February 16 2017 07:00AM
This is a four-part series analyzing where each NHL teams stands heading into the trade deadline based on the context of each division, and the short- and long-term implications of buying or selling with the expansion draft around the corner.
The decline of both the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars coupled with the Chicago Blackhawks likely being trigger shy due to multiple years of buying at the deadline has given the Minnesota Wild a perfect opportunity to thrust themselves to the top of the Central Division standings. Their biggest competition has been the underachieving Nashville Predators, who are one piece away from being a legitimate contender. And that piece could be held by the worst team in the division, the Colorado Avalanche.
37-13-6 (80 Points) / 47.8 CF% / 59.1 GF% / 103.3 PDO
This is why Bruce Boudreau was the most important free agent on last year’s market. The Minnesota Wild have gone from a good-but-not-great, kind of forgettable, non-contender to the class of the Western Conference in just a few months.
For the first time in years, the Wild will come into a trade deadline seeking not to fill a hole or two or five, but instead to augment a roster that has a clearer path to the Stanley Cup Final than ever before.
The Wild have a strong roster. It’s deep, especially on the blue line, and there aren’t really any glaring weaknesses. They play the typical Minnesota Wild lull you to sleep trap at even strength, and then produce a good chunk of their offence with a lethal power play. Their forwards play a tight checking game, their blue line can slow the game down, and Devan Dubnyk is rock solid between the pipes.
Despite what their mediocre peripherals suggest, this is a good team — probably the best we’ve ever seen in the Wild’s 16 years of existence as a franchise.
With a nice combination of veteran and young talent on their roster, the Wild are set up nicely to be a competitive team for years to come. But nothing is entirely predictable. Players fall off cliffs, get injured, don’t develop properly, and so on, so when you have a team that’s doing as well as the Wild are, especially in a conference that’s as weak as it’s been in years, you try to capitalize on it.
Why does this matter? The Wild have another issue to consider beyond this season. Being a deep roster like I mentioned, Minnesota is ripe for picking come expansion draft time. While they have a team that’s firing on all cylinders right now, they're running the risk of losing a good player like Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin, Jason Zucker, or Marco Scandella to Vegas.
So the timing is somewhat unfortunate for the Wild. On one hand, you have the best team you’ve ever had, rolling full gear into a playoff run with a roster that doesn’t need much tweaking. On the other, this could be your last chance to get something of value for players before you have to have to give one of them away for free.
At the deadline:
Losing a player like Zucker or Dumba would obviously be unfortunate, but it isn’t a reason to force a move and convolute what the team already has going on. That said, there’s a deal where Minnesota can give from their position of strength, which is their blue line, and add to a position of need, which is either a scoring winger or two-way centre, it could be worthwhile.
The Wild don’t have much cap space to work with, so any trade they make that involves adding a player who isn’t a league minimum tweener will involve giving salary back the other way. I would imagine that Minnesota’s deadline will, if anything, involve a hockey deal, one-for-one swap of a defenceman for a forward who is waiver exempt.
Otherwise, we’re talking about something like adding a low-cost veteran, say John Mitchell, for example, and putting the expansion draft reality on hold for a few months.
The Wild have enjoyed a major breakout this season with Bruce Boudreau at the helm. For years, this roster underachieved, played underwhelming, uninspiring hockey, and now, they have the clearest path to the Stanley Cup Final ever in franchise history. That said, the thread of losing a key defenceman at the expansion draft will alter the team's plans at the deadline as they try to get something of value from their position of strength.
35-17-5 (75 Points) / 50.5 CF% / 53.7 GF% / 101.5 PDO
As per usual, the Chicago Blackhawks are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. And while you generally associate the Hawks with ‘Cap Nightmare’, this year, they’ll actually have a fair amount of financial flexibility at the trade deadline.
They've done an admirable job handling their salary cap for a team that has half of expenditure tied up in five players. The Hawks have utilized off days and players who aren’t waiver eligible to minimize their total daily cap hit, leaving them with slightly more room come deadline time than you’d expect.
This is good because the Hawks are a very top heavy team. They've got their usual core, and they've also had a handful of solid performances from bargain bin players like Richard Panik and Brian Campbell, but there are holes in the lineup that need to be upgraded if the Hawks want to come out the Western Conference.
The Hawks are locked into their core until pretty much the end of time. They have Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith signed until 2022, and for years to come, they’ll be augmenting the team around them.
