With the all-star break days away and the trade deadline in the offing, those in contention and a few teams sitting on the playoff bubble will be looking to bolster their rosters in the coming weeks to gear up for the stretch drive and a potential run towards the Stanley Cup.
For some teams, that may mean bringing in one of the top trade rentals. For others, it’s going to mean plucking away mid-lineup players from teams selling off talent. But for the teams fortunate to be in the thick of the playoff race despite dealing with some significant injuries, the deadline may be nothing more than an opportunity to bring in some bottom-six talent and patch up some small holes. That’s because for those teams the biggest additions ahead of the trade freeze will be the return of key cogs from an ailment.
Here are the five teams who will benefit the most from a return to full health pre- or post-deadline:
Predators GM David Poile hasn’t shied away from making moves over the past couple of seasons and there are rumblings Nashville could be in the mix for another forward. However, Poile shouldn’t be too upset if he strikes out swinging for the top targets because Nashville is set to get one of the league’s most consistent snipers back in the lineup in short order as Filip Forsberg appears to be inching closer to a return.
Out since Dec. 29, Forsberg has missed nine games and likely won’t play before all-star weekend, but he could get back into action soon after the Predators return from the break. He took part in practice Monday and recent roster shuffling in Nashville seems to point to Forsberg getting that much closer to full health. And what an addition he’ll be to a Predators team that’s already fighting for top spot in the Central Division. Before he fell injured, he had 15 goals and 34 points in 37 games and despite the time away he’s still on pace to hit 30 goals for the third straight season. That makes him as effective a top-six piece as anyone Nashville could trade for at the deadline.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Unlike the throng of teams chasing scoring at the deadline, the Islanders have the offense thing covered. They’re one of the league’s most lethal teams. What New York is desperate to find is the type of defensive consistency that will put them into true contention. That puts them in the running for any available rearguards, and maybe even a goaltender, at the deadline. But New York should also be getting help on the blueline from Johnny Boychuk and Calvin de Haan, both of whom have been out since mid-to-late December. Boychuk, especially, stands to bring some stability back to the Islanders’ blueline. He’s a top-pairing blueliner for the Islanders and one whose role hasn’t been filled in his absence. Getting a shutdown defender back is exactly what the doctor ordered in New York.
The returns of Andrew Ladd and Casey Cizikas also stand to bring some added defensive acumen to the roster. Both are capable 200-foot players who can give the blueliners some support and potentially help turn around what has been a dreadful defensive campaign. That’s not to mention the former offers some extra offensive punch, so if the Islanders can’t fix their defensive woes, maybe they can try to outscore them when Ladd returns.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Jaden Schwartz hasn’t had any luck with injury in his young career. Entering this season, he had missed 53 games across the past two campaigns, which almost makes his current 20-game absence unsurprising. Schwartz’s time out of the lineup could be coming to an end, though, as he took part in an optional skate Tuesday and could find himself getting a game in before the all-star break. No matter when he returns, be it for one outing before the break or for the stretch run following all-star weekend, Schwartz will be a boon to the Blues’ offense.
Before he fell injured, Schwartz was having an outstanding season, scoring 14 goals and 35 points in 30 games, but the importance of his return goes beyond individual statistics because what he brings the Blues is a top line that can stack up against any in the league. Alongside Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko, Schwartz was part of one of the NHL’s most dominant trios in the early going, and as soon as he gets back, coach Mike Yeo is going to have an almost incomparable unit at his disposal.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
The Lightning will improve by leaps and bounds defensively simply by virtue of a return to full health. In fact, Steve Yzerman could add a few depth pieces ahead of the deadline to shore up his roster before the Lightning get an additional boost by way of two major pieces returning to the lineup from injury. The headliner of the duo is Victor Hedman, whose lower-body could keep him out until mid-February, if not later. And when he returns, the Lightning will instantly have a Norris Trophy-caliber rearguard back in their ranks.
Underrated in the importance of his return, though, is Ondrej Palat. There are few two-way wingers who are as effective in a shutdown role as Palat, and he’s one of the weapons in coach Jon Cooper’s arsenal who doesn’t get enough credit. While he’s able to put up decent offensive numbers of his own — he has eight goals and 30 points in 46 games — Palat’s at his best when he’s taking on top units and shutting them down. That allows the Lightning to leave the prime offensive minutes to Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov without worrying about mismatches.
There’s going to be no shortage of teams chasing after high-skilled, offensive forwards at the deadline, which is why Evander Kane and Mike Hoffman have become two oft-mentioned trade targets. And while the Jets, who currently sit atop the Central Division, will undoubtedly be looking to add here or there come the deadline, one area they need not spend time addressing is additional firepower. Reason being is that Mark Scheifele is on his way back, which gives Winnipeg a star scorer to add to their already high-powered attack.
Before he got hurt, Scheifele was a point-per-game player with 15 goals and 38 points in 38 outings and centered the Jets’ top line. Thus, getting him back not only means Winnipeg gets better up front, it means they’ll get deeper down the middle and on the wings as Blake Wheeler shifts back to his regular role on the wing. That’s not to mention Scheifele’s ability to play in all situations means an already division-leading squad should get better in every facet of the game. Making the Jets more frightening to play against with Scheifele’s return on the horizon is that the Winnipeg offense hasn’t really missed a beat without him. The goals-per-game average has dipped only slightly — less than one-fifth of a goal — in Scheifele’s absence.
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