We’re not yet a month into the new year, and trade rumors are among the hot topics being discussed around the NHL.
OK, rumors about where Ilya Kovalchuk is headed. There are rumblings that the Capitals might be in the hunt for the prolific winger, and since we have as uninformed a perspective on this as those who originally promulgated and continue to promulgate such rumors, we thought we would scribble a few dozen lines about it.
First, let us just say that we don’t have much use for rental of high end players. Since there is only one Stanley Cup to be had, the numbers argue that it is not all that likely that such an investment in trade is going to result in a Stanley Cup. Then there is what a team has to give up to get such an asset back. The risk is that in going all in on such a trade, you have to move a considerable amount of your future in terms of picks or prospects. Although as we’ll see, this doesn’t usually end up being the case, either.
Which leads us to the question, just what might it take to pry Ilya Kovalchuk away from the Thrashers? That kind of analysis is difficult, given the many moving parts in such a deal (mostly in terms of other teams that will be competing for his services). But perhaps there is something in history that provides a clue.
Swapping out an elite player is not common in the NHL, but it does happen. Kovalchuk’s situation is perhaps unique (and we will get to that), but not so much that it precludes a deal. What, then, is there in the history of trades involving elite talent since the lockout -- deadline and otherwise (plus another we will re-live) -- to suggest what sort of price the Capitals might have to pony up to obtain the services of Ilya Kovalchuk? Here goes, most recent first…
Trade 1: June 27, 2009 – The Calgary Flames obtained Jay Bouwmeester from the Florida Panthers for Jordan Leopold and a third round draft pick in 2009.
The formula: Trade rights to negotiate with an impending unrestricted free agent for a reduction in salary cap (Leopold and Bouwmeester play the same position, but Leopold has a $4.93 million lower cap hit this year).
This is not a trade deadline deal, but it does involve a player on whom the clock was ticking with respect to a deal. Florida was facing the loss of Bouwmeester with no return in a matter of days, this coming as a result of having competed for (unsuccessfully) a playoff spot that previous spring. Trading Bouwmeester at the deadline would have put the Panthers in a weaker position to compete for a playoff spot. The return, given the pressure to make a deal here, might seem a bit thin, especially since Leopold is himself an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year (he was an impending free agent himself last summer and signed a one-year deal with Florida). Is there a winner here? Well, Bouwmeester is on a pace to finish with his lowest goals and points totals since his second season (2003-2004: 2-18-20), although he does lead Calgary defensemen in ice time and plus-minus. Leopold looks to be on a pace for points that is consistent with his career averages thus far. The question then is whether Florida re-signs him or trades him at the deadline. If Leopold isn’t traded and leaves as an unrestricted free agent this summer, the Panthers’ return on this trade is a third round draft pick (they selected Josh Birkholz).
Trade 2: September 12, 2009 – The San Jose Sharks acquired Dany Heatley and a 5th round draft pick from the Ottawa Senators for Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo, and a 2nd round draft pick.
The formula: Established players (both with more than 300 games of NHL experience at the time of the trade) and a mid-round pick. What Ottawa got was a “safe” return in Michalek (three consecutive 20-plus goal seasons) and a “gamble” in Cheechoo (whose goal scoring had dropped from 56 to 12 in three seasons). Heatley more or less got what he was reported to have wanted – a move to San Jose.
This was neither a trading deadline deal, a free-agent eve deal, nor even a rental. Heatley had a contract that encumbers $7.5 million of cap room through the 2013-2014 season. But this was an instance of a player who publicly wanted to move, putting pressure on the Senators to make a deal. The return for the Senators in this deal was for two players who combined did not have the career goals or points Heatley had at the time of the trade in about 250 more career games than Heatley had. It seems to have worked out for Ottawa so far – addition by subtraction, if you will. The Senators are in fifth place in the East so far this season, a year after finishing a disappointing 11th in the conference. As for the Sharks, this trade can’t be evaluated until the Sharks’ body of work is complete for this year. So far, Heatley is putting up numbers one is accustomed to seeing over his career (30-26-56 in 53 games and points in 15 of his last 18 games through January 23rd). But this is the regular season, and Sharks putting up numbers – as a team and individually – in the regular season isn’t exactly unusual.
Trade 3: March 4, 2009 -- The Calgary Flames acquired Olli Jokinen and a 2009 3rd round draft pick from the Phoenix Coyotes for Matthew Lombardi, Brandon Prust, and a conditional 2009 or 2010 1st round draft pick.
The formula: A couple of mid-20’s guys, one a competent role player (Lombardi might be thought of as a reliable 50-point-a-year or so forward), the other filling a specific physical role. The draft pick that Calgary acquired in this trade was packaged with other assets to obtain Jay Bowmeester from Florida.
