The Eastern Conference playoffs are going to be a slugfest this season.
Take one look at the standings and you’ll see that, by points percentage, the East houses the NHL’s top six teams. And if you look at the trade activity board, the East is where all the big swings have been taken so far — Bo Horvat to the Islanders, Vladimir Tarasenko to the Rangers and Ryan O’Reilly to the Maple Leafs.
The most impactful forward left on the market is Timo Meier, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound scorer who’s 13th in the NHL with 31 goals. And, while we all wait and see just how concerning or not an upper-body injury announced Sunday is, the New Jersey Devils still appear to be in the driver’s seat as they seek to be the next Eastern team to plunge into the trade market.
“Everybody seems to think here that New Jersey is not only the most likely place he ends up, but what someone said to me was they’re probably the place that needs him most,” Elliotte Friedman said on Monday’s 32 Thoughts podcast. “The Islanders have gone out and added Horvat for eight years. The Rangers went out and got their guy Tarasenko and they could win the Stanley Cup this year. One of the things you think about is just the local arms race. When you’re New Jersey you’re always battling for attention, always battling to get noticed. This is the year you guys have a great team and Meier is available who’s a difference maker of a player who could be yours for many years.”
The Sharks are reportedly seeking to build out their depth of prospects, and add first-rounders or other early picks to gain flexibility in the future. The Devils could certainly pay that price, but are far from the only one. Friedman noted Carolina as another organization that may be interested in Meier and that, while the Devils wish to have an extension as part of a deal, the Canes may be more open to a wait and see approach.
As all the focus is on the Eastern Conference additions, the Western Conference is wide open for the taking, and without a clear contender at the top (though the defending champions are still around). Just seven points separate first from eighth place in the conference. And while that parity could caution some to not pay up to take a run this year, it should really embolden others to see a path and pounce.
The Los Angeles Kings have been connected to Jakob Chychrun. The Vegas Golden Knights are assumed to be big players on the market now that Mark Stone is on LTIR. The Erik Karlsson-to-Edmonton rumours won’t go away.
But what about Winnipeg?
Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff isn’t known for his big and bold action at trade deadline. He’s added rentals before with the likes of Kevin Hayes and Paul Stastny, but often his bigger trades (Jacob Trouba, Evander Kane) are not connected to the deadline and are thrust upon the team. But now, the Jets could have a unique window to consider going for it.
“The other team I wonder about is Winnipeg. The thing about the Jets is I think this is the year they should be going for it,” Friedman continued. “What Winnipeg could do if they wanted, they could trade for Meier and basically decide we’re rebuilding our entire team, or our front line, around him.”
After next season Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele will both be UFA eligible. Pierre-Luc Dubois is an RFA this off-season, but one year away from being UFA eligible himself and he’s been connected to having interest in joining the Montreal Canadiens. Cheveldayoff and the Jets may be heading down a path with those players we’ve seen from others before, where a re-shaping of sorts must happen.
With that outlook do the Jets, fourth in goals-against per game and just 17th in goals-for per game, consider adding the premier available goal scorer to not only try and put them over the top this season, but give them a building block to move forward with?
With Meier due a $10 million qualifying offer this summer before he, too, could be UFA eligible in 2024, it makes sense why Winnipeg may want an extension part of any trade. And that’s what their candidacy could boil down to.
“Does Meier want to stay in Winnipeg long-term?” Friedman wondered. “I don’t think Winnipeg can make this deal for what it’s going to cost them without that assurance.”
AFTER TRADING RYAN O’REILLY, WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE BLUES?
Blues GM Doug Armstrong has been decisive with his view of this year’s Blues by already trading out Tarasenko and O’Reilly. The team is 10 points out of the playoffs and had to move some expiring contracts for future assets. They now have three first-round picks in what’s regarded as a deep and talented 2023 draft class, and nine picks across the first three rounds of the next two drafts combined.
So does that mean the Blues are rebuilding? Hardly.
“They’ve got an organization I don’t think that’s interested in long, long, long rebuilds,” Friedman said. “They tend to be aggressive. The GM is very aggressive.”
Ivan Barbashev is a Blues trade candidate who remains, unless they decide to re-sign the pending UFA. There is some thought now that the Blues may try and deal a defenceman, though Justin Faulk, Torey Krug, Colton Parayko and Nick Leddy are all signed long-term and all have full no-trade clauses.
What if, instead of rebuilding the organization, the Blues used a couple firsts or other assets to add, either ahead of the deadline or in the summer? Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou will be central forward figures in the next era of Blues hockey and are 23 and 24 years old, respectively. May the Blues want to position themselves to peak as those two players hit their primes in the near future?
“I think it’s going to be really interesting to see what the Blues do,” Friedman said. “I don’t think (Brayden) Schenn is going anywhere, and I don’t think (Pavel) Buchnevich is going anywhere. I do think it’s possible one of their D could go somewhere, but they all have control over where they get moved. They all have clauses.”
Perhaps that kind of quick turnaround re-tool will start turning in the off-season as opposed to the next two weeks. Still, with Armstrong’s history as a bold and unafraid GM, he does have the potential to surprise us by March 3.
“Someone said to me if St. Louis wanted to make this quick they could probably trade for Meier. Now, I don’t know if I see that happening, but i thought about it.”