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: One week to go
This time last week, we figured that the NHL’s trade market had been a little too quiet. Seven days later, we’ve seen just three more deals, only one of which would be considered significant. That was the Dion Phaneuf/Marion Gaborik salary swap, one that made sense for both teams but was hardly a blockbuster. Beyond that move, all the biggest chips remain in play with one week left before the deadline.
In other words, if it was too quiet before, it’s way too quiet right now.
And that means it’s probably fair to start wondering if we’re facing down a deadline dud. It’s possible. With so many teams packed into the mushy middle of the standings and so few true impact players expected to be moved, maybe everyone just decides to play it safe with what they have. We know that many modern-day GMs would prefer it that way. Some of them might get their wish.
But those best-laid plans can change quickly, based on a streak here or an injury there. The latter situation has played out over the weekend in Philadelphia, where Michal Neuvirth left yesterday’s 7-4 win over the Rangers with a lower-body injury. We don’t know how serious the injury might be, but it didn’t look good. With Brian Elliott already sidelined for several weeks, any extended absence by Neuvirth leaves the team without an established goaltender.
With the Flyers holding down a playoff spot and even finding themselves within range of the Capitals and Penguins for top spot in the Metro, that would seem to leave GM Ron Hextall with no choice but to go out and deal for a goaltender. But who? Detroit’s Petr Mrazek would be an option. Buffalo’s Robin Lehner could be as well. The question will be whether his fellow GMs see Hextall’s situation getting desperate, and adjust their prices accordingly.
Neuvirth’s injury aside, you’d have to think that yesterday’s game will spell the end of any lingering doubt about what Jeff Gorton needs to do. New York looked awful from start to finish; you never want to say a team has quit, but the Rangers sure look like a team that’s waiting for the other shoe to drop. With Rick Nash and Michael Grabner all but sure-things to be moved, the question will be whether performances like yesterday’s will motivate Gorton to think even bigger and deal someone like Ryan McDonagh.
The other sellers aren’t faring much better. Buffalo looks awful, the Canadiens do too, and the Senators, Oilers and Canucks are all treading water. Only the Coyotes are even vaguely hot, and they’re too far back for it to matter. In fact, with the Blackhawks and Red Wings all but out of the race, we’ve got more than enough sellers to make up a decent market. We just need to see when the first domino falls, and who it takes with it.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favorite status.
5. Vegas Golden Knights (39-15-4, +44 true goals differential*) – We remain a little less bullish on the Knights’ chances than others; some have them as the current Stanley Cup favorite.
4. Boston Bruins (35-13-8, +46) – This was a neat look at a strategic shift that’s helped boost the team’s offence.
3. Nashville Predators (34-14-9, +27) – They’ve wobbled a bit on this homestand, opening the door for the Jets to pass them with last night’s win. But we’ll keep them ranked high this week on the assumption that David Poile is going to by busy.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (35-22-4, +15) – Saturday’s matchup with Toronto felt like a good measuring stick heading in, and the Penguins looked like they had another gear that the Leafs couldn’t match.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (39-17-3, +52) – Make it 15 straight weeks in top spot. But it feels like the streak could be in danger, with the Penguins charging and the Bruins already passing them in points percentage.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
A question to ponder as we head into the final week before the deadline: Which NHL teams have gone the entire season so far without making a single trade?
It’s not as many as you might think. In today’s NHL, we’re constantly being told that trading during the season is too hard, and that the only time a beleaguered GM can ever be expected to close a deal is right at the deadline or in the off-season. So it’s maybe somewhat surprising that the majority of teams have actually pulled off a meaningful deal or two during the season. Not all of them were Duchene/Turris or Vatanen/Henrique level deals, but most teams have made at least one move involving someone who’s had an impact at the NHL level.
So today, let’s go down the list of teams that are still waiting, since they’ll presumably be feeling a little extra pressure to get off the sidelines before next Monday.
