On the right, an example of how a successful first round pick can really benefit a team. In the middle, an example of a late round pick turning out well enough and adding to the team's depth. On the left, a ref. In the back, happy fans. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
I do not want to see the fourth overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft traded. Not to fill a short term need. If the Devils do so, then I believe they are throwing away more than just the potential of an 18-year old player - but their best chance to develop the next great Devil player.
Take a look at the draft history of the Devils at HockeyDB and you'll see several "lean" years over the last decade across the whole draft class. It wasn't very good from 1999 through 2005. But what has been consistent is that they've done fairly well with past first round picks since 2000. David Hale (2000) made into the NHL for a good amount of time; Niclas Bergfors (2005) is plying his trade in the NHL as well but elsewhere (by way of being part of the deal that first brought Ilya Kovalchuk to New Jersey); and I don't think I need to explain how well Zach Parise (2003) and Travis Zajac (2004) have turned out as players. Throw in the more-reasonable hopes for Jacob Josefson (2009) and Mattias Tedenby (2008), and the Devils' track record nothing to sneeze at. The only busts since 2000 were Adrian Foster and possibly Matt Corrente, and Corrente has at least got some games in the NHL and may yet to turn out be a player - here or elsewhere.
Mainly, the Devils have been good in the first round and now the scouts will get their highest pick in 19 years to add a fantastic prospect that list of first rounders. That potential, in my view, is too valuable to give up for a player or another pick or prospect. I explain my viewpoint further after the jump.
Let us be reminded that the main benefit in having a high draft pick in any draft is that you have the opportunity to select from a larger pool of prospects than other teams. Regardless of whether you feel the best player available is a defenseman, winger, or center; the real possibility of the Devils having to decide between Sean Couturier, Adam Larsson, Gabriel Landeskog, and Jonathan Huberdeau (among others) is simply wonderful just for their potential. These are not project guys or long shots who need several years before they can get a taste of the NHL. These are not players projected to be third line forwards or depth defensemen at best. These are some great prospects and a case can be made for selecting any of them.
Think beyond the player itself and think of what a first round pick can yield for a team in general. A player who has the good fortune, talent, and development to reach their potential can fill in important roles for a team for years to come. And at fourth overall, the Devils will still be selecting among the prime prospects available this year.
Travis Zajac is a good example of how hitting a first round pick can be very good for a team. While not a high first rounder at 20th overall in 2004, Zajac has become the team's first choice at center in recent seasons. Here are his Corsi and quality of competition numbers at even strength from Behind the Net. He's very good possession player, he's strong on faceoffs, he can and will play in all situations, and he has handled tough competition and came out ahead in the past. I don't know about you, but to me, that's a first line center and a good one, at that. Clearly, Zajac turned out to be a very successful draft pick.
Since the Devils have been able to re-sign Zajac (and at a reasonable cap hit), that's one less question mark for the team, one less spot on the roster to fill in, and one less team need that has to otherwise be addressed by hoping someone possibly not qualified for the spot can be thrown in there to do the job or overpaying an unrestricted free agent to take the role. Especially a role as important as being the team's top center.
New Jersey is in the unique position of allowing whoever they draft the time to develop. Namely because they really can't afford the potential cap hit that comes with a fourth overall pick. At the same time, the Devils don't really have too many open roster spots that would be waiting for a defenseman or a forward. This is less pressure on the draftee, who can just focus on just getting better in this coming season. It also fits the standard practice of the Devils when it comes to prospects: to be patient and give them a chance when they are truly ready. By then, perhaps the Devils would really need that draftee to take on an area of need. Or the Devils can trade someone with the draftee as the heir apparent for the position.
The main point is that the Devils can get a player who could be very good, and thus very important, for the Devils in the near future and they don't have to rush him into the league right away. It's not a common situation for this franchise, who did have a playoff streak running from 1996-97 through 2009-10 and won two Stanley Cups within that run streak. The Devils will have their highest pick in the draft since that 1996 playoff miss, and their first in the top five since 1991 (Scott Niedermayer turned out OK, didn't he?). New Jersey should hold onto this pick and select an ace prospect. They may not turn into the next (insert former Devils great), but they don't have to do that - they just need to be a great player in their own right. That alone would make the most out of the pick. Such a prospect would be much more to the team in the long run than what they could get in a trade, and a lot easier to do it at #4 than at a lower spot in the first round.
(As for the rest of the draft, if the Devils can hit on a few of those late round picks even just as depth players, then that would be fantastic. If only to cut down on the number of free agents they need for the bottom ends of the roster.)