Down Goes Brown: 10 trades involving top-10 NHL Draft picks

Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland joined HC @ Noon to discuss the upcoming NHL draft and his thoughts on the recently completed NHL Playoffs.

The NHL draft is now just over a week away, and there’s plenty of trade chatter around the top 10 picks. Thanks to a draft class that doesn’t feature any sure-thing franchise players and a wild lottery that saw three long shots jump to the top of the order, there’s been plenty of speculation that somebody is going to make a move.

We took a shot at convincing each of the lottery teams to deal their pick last month, and some cases were stronger than others. But the rumour mill is churning out scenarios in which teams like the Devils, Flyers, Stars or Sabres move their high pick for immediate help, and it feels like we could be on the verge of a blockbuster pre-draft deal.

So today, let’s take a look back through the history books at some of the biggest player-for-pick trades in recent memory. We’re looking for trades involving a top-10 pick that meet two criteria:

1) They had to come before the draft, but after the order of picks was known. That’s why you won’t see deals like the Leafs giving Boston the No. 2 pick in 2010, or the Leafs giving the Islanders the No. 4 pick in 1997, or the Leafs giving New Jersey the No. 3 pick in 1991. In related news, I’m starting to figure out why Leafs fans are all so cranky.

2) The trade was primarily based on one team acquiring a player, and wasn’t just about teams shuffling up or down a few spots in the order. We’re not interested in the sixth-overall pick getting traded for the eighth pick and a fourth rounder here.

And just to make sure we’re casting a wide net, we’ll go back three full decades. That’s right, we’re going to cover every case of a team trading what it knew to be a top-10 pick for one or more players, dating all the way back to 1987. So settle in, because we’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and we’re going to get to each and every one of the 10 times it’s happened.

Wait, only 10? That can’t be right.

But it is. As it turns out, it’s exceedingly rare for a high pick to be moved for a player in the NHL draft. Despite the fact that we seem to go through this “Team X might be shopping their high pick” scenario almost every year, those deals almost never actually happen.

When they do, however, they can be game-changers. So let’s look back at the 10 times a team has dealt a top-10 pick for immediate help, and find out who came out of the deal on top. We’ll start with the most recent deals and work our way back.

(As always, the Pro Sports Transactions web site is an invaluable resource for draft-related trade information.)

2013: Cory Schneider

The trade: On the draft floor, the Devils and Canucks stunned the hockey world with a deal that sent Schneider to New Jersey in exchange for the No. 9 pick. The trade was a jaw-dropper, because we’d all spent the last few years trying to figure out how the Canucks would trade Roberto Luongo. Instead, Vancouver GM Mike Gillis moved Schneider for a high pick.

Oh, and the draft was in New Jersey, leading to one of the greatest Gary Bettman draft-floor announcements of all time as a crowd goes from booing the commissioner for existing to exploding when he drops the trade on them.

The result: Schneider has been very good with the Devils, although he’s coming off a shaky year. Meanwhile, the Canucks used the ninth pick on Bo Horvat, who seems to be blossoming into the kind of solid two-way center you build a team around but isn’t quite there yet.

And the winner is…: At this point, it’s New Jersey, who have four years of reliable .920 goaltending to show for the deal. But Horvat is close to nudging this back towards undecided territory.

2012: Jordan Staal

The trade: In another draft-floor blockbuster in front of a hometown crowd, the Penguins traded Jordan Staal to the Hurricanes in exchange for the eighth-overall pick, Brandon Sutter and Brian Dumoulin.

A Staal deal had been rumoured for a while; he needed a new contract, and was never going to get a chance to be a top-six guy in Pittsburgh behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Hurricanes were a great fit, since they had cap room and a high pick, not to mention Jordan’s older brother, Eric.

The result: The Penguins used the pick on Derrick Pouliot, who’s yet to establish himself as an NHL regular. (In a recent NHL.com redraft of 2012, he didn’t make the top 30.) But Dumoulin has played a role in two Cup wins, and Sutter was flipped for Nick Bonino. Meanwhile, Staal’s been fine in Carolina. But the Hurricanes gave him a 10-year, $60-million deal that stands out these days as one of the league’s worst.

And the winner is…: Factoring in Staal’s contract, this stands as a win for Pittsburgh. Although surprisingly, it’s not primarily because of the pick.

