10 NHL insights and observations: The salary cap owns trade deadline day

Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every Thursday, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL, and perhaps at times, the greater hockey world.

This week we look at the salary caps influence on deadline day, Vegas's struggles, Giroux choosing Florida, the Dadonov debacle and more.

1. Lack of parity did not mean more trades

We’ll start this week with the trade deadline. For roughly a month we've been wondering whether the lack of parity in the league would lead to more trades. In the Eastern Conference, the eight playoff teams are firmly set. Half of that conference could in theory consider themselves active sellers. At the same time, in the few weeks since writing about parity, the West had a number of teams climb into contention — at minimum to a point where they can reasonably consider themselves as potential playoff teams.

In the past 10 years, the average number of trades at the deadline is roughly 35. That includes a very down year due to COVID-19 of 16 deals. This year there was a total of… 33 trades. Sure, there were 12 trades on the weekend leading up to the trade deadline so it is a little misleading, but it wasn’t a massive series of moves that you maybe would expect given the standings. Teams like the New York Islanders, firmly out of the playoffs, made zero trades while the New Jersey Devils simply made a swap of Nate Schnarr and Andrew Hammond. The Columbus Blue Jackets made one trade. The list goes on.

The main takeaway, if anything, is that cap space rules the league now more than it perhaps ever has. As it turns out, the parity, or lack thereof, in the standings won’t dictate the number of trades we see. Cap space will.

This week we look at the NHL salary cap's influence on deadline day, Vegas's struggles, Giroux choosing Florida, the Dadonov debacle and more. (Getty)
This week we look at the NHL salary cap's influence on deadline day, Vegas's struggles, Giroux choosing Florida, the Dadonov debacle and more. (Getty) (Getty Images)

2. The Dadonov fiasco

Of course, we would be remiss if we discussed the trade deadline and did not bring up the Vegas-Ottawa-Anaheim fiasco involving Evgenii Dadonov’s no-trade clause. The biggest thing to emerge from all of this, to me, is that there’s no single source of truth where teams, agents or even players can submit their contract details, including no trade lists. Instead, teams are responsible for disclosing all information regarding clauses when registering a trade with NHL Central Registry. Years ago, you could see why this approach would make some sense. No-trade and no-movement clauses were rare.

I’ll never forget the pure chaos of Bryan McCabe having a no-movement clause and how the Toronto market was just beside themselves that they couldn’t do anything with him without his permission — it was a relatively new concept at the time. The famed Muskoka Five became a lightning rod topic in the market. Now, players are regularly receiving some form of modified no-trade or no-movement clause because at the very least, if they can’t dictate where exactly they’d like to go, at the very least they can clearly dictate where they absolutely do not want to go. Which is what Dadonov did.

There are just too many clauses added to contracts now to possibly expect every single team and/or player to manage them independently. The NHLPA can’t possibly allow this process to continue because their clients can quite clearly be vulnerable through no fault of their own. How the league chooses a path forward to ensure (or at least try to ensure) this doesn’t happen again will be fascinating. Chalking it up to an extenuating circumstance that won’t happen again would be a disappointing response, to say the least.

3. Brassard has a chance at a record

One of the more under the radar notes from trade deadline day is that Derick Brassard is joining his 10th team. That puts him in a tie for second for most teams played on by a player. The all-time leader is Mike Sillinger with 12 teams.

Brassard turns 35 in September, but he has had a reasonably productive season when he has played with 16 points in 31 games. Certainly, he has shown enough so far for a team to trade for him and to show that he can still play in the league next season should he want to continue. Brassard has 117 playoff games to his name (including a Stanley Cup final appearance with the New York Rangers and a run to Game 7 overtime in the Eastern final with the Ottawa Senators) and has 68 points in those games. If the Oilers make the playoffs and he gets into games, he has a chance to further solidify that he can keep playing in the league.

What an interesting career for the sixth overall draft pick in 2006 — he has played 936 regular season games and put up 519 points, but he has only hit 20-plus goals once, and only hit 60 points once. He was a centrepiece in a trade that saw the Blue Jackets exchange him for Marian Gaborik, and then again when the Rangers traded him for Mika Zibanejad.

