Here we are again, the third week of February, and that means the trade deadline is right around the corner. This year, the deadline falls on Monday, February 26, so GMs around the NHL are blowing up phones nationwide to see who or what they can move. In every case, the eye is on the future: for some, it’s about the next three-to-four months, and for others, it’s about next year and beyond. In most cases, you’ll see expiring UFAs, your typical rentals, being swapped, but in some cases RFAs will be dealt and potentially even players with some years still left on their contracts. It’s a fascinating time of the season, rivaling the Entry Draft and the free agency period in summer as times to watch players, prospects and draft picks get shuffled around and cap management be deployed.
As with last year, I’ve gone and ranked all thirty-one teams on a scale of one through five, depending on whether each team is a buyer or a seller, with an aim to even distribute all the teams across those rankings (with an odd team now, thanks Vegas). This year, I tried to pay more attention to each team’s salary cap status, both for this year and next year, as that plays a part in how big or small the moves they make can be. The ones and twos on this list are your sellers, teams that are likely to miss the playoffs and as such they’ll be keen to shed salary and acquire prospects or draft picks in return; ones will generally be in a more urgent condition to do so than twos will. On the other end of the spectrum, fours and fives are your buyers: they are teams who are likely playoff-bound or trying to be as such, and they’ll either have the cap space or the organizational urgency to make the bigger moves needed to prepare their team for the stretch run. Finally, threes have neither the urgency nor the facility to make big moves, whether they’re out of cap space or they simply want to maintain their pace with their peers, and they’ll likely be making marginal moves.
For those in the tl;dr realm, here’s a quick rundown of my rankings:
Ones: CHI, DET, FLA, MTL, NYR, OTT
Twos: ARI, BUF, CAR, EDM, NYI, VAN
Threes: BOS, COL, LA, MIN, PIT, STL, TOR
Fours: CGY, DAL, NSH, PHI, SJ, WSH
Fives: ANA, CBJ, NJ, TB, VGK, WPG
All contract and salary cap information is from CapFriendly.com.
Chicago Blackhawks (7th in Central, 12th in West, 11 points out of playoff spot)
Five UFAs, five RFAs (notable: Anthony Duclair)
Current salary cap hit: $75M ($0 in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $64.5M on 15 NHL contracts
There’s a dumpster fire in the Windy City, and it’s the hopes and dreams of the Blackhawks returning to Stanley Cup relevance. They’re well out of the playoff race, 1-8-1 in their last ten, and not looking very much like the team they were a few years back. With Corey Crawford out indefinitely, they are missing the key piece of any chance they have of making a decent playoff run if they were to make the playoffs. They’re also very likely trapped in their salary cap predicament, as they have the most obstructed cap space in the League. Their most expensive UFA is Lance Bouma; I don’t think there will be many suitors chasing after him. It’s not looking good for Chicago, and if they can make any moves to free up some cap space, they’ll be doing themselves a favor in the long run. For now, they’re looking at a lottery pick.
Detroit Red Wings (5th in Atlantic, 13th in East, 8 points out of playoff spot)
Two UFAs (notable: Mike Green), six RFAs (notables: Andreas Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha)
Current salary cap hit: $75M ($0 in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $62.1M on 15 NHL contracts
What a mess in the Motor City, as the Red Wings are loaded up with nine no-trade/no-movement contracts and many of those don’t expire for at least three years. Craig Cudmore (@CudmoreCraig) tracks Obstructed Cap Space on Twitter; only the Blackhawks have more salary wrapped up in long-term, no-movement clause contracts. More relevant is the one big expiring contract, Green, who has a $6M cap hit, and six RFAs to consider. They’re really locked in place with their veterans (emphasis on veterans: theirs is the oldest roster in the League) and they’re a few years away from their key prospects making an impact in their lineup. If they could move even one of those no-trade contracts it would be a small victory in a season bereft of them. (On Monday, the Red wings traded goaltender Petr Mrazek to the Flyers for a couple of draft picks, saving themselves half of his salary. So, that’s a start?)
