The Panthers have been helped in a big way by Jonathan Huberdeau’s return, but there are other teams set to benefit from an important piece getting healthy in time for the homestretch.
Jonathan Huberdeau’s return has given the Florida Panthers a shot in the arm over the past month. In eight games, he has four goals and eight points, has managed 25 shots on goal since his return and is skating more than 17 minutes per outing while once again forming a formidable trio with Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr.
Not only that, but in the time since he made his season debut at the start of February, the Panthers have dropped just two of eight games, rocketed right into the thick of things in the Eastern Conference wild-card race and are even on the cusp of potentially landing themselves a divisional playoff berth.
Now, as the deadline approaches, Panthers president of hockey operations Dale Tallon, acting as GM while GM-turned-coach Tom Rowe mans the bench, said that he’s going to be looking to add another offensive boost to his lineup if at all possible. However, no matter who Tallon plans or manages to add at the deadline, it’s hard to fathom they’ll have anywhere near the impact that Huberdeau has had since he stepped back into the lineup. In that sense, the best addition the Panthers will likely have made at the deadline won’t come from a trade, but simply by the return of an important player from an absence.
While it’s the Panthers who are benefitting from a healthy lineup now, they aren’t the only club that stands to get a boost just around the deadline when a formerly ailing player gets back into action. There are five players currently sidelined who stand to make an impact for their respective teams upon returning:
5. Joonas Donskoi, San Jose Sharks
Donskoi has been out of action for the past month, over which time he’s missed 12 games. That may not seem like a massive loss, but Donskoi has proven he can bring his A-game at the toughest time of the season. During the Sharks’ run to the Western Conference title and Stanley Cup final in 2015-16, Donskoi scored six goals and 12 points in 24 games while playing bottom-six minutes. That’s the kind of production teams look for from their depth players come playoff time.
Unfortunately, Donskoi hasn’t been near as productive this season with six goals and 15 points through 44 games. Even still, he’s proven he’s a threat to get the hot hand at any point. He scored 11 goals and 36 points in his rookie campaign, and that was no mistake. If he gets back soon, he could get some reps in right before the time the Sharks will need him most.
4. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
Sidelined since the start of the season, Quick’s return appears to still be a week or two away, but that puts him in line to be back in the Kings’ net by the time the final month of the season is upon us. That’s great news for Los Angeles, especially if the team can manage to sneak into the post-season. Goaltending can steal a series, and Quick has stood on his head in past playoff appearances. The hope has to be that he’s in game shape by the time he gets back, though.
If Kings fans, or anyone else for that matter, is wondering why Quick isn’t higher on this list, there’s an easy answer. As good as Quick may be, Peter Budaj has played pretty well over the course of the campaign. Quick will be an improvement, but it’s not going to be like going from a shooter tutor to a brick wall.
3. Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers probably want to bolster their roster at the deadline as they get set for their first playoff appearance in a decade, but they might not have to do all that much to solve the depth problems on their blueline if Nurse comes back and plays like the top-four defender he’s capable of being. One of the bigger concerns facing Nurse has to be whether he’ll be in game shape or not. He hasn’t played since Dec. 1, and that’s a long time for a 22-year-old to be away from game action to expect him to come back and be effective immediately.
Nurse can be the perfect depth shut down guy once he’s back, though. He doesn’t need to play big minutes, but against a deep team, someone like Nurse could pay dividends late in the season and into the playoffs. As important as depth forwards are, having the depth defensemen to match up against a team that can roll four lines can be as crucial to post-season success.
2. Travis Hamonic, New York Islanders
Hamonic’s last game came in early January when the Islanders were in the midst of their struggles. The team has turned things around under interim coach Doug Weight in Hamonic’s absence, however. And while there’s a good chance some team in the hunt will improve their blueline in a big way with the acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline, the Islanders stand to get their own top-four defender back in Hamonic. That’s going to be a big boost for New York.
That said, this season hasn’t been a great one by Hamonic’s standards. Despite the fact he was scoring at a better rate that he had during the 2015-16 campaign, his ice time was down three minutes per game through the early part of this season. Weight might have a different plan for the defender, though. If Hamonic comes back and performs like the legitimate top-three defender he is, the Islanders stand to add a top-four defender to their blueline without giving up so much as a seventh-round pick.
1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning have had an incredibly frustrating season and losing Stamkos as early as they did didn’t help one bit. By the 18th game of the season, the Bolts were without their captain for the foreseeable future, and he’s missed more than half the season with his knee injury. There’s still no definite return date for Stamkos, but he was given a four-to-six month timeline when he fell injured. That would indicate he could be back come the middle of next month or possibly just as the season closes. Things are looking positive right now, too. He recently practiced in full gear, per the Tampa Bay Times.
