5 NHL Youngsters Who Could Be Traded for Stars in the Offseason

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2021

5 NHL Youngsters Who Could Be Traded for Stars in the Offseason

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    Bruce Bennett/Associated Press

    The 2021 NHL playoffs are ongoing, but that hasn't stopped the rumor mill from returning to life. Before the postseason began, trade speculation surfaced regarding stars such as Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel or Calgary Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau.

    Moving such players, however, could require offers with at least one promising young NHL player included in the deal. Those types of players tend to be former first-round draft picks who are 22 or younger and have at least one big league season under their belts.

    On their own, such players aren't enough to entice a club into parting with an established talent still in his playing prime. As a key piece in a package offer, however, their potential could be enough to swing a major deal.

    Here's a look at five promising NHL players who could become trade bait for a star this offseason.

Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    A third straight early playoff exit by the Pittsburgh Penguins could spark some significant offseason change. President of hockey operations Brian Burke and general manager Ron Hextall have had nearly a full season to evaluate the roster since joining the club in February.

    Goaltending was the Achilles' heel this season as Tristan Jarry struggled in the starter's role. On May 26, The Athletic's Sean Gentille speculated Burke and Hextall could seek help between the pipes via free agency or a trade.

    Pierre-Olivier Joseph could become part of a package offer if the Penguins go the trade route for an established starting goaltender. A first-round pick in the 2017 draft, the 21-year-old defenseman made his NHL debut this season, netting five points in 16 games.

    Acquired by the Penguins in the June 2019 trade that sent Phil Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes, the 6'2", 185-pound Joseph has the potential to become a top-four offensive blueliner. While he saw limited action this season, it was an invaluable experience that should further his development.

    Joseph's potential would make him an attractive trade chip to teams that could attempt to move a goalie this summer. Perhaps the Penguins ship him to the New York Islanders for Semyon Varlamov as Ilya Sorokin becomes their full-time starter. Others trade targets could include the Columbus Blue Jackets' Elvis Merzlikins, Montreal Canadiens' Jake Allen or the Arizona Coyotes' Darcy Kuemper.

Kaapo Kakko, New York Rangers

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    Bruce Bennett/Associated Press

    Changes could be in store for the New York Rangers roster after replacing team president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton with Chris Drury on May 5. Team owner James Dolan reportedly wants to speed up the club's rebuild.

    That could involve a major trade to acquire an established NHL star. On May 11, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman speculated the New York Rangers could be among the suitors for Jack Eichel if the Buffalo Sabres put their captain on the trade block. Meanwhile, the New York Post's Larry Brooks suggested the Rangers target Calgary Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk.

    It'll take a significant offer by the Rangers to acquire Eichel or Tkachuk. The asking price could include winger Kaapo Kakko.

    The second overall pick in the 2019 draft, the 20-year-old Kakko is still adjusting to the NHL pace after two full seasons with the Rangers. However, he has considerable potential as a top-six winger. The 6'3", 199-pounder is an excellent mix of size, all-around offensive skill and two-way smarts.

    Giving up a promising youngster such as Kakko would be a tough decision for Drury. Still, it could be necessary to bring in an experienced star to move the Rangers closer to potential Stanley Cup contention.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens

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    Larry MacDougal/Associated Press

    The Montreal Canadiens had high hopes for Jesperi Kotkaniemi when they selected him third overall in the 2018 draft. It was hoped the young Finn would blossom into a first- or second-line center.

    Now in his third season with the Canadiens, the 20-year-old has shown flashes of his potential. He has good size at 6'2" and 201 pounds as well as terrific hockey sense and two-way skills.

    Those attributes make Kotkaniemi a key part of the Canadiens' future. They also could make him a solid trade chip if the Habs decide to make a significant move this offseason.

    The Canadiens have lacked a true first-line center for years. While Kotkaniemi or Nick Suzuki could one day develop into that role, management could test this summer's trade market to find more immediate help at that position. In his May 11 column, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman suggested the Canadiens could be among the suitors for Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel.

    With $69.3 million invested in 18 players for 2020, the Canadiens would have to shed some salary to comfortably absorb Eichel's $10 million annual cap hit and leave room for other moves. Nevertheless, they have considerable depth in draft picks, prospects and young NHL players to make an enticing package offer to the Sabres. The promising Kotkaniemi could be part of that package.

Robert Thomas, St. Louis Blues

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Two years after winning the Stanley Cup, the St. Louis Blues were eliminated from the opening round of the NHL playoffs for the second straight season. On Thursday, The Athletic's Jeremy Rutherford reported Blues general manager Doug Armstrong still believes his club's championship window remains open. That being said, there could be some roster changes in the offseason.

    Three days earlier, Rutherford speculated Robert Thomas could become a trade candidate. Following a 42-point sophomore campaign, the 21-year-old center managed only 12 points in 33 games, with injuries a contributing factor in that decline. 

    Rutherford wondered if there was space for Thomas among St. Louis' top six forwards with Ryan O'Reilly and Brayden Schenn as their top two centers. He suggested the Blues see what's available in the trade market while the youngster's value remains high.

    Thomas' versatility and two-way abilities could make him an attractive trade chip if Armstrong makes a significant move to ensure the Blues remain in Cup contention. As a restricted free agent completing his entry-level contract, he'd also be an affordable re-signing.

    The Blues have $66.6 million invested in 20 players for 2021-22, Key players like Jaden Schwartz, Mike Hoffman, Tyler Bozak, Jordan Kyrou and Vince Dunn must be re-signed or replaced. Armstrong
    could surprise with a bold move this summer, perhaps with Thomas as part of a package deal.

Gabriel Vilardi, Los Angeles Kings

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Kings general manager Rob Blake has spent the last two years rebuilding his roster. However, defenseman Drew Doughty called on Blake to use the club's plentiful salary-cap space and prospects to bring in more immediate help.

    Blake could be reluctant to part with a top prospect such as Quinton Byfield or Alex Turcotte. He could instead attempt to move a promising youngster such as Gabriel Vilardi.

    The 11th overall pick in the 2017 draft, Vilardi overcame back injuries that threatened to derail his playing career. After netting seven points in 10 games last year, he struggled at times during this season, finishing with 23 points in 54 games. Still, the 21-year-old has considerable promise as a playmaking center.

    On May 11, former TSN analyst Frank Seravalli reported the Kings had a brief discussion with Sabres management about Jack Eichel before the trade deadline. If that falls through, perhaps he'll set his sights instead on his teammate Sam Reinhart. The 25-year-old Sabres center is a restricted free agent this summer who seemed noncommittal toward his future in Buffalo.

    Blake could be ready to make a significant move to bolster his roster in this summer's trade market. A young player with upside like Vilardi could be part of a deal to bring in an experienced scorer.


    Regular-season stats via NHL.com. Salary info via CapFriendly