NHL Deadline is Christmas in February for Fans
By Scott Lowe - MyHockeyRankings.com
Most professional sports leagues have their dog days.
For baseball it happens in August when the temperatures soar as over half the league has been eliminated from the pennant races. The fading teams have traded away their higher-paid pending free agents and the loaded teams are in cruise control heading toward the postseason.
If we are lucky there are one or two good divisional or wild-card races, but those really don’t heat up until September. It’s like everything is on hold, and the top priority for players is not getting injured.
For the NBA, it seems like the dog days pretty much last all season, but actually the trade deadline is so early that we know in January who is all in and who is tanking for a better draft pick. The top teams are “load managing” and only seem to go all out in games that might impact their eventual playoff seeding, and most of the drama involves which sub-.500 teams in each conference will sneak into the playoffs.
In the NHL, the dog days definitely are upon us. The teams that have been at the top all year have leveled off a bit, while some of the pretenders who were in the playoff mix early in the year have shown their true colors and faded. Other teams that put together impressive streaks are either pushing for the postseason or have reverted to their losing ways, and some of the first half’s underachievers are rounding into form.
With seven weeks left in the season, the playoff intensity just isn’t there coming off bye weeks and the All-Star break, but that is about to change. While the NHL is far from perfect and hasn’t figured out everything, the league definitely has pro sports’ most interesting trade deadline.
Whatever the reason – probably the combination of hockey-crazy Canada and social media – the hockey trade deadline is the most anticipated, dissected and discussed deadline of all professional sports.
It’s almost like Christmas in February for hockey fans. Top teams are adding the pieces they think will take them on a Stanley Cup run while weaker teams are looking to stockpile draft picks and young prospects in hopes of winning future Cups.
It’s a much-anticipated, exciting day that creates an energy and buzz heading into the season’s home stretch. What’s my team going to do? Are they buyers or sellers? Will they get the guy who puts them over the top? Will they make the moves that set them up for future success?
And then once the day is done, everyone looks forward to seeing how all the moves play out and figuring out who actually won the day.
Well, get ready hockey fans. It’s almost Christmas!
This coming Monday, Feb. 24, is the NHL trade deadline, and while there aren’t some of the marquee names like Karlsson, Tavares, Duchene and Panarin that we’ve seen in recent years being dangled as trade bait, there are contending teams with plenty of cap space available to make a big splash and plenty of quality depth players potentially available to help teams plug holes and become more formidable.
It’s not always the high-profile trades that make the difference this time of year, anyway. The moves that pay off often are the subtle tweaks in which a less-obvious missing piece is plugged in without disrupting a team’s locker-room balance and team chemistry.
With the deadline less than a week away, we’ve been hearing for the past few weeks which teams will be buyers, which will be sellers and which might not know their approach until as late as the day before.
It’s easy to point out the obvious, and you’ll find some of that below. The fun part is trying to figure out which team or teams will surprise and go all in like the Columbus Blue Jackets last year, which potential playoff contenders might see the writing on the wall and blow up everything in hopes of becoming a contender for the longer term and which players we thought were untouchable who might end up with new homes.
Usually all it takes is a look to the top of the NHL standings to see who the obvious buyers will be. But, with salary cap constraints and long-term guaranteed contracts, it’s not always that simple. And there are always the really good teams that just seem to have all the pieces in place, like their group and the team’s chemistry and decide to stand pat.
The flip side of the buyer’s market is the surging team that has leapfrogged its foes and is full-speed ahead toward the top of the standings after a slow start. Perhaps this team underachieved early and is playing to its potential now, or maybe it’s an overachieving team that has overcome injuries and is now performing better than anticipated and feels it’s one move away from being a legit contender.
Then you have the teams scratching and clawing to get into the playoffs that would love to have the additional playoff revenue and energize their fan bases. They might think that making one move gets them in and that two or three can make them a true postseason contender. After all, once you get into the dance you never know what might happen.
