Because I’d been ruminating about the topic already, I wanted to address a question posed by Luke H. in this month’s reader mailbag, who wondered: What are your thoughts on (Jakob) Chychrun and (Vladislav) Gavrikov potentially not playing for two or three weeks and then being thrown into a playoff race?
So this question relates to the relatively new phenomenon we’ve seen emerge ahead of the NHL’s March 3 trade deadline, in which teams have withdrawn healthy players from their starting lineups in order to protect their trade-asset value. In the past, NHL teams might withhold a player for a day or two before the deadline, so that a player that’s being aggressively shopped doesn’t get injured at the 11th hour, which then might require the teams to call the whole thing off.
It’s a prudent strategy, on one level, and it was probably reinforced this past week when the Anaheim Ducks lost Adam Henrique because of a lower-body injury suffered last weekend against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was an innocent-looking play. Henrique took the Lightning’s Brandon Hagel to the net, lost his balance, and appeared to injure his leg in the ensuing pile-up. He’s officially out week-to-week.
Henrique was an 11th-hour addition to our trade board because he’s a versatile, reliable forward on a contract — $5.85 million for this year and next — that might interest a contender, with 50 percent of the salary retained by Anaheim. But with his timeline for return uncertain, it greatly limits what Ducks’ GM Pat Verbeek could potentially do with Henrique — and probably has NHL GMs looking elsewhere for a healthier reinforcement.
The difference this year is how early teams started removing healthy players from the line-up. It began with Chychrun, who played almost half the game for the Coyotes against Chicago two weeks ago, at which point the Coyotes started holding him out of action, thinking a deal was close. It wasn’t. So now here we are, two weeks later, and he still hasn’t played. The Coyotes set a high asking price on Chychrun. For going on two years now, no team has stepped up to meet that price. You have the sense now the Coyotes are circling back to the teams that previously bid on Chychrun’s services, seeing if they can find a taker. From there, we’ll see when or even if he gets moved.
Once Arizona set the precedent with Chychrun, Columbus quickly followed suit with Gavrikov and Vancouver with Luke Schenn.
The Athletic: Blue Jackets’ trade involving D Vladislav Gavrikov falls through … so now what?#NHLBruins swing big deal with #ALLCaps for Dmitry Orlov leaves #CBJ at square one with a week to go before the NHL trade deadline.https://t.co/ugY6UmSndn
— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) February 24, 2023
So, what does it all mean?
Well, it’s instructive that all three teams holding contributing players out of their lineups are also so far out of playoff contention that there’s an actual incentive to be bad down the stretch — as they sort out the race to the bottom of the standings, where the team with the worst record has the best chance of drafting the Regina Pats’ Connor Bedard. That doesn’t reflect well on the NHL.
Nor does the fact that the league apparently isn’t chiding teams for not putting their most competitive foot forward, something that’s required if competitive integrity counts for anything. Realistically, now that that door has been opened, there is nothing to prevent a rebuilding/tanking team from pushing the envelope even further next year and start sitting out players weeks or even a month before the deadline. It really opens a can of worms. You can just imagine commissioner Gary Bettman unhappy about this development, but not exactly sure how to react. The Bettman playbook suggests these teams are being warned behind the scenes to tread carefully here, otherwise the league will step in with sanctions and/or other penalties. But in the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil world of the NHL, they’ll keep that matter internal.
Now, the other issue, implicit to our reader’s question, is: Does it hinder the individual player from sitting out this long? Short term, the answer is yes. Just go back to how players responded to their bye weeks, and you can find a dozen examples of players who acknowledged it took a day or two or three to get their legs and their timing back up to speed.
Long term, however, there’s likely to be a decided benefit from taking time off during the year because it gives you a chance to rest, recover and recharge the batteries. Panthers coach Paul Maurice articulated the different sides of the issue when addressing a question earlier this week on Anthony Duclair, who is finally returning to the Florida lineup after missing the first three-quarters of the season recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. Duclair was scheduled to start on the third line, but Maurice indicated he didn’t think that would last too long. Why?
“He’s going to be, in some ways, the fittest guy that we have because he hasn’t been worn down over the course of the year,” answered Maurice. “Because of where we’re at the season, I’m not going to wait a long time. If he’s going, then I’ll get his minutes up.”
So that’s really the essence of the issue right there.
