St. Louis Blues
Acquired D Jordan Leopold from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a second round pick and a conditional fifth round pick in the 2013 draft
Acquired D Jay Bouwmeester from the Calgary Flames for G Reto Berra, D Mark Cundari, and a conditional 2013 first round pick
Coming into the season, many pundits (including this one) thought very highly of the St. Louis Blues, even to the point of marking them as favorites for the Stanley Cup. VUKOTA, with all its infinite wisdom and inherent regression, picked the Blues to finish eighth in terms of overall GVT and ninth in accumulated points. We were both wrong.
Entering play on March 30, the Blues were grimly holding on to the eighth spot in the Western Conference, a single point ahead of the late charging Dallas Stars and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Goal differential had them a cut above, but goal differential is not a guarantor of hockey in May.
Not to speak on behalf of the other pundits, but a large determining factor in my own prediction was due to the league-best defense that had St. Louis tied for the second-best record in 2011-12 behind only Vancouver. With the entire blueline corps barring Carlo Colaiacovo and Kent Huskins returning, as well as the Jennings-winning goalie tandem of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, the Blues promised another season of tight defensive play for their Jack Adams winning coach, Ken Hitchcock.
To their credit, not a single player who suited up for St. Louis this season has had a negative defensive GVT. On the other hand, the goaltending has dropped from All World, to merely All Missouri. Elliott has regressed terribly, if not quite to his sub-replacement level performance of 2010-11, then to his mere adequacy displayed in 2009-10. If anything, he was actually looking like a sub-replacement goaltender for the first half of his year, until an early April run of three straight shutouts, followed by four games in which he surrendered only five goals. His partner in crime, Halak, has been beset by injuries. His shiny 2.14 GAA hides a subpar .899 save percentage. Prior to April, the Blues were only holding on the eighth seed thanks to impressive netminding from rookie replacement Jake Allen (2.46 GAA, .905 save percentage, 1.4 GVT).
Also letting down the squad was a defensive corps that had been considered one of the deepest in the league. Young studs Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk continued to perform admirably while taking on the lion's share of the playing time, and veteran Barret Jackman has been enjoying an under-the-radar career year. Unfortunately, the rest of the blueline group has struggled. Roman Polak, Kris Russell, Wade Redden (subsequently traded to Boston), and Ian Cole have all failed to impress, with none reaching even 4.0 GVT with less than a handful of games to go.
Enter Leopold and Bouwmeester. The two veteran defensemen add nearly 1,400 regular season games of NHL experience to St. Louis, although only 59 playoff games, all played by Leopold. Both can provide offense to the backline while playing heavy minutes against top competition, particularly Bouwmeester, who did most of the heavy lifting in Calgary. The deals have effectively moved Cole and Russell to the press box, as the former has yet to play since the trades were made while the latter has only played twice. It may only be a coincidence, but Elliott's revitalized play came only after the reinforcements were added to the lineup, a period that has seen the Blues win 18 of a possible 24 points, only twice surrendering more than two goals in a given game.
With the revamped backline, the Blues are now very close to securing a playoff spot, needing only one win in their final three games to mathematically seal the deal. Their top two pairs of Pietrangelo-Bouwmeester and Shattenkirk-Jackman make St. Louis a credible threat to play above their playoff seeding as spring sets in.
Acquired C/LW Matthew Lombardi from the Phoenix Coyotes in exchange for C Brandon McMillan
There is unlikely to ever be a GM more happy wheeling and dealing than Ducks' GM Bob Murray. Yet with only seven players on the current roster having joined the organization through trade, it might be that Murray is slowing down. Either that, or putting more faith into the scouting staff that led them to draft franchise icons Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry (not to mention third wheel Bobby Ryan) and sign this year's great find, goaltender Viktor Fasth, from relative anonymity in Sweden. Of the players brought in by trade, only stealth Norris candidate Francois Beauchemin and two-way forward Andrew Cogliano can rightly be viewed as key players on the squad that has driven the Ducks to the Pacific Division championship and the likely two seed in the Western Conference.
