What the 2018 NHL trade deadline shows us about first-round pick values

Hockey Central at Noon discusses how the Toronto Maple Leafs trade for Jake Muzzin may set the asking price for Carolina Hurricanes' Dougie Hamilton.

The Jake Muzzin trade got the ball rolling in a couple of respects. First, it opened the trade market with a month to go until the deadline and, second, it gave us an idea of what a first-round pick might get you in the lead up to Feb. 25.

Trying to pin down exactly what a first-round pick is worth, you come across a variety of variables. Last year, Jonathan Willis took a crack at it for Sportsnet.ca by looking at trades involving first-rounders as far back as 2013. The conclusion was that, generally, a 50-to-60-point rental winger was the going rate for a first-rounder, while that selection might net you a rental No. 4 defenceman — or a No. 2/3 if a secondary prospect or another pick was added. The price was higher for centres — a first-rounder would more or less get a contending team a third-line pivot.

That article was written ahead of the 2018 deadline, prior to six first-round picks being dealt for players. That was the second-most first-rounders to be traded in a deadline season since 2013, and more than were moved in 2014, 2016 and 2017 combined. The five first-rounders traded on Feb. 26 last year was the most moved on deadline day in league history.

So can anything else be gleaned about the value of a first-round pick using the most recent trade deadline? Let’s have a look.

* = conditional pick

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To Tampa Bay: Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller
To NY Rangers: Vlad Namestnikov, Libor Hajek, Brett Howden, 2018 first-rounder, conditional 2019 second-rounder*

Both of Tampa’s pickups in this deal fall into the class of a player you might expect to give up a first-rounder-plus for — McDonagh the top-four defenceman with top pair upside, and Miller the 50- to 60-point player. But Tampa Bay got a whole lot of control in both players. McDonagh was signed through 2018-19 before he would be eligible for UFA status, then signed a seven-year extension with Tampa Bay last July. And Miller was an RFA at the end of last season, then signed a five-year pact with Tampa Bay.

Because of that, the Lightning come out as big winners here. Both Namestnikov (2011) and Howden (2016) were back-half-of-the-first-round picks in their years, but Namestnikov is now looking like someone who really benefitted from his surroundings in Tampa Bay and wouldn’t be valued as a first-rounder anymore. Howden is just 20 and in his rookie NHL season, but has fallen far from his promising start to the year and has played less than 10 minutes in each of his past five games. In 2018, the Rangers picked Nils Lundkvist with Tampa Bay’s first-rounder, and the condition on the second-rounder is that it becomes a 2019 first if Tampa Bay wins the Stanley Cup.

Hold this up to what the Leafs traded for Muzzin and it looks better. If you equate McDonagh with Muzzin and deduce McDonagh was acquired for the 2018 first, plus Hajek (a second-round pick) and Namestnikov, that would leave a conditional second-rounder and Howden for Miller. After re-signing both players, that’s a home run return for the Lightning. If the Leafs re-sign Muzzin, it’ll look almost identical.

Time will tell if the Rangers get a top-six forward or top-four defenceman out of this trade, but right now this stands as a great reminder that end-of-the-round firsts are far less likely to hit than even the middle of the round (explored by Steve Burtch here). The Rangers acquired five quality lottery tickets for two solid NHLers with years of control, but the earliest of the picks they got may end up being just 27th overall.

To Vegas: Tomas Tatar
To Detroit: 2018 first-rounder, 2019 second-rounder, 2021 third-rounder
From 2014-15 through 2016-17, Tatar’s point totals had gone from 56 to 45 to 46, while his goal rates remained relatively steady in the 20-25 range. At the time of this trade, he was in the first of a four-year contract, so the fact he went for more than a contender’s first-rounder made sense, especially if he returned to 50-point status.

Of course, the fit failed in Vegas as Tatar scored just eight points in 28 regular and post-season games combined for the Golden Knights. So, Vegas used him in the trade package to nab Max Pacioretty from Montreal over the summer, and while Pacioretty has the far better goal rate, Tatar has a better points per game average this season.

Looking just at production history, the price Vegas paid to get Tatar may have been a tad high, though the control they had increased his value. But Vegas then moved a struggling Tatar along with Nick Suzuki (13th overall in 2017) and a second-round pick for Pacioretty, which effectively brings the acquiring price of Montreal’s former captain to two first-round picks, two second-round picks and a third-rounder. After signing Pacioretty to an extension immediately, Vegas got an expected 30-goal scorer (a pace Pacioretty is converting at this season) for five years of control, and created an entirely new first line. Considering only one of the first-rounders they moved came in the top half, and Tatar just wasn’t a fit, this seems worth the acquisition cost for a bonafide contender.

To Winnipeg: Paul Stastny
To St. Louis: Erik Foley, 2018 first-rounder*
It seemed the Jets had missed out on their need for a centre when Derick Brassard was traded to Pittsburgh (more on that later), but when Stastny became available late in the game, Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff really hit one out of the park. Judging against historical trade returns, the Jets did rather well — the paid basically the same price for Stastny as the 2015 Blackhawks did for Antoine Vermette, but Stastny was far more productive and played a bigger role. While Vermette served as a third-line pivot for the Hawks, Stastny centred the second line in Winnipeg and posted 28 points in 36 regular season and playoff games combined.