Some of these teams have surfaced already as players by making key early deals before the pressure of the imminent deadline:
The Pens are the team that has overcome and overachieved after having survived injuries to pretty much all of their key players. Once they lost 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel for the season, though, Pittsburgh decided to make a preemptive strike by trading for Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker. Zucker should be a great fit – who wouldn’t be? – playing with Sidney Crosby and will help make up for the loss of Guentzel. Pittsburgh has been playing perhaps the most consistent hockey of any contender outside of Tampa Bay since Christmas despite the injuries and what is believe dto be just an okay defense. Always big players at the deadline, expect the Pens to make at least one more move to bring in a D-man if not more.
Also considered an overachiever, Vancouver has hung around the top of a weak Pacific Division all year and is just one point out of first place. The Canucks have ridden a young offensive core featuring a ton of speed and skill along with solid goaltending to firmly entrench themselves in the race. With their top wing Brock Boeser out for at least three weeks thanks to a rib injury, Vancouver went out and made a big early splash by trading prospects and picks for Kings’ forward Tyler Toffoli, who has 18 goals and 34 points. Toffoli will fill in nicely for Boeser in the coming weeks and add great secondary scoring depth once he returns. But it’s all or nothing, because as close as Vancouver is to the top of its division, it also has Vegas, Calgary and Arizona just one point behind breathing down its neck. A veteran depth defenseman still could be in the Canucks’ future.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Are they underachievers or not? The offensive talent seems to scream, “Yes!” But as we know, it takes more than that to play into May and June. It’s always something in Toronto. The team clearly underachieved and bristled under the well-documented mind games of former coach Mike Babcock. The Leafs have definitely been better since he left, but the consistency still is not there. The offensive firepower and skill stacks up with anybody. One glaring hole was exposed when top goaltender Frederik Andersen was sidelined with an injury, so Toronto moved early to trade for Kings’ goalie Jack Campbell. A team with this much talent needed to make sure that an injury to a goaltender wouldn’t ruin its chances. Some solid veteran depth along the blue line wouldn’t hurt this team and they have a couple of young pieces at forward who could be moved to sure up the D.
Tampa Bay Lighting
This is the team that already goes into the surprise category. A record-setting team a year ago that underachieved terribly in the playoffs, Tampa added veterans like Pat Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk in the offseason in hopes of not repeating last season’s playoff failure. The team then seemed disinterested to start the season – there was even talk about firing head coach John Cooper – and then put it all together recently to become the hottest team in the league and now one of the Cup favorites. Because of the off-season additions and the team’s recent strong play, it was generally assumed that the Lighting would stand pat, but instead they added more offensive depth to an already-potent lineup by bringing in forward Blake Coleman and his 31 points from New Jersey for a prospect and a first-round pick. Tampa doesn’t seem to need anything else, but after last year’s historic first round exit you never know.
New York Islanders
The common wisdom was that the Islanders would be looking to add offense to a team that struggles to score goals and has a defensive-minded coach in Barry Trotz. But instead the Isles went out and got a solid veteran D-man in Andy Greene, the Devils’ now-former captain. While this may confound some of the “experts,” if you can hold your opponent to a goal or two regularly – especially in the playoffs – you can win games. New York, with crafty GM Lou Lamariello calling the shots, still has to be in the market for some offensive help, but Greene will make their solid – but no-name – defense even better.
There may still be another move out there for a high-production forward, but I’ll save that for the end. Maybe acquiring Greene was a piece necessary to make another move.
So that takes care of some of the buyers, and also clearly relegates the Devils, Kings and Wild to the ranks of sellers.
