With under four weeks to go before the March 1 trade deadline — which promises to be busy — the rumor mill is at full throttle.
The wrinkle of the upcoming expansion draft has many teams mulling over shopping some of their talent for a healthy return, or risk losing them for nothing to the Vegas Golden Knights.
It’s not unreasonable to assume, then, that all deadline deals will be made with an eye to the playoffs. However, not many teams are on that solid a footing that they can reasonably say they “love their line-up.”
The St. Louis Blues, who just fired Ken Hitchcock (and he’s hardly the sole person to blame), are probably in the process of re-evaluating a roster that just isn’t getting it done and could see an exodus of players in the coming weeks.
We believe there are 16 true contenders, eight we see as ‘Grade A’ and eight more ‘Grade B.’ All could use upgrades ranging from subtle to extreme. Here is our analysis of each teams needs and likely trade targets, starting with ‘Grade B’ teams.
16. Calgary Flames
The Flames are lowest on the Grade B list, but despite a goalie crisis early on and some scoring woes, they are still in the playoff hunt. They hold down the last wild card spot in the Western Conference with 55 points and the teams chasing them, like slumping St. Louis and Dallas, can be held off. Their powerplay has been decent enough (37 PP goals is fourth in the NHL), so no need to fill a hole there and their penalty killing is middle of the pack at 81.2 percent. Where they could use an upgrade, and this is a familiar refrain, is on defence — specifically a good stay-at-home type who can help improve their -11 goal differential. With netminder Brian Elliott playing much better of late and looking like his old self, there isn’t a need for goaltending help, so getting a minute-eating d-man should be high on GM Brad Treliving’s list. Big right shooting defenceman Michael Stone, who has struggled on a poor Arizona Coyotes club, would look good on the Flames blue line.
15. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers are also a Grade B team on very shaky footing, but we think they have the goods to hold off a young and inexperienced Toronto Maple Leafs team (who have three games in hand and are a point back). The troubling stat seen beside the Flyers wild card position is the -19 goal differential (Toronto is +9). The Flyers are scoring enough with 141 goals in 51 games, but aren’t defending worth a darn (160 goals against, worst in the Eastern Conference). Thus, does the answer lie in getting better help in goal, on the blueline or up front? We say all three, however, that is in a perfect world, so we’ll concentrate on the glaring hole. That would be up front. The team’s defencemen aren’t near as bad as the forwards in plus-minus, therefore, an upgrade on their ability to backcheck is paramount. A player rumored to be available is Tampa’s Valterri Filppula (32 points, +1), who would fit in nicely in second-third line role and has plenty of playoff experience.
14. Los Angeles Kings
The Kings, who are one point up on the Flames for the first wild card spot in the west, are one of the best defensive clubs in the NHL. They have given up the fifth fewest goals (123) but only have a differential of +8. They have gotten superb goaltending from Peter Budaj in Jonathan Quick’s absence (.922 save percentage, 2.01 goals against) and solid D from rearguards like Drew Doughty, Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin. The problem with the King is this, they lack scoring depth. Only two players are in double figures in goals, they being Jeff Carter (26, second in the league) and Tanner Pearson (15). They are good at center but could really use some scoring down the wings if they are going to try and repeat the run of 2012, when they finished eighth and won. A veteran like Thomas Vanek, who the Wings may be willing to part with (as a rental), could turn out to be another Marian Gaborik. The veteran right winger has 12 goals and 19 assists in 38 games and is +4.
13. Boston Bruins
Another team on less-than-solid playoff ground is the Boston Bruins. They are in third in the Atlantic with 58 points, but have played the most games by far at 54. Which means teams like Toronto (55 points, 48 games) and Florida (54 points, 51 games) could realistically reel them in and claim that playoff spot. The Bruins don’t lack for scoring and are still getting all-star goaltending from Tuukka Rask, so the problems exist on the back end, where aging superstar Zdeno Chara is still logging over 23 minutes a night. The solid blueliner isn’t scoring like he used to, but is an even rating player on a team with a -5 differential. What the Bruins do need is a defenceman who can play 20 minutes a night so Chara doesn’t burn out, as well as contribute to their moribund powerplay. They have only gotten three PP markers from their defence, of the 31 they have scored. Kevin Shattenkirk, whose name has been linked to several NHL teams, would be a great fit and has scored seven of his 11 goals with the man advantage.
12. Nashville Predators
Maybe the Preds want a do-over on the Shea Weber for P.K. Subban deal. A 7-2-1 surge lately has put them into third in the Central Division, however, they are only three points from being out of the playoff picture, therefore they are a Grade B team. They do own a +6 goal differential, but since Weber took his big shot to Montreal, their powerplay has suffered and Subban isn’t the answer. And that answer may not be a blueliner, but a scoring forward. Why? Because when Mike Fisher has the most powerplay goals (7) on the team, the powerplay is in trouble. No offence to the solid veteran forward, but if the Predators have any designs on a) making the playoffs, and b) doing some damage when they get there, they need a powerplay stud. Another player from the awful Arizona Coyotes, then, could help fill that gap. He is Radim Vrbata, who leads the ‘Yotes in scoring and has 10 powerplay points including three goals.
