Weekend NHL rankings: 5 reasons the trade deadline might not stink, Morgan Rielly and more

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Weekend NHL rankings: 5 reasons the trade deadline might not stink, Morgan Rielly and more

We’re now less than a month away from the trade deadline, and things are looking bleak.

Trade board mainstays Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan and Andrei Kuzmenko have already been dealt.

Trevor Zegras is injured, making it far less likely he’s moved before the offseason. The Blackhawks, one of the few clearcut sellers, have been re-signing veterans instead of trading them. Guaranteed Cup ticket Pat Maroon is hurt. The cap is tight around the league, as always. And as Scott Wheeler has spent all week reminding us, contenders like Boston, Colorado, Toronto and Tampa Bay don’t have much in the way of prospects to move.

We’re at the point where Scott Laughton rumors are newsworthy. At this point, deadline day might just be 14 hours of Andrew Peeke coverage, which would presumably include pressing topics like who he is and which team he’s spent the season playing for.

So yeah, not great. But I’m an optimist, so I’m thinking it may not be as bad as it seems. Let’s use this week’s bonus top five to come up with a few reasons the deadline might not be a complete waste of time.

Bonus Five: Reasons this year’s trade deadline might not be a total dud

5. The rental market isn’t awful — It’s not especially sexy, granted, but it’s not bad. For all the talk about how nobody is left, we’ve still got names like Vladimir Tarasenko, Anthony Duclair, Adam Henrique and Chris Tanev that should move. Maybe Jordan Eberle and Tyson Barrie, too. None of that will exactly be a Ron Francis to the Penguins-level bombshell, but you can make a perfectly decent deadline out of those sorts of names.

4. The market is weird, which could make it interesting — There aren’t many big names, and there aren’t as many sellers as we’re used to (especially with teams like Buffalo and maybe Ottawa looking to add instead of subtract), and the sellers that are left don’t have much to offer. OK, great — but there are still contenders out there looking to buy, maybe even more than usual. The law of supply and demand says that could mean prices go crazy. The law of timid NHL GMs says they’ll just shrug and say their jobs are too hard. But right now, it looks like some legitimate Cup favorites are going to be left without a partner when the music stops, and that threat could send things in some interesting directions.

3. There’s always sometimes a surprise — Every once in a while, NHL GMs throw us a curveball. Deals like Roberto Luongo going to Florida in 2014 or that weird Evander Kane deal in 2015 come along and shake things up. Maybe we get something like that this year. Or maybe it’s a lesser surprise like an unexpected team going full sell mode. (Arizona would be fun, as would Washington or St. Louis.) Either way, don’t assume the names on the trade board are the only ones that can move. Somebody somewhere might get creative.

2. Jake Guentzel will save us all — He’s the biggest name left on the board, and with no extension in hand, we can still hope the Penguins will deliver a blockbuster, or at least something that’s close enough. The Guentzel dilemma, and how it plays into the Penguins’ larger identity crisis, has been an interesting one over the last month. Yes, it’s still possible or even likely they take the easy way out and just throw a long-term extension at yet another veteran. But until that happens, we still have one legitimate star on the market.

1. Those goalies — It was my most intriguing second-half storyline a few weeks ago, and the good news is that there’s been no news. That means we still have good teams like the Hurricanes, Devils, Leafs and Kings who could use goaltending help, and the potential for some big names being dangled. Elliotte Friedman poured some gas on the fire over the weekend, reporting that the Devils and Flames have had serious talks about Jacob Markstrom. Those have apparently cooled off, but there’s plenty of time for something to materialize there. It sounds like Juuse Saros probably wouldn’t move until the summer, which is a mistake — teams will always pay more for two playoff runs from a star than only one, as the Sharks found out last year with Erik Karlsson — but maybe Barry Trotz doesn’t feel the need to follow wimpy GM protocol. Maybe Marc-Andre Fleury or John Gibson are in play. Or maybe we have to settle for a Jake Allen bidding war, which would at least be amusing in its own way.

It’s the most important position in hockey. And for the next few weeks, it might be the most important for the deadline, too.

And now, on to the most important rankings in hockey …

Road to the Cup

The five teams with the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup.

I enjoyed Dom’s playoff tiers, which can serve as a nice reality check on where teams are at as we head down the stretch. If you missed it, here’s the East and here’s the West. Also, remember that he hates your team, so they’re definitely going to be between 20 and 98 percent too low.

5. Vancouver Canucks (35-12-6, +58 true goals differential*) — Which stage of regression to the mean is it when guys are hitting Fortnite emotes on you after overtime penalty shots?

