NHL Trade Deadline Push: Panthers, Avalanche loading for 1996 rematch?

Colorado Avalanche goaltender Pavel Francouz (39) celebrates with teammates after the Avalanche defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 6-4 in an NHL hockey game in Chicago, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Two weeks out from the trade deadline, we’re getting to a point where the buyers and sellers are clearly separating, and far enough along in the season that the buyers are saving enough cap room to think about striking.

Teams with players on expiring contracts are starting to get an idea if they’re going to re-sign, or if a deal has to be found to get something in return. Final decisions are coming up fast.

As we’ll do for one more Monday next week before the last day of trading on March 21, here is our look at state of the market, teams to watch, and what’s on tap for the week ahead.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Here’s what the Eastern Conference standings look like today:

Buyer in focus: Florida Panthers

They’ll buy. It’s just a question of what they’ll buy.

GM Bill Zito has made some fantastic pickups in trade recently. Sam Reinhart is a point per game player and a heck of a luxury to have on the third line. He cost a first-rounder and a goalie prospect. Sam Bennett was a playoff add at last year’s deadline and has emerged as an impact player in the regular season, too. He cost a sixth-rounder and a prospect.

According to CapFriendly, the Panthers have a projected deadline cap space value at $4.595 million and have room to do something. Connected to defenceman Jakob Chychrun in the past, it’s believed Florida is not crazy about parting with Spencer Knight. And why would they be? His 20-year-old season has perhaps been a little rocky, but he is back in the NHL now and still holds a ton of promise as their future No. 1. Might not want to repeat Jacob Markstrom history here. And it seems highly unlikely the Panthers would part with centre Anton Lundell, a 20-year-old having a top-five rookie season.

Lately, though, the Panthers have been mentioned alongside a different type of player in trade rumours. Now it’s 34-year-old centre Claude Giroux who could find himself Florida-bound, and the cost to pick him up as a rental would be easier to achieve.

This is where Owen Tippett comes in. A fine player and 10th overall pick just five years ago, it’s been hard for him to find a place in the Panthers’ stacked forward units. They have tons of skill in place already, and need the few depth sandpaper players they have for a change of pace. It’s no knock at all on Tippett, but given the Panthers have already spent their 2022 first-rounder (in the Reinhart deal) it may be time to spin off from the 23-year-old prospect.

On 32 Thoughts this past Saturday night, Jeff Marek reported that the Flyers’ front office brass was in town to watch Florida’s AHL affiliate last week, where it was believed they were checking out Tippett.

“We’ve talked before about how Owen Tippett’s name is very much out there and how the Florida Panthers have let it be known he could be available,” Marek said.

Seller in focus: Columbus Blue Jackets

The idea of trading Patrik Laine is an exciting one. We all know his goal scoring upside is there and having his name included in a blockbuster on deadline day would be great for our excitement levels. And when trying to make a case for it, you can see a path: Laine is an RFA this summer who will be one year away from qualifying for UFA status. He could slow walk is way there, as it seemed like was happening in Winnipeg, and the Blue Jackets might not want to have that uncertainty.

Laine had been disappointing with his results for a second straight season, too, which was complicating his value on an extension both in dollars and term.

But since Jan. 30 Laine has been on absolute fire, with 15 goals and 24 points in 15 games. Is that an opportunity to sell high on him again during a hot streak?

What say you, GM Jarmo Kekalainen?

“Yeah it bothers me because people make up s—, that’s what bothers me,” Kekalainen told The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun. “I understand that sometimes from conversations you have (with teams) some of it may leak out, and a name gets in there, but this is not a case like that. This is just somebody making s— up from their own speculation of what we might do. They make it up and hope for the headlines and hope for the clicks. I think that’s unethical. And I don’t have any time for it.”

OK then, we’ll put Laine’s trade candidacy into the unlikely bin.

Kekalainen has not been a shy character at past deadlines though. Just last year he turned rentals Nick Foligno and David Savard into two first-rounders. In 2019 it was a very busy time for Columbus’ GM, who made some buys for Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene to give his team a lift — and they ended up winning their first series in franchise history. A key part of that deadline was the decision to keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, knowing full well that both were leaving as free agents in the summer.

Columbus has less in the way of obvious business to deal with at this deadline. If they can move Joonas Korpisalo and his expiring deal they will. Interestingly, pending UFA Max Domi’s name has started popping up as well.

