Yes, after a bit of winter ‘hibernation’, the Eye is back! I’ll have baseball previews coming up as well as a closer look at the NHL playoffs, but today let’s talk NHL trades.
Monday was the trade deadline for the league, and as usual there was a flurry of activity – both at the deadline and in the days leading up to it. I’ll break down the teams I think were the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, and take an especially close look at the Penguins’ trades.
Philadelphia – yes, the Flyers had a VERY good day. They correctly decided to be sellers rather than buyers, and they got an exorbitant return for defenseman Braydon Coburn. Coburn is average to slightly above – at best – yet the Flyers managed to get first-and third-round draft picks for him, along with a bottom end defenseman in Radko Gudas. This followed their Friday trade of defenseman Kimo Timonen to Chicago for 2nd and 4th-round picks…which seems like a fair return, until you remember that Timonen has missed the ENTIRE SEASON with a blood clot issue (he played one game for Philly right before the trade).
In summation, Philly gave up an average defenseman and an aging (39), risky defenseman and got four draft picks in return – one in each of the first four rounds. This gives the Flyers seven of the top 101 picks in the upcoming draft, which is expected to be one of the deepest drafts in the past 10 years…and they still retain their core talent. Excellent work by GM Ron Hextall.
Detroit – the Wings are rarely ‘splashy’ and they NEVER mortgage the future for the present – but they consistently make subtle, solid upgrades. GM Ken Holland is the best in the business, and the main reason that Detroit has made the playoffs every season since 1990. Even more impressive, they’ve had a winning percentage over .600 every season since 2000 – except last year, when they ‘collapsed’ all the way to .567.
The trades for LW Erik Cole and D Marek Zidlicky are not going to ‘wow’ anyone, but Cole in particular fills a glaring need for the Wings – scoring depth. Detroit is transitioning from the Zetterberg-Datsyuk core (37 combined goals, 100 combined points in 2015) to the Tatar-Nyqvist core (46 goals, 90 points)…but the secondary scoring behind those four has been lacking. This move bolsters the second line without sacrificing their top prospects OR any top draft picks (they traded a 2nd round pick and two B-level prospects, but also got a 3rd round pick back from Dallas).
Zidlicky is a very mobile, albeit aging (38) defenseman. He’s not what he was, but he can still help a good team as a bottom-pair defenseman. More importantly, he represents a marginal upgrade for a very low cost (2016 3rd round draft pick). Once again, Detroit has managed to keep an eye on their prospects this season while keeping their draft/farm system basically intact.
Nashville – The Predators were quiet at the deadline, but they made their big move two weeks ago – acquiring defensemen Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson for a 1st round pick and two spare parts was a bold, aggressive move – one that the top overall team in the league needed to make. Nashville’s window is opening NOW and they were smart to take advantage. I think the team is still a year away from a Cup run, but the team needed to maximize their 2015 chances.
Honorable Mention: Washington (Curtis Glencross is EXACTLY what they needed), Winnipeg (minor moves yesterday, but trading clubhouse pariah Evander Kane – and getting back useful players PLUS a 1st round pick – was a GREAT deal for them), Toronto (They got good value for their expiring contracts, and they finally seem committed to a full rebuild).
NY Rangers – look, I get it – they were close a year ago and they want to take another big-time shot this year. I respect that…but defenseman Keith Yandle does NOT fit in with their defense-first plan. Yandle is an EXTREMELY skilled defenseman, but he is too aggressive and commits far too many turnovers. Making matters worse, the Rangers paid a steep price for him – a 2015 2nd round pick, a 2016 1st round pick, and two prospects (one of which, Duclair, is highly regarded by many scouts). I believe this trade makes the Rangers WORSE today – Yandle is the wrong answer for them – and much worse in the future. They’d have been far better off trading for either a solid stay-at-home defenseman like Michalek or even the forward the Pens acquired, Daniel Winnik.
Anaheim – I’m not really sure what their plan was…the Despres-Lovejoy trade looks like a play for the future from the Ducks’ side, and while James Wisniewski gives them a competent power play QB, the fact is they still have almost no scoring depth. Shut down Anaheim’s top line of Perry, Getzlaf, and Belesky and there are really no other ‘scary’ forwards on the team. The Ducks are leading the weak Pacific Division, but their goal differential suggests a team worse than their record – and with Getzlaf and Perry about to turn 30, the future is NOW for this team. They desperately needed to grab an impact forward…and they did not. I have a feeling this will haunt them when they play the Kings or Blues this spring.
Western Conference – For years all we’ve heard about is how strong the West is compared to the East. Well, I believe that time is over, for two reasons.
#1, look at the standings – the Pacific division is a JOKE, you have a fraudulent Anaheim team leading a pack of mediocrity. In the Central, the Predators and Blues are the real deal…but the Blackhawks have been shaky, and are now without top scorer Patrick Kane until at least the second round of the playoffs, maybe longer. The other Western playoff teams are not ready yet (many will talk about the Kings, but this time I think their regular-season struggles are a real indicator of team weakness). Meanwhile the East has six legit contenders – seven if you count the Capitals, a very dangerous team in a short series.
