Six star player trade candidates you'll hear about this summer

During a Wednesday press conference, Buffalo Sabres GM Kevyn Adams directly addressed the comments made by Jack Eichel about his injury and potential future with the team.

We're all looking forward to what's ahead in the Stanley Cup Playoffs still. Can the Canadiens become Canada's first team to win the Cup since 1993? Can the Tampa Bay Lightning repeat? Can the Vegas Golden Knights finish what they couldn't in their first season and claim a championship?

There's a lot of great hockey games ahead.

But this is also a great time of year for armchair GMs who are scouring CapFriendly, picking apart what went wrong for eliminated teams, and figuring out pathways to blockbuster off-season trades.

This summer should be full of rumours, too. While teams still have to contend with a flat cap, there are reasons why it could be a busy time for movement.

First off, there appears to be a number of teams itching for change. Philadelphia, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Columbus and Calgary all fit that mould. Then you have teams like Toronto, Florida, Winnipeg, Washington and Pittsburgh that have to figure out why they fell short of internal expectations and chart a path forward. Shake-ups, with notable players moving in and out on both sides of a trade, could be a way to making a big splash in our current cap landscape.

And then there is the Seattle Kraken factor. The NHL's 32nd team will pick its roster on July 21, but could be a factor in deals before then. They haven't taken on any cap hits yet, so the Kraken could help facilitate trades as teams seek ways to protect players that are exposed under expansion draft rules.

Usually the big names we try and pick out for trade in the off-season are guys going into the final season or two of their contracts. That's when teams are forced into making a decision about what to do with them. There are certainly players who fall into that category in 2021 as well, but the big names who will come up could run deeper than that.

"I don't even think it's going to be guys who are a year or two away," Elliotte Friedman said on The People's Show this week. "I think it'll be guys in the middle of deals. I think you're going to hear a lot of wild names thrown around this off-season. We know about (Seth) Jones. I think some of the Philly guys. It's not only about players saying that (they want out) it's about teams saying (they want change). I think Philly's going to consider some interesting stuff. I think St. Louis is going to consider some interesting stuff. I've heard (Vladimir) Tarasenko's name out there. I think there's a lot of people out there... I think there's going to be some names out there that surprise people."

So as we await the outcome of the Vegas-Colorado series and proceed into Round 3 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, off-season activity and the excitement around it is also on our mind. Here is a look at a group of star players who you will hear trade rumours about and, we'd expect, at least a couple of them who will change teams.

There's still time for this list to keep growing, too.

Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets

If you're in the market for a big No. 1 defenceman with Norris Trophy upside, Jones is the guy we're all expecting to move this off-season. Last month, Friedman reported that unless something changed, it was believed Jones told the organization he would test free agency after his contract expires in the summer of 2022.

This will likely force Columbus into a spot where they have to trade Jones after a season where he wasn't at his absolute best.

"I think the Blue Jackets know it's unlikely. That he wants to test free agency and he wants to see what's out there and Seth Jones has earned that right," Friedman said on the May 31 edition of 31 Thoughts: The Podcast.

With one season left on his deal, Jones could effectively be viewed as a rental for any team, though if there was a way they could come to an agreement to an extension beforehand, Columbus would be in position to do even better in a trade.

What return can we expect here? The Jets had to trade Jacob Trouba before his contract expired and were able to get Neal Pionk and a first out of the Rangers for him in 2019. For Jake Muzzin, the Kings got two prospects and a first-rounder back from the Leafs — Muzzin then signed an extension shortly after. The flat cap makes it harder to fit in contracts without giving anything up, but for one season at least Jones' $5.4 million cap hit is reasonable. On a re-sign, though, his full value will pinch most teams.

Columbus has been in this situation before, of course. In 2018-19 Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene were all pending UFAs who were highly unlikely to stay with the team. At that time, GM Jarmo Kekalainen kept them all for a playoff run to reward their fans and, indeed, the Blue Jackets won a round over Tampa before getting eliminated by Boston in Round 2. As expected, each of those players left in the summer.

This time is different, though. Columbus is coming off a season that saw them finish 28th in the NHL standings and they've had to make some more recent moves they would have preferred not to. Josh Anderson wasn't going to re-sign, so they flipped him for Max Domi, who will now miss the start of next season to injury and is a season away from being a UFA himself. They had to deal Pierre-Luc Dubois early this season and though Patrik Laine was a nice return, he struggled to 10 goals in 45 games, has one season left on his contract before he becomes RFA eligible, and is two seasons away from being UFA eligible. Another decision on how to handle him is on the horizon, too.

Unlike 2018-19 when the Blue Jackets had reason to push some chips in to reward the fans and see what the team could do, this version seems much closer to some kind of rebuild.

"I don't think you can afford to do the same thing here," Friedman said on the podcast. "After the season they just had, they're not in the same spot they were a couple years ago."

Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

The bombshell occurred at Buffalo's locker clean out day.

“I’ve been a bit upset about the ways things have been handled since I’ve been hurt," Eichel said. "I’d be lying to say that things have moved smoothly since my injury. There’s been a bit of a disconnect between myself and the organization. It’s been tough at times. Right now, the most important thing now is to get healthy and be ready to play hockey next year, wherever that might be.”

That disconnect has to do with how Eichel wants to recover from a neck injury versus how the Sabres want to approach it. Eichel wanted surgery and the Sabres haven't approved that. The two sides reportedly agreed to wait a month to see how Eichel responded to rest and then reassess. That window has passed and so now we're back on trade watch.

"My personal opinion is that whatever Eichel decides to do, it's going to be in conjunction with the next team that acquires him," Friedman said on the June 4 edition of the 31 Thoughts Podcast.

