Strengths and weaknesses of NHL’s top five trade candidates

Chris Johnston joined Hockey Central to discuss Ilya Kovalchuk’s trade value to the Montreal Canadiens and more.

As we draw nearer to the NHL’s trade deadline on Feb. 24, the list of names that will be available is becoming clearer. So today we’re going to look at five of the top players available, their strengths, their weaknesses, and what they’re worth on the market.

Let’s get right to it.

Chris Kreider

Likely the hottest name on the rental market this season, Kreider has been in the rumour mills for a few years now with the Rangers in rebuild mode, but this season with an expiring contract and an extremely digestible cap hit, it’s unlikely the Rangers decide to keep the hulking speedster. Kreider has taken a slight step back this year in a couple areas, but he’s still a very good player.

Strengths

Any team looking to acquire Kreider is going to be looking for specific attributes on top of just filling a hole in their top-six forward group. Like I mentioned in a recent Truth by Numbers column, Kreider has seen his net front presence at even strength drop a bit, but he’s still in the top 25 per cent of forwards in inner slot shots, and the top five per cent in slot pass receptions, so he’s no stranger to going to dangerous areas.

His impact in tight is even stronger on the powerplay, where he ranks in the top five per cent in inner slot shots, offensive zone rebound recoveries and deflections on net. He also takes a whopping 89.6 per cent of his powerplay shots from the slot. Despite rarely if ever playing with Artemi Panarin, his on-ice differentials remain pretty strong at even strength aside from the inner slot on the defensive side where wingers don’t have a huge impact. So he’s a powerplay force and a positive even strength performer on top of it.

Weaknesses

While Kreider is a monster in front of the net, if a team is looking for other assets on the powerplay, they may want to look elsewhere. Gaining the offensive zone on the powerplay is a huge weakness — he ranks in the bottom 10 per cent of all forwards — and the same goes for playmaking with the man advantage both in slot passes and in passes that create one-timers.

To be fair, it’s tough to make many great passes when your primary role is the net front, but Kreider struggles to complete passes for one-timers at even strength as well. A high-end playmaker he isn’t, but a net front scorer with a unique blend of size and speed has tons of value.

Trade value

That aforementioned unique blend makes Kreider a special commodity that should generate a lot of interest. Despite being a pure rental, I’d be shocked he didn’t garner at least a second-round pick and a good prospect. It might not be likely, but a first-round pick isn’t out of the question.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau

Primarily a defensive player, Pageau is riding a career high in shooting percentage to his first ever 20-goal season, and he’s got almost 30 games left to add to the total. The scoring isn’t sustainable, but Pageau has tons of value beyond that.

Strengths

Pageau does his best work in the defensive zone, where he ranks in the top two per cent of all forwards in blocked passes, the top five per cent of all players in defensive zone plays that strip opponents of the puck. On top of removing possession from opponents, Pageau ranks in the top 25 per cent of all forwards at recovering loose pucks in the defensive zone. Without the puck, he’s one of the most reliable defensive players in the league.

Weaknesses

What limits Pageau’s value a bit is that once he’s stripped opponents of the puck, he struggles to exit the defensive zone with control, so he needs someone else on his line to turn his strong play without the puck into transitioning play forward.

And despite the excellent shooting percentage this season, Pageau ranks in the bottom 20 per cent of all forwards in scoring chances at 5-vs-5, and bottom 15 per cent in completed slot passes. On top of that he doesn’t create much offence through possessions, he’s bottom five per cent in the league there, or through forechecking, where he’s also bottom five per cent. Pageau has finishing ability, but he doesn’t create much offence, and the teams after him shouldn’t expect him to.

Trade value

Some team out there is probably going to get sucked in by the career high numbers, but as good as Pageau is defensively, I don’t think he’s worth more than a second-round draft pick with his other limitations.

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Tyler Toffoli

Back when Toffoli followed up his first 20-goal season with a career-high 31, his stock was sky high at 23-years-old. A possession driving power forward who could put pucks in the net on the regular is a big deal, but the decline of the Kings has hit Toffoli hard, and his perceived value is a little low these days despite his play recovering in a big way this season.

Strengths

On a team that sticks mostly to the perimeter, Toffoli stakes out a sniper’s position in the high slot, ripping scoring chances on net more often than all but five per cent of forwards. He’s not afraid of the net front either, putting shots on net from the inner slot more often than all but 15 per cent of forwards.

