What turned NHL trade deadline into a frenzy, thoughts from TSN’s James Duthie: Duhatschek notebook

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Someone asked me the other day: When did the NHL trade deadline become so wild? I had to think about it for a minute because it didn’t happen overnight. It was a slow, steady evolution to this moment in time. The idea of supplementing a team for a successful playoff run took seed back in 1980 when the New York Islanders traded Billy Harris and Dave Lewis to the Los Angeles Kings for Butch Goring. Up until then, the Islanders were a perennial contender that couldn’t get over the top. Then they did. With Goring aboard. And proceeded to win the Stanley Cup four times in a row.

And because the NHL is a copycat league, other contenders saw the impact of the Goring deal and gingerly, gradually started exploring that option themselves. It didn’t pay off again in such a meaningful way until 1991 when the Pittsburgh Penguins made that six-player trade with the Hartford Whalers to acquire Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson — and promptly won the first of two consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

That got the ball rolling harder.

Since then, there have been varying degrees of success — but mostly failure — as teams either tweaked or aggressively added reinforcements for the stretch run and playoffs. Over time, it became an arm’s race — and until this year, an arm’s race that frequently began weeks and even months before the actual trade deadline.

Interest in the trade deadline is reflected in how popular our trade boards are, but also in how the deadline is covered in Canada by the two competing sports networks.

TSN began its trade deadline coverage in 1999 and two years later, expanded it into a multi-hour show. Now, they’re on the air all day — as are the current national rights holders, Sportsnet. Both networks assemble multiple panels. They try to be the first to break news of trades, and then provide immediate analysis of who might have won or lost a deal. No single day on the calendar generates as much day-time viewership, or ad revenue for the networks.

It’s become arguably the most anticipated day on the NHL calendar, right alongside the first night of the draft and probably ahead of the opening of free agency, or even the night when a team annually raises the Stanley Cup.

Or is it?

“I would say 100 per cent, the draft, free agency, and the day they lift the Stanley Cup, are more important,” answered James Duthie, the long-time host of TSN’s trade deadline coverage. “But I think this day has taken on some sort of bizarre cultural significance in Canada.

“We know it’s an insane thing to do a nine-hour show to talk about the seventh defensemen and fourth-line wingers that get traded for each other. But in my mind, it’s also a celebration of how crazy we are about hockey in Canada. It is nuts for people to take the day off work to watch — or for us to have every single commentator on the staff either in the studio or on a live remote somewhere. I think people can rightly make fun of us — if we didn’t make fun of it ourselves.”

Duthie believes all-day trade deadline coverage began almost by accident, and as a result of the Todd Bertuzzi hit on Steve Moore, in a Vancouver-Colorado game on March 8, 2004, the day before that year’s deadline. Duthie was home asleep when he got a middle-of-the-night call from TSN senior VP of production Mark Milliere, telling him that the story was growing by the hour and Duthie needed to get into the studio to go on the air.

“I remember waking up in one of those dazes, where you have no idea where you are,” said Duthie. “Mark said, ‘Listen, this happened. Steve Moore is not in great shape. It’s a major story. I need you to come in now.’ I got there at 4:30, quarter to five in the morning. There was only me and one cameraman. We didn’t even have a lighting person. We did an update. Then Glenn Healy showed up — and we just went on and we never went off.

“That day, we were on the air, live, from 6 a.m. to the deadline. Is that the reason we started so early from then on? I’m not sure. But there may have been a light-bulb moment for the executives that, yeah, we can actually do this all day. To me, that was the moment that turned it into a marathon.”

In Duthie’s mind, another milestone moment in the history of the deadline occurred the year the Edmonton Oilers traded Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders in the final hours of the 2007 deadline.

“That was a trade that neither side (Oilers or Smyth) wanted to happen; they were only a couple of hundred thousand dollars apart,” said Duthie. “Ryan Smyth had his teary news conference after, and I don’t think either side was really happy with that trade. I think it woke up a few of the general managers, to ask, ‘Why are we waiting until the last minute to do these deals? Let’s start getting them done the week before, two weeks before, three weeks before.’ And so, in the last few years, we haven’t got nearly as many deals. Numerically, we do — but there are a lot of smaller deals or minor-league deals that pump up the numbers.

Nowadays, TSN has fallback segments pre-planned, so that if the trades slow down — or take a while to get started — they can fill the time efficiently.

“They basically program a show as if there were no trades,” said Duthie, “so that even if we had zero trades, we could still fill nine hours of television. Because of that, I don’t have the anxiety that I used to have, wondering ‘How are we going to fill all this time?’ Because these guys have come up with 80 million things to talk about if we have to fill.”

THE EVOLVING DEADLINE MADNESS: Beyond television’s influence, there are two other root causes worth exploring, when analyzing the heightened fixation on the trade deadline.

The first is, one that’s been largely ignored — the drop in the decline in the age when players can become unrestricted free agents and how that’s impacted how teams operate at the deadline.

For anyone playing in Goring’s era, the age for unrestricted free agency was 31 and careers often didn’t last past the mid-30s. For many players, it meant that their first chance to become completely free didn’t happen until they were nearing the end of their careers — and thus weren’t very marketable.

Over time, the NHL Players Association negotiated a lower age for unrestricted free agency — currently 25 for players that broke into the league at 18.

As a result of that change, teams realized — as the Calgary Flames have this year — that they can’t afford to let these players go without getting assets back in return. It’s something the first-year general manager of the Flames, Craig Conroy has had to wrestle with all season long. Conroy has already traded away three potential UFAs — Elias Lindholm, Nikita Zadorov and this past Wednesday, Chris Tanev to the Dallas Stars. And he has one more prominent name on his list — Noah Hanifin.

