The NHL Trade Deadline is one month and one day away, but we can guarantee you phones are ringing across the league. With parity comes uncertainty in form of who is buying and who is selling. That said, this is not an issue in the Atlantic. There is the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs. And then there is everyone else as the remaining five teams in the division occupy the bottom five spots in the Eastern Conference. While it’s entirely possible the Bruins catch the Lightning or something crazy happens within this three-team battle, it’s safe to say all three clubs will be looking for upgrades as they head towards the postseason. As for the bottom five clubs, these are the teams that will soon be self-proclaimed sellers (Buffalo already is) and will be busy on the phones over the next month.
Let’s dive into the division and see what the buyers could potentially look to accomplish prior to the NHL Trade Deadline.
Tampa Bay Lightning – (33-12-3) 1st
Biggest Need: Top 4 Defenseman
We know the Lightning can score. Their 3.50 goals per game paces the NHL and their 23.8% clip on the power play checks in at fourth. However, with Victor Hedman out, this defensive group all the sudden looks thin. Tampa Bay’s top six defenseman without Hedman are: Anton Stralman, Brayden Coburn, Mikhail Sergachev, Dan Girardi, Jake Dotchin and one of Slater Koekkoek or Andrej Sustr. It’s also worth nothing Sergachev was a healthy scratch in Tuesday’s win in Nashville. There’s no doubt the Lightning could add a defenseman, or two, and preferably one that can play big minutes both with Hedman out and when the All-Star returns to the lineup.
Potential Targets: Mike Green, Erik Gudbranson, Ryan McDonagh, Ian Cole, Jack Johnson
Green is a veteran defenseman that could handle power play time in Hedman’s absence, but with a $6M cap hit and suspect defensive abilities at times, he may not be the appropriate target for the Lightning. I like Ian Cole. Cole is a battle-tested member of the Pittsburgh Penguins who, for some reason, is struggling to stay in the lineup on a team that ranks 22nd in team defense. Cole is shot-blocking machine who can kill penalties and handles the puck well enough to take on a top-four role on a club with their sights set on a deep playoff run. It would take a lot for anyone to pry McDonagh out of New York, but he could clearly be a fit if the Lightning could put an enticing package together. Another reasonable option is the veteran Johnson who has apparently asked for a trade out of Columbus. Johnson certainly has the defensive and offensive capabilities to handle a top-four role.
Boston Bruins – (28-10-8) – 2nd
Biggest Need: Scoring Winger
The Bruins have vaulted into fifth in team offense with 3.26 goals per game, but it could help their offense and their depth to add some more scoring punch. Besides, Tuukka Rask is playing off the charts and Boston is now the NHL’s top defensive club at 2.43 goals against per game, so the back end appears stable. Jake DeBrusk has handled himself well next to David Krejci on the second line and Danton Heinen is having a nice rookie season, but the postseason can be difficult on young, inexperienced players. The Bruins could use a veteran winger who can puck the puck in the net.
Potential Targets: Patrick Maroon, Evander Kane, Mike Hoffman, Max Pacioretty, Rick Nash
These are the scoring wingers that are available, but there are a lot of high asking prices involved here. Therefore, it’s most reasonable to believe the Bruins would target Maroon in this group. Evander Kane is the most available and perhaps coveted player in this group and the asking price is said to be sky-high. Hoffman has two years left on his deal after this season at a reasonable cap hit just north of $5M, so again, the ask is high. Pacioretty is the Montreal’s biggest trade chip and Marc Bergevin knows he needs to hit a home run if he trades his captain, thus another high ask. Nash could fit well on that second line with Krejci, so I expect Bruins’ GM Don Sweeney to have a chat with Rangers’ GM Jeff Gorton about his future UFA winger. But back to Maroon whose numbers have been inflated thanks to his spot alongside Connor McDavid, but he fits the Bruins’ mold. Big, strong and can put the puck in the net. He is actually very close to left-handed version of David Backes, which the Bruins would likely take in a heartbeat. Slot Maroon in beside Krejci at 5v5 and on the second power play unit, move DeBrusk down a line with Riley Nash and Backes and force Tim Schaller to fight for his life to stay in the lineup.
Toronto Maple Leafs – (27-18-5) – 3rd
Biggest Need: Top 4 Defenseman
No secret here. The Maple Leafs are set up front and are certainly willing to go into the postseason with their top 12 (or 13) as is. However, their back end is a major question mark. Toronto ranks 28th with 33.7 shots against per game, so they need to take some of the load off of Frederik Andersen who has been sensational this season. Unlike some of the buyers, the Maple Leafs will not be willing to move significant future assets for a rental player and would be the most hesitant of any buyer to move a significant future piece at all. However, you have to give to get, so it should be interesting to see what Lou Lamoriello does on or before February 26th. We also need to keep in mind Toronto will get their top two defenseman back after soon after the All-Star break in Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev.
Potential Targets: Mike Green, Ian Cole, Erik Gudbranson, Jack Johnson
The prices on the top available defenseman are obviously high at this point, and I don’t see Lamoriello putting together any major package for anyone. Therefore, Ryan McDonagh is out of the question. Mike Green could very well be out of the question as he is Ken Holland’s biggest trade chip in Detroit. To me, that leaves Cole, Gudbranson and Johnson who could fit what the Leafs need. All three can kill penalties and all three could handle top four minutes. If I’m Lou, I am looking more at Cole and Johnson. To me, I’m not sure how big of an upgrade Gudbranson is on a player even like Roman Polak. At full health, Rielly and Ron Hainsey form the top pair, Jake Gardiner and Zaitsev are the second pair and the bottom pair is a combination Connor Carrick, Travis Dermott, Andreas Borgman and Polak. Lamoriello needs to find a left-shooting top-four defenseman to slide next to Zaitsev and push Gardiner down a pairing to give the Leafs much more reliable depth. Defensively, Gardiner is suspect and would be better off playing against a team’s third line compared to their top-six. Cole and Johnson are the best bets for a young team that looks to take step forward in the postseason after giving the Capitals a run for their money a year ago.