Florida Panthers (4th in Atlantic, 12th in East, 7 points out of playoff spot)
One UFA, five RFAs
Current salary cap hit: $67.8M ($7.1M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $64.4M on 18 NHL contracts
The Panthers have managed yet another underwhelming season, a far cry from where they were two years ago when they looked so promising. Unlike in years past, the injury bug hasn’t been a huge problem, but they have been hampered by absences by both James Reimer and Roberto Luongo. They have good personnel, they just lack the consistency they need to stay in the playoff discussion. The good news is that only three players on their roster have no-movement clauses, so it’s conceivable that they could move some guys to shake things up. The bad news is they need all the players they could move and it’s going to be tough to improve if they don’t do so with the roster they already have.
Montreal Canadiens (6th in Atlantic, 14th in East, 13 points out of playoff spot)
Three UFAs (notables: Tomas Plekanec), five RFAs (notables: Phillip Danault)
Current salary cap hit: $67.9M ($7M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $61.5M on 19 NHL contracts
The good news for the Canadiens is that they have a decent pool of young forwards that are going to hopefully (from their perspective) grow into their roles together and make an impact on the NHL in the next few years, and they have a decent amount of cap room to work with next year. The bad news is that their defense is trash, weighed down by injury-prone Shea Weber’s nine-year, $7.857M/yr contract, and it does no favors to Carey Price, who starts an eight-year, $10.5M/yr contract with a full no-movement clause next season. Montreal will be in the discussion for a high lottery pick, and moving veterans like Plekanec, David Schlemko or Jordie Benn will help make room for their future.
New York Rangers (8th in Metropolitan, 11th in East, 6 points out of playoff spot)
Six UFAs (notables: Rick Nash, Michael Grabner), four UFAs (notables: J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Brady Skjei)
Current salary cap hit: $73.4M ($1.5M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $50.3M on 14 NHL contracts
The Blueshirts predictably fell off the face of the planet as they were eclipsed by all of their peers in the division over the past couple of weeks, going 2-8 over their last ten. They’re dealing with injuries galore including Kevin Shattenkirk, Marc Staal, Chris Kreider, and Ondrej Pavelec, among others; they might as well phone it in at this point. They were able to pawn off Nick Holden and his $1.65M contract on the Bruins, and now the spotlight turns to Nash, Grabner, and Desharnais. They’ll be back with a vengeance next season though, as they’ll have a bunch cap space, but with their Metropolitan Division peers either remaining in great condition (WSH, PIT, CBJ) or continuing to improve (CAR, PHI), will they be a threat again anytime soon?
Ottawa Senators (7th in Atlantic, 15th in East, 13 points out of playoff spot)
Three UFAs (notables: Johnny Oduya), four RFAs (notables: Cody Ceci, Mark Stone)
Current salary cap hit: $73.5M ($1.4M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $61.8M on 17 NHL contracts
Is there a more sad-sack team in the League right now than the Senators? Last spring they were one goal away from making the Stanley Cup Final, and now there are rumors that they’re looking to trade away perennial Norris contender (and two-time winner, and four-time finalist) Erik Karlsson, who has a ten team no-trade clause and two years left on his contract. GM Eugene Melnyk clearly must believe that Karlsson is going to walk away from the Canadian capital in two years regardless of their ability to afford re-signing him (their projected third-worst cap room suggests as such), so as the trade deadline approaches Karlsson is a sleeper biggest name on the market. It’s going to be a much different looking Senators team in a couple of years, as they have eight more UFAs next season, so the big sell-off will be commencing shortly, but what a disaster if their franchise defensemen is the first big chip to go (all apologies to Dion Phaneuf).
