The NHL trade deadline arrives on Feb. 26. The league’s playoff races are jammed with teams that feel they’re a few pieces away from getting off the bubble or one piece away from contending for the Stanley Cup. In short, there are more teams looking to buy.
Luckily there are also a slew of sellers out there to fulfill those needs. In the end, it all comes down to two factors: cost and opportunity. Is the price of a rental on an expiring contract worth it? Does it make more sense to make trades around the NHL draft, when prices get back to less ridiculous levels? This week we take a snapshot of the NHL trade deadline, focusing on the game plans for all 31 teams. Salary cap information is from Cap Friendly, while personnel information is from media reports and our own reporting.
We begin with the Metro Division:
Deadline cap space: $16,001,327
Biggest needs: Offense, offense and more offense
Assets in play: In terms of draft assets, the Hurricanes have all but their 2018 fifth-round pick over the next three seasons. They have center Derek Ryan (31, UFA, $1.425M), who will be an attractive rental for someone. They also have deadline darling Lee Stempniak (35, UFA, $2.5M). But much more importantly, they have a cadre of young defensemen who could be used to snag the top-six scoring they desperately need. In particular: Veteran Justin Faulk (25, 2020, $4,833,333) is getting chatted up as a potential defensive solution for several teams.
Deadline game plan: Is new owner Tom Dundon a game-changer for the deadline? Not necessarily. “We’re definitely willing to add if it would make the team better without unnecessarily sacrificing the future,” he said recently. The Hurricanes are 25th in the NHL in goals per game at 2.64. They have one player with more than 20 goals in Sebastian Aho. They need to add offense in order to solidify their playoff chances, as they moved into the last wild card on Sunday. The question is: Would that manifest as a rental, or perhaps as someone like forward J.T. Miller (24, RFA, $2.75M) of the New York Rangers, who is 24 and a restricted free agent?
Deadline cap space: $4,940,408
Biggest needs: Re-energizing the offense, trading Jack Johnson
Assets in play: Defenseman Jack Johnson (31, UFA, $4,357,143) has a long-gestating trade request with the team. The Jackets have all their picks, save for a fifth-rounder this season and a second-rounder in 2019. They also have some struggling forwards whom they might toss into the pot.
Deadline game plan: The Blue Jackets are a baffling deadline team. Yes, Johnson is in play, but the Jackets will do a deal likely only if they get a roster player back who can help. The rest of the deadline will be spent fielding offers for struggling players — Alexander Wennberg (23, 2023, $4.9M) and Boone Jenner (24, RFA, $2.9M) among them — and figuring out whether to flip them for an upgrade at their respective positions; or, more to the point, to simply shake up a roster in an offensive malaise. One thing to keep in mind: GM Jarmo Kekalainen loves a bold player swap but is loath to pay big deadline rental prices.
Deadline cap space: $7,981,325
Biggest needs: Top-six scoring
Watch out, Washington: Here come the Penguins
Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are bearing down on the top spot in the Metro Division, currently occupied by their punching bag … er, old friends, the Capitals. How high can Pittsburgh climb? If coffee is for closers, pour the Penguins a venti double.
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Assets in play: The Devils have their first- and second-round picks for the next three seasons. They don’t have a third-rounder this season but do have a fourth-rounder and their own fifth as well as Calgary’s. Defenseman John Moore (27, UFA, $1.6 million) is the most intriguing expiring contract.
Deadline game plan: GM Ray Shero is no doubt playing the long game with the Devils, who were ahead of schedule this season. That likely means avoid anything resembling a high price for a rental. He already made a “hockey trade” early this season in the Adam Henrique for Sami Vatanen swap. If nothing else, the Devils are looking for a late-season boost to their sagging playoff aspirations by getting Brian Gibbons, Marcus Johansson and especially Cory Schneider healthy again.
Deadline cap space: $6,692,964
Biggest needs: Defense, goaltending, forward depth
Assets in play: Well, that depends on what we mean by “in play.” The Islanders have their own first- and second-round picks this season, as well as those from the Calgary Flames. But GM Garth Snow says they’re off-limits. He’s also said, many times, that star center John Tavares will not be traded at the deadline despite the fact that Tavares is an impending unrestricted free agent.
Deadline game plan: Stand pat. That’s been the line Snow has been selling, and we’re talking about a franchise that has made the fourth-fewest moves in the NHL at the trade deadline since 2005. There certainly moves the Islanders should consider, like upgrading their goaltending with Robin Lehner of the Sabres (26, RFA, $4M) or Petr Mrazek of the Red Wings (25, RFA, $4M). But the assumption is that the Islanders will settle for the boost from a healthy Johnny Boychuck, getting Scott Mayfield back in a month and, potentially, adding injured forward Nikolai Kulemin near the end of the season. Snow rarely dabbles in the deadline acquisitions.
Deadline cap space: $11,376,546
Biggest needs: Winger rental, goalie, depth defenseman
Assets in play: The Flyers have picks in all seven rounds for the next three seasons. That includes two first-rounders this season (including the Blues, should they make the playoffs). The Flyers also have a well-stocked prospect pool if they opt to trade a body.
