Why the 2021 NHL trade deadline is the most extraordinary in league history


The NHL trade deadline on April 12 is the first of the COVID-19 era. Dealers, rebuilders, reloaders and those with legit Stanley Cup aspirations will all come to the virtual bargaining table to talk trades. But the subtext to these conversations is inherently different in 2021 than in previous editions.

There are unique challenges, like quarantines and immigration issues. There’s the seismic shift in the league’s economic landscape. There are the struggles teams have had in evaluating players outside of their organizations. There are the struggles teams have had in figuring out why their own players are underperforming.

Oh, and beyond the pandemic effects, there’s also this sea monster lurking in Seattle that’s casting a shadow over every transaction …

Here are five reasons the 2020-21 NHL trade deadline is the most extraordinary one in league history:

The diminishing value of first-round picks

Every trade deadline, first-round draft picks are the most precious commodity, sought by teams dealing away players and stubbornly clung to by contenders. Sometimes the immediate impact is worth the long-term risk. Other times, you’re the San Jose Sharks trading the pick that became Max Pacioretty because you simply had to have Craig Rivet at the 2006 trade deadline.

These picks are valuable because with the right player evaluation, scouting and interviewing, teams can find impact players in the first round of every draft. Roughly 74% of first-round picks go on to play in the NHL. It’s hard to botch this.

Unless, of course, a team doesn’t have the opportunity to evaluate players properly because of a pandemic. Leagues have scuttled games. International tournaments have been postponed. Access to arenas is restricted. One-on-one meetings are done over Zoom, at best.

There were calls to move the 2021 NHL draft because of this ambiguity, but the league kept it on July 23 and 24 this summer, leaving teams to throw more darts at the draft board than usual.

“Oh, there’s going to be more mystery, that’s for sure,” TSN director of scouting Craig Button told me this week. “Every year what teams are trying to do in the draft is gain a certain level of confidence that this is ‘their guy.’ When you don’t have as much information or opportunity to watch players, when you can’t meet with players, it takes away elements that contribute to that confidence level.”

Which is why some general managers told me that, at this deadline, a first-round pick has the lowest trade value they can remember.

“It’s a scary situation for teams to be in,” one GM told me this week.

Button agreed. “I think teams will be more willing to trade a first-round pick in this year’s draft and teams will be less willing to take one. I don’t know how it can’t be of less value,” he said. “If you combine the uncertainty, the lack of observation and the perception that this isn’t a great draft class, it just drives value even further down, doesn’t it?”

Does this mean we’ll see more drafted prospects being moved in deadline deals than first-round picks? Perhaps. But one GM told me he’s comfortable still dealing in first-round picks, even if his peers aren’t.

“It’s easy to say that, but you could argue the inverse: Because everyone else believes that, I actually think they’re the most valuable this year because we’re more comfortable in our ability to evaluate than they are,” he said.

Beware the Kraken!

Seattle Kraken GM Ron Francis has been chatting with other teams for some time now, laying the groundwork for this summer’s expansion draft. Some teams have tried to get ahead of the process and cut handshake deals. What they’ve found is that the Kraken are willing to bide their time, see how the deadline shakes out and wait until those protection lists are finalized.

A couple of GMs said Seattle is being “coy” in its discussions right now. Which is to be expected.

That’s the backroom influence of the Kraken on the trade deadline, along with the obvious impact the expansion draft is having on rosters. Most teams are going to protect seven skaters and three defensemen. That latter position is the most stressful for teams, as half of their defense corps on a given night would have to be exposed.

Nashville Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm, for example, has another year left on his deal. If the Predators, who are suddenly contending, seek to trade him, anyone acquiring him either risks losing a defenseman currently on their roster, losing Ekholm or having to make a side deal with the Kraken not to take an exposed player.

A GM this week said that “expansion insurance” could cost a first-rounder — yes, even in this draft — and/or a prospect. Combine that with what you’ve already given up to acquire the player at the deadline, and that’s a heavy investment indeed.

The flat cap

The salary cap is at $81.5 million. It’s going to likely stay there next season. It’s going to be around that figure for the foreseeable future.

We’ve already seen the flat cap’s impact on free-agent signings, with players that would have otherwise broken the bank settling for lower salaries or shorter terms (or both). We’re going to see its influence on this trade deadline, too.

