Of all the conversations I had at All-Star weekend in Florida, one with Sidney Crosby stuck out. He told me, multiple times, that the league feels more competitive than it has ever been. In 18 years in the NHL, Crosby said he has never seen anything like it. Sure, Boston has run away with the top record in the league, but there are so many teams clustered behind the Bruins, and any team can win on any night, meaning it's hard to determine the true favorites.
So as we approach the trade deadline (March 3) -- compounded with a stagnant salary cap that has limited so many of the contenders -- teams are being cautious on going all-in. Teams seemingly in the mix might end up trading away veterans. Teams arriving ahead of schedule or surging up the standings (see: New Jersey, Buffalo) are being cautious about giving up too much this year, knowing it's more important for their franchises to build sustainably for the future. And we still aren't sure which players are available, as some of the top pending unrestricted free agents, such as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, have yet to announce their intentions. How it all shakes out will make for an intriguing lead-up to the deadline.
Here's what I'm hearing about storylines to follow over the next month.
Latest on Dylan Larkin in Detroit
At All-Star weekend, Dylan Larkin lamented what he said was misinformation about his contract talks. "It just seems people are fishing and speculating," Larkin said. "I don't really want my business out there. I understand we're in the spotlight and fans want to know. They deserve to know. But I think it's not really the most truthful, you know?"
As the captain of the Red Wings, Larkin doesn't want his situation to go public. He hates being a distraction to the team. He has handled the situation as well as he can, but it has to be frustrating. Because in talking to people close to Larkin, nobody really knows where this is going.
So without going into numbers, here's what I can tell you about the dynamics going on behind the scenes:
Big picture, Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman has a price in mind for what he's willing to pay for Larkin, and it's not in line with what some other No. 1 centers around the league are making. Yzerman is sticking to that number. Larkin's camp is arguing: What does it cost to replace Larkin? They feel strongly about his worth, and it's more than Yzerman has been willing to budge. So we're between a rock and a hard place.
The one thing I've heard consistently about Yzerman as a general manager is that he works slow. He grinds things out. He and Larkin's camp haven't talked in a few days. In that time, the Islanders offered Horvat the $8.5 million AAV. So when Larkin's reps and Yzerman reconnect -- likely sometime this week -- they'll see if that comp helps their case.
Ideally Yzerman wants to get this deal done before the March 3 deadline so he can plan other moves -- and also ensure his 26-year-old captain doesn't walk away this summer for nothing. Larkin has full control here with a no-trade clause in his deal. As of now, Larkin doesn't have an appetite for moving, either at the deadline or this summer. He's a hometown kid who has played his entire life in the state of Michigan. He takes pride in leading Detroit. But it's becoming apparent other teams might be willing to give him more money on the open market. And if there isn't progress, his agent can talk to other teams and broker a deal to where Larkin wants to go. But they are hopeful it doesn't get to that. Based on how things are going, there's a very good chance this doesn't get resolved until the summer.
David Pastrnak close to getting paid?
On the David Pastrnak contract talks, I've been told the Bruins and their star winger are "financially very close." Though Pastrnak admitted during All-Star weekend that there is no rush and he is focusing on hockey, this is tracking to get done this season, after some progress the past few weeks. It sounds like Pastrnak will get paid on level with the top stars in the league, and for more money than Boston's front office was originally budgeting. I have heard that Pastrnak also wanted to be comfortable with the Bruins' long-term vision so they can stay competitive in the next era after Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Brad Marchand are done.
To that end, it sounds like the Bruins have been very hesitant to give up a first-round pick or too many assets for rental players at this year's deadline. They've been burned before, and need to build back up their prospect pool. The Bruins are looking to make depth additions for the playoff push, but ideally would pick up a player who fits into their long-term plans as well. Cost certainty is also a big priority for two other top Eastern Conference contenders: the New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes.
