In my last article I briefly looked into the history of the 8th overall pick and whether the Buffalo Sabres were better off keeping or trading it for NHL talent. While moving the pick for a roster player seems ideal given the urgency to improve the team immediately, history says you are more likely to lose this deal both short and long term.
There is one option that I did not bring up in that piece that I will be looking into in this one, and that is the possibility of trading up in the draft. As always, I will begin by referring back to the draft value chart created by Michael Schuckers (here is the write up on the model
to see what kind of move up adds meaningful value for the Sabres. This obviously is not an exact science but more of a guideline for us to follow.
Here's a link to the chart
in significantly better quality because Imgur hates me. Alternatively you can click on the image itself to get an enhanced view.
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As you will see later on, moving up in the draft tends to be rather pricey, however the chart tells us that moving from 8th overall to 5th overall can add 161 points in value to the Sabres first pick in the draft, which is a bigger gain that going from 15th overall to 8th. While the model was made using draft data from 2003 to 2008, the trend has seemingly held up since then. Here is a look at the 5th and 8th overall picks from 2008 up to and including the 2017 draft as it is probably too early to include the 2018 and 2019 picks.
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(courtesy of hockeydb.com)
There will be some difference in opinion on a few of the players here, but if these were two teams and I had to put money on one, I would probably go with the 5th overall picks. That being said, there is still a chance you pay a lot of capital just to draft someone who may only be as good as who you take at 8th overall.
Eric Tulsky, now VP of hockey management and strategy for the Carolina Hurricanes, took a closer look at how management teams in the NHL might value these picks in a trade, using data from 2006-2012. Those findings can be found here can be found here
As mentioned in his article, the way to read the table is that if you want to move up, you should look to put a deal together that matches that assigned value of the pick you are looking to acquire. In our Sabres hypothetical, this would look something like 8th overall and 38th overall to get to 5th overall. The last trade involving 5th overall in the salary cap era had the Toronto Maple Leafs sending the 7th, 37th and 68th pick to the New York Islanders, so we are close here but this is a deal that is over ten years old and a model that is about 8 years old. We will likely see many new findings regarding draft pick value on the years after the article written by Eric Tulsky but it is probably a safe assumption that the cost of these picks has only gone up in that time, given the importance of stretching your cap space and the fact that “prime” age for skaters seems to be younger than it was ten years ago.
The Sabres are low on picks with only six in the upcoming draft so using them to move up is likely out of the question unless a team really likes someone they think they can get at 8th overall. This means the Sabres would need to get creative and look at perhaps packaging roster players as part of the deal.
This is where a player like Rasmus Ristolainen can help move the needle in a deal for the Sabres. Ristolainen has been the subject of trade rumours for several years now and in that time, he has seen his trade value decline as public opinion on his performance has caught up with his on-ice results. It is certainly possible that some teams may still be willing to pay a premium, but as far as I am concerned, those teams probably changed their tune after Calgary Flames director of analytics Chris Snow managed to talk Brian Burke out of trading for Ristolainen. If Mr. Truculence can be talked out of trading for the big right shot Finnish defenseman, then you can probably rule out whatever hypothetical dream deal you’ve penciled in for him in your Capfriendly armchair GM lineups.
Now a lot of what has gone into Ristolainen’s numbers can be attributed to his role over the years, and I certainly believe that a reduced third pair role and heavy power play minutes would bring the best out of him. However, this simply is no longer an option for the Sabres. At a 5.4-million-dollar cap hit, sticking him on the third pair at 12-13 minutes of 5v5 ice time and putting him on probably the 2nd power play unit is akin to the same bad value they are currently receiving by having him play just over 17 mins at 5v5.
While those big deals may no longer be available to the Sabres, Ristolainen probably still carries some decent trade value as a right shot defenseman in his mid 20’s. He may not be valuable enough to bring back an impactful roster player but he could be of value to a franchise drafting in the top 10, who would like to add a defender without giving up roster players or moving out of the top 10.
Trading an NHL player simply to move up a few picks seems very costly but we have to take a step back to see the bigger picture. One of the few things the big four leagues in North America have in common is that in each one the most cost-effective way to add talent is through the draft. A young player on a cost-controlled rookie contract is the golden ticket in these leagues. If we re-frame the deal as saying, for the cost of Ristolainen, a player who is bad value for the Sabres, we can significantly increase our odds at adding an above average to elite skater who will make less than 1 mil on the cap for his first three NHL seasons, this deal suddenly looks a lot more appealing.
The costs associated with moving up in the top 10 of the draft will be steep no matter who or what is involved in the deal and the Sabres will need to do their due diligence before committing. Ordinarily, I would advocate against a move like this as there tends to be a lot of unpredictability once you get past the first three picks and you may wind up moving up to draft the player you could have had with your original pick.
If the Leafs had moved up to 5th overall in 2014 to draft Nylander I’m sure the move would look gutsy and clever today, but they did not need to. The Leafs however, had a luxury the Sabres do not, which is time. As far as the build, Jack Eichel’s happiness, and the fan base is concerned, this pick absolutely has to connect and add a game changer to the organization. If the cost of doing so is to move someone like Ristolainen, Montour and/or others, then this really is not a difficult choice.
Thanks for reading, and happy Canada day to my Canadian readers!