The countdown clock is ticking away. On February 28th at 3pm Eastern, the NHL trade deadline will officially pass, and any sort of inter-team deals will no longer be allowed. That being said, trade deadline day and the few weeks leading up to it are some of the most dramatic, tension-filled weeks as fans and players wait to see if their team will make a push for the playoffs, or if they will write off their year and hope for a better fate when the new season comes around in the fall.
I realize that really every team should be watched closely over the course of the next couple weeks, and general managers can make, often times, stunning moves to bring in some stellar talent or trade away the big name franchise player. However, I'm going to shorten my list to teams who I believe will be the big deal makers on deadline day—the ones who will be making a ton of deals either to make that push to the playoffs, to support that run at the Stanley Cup, or to sell off what they have and start their rebuilding process.
Here is who I believe will be the top 5 deal-making teams in the final days before the NHL Trade Deadline.
Conference Position: 14th
Pending Free Agents: 8 (5 unrestricted, 3 restricted)
Cap Space: $0.699 million
The Ottawa Senators have been one of the most painful teams in the Eastern Conference to watch at times this season, and I think it's pretty safe to say that the sooner the organization and its fans can put this season in their rearview mirror, the better off they'll all be. Just three seasons removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, the Senators are now in desperate need of some help.
Their goaltending is shaky, their defense at times resembles traffic pylons set up on the blue line, and their offense has produced the second fewest goals in the entire NHL this season (behind only that of the New Jersey Devils, who now sit one conference position ahead of the Senators).
The biggest reason for the awful condition of the Senators is that they're not getting the performances they need out of their big-name players.
Jason Spezza is on track for his worst year since 2003, his rookie season. His 22 points and -7 rating are a far cry from what's expected from a player whose annual cap hit under his current contract is a near-sickening $7 million. Joining him on the Senators Wall of Shame this year are names like Alex Kovalev, who is sporting only 23 points so far this season for his $5 million cap hit, and Sergei Gonchar, who came over this past summer after having one of the best years of his career in Pittsburgh and has rewarded the Senators with only 22 points and a -17 rating, which doesn't sit well when added to his $5.5 million cap hit. Really the only bright spot out of all of this is that Alex Kovalev will be a free agent at the end of this season so the Senators can do away with him then if they can't trade him away.
Daniel Alfredsson is also performing poorly so far this year, but look for the Senators to trade him away at the deadline due to his slightly better scoring stats (31 points, -17 rating), and his much more palatable cap hit of only $4.875 million. Some rebuilding teams with a lot of cap space looking for a strong veteran presence to center their reconstruction around might be interested in acquiring this former All-Star.
Conference Position: 9th
Pending Free Agents: 10 (5 unrestricted, 5 restricted)
Cap Space: $3.748 million
The Kings make my list of teams to watch for several reasons. The first of which is that this team was predicted to be the biggest challenger to the San Jose Sharks for the Pacific Division title this season, something that doesn't look like it's going to happen for either team.
Instead the Kings currently find themselves as the only Pacific Division team sitting outside the playoffs in 9th place, but with two games in hand on the Calgary Flames who are sit in 8th place with a 1 point lead over the Kings. This comes just a single season after the Kings, riding the back of a career year from goaltender Jonathan Quick and the Norris-nominated talents of then-sophomore defenseman Drew Doughty to a 6th place finish and the team's first playoff appearance since 2002.
That was the product of a long and in many ways, painfully, slow rebuild put together by Dean Lombardi and the Kings scouting staff, but much to the regret of Kings fans, it ended with a 6-game exit to the Vancouver Canucks. This year hasn't been quite the same. They haven't gotten the performances from Doughty, Handzus, or Jon Quick that they've needed and come to rely on night after night. Marco Sturm, a mid-season acquisition, hasn't cut it as an offensive boost, struggling with injuries. Wayne Simmonds, despite showing so much progress and potential last year, hasn't been filling in his role this season, and Ryan Smyth, who had a great comeback year last year, also hasn't put up the same numbers that he did last season.
And so now just one year after they sent a message to the NHL that they're a force to be taken seriously again, they're once again approaching a defining summer that could either keep them alive for a couple years or ruin them for another decade.
The other big reason the Kings are on this list is because of the magnitude of free agent talent that they will be boasting this summer.
Michael Handzus, the veteran Slovak-native forward, has only 20 points so far this season, a number far below what is expected from a forward receiving a cap hit of $4 million. For that reason I would expect to see the Kings look to move him before the trade deadline. He isn't filling his role and is clogging up a good portion of the Kings salary cap situation, which with 9 other free agents still in the lineup after this season, is something the Kings will need.
The other big name that's free is the aforementioned Drew Doughty, whose entry level contract expires this summer. The 21-year-old defenseman should be expecting a massive pay raise this coming summer, and he can expect it from Los Angeles, as his $3.475 million cap hit is one that will likely discourage most other teams from tendering him an offer sheet purely because of the compensation required to pull him away. But still, with such big names in need of resigning and the Kings fighting tooth-and-nail for a playoff spot this year, I would expect to see Los Angeles be quite busy at the Trade Deadline.
