Why contenders should jump at the chance to trade first-rounders at the deadline

Matt Larkin
HossaPenguins

Looking at the perennial contender
 that is the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s easy to forget the franchise once “mortgaged its future” in a deranged Stanley Cup push.

It was Feb. 27, 2008. GM Ray Shero stole what was already a wild trade deadline day by acquiring stud sniper Marian Hossa from the Atlanta Thrashers. The price was staggering. Or so we thought.

Pittsburgh surrendered two useful young forwards in Erik Christensen and Colby Armstrong, top prospect Angelo Esposito and a 2008 first-round pick for Hossa and a throw-in named Pascal Dupuis. The first-rounder turned into Daultan Leveille.

None of the players Atlanta received plays in the NHL today. Christensen and Armstrong skate in the Swedish League. Leveille suits up for the Evansville Icemen in the ECHL. On the Penguins’ side, Dupuis has made a living as Sidney Crosby’s right winger. Though Hossa left the ensuing summer as a free agent, he helped Pittsburgh get to Game 6 of the 2008 Stanley Cup final before losing to Detroit.

It’s easy to play the hindsight-is-20/20 game, but the most interesting takeaway is what happened to the first-round pick. It’s interesting because, in the salary cap era, it’s the norm, not the exception, when first-rounders acquired in deadline trades go bust. Feast your eyes on this chart to see the fate of every first-round pick traded within a week of the deadline since 2005-06. It’s a who’s who of “who?”

Trading-First-Rounders6

So why do first-rounders acquired in deadline deals pan out so rarely?

For one, a buying team moving the pick for immediate roster help is typically high in the standings, with a chance for a deep playoff run, and will thus yield a low first-round pick. The average draft slot of first-round selections moved in deadline deals since 2005-06 is 22nd.

“It’s not like you’re getting a crack at one of the top five or six players,” says Nashville Predators GM David Poile. “So you just have to have a gut feel. You tell me that by making a trade giving up our first pick that we make the playoffs and, more importantly, we win the first round of the playoffs? I think more teams would take that as a positive step for their franchise.”

As a buyer in 2007, Poile made a massive splash to land Peter Forsberg from the Philadelphia Flyers, surrendering Ryan Parent, Scottie Upshall and first- and third-rounders in the deal. The risk was relatively minimal and though Forsberg didn’t lead the Predators to a title, it hardly cost Nashville. Parent hasn’t played in the NHL since 2010-11, Upshall has been just a serviceable NHLer and the pick, which was 23rd, came back to Nashville in a trade. The Predators chose Jonathon Blum, who’d played his way out of Music City by last summer.

Another reason first-rounders moved at the deadline don’t amount to much could be the GMs moving them have studied the upcoming draft class and don’t see a must-have player.

“Absolutely you would do that,” Poile says. “Last year was an outstanding draft, so that would at least give me some pause before I gave up my first-round pick.”

Not that selling teams acquiring first-rounders never score with the picks. The Blues traded Bill Guerin in 2007 and used the pick to select David Perron. Montreal netted Max Pacioretty in the 2007 Craig Rivet trade. But there’s no way of knowing the team that dealt the picks would’ve taken those same stud prospects, like when Poile traded a first-rounder for Brendan Witt in 2006 and the pick became Semyon Varlamov. Speculating is a pointless exercise, Poile says, as he wouldn’t have selected Varlamov, anyway.

So there’s no guarantee the Penguins wouldn’t have whiffed and taken Leveille 29th in 2008. The point is that lower picks are crapshoots. As a result, selling teams have little power on deadline day. Most of the time, the marquee player being shopped has an expiring contract, meaning the seller has to get something for him. If that something is a first-rounder, it will be a low one. For buyers, it’s a move well worth making.

The smart move for sellers is to target more reliable, established prospects rather than landing that low-first rounder along with a pile of Erik Christensens and Colby Armstrongs. But that’s easier said than done when opposing GMs know it’s safer to give up first-rounders than high-end prospects.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

This feature originally appeared in the March 3 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.