The 2016-17 season is two months old. Which teams need a trade ASAP to have any chance of competing for the playoffs in April?
Is it trade freeze time already? The 2016-17 season has zoomed by faster than Connor McDavid with the puck on his stick. Teams will be barred from trading from midnight ET Dec. 19 to midnight ET Dec. 27.
That leaves a few days for teams to negotiate deals if they really want to before the freeze. It’s highly unlikely we see significant activity, of course. We’re close enough to the holiday season that a trade any time would feel like an unofficial violation of The Code. When the embargo lifts, however, a few teams would be wise getting to work. I’m not talking about the obvious sellers, who can chase draft picks and prospects at the trade deadline, nor the obvious contenders, who can rent veteran chips to perfect their rosters a few months from now.
What about the tweener teams? Here are five squads wavering between success and oblivion that could get their seasons back on track with the right move.
THE DALLAS STARS…need a No. 1 goaltender
I’ll try not to beat the issue to death here but, hey, the problem remains as prominent as it was for the Stars in the 2016 playoffs, when Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi’s spotty regular-season play spilled over from the regular season, holding the team back in the second round. They lost to the St. Louis Blues in seven games, combining to allow five goals on 18 shots. Lehtonen and Niemi finished 38 and 40th among qualified NHL leaders in save percentage. I spoke with Stars GM Jim Nill in the summer, and he was hellbent on giving his $10.4-million battery another shot.
“I really think they’re going to be better this year,” Nill said at the time. “It was kind of a feeling-out process last year, and now they’ve both settled in. We’re status quo, and they’ve got the ability to be better than last year, which I hope turns into even more wins for us next year.”
So how is status quo working out this year? Lehtonen has an .894 SP in 19 appearances. Niemi sits at .909 in 16 appearances. That slots them 25th and 44th, respectively, among qualified leaders. Still nowhere near good enough, and the Stars sit outside the playoff picture after winning the Central Division last season. They’re not scoring nearly as many goals this season, and that’s exposed their weaknesses a lot more.
Should Nill, then, wade into the trade waters? He has options and, better yet, not a ton of competition. The two best trade targets, Ben Bishop and Marc-Andre Fleury, play in the opposite conference, too, and both could come at surprisingly reasonable prices. Tampa Bay only has so much leverage considering Ben Bishop is a pending unrestricted free agent. The Penguins can’t get greedy, either, since they must trade Fleury before the expansion draft if they want to retain Matt Murray. Because Fleury has a no-movement clause, he must be protected, and the Pens can only protect one goalie. Another intriguing option is Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov. If the Avalanche are smart, they’ll accept that this season is going nowhere and sell off a few veteran pieces. Varlamov would attract interest. He’s not an every-game juggernaut but is talented enough to steal games or even a series in the playoffs should he get hot.
And, really, if the Stars want to make the playoffs, the shopping list should stop there. They could pursue a B+ option such as Jaroslav Halak, but he’s not a surefire upgrade over Niemi or Lehtonen.
THE TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING…need a top-four defenseman
Despite a fully healthy blueline corps, the Lightning are still giving up more goals and shot attempts than they did last season. We can partially blame Bishop’s subpar season for the dip in goals against, but this team has undoubtedly regressed defensively. Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman can’t do it all. While Andrej Sustr, Jason Garrison, Braydon Coburn and Nikita Nesterov are legit NHLers, none will be confused for a real No. 3. Tampa needs another mobile minutes eater. The first name that comes to mind is Dallas’ pending UFA Johnny Oduya. Prying Chris Tanev from the Vancouver Canucks would be a coup, too. Whatever GM Steve Yzerman does, it will likely involve a roster player of his own going the other way. It will be tough for him to make the money work otherwise.
THE EDMONTON OILERS…need a scoring right winger
There’s no reason to panic over right winger Jesse Puljujarvi. It’s tempting to compare his development with that of fellow Finnish phenom Patrik Laine and sweat over Puljujarvi’s lack of production as an 18-year-old rookie, but that would be a mistake. Puljujarvi’s ceiling remains sky-high. Look at 2014 third overall pick Leon Draisaitl, who had to be returned to junior after struggling as an Oilers rookie. Doubling Puljujarvi’s nightly minutes via AHL demotion would be ideal for his development.
That Puljujarvi will be fine doesn’t change the fact Edmonton has a hole at right wing, though. Jordan Eberle fills one of the top two spots, but coach Todd McLellan hasn’t settled on a second scoring-line right winger. Right now, it’s Drake Caggiula, another rookie and a natural left winger. Oilers announcer and insider Bob Stauffer floated Jarome Iginla’s name as a possible target. He checks a few boxes: (a) true right winger; (b) right shot; (c) gritty; (d) experienced; (e) revenge on Flames fans, who got to see Grant Fuhr in a Calgary uniform at the end of his career. But does Iggy have anything left at 39? He thinks he does, but his numbers in Colorado suggest otherwise. At least the price to acquire him would be low.
THE LOS ANGELES KINGS…need a stopgap goaltender
Jonathan Quick is expected to return from his groin injury by mid-February. That’s good news for the Kings considering the worst-case forecast was for March, but we must remember (a) groin injuries can be extremely finicky; just ask Sergei Bobrovsky and (b) Quick, the most athletic and acrobatic goaltender in hockey, relies on flexibility and fast-twitch muscles more than anyone. He’ll be at risk for aggravating the malady if he returns too soon. Even the best-case scenario puts him two months out, and the Kings don’t have any cushion in the Western Conference playoff picture, where they currently hold down the second wild-card spot. Peter Budaj, ticketed for the AHL to start the year, has done an admirable job filling in, playing 25 of the Kings’ past 27 games, but he’s finally wilting under the unexpected workload, with an .861 SP in five appearances this month. Jeff Zatkoff has an .890 SP in eight appearances and has never started more than 18 games in a season.
Los Angeles could use a veteran stopgap until Quick returns – and to serve as insurance should Quick suffer a setback. General manager Dean Lombardi told the L.A. Times’ Helene Elliott he wasn’t ready to “throw the kitchen sink” at another team to land a big-ticket goalie, which makes perfect sense. Time to target a mid-range option, then. Why not look at the New York Islanders, who inexplicably continue to carry Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube on the NHL roster simultaneously?
THE DETROIT RED WINGS…need a franchise defenseman, but…
…they are better off continuing to struggle, missing the playoffs and ending the 25-year playoff streak that has cursed them with mediocrity in recent years. Read my colleague Jared Clinton’s blog for more on this topic. The Wings have repeatedly been linked to top-end defensemen on the trade market this season, from Jacob Trouba to Cam Fowler and, most recently, Dougie Hamilton, per Elliotte Friedman. Would chasing one of those fish not just hike Detroit back up into its now-typical post-season bubble position, though? Even if GM Ken Holland somehow maneuvered around Detroit’s maxed-out cap to make such a move happen, a team with no top-10 draft picks in the past 25 years could really use a down season or two to restock the farm with crops.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin