This is a four-part series analyzing where each NHL teams stands heading into the trade deadline based on the context of each division, and the short- and long-term implications of buying or selling with the expansion draft around the corner.
The Atlantic Division is complete wide open. Every day, depending on who happens to have a game, the standings shuffle up and down, as only a whopping twelve points separates first from last in the division. The Canadiens have a closing window that their general manager will surely try to capitalize on, while the Red Wings, Sabres, and Lightning, have had disappointing seasons and could sell. In the middle are the Senators, who nobody expected to be playing so well, the Leafs who still have their eyes on the future, the Panthers who are finally playing at a high level, and the Bruins who, uh, who knows!
31-20-8 (70 Points) / 52.3 CF% / 55.2 GF% / 101.2 PDO
After getting off to a hot start in the first month of the season, the Habs have been terribly average. They had a 13-1-1 record on Nov. 11, and since then, they’ve gone 20-19-7, but still maintain the top seed in the Atlantic Division thanks largely to their competition not being particularly strong.
Does this sound familiar? The Habs had a hot start last season, too, and the wheels completely fell off when Carey Price was injured. This year, Price has been healthy, but hasn’t been able to singlehandedly carry the team as he has in the past.
The Habs will most certainly make the playoffs this spring, but looking up and down their roster, it’s difficult to see a true Stanley Cup Contender.
And their window to be a contender might be closing. So if there’s anybody that’s going to make a big move at the deadline to push their team over the top, it’s Marc Bergevin.
Price only has one more year left on his $6.5 million team-friendly deal, and will be seeking a raise after the 2017-18 season. Andrei Markov is a free agent this summer, and while he’s been a productive player and good soldier for the team, he’s 38 years old and won’t be able to play a major role for long.
Alex Radulov’s one-year NHL tryout will expire on July 1, and after the excellent season he’s had, he’ll be seeking a raise from his $5.75 million salary. And if he doesn’t get it in North America, a pile of money will be waiting for him in Russia. And finally, Alex Galchenyuk’s bridge deal is set to expire, and, combining his breakout performance with the fact he’s only two years from unrestricted free agency, means he’ll also be looking for a raise.
Bergevin already fired his head coach mid-way through the season in order to grab an upgrade, which is a pretty clear indication of how desperate this front office is to go on a deep playoff run this spring. And when you consider all of those expiring contracts I just mentioned, why wouldn’t they be?
At the deadline:
As we’ve established, the Habs will be buyers at the trade deadline.
They need to upgrade their top-six, ideally finding a top-line centre to play between Max Pacioretty and Alex Radulov. As of right now, Phillip Danault has played admirably in that role as a rookie, but come playoff time, more experience down the middle on the top line will be necessary.
The Habs could also use a puck moving defenceman to quarterback their power play. Markov has produced 25 points in 40 games which, like I said, is solid, but his age and injury history are a concern, and if he gets hurt, the Habs have virtually zero playmakers on their backend. (I can think of a guy in Nashville who might be a good fit.)
One thing the Habs shouldn’t do, though, is include Mikhail Sergachev in a deal. Even if it nets them somebody like Matt Duchene. Sergachev has the potential to be an elite, offence producing defenceman, and the Habs seriously lucked out in having him fall on their laps at the draft. Throwing him away would be a massive mistake.
The Habs need to win this spring. Their window to contend with this group is closing, as Carey Price, Alex Radulov, Andrei Markov, and Alex Galchenyuk are all on expiring deals and will either command raises or need to be replaced. Marc Bergevin pulled off a massive, controversial deal last summer swapping P.K. Subban for Shea Weber and appears ready to do virtually anything it takes to go on a deep playoff run before it’s too late. Hopefully for the Habs, it doesn’t involve trading blue chip prospect Mikhail Sergachev.
31-20-6 (66 Points) / 48.5 CF% / 47.5 GF% / 99.4 PDO
It doesn’t make much sense, but the Ottawa Senators appear to be on their way to a playoff appearance. Hell, the way things have been going, they could finish the season at the top of the Atlantic Division.
The Sens overachieved and PDO’d their way to a solid start this season, and appeared to be a prime candidate for a major regression back into mediocrity. But over the past 25 games, dating back to the New Year, the Sens have a thoroughly solid 51 Corsi For percentage at even strength, suggesting their play has improved to a rate that validates their record.
