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The Art of the Deal in the ECHL

Friday, July 8th
The Art of the Deal in the ECHL

They have become increasingly rare in the salary cap era, but a handful of general managers in the National Hockey League proved last week that the occasional marquee player-for-player trade can still dominate the headlines for hockey fans. On a weekend that was supposed to be dedicated to Free Agent Frenzy, it was a swap of premier blue-liners and a trade of a scoring phenom for a developing d-man that jarred the hockey world and had writers and pundits diving for their keyboards.

The Montreal Canadiens traded Norris Trophy winner PK Subban to the Nashville Predators for perennial Norris candidate Shea Weber, while the Edmonton Oilers dealt one of the league’s most dynamic scoring wingers in Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for former top-5 draft pick Adam Larsson on the blue line.

Both deals were risky on one end, with the Canadiens banking that Weber still has a lot of elite hockey left in him as he nears age 31 and Oilers fans hoping that Larsson will continue his development from steady defender to a shutdown force. The Devils and Predators earned far more praise than scrutiny in the aftermath of the deals, but the rampant second-guessing across the hockey map on all sides nonetheless reminds fans why these mega-deals with big name players now happen so few and far between.

It’s a different world running an ECHL team, as Steelheads Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations Neil Graham knows firsthand. Unlike in the NHL, where the focus of many deals is made up of prospects and future draft picks, Graham and other ECHL coaches are constantly looking for the right fits to exchange active players and make their rosters better in the here and now.

The ECHL has no draft and players signed to ECHL deals are signed for just one year, meaning that except for the occasional ‘future consideration’, most trades are made with a win-now mentality.

“At the ECHL level, budgets are tight and the salary cap levels are tight. When you’re trading a player, a lot of those factors go into the decision making,” said Graham, coming off his first full season as a professional head coach. “You need to ask yourself where a player fits within the cap, within the roster, and within the dressing room. They are all major things I consider when I’m doing these trades.”

Graham had a strong record last season in trades, bringing in players like Joe Basaraba, Zach Yuen, and Branden Komm by way of trades that sent meaningful pieces the other way. The old cliché is that ‘you have to give something to get something’, and the Steelheads made the right call on many of their mid-season transactions last season.

“Last year we made several deals throughout the season. There was never a major overhaul, but there was a piece here and a piece there as you continually look to improve,” said Graham. “Hopefully we don’t have to make a lot of trades in the future. They are a part of hockey, especially at this level, and when you feel you’re improving the club it’s the most important thing.”

Sometimes those deals are less about statistics and more about what the roster needs to be more competitive. As Graham mentioned, it is certainly difficult for the Oilers to send away one of their top scorers, but the Oilers have not been a playoff team with the status quo. They needed defensemen and they brought one in with lots of promise that might make the difference in changing their dynamic and making them a playoff team.

“It’s not always the big name or the high-scoring center, but it can be a good trade for the organization and it allows them to fill a need that could help get them into the playoffs.”

Fans can look back to last season and remember the strong start that rookie defenseman Cole Martin had on the blue line for the Steelheads, but as the season reached its midway point it was clear the Steelheads needed more experience on the back end. Trading away Martin was likely a difficult decision for the coaching staff, but it brought in Yuen to run the point on the power play for the remainder of the season. Yuen was among the league leaders in power play points while with Idaho.

You have to give something to get something.

Even in trades where two high-value players change addresses, where both teams are receiving impactful players, fans will debate over the winners and losers of the deal. Perhaps surprisingly, that’s not the mentality of the men who pull the trigger. Certainly coaches and general managers want their new players to fill the needs of the roster, which is obvious. But according to Graham, it’s good business to see your trade partner get what they need as well.

“In a perfect world, you want both teams to do well in a deal because you’re that much more likely to be able to do a deal with that team again. You’re never rooting for a deal not to work out for another team or player. You wish the best for all involved so you can do business with them again.”

For all the ‘Monday Morning Quarterback” reactions and 20-20 hindsight that goes into reviewing any trade, every decision earns it’s highest scrutiny in the days before it’s done and from the coaches signing off on it. Every decision is tough, every decision takes time, and every decision hopefully makes the team better.

“There is always a risk factor when you’re trading and a lot of factors go into it. But I’ve never pulled the trigger on impulse or without a lot of thought,” said Graham.

“They don’t get any easier, there’s no belief that just because another deal went well that the next one is going to be just as good. You have to do your homework and put in a lot of care and detail or you could be on the wrong side of it.”

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