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History shows trading a first-round pick is a risky short-term solution

Alex Tanguay and Trevor Linden are cautionary tales

Montreal Canadiens v New York Islanders Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

Marc Bergevin is headed into the 2020 Entry Draft with eleven draft choices, among which is the 16th overall draft pick. During his media tour in recent days, he has mentioned his willingness to move this pick if it helps him attract a trade for a player who can immediately help the team. Trading a first-round pick is always risky because many of these picks turn into solid roster members down the road after years of development, and for that reason it’s usually not recommended. But as we all know, drafting is an inexact science, while trading for a known asset is more much certain. It just comes down to whether it is a known asset in the right situation.

It may be wise to turn to history to gleam at any potential lessons learned.

The Montreal Canadiens have traded away their first-round pick on two occasions in the past 20 years, and in each case it was an example of trading away the future for the hope of immediate help in the present.

2008 -- 25th overall for Alex Tanguay

In 2008, Bob Gainey traded the 25th overall pick and a second-round pick in 2009 to the Calgary Flames for dynamic forward Alex Tanguay. Gainey mentioned that his pick was available heading into draft week and made good on the statement when he picked the scoring winger. Tanguay had one year left on his contract that paid him $5.25M and Gainey left the door open to signing an extension to keep Tanguay in Montreal for longer.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images

“Our team is filled with young players who don’t have a lot of experience,” said Gainey. “Tanguay is 27 years old and has that experience, but he still has gas in the tank and could stay with us for several years. It’s been about two or three weeks that we have been negotiating with the Flames. We expressed interest back in February, but the timing wasn’t right.”

The Canadiens tried to trade back into the first round, and they nearly did, but Atlanta decided to keep their 29th overall pick to select a player they were aiming for, Daultan Leveille. “When you’re holding the 56th and 86th overall picks, it’s not very attractive to the other teams,” said Trevor Timmins after the draft. “We would have to give up two second-round picks to sneak into the first round.”

“I won’t hide the fact that I’m nervous,” said Tanguay about the trade. “I know the kind of pressure put on Quebec-born players there. But I’m very confident. The Canadiens match my playing style very well. I don’t have to be Mario Lemieux, I just need to do my job. With my no-trade clause, if I didn’t want to come to Montreal, I would have said no.”

Tanguay was coming off of a disappointing season of only 58 points, blamed on a strained relationship with head coach Mike Keanan. For the two prior seasons Tanguay hovered around 80 points, so that’s the player that Gainey was hoping to get.

Although he missed most of training camp with a groin injury, the regular season started incredibly well for Tanguay who found himself paired with Saku Koivu and Guillaume Latendresse on the top offensive line. The line put up 20 points after the first five games. He was the team’s leading scorer in early November with 17 points, before injuring his neck after a blindside hit, causing him to miss a couple of games. He was then put on a line with a lethargic Alex Kovalev to try to motivate him, however, splitting Tanguay off from Koivu caused Tanguay’s performance to dip. Then another hard hit on December 30th injured his shoulder, knocking him out until the beginning of March and forcing him to miss 30 games. Upon his return he continued to put up points with a certain consistency, including a five-point game. In 50 games played, Tanguay was clipping along at a higher point-per-game pace than the previous year, but short of the point-per-game pace that he boasted previously.

At the end of the season, the Canadiens had ten unrestricted free agents. Among them were Koivu, Kovalev, and Tanguay. Of all those players Tanguay was by far the best, and everyone assumed that he would return on a new contract. But, as it turned out, Gainey de-prioritized bringing Tanguay back in favour of another priority. That priority was trading for Scott Gomez. “For me it’s a question of chemistry with Gomez,” said Gainey. “Gomez doesn’t score a lot of goals, but he passes the puck very well. Therefore, I needed players who shoot the puck on net. I think that Cammalleri fits the description better.”

1999 -- 10th overall for Trevor Linden

After refusing to extend Vincent Damphousse’s contract and trading him to San Jose, general manager Réjean Houle was in the market for a replacement centre forward and he found it in 11-year veteran Trevor Linden in May 1999. The price was very steep, but given that the draft class was considered weak that year, Houle did not hesitate too long to move his first-round pick.

“We said that we were looking for an imposing centreman, and Linden fills that role to perfection,” said Houle. “He’s a guy who brings leadership, maturity, and a good work ethic. He leads by example.”

Trevor Linden #14... Getty Images

As Linden was about to become a restricted free agent, the Canadiens immediately signed him to a new four-year deal worth $15 million. “We began negotiations with Linden’s agent, Don Meehan, on Thursday and the deal was finalized on Friday. I hope that the message to everyone is clear. We want to win in Montreal.”

“I was expecting something like this”, said Linden. “The situation in New York was difficult. Although it happened a lot faster than expected. I was thinking something would only happen after the playoffs. The Canadiens have several excellent players. They had a bad start to the season because they were missing several key players due to injury and couldn’t recover. I’m happy to be back in Canada, and it will be very interesting to play for the Canadiens.”

