Yesterday marked the beginning of the stretch drive for many NHL teams, with about a month left in the regular season before the arduous grind of the postseason begins. It was a very quiet deadline, with a confluence of factors coming together to stifle the appetite of executives and owners to grow their salary bill, including the stagnant salary cap, delays associated with quarantine policies, the public health concerns of allowing fans into arenas negating the league’s main revenue stream, and the spectre of the Seattle expansion draft looming in the offseason.
Luckily, a few notable transactions were sprinkled among what would be described as teams moving to supplement the fringes of their lineups. Despite the more conservative environment, the league’s elite creatively took advantage of the suppressed market to strengthen their rosters at more of a bargain than might otherwise be expected. So, what do the more significant deals from the days leading up to the deadline mean for the balance of power in the NHL? Let’s take a look.
1. To Boston: LW Taylor Hall (50% salary retained), RW Curtis Lazar To Buffalo: LW Anders Bjork, 2021 2nd Round Pick
This was the one everyone was waiting for, and it came just before the stroke of midnight on the eve of the deadline. A trade involving Hall was telegraphed as far back as when he first signed his 1-year deal with the Sabres last summer, with his pending UFA status positioning him as a prime deadline target for a contender in the case Buffalo found themselves out of playoff contention. However, everything that could have gone wrong for Hall and the Sabres, did.
First was the Pegula’s and rookie general manager Kevyn Adams’ assertive proclamation that Buffalo was looking to challenge for the Stanley Cup this season, and that Hall was the guy to put them over the edge.
Then came the early season COVID outbreak that put the team on hiatus from February 1st until the 15th, followed by significant injuries to starting goaltender Linus Ullmark and to captain Jack Eichel, who is still uncertain to return at all this season.
Buffalo’s turbulent season hit rock-bottom after the team tied the NHL’s record for a losing streak, which was punctuated by an overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, a game in which they held a three goal lead heading into the third period.
For Hall, the team’s historic ineptitude coupled with the loss of his superstar linemate in Eichel, has led to the poorest statistical totals of his career, with only 2 goals to show for the $8 million he was owed this season.
With no Eichel to help juice Hall’s numbers in advent of a trade, and due to the leverage offered by the No-Move Clause in his contract, Buffalo was cornered into an extremely underwhelming return for the former league MVP, even when accounting for the hellish season for both the player and the franchise. For example Sam Bennett, a decent bottom-of-the-lineup support player but nowhere near Hall’s level, reaped 2 2nd round picks for Calgary.
The above chart is a RAPM (Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus) Chart, which illustrates and compares a players contributions in terms of finishing (goals for per 60 minutes), generating offence and scoring chances (expected goals and Corsi (shot attempts) per 60), and their defensive impacts (expected goals against and Corsi against per 60), with this chart looking at even strength (EV) impacts. These are represented through standard deviations from the league average, and as you can guess, the bluer the bar, the better.
Personally, I saw both fans and media alike slating Hall, with many bashing him as not being worth a high draft pick, and that he was no longer a top player in the league. Much of this derision comes from the fact that Hall has not played in very many playoff games up to this point in his career, but that is not as much on him as it is reflective of the quality of the teams he has played for.
Ignoring the fact that he was marooned on the Edmonton Oilers who were constructed by a cartoonishly inept management group, and that he singlehandedly dragged New Jersey to the playoffs on the back of his Hart Trophy season, his underlying numbers still show that he is among the league’s best at driving play and setting up his teammates in dangerous scoring positions.
First, Hall’s merger goal total can mostly be chalked up to his astonishingly unlucky finishing, with his 2.3% shooting percentage this season being way off from his career average of 10%, which would give him about 8 goals if he was converting at a rate more in line with his prior seasons.
Comparing Hall’s individual expected goal total at 5v5 (6.12) to his actual total (1 goal) also suggests that he is just extremely snakebitten, rather than having abruptly lost his ability to create scoring chances. Further, the Sabres were converting on only 6.37% of their chances with Hall on the ice, one of the worst marks in the league, suggesting that his linemates poor finishing likely contributed to his lower than expected point total.
This is not for lack of trying, with Hall still among the league’s best at carrying the puck into the opposition’s defensive zone, and possessing the league’s best per 60 minute rate in passes that lead directly to a scoring chance, according to Corey Sznjader’s passing data.
In response to claims that Hall doesn’t play in ways conducive to playoff success, Hall currently ranks 19th in the NHL in penalties drawn at 5v5, an ability that will be extremely useful come the post-season when powerplay opportunities can be a deciding factor when the games are much tighter. He also doesn’t necessarily shy away from physical battles, as Hall is an effective forechecker, recovering 4.8 dump-ins per 60 minutes, a mark that ranks inside the top 25% of the league.