Conference Position: 9th
Pending Free Agents: 15 (7 unrestricted, 8 restricted)
Cap Space: $3.691 million
The Montreal Canadiens are also in this list for the sheer number of free agents they're boasting at the end of this season, which includes all but one of their defensemen (Jaroslav Spacek). Last year's nearly complete overhaul of the lineup was good enough to scrape the Habs a playoff spot, and then good enough to see them power their way through two of the East's best teams en route to losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Montreal has a little bit of cap space to work with which is good for them, considering the amount of veteran star-power they boast in their lineup. However with names like Andrei Markov, Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, and Mike Cammalleri in the lineup, it's clear that with 15 free agents this summer the Canadiens are going to have some decisions to make.
The Canadiens currently boast 6 players with cap hits over $5 million, meaning over half of the team's salary allowance is going into 4 forwards and 2 defensemen. It's working for the Canadiens on the ice now, but it likely will hurt them this summer with guys like Andrei Kostitsyn, Hal Gill, Max Pacioretty, Roman Hamrlik, and the aforementioned Markov currently due for a new deal this summer. Guys like Kostitsyn and Gill are approaching veteran status, and can expect a deal with some very nice numbers this summer, something the Canadiens may not be able to afford to give them.
Therefore, I expect the Canadiens to be active at the trade deadline.
Max Pacioretty has been great since coming up from the minors this season, but I think that talent has served him just well enough to make him trade bait for the Canadiens, who might be searching for a rental player who can help them in a playoff run again. Additionally guys like Tom Pyatt, Josh Georges, and Yannick Weber might be finding new homes if the Canadiens hope to hold onto guys like Kostitsyn and Gil in the future. Either way with so many free agents this summer, the Canadiens need to start preparing their future plans now. If they can work out a few deals, they can still make a solid playoff run in the near future while locking down their team's talented core for the long term this summer.
Conference Position: 9th
Pending Free Agents: 11 (5 unrestricted, 6 restricted)
Cap Space: $17.722 million
The Thrashers have the amazing benefit of a huge amount of unused cap space, and though they've been struggling lately, they have the benefit of having set themselves up with a pretty good first half of the season. They currently sit tied for the 8th position in the Eastern Conference with the Carolina Hurricanes, but are 3 games ahead of their division rivals, putting them on the back foot as the season starts to come down to the wire.
Between this pretty good first half and their incredible $17 million in cap space, I would expect the Thrashers to be one of the biggest movers on deadline day. They've got the trade bait players and young prospects stockpiled from several years of non-playoff performances, and they've got a balanced group of players in the roster now who could really benefit from bringing in a superstar to increase their offensive production (or two with that amount of cap space).
The Thrashers could be looking to move players like Chris Boulton and Eric Thorburn, who are going to be unrestricted free agents this summer and would be great additions to a team looking for some forward depth at the deadline. Additionally the Thrashers also have a large portion of their defense to re-sign this summer, and guys like Brent Sopel or Zach Bogosian might be moved as well.
The Thrashers have been rumored to be a destination for several superstars, though with names like Daniel Alfredsson and Brad Richards both being connected with a possible move to Blueland at the deadline.
The Thrashers can only hope a deal like this works out and puts them back into the playoff picture. The Thrashers have only made the playoffs once in their entire franchise existence and it didn't end well as they were swept out in 4 games by the New York Rangers. If the Thrasher's management wants to have any hope of possibly gaining some overall interest in the club and bringing in some new fans to help raise their average attendance number (currently the lowest in the NHL), the team needs to have some success, and just winning a playoff game would be a good start.
Conference Position: 6th
Pending Free Agents: 10 (7 unrestricted, 3 restricted)
Cap Space: $0.816 million
The team many people expected to run away with the Pacific division title for the 4th straight season has been instead, one of the surprises of the NHL in that they've been for the most part this season mediocre
Despite being lead by the same young core of players that have been in the roster for the past several seasons and brought a large amount of success (at least in the regular season), the Sharks almost inexplicably faltered in mid-season dropping as low as 12th in the Western Conference, and putting them in some very unfamiliar waters (pun intended) of scrambling to claw their way back into the playoffs.
The Sharks appear to have done so, sitting in 6th in the western conference that has for the most part been largely dominated by the Pacific Division this season. However, the west is still extremely tight with 5 points separating 4th place from 11th place. With such a large amount of teams still contending for a playoff position I would expect a large number of Western Conference teams to attempt to strengthen their rosters in anticipation of battling for those final few spots.
The Sharks are no exception, and with their remarkably streaky play this season, I would not be surprised to see them go hunting (okay I'm done with the puns, I promise) over the next few weeks for some form of talent to help solidify them for a run this year. The Sharks have been plagued with PFS (Postseason Failure Syndrome) for some time now, and are doing everything they can to break out of this bubble.
Perhaps having to battle from a lower-seed position would be a benefit to them, but the Sharks still have to make the playoffs first, and I'd expect to see them definitely try to strengthen a few of the holes in their roster on deadline day, particularly around their blue line, which has two key free agents this summer in Niclas Wallin and Kent Huskins. Additionally, with two experienced, starting-quality goaltenders, they have some leverage in the trade market that they'd be capable of waving around to try to drive some deals.