While Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby have always garnered the most attention since the 2004-2005 lockout, Martin St. Louis was just as instrumental in the motivation behind reshaping and restructuring the NHL. St. Louis was everything the league wanted out of its modified game: speed, finesse, elusiveness and intelligence.
On the other hand, St. Louis is small — only 5 foot 8 inches tall and 180 pounds — which was a major storyline when he led his Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004. He had “defied the odds,” and “overcome the obstacles” that his small stature endowed him with. It was a rarity in a league that had long relied on big men and “Broad Street Bullies” to win championships.
The NHL — worried that players like him would no longer be able to compete in the more aggressive game — changed the rules. It increased the number and frequency of penalties. It reduced the size of the goaltenders’ equipment and slightly modified the offensive zone’s dimensions, emphasizing scoring and skill. By all accounts, the NHL made every change it could conceive of that could possibly provide the opportunity for players like the undersized, underrated St. Louis to thrive.
So if the “new” NHL was intended to be fast and offensive, then why did Steve Yzerman, the general manager of the Lightning, trade one of the league’s elite offensive producers for New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan at the March 5 trade deadline?
The obvious answer is that St. Louis was immensely disgruntled about being left off of Canada’s Olympic team by Yzerman, although he eventually joined after his Tampa teammate Steven Stamkos could not play because of injury. However, Yzerman is clearly a smart hockey mind; he assembled two gold-medal winning national teams and a squad in Tampa Bay that is poised to have its best season since that cup run led by St. Louis.
There is absolutely no reason he would trade away what on paper looks like one of the league’s top weapons for a 15-to-20 goal scorer in Callahan.
The story of the Callahan-St. Louis trade is basically the story of the post-lockout NHL in a nutshell. In spite of the aforementioned rules changes, the past decade of NHL hockey has actually seen a rather marked drop in offensive production. In 2005 there was an average of 6.05 goals per game. Last season that number was down to a paltry 5.38. Teams are scoring fewer goals, not more. Adding a salary cap to the league changed the entire calculus around offensive production.
As in soccer or basketball, players who produce offensively command salaries that probably outweigh their true value on the ice, pitch or court. Where teams can spend their money most efficiently is on solid two-way players that play well at both ends of the ice. Think of the Bruins’ Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron or the Blues’ Alex Pietrangelo. It is no wonder the Bruins have been to two Stanley Cup finals in the past three years.
The Los Angeles Kings are basically an entire team built as a testament to this mentality, with hard-hitting forward Dustin Brown and skilled defender Drew Doughty providing much of the leadership during their recent reign of the Western Conference. The next set of teams poised to rule supreme exhibit the same character. The San Jose Sharks, the Anaheim Ducks and the Blues all find success by taking ice away and shutting down opponents’ offensive attack. Their offensive assets all have strong defensive skills to make it all work.
Often we hear from the hockey press about teams getting value when referring to individual players. This term is really a euphemism for teams finding offense from players acquired at lower prices usually paid for defensive players. The reason Yzerman would even entertain the possibility of a St. Louis for Callahan trade is because Callahan offers a gritty two-way presence that the diminutive St. Louis simply cannot bring to the ice, a presence also known as value.
The trade was not entirely Yzerman’s dumping his disgruntled captain for whatever asset was on the market at the time. Many fans are getting caught up in the emotion of the trade and seeing it this way. In reality, it is a perfect example of what the future of the NHL looks like. Even with the salary cap set to rise markedly next year, it is unlikely that teams will abandon the “value” model stressing two-way play that has come to define the league’s elite teams.
Ethan Chess and Drew Cunningham are seniors in the College.
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