Outside of the expiring deals there is no great statement that has to be made by Kekalainen by March 21. This is still a rebuilding team that can feel its way out and, though the playoffs are unlikely, they start the week as the East’s first team out, 10 points back and with a game in hand of a Washington Capitals team that appears somewhat flawed itself.

What to watch for this week:

• Kyle Dubas last week said that if Jake Muzzin returns in-season, his team would have one move left, and that it would likely come on defence. He endorsed his current goalie tandem and shut down suggestions he could test the goalie market. then goaltending was again an issue Saturday night. This week the Leafs play on back-to-back nights against Columbus and Seattle, and then play Arizona Thursday and Buffalo Sunday outdoors. All winnable matchups. Meantime, the Boston Bruins play spaced out home games against Los Angeles, Chicago and Arizona. Just two points back, could the Bruins actually pass the Leafs in the standings this week?

• The Florida Panthers host the Philadelphia Flyers Thursday night, and will lineup against potential future Panther Claude Giroux.

• The Penguins have sold off so many draft picks in recent times to keep the Cup pushes coming, but they haven’t won a round since 2018. This could have been a year they stepped back, or at least didn’t engage with the market. But it’s becoming more clear that this team maybe should buy in again, and that its first-round pick maybe will be available after all. The Pens have three home games upcoming this week and all will be tests against some top contenders: Florida, Carolina and Vegas. Is this the last big test before it’s time to move ahead with a deadline plan?

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Here’s what the Western Conference standings look like today:

Buyer in focus: Colorado Avalanche

The 2016-17 season feels like a lifetime ago.

That’s the last time the Avalanche missed the playoffs, and boy did they ever whiff on it. It was an historically-awful 48-point season for the team, which started with head coach Patrick Roy quitting in late August, and then an upset-looking Matt Duchene mean-mugging the camera during training camp after his off-season trade wishes weren’t granted. A lot of bad vibes were around that train wreck.

But, GM Joe Sakic masterfully navigated the next steps and Jared Bednar proved to be a quality replacement for Roy. Now Colorado has fully emerged as one of the top Cup contenders in the NHL. It didn’t just happen this season, either. The Avs have been a buyer at the deadline for a few years now.

What they haven’t done yet is swing really big. When they had ample salary cap room in 2019-20 the feeling was they could push in some chips to take advantage of the cheap contracts they had for some of their best players at the time. The big name available at that time was Taylor Hall — Colorado’s biggest in-season trade ended up being for Vlad Namestnikov. Same thing at last year’s deadline. The Avs were connected to all of the top available players and ended up coming away with Carl Soderberg as their most notable pick up.

Instead of making big splashes at the deadline, where overpays can haunt a GM for years to come, Sakic has built around his core with off-season moves in which he came out well ahead. Sakic was a big winner in his trade with Toronto, as Nazem Kadri is having his best season ever. He came out well ahead in picking up Devon Toews — a Team Canada candidate had NHLers gone to the Olympics — for a couple of second-rounders. Andrei Burakovsky for fringe assets has been a steal. Getting Philipp Grubauer for a second-rounder worked just fine until Seattle’s expansion draft came along. Losing Grubauer to the Kraken finally forced Sakic into moving a good prospect (Conor Timmins) and a first-rounder to replace him with Darcy Kuemper.

It’s been fantastic team building and the Avs are currently first overall in the NHL standings. But they haven’t quite got over the playoff hump yet, with three consecutive Round 2 losses.

Most of the big contracts Sakic will have to sign have been done, though one more looms with Nathan MacKinnon up in 2023 and due a heavy raise from his current $6.3 million rate. Could this be the time Sakic does pay up at the deadline for someone?

Goaltending used to be a question for them, but Kuemper has been one of the best for a couple months now, so the attention turns elsewhere. Could Sakic look to bone up his blue line and add more experience in, say, Mark Giordano? Or will he further add to an explosive and deep collection of forwards by targeting someone like Claude Giroux? It’s no secret they’ve been linked to him.

The contending teams around the Avs figure to be adding. Vegas, who already traded for Jack Eichel this season, is struggling right now but also dealing with lots of injuries that could open up more trade possibilities. Florida, as discussed, is in line to be aggressive. Calgary’s already made their add up front. Could the Blues, Wild or Kings be next and, if so, will that push the Avs into the market?

