Ryan Kesler. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
It's the most important time of the year, the weeks leading up to the playoffs, and it's time for those big ticket off-season acquisitions to step their game up and make an impact heading into the postseason. These are the 10 off-season acquisitions that are making the biggest impact in the home stretch.
There has been no personnel move during this season, at or before the trade deadline, that has had as much impact, immediate or otherwise, as the Minnesota Wild scoring Devan Dubnyk from the Arizona Coyotes.
Dubnyk, who has appeared in every single game since coming to Minnesota, has taken the Wild from a team on the brink of losing their season to the hottest team in hockey. Bringing in Dubnyk could make Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher the GM of the Year at the end of the season.
However, most roster constructing is done during the summer as teams look to rebuild or supplement existing pieces in their chase for the Stanley Cup. As such, these are the 10 off-season acquisitions, either through trade or free agency, that are paying off as teams enter the stretch run and battle for playoff position.
Honorable mention goes to the coaching tandem of Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn, who have made the Washington Capitals a team to be feared come the postseason and turned Braden Holtby into a brilliant backstopper.
10. James Neal, Nashville Predators
Neal was dealt to the Predators from the Penguins at the 2014 draft in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. His impact on the Nashville lineup was almost immediately felt. Within the first month, he had scored seven goals, including a hat trick against division rival Chicago.
Down the stretch run, Neal hasn’t exactly been the best of the Predators – his nine game pointless streak during Nashville’s six-game slide was ill-timed – but his seven goals and eight points since the all-star break have been helpful in keeping the Predators atop the Central Division.
If Nashville is going to make good on arguably their best regular season in franchise history, Neal will have to once again become the point per game player he was in 2011-12 and 2013-14.
9. Jaroslav Halak, New York Islanders
Technically, the trade that brought Halak to the Islanders happened before the 2013-14 season was over, but it was the off-season for both Washington and the Isles as both were out of the Stanley Cup hunt. And, hey, if Islanders GM Garth Snow saw a trade that could improve his team before the summer began, why not make it?
Halak’s impact up to the all-star break was incredible, but his play has faltered down the stretch. In 15 games since teams returned to play following the break, Halak is 9-5-1 and has posted a .913 save percentage, a subpar mark and part of the reason the Islanders picked up goaltender Michal Neuvirth from Buffalo at the trade deadline.
Halak made his name during Montreal’s 2009-10 playoff run, posting a 9-9 record, .923 SP and 2.55 GAA. If he can turn it up come playoffs, the Islanders are in position for a deep run.
8. Tomas Vanek, Minnesota Wild
There was little doubt Vanek would end up in Minnesota as a free agent, but few could have predicted just how much he would struggle out of the gate. He didn’t score his first goal for the Wild until Nov. 1, and his second didn’t come until nearly a month later.
Since the all-star break, though, Vanek’s game has been solid enough to warrant him earning his $6.5 million salary. Post-break, Vanek has seven goals and 13 points in 19 games, including a three-point night against the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 14. He had one of his best postseason performances last year with Montreal, registering five goals and 10 points for the Canadiens in 17 games.
Minnesota will need depth scoring to make it out of the Central Division and Vanek may be able to provide that.
7. Mike Ribeiro, Nashville Predators
Less than one year after inking a four-year deal with the Arizona Coyotes, Ribeiro was bought out. Two weeks later, the Nashville Predators took a flyer on Ribeiro, signing him to a one-year, $1.05 million deal. That contract has paid for itself two times over.
In 23 games since the all-star break, Ribeiro has been every bit the player Nashville had hoped. He has registered three goals and 15 points since Jan. 27, and is playing top line minutes for the Predators on a sweetheart of a deal. As far as bang for your buck goes, there may not be a better deal in the NHL. He’s got some playoff pedigree, too.
In 2007-08, Ribeiro notched three goals and 17 points in 18 playoff games for Dallas. If he repeats that performance, his contract next season is going to be worth exponentially more.
6. Patric Hornqvist, Pittsburgh Penguins
The other half of the Neal trade, Hornqvist made sense for the Penguins. He’s a big body, can play netfront on the power play and comes in cheaper than Neal by nearly $1 million.
