In this salary-cap era in the NHL, building through the draft has become more than just the quaint poor-team strategy it was when the Rangers could just buy whatever talent they wanted with impunity. These days, not only do team managers have to be smart enough to operate within a budget, they also have to be astute enough to develop young talent efficiently. In the five years since the institution of the cap, there's been a gradual shift in priorities for most teams. We got the first inkling of that shift last season, as first-round draft picks...perhaps for the first time...held more value than high-priced free agents. Most teams (with the exception of New Jersey) are thinking about the future in the long term, and the long term these days means scoring high draft picks and locking them up young.
For a middle-of-the-road team like the Canadiens, a high draft pick comes along very, very rarely. The last one was fifth overall in 2005, which landed Carey Price, and that only happened because of the post-lockout draft lottery. The other ways of obtaining a high pick...trading for it or sucking out loud...haven't been possible in Montreal. The team hasn't been able to spare any assets of enough value to exchange for a high pick. It can't suck badly enough to land a top pick of its own because the city would implode.
Everyone agrees the way to build a winner is to draft a franchise player, so the only solution for the Canadiens is a stealth trade. Right now, Florida and the Islanders are pretty sure to be in the draft lottery. There's no way to pry their first-round picks away from them without a paying a very steep price for them. So, the trick is to trade for the first-round pick of a team that doesn't yet know it's going to be in the lottery. It's called WWSD. What Would Sam Do?
Sam Pollock would have identified a team with a risk-taker for a GM, in a pressure market where fans demand a winner, with serious holes in its lineup, where management has not yet realized the team isn't going anywhere. In other words, the Calgary Flames.
In the last year, Darryl Sutter has been doing some inexplicable things. In February, he dumped Olli Jokinen to the Rangers for Chris Higgins. Then in July, he let Higgins walk and re-signed Jokinen. In January, he traded Dion Phaneuf and promising prospect Keith Aulie to the leafs for a bunch of leaf scraps. Then, in the summer, he brought back Alex Tanguay, whom he'd traded the year before because he thought the winger's soft style didn't fit with a reputedly tough Flames team.
Now, the Flames first line is Tanguay, Jokinen and Jarome Iginla. They have yet to put up a single point this year. The Flames have been shut out twice in three games so far. This is not a team with a great deal of offence. Couple that with several key injuries, a goalie who's overworked in the last few years and an expensive star defenceman in Jay Bouwmeester who hasn't earned his salary in Calgary, and you've got a team that could tank this year.
The Flames have none of the exciting youth around which many other teams are building. Their average age is 29.4 years old; almost two years older than the league average. They have only one of the top 50 prospects in the league, with Mikael Backlund, their 2007 first-rounder who's yet to show much, ranked 38th by hockey writers. Compare that to the Canadiens, with three of the top-thirty prospects in PK Subban, Lars Eller and Louis Leblanc. The Flames also don't have much cap space left. Things don't look good in Calgary.
The thing is, they don't know it yet. This early in the year, Sutter's changes are still considered an experiment. The team has lost a couple of games, but nobody's panicking yet. That will come around Christmas, when people start to add up the losses and realize there's no help in sight. Then management will start to suspect a high pick is possible. At that point, it will be too late to get them to trade it. The Canadiens need to wait for the Flames to lose three or four more games, then swoop in with a trade proposal that looks like it could help the Flames turn things around in a hurry. Before Sutter accepts failure, he'll do whatever he can to save himself.
If the scoring continues to be an issue in Calgary, the Canadiens could offer Benoit Pouliot and an exchange of first-round picks. Pouliot has undeniable skill and Sutter might believe he would be better with Jokinen than Tanguay. He might also believe the Habs will finish lower than the Flames and jump at the draft pick exchange. The Canadiens can move Eller into Pouliot's place and will come out on top if the Flames tank.
Of course, the Flames might not tank, but that's the risk with stealth trades. You have to bet that you're a better judge of a team than that team's own GM. If Pierre Gauthier looks at the Flames and sees an opportunity, he should consider taking a risk. If it's not the Flames, there's got to be some team ripe for a draft-pick steal. Since the Canadiens will never tank on purpose, Gauthier's got to be sneaky. He's got to be thinking, what would Sam do? Sam would recognize that the Habs have to rob a high pick from someone, and he'd make it a priority.