With the trade deadline (Monday, Feb. 24 at 3 p.m. ET) on the horizon, theScore identifies eight X-factors who could influence this key period:
In a relatively weak trade deadline class, Chris Kreider is expected to be the best player dealt. There's still a chance the Rangers re-sign the pending UFA winger, but it's clear New York will have no shortage of suitors. As of last week, he was reportedly atop the wish list of eight teams.
If Kreider is indeed traded, it'll be interesting to track the ripple effect. How do the league's main buyers react? Do they double down on their pursuit of an impact player and chase after Senators forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau? Do they exit the marketplace in frustration since the talent pool is so shallow?
What isn't up for debate is Kreider's credentials. He's in the prime of his career and his game is perfectly suited for playoff hockey. The 28-year-old possesses size, speed, physicality, and offensive ability. With 22 goals and 40 points through 54 games, he's on pace for a career year. - Josh Wegman
Oh, to be in Marc Bergevin's head right now.
The Canadiens GM is a fascinating figure in the buildup to the deadline, as he has a lot to process - from Shea Weber's health status, to Ilya Kovalchuk's emergence, to the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The central question in all of this: What is the club's realistic timeline for a return to the postseason? Heading into Thursday's slate of games, the Habs are seven points back in the East despite playing a conference-high 59 games. MoneyPuck.com estimates they have a 5.3% chance of earning a spot. In other words, the playoffs probably aren't in the cards this spring.
Bergevin then has a decision to make regarding Kovalchuk, who has dazzled in his 17-game stint in Montreal, scoring six goals - including three game-winners - while adding six assists. The executive's options include pursuing a contract extension, trading him before the deadline, or riding out the season and leaving any potential negotiations to the summer. Don't forget defenseman Marco Scandella, another midseason acquisition, is also on an expiring deal and could garner some attention on the rental market.
Tomas Tatar and Jeff Petry - quality veterans making fair money - have another year remaining on their respective deals. This means if Bergevin believes the Habs can't rebound to any great extent in 2020-21, he could flip one or both of them for picks and/or prospects. Bringing in a player like Tatar or Petry for two playoff runs would be a boon for any contender. - John Matisz
Off-ice Battle of Alberta
The Flames and Oilers' rivalry could extend off the ice leading up to the deadline. Both clubs are jostling for position in the crowded Pacific Division and could be in the hunt for similar players. Whichever team can make a more impactful addition could have a significant leg up down the stretch.
Flames GM Brad Treliving has already paved the way for a move, trading Michael Frolik to the Sabres last month to clear $4.3 million in cap space. All signs point to the Flames adding a top-six forward. Kreider may be too steep for a squad not guaranteed a playoff spot, but someone like Tyler Toffoli could be a nice fit. A depth defenseman could also be useful, with Mark Giordano and Travis Hamonic both currently sidelined.
Coincidentally, Edmonton's most pressing need is also a top-six forward - ideally someone who could hang with Connor McDavid when he returns from injury. It'd be nice to add a center ASAP to help while McDavid is out, but Ottawa's Pageau is the only notable pivot available.
All that being said, Oilers GM Ken Holland has limited cap space to work with. He could take on a sizable cap hit if the last year of Sam Gagner's contract is sent the other way, but finding an affordable player, such as the rejuvenated Kovalchuk or Edmonton native Tyler Ennis, could be his best option. - Wegman
By now, the hockey world has learned Penguins GM Jim Rutherford and Coyotes GM John Chayka aren't fond of complacency. Both are aggressive in the trading world and have even shown an openness to part ways with recently acquired players (see: Galchenyuk, Alex).
In general, Rutherford is someone to keep an eye on because he's constantly tinkering with his roster. The 70-year-old's work earlier this week - scooping up Jason Zucker in a four-piece trade with the Wild - will likely stand as his signature move of the season, yet the Penguins could upgrade the bottom of their lineup. Adding a third-pairing defenseman and/or bottom-six forward before the deadline would align with the club's all-in approach to 2019-20.
