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What will the NHL do about conditional picks and rentals if the season is cancelled?

There was a flurry of trades involving conditional picks and rentals at the trade deadline. So what happens in the season is cancelled and those conditions can't possibly be met?
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Scenario No. 1: When the Vancouver Canucks acquired J.T. Miller from the Tampa Bay Lightning last summer for a first-round pick in 2020, the trade carried a caveat. And that was if the Canucks missed the playoffs this season, that pick would transfer to 2021.

Scenario No. 2: When the Calgary Flames traded James Neal to the Edmonton Oilers for Milan Lucic, there was a stipulation that would see the Flames get the Oilers’ third-round pick in 2020 if Neal scored 21 or more goals and Lucic finished with 10 fewer than Neal. When play was suspended March 12, Neal had 19 goals with 11 games remaining and Lucic had eight with 12 to go.

Let’s go on the assumption that there is no way the NHL will be able to get anything resembling a credible NHL season in and at some point, the decision is made to scrap the 2019-20 campaign. That’s where things will get interesting.

In Scenario No. 1, let’s say the Canucks really like this year’s draft class because there’s a lot to like. According to the standings on the day the season ended, the Canucks were out of the playoffs. But if you applied points percentage, the Canucks would have been a playoff team and the Winnipeg Jets would have slipped out of the wildcard spot in the Western Conference. The Jets, meanwhile, traded for hometown boy Cody Eakin at the deadline and that deal had a condition that the fourth-round pick in 2021 they gave up would become a third-round pick if either the Jets make the playoffs or they sign Eakin before July 5. Both teams would have a legitimate argument that they are not playoff teams, which would alter the complexion of those trades. The New Jersey Devils, who acquired the Lightning’s pick in exchange for Blake Coleman at the trade deadline, would have an argument that, based on their points percentage they are a playoff team, and that pick should go to them in 2020.

In Scenario No. 2, you could see the Edmonton Oilers arguing that Neal did not score 21 goals this season, end of story. But the Calgary Flames would have a valid argument that, with 19 goals in 55 games, Neal was on a 22-goal pace and, with eight in 68 games, Lucic was on pace to get nine, so they should receive a third-round pick.

There was a dizzying number of trades made with all sorts of conditions leading up to the trade deadline this season, but what will the league do if there’s no way those conditions can be met, or even resolved by conventional means. If the NHL does have a plan, the GMs who made those trades have no idea what it entails. “Yes, we have contemplated those issues in connection with a variety of issues we will have to be dealing with in the event we are unable to complete the season,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to “Obviously, no decisions on any of those issues yet, but they have received attention.”

And what to do about teams that acquired pending unrestricted free agents at the deadline in exchange for draft picks? What to do about them? For example, the Carolina Hurricanes three assets for Sami Vatanen at the trade deadline. One of them was a 21-year-old named Janne Kuokkanen who scored 42 points in 52 games for their farm team and became New Jersey’s sixth-best prospect. Vatanen, who was injured at the time of the trade, did not play a single game for Carolina and is pending UFA. The Hurricanes were fully aware that Vatanen had been out with a right leg injury when they acquired him, but were confident he’d be back for the stretch run and the playoffs. They also gave up a fourth-round pick. So now should the Hurricanes be penalized that heavily for operating under the illusion there would be a season and playoffs in which they would have been able to use Vatanen as a rental?

One solution is compensatory picks. The Hurricanes also gave up a fourth-round pick in that deal, so perhaps right after that pick, the Hurricanes receive a fourth-rounder of their own. But that hardly makes up for it. “I would just jam those things in as compensatory picks in those rounds,” one GM said. “If you paid a draft pick for an out-and-out rental, you did it for a reason. I wouldn’t reimburse Tampa Bay for getting Coleman or (Barclay) Goodrow because they still have a year left on their deals and they’ve got them for next year.”

If the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t created enough problems for the NHL, this is another headache that may have to be untangled once it’s ready to play games again. The league could simply rule that if conditions aren’t met they don’t apply, which might be the best way to go here. But that doesn’t solve all of its problems. It’s a small issue in the grand scheme of things when it comes to a global pandemic, but an issue nonetheless.

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