Head Over Heart: The 2014 NHL Trade Deadline

When Dan asked me to write something hockey related to help fill the immense void of the NFL off-season I thought long and hard about my options.  The first thing that came to mind was that I’d never actually written anything like what he was asking for before, so where on earth would I begin?  In the end the timing of his request and league events conspired so that it pretty much wrote itself.  And in the process I thoroughly enjoyed it, so thanks Dan, I owe you one.  It is, of course, certainly no masterpiece but hopefully it will give at least a little insight into what was for me the most extraordinary day in my time following the National Hockey League.

And so it came to pass that the NHL Trade Deadline came and went on the 5th March 2014.   A number of major deals went down, some expected, others not so much, in the process changing the look of various teams and giving General Managers, coaches, players, journalists and fans a real picture of who will and who won’t be competing come play-off time.  But one story in particular is unique, or at least a rare enough occurrence to be worthy of attention.  One that finds fans, myself included in this case, caught between what their heart says about a player and what their head says about the good of a team.  A situation totally removed from any off-season transaction, as it happens at the business end of the season, causing shock waves through both the teams involved and the wider league, right before the final push for the play-offs begins.  It’s a trade that I could have written about weeks, months or even years later, when its true effect could be analysed and conclusions drawn.  But I didn’t want to do that, this is about fan emotions and business brains colliding, and I wanted to evaluate it in writing, while the dust and debris is still settling, without the advantage of knowing how it will all turn out.  These are the views of a fan caught in the moment and nothing more…

At 11am Eastern Standard Time, New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, along with the Rangers’ 2nd round draft pick in 2014 and their 1st round pick in 2015, was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for veteran forward Martin St-Louis.

Now at this point I should fess-up to having been a Rangers fan for a number of years now, seventeen to be exact, so it’s fair to say interest surrounding the build-up and execution of this trade was pretty high in my household. The fact that the outbound player is/was arguably the most popular on the team, and the captain to boot, just added extra spice to the vindaloo.

Now, like any Rangers fan of a certain vintage I have seen my fair share of failure, it’s what this club in particular excels at.  I’ve known crushing disappointment like no fan of an Original Six franchise should (they do crushing disappointment pretty well too).  I’ve seen my favourite players traded away before: Adam Graves for a couple of roster fillers and future considerations; Brian Leetch for roughly the same, in a deal that still makes me shake my fist at the sky whenever my cruel subconscious accidentally recalls it from the dark, forgotten part of my brain I chose to filed it away in.  But these previous trades took place years ago, in the old NHL, when the lack of a salary cap meant you could pretty much judge a player solely on what they provided to the team and what they meant to you emotionally.  But the hollow, sunken feeling this time around doesn’t come from the aforementioned failure, disappointment and shattered dreams (because there are plenty of those as well).  What made this year and this trade so different to those in the past is the head over heart mentality most Ranger fans had to take on in order to rationalize the events of the day.

Ryan Callahan, as I will go on to explain was a beloved Ranger and the ultimate fan favourite.  Drafted 127th overall in the 2004 entry draft, he made his début on December 1st 2006 in Buffalo, quickly becoming a popular rookie, eventually earning a full call-up the following season.  Early on in his career his strong leadership qualities were identified, leading to his promotion to Alternate Captain in 2009 and ultimately being awarded the captaincy at the start of the 2011/12 season.  Callahan’s strongest qualities were his hard, uncompromising playing style and his ability to lead by example, always visible on the ice, never missing a shift and lifting the game of those around him.  Never near the top of the scoring charts, it was the qualities of a more intangible nature that elevated him in the eyes of team-mates and fans alike.

St-Louis, on the other hand, is a bona fide legend of the game.  The diminutive French Canadian has enjoyed being the face of the Tampa Bay franchise since the turn of the millennium, scoring 953 points in 972 games.  A six time All-Star, he counts being twice league top scorer, former league MVP, and an Olympic gold medal winner among his accomplishments.  Health-wise he is an absolute specimen and crucially, at 38 years old, a full decade older than Callahan, he is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down.

