As it stands now, all but two NHL clubs (Buffalo and Arizona) remain within 10 points of a playoff spot, meaning that just about every possible scenario is still in play and every team is still in the mix as we advance well into the season. But make no mistake – even with the league as wide open as it is, the clubs within the clustered standings are far from equal in their perceptions over how the first stretch of the season has played out. The Vegas Golden Knights have jumped out to an unprecedented start by expansion standards and the St. Louis Blues have renewed Stanley Cup aspirations, while the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers have stumbled haplessly out of the gate.
In these two markets, as well as several more, sluggish early starts may not have completely closed the book on the 2017-18 season, but it has forced teams to review their long-term focus. It may not always be as black and white as to label every club a buyer or seller, but results coupled with the status of pending free agents and cap concerns to grapple with have brought some clarity to potential candidates to be moved.
Free agent deals and forthcoming contract extensions have tightened the purse strings of even the top teams, which will force their hand and likely leave them parting with talent they’d ideally like to keep. Here are 15 stars that you could see in a new uniform next year amidst a wave of league-wide change.
15. Thomas Vanek
Veteran sniper Thomas Vanek has transitioned into something of a hired hand in recent years. Vanek has suited up for seven different organizations since the beginning of the 2013-14 season. The 33-year-old was a late free agent addition by the Vancouver Canucks, one of a number of vets signed to one-year deals. The rationale behind the moves for the rebuilding Canucks was sound – surround young stars Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser with veteran savvy while also bringing in players who could net a potential return come trade deadline time.
Vanek has gotten off to a strong start with his latest new club, but even if the Canucks continue their unlikely push, there’s no guarantee that the two-time 40-goal scorer will stick around. The club isn’t likely seeking to extend Vanek long-term, so a deadline deal would simply ensure that they get an asset for the Russian rather than losing him for nothing this summer.
14. James Neal
As one of the leading scorers on one of the league’s top teams, you might think that James Neal had earned himself a certain degree of job security in Vegas. But in spite of the remarkable start being enjoyed by the expansion Golden Knights, the long-term vision for the franchise through the lens of GM George McPhee doesn’t seem to have changed. This is a club built for the future, with McPhee already amassing a nice haul of draft picks and prospects.
This doesn’t bode well for Neal if the free agent to be is hoping for a lengthy stay in Sin City. His pending free agent status will likely price him higher than what Vegas wants to pay a guy who has historically been a solid supporting scorer. If he could bring in more future assets in a trade, then all the better. Look for a contender to pick him up at the deadline.
13. Matt Moulson
After playing for three different teams over the course of the 2013-14 season, it has surely been a breath of fresh air for Matt Moulson to find a permanent home over the past four seasons in Buffalo. That security came about after the 34-year-old winger signed a five-year, $25 million deal with the Sabres back in 2014, although that contract hasn’t proven fruitful for either player or team to date.
With the Sabres looming as one of the NHL’s worst teams, changes are surely coming. Moulson likely won’t net the type of return that he got during previous mid-season trades for Thomas Vanek and Torrey Mitchell and draft picks, but he could draw interest as a depth scorer for playoff-bound clubs. At this rate, Buffalo may simply be looking to cut bait with a guy who has produced just 35 goals over the first three years of his deal and still has another season remaining on his contract.
12. Jacob Trouba
There are few commodities more rare in the NHL than young, potential-laden defensemen. That’s why it seems hard to believe that a 23-year-old former top 10 pick may soon be on the market. But for Winnipeg Jets rearguard Jacob Trouba, it wouldn’t even be the first time his name was linked to a trade.
Late in the 2016 off-season, Trouba found himself without a contract and looking for a way out of Winnipeg after publicly requesting a trade. The two sides ultimately kissed and made up, agreeing on a two-year deal. This time around, the surging Jets have improved while the former World Junior gold medalist has not. Trouba hasn’t scored 10 goals in the three seasons since his rookie campaign, but it won’t be hard to find a taker lured in by the promise of a fresh start if the Jets decide to shop him.
