Pucks in Deep: Anatomy of an irrelevant deadline deal

by Sam Stockton | 2/18/19 2:00am

By all accounts, the recent deal between the Los Angeles Kings and Montreal Canadiens appears pedestrian, almost so boring that it’s hard to understand how the involved teams came to discussing it. If you missed it, which certainly makes sense and is likely indicative of the fact that your life is fulfilling enough that you don’t need to forensically examine the dregs of the National Hockey League trade tracker, the trade sent veteran forward Nate Thompson and a fifth-round pick in the upcoming draft to Montreal, with a fourth-round pick heading back to Los Angeles. At 34 years old, Thompson has played a shade under 13 minutes a game for the lowly Kings, registering four goals and two assists over 53 games. In other words, we aren’t exactly talking about an All-Star. 

Then we have the draft picks.  Given that Montreal has a relatively comfortable hold on a wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference and LA is nowhere near playoff contention, we are likely talking about a difference of about 15 spots between these selections in the mid-rounds of the draft, where the value of picks is roughly equivalent across rounds. So, blockbuster definitely isn’t a word I’ll be able to use here, but indulge me in considering the possibility that this irrelevant deal represents a thought experiment worth exploring out of the week that was in the NHL.

For the Kings, the trade amounts to little more than offloading a bit of salary in a year where they have no Stanley Cup ambitions, an unimaginative decision unworthy of further analysis, so we are going to focus on the Montreal side of things.

Let’s start with Habs’ general manager Marc Bergevin. Last summer, Bergevin was among the league’s busiest GMs on the trade market, making several deals between the season’s end in early June and the dawn of the new season in early October. Perhaps most notably, Bergevin dealt his captain and best goal scorer, Max Pacioretty, to Las Vegas in exchange for a pick, prospect and player whom Vegas opted to keep out of the lineup for most of last year’s playoff run despite paying a hefty price for him at the deadline. Given the Canadiens' struggles to score goals, it wasn’t too hard to second-guess the move. Perhaps even more dubious was Bergevin’s one-for-one swap with the Coyotes, sending Alex Galchenyuk to Arizona in exchange for Max Domi. Besides Pacioretty, Galchenyuk was one of the most dangerous scorers on the 17-18 edition of the Canadiens and also among the best centers on a team without much depth up the middle. Meanwhile, Domi had spent much of his career on the wing and proved more adept as a passer than goal scorer. With most pundits picking the Habs to be in much closer contention for the No. 1 overall pick than the Stanley Cup, Bergevin appeared on the hot seat as the season began, and his two big trades smelled disconcertingly of desperation.

Then the season began, and the young, fleet-footed Canadiens quickly exceeded expectations.  As I mentioned earlier, Bergevin’s bunch now sit in the first of the two Eastern Conference wildcard spots, tied with the second wild card (Pittsburgh) and one more up on the first team out (Carolina). Given this unexpected success, it may seem easy to laud Bergevin’s work at the helm of Montreal. Without a doubt, Bergevin’s two biggest moves from last summer have worked out far better than anyone seemed to think they would at the time.  

Tomas Tatar, acquired from Vegas, looks like a different player from the one who struggled to fit in with the Knights last year. With 41 points in just 57 games already, Tatar, playing on Montreal’s second line and top power play unit, has already eclipsed last season’s 82-game total, which he split between Detroit and Vegas. Nick Suzuki, the prospect they received from Vegas, continues to show promise, putting up comfortably over a point a game in the Ontario Hockey League. The second round pick that rounds out the haul exchanged for Pacioretty, whatever it ends up being, appears a cherry on top of a great deal. Meanwhile, Max Domi has taken control of Montreal’s number two center slot, registering nearly a point per game and vexing opponents with post-whistle antagonism as  Galchenyuk has struggled to mesh with his Coyotes thus far.

Despite all this and the team’s winning record, Canadiens fans continue to have good reason to doubt Bergevin’s acumen as a GM. Of course, Bergevin’s dedication to his biceps since his playing days renders it wise to keep that skepticism fairly quiet. (If you don’t follow me here, Google a picture of Bergevin in his Canadiens-issued polo.) Bergevin remains responsible for the infamous Subban-for-Weber deal that cost Montreal one of the most dynamic puck-moving defensemen in the sport for an aging, oft-injured and more expensive replacement, and the current Canadiens team, despite its success, appears worse than the one he inherited back in 2012.

In looking at the deal he’s just executed with LA, Bergevin once again provides Habs fans reason for doubt. The issue with the deal is not so much what he gave up (the swapping of picks will likely be inconsequential and Montreal had the cap room for Thompson, so there is no problem there) but rather what the acquisition shows about how Bergevin understands the game. For Bergevin, Thompson represents the latest in a long line of rugged, low-scoring wingers with playoff experience acquired at the trade deadline. At the 2017 deadline, he added Steve Ott and Dwight King, both of whom fit this description. This year, in addition to Thompson, he acquired Dale Weise, another winger in this mold, perhaps most notable because Bergevin traded for him once before at the 2014 deadline.  

To make more clear the point I am driving toward here, let’s consider who Thompson is as a player. Without wishing to get too technical here, the Corsi statistic measures puck possession by comparing the relative percentage of the two teams' shot attempts during five-on-five play. It represents a simple but effective means of measuring how the game trends when a particular player is on the ice. This season, Thompson posted a 43.4 percent CorsiFor with the Kings, meaning his team registered just 43.4 percent of the shot attempts at five-on-five with him on the ice. Perhaps more concerning is that even on the lowly Kings, who are second worst in the league in goals per game, Thompson’s CF percentage relative to his teammates in LA was -5.9, meaning that the average King saw about 6 percent more of the shot attempts go to LA when they were on the ice.  

Put simply, it does not make sense to acquire a depth forward from a team with perhaps the worst forward depth in the NHL. If you have the roster of a playoff team, as Montreal does, you’d like to think that the bottom six players on a cellar dweller like Los Angeles wouldn’t crack your lineup. Time and again, Bergevin has made this mistake in what amounts to a misunderstanding of what makes a good third or fourth line.

When Mike Sullivan took over the head coach spot for the Pittsburgh Penguins midway through the 2015-16 season, he adopted a unique approach to constructing a fourth line. Rather than populating his last forward trio with rough-and-tumble grinders or defensive stalwarts, Sullivan built a fourth line that sought to do the same thing as his top-three lines — create offense with a combination of skill and speed. To find these players at a fourth-line cost, Sullivan prioritized youth. Pittsburgh would go on to win two straight Cups. 

If you recall a point I made earlier, youth and speed were the very factors that have driven Montreal’s surprising season. And yet, at the deadline, Marc Bergevin once again targeted age and size.

As a final point of commentary on this trade, one that will be far less technical but likely more compelling than all those that have preceded it for just that reason, I am genuinely confused as to what the conversation between Rob Blake, the Kings' GM, and Bergevin might have sounded like. At one point, did Blake offer Thompson and a sixth for a fifth rounder from Montreal only to have Bergevin threaten to hang up the phone unless Blake bumped each pick a round? At a certain point, the exchange of these late-rounders tacked onto the end seems almost seems like it might be a wry joke from perhaps North America’s least charismatic demographic, the trusted hockey men who run NHL franchises.