So why bother bringing in Lombardi, who has scarcely been more productive than the man going in the opposite direction? Both Lombardi and McMillan can carry bottom-six roles with ample penalty killing duties thrown in. One possible reason is that McMillan, who received ample ice time last year under Randy Carlyle, was relegated to the press box and the AHL after Bruce Boudreau took over behind the bench. The 23-year-old has spent the majority of this season in the bus league again, only getting six opportunities to pull on the Ducks' sweater. Although McMillan had a rough season in Norfolk, he has a history of positive contributions at both the NHL and AHL level and still has abundant youth on his side.
While a lack of strength on the draw may prevent Lombardi from returning to a role of penalty killing specialist, the newcomer at least seems to have a role in Anaheim, having been given regular third line duties since coming over in trade. That said, he has not actually provided much in six games for Anaheim, failing to add a single point while accruing a plus-minus of -2, spending four minutes in the penalty box, and losing more faceoffs than he has won. In all honesty, the Ducks could have received the same from McMillan.
Perhaps Murray simply wanted the cap flexibility that comes from picking up a player whose contract is set to expire in exchange for one about to become a restricted free agent, with his salary set to rise. Or perhaps, Murray simply had an itchy trigger finger, not satisfied at only having added David Steckel and Ben Lovejoy through earlier trades. While this exchange is unlikely to have much of an effect on the Ducks, either during the regular season, or during however far they advance in the playoffs, from the standpoint of pure asset counting, the deal is likely to count as a loss in the big picture. VUKOTA saw the two principals as being practically even coming into the year and the future should see the younger man eclipse the 31-year-old new Duck soon enough if he is only given the opportunity.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Acquired D Ryan O'Byrne from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for a 2014 fourth round pick
At the outset of the season, with last year's rookie blueline sensation Jake Gardiner forced to the sidelines with the lingering effects of a concussion, the Maple Leafs turned their blueline grey, with extensive ice time given to the anonymous trio of Korbinian Holzer, Mark Fraser, and Mike Kostka. Even Mike Komisarek got into a few games for good measure. Kostka, a local boy, even saw extensive ice time alongside team captain Dion Phaneuf, regularly playing more than 24 minutes per game as his feel good story clouded many onlookers, including his head coach, to the fact that he simply was not very good. In 32 games, his GVT was exactly zero.
While Mark Fraser has held up his end of the bargain, if being a little too prone to collecting sloppy minor penalties, Holzer was sent back to the AHL in mid-March and Komisarek was banished two days later after spending the majority of the season in the press box.
Kostka had proven himself to be in way over his head in a first pairing role, but with Gardiner not able to recreate the stellar play of his first campaign, the Leafs lacked a viable sixth defenseman to replace the shaggy-haired late bloomer. After flirting with Miikka Kiprusoff (he refused to waive his no trade clause to move to Toronto), Ryan O'Byrne, a former Canadien and Avalanche defenseman, was the sole addition to the Maple Leaf squad that recently secured their first playoff berth since before the previous lockout. A very large man, O'Byrne plays a role very similar to that of Fraser, not shy about throwing around his weight, although largely ineffective in the offensive end due to poor puck possession skills (he has had atrocious Corsi marks the past few seasons) and a little too prone to the minor penalty. One thing O'Byrne added that further allowed Carlyle to mark Kostka as a healthy scratch is that both the newcomer and the new seventh defensemen are right-handed shots. The only other northpaw on the Toronto blueline is Cody Franson.
Expect O'Byrne, a UFA this summer, to continue to play the defensive role alongside the offensively inclined John-Michael Liles on the third pairing for the last few games of this season and however long the Maple Leafs last in the playoffs before he gets the opportunity to test the free agent waters. Although not a splashy move by any means, the native of Victoria, B.C. will provide very good value for the expense of a mid-round draft pick.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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