Arizona Coyotes (8th in Pacific, 15th in West, 27 points out of playoff spot)
Five UFAs (notable: Antti Raanta), two RFAs (notables: Max Domi)
Current salary cap hit: $58.4M ($16.5M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $45.4M on 16 NHL contracts
It’s been another season of disappointing hockey in the desert, with the Coyotes on track for their second-worst record in franchise history. If there’s a silver lining to that ignominy, it’s that they’ve already eclipsed their worst record (set in 1980-81 with 32 points) so they won’t be replacing it, and with the first overall pick in the 1981 Entry Draft they selected Dale Hawerchuk who eventually ended up in the Hall of Fame. Though it’s not a guarantee that the ‘Yotes will end up with the #1 pick this year, there must be some reward coming for them for all these years of futility and uncertainty. There’s no reason they couldn’t hold on to their pending RFAs, as they have plenty of cap room now and projected for next year, but then again they moved impending RFA LW Anthony Duclair to Chicago in January. If there’s going to continue being a firesale in Arizona, Domi, Reider, and Raanta are decent targets. (On Wednesday, the Coyotes sent Reider and Scott Wedgewood to the Kings in exchange for Darcy Kuemper.)
Buffalo Sabres (8th in Atlantic, 16th in East, 20 points out of playoff spot)
Eight UFAs (notable: Evander Kane), five RFAs (notables: Sam Reinhart, Robin Lehner)
Current salary cap hit: $69.4M ($5.5M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $50.9M on 12 NHL contracts
Perhaps the only team that could be more disappointing than the Coyotes are the Sabres, who have five years’ worth of top-ten draft picks (including two of the last four #2 picks, Jack Eichel and Reinhart), but still find themselves in the basement of a crappy Atlantic Division. So the selloff will likely begin soon, and Kane is a target of heavy (pun intended?) interest. The left-handed left-winger is tied with Ryan O’Reilly for second on the Sabres in points (16g-20a—36p), as well as 20th in the League in penalty minutes, and is 16th in the League in average time on ice amongst wingers. He’s your “makes stuff happen all over the ice” kind of winger, which is probably what Penguins GM Jim Rutherford thought he was getting in Ryan Reaves, but Kane is much more productive. The Sabres will probably want at least a first or second round pick for Kane, but they almost certainly won’t get more than that since he’s got just two points since the new year began. Of course, they could let him go for nothing, and wouldn’t that just beat all for those few remaining Sabres fans?
Carolina Hurricanes (6th in Metropolitan, 9th in East, 1 point out of playoff spot)
Three UFAs (notables: Cam Ward), six RFAs (notables: Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin)
Current salary cap hit: $59M ($15.9M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $46.4M on 12 NHL contracts
Any chance that the Cam Ward era in Carolina is ending might be premature, as Ward has outplayed Scott Darling this season. So it will be interesting to see if GM Ron Francis is satisfied with Darling enough to let Ward walk this offseason. Otherwise, it’s been another year of slow improvement for the Canes, the fifth-youngest team in the League with tons of cap room now and a bunch for next season. They’re in a battle with the Islanders and Blue Jackets for the second Wild Card spot, but the winner of that seed will face a buzzsaw in the form of the Tampa Bay Lightning, so I bet Carolina and the Islanders will choose to sit mostly pat as the trade deadline comes and goes. Unlike the Islanders however, Carolina’s stock seems likely to continue improving over the next couple of years.
Edmonton Oilers (7th in Pacific, 14th in West, 19 points out of playoff spot)
Five UFAs (notables: Patrick Maroon), seven RFAs (notables: Brandon Davidson, Darnell Nurse, Ryan Strome)
Current salary cap hit: $66.9M ($8M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $60.9M on 13 NHL contracts
If there’s one GM in the League who really doesn’t have a clue how to do his job, it’s Peter Chiarelli. He rode a blazing hot Tim Thomas to the Cup in 2011 and almost did the same thing with Tuukka Rask in 2013 (in case you all forgot), and then the wheels fell off, starting with trading Tyler Seguin in the following season just before his star (no pun intended) took off. The ineptitude of Chiarelli since he’s arrived in Edmonton is already legendary: not selling high on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, overpaying Milan Lucic, trading Justin Schultz and Taylor Hall, etc. They have a bunch of RFAs including Strome and Nurse that they really ought to extend, but haven’t. If they were in the playoff conversation, they have the cap room to make a move, but they need improving in too many places. At least they have Connor McDavid locked up!