It’ll become easier once the cap rises, of course, but for now, the Hawks are perennial trapped in that ‘load it up an go and then burn it down’ rhythm. Since they won their first Cup as a group in 2010, an entire team’s worth of names have fallen victim to the numbers game. Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Antti Niemi, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, and so on.
And since they're locked into this core (that isn't getting any younger, I must add), they'll constantly be trying to fuel up for late-season pushes to glory.
At the deadline:
The Hawks were aggressive at last year’s deadline.
They paid a hefty price, Marko Dano and a first round pick, to bring Andrew Ladd back into the fold, and they gave the Montreal Canadiens top prospect Phillip Danault and a second round pick for Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. Obviously it didn't work out for them, as the Hawks were bounced in the first round by the St. Louis Blues, and none of the acquisitions made a major impact.
I would imagine that the Hawks are going to be more conservative this year considering the draft pick and prospect capital they spent at last season's deadline and the subsequent bust they had in the playoffs. That said, there are still multiple holes on this top-heavy roster, and as I said earlier, they have the cap room to make some additions. I just doubt it'll be a highly sought after player like Ladd was.
The Hawks have been aggressive over the past few seasons in building up at the deadline to go on a major playoff run. It's hard to see them going as hard as they did last year, but they'll certainly be in buyer mode as they look to capitalize on a roster with a closing window.
30-22-5 (65 Points) / 51.0 CF% / 50.5 GF% / 100.0 PDO
For the first time in a while, the St. Louis Blues aren’t going to be buyers at the deadline.
Though their underlying numbers have been impressive, and aren't far off from where the team has been the past few seasons, the Blues have struggled this year. This is largely due to poor goaltending, as Jake Allen has put up career-low numbers in his first season as the Blues’ starting goalie.
The Blues pinned their struggles on head coach Ken Hitchcock, which, whether it’s valid or not, is how things work in professional sports. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that goaltending is the main issue, but such has been the case his entire career, Hitchcock’s message and motivational tactics tend to wear thin, and the Blues apparently needed a new voice and direction.
The Blues are right in the thick of a the playoff picture, but that likely won’t lead them to be buyers. In fact, there’s a very good chance they’ll end up selling some deadline time.
In previous years, the Blues have gone in at the deadline, acquiring Ryan Miller and Steve Ott in 2014, and, most recently, allowing impending free agents Troy Brouwer and David Backes to pass through and eventually walk for nothing as a free agent.
Obviously you can only go all in so many times, as since they're having a down year, the Blues won’t be in a rush to sell futures to help the present.
At the deadline:
When I say sell, I largely mean that the Blues will look to deal soon-to-be UFA Kevin Shattenkirk before they inevitably lose him over the summer. He’s pretty easily the best rental player available this year, as just about any team could use a high-level producing right-handed defenceman and power play quarterback on their roster.
It’s basically a foregone conclusion Shattenkirk won’t be back with the Blues next season. They can’t afford him, because Colton Parayko’s entry-level deal is coming to an end, and even if they could, there are rumours that he simply wants to use his free agency to play closer to his home state of New York.
Beyond Shattenkirk, the Blues could also sell Patrik Berglund, who’s set to his the open market this summer and is likely too pricey to be back in St. Louis come 2017-18.
Though the Blues don’t have the look of a team that should sell, they're one of the best candidates in the league to do so. They currently sit sixth in the Western Conference, and, if they leave things as they are, will surely make the playoffs. But they've allowed to many good players to walk away for nothing recently, and since it’s been a down year for them, they’ll more than likely right the ship, sell, and retool for the immediate future.
27-21-8 (62 Points) / 51.7 CF% / 52.8 GF% / 100.2 PDO
The Nashville Predators pulled off a blockbuster deal last summer that nobody saw coming. They sent captain Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for the dynamic, exciting P.K. Subban. The move was supposed to turn the Preds, a good team in their own right, into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
So far, things haven’t exactly worked out as planned. The Preds have had a decent season, but they're underachieving, both in terms of their lofty expectations and their underlying numbers. But the Preds have turned on the jets recently and have started climbing up the Western Conference standings.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine them catching their divisional rivals, the Minnesota Wild, at the top of the division like many pegged them to back in September. Unless, of course, they make a big splash before the trade deadline passes.
One thing that was excellent about swapping Subban for Weber is it not only gave them arguably (well, obviously) the superior overall player, but it gave them a guy who’s four years younger. It’s taken some time for both Subban and the team to mesh together, but since returning from injury in late January, the former Norris Trophy winner has started to look the part.
