Why NHL Clubs Are Trading Picks Like Never Before

Why NHL Clubs Are Trading Picks Like Never Before

By Cameron Berger


Because your favorite NHL club is in perpetual win-now mode.

By Cameron Berger

For what would amount to nearly a full minute after the trade was announced, there were no words. Cameras clicked and shuttered, every flash pinging back against a clot of mics and tangled cables. Wayne Gretzky sat hidden beyond them, half-smiles and eye-rubbing coming in modest twitches as he pitched to his right and motioned for something just out of frame. A tissue. A glass of water. “I’m coming back,” he said. He never did. Instead, Gretzky moved offstage and took a spot in the corner. Then he cried.

Today it’s known as “The Trade,” and when you realize every NHL franchise is still being gouged because of it some 30 years on — well, you might just cry too.

When Montreal Canadiens star forward Max Pacioretty was shipped to Vegas this September, the news was unsurprising. We’d been expecting his trade for a while. The return, though, was a different story, with the Golden Knights packaging 2017 first-rounder Nick Suzuki, perpetual globe-trotter Tomas Tatar and a 2019 second-round draft pick. The surface oddity, of course, is that a team in only its second year of existence would pay such a price to win now. Then again, the real oddity might be that this isn’t odd at all.

Since the start of the 2016–17 season, NHL franchises have exchanged or traded away a shocking 78 first- or second-round picks.

Why is your favorite general manager so wild with the moves? Blame it on the bright lights of Hollywood.

The trade of Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 meant that starry-eyed owner Bruce McNall had to dish out the dough. Taking a cue from the crosstown Los Angeles Lakers, McNall decided Gretzky should be paid like basketball superstar Magic Johnson. In the 1994–95 season, Gretzky was the highest-paid player in the NHL, with a base salary of $6.5 million per year. And with the advent of full-salary disclosure in 1990, everyone knew — and wanted in. The years 1996 to 2000 saw the highest-paid NHLer averaging nearly $15 million, blowing up the idea that teams could continue to pay for a compendium of superstars. What to do when a group of guys making $1 million suddenly expect their pay to quadruple? The only option might be to sell them off.


In the three years prior to Gretzky’s salary going north, NHL teams exchanged 33 first- and second-rounders. In the three years after, that number shot up to 61. The struggle, as the kids say, is even more real in the modern game, as teams fight to stay below the salary cap while players continue to demand higher pay in line with their peers. As NHL analyst Mike Colligan points out, now teams have to “get creative.” 

“[Sometimes] players who never plan to play another game are packaged up with valuable prospects to convince another team to take on the cap burden,” Colligan says. He also notes the unpredictability of the draft as being a factor for teams taking more chances now at the trade table, as analysis has proven that “picks in the latter half of the first round are minimally better than second- or third-round [selections].”

It’s also why more teams — at least the ones with draft capital — will splurge to jump ahead in the first round. Michael Ginnitti, co-founder of sports contract tracker website Spotrac, says NHL teams “are actually projecting a window and a plan to break it down, load up and shoot up a specific draft board.” So these days, clubs are typically relegated to using their highest selections for cheaper role players. Someone like center Andrew Shaw, whom the Chicago Blackhawks traded to the Canadiens for a pair of second-round selections in the 2016 draft, might only net you 12 goals, but to another club, that’s worth its weight in picks. 

Even desperation can have a major effect on decision-making. One tactic played out recently is the no-movement clause, which has allowed clubs to convince talented players to sign long term. “Good luck improving when you have to balance cap dollars [and] dance around no-trade clauses,” Colligan says. “Draft picks might be the only currency you have available.”

The sentiment trickles down to the prospect pool as well, points out ESPN NHL draft analyst Chris Peters. “So many teams have some of their most valuable trade assets immovable, but [that] doesn’t exist for players who haven’t signed or are on entry-level deals,” he says. 

The takeaway for clubs is adaptation. If an NHL team hopes to stave off the creeping infection that is the salary cap, it might need to cut off a limb to survive. Unfortunately, that limb could be a potential stud come June, with the Stanley Cup on the line. But hey, that’s Hollywood for you.