For a team like Boston that desperately needs offensive support (currently 2nd last in 5v5 goals) beyond their three superstars up front, the benefit of adding one of the league’s best playmakers is more than worth giving up a 2nd round pick.
With the Bruins 4th in their division, barely even in goal differential, and hovering below 50% in their expected goals share at 5v5, this could represent the last gasp of the aging Bergeron-Marchand-Rask core, and I would not at all be surprised if Hall regresses to his career average and sparks a late season surge once everyone is healthy, especially since Boston’s complete lineup wouldn’t have them playing this glorified AHL defence corps.
In Buffalo’s case, Bjork is still under contract beyond this season, and has posted respectable defensive results in sheltered minutes, with Boston receiving a similar player in Lazar, making this portion of the deal essentially a wash. Buffalo should jump at the chance to grab any NHL-caliber skaters that are under contract to fill out their roster, with the season’s debacle likely diminishing the franchise’s allure for free agents.
However, this deadline should ultimately be considered a disappointment for the Sabres, with the team only holding 5 picks in the first 3 rounds of the 2021 draft – and only their own picks in the first 3 rounds of 2022 – which is poor even after accounting for the uncertainty surrounding the 2021 draft. Apart from Eichel, who may still be traded in the offseason, no asset should be off limits, and selling off players for picks should have been the main priority.
They will still have the opportunity to strip the roster and accumulate draft capital in the summer when positive news regarding fans in buildings may push more teams to add, but the process should already have been kickstarted with nothing left to play for this season beyond locking in the best odds possible for the draft lottery.
The Verdict: Misguided player evaluation and the organizational incompetency associated with the Sabres tanked Hall’s value, giving Boston the opportunity to swoop in and acquire a legitimate top-line talent for an absurdly low cost.
However, his apparent desire to only waive his No-Move Clause for Boston restricted Buffalo’s ability to recoup more assets, a frustrating position for a team holding one of the biggest trade chips. My guess is that Hall finds success in Boston playing in more of a supporting role, and makes a better choice as a free agent this summer.
2. To Washington: RW Anthony Mantha To Detroit: LW Jakub Vrana, LW Richard Panik, 2021 1st Round Pick (from Washington), 2022 2nd Round Pick (from Washington)
As the final trades of the day were trickling in, the Capitals and Red Wings offered some unexpected excitement in what was otherwise a dreary deadline.
A quick look at each team’s age profile should explain their reasoning for this trade, with Washington (2nd oldest roster in the NHL) and Detroit (youngest) occupying opposite ends of the competitive spectrum. As franchise cornerstones in Niklas Backstroke (age 32), Alex Ovechkin (34), T.J. Oshie (33), and John Carlson (30) are either entering or are firmly entrenched in the back half of their careers, this iteration of the Capitals’ core is nearing the close of their Cup contention window.
It also appeared as though both Mantha and Vrana needed a change of scenery, as recent disagreements with management and coaches over effort and lineup role likely being inciting factors in the swap.
As Mantha is still under contract for 3 more years (owed $5.7 million per year) and until his age 29 season, Washington has themselves a top-6 winger under team control through the rest of his prime, with his production more of a sure thing compared to Vrana, who was often stuck playing third line minutes, and whose upcoming contract uncertainty may not have been appealing for the Capitals, with Ovechkin also needing a new deal for next season.
After taking a quick glance at Washington’s projected lineup, it appears as though Mantha will slot in at the 2nd line right wing spot, with his scoring (on pace for at least 20 goals in each of his previous campaigns) and enormous physical frame (6″5, 234 lbs) being a significant upgrade on either one of Conor Sheary or Daniel Sprong, with the East Division full of teams that do not shy away from physical play come playoff time.
Not that Washington’s lethal power play (4th in the NHL at 25.5%) needed another weapon, but Mantha also ranks 48th in power play goals per 60 minutes since 2018, among skaters with at least 200 minutes on the man advantage. Mantha is also not a defensive liability, with his team usually finding themselves above 50% in shot share with him on the ice.
What also might have been appealing to Capitals is that Mantha was often playing tough minutes in Detroit, with fewer offensively gifted teammates than he will find in Washington. They are likely banking on Mantha being able to flourish offensively with opposing defences mostly preoccupied with their top line.
For Detroit, Steve Yzerman continued the process of rebuilding the Red Wings, acquiring two early-round draft picks, and two forwards who could later be flipped for more assets. Of the two, Vrana presents the most intrigue in that he is 18 months younger than Mantha, and has been a very efficient scorer during his Capitals tenure, albeit in much less challenging minutes.
