The ‘intangible’ of character at the trade deadline

Goalie Steve Mason is one of the players Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen moved in a trade last year.

Sergei Belski

We’re two days away from what used to be one of the most anticipated days on the NHL calendar.

Wednesday, March 3 at 3 p.m. the NHL trade deadline will be reached. Seemingly gone are the days of the "blockbuster" deal. Many trade deadline aficionados fondly remember the Doug Gilmour 10-player deal between Toronto and Calgary. That trade defined "blockbuster deal."

But even in this new age of almost-parity among the league’s teams, there’s more to a trade than meets the casual glance. Will the player who is acquired "fit" with the guys in the new locker room he’s about to enter? Will the player traded away leave a void in the room he’s leaving and despondency in his wake? Beyond skill, the character of a player comes into play.

Last year, first-year Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen flipped goalie Steve Mason for Philadelphia goalie Michael Leighton and a third round pick. Just a few days before the trade deadline, he traded a fifth round pick to the Calgary Flames for forward Blake Comeau. At the deadline, he made a deal with the Rangers that saw Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore move to New York with Marian Gaborik, Blake Parlett and Steven Delisle coming to Columbus.

The intangible quality of a player’s character is a large part of any trade deadline deal. Blake Comeau was with Calgary when the Flames captain, Jarome Iginla, was traded to Pittsburgh. Trading away the face of the franchise must have had an impact on the room.

"In Calgary, when Iginla was going through everything there," said Comeau, "that was a different situation. You’ve got someone who was there for so long (17 years), the face of your organization. My experience there, the guys did a good job of not letting it become a distraction."

Speaking of character, Comeau said, "I think it’s even more important to have good guys off the ice, have teams ‘gel’ together. I feel like the teams that are successful are the teams that the guys have been around each other and get along (forming) a tight group. Definitely, character comes into it. That being said, I’m sure that some trades are made on how they can improve their club on the ice, as well."

At the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Flyers forward RJ Umberger was traded to Columbus. His character as a "lunch pail" kind of player was a precursor to the "hard-working, brick-by-brick" philosophy that President of Hockey Operations John Davidson ushered in when he was hired in 2012.

"In a situation where you have a close-knit group," Umberger said, "you’re pushing for the playoffs and you add somebody, it can help. In those situations, you don’t typically lose a significant player on your team.

"In the past, I’ve been on bad teams where you see veterans leaving. It’s tough to see anybody leave, to see anybody go when you’re good friends."

Even though the Blue Jackets are a very young team, the close-knit camaraderie that permeates the club is palpable. From last year’s lockout-shortened season to the present day of them clawing to position themselves within the playoffs, this is seemingly the tightest group to inhabit the room within Nationwide Arena.

"We really wouldn’t want to see anybody on this team leave," he continued. "Everybody has had a role and actually accepted their role on this team. For the last two years, it’s been mostly the same guys. But, at the end of the day, it’s part of the business of always trying to make a team better in any way possible. If there’s someone you can add that will take you over the hump, that’s always a plus."

Columbus is staking out their identity and nurturing their young players in a way that was rarely, if ever, seen before. Traditionally, they’ve been known as "sellers" at the trade deadline. And yet, in a relatively short amount of time, the franchise has found itself with a depth heretofore not realized.

"I think it’s finally starting to happen here," said Umberger. "It’s really exciting. The great thing is that we’re having some immediate success. But the big picture is how deep the organization is now, with young guys and prospects. It’s really starting to get built from the ground up.

"You can see a long-term thing here where there’s going to be success year after year. This is a start. Some of the young guys are getting to learn what winning feels like, early. That’s big for your career. And for a guy like me who’s starting to get older, you don’t know how many years you can make the playoffs. So, it’s important for me, too."

As players are traded from or to a club, head coach Todd Richards is tasked with integrating those changes within the team. He has to find out what their strengths and weaknesses are in short order and find a way to make it all work. He takes a very business-like approach to it.

"This part of the season," he said. "It’s here every year. The guys in the room are professionals. They know what this means.

"I think right now, it’s a close-knit group and everyone likes it here. It should be positive motivation to go out and win games. When you win games, you maintain and stay in the middle of this fight. But, if those things change, there are other changes that will come. Then it would affect the group.

"This thing (trade deadline) comes about every year and the players know how to deal with it. That’s not for me, right now, to worry about the trade deadline. My job is to get the players focused and ready for games."

General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen and John Davidson have said for the record that they are always looking to improve this club for the long haul. Trading for a "rental" player doesn’t seem to fit their style. But, if Kekalainen has shown us anything, it’s that he isn’t afraid to make a deal to make the club into a perennial contender. That is the mandate and remains his focus moving forward.

Gone are the days of signing a player in the Mike Commodore mold. This is a new era in Central Ohio, as players do not immediately look down upon Columbus. It is fast becoming a destination for guys that see what the Blue Jackets are becoming.