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Fire Sales And Panic Buys: The Psychology Of The Trade Deadline

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With less than a month until the "Hockey Christmas" of the NHL Trade Deadline, Paul Wheeler looks at how it makes mediocre players hot property, and just how this might affect the Bruins.

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

"And if you need an explanation

Then everything must go"

Manic Street Preachers: "Everything Must Go"

So, it's mid-February. The time of year when estate agents all around the NHL start licking their lips and wondering which players they'll be helping find a house in very short order over the next month. The time when players all start getting a little twitchy. The time of the year that's most fertile for speculation, dreams, and outright silliness.

It's also the time of year when GMs are subject to some of the most interesting psychological effects of the job, and one of the most intriguing for those of us who like to consider hockey as a whole.

The NHL trade deadline is the time of year when teams can potentially make or break their season, declare their short-term intentions, and possibly their long-term plan all at once. It's also the time of year, more than any other, when teams can be forced into rash decisions.

We're all familiar with the laws of supply and demand. The trade deadline in the NHL is the time of year when these effects are felt most keenly, as bubble teams all over the league look for that one player that will put them over the top into a playoff run and strong teams balance short-term dreams of silverware against long-term sustainability of their franchise.

The combination of fairly short supply and heavy demand from fans, media and players for bubble teams to "make a move" usually leads to some NHL GMs behaving like frenzied shoppers on Black Friday: "sod what it is...just grab it cause it's available and we can work it into our team somehow". Under pressure from fans, media and possibly ownership to make that one move that will put their team over the top, this is the time of year NHL GMs work the phone feverishly and can either be remembered as geniuses or idiots.

Chuck the idea of "rental" players into the mix and it gets harder to resist a shopping spree-after all, amongst the potential rentals this year are such gaudy names as Mike Green in Washington, Antoine Vermette in Phoenix...both names that could potentially seriously help a team looking to gear up for a long playoff run for potentially very little outlay.

The Maple Leafs, being the Maple Leafs, have thrown another serious wrinkle into the mix today by publicly announcing that a) they're going into rebuild mode and b) neither Phil Kessel nor Dion Phaneuf are part of their plans. All of a sudden, that's two very big, attractive names thrown into the pot indeed-one a consistent 30-goal scorer and one a big, physical defenceman who would add some serious depth to a contender.

However, the selling teams know that their players have some serious value. More to the point, they know that any buying GM has that primal "do something!" reflex shouting in their heads along with, often, a whole media corps and ownership shouting at them to do something, ANYTHING, to improve their team, along with a whole season or more's worth of people theorising exactly what type of player they want/a team needs.

And this, more than anything, makes the trade deadline a seller's market. If you're a team looking to get into the playoffs who's struggling to score a little, you can bet that already the "this team could REALLY go somewhere with a Phil Kessel" thoughts are flying around. Need a bit of offense from D?-"tell you what, imagine if Mike Green catches fire for us..."

In today's NHL, peer pressure is a thing that is at its strongest this time of year. And it's on GMs everywhere...the worst thing you can do in the eyes of many is stand pat on deadline day.

So what we have here is a perfect storm of seller's market coupled with ready-made inflated demand for those in it. In short, while trade deadline day is a paradise for teams looking to tank their season, it's also a time that creates the perfect conditions for the kind of panic-buying usually only seen before Biblical storms.

This list of the top 15 NHL trade deadline rentals looks like something that, if it had come out any other time in the season, would have maybe raised an eyebrow or two but not really contained much. This time of the year it's like a gourmet steak menu to a starving dog. And that's what makes trade deadline day such a minefield.

How does this relate to Boston, you ask?

Simple-Boston are one of the teams full in potential "panic-buy" mode. Chasing a playoff spot in a competitive East and facing calls to improve the team, Peter Chiarelli is likely currently feeling like someone who's left all his shopping to Christmas Eve, and is now faced with HAVING to come up with a present that will satisfy the critics, no matter what the cost.

That's why we're currently seeing the Bruins linked with Chris Stewart-a big but intrinsically flawed power forward who currently carries the worst plus/minus stat in the NHL and has recently been healthy scratched in Buffalo (Buffalo!) for not performing well enough.

Normally, a player who is getting scratched for not performing well enough on a team that's trying to be as bad as possible would send NHL GMs running for the hills before considering them their "missing piece", but the struggles of Milan Lucic this season, Stewart's expiring contract and the fact that in the past he HAS performed well (although he only has one entire season over 20 goals, and that was seven years ago) have had Boston media putting increasing not-so-subtle pressure on Chiarelli to find an "answer" to the problems, and many seem to think Stewart is it.

Courtesy of the wondrous OwnthePuck.com, here is Chris Stewart's HERO chart:

As you can see, it's something of a mixed bag. A borderline second liner is not the kind of player you'd be expecting to be talked about as a must-have trade target, usually. But come this time of year, and given the right media/fan pressure, he's suddenly one of the Holy Grail in trade prospects and teams like Buffalo are licking their lips at getting valuable rebuilding assets while also dumping a big contract on a team that may or may not fit him in but just NEED TO DO SOMETHING in the eyes of their fans and media.

That's not to say history isn't littered with trade successes at the deadline-but it's also littered with panic buys, too...the list of NHL deadline deals on Wikipedia has some absolute howlers...Martin Erat for Filip Forsberg in Washington, anyone? Ryan O'Byrne to Toronto for...well, anything?

Simply put, trade deadline season is the very definition of the phrase "buyer beware" in NHL terms.

It's also the kind of minefield that could see one wrong step blow up in Peter Chiarelli's face this off season.

In short...it's the most intriguing time of year psychologically for NHL GMs-and the time when careers are made or lost.

It's going to be an interesting few weeks in Bruinsland, perhaps far more so off the ice than on it. Can Chiarelli navigate the minefield as well as he has in the past?