There will be more trades than in the past that include retained salary. We already saw it once this year with the Eric Staal deal between Buffalo and Montreal. We’re almost certainly going to see it again if Taylor Hall is traded.

One phrase we heard from every GM this season is “money in, money out” when it comes to trades: a contract of lesser value going to the team that is trading the impact player, along with a prospect or a pick as a sweetener. It’s a necessity with so many teams bumping up against the cap ceiling.

While the flat cap may limit the kinds of trades teams can make at the deadline, one NHL GM told us that he doesn’t believe it will handcuff teams from making deals in general — especially as some GMs approach the deadline seeking to shed salary.

“It may depress transactions, but it may increase action. More desperation. People trying to do things,” he said.

The season of aberration

Every division in the realigned NHL feels different than the others this season. The East is predictable. The Central has four teams fighting for one playoff spot. The West was seemingly set — before the Blues decided to crack the door open for the Coyotes and Kings.

And the North is basically overreaction theater on a daily basis.

Comparing the rest of the NHL to the North is like comparing an old episode of “Degrassi” to HBO’s “Euphoria.” The North is heightened reality, where every win is a TRIUMPH and every loss is DEVASTATING. It’s the only division where two coaches have been fired. Whatever happens in the North, only one thing is certain: The reaction will be an overreaction.

Meanwhile, the rest of the NHL is trying not to read too much into a 56-game season with massive interruptions in the schedule, restrictive protocols on practices, games and traveling, as well as the ongoing mental anguish of pandemic life.

There are dozens of players and teams around the league that are having “off” years. The difficult part is figuring out whether this regression is part of a larger pattern, or a symptom of this anomalous season, and whether a team that isn’t meeting expectations should be given another chance in a more traditional 82-game campaign with road trips and fans in the buildings.

“It’s an interesting year. It counts. You want to get into the playoffs. It’s going to be very real for someone, when they win the Cup,” said one NHL general manager. “But there’s some randomness, too. Some guys aren’t anywhere near where they should be. I don’t know if you want to overreact and start shipping out 23-year-olds if they’re having a rough year. There may be more to it than just hockey.”

Winning the Cup, losing money

The league is going to lose a staggering amount of money on the 2021 season. Commissioner Gary Bettman didn’t hesitate to say it would be in the billions. It’s understood that not having fans filling arenas to capacity is incredibly damaging economically to the league and its teams, even as it serves the public good. But a couple of general managers framed this economic loss in a way that was startling to me:

The reward for teams that make the playoffs? They will lose even more money.

Keep in mind that making the Stanley Cup Playoffs is often seen as an economic boon for teams. Tickets are sold at a premium. New merch is moved. The buzz around a city turns the faucet on a variety of revenue streams.

But not this season.

“If you make the playoffs, you lose money. If you win the Stanley Cup, you lose more money,” said one general manager.

It goes beyond not having ticket revenue. It’s the money needed for playoff travel and accommodations. The money needed for the continuing testing and COVID-19 protocols. All of those extra costs, without the financial windfall the postseason delivers.

How does this impact the NHL trade deadline?

“People can talk about the deadline all they want, but no one’s really inspired to make a huge splash when large masses of people aren’t coming into the buildings,” said one general manager.

If all of this makes the NHL trade deadline sound like a bummer, well …

“If we’re being honest, everyone is just trying to get this season over with,” said the GM.

Three things about the NHL and NFTs

1. Last week, Matthew Tkachuk became the first NHL player to release his own official non-fungible token, auctioning off the digital sports memorabilia to help raise money for two children’s hospitals. Called “Matthew Tkachuk Genesis,” the NFT had a starting bid of $5,109.71 and was up to $9,000 this week.

The NFT was created by digital artist Greg Dubois, who actually got hooked up with Tkachuk through Clubhouse. A friend from college was hosting a room that had a number of Canadian creatives in it. One of them was Sam Nasrawi of Sportsnet, who chatted with Dubois and let him know that Tkachuk was looking to get into the NFT space for charity.

“NFT’s are interesting in that there’s a million and one ways an artist can go about going from concept to selling an NFT. For me and this particular project, it started with some conversations with Sam about Matthew and his famous mouthguard, as well as just his overall personality,” Dubois told me recently. “The team also thought it would be a great idea to incorporate that awesome through-the-legs shot in the piece. So after some conversations and some back-and-forth on feedback, we were able to land that final look and animation.”

