It's 1999, and Rick Dudley is sitting in his Tampa Bay office, looking over the Lightning's depth of organizational talent on his first day on the job. The conclusion isn't promising.
He estimated that he had three players who could consistently play at a high level in the NHL.
"That's it," he said during a phone conversation earlier this week. "We had to get a little more competitive."
The Lightning held the No. 1 overall pick in that draft, and Dudley's scouts overwhelmingly liked Calgary Hitmen winger Pavel Brendl, who had 73 goals in 68 games in the WHL. Dudley wasn't a fan. He also wanted to add more talent than just one player and struck a deal with the New York Rangers and the Canucks -- a few of the many deals that reshaped the top of that draft.
"I got a first-round pick the next year, two or three other picks -- a whack of players. We then made a trade with San Jose and got a bunch more players," Dudley said.
Dudley, now the assistant GM in Montreal, has traded the No. 1 overall pick three times in his NHL career as a GM. With the Panthers in 2002, he made a deal with Columbus that allowed the Blue Jackets to land Rick Nash, and the Panthers got Jay Bouwmeester at No. 3. In 2003, he traded out of the first pick down to No. 3 so the Penguins could grab Marc-Andre Fleury first overall while the Panthers could snag Nathan Horton.
He's done it three times and realizes it isn't easy. The deal with Pittsburgh in 2003 was the last time the No. 1 overall pick has been traded.
"You have to have an amazing comfort level to trade the first pick," Dudley said.
You need to have confidence in your job security and a strong familiarity with the players at the top of the draft so you know exactly what you're getting. Or trading away.
The Avalanche -- owners of the top pick in the upcoming 2013 draft -- qualify on all fronts. Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy are confident enough in their abilities and status in Colorado to take risks. And Roy knows those players at the top of the draft as well as any coach in the NHL -- probably better -- after coaching against Halifax Mooseheads stars Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon in the QMJHL.
So when Sakic made the bold proclamation that they may not be taking defenseman Seth Jones -- the top-rated prospect by NHL Central Scouting -- at No. 1, it immediately heightened trade speculation. And that might have been the plan all along.
"He's trying to drum up a market," Oilers GM Craig MacTavish said Wednesday. "It's going to garnish a lot of attention ... virtually everybody will be contacting Colorado about what their intention is."
Before Sakic's comments to the Denver Post, in which he said the organization was leaning toward picking MacKinnon, Drouin or Alexander Barkov over Jones, one Eastern Conference GM already believed the possibility was strong we'd see the first overall pick moved.
"It's going to be interesting," he said. "Patrick [Roy] has a lot of input on the deal. When you have a coach who has the input on the deal, he's going to want to have the better chance to win earlier than later. It wouldn't surprise me if they moved the pick."
"It's hard to do," he said. "Teams try to do it every year. Teams will try to do it this year. MacKinnon is a phenomenal player. I see MacKinnon as the first pick, not Jones. Jones is a really good player. But to develop him to be an impact player on the team, it's going to take three, four or five years. MacKinnon can make the impact that first year."
Roy doesn't seem like the kind of coach who necessarily wants to wait three years for this pick to payoff, not with the talent that Colorado has already assembled in Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog. This team isn't far off from being back in the playoff mix, despite a rough lockout-shortened season. Adding an impact player immediately could push this team back into the playoff mix.
The other factor is that there isn't one clear-cut player who is better than all the rest, and this is one of the deeper drafts in recent memory. So if the Avalanche can pick up other picks in the draft by moving down slightly, that's a win. Even if the only result of this posturing persuades Florida GM Dale Tallon to ship a draft pick to Colorado to make sure MacKinnon is available for the Panthers, it's a win for Sakic and Roy.
That's why their public stance is so smart. If they had come out and said they want Jones at No. 1, they would have lost all leverage and ability to maneuver. It would have put Tallon in the driver's seat at No. 2. Now, Colorado clearly is in control of the situation.
"There are four or five players that are almost assured of being star players," Dudley said of this draft class. "It's a hard call who it's going to be ... That's why it's easier to do this if you're a GM who actually sees the players. All of them. Then you can make that determination. If not, you have to ask somebody else."
All those factors make this draft the likeliest in years to see the No. 1 overall pick moved. But it's still not an easy deal to make or even beneficial.
To move up to get Nash in 2002, then-Columbus Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean gave Florida the No. 3 overall pick in that draft (Bouwmeester) and the option to swap spots in the first round of the 2003 draft.
"My guys wanted Nash desperately bad," said MacLean, who thought GMs Brian Burke (then with the Vancouver Canucks) and George McPhee (Washington Capitals) were also trying land the pick that year. "I was getting a little nervous."
It was a calculated gamble by Dudley, and the payoff came in the 2003 draft lottery, when the Panthers had a 24.9 percent chance of getting the first overall pick because they had the Columbus option and their own pick, which had a 10.7 percent chance of becoming the top pick. The Panthers won the lottery, which meant the Blue Jackets kept their pick and Florida got to pick first again. So Columbus essentially moved up two spots without giving up anything.
And to make sure the Thrashers didn't take Bouwmeester in 2002, Dudley sent Atlanta a third-round pick to select Kari Lehtonen. So the net result of trading down two spots was losing a third-round pick.
The Panthers wanted Bouwmeester all along, so it worked out fine, but when you're gambling with lottery results and evaluating teenagers, it makes moving at the top of the draft risky.
Burke was a general manager who was often in the mix at the top of the draft. As GM of the Canucks, he orchestrated the deals to land the Sedin twins. He also tried to trade for John Tavares when he was the Maple Leafs GM, but Islanders GM Garth Snow told him not to bother.
"I dropped it after two tries," Burke wrote in an email.
It's just not an easy call to pass on a potential franchise player at No. 1.
"Very few entry drafts have a crystal-clear, consensus No. 1 prospect. This year is a good example. So rationally, you would expect the first overall pick to move more than it does," Burke said. "A team willing to move the top pick is typically unwilling to drop lower than four or five, typically where the first ledge is. So the team with the top pick wants to stay in the top five and all those teams see a player sitting there that they are happy with, so they won't pay a steep price to move up."
And that's the case this year. If Colorado doesn't want to move out of the top four (MacKinnon, Drouin, Jones, Barkov), that limits its trade partners. And the return.
Dudley was a gambler, willing to take risks to add assets to his organization while still landing the player he wanted. We'll learn soon whether Roy and Sakic have the same philosophy.