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Why do general managers dabble in the dark arts of the NHL trade deadline?
As Brian Burke once said: "It's almost like partying with a piñata. Everyone's going for one player and everyone's swinging at it."
Except the piñata isn't filled with delicious candy, but instead with Mark Letestu.
I have a tertiary grasp of economic theory. You have supply. You have demand. And yet every year, you have teams selling that never seem to get the prices they're asking for and teams buying that always seem to overpay. None of this makes sense, but then what really does in a world where the United States can defeat Canada in women's hockey and men's curling in a 24-hour period?
On top of the significant distrust and apprehension that define the trade deadline, there are always market forces lingering just over the horizon that nonetheless influence what happens on deadline day. If you squint hard enough, you can just glimpse the outline of a top-name free agent or a desperate general manager.
Here are five X factors for the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline, although sadly none of them are Forge or Quicksilver.
Eugene Melnyk's bank account
The Ottawa Senators owner said this was going to happen at that outdoor game, when his laments about revenue and vague hints at potential relocation managed to cut the legs out of the NHL Centennial Celebration his team was hosting.
When the Ottawa Senators decide that trading Erik Karlsson is a thing that should happen, you have to wonder how many other contracts are going to follow him out the door. Not just trade deadline fodder like Derick Brassard and Mike Hoffman; does Melnyk want to pay Mark Stone? Does he want Jean-Gabriel Pageau around with that term? The heat from this fire sale is going to affect a great many things around the league, starting with the Karlsson derby.
We now take you to Matt Duchene's introductory press conference from Nov. 2017: "[A rebuild] was something I've been a part of, multiple times, and I just couldn't do it. I wanted to play playoff hockey. I have eight playoff games to my name right now. For me, that's not where I want to be at this point in my career."
Yeah, about that ...
The Golden Knights are a Stanley Cup contender
One of the more interesting notions floated about Erik Karlsson is that the expansion Vegas Golden Knights have the cap space, assets and desire for that kind of trade, even if they have to take on Bobby Ryan's contract, too.
The idea that Vegas would trade future assets at the deadline seemed absolutely nutty before the season, but not nearly as nutty as having a first-year team assembled from castaways challenging for the President's Trophy. The fact is that Vegas could be a buyer, and a significant one at that. The Knights, for example, have six picks in the first three rounds of the 2019 draft, and have their own first-rounders for the next three seasons.
Yet none of us really know what GM George McPhee and owner Bill Foley have planned here. McPhee is clutching his cards to his chest. "We'll see where it goes. Some years you go into the trading deadline not expecting to do anything and you end up doing a number of things. Sometimes when you expect to do a lot of things, you don't do anything," he told the Review-Journal.
Bottom line: If you're a team with an asset on the block, you're calling George McPhee. Whether he picks up is the mystery.
When one becomes two
There's no shame in a second-rounder.
Every year, the same tune is sung by NHL general managers when asked what they want for their trade bait: "A first-rounder, a top prospect and another asset." (It's really a lovely tune when you hear Jason Botterill warble it.)
The fact is that while some players will bring a return like that, in most cases the rumors about first-round pick prices for rental players just don't come to pass. Since 2012, we've had an average of two first-rounders moving per season, according to Evan Sporer's count.
There were two last season, as the Washington Capitals sent one to St. Louis for Kevin Shattenkirk and the Minnesota Wild shipped one to the Arizona Coyotes. And those decisions went so poorly that both general managers might largely sit out this deadline.
But here's the X factor: Not getting a first-rounder is not the end of the world. As Stephen Burtch noted here and Michael E. Schuckers wrote here and Eric Tulsky covered here and Travis Yost here, there's still value to be had in second-round picks and the number of "lottery tickets" a team holds in the third and fourth rounds.
A desperate Montreal
If it weren't for Ottawa, there wouldn't be a more tumultuous team in the NHL than the Canadiens. They've shut down defenseman Shea Weber for the season. They probably should do the same for Carey Price. I mean, you have to protect the assets you have signed through 2026.
Because of that foundation, the Canadiens are in a different position than the Senators. Yes, there may be deep cuts that could see Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk shipped out, but those moves would be in service of a quick, 180-degree turn back to contention, rather than a prolonged rebuild. Because when the two cornerstones of your franchise are that old and signed for that long, you best contend.
Of course, plugging their decades-long hole at center would help. Which brings us to ...
Until he puts pen to paper on a contract handed to him by Islanders GM Garth Snow, there's just no guaranteeing that he remains with the only franchise with which he's played. If he ever hits unrestricted free agency, he'll have more pitches coming his way than Gary Sanchez.
Which makes him an X factor at this deadline for teams that might seek to sign him on the open market this summer. Teams like the San Jose Sharks or the St. Louis Blues or, yes, the Montreal Canadiens, who might still be the one most worth watching.
One might even suggest that the Islanders should trade their franchise player and crush the hearts of their fans before he walks away for no compensation. But who are they, Ottawa?
Jersey Foul of the Week
- Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) February 23, 2018
Three Toronto fans all wore their John Tavares-as-a-Leaf jerseys to the game, because someone has to keep the counterfeit market in business. Or, hopefully, they just re-purposed the Steven Stamkos ones they had made two years ago. Now, how do we hook these guys up with those Canadiens fans that still wear Vincent Lecavalier Montreal jerseys to the games?
