Monday, December 16, 2019

Weekend rankings: If Taylor Hall gets the midseason trade market moving, who’ll be next?

Despite a reasonably full schedule featuring 20 games, by far the biggest story of the weekend was a trade that didn’t happen.

Or at least, one that hasn’t happened yet. Because it sure seems like a Taylor Hall trade is coming very soon. Teams typically don’t hold healthy players out of multiple games because talks are heating up. They do it because a deal is almost done.

We’ll try not to get ahead of ourselves on a Hall trade because even deals that are almost done can still fall through. Instead, let’s get way ahead of ourselves. Now that we’ve been reminded that it really is possible for a GM of a struggling team to do his job during the season without waiting until the week before the trade deadline, the question naturally shifts to: Who’s next?

In other words, which team that’s falling out of the running for a playoff spot is the most likely to swing the next blockbuster trade that ships out a legitimate star in exchange for future assets?

To state the obvious, the answer might be “nobody.” Maybe the timing of a Hall deal would be a one-off quirk, and everyone else will go back to waiting until February to get serious. Then again, the last time we did one of these “Who’ll be next” pieces, the entire world immediately went insane. So let’s give this a shot and see where it goes. We’ll focus on the teams that are currently under .500 in points percentage.

We can pretty much rule out a few bad teams right off the bat. The Red Wings won’t be trading away any veteran stars because they don’t have any. Neither do the Senators. Both teams have pieces they might move; in Detroit, we’re due for another round of the annual “Luke Glendening is somehow a top trade target” stories, and a healthy Jimmy Howard would draw some attention, while the Senators will have to figure out what to do with pending UFA Jean-Gabriel Pageau and his career year. But neither team has a Hall-level move available.

The Kings probably don’t either. They do have some big-name veteran stars, but Drew Doughty or Anze Kopitar aren’t going anywhere, and nobody’s trading for Jonathan Quick. Jeff Carter is at least a possibility, but this feels more like a situation where Tyler Toffoli will be the biggest bait.

The Ducks are interesting. At first glance, they don’t seem like they have much to offer, without any pending free agents who’d be especially attractive to a contender and a bunch of late-20s guys on long-term deals that you’d figure they’d be better off keeping. But then there’s the Ryan Getzlaf question. He’s 34 and comes with a massive cap hit north of $8 million. But there’s only one more season after this one left on that deal, he’s playing well this year, and with some retained salary he’s the sort of player who’d be awfully attractive to a contender with a hole in the top six. He has a full no-move and there don’t seem to be any serious rumors about him, so this is probably more of a next-year situation if it ever surfaces at all. But it’s at least worth keeping an eye on if we’re looking for an actual blockbuster.

Moving up the standings, we hit an interesting situation in Columbus. Like most bad teams, they’re not exactly dripping with elite talent, and like the Ducks, they don’t have a single expiring deal that would draw serious attention. The unique factor here is the recent history, and last year’s refusal to cash in any chips at the deadline. That worked – I still say that giving fans the greatest week in franchise history was worth sacrificing some long-term prospect depth – but it’s part of the reason they’re where they are right now. If there’s any team that would have an appetite to figure out a way to make some moves this year, you’d have to think it’s the Blue Jackets.

I’m not sure what to do with the Hawks and Sharks, two veteran teams with a recent history of contending that appear to be going through transitions. Chicago isn’t moving Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane or Duncan Keith, and good luck on Brent Seabrook. Could Brandon Saad make sense for someone? Or maybe more realistically, does Robin Lehner’s strong season and one-year deal make him attractive to a contender who needs help in net? That was supposed to be the Sharks, and maybe it still is, but I really have no idea what Doug Wilson does next, especially since he’s locked into most of this veteran core. Could we see a finally-win-a-Cup type of rental for Joe Thornton? Patrick Marleau? The Sharks still want to make the playoffs, but at some point that goal could be off the table. Realistically, it probably already is.

And that brings us back to the one sub-.500 team we haven’t looked at: The Devils. They seem like the best fit, even once Hall is off the list. Maybe especially with Hall off the list, since his trade would prove they’re open for business and not interested in waiting around. They have Wayne Simmonds on a one-year deal, plus Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen with a year left and Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri with two. And then there’s maybe the biggest name who seems to make sense: P.K. Subban. He’s got a huge cap hit and isn’t playing well, but if the Devils were willing to retain a chunk of his salary, you’d figure some team out there would be able to talk themselves into a right-shot defenseman with a Norris pedigree.

Or maybe not. Having gone through the list of certifiably bad teams, maybe we are going to have to settle for Hall and not much else. At least until the Predators or Leafs join the party with a bad week or two. If you’re a fan of the trade game, you can always hope.

Onto this week’s rankings.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed toward a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

If you’ve been paying close attention over the last few months, you may have noticed something missing from the top five: The Pacific Division. Other than some very early appearances by the Golden Knights, they’ve been completely absent from the rankings. That’s not necessarily wrong – we’ve flirted a bit with the Coyotes but will want to see more, and the Oilers aren’t exactly making us regret being skeptical of their early success. But it’s worth mentioning because whoever wins this division is going to get at least two rounds of home ice, which should be worth something.

So yeah, we haven’t forgotten you, Pacific Division. We’re just not sure what to make of you quite yet.

5. New York Islanders (22-7-2, +18 true goals differential*) – They keep rolling, with a two-game sweep in Florida and an overtime decision over the Sabres. They’ll get a big challenge this week when they go into Boston on Thursday, which should be a fun one.

4. St. Louis Blues (20-8-6, +12) – The losing streak got to three, but wins over the Knights and Hawks turned things around. That sets up a big home matchup Monday with the Avs, with first place in the Central on the line. It’s the second meeting of the season, with two more to come in January and then another on the season’s final day.

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