2014 NHL Trade Deadline: Doug Wilson should take a page from his own playbook
After last year's successful trade deadline spent turning unnecessary players into valuable futures, Doug Wilson's next challenge is to do it all over again this year.
While Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero was widely lauded for "winning" last year's NHL trade deadline, the team executive who truly had the best two-week stretch preceding deadline day may have in reality been one of the many GMs Shero acquired an ineffective, over-the-hill player from. Sharks GM Doug Wilson dealt a 33-going-on-50 Douglas Murray to the Penguins for two second round picks last March, one of three notable trades he pulled off that saw some of San Jose's biggest on-ice liabilities inexplicably transformed into positive-value assets.
Murray and Michal Handzus were the team's two worst players prior to the deadline last season yet fetched three draft picks between them. Forward Ryane Clowe had scored zero goals in 28 games at the time he was dealt to the New York Rangers for a second, a third and a fifth. Wilson then turned around and acquired Raffi Torres and Scott Hannan, better players than Clowe and Murray, for a fraction of the assets he received in his earlier trades. In a series of masterful moves, Wilson not only gained an impressive haul of futures but flipped the rigid "buyer vs. seller" deadline day dichotomy on its head by improving his team through selling off parts of its roster. It was addition by subtraction for a club that shed its three slowest skaters (and again, in Murray and Handzus, its two worst overall players) while transitioning to a more up-tempo, speed-oriented style of play that served them well down the stretch, into their first-round sweep of Vancouver and through this season.
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As this year's trade deadline approaches, with noon tomorrow marking the final time teams are allowed to make player transactions, expecting Wilson to repeat last season's feat is probably unrealistic. For one, the team is no longer weighed down by anchors as significant as Murray and Handzus, largely a testament to the job done by management in retooling the roster a year ago. Furthermore, the players on this year's Sharks squad who most closely resemble Clowe, Handzus and Murray -- in my estimation, Marty Havlat, Adam Burish and Brad Stuart, respectively -- all have term remaining on their contracts as opposed to their impending free agent predecessors, making them far more difficult to move.
Like Clowe, Havlat can still be a useful player when deployed in the right circumstances (i.e., alongside Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture on the only line he's every truly fit in with for an extended stretch during his tenure in San Jose) but his $5 million cap hit through next season is one the cap-strapped Sharks would probably prefer to part with. Unfortunately, that's also why trading him is likely a fantasy; there aren't many teams clamoring to take on that sizable liability, especially considering Havlat's frequent stints on injured reserve and the fact his actual salary outstrips his cap hit by $1 million next year. The best bet here is a compliance buyout.
Burish and Stuart, on the other hand, are slightly more realistic candidates to be Murray'd. Both are likely overpaid for what they provide and have term remaining on their deals as well but in a league that at times comically overvalues grit, leadership and championship experience, both players have those attributes in spades. What they don't quite have, which is the reason they'd represent addition by subtraction in the vein of last year's Handzus and Murray trades, is talent.
Burish, a healthy scratch in the Sharks' win over New Jersey on Sunday, has only appeared in four games this season after undergoing back surgery. Last year, the first of the four-year, $7.4 million contract he signed with San Jose, Burish scored just one goal in 46 games while putting up far and away the worst five-on-five possession and goal differential numbers on the team. He just doesn't bring a whole lot in terms of tangible value to the table, which might be passable for close to league minimum, but at $1.85 million with the Sharks pushing up against the cap's upper limit, the team would certainly be better off without him, both on the ice and on the books.
Stuart isn't nearly a Murray-level black hole but his lack of mobility and puck-averse style of play is comparable to the big Swedish blueliner, which makes it rather unsurprising that 13 of Stuart's 15 most-common teammates have performed better when on the ice without him than with him at five-on-five this season. At this point in his career, he's no longer a top-four defenseman on a Stanley Cup contender. There may not even be room for him on the Sharks' third pairing, given that Scott Hannan has been a much better complement to Jason Demers in that spot this season (with Hannan and Demers on the ice, the Sharks have controlled 53.9% of all shot attempts, compared to just 48.0% with a Stuart/Demers partnership). If a club that isn't on his seven-team no-trade list is willing to take him, the Sharks should jump at the chance to dump Stuart's $3.6 million cap hit this year and next.
As with the trades made last deadline, dealing Burish and Stuart would both save the coaching staff from themselves in some ways and open up the cap space necessary to acquire an undervalued upgrade on defense, the blueline version of what Torres was a season ago. While the Adam Burish, third-line center experiment will hopefully never be attempted again after his disastrous game in Buffalo last week, taking away the coaching staff's option to give him significant minutes (or, really, any minutes at all) would be for the best. Similarly, preventing a Hannan/Stuart pairing from popping up in a playoff series against Los Angeles would be preferable, given that San Jose earns just 38.0% of all shot attempts when those two are a five-on-five pairing; they're so dreadful together they essentially turn the Sharks into the Sabres.
But the ultimate advantage of shedding those salaries would be the cap space the Sharks free up in the process. Per CapGeek.com, the team currently has less than $1.7 million to spend prior to tomorrow's deadline, and that's including Stuart's long-term injured reserve exemption, effectively meaning it's almost impossible for San Jose to add salary without subtracting a comparable amount. That's significant, because the team could most certainly still use a defenseman who can man the left side and capably log second-pairing minutes alongside Dan Boyle or Justin Braun. San Jose has the best center depth in the league when they run Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski down the middle, they have an enviable stable of wingers highlighted by Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns (one that could even be supplemented by the potential return from injury of Tomas Hertl, who resumed skating last week), they're set on the right side of their blueline with the emergence of Braun and Demers and, despite Antti Niemi's struggles this season, his three-year track record as an above-average starter along with Alex Stalock's stellar work as a backup means the team should be fine in net.
