The NHL trade deadline arrives on Monday. As always, hockey fans are salivating at the idea of a busy day of blockbusters. As always, the reality will probably be underwhelming.
This year doesn’t even feature as many big names in play as we saw last season, when players like Martin St. Louis, Marian Gaborik, and Thomas Vanek were moved. Unless something unexpected happens, Monday’s deadline isn’t shaping up to have much star power. Even the NBA’s deadline will probably end up being more fun. Stupid NBA.
But history tells us that we’ll still see plenty of deals, and maybe even a surprise or two, between now and Monday afternoon. So here are 10 key questions as we count down the final days to the 2015 NHL trade deadline.
1. Will the Coyotes steal the show?
The Coyotes could be this year’s team to watch. They’re clearly sellers, having fallen out of the Western race early and never really threatening to climb back in. They’re ice-cold right now, having lost seven straight, so they’ve got a real shot at dropping into Jack Eichel territory. But they’re also apparently looking to add players with time left on their deals, which opens them up to doing more than just the typical rental-for-prospect trade.
And maybe most important of all, they’ve got several attractive pieces that could move. Unlike a team like Buffalo, which has largely already finished stripping down to a bare-bones roster,1 the Coyotes still have most of their cards left to play.
The Sabres will still be busy, with Chris Stewart and a handful of useful veterans on the block, but they don’t have much left that screams “blockbuster.”
Let’s start with the names who will probably move. Defenseman Zbynek Michalek and center Antoine Vermette are both pending UFAs, and Scott Burnside says they “might be the top straight-up rentals that are available.” Michalek doesn’t put up big offensive numbers, but he’s defensively responsible and can eat minutes. Plus he’s right-handed, which these days is just about the single most important trait a defenseman can have.2 As for Vermette, he’s a versatile two-way center and a great candidate to be this year’s guy who gets $30 million on July 1 for reasons nobody can remember by July 2.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. But when did right-handed defensemen become the left-handed pitchers of hockey?
And then we get to the Coyotes’ bigger bait. They’ve shot down the Shane Doan rumors so often that we might as well write that idea off, but that still leaves some big names on the blue line. Keith Yandle is the guy to watch, a top-tier defenseman with another year left on a very reasonable deal. The Coyotes don’t have to trade him, but he’s the best defenseman who’s likely to be available. In fact, there’s a good chance he’s the target of so many teams that he clogs up the trade market, and that once he’s dealt, we get a rush of secondary deals as teams switch over to their backup plans.
And if the Coyotes really want to get crazy, there’s also Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a 23-year-old stud the team kinda-sorta dangled out there last month. Normally, a guy like Ekman-Larsson is exactly the sort of player a team like Arizona looks to build its future around, so a trade seems exceedingly unlikely. But every deadline needs a few wild cards, and this is a fun one.
2. Will the Maple Leafs finally blow it all up?
Much has been made of Maple Leafs ownership giving the green light to a full-scale rebuild, which occurred after team president Brendan Shanahan ventured into the bowels of MLSE headquarters to the foul lair of the Faceless Beast of Many Pockets, performed the sacred ritual of supplication, and was granted permission to actually go ahead and do the job he was hired to do.
The team has already moved Cody Franson, Mike Santorelli, and Daniel Winnik,3 three pending UFAs who weren’t going to be re-signed. The Leafs will almost certainly move other players in that category, too, such as David Booth and, if someone gets really desperate, Olli Jokinen.
Just watch, Winnik is this year’s “gets traded to a contender at the deadline, plays solid third-line minutes, and then scores a big overtime goal that alters an entire series” guy. That title may be a little wordy.
But just moving UFAs isn’t really rebuilding. To do that, the Leafs will need to deal some bigger contracts with more term. And that’s where it gets tricky. The two biggest names in play are Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, but both have the sort of contracts that are hard to move during the season, when caps are so tight. Phaneuf’s deal looks bad in light of his recent play, and the Leafs would likely need to retain salary or take back a bad deal to get anything of value. Kessel’s contract, by comparison, looks fine, and it would make sense to keep him unless somebody blows them away.
More realistic targets might include Tyler Bozak or Joffrey Lupul, and there’s a chance the team could also move Roman Polak and/or one of its goalies. And then there’s David Clarkson, a hard-nosed veteran with playoff pedigree who could be an ideal final piece for a contender who … no, I’m sorry, I can’t go on. Even shameless homers have to retain some credibility. Clarkson’s contract will clog the Leafs’ payroll until the sun explodes.
Still, the Leafs have been busy and should stay that way, as they look to dig out from years of brutal cap management and restock a prospect cupboard that’s surprisingly bare given their decade of on-ice futility. They probably won’t make the sort of blockbusters their impatient fans want to see, but they’ll be a team to keep an eye on.
