Every time the NHL trade deadline rolls around, there's always a lot of discussion about who will be a buyer and a seller.
Dallas Stars fans have been asking that very question about their favorite team recently as the Stars dance on the edge of the playoffs but can't seem to make that final push to get into the top eight. And with a first-round matchup looming with someone like the Detroit Red Wings, some wonder whether making the playoffs this year should even be a goal in terms of the long-term franchise planning.
But I get a little frustrated with the group that wants the Stars to be sellers. It's not that I don't see their point - I do and I mostly agree with them - but it's that much of the discussion revolves around who the Stars should get rid of rather than who they should obtain.
I believe even if your franchise is not stocking up for a playoff run in eight weeks, you need to approach the trade deadline as a buyer, just not of immediate assets. Teams who are looking to the future rather than planning for the present need to approach the deadline as if they are buying future players rather than selling current ones.
This may seem like a difference in semantics, but I think it will be key in how the Stars fair this week and into the future.
After the jump, an explanation of why this isn't just an argument about semantic, how successful franchises manage their trades for future assets and how the salary cap plays into all of this.
So, you might wonder, what's the problem with saying I want to sell off, say, Brenden Morrow to the highest bidder? And to be clear, I'm using him because he's an example of a guy who almost certainly won't be traded this year because of the injury issues alone.
Well, for one, it's entirely the wrong way to approach things. Once a team has decided this year is not "their year" and they want to prepare for future seasons rather than focus on this one, sure, one of the things to do is to make a list of the players not likely to be involved in whenever they target that future to be.
But what matters most, then, is the team that you want to have in the future. So it only makes sense to identify what that team lacks and go out and look for it. Does the group you expect to have in three years lack a top six right winger? Then,it's up to the scouts to find an available player that they project to be in the top six at the NHL level in three years. Is your team short scoring centers? Those should be the focus rather than picking up, say, more puck moving defensemen.
Once those players are identified, either as individuals or as a position, age and projection, then, and only then, you move onto the question of "what will they cost?" If your future second-line right winger is going to cost you a player like Morrow, that's fine. He's not a key part of the hypothetical plan, and you can use him to acquire a needed asset for the future. Much like with teams that are building for now, the player who is going to the other team should be secondary to the players that are coming back.
Yes, the plan has to be flexible because of things like injuries, and a full picture can't be painted without deciding which players a team might rather get through free agency. But having a working outline of what a team's future might look like is the best way to make the moves the benefit a team the most in the future.
The danger with looking at it the other way (the "sell Morrow to the highest bidder" way), is that maximum asset acquisition does not equal maximum franchise benefit. If the Stars, for instance, got an offer for Sheldon Souray where the best pieces were 22-year-old defensemen with a likely ceiling of a 4/5 defensive defenseman and a 19-year old lforward, recently taken in the first round of the draft, who didn't score a lot but was a defensive wunderkind, then that move doesn't make sense. The Stars have depth in both of those areas for now and the reasonable future. An offer for a 20-year-old center with decent offensive potential but who needed some seasoning in the minors is a lesser price on the asset acquisition scale but eons higher in terms of franchise benefit.
So where do draft picks fit in all of this? It all depends on how you use them and when the future is that you're building for. Personally, I think any draft pick can't be expected to contribute at the NHL level for at least 3 years and usually 4-5. And as they are very unpredictable in terms of both who will be available at any given spot as well as development curves, they're hard to put into a specific design of a team going forward. And that's before you get into the realities of the chance of any given draft pick, particularly low-round ones, becoming an regular NHL player.
But there is absolutely a place for acquiring picks, particularly if the plan is to turn those picks into a more predictable asset at some point. One of the theories about the Nicklas Grossman trade is that the Stars will flip the second and third rounders acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers at some point for a young player. Personally, I'm very skittish about trading known and controlled assets for what amounts to a scratch-off ticket at the future hockey player lottery, especially if the player being traded is under contract beyond the current season. But if a team trusts its scouting department enough to find potential greatness in the lower rounds, then it's a calculated risk I can usually live with.
I will admit, there is some logic to acquiring as many assets as you can in each trade to maximize your options and flexibility in the future, but even that has to be approached with some sort of plan in place. Without a plan, you become a team like the Columbus Blue Jackets that continually trades off its better players for the best asset acquisition package but doesn't use those assets for any franchise benefit. Then the team is bad, the players are sold and the process repeats.
Now, there is a slight complication for a team like the Stars this year - the salary cap floor. The Stars are projected to be in the neighborhood of $1.1-1.5 million above the floor when all is said and done given the structure of the roster at the moment. This number will change when when bonuses become unattainable and everyone is healthy, if everyone ever gets healthy, because they are carrying 24 players.
To have a trade cleared by the NHL, the Stars have to remain above the floor at all times, so if they want to use some combination of their more expensive assets to acquire guys in the minors or even draft picks, they will have to take some current salary back. Ideally in this case, you'd like to find a team with a guy in the NHL in an organization with depth at his position - Alex Goligoski with the Pittsburgh Penguins is the perfect example of that.
But the point remains the same - if the Stars give up on the playoff race at some time between now and the trade deadline, they should not approach any personnel moves with the idea that they are trying to get rid of players for whatever they might be offers. Rather, they should target the pieces they need for the future and use their current assets to go acquire them.