Last week, the Tampa Bay Lightning traded goaltender Kevin Poulin to the Calgary Flames for future considerations. It was an almost completely unremarkable trade, one that went all but unnoticed by anyone who wasn't directly related to Poulin himself. But it was noteworthy in one way: It was the first (and so far only) trade of this regular season.
That's become the new normal in this league. This is the third time since 2010 that we've made it well into November before seeing the first deal of a new season. History tells us that the market will start to pick up soon, but not all that much, with a smattering of deals between now and the trade deadline. If we're lucky, fans will get a handful of moves that feature players they've actually heard of.
Trading used to be a big part of both the typical general manager's toolbox and the NHL's overall entertainment package, but it's been dying a slow death in the cap era. And we all know why: It's the dollars. The salary cap complicated everything, we're told. It's just too hard to make a deal these days.
But while all of that is probably true, we don't have to let the trade market die a slow death. I have an idea that could help revive the lost art of the deal. The NHL has the power to deliver an adrenaline boost to the market, ushering in a new era of wheeling and dealing and reigniting hot stove debates across the league. And all it will take is one relatively straightforward new rule.
Fair warning: You're going to hate it ... at first.
I mean, you're a hockey fan. You hate change. You complain about the state of the game constantly, but the mere suggestion of even the smallest tweak puts you on the defensive. You miss ties, you're still not over the trapezoid and the last time one of your friends suggested making the nets slightly bigger you stabbed him with a plastic fork. It's a hockey fan thing. I get it.
So yes, you're going to think this idea sounds ridiculous and unworkable and you'll immediately go into defensive hockey fan mode, coming up with a dozen reasons that it could never work. All I'm asking is that you give it a chance. Let it percolate. Wait a few hours before you track me down on Twitter and call me an idiot. And during that time, think about how much fun it would be to have trading back in the NHL.
Promise? Then let's get started.
Who wants free stuff?
First, we're going to invent some draft picks.
Specifically, we're going to give each team one bonus pick, one that will be additional to its normal allotment. We're going to pick a starting point that's not too early but not too late -- I'm going to suggest we start with the 20th overall pick, although the exact number isn't really important to the bigger point. We're going to line up all 30 teams in reverse order of finish, and we're going to start handing out every fifth pick as a freebie. So the team that finished dead last gets (let's just say) the 20th overall pick. The 29th-place team gets pick No. 25. And we keep going, all the way down to the league's best team, which gets pick No. 165.
These picks will be handed out at the conclusion of the season in June, and they're for the following year's draft -- i.e., the one that's a bit more than 12 months away. (File that part away; it turns out to be important in a bit.)
Now remember, nobody is losing anything here. Under our system, the team that would have ordinarily picked 20th gets bumped down to 21st, and so on. These are brand-new picks, created out of thin air by the league.
That might sound like an unusual thing to do, but it's really not. The NFL hands out free picks to teams that lose free agents; it gave out 32 such picks last year. Major League Baseball has something similar in its free agency system and also compensates teams that lose unsigned draft picks. Even the NHL already has the ability to conjure up compensatory picks for teams that fail to sign a first-round draft pick; those rarely come into play, but they're not unheard of (note how 2015's second round had 31 picks).
So we're not doing anything especially radical here. It's the NHL's draft, and the league can assign the picks as it sees fit. And hey, who doesn't like a free draft pick?
So it's done. Our 30 new draft picks have been handed out. The three worst teams in the league have received the equivalent of a late first-round pick. The six next worst have a bonus second-rounder. And so on down the line, with the league's top teams ending up with sixth-rounders.
Free stuff! Exciting, right? But as you might have suspected, there's one little catch.
Here's your free pick. You're not allowed to use it.
That's right. We've just given every team in the league a free draft pick, but now we're saying they can't use it. Under our new system, no team is allowed to actually use its bonus pick to draft a player.
So what's the point? Why are we wasting everyone's time? What do you do with a draft pick you're not allowed to use?
You trade it, that's what.
Every team has a nice, shiny new draft pick in its pocket, but the catch is that it has to be traded. Like a gift card that has to be activated before it's worth anything, these free draft picks have to be traded before they can be used to select a player at the draft.
And specifically, we're going to mandate that the pick has to be used to acquire a player off an NHL roster. Why? Because we didn't come this far just to let today's wimpy, risk-averse GMs off the hook by allowing them to flip their free pick for another pick or some far-off future prospect whom their fans have never heard of. Trades for established NHLers only, please.
(I can sense that you're already thinking of reasons this won't work. Knock it off. We had a deal, remember?)
So what happens if a team can't find a trading partner? Then it loses its pick. It vanishes into thin air the moment it comes up in the draft order. The NHL giveth, and the NHL taketh away.
But you'd have to think that it would rarely come to that, because what team would let a valuable asset expire without using it? Remember, we've given these teams a little bit more than 12 months to work with, so they've got time to get a deal done. Sure, maybe a reigning Presidents' Trophy winner with a tight cap situation lets an occasional bonus sixth-rounder vanish. But the teams with the higher picks -- the ones that need the most help -- would figure out a way to use them.
The end result
Let's pretend that we'd put our new system into place for last season. Do you think a team like the struggling Edmonton Oilers could find a use for that extra trade-only first-round pick right about now? Would the Columbus Blue Jackets mind having an extra second-rounder to find immediate help? Think the Colorado Avalanche would have a better chance of finally finding that veteran defenseman they so desperately need if they had an early third-rounder to sweeten the pot with?
With a full year to flip their picks, teams would get one entire offseason, a trade deadline, and not one but two draft weekends to find a deal.
Picture a page on ESPN.com that listed each team's bonus pick, and whether it was still in play -- how often would you find yourself refreshing that? Would your favorite team use its freebie right away to get a deal done at the next draft or stash it away as trade deadline ammo? And imagine the buzz around a team that made it all the way to the draft with a high pick still on the table, working on its poker face while its fans freaked out.
You don't hate this idea quite so much anymore, do you?
While the point here is to give the trade market a boost, this plan has something else going for it. It's designed to help the league's worst teams, which most of us agree is still important. But it does so in a way that actively works against long-term tanking. Remember, you have to use your pick to trade for NHL talent, which means you're going to be making your team better. It's a nice little antidote to those internal five-year plans that new GMs try to convince fans they need just to start icing a competitive roster.
I'm not saying the plan doesn't need a bit of work. We'd have to figure out a way to define "NHL player" for the purpose of limiting deals, and maybe we move that 20th overall starting point up or down a few notches. If adding 30 new picks to the draft is a problem, then maybe we have to scrap the current draft's seventh round to balance things out. And clearly, the whole thing needs a fancy name. I'm working on that part.
But the basics are there. The plan would work. It would force the league's GMs to stop pretending that trading is somehow impossible and start picking up their phones. The market would gear up, rumor mills would churn back into action and we'd all have something to argue about other than what size the nets should be.
Do it, NHL. Wave your magic wand, start handing out some free draft picks, and let's bring trading back to life.