Like many Islanders fans, I've been thinking about Brendan Witt and the two years left on his deal at $3 million per, trying to imagine which team might give up a good asset for his grit and his salary despite his awful year on the league's worst team.
GMs have gotten smarter, and I don't see anyone spending a 1st-round pick or established NHLer on Witt. But the chance to win (or, in Don Waddell's case, to make the playoffs in 2006) can do strange things to people. In that same market, after all, Witt fetched Nashville's 1st-round pick and Kris Beech from the Predators, under similar duress to make an expansion-market splash.
#32 / Defenseman / New York Islanders
Feb 20, 1975
So here's what I've arrived at: If Garth Snow only receives dollar-for-dollar offers for Witt, he might as well wait until summer. Right now, his focus should be on bleeding a GM in need at the NHL trade deadline moment when -- as Brian Burke said today -- GMs are at their weakest and make their biggest mistakes.
Snow needs to keep in constant contact with his peers and feel out which GM thinks he has a great shot at the Cup -- yet suffers from anxiety that his best shot at a Cup could be compromised by missing that one final ingredient. The GM who is worried that if he doesn't make that move, he could be eliminated in a tough second-round series and will be kicking himself all summer for not giving up a measly first-round pick for his best shot at legend and glory. The GM whose upper-seed team gets physically knocked around in a loss close to the deadline, casting its "playoff readiness" into doubt and stirring calls to import a warrior like Witt before it's too late.
In short, Snow needs to monitor and identify the most desperate GM out there, then pounce. It doesn't always happen, but it can -- and it's worth waiting until the 11th hour to see if one bites.
Let me tell you a little story...
People forget it now, because it was the first of two Cup years for the Penguins, but down the stretch of the 1990-91 season, the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks had -- surprisingly -- battled neck-and-neck for the best record in the NHL. These two clubs were historic foes in the low-skill, high-grit "Chuck" Norris Division, which entered four of five teams into the NHL playoffs each year only by default.
With Chicago and St. Louis #1 and #2 in the league, though, suddenly daddy's little Norris Division was all grown up. But while you could add talent like Brett Hull and Adam Oates into the mix, you couldn't take the Chuck out of the Norris. It was still bloody hell. With that era's playoff bracket keeping the first two playoff rounds always within the division, both teams knew they were on a collision course, with the survivor having a (theoretically) clear path to the promised land. (Fate and Jon Casey's Cinderella North Stars would ultimately intervene, but that's a story for another day.)
With two of the loudest buildings in the league at the time (R.I.P. Chicago Stadium and The Arena), and a history of fan-invigorating playoff and regular-season bloodshed, there was a call to arms heading into this inevitable playoff meeting. GM Ron Caron's Blues already had the fierce Scott Stevens, poached from Washington the previous summer, but he needed more. He was anticipating this. And stuff like "The St. Patrick's Day Massacre."
Because going into the playoffs, "You can never have enough tough defensemen..." -- or so the thinking goes/went. So Caron bucked up at the trade deadline and made what, in retrospect, looks like one hideous trade: Cliff Ronning, Geoff Courtnall, Sergio Momesso and Robert Dirk to Vancouver for Garth Butcher and Dan Quinn. I remember the school janitor told me about the trade at lunch, and I -- a St. Louis boy -- spent the entire recess in a daze, processing this 4-for-2 swap.
(This was the same year as the Francis/Samuelsson - Cullen/Zalapski trade -- a day earlier, in fact -- that legend will tell you sent 7th-place Pittsburgh to its first Cup.)
Now, eventual Islander Ronning later had a great career, but to that point he was the undersized skilled type who seemed to literally disappear under the heat of Chicago Stadium. You didn't want him in the trenches. Courtnall was a skilled, speedy pest, but he may not have pleased notoriously fiery coach Brian Sutter. Momesso (a winger) and Dirk (a spare defenseman) were gritty parts who'd fight anybody, but neither could be expected to log the minutes of Butcher. Quinn was ... why did they deal Ronning again?
Obviously, things didn't work out as planned. The North Stars did the Blues a favor by knocking the President's Trophy-winning Hawks out of the first round -- then promptly knocked the 2nd-place Blues out in the 2nd. Ronning, Courtnall and even Momesso would go on to have some illustrious playoff moments for the Canucks. Within a couple years, Oates would demand his umpteenth contract renegotiation and be sent to Boston for Craig Janney, beginning a spiral in Janney's trade value that travelled from Oates through Jeff Norton to Darren Turcotte to Louie DeBrusk.
The Blues never got that mojo back, and that trade was panned again and again for years to come. But the point is that under deadline duress and visions of glory, Caron was able to talk himself into this need -- preparing for the playoff battle to take his best shot. Years of not making it out of the divisional playoffs convinced him they needed something more.
It reminds me of San Jose today (or last season, at least), with the psychological baggage of repeated playoff disappointments causing fans to call for grabbing that one magical piece -- whatever intangible piece it is: if it's available, surely it's the one! -- that will somehow make this year different. That will somehow make this year's 1-in-16 shot the right shot. As if winning the Cup is as clinical as counting cards.
This is not to rationalize the Butcher trade. Rather, to recall that the NHL trade deadline has a way of turning even sober GMs into risky gamblers playing their gut. Anxiety works against them. The sniff of summer glory can overwhelm the thought of mere picks or youngsters -- "And don't most picks go bust anyway? Yeah, that's the ticket..." Wasting a pick might haunt you years later, but a Cup ring gives you the job security to survive any future demons (Short of felonies, I presume.)
I make Waddell jokes a lot -- really, who doesn't? -- but even he had a real market reason to think Atlanta absolutely needed to make a splash in 2006. If they don't get swept by the Rangers and they hook more fans with an exciting playoff run, doesn't Waddell look just a little bit better?
I don't know if there is any employed GM like that right now -- darn it if Waddell isn't already out of the playoffs. But if there is, Garth Snow better find him.
P.S. Bonus thought: Maybe Boston or Philly think they need a guy like Witt, and maybe they start to fear, and they part with a prospect like Vlad Sobotka and a pick. Unlikely for Boston, because they have free agents to re-sign like Kessel, Axelsson and Krejci. But it's going to take something creative and/or desperate to maximize Witt's return.