Deadline game plan: The health of goalie Brian Elliott could be the determining factor on the Flyers’ deadline moves. They’ve been scouting the Buffalo Sabres with regularity — does that mean a trade for either Robin Lehner or Chad Johnson? Perhaps someone like Benoit Pouliot, who could bolster their bottom six? The Flyers would also be in the market for a veteran defenseman who can kill penalties, to help out a unit that is killing at a 74.6 percent rate, third worst in the NHL. But, overall, GM Ron Hextall is likely to roll with what got them here — an influx of young talent augmenting the team’s revitalized veterans.
Deadline cap space: $927,996
Biggest needs: Depth center
Assets in play: The Penguins own their first-round picks for the next three years and their second-round picks for the next two years. They don’t have a third-round pick this season, own Vancouver’s fourth-round pick and have their fifth-rounder and one from the Red Wings. With the Penguins’ cap situation, a trade might have to be a “money in, money out” situation, which could put someone like winger Conor Sheary (25, 2020, $3M) in play.
Deadline game plan: Once upon a time, it seemed the Penguins would make some changes to their blue line, what with every defenseman having played mucho minutes in the last Stanley Cup run and with veteran Ian Cole looking like the odd man out in late 2017. Instead, Cole’s been a vital part of the Penguins defense lately, and that December trade for Jamie Oleksiak might be the lone blue line tweak.
Instead, the Penguins’ greatest area of need remains a center for their bottom six, despite Riley Sheahan‘s recent uptick in play. They were linked with Ottawa’s Jean-Gabriel Pageau (25, 2020, $3.1M), a postseason star last spring, but it appears the Senators might hang onto him. Montreal’s veteran Tomas Plekanec (35, UFA, $6M) would be a great fit, but the teams would have to work out some kind combination of salary retention from the Habs and money leaving the Penguins’ cap.
The most intriguing name linked to the Penguins lately? Matt Cullen (41, UFA, $1M), who won back-to-back Cups with the Penguins as unofficial team dad before signing with his home-state Minnesota Wild last summer. He was a recent healthy scratch.
The Penguins’ cap situation makes acquiring another top-six offensive weapon difficult, but not impossible, if they wanted to go down that route.
Deadline cap space: $1,917,525
Biggest needs: Veteran defenseman
Assets in play: The Capitals have picks in every round over the next three years except the fifth round this summer. They have the Florida Panthers‘ second-round pick and the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ third-round pick this year, rather than their own. The most notable expiring contract for the Capitals is defenseman John Carlson, but he’s not going anywhere at the deadline.
Deadline game plan: The Capitals made the biggest splash last season at the deadline by acquiring a veteran puck-moving defenseman, and here we are again, with Washington having the same need. Did the Kevin Shattenkirk trade scare them off from another big swing for a player like Mike Green (32, UFA, $6M), with whom they’re quite familiar? Perhaps. But the reality is the Capitals might be better in the long run to give young defensemen Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey playing time in pressure situations, rather than hand that ice time to a veteran rental.
Two other factors to consider: That the re-signing of Lars Eller to a five-year, $17.5 million deal on Saturday dramatically decreases the chances the team trades for a center; and that the Capitals might simply not have the cap space to do much without money leaving and getting some help from another team on the cap space for a rental.
New York Rangers
Deadline cap space: $5,618,735
Likely available: LW Rick Nash (33, UFA, $7.8M, limited NTC); LW/RW Michael Grabner (30, UFA, $1.65M); F J.T. Miller (24, RFA, $2.75M); C Kevin Hayes (25, RFA, $2.6M); D Ryan McDonagh (28, 2019, $4.7M, limited NTC); D Nick Holden (30, UFA, $1.66M); C David Desharnais (31, UFA, $1M)
Would they actually deal? RW Mats Zuccarello (30, 2019, $4.5M)
He’s arguably the second most popular player on the roster but is having a down offensive season with 38 points.
Deadline game plan: Everything must go! Well, not everything, as goalie Henrik Lundqvist has a full no-move, a rather large contract and a desire to remain with the Rangers. But team president Glen Sather and GM Jeff Gorton announced a youth movement in a letter to fans last week and indicated that some popular player will be leaving Madison Square Garden. The UFAs are certainly goners, but how deep will the scalpel slice?
The focus here has to be on Nash, Grabner and McDonagh. In Nash’s case, he told the New York Post recently that his limited no-trade clause does open up the potential to be moved to a Canadian team, which is a turnaround from two years ago. There’s also the chance that a team that’s on his no-trade list could sell him on joining them, perhaps if it meant a chance to sign there afterward. Dallas remains the most logical destination, with St. Louis, Nashville and Boston all intriguing suitors.
Grabner is going to get a ton of interest as an effective, blindingly fast skater and goal-scorer. McDonagh is a game-changer on the blue line for teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs, but he’s not going to come cheaply.
Best-case scenario: Getting first-rounders and more for both Nash and Grabner.