Duhatschek Notebook: Why the Flames shouldn’t trade Gaudreau and how defending smaller players is changing
By Eric Duhatschek
Nov 22, 2019 70
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
Under what circumstances would an NHL team trade its best player in season?The question arose this week as the sky was falling in two fiercely unhappy Canadian markets – Toronto and Calgary – where the early-season results didn’t come close to matching the sky-high expectations that both the Maple Leafs and the Flames had going into the season.
The primary difference?
In Toronto, the focus was almost squarely on coaching – and whether Mike Babcock’s style and tactics were the right approaches, given the Leafs’ personnel. On Wednesday, the Maple Leafs answered the question for us. They didn’t think so either.
Babcock, the highest-paid coach in NHL history, will now have a new distinction – the highest-paid unemployed coach in NHL history. If Babcock wants to, he can – for the rest of this year and for three more years after that – earn more money NOT to coach in the NHL than anyone still working in the game. Prediction: For the foreseeable future, no coach is going to approach the $50-million mark in salary (eight-year term) that the Leafs coughed up to lure Babcock to Toronto.
In Calgary, by contrast, the lightning rod was a far more puzzling choice – Johnny Gaudreau, their perennial scoring leader who, by his usual lofty standards, has been mired in a frustrating month-long scoring drought.
Let’s check the numbers. In 25 games, Gaudreau has five goals, 18 points; a shooting percentage of 7.5 percent and is currently outside the top 50 in NHL scoring. Compare that to a year ago over the same time frame and Gaudreau has nine goals, 28 points, a 12.8 percent shooting percentage and was tied with, among others, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Leon Draisaitl and Mark Stone for 17th in league scoring. Gaudreau eventually scored 99 points last season, tied for seventh overall in the NHL scoring race.
His playoffs weren’t nearly as successful and now his team is in a dreadful stretch, having lost six games in a row, three by shutout and have been outscored 23-5 in that span. Furthermore, they haven’t played with the lead in two full weeks, which has created a Leaf-like level of hysteria in Calgary.
On Twitter, #TradeGaudreau became a thing. Some were suggesting that the Flames need to sit Gaudreau a game to drive the point home about his struggling ways. Others, more dramatically, believe the time has come to explore trade options for Gaudreau to see what the market may bear.
This, of course, would be a massive overreaction to a player that is unquestionably frustrated by perhaps the most challenging period of his NHL career.
But here’s the cold-water reality test for anyone who legitimately believes Gaudreau should be on the move:
In season, there is no possible way of getting value for him, even if you thought trading him at this precise moment in time was a good idea – which it isn’t. You wouldn’t sell a quality stock if it was having a bad cyclical quarter – just so you could lock in your losses – and you wouldn’t sell low on a hockey player who is arguably your most valuable asset.
Gaudreau has, and should still for the foreseeable future, return great value on the Flames’ investment. He is in the fourth year of a six-year contract he signed back in 2016 for reasonable dollars ($6.75-million per year). He is 26 – or right around the median age for NHL players this season. And while GMs are becoming far less trustworthy of players aged 30 or above, the reality is, Gaudreau is still a prime-time talent immersed in a discouraging slump.
Nominally, there is a belief in the NHL that no player is untouchable anymore – and while that may be true in theory, it isn’t in practical terms.
Edmonton isn’t trading either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl, under any circumstances. Crosby, Ovechkin, Nathan MacKinnon – the list of players who are not going to be traded isn’t long, but it is select and Gaudreau falls into the category.
Once in a while, a team will trade a star player as a prelude to a rebuild, but the Flames aren’t that team. Except for Mark Giordano, their core is young, with lots of tread left on the tires. In other words, they are not Ottawa Senators, a team that aggressively shopped its top players on the trade market over a 12-month period, with the very specific goal of a complete franchise reset. The Senators eventually moved on from Stone, Matt Duchene, Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman, but that was a team on a mission to rebuild. It remains to be seen how their strategy pans out.
A more pertinent example of what can go wrong when you trade away a top player occurred when the Buffalo Sabres dealt Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis. All that did was help the Blues win the Cup. Once upon a time, the Atlanta Thrashers traded away Marian Hossa, soon after he finished sixth in the 2007 scoring race. All that did was help the Pittsburgh Penguins get to a Stanley Cup final; and eventually, help the Chicago Blackhawks win more Cups. Hossa may get elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2020, in his first year of eligibility. The best player going the other way in the trade, Colby Armstrong, is an exceptional analyst on hockey and figure skating – but is not going to the Hall of Fame anytime soon, unless it’s a comedy Hall of Fame.
