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Washington Capitals: The Price of a Top-Four Defenseman

While trade rumors around Mike Green continue to swirl, a look at history tells us that trading someone like him may not yield as much as some people might hope.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In these dog days of summer, when we are tired of thinking about where the Washington Capitals will host the Winter Classic next January, and the buffet of unrestricted free agents is pretty much picked over, thoughts turn to the wild and the wacky. To wit, Caps defenseman Mike Green is in the crosshairs of trade speculation - most of it coming from Detroit, the Land of the Left-Handed Defenseman.

While the Red Wings certainly could use a starboard-side shooter on the blue line, for Caps fans the issue is one of what return a Mike Green might bring, and that becomes a matter of trying to find a similar instance. In other words, a trade in the post 2005-2006 lockout era in which the prize was an under-30 defenseman, former Norris Trophy finalist, with one year left on a contract and a limited no-trade clause, who has played in 500 NHL regular season games, and who has recorded 100 or more goals and 300 or more points over those years.

OK, that's a pretty specific commodity. Actually, Mike Green is the only player who satisfies all the criteria. You can knock out the "one year left on a contract" criterion and include Dion Phaneuf and Shea Weber. You can then knock off the "under-30" criterion and include Zdeno Chara (who also happens to be a Norris Trophy winner, not to mention the small matter of being a Stanley Cup winner). You can knock off the age and Norris Trophy finalist criteria and add Dan Boyle (also a Stanley Cup winner). What you are left with in the end, though, is a pretty unique set of qualifications.

It's also complicated, because Mike Green is not the most durable of defensemen. Only once has he played in more than 75 games over his full eight seasons in the NHL. He missed 108 of 294 games over the past four seasons to injury; even when healthy over those four seasons, his was a declining level of performance.

Once the most accomplished offensive defenseman in the game (points-per-game greater than 1.00 in both the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 seasons), his points-per-game values were cut in half in 2010-2011 (0.49) and by half again the following season (0.22). He has since rehabilitated himself to an extent (0.61 points per game over the last two seasons), but his performance remains far from his peak years. Whether that is the product of frequent injury, coaching changes (with their attendant difference in philosophy), diminishing skill, or a combination of factors, it is just more complication with respect to his value.

So let's go back to those "comparable" defensemen in terms of age and performance. Of the group of Phaneuf, Chara, Weber, and Boyle, all except for Weber were traded in their formative or peak years, and make for a reasonable group to compare with respect to the terms of their respective trades. To this group one might add Brian Campbell, Matt Carle, Jay Bouwmeester, Dennis Wideman, and Sergei Gonchar, all of whom are currently among the top-30 in salary cap hits among defensemen (Green is 10th in that group). What do their respective trade returns look like, and do they reveal anything about what a Mike Green trade might look like?

Dion Phaneuf (age at trade: 24)

The Trade - January 30, 2010...

  • From Calgary to Toronto Phaneuf, Frederik Sjostrom, Keith Aulie
  • From Toronto to Calgary: Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Jamal Meyers, Ian White

Dion Phaneuf was traded to Toronto as a 24 year old with 459 games of NHL experience and four full years remaining on a contract that carried a $6.5 million cap hit. The other pieces moving from Calgary were an underachieving former 11th overall draft pick that had already been traded once, himself, and let go to free agency (Sjostrom) and a former fourth round draft pick who had yet to appear in an NHL game at the time of the trade (Aulie).

The return...

  • Matt Stajan was in his sixth full season with Toronto, a player who seems to be "almost there," having averaged 16-25-41 per 82 games in his stay with the Maple Leafs (in terms of scoring, Caps fans, think "Brooks Laich," who has averaged 17-23-40 per 82 games in his career with the Caps).
  • Niklas Hagman was a 30-year old veteran in his eighth season, having moved around some, from Florida to Dallas before settling in Toronto. In a season and a half with Toronto he was a productive player, putting up 42 goals in 120 games.
  • Jamal Meyers was in his second season with Toronto after spending his first ten seasons in St. Louis. The 35-year old (at the time) had somewhat meager production with the Maple Leafs, nine goals and 24 points in 115 games before the trade.
  • Ian White might have been characterized as an "up-and-comer." Just 25 years old at the time of the trade, White posted 28 goals and 105 points in four-plus seasons with Toronto and showed steady improvement over those four-plus seasons. He was in the midst of what was (and still is) his career best season. After going 10-16-26 in 71 games in 2008-2009, White was 9-17-26 in 2009-2010 when he was packaged in this deal (he finished 13-25-38 for the season).