Hornqvist became a 20-goal man for the fifth time following the all-star break, and there have only been 10 players who have scored more goals than Hornqvist over that span. The return from the break coincided with Hornqvist getting back into the lineup following a lower-body injury that held him out of 11 games from late-December to late-January.
5. Anton Stralman, Tampa Bay Lightning
Stralman isn't flashiest blueliner, but the fact you don’t hear about him often should be a testament to his ability as a defender. The last place most defensemen want to end up is a highlight reel, and Stralman has done well to keep himself off of those. That’s why Tampa Bay locked him up to a 5-year, $22.5 million deal as a free agent.
Post-break, it has been more of the same from Stralman, which is to say the Lightning have gotten a healthy dose of offense to go along with steady puck-moving play. While he starts more of his shifts in the defensive zone than he does in the offensive zone, Stralman has remained a positive possession player while notching three goals and 12 points since Jan. 27.
Stralman is also one season removed from being a top-four defender for the Rangers during their 2013-14 run to the Stanley Cup final. If he keeps his play at that level, he could be the one celebrating with the Cup this summer.
4. Nick Leddy, New York Islanders
The Islanders nabbed Leddy from Chicago thanks to the salary cap. The Blackhawks needed to become cap compliant before the season began, the Islanders had enough cap space to fit Leddy in their lineup and the two teams swung a deal days before the season opened. What a savvy move by Islanders GM Garth Snow.
Leddy may be on the shelf for two weeks, but the Islanders have a playoff spot all but locked up and Leddy will get the chance to rest a bit while he works to come back from injury. Since the all-star break, Leddy has suited up for 22 games, scoring three goals and eight points while posting incredible possession numbers.
At 5-on-5, Leddy has a shot attempts for percentage of 53.9 and has done so while starting more faceoffs in the defensive zone than any other defenseman on the Islanders.
3. Ryan Kesler, Anaheim Ducks
There was no shortage of teams interested in Kesler when a trade out of Vancouver became imminent. The Ducks, by sending Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, a first- and third-round pick the other way, were able to land him. The move looked good at the time, but the depth it has offered Anaheim has been invaluable.
The knock against the Ducks used to be that they were a one-line team with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, but that’s changed thanks to Kesler. He has been a two-way gem, starting nearly four percent more of his faceoffs in the defensive zone than his teammates while posting positive shot attempts for percentages.
On top of playing sound defensive hockey, Kesler has chipped in four goals and 11 points since the break and is on pace for his best statistical season in four years.
2. Johnny Boychuk, New York Islanders
Boychuk, like Leddy, was picked up thanks to the cap. This time, however, it was Boston that Snow targeted. All it cost him was two second-round picks and a conditional third-round pick next year.
In New York, Boychuk is having the best season of his career and getting his chance to shine as a top-pairing blueliner. In 59 games, Boychuk has seven goals and 32 points, and nearly a third of those points have come post all-star break. Since Jan. 27, Boychuk has three goals and 10 points and has been just as impressive in the possession game as Leddy.
While starting five percent more 5-on-5 shifts in the defensive zone than teammates, Boychuk’s shot attempts for is 54.8 percent. The Islanders have thrived thanks to their strong possession game, and Boychuk has been key in turning things around for New York.
1. Radim Vrbata, Vancouver Canucks
Vrbata signed a two-year, $10 million contract with the Canucks in the off-season, and he has been fantastic in whatever role coach Willie Desjardins has used him. First, it was alongside Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Now, he’s been paired with Nick Bonino and Shawn Matthias and he’s still producing.
In 21 games since the all-star break, Vrabta has scored seven goals and 17 points, the 20th-most in the NHL over that span. But it’s not just that he’s contributed on the score sheet. He’s been a positive possession player, has given the Canucks much-needed depth scoring and has been a fixture on Vancouver’s power play.
Vrbata struggled the last time he played in the postseason, scoring just twice and registering five points in 16 games with the Coyotes in 2011-12. However, on a more offensively gifted team, there’s every opportunity for Vrbata to find his scoring touch in the playoffs.
Another reason Vrbata tops this list is because he’s been important to Vancouver remaining in the wild-card race. The Canucks only sit three points ahead of Los Angeles and Calgary for third place in the Pacific Division, and Vrbata has three goals and eight points in his last five games alone while Vancouver works to stay ahead. This is the time when Vancouver most needs someone to step up, and Vrbata has.