Things are changing in the NHL, to an extent that would have been impossible to consider even a year ago.
The number of great teams in the league that are now being connected in trade rumors to some of the very best players available seems to be higher than it’s ever been. Toronto, Boston, Tampa Bay, Winnipeg and Nashville are all being mentioned as a potential landing spot for a number of top players, some with years remaining on their contracts rather than being available as pure rentals.
It’s not that good teams haven’t added good players at the deadline before, and it’s certainly not that reported rumors always come to pass. But the sheer volume of those rumors, and the reputation of the insiders reporting them, seems to indicate the lesson NHL GMs are finally learning from the NBA: Yeah, you can be great, but you can always get better.
Two years ago, the Golden State Warriors — fresh off the best regular season in league history and a stunning defeat at the hands of a singular NBA Finals performance by the greatest player to ever put on sneakers — figured they could improve by adding the second-best player alive. So they did. It wasn’t enough to simply be the best in the regular season if they were still susceptible to LeBron James going into killbot mode.
You add Kevin Durant, though, and things are much different; LeBron improved on his numbers in the Finals last year, averaging 34 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists against the best basketball team ever assembled, but the Warriors crumpled the Cavs in five anyway.
Basketball is a game in which results are much less predicated on chance than hockey, in which the best team in the world probably has something like a 52 percent chance to win four games out of seven going head-to-head against the second-best team. There are a lot of reasons for that, of course, but it’s still star power that drives success in the NHL. How many Stanley Cups in the cap era were won by the team with fewer future Hall of Famers than the other? Carolina over Edmonton and that’s probably about it.
NHL teams therefore recognize the importance of locking down star talent, Hall of Fame or not, and doing so aggressively. It’s not enough for Tampa Bay to say it has two guys who have routinely been Norris contenders over the past several years, a handful of elite forwards, and one of the best goalies alive. Steve Yzerman now feels he should pursue a guy like Erik Karlsson, because while it’s nice to have two Norris-caliber defenders on the roster, it’s probably even better to have three.
The same is true of Nashville, which is likewise being linked to Karlsson despite having what the vast majority of observers would agree is the best top-four D group on the planet. This after they also went out and upgraded at center earlier this year by adding a guy who averaged almost 0.7 points per game over the past five seasons with the Senators. Not that Kyle Turris is a superstar or anything, but normally he would be any team’s One Big Acquisition for a given season. Now, he cannot be, for fear that some other elite team will move heaven and earth to acquire someone even better.
Unlike the NBA, where entire teams can be remade twice in seven months (i.e. the Cavs), the constraints the NHL imposes with its hard cap makes things a little more difficult to manage. Therefore, there is no team with the singular ability to remake itself from doormat to contender with a handful of trades and free agent signings. One hesitates to use the term “super team,” which is thrown around liberally in the NBA for good reason, but already-contending NHL clubs certainly see the value in the approach now.
The Predators and Lightning are in a unique position to aggressively pursue talent because they have deep farm systems (cultivated by years of drafting and developing well) but also a core whose age and quality necessitates a Going For It mentality. Weirdly, they also have significant cap flexibility because many of their best players were developed in-house and signed long-term to deals that pay them far less than their on-ice value dictates. In a league where questionable overpays are common, especially for depth players, Tampa really only has two or three bad contracts and Nashville arguably doesn’t have any.
Boston and Toronto are not quite in the same position, being in the same neighborhood in terms of quality, but with more players contributing to the teams’ success despite being on entry-level deals. These teams therefore have to budget for the future, and not mortgage it, when pursuing additional pieces to buoy already-great teams. Therefore they can’t sell the farm to get Karlsson (as good an idea as that would be), but they can sell a smaller piece of the farm to target Ryan McDonagh, who’s having an off year but would otherwise be considered a star defenseman, or something close to it.
It’s not new or revelatory thinking to say, “It’s good to get the best players.” Say what you want about Brian Burke’s management style, but he’s a guy who has pursued elite talent at almost any cost dating back to the trades that allowed him to swing for both Sedins; he gave up Bryan McCabe (who at the time was considered a very good young defenseman) and a future first-round pick (it ended up being No. 11 overall) to get a second pick in the top-four. Then he flipped the No. 4 and two third-round picks for the No. 1, then traded down to No. 2 on the condition that Atlanta was going to draft Patrik Stefan.
That’s much closer to modern thinking on how to pursue elite talent, and he did it 18 years ago. Worked out great for the Canucks, who got two future Hall of Famers for what was basically a mid-20s top-four defender, a middling first-round pick, and two thirds. All the success Vancouver had after that was largely predicated upon the Sedins being exactly as good as Burke bet they would be.
However, for elite teams to adopt the same strategy now in roster-building is quite novel. Hockey is a sport in which individual talent is often eschewed for perceived collective benefit; teams in the past would try to perhaps give up kind of a lot to add relatively little, for fear of disrupting chemistry or some such. Not that there aren’t still trades in which teams pay for a gallon of milk but only get a quart back, but now the well-run ones would rather pay for two gallons to get one back both that year and the next. Which, hey, that’s just smart business.
If you’re a fan, you have to like the arms race we’re seeing among elite teams now. The willingness to move around a lot of furniture to accommodate star talent, even if you don’t end up getting it, could signal a major philosophical shift that, if it works (and it probably will), should trickle down to a copycat league. If enough good teams get enough good players relatively inexpensively, the hegemonic tendency toward Parity that makes this league so boring could eventually be eliminated.
Or, if all it gets us is more entertaining late-round playoff series, well, that works too.
Stars have always been undervalued in this league, especially when viewing their contributions relative to those of role players. The fact that this might actually be changing now is pretty incredible, but everyone’s looking for an edge.