Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.
Opening faceoff: Countdown to…. something
With two days left until the trade deadline, welcome to the calm before the storm.
Or, depending on who you ask, to the calm before even more calm. Stupid, boring calm.
A first half of the season that featured virtually no significant trades has given way to a deadline countdown that’s seemed unusually quiet. In terms of the actual number of moves made, the month before this year’s deadline has actually been about average. But while past seasons have included at least one big mid-season deal involving names like Seth Jones and Ryan Johansen last year or Evander Kane the year before, this time we made it to February with the biggest name on the move being a Nikita Nesterov or Nail Yakupov.
It’s quiet. Maybe too quiet.
That’s one school of thought, at least. With league-wide parity leaving the buyer/seller picture hazy until the last few days, all the moves we’d normally expect to see during a season are being held back as long as possible. But we’re out of time now, and it will take only one or two deals to establish the market and send all the dominoes toppling. We may even have seen those deals last night.
That’s the theory, at least. It may be wishful thinking. It’s possible we’ve hit the logical endpoint of the decade-long decline in big-name deadline dealing, and this is the season when most teams decide to sit out altogether. Maybe all this parity causes leaguewide paralysis. Maybe the sellers are just asking too much. Maybe a modern GM’s job really is just too hard.
Or maybe we’ll get some deals. Hopes were raised over the weekend, with a pair of contenders making moves on Friday. The Ducks landed Patrick Eaves from the Stars, while the Blackhawks picked up Tomas Jurco from Detroit. Neither move would qualify as anything approaching a blockbuster, but they felt like a start.
With apologies to Jeremy Morin, no other deals of any significance happened until Sunday night, when we got the two biggest trades of the season so far: Ben Bishop to the Kings, and Martin Hanzal to the Wild. Both deals raised eyebrows, although for different reasons. Bishop seems to fill a need that the Kings don’t actually have, at least unless Jonathan Quick‘s health is still a bigger question mark than we think. And Hanzal came at a higher price than most of us figured the Coyotes would be able to get, which should make the league’s other sellers happy.
All that leaves us with a little over 48 hours until the deadline clock strikes zero. So do Bishop and Hanzal signal that the league’s GMs are finally, mercifully ready to get to work? Or did we just see the two biggest names who’ll be dealt go off the board with days still left to go?
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. New York Rangers (40-20-2, +41 true goals differential*): Whew, that was close — they moved up to third (and out of the much easier Atlantic Division playoff path) for a minute there.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets (39-16-5, +53): A 7–0 stomping of the Islanders followed by a 5-2 win at MSG. Message delivered.
2. Minnesota Wild (39-14-6, +59): Did they overpay for Hanzal? Sure. But the West is wide open, the draft is weak and they’re having one of those seasons where things are breaking their way. If he’s going to overpay, Chuck Fletcher picked the right year to do it.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
These rankings have settled into a holding pattern recently. We’ve had the same No. 1 for six straight weeks and the same top two for the last three, and since mid-January only six teams have appeared in the top five. That makes sense – we’re deep into the season, we can see more of the bigger picture, and those first-half fluctuations based on a streak here or there shouldn’t be as pronounced now. But it’s resulted in a top five that’s been largely locked in.
Depending on how the next few days go, that could be about to change.
Remember, these power rankings aren’t meant to simply tell us which teams have done well so far in the season. We already have the standings for that. The idea here is to try to get a little more predictive, looking at “the five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.” And that status can shift a lot based on what teams do – or don’t do – at the deadline.
That means that what happens over the next few days could shuffle these rankings significantly. Let’s take the Rangers, who’ve been slinking in and out of the four/five spots since Christmas, but never climbing higher. They’ve got a need on the blue line and some cap space to work with, and they’ve been linked to Kevin Shattenkirk. Let’s say they land him without subtracting much off of the current roster. Do they jump teams like Pittsburgh and Columbus?
The Wild have been a top-three team since the new year, but have yet to reach the No. 1 spot. Chuck Fletcher already landed Hanzal, and he made it sound like he’s ready to go all-in, so maybe something else is brewing. And even if Fletcher doesn’t have enough ammo to make any more moves, does the Hanzal deal put the ball back in Stan Bowman’s court?
Maybe the Ducks or Kings aren’t done quite yet, and we’re still waiting for the Sharks to do something. Maybe the Capitals break out of their holding pattern and cement their grip on top spot. Would adding Matt Duchene be enough to get the Habs back onto the list? Or what about a team like Oilers or Senators, who haven’t had top-five status all year but might have a case with a big-enough acquisition?
Of course, it’s quite possible that none of the top contenders make any impact moves, and we’re back here next week with more of the same. Some of those teams we just mentioned have already told us that they expect to have a quiet week. Instead, we might get a round of tinkering and depth moves, like the ones that the Penguins, Hawks and Ducks have already made. With few sellers and prices high, maybe that’s all the contenders can afford.
