The playoff race that probably has the most eyeballs on it these days is the battle for third in the Atlantic Division.
The Maple Leafs, of course, have their own gargantuan following, but as they teeter on the edge of missing out, there will also be a large swath of hockey fans who will just be rooting against Toronto. Put ’em all together and a lot of people are paying attention to what’s shaking out there.
Just five days before the deadline, both the Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers are struggling. Toronto is coming off back-to-back embarrassing losses and have Pittsburgh up again on Thursday. Florida hasn’t been making up any ground, though, with a 3-6-1 record in their past 10 games. Both teams came into the season with heavy expectations to reach the playoffs. Toronto was expected to advance at least a round or two.
At this rate, one of them is going to whiff on the post-season. Both should be motivated to buy, to some degree anyway, at the deadline. But at the same time, some of their own roster players are beginning to show up in the rumour mill.
Will either the Panthers or Leafs find an upgrade in time to give them a leg up in their playoff race? Here’s the latest in the rumour mill.
DOES TORONTO HAVE THE ASSETS NEEDED TO ACQUIRE AN IMPACT DEFENCEMAN?
There’s a whole lot going wrong in Toronto right now. Back-to-back 5-2 losses to Buffalo and Pittsburgh laid bare a disturbing lack of desperation and attention to detail — and also made it clear that the defensive core as currently constituted needs at least one major upgrade. At the very least Toronto is going to need another right-shot veteran for depth on the third pair because injuries have left their blue line extremely thin.
Over the past few days the defence market has started to fire up. Andy Greene, Dylan DeMelo, Marco Scandella and Brenden Dillon have all been dealt and, on paper, would have been good gets for the Leafs. But those deals also showed how expensive the market for blueliners could be — DeMelo went for a third, and all the others went for a second-rounder plus. And the Leafs may even be thinking of taking a bigger cut and try to bring in a top-four defenceman with term. That’s when it would get expensive, complicated and, maybe even unattainable at this time.
The question shouldn’t be ‘why isn’t Toronto doing anything’ but instead ‘do they have the pieces to get a deal done in this market?’
“What the Leafs have done is looked at every possible potential solution to their problem here and identify players who shoot right, that have term left on their deals, are of the right age that they can be part of what the group is now and at least make the calls to see if they’re available,” Chris Johnston told Sportsnet 590 the FAN’s Good Show.
“That’s why I’m a little skeptical this is going to happen because I don’t see an obvious fit. I do think (Matt) Dumba could be had out of Minnesota, that’s why you’re hearing his name, but the price that Minnesota wants is much more than Kasperi Kapanen and I don’t think if you’re the Leafs… they might not even have the assets to get it done, they might not have the will to pay what the Wild would like to get.”
In the past, GM Kyle Dubas has been loath to dip into the rental market. Jack Campbell came with an extra two years on his contract and last year’s mid-season pickup of Jake Muzzin brought in a defenceman signed through another season.
But he doesn’t have a first-round pick to trade this season and injuries to Andreas Johnsson, Ilya Mikheyev, Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci are already putting a strain on the depth chart. It’d seemingly be impossible for Dubas to acquire a Dumba-type without subtracting more from the roster, but something does need to be done with the blue line.
The silver lining to the injuries is that they have opened up some more cap space. And if the price for termed players is too high, Dubas may have no choice but to get into the rental market.
“Where they’re at injury-wise I do think will dictate how aggressive they get,” Johnston continued. “In fact with a few players now injured potentially for the season I think it probably creates a window here for them to go out into the rental market, which is not something I think in theory they want to do, but just with the way everything’s unfolded they find themselves with a fair bit of cap space between now and the end of the season and there might be some ways they can get better by using that.”
Exactly what Dubas does at this deadline will still likely be influenced by the next couple of games and what kind of effort and execution he sees from his players. The Leafs play Pittsburgh again on Thursday and Carolina on Saturday, then come out of Monday’s deadline with road games in Tampa Bay and Florida.
