On trading declining superstars (Trending Topics)

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On trading declining superstars (Trending Topics)
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Shea Weber is a four-time NHL All-Star who has finished top-eight in the Norris voting six times in his 10-year career. He is very, very good.

But the question of how much longer that will be the case has some in Nashville wondering whether he's in decline, and has others elsewhere, including our own Josh Cooper, advocating for a trade. Weber has been the face of the Predators for so long at this point that such a scenario seems impossible. Seeing Weber on another team would feel somehow wrong, given that he's been with the Predators since there was a salary cap.

While no one is saying Weber isn't still very good, it's clear that his best years are almost behind him; we have enough information about how players age to know that rugged defenders — even those who fill the net, and Weber basically guarantees you a goal total in the mid-teens from the blue line — start losing steam around that age, and two or three years on from that, you start to see the bottom drop out on plenty of guys.

That's not to say Weber doesn't have three, four, five, or more years left of being a high-quality defenseman in the NHL — Zdeno Chara, for instance, is still very, very good at 38 (though his peak was much better than Weber's) — but that is to say that he's probably also not going to be what we think of as Shea Weber-quality for that long. The thing is, NHL teams mostly seem to start thinking, “Maybe we should trade this franchise cornerstone,” when they get into their low- or mid-30s. By then a bit of the shine has started to come off the guy's game, but he's still usually regarded as a quality addition to whichever team trades for him. With that in mind, then, one has to wonder whether it's time to start thinking about trades of even elite players right around their 30th birthday. 

The idea of trading players within a few months of their 30th birthday — Weber hits the big three-oh on Aug. 14 — is an intriguing one. Would David Poile immediately get back fair value for him? No, simply because there are few defensemen in the league as good as Weber (though I'd argue he's a bit overrated because of his goal totals). But if you can get top-end prospects and young roster players who likewise have reasonably high ceilings, then there is a long-term benefit. Given the way the cap work, you probably also have to take back a veteran on a middling deal, but that's the cost of doing business. The net impact is “worse team now, potentially better team three years from now.”

The issue for the Predators is a simple one: To some extent their loss to Chicago in the first round last season is not an indicator of their overall quality (i.e. they're better than several teams across the league that made it to the second round, and beyond). But at the same time, they're clearly not on the level of some of the elite teams in this league because, well, most aren't. While a team with a goaltender as good as Pekka Rinne can certainly fluke its way past any team no matter how overmatched it “should” be, if you were making a list of the top eight or so teams in the league, I'm not sure Nashville would be on it.

And so the question becomes whether Poile wants to carry Weber on the roster — paying him huge money against the cap — in the early stages of his decline. The thing Cooper said yesterday about, “Why wait to find out if his down year as a 29-year-old is an aberration or part of a trend that's only going to pick up steam?” rings true here. The value he could fetch by auctioning off Weber isn't likely to get much higher than it is right now. Again, a “down year” for him was a 15-goal season in which he was a (marginally) positive possession player. Most teams take that kind of down year for their best defenseman and walk away smiling.

The problem you have to acknowledge is that the market for a player such as Weber is going to be limited unless you're taking plenty of bad-contract money back (or retain salary). If teams in the market for a defenseman are having trouble figuring out whether they can squeeze Cody Franson into their payroll structure, making almost $7.86 million work is obviously not going to get easier. But it also shouldn't be like the Dougie Hamilton situation, where afterward teams said they didn't even know it was available, so there would be a market at the end of the day.

This thought process, of course, doesn't just apply to Weber and Nashville. The Toronto Maple Leafs recently traded Phil Kessel, who will be 28 on Oct. 2 but is signed until he's 33. They got to cut bait on Kessel early because he's a shall we say polarizing player, and they're going to be pretty bad for a few years. Was the return as good as it could have been? Probably not, but we also don't know the full extent of its value yet. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins are desperately plugging away at getting back to true Stanley Cup contention (and, it must be said, doing a pretty decent job of it this summer) before Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin hit their 30s. The latter turns 29 today, Crosby 28 a week from Saturday. The window won't be open forever.

Again, that's not to say Kessel or Malkin or Crosby won't provide significant value into their 30s, given the high level of quality from which they start, but their perceived value will likely outstrip their actual on-ice contributions starting around that time. As we've seen plenty of times before, elite players tend to retain far greater-than-average value long after their 30th birthdays, but you'd trade the Zdeno Chara of today for the Zdeno Chara of 2010 in a heartbeat, and for good reason. 

There was an argument on Marek vs. Wyshynski a few weeks ago about whether the Edmonton Oilers, hypothetically, should trade Connor McDavid for Sidney Crosby, straight-up. The idea is preposterous, obviously, because this is a cap league and you want to have low-price contributors for as long as possible. If Jim Rutherford calls with that trade proposal, Peter Chiarelli should hang up before he got to the second N in “Connor.” Which isn't to say that Crosby is worse than McDavid — he is, in fact, indisputably better because his career-worst NHL points per game was this season, and he still scored 84 in 77 — but the Oilers are nowhere near contendership and thus a trade such as that doesn't make sense. But the opposite way? Rutherford would deserve to be fired if he turned that trade down. McDavid is probably at least as valuable as an 18-year-old Crosby (or more so depending upon whom you believe) and will therefore be an excellent contributor for the next decade or more. Because of how aging works, you cannot say the same about Crosby.

Smart GMs are good at their jobs because they can not only assess the talent on their teams, but also because they can exploit weaknesses in other general managers. To return to the “trade Weber” scenario, if Poile sees something in Weber's game that leads him to believe last season's down year is the first of several to come, then finding a trade partner now is crucial. Many executives might be willing to gamble on Weber after one bad year, but two might allow them to start to see a bit more of the wear and tear of a decade-plus in the league. Then the value of the return goes down, and you're probably left just hoping someone takes that monster contract (payable until Weber is 40!) off your hands and you're lucky to get much of actual value in return.

Obviously, if you're close to a Cup, this sort of thought process doesn't enter your mind. Under circumstances that weren't forced by the cap Chicago, for instance, probably wouldn't consider trading, say, Patrick Sharp despite the fact that he's probably in decline; what they got back probably doesn't help keep them at quite so high a level in the near term. They also didn't think about trading Marian Hossa for similar reasons; Hossa is incredibly valuable even in his advanced years, but for how much longer remains to be seen. 

This, interestingly, is why the San Jose Sharks should have tried to retain Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau when they initially considered shopping them last summer; they weren't getting any younger, but were it not for Doug Wilson's ludicrous pursuit of toughness, or leadership, or grit, or “hard-to-play-against,” or whatever you want to call it, the team as a whole probably wasn't going to be any better than it was. This summer, with the Sharks now looking totally done-for as a true competitor for the Cup, Wilson should be having plenty of trade talks for both. In fact, he might even be regretting not-trading them last summer.

Player valuation is a complicated game, and getting the right return for (insert star veteran here) is not easy. But on occasion, it might be necessary, especially given the constraints of the salary cap. If you were a GM, would you trade Weber this summer? Probably not. But you might come to rue that decision in relatively short order as well. And that's why at least considering it is vital. No one over the age of 28 should be untouchable in the right circumstances.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)

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