11. James van Riemsdyk
Too much front line talent is a problem that just about any NHL club would love to have and it’s one that currently befalls the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs can enjoy this luxury for now, but soon something has to give, particularly with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander all due big raises.
Things could certainly change in the coming months, but the blueprint for the Buds – at least in the short-term – seems clear. Their pending free agents include James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov, with at least two of the three unlikely to return. Players like Josh Leivo and Kasperi Kapanen are NHL ready and waiting for their shot, making for a reasonably seamless and cap space-saving transition. Whether shipped out by trade or allowed to leave as a free agent, it doesn’t appear as though JVR’s future will be in Toronto.
10. Mike Green
Did you know that Mike Green has a 30-goal season under his belt? It seems like an eternity ago that Green opened eyes across the league with a 31-goal, 73-point campaign at the age of 23 for the Washington Capitals. Even if he isn’t that player anymore, the 32-year-old remains the best offensive blue liner in Motown and a player who could hold value for a contender.
Green will be a free agent after this season and doesn’t appear likely to stick around with the Wings. Unlike when he originally signed the three-year deal, Detroit is in rebuilding mode and boasts razor thin postseason hopes. This could theoretically dampen interest on both sides, with Detroit not looking to commit big money or term on a veteran defenseman and Green ready to join a playoff contender.
9. Milan Lucic
It’s one thing to talk vaguely about the need for “change” when it comes to a struggling team, but quite another to know what that change should actually look like. There is probably no NHL fan base experiencing a more disappointing start to the season than fans of the Edmonton Oilers.
Realistically, the Oilers have their hands somewhat tied with the expensive long-term deals to McDavid and Leon Draistaitl. One interesting name to watch would be former No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. More plausibly, however, we could see the club try to find a way out of Milan Lucic’s no-movement clause. Lucic has been valuable as offensive and physical support for McDavid, but that type of contribution could probably be had for less than the $30 million left on his contract through 2023.
8. Rick Nash
Rick Nash recently surpassed the 1,000-game mark for his decorated 15-year NHL career, but there remains a lurking sense that his window to finally earn a drink from Lord Stanley’s mug might have passed him by. Arguably the peak of Nash’s career came about three years ago, as he racked up 68 goals over two seasons while his New York Rangers reached the Cup Finals and then came one game shy of returning the next season. Since then, things simply haven’t been the same for Nash or his Broadway Blueshirts.
If the six-time All-Star still intends to pursue the Cup ring that eludes him, it might have to come away from Madison Square Garden. While the Rangers haven’t missed the postseason since 2010, they haven’t inspired much faith thus far this season, currently stuck looking up at most of their Metropolitan division rivals. Nash could still be used as bait for a contender this year.
7. Evander Kane
Now that Matt Duchene has shuffled off to Ottawa, Evander Kane can probably be counted as the longest-tenured member of the trade rumour club. He has been a popular subject of speculation for multiple seasons, owing to both his own reported attitude issues and the Sabres’ woeful play. Nothing has come of the rumours yet, but there’s reason to believe that will change.
If Buffalo is serious about undergoing a culture change to help right the ship around Jack Eichel, Kane will probably be the first domino to fall. His status as a trade commodity is bolstered by having scored over 150 goals before turning 26, but his talents still haven’t made the Sabres or, previously, the Winnipeg Jets, any better. If that doesn’t spell the need for a change, I don’t know what will.
6. Joe Thornton
While Joe Thornton actually began his Hall of Fame-calibre career with over seven seasons spent in Boston, he’s become firmly associated with the San Jose Sharks after spending the last 13 seasons there. Is it possible, then, that his tenure in the Shark Tank may come to an end?