THE PANTHERS HAVE DEFENSIVE NEEDS OF THEIR OWN — AND MORE TRADABLE ASSETS
Interestingly, the team Toronto is embroiled in a playoff race with also needs the same kind of player. The Panthers have stated a similar need for a top-four defenceman, but they do have their own first-rounder still, plus a few roster players who have been popping up in rumours.
Michael Matheson, a 25-year-old defenceman signed for the long-term, could be made available. even second-line centre Vincent Trocheck has had his name added to the mill in recent days. A young defenceman with term and a centre signed for another two seasons — those kinds of assets are always in demand around the league.
Of course, Florida is also struggling, so it may be reasonable to wonder if they could end up selling by Monday. Those same questions are even being asked about the Leafs. The answer in both cases, however, is a hard no.
“With Trocheck I think maybe there’s a deeper issue there,” Johnston said. “He signed a big contract, unfortunately a significant leg injury last season, I just think he hasn’t performed well so this is the time of year when trades get made — now and the draft basically — so they put his name out there to see if they might get a bite. But I don’t think that is a move or a potential move that tells us about their plans.
“This is the first time I can remember where they’ve been among the highest-spending teams in the league. I think ownership wants to see if having a winning team will result in selling tickets and creating excitement the way it has in other places such as Nashville or even Carolina nowadays. I don’t see a scenario where they become a seller.”
BOSTON APPEARS TO BE ITCHING FOR A BIG MOVE
The Bruins continue to play strong hockey, with a 9-1-0 record in their past 10 games, but they’ve actually lost two points to the hard-charging Tampa Bay Lightning in that span. While Toronto and Florida fight it out for a spot, Boston and Tampa are setting up for a no-holds-barred cage match for first place in the division and home-ice advantage through at least the first two rounds — and quite possibly the first three.
The Lightning have already been active on the trade market, acquiring the cheap $1.8 million contract of Blake Coleman for Nolan Foote and Vancouver’s first-rounder. The Bruins have been linked to a number of players, including two who have already been moved in Coleman and Tyler Toffoli.
It’s likely only a matter of time before they make their own splash to counter what the Lightning have done.
“Boston was a team that had some interest (in Toffoli),” Johnston told Pinder and Steinberg on SN960. “I think Boston probably was the most interested other team and that’s interesting in itself because we know they were a finalist for Blake Coleman, they were in the mix on Toffoli and didn’t end up with him. It feels like the Bruins are a team that are waiting to go out there and take a big swing and be aggressive.”
The biggest swing they could take as far as a scoring winger goes is on Chris Kreider. A pending UFA, Kreider’s price of acquisition starts at a first-round pick and goes up from there. And the Bruins still have their own first-round pick.
Last year, GM Don Sweeney acquired Charlie Coyle and rental Marcus Johansson for their run, but gave up a second-, fourth- and fifth-round picks plus Ryan Donato for the both of them, so a Kreider trade would raise the stakes even more. It is worth noting that the Bruins and Rangers do have a trade history — in September of 2018, Boston sent Adam McQuaid to the Rangers and at the 2018 deadline, Boston acquired rental winger Rick Nash from the Rangers.
DON’T BE SURPRISED IF THE GOALIE MARKET PICKS UP THE PACE
The goalie market is always a tough one. Generally, they don’t get traded for a whole heck of a lot and there’s not a market overflowing with teams needy at the position. The Maple Leafs had perhaps the clearest need for one, but they were after a backup rather than a starter — plus they already got theirs in Jack Campbell.
But things could get interesting. Just as we’ve seen on the defenceman market, injuries could start to create a need. Colorado’s Philipp Grubauer was injured last weekend and has no clear timetable for a return. Rather than run with Pavel Francouz as the starter for a legitimate Cup hopeful, GM Joe Sakic may have to swing into action on that front.
And they aren’t the only team with a potential desire to add a netminder.
