The NHL’s Feb. 26 trade deadline is drawing near, which means it’s time for bubble teams to decide how to proceed. Which teams in the thick of the playoff hunt should buy, which should sell and which should stand pat?
For Western Conference clubs such as the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights, the situation at the trade deadline is obvious. They’re all buyers with designs on adding a piece or two that can put them over the top and into the Stanley Cup final this season. The same goes for Eastern Conference clubs such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Conversely, the likes of the Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Arizona Coyotes, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks are all pretty firmly in the seller category. What rentals they have will likely be shipped off at the deadline to recoup some assets as each team looks to take another shot at things next season. Such is life for the teams that are too far gone when it comes to playoff contention in the days before the annual trade freeze.
But there exists a group of teams whose strategies at the deadline aren’t as clear. These are the bubble teams, the ones on the cusp of a playoff berth but also just a string of tough losses away from hitting the golf course early in the off-season. Who are these teams and what will — or what should — they do as Monday’s deadline approaches?
St. Louis Blues
The Blues have all the ability necessary to turn into a playoff spoiler, particularly if they end up in the top wild-card spot in the Western Conference and play in the Pacific Division side of the bracket. But making a serious run is going to require two things: another depth scorer and a depth defenseman. St. Louis has a middling offense and a power play that is among the bottom-third in the league. Adding a specialist who can contribute on the man advantage would be a boon to the Blues’ chances. As for the defensive help, St. Louis needs another rearguard who can help insulate the crease. Targets could include Thomas Vanek, Jean-Gabriel Pageau or Matt Hunwick.
The Stars find themselves in much the same position as the Blues, but Dallas is currently hanging on to the third spot in the Central with one game in hand. And if that holds, or if the Stars have to make it through their home division in the post-season, they’re going to need to add at least a piece to best Nashville or Winnipeg, the two clubs fighting it out for top spot. Dallas has been much improved defensively this season, but that has come at the expense of offense. Thus, adding a secondary scoring player — a Derek Ryan, Lee Stempniak or Michael Grabner would fit the bill — could give the Stars the extra bit of juice they need to make some noise out west.
New York Islanders
That New York hasn’t already made a move is somewhat shocking. However, there’s no time like the present, especially with the deadline only a few days away. This much is clear: the Islanders don’t need to add up front. Rather, it’s defense, defense, defense that GM Garth Snow should be after. The top target on the market is Mike Green, but an offensive defenseman doesn’t really fit the bill. Blueliners who play a more defensive game, though, should be pursued by New York. Hunwick, Jack Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Johnny Oduya would be sensible targets. The pipe dream would be to put together a package that somehow convinces the Rangers to move Ryan McDonagh to their New York rival.
OK, this has been fun, but let’s get serious. Colorado has some young, exciting talent, but this isn’t the season to go for it, even if it means the greatest season of Nathan MacKinnon’s career will have to end after Game 82. The Avalanche have a few assets worth moving, including rentals Blake Comeau, Gabriel Bourque and Mark Barberio, but there also exists the option of trading Tyson Barrie. We’ve seen what Joe Sakic can do when he puts his mind to getting a certain return for a player, and if he holds his ground when teams come asking about Barrie, maybe the Avalanche can stockpile even more assets.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The wild-card race in the Eastern Conference is incredibly tight and Columbus will most likely attempt to add a piece or two in order to book a ticket to the playoffs. That said, the Blue Jackets are already in a position where blueliner Jack Johnson wants out, so why not get rid of other rentals such as Matt Calvert and Jussi Jokinen, recoup some assets and regroup for next season? By then, Columbus’ young stud defensemen will be that much better and more experienced, and maybe the down offensive years that have plagued many of the team’s top scorers will be a thing of the past.
It really felt like this was going to be the season Carolina took a long-awaited step forward. Instead, an early summer appears to be just as likely as a wild-card berth. That does give the Hurricanes an opportunity to sell and further stock the cupboards, however, and they have a few rental pieces that can help them do just that. Stempniak, Ryan and goaltender Cam Ward could all be sold to the highest bidder, while Carolina could also give consideration to shipping out restricted free agents-to-be such as Joakim Nordstrom, Klas Dahlbeck and Trevor van Riemsdyk. Doing so could help the Hurricanes stockpile the assets necessary to acquire a big piece at the deadline, as well as open even more cap space to chase a notable free agent or two.
The Ducks have been battered and bruised to an almost absurd level this season, yet Anaheim still remains in the thick of the Pacific race. With the roster healthier than ever before — barring John Gibson’s injury, of course — the Ducks shouldn’t feel any need to do anything bold at the deadline. After all, with a roster that was very much the same, Anaheim came within two wins of a berth into the Stanley Cup final last season. If anything, selling would make the most sense for the Ducks, but Anaheim should be willing to take another kick at the can with their current group. Really, they have nothing to lose.
Minnesota learned last season that buying big doesn’t guarantee even a modicum of success in the playoffs as the Martin Hanzal acquisition blew up in their face and they were booted from the post-season in the first round by the Blues. There’s no reason for the Wild to buy right now, either. This isn’t a team prepared to make a deep run at the Stanley Cup. In a few years’ time, that will almost certainly change given Minnesota’s deep prospect pool, but that’s all the more reason to be content with a playoff berth and a few homes games. Besides, it’s not as though the Wild have cap space. Their buying options are extremely limited at the moment.
New Jersey Devils
Not enough can be said about how important Taylor Hall has been to the Devils this season. He won’t win, but he should certainly be in the conversation for the Hart Trophy. Yet, Hall’s performance has come just a bit too soon. New Jersey isn’t ready to challenge for the Stanley Cup. Not even close, really. Buying now won’t do them any favors, particularly with a so-so prospect pool. But they shouldn’t sell — or, at the very least, limit the selling — because this season can provide the youth of the roster with valuable experience down the line when New Jersey is ready to become a contender once again.
The Flames have the room to add at the deadline. Matter of fact, they have quite a bit of room. That doesn’t mean they should use it, though. Any move Calgary makes at the deadline will likely only patch one of many holes for a team that’s close, but not quite there, when it comes to truly contending. The Flames, despite being in the thick of the West’s wild-card hunt, rank below average in goal-scoring, goals against, power play success and penalty killing. There’s no quick fix at the deadline that can address those needs, and attempting to do so only stands to cost the Flames futures.
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