While the 2018-19 NHL season crown is still being contested by the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues, for 29 other NHL teams, the offseason has already begun. For teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs, who all were expected to compete for a Stanley Cup title but fell well short of expectations, big changes could be on the horizon.
Tampa Bay and Toronto, in particular, face difficult summers in which their relatively inexperienced general managers must re-sign a host of proven young talent, from Lightning centre Brayden Point to a trio of young Maple Leaf forwards in Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, and Andreas Johnsson.
These teams aren’t the only ones whose cap crunch and uncertain contract situations could lead to one of the busiest offseasons in recent memory. John Tavares, who left his longtime captaincy with the New York Islanders in unrestricted free agency to sign with his hometown Maple Leafs, seems to have blazed a trail for big-name stars to buck tradition and test the open market.
While superstars such as Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Matt Duchene have all been rumoured to be changing area codes this summer, many teams will have to look to the trade market in order to fill areas of need. Here are some candidates to move that could be real difference-makers for the team willing to make a bold move in a trade this offseason.
Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets
Despite finally breaking out this season as one of the top defenders on the Winnipeg Jets, finishing with 50 points on the season, young blueliner Jacob Trouba finds himself at the centre of trade talks in Manitoba’s capital again.
Trouba, who is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, was reportedly seeking $7 million per season on a new contract last summer, and has publicly requested a trade out of Winnipeg before.
On the surface, Trouba’s prior frustration with his role in Winnipeg makes a modicum of sense; stalwarts Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers both had been slotted in ahead of Trouba on Winnipeg’s depth chart. Instead, through injuries to the aforementioned defenders this season, Trouba was pushed into a larger role for the playoff-bound Jets, setting career-highs in assists, points, and averaging the third-most minutes of his career.
In addition, Trouba’s defensive game improved in leaps and bounds, establishing himself as a top shutdown option by finishing second on the Jets in defensive zone starts. Some would question the Jets’ logic in moving a player like Trouba – young, right-handed, offensively skilled, and responsible in his own zone. However, his murky financial future (and reportedly high contract demands) could force the Jets to move him to alleviate cap pressure brought on by other young stars.
Trouba’s name has been mentioned increasingly in trade talks since Winnipeg was eliminated by the St. Louis Blues, being linked to “multiple interested parties” in the past few weeks. However, it remains to be seen if teams lacking impact players among their right-handed defensemen, including the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, and the Maple Leafs could offer up packages worthwhile enough to entice the Jets into trading Trouba.
Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild
Just last summer, Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton inked Zucker to a five-year, $27.5-million contract. Now, after a disappointing season in which the Wild failed to make the playoffs, Zucker has been included in preliminary trade talks as Fenton tries to re-tool a declining Minnesota roster.
Zucker had a career-best season before signing his five-year extension, scoring 33 goals and 64 points to establish himself as a core piece of the Wild team. Not only did he play important roles on special teams, but Zucker also drove possession for the Wild at the second-best rate on the team (behind the departed Nino Niederreiter).
However, his production dipped in 2018-19 as the Wild faltered around him and frequent linemate Mikael Granlund was dealt to the rival Nashville Predators at the trade deadline. Zucker managed only 21 goals and 42 points, a mark good for only sixth on the team.
While his possession numbers remained strong, ranking first on the team in relative Corsi for percentage (CF% rel), Zucker’s shooting percentage dipped well below his career average, meaning it’s reasonable to expect his scoring rate could rebound in a big way next season.
Despite many of his numbers pointing to his downturn in production this year as somewhat unlucky, Fenton has still been reportedly shopping his star forward in an effort to upgrade the Wild’s forward group.
If the Wild do decide to shake up their roster and move one of their most impactful forwards, Zucker should be in high demand in the early stages of an affordable long-term contract. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks are the two teams that have been most closely linked to the forward so far, but it’s likely more will join the bidding as the season comes to an end and more teams have a better idea of their salary cap structure.
Shayne Gostisbehere, Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers missed the playoffs this season for the second time in three years, prompting the firing of GM Ron Hextall in late November. While Hextall had built up an impressive pipeline of young players, the Flyers’ lack of rent success was weighing on the fans and former Wild GM Chuck Fletcher was brought in to speed up the re-building process.
Fletcher is entering a pivotal first offseason as Flyers GM, with three of Philadelphia’s brightest young stars (Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Travis Konecny) entering the offseason without a contract.
After a disappointing season in which his points dropped from 65 to 37 and his average ice time dipped nearly a minute and a half, Shayne Gostisbehere could be one player Fletcher looks at moving to upgrade other areas of the team.
While the Flyers should be more interested in finding a way to keep a young defenseman who has led team defenders in scoring in each of the last four seasons, Gostisbehere has been mentioned as a possible candidate to be moved as Fletcher looks to re-tool the roster.
With the Flyers potentially looking at moving forward with Provorov and Sanheim as the leaders of its defensive group, a defense-needy team such as the Edmonton Oilers or Montreal Canadiens could offer up NHL-ready talent or draft picks to entice the Flyers into moving Gostisbehere.
Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs
Nazem Kadri has been a mainstay with the Maple Leafs for nearly a decade, but rumour is there has been some trade chatter regarding the veteran centre following a down season by his standards. In the Maple Leafs’ first-round defeat at the hands of the Bruins, Kadri was suspended multiple games for the second consecutive season, adding more fuel to the speculation.
Although Kadri was coming off back-to-back 30-goal seasons, the Maple Leafs’ decision to add Tavares last summer pushed Kadri into smaller role on a deep Toronto forward group. He responded with his lowest goal total and average ice-time figure since breaking into the Maple Leafs’ lineup full-time back in 2013, struggling to re-create his success from the two prior seasons without the same level of supporting talent on his line at even strength.
Despite this, Kadri managed to maintain his strong underlying numbers amid a significant dip in his shooting percentage, making it seem as if he is poised to bounce back next season, particularly if Toronto continues to deploy Kadri in a significant power-play role. However, GM Kyle Dubas will have to be creative if he wants to re-sign his other young forwards, making Kadri’s $4.5 million cap hit a possibility to be moved as a result.
While there has been no credible information linking Kadri to a specific team, any player that can play the two-way role Kadri can, for the bargain price he’s signed to until 2021-22, would likely be in high demand if Dubas decides that Kadri is no longer a key member of the Maple Leafs. Teams in need of quality depth at centre could include the Montreal Canadiens, Islanders, or Jets.
Trade rumours have already begun to swirl around some of the NHL’s stars, with Phil Kessel one notable name that’s been mentioned as likely to be moved in recent weeks.
The trade market is sure to heat up once the Stanley Cup Finals have been decided, and with how many top contenders are facing a serious cap crunch this summer, we could see some serious talent hitting the trading block.
Nikita Zaitsev and Patrick Marleau have been main points of discussion recently, but they’re expected to be among the first of many moves for Dubas. Kyle Turris and P.K. Subban have also been linked to some trade rumours recently, and with Nashville coming off an early playoff exit and facing a difficult contract negotiation with captain Roman Josi, the Predators could make another aggressive trade after shocking the hockey world three summers ago.
As we’ve learned in recent years, it’s nearly impossible to predict what players are seriously being shopped and which rumours are just noise, but one thing is for certain – this summer is shaping up to be one of the most exciting offseasons in recent memory.
Joseph Aleong is an At-Large writer for THW from Toronto, Ontario. He is a graduate of Brock University in St. Catharines, ON. Follow him on Twitter @josephaleong11