It seems the trade market is still sorting itself out.
We thought the Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars would be sellers and move some interesting pieces, but as of Monday the Stars are in a playoff spot and the Canucks are surging, just a few points back. The Toronto Maple Leafs, it seemed, could key in on its defence corps, but more and more the talk has turned to forwards and if someone like JT Miller should be of interest. And now, after a 10-7 Saturday win and a couple months of below-average netminding, we have to wonder if they'll consider doing something in net, or if the Leafs are just going to have to run with their pair.
Every Monday between now and the deadline we'll look at the state of the market, teams to watch, and what's on tap for the week ahead.
Here’s what the Eastern Conference standings look like today:
Buyer in focus: Toronto Maple Leafs
What to do, what to do? Three weeks from the trade deadline, a fan would probably not prefer the discussion around their Cup contending team to be about which area is most in need of an upgrade: forward, defence or goaltending? That's a lot of ground to cover.
Topping Toronto's list of "needs" much of the season has been for another defenceman and, preferably, a top-four option. This only became more obvious as the months went along and the Jake Muzzin-Justin Holl pairing was just not as effective as in the past. Holl even became a possible trade option, if moving his $2 million cap hit could carve out the room necessary for an upgrade.
Three weeks out from the deadline, though, and some more cracks are beginning to show. Now the Maple Leafs have loosely been connected to J.T. Miller in the trade market, a centre/winger who combines scoring ability with the kind of grit and toughness that is required in the playoffs. With another year left on his contract, he'd also cost a pretty penny to acquire. Do the Leafs need to prioritize a top-six winger over anything else, or is this a luxury? Since Jan. 1, the second-line duo of William Nylander and John Tavares has been outscored 30-25 at 5-on-5.
The more intriguing situation is the one developing in net. Jack Campbell was an early Vezina candidate, but it's been three months since that was true. Since Dec. 1, Campbell has an .893 save percentage, 3.35 GAA and, in 20 starts, has allowed at least four goals against in nine of them. Saturday's wild 10-7 win in Detroit was the latest red flag, with Campbell being pulled even as the Leafs still held a two-goal lead. If Campbell isn't your guy, then Petr Mrazek must be, though he too has struggled with consistency and even just staying healthy. We'll have a look at the goalie market later this week, but there will be plenty of options to all teams, from top dog Marc-Andre Fleury, to more tandem-type goalies such as...James Reimer.
It is going to be vital for the Leafs to finish first in the Atlantic Division and avoid a first-round matchup with either Tampa Bay or Florida, two teams that present matchup nightmares and figure to add by the deadline as well (the Panthers could go big). Another early exit for Toronto and all bets may be off on what's to come for this roster, or even front office.
So, on the one hand, maybe you'd like to strike soon and get all the pieces together ASAP.
But hanging over all of this is that it's unclear just how much cap space the Leafs have to work with. Muzzin is on LTIR for now, but could still return in the regular season. If he does, the Leafs have to keep room for him. If Muzzin doesn't return before May, the Leafs will have more flexibility to add -- though, of course, that would mean moving on without a key part of the blue line through the regular season home stretch at least.
"The Maple Leafs are not in any position to rush him back, they're not going to do that," Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman said during the 32 Thoughts segment on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday. "But what they did tell teams this week was if Jake Muzzin is healthy enough to return before the end of the regular season, they're not going to hold him out until the playoffs.
"That's still to be determined, but they're not approaching this as if they're a team that has $7 million in long-term cap room to spend."
There are still three weeks to see, and hope, if Muzzin can return or if the goalie situation settles down and sorts itself out. Toronto gets Washington, Buffalo and Vancouver this week, Columbus, Seattle and Arizona the week after.
Seller in focus: Montreal Canadiens
Don't look now, but the Habs have won five in a row and aren't in the league's basement anymore. Time to break up the band?
Montreal goes on a Western Canadian road trip this week, through Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton, then wrapping in Vancouver next week. By the time it ends, we'll be 11 days out from the deadline, so it's reasonable to wonder if GM Kent Hughes might start moving a part or two over this time. Montreal will have three days off between the Edmonton and Vancouver starts and then will mostly will be at home until the 21st.
We know who the main candidates to move are: Ben Chiarot is back and they're hoping for a first-round pick in return for the rental. Pending UFA Cedric Paquette will be a target for someone's bottom six. Eric Engels added some Artturi Lehkonen talk to the list.
If you're looking for a team with the potential to surprise us with something more substantial, though, along the lines of last year's Anthony Mantha-Jakub Vrana swap, the Canadiens are it. Jeff Petry and Brendan Gallagher can't be off the table if the right offer comes along before the off-season.
