The NHL trade deadline on Monday, Feb. 24, forced teams to confront the difficult question of whether or not they are contenders for the 2020 Stanley Cup.
Many teams, if they are honest with themselves, know they are not contenders. Those teams that are not in competition, or perhaps more accurately the teams that are still deluding themselves into believing they can win, must begin to trade their best players to the highest bidder and build up their stock of prospects and future draft picks for the future. Conversely, those in playoff contention must use the trade deadline to bolster the depths of their rosters for a playoff run.
For some teams, the delusion of the playoffs is not even possible. For example, the Detroit Red Wings are monumentally bad this year, sitting in last place of the Atlantic Division with an abysmal record of 15-46. It is already mathematically impossible for the Red Wings to make the playoffs this year. The last team to be eliminated before the trade deadline was the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2004.
It seems that the hockey gods are intervening to show other teams this year is not their year for a run at the cup. For example, the Toronto Maple Leafs played the Carolina Hurricanes at home on Saturday, Feb. 22, when the Hurricanes dealt with an odd goaltender situation. In general, each hockey team is required to bring two goaltenders — their starting goalie and a backup in case of injury. If both of the goalies get injured before the game, teams often call on their American Hockey League affiliates to fill the gap.
The situation gets interesting if both goalies are injured during the game and a team needs an emergency goaltender, since they cannot get a player from their minor league affiliate in time. The replacement, then, usually becomes some guy who sits in the press box eating a hot dog during the game with the vague knowledge that if such a series of extremely unlikely events happens, he might play.
Such was the situation for the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday, when a 42-year old zamboni driver who had never played a minute of professional ice hockey filled in as goalie for the final thirty minutes of the game. The outcome was more cliche than an average Disney movie: the Leafs, with one of the league’s most premier and expensive offenses, lost the game 6-3, only scoring on this goaltender twice in the second period. The situation is almost comical, as if the hockey gods needed to demonstrate in the plainest terms that the Leafs are not even competitive against players who never made it professionally, let alone who are prepared for the playoffs. Surprisingly, Toronto was conspicuously inactive at the trade deadline, apart from re-signing one of their own players.
While the trade deadline provided an opportunity for failing teams to seek new players and trade deals, it also showed that the playoff race this year is tight. Eight teams from each conference make the playoffs: the top three teams from each division and the top two teams from the rest of the conference. Beyond the teams currently in playoff spots, six teams are within four points, many of which have played fewer games than the teams in playoff spots, meaning 22 out of 31 teams in the league could easily be in a playoff spot by the end of the month, let alone by playoff time.
For those still in playoff contention, it is worth looking at which teams decided to load up their rosters for a playoff berth or run. The Washington Capitals were one of the most active teams leading into the deadline, acquiring left wing Ilya Kovalchuk and defender Brenden Dillon. The Caps offer an interesting case study on activity before the deadline. In 2017, the Caps spent several picks and prospects to land Kevin Shattenkirk, considered one of the more valuable players available at the deadline that year. They lost in the playoffs to the Penguins again that year, a repeat of their 2015-16 performance. The next year, Washington made low-level trades for prospects and unknown defensemen and rode their superior team system and star power to a Stanley Cup victory.
This year, some of the most valuable players traded at the deadline were traded before Monday actually rolled around. The Penguins acquired Jason Zucker and later Patrick Marleau while the Golden Knights got Alec Martinez ahead of the deadline. As for the last-minute trades on Monday, the Oilers acquired Andreas Athanasiou from the Red Wings, who should make a compelling complement to the Oilers’ lightning-fast Connor McDavid.
Some teams made riskier moves, like the Carolina Hurricanes, which acquired Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei. These players will help shore up Carolina’s defense, which is currently suffering from significant injuries. These moves may prove risky because these players add so much long-term salary through 2022.
The deadline activity of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who added 40-year-old Marleau to their already aging core, is an unimpressive move by the team. Perhaps the other additions of Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues will help to invigorate the team for a postseason run.
Overall, I find myself skeptical of the impact of the trade deadline based on recent performance. Last year’s winning St. Louis Blues made almost no moves at the trade deadline, as they were still crawling up from last place in the league on the way to the playoffs. The year before, the Capitals had a decidedly unspectacular trade deadline in contrast to more active but unsuccessful efforts in earlier years. The Penguins made some moves before the 2016 and 2017 trade deadlines, years in which they won, but their core and young players developed inside the team were the critical elements of their Stanley Cup wins. This year was particularly active in a close league. Maybe one of the players moved this year will be the critical piece one team needs on the way to a Stanley Cup.