Okay, I will take the bait.
Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford was talking again this week, and in an interview with the Athletic’s Josh Yohe would not fully commit to Evgeni Malkin continuing to be a part of the team’s long-term core.
Now, before we get too deep in this, Yohe points out that Rutherford never said he wanted to trade Malkin, or that he was even looking to do it (I can not emphasize this enough). There are also several points laid out for why the potential of a Malkin trade is slim, if not completely nonexistent (from a full no-trade clause for Malkin, to the fact the big boss — Mario — is apparently opposed to the idea because he still has bad feelings about trading Jaromir Jagr).
But, ah, what the hell. The Penguins’ offseason is just getting started, speculation is in the air, and you can just sense the incredulous anger emanating from Rutherford about the way this season ended up every time he speaks. The potential for something outrageous is certainly there over the next couple of weeks, so if we’re going to get weird, let’s get weird.
My stance on the Penguins’ offseason and short-term future is well established: You still have a chance to win with the core players you have and trading one of them (or two of them) probably damages the short-term outlook without really doing anything to help the long-term outlook in a meaningful way.
I think there is this belief that by trading a superstar you are going to bring back a kings ransom of players and picks that is going to set your organization up for the long haul, as if there is always an Eric Lindros trade just sitting out there to be made.
It does not work that way, because while today’s general managers may do dumb things and make curious decisions, they’re not all totally stupid. They’re a hell of a lot smarter when it comes to this stuff than their predecessors were.
So let’s ask a question: What sort of offer would it take for you to even consider trading a core member of the Penguins (“core member” meaning an Evgeni Malkin or a Kris Letang; not a Patric Hornqvist or some other second-tier player) and for it to actually be worth it?
I have thought about this question a lot over the years — because these discussions always occasionally happen — and I’ve never been able to give a good answer because there is almost no comparison for such a trade.
By doing so you would be venturing into uncharted waters with no real guideline for what to expect.
I went back over the past 20 years and tried to find a comparable for a hypothetical Malkin trade. A trade involving a legitimate top-tier player, with significant term remaining on their contract, and around the same age.
The criteria I looked for what players with at least 500 games played through age 30 while also averaging more than a point-per-game throughout their careers.
I limited it to 20 years because once you go back further than that the NHL is a wildly different place both from an economic and common sense standpoint. In short: There were a lot of bad GM’s in the 1980s and earlier that had no concept of player or draft pick value. We are trying to keep this in more modern terms.
I also wanted players that were truly elite, potentially game-changing players. Impact talents with a lengthy established track record of being impact talents.
First, there are only 10 players that fit that criteria: Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, Joe Thornton, Steven Stamkos, Jarome Iginla, Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Jason Spezza.
Next, how many of them were actually traded at any point in their careers?
Well, that list gets even smaller and is cut down to just Thornton, Iginla, Heatley, Kovalchuk, and Spezza.
Iginla and Kovalchuk don’t really fit with Malkin because they were pending free agents on rebuilding teams that were not going to re-sign them. They were traded for relatively little value (late first-round pick, fringe prospects and NHLers).
So that leaves us with Thornton, Heatley, and Spezza.
Even these aren’t perfect comparisons because other than Thornton there isn’t a Malkin-type player in this group, but it’s at least a little closer.
So let’s dig in.
Thornton is probably an even more extreme example because he was still only 24 years old when the Boston Bruins traded him, and the reaction at the time in Boston was truly something to behold. Basically, he wasn’t a guy you could win with and with still two years remaining on a contract that paid an in-his-prime superstar around $6.3 million per season, he was traded to the Sharks for a 26-year-old Brad Stuart, a 27-year-old Marco Sturm, and a 29-year-old Wayne Primeau.
It was an insane trade.
What would a comparable return look like with today’s player? Something like Cam Fowler, Jakob Silfverberg, and a fourth-liner.
Does that work for you? Because it doesn’t for me!
Heatley was traded a few times in his career, once at age 23 under ... horrible circumstances ... and again at age 29 when he went from Ottawa to San Jose. When the Senators traded him Heatley was one of the elite goal-scorers in the NHL and still had five years at $7.5 million per season remaining on his deal.
Ottawa’s return: Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo, and a second-round draft pick.
Two totally average, unremarkable players and a draft pick that 60 percent of the time will not even net you an NHL player. Waste!
When the Senators traded Spezza he was in his age 30 season, only had one year left on his deal, and was still a point-per-game player for his career. He is probably the weakest comparable and, naturally, brought back the weakest return — Alex Chiasson, Nicholas Paul, Alex Guptill, and a second-round pick. Other than Chiasson, none of those players ever mattered in the NHL, and even Chiasson was nothing special.
It’s tough to get fair return back for a player of that caliber, and you are almost always going to leave yourself with a weaker roster in the end. One great player will always be better than two good players.
Right after the season ended I posed a similar question to my Twitter followers, asking for any specific examples they could think of where a team traded a player of that magnitude and ended up getting better because of it. The best example I received in response was the Flyers trading Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, which was a massive shakeup involving cornerstone players. And while it is true that the Flyers did very well in those two deals (those trades brought them Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, and Brayden Schenn) you can not overlook the fact Carter and Richards went on to win two of the next three Stanley Cups once they were reunited in Los Angeles, while the Flyers have missed the playoffs as often as they have made them ... and only once made it out of Round 1 since then.
The same is true for a player like Letang. Can you think of a comparable player being traded at this point in their career, with that resume, with significant term remaining on the contract?
P.K. Subban and Shea Weber were traded for each other. Is that sort of one-for-one going to make you better?
Erik Karlsson had one year left on his contract and got dealt for Chris Tierney, Rudolfs Balcers, Dylan Demelo, and Joshua Norris. Is that collection of players going to not only keep you a contender today, but extend your window in any meaningful way in the future when Sidney Crosby hangs them up?
But other than those examples, what other Norris caliber defender can you think of that was traded with term left on their contract? And what did that team get in return?
Simply put, these types of players do not get traded until they absolutely have to get traded.
The Penguins are not in that position.
Look, I get it. Jim’s mad because the Penguins fizzed out. Maybe some of the players tuned out the coach and didn’t get the message. Maybe a team that had a revolving door of complementary players moving in and out over the past two years didn’t come together. Maybe the long-term prospect outlook is bleak.
But you still have top-tier players that can win together with the right pieces around them. And if it comes down to finding a new coach or finding a new 90-point center or No. 1 defender, guess which one is a hell of a lot easier to find?
Hint: It is not the latter two.
So, if you want to play along chew on all of that and answer the question: What sort of return for a core player would make you seriously consider it and make you think the Penguins would be better off for making it?
This should be fun.