Damien Cox: What’s all this fuss about the NHL trade deadline when last year’s winners were the Senators?

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Upon review, it may well be that the winners of last year’s trade deadline were the Ottawa Senators.

Weird, huh? The Senators were dumping at the deadline, and didn’t even come close to making the playoffs.

The fascination with the deadline, as we’ll see Monday with hours of TV time, is supposed to lie in the fact its primary value is strengthening contenders for runs at the Stanley Cup. The whole point of calling a halt to trades is to make sure that rosters are essentially frozen at some point to preserve the integrity of post-season competition.

The fact that deadline moves rarely change much, of course, doesn’t seem to dampen the excitement. Or make teams less likely to make costly acquisitions.

The Senators provided evidence last year that the biggest opportunity at the deadline may lie not in adding, but in subtracting. Or at least moving out big names, and getting prospects and draft picks. A year after selling off star defenceman Erik Karlsson, Ottawa traded away forwards Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.

The return for Dzingel was terrific — 22-goal scorer Anthony Duclair and a pair of second-round picks. For Stone, the Senators picked up blue-chip defence prospect Erik Brannstrom and another second-rounder. And they dealt Duchene for prospects Vitaly Abramov and Jonathan Davidsson, and a 2019 first-rounder. When you add that haul to what the Senators got for Karlsson — top forward prospect Josh Norris and San Jose’s first-round pick this year — you can see getting rid of top players has been a fairly profitable business for Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk.

But last year’s trade deadline really didn’t impact the Stanley Cup playoffs a great deal. The biggest winner was probably Boston, which got forward Charlie Coyle in a deal with Minnesota. Coyle scored nine goals in 21 playoff games and the Bruins made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

In terms of impact moves, however, Coyle was about it. St. Louis beat Boston to win the Cup, but the Blues didn’t really bolster their roster at the deadline. Neither did Eastern Conference finalist Carolina. The Sharks added Gustav Nyquist from Detroit and made it to the Western Conference final, but Nyquist scored once in 20 playoff games and the Sharks didn’t re-sign him.

Vegas added Stone, the most significant player available at the deadline, and went out in the first round. Ditto for Nashville, which picked up Wayne Simmonds, Mikael Granlund and Brian Boyle. Winnipeg made a big acquisition in Kevin Hayes and also lost in the first round.

So as this year’s deadline approaches, you might want to keep the events of last year in mind and realize the moves that are advertised and hyped as earth-shaking and meaningful usually are not.

The Los Angeles Kings has already established themselves as this year’s Senators, moving out goalie Jack Campbell and winger Kyle Clifford in a deal with Toronto, then peddling defenceman Alec Martinez to the Golden Knights and winger Tyler Toffoli to Vancouver.

Montreal could still challenge L.A. as the top seller if GM Marc Bergevin, after yet another lost season, decides to move one or all of defenceman Jeff Petry, forward Tomas Tatar and winger Ilya Kovalchuk.

Replacing Stone as this year’s No. 1 deadline prize is Rangers winger Chris Kreider, with Boston and Colorado in hot pursuit. Other scoring forwards available are Ottawa’s Jean-Gabriel Pageau, New Jersey’s Kyle Palmieri, Florida’s Mike Hoffman and perhaps Chicago’s Brandon Saad.

Theoretically, Winnipeg might have the biggest star of all to sell, but no one quite knows what in the world is going on with all-star defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, which makes it difficult for Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to pull off a blockbuster deal.

Byfuglien is currently suspended without pay and has one more year on his contract at $7.6 million (U.S.). Would he play if traded? Unknown. Is he interested in playing? Unknown. Is he healthy enough to play? Unknown.

For a draft pick, some team might be willing to take a gamble they can convince Big Buff to play again, if not this season, then next season. But it’s hard to imagine Cheveldayoff being able to extract a significant price given all the uncertainty here.

So far, Blake Coleman and Jason Zucker have joined Toffoli as scoring wingers that have been moved, and there’s been a recent run on defencemen (Martinez, Dylan DeMelo, Brenden Dillon, Andy Greene).

These could all be helpful additions to their new teams, but aren’t likely to change the balance of power. As the Blues demonstrated last year, the team that’s got it together by now is the team likeliest to be the one left standing at the end. Maybe that means Dallas, which has been as good as anyone since starting the season 1-7-1 and shouldn’t even be contemplating making any moves that might disrupt its roster.

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If you’re not dumping contracts, then standing pat seems to be the smartest thing to do at the deadline. Vegas, of course, would argue that it was still worth it to trade for Stone a year ago because they have him under contract for eight years.

What we know is that there’s a dynamic at this time of year that makes teams do things they otherwise wouldn’t do. In a league packed so tightly that there is little to choose between the 16 teams that will make post-season, it’s easy for a general manager to imagine one player will make all the difference.

Even if history says that’s unlikely to be true.

Damien Cox

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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