07 March 2007

The growing revolt against deadline deals

to be published at SportsBlurb.com and SportingNews.com

We’re just over a week past the NHL’s trading deadline, and almost as soon as all the deals were finally reported came the latest wave of complaints about a trend that has become the most watched aspect of deadline week: the acquisition of the so-called "rental player.” A “rental player” refers to an impending unrestricted free agent who is dealt away with the general thinking that it’s better for a team to get some value for him now rather than risk losing the player altogether at the end of the season, and getting nothing. This year’s deadline saw no shortage of this scenario - in the cases of such big names as Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin, Todd Bertuzzi, and Ryan Smyth, their former teams gave up the name player for the final six weeks of the regular season in exchange for a potential future bonanza in the guise of draft picks and/or prospects.

The nature of the complaints isn’t necessarily with the deals themselves, but rather with some general notion that the entire process is unseemly – that some players will inevitably be welcomed back with open arms to their original teams and re-sign with them as early as July 1st, when open season on free agents begins. Two notable cases like this occurred last season with the eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes, who acquired both Doug Weight from the St. Louis Blues and Mark Recchi from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Weight played just 23 regular season games for Carolina (along with four rounds of the playoffs) then re-signed a multi-year contract with the Blues after the season. Recchi (20 regular season games with Carolina) is now back with the Penguins in similar fashion.

There's an argument gaining steam among some fans and media members that the league needs to step in and create some sort of rule to prevent these types of tacit agreements, where Team A might say “we’re trading you to Team B where you have a good chance at winning the Cup, but we’re planning on re-signing you as soon as the season ends.” One specific suggestion that is making the rounds and was even discussed briefly last Saturday on CBC's Hockey Night In Canada was for the league to go so far as to make a rule that would prevent impending unrestricted free agents who are dealt at the deadline from re-signing with their original teams for a period of one year.


The reasons for why this is a bad idea are numerous, but here are a few:

1) The completely arbitrary nature of such an arrangement. Where would the cutoff lie? Deadline day? A week before? What happens if next year the Toronto Maple Leafs feel it's truly in their best interest to deal Mats Sundin on January 1st, well over a month before the trading deadline. Would that qualify as a deadline deal? Who decides?

2) With one of the negative aspects of modern pro sports being the fact that salaries are likely the most important part of constructing a team’s roster, it becomes necessary for teams to feel the need to deal away a hometown hero before he enters unrestricted free agency. So why should the league then take away that team's complimentary ability to take advantage of the situation, thereby improving their long-term future? In fact, it’s not a bad strategy for a lower-echelon team to sign or trade for a big-ticket player with a one-year deal, with every intent of dealing him at the deadline. And conversely, if a contending team makes the decision that giving up a large package of futures for a short-term “rental” gives them a legitimate shot at the playoffs or the Cup, why take that opportunity away from them?

The nebulous nature of such a suggestion makes it completely unworkable. Especially when you know that New Jersey Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello will find (or create) some loophole to his advantage, perhaps claiming his team follows the Julian Calendar.

If the league really wants to make an improvement that is not nearly as arbitrary, here's a simple solution: move the trading deadline back to the All-Star break. As it stands now, the trading deadline occurs far too late in the year - after roughly 75% of the regular season has been played. Most teams had only 20 games left on their schedule after the deadline. Contrast that with deadlines in Major League Baseball (after 65% of the schedule, at the end of July) or the NFL (38% - after just six games) and it seems even worse. If the deadline were moved back to a time say just after the all-star break in January, teams would be less-apt to sell off talent as with less of the schedule having been played, more teams are by definition still in the playoff hunt.

In the end, though, I don’t mind things the way they are. A smart club that has fallen out of contention will realize that selling off a potentially high-priced asset can give the team far more success in the long run than re-signing the one player that will take up a significant percentage of the team’s salary cap. For example, see the St. Louis Blues trade of Keith Tkachuk to Atlanta for Glen Metropolit and three draft picks. Metropolit was a throw-in, but the picks are the real value. The Blues aren’t going anywhere with Tkachuk, and are likely two to three years from competing. By stockpiling picks, they stand a good chance of developing a number of young players who will hopefully mature together. Now all St. Louis has to do is draft wisely…

Too many times the deadline is seen as powerful clubs taking advantage of the weaker ones and preying on them for talent, but it’s not the powerful clubs that win these deals in the end – it’s the smart ones.

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