Hockey fans always approach the NHL trade deadline hoping for exhilaration but end up with several hours of inertia. High prices scare away otherwise thirsty general managers. The rumors of what could happen are ultimately more entertaining than what actually does.
That’s a shame, because a great deadline can lead to great things. It can clear the decks for a rebuild. It can rearrange a salary cap in preparation for a productive summer. Or it can catapult a Stanley Cup contender over the hump to a title: Look no further than last season, when the additions of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow gave the Tampa Bay Lightning their dominant checking line en route to the bubble Cup win.
It’s quiet right now in the NHL, both in actual deals and in chatter among the GMs.
“Some of the teams that might have rentals, they still may. But they’re still close enough to the playoffs that they’re not raising the white flag,” one general manager told me recently.
There are other forces at play, too, like the fact that over half the league is feeling the pinch of the flat salary cap. Plus, there are the quarantine issues at the Canadian border. Let’s also remember the tentacled shadow looming over the entire season, as teams consider how any move impacts the Seattle expansion draft count.
But this unprecedented season could also foster more activity: One general manager I spoke to theorized that the divisional playoff format — in which teams play against divisional opponents until the “final four” of the third round — could encourage teams to shoot their shot more than if they were destined to meet a conference power in an early round.
Trade deadline pressure abounds. Here are six NHL teams that absolutely have to get it right this season.
In calling around this week, it’s fairly clear that the Ducks are wide open for business. Their last playoff appearance was 2018. They’ve gotten progressively worse since then, culminating with a .367 points percentage this season that many believe could spell the end for coach Dallas Eakins, as well as general manager Bob Murray, whose contract is up after the 2021-22 season.
If it’s regime change time in Anaheim, perhaps the glut of the roster refurbishing will fall to the next general manager. But in the near term, Murray is listening to offers for forward Rickard Rakell, who lacks trade protection and has an additional year at just $3,789,444 average annual value on his deal.
“Some teams seem to think he’s available. Names like that always surprise you a little bit because they’re good players in their prime,” said one general manager.
The 27-year-old has two 30-goal seasons to his credit, although his production leveled off at around 0.65 points per game over the past three seasons. There’s going to be a significant market for him. Any offer that is less than a first-rounder, another high pick and a better-than-average prospect, Murray should just hang up the phone.
The best news for Anaheim is that Rakell recently went on a scoring binge, with 15 points in six games. He went scoreless with a minus-7 in the four games after that; but hey, the overall picture looks better, with 19 points in 30 games.
But there’s a lot more work to be done here, and it should involve the Ducks cutting into their defense corps. It’s beyond time for Josh Manson to move on. He has a modified no-trade clause and another season on his deal at $4.1 million. This is a change-of-scenery guy if there ever was one.
(The Ducks, if you’ll recall, traded now-star Shea Theodore to the Golden Knights so Vegas wouldn’t select either Manson or Sami Vatanen in the expansion draft. Murray still remains employed by the Ducks four years later.)
They should honestly tear this thing down to the concrete and prospects. For me, that would include exploring a Hampus Lindholm trade in the offseason and moving goalie John Gibson either now or in the offseason. Speaking of changes of scenery, these are consecutive horror show seasons for Gibson, who has an .894 save percentage in 23 games. We have to assume it’s a back injury after having carried this franchise for the past five years.
As for Ryan Getzlaf, he has a full no-move clause and a large family in Anaheim. We could fantasy cast him to a dozen teams that could use him, but the assumption is that he’s not going anywhere. Well, at least until that contract is up this offseason.
The Bruins have scored 73 goals this season. The line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak have scored 48% of them. Some of Boston’s offensive struggles are due to absences: David Krejci for a couple of games; Ondrej Kase for all but two of them. But it has been more about players not playing up to standards: Craig Smith shooting 6.5% with four goals in 26 games, and Jake DeBrusk earning a recent healthy scratch with just two goals in 20 games.
“Five-on-five, it’s just not where it needs to be to consistently win or to extend leads if you do get them,” said GM Don Sweeney recently, calling it “a major concern.”
DeBrusk’s name has been mentioned for a while as trade bait for bigger fish, and he’s a desirable target at just a $3.675 million annual cap hit that runs through next season. He also strikes you as someone with the Tyler Seguin-esque ability to level up his game in a new locale and make whatever deal the Bruins include him in become “The DeBrusk Trade” within two seasons.
All that said about the offense, there’s also the Mattias Ekholm question. Ekholm, the 30-year-old Nashville Predators defenseman, has a $3.75 million AAV for this season and 2021-22.
The Bruins’ blue line is screaming for a left-side veteran with his skill set, and that AAV for this season and next obviously fits their economics. There would be an expansion draft issue, however, as the Bruins are going to protect Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo.
