Down Goes Brown: 8 high-risk NHL trade targets

Sportsnet's John Shannon explains why John Tavares comes in at No. 8 on this year's NHL Power 25 list.

With five weeks to go until the trade deadline, we’re well into the part of the season where teams need to ask themselves some tough questions. Are we really contenders? How much of the future are we willing to part with? Should we throw in the towel and be sellers? How highly do we value stability in our room? And when is the right time to make our move?

And maybe most importantly: Just how comfortable are we with risk?

We don’t talk about that one much, but it’s a key factor. We already know that most NHL GMs are risk-averse and many would rather not make any trades at all if they thought they could get away with it. But once you’ve decided to make a deal, you’ve got to figure out just how much uncertainty you’re willing to accept.

For some of the players on the market, the risk factor is minimal. If the Leafs decide to move pending UFA James van Riemsdyk, any team acquiring him will know what they’re getting — a guy who’s going to score at a 25- to 35-goal pace, just like he has for the last half-dozen years or so, this one included. Same with someone like Mike Hoffman in Ottawa. Meanwhile, a guy like Mark Letestu may not be as consistent, but he’d come relatively cheap and his contract is easy to swallow, so the risk factor isn’t high there either.

So if you want to play it safe, those are going to be the sort of players you’re calling about. But if you want to swing for the fences, you’re going to have to accept a higher degree of uncertainty. So today, let’s take a look at eight trade targets at this year’s deadline that represent high-risk opportunities.

These are the sort of trades that could earn a GM a Stanley Cup ring — or a pink slip. Who’s feeling lucky?

Max Pacioretty, Canadiens

Best case: Since the start of the 2011–12 season, only three wingers have scored more than 200 goals. Alexander Ovechkin leads the way with 286, while Patrick Kane has 202. And then in between those two there’s Pacioretty, whose 204 ranks him ahead of guys like Jamie Benn, Phil Kessel and Corey Perry.

Players like that don’t hit the trade market very often. That’s especially true when they still have another year left on an extremely team-friendly deal. But with the Canadiens struggling through another disastrous season and Pacioretty slumping for most of the first half, his name is all over the rumour mill. Marc Bergevin’s recent trade record isn’t especially intimidating, and this feels like the perfect opportunity to step in and take advantage of a team that’s in a bad place and might feel forced into selling a prime asset at a discount.

Worst case: Pacioretty’s had a rough season on and off the ice, and the stress of wearing the C in Montreal seems to be wearing on him. It’s been widely assumed that a change of scenery would see him snap back to the consistent 30-goal threat we’re used to seeing. But there’s no guarantee that happens, and it’s possible that whichever team lands him may be getting a guy who needs some time to rediscover his footing. His recent hot streak is reassuring, but it probably also moves up a price tag that should already be high.

Even if he was a bit of a bust this year, you’d still have him under contract for next season. But after that, you figure he’s going to want to get paid after years of representing one of the league’s best values, so this could still be a short-term move with a long-term price tag.

Bottom line: It’s an intriguing opportunity to land a player with a very solid track record. But are you willing to run the risk of being the GM who lost a blockbuster trade to Marc Bergevin?

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Rick Nash, Rangers

Best case: The pending UFA might not wind up on the market, but there have been rumblings lately that the Rangers may sell. If so, Nash would be an interesting target. He’s already a member of the 400-goal club, but at 33 he’s not so old that you couldn’t expect him to handle top-six duty.

Worst case: Nash has had plenty of playoff experience with the Rangers over the years, but his lack of post-season production has been well-documented. His days of scoring 40 goals have long passed, and he’s been quiet for long stretches this year. And while his contract is expiring, it still carries a $7.8-million cap hit, which will be hard for plenty of teams to fit in, even for a partial season.

Bottom line: On name-value alone, there won’t be many bigger stars available. But unless you can unload salary in the deal, you’re paying a premium.

