The tension. Sweaty brows. Quiet confidence. Sometimes, loud confidence. Hedging your bet or calling a bluff.
In the game of poker, it’s called going “all in”; Mortgaging some of the now, and some of the future, because you truly believe what you hold in your hand is better than it might be later, and certainly better than what all your competition has now.
In the game of hockey, at least on the managerial side, it typically refers to a team cutting some combination of prospects, picks, up-and-coming and/or already-there talent to land the proverbial “big fish”. That one player that puts an already achieving team even further over the top, that will cement a glorious legacy of hoisting silver. The guts to make the move will pay off for glory. One single move to capture a legacy; To build a legend.
And when we illustrate it like that, it’s easy for fans and teams alike to suddenly get a gleam in their eye. To look skyward and dream, “Yes! Go for it! Doesn’t matter what it costs! This. Could. Be. It!”
It’s easy to have wistful memories of the highly-touted acquisitions of names like Bourque, Gartner, or Blake. The excitement of seeing a franchise scoop the big name from everyone else who was chasing it, and go “all in”. Except that, as we’re about to see, it almost never works out that way.
It’s easy to forget that not all those moves worked out, and some of them not right away, if at all. In fact, in the last decade, when it comes to trade deadline moves, the list of those that have sent a sought after player to a team that won within the next few years is substantially shorter than the list of names that didn’t.
Deadline Traded Players Who Won With Their New Team (2):
2015- D Kimmo Timmonen to Chicago Blackhawks, who won the Stanley Cup that season
2011 F- Jeff Carter to the Los Angeles Kings, who won the cup with LA three years later
Deadline Traded Players Who Didn’t Win With Their New Team (10):
2013- F Jarome Iginla from the Calgary Flames to the Pittsburgh Penguins
2013- F Marian Gaborik from the New York Rangers to the Columbus Blue Jackets
2014- G Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres to the St. Louis Blues
2014- F Martin St. Louis from the Tampa Bay Lightning to the New York Rangers
2016- C Eric Staal from the Carolina Hurricanes to the New York Rangers
2017- G Ben Bishop from the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Los Angeles Kings
2017- D Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues to the Washington Capitals
2018- D Ryan McDonough and F J.T. Miller from the New York Rangers to Tampa Bay Lightning
2018- F Paul Stastny from St. Louis Blues to Winnipeg Jets
And when it comes to the flurry of free agency signings on July 1st every year, of all the names that have been banded about, only three notable names that signed and stayed with their new squads hoisted Lord Stanley’s chalice. And we have to reach back even further than the last ten years to find them!
2014- F Marian Gaborik signed by LA, who won the championship that season
2007- Petr Sykora signed by Pittsburgh Penguins, won Cup two years later
2006- Dominik Hasek, signed by Detroit Red Wings, won cup two years later
So the numbers don’t really back up that landing a big fish in the offseason, or at the trade deadline, is all that it’s cracked up to be. There are teams that handed out free agency money or mortgaged their future to eventually NOT win. And yet, handing out a big chunk of cap space in July or shipping out picks-prospects-players in Feb-March is absolutely common practice that is almost expected of all remotely competitive teams, and essentially demanded by fans.
As over the last few years the Calgary Flames’ contending window has opened, and opened wider by the season, it’s hard to miss the “Yes! Go for it! Doesn’t matter what it costs! This. Could. Be. It!” shouting come free agency and trade deadline time. It’s also sometimes even harder to miss the grumbling, and sometimes downright anger, from fans when those dates pass by and the Flames don’t pick up that “big fish”. General Manager Brad Treliving has been shrewd to make moves that haven’t cost him heavily in the pick-prospect-player department, but at that price it has consistently meant the biggest names in the pool have slipped through his fingers.
So in the end, is it the right call? To check, or to go all in? Let’s take a look back at the biggest moves of the last few years inside Calgary’s “win window”, and see how many of them, so far, have actually paid off for the GM’s that dared to put all their chips in the middle.