The Bruins don’t have the deepest prospect pool. Given the age of their core, they should start using their first-round picks instead of trading them, as Sweeney has done in two of the past three seasons. Then again, given the age of their core, maybe they keep going all-in until there’s no reason to anymore.
The Hurricanes can win the Stanley Cup this season, full stop. Yes, it would take getting past a fully armed and operational battle station in the Tampa Bay Lightning — with a ready, rested but maybe also rusty Nikita Kucherov — to emerge from the Central. But if that happens, and the Hurricanes are playing their system in front of competent goaltending, look out.
Of course, the same could have been said last season before Andrei Svechnikov‘s injury left them gutted in the bubble. Which is to say that health is always the key factor.
Which brings us to Vincent Trocheck.
The Canes center was a point-per-game player through 24 games this season before going out with an “upper-body injury.” GM Don Waddell said on Wednesday that Trocheck is “week to week,” which isn’t what you’d like to hear.
After trading Ryan Dzingel and demoting Jake Gardiner to the taxi squad, the Canes have some cap room to play with. Adding a center would seem paramount. The question is whether that center should be the Buffalo Sabres‘ Eric Staal — a reunion of franchise player and franchise that is seemingly being willed into existence by fans and media lately.
Obviously there’s a fit here. Staal had 775 points in 909 games with the Hurricanes from 2003 to ’16 and helped them win their only Stanley Cup in 2006. His brother Jordan is still there. He is, demonstrably, a center. He’s also 36 and has been terrible this season with 10 points in 28 games for the moribund Sabres, playing at a sub-replacement expected goals pace.
The Hurricanes love them some nostalgia — I mean, Rod Brind’Amour is the coach and Justin Williams just retired after his second tour with the franchise — so it wouldn’t be a shock if Staal returned.
If he does, however, it’ll be because one of the best numbers-driven front offices in hockey will have determined that it’s the right move. Otherwise, they’ll look elsewhere for that last piece of what could end up being a championship puzzle.
Like the Ducks, this is a situation where you wonder whether the same person making the deals at the deadline is still going to be making them in the offseason. But Predators CEO Sean Henry recently told The Athletic that there is no appetite from ownership to fire GM David Poile.
That said, the fans are in revolt about the current course of the team. It’s entirely possible that Poile gets kicked upstairs and has input on a new general manager … who could theoretically be his son Brian, currently the assistant GM in Nashville. The NHL never met a nepotistic managerial move it didn’t like.
Whatever happens with Poile, the biggest question facing the Predators at this deadline is about a refurbish vs. a rebuild. Is it “everything must go” or is it “actually, we still like a lot of it, so some of it must go”?
Which, for many people, is translated as “are you trading Filip Forsberg or not?”
Forsberg, I think, stays. Obviously, Ekholm is a deadline bounty waiting to happen. The 2019 Jake Muzzin trade between the Kings and Maple Leafs has been held up as a comparable windfall, and that delivered Carl Grundstrom, Sean Durzi and Toronto’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft to Los Angeles.
Mikael Granlund should also bring a nice return as a versatile forward making $3.75 million in the last year of his deal. Pekka Rinne would have had some value as veteran goalie depth, but Poile recently said he’s not going anywhere.
Whatever the next iteration of the Predators ends up being, it starts with them finding a way to get centers Ryan Johansen ($8 million AAV through 2025) and Matt Duchene ($8 millon AAV through 2026) off their cap and onto their next adventure while neither one has trade protection. Johansen has nine points through 21 games. Duchene has eight points through 23 games.
Geez, who handed out those contracts?
(David Poile, wearing a hot dog costume and standing next to a hot dog car that crashed into a building: “Yeah, we’re all trying to find the guy who did this …”)
The Flyers have some systemic problems this season that a trade can’t fix. They’ve struggled all over this season, especially when it comes to protecting the puck — a turnover resulting in an opponent’s goal seems like a nightly occurrence. They’re a team infatuated with their own offense, as goals per game are up to 3.35 this season. That has come at the sacrifice of defensive structure on most nights, as goals against per game are up to 3.27 this season.
One reason for the defensive letdown is goalie Carter Hart, who has gone from a preseason Vezina Trophy darling to being one Thomas Greiss away from being the worst goalie in the NHL in expected goals saved above average (minus-10.2). He’s a great goalie and this is an anomaly happening in a pandemic-affected season, but there’s no denying that his .884 save percentage has impacted the team.
Another reason for the defensive letdown is that the Flyers still haven’t replaced Matt Niskanen on their blue line. Granted, veteran defensemen who get 30 points, play 22 minutes per game and can knock a guy to the ground aren’t all that commonplace. As luck would have it, there are two likely available at the deadline: Alex Goligoski of the Coyotes, a 35-year-old who makes $5.475 million against the cap; and the Predators’ Ekholm. They could also bring in Manson from the Ducks, but his offense hasn’t been anywhere near consistent in the past three seasons.
