(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: The final countdown
They made us wait for it. But with the clock ticking down to today’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline, NHL GMs finally got serious over the weekend, making a handful of meaningful deals. There’s plenty left on the market for today, but let’s get caught up on what the last few days has meant.
The Senators and Penguins kicked things off on Friday, with a little help from the Golden Knights. The Derick Brassard deal was complicated in its execution, but relatively simple in principle. The contending Penguins get even better down the middle, with Brassard instantly becoming just about the best third-line centre in the league.
The rebuilding Senators get some nice future assets, while also saving money. It makes sense for both teams, especially the Penguins. (As for the Golden Knights, we’re still trying to figure out what they get out of the deal beyond spending millions of dollars on a mid-round pick and an enforcer. Maybe it was about keeping Brassard out of the West, but it’s rare that you see one Cup contender volunteer to facilitate another’s improvement, let along write a check to do it.)
After a minor deal saw the Oilers send Brandon Davidson to the Islanders for a third, word of the next big trade dropped on Saturday night, although we had to wait until Sunday morning for it to become official. Boston gives up a ransom to get Rick Nash out of New York in a deal that signals that Don Sweeney and the Bruins are going for it all this year. But the price was high here; there’s a case to be made that going from Ryan Spooner to Nash isn’t all that much of an upgrade, let alone one worth spending a first-round pick on. (As far as first impressions go, Spooner had two points last night.)
From there, the Canadian teams took back the spotlight, with the Leafs and Canadiens hooking up on a rare deal. That one sent Tomas Plekanec to the Leafs for a second-round pick and two quasi-prospects. That’s not a bad haul for Montreal, especially since they can always re-sign Plekanec in the off-season. Meanwhile, the Leafs get some depth, and still have cap room to make another deal or two today. That move was followed by another Oilers deal, this one sending Mark Letestu to Columbus via Nashville. Edmonton gets Pontus Aberg, fulfilling Peter Chiarelli’s preference to get players who can help now over draft picks.
All in all, not a bad weekend. But there are still plenty of names left on the market, including the big one. Erik Karlsson is still a Senator as of this morning, but his odds of making it to the end of the day that way seem to be getting slimmer.
The Lightning still look like the favourites here, although the Predators, Sharks, and any number of late-emerging contender are lurking. There’s also Max Pacioretty, Evander Kane, Mike Green and Thomas Vanek, as well as slightly longer shots like Mike Hoffman and Ryan McDonagh. We spent the last few years telling NHL GMs “save it for deadline day”. These year they did, so get ready for what could be a long day.
We’ll be back this afternoon with a full rundown of all the winners and losers from the 2018 deadline. But as we settle in and wait for today’s action to kick off, let’s double-down on this week’s power rankings. We’ll use the regular versions to get caught up on the actual games played this weekend, then mix in some bonus lists to get set for today’s intrigue.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favorite status.
5. Boston Bruins (37-15-8, +44 true goals differential*) – Two weekend losses, including Saturday’s controversial finish in Toronto, weren’t even close to the most interesting thing to happen to the Bruins, who also traded for Nash, signed Brian Gionta and got the scare of watching Patrice Bergeron leave the ACC in a walking boot. (He was back in the lineup last night.)
4. Vegas Golden Knights (41-16-4, +49) – The Vegas Flu outbreak continues with no cure in sight, as the Knights wrapped up their latest homestand with five wins in seven.
3. Nashville Predators (38-14-9, +41) – Their last two games saw them beat the Sharks and Blues by a combined score of 11-1. And now we wait to see if the reinforcements to arrive.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (36-23-4, +19) – Does the Brassard deal mean Jim Rutherford is done? The salary cap would seem to say so, but with teams around the league willing to sell off space, that may not be the barrier it normally is.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (42-17-3, +55) – Sure, they’re good, but do they really need to goon it up with all these one-dimensional enforcers?
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
Our Top 5 looks a lot like it did last week, and a lot like it has for the last few months. That could be about to change, as a busy deadline day could shift our Stanley Cup projections significantly.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the five most entertaining buyers to keep an eye on as things play out today. These aren’t necessarily the teams that are most likely to make a deal or two, although that plays into it. But they’re the teams that will have us reaching for the popcorn each time we hear them mentioned during today’s coverage. And if things break just right, at least a few will be the teams we’re all talking about in a few hours.
