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Five major second-half storylines to watch in the NHL

Will-they-or-won't-they scenarios with several UFA trade candidates will significantly impact the NHL in the coming weeks.

The cute, cuddly 3-on-3 tournament fades into the rearview mirror. It’s time for the NHL stretch run, which includes the trade deadline, playoff races and free-agent speculation. Which storylines will have us holding our breath the most in the coming months?

ARE THE OILERS BUYERS, SELLERS OR SOMETHING IN BETWEEN?

Typically, a mid-game GM firing indicates dark times for a franchise, and there’s no doubt the Edmonton Oilers were lost by the end of the Peter Chiarelli era. But they’re somehow just three points out of a Western Conference wildcard spot, and they still have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl leading them. Does that mean acting GM Keith Gretzky approaches the trade deadline as a buyer?

It’s unlikely the Oilers make a panic move and deal still-unproven Jesse Puljujarvi or prospects Kailer Yamamoto and Evan Bouchard. Trading any of them would constitute a significant organizational shift. Anything that major will likely be entrusted to the Oilers’ permanent GM hire in the summer.

What about going the seller route? It’s complicated. The pieces Edmonton would like to move most also happen to be the pieces least likely to draw interest. Milan Lucic has four years left at a $6-million AAV with a full no-movement clause. Kris Russell has three years left at a $4-million AAV with a full no-movement clause that becomes a 10-team trade list next season. The Oilers would be hard-pressed to eat salary if they convinced either player to waive his clause, as they’re pretty jammed up cap-wise.

If Gretzky does anything, then, it’ll likely come in the form of a hockey trade for a player with upside who needs a change of scenery. Paging Andre Burakovsky.

WHERE DO ARTEMI PANARIN AND SERGEI BOBROVSKY END UP?

The Columbus Blue Jackets arguably entered 2018-19 under the most pressure of any franchise, having been bounced from the first round after their two highest point totals in franchise history and with their two most important players set to become UFAs.

So where do we sit? Bobrovsky had the hiccup in which he got briefly dismissed from the team after shedding his equipment during a game in which he was pulled and was still required for backup duty. It’s also been reported he’s willing to waive his no-movement clause for the right destination. But even if GM Jarmo Kekalainen decides it’s time to part ways with ‘Bob,’ what will the market for him be? He’s a rental, and it doesn’t appear that any team currently in a playoff spot needs a starting goalie – not even the Calgary Flames given David Rittich’s breakout. A Bobrovsky move would likely have to be of the sign-and-trade variety involving a team that could use him long-term – perhaps the Florida Panthers or Carolina Hurricanes.

As for Panarin, he met with agent Dan Milstein over the all-star break and likely will again as the two sides decide on Panarin's future with the team. Given his reported interest in joining a market near a major body of water, it’s always felt like Panarin would be somewhere else next year.

But does that matter if the Blue Jackets have a chance for a deep playoff run this year? Maybe Kekalainen decides to go for it and roll the dice on two "in-house rental" UFAs. If he goes the other way, though, the returns for Bobrovsky and Panarin could be franchise-altering.

DO THE SENATORS RE-SIGN OR TRADE THEIR UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS?

Will UFA Matt Duchene end up a trade-deadline casualty? His camp and the Senators have discussed an extension. The Senators, though, are rebuilding and have dealt away their 2019 first-rounder. If they’re not confident enough in Duchene signing, they could save face by recouping a first-rounder in a trade. Duchene would certainly command as much – plus a useful prospect. There’s a decent chance GM Pierre Dorion cashes in UFA goal-scorer Ryan Dzingel, too.

It gets more interesting with Mark Stone. He seems much likelier to be a Senator next season, which would mean signing an eight-year deal with a cap hit north of $8 million and earning the captaincy. But if the Feb. 25 trade deadline gets close and Stone hasn’t signed an extension, will Dorion look at what happened with John Tavares last year and consider a trade? Stone has great size, is a front-line scorer and plays outstanding defense from the right wing. He’d be a massively impactful rental, and a win-now team might overpay for such a piece.

WILL THE BLUES HOLD A FIRE SALE?

With all due respect to Columbus and Ottawa, St. Louis holds the most coveted trade chips if it decides to blow things up. Alex Pietrangelo, Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, Colton Parayko: all still in their 20s, all with term left on their contracts. They therefore aren’t rentals, which means (a) they would command monstrous returns in trades and (b) don’t merely appeal to playoff teams. Anyone could get in on the sweepstakes.

What will the Blues decide to do? They’re three points out of a playoff spot with a game in hand on No. 8 seed Colorado. It might be mid-February before GM Doug Armstrong can realistically define what his team is. He recently referred to his deadline plans as “to be determined.”

WHO WINS THE SCORING RACE?

With most teams around the 50-game mark, the NHL has 12 players on pace for 100-point seasons, plus two more, Auston Matthews and Patrice Bergeron, who’d be on pace for 100 if they hadn’t missed time with injuries. The last time we got 12 players with 100 points in the same year was 1995-96.

The Art Ross race looks wide open right now. Nikita Kucherov leads the way with 78 points at the break, but Mikko Rantanen, Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau, Patrick Kane and Nathan MacKinnon have crested the 70-point mark and are threats to steal the crown. The highest point total of the salary-cap era is Joe Thornton’s 125 in 2005-06, and Kucherov’s on pace to eclipse it. Last season’s slashing crackdown and this season’s goalie-gear reductions have the league producing its most goals since 2005-06.

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