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Evander Kane, Sabres

Best case: With 16 goals through 47 games, Kane might be the best forward available at the deadline. And at 26, he’s not some over-the-hill rental coasting on his resumé. While he’ll need a new contract in the summer, any team that acquires him at the deadline has a chance to add a key piece for the next several years.

Worst case: Kane’s been slumping lately, posting just one goal in his last 11 games, which might hurt his value. More importantly, we all know about the attitude questions and off-ice incidents, all of which make Kane a risk when it comes to handing out the sort of long-term deal he’ll likely want from any team that brings him in. Maybe some contender is willing to add him as a short-term answer, even if he walks away in free agency. But given the price tag the Sabres will be looking for, that’s going to be one expensive rental.

Bottom line: Trading for Kane will be risky; signing him long-term even more so. Then again, he knows that, too, and he might be motivated to prove everyone wrong by going to a contender and dominating.

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Robin Lehner, Sabres

Best case: The Sabres’ other big-name target is, like Kane, a pending free agent, although he’ll be an RFA. Unlike Kane, he’s having a rough year, recording a .907 save percentage while leading the league in losses. But his first two seasons as a full-time starter in Buffalo were reasonably good, as he posted .920 or better both years. Given the blue line the Sabres were icing in front of him, that’s pretty impressive. Any playoff contender out there who found themselves needing goaltending help — Blackhawks, we are looking in your direction – could do a lot worse.

Worst case: At 26, Lehner has fewer than 200 starts under his belt, so it’s still hard to know exactly what he is — as always, goaltending is voodoo. But a bigger factor is that, to put it plainly, the Sabres are terrible. This has been a disastrous season in Buffalo, virtually from day one, and playing for this team has to have been an utterly miserable experience.

What does that do to a goaltender? Those who play the position aren’t usually the most stable people at the best of times; what happens when you have to go out there every night knowing you’re going to get creamed? And then what happens when you get airlifted out of that situation and dropped onto the roster of a contender?

Maybe it’s the best thing that ever happened to you, and you’re so happy to be free that you go on the greatest run of your career. But maybe not. If you’re one goaltender away from chasing the Stanley Cup, do you want to find out?

Bottom line: There are other goalies available who’d come cheaper. But Lehner has the highest ceiling of anyone who figures to be available.

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Chris Tanev, Canucks

Best case: The Canucks will be sellers, and will likely move pending UFAs like Thomas Vanek and Erik Gudbranson. Tanev is a tougher call. He has two more years left on a very reasonable deal, and the team may prefer to hold onto him to provide some stability as they focus on the future. Then again, they would presumably reap a windfall by moving him now, so you figure they’d at least listen to offers.

There should be plenty, given what Tanev brings to the table. In a league where everyone seems to need blue-line help, here’s a guy who could slot into more than a few top fours, if not higher. If defence wins in the playoffs, a defensive specialist like Tanev should be a prime deadline target.

Worst case: Tanev has struggled with injuries throughout his career. He’s never played more than 70 games in a season, and has already missed a third of this one with various ailments. If you trade for him and he stays healthy, you’ve got a stud. But what if you give up a bunch of assets to load up for a deep run, and then he’s on the shelf again once the playoffs arrive?

Bottom line: I’m with Tyler Dellow on this one — I think it would make sense for both sides if a Tanev deal was built around conditional picks. By sharing some of the risk, the Canucks should be able to drive the price sky high if Tanev does stay healthy.

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An Islanders’ first-round pick

Best case: We’re going a little off the board here, but stay with me.

In theory, the Islanders are exactly the type of team you want to hear from if you’re a seller. They’re on the playoff bubble, and with the John Tavares situation hanging over everything and impatient new ownership, they should be highly motivated to make sure they don’t go home early yet again. And even better, they’ve got two firsts and two seconds this year thanks to the Travis Hamonic trade, so they have plenty of attractive ammo to put to good use.

But if you’re a GM and you see Garth Snow’s name come up on your caller ID, do you roll the dice by asking for the 2019 first instead?

