By acquiring left wing Andrew Ladd from the Winnipeg Jets in a blockbuster trade Thursday, the Chicago Blackhawks effectively went all in. It's Stanley Cup or bust for this franchise in the 2015-16 season, now more than ever. Acquiring a top-six forward such as Ladd will reinvigorate expectations. After all, you don't give up a first-round pick and one of your top young forward prospects in Marko Dano for scraps. The Blackhawks know what they're getting themselves into, but the danger behind the move in paying such a high price could backfire on the organization in the end.
For example, trade deadline deals on a monumental scale don't necessarily have the best history of working out for contenders. The acquisition of Ladd continues a recent precedent set by top contenders in the NHL of going for it all on trade deadline day. Just last year, Chicago also gave up a first-round pick and coveted defensive prospect Klas Dahlbeck for the big fish on the trade market in Antoine Vermette, which of course, ultimately paid off with the team's third Stanley Cup in six seasons. Yet even then, there were still times when Chicago had its back against the wall in the playoffs as the Vermette trade didn't negate all flaws. In the prior year, the Los Angeles Kings acquired top goal scorer Marian Gaborik before the trade deadline and it helped propel them to their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. The Kings would then face three consecutive Game 7s in the playoffs where this trade may also not have been seen as positively in retrospect if they fell.
Evidently enough, regardless of eventual elimination, the risk paid off for both Chicago and Los Angeles. To compartmentalize deadline deals as always worth the risk because of these two deals would ignore the very real potential of things going awry. For every Vermette or Gaborik, there are countless deadline deals that fail to have the desired impact.
Let's note a couple of recent examples of deadline deals gone wrong in the modern era.
Kings/Andrej Sekera, 2015 Deadline
Trying to defend their Stanley Cup last year, the Kings traded away one of their best young defensive prospects in Roland McKeown as well as a first-round pick to the Carolina Hurricanes for veteran defenseman Andrej Sekera. Sekera was the top defensive piece available and it made perfect sense at the time for the Kings to bolster a blue line that struggled for much of last season. Los Angeles mortgaged part of its future, much like the Blackhawks have done so again, in order to increase its chances at a championship. This move came back to bite the Kings when, while in the midst of trying to solidify a playoff spot, Sekera would injure his leg in a late loss to Chicago last March, ending his season. For a team that traded for the blue line help, Sekera missed the last six games of the year as the Kings went just 3-3 in that final stretch and missed the playoffs. Carolina made off with a pricey bounty while Los Angeles was left scrambling and recovering for answers.
Blues/Ryan Miller, 2014 Deadline
Two seasons ago, the St. Louis Blues traded for goaltender because they believed they were one man in the cage away from contending for a Stanley Cup. In turn, the Sabres made off with top prospect William Carrier, first- and third-round picks, forward Chris Stewart and goaltender Jaroslav Halak (who both wouldn't last long in Buffalo anyway).
In the stretch run of the season, Miller would go just 10-8 while posting a mediocre .903 save percentage before St. Louis ultimately bowed out in the first round to the Blackhawks. Now the overall gap in quality play for Miller wasn't all his fault, but St. Louis still gave up a fortune for a 33-year-old goalie way past his prime. Completely misjudging the construct of their roster in going for a Stanley Cup has seemingly put the Blues in a mental and organizational bind they haven't been able to recover from two seasons later.
The risk with Ladd
These contender mortgage deals couldn't illustrate the idea of buyer beware any better. While the Blackhawks now arguably boast the best combination of two lines of any contender, unless they acquire another competent defenseman with the approximate $1.59 million in space they should have on Monday, the deal for Ladd may become a similar regrettable footnote. The trade, while entirely sensible now, could look ugly on the ledger in a few years.
The Blackhawks barely won the Stanley Cup with only four competent defensemen last year. There's no way they can go in with only three -- and that's if you figure Brent Seabrook corrects his recent defensive issues. A top-six forward upgrade can only fix so much.
Ladd himself also has had a relative down year. With a Corsi of 51.49 percent, Ladd even while starting in the defensive zone more at a 50 percent rate, he isn't driving play the way he has in previous years. His offensive production has also taken a dip as well. The former Winnipeg captain's points per game figure has dropped from 0.77 to 0.58 this season. Ladd has never been this complete offensive dynamo so maybe it's a moot point anyway. His game has always been that of the grinding two way player with size.
However, Lad has always driven possession at a much higher rate so you have to be wary of where the 30-year-old's game stands. An offseason sports hernia surgery has likely prevented Ladd from getting into an effective groove up to this point, but that shouldn't be a relevant excuse if he is to be this missing piece the Blackhawks have coveted. Chicago is no doubt going to need more production from the veteran, although a move next to Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa theoretically should help.
If the Blackhawks don't capture this year's Cup, you also have to remember that Ladd is unequivocally a rental. The re-signing conversation has to be shelved. In essence without the Cup, you just traded one of your best forward prospects and a first-round pick for little to nothing. That forward in Dano is now also in your division fit to play and tear apart the Hawks several times a year at a high level if he pans out. Chicago is likely banking on some of its top college players like Nick Schmaltz and Tyler Motte panning out, but those two are still a ways away from being ready to contribute on a consistent basis at the NHL level. And if you keep giving up high draft picks, you also run the risk of making the cupboard of talent even more barren. Rationalizing that Chicago's picks all end up towards the bottom of rounds makes sense until you realize that you still need to add some kind of youth infusion each year. The scouting department and front office have done well in this facet so far, but you can't keep taking assets away and expecting magic to work through every instance. After all a trade for a defenseman will likely merit the loss of another high draft pick and the situation can get dicey from there.
Yes, there is every reason to be excited about picking up Ladd. He is a versatile forward who can play on the power play and is also an excellent penalty killer. He is a fantastic and experienced fit that should mesh very well with the style of play used by Toews and Hossa. Ladd is a legitimate top six forward in every sense of the phrase.
There's just the prevailing sentiment that even the Blackhawks know the danger. They aren't thinking about the future and they're comfortable with working a narrow mindset for this year's Stanley Cup. Even if it means you might "lose" a few trade in the process.
Given the high end prospect and assets Chicago gave in return as well as the fact that the defensive corps still needs its own competent acquisition, there is reason to worry. The threat of the Andrew Ladd trade backfiring both in the short- and long-term for the organization like it has in previous league precedents poses significant risk for the Chicago Blackhawks as they push for to repeat for the Stanley Cup. Hopefully they win it so this is all moot.