The length of that list depends on how we define an NHL trade. If we limit it to deals involving at least one player with at least one game in the NHL this season, we end up with nine teams without a trade to their name. Some teams barely escape the list – the Blues dodge an appearance based on this week’s acquisition of Nikita Soshnikov, while the Wild are saved by a single Christoph Bertschy game back in October. The Flames’ only deal was swapping Eddie Lack for Dalton Prout, two players with a combined eight games of NHL action this year, none with their new teams. But we can give Brad Treliving a bit of a break given how aggressive he was in the off-season. We can do the same for George McPhee; his Golden Knights only avoid the list based on one game by Calvin Pickard, who they dealt to the Leafs a few days into the season, but he was kind of busy over the summer.
Among the nine teams who haven’t made an NHL trade yet, some aren’t much of a surprise. The Jets are there, of course, because Kevin Chevaldayoff trades about as often as Dave Keon dropped the gloves. The Capitals have only made one move, a minor-league deal with the Rangers earlier this month, and have held down first place in the Metro for most of the season. And the Sharks have had a relatively quiet season top-to-bottom, including on the trade front.
Other teams are more surprising, given how their seasons have gone. Inactivity seems to be a theme in the super-close Metro wild-card race, where the Hurricanes haven’t made any moves despite spending all year on the fringe of the wild-card race. Neither have the slumping Blue Jackets, or the goaltender-less Flyers (for now). And in maybe the most surprising no-show on the year, Garth Snow and the Islanders haven’t made a single deal despite a disappointing season. That’s the kind of inaction that earns you a billboard.
Then there’s the Panthers. Despite plenty of talk about Dale Tallon rebuilding the franchise form the ashes of its foray into analytics, his trading this season has been limited to a pair of minor-league deals even as the season went off the rails early. Then again, given how his off-season work went, maybe that’s just as well.
And we’ll close with the league’s reigning kings of inactivity, and a cautionary example that sometimes, making no moves may be the right move. The Bruins are chasing the Presidents’ Trophy despite a lack of wheeling and dealing that borders on the ridiculous. Not only have they not swung a trade this season, but they didn’t make one in the off-season either. Don Sweeney only pulled off one deal at least year’s deadline, and even that was a minor one – giving up a sixth-round pick to rent Drew Stafford from the Jets. That was his only trade of the season, and he didn’t make any deals at all during that off-season either. All in all, the Bruins are closing in on two full years with just one relatively minor trade to show for it.
Even in a league where we’re told nobody trades anymore, that seems extreme. But it’s working for them.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft lottery simulations.
5. Montreal Canadiens (22-29-7, -35) – Antti Niemi had a tough night in Vegas, lasting just 10 minutes and giving up three goals in an eventual 6-3 loss.
4. Edmonton Oilers (24-30-4, -30) – It’s subtle, but I feel like Cam Talbot might be unhappy about the NHL’s replay review process.
3. Ottawa Senators (21-27-9, -40) – Kudos to the Senators for addressing what I think we can all agree was the team’s biggest problem this year: Not enough Eugene Melnyk.
2. Arizona Coyotes (17-32-10, -50) – They’ve reeled off four straight wins. Keep this up for another 20 games or so and they’ll be right back in the wild-card race.
1. Buffalo Sabres (17-31-11, -53) – Saturday’s loss to the Kings was yet another depressing no-show, and the Buffalo media is letting them hear about it.
For most of the season, this bottom-five section has been pretty straightforward. We’re dealing with the league’s worst teams, so the standings can do most of the work for us. And indeed, it’s been the Sabres and Coyotes trading top spot while a rotating cast of teams fill out the rest of the list.
But we’re getting to the part of the season where that may change. After all, this section is meant to be a look at where we’ll end up, not just a snapshot of where we’re at right now. And with the deadline almost here, we’ve reached the part of the season where some of the league’s worst teams could be about to dramatically reshape their rosters with an eye towards the future, even if that means accepting some short-term pain the rest of the way.
In other words: tanking.
Not the full-season version, like some teams have been accused of over the years. That rubs a lot of fans the wrong way, especially when it works. But even the anti-tanking brigade understands that once you get deep into a season and know you’re not making the playoffs, there’s only one direction left to aim for. The NHL’s draft lottery makes it clear – once you’re out of the playoff race, it’s time to start losing.