4. Dallas Stars (32-14-6, +33) — They keep chugging along, with five wins in their last six. And with the Jets suddenly looking wobbly and the Avs holding the door open at the top of the division, the Central isn’t quite as terrifying as it once was.

3. Edmonton Oilers (30-17-1, +30) — For what it’s worth, the votes are in and roughly 71.5 percent of you picked the Penguins over the Oilers in this week’s showdown. I’ll admit, that surprised me — I thought it would be a lot closer. We’ll circle back after the Oilers win this year’s Cup and see if anyone wants a recount.

2. Boston Bruins (32-11-9, +42) — Our trade deadline buyer/seller tiers is worth a read. We’re used to seeing the Bruins take big swings at this time of year, but Fluto argues they just don’t have the assets this time around, and will end up on the losing end of any bidding wars. Over to you, Don Sweeney …

1. Colorado Avalanche (32-17-4, +26) — They’ve dropped four straight, including three in regulation, all to Eastern contenders. Is that cause for concern? Absolutely. But with the Oilers finally slowing down, and so-so weeks from the Bruins, Canucks and Jets, I’m going to keep the Avs in the top spot, even as the Stars might have a legitimate claim. Let’s see how this week goes, and we move toward a Dallas/Colorado showdown a week from tonight.

*Goals differential without counting shootout decisions like the NHL does for some reason.

Not ranked: The entire Metro Division — This is our fourth straight week with a Metro no-show; the division hasn’t been represented since the Rangers last appeared back on Jan. 15. Since then, our top five has been dominated by the contenders in the West with the Bruins making a stand for the Atlantic.

That sounds bad, but it’s actually worse. Other than the Rangers, you have to go back to the first four weeks of the season to find any other Metro teams in our ranking. That was back when we all still thought the Devils were good, and the Hurricanes were also making appearances. Both of those were more expectation-based than a reflection of what the teams are doing because (wearily points to the “thinking long-term” sign), and after we realized neither team was just having an early slump, they were gone. As far as the top five is concerned, the Metro has been Rangers-only territory ever since. And now, it’s been abandoned completely for a month.

So what’s the deal? Let’s start with the most obvious possibility: The rankings are wrong. I’ve been too slow to realize the Hurricanes are real contenders again, or I’m not giving enough respect to the Flyers or Islanders or even the Penguins, or I’m overreacting to a mild wobble by a Rangers team that should still be there. All of those are possible. Well, OK, yes, all of them are possible other than the Flyers one. The point is, these rankings are still just one person’s opinion, and that person tends to be wrong a lot. Besides, if there’s anything we know about Eastern-based sportswriters, it’s that they give way too much focus to the Western Conference teams.

There’s another argument you could make, one that doesn’t just focus on me being dumb. That would be the fact that somebody has to win this division, and that somebody is going to the final four. It’s technically possible that an Atlantic team could “win” the Metro via a cross-over wild-card spot, but that’s never happened before. Chances are we’re going to get to the middle of May and the Rangers or Hurricanes or (maybe) somebody else has emerged from the Metro and is eight wins away from a Cup. Shouldn’t that count for something? It should, and it will, as we get closer to the end of the season. I tend not to worry too much about balancing things out at this point, but we’ll get there.

I think the main objection is the simplest one: That the Rangers and Hurricanes are both good teams who should be viewed as legitimate Cup favorites. These days, that feels like a slightly easier case to make for Carolina, which hasn’t lost two straight since the Christmas break, going 13-3-1 over that span. That’s seen the Hurricanes gain some ground on the Rangers, who’ve been 10-8-2 over the same stretch. We try not to overreact to hot streaks, but sometimes a streak is actually a team revealing who they are, and it’s possible the Hurricanes are who we thought they were. That will be especially true if they ever sort out their goaltending, either through a Frederik Andersen return or a trade. Until then, though, the division hovers just out of the top five, both here and in the other rankings.

Looking sharp there, Whaler-Canes.

One last Atlantic note: There are outdoor games next week. Yeah, I’d completely forgotten too, but the Stadium Series is back, heading to MetLife Stadium on the weekend. We’re getting Flyers and Devils on Saturday and Rangers at Islanders on Sunday. (Yes, the Rangers are the visitors. There’s a mildly amusing story of why that always has to be the case in outdoor games.) It’s your last chance at outdoor hockey on the season, so bundle up if that’s your thing.

The bottom five

The five teams that are headed toward dead last, and the best lottery odds for Macklin Celebrini.