Meanwhile, Damphousse signed a four-year deal with San Jose for $18 million. It wasn’t that much more than Linden’s contract, inevitably setting up comparisons between the two players, and the early returns were not in Montreal’s favour.

By November, the Canadiens were dead last in the league. Former general manager Serge Savard was indignant. “Explain to me how Molson could allow Ronald Corey to give up his first-round pick to get Trevor Linden? Corey knew he was leaving, he was negotiating his fat severance for weeks already,” blasted Savard. “The day after the trade, Réjean called me to ask me what I thought of the trade. I told him that he should have called me the day before the trade. I would have told him to never make that trade.”

Linden was slow out of the gate but eventually found his way on a top-six line with Shayne Corson and Martin Ruscinsky. The line was tasked with covering the opponents’ top lines and pair that with the lack of flash in his play, fans began to grumble quickly. He put up two goals and 11 assists in 25 games for 13 points, which was far under what was expected for someone of his salary. Unfortunately, by December, Linden tore ligaments in his ankle and missed five weeks of play, only to return for one game (scoring a goal) before missing another three weeks because the ankle wasn’t fully healed.

As the season wore on, it became obvious that Linden would never live up to his contract, although he did provide a valuable service in the faceoff circle. But as was the case earlier in the season, just as he was heating up with five points in five games in early March, Linden was felled by another injury. This time it was multiple rib fractures that required surgery and brought an end to his first season with the Canadiens.

Overall, the Canadiens did manage to pull themselves out the basement that season and fought bitterly until the very end, only to be short one win from making the playoffs. Surely a healthy Linden (and Koivu and Vladimir Malakhhov), would have aided in the cause. Linden missed 32 games and put up 30 points in 50 games.

Damphousse put up 70 points with San Jose.

When the 2000-01 season started, Linden was fully healed and back on a line with Benoit Brunet and Martin Ruscinsky. But once again, Linden started off the season very slowly. With only one assist to his name in the first two weeks of the season, his expensive contract remained a magnet for criticism. Then, in late October, an offensive outburst of nine points in four games earned him Player of the Week honours in the NHL and landed him second in team scoring. There appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel.

Then, only two points in the next 13 games.

There was a lot of off-ice turmoil during the 2000-01 season. Alain Vigneault lost his job and was replaced by Michel Therrien. Houle also lost his job, replaced by André Savard. Molson sold the Canadiens to George Gillett Jr.

By December, under new general manager Savard, rumours began circulating that a trade was coming, just as Linden went down to injury yet again. Another ankle injury cost him four weeks of the season.

On trade deadline day 2001, Savard dealt Linden, scoreless in his last 12 games, to Washington. The full trade included another snakebitten forward Danius Zubrus. The return helped recoup the high price for Linden two years prior by receiving Washington’s first-round pick, along with Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik. Time would show this to be an excellent trade for Montreal.

In 57 games in his second season with Montreal, Linden had 33 points.

“I like playing in Canada,” said Linden. “Montreal is a unique city and the Canadiens are a wonderful organization. I understand that Andre Savard has to make a move to help the team move forward.”

The trouble with Linden was that his tenure in Montreal was overshadowed by comparisons with former team captain Damphousse, and injuries prevented him from building any momentum.

Would the Canadiens have been better off retaining their first-round picks? In hindsight, when your return in a trade for a first-rounder is a measly handful of games, then of course. But, who could have predicted that both Tanguay and Linden would be so unlucky with injury? Both of their short stints were marred with missed games, stunting their ability to live up to their potential.

Nashville Predators v Montreal Canadiens
Roman Josi- still available at the pick Montreal traded to get Alex Tanguay

Although the 1999 draft class was correctly evaluated as deficient and the first-round pick being a low-value asset to trade, perhaps it was a case of the wrong player identified to trade for. Ultimately, just keeping Damphousse despite his personal problems with head coach Vigneault would have been the much better move.

However, the 2008 draft class was still filled with promising players when the Canadiens would have drafted: John Carlson and Roman Josi were still on the board and remain core players for their drafting teams to this day. If Gainey was planning a major pivot for the organization only a year after trading his first-round pick, with hindsight to fall back on, trading for Tanguay was a waste of a valuable first-round pick. Making matters worse, since Tanguay was allowed to walk for free, as was all the other nine UFAs, there was no return on investment to try to at least salvage some value from the trade.

For Bergevin to trade a first-round pick in 2020, he would therefore need to evaluate the potential value of the 16th overall selected, receive proper and complete scouting evaluations of any potential trade targets, and when he does narrow down his list, ensure that their contract structure fits within the team’s salary cap strategy to keep him around long term to maximize the return on asset. Assuming that a first-round pick stays for at least four years with an organization, that should be the target contribution of any acquisition to the club to make a trade of a first-round pick worthwhile. Anything short of that becomes akin to a stop-gap short-term solution that goes against any “develop through the draft” strategy. Not to mention prolonging the curse of drafting a first-rounder who becomes an impact player for the team.