3. Will the Oilers finally shake up the core? And could the Bruins be involved?
It’s now been almost two years since Craig MacTavish was named GM in Edmonton and promised to be “bold” and “impatient” while saying, “We have to expose ourselves to some semblance of risk to try and move the team forward in a rapid fashion.”
Since then, the Oilers haven’t moved forward at all, and bold moves haven’t happened unless you want to count coaching changes. The fringe of Edmonton’s roster has been in flux, but the core of the team, made up of its younger players, remains intact.
It’s at least possible that that changes this week. While it’s hard to imagine a Taylor Hall deal that makes sense for the Oilers — and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’s name almost never surfaces in the rumor mill —there’s at least a chance that Nail Yakupov or Jordan Eberle could be moved. The Bruins have apparently been interested in Eberle, and they could offer up a young goalie in Malcolm Subban. That speculation seems to be coming more from Boston than Edmonton, mind you, and Oilers fans don’t seem all that convinced.
The more likely scenario is that the Oilers move Jeff Petry as a rental,4 but otherwise stay mostly quiet. That seems to be the direction MacTavish is leaning, and while it won’t qualify as bold, it might be wise. This team is slowly getting back on the right track. A little bit of patience may be the right call here, even if it doesn’t match the rhetoric from two years ago.
4. Of the contenders, who’s most likely to make a big move?
Barring some sort of last-minute injury, Petry’s as close to a 100 percent lock to be traded as any player in the league can be.
That largely depends on whom you consider a “contender.” A look at the standings shows the Predators starting to pull away from the pack, followed by 10 teams clustered within seven points of each other. Not all of those teams feel like legitimate contenders, but they may think they are — and when it comes to the deadline, that’s all that matters.
It’s likely that almost all of those top teams will make some sort of move, although in many cases it will simply be a depth addition or two. If you’re looking for a bigger deal, one team to keep an eye on could be Detroit, which will need to shore up its blue line and has been linked to just about every top defender available. The Red Wings have already declared some of their top prospects unavailable, but their system is deep and this is a franchise that’s never been shy about trading draft picks.
The Ducks and Canadiens have already made a minor deal with each other, but both figure to be looking for something bigger. The Islanders say they’ll be quiet, while the Rangers could be in on some of the bigger names. The Capitals don’t seem to have decided what they’re going to do, and will have to make a tough call on pending UFA Mike Green. And Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has shown that he’s willing to be active on the trade front; remember that Tampa Bay has an extra first-round pick to work with this year, thanks to last season’s deal with the Rangers.
And then there’s Chicago, which seemed comfortable right up until Tuesday’s injury to Patrick Kane. The 12-week time frame for his return would mean he wouldn’t return until the third round at the earliest. Clearly, the Hawks aren’t going to go out and trade for a Kane-level talent, but they may feel some added pressure. Pierre LeBrun reports that they’re eyeing Vermette, while others have wondered if Jaromir Jagr could be a fit. Kane going in the LTIR does free up some extra cap space if the Hawks want to use it.
Meanwhile, does Kane’s potential absence change anything for Chicago’s likely first-round opponent, the St. Louis Blues? Do they relax, knowing their path out of the opening round just got a lot easier? Or do they ramp up, figuring that this may finally be shaping up to be their year? Are there too many question marks in this paragraph?5
5. What about that Jordan Staal–to-Pittsburgh rumor?
That was the hot rumor over the weekend — that the Penguins were working to reacquire Jordan Staal from the Hurricanes, three years after trading him to Carolina when they realized they couldn’t sign him long-term. That would have been a major deal, maybe even the biggest of the season apart from the Evander Kane blockbuster. Sadly, the report was quickly shot down by multiple insiders.
But while the Staal deal seems like a no-go, that the rumor gained traction in the first place shows that the Penguins could be a team to watch. It’s been a rough year in Pittsburgh, as a team that was expected to run away with the Metro has struggled recently, falling as far as fourth in the division (while generating this epic rant from a local broadcaster). The Penguins seem ready to make a big move, and they’ve already added Winnik from Toronto for picks.
Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford says the team is probably done, and he may be telling the truth. But the interesting thing about that Staal rumor was that the Penguins don’t actually have the salary-cap room to make it happen. That would indicate that, if there was any truth at all to their interest in working a deal with the Hurricanes, it would have had to be part of something bigger. Maybe whatever that was is dead now, or maybe it never existed in the first place. But I’m not completely convinced the Penguins are out. Remember, Rutherford won a Stanley Cup in Carolina in 2006 partly on the strength of some aggressive midseason deals.
6. What about the bubble teams?
Traditionally, this is where the big mistakes happen. Some team decides it can make a playoff run, trades a chunk of its future for help right now, and then either misses the playoffs anyway or sneaks in and then gets stomped in the first round.