#2, the majority of trades this season have moved talent from the West to the East. Yandle, Perron, and Glencross are the headliners, but there have been plenty of lesser moves in the same vein. Plenty of Eastern contenders improved themselves, but precious few trades made Western teams appreciably better. Anything is possible in a short series, but whoever wins the East will be far better equipped to handle the Western champion than in recent seasons.
Boston (Their window is closing rapidly, the GM’s job is reportedly on the line, but the moves they made were minor and smacked of desperation); Tampa (they made a very good trade in sending out Brett Connolly to Boston for two 2nd rounders, but they gave that back and then some with the mystifying Coburn trade); LA (I know they’ve overcome slow starts to win two of the past three Cups, but this team needs fresh blood – if the playoffs started today, they’d be outside looking in – and they acted like they aren’t sure whether to buy or sell); San Jose (another team on the decline, they need at least a partial rebuild but instead they seem to be treading water).
Now, let’s look at what Pittsburgh has done. The biggest trade they made was actually consummated two months ago when they traded their 1st round pick to Edmonton for David Perron. They traded Marcel Goc for Maxim Lapierre three weeks later, and then last week they added Daniel Winnik for Zach Sill and two mid-round picks. Monday they made two more deals – they traded Robert Bortuzzo to the Blues for defenseman Ian Cole, and then right at the deadline they traded Simon Despres to Anaheim for Ben Lovejoy.
First, the big picture: in roughly eight months, GM Jim Rutherford has turned over 50% of the roster. The only players on the active roster who played in Game 7 against the Rangers last spring are Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Martin, Fleury, Kunitz, Sutter, Scuderi, and Craig Adams.
The bottom-six forwards in particular have been targeted for upgrade – last May the third line was Sutter, Brian Gibbons, and Lee Stempniak and the fourth line was Adams, Tanner Glass, and Joe Vitale. Today the third line is Sutter, Steve Downie and Winnik, while the fourth line has Beau Bennett, Max Lapierre, and Nick Spaling (with Adams in reserve). There’s simply no comparison here – the Pens are MUCH deeper up front than they were a year ago, and I’d argue that this fourth line is the best in Pittsburgh in the Crosby Era.
The defense was basically static much of the season, especially the Martin-Letang and Despres-Scuderi pairings. Monday’s trades changed that dramatically and it’s too early to say what the new pairings will be, other than the top pair of Letang-Martin staying together. The defense is more mobile today than it was Monday, but it’s smaller (Bortuzzo and Despres were each 6’4”, while Cole and Lovejoy are both 6’1”) and less physical (Despres and Bortuzzo led the Pens in hits). Initially I was very down on the Despres-Lovejoy trade, but then Dejan Kovacevic pointed out that both players are free-agents after next year…which means, unless the Pens plan to re-sign Despres, the age difference (23 vs. 31 for Lovejoy) is immaterial.
From that vantage point, if the Pens were determined to sacrifice size and toughness for experience and mobility, there’s no question they accomplished their goal – the more relevant (and fair) question is, was that an appropriate goal? I say no – Teams have been able to manhandle the Pens the past few postseasons, and while I wasn’t looking for Pittsburgh to become ‘Flyers West’, I WAS hoping the ‘sandpaper’ element would be intensified on this year’s edition. Downie and Lapierre fill that role, but Downie often goes ‘over the line’ and Lapierre simply isn’t on the ice much at even-strength. I personally believe that you need at least one or two big, rugged, nasty defensemen to keep things clean in front of your goalie and to ‘send a message’ when appropriate. Bortuzzo has his flaws, but he also was able to get in the heads of many opponents – Jagr comes to mind immediately.
More worrisome to me is the lack of concern for the future. In total, Rutherford has traded away this year’s first and fourth round picks, plus the 2016 second round pick. He has traded away a promising, if erratic, 23 year old defenseman. You cannot argue at all with the Perron trade – with 10 goals in two months, he’s been worth the first round pick for sure – but there was a certain continuity, especially on defense, that is now blown apart with only six weeks left until the playoffs. I’m not a fan of having THIS much turnover in-season, especially on the back end.
I think at this point we can all agree that regular-season results are meaningless, that for better or worse this team will be judged FAR more on what it does with its 4-to-30 playoff games than on the 82 regular season games. Having said that, I believe overall this team is better constructed for April and May than the past few editions were, and that’s ultimately a credit to the GM.
I like some of these moves and am more concerned about others, and I much prefer the Red Wings’ team-building style to the Pens’ – but I’m prepared to give the GM and the coaching staff the benefit of the doubt. In the end, playoff success rides not on these ancillary pieces, but on the performance of the ‘Big Four’ – Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Fleury are the core, the stars, and if they PLAY like stars this team is as good as any.
Next week the Eye will begin MLB previews, we will check back on the NHL in April.
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.