Canadian NHL teams face a squeeze on and off the ice.
None of them are likely to reach the playoffs, and faced with tighter financial constraints, the Feb. 29 NHL trade deadline gave them one final chance to position themselves for the summer.
On the ice, the situation is grim. Five Canadian teams made the playoffs last year—the highest in the post-2005 lockout era—and now the best chance of one of them making the playoff rests with the Montreal Canadiens at 9.7 percent, according to sportsclubstats.com prior to Monday’s games.
While Toronto and Edmonton are swimming in familiar waters, the other five Canadian teams are on pace for end-of-season point totals that average 21 points below last season’s mark.
Off the ice, without the cherry of additional playoff revenue combined with the low Canadian dollar exacerbating the cost of players’ wages in U.S. dollars, Canadian teams—especially small market ones—have to be fiscally frugal.
Draft picks are valuable assets under this scenario and can be used to build for the future or be packaged to land big-name talent.
Canadian NHL teams have netted one first round pick, eight second round picks, three third round picks, and two fourth round picks in trade since Jan. 15.
2016’s trade deadline day was one of the quietest in recent memory. That was partly due to the number of trades made in the seven days prior being tied for the most over the last seven years.
While the NHL report of 19 deadline-day trades involving 37 players sounds impressive, about half the trades involved minor-leaguers. No first-round draft picks swapped teams and only one second-round pick did.
General managers pointed to uncertainty about next season’s salary cap holding back trades. This uncertainty arises due to the falling loonie affecting league revenues on which the cap is based.
For teams that don’t see themselves as Cup contenders, the name of the game is collect draft picks and young prospects and gain flexibility on retooling the team.
The Leafs made no moves on deadline day.
“We tried to get ahead of it [trade deadline] a little early,” said Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello who had been very active in unloading contracts and accumulating picks. He also pointed to some separation in the standings over the last week between teams likely to make the playoffs and those that aren’t as well as “buyers'” cap constraints being reasons for a slow deadline day.
“There were lots of discussions,” said Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving. “It wasn’t over the top. It was a different kind of deadline.”
Facing the financial uncertainty of a falling salary cap, draft picks are taking on more value, said Treliving.
“They’ve never been more important,” Treliving said.
His counterpart in Vancouver, Jim Benning echoed his sentiments. “Picks and young players are going to be the currency,” he said. A team can control what young players get paid for their first four years, he said.
And that is critical as some teams with high payrolls, typically Cup contenders, could be squeezed if the cap falls from its current US$71.4 million in the 2016–17 season.
Benning was frustrated that he couldn’t get picks in return for moving upcoming unrestricted free agents Dan Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata. Benning’s plan has always been to build the Canucks through the draft, but they haven’t acquired a draft pick since last summer via trade.
“[There was] nothing out there that I felt would make the team better,” said Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin in what he thought was a quieter trade deadline day than prior years. Bergevin still has hopes of making the playoffs as the Habs play on the West coast.
With roughly a quarter of their seasons left, the Canadian teams have to make the best use of this time to evaluate talent and then draft wisely.
“Find out as much as you can about your young people,” said Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray.
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