While sometimes it seems that trades involving the first overall pick never happen, that’s probably because they haven’t happened in quite some time. There is a history of the first overall pick being moved, Some of these moves occurred right on draft day, where others were made several months before the draft even happened.
Either way, you have to wonder if the Sabres would consider moving the pick if they win the lottery in 2021? In 2000, Brian Burke wheeled and dealed his way into a second top three pick when he traded Bryan McCabe and Vancouver’s first round pick in 2000 to the Blackhawks for their 1999 fourth overall pick. From here, Vancouver then acquired first overall from Tampa Bay for the fourth overall pick, and two third round selections. Vancouver then moved into the second overall with an agreement with the Atlanta Thrashers to select Patrik Stefan.
In 2002, the Columbus Blue Jackets moved up to first overall from third, in a trade with the Florida Panthers in exchange for the right to swap picks in the 2003 draft. Florida ended up with first overall in 2003, so no swap ended up happening. Columbus selected Rick Nash, while Florida selected Jay Bouwmeester.
In 2003, the first overall pick was traded yet again,along with a third rounder, this time to the Pittsburgh Penguins for the third overall pick in 2013 (Nathan Horton), a second round pick (Stefan Meyer), and Mikael Samuelsson. This would be the last time the first overall pick would be moved in the NHL Draft.
The most famous trade for the number one pick, although it was 30 years ago, was of course, the Eric Lindros trade. The Flyers traded Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, $15 million cash, and two first-round picks to the Nordiques for the first overall pick which ended up being generational talent, Eric Lindros. That will not be remotely happening this year as Owen Power or any other player in this draft is nowhere near that level of player and hype.
For what it’s worth, the second overall team in the draft has not traded out of the pick since 1998, when the San Jose Sharks moved the pick (David Legwand) to Nashville for (Brad Stuart), and the 29th overall pick (Johnathan Cheechoo). Of course, the salary cap era has made young talented players nearly indispensable.
Teams that get high picks nowadays tend to hold on to them. Teams have also put much more of an emphasis on scouting and the draft as a means to rebuild rosters more than ever before. However, the 2021 NHL Draft is in uncharted territory, as are many other professional sports league drafts. The OHL has cancelled their season, and other junior leagues have not played as much, not to mention teams have not had the ability to scout prospects on the level that they would have in the past because of pandemic related limitations. The 2021 NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL Drafts will likely be the hardest drafts in history to scout.
Then you have to take into consideration the draft talent pool itself. While there are extremely talented players in the draft, it is a weaker pool this year.
2022 is a different story. Shane Wright is the clear prize and a near lock to be selected first overall in 2022. He’s followed by Brad Lambert, and Matthew Savoie, and these three players stand out quite a bit from the rest of the 2022 pick. Overall it is looking like a better draft, and if we get a better grasp on the pandemic by 2022, we could see a much improved level of scouting, along with much more exposure for prospects if we can get more junior hockey and more tournaments back up and running again. My only criticism of the Taylor Hall trade is that the second round pick is in 2021, not 2022, and 2021 could arguably be a weaker talent pool and a bigger crap shoot.
Bo Horvat went ninth overall in a very strong 2013 NHL Draft, and this year, a very similar player to him, Matthew Berniers, could potentially go top three overall. In the 2013 draft, there were four centers who went ahead of him: Nathan MacKinnon, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, and Alexander Barkov. Berniers is the only player in the top ten that could project as a top six center. He’s the perfect second line center of the future, as is Bo Horvat. A team that desperately needs a centerman in the organization may be interested in moving up to get him.
That’s another aspect of this draft that makes this draft so unique. This is probably one of the weakest drafts down the middle in the last ten years.
The strength of the draft this year however, is on the blue line at the top of the draft. Owen Power seems to be as close to a consensus number one as we will get, however, Luke Hughes, Brandt Clarke, and Simon Edvinsson are right there, and you can actually make a case for all of them first overall.
A couple months ago, I would have strongly considered drafting Matthew Berniers, and don’t get me wrong, I still would. Casey Mittelstadt’s career was looking dead and lost under Ralph Kreuger, but Don Granato has seemed to have revived his career, and Mittelstadt is now a half point a game player with 17 points in 34 games as of this writing. Mittelstadt has 13 points in 20 games under Granato, and right now is looking like a clear favorite to head into next season as the second line center. You also have to wonder if Eric Staal had an influence on how both Mittelstadt and Cozen's approached the game.
This is also just speculation, but a lot of people seemed to think Eric Staal was mailing it in with the Sabres, and I've always thought that was complete nonsense. He’s playing for a contract next year, and he’s been just as invisible in Montreal, with his two goals and -8 in 13 games. He’s 36 years old and he is nowhere near the guy he was even a couple years ago. His minutes need to be managed and he’s got to be on a pitch count. But, I can’t help but think that Staal helped have a positive influence on both Mittelstadt and Cozens, providing a guy they can look up to, and providing leadership, and showing them how to be a professional.
