Wednesday, February 25, 2015

As the Trading Deadline Approaches, Beware What You Ask For

We are in the last week of the National Hockey League’s answer to the bazaar, the intra-league trading period that will expire at 3:00 p.m. (Eastern) on March 2nd.  Social and mainstream media are doing a volume business in passing along rumors, tid-bits, and opinions about who will go where, and for whom as the deadline approaches.

For the Washington Capitals, it likely means being a buyer in the 2015 market.  The Caps, who are in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and hold the first wild-card spot in the playoff rankings as of February 25th, have holes to fill and decisions to make with respect to roster players.  The big roster decision involves defenseman Mike Green, who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.  Green’s destiny is no doubt an interesting topic of discussion, but not one that we intend to pursue in this space.  Our focus today is on the history of roster trades in the modern era of Capitals hockey.

The “modern era” of Capitals hockey, defined here as that which started with the signing of George McPhee in June 1997, has a rich trading history.  In 15 trading deadline seasons (there was no such thing in the lost season of 2004-2005), the Caps have participated in no fewer than 50 deals (trades made within four weeks of the trading deadline), based on information gleaned from the Capitals Media Guide.  What is noteworthy about them is how few of consequence involved moving a roster asset (or more) in order to obtain a roster asset (or more).

Such deals are of particular interest here, not for the possible return, but for the assets that might be moved and the effects, some of which might not be anticipated.  When moving a current roster asset for improvement at the trading deadline, there is more than numbers at play.  The player (or players) moved have banked a lot of games, made a lot of contributions (or provided a lot of disappointment), and have made a mark in the locker room that they were about to leave.  This raises the touchy subject of “chemistry,” and whether the trade that looks so good on paper has the potential of blowing up in the team’s face because insufficient attention was paid to the effects moving a player might have on locker room dynamics or the effects the new player might have on same.

When one looks back at the history of trading deadline deals in Caps history, one notices that there have been few “roster-for-roster” deals in that history.  We found four (from the Capitals Media Guide).  Let us take them in chronological order (all trade information from

March 13, 2001 Caps acquired Trevor Linden, Dainius Zubrus and a 2nd round pick in the 2001 Entry Draft (later traded to Tampa Bay, Andreas Holmqvist) from Montreal for Jan Bulis, Richard Zednik and a 1st round pick in the 2001 Entry Draft (Alexander Perezhogin).

This is, bar none, the poster child of deals that looked good on paper and were something else on paper as it played out.  The run-up to this deal and its aftermath provide an interesting, and cautionary, historical context.  Starting with a win in Tampa against the Lightning on January 23rd, the Caps went 17-2-2 up to the trading deadline, including one of the more inspirational regular season games in their history, a 6-5 win over the Ottawa Senators in which the Caps trailed, 5-2, entering the third period (this was the Caps’ last game before the trading deadline).

At the time, the Caps had young assets in Jan Bulis or Richard Zednik (the players sent to Montreal), who were 22 and 25 years old at the time, respectively.  More important to the moment, both were making contributions for the Caps at the time.  In the 21-game run up to the trade, Bulis was 1-9-10 in 16 games; Zednik was 8-7-15 in all 21 games.

However, with a playoff run looming, getting veteran help was attractive, especially veterans with playoff experience.  Dainius Zubrus, who was just 22 years old himself at the time, was a veteran of 24 post season games with the Philadelphia Flyers, including a Stanley Cup final in 1997.  Trevor Linden was in his 13th season in the NHL, despite being just 30 years old, and had himself appeared in 73 post season games with the Vancouver Canucks, including a Stanley Cup final in 1994.  Even though Bulis and Zednik were roster players, the Caps were clearly trading futures for a chance to win at the moment.

It did not turn out as hoped.  The Caps lost the first five games they played after the trade (scoring only six goals and getting shut out twice), went 4-7-2 to end the regular season, and succumbed to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs in six games.  As for the new guys, Zubrus went 1-1-2, minus-4 in 12 regular season games and did not record a point in six post season games.  Linden went 3-1-4, plus-2 in 12 regular season games and did not register a goal in six post season games (he did have four assists).  For Linden it would be his lowest points contribution in the post season in his eight trips to the playoffs to date.

Even the aftermath was checkered in this deal.  Linden lasted 16 games into the following season with the Caps before he was traded to the Vancouver Canucks (the team that drafted him in 1988) along with a second round draft pick for a 2002 first round draft pick (that become Boyd Gordon) and a third round draft pick that would be later traded to Edmonton with a second round pick for Mike Grier. 

Zubrus would play another four-plus seasons with the Caps, but he did not reach the potential envisioned for him as 15th overall draft pick in 1996 by the Flyers any more than he did with Phiadelphia or Montreal before arriving in Washington, or in Buffalo or New Jersey, for that matter, after he was traded to the Sabres in 2001 with Timo Helbling for Jiri Novotny and a first round pick (that first round pick would later be traded to San Jose for two second round picks that took on lives of their own to become, eventually, Eric Mestery, Phil DeSimone, and Dmitry Kugryshev).

What looked so good on paper at the time, trading futures for veterans of the playoff wars, ended up being one of the most consequential trades in team history, and not in a good way.

