Where the N.H.L. Contenders Stand Before the Trade Deadline
The last major window for N.H.L. teams to bolster their rosters is closing as the Monday trade deadline nears.
Each of this season’s four makeshift divisions has a similar dynamic, with three teams comfortably situated at the top and then a pack of aspiring clubs seeking the fourth and final postseason spot. Only six teams are seven or more points out of a playoff spot. This year’s deadline figures to be competitive, but activity is also likely to be fettered by logistical concerns.
Because of health protocols, players being traded across the U.S.-Canada border would be required to quarantine for seven days upon arrival at their new team.
Even players traded between two U.S.-based teams, like the former Ranger Brendan Lemieux, who was traded to Los Angeles, may have to quarantine, with the length depending on several factors. The deadline is about a month before the end of the 56-game regular season, so teams will be making deals with the playoffs at top of mind.
The top teams may seek the final piece for a Stanley Cup run, while clubs a step below must decide to sell or make a move to try to vault into the postseason.
Furthermore, the salary cap was flat this season and will not go up next season. Some teams have set their maximum budgets below the cap, placing financial flexibility at a premium.
There are also teams looking to align their rosters to minimize the impact of the upcoming expansion draft, in which they will be able to protect up to 11 players and their entry-level players from being selected by the Seattle Kraken.
Contenders: Islanders, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins
The Islanders will be without Anders Lee, their captain, for the rest of the season, and they lost a solid contributor in defenseman Devon Toews over the off-season. The silver lining is that Lee’s shift to the long-term injured reserve list gives them flexibility to take on prorated salaries.
A top-six forward to replace Lee and invigorate the Islanders’ middling offense and power play seems like an obvious choice. An offensive-minded defenseman could do the same, but defense generally is both less available and more costly at the deadline. The Isles have average organizational depth and an extra second-round pick in the 2022 draft.
The Capitals and the Penguins are each up against the salary cap. Washington could most use depth at center, where a pair of injuries exposed the team early in the season, and in goal, where its two primary netminders had only 61 games combined of N.H.L. experience entering this month.
Pittsburgh is peaking at the right time, and its recent play hasn’t shown many deficiencies. In years past, the Penguins were bold at the trade deadline, but they are under new management, that of the first-year General Manager Ron Hextall, who in the past with the Flyers was traditionally more conservative than his predecessor, Jim Rutherford. The Penguins also do not have a first, third or fourth-round pick in the 2021 draft, but could have some salary cap flexibility if center Evgeni Malkin remains on long-term injured reserve until the playoffs.
The Devils and Buffalo are likely to be sellers, with the Sabres’ Taylor Hall, the 2018 most valuable player, and the Devils’ Kyle Palmieri already having been preemptively scratched from recent games, according to multiple reports.
Contenders: Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers
The Maple Leafs have been the most formidable team in the division for most of the year and loaded up on grit with bargain-priced veterans like Wayne Simmonds, Joe Thornton and Zach Bogosian in the off-season. They are tight against the cap, as are the Edmonton Oilers, who would love to find a way to further augment the supporting cast around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid ranks first in scoring leaguewide, and Draisaitl is second.
The second-place Jets should have around $3.5 million in flexibility, which could be used to acquire a solid piece if they are creative. General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has been unabashed in pursuing big trades, acquiring Paul Stastny in 2018, Kevin Hayes in 2019 and Pierre-Luc Dubois this season.
The Jets also have some flexibility going into next season, should they opt to pursue a non-rental. The Jets will likely focus on their blue line, and the most coveted two-way defenseman would be Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm. But the Predators went on a six-game win streak to close March and have set a high price.
Within the division, Vancouver defenseman Alex Edler is a veteran on an expiring deal who could waive his no-movement clause to join a contender, though his $6 million cap hit may be a bit unwieldy. Calgary center Sam Bennett asked for a trade before the Flames’ coaching change. Calgary winger Johnny Gaudreau, a potent scorer who is largely a finesse player, may not be an ideal fit for Darryl Sutter’s style of play. Sutter, who rarely discusses individual players positively or negatively, took the occasion of Gaudreau’s 500th career game last month to employ sarcasm to ask for more from Gaudreau.
Contenders: Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes
The Lightning have turned in a magnificent title defense, even while not having wing Nikita Kucherov, their top forward, all season. Carolina was the Central’s top squad in March, riding breakout performances by forward Martin Necas — 17 points in 14 games — and goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, who went 6-1-1 with a 1.85 goals against average. Florida rode the combination of wingers Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov to another successful month in what has been one of the best seasons in franchise history.
While Tampa is up against the salary cap, Carolina and Florida, in particular, have flexibility. Most of Carolina’s defensemen likely would be subject to exposure in the expansion draft, so it’s possible the Hurricanes would deal one at the deadline to obviate a situation where they lose one of their regulars in the off-season. They would likely seek a forward in return, as their goaltending situation has been solidified between Nedeljkovic and the now-healthy Petr Mrazek, who returned to the lineup this week for the first time since Jan. 30.
Florida has the most cap space of any team in a playoff spot, but also has significant holes in its lineup. Aaron Ekblad, the Panthers’ top defenseman, will be out until June with a broken leg, creating a significant void. Nashville could shape the deadline day as a whole, as it may chart its course based on whether or not its late-March surge continues. If the Predators opt to sell and reconfigure, they could put talented players like Ekholm, forward Mikael Granlund and defenseman Ryan Ellis in play.
Contenders: Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights and Minnesota Wild
Opposing coaches and players like the Kings’ Todd McLellan and Drew Doughty, have conceded publicly that Colorado, Vegas and Minnesota have all but locked up playoff berths. That leaves St. Louis, Arizona and San Jose in a three-way melee for the final playoff spot.
Colorado had March’s top goal-scorer, right wing Mikko Rantanen, top goaltender, Philipp Grubauer, who won a league-best 12 games with a 1.56 goals-against average.
Vegas, which has been aggressive in its brief history, has a deep but already costly roster. While Colorado has some options, it also has a surplus of talent at nearly every position, with the possible exception of backup goaltender, given that Pavel Francouz has been injured all season.
Minnesota desperately needs help on a power play that ranks in the bottom five of the league. Despite the emergence of Joel Eriksson-Ek, the Wild lack a true No. 1 center, and a smooth passer could open up opportunities for play-drivers like wing Kirill Kaprizov and defenseman Jared Spurgeon. A creative, playmaking centerman would probably top Minnesota’s wish list, but the market for centers is expected to be thin.
Anaheim is the most likely seller, though its position has been complicated by injuries, as forward Rickard Rakell and defenseman Hampus Lindholm are out.
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