It's less than two weeks from the NHL trade deadline and, in some cases, the line between buyer and seller is still not clear.
Playoff races have tightened in the three American divisions, giving pause to some teams that may have been a little more pessimistic two weeks ago. The North Division saw an interesting turn when the Calgary Flames couldn't surpass the Montreal Canadiens during the latter's pause, causing a surprising separation.
The fact is, some general managers are still weighing what their teams need or if they should pivot to next season and beyond. Waiting another week could mean another four games to get data on what the playoff outlook is and how a roster is trending. Perhaps this will give us a busier deadline day than originally thought.
We know the rental market is thick and will make up a healthy portion of this year's transactions. The goalie market is rich with options, too. But not many teams have suitable cap space for big swings, especially for players with term. There are ways the market could open to those opportunities though.
With lots of games still to be crammed in before April 12 and playoff races that will evolve between now and then, four teams are shaping up as interesting wild cards. With the potential to go big or do nothing at all, here is why we should keep an eye on them.
Smaller move potential: Sam Bennett, David Rittich, Derek Ryan
Bigger move potential: Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano
Inconsistency has defined this year's Calgary Flames and you could make a strong case that it's followed this core for some time now. They struggled at the start of last season, too, then they were Canada's best team from late-November through to the March pause. That set certain heights on expectations this season, but the Flames are struggling to keep in the playoff hunt.
GM Brad Treliving has tried calling out his team and pleading with them to be harder to compete against. He tried changing coaches to Darryl Sutter, theoretically the type who can squeeze more juice here. It started good enough, but it didn't take long for the Flames to fall back into old habits again. Monday's 5-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets was another example of Calgary's inability to push back and find an extra gear. They led the game 1-0 early on, but trailed 2-1 by the end of the first period and were in a two-goal hole minutes into the second. They disappeared.
"We don't do a very good job of dealing with adversity," a frustrated Matthew Tkachuk said after Monday's loss.
When the Canadiens, who Calgary is chasing for fourth in the North, had to postpone four games last week due to COVID-19 protocols, the Flames were four points behind them. They've played five games since and are...still four points behind Montreal. Calgary's now played five more games than the Habs and are tied with the Vancouver Canucks — who have really been out of it for weeks now.
So what other levers can the GM pull here? It seems a given that Sam Bennett will have his trade request granted if the Flames can find a suitor. And with David Rittich in the last season of his deal, he could be added to a suddenly crowded goalie market as a rest-of-season insurance policy. Both would be rentals, so that's the bare minimum of what Treliving might do as a deadline seller.
Would he go much deeper? The Johnny Gaudreau trade speculation has been in the works for some time and was building to the moment where he was either in the final year of his contract, or one year away from it. That's where we are now. Centre Sean Monahan has struggled to help control play on the ice and has the Flames' second-worst shots for percentage at 5-on-5. There have been calls to split those two up from sharing a line together, and Sutter even put Elias Lindholm back with them for a game to try and spark something.
It's always more likely that these big deals happen in the off-season, but Treliving isn't one to shy away from a substantial move. It's clearly not working with this core and they'll have to find a new way forward before long. At this rate, the Flames will land as sellers come April 12 — and if it gets much worse between now and then perhaps we should be getting into a blockbuster mindset.
Smaller move potential: Scott Laughton, Erik Gustafsson
Bigger move potential: Anyone without a no-movement clause
The Flyers are a puzzle. On paper, they look like they should be much better. And, heck, last season they were, with a 41-21-7 record. Philadelphia has this weird pattern of being a playoff team one season and almost off the rails the next. This year's struggles fall in line with that.
The goaltending has completely imploded, to the point where star youngster Carter Hart was given both Monday and Wednesday completely off as a healthy scratch to work on his game. But it's not as simple as pointing to the guys who stop the puck. The defensive breakdowns and missed assignments have been alarming, leading some to wonder if coach Alain Vigneault was on the hot seat.
But GM Chuck Fletcher indicated this might not fall on the coach Tuesday when he surprisingly waived defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere. He's not at his peak anymore, with 12 points last season and 11 in 25 games this season, but it raised a lot of eyebrows.
Gostisbehere is best when shielded with offensive zone-heavy starts and he's chiefly a power-play contributor. That's what makes his $4.5 million hit a bit pricey in a flat cap. Not many teams can take all of that on, but he's still a good age (27) and puck-movers always have value. Talent-wise he could be intriguing as a 5-6 power-play specialist, but the salary and term complicate things.
Whether he's claimed or not, the Flyers will gain roster flexibility and cap room that could open the door to all kinds of craziness.
