Bold Trade Predictions Before the 2021 NHL Season Begins
It feels like the Tampa Bay Lightning won their second consecutive Stanley Cup yesterday, but the start of the 2021-22 NHL season is already upon us like a ferocious forecheck from Ryan O'Reilly. Three months ago, the offseason appeared to be shaping up as one of the more eventful in recent memory.
That isn't the way things have shaken out, however.
Disgruntled stars remain in place in several cities, the Seattle Kraken did virtually nothing ahead of their expansion draft in late July and a static salary cap has made it difficult for contenders to shore up perceived weaknesses.
Sure, we got the Seth Jones trade. Duncan Keith was moved to the Edmonton Oilers. The Vancouver Canucks took a huge gamble in acquiring the ghost of Oliver Ekman-Larsson. These blockbusters arguably happened a year or two after they should have, though, toning down the fireworks they created.
We were promised a Jack Eichel trade, dagnabbit! Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic reported Vladimir Tarasenko requested a trade out of St. Louis in July. It looked like the Calgary Flames were ready to shake up their core.
These situations still remain largely unresolved and loom large over the opening of the campaign Tuesday.
As squads across the league start to figure out what they have, they're also beginning to come to terms with what they need to do moving forward. Injuries to key players could tip one or two trade dominos, while teams like the New York Islanders and Colorado Avalanche could seek that one last piece to propel them toward an elusive Stanley Cup title.
Who could be on the move, and which teams have the capital to make it happen? Let's take a look.
New York Islanders Make a Splash
The Islanders have been one of the most divisive teams among NHL analysts since Barry Trotz took over behind the bench in 2018. Since then, they have played their own brand of hockey, proving a lot of folks in the numbers crowd wrong along the way.
That's the thing about models and analytics, of course. Sometimes they can be incorrect. For the first time in three years, the underlying digits appear to be in New York's favor, however. Over at The Athletic, Dom Luszczyszyn projects the Islanders to win the Metropolitan Division.
With a strong defensive backbone and top-10 goaltending, it's easy to see why.
What the Islanders appear to be missing, though, is the kind of talent that most championship-caliber squads have at forward. Mathew Barzal is an electric talent, but the team could use help on either side of him.
If they stall out of the gates, one has to wonder what general manager Lou Lamoriello would do. They aren't exactly flush with cap space and already kept Kyle Palmieri on board after acquiring him at the trade deadline last season. Zach Parise could also prove to be a savvy (read: cheap but effective) add.
What if it isn't quite enough? Options like Eichel and Tarasenko are likely off the table because of their considerable cap hits and questionable health statuses, but someone like Rickard Rakell could beef up the top six enough to make a difference.
The Anaheim Ducks were taking calls on him a season ago, according to TSN's Frank Seravalli, and he might be the next-best forward available besides Tomas Hertl. Would New York be willing to move a young prospect and/or draft pick to secure Rakell's services as a rental?
Lamoriello has never shied away from taking his shots when they make sense, so there could be a fit if the Islanders don't look as good as they have over the past few seasons.
Seattle Kraken Leverage Their Cap Space
There might not be a more interestingly positioned team in the NHL than the Seattle Kraken.
During the expansion draft, they almost entirely avoided exposed veteran stars, instead opting to piece together a more win-by-committee squad. It's tough to blame them for passing on the likes of Jeff Skinner and Tarasenko, and it has left Seattle in a strong spot financially.
We haven't seen the Kraken play a regular-season game, but there's reason to believe that this is a playoff team as constructed. They have one of the strongest goaltending tandems in the league in Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger, and that tandem will be backstopping a solid—if unspectacular—blue line.
General manager Ron Francis' most impressive accomplishment so far is on the salary-cap sheet. The Kraken grade out as a postseason-caliber team, but they have nearly $8.5 million in cap space to play with heading into the season.
For context, they are barely spending more than the basement-bound Arizona Coyotes and less than the San Jose Sharks, who also appear headed for a lottery pick.
How will Francis leverage this cap space as the year unfolds? Will he try to add a player like Tarasenko or Evgeny Kuznetsov on the cheap as their respective teams get desperate to move them? Could he play a role in a three-team trade, possibly eating some salary as a player gets moved through town and to a contender that is further along than the Kraken?
That's what makes Seattle such a wild card heading into 2021-22. A likely playoff team with a ton of cap space in a flat-cap world could do all kinds of things, and it will be interesting to see how Francis utilizes this incredibly valuable asset.
The next few moves the GM makes could set up the organization for years to come.
Tomas Hertl Finds His Forever Home
The regular season hasn't even started, and there's already been at least one act's worth of twists in the Tomas Hertl story. It would be melodramatic to call it a saga, yet there might not be a more talented player who could be made available as the 2021-22 campaign develops.