They’ve received yet another excellent season from Erik Karlsson, who’s been driving much of the team’s offence, and Mark Stone, Kyle Turris, Derick Brassard, and Mike Hoffman have created one of the stronger top-six attacks in the Eastern Conference. Most importantly, though, Craig Anderson has been phenomenal, keeping the Sens in many games that they have no business winning.
It’s pretty clear that the Sens are in ‘right here, right now’ mode.
You kind of have to be if you’re willing to acquire a player like Dion Phaneuf, who was only one-and-a-half years into a massive, seven-year, $42 million deal when he was acquired from the Maple Leafs just over a year ago.
The team’s window that they’re more than likely paying attention to is the aforementioned team Most Valuable Player Erik Karlsson’s contract. The former Norris Trophy winner has two more years left on his very team-friendly $6.5 million contract, and will certainly be seeking a massive raise when he hits the open market.
The Sens are a team struggling financially and fan support seems to be dwindling. Couple that with the organization wanting to build a new stadium closer to the actual core of Ottawa (rather than the one in the boondocks, ya know, the one that’s only 20 years old), and you have a front office that’s certainly going to want to push to be successful right here, right now.
At the deadline:
The Sens have a handful of needs. Their roster doesn’t appear to be very strong, which is why the team’s success this season has been so puzzling.
Their biggest need is secondary scoring. Bobby Ryan has had a hell of a time getting things going in Ottawa, and has been out of the lineup with injuries. Clarke MacArthur hasn’t been able to play this season thanks to a concussion, which left a major hole in the team’s middle-six. So pretty much any forward depth would be a welcomed addition to the team.
Realistically, the Sens shouldn’t be going too crazy with their deadline buying. The team isn’t even close to a true Stanley Cup contender, and could likely get two rounds deep into the playoffs with small tweaks and additions to the roster they have now.
But using top prospect Thomas Chabot, who had a bananas good performance at the World Juniors this year, should be off the table.
The time for questioning the legitimacy of the Sens is gone. Their success doesn’t make much sense, but we’re nearing the end of February and they aren’t just challenging for a playoff berth, they’re pushing for top spot in the division. This organization, for better or worse, is in win-right-now mode, and would be best served making minor additions to the roster at the deadline rather than making a major splash at a big cost.
28-20-10 (66 Points) / 50.7 CF% / 46.4 GF% / 99.2 PDO
Despite being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs back in November, as many experts would have told you, the Florida Panthers are right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Many people wanted to see this team fail. They had a breakout season last year, the most successful in franchise history, and rewarded everyone by completely shaking up their front office, moving into an analytics heavy model for player evaluation and decision making. It was controversial, it rubbed many old school hockey types the wrong way, and, to be completely fair, it got off to a horrible start. The team looked completely lost the first two months of the season, and their record showed it.
Despite what many said, though, they were a team to play the long game with. Their underlying numbers were excellent, they outshot their opponents frequently, they just couldn’t finish and they lacked the depth to compete consistently. But since the Panthers got healthy, they’ve looked excellent. If they continue at the rate they’ve been playing at since Jonathan Huberdeau returned to the lineup, they might be looking at an Atlantic Division banner.
The Panthers were expected to perform well this season because of what they did in 2015-16, but realistically, this is still a rebuilding team.
They aren’t rebuilding in the sense that they’re tanking and looking for high draft choices, those days are finally over. But they’re rebuilding in the sense that they’re implementing a completely new strategy, both in terms of player analysis and in-game tactics and decision making. Also, the team is young. Huberdeau is 23, Sasha Barkov is 21, All-Star Vincent Trocheck is 23, and so on. If not for Jaromir Jagr singlehandedly raising the team’s average age, they would be one of the youngest teams in the league.
Another thing to consider about the Panthers is that they weren’t actually good last season. They were successful, yes, but they were constantly outshot, relied on one line with a ridiculously high shooting percentage to carry their offence, and had a blue line that bled shots against but were bailed out by excellent goaltending from a guy in his late 30s.
They went through a major renaissance last summer and are now set up to be actually good for quite some time. Many were quick to question it, and others were ready to totally write them off. But the Panthers, now that they’re firing on all cylinders, look very good. Not only do they look good right now, but their future appears to be very bright, too.