But in a year where the path to the Cup is wide open, one aggressive move could change everything. And if one of the contenders did decide to pull the trigger on that sort of deal, that could pressure another to do the same, and then another, and off we go.
Wishful thinking? Probably. We’ll know for sure by next week’s rankings.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Nolan Patrick highlights and clicking refresh on draft-lottery simulations.
5. Dallas Stars (24-28-10, -27): Jim Nill is selling, which means he can admit that the Stars aren’t going anywhere. I guess we can, too, so they make their bottom-five debut.
1. Colorado Avalanche (17-40-3, -77): They’re beyond terrible, but they may be the most important team in the league over the next few days.
While we wait to see whether the top spots in our top five get a makeover, the bottom of the list will… well, let’s face it, it’s staying the same.
Nobody’s catching Colorado when it comes to ineptitude this year – we can go ahead and pencil them in for the No. 1 spot in our lottery rankings for the rest of the way. Likewise, the Coyotes have been locked in right behind them for months.
But while those teams might not be going anywhere in the standings, what they do over the next few days could have a big impact on how quickly they can get off this list next year and beyond. For a contending team, the deadline is a chance to load up for the playoffs. For a team like the Coyotes or Avalanche, the deadline is their playoffs.
And just like the playoffs, things can fall apart quickly with a bad start. As of Monday morning, the Avalanche haven’t made a deal since January. That doesn’t mean Joe Sakic hasn’t been busy, and maybe he’s been carefully laying the groundwork for a series of moves between now and Wednesday. He certainly holds the biggest cards, with Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog potentially in play and a handful of useful rentals to offer beyond that.
We’ve already covered Sakic’s rumoured asking price for guys like Duchene, which is high but far from unreasonable, especially when you see what Hanzal went for. It’s always possible that nobody meets his demands. It’s also possible that he’d prefer to wait until the off-season, since these days NHL GMs like to insist that trades are just too complicated to pull off during the year. Either way, the odds are good that none of the Avs’ young core moves this week. But if there’s a jaw-dropping move waiting to bring the house down, Sakic’s probably going to be behind it.
In Arizona, John Chayka has already started on his deadline dismantling, moving Hanzal and Michael Stone. Unlike Sakic, Chayka doesn’t seem to have any obvious blockbuster cards to play, although there have been faint whispers that he could be working on something bigger than we expect. He’ll want an answer from Doan, too, and probably already has it.
After the big two, things get murky when it comes to who’s willing to step up and sell. We already have our answer from the Stars, who moved Patrick Eaves and will presumably do the same for Patrick Sharp and others, as well as the Hurricanes, who managed to get a second for Hainsey. The Red Wings haven’t made a move, but they will. And while the Lightning didn’t quite make a traditional seller’s deal with Bishop, it feels like those deals are on the way.
They should have company soon. Teams like the Canucks, Sabres and Jets are out of time, and the will-they-or-won’t-they dance will have to end. In an unbalanced market that doesn’t seem to have enough sellers to meet buyer demand, there’s an opportunity here for a GM of a struggling team to take advantage and re-stock for the future. It will be fascinating to see which ones do, and which ones defy the skeptics by loading up for a playoff run instead.
And maybe most of all: Which GMs do neither, going deer-in-the-headlights on us and letting the most important time of the year for a bad team slip away without doing anything at all? After this weekend, the pressure is officially on.
Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league
• We had another outdoor game over the weekend, with the Penguins topping the Flyers 4–2 at Heinz Field. It was a fun game, and the weather mostly cooperated apart from some issues with wind. It may have also been the final blow to any lingering Flyers hopes at a playoff run.
• More bad news for the Flyers: Brandon Manning earned himself a hearing with the Department of Player Safety for his high hit on Jake Guentzel. No penalty was called on the play.
• A story worth watching in the packed Atlantic race: Something may be up with Roberto Luongo.
• Things got interesting in the AHL, as a fight between Iowa and Chicago continued in the hallway.
• No game on the weekend had more of a playoff feel than Saturday’s showdown between the Kings and Ducks, which featured plenty of bad blood on the way to a 4–1 Kings win.
• Quick’s return to the lineup got the attention in that one. But keep an eye on Marian Gaborik, who was a healthy scratch and could emerge as a candidate to be dealt.
• A game between two teams going nowhere still produced this nifty solo effort by Jamie Benn:
• Have you heard the paranoid conspiracy theory out of Calgary that says that the Flames have been unfairly targeted by referees ever since the Dennis Wideman suspension? This math-heavy dive into the numbers concludes that… well, there may be something to it…
• Finally, the league announced on Saturday that Antoine Vermette‘s 10-game suspension will be upheld. It’s the right call by the letter of the rulebook, which is unusually specific on the issue. But there was growing sentiment that Vermette would see his sentence reduced anyway, and that reportedly would have been the case if not for the officials’ association. Now, it’s potentially on to an arbitrator. What a mess.