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An Idiot’s Guide to the National Hockey League Trade Deadline

It is spring. The National Hockey League trade deadline is approaching. And it is clear that my favourite hockey team is not going win the Stanley Cup. Who am I kidding? Barring a miracle on ice, my team is not even going to make the playoffs this year. Again.

So, the fans have begun demanding that it is time to “blow up the team.” I don’t think they mean it literally. At least, most of them.

What they mean is that it is time to dismantle the team and rebuild it. The fans want the team’s management to trade away most of the team’s current players (goaltenders, defencemen, and forwards) for younger players, primarily “draft picks” and “prospects.” “Draft picks” are young players who don’t yet belong to an NHL team. Prospects are recent “draft picks,” players only recently selected by NHL teams who have not yet made it to the NHL.

Of course, other teams don’t want my team’s worst players (of which there is apparently a surplus), so the team will have to trade its best players—that is, its good but not spectacular players, its formerly very good but now past their prime players, its average professionals, its journeymen.

It is like discarding your entire hand in a card game or all your tiles in Scrabble, hoping that what you get back will be better than what you got rid of. In other words, it is a blind gamble.

The goal, the holy grail, of all this is to obtain “top six forwards,” elite players, gifted goal scorers. NHL hockey teams have four three-man forward lines. The top two lines (the “top six” players) are the ones a team counts on to score most of its goals. Current “top six” players include stars such as Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, and Auston Matthews.

Players like this are hard to find. The best way to acquire them is through the “draft.” In June each year, NHL teams get to “draft” (choose) young players coming out of junior and college hockey. The worst teams generally get to choose first. But teams can trade their opportunity to draft a player, which is called “trading a draft pick.”

As I said, “top six” forwards are very rare. Put yourself in the position of the general manager of a not very good NHL team and think about how you have to approach the problem. Only the best two or three players in each draft year have a better than even chance of becoming “top six” forwards. Therefore, drafting players beyond the first two or three is like buying a lottery ticket. There is a slight chance that such players might become “top six” forwards. There is a slightly better chance that they might become average NHL players (equal to the older players you traded away), but most players drafted never make it to the NHL.

Of course, when you trade away your good, average players, you are not going to get one of those first two or three draft picks. To get that, you would have to trade away a current “top six” player (which you don’t have because if you did have, you wouldn’t have a bad team in need of “blowing up”). For every good player you trade away, you are more likely to get a draft pick in the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or sevenths rounds. (In each “round,” each of the 31 NHL teams gets to select one player.) This means you are getting the 32nd best player or the 99th best player or maybe the 186th best player. The likelihood of such players joining the “top six” elite is remote.

So, the reason you trade your good players away is not to get those second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh round draft picks. The real reason is to make your team really, really bad. That way, you will be one of the worst two or three teams in the league and (since the worst teams choose first) get one of those almost-sure “top six forward” draft picks.

Of course, nothing is ever certain. Some players drafted even number one never have a successful NHL career, and many other early draft picks never become “top six forwards.” To make matters worse, the NHL has introduced a lottery factor into the draft system which can change the draft order. For instance, last season my team finished third last, lost the lottery, and drafted fifth. They didn’t get a “top six” forward.

Furthermore, since you are looking for “top six forwards,” you need to be really bad for six years in a row in order to get six of these players. After all, the goal is not just to have a good team with one or two elite players (which is probably what you had before you “blew it up”). The goal is to be so good that you win the Stanley Cup.

It is hard to be that bad that long, especially after you have already drafted three or four of these “top six” players—and also because you are competing against a lot of other teams trying to be really, really bad at the same time.

But suppose it actually all works out perfectly. Your team is really terrible for six years, and you draft six players who turn out to be “top six” players. Does this mean that you will win the Stanley Cup? No, you have only done half the job. You now have to surround those “top six” players with a supporting team of good players – goaltenders, defencemen, forwards, etc.—the type of players you traded away to get all those draft picks and therefore no longer have.

But it is not hopeless. After all, some team has to win the Stanley Cup—at least, most years, when the players are not on strike or locked out. Some team’s fans will be rewarded.

There are 31 teams in the league, This means that, on average, the team that you root for will likely win the Stanley Cup once in your lifetime—if you are lucky. Think of the futility of that. You put in a lifetime of loyalty, frustration, anxiety, and stress and are rewarded with one brief moment of glory. It is not a fair trade. But most hockey trades aren’t.

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