The good news for the Sabres is they "won" the draft lottery to retain the first overall pick, so they'll have that prospect to move forward with (likely Owen Power). They also now know exactly where other suitors will be picking and so if a first-rounder is part of a deal it's very specific which slot that will be in.

It seems we're moving closer to a trade than a resolution before Eichel begins Year 4 of an eight-year contract he signed with the Sabres.

“I don’t really have an update, but it’s going to be coming here in terms of information I get in the coming days,” GM Kevyn Adams said in his post-lottery Zoom call. “I think it is important just to mention our doctors, their expertise, they still aren’t comfortable with any type of surgery that’s never been done on a hockey player before.”

Eichel will come with a $10 million AAV through 2025-26 and at least some questions as to how he'll bounce back from a neck injury. But there is no denying he's one of the top centres in the game, with 355 points in 375 career games.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

If centre is a position you need to target an upgrade for, this off-season is for you. On top of Eichel, Washington's Kuznetsov could be available, though the chance still remains high he stays with the Capitals.

That's because the Capitals still believe they have an open Cup window and they will not be eager to throw any remaining years of Nicklas Backstrom or Alex Ovechkin (assuming he re-signs) away. So trading Kuznetsov won't be easy, but GM Brian MacLellan certainly voiced his frustration with the player's lack of consistency in recent seasons.

“I think it’s the key to our organization what decisions get made or how he plays or comes out of this,” MacLellan said of Kuznetsov after Washington was eliminated from the playoffs. “We won the Stanley Cup because we had a great 1-2 punch (at centre) and Eller at the third spot. So centre depth is important. We need him to play at his highest ability and if he can’t play at his highest ability we’re not going to be a good team and will have to make some other decisions.”

When the Caps won their Stanley Cup, Kuznetsov was a huge difference maker. He scored 83 points in the regular season and then followed it up with 32 points in 24 playoff games. But his points per game rates have fallen in each year since and he finished this season with 29 points in 41 games and didn't get any in the playoffs.

Notably, Kuznetsov tested positive for COVID-19 this season, so the effects that had on his ability to perform aren't clear and can't be discounted. At the same time, his play had been falling off in the couple years leading up to this one, so it's not an isolated situation.

Kuznetsov has a modified no-trade clause and has four seasons left on a contract that pays $7.8 million against the cap.

Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

Something has to change in Calgary, right? This team is spinning its wheels, finished well out of the North Division playoff picture, and doesn't have a clear path forward now. Unless you believe this core can get them back on track in the Pacific Division next season and then win a couple playoff rounds, then you might be wondering if a rebuild is necessary for the Flames.

The fact is that trade talk has followed Gaudreau for a couple years and it's coming to a head now because he has one season left on his contract, and the team would rather not lose him for nothing. At the end-of-season press avails, Gaudreau said he'd "love to" re-sign with the Flames and had never asked to leave Calgary. So perhaps there's a path to keep him.

If so, a decision will need to be made by July 28, which is the first day he can sign an extension, but also the first day that a modified no-trade clause will kick in for him. At that time the Flames would be restricted to dealing with a five-team list Gaudreau submits, rather than being open to any offers around the league.

If Gaudreau ends up staying, does that make it more likely Sean Monahan is the one to go? Or would it signal that management is content to move on with the same core as before?

It's hard to see them trading Matthew Tkachuk at this time, though that's another player who will have to prove himself all over again after a hot and cold season.

Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs

Personally, not sure this one makes a lot of sense, even after Marner's disappointing playoff and another meltdown by the Leafs. And, hearing Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan speak about their plans, it doesn't seem like they're looking to break up the Core Four at this point either.

“I’ll say this about our top four: I think any team in the league would love to have any one of them,” Shanahan said. “But we want them. We like them. We want to keep them here. They’re special players. They’re all deeply committed to winning here in Toronto.”

If you are going to move on and shake up this core, do you really want to do it when a very clear three-year window (at least) still exists with their contracts?

Regardless, none of this will keep Marner's name out of the rumour mill. If the Leafs do entertain the idea of a blockbuster, Marner is a guy who could make sense to move. His contract is front-loaded, so an acquiring team would save actual dollars even if the $10.9 million cap hit is rather high for a winger (albeit a top five league scoring winger). Marner has four years left on his contract, so there's a lot of value in the control there.

But how do you win a Marner trade if you're Toronto? Seth Jones, with one year left on his deal, isn't it. Ditto for Patrik Laine. Our own Luke Fox got into some details of a path to what a Marner trade might look like for a team that very much has to start winning some playoff rounds now. The fact is, there's not a lot of great, obvious options out there.

We'd put the odds on an off-season Marner trade being incredibly low, but you're going to hear about him.

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues

At his best, Tarasenko is one of the more dangerous scorers in the game. But he's had three shoulder surgeries now, has just seven goals in 34 games over the past two seasons, and may be too pricey for the Blues at this point. He comes with a $7.5 million cap hit that has two seasons remaining, so a decision is upcoming on him anyway — do the Blues have designs on re-signing him, or should they get in front of this and explore trading him now?

The Blues haven't been quite the same since winning the Stanley Cup and are one of the teams that could seek a change of pace with a big move or two this off-season. If they choose to double down on being a tight-checking, blue collar team, Tarasenko may not fit that plan anymore — not because those sorts of teams don't need a goal scorer, but because his price tag is too high for that mix, and the prospect of a looming contract extension complicates the calculation.

On the flip side, Tarasenko's trade value has probably never been lower. Would the Blues retain any salary to up the return? There will always be a market for a player like this, but he's not a trade candidate because he's been playing at his peak recently.

Vince Dunn is a trade candidate in St. Louis for the second season in a row. They could go real big if they also trade out Tarasenko.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.