Other players who may be moved by those teams:
New Jersey Devils – D Sami Vatanen, D P.K. Subabn, F Wayne Simmonds
Los Angeles Kings – D Alec Martinez, F Jeff Carter, F Trevor Lewis, F Dustin Brown
Minnesota Wild – They may not make anyone else available and they may actually turn into buyers now after the Zucker move. GM Bill Guerin has said he expects his team to compete for a playoff spot the rest of the year after moving Zucker and firing coach Bruce Boudreau. The Wild are fading fast, however, and are now just one point out of last place in the Central Division, 12 points out of third and seven points out of a wildcard spot. The bet here is that more selling is likely by the time Monday rolls around. Guerin said last week he would give his players “a fair shake” before determining the team’s strategy. Other than Miko Koivu Minnesota has no pending unrestricted free agents, and he has a no-movement clause. Defenseman Matt Dumba may find himself in demand if a team can take on this $6 million salary.
More Potential Buyers
Boston and Edmonton are mentioned often as teams that are looking for middle-six scoring depth up front. Both teams have two players near the top of the league scoring race, with their next-closest point-getter 30 or more points behind them.
They both were said to have interest in Toffoli and Coleman, but now may have shifted their attention to UFA’s like the Rangers’ Chris Kreider, Ottawa All-Star Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Montreal’s Ilya Kovalchuk, Nashville’s Mikael Granlund and Nashville’s Craig Smith.
Some potential sticking points here are that the Rangers, Canadiens and Predators likely haven’t decided if they are buyers or sellers yet.
The Rangers performed far better than anticipated before a recent dropoff, but are still within shouting distance of the second wildcard spot in the East as they trail the Flyers by seven points. Montreal is two points behind New York, but the Habs and their fans always seem to think they are in the hunt. And Nashville has seen an uptick since firing head coach Peter Laviolette, sitting just three points out of the final wild-card spot in the West.
Interestingly, Nashville has another potential option who isn’t a UFA for teams like the Bruins, Oilers and Avalanche at forward. Kyle Turris, a name that seems to surface almost every year at the deadline, comes with a $6 million price tag through 2024. Jeff Carter of the Kings has Stanley Cup pedigree and is having his best offensive season in the past three years, but is signed at over $5 million through 2022.
But what about Jumbo Joe Thornton out in San Jose? The Sharks are definitely sellers after a terribly disappointing season; Thornton still has potential second-line, third-line and power play value to add a dimension to the Bruin’s offense. He hasn’t won a cup and started his career in Boston. What a great story that would be.
So that will be one of my outlandish surprise predictions for this year’s deadline: Jumbo Joe back to the B’s for one final run at the cup.
Boston has $3 million in cap space, so even if the Bruins bring in someone like Thornton, with salaries pro-rated they would likely make another move in case he didn’t pan out. Last year’s addition of Marcus Johansson proved to be a savvy one, so maybe a restricted free-agent like speedster Andreas Athanasiou of the Red Wings, a former 30-goal scorer who seems to have hit a wall in Detroit, would be a good fit.
Palmieri, who has a year left on his $4.6-million contract, also would be able to play up and down the lineup and likely be affordable for the Bruins, while San Jose’s Ondrej Kase would provide similar versatility.
Kreider would be a great fit as well for any of the teams mentioned, but here is my second outlandish surprise prediction for this year’s deadline:
Kreider will reunite with his old pal John Tortorella with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Ultimately the Rangers will realize that they have a promising young core and two really good young goalies – as well as future Hall of Fame netminder Henrik Lundquist – for whom other teams might pay dearly. They might be able to pick up another young piece in bruising 25-year-old Columbus forward Josh Anderson, who apparently is on the trading block after an injury-plagued season that has seen his goal total drop from 27 to 1, as well as some other prospects and draft picks to solidify their future.
So Kreider goes to CBJ, possibly for Anderson or possibly for a prospect and picks as my surprise prediction number two. Columbus went all-in at the deadline last year in an attempt to win the Cup and wasn’t expected to do much in 2019-20. This year’s Blue Jackets are more of a Tortorella-style team, and he has done a remarkable job to keep them in the hunt despite losing several key components from the team that upset Tampa Bay in the first round a year ago. He has proven that if he can get into the dance his preferred style of play can give anyone fits.
