LeBrun: How the NHL trade deadline was won — inside 4 teams’ approaches

LeBrun: How the NHL trade deadline was won — inside 4 teams’ approaches

Winning the trade deadline is not a guarantee of anything in the NHL.

Not with the randomness of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the most parity-filled era in the history of the sport.

The Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs were among the busier teams a year ago ahead of the deadline. I liked their all-in approaches at the time. Both teams were knocked out by the No. 8 Florida Panthers, the one playoff team that did nothing at the deadline. Go figure.

The eventual Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights added a key piece in Ivan Barbashev at last year’s deadline, and it proved to be probably the cleverest add of the deadline (they also added Teddy Blueger). But looking back, Vegas was not seen by most as having “won” the deadline 12 months ago.

Again, being busy at the deadline doesn’t always translate.

But it can. The Colorado Avalanche two years ago were busy pre-deadline, and those pieces — Artturi Lehkonen (series-clinching goal in the conference final and Stanley Cup Final), Andrew Cogliano, Nico Sturm and Josh Manson — all fit in nicely en route to a champagne-soaked night in June.

That brings us to this year’s trade deadline and four teams attacking it with sizzling results: the Golden Knights, Carolina Hurricanes, Winnipeg Jets and Avalanche. Gold medals all around.

The NHL’s 2024 trade deadline has come and gone, bringing disappointment to some fan bases, excitement to others, and sheer shock to the whole hockey world.

How did your team do?

Our writers have scores for all 32 squads ⤵️https://t.co/pH78h1Bvvk

— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) March 9, 2024

Silver medals go to the Panthers and Dallas Stars, who didn’t need to add a lot but found the key pieces they needed. Florida filled a top-six spot with Vladimir Tarasenko and got him for a low price courtesy of his one-team wish list and a culture that has made it a popular destination. The Friday add of high-character veteran Kyle Okposo by general manager Bill Zito was a nice touch, too. The Panthers were already the best team in the Eastern Conference, in my books. Zito didn’t need to do more than he did, particularly being cognizant of not messing with a tight-knit dressing room.

Veteran Stars GM Jim Nill beat out heavy competition for Chris Tanev, the right-shot, top-four add his team was after, and he didn’t have to give up a first-round pick. Dallas is deep up front, and there was no reason to mess with things further.

Back to our four gold medalists. Let’s hear a bit more about how their deadlines went down.

Hurricanes

Most fascinating to me about the chase for Jake Guentzel is that Hurricanes president and GM Don Waddell waited until Wednesday morning to meaningfully engage in the sweepstakes. The Canes let it play out for a bit before getting into the proceedings with Pittsburgh Penguins GM Kyle Dubas.

“The past couple of weeks, I had talked to Kyle — just like I do with all the other general managers — just to see what he was up to,” Waddell told The Athletic on Saturday. “He said he wouldn’t be doing anything until or if they got to a point — and, I mean, they still have a chance — but where maybe it looked like they might not make it (to the playoffs) and that it might be smart to move Guentzel.

“That was the week before, and I let it go. And then things started to come out (reports of teams talking of a trade with Pittsburgh). So I called him Wednesday morning and said, ‘You know, we would have interest.’ And Kyle said he’s not as interested in draft picks as he is in prospects, and he knows we have a slew of prospects. He asked me if I would put a list together and get involved.”

When Waddell mentioned seeing other reports, he was likely referring to The Athletic’s Chris Johnston’s report Tuesday that the Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh were talking about a potential three-team deal involving Guentzel going to the Canucks, Elias Lindholm to the Bruins and a package to the Penguins.

Then there were reports of the New York Rangers charging hard Thursday while the Panthers were lurking, though I don’t think they were ever that deep into it, other than making sure they stayed in touch with Pittsburgh in case the market cratered and they could pounce at a reduced rate.

“Thursday it started to heat up a little bit more,” Waddell said of his talks with Dubas. “Like any great player, (Dubas was) trying to get as much as he can. We had to add a few things in there. By Thursday night, we were able to come to a deal.”

But not before some nervous moments during the day, when Waddell went a few hours without hearing from Dubas.

“I put the shoe on the other foot: If I’m sitting in Kyle’s spot, I’ve got to try to maximize his value,” Waddell said. “When there’s multiple teams involved, that’s how you have to do it. So we went three, four hours (Thursday) without hearing anything. I knew that was the process. It didn’t do me any good to try and hound Kyle down. It’s his job to maximize the value. I knew what he was doing.

