‘I think it’s going to be insane:’ NHL execs make trade season predictions

NHL

The NHL trade deadline is March 8, and opinions around the league vary on just how hectic it will be.

“I think it’s going to be insane,” one NHL agent said.

“I feel like it’s not going to be a great deadline, to be honest,” an NHL team executive said. “It just doesn’t seem like there’s a lot out there.”

“I mean, it’s always busy, you know?” one NHL general manager noted. “Teams are always looking around and there’s always a buildup to it.”

What should hockey fans expect at the deadline? After working the phones and chatting up power brokers at games and practices, here’s a look at the NHL trade deadline landscape.

The pending unrestricted free agents

Every NHL trade deadline, there’s a player like Sean Walker.

There’s a player who isn’t normally on every hockey fan’s mind who becomes a prominent name because of the position he plays and the way he plays it. The Philadelphia Flyers‘ right-shot defenseman is a play-driving darling who can play either side and is aggressive enough to even impress coach John Tortorella. Walker makes $2.65 million against the salary cap and becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer.

The Flyers are in a playoff spot. Maybe they trade the 29-year-old. Maybe they don’t. In the meantime, Walker has gone from supporting cast to main character at the deadline.

“It’s been interesting. You just try to put it at the back of your mind and take everything with a grain of salt,” he told ESPN last Friday. “Everything will work itself out at the end of the day.”

Does he read the rumors? Does he scan the trade boards?

“Not so much. I have a pretty open line of communication with my agent and Danny [Briere, Flyers GM] has been great as well,” Walker said. “We chat once in a while and he always lets me know if I have any questions or concerns, it’s an open door and just give him a call. So it’s been a really good process so far.”

So he’ll know if he’s traded before we will?

“I would hope so,” he said with a laugh.

Walker is part of a handful of UFAs of note who may be available at the deadline. Among the other skaters:

There are also three other unrestricted free agents of note that we’ll address in a bit: Calgary Flames defensemen Chris Tanev and Noah Hanifin, and Pittsburgh Penguins winger Jake Guentzel.

We also had two UFAs move well before the deadline: Flames center Elias Lindholm was dealt to the Vancouver Canucks, and Canadiens center Sean Monahan was traded to the Winnipeg Jets.

Both of those transactions involved a first-round pick moving the other way, which is good news for a team like Anaheim, as Henrique might be the best center with an expiring contract left on the market.


What will the Flames do?

No other team controls the speed and tempo of the trade deadline more than the Flames. Remember when the Lindholm trade went down? That directly led to the Monahan trade a few days later during NHL All-Star Weekend. The Jets were chasing Lindholm. The Canucks traded for him. The dominoes toppled over to force Plan B, and the Jets acquired Monahan from Montreal.

Calgary GM Craig Conroy is staring at the dominoes again. Multiple NHL executives said the gears have been gummed up while everyone waits on Calgary to move — or keep — Hanifin, Tanev and goalie Jacob Markstrom.

Tanev has been long-rumored to move at the deadline. The 34-year-old is a prototypical “last piece of the puzzle” guy, a throwback defenseman who would fit well on several contenders. He does have a 10-team no-trade list and his $4.5 million salary isn’t simple to fit under a tight cap; that said, Calgary could retain salary. The Dallas Stars have been rumored to have interest in Tanev, and one could easily see the fit.

One NHL executive we spoke with said that he expected Tanev to stay out West.

Hanifin has been in and out of trade talks like it’s some kind of transactional hokey pokey. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported last weekend that Hanifin is expected to go to the free agent market this summer, which puts the 27-year-old defenseman right near the top of the trade boards.

Flames senior VP of hockey operations Dave Nonis has been scouting the Boston Bruins heavily. Hanifin is from Boston and attended Boston College. Hanifin, who makes $4.95 million against the cap, has an eight-team no-trade list.

“I think he’s a good player and someone will do well in getting him,” one NHL executive said.

Markstrom is the biggest X factor. The New Jersey Devils went far down the road in seeking to acquire the Flames goaltender, but that deal hasn’t happened yet.

“You know who the best goalie in the league is this season? Jacob f—ing Markstrom,” one goaltending analyst said. “I would love to know what Calgary was asking the Devils for to have made that trade fall apart.”

His traditional stats are strong, including a .913 save percentage and a 2.60 goals-against average. But analytically — in both public numbers and internal team analytics — he’s been the first or second best goalie in the league this season.

