The NHL trade deadline on Feb. 25 is an important date on the annual calendar for a number of reasons, most notably because it presents one final opportunity for teams to tangibly improve their roster and increase their chances of competing for the Stanley Cup.
While the deadline has come and gone in past years with more buzz than actual player movement of real significance, this one feels a little bit different. That's partly because the races around the league are particularly wide open (beyond the Tampa Bay Lightning sitting far atop the Eastern Conference). Just as crucially, a number of certifiable game-breakers like Artemi Panarin, Mark Stone and others appear to be available, players who would immediately shuffle the pecking order at the top if they were to land in the right destination.
What we've done here is identify those areas of improvement, and what they're going to cost the teams making them. For the sake of brevity, we're going to only focus on the teams with the most pressing needs, and the ones that would actually benefit from addressing them right now. The Lightning were purposely omitted from this exercise because it feels like overkill. After all, what do you get someone who already has everything?
Apologies in advance to every delusional fan who thinks their favorite team can turn a throwaway combination of depth prospects, later-round picks, and magic beans into a currently disgruntled star player. While these aren't necessarily trades that will happen, they could plausibly happen. Most importantly, they're trades I'd like to see happen if I were tasked with ensuring that we're treated to the most competitive postseason matchups this spring.
Here are six reasonable trades that check off those boxes.
Refilling the Jet fuel
The Jets are in desperate need of a shot in the arm right now. They've been skating by because of the early cushion they built for themselves, but things have been rather ugly in Winnipeg lately. Their February has been littered with pathetic showings, including a couple of unseemly beatdowns recently at the hands of Colorado, Vegas and Ottawa. The issue is that their struggles have extended beyond just a few ugly losses.
Since the start of 2019, only the Devils and Flyers have a worse 5-on-5 shot share than the Jets' 46.7 percent. The lowly 44.7 percent of overall shots they've controlled in those 20 games are tied for 31st place with Philadelphia. It's a level of play that's not remotely acceptable for a team that made it all the way to the conference final last season and came into the campaign expected to at least replicate that level of success. While they're still a supremely talented team that should benefit greatly from getting both Dustin Byfuglien and Nikolaj Ehlers back at some point in the near future, they still need to address the hole in their second line.
For the Jets to reach their ceiling as a team, they need to find a way to get Patrik Laine going and once again unleash him on the league as a scorer to be feared. With all due respect to Bryan Little, he's not nearly dynamic enough as a playmaker for that role at this point of his career, and it's plain to see. Laine is in some kind of scoring funk, having gone without a goal in his past 15 games and having scored just once at 5-on-5 in his past 28 games.
With Laine and Little out on the ice together, Winnipeg has been getting caved-in this season, controlling just a measly 44.8 percent of the shots, 42.4 percent of the high-danger attempts, and getting outscored 31-24. The shared numbers for those two were slightly better last season, but they were still suboptimal, and it's no coincidence that Laine's even-strength performance took off once the Jets traded for Paul Stastny to be his primary pivot.
Matt Duchene has been commonly brought up as the sexy option for the Jets to pursue, but Kevin Hayes is a better fit based on skill set and presumed acquisition cost. He's a big body (listed at 6-foot-5, 216 pounds) that doesn't sacrifice any foot speed, which is the hallmark of a Winnipeg Jet. But most importantly, he's a prolific passer who seems to shoot only when absolutely necessary, which is what you want next to a shoot-first scorer like Laine. Similar to what Stastny did last season, Hayes should do wonders for Laine by serving the puck up for him on a silver platter in his personal sweet spots.
If I'm the Rangers or any team negotiating with the Jets leading up to the deadline, I'm trying to pry Sami Niku from their clutches as the centerpiece of any potential trade. The problem is that it doesn't make much sense for Winnipeg to part with him unless they're left with no other choice. With Tyler Myers' impending free agency, Byfuglien's advancing age, and Niku's dynamic playmaking ability from the back end, he could become an important player for them as soon as next season. He'll be especially valuable for them as a cheap cost-controlled asset, considering the financial crunch they're headed for once they pay all of their other young stars. Niku won't hit restricted free agency until after the 2019-20 season.
Instead, a first-round pick, even one in the 20s, and a calculated flier on Petan -- a 23-year old who's put up big offensive numbers at every stage leading up to this level -- are a decent consolation prize for a team that's just accumulating assets anywhere they can get them.
Smelling blood in the water
Staying true to their mascot's form, the Sharks have been an absolute terror on the attacking end this season. They're third in both 5-on-5 scoring, behind just Tampa Bay and Toronto, and in overall scoring, trailing only the Lightning and Flames. They're almost impossible to defend because they always seem to have possession of the puck in prime scoring regions. Their 55.9 percent shot share is league best, and their 55.4 percent of high-danger chances is the league's fourth best.
Their skater group from top to bottom is as good as it gets out West. In the stretches where they put it all together and get rolling, there's no one in the conference that can consistently match their highest gear. Assuming they're able to capture it in a bottle for an extended period of time, they might be the only group that can hang with Tampa Bay's relentless onslaught of firepower.
