Big NHL trade deadline moves happen early in 'abnormal year'
Between the All-Star break and the NHL trade deadline, teams completed 65 deals in all — far higher than the usual amount of moves in a sport known more for long-term security than risky business.
The vast majority of the deals that move the needle happened before Friday, when activity slowed to a trickle.
“This is just one of those years," Carolina general manager Don Waddell said. “And maybe it’s an abnormal year. We’ll see what the future holds.”
What the immediate future holds is a race down to the wire for wild-card spots and what looks like an absurdly challenging path through the Eastern Conference to the Stanley Cup Final with Waddell's Hurricanes, division-rival New York Rangers and New Jersey, league-leading Boston, two-time recent Cup champion Tampa Bay and suddenly stacked Toronto.
Every one of those teams made moves and they weren't alone. Even losing teams that stocked up could wind up — someday — contending for a championship. But first they hope to win the draft lottery for generational talent Connor Bedard and weren't afraid to give away players now for hope later.
WHY SO MUCH ACTION BEFORE DEADLINE DAY?
The New York Islanders jumped the blocks to get 30-goal-scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver before the end of January — more than four weeks before the deadline.
Waddell, the Carolina GM, waited until the final week to get offensive help in winger Jesse Puljujarvi and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. He said the trade of a top player like Horvat earlier than usual made some colleagues change gears to, “If we’re going to make a move, let’s get going now.”
Conversations just after the All-Star break culminated with the Rangers making their first major addition by getting prolific scoring winger Vladimir Tarasenko from St. Louis on Feb. 9, and the Maple Leafs answered a little over a week later in acquiring Blues captain Ryan O'Reilly.
The action built from there, with 11 trades being finalized Tuesday alone, including Chicago star Patrick Kane going to the Rangers.
“It felt like conversations were more serious a couple weeks out than they normally are,” said Washington GM Brian MacLellan, who made four trades from Feb. 23-March 1. "That’s the way it was working, so you’ve got to participate in it.”
WHY WERE SO MANY FIRST-ROUND PICKS TRADED?
The upcoming draft is regarded as one of the deepest in terms of talent, and yet multiple picks in the first round in 2023 got traded. A few — including one in the Horvat deal and one the Capitals got from Boston and flipped to Toronto — were even moved twice.
A total of 13 first-round picks over the next three drafts were traded in recent weeks, including two from New Jersey to San Jose for big winger Timo Meier, who's just 26 and not a pending unrestricted free agent.
“Hey, that’s the cost of doing business,” said Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald, whose winning offer included first-rounders in 2023 and '24 plus multiple players and prospects. “All depends on the supply and demand, what your options are, and there’s limited supply. Demand goes up, so not surprising that first-rounders are going like they go.”
The Lightning gave up a first-rounder as one of five picks sent to Nashville for Tanner Jeannot. After previous all-in moves led to Cup celebrations in 2020 and 2021 and a trip to the final in 2022, GM Julien BriseBois explained why he has no trouble targeing established players who can help Tampa Bay win now.
“Based on the odds of those picks turning into good players down the road, I’d rather have the good player right now for this season and next and help this group win right now,” BriseBois said. "None of the players we were going to draft with those picks are going to help us win this year or next or probably the year after that.”
WHAT DOES THE SHUFFLING DO FOR PLAYOFF RACES?
Nearly all the first-round picks traded originated from East contenders going blow for blow with big trades in what MacLellan called “an arms race.” Now that the dust has settled, the East looks like the class of the NHL, while the West is wide open.
Boston, which is on pace to have the best regular season since the salary cap era began in 2005, added help from Washington with defenseman Dmitry Orlov and forward Garnet Hathaway and got winger Tyler Bertuzzi from Detroit.
There's a first-round showdown coming between Tampa Bay and Toronto in the Atlantic Division bracket, and the Metropolitan is anyone's guess among the Hurricanes, Devils and Rangers.
The same is true in the West after the defending champion Colorado Avalanche shored up their defense by reacquiring Jack Johnson and filled a void at center by getting Lars Eller from Washington.
Edmonton, which is giving up more than three goals a game, got defenseman Mattias Ekholm; Vegas scooped up veteran goaltender Jonathan Quick after he was traded from Los Angeles to Columbus; the Kings upgraded in net and on the blue line with Joonas Korpisalo and Vladislav Gavrikov; Dallas and Winnipeg each made moves, too.
HOW DID THE SALARY CAP AFFECT PLAYER MOVEMENT?
Several trades were technically three-way deals, with one team stepping in to retain part of a player's salary to make it happen. Arizona got as high as a third-round pick for helping Kane go from Chicago to New York. With the salary cap only going up $1 million since 2020 and another small increase like that expected this summer, having space was nearly as valuable as a rental.
WHAT TRADES DIDN'T HAPPEN?
Erik Karlsson remained with the San Jose Sharks, who will revisit trading him this summer, perhaps after he wins the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman for a third time. At 32, he has four more seasons left on his contract at an annual cap hit of $11.5 million.
Then there's the curious case of some pending free agents not getting traded, namely Philadelphia winger James van Riemsdyk, who has a pedigree for playoff success and a nose for the net. Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher said he never received an offer on van Riemsdyk until less than 90 minutes before the deadline, and that was conditional on another trade that fell through.
“I can only control my half and there has to be a willing buyer," Fletcher said.
There were some willing buyers calling the Capitals about defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, a younger brother of James, and winger Conor Sheary. But MacLellan felt it was smarter to hold on to them and try to re-sign them for next season and beyond.
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow, AP Sports Writers Tim Booth and Dan Gelston and freelance writer Denis Gorman contributed.
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Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press