A little more than a month from the trade deadline, the market is still trying to sort out who the real buyers and sellers are. We know the likes of Tampa Bay, Toronto, Winnipeg and Nashville will be looking to make some additions and that Los Angeles and Philadelphia will be trading off parts, but as the playoff picture in the West tightens up, there may be fewer teams willing to sell than initially thought.
Aside from the playoff picture, the specific situations of a few GMs have them in interesting spots in the lead-up to trade deadline — will they buy? Sell? Will their impact on the market be substantial? How much does job security play a role?
Here are four GMs who will be particularly interesting to watch work this trade season.
PETER CHIARELLI, EDMONTON OILERS
Sitting three points out of the playoffs, the Oilers are forced to be a buyer at the deadline. They’ve already traded for, then waived, Ryan Spooner this season and more recently picked up depth defencemen Brandon Manning and Alex Petrovic. That’s not going to make the difference the Oilers need. Despite the lack of depth and the fact they’re outside of the playoffs right now, this team is all-in.
“They realize that missing the playoffs this year will have a hugely negative impact on their business and they’re going for it,” Elliotte Friedman said last week on Prime Time Sports. “I think they’re looking at adding. They got Klefbom, their top defenceman, coming back soon. He’s been a big player for them this year. So they think they can handle the blue line. But now they’ve gotta handle getting some more scoring.
“I think they’ve made it very clear that missing the playoffs this year is not an option.”
But because they’re no more than a playoff bubble team, and thin on the NHL roster, finding a trade that gets Edmonton what they need could be difficult. You have to believe Evan Bouchard is off the table, but their first-round pick and Jesse Puljujarvi are regularly showing up in trade rumours and both are risky to give up at the moment.
On top of it all, the man who will be making these moves is also on the hot seat. Peter Chiarelli hasn’t been able to make progress in four years with Connor McDavid on his roster, and the belief is that if his team misses the playoffs again, he could very well be replaced in the front office.
If you don’t have a rooting interest here it makes for potentially interesting theatre, but if this is the team you live and die with, it’s worrying times.
“Peter Chiarelli’s trade record has everybody in this town, fans of the team, very nervous he’ll go out and try to make a big trade,” Sportsnet’s Mark Spector said recently on the FAN 590’s Jeff Blair Show. “His big trades have been awful.
“People here are wondering, does Bob Nicholson have a leash on this, is he the one that will be okaying the trade? What about owner Daryl Katz?”
JIM NILL, DALLAS STARS
First CEO Jim Lites called out his team’s two biggest stars. Then, coach Jim Montgomery vented his frustration over not being able to change Dallas’ “culture of mediocrity.” Jamie Benn was blunt about the Stars’ lackluster power play last week. Alexander Radulov got benched for half a period.
There’s a lot of drama unfolding in Texas and, sitting in a playoff spot by just one point, the Stars’ trade acquisitions aren’t likely to stop at Andrew Cogliano.
Jim Nill has been GM in Dallas since 2013 and signed a contract extension in 2016. The interesting thing about that is the contract he was extending didn’t expire until this season so he’s actually signed through 2022-23. Does that provide any security for a GM who has made the playoffs twice in five completed seasons?
“I do think he’s on the hot seat,” The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro told the Tape to Tape Podcast. “I think he’s in a situation where you don’t get to miss the playoffs again. I really think it’s a situation where if the Stars miss the playoffs, I have a high likelihood in my mind I’ll be covering another GM search.
“The Stars need a fall guy for this and they tried to put it on Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are the two most untouchable people in the organization.”
This team had been in on John Tavares and even linked to Erik Karlsson, but came away from last summer with Blake Comeau as their most notable free-agent acquisition. Valeri Nichushkin, the 10th-overall pick in Nill’s first draft as GM, returned from two years in the KHL and has been a non-factor with zero goals.
There isn’t a lot of difference in where the Stars and Oilers find themselves. They have the star power at the top, but lack depth beyond a super-loaded first line. Just this month Dallas has been held to one goal or less in regulation six out of nine games. Since Dec. 1 their total of 54 goals in 23 games ranks 30th in the league.
“I think they’re at a spot where it could be something before the deadline, but I think they have to kind of make these moves sooner because they have to get ahead of it and really get themselves to a spot where whoever they bring in, they can mesh and they’re not in a spot where the Stars were last year when they just fell apart at the end.”
DOUG ARMSTRONG, ST. LOUIS BLUES
A lot has changed in a short period of time for Armstrong and the Blues. On Dec. 1 they sat last in the Central Division and were nine points out of the second wild-card spot. Since then they’ve gone 12-9-2 and in the past two weeks they earned their first three-game winning streak of the season.
A month and a half ago the Blues were thought of as sellers and the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn and Alex Pietrangelo were grist for the rumour mill. Now what does the situation look like?
The interesting thing here is that being in the playoff race hasn’t stopped Armstrong from being a seller before. In 2017 he sent pending UFA Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington at the deadline, on a day St. Louis actually held the second wild-card spot. They ended up third in their division and got to the second round. Last season they sold pending UFA Paul Stastny to the Jets and missed the playoffs by a point.
This year’s Blues don’t have any UFAs at the level of those two — Pat Maroon and declining Jay Bouwmeester fall into that category and may be in new places after the deadline. They are five points out of a playoff spot, but have played fewer games than every team ahead of them and with Jordan Binnington in net, now seem to be turning a corner. Even Tarasenko has five goals in his past eight games.
Could the Blues go from potentially blockbuster sellers to at least minor buyers by the deadline? Will Armstrong still move one of his big-ticket players? After aggressive off-season acquisitions to shore up depth at the centre position the expectation was clearly to make the playoffs this season, but how will that be reflected in the lead-up to Feb. 25?
PAUL FENTON, MINNESOTA WILD
At Fenton’s introductory press conference last summer, Wild owner Craig Leipold noted that there was one thing about his team that the new GM and all the others who interviewed for the job agreed on: They were good.
“The goal remains to bring a Stanley Cup to the State Of Hockey,” Leipold said at the press conference, smiling and looking over at Fenton. “No pressure, Paul.”
Despite these expectations from the very top, on Monday the Wild sit one point out of the playoffs and have scored the fewest goals in the league since Dec. 1. For this roster, that can only be described as a disappointment. Still in a position to potentially buy and shake things up, what makes the Wild so interesting around the deadline is they can theoretically trade NHL players and pull off “hockey trades.”
When looking at in-season buyers and sellers you often expect one team to give up picks or prospects, but if the Wild add anything, their market doesn’t have to be restricted to teams looking for futures. There is no doubt they have a good amount of depth with the likes of Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle currently on the third line — they’d almost have to trade out a roster player to pick up another of significance.
Because of this, Minnesota could be a trade partner for almost anyone.
Closing in on the all-star break in Fenton’s first season as GM, there have only been minor changes to Chuck Fletcher’s roster. In fact, Fenton’s biggest trade to date was the one he made last Thursday, sending 2010 fifth-overall pick Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for Victor Rask. Far from a slam dunk improvement, this looks like a risky move the Wild would be lucky to come out on top of. Niederreiter may be struggling, but he has the pedigree and history, while Rask had just six points at the time of the deal.
But it’s the type of deal that sets a tone for the next four weeks.
“We’re looking for consistency,” Fenton told reporters after the trade. “For me, when you make change like this, it shows players that nothing is forever and it gives them an alert that if they want to be here they’re going to have to play and play the way that we want them to play and be successful.”