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On the Subject of Risk in the NHL: the Draft, the Cap, and the Safety in Trends

The NHL is ensnared by the subject of risk. Everything you see, read, or watch in the coming weeks has to do with risk. NHL GMs play a high-stakes game that is significantly magnified at two key points in the year: the trade deadline and the tiny period of time from the end of the playoffs until free agency. If you're wondering what your team's GM is going to do, what the next move is, or who the next draft pick is, think about the minimization of risk. It's the NHL's Golden Rule.

In some ways my beloved San Jose Sharks are partially to blame for this developing rule. The Erik Karlsson trade, subsequent contract, and bottoming out of the Sharks with him at the helm has set the Sharks back about a decade. They traded two budding stars, Josh Norris and Tim Stützle to get him. They have a limited prospect pool despite 4 years of being bottom 5 in the league. They're set to enter the full-blown rebuild cycle about 2-3 years after most teams start. NHL GMs have learned from these violations of the Golden Rule. Mike Grier has his hands full, but let's get to that later.

On this the day of the draft, let's start there.


The Draft and how Michkov runs it

I have been fortunate enough to attend the draft this year, and as I was listening to interview after interview of prospects during the media scrum, this entire subject came into focus. Will Smith is being asked questions about Matvei Michkov, being asked if he had seen his highlights and his play.

Connor Bedard, a once-in-a-generation prospect on the eve of his greatest professional achievement to date, is being asked questions about Matvei Michkov.

Sure there were plenty of other questions, sure these are one-offs, but every reporter, beat-writer and draft junkie is trying to figure out where Michkov lands (also apologies to whoever asked the question above, I'd give you credit if I knew who you were). He's been a bit of a ghost here in Nashville, and it has not gone unnoticed.

The other players are clearly confused. This is supposed to be their time in the spotlight, why is Michkov getting the attention?

Risk is the beginning and the end of the answer.

Michkov represents the ultimate high-risk, high-reward scenario. He's a dynamic, near-generational prospect in many scouts' eyes. He's broken records at every single level of play for the past two years. He has higher scoring rates in the KHL than Russian greats like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin at the time of being draft eligible. He outscored Connor Bedard at the U18s two years ago. He put up the best MHL (Russian juniors), VHL (like the Russian AHL), and KHL seasons relative to his age ever. Ever.

In any other year, it would be a serious debate between him and Bedard for number one overall. Michkov would be a slam-dunk to be on every interview during this buildup period to the first round and debates would rage if the spotlight was amplified to its normal degree. But in this time, at this draft, with the NHL and the world turning as it does, Michkov is the riskiest move an NHL GM can make.

Most NHL GMs have a finite window of time to direct their team. Too long of a rebuild, and maybe all their hard work tearing a team to the floorboards and compiling assets could be for not. An owner can pull the plug at any moment, leaving another GM to either clean up their mess or benefit from their transactions.

The proposition of having to wait three years for Michkov's KHL contract to be up before he can sign to an NHL club, may be too much of a risk for most risk-averse GMs in the NHL. An NHL GM might not even be employed with that club in 36 months. In fact, there's a very real possibility that multiple GMs with top 10 picks this year won't be with their current clubs in 3 years. There is also the very real possibility that it could be longer than that, or that his development could go south in a country that the current time.

So when you're watching the draft tonight, just know that your favorite NHL team has a GM that is probably going to follow the Golden Rule. As Michkov is tumbling down the draft board, you can scream or yell, or learn to accept why it is happening. If your job were on the line, you might make the same choice. An NHL GM will make that choice eventually, and likely be praised for it. They will probably be either a new GM to a team (read Mike Grier or Danny Brière), or the Washington Capitals. Everyone else will follow the playbook, and stick to the devil they know.

It cannot be overstated how much this draft specifically represents the subject of risk in the NHL. Michkov is the foil, the magnifying glass to the Golden Rule, burning through the leaves, revealing just how much this professional sports league is terrified of risk. Don't believe me? Let's get to the cap.


The Cap Rules Everything Around Here

Just this week, Ryan Johansen was traded at 50% of his cap-hit for nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing except of course $4 million in cap for the Nashville Predators. Kevin Hayes was traded at 50% of his cap-hit for a 6th round pick in 2024. These players can put up around 50-60 points per year, and have pretty expensive contracts for their unretained cap-hits.

Actually, it might better be stated that they have expensive contracts, and that's it. Nothing actually matters about how they play, how many points they put up, or how good they're going to be on their new teams. It simply does not matter. In this league, the cap is divided between the stars and the not stars. The stars get the large contracts, and get security in their position. The not-stars need to be at a low enough caphit to be beneficial to a contender, or risk being jettisoned.

Everyone else who is good enough to be productive for a competitive club, signed to an expensive contract but not a star, is at risk of becoming a salary cap casualty. Don't believe me? Let's see the summation of the returns for the following players who were traded in the past 12 months:

Kevin Hayes

Ryan Johansen

Taylor Hall

Oliver Bjorkstrand

Sean Monahan

Max Pacioretty

Brent Burns

Ryan McDonagh

That list contains NHL All-Stars, a Hart trophy winner, and players who occupy the center position in the NHL, the most valuable of positions. Many of them were retained on when traded. Not to mention Monahan actually came with a first to get dumped. They returned:

Philippe Myers

Third-round pick (2023)

Future Considerations

Third-round pick (2023)

Fourth-round pick (2023)

Alec Regula

Ian Mitchell

Sixth-round draft pick (2024)

Alex Galchenyuk (went to UFA, so nothing)

The NHL has a dumping problem, a cap problem, as NHL GMs are dealing with the fallout from a less risk-averse time in the NHL. Prior to COVID, GMs were willing to risk giving out large contracts to players like Johansen, Burns and Hayes to keep their competitive windows open.