Over the past three seasons, Mantha has played nearly 3 minutes more per game at even strength than Vrana (15 vs 12.5), with Mantha thrown to top defensive pairs, while Vrana has been left to feast on the weaker competition afforded to him as a result of playing behind Washington’s vaunted offensive stars.
Since the beginning of the 2018-19 season, Vrana finds himself 18th in the NHL in 5v5 points per 60, scoring the 9th most goals in the NHL at 5v5, and ranks 6th in 5v5 goals per 60 among skaters with at least 1000 minutes played, finding himself in the company of the league’s offensive elite in Auston Matthews, David Pastrnak, Brendan Gallagher, and Alex Ovechkin.
In Richard Panik, Detroit has a forward who has posted strong defensive impacts in the past two seasons, but with a $2.75 million cap hit that priced him out of Washington’s future plans. I would think Yzerman flips him for picks in the offseason or at next year’s deadline while retaining some salary.
The Verdict: I think that both teams made out fairly well with this deal, swapping forwards that could not carve out a definitive place in their respective franchise’s future. In Mantha, Washington likely gets the stronger play at this point in time which matches up better with their competitive timeline.
However, they relinquished a number of significant assets for someone who might not be that much of an upgrade, depending on Vrana’s production in greater, and more difficult minutes.
Detroit continues to build toward the future, turning a player who would be exiting his prime as the team entered their contention phase, into early draft picks and a pair of effective forwards, one of whom may be an underrated star-in-the-making, or could later be flipped for more assets if Detroit’s management is so inclined. I say Detroit comes out ahead in overall value.
3. To Toronto: LW Nick Foligno (50% salary retained by both Columbus and San Jose), RW Stefan Noesen To San Jose: 2021 4th Round Pick (from Toronto) To Columbus: 2021 1st Round Pick (from Toronto), 2022 4th Round Pick (from Toronto)
With Toronto occupying top spot in the North Division and gradually separating themselves from the pack, many Leafs fans were eagerly anticipating significant additions to bolster their roster in preparation of a potentially deep playoff run, with a relatively clear path to the final four representing their best opportunity to win a championship since the early 2000s.
Rumours swirled that Toronto was looking for an additional top-six forward, which would give an already potent offence (3rd in the NHL in 5v5 goals) even more firepower.
However, Alex Galchenyuk’s strong play (6 points in 11 games) alongside John Tavares and William Nylander since being acquired in a trade with Carolina, seemingly reassured management that their attack was settled, and that addressing a perceived weaknesses in defensive play and toughness within their forward group should be a top priority. The team’s listlessness in their most recent playoff exit at the hands of the Blue Jackets likely weighed heavily on the minds of those in management.
Ironically, it was with those same Blue Jackets that the Leafs made their most significant trade ahead of the deadline, acquiring their captain, Nick Foligno, for a hefty price, with a 1st round pick among the assets sent to Columbus. Although Foligno’s acquisition cost was certainly expensive, research on the value of draft picks suggests that picks closer to the end of the 1st round generally hold similar value as that of early 2nd rounders. Additionally, Kyle Dubas’ success with drafting in later rounds may ease some concerns that the Leafs’ prospect pipeline will soon run thin.
If the Leafs’ postseason goes according to plan, the pick that they sent to Columbus would be within the 28-32 range, an acceptable price when considering the potential of a championship. However, it is not unreasonable to believe that Toronto could have gotten a better return for their 1st rounder, especially considering that more talented forwards (Kyle Palmieri; Hall) were acquired for less.
His trademark grit and toughness has been on full display this season, as he has usually been playing between 18-20 minutes a night for the Blue Jackets and facing other teams’ top lines. Although his defensive impacts in terms of suppressing opposition chances are still strong, they have somewhat declined in recent years, and so he may benefit from a lighter workload in Toronto, allowing him to focus solely on his defensive assignments.
Foligno’s positional versatility in being able to play centre or on either wing, gives Toronto the flexibility to comfortably adjust their lineup according to their opponent. It should be noted that Foligno offers very little by way of offensive contributions, not eclipsing 35 points in 5 years.
The addition of Foligno also represents an additional influx of invaluable leadership, with the former Columbus captain joining Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, and current team captain John Tavares, on the list of skaters who have donned the “C” for their former clubs. For someone who looks heavily to statistics, even I can’t deny that their presence benefits the young stars running the show in Toronto.
For older Maple Leafs fans, Foligno’s arrival may revive fond memories of Toronto’s run to Conference Finals in 1993, with Nick’s father Mike scoring a timely overtime goal along the way.
