We’re now less than three weeks away from the NHL’s Feb. 26 trade deadline, which is close enough that we’d expect some wheeling and dealing to get going before too long.
In the meantime, this is a high point of the rumour season.
There are no shortage of big names potentially available, along with more complementary players who could be added by contending teams. At the same time, there is a growing distinction between playoff teams that are really going for it, and others who are already out, or falling out of it, who will be looking to sell. Still, there is enough time between now and the deadline that bubble teams aren’t fully defined as buyers or sellers and the cost of acquisition hasn’t fully been established.
RANGERS WANT TO RE-TOOL, BUT HOW FAR WILL THEY GO?
Even though the Blueshirts were in a playoff spot at the time, New York Post columnist Larry Brooks unleashed speculation all over the hockey world when he wrote on Jan. 26 about the Rangers’ openness to trading not only the pending UFAs on their roster such as Rick Nash or Michael Grabner, but even possibly Ryan McDonagh or Mats Zuccarello, who are signed for another season.
The thinking is that even though this team as currently constructed is good enough to hang around in the playoff race and potentially even qualify as a wild-card team, it doesn’t have the pieces to win four rounds and claim the Stanley Cup. And since the directive from ownership is to put together a legitimate contender, it might be time for the team to re-tool, get younger, and perhaps make that push in the near future.
It’s not a road we’re used to seeing the big-spending club take, but with just three wins in its past 12, it might be time to switch gears.
“I think the standings are an optical illusion,” Brooks said on Hockey Central at Noon on Tuesday. “Anyone who’s watched them play this year, you can’t imagine they’re good enough to win eight playoff games, let alone 12, let alone 16. So maybe if they’re going against their style it’s a good thing, no? The idea is to win, and they’ve tried to win. They’ve come close. They were close in ’14 close in ’15, even last year they had a shot after beating Montreal. The draw for them was good last year and they couldn’t beat Ottawa, so at some point you say, this group just isn’t going to get there so why keep beating your head against the wall?”
The question becomes, then, just what could the Rangers get in return for these players? Pending UFAs Nash and Grabner appear all but guaranteed to get moved, and Nash confirmed on Monday that the Rangers had asked for his list of 18 teams to which he would not accept a trade, as per his limited no-trade clause. Nash said it was disappointing to have to do that, bolstering some opinions that he could find his way back to New York as a free agent in the summer.
Grabner is another scoring winger on an expiring contract who seems all but certain to get moved, and he has no trade protection whatsoever. Grabner, who barely gets any time on the power play, is the fourth-highest even-strength goal scorer in the NHL since the start of last season.
As is the case with the entire scoring-winger trade market right now, prices are high for both.
If the Rangers did trade Nash, Grabner and other players still under contract in an effort to scale back and re-tool, what would that mean for 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist? The goalie is having somewhat of a bounceback season and is still capable of stealing a playoff round or two on his own. He put to rest any concern that a re-tool would mean he’d lose interest in the direction of the team and seek a way out before his deal expires in 2021, saying he wants to play for one organization in his NHL career.
What’s important to know about the Rangers’ plan is that they do not appear interested in a complete ground-up rebuild. Brooks suggested any move would be made with the near future in mind, where New York gets younger and takes a step back right away, but with a payoff coming back sooner than later. Think along the lines of the Colorado Avalanche, which went from one of the oldest NHL teams last season to one of the youngest and quickest this year, pushing back into the playoff hunt with a bright future.
“They don’t want to become one of those teams that sinks to 28th because there are 12 or 15 of them that have been at the bottom of the barrel for years and they can’t climb even if they have the second, third, fourth pick in the draft every year,” Brooks said.
“What they would like to be able to do is get young NHL players or on-the-cusp NHL players plus draft picks back for their guys. They don’t want to go into this massive rebuild where they strip everything away and they’re 29th in the league next year and 28th in the league in two years and maybe in seven years it works. That’s really not the plan.”
ARE THE MAPLE LEAFS STILL LOOKING FOR DEFENCE?
Ever since being inserted into the lineup for the first time in January, 21-year-old Travis Dermott has Leafs fans excited for his potential on the blue line, not just for the future, but the present as well.
Dermott’s ice time has slowly been creeping up and he’s even found his way on to some penalty-kill time as the Leafs worked their way back to full health. A great skater with offensive chops, Dermott has the style of play that works well in today’s NHL, though head coach Mike Babcock won’t let the praise go too far before challenging Dermott’s play on the defensive side of the puck.
But the fact remains that Dermott looks like a capable NHL defenceman and certainly passes the eye test with better marks than Roman Polak. With a healthy blue line, Dermott could line up next to Connor Carrick (or perhaps Polak) on the third pair, which begs the question: Does Toronto need to be aggressive in trying to acquire another defenceman?