Sitting out there ready to spoil everyone’s deadline day with potential Stanley Cup talent and around $30 million in salary-cap space are the Colorado Avalanche. Boy are they close to being a real Cup favorite. In fact, coming out of the West, they already are a threat to reach the conference or Cup finals.
So what are they missing? Not much.
Maybe a veteran goalie – hello Hank! – as insurance behind the solid Philipp Grubauer, who is now injured and will miss some time. They also just loss gritty forward Matt Calvert to an injury, and their defense while exciting and dynamic could use some veteran depth.
Here’s the thing with Colorado: With so much cap space, the Avs could bring in high-salary guys with or without remaining contract term for added depth to create mismatches in the bottom six, add a locker-room presence or add playoff experience without hurting their future. They also could play keep-away from other Western Conference teams looking to beef up their rosters by acquiring in-demand players and then figuring out how the pieces fit together best during the last six weeks of the regulars season.
First and foremost, bringing in a goalie seems to be a must. Colorado likely will look to what might be a fire sale of netminders in Chicago as the Blackhawks have fallen out of the race and are likely to be sellers. Either Robin Lehner or Corey Crawford would be a good fit, but for a team this close it seems like the veteran experience and leadership provided by a guy like Lundqvist makes the most sense.
So the next outlandish surprise prediction is Hank to the Avs, with Colorado also possibly in the market for a higher-priced defenseman with term left on his contract such as Minnesota’s Matt Dumba, Philadelphia’s Shayne Gostisbehere, Montreal’s Jeff Petry, Carolina’s Jake Gardiner or Martinez. Pending UFA’s such as Vatanen, Chicago’s Erik Gustafson, San Jose’s Brenden Dillon as well as Ranger’s UFA Tony DeAngelo are all possibilities.
Maybe a multi-player deal for Hank and DeAngelo could be in the works or should we get crazy and add Kreider into a true blockbuster? That would be fun, but the Avs might have to give up too much to do that.
Looking at the defensive options, it remains to be seen whether the Flyers – another team that has made an unexpected run toward the postseason – will be buyers or sellers. They may, in fact, be both, but if they moved Gostisbehere it would likely be for a forward with top-six potential such as Kreider, Pageau, Kovalchuk, Palmieri, San Jose’s Kevin Labanc or Turris – maybe even a Granlund or Athanasiou. Columbus’ Anderson would be a nice fit in Philly, but the Flyers wouldn’t make that deal straight up.
They most likely wouldn’t want just a rental for a young defenseman with term reamining on his deal, and. if they were to move Gostibsbehere, a follow-up move to pick up a verteran depth defenseman might make sense.
A reunion with Carter would be interesting and get the Philly fans going for sure, but if Gostisbehere is going to move, a deal with a Maple Leafs’ team that seems to always be in the market for defensive help in return for a player like Andreas Johnsson or Kasperi Kapanen would be a true win-win since all of those players have term left on their contracts. A trade between Toronto and Minnesota involving Dumba also would seem to make sense for both sides.
Getting back to Colorado, the Avs would be smart to add bottom-nine forward depth in the wake of Calvert’s and Nazm Kadri’s injuries. Kreider would be a great fit perhaps along with a lower-end forward such as San Jose’s Melker Karlsson, Buffalo’s Conor Sheary, the Rangers’ Jesper Fast, Minnesota’s Ryan Donato, Kase or the Kings’ Lewis.
Perhaps the Avs could go the more versatile route and look for players who can play on any of the bottom three lines and the second power play such as Minnesota’s Alex Galchenyuk, Labanc, Granlund, Anathasiou, Simmonds, the Kings’ Brown or Palmieri. Or they could add to the high-octane approach with a player like Kovalchuk or Turris. Kovalchuk is a bargain rental at $750,000, while Turris is a much larger investment Colorado could afford and who would be nice replacement for Kadri. But do you want that $6 million on the books for the next few years if your’e the Avs?