2. The NFT craze continues to sweep through society, from art to sports to Taco Bell (seriously).

“This has all been confusing, exciting and unreal all at the same time. From an art perspective, it’s been great to see how this connects artists directly to buyers, and gives artists a way to securely sell their art, keep the copyright and give real ownership to a buyer. It’s also cool to see how artists are expanding how they create and finding new ways to blend both physical and digital offerings,” said Dubois.

He said sports NFTs are a “logical step” at this time in history. “Things like NBA Top Shot, Gronk’s release and now Tkachuk’s are really tapping into the spirit of what trading cards were, but doing it in a way that is much more exciting and more connected,” he said.

3. Dubois, whose work can be viewed here, said the future of NHL NFTs is limitless, and not just as a replacement for hockey collectables. “Whether it’s something like the NBA Top Shot, what Mark Cuban wants to do with turning Mavs tickets to NFTs or bringing these into the AR/VR space … there’s just so much potential here that could really allow leagues, teams and players across sports to interact with fans in ways that we’ve never seen before,” he said.

Buckle up.

Winners and losers of the week

Winners: Buffalo Sabres

It’s truly wonderful that the Sabres broke their 18-game losing streak in the manner in which they did: carrying a lead against the Philadelphia Flyers into the third period for the second straight game, after blowing a three-goal advantage in Monday’s loss. The players talked about panicking with that lead in the process of squandering it on Monday. This time, they built on it with two Brandon Montour short-handed goals.

Snapping a historic streak of futility while watching your trade deadline bait improve his stock? What’s not to love?

Losers: Coaches

Buffalo interim coach Don Granato proudly mentioned that he and the coaching staff left the Sabres alone between the second and third periods. “‘It’s your third period. Not ours. You know what to do.’ And we felt they did know what they do,” said Granato. “They absolutely got the job done under heavy pressure. They pulled together, instead of apart.”

Very inspiring … unless the Pegulas are also inspired to go without coaches next season as a cost-cutting measure. Let the players play (and coach)!

Winner: Connor McDavid

While many were screaming for a suspension, the NHL correctly handed McDavid a $5,000 fine for his elbow on Jesperi Kotkaniemi of the Canadiens. It was intentional. It was reckless. It was also primarily delivered to Kotkaniemi’s arm and chest. It puts McDavid “in the system” as an offender, but this shouldn’t have been a suspension.

Losers: Some Connor McDavid defenders

That said, anyone declaring that McDavid is allowed to throw targeted elbows because the referees don’t give him star treatment is completely misguided. What’s the Venn diagram of the “let Connor maim!” crowd and those who have celebrated the elimination of enforcers in the NHL?

Winner: Patrick Marleau‘s games

The Sharks forward moved into sole possession of second place on the NHL’s all-time games played list (now at 1,758), and is primed to pass Gordie Howe’s record of 1,767 before the end of the season. Has there been a quieter pursuit of an immortal record in recent memory? Such is Marleau.

Loser: Nashville Predators stars’ games

The Preds’ resurgence in the standings has come at a time in which they’re missing injured Mark Borowiecki, Matt Duchene, Ryan Ellis, Brad Richardson and Luca Sbisa, and now Filip Forsberg is out week-to-week, too. Yet Nashville has a 50.4% chance of making the playoffs, per Money Puck.

Winner: Cup raising

Congrats to the two-time Isobel Cup-winning Boston Pride and the National Women’s Hockey League for completing their 2021 campaign. The “bubble” didn’t hold, and the postseason was dramatically interrupted, but the league pulled together to put on a great show through the end.

“It’s imperative for any league to finish the season, for the integrity of the league,” commissioner Tyler Tumminia told the Toronto Star. “What we’re doing here, as a pro league, and raising the Cup, is monumental to culminating the season. Just having that in the history books.”

Loser: Helmet tossing

Pretty sure the NHL generally frowns upon underhand bucket chucks, Nathan MacKinnon.

Puck headlines

From your friends at ESPN

Emily Kaplan with a great feature on wins and losses with Marc-Andre Fleury.

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