At the time of the trade, Jokinen was in the midst of a 21-21-42 season in Calgary. This was a disappointment given that he had 30-plus goals in four of the previous five seasons in Florida and was in his prime (31 years old). The price for Jokinen reflected his somewhat diminished star. Matthew Lombardi was a solid, if expendable, 26-year old forward with (at the time) almost 350 games of NHL experience who might be expected contribute 15-20 goals and perhaps 45-50 points on a full-season basis. Brandon Prust, a 2004 third-round draft pick of Calgary in his first full season with the Flames, had missed 31 games in that 2008-2009 season with a broken jaw. Oddly enough, he’s back in Calgary this season. What he is, is more a pugilist (14 fights this season, for example) than a top-six (or top-nine) forward).
Trade 4: February 26, 2008 -- The Pittsburgh Penguins acquired F Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis from the Atlanta Thrashers for F Colby Armstrong, F Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a 2008 1st round draft pick.
The formula: Pick and prospects for a player.
Hossa is perhaps the single biggest trading deadline piece to be moved in this decade, coincidentally from Atlanta. At the time of the trade he had come off a 100-point season to post a 26-30-56 line in 60 games with the Thrashers. He had six consecutive 30-plus goal seasons and was on his way toward a seventh (he wouldn’t make it, getting only three in 12 games with the Penguins).
The return was essentially for role players and hope. Christensen had bounced between Pittsburgh and the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm club for a couple of years, having played 143 games with the parent club at the time of the trade (33-33-66). Armstrong was in similar circumstances, having made the cross-state trip between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre for a couple of seasons, having played 181 games with Ptitsburgh at the time of the trade (37-61-98). The hope was in the form of Angelo Esposito, once considered a potential first-overall draft pick, but whose prospects sank as the 2007 draft approached, and a first round draft pick that could perhaps replenish the Thrasher loss in time with a top-six forward or a top-four defenseman. This ended up being something of a roman candle of a trade – one providing the brief fireworks of a Stanley Cup finals appearance for Hossa, but that ended up coming to a muddled end. Chirstensen was later sent to Anaheim, then moved to the Rangers, and has yet to play 50 games in a season. Armstrong has not yet topped his 40-point rookie season (in 47 games, playing much of the time alongside Sidney Crosby). Esposito is stuck in the Thrashers’ farm system and shows little sign of approaching the potential he had before the 2007 draft. The draft pick – Daultan Leveille – is a sophomore at Michigan State where he is the team’s fourth leading scorer.
Trade 5: February 27, 2007 -- The New York Islanders acquired F Ryan Smyth from the Edmonton Oilers for F Robert Nilsson, F Ryan O'Marra and a 1st round pick in 2007 (D Alex Plante).
The formula: More picks and prospects for a player.
Smyth was arguably the prize of the 2007 trading deadline, more perhaps for his leadership and intangibles as for his production. 31-year old at the time, he was in the midst of a 31-22-53 season (in 53 games) with the Oilers when the call came to pack his bags. It was his second straight 30-goal season, but what he might have been better known for was for being “Captain Canada,” a product of having been named multiple times as captain of Team Canada in international competitions.
The price at the time looked rather steep. Nilsson was a former first round pick (15th overall in 2003) who was wrapping up his first year on Long Island (53 games, 6-14-20). O’Marra was another former first round pick (15th overall in 2005). Then there was another first round pick to come, the 2007 pick that was used to select Alex Plante (yes, 15th overall). In retrospect, though, it is another of those trades that hasn’t left a lasting footprint. Smyth’s Islanders did get to the playoffs, but the stay was short (a five-game loss to Buffalo). He then went to Colorado and is now in Los Angeles. Nilsson – now 25 – has yet to produce at a level one might expect of a 15th overall pick (17 points and a minus-18 in 35 games for the Oilers this year). O’Marra saw his first NHL action this year (one assist in three games). Plante is spending his first year as a pro in Springfield of the AHL.
Trade 6: February 25, 2007: Atlanta obtained Keith Tkachuk from St. Louis for Glen Metropolit, Atlanta's 1st round draft pick in the 2007 entry draft (later traded to Calgary - Calgary selected Mikael Backlund) 3rd round pick in the 2007 entry draft (Brett Sonne), and Atlanta's 1st round draft pick in the 2008 entry draft (later traded back to Atlanta - Atlanta selected Zach Bogosian) and 2nd round pick in the 2008 entry draft (Philip McRae).
The formula: Picks – lots of ‘em – for a player.
Was Atlanta desperate? The Thrashers had not reached the playoffs in any of their first six seasons in the league. They were in a dogfight with Tampa Bay for the Southeast Division title (with its automatic top-three berth) and a couple of other teams lurking at the edge of the playoffs. After the trade, the Thrashers finished the season 12-5-1 to capture the top spot in the Southeast. Tkachuk was 7-8-15 in 18 games with Atlanta, but the Thrashers were then swept in four games by the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. Tkachuk had a goal and two assists in the four games. It was a brief marriage – Tkachuk was traded back to St. Louis the following June on the eve of the beginning of the unrestricted free agent signing period. Atlanta obtained the 2008 first-rounder they surrendered in the original deal and drafted Zach Bogosian with the pick.
