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As we count down to the March 1 trade deadline, here are five of the teams that present the toughest buy-or-sell call.
We're now one week away from the trade deadline, which means the entire league is being divided into buyers and sellers. This year, there's far more of the former than the latter, so much so that it might throw the market into chaos, or maybe lead to a very quiet week.
Still, most teams know where they stand by now. If you're a Cup contender or desperate for a playoff spot, you buy. If you're already toast, then you look to the future and let the firesale begin.
But what about those teams that are stuck somewhere in between? Even this late in the season, there are still some teams that could make a good case for either side of the equation. Maybe they're not quite sure if they're still in the running, or maybe they can't decide if this is the right year to make a push. But either way, they've got a few days left to make up their minds.
As we count down until March 1, here are five of the teams that present the toughest buy-or-sell call.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The case for buying: One year into the Auston Matthews era, the Leafs have been better than most expected and are right in the mix for an Eastern Conference playoff spot – and a run at home-ice or even a division title isn't completely out of the question. The team has access to a ton of cap room and plenty of picks and prospects to work with.
And maybe more importantly, they have a three-year window while Matthews and Mitch Marner are on their rookie contracts. James van Riemsdyk's cheap deal runs for one more year after this one. William Nylander needs a new contract after next season. The time to strike could be soon.
The case for selling: "Soon" doesn't mean now. The Leafs have been patient during this rebuild, and waiting another year to really swing for the fences would be the smart play. And with a handful of rental options like Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick, collecting a few more future assets might be a smart way to prepare for what's to come.
Where they'll end up: You never know with Lou Lamoriello and his fortress of silence, but for now it sounds like they're not planning to do much.
The case for buying: After making the playoffs last year, the Flyers have taken a step back and are fading from the race. But this team is good enough to do some damage, as they showed earlier this year when they won nine straight and briefly moved into the mix with other elite teams in the Metro. Ron Hextall has been patient since taking over the GM's job, but this team hasn't won a playoff round since 2012 and Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are in the late stages of their prime. At some point, it's time to take a step forward.
The case for selling: Timing is everything, and this year's Metro Division is so stacked that taking a run at it seems foolish. Better to move rentals like Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto (and maybe even Steve Mason) and regroup for next year.
Where they'll end up: Their next two games are against the Capitals and Penguins, if they lose those, Hextall likely folds his hand.
The case for buying: We've been talking about the Jets as the NHL's team of the future for years now, but that future never seems to arrive. The West is wide open this year, and the path out of the Central doesn't seem as daunting as it has been in recent years. Their biggest need is goaltending, and there could be some good ones available, even as short-term rentals. With the team on the edge of the playoff bubble, this could be the year to make a push.
The case for selling: This team is good enough to make the playoffs, but are they really a threat to do much damage once they're there? The franchise has been patiently building up a young talent base since returning to Winnipeg, and abandoning that approach now just to get swept in the first round could seem like a panic move.
Where they'll end up: History tells us that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and the Jets won't do much at all, no team has been as reluctant to trade in recent years. This could be the year that changes, especially if a goaltender shakes free as a decent value buy. Then again, it feels like we've said that before.
The case for buying: They've been bad for five straight years. Some of those were strategic, granted, but that phase of the rebuild was supposed to end in 2015 and give way to progress. There's been some, but not as much as fans probably hoped, and they're on the verge of missing the playoffs yet again.
But they've been better since a rash of injuries torpedoed their start, and they've got assets to work with to plug some holes. And in an off-year for the Atlantic, a push into the playoffs isn't far-fetched.
Again, most teams don't want to load up at the deadline just to make the playoffs and go out early. But this isn't the same situation as a team like the Jets, who didn't have to endure hitting rock bottom like the Sabres did. In Buffalo's case you wonder if even a first-round exit wouldn't represent a worthwhile investment, if only to offer long-suffering fans some hope that things are moving in the right direction.
The case for selling: They're not winning it all this year, and the roster is still young. Sure, missing the playoffs again will be frustrating, but there's no need to rush. Trust the process, trust Jack Eichel and the young core, and most of all, trust Tim Murray. At least for one more year.
Where they'll end up: Murray might tinker here or there, but any big moves to improve now would also have to extend to next season and beyond.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The case for buying: They're the Lightning. They went to the Cup final in 2015, and to the conference final in 2016. Plenty of us picked them to win it all this year. They'll be facing a cap crunch soon and their window may be closing, but on paper this team is still good enough to win it all, especially if Steven Stamkos comes back by the playoffs.
