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Tuesday Editorial: Why is trading so rare in the NHL?

With the NHL trade deadline less than three weeks away and trade rumours at a season-high, hockey fans are all wondering when the first chip will fall. Fans are probably more eager than ever to see a few transactions across the NHL, since, unlike years past, this season has seen little to no player movement. Now, I am not here to provide you with an abundance of trade rumours because there are more than enough websites out there that focus entirely on that topic; rather, I am here to examine why there is such a dearth of player movement in the game today. Looking more closely, I will present the two main arguments you will usually hear as the reasons for this lack of movement. First, I will assess the argument that the lack of NHL trading is due mainly to the $50.3 per team salary cap, which limits player spending and, as a result, doesn’t allow for players to be traded. Secondly, I will examine the argument that parity is the main reason for the lack of movement. Finally, I will decide which of these arguments holds more merit.

First argument: NHL trades are rare because teams have to fit their rosters to a strict $50.3 million cap leaving little or no money for other transactions

After the NHL lost the 2004/05 season to a lockout, the league finally got the hard cap it so desired heading into the 2005/06 season. While the hard cap has rose by more than $10 million since its inception, the cap still limits many teams in their spending ability. The large market teams that were well above the current cap limit prior to the lockout are believed to be close to the salary cap ceiling this season. When these teams head into the season with “allegedly” all their cap room spent, the misperception exists that teams only have the option of trading salary-for-salary in a trade. Salary for salary trades are most common in NBA basketball, and are rarer on the hockey landscape. The rarity of these transactions isn’t difficult to see. Think about how difficult it was to make a trade even pre-lockout; you still had to agree on players, draft picks, etc. With the salary cap, not only do you need to agree on take into account the aforementioned issues, but you also have to take player salaries into account when completing a transaction. Taking all these factors into account, the public may get the impression that trading really looks mighty difficult. However, once you take a closer look at the facts, the picture will appear to be far clearer.

Examining the NHL team-by-team cap numbers (courtesy of one will realize that only two teams have less than $1 million left: the Maple Leafs and the Flyers. Further, only one team has between $1-$2 million dollars in cap space: the Vancouver Canucks. Therefore, only three teams have less than $2 million dollars in cap space remaining. On top of that, only five teams are between $2-$3 million dollars in cap space. Altogether, that means only one third of NHL teams are within $3 million dollars of the salary cap, while the rest have more space to maneuver. If lack of salary space is such a problem, why do two thirds of NHL teams have enough to make a deal? This leads us into our alternative argument.

Second argument: NHL trades are not so commonplace because most teams are in or close to a playoff spot

As I wrote last week in my Tuesday Editorial, the NHL playoff race is as close as ever. Looking at the race this week, not much has changed. There are only four teams in the entire NHL that are more than six points out of a playoff spot, with just under 30 games remaining for each team. Think about that for a second; 26 NHL teams are in or within a short winning streak of the playoffs.

When trading takes place, the easiest trades to consummate are those between haves and have not’s. That option, however, is less readily present in the parity-ridden NHL. There are hardly, if any, proverbial sellers at this point. Furthermore, if there are only four to six sellers right now, why would any of those sellers deal off their assets before the trade deadline, a time which will most likely result in increased offers? In short, they won’t.

Trades between two playoff teams, or teams striving for a playoff spot, aren’t very common because GM’s generally don’t like to see their former players come back to haunt them. Thus, they generally avoid trading intra-conference. As a result, their options are cut in half, limiting them offers from teams who don’t play in their conference. Small-scale trades like last year’s deal of Aaron Ward for Paul Mara are more likely than intra-conference than a blockbuster.

Which argument is better?

Both arguments have their merits. In fact, some might argue the two arguments are anything but mutually exclusive (seeing as how the salary cap is the reason for parity in the first place). Also, I realize that some teams work within their own self-imposed budget; however, those figures are difficult to obtain from these organizations and, thus, provides me with little, if any, way to have included those numbers in this analysis. Having said all that, examining these two issues separately seems to reveal that NHL teams trade less these days due to their belief that they can compete for a playoff spot, and advance once there, rather than due to the limits that cap constrains place upon them.

For Illegal Curve, I’m Richard Pollock.