Don’t Hold Your Breath

Don’t Hold Your Breath

"Interesting offer. Throw in a slice of pie. Apple. Then we're talking."

For as much as Brian Burke continues to show the fanbase that no stone will go unturned in his quest to rebuild the franchise, the fact of the matter is, the consummation of a trade is extraordinarily difficult in a salary-capped league where parity reigns. Especially this early into the season, at a point where many teams are still in the process of determining their needs.

Take the Calgary-Carolina deal, for example.  Two weeks ago, Flames’ defender Marc Giordano was signed to a five year, $20m contract extension. Knowing that the extension would ultimately not allow them to re-sign Ian White next season (Calgary had $21m tied up in their top six defenders to begin the season, and Giordano jumps from 800k to $4m next year), the Flames decided to let teams know he was available.

Many are seeing this as a panic move for the Flames, one which given the overall parity of the league is surprising in its haste. It is not a matter of who immediately won or lost the trade — this one appears, for the time being, to be fairly even — rather, it’s a matter of how much more the Flames could have received for White had they simply held onto him a while longer in the hopes that he, and the team, would turn things around. What is the impetus to trade him while he is at his lowest value, other than a desperate attempt at igniting a spark? After all, it’s not as though Giordano’s extension kicks in during the season. And money isn’t the issue anyway; in terms of monetary savings the Flames come out roughly $600K ahead on this deal, an amount which doesn’t provide the team a large degree of added flexibility.

What happened in Calgary was quite simple: the team is in an awful funk, needs a spark, and the long-term implications of the  Giordano contract extension created an opportunity. That’s all well and good, but the consensus appears to be the Flames — sitting 7 points out of the playoff mix with 65 games yet to play — may have sold themselves short in terms of potential return by pulling the trigger as early as they did.

What is interesting is how closely the Leafs’ situation compares to that of the Flames. While the panic in Leafs Nation during their recent skid has been palpable, the fact of the matter is Toronto remains only 4 points out of the 8th and final playoff position, with (like Calgary) 65 games remaining in their regular season schedule. The Flames made a deal out of desperation for a spark: a trade in which a lesser return is received for the hope of short-term benefit, at a point where the season is not yet 1/4 of the way complete. The Leafs appear to be taking a more patient approach, electing to hang onto their assets until a time comes where they can command a higher return than the current moment will allow.

What it comes down to is, what is the benefit of rushing to make a move? In a strong hockey market, temporarily staving off the anger, frustration, and impatience of the fanbase is not reason enough. If making a move for the sake of making a move is the only logical explanation — as it appears to be in Calgary — does such a transaction ultimately benefit the organization? Or would the club be better-served to hold onto their assets until a point arises where either (a) the window to climb back into the race is beginning to shrink (midpoint of the season), or (b) maximum value can be returned (trade deadline)? In either scenario, the opportunity to net a move valuable return for the same asset is far greater due to the proximity of the post-season.

After all, there is a reason the majority of in-season NHL trades are consummated between mid-January and the trade deadline.

All this is not to say the Maple Leafs have no interest in making any sort of a deal. Of course they do; every team will examine all avenues toward improvement. But to expect an “impact trade” to be there for the taking a mere 17 games into the season is to ignore not only post-lockout trade history and salary cap implications, but also the matter of parity. Teams are too close to each other in the standings (for instance, the Leafs are 4 points out of 8th yet sit 13th in the East) at this point for it to make sense for GMs to consider offering up impact players, or “salary dump” deals. Those are unlikely to come until a far greater degree of separation exists in the standings.

The rumour-du-jour (there always is one) has the struggling Devin Setoguchi and a draft pick on the Leafs’ radar, with Francois Beauchemin and a prospect supposedly going the other way.  Interestingly, this rumour did not get published until Beauchemin reportedly left a Leafs’ practice early … funny how that works. Predictably, there was nothing to the practice angle; after all, the rumour made little sense to begin with.

Would the Leafs be interested in Setoguchi? Sure they would — we’re talking about a 23 year old with upside who has already had a 31-goal season and is easily affordable — anybody can come up with that part of it. But those reasons why the Leafs would be interested are the same reasons 28 other teams would be, also, and the same reasons the Sharks would want to hang onto him, or at the very least hold out for a more impactful return than a second-pairing defender who earns $2m more per season and whose contract runs a year longer.

This isn’t rocket science; payroll information is readily available for all teams, and should be consulted as a mandatory part of “rumour reality” diagnosis. The Sharks, up against the cap after re-signing core players Thornton, Marleau and Pavelski (on top of lengthy commitments to Heatley and Boyle), simply do not have the ability to take on another large salary.  Sure, a guy like Beauchemin could certainly fill a need on their blueline. But so too could a number of defenders who don’t happen to be on the books for $3.8m a year.

Never mind the simple angle of moving a struggling young winger with a terrific upside for a veteran defender whose best years came as a support player. The inclusion of the draft pick was my favorite part.

All levity aside, the point of this post is to suggest that if you believe the Calgary-Carolina deal has opened the proverbial trade floodgates, you should probably prepare to be disappointed.  The Maple Leafs are not going to rush a deal for the sake of making one, or as a response to fan unrest.  They will make a deal that makes sense for both the current season and beyond, as opposed to running the risk of selling themselves short for the mere hope of a short in-season gain.

And for that type of a deal to emerge, be it a struggling young player or (especially) a salary cap casualty, the Leafs are likely looking at January at the earliest … just like last season.

In the meantime, enjoy the rumours that will continue to emerge. Just be sure to take them with a grain of salt, a dash of common sense, and a healthy dose of the salary charts.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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