The challenge is that Markstrom is 34, has a full no-movement clause and a contract that runs through 2026-27 with a $6 million annual cap hit.

In a trade deadline field full of bunts and singles, Markstrom could be one of the few home run possibilities among goalies.

Here’s the thing about Calgary: Are we sure they’re going to keep unloading?

The Lindholm trade would indicate that Conroy knows that maximizing the return for pending UFAs as the Flames enter their next phase is the right idea. The ghost of Johnny Gaudreau leaving for nothing still haunts their front offices.

Yet Stathletes had the Flames with the highest percentage chance of making the second wild card in the West (32.2%) as of Tuesday. They’ve been playing solid hockey lately. A few NHL executives wondered if making the playoffs was ultimately more important to ownership than acquiring assets for potential trade targets.

“Making the playoffs is big for that franchise,” one NHL GM said. “They’re very competitive right now. The next nine games will determine a lot.”


The Penguins’ conundrum with Jake Guentzel

To call the Penguins’ situation with Guentzel complicated would be like calling Sidney Crosby a moderately successful player — a study in understatement.

Guentzel, 29, carries a $6 million cap hit and becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. Over the last four seasons, he’s sixth among left wings in points-per-game average (1.02). Some say that’s a product of playing with Crosby, with whom he’s spent the majority of his time. Others say that relationship shows Guentzel can thrive while playing with elite talent, which is a talent in itself.

Factor in his playoff prowess, where he has 58 points in 58 games, and Guentzel immediately becomes a coveted player if he’s available at the trade deadline. Think of the contending teams that could be elevated with him on the roster, from goal-starved contenders like the Carolina Hurricanes to all-in teams like the Canucks and Oilers.

GM Kyle Dubas has been listening to pitches for a while. Multiple reports said that framework of a Guentzel deal might fit the Claude Giroux template when Philadelphia and Florida hooked up for a deal two years ago: a young NHL-ready player, a first-round pick and then either more draft picks or a solid NHL prospect.

And then Guentzel was injured. He suffered an upper-body malady that landed him on long-term injured reserve, with a return date that would put him past the trade deadline. While he could still be traded, multiple sources said they wouldn’t be surprised if other GMs are now asking for a discount on a trade. That could complicate things.

I’ve had people tell me it’s 50/50 that Guentzel gets traded. Others are more convinced he’s gone, given where the Penguins are in the standings.

“I think [Dubas] probably does trade him. I think he has to,” one NHL executive concluded, citing the Penguins’ plight and Guentzel’s pending UFA status.

For the record, Crosby claims that he’s not putting his two cents in on Guentzel’s status, despite undeniable chemistry with his linemate. He told Rob Rossi of The Athletic that “I don’t think that affects how I view things” regarding Crosby’s own future in Pittsburgh.


The ‘guys with term’

One theory regarding the trade deadline: While the pending UFAs underwhelm, more attention could be paid to players with term.

Remember: The NHL salary cap is expected to rise to $87.7 million next season. It’s estimated that based on revenues, the cap could rise to $92 million in the 2025-26 season.

One NHL agent said this is the reason they expect “an insane” trade deadline.

“I think it’s going to be insane because teams are going to have cap space for the first time in a long time this summer,” they said.

Besides Markstrom, there are players such as center Scott Laughton of the Flyers (two years left beyond this one, $3 million AAV); goalie Jake Allen (one more year, $3.85 million AAV); Ottawa defenseman Jakob Chychrun (one more year, $4.6 million AAV); and forward Morgan Frost (one more year, $2.1 million) who have been mentioned in the rumor mill.

But what about bigger names? Could the lack of pending UFA options mean it’s possible a player like 22-year-old Trevor Zegras (two more years, $5.75 million AAV) gets moved by the Ducks? Or could center Kevin Hayes from the St. Louis Blues (two more years, $7,142,857 AAV) potentially move, with salary retention?

The first thing to keep in mind is that there’s a reason these players have term: Teams generally believe they’re part of the long-term solution.

“The problem with guys with term getting moved is that their teams think they’re close to being good and that these guys will help us get close to being good,” one NHL executive said.