If they have one flaw, it shows itself in those moments when they don't have the puck. While their preferred loose style of play doesn't help, their goaltending has been a significant issue, especially for a team with realistic championship aspirations. The duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have combined for 31st in 5-on-5 save percentage, and 30th in all-situations save percentage, ahead of only the Panthers' goalies.
Considering how committed they are to Jones -- he's still owed $28.75 million over the next five seasons after this one -- it doesn't make much sense for them to pursue a different long-term option right now, nor does it seem wise to invest large draft capital in a big name like Sergei Bobrovsky.
The perfect fit seems like Ryan Miller, who can seamlessly slide into the 1A/1B role he's best suited for at this point of his career, while staying in California. Toning down the workload has done wonders for the 38-year-old during his time in Anaheim, where he's turned back the clock for a .928 save percentage in 40 appearances during the past two seasons. In San Jose, he can go for the Stanley Cup ring that's eluded him, before returning to the Ducks if he so chooses in the summer as a free agent.
From San Jose's perspective, he should come relatively cheap considering his age and contract status as a rental, and provides them with a reliable backup option should Jones continue to struggle. For a team as lethal offensively as these Sharks are, that might honestly be all they need.
Stuck on an island offensively
The Islanders need a talent infusion in any form they can get it up front. Their performance this season compared to last is about as drastically different as you'll ever see in such a short period of time without drastic additions. Barry Trotz has firmly sunk his claws into this team in his first season behind the bench, and the result has been a net positive. No team gives up fewer goals at both 5-on-5 and overall than the Islanders do, and while the ridiculous effort they've received in net from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss is a big driving force behind that turnaround, it's clear that the screws have been tightened in front of them defensively.
That's largely by design, because Trotz and his staff correctly determined that this current group couldn't survive continuing to play the way it did last season after John Tavares left for Toronto. They've slowed their pace of play down, grinding games to a halt and limiting the amount of events that take place. The issue is that it's a strategy that can only take them so far, because it'll get exposed and picked apart the second they run into a good team in a playoff series. They need at least one or two more playmakers to give them a shot at generating enough offense to keep up.
The good news is that scoring help on the wing is available in abundance at every trade deadline, and this year's class of rental is no exception. I picked Nyquist here because he's a wizard with the puck and I'd love to see him work his magic in the offensive zone alongside Mathew Barzal. While he has only one power-play goal this season, he's been incredibly unlucky not to have converted more of his high-volume of looks from the slot. He's a prime candidate to score more there if he keeps doing what he's been doing, which should be music to the ears of a team that's down to 24th in power-play efficiency for the season.
But the reality is that you can take your pick of the litter. Nyquist, Ryan Dzingel, Marcus Johansson, Mats Zuccarello, and on and on. Any of them would be a big upgrade from what the Islanders currently have on the wings outside of their top line. Things have gotten so bad that Tom Kuhnhackl is the latest to flank Barzal, which is unacceptable for a team that's not only sitting in a playoff spot, but atop their division at that.
While these types of rentals technically represent the types of half-measures that I'm usually against, in this specific case it actually makes some sense to go that route for now. The Islanders have been rumored to be in the mix for impact forwards like Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, which sounds great in theory, because both would come in and immediately make them significantly better offensively. But, the price they'd pay would be one that would cripple the prospect pipeline they did such a good job of building up last summer. It'd be especially tough to reconcile doing so for a player they could possibly sign for no cost in free agency this summer. As good as both are in their own right, neither would move the needle enough to suddenly vault the Islanders into being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this season.
By going with a cheaper rental, they throw their fans a bone and continue the goodwill that this surprisingly successful season has generated, without sacrificing anything major from their future plans. Giving up on a young talent like Josh Ho-Sang obviously hurts, but at this point it's clear that the fit between the player and team simply isn't going to happen. If they drag this saga on any longer than it already has, they'll miss out on any chance they may still have to salvage some sort of value on the trade market. Selfishly, I'd love to see Ho-Sang get a fresh start with a new organization, because I'm betting on the talent being able to translate at this level if he just gets a real extended chance.
Central Division arms race
It's been tough to properly evaluate how good the Predators are this season, because the games in which they've been fully healthy and firing on all cylinders have been so few and far between. Filip Forsberg has missed 17 games, P.K. Subban has missed 19 games, Viktor Arvidsson has missed 24 games and Kyle Turris has missed 25 games.
All things considered, it's remarkable that they're currently sitting atop the Central Division. It's a testament to the dominance of their one-two punch in net of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros, and the embarrassment of riches they have in their depth on the blue line. Those two factors have been enough to carry them through the early injuries, and are the primary reason why they'd present a nightmare matchup for most teams in a playoff series.
Now healthy, they have a top forward line that can go head to head with any in the league, but it feels like they're still one dynamic game-breaker away from getting to that next level. There was some hope that Kevin Fiala would become that player after his breakout campaign last season, but it still hasn't happened. The talent is too overwhelming for him not to put it all together eventually, but this Predators team can't afford to squander this current core waiting on a hope and a prayer like that.
