Huge If True: It’s ‘Trade Crosby and Malkin’ time again

Huge If True: It’s ‘Trade Crosby and Malkin’ time again

[HUGE IF TRUE breaks down the plausibility of the week's biggest rumor.]

 The Rumor

Well it's not so much a rumor, per se, but the hockey world at large is beginning to rumble very seriously once again about whether it makes sense for Pittsburgh to trade Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. You know, despite this two-game winning streak for the Penguins.

This has, of course, been going on in every season since 2012 or so, and it's not going to stop as they age. Since the end of last season, there have been plenty of grumblings about how Crosby doesn't get along with owner/mentor Mario Lemieux these days, which Lemieux had to say is hogwash (whether you believe him is, of course, a different story). Even last summer, Jim Rutherford had to come out in the media and say Malkin is untouchable, and as far back as March, some were even floating the idea that Crosby should be traded for the pick that was eventually used on Connor McDavid.

But slow starts like the one Crosby has had, and team underperformance like what Pittsburgh has been going through for two years now are the kinds of things that will always gin up The Good Takes on the matter, culminating in this ESPN Insider piece on why the Penguins should now be considering a trade of the two most dominant forwards — by far — of the last decade.

This is a thing that's unavoidable, because you're always going to talk about trading a mega-star with a big name when he or his team falter a little bit. Trading Steven Stamkos has been a popular topic this year, as has trading Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, both of whom are still extremely valuable and good players but for whom a confluence of issues have arisen that have led observers with varying degrees of understanding of the sport to wonder whether their current teams would just be better off without them.

We've seen this in the past with Alex Ovechkin, as well, but isn't it so funny how despite a slight decline in his goal production and his ever-advancing age (he turned 30 in September), the overall better play of the Capitals — a situation toward which the club has been building for some time — means that he is once again invaluable and should never ever be traded?

So we wouldn't be talking about this at all were the Penguins any good, which they are not, or were Crosby not shooting like 60 percent below his career norm, which he is.

But because both those things are the case, it's worth talking about this trend in general.

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, center, celebrates his goal in the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, center, celebrates his goal in the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Who's Going Where?

In every scenario like this, and iteration of it, a star player is going away from the team that drafted him because the return they can get plus the freed-up cap space could go a long way toward making his team good again, even if his talent is singular.

This is a story as old as sports itself, in a lot of ways, but in terms of the modern NHL the efficacy of such a move is probably tied solely in the Boston Bruins trade of Joe Thornton roughly a million years ago. No one has ever doubted that Thornton is a great player, and probably a Hall of Famer, but the case has been made in the past that the Bruins never rocket to the top of the NHL for a period of several years if they do not trade him. You see, Thornton had a big old salary (the equivalent of a whopping $12.2 million in inflation-adjusted cap dollars) and, while only being 26 at the time of the trade, the thinking was that this was money better spent elsewhere.

The following summer, the Bruins signed both Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard with some of the money freed up by the Thornton trade, and that's what really got them going in terms of being able to become a great team. Can they do that without making the Thornton trade? Maybe if you get a couple doctorates in string theory and quantum mechanics we can one day find out.

The argument in the case of Crosby and Malkin is, today, pretty similar. The Penguins have a ton of money tied up in them (and a few other players on contracts no one wants to take on), they still have some obvious value, and would likely fetch huge returns if put on the market.

This may, one supposes, be more of an “offseason”-type trade, not unlike the one that brought Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh and was supposed to reinvigorate the slowly dying Penguins offense. But the general idea here is that someone wants these players — of course they do! — and that if Pittsburgh doesn't start getting better results soon, trading them might be wise.

The Implications

Well, yeah. Players age and older players aren't as good or as valuable, generally speaking, as younger ones. The reason the “trade Crosby for the McDavid pick” navel-gazing was asinine is that of course you trade a 28-year-old who costs you $8.7 million against the cap for an 18-year-old of comparable or perhaps even greater skill who's cost-controlled for the next three years. Even if McDavid isn't as good as Crosby right now, the latter is likely to be on the downward slope of his career while the former is only going to get better. And the difference between the two right this second probably isn't so significant that it presents any sort of major setback.

This is especially true because of Pittsburgh's unique situation: They have two of the three or four best centers in the world over the last several years. So if you trade Crosby for McDavid, or a similar player, in theory you just give Malkin the tougher ride, and he still busts skulls while McDavid dines out on pummeling second-liners.

The idea of trading both of them, though, is tricky. Again, it's a situation unique in perhaps the entire history of the National Hockey League. Two superstars who are just barely out of their prime, and clearly slowing down; points per game for both have declined each year since 2012.  Which, coincidentally I'm sure, is the time these rumors started for the first time (but also the time the Penguins started making huge commitments to guys of Pascal Dupuis's quality at the expense of the bottom-six).

But then again, what's the market for an $8.7 million 28-year-old player in decline with a concussion history coming off the worst season of his career? What does that get you? Because one thing people often forget in the Joe Thornton trade is the return: Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau, and 100 games of Brad Stuart isn't great, and it's probably somewhere in the neighborhood of what Crosby pulls, though likely with some futures like first-round picks and prospects mixed in.

Malkin might command a little more because he's still playing well, relatively speaking, but in either case you're taking a fiver and a couple of singles back for a $10 bill.

There's also the idea of timing: This trade necessarily starts a serious rebuild. One can't imagine that is allowed to happen this season, this summer, or within the next few years, especially if the team's owners are indeed looking to sell. The Penguins without Crosby and Malkin are worth a hell of a lot less than the Penguins with the two of them.

Moreover, we all know that Rutherford isn't going to be the GM for much longer, so why do you entrust him with the ability to make the two biggest transactions in the history of the maybe entire league (save, perhaps, for the Gretzky trade, which was obviously made without any sort of cap considerations), and certainly in the history of the franchise?

And again, you're also selling awfully low. There's almost certainly going to be a point this season when Crosby rips of 15 points in seven games or something like that, and everyone screams “HE'S CURED” and they're not going to be wrong but they're not going to be right, either.

But maybe the biggest thing of all is the idea that you would trade them both more or less at once. Why on earth would you do that? Unless you're blowing it all up. Which isn't going to happen.

This Is So Huge, If True: Is It True?

On a B.S. detector scale of 1-5, with one being the most reasonable and 5 being the least:

This rumor — if you want to call it that — is of course not true. It's not going to happen any time soon. If it happens at all. Which it probably won't. Because again, if Pittsburgh trades the most marketable player in the league and a center who is probably still better than anyone in the world by a fair margin when he brings his “A” game, that just means it's time to blow the whole thing up.

As such, this rumor/speculation/nonsense gets a big ol':

There are just so many reasons why this isn't going to happen any time soon. Trade one? Maybe. It's a long shot, but it's theoretically possible. Trade both? No one would stand for it. Not now. Not ever.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All statistics via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)