Dark-Horse Trade Candidates for NHL's Biggest Buyers
As the 2022-23 NHL season closes in on the halfway point, we are starting to get a good sense as to which teams are contenders and which teams are not.
That also means we are getting a sense for the buyers and sellers as we approach the NHL trade deadline in a couple of months.
The top names available are expected to be Vancouver's Bo Horvat, Chicago's Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and perhaps even St. Louis' Ryan O'Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko. All of those players are pending unrestricted free agents on teams that would seem to be going nowhere this season.
But we are going to look a little deeper than that group and try to pick out some potential under-the-radar trade targets for 10 of the league's biggest potential buyers.
When we talk under-the-radar candidates, we are not only talking players who might not be getting the same amount of hype as potential trade bait, but also some hypothetical blockbusters that have not really been mentioned much at all.
Colorado Avalanche: Sean Monahan
The Colorado Avalanche have two primary needs right now.
They need to get healthy, and they need a second-line center to replace what they lost when Nazem Kadri signed with the Calgary Flames in free agency.
Any of Bo Horvat, Ryan O'Reilly or Jonathan Toews would be a strong fit on the ice, but they all come with various high prices. Horvat should command the most assets given that he has become one of the league's top goal scorers. Toews and O'Reilly carry heavy price tags against the salary cap, while O'Reilly has already had the Colorado experience and had some tough contract negotiations when he was there.
But Sean Monahan might also be an intriguing match.
His contract is $4.125 million smaller than Toews' and O'Reilly's, and he would probably have the lowest cost in terms of trade capital going the other way. He has also had a nice bounce-back season in Montreal, and with six goals and 17 total points in his first 25 games is on a respectable 20-goal, 56-point pace over 82 games while also having a strong year in the faceoff circle (better than 55 percent). He is also one of the few Canadiens players who has not been completely caved in from a possession standpoint.
As long as Nathan MacKinnon is healthy, the Avalanche have their superstar No. 1 center. They just need a competent second-line option to help complement him. Monahan could be that as a short-term rental for a cheap price.
New York Rangers: Timo Meier
Let's get bold and shoot for a blockbuster.
Even though they have been inconsistent at times this season and are not quite where they expected to be in the standings, the New York Rangers still see themselves as Stanley Cup contenders. Or at least they should still see themselves as Stanley Cup contenders, because they have a lot of the necessary ingredients already in place.
But they need some more punch from their forward group at five-on-five, and Timo Meier, a pending restricted free agent, could make any team that he joins better.
The Rangers have done a miserable job developing some of their young talent, to the point where recent top-10 picks like Alexis Lafrenière and Vitali Kravtsov keep finding themselves dropping down the roster and even sitting out as healthy scratches. Even Kaapo Kakko has not really panned out as hoped just yet.
The Sharks, meanwhile, are going nowhere and desperately need to start a real rebuild. Will Meier be a part of that? Will he want to be a part of that when it comes time to extend him long-term?
This seems like a scenario where one team (the Sharks) that needs young, long-term talent, and another team (the Rangers) that needs an immediate scoring threat should pick up the phone and see if there is a deal to be made.
It would not be a cheap price, but a player like Meier would be a game-changer for the Rangers in the Eastern Conference.
Boston Bruins: Jesse Puljujärvi
Jesse Puljujärvi has seemingly been on the outs in Edmonton for years now, and he desperately needs a fresh start.
Even more than that, what he really needs is a good team full of winners and a good environment that can capitalize on his talents.
The Boston Bruins might be a good place to get that fresh start.
Boston is the league's best team this season and does not really have a ton of needs, but they could use another winger to play behind superstar David Pastrňák on the right side. They could also use a little long-term security just in case Pastrňák bolts in free agency (not that Puljujärvi would replace Pastrňák).
Even though Puljujärvi's offensive numbers are underwhelming (only two goals and eight total points entering play Thursday), he is still the type of player a team should want to take a chance on and hope that the right circumstances can help him reach his potential.
There are a lot of similarities between where the 24-year-old is right now and where Valeri Nichushkin was a few years ago. When Nichushkin was in Dallas, he always posted strong underlying numbers and generated chances but could not turn it into offense while getting yanked around the lineup. He then went to a better team with better talent and got a real chance, and he blossomed into a Stanley Cup playoff hero, a top-line scorer and a player worthy of a long-term, multimillion dollar contract.
Take the chance on players like this when they are cheap. Right now, Puljujärvi is cheap.
Los Angeles Kings: Carter Hart
This is one of those ideas where "under the radar" is actually another way of saying, "hey that's a wild idea."
Everything about the Los Angeles Kings roster suggest they are capable of seriously contending in the Western Conference right now.
They have one of the best records in the conference, they are a top-10 team during five-on-five play in terms of expected goals and shot attempts, and they have pieced together a good roster with some blockbuster moves over the past couple of years.
Why not swing for the fences on another one that could give them the one big piece they still need?
That piece: a goalie.
The Kings' goaltending is the one massive question mark this team still has, and there does not seem to be a good in-house option who is close to being ready. The rental market for goalies is also very thin. The next option would be dipping into its deep prospect pool and trying to get a young, somewhat proven goalie like Carter Hart.
Hart has been one of the few bright spots on an otherwise dreadful Philadelphia Flyers team this season and somehow has managed a .911 save percentage playing behind one of the worst defensive teams in the league. What would he be capable of behind a good team?
There is not much to suggest that the Flyers would really consider something like this, and doing so would really signal the start of a massive rebuild, but that might be what this team needs. This is the one player on your roster that might bring back a significant return to kick-start something for the future.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Vladislav Gavrikov
The story for the Toronto Maple Leafs is the same as it has been for the past seven years.
