I recently asked a Western Conference veteran for his take on the 2023 NHL trade deadline.
“The East is insane. That’s my take.”
It was as accurate and succinct a recap as one could apply to the days leading up to Friday, March 3, during which the West essentially became a feeder system for the East.
The New York Islanders got the fun started by acquiring Bo Horvat from Vancouver. The New York Rangers added Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko from St. Louis. The New Jersey Devils won the derby for San Jose’s Timo Meier. The Toronto Maple Leafs brought on the Blues’ Ryan O’Reilly and about a dozen defensemen. The Carolina Hurricanes brought over Jesse Puljujärvi (Edmonton) and Shayne Gostisbehere (Arizona). The Tampa Bay Lightning beefed up with Nashville’s Tanner Jeannot, and the Pittsburgh Penguins added the Predators’ Mikael Granlund. For some reason.
Then the East got really silly Wednesday: The Ottawa Senators won the yearlong competition to land Arizona’s Jakob Chychrun, to the shock of the hockey world. If the Senators aren’t true contenders this season — they have a 17% chance of making the playoffs, per Money Puck — they at least join the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings in being part of the next wave.
“It’s absolutely insane how all these teams are loading up,” the Western Conference player said. “It almost reminds me of rich guys at the country club. They all want to show who’s got the biggest watch. It’s hard not to try and keep up.”
The East is an absolute meat grinder right now, but these things are cyclical. We’re not even five years removed from the Western Conference having “a mind-boggling number of Stanley Cup contenders that are engaging in an arms race for supremacy,” which is how I described it in a column from September 2018.
That was during a time of “West-calation” when a galaxy of stars were moved around the conference over the course of several months. That’s when the Golden Knights added Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty, while the Blues brought in Ryan O’Reilly. They joined players such as Kane, Artemi Panarin, Brent Burns, Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau, Tarasenko and Patrik Laine.
They’re all in the East now.
All of them.
The Eastern Conference playoffs were already going to be a battle royale, what with the Maple Leafs and Lightning and the Devils and Rangers destined for opening-round series. Those four teams, and everyone else, are the undercard for the Bruins, a team currently chasing the NHL records for wins and points in the regular season.
We were already buying a ticket to this Stanley Cup playoffs show; after the deadline, there are even more stars listed on the marquee to make it must-see.
“You don’t make trades for entertainment purposes, even though it generates a tremendous amount of interest. But in this case, it’s going to make for a really exciting finish to the season and playoffs,” one NHL general manager said. “So for the sport, it’s like, f—, we got some great teams. It’s so exciting.”
Let’s take a look at some of the Beasts of the East and what they did at the deadline through Wednesday night:
Pete Blackburn had my favorite line after the Bruins’ trade:
It took the Bruins three games to turn Dmitry Orlov into Bobby Orrlov pic.twitter.com/5n86JjNU4c
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) March 1, 2023
Players have a funny way of getting a lot better when they join the Bruins. GM Don Sweeney deserves some flowers for his patience. He knew what he needed to make a Chychrun trade work and moved on when he didn’t get it. Rather than trading for Columbus defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov as a consolation prize, he waited just long enough for the Capitals to get into “everything must go” mode and landed Orlov and a terrific depth forward in Garnet Hathaway.
The trade for Tyler Bertuzzi on Thursday was just as shrewd. He was a top-line left wing with the Red Wings, coming off a 30-goal season. In the true Bruins tradition, he’s an absolute pain-in-the-Back Bay to play against. Injury concerns for Taylor Hall played into this one. The Bruins are leaving nothing to chance.
The rich got richer. The best got better.
The O’Reilly trade was the table-setter for a series of other upgrades for GM Kyle Dubas, who acquired forward Sam Lafferty and defensemen Jake McCabe, Erik Gustafsson and Luke Schenn. It came at a cost — the Leafs have just three picks in this year’s draft and don’t have a second-round pick for the next four seasons.
One former NHL player I spoke with was a little skeptical of the approach.
“I think Leafs have done too much. It’s basically nine new players since they picked up Conor Timmins last November,” he said. “I’ve seen too many teams load up at playoffs and then you have disgruntled players if they’re being sat.”
Lightning GM Julien BriseBois made one of the most controversial trades of the deadline when the Bolts sent Cal Foote and five draft picks to the Nashville Predators for Jeannot. I don’t think I’ve come across a larger divide between public perception and what people inside the league think about the same trade.
“I like the fact [BriseBois] looked at his team and said, ‘What are these picks going to yield?'” a general manager said. “They’re going to pick in the 20s. At that point in the draft, unless you really hit on something, it yields a second-pairing guy or a bottom-six guy at best.”
The Hurricanes have one of the smartest, most data-driven front offices in the NHL. Their acquisition of Puljujärvi from the Edmonton Oilers was classic Hurricanes — would it shock anyone if they find a way to unlock his potential?
Shayne Gostisbehere isn’t Chychrun, but he thankfully also isn’t John Klingberg, with whom the Hurricanes had been linked. Ghost Bear is a left-shot defenseman who plays the right side. Will he get the Jaccob Slavin bump?
Timo Meier is such a game-changer for the Devils, full stop. He brings physicality on the wing that they lack. He brings a goal scorer’s touch to the top six and on the power play.
I especially love the fact that he’s been through some postseason rivalry wars with the Sharks, which will come in handy when the Devils inevitably play the Rangers. Speaking of which …
If I’m being honest, I think the best way to use Kane isn’t across from Artemi Panarin. I’d rather see him with Mika Zibanejad, who hasn’t really clicked with Tarasenko yet. But I’d much rather see him down the lineup with Filip Chytil.