2011: Jeff Carter

The trade: The day before the draft, the Flyers sent Jeff Carter to the Blue Jackets for the eighth-overall pick, a third-rounder and Jakub Voracek.

The deal was part of a shocking afternoon for the Flyers, who also moved Mike Richards to the Kings as part of an effort to clear out salary to sign Ilya Bryzgalov. For most teams, two trades of that magnitude in one day would be stunning; for a team that had been to the Cup final just a year ago, it seemed almost unbelievable.

The result: Carter never fit in Columbus, lasting less than a season before being flipped to the Kings for Jack Johnson and a first. The Flyers used the pick to draft Sean Couturier, while Voracek blossomed into a first-team all-star by 2015.

And the winner is…: It depends how you look at it. On its own, the deal is a clear win for the Flyers, who got two key players for a guy who didn’t work out for the Blue Jackets. But the Bryzgalov signing turned out to be one of the worst in NHL history, so that knocks this one down a peg or two.

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2002: Ruslan Fedotenko

The trade: The day before the draft, the Flyers sent Fedotenko and two second-round picks to the Lightning for the No. 4–overall pick.

I’ll pause here so everyone can go, “Wait… someone once traded the fourth pick for Ruslan Fedotenko?”

They did indeed. At this point, the undrafted Fedotenko was 23 years old and coming off his second NHL season. He’d had seasons of 16 and 17 goals, so he’d shown some NHL skill. Why the Lightning felt that was worth sacrificing a top-four pick, even in a relatively weak draft, was anybody’s guess.

The result: The Flyers used the pick on defenceman Joni Pitkanen, who had a reasonably good NHL career but never became a star. Fedotenko lasted 12 more NHL seasons, only cracking 20 goals once. Neither of the second-round picks amounted to anything, although the Lightning flipped one for Brad Lukowich.

And the winner is…: The Flyers certainly seemed to get more value, although the Lightning won a Stanley Cup two years later. You can read Lightning GM Jay Feaster’s side of the deal — including how three of his top scouts resigned shortly after it was made — in this article.

2001: Alexei Yashin

The trade: After holding out for a full season and then grudgingly returning to play out a final year in Ottawa, Yashin was a sure thing to be dealt. That raised the question of whether the Senators could get anything approaching fair value for a star everyone knew they had to move. Spoiler alert: They did.

On the day of the draft, the Senators sent Yashin to the Islanders for the second-overall pick, plus winger Bill Muckalt and a gangly 24-year-old Slovakian defenceman.

The result: The Senators used the pick on Jason Spezza, who’d centre their top line for much of the next decade. Muckalt was a bust — he literally never scored a goal in Ottawa. But Yashin wasn’t all that much better in Long Island, signing a huge contract and then having one good year before regressing, then being bought out in 2007. On its own, Spezza-for-Yashin would stand as one of the most lopsided deals in NHL history.

But Spezza wasn’t even the best player in the deal. That gangly Slovakian turned out be a guy named Zdeno Chara, who slowly but surely developed into one of the best defencemen of his era.

And the winner is…: Put it this way — when a trade is considered the worst ever made by Mike Milbury, you know it’s bad.

2000: Kevin Weekes

The trade: This one may rival Ruslan Fedotenko as the most unlikely trade on our list, and once again it’s Jay Feaster dealing away a top-five pick. The full deal saw the Islanders send Weekes, prospect Kristian Kudroc and a second rounder to the Lightning for the fifth-overall pick, a fourth and a seventh.

Weekes was a former first rounder who’d just finished his first season as a full-time starter at the age of 25, but had already been traded twice. The Lightning were in the midst of one of the most ridiculous stretches of goaltending instability ever, and were hoping Weekes would be their long-term answer.

The result: Weekes wasn’t the answer; he’d last less than two seasons before being dealt again. Kudroc never amounted to much, nor did any of the later picks in the deal.

As for that fifth-overall choice, the Islanders used it on Raffi Torres, which isn’t all that exciting but actually wasn’t a bad pick in a draft that fell off sharply after Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik came off the board with the second and third picks.

And the winner is…: The Islanders, although it comes with an asterisk. They also held the first-overall pick that year, and part of their reasoning for trading Weekes was to make room for a new goaltender they were going to use that pick on: Rick DiPietro.