Their roster looks great on paper. Their regular season has turned into a well-oiled machine that has them near the top of the Eastern Conference. And all anybody can talk about is whether they will actually get through the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs or quietly fizzle out once again.
That storyline will not change until they actually make it change.
So what do they need to do that?
At the start of the season, goaltending might have been the one big question mark people had given the uncertainty of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov as their duo. But so far they have been one of the league's most surprising—and most productive—tandems and seem to have solidified that spot for now.
What the Leafs might need is a tweak or two on defense, and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov could be an intriguing option.
He has strong production from the back end and is a capable two-way defender who might fit in well as a complementary player on a contending team. The Blue Jackets' season has not gone as expected, and with Gavrikov set to be an unrestricted free agent, he figures to be one of their top trade options.
If they do put the 27-year-old on the market, Toronto should be all over him.
Seattle Kraken: Shayne Gostisbehere
The Seattle Kraken are a sneaky contender in the Western Conference, but they do have some concerns.
Goaltending is high on the list, but they could also use an upgrade to their power play.
Other than a potential Erik Karlsson blockbuster (which seems unlikely for a lot of reasons: contract, asset cost, Karlsson's no-trade clause), Shayne Gostisbehere might be the best power-play option available.
He also has some history with Seattle coach Dave Hakstol.
Since joining the Arizona Coyotes at the start of the 2021-22 season, only 12 defensemen in the league had more points than Gostisbehere's 77 entering play on Thursday, while his 28 power-play points is also among the top 20 defensemen in the league.
Jakob Chychrun is the trade target everybody focuses on with the Coyotes, but Gostisbehere might be a better value in terms of assets and short-term impact. Especially for a team like Seattle.
Dallas Stars: Andrei Kuzmenko
The Dallas Stars have emerged as one of the best teams in the Western Conference, and there is a lot to like about them.
Their one big need might be a little more secondary scoring and another top-six winger.
Andrei Kuzmenko is intriguing because his salary cap hit is under $1 million and he is having a fantastic year for the Vancouver Canucks after coming over from the KHL.
He would also be a great fit for what the Stars need because he has shown an ability to play a two-way game at the NHL level while also recording 30 points (including 16 goals) in his first 33 games. All of that is attractive enough, but add in his cheap salary and he should be of interest to every contender in the league.
The Canucks should hope to re-sign him, but the season has not gone as planned and major changes might be needed. Kuzmenko could bring back a big return.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Jack Roslovic
The Pittsburgh Penguins are set with their top two lines, and their goalies might be good enough to actually help them in the playoffs.
Their needs right now are centered around their bottom six and maybe some additional depth on defense.
The biggest and most pressing hole might be third-line center because Jeff Carter does not seem to have much left in that spot, and it is starting to become a drag on the team. During the Jim Rutherford era, that certainly would've been addressed with a blockbuster trade for somebody like Ryan O'Reilly or Jonathan Toews. But that is not Ron Hextall's style, and neither the Penguins' salary-cap situation nor prospect pool make that an easy proposition anyway.
Roslovic, though, has a much smaller contract, would not require the same type of prospect capital even though he is signed through next season and could still be an upgrade over Carter.
Roslovic's goal-scoring has taken a drop this season, mostly because of a shooting percentage that dropped from 16.8 a year ago down to 6.1 this season. But his assist numbers are up, and he is putting a similar number of shots on goal. If that shooting percentage bounces back, he is still a potential 20-goal scorer.
Whether it is Roslovic or somebody else, the Penguins desperately need more from that third-line center spot.
Calgary Flames: James van Riemsdyk
Even though they lost Johnny Gaudreau in free agency and traded Matthew Tkachuk this past offseason, the Calgary Flames still came into this season with massive expectations. The additions of Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar and Nazem Kadri were huge scores for a team that already had a strong defense and top goalie, and they seemed poised to continue on as a Stanley Cup contender in the Western Conference.
So far, things have not gone as planned.
Despite their early struggles, they are still very much in the postseason race and could still be a tough out in the playoffs. What they need is another top-six forward to bring some more scoring punch, and James van Riemsdyk would be an attractive target as a rental.
Van Riemsdyk's contract has proved to be a disappointment for the Flyers, and he should not have a future in Philadelphia beyond this season given the need for a rebuild, but he can still score goals at a top-line rate.
He scored 24 a year ago, and he has scored 92 goals in 285 regular-season games since rejoining the Flyers for his second stop with the team prior to the 2018-19 season. That works out to just over 25 goals per 82 games, very similar to the pace he is on this season with five goals in his first 15 outings.
Vegas Golden Knights: Cam Talbot
After a bitterly disappointing 2021-22 season, the Vegas Golden Knights are back as Stanley Cup contenders, and they do not have many holes or weaknesses. The one area they might want to shore up? Goaltending depth.
Logan Thompson has been a pleasant surprise as the team's starter, but he is still unproven as a full-time starter.
Adin Hill, the team's top backup, is also mostly unproven and has not been particularly good this season.
This is the one position you do not want to be rolling into the playoffs with major questions, especially when you have the team to seriously compete for the Stanley Cup this season. Talbot is the best rental goalie option available and has a .914 save percentage this season for a bad Senators team.
Vegas does not need a full-time starter or a game-changer. But having a capable backup or platoon partner for Thompson, who has never gone through the grind of a full NHL season and postseason, might be a good call for a potential Stanley Cup team.
Statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.