Why 2020-21 Could Be the Strangest Season for Trades in NHL History

Quarantine protocol for country-to-country travel could put the all-Canadian division at a major disadvantage in trades, as American teams will be deterred from making deals with them.
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It’s the stretch run of the abbreviated 2020-21 NHL season. You’re the GM of a U.S.-based team in a dogfight for a wildcard spot. You have no cushion in the standings, no comfortable hold on a playoff position. If you make a trade leading up to the deadline, the player coming in must be ready to help your team immediately.

It’s a shame, then, that the guy you covet plays for a Canadian team. If you acquire him, he has to quarantine for two weeks since he’s been playing exclusively on the other side of the border against other Canadian teams in a custom divisional realignment. You can’t afford to give away a single point in the standings, so it’s not worth the risk of waiting for him. You therefore take your business to a fellow U.S.-based team instead. But even that brings complications. Do you trade within your own division, which has may cooked up some extra-bitter rivalries, to reduce travel time and potential quarantining? Do you make a move with a team playing in the U.S. but in a different division, potentially requiring a small delay in having the new player’s services?

All these scenarios could play out in the 2020-21 season. It’s shaping up to be the strangest of all-time from a trading perspective, and it’s likely to put GMs of the seven Canadian teams at a significant disadvantage.

In an interview with The Athletic earlier this month, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, arguably the league’s most consistently daring trader, predicted a quiet year for in-season moves as a result of COVID-19 complications – and that would even include trades that happen between American teams, given the fact the league has teams in 17 different states, each with their own sets of COVID-19 protocols.

Speaking to The Hockey News this week, another GM suggested trading would be slow in 2020-21 because so many teams are up against the salary cap already due to it staying flat at $81.5 million. He expects very few trades until the trade deadline arrives.

As the NHL and NHL Players’ Association get closer to finalizing the details of the new season, possibly having a plan ready for a vote by the end of this week, it’s looking like there at least will be no official restrictions on the act of trading. Any of the 31 teams will be free to deal with each other. But it’s a matter of which franchises offer more quarantine restrictions than others as landing spots.

One GM expressed confidence this week to The Hockey News that trades could still happen pretty easily if teams are willing to trade within their own realigned divisions given “we are already playing each other, so why would we have to quarantine?” Typically, trades between division rivals are somewhat rare, but (a) we could get a “beggars can’t be choosers scenario” in which the most convenient trade partners might be a first-place team and a last-place team sharing a realigned division and (b) some of these realigned teams will only be neighbors for this season, so trading with each other won’t have long-term rivalry implications.

But there’s no question Canadian teams will find themselves in quagmires relative to the rest of the league because of the travel restrictions requiring quarantine. Asked if Canada-U.S. trades would require longer player quarantines than trades within the same country, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Hockey News via email that it “may be one potential impact.”

The quarantine period could hurt buyer and seller teams. An alpha-dog contender in the Canadian division may have to weigh whether it can wait for a newly acquired player to quarantine and will thus be more likely to move futures – picks or prospects – in trades rather than send out bodies from its active roster. A seller team might have a harder time finding a buyer for an expiring-contract rental asset if U.S.-based teams aren’t willing to wait for him to quarantine upon arrival. We thus could see the Canadian teams making far fewer trades – or being forced to trade with each other more. Unless, of course, NHLers (a) receive exemptions resulting in shorter quarantines after border-crossing trades, which is highly unlikely since they won’t be playing in bubbles; or (b) NHLers end up receiving vaccines before the trade deadline. But don’t count on that either, because the NHL insists, contrary to some controversial earlier scuttlebutt, that it will not jump the line.

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