Stamkos’ game-breaking ability is something the Lightning have been missing for much of the season. While Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin have been contributing wonderfully this campaign, the Lightning have consistently had one of the league’s elite offenses over the past few seasons. This year, however, the Bolts rank 16th in goals for with 161. That’s not up to their usual standard, and Stamkos being sidelined hasn’t helped one bit.
The uncertainty surrounding Stamkos puts him at the top spot on this list with a caveat, however. He doesn’t help Tampa Bay near as much if the Lightning can’t somehow turn the tides late in the season and earn a spot in the playoffs. They’re only four points out with 23 games remaining, but it’s going to take some work and some favorable results around the league for the Bolts to sneak in. If the roster includes Stamkos, the likelihood of Tampa Bay making a late run go up drastically.
Vancouver GM Jim Benning said he’d evaluate the deadline situation after they play their next five games, but even if they win every game, the Canucks should be selling come March 1.
With less than two weeks to the trade deadline, the Vancouver Canucks somehow sit a mere five points out of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Given the way the season started in Vancouver, that’s nothing short of miraculous because there was a time when fans were thinking more about what number Nolan Patrick would wear when he joins the Canucks than the possibility of post-season play.
The wonders of league parity have been at play, however, allowing Vancouver to pick their way back up the standings, fight their way into the conversation as one of the league’s bubble teams and make the trade deadline all the more confusing than it ever should have had to be for GM Jim Benning. For much of the early season, the Canucks were firmly in the seller category and speculation circled about which free agents-to-be would be gone come March. Now, instead of a fire sale, there seems to be real, honest to goodness talk about whether Vancouver is going to be selling or buying come the deadline.
“We’ve got five more games before the trade deadline,” Benning said in an interview with TSN 1040. “We still have some time. We want to see where we’re at going into the deadline and then, like I’ve said all year, we’ll talk to players, find out what their thoughts are and go from there.”
You can maybe understand where Benning is coming from. The Canucks made the post-season in his first year as the club’s GM, but the 2015-16 season was a disaster and 2016-17 started much the same. The playoffs are enticing, and with the West looking more wide open than in years past, there’s certainly some appeal to trying to sneak in, capture some magic and go on a deep run. But for Vancouver to do anything but sell right now would be absolutely foolish.
It’s not what one would call a bold prediction, but the Canucks aren’t going to win the Stanley Cup this year and it matters naught who they add come the deadline. The pieces, simply put, aren’t there. Daniel and Henrik Sedin still have magic left in their sticks as they inch closer to sailing off into the sunset, but on a team-wide basis, this isn’t a Vancouver club that’s in position to do much damage at all.
Look at it this way: Yes, the Canucks are five points out of a playoff spot with five games to go before the deadline, and yes, that means the Canucks could potentially have 66 points to their name by the time deadline day rolls around, but Vancouver has just 21 regulation or overtime wins to their name, tied for fourth-worst in the league, have a minus-30 goal differential, also tied for fourth-worst in the league, and they’ve produced a grand total of 138 goals this season, which is, you guessed it, fourth-worst in the league.
This is to say that to this point, Vancouver’s reaching this level of success this season has largely been a mirage, something underlying numbers also point out. For instance, Vancouver ranks 21st in the league in Corsi For percentage at 48.6 percent, they have the fifth-worst scoring chance for percentage in the league at 46.9 percent and, as far as expected goals for go, only the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes rate worse at 5-on-5.
Even if Vancouver were to wiggle their way into the post-season, the Canucks’ stay would almost undoubtedly be a short one. And if all that adding a few pieces at the deadline is going to net you is a couple home games and a bit of extra revenue, why bother?
In their current position, the Canucks have to be thinking about long-term gain over short-term pain. Getting involved in buying at the deadline would be a fool’s errand for a team that should be retooling at this point. Sure, Vancouver stands to potentially inject some hope, however false, into the fan base, but it almost assuredly won’t pay off. This should be the time for the Canucks to look at the Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs, teams who have stockpiled picks in hopes of a bright future, and bring a piece of that to the West Coast. The rebuild doesn’t have to be the same or nearly as extreme, and it definitely won’t be while the Sedins remain in town, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to be similar.
That’s why making an acquisition at the deadline, no matter who it is, wouldn’t make all that much sense. First and foremost, the price for any player, no matter who, is upped at the deadline, and there’s simply no point in the Canucks participating if it means they’re giving up assets that could potentially be a fit down the line.
Say what you will for the first round of the upcoming draft — there’s a reason talk has been first-round picks could be thrown around without so much as a second thought — but there’s always the chance one of the draft picks the Canucks would potentially give up could hit. The same goes for prospects who haven’t quite made it yet. It always helps to have more potential, more chances, to find someone who can fit the organization than it does to have less. And you never know when a player might find their game.
