Every Stanley Cup contender in every season is interested in filling a need for top-end talent or depth to solidify its position before the trade deadline passes, but the run-up to 2015 NHL Trade Deadline, which is 3 p.m. ET on March 2, likely will put the focus on the sellers for two reasons:
1. Connor McDavid
2. Jack Eichel
"We're having a poor year and there are certain rewards for being real bad this year. I think we're all aware of that," Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said last week on TSN 1200 Radio in Ottawa. "If we ever had to have a down year this is probably as good as any of them."
McDavid and Eichel are expected to be the top two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft, which will be held June 26-27 at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla. Their potential to become generational superstars is similar to what was hyped in 2004, when Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin went first and second in the draft.
The Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers, Carolina Hurricanes and Coyotes appear to be the four teams that have the best chances of being in position to select McDavid or Eichel. They also are the four teams that could be the most active before the deadline.
Buffalo goalie Michal Neuvirth may be traded by the March 2 deadline. (Photo: Bill Wippert/NHLI)
The Sabres have lost 14 consecutive games and enter the week 30th in the standings with 31 points. The team that finishes 30th has the best odds (20.0 percent) of winning the NHL Draft Lottery, but can't fall further than the No. 2 pick, which means it will be able to select McDavid or Eichel.
The Oilers are 29th with 35 points.
Sabres general manager Tim Murray has been adamant about conducting the rebuild in Buffalo the proper way. He has said the Sabres will not let a player in the final year of his contract leave without getting something in return. That means Murray could be one of the most active GMs in the next month.
Buffalo has a number of players who can be unrestricted free agents following the season, including forwards Chris Stewart, Drew Stafford and Torrey Mitchell, defensemen Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit, and goalies Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth. Murray said he has not offered defenseman Tyler Myers in a trade because he sees Myers as a cornerstone player in the rebuilding effort. But that doesn't mean he isn't listening to potential offers for Myers.
It'll be most interesting to see what Murray does with Neuvirth and Enroth; if there is a market for them and if he is willing to part with one or both of them. A contending team that isn't content with its backup situation could look to the Sabres to upgrade at that position. The Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators and New York Islanders could be among them.
"If we can make good deals that are beneficial to the future of this franchise we are going to do that," Murray told NHL.com last month. "We're not going to let pending [unrestricted free agents] leave for nothing."
If the Oilers finish 29th in the standings they would have a 13.5-percent chance of winning the lottery and a 20.0-percent chance of finishing with the No. 2 pick. They would get the No. 2 pick if the team that finishes 30th wins the lottery; the Oilers couldn't drop lower than the No. 3 pick if they finish 29th.
Oilers GM Craig MacTavish is someone to watch in the next month because it doesn't seem as if he is going to be limiting himself to trading players on expiring contracts.
MacTavish already is on record as saying the first-round pick acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for David Perron and their second-round pick could be available. The Oilers also appear to be a team in need of a core shakeup, which means 2010 No. 1 pick Taylor Hall and 2012 No. 1 choice Nail Yakupov could be available, as well as Jordan Eberle, the No. 22 pick in 2008.
Hall arguably is one of the top-five left wings in the NHL. Any trade involving him would be a blockbuster, so MacTavish might decide to hold off on collecting offers for him until after the season, when he has more time and more teams available to work with. Or he could opt to keep Hall, which might be the best move in the long run.
Hall and Eberle are signed for three more seasons, each with a $6 million salary-cap charge. Yakupov is in the final season of his entry-level contract and can be a restricted free agent following the season.
Among the other notable players the Oilers could look to trade are forward Derek Roy, defenseman Jeff Petry and goalie Viktor Fasth.
Roy and Petry could add depth to contending teams, particularly Petry, as teams look to shore up their defense. MacTavish is in the same position with Fasth as Murray is with Neuvirth and Enroth. Is there a market for goalies right now?
Carolina went 7-3-2 in January, its best month of the season. A big part of that has to do with the return of center Jordan Staal, and playing him on the same line with his brother, Hurricanes captain Eric Staal.
