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Rational Inaction

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After considerable build-up, the trade deadline proved to be a ho-hum moment, for the NHL and the Blue Jackets. Here's why Columbus did the right thing.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The trade deadline is one of those hallmark points in the NHL season.  Of course, it marks the unofficial start of the stretch run to the playoffs for contenders, and the beginning of a long off-season process of personnel improvement for those who are not in contention.   More to the interest of commentators and fans, it sharpens the dividing line between buyers and sellers, provides hints of clubs heading into full-blown re-build mode, and provides delicious opportunities to feast on the perceived savvy or naivete of the General Managers involved in the various transactions.

This season's trade deadline had the additional quirk of coming on Leap Day -- February 29th -- a fact that may have been an omen.  Instead of vociferous debate over the merits of a just-consummated deal, the pundits were challenged to fill hours of dead air, as the deals were few and far between.  Those deals that did come were of the uninspiring variety, designed to achieve some technical task for the teams involved, but not truly shifting the balance of power anywhere.  More to the interest of Blue Jackets fans, nary a move came from the offices on Nationwide Boulevard, and GM Jarmo Kekäkäinen stated that they were "not close" to doing a deal as the day progressed.  Naturally, this fueled the flames for the disappointment of the current season. "How can a team trolling the depths of the NHL standings not make moves on Deadline Day?"   "Aren't the Blue Jackets in Cap Hell, and need to make some moves?" "Does the front office care?"   There. Did I miss any?

Not surprisingly, I have a slightly different take on the Deadline Day inaction.  No, this is not because I am an "apologist" for the organization, as some assert every time I take a measured view of a given issue.  Instead, it is based upon a dispassionate view of the nature of the marketplace and what the trade deadline truly is . . . and isn't.   Of course, as I have pointed out before  -- ad nauseum -- none of us really know what transpired on the phones in the weeks and days leading to Deadline Day, and have no idea what offers were extended or received.  Hence, any opinion on the issue -- including mine -- can be based only on surmise and speculation.  That hasn't stopped us before, and won't stop us today. Onward.

At its essential level, the trade deadline (and indeed the entire trade market) is nothing more than a flea market joining the buyers who are playoff contenders with the sellers, who are not.  The laws of supply and demand are in full operation, and the task is to differentiate between the treasure and the junk.  If a desirable piece is found, then the negotiations are governed by leverage.  If you're the only one with the treasure, or there is a long line of potential buyers, the incentive to sell your treasure for less than full market value is minimal.  However, if you have bills to pay, that leverage may be reduced.

Some argue that the trade deadline favors the sellers, as clubs wanting to make the playoffs have to act immediately, and will tend to overpay.  While that can happen, it ignores the reality that a contending team can only surrender a certain amount of present value before the move becomes counter-productive to its playoff aspirations.  Others argue that the buyers have the advantage, because the sellers are looking to dump salary and re-tool.  While that may be true with respect to players with expiring UFA deals or horrific contracts when compared to performance, it does not extend to players under contract.  Selling teams have no particular need to adjust salary cap until final roster cuts in the ensuing season, and once the season is over ample opportunities to move assets will arise.  While there certainly have been deadline deals that support these respective viewpoints, the fact that there are tons of deals that have not been done illustrate the alternate views.

Keep in mind that only a relatively small portion of clubs are participants on either side of the table at deadline day.  Clubs out of the playoffs are seldom bidding for prize assets, while teams clearly in the playoffs are not interested in doing anything to disrupt the chemistry, absent a manifest bargain.  So, the "bubble" teams represent the majority of the marketplace in terms of buying, but even these clubs need to be cautious.  If they surrender too much present value, the whole point of the deal is defeated.  On the seller side, there is little motivation to move a player with years left on a contract, unless market value is obtained.  This year, there were few prized assets with expiring contracts, and few of the contending teams were willing to go out on a limb to acquire new talent.  Factor in the plethora of no-trade and no-movement clauses, and stalemate is the result.

For the Blue Jackets, most of the focus was on Scott Hartnell and Fedor Tyutin, with cap hits of $4.75 million and $4.5 million, respectively.  Hartnell has three years left on his deal after this season, taking him to age 37.  Tyutin has two years left, making him 34 years old at expiration.  Hartnell leads the team in scoring, and appears certain to have a 50+ point season.   While Tyutin's effectiveness has declined, he remains a savvy veteran defenseman.  While their contracts are in the upper echelons of the Columbus roster, they represent relatively reasonable packages on a league-wide basis, given their respective situations.  Defensemen are always in demand, and Tyutin's salary is second pair money today.  While he is playing third pair minutes in Columbus, he would provide real value in another situation.  In Hartnell's case, this will be the fourth consecutive full season in which he has hit the 50 point mark, and in two of those he has hit 60.  With those numbers in mind, his cap hit is a bargain.  So, where is the incentive to get rid of these guys at below market value.

The biggest argument advanced for the premise that one or both "had to go" at the trade deadline was the premise that the Blue Jackets are in Cap Hell, and this was the only solution.  Back in January, I laid out a few scenarios on dealing with the cap situation, with neither guy moving.  Many overstated the dollars required to sign the RFA's on the roster -- Jenner, Murray, Jones and Karlsson.  With Jenner and Murray inked under the $3 million AAV mark, the situation is clarified and is clearly manageable over the near term.  Would a Hartnell or Tyutin trade -- or a Tyutin buy-out -- provide some extra room?  Sure, but that's not the point.  The point is that there was no compelling need to move either guy on February 29th -- absent a true market value offer for them.  The Blue Jackets have months to sort out the cap space, and a broad spectrum of options with which to do that.

The other argument advanced for a Deadline Day move of both guys is that their value would only decline from that point forward.  First, I'm not sure that I buy a material market value difference between February 29th and the off-season.  Yes, as noted above, there is some incentive for playoff contenders to over-spend, but that is countermanded by the need to preserve the rest of the roster.  More importantly, it is highly unlikely that their true value could be realized at the trade deadline, for the reasons outlined above.  Why market these assets to a small minority of the league, when everyone could be in on the bidding come the off-season.  Even the Stanley Cup champion -- whoever that is -- is going to have contract issues and gaps to fill come the off-season, and that increase in potential demand only enhances value. Yes, both guys are getting older, but again, the differential between now and the off-season is nil.  In terms of Scott Hartnell, I have two words for you . . . Ray Whitney.

While we don't know who or what was on the table as Deadline Day came and went, I think we have to assume that Jarmo was not interested in a fire sale -- nor should he have been.  Both of these guys have real present value, and there was nothing magic about Deadline Day or the Blue Jackets' present situation that mandated immediate and drastic action.  Will Hartnell and Tyutin be on the roster when camp opens in the fall?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  However, sometimes greater wisdom is found in the moves that are not made than in the moves that are.  In my book, this was one of those times.  Stay tuned.