What constitutes critical mass when it comes to prospects? You might think that you can never have enough, but effectively it might turn out that you can have too many. We’ll probably have some idea after this NHL Draft.
According to sources at the NHL combine this weekend, several teams have aggressively pursued trades with Florida and Buffalo, owners of the first and second overall picks respectively. Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has said from Day 1 that he’s entertaining all offers, though he has given no indication exactly what the price tag might be, nor what make or model he’s in the market for. For his part, Sabres GM Tim Murray has shuffled the deck aggressively since he arrived in mid-season. The prevailing wisdom in the marketplace is that Tallon and Murray might be motivated dealers.
One scout aware of multiple offers for the top two picks said, “The going price to move up into those [first two] spots would be picks — a high first and a second or third — and an established player that helps your top two lines.”
Tallon and Murray would be motivated traders but with divergent motives.
Most teams owning the first pick are in some sort of downward spiral; upon opening the cupboard find nothing but empty shelves. Yet two years ago, Florida was a young team that made the playoffs for the first time in a generation and took eventual Stanley Cup finalist New Jersey to OT in Game 7 of the opening round.
It seemed like things were trending up, especially given that the three drafts from 2009 to 2011 inclusive, the Panthers managed to draft 11 players in the first two rounds. At least three of them looked like home runs: defenceman Dmitri Kulikov (No. 14 overall in 2009), who stepped right from Drummondville into the Panthers line-up at age 18; Nick Bjugstad (No. 19 in 2010) who looks like the prototype of the next generation of power forwards; and left winger Jonathan Huberdeau (No. 3 in 2011), who won the 2013 Calder Trophy. The jury is out on blueliner Eric Gudbranson (No. 3 in 2010) who has shown toughness and a mean streak but not necessarily the skill set you’d want in a franchise defenceman. Ditto last year’s No. 2 overall Aleksander Barkov, another who played at 18 and scored eight goals in 54 games.
Moving out of the second round, well, it’s wait and see: the Panthers have chased a bunch of collegians whose futures are TBA and juniors who have so far been stuck in the minors, though the big club’s roster would seem a very soft ceiling.
Does Sam Bennett or Aaron Ekblad significantly boost the roster next year? Bennett might be best served with another year back in junior — the call the Panthers made with Huberdeau, who at least managed a chin-up at the NHL combine in his year. As for Ekblad, the opening for a right-handed shot would seem to be there with the trade of Mike Weaver to Montreal. Ekblad would seem a better fit in Florida than Gudbranson. Still, it would seem the Panthers need a player — or players — who can lead and provide immediate help rather than other works in progress. Tallon has taken a few desperate swings with vets in the past couple of years (e.g. Scott Gomez and Tim Thomas). With his job security surely on the line, he might be coaxed by veteran talent that’s more bankable than reclamation jobs.
It’s a different situation for Murray in Buffalo. Time isn’t on any GM’s side, really, but he has more of it to play with than Tallon. Replacing Darcy Regier in mid-season, he has a season’s grace as well as the second, 31st and 39th overall picks in June. He also has the New York Islanders’ first-rounder in 2015 (not lottery-protected) from the Thomas Vanek trade and the St. Louis Blues’ first next year from the Ryan Miller-Steve Ott trade. Add to that nine picks in the first or second round in the last two drafts. With the Sabres’ own pick and the Islanders’ selection, Murray has what looks like two viable tickets in next year’s Connor McDavid-Jack Eichel derby, a stronger draft than this one. In fact, either McDavid or Eichel would likely be the first overall pick in this year’s draft if under-agers were eligible.
Murray is listening to offers — if somehow he were able to convert his available assets (including his chip from the Blues) into two picks in the first 20 or better next month, he’d move on it. It will have to be a first-liner to get his attention if a prospective trade partner puts an established veteran in play.
If Murray stands pat, it won’t be because he has taken the phone off the hook. Open for business? He’ll do everything but set up a 1-800 hotline.