So of course you're buying. This team can win the Stanley Cup. They're the Lightning.
The case for selling: They're also terrible.
I don't know why. You don't know why. I'm not sure Steve Yzerman knows why. But they just haven't clicked all year, and they remain outside the playoffs with multiple teams to pass. Better to accept that, recoup some assets for guys like Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle, and maybe even figure out a way to dump some deals with term. For whatever reason, this just isn't their year, so start setting the table for the next ones.
Where they'll end up: Yzerman's earned the benefit of the doubt over the years, so you figure he'll make the right call one way or another. The betting is with two more home games before the deadline, he waits as long as he can before throwing in the towel. But I have them in the "sell" column.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
The Calder Trophy race will likely come down to Patrik Laine vs. Auston Matthews, which means in this Year of the Rookie, a lot of really good freshmen will not even be finalists.
There will be one winner and three finalists for the Calder Trophy this season and based on how impressive the rookie crop has been, it all seems inadequate. But hey, these kids are elite athletes and they don’t want your participation ribbons anyway. But for the sake of putting into perspective just how good this year’s Calder race is, I’d like to present you with the top five players who will not win rookie of the year this season.
In order to set this field, let’s first deal with the actual contenders: Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews are your favorites. Zach Werenski, Matt Murray and Mitch Marner are your dark horses, yet all have very nice cases to be made. When us writers fill out our awards ballots, we get five slots to fill out and I would presume this cohort would be on the majority of them (so as you will note, two of these players will be “snubbed” from the announced list of three finalists, even though they probably got a ton of lower-ranking votes).
But who will be the true snubs? My top five:
Matthew Tkachuk, Flames: He’s the heavy on Calgary’s most effective possession line and one of the Flames’ top scorers. Tkachuk’s chemistry with Mikael Backlund and Mikael Frolik has been a great boon for the team and the rookie’s combination of skill, aggression and ability to agitate is unparalleled among his rookie peers. Most other years, he’d be a finalist for sure. Ranks fifth in rookie scoring right now.
Ivan Provorov, Flyers: Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev is the only rookie to average more ice than Provorov and has slightly better stats, but I’m not a psycho: no voter outside of the 416 area code is going to put four Leafs on a ballot. Provorov plays against top lines and averages nearly a minute more of penalty-kill time than Zaitsev, so it’s not exactly tokenism to put him ahead of his Russian countryman. Offensively, he’s only slightly behind Shayne Gostisbehere among Flyers blueliners and offense is Ghost Bear’s thing.
William Nylander, Maple Leafs: As I just mentioned, you can only have so many Leafs on the ballot, but Nylander has compelling arguments for inclusion. He is now Toronto’s best possession forward and has more points than all rookies outside the Big Three forwards Laine, Matthews and Marner. Nylander leads the NHL in power play points among freshmen (which you can take as a positive or a negative – I call it the Dave Andreychuk Gauntlet) and is now playing alongside Matthews, which could increase his numbers. One weakness? He has been shuttled around the lineup by coach Mike Babcock – which is normal for a rookie, but doesn’t help his Calder efforts.
Brandon Carlo, Bruins: As the Bruins ponder life without Zdeno Chara, another tall drink of water with great reach and shutdown ability comes to town. Carlo is playing with ‘Z’ and more than holding his own, playing against top lines and logging lots of minutes. Only Zaitsev and Provorov skate more among rookies. Carlo is also chipping in offensively, with all of his 14 points coming 5-on-5 except for one shorthanded, and he ranks second on the Bruins in penalty-kill time. Boston has the best PK unit in the NHL, to top it off.
Sebastian Aho, Hurricanes: A solid possession player and one of the top scorers on a bad team, Aho is definitely off the radar in terms of Calder buzz, but again; in a regular year he’d at least be in the conversation. Already has his first NHL hat trick and is playing on Carolina’s top line, while logging some penalty-kill time on the league’s second-best unit.
With parity at its zenith, Vegas looming and a so-so 2017 draft class, figuring what to do at the NHL swap meet has never been harder.
While the trade deadline tends to be one of the biggest TV days of the hockey year, its actual impact has long been exaggerated. Of course it would be glib to point out only one team – the eventual Stanley Cup winner – can really “win” the deadline, but it’s also inaccurate. That’s only true if you’re considering the “buyer” teams. The “seller” teams can also really benefit if their GMs play the field right.
Parity wreaked havoc on the trade market for most of this season, and perhaps with the blockbusters of the summer (Shea Weber for P.K. Subban, Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson), that was to be expected. But with very few teams truly out of the playoff picture and the deadline approaching, GMs have to be cagey this season.