Look no further than the Columbus Blue Jackets. The franchise is a mess, having just fired its general manager and looking at another season in the lottery. Center Boone Jenner is 30 and signed through 2025-26 with a manageable $3.750 million cap hit. Trading him could be part of the next phase of the franchise. But team president John Davidson declared that Jenner “is not going anywhere.”

The other thing to remember is that long-term contracts that don’t move at the deadline could still move later — like at the NHL draft.

“You see term deals in the summer, but a lot of those conversations start at the deadline,” one NHL GM said. “It’s because of the cap space. A lot of teams are tight now. Unless you move money in and money out, you’re restricted. But it opens up more in the summer. I would say that more term type deals happen then because you have expiring contracts. And, let’s face it, a little more certainty on the draft order.”


The goalies

The goaltending market has certainly been the biggest focal point for trade deadline aficionados. Blame Adin Hill: After the Vegas Golden Knights won the Stanley Cup using five different goalies throughout the season (and ultimately sticking with Hill midway through the second round of the playoffs), a handful of contenders are also eager to throw as many goalies at their problems as they can to see what sticks.

But there’s also the possibility of trying to solve one’s goaltending problem with one big swing: Hence the speculation about Markstrom and Juuse Saros, the Nashville Predators goalie signed through 2024-25 with a $5 million cap hit. Saros told The Tennessean that “it’s not the plan” to trade him, from what he understands. But GM Barry Trotz has said repeatedly that if he’s blown away by a trade offer, he’d have to consider it.

Then there’s the other big goalie with term: John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks, signed through 2026-27 with a $6.4 million cap hit.

Down a tier or two there are other options: Allen, the 33-year-old Canadiens goalie and the San Jose SharksKaapo Kahkonen, a pending UFA with a $2.75 million cap hit.

One name that might be off the list: Marc-Andre Fleury of the Minnesota Wild. As long as that team has a statistical chance of making the playoffs by the trade deadline, Fleury is likely not going anywhere. As of Wednesday, the Wild are two points out of a playoff seed.

So all that established, will the goalie trade market get bonkers?

“The thirst for goaltending won’t be met,” ESPN insider Emily Kaplan said. “There simply aren’t enough trusted goaltenders to go around, so unless a team is really needy, they could pass on net insurance.”

One NHL executive believed that even the really needy teams won’t go big.

“You look at the teams that allegedly need goalies, a lot of them are not teams that are going all out for a deadline trade,” they said

As usual, the salary cap makes it complicated. Take a team like the Los Angeles Kings. Do they need a goalie? Absolutely. Can they fit an impactful one under the cap? No, unless they move salary out. But with Cam Talbot, David Rittich and the injured Pheonix Copley all going UFA this summer, perhaps they have to wait until then for a more meaningful solution in goal.


The bubble

We know the contenders are going to bolster their Stanley Cup chances. The Rangers are widely expected to add both a center and a winger, especially in the wake of Blake Wheeler‘s potential season-ending injury. Colorado is looking for an upgrade at center. Ryan Johansen scored two goals Tuesday night, which was a good sign for the Avs — but could they include him in a deal to make the salary cap numbers work?

For a while, it looked like the Western Conference would have one open wild-card berth, with the three spots in each division fairly solidified. That was before the Edmonton Oilers caught fire and the Kings hit a skid so severe that it cost coach Todd McLellan his job. Now there are six teams within range of those two wild cards.

“The Kings’ slump alone may have changed the math for the NHL trade deadline,” one general manager said. “A lot of teams suddenly had another path to the playoffs.”

The Kings have a bit more breathing room in the first wild card; Stathletes puts them at 89.9% to make the playoffs. The same can’t be said about the second wild-card spot in the West, whose current occupant at any time feels temporary. As of Wednesday morning, the St. Louis Blues owned the final berth; the Predators, Wild, Kraken and Flames were all within three points.

The Eastern Conference has fewer teams in the mix. The New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders are the only teams currently outside of playoff seeds that have a better than 20% chance of making the cut.

By March 8, perhaps some of these bubbles will have popped. Perhaps then the trade deadline inventory grows.

“There are a lot of teams in the hunt, so that dictates it,” one NHL GM concluded.

Articles You May Like

Top amateur, Vandy star defers PGA Tour card
How interpreter Ippei Mizuhara became players’ lifeline
Stroll fastest in Chinese GP practice
MacKinnon tops Stastny’s franchise points mark
Bryan maintains lead at wide-open Puntacana

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *