Parting with first-round pick a no-brainer for Stanley Cup contenders

Arun Srinivasan
·Writer
·5 min read

There is almost a Pavlovian reaction anytime a first-round pick gets dealt. 

Enamoured by the prospect of what could be, without further consideration, fans and prognosticators alike often grimace at the idea that this future asset is being squandered for Just Some Guy. If anything, this year's NHL trade deadline proved another simple axiom to be true: not all first-round picks are created equal and they can be disposable in pursuit of genuine Stanley Cup contention. 

Ahead of Monday's deadline, the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals all got rid of their first-round pick in order to acquire a key player who can present immediate impact and value. Only one can team win it all, and there's no guarantee it'll be one of these four teams – although, you don't necessarily have to be an economist to take these four against the field. 

Related: Winners and losers from the 2021 NHL trade deadline

There might be a term for this phenomena, but we'll call it the "Mystery Box Corollary." Let's say you're the Maple Leafs, knowing all too well this may be your best chance at winning a Stanley Cup. You could hold onto the pick, projected to be 24th overall, and hey, it could be anything, even someone who could become as productive as Nick Foligno... in 3-4 years, when the window for contention might be gone. Would you rather have the 33-year-old Foligno, who will benefit from improved linemates (hello, John Tavares and William Nylander!) and is among the more defensively responsible forwards in hockey now, or wait for someone who could provide the same relative upside years later? If you have a win-now mandate, like Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is tasked with, the answer should be readily apparent. 

UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - APRIL 11: Kyle Palmieri #21 of the New York Islanders skates against the New York Rangers at the Nassau Coliseum on April 11, 2021 in Uniondale, New York. The Islanders defeated the Rangers 3-2 in overtime. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The New York Islanders rescued their chances of winning a Stanley Cup by trading their first-round pick for Kyle Palmieri. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

For the Islanders, trading their first-round pick, along with a fourth-round pick and two low-level prospects to the Devils in exchange for Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, carries a few tangible rewards. New York is once again punching above its weight after reaching the Eastern Conference final last season, and adding a perennial 20-goal scorer in Palmieri serves as a reward for the team's effort to date. Islanders captain Anders Lee is out indefinitely due to injury, and with the team firmly believing it can win it all, with a firm system in place under mastermind head coach Barry Trotz, they aren't punting on a vital chance at the Cup. This isn't the boring Islanders you've come to expect either, as they lead the NHL with 425 high-danger chances prior to Monday's games, according to Natural Stat Trick

Tampa Bay intimately understands the benefit of sacrificing its first-round pick for an immediate contributor, trading a first-round pick to San Jose last year for Barclay Goodrow, and a conditional first-rounder to New Jersey for Blake Coleman. Coleman and Goodrow, paired on a line with Yanni Gourde, operated as a perfect shutdown line while adding a genuine scoring punch, helping the team lift the Cup. This year, Tampa followed up by trading a first- and third-round pick to Columbus for stay-at-home, right-shot defenseman David Savard. By itself, it would be somewhat underwhelming, but Savard logs almost 20 minutes a night, makes the frightening Lightning even stronger and insured for injury as well. You think Julien BriseBois is worrying about the future when a glorious chance to repeat is right in front of him? Not a chance.

Washington made arguably the most surprising move of Monday's deadline, acquiring Anthony Mantha from Detroit in exchange for a package including a 2021 first-round pick, 2022 second-round pick, Jakub Vrana and Richard Panik. Mantha is a streaky scorer who received next to no offensive support from his linemates with the Red Wings and could very well register the third 20-goal campaign of his young career. By now, Alexander Ovechkin's long march to the 2018 title is part of league canon, and the Capitals can ill-afford to waste another year of the tail end of his and Nicklas Backstrom's prime. Shoot first, ask questions later has to be the motto, literally and figuratively for Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. 

The 2021 draft class is shaping up to be the weakest in recent memory, an easy, perhaps admittedly lazy talking point, which isn't any less true because of its ubiquity. There's no intention to slander Owen Power or Brandt Clarke or Matthew Beniers, or the class as a whole, who've faced easily the most difficult set of circumstances any prospective cohort has ever faced. The cruel reality, however, is that these four general managers likely won't be losing any sleep over trading their pick, especially in a year where it's been next to impossible to evaluate players in person. As the saying goes, the draft is a crapshoot, even moreso when the evaluations of said players are stilted due to circumstances brought on by the pandemic. 

There's a reason why first-round picks are so coveted. Hit on a few in a row and it can change the trajectory of your entire franchise. But pretending that all first-round picks should be weighed equally does a disservice for the contenders who are going all-in. Some teams, namely the Avalanche and the Bruins (who ripped off the Sabres badly for Taylor Hall), didn't have to sacrifice their first-round picks at all. All four of the Capitals, Islanders, Lightning and Maple Leafs are better today than they were last month. Waiting for the mystery box to reveal itself sometimes just isn't worth it. 

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