The NHL trade deadline is around the corner, and hockey fans of playoff contenders are hoping to get a shiny new toy come Monday. Some fans have already been rewarded. Others, like Ducks fans, are still hoping there will be a piece that can carry them deep into the playoffs. However, it seems that every year Ducks' GM Bob Murray reminds Anaheim fans that he doesn't want to sacrifice the future to win now. To be fair, this rationale is probably as old as the idea of the rental player, and certainly precedes Murray's tenure as a GM. Hockey fans everywhere know this classic excuse for a disappointing deadline.
Still, what exactly is mortgaging the future? When it comes to a definition, It seems NHL GMs use the same standard the Supreme Court used for identifying pornography: You know it when you see it. In an era where we have combined analytics to enhance the conventional eye-test, it seems ineffective to continually rely on such an abstract definition. It allows GMs an explanation that basically amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free card, because they can always claim the market simply forced them to dip too deeply into the "potential" of the future. Of course, this brings us back to square one: What is "The Future"?
Ideally, a reporter corners a GM and asks him exactly how many draft picks or prospects constitutes the mortgaging of the future. For example, if the Ducks didn't select a single prospect this year, would the future actually be in jeopardy? Have we mortgaged the future at three prospects traded, or four? If we give up Josh Manson but not Shea Theodore, are we really in trouble? If you can get a fourth line center for a fourth round pick, how important is it to keep William Karlsson AND Rickard Rakell, considering Getzlaf and Kesler are the keys to beating L.A.'s center depth.
To get to the bottom of this, I think you have to start with the value of a draft pick. This piece from SBNation contributor Adam Gretz looks at the odds of a draft pick making it to 100 games in the NHL. The major takeaway for the purpose of this post is that quantity tends to be better than quality. The more chances you take at drafting players, the more likely you are to actually find an NHL player. This is important because it means that there can be opportunities for NHL GMs to transform later picks into equal or at least mitigated success.
For example, Murray could trade the Ducks' first and two third-round picks this year, but then trade the remaining second round pick to move down and pick up an extra pick. Let's say he gets an early third and a fourth for his second, There's only about a 3% difference in the chance of a second versus a third round pick panning out, but you get an extra chance in the 4th round to find an NHL payer, albeit not the same percentage chance as the third or second. The point is that the loss of quality draft picks, like firsts or seconds, can be mitigated to enhance the total number of prospects. Meaning that sacrificing a first, isn't necessarily horrible, depending on the prospects in the cupboard.
Moreover, when we see the general success rates of draft picks outside of the top 10 picks and especially outside the first round, you have to ask yourself if the pick is ever really worth more than the NHL games you can get out of the player you trade the pick for. If a rental defender costs a second round pick, then you're taking that player's 20+ NHL games versus the 31% chance that second round pick actually plays 100 games in the league? The answer probably lies in how close you think your organization is to a deep playoff run.
Of course, that's not the only piece of the puzzle. One more thing to take into consideration is how long it actually takes for a prospect to mature. Quanthockey.com has tracked the age at which every player has made his NHL debut. He keeps data going back to the early 20th century, but the salary cap era has changed a lot in the dynamics of how young players are used and developed. As a result, I only looked at the distribution of players who made their NHL debut from 2000 to the present.
A lot of players who debuted in the early 2000s were probably drafted in the late 1990s, and this will affect some of the numbers, but I think this is a fair scope for our purposes. For the first decade of the new millennium, the distribution is clearly concentrated in the ages of 20-23, but starting in the '10-'11 season the distribution starts to lean towards players that are 22 years old. The chart doesn't tell us what round the players were drafted in, but it's probably a safe bet that guys drafted in the earlier rounds come out closer to 20 and later round guys closer to 22 and 23. This means we know it will take at least a few years for a player to be ready for the NHL, which means there's time to figure out what the team will do to make up for the loss of the potential players drafted.
So we know that draft picks have a generally low chance of making it to the NHL, and that it will take at least a couple of years to figure out whether or not that player will start helping the team. I believe the last component in determining if a GM is mortgaging the future is roster space. Murray has 16 players that are either under contract for the next three seasons or will be team controlled RFAs. Of those, Jiri Sekac is probably the biggest wild card. That means that over the course of the next three seasons, the Ducks really only have about 2-3 roster spots that they need to fill out.
Arguably, those are really important roster spots, for example Kesler's 2C slot and the Top four defender we are still missing. Also, these numbers don't take into consideration things like College free agents, which can be a good way to turn around a slumping prospect pool. If there are only a few spots, the question becomes do the Ducks have the resources to fill some of those holes. In Murray's tenure, he's averaged 6.67 picks per draft, including 8 first-round picks and 8 second-round picks, which have the best chance at success. That means we have pretty much kept all of our draft picks for the entirety of Murray's tenure. Now, not all of those players are still in the system, some have been moved for other assets and are playing on other NHL teams. It's still safe to say we have a pretty full cupboard. The quality of those picks is always debatable, but it seems the Ducks have more options to fill roles than they have actual roles to fill.
So, Imagine a world where Murray trades every single draft pick in 2015 for rentals. Then imagine that it does absolutely nothing to damage our future. Theodore is still there to join the top four in three years when Fowler leaves for more money. Nick Ritchie grows into the top six power forward everyone is hoping for. Joseph Cramarossa becomes a bottom six defensive center to replace Thompson. Karlsson is the 3C behind Getzlaf and Rakell. The picks from 2013-14 are coming up for cups of coffee to take jobs from any of those players who might be moving on for free agency.
Of course, Murray isn't going to do that. He's also not going to trade every single prospect in the cupboard. Mortgaging the future only happens when it is done en masse. You have to give up a lot of picks over a long period of time to create a serious drought. Look at the Penguins. I'm beginning to wonder if Jordan Staal was the last time Ray Shero made a first-round selection. It shouldn't be as simple as "we might be mortgaging our future." It might seem a little long, but the real purpose of this post is to say that we can't simply accept this excuse anymore. We need to start developing more concrete ideas of this concept. We know more about the mechanisms of hockey than we did before. We need to start applying that knowledge to other areas.
I don't think Bob Murray could mortgage the future at the deadline, unless he made a conscious effort to do it.. He'd have to get multiple, high-level pieces to do that kind of damage to what is now a pretty stocked cupboard. Different teams certainly have different circumstances, but I think it's important to develop a critical way to better examine what exactly constitutes threatening the future. Too often, it's a catch-all explanation from GMs. It's the General Manager's job to make hard decisions to improve the team. Yes, they are responsible for maintaining the future of the organization, but they are also charged with generating success in the present. It's the GM's job to find balance, especially when the team is close to a championship.