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.