Assuming Chychrun, Gavrikov and Schenn all go to a contender, and the goal is to make a two-month run through the marathon NHL playoff season, then anywhere from a week to two off right now would be extremely valuable in terms of charging the batteries — and could leave them in a stronger position, physically, than any other player who completed the grind of a regular season and then faced up to eight more weeks of high-intensity games that are possible in a four-round playoff run.
Eventually, the NHL playoffs can be a war of attrition. And since the best players play the most minutes, they are often running on fumes by the end. It means, logically, that any player that’s gotten a short vacation in the middle of the season would be far better able to endure the grind than the ones relentlessly eating up minutes, night after night.
Standings are tighter this year than last year — particularly in the Eastern Conference
There’s a night-and-day difference in the Eastern Conference playoff races this season compared to last, but it reinforced to me how significantly different it was once I began to review the standings and crunch the numbers.
So last season, with a week to go until the NHL trade deadline, the East had divided itself neatly into two groups — eight teams comfortably in the playoffs, eight others so far back that they had no realistic hope of closing the gap in the time remaining in the season.
The actual trade deadline a year ago fell on March 21, so with a week to go Boston was in the first wild-card position with 77 points. Washington was in the second wild-card spot with 74 points. The closest challenger was Columbus, 11 points back with 63. From there, it was another seven points back to the Islanders, who trailed Washington by 18. It was over. For a point of further comparison, three teams making a lot of noise in this year’s playoff race were nowhere close back then. The Red Wings had 55 points, the Devils 49 and the Sabres 48.
The Western Conference was tighter. By standings points, Vegas held the second wild card, with 68 points, but Dallas was only a point behind at 67 and had four games in hand. So, by points percentage, the Stars were in — and they stayed there. It didn’t change the rest of the way, even though the numbers suggested the Canucks (65), the Jets (64), and the Ducks (64) were just a few points back and all still in the running.
Anaheim proceeded to trade four players — Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, Rickard Rakell and Nic Deslauriers — and that put an end to whatever faint playoff hopes the Ducks might have had. In some ways, the Ducks have never recovered from that spree — and are now in contention for the bottom rung of the NHL ladder, as they accelerated the rebuild a year ago, by stockpiling draft choices and prospects.
I undertook this exercise, mostly in the aftermath of Washington’s decision to trade away Dmitri Orlov and Garnet Hathaway to the Boston Bruins Thursday night. It was a signal that the Capitals — after eight consecutive seasons in the playoffs — will be sellers at this year’s deadline. Moreover, it closely mirrored the decision Anaheim made a year ago to move out critical contributing players on expiring contracts, even though they were still in the playoff mix.
As of today, the East wild-card race has six teams separated by five points chasing two spots. On a points-percentage basis — which is how you must calculate it, given that Buffalo has five games in hand on the Islanders and four on Florida and Washington — Detroit (.561) and Buffalo (.554) rank one-two. Pittsburgh is at .553 and the Islanders are .549.
So, it’s as tight as tight can be — and so different from a year ago.
One other scheduling observation: The NHL is returning to a more traditional time frame this year compared to last, when the 2021-22 regular season was officially supposed to end April 30, but actually spilled into the next day, when the Jets and Kraken played a meaningless make-up game on May 1, a Sunday. The playoffs then started the next day and didn’t conclude until June 26, when the Avs defeated the Lightning in the Cup Final.
This year, the regular season ends on Apr. 13, a Thursday, and the playoffs are scheduled to start on the 17th. So it will be basically two weeks sooner than a year ago. It also means the Cup Final should be decided by mid-June, rather than the end of June. Still too long for most people’s tastes, including my own. But better than before.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the Red Wings are in a playoff spot — and maybe the hottest team in hockey since the All-Star break.
On how they’ve done it, and the tests that lie ahead: https://t.co/zOVNo3DLtd
— Max Bultman (@m_bultman) February 24, 2023
Sharks trade negotiations
The cost to the Ottawa Senators to trade away what’s left of Nikita Zaitsev’s contract to the Chicago Blackhawks this week was high — a second and a fourth-round pick. Zaitsev was making $4.25 million — too high for what he was doing on the ice. But he only had this year and next left on his contract. There was a thought the Zaitsev trade would set the market for what a team had to surrender to get out from under an expensive contract, and that it would severely dampen the possibility of any team acquiring Erik Karlsson from the San Jose Sharks because Karlsson’s contract is at the high end of the NHL scale ($11.5 million per season) and has an additional four years to run after this one. So, it’s a number that most capped-out teams can’t afford and is challenging to move.
