In a shortened season, with approximately 30 games from the season's opening faceoff to the trade deadline, there is much uncertainty about how GMs will approach in-season roster upgrades. Lacking a reasonable amount of time to analyze what they have, it may simply be easier to hold on to the assets already in place then to risk a rash move.
Further complicating matters in the abbreviated schedule is that fewer teams are willing to definitively state that they are sellers as they have had less time to be separated from the pack. With all teams having played between 22-26 games, even the worst teams were more than eight points out of a playoff spot. While enough of the lower-tier teams may fall out of the playoff race to make a sellers' market, there is far less incentive for most teams to cut their losses so soon when a short three or four game winning streak could easily catapult them into the playoff picture.
GMs certainly appear to be thinking that way, given the relative paucity of trades thus far. For the most part, player movement between teams has been restricted to waiver wire pickups, many of which involved post-hype prospects such as Andrei Loktionov and Eric Tangradi, whose parent clubs could no longer support their roster spots and for whom access to the AHL was no longer free of waiver consequences. In some cases, a hard-working GM was able to find a taker in a trade for a player who may have otherwise been exposed to the wire, such as the recent trade of minor enforcer Mike Brown from Toronto to Edmontonmore that below.
The impetus to improve through trades has grown as more and more teams are re-signing their marquee players instead of letting them test the free agent market. With fewer top-tier players entering the open market, trades are rising in prominence in their influence on shaping winning rosters, behind only amateur player acquisition. With that landscape in mind, the other type of trade which still may appear in the next month was recently demonstrated by the agreement between the Dallas Stars and the Montreal Canadiens which saw the former club ship ex-Hab Michael Ryder back to Montreal, along with a third round pick in this summer's draft in exchange for power forward Erik Cole; I am, of course, referring to the classic hockey trade.
Montreal Canadiens trade RW Erik Cole to the Dallas Stars in exchange for RW Michael Ryder and a 2013 third round draft choice (February 26, 2013)
Following the exchange of Darroll Powe and Nick Palmieri for Michael Rupp between the Wild and Rangers in early February, the Cole-Ryder exchange is only the second instance this season of NHL players being involved in both sides of a trade. On its face, this is an old-fashioned hockey trade, with two roughly similar players changing teams with the hope of new scenery being the spark for improved play.
Both wingers have clear similarities in their game and value to a team. For a start, both men scored exactly 35 goals last season, with neither missing a single game. Ryder scored 36 goals between the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons while Cole potted 37 in that span, although in 39 fewer games. VUKOTA projected 53 points and 8.7 GVT for Cole over a full season this year, with Ryder slotted for 52 points and 9.2 over a similar number of games. As impressive as those numbers are in a vacuum, it must be recognized that both players should, by all rights, be well past their primes.
In Cole's write-up in this year's Hockey Prospectus 2011-12, it was written that, "Entering his mid-thirties, it's going to be tough for the talented Cole to remain among the league leaders in scoring, but he's historically produced well when given a chance and healthy."
In a similar vein, our annual had this to say about the player returning to Montreal, "Ryder is still a useful player but one the wrong slope of his career."
The dollars are not too far off either, with Cole pulling in $4.5 million in prorated salary this year, while Ryder is a little cheaper at a prorated $3.5 million. Where the two start to separate themselves as assets is in remaining contract term; while Ryder's contract expires at the conclusion of this season, Cole still has two more years and a cash outlay of $8 million to go. In that sense alone, the trade should count as a win for new Canadiens' GM Marc Bergevin. With the cap dropping precipitously for next year, he has freed up a substantial amount of cap room without tangibly weakening his roster in the present tense as the Habs make a surprising run at a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. To acquire an extra third round draft pick as well is simply a bonus in the equation.
For Nieuwendyk and the Stars, the argument for making this trade is one of cost certainty. With Ryder set to leave as a UFA in the summer, he would have to find a way to fill a second line right wing slot on fairly limited dollars. Thankfully, the Stars still have a good amount of cap space to play with, even with the lowering cap number. Despite adding Cole to their 2013-14 obligations, Dallas still has over $19 million to play with, per capgeek.com. Even though the team can afford to carry the cap hit provided that Cole can produce somewhere near his historical level, they may not have to if the one-time Clarkson Golden Knight makes good on his threat to retire following this season, something he hinted at when the new CBA was signed in January. Should Cole choose to spend more time with his family, the Stars will be completely off the hook as far as his cap hit and salary are concerned.
On a scouting level, the two thirty-something wingers are quite different players, even while their production has been eerily similar. Before we look at their style of play, we should take a moment to marvel at the similarities in their recent deployment rates. Both have largely been used in offensive roles, starting more than their fair share of shifts in the offensive zone, and against competition that is also of top-six provenance. Given these relatively favorable circumstances, both Cole and Ryder have managed positive Corsi rates, showing an ability to maintain control of the puck to a degree that is in accordance to the situations in which they played. Both have enjoyed slightly positive PDO rates over the past few years, although not so extreme that regression should be seen as imminent. The fact that Ryder has had an even strength PDO of above 1000 in each season since at least 2007-08, and Cole has just missed that mark onceand that in the 2009-10 season in which he missed half the year due to injurysuggest that those marks could be sustainable.