At the deadline:
The Panthers were buyers last year and it didn’t really help them. They spent draft picks to acquire Teddy Purcell, Jiri Hudler, and Jakub Kindl, and none of them really made an impact, as the team was dispatched in six games by the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs.
This year, they’re in a similar position. They’re a bubble team with holes, and they’re still a franchise that needs playoffs runs in order to generate fan interest.
They’ve only actually had their whole team on the ice for a couple weeks, so maybe it won’t even be necessary to buy. But I would imagine the Panthers would have a similar deadline strategy to what they did last year, in that they won’t be making a big splash, but instead filling their roster up with solid depth players.
The Panthers got a lot of crap for changing the direction of their organization last summer. This isn’t surprising because many are opposed to change, but when you’re a franchise that has existed for two-and-a-half decades with zero success, you’re in a better position than anyone to change. And while it got off to a rocky start, now that the real 2016-17 Florida Panthers have finally had a chance to play, we might actually have a legitimate contender brewing.
30-23-6 (66 Points) / 55.4 CF% / 46.6 GF% / 97.2 PDO
The Bruins fired head coach Claude Julien in a big, ugly mess earlier this month. The team was underachieving their underlying numbers by quite a large margin, due largely in part to inconsistent goaltending and a poor shooting percentage, but were still right in the thick of a playoff race.
The curious thing here is that while the firing of Julien would suggest the organization was unhappy with how the team was underachieving, they really weren’t at all. The roster coming into the season simply wasn’t one you’d expect to be anything more than a bubble team in the Eastern Conference, yet the team had been playing at an elite level even though their results didn’t show it.
It’s really difficult to say where exactly this organization is going.
Sometimes, they’re sellers. After firing Peter Chiarelli, the new front office sold Milan Lucic, who only had one year left on his contract. They also sold Dougie Hamilton for draft picks, suggesting they weren’t willing to pay him big dollars on a long-term deal.
Sometimes, they’re buyers. at last year’s trade deadline, they moved draft picks to acquire Lee Stempniak and John-Michael Liles. They also let impending free agent Loui Eriksson slide through the deadline before letting him walk for nothing as a free agent.
None of it really adds up. And here we are, trying to figure out exactly what they’ll do come deadline time. Honestly, it’s anyone’s guess.
At the deadline:
It doesn’t make much sense for the Bruins to buy.
They did so last year, and it was ill-advised. The team, as I mentioned before, seemed to be moving into a period of rebuilding as they worked out from under the aging and expensive Chiarelli contracts. But instead, they’ve used future assets to make a push at the trade deadline and they’ve handed out brand new long-term deals over free agency.
This roster features a lot of holes. And while an aggressive deadline could push the Bruins to be one of, if not the best team in the Atlantic, there’s no way they can feasibly fill the holes necessary to make themselves a true Cup contender. I mean, two players have one third of their goals, and two defencemen are eating the majority of their minutes, and one is a fresh faced rookie and the other is nearly 40 years old.
Standing pat and rolling through the rest of the season with the group they have now is probably the best course of action. They can make the playoffs and maintain their assets to build for the future.
The Bruins are an unpredictable, enigmatic organization that doesn’t seem to have a direction. Sometimes they appear to be sellers, bent on building for the future, and other times, they’re adding at the deadline and using newly opened up cap room to sign Matt Beleskey to a long-term deal. Who knows what they’ll do come deadline time.
27-20-11 (65 Points) / 50.5 CF% / 52.2 GF% / 100.8 PDO
The Toronto Maple Leafs have enjoyed an better-than-expected breakout season this year fuelled by excellent performances from their core of young players.
They have four players, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Nikita Zaitsev, who, in any other year would get serious attention for the Calder Trophy. But this season, we all know it’s going to the first name on that list. Nazem Kadri has stepped up and filled a role as the Leafs’ two-way centre who faces the other team’s best players, James van Riemsdyk has provided secondary scoring in a comeback year, and Frederik Andersen has stabilized the net admirably.
The Leafs are currently on the bubble, sliding in and out of the playoffs every day depending on who plays and who doesn’t. This certainly wasn’t expected at the beginning of the season, when simply an improvement over last year’s 30th placed finish would have been positive.
The success the team is having this season more than likely wont change the organization’s philosophy moving forward. Though their window of opportunity seems to be opening up much quicker than most would have anticipated, the Leafs are still looking to build a team that can be competitive for the next decade, rather than one that can make a run and then fade back into oblivion.