He recently told Tracey Myers of NHL.com that he's "not worried" about whether he's going to re-sign as a key part of the rebuild in San Jose. The Sharks may have one of the ugliest cap sheets in hockey, and that fact probably hasn't escaped Hertl.
At 27, does the center think the light at the end of the tunnel is close enough to re-up and play through the rest of his prime in California?
Pivots of Hertl's caliber are rarely available on the trade market. It stands to reason that longtime Sharks general manager Doug Wilson could be tempted to kick-start the organization's rehabilitation by moving his best player.
If the Prague native hasn't settled on re-signing with the Sharks as the trade deadline approaches, a team like the Boston Bruins—Lyle Richardson recently wrote for The Hockey News that the B's could be a good fit—might make a move in a sign-and-trade much like the one that saw the Chicago Blackhawks add Jones over the summer.
There aren't many contending teams that also have the kind of cap space it could take to give Hertl a significant raise on the $5.625 million he's already making, though, so it will be a tightrope walk for all parties involved, especially since Hertl has trade protections in his contract.
The Kraken could also be a stellar (and fun) fit for Hertl. He's an established leader and the kind of personality fans in an expansion city would gravitate toward. Think of what Marc-Andre Fleury was for the Vegas Golden Knights as they established themselves in that market.
Hertl would be that kind of player for Seattle.
Columbus Blue Jackets Move On from Joonas Korpisalo
- The organization saw Merzlikins as the goaltender who would lead the team for the next half-decade.
- Joonas Korpisalo's time to prove that he should be the undisputed No. 1 in Columbus had come and gone.
When the Columbus Blue Jackets signed goalie Elvis Merzlikins to a five-year extension in September, two things immediately became clear:
That doesn't mean Korpisalo can't play, however. Some pundits think he is the top goaltending rental available to contending teams this season. Sure, he didn't seize Sergei Bobrovsky's throne when he split for the greener pastures of Florida, but he's still young at 27—as opposed to other possible veteran trade candidates such as Braden Holtby (32) and Jonathan Quick (35).
With the Blue Jackets involved in another full-scale rebuild, it's tough to imagine them passing on the opportunity to add a future or two in exchange for Korpisalo.
If a Stanley Cup hopeful feels like they are only a goalie away from a run, Columbus could be one of the first teams they call.
Take the Edmonton Oilers for example.
If Mike Smith isn't able to repeat his brilliance from a year ago—a safe bet considering his play through the two seasons prior and him turning 40 in March—would GM Ken Holland stand pat? One has to think that the answer is a resounding "heck no."
The Oilers continue to figure out ways to waste the prime years of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. This year, the gun they seem to have aimed at their own feet appears to be goaltending. If Smith starts to slip as fall turns to winter, Korpisalo could be the perfect rental for Edmonton.
Red Wings Acquire Futures for Nick Leddy
Steve Yzerman isn't one to tip his hand. He kept his cards close to his chest while building the Lightning, and he's done the same since arriving in Detroit in 2019 to take on the daunting task of rebuilding the Red Wings from the floorboards up.
Despite that, it's not too difficult to see what he was thinking when he traded for defenseman Nick Leddy.
On the surface, it appeared to be a deviation from his steady plan to build through the draft. After all, he flipped Richard Panik and a second-round pick to the New York Islanders for a 30-year-old veteran blueliner on an expiring contract.
The pickup makes perfect sense for the Red Wings, though. Leddy was immediately tabbed to mentor prize prospect Moritz Seider. He also provides a boost to the team's shaky defense group in the short term while giving Detroit an excellent bargaining chip for the trade deadline.
Adding older players with the intent of flipping them later for picks carries some risk. What happens if Leddy crumbles after leaving the stellar Islanders for the bottom-five-bound Red Wings? Or if he ends up on injured reserve as the deadline comes and goes?
Still, it was a calculated gamble for Yzerman. One that could pay off handsomely if defensemen with some offensive upside and gas left in the tank are at a premium down the stretch. And they usually are.
Perhaps a team like the Montreal Canadiens would be interested in acquiring Leddy's services, assuming they're back in the playoff hunt after losing several key members of last year's Stanley Cup finalist team. Leddy is no Shea Weber, but he would provide a boost to the left side for the Habs.
Another landing spot could be Washington as the Capitals try to maximize the last few (several?) years of Alex Ovechkin's career. They, too, could use a boost on the blue line.
Top-four defensemen aren't always readily available as the playoffs near, and the Red Wings appear to be in a position to move Leddy when the time and offer are right.
Phil Kessel Lands with a Contender
Goals are hard to come by during the NHL's regular season. They're even harder to find during the playoffs, where offensive depth matters even more and referees stop calling games like they were earlier in the year.