11. Ottawa Senators
With six games in hand on the Boston Bruins and sitting in second ahead of them in the Atlantic Division, the Senators have a real shot at the post-season. They have played stingy enough defence (129 goals against in 48 games, +3 differential) and have spread their scoring around, with six players in double digit goals. But, most of their goals have been even strength, which is good and bad. With 26 powerplay goals and 16.9 percent efficiency, they are in the bottom third in that category. Only Mike Hoffman has been super proficient with the man advantage, firing 10 of his 17 goals on the powerplay. Erik Karlsson has added 14 PP assists but after him it’s goals by committee. Where they could upgrade, then, is with another powerplay quarterback type, since Karlsson is their only real bonafide threat. Anaheim’s Cam Fowler has been rumored to be available and with five goals and six assists in man advantage situations (he has 11 goals and 16 assists overall) he could slide in nicely.
10. Edmonton Oilers
Even though they made significant upgrades by acquiring Patrick Maroon, Milan Lucic, Adam Larsson and Kris Russell, the Oilers are far from home and cooled, playoff-wise, hence them being Grade B. Connor McDavid is the NHL’s leading scorer and they are getting pretty good goaltending from Cam Talbot, but yet, there just seems to be something missing. And that would be playoff tested, veteran help up front. That is where a guy like Patrick Sharp could come in handy. The Dallas Stars are struggling and the 35-year-old winger could be had for a run. A year after scoring 55 points in 76 games (including 24 powerplay points), Sharp has played in just 25 games and has 12 points. His playoff pedigree, though, would only add to the Oilers dynamic attack. He has won three Stanley Cups and has scored 47 goals and 40 assists in 142 games.
9. New York Rangers
At the rate they were scoring goals and making the Eastern Conference quake at the thought of playing them, the Blueshirts have slipped to a Grade B team recently. They aren’t in a whole lot of danger of missing the playoffs, but neither can they say that owning the first wild card spot with 63 points is anything to be proud of. And if any team needs to hit the proverbial trade deadline home run and go for it now, it’s the Rangers. This is still a very deep team with plenty of scoring, including a surprise 22 goals from Michael Grabner. What they need, more than anything, then is scoring from the blue line. A mere 20 goals, of their 171 (which is second in the NHL), have come from defencemen. Therefore, they may want to go big, part with one of their slew of scoring forwards and outbid everyone for Kevin Shattenkirk, who lives in the Hamptons in the off-season and might relish a move to the Big Apple. Otherwise, Cam Fowler is a good second option.
8. Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks have really picked it up of late, going 7-2-1 in their last 10 to sit second in the Pacific Division with 65 points, one back of rival San Jose. Now, we have tabbed their best offensive defenceman, Cam Fowler, as a possible trade bait, but they may want to hold on to him, expansion draft be damned. This is a deep team with many weapons and good special teams (7th on the powerplay, 6th on the penalty kill). The most glaring need, we believe, might be between the pipes. Yes, John Gibson has done a good job, winning 20 of 40 starts and posting a 2.28 goals against average and .920 save percentage. But, Toronto escapee Jonathan Bernier hasn’t inspired much confidence as a back-up, which wouldn’t bode well if Gibson got hurt. Thus, the Ducks conundrum would be: do they swing for the fences and get a better no. 1? Or, go lower and grab a better no. 2? In the no. 1 category is oft-injured superstar Ben Bishop, who is a UFA. In the no. 2 category is less expensive Jets goalie Michael Hutchinson. We say, go for broke.
7. Montreal Canadiens
It’s like the old Christmas problem where the Habs are concerned. What do you get the team that seemingly has everything? They sit first overall in the Atlantic Division with a nine-point bulge, own a +28 goal differential, have all-world goalie Carey Price playing full-time and the powerplay quarterback/leader they have needed for a long time in Shea Weber. Montreal also has great balanced scoring, seven players in double digits and depth, talent and grit at every position. One would think then that they would take the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” path. However, with all the parity and great teams to climb over in Pittsburgh, Washington and Columbus for supremacy, the Habs might want to tinker just a little bit. Where we see a weakness is down the middle. Little Paul Byron is their top scoring pivot with 29 points, followed by Alex Galchenyuk with 27 (in 20 fewer games). It might not be unreasonable then, for the Habs to target the best center rumored to be available, Colorado’s Matt Duchene. And, he’s stated he is open to a move. Giddy-up.