The shame of it all is that Vancouver isn’t really in a position to be a big-time seller, either. Alexandre Burrows is the top UFA-to-be on the roster and he could draw some interest as a depth scorer, agitator and penalty killer. There could also be consideration given to shipping out Jannik Hansen or Alex Edler, and maybe someone would be willing to throw a pick Vancouver’s way for Jack Skille and Jayson Megna, both of whom are set to walk in July if they so choose. But even if the return is minimal on what Vancouver does have to sell off, now’s the time to do it.
In the coming seasons, the Canucks stand to bring Brock Boeser, Olli Juolevi and goaltender Thatcher Demko into the NHL, and that can add to a more youthful core highlighted by Bo Horvat, with Sven Baerstchi, Markus Granlund and Troy Stecher as the secondary players. That’s a solid group to work off of and build a future around, but buying and giving away assets now when a Stanley Cup is nothing more than a pipe dream would jeopardize the future. For the young core the Canucks are building to be successful in the future, they need to be supplemented by players who can contribute, not middling players barely able to move the needle.
The next few seasons are going to be the most important for the Canucks, as rebuilding the right way can make the future brighter than it has been in the past. Going in too soon, though, and buying into the status as a bubble team only serves to damage what could be. Regardless of the result of the next five games, the Canucks should either sell or stand pat. They’ll be thankful for it down the line.
Joe Thornton is two assists away from becoming the 13th player to reach the 1,000-assist milestone, and it should have him considered among the greatest playmakers the league has ever seen.
Two assists. That’s all Joe Thornton needs to hit 1,000 for his career, and there’s a chance he could be celebrating the milestone helper in less than one week, earning an undeniable spot as one of the greatest playmakers the game has ever seen.
When he reaches the milestone mark, and there’s no question he will, it only stands to add to what are some already stellar Hall of Fame credentials. Thornton has a Hart Trophy and Art Ross to his name, a first all-star team nod and two times he was voted to the league’s second all-star club. But forget the awards and look past the nearly 400 goals, because reaching the 1,000-assist milestone is the most impressive of all of Thornton’s feats. It’s a statistical achievement the likes of which has seldom been recorded.
It may seem like the 1,000-assist mark wouldn’t be so rare given there are two assists handed out for every goal scored, but there are only 12 players to have hit 1,000 assists for their career. By comparison, 19 players have at least 600 goals and there are 45 with 500 or more tallies in their career. The all-time assists leader, as one would expect, is Wayne Gretzky, with the likes of Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque and Jaromir Jagr among those who round out the 12-man 1,000 assist club.
That’s indicative of the type of savvy playmaker Thornton has been throughout his career. His puck distribution skills have been and remain some of the best in the league, and that he’s still managing to dish out perfect tape-to-tape passes as he inches closer to his 38th birthday is telling about the dedication he has to his craft. This season, only 15 players have more assists than Thornton, and the list includes a number of the league’s current greats, from Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby to Brent Burns and Duncan Keith.
It’s not as if Thornton has maneuvered his way to 1,000 assists by way of being in the right place at the right time, either. Some contest that he’s racked up a boatload of secondary helpers over his career, but stats.HockeyAnalysis.com has data on primary assists over the past 10 seasons. No one has registered more overall assists than Thornton’s 548, and no player has more first assists than the 314 Thornton has compiled.
But with Thornton close to the end of his career, it’s worth wondering how far up the all-time assist chart he can rise. Once he hits the 1,000-assist milestone, he’ll be 16 back of matching Joe Sakic, 33 behind Lemieux, Marcel Dionne will sit 40 assists ahead and Howe 49 up on Thornton. Realistically, he could make a dent in the chase to tie Sakic by the time the season ends, possibly by as much as another 10 to 12 assists. That would put Thornton up to 1,010 in his career. What happens next season, though?
First and foremost, the concern has to be about returning to a lineup where he can produce. There has been speculation that Thornton, a free agent come July, wants to hang around for at least another couple seasons, playing into his 40s and possibly beyond. That’s not out of the realm of possibility, especially with him continuing to contribute, and we’ve seen the likes of Jagr, Shane Doan and Matt Cullen contribute as they enter the “over the hill” stage of their career. If Thornton does come back, as it seems he will, the question then becomes the rate at which he is actually able to contribute.
At his current rate, he’s registering .57 assists per game, down from last season’s .77 rate and slightly down from his .63 rate during the 2014-15 campaign. Over the past three seasons, that’s a pace of .66 assists per game, which means over the course of an 82-game season he’d register roughly 54 helpers.