4. Giroux choosing Florida

Found it particularly interesting that Claude Giroux only had eyes for one team. Florida is having an excellent season and is among the top tier of contenders in the league. Any player serious about winning should be interested in playing there. But they weren’t the only legitimate contenders interested in him. Just speculating here, but you can see why he might not want to go to the Bruins or Rangers — there is a lot of history there for Giroux as rival franchises. The Avalanche are not in that boat, though.

Two things stood out. The first is that if he goes to the Avalanche, he’s probably not playing on the top line because the Avs have an elite top unit with high-end players at all positions. On Florida, he instantly went to play with Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe. That matters to players of that caliber, they don’t just want to be along for the ride. The second thing I was interested in is whether the Panthers played the Flyers this season and how they did. Perhaps that swayed Giroux to some degree, depending how the games went. Turns out, they played each other three times already this season and the Panthers won all three. It’s not as if the Panthers completely crushed them overall, as the scores were 2-1, 4-2 and 6-3 but it sure helps make a statement when you go 3-for-3 against the player’s team you’re trying to sway to come to your side. I’m sure the great weather helps too.

5. Predators… won the Gaustad trade?

Rather than go through a bunch of trades that just happened, thought it would be interesting to look back at some trades that happened in years past and see how they played out. It is something we don’t do enough in the sporting world at large. Even though we regularly hear that trade 'X' will need years to see how they played out, how often are we really going back and reviewing trades compared to making a quick judgement and sticking with it? One of the most talked about “fleecings” from trade deadline is when the Nashville Predators traded a first round draft pick for Paul Gaustad and a fourth round draft pick. The thinking at the time was they were a contender, which they were. They finished fifth in points that season. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter were two of the best defensemen in the league and Pekka Rinne was one of the best goalies in the league.

They spent a valuable pick on Gaustad even though Martin Erat ended up leading their team in scoring that season with just 58 points in 71 games. Then they promptly lost in the second round. Interestingly enough, though, is what became of those draft picks. The Sabres actually packaged the draft pick to the Calgary Flames, along with a second round draft pick, to move up in the draft and select Zemgus Girgensons. The Flames used the second round pick to draft Patrick Sieloff and the original first moved to select Mark Jankowski. Meanwhile, the Predators used that fourth round draft pick to select… Juuse Saros. Ultimately, they netted out ahead all-around.

Saros is easily the best player among that group — and one of the best goalies in the league — and Gaustad is arguably the second best player among that group. And all that to say is, draft picks are lottery tickets! It’s statistically unlikely that the team acquiring the fourth is going to get the best player compared to two first round draft picks or a second round draft pick but the NHL draft is a total crapshoot. Teams should hoard as many draft picks they possibly can. Look at how many draft picks were moved on trade deadline day — it is interesting to see a number of fliers taken on fourth- and fifth-round picks. You can only win the lottery if you have a ticket. You might as well get as many as you can.

6. Swapping Hornqvist for Matheson

One of the more interesting, and at the time eyebrow raising, swaps was when the Florida Panthers traded Mike Matheson and Colton Sceviour to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist was in decline yet still productive while Matheson had completely fallen out of favour with the Panthers even though he was signed to a big contract. Beauty can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder, though. The Panthers are surely happy to be rid of the remaining term on Matheson’s contract, which has four more years left at $4.875 million. But Matheson is playing well for the Penguins. He’s averaging 18:33 per game and has put up nine goals and 25 points in 57 games so far. At 5v5 he has formed a solid pairing with Chad Ruhwedel, giving the Penguins fairly dependable minutes. On the flip side, Hornqvist had a fairly strong first season but has seen quite a bit of fourth line time for the Panthers this year. He is still producing, somewhat, with 23 points in 51 games, but he still has a year left on his contract at $5.3 million. I think both teams would argue they got what they wanted out of the trade, but neither team has really hit a homerun here.

7. Flames trading away Hamilton, Ferland and Fox for Lindholm and Hanifin

A trade that did hit a homer run? The Calgary Flames moving Dougie Hamilton with Michael Ferland and Adam Fox to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin. The Flames took a lot of heat for it at the time (no pun intended), but how has the traded turned out since? Hamilton and Ferland gave the Hurricanes three and one good-to-great seasons, respectively.

