The San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues, rivals in the Western Conference Final just two springs ago, entered the trade deadline two weeks ago in somewhat similar positions. Their respective approaches, however, could not have been more different.
The Sharks had lost three games in a row, and the Blues six. San Jose held a playoff spot by two points, and St. Louis was just a point out of the Wild Card.
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson made a big bet, acquiring pending unrestricted free agent winger Evander Kane from the Buffalo Sabres in order to bolster San Jose's top six forwards. Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, on the other hand, decided to cash out.
For the second straight season, Armstrong traded an assistant captain (and soon-to-be UFA) to a Stanley Cup contender for a package including a first round pick in the upcoming draft. Last year, he sent Kevin Shattenkirk to the Washington Capitals, and this year Paul Stastny was traded to the Winnipeg Jets.
Each time, the Blues were closer than they were far from the postseason, and they even made the playoffs last year. But, in both cases, Armstrong recognized that St. Louis wasn't particularly close to winning a Stanley Cup, and decided to preserve flexibility for the ensuing summer. A playoff berth was just a bonus.
Wilson had the summer of 2018 on his mind, too, even as the Kane trade strengthened the Sharks ahead of the stretch run. He was hopeful San Jose would re-sign Kane this summer, and told reporters after the deadline that acquiring Kane would allow both sides to get to know one another down the stretch, and see if there's a fit between the two going into free agency.
Both teams looked ahead to the summer, yet the Sharks were buyers and the Blues were sellers. Only three points separated the two teams going into the deadline, and only four separate them now, but those gaps may as well have been 13 and 14, given the trades they made.
Some of the difference surely boils down to the divisional playoff format. The Blues would likely have to play one, or both of the Jets and Nashville Predators before reaching a Conference Final if they make the playoffs as the last Wild Card team. The Sharks, meanwhile, won't see one of the Central juggernauts until the Conference Final at the earliest, but could have a stop in Vegas in order to get there.
Both Armstrong and Wilson smartly recognized where their respective teams stood, and acted accordingly. The Sharks and Blues figure to be players in free agency, with nearly $20 million in salary cap space to their names, depending on where the cap is set, and each team is linked to John Tavares ahead of the summer.
Each of them clearly had the summer in mind, yet they took nearly opposite approaches, despite being separated by only a handful of points in the standings. Sometimes, that's all the difference.