Setting the Market: Brian Burke and the NHL Trade Deadline 2009

Nb:  I am cross-posting this article to both my own site and Pension Plan Puppets;  I spent a lot of time working on this, and it occurred to me that if Jammies or Sexypants accidentally pushed the wrong “deletify” button over there at PPP, I might lose the whole thing.  So here ’tis:

Here’s the lowdown on the must-see command performance of the season:  Brian Burke goes to work at the trade deadline.

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Artist’s rendering:  Burke demonstrating how to do a proper hernia exam.

This year, for Leaf fans, there is one command performance that we are all waiting to see.  Strangely, the exhibition we’re awaiting will not be given by any skater dashing up the ice with stick and puck.  Rather, the demonstration of skill and excellence we await will be accomplished in an office using phone, fax and email.

Our angry Irish overlord is the only truly high-priced, blue-chip quality talent that we have in Maple Leaf blue and white this year.  In truth, everything that has happened with the players on the ice to date this NHL season is but prelude to that which is about to unfold before our eyes.  Burke’s handling of Pogge, his resolution of the Sundin situation, the acquisition of Brad May, the waivers of Stralman and Bell – all of these matters were mere preparation for the Bellicose One.

The eyes of Leaf Nation are upon Brian Burke at the trade deadline.


How Brian Burke is Like Leopold


As fans of the team, we of course want to evaluate his performance;  that’s part of the fun of following the fortunes of a particular franchise.   After all, the main reason participation in fantasy pools is so widespread these days is that each of us – somewhere inside – believes that we have the eye for talent and the shrewd hockey acumen necessary to assemble a winning combination.

In truth, it takes a diverse and varied skill set to function efffectively as a National Hockey League GM these days.  With an organization as complex as MLSE, the truly successful President/GM has to have at least passing familiarity with:

* business and financial concepts;
* the legal niceties involved in contractual, licensing and other issues;
* the basics of public relations and marketing; and
* an understanding of management concepts like organizational dynamics.

Of course, we don’t care a lick for any of that;  we don’t have a vantage point from which to watch or (in many cases) the knowledge and experience to permit us to make an informed judgement about the quality of our GM’s work.   For us, none of those things are part of the demonstration we’re waiting to see.

Instead, for fans, where the rubber meets the road – especially in this rebuilding year – is the trade deadline.  Here, we believe, we can judge our GM’s eye for talent, his trading prowess and his overall ability to assemble the necessary combination of payroll, talent, prospects and picks to turn our team into a winner.

In this way, we are a little like concert-goers filing in to Roy Thomson Hall, waiting for the TSO to play a concert.  As the lights dim and a hush goes over the seated and assembled throng – Gilmour or Sundin jerseys and Wendel Clark moustaches worn in place of tuxedoes for the gents, Schenn (and Stajan, apparently) jerseys for the ladies – Burke strides to the podium in tails.  The sheet music stands open before him, a pre-ordained plan of action for the conductor and his musicians.

The Maestro raises his baton.  We all know the composition he has been rehearsing:  Symphony no.1 in C (grade talent) Major (Rebuild).   But how much of his magnum opus will we hear right now?   I would suggest that it’s very likely that this performance will likely remain known, at least until draft day, an the Unfinished Symphony rather than a complete, self-contained masterpiece.



Why We’ll Probably Only Hear the Overture


Let’s get one thing straight:  as a fan of the team, you have a right to judge Brian Burke on this performance.  When the concert (the first of a series) is over on March 4th, you can choose to applaud wildly and shout “Bravo”, to file quietly out of the hall or – and this is something you don’t often see at Roy Thompson – rain boos down from the rafters.

But let’s be fair to the Maestro.  Set out some realistic expectations for the performance.


