Here’s something to watch come the trade deadline: which team ships out a mid-range draft pick to pick up some additional depth in time for the playoff run. Why? Well, if history is any indication, it’s been those pickups, not the splashy, multi-piece deals that seem to grab headlines, that have paid some of the biggest dividends in the stretch run and into the post-season.
Need a recent example? How about the Michal Kempny acquisition by the Washington Capitals last season? Nothing more than a third-pairing defenseman with the Chicago Blackhawks during his first 100-plus games in the NHL, Kempy checked all the boxes for a cost-effective deadline rental. He was capable of depth minutes, he was a pending free agent and his contract was palatable for a team on a tight budget. So, the Capitals flipped a third-rounder to the Blackhawks, and many thought that would be about the last anyone talked about the swap.
Turns out, though, Kempny was a perfect fit in Washington. Through 22 regular season games, he crept up the lineup and it wasn’t long before then-Capitals coach Barry Trotz found some magic in pairing his newest toy with top defenseman John Carlson. The two skated big minutes together, and that continued into the playoffs where Kempny and Carlson were almost inseparable as a pairing, particularly at even strength. While Kempny’s offensive contributions were hardly game-changing — he managed two goals and three points during the campaign and another two goals and five points in the playoffs — his presence was incredibly important to Washington’s ability to round out its ‘D’ corps and ice a Stanley Cup-winning club.
And what became of the third-round pick? Chicago later flipped it, along with a fifth-round selection, to the Arizona Coyotes to move up in the third round of the 2018 draft. With the higher pick, the Blackhawks selected Niklas Nordgren. The jury’s still out on where Nordgren ends up, but for the time being, mark that one a win for Washington.
Kempny isn’t alone in carrying the distinction of budget buy who turned into much more, however. Here are four others who were scooped up during the salary cap era for little and turned into important contributors the rest of the way:
Pittsburgh Penguins acquire: Justin Schultz
Edmonton Oilers acquire: 2016 third-round pick
Schultz’s biggest impact as a Penguin came in his second season with the organization, when he flourished as the top-four defenseman he was expected to be when he entered the NHL. That’s not to say his first turn with Pittsburgh wasn’t impactful, however. While he wasn’t playing top-pairing minutes — he averaged 14:14 during the regular season and 13:01 during the playoffs — Schultz contributed offensively all along the way. In his 18-game run before the post-season, he notched one goal and eight points, adding another four assists in the 15 playoff games he saw as the Penguins went on to win the first of their back-to-back Stanley Cups.
The third-round pick in question ended up being used on Filip Berglund, but the defender has yet to make his way to North America. He’s currently in his third full season with Sweden’s Skelleftea AIK.
Pittsburgh Penguins acquire: Lee Stempniak
Calgary Flames acquire: 2014 third-round pick
Though he’d likely love to be playing this season, there must be some sense of calm for Stempniak entering this campaign’s trade deadline because no contract means no chance he’s packing his bags and moving out of town. That had been the case at the 2016 deadline, when he was traded to the Boston Bruins by the New Jersey Devils, at the 2015 deadline, when he was moved from the New York Rangers to the Winnipeg Jets, and at the 2014 deadline, when the Penguins acquired Stempniak from the Flames.
His output in Pittsburgh wasn’t earth shattering, but it was incredibly consistent. In 34 games as a Penguin, Stempniak scored six goals and 14 points as Pittsburgh made it to the second round of the post-season. He was tied for the fifth in regular season scoring for Pittsburgh after his arrival — four goals, 11 points — and his three post-season points tied him for eighth among Penguins forwards.
As for the pick, the Flames later flipped it to the Chicago Blackhawks for Bryan Bollig.
Chicago Blackhawks acquire: Michal Handzus
San Jose Sharks acquire: 2013 fourth-round pick
At the time the Blackhawks acquired Handzus, he was hardly an impact player and his best years were all but certainly behind him. Formerly a 20-goal, 50-point player, Handzus’ 2012-13 season had been mediocre at best. He had scored one goal and two points in 28 games while skating fourth-line minutes. He was a utility player, nothing more. But something seemed to click in Chicago despite the limited minutes.
In 11 games, he scored one goal and seven points as a fourth-liner for the Blackhawks, and then hit his stride in the post-season. As a dominant Chicago side skated its way to the Stanley Cup, Handzus scored three goals and 11 points while averaging more than 16 minutes per night.
Strangely enough, it turned out that the pick that was dealt to the Sharks, which was originally San Jose’s selection, ended up back with the Blackhawks after the two teams struck a draft day deal that saw this fourth-round choice and a 2014 fifth-round pick go to Chicago in exchange for a 2013 fourth-rounder originally belonging to the Anaheim Ducks and a 2013 fifth-round pick. San Jose ended up netting Fredrik Bergvik and Gage Ausmus with the two selections.
Pittsburgh Penguins acquire: Bill Guerin
New York Islanders acquire: 2009 third-round pick
There was no intention to make this list all about the Penguins, but it just so happens that they’ve turned those mid-range picks into more useful players at the deadline than any other club. No example is better, either, than their acquisition of Guerin at the 2009 deadline.
Snapped up for a pittance at the deadline, Guerin came into the lineup and proceeded to notch five goals and 12 points in 17 games heading into the playoffs, and then he stepped up his game in the post-season. In 24 games, Guerin posted seven goals — including two game-winning goals, one of which was an overtime tally in Game 2 of the opening round against the rival Philadelphia Flyers — and 15 points and was the third-highest Penguins scorer as they went on to win the Stanley Cup. It was the best playoff performance of Guerin’s career.
The Islanders, meanwhile, took the pick and sent it to the then-Phoenix Coyotes for a third-round choice in 2010. Jason Clark, selected with the pick, last split time between the AHL and ECHL in 2013-14.