Win at All Costs or Live to Fight Another Day?

 

The NHL Trade Deadline always brings out some colourful discussions amongst hockey fans.  Which team stole the show?  Who put themselves over the top?  Who dropped the ball?  These are questions that swirl around like the cold, gusty winter winds.

Even though teams have 10 months out of every year to trade players and shape their winning team, the allure of the last minute push for excellence never loses its lustre.  It’s like the closing bell on Wall Street, with buyers and sellers frantically trying to maximize their worth.  As hot-blooded humans, we’re drawn to it, proven by the amount of buzz on Twitter feeds, sports radio shows, and of course, TSN’s NHL Trade Deadline show.  And, like an unsteady hand with the clock ticking down in a game of Operation, NHL GMs often scramble at the deadline to add the missing piece that will put their team over the top, quite often sacrificing future promise for present glory—the price for “going all in.”

Over the years, there have been the gold star deals where the “missing piece” swooped in and helped lead the charge to Stanley Cup glory.  For every story of deadline genius, there is one that makes you cringe.

 

The Good:

 

Ray Bourque’s Legacy:

 

At the 2000 deadline, the Boston Bruins granted long-time loyal Bruin, Raymond Bourque his wish, shipping him and Dave Andreychuk to Colorado in exchange for Brian Rolston, Samuel Pahlsson, Martin Grenier and a first-round draft choice (Martin Samuelsson). The Avalanche won the Cup, providing the perfect cherry on the top of a sparkling career for Bourque.

 

Gabby’s Redemption:

 

Marian Gaborik had begun to bounce around a bit as a rent-a-sniper, never seeming to put a team over the top in any of his stops.  At the 2014 deadline, the Columbus Blue Jackets shipped the streaky Slovak to the L.A. Kings for Matt Frattin and a couple of picks (a second- and third-rounder).  The Kings went on to win the Cup in 2014 with Gaborik as a key contributor.

 

Goring’s Glory:

 

At the 1980 deadline, the Los Angeles Kings dealt four-time 30-goal scorer Robert “Butch” Goring to the New York Islanders for Billy Harris and Dave Lewis. Goring went on to win four Stanley Cups as a key member of the Isles’ dynasty.

 

 

The Regrettable:

 

Crumbling Leafs:

 

In the years following the Toronto Maple Leafs’ last meaningful playoff push—falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in round two of the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs—the team fell into an uncontrollable nose dive.  Under GM John Ferguson, the Leafs adopted a “win now, at all costs” mentality, sacrificing draft picks and prospects for long past-due, aging former stars.  Two particular trades sum up the Leafs decade-long black cloud:

 

2003: Alyn McCauley, Brad Boyes, and a first-round pick to the San Jose Sharks for Owen Nolan

 

2004: Jarkko Immonen, Maxim Kondratiev, and a first and second round pick to the New York Rangers for Brian Leetch

 

The Leafs suffered early exits in both 2003 and 2004 and neither Leetch or Nolan were with the team past the 2004-05 season.  The Leafs would go on to miss seven consecutive post-seasons.

 

The real question that sits at the heart of the NHL Trade Deadline is: “What is more important: winning a championship now, at all costs, or being sustainably successful year-in and year-out?”  Some will argue that the goal of every franchise is to win a Stanley Cup.  Therefore, GMs need to do whatever they can each year to accomplish this goal.  There is some clear sense in this, but, here is another question: what brings more value to a franchise: winning a Stanley Cup, followed up by 9 years of missed postseasons, or, 10 straight years of playoff contention with no championship?

To put this into perspective, scenario No. 1 is very similar to what the Carolina Hurricanes experienced after stocking up at the 2006 trade deadline and winning the Stanley Cup that year.  At the 2006 deadline, the Hurricanes made two significant deals:

 

TO CAROLINA                                    TO PITTSBURGH

Mark Recchi                                       NIklas Nordgren, Krys Kolanos, 2nd Round Pick

 

TO CAROLINA                                    TO ST. LOUIS

Doug Weight                                      Errki Ramajaki, Jesse Boulerice, Mike Zigomanis,  Magnus Kahnberg, 1st Round Pick, 4th Round Pick, 4th Round Pick

 

Neither Weight nor Recchi returned the next season, and while most of the prospects or picks never amounted to impact players, it certainly was a major risk to move out 10 potential pieces of the future for the two aging stars.

In 9 seasons since the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup, they have made the playoffs just once, amounting in a quick first round exit in 2009.  While they are currently fighting to land the 8th and final playoff spot heading into the stretch run of the 2015-16 season, they have battled through prolonged dwindling fan support and constant threats of relocation.

To apply example to scenario No. 2, a model of sustainable contention, look no further than the Detroit Red Wings, owners of an amazing streak of 24 consecutive post-season appearances (Poised to make it 25).  While the Wings have won a Cup in the last ten years (2008), they consistently resist the urge to sacrifice future sustainability for immediate glory.  Their well-known model of development, slowly harvesting their prospects in the minor leagues before thrusting them into full-time NHL duty, is just one of many pieces to the Winged-Wheel cultural identity.

The “Red Wing Way” of developing and retaining talent and conducting business has slowly bled its way throughout the league.  Red Wing disciples, such as Steve Yzerman, Mike Babcock and Todd McLellan have graduated from the program, expanding their horizons into prominent roles outside of the organization.  Yzerman rebuilt a lost franchise in Tampa Bay, Babcock has infused a new culture into Maple Leaf Nation, and McLellan became a hot commodity on the head coaching market, experiencing sustained success in San Jose before landing a lucrative deal with the youthful Edmonton Oilers.

At the end of the day, there is no question that winning matters in professional sports simply because it correlates to profits.   The bigger question is whether going for it all and winning big is worth the risk of subsequent years of mediocrity.  Everyone loves a winner and everyone remembers today’s heroes.  But it’s important to remember that professional sports are a “what have you done for me lately” business and past glory is easily forgotten.

 

 

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

One thought on “Win at All Costs or Live to Fight Another Day?

  1. Jamie usually I agree with you, but on this I am not sure!!! History usually not to kind to the bridesmaid. Let’s look at the 80s as not only was it the best decade for music, cars, etc… But for me the years I really followed hockey (teenage years).

    Who had the second most regular season wins that decade (we all know Edmonton had most)?

    I may have guessed NYI or MTL… Likely because they also won cups… No Philly… No cups, no glory!

    Now I am not going to say it was because of their goalies (Lindberg RIP or Hextall) but I bet very few people remember that and allot less will in another 20 yrs, but everyone remembers a rookie goalie leading MTL to the cup.

    For sure Detroit has a great culture, and maybe that foundation will ultimately bring more Stanley Cups but no one (except hockey trivia experts) are going to quote this decade as Detroits… It will be known as the Blackhawks and Kings era (unless someone takes the thrown, but it will not be a team that makes the playoffs 10 yrs in a role but does not win Cup).

    Ultimately winning the big prize is the ultimate goal.

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