The February 29th NHL trade deadline is less than three weeks away, and the Nashville Predators have some decisions to make.
They already swung for the fences when they shipped out Seth Jones in exchange for Ryan Johansen. That's their blockbuster, and no trade this month or in the summer is going to eclipse that. However, they still may be in the market to try and improve their team to solidify their position in the playoff race and beyond.
The biggest need for this team is another good scoring winger. They could use some more bottom-six depth, especially the way Colin Wilson and Craig Smith have been playing this year. You may also want them to reach out for a bottom-pair defenseman, but David Poile has beaten that option to death already. Petter Granberg and Anthony Bitetto have been rotating through for the past month, while offensive defenseman Stefan Elliott waits in Milwaukee for his turn to prove himself. Forwards should be on the radar.
Do they need to make these moves? Conventional wisdom would say "of course," since the team is barely clinging to a wild card spot and they should welcome any help they can get. But are any of the available players going to vault them into Cup Contender status, and if not is it worth giving up pieces just to be an also-ran?
It'll depend on the price. Usually rentals or deadline deals cost more than normal, but Pierre Lebrun of TSN has some sources on record expecting those costs to diminish this year:
"The market correction started last summer in free agency with a lot of players getting squeezed by the flat cap and now you're going to see teams protect their high picks and top prospects more than ever because that's gold now, that's the most important currency there is because of the new economic realities," the same hockey executive said.
With the bigger stars taking up so much salary-cap space, the middle class is getting squeezed and teams need cheap, young players in the entry-level class more than ever to round out their rosters. And teams need the pipeline to keep producing young players.
So suddenly those second-round draft picks getting thrown around like candy over the past decade near the trade deadline might not move as much.
Obviously, we won't know this for sure until March 1st. So let's assume that prices aren't going to be as deflated as the executives think, and instead will be closer to what we've seen in the past.
Here are some players that Nashville should be keeping an eye on:
These players would unquestionably make Nashville a better hockey team, but they'll be highly sought from scores of other hockey clubs. Bringing them onto the roster will probably cost a hefty sum, if they're even available.
LW - Pending UFA, $4.4 million cap hit.
The Winnipeg Jets' captain will be possibly the most sought after asset this season. The extension of Dustin Byfuglien in conjunction with Winnipeg's place in the standings have all but assured Ladd will be on the outs before his contract expires.
On paper, he's everything the Predators want. A large, versatile winger with championship experience and a scoring touch. Given the amount of players that have cycled through the left wing spot with Johansen and James Neal recently, Ladd could plug that hole and do major damage there. If not, he'd be available to fill any role elsewhere in the lineup.
The problem here is every team, whether contending or fighting for a playoff spot, is going to be trying to get a piece of Ladd. That could inflate his price to be more than Poile wants to give up, especially for a 30-year-old rental that is projected to command a large salary over the summer. If there's a way to ensure he re-signs in Nashville, maybe the cost is worth it. But it would be a shame to unload a bunch of players/picks/prospects for a guy that is going to bolt at season's end. Especially if that happens before a playoff series is even won.
RW/LW - Pending UFA, $4.25 million cap hit.
Eriksson is another winger who could be a fit on the top line, but the likelihood of prying him out of Boston is almost nonexistent.
Despite his UFA status at the end of this year, the Bruins are right in the thick of a heated Atlantic division playoff race. They are neck and neck with Tampa Bay and Detroit, and Pittsburgh and New Jersey are right on their tails for a wild card spot. If the B's want to punch their playoff berth, they'll have to suck up the possibility of losing Eriksson for nothing in the summer.
The 30-year-old Swedish forward still produces like a top-six player and is a possession monster. His 40 points in 2015-16 is better than anyone currently on the Preds' roster, and trails only Patrice Bergeron's 45 points in Boston.
This is a pipe dream, so don't get to used to this idea.
RW - Pending UFA, $2.8 million cap hit.
Simliar to Eriksson's situation in Boston, Okposo is a pending unrestricted free agent who is a major cog on an Islanders team that has a chance of grabbing second place in the Metropolitan division. He'll also be instrumental in helping the Isles through the postseason. While an extension still hasn't been reached, and it's unknown right now if he'll stay in Brooklyn beyond this season, New York won't trade him unless Garth Snow gets a deal that shocks him to the core.
It's a shame, because Okposo is a physical winger who could be a boost to Nashville's power play.
Could Be Available Without Breaking the Bank
This doesn't mean that these guys will be cheap by any means. Nashville will still have to give up more than the spare parts they have lying around. However, these players likely won't command as high a price as the ones listed above, and are much more likely to be obtainable.
C - Pending UFA, $4 million cap hit.
Hudler is the perfect depth rental option. The Flames would probably take him for a roster player or a prospect, and if he doesn't work out there is no pressure to re-sign him. If he does, that's not the worst price to pay.
On pace for around 46 points, Hudler isn't putting up the numbers he did a few seasons ago. But it seems like there is still gas in the tank, and the Predators could use all the help they could get. The flip side is Nashville is where player's production goes to die, so bringing in a 32-year-old on an already low scoring season may not be the best idea. Also, Nashville's center depth would likely push Hudler to the wing, where he's been playing recently in Calgary.