“I’m curious about Robin Lehner,” Johnston said. “It sounds as though there’s been a little bit of life to the goalie market right now. Carolina’s certainly interested in trying to get a goalie. I think Colorado’s in that market after seeing Philipp Grubauer injured over the weekend in their outdoor game. I’ve heard some whispers that even Edmonton is at least looking at goaltending as an option. To me, it doesn’t seem as though anything’s going to get done between Lehner and the Blackhawks on an extension; he’s probably the most intriguing goaltending name that might move unless Henrik Lundqvist wants to waive his no-move clause.”
Lehner has been an incredible story. After finishing as a Vezina Trophy finalist last season with the NY Islanders, Lehner left in free agency and only got a one-year contract from Chicago. Though he has posted mostly strong seasons in his career, his accomplishments with the Islanders set career-best totals that were so good (.930 save percentage, 2.13 GAA) behind a strong defensive team, that the belief was he benefitted from Barry Trotz’s system.
But playing behind the defensively porous Blackhawks, Lehner is still showing strong with a .921 save percentage and should be due a healthy raise and a contract with term this summer.
In the meantime, he could be a huge addition if a team is willing to pay up.
“I think he’s still a decently valuable trade chip,” Johnston said. “I know goalies historically don’t bring as much back in trades, but I think the Blackhawks feel they can get a first-round pick for him so there’s certainly teams kicking tires there. It’d be funny if he ended up in Carolina — they were one of the teams that had serious discussions with him last July 1. Maybe they’re a team that makes that move and is happy to attach an extension to it.”
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS NOT DONE YET, BUT DON’T EXPECT THEM TO TRADE A GOALIE
Speaking of the goalie market, Pittsburgh has three of them in the stable right now. Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray are splitting duty with the NHL team, while 28-year-old Casey DeSmith (who had a .916 save rate in 36 NHL games last season) is facing one of the heaviest AHL workloads and has a .908 save percentage.
DeSmith is signed for another two seasons, while Murray and Jarry will both be RFAs this summer. All are attractive options, so, if Penguins GM Jim Rutherford wanted, he could explore moving one of them. But in a recent interview with NHL.com, he shot down that idea.
“I don’t have interest in trading our goalies,” he said. “The best thing I’ve heard in hockey is if you don’t have a goalie, that’s when you realize the importance of a goalie. Our goalies have worked hard to get where they are. I’m glad you pointed out the importance of DeSmith. He’s a little bit of a forgotten guy. He’s keeping our team afloat — at least keeping us on the bubble of a playoff spot in the [American Hockey League]. He’ll be back in the NHL next year. He gives us that depth. And then we have two very, very good young No. 1 goalies in Jarry and Murray.”
As he usually does, Rutherford got into the trade market early this season, acquiring Jason Zucker from Minnesota last week. Picks and prospects are of almost no consequence to a team that will be aggressively chasing Stanley Cups as long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are on the team, and the GM didn’t rule out getting more business done before Feb. 24.
“If we could add another forward to give us a little more balance in our top 12, we’d do it if it’s someone who we think is the right fit,” he said.
According to Cap Friendly, the Penguins currently have approximately $3.4 million in cap space to work with on deadline day.
COLORADO COULD MAKE A NUMBER OF MOVES, BIG AND SMALL
The team with the most cap space to work with is also one you’d lump in with the high-end Stanley Cup contenders. We already discussed how Grubauer’s injury could push the Avalanche into the goalie trade market, but there are more holes to fill there right now.
Mikko Rantanen also sustained an injury that could keep him out “weeks” and Nazem Kadri is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury. That’s one-third of their top-six out, plus forwards Matt Calvert and Colin Wilson remain sidelined.
All this means Colorado could seek to add depth, and even possibly a high-end move with all their assets and cap space.
“I think Colorado’s trying to do two things at once,” Elliotte Friedman told SN650’s The Program. “I think what they’re trying to do is to say ‘we want to plug some holes.’ I could see them being interested in a guy like (Ottawa’s Vladislav) Namestnikov for example, that might cost them a mid-round pick to get them to dress guys and to fill some holes. But I think they’re also looking at a hockey deal which would bring them something bigger, whether that’s a Kreider or something like that.”