And Subban is only one part of the equation in Nashville. The Preds have a good, young group of players up and down their roster. Top line centre and leading scorer Ryan Johansen is only 24 years old, top-pairing defenceman Roman Josi is 26, Viktor Arvidsson has enjoyed a breakout season, and Juuse Saros has looked like a long-term solution in net.
But still, there’s a major hole that the Preds need to fill before they can seriously jump from being a good team to a great one. And it isn’t coming in the form of a rental.
At the deadline:
The Preds badly need another weapon in their top-six. Johansen finally gave them that first line centre they’ve never had before, and while Mike Fisher continues to play admirably, he’s better suited anchoring a third line than he is playing a role that requires him to produce at a high level.
You probably know who I’m going to mention next. Matt Duchene.
It makes too much sense not to happen. Duchene is signed for two more seasons after this one, so the Preds aren’t risking going for a one-and-done if they pay a hefty price to acquire him. The price Joe Sakic is asking for, apparently, is an NHL-ready defenceman, a prospect, and a first round pick. The Preds have all of those things, as they boast a deep prospect pool, a loaded young blue line, and a full cupboard of draft picks the next couple of years.
They’ve already made a couple of depth acquisitions, adding Cody McLeod and Vernon Fiddler for their fourth line, now the Preds badly need to make another big splash to finish the job. This team doesn't fit the bill of one who should be seeking a rental, because they have a contention window that extends beyond this season, but they have a major hole that'll need to be filled for them to truly be an elite team. And as we know, David Poile isn’t afraid of the big move.
26-29-4 (56 Points) / 49.4 CF% / 46.9 GF% / 99.5 PDO
I just said that it was predictable the Stars would slide down the standings, but it was expected the Winnipeg Jets would be the ones sliding up and taking their spot in the standings.
That hasn’t happened. After a disappointing 2015-16 season in which the Jets massively underperformed their peripheral numbers largely due to poor special teams and issues staying out of the box, there was an expectation for improvement this year. Led by rookie sensation Patrik Laine, the Jets were rolling in with an exciting blend of young talent and their usual core of reliable, productive veterans.
Poor goaltending has held the team back. Ondrej Pavelec was waived at the beginning of the season, but since neither Connor Hellebuyck or Michael Hutchison was able to take the net and run with it, he was brought back up. Overall, the three-headed-goalie-monster has produced a .903 save percentage, and the Jets, who again boast decent underlying numbers, sit second from last in goals against on the season.
Though the season has been dissipating, the Jets still have an exciting core of young players in their system. Laine has exceeded all expectations and has had a Calder Trophy calibre rookie season, Josh Morrissey has looked strong in a high leverage role on the blue line, and both Mark Scheifele and Nik Ehlers have broken out as a high level offensive producers.
In the same vein, Hellebuyck is only 23 years old, and he's been the best of the three goalies on the Jets this season. As with other rookies who’ve underperformed, like Marko Dano and Kyle Connor, Hellebuyck certainly needs some time to develop at the NHL level. Ultimately, the Jets need to find another goalie to play in some kind of 1A/1B role next season, and if they do, there’s a good chance a lot of their perceived issues will disappear.
At the deadline:
The Jets certainly won’t be buying come deadline time. But they also don’t really make much of a seller candidate, either.
Their only interesting impending free agent is Drew Stafford, and that’s largely based on his previous accomplishments and reputation rather than what he’s done this season. Otherwise, the Jets will be looking to sell names like Chris Thorburn, Paul Postma, and Pavelec, none of which are going to net much of a return on the trade market.
What the Jets could do, though, is look to make a deal that helps improve the team long-term. The Penguins are looking to deal Marc-Andre Fleury before he goes for nothing in the expansion draft, and he could represent that 1A option for the team moving forward. That said, they're more likely to wait until the offseason to see how the market unfolds with names like Brian Elliott and Ben Bishop hitting free agency.
The Jets have had a disappointing season in the standings, but there have been many notable performances from their crop of young players worth getting excited about. They'll likely sell off some of their depth assets at the deadline, but they aren't poised to get much of a return on them. Ultimately, the Jets need to solve their goaltending issue and add to their blue line in order to take that major step forward, and are best served to wait until the offseason to do so.
22-26-10 (54 Points) / 49.7 CF% / 51.0 GF% / 100.2 PDO
After an excellent, successful season last year, the Stars have predictably taken a step backwards. They lost their two best defencemen, Jason Demers and Alex Goligoski, to free agency last summer, leaving an already fairly substandard defence completely decimated.
