Time for an informal poll: raise your hand if you knew that Milan Michalek would be outscoring Dany Heatley three seasons later.
Since none of you has the power to know the future, I'm going to assume that no hands were raised. But it brings up an interesting question: Just how far down the road should a NHL General Manager plan for? One year? Three years? Five years?
Sure, it's easy to say, "In five years, we want to have a top flight winger and at least one top goalie prospect," but there's no way of knowing for sure that the players you pick are going to pan out into those projected roles. That's part of the beauty of sports--everything is left to chance at the end of the day. Sure, you can hedge your bets by having good scouting and good coaching and good training staff and all of the other little things that go into taking a player's raw talent and actually developing them into what you hope they can be, but you never truly have control over how they turn out.
So what's a GM to do? Throw darts and hope for the best because it's all just luck anyway?
That sort of fatalistic approach probably wouldn't keep you your job for too long, so it's no surprise that there's a specific pattern to most GMs' approach to building a team. We see it most clearly around the trade deadline, but also during the first few days of free agency, and even sometimes during the draft:
Have a long-term plan, but worry about the immediate future first, and sort out next year... next year.
Given the transient nature of professional sports, this is a pretty rational approach. Do you think the Boston Bruins traded for Mark Recchi so they could lose to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games? That clearly wasn't the plan, yet that's how it turned out. That's how it turns out for every GM who makes a move during the year. When the season is over, there are 29 GMs who made moves that didn't win them a Stanley Cup, and one who did--and that doesn't deter the others in the least for making moves for the immediate future of their team. What else are they supposed to do? Try to pretend they know what their team will look like three years into the future? Some of them won't even have jobs!
What does this have to do with Brian Lee?
Lee has three points (all assists) in his last four games. Senators fans already know he is never going to live up to his draft position, but he is rounding into form as an all-around utility defenseman. He's not out of place in a situational second pairing position, and he's a strong third pairing guy--the kind who might actually give the team an advantage thanks to his all-around skill set. He can hit, cover, and pass, which makes him almost ideal to throw on the ice when the top pairings need a breather.
But he's not better than David Rundblad. Not by a long shot, and he never will be. How, then, could he possibly have made Ottawa's best prospect expendable?
The answer lies in the immediacy required of general managers discussed above. What does the defensive depth chart of the Ottawa Senators currently look like?
We know what the top pairing of the future is. Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen are currently playing just under thirty minutes a night and tearing it up in the process. They're studs.
Filip Kuba and Sergei Gonchar are supposedly ready to return to action on Tuesday. Before his injury, Kuba was playing top minutes with Karlsson, and Gonchar was doing well as a second-pairing, as well as playing on the top power play unit alongside Karlsson. Kuba was picking up power play time on the second unit.
Chris Phillips will probably slide down to the third pairing, where he still has the skills to perform at a high level.
And that leaves David Rundblad, Matt Carkner, and Brian Lee fighting for one spot--the spot with the least value--that of the sixth defenseman.
Of those three, there's no debate that Rundblad is the most talented. But there also shouldn't be much debate that Brian Lee is the most well-rounded. Matt Carkner is an ideal situational defenseman.
So when Bryan Murray is forced to look at this year's needs -- no telling what next year might look like, remember -- he's faced with the prospect of either stagnating his best prospect in a spot where he won't get the best minutes for his development, or flipping him for another top prospect and playing Brian Lee exactly where he should.
David Rundblad is not a sixth defenseman. Brian Lee is. And the only spot open on the team this year, and probably next, is a third pairing one. With that reality staring us in the face, it's possible to understand why Murray might have been willing to part with such a tantalizing young prospect, isn't it?