Faceoff: It's time to get real
Two weeks. That's all we've got left.
Two weeks from today, the NHL trade deadline arrives. For fans, the day and everything that builds up to it serve as one of the highlights of the hockey calendar, a perfect medley of intrigue and speculation that culminates in a day-long finale. We call in sick, camp out in front of the TV, and watch the deals roll in. It's fun.
But for general managers around the league, the trade deadline isn't about entertainment. It's about reality. It's about cutting the crap, taking a good hard look at a season that's roughly three-quarters done, and figuring out what exactly this particular iteration of your roster is going to be when it grows up.
In short: Are you in or out? Or, in some cases: Are you out, but close enough that you can pretend that you're in?
Around the league, 23 teams wake up today either holding down a playoff spot or sitting within a half-dozen points of one. Only four teams are trailing by double digits. Heck, last year's Senators roared back from a 14-point deficit in mid-February to make the playoffs; only the Maple Leafs are outside that range today. Everyone else is still in this thing.
That's all a big lie, of course. Almost all of those bubble teams on the outside looking in today won't make it, and many won't even come close. In most cases, they won't deserve to—these are teams that lose far more often than they win and give up far more goals than they score. They're bad teams having bad seasons, and they should be throwing in the towel and looking toward the future.
But most won't. We're still in it, they'll insist. We can pull this off. A lot of that is wishful thinking. Some of it is cynical marketing. A good chunk is just simple self-preservation—if you're a GM in a league where parity reigns and you get points for losing, admitting that the team you've built is dead in the water before you've even hit the 60-game mark is a great way to put a target on your own back. Sure, it may be better in the long run to move a veteran for a pick or prospect that will help three years down the line, but that's easier said than done if you expect to be unemployed by then.
Factor in the potential for impatient fans, a demanding local media, and an owner who may have set your budget based on at least a few games of postseason revenue, and the stakes are high. So if you're a GM with two weeks left to figure out where you stand, what do you do?
One bubble team has already made its decision. The Ottawa Senators pushed their chips in last week, acquiring Dion Phaneuf from the Maple Leafs in a surprise blockbuster that made them better in the short term even as it saddled them with a potentially disastrous long-term contract. Even eight points out with five teams to pass, the Senators have decided that they're in.
Other teams will have to make their own calls soon. The Flyers, for example, are six points back; they were in a similar situation last year, when rookie GM Ron Hextall made the rare call to stand pat and keep focused on the future. Does he do the same this time?
The Flames and Canucks were first-round opponents last year, but there won't be room for both in the Western Conference this time. The Flames are eight points back and fading, while the Canucks are five out after somehow getting outplayed by the Leafs' ECHL squad on Saturday. Both teams should probably look toward the future.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens are already reeling from a two-month cold streak and now face reports that Carey Price is done for the season. They're denying that, but these days it feels like Habs fans have already thrown in the towel and moved on to the Auston Matthews watch; it will be fascinating to see if GM Marc Bergevin does the same.
We could keep going down the list, one that includes teams like the Predators, Avalanche, Islanders and Penguins. And then there's perhaps the toughest bubble case of all: the free-falling Minnesota Wild. They've already pulled the trigger on one major move, firing head coach Mike Yeo on Saturday after losing eight straight and 13 out of 14. The Wild are five points out and look every bit like a team that desperately needs to start over, but with so many massive contracts clogging the books they may not be able to. When you're clearly in win-now mode but can't find a way to win now, you're almost forced to double down, no matter how unlikely it is to work.
Each of those teams have tough calls to make, and just two weeks left to make them. And for the GMs involved, their ability to cut out the self-delusion and get real might go a long way to determining whether they're even still on the job this time next year.
Race to the Cup
The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
5. St. Louis Blues (32-17-9, +6 true goals differential)—They have a realistic shot of finishing in fourth place overall in the league and starting the playoffs on the road. The Central, man.
4. Los Angeles (33-19-3, +22)—They've alternated losses and wins over their last nine games, and now Marian Gaborik is on the injured reserve and could be out long term after a knee-on-knee collision in Friday's win over the Rangers.
3. Chicago Blackhawks (36-18-5, +25)—Initial reports are that the leg injury suffered by Marian Hossa in Saturday's overtime loss to the Ducks could lead to him missing some time, but won't force a long-term absence. That's at least some good news after a tough week that saw the Hawks lose three straight to Western Conference playoff teams.
2. Dallas Stars (36-15-5, +32)—Back-to-back weekend wins over the Hawks and the Caps? Huh. Message delivered.
1. Washington Capitals (40-10-4, +54)—The NHL's all-time record for wins in a season is 62, held by the 1995-96 Red Wings. Even after Saturday's loss, the Caps are on pace for 61. And yet nobody's talking about this being an historically great team, because after years of playoff collapses, nothing they do during the regular season feels like it matters. No team will have more at stake during the postseason.
While all of those various bubble teams up above are trying to decide if they should be in or out, there's another category to sort out that's probably even more important: the true contenders.
For these teams, the choice to be made over the next two weeks isn't one between buying and selling. Instead, it's about how much to buy, and how much of the future to sacrifice while doing it. In an NHL where drafting and developing are the best path to success and young players on entry-level deals represent the only consistent form of cap value, picks and prospects have become invaluable. But if you're close to a Stanley Cup—truly close, not just "anything can happen" close—then future be damned. Flags fly forever, and all that.
So who are the true contenders this year? The Caps, Hawks, Stars and Kings are all in that group, without question. From there, things get a little hazy.