Who knows — maybe finding a linchpin for the defense helps settle down the other chaotic parts of the team. Something needs to, as the Flyers are in a fight for a playoff spot in the East.
No Bruins. No Lightning. Not yet, at least. The Maple Leafs have the opportunity to advance further in the postseason than they have since 2004 by getting out of the Atlantic and into the North. They’re better than every team in the Canadian division, but there’s obviously still room for improvement.
It was interesting to hear GM Kyle Dubas speak this week about the Leafs’ plans, because it was a little subversive. He downplayed the need for another big name on defense, at a time when many have linked Ekholm to the Leafs. He seems content to roll with Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell as his goaltending battery this postseason, although that could be more for lack of better options than anything else.
He said the Leafs were looking at upgrades at forward, which makes sense when you consider how many have been shipped out recently in service of defensive upgrades and cap considerations. Also not surprising was his enthusiasm in putting prospects and picks on the table in aggressive pursuit of the Stanley Cup, because this franchise craves a Cup more than Indiana Jones in “The Last Crusade.”
Now the Leafs just need to find the right players to pursue. Rackell? Staal? Granlund? Kyle Palmieri of the Devils?
One name I’m intrigued by, provided the Kings wanted to move him, is Alex Iafallo. A 27-year-old pending unrestricted free agent, he costs $2.425 million against the cap and is as comfortable killing penalties as he is playing in the top six. Plus, Dubas and Kings GM Rob Blake have done some nice business in the Muzzin and Campbell trades before.
As always, the Leafs are constrained by what their salary cap situation will allow them to do. But the main takeaway here is that they’re willing to do something. Like the rest of the teams on our list, let’s hope it’s something substantial for our own edification, and something they don’t botch for their own eudaemonia.
Jersey Foul of the week
From the land of the Rockies:
It’s finally here!! Merry late Christmas to myself!! Hopefully get to wear this person at an @Avalanche Stanley Cup game this year!! #GoAvsGo pic.twitter.com/4pSYHc8cuq
— Nick Kaczor (@Nick_Kaczor) January 5, 2021
This Joe Sakic version of the Avalanche’s Reverse Retro jersey is not a Foul for a few reasons. We’ve allowed for general manager jerseys in the past. We’ve also allowed for retired numbers to be placed on jerseys from different eras — if the number is out of circulation, then the “he had to have worn that style of jersey” rule can be superseded.
But mostly, the fact that Sakic was a Nordique before he was an Avalanche makes us want to give the OK here. Hey, if you’re going to reappropriate another team’s sweater in your colors, it’s only appropriate that a player who wore both jerseys be on the nameplate.
1. I was wrong on Ralph Krueger as a head coach. I think a lot of us were. We wanted him to succeed so badly because of his charisma, his intelligence, his nontraditional path to the NHL and the raw deal he got in Edmonton. That desire blinded us to the fact that he wasn’t very good at his job. The Sabres had the second-worst expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 over the past two seasons (2.00). That’s a systemic problem. They had two wins in their past 19 games. They had a stretch of three wins in 15 games last season. These are inexcusable tailspins. GM Kevyn Adams talked about the concept of “stacking wins” to build a team’s confidence. Too often under Krueger, the Sabres’ stacking was like the worst game of Jenga imaginable.
I’m not saying the Sabres would have been exponentially better with another head coach for the past 97 games. I am saying that they would be a better franchise if Krueger had been hired for the Buffalo front office rather than behind the bench two years ago. He was miscast.
2. Assuming interim coach Don Granato doesn’t get the permanent job, the Sabres’ next head coach will be Jack Eichel‘s fifth in eight seasons, all of them spent outside of the postseason. I truly can’t imagine a situation where he wants to spend another season festering in this debacle. I’m increasingly finding it hard to imagine a scenario in which the Sabres don’t try to move him even if he wants to stay, given the bounty they’d receive from teams like the Rangers or Kings. He turns 25 in October. This franchise couldn’t see Stanley Cup contention if it borrowed a telescope from NASA.
Adams said he has a good relationship with Eichel and that his door is always open to the captain. Eichel should walk through that door, give Adams the ol’ Ryan O’Reilly “I lost my smile” speech and be on his way.
3. Again, my heart goes out to Buffalo Sabres fans. You deserve so much better than this. I just can’t believe it hasn’t happened yet. To have Terry Pegula buy the team, give it financial stability and vow to win the Stanley Cup only to miss the playoffs in every season since that transaction is some straight up “wishing on a monkey’s paw” stuff.