All of which raises the question: Which of this year’s worst teams are in the best position for an end-of-season tank job?
For example, the Coyotes might be holding down last place overall, but they aren’t really in great shape to get much worse. They don’t have many traditional rentals to offer, and right now they seem more focused on moving younger pieces like Max Domi. They could still move Antti Raanta – trading away the starting goaltender is a classic tank move – but there hasn’t been much buzz about that. So barring something unexpected, the Coyotes are probably already as bad as they’re going to get.
The Sabres are in a similar situation, although they do have Evander Kane to move. They could also move a goalie, with Lehner and Chad Johnson both on expiring deals, and they’ll try to find a taker for Josh Gorges and Benoit Pouliot. That’s not exactly an overhaul, but it could be enough of a hit for the Sabres to drop past the Coyotes, which is part of why we moved them into the No. 1 spot this week.
From there, we get the four Canadian also-rans, and this is where things get interesting. Right now, the Oilers, Canadians, Senators and Canucks are in a four-way logjam. The gap in the estimated lottery odds between third and seventh spot isn’t huge, dropping from 10.5 per cent to 7.6 per cent. But that’s still something, and more importantly an especially effective tank could still take a run at the Sabres and Coyotes.
So who’s in the best position to pull it off? Of the four teams, the Canadiens and Senators would seem to be most likely to blow it all up. The rumour mill has both teams considering trades involving major pieces, with Max Pacioretty, Mike Hoffman and Derick Brassard all on the block. The Senators could go even further if they pulled the trigger on Erik Karlsson, and while that still seems unlikely, Nick Kypreos reported on Saturday that some still think it will happen.
The Canucks and Oilers should both be busy too, but neither would seem to have quite as much ammo in play. The Canucks will move Thomas Vanek, but with the asking price apparently sky-high on Chris Tanev they might not move any key pieces. The Oilers are a wild card, since there’s pressure on Peter Chiarelli to pull off a major shakeup, but the most likely scenario would be smaller moves like Mark Letestu and Patrick Maroon.
Add it all up – and mix some shaky goaltending and a recent Pierre Dorion extension that gives him the job security to be aggressive – and it seems like the Senators are the most likely team to go full tank the rest of the way. Could they get all the way to the bottom of the standings and those coveted 18 per cent lottery odds? It’s a long shot, but it’s not out of the question. That’s a rare bit of good news for an Ottawa fan base that’s had to endure a miserable season.
Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league
•We had an ugly incident in Chicago on Saturday night, as several fans were ejected after directing racial taunts at Washington’s Devante Smith-Pelly. Capitals coach Barry Trotz was furious after the game, and rightly so. For their part, the league issued a statement, while Smith-Pelly addressed the media yesterday.
•The game was also the 1,500th of Trotz’s NHL coaching career. He’s the fifth coach to reach the milestone.
•Save of the weekend honours go to Tyler Pitlick. Kick save and a beauty.
•Nathan MacKinnon is back, returning to the lineup yesterday after being sidelined nearly three weeks with a shoulder injury. He played over 22 minutes in a 4-2 loss to the Oilers.
•Connor McDavid recorded a hat trick in that win, his third of the season.
•Miles Wood will sit for two games after boarding Vladislav Namestnikov on Saturday.
•The Leafs rebounded from that disappointing showing against the Penguins with a win over the Red Wings, thanks to this late Auston Matthews
•Big news in Calgary, as the Flames get Mikael Backlund signed to a six-year extension. The deal is widely being seen as a fantastic bargain for the team.
•The bad news for the Flames: Saturday’s loss to the Panthers leaves them sitting outside the playoffs. Meanwhile, Florida is still six points back of an Eastern spot, but has quietly piled up a ton of games in hand. The Panthers might not be done quite yet.
•Finally, the Wild and Ducks went deep down the rosters during an 11-round shootout on Saturday. Nick Ritchie mercifully ended things before we got down to the Marek Malik zone.