Parity is celebrated by the NHL because not many teams are truly out of it, even this late in the season. And if you’re at the bottom of the standings one year, you can swing around and win your division the next because of parity. That’s all well and good for keeping rooting interests active, but it’s really putting a damper on pre-trade deadline excitement.
“There’s probably a team out there right now that thinks they’re going to be buying that’ll be selling and vice versa,” Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston told Sportsnet 590 the Fan’s Writer’s Bloc. “Usually we see deals by now, but the market really hasn’t established itself or heated up. I think a lot of GMs are waiting to see what their team is or where they’re at as we get closer to February 24.”
Here’s the weird thing: At this same time last year, four teams in the East were less than 10 points out of a playoff spot. But this year there are only two. In the West at this point last season, every team was less than 10 points out but this year both the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are further out of the picture than that.
The reason this year’s trade market has been slow to develop has more to do with next season than this one.
The Montreal Canadiens could explore trading Jeff Petry and Tomas Tatar for a haul, but both are under contract for 2020-21 and would be key pieces in a playoff bid. The Buffalo Sabres could auction off Rasmus Ristolainen or maybe Sam Reinhart for a healthy return, but after trying to move forward with this group, another blatant step back in the building process would enrage a frustrated fan base even more.
The New York Rangers have the best available rental player in Chris Kreider, but they could try to re-sign him instead and move forward with him as an important leader in an emerging young group. The Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks all face an uphill battle, but are one or two years removed from “contender” status with an eye on getting back there in 2021.
For it to be a busy, blockbuster-y deadline, it’ll be important to have players with term on their deals available, but no one is surrendering yet. And, maybe, those kinds of trades are more likely to happen in the off-season anyway.
Things can and will change. Here are the latest rumours from around the league.
THE BLUES’ PLANS REVOLVE AROUND VLADIMIR TARASENKO
The defending champs are eight points clear of the Colorado Avalanche for top spot in the Central Division, and you may have forgotten they’re doing it without Vladimir Tarasenko, one of the more dangerous snipers in the league.
Depth is vital down the stretch and into the playoffs, so St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong would like to add something to his roster ahead of another run. But just what kind of player he can target may depend on Tarasenko’s recovery time.
“Our goal is to get [Tarasenko] back as soon as possible, and we have to make sure we have space available,” Armstrong told NHL.com. “If we get back to our opening day roster, that was within a few hundred thousand dollars of the salary cap, so we have to make sure we maintain that if [Tarasenko] gets to be ready, and we should know certainly well before the trade deadline on his exact timeline.”
When it was first announced Tarasenko would have to undergo shoulder surgery, the team said he would be “re-evaluated” in five months. That would line up with March 28, about a week before the end of the regular season. Since teams can go over the salary cap in the post-season, if the Blues knew Tarasenko couldn’t return before the playoffs, they could potentially target a top-six replacement winger and be able to have both of those skaters in their playoff lineup.
WHAT WOULD IT TAKE FOR THE LEAFS TO BE SELLERS?
Hot. Cold. Hot again? With two road wins in a row out of the all-star break, maybe things are getting right in Toronto. But if they lose to the Ottawa Senators at home on Saturday, all the worry will hang out on local airwaves again.
Fourth in their division, the Toronto Maple Leafs are tied with the Carolina Hurricanes for the second wild card spot right now with one more game played. But they’ve been streaky all year and one more bad run in the next month could completely warp the Leafs’ deadline outlook.
“There’s a lot of situations where it’s not entirely clear and that includes Toronto,” Johnston said. “The Leafs have some players that are unrestricted free agents they’re probably not going to bring back, and if they went on a terrible losing run in the next few weeks it’s possible they might be selling one or more of those players rather than looking to add to bolster a run in the playoffs.”
We’re not talking rebuild here, of course.
But say Toronto gets to Feb. 24 and are four or more points out of the race — do they sell Tyson Barrie to the highest bidder? Cody Ceci would move, if possible. And though Jake Muzzin said last week he’d like to stay in his hometown, if an extension isn’t signed by that time and Toronto is chasing? GM Kyle Dubas may have to explore trade options.
That would be worst-case scenario, but would also open a little salary cap space to tweak next year’s roster with. And if any trade could bring the Leafs back a first-round pick, that could at least be dangled in an off-season trade.
Still, the most likely outcome as we sit here today is that Toronto tries to add. In his latest 31 Thoughts column, Elliotte Friedman noted the Leafs were exploring the prospect of adding Mathew Dumba and investigating the availability of any good defenceman.
TOFFOLI WANTS TO STAY IN LOS ANGELES, BUT CAN THE TEAM PASS UP THE ASSETS?
Tyler Toffoli appears to be one of those rental players who will be moved, no matter what. The 27-year-old has 25-goal upside and a Stanley Cup ring, so a Cup hopeful may be willing to give up a second-rounder and a prospect for him. If the Kings play their cards right and the market goes in their favour, maybe they can scratch out a first-rounder.
But his entire eight-year NHL career has come in a Kings uniform and he doesn’t sound too eager to go anywhere else.
“It definitely bothers me because I feel like I put a lot into the organization,” Toffoli told The Athletic. “At the end of the day, it’s a business. If they decide to move on from me, then that’s the way it is. I definitely want to stay here and be part of what their plan is and I feel like I’d be a really good person to be involved in that.”
The reality is that the Kings are in asset accumulation mode. They already have $47-million of cap space committed to five players who will be in their mid-to-late 30s in 2021-22, so the best they can do now is acquire picks and prospects to one day help with a transition. Toffoli has seen some of his long-time teammates dealt recently and it sure looks like he’s next.
“With Muzz [Jake Muzzin] going and Tanner [Pearson] getting traded, it definitely puts things into a realization that anything can happen.”
The Boston Bruins have been linked to Toffoli the longest and it was believed a deal could be done if the Bruins wished. Perhaps the Kings are asking for too much at this stage of the trade market, or maybe no one is ready to jump early on him as the Leafs did with Muzzin last season.
“People are looking at the Jake Muzzin trade that happened around this time last year and thinking the Kings could be one of the early movers,” Kings reporter John Hoven said. “The deal there was quite simply the Kings had established a price for Jake Muzzin and they weren’t going to move him until that asking price had been met. And Toronto called, they met the price, and they were willing to move.”
The big difference between the two is that the Kings weren’t facing a time limit with Muzzin since he had another season left on his contract. With Toffoli heading towards unrestricted free agency, the Kings have to move him.
“It is going to be a wait and see game,” Hoven said. “And in this particular case the Kings are better off waiting a little bit longer…there just aren’t a lot of players available.”