Strategy

NHL Trade Deadline: A seller's market

With so many teams still in the race, the NHL's bottom-feeders have an advantage on deadline day.

Note: See Canadian Business Online’s updated hockey list — Trade Deadline 2009: The 50 best and worst players for the money — by clicking here.

The beginning of March usually produces a flurry of trades in the NHL, but that may not be the case this year. For one thing, 23 of the 30 teams are still solidly in the playoff picture, meaning there are a lot more teams liking their chances of getting in. They’re not as likely to dump players, but wouldn’t mind adding one or two. That makes it a seller’s market for the few teams that are actively shopping their players around before Wednesday’s 3 p.m. deadline.

For another thing, there are business considerations mucking up the trade waters. The NHL’s salary cap makes player moves more difficult for teams who are near the cap limit of US$56.7 million, especially in an uncertain economy where revenues are almost certain to decline in the near future. Balancing the salary cap is a huge managerial effort at the best of times and possible trades are just one consideration.

For instance, the Philadelphia Flyers had to waive centre Glen Metropolit and defenceman Ossi Vaananen to help clear US$2.5 million in cap space for the return of Daniel Briere, who missed nearly half the season after abdominal surgery. Both of the dumped players made about US$1 million each, so the Flyers — now just US$55,659 from the cap — are pretty much done adding salary. They got rid of two serviceable players — Metropolit was picked up by the Montreal Canadiens and Vaananen was scooped by the Vancouver Canucks — and they also had to loan rising rookie Claude Giroux and Lasse Kukkonen to their farm team, the Philadelphia Phantoms, just to make room for one of their own players.

The Detroit Red Wings also probably won’t — or can’t — make a major move, since they’re bumping the cap with just US$249,712 to spend. “If we make a move, it will be dollar in, dollar out,” general manager Ken Holland told the media. Anaheim, Calgary, Chicago, Montreal and Washington are all in similar positions.

But some teams have plenty of room to operate. Los Angeles, Nashville and Columbus have the most cap space of the playoff contenders. And most of the also-rans have plenty of room and are shopping players, such as Tampa Bay (Mark Recchi), Toronto (Nik Antropov), New York Islanders (Bill Guerin) and Phoenix (Olli Jokinen and Derek Morris). The Leafs are more than US$7 million under the cap, giving its owners a nice little bonus this year on top of the ticket price increases they’re putting in place next year for providing substandard entertainment.

But just because players are available doesn’t mean deals will get done. The salary cap is expected to remain around its current level next season, but teams are looking longer term and figuring out what effect the general economic slump will have on their operations in 2010-11. Corporate sponsorships and sports-related marketing dollars are declining, which means taking on expensive, long-term contracts is not in the cards for most teams. Even if a team knows a certain player could help this year, they want to keep their options open down the road.

Even dumping an under-contract player these days can be quite expensive. For instance, the Dallas Stars would love to get rid of meathead Sean Avery and his four-year, US$15.5-million contract and get a centre, top defenceman or a back-up goalie. They put Avery on waivers, but no one was willing to take him at full price, so he was sent to the minors. Avery was then placed on re-entry waivers March 2, with hopes that the New York Rangers would finally bite, which they did. Even then, the Stars will have to pay half his salary for the rest of the contract.

Trade rumours

At least the rumour mill isn’t drying up. Jay Bouwmeester, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Alexei Kovalev and Nikolai Khabibulin are some of the top names being bandied about for a while. Pronger has one season left on his contract that will see him get US$6.25 million next season, while Niedermayer (who earns US$6.75 million) becomes a free agent at year-end and may retire — again. The Anaheim Ducks have since said they won’t move Niedermayer and may keep Pronger as well.

The most intriguing option is Bouwmeester, who is in the final year of a deal that pays out a reasonable $4.875 million this season, which means any team acquiring him would have to find more than US$1 million in cap space to take him on. But the Florida Panthers are making a strong post-season push so they may want to keep Bouwmeester, even if it means letting him go for practically nothing this summer. They haven’t been in the playoffs since 2000, so getting rid of their top player may send the wrong message to the struggling franchise’s fans.

The biggest move so far was Anaheim picking up Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Ryan Whitney, who will shore up their blueline should they let either Pronger or Niedermayer go. The Penguins received forwards Chris Kunitz, who makes US$3.725 million over the next three years, and Eric Tangradi, a second-round draft pick who is probably a couple of years from playing in the NHL. Paired with Sidney Crosby, Kunitz could regain the form that saw him score 25 goals and 60 points two years ago.

There will be trades and some teams will try desperately to find that one player who can put them over the top. But with one eye on future seasons, most teams will likely make either minor moves or sit on the sidelines and hope for the best.