The first overall draft pick has been traded just five times in NHL history. Somehow, the Florida Panthers have traded away three of them.
The first of those trades can be somewhat excused, as it came months before the draft, well before the Panthers knew they were going to win the 1998 draft lottery and select first overall. They traded their first round pick, along with Dave Lowry, to the San Jose Sharks for Viktor Kozlov. The Sharks eventually traded the pick to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who used it to select Vincent Lecavalier.
The other two trades were made on the day of the draft. In both 2002 and 2003, the Panthers traded down from the top pick to the third overall pick. In 2002, the Columbus Blue Jackets used the first overall pick to select Rick Nash. In 2003, the Pittsburgh Penguins used it to take Marc-Andre Fleury.
Once again, the Panthers hold the first overall pick and rumours are swirling that they are once again willing to make a trade. If they go through with it, it would be an astounding fourth time the Panthers have traded the first overall pick. The thing is, it actually made perfect sense to trade the pick in 2002 and 2003 and the same is true this year.
The rumour mill, in the meantime, has kicked into high gear, with Gary Mason of the Globe and Mail suggesting the Canucks are “desperate” to move up in the draft in order to select Sam Reinhart.
Mason’s source is a player agent rather than someone within the organization, so it’s fair to take the report with a grain of salt, but Jim Benning confirmed that the Canucks will explore moving up and spoke quite highly of Reinhart after interviewing him at the combine.
“He’s a real smart guy and he had these measured answers,” Benning said. “Halfway through the interview, I said: ‘It’s just like talking to your dad.’”
“We’re going to talk to the other teams and we’re going to see what the price is to move up,” Benning said.
“As we get closer to the draft, there’s going to be more dialogue with other teams. It just depends on the price on what it’s going to take to get higher.
Every year, it seems, the team holding the top pick broadcasts their willingness to trade the pick “if the right deal comes along” and every year the right deal fails to materialize. Either the cost is too high for other teams to pay or the team with the top pick has a near-guaranteed franchise player in their sights and refuses to budge.
This year might be different, however, simply because of the way the talent is distributed in the draft this year. There’s no consensus number one pick or even a two-man race, but instead a top-four group that lacks a true can’t-miss prospect like in previous years. There’s no Nathan MacKinnon, John Tavares, or Steven Stamkos in this draft.
After that top-four, however, there is a lot of depth in the first round, with little separating the players available. This is Benning’s assessment as well:
“Maybe the high end isn’t there with the big names, the scoring superstar,” Benning said. “But I think there is good depth there this year from the five pick through 30.”
That’s why it makes sense for the Panthers to explore trading away the top pick. If they have their eyes set on a player outside of the consensus top-four of Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, and Leon Draisaitl, there’s no reason for them to keep the number one pick. It’s the same reasoning that led to the Panthers trading away the first overall pick the last two times.
In 2002, the Panthers wanted to draft the top defenceman, Jay Bouwmeester. The two teams behind them, the Atlanta Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets, desperately needed a franchise goaltender and forward, respectively. Thus, the Panthers could be confident that trading with the Blue Jackets wouldn’t cost them the player they truly wanted.
That said, they made a mess of the trade anyways, failing to pick up any additional assets: the deal included an optional trade of first round picks the following year. Since the Panthers ended up with the first overall pick again, they chose not to exercise that option.
In 2003, it made even more sense, simply because of the wealth of talent available that year. The trade negotiations with Pittsburgh likely let them know that the Penguins were eager to draft Marc-Andre Fleury and, with the 24-year-old Roberto Luongo on the roster, the Panthers had no need for the highly-touted goaltender. Moving down simply meant they’d have second pick of the forwards available.
The Panthers took Nathan Horton with the third overall pick, one of 16 future All-Stars taken in the first round that year. You could argue that they should have kept the top pick and selected Eric Staal, who instead went second overall to the Carolina Hurricanes, but Horton was actually ranked ahead of Staal by International Scouting Services and hindsight is 20/20.
The situation is similar for the Panthers this year: if they can select the player they truly want –rumour has it they’re targetting William Nylander — with a later pick, they should absolutely trade down in order to pick up additional draft picks and roster players.
The question is whether it makes sense for the Canucks to be their trade partner. Sam Reinhart is certainly an interesting prospect, one who is expected to remain at centre in the NHL rather than move to the wing. He projects as better than Bo Horvat, potentially giving the Canucks a potent one-two punch down the middle for years to come. He’s also a local boy, born in North Vancouver, which would endear both him and the Canucks’ new General Manager to fans.
Reinhart is a clear step above many of the other projected first round picks, like Jake Virtanen, Nick Ritchie, Brendan Perlini, and Jared McCann. He tied for the most points among draft-eligible players in the CHL with Leon Draisaitl, but scored his 105 points in fewer games.
The gap isn’t quite as large when it comes to other players expected to be available to the Canucks, however, like William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kevin Fiala, and Kasperi Kapanen. He’s certainly a more complete player, but is the edge that he has over these other prospects worth the assets it would take to get him?
The question comes down, as it usually does, to cost.
The rumour mill has churned out the idea that the Panthers are looking for a top-four defenceman, so Canucks fans are eager to suggest sending Jason Garrison back to Florida. The only problem is that he has a no-trade clause and asking him to waive it to return to his former team seems far-fetched. Besides, Dale Tallon is the guy who didn’t re-sign Garrison back in 2012, so he may not want him at all.
Who, then? Chris Tanev, who is just entering his prime? Alex Edler, who Trevor Linden just confirmed won’t be traded? Bieksa? Hamhuis? Somehow, I don’t see this happening.
Ben Kuzma suggests another route:
They could package the No. 6 pick in this draft and 2013 first-round pick Bo Horvat — projected as a third-round (sic) centre — to get the first-overall pick that the Florida Panthers are shopping. The Canucks can play centre Shawn Matthias on the third line. That concept would allow the Canucks to grab local centre Sam Reinhart.
This seems even less likely to happen than the Canucks trading a top-four defenceman. Benning seems very high on Horvat and likely sees him as having greater potential than simply a third-line centre. That’s a dramatic underselling of Horvat’s ceiling to make the idea of trading a ninth overall pick and a sixth overall pick for the first overall pick seem reasonable.
Here’s the final sticking point: the Canucks would be better off with Horvat and whoever they pick at 6th overall than with just Reinhart, and that’s assuming that Horvat and the 6th pick would be the end of the deal. A lesser prospect, like Nicklas Jensen or Brendan Gaunce, would be easier to swallow, but then other assets would almost certainly be involved.
Quite frankly, if the Panthers see so much value in picking outside of the top-five that they’re willing to trade down, then perhaps there’s no reason for the Canucks to trade up at all.
While Reinhart is unlikely to fall to 6th overall, there’s a chance that one of Bennett, Draisaitl, or Michael Dal Colle, the consensus fifth best player available, will. Even if they don’t, the Canucks will have their pick of Nylander, Ehlers, or Kapanen, all of whom project as first-line forwards and could wind up being the best player to come out of this draft. My personal preference would be Nylander, who also gets the nod of approval from none other than Markus Naslund.
Then again, if the Canucks don’t trade up, they may end up drafting Virtanen, Ritchie, or Perlani, all of whom, for various reasons, I am very wary. In that case, I can’t help but hope that Benning does make a deal, but to move down the draft rather than up. I would be far more comfortable with the Canucks picking that type of player further down in the first round, particularly if it meant picking up an additional first round pick to stock up the prospect pool.