When it comes to a franchise that has witnessed its fair share of capitulation, train wrecks, and on-ice nightmares, it’ll take any positive omens that it can get.
For Columbus, Foligno’s departure carries significant weight on and off the ice. Not only has his dependable two-way play led to relative competitive success for the franchise, but his impact in the community cannot be overstated, with Foligno forging a strong bond with the people of Columbus since his arrival in 2012. With Columbus’ playoff hopes fading in recent weeks (MoneyPuck has them with a 0.1% chance of making the playoffs), Foligno waiving his No-Move Clause allows the Blue Jackets to build for the future, with the team now holding 3 1st-round picks in the 2021 Draft.
San Jose was simply included as a third party to further launder Foligno’s cap hit, as the Leafs were with the Robin Lehner trade to Vegas last season, and were given a mid-round pick for their cooperation.
Stefan Noesen will likely provide the AHL Marlies with some depth, and would only suit up for the Leafs if a cavalcade of injuries suddenly strikes the dressing room.
The Verdict: Foligno gives the Maple Leafs another rugged, defensive-minded winger to supplement their stars in anticipation of the grinding slog that is the NHL playoffs. In a division that boasts offensive flamethrowers in Connor McDavid, Leon Draisatl, Kyle Connor, and Nik Ehlers among others, a responsible skater to counter the opposition’s attack is a welcome addition, even if the acquisition cost is a tad high.
This is a no-brainer move for Columbus, with draft picks a valuable commodity even in the midst of the uncertainty surrounding the 2021 iteration. Although the loss of a character teammate is bittersweet, it should be noted that he did not rule out a return in the offseason, and I would not be surprised to once again see him in a Blue Jackets uniform in 2021-22.
4. To Detroit: 2021 4th Round Pick (from Tampa Bay) To Tampa Bay: D David Savard (50% salary retained by both Columbus and Detroit), D Brian Lashoff To Columbus: 2021 1st Round Pick (from Tampa Bay), 2022 3rd Round Pick (from Tampa Bay)
Detroit and Columbus were among the busiest teams at the deadline, with both franchises using their bevy of trade chips and ample cap space to recoup future assets. Like San Jose above, Detroit offered Tampa Bay their cap haven to reduce Savard’s cap impact in return for a draft pick, demonstrating a rare instance of creativity on the part of NHL executives.
The Red Wings look set to significantly strengthen their already overflowing stable of prospects in the next few drafts, with the team holding 12 total picks in 2021 and 7 in the first 3 rounds alone, and have already amassed 10 picks for 2022. If Yzerman’s plan comes to fruition, Detroit should be set to challenge for the Stanley Cup in the back half of this decade.
As I mentioned in the Foligno trade section, Columbus has hit a wall in the past month, only winning 2 of their last 11 games. They currently possess less than a 1% chance to make the playoffs and are only above Detroit in the Central Division, with the final slot (Nashville) being 9 points up with the same number of games played, and their other two other main adversaries (Chicago, Dallas) having games in hand. As such, they correctly identified themselves as sellers and have recouped significant assets for solid, but aging veterans in Savard and Foligno.
As for the defending champs, they looked to recreate their deals for Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow at last year’s deadline and add an effective depth piece to their formidable championship core. Although one might wince at their recent history of trading 1st round picks, banners fly forever and with league parity at an all-time high, they are right to capitalize on any legitimate chance they have to win a Cup.
Almost all of David Savard’s impact comes in his own zone, with Natural Stat Trick ranking the defensive-defenceman among the league’s best at preventing other teams from getting scoring chances both at 5v5 (54th in xG/60 among D with 500 minutes played), and on the penalty kill (4th in xGA/60 since 2018 among D with 200 minutes played).
Even though some of his success may be attributed to the system Columbus plays (former teammates Zach Werenski and Seth Jones both rate highly in these departments), Tampa is no slouch defensively, with their penalty kill ranking in the top 5 of the league in terms of chances allowed per 60.
Savard will not be relied upon for his offence or puck movement, with Tampa’s triumvirate of Hedman, McDonagh and Sergachev on the left side of defence more than capable of generating chances and transitioning the puck to their forwards.
The premium that Tampa paid for a player that looks like a luxury add rather than one necessitated by need, was probably made palatable due to otherwise having to run a right side of Erik Cernak, Luke Schenn and Ben Thomas on defence in the playoffs.
Just because they succeeded in spite of that group last season doesn’t mean they should make things difficult for themselves again, with Savard taking some of the defensive workload off of the left-sided trio, and pushing those on the right side down the lineup where they may be more effective.