What did Calgary get back for Phaneuf ? A decent scoring line forward, a couple of veteran role players, and a young defenseman. And Calgary had to throw in a couple of B-list players to realize that return. It would have been hard to see how Calgary received much value in return for a top-pair defenseman.

Zdeno Chara (age at trade: 24)

The Trade - June 23, 2001...

  • From New York Islanders to Ottawa: Chara, Bill Muckalt, 2001 first-round draft pick
  • From Ottawa to New York Islanders: Alexei Yashin

This was one of those draft-day blockbuster trades, taking place on June 23, 2001. Chara, then just a four-year veteran of modest production with the Islanders, was traded to Ottawa as part of a package in which he was not the centerpiece of the deal. The first round draft pick was, at least from the Senators' point of view. With that pick - the second overall in the 2001 draft - the Senators selected center Jason Spezza. Bill Muckalt provided some added ballast to the Islanders side of the deal, a player without noteworthy accomplishments at the NHL level who recorded 15 goals and 33 points in 72 games with New York over two seasons.

The return...

OK, this one qualifies as one of the worst, the craziest, the dumbest trades in recent or any other memory. The return for a top-five draft pick, a defenseman who was equal parts project and promising, and a role player was Alexei Yashin. In Yashin the Islanders took on a player of immense skill, but capable of being an immense headache. Islanders general manager Mike Milbury saw Yashin's 491 points in 504 games and pretty much stopped looking at anything else. He also stopped at the fact that Yashin was an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent. The Islanders signed him to a ten-year, $87.5 million extension.

What did the Islanders get back for Chara (and a number one draft pick)? Heartache and ridicule.

Dan Boyle (age at trade: 31)

The Trade - July 4, 2008...

  • From Tampa Bay to San Jose: Boyle and Brad Lukowich
  • From San Jose to Tampa Bay: Matt Carle, Ty Wishart, 2009 first round draft pick, 2010 fourth round draft pick

By the end of the 2007-2008 season, the collapse of the Tampa Bay Lightning was complete. Winners of the Stanley Cup in 2004, the Lightning finished 30th in the league in 2007-2008. The names were still the same - Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Dan Boyle - and their offensive output was similar to that of their championship season, but the team around them, especially on defense and in goal, was awful. The Lightning had already begun a rebuild by moving center Brad Richards to Dallas at the trading deadline, and in July the Lightning pulled the trigger on a Dan Boyle deal. The deal included fellow defenseman Brad Lukowich, but it was Boyle's age (31) and cost burden (he signed a six-year, $40 million deal the previous February).

The return...

This is one of those things where you look at the terms and not what the team did with them in the future. So, on its own merits:

  • Matt Carle had just completed his third season, his second full one with San Jose. As a 23-year old former second round draft pick he had a fine rookie season (11-31-42 in 77 games) but struggled in his sophomore season before the trade (2-13-15 in 62 games).
  • Ty Wishart was a 20-year old defenseman prospect taken 16th overall in the 2006 draft; he had not yet appeared in an NHL game.
  • The first round pick in 2009 ended up being perhaps the most traveled first round pick in the history of the NHL entry draft. The second leg of its journey was from Tampa Bay to Ottawa as part of a deal with Ottawa that sent Senators defenseman Andrej Meszaros to the Lightning for Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard, and this pick. The pick ended up passed around to the New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Anaheim Ducks, who used the pick to take forward Kyle Palmieri.
  • The 2010 fourth round pick was used to select forward James Mullin, who in 2014 just completed his third year at Miami University (Ohio).

Two prospect defensemen, a first round draft pick, and a mid-round pick doesn't sound like a bad return for a top-pair defenseman.

Brian Campbell (age at trade: 28)

The Trade - February 26, 2008...

  • From Buffalo to San Jose: Campbell, 2008 seventh round draft pick
  • From San Jose to Buffalo: Steve Bernier, 2008 first round draft pick

The classic rental. Brian Campbell was on an expiring deal that paid him $1.5 million a year, and he was due for a big payday. His team, the Buffalo Sabres, were struggling to reach the playoffs and had already lost Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency after the previous season with no return. The San Jose Sharks, a team with a young defensive core (Christian Ehrhoff, Matt Carle, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic all were 25 or younger), got a veteran of almost 400 NHL games at the time who had become a reliable half-point a game producer from the blue line.

