NHL Trade Deadline Deals: Deft or Desperate?

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NHL Trade Deadline Deals: Deft or Desperate?
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People in my hometown area of the greater San Jose metro region, in the south of San Francisco’s Bay Area, are all up in arms this week.

The very popular San Jose Sharks failed to make a last-minute trade prior to Wednesday’s noon Pacific NHL trade deadline, leading to a great amount of angst and apprehension as to the beloved team’s chances of making big waves come the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Most of this collective anxiety stems from the fact that the majority of the fans in this relatively new and obviously non-traditional hockey market know little more about the great game of hockey than the fact that rooting for the Sharks is the “in” thing to do in this part of the world.

As a result, most of “their” opinions on the team are merely the parroted ill-informed ramblings of local self-appointed experts in the Bay Area sports media.

Legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh was quite astute when he used to denigrate the Bay Area sports media as acrimonious and poorly informed.

With the exception of Randy Hahn, Drew Remenda, Dan Rusanowsky, Jamie Baker, Gary Plumber, and former Voice of the 49ers, the incomparable Joe Starkey, the Bay Area has some of the worst and most incompetent sportscasters and sportswriters in the country.

With the exception of the San Francisco Giants, the vast majority of the local sports media seem to consistently root against local teams, because it is a better story for them when these teams fall short.

Most are mediocre at best when it comes to covering the area’s traditional sports of football and baseball, and downright pathetic when it comes to covering hockey.

The pervasive “expert” opinion in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline seemed to be that the Sharks were bound to repeat their recent playoff disappointments in the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs if they did not improve their team by picking up a big-name defenseman with a strong reputation for offensive production.

Because the Sharks failed to produce such a trade, practically every hockey fan in the Bay Area is now running around with the local media screaming about how the sky is falling, and how the Sharks are guaranteed to continue with their previous frustrating modus operandi in the playoffs come mid-April.

I am here to serve as the voice of reason in this maelstrom of misinformation and educate my fellow Sharks fans on why deadline deals are rarely a good idea, and why the Sharks should still be fine.

If one does any measure of research on the subject, he or she will quickly learn that most trade deadline deals in the NHL do not result in that team hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in June. This is particularly true of “blockbuster” deals, with teams acquiring established NHL stars.

The trade deadline in the NHL comes very late in the season, as it does in Major League Baseball. As a result, teams have less than one quarter of their regular season games remaining (little more than one month) to try to incorporate their new acquisition(s) into the team, and establish new lines and defensive pairings that work well together.

This is very difficult to do effectively, and the Sharks have proven that several times in previous seasons.

In 2007, reeling from a disappointing 2006 second round loss to the Edmonton Oilers (following a cheap hit in Game 3 by Raffi Torres on Milan Michalek), the Sharks made a big splash at the trading deadline acquiring established NHL All-Star forward Bill Guerin from the St. Louis Blues.

The Sharks made quick work of Nashville in the first round of that year’s playoff tournament, but fell short in the second round against the rival Detroit Red Wings—despite holding a 2-1 series lead after three games, and being seconds away from a 3-1 lead in Game Four.

A failed clearing attempt by Kyle McLaren allowed Detroit to tie the game and eventually win it in overtime. Bill Guerin would be injured in that same overtime period, and later that summer left the team as an unrestricted free agent.

A year later the Sharks acquired the highly-touted and offensive-minded defenseman Brian Campbell from Buffalo just before the deadline. Campbell seemed to be just the right fit for San Jose initially, and put up impressive numbers in the remaining regular season contests, with more than a few highlight-reel goals from the blue line.

His presence still was not enough, however, to lift the Sharks past the second round, as they lost in a memorable, but painfully disappointing, three-overtime marathon Game Six to the division-rival Dallas Stars—despite fighting their way out of a 3-0 series hole to reach Game Six.

By the time training camp rolled around for the 2008-2009 season, both Brian Campbell and head coach Ron Wilson were no longer San Jose Sharks.

These trades ultimately panned out like most trade deadline blockbusters—costly short-term rentals of bona fide NHL stars with little or no concrete results to show for them.

There are, of course, the odd cases of a big name moving in March and hoisting the Cup in June. See Bill Guerin (yes, the same Bill Guerin) to Pittsburgh last year.

There are many more examples of third and fourth line role players moving late in the year and helping their new teams to the ultimate goal.

Still, the vast majority of deadline deals, particularly those involving established stars, result in little more than the purging of prospects and first round picks, and a frustrated return to the drawing board at the end of June.

In recent seasons, Sharks’ GM Doug Wilson has adopted the much more reasonable practice of building his team in the offseason, and allowing the roster to gel together over the course of a full 82 games. This leads to better cohesion come the playoffs, and a much better capability to retain newly-acquired stars like Rob Blake and Dany Heatley.

While it has not resulted in the ultimate prize just yet, this is a much more sound technique. The Sharks may not have made a trade on Mar. 3, but the roster this year is irrefutably changed for the better from the team that fell short against Anaheim last April.

As for the supposed unmet needs of the 2010 San Jose Sharks? The notion that a lack of blue line goal production is a make-or-break issue for this team in the playoffs reflects a critical lack of understanding of the San Jose Sharks and the game of hockey.

First, the Sharks already possess two of the most prolific goal-scoring defensemen in the league in the form of Rob Blake and Dan Boyle. While their output this year is not quite what it was last year, that does not justify the Sharks paying the very high going rate to try to bolster this aspect of their game at the deadline.

There is also no reason to assume the scoring cannot improve by the playoffs with the current cast of characters.

Second, while goals from defensemen are always a nice offensive boon to your attack, they are far from the most critical key to success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Strong goal-tending, sound defensive play, and good puck management are far more important.

In addition, matchups between third and fourth lines are really the most critical deciding factor to which team will advance in a given round. Playoff teams generally have no dearth of talent on their first and second lines, but the ability of lines coming off the end of the bench often determine their teams’ ultimate fates one way or the other.

In my opinion, the Sharks’ new feisty third and fourth lines will cause significant problems for any potential playoff foe, a fact which bodes very well for the team in teal.

So, all you Sharks fans can stop mimicking the local talking heads in yelling about how the San Jose sky is falling. The Sharks are not holding down the lead in the Western Conference by accident or coincidence, and they have shown signs this year of things that have been lacking on previous squads.

Sit back, enjoy the ride, and see how things play out. 

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