What It's Really Like to Be Sent to a Contender as a Trade Rental

NHL players discuss the experience of being traded to a contender as a rental toward the end of the season.
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Earlier this season, Matt Duchene dialed up a friend for some advice. He had always been close with Paul Stastny, dating back to the five NHL seasons they spent together on the Colorado Avalanche, but the nature of his inquiry would link them even tighter. “It seems like everyone who goes through this situation,” Stastny says, “you always have a common bond.”

The topic at hand: What is it like to be a trade rental? Stastny earned his stripes last spring, waiving a no-move clause to leave St. Louis and join Winnipeg for the stretch run before ultimately leaving for Vegas in free agency. And while it wasn’t certain that Duchene would follow suit—at the time, the slickhanded center was still hopeful that he would reach a long-term contract extension with Ottawa—their half-hour conversation proved to be smart planning nonetheless. Five months later, Stastny called Duchene with a few more words.

“Just told him he got traded to a team that’s all-in and wants to win the Cup,” says Stastny. “That’s the best thing that could’ve happened to you.”

The roulette wheel is still spinning on Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s grand rental experiment; just one point separated the Blue Jackets, Hurricanes and Canadiens in the race for two Eastern Conference wild card spots entering Thursday night’s slate. But by plunking down picks and prospects for Duchene, winger Ryan Dzingel (Ottawa), defenseman Adam Mcquaid (Rangers) and goalie Keith Kinkaid (Devils)—not to mention hanging onto pending UFA stars Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin—the Blue Jackets are betting big at steep odds.

“I don’t recall seeing an organization saying we’re all-in quite like this before, let’s worry about now and ask questions later, with the number of UFAs we have,” Duchene says. “But the cool part is, as players, it doesn’t matter if you’re a guy who’s fighting for a job next year, or a guy who’s signing a long-term deal for a lot of money, we’re all living for the now. And what we have right now is a really good chance.”

The risks and rewards of shopping at the rental market were explored in this week’s magazine story, from the front-office officials making these deals to the players whose lives are flipped upside down with a single phone call. As the regular season winds down this weekend and the Stanley Cup playoffs come into view, here are several leftovers that did not make the final cut.

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A sample day for Duchene and his family, less than a week after the Feb. 22 trade from Ottawa:

“It was a noon practice, so I woke up at 9:45 thinking I was going to be well-rested and I barely could open my eyes. The last week built up and hit me like a ton of bricks. But you still have to practice and work out.

“My wife [Ashley] had walked from our hotel to our place—fortunately it was close—and met the cable guy. I went back to the hotel, loaded up the car, made a couple trips up and down. My wife went to Target, bought a bunch of sheets for both rooms, pillows, garbage cans, a lot of the cheaper stuff that you can dispose of whenever you have to move, or stuff that you can donate. Obviously we’re not sure where we’re going to be next year, so you want to keep it as simple as possible, something that can go either way, whether you stay or move on.

“It’s all rental furniture. Trying to keep it as turnkey as possible. We got two full bedroom sets, a full living room set, then a full kitchen set—plates, knives, forks, spoons, cutting boards, whatever you have in a kitchen, that’s what we got.

“Then we literally just stopped, ordered some dinner right now. That’s a microcosm of the last week. Really exciting, but at the same time it’s a lot. It comes with the territory and you’re grateful for it, but it’s been a lot for sure.

“People always think this lifestyle is glitz and glamour. We’re paid well, live comfortably, but at the same time, there’s a lot of stress that goes into it. This is our third house, or third dwelling since last December, and with two other hotels. So it’s kind of five. We’re pretty excited to get settled for good.”

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One high-profile NHL agent on the rental process:

“For what a GM has to give up, he wants to make f------ sure that the coach wants that player. He’s not going to give up a first or second-round pick and bring a guy that the coach doesn’t want having. I think that’s the most critical aspect of the deal.”

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In Feb. 2007, the Thrashers dealt three picks and forward Glen Metropolit to St. Louis for Keith Tkachuk, with an additional first-rounder attached if the veteran center re-signed. The condition was never met but Atlanta got its money’s worth by reaching the franchise’s first-ever postseason series, even though that was a short-lived 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Rangers.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Tkachuk says. “There was excitement, because when you get traded as a rental, you’re going to a team that’s trying to make a run.”

The cycle repeats itself every year: Contenders buy, cellar-dwellers sell, and players such as Tkachuk are happily launched up the standings. “You get a player who’s hungry,” says Capitals winger Carl Hagelin, formerly of the Kings. “He’s coming from a team who’s not in the playoffs, then all of a sudden coming to one who wants to win. Being around guys with a lot of confidence, spending time with positive people, that’s going to rub off on everyone.”

Not always. Former winger Bill Guerin went through the rental experience twice. The second tour went about as well as possible, given that it ended with Guerin hoisting the 2009 Stanley Cup with the Penguins. But Guerin struggled when he joined San Jose in Feb. 2007. “Internally, I put so much pressure on myself to try to be everything,” Guerin says now. “And it was a lot. I just didn’t perform. I felt bad. I felt guilty about it, because they had given up so much to get me.”

Now an assistant GM in Pittsburgh, Guerin tries to pull aside players whenever they arrive in trades. His advice applies for everyone but feels especially pertinent for rentals, who must battle the twin challenges of an expiring contract and sky-high expectations. “When you do get a rental, I think it’s imperative that you clarify what they’re there for,” Guerin says. “I always think, ‘God, we need to make sure the guy doesn’t think he’s got to win every game for us. Don’t be the hired gun. Don’t be the deadline deal that’s going to bring it home. Just play.’”

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Stastny only stayed in Winnipeg for three months, but his impact was undeniable. Sandwiched between young wingers Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine, the gap-toothed center delivered 15 points in 17 playoff games as the Jets reached their first conference final last spring. Looking back, Stastny says, his short tenure helped attract more suitors in free agency, where Vegas rewarded him with a three-year, $19.5 million contract.

“Going to Winnipeg was one of the best things that ever happened in my career,” Stastny says. “It kind of rejuvenated myself, gave me a new energy.”

It can be a tough balance, devoting total focus to the present while remaining mindful that all roads lead to July 1. A lucky few do not stay rentals for long; San Jose locked up Evander Kane last May, two months after landing the winger’s expiring contract from Buffalo. But the rest understand that playoff success is a surefire way to earn some extra bucks.

“The whole year has been an audition, a tryout for me,” says Predators winger Wayne Simmonds, formerly of the Flyers. “Knowing you’re going to become a free agent, you want to put your attributes out there.”

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And, finally, a three-way tie for most honest quote.

First there was Kekalainen, the Columbus GM, explaining the overarching motivation for renting at the deadline:

“The stakes are high to make the playoffs. Or you get horny about opportunities to win the Cup if you’re in the top to the standings.”

Next came Winnipeg center Kevin Hayes, discussing the local lifestyle compared to his former home in Manhattan, where Hayes lived right off the West Side Highway near Chelsea:

“Umm, ha. Nothing really compares to New York City. You have everything right outside your front door. You can leave your apartment and not come home for hours. And Winnipeg, it’s been great, the fans and the city have been nice. But not as much to do.”

Finally, defenseman Ben Lovejoy delivered an instant (and perfect) deadpan when asked if he took notice of the modest price that Devils GM Ray Shero received from Dallas for his services:

“When he called me, I was very nervous that he was going to say, ‘Oh, I got you one-for-one for Tyler Seguin.’ Because Ray has been really good at that throughout his career.”