If Snow is desperate — and remember, his job might be on the line — he’d have to at least consider it, right? He has plenty of picks to stock the cupboard with this year, and next year’s draft isn’t all that strong.

Imagine you can get your hands on the Isles’ 2019 pick and then Tavares walks, leaving the team in disarray. Your gamble could turn into a lottery pick with decent odds.

Worst case: For one, Snow probably tells you to take a hike (or at least insists on lottery protection, Pierre Dorion-style). Or maybe you get him to cough up the 2019 pick, then Tavares re-signs and the Islanders turn out to be good next year, and you’re left wishing you just took a 2018 choice instead.

Bottom line: Obviously, any team’s future picks come with extra uncertainty. But the Islanders seem like a rare case where a team has a very wide range of possible outcomes, as well as (maybe) some pressure to make an aggressive move anyway.

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Jack Johnson, Blue Jackets

Best case: Johnson has been considered a top defenceman for years. Now he’s reportedly asked for a trade. A recent hear-to-heart with John Tortorella appears to have bought both sides some time, but the Blue Jackets may still feel like they have to move him. And when a team’s hand is forced, that’s often when someone else can swoop in and get a bargain.

Worst case: Johnson has been considered a top defenceman, but is he one? There’s a good case to be made that his reputation surpasses his actual contribution on the ice. He’s one of those divisive players that the old school tends to love while analytics types throw up red flags.

Bottom line: Maybe a change of scenery helps him, but any team that acquires him might not be getting what they think they are.

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Sportsnet Today
An Ottawa perspective on the Erik Karlsson trade rumours
Originally aired January 20 2018

Erik Karlsson, Senators

Best case: Stay cool, Ottawa fans, I’ll explain.

Clearly, Karlsson is the best player who’s been even remotely linked with trade talk this year. Even as he’s battled injuries and seen his numbers dip slightly, he’s still one of the best defencemen in the league, and he’s in his prime. He also still has one year left on a contract that pays him well below market value.

And that extra year might be key. If a team were able to land him now, they’d have Karlsson locked in for two playoff runs, instead of the one they’d get by making on off-season deal. Windows close quickly in today’s NHL, so any team that considers itself a contender right now should want to move on Karlsson before the deadline rather than kick the can down the road to the summer.

As a player, Karlsson doesn’t carry much risk at all. He’s close to a sure thing.

Worst case: There’s at least a little risk built into acquiring any player who needs a contract extension; teams trading for him won’t be sure about what kind of numbers he’ll be looking for. But that’s not the issue here. When it comes to elite talent, you can worry about the dollars down the line. Guys like this don’t get traded very often.

And that’s the problem — these guys don’t get traded. Karlsson probably won’t either, at least not this season. We’re constantly told that even the most minor trade takes weeks or months to put together in today’s league; a blockbuster like this would have so many moving pieces that getting it done by deadline day would be a challenge. It might make strategic sense for the Senators to stall until the off-season, when more teams could enter the bidding. Reportedly, the word around the league is that Ottawa wants to wait. And that’s assuming they trade him at all, which is far from a sure thing.

So if you’re a rival team, do you really want to dive into this right now? The odds are overwhelmingly against you getting a deal done, meaning you’d be spending valuable time and resources pursuing a trade that never happens. Maybe those talks give you a starting point for further negotiations in the summer. But they also come with an opportunity cost, and you run the risk of missing out on other deadline opportunities while you’re chasing after a blockbuster that probably never had a chance.

Except… I mean, if there’s even a tiny chance the Senators do move Karlsson, you have to be in on it, right? If you sit this one out and then some other contender swoops in and actually lands him, you’ll be kicking yourself for the next decade. It’s a dilemma that more than a few GMs will be facing as the clock ticks down to deadline day.

Bottom line: Dorion’s phone should be ringing off the hook for the next few weeks. The question is whether any of those calls end up being worth returning.

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