Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Which of the 15 draft lottery teams should consider trading their picks?

There are two annual traditions when it comes to the lottery picks in the NHL draft. The first is that fans and media get very excited about the possibility of at least a few of those picks being traded, either in the weeks leading up to the big day or (even better) in dramatic draft floor blockbusters. Trade rumors are catnip for all of us, so we come up with all sorts of scenarios and possibilities and argue back and forth over which ones are the most likely to turn into reality.

The second tradition is that just about none of those rumored trades ever actually happen.

That’s the reality of the modern NHL, where trading is a dying art at the best of times and teams have been taught to treat picks in the top half of the first round like gold. This is a league where young talent is more important than ever before, and the best way to get it is to hold onto those precious picks.

But while it’s exceedingly rare to see a high pick get traded in between the lottery and the draft, it’s not unheard of. It happened in 2017, when the Rangers got the Coyotes’ seventh-overall pick for Antti Raanta and Derek Stepan. The Bruins acquired the 13th and 15th pick back in 2015 in separate deals involving Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton, although that didn’t work out great for them in the end. And there was the big draft floor deal in 2013 that sent Cory Schneider to the Devils for the ninth-overall pick, leading to the best Gary Bettman trade announcement ever.

But high picks being traded in advance remains a rarity, and trades involving the very top picks are all but extinct. We hear the rumors every year, but they almost never come true.

Well, maybe that’s because NHL teams just need a little bit of encouragement. So today, let’s make the case for each of the 15 lottery teams to trade their pick for immediate help. We’re not interested in seeing teams shuffle picks around to move up or down a few spots – we want to see a bold move by a team looking to get better right now by swapping their choice for veteran reinforcements. And since most of these teams have plenty of room for improvement, that should give us at least a chance to make a decent case.

Can we pull it off? It’s going to be easier for some teams than others, but let’s see what we can do. We’ll work our way down from the worst of the lottery picks to the top of the draft.

#15 – Montreal Canadiens

The case for a trade: We’ll start with what should be, in theory, the easiest trade to sell you on, if only because it would involve the least valuable of the lottery picks. And the case here is a relatively straightforward one: The Habs are pretty good, and should be focused on getting better right now instead of waiting around for some middling first-rounder to make his NHL debut a few years down the road. After all, you don’t swallow big-dollar contracts for 30-something stars like Shea Weber and Carey Price without taking on at least some sense of urgency.

If you prefer a more positive spin, we could remind you that the 2017 Lightning barely missed the playoffs with 94 points and then went to the conference final in 2018, while the 2018 Blues barely missed the playoffs with 94 points and are in the conference final right now. Well, the 2019 Habs barely missed the playoffs with 96 points. They may not be as far from contending as you think they are.

Is it convincing?: It’s not a bad start. (And fair warning, if you’re already rolling your eyes at the thought of a team like Montreal even considering this sort of deal, you may just want to bail on the rest of this piece.)

The pessimist view is that Montreal isn’t as close to contending as their 2018-19 season suggests, and still have to get past Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto, plus a potentially improved Florida team. But assuming that Marc Bergevin thinks he already has a solid foundation in place here, it might be worth it for him to find out what he could get if he dangled that 15th pick.

#14 – Arizona Coyotes

The case for a trade: It looks a lot like the Canadiens – good team, already close, so worry about making the leap right now instead of stockpiling another prospect you won’t see for a few years.

Is it convincing?: If anything, it’s a better case than Montreal’s. The Coyotes haven’t been to the playoffs since 2012, and you’d have to imagine that ownership is watching what’s happening in Carolina these days and thinking “Why not us?”

On top of that, remember that the Coyotes are one of the few teams that’s actually pulled off this sort of move before, having dealt that seventh-overall pick for veteran help a few years ago. I’m not sure if that makes a move more likely (because they’ve shown they’re willing to do it) or less likely (because it didn’t necessarily work last time). But the idea is at least in play.

#13 – Florida Panthers

The case for a trade: And here’s the third of our three “decent teams that might want to win right now” entries. Except this time, we know that there’s no “might” about it. Dale Tallon has all but called his shot for this offseason, and you have to figure that Joel Quenneville didn’t choose the Panthers because he was in the mood for a lengthy rebuild. The Panthers want to get better right now, and anything that gets them there should be on the table.

Is it convincing?: Sure. The only question is whether trading a first is the Panthers’ best path to immediate help. They may prefer to wait and see how free agency shakes out, and if so then this year’s pick will be out of play (and next year’s probably goes in). But the Panthers have a history of at least talking about moving much higher picks than this one, so this is a situation worth watching.

#12 – Minnesota Wild

The case for a trade: They looked good at times during the season and only missed the playoffs by 10 points, which isn’t insurmountable. With a veteran roster and a new-ish GM who hasn’t really put his stamp on the team just yet, they might decide that immediate help would get them back to the postseason.

Is it convincing?: Lord no. The Wild desperately need to start restocking the system and looking down the road. We can scratch this one off the list.

#11 – Philadelphia Flyers

The case for a trade: Are the Flyers rebuilding? They’ve never had that bottom-out season, but they also haven’t been to the second round in seven years. They seemed to buying into the patient approach, right up until their patient GM was fired for being too patient. They’ve changed coaches twice and remade the front office in the last year, and teams don’t usually do that if they’re planning to stay the course.

Is it convincing?: There has to be at least a part of the Flyers’ brain trust that sees division rivals like the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets and Islanders having success and thinks “on paper, we’re at least close to those guys.” Still, this feels like a team that would be better off just banking a solid prospect and then seeing where the Carter Hart era takes them.

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