’s situation in 2000. Bourque turned 40 and spent all 20 seasons of his career with the Bruins. He was the Bruins at the time, and it seemed unthinkable he’d want to play anywhere else, even though his last stint in the Stanley Cup series came a decade ago. But he requested a trade to the Avs, who already were a talented team and managed to add some other quality players before and during the 2000-01 season, including Blake. Remember: he played over two decades with one team, and he still wanted to get out of town. So much for the whole loyalty BS of wanting to stay with one team no matter what. Now yes, there were a number of bitter Bruin fans angry for what Bourque did. But I’ll bet you they were outnumbered by the Bruin fans who wanted to see Bourque win it all, because he wasn’t going to last much longer no matter who he played for. Even though the Avs had a lot going for them that 2000-01 season (best regular season record ever, Joe Sakic won the Hart trophy, you get the idea), having the idea of giving this incredible player a shot of hoisting the Cup before calling it quits probably galvanized the team despite losing Forsberg for the playoffs. Colorado beat the New Jersey Devils in seven games, and gave us one of the most endearing moments in Stanley Cup history when Bourque got to hold up the Cup.
I’m not saying that Sundin and Blake would give a playoff club the same exact lift, but could you blame the two for thinking about pulling a Bourque, especially Blake, who was there when it happened in June 2001? Fan loyalty is a rare thing, but real fan loyalty is almost non-existent these days. Yes, there’ll be enough tears to fill up Roseau Canal to see Sundin go and win it for a team that has a chance (re: a team that gives a damn about what it’s doing, that has a plan for the future and thinks 41 years is waaay too long to wait for another Cup, but that’s just me), but maybe the true Maple Leaf fan can rejoice in one former player to win it all instead of the actual team at hand. As for L.A.? Uhhh, when do the NBA playoffs begin?
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