It's at left defense where there's an enormous hole in the depth chart after Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Plenty of names have been floated in the rumor mill, including lefty blueliner Andrew MacDonald whose miniscule $550k cap hit would be attractive to the Sharks. Unfortunately, as documented by Kings blog Jewels From The Crown, MacDonald's reputation far outstrips his play; he's a third-pairing guy at best on a contender. Ottawa's Chris Phillips is essentially Brad Stuart by another name and a high-end option like Alex Edler would cost a fortune even if Vancouver was willing to trade him in-division. As far as I can tell, among the players generally believed to be available, that really only leaves two names who could step in and immediately stabilize the second pairing that's been a weakness for the Sharks through much of the year.
One is Ron Hainsey, who the Sharks will face tonight along with the rest of his Carolina Hurricanes teammates. Signed by Jim Rutherford just prior to training camp last fall, Hainsey has been a horse for the 'Canes, averaging more even-strength ice time than any other Carolina defenseman save U.S. Olympian Justin Faulk while starting shifts in his defensive zone more frequently than all but one other Hurricanes blueliner. Despite that, Carolina earns 52.5% of all five-on-five shot attempts with Hainsey on the ice; better than they do with any other defenseman on their roster. A lot of it stems from his ability to minimize defensive zone time by moving the puck efficiently; according to Corey Sznajder of Shutdown Line, only Faulk and highly-touted youngster Ryan Murphy have successfully exited their own end on a higher percentage of their defensive zone puck touches than Hainsey this season among regular Hurricanes defensemen.
Hainsey has spent the vast majority of his ice time this year paired with 25-year-old rookie Brett Bellemore, so it's probably safe to say Hainsey is the one driving things. In fact, remember how Stuart makes 13 of his 15 most-common even-strength teammates worse? Hainsey has the opposite effect, with 13 of the 16 Hurricanes he's spent the most five-on-five ice time alongside this season having posted better possession numbers with him than without. He's also 6'3" and isn't afraid to drop the gloves to protect his teammates, which makes it somewhat curious he hasn't generated more buzz, particularly with Carolina sitting 7th in the Metropolitan Division, seven points shy of the final wild card spot, looking like definite sellers. Perhaps his prominent role with the NHLPA during the lockout rustled some feathers, or GMs aren't looking past his minus-11 on the season (entirely a result of Carolina scoring on less than 5% of their shots with Hainsey on the ice, something completely out of his control) but, whatever it is, their loss could be the Sharks' gain if San Jose clears the cap space necessary to fit Hainsey's $2 million hit. It's unlikely he'll cost more than a 2nd round pick and he's a UFA at season's end so there's really no downside here, while the potential upside is that of solidifying the Sharks' blueline for a lengthy playoff run.
The other player who could fill San Jose's hole on the left side is a familiar one to Sharks fans: Christian Ehrhoff. While that name may evoke images of a slapshot into an opposing shinpad triggering a 2-on-1 rush the other way, rest assured that Ehrhoff isn't the same player he was during his tenure in teal (and, by the way, was never as bad with the Sharks as some made him out to be). On a terrific Canucks team and rotten Sabres team alike, Ehrhoff has been a legitimate top-pairing defenseman who can drive play from the left side like no defenseman the Sharks have employed since...well, Christian Ehrhoff. With the Sabres in the midst of a firesale, Ehrhoff submitted his eight-team no-trade list last week. Assuming the Sharks aren't on it (perhaps they are, given the nature of his departure, but Ron Wilson doesn't work here anymore), it would definitely be worth their while to figure out both a viable offer and a way to fit in his $4 million cap hit.
The real issue with Ehrhoff, of course, is term. He's signed through 2021 and while whichever team acquires him will only need to shell out $18 million in real dollars over the final 7 years of his deal, Doug Wilson has never been a fan of long-term contracts which makes this acquisition fairly unlikely even if the Sharks were able to clear the requisite cap space. Still, $4 million is a very reasonable cap hit for a player who projects to be at least a top-four defenseman for the next three to four seasons. The final three years of his front-loaded contract also have payouts of $1 million each, and an "early retirement" by the German blueliner would inflict a cap recapture penalty on Buffalo rather than the acquiring team. Which is just one reason among many I would hold onto Ehrhoff if I were running the Sabres but all indications are that he's in play which means the Sharks should come calling. After Stuart and Hannan, maybe the third time's the charm in re-acquiring an ex-Shark defenseman?
Ultimately, the Sharks aren't in the same position going into this trade deadline that they were a year ago. They're firmly ensconced in a playoff spot, likely to face the Kings in the first round but still in the running to unseat Anaheim as the Pacific Division leader. They also don't have impending unrestricted free agents on their roster that they need to exchange for value lest they bolt for nothing in the summer, as was the case last season. But given how well Doug Wilson's gameplan of separating the wheat from the chaff, dealing the chaff for draft picks, then acquiring more wheat worked last deadline day, it seems worthwhile to try it all over again if the opportunity arises. This team, as currently constructed, is as good as any in Sharks history and has a legitimate chance to win the Stanley Cup. But a second straight trade deadline of trimming the fat on the roster to make room for something more substantial certainly wouldn't hurt their odds.