How the NHL feels about the Olympics
NBC Sports boss Mark Lazarus said that ratings for the men's hockey tournament was down between 20 and 30 percent in the Pyeongchang Olympics. There were prominent empty seats for many of the games -- even if they were sold out, the tickets weren't being used.
From an interest standpoint in the U.S., this men's tournament ranks well behind all disciplines of figure skating, snowboarding, skiing and now women's hockey as far as buzz. What about in Pyeongchang? A source on the ground there tells us that "there was a slight bit of curiosity with what this bunch of U.S. men could do, but then once the games started and people saw the quality of play that interest waned. You don't hear many folks talking about the tournament, or journalists excited to cover those games."
Olympic hockey without the NHL, despite the unpredictability of the tournament, has been a bust.
So what does the NHL make of all this, and does the league think it increases their bargaining power with the IOC?
Not necessarily, a source close to the NHL told ESPN.
"I think everyone had their eyes open about what the effect would be. The IOC recognized it. The IIHF certainly did," said the source. "The fact that the IOC knew the result they might get ... they knew that at the time they didn't make concessions."
The hope from the NHL, internally, is that the IOC finds that the complete lack of attention in North America given to the men's hockey tournament was problematic for its sponsors. Or, that their own internal metrics show that getting the NHL back is imperative. But bad hockey and low buzz aren't enough to move the needle. Everyone knew what this tournament was going to look like, and how it was going to play out.
"I'm not sure there was any real buzz in [the United States]," said the source.
'No kid should ever have to go through that'
There are times when sports can't be an escape. Instead, they become a function of healing for those who are suffering.
It's surreal, disturbing and emotionally devastating that two NHL players in two different cities had to grab a mic and address the fans in attendance after shooting massacres that affected their communities. There was Deryk Engelland, offering condolences, honoring first responders and rallying his neighbors after 58 people were killed in the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1. And on Thursday night, there was Roberto Luongo:
"You guys are an inspiration to all of us. At the end of the day, you guys are what's giving us hope for the future." -Roberto Luongo.
- Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) February 23, 2018
"Enough is enough. We've gotta take action," said Luongo, in a heartfelt speech. The question is: Who takes the action? The fans? The Panthers? The players? The power of professional sports and athletes as agents of change can't be overstated. So the speeches and the helmet stickers and the rainbow tape on stick blades for "Hockey Is For Everyone" month can't be the end point for player advocacy. These players are obviously not afraid to speak out on something like gun violence; they just have to speak longer and louder if enough is truly going to be enough.
From my friend Chris Wilson of Yahoo: "Has anyone talked about how the women's game was perfect wrestling booking? The face had a bunch of near-falls throughout overtime, but then they were in severe peril at the end, then they prevailed after a series of finishers and reversals in the shootout." All before hitting their own finisher, the "Oops... I Did It Again."
Team USA wins first Olympic women's hockey gold in 20 years�� pic.twitter.com/xjsOhFfo2j
- Athlete Swag (@AthleteSwag) February 22, 2018
Let's lean in to the "wrestling booking" concept.
You also had the Americans having to overcome a Canadian power play in overtime, four years after what Hilary Knight still refers to as "a bogus call" set up Marie-Phillip Poulin's golden overtime goal. You had Poulin, who owns the U.S., finally getting thwarted with the game on the line via Maddie Rooney's stellar goaltending in the shootout.
And then you had the Lamoureux sisters.
Monique Lamoureux-Morando scored a critical breakaway goal in the third. Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson ... well, pulled off one of the most stunning shootout moves in recent memory, discombobulating Shannon Szabados, one of the greatest goalies in hockey history.
But more than that, the 28-year-old twins were symbolic of so much more. They represent the plight of women's hockey. Their alma mater, North Dakota, cut the program that produced them. That's the low point. Here's the high point: The Lamoureux sisters helped their teammates take on USA Hockey and won a level of equality with the men's team that's unprecedented.
That the sisters played two of the most significant roles in the USA's first gold medal in 20 years wasn't just appropriate -- it was the only way this could have been booked.
ESPN On Ice
This week on the podcast, Emily Kaplan and I survey the "non-rental" options at the trade deadline (2:25), and take a look behind the curtain with TSN's James Duthie at what hosting TV coverage of the big day is like (19:11). Then, we hear from J.T. Brown of the Ducks (36:19) and Madison Bowey of the Capitals alongside his father Will (43:24). Finally, Connor McDavid is falling behind in the Hart Trophy race (1:00:32) and a fan vents some Olympic frustration to the ESPN On Ice "rant line" (1:04:38). Stream it here and grab it on iTunes here.
Leslie Jones of SNL had a "profane meltdown" during the women's gold medal game, mostly aimed at Pierre McGuire. [USA Today, (NSFW)]
The Seattle view of the potential NHL franchise's season-ticket drive. [News Tribune]
Corsi is dead. [Washington Post]
Hockey as a bellwether for climate change. [NPR]
Why the NBA should steal a hockey playoff format. [Mercury News]
How every team will screw up the NHL trade deadline. "Do you think the Oilers have a handler for Peter Chiarelli at things like the GM meetings? Like, there's a guy with a taser that renders Chiarelli unconscious if he ever wanders into a room alone with David Poile so he doesn't trade Connor McDavid for Nick Bonino." [Vice Sports]
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
Blood, blades and bitter: how ice hockey bloomed in 1980s Britain. Everything you want to know about the Durham Wasps. [New Statesman]
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Interesting read from Kavitha A. Davidson on the glorious, unintended effect of face masks and shoulder pads in women's hockey. [ESPNW]