Quantity Doesn’t Equal Quality



Fact:  Just making a large quantity of trades is not one of the criteria for evaluating Burke’s success. Keep in mind rule number one of the NHL GM:  the greatest decisions you make are often the trades you don’t make.   It’s easy for all of us to come up with ifs and buts; it is the current fashion to point out that Jeff Carter and a 1st round pick could have been had for Tomas Kaberle by the cognitively impaired dimwit who formerly held the conductor’s baton around here.  But turn that trade around for a moment;  ask yourself what Philly fans would have to say (without resort to complete sentences of course, and in between shouted profanities) about whether that deal ought to have been done;  most of those literate enough to be able to mark an “x” with their voting crayons would no doubt express their disapproval.  The point is that in every proposed trade transaction, there are at least two GMs trying to rip each other off like teenagers in an HMV.   Every Cliff Fletcher has his Doug Risebrough, and those are only the trades that actually get done.  Just imagine some of the deals these guys turn down.  Because we are starved for action and progress, the temptation is to equate visible activity with actual improvement;  but doing so is a mistake.  In a world where these are the appropriate criteria, “cows for magic beans” is a good trade regardless of whether the beanstalk leads to a magical giant’s realm with gold-ovulating waterfowl and enchanted harps;  it’s a good trade because it’s a trade.   Gary Leeman, Alex Godynyuk, Craig Berube and Jeff Reese say it just isn’t so.


Brian Burke is Not a Jedi Master


Fact: As much as he might like to do so, Burke can’t use some freaky space-opera based mind trick to set the market (i.e. establish a price regime for his players) all by himself. He may try to do so by making blustery public pronouncements about packages for Tomas Kaberle needing to include (at minimum) a first round draft choice, a top prospect and a roster player, but only time will tell if the market for top flight talent will truly bear that price.  There is much to recommend Kaberle as a marketable commodity – excellent puck-moving skills, great passing ability, quiet durability and an economical contract with a substantial unexpired term to boot – but  the market for puck-moving offensive minded defencemen has already been set.   Interested buyers will no doubt have an eye to deals like the one on Thursday for Ryan Whitney, in which Anaheim surrendered a good prospect and a decent roster player in a transaction that Bob McKenzie pointed out is basically a dollar for dollar deal.  Worse still, Burke’s hands are, to a certain extent, tied in relation to certain of his more marketable assets  (like Kaberle and Kubina).  No-trade clauses mean these players can prevent their movement entirely or restrict it to certain teams at this time, which has the effect of limiting the efficiency of the market in which Burke is attempting to make transactions.  The external circumstances of other deals, combined with existing contractual peculiarities of the assets he has conspire to constrain The Brian’s freedom of movement and place him in an awkward negotiating position.  It is worth pointing out that the number of buyers interested in these assets will be relatively small at this time – a subset of playoff-bound times consisting of those clubs that have sufficient cap space and who need such a player;  this restriction in the available buyer pool may, however, be somewhat offset by the highly motivated nature of the buyers participating in the auction.   For the GM looking to sell, such restrictions inhibit him from calling the tune and tend to suggest less, rather than more, activity at the deadline.   Instead, such assets can be moved – if at all – with more freedom and efficiency during the summer, prior to the draft.  One advantage of doing things this way is that The Brian would then know precisely which picks he’s receiving in return for the assets traded away.



Blue Light Special in Aisle Number Two



Fact:  There are certain assets that may walk out the door and leave us with nothing it is reasonable only to expect modest returns for them.  As has been observed, Burke’s job is clearly to get what can be gotten for the bits and pieces that will otherwise wander away.  Players like Antropov and Moore are unrestricted free agents.  It is tempting to think of these players as assets that can be leveraged now to motivated sellers for maximum return.   I would suggest that you can also think of them like the ground beef packaged two days ago at your local grocery store, newly decorated with a “Special Price!” sticker because Burkie the Grocer knows he either sells  these packages today or finds them spoiled in the dumpster out back tomorrow.

The problem here is two fold:  first, everyone in the league knows the situation Burke is in:  under pressure to make some moves and re-stock the cupboard because he’s in the middle of a full-on, from the wheels up rebuild of his team and everyone knows that these are his only freely marketable assets.  If you follow the metaphor through, everybody knows that Brian the Butcher has only rapidly spoiling meat in his freezer, and he needs to sell it quickly.  That fact makes it a little difficult for him to feign indifference about making a sale.  Second, the overall quality of these assets – that is to say whether they are rapidly spoiling Grade “A”, “B” or “C” beef – is certainly debatable.