“At the end of the day, if someone outbids me, then we move on. So I don’t get frustrated with these types of deals at the deadline because I know how it all works.”

Instead, when Dubas did reach out again, it was to say they were ready to proceed. The Canes had the top rental player available.

One day later, there was the surprise trade for Evgeny Kuznetsov — a reclamation project, to be sure, but at 50 percent of the salary rate and for just a third-round pick. Insight from Justin Williams, who played with Kuznetsov in Washington, was valuable in the process. But the GM also wanted to credit someone else.

“Where the credit is not being given is to Tom,” Waddell said of Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon. “Because this is a money risk, not an asset risk. We gave up a third-round pick, so it’s not an asset risk. But it’s a financial risk. If it doesn’t work out, we’re going to spend $5 million this year and next year. If it works out, it could be a home run.

“So I give credit to Tom for saying, ‘Let’s take a shot.’”

Part of the risk-reward calculation is that the Canes feel strongly about their team culture, Waddell added, established by head coach Rod Brind’Amour and their veteran core.

A year ago, Waddell and the Canes got hammered by many for a quiet deadline. It wasn’t for a lack of trying; they were all over Timo Meier before the New Jersey Devils got him. But being aggressive this time around wasn’t meant to appease the critics.

“For our players that have been here, I felt it was important to try and do something,” Waddell said. “I know yesterday when I went to practice after we made these deals, the emotions were very high.

“I felt that our players and our coaching staff were owed this, to try and do something. Now, if we couldn’t do it but we tried, that’s a different story. But you have to try, and this time we were able to succeed.”

“Tweet the lines!”

How will Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour deploy his forwards now that he has a couple new pieces? I took a crack at some possibilities for @TheAthletic. https://t.co/n4RSme9FSg

— Cory Lavalette (@corylav) March 9, 2024

Jets

One can argue the Jets provided a perfect template for how a contender should approach the deadline:

1. Have your salary cap in a healthy place from the start of the season so you can add comfortably.

2. Make a move early. Then you can sit back and pounce again if a buyers’ market develops but don’t have to feel overburdened if the second move doesn’t develop.

3. By waiting for that second move, be in a position to go after a target that wasn’t even on the market when the deadline period began.

Check, check, check.

It began with the Feb. 2 acquisition of Sean Monahan from the Montreal Canadiens, which came at a high enough cost, a first-round pick. Both buyer and seller are happy in the aftermath. The Habs got a better return on a rental than most selling teams did at the deadline, and the Jets got a player who has fit right in from Day 1 and has been a dynamite addition.

“Things got jump-started there a little bit,” Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff told The Athletic on Saturday. “We knew we wanted to get another centerman there, and from a market perspective, when you identify the market and you know you might have to act decisively, we did. The good news by getting him early, getting him acclimated, getting him in here: He doesn’t seem like a new player.”

Another benefit?

“He’s the one making the phone calls to Tyler Toffoli to welcome him to the team,” Cheveldayoff said. “So that’s nice. It’s like a benefit within the benefit, getting a player like that. And yeah, you know what, kudos to (Habs GM) Kent (Hughes). He held his ground. We tried a couple of different ways to do it. But he had conviction, we had a need, and we decided to act.”

Both teams are winners for it.

Five weeks later, the Jets were then patiently able to wait out the Toffoli market (and likely benefited from the Devils not wanting to deal him to the rival Rangers) and got him at 50 percent salary retention for the bargain price of a second-round pick and a third-round pick. A bargain for sure, given Toffoli’s goal-scoring talents.

When you combine both trades, the collective asset price was well worth it — on the higher side on the first deal, and a bargain on the second.

And similar to Paul Stastny’s hitting the market just before the 2018 deadline and the Jets’ pouncing on him, Toffoli was a late entrant to the market. Even Wednesday, Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald wasn’t sure he would move him with his team trying to stay in the playoff race.

“Fitzy’s situation there was different (than Montreal’s) — they’re still trying to win, and justifiably so,” Cheveldayoff said. “That’s probably one of the subtle nuances is that it’s hard to predict and hard to maneuver (when teams finally decide to sell).

“When we made the trade with St. Louis for Stastny, Doug (Armstrong) was hanging in there — in fact, I think he was still in a playoff spot when we made the deal. So again, every team’s situation is different and the timing different.”