The return...

For the Sabres, they got a young power forward in Bernier (a former 16th overall draft pick) and a first round draft pick that become Tyler Ennis. You could say this is what a team with economic and performance issues does. The Sabres went a step further when they traded Bernier to Vancouver after the season for two more draft picks. When all the dust had settled after Buffalo's wheeling and dealing they had Ennis, Brayden McNabb (taken with the 2009 third round pick acquired from Vancouver), and Raffi Torres (obtained from Columbus as part of a deal that included the 2010 second round pick that came over in the Bernier trade) as the product of moving Brian Campbell.

Matt Carle (age at trade: 24)

The Trade - November 7, 2008...

  • From Tampa Bay to Philadelphia: Carle, 2009 third round draft pick, and 2010 fourth round draft pick
  • From Philadelphia to Tampa Bay: Steve Eminger, Steve Downie, and a 2009 fourth round draft pick

Matt Carle has already been featured in other trades here, but this time he was the big piece to be moved. In 2008-2009 he completed the first of a four year/$13.75 million deal and was coming off having been traded from San Jose to Tampa Bay. For Tampa Bay it was a case of moving an under-producing asset. After a fine rookie season (11-31-42 in 77 games), Carle had just seven goals and 41 points in 138 games over the next two seasons with San Jose and Tampa Bay.

The return...

The Lightning got older in the exchange, Carle being only 24 at the time of the trade, and arguably grittier.

  • Steve Eminger, who had been traded to Philadelphia by Washington the previous summer, lasted only 12 games with the Flyers when the November 2008 trade was made. By the time he was sent to Tampa Bay he had 224 games of NHL regular season experience (Carle had only 163 games)
  • Steve Downie had just completed his rookie season in 2007-2008 (32 games, 6-6-12) and appeared in just six games when the Carle trade was executed. At this point in his career he had more a reputation of a brawler (84 penalty minutes and six fights in 38 games) than a productive forward.
  • The 2009 fourth round pick became Alex Hutchings, who has yet to appear in an NHL game

Neither Eminger (who lasted less than one season in Tampa, traded to Florida for Noah Welch and a draft pick later in the season) nor Downie (who spent parts of four seasons in Tampa as a half-point a game player before he was traded to Colorado for Kyle Quincey in 2012) had especially noteworthy stays in Florida. Carle had not yet established himself as a defenseman in demand, and the return at this point in his career reflects that, traded for what are/were essentially spare parts.

Jay Bouwmeester (age at trade: 25)

The Trade - June 27, 2009...

  • From Florida to Calgary: Bouwmeester
  • From Calgary to Florida: Jordan Leopold, 2009 third round draft pick

Jay Bouwmeester was a third overall draft pick in 2002, but there seemed to attach a sense of underachievement about his career. In six full seasons with the Florida Panthers he averaged only 0.43 points per game and never quite reached the status of "elite" defenseman. Bouwmeester was to become an unrestricted free agent within days after this trade was made, and his being moved was widely assumed long before the trade was consummated. He signed a five-year/$33.4 million deal with the Flames.

The Return...

Jordan Leopold was about to become an unrestricted free agent as well, but was a less accomplished defenseman than Bouwmeester, even if the latter might have been an underachiever (29 goals and 109 points in 355 career games to that point). Leopold did not last a season in Florida, traded to Pittsburgh at the 2009-2010 trading deadline for a second round draft pick.

In the end, Jay Bouwmeester was worth a third round pick (part of the deal for Bouwmeester, the Panthers selected Josh Birkholz, who has not yet advanced past the ECHL level) and a second round pick (what Florida got in trading Leopold; they received Connor Brickley, who has eight games of AHL experience).

Dennis Wideman (age at trade: 27)

The Trade - June 22, 2010...

  • From Boston to Florida: Wideman, 2010 first round draft pick, 2011 third round draft pick
  • From Florida to Boston: Nathan Horton, Gregory Campbell

Dennis Wideman had a breakout season in 2008-2009 - 13 goals, 50 points, and a plus-32 for a team that won 53 games. It was part of consistent progress in his early career, advancing from 24 points in his rookie season to this 50-point season in the fourth year of his career. But in 2009-2010 Wideman regressed, going 6-24-30, minus-14 in 76 games on a team with 14 fewer wins than the previous year. He'd been overtaken on the depth chart by Dennis Seidenberg, himself obtained from Florida at the trading deadline in that season.