6. San Jose Sharks
The Sharks seemed primed for another deep run, having not succumbed to the playoff hangover, or been victim to slow starts from some of their World Cup of Hockey participants. This is a true Grade A team whose only real weakness is that they are the oldest team in hockey on average at 28.9 years. The other sore spot is their below average powerplay, which has clicked on just 27 of 160 opportunities to rank them 22nd overall. What the Sharks need to do, then, is get some young legs in the line-up for another long playoff push, especially to spell relative geezers like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski. And any incoming forward help need not be in the high price range. With St. Louis possibly in sell mode, Patrik Berglund, 28, has been rumored available. Another is New York Islanders right winger Ryan Strome, 23, who could use a change of scenery.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
The defending Stanley Cup champions, like the Sharks, aren’t suffering greatly from playing a ton of games last spring. However, they have a bit of an injury problem up front, with Evgeni Malkin and Conor Sheary out for varying lengths of time. But, Sidney Crosby is the league’s surprise leading goal scorer (28), Phil Kessel is still scoring in bunches (47 points) and defenceman Justin Schultz has rediscovered his mojo (35 points). Where the team is not in a position of utter strength is in goal and they would like nothing better than to deal Marc-Andre Fleury. He is exempt from the expansion draft, but the team would probably like to protect no. 1 Matt Murray, push come to shove. As the Pens will probably only tinker, trading Fleury and his $5.7 million deal (with a modified no-trade clause), will prove difficult. Don’t expect the Pens to do much of anything if a suitor for Fleury can’t be found.
4. Chicago Blackhawks
Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman has stated the Hawks won’t be in the mix come March 1. That is all well and good for a Chicago team that sits second in the Central Division with 65 points and in little danger of missing the big dance. However, words are just words and Bowman has been active in the past getting help for three Stanley Cup runs. The team is thick with talented forwards and defencemen, has two really good goalies and even some very promising rookies in the line-up for the first time in a long time. Where we see a deficiency is on the powerplay. The team has scored just 27 times on 156 opportunities to sit 20th in the NHL. Knowing Bowman, he could go against his word and bite on a rental like center Martin Hanzal of the Arizona Coyotes, who is a pending UFA and mans the ‘Yotes first powerplay unit.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets
The San Jose Sharks, who are the oldest team in the NHL at 28.9, could end up facing the league’s most youthful squad, the Columbus Blue Jackets, in the Stanley Cup final. The surprising Jackets, whose combined age is 25.5, have come back to earth a bit after an astounding 16-game win streak and sit second in the Eastern Conference behind Washington with 70 points. The problem we see with this team, come playoff time, is the fact they don’t have a whole lot of playoff experience and players having career years like leading scorer Cam Atkinson (46 points) and Alexander Wennberg (43 points) will find the going a whole lot tougher in the post-season. So, like the youngish Edmonton Oilers, Columbus could use a little more veteran grit and savvy up front. We think they could up the age quotient a little and possibly get some needed playoff goals from the likes of 39-year-old Jarome Iginla (who may want one more kick at the playoff can), or Arizona’s reigning geezer Radim Vrbata, 35, who is a whole lot cheaper than Iggy.
2. Minnesota Wild
Bruce Boudreau must be pleased as punch at how his new team is performing this season. There is so much depth that expensive forward Zach Parise is on the third line. From the net out, there is much to like, especially the Vezina worthy performance, so far, of goalie Devan Dubnyk. We can’t help shake the feeling, however, of deja vu. Bruce Boudreau has had great teams in the past but failed to get said teams (Washington and Anaheim) into the finals. Yet, we can’t foresee a coach trade and given an all-out performance, this team could win. So, what is it going to take to get this Wild team over the hump? We say little more than a feel-good boost from a Stanley Cup deprived veteran like Shane Doan, who despite his wish to stay with the only organization he’s ever known (Arizona/Winnipeg), is open to a trade if an ideal situation arises. Stay tuned.
1. Washington Capitals
Is this the year? Could it be, finally, the season the Capitals finally shake the King Kong sized monkey off their back and win it all. They certainly have the horses, from Braden Holtby, to Matt Niskanen (leading defensive scorer), and Alex Ovechkin (25 goals). There isn’t a conceivable hole in this line-up, other than the lack of Stanley Cup rings on some very talented fingers. The Caps, though, have tinkered in the past and if they have one weak area, it’s at center. Now, we’re not talking a glaring weakness, but third line pivot Lars Eller has scuffled at times and fourth liner Chandler Stephenson is a raw rookie with just 12 games and no points under his belt. A bonafide target then, with a decent cap hit, would be Arizona’s giant (6’6″) Martin Hanzal. He is UFA and is making $3.1 million. His size alone down the middle would give the Capitals a boost in the post-season rough-going.