Hanifin is the poster boy for this phenomenon. The Flames have made no secret of the fact that they are trying to sign Hanifin because they don’t want to lose him for nothing. He’s become a core piece on the team; improved every year; and one could argue he’s playing the best hockey of his life right now, during the Flames’ push for a playoff spot.

Back in the old days, it wouldn’t be an issue for the team. Hanifin is 27. In the 1980s, a 27-year-old would have had no leverage — or limited leverage at best. But now, as of July 1, he controls the narrative — and if the Flames can’t get him signed before next Friday, then they’ll have to get what they can in the market. Hanifin as a rental won’t bring back the same as Hanifin on a contract extension. It’s just the way of the NHL world, circa 2024.

NO MOVES: The second part of increased player rights is the rise of no-move contracts, no-trade contracts, or limited no-trade clauses in contracts. It’s also shifted power from the teams to the players where nowadays, the top players can often direct, or even dictate, where they want to play next.

“The growth of the no-trade or no-movement clause, which they hand out so liberally, now any player, with any sort of status, a big-name player, is probably going to somewhat orchestrate his own trade,” said Duthie. “The power of the player and the power of the agent today compared to 30 years ago, when you’d just get traded. If they wanted to trade you, they’d pick up the phone and just do it. Now, if a fairly significant player is going to be dealt, the GM is talking to the agent weeks before. It’s probably going to happen a week or more before the deadline. He’s probably selected the team he wants to be traded to — or has given two or three teams that the GM has decent deals with.

“That’s probably hurt our show. It’s going to be increasingly rare that a big-name player gets traded an hour before the deadline. I don’t think that’s going to happen as much anymore.”

For years now, Duthie has had an annual running joke — that trades are happening too soon; and that GMs should wait until deadline day, to enhance interest in their show. This year the comparatively slow pace of the moves thus far suggests some may even be listening.

“The one thing that gives me hope this year is that some years, it’s pretty defined who is going to the playoffs and who are the buyers and the sellers,” said Duthie. “This year, it feels like there are more teams, in those awkward positions, of not quite being able to figure out if they’re going to trade their guys or not. The longer that happens, the greater the chance there’ll be more trades at the deadline. All those teams, on the fence, waiting to see what happens, jams everything up and maybe opens the door to more deals happening — if not on the last day, then the last three days.”

Whatever happens, the trade deadline is still a circle-the-date moment on the NHL calendar for fans — and for Duthie himself.

“I went through a few years when I did not look forward to trade deadline,” said Duthie. “How are we going to fill this time? I’ve really grown, in the last few years, to accept it and to enjoy it. I don’t get to see a lot of the guys on the road. Mike Johnston, who I think is the best color guy in the game, I get to sit beside him in the studio all day. Craig Button’s never in studio. So you get this mix of people — O-Dog (Jeff O’Neill) talking to Craig Button, or Cheryl Pounder — this different combination of people talking to each other, who never get on the same panel during the year. So, it’s really like a little family reunion with each other.

“There were a couple of years, in the early years, when we had the rights, where we would do the show and then do a double header of games after. I remember San Jose Detroit once at 1:30 in the morning, Eastern time. If you ever find the tape of those intermissions, Bob McKenzie and I were so giddy, after being on the air nearly 24 hours, it was ridiculous!

“It’s fun. But it can be a long day.”

AND FINALLY: I probably liked Calgary’s trade with Dallas for Tanev more than most. Officially, it was Tanev for a 2024 second-rounder, a prospect that few had ever heard of (Artem Grishnikov) and a conditional third in 2026, if Dallas makes it to the Stanley Cup Final, which they could. All along, Calgary had made it clear that the price was a second and a prospect, though internally, they’d hoped, in a bidding war, someone might pony up a first. Didn’t happen. And the risk of waiting any longer on a player that plays as hard as Tanev is that he gets injured in the week leading up to the deadline and then you can’t trade him at all. Or you get less for him. Assuming multiple teams bidding for Tanev were all offering second-rounders, then it really came down to which of the prospects that accompanied the second-rounder created the best deal. Conroy tells me he really likes Grishnikov. It’s what you would expect a general manager to say.

Grishnikov was a second-rounder in 2021, chosen No. 48, one behind Logan Stankoven, who was No. 47 (Dallas had back-to-back picks in that round that year).

Grishnikov is already playing in the American League at age 20, after two seasons with Hamilton in the OHL. If he’d been a second-rounder five years ago and still hadn’t cracked the NHL, then that would be a red flag. The fact that he’s still early in his career suggests there’s room for improvement. The Flames know he needs to get better and expect that he will. It’ll be a minimum of three years before they’ll know for sure if he is or isn’t a player.

The other thing mitigating in favor of this deal is how well Dallas drafts and evaluates players. There may be no team better at it now than the Stars — and it isn’t just because that one year, 2017, they landed three cornerstone players, Miro Heiskanen, Jake Oettinger and Jason Robertson, all in the same draft. Stankoven looks like a player. Mavrik Bourque looks like a player, first round, 2020. Lian Bichsel looks like a player, first round, 2022. They weren’t on the table.
But the fact that only two drafts ago, the Stars evaluated Grishnikov as a second-rounder suggests it isn’t just Calgary’s scouts that saw something there that maybe others didn’t. As with all prospects, ultimately, only time will really tell.

(Photo of Noah Hanifin: Andy Devlin / NHLI via Getty Images)

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