Atlanta got eight weeks of Keith Tkachuk’s services for Glen Metropolit, Brett Sonne (currently with Peoria in the AHL), Philip McRae (currently with Plymouth in the OHL), and a pick that was parlayed into Ian Cole (currently at Notre Dame in the NCAA). If you think making the playoffs for this franchise was worth a roll of the dice, then this trade might have been worth it. But the return is iffy in the longer term.
Trade 7: July 11, 2001 – The Washington Capitals acquired Jaromir Jagr and Frantisek Kucera from the Pittsburgh Penguins for Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, Ross Lupaschuk and future considerations.
The formula: Dump disgruntled player with huge contract you can’t afford for anything you can get.
This was not a deadline deal, although it might have seemed that way to the Penguins, who had a disgruntled asset to whom they owed a lot of money on the upcoming year of his contract, and not the sort of cash flow that was compatible with such obligations. It was the classic player-in-his-prime-for-prospects formula (with a heapin’ helpin’ of contract dump thrown in). Jagr was the consensus pick at the time as the best player in the game, and the Caps had a trio of second round picks who projected at the time as solid, if not elite, NHL players. At the time of the trade, Kris Beech had played in only four games with the Caps (no points), neither Sivek nor Lupaschuk had yet played a professional game at any level in North America. The only player in that deal who remotely fulfilled his promise was Frantisek Kucera, who played in 56 games for the Caps in what would be his last NHL season (1-13-14, plus-7).
To say the trade did not work out for either team is understatement on steroids. Jagr spent two-plus years in Washington that was replete with misery – for him and for Caps fans – before being shipped to the Rangers. Sivek and Lupaschuk spent a grand total of 41 games in the NHL for their careers combined (it seems unlikely either will add to their total). Beech found himself deep on the Penguins’ depth chart, and except for a 79-game season in the year after the trade, could not play himself higher on that depth chart. After three years in Pittsburgh (with stays in the AHL), he bounced around – Nashville, Washington (again), Columbus, Vancouver, and finally Pittsburgh (again).
This might not be a comprehensive look at deadline deals and trades for high-end talent, but it does seem representative of the deals involving high end talent since the lockout (with a look back at that Caps experience thrown in). Is there anything we can divine from this in consideration of a possible Ilya Kovalchuk trade and the sort of return the Caps might have to send to Atlanta if this came to pass? Well, Atlanta has been both a buyer (of Keith Tkachuk) and a seller (Marian Hossa) at the deadline since the lockout, and there might be clues in those deals of what they value.
The Thrashers received prospects in return for Marian Hossa, not picks. There is presumably less risk here, because you have seen players already drafted at a further stage of maturity. If anything, this is idea of valuing prospects more than picks is reinforced in the earlier deal in which they were a buyer, giving up four draft picks (including two firsts) for Keith Tkachuk.
Ilya Kovalchuk, if traded, will be the most elite talent to be moved at the trading deadline since the lockout. He is unique in this regard in that he is a franchise player who is on the block. A player in his prime with five consecutive 40-plus goal seasons (with this one appearing to be a lock for a sixth) being made available doesn’t happen often. If there is a knock on Kovalchuk, it has been that he plays a 125-foot game, not spending much time or effort in the defensive zone. But even here he is improving, adding to his value (after seven straight “minus” seasons to start his career, he is in plus territory this year).
But the risk is that Kovalchuk will be – like Hossa and Tkachuk in Atlanta’s previous deals – a pure rental, departing the team to which he is traded when the unrestricted free agent signing period opens in July. This, plus the experience of other high-end talent deals described here and the limited number of teams that might be in a position assume his current contract under the salary cap for the rest of this season, suggests that for all the hoopla over the past several months (and that surely will increase until such time as he is traded) the return will not be as high as is being forecast.
What does that mean for the Caps? Well first, forget any Kovalchuk for Semin nonsense. We would bet a shiny nickel right now that the Thrashers are not going to be getting back anything resembling established elite talent (especially a gifted offesnive player such as Semin, who would be an unrestricted free agent next summer). We are going to surmise that the return for Kovalchuk in the end will be a first round draft pick and two, perhaps three prospects (none of which will be the highest available from the trading partner for Atlanta). Such a trade might look like this…
Ilya Kovalchuk and a third round draft pick
- for -
Washington’s first round pick in the 2010 entry draft, Oskar Osala, Mathieu Perreault, and Dmitri Orlov.
But frankly, we don’t see Kovalchuk wearing a Capitals sweater, in March or in the future. We see him as a Thrasher for the next ten years.