This doesn't mean we should look at the Flyers as sellers...at least not yet. They're three points out of the playoffs and, more than that, still have a lot to look forward to. Rather, the Flyers are a team that could be in the market for a new look and to just generally shake it up a bit. All in an effort to push forward.
"We're certainly not looking at selling right now," Fletcher said. "In my calls with managers around the league, first of all, I've received very few calls. It's been really quiet in terms of receiving calls. I've made many. I've been much more aggressive I think than a lot of people just looking at different options.
"Anything we do we want to make sure it makes sense if we can fill a box for the long term. Right now, we can potentially explore that. Certainly, if we can upgrade our team we'll do that."
Smaller move potential: Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula
Bigger move potential: Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson
They were supposed to be the belle of the trade deadline, with everything from rentals (Mikael Granlund), to big fish defencemen (Ryan Ellis or Mattias Ekholm) to a potential blockbuster (Filip Forsberg) on the table.
Now they're back in the playoff picture after winning six in a row and eight of 11. There have been some solid wins in there, too: a 4-1 decision on the road in Tampa Bay vs. the Lightning, a 4-3 shootout win on the road against the Dallas Stars and two in a row this past weekend on the road vs. the Chicago Blackhawks, the team they were chasing for fourth this whole time.
It's wild. The Predators went from existential crisis to, "Well, just hold on a second here." David Poile's future as GM was in question from the outside and it's something he was asked about as they floundered near the bottom of the league. In this stretch of 11 games, though, they've helped improve a goal differential that was also among the worst in the league, running plus-6 in this span.
Juuse Saros has been a key reason for the sudden turnaround. He's been off the charts excellent in March with a .963 save percentage. And, well, ya, that'll do it for you. This makes it less likely someone on the scale of Forsberg is dealt, but Granlund and Erik Haula are UFAs this summer and will probably go anyway.
Will they hang on to their defencemen, too, and make one last go of it before trying again in the summer? That could help other suitors navigate the expansion draft better. It could also give Nashville one last chance at a push. Twelve days out from the deadline and Poile said he's still deciding where to settle.
"I'm clearly going to use these next few games to see how we do," the Preds GM said on ESPN's 102.5 The Game. "I need to use more time to get to a position where there's a little bit more clarity.
"I find out more every day about our team and our individual players and all that goes into the blender in terms of making any decisions from being a buyer to being a seller or to doing nothing. All I know is that I'm way happier with our team and the potential of our team than I was, say, a couple of weeks ago.
"There are some tough decisions that are going to have to be made here...all I can tell you is stay tuned."
ICYMI: #Preds GM David Poile joined @dmac_1025 and @ChaseOnGame to discuss his team's run of success and even mentioned that the trade deadline might not be as active as some may think! Check it out here
Apple: https://t.co/r6pyJMOELB pic.twitter.com/8ymhaMwtST
— ESPN 102.5 The Game (@1025TheGame) March 30, 2021
The Predators beat Dallas on Tuesday night and play them again Thursday. Nashville will host Chicago at home Saturday and then get a two-day break where some final calls may be made ahead of a two-game series in Detroit.
Smaller move potential: Mattias Janmark, Carl Soderberg
Bigger move potential: Acquiring contracts so other teams can make a move
The Hawks have hit a bumpy section of the track lately, which shouldn't be overly surprising. They're still rebuilding, after all, and still have defensive issues similar to last season. Chicago allows the second-most shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 and eighth-most high-danger chances, per Natural Stat Trick. Kevin Lankinen was a key reason why they jumped ahead in the playoff race so early.
But they're still in the playoff picture, so how will they figure into the buying/selling market?
They could be a middle man.
With five players on LTIR, the Hawks have gone from a capped out team to one with lots of space. Mattias Janmark and Carl Soderberg are a couple of rentals they could move for draft picks, but if Chicago is going to get a more interesting pick or prospect, they could try to use their cap room to facilitate a deal between two other partners.
There are many teams that would maybe want to buy, but don't have the space to do it. This is where the Hawks could help create that space by taking on a bloated cap hit for the remainder of this season, if they get something for the future that's appealing.
"On a very short-term basis, we have a lot of flexibility," Hawks GM Stan Bowman told the Chicago Tribune's Phil Thompson. "But then we start getting into future years, if you’re looking at taking on a player from another team, if they’ve got an additional year or two or three years, then at that point the fact we have a lot of cap room this year doesn’t really help us for two or three years from now because we don’t know what our cap will look like at that point. So much changes from year to year.
“If we brought on a veteran player, it would be because the other team was attaching an asset to it that we thought would be part of our future."
So while the Blackhawks themselves probably won't be in on the biggest names directly, their willingness to take on salary for a future asset could help open the market a little more for buying teams that want to make a splash.