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The NHL’s Divisional Trading Taboo: Fact or Myth?

GMs might publicly say they go out of their way to avoid making such deals, but just how common is it for NHL teams to trade with division rivals?

Jamie Kellner

When the New York Rangers traded Michael Grabner to the New Jersey Devils for a pick and a prospect in February, it was the first trade between the Hudson River rivals since the Colorado Rockies’ relocation to New Jersey in 1982.

That deal highlights just how rare it is to trade within your division in the NHL. Still, this didn’t stop the Toronto Maple Leafs from shipping newly drafted Tuukka Rask to the Boston Bruins for two terrible years of Andrew Raycroft in 2005. Or, for that matter, the Edmonton Oilers from sending Wayne Gretzky to their Smythe Division counterparts, the Los Angeles Kings, for his weight in gold (OK, that’s an outdated reference).

It’s obvious why many general managers avoid trading with their division rivals. Teams play them four times a season and battle it out for three to five playoff spots year in and year out. Every trade is a gamble to some degree and, if it turns out as badly as it did for the Maple Leafs in 2005, you might end up giving a rival a leg up on you for years to come.

Divisional Trade Data

Year Trades within Division Overall Trades % of Trades in Division
Year Trades within Division Overall Trades % of Trades in Division
2015-16 16 91 17.58%
2016-17 16 89 17.98%
2017-18 21 94 22.34%

So just how common is it for NHL teams to trade with their divisional counterparts, and is the negative attitude surrounding it unfounded? Over the past three seasons in the NHL, just north of 19% of all official trades have occurred between teams in the same division*. With four divisions that number should theoretically be close to 25%, but it’s still a lot higher than I expected it to be going in. A reason for this may be that many of these trades weren’t of much immediate or long term significance.

Of the trades between divisional foes in 2015-16, about 40 percent of them were composed of draft picks alone, or players that aren’t in the NHL today, some of whom never reached the NHL at all. The only trades that really stuck out that season were the huge deal between bottom dwellers in Toronto and Ottawa that sent Dion Phaneuf to the capital city and the deal that marked Eric Staal’s departure from Carolina at the trade deadline. Aside from those, the intra-divisional trades were largely forgettable.

A noteworthy trend over the past three seasons is that teams don’t often trade key pieces with each other when they are realistically competing for the same playoff spot, or when there’s a good chance they may be meeting in the postseason. Many of the blockbuster trades within division occur when an also-ran is looking to offload assets to a Cup contender in return for futures (Eric Staal to New York in 2016), or two middling teams looking for a refresh.

The summer is generally a time when things can open up. Just over a year ago, the Canadiens traded blue chip D-man Mikhail Sergachev to the division-rival Lightning for Jonathan Drouin. And in the summer of 2009, Phil Kessel was infamously traded across the Northeast Division from the Bruins to the Maple Leafs (who included a pick in the deal that became future Hurricane Dougie Hamilton) in the rare trade situation that saw both teams ultimately lose. In June of 2012, the Hurricanes saw two of the Staal brothers unite for the first time when the Hurricanes executed a massive in-division deal with the Penguins to bring Jordan to Raleigh.

The off-season is almost always the time that large, high profile assets are traded between two competitive NHL teams and it’s already been a busy couple of weeks. With five top four defensemen currently under contract in Carolina and rumors flying about Jeff Skinner’s future, it’s safe to assume that Don Waddell and company aren’t done for the summer, and they won’t limit their market to 23 teams.

*Note: The data was skewed a bit by the uptick in trading surrounding the expansion draft last summer. While the trades around the draft between the Knights and other Pacific Division teams were omitted, there were still more trades throughout the league, most of which were more minor in scale, leading to more of them occurring within the division.