1999: Trevor Linden

The trade: In a straightforward swap, the Islanders sent Linden to the Canadiens in exchange for the 10th-overall pick. Linden was a pending RFA, and immediately signed a four-year deal with Montreal. The deal came just over a year after the Islanders had given up Bryan McCabe and Todd Bertuzzi to get Linden from the Canucks.

The result: The 1999 draft is considered one of the weakest of all-time, so it’s no surprise that the Islanders’ pick didn’t amount to all that much. They ended up choosing Branislav Mezei, a defenceman who lasted three years in the Islanders’ system before being traded for Jason Weimer.

Linden lasted less than two seasons in Montreal, scoring 25 goals before being traded to Washington.

And the winner is…: Let’s call it even. This one really didn’t work out for either team.

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1999: Ziggy Palffy

The trade: Yes, it’s the Islanders yet again, as they sent Palffy, Bryan Smolinski, Marcel Cousineau and a fourth rounder to the Kings for Olli Jokinen, Josh Green, Mathieu Biron and the eighth-overall pick.

It was a blockbuster deal, but the main piece was Palffy, who’d scored 40+ goals for three straight years before injuries cut his 1998–99 season short.

The result: The Isles used the eighth pick on Taylor Pyatt. Jokinen spent just one year in New York before going to the Panthers along with Roberto Luongo in one of the worst trades in recent memory.

Meanwhile, Palffy played reasonably well in Los Angeles, averaging better than 30 goals over the next four seasons before his play dropped off.

And the winner is…: The Kings. If you’re keeping track, the Islanders ended up with three picks in the top 10 of the 1999 draft, including their own choice at the five spot. They turned that into Pyatt, Mezei and Tim Connolly. As bad as that sounds, it was actually a decent haul from a draft that in hindsight had only two elite players anywhere near the top of the class.

Oh hey, speaking of those two players…

1999: Daniel Sedin

The trade: In what probably stands as Brian Burke’s finest moment as an NHL GM, he made three separate deals in the hours leading up to the draft to position himself to get both Sedin twins. The first – and the one that qualifies for this list – saw him send Bryan McCabe and a future first to the Blackhawks for their fourth-overall pick.

From there, Burke traded the fourth and additional picks to the Lightning for the first-overall choice, then flipped that pick to the Thrashers to move down a spot to second. He already had the third pick, and with the Thrashers set on taking Patrik Stefan, Burke was able to bring both Sedins to Vancouver.

The result: The future first ended up being the 11th pick in 2000; the Blackhawks used it on Pavel Vorobiev, who was a bust. McCabe was a good defenceman for another decade, but the Sedins will probably end up in the Hall of Fame.

And the winner is…: The Canucks, by a mile. Say what you want about Burke’s various GM jobs, but the guy knew how to work a trade.

1994: Wendel Clark

The trade: In one of the biggest trades in franchise history, the Maple Leafs sent their captain to the Nordiques, along with Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and the 22nd pick. In exchange, they got Mats Sundin, Todd Warriner, Garth Butcher and the 10th pick.

This deal technically meets our criteria, but doesn’t completely fit the spirit. It takes a monster trade to make the 10th-overall pick in a draft feel like a throw-in, but that’s what happened here.

The result: After what sounded suspiciously as if millions of Leafs fans in tattered Clark jerseys cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced, the Leafs flipped the pick to the Capitals for Mike Ridley. Washington used it on Nolan Baumgartner, the Leafs ended up with Eric Fichaud, and the Nordiques used the 22nd on Jeff Kealty.

Clark was back in Toronto within two years, while Sundin went on to a Hall of Fame career as a Maple Leaf.

And the winner is…: The Leafs. You did not mess with early-’90s Cliff Fletcher.

And that’s it. Those 10 trades are the only ones from the past 30 years that featured a known top-10 pick being traded for immediate help. You’d have to go back to 1984 to find the next such deal, in which the Habs traded Rick Wamsley and picks for the right to draft Shayne Corson in the eighth spot, then filled their newly created goaltending hole by drafting Patrick Roy. That one worked out OK.

What does all of that tell us as far as what the Flyers, Stars and friends might do? Realistically, history says that the sort of trade those teams are rumoured to be exploring is exceedingly rare. And when it does happen, it usually works out better for the team getting the pick than the player(s).

So it’s unlikely to happen, and that’s probably for the best. But if a deal or two does go down, here’s hoping they happen during the draft. The world could use a good Gary Bettman trade announcement these days.