NHL Playoff Push: How tight races could impact the trade deadline

Toronto Maple Leafs forward John Tavares (91) celebrates his goal against the Dallas Stars with forward William Nylander (88) during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Wednesday, February 7, 2024. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Just over two weeks from the deadline we look at a tight standings picture and wonder: how many GMs see this as an opportunity to push some chips in, and how many will nibble at the edges of the roster or not touch it at all and take a chance with what they’ve got.

Justin Bourne explored these two choices in his Wednesday column, pointing out that the NHL’s top team hasn’t finished a regular season with a points percentage below .700 since 2014-15 — Florida, currently at the top of the table, has a .696 percentage. In theory, the fact the league doesn’t appear to have one or two absolutely dominant favourites should inspire GMs search for upgrades and any sort of advantage on the trade market.

The flip side, however, is that some teams could look at this picture and feel they’d have just a good a shot at taking a run in this year of parity if they didn’t spend any assets (or only very minor ones for depth additions) and went in with what they already have. Save those assets for this summer, or the next deadline, when the salary cap begins its post-pandemic climb.

Here’s a look at the playoff picture at this point, with a focus on how a few teams might be thinking about the March 8 trade deadline.

The Eastern Conference feels wide open for the taking, but the question coming towards the deadline will be: how many teams feel bold enough, or have the assets to, take a big swing on the market? Recent seasons have brought plenty of players to the conference’s top teams via the deadline, and many of those buying teams are still contenders — but their cupboards are more bare than ever. And with so many teams in the running, will a “stand pat” philosophy prevail out east?

Florida Panthers: Taking over top spot in the league Tuesday night by points percentage the Florida Panthers could be the team to beat from this side of the bracket in 2024. The defending East champs overcame early-season injuries and have benefitted from a career goal scoring season by UFA-in-waiting Sam Reinhart. A top five team in shot attempt and goals percentage, the Panthers are also among the elite in power play and penalty kill percentages. As long as Sergei Bobrovsky continues to roll, there’s plenty to like up and down the lineup, which should put them in a buyer’s position.

The problem is Florida has spent almost all its prime young assets at recent deadlines. Anton Lundell’s name has appeared in trade rumours with the idea the 22-year-old pending RFA could be used to acquire a more established player. But now Lundell is hitting his stride this season, with six points in his past four games and scoring his first OT winner Tuesday night. Florida is the team everyone in the East is aiming for, but they might not be in position to strike big at the deadline.

Toronto Maple Leafs: A buyer for years, the Maple Leafs’ recent five-game winning streak without Morgan Rielly has taken them off the playoff cutoff line a bit and, with Joseph Woll’s return perhaps on the horizon after being assigned to the Marlies for a conditioning stint, they may be shaping up to lock in the Atlantic’s third seed in the coming weeks.

With defence such an obvious need, the Leafs have been linked to Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev of course, but needle movers like those are expensive to bring in. The debate in Toronto two weeks from the deadline is whether or not this team is worth trading out a first-round pick to enhance. There are more holes and questions here than the past few seasons, but the East is also there for the taking. For a short time there was some question if these Leafs may not even be a guarantee to make the post-season, but as they separate from the wild card pack will management feel emboldened to take a swing?

Tampa Bay Lightning: A huge reason why the East feels open for the taking this season is that the Lightning are even more vulnerable than last season when their three-year streak of Stanley Cup Final appearances ended in a first-round defeat to Toronto. You can’t count out a team that has had so much success, but one glance at the standings and you’ll notice they’ve played more games than anyone else around them and are closer to the cut-off line than you’d think. Not only have the Lightning been spending trade assets to improve their chances for years now, but they’ve also suffered a wide array of cap casualties. Andrei Vasilevskiy could cover up all that ails them at any moment, but he hasn’t quite been himself this season after off-season back surgery.

“Tampa has traded a lot of their capital to win Stanley Cups and to get back to a final and I completely agree with it, but eventually you reach a point where you’re sitting there saying ‘do we want to do that again?'” Elliotte Friedman wondered on Tuesday’s Jeff Marek Show. “This might not be the year that I would be trading what I have left to run for the Stanley Cup. I just don’t know if they have it this year.”

