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Keep it or trade it?

by Thomas Drance / Vancouver Canucks
The Vancouver Canucks own the fifth overall pick at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, which will take place next weekend in Buffalo.

With the draft rapidly approaching, the NHL’s rumour mill has been abuzz with whispers that the teams slotted outside the top-three picks might consider trading down in the NHL entry draft. These sorts of rumours have become something of an annual tradition, as sacrosanct as the Entry Draft itself.

Trading out of the top-five used to be relatively common, but in the salary cap era the value of having a young, inexpensive contributor on an entry-level deal is so great that we very rarely see teams surrender top-five picks anymore. Since the salary cap was imposed over a decade ago, only one team has traded out of the top-five on draft day (in 2008 the New York Islanders surrendered the fifth-overall pick that the Toronto Maple Leafs used to select Luke Schenn in exchange for a conditional second- and third-round selection).

With that history considered, let’s examine the internal arguments facing Canucks management as they decide how to use the fifth-overall pick. Does it make sense for the Canucks to become an outlier and trade down at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft?

NO: the Canucks should keep their pick.

The argument here is simple. The Canucks haven’t owned a pick in the top-five of the NHL Entry Draft since the 1999 draft in Boston, when then-general manager Brian Burke finagled an additional top-five pick that allowed the club to take a pair of twin brothers from Sweden. You probably know how that one turned out.

With the Sedin twins entering the twilight of their storied NHL careers, the club is facing an existential crisis concerning who, exactly, will replace them as high-end offensive threats at the top of the lineup three-to-five years down the road. Considering the bounty of talented forwards – Matthew Tkachuk, Pierre-Luc Dubois or Logan Brown – that could be available when the Canucks are on the clock in Buffalo, this is a prime chance for the organization to select a player with that sort of upside.

“We really like the players available at five,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning told Canucks.com this week. “We think whoever is available is going to be a first line player as a forward or a top-pair player as a defenseman.”

For a team like the Canucks, who are intent on competing for a playoff spot annually but still need to add cornerstone-type building blocks for the future, a top-five pick is too rare a commodity to trade. Which is why the Canucks should – and if history is any guide, probably will – use the pick and select the best player available.

YES: The Canucks should consider trading the pick

If the Canucks are going to strongly consider trading down at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, the calculus is more complicated. For the move to suit the club’s rational self-interest, there are a variety of conditions that will need to be met.

First of all, the club will still need to retain a relatively high pick in the deal so as to continue replenishing their prospect pipeline. At the very least it’s imperative that the club retain a top-15 selection in any trade, where a variety of prospect defenseman the team covets should be available.

“I think there's a couple of defenseman that have a chance to grow into (a top defenseman) in this years draft,” Benning said this week, “and I think there's some defenseman that have some special skills that will transform to the way that the game is being played now.

“In the course of the top-15 picks,” Benning continued, “there is five or six defenseman that we really like, who we think can be top-four defenseman in the NHL."

The quality and depth of the defensemen eligible for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft is another key consideration here. Though players like Tyson Jost and Clayton Keller are enormously impressive, the quality of the forward prospects available at fifth overall is of several orders greater than the quality of the forward prospects available at, say, tenth overall.

The drop off is seemingly less steep for defensemen though. Quality prospects like Mikhail Sergachev, Jake Bean, Dante Fabbro, Charles McAvoy and Jacob Chychrun could conceivably be available outside of the top-10.

If the club is intent on picking a defender in the first round, then trading back and adding additional assets could be sensible.

The third crucial factor here, then, is the price the club can extract from a rival team eager to move into the top-five. If the Canucks are going to move back in the draft order, they’ll require a trading partner to make it well worth their while.

“We know what we're getting at five and we really like the player, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I wasn't listening to what teams had to say and what their offers are,” Benning said this week.

“It's going to take a lot for me to move that pick,” continued the Canucks general manager, “because like I said, I really like the player we're going to end up getting, but depending on what the offers are I'm going to look at the scenarios.

“It would have to be a big deal to pry the fifth overall pick away from us."

Conclusion

The Canucks should be expected to use the fifth-overall draft pick to select the organization’s new top prospect next week in Buffalo. The opportunity to add a piece of the caliber of a Tkachuk or a Dubois doesn’t come along very often, particularly for an organization that prides itself on competing for a playoff spot on an annual basis.

If the right offer comes along though – one that would allow the team to remain in the top-half of the first round, net a couple of additional high-quality assets and still take a high-end prospect; one would understand why that would be an attractive proposition.

Stay tuned!

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