(Jeff Curry / USA TODAY Sports)Way back in the day, the Boston Bruins traded away Joe Thornton after he was the third-leading scorer in 2003 for three players who had journeymen careers. Thornton too will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
The evidence suggests, overwhelmingly, that trading an accomplished player that’s disappointing you in the moment – for a little of this and a little of that – never ends well.
Many believe that in time, the Philadelphia Flyers may end up with Gaudreau once his contract expires, if he decides to shop the market and wants to play the second half of his career closer to home. But it’s unlikely the Flyers would part with a piece as big as Sean Couturier to land Gaudreau now – and to even consider such a move for anything less isn’t prudent asset management.
“The problem with trading your best player is you have to get back – guaranteed – a guy who’s going to produce similar results,” said one former NHL executive. “You can’t gamble in any way shape or form. The risk is so high and the reward – of what you get back – may not be much better than what you have. You’re always hesitant to do it because it can be the kiss of death for a manager or a coach if you’re wrong. And let’s be honest: Almost everybody in the sport is really afraid to put themselves on the line that way.”
Both Dom Luszczyszyn and Sean Tierney have explored Gaudreau’s scoring decline from an analytics point of view, and have come to a couple of reasonable conclusions: That both his shot-rate and his high-danger chances are down and that, in turn, has a direct correlation as to why his overall numbers have fallen.
But Gaudreau isn’t the only player of his size (small) and skill set (highly effective in open ice) that isn’t producing at the same level they were a year or two ago. Patrick Kane essentially opened the door for players of that stature, and soon the likes of Gaudreau, Alex DeBrincat, Cam Atkinson, Clayton Keller, Tyler Johnson and others followed Kane into the room. To varying degrees, they all thrived. And yet this year, all seem to be finding the going collectively tougher.
Coaching is all about making adjustments and it looks as if teams have made some in how they defend against players in this category. They are getting in their faces a little more, closing off the ice faster, taking away their passing options, forcing them to the perimeter if they can and wherever possible, putting the body on them. And if you’re not getting nearly the same time – or space – that would go a long way in explaining why someone like Gaudreau’s high-danger chances are way down.
Now Kane is certainly an outlier here, and I’m going to give Mitch Marner an incomplete grade because of his injury and to see where the Leafs’ coaching change may take his game. But Marner’s numbers were down too (18 points in 18 games; he had 36 points in his first 26 games a year ago, on the way to a 94 points-in-82-games season).
My go-to analyst when it comes to coaching theory and evolution is Dave King, the former NHL, Olympic and international coach. Despite being retired, he watches NHL games every night and is also working on a memoir. I wanted to test my theory – that NHL teams have adjusted the way they defend against the smaller, skilled high hockey IQ players – against what King was seeing.
Here was his take:
“For a lot of those little guys, part of their success is, they have a terrific sense of always being a second or two ahead of when a turnover actually occurs,” King said. “It means, as soon as they sense it happening, they’re on the move.
“Most players don’t have that ability, so they have to wait for the turnover to actually happen before they turn and attack. By contrast, these guys we’re talking about anticipate it and see it and can visualize it and process it. They have the ability to make that instantaneous decision, and go from defending to attacking, and striking quickly into open ice. That’s their asset. They’re using their speed to get to open ice, which is where they need to be, to be successful.
“What I see a lot of teams doing is, they’re saying, ‘when you’re out against a guy like Gaudreau or someone else like him, let’s make sure to make solid plays – and if we’re not sure, let’s not make a risky play. Let’s make sure the puck is going behind him, so he’s got to start from deep in his own end. Let’s not give them any transition ice or transition moments. Let’s make sure they never get behind us; that they’re always in front of us.’
“What you’re also trying to do is get them frustrated. Bump them, get them off their games, slow them down. Because once you slow these guys down, then their size becomes a detriment, not an advantage.
“I coached against Pavel Bure. He was the first of these guys. With Bure, he was already gone. That was his mindset. That’s why he got all those breakaways. He got that open ice in front of him. He got separation because he was always going for it, and he was very good at it and he didn’t screw it up very much.”
For King, coaching always was a bit of a chess match.
If a smaller player is now facing a larger challenge, what would he do as a coach, to help get them back on track?