Eyes on the prize, everyone. The second half is a slog when you’re rooting for a lottery team, but this is what you’re losing for:

5. Ottawa Senators (21-25-2, -11) — They ran their win streak to three games by beating the Leafs on Saturday, but the big news was Morgan Rielly’s reaction to Ridly Greig’s empty net clapper.

As far as my contribution to The Discourse, I’ll stand by this. And for the record, I didn’t even think what Greig did was all that bad. He put a little extra dab of mustard on the hot dog, punctuating a win over a rival on home ice in front of a fan base that hasn’t had much to cheer about in years. As far as hockey sins go, it’s a mild one, barely up there with snowing the goalie. Rielly responded, his stick got too high, Greig went down hard but seems to be fine, both teams get a moment they can lean into, and we all move on.

Will Rielly get suspended forever? Yes, of course, because the NHL and especially the Department of Player Safety remain terrified of being accused of pro-Leaf bias, so they bend over backward to make sure they don’t hear it. (They still do, of course, because welcome to sports.) And if you’re a Toronto fan, you don’t have to perform outrage over that, because Saturday was yet another no-show by a team that loves to take its foot off the gas and somebody finally at least pretended that it bothered them. Let Rielly rest up for the stretch drive over a few nights off, and hope the rest of the team gets the message.

Back to the Senators: They’ve got Columbus, Anaheim and Chicago up next, so there’s a chance to really turn this warm streak into something more. Any kind of playoff push would still take a Hamburglar-level miracle, but as the old saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a six-game win streak. Suddenly, there’s one right there for the taking.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (16-25-10, -39) — They head out on a four-game road trip this week that includes games in Ottawa, San Jose and Anaheim before returning home to face the Sabres. In other words, the next two weeks might be the ones that make or break their lottery odds. Do with that what you will, Blue Jackets fans.

3. Anaheim Ducks (18-31-2, -44) — They faced the Oilers on Friday, and the big win streak ended. No, not Edmonton’s, which had already been clipped by the Knights — the Ducks’ streak of two wins in a row, tied for the longest one they’ve managed since that six-game outlier in November.

2. San Jose Sharks (14-32-5, -89) — It’s only the second time all year they’re not in the No. 1 slot, and last time they took it personally enough that they immediately lost 12 straight. Still, with four wins in their last six and points in six of their last seven, they’re … well, they’re not hot, but they’re not as ice cold as they’ve typically been. With the Hawks going right back to their losing ways out of the break, the Sharks surrender their spot.

1. Chicago Blackhawks (14-35-3, -74) — Aren’t we all excited that they’re going to be in the Winter Classic again? We sure are. Can’t wait. About time this franchise got a break. Anyway, here’s Mark with seven reasons to keep watching as a rebuilding team grinds its way through the second half.

In case you’re wondering, the Sharks and Hawks face each other twice in a week in March. If you’re a lottery watcher and/or Macklin Celebrini, you may want to circle those on your calendar.

Not ranked: Buffalo Sabres — I like to use this space as a temperature check, and I’m guessing the temperature in Buffalo is not great these days.

That wasn’t a weather joke, but it probably could have been, because the Sabres are a cold product right now. They beat the Kings before the break, which was nice, but their only other wins from the last month have come against the Sharks, Senators and Blackhawks. In other words, they’re a bit better than the worst of the worst, but can’t compete with anyone else, which feels a little on the nose for how the season has gone.

This was decidedly not the plan, even if you were one of the more patient Sabres fans out there. This was meant to be the year they’d compete for a playoff spot at the very least, and lots of us thought they’d get one. Instead, they’ve watched the Red Wings blow past them. Even the Canadiens, who may or may not even be trying to win, have stayed ahead of them. If it weren’t for the Senators, the Sabres would be the biggest bust of the season out east, and the way things are going, Ottawa might still zoom past them.

With another 30 games of meaningless hockey staring them down, we’re left trying to figure out what comes next. (Well, aside from the late-season hot streak against backup goalies that pushes them down the draft order and instills false hope for the future; that’s pretty much guaranteed.) Kevyn Adams hasn’t heard much criticism after surpassing all expectations as a rookie GM, but it feels like that has to end soon, especially after his gamble to stand pat on goaltending backfired badly. It feels like there’s a good chance Don Granato is gone by the offseason, the latest coach to be a good fit for a rebuilding team but not the guy to take them to the next stage. The roster is still young and there’s prospect help on the way, but would the fan base accept another year of staying the course?

Help me out, Sabres fans. Where are you at with your faith in Adams? Are you OK if Granato is back? And most importantly, do you still feel like the ceiling here is high enough to be worth all the misery, or is it possible this team needs yet another reset at some point soon?

(Photos of Jake Guentzel and Morgan Rielly: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)