As for Chayka and the Coyotes, they, of course, made a giant splash in December with the Taylor Hall trade. And, if they remain in the hunt for a Western Conference playoff spot as February chugs along, don't be surprised if Chayka gets creative in the pursuit for more offensive punch. It's been seven seasons since Arizona made the postseason, and beyond St. Louis and Colorado, the West is wide-open. The opportunity is there, and it would be a shame if the stingy Coyotes fall short thanks to an inadequate attack. - Matisz
Sabres' defensive logjam
Something's gotta give on Buffalo's blue line. The Sabres are one of the few teams with a surplus on the back end - specifically on the right side.
Zach Bogosian, a pending UFA, is bound to get flipped if the Sabres are willing to eat a portion of his $5.14-million cap hit; one of Rasmus Ristolainen, Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, and Henri Jokiharju should get traded at some point. Ristolainen is in need of a change of scenery, Miller hasn't quite worked out in Buffalo after being acquired in the summer, Montour's value is likely lower than it was last season after he was dealt from Anaheim for a first-round pick and a prospect, while Jokiharju seems destined to stay. There are several ways in which GM Jason Botterill could play this.
If Botterill is able to pull off a blockbuster involving one of his D-men to bring in some much-needed help up front - ideally a center - it could change the landscape of the entire deadline, since it seems just about every team wants a right-handed blue-liner. - Wegman
Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas already made a move to acquire a backup goaltender in Jack Campbell and some sandpaper with Kyle Clifford, yet it's hard to imagine the 34-year-old is done.
Now, don't expect Dubas to be in on any major rentals. It also seems unlikely he'd trade another first-round pick after dealing his 2019 first last season for Jake Muzzin. He sent a conditional 2020 first to Carolina this past offseason too (if it's a top-10 pick Carolina will get Toronto's 2021 first-rounder instead) while getting rid of Patrick Marleau's contract.
However, it wouldn't be surprising if Dubas heavily pursues a so-called "pure hockey trade." The Leafs have plenty of forward depth, and someone like Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson would be easily expendable if the right deal for a defenseman presented itself.
Who that blue-liner could be remains to be seen, though Matt Dumba and Josh Manson are two names consistently thrown around in the rumor mill.
If the Leafs can land a top-pairing D-man and squeak into the playoffs just as Morgan Rielly returns from injury, Toronto's blue line will have transformed from a weakness to a strength, making the club a handful for any potential postseason opponent. - Wegman
Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau
This X-factor comes with a substantial asterisk.
Joe Thornton, the best player in Sharks history, has a no-movement clause in his contract and thus controls his own destiny. Patrick Marleau, a legend in his own right, would probably have a say in deciding his future, too, even though he doesn't have a NMC.
With those caveats out of the way, consider how Thornton or Marleau would look on a contending team's fourth line and second-unit power play. You get an all-time playmaker making $2 million or an all-time skater making the league minimum. And, despite their age, both Thornton and Marleau carry around an infectious, youthful enthusiasm for the game.
While the chances are slim Thornton and/or Marleau get moved at the deadline, the thought of the 40-year-olds chasing that elusive Stanley Cup sure is tantalizing and worth noting as the deadline nears. - Matisz
NHL GMs have said time and again they will not overthink their strategy for the upcoming expansion draft. Many were duped by the 2017 Vegas draft and refuse to bend over backward as the unnamed Seattle franchise prepares to enter the league in 2021-22 with a competitive squad.
That's what you call learning from the past, which is a smart way to view the situation. However, just because GMs say they're going to keep things simple this time around doesn't mean Seattle GM Ron Francis and his staff aren't lurking around the deadline and beyond. Until the team is officially stocked with players, they will indirectly factor into the discussion.
Take the last two trades, for instance. The Maple Leafs will probably leave goalie Jack Campbell exposed in the expansion draft, while the Penguins will probably protect forward Jason Zucker. Whether it's an intended or unintended consequence, every deal fits into the 2021 expansion puzzle.
Like with the Vegas draft, teams can protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie. Among the conditions: Players unwilling to waive their no-movement clauses must be protected, and all first- and second-year players are exempt from the draft. The Golden Knights, for what it's worth, are excused from the entire process. - Matisz
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