The St. Louis Blues almost blew it up. Seriously. Their amazing run to the Stanley Cup last season was a worst-to-first story, lest we forget, and they opened the 2019 calendar year 31st overall in the league standings, so it was only natural that GM Doug Armstrong considered cashing out. Whether that meant Alex Pietrangelo or Vladimir Tarasenko or someone else was close to changing addresses, we’ll never know, but Armstrong explained to my colleague Ken Campbell in a recent issue of The Hockey News magazine that the Blues were pushed to the brink of nuking the roster.
They didn’t, of course. We’ve heard the rest of their incredible story over and over since last June. An interesting and overlooked element of their run last year, however, was their time leading up to the trade deadline, when they were in the midst of their rise but not yet guaranteed to make the big dance. I identified them at the time as the league’s No. 1 swing team, capable of loading up other contenders in a selling scenario yet equipped with enough talent to make a run of their own.
With the 2020 trade deadline less than a month away, who are the key swing teams? For the sake of this exercise, the teams to consider (a) are floating around the playoff bubble and could go either way, (b) have some tradable assets should they slump in the coming weeks and enter a seller role and/or (c) face enough pressure that they could be all-in buyers if they’re close enough to a playoff spot by Feb. 24.
Stick tap to the jammed Pacific Division for providing 67 percent of the entries for this article.
After flirting with a playoff berth last spring, the Coyotes got aggressive this summer with the Phil Kessel trade, and they followed that move by going full buyer to land Taylor Hall from the New Jersey Devils at a reasonable price. Today, however, while the Coyotes sit three points out of first place in the Pacific Division, their hold on a Western Conference wildcard spot is also just three points. They were 19-12-4 the day they acquired Hall. They’re 7-8-1 since, having lost five of their past six games, and their team MVP, goalie Darcy Kuemper, isn’t quite ready to return from his lower-body injury yet.
What happens if the Desert Dogs continue to slump and sit outside the playoff picture in a few weeks? Suddenly, GM John Chayka would find himself sitting on the trade market’s No. 1 UFA rental option: Hall. It would surely be a painful move to make, but what if a team offered far more than what Chayka paid to get Hall? Arizona also has an appealing UFA bottom-six center option to dangle in Carl Soderberg, not to mention several veterans with a year left on their deals: defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, Alex Goligoski and Jordan Oesterle and goalie Antti Raanta. It would be a crushing disappointment if the Coyotes had to become sellers, and they’re still in a prime spot now, but Chayka has quite the safety net if this team nosedives. The Coyotes could be a power seller.
The Flames finished with the Western Conference’s best record and scored the second-most goals in the NHL last season. From the Bill Peters firing to the team’s drastic decline in scoring, it’s been a grind for Calgary this season. The Flames are an impressive 14-7-1 since Geoff Ward took over behind the bench, but they’re stuck in a logjam of 57-point teams eating up the No. 2 and 3 Pacific seeds and both wildcard spots. That puts them, like the Coyotes, close to first place but equally close to missing the playoffs.
General manager Brad Treliving is probably under more pressure than Chayka given the expectations set by Calgary’s 2018-19 result, so it would be an even chalkier pill to swallow should Treliving have to sell. But, hey, he’ll have to explore it if Calgary doesn’t go on a run. In puck-mover T.J. Brodie and defensive defenseman Travis Hamonic, the Flames would get bushels of offers if they put one or both on the block as UFA rentals. Backup goaltending means more now than it ever has in league history with starter load management becoming so common, and that means UFA Cam Talbot would have trade value in his resurgent season.
What makes Calgary a true swing team, however, is that Treliving, currently in a playoff spot, is just as likely if not more likely to throttle up and chase major upgrades than he is to sell. This team sits in its win-now window and needs a scoring boost. The Flames thus could make serious plays for some of the potentially available right-shot forward options, from Kyle Palmieri to Tyler Toffoli.
The Oilers’ first season under new GM Ken Holland is undoubtedly a success, and it’s exciting to see this team positioned as a buyer, not a seller, potentially chasing a veteran forward rental to take some pressure off Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. But the Oilers are yet another Pacific team sitting three points out of first and three points away from out of the playoffs.
If things sour in the weeks to come, Holland at least has options. Zack Kassian, a UFA, is reportedly close to a contract extension, but if negotiations stall, he’d be an extremely attractive rental to be some team’s Tom Wilson. In Kris Russell and Adam Larsson, the Oilers boast two blueliners with a year left on their contracts who could fill out a contender’s depth. The Oilers could truly break either way. Holland has some runway in Year 1 as GM, so he can wait until the last possible week to make a decision if he wants to. As Holland told The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun earlier this month, the standings will determine whether the Oilers buy or sell. It’s just that close.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The Leafs face as much pressure as any market to make the playoffs this season. After the gut punch of three straight first-round playoff exits culminating in coach Mike Babcock’s November firing, a step backward would be utterly disastrous, especially for GM Kyle Dubas. Like Treliving, Dubas is actively chasing upgrades, most likely a top-four defenseman and backup goaltender.
But, hey, as noble as his efforts may be, Toronto sits out of a playoff spot right now. And if it can’t climb back in by mid-February, it will have to consider cutting its losses, as it has two of the best potential UFA rental options to advertise: defensemen Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin. Both would command packages that start with a first-round pick and probably include another asset. Top-four D-men don’t come along at every trade deadline, and the Leafs could dangle two of them. Barrie has endured a down year, sure, but he’s been better since Sheldon Keefe took over as coach.
The idea of selling is likely something Leaf Nation doesn’t want to entertain – the idea of becoming ‘This year’s Blues’ is far sexier – but expectations must be recalibrated if Toronto can’t dig out of its hole in the next three weeks.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Like the Leafs, the Golden Knights fired their coach because they have high expectations and can’t fathom the idea of missing the playoffs. Vegas, having replaced coach Gerard Gallant with Pete DeBoer, join the Coyotes, Flames and Oilers in that 57-point tie. Vegas has every intention of winning that race and reportedly wants to acquire a defenseman. If the next few weeks bring a losing record, however, GM Kelly McCrimmon could pull the chute. He’s got expiring bottom-six forwards to offer in Cody Eakin and Ryan Reaves, plus depth blueliners in Jon Merrill, Nick Holden and Deryk Engelland. Even center Paul Stastny could attract nibbles with just a year left on his contract, though he has a 10-team no-trade list.
It’s hard to picture Vegas selling, and the shocking Gallant firing tells us this team does not fashion itself a seller, but the league is so compact this year that one bad slump at the wrong time could put a team on the ropes.
The 54-point team chasing that 57-point quartet, hoping to snatch away a playoff spot: the Jets. The Blackhawks are tired with them but, having missed the post-season the past couple years and entered rebuild mode, don’t face anywhere near the pressure the Jets do. A playoff miss won’t cut it for a team that reached the conference final two years ago and lost to the Cup champs last season.
The Jets have been chasing it on defense all season after losing four of their six starters from last year’s lineup (two by free agency, one by trade, one by injury), and if they’re positioned to be deadline buyers, they could pursue one of the available rentals out there – such as Sami Vatanen.
It’s equally possible that Winnipeg can’t find the consistency needed to rejoin the playoff picture. If that happens, it’ll be time for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to shop left winger Mathieu Perreault. He has a year left on his deal at a $4.125-million AAV, and numbers are down this season, but he remains a positive possession player who could bolster a contender’s bottom six. His no-trade clause includes only five teams, so it’s not too prohibitive. The big wildcard is pending UFA Dustin Byfuglien. If he were to get healthy and rejoin the team by Feb. 24, he could singlehandedly turn the Jets back into Cup contenders or, with one year left on his deal, become a league-winning super-rental for a contender. ‘Big Buff’ is the definition as a swing piece on the definition of a trade-deadline swing team. He could save the Jets’ season or net them a monster return.
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