In cards, as in life, sometimes it’s smart to make a big gamble and sometimes it’s smart to hedge your bets.
Since becoming the general manager of the Calgary Flames in the spring of 2014, Brad Treliving has made a few big swings in the trade market. At the 2015 NHL Draft, he made a savvy move by flipping three draft picks (including the Flames’ first rounder that year) to Boston for Dougie Hamilton. At the 2017 NHL Draft, he made a similar move that may come back to haunt the Flames because he failed to hedge his bets.
It’s a bit of a myth that general managers don’t trade first round picks. If you look at the actual draft orders from the last few years, you’ll find that first rounders are swapped quite often – primarily at the draft themselves, or often in the run up to the trade deadline prior to the draft. The big reason why first rounders are usually not moved until soon before the event is because their value is more of a known quantity at that point.
Case in point: when the Flames traded for Hamilton, they knew they were swapping the 15th overall pick and could evaluate the risk and rewards of the move. The further a trade is from the draft, or the more season remains to be played when a pick is moved, the greater the likelihood that a traded first round selection will carry with it some kind of “protection”:
- The Islanders retained the right to defer the first rounder they sent the Sabres for Thomas Vanek from 2014 to 2015 if the 2014 pick was in the top 10.
- On several occasions, a pick is deferred to a future draft in the event a team misses the playoffs – guaranteeing the recipient a good pick, but allowing the trading team some protection.
- The Jets retained the right to defer the first rounder they sent the Blues for Paul Stastny from 2018 to 2019 if the 2018 pick was somehow in top three.
As a general rule, most first rounders are lottery (or playoff) protected if they’re not traded around the trade deadline prior to that year’s draft because of the potential for volatility in the pick’s value. But when the Flames traded for Travis Hamonic at the 2017 NHL Draft, they didn’t protect their 2018 first round selection in any way.
The exceptions over the past few years are pretty easy to spot, because they’ve usually involved teams loading up – usually in-season – for a hopeful Stanley Cup run and reasoning to themselves that, “Hey, it’s worth it if we have a legitimate shot at the Cup.”
- Feb. 28, 2014: The Blues traded their 2015 first round pick, Chris Stewart, Jaroslav Halak, William Carrier and a conditional pick that ended up being a 2016 third round pick to Buffalo for Ryan Miller, Steve Ott and a pair of conditional picks that weren’t exercised. (“If we get Ryan Miller, we’ll have good enough goaltending to win a Stanley Cup!”)
- Mar. 5, 2014: The Rangers traded their 2015 first round pick, Ryan Callahan, a 2014 conditional first round pick and a conditional 2015 seventh round pick to Tampa Bay for Martin St. Louis and a conditional 2015 second round pick. (“If we get Martin St. Louis, we’ll have enough scoring to win a Stanley Cup!“)
- Jan. 2, 2015: The Penguins traded their 2015 first round pick and Rob Klinkhammer to Edmonton for David Perron. (“If we get David Perron, we’ll have enough scoring to win the Stanley Cup!”)
- Jun. 30, 2015: The Sharks traded their 2016 first round pick and the rights to Sean Kuraly to Boston for Martin Jones. (“If we get Martin Jones, we’ll have good enough goaltending to win the Stanley Cup! … And we’ll have him for awhile, too!“)
All four of these big swings could have proven foolish, but they were moves made by teams with a lot of recent success that were trying to push themselves over the top by upgrading a key position. If they had missed the playoffs in the season leading up to the draft they would’ve looked foolish, but it’s hard to argue against giving their teams a chance to make a push.
It’s a bit harder to justify trading a non-lottery protected first round pick to upgrade a team that barely made the playoffs in a wild card position and was swept in four games.