KINGDOMS CAN BE BUILT OR DESTROYED AT THE ENTRY DRAFT
Although the NHL draft is annually one of the most exciting times of the hockey year, the most compelling and surprising moments of the week each year are usually not the picks of amateur players themselves, but the trades that go on in and around the draft.
Most of the top “impact” picks are pre-ordained (Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos), while those who are not are often of the same value with different packaging (Jay Bouwmeester or Eric Staal). Where the surprises come, or some teams’ fans hope they will come, is when a team tries to improve its short-term outlook by dealing away its own draft picks or prospects.
It would be extremely rare for an 18-year-old player to elevate his team to a higher level in his first season in the NHL. Even players like Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin could not get their respective teams to the playoffs in their rookie seasons.
However, a draft-floor trade can turn a losing organization into a playoff hopeful, a good team into a contender or a very strong team into a Cup favorite. Landing that key piece that addresses a team’s immediate need at the draft can make the biggest difference in that team’s season for the least “cost,” more so than the July free agency signing period or the late-season trade deadline.
Unrestricted free agents have a solid history of declining performance (no citation needed here) after signing and are prohibitively expensive in a salary cap world and trade deadline acquisitions of the last few seasons have been much sweeter for the seller than the buyer (Tkachuk to Atlanta, Smyth to the Islanders, Guerin to San Jose, Jokinen to Calgary and so on). Brian Burke has assailed for years the lunacy of most deadline trades, but management continues to prove P.T. Barnum right.
Occasionally, a deadline trade has been worthwhile (Hossa to Pittsburgh, Roloson to Edmonton), but the ratio of successful entry draft trades to worthwhile trade deadline deals tips solidly in favor of June. For example, Calgary acquired Mike Cammalleri at the draft before last season and he was gold for them. The acquisition of Jokinen at the deadline, not so much. The knowledgeable management team will know that the trading market in connection with the entry draft will be their best opportunity to improve their team, and at the best value.
PREPARING FOR THE MOST IMPORTANT TRADING EVENT OF THE YEAR
Knowing the trades made around the draft will determine the fortunes of one’s team, how does an assistant GM (or his equivalent on a given team) prepare for the entry draft week?
The assistant GM is the one responsible for effectuating the decisions of the GM, basically making sure not only that a proposed trade happens, but that it happens in such a way so as not to hurt the team.
For example: a GM wants to trade for player Joe Smith, for sound hockey reasons, and gives up his first round pick and a top prospect. However, the assistant GM does not apprise him that although Smith played only 38 games in his first year, he was on an NHL roster for more than 40 games (which does not show up in the NHL Guide and Record Book) and is an unrestricted free agent after the coming season, even though the GM thought he had Smith for two more seasons. This is the kind of disaster only thorough preparation can prevent.
The first key to preparing for draft trades is for an assistant GM to make sure he knows from his GM the whole world (to the extent possible) of potential trading partners and players on the block. This can be challenging because it requires complete trust between the GM and assistant GM (some GMs never share with any of their subordinates what they are thinking or planning until the moment of truth).
Analysis by the GM and staff determines not only whom they know is available for trade, but which players may become available or should be available based on an opposing team’s circumstances. Once this very inclusive list is determined, the real work begins.
From the universe of potentially available players, the assistant GM will have to review their contracts and bring them to the draft (this used to be a large paper file, now it is a pdf on a flash drive).
The next step is to determine each player’s status vis-à-vis the league’s collective bargaining agreement. This would include each player’s waiver status, his first opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent, restricted free agent offer sheet appeal and, finally, club and player arbitration rights and the player’s expected award in any arbitration proceeding. Now the team should have a page, including the player’s statistical history, giving an outline of the prospective player.
Step 2 is to dig deeper, to get “granular” as the bores in finance and accounting say, “Sorry, guys, but you are at least very accurate, especially with paychecks.”
This means going through scouting reports and speaking to the pro scouts about the player’s history, personality and experience in other organizations, including at the amateur level, to get a strong feel for why that player has or has not succeeded in the given circumstances of his career.
What style of coach or system did the player thrive under or begrudgingly suffer? Were there unknown injuries that were relevant, or personal circumstances, like a divorce or sickness of a child that should be taken into account to enlighten the objective statistics of his career?
Finally, the assistant GM must read over the entry draft rules carefully. They are not overly complicated, but a mistake can cost the team a pick or a player – as happened with Edmonton in 2002 when they chose an ineligible player (Robin Kovar) in the fourth round.
With all of this information, to the extent it can be gleaned, the page that was an outline of the player can become a full picture of the player, when put in context. With that in mind, the GM can make the best possible decision for the organization and at the right value.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it certainly is, which is probably why fewer than one third of NHL teams put this much effort into the process right now.
LIFE ON THE TRADING FLOOR
Now the time has come to put into action all of the preparation of the past two months or so leading up to the entry draft.
The future of the organization is at stake. Whether one is trying to “buy” and make the team better in the short run or “sell” and create a perennial contender for future years, now is the time to connect perception to reality and, in the words of Larry the Cable Guy, “git r’ done.”
The first round of the draft has the most tension and excitement on the floor as pick are made and GMs call one another and visit other tables, kicking around ideas.
A team cannot call a timeout in the first round and then make a trade. This may not sound like a big deal, but it has big repercussions. On the one hand, it pushes teams to have potential deals already discussed, weighed and ready to go. On the other, it makes for uncertainty as a given team’s turn to pick approaches.
This is because no GM really trades the 20th pick or the 11th pick or even the 29th pick in the draft. What he is trading, in his mind, is the opportunity to get a certain player, always referred to as “my guy.”
So, if the seventh player on a team’s ranking list is available at the 20th pick, that GM would feel like he actually had a top ten pick and would be less likely to trade it. But, if a team’s amateur staff basically values the 15th through 25th players on their list roughly the same, the 20th pick is a much easier pick from which to drop down.
This means many of the trades involving first round picks (and the hundreds that don’t actually happen) are set up as the time to make a pick approaches.
The traditional way the first round trades on the floor are set up is GM A will offer two picks to GM B, say for the 15th pick in the draft. GM B will usually say, “I will do it if ‘my guy’ is not available when the pick comes up.” Conversely, GM A will say that he will only consummate the trade if “his guy” is available at the pick.
This leaves two assistant GMs to run up to the front of the floor with a signed trade agreement just after the 14th pick is announced, because if the trade is not official within three minutes and a pick is announced, a team is either going to lose the pick or miss the trade opportunity.
When you watch the first round on television on Friday night, the most nervous face you will see at the table as a team’s turn to pick approaches will be the guy responsible for papering any trades.
If it isn’t his first rodeo, he will know enough not to drink too much coffee (or water) before the first round begins, because there are about three hours when he will not want to leave his post under any circumstances.
A botched trade or missed opportunity is one thing to deal with (and has happened to teams over the years), but to be tagged for the rest of your career with the “I was in the bathroom” label would be lethal.
Tom Lynn served for nine seasons as Assistant General Manager of the Minnesota Wild and for six seasons as General Manager of the Houston Aeros. Prior to that he was an attorney in New York representing the NHL and other sports entities in a wide variety of legal matters, and has taught Sports Law at St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota.