Are NHL GMs a Mystery to One Another?

On October 8th, the Ottawa Senators traded a fifth round pick to the Anaheim Ducks for Erik Gudbranson. Gudbranson, having been drafted third overall by the Florida Panthers a decade ago, will be joining his fifth team, and despite being Pretty Big, is also Not Very Good.

It’s hardly the kind of deal to get worked up over. A fifth round pick isn’t worth very much, and a team who was almost $20 million below the salary floor at the time added a Not Very Good NHL veteran with only a year left on his deal to a team expected to be also Not Very Good next season. Gudbranson will probably be on his sixth team in 2022, and Ottawa picking in the top five. While a bit of a head-scratcher, the trade is the definition of inconsequential.

Then, on the same day, the Columbus Blue Jackets traded Ryan Murray, drafted second overall in 2012 and Actually Pretty Good (though not Pretty Big and also Oft Injured) for also a fifth round pick. Ottawa Senators Twitter was alight with condemnation; how could this team, having just traded away nothing for nothing, decline to instead trade nothing for something? It’s a fair question. Asking it slams us up against the opaque old boy’s club of NHL hockey relationships, leading us to conclude, by dint of our lack of information, that the team making the inferior deal must naturally be an inferior assessor of talent. There’s another question worth asking, though, which is: how do the conversations leading up to NHL trades even work? Did Dorion even know Murray was available?

A few days later, the Colorado Avalanche made a lopsided trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, sending bona fide top-six forward Brandon Saad to the Colorado Avalanche for odds and ends. These deals beg the question: is there anything resembling an open market in the NHL? Anecdotally, I’ve heard mentioned on various podcasts, like 31 Thoughts, that there’s a closely-guarded listserv of some kind where NHL general managers share information about the players they’re trying to move, and what it would take to obtain them. But I’ve never encountered anywhere information about a market, in any kind of formalized sense, where players are objectively quantified and understood in terms relative to one another and to draft picks. Anyone who’s dicked around on Yahoo fantasy hockey has seen it: the trade boards, where one designates what they’re looking for, and what they’re willing to give up. Is it naïve of me to wonder if an equivalent doesn’t exist for NHL GMs?

It’s easier said than done, of course. Quantifying value is loaded, and the subtext of it is why there are so many people writing about and trying to get into hockey. But there are so many examples of teams making deals that seem fine in the moment only to find that these deals are sub-optimal relative to another deal that happens soon after that one has to wonder whether NHL GMs even communicate with one another. Is the GM community simply cliques within cliques?

Another puzzling rumor is that the NHL is eager to bring former Edmonton and Boston GM Peter Chiarelli back into the fold, perhaps in a role with the Arizona Coyotes. Chiarelli, though a veteran in NHL circles at this point, has been lambasted for a series of brutal trades and signings during his time in Edmonton. Why would he have not just currency in the NHL, but powerful actors within the bureaucracy of the league itself advocating on his behalf? It’s possible that he’s a good soldier, upholding the values of the league and conducting himself with consummate professionalism. It’s also possible that navigating the waters of NHL general management requires an understanding of the idiosyncratic gatekeeping that keeps any ol’ schmo from simply consulting the best practices and going about their business. Chiarelli has a membership in the Old Boys Club, and while that might seem like a self-legitimizing reason to grant him readmittance to said club, the health of the league is dependent on GMs that actually talk to and do business with one another.

This all goes back to that fateful day over four years ago when a series of bananas trades took place within hours of one another, all of the NHL media having been caught sleeping on the fact that any of them were even in gestation.

How could Edmonton trade Taylor Hall, a former first overall pick in the prime of his career, for a decent but unremarkable top four defenseman? How could Montreal trade the younger and cheaper PK Subban for Shea Weber? It’s not that these trades are not defensible if you squint and look sideways at them, but the experience is a familiar one for most hockey fans: “How could my team not have beaten that offer?” The answer, it seems to me, is that maybe they weren’t even aware that a market for that player existed. What we should wonder, as nerds on the internet, is how that can possibly be so.

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