How the Sabres can game the market on trade deadline day
On Monday, the hockey world will turn its attention from the ice to Twitter, and other hockey related forums, as they go hunting for the best (and worst) rumors leading up to the 3 PM deadline.
This is the one day of the season when the action takes place off the ice between the GM’s instead of the players. A zero-sum game where teams try to gain the upper hand on rival playoff bound teams, the trade deadline provides an opportunity to tweak or retool your roster depending on what side of the playoff divide you are on. The event these days stretches out to something more of a trade deadline week instead of day, but most of the action is still coming on the final day when the panic really sets in and some bizarre moves are made.
The Buffalo Sabres find themselves on the wrong side of the festivities. They will once again be sellers, though unlike the last few years they hold one of the more prominent pieces available in Evander Kane. Despite being sellers, this trade deadline could provide some much needed flexibility and optimism to the Sabres and their fans. Before I get into the nitty gritty of trade deadline transactions, let’s take a second to understand what’s really going on when we refer to the deadline as a zero-sum game.
A zero-sum game is essentially a scenario where one participants’ gain is balanced out by another’s loss. We can best explain this relationship through the scoreboard. For a team to gain one goal for, another team must be gaining (read as losing) a goal against. The off-ice competition that is the trade deadline is no different. For buyers this is easy to explain. A buying team is doing two things. 1) They are gaining an asset, presumably in an area of need though not always, and 2) By acquiring said player, they ensure that the competition can’t.
The sellers game isn’t quite as clear cut. There’s probably more than one game being played in that arena. Though the league has tried at great lengths to discourage tanking, there will definitely be hefty competition in the chase for young Swedish blueliner Rasmus Dahlin. A lot of teams, including the Sabres, will be trading as much as they can in an attempt to recover assets for unrestricted free agents and put themselves in a position to draft near the top this summer.
However, there’s a long game to be played here as well. Just as a buyer may acquire talent to improve their team and make sure others don’t, a seller can just as usefully position themselves to amass draft capital, prospects with upside and cap flexibility. In the same regard, a seller’s win can directly result in a buyer’s loss. Any time you can get good value for a player you a) can no longer keep and/or may not want to keep, or b) isn’t worth nearly what a buyer is giving, you put a dent into their compete window. It doesn’t sound like much, but the more you can keep a team from expanding and sustaining their Stanley Cup window, the better it is for your future window.
So without further ado, here’s how the Sabres can use these principles to game the market to better position themselves for the future.
Draft picks: One man’s trash, another man’s treasure
This is something fans of rebuilding teams get sick of hearing after a while. “Oh, great, more draft picks that will do nothing for us”, holding the opinion that they should be trading for young players instead. Draft picks are often misunderstood by fans and, far more frighteningly, by general managers.
All a draft pick is to a team is a lottery ticket. Some lottery tickets have better odds than others. While everyone is enamored with the race to the bottom, what really separates a well positioned rebuild and a faltering one is what happens in rounds 2-7.
At the 2013 trade deadline and the days leading up to it, the Sabres committed themselves to a full scale rebuild and went full throttle on bringing in as many draft picks as they could. The final tally for the Sabres by the end of deadline (draft picks only):
- TJ Brennan for a 2013 5th round pick (Gustav Possler)
- Jordan Leopold for a 2013 2nd round pick (Justin Bailey) and 2013 5th round pick (Anthony Florentino)
- Robyn Regehr for a 2014 2nd round pick and 2015 2nd round pick (traded for Hudson Fasching and Nic Deslauriers)
- Jason Pominville for a 2013 1st round pick (Nikita Zadorov) and 2014 2nd round pick (Vaclav Karabacek)
The net gain strictly from picks at that deadline today is a key part in landing Ryan O’Reilly and Justin Bailey. Not bad for one deadline worth of selling. The real story here is the discrepancy in value for buyers and sellers regarding draft picks.
It’s not a secret that playoff contenders are far more likely to move draft picks than roster players and young AHL players/prospects. It is, however, interesting that rebuilding teams and their fans are far more focused on having the return involve bodies rather than draft picks.
The problem with this sort of thinking is that in an effort to maximize return by asking for actual players, you’re actually reducing the assets max value and trading in potential for safety. This sounds nice in theory but when you are at or near the bottom like the Sabres, you need all the lottery tickets you can get. The Pominville trade from 2013 also included Johan Larsson and Matt Hackett, the former is a fourth-liner who has fallen out of favor and the latter no longer plays in the NHL. The picks acquired in the Regehr trade were decent lottery tickets flipped for the always desired “close to NHL ready” prospects in Hudson Fasching and “gritty” forward Nic Deslauriers. It’s hard to speculate what else was out there, but the net gain from the non-draft picks brought in is essentially null at this point.
This is something the Sabres need to avoid with this year’s deadline, especially with Kane. They’re in dire need of high end potential and flexibility, not more middle of the road mediocrity. A buying team’s least valuable asset is a selling team’s most valuable. Buying teams are too busy thinking short term to worry about the extra second or third-rounder they gave up. Again, it may not be as appealing, but when you’re rebuilding you can never have enough lottery tickets. At this point, you’d probably rather take your chances finding a steal with your round 2-7 picks than settle for a collection of average prospects, who may or may not have low end impact to your NHL club.
Exploit the middle class
Keeping on the theme of taking advantage of value discrepancy, the best way for teams to maximize value at the deadline is targeting the ones who incorrectly evaluate their team. In other words, target dumb general managers.