It’s hard to narrow down what Colorado might do because they have so much cap room. The Avs also need to find out of J.T. Compher can move up into a top-six center role or if they need to specifically look for a center at the deadline with Kadr’s status still up in the air. Carter would be a potential fit if they choose to pursue a center.
What will the Montreal Canadiens do?
While the Canadiens showed signs of life earlier in the season and probably never want to make their fanatic followers think they are throwing in the towel, if the Habs choose to sell it seems as though Max Domi might be available along with Thomas Tatar, Kovalchuk, Petry and fellow defenseman Marco Scandella. Domi would be a huge stretch-run pickup for a contending team in need of a center. He would be a great replacement for Kadri in Colorado if the Avs are unsure of his availability, and Tatar would be fine middle-six addition for most teams.
Of course Jumbo Joe still could be out there if my prediction falls through, and he is being showcased a bit on the Sharks’ first line along with Labanc now that Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture are out. And the ageless Patrick Marleau still could be a great short-term middle-six fix for the right team.
There are some teams that are just hard to figure out at this point. Washington, Florida, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vegas, Arizona and Carolina fit that description along with previously mentioned teams like Columbus, Philadelphia, Nashville and Montreal.
Arizona Coyotes – One of the early season overachievers thanks mostly to great goaltending, Arizona was thought to be a playoff lock after the Taylor Hall trade. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way as the Coyotes are a point out of third in the Pacific Division and holding down the final Western Conference wildcard spot. Solid defensively, Arizona needs offensive help, but will the Coyotes make another move after the Hall trade and bringing in Phil Kessel during the offseason? Oft-injured and scratched speedster Michael Grabner is said to be available. This team is pretty solid defensively, but is in dire need of a scorer as surprising Conor Granlund is the only player with 20 goals. I don’t see them bringing in role players at forward. If they can’t bring in a proven offensive producer or a veteran who may be on the downside but has scored in the past, Arizona likely will stand pat. A depth defensemen isn’t a bad idea either.
Carolina Hurricanes – The Canes started the year on fire and looked like a club that would build upon it’s surprising 2018-19 campaign, but Carolina currently finds itself a point out of the playoffs. Jake Gardiner has been horrendous on the blue line and would appear to be available, but the Canes have not been consistent with All-Star Dougie Hamilton out of the lineup. In addition to Gardiner, they have Toronto’s No. 1 draft pick that they can deal. They brought Justin Williams back into the fold about 10 games ago. This is a pretty balanced team offensively and defensively that could use a spark in the middle six who can provide some more offense. A veteran D-man with extensive playoff experience wouldn’t hurt, but this isn’t a team that should look to mortgage the future.
Winnipeg Jets – The Jets need defensive help if they are going to make a push and beat out the four teams within three points of each other competing for the two Western wildcard spots. Connor Hellebuyck keeps this team competitive night in and night out, so the addition of a top-end defenseman or a solid veteran with postseason experience – or both – would provide a huge lift.
Calgary Flames – The Flames have disappointed most of the year, but also have shown signs of life since Christmas and are one point out of the final Pacific playoff spot and in possession of one of the Western Conference wildcard positions at the moment. If they can get goaltending help, they should. Lehner would be a great fit. Rumor has it that they are looking for another top-six forward and are most interested in Pageau. A depth defenseman wouldn’t hurt either.
Vegas Golden Knights – The defense and goaltending, which had been strengths previously, just haven’t been as good this year. A legitimate backup tender who could step in if an aging Marc-Andre Fleury struggles wouldn’t be a bad idea. A steady two-way defenseman who can contribute on the power play and isn’t prone to defensive-zone mistakes would be a big help as well. Vegas hasn’t been mentioned much in trade rumors thus far, but George McPhee’s crew usually has something up its sleeve.
