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Should the Leafs trade for a first round pick?

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No. But should you ever? We could ask the Jets, I guess.

Boston Bruins v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Six Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Whenever an NHL team trades its first round draft pick, the expectation is that the GM will seek to replace it. It’s not so much traditional thinking as just an expectation that having a first-round pick is necessary, not as one of your list of assets to use in whatever way is best, but necessary to have on draft day.

The format of the draft — where the first round is on Friday — drives home the teams that don’t get to pick someone. It is true that teams have made efforts to “get a first” in the past. For some GMs, they might feel they have to, if ownership has a what have you done for me lately mentality and will forget the reason the pick was traded away in the first place. If that trade was a bad one, then the pressure to replace it is higher.

St. Louis is pretty happy with the first they traded for Ryan O’Rielly right now. Ottawa is a different story.

Trading the First Rounder Away

On February 26, 2018 the Nashville Predators made a very bad trade. They sent their 2018 first-round pick (and their fourth-rounder) to Chicago in a deal that netted them Ryan Hartman. Hartman is a young winger who can most directly be compared to Zach Hyman. This was an incomprehensible trade, and in a fit of buyer’s remorse you could see coming seconds after the deal was done, Nashville traded Hartman to the Flyers this year in the Wayne Simmonds deal. Philadelphia won both of these trades.

In defence of the Nashville GM, the pick ended up being the 27th overall, and at the time of the trade, he had reason to hope it might be an even worse pick. But even if that trade had involved a second-rounder, it was still bad.

That left Nashville with no first-round pick, but they held fast and didn’t compound the error (immediately) with a hasty pick trade. They didn’t trade their first this year, however, perhaps having learned to be more cautious at the trade deadline.

The Calgary Flames traded away their 2018 first-round pick in the summer of 2017 when they overpaid for Travis Hamonic. There was a lot of media pressure for the Flames to replace that pick last summer. Bear in mind that two things are different about the Flames situation: the pick ended up being the 12th overall and the Flames are in Canada, and are therefor subject to the “insiders” news and hype effect.

The Hamonic trade might illustrate that it’s easier to trade away next year’s first-round pick, than the one you’ll use in a few days, which is what they did in June of 2017, but it also illustrates that if you’re trading away your firsts during a building up phase for your team, you likely aren’t going to recoup them, so make those trades count.

To get a first-round pick, you have to trade away a player, a real player, and only very rarely someone like Ryan Hartman. The Flames didn’t hobble their 2018 season by removing a roster player just to get a pick, and they sat out the first day of the draft last summer, and oh, by the way, they’d traded their 2018 second-round pick for Hamonic too.

They may not have made the mistake of seeking to get another first-rounder, but they didn’t mitigate the lack of picks either. They had traded their third-rounder a few days before the Hamonic deal for Mike Smith. In 2017, the Flames were aggressively going for it. By the time 2018 rolled around, and they hadn’t made the playoffs, they were stuck with no way out of the mess they’d made other than to live with it. The fact that they did just live with it was smart for them.

The Leafs Sell a First Rounder

2016 was the year that everyone was swapping first-rounders to move up or down a few spots, but there was one legitimate first round pick acquired in a trade. It wasn’t a replacement for a lost pick, though. The Ducks got the Leafs’ extra first-rounder in the Frederik Andersen deal — a very unpopular trade with Leafs fans who were hungry to use that pick on a prospect.

This is where the source of the media pressure and fan expectation to replace your lost first comes from. Fans want to get something good on Hockey Christmas. They don’t want to be stuck with no present to unwrap on Christmas Eve while everyone else gets something. That’s boring. Fans want a new toy.

The first the Leafs spent was the Pittsburgh pick they got in the much-maligned Phil Kessel trade. The pick ultimately became the worst first there is, since Pittsburgh put Kessel to good use and won the cup. But the 31st overall is not magically better than the 32nd overall, and trading it to a team who overvalues it is always smart.

The Ducks took Sam Steel, who isn’t yet in the NHL, and while they could have taken Alex Debrincat, though, or Sam Girard or Carter Hart or Victor Mete with that pick, they also could have taken Adam Mascherin or Jonathan Dahlen. Even when you’re sure you know who should be taken, and even if you turn out to be right — on draft day, every team is gambling with what they think they know about the actual players available.