The Buffalo Sabres, for example, were at the bottom of the Eastern Conference as February began, but the rebuilding team is still only a hot streak away from wild-card contention.
“In the calls I make and the ones I take, I inquire about buying and I also listen to what people are asking for,” said GM Tim Murray. “So I’m kind of on both sides of the fence.”
An important reminder for teams that aren’t at the top of the standings is that building a franchise takes many careful steps, and a quick score at the trade deadline must be evaluated against long-term desires.
“Last year, as far as selling, I would have listened to anything reasonable, no question,” Murray said. “I definitely wouldn’t have bought anything that would have gone away from the plan, and I’m not sure I would this year, either. If I’m going to buy someone, I’d obviously like them to be young and someone we’d have around for awhile, but that’s not always easy.”
Figuring out exactly when your team has become a buyer or seller can be tricky, too. Ray Shero had some great deadlines as a buyer in Pittsburgh, but now he’s seeing the other side in New Jersey, as the Devils try to find their footing.
“Last year in New Jersey was the first year I really sold, and we took it all the way to the end with guys like Lee Stempniak,” Shero said. “We played Cory Schneider every game, but we just couldn’t get there. If we were five points in, it might have been different, but at the time it felt like the right thing to do and, in retrospect, it was definitely the right thing to do, so there are a lot of factors in play.”
Shero did end up dealing Stempniak to Boston, getting a fourth-rounder in 2016 (goalie Evan Cormier) and a second-rounder in 2017. The Bruins, incidentally, ended up missing the playoffs.
Another complication this season involves the Vegas expansion draft. Teams are limited in the amount of players they protect, but they must also have a certain threshold of eligible NHL players to expose. That means guys on expiring contracts aren’t as valuable as they would be in previous years.
“If you can get a real good player, you’re going to get that player,” Shero said. “But it’s happened a lot during the season where one player has a contract for next year and if he plays eight more games this season, he’s a guy we can expose, and we didn’t have that before. Teams are constantly evaluating.”
Even those on the waiver wire can be more valuable right now. Part of the reason they have been on waivers in the first place is contract status, but now another franchise may seek them out in order to expose them to the Golden Knights in the summer. On either side of the ledger, GMs and their fellow team execs are keeping constant tabs on their expansion draft situation, including the criteria of whom to expose.
And while the deadline is seen as a time for short-term gains, that’s mostly from the perspective of fans and the players. For execs, it’s all about the long term.
“The trade deadline gets overblown,” Murray said. “Sellers can certainly acquire assets that help you on draft day, and teams that are playoff bound realize it and try to give their team a jolt, but it’s not a blockbuster, long-term solution. Draft day is still the day.”
Which is why it’s interesting to see so many draft picks and prospects tossed around in deals. Unfortunately for buyer GMs, it’s the price of business. The important thing to do is never look back. With draft picks, that’s not as difficult, because every team has a very different list heading into the day. So when Shero acquired Marian Hossa from Atlanta in 2008, the 29th overall pick became Daultan Leveille for Atlanta – but the Pens wouldn’t have necessarily picked the Michigan State commit had they held on to that selection.
“The prospects you kinda know,” Shero said. “With the Jarome Iginla deal, we traded Kenny Agostino and Ben Hanowski to Calgary and they never really ended up playing, though Kenny is doing great in the minors this year. But they were assets in a deal. Same thing with Angelo Esposito (in the Hossa deal). You don’t hope they go to the Hall of Fame, but you hope they do OK. Hopefully it works for both sides.”
According to one director of scouting, the fact 2017 is seen as a down draft year is already affecting trade deadline preparation. A first-rounder in 2017 isn’t expected to have the same impact as the player chosen in the same range last year, so if your team sells off a roster player to say, Chicago or Pittsburgh at the deadline, that 28th overall pick is probably worth the same as a mid-second-rounder or worse in previous years. This is information GMs request before they seriously hit the phones.
“I still think the draft is the biggest day for us, no question,” Murray said. “You’re building your future. You look back at the history of the draft, and there’s a big difference between teams who kill it and teams who have a bad draft. Those decisions impact you for 20 years.”
Though the NHL’s parity has caused a logjam for deals so far, it only takes one or two moves before a flood is possible. The best GMs will be thinking about their short-term needs without mortgaging their future, and if it all works out, they’ll get a parade at the end of the journey. For everyone else, the gun sights turn to next season.