New York Islanders (7th in Metropolitan, 10th in East, 1 point out of playoff spot)
Eight UFAs (notables: John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Jaroslav Halak, Calvin de Haan, Thomas Hickey, Dennis Seidenberg), five RFAs (notable: Ryan Pulock)
Current salary cap hit: $73.7M ($1.2M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $43.1M on 14 NHL contracts
Arguably the biggest name on the free agent market is Tavares, the nine-year pro who is on pace for one of his best seasons stats-wise. However, GM Garth Snow recently said that Tavares is not on the trading block so he’s clearly hoping for Tavares to come to terms with the Islanders before July 1, and with the second-most cap room for next season, there’s no reason they couldn’t re-sign him. What Snow hasn’t said is that no one else is up for grabs, which is roughly half the team. Snow clearly sounds like making the playoffs is a priority, which is nice and all, but they’ve got to get through the rest of the Metropolitan Division first. Big picture: the Islanders have been a bubble playoff team for half of the last two decades, and the rest of the time they’ve been worse. I’ve gone on before about how being on the bubble for so long doesn’t do any good, but it sounds like the Islanders are perfectly content to stay there for the time being. If they can move some of their expiring contracts sooner rather than later, they’ll be able to get a head start on their future.
Vancouver Canucks (6th in Pacific, 13th in West, 18 points out of playoff spot)
Seven UFAs (notables: Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Thomas Vanek), six RFAs (notables: Sven Baertschi, Troy Stecher, Derrick Pouliot)
Current salary cap hit: $74.9M (<$1M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $49.6M on 14 NHL contracts
With plenty of cap space next season, the Canucks are in prime position to improve in the next few years. It will be curious to see what the Sedin brothers do, whether they will extend their contracts to be a part of the rebuild in the Pacific Northwest (as well as the impending rivalry with Seattle), but they will have to take considerable pay cuts for Vancouver’s front office to consider them. Nevertheless, all parties involved are making it sound like the Sedins will end their NHL careers in Vancouver. With Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat leading the way, and a high lottery pick this summer, there’s a lot of positivity coming from Vancouver as far as the future is concerned. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vanek and Gudbranson stay with the Canucks past the trade deadline (Gudbranson just signed an extension with the Canucks, like this week), but trading them won’t hurt their near-term situation any more than keeping them would.
Boston Bruins (2nd in Atlantic, 2nd in East, 17 points into playoff spot)
Six UFAs (notables: Zdeno Chara, Anton Khudobin), three RFAs
Current salary cap hit: $74.7M (<$1M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $57.5M on 15 NHL contracts
The first team on this list has a number of reasons that they likely won’t be making any moves at the trade deadline. First, they are doing great: they’re one point behind the Lightning for the best record in the League (with two games in hand), and only the Lightning have a better goal differential than the Bruins. No one has allowed fewer goals than Boston, and they’ve been rolling of late (8-2 in their last ten). Second, they basically have no cap room. So, with the exception of marginal moves (like acquiring Nick Holden from the Rangers for a 3rd rounder and a bag of pucks), they’re likely going into the playoffs with the group of guys that got them there.
Colorado Avalanche (6th in Central, 11th in West, 3 points out of playoff spot)
Six UFAs, four RFAs (notable: Patrik Nemeth)
Current salary cap hit: $66.8M ($8.1M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $50.6M on 19 NHL contracts
It was an open secret that the Avalanche and Matt Duchene were destined to part ways, so after getting it out of the way relatively quickly this season, the Avalanche have remained fairly competitive in a season which, after their third-worst record ever, would not be generous to describe as a “bounce-back.” Still, the Avs aren’t looking like a playoff team yet, and there’s no rush as the rebuild is officially on. Theirs is the third-youngest roster in the League and they have the third-most cap space right now. One thing to watch out for is their RFA situation, as they have fourteen RFAs coming up in the next two years. Granted, eight of those are non-arbitration-eligble entry-level contracts, so there’s no pressure for most of them, so the Avalanche should be safe on the salary cap front for the next few years. They also have three (or four, depending on the Senators; cross your fingers for a #11 pick) picks in the first two rounds this offseason, so the Avs will only continue to get younger.