The Verdict: For a team that is challenging for the best record in the league even without Nikita Kucherov, Savard’s addition coupled with a timely return for the Russian for the playoffs, should strike fear in the heart of every fellow Cup contender, with Tampa showing no discernible weakness as they look to repeat this spring. Detroit and Columbus both receive assets meant to drive future success, making this a fair trade all around.
5. To New Jersey: LW AJ Greer, C Mason Jobst, 2021 1st Round Pick (from New York Islanders), 2022 conditional 4th Round Pick (from New York Islanders) To New York Islanders: RW Kyle Palmieri (50% salary retained), C Travis Zajac (50% salary retained)
Although this trade occurred a few days before the actual deadline, I’m still going to count it.
The season-ending injury to the Islanders’ captain and top winger, Anders Lee, demanded that GM Lou Lamoriello fill the void, with the Islanders challenging for the top spot in their division once again and looking to build upon their impressive run to the Conference Finals in last year’s bubble. Lamoriello turned to two players he knows well from his time leading the Devils and who, in Zajac’s case, possess significant playoff experience gained from the Devils’ Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2012.
The trade also reminded fans of Lou’s strict “no facial hair policy”, with Palmieri’s wife comically tweeting about Kyle’s drastic change in appearance. It’s a shame that such a wonderful beard was sent to a farm in the countryside.
As has been a common refrain on this list so far, several contenders have been willing to part ways with their 1st round pick, with many seeing the 2021 draft as more of a crapshoot than other years due to the pandemic reducing the number of meaningful opportunities for scouts to evaluate prospects.
If the Islanders go deep, the pick would be a late 1st, a price that would be more than acceptable for most to pay in return for playoff success. The conditions on the other pick are that it can turn into a 3rd rounder in either 2022 or 2023, if the Islanders advance to the Cup Finals. With the Islanders among the oldest teams in the league, their window to win a Cup is now.
It was also reported that Taylor Hall had considered several of the other contenders in the East Division, including the Capitals and Islanders, which may have also been a welcome addition to a New York roster without many dynamic forwards, although with Hall’s playing style fairly similar to that of Mat Barzal’s, it would have been an awkward fit and most likely led to Lou looking elsewhere for reinforcements.
Although the Islanders are a defensive buzzsaw, and the best at preventing high-danger scoring chances at 5v5, their special teams have left a lot to be desired, with both their power play and penalty kill ranking in the bottom half of the league. Luckily, Palmieri and Zajac can help in those areas.
Palmieri can be counted upon for consistent scoring, with the winger on pace for at least 20 goals in each season since arriving in New Jersey in 2015. He has also sneakily been among the league’s best snipers on the power play, scoring 24 goals on the man advantage since 2018, the 24th best mark in the NHL over that time.
As for Zajac, the 35-year-old’s value is predominantly derived from his work on the penalty kill at this point in his career, with the veteran centre playing the 26th most minutes in the league down a man in the past two seasons, while also posting one of the best expected goals against per 60 rates among penalty-killing forwards.
Unsurprisingly, with teams relying heavily on Zajac to kill penalties, he has consistently ranked among the league leaders in both face-offs taken, and won. Even with his success rate dipping slightly in recent years, he remains a steady presence in the face-off dot, and on the penalty kill.
In return for the two veterans, the Devils received two valuable picks to further their rebuilding efforts. With the team once again near the bottom of the league, they are fully turning the keys over to the youth, with New Jersey currently having the youngest roster in the NHL. With two 1st overall picks in Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes already in tow, New Jersey’s journey back to relevance is already well underway.
However, they would do well to add a few veterans in the offseason to fill the void left by Zajac and Palmieri to help support their young stars, with Buffalo and Edmonton two prominent case studies in what can go wrong if the youth are left without any guidance.
The other two players involved in this deal, Greer and Jobst, are career minor leaguers and were thrown in to match the outgoing contracts.
The Verdict: Both Palmieri and Zajac fit the Islanders mantra of committed, defensively responsible, next-man-up hockey, and add some punch to their forward group by way of scoring and veteran presence, with both serving as alternate captains for the Devils in recent seasons.
With timely scoring, a defensively stout team such as the Islanders can replicate their success from last season, making the acquisition cost an affordable one. The Devils part ways with two franchise leaders, collecting some draft picks and giving their younger players a greater opportunity to play and develop to close out the season. Once again, a relatively fair deal.
Statistics courtesy of Corey Sznajder, Evolving-Hockey, MoneyPuck, Natural Stat Trick, and NHL.com.
Data visualizations from Corey Sznajder and Evolving-Hockey.
Contract information from CapFriendly.
Main photo of Taylor Hall from Getty Images