Nik Antropov


Antropov has been playing top-six minutes and getting prime power-play time. Although it seems likely that he will surpass his career high total of 56 points, it also seems likely that the improvement will be only marginal, raising questions about the wisdom of signing the 29-year old Kazakh to a long term deal following the season.  The verdict on Antropov is that he’s likely a useful supplement to certain teams seeking to supplement their offence (Chicago, Philly, Montreal Vancouver and the Rangers come to mind, but maybe teams like Carolina, Columbus, Florida or Anaheim would have interest too).  But teams will be very wary of over-paying to get in to a “rental” situation with him.  He’s not Marian Hossa, and I would suggest that it’s unlikely anyone will pay that kind of price for a mere rental again  following the experience of the Penguins with Hossa and (to a lesser extent) the Sharks with Brian Campbell last year.   Antropov will want to get paid next year, but he’s not worth Jason Blake money;  he may get an increase over the $2.15 million he’s pulling down this year, but teams will be wary of puting themselves in a position of needing to commit too much salary to the enigmatic Kazakh.

Dominic Moore


As for Dominic Moore, it says here that he is an under-rated player;  he has been a bargain basement Craig Conroy to the Leafs’ Chinese knockoff of Jarome Iginla – Jason Blake.  Moore’s play and the public humiliation of the hamster at the hands of Ron Wilson have combined to revitalize Blake’s play so effectively as to stem the tide of boos and cease the wagging of tongues (including my own) in these parts.  Moore plays an intelligent, determined and occasionally creative game.  He is, to quote one P. McGuire, a MONSTER in the face-off circle.  On the downside, it seems to me that his characteristic discipline has suffered somewhat in recent months, with Moore accumulating too many sloppy stick fouls and interference calls.   Of all the Leafs joining the team in the last two or three years, setting aside Luke Schenn, you would have to say that Moore has exhibited the most consistent and noticeable improvement;  he joined the team as a waiver pickup and has played his way into a leadership role.  Admittedly, his accomplishments must be taken in context;  Moore has in part flourished with the extra ice-time available to him because the Leafs are a bad team.  Still, he has taken advantage of the opportunity, sparked a renaissance in the play of a floundering linemate, and proved himself to be a capable and consistent NHL player.  Nevertheless, any team picking up Moore at the deadline will be doing so to add depth rather than offensive firepower.  It would be unreasonable to expect a generous bounty in return for Moore.   He’s a little like the twenty bucks you find in that spring jacket you haven’t worn in nine or ten months;  enough found money to enjoy a couple of pints, but not enough to make a material change in your circumstances.



Conclusion


So what have we learned from the above discussion?

  1. Trading for the sake of trading doesn’t help;
  2. We may be better off waiting until the summer to move major assets like Kaberle and/or Kubina; and
  3. The trades that likely will be made at the deadline will probably produce only modest returns.

In other words, the Maestro will, in all probability, play us a little taste of the music to come, giving the audience a taste of the themes he will explore later in the composition.  We will likely get a taste of the harmonies he will offer up in the body of the work – that mix of draft picks and a certain style of prospect (big?  aggressive?) that may be counted upon to be thematic as the symphony unfolds.

It’s possible that we’ll hear a more-or-less complete work if Burke can find a buyer for Tomas Kaberle, maybe something centred around a deal for Jordan Staal;  if that happens, you’ll have to give Burke credit, he’s managed to assemble the composition in difficult circumstances.

When the lights come up in the concert hall at around 3 p.m. on the 4th of March, though, it will most likely be the case that we have heard a mere introduction to the Maestro’s work.  If that’s the case, I’ll be applauding politely with the rest of the concertgoers, but waiting for the summer concert series to decide whether I like the music I’m hearing.  I would suggest that you do the same.

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