As to style, Cole has a reputation as a very physical player while Ryder is considered more of a wallflower. Although Cole's physical style has also supported his secondary reputation as an injury-prone player, he has played in at least 70 games in all but two seasons since the last lockout and has not missed a game in three seasons. In as much as mainstream hockey fans and analysts love physical players and abhor the demure, Cole is known as one who has earned his fame and fortune, while Ryder suffers from aspersions made about his overall character, or lack thereof, due to his play in the corners.
So it may be the case that Nieuwendyk pulled the trigger on this deal more due to the so-called intangible aspects of the players than anything related to capology. The Stars, sitting on the cusp ofyet not quite embedded withinthe playoff picture, felt they need a bit more sandpaper to overcome the absence of Steve Ott, dealt last summer to Buffalo in a skill acquisition. Unfortunately, with Cole having a horrible first half to the season, questions should be asked about whether, at 34 years old, he has entered the advanced stage of decline in his career. If so, the Stars should hope that he makes good on his retirement musings.
Ryder, in a contract year, seems like the real winner in this trade. From playing with a 40-year-old Ray Whitney and a youthful yet talented Cody Eakin, he has now moved on to play with Montreal's so-called first line alongside Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec. With fewer elite players entering free agency (note that Ryan Getzlaf just removed himself from that list by re-signing to an eight-year extension with the Ducks), the native of Bonavista, Newfoundland will stand to gain from $1-3 million in annual salary wherever he chooses to sign for next season.
Toronto Maple Leafs trade RW Mike Brown to the Edmonton Oilers for a conditional fourth round draft pick in 2014 (March 4, 2013)
For Toronto, the case to deal Brown is very straight forward. As a player, he had limited value, and what value he had was usurped by the similar contributions of fellow pugilists Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren. Not even touching upon the debate of the utility of a fighter in today's NHL, the two remaining in the Blue and White are both on expiring contractsOrr will be a UFA and McLaren an RFA this summerwhile Brown still has one guaranteed year at $725,000 remaining. There is even a chance that Dave Nonis is using this transaction as a subtle hint at the new-look Leafs to come, a team that eschews the truculence which was so coveted under the recently-deposed Brian Burke. Then again, considering how much coach Randy Carlyle likes to play the goons, we should expect at least McLaren to be returning to Toronto next year.
As for Brown, he was historically the most valuable of the three, although he spent a good chunk of the early season out with a bum shoulder, losing his place in the pecking order to Orr and McLaren who have both been putting together the strongest seasons of their careers. Damning with faint praise, of course, but it must be pointed out that Brown, in spite of a regular role on the penalty kill, has been a negative contributor per GVT in two of the past three full seasons, and his 0.2 GVT across 12 games thus far did not give enough faith that he would make it two of four after this season.
Orr and McLaren both share a history making so much noise with their fists that mainstream analysts miss out on their complete lack of utility when their gloves remain on. Until this year. Both tough guys, in very limited minutes (neither exceeding seven minutes of ice time per game, all at even strength) have contributed 1.1 GVT to the Toronto cause.
It says here that their production is more smoke than fire. Both men have been beneficiaries of positive puck luckboth of the kind that credits McLaren with a goal for standing near the crease when the puck was airborne, and having the good fortune to have it bounce off his upper body before crossing the goal line, as well as the kind that sees the Maple Leafs goaltender stop an inordinate number of pucks behind themwith Orr tied for second among Leaf regulars in on-ice even strength save percentage. Strip away puck luck and we see two players that have been given favorable assignments but have been completely unable to keep the puck away from their own end of the ice. McLaren and Orr rank worst and third worst respectively among Leafs forwards in terms of the puck moving backwards with them on the iceas measured by the difference in offensive zone start percentage and offensive zone finish percentage. Mike Brown would have slotted in perfectly between them.
This topic would not be worth much analysis were it not for the minor hullabaloo that sprung up in Toronto after the trade, as many armchair analysts asked why Nonis could not have traded Orr or McLaren instead of Brown, who is a reasonable skater and as has already been mentioned, can play the penalty kill. Neither Orr nor McLaren are either of those things. The simple fact is that Brown is not as good as his previous usage made him out to be. He was used on the penalty kill, but the Leafs penalty kill was consistently among the worst in the league throughout his tenure there. This year, their first (so far) with an average PK since time immemorial, has been largely without Brown's services. If a GMany GMwas willing to give up anything for any of the trio, Nonis was wise to accept.
Edmonton was clearly convinced that it needed more sandpapertruculence perhapsto allow its high-end young talent the space it needs to flourish, but how Mike Brown playing 8-10 minutes per game on the fourth line with Ben Eager and Ryan Smyth helps Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov is a mystery. Should the trade prove successful for the Oilers and they come up from their current spot in the Western Conference basement and into the playoffs, the returns going to Toronto will be improved to a third round pick.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.