5. San Jose Sharks – They’re suddenly showing up in the Karlsson rumour mill, and they’ve got cap space to work with. We seem to go down this road with the Sharks a lot – remember when they were a surprise entry in the Steven Stamkos sweepstakes? – but they rarely end up landing the big prize. Still, there is enough smoke here to make you wonder what Doug Wilson has up his sleeve.
4. Vegas Golden Knights – We’re still not sure how much George McPhee wants to do, or even if they’re buyers at all. But no contender has as much cap space, which makes them worth watching.
3. Winnipeg Jets – Have you ever had a friend who was quiet and conservative and you have to practically twist their arm to get them to come out and have a little fun, then one night they decide to loosen up a bit and next thing you know they’re dancing on top of the bar and have three new tattoos? I’m really hoping that’s Kevin Cheveldayoff at this year’s deadline.
We know the history by now. Cheveldayoff has only made two really significant trades in his almost seven years in Winnipeg. At times, he’s come in for heavy criticism for that approach, and it has yet to translate into so much as a single playoff game win. And yet, you never really get the sense that Cheveldayoff is afraid to deal so much as he’s just really patient, biding his time until the moment was right.
That moment may be here. This year’s Jets are very good; so good that they’ll be among the conference favourites even if they stand pat. But in a weird West where the Blackhawks are toast and the top seed is an expansion team nobody seems quite sold on, there’s an opportunity here to be more than just one of several contenders. This thing is there for the taking.
Cheveldayoff was reportedly in on Brassard and couldn’t get it done. Today, we find out how many Plan Bs he may have, and how aggressive he’s willing to be to make them happen. We’ll keep the tattoo parlour open late just in case.
2. Nashville Predators – The Predators are emerging as a dark horse contender for Karlsson. But even if David Poile can’t pull that deal off, you have to think he’s working on something big. His Predators have plenty of picks and prospects they could move, and plenty of cap room to work with. If any of this year’s contenders are going to be in the mix to make multiple major additions, Nashville looks like the favourite.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning – The NHL doesn’t do dream teams – that’s for the NBA. The NHL does parity, and competitive balance, and two dozen teams or so that are all about the same. But Steve Yzerman has a chance to pull off something special if, as widely speculated, he’s the favourite in the Erik Karlsson sweepstakes. Adding Karlsson to a team that already has Victor Hedman, two Hart candidates and the Vezina favourite would be as close to a dream team as we’ll ever see in the cap world.
Can Yzerman find a way to make it happen? Maybe not. Maybe he doesn’t want to, given the price tag Pierre Dorion had better be demanding. But opportunities like this don’t come around very often. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a deadline blockbuster lead directly to multiple championships, but Karlsson-to-Tampa might fall into that category. If you’re a Lightning fan, you’re giddy at the possibility. If you’re a fan of any other contender, you’re praying the day comes and goes without seeing a Lightning logo pop up on your screen.
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. New York Rangers (27-30-6, -23) – With seven straight losses, the Rangers appear to have taken Jeff Gorton’s pro-tank message straight to heart.
4. Vancouver Canucks (24-31-7, -31) – Tough win last night in Arizona. Legitimate lottery contenders just have to find a way to lose that game.
3. Ottawa Senators (21-30-10, -46) – In a mild surprise, Johnny Oduya and Alex Burrows are on waivers. That Burrows buy (and extension) at least year’s deadline has not aged well.
2. Arizona Coyotes (18-34-10, -53) – Has the league’s last-place team ever gone into deadline day with this little buzz?
1. Buffalo Sabres (19-33-11, -54) – When you get confused on the options menu and accidentally turn line changes off:
We looked at the most entertaining buyers to watch. Now it’s the sellers’ turn. Again, this isn’t necessarily the teams that will make the most deals, but rather the ones with the chance to have the biggest impact, and maybe even have you yelling at your screen at some point between now and 3 p.m. ET.
5. Buffalo Sabres – The league’s worst teams aren’t the centre of attention today, the Coyotes don’t make our list at all, and the Sabres barely do. In Buffalo, the focus is on Evander Kane. In theory, he should command at least as big a return as Nash, but that doesn’t sound like it will be the case. Either way, Jason Botterill needs to swing a deal or two that will give Sabres fans something resembling hope. Not even hope for the future; just hope that this team still knows what it’s doing.
