Capitals

Capitals

As the Feb. 24 trade deadline approaches, the Capitals are clearly all-in on trying to win the Stanley Cup this season. That makes them deadline buyers.

Washington has been one of the top teams in the NHL for practically the entire season. Though this team is not without its flaws, it absolutely should be viewed as a Cup contender and general manager Brian MacLellan should be looking to see if he can improve the roster before the trade deadline.

Knowing this, I have one piece of advice for him and for every general manager in the NHL: don’t trade a first-round draft pick for a rental player.

This should be carved into the door of every general manager’s office and written on the windshields of their car. Every team should hire someone to follow the GM until Feb. 24 and whisper in their ear repeatedly “don’t trade a first for a rental.” There should be reams of paper that say this over and over again a la The Shining dumped on every GM’s desk.

Just. Don’t. Do. It.

I can already hear the grumbling from across the web as I type this.

“No way, the Caps need to be all-in!” as if trading away an important asset is somehow required for any team hoping to win the Stanley Cup. It’s not. What’s more, it’s foolish and not worth it.

That’s not to say any trade the Caps could make between now and the deadline would be a mistake, that the team should not pursue rental players or use draft picks in order to procure those players. They absolutely should, just don’t trade away a first-rounder for a player who is going to be gone in two months.

 

Here’s why giving up a first-round pick for a rental player is never, and I repeat, never a good idea.

It’s not a requirement to win the Cup

Since when did having to trade a first-round draft pick become necessary to win a Stanley Cup? It’s not.

You have to go all the way back to 2012 to find the last time a Stanley Cup winner let go of a first-rounder at the deadline. The Los Angeles Kings acquired Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets for a first-round pick and defenseman Jack Johnson. But there are two very important things to note about that trade. First, Los Angeles was in eighth place when it happened and needed to make a big move just to make the playoffs. Second, Carter was not a rental. In fact, he had a staggering 10 years left on his contract. He is still playing on that same contract to this day. It does not run out until 2022.

If a team wants to acquire a high-end player for 10 years, sure, give up a first-round pick. There’s value to that. The same can’t be said for a rental and there's no reason to think a team has to overpay for a rental. History tells us you don't.

You don’t have to trade a first-round pick just to convince the team they can win the Cup

Whenever a team foolishly deals a first-round pick for a rental, it always comes with a prewritten narrative that is trotted out each and every time.

“This shows that Team X is all-in!"

“Love the message from the GM going all-in!”

“Now there’s no doubt with the players that this team is all-in!”

Hey everyone! Ignore the ridiculous price the team just paid to add this player to the roster! That doesn’t matter so long as everyone knows we’re all-in, right?

That’s completely and utterly ridiculous.

That’s not to say that I don’t believe what a general manager does can affect the mood in the locker room. It certainly would going the other way if a team suddenly became a seller despite the players feeling they had a shot to make a run at the playoffs. My point is that an NHL team is not so mentally fragile that it needs a vote of confidence in the form of a horrible trade to convince them they could actually win a Cup. There are cheaper ways to show the team you believe in them like trading, I don’t know, literally any other draft pick.

Current NHL players are not a “sure thing”

Every draft pick is like a lottery ticket. The chances a team hits on a great player actually aren’t that great. There are a lot of players who are not going to make it to the NHL, including players from the first round. You know NHL players are going to make it to the NHL because...well, they’re already in it.

 

There’s no question that players in the NHL are safer trades than draft picks, but it's still just a lottery ticket.

One of the arguments for trading a first-round pick for a player is that you know who and what that player is, but that a draft pick could be anything from a superstar player to a complete and total bust. That makes the NHL player the safer and, some would argue, the smarter trade.

Yep, no one has ever traded for an established NHL player and regretted it, right? All of those trades definitely pan out.

Every team in the NHL has made a number of unfavorable trades in its history and the Caps are no exception. Remember Kevin Shattenkirk? That was not a shot in the dark move by MacLellan, Shattenkirk was considered the top target of the deadline in 2017. That was not a clean 1-for-1 trade as there were a lot of aspects to it, but the bottom line is I cannot imagine Shattenkirk would have ended up in Washington without the first-round pick being included in that deal. That's the point.

How about last season? The Winnipeg Jets sent Brendan Lemieux, a first-round pick and a conditional fourth for Kevin Hayes. He scored two goals and one assist in the playoffs as the Jets were ousted in the first round. The “all-in” Columbus Blue Jackets had a first-round pick included in a package to receive Matt Duchene and Julius Bergman. Sure, they won a round in the playoffs. That single round cost them a massive trade package and now Duchene and Bergman are gone too.

It's easy to be critical of those trades in hindsight, you may be saying, but I'm not judging those trades based on hindsight, this is how I feel about every trade in which a first-round draft pick is exchanged for a rental player. That's the point of this article, to show how horrible those deals inevitably become.

Trade deadline rental players do not have time to adjust to their new team so if they don't find instant chemistry, the season may be over by the time they get comfortable. And even if they pay well, it often is not enough to get a team over the hump anyway. There is an inherent risk that comes with every single trade deadline acquisition that those players may not be able to adjust in time to help their new team and yet that risk never seems to get calculated in the price of the rental.

Most players drafted outside of the first round don’t make the NHL

OK, you’ve traded away your first-round draft pick, but you still have six more draft picks, right? Technically yes, but in reality, you probably just traded away your entire draft with that one pick.

Let’s look at the 2010 NHL Draft. Of the 30 players selected in the first round, 23 of those players have played in at least 150 NHL games. In the second round, just 14 out of 30 players have played in at least 150 NHL games. In the remaining five rounds of the draft combined, only 22 of those players have played in at least 150 games.

 

If you don’t have a first-round pick, there is a significant chance your team is going to walk away with nothing to show for that draft. It’s a completely lost draft. That’s just not worth it for a rental player.

Adding those rentals can have unintended consequences

If you add a player for a first-round pick, that player presumably will be one of some consequence. If not, then you’ve just gone totally off the reservation. What that means is a team will have to reconfigure its lineup to put him in it. If you put someone in, it means taking someone out and whoever that someone may be, it does not always sit right with the rest of the team.

That glue guy who everyone likes in the locker room who has played every game this season on the third or fourth line? Suddenly he can’t get into the lineup because of the new guy.

The players are professionals and they usually understand when these things happen, but sometimes they don’t. Adding a player of that significance to a roster that has been successful all season long can cause tension. It has happened before and it will happen again.

It’s bad value

At the end of the day, trading a first-round pick for a rental is just bad value. That’s what it comes down to. Regardless of whether a team is buying or selling, the goal of any general manager when making a trade should be to try to find good value. You’re just not getting that from a rental if you trade away a first-rounder to get him.

When a team is looking to make a Cup run, I understand the impulse of wanting to go “all-in.” You don’t want to look back and think your team failed to make a deep run because the general manager would not part ways with a third-round draft pick. But a first? That’s too much to ask for a rental player, regardless of how realistic a contender that team may be.

If the only way you can justify a trade is to say, 'it doesn’t matter what it cost if you win the Cup!' Then that’s a bad trade. Period.

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