Now the NHL is divided into the haves and have-nots, where teams have to decide, and decide quickly whether they're competing or selling. The casualty of a risk-averse league in a flat-cap era are the players who are given for free, sometimes less than free, to teams around the league who can bare them.

So the next time you're wondering what your NHL GM is going to do, ask yourself how much cap space your team has first, where they are in their rebuild cycle second, and actual team need third.

The cap rules everything for an NHL GM, but trends and archetypes might be the key that unlocks the trade cabinet for an NHL GM. Trends are the one thing that can turn a risk-averse NHL GM into a risk-taking one. Let's examine a few of the trends in the league and how they will impact the draft, free agency, and how teams spend their money in a flat-cap era.


Trends and Archetypes

There are a few major trends and archetypical players that are dominating the trade-market currently, and they all have to do with the minimization of risk.

First, NHL teams are paying out the nose for young, cheap RFAs who play a 200-ft game, pot some goals, and get chippy. That's always been the case, but in the flat-cap, Golden Rule era that the NHL is in now, it's amplified.

Tanner Jeannot returned at least twice the value of assets that all of the above former All-Stars did combined. He's not and likely never will make an All-Star team. Do you know what he is? He's an archetype. He's the competitive skill that NHL teams love, and he's cheap. He's safe, and NHL GMs love safe.

Don't believe me? Here's Tampa's GM on the deal:

"He's hard to play against. He plays with pace. He finishes checks often and hard. He can defend. He manages the puck well. He brings his teammates into the fight. By all accounts he's a great teammate and he's the type of player that helps you win when it gets hard."

And he's cheap to the cap and under team control. He forgot that bit.

Much is the same for the young RFA center and the hulking but mobile defenseman. These archetypes are of high value, and they make NHL GMs feel safe in acquiring them for exorbitant prices.

Let's take the recent Pierre-Luc Dubois deal. In a vacuum is PLD worth:

Gabriel Vilardi

Alex Iafallo

Rasmus Kupari

2024 2nd round pick (MTL)

I'd argue no. Many around the league would say the same, but LA has decided they're suddenly in the haves, not the have-nots. They have decided they need to kick start into a competitive window. They paid out the nose to dump Cal Petersen, by the way to do so. Will it work? Maybe. Maybe not. But for a young RFA center who can be under team control for the window, they've decided it is worth it.

The last archetype, after the young RFA chippy forward and the RFA center, that is going to hold extreme value over the next year or so, is the hulking but mobile defenseman.

Much has been made over how Vegas's defense core were all 6'1"+ monsters who provided a wall for Adin Hill to tend behind. This is true, and something NHL GMs have taken notice of.

Don't be surprised if today and tomorrow on draft day, large defensemen with good feet go above smaller, skilled defensemen who are far more productive. Way above. Your Bonks, Simashevs, Reinbachers, Dvoraks and Willanders are going to leap up draft boards by risk-averse GMs. Your ASPs, Cagnonis, Morins, Molendyks and Gulyayevs may fall. One of them will turn into this year's Lane Hutson, but a GM is going to have to break the mold to take that risk.

Teams have also noticed how Adin Hill, Akira Schmid and other massive goaltenders who are cheap and replaceable have stood behind these defenses by the way. So don't be surprised if goaltenders like Trey Augustine are selected behind taller goaltenders like Damian Clara or if Michael Hrabal becomes a top 20 pick. It's all about archetypes, and how teams can use them to maximize cap space in today's NHL.

Speaking of those three archetypes... where do Matvei Michkov and Erik Karlsson fit in them? The answer is nowhere. These players are not safe. They are the antithesis of safe. They have the possibility of a high-reward if it all works out, but NHL GMs do not value the undersized scoring winger, or the undersized offensive defenseman in the NHL currently.

A shrewd GM might maximize this thinking by getting them cheaper than their actual value, but it's something to keep in mind as we move into the offseason.



Remember this quote from earlier:

"So the next time you're wondering what your NHL GM is going to do, ask yourself how much cap space your team has first, where they are in their rebuild cycle second, and actual team need third."

I think we need to amend it.

The next time you're wondering what your NHL GM is going to do, ask yourself how much cap space your team has first, where they are in their rebuild cycle second, whether there's an archetypical player available third, and then actual team need fourth.

This is the way the NHL has operated in the flat-cap era to minimize risk, and there's no sign of letting up. Tonight at 7PM EST it'll all be on display, as teams pass on Matvei Michkov, the linchpin moment of an NHL that cannot help itself from following the Golden Rule and being terrified of the big bad Risk.

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For the Sharks, Hasso defines what equates to risk.

Mike Grier might be the most un-fireable GM in the league. But if Hasso says he can't retain half on EK65 -- even though that is the right approach for a rebuild -- Grier has to approach things with the owner's constraints. In the Sharks case, those constraints are unknown, but perhaps highly significant.


Risk is an awesome game!!

That aside, risk is the mystery of drafting. Nail biting and edge of seat stuff. Fun times.

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