Stastny had better offensive numbers than Brassard over their careers and in the two most recent seasons, but part of the reason the Jets were able to get him for less is because Stastny was a pending UFA whereas Brassard had an extra year of control. If the Jets, as expected, trade for another forward this season, the combined price for two playoff runs will likely come in higher than Brassard — but at the same time, Stastny and the hypothetical 2019 addition could very well both be more important and productive for Winnipeg than Brassard has been for Pittsburgh.

Hilariously, the condition Winnipeg attached to their pick was that it was lottery protected at a time when that just wasn’t going to happen. And although this price was in line with recent rental centre deadline pickups, Stastny held far more value to the Jets than either Vermette did to the Hawks, or Martin Hanzal did to the 2017 Minnesota Wild.

To Nashville: Ryan Hartman, 2018 fifth-rounder
To Chicago: Victor Ejdsell, 2018 first-rounder, 2018 fourth-rounder
The Preds picked up some depth in their Cup push and bet on continued growth from the then-23-year-old Hartman, who was himself a first-round pick (30th overall) in 2013. A right winger, Hartman’s career-best was only 31 points at the time and his production slipped upon arriving in Nashville. This year, when the Predators really needed him to step up after injuries hit some of their top players, Hartman took another step back. He hasn’t scored a goal since Dec. 13 and has just five points since the end of November.

In return, the Blackhawks expanded their prospect base as they began the re-tool process, picking offensive defenceman Nicolas Beaudin out of the QMJHL with Nashville’s pick. He has 113 points in his past 104 junior games. Ejdsell is a big centre who was a point-per-game performer in last year’s Calder Cup Playoffs, but has struggled on offence this season. Still, the possibility he becomes at least a bottom-six NHL centre is still alive.

The Preds bet on Hartman improving and although his contract expires after this season, they still have two years of control until he becomes UFA eligible. Age and control is what drove the price up on Hartman compared to the rental market, but if you look at the level of production some of these other players gave their teams after getting traded for a first-round pick, this one is looking like a bad bet for the Preds. It’s hard to imagine Hartman going for a first-round pick today.

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To Boston: Rick Nash
To NY Rangers: Ryan Spooner, Matt Beleskey, Ryan Lindgren, 2018 first-rounder, 2019 seventh-rounder
Trying to keep pace with Toronto and Tampa Bay in their division, the Bruins attempted to upgrade from Spooner to Nash in their top six and though the former’s raw offensive totals were far better, Nash was far less sheltered and much more unlucky with the Rangers. In 23 total games with the Bruins, Nash scored six goals (just over a 20-goal pace) and 11 points (nearly a 40-point pace), plus, he better fit the “brawny” style the Bruins like to play.

Beleskey was a salary dump, so there’s value in that, but the question was whether or not all this was worth the price of a first-round pick. Again, in the recent historical sense of a first-round pick’s value for a rental, the Bruins didn’t acquire the expected point rate, but made up for it in the expected goals Nash could provide. Although Spooner had more points, Nash was clearly the better goal-getter, which was a specific need for the Bruins.

To Pittsburgh: Derick Brassard, Vincent Dunn, 2018 third-rounder
To Ottawa: 2018 first-rounder, Filip Gustavsson, Ian Cole, 2019 third-rounder
This was a three-way trade with Vegas, but here are the direct returns for the two primary teams involved (the Penguins also moved Ryan Reaves to Vegas). The Penguins had been looking for a No. 3 centre all season and paid a bit more than the Jets did for Stastny to get an extra year of control. Brassard has just 27 points in 66 total games as a Penguin, and is in the rumour mill again as Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford looks to upgrade once more.

The Senators flipped Cole for a third-round pick, so if you break this deal down, the Penguins traded only a slightly better package (a first-rounder and a prospect from the second round) for two seasons of Brassard than the Jets did for one season of Stastny. It hasn’t always worked out on the ice production-wise, but this is generally the going rate for a centre — and if the Pens do move Brassard again, he has good value by just playing that position.

CONCLUSION

When trying to determine whether trading a first-round pick, plus other assets, at the deadline is worth it or not, it really depends on what kind of shape a team is in. If we’re talking about a legitimate Stanley Cup contender most likely to pick in the 20s or 30s, such as Toronto, Tampa Bay, Winnipeg or Nashville, the acquisition cost is easily worth it. The likelihood of a player picked in those slots becoming a 200-game NHLer is somewhere less than 50 per cent.

But if you are, say, the Edmonton Oilers or the Vancouver Canucks sitting on the outside looking in by Feb. 25, the risk is far higher given the draft lottery could make those top three picks with immense upside. Even for wildly inconsistent bubble teams with serious depth issues like Dallas or Colorado, the return for their first-round pick packages needs to be ironclad with multiple years of control or else they might be better served exploring trade options with the pick at the draft, when its full value is clear.

Is it really worth it to move a first-round pick (plus) for anything less than a solid secondary scorer or unassailable top-four defenceman with multiple years of control if a “winning” outcome this year is just getting into the playoffs and advancing one round? Only two of the trades above from 2018 were for rental players — the landscape seems to be at a point where term is important to get back in deadline deals involving firsts.

More importantly for the bubble teams: are any of the players acquired for first-rounders last season the kind you know will put your team over the top?

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