Keith Yandle was an enormous acquisition for the New York Rangers, but it comes at the cost of yet another first-round pick
Since the calendar turned to 2015, the Pittsburgh Penguins have acquired four players – David Perron, Daniel Winnik, Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole. And they’ve shipped out Simon Despres, Robert Bortozzo and Rob Klinkhammer and four draft picks – first- and fourth-rounders in 2015 and second- and seventh-rounders in 2016.
And they might lose in the first round of the playoffs.
The team they would play in the first round of the playoffs if the regular season were to end today would be the New York Rangers. They’ve added Keith Yandle, Karl Klingberg, James Sheppard, Chris Summers and a fourth-round pick in 2015. And they’ve surrendered Lee Stempniak, Anthony Duclair, John Moore, a first-round pick in 2016 and a second-rounder in 2015.
And they might lose in the first round of the playoffs, too. Assuming they stay where they are in the Metropolitan Division standings, one of them is going to be hitting the beach by mid-April. By the time the Stanley Cup is awarded in mid-June, they’ll already be deep into their off-season training regimens.
All of which tells us one thing. The next time a GM prattles on about how important it is to draft and develop players in the salary cap era, you are free to roll your eyes. When the standings are as close as they are and the teams are as weak as they are in the Eastern Conference, it makes everything wide open. And when a team senses it can make a deep playoff run right now, to heck with the future. In fact, it makes you wonder whether all that much has changed since 1996, when then-Toronto Maple Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher went on his famous “draft, schmaft” diatribe.
And in a salary cap era when picks are supposed to be a valuable commodity, GMs spent the time leading up to the trade deadline throwing them around as though they were coming out of a Pez dispenser. Not even one the dullest final days of the trade deadline in history could blunt the fact that draft picks and prospects were changing hands at a dizzying rate.
This is an unofficial count, but in the week leading up to the trade deadline, a total of 39 draft picks changed hands. In the 2015 draft, three first-round picks were traded, along with nine second-rounders, six third-rounders and six beyond the third round. In 2016, one first-rounder was dealt, along with two second-rounders, five third rounders and six more beyond the third round. One second-round pick from 2017 was included in the proceedings.
Brett Connolly for two second-round picks? Now that’s a desperate team. Giving up a young, rugged defenseman in Radko Gudas and a first-rounder for Braydon Coburn? All right, if you say so. A first-rounder and a 20-year-old prospect (and Olli Jokinen) for two expiring contracts in Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson? That’s taking your eye off the future.
When all of the dust settles, the Rangers will have gone without a first-round pick in four consecutive drafts from 2013 through 2016. That has only happened four other times in NHL history, twice by the St. Louis Blues, once by the Detroit Red Wings and once by the Los Angeles Kings. Of course, when you look at their history of first-round picks, perhaps that’s for the best. In the 15 drafts Glen Sather has overseen, the Rangers have had 12 first-round picks and only three of them, Michael Del Zotto, Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller, have gone on to become full-time NHL players. In the past six drafts, the Rangers have drafted a total of 35 players and only two of them – Miller and Kreider – are contributing to the organization today. But then again, the Rangers went to the Stanley Cup final last spring and many observers are choosing them to do it again.
And to be fair, the Rangers have Yandle, Martin St-Louis and Rick Nash to show for those four first-round picks. And if the Rangers do end their two decade Stanley Cup drought with those players contributing to it, nobody will care how good those picks turned out to be. But you can’t keep dealing away picks and taking bad players in the draft and not have it catch up to you. Sather, of all people, should know that from his days running the Edmonton Oilers.
The Detroit Red Wings went four straight years, from 2001 through 2004 without a first-round pick, then ended up winning the Stanley Cup four years later. That kind of defies logic because they should have been winning with the top prospects they got from those drafts. It helps, though, that they managed to get Jiri Hudler, Tomas Fleischmann, Valtteri Filppula, Jimmy Howard and Johan Franzen in the subsequent rounds of those drafts.
So what does this year’s trade deadline tell us about the dealing of draft picks and prospects? Well, perhaps they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. Because it seems the teams that are consistently good keep giving them away and the ones that are in a perpetual rebuild keep stockpiling them.