This year's NHL trade deadline was literally like no other

The frantic 2023 NHL trade deadline was unprecedented for a number of reasons.

The NHL trade deadline is officially over and it’s time to start looking ahead to the playoffs. As we do that, here are some thoughts on trade season in a special edition of 10 Insights and Observations.

An NHL trade deadline like no other... literally

The trade deadline this year felt like all of the keeners in school were leading it: finishing the work well in advance of the due date. There were 43 trades made in the 14 days before deadline day. Over the 10 years before this one, the average was 18 trades in those 14 days.

One thing I did wonder about that I can’t really prove one way or the other is that this trade deadline was on a Friday. Over the past 10 years, the deadline was traditionally on a Monday, and if not Monday, then it was on a Wednesday. This was the first Friday deadline and much like the rest of us, it appears NHL general managers also don’t like working much at the end of the week.

One thing to look for in the coming years is whether this trend of getting trades done early holds. From the acquiring team’s perspective, the approach makes sense because they are getting a player into their lineup weeks in advance, meaning they have extra time to adjust to their new surroundings. From the seller’s side, the question will be whether that’s the way to squeeze out the most value. If you set a price and get it, so be it. But if you wait and the bidding war comes down to the wire, does that cause a panic move and help your net return?

It’s high-stakes poker. Not every year is a buyer’s market full of options like this season.

Like many other Eastern Conference teams, the New York Rangers loaded up but didn't wait right until the NHL trade deadline. (Photo via Getty)

A draft pick for your troubles

The star of the deadline this season might have been double salary cap retention. It’s crazy to think that the ability to retain salary was only implemented in the 2013 CBA. While a number of teams have retained on cap hits to facilitate trades, the use of a third-party broker really took off this season.

From 2013 to the start of this season, there were only eight trades that involved double retention. This year, there were four (the Ryan O’Reilly trade, the Dmitry Orlov trade, the Nick Bonino trade and the Patrick Kane trade).

A large part of this is likely due to the salary cap barely rising. CapFriendly currently lists 21 teams that have under $1 million in cap space. Every dollar matters and teams have had to get creative to facilitate trades. To act as a broker, teams received a third-round pick (Kane), fourth-rounder (O'Reilly), and two fifth-rounders (Orlov and Bonino). It’s not a huge price to pay but now that we’ve seen a number of these trades take place, we have an idea for the market moving forward. If you need a third-party broker to make a trade work, it’s likely costing you between a 3rd and a 5th.

Wild walking a fine line

During the trade deadline, teams are usually buyers or sellers. Where things get interesting is when teams try a balancing act.

The Minnesota Wild felt like one of those teams. As the Jets free fall, the Wild are firmly in a playoff spot now but they used their cap space to act as a third-party broker twice instead of trying to add as much value as possible to load up their team. They traded away Jordan Greenway, who has struggled this season but is strong defensively and does play to their identity. In part, they wanted to clear his cap hit for the seasons to come, which is understandable.

At the same time, they added Oskar Sundqvist, Marcus Johansson, John Klingberg and Gustav Nyquist. They hold all of their first- and second-round draft picks moving forward, plus have a second from Vegas as part of the Greenway trade. The Wild would surely view it as doing a bit of everything, clearing the deck moving forward, adding for now and taking some free lottery tickets along the way as a third-party broker.

They didn’t trade away pending UFA Matt Dumba, either. After the deadline, general manager Bill Guerin said, “We’re serious about winning.” They should be. How he balanced the deadline and his cap space might be something we look back on favourably.

Avalanche take different approach this year

There are two things we know about any team defending their Stanley Cup championship: they take serious pride in it, and they are confident in their core. When you win it once, you want to keep the good times rolling. Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Chicago and LA have all won multiple Cups over the past decade and change.

Which brings us to the Colorado Avalanche, who were quiet at the deadline. They made one trade, acquiring Lars Eller for a second-round pick. In fairness, he has a strong playoff pedigree and makes them reasonably deeper at centre, which is noteworthy. Earlier in the season, they also added Matt Nieto, a reasonable role player. If Gabriel Landeskog can return and find his form, it’s as big an add that any team will have made.

But a year after going for it at the deadline, adding Artturi Lehkonen, Josh Manson and Andrew Cogliano, they made much smaller moves. That's to say nothing of losing Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky from last year’s run. The West is wide open and the Avalanche are certainly right in the mix to win it. They took a much different approach to this year’s deadline, though, and now we wait to see how their Cup defense goes.

No mighty roar for Panthers

There was one team that did not make any trades at all over the past month: the Florida Panthers. It’s possible they were simply stuck. Their only pending UFAs are Eric and Marc Staal, Radko Gudas, goalie Alex Lyon and the injured Patric Hornqvist. You wouldn’t exactly get much for any of them, save maybe Gudas, who is the type of player any playoff team would like to have on their roster in some capacity.

The Panthers also don’t exactly have draft picks to play with. They don’t have a first-round pick in each of the next three drafts. They don’t have a third this season or a second next season, either. They are going to have to leapfrog a number of teams in the standings to make the postseason. That is a tall, tall task.