The Hurricanes were unable to sign Fox (which was always the likely outcome), but they did turn him into two second-round draft picks. One of those picks was turned into a second- and third- round draft pick. The other was used outright. None of those draft selections have played in the NHL yet. Meanwhile, Lindholm and Hanifin are still in Calgary and playing prominent roles on one of the best teams in the league. Hanifin is second among Flames players in time-on-ice per game and is still just 25 years old. Lindholm is centering one of the best lines in hockey and leads all Flames forwards in time on ice per game. He is just 27. Both players are signed for two more years at cap hits under $5 million.

8. Blues still shuffling defense without Pietrangelo

Even though they are different handedness, couldn’t help but think back to the Blues negotiation with Alex Pietrangelo. It's always been framed as both sides tried and were unable to come to terms. If you read the tea leaves though, a bit of a different picture is painted. To start what was ultimately Pietrangelo's last season with the Blues, Doug Armstrong acquired Justin Faulk and, shortly after doing so, announced a massive extension. He is a right-handed defenseman, like Pietrangelo, and St. Louis had Colton Parayko, another right-handed defenseman, already in place.

When free agency opened, before Pietrangelo officially signed in Vegas, they locked in Torey Krug to a massive contract. At the deadline this season they acquired Nick Leddy to help round out their unit. Whether they had Pietrangelo or not you could understand the need for Leddy since they play different sides. It’s an interesting all-around shift as they traded for Marco Scandella at the deadline in Pietrangelo's last season and signed him to a notable extension. But in all of that shuffling they still felt the need to pay up a pretty decent prize including Oskar Sundqvist and a second round draft pick to acquire a defenseman to play high up their lineup – Leddy played just under 21 minutes in his debut. A lot of moving parts here for the Blues.

9. As Vegas struggles, a note on Tampa Bay performing without Kucherov

When Las Vegas traded for Jack Eichel and then placed Mark Stone on LTIR before activating him, there were a lot of comparisons to Tampa Bay from last season and how they handled Nikita Kucherov. The comparisons were understandable — two teams using LTIR to work around cap issues, trying to bide their time until the playoffs when there is no cap to worry about. At that time, the expectation would be, like with Tampa Bay and Kucherov, that they would get their healthy lineup — one that is way over the cap — and go on a lengthy run.

As I write, Las Vegas is outside of a playoff spot altogether and in serious danger of missing the postseason at this point. As we saw with the attempted Dadonov trade, they are now desperately trying to clear cap space to get some of their better players back in the lineup (this is a player they traded a third-round pick to acquire about eight months ago, then tried packaging a second-rounder to offload). All that to say is Tampa Bay should probably get a little more respect for playing the entire season without Kucherov (and Steven Stamkos for a good chunk of time), performing fairly well, and then doing what they did in the playoffs. They finished third in their division, but they were tied for eighth overall in points and finished seventh in goal differential.

In the last full 82-game season before COVID-19 started curtailing things, Kucherov led the league in scoring. In what we will call the “bubble” season, he led all players in points in the playoffs. The following season that he missed, he returned and led all skaters in playoff points by a relative mile… he had 32 points in 23 games and the next highest scorer was Brayden Point with 23 in 23. I’m sure a lot of people would prefer not to give Tampa Bay much credit given the way they worked around the cap en route to a championship, but that’s a really impressive team and results while missing arguably their best player and one of the best players in the league. Making the playoffs while missing star talent is hard to do, as Vegas is seeing.

10. Springtime hockey is here!

Whether it’s talking about how the league schedules their games (too many starting at the same time!), new jersey designs, promoting the star talent across the league or acknowledging exciting playoff races happening, I try to use this space to discuss the overall state of the league in some capacity.

It’s important that we talk about the game as a whole because I want to see it grow and get more fans – it’s a great sport and if you’re reading this column, you’ve likely been hooked in by how fun and entertaining it can be to follow. That’s why, over the past few weeks, whether it has been the trade deadline, or watching a heated Carolina and Tampa Bay game that ended with benches clearing, or an action packed Dallas – Edmonton game as the Stars rally to climb into a playoff spot, or James Reimer shutting the door on a Calgary attempt to tie the game with the goalie pulled, or simply just packed arenas that are starting to get really loud as rosters are officially settled and playoffs are around the corner.

There is a lot of fantastic hockey right now, a full season appears on its way to completion, and the atmosphere in the arenas is really starting to pick up. We should do more to acknowledge and enjoy how great this time of the season is in the hockey calendar. This is just my attempt to highlight, and somewhat celebrate, how great this time of year is for hockey and to express all the excitement I can for the hockey that’s still to come.

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