There has been enough talent shown down the middle, that I am feeling pretty good about the Sabres at center and unless they plan on trading Jack Eichel, or feel they like Cozens better on the wing long term, which is not the case. I don’t think there is a pressing need to add another center, especially with Sam Reinhart’s ability to play the position if needed, although i’m always for the best player available in hockey and Berniers gives you tons of depth, flexibility and options. I love Bernier’s game, but I wouldn’t lose sleep over it if the Sabres passed on him.
The blueline however is a much different story. Jake McCabe is an unrestricted free agent, and I think the Sabres will bring him back, however, he may not be ready at the start of the season. Rasmus Ristolainen is in a contract year. The Sabres could start next year with the youngest defense in hockey. Long term, you have to think about a replacement for Ristolainen. The Sabres do not have another defenseman in their system who projects as a guy who can play big minutes in multiple situations aside from Rasmus Dahlin.
The Sabres also have a shortage of right shot/right side defenseman. Oksari Laaksonen is currently the only real prospect with NHL potential they have on the right side.
The blueline could use a major injection of top tier talent, and the top five to seven picks do offer that in this year's draft, all of whom you could make a case for as a first overall or second overall pick, maybe Buffalo attempts to move back.
What would it cost, and who would be interested?
Ultimately, there are two main partners I can see in such a scenario here, the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Seattle Kraken. Columbus for the reason of targeting Matthew Berniers to help replenish their center depth, and Seattle to also target Berniers, or to potentially move up into the top two to get a player they’d like to target, and maybe it’s Owen Power they like? Let's say the Columbus Blue Jackets want to move up in the draft for Berniers. The center position organizationally for Columbus is not looking so good at the moment. They have three first rounders, and one of them could be in the top five. There could potentially be a deal to be made here.
To Buffalo: Pick 5-6 OA, a 2021 first round pick (TBL or TOR), a 2022 third round pick, and G Joonas Korpisalo
To Columbus: Pick 1-2 OA a 2022 second round pick (Buffalo, 33rd-34th OA)
In this example, Columbus moves up for one of the only players in the top ten who projects as a top six center in the NHL, and Buffalo moves down in the draft to the 5 to 6 range. Maybe Columbus picks a little higher due to the lottery. Buffalo also acquires an additional mid round pick in the future, and they swap draft positions with Columbus as they move up from the 33-34 range, back into the 20’s range of the first round. They also acquired veteran goaltender Joonas Korpisalo here as well, who I value similar to David Rittich at a third round pick, especially coming off a down year. Columbus doesn’t lose a ton of draft capital here aside from a third. Korpi in this scenario gives Buffalo a potential 1b goaltender and gives them an option to go into free agency and sign a second goaltender, or bring back Ullmark as the 1A option. While there will be some good free agent options in goal, there will be a lot of teams looking as well, and Buffalo will have plenty of competition.
Buffalo could potentially select a defenseman here, if they feel there is a good one available, or even best forward available such as Kent Johnson, or William Eklund, which could make even more sense if they are prepping for life without Sam Reinhart. Of course there is the not so favorable scenario here of selecting Jesper Wallstedt which we also would have to keep in mind, but some think he could be looked at even higher.
Another scenario here could be moving down with Seattle, if they hold the third overall pick or drop down to fourth overall. Would they be interested in trading up to first or second overall? If the expansion draft is anything like what we saw with Vegas, there's a very good chance that Seattle could end up with a lot of draft capital, and some quality defenseman. There’d also be some potential for Buffalo to make several side deals here for the expansion draft involving swapping their pick.
To Buffalo: 3rd-5th overall, and an agreement to select a player in the expansion draft, or to take a player off the books such as Cody Eakin, or even Kyle Okposo’s final two years, which would give Buffalo some extra financial flexibility
To Seattle: 1st-2nd overall
No matter what happens on draft day, all possible scenarios should be examined, including trading back a few spots in the draft. While it hasn’t happened lately, this year could be the perfect timing for a team to move down in the draft from first or second overall, with the uncertainty of the draft prospects, and knowing what you are really getting, as well as the entrance of the Seattle Kraken into the NHL. It’s also not a strong draft, and there is not a slam dunk first overall or a generational talent at the top of the draft.
If the Sabres end up with a top two selection, if they can find a partner to move back and choose to do so in the process, they may not break the bank in doing so, but they may be able to find a little extra value, some additional draft capital, which can be used or traded for immediate help, and they can also possibly find a way to help their club salary wise if they choose to deal with Seattle.
Of course given that that first overall pick hasn’t been traded since 2003, and second overall hasn’t been traded in ages, it can tough to gauge the value of what it will cost to move down.
Either way it’s an interesting discussion to have, and one the Sabres should seriously consider.