Jumbo Joe will be a free agent at year’s end. Now, free agency didn’t prevent him from sticking around last summer, but it’s fair to wonder if at 38 years of age and after seeing longtime teammate Patrick Marleau go chase a ring in Toronto, the 20-year vet is starting to wonder if he’ll ever lift the Cup in San Jose. Thornton continues to play at a remarkably high level and with the fourth most playoff games among active players, he certainly has the postseason experience that contenders covet.
5. Gabriel Landeskog
The Matt Duchene trade earlier this season served to rid the Colorado Avalanche of someone who clearly didn’t want to be there. But for a franchise that finished a whopping 21 points behind any other NHL rival last season, you have to figure one move isn’t enough to cure what ails the Avs. With Duchene gone and Nathan MacKinnon unlikely to be dealt, the focus now shifts over to Gabriel Landeskog.
There’s a lot to like about the high character Swede, who remains one of the youngest captains in the league. And in fairness to Joe Sakic and the Avs, it isn’t like the club is anxious to unload the 25-year-old. But any hopes of landing the type of trade package to jumpstart the franchise, something of value will need to be surrendered. And let’s face it – it hasn’t been a stellar run in the Mile High City since Landeskog donned the ‘C’.
4. Alex Galchenyuk
A recent win streak will surely help those in Montreal breathe a little easier for now, but it still fails to fully put to rest concerns regarding the flawed Canadiens. From a lack of scoring to some evident chemistry issues, there are inherent problems among the bleu, blanc et rouge that even the best goaltender in the league may not be able to solve. So, what now?
With Brendan Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin representing a youthful one-two punch up front and Max Pacioretty offering stability as the captain, it might be beleaguered former No. 3 overall pick Alex Galchenyuk who is in need of a fresh start. Look for a middle of the pack team like New Jersey or Winnipeg to take a chance on a potential scoring threat to make a move on Galchenyuk. A fresh start for both team and player might be the right move for all involved.
3. Claude Giroux
The Philadelphia Flyers recently snapped their 10-game losing streak, but that hardly means that everything is right again in the City of Brotherly Love. Chants of “Fire Hakstol!” have been heard throughout the Wells Fargo Center of late to serenade embattled head coach Dave Hakstol. The Flyers have remained steadfast that the coach is staying, so maybe other changes are on the way?
If any moves are to be made, the deep but underperforming forward corps might again be the place to look. Philly already traded center Brayden Schenn in the summer, but with Nolan Patrick and Travis Konecny looking to assume a greater role, longtime pivot Claude Giroux could be the next to go. Losing a captain is never easy, but the Flyers are well positioned with Wayne Simmonds and possibly Jakub Voracek stepping into more of a leadership role.
2. Oliver Ekman-Larsson
There is already hype over the free agent defensemen class of 2019, which – as it stands – would feature Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson. But defensively needy NHL clubs may not have to wait that long for a bona fide No. 1 blue liner to hit the market. They just may need to be ready to pay big – both in cash and prospect capital. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is set to become a free agent in that same summer and questions abound over whether his current club, the lowly Arizona Coyotes, can afford to keep him.
If speculation is to be believed, the Coyotes and owner Andrew Barroway are facing financial challenges that make Ekman-Larsson and his potential max contract a hard to swallow luxury. The Toronto Maple Leafs would do well to snatch up the talented blue liner.
1. John Tavares
Before we can totally shift focus to a loaded 2019 free agent class, there is at least one name that makes the 2018 class an intriguing one. No one currently in their contract year will generate as much buzz as John Tavares, both for his superstar pedigree and the likelihood of a forthcoming divorce from his current club.
The Isles drafted Tavares first overall back in 2009 and are the only NHL franchise that the 27-year-old knows. But amid reports that their current home, Barclays Center, is set to cut ties with the hockey team after next season, he may understandably be leery of committing to the Islanders long-term. That remains on the back burner for now as New York has jumped out to a red hot start with Tavares leading the way, but buzz will pick up as July 1st draws closer and the four-time All-Star will have no shortage of suitors should he decide to look elsewhere.
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