With about a month to go until the beginning of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, NHL general managers did their best to improve their franchises before Monday’s trade deadline passed at 3 p.m. ET.
For some clubs, that meant adding pieces that they hope will help in a playoff run — or in a chase for a playoff spot. For others, it was about recouping assets, either prospects or draft picks, that can help down the line.
When all was said and done, the NHL reported 17 trades involving 26 players on deadline Monday. Not surprisingly, that was a significant dropoff from 2020. Last year, a record-setting 32 deals saw 55 players change clubs — just three weeks before the season was paused due to the coronavirus.
It often takes years to fully assess the true impact of deals made during trade deadline season — especially when there are draft picks involved. Here’s a first look at this year’s early winners and losers.
Winner: Detroit Red Wings
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Heading for a fifth straight year out of the playoffs, the Red Wings had let it be known that they were a team with available cap space that would be happy to act as a middleman for clubs that wanted to acquire players, but were not so flush.
That went down on Saturday, when general manager Steve Yzerman acquired David Savard from the Columbus Blue Jackets. With Columbus retaining half of the defenseman’s salary, Yzerman then retained half of what was left before flipping Savard to his former employer, the Tampa Bay Lightning, along with fringe defenseman Brian Lashoff.
In exchange for retaining a quarter of Savard’s cap hit of $4.25 million, pro-rated to cover only the remainder of the season, and also getting Lashoff’s salary off his books, Yzerman picked up a fourth-round pick from the Lightning.
Before Monday, Yzerman also swung a couple of smaller direct trades, moving out depth defensemen Patrik Nemeth and Jon Merrill. But his piece de resistance became public as the dust was settling after 3 p.m. ET on Monday.
During a time when very few big-name players — or contracts — were changing addresses, Yzerman hit a home run when he sent Anthony Mantha to the Washington Capitals in exchange for four assets — wingers Richard Panik and Jakub Vrana, as well as a first-round draft pick in 2021 and a second in 2022.
Originally drafted 20th overall by the Red Wings in 2013, Mantha was a prolific scorer in junior who has yet to realize that potential fully at the NHL level. He has broken the 20-goal mark twice in his six NHL seasons to date, but has never exceeded 50 points. And his ascent has come at a time when the Red Wings as an organization have been on the downswing after decades of success. Mantha has yet to play a single NHL playoff game.
That’ll change in his new home. The Capitals will hope that his soft hands and 6’5” frame will make them more dangerous as they work to get out of a tough division that has two other legitimate contenders in the New York Islanders and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Vrana has similar offensive numbers to Mantha, and the 25-year-old will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights at the end of this season. Panik, 30, is signed for two more years at a cap hit of $2.75 million per season, but has seen his ice time drop significantly in his last two seasons in Washington. He has just nine points in 36 games this year.
With only a handful of players signed beyond the end of this season, the Red Wings are in re-tool mode. They can use a couple of handy veterans for the short term, and more draft picks will help add to a prospect pool that should deliver some impressive talent to the big club over the next few years.
Losers: Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues and Arizona Coyotes
The Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights are the class of the West Division, and both clubs made moves at the deadline. They’re strengthening themselves for the expected head-to-head clash that will await in the second round.
Meanwhile, Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin chose to stand pat on Monday, with his team sitting comfortably in third place in the West. And even though they’re in a dogfight for fourth, the St. Louis Blues and Arizona Coyotes also declined to deal.
In a way, Guerin is playing with found money this season. His club is doing better than expected and has unearthed a pair of sensational rookies in sniper Kirill Kaprizov and goalie Kaapo Kahkonen. His players deserve a chance to see what they can do in the postseason — but by not getting stronger, they’re probably due for a quick first-round exit at the hands of either Colorado or Vegas.
The same will likely be true for the Coyotes or the Blues, in the West Division’s other first-round matchup. But not only did Arizona GM Bill Armstrong and St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong both choose not to strengthen their lineups with a deadline deal or two — they also decided to hang onto the trade chips they had. The Coyotes’ impending UFA defenseman Alex Goligoski and sparkplug forward Conor Garland were believed to have attracted interest. St. Louis could have recouped assets by dealing away any of their impending free-agent forwards — Tyler Bozak, Jaden Schwartz or Mike Hoffman.
It’s a lose-lose dilemma for general managers, who don’t want to signal a lack of belief to a group that’s chasing a playoff, but who also know that the franchise will be poorer for the assets they haven’t gained.
Winners: Columbus Blue Jackets and New Jersey Devils
Two teams that were richly rewarded for selling off assets were the Columbus Blue Jackets and the New Jersey Devils.
The Devils sit 14 points out of a playoff spot in the East Division heading into Monday’s action, so it was a no-brainer for Tom Fitzgerald to be a seller once again. He did well at his first trade deadline last year, when he pried a first-round pick out of the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Blake Coleman.
This year, his big move came last week. Fitzgerald kicked off deadline season by sending respected veterans Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac to the New York Islanders for a package that includes a first-round pick in 2021. He followed up by acquiring a young defenseman in Jonas Siegenthaler, then moving out impending free agent Dmitry Kulikov.
As for Columbus, it was just two years ago that GM Jarmo Kekalainen boldly hung onto his impending UFAs Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky — and spent nearly his entire collection of draft picks while trading for players like Matt Duchene. And he was rewarded, with a franchise-changing upset of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs.
This year, the Jackets have fallen nine points out of playoff position heading into Monday’s games, and Kekalainen did not hesitate to sell.
He started off gently, picking up a conditional late-round pick in exchange for injured forward Riley Nash.
But by the time he finished his business on Sunday, Kekalainen had pocketed two new first-round picks in 2021, plus a third and a fourth in 2022. All that, for shipping out a pair of impending UFAs — and retaining the maximum allowable salary. Defenseman David Savard lands in Tampa Bay (via Detroit), while captain Nick Foligno goes north to Toronto (via San Jose).
Loser: Buffalo Sabres
First-year general manager Kevyn Adams did well to move out four Buffalo players before the deadline. But compared to Fitzgerald and Kekalainen, the prices he extracted from his trading partners were low.
Adams was in a tough spot, with his assets devalued as the Sabres struggled so mightily this year. He was assertive when he traded Eric Staal to Montreal back on March 26, but got only a third and a fifth-round draft pick in return.
A third from Florida for defenseman Brandon Montour looks soft compared to the price that Tampa Bay paid for David Savard. And while Adams got a decent player back in Anders Bjork on Sunday, he sent the Bruins both former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall and value forward Curtis Lazar — and only got a second-round pick.
Yes, Hall used his no-movement clause to chart his course for Boston, which limited Adams’ bargaining power. But Nick Foligno was also picky about his destination, and Toronto still gave up a first to get him.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders and Florida Panthers made some nice moves to strengthen their rosters for what they hope will be long playoff runs. The Los Angeles Kings surprised everyone when they struck a deal that opened up roster space for their promising prospects at center, and saved themselves some money, when they shipped 36-year-old Jeff Carter off to Pittsburgh.
The Carolina Hurricanes, Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers had all indicated some willingness to get in the trade game as the deadline approached. But after making only minor deals, all three have probably lost ground, relative to their biggest division rivals.