Phil Kessel might not be the player he used to be, but the 34-year-old still managed to find the back of the net 20 times in 56 games for a bad Arizona Coyotes team. While the Coyotes might be done trying to play competitive hockey for now, reports indicate that Kessel has an eye toward his future in the NHL.
From Darren Dreger of TSN: "He wants a fresh start, and he wants to earn a new contract somewhere in the National Hockey League. He's got some no-trade protection, and he wants to go to a competitive, if not a contending team."
The insider went on to note that while Kessel has a big cap hit ($6.8 million), his actual salary is only $1 million. If a contender loses a star to injury close to the trade deadline, it wouldn't be surprising to see them pull a Lightning.
That is to say, stash said star player on the IR, thus clearing up cap room for an impact add like Kessel.
As for the aforementioned trade protections, the forward can submit an eight-team list that he would accept a move to. That list is likely lined with the kinds of contenders that Kessel would want to play for anyway, so perhaps the Coyotes will be able to find a fit for one of the NHL's true ironmen.
Teams that are in Cup-or-bust modes like the Golden Knights and Avalanche might be an injury away from looking to add someone like Kessel to their ranks. Vegas, in particular, has shown a knack for picking up the right players for pennies on the dollar before reaping the benefits. Meanwhile, Colorado GM Joe Sakic is starting to feel some heat as his Avalanche look to take the next step toward winning it all.
The Jack Eichel Saga Comes to an End
It was tempting to leave Jack Eichel off this list, if for no other reason than the subject has been covered endlessly throughout the offseason. If you're reading this, odds are good you at least get the gist of what's gone down between the Buffalo Sabres and their once future king.
The long and short of it is that Eichel wants to have surgery that has never been performed on an NHL player to repair a herniated disc in his spine. On the other side, the Sabres have more or less said no, leaving both the player and team in limbo.
It's become increasingly personal between Eichel and Buffalo, and at a time when capital-P Personal, capital-C Choice, is taking center stage in professional sports, it doesn't look like the former second overall pick will suit up for the Sabres again.
The Sabres are waiting for a good enough trade offer, while the rest of the NHL seems to be waiting for them to realize just how damaged the proverbial goods they are offering are. Earlier this week, Dreger reported the dynamics in play are changing, which could lead to us finally seeing an Eichel trade:
"But sources on Tuesday night indicated that ongoing discussions between general manager Kevyn Adams and those interested general managers around the National Hockey League have shifted from more just discussion to a more serious talk."
The longtime insider mentioned the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and New York Rangers as possible landing spots, but he added that those clubs have downplayed their interest.
Los Angeles, in particular, jumps out as a possibility. The Kings have arguably the deepest prospect pool in the NHL and could give the Sabres what they want for Eichel.
L.A. is projected to be a bottom-ish feeder again in 2021-22; do they believe that the disgruntled superstar would move the needle enough in the coming seasons to be worth a $10 million cap hit? They were proactive enough this offseason to sign Phillip Danault and trade for Viktor Arvidsson.
Would the Kings be willing to bet the farm on Eichel? We aren't sure just yet, but the idea of an American star calling Los Angeles home sure sounds like fun.
Marc-Andre Fleury Gets Another Redemption Tour
The past 12 months or so have already been a whirlwind for Marc-Andre Fleury. We saw the Golden Knights try to trade the goalie ahead of the 2020-21 season, only to find no takers. Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don't end up making, as Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon found out in short order.
Flower posted the best season of his career—following the worst campaign of his tenure in the NHL, no less—deservedly winning the Vezina Trophy and almost certainly proving to the Golden Knights that he still had it.
The NHL is a business above all, however, and we were all reminded of that (Fleury included) when Vegas shipped the face of their franchise to the Chicago Blackhawks for *checks notes* a 25-year-old, 2018 fifth-round pick who has yet to make his NHL debut.
It's clear that the Hawks are doing all they can to milk the remainder of Patrick Kane's and Jonathan Toews' careers. They did so by trading for Jones, whose underlying numbers have gotten progressively worse over the past three seasons, and a 36-year-old goalie in Fleury.
Could this gamble pay off for Chicago and make general manager Stan Bowman look like a super-genius? Sure. But it could just as easily backfire if Toews isn't 100 percent healthy, Kane loses a step, Jones continues the decline he was on in Columbus or Fleury isn't still Vezina-caliber.
Even if he can't repeat last season's success—odds are good he won't be able to—he's still wonderful in the locker room, has played in a zillion big games and could provide a steady presence for an up-and-coming dynasty, something that Fleury knows a thing or two about from his time in Pittsburgh.
The Athletic's Scott Powers recently speculated that Chicago and the veteran netminder could work out something should the Blackhawks slip out of the playoff picture. It would be hard to cheer against one of the league's most liked players getting one more shot at the Stanley Cup with a contender.
After all, we've seen how well he can play over short spurts with a chip on his shoulder.