On top of the scoring ability, Toffoli is an underrated defensive player, He ranks in the top 25 per cent of all forwards in recovering rebounds in the defensive zone to prevent dangerous chances while his goaltenders are recovering, and he’s a disruptive defender by getting in the way of passes in the defensive and neutral zone. Toffoli also ranks in the top 15 per cent of all forwards at blocking those passes. Once he gets the puck, Toffoli is a smart puck manager as well, with one of the lowest defensive zone turnover rates in the NHL.

Weaknesses

Toffoli brings a lot as a shooter, but if a team is looking to add some playmaking, he’s not the player to add. Toffoli is bottom 30 per cent in slot passes and one-timer passes, and on the powerplay that drops down to bottom 15 per cent. He’s also strangely poor at blocking shots, but as a winger I’m not sure that’s a huge deal on the defensive side.

Trade value

His reputation isn’t anywhere as strong, but in terms of overall value there isn’t much to suggest that Toffoli is worth any less than Kreider. There’s probably no way he fetches the same return, which sucks for the Kings, but means whoever acquires him should probably be pretty happy.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Sami Vatanen

Vatanen has been a strange player to evaluate over the years, with his numbers jumping around pretty wildly after he was traded two years ago and then struggled with injuries last season. This year though, he’s provided great value that’s been hidden by the car wreck of a season the Devils are having.

Strengths

While Vatanen’s on-ice differentials at 5-vs-5 are decent on a team it’s hard to stand out on, most of his big strengths are on special teams. On the powerplay he takes lots of shots, more than all but 15 per cent of all defencemen. But more important than that is his ability to make passes. Vatanen connects on passes to the slot on the powerplay like a top five per cent defenceman, which is huge for any powerplay that needs a quarterback.

While shorthanded, Vatanen is top five per cent in loose puck recoveries and top 10 per cent in defensive plays that remove pucks from opponents, which fits with his aggressive style of play.

Weaknesses

Despite his aggressiveness on the penalty kill, Vatanen doesn’t carry that over to even strength, where he’s a bottom 25 per cent defenceman at recovering loose pucks in the defensive zone, and slightly below that in winning contested puck battles. He’s also in the bottom 20 per cent of controlled exits out of the defensive zone at even strength, so it’s clear that he needs some help from a defence partner in his own zone at 5-vs-5 hockey.

Trade value

When the Devils acquired Vatanen two seasons ago it required a top-six forward in Adam Henrique, along with a young depth player in Joseph Blandisi and a third round pick. Even though Henrique has fallen off since, at the time he was a No. 2 centre, so that was quite a haul the Ducks pulled off. I doubt Vatanen has that much value these days, but due to the scarcity of right handed defencemen who can run a powerplay, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a similar package that was more futures focused. A highly regarded prospect on top of a package of picks wouldn’t surprise me.

Ilya Kovalchuk

Who would have thought that Ilya Kovalchuk joining a team built around speed and quick strike transitions would lead to his best hockey in years? I’m only including his differentials since he signed with the Canadiens here, because it’s clear that he’s been a different player since he joined the team, and these games are what teams will be thinking of at the trade deadline.

Strengths

Kovalchuk isn’t the offensive weapon he was in his prime, but the man can still fire the puck and he can set up some great shots too. At even strength he’s top 10 per cent among all forwards at putting one-timers on net, and top 15 per cent in completing passes off the rush. He’s also surprisingly excellent winning battles in the neutral zone and top 10 per cent among all forwards at recovering loose pucks there.

On the powerplay, Kovalchuk is all about one-timers again and he puts them on net like a top-15 per cent player but creates even more with his teammates by hitting passes for one-timers at a top 10 per cent rate.

Weaknesses

A symptom of being 36-years-old and going on 37, Kovalchuk doesn’t have the speed in short bursts he used to in order to complete dekes in the offensive zone, and as a result he’s bottom five per cent in both completed dekes and deke success rate, so once he has the puck, that’s likely where he’s going to make his play from.

Without the puck Kovalchuk isn’t the highest impact player either. He’s in the bottom 10 per cent in defensive plays that remove possession from the opponent, and the same goes for blocking passes.

As much as he’s a deadshot on one-timers on the powerplay, he can be too willing to shoot from the perimeter. But with the success he’s had in his career, maybe he’s earned the trust to shoot from where he wants to.

Trade value

There’s a lot of wishing in Montreal that teams might be willing to give up a first-round pick after how well Kovalchuk has played for the Canadiens, but the uncertainty of him being as great of a fit elsewhere after his extremely underwhelming stint in Los Angeles makes me doubt it. The age and the uncertainty screams second-round pick to me.

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