And back to our template above, the Jets could have made a different forward pickup earlier and then lost out on a Toffoli opportunity. It’s an interesting gamble.

“That’s where the nerves side of it comes into play,” Cheveldayoff said. “It’s not that you’re trying to keep up. It’s that you want to do what you want to do or you want to do the next thing.”

And let’s be real: It’s harder to lure players to Winnipeg. That makes deadline success within that reality feel all the better.

“It’s important for our market, and it’s important for our team,” Cheveldayoff said. “With our guys, we talk about wanting to win, and when an opportunity presents itself, there’s no guarantees. But I think we’re in a better position today.”

No doubt about it.

The Winnipeg Jets were at risk of massive talent loss as recently as last summer.

Instead, they’ve charted a course back to Cup contention for the first time since a different generation of Jets star.

A deeper look at a long story, starting 5 years ago:https://t.co/n8VQTiFOKB

— Murat Ates (@WPGMurat) March 9, 2024

Avalanche

Has GM Chris MacFarland pulled off another version of the deadline that preceded the Cup run two years ago? Perhaps. The Avs sure hope it has the same impact.

They added a pair of bottom-six forwards in Yakov Trenin and Brandon Duhaime, but the headliners were center Casey Mittelstadt and defenseman Sean Walker.

The aim in the Duhaime and Trenin additions was to flesh out the bottom six enough that head coach Jared Bednar can use both lines with equal comfort, matchup-wise and minutes-wise — to have two third lines, not a third and a fourth. You need the depth to pull that off.

“Duhaime is a heavy body. He’s a straight-line, good skater, which obviously fits how we like to do things,” MacFarland told The Athletic on Saturday. “And he’s a gamer. And that was an attraction for us, to put a guy in our lineup that can skate with some weight behind it.

“Trenin is a big guy with decent hands. A really good checking forward, good penalty-kill guy. Just a really useful piece.”

Again, the headline-grabbers were the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers trades, though. Those stemmed from a conclusion the Avs front office made earlier that Ryan Johansen, acquired last summer, wasn’t cutting it as the second-line center, a spot that’s been difficult to replace since Nazem Kadri was lost to free agency.

“It wasn’t working,” MacFarland said of the Johansen experiment. “And the 2C spot demanded attention to try and find a solution.”

Though MacFarland obviously couldn’t comment on it, he tried on Elias Lindholm in late January before the Calgary Flames dealt him to Vancouver.

So there were certainly a few targets. But the hope was to find a second-line center who wasn’t a rental. That meant a hockey deal, a more difficult proposition.

“It was a tricky deal,” MacFarland said of the second-line center search. It also meant finding a way to jettison Johansen’s contract, which runs through next season at a $4 million cap hit, whether in the same deal or a separate one.

“We had a bunch of different options, to be honest with you, but they all kind of had different secondary alternatives,” MacFarland said. “The one that we were able to get across the finish line was with Danny Briere and the Flyers. They did a great job and got a first-round pick out of it. We were the beneficiaries of being able to bring in Walker, whom we like a lot, on an expiring deal. So that made the math work.”

And again, MacFarland could not comment on this, but league sources confirm he had talked with Calgary about a similar package — a first-round pick and Johansen — for Chris Tanev. Calgary wasn’t interested in taking on the Johansen contract, and the Flames liked the Stars’ offer.

When the Avs got Johansen off the books and a top-four defenseman in Walker secured, they turned to finalizing an exciting hockey deal: blueliner Bowen Byram to the Sabres for Mittelstadt.

“The Sabres weren’t going to move Mittelstadt for picks or for an older player, and from our standpoint, we know how good Bo is, how good of a person he is, and if it wasn’t for (Devon) Toews and (Cale) Makar, he would be a top-pairing guy,” MacFarland said. “His time here was nothing but incredible. But at the end of this deal, he’s going to want to spread his wings a little bit, I think, and deservedly so.

“But we weren’t going to move Bo for a 30-year-old center on an expiring deal or a 30-year-old defenseman. It had to be a very specific situation. It had to be for a young, controllable (contract-wise) center.

“I know Bo is going to do his thing there in Buffalo and be a real important piece for them.”

In Mittelstadt, the Avs hope to have finally solved their second-line center riddle — and in a long-term fashion.

“But for that hockey deal to happen, we needed to get that D. We weren’t going to weaken one area to try and strengthen another,” MacFarland said. “The stars aligned, I guess.”