When compared against each other, Callahan for St-Louis is an unfair exchange on paper.  Both captains of their respective sides, both arguably the most popular players on their respective teams, but totally incomparable stats wise.  One is a 38 year old superhuman, who can still be referred to as a superstar of the game.  The other is a popular, gritty, no nonsense role-player with an impeccable work ethic and the mythical characteristic known in hockey as ‘intangibles.’

Callahan, like Adam Graves before him, was, until last week, comfortably my favourite Ranger, certainly since the 2005 lockout.  He embodied everything I looked for in a player – hard work, true grit, and strong leadership.  A guy of average height and build, he would nonetheless give 100% every shift, never giving less than he absolutely could for the good of the team.  He was arguably New York’s most beloved Ranger since the days of Graves, Leetch and Richter and it is this love for the player, still young in NHL terms at 28, that makes the feelings I had in the lead up to this deadline the strangest and most confusing of my Rangers supporting days…

I wanted him traded.  Gone.  Sayonara.  Please close the door on your wa… thanks.

The Rangers haven’t traded an active captain mid-season since Brad Park was sent to the Bruins in 1975.  Mark Messier was dealt to the Sharks in 2003 (for a pick that ironically became Ryan Callahan) but that was down to a particular quirk in the old Collective Bargaining Agreement that would see him immediately re-sign with the Rangers, in fact most people don’t even remember it happening at all.  Nearly forty years on from Park, the Rangers were entering a situation where decisions needed to be made about the future of their present captain.

The trade deadline is the final opportunity (in the simplest of terms) for contending teams to make the final moves to position themselves for a play-off run and for basement dwellers to offload expendable assets in exchange for future prospects to aid a rebuild.  In all a lot of teams end up doing very little at all. It is also, more often than not, the unofficial deadline for decisions to be made about the future of playing personnel that are not signed beyond the current season.

It’s at this point that impending free agents suddenly become very valuable commodities for General Managers and provide teams with a number of options to consider.  Unrestricted Free Agents can essentially be rented out to play-off chasing teams for the remainder of that season, before their contracts finally expire.  Their old team receives a valuable return via trade when they ultimately would have received nothing by keeping the player until the end of the season themselves.  Keeping hold of an impending free agent past the deadline without guarantees that they will extend/re-sign is a huge gamble and one that most GMs aren’t willing to take.  With this in mind clubs that find themselves with valuable but unsigned personnel are always left with a tough decision to make come the deadline.  If the player in question is still unsigned when the deadline passes they risk losing  them for nothing in the summer.  Equally the player’s bargaining power suddenly grows, as they can raise their demands knowing that if the team really wants to keep them they’ll have no choice but to match them.  All in all it usually comes down to one of two options: Extend and avoid free agency, or trade them while you can still recoup any kind of return.

In Callahan’s case, with his contract expiring this summer and him due to become an Unrestricted Free Agent at season’s end, he will essentially be able to take his pick of whatever contract offer comes his way from July 1st onwards.

Teams usually have a number of impending free agents on their rosters at the start of any season and so, come the start of the current campaign, the Rangers had spent the early part of the season steadily extending the contracts of their key upcoming free agents, ensuring that they were locked up well before not only the free agency period the following summer but also the trade deadline in early March.  By Christmas all necessary business was pretty much wrapped up… apart from the captain’s expected extension.  It was going to be interesting to see what terms he and the Rangers would seek to ultimately prevent free agency from happening, to bring him back for the 2014/2015 season and beyond.

Being the valuable player he is and with no contract signed, or necessarily a decent enough trade proposal on the table the Rangers did have a third option, should they not be able to come to an agreement:  Do nothing, let the deadline pass and potentially lose him in the summer, when he will almost certainly make good money. In effect the Rangers could treat their own player like a very good rental themselves in the lead up to the play-offs.  Oh, and avoid trading your heart and soul captain mid-season too.  And this is exactly where the head over heart aspect comes into play.  I love Ryan Callahan, I wanted him see out his career on Broadway and ultimately captain the team to its first Stanley Cup in over twenty years.  But it could never be and ultimately it would have been a travesty if he had suited up as a Ranger come the 2014 season opener in October, and here’s why…

