Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Deadline Dealing

brian burke leafs
Maple Leafs fans have been spoiled. That might sound funny after the team has failed to made the playoffs for eight years, but it's true.

After years of lamenting the loss of Tuukka Rask, or bemoaning the missed opportunity of dealing Tomas Kaberle for Jeff Carter and a first-round pick, the Leafs' fortunes in the trade market have improved drastically.

Brian Burke has spoiled Leafs fans the last two seasons. Without giving up any player with a realistic long-term future in Toronto, Burke was able to bring in Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, Joffrey Lupul, and Jake Gardiner. Both trades were clear home runs for Burke and the Leafs, and both came out of nowhere, catching most fans off guard.

In a lesser, yet still significant deal, Burke unloaded Tomas Kaberle on the Bruins last season, and amazingly received a haul in return. For less than half-a-year of Kaberle, the Leafs received Joe Colborne (the No. 6 ranked prospect according to Hockey Prospectus), a first-round pick, and a provisional second-round pick. Of course, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, so I'm sure they aren't too upset with the deal either.

Burke has staked out quite the reputation for himself over the years as a shrewd trader. In addition to the aforementioned acquisitions, he has swung major deals for the Sedins and Chris Pronger. With a history like that, people start to expect you to make those trades on a yearly basis.

Unfortunately, acquiring star players isn't easy to do. Teams generally don't like to give up superstars, and they don't like to give up players they think might eventually become superstars.

However, this year is different than the last two. The Leafs are buyers. The last two seasons there were no expectations on Burke and the rest of the management staff. In fact, most people were fine with a collection of draft picks coming back for pending unrestricted free agents. There was almost no expectations for a player like Phaneuf to arrive in Toronto.

The job of a seller is easy. Most of the time the players you are dealing are leaving at the end of the season anyways. Accordingly, anything that comes back is a bonus. Anything is better than nothing. Being a seller also means you're near the bottom of the league, and when that happens there shouldn't be many players with an 'untouchable' tag, meaning that any exiting player won't be missed.

Being a buyer is much harder. In that role you're battling with other teams who are contributing to escalating prices for players that in most cases are only going to provide a short-term improvement to your hockey club. The cost of that improvement often comes at the expense of a franchise's long-term health. Picks and prospects go the other way, often to blossom under the guidance of another team. The risk is entirely with the buyer.

This year the Leafs are clearly buyers, albeit not necessarily in the traditional rental sense. They are clearly in the market for a big forward, preferably one with skill who can play in the top-6. Plus, they want that forward to contribute now. While they prefer a young forward, they don't want a prospect. They want a forward already established in the NHL.

That's great. You know who else wants that player? Everyone.

This season might prove even more difficult to acquire a big name forward because there are a lot of buyers and very few sellers at this year's deadline. Over next week some more teams might become sellers with a few losses, but at the moment the market favours the sellers, which means prices are sky-high.

Accordingly, Leafs Nation needs to temper its expectations. If a reasonable deal isn't there for a young top-6 forward—and that really is the only type of player the Leafs should be interested in— Toronto can't force the matter by overpaying for one of the other underwhelming options on the market. Tuomu Ruutu? No thanks. Ales Hemsky? Pass.

Giving up assets for a short-term solution, and a bad one at that, just serves to further put the Leafs in a hole. Making the playoffs this season is certainly an important goal, but not at the expense of the team's long-term health.

If that means avoiding all deals, so be it.

This time of the year fans want to see something done—anything done. Fans want to see something tangible happen to the team. Patience isn't a strength for overly emotional fans that want progress to occur yesterday.

The truth is the Leafs are more than one deadline piece away from becoming true contenders. Sure, adding a rental at the deadline may solidify the team in the top-8, but a soon-to-be UFA is not going to end a 40+ year drought.

It's better to hold onto all assets and re-evaluate the team in the summer. At that time Burke can make another run at a big name. Who knows, maybe Ryan Getzlaf is lukewarm about signing an extension in Anaheim. Maybe the Ducks become open to receiving a couple of young, talented pieces to go along with their high draft pick after the season ends.

Making a big deal is hard during the regular season. Teams are more willing to make big deals in the summer. Just look at last summer when Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were dealt in the span of a few hours. If a big time star suddenly becomes available in the summer and you miss out because you foolishly traded your assets at the deadline for Hemsky then you've got a problem.

The Leafs may not do anything of consequence at this year's deadline. In fact, Toronto may do nothing at all. That's okay. Sometimes the best deal is the one you don't make.


ryan said...

Great read. If it came down to a bidding war for a top tier player at the deadline I also think that Toronto can easily be outbid by other teams unless we sell the farm, picks and Schenn (no thanks)

Jake said...

In reference to not trading any long term pieces for the club, Ian White's name comes to mind.

And we have clearly different opinions about Dion. I think him as the captain of our team for the long term future is a nightmare.

Ryan Hobart said...

The reason Jeff Carter and Mike Richards were dealt so closely to each other was because Carter, Richards and Briere all slept with each other's wives. They had to split them up because they absolutely hated each other.

Matt Horner said...

Thanks for the comments.

Ryan, I tend to agree with you. If Nash is available and I'm Columbus I think a package from either LA (Jack Johnson, Bernier, +) or NYR (Stepan and a d-man, +) can beat most combinations of Leafs picks/prospects/players.

Jake, I guess White would have a long-term future, but he was more of a complimentary piece (and clearly a good one based on how he's played in Detroit). But the Leafs were at a stage where complimentary pieces didn't really help. They needed front-line type players. I see Dion as that, and I know we disagree, but I hope he can convince you he is that type of player.

hobey1, I'm pretty sure that's the go-to rumour whenever anyone of importance is traded. Don't believe everything you read.

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