Looking forward, the Leafs have a lot of financial flexibility. The only players they have locked up long-term are Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, and Frederik Andersen. Of course, their group of young players won’t be cheap forever, but the Leafs have a lot of room to work with for when they inevitably make upgrades to their roster.
At the deadline:
The Leafs are in an interesting situation heading into the trade deadline.
Though they won’t be buyers, per se, for the reason I mentioned above, they have more cap space than pretty much anybody else out there. As a result, they can do something similar to what they did last year with Ottawa, San Jose, and Washington last year.
Last year, it was taking on deals like Raffi Torres and Brooks Laich from cap ceiling teams in return for prospects and taking on Milan Michalek and Colin Greening in return for a long-term cap dump in Dion Phaneuf. This year, the Leafs can use their financial flexibility to make an upgrade without having to technically fill the role of being a buyer. That means they can use their cap room as an asset not just to get futures for taking on a bad deal, but instead get a player on an expiring, expensive deal that can help them right now.
It’s hard to imagine the Leafs straying from their plan and using draft picks and prospects to make the team better right now. But it isn’t hard to imagine them using their cap flexibility to take on bad contracts in order to make an upgrade. Because in today’s NHL, cap space is as valuable as draft picks, and the Leafs should, and certainly will, use theirs to better their team.
26-24-10 (62 Points) / 46.6 CF% / 48.0 GF% / 100.4 PDO
The Buffalo Sabres seemed poised to vault themselves into playoff contention this season. Last year, they took a big step forward, and over an offseason that saw them land an elite offence producer in Kyle Okposo and a veteran blue liner in Dmitry Kulikov, the Sabres looked like a team ready to make that final step.
But it didn’t happen. Injuries were a major force in holding the Sabres back this year, as Jack Eichel missed the first 20 games of the season, and Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, Kulikov, and Ryan O’Reilly all missed time with varying ailments. And, of course, when you’re the Buffalo Sabres, and your roster is already pretty thin, you can’t afford many injuries.
Despite this season being disappointing, the Sabres still have a bright future.
O’Reilly and Okposo are locked up long-term, and Eichel and Sam Reinhart have both performed as their high draft positions would suggest. The underrated member of Buffalo’s young core is Robin Lehner, who, despite being around for what seems like forever, is only 26 years old. Also, Rasmus Ristolainen has produced offence at a high level in his young career, but badly needs somebody to play with and a stronger blue line in general to help ease his minutes.
At the deadline:
The Sabres aren’t far out of a playoff spot, but it won’t be worth it for them to buy. Even if they somehow manage to sneak their way in, they’ll be quickly eliminated by a top team like the Washington Capitals or Pittsburgh Penguins. There’s no sense in jeopardizing their future for an unnecessary, fly-by-night run that’ll certainly end in disappointment.
They have a handful off soon-to-be-free-agents that could be interesting rental pieces at the deadline. Brian Gionta is a free agent this summer, and could provide offensive depth and veteran leadership on a playoff team. And Dmitry Kulikov or Cody Franson would be welcomed additions to many team’s blue lines come playoff time.
The Sabres could also look to pawn off a player like Matt Moulson or Tyler Ennis to a team in need to scoring depth, though each player has one more year left on their contract beyond this one and has severely underperformed expectations.
The interesting name to watch will be Evander Kane. He’s started playing well as of late, similar to many of the Sabres since the team got healthy, and only has one more year left on his contract. That said, Kane comes with a lot of baggage, and it’s difficult to say if any teams would want to give up a premium asset for a player with so many off-ice issues.
The Sabres have had a forgettable season, but their future still remains bright. The best thing they can do at this point is seek to get whatever they can in the form of draft pick and prospect capital in return for their impending free agents.
26-24-8 (60 Points) / 51.3 CF% / 47.8 GF% / 99.3 PDO
After reaching the Eastern Conference Final last season and the Stanley Cup Final the year prior, the Tampa Bay Lightning have taken a major step back. This is surprising, considering they have their entire roster from last year’s team back again.
One reason for the team’s struggles has been Steven Stamkos’ knew injury that’s sidelined him since mid-November. In his absence, the team doesn’t have the same elite offensive punch that we’ve seen in the past, as they rank just 16th in the league in goals for.