It will test the negotiating skills of the Sharks’ general manager Mike Grier. As I noted last week, Grier could be the central figure at this year’s trading deadline, because he is listening on both Karlsson and Timo Meier, the top remaining player on just about everybody’s trade board. But these are two completely different types of negotiations.
Think of it in real estate terms. Karlsson is a unique high-end property — not for everyone because of a) the price tag and b) the wear-and-tear associated with age, injury history and contract terms. With Karlsson, there’s realistically only one bidder to emerge thus far, Edmonton. So Grier’s challenge is to work with the potential buyer, Oilers’ GM Ken Holland, to see if they can reach an accommodation that works for all the impacted parties: San Jose, Edmonton, and Karlsson himself. Maybe it won’t happen at the deadline. Maybe it’ll be later — in the summer, or a year from now, at the deadline. Maybe it never happens.
But that’s completely different from Meier’s situation, where there is an active bidding war going on to secure the services of an in-his-prime goal scorer, with a manageable cap hit for this season ($6 million) that is due a big raise next year.
Unlike a Karlsson, where he’ll need to work with the buyer, in this case, Grier’s challenge will be to pit the buyers against one another, in a bid to drive up the price. An old-fashioned bidding war, in other words.
How much over market is someone willing to pay for Meier? And would they pay more if there was also a long-term contract extension in place. So, it’s a juggling act, and requires two distinct approaches to the negotiations to get them done. I’m really intrigued by the outcome here. We’ll know in a week how it plays out.
There are a bunch of new names on @TheAthleticNHL trade board as the deadline looms next weekhttps://t.co/swovdxpgHb
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) February 22, 2023
Nick Schmaltz’s under-the-radar production
Economists have any number of ways of testing the current financial waters, everything from the traditional Consumer Price Index (CPI) to the oddly quirky — the Men’s Underwear Index (MUI), which posits that men only purchase underwear when they’re feeling good about the economy and when they start buying, it signals the start of an economic recovery. Even Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, believes there’s some validity to the MUI.
For me, the hockey equivalent — in trying to measure value — is fantasy sport and specifically Media Hacks Hockey (MHH). Media Hacks Hockey pits 12 current and former national hockey writers and/or broadcasters in an annual competition. The stakes are relatively small. It mostly focuses on bragging rights, but after years of competing, the one thing that never changes is that there are always a few reliable performers who get overlooked — for reasons that are never clear. Plus-minus isn’t a factor in our pool, which is a good thing, because you don’t get penalized for having productive players on bad teams.
But every year, without fail, as your cap dollars run out, you can always count on getting one or more productive players for $1 or $2 or $3 — and they reliably reward you with solid production, year in and year out.
For a long time, that guy was Andrew Brunette. Then, for a while, it was Cam Atkinson. Lately, it’s been Nick Schmaltz. Schmaltz is a 27-year-old center, who missed the first part of the season recovering from offseason surgery, but he has 37 points in 42 games this year after scoring 59 points in 63 games last year. Along with Clayton Keller, they are the offensive lynchpins of an Arizona Coyotes team that plays hard most nights and, until it lost to Calgary on Wednesday night, had won four in a row.
Over a two-year period, Schmaltz is averaging 0.91 points per game, the same as Alex DeBrincat and Zach Hyman and ahead of, among others, Nico Hischier, Bo Horvat, Andrei Svechnikov, Mark Stone, Anze Kopitar …
Well, you get the idea.
He’s been an uncommonly productive offensive player, when healthy, and is still in his prime. Without Schmaltz, the Coyotes would have a deep hole in the lineup.
The problem is, Schmaltz not only has a relatively high cap hit ($5.85 million), a lot of term (signed until 2025-26) but the contract is also backloaded, so his highest earning years are still to come. This year, in real dollars, the Coyotes are paying Schmaltz $4.5 million. Next year, it jumps to $7.5 million, then $8.45 million, then $8.5 million. You think actual dollars don’t matter?
They do for every owner and for sure they do in Arizona. On the surface, that contract seems to make Schmaltz untradable. And yet, you see all the centers disappearing from the trade board and if you really think you need someone who can play as a legitimate top-six forward on your team, then maybe you start to nibble around the edges to see what it would take to get the deal done. Colorado and Dallas probably don’t have the cap space to make it work. But Carolina might.
(Photo of Jakob Chychrun: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)