Anaheim went out and scooped up versatile winger Patrick Eaves on Friday, and the deal has serious potential to pay off for the Ducks, Dallas Stars and, most of all, Eaves.
Patrick Eaves is having a dream season. At 32, the veteran winger has managed to set a new career best in goals, scoring 21 through the first 59 games of his campaign. His 37 points are five points clear of his previous career high, and, up until Friday, he had become a legitimate top-six point producer for the Dallas Stars. He has been doing it all in what has, to this point, been the most notable campaign of his career. And his season just got that much better.
Eaves was acquired by the Anaheim Ducks on Friday at the cost of a conditional second-round pick, one which has the potential to become a first-rounder for Dallas if Anaheim makes it to the conference final. The trade itself is an undeniable win for both sides, too. The Stars nab a draft pick in what has sadly become a lost season at a time when the organization believed they were about to take a major step forward. And the Ducks, well, they land themselves a coveted asset at the deadline, especially with Eaves earning a mere $1 million this season. The biggest winner, however, is the winger himself, as Eaves has the chance to cash in big time come next season.
There isn’t a player heading into the deadline who has had a more perfect situation to be set for the deadline than Eaves. Not only was he playing the most productive hockey of his career on a contract that was palatable for everyone in the hunt to add a piece at the deadline, but through much of the season he has had the pleasure of playing alongside Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, two of the league’s best scorers. There’s absolutely no doubt that Eaves benefitted from playing alongside the Stars’ all-star duo, but that doesn’t make his production any less impressive. Matter of fact, to the Ducks, it probably made acquiring him that much more attractive.
The duo of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf no longer consistently play together on a game-by-game basis, but for years that has been a go-to combination for Anaheim. That’s still the case, sure, but over recent outings the two have been split and playing on separate lines. One reason for that, among others, is that Anaheim has struggled to find a consistent fixture to play the other wing with the duo. Over the past five seasons, seven different players have occupied that spot for more than 150 minutes at 5-on-5, with everyone from Nick Ritchie to Rickard Rakell filling in alongside the Ducks’ duo.
What makes it difficult to find a third to play alongside Perry and Getzlaf is that not everyone is capable of filling in on a line with Anaheim’s two star players. Not even some players who are stars, or former stars, in their own right can be up to the task. Need an example? How about the Dany Heatley experiment? Heatley was one of the games premier scorers during his heyday and the thought in 2014-15 was the Ducks would bring him aboard as a reclamation project. He fizzled and flamed out, ending up in the AHL before being dealt away to end the season. So, while Perry and Getzlaf may currently be split, what Eaves represents is a player who understands how to play wing with two offensive players and he’s shown a proclivity for it this season. And even if he isn’t playing alongside Perry and Getzlaf, there are other combinations where Eaves could be a fit in the top-six.
That’s an intriguing aspect of Eaves’ game, too, because he’s proven this season just how versatile he can be. Unlike many of the fill-in players the Ducks have used to form a top line or bolster their top six, Eaves offers the ability to play from both sides of the ice and up and down the lineup. He’s equally sound at left and right wing, and that’s a skill that not every player has. In that sense, he’s an even better fit for the Ducks. If the lines need to be put in the blender, coach Randy Carlyle knows he can throw Eaves on either wing and make things work.
How does this all benefit Eaves, though? Well, not only does he go to a Ducks team in a position to make the post-season, but he goes to a club that’s set to attempt to make a run in a wide open Western Conference and what might be an even more wide open Pacific Division. He has a legitimate chance to finish the season with 30 goals — he needs nine to make that a reality and 20 games to do it — and then will follow that up with the opportunity to make noise in the post-season. And for Eaves, if there’s any way to get off of his current run of high-six and low-seven figure one-year deals, that’s exactly the path.
If the Ducks can make it through the first round of the post-season, or if they can piece together a two- or three-round run, and Eaves is a contributor, he’s almost certain to land himself a longer deal when he almost inevitably hits the open market this summer. In the past three seasons, the longest and most lucrative deal Eaves had was a one-year, $1.15 million contract, and his last long-term deal was inked in July 2011. It’s been a while since he’s had job security beyond one season.
Others have cashed in on one big season before, and while Eaves may be the rare case of a player doing so into his early 30s, that doesn’t mean he can’t pull off a nice finish to the campaign and payday come the summer. And if he manages that, the deal will have paid off for all parties. It could be the perfect storm for Eaves. Now all that’s left is for him to do everything in his power to make sure there’s a payoff on the potential.