The trade deadline arrives two weeks from Monday, with some, big, chunky question marks looming over it. After what happened between John Tavares and the Islanders last season, we have to at least entertain the idea that, when it comes to the big-ticket UFAs, their current teams will be open to the idea of moving them should they not agree on extensions in the next week or so.
That idea applies less to, say, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, as they play for a team that still has playoff aspirations and thus will consider holding them as in-house rentals. But the urgency really comes into play for a team such as the Ottawa Senators, who are still in talks with pending UFAs Matt Duchene and Mark Stone. The latter always seemed more likely to re-sign, with a 2019-20 captaincy all but guaranteed if he does, but it’s now February without a contract. It’s time for the Senators and GM Pierre Dorion to start sweatin’, regardless of what owner Eugene Melnyk pledged this week about spending to the cap in years to come.
And, to me, no team’s collective ears should perk up during this rental season like Nashville’s. The Predators find themselves (a) once again part of the elite Cup-contender tier and (b) with one or two clear flaws holding them back. It’s highly likely their post-season path forces them to go through their division-rival Winnipeg Jets, the most complete team in the West if not the NHL, by Round 2 again. Last season, the Jets’ star power and size at forward were too much, and the Predators lost Game 7 on their home ice as a result.
The gap between the two teams remains the same. Acquiring Brian Boyle brings size to Nashville’s bottom six, sure, but there’s still an elite-skill problem in the top six. Viktor Arvidsson has been magical this season, Filip Forsberg is an excellent two-way winger and Ryan Johansen is a solid puck distributor, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think Nashville's forward group measures up to a top six including Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers (when healthy) and Patrik Laine.
Nashville, then, would be wise to bait its hook with whatever is necessary to land a big fish. The catch could be Panarin, a player to whom they’ve been linked often of late. He’d seriously upgrade their skill. But the best fit of all might actually be Stone. He brings the front-line scoring touch they need but also a big body at 6-foot-4 and 219 pounds, with unrivalled puck-interception skills and Selke-caliber defensive play from the right wing. He’s exactly what this team needs. Behind Arvidsson, the Predators currently deploy Calle Jarnkrok, Craig Smith and Ryan Hartman on the right wing. Stone would be a dream acquisition. He’s also been repeatedly linked to the Jets, who have legit interest in him and Duchene, reports Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic, so landing Stone would help Nashville while blocking Winnipeg at the same time.
Why the urgency right now, aside from the obvious truth that Nashville has a real chance at the Cup in 2018-19? Because Nashville’s top league-wide competition might only get better in seasons to come. The likes of Laine, Scheifele, and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck are just commencing their primes. Same goes for Brayden Point and Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in Toronto. The Predators have RFAs Kevin Fiala and Colton Sissons to re-sign this summer, and if neither takes a bridge deal, there’s no guarantee GM David Poile has sufficient cap space to chase a major UFA, and the Predators don’t have a rich history of landing the guy on the open market anyway. Captain Roman Josi enters the final season of his contract next fall and is thus extension eligible this July 1, so Poile will have to make sure there’s money – likely $10 million a year’s worth – squirreled away for Josi.
The best way to augment Nashville’s lineup with a Panarin or Stone, then, is likely to rent one as part of an aggressive deadline push. There’s precedent for it, too. Poile dealt his first-round pick as part of a stretch-run acquisition in 2018 (Hartman), 2015 (Cody Franson), 2012 (Paul Gaustad), 2011 (Mike Fisher) and 2007 (Peter Forsberg). Factoring in Nashville’s Cup hopes, competition and the quality of rental players potentially available, 2019 feels like an opportune year for ‘Aggressive David Poile’ to resurface – astronomical cost be damned.