So much can still change before the April 12 trade deadline and we saw an example this week of how quickly a team can go from capped out of the market to fully in as a buyer.
Talk is heating up around the league and the window where Canadian teams will want to act is wide open now. Here is the latest buzz from around the league.
ISLANDERS VIEWING TRADE DEADLINE 'DIFFERENT' WITH ANDERS LEE OUT
Do yourself a favour and don't be surprised by the New York Islanders anymore.
They are very much a Stanley Cup contender after reaching the conference final a year ago. Much has been made about their defence, buy-in to Barry Trotz's structure, solid goaltending and a collection of underrated players that includes Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock and Anthony Beauvillier. They even have some kids to get excited about, from Noah Dobson to Ilya Sorokin and Oliver Wahlstrom.
Usually, a team in New York's spot — clear window to win, sixth-best points percentage in the league -- would already have been established as a buyer this far from the deadline. But like many teams, the salary cap was not their friend and the Isles had no room to work with. That changed this week, and in turn, altered how GM Lou Lamoriello will approach the deadline.
Anders Lee, the team's 30-year-old captain and leading goal scorer, will miss the rest of the regular season and playoffs with a right knee injury that required surgery to repair a torn ACL. It's a huge loss for the league's 18th-ranked offence, but the $7 million cap hit that will now go on LTI opens up room for the Islanders to get in the forward trade market.
"There's no question that now we have cap room with Anders being on LTI," Lamoriello said Wednesday. "Whatever we can do to make ourselves better we will be doing that. It certainly changes our focus. You lose a player like that, the role he plays, our leading goal scorer up until his injury, so if we can get ourselves better we will, but we will not do something just for the sake of doing it. But we're now looking at it different."
The Islanders have played three games without Lee already, and 22-year-old first-round pick Kieffer Bellows has replaced him on the top line, scoring three goals. If he keeps that up, the Islanders won't necessarily have to replace Lee's spot in the lineup but could use the cap room to seek out other needs up front.
"We're always trying to find a scoring winger...that's not something that's easy to do," Lamoriello said. "If we can we will. As you see right now we've got a young player in his spot who's done extremely well so if we can do something in another forward position that's going to make us better we will.
"But if we have an opportunity to get a scorer, we certainly will do that without sacrificing what is coming in the future."
Expect the Isles to be in the rental market for the likes of Taylor Hall or Kyle Palmieri.
The Islanders may also be getting another forward to consider adding into their depth chart soon. Anatoli Golyshev, a 26-year-old winger drafted by the club in 2016, terminated his contract with the KHL's Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg this week. He scored 12 goals in 27 points in 53 games for them this season.
"There is a chance he will be coming over," Lamoriello confirmed.
HOW BIG WILL THE LEAFS GO?
Usually shy about acquiring rental players and instead preferring to get someone with term, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is having to take a different approach to this year's trade deadline.
“Usually you’d put a premium on getting a player that has future years,” Dubas said at his mid-season press conference Tuesday. “It’s a little bit more complex this year knowing that very likely it’s going to be at $81.5 (million) again, the cap.
“So it’s a rare time where probably a rental is the better fit.”
Not only that, but with the Seattle expansion draft on the horizon, paying up for a player with term means you're protecting them and leaving someone else exposed. That sort of trade could still happen — if Toronto got Filip Forsberg, for example, they'd figure out the expansion question to fit him in — but the conditions of this market are more favourable for rental pickups.
Dubas raised eyebrows with a quick answer of "yes" when asked if he'd trade a top prospect. Immediately, Rodion Amirov's name came front of mind, the Leafs' first-round pick from 2020 who is currently in the KHL at 19 years old. Their own 2021 first-round pick is another obvious chip.
But what about other prospects who are a little further along in their development, have seen NHL ice time, and could be part of the Leafs even this season? Are Nick Robertson and Rasmus Sandin on the table, too, even for a rental?
"Yes, yes, and yes," Chris Johnston said on The FAN 590's Good Show. "I think it depends on who the rental is. That obviously impacts the decision. But the Leafs have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. What's obvious to me is they're not worried about next year and I don't think they should be, frankly in this position.
"I think that should get the attention of other teams. I don't see very many NHL teams get this bold in terms of doing this sort of thing. It's always 'we want to add, but don't want to give you our best stuff.' Well, the Leafs are willing to give you some of their best stuff if you're willing to play ball with them."
The Leafs could be in the market for similar players to the Islanders and, if you recall what Lamoriello said above about seeking a forward without sacrificing the future, they don't seem as willing to pay the same price Toronto is.