4. Chicago Blackhawks – We’ve never actually seen Stan Bowman sell, at least not during the season, but that’s where he’s headed now. Are we sure he knows how? Is there any chance he accidentally gives up a first for Patrick Maroon just out of force of habit?
3. Montreal Canadiens – Hey, remember the Max Pacioretty trade? The team had apparently made up their mind to do it back in November, and he responded by heating up enough to drive up their asking price. But here we are, and the deal still hasn’t happened, even though Pacioretty reportedly wants it to. So we can assume it happens today… right?
You’d have to think so. But the Canadiens are one of the sellers that may be just as interesting for what they don’t do as what they do. If they trade their captain, that’s huge, and signals that the rebuild is truly underway. If they don’t, that’s also huge, and might be a sign that they don’t trust Marc Bergevin to make that sort of move. We figured that no GM is under more pressure today than Bergevin, but that’s assuming his hands aren’t already tied. Even a quiet day in Montreal will bring some drama.
2. New York Rangers – The big question with the Rangers is how many deals they have left to make. They’ve moved Nash, and they’ve moved Michael Grabner, their two most obvious targets. But is McDonagh next, despite his injury? It’s sure starting to sound that way. What about Mats Zuccarello? And is there any chance, even a sliver, that holding Henrik Lundqvist out of games lately has been about more than simply resting an untouchable veteran? (Apparently not.)
Gorton has made it clear that he has a plan and he’s willing to be aggressive to put it in place. Now we find out how far he’ll go.
1. Ottawa Senators – Like it was going to be anybody else. Karlsson alone moves the Senators to the top of this list by a good margin. But there’s so many other moving parts in Ottawa right now, ranging from sure-thing sells like Ian Cole and Johnny Oduya to bigger moves like Mike Hoffman.
But just listing off player names doesn’t seem to capture what’s going on in Ottawa right now, where the Senators have gone from being the league’s biggest sideshow to just being the entire circus. Will Eugene Melnyk have anything unfortunate to say today? Will the players left behind lash out at management? Will the fans protest a Karlsson deal in front of Parliament Hill? And how quickly will the knives come out for the players on their way out, with anonymous sources swearing there were bad guys in the room?
The Senators are already a trainwreck. In theory it can’t get any worse. But we’ve been saying that for the last few weeks, and they keep finding a way. Maybe Dorion can turn that narrative around, starting today. Maybe not.
Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league
• The Devils raised Patrik Elias’s number to the rafters on Saturday as part of an emotional ceremony that featured plenty of Cup-winning teammates. The Rangers bestowed the same honour on Jean Ratelle last night.
• Patrik Laine had a pair of goals as the Jets beat the Stars 5-3 to keep pace with the Predators at the top of the Central. Meanwhile, the Wild have slipped past the Stars into third spot.
• In other Central news, the Blues are full-on imploding. After looking like one of the league’s best teams early on, they’ve now lost five straight, been shut out in their last two, and fallen out of a playoff spot. Now there’s talk Doug Armstrong could be selling.
• Save of the weekend goes to Andrei Vasilevskiy’s effort to seal Tampa’s shootout win over the Canadiens.
• Jeff Carter is back, returning to the Kings’ lineup on Saturday after missing four months with a lacerated ankle tendon. He played 17 minutes and was held pointless in a 4-3 loss to the Oilers.
• That game came down to a last-second interference call that went the Oilers way, breaking Edmonton’s streak of 400 consecutive replay review losses that you’d never seen actually verified anywhere but just accepted because it got repeated so often. But any good feelings from that win disappeared in 21 seconds last night in Anaheim.
• Terrible news out of Carolina, where Jordan Staal and his family are dealing with the tragic loss of their infant daughter.
• Evgenii Dadonov’s first career hat trick helped the Panthers pull off a Saturday upset over the Penguins. With plenty of Eastern teams bailing on the playoff race, Florida is still hanging around.
• With the Olympics men’s tournament wrapping up with OAR’s gold medal win over the Germans, Gary Bettman is already hedging his bets on the NHL returning in 2022. Meanwhile, Team Canada’s Chris Kelly has landed with the Ducks.
• Finally, here’s your look at what to expect from today’s coverage. And don’t forget to check back later this afternoon with a look at the deadline’s winners and losers.