Antoine Vermette (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Pending unrestricted free agents such as Antoine Vermette of the Phoenix Coyotes will be the most sought-after players at this year's trade deadline. With so much uncertainty surrounding the salary cap, teams don't seem too keen to take on long-term deals.
One NHL general manager has gone over the players that are available prior to the trade deadline next Monday and has come to the conclusion that the laws of supply and demand will rule the day. And in this case it’s great news for the sellers because the demand outstrips the supply.
“I see a lot of guys out there who are Tier II players that teams will pay Tier I prices to get,” he said. “And I include myself in that. Of course I’d never say I overpaid for a guy, but yeah, if I get one of those guys I’ve probably had to overpay for him.”
Another GM who has been through countless deadlines says this one looks like almost every other one that has preceded them in the past 10 years in that it always looks like it will be a quiet day, but then the deals start coming fast and furious and at the end of the day you’re amazed at how many transactions come together.
As always, teams are facing a fair bit of unpredictability leading up to the deadline, in part because there is so much uncertainty surrounding where the salary cap will be next season. With the declining Canadian dollar and the NHL Players’ Association uncertain about whether it wants to trigger the five percent inflator next season to avoid players playing higher escrow payments, it seems some teams could be shying away from taking on long-term contracts at the deadline.
That decision will not be made by the NHLPA until probably sometime in June. If it does not trigger the inflator, it would certainly have a significant impact on what teams can spend next season. The league is counting on a salary cap of about $71 million, but without the inflator, that could drop the cap as low as $67.5 million.
But as another GM pointed out, perhaps that will cause some of the teams that are near the upper limit of the cap to trade away some of their higher priced players on long-term deals to teams with cap room to avoid being squeezed next summer.
The overall perception among GMs, though, is that short-term rentals will rule the market, as has been the case in recent years. “It seems the trade deadline is the time for rentals,” he said, “and the entry draft is the time for hockey trades.”
Now, there are exceptions, such as the recent blockbuster between the Buffalo Sabres and Winnipeg Jets. But when you look at most of the lists of players who are available prior to next Monday, almost all of them are on expiring contracts. It seems as though teams are more and more intent on keeping their powder dry until the summer, when the trade market opens up and free agency takes effect.
“When I look out there, I’m seeing a lot of bodies, but I’m not seeing a lot of impact,” one GM said. “There are some pretty good depth guys out there and some decent players, but nobody that’s going to knock your socks off.”
But many times that’s all it takes. Back in 1998, the Red Wings acquired defenseman Jamie Macoun for a fourth-round pick (that turned out to be Alexei Ponikarovsky), a player who ended up being a second-pairing defenseman for the Wings in the second Stanley Cup run. Two years ago, the Chicago Blackhawks traded a fourth-rounder for Michal Handzus, who ended up killing penalties and being a second-line center for them. In 2003, the Anaheim Ducks got Rob Niedermayer and Steve Thomas at the deadline, who were thought to be spare parts.
“I remember people laughed at me when I made those trades,” said Bryan Murray, the Ottawa Senators GM who was GM of the Ducks at the time. “Even (then Flames coach) Darryl Sutter told me at the time, ‘He doesn’t have much left in the tank, but he’ll play hard for you.’ Well, Rob Niedermayer scored 10 points for us in the playoffs that year.”
Just as importantly, Niedermayer stayed in Anaheim, which was a major reason why his brother and Hall of Famer Scott elected to go there when he hit free agency three years later. And in part because he was there, the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007.
There could be some big trades involving players with significant term left on their deals, but the most likely are pending unrestricted free agents such as Antoine Vermette, Jeff Petry, Andrej Sekera, Jiri Tlusty, Jaromir Jagr and Zbynek Michalek. There could be some deals for players with one year remaining, Ryan O’Reilly or Keith Yandle for example, but there’s a chance the trade with the most impact will be made with little or no fanfare.
(Personal prediction on that front: Scott Gomez.)