That said, the even bigger issue the Lighting have faced has been poor goaltending. Ben Bishop has been significantly worse than any of his other seasons since arriving in Tampa Bay, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s supposed to take the net next season, hasn’t been any better.
This makes one wonder whether the issue is deeper than poor goaltending, and if the Lightning actually have a weakness on their roster that goes beyond the performance of one or two players. Still, though, the Lightning were one of the league’s best teams the past few seasons, so there isn’t much reason to believe this is anything more than an unfortunate season and that it’s isolated rather than problematic.
Despite what anybody would have said at this point in time last year, the Lightning got not only Steve Stamkos signed long-term, but Victor Headman as well. It was pretty much assumed as fact that Stamkos would leave Tampa for his hometown Toronto, and if he didn’t, Hedman would be the cap casualty.
That wasn’t the case, as Steve Yzerman was able to get both franchise players locked up to long-term deals. But the issues don’t end there, as the front office gets to work through another difficult salary cap squeeze this summer.
Ben Bishop is a UFA and likely won’t be on the team two weeks from now, and Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Jonathan Drouin all need new contracts. So while the Lightning’s down season doesn’t change much of their positive long-term outlook, they’re going to have to do some major wheeling and dealing this summer to keep their key players around.
At the deadline:
The name to watch for the Lightning is Ben Bishop. They can’t afford to keep him around and they’ve already handed Vasilevskiy a three-year extension, so his days in Tampa are numbered. Surely the Lightning would rather get something for him than let him walk for free this summer, and there are enough teams around the league with poor goaltending to go for it.
Beyond that, Tampa could look to sell some of their many ugly contracts. Ryan Callahan, Valtteri Filppula, and Jason Garrison are all underperforming with large cap hits, and if the Lightning find a suitor for any of them, will probably pull the trigger. That said, most teams are in the same position as the Lightning are, and have their own cap issues to deal with.
It’s been a disappointing year for the Lightning, but based on their recent success, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Losing Stamkos to injury was unfortunate, but a major issue they’ve had has been keeping the puck out of the net, which can’t be blamed on his injury. Though they’re only a few points from a playoff position, they’ll likely look to sell their impending free agent assets at the deadline.
24-25-10 (58 Points) / 48.2 CF% / 49.1 GF% / 100.3 PDO
The streak is going to end. For the first time since 1990, a span of 25 seasons, the Detroit Red Wings won’t be in the playoffs this spring. It was an incredible run, likely the most impressive in North American professional sports. But it couldn’t last forever.
The Red Wings aren’t good. It’s been a long time coming, because they haven’t been good for quite some time. The past three years, the Wings limped their way into the playoffs, overachieving mediocre underlying numbers with strong goaltending and elite performances from the Pavel Datsyuks of the world, only to be quickly bounced in the first round of the playoffs three years in a row.
This year, it finally caught up with them. The rest of the division is improving, meanwhile the Wings are a relic of yesterday. They don’t score many goals, they don’t generate many chances, their special teams are average, their defence is poor, and they don’t have goalies bailing them out. All in all, you have a team in the basement of the Atlantic Division with the underlying numbers to match.
Unfortunately, things don’t look like they’re going to get better any time soon.
The Wings have ignored the reality that they need to go on a full rebuild for quite some time, and now they’re trapped with a mediocre, expensive, old team. They have seven forwards and three defencemen locked up to contracts that reach 2020 at a combined cap hit of roughly $45 million. Only four of those players are under the age of 30.
There isn’t any help coming up through the minor league system to speak of, as the young talent like Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin, and Petr Mrazek is about all the Wings have. So it’s going to take quite some time for this thing to turn around, and, to be honest, it’s difficult to say whether the Wings will even give up on this crew and blow it up, or if they’ll keep going and just try to tweak it.
At the deadline:
The Wings have a few assets, Brendan Smith, Thomas Vanek, and Steve Ott, that could be sold at the deadline, but that’s about it. Obviously they won’t be buying, or anything, but this team’s issues are going to need to be solved over the course of an offseason (more than likely two or three) rather than simply a trade deadline.
The Red Wings own one of the most impressive dynasties in North American professional sport. It’s been coming for quite some time, but years and years of ignoring the rebuild has caught up to them, and now the Wings are trapped with an old, bad, and expensive roster.
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