NHL: Trade deadline deals present dilemma for NHL, Bettman

Former Carolina Hurricanes majority owner Peter Karmanos, left, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, center, and Thomas Dundon, new Hurricanes majority owner, laugh together at the end of the news conference where Dundon was announced as the new majority owner of the team at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. (Chris Seward/Raleigh News
Former Carolina Hurricanes majority owner Peter Karmanos, left, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, center, and Thomas Dundon, new Hurricanes majority owner, laugh together at the end of the news conference where Dundon was announced as the new majority owner of the team at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. (Chris Seward/Raleigh News /
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The NHL is not a perfect league. It continues to improve year after year as issues are identified and resolved. One such issue is the integrity of the trade deadline.

Another trade deadline has passed, and with it the NHL’s annual integrity problem that no one in the national media seems willing to discuss. In the days leading up to the NHL deadline, teams looking to move players are allowed to field sub-par lineups to protect those assets from an untimely injury.

After an 8-7 loss to Chicago on Feb. 19, Ottawa benched its best players until they were traded. Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Mark Stone each sat out a 4-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 21 (while New  Jersey sat winger Marcus Johansson).

Duchene was traded to the Blue Jackets the next day and suited up for Columbus that night, but Stone and Dzingel sat out that game (a 3-0 loss to Columbus) as well as a 2-1 loss to Calgary on Feb. 24.

In other words, the NHL allowed the Senators intentionally fielded a team that did not provide its best chance to win for three consecutive games, and not surprisingly lost all three. Ottawa essentially gave two points to Columbus, which held off Montreal for the eighth and final playoff spot by—you guessed it—two points.

A few other NHL teams sat healthy players as well. Besides Johansson, who would go to Boston in a deadline day deal, Florida sat Derick Brassard against Los Angeles on Feb. 23 before trading him to Colorado.

Precedent exists in the world of sports for a commissioner intervention to protect the integrity of the game. The most prominent example occurred in 1974 at the beginning of the Major League Baseball campaign.

Hank Aaron started the season with 713 home runs – one behind Babe Ruth’s record that had stood for almost 40 years. The eyes of the sports world were on Aaron and the Atlanta Braves, who opened the season with a three-game series in Cincinnati.

Prior to the season, the Braves announced they would sit Aaron against the Reds. Atlanta brass knew they could expect sellout crowds until Aaron broke the record and wanted to maximize their profit at a time when ticket sales were a club’s primary source of income.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in and ordered the Braves to play Aaron in at least two games against the Reds to protect “the integrity of the game.” Kuhn recognized the Reds, the defending NL West champs, would gain a competitive advantage if Aaron, still one of the Braves’ best players, sat out the series.

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Aaron homered in his first at-bat in the opening game, sat out the second game, and went hitless in the final game of the series.

Indeed, more than 53,000 fans turned out for Atlanta’s home opener on April 8. Unfortunately for the Braves’ owners, Aaron homered off Al Downing that night to set the record. Predictably, less than 11,000 showed up the next night and fewer than 7,000 showed up for the following game.

Major League Baseball and the NBA also have active trade markets on a midseason deadline day, but teams generally don’t sit players while trying to trade them. Last year, outfielder Cameron Maybin played for Florida on July 30 and was shipped to Seattle the next day. This year, forward Harrison Barnes played for Dallas on Feb. 6 and was traded to Sacramento the next day.

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NHL Fans purchase tickets to games with the expectation of a fair contest. Each team will put forth its best lineup and fight it’s hardest to win the game. Yet for a around week each season, a handful of NHL teams break this sacred pact with the fans. It’s time for Commissioner Gary Bettman to do something about this.