In the midst of an NHL trade deadline that saw an unusual number of high-profile players on the move, it can sometimes take time to sit back, assess each trade and try to see how it fits into the bigger picture. Some trades are immediately marked as excellent decisions by fans and analysts alike, such as Minnesota acquiring Matt Moulson from Buffalo, augmenting an offense in need of extra spark while giving the Sabres two second-round picks to assist in their rebuild. Similarly, the Kings’ move to get Marian Gaborik from Los Angeles provides their roster with a talented scorer as they attempt to improve their goals scored total, the lowest of any team currently in a playoff spot, for relatively little cost. The Blue Jackets have learned how to score by committee in Gaborik’s absence, and will continue without him while enjoying the cap flexibility gained after moving his $7.5 million dollar a year contract.
There are also always one or two trades that fly under the radar but pay dividends come playoff time. Possible contenders this year include Lee Stempniak moving from Calgary to Pittsburgh as another secondary scorer for the team’s roster or the Rangers acquiring depth defenseman Raphael Diaz from the Canucks for a fifth-round pick. Few would have thought Michael Handzus’s move to Chicago last year would prove significant, but ended up playing a role in vaulting the Blackhawks to the top as they won their second Stanley Cup in four years.
Where there are winners, however, there are also inevitably losers, some earning the status because of the moves they made and others because of the ones they did not make. Time may make me look foolish and prove me wrong, but in the immediate aftermath of the NHL trade deadline, here are the five teams I feel have wasted an opportunity or done a poor job of managing their assets.
5 Winnipeg Jets
Sitting on the playoff bubble, just one point behind Dallas for eighth place in the Western Conference playoff race, the Jets did nothing to improve their playoff chances during the trade deadline. Pavelec has looked shaky as the Jets’ starting goalie, and while Al Montoya has done a commendable job as his back up, holding a .925 save percentage and 10-2-4 record compared to Pavelec’s .904 save percentage and 20-22-5 record, there were several goalies available on the market with starting experience who could have pushed Pavelec for the job long-term. The positions of forward Evander Kane and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien have also been questioned, and the team neither moved either player nor confirmed their faith in them by trying to improve their linemates and help them make the playoffs. It may be that Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is waiting to see whether his team makes or misses the playoffs to make a final decision, but he wasted an opportunity to be proactive and improve his team’s chance to make the playoffs for the first time since their move to the city.
4 Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes aren’t a team most will consider as one of the deadline’s losers, but I feel they wasted chances to give their team a direction going forward, especially at the goaltending position. While the team’s forward corps includes notable names Eric and Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner and Alexander Semin, the team remains one of the worse offensive teams in the league, lacking secondary scoring and depth on their bottom lines. With a blueline that includes USA Olympian Justin Faulk, surprising offensive force Andrej Sekera (third on the team in points with 38), and potential future star Ryan Murphy, the team’s defense is improved, though still in need of improvement.
Most frustrating, however, is the Hurricanes’ goaltending situation, as they have split the team’s starts evenly between three players so far. After his sensational Conn Smythe winning performance in the 2006 playoffs, Cam Ward has struggled with consistency and injuries, playing only 21 games this season and sitting at a 6-9-5 record with a disappointing .891 save percentage. Anton Khubodin has played well enough to earn a two-year extension, holding a .928 save percentage and a 14-8 record, but as long as Ward remains on the team, their long-term goaltending situation remains in doubt. With Luongo and Miller both on the move in the last few days, Carolina could have used Ward or Khubodin as chips to secure a goalie who could serve as their definitive starter for the long term. If they had been willing to also part with one of their top forwards, likely either Semin or Jordan Staal, the team could have also potentially added depth or top young prospects to their forwards or defense. While trading Tuomo Ruutu to New Jersey to free some cap space was not a bad move, the Hurricanes seem to be a team without a long-term plan, and have again declined to make significant roster changes that could commence their road back to playoff contention and hopes of a second franchise Stanley Cup.
3 Phoenix Coyotes
When some analysts started to talk about Martin Erat as a trade target for some teams, I was baffled. Once a consistent secondary scorer, Erat has scored only six goals in the 98 games he has played since the beginning of last season, including just one goal in 53 games this season. Tied with Winnipeg, just one point behind Dallas for the final playoff spot in the West, it was nevertheless Erat whom Phoenix acquired to help their playoff push. A player with one goal this season. One. While they were able to move defenseman Rotislav Klesla, who had been languishing in the AHL and still paid nearly three million dollars, Erat has a $4.5 million cap hit, and is signed for one more season. To make things worse, Phoenix also gave up a second-round pick in this trade. The only conceivable logic to this trade is that while Erat will have a cap hit of $4.5 million once again next season, his actual salary will be just half of that, $2.25 million, as his contract declines in its final year.
As a result, the eternally cash-strapped Coyotes will be able to more easily make the cap floor and save over two million dollars in salary compared to their salary cap number. Though potentially a financially savvy trade, it is a move that makes no hockey sense and simply underscores the sad, sad situation that keeps getting more and more absurd in the Arizona desert. If this kind of trade is necessary to keep the Coyotes afloat, the team needs to be moved to allow GM Don Maloney the ability to build a team on a reasonable budget.
