Thursday, January 28, 2021

Mailbag: Hockey trades, rivalry overkill and expansion near misses

Welcome back to the mailbag. The last time we were here, the season was a month away from starting and we were just figuring out what it might look like. Now we’re two weeks in, which is apparently more than enough time to have already given up on a few teams. Hockey is fun. Let’s get to this week’s batch of questions.

Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and style.

You touched on the subject of “hockey trades” in your power rankings article. It could be entertaining to impose on the hockey world a definition for what qualifies as a hockey trade. What’s allowed to be a motivation or a piece in a hockey trade? Prospects? Draft picks? Disgruntlement? Trading old for young in a rebuild? Surely not cash and cap concerns? — Pekka L.

I like this question because it’s simple, but a lot harder than it seems. “Hockey trade” is one of those phrases that gets thrown around a lot, and my guess is everyone has a different view of what it actually means. Let’s see if we can figure this out.

First up, I think a true hockey trade can’t be about two teams working with different timelines. Trading a veteran on an expiring deal for a prospect in a deadline rental situation isn’t a hockey trade. It’s worth doing, and it’s a perfectly valid way for two teams to improve their outlook, but it’s not the same category. A hockey trade is veteran for veteran, or prospect for prospect, or top-three picks in the 2016 draft for top-three pick in the 2016 draft.

The second key criteria is that the teams have to make the deal because they want to, not because they’ve been forced into it. A trade demand or a holdout doesn’t count. A trade request is a little trickier, which is where the Laine/Dubois thing gets into a grey area. Laine wanted out, but he was still showing up and playing hard. Dubois didn’t go home, but his effort level was questioned, and after he was benched you could argue that he couldn’t play for the Blue Jackets again. Maybe it could have been ironed out, but we’ll never know.

I think there’s a third checkbox that’s a more recent addition to the list, which is that the deal can’t be primarily about cap space. Every transaction made these days is at least a little bit about dollars, and even in the pre-cap days the bottom line was always in the picture. But if a team is clearly making a deal just to shed cap, that’s a financial decision, not a hockey trade.

To sum it all up: A true “hockey trade” is one that both teams are making because they think it makes them better on roughly the same timeline. They’re not being forced into a deal, by finances or circumstance. They’re doing it because they think the guys they’re getting get them closer to winning than the guys they’re giving up, period.

That rules out most trades these days, but not all of them. Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen was a hockey trade. Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson was too, even if it was a lopsided one. Smaller trades like the Tyson Barrie/Nazem Kadri deal would qualify, as would Eric Staal for Marcus Johansson. They’re certainly not unheard of, but they’re becoming increasingly rare. Most hockey trades aren’t hockey trades, if that makes sense.

All games this year are in the division. So when we get to the semifinals, no one will have played each other yet, and we won’t know which divisions are better than others. So wouldn’t betting on the underdogs at least in theory be easy money? — Tom K.

I don’t know about easy money — I’ll leave the betting advice to Granger Things. But it’s going to be interesting, because we haven’t had a situation quite like this before.

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