With the trade deadline looming, there are no shortage of rumours swirling around the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tune into a sports radio station for fifteen minutes and you're apt to hear both, "I would never trade a package that includes Gardiner for Nash," and, "I would trade Kadri in a heartbeat if it would land us Nash."
There are lots of reasons for the diverging opinions. With the hard salary cap, trading has become considerably more complex than the simple calculus of 'who got the better player'.
Saying something as simplistic as, "why trade Grabovski for a prospect that we hope develops into a player that's as good as Grabovski" is oversimplifying things but saying "Corey Perry was drafted 28th overall" is a weak argument too.
I see trading in today's NHL involving four key variables: Talent, Cost, Control, and Potential.
When the Leafs first acquired Dion Phaneuf, there was very little doubt that they had won the deal on the traditional barometer of 'talent' but Calgary needed to clear some of his 'cost' and add some potential in Ian White. Phaneuf was, at the time, an extremely inefficient contract and Ian White looked to be developing into a cost-efficient top-four defenseman.
If we take Grabovski as an example, what kind of return would be a good one for the Leafs? Rumour has it that Grabovski's agent is seeking $5.4M while the Leafs are offering $5M. With Ryan Suter and Zach Parise poised to become free agents, it may be worth freeing up cap space to make a run at these players. If you bring in an NHL-ready prospect, then you've probably cut $3M in payroll by trading Grabovski out -- adding potential while reducing cost (but also, in a vacuum, reducing talent). This kind of deal is fantastic if the added cap space is the difference between landing Parise or not, but is also a step back if you can't use the space efficiently.
Control is your ability to retain your assets and also, the case of RFAs, can provide a measure of cost relief. Take, for example, Nikolai Kulemin. At the time Kulemin signed his current deal he was an RFA and he was likely expected to provide the kind of play that the Leafs were hoping for from Colby Armstrong when he signed with the Leafs as a UFA. Kulemin costs $650,000 less than Armstrong against the cap.
When trading for a prospect, you're generally adding years of cost effective control. Even if you add a player whose ceiling is roughly at the same level as the player dealt, these deals shouldn't always been seen as an expensive lottery ticket with long odds. Again, it comes down to how you use the added cap space.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, as presently constructed, have what I would consider a balanced roster. They have middling overall talent with contracts steadily expiring to free up additional cap space. They have a significant number of controllable assets with a significant portion of their core pieces signed for 3 or more years or becoming RFAs rather than UFAs. The Leafs also have some solid potential with Kadri, Gardiner, and Colborne all possessing top-6 / top-4 potential.
The question for all GMs is whether you're trying to win now or win later and the problem for the Leafs is that this direction is poorly defined. They aren't good enough, as things sit today, to expect to win now and yet they don't have the calibre of prospects that most teams seeking to win later would hope to have.
In order to be a legitimately competitive team, the Leafs will need to shed some inefficient contracts and then convert those dollars into better assets which seems like an obvious solution and is certainly easier said than done. Worth considering, however, is how easy it actually would be to improve the efficiency of some of the cap dollars spent. Tonight, for example, Colby Armstrong and Mike Komisarek were $7.5M sitting in the pressbox. Anyone who says, "we can't afford Rick Nash," either believes that MLSE is unwilling to bury bad contracts, or doesn't understand just how many dollars we've spent inefficiently.
When I look at today's Leafs, I see acquiring a player like Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, or Zach Parise, as a move that would be similar to the deal that landed Phaneuf. Would we be acquiring an inefficient contract? Yes. Would it be a talent upgrade? Yes.
Ultimately, I feel like adding Rick Nash's $7.8M contract but also his size and skill for some guys who are likely second line players is an inefficiency that we can afford.