Psychology of a Trade

We've all seen it before. A team makes a trade and sends a well-liked player out of town for a player that either is deemed an unreasonable replacement or is not liked right off the bat because they will never be like the player the team lost.

Even early in the season recently, there have been a number of trades that have been made that makes you wonder what the rest of the team members involved were thinking when they happened. It's not like the trades were huge in terms of players involved, but all in all, I think there are several psychological factors that influence a team's feelings towards trades and player moves in general.

A clear example is the Mike Richards and Jeff Carter trades, which could have had a huge effect on the Philadelphia Flyers, positive an negative. The players coming in have huge pressure on them to perform well and basically replace the two players. So good luck Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn!

Here are some examples of some preseason and early regular season deals that I looked at in particular:

  1. Daymond Langkow to Phoenix, Lee Stempniak to Calgary
  2. David Steckel to Toronto, 5th Round Pick to New Jersey
  3. David Booth, Steve Reinprecht, 3rd Round Pick to Vancouver, Mikael Samuelsson, Marco Sturm to Florida
  4. Petteri Nokelainen, Garrett Stafford to Montreal, Brock Trotter, 7th Round Pick to Phoenix

The easiest one to look at is the Langkow-Stempniak deal. Langkow used to play in Phoenix, so he would be embraced by the fans there anyway. Lee Stempniak might not be missed that much because Langkow was the player in return. But looking at what Calgary lost, fans might be upset because:

  • Langkow was a meat and potatoes type of guy
  • He sustained a serious neck injury and bounced back
  • Stempniak is another former Leaf picked up by the Flames

When I try and see what players might feel when this happen, all I see is some being fine with it, but other questions arising, such as, "Will this new guy take my ice time?" or "If that guy can get traded, does that mean I can too?"

In a player for player swap like the Coyotes-Flames one, the psychology might be the easiest to understand in terms of players losing teammates/friends and trying again with new bodies.

It gets interesting when looking at trades like the Steckel one. He was a Washington Capital last year, and was dealt to the New Jersey Devils with a pick for Jason Arnott. This was a guy who was on a team that could have contended for a Stanley Cup, but instead he was let go to one of the worst teams in the league. So, more ice time? A better opportunity to improve his game? Or an opportunity to win lost?

When Steckel was traded to Toronto in the preseason, it complicated matters even more. If he couldn't play on New Jersey, why is Toronto any different? The guys in the Leafs dressing room could have viewed him as a threat, which as a hockey player myself is a true statement. Bubble players like Matt Frattin, Phillipe Dupuis and Nazem Kadri could have rejected Steckel because of his late addition. Instead, Steckel has been a faceoff stud for Toronto and is earning the respect of his new teammates.

Even seemingly minor deals like Nokelainen to Montreal have an effect. Even though the Habs usually have a few key injuries, the need for depth never stops. So getting Nokelainen is a good insurance measure, but at what cost? Does his addition create some motivation for bubble players, or does it hinder their ability to succeed?

Finally, Vancouver picked up David Booth from Florida. Does the trade mean much for Florida as a team? Probably not, seeing that almost 50% of the team is brand new anyway, so they are still working on chemistry. But as a franchise, Booth was one of the key faces in the lineup, and the Cats got basically nothing back for him. Should fans turn on GM Dale Tallon for the move? We can only wait and see at the end of the year and look where the Panthers end up in the standings.

Vancouver's players might look at Booth's addition as a key move or a catalyst, something they might have been missing last season. Clearly, seeing that Marco Sturm and Samuelsson weren't with Vancouver during the playoffs last year (Samuelsson was injured most of the time), adding Booth could motivate them and make them believe he is the missing piece of the puzzle. But to Cody Hodgson, does it mean he gets less playing time? Probably.

Having a question mark in a player's head isn't a good thing. Any player moves will obviously affect chemistry. As a whole, a team will show an obvious affect in terms of wins and losses. But as individual players of a team, there can be a positive or negative effect. I think in general, there are a few key factors affecting the psychology of a player being dealt and of player's getting or losing teammates.

Getting Traded:

  1. Team being traded too/team being dealt from: if your team isn't good and you move to a better team, maybe you feel better about winning more, and vice versa
  2. Depth Chart/Ice Time: obviously, moving down a depth chart will be a negative affect on psychology, and more ice time is better than less
  3. Family/Friends: having a house in the city they play is a huge issue. Watching HBP 24/7 and seeing Scott Hannan moving around like crazy while playing and having a newborn child puts in perspective the life of a traded hockey player.

New Teammates/Losing Teammates:

  1. Linemate/Close Friend: let's say one of the Sedin twins got traded. That's clearly going to affect both of them. Just the same way as good friends.
  2. Player Role: losing a team leader is demoralizing to a group, but losing a player like Sean Avery is a positive, right?
  3. Team Success: a winning team might embrace a new player as something that will help them, other times they can be seen as a threat to the team's well-being.
  4. Time of Season: a trade deadline deal is expected, but an early season deal can either make or break a team's season.

Other factors: group cohesion, team chemistry, motivation, leadership, team direction, media involvement, environment.

All in all, trades are part of the business of hockey. When we hear that a trade has been made, usually we try to take the player from their former team and assume he will be the exact same in his new environment. We don't think of the affects that a trade has on a team and the players involved. So next time a player doesn't pan out or is criticized for his lack of production, remember that there a lot more things going on inside their heads than playing hockey.

Kyle Busch


George Prax's picture

I disagree on your point about the players coming in for Richards and Carter were meant to replace them. Giroux and Van Riemsdyk were the designated replacements for those players, they players they got back were a matter of restocking the cupboards. Philly wouldn't have made those deals if they didn't have some assurances that they could live without them.

And on a more observationalist note, the Nokalainen trade with the Habs likely won't affect anyone, because both Palushaj and Engqvist got sent to Hamilton to make room lol

But overall, you make some good points. We always break down and destroy trades as pundits, but the truth is these are real people getting trades across a continent, and we seldom stop to think about the effect it has on actual people. Not only the players being traded by the players they leave behind or start playing with. Still, that's part of the game, and pros are expected to be able to deal with that. Not to say that some players don't get the raw end of deals.

Kyle Andrew Busch's picture

I know that there aren't players to "replace" Carter and Richards, but as a player coming in, that's what you could feel like. And as for the Habs, it affects the guys sent down. Are they not good enough? Why would they trade for someone when they have them ready to go? It's just simple stuff like that that might affect a player. Any roster move does in some way shape or form.

George Prax's picture

Engqvist was useless. He had 5 games to prove he could do something right and he didn't. The onus is on him. Same for Palushaj, who had decent expectations coming in last year with a good performance in a few games, and squandered it this season. I agree that it doesn't help their confidence, and they didn't get much ice time, but they got their opportunities. Simply put the Habs needed depth at center, even if Nokalainen doesn't do much to help the team in the long run. And that's kind of what I mean. You definitely have to consider, for lack of a better term, the "feelings" of a player, but they're pros, and especially fringe players know their leash is very short in these situations, especially as call-ups.

And that raises an interesting point. How to NHL organizations handle new players coming in? I hope that when the Flyers traded for Schenn, Simmonds, etc, someone sat down with them and explained their roles.

Kyle Andrew Busch's picture

I would hope they did. I've heard of sports psychologists working with players. Just the other day TSN takled to Olli Jokinen about it. Mental preparation and anxiety issues, and I bet they do things about roles and fitting in too.