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The irrational exuberance of NHL trade deadline day

The patron saint of the NHL trading deadline is a smallish former player with thinning hair who was renowned for staying out of the penalty box, a dubious fashion sense, and a helmet so battered it looked like troops had spooned soup from it at the Battle of the Somme.

He is, of course, Butch Goring. If he hadn't been such a resounding success in New York after he was obtained from the Los Angeles Kings on March 10, 1980, a day prior to what was then the little-remarked-upon deadline (the second-line center won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1981 and was an important component in the dynastic Islanders' four Stanley Cups), the NHL's annual late winter day of frenzy and frolic, practically a national holiday in Canada, would likely still pass quietly.

But nearly three decades ago, Islanders general manager Bill Torrey demonstrated that a judicious trade (for Dave Lewis and Billy Harris) could change the course of a franchise. So, Happy Goring Day! In the next 48 hours, you are likely to hear Goring's name almost as often as Florida defenseman Jay Bouwmeester's or Phoenix center Olli Jokinen's.

There is another reason why Goring is a touchstone: he is practically sui generis. Despite the flurry of activity expected prior to the 3 p.m. EST deadline on Wednesday, March 4 -- we should be good for our typical post-owner's lockout 25 or so deals despite earlier fears that the swap markets had dried up - trades with an impact like Goring's will once again prove exceedingly rare.

As Toronto GM Brian Burke is fond of pointing out (and obligingly did so on a conference call last week), GMs make more mistakes on this day than the rest of the year combined. For every good trade at the deadline, he posits, there are five or six poor ones. Burke's Law, while hardly scientific, sounds about right.

The NHL trade deadline is, of course, an intriguing exercise in two disciplines: economics and psychology. The economics, especially in the salary cap world, seem to be straight forward enough. Everything has to fit under the $56.7 million umbrella. If, say, the Boston Bruins want Anaheim's Chris Pronger -- and they should -- they are going to need some clever reshuffling in order to make the dollars work.

But the dismal science in hockey grows ever more dismal with the state of the world. The coin of the realm is now draft picks or prospects, the rock upon which teams always should build but never more so than now in a shrinking universe. Even the rental player -- one whose contract is expiring -- is more valuable than ever.

Like Warren Beatty pre-Annette Bening, there are distinct advantages to having no long-term obligations. With the salary cap poised to beat a serious retreat for 2010-11, there are few GMs interested in marrying a player who might get him one more playoff round, even though there would be short-term economic advantages in terms of season tickets and corporate sponsorships. In cases where there already is a longer contract commitment in place, teams will have to trade money for money, as Anaheim and Pittsburgh did in the recent deal that sent defenseman Ryan Whitney west for forward Chris Kunitz.

But there are capologists and VPs of finance/marketing to fret that stuff. For me, the psychology of the day, the groupthink that seizes general managers, is a richer vein to mine. Abetted by a three o'clock last call -- a deadline can turn anybody into a binger -- NHL GMs start to resemble the women who burst into Filene's Basement on the day the store offers its annual wedding dress sale. Except with fewer fistfights.

As Burke said on the conference call, "Any mathematician will tell you that we're all crazy ... We're all nuts because there are 30 teams and there is one parade. After the first round, you get 22 teams on the sidelines. The math is horrible.

"The notion that you're going to add to your team and hope you win a round, the math defies that. But the human element is, first off, there's an optimism we all share, that belief we're missing that one piece. Second, your team expects it. Your players are looking to you to add weapons for this last part of the race. So we all get sucked in."

(So do the media. Me, for example. When San Jose acquired Bill Guerin at the deadline in 2007, he seemed a perfect fit to nudge the Sharks to at least a conference final. Wrong, again. The Sharks were gone in two rounds. The only deadline move made by the eventual 2007 Cup winners, Burke's Ducks, was adding fighter Brad May.)

But players certainly do peek over their shoulders, waiting for reinforcements even as they profess that the team/dressing room is perfect as it is. The players, who live in a state of suspended animation until the deadline passes, internally judge how management addresses the team's perceived shortcomings. While standing pat at a deadline should settle a team on the playoff bubble, it occasionally roils it. Sometimes it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if management "quits" on a team, the players will quit on the coach.

But, by inference, the Maple Leafs GM's standards for judging a trade are unrealistic. There is indeed just one parade, but that doesn't make all the other deals unhelpful.

Consider Pittsburgh's trade for Marian Hossa last spring. While the Penguins cleared out the closet for Hossa and Pascal Dupuis -- Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, prospect Angelo Esposito and a first-rounder -- this is hardly the disaster that revisionists, who contend the Penguins stripped themselves of organizational depth, now paint it. The Penguins went six games against Detroit in the final, winding up with 11 home games in the playoffs and a cash windfall. They also thought they had a shot at re-signing Hossa, which they seemed to until he bolted to Detroit. As for the players who went to Atlanta, they haven't exactly been difference-makers this season, have they?

The Red Wings, who always seem to add a depth defenseman, did even better than usual, landing Brad Stuart from Los Angeles for a second- and fourth- rounder. For a second-pair defenseman, and a successful playoff run, Detroit GM Ken Holland, who was able to re-sign Stuart, took on acceptable risk. That will be the beauty of Wednesday. We won't know for sure which five or six bad trades -- think Atlanta's acquiring defenseman Alexei Zhitnik for Braydon Coburn to "gain experience" for a four-game debacle against the New York Rangers in 2007 -- will blow up or which will be the keepers.

They don't have to be all Gorings. Look for a decent low-key Ville Nieminen deal (he was part of Calgary's run to the final in 2004) or a mid-level Stuart trade. Among the two dozen or so, there should be a handful. But make no mistake: self-deception will rule the day. For GMs who operate like the hoards at Filene's Basement, this is the one day they can fool themselves into thinking they will all end up as brides, not as bridesmaids.


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