The NHL is trying to figure it out. Make no mistake, barring a national outbreak of the coronavirus, the NHL return to play will commence soon. The NHL quarantine directive ends on Thursday, April 30, and there has not yet been a new directive. But part of the NHL return also includes holding the NHL Draft in June, which would hurt the Pittsburgh Penguins.
From published reports, NHL GMs split on the idea, but according to one league source, the NHL is pushing hard for the early summer draft, likely before the conclusion of the 2019-20 season.
“(The NHL) thinks they can cram it down our throats,” the source (whose identity was shared with PHN) told our colleague Jimmy Murphy at Boston Hockey Now.
The source’s frustration coincides with the volume of stories by national writers touting the possibility of a June draft as a launch event to the NHL comeback.
Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford has not publicly taken a position, but the analysis here is such a proposal would hurt the Pittsburgh Penguins. Badly.
The Penguins do not have a first-round pick in the 2020 Draft. It became part of the Jason Zucker trade and is now the property of former Penguins assistant GM Bill Guerin in Minnesota. The Penguins do have a third-round pick.
Oh, but the Penguins second-round pick took a trip to Vegas with Marc-Andre Fleury.
So, unless something changes, the Penguins wouldn’t pick until the third round. A June draft would ensure that and prevent the Penguins from improving their lot of draft picks.
Unless by some ridiculous wrinkle, the NHL allowed trades at the draft. Could you imagine the chaos of finishing the season at quarantined sites with new teammates obtained for a two-month tournament courtesy of a second trade deadline? It would make the NHL look like a flea market. Or a garage league.
The last time the Penguins were without their top two picks was 2008. Nathan Moon was their top choice (4th Rd., 120th overall), and the Penguins received only one game of NHL service from their entire draft class. Goalie Alexander Pechurskiy played one game on an emergency basis. On Jan. 16, 2010, he made 12 saves on 13 shots in a relief appearance of John Curry. Pechurskiy was returned to his junior team and bolted back to Russia in 2011.
Statistically, there is little reason to suspect the Penguins would have better results with the 2020 class unless they acquire more picks.
A June draft would most likely sentence the Penguins to the same 2008 fate, but if things hold to traditional form, the Penguins have one or more assets which could fetch more picks, perhaps including a first-rounder.
The Assets & Value
The Pittsburgh Penguins assets include a pair of goalies worthy of being an NHL starter. If the cap increased to $84 million next season, as was the original projection, perhaps the Penguins could retain both Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry.
But that isn’t happening. The NHL and players will have to pound the negotiating table to simply maintain a flat salary cap without a reduction due to the coronavirus pause and the untold millions of lost revenue.
Jarry turned aside contract questions on Tuesday.
“No, the biggest thing for me is to stay ready so I am able to do what I can when the season resumes,” Jarry began. “We’re still fighting for a Stanley Cup. That’s our biggest mindset.”
The flat cap will certainly force teams against the cap ceiling, including the Penguins, to make difficult decisions.
Keeping both goalies would be a luxury, even if the NHL salary cap went up. Keeping both with a flat or reduced cap seems unlikely, especially with Casey DeSmith also on an NHL contract.
And what about Nick Bjugstad and his $4 million salary, too?
As rumors and reports swirled at the NHL trade deadline, PHN was told by multiple sources, including one with direct knowledge of the situation, the Colorado Avalanche were keeping a close eye on the Penguins goalie situation, and preliminary discussions began last February. Pittsburgh Hockey Now had multiple informed sources bring up Colorado’s interest, but the mentioned target differed.
It wasn’t clear even if the Penguins had made a final decision which goalie to make available, either (but that’s why discussions begin as preliminary).
A draft-day deal was the anticipated time frame for a deal, if possible, too.
So, the Penguins have options to obtain additional picks and better their station. Regardless of which goalie, or which other assets the Penguins might move to fortify their roster, they have options. However, a June Draft would remove those options and the Penguins ability to improve their lack of 2020 picks.
Would either of the Pittsburgh Penguins goalies yield a first-round pick? Maybe. Or, perhaps a second-round pick and an asset. Regardless of the price, such a trade would improve the Penguins prospect pool and help alleviate the coming salary-cap crunch.
Not only would removing teams’ ability to make draft-day trades impede their inevitable salary cap limbo, but it would also harm players, too. How many veterans who would otherwise be traded instead become buyout casualties or waived? How many other players would be stuck in situations neither they or their team want?
With a flat cap, there will be more difficult decisions and figurative bloodletting.
The 2020 NHL Draft in June would take away a significant opportunity for teams to get cap compliant, and that’s bad. It would also deny the Penguins and others an ability to get better.
That’s even worse.