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Tom Lynn's Blog: The great deadline debate - what to do with UFAs?

Allowing Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to walk for nothing rather than trade them at the deadline was a good more for the Sabres in both the short- and long-term. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

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Allowing Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to walk for nothing rather than trade them at the deadline was a good more for the Sabres in both the short- and long-term. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

At every trade deadline, there are buyers and there are sellers. The few teams that can claim a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup are at the top of the “buying” spectrum, while at the other end, teams well out of a playoff spot will try to brighten their futures by moving NHL-ready players to contenders for draft picks and prospects.

It is the rest of the teams that are full of angst. These teams are not sure if they are out or if they still have a shot to make the playoffs. If they do make the post-season, are they good enough to advance out of the first round? Management does not want to signal a surrender to their fans or their team by trading away key players, but also do not want a disappointing end to the season without improving their chances for the following one.

For these “to be or not to be” teams, one of the oft-repeated maxims they will face regarding pending unrestricted free agents is “you can’t lose him for nothing.” In other words, the GM should sign a pending free agent or trade him for value, but if the season ends with unspent money in the bank in the form of untraded free agents, he has failed.

But for the teams that make the playoffs, is it really so bad to choose current success over a draft pick that might help the team years down the road?

Look at the trade deadline decisions of some of the recent conference champions. In 2009, should Pittsburgh have traded away free agents Petr Sykora, Miroslav Satan and Hal Gill? They might have traded away the Stanley Cup if they did. All of them eventually left the team, though. On the other side, the Detroit Red Wings lost in the final and watched Marian Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson bolt after the season. Would the Wings give up that experience for a shorter season and two players who may not make their roster for three seasons, if at all?

At the 2008 trade deadline, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a mess of potential UFAs on their team and had been unable to sign them. But the fans in Pittsburgh hadn’t seen their team make it out of the first round in five seasons, missing the playoffs four times in a row and finishing in or near the basement.

GM Ray Shero took the risk of losing all his UFAs for “nothing” and even acquired another one at the deadline in the form of Hossa. When the Penguins eventually lost in the Stanley Cup final, Ryan Malone and Hossa left to continue their careers elsewhere. Even with 20/20 hindsight, it would have been ludicrous to trade Malone and not acquire Hossa – the two combined for 42 playoffs points – and instead promise “next year” for Pens fans. Obviously, Shero (with an assist from Super Mario) made the right choice.

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Even for teams that do not make it all the way to the final, keeping certain free agents at the trade deadline can be very important for team success, continuity and the relationship with fans.

When I was with the Minnesota Wild in 2007-08, some criticized management for not trading Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra at the trade deadline, as both players did not re-sign with the team after the season. The Wild won its first Northwest Division title that year, allowing its fans to see the first banner in history raised to the rafters at Xcel Energy Center after making the playoffs for the second season in a row – a huge accomplishment among the four teams from the most recent expansion. It is hard to believe those same fans would have wanted to give that experience up for two third round picks, which years later would have had an outside chance of helping the team.

The epitome of scorn for losing UFAs instead of trading them has to be Chris Drury and Daniel Briere leaving the Buffalo Sabres after a Conference final appearance in 2007. Team ownership and management was pilloried locally and nationally for allowing these two elite players to escape for much more money in bigger markets (New York and Philadelphia). Three years have given us more perspective. Not trading the pair was crucial for the Sabres that year, as the two played a part in more than half of the Sabres’ 298 goals that season and were even more important in their run to the Conference final. Without them, the Sabres may not have even made the playoffs or at least would have struggled to get out of the first round.

Passing on Drury and Briere after the season allowed Buffalo GM Darcy Regier the ability to retain 40-goal man Thomas Vanek and also to re-sign Tim Connolly and key young players Derek Roy, Paul Gaustad and Jason Pominville to long-term contracts.

Meanwhile, the free agent contracts of Drury and Briere have left both of their teams cap-challenged, while the on-ice contributions of the 30-somethings has declined. In the end, it is clear there are circumstances where it is better for a GM to keep his veterans for a stretch run and playoffs and let them go for “nothing” (except team success), rather than to go for the two birds in the bush.

Tom Lynn served for nine seasons as assistant GM of the Minnesota Wild and for six seasons as GM of the Houston Aeros. Prior to that he was an attorney in New York representing the NHL and other sports entities in a wide variety of legal matters and has taught Sports Law at St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota. Read more from Lynn HERE.

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