February 26, 2008 Caps acquired Matt Cooke from Vancouver for Matt Pettinger.

When Matt Pettinger scored 20 goals as a 25-year old winger with the Caps in 2005-2006, then followed it up with a 16-goal season in 2006-2007, Caps fans might have thought that the team had a player who could contribute at the offensive end and rile opponents at the other end with his hard-nosed style of play.  Then the 2007-2008 season came along, and while the Caps were finding their legs for a long run to the playoffs under new coach Bruce Boudreau, who took over in late November, Pettinger was a player being left behind in terms of his performance. 

After recording just two goals in 56 games he was traded to the Vancouver Canucks for deadline rental Matt Cooke.  It was another case of a deal looking good on paper, an underperforming forward for a veteran who had the “grit” a team could use in the post-season (Cooke’s brand of “grit,” which often crossed the line of gentlemanly play, notwithstanding).

Cooke ended up being a decent contributor in the 17 regular season games he played for the Caps, going 3-4-7, plus-5 in 17 games, but doing most of that scoring damage against the weak competition of the Southeast Division (two goals, two assists in eight divisional games).  In the post-season, he was a ghost. No points and a minus-1 in the seven game series loss to Philadelphia in which he recorded only eight shots on goal. 

And, as soon as he arrived, he was gone…to Pittsburgh…to win a Stanley Cup the following season.  That is about as bad as it gets for Caps fans in terms of return on trade.

March 3, 2010 Caps acquired Joe Corvo from Carolina for Brian Pothier, Oskar Osala and a 2nd round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft (later traded to Calgary, Tyler Wotherspoon).

If you looked at this trade through a polarized lens tilted a certain way at the time, it made some sense.  Brian Pothier, who was signed away from Ottawa to a four-year/$10 million deal (when the Caps could not come to terms with Pothier’s teammate, Zdeno Chara, on a free agency deal), would suffer a concussion in early 2008 that kept him out of the lineup for more than a calendar year, contributing to his never performing to the level his contract suggested.  Oskar Osala was once thought of as a potential power forward but appeared to have plateaued in the Caps organization at the AHL level.

The return – Joe Corvo – had a reputation as an offensive defenseman, but the magnitude of his problems in the defensive end of the ice could only be appreciated seeing him up close in a Caps jersey.  Corvo would go 2-4-6, minus-4 in 18 games with the Caps to close the 2009-2010 regular season and would go 1-1-2, minus-2 in the seven-game upset loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the post season.  He would be on ice for 22 goals against in the 18 regular season games he played with the Caps and another five goals against in seven games in the post season, despite skating far fewer minutes and with lighter responsibilities than defensemen such as Mike Green, Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, or rookie John Carlson.  At the end of the 2010 post season, Corvo returned to Carolina as an unrestricted free agent.

February 28, 2011 Caps acquired Jason Arnott from New Jersey for David Steckel and a 2012 second-round pick.

You would have had to have been sailing on an ice floe not to know that Jason Arnott was on the Caps’ radar leading up to the trading deadline in 2011.  Filling the second line center role behind Nicklas Backstrom was proving difficult.  Marcus Johansson…too young.  Mathieu Perreault…too inconsistent.  Brooks Laich…maybe better suited to wing.  Boyd Gordon…lacked the skill set to be a scoring line center. 

When Jason Arnott was acquired from New Jersey for checking line center David Steckel and a draft pick, it seemed like an eHarmony match.  When Arnott displayed talents at being the “Semin Whisperer,” communicating with and coaxing an additional level of performance out of the mercurial Alexander Semin, he seemed even more the perfect fit.  Then he suffered a knee injury that kept him out of the lineup for a brief spell but which bothered him through the playoffs.  Nevertheless, Arnott was 1-5-6, plus-4, in nine playoff games for the Caps.  That the Caps were swept by Tampa Bay in the second round could not be laid at his feet (0-3-3, plus-2, in four games), but neither was his effort enough to prevent that second round elimination.  Arnott would not return to the Caps when his contract expired at the end of the season, choosing to sign with the St. Louis Blues, where he played his final NHL season.

Perhaps the Washington Capitals were just not very good at this whole roster-for-roster deal making at the trading deadline in the modern era.  While there is a new brain trust to manage the run-up to this year’s trading deadline, it is not all that different from what preceded it, since general manager Brian MacLellan has been with the club for 14 seasons, seven of them as assistant general manager for player personnel before ascending to the first chair in the front office.

It might cause some trepidation among Caps fans when one hears that a Curtis Glencross or a Jordan Eberle might be available to the Caps, especially if a roster player (or more) is part of the price of the deal.  The delicate chemistry, so difficult to quantify, that takes place over 60 games of a regular season can be undone by deals that look good on the printed page.  When your team has a checkered history in making such deals in its recent history, it should make one stop and think whether moving a Troy Brouwer or a Karl Alzner, or even a Mike Green, is in the best interests of the club beyond what the box car and underlying numbers might say.  It is not to say that such deals are doomed to failure for this club, but neither should anyone think that they are slam dunk deals to be made.  The hockey gods are not to be trifled with by making such assumptions.