Though they're still scoring goals and producing offence at a high level, it hasn’t been to the same extent as last season when their 80s-style attack was able to compensate for the aforementioned mediocre defence and poor goaltending. As a result, the Stars have been shoved out of the playoff picture and realistically don’t have much of a shot at climbing back up a strong Central Division.
Like I said, this step back wasn’t very surprising. In letting Demers and Goligoski walk, the Stars opened up space on their blue line for a wealth of young defencemen to gain experience at the NHL level. And while it’s been rocky, the core of the team that finished in first place in the West last season is still around. It’s just going to take some time to re-build the blue line, fill holes around the core, and, of course, find better goaltending.
Jamie Benn’s long-term extension kicks in next season, and both Jason Spezza and Tyler Seguin have two years left on their contracts. So when Seguin’s contract extension negotiations start to heat up, a significant chunk of money will be coming off the table to compensate for him.
Beyond that, the Stars don’t have many major, long-term commitments, which not only gives them a lot of flexibility moving forward, but it also makes them a perfect seller candidate at deadline time.
At the deadline:
This team is basically a who’s who of impending free agents.
Patrick Eaves has enjoyed a career season playing in the Stars’ top-six, and some team will certainly overpay on the idea that this year’s performance isn’t just the doing of Jamie Benn and Co. Johnny Oduya has been in and out of the lineup with injury, but still represents a rock solid option for a team in need of a depth, veteran defender who’s been through the playoffs as much as anybody. And hell, they could probably even pawn a team into taking a bad player like Lauri Korpikoski or Jiri Hudler just based on the fact that so few teams are selling and there aren't going to be many cheap, depth options floating around.
While they aren’t far from a playoff spot, the Stars are in a prime position to sell. They have four impending unrestricted free agents who could make good rental options for teams seeking depth, and considering the fact so few teams will be looking to sell, their value will likely be inflated.
15-37-2 (32 Points) / 47.3 CF% / 36.7 GF% / 96.9 PDO
It’s easy to understate just how bad the Colorado Avalanche actually are.
They have, at no point this season, won more than two games in a row, and they’ve only managed to do that three times. They’ve had a six-game losing streak, a five-game skid, another six-gamer, and a mammoth nine-game implosion. And who knows how long their current skid will go!
They rank dead last in pretty much every statistical category in the league. They can’t score, they can’t keep the puck out the net, their special teams are bad, and their possession numbers are atrocious. Everything looks bad when you use your eyeballs, and the all of the numbers back it up.
So what the hell happened? They were pretty decent the past few seasons, right?
No! The Avs have been terrible for quite some time, but they’ve managed to ride a high PDO bubble to some success. And by success, I mean finishing tenth in the Western Conference despite massively overachieving their peripherals. Eventually it all caught up to them — the whole not having an NHL blue line, any depth to speak of, and a very unbalanced, confusing roster.
How the hell do you work your way out of a mess like this? What are the actual problems with the Avs team?
There’s still a good core of skilled players here, as difficult to believe as that is. Nathan MacKinnon is an excellent talent, Mikko Rantanen has had a strong rookie season, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are proven professional commodities, Erik Johnson is solid on the blue line, and Tyson Barrie can produce at an elite level.
That said, this is a very poorly constructed roster, and the Avs are going to need to make some major moves to fix it, meaning some difficult decisions are on the horizon.
At the deadline:
Obviously you can’t fix this catastrophe at the deadline, and, of course, nobody expects them to. This season is largely an indication that things aren't working out, and, like I said, major changes need to be made.
At the deadline, though, the Avs can sell where they can. Jarome Iginla probably still has something left in the tank, and even if he doesn’t, some team will surely give up a draft pick or prospect for him to sit in the dressing room and tell stories for a playoff run. John Mitchell, Rene Bourque, and Fedor Tyutin, are all decent depth players who can plug holes on playoff teams.
Rumours around Landeskog and Duchene have swirled since the Avs were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs back in mid-October. There’s a chance one or both of them could be moved at the deadline if the right deal comes along, but it’s probably more likely that the Avs wait until the summer to pull the trigger on a major sale like that.
The Avs are in the midst of their worst season in franchise history. There isn't much they can do about it right now other than selling some rental assets at the trade deadline. Once the offseason rolls around, they can start to re-shape and re-build their roster in a way that'll allow them to actually be a balanced and competitive team, but that'll involve making difficult decisions on some important players.