“I think he’s at least making them think that the best way to solve a problem is solve it yourself and he’s giving them a reason to believe they might be able to solve this themselves. I think we’ve got a chance to see here they may stay internal on defence,” Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman said last week.
In fact, the bigger area of need in terms of a deadline tweak could be at centre. While Auston Matthews’ place on the top line and Nazem Kadri’s on the second/third is secure, the Leafs could take a page out of last year’s deadline book and apply it again in 2018. The team picked up Brian Boyle to play as its fourth-line pivot in 2017 and, according to Chris Johnston, that may actually still be the area GM Lou Lamoriello looks at most by Feb. 26.
“I still think the Leafs want to get a centre this year to be honest,” Johnston said. “That’s probably priority No. 1 in terms of things they can get done.”
On the other side of the trade coin, the Leafs have been rumoured to be looking for teams interested in Nikita Soshnikov and Matt Martin, while the Hockey Night in Canada crew on Saturday reported that Josh Leivo, who has 30 games played total between the NHL and AHL the past two seasons, had requested a trade. Babcock responded to that report by saying he was unaware of any such request.
Toronto has 50 contracts in the organization, the most allowed under the current CBA, so there would be an appetite to drop that number by one or two in order to get some wiggle room.
JETS ARE CONTENDERS, SO WILL THEY MOVE INTO THE BUYERS’ MARKET?
Kevin Cheveldayoff has been one of the least active trade deadline GMs in the league over the years, despite shouts from fans to do something to move that team forward. Now, Cheveldayoff’s patience is paying off as Winnipeg has taken a big step through its own development.
So will this be the deadline Cheveldayoff gets active? There were rumblings the Jets could look at a winger to fit into their top six or, as Friedman reported last week, they may even move into the defence market. With Jacob Trouba not expected back until at least some time in March as he recovers from an ankle injury, Friedman wondered if they may do something to bolster their left side of the blue line.
“I think what he’s doing is looking for someone, but maybe not what people would expect,” Friedman started.
“I think if they’re looking for anything it might be on the (left) side. They’ve got (Tobias) Enstrom there, (Josh) Morrissey there and (Dmitry) Kulikov there … but I think if he could find a defenceman that could play ahead of one of those guys on the blue line on the left side I think he might do it. So it’s potentially a bigger move and something I think the Jets are considering.”
SAN JOSE COULD STAND PAT
With a 28-16-8 record, the San Jose Sharks are again making a push for the playoffs and currently sit second in the Pacific Division. However, they lost a big piece of their lineup when Joe Thornton went down for an extended period with an MCL injury. He will eventually return, though, and because of that Friedman thinks GM Doug Wilson could try and wait it out instead of making a big splash.
“At all-star there were rumblings going around that San Jose was looking to add to their offence to replace Thornton in the short term,” Friedman reported. “After looking into it, I’m not as convinced that’s going to happen. For one, I think San Jose has over $20 million in cap room this summer, I don’t think they want to fool around with that unless it’s for a cornerstone player and, secondly, I also don’t think they necessarily want to trade their first-round draft pick.
“So while I think San Jose has dipped its toe in the market, I’m not convinced they’re going to do anything unless it really makes sense.”
For years, Thornton and Patrick Marleau were the leaders of San Jose in spirit and offence. Eventually, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture rose to elite status and were drivers of offence and key players to San Jose’s success. With Marleau in Toronto and Thornton on the sidelines, it’s time for the next generation of Sharks to step up. From Tomas Hertl to Joonas Donskoi and Chris Tierney, the Sharks have another wave of early-20s players they hope will step up in Big Joe’s absence.
WOULD THE YOUNG COYOTES TRADE STRUGGLING MAX DOMI?
Picked 12th overall in the 2013 draft, Max Domi broke into the NHL with an 18-goal, 52-point rookie season he hasn’t come particularly close to matching since. In another Larry Brooks report from over the weekend, the Coyotes are apparently open to dealing the 22-year-old, third-year winger.
Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston spoke about the potential of the Coyotes moving on from Domi, who has just three goals in 52 games this season.
“In some ways he’s a little bit like Anthony Duclair in that he was once thought to be part of the future with the Coyotes and it really just hasn’t happened there,” Johnston said. “And it is believed Max Domi would be open to a move. I’m not sure he’s at the point where he’s demanded a trade, but certainly the Coyotes would listen at this point.”
Duclair, who had a career year the same season as Domi’s debut, was traded to Chicago last month along with Adam Clendening for Richard Panik and Laurent Dauphin.
For his part, Domi spoke about the rumours around him on Tuesday.