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NHL trade deadline: What to look for and what to avoid

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MattMoulson.jpg

Is Matt Moulson the right player to trade for?

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When the rumor mill finally stops spinning and the NHL's 30 general managers complete whatever trades they are going to make before the Mar. 5 deadline, everybody is going to be happy with the deals they made and the final product they are putting on the ice.

At least for a couple of hours.

At least until the games start back up again. 

Contenders will feel they have that one player that is going to put them over the top and bring them a Stanley Cup. The sellers have their magic beans (draft picks, prospects) that offer hope for a big reward and brighter days in the future. 

Some of them will succeed. Some of them will not.

Sometimes it's completely out of their control. Sometimes it isn't.

Beware the small sample sizes and random chance

There are no guarantees when it comes to the missing a piece a team thinks it is trading for at the deadline. This is especially true when the player in question is an upcoming unrestricted free agent that is prepared to test the open market the following summer. The team is getting a player for a very short period of time, and hockey in limited samplings can produce some misleading -- and at times frustrating -- results. 

Let's take Buffalo Sabres forward Matt Moulson, a likely candidate to be moved before the trade deadline, as an example as to how easily a general managers reputation can be changed based on one deadline deal. 

Moulson is an upcoming free agent playing for a dreadful Buffalo team that could trade any player on the roster. As a player that is on pace for his fourth 20-goal season in the past five years (the only year he didn't reach that mark was last year's lockout shortened season) Moulson is sure to be an attractive option for a team that needs offense.

There is, however, a catch.

Moulson's only real skill in the NHL is his ability to go to the net and score goals (and no, that's not a bad thing).

If he is doing that, he is a fine player to have. If he's not, you don't really notice him. 

The problem with that is any team that gets Moulson is only going to have him for maybe 18 regular season games (plus whatever playoff games they might play). Moulson, like every player in the NHL, can be prone to streaks where he scores goals in bunches. And like every player in the NHL he can also be prone to streaks where no matter what he does and no matter how hard he tries, the puck simply does not go in the net for him.

It's impossible to predict when these stretches will happen over the course of a season, and if you're only talking about one 18-game stretch it can very easily go either way. 

Just consider that since the start of the 2009-10 season Moulson has had 11 18-game stretches where he's scored 12 or more goals. That's exciting. For a team on the playoff bubble or fighting for a top spot in the division that could be the difference between getting in or not getting. The difference between getting a top spot or having to play a higher seed in the first-round.

But he's also had 11 18-game stretches where he has scored two or less. That is … not anywhere near as exciting. 

Both stretches seem just as likely to happen in any one particular 18-game stretch. 

And it can happen to anybody at anytime.

During the 2010-11 season James Neal was sent from Dallas to Pittsburgh in a deadline deal. Today, we know of James Neal as a 40-goal scorer and one of the best wingers in the league. At the time, he was a young, up-and-coming player that had a couple of 20-goal seasons under his belt and was going to upgrade an injury-plagued Pittsburgh lineup. In his first 27 games with the team that season (20 regular season and seven playoffs) he scored on just two of his 72 shots. Was he playing poorly? Was it a bad trade? Of course not. It was just a random cold streak at the wrong time where everybody would notice it.

At the 2013 trade deadline Washington sent a recent top-10 pick, forward Filip Forsberg, to Nashville for Martin Erat, a consistent second-line winger that was always a sure bet to score 15-20 goals every year. He scored one goal in his final nine games with the Capitals after the trade and followed it up with one goal in his first 52 games this year. 

None of this is to suggest that a team should not be willing to take the chance on a player like Moulson, or any rental for that matter. You just have to understand that there is a chance that it may not work out as planned. It doesn't necessarily mean your analysis failed, or that you made a bad trade.

Sometimes hockey and the peaks and valleys that every player rolls through in a given season gets in the way. 

Your first-round draft pick isn't worth that much

Draft picks are a popular form of currency for general managers at this time of year with first-and second-round picks changing hands many times in the days and weeks leading up to deadline.