Islanders needed to overpay Bo Horvat
If Horvat's eight-year, $8.5 million AAV extension reaffirmed anything, it's the importance of market dynamics. Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello said it himself: "It's too long and it's too much money." But the Islanders were desperate for a jolt. When I was in Long Island the week before the All-Star break, players were saying they didn't believe the Islanders were as bad as their record suggested. They just were in a rut, struggling to score -- Mathew Barzal told me he thought he should have three more goals and 15 more assists -- and the power play was brutal. Lamoriello gave up significant assets to obtain Horvat, and needed to overpay to ensure it wasn't for naught.
Market for Timo Meier
With Horvat moved, all eyes are on Timo Meier as the top forward available. He's 26, and scoring at a career pace (0.55 goals per game through his first 51 games) at exactly the right time. Meier is a restricted free agent this summer (albeit with a $10 million qualifying offer). But teams around the league are hoping to negotiate a new contract with Meier's camp in facilitating the trade, hoping they can get him in the $8 million to $9 million range. The Metro rival Devils and New York Rangers are both very interested, though cautious about getting into a bidding war, because they're not alone in that interest. "Everyone is talking to San Jose about Timo Meier," one Eastern Conference executive told me. "Everyone is monitoring it."
Thatcher Demko on the move?
There has been a lot of speculation about Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko ahead of the trade deadline. Per sources, at least four teams have called Vancouver asking about Demko's availability -- and the Canucks haven't said no to any of those teams. If Vancouver is serious about a rebuild, it could get a lot of assets for Demko, who is just 27 and under contract for three more years on a team-friendly $5 million per season.
The goalie hasn't played since Dec. 1 because of a lower body injury, and he's about a week and a half away from getting back on the ice. Should he get in a couple of good starts and look like the old, dominant Demko again, that interest would probably increase. So it's a situation to monitor, but not necessarily one that's imminent.
It's not as hot of a goalie market as it was last year, though there will be teams looking for some assurance in net, especially if injuries pop up over the next few weeks. The two veterans most likely to be on the move are Cam Talbot out of Ottawa and James Reimer out of San Jose. The Canes have three NHL goalies, and given the emergence of Pyotr Kochetkov, they might be willing to move pending UFA Antti Raanta should the right offer emerge.
Kevin Hayes and latest on Flyers
One of the best stories of the weekend was Kevin Hayes, the 30-year-old forward making his first All-Star appearance in his ninth year of the league. Hayes' late brother, Jimmy, always told Kevin he believed he was an All-Star.
"I never really thought that something like this would happen," Kevin said. "He would always just say, 'This is the year, it's going to happen.' I think he was just saying it to be a good guy."
It was clearly an emotional weekend for Hayes, who shared the ice with his cousins, Matthew and Brady Tkachuk, as well as his former Boston College teammate, Johnny Gaudreau. A large contingent of the Hayes family was on hand, including Jimmy's son, Beau, whose No. 1 goal of the weekend was meeting his favorite player, David Pastrnak, in the locker room.
The Flyers had practice Sunday afternoon in Voorhees, and I'm told Hayes switched flights to a 7 a.m. departure to rush back to make it. That's an example of Hayes' character, and the way he's working hard to set an example for the new culture of the Flyers under John Tortorella. That type of discipline didn't always exist on the team.
On Monday, Tortorella sent a letter to Flyers season-ticket holders, being transparent about where the team was in its journey. The key line: "I'm not going to lie to you -- and I want to be clear about this -- we're not there yet. This year was the first step in building the future of the Flyers and restoring our reputation as one of the most respected teams in hockey." That signals the Flyers are going to once again be sellers at this year's deadline.
I have heard there are some teams interested in Hayes, who has three years remaining on his contract with an average annual value of $7.1 million, though the Flyers would undoubtedly need to retain some salary should they move him. The more likely Philly forward to get traded is James van Riemsdyk, a pending unrestricted free agent (who would also require some retention on his $7 million salary). And while the Flyers would like to move Ivan Provorov ($6.75 million, under contract through 2024-25), I was told by an Eastern Conference executive that there's a lot more league-wide interest in Nick Seeler ($750,000, under contract through 2023-24) as a diamond-in-the-rough option on a budget contract. Philadelphia could be inclined to move the 29-year-old Seeler to open up spots for younger players in the final stretch.