The Return...

  • Nathan Horton was another of those high draft picks (third overall in 2003) with the faint whiff of underachievement attached to him. In six seasons in Florida he had a couple of 60-point seasons but never had what one might call a breakthrough season into the top echelon of forwards (142 goals and 295 points in 422 games with the Panthers).
  • Gregory Campbell was a bottom-six forward on a bad team, suggesting that his inclusion in this deal was merely a leveling off of assets being moved (85 points and 312 penalty minutes in 363 games over six seasons with Florida)

Wideman was on an arc to being a top offensive defenseman but had not yet reached that level of play. His 2009-2010 season stood out, particularly in that reviled plus-minus number, for being so much worse than his personal progression to date and when compared with defenseman teammates from that season. The change of scenery for Horton and Campbell seemed to work. They won a Stanley Cup the following season with the Bruins.

Sergei Gonchar (age at trade: 29)

The Trade - March 3, 2004...

  • From Washington to Boston: Gonchar
  • From Boston to Washington: Shaone Morrisonn, 2004 first round draft pick, 2004 second round draft pick

Another classic salary dump/rental. The Capitals were in the midst of a massive selloff, having moved over the space of less than two months: Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, and Robert Lang before sending Sergei Gonchar to Boston. The Bruins were moving futures to win now (Boston was two points out of the Eastern Conference lead when this trade was made and preparing for the playoffs). How bad were the Caps? How complete was the selloff to become? In trading Gonchar, they moved a defenseman who had as many points when he was traded (49) than the next four defensemen combined (Josef Boumedienne, Joel Kwiatkowski, Brendan Witt, Jason Doig)

The Return...

  • Shaone Morrisonn was a former 19th overall draft pick (2001) in just his second season in the NHL with 41 games of experience with Boston when he was sent to Washington.
  • The 2004 first round draft pick was used to select Jeff Schultz, who would go on to play in 399 games with the Caps.
  • The 2004 second round pick would be used to take center Mikhail Yunkov. He never played in North America and is currently a member of Magnitogorsk Metallurg in the KHL.

Gonchar was part of a larger clearance sale conducted by the Caps when their gambit into free agency (Jaromir Jagr, a "to-be" free agent for whom they traded, and Robert Lang, who received a five-year/$25 million deal from the Caps) didn't work. The aim of the exercise in jettisoning high priced veterans was to obtain futures - prospects and draft picks - that this deal fairly represents.

In the end...

Trades are hard to predict. No two markets are equivalent. There is the time of year to consider - a regular in-season trade (Dion Phaneuf, Matt Carle) might look different than a trade-deadline deal (Zdeno Chara, Brian Campbell, Sergei Gonchar), which might look different than a summer/draft day/impending free agent trade (Dan Boyle, Jay Bouwmeester, Dennis Wideman). And there are other factors -- time remaining on a contract, presence of no-trade/no-movement clauses, the league-wide demand for a top defenseman from one season to the next, etc.

One thing that seems to be a constant, though, is the lack of battle-ready top-pair defensemen/top-six forwards coming back in return for shipping off a top-pair/top-four defenseman. It would be a bit of a stretch to define such a group broadly as: Matt Stajan, Alexei Yashin, Jordan Leopold, and Nathan Horton.

Even the three first round picks that came back among these deals yielded fair, not great, returns - Kyle Palmieri, Tyler Ennis, and Jeff Schultz - although that says more about drafting than having negotiated a first round pick out of the trade of the defenseman. It does suggest, though, the difficulty in getting equivalent value, even if a high-round draft pick comes back in the deal.

What does it say about a potential trade of Mike Green? First, history suggests there isn't any second line center coming back in the deal (just look at the summer deals in this review). Not to say it cannot happen, but if general manager Brian MacLellan can pull off such a swap, consider the Caps fortunate. They might be able to get a first round draft pick as part of a deal, and that might be used to draft such a center (or an eventual replacement for Green). But again, history suggests the iffy likelihood of getting such a player in the draft.

Defensemen are like gold in the NHL - but gold, like any commodity, has a price, and markets put a limit on such prices. The market for a defenseman such as Mike Green might be active (even with a modified no-trade clause in his current contract that has one year to run), but that does not mean returns will be robust. At that point, ask yourself, does it really make sense right now to trade a top-four defenseman in his chronological prime for what might be disappointing returns?