Los Angeles Kings (4th in Pacific, 9th in West, virtual tie for second Wild Card seed)
Two UFAs, three RFAs (notables: Tobias Reider)
Current salary cap hit: $72.1M ($2.8M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $70.2M on 20 NHL contracts
On the list of teams whose Cup window is closing, the Kings have the fifth-oldest team in the League but some decent roster stability with just six expiring contracts (including two arbitration-eligible RFAs). If the Kings are going to make a run in the playoffs, it’ll be thanks to Jonathan Quick, who is healthy and enjoying somewhat of a bounce-back year. They’ll also be getting Jeff Carter back in the next few weeks, so they may not feel like they need to add at the trade deadline. They have some room to do so if they choose, even after taking on Dion Phaneuf in exchange for Marian Gaborik and adding another $1.1M to their cap charge. Theirs is the second-best defense in the League, which is usually a good start, so if they can add some offense they could be a threat in the playoffs. (Tobias Reider from the Coyotes is a modest addition in that regard.)
Minnesota Wild (5th in Central, 8th in West, virtual tie for second Wild Card seed)
Four UFAs, three RFAs (notables: Jason Zucker, Mathew Dumba)
Current salary cap hit: $75M ($0 in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $63M on 17 NHL contracts
Like the Bruins, the Wild have basically no cap space to work with as they head into the stretch. The comparison ends there however as Minnesota sits just two points ahead of their peers for the second Wild Card seed in the West. They can’t take on much more as they have star young defenseman Dumba up for renewal and he’s arbitration eligible. The glaring problem is Zach Parise; he is nowhere near living up to the $7.538M/yr contract they have him signed to for another seven years, and he’s only played twenty games this season after recovering from back surgery that kept him out until the beginning of 2018. Since his return, the Wild are 12-4-4, so they are improving with him back in action, but after placing second in the West last season they’ve taken a big step backwards and they’re hanging on to their playoff hopes by a thread.
Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd in Metropolitan, 5th in East, 9 points into playoff spot)
Four UFAs (notables: Patric Hornqvist, Ian Cole), six RFAs (notables: Bryan Rust, Tristan Jarry)
Current salary cap hit: $74.7M (<$1M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $61.2M on 14 NHL contracts
What a difference a few months makes, huh? Prior to December the Penguins had no answers for their miserable start, and only the fact that the Metropolitan Division was very tight kept them from falling completely out of the playoff discussion. Now: the Penguins are in the mix for the division lead, have recovered from their League-worst goal differential to lead the division in it, and they look very much like a team that wants to three-peat. They don’t have much cap room to work with, so it will have to be players and prospects that go if the Penguins want to make moves to improve their forward depth. Hockeybuzz’s Ryan Wilson has a great breakdown of the rumored targets for the Penguins, so check it out if you want to increase your anxiety a little bit (http://www.hockeybuzz.com/blog.php?post_id=91165). Big picture: I don’t see the Penguins making a move for a bona fide fourth-liner. If they acquire anyone, it’ll be to push guys like Hagelin, Sheary, Sheahan, Aston-Reese, Guentzel, and Rust down the depth chart so they can provide minutes and productivity to the bottom two lines.
St. Louis Blues (4th in Central, 7th in West, 1 point into playoff spot)
Four UFAs (notables: Paul Stastny, Carter Hutton), five RFAs (notables: Joel Edmundson)
Current salary cap hit: $75M ($0 in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $61.2M on 17 NHL contracts
Injuries and a below-average team shooting percentage have kept the Blues from giving the appearance of a serious Cup contender, and they’ve been on a downward trajectory the last few years, so I can’t say I have much confidence in them. They are in the playoffs as of right now, but they’ve been scuffling their feet of late (4-5-1 in their last ten, and losers of four straight), and the return from injury of Jaden Schwartz hasn’t given them the shot in the arm they’ve needed. I’m of the opinion that they’re in mediocrity-ville, and just trying to hang on to relevance. Their backup goaltender, Hutton, is outplaying Jake Allen and is $3.225M cheaper! They’re awful confusing, and that’s why I don’t have a lot of confidence in them. Knowing them, they’ll make the playoffs again this year, bow out in the first round, collect their mid-20s first-rounder, lather, rinse, repeat.
