How NHL draft pick distribution could affect the league's competitive balance

While NHL teams' rosters — and occasionally cap space or lack thereof – make headlines, draft capital plays a major role in determining their fate.

During a quiet part of the NHL offseason, the Montreal Canadiens have seen the spotlight come their way after making two trades in a 10-day span involving veteran blueliner Jeff Petry.

Neither of those deals were groundbreaking, but the Habs were given credit for inserting themselves in the Erik Karlsson trade and subsequently shipping Petry off to Detroit largely due to their ability to scoop up valuable draft picks in the process.

It's not revolutionary to assert that acquiring picks is a good idea for a rebuilding squad, but because draft picks are not particularly exciting, and difficult to put a precise value on, the conversation around them is often limited to the analysis of a particular transaction.

In order to get a better sense of the complete picture for teams like the Canadiens that are making a concerted effort to build their draft capital — as well as squads staring down the barrel of a pick shortage — we thought it might be wise to look a little deeper at the NHL's haves and have-nots when it comes to selections.

If you don't see a team listed below, that's an indication that they shouldn't be particularly elated or concerned about their current draft pick situation.

A league of their own: Arizona Coyotes (+13 picks over the next three years)

The Jakob Chychrun trade helped the Coyotes build their stash of NHL draft picks. (Scott Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When it comes to accumulating draft picks, nobody has done it like the Coyotes lately. The team's indifference to icing a winning hockey team and willingness to take on any bad contract for a shred of future value has yielded quite the war chest.

Although the Coyotes don't have any extra first-round picks over the next three seasons, they have an additional seven second-round picks and four third-rounders. Players chosen in that range aren't sure things, but they're likely to produce some interesting prospects based on sheer quantity alone.

Those high selections could also be parlayed into quality NHL talent, as Arizona demonstrated when it acquired defenseman Sean Durzi in June. The surplus picks might function as sweeteners if the Coyotes opt to move up in any of the next three drafts, too.

Arizona has an incredible level of flexibility over the next three seasons thanks to the trade chips it has amassed, but there's no guarantee that will result in great on-ice success. The franchise has a long way to go before it builds a contender.

That said, if you're in the midst of a rebuild, a massive collection of picks is a fantastic asset to have. The Coyotes might just add to it in 2023-24, as notable free-agent signings Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba signed one-year contracts. Both players could be appealing trade bait come deadline time.

Rebuilders stockpiling picks: Chicago Blackhawks (+7), Montreal Canadiens (+7), Anaheim Ducks (+4), Philadelphia Flyers (+3)

The Blackhawks got two picks in the first two rounds in the Jake McCabe deal. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
The Blackhawks got two picks in the first two rounds in the Jake McCabe deal. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The teams in this category have been doing what the Coyotes are doing to a much less extreme extent. All four should feel good about having a pantry full of picks at a time when they still need to build their base of young talent.

Chicago is in particularly good shape as the Blackhawks have 13 picks in the first two rounds over the next three years, presuming top-10 protections on picks from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs don't kick in.

If the Connor Bedard era leads to an acceleration of their competitive timeline, some of the team's picks could go towards acquiring veteran help. If it becomes clear that a slow build is necessary, then Chicago can keep adding prospects. Either way, the team is in an enviable position.

Some of Montreal's extra picks are late-round filler, but the Habs have four extra selections in the first three rounds over the next three years. That's not a massive treasure trove, but it's helpful for a squad that's still a long way from leapfrogging the powers in its division.

The Ducks and Flyers are a step below the other teams in this category in terms of draft capital added, but Anaheim deserves credit for grabbing six picks in the top three rounds in 2024. Meanwhile, the jewel of the Flyers' pick portfolio is a Florida Panthers top-10 protected first-round pick in 2024.

Surpluses and deficits that could affect 2023-24 trade market: Pittsburgh Penguins (-2), Colorado Avalanche (-4), Los Angeles Kings (-3), Nashville Predators (+4)

Following the Erik Karlsson deal the Penguins don't have many 2024 draft picks to use as trade assets. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Following the Erik Karlsson deal, the Penguins don't have many 2024 draft picks to use as trade assets. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

It's easy to conceive of a draft pick as a seed you plant with the harvest coming years down the line, but it can also be a critical short-term asset.

The amount of draft picks contending teams bring into any given season has a material effect on their ability to make in-season moves — and the four teams above will all have to consider their situation carefully before swinging major deals.

Pittsburgh is as much of a win-now team as there is in the NHL due to the age of its core, but the Penguins have already moved three of their top five picks in 2024 in prior deals. They can reach into 2025 and 2026 to make deals, but they'll have to outbid rivals in order to do so, as a pick's value typically diminishes the further away it is.

The same is true for the Avalanche and Kings, who've also moved three of their top five picks already. Each squad is in a slightly better situation than the Penguins because their first pick is still in-house, but all three teams would have to think carefully before completely hollowing out their 2024 draft classes.

Nashville is in a different spot because it has a notable collection of 2024 picks and an ambiguous competitive situation. It's possible to envision the Predators either buying or selling at the deadline depending how their season goes.

If they exceed expectations, the four extra picks the team has in the first four rounds (two seconds, a third, and a fourth) would give them exceptional ammunition at the deadline. If they are moving players out, they are capable of grabbing enough 2024 selections to move up and down the draft with ease — or simply onboard a massive class.

Longer-term issues: Boston Bruins (-6), Tampa Bay Lightning (-2), Toronto Maple Leafs (-2), Florida Panthers (0)

Tyler Bertuzzi cost the Boston Bruins their first-round pick in 2024. (Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Tyler Bertuzzi cost the Boston Bruins their first-round pick in 2024. (Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Bruins are missing more draft picks than any other squad, which isn't an ideal spot to be when you just lost Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.

If Boston tries to find another top-six calibre center on the trade market to complement its win-now roster, it could be left with limited resources for rebuilding its farm system or swinging future deals. It could be put in the category above as well, as its 2024 draft is particularly thinned out. Presuming the team's first-round choice isn't a top-10 pick that would be protected, the Bruins will only have selections in the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds.

The Lightning and Maple Leafs aren't missing too many picks in terms of the raw number of selections, but the draft capital they possess is late-pick heavy. If Tampa Bay avoids picking in the top 10 in each of the next two years — a likelihood considering the Lightning's track record of success — it will lose a first-round pick in both seasons. The team is also missing a second-rounder in 2023 and the only picks it's added are seventh-rounders.

Toronto is in a similar boat. The Maple Leafs are down a top-10 protected first in 2025 and don't have a second-round pick until 2027. Over the next three years, the team has just seven picks in the first four rounds. That will make it tough to reinvigorate a middling prospect pool.

Florida earns a mention based on the pair of conditional first-round picks it has given up in recent years. If the Panthers make the playoffs in each of the next two seasons, they won't pick in the first round until 2026. They are also missing their 2024 second-rounder, and the absence of those selections could hurt the team's ability to keep its momentum from 2022-23 going.