The continued struggles of the Coyotes, Oilers and Sabres have thrust defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, pivot Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and free agent-to-be Evander Kane into the rumor mill as we pass the quarter mark of the season.
The Arizona Coyotes’ ongoing struggles this season continues to generate speculation over the future of Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The 26-year-old defenseman is eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2019. Given the Coyotes’ years of mediocrity, some observers wonder if he could become a trade candidate.
Ekman-Larsson’s status came to the fore during the Coyotes’ 4-1 win over the Maple Leafs last Monday in Toronto. Some Toronto followers believe he’s the perfect candidate to address the Leafs ongoing need for a skilled top-two blueliner.
The Leafs aren’t the only club that could use Ekman-Larsson. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks proposes the New York Islanders should make a blockbuster pitch. He suggests offering up a package to the Coyotes with “either Joshua Ho-Sang or Anthony Beauvillier, perhaps Brock Nelson, maybe Ryan Pulock or Scott Mayfield” and perhaps one of their two first-round selections in the 2018 NHL draft.
While Ekman-Larsson would be an enticing trade target, it’s doubtful he’s going anywhere this season. Ken Campbell last week went into detail explaining Ekman-Larsson’s ongoing value to the rebuilding Coyotes, as well as the blueliner’s willingness to stay in Arizona. TSN’s Bob McKenzie, meanwhile, reported the Coyotes and Leafs haven’t held a single conversation about the Swedish star. His colleague Pierre LeBrun noted Arizona GM John Chayka’s ongoing insistence that Ekman-Larsson isn’t available.
That won’t put an end to the Ekman-Larsson trade conjecture. He’ll probably remain the subject of endless fantasy trades up to the Feb. 26 trade deadline, but that doesn’t mean Chayka will change his mind. Unless Ekman-Larsson demands to be dealt or becomes non-committal about inking a long-term contract extension, the Coyotes will do all they can to keep him in Arizona.
NUGENT-HOPKINS AS OILERS TOP TRADE CHIP?
Speaking of struggling teams and players with hyphenated last names, Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins continues to surface in the NHL trade-rumor mill.
During the previous two seasons, Nugent-Hopkins’ on-ice struggles fuelled anticipation that the Oilers could move him. However, the 24-year-old center is among the few brights spots in an otherwise disappointing campaign thus far for Edmonton. With 18 points in 25 games, he’s third among Oilers’ scorers and on pace to reach a career-high 60 points. Nugent-Hopkins improvement is apparently attracting interest from clubs in need of depth at center. Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reports the Boston Bruins “kicked the tires”. He also notes the Florida Panthers seek a top-six forward.
In a recent mailbag segment, The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline was asked about the possibility of the Columbus Blue Jackets making a pitch. He believes the two clubs are a fit as trade partners, with the Jackets in the market for a center and the Oilers in need of blueline help. However, he feels that would mean Columbus parts with a young rearguard such as Ryan Murray or sophomore Markus Nutivaara plus some “today help” for Edmonton’s roster.
The Oilers’ need for immediate help could be a significant stumbling block for any club attempting to pry Nugent-Hopkins out of Edmonton. As always, his $6-million annual salary through 2020-21 could also be a showstopper unless the Oilers agree to pick up part of it.
KANE REMAINS TOP DEADLINE TARGET
With the Buffalo Sabres still mired at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, left winger Evander Kane remains the player considered most likely to be dealt by the trade deadline.
The 26-year-old Kane is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in July. He’s completing a six-year deal with a $5.25-million annual cap hit while earning $6 million in actual salary this season. With 12 goals and 23 points in 25 games, the 26-year-old winger is on a career-high 39-goal, 75-point pace.
While Kane could still fit into the Sabres’ rebuilding plans, they could be forced to move him if his salary demands prove expensive or he signals his intent to test the market. On Friday, Elliotte Friedman told Calgary’s Sportsnet 960 he expected Kane to be dealt, listing the Los Angeles Kings, Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning as possible destinations.
The Kings could certainly use Kane’s offense at left wing. Earlier this season, there was talk they could consider parting with a defenseman such as Alec Martinez or Jake Muzzin for additional scoring. Either guy could provide a significant boost to Buffalo’s blueline. However, it’s unlikely the Kings make that swap unless they get Kane under contract beyond this season.
The Jackets’ need a centerman, as they’re employing left winger Nick Foligno in that role. But if they can’t find a suitable one via trade, maybe they could add Kane and keep Foligno at center. The Jackets have sufficient defensive depth to tempt the Sabres. Like the Kings, however, they could be unwilling to draw upon those assets solely for a playoff rental.
Adding Kane alongside center Steven Stamkos and right winger Nikita Kucherov would certainly provide the league-leading Lightning with a formidable first line for a Stanley Cup run. However, they could instead try bolstering their depth at right wing and perhaps on the blueline.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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