Or, as he has in the past, does Sakic slow play this again and trust his team will break out at any moment?

Seller in focus: Chicago Blackhawks

The new GM is in place, with Kyle Davidson shedding the interim label to officially replace the departed Stan Bowman. The Blackhawks will no doubt be sellers at the deadline, though to what degree is unknown.

The biggest piece they have to move that would bring the best return is Marc-Andre Fleury, whose availability is completely up to him. Fleury will be a tradeable asset only if he allows it and he’ll have sign off on any potential deal. The two best teams with some real developing concerns in net would be Minnesota and Toronto right now. And if you think Fleury’s $7 million cap hit is too much to handle, you’d be right — which is why an acquiring team may want to add a third organization into the deal just to retain some of that salary for the remainder of the season. If Fleury arrives with a $2 million cap hit or even less, it’s much easier to see a path to a deal.

The futures of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be discussed often over the next year, as the contracts of both players will expire in the summer of 2023. Those don’t seem like decisions to make by March 21, though as mentioned above, the Hawks have gotten calls on Kane.

RFA Dylan Strome has been in the rumour mill all season. Another RFA, Dominik Kubalik, scored 30 goals two years ago, but has just 11 in 57 games this season. The 26-year-old will need a new contract in the summer, so the Hawks may instead decide to try and get some assets for him now if they don’t have long term plans for him. Pending UFA defenceman Calvin De Haan is a near-lock to move. The rental depth defenceman is the exact type of player contenders love to pick up this time of season.

One interesting player to watch here, too, is 23-year-old Brandon Hagel, who has 17 goals and 31 points in 51 games this season. He’s young, productive and with a style that should translate well into the playoffs. He’s also signed for another two seasons at just $1.5 million. This one could go either way — he’s young enough to be part of the Blackhawks’ rebuild, but valued enough he could bring them back an intriguing asset or pick.

On The Jeff Marek Show last week, Chicago beat reporter Mark Lazerus cautioned against expecting Hagel to be move for all those reasons.

https://the-jeff-marek-show.simplecast.com/episodes/whats-first-on-kyle-davidsons-to-do-list

However, on the FAN 590 Morning Show Monday, Frank Seravalli kept the door open to a Hagel trade. He was asked, hypothetically, from Toronto’s perspective that if the Leafs chose to go to the Hawks to seek a trade for Fleury, who else they may try to get at the same time from Chicago to help with their push.

“Seeing someone like Brandon Hagel in the third spot (left wing), I could see that making a lot of sense. Toronto I reported previously was one of the teams that expressed interest in Hagel. I think the asking price was really high,” Seravalli said. “The way I view it from his perspective is he would basically be built-in insurance replacement for Ilya Mikheyev. That’s really what it would boil down to in addition to giving you this extra element to your team that I think would be really of use come playoff time.

“But I think if you were to include all those pieces in one package it becomes really expensive. The question is are you willing to pony up and do one really large transaction and shoot your shot? Or are you more interested in pulling off the goaltending part of it and then dinking and dunking around some other value adds if you can find them?”

What to watch for this week:

• Jack Eichel makes his return to Buffalo on Thursday as Vegas’ hold on a playoff spot continues to loosen.

• Just as the Edmonton Oilers appear to be losing connection to the coaching bump and falling back on defensive improvements, they get to face Calgary, Washington and Tampa Bay this week. And they’ll start from outside of a playoff position. Huge week for the Oilers.

• We know you enjoyed Saturday’s Calgary-Colorado game. And if you missed it, you’re in luck: they’ll face each other again Sunday in Colorado. Don’t miss it.

• Minnesota needs its goalies to settle down and rein it in again. Neither Kaapo Kahkonen or Cam Talbot has been good enough for some time and every game now is a referendum on if the team needs to address the situation at the deadline. They play the Rangers Tuesday, have a back-to-back Thursday and Friday in Detroit and Columbus, and wrap back at home Sunday versus Nashville. After this stretch, the Wild will have just two more games before the deadline.

• After playing at home Tuesday to Tampa Bay, the Winnipeg Jets hit the road to play the Devils and Islanders on Thursday and Friday, and then the Blues on Sunday. You wonder if any of their pending UFAs, at least, don’t come back to Manitoba afterwards.

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