Perhaps under the radar was the trade of Kurtis MacDermid to New Jersey, as well, for cap reasons. MacFarland, team present Joe Sakic and the entire team loved MacDermid and respected him for what he did in his role. And though it might have looked like an afterthought to the outside world that the Avs moved him, it wasn’t taken lightly inside the organization.

Overall, it was a busy deadline period with specific goals pulled off for the Avs’ front office. They’re ready to go for it now.

Wednesday could be a tenure-defining day for Chris MacFarland:https://t.co/swbaimvvhH

— Peter Baugh (@Peter_Baugh) March 6, 2024

Golden Knights

Finally, there’s the team that stirs the drink in the NHL.

“The trade deadline is the last chance for a general manager to help his team, and we really wanted to do that,” Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon told The Athletic on Saturday. “We’re the defending Stanley Cup champions. We wanted to do everything we could to position our team to be as strong as possible.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries this year. We’ve had a lot of players that have really carried us, and we just thought that they deserved some help. That was our thinking going into it. And over the course of the week, it went really well. We were able to add some really significant players.”

Do you think?

Anthony Mantha was the appetizer Tuesday, and Noah Hanifin was a huge blue-line addition Wednesday. Then came the hat-trick addition that reverberated around the hockey world Friday.

I won’t soon forget sitting beside semi-retired Bob McKenzie on our TSN set when the Insider legend dropped the Bobfather Bomb of deadline day: Tomáš Hertl to Vegas.

Kaboom. What a scoop. What a trade.

It was one nobody saw coming. As it turns out, the Knights started talking to the San Jose Sharks about Hertl just before the All-Star break and stayed on it.

“We had talked to San Jose before Tomáš got hurt,” McCrimmon said. “Tomáš was a player with significant term left on his contract. He’s a player that’s played so well against us. We’ve got tremendous respect for the player, and that’s sort of why the conversations began. But it was really complex. These are big decisions for both organizations. There’s a lot of steps you have to go through for a deal like this to happen.

“The retention. What’s the additional price that needs to be paid for a team to get retention? Now you’re involving ownership. It was the final deal to be completed. It was the one that we worked on the longest. It was great for both organizations that we got it to the finish line because I think it’s a really good trade for San Jose as well with what they’re working at (in their rebuild). And we really like what it does for our team — not just for the short term but through his contract.”

Making Hertl a $6.75 million a year player instead of the $8.1 million salary he made before the Sharks’ retention was obviously a huge part of it. But Sharks GM Mike Grier did pretty well given how hard it is to move term and money around the league right now.

Sharks embrace the rebuild abyss by trading Tomáš Hertl — and hope for a quick exit ⤵️ https://t.co/lzKSwmuD8z

— The Athletic NHL (@TheAthleticNHL) March 9, 2024

While this was all coming together, the on-again, off-again conversations between the front offices stayed quiet. That’s equally amazing.

“I give credit to both organizations that it was kept internal,” McCrimmon said. “That’s how deals should be made.”

(I’m not sure if the Vegas GM knows how I make a living, but I’ll ignore his last comment!)

This was Vegas being Vegas. All the white noise about its long-term injured reserve situation is tiresome. The Golden Knights aren’t breaking any rules. Mark Stone has a lacerated spleen. There’s no timetable for his return. That’s reality.

I understand the larger conversation about whether it makes any sense that the salary cap doesn’t apply in the playoffs, but that’s an NHL conversation, not a Vegas conversation. That’s about what 32 owners want. What the players at large want. It’s not about one team. Perhaps we’ll revisit this at the GM meetings March 18 to 20.

What’s also reality is few teams have been hit harder by injuries, especially to key players, than Vegas. It has affected their performance, to be sure. The addition of Hertl (who is hurt), Mantha and Hanifin isn’t just about trying to defend the Cup. It’s also about a team that needs healthy bodies and whose slide down the standings the past couple of weeks means a playoff spot isn’t 100 percent certain.

The playoffs start now for Vegas. And if it gets in, it has as good a shot as any top contender to win again. The Golden Knights’ deadline work made sure of that.

Granger: Love it or hate it, the Golden Knights’ bold strategy deserves respect ⤵️https://t.co/pc3r29d8bn

— The Athletic NHL (@TheAthleticNHL) March 9, 2024

(Photo of Tomáš Hertl: Nic Antaya / Getty Images)

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