Toronto Maple Leafs (3rd in Atlantic, 3rd in East, 14 points into playoff spot)
Six UFAs (notables: James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Roman Polak), three RFAs (notables: William Nylander)
Current salary cap hit: $75M ($0 in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $49.7M on 16 contracts
Unlike their peers in Detroit and Chicago who have no cap space and are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, the Maple Leafs are well ahead of the Florida Panthers for the third spot in the Atlantic Division and are four points behind the Lightning for the division lead. The Leafs remind me a little of the late-00s Penguins: led by their youngest guys on offense, modestly successful on defense (albeit a bit younger), and a bit better in goal. Scary yet to consider that they have six UFAs totaling ~$25M coming off the books, and just three arbitration-eligible RFAs in the next two years. The winter years for the Leafs appear to be over and they’re going to be a handful for years to come.
Calgary Flames (5th in Pacific, 10th in West, 2 points out of playoff spot)
Five UFAs, six RFAs
Current salary cap hit: $72.9M ($2M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $63.2M on 16 NHL contracts
It’s been a decent year for the Flames, and they stand just two points out of the second Wild Card in the West, but a groin injury to goaltender Mike Smith, who has played very well, might hamper their chances of sneaking in to the playoffs. Still, they have the cap room to make a rental acquisition should they want, and of their peers in the second tier in the West, only the Avalanche have more cap room to play with (and it’s a big difference). Their biggest expiring contract is Matt Stajan, who no one should be interested in acquiring. Their core is decent and many of them are signed for three-plus years, so it will probably be another “wait until next year” sort of deal.
Dallas Stars (3rd in Central, 6th in West, 1 point into playoff spot)
Four UFAs (notables: Dan Hamhuis, Greg Pateryn), five RFAs (notables: Stephen Johns, Mattias Janmark, Devin Shore)
Current salary cap hit: $74.1M (<$1M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $57.3M on 13 NHL contracts
There’s not much excuse for the Stars to not be in a better position than just one point into the playoffs, but that’s here they are. They’ve been largely healthy, and compared to the last couple of years with Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, their goaltending is much improved. They also have two of the best young defensemen in the League in likely Norris finalist John Klingberg and Esa Lindell. Overall however, they’re surprisingly average, and Ben Bishop hasn’t been the lights-out goaltender he was in Tampa Bay. Maybe average in the regular season will be sufficient to make waves in the playoffs in the Western Conference? It worked for the Predators last season, and the Blackhawks and Kings used that strategy for years when they were winning Cups. However, Dallas’ Cup window won’t remain open for long as they have the eleventh-oldest roster in the League, and they only have four players signed beyond 2021, so they are likely going to go for broke soon.
Nashville Predators (1st in Central, 2nd in West, 10 points into playoff spot)
Two UFAs, two RFAs (notables: Juuse Saros)
Current salary cap hit: $71.8M ($3.1M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $67.2M on 19 NHL contracts
Before I get into analyzing the Predators, I’d like to refer you back to the Minnesota Wild and the effect Zach Parise’s return has had on them: Parise returned at the beginning of January and the Wild have gone 12-4-4 in the twenty games since, whereas Ryan Ellis, one of Nashville’s minute-chewing top-four defensemen, returned on January 6 and the Predators have gone 13-4-4 in twenty-one games. Anyway! The Predators have just four expiring contracts this offseason, so they’re clearly in win-now mode. They have some cap room to work with, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go for one of the more offensively-productive forwards on the market, maybe a center?
Philadelphia Flyers (3rd in Metropolitan, 6th in East, 7 points into playoff spot)
Four UFAs, four RFAs (notables: Robert Hagg, Petr Mrazek)
Current salary cap hit: $73.2M ($1.7M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $58.6M on 18 NHL contracts
Somehow, some way, the Flyers snuck themselves into the playoff discussion and, by virtue of how terrible the Atlantic Division also-rans are and the disappearance of the Blue Jackets, Hurricanes, Islanders, and Rangers, the Flyers might actually end up in the playoffs. Of course, that all depends on their goaltending situation: they had to acquire Petr Mrazek from the Red Wings because of injuries to Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth (who weren’t performing all that well to begin with). They also just lost Wayne Simmonds for a couple of weeks, so their hopes must be that they’ve built themselves enough of a buffer to stay away from those four division rivals for at least a couple of weeks. They have a little bit of cap room, so they may go after a winger at the deadline (Evander Kane would be a perfect fit).