What To Watch For This Week
• Eyes remain on Claude Giroux, who will play career games No. 993, 994 and 995 this week. The hope must be to make it to 1,000 with the Flyers before trading him as a rental, but if the right offer comes along ...
• Boston trade candidate Jake DeBrusk has been on a roll lately riding shotgun with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. The Bruins hit the road to Anaheim, Los Angeles and Columbus this week. Will the Bruins be able to leverage this performance in a trade now and move DeBrusk perhaps by the time they return home the following week, or is he actually becoming harder to part with now?
• The Islanders still have a number of games in hand of every team in front of them, but 17 points out of the playoffs seems far too much to overcome. Coming off a bad week against beatable opponents, the Islanders get Colorado, Vancouver and St. Louis up next -- and that could be that.
• The Capitals have been sliding and seem to have a question in net themselves. Vitek Vanecek returns from a brief AHL conditioning stint over the weekend and has been their better goalie this season. Ilya Samsonov has been below league average all year. It's not that Washington is really at risk of missing the playoffs, but they'll face Toronto and Carolina this week and that could be another wake up call that they might need to move on a goalie sooner than later. The Caps reportedly have had interest in Marc-Andre Fleury.
Here’s what the Western Conference standings look like today:
Buyer in focus: Edmonton Oilers
Mike Smith came back with a strong effort against Carolina Sunday, but didn't get the goal support in a 2-1 loss. It was just the third time in eight February starts that he allowed less than three goals.
The greatest area of need for the Oilers remains painfully obvious, but whether or not GM Ken Holland can acquire a netminder remains to be seen. Aside from pending UFA Fleury or the Islanders' Semyon Varlamov (who may not even be available, by the way), the Oilers are looking at a market of tandem options and backups. The hope would be to replace Koskinen and that a new duo with Smith would be able to stabilize things a little.
The Oilers start the week outside of a playoff spot, tied with Dallas in points but with one more game played. Holland had previously mentioned that trading a first-rounder for a rental wasn't really something he wanted to do, especially if Edmonton was still in a precarious position in the standings. That would seem to remove them from Fleury talk, if the goalie would even sign off on going there.
So we go into another important week for the Oilers, where they'll face beatable opponents in Philadelphia and Chicago before returning to face the Montreal Canadiens on home ice. Next week's slate is going to be much more difficult (Calgary, Washington and Tampa). there are no back-to-backs in this time, so which goalie coach Jay Woodcroft chooses to start, and how they fare, will be in focus for Edmonton once again.
Seller in focus: Vancouver Canucks
Perhaps we should be questioning if the Canucks are still even really sellers.
Now just three points out of the playoffs and 7-3-0 in their past 10, the Canucks have played more games than the teams they're chasing, but have been making up ground for some time. Do they have enough time to get all the way back, though?
While big names like JT Miller, Brock Boeser and Conor Garland have been in the rumour mill, will the Canucks instead slow play this and give their roster a chance to pull even closer in the race, or even climb into a spot, over the next three weeks?
This is now a team that's 18-7-4 since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the bench, with a near-even expected goal share at 5-on-5 in that time and, crucially, getting some excellent play from Thatcher Demko that's elevating them. This doesn't mean everything is fixed and on track. Few would argue that some turnover will need to happen with the Canucks, and that the new management group will want to shape the organization in a different way than Jim Benning did.
But could these become off-season moves now? The Canucks face the Devils, Islanders and Leafs this week.
What To Watch For This Week
• Have to start wondering about the Vegas Golden Knights, who are just one point up on the Oilers for third in the Pacific. That's how close they are to being outside of a playoff position right now. Vegas plays San Jose, Boston, Anaheim and Ottawa this week as they look to gain some momentum again. Robin Lehner hasn't played since Feb. 9.
• Dallas' status as a seller is far from a guarantee right now. Two years removed from a Stanley Cup Final appearance, the Stars seem to be gaining strength again, 6-3-1 in their past 10 and holding the second wild card spot. They'll play Los Angeles, Winnipeg and Minnesota this week and, as long as they're in it, the Stars may entertain the idea of keeping John Klingberg, or re-signing Joe Pavelski, instead of selling off assets.
• Winnipeg was earning accolades as Canada's best team before the season began, and now we're wondering what they might sell. UFAs Paul Stastny and Andrew Copp? Sure. Could it go bigger? That's not GM Kevin Cheveldayoff's MO, but these are strange times for the Jets. Six points out of a wild card spot, there may still be some faint hope of getting back in, but another bad week (Montreal, Dallas, New York Rangers) could snuff that out. The home game against Dallas Friday is huge.