It was mid-November last season by the time teams started shuffling the deck, but in the span of a dozen days the NHL saw a few trades of varying degrees.
What kicked it off was the Pittsburgh Penguins’ acquisition of Tanner Pearson from the Los Angeles Kings for Carl Hagelin. That was followed by a Ryan Spooner-for-Ryan Strome swap that sent the former to the Edmonton Oilers and the latter to the New York Rangers. Roughly a week after that deal came one of the early season stunners, as the Chicago Blackhawks sent Nick Schmaltz to the Arizona Coyotes for Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini. And with that, the NHL’s trade market was officially open and active.
Despite it taking somewhere in the six-week range for trade action to kick off last season, though, it feels as though we could see a few teams fire that first-trade salvo much earlier this season. It’s not exactly uncommon, either. It was weeks into the 2017-18 campaign that the Penguins and Detroit Red Wings executed a trade involving Riley Sheahan, and the Ottawa Senators, Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche were little more than a dozen games into their respective campaigns by the time the three-team Kyle Turris-Matt Duchene-Sam Girard trade was completed that same season.
So, which teams could be first to shake up their roster or make a notable addition? Here are five clubs either searching for a spark, in need of an upgrade or simply looking to send a message who could make the first major move:
As colleague Ken Campbell wrote earlier this week, Wild GM Bill Guerin is going to be patient with his group in Minnesota. Or at least that was the plan before the Wild went into Montreal, got embarrassed by the Canadiens, had a closed-door meeting and tore apart their own performance, including post-game comments from Jason Zucker in which he called out everyone and anyone on the roster, including coach Bruce Boudreau, saying that the Wild simply needed to be better.
The reality is, though, that the Wild aren’t going to be much better this season. This roster is what it is: aging, slow and not talented enough to really force their way into contention in the Western Conference. A rebuild is necessary. And that’s going to start by shipping out some dead weight. So, who goes? Veteran Eric Staal, young winger Kevin Fiala and defenseman Jonas Brodin are among those without any form of trade protection. The returns for those pieces will vary, but if Guerin wants to start overhauling this group, he has to start somewhere. And despite his desire to be patient, there’s no reason he can’t start soon.
Let’s get this out of the way: Jim Montgomery’s seat is warming up, but to say he’s about to get the axe is premature. Not only is he one season into his tenure behind the Stars’ bench, he led Dallas to a wild-card berth and within one goal of the Western Conference final last season. He’s not going anywhere, at least not yet, and he’ll be given every opportunity to get Dallas out of the funk that has led to an abysmal 1-6-1 start. As for the roster, don’t count out the possibility that GM Jim Nill makes a move.
While, historically speaking, he has waited until after the midway point of the campaign to make his moves during his tenure in Dallas, the one time Nill made an early move was during the 2014-15 campaign, when the expectation was that the Stars would be a playoff contender after a post-season trip the season prior. Included in those moves was the acquisition of grind-line winger Travis Moen and defenseman Jason Demers.
This time, though, Nill might need to find a way to boost his depth up front and bring in yet another offensive piece. One way to do that might be moving Andrew Cogliano out for another, more offensively gifted middle-six piece. Nill could also check in on the free agent market, where a veteran such as Thomas Vanek could help cure what ails the power play.
New Jersey Devils
It can’t be understated how important it is for the Devils to prove they can compete for a playoff spot this season. With Taylor Hall on the verge of unrestricted free agency, there exists the possibility that New Jersey’s inability to at least fight for a wild-card berth result in him heading for greener pastures. So, after doing some savvy off-season dealing to bring aboard P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev, it might be time for GM Ray Shero to go back to the well.
Seemingly the most important thing for the Devils right now would be an upgrade on the blueline, particularly the third pairing, and possibly some help for the bottom six. Admittedly, the difficult for New Jersey is finding a way to get those upgrades without moving picks. Like the Stars, the best bet for the Devils might be scouring the free agent market, because those who could be moved – such as defensemen Matt Tennyson and Connor Carrick or a depth forward such as John Hayden – won’t fetch much, if anything, in return.
This hinges entirely on the status of Dustin Byfuglien, who remains out of the lineup as he contemplates retirement. If Byfuglien returns, you can chalk that us as the Jets’ major addition and then cross them off this list. If he decides it’s time to walk away, though, it’s a different story. At that point, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is going to have to go from gentle tire-kicking regarding blueline options to a full-on search. And if that’s the case, the first blockbuster of the season could very well include the Jets.
Realistic trade options if Winnipeg needs to add on the blueline? Mathieu Perreault’s five-team no-trade gives him some protection, but his cap hit paired with his spot in the lineup might make him expendable. And Jack Roslovic’s role down the lineup has put him at the center of trade rumors at points throughout the summer and into the early season. One name you can likely cross of the list, however, is Nikolaj Ehlers. His early production and play should keep him out of any trade talk.
Like the Jets, the Penguins’ place on this list is dependent on a few things. First, how soon will Alex Galchenyuk and Nick Bjugstad be back? Second, what is the outlook on Evgeni Malkin’s injury? Will he be sidelined for another week or is Pittsburgh looking at another month-plus without the star pivot? And finally, is anyone willing to take on Erik Gudbranson or Jack Johnson’s contract?
That last one might be the real sticking point here, too. Neither Gudbranson or Johnson has been a fit with the Penguins. Already, both veterans have sat as healthy scratches this season. And at a combined $7.25 million against the cap, the contracts are handcuffing Pittsburgh. The difficulty is finding a suitor for one or either of the rearguards, and the only way the Penguins might logically be able to rid themselves of the deals is by sweetening the deal for a trade partner. Add in a pick, add in a prospect, add in something to get another team to take those deals off the Penguins’ hands.
If Pittsburgh is looking to make a move, the likely addition is either a defender to replace Gudbranson or Johnson or a depth forward. The Penguins have received contributions from Sam Lafferty, Joey Blandisi and Adam Johnson early this season, but shoring up that bottom six is the only way Pittsburgh is really going to contend this season.
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