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If the right trade comes along the Penguins should move their first-round pick and not think twice about it

This is still the time to go for it if you have the chance.

2021 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Ryan Yorgen/NHLI via Getty Images

Given their salary cap situation I am not entirely sure what the Pittsburgh Penguins can add at the NHL trade deadline. Given the way the team has played this season I am not even really sure what major need they might have or what trade they absolutely have to make. Maybe a backup goalie, but that is not something that is going to require a significant investment in trade capital.

They should still explore what is out there, because as we have seen over the first half of the season this team is still very much a Stanley Cup contender. When you are Stanley Cup contender, and when you have the remaining productive years of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang, your mindset should be entirely on the present.

This is worth mentioning because a couple of executives whose teams should be in that mode made some interesting comments this past week about their trade deadline approach, including the Penguins’ own Brian Burke.

Now, public comments from team executives should always be taken with a grain of salt because actions matter more than words. Everybody that gets behind a podium to speak has an agenda and is going to choose their words carefully and only reveal what they want you to know (or what they want to distract you with). But the strategy is still worth discussing.

Yesterday, we had this from Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland, an executive whose team mostly stood pat at the deadline a year ago despite having the two best offensive players in the world right now and was playing in a very winnable playoff bracket.

“Why would I trade our first-round pick or one of our top prospects for a rental to give us a bit of a boost now, then next year we have a press conference and you’re asking about us needing more depth? The depth has to come internally,” said Holland. “That’s how I did it in Detroit, that’s how the best teams do it. Being patient with young people.

“If your question is whether I would trade our best prospects and that guy goes and flourishes in another organization for five, six, 10 years for somebody to give us a bump now and that person leaves after the season, no I wouldn’t do that.

“Now, I understand Connor is 25 and Leon is 26. Would I make something that is a hockey trade, somebody for this year and beyond? That’s a different story.”

Then earlier this week, this from Burke....

“What assets are we going to give up to add? The answer is not many,” Burke said. “It’s time for this team to stop the steady, and this will come out as a negative and I don’t want it to because I love (former Penguins president and general manager) Jim (Rutherford), but stop the trend where we are going to give away a lot for a 20 percent chance at winning. You get close, you add, and Jim did what he was supposed to do. But we have to stop that trend at some point.”

These are obviously two different people in two very different situations. The Penguins are clearly contenders. The Oilers clearly are not (they should be, though). But there is a common underlying philosophy there in looking toward the future.

The one thing that I consistently loved about Jim Rutherford’s Penguins tenure is that he was always all in. I may not have liked the individual moves, I may not have always liked the players he went after or acquired or the lack of a coherent plan from day to day, but I loved that he realized the situation and did not fall into the trap of hoarding draft picks or prospects.

Chances are your team is overvaluing its own prospects and overvaluing its own draft picks.

Burke mentioned stopping the trend of giving away a lot for a 20 percent chance of winning. Why would the Penguins potentially pass on an opportunity to add another potential impact player at what is maybe a 10 percent chance of finding an impact player?

Even if the Penguins do not win the Stanley Cup this season (and odds are they will not, not because they are not capable of it, but picking one team against the field is never in your favor) their first-round pick is likely to be somewhere in the 20-32 range. That is not really an area where you are going to find a franchise-altering player.

The “keep the first-round pick” mindset is based on trying to prepare the Penguins for sustained success after Crosby, Malkin, and Letang are no longer playing in Pittsburgh. It makes sense, but the odds of the Penguins finding a player with that pick that dramatically alters their future rebuild is shockingly low.

Just for laughs, let’s go back and look at the drafts between 2005 and 2015 (I cut off at 2015 because that is long enough time back to know if any player taken is going to be an impact player in the NHL or not) and look at the players taken between picks 20 and 32 in those years.

There were 141 players taken in those slots.

Out of those 141 there have been 126 that have played at least one NHL game (89 percent).

There have been 80 that have played in at least 100 NHL games (56.7 percent).

There have been 61 that have played in at least 200 NHL games (43.2 percent).

There have only been 13 players (minimum 100 games) that have averaged more than a 50-point pace per 82 games (9.2 percent).

That group is here....

There are some good players there, to be sure. But how many of them are players that you look at and say “cornerstone of a rebuild?”

Maybe the top-five?

Let’s factor in goalies and see that the top-three goalies taken in these slots were Tuukka Rask, Semyon Varlamov, and Jacob Markstrom. As good as Varlamov and Markstrom have been at times, I am not sure I would call them “franchise” goalies. So let’s add Rask to the mix of cornerstone players and say there are six of them.

That is about a 4.2 percent chance of hitting on that type of player with that pick.

Suddenly that 20 percent chance of winning the Stanley Cup is looking pretty good.

Here is my point. The Penguins should not trade their first-round pick just for the sake of trading. Or any prospect or pick for that matter. But if they have a chance to add somebody that can truly make a difference (and I really do not want to hear about the salary cap; teams always figure out a way to make the salary cap work when they identify a player they want. That is the secondary concern here) there is no way that pick should be off the table because you think you have to stop trading future assets. There is going to come a point in the next few years where the Penguins do have to rebuild and retool their roster and entire organization. After two decades on top it is going to be inevitable. But chances are there is not a player in the back half of the 2022 NHL draft that is going to significantly impact that rebuild in a positive way.

You still have a chance to win a Stanley Cup. Go for it. Banners hang forever.