“I would start by getting our video guy to cut plays of when they were more effective, to see if they’ve changed their games at all and to see if any hesitation has crept in. Maybe they’re not doing what they did before. For them to be effective, there has to be a little cheat in their games. Now to me, cheat is anticipation. It’s not a negative quality. I’m not suggesting that they flagrantly cheat either.
“But are you playing the game you need to play to be successful? And if you’re not, I would be telling them: ‘You gotta get back to your game.’ I would also make sure they know: ‘We accept the way you play – and understand there’s some risk to it and that it isn’t always going to work out.’ You’re not telling them to get out there, way ahead of the puck, but you are assuring them, if you see a turnover happening, do your thing. Trust your instincts.
“With some players, their instincts just aren’t good enough, so if they start playing that way and cheating, they’re going to be wrong too much. But these guys you’re talking about have great instincts – and they’re right most of the time. The odd time, they’ll make that break into the open ice in advance of the turnover occurring, and they’re going to be wrong – but as a coach, you have to live with that a little bit.”
(Len Redkoles / NHLI via Getty Images)As they have for some time now, NHL GMs met in Toronto this week following the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. They gather in the Toronto head offices where they review the rule changes they’ve put into place for the new season, discuss what, if anything, needs to be tweaked or otherwise amended and then blue-sky ideas for longer deliberation at their spring, post-trade deadline get together in Florida.
But it also gets everyone in the room together to discuss where their teams are at and what, if anything, they can do to better themselves.
This has been a wholly upside-down start to the season. Some of the teams that were bad early – Dallas, San Jose, Philadelphia, Los Angeles – are playing better now.
Some of the teams that were good early – Buffalo, Anaheim, Carolina, Nashville – have fallen back. A few squads – St. Louis, Washington and the New York Islanders – relentlessly charge along and the rest of the league is in a win-one/lose-one pattern that has almost every team still in a tight cluster. Seven points separate Carolina, at fifth in the East, from the New York Rangers, who are 14th and hold three games in hand. Nine points separate Colorado, third in the West, from Los Angeles, which is 15th.
Three of last year’s division champions – Calgary, Tampa and Nashville – would miss the playoffs if they started today.
What improvements could be made?
Nashville’s kind of interesting. For me, the GMs meetings also represent the unofficial opening of the trade talk season, where preliminary conversations about different trade scenarios that were being framed on the phone and through text messages can now be advanced in face-of-face conversations. Hypothetically, if you are the Predators, would you consider trading Kyle Turris for Ilya Kovalchuk? And before the collective heads explode in Predator Nation, hear me out.
It wouldn’t be because you necessarily think Kovalchuk’s addition answers any questions, though he might. But at some point, if you have to move Turris’s contract before the start of next year, when Roman Josi’s new deal kicks in, to manage your salary-cap, can you get him off the books by taking on Kovalchuk?
Josi’s new contract provides him with a salary that he’s earned through his play. But organizationally, from Nashville’s perspective, they now have to pay him market value instead of counting on him being the best bargain in the league. Sometimes, when a player gets a raise, the bump in salary is a couple of extra million dollars that you need to find under the salary cap. In Nashville’s case, it’s an extra $5 million. (Josi goes from a $4-million cap hit to $9.059 million).
That’s a big year-over-year jump. Mikael Granlund and Craig Smith come off the books after this year, so that’s a cumulative $10 million saved.
But Turris is 30, has four years left at $6 million after this season and he’s playing just 13:34 minutes a night. Unless they really think he can shift to wing at this late stage of his career, he’s going to be playing behind Duchene and Ryan Johansen forever. Realistically, no team can afford to pay that kind of money over that kind of term for a player in your bottom six.
Enter Kovalchuk. You’d have to convince him that Nashville is a place where you could take a shot at winning – because he has no-move protection. The money he earns is comparative nickels and dimes after Dec. 15 (a prorated $700,000), which is Kovalchuk’s base pay (the rest of the $6.25 million cap hit would be paid out in signing bonuses by then).
And then, next year, of course – you’d have to deal with short-term pain to achieve long-term gain (one more season at $6.25-million cap hit, though the actual dollars are less – $4.25 million and maybe L.A. takes some of it back).
Again, not perfect.
But sometimes, you have to consider the-lesser-of-two-evils approach to the trading game – which can sometimes be a) a difficult concept to process and b) even harder to rationalize to your fan base, which still tends to focus on the player talent involved in trades and not the pesky financial complications that play a part in practically every NHL transaction that occurs nowadays.