Poker. It's a game of playing the odds, reading the opposition, and trying to get the most possible value for whatever hand you've been dealt. Throwing out bluffs, misdirecting chatter, and representing things as far more than they're worth to try and rope in someone looking to make a big splash are all well-known and accepted tactics at the poker table.
But it's not just at the poker table where these are accepted tactics-it's the same at the draft table, too. And even though the draft is still two weeks away, we're already seeing the GMs pull their best impressions of Amarillo Slim and The Moneymaker as they attempt to jostle for position in a perfect trading storm of stacked draft and relatively meagre FA class.
Already we're seeing all sorts of hints, suggestions and hearsay being "unofficially" released from team sources. Toronto are dangling arguably the biggest draft-day worms by hinting that Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf might be trade chips. There's talk of teams trading up and down in the draft, or exchanging first round picks for solid roster players or veterans.
And of course, at this time of year one of the most popular debates on forums, newspaper comment sections and elsewhere is the trading of first round picks. How big a deal is it?
A few months ago, SBN's Stephen Burtch analysed the trend of trading draft picks, and attempted to assign a value to each pick using a coefficient based on production, which he represented in the form of a graph thusly:
As Burtch himself says, there's a huge dropoff between the top three picks and the rest of the draft when it comes to value, though 4-15 picks are still significant.
In terms of the poker game of drafting and trading, though, the reason there's all that speculation always flying around about the top three picks is because that having them is like holding a royal flush, straight flush or four of a kind at a table where everyone else is holding two-pair. In a draft like this one, where the top three has a once-in-a-generation prospect, a college superstar and any number of high-level potential prospects who could have gone first in some other recent years as the bait, it's a royal flush and two straight flushes vs the rest of the pack.
So what does this mean for teams looking to trade up? Using Burtch's system, a mid-first-round pick, even in a draft that is one of the strongest in recent years, is only worth a third of the top pick. Bearing in mind that the baseline for the top pick is a 400-game NHL forward, that means that if the team currently holding the #15 pick (Calgary) wanted to trade up into the top three, an "fair" equivalent offer is something like Johnny Gaudreau AND Sean Monahan AND their pick. That's the kind of offer that would cause Flames fans to burn down the Saddledome, but based on statistics (which, bear in mind, are only taking into accounts games played in the NHL and not their production in them) are saying is fair.
Would you trade Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan for a guaranteed 400 games from someone like Dylan Strome and a player like Mat Barzal or Yevgeny Svechnikov? That's a ridiculous concept to come out with before Strome has ever played in the NHL, but it's the kind of trade that NHL GMs are expected to consider as "fair" when this time of year rolls around.
OK - so, we've established that the "fair" asking price for most teams to really make a significant trade in the draft is...well, about as fair as bringing a B-52 strike to a knife-fight. But what about trading a little further down?
The Avalanche, picking tenth, have been making several significant noises about moving their tenth pick. Trading down by offering one pick for two lower, or giving up a roster player for an extra pick, is something that seems to be far more lucrative. The tenth pick is about 2/3 as valuable as a top three pick, which still means that using Burtch's table it's going to be worth a 250-game NHL forward, which is young-star/developing prospect/depth player territory. Of course, it's also worth a whole bundle of picks lower down the draft, which allows for a package to trade for quantity or, conversely, the pick to be thrown in as part of a package to make a big splash trade wise (say, Kessel-sized). Imagine, hypothetically, the Avs hit the table and say "right, I raise the tenth pick and Ryan O'Reilly in trade talks-who's going to match that with an offer?"
As they say in the movies...ACTION!
The draft, though, is still a seller's market - and that's only exacerbated this year by the big FA players out there for a GM looking to make an impact and get their signing game on are...er...Matt Beleskey (which is Canadian for "Ville Leino"), Paul Martin (sorry Paul, it's not 2009 anymore) and a whole ton of other flotsam and jetsam. Market prices are currently reflecting this, as shown by the Blackhawks (who let's not forget need to dump salary as they're tight against the cap) asking for a first round pick, an "A"-rated prospect and another young piece for an aging foward who's very useful and might be key in winning you a Cup in the next year or two given the right circumstances, but is likely only going to go downhill.
That's a MASSIVE price. Already it's the equivalent of asking to swap a guaranteed high straight for a four-card flush draw on the flop with no guarantee the cards will fall in your favour. It's a move that normally very few poker players would even consider making. But with the chance to win a World Series on the table, you see people going for things like this all the time as they shoot for the moon...and there's no guarantee someone won't go for a gutshot this time round. Which is what makes even considering setting such a price possible.
Then, of course, there's Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf floating around. With that pair of aces dangling, someone is going to likely get starstruck...but just how much will Brendan Shanahan roll them for, given the chance?
The only area at the draft where GMs can even hope for value is in the goalie arena, and even then it's in the "young goalies looking to make the leap" arena rather than established starters - the likes of Eddie Lack, Cam Talbot and others who are potentially going to fetch a much higher price than they would in a normal year. Even here, despite the bullish predictions of reporters, someone is probably going to go all in on the wrong guy or bet too many chips in the hope of winning big immediately.
In short, as the GMs settle down at the table for the beginning of a poker game that's going to last all offseason and beyond, this is the highest-stakes game in the NHL's town. People talk about mortgaging futures on trade deadline day, but most deals done then are accepted as teams going in for more than they should. It's rare that we see a draft like this one, where big names are already being dangled as factors even after the end of the season and a big bet in the right place could see your team win a flush full of stars for both now and, potentially, the future. And the psychology and "win now" mentality in some of the NHLs biggest markets along with GMs running out of backup in their wallets could see some of the biggest bets and most spectacular calls we've seen in a while.
Ante up, NHL. Stack those chips, deal those cards, and let's play a poker game which could have repercussions not just this season, but on several to come.