The East is basically a three-team race for one spot, with the Bruins holding a slight edge over the Panthers and Flyers. Philadelphia GM Ron Hextall is already on record saying he won’t do much, but that was a week ago, so things may have changed. The Bruins, on the other hand, will probably be busy. Boston’s window is closing and GM Peter Chiarelli might be in full-on “save my job” mode and patience may not be an option. The Panthers are also expected to be active.
In the West, the bubble is bigger, with as many as four teams on the outside who are still alive. The Kings have made their move, sending a first-round pick and a prospect to the Hurricanes for defenseman Andrej Sekera. That’s the kind of big trade Dean Lombardi usually makes at some point during the season, and it will put the pressure on the rest of the West to respond.
The Flames are probably in the toughest spot, weighing the value of a short-term move against the long-term rebuild project they’re committed to. Minnesota and Winnipeg have already made moves, although both will still be interested in adding depth. As for the Sharks? Who knows — we should have all given up on trying to figure them out by now.
7. What are some of the other names to watch?
One guy we haven’t mentioned yet is Colorado center Ryan O’Reilly. He’s been on the block for years, and it seems like now may be the time for the Avs to finally pull the trigger. He’s been linked with the Sabres lately, which would make some sense, since he’s still young enough to be part of Buffalo’s rebuild. But with the Avalanche clinging to long-shot playoff hopes, they may decide to hold onto O’Reilly and then move him in the summer. He doesn’t reach UFA status until the end of next year, so Colorado isn’t in a lose-him-for-nothing situation yet, but if the team does decide to move him, there should be plenty of interest. On defense, the teams that missed out on Sekera could look at New Jersey’s Marek Zidlicky as a fallback.
And speaking of the Devils, let’s not forget Jaromir Jagr. The 43-year-old is somehow still producing, and with the Devils out of contention he’d be a classic veteran rental. Nobody’s quite sure what Lou Lamoriello is thinking these days, but Jagr sure sounded like a guy who wants to be moved yesterday.
8. Just curious, but how many teams will win the Stanley Cup this year?
That’s a great question. We checked with the ESPN Stats & Information department and cross-checked with the Elias Sports Bureau, and after crunching all the numbers and running a regression formula, the answer we came up with is: one. One team will win the Stanley Cup this year.
In hindsight, we could have arrived at the same answer by reading any quote from a GM of a contender this week, since they all love to remind us that only one team wins the Stanley Cup. Incessantly.
9. Should that stop GMs from making trades?
According to them it should. “Only one team wins the Cup each year” has become the standard excuse for GMs who come up empty on deadline day. Since 29 teams will ultimately fail each year, the logic apparently goes, teams are justified in not even trying.
That makes a certain amount of sense if you’re a pessimist or a GM trying to lower expectations in hopes that your boss won’t ask why you never seem all that busy. And it’s certainly true that every team is a long shot when the playoffs start and even the biggest trade is going to result in only a very marginal improvement to a team’s already slim championship chances. But in today’s parity-infused NHL, uncontrollable factors, including old-fashioned luck, play as much of a role as ever before. Windows of opportunity close quickly, thanks to a salary cap designed to tear down the best teams each year. By design, every team’s Cup chances are slim.
So while deadline trades may offer only marginal improvements to those chances, maybe small margins are all that’s left. After all, the L.A. Kings have already banked two titles that they wouldn’t have won without midseason trades. Which means we ought to amend the thinking slightly: Only one team wins the Stanley Cup each year, but that will also be true five years from now, when that second-round pick you’re desperately clinging to might be ready to contribute to a contender. Cups are hard to win, and they’ll only get harder once the next round of expansion arrives. When the window opens up, you’d better be ready, and clinging to false hope about a future that never quite arrives is a fool’s game.
10. Will deadline day end up being one big dud?
It’s possible. That’s been the trend over the past few years, with the deadline often failing to live up to the hype. That’s got more to do with the hype than the deadline, since especially in Canada, deadline day has all but become a national holiday for fans.
But there are other factors at work. Parity has tilted the market, creating fewer clear-cut sellers as more teams stay close enough to playoffs that they can’t justify trading away roster players. GMs are certainly becoming less bold. And while clubs once waited until the very last minute to consummate deals, recent years have seen several bigger trades get done several days ahead of the deadline.
That last factor will probably be the one that determines how much fun we end up having on Monday. This year is going to produce trades — the deadline always does — and there are still plenty of names out there. But there’s a growing feeling that we won’t get many big deals. And if GMs stay busy over the next few days, there may not be much left to get excited about by Monday.
So yeah, NHL deadline day could by a dud this year. Nobody tell the NBA guys.