Thanks to the three-point system, the NHL created a sense of overconfidence among playoff pretenders. The meaning of “.500” has been completely warped to a point where teams who should be making deadline decisions based on their roster are making these decisions based on misleading standings. As a general rule, if the general manager can’t evaluate his own team’s performance, he’s probably not good at evaluating what talent to bring in.
Some famous examples of this include:
- Andrew MacDonald to the Flyers for a 2014 3rd round pick, a 2015 2nd round pick and Matt Mangene
- Tumo Ruutu to the Devils for Andrei Loktionov and a 2017 conditional 3rd round pick
- Andrej Sekera to the Kings for a 2015/16 conditional first round pick and Roland Mckeown
- Lee Stempniak to the Bruins for a 2017 2nd round pick and 2016 4th round pick
- John Michael Liles to the Bruins for Anthony Camara, a 2016 3rd round pick and 2017 5th round pick
- Daniel Winnik to the Penguins for Zach Sill, a 2015 4th round pick and 2016 2nd round pick
- Daniel Winnik and a 2016 5th round pick to the Capitals for Brooks Laich, Connor Carrick and a 2016 2nd round pick
I may have missed on a few other deals but you get the idea. That’s a whole lot of lottery tickets for a whole lot of nothing. It’s not just that most of the players involved accomplished very little with their new teams, it’s that the teams themselves really were in no position to be buying in the first place.
Andrej Sekera is a solid top-four defenseman, but the Hurricanes took advantage of a desperate and flawed Los Angeles team and took them to the cleaners. As painful as it is to say, the Toronto Maple Leafs gamed this to perfection. In the two years they bottomed out, Winnik was traded, re-signed and traded again for a total of three draft picks, two of them in the second round. One of those picks was part of the Phil Kessel deal, and the other landed them a decent Swedish prospect in Carl Grundstrom.
The first Winnik deal to Pittsburgh was tailor made as the Leafs had done a good job inflating the value of players they didn’t view as part of their future all year long (see Phaneuf trade with Ottawa) and Pittsburgh took the bait. The franchise wasn’t well positioned for any sort of playoff run and essentially gave away those picks for two goals in 21 games out of Winnik and a quick first round exit.
As advanced stats become more mainstream in the hockey world, these trades should decrease over time. However, for now teams in the middle still see what they want to see in terms of standings and are prone to buying (and buying incorrectly) instead of selling. When these teams buy, it’s almost always an easy score for the selling team.
Buying low, selling high and the land of opportunity
We often hear the phrase “sell high” with rebuilding teams, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do any buying, you just have to do it correctly. Low risk/high reward transactions are a great way to find value as a supplement to drafting. Playoff bound teams often lack patience with younger players as they are more focused on the present than the future and may be more inclined to part with them at a cut price.
Selling teams also usually have more spots available for young players at both the NHL and AHL level. Reduced competition and an increase in ice time may be the kind of boost a struggling young player needs to take his game to the next level. My favorite example is the Ben Bishop/Cory Conacher trade. Tampa Bay played this deal perfectly. Conacher was put in a position to succeed by the Lightning which inflated his value. They managed to convince the Ottawa Senators to buy into Conacher’s breakout year and traded for goaltender Ben Bishop. At the time, the Senators had a bevy of goaltenders in the ranks. Craig Anderson was an established starter, and Robin Lehner was coming off a great AHL performance during the lockout and was doing very well behind Anderson in the NHL. The Senators couldn’t hold on to all three goalies so they opted to deal Bishop, likely betting on Lehner reaching his ceiling. It’s not that this was an incorrect decision, but this was classic buy low/sell high from the Lightning. Bishop was stuck behind too many obstacles in Ottawa and never really had a shot to reach his true potential. Conacher’s value would be the highest it has ever been at the time of the trade as his post Lightning career was spent hovering between the AHL and NHL before going to Euorpe.
A more recent example is the Sven Andrighetto for Andreas Martinsen trade between the Colorado Avalanche and the Montreal Canadiens. This is less extreme than the Bishop trade but still a great get for Colorado buying low on Andrighetto. It’s not like he was particularly bad for the Canadiens, but as a playoff bound team they really weren’t interested in waiting and developing the young Swiss forward. Colorado had nothing to lose and were in a position to provide Andrighetto the time and opportunity he needed to take the next step. At the time of the deal, Martinsen was posting a Corsi for % of 42.8 and relative to his teammates, -6.8%. So not only was he bad on a bad team, he was substantially worse than the other bad players. Still, Montreal thought he’d be an ideal fit and decided to acquire him at the expense of a younger forward with better possession numbers and a higher ceiling. Andrighetto has gone on to post 34 points in 56 games while Martinsen is putting up 22 points in 50 games at the AHL level.
Use financial power, if you can
This one isn’t always applicable as the other three. Not all sellers are in a position where they can take on short term financial hits, but those who can should take full advantage of this. Competitive teams are up against the cap and so any wiggle room they can get on deadline day gives them the flexibility they need to address other areas of need. As a selling team, taking on the short-term cap hit can get you extra assets in the form of picks or prospects. This can also be done in the form of salary retention on expiring contracts.
While watching your team play the role of seller can be hard, the trade deadline can provide a day of excitement and some hope if approached correctly. For the Sabres specifically, it’s a great time to restock the cupboards with extra draft picks (lottery tickets), add in some cost effective young talent and use owner Terry Pegula’s financial might to sway teams to throw in a little something extra. It may not sound like much, but the small edge that can be gained through gaming the market over the next few days can provide Jason Botterill the value he needs to turn the Sabres around.