However, the Hurricanes' strong month also pulled them further away from the bottom two. They have 40 points, five more than the Oilers entering play Monday.
Carolina's recent success only makes things harder for general manager Ron Francis, who has to avoid getting caught in the same cycle as former GM Jim Rutherford.
The Hurricanes have been competitive but not good enough to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2009. They haven't drafted higher than No. 5 in the previous five drafts. They're competitive again, which means they are moving further away from the McDavid-Eichel derby but likely won't be good enough to make the playoffs.
Francis has a number of players on expiring contracts, such as forwards Jay McClement, Patrick Dwyer and Jiri Tlusty, and defensemen Tim Gleason and Andrej Sekera. But the most notable players who could be on the block are two of the most important players in Hurricanes history.
Francis likely would be able to get a healthy return of prospects and/or draft picks if he parts with Eric Staal and/or goalie Cam Ward.
Of the two, trading Ward seems most palatable because Anton Khudobin is signed through next season and could become the No. 1 goalie.
But again, what is the goalie market like? And is any team willing to pay Ward $6.8 million next season ($6.3 million cap charge)?
Carolina might have found something to build on with the Staals on the same line, but that leaves them short at center. McDavid or Eichel could solve that.
The Coyotes are open to trading defenseman Keith Yandle. (Photo: Andy Devlin/NHLI)
The Coyotes are 11 points better than the Sabres, but Maloney said on the radio in Ottawa last week that everybody except captain Shane Doan could be available in a trade. That means Maloney is open for business on defensemen Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Yandle is signed through next season with a salary-cap charge of $5.25 million. Ekman-Larsson, Arizona's lone all-star this season, is in the first season of a six-year, $33 million contract, which carries a $5.5 million cap charge.
Of the two, Yandle is more likely to be traded. Maloney said he would prefer to keep Ekman-Larsson but lumped him into the mix by saying the Coyotes' record doesn't make anyone except Doan, Arizona's oldest and longest-tenured player, safe from being traded.
It's likely the Coyotes will trade center Antoine Vermette. There is a market for Vermette because he can play on a second line in a more offensive role or on a third line in a checking role. Contenders in need of center depth likely are lining up to talk to Maloney about Vermette.
WHAT ELSE TO WATCH
The Washington Capitals have a big decision to make with defenseman Mike Green.
Green is a significant contributor to the Capitals, who are on solid footing for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference; they enter the week holding the second Eastern Conference wild-card spot, eight points ahead of the Florida Panthers. Green also is Washington's fifth defenseman in terms of ice time and can be an unrestricted free agent after the season. He is making $6 million on his current contract and it's unrealistic to expect Washington to pay him that much going forward to be the No. 5 behind John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner.
If Green is available he becomes one of the biggest names on the trading block. It's unlikely Washington would want to trade him to a team in the Eastern Conference, especially one jockeying with the Capitals for playoff position.
The Los Angeles Kings are in need of help on defense, particularly with Slava Voynov suspended. The Colorado Avalanche are trying to make a push and could use some assistance on the blue line with or without Erik Johnson, who is sidelined after having knee surgery Jan. 26.
The New Jersey Devils have played better of late, but pending unrestricted free agents Jaromir Jagr and Marek Zidlicky likely are available for the right price.
Zidlicky, who has a coveted right-handed shot, is expendable because of the emergence of Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, Damon Severson and Seth Helgeson. Jagr has shown he still can be a productive player at age 42, but he might welcome a chance to win the Stanley Cup again.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have a number of players that president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis could want to move out in an attempt at shaking up the core of the team. These are big names too.
Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson and James Reimer are the headliners. Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik could be included in the group.
Shanahan and Nonis have to decide if they want to rattle the core and how big of a change they want to make.
There have been rumors about Phaneuf potentially going to the Kings, but would the Maple Leafs be willing to take back center Mike Richards and his contract? Richards has five years left on his contract, with an average annual value of $5.75 million, but he was waived and sent to the American Hockey League on Jan. 27.