If you're a fan, however, you probably shouldn't overvalue that pick because it's probably not worth as much as you think it is. Especially the first-round pick. 

The only teams willing to give up their first-round draft pick this time of year are teams that are pretty sure of their postseason standing, so you're more than likely talking about a mid-to-late first-round pick which are at times nothing more than a roll of the dice. Once you get past lottery picks, or even the first six or seven picks in most draft classes, the odds of finding a top-line player or an All-Star drop dramatically, and NHL general managers surely know this. 

That's why draft picks, even the first-rounders, are rarely the focal point of trades this time of year and are usually exchanged straight up for second-tier players, or as part of much larger packages for top players.  

Just as an example, let's take a look at the 11 first-round draft pick that has changed hands in the month leading up to the trade deadline in each of the past three years.

  • Pittsburgh traded its 2013 first-round pick along with prospects Ben Hanowski and Kenny Agostino to Calgary for Jarome Iginla, an unrestricted free agent after the season
  • St. Louis traded its 2013 first-round pick along with goaltender Reto Berra and Mark Cundri to Calgary for Jay Bouwmeester
  • Minnesota traded its 2013 first-round pick along with a second-round pick, goalie Matt Hackett, and prospect Johan Larsson to Buffalo exchange for Jason Pominville
  • Nashville traded its 2012 first-round pick to Nashville for Paul Gaustad
  • Los Angeles traded a conditional first-round draft pick along with defenseman Jack Johnson to Columbus for Jeff Carter
  • Detroit traded its 2012 first-round draft pick and Sebastien Piche to Tampa Bay for defenseman Kyle Quincey
  • Los Angeles traded a 2011 first-round draft pick and Colten Tuebert to Edmonton for Dustin Penner
  • St. Louis traded Erik Johnson, Jay McClement and a first-round draft pick to Colorado for Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart
  • Boston traded a 2011 first-round pick and Joe Colborne to Toronto for Tomas Kaberle
  • Philadelphia traded a first-and second-round pick to Toronto for Kris Versteeg
  • Nashville traded a first-and second-round pick to Ottawa for Mike Fisher

It's a useful asset and is a fine sweetener to a larger deal, but if it's the focal point of your trade you should not expect an enormous return. 

Don't be afraid to buy low

Sometimes the best trades are the ones that slide under the radar. During the 2012-13 trade deadline the Pittsburgh Penguins stole the show by acquiring Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray. Five years earlier, that collection of names would have been a big deal. In '12-13 … it wasn't. It was just a bunch of declining veterans that slowed them down.

The trade that worked out the best for them -- and is still paying off one year later -- was the last-minute deal that sent a conditional draft pick to the Carolina Hurricanes for Jussi Jokinen. 

Jokinen was always a skilled player that put up second-line production in tough minutes, but he was having a brutal year in the box score and getting crushed by some shooting percentages that were off of his career norms. It was to the point that he was on waivers just before the deadline and went unclaimed by every team in the league. A Brooks Orpik slap shot to Sidney Crosby's jaw created a need for Pittsburgh to add another center, so they completed the deal with Carolina even picking up some of Jokinen's salary. 

One year later Jokinen's percentages have regressed back closer to his career norms and he has been one of Pittsburgh's best players.  

The Los Angeles Kings made a similar deal a few years earlier when they acquired a down-on-his luck Justin Williams from the Carolina Hurricanes in a late deal that saw them give up the talented, yet frustrating Patrick O'Sullivan. Williams, like Jokinen last season, had always been an outstanding possession player but was fighting through some poor shooting luck that dragged down his goal and point totals. He was a prime candidate to bounce back in the future, which is exactly what he did in the years that followed for Los Angeles, emerging as a top player on their 2012 Stanley Cup team. 

If you're looking for a similar player this year you might want to go in the direction of Edmonton's Ales Hemsky or Florida's Tomas Fleischmann. 

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