When Should You Replace the First Rounder?

Rebuilding teams can and should replace a lost first rounder if they can, and 2015 shows exactly how to do it smart.

This story starts in 2013, when the New York Islanders hadn’t yet grasped they weren’t very good. They traded their 2015 first and second for Thomas Vanek. It is really easy to trade your picks away two years ahead. But by the time the first day of the 2015 draft was over, the Islanders had two new prospects they’d taken in the first round. They didn’t just replace the lost 21st overall, they bettered it and added a spare.

The spare was acquired from the Lightning in a pick trade. Tampa got back the 33rd overall and the 72nd for their low-quality 28th overall first. This is a smart trade for Tampa, and doesn’t look all that bright for the Islanders. Tampa took Mitchell Stephens with the 33rd, likely the same guy they were planning on with the 28th. The Islanders took Anthony Beauvillier, and that worked out (eventually) really well for them. Oh, and Tampa took Anthony Cirelli with the lesser pick. The more picks you have, the more chances you have to hit it big in a the later rounds, and Cirelli is a knock it out of the park pick at 72.

But luckily for the Islanders, their dealing didn’t begin with the Lightining, where no one wins trades very often. No, they started out by calling Edmonton. The Islanders actually got that 33rd overall they tossed to Tampa from the Oilers, so maybe it was easier for them to make an ill-advised pick trade to get the cachet of having a first when you’re spending something you’ve only had for five minutes. They also got something else from the Oilers, all for the low, low price of Griffin Reinhart. They got the 16th overall pick and they used it to draft Mat Barzal.

This wasn’t the Oilers’ own first rounder, so again, perhaps it was easier to make one of the stupidest draft-day trades of all time with it. This was the Pittsburgh pick that the Oilers had acquired for David Perron back in January of 2015 when it was clear Perron had given up on the Oilers ever being a hockey team. I wonder what ever happened to him?

The Perron trade was smart. The Oilers, who were terrible, traded a good player who was in a spiral of discontent before he got too bad to be worth anything. They got a great return for Perron. And then they turned it into dust. It’s not so important to have the first rounder on draft day. It’s just important not to have wasted it on magic beans.

The Winnipeg Jets just sold off a player they knew wasn’t going to sign for term for their own first-round pick back in the Jacob Trouba trade. They had originally sent the pick, this year’s 20th overall as it turned out, to the Rangers for Kevin Hayes. Hayes helped them through six playoff games, and likely will be quickly forgotten in Winnipeg. They did manage to get a fifth-round pick for his rights from the Flyers, who will likely sign him soon (although it would be very funny if he re-signed with the Rangers). This is a weird one, where the two decisions: acquiring Hayes and not trading Trouba at the deadline added up to Winnipeg losing out on not just their own pick, but likely a very lucrative haul that Trouba would have brought to a team destined for a longer playoff run.

But you can’t predict the future, so their decision to add at the last deadline shouldn’t be looked at just in hindsight. They did at least get themselves back to square on their own pick, which might be what they set out to do, and if so — if they limited themselves to trading with the Rangers to get their own pick — then that’s not going to get you the best return. But teams seem mystically attached to not just a first-rounder, but their own first, even when it’s not very good. Part of the reason for the weak return for Trouba could well be that they could not take back a player with any sort of real money or term, which is just another way to hand the power to the other side. Just like last year at the draft, it’s easy being the Rangers right now, and hard to make deals with them.

Should the Leafs Replace the Muzzin Pick?

Muzzin is not magic beans, he’s a good player who was worth the price paid. And no, the Leafs should not seek to replace that pick like the Jets did. There isn’t a single player on the Leafs who could return a first rounder, even a bad one, that isn’t worth more to the team on the team. None of the players who want to leave are worth a first, or this might be a different sort of conclusion.

Now, about that second rounder. It would look really nice split into two picks for two chances at the draft wheel of fate. Somewhere outside the top 60 lurks a future star or two or three, and the more chances you have to pick him, the better your odds.