San Jose Sharks (2nd in Pacific, 4th in West, 3 points into playoff spot)
Five UFAs (notables: Joe Thornton), four RFAs (notables: Tomas Hertl, Chris Tierney)
Current salary cap hit: $70.5M ($4.5M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $56.8M on 17 NHL contracts
The Sharks were relatively healthy this season, but in the past couple of weeks injuries to key players Thornton, Hertl and Joel Ward have put their playoff hopes in jeopardy. With ~$4.5M in cap room, they’re one of the few teams in the playoff race that have cap room, so they could (and probably should) use that to their advantage. After this year, there are some big changes coming to the Sharks as they have just three players signed beyond 2020. They have the fifth-oldest roster in the League, so if they have any chance of winning the Cup, it will either be this year, next year, or not for a while.
Washington Capitals (1st in Metropolitan, 4th in East, 10 points into playoff spot)
Five UFAs (notables: John Carlson), four RFAs
Current salary cap hit: $75M ($0 in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $62.4M on 14 NHL contracts
The tenuous hold the Capitals have on their Metropolitan Division lead, with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia breathing down their necks, is being made more untenable by the Washington’s record in the last ten (4-4-2) versus that of their rivals. The Capitals however have barely any cap room and marginal moves like adding Michal Kempny from the Blackhawks and Jakub Jerabek from the Canadiens are depth moves, transactions that likely won’t make a big impact to the Capitals’ lineup. Carlson is Washington’s #1 defenseman and they don’t appear to have a two-way defenseman like him coming up, so it’ll be interesting to see if he walks this offseason, though it sounds unlikely. The Capitals’ Cup window is still open, but they’re going to need to stop treating the first round like it’s the Stanley Cup Finals.
Anaheim Ducks (3rd in Pacific, 5th in West, 2 points into playoff spot)
Seven UFAs, three RFAs (notables: Ondrej Kase, Brandon Montour)
Current salary cap hit: $71.5M ($3.4M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $63M on 14 NHL contracts
After being the Pacific Division winner five years in a row and going to the Western Conference Finals last year, the Ducks have taken a big step back and are now trying to maintain pace in the fight for a Wild Card spot. They have been battling injuries all season long, and are currently without John Gibson for a day-to-day injury, which will not help, and the Flames, Wild, and Avalanche all have games in hand on the Ducks. Anaheim does have the benefit of ~$3.5M in cap space, so they might be in the market for a scoring winger to help boost their offense. I doubt many players would mind a two month rental in Anaheim versus Colorado, Minnesota, or Calgary, but Anaheim may not be able to make a deep playoff run with the quality of the teams ahead of them.
Columbus Blue Jackets (5th in Metropolitan, 8th in East, 1 point into playoff spot)
Five UFAs, five RFAs (notables: Oliver Bjorkstrand)
Current salary cap hit: $70.3M ($4.6M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $57.1M on 16 NHL contracts
The Blue Jackets are barely in the playoffs right now – just one point ahead of the Hurricanes and Islanders for the second Wild Card seed – and their downward trajectory (3-6-1 in their last ten) suggests that they might not have what it takes to fend off the challenge from their Metro Division foes. It’s a big departure for Columbus, after coming in third in the Metro with 108 points last year. It’s due in large part by a big drop-off in shooting percentage (League-worst 7.4%) and Sergei Bobrovsky’s play, which has not been Vezina-worthy. Injuries to key guys like Brandon Dubinsky, Alexander Wennberg, and Cam Atkinson have also been troublesome to their offense. The Blue Jackets do have a bunch of cap space however (~$4.6M) and with the youngest roster in the League, a veteran pickup who can produce offensively could be a big help in their push for the playoffs. If Bob can get into a rhythm in the stretch run, don’t count out Columbus just yet.