They didn’t get any help from the outside, though they did recently get Anthony Duclair back for the first time this season. They just seem stuck, and all the while Montreal watches from the sideline, holding the Panthers' first-round pick this year.

Gavrikov trade one to watch down the stretch

The criticism on Vladislav Gavrikov went so far that the trade was bound to publicly be criticized no matter where he went. It’s going to be one of the more interesting deals to track through the rest of the season and playoffs, though, because Joonas Korpisalo went along with him.

The Kings are 30th in 5-on-5 save percentage. They have been bleeding goals all season, while their offense is 11th in the league in goals per game. Adding a quality defenseman and a goaltender having a good season should hypothetically help that save percentage bump up. Even with goaltending largely being a guessing game, it really can’t get much worse.

It’s only one game, but Gavrikov flashed what he can bring to the table playing alongside Sean Walker. This shift is a clinic in gap control and stickwork.

You’re never going to get the fancy, highlight-reel stuff from Gavrikov but there is some real subtlety and value that he can bring around the ice. At this rate, the Kings are looking at a first-round matchup against Seattle. It’s a matchup they should feel pretty good about. Let’s see how we look back on this trade by the offseason.

Western Conference opts for subtlety instead of blockbusters

The Eastern Conference rightfully got the bulk of the headlines because it made all the big moves, but there was all sorts of sneaky value in the West. We just noted the Gavrikov and Korpisalo adds by LA. Vegas acquired Ivan Barbashev and Teddy Blueger, who offer value and versatility up and down their forward lineup. The Oilers look much tidier with Mattias Ekholm, then added a contributor in Nick Bjugstad, to boot.

The Jets added Nino Niederreiter and Vladislav Namestnikov. Dallas added Max Domi, who came up big for Carolina last playoffs. We already highlighted the Wild’s balancing act and Colorado with one add, with Landeskog hopefully on the way soon. The Flames didn’t really add but they made a minor shakeup.

No team really on the fringe of it made a run at making the playoffs. The Blues had a fire sale. Nashville sold. I’m not really sure what to call what Vancouver did but they… made trades? This isn’t the Wild West when Chicago and LA were at the height of their super powers, but a number of teams definitely got better here even if they didn’t make headlines.

The West has not been this wide open in years, so it’s almost funny it didn’t make the big splashes. Instead, it was the loaded East where all the teams bought big.

Senators shift to buyers after impressive stretch

For Ottawa, the Jakob Chychrun trade made sense no matter which way you slice it. He’s a quality, top-pairing defenseman under contract well below his market value for 2.5 more seasons. Other than his ability to stay healthy, there’s no real question on the quality of player that he is. But what was interesting was hearing Senators general manager Pierre Dorion call himself a buyer.

By points percentage, the Senators have to leapfrog at least two teams — the Sabres and one of the Islanders/Penguins — while also fending off the Capitals, Panthers and Red Wings below them. They are certainly in the hunt.

It was 2021 when Dorion infamously said, "The rebuild is done. Now we're stepping into another zone." They didn’t follow that up with a strong season and since that quote he has added three major pieces to his core, signaling the rebuild was very much not done at that time. The Senators have been playing great hockey lately and pretty much ended the Red Wings' playoff hopes in an emphatic back-to-back drubbing this week.

By all accounts, Dorion indicated his players wanted help. We'll see how they respond because the teams they are chasing mean business, too.

Coyotes acquire another LTIR star

One “smaller” trade that happened was the Coyotes acquiring Jakub Voracek's cap hit. The trade makes sense for both Columbus, who is clearing cap room, and Arizona, who is trying to maintain being at the cap floor. At this point, Arizona has collected an All-Star cast of players on LTIR. The list is extensive. It’s also sad, though.

This is the worst way for a player to go: injured, not at all on their own terms, and their contract simply ending up as a footnote in Arizona. Voracek was a great player in is prime with an awesome sense of humour. He hasn’t played a game since suffering a concussion on Nov. 4 and all indications are that his career is all but over.

Buckle up for a wild ride to the finish

The NBA trade deadline is crazy and it’s tough to compare to the NHL when a single player really changes the outlook of an entire franchise (see: Kevin Durant). It’s hard to imagine the NHL ever getting to that point.

Long has the motto been “if Gretzky can get traded, anyone can get traded,” but it’s incredibly unlikely we see the likes of Connor McDavid, Cale Makar, Auston Matthews and so on get moved. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin certainly went nowhere.

But failing that, this was an incredible deadline. We saw almost every top team in the East load up. It was a full-on arms race. A number of Western Conference teams managed to improve their squads, too. A lot of teams very clearly believe they can do damage in the playoffs this year and bought accordingly. Big, needle-moving players were traded.

It sets the table for an amazing stretch run and playoffs. The dog days of the regular season can be tough. After the initial excitement of the new season wears off by American Thanksgiving, the next few months are a grind. But teams are locked and loaded now. The quality of hockey is dialling right up.

Coming off an awesome deadline, we now know where all the rosters stand. Enjoy the stretch drive, everyone!