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Pricey acquisitions will have a say in who wins the West

Julian Catalfo / theScore

Elias Lindholm was an NHL All-Star in February, then struggled to live up to the billing. Dealt to Vancouver on the eve of the midseason showcase, Lindholm scored 12 points in 26 games and missed weeks with a wrist injury as the Canucks slipped out of Presidents' Trophy contention.

They still made the playoffs comfortably, giving Lindholm a platform to shine. The Canucks' third-line center sniped their icebreaking goal against the Predators. His faceoff win and hustle on the forecheck created linemate Dakota Joshua's Game 1 winner. In Game 4's overtime, Lindholm's one-timer at the foot of the crease completed a furious comeback, pushed Vancouver to the brink of advancing, and demonstrated why he was a trade target.

To keep pace in an arms race, most Western Conference playoff teams swapped future first-round draft picks for instant help. Lindholm and four fellow pending unrestricted free agents - Avalanche defenseman Sean Walker, Jets center Sean Monahan, and the Oilers' Adam Henrique-Sam Carrick forward duo - commanded that price ahead of the deadline. The Golden Knights surrendered firsts for Noah Hanifin and Tomas Hertl, and both are signed into the 2030s.

Danny Murphy / Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

A lot rides on these moves. Rentals can swing a tight matchup or sag under the pressure to contribute, doing little to justify the steep acquisition cost. Teams that trade their upcoming first-rounder risk losing a decent selection if they bomb out of the playoffs. Reaching the conference final or Stanley Cup Final, which lowers the draft pick to the end of the round, makes the gambit worthwhile, though winning it all is the obvious goal.

Henrique pitched in to help the Oilers oust the Kings with a rip under the crossbar in the series opener. Edmonton's nine power-play goals, plus a couple scored right after penalties expired, relieved Henrique of the need to do much else. The versatile 34-year-old has the shot and instincts to own some future clutch moment, either while riding shotgun on Connor McDavid's line or at center in a reconfigured bottom six.

The Golden Knights trail the Stars 3-2 in a Round 1 slugfest. In Wednesday's close Dallas win, Hanifin floated a point shot for his third power-play assist of the series and made an assertive stick check to foil a two-on-one, showcasing his two-way value. Hertl threatened to light the lamp on Jack Eichel's wing but is running out of time to bury pucks. Vegas has been heavily outchanced and outscored 4-0 in Hertl's five-on-five shifts, per Natural Stat Trick.

Darcy Finley / NHL / Getty Images

Colorado's elimination of Winnipeg showed the ups and downs of renting. Walker's ability to skate and spark breakouts on the third defense pair offset the potential downside of trading Bowen Byram for Casey Mittelstadt, who's become a key playmaker up front in the relentless Avalanche attack. Monahan managed one power-play helper in the Jets' defeat, disappointing in his brief stint as second-line center.

Over the past 10 years, 62 players were acquired in-season for packages involving their new team's first-round pick, according to CapFriendly's historical trade tracker. These big bets, executed with urgency before the deadline, were varyingly effective.

Parting with draft assets helped recent champions triumph. Although Vegas missed the playoffs in the season of the Eichel blockbuster, he was the postseason points leader during last year's trip to the mountaintop. The star-laden Lightning brought in complementary pieces over several years, reaching a final with Brandon Hagel after Braydon Coburn, Barclay Goodrow, Ryan McDonagh, and David Savard stuck around to win Cups.

The Blackhawks' deadline addition of third-line center Antoine Vermette, a pure rental, looked genius when he netted multiple game-winners in the 2015 Cup Final. Other champs wheeled and dealed in the offseason. The Avalanche got Darcy Kuemper, the Blues bagged Ryan O'Reilly, and the Penguins procured Phil Kessel for first-round picks in the summers before Cup victories.

First-rounders were swapped like candy in 2023, producing mixed results.

Paul Swanson / NHL / Getty Images

Mattias Ekholm, the steady hand of the Oilers' stellar top pair, continues to tilt the ice with defense partner Evan Bouchard. Retaining Vladislav Gavrikov didn't spur a Kings playoff run. Most Maple Leafs and Bruins reinforcements promptly departed, though Boston's addition and eight-year extension of Hampus Lindholm in 2022 constituted a masterstroke.

Along those lines, Timo Meier has seven more seasons under contract to help the Devils rediscover their oomph. The five picks the Lightning offloaded for depth winger Tanner Jeannot are dearly missed. It could be worse: The Senators haven't been a playoff squad since 2017 despite splurging high picks to land Matt Duchene, Alex DeBrincat, and Jakob Chychrun.

Recipients of first-rounders have ammo to make another move. The Lightning fetched Blake Coleman, a glue guy in both Cup lineups, for a Canucks pick that was part of their J.T. Miller swap. Trading Bo Horvat in 2023 let Vancouver acquire Filip Hronek, who empowered partner Quinn Hughes to chase this season's Norris Trophy. Icing the right mix of players is worth a steep price, especially when another team helps foot the bill.

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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