TAMPA — So many factors — salary-cap constraints, Canadian travel restrictions, tight division races — pointed toward a stagnant trade deadline season. And while there wasn’t quite the activity of past years, contenders still found ways to upgrade.
At the deadline, deals are made with the short-term in mind, improving to make a team “a tougher out” in the postseason. But with the flat cap, and the looming expansion draft, some trades were made with an eye for the future, as well.
The Lightning have spent nearly all season competing with the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes for first place in the Central Division, and that doesn’t figure to change down the stretch.
And while Nashville has taken hold of fourth place and the final playoff spot in the division, both Chicago and Dallas can be considered in reach. The Stars entered Friday’s games trailing the Predators by five points but have played three fewer games.
The Lightning have learned about the uniqueness of their realigned division: A lot of their rivals have speed, and there’s more tight checking than they’ve seen in recent years.
This year, teams in the division placed an emphasis on upgrading their defense corps, which makes sense given the identity of this division.
The Lightning acquired the top defenseman available in 10-year veteran David Savard, orchestrating a three-team trade that allowed them to purchase cap space with draft picks. Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois’ deal was so savvy, the blueprint was copied by other cap-strapped teams.
The Lightning will be without captain Steven Stamkos for at least the next two weeks but should get back high-scoring wing Nikita Kucherov for the playoffs.
Keep in mind, when it comes to the realigned format, it’s not just about winning a division. Teams also have to outlast their division rivals through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
So how did the other teams, particularly the Lightning’s two biggest competitors, fare at the deadline? Here’s a look.
The Panthers took a hit when defenseman Aaron Ekblad suffered a season-ending leg injury. They acquired Brandon Montour from the Sabres, but he’s no Ekblad. They also picked up forward Sam Bennett from the Flames. The pair cost Florida a second-round pick, third-round pick and former second-rounder Emil Heineman.
Bennett, a former fourth overall pick, is interesting. He hasn’t lived up to his billing, but Panthers first-year GM Bill Zito retooled a so-so roster into a formidable club with signings like forwards Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair and defenseman Radko Gudas, and a trade for power forward Patric Hornqvist. Florida coach Joel Quenneville has meshed a new group well, so maybe Bennett will fit nicely, too. He’s been a better player in the postseason, and the Panthers could use more playoff experience.
Zito’s best decision might be the deal he didn’t make, keeping backup goaltender Chris Driedger, who gives Florida depth at the position that even the Lightning would envy.
The Hurricanes didn’t do much at the deadline, and their lack of activity has been widely criticized. But the one move they did make, acquiring defenseman Jani Hakanpaa from the Ducks for defenseman Hadyn Fleury added some needed physicality.
Carolina is already a great checking team, fast and aggressive on the forecheck. Getting a big, physical defenseman like the 6-foot-5, 218-pound Hakanpaa adds grit to its lineup. Hakanpaa ranks third in the NHL in hits with 168. He’ll join a Hurricanes team that previously had just one player with triple-digit hits: former Lightning fourth-line center Cedric Paquette (112).
The Hurricanes are great on special teams, ranking first on the power play and sixth on the penalty kill. But they could have used some scoring help to make them more dangerous in 5-on-5 play, because numbers show that they should be scoring more at even strength given how much they control the puck.
Nashville Predators and the rest of the pack
The Predators went from sellers to potential buyers over the past three weeks. In fact, defenseman Mattias Ekholm was one of the top players believed to be available, but that changed as Nashville got hot. The Predators didn’t upgrade much. Their acquisition of defenseman Erik Gudbranson from the Senators gives an injury-ravaged blue line a depth piece, but you’d expect more movement from a team on the cusp.
The Blackhawks, competing for a playoff spot earlier than anticipated, made most of their moves with an eye to the future, acquiring a second- and third-round pick in this year’s draft and a second-rounder next year for forward Mattias Janmark and defenseman Madison Bowey. They also moved 35-year-old forward Carl Soderberg to the Avalanche for two prospects.
Caught in the unenviable position of being just enough in the race to not be out of it but also dealing with cap restraints that forced them to trade draft picks in the past, the Stars stayed pat, only claiming defenseman Sami Vatanen from from the Devils.
The Blue Jackets went into sell mode but netted valuable draft picks — two first rounders this year and a third-and fourth-rounder next year — for cornerstones Nick Foligno and Savard. Columbus took advantage of teams needing to use draft picks as equity to get cap space to make trades work.
And why would anyone answer the phone when former Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman is calling to talk trade? The Red Wings GM fleeced the Capitals, getting forwards Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first-rounder and a 2022 second-rounder for forward Anthony Mantha. That’s a rich haul for Yzerman.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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