RW - Pending UFA, $5 million cap hit.
Vrbata, whom the Predators should have signed two years ago, is another perfect depth rental player. Possibly even more so than Hudler. His presence could really bolster the top six, and it isn't hard to imagine him playing on the second line with Filip Forsberg and Mike Ribeiro. The two have some familiarity together, playing just over 200 minutes when they were both Coyotes. They combined for five goals and 11 points in that small window, posting a 53.9 CF% as well. Those are numbers that would make the top two match up against anyone.
Admittedly, he's not having a great year, but that's likely more of a byproduct of the Canucks being an awful team and Vrbata not playing with the Sedin brothers as much as he did last year. Instead, he's seen the most time with Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi. Not exactly all world stars.
There's reason to think he could put up more points in Nashville, and if Vancouver decides they want to go in a new direction and start offloading players for draft picks, the 34-year-old would be a very smart pickup.
RW - Pending UFA, $2.2 million cap hit.
The former two-time Chicago Blackhawk is having another productive year as he starts to exit his prime years. His underlying metrics are terrific, and his Cup experience should not be taken lightly.
Depending on whether Carolina decides to go all in for a playoff spot or resign to the fact that they should wait another season, Versteeg could be had for a relatively cheap price.
That is, if you don't mind having him playing for your team.
RW - Pending UFA, $1.5 million cap hit.
One of the many, many Maple Leafs who are going to be looking for a new home in the next few weeks. Parenteau responded to a surprising buyout by the Montreal Canadiens with a solid season on a struggling Toronto team. He's already eclipsed his 2014-15 numbers, and could provide some great scoring depth as a third line winger. His cap hit is extremely manageable, and at 32 there's room for a small extension if things go well. The Leafs are likely looking for as many draft picks as they can get for him.
These names have been thrown around throughout the season, and either don't make sense for the Predators or the cons outweigh the pros.
LW - ELC through 2016-17, $894,166 cap hit.
The Predators have been linked to Drouin forever, and that speculation was fueled by David Poile admitting he inquired about the cost of the young player. Of course he did, because so did every other NHL general manager. That doesn't mean a trade is imminent.
Poile is in it to win now, or win soon. Bringing in Johansen for Jones proves that. Drouin, as talented as he is, realistically doesn't help them on an immediate scale. The 20-year-old is certainly has a ton of upside and projects to be an amazing player, but he still has developing to do.
Let someone else throw their farm system at Tampa Bay in order to acquire him.
LW - Signed through 2018-19, $4.75 million cap hit.
At first glance it looks like Hartnell would be a perfect acquisition to fill in a top line spot. He's still able to score, and he's a big body that could help Nashville's net front presence in all the ways they need. He also has prior history in Nashville, which is always a selling point for Preds fans, for some reason.
But that cap hit is monstrous, and Hartnell will be 37 by the time his contract expires. Even if Columbus were to retain salary on the deal (which isn't a guarantee since they are a cap-strapped team), that's a lot of money to be paying an older player.
Also, look at those penalty minutes. Nashville doesn't need to be put on their bad penalty kill any more than they have to. Earlier this year, Alex looked at the players that most hurt their team by taking penalties, and Hartnell was number two on that list. However much it seems like he could help, there are way more negatives than positives in bringing him in.
C - Signed through 2017-18, $4.2 million cap hit
C - Pending UFA, $8.25 million cap hit.
In the days before Joey, this looked like it was inevitable. Nashville needed center help, and Staal was the best center not named Anze Kopitar or Steven Stamkos that was available. Thank goodness that changed.
As mentioned with Versteeg, Carolina has a lot of thinking to do on whether they want to unload their captain while they still have a faint glimmer of playoff hopes. The smart move would be to bite the bullet and move him, because even if they somehow make the dance, their chances of winning a round or more are very slim. But given how the Hurricanes have surprised all year, they may decide to go for it and deal with the consequences later.
Their spot in the standing probably raises Staal's price, and while bringing him in would make Nashville's center depth better than it's been through its history, the cost isn't worth it. You'll either have to part with assets knowing he leaves in the summer, or offer up market value for an aging player who is past his prime.
There's no way to speculate when Harvard's season is going to end. As Bryant detailed earlier this week, he could be looking at somewhere in the window of March 25-27, or April 7-9. If he does crack the roster before (or during) the playoffs, there's not way to know how much of an impact he's going to have at the NHL level or how long it's going to take him to adjust.
So Nashville shouldn't plan around him, but instead carry on as normal. They may make some moves, they may not, but if Vesey does sign and get inserted into the lineup, that's a hell of a post trade deadline acquisition.
There are still a few weeks left before all the wheeling and dealing is done. As we've seen with Johansen and Dion Phaneuf, guys are going to be switching teams much earlier than the 29th. How active is David Poile going to be? We'll find out.
Stay tuned for Part II, in which we look at the players Nashville could dangle for a return on any of these assets.
All stats gathered from NHL.com and War-on-Ice.
*Possession numbers are 5v5 and adjusted for score.
*Average time on ice is for all situations.