While the NHL’s top players compete at All-Star Weekend and the rest of the league takes some well-earned rest, general managers minds must be spinning: the trade deadline is officially less than one month away.
Trying to determine a course of action before the deadline is a tricky balancing act; the league’s contenders know who they are, but only 11 points separate the 13th-place New York Rangers from a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, with six teams in between. The same goes for the San Jose Sharks and the West.
The point is that one solid point streak (or one frustrating losing streak) in February can make or break a team’s playoff chances — and the trade deadline’s arrival forces teams’ management to decide to buy in, sell or stick with what they have and see what happens with too many games remaining to know for sure.
All has been quiet on the trade market since a flurry of minor deals took place on Jan. 2, but that should change soon.
Here are five forwards who could be on the move by the Feb. 24 trade deadline:
Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators
When The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun recently reflected on where all 31 teams stand one month ahead of the deadline, he mentioned Pageau in association with three teams: the Philadelphia Flyers, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. Should Ottawa’s top center opt not to extend his contract with the Senators beyond this season’s end, he’ll make a prime rental player who happens to be in the prime of his career.
Pageau is on pace for a career-high 55 points in 2019-20 and his relatively low salary cap hit ($3.1 million) doesn’t make a potential trade for him a headache for most teams. He would help shore up a flawed center group (and audition for a new contract this summer) no matter where he plays.
As The Hockey News noted in November, Pageau is an impact player for the Senators whether or not they keep him. The club already owns five selections in the first two rounds of the 2020 NHL draft; trading their home-grown center would likely gain one or two more.
Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs
A young, skilled forward like Kapanen (he’s only 23) isn’t likely to be traded for the same reasons as others on this list. In fact, there is no present need for Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas to ship him out at all right now: the Finn is signed for two more seasons and continues to develop as a quality depth piece. That kind of quality makes him desirable for other teams, though. If the Leafs want help on the blue line or perhaps a new goaltender, it appears likely other clubs will inquire about his availability.
What kind of player might the Leafs seek in return for Kapanen’s exit? Given Toronto’s recent injury troubles on the back end, a right-shot defenseman who can play on Toronto’s top two pairings might be ideal. The Leafs have reportedly held interest in Calgary’s Travis Hamonic in the past; if Dubas wants to make a larger splash, he could search for a younger blueliner with term remaining on his contract — LeBrun suggested Minnesota’s Matt Dumba as a possibility.
Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton Oilers
We haven’t heard much from or about Puljujarvi since the Dec. 1 deadline to sign restricted free agents passed. As a result, the still-very-young forward can’t play in the NHL this season — but he’s been tearing it up in the top Finnish pro league (38 points in 39 games). Would Oilers GM Ken Holland explore trading Puljujarvi now to a team that will want him to play next season? He actually laid out his whole thought process on the matter to The Athletic earlier this month, with three significant points:
1. Trading Puljujarvi for a rental player gives away the 2016 fourth-overall draft pick for a player who would likely only join Edmonton for the rest of this season.
2. Puljujarvi and his agent have made it very clear he does not want to play in Edmonton any longer — so Holland may wait until this June’s draft to explore a more competitive “hockey trade” that benefits the Oilers better.
3. If he holds on to Puljujarvi that long and can’t find a perfect deal, Puljujarvi then has to decide again if he wants to sign with the Oilers or stay in Europe another season.
Holland told the Athletic that he explored some trades for Puljujarvi in the fall but none of them interested him enough to follow through.
“Again, if he’s traded at the trade deadline, do you want to trade a 21-year-old player for a rental?” he told The Athletic. “Depends who the rental player is, I guess.”
Tyler Toffoli, Los Angeles Kings
Toffoli is what every playoff-contending team desires in a deadline pickup: a playoff-tested depth scorer who could probably fit in on any club’s second or third lines with a near-seamless transitions. He’s only 27, as well — making questions about stamina for a long playoff run that sometimes occur with older players a non-issue. The Boston Bruins are reportedly interested; LeBrun suggested him as a potential fit for the Flames, New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins as well.
Plenty of interest means a bidding war looms just around the corner, though. Toffoli is currently producing at a 45-point pace on a weak Los Angeles team, but what is that worth? The New Jersey Devils got three B-level prospects and a likely late first-round draft pick for a more highly-regarded winger of a similar age and contract status (Taylor Hall). Would any club part ways with its first-round pick to get Toffoli?
Ilya Kovalchuk, Montreal Canadiens
At least one or two GMs must be kicking themselves wishing they had picked up Kovalchuk when the Kings released him from his contract last month. Once again, the Bruins were reportedly interested (Boston always seems to need a winger), but he instead signed with the Canadiens and has since scored eight points in eight games (four goals, four assists).
Montreal stands 10 points out of the Eastern Conference playoff race — unless GM Marc Bergevin thinks his club can make a push, he can trade Kovalchuk and get perhaps a draft pick and prospect out of a low-risk, high reward signing he made. Would the Bruins make a trade with their most storied rival? The last Montreal-Boston deal was in February 2001, and LeBrun noted that the Kovalchuk-to-Boston ship has likely sailed.
Where, then? Sportsnet’s Eric Francis recently wrote that Calgary sorely needs “a right-handed, impact forward.” Kovalchuk has certainly fit that bill throughout his career — and top-line minutes in Montreal have helped him quickly re-establish that reputation.