Trading established NHL star for top draft pick not always a slam dunk

The 2022 NHL Draft has come and gone, bringing a number of interesting storylines as free agency is set to begin.

There was perhaps no bigger trade this week, in terms of an impact player being moved, than the Chicago Blackhawks dealing 24-year-old, two-time 41-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat to the Ottawa Senators for three draft picks: seventh overall and 39th overall in 2022, as well as a 2024 third-round pick.

Alex DeBrincat was dealt to the Senators just prior to the NHL draft. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)
Alex DeBrincat was dealt to the Senators just prior to the NHL draft. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

The thinking from the Senators' side is clear: they have missed the playoffs five years in a row, accumulating a number of young players over that span. They have not come even remotely close to qualifying for the playoffs in that time and they want to make the next step and get to the big dance. The Senators were 26th in goals per game last season, their power play ranked 20th and Brady Tkachuk led their team in points with 67 (though it should be noted that Josh Norris had a 35-goal season).

There is still work to be done here but the idea behind adding a player that is tied for the sixth most goals in the league over the past two seasons is obvious.

The water is a bit muddier on the Blackhawks' side but we know their view. They are tearing it down and rebuilding essentially from scratch. Even so, that doesn’t mean you are required to trade a very good 24-year-old in hopes of acquiring high draft picks that could one day become as good as… Alex DeBrincat.

The qualifying offer was a significant factor here. DeBrincat would need to be qualified at $9 million after next season for a potentially awful Chicago team to keep him. And did a team trying to tank and that will presumably be very bad for at least a couple of seasons really need to pay a goal-scoring winger over $9 million? The Blackhawks obviously felt that was fruitless and decided to cut bait now. You can agree or disagree but we know the thinking.

This isn’t the first time we have seen this type of trade — where one team moves an established or a number of established NHLers in a deal that nets a guaranteed top 10 pick. To set the parameters properly here, we are not talking about trading for a player that has been drafted, we are talking about trading for a guaranteed top draft pick where the exact pick number is known.

Perhaps the most notable one over the past decade (until this one), was the Vancouver Canucks trading 27-year-old Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils for the ninth overall pick, which they used to draft Bo Horvat. The Devils were trying to find a successor for Martin Brodeur, who was still with the team at the time, and Schneider was considered one of the most talented goalies in the league, having played 98 NHL games and sporting a .927 save percentage. The season before he was traded, he had become the starter for the Canucks over Roberto Luongo. But the Canucks couldn’t get rid of Luongo’s contract and instead elected to trade Schneider as their team was in transition.

Schneider’s career in New Jersey started well enough and he gave them three good seasons before his play began trending down. By the time they made the playoffs, in his fifth season as a Devil, Keith Kinkaid played 41 regular season games to Schneider’s 40, and it was Kinkaid that started the first two playoff games that year before Schneider took over.

Injuries played a role in Schneider’s decline and had the Devils iced a better team in front of him when he originally went there, perhaps we would look at his tenure a little differently. But ultimately he provided some lousy Devils teams good goaltending before fizzling out and getting a big contract along the way.

Conversely, Horvat has now played 572 games as a Canuck, racking up 366 points. He is the captain of the team and while they haven’t had much success from a team standpoint, the 27-year-old has plenty of opportunities ahead to change that.

The year before this trade, the NHL saw another top 10 pick moved for an established NHLer of note. This time, it was the Pittsburgh Penguins trading Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes for the eighth overall selection, which became Derrick Pouliot, Brandon Sutter and Brian Dumoulin.

At the time, Staal was stuck behind Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby and wanted more responsibility. Funnily enough, he never took off and became a star center. He is still very much one of the best checking-line pivots in the league and has stuck with Carolina ever since the trade. In 10 seasons with the Hurricanes, he has never had more than 20 goals or 48 points. But he’s very good at what he does and is the captain of the team for good reason.

On the other side of this, the acquisition of Brian Dumoulin saved this trade for the Penguins. Pouliot never amounted to anything more than a spot-duty depth defenseman. Brandon Sutter had three forgettable seasons as a bottom-six forward for the Penguins. But Dumoulin has turned into a minute-eating top-pairing shutdown defenseman for Pittsburgh. He was critical to their back-to-back Cups and him alone is arguably worth the trade for the Penguins.

All-in-all, neither team really hit a home run here but both came out with one good player.

The year before that, in 2011, we saw a real whopper. The Columbus Blue Jackets traded Jakub Voracek, the eighth overall pick, which the Flyers used to draft Sean Couturier, and the 68th overall pick (Nick Cousins), to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Jeff Carter.

To some degree it’s not fully fair to judge this trade - Carter had zero interest in playing for Columbus and immediately pushed for a trade. He was an integral player on LA’s two Cup-winning teams and has had an awesome career as a high-end second-line center. But even if the majority of his career took place in Columbus, it’s too difficult to ignore what Philadelphia got back.

Voracek alone went on to become one of the most productive players in the league for seven years. Between the 2012-13 season and the 2018-19 campaign, he was tied for 14th in the NHL in total points.

Then there is Couturier. He has become the Flyers' first-line center, captain, and one of the best two-way pivots in the league. Couturier alone is everything the Flyers could have hoped for in a return for Carter. Add in that they got a top-line scoring winger through his prime, and it’s just a massive haul.

More recently, in 2017, the New York Rangers traded Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to the Arizona Coyotes for Tony DeAngelo and the seventh overall pick in the 2017 draft (Lias Andersson). I don’t think anyone really won that trade if we’re being honest here.

These trades, of course, take years to evaluate. That is the nature of the beast when you are trading for a chance to draft an 18-year-old who has never played in the NHL. While you would think the advantage would go to the team that is acquiring the sure thing, it hasn’t necessarily always played out that way. A large part of this is that you have to hit on the pick. In this case, Kevin Korchinski will have the pressure to not only make the NHL, but to be a very good player once he adjusts.

In DeBrincat’s case, he’ll have to prove he can maintain his impressive production while not playing alongside Patrick Kane, one of the game’s most dynamic point producers. It’s also a league where cap space and financial freedom is king. There is something to be said for that.

It’ll be years before we can really start to see who won this trade - maybe they both will! - and if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that proven production for upside isn’t exactly the slam dunk you would think it is at first glance.

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