Washington Capitals – The truth is that the Caps’ consistency at home and on the road this year has been pretty amazing. They pretty much cruised into the New Year as the top team in the league, but have faltered of late. Other than Lars Eller, their third line – which lost Andre Burakovsky to an off-season trade – has been a disappointment. Finding a third-line, two-way wing with some offensive punch would be huge. It’s easy to point the finger at veteran goalie Braden Holtby and his less-than-spectacular numbers, but Washington’s defense has at times been a mess this year with everyone – including Norris Trophy candidate John Carlson – experiencing ups and downs. The team really could use a dependable, steady veteran defenseman at the deadline, but the Caps have very little – no pun intended – cap space. Pretty much any move they make will be dependent on their willingness and ability to move a veteran player or two or to have someone pick up some salary as part of the deal.
Outlandish surprise prediction No. 4:
Washington finds a way to creatively move salary and works a deal to reunite former Pittsburgh Stanley Cup winners Conor Sheary and Carl Hagelin on the third line in D.C. Offseason UFA signing Richard Panik is moved out along with Travis Boyd and one of their young defensive prospects – either Jonas Siegenthaler or more a minor leaguer on the cusp – and possibly a draft pick or two so they can work the Sheary deal and create enough room to bring in Brenden Dillon via a deal with San Jose.
Florida Panthers – The Panthers are two points out of the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division and three out of the final wildcard slot in the East. They are a highly explosive, highly skilled offensive team, so the common thinking was that the addition of perennial Vezina-candidate Sergei Bobrovsky in the offseason would make this team almost a lock to make the playoffs and possibly a contender for the Eastern Conference crown. That probably would have happened had Bob played at his usual high level, but that hasn’t been the case. Some of that blame definitely has to fall on the defense, so the Panthers would appear to be in the market for a top-four defenseman. Apparently they are willing to move pending UFA forward Mike Hoffman, who is second on the team with 22 goals and is on pace for his second 30-goal season, for the right guy on the blue line. If this is true, any team looking for help up front that might have a D-man to spare could be a partner. Hoffman would be a good fit almost anywhere, but the question is if the Panthers can get the right player back in return.
Outlandish surprise prediction No. 5:
The Islanders re-package defensive rental Andy Greene in a deal with the Panthers and get Hoffman in return.
There may be some other parts involved in this trade – prospects, draft picks, etc. – but Greene and Hoffman trade places.
St. Louis Blues - One team that hasn't been mentioned is the defending-champion St. Louis Blues. The Blues were stacked on defense and in search of more offense in the absence of Vladimir Tarasenko before the unfortunate incident involving Jay Boumeester. They still have as solid a top-six on the blue line as just about anyone, but they have much less wiggle room there now as far as being able to provide a player that Florida might want. Still it seems likely that St. Louis would be in the market for a middle-six foward with scoring ability and now potentially a depth defenseman.
If the Islanders prediction doesn’t come true, the Flyers might be the best match for the Panthers and Hoffman if they truly are willing to move Gostisbehere. But since Hoffman is a pending UFA, Philly likely would need something else in return. There don’t seem to be many other matches out there since top-four defensemen are key for playoff contenders, and the Panthers probably wouldn’t move Hoffman for just a depth guy.
Dallas Stars - The Stars are a strong defensive team that struggles to score goals. Dallas entered the season as a tream that figured to contend for the Western Conference finals but off to a very slow start, costing their coach his job. Scoring has always been the issue as the Stars are solid in goal and on the blue line. Dalllas has come on strong in the second half and appears to be securely in a playoff spot, but will the Stars make a move. Hoffman would be a great fit as would Kovalchuk or Pageau, whose two-way style fits the Dallas system. Really anyone who can put the puck in the net would help. Maybe the Stars coul pry a player like Ryan Getzlaf away from the Anaheim Ducks, who clearly need to rebuild and should be a seller.