The value of acquiring NHL draft picks at the trade deadline

Elliotte Friedman joined Sportsnet Central to talk about the upcoming NHL trade deadline and key players who could be moved.

By the time the trade deadline rolls around next Monday, we’ll have seen a wide array of players change uniforms. Teams that fancy themselves contenders will load up for what they hope will be extended playoff runs, largely by poaching contributors who are either on their last legs, expiring contracts, or a combination of both.

The players who are moved will understandably garner much of the attention because of their relevance in the moment. There will, however, be a bushel full of draft picks flying off the shelves, too, which will generally be viewed as a means to an end. But just because it’s difficult to immediately gauge the value of those assets and put a face to them, doesn’t mean we should overlook their significance in the big picture.

In a vacuum, the combination of the Leafs trading Shawn Matthias to the Colorado Avalanche for a mid-round pick and a filler prospect, and Roman Polak and Nick Spaling to the San Jose Sharks for second round picks in consecutive future seasons weren’t necessarily transactions of tangible consequence as far as the rest of the league was concerned. For the Leafs, though, it was a tidy piece of business and the latest step in a long-term plan. The strategy is one that speaks to their willingness to accept their limitations as talent evaluators by embracing the uncertain nature of the draft process.

Despite the hubris and appeal to authority that still permeates hockey circles with regards to personnel decisions, there’s ultimately a significant level of inherent volatility when attempting to predict how 18-year-old kids will wind up developing both physically and mentally. The reality is that as smart as you think you are as a collective brain trust, you’ll probably wind up being wrong more times than you’re right.

This makes the sheer volume of lottery tickets you can accumulate essentially just as important as the actual scouting process used to make the selections themselves (all things being equal, assuming a certain baseline level of competence and understanding of what are translatable skills).

As such, it’s no surprise the Leafs are trending towards approaching the draft table this summer in Buffalo with the largest raw number of lottery tickets since the league went to the current seven-round structure back in 2006. In that time, there have only been six instances where a team made more than 10 selections in a given draft class, with the record having been 13:

Team Year Number of Draft Picks
Florida Panthers 2010 13
New York Islanders 2008, 2006 13
Buffalo Sabres 2013 11
Chicago Blackhawks 2011 11
Edmonton Oilers 2010 11
Chicago Blackhawks 2010 10
Los Angeles Kings 2014, 2009, 2007 10
St. Louis Blues 2014, 2008, 2007 10
Washington Capitals 2010, 2007, 2006 10
Nashville Predators 2013, 2009 10
Columbus Blue Jackets 2006 10
Florida Panthers 2011 10
Winnipeg Jets 2013 10
Edmonton Oilers 2013 10
Anaheim Ducks 2008 10
Ottawa Senators 2011 10
Philadelphia Flyers 2006 10
Boston Bruins 2015 10

It’s interesting that the Blackhawks show up near the top of the list. While GM Stan Bowman has deservedly received praise for the job he’s done in finding valuable contributors beyond the first round of the draft, a large part of that has been the sheer volume of picks with which he’s had to work. Since Bowman took over, no team has had more draft picks than Chicago and that strategy was most prominent in 2011 when he managed to come away with Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, despite whiffing on his first three picks in that draft.

The Leafs currently hold 12 picks and they figure to add at least a couple more given the rental fodder still on the roster. James Reimer, P.A. Parenteau, Michael Grabner and Brad Boyes are all examples of players who figure to draw varying levels of interest from teams that are feeling the pressure to fortify the margins of their lineup.

There’s a very real possibility the Leafs could once again opt for the quantity over quality approach during the draft itself, much like they did last year when they capitalized on trigger happy teams fawning over specific names. Rather than putting all of their eggs into one basket and calling their shot on a player, the Leafs appear more than happy to diversify the risk by understanding the math involved.

Another interesting caveat to keep in mind is the disparity in supply and demand for players and picks at this deadline. Thanks in large part to a point structure that rewards teams for hanging on late, leading to an exceedingly high number of three-point games around the league, the pendulum has decidedly shifted in favour of teams willing to sell off spare parts. Given the current gridlock in the standings, there are noticeably more buyers (or at least teams that are more than willing to stand pat and see how things shake out) than sellers.

With Carolina and New Jersey playing better hockey than they were expected to this season and hanging on in the playoff race, it’s a distinct possibility they will be less willing to throw in the towel. The Flyers, Blue Jackets and Sabres all surely would love to sell off spare parts, though they unfortunately don’t have the horses to do so.

That bodes well for the Canadian teams beyond just the rebuilding Leafs, who would all be wise to take note and jump at the opportunity to control the sellers market. The Canucks seem like the best bet to recklessly talk themselves into the viability of a late playoff push. That would be nothing short of an inexcusable miscalculation on their part considering how flimsy is their case for being a playoff team. The sooner they come to terms with the objective reality, the better.

Looking at some of the Canadian teams, we see a number of expendable player who will pop up in trade speculation before the deadline:

Player Age Cap Hit Team
Radim Vrbata 34 $5.0M Vancouver
Teddy Purcell 30 $4.5M Edmonton
Dan Hamhuis 33 $4.5M Vancouver
Andrew Ladd 30 $4.4M Winnipeg
Jiri Hudler 32 $4.0M Calgary
Justin Schultz 25 $3.9M Edmonton
Tom Gilbert 33 $2.8M Montreal
Kris Russell 28 $2.6M Calgary
Dale Weise 27 $1.025M Montreal
Tomas Fleischmann 31 $750K Montreal

Andrew Ladd should be the first big domino to fall, though he’s in a class of his own in terms of the return he’d be expected to fetch. The returns for the others figure to be less impactful, though all it takes is one desperate GM to mark the price up. This is particularly true for the defencemen in this group, since those commodities generally go for more than their worth this time of year.

The likelihood that any of the individual future assets they receive for those players winds up being as productive as they currently are is probably a long shot. But in the context of those teams, pushing the clock back while increasing the odds of using the draft as a vehicle for landing a younger, cheaper contributor down the road when the teams are closer to competing isn’t the worst thing in the world.

A worse fate would be getting stuck in the middle and letting those assets depreciate to the point where they’re left without anything to show for them at the draft and July 1.