2 New York Islanders
No matter how well John Tavares has played or will play next season once he returns from the torn MCL he suffered in Sochi, he cannot lead the Islanders to success by himself. While the team has drafted well in recent years, they have proved unable to capitalize on the talent in their organization to construct a roster with long-term stability. Andy MacDonald was a sixth-round pick of the team in 2006 and has blossomed to become a talented, top four NHL blueliner, but the team was unable to convince him to sign long-term and was forced to trade him to the Philadelphia Flyers. While they were able to get a 2014 second rounder, 2015 third rounder and minor leaguer Matt Mangene, a respectable return, it leaves the Islanders with a void on a blueline needing his veteran experience. The team has young talent to replace him, including Travis Hamonic, Calvin de Haan, Thomas Hickey and Griffin Reinhardt, but with Lubomir Visnovsky the only proven success left in their defense, MacDonald will be sorely missed in helping these young players develop in the way the Islanders envision.
Even worse, the team was only able to obtain minor-league forward Sebastian Collberg and a conditional 2014 second-round pick for Thomas Vanek, for whom they had originally traded talented forward, and former Tavares linemate, Matt Moulson, a conditional 2014 first-round pick and a conditional 2015 second-round pick. GM Garth Snow made a massive gamble that he would be able to sign Vanek to a long-term deal, and reportedly offered him a seven-year deal worth at least $50 million, but could not dissuade Vanek from his plan to test free agency on July 1. Expending Moulson and two draft picks with now almost nothing to show for it, the Islanders have disastrously misjudged and misspent their valuable resources. Furthermore, the examples of MacDonald and Vanek, two players on Long Island who chose not to stay, speaks volumes to their faith in the long-term future of the organization. Potential future free agents, as well as the team’s remaining young stars, may note their examples and decide to follow them away from the team, dooming the Islanders to a future of constant rebuilding.
1 Vancouver Canucks
Twelve months ago, the Canucks had both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, and today have neither. Instead, their two goalies are Eddie Lack and recent acquisition Jacob Markstrom, who between them have played a measly 69 NHL games. Lack has surprised hockey fans by posting a 2.05 goals against average and a .926 save percentage in 26 games so far this year, but there remains a vast difference between having good numbers as a backup for part of a season and serving as a team’s long-term starting goalie. Markstrom, once a World Junior star and high second-round pick, has failed to live up to lofty expectations, winning just 11 of his 43 NHL games with a .898 save percentage and 3.51 goals against average.
Getting promising prospect Bo Horvat seemed to be a good return for Cory Schneider last summer and the trade seemed to enshrine Luongo as Vancouver’s goalie for years to come, but the Luongo era has now ended less than a year later. While his twelve-year contract made him difficult to move, the decision to trade him now for Markstrom and Matthias is a poor decision for two reasons. As mentioned, Markstrom has failed to prove himself at the NHL and neither has Matthias, who was once seen as a potential second-line center. HE has scored only 16 points in 59 games so far this year and has not demonstrated the offensive upside to be more than a serviceable third line player. These two players were nevertheless the best Vancouver GM Mike Gillis seemed to be able to get for a goalie who is among the upper echelon at the position and has played in both the Olympics and the Stanley Cup Finals. Potentially even worse than the poor return for Luongo is that if Gillis was so willing to deal Luongo for so little, he could have done so a year ago and kept Schneider as the team’s long-term goalie. Instead, Gillis’ mismanagement of his team’s greatest assets has cost his team both players and left the team with a significantly less secure goaltending situation with very little in return for it.
Like Luongo last year, Canucks center Ryan Kesler has recently demanded a trade, which Gillis was unable to execute. After seeing the tumultuous situation that resulted from Luongo’s dissatisfaction, as well as the pitiful return he received for him after a year of waiting, it would have seemed logical for Gillis to deal Kesler as soon as possible to maximize the return for him and cut off the situation before it festered and negatively affected the team. The Canucks have an aging forward corps with no rising stars coming up to replace them, especially after promising center Cody Hodgson was tragically mishandled and eventually dealt to Buffalo. It appears their window for Stanley Cup success is quickly slamming in their face, if it has not done so already. Unless they wish to face the same diminishing returns and eventual collapse that the Calgary Flames have suffered in recent years, it seems logical to deal Kesler, not only to appeal to his demands, but also to commence a larger rebuilding or retooling program and re-stock their pool of prospects. Instead, Gillis seems to be clinging to the hope that the Sedin twins will suddenly return to their top form, despite nearing 35 years of age, or that Lack will transform into an even better goalie than Luongo, or that the team remains a Western Conference power despite sitting two points out of a playoff spot.
Quite frankly, I feel that Gillis has completely failed in evaluating his team’s current play and future capability to win. If Gillis still has a job with the organization after this season, I would be shocked. For these reasons, I feel the Canucks are the biggest losers of the 2014 trade deadline, and face a long and ugly decline if they do not make radical changes to their management and overall strategy going forward.