Huge if True: What would the Coyotes give up for Auston Matthews?

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Huge if True: What would the Coyotes give up for Auston Matthews?
Huge if True: What would the Coyotes give up for Auston Matthews?

[HUGE IF TRUE breaks down the plausibility of the week's biggest rumor.]

The Rumor

In terms of both hockey and marketing, Auston Matthews going to Arizona is a dream scenario. The kid is supposed to be as good as Jack Eichel, if not better, and he's not only from Arizona, but he grew up a Coyotes fan.

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The idea that the team would go very, very hard for him makes the most sense in the world. And given that everyone though Arizona was going to be among the worst teams in not only their division, but the entire league, this season, it seemed like a very likely scenario. Today, however, a good chunk of the season with a huge PDO seems to have cost the Coyotes their legitimate shot at winning the draft lottery. Following Tuesday night's games, they only had a 6 percent chance to win, less than every Canadian team but Montreal and Ottawa, as well as Columbus and Buffalo.

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But you can't stop dreamers from dreaming, which is why we've lately started to hear rumors that the Coyotes would move the hockey equivalent of heaven and earth to acquire Matthews and sell roughly a billion jerseys.

Who's Going Where?

As recently as Feb. 18, Pierre LeBrun idly mentioned in a normal rumors column that he'd had a conversation with other TSN personalities about how such a trade would go. The conventional thinking is that to get the No. 1 overall pick, Arizona would have to give whoever wins the draft lottery — for the sake of argument and laughs, let's say it's Edmonton — “Oliver Ekman-Larsson (plus maybe more).”

Apparently those discussions continued, and were actually expressed on-air during TSN's trade deadline coverage, likely for want of anything more substantive to talk about during that long, boring day of TV.

Since then, though, the idea seems to have gained some pretty serious traction among hockey rumor-mongers.

Sportsnet's Eric Francis, who's based in Calgary, floated the idea that the Flames (or really, anybody) could trade the top pick for Arizona's No. 1 — either No. 8 or No. 9 as it stands right now — for “a top prospect or two, or maybe even Max Domi.”

Meanwhile, Mark Spector, who's based in Edmonton, thinks it's Arizona's first pick “and a very good player,” or simply dealing a whole package which likely includes Ekman-Larsson and keep the No. 8-9 as well.

However, Spector also gets into handicapping which lottery teams would and would not be open to trading the Matthews pick: Toronto, Columbus, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and maybe even Calgary probably all want to keep the pick. Realistically, it's likely just Edmonton that would probably be willing to accelerate the rebuild with Ekman-Larsson and the No. 8-9, because how many elite teenage centers do you need? (The answer is you never have enough, but Edmonton might logically be pushing it.)

Finally, Brian Wilde of CTV in Montreal echoes everyone else in imagining the Coyotes give up their first-rounder and “a strong roster player.”

The Implications

Let's first address the issue that the “maybe more” thing about an “Ekman-Larsson-for-Matthews” trade goes without saying. Auston Matthews is a franchise cornerstone center and will spend next season as a 19-year-old who's cost-controlled until he's 22. The kind of value that provides any team, but a budget team like Arizona in particular, is massive. Ekman-Larsson is awesome, but he also has a big contract, and he's going to be 25 and signed until he's 28 or so. He also may or may not have been put on the auction block in the past.

The idea that Arizona would give him up is a bit of a far-fetched one because he's probably about a top-10 defenseman in the league, a very, very clear No. 1 who toils in relative anonymity in the desert. Now, do you swap a clear No. 1 D in his mid-20s for a clear franchise center in his teens? I think that you do, because there are a lot of bad teams with good defensemen, but how many bad teams have elite centers by the time those elite centers are in their early and mid-20s? In today's NHL, the answer is “probably zero.”

The value of a top-five or so center almost cannot be overstated. It's greater than that of any other position save for goaltending, because an elite goaltender can drag even a rather poor team into the playoffs. Great centers do the next-best thing.

Teams understand this fundamentally, and therefore I'd have to think even Ekman-Larsson plus the No. 8 doesn't get this deal done. The first overall pick has never been traded in the salary cap era, but we do have two trades in the early 2000s to examine in this regard. The Blue Jackets traded up from No. 3 in 2002 to get Rick Nash first overall, conceding the No. 3 and the right to change picks again the next year to Florida (the latter didn't end up happening). It's likely that Florida didn't see much of a qualitative difference in value between Nash, No. 2 pick Kari Lehtonen (yikes!), and the player Florida ended up taking: Jay Bouwmeester.

The very next year, the Panthers traded down from No. 1 again, dropping to third again. Also included in that deal was a second-rounder and Mikael Samuelsson going to Florida from Pittsburgh, and the Pens also getting back a third-round choice. The Pens used the first overall on Marc-Andre Fleury, Carolina took Eric Staal second, and Florida selected Nathan Horton third.

So we don't have much of a basis for comparison, but it seems like the only time you're getting a first-round pick out of someone is if Rick Dudley is the GM with the first pick (he traded it twice despite only being in the job for two years and 14 days). 

Interestingly, Craig Custance went around last year asking GMs what it would take for them to trade the Connor McDavid pick. Obviously Matthews' quality isn't quite to that level, but it's not so far off as to be an unfair comparison. Tim Murray told him the deal starts — starts! — with a youngish superstar (a Steven Stamkos type) and the other team's first-round pick.

The question is: Does Arizona have a player that rises to the level of a Stamkos type? Ekman-Larsson is certainly the closest thing to it, but I don't rate him quite that highly. That means you need throw-ins even beyond him and the first-rounder. How much, exactly, should Arizona be willing to give up for this one player? If I'm the other GM, unless I hear the name “Anthony Duclair” at a minimum, I'm saying “Thanks but no thanks.”

This Is So Huge, If True: Is It True?

On a B.S. detector scale of 1-5, with one being the most reasonable and 5 being the least: 

The thing with this rumor, though, is that no one you really hear most credible rumors from is running with it. Pierre LeBrun brought it up, but his initial offering was just kind of thinking out loud: a wouldn't-this-be-intriguing-and-nice-and-good-for-hockey scenario. The chatter on the trade deadline show felt an awful lot like running out the clock.

So while it's not implausible that Arizona would really try to knock someone's socks off with such a move (and hey, trading Ekman-Larsson is a money-saver!) I can't give it too much credence. Right now it's mostly guessing what would would happen if so-and-so wins the lottery. Not a “I've heard that Arizona blah blah blah” to be had. As such, we currently have to give this rumor:

That could all change as the regular season comes to an end and the lottery teams find themselves with a lot of time to kill and some draft strategies to think up. It could further change once the actual lottery takes place and a clearer path forward is presented to Don Maloney himself. 

But right now? Not so much.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All statistics via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)

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