The Panthers represent a fascinating case. The standings say that they've got as good a shot as just about any team. And with all the youth on the roster and waiting in the wings, there are more than enough assets here to go out and get just about anyone on the market. But is now the right time? Remember, the Panthers blindsided everyone by landing Jaromir Jagr this time last year. That was in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to make the playoffs, so the stakes are different this season, but Dale Tallon clearly isn't afraid to roll the dice in a market that's been waiting two decades for anything even vaguely resembling a winner.
Then you've got the Blues, who've been quietly hanging around just outside the league's top five for most of the year. Today, their record looks very much like that of a legitimate Cup contender. And yet, over the last month or so, they really haven't been especially good, a fact largely disguised by some excellent goaltending. In that brutally tough Central, do the Blues load up and go for it? They probably have no choice; with only a single playoff series win in the last dozen years and a head coach riding out a one-year extension, this feels like a team in win-or-else mode.
What about the Ducks, who were supposed to be a favourite this year but have only recently started to look like one? Do the Sharks try to load up for one more run at a Cup before the Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau era comes to an end? The Rangers are an old and expensive team with a championship window that some have already declared closed. Do they close up shop, or take one more shot?
And, of course, no team will be getting more calls than the Lightning, who have to find a home for Jonathan Drouin and (maybe) resolve the Steven Stamkos situation. The Lightning are no sure thing to even make the playoffs this year, but they came within two wins of the Cup last season and have recently looked like a team that could be poised to finish the job this year… if they're even still the same team in two weeks.
Any of those teams is in a position to pull off the sort of trade that makes the pundits say things like "We've got ourselves a new Stanley Cup favourite." But those deals rarely come cheap, and when it comes to making all-or-nothing moves, only one team ever ends the season feeling like it was worth it.
Race to No. 1
The five teams with the best chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick.
5. Winnipeg Jets (25-27-3, -18)—They welcomed back goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who earned a win over the Oilers in his first action since suffering a knee injury in November. In a mild surprise, rookie Connor Hellebuyck was sent down to the AHL to make room despite having the best numbers of any Jets goalie on the season.
4. Buffalo Sabres (23-28-6, -27)—Two more points from Jack Eichel, including a nice solo effort on the opening goal. The Sabres aren't good, but they're giving fans a glimpse of what the future holds.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets (23-28-6, -31)—Maybe the only thing worse than being terrible for an entire season is being terrible for almost an entire season, then playing just well enough to drop out of a prime draft pick slot. Here's hoping for some lottery karma for long-suffering Blue Jackets fans.
2. Edmonton Oilers (22-29-6, -30)—I'm already tired of the debate over whether Connor McDavid is allowed to win the Calder and it hasn't even started yet.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs (20-25-9, -24)—Times may be tough now. But nine months down the road, a million babies are going to be born in Toronto and they're all going to be named Mitch Marner Goal Jr.
So we've covered the true contenders and the traditional bubble teams. But this year, there's a third group of teams facing a uniquely tough call over the next two weeks, and it's worth breaking them out into their own category. Three teams that entered the season as clear rebuilders that had been penciled into the Auston Matthews sweepstakes are instead making a surprise push to a playoff spot.
Perhaps the biggest shock is the Arizona Coyotes. With local kid Matthews waiting, it was all but assumed that the Coyotes would tank the season to improve their lottery odds of landing the first homegrown superstar in state history. Instead, they're still in the mix in the Pacific. They've also still got the tricky Mikkel Boedker situation to deal with, which complicates things.
In the East, both the Hurricanes and Devils are hanging around the wild-card race. The Devils don't score much, but they have one of the best goaltenders on the planet in Corey Schneider, which would make them a scary playoff opponent (and give them an outside shot at making certain experts look very bad). The Canes have developed into a great possession team under new coach Bill Peters, but haven't had the goaltending to take advantage. Do they still move Eric Staal, as we've all expected them to once the deadline arrived? At this point, nobody seems to know which way they're leaning.
None of those teams are really legitimate Cup contenders this season, and all three organizations seem smart enough to know what they are, which means it's unlikely that they'd sacrifice any sort of significant chunk of the future for a playoff run today. Don't be surprised if all three stand pat or make minor moves at the most. But they may not feel like they can wave the white flag, and that could make what's shaping up to be a sellers' market even tighter.
Two weeks. You're on the clock, NHL GMs. At the very least, it will be fun to see how it all plays out.
Around the league
- This report on retired players living with the impact of concussions is a tough watch, but should be required viewing for any NHL fan.
- Most entertaining game of the weekend: Detroit's 6-5 win over the Bruins on Sunday, one that gave the Red Wings sole possession of the second spot in the Atlantic. If the playoffs started today, we'd get a rematch in the opening round.
- In other Bruins news, Saturday's win over the Wild was the 500th of Claude Julien's career, which is good, and Patrice Bergeron missed both games with a mysterious injury, which is not.
- The Canucks wore jerseys Saturday night that they marketed as retro, because apparently in Vancouver the word "retro" translates to "easily the best in franchise history and it's not even close."
- It sounds like the Jets are finally getting their long-rumoured outdoor game, with reports suggesting they'll host the Oilers early next season. The rumour mill says we may also get a Leafs/Wings outdoor rematch in Toronto.
- Chalk up yet another milestone for phenom Shayne Gostisbehere, the new owner of the NHL's record for longest point streak by a rookie defenceman. Gostisbehere and the Flyers dropped a 3-1 decision to the Rangers on Sunday, a feisty game that was the first between the two teams since Wayne Simmonds injured Ryan McDonagh last week.
- Weird stat of the week: As of today, nobody in the league has a win streak or pointless streak longer than three games. Parity is
a bowl of lukewarm oatmealgreat!
- Finally, this look at the Dion Phaneuf trade is recommended reading for any fans who've ever wondered about the logistical chaos that breaks out behind the scenes after a top-secret blockbuster deal.