The Acquisition: Erik Karlsson traded to San Jose Sharks, 2018
The Cost At The Time: F Chris Tierney, D Dylan DeMelo, F Rudolfs Balcers, the rights to unsigned draft pick F Joshua Norris, and included at the time several picks that were conditional: San Jose’s first-round draft pick in the 2019 or 2020 NHL Draft, a second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, a conditional pick in the 2021 NHL Draft and a conditional pick in the 2022 NHL Draft (San Jose’s own first-round pick)
The Result: In his first playoff stint with SJ Karlsson played 19 games with 16 points, but they wound up losing the Conference Final to the St. Louis Blues in six games. Karlsson’s 2019 contract made him the highest-paid defenceman in league history and the third highest-paid player in the league at the time, as he eats up a $11.5 million cap hit annually until 2027 (with a 7 year NMC until 2026-27). By adding him and not winning in “win now” mode, the Sharks have fallen off a cliff this year and are staring a boat anchor of a contract in the face for a long time, and gave up a pretty big haul to do so. It’s early into EK65’s extended contractual tenure, but if the ship is sinking in the Shark Tank, it doesn’t look like the right move at the time being.
The Acquisition: John Tavares signed by Toronto Maple Leafs, 2018
The Cost At The Time: A seven year $77 million free agent contract, with a No Move Clause for the entirety of the contract and an $11 million annual cap hit
The Result: JT put up five points in seven games as the Leafs dropped another first round seventh game to the Boston Bruins. Tavares’ contract alone eats up a whopping %13.84 of the Maple Leafs cap spending, so that’s a tough pill to swallow for not getting out of the first round. Here’s another large and long contract that carries a NMC that didn’t win in it’s first year, but has more potential for changing it’s narrative than Karlsson’s as Toronto is set up for the future much moreso than San Jose is.
The Acquisition: Mark Stone
The Cost At The Time: F Oscar Lindberg, prospect Erik Brannstrom, 2020 Second Round draft pick (originally belonging to Dallas)
The Result: One of the most sought after names in recent years, the buzz around Stone as an analytics and possession darling was everywhere. While the Vegas Golden Knights were in the Stanley Cup Final the previous season, after acquiring Stone and doubling down on their finals appearance, they regressed to lose in the first round in seven games to San Jose. At 8 years and $76 million dollars spread out to $9.5 million a year with a NMC throughout, there’s room for this contract to turn out fine if Vegas remains competitive in the infancy of their NHL tenure. But again, no move clauses and double-digit cap hits can look like albatross’ faster than anyone would like to think.
The Acquisition: Taylor Hall traded to Arizona Coyotes, 2019
The Cost At The Time: 2020 conditional first-round draft pick, a conditional 2021 third-rounder, prospects F Nate Schnarr, F Nick Merkley and D Kevin Bahl
The Result: While not technically a deadline deal, had the Coyotes not jumped out ahead of the curve, Hall certainly would’ve been the frontrunner name when that time came around. Set to become a UFA after this season, the signing lacks the extended term of the three previously discussed deals. Hall’s impact has been immediate, however, as the Coyotes are scoring essentially a full goal more per game since his arrival in the desert. It’ll be the playoffs that dictate the rest of the way, but Hall has played in just five postseason games in his NHL career, getting knocked out in a Hart Trophy winning season that even at his best didn’t see him win a round. We’ll know this offseason, and by what happens with an extension, how worth it this was.
So, without history on their side, three of the four big name signings we looked at all carry double digit cap percentages, nearly a decade each in term, and no move clauses. While Hall’s is up in the air, Arizona sent a whole lot of stuff out the door to even make it happen, nevermind what they might pay moving forward besides that. As players age and cores disperse, these things can look like real problems. Of course, actually winning a championship on a gamble move will make everyone forget about the numbers.
For context, the Flames have no players with a contract in double digit years for term, or double digits as far as average annual value goes, and no players that take up double digits of a cap hit percentage.
Is that playing it safe? Yes.
Is it always exciting? No.
Do you need a player who demands that kind of contract to win? Maybe.
Do the Calgary Flames have enough in their hand to capture some serious winnings? Or should they have made that big splash and put it all on the table?
Recent history tells us that grabbing a big name actually rarely works. But, the ones that did will be remembered forever, and will always be called champions. Nobody remembers second place, so the allure of “all in” will never go away.
But “all in”, in poker much more than hockey, is a rare move. The majority of the time, winners have enough in the hand you’ve been dealt to make something happen. Play your cards right, and you’ll be remembered forever, and be called champion.
They’ll always remember first place, and when you get there, they’re gonna care way less about how you got there than the fact that you did.