Tuesday, May 8, 2012
The ten players taken first overall in the NHL's last decade of draft picks have played a total of 3548 NHL games and scored 3009 points. Three of them are captains of their teams, and three are Stanley Cup winners. All of them, with the exception of Erik Johnson, who chose to play one more year of college following his draft, jumped directly from junior hockey to the NHL. Scouting, it would appear, has evolved to the point at which a consensus first-overall pick is almost a sure thing to not only be an NHL player, but to be a very effective one. Psychological testing, number crunching, character interviews and medical care translate promising kids to big-league stars sooner rather than later. That's why holding that first pick is the dream of every team that's had to give up other dreams when they weren't good enough to make them come true. It's a ticket on the express train back to respectability.
Lottery picks, generally, are a pretty good bet for producing NHLers. The thing is, however, after the top two positions, while first-rounders still make the big league at a pretty high rate compared to later-round picks, their overall production doesn't compare to the cream of the crop. The last decade's second-overall picks have played 3080 NHL games between them, and put up 2079 points. There are 2 assistant captains and four Cup winners in that group. Then, when you move down to the third-overall picks, they've played a comparable number of NHL games, with 3027 among them. They've produced one guy wearing his team's "C" and another with an "A" and they boast two Cup winners, but they've only compiled 1543 points. Third-overall picks are also much less likely to make the big team right away than the guys chosen just two places ahead of them. That can be frustrating when a team needs that pick to make a difference as quickly as possible.
It might be argued that the Canadiens aren't as badly off in terms of assets as some other lottery teams. With a solid goaltender in Carey Price, a good, young stud D-man in P.K.Subban and an excellent power forward in Max Pacioretty, the bones of a youth movement are there. Reliable veterans like Erik Cole, Brian Gionta, Andrei Markov and Tomas Plekanec add to the Habs' assets. Lars Eller, David Desharnais and Alexei Emelin are keepers as well. So, the cupboard, at least at the NHL level, isn't exactly bare in Montreal. They have the luxury of drafting a third-overall pick and letting him marinate in juniors for a couple of years until he's ready for a shot at pro hockey.
The question is, is that the wisest move? The Canadiens haven't had such a high pick since 1980, so this year's draft offers a great chance to add an important asset to a team with an already-decent core. Yet, a lottery pick, once you get past the number-one overall, is never as valuable as he is when he's still a possibility. Possibility, as it relates to hockey players, is like gold on the stock market. Or, maybe it's like virginity on the Victorian bridal mart. You're never as valuable as when you have it intact. Once a player is chosen, he's no longer a "lottery pick." He's a real guy, with shortcomings and injuries and attitude and...well...never quite the same as he was when he was a mystery who could have been anything. So, the Habs have to decide now how they're going to handle the promise that's worth so much. There are several choices.
First, they can keep the pick. They can draft the best player available at the number-three spot and let him develop within the organization. That's a good plan because if the BPA is, say, a defenceman, he could add to the stash of Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu and Mac Bennett. If he's a forward, he could end up being a really good NHL centreman or a winger, and the Habs could use help in either position. If he develops on schedule, and he's got the sense and the balls to deal with Montreal at a young age, he could be a star. Of course, if all the young Habs prospects end up proving themselves, the development of the pick could make one of the other guys expendable to fill another hole in the system; an additional benefit.
Second, there's the option to trade it. That choice, in itself, comes with several possibilities. Bergevin could, for example, try to package the third with something the Oilers need and trade up for the chance to pick consensus number-one, Nail Yakupov. The Oilers are stacked with young, scoring talent up front, but need veteran leadership and defence. The Canadians have both, but would have to weigh very carefully whether the acquisition of the first pick would be worth the loss of a roster player like Plekanec or Subban, because that's probably what the Oilers would demand, if not a solid prospect like Beaulieu who could grow up with the other young guys there. The rumoured interest of the other lottery teams in trading up would raise the stakes and let Steve Tambellini pick the juiciest of the offers. He'd then add a nice piece to his roster while still choosing a blue-chip young defenceman like Ryan Murray or Matt Dumba.
The Canadiens, considering the prospects remaining after Yakupov, might be interested in trading down a pick or two. Trevor Timmins has carefully weighed his options and probably has a pretty good idea by now who's at the top of his want list. If he's still on the fence, he'll certainly know his mind by draft day, and if he thinks his guy (maybe Filip Forsberg?) will still be there at number four or five, the Canadiens might take a roster player or prospect from another team in exchange for swapping draft spots.
There's another trade option as well. Some other team might really want one of this year's top prospects and be willing to part with a star prospect of their own, straight up, for the Habs' pick. Would Bergevin, for example, be interested in moving his third-overall this year for Florida's third-overall last year? So, Jonathan Huberdeau for the guy Florida wants in this year's draft? That would give the Panthers two first-rounders this year and the Habs a home-grown prospect one year closer than this year's pick to making the big team. That's potentially the best value Bergevin can get from his draft choice, and would make a lot of fans deliriously happy.
G.M. runner-up Pierre McGuire, among others, has suggested the Habs might want to use the pick to solidify the NHL roster with a proven player like Jordan Staal. That would certainly help the team fast-track back to competitive status. On the other hand, a move like that would assume that the draft pick's potential wouldn't meet or exceed Staal's, which is a big risk to take. It would also mean taking on a cap hit that could be put off by keeping the draft pick on an entry-level contract for three years. And the likelihood of Pittsburgh demanding something extra to sweeten such a deal for a proven player would lower the trade's return for the Canadiens.
Bergevin has some great options with this draft position. Whatever he decides to do with the pick, the Canadiens are winners. It's going to be an interesting few weeks until he makes his selection.
Posted by J.T. at 7:45 AM