It’s likely, though, that Thornton’s assist rate drops as he continues on. Let’s say he nabs 43 assists in 2017-18, 39 in 2018-19 and 34 in 2019-20. That’s a consistent dip of .05 assists per game from his current rate over the next three seasons. It’s only an estimation, of course, but that would net Thornton another 116 assists over the following three seasons. Add that to the 1,010 he projects to have by the time the post-season rolls around, and Thornton would have 1,126 assists in his career. He would sit seventh all-time, ahead of Adam Oates and Steve Yzerman and only slightly behind Bourque and Paul Coffey.
The thing about the all-time list, though, is that it doesn’t take into account the era the player’s career occurred in. The first seven seasons of Thornton’s career came in the low-scoring pre-lockout years, and he’s spent 12 in the post-lockout, more free-flowing game that we see today. Scoring isn’t up all that much, however. Thankfully, Hockey-Reference has done the legwork in adjusting scoring for the separate eras, and on that list, Thornton is already top-five all-time. The only players he trails are Gretzky, Howe, Jagr and Ron Francis.
As far as catching the foursome at the top of the adjusted assists list goes, it’s not going to be easy. He sits 87 back of Francis, and it’s going to take much of the rest of Thornton’s career to surpass him, and there’s about no chance he reaches the same heights as Jagr, Howe or Gretzky. Even still, that’s company even more exclusive than the list of players with 1,000 assists. Being mentioned alongside arguably the three greatest offensive players in the league’s history, and three veritable legends of the sport, would put into perspective the type of assist machine Thornton has been.
Thornton’s chase to the 1,000-assist milestone is something to pay attention to and worth even more recognition than it’s sure to get. While the Stanley Cup may have eluded Thornton to this point, the longer he plays, the more he cements his legacy as one of the greatest set-up men the league has ever seen. And when the time comes, he’ll be more than worthy of enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
There's no "generational talent" at the top of the draft this season, but there is a nice battle for the top spot between Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier.
It’s time for draft rankings, people, and it’s getting very interesting out there.
The 2017 draft class has already been pilloried quite a bit this season, but I think we just have to appreciate it for what it is: a chance for teams to get better. We’ve been spoiled by “generational” talents such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews lately, but that can’t happen every year. Instead, we have a nice little battle shaping up at the top between Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier. And don’t be surprised to see even more movement as time goes on.
I have Timothy Liljegren third, but I’m kinda conservative when it comes to moving top players down. Recognize that he may slide as other blueliners make their cases, or if it appears we’ll have another run on centers at the top this summer in Chicago. Whatever happens, here’s the first round as I see it right now.
1. Nolan Patrick, C, Brandon (WHL): Back from injury and from all appearances, not suffering. Patrick has the size, skill and all-around game to be an instant NHLer
2. Nico Hischier, C, Halifax (QMJHL): The high-end skills and smarts are so tantalizing. Hischier is certainly giving Patrick a run for his money and surpassing the Wheat King is not out of the question.
3. Timothy Liljegren, D, Rogle (SHL): Liljegren seems to be back on track after illness and a loan to Timra. His skating and offensive instincts are excellent and he’s getting some nice responsibility with Rogle.
4. Gabe Vilardi, C, Windsor (OHL): Skating is the knock, but scouts are already downplaying it by hyping up his other skills. Vilardi is big, smart and talented and really, the speed isn’t that bad right now.
5. Owen Tippett, RW, Mississauga (OHL): A weaponized winger with size, speed and a big-time shot, Tippett doesn’t have the versatility of Vilardi, but the physical tools are beguiling.
6. Klim Kostin, RW, MVD (Rus.): Surgery ended his nightmare season, but Kostin is enough of a known quantity thanks to earlier international duty. He’s a big, powerful kid with loads of talent.
7. Casey Mittelstadt, C, Eden Prairie (Minn. HS): The Minnesota commit wanted one more shot at a state title, so Mittelstadt is currently laying waste to high schoolers with Eden Prairie. Tons of skill and he put up numbers in the USHL, too.
8. Michael Rasmussen, C, Tri-City (WHL): Starting off with his nearly 6-foot-6 frame, there’s a lot to like about Rasmussen. Naturally his reach is good, but his hands are also pretty sweet and he can play with an edge.
9. Eeli Tolvanen, LW, Sioux City (USHL): A wicked shot in a smaller package. The Boston College recruit is a pure goal-scorer and draws penalties with his skill. Mixed opinions out there on his feistiness.
10. Miro Heiskainen, D, HIFK (Fin.): Smooth-skating defensemen are in and Heiskanen may even challenge Liljegren for draft stock. Some scouts thought he was Finland’s best blueliner at the world juniors.