Johnston noted that while Toronto's top goal is to get another forward, all options are on the table, including Nashville's Mattias Ekholm, or another defenceman who could provide depth come playoff time.
What the Maple Leafs do, and when they do it, entirely depends on if there's a willing partner in the United States. While the Leafs would like to get a deal done sooner than later, preferably while they're on a quiet stretch of the schedule, others won't necessarily feel the same urge to make a deal now. American teams trading with each other face much less in the way of quarantine and, perhaps, no quarantine at all depending on travel requirements and local rules.
The Leafs also have little cap room, approximately $780,000 at the moment, and so a deal of a certain size may also force them to move an NHL player out. Alex Kerfoot's name regularly pops up as that player.
So, if the Leafs are willing to offer a first and/or one of those top prospects, plus a roster player, that could end up being a pretty enticing package in this strange year. There's no guarantee a team will be able to get that sort of return from anyone else in the next few weeks. They may not even be able to get that same offer from Toronto a week from now because of that pesky 14-day quarantine. The closer we get to April 12, the fewer games Toronto would get with any new player, which may drive down their hunger to move prime assets.
"The closer you get to the deadline you're not trading your top prospects I don't think, or the first-round pick goes off the table," Johnston said. "I have trouble imagining the sort of deals we're hinting at here that those would be consummated involving the Leafs April 12. It makes no sense if you're getting a rental player.
SABRES 'OPEN TO ANYTHING' SO BRACE FOR A TAYLOR HALL TRADE
The tank rolls on in Buffalo, where Ralph Krueger became the sixth coaching casualty in the 10-year ownership period of Terry and Kim Pegula. They're out of the playoffs again, tracking to have the best draft lottery odds again, and emerging as sellers...again.
Big names have been speculated about. Jack Eichel was the main one, but his injury and just the timing of pulling that off mid-season is difficult. Rasmus Dahlin has come up as well. We'd bet those biggest changes -- if they happen at all -- would be summer moves, and that the focus now will be on getting assets back for their rental players on expiring contracts.
Eric Staal would be a nice depth forward pickup for a contender, and Brandon Montour will be a target for blue line-needy teams. But their most impactful rental is Taylor Hall who, despite only scoring two goals and 16 points in 28 games, will have his suitors.
Hall has said he's open to re-signing in Buffalo and what complicates this at least a little is that he has a full no-movement clause. Hall, ultimately, can control where or even if he goes this deadline and the Sabres would need to work with him on waiving that clause.
"We're open to anything and everything," GM Kevyn Adams said. "My job is to do anything and everything to move in the right direction. I have a very good relationship with (agent) Darren Ferris and Taylor...things are moving fast here so there will be a lot of conversation around that."
As we explored today, Hall's market could include teams like the Leafs, Islanders, Bruins and more.
As far as who will replace Krueger on a full-time basis, Adams wouldn't commit to a timeline. Don Granato holds the interim tag for now, but it's not certain if he will remain in that position for the rest of the season or if a new coach could be hired before then.
There is certainly no shortage of experienced coaches on the market, from Gerard Gallant to Claude Julien and perhaps even Mike Babcock if that's a road you want to go down. The Sabres did show interest in him before he was hired by the Leafs. Bruce Boudreau could be another potential option.
"There are guys available," Elliotte Friedman said on Sportsnet 650's Starting Lineup. "I know Boudreau would love that job. He's from just over the border in St. Catharines, Ontario, still runs a hockey school there. I'm sure he would have loved to have done it."
It's not clear what the priorities are for the Sabres, or what they want in a new coach. If you go for a big name it will cost a pretty penny and the Sabres already have to pay Krueger over $3 million next season as well. At the same time, they're looking to hire an assistant GM and need to build out their small scouting staff as well.
This is an area where ownership may have to wisely spend to get out of a perpetual problem, but that could be a tough ask in a pandemic season, where small crowds of 2,000 are only being allowed back in KeyBank Center this week.
And they won't be a friendly bunch.
BLACKHAWKS COULD HELP FACILITATE TRADES
Sitting fourth in the Central and in possession of a playoff spot, the Blackhawks are one of the few teams with cap room — thanks to LTIR — and a willingness to take on some deadline salary if a team also tosses over a sweetener.
Speaking at an event on Wednesday, Hawks GM Stan Bowman noted that trade talk is picking up steam, but that his team would be in the market for pieces that help in the long run.
It's possible the Hawks can pick up draft picks or prospects, along with a cap hit or percentage of one, either in a one-on-one deal, or as part of a three-way move to facilitate other teams.