Transaction analysis: Early season shakeups

While early season trades are relatively uncommon in the salary-cap era, uncommon is not the same thing as never. In the past two weeks, the Columbus Blue Jackets have responded to an injury stack that has taken away two of their top four and three of their top seven blueliners. The Montreal Canadiens have likewise pulled off two trades whose key objective seems to have been clearing cap space for the 2015-16 season. Also of note, the Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks have pulled off an old-fashioned hockey swap as both organizations look to stem disappointing starts to their collective seasons.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Traded a 2016 5th round draft pick to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for D Jordan Leopold (Nov. 15, 2014)

Claimed D Kevin Connauton off waivers from the Dallas Stars (Nov. 18, 2014)

Young stud Ryan Murray has spent all but 10 days this season on the injured reserve. He was joined one week ago by veteran Fedor Tyutin, who is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with a sprained knee. Without those two, plus seventh defender Cody Goloubef, who is dealing with a leg injury that may keep him out for an extended period, the Blue Jackets were facing a scenario that would have seen Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, Dalton Prout, David Savard, Tim Erixon and Frederic St. Denis as their top six. That is a problem on two levels as eh second pair mentioned would be put in tougher situations than their skills warrant while the final two names on that list are far more troublesome. Erixon still has much of the latent talent that had him drafted in the first round in 2009 and is still only 23 years old. Unfortunately, he has yet to log a full season in the NHL and when he has played, has been sheltered to a very high level. St. Denis, on the other hand, is little more than a replacement player. He only plays when a better player needs replacing and only until his parent team can secure a better replacement.

Jordan Leopold was on the outs in St. Louis, a well-paid ($2.25 million salary), well-traveled (Columbus is his seventh NHL team) veteran who now offers little more than competence from the back. At the cost of a fifth round pick and his remaining 2014-15 salary, the pick-up was a no lose proposition for GM Jarmo Kekalainen. As for the waiver wire addition of the younger Kevin Connauton, he is exactly as Kekalainen was reported as saying he is – “someone who can play in the NHL.” ( Not play well, or play important minutes, but play. Until Tyutin and/or Murray return, that is exactly what Columbus needed. Connauton is on a low money deal and has another year to go before he has a second go round with restricted free agency. He is young enough to maintain some upside in the offensive zone, but old enough that the hopes that he would reach his potential are already dented. At worst, the Blue Jackets can dangle him on the waiver wire once the wounded are walking again, if Connauton fails to impress.

In summary, these were both moves made out of necessity. They won’t make Columbus big winners in and of themselves, but they may help stanch the bleeding for a few more weeks.


Montreal Canadiens

Traded LW Travis Moen to the Dallas Stars in exchange for D Sergei Gonchar (Nov. 11, 2014)

Traded LW Rene Bourque to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for D Bryan Allen (Nov. 20, 2014)

Without any context, these two deals, conducted nine days apart, both seem like pure hockey trades. Digging just a little bit, we can see that both deals are actually very much cap related transactions spurred by the Canadiens. Even after the deals, the Habs have less than $1.5 million in available cap space for the 2014-15 season. Before the two deals were consummated, only two players were scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next summer in Mike Weaver and Manny Malhotra, whose combined hits total only $2.6 million, which does not bode well for a competitive tea that would likely be looking for upgrades. Both outgoing players, Bourque and Moen, have one more season after this one on their current contracts, while the incoming Gonchar and Allen will both see their deals expire after this season.

By jettisoning depth forward Travis Moen, and depth forward-cum-AHLer Rene Bourque, GM Marc Bergevin has opened up $5.18 million in extra cap room for the 2015-16. Bourque had been playing in a bottom six role before he cleared waivers on November 10. Always a streaky player, he had yet to hit a hot stretch this year, totalling only two assists in 13 games. Moen had been playing a fourth line role when he was not a healthy scratch, an occurrence that was repeated five times in 15 games before the trade.

