Muzzin trade shows the problem for this year’s sellers

One of the intended effects of the 2-1-0 points system in the NHL is for teams to be able to pretend they’re “in it” longer than they actually are.

If you’re “only” four points out of a playoff spot on Feb. 1, well heck, that’s not many at all. You can sell that to your fans, especially if you’re going to dump some futures into a trade deadline acquisition who won’t move the needle anywhere near enough to actually make up that four-point gap. Because the false parity engendered by the points you get for your eight overtime losses this year keeps you close, but usually doesn’t give you enough wiggle room to make up the ground barring some absurd, unlikely run.

That also makes it easier to be a seller at or around the trade deadline because if 60 percent of the teams in the league can nominally say they’re in it, there’s relatively little in the way of supply but a lot of demand.

The problem with all this, then, is that too many teams in this league were too bad too early to reasonably keep up the façade. We’ve known for a long time that teams like LA, Chicago, Ottawa, New York and Philadelphia were likely to sell off at least some of their more valuable pieces. And because so many teams crashed and burned early, that meant the similarly sized group of clubs that would look to acquire those players wouldn’t have to pay the normal premium.

Case in point: The trade that brought Jake Muzzin to Toronto earlier this week for little more than three lottery tickets that probably won’t amount to much. “A first-round pick” is a nice thing to be able to talk about, but one that’s in the mid-20s doesn’t have as much value as you might think; it’s about twice as likely to produce a productive NHLer as one in the mid 60s, compared with a similar drop-off from, say, the fifth pick to the 25th.

The other two assets were frankly B-level prospects — one a forward and the other a defender — that very definitively were not Andreas Johnsson, Timothy Liljegren, or Kasperi Kapenen.

And if all a team that has been circling the drain more or less from the second the season started only got a decent but not great draft pick and two guys who project to be middle-of-the-lineup guys (at the very best) out of this deal? For a high-end No. 2 defenseman? With two playoff runs on his deal? And a $4-million AAV? From a team that everyone knew needed a defenseman more than anything?

Well folks, that’s bad news for every other seller on the market, full stop.

Not that Muzzin’s value is that of Artemi Panarin (almost certainly getting traded as a pure rental now that he’s said he won’t sign with anyone in-season), Sergei Bobrovsky (same), Matt Duchene (we’ll see if he re-signs in-season but he probably won’t), or Mark Stone (same). But he was a valuable player that would give the acquiring team defensive cover and had next year coming cheap. In most other years, that’s worth a hell of a lot more than what the Kings got for him.

Maybe it’s a one-off. Maybe the market for that particular defenseman (29 years old, no longer seen as high-scoring, coming from a rotten team) was screwed up despite the fact that his underlying numbers were among the best on that bad Kings club. Maybe a guy like Wayne Simmonds, who’s decidedly less valuable, will still fetch Philadelphia a first-round pick and a higher-end prospect. But also, maybe not. Because maybe the market has been set.

And if that’s the case, that’s a tough sell for the sellers. Especially if it’s one like Columbus that has a very good team but would still be well-served to get as much value as possible out of Panarin and Bobrovsky before they leave for nothing in July. Both those guys are huge difference-makers but so is Muzzin, to a lesser extent, and the Leafs gave up very little to get him for the next 16 months, rather than the next four.

Every deal is different and maybe things change as the deadline approaches, but this might be one of the first times in recent memory when the price of a useful acquisition was less than what you’d normally consider the market rate.

Which is bad news for the higher-than-expected number of teams who have players of similar value to either offload or lose for nothing. On some level you have to accept that it’s just basic economics, but it’s an unfortunate reality the league’s loser point safety net was supposed to prevent.

Jake Muzzin did not cost the Toronto Maple Leafs as much as he would have in a different market. (Omnisport)
Jake Muzzin did not cost the Toronto Maple Leafs as much as he would have in a different market. (Omnisport)

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.