I'd love to see them go out and add that type of a player, and the most logical fit would be one of the biggest fish on the market: Mark Stone.
Stone's reputation may still not be fully in line with his value because of how bad the Senators have been, but it's slowly getting there now that he's on pace for career highs in goals (38) and points (86). He's no longer just a player who's relegated to conversations about "most underrated players" and "best defensive forwards." He's now universally regarded as one of the league's best, full stop.
His plus-18.7 goals above replacement are tied with Crosby for the league lead this season, as are his plus-3.2 wins above replacement. He's truly one of the few players who can be expected to completely carry a line by himself from the wing, as he's done all season in Ottawa. That's particularly appealing to a team like the Predators, who would be justified in paying whatever exorbitant price it took to acquire him. Adding a player of Stone's caliber to the equation would immediately change the entire calculus out West.
Pushing all of your chips in
Columbus Blue Jackets get: F Matt Duchene
Ottawa Senators get: F Alexander Wennberg, F Emil Bemstrom, Blue Jackets' first-round pick in 2019, conditional future pick if Duchene re-signs
Plan B: Hang tight
Editor's note: This column was published prior to the trade sending Duchene to the Blue Jackets was completed, for slightly different terms.
The Blue Jackets need to keep Artemi Panarin and go for it. The franchise has just five playoff wins and zero series victories to their name in 17 years in the league, and this looks like it's shaping up to be their best chance to finally win a series. With the Capitals and Penguins both showing more flaws than ever before -- and the Isles a seemingly weak leader, as noted above -- there's finally an opening in the Metro Division for someone else to capitalize.
They'd be doing their loyal fans a massive disservice by not doing everything in their power to seize this opportunity, regardless of the potential risk of losing both Panarin and Bobrovsky for nothing this summer. Getting star players is the hardest thing to do in this league; the Blue Jackets finally have one, and are being presented with an opportunity to land another. Assuming Duchene would be interested in sticking around and signing a long-term deal, as has been reported, it's a scenario that doesn't come up often enough for Columbus.
I picked Bemstrom here as the crown jewel of the package in return because he's one of my favorite under-the-radar prospects (relatively) in the game. He's currently in the midst of an especially magical season, in which he's dominated at every level. Representing Team Sweden at the World Juniors, he was one of the tournament's best forwards, scoring four goals in five games, firing a whopping 26 shots on net. Playing for Djurgardens in the Swedish Hockey League, he's currently eighth all-time in goals per game and 17th all-time in points per game in league history for a player age 19 and under.
If the Blue Jackets won't part with Bemstrom, there are plenty of other intriguing prospects to choose from in the pipeline. One thing they've done remarkably well of late is uncovering talent outside of the first round. Whether it's Bemstrom, or Alex Texier, or Kirill Marchenko, or Elvis Merzilkins, their farm system is loaded with players who should be of interest to a team stockpiling young assets.
For Columbus, as tantalizing as all of those names are for the future, it pales in comparison to the rare opportunity to make some noise in the present for once.
Shake it Hoff
The Canadiens have been one of the league's best stories this season. Coming off a miserable 2017-18 campaign in which they bottomed out, missed the playoffs, and picked third overall, they've returned onto the scene in a big way. The biggest reason for their bounce-back campaign is their improvement on the attack, where they've improved from being 29th-ranked scoring offense at 5-on-5 and 30th overall last season to seventh and 14th this season, respectively.
Montreal has been especially fun to watch at 5-on-5 because they're fast, deep and relentless. The power play is an entirely different story. No team scores fewer goals on average with the man advantage than Montreal's paltry 4.52 goals per 60 power-play minutes, and they need to do something about it if they're to be taken seriously come the playoffs. The main reason why they've been so stagnant is because they're lacking another shooter. Everyone is aware of Shea Weber's cannon ... which is a problem, because that means opposing penalty kills know about it, too. Without any other real threats, defenders can cheat towards Weber more than they can with some of the other top trigger men in the league, daring the Canadiens' power play to beat them from somewhere else.
From that perspective, Hoffman makes too much sense for the Habs. His shot is a plus weapon, and he's been supremely effective on the power play. His 11 power-play goals this season are tied for eighth best with other heralded scorers like Vladimir Tarasenko, Nikita Kucherov and Patrik Laine. Since 2015-16, when he first started to get regular minutes on the man advantage with the Senators, Hoffman's 41 power-play tallies are behind only Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Wayne Simmonds, Jamie Benn, Kucherov, and Evgeni Malkin. The Panthers have other great weapons beyond him, but he's certainly helped drive their power play to being the NHL's third best group this season.
News recently broke that the Panthers approached him about submitting his no-trade list, which suggests that they're at least considering the potential of trading him. That would be in line with their presumed strategy of shedding as much money as possible so that they can go on a shopping frenzy in free agency this summer. The Canadiens can not only eat his completely reasonable $5.187 million salary for next season, but they can send the Panthers back a package of draft picks because they're dealing from a surplus. That means that Montreal can improve their team and fill a need, and Florida can better position itself for the future while essentially recouping what they gave up for Hoffman in the first place.