Come early March, reports started to surface that Callahan and the Rangers were still miles apart in contractual negotiations and this could only mean that big money was being asked for.  David Clarkson, a third line-type player, similar in style but inferior in ability to Callahan, had signed a bonkers 7yrs/$36.75m deal in Toronto the previous off-season and it became pretty clear that Callahan would be starting the negotiations at these terms or higher.  The player so many Ranger fans idolize is, ultimately, statistically speaking, no more than a second/third line winger, increasingly injury prone due to his style of play, whose team contribution is elevated by what he brings outside of the stat charts.  But were Callahan’s undoubted popularity and hard to monetize intangibles worth that kind of cash in the salary cap era?  With the cap expected to be somewhere between $68m and $71m in 2015, could the Rangers afford to apportion that big a hit, star player money essentially, for what would be multiple years, on a player with so many question marks hanging over him? Given the Clarkson deal it’s fair to assume that Callahan could easily expect to get his desired terms on the open market in free agency.  A home town discount to stay in New York could have been expected but at nearly 29 this was likely Callahan’s last big NHL contract and from his perspective why make concessions to a deal you’ve arguably more than earned already?

Historically a player for player trade would be judged on the individual merit of the players involved, what they bring to the room and how they produce on the ice.  But in the new post-2005 salary cap governed NHL, what a player makes in salary and therefore how they affect the team’s overall salary cap spend, becomes a serious factor in whether they stay or go, are loved or loathed.

The Rangers had been down a similar road before with their previous captain, Chris Drury.  Another player renowned for his leadership and intangible contributions, especially in the play-offs, Drury signed with the Rangers as a free agent for an eye watering 5yrs/$35.25m deal in the 2007 off-season, a contract that would have taken him to just shy of his 36th birthday.  A popular player around the league, particularly in Colorado and Buffalo, and known as Captain Clutch for his ability to make the right play when it mattered, he developed injury problems almost as soon as he signed in New York.  What was already a risky contract for a player like Drury, who forewent regular season production for what he could produce in the play-offs, became a financial disaster that threatened to saddle the Rangers’ cap hit for years to come.  In fact the Rangers had made a habit, in Drury, Scott Gomez (7yrs/$51.5m) and Wade Redden (6yrs/$39m) of signing free agents for ridiculous contracts, way beyond their actual worth and had suffered as a result.  For a time the club started to resemble an old people’s home, where overvalued players could pick up a lengthy retirement package before riding off into the sunset.

In an alternate universe Drury could have been a popular player for the Rangers with a contract that better reflected his abilities and production, although his health rapidly declined anyway.  At 5 years and over $35m he was an unmitigated disaster and the fans grew to hate everything about his signing.  With his reported demands, no doubt inflated due to his status as team captain and players like Clarkson earning huge salaries in other markets, Callahan was potentially headed down the same road.  There was, and still is no doubt in my mind that he has earned the right to get paid the market dollar he deserves, but it shouldn’t and couldn’t have been on Broadway.  It’s almost a guarantee that given Callahan’s playing style and recent susceptibility to injury he would have turned out exactly the same as Drury.  Captain Clutch was a popular player, albeit before becoming a Ranger, yet he became an advert for bad business, hated by fans for what he represented.

What would have made the Callahan scenario worse is that he is a home-grown Ranger, who had worked his way up to team captain and was universally loved for his never say die attitude, tenacity that far outweighed his physical stature and his ability to lead a locker room of star NHL’ers. The only thing is many people felt that it would only be another couple of seasons before his body would start to feel the effects, indeed the signs were already beginning to show.  The Rangers were potentially entering a scenario where they would spend the remaining years of the contract paying a fortune to the shell of a previously great player.  A deal anything like Clarkson’s would have killed that love and would have hung like an albatross around the Rangers’ neck as his body broke down and his production dropped.  As each year wore on and his value fell through the floor The Garden Faithful would have looked at the cap implications and cursed the day he was re-signed for so long and for much money.

