“Play out the string” is among the most common clichés we hear at this time of year. It fits. A handful of teams have fallen out of playoff contention, and it isn’t always easy for players to mentally fire themselves up for meaningless games. There’s a limit to how fun playing spoiler can be.
Which players might or should dream of playing on new teams as they watch their teams’ seasons wasting away? Consider this group of five players, which may or may not include more than five players. My two criteria: (a) the list obviously doesn’t include 2017 unrestricted free agents who can change teams of their own free will; and (b) the list only involves players not currently in playoff spots.
5. TYLER JOHNSON, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
The Lightning were deadly Stanley Cup threats in 2014-15 and 2015-16 largely because they had two powerhouse scoring lines, one of which was centered by Johnson. But a younger version of Johnson has emerged and may possess a higher ceiling: Brayden Point. He’s almost six years Johnson’s junior and brings a similar repertoire of speed and two-way play in a small frame. From a pure hockey standpoint, then, Tampa might be wise to use Johnson in a trade that addresses the team’s greatest area of need: defense. The Bolts crave another top-four blueliner. They rely too much on Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman.
GM Steve Yzerman has done a tremendous job managing his salary cap space, most recently by making Valtteri Filppula’s contract disappear at the trade deadline, but the hard work isn’t done. Johnson is a restricted free agent this summer, as is Ondrej Palat, as is Jonathan Drouin, and those three forwards alone could command around $15 million combined. Per capfriendly.com, the Bolts project to have just $17.9 million in cap space with only 13 players under contract for 2016-17 so far. Yzerman, then, would be wise to relieve himself of more financial baggage. Ideally, the Vegas Golden Knights claim Alex Killorn. If they don’t, might Yzerman consider a Johnson deal?
4. JUSTIN FAULK, CAROLINA HURRICANES
The idea of Carolina trading away primo puck mover and minute muncher Faulk would’ve seemed preposterous even a year ago, but much has changed. Jaccob Slavin has vastly exceeded expectations and has quietly surpassed Faulk in minutes and even points. Brett Pesce is another good young D-man for the Canes, and Noah Hanifin, 20, still has plenty of time to evolve into a future stud. The Canes still have first-round picks Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean developing in the AHL and WHL, respectively. They have a major surplus at defense and desperately need some top-end talent at forward to support emerging star Sebastian Aho.
Faulk is enduring his worst season in several years, but he’s still a massively valuable commodity. He’s 25, he’s a right-handed shot, he’s signed for three more seasons at a bargain cap hit of $4.83 million, and he trails only Brent Burns, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Erik Karsson, Shea Weber and Dustin Byfuglien in goals over the past two months. Canes GM Ron Francis can demand the moon for Faulk and successfully get the moon back, be it in the form of an established star NHL forward or package of mega prospects. Colorado’s Matt Duchene would be a realistic ask.
3. MANY MEMBERS OF THE COLORADO AVALANCHE
It’s clear the Avs are open to a fire sale this summer, meaning every player not named Nathan MacKinnon or Mikko Rantanen can be had. The names to watch closest: Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Semyon Varlamov.
Duchene and Landeskog will have suitors lined up outside the door, as they appeal not just to contending teams, but to bubble teams needing major forward upgrades to become contenders. Given Duchene is only 26 and Landeskog only 24, they might even appeal to basement teams. They’re young enough to build around.
Varlamov’s market will be much smaller but hardly non-existent. Several teams need starting goaltending help. The Dallas Stars are the most obvious example if they can rid themselves of Antti Niemi and/or Kari Lehtonen, each of whom has just a year left on his contract. It wouldn’t kill a team like Colorado to eat that final year for one of the goalies in a Varlamov deal. Doing so would take Varlamov’s last two seasons at $5.9 million off the books and would net GM Joe Sakic a decent prospect. The Philadelphia Flyers extended goaltender Michael Neuvirth’s contract but not at a starter’s price. They could seek a No. 1 if GM Ron Hextall decides to stop being so conservative.
2. DANIEL AND HENRIK SEDIN
An ocean of trade-the-Sedins hot takes populates the hockey pundit world right now, and one of them is mine, which you can read here.
To summarize: trading the Sedins would be great for them and the Canucks. It would help the Canucks further bottom out and contend for a lottery pick in 2018, which projects to boast a sexier draft class than 2017. It would likely land GM Jim Benning a few more prospects and picks. And it would give Daniel and Henrik chances to chase a championship while they’re still good enough to make a difference on a contending team. Sorting out two $7-million cap hits wouldn’t be easy, of course, especially since the Canucks, already retaining salary for Jannik Hansen and Roberto Luongo, could only eat money for one twin. They would thus still cost a combined $10.5 million in the best-case scenario, which would have the receiving team paying full salary for one twin while the Canucks ate half of the other twin’s cap hit. And yes, the Sedins would go to the same team in any trade. Come on. It’s the Sedins. Forget identical – they’re pretty much Siamese.
1. CORY SCHNEIDER
Schneider was 27 before he started more than half his team’s games for the first time in a season. Since he got his long-deserved shot so late, it’s easy to forget he’s already 31, older than Devan Dubnyk, Ben Bishop, Tuukka Rask, Carey Price and Sergei Bobrovsky, to name a few well-established veterans.
Schneider is nowhere near a senior citizen by goalie standards and could easily play at a high level another five years. Where, though, will the Devils be in five years? They’re as far away from Stanley Cup contention as any team in the NHL, deficient in talent from the NHL squad through to their farm system. Trading D-man Adam Larsson was obviously worth Taylor Hall but did pluck from an area that didn’t have a surplus of blue-chippers. GM Ray Shero thus desperately needs to line his organization with some high-ceiling blueline prospects. The Devils also need more than Taylor Hall, Pavel Zacha and Mikey McLeod to build around at forward.
By the time New Jersey can contend for the Cup, Schneider may have outgrown his usefulness. Why not consider shopping him to a team like Dallas in hopes of landing some good young pieces to accelerate Shero’s rebuild? Put Schneider on a talented but flawed team like Dallas and it gets back to the playoffs next year.
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