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Could the Penguins have a first round pick this year after all?

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Will there even be an NHL draft? So many questions, but a season cancellation could offer more possibilities

NHL: MAR 10 Penguins at Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Right now, there are basically no answers for what is going on. Such is life in the uncharted waters we’re all in living in a global pandemic world.

But one interesting wrinkle, of about a million interesting aspects right now for the Penguins, will be how the 2020 NHL draft shapes up.

Pittsburgh traded a first round pick to the Minnesota Wild in February as part of the return for Jason Zucker, but, this trade came with a condition. As CapFriendly has it:

*Conditions: If Pittsburgh misses the 2019-20 playoffs, Pittsburgh has the option to send their 2021 1st round pick instead.

This is smart and has been a standard operating procedure for the Pens under general manager Jim Rutherford since 2015. That year, Rutherford traded his first round pick — with no conditions or protection — to Edmonton for David Perron. But it took the Pens until the last day of the season to clinch a playoff berth, which they did, but they almost handed over a lottery pick away. Since then, whether it’s been Phil Kessel or Zucker, whenever the Pens have traded a first round pick in-season, they’ve protected it. (An exception to the rule was the 2018 Derick Brassard trade where Ottawa made it a point to get the Pens’ first that year, with no conditions). Still, smart stuff by Rutherford after almost getting burned in 2015 to protect his first rounder twice since then.

No one would have predicted on February 10th though that the Pens might not make the playoffs because....Well, maybe the playoffs aren’t going to happen. The NHL’s season and playoffs hang in the balance of the unknown.

Our buds at Hockey Wilderness had this thought too and laid out a bunch of different possibilities. The most likely scenarios right now seem like the NHL season resumes with either a 16 or 24 team playoff format, or is cancelled entirely.

Scenario A is cut and dry, the Wild get Pittsburgh’s 2020 first round pick if the playoffs can be held. The second scenario is the more intriguing — if there are no playoffs, then the Pens can’t make a non-existent tournament and the condition of the Zucker trade seemingly points to Pittsburgh being able to keep their 2020 pick, and kick their 2021 first rounder to Minnesota instead. This could be held up in the semantics and parsing the details of the trade language but it feels right that if there are no 2020 playoffs, by letter of the trade the Pens aren’t obligated to send their pick.

But will it come to that? Rutherford and Wild GM Bill Guerin are obviously close. Rutherford has also mentioned several times his philosophy of wanting to be fair and uphold his reputation as a manager who can work with anyone in the league. It might be in the Pens’ interests to “do right” by Guerin and allow him the 2020 pick, since it is truly only a technicality why Minnesota won’t get it.

Also, if the NHL season is cancelled, the pick order might be determined by reverse points percentage. Right now Pittsburgh has the sixth best points % in the league, meaning their 2020 draft spot based on that would be 25th overall. That’s not an incredibly valuable slot, which is another reason why it might be wise to just allow Minnesota to take it now, finish that trade and move forward with a clean slate. That also allows Pittsburgh to have their 2021 first rounder available for a future trade next year to boost a playoff run.

Then again, the Pens window to win is now. By sheer common sense, a 2020 first round pick ought to be scheduled to arrive to the NHL one year quicker then a 2021 first round pick, who will be a year younger. If you’re the Pens and looking strictly in a vacuum of a cut-throat “what’s best for our championship window” outlook, keeping this year’s pick probably aligns there.

It’s also very true to acknowledge that managing an NHL hockey team does not take place in a vacuum. Rutherford surely won’t want to do a former colleague and friend wrong, nor damage his reputation. Business is business and it might come to that, however at this point there’s so much up in the air that we just don’t know.

However, it’s a fun Sunday thought in a world ground currently to a halt that maybe, just maybe, the Pens might have the opportunity to pick in the first round this year despite the trade they made. You know, if there even is a draft in June.

At this point, anything and everything is on the table, because nothing about the future is certain. What does feel a little more realistic is that Pittsburgh could conceivably hold onto their first round pick in 2020 if the NHL season is cancelled entirely. Right now that is a minor point to follow, but a very interesting one nonetheless.