It was quite clear that Moen and Bourque did not feature in future plans in La Belle Province. On the other hand, the Canadiens were hoping to blood young blueliners Nathan Beaulieu and Jarret Tinordi this year after letting them develop slowly with ample AHL time in prior seasons. Unfortunately, neither seemed ready for the task. Tinordi was playing only against below lines and was still a below-grade possession player while Beaulieu was even more sheltered, and while he kept solid possession rates (even better when viewed through the lens of dCorsi –, he had a few high profile gaffes and thus failed to earn the trust of head coach Michel Therrien. Only six other Canadiens have coughed up the puck more often, and each of those has played at least seven more games than the youngster. As such, it only made sense for the Canadiens to give the two young defencemen more time to develop away from the spotlight. Tinordi was demoted back to the AHL the day after Gonchar arrived, while Beaulieu has sat in the press box ever since Allen was given a stall in the Montreal locker room. Whether coincidental or not, the newcomers have similar skill sets to the two unproven blueliners in that Gonchar can take over the offensive defenseman role and play on the second power play unit instead of Beaulieu, while Allen plays the third pairing beef patty role for which Tinordi was being groomed. And will continue to be groomed for at least one more year.

Dallas Stars/San Jose Sharks

Dallas traded D Brenden Dillon to San Jose for D Jason Demers and a 2013 3rd round draft pick (Nov. 21, 2014)

Two teams from whom much was expected this year and little has thus far been delivered have mutually decided to shake up their rosters a little bit. Dillon was paying second pairing minutes with Dallas while Demers had been bumped from the second pair to the third through the return of Brent Burns to the blueline and the emergence of Mirco Mueller as a trusted defender.

While Demers has shown more ability to contribute to the offensive game in the past, his play this year has been somewhat shallow and his meagre possession metrics come in spite of having been protected in terms of both zone starts and quality of competition by Todd MacLennan. Furthermore, with-you-without-you metrics ( show that Demers’ teammates tend to do better without the blueliner, although, considering that his two most frequent partners since 2012-13 – Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns – are both top notch players no matter who they play with, we should take that with a few grains of salt.

From the Dallas perspective, there may have been some leftover acrimony from the contentious and drawn out contract negotiations with Dillon in the offseason. Dillon did not agree to terms until October 2, and only on a one year deal. Perhaps anticipating another slog, Jim Nill pulled the plug on the former undrafted free agent for a player who was recently a viable second pairing defender and who is locked up for one more season past this one at a reasonable price of $3.65 million. That he was able to leverage the additional team control and the supposedly better play of Dillon into a future third round pick sways the deal in his favor ever so slightly. It doesn’t hurt that Demers is a coveted right handed shot, which, along with youngster John Klingberg, makes two on the Dallas squad. With Brent Burns and Justin Braun both shooting form the right in San Jose, an extra right handed shot was not as critical with the Sharks. For now, Demers will play alongside Trevor Daley with Dallas, while Dillon will pair up with Brent Burns.

Analytics and common sense can provide our curious minds with feasible reasons for the transactions listed above, but this deal is less transparent from outside the room. The Dillon-Dallas contract squabble may be something tangible, but it may be a red herring. Demers has struggled a bit in possession this year, but his track record is long enough to expect some regression given a larger sample size. Ultimately, it may actually be smarter to tie the impetus for this deal with the move that sent Sergei Gonchar packing from the Lone Star state to Montreal, covered above. The Stars expected Gonchar to play offensive minutes but were unhappy with his performance since signing last year. Brenden Dillon, for all of his attributes, is no one’s definition of a power play quarterback. Trevor Daley has been great in the early going, on pace to crush his career offensive norms, but the Stars are wise to assume that will not continue as his current 20.9% shooting percentage is nearly 400% his career numbers. Demers provides them with another option, along with the aforementioned Klingberg, for offense from the blueline. On the other hand, we have San Jose, which has struggled with shot suppression, allowing 31.5 shots against per game, 22nd leaguewide, looking to add a better defensive presence to ease the load on Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock in net. From those angles, we are looking at a classic hockey trade mixed with a change-of-scenery swap that has a good chance of working out well for all concerned.

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