In recent days there’s been media speculation the Toronto Maple Leafs could shop captain Dion Phaneuf while the Ottawa Senators might move captain Jason Spezza before next month’s NHL Draft. In the wake of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ latest postseason meltdown, some angry Penguins fans are calling for Evgeni Malkin to be moved in order to shake up the roster.
It’s understandable why these names are being bandied about by the press and the fans. The Leafs are mired in the culture of losing, the Senators could lose Spezza for nothing to free agency next summer, while the Penguins’ hopes of following up their 2009 Stanley Cup championship with another title grow dimmer.
There’s a feeling among Leafs Nation that Phaneuf isn’t suited to be captain or to be a top-two defenseman, let alone to be paid as one. A number of fans and some pundits would prefer Phaneuf be dealt away, even if it means picking up part of his salary, for a return which could improve the Leafs’ playoff hopes.
Spezza could indeed depart next summer via free agency, especially if he seeks another long-term deal at an annual cap hit of $7 million. If he’s open to being dealt in the off-season, it only makes sense for Senators management to explore his market value.
Since the Penguins’ Cup championship in 2009 they’ve consistently come up short in the postseason, defeating only the Senators (twice), New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets over that period. They’ve only returned to the Conference Final once (2013), and were swept by the Boston Bruins. While they remain a powerhouse in the regular season, they lack the depth to go deep in the playoffs.
Given the choice between shopping Malkin or team captain Sidney Crosby, most observers calling for major changes to the Penguins roster appear to prefer the former.
The aforementioned trio carry expensive contracts which could prove difficult to move, even if their respective teams agreed to absorb part of their salary to facilitate a trade. Spezza also has a partial no-trade clause (providing a list of 10 teams to which he won’t accept a trade), while Malkin has a full no-movement clause in his current contract and in his more expensive, long-term deal which begins on July 1.
Assuming Phaneuf, Spezza and Malkin are dealt, getting a solid return for each of them is risky business.
I’m sure there are some Leafs, Senators and Penguins fans who will disagree, trotting out trade scenarios which are ridiculously lopsided in their teams’ favor. Indeed, in the past several days I’ve seen plenty of these scenarios in the comments sections on this site, as well as on other rumor and media sites.
It’s not impossible for Phaneuf, Spezza or Malkin to fetch a terrific return, but historically such moves rarely pan out with a significant return that dramatically improves a team over the long term.
Phaneuf is considered a strong second-pairing defenseman with offensive upside, but he’s being paid like top-pairing blueliner. Unless the Leafs agree to pick up a decent chunk of his contract, there likely won’t be many teams willing to acquire him. If there is a club willing to take on that full salary, the Leafs might have to take back a toxic contract in return. There’s also the matter of the Leafs finding a top-pairing defenseman who can replace the big minutes Phaneuf plays. So far there’s no one in their lineup or in their system capable of doing so. Phaneuf won’t bring in the type of defenseman who can fill that role, and there’s not many top defensemen available via free agency, let alone the trade market.
Spezza remains a solid top-line center, but he turns 31 in June, has a history of back and knee injuries and posted his career-best numbers in the latter half of the last decade. His UFA status next summer could make interested teams leery of parting with too much for a center who could be gone to the highest bidder in a year’s time. Furthermore, there’s currently no one yet in the Senators system who can fully replace him in the first line role. Kyle Turris is improving and Mika Zibanejad could slide into the second-line center spot, but this move could be a backward step for next season. Dealing away Spezza also ensures Ales Hemsky won’t return, while placing the future of winger Bobby Ryan (himself a UFA next summer) into question.
Malkin is only 27 and is still considered among the game’s elite players. Despite missing 24 games this season he still tallied 72 points, and was the Penguins leading scorer in this year’s playoffs. He’s only two years removed from winning the Hart and Art Ross trophies as league MVP and scoring leader. If he agreed to be traded, teams will be lining up for his services.
Problem is, Malkin’s no-movement clause gives him total control over this situation. If he doesn’t want to move, there’s no way the Penguins can force him to accept a trade. If he does agree to be dealt, he determines which teams he would deem acceptable destinations, which significantly limits where the Penguins can send him. The $9.5 million annual salary of his new contract could also prove tough to move. The Penguins could get perhaps two quality players as part of the return, either in players who can help them now, or via draft picks and/or prospects which could be included in the deal. Odds are whatever players they get might improve their overall depth, but won’t replace his offensive production or game-breaking power.
Does this mean the Leafs, Senators and Penguins shouldn’t explore the trade value of these players? Of course not. Any general manager worth his salt should be willing to at least listen to offers, even if they’re not seriously entertaining them. You never know when a pitch could come along which proves worthwhile.
Still, finding the right deal isn’t as easy as fans who love to dream up trade scenarios believe it to be. If these players are dealt, chances are the return won’t be as great as their fans hoped it would be.
Some fans love to mention the fact that Wayne Gretzky got traded so therefore anyone can. If memory serves, however, the Edmonton Oilers ultimately got hosed on that deal, while the LA Kings got a player who made them relevant for five seasons, lifted their profile in the NHL and throughout the North American sports world, and laid the foundation for the NHL’s eventual southern expansion.
As the old proverb goes, be careful what you wish for.