The moment this franchise turns the corner, it’s going to be a cathartic explosion of enthusiasm the likes the NHL hasn’t seen since Boston and Chicago had their moments. Have you seen Bills fans? Don’t you want to watch a guy in a Matthew Barnaby jersey going through a flaming table in the parking lot? Or failing that, seeing Matthew Barnaby going through a flaming table in the parking lot?
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Mika Zibanejad
The Rangers center became only the second player in NHL history to score six points in a period, having pulled off the feat in the second period of their 9-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night. That included a hat trick that doubled his goal total for the season. “Everyone is going to go back to last season and the expectation is obviously higher, but if the puck doesn’t want to go in it doesn’t want to go in,” he said.
Loser: David Quinn
The entire Rangers coaching staff missed Wednesday night’s game due to COVID-19 protocols. Kris Knoblauch, coach of the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League, filled in for Quinn along with associate coach Gord Murphy and Rangers associate general manager Chris Drury as assistant coaches. And they won 9-0 without Quinn behind the bench. We have to imagine he was watching from quarantine and thinking, ‘Hey, save a few for me, why don’t ya?’
Winner: Tomas Hertl
The Rocky theme song playing while Mark Stone and Tomas Hertl fought is amazing. 😂
🔊 SOUND ON 🔊 pic.twitter.com/lzUQXWJUOg
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 18, 2021
One of the most pure-souled players in the NHL got into this first fight against Mark Stone of the Golden Knights on Wednesday. “I wish I did a better job, but I was exhausted. But I’ll take it. Who knows, maybe I’ll get into more fights?” he said after the game.
Brutal season in Buffalo. Taylor Hall now takes a slapshot to the face pic.twitter.com/LGW2T95oYq
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) March 16, 2021
Bless the hockey gods that Taylor Hall was OK here, but it appeared that P.K. Subban cross-checked him into the path of this puck. Ken Campbell has been on an anti-cross-checking thing for a while. I imagine this is yet more grist for that mill.
Winner: Tyson Barrie
After Wednesday night, Barrie leads all NHL defensemen with 28 points in 32 games. He came to the Edmonton Oilers on a one-year deal with an eye on inflating his stats. Now there’s talk they might ink him to an extension.
Loser: Adam Fox
The good news for the Rangers defenseman is that the writers at NHL.com are not official voters for the Norris Trophy. The bad news is that if they’re at all a bellwether for the award, Fox didn’t get a single mention on any of their ballots for the March trophy tracker. Despite, you know, being very worthy of consideration for the award this season.
The embrace of the “Sickos” meme by Ottawa Senators fans and the team itself — with the goal to raise money in support of mental health initiatives and Canadian Blood Services — is one of the most unexpectedly heartwarming tales of the season.
With Robin Lehner, honesty is the policy.
This was his answer to a tremendous question from @DavidSchoenLVRJ on if he heard the rumors of his absence and if they angered him. pic.twitter.com/BNfVHxETFl
— SinBin.vegas (@SinBinVegas) March 17, 2021
Robin Lehner has strong words for those who speculated about this mental health while he was out with a concussion, and rightfully so.
PHT’s midseason awards: “I thought a lot about the Canadian division and if the wild goal scoring is kind of unfair to pick an MVP out of there, but each division is kind of a mess, so whatever, Connor McDavid is the best player.”
Justin Bourne’s awards watch. On the Selke: “This is Aleksander Barkov‘s year to win it for me if he keeps playing like this.”
“Bubble Demko” is back, baby.
Eric Duhatschek’s 10 teams that need to make a trade deadline deal. “If you’re trying to fix the chemistry of your underachieving team, sometimes the trade deadline is the best time to do it because that’s the moment when contenders get singularly motivated to make a move and sometimes will consider paying a premium to get the desired piece.”
Fare thee well to NWHL founder Dani Rylan.
Hey … don’t “hockey puck” that beer can if you want to help the environment. “While we’re talking beer cans,” says Samantha Longshore, Milwaukee’s Resource Recovery Program manager, “another thing that we really try to make sure that people know (is) when they finish an aluminum can, sometimes it’s really fun to hockey puck it, to crush it (into) this small puck-like shape. We lose a lot of aluminum like that, because it’s such a small little shape, it’s hard for it to get sorted. We say, it’s not super fun, but try not to crush your can. Finish it, rinse it, toss it right into the cart.”
Oh, we love a good time-lapse arena build, don’t we folks?
🏒 ➡️ 🏀
Indiana Farmers Coliseum is #MarchMadness ready! pic.twitter.com/ZtP9arS5eN
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 17, 2021
From your friends at ESPN
My feature on the transformative power of Minnesota Wild rookie Kirill Kaprizov.