Tuesday, January 22, 2019

A brief history of teams trading away recent top-five picks and the five ways it can work out

It’s​ been a weird year​ in​ Edmonton.​ The​ Oilers​ came​ in with​ high hopes, struggled​ early, fired their​ coach,​ seemed to rebound​​ and lately have struggled again. There are calls for Peter Chiarelli to be fired, and it’s widely assumed that he will be if the team misses the playoffs, if not sooner. And as you might expect, there’s been all sorts of speculation about what moves he might be willing to make to turn things around.

Among all the rumors, one name keeps coming up: 20-year-old winger Jesse Puljujarvi. On one hand, that’s surprising, since Puljujarvi is less than three years removed from being the fourth-overall pick in the 2016 draft. Then again, he’s had a disappointing year, and his lackluster career offensive totals mean he’s getting dangerously close to having the “bust” label slapped on him.

Still, would it really make sense for the Oilers to trade a young player so quickly after spending a top-five pick on him? Does that kind of move ever work out?

Let’s crack open the history books and find out.

We’re going to go looking for examples of teams making trades like the rumored Puljujarvi deal, and see what we can learn from the results. We’ll start our search at the onset of the entry draft era (when the league lowered the eligibility age to 18), meaning we’re going back to 1979 and have exactly 40 drafts to work with. We want to find players who fit these criteria:

  • They were taken with one of the draft’s first five picks.
  • They made it to the NHL with the team that drafted them. Players who were traded before appearing in the NHL don’t count, because we want cases where the player’s NHL coach and GM got to watch them up close before deciding to move on from them. Sorry, Eric Lindros.
  • They were traded before finishing their third NHL season. Note that that doesn’t necessarily mean it was within three years of their draft year, since some players start in the minors or in Europe. But we’re looking for players who were given fewer than three full NHL seasons to establish themselves before their team gave up and dealt them.

Note that the last point is important – we’re looking for players who were traded before finishing their third NHL season. If you expand the criteria to include players who are traded immediately after completing their third season, you start to see some bigger names show up, including Ed Olczyk, Dany Heatley, James van Riemsdyk, Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Seguin and Phil Kessel. That’s our first interesting takeaway. Three years seems to be a tipping point of sorts for NHL GMs; once you’ve put in three full seasons, they get more likely to pull the chute and move you. And yes, those last two players were both traded away by Chiarelli. That could offer a hint about how the Puljujarvi situation plays out.

But let’s assume that the rumor mill is right, and that the Oilers really are thinking about moving Puljujarvi right now, before he’s spent three seasons in the NHL, despite recently spending a top-five draft pick on him. How rare would that be?

Rare, as it turns out. But maybe not as rare as you might think.

By my count, there are 26 players in the entry draft era that meet our criteria. We’re dealing with 40 years of drafts, so we’ve got a pool of 200 players here. Of those, 13 percent were moved within three years, or a little more than one every two years. I don’t know about you, but that’s a higher percentage than I would have expected. Maybe the Oilers aren’t crazy to be considering this.

But there are a couple of important qualifiers to put on that 26 number. The first is that these sorts of moves have become significantly rarer in the salary cap era, with only three of our trades involving players drafted after 2004. That’s 14 drafts involving 70 top-five picks, so our cap era percentage plunges down to four percent.

The second thing to keep in mind is that the trades on our list came out of a variety of different circumstances, not all of which have much to do with what Puljujarvi and the Oilers are facing right now. In order to find any meaning in the history of these sorts of moves, it’s probably helpful to divide them up into a few categories. So let’s do that.

Category 1: The mega-blockbusters

Our first category is one we don’t see much of anymore: The old school blockbuster trade, in which a surefire Hall of Fame superstar is traded in their prime. These deals used to happen every few years, but almost never do in the cap era. (That’s partly because players used to be able to force them by holding out, which doesn’t happen anymore.)

But when these deals did happen, the asking price would often involve one or more players who’d recently been high picks. Those players weren’t busts. In fact, it was the opposite – they were highly regarded prospects that a team insisted on receiving in return for a star. You’ve got to give something to get something, after all.

I’ve got four trades in this category, including the most famous one of all: The 1988 deal that sent Wayne Gretzky from the Oilers to the Kings in exchange for a package built around cash, draft picks, more cash, and 1986 second-overall pick Jimmy Carson. At the time, Carson was considered one of the best young players in the game, having just scored 55 goals as a 19-year-old. He only lasted one full year in Edmonton, scoring 100 points, and never really lived up to his early hype; he bounced around three more teams and was out of the league by 1996. But at the time, he was an established stud.

A year before the Gretzky deal, the Oilers traded another certified superstar when they sent an unhappy Paul Coffey to Pittsburgh in 1987 for a package that included a pair of players who meet our criteria: 1985 second-overall pick Craig Simpson and 1987 fifth-overall pick Chris Joseph. Joseph had just been drafted and had only played 17 NHL games, while Simpson was off to a great start in his third season. Simpson would become the first player to score 50 goals while being traded midway through the season, although that turned out to be a career high and injuries slowed his production. Joseph turned into a journeyman defenseman who played for seven teams in 14 years.

The other two deals involve two of the most productive stars of the 1990s. The Flyers included 1990 fourth-overall pick Mike Ricci in the massive package they put together to pry Eric Lindros out of Quebec in 1992. And the Ducks included 1994 second-overall pick Oleg Tverdovsky and 1995 fourth-overall pick Chad Kilger in their 1996 deal for Winnipeg’s Teemu Selanne. All three of those players had productive NHL careers, and Ricci and Tverdovsky were borderline stars. But it’s fair to say that neither the Ducks or Flyers really regret giving them up in those deals. (Peter Forsberg would be another question, but he was a sixth-overall pick and hadn’t yet played in the NHL when the Flyers included him in the Lindros trade.)

These were all blockbuster trades, and it’s fun to look back at them. But unless Peter Chiarelli is about to pull off a miracle that nobody sees coming, it’s probably safe to assume that any Puljujarvi trade isn’t going to look like this. So on to the next section…

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