Remember those Penguins Stanley Cup champion squads that had Phil Kessel on the third line? That’s the kind of balance Kane could bring to this lineup. But it’s a good problem to have.
Horvat has eight points in 12 games with the Islanders. They’re maintaining a playoff spot without Mathew Barzal in the lineup. More than a few people I’ve spoken with think the Islanders can be a real problem for someone in the playoffs, with Ilya Sorokin and the way their roster is built. Horvat is helping them get there.
OK, they’re not all winners. The Granlund trade underscores the essential problem with the Penguins right now, which is that they’re not good enough to contend for a championship and either don’t have the assets to dramatically improve or are reluctant to part with them. The Penguins’ plan appears to be playoff qualification and then hopes and prayers. Contrast that with what their rivals down in Washington are doing and which team is in a better position to contend next season?
But the Penguins believe they have a chance to win. So do the other teams contending in the East that improved themselves through any means necessary before the deadline.
“I like the approach. That’s the kind of approach I would have too if we had a team in the playoff picture and had a legitimate chance of contending for the Cup. I’d be all-in,” said Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen, one of the few sellers in the East.
He’s been there himself before, like in 2019, when it was the Blue Jackets who were “all-in” with moves like the Matt Duchene trade. That earned them a first-round stunner over the Lightning before they bowed out in the second round to Boston.
“You do everything you can in a year when you have a chance to win the Cup. That’s what we’re all here for,” Kekalainen said.
The Eastern Conference is the embodiment of that mindset.
Call it an arms race. Call it a gamble. Call it “insane,” as that one player did. We’ll call it one of the most exhilarating trade deadlines of the salary cap era, which could lead to one of the most memorable Eastern Conference postseasons the NHL has ever seen.
Jersey Foul of the week
— Lewis #BruceThereItIs (@hangukingan) February 27, 2023
Folks … we’ve discovered a new Jersey Foul.
This New York Rangers fan wore a No. 88 Patrick Kane jersey a few days before the team acquired the Chicago Blackhawks star. At one point, a Foul. Now? A proper Rangers sweater. Please add this Predictive Acquisition Jersey to your official Foul index.
Video of the week
‘You’ve got nice idea for powerplay goal here. It would be a shame if something happened to it’ pic.twitter.com/XgjITQwZtI
— KHL (@khl_eng) March 1, 2023
In the KHL, former NHL forwards Alex Radulov and Vadim Shipachyov were strategizing on the power play when sneaky little Pavel Poryadin of Neftekhimik decided to eavesdrop.
He apparently intercepted some valuable intel: Poryadin forced a turnover and set up Andrei Chivilyov for a short-handed goal.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: The buddy system
Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari. Jake McCabe and Sam Lafferty. Dmitry Orlov and Garnet Hathaway. Vladislav Gavrikov and Joonas Korpisalo. After getting traded, it’s always nice to have somebody to watch the bags as you go grab a coffee at the airport.
Loser: Salary cap critics
For months, we heard about how the salary cap was restricting the trade market and no one could do anything. To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm from “Jurassic Park,” it appears that “nature has found a way.” This has been one of the wildest deadlines in recent memory.
Winner: Rob Blake
Quick wouldn’t have lasted this long in L.A. had it not been for his contract term and diminishing regular-season returns deadening the market for him. If Kings fans want to see Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty hoist the Cup one more time, this is the way.
Loser: Ohio Stadium
According to Aaron Portzline of The Athletic, the NHL wants to hold an outdoor game at Ohio Stadium but neither the Columbus Blue Jackets nor Ohio State want to foot the estimated $8 million bill for winterizing it. Columbus vs. Pittsburgh at The Horseshoe? I might take up a collection.
Winner: Dylan Larkin
The Red Wings star gets paid (eight-year, $69.6 million contract), gets to remain a part of what they’re building in Detroit and gets to end the awkwardness of this public negotiation with GM Steve Yzerman.
Loser: Vancouver Canucks
It’s not the fault of team president Jim Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin that the Canucks end up doing things like trading a conditional first-round pick and a second-round pick to the Red Wings for defenseman Filip Hronek.
“We have to go about this in a way that it’s not a long-term rebuild,” Rutherford said one month ago, before saying he envisioned it would be quicker than a three-year build. That’s the plan. They’re sticking to it, even if what this team needs is a more dramatic rebuild.
And it leads to things like trading a conditional first-round pick and a second-round pick to the Red Wings for defenseman Filip Hronek.
Good piece on the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones representing hockey’s future. “Both [coach Jason] Payne and [defenseman Jalen] Smereck have wanted to provide and show off an easier path for Black hockey players and coaches. They believe the environment grows better each passing season and the blueprint for the sport is right in Cincinnati.
Solid breakdown here of the Erik Portillo trade by the Kings. “There’s probably a slightly better chance that Portillo works out compared to what would have been available to the Kings in the third round this year, which is why I think this was a gamble worth taking.”
Inside the Patrick Kane trade. “There were other teams interested in Kane — such as Dallas, Carolina, Vegas and Edmonton — but it became clear that Kane only had eyes for New York. And the Rangers knew it.”
What is David Poile’s legacy as Nashville Predators GM? “Poile should be commended for turning Nashville into a full-fledged hockey market and helping to create indelible memories. But his legacy was at risk of being tarnished in town if he held on for much longer. At 73, he clearly did not have the stomach to oversee a rebuild.”
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) March 2, 2023