New Jersey Devils: GM Tom Fitzgerald’s team is one of the more interesting to watch this deadline season for the potential of what they could do. Sitting on the outside of the playoffs, the Devils were expecting to be more of a Cup challenger and may feel some level of pressure to get in. They also have the assets to swing a monster of a deal if they could find one and have a very obvious need in goal, which has them being attached to Jacob Markstrom, Juuse Saros, and any other available starter in trade rumours. But what position do they have to be in, or how do they have to be playing, before management decides now is the time to pull the trigger versus trying again to fix it in the summer? The Devils are 4-5-1 in their past 10 and have lost ground since the all-star break.

The Western Conference has a much different feel than the East, even though it also seems wide open for the taking. What’s different here is that while the Eastern trade outlook is full of trepidation, the West has several teams that want to be buyers (some aggressively) and have the assets to do business with.

Los Angeles Kings: A soft run through January saw the Kings slide down the standings enough to put their playoff outlook in peril so, unable to get a trade done early, GM Rob Blake had to make the decision to move on from head coach Todd McLellan. Now all eyes are on the seventh year GM, who is feeling the pressure to get this team into the playoffs and maybe win a round for the first time since their 2014 Stanley Cup championship. “I fully understand the repercussions if this team does not win or have success,” Blake said after firing McLellan.

Los Angeles is 5-1 since the coaching change to Jim Hiller and now they’re back in the running for a top three spot in the Pacific. And even though Cam Talbot has put together a couple good starts in a row, the prevailing belief is that they’ll scour the market for a netminder after acquiring Joonas Korpisalo at the 2023 deadline for one run. “I don’t know about (Jacob) Markstrom. I’ve thought about (Elvis) Merzlikins, I’ve thought about (Juuse) Saros who has suddenly gone from ‘no way’ to ‘ya it’s possible,'” Friedman said.

St. Louis Blues: When the Blues were sellers last season they had a few players attractive to other teams, getting a first-round pick plus for both of Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly, and first-round prospect Zach Dean for Ivan Barbashev. This year, if they choose to sell again, the playoff borderline Blues don’t have the same sort of high-end pending UFAs on offer. It’s been known that GM Doug Armstrong has attempted to deal one of his defencemen in the past, but given that Torey Krug, Nick Leddy and Colton Parayko all have no-move clauses, they’re probably not an option to get traded by March 8. If St. Louis does sell, however, Pavel Buchnevich’s name has been floated — a $5.8 million player for another season who scored 26 goals in 63 games last season and has 19 in 53 this season. Of course, the Blues could still factor into this market as a small-time buyer if they look at the situation around them (Nashville, Minnesota, Seattle and Calgary could all sell) and see a scenario they like.

“I don’t think we’re one player away, let’s say trading two first-round picks to get one player and people think ‘well that makes them better than Vegas or Dallas,” Armstrong said on Real Kyper and Bourne last week. “You have to be realistic where you’re at, but also knowing Florida made it to the final last year. Crazy things happen when you get to the playoffs.”

Edmonton Oilers: Capped out or not, the Oilers figure to be one of the most motivated buyers at this deadline, with GM Ken Holland on the edge of retirement and superstars Leon Draisaitl (2025) and Connor McDavid (2026) up for contract extensions in short order. The horrific season start is a distant memory now. Edmonton will buy and get creative to make the cap numbers work. The question is do they focus on the blue line or the forward group with one big add, or perhaps both areas? “I do think Edmonton is going to try to hit a homerun,” Friedman said.

Edmonton may also have to keep Vegas in mind. As long as Vancouver can maintain its hold at the top of the division, there’s a pretty good chance the Oilers and Golden Knights will line up for another slugfest in Round 1. Vegas has a reputation for going big in trades and working magic with the salary cap. Now Mark Stone is expected to be out a while, and if that ends up being a rest-of-the-regular-season situation, suddenly a bunch of money will open up for them. With the Canucks already making a few big deals, Edmonton and Vegas could very well follow up in an arms race.

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.