By deadline day itself reports were circulating that Rangers GM Glenn Sather had tabled a 6yr/$36m contract and it was Cally’s to take or leave.  Sather, referred to as the Dark Lord for his trading ability but derisively described as a cigar chomping maniac when it comes to free agent deals, who had overpaid so many times before was about to make the same mistake again.  “This can’t be happening,” seemed to be the consensus, “I love Cally but…”

Meanwhile, vague reports were surfacing in Tampa about Martin St-Louis wanting out of Lightning organization. Tensions were apparently high between St-Louis and GM Steve Yzerman over the player being initially left off the Team Canada Olympic roster the previous month in Sochi. To make the rumours even more enticing St-Louis had apparently declared the Rangers as his only destination of choice, due to his family being based in nearby Connecticut. Frankly, the whole thing stank of typical trade deadline bullshit.  St-Louis, despite his 38 years has more points than anyone in the league since the start of the 2009/10 season, is the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner and is currently seventh in league scoring for this season.  Add to this reports that Tampa flat out did not want a forward, especially Callahan and any possibility of an already unlikely deal appeared to be almost totally non-existent.  Why, after all, would Tampa even consider that trade when they had no real obligation to accept it?

But two separate stories kept being churned out of the rumour mill: “The Rangers and Callahan are getting very close to agreeing terms,” coupled with, “The Rangers are still going hard after St-Louis.” So no one knew what to think. If Callahan was extending then who were the Rangers preparing to give up to land the 38 year old star? Ideas started floating around that the Rangers must be preparing to give up valuable young prospects, a large chunk of their future, for a guy with no more than a 2-3 year window before retirement. In other words, they were re-mortgaging the future for a run at the cup now. Frankly it was more than a little terrifying. Signing Callahan to silly money and trading away the future of the franchise to acquire an ageing veteran certainly wouldn’t guarantee that Lord Stanley’s Cup would be paraded down the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan any time soon. It was the stuff of nightmares. The kids needed to be kept, Cally had to go and if St-Louis somehow forced a reasonable trade to the Rangers into the bargain then that would be a bonus.

By late morning on deadline day I sat at my desk at work watching every form of social media, hoping for something to happen, praying to the hockey gods that the player I love so much did not re-sign with the team I love even more.  Anything in return, even a 6th round pick and a bag of pucks, would be better than $6m off the cap for each of the next six years.  My favourite player of the last decade, still in his prime, could not be allowed to stay on the team in these circumstances.  And mentally I became angry at the fact that I knew deep down Sather would give him the $36m and had even started to resent what Callahan now represented.  And so I wasn’t at all prepared for what happened next.  When, at around 4pm local time, the internet lit up with the news the trade had actually happened I didn’t smile, I didn’t punch the air, I went cold.  Everything I had hoped for had come to pass; the team had avoided the albatross, had acquired a genuine star in exchange and had kept hold of their youthful prospects. The Rangers had done everything they needed to in my mind.  But it was the end of an era:  Never again would #24 step onto the Garden ice in Rangers blue.  At 32 years old I had to tell my girlfriend that the reason I sounded so sad on the phone on my way home was because my favourite player had been traded.  I felt like a 9 year old, not a fully grown adult.  But it was how it needed to be.

At midnight English time that evening the puck dropped at The Garden and just under a minute later Martin St-Louis stepped onto the ice for his first shift as a New York Ranger.  The team didn’t dress a captain for the game and they won’t for the rest of the season.  Ryan Callahan has certainly left some big skates for someone else to fill.

On paper I would say the Rangers just about won the trade, despite giving up two high draft picks over the next couple of years.  St-Louis offers a lethal scoring threat that the team has been crying out for and he undoubtedly makes them stronger for a play-off push.  But I also wanted to still be able to wear my Cally jerseys with pride and now I can.  I loved him then, I still love him now.  Seeing him in another team’s colours is going to be a strange, pit-of-the-stomach feeling, like seeing your ex instantly shack up with someone else, long before the break-up wounds have healed.  But it had to be done.  He should have his big contract; he’s more than earned it.  But it should be an albatross around someone else’s neck.