New Jersey Devils (4th in Metropolitan, 7th in East, 5 points into playoff spot)
Six UFAs (notables: John Moore), three RFAs
Current salary cap hit: $67.2M ($7.7M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $55.6M on 18 NHL contracts
As of today, the Devils have already matched their point total from last season, and are on track for their best season since 2012 when they were the Eastern Conference champions. It’s quite a turnaround for New Jersey, clearly enjoying their acquisition of Taylor Hall and big years from their young stars. At one point they were on top of the division, but since then they’ve fallen back to fourth and the first Wild Card seed in the East. They’ve hit a rough patch of late (5-5 inter last ten) and have some injuries, including a lingering groin injury to Cory Schneider (who’s been exactly average), that is keeping them from catching up to the Flyers and Penguins. They do however have the second-most cap space of any current playoff team, so they could make a big splash on the trade market if they wanted to. They have just four players signed beyond 2020, but ten of their players are RFAs and six of them are on their rookie contracts, so the future is looking bright for the Devils.
Tampa Bay Lightning (1st in Atlantic, 1st in East, 18 points into playoff spot)
Three UFAs, five RFAs (notables: Vladislav Namestnikov)
Current salary cap hit: $72.9M ($2M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $63.2M on 17 NHL contracts
If there was ever a time for the Lightning to go all-in, it would probably be now. With only the Vegas Golden Knights ahead of them in the League standings, and the best goal differential in the League, the Bolts have been looking deadly all season. Andrei Vasilevskiy has had a Vezina-worthy season, and Nikita Kucherov has been in the lead for the Art Ross trophy while chasing Alex Ovechkin for the Richard. Four of their RFAs, including inevitable twenty goal scorer Namestnikov, are arbitration eligible, and they’ll only have about $12M to work with. They have just about $2M to work with at the deadline, so they might just look for depth additions, but they’ve been working towards the Cup for years and the time to strike (like lightning! See what I did there?) has arrived.
Vegas Golden Knights (1st in Pacific, 1st in West, 13 points into playoff spot)
Six UFAs (notables: David Perron, James Neal, Luca Sbisa), eight RFAs (notables: William Karlsson, Colin Miller)
Current salary cap hit: $67.2M ($7.7M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $41.8M on 17 NHL contracts
What an inaugural season it’s been for the Golden Knights, with the League’s best record and battling the Lightning for the best goal differential. Marc-Andre Fleury has certainly shown that he hasn’t lost a step, guys like Neal, Perron, and Engelland are having renaissance-type seasons, and Jon Marchessault and Karlsson are showing their old teams that they made a mistake in letting them loose at the expansion draft. GM George McPhee really couldn’t ask for a better situation, and with ~$7.8M to play with at the deadline, there’s no reason he couldn’t go out and get pretty much anyone who’s available. Could he entice the Senators to send another Karlsson (Erik) to the Nevada desert? Whether they make a big move or not, the Golden Knights have blown up all preconceptions of expansion teams, and owners of future franchises will be salivating at the idea of playing for the Cup in their first year. Indeed, Vegas has the looks of a team that wants the Cup very badly; now, the question is, will they double down? (Only one gambling metaphor, woohoo!)
Winnipeg Jets (2nd in Central, 3rd in West, 8 points into playoff spot)
Four UFAs, ten RFAs (notables: Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey)
Current salary cap hit: $69.3M ($5.6M in cap room)
Projected salary cap hit for next season: $54.4M on 14 NHL contracts
Watch out for the Jets, who have finally come into their own since arriving from Atlanta. Believe it or not, they are on track for their best record ever…okay, it’s not saying a lot since the Thrashers were terrible for years, but they are on track for just their third playoff appearance in franchise history, so hats off to them. Just three points behind the Golden Knights for the best record in the West, they have a bunch of injuries right now but are 6-3-1 in their last ten, they have the fifth-best offense and the seventh-best defense, and have the fourth-most cap space of all the current playoff teams. They are prime position to make a big move should they want to, and they might just do so and swing for the fences, before their roster starts to evolve. They have a whopping twelve RFAs in the next two years, seven of whom are arbitration eligible, and just seven players signed beyond next year. Their fourth-youngest roster in the League will only continue to get younger, and I think they could really make some noise in a wide open Western Conference.