Now almost a month into free agency, the NHL off-season is nearing a point where the flow of transactions, once a raging river of signings during the first few days of July, will slow down to only a trickle. A few notable unrestricted free agents remain unsigned, a handful of young restricted free agents are set to still be extended, and arbitration cases continue to be settled prior to their hearings, though perhaps one of two will come to fruition. However, the days of big signings are over; all remaining deals handed out will either be expected, in the case of RFA’s, or underwhelming, for the UFA’s lucky enough to even find a new home. So what off-season excitement is left for hockey fans to follow? The trade market. August often brings a change of mindset for many NHL front office executives, from adding free agents before someone else scoops them up, to instead subtracting from the current roster as the season nears and cap space, depth, and even character concerns become more clear and focused as opening night approaches. The following players have had their names floated around the trade market all summer, and the next few weeks could bring a change of scenery to one or more:
The case of Evander Kane is different than many others on this list. If he is moved by the Sabres, it is not out of necessity due to cap constraints or a glut of depth at left wing, it is because they simply want him gone. The young power forward was recently charged with criminal trespass and harassment stemming from his role in an altercation at a local Buffalo nightclub. This is now his second run-in with the law during his short tenure in Buffalo, as he was just recently cleared of charges involving accusations of sexual misconduct by a young woman back in December. With his 0ff-ice behavior becoming a consistent and growing concern for the Sabres organization, trade speculation has run rampant. Buffalo would certainly like to have Kane’s on-ice production over the next two seasons, but they also have to weigh the risk of his troublesome actions becoming a distraction or interfering with his play during that time as well. If they wait to pull the trigger on a trade, and more incidents occur, this newest allegation grows more serious, or his production is impacted by his extracurricular issues, than the return for Buffalo will also be negatively effected. Also, if the Sabres decide to stick with him throughout his legal issues, potential suspensions and all, they still run the risk that their investment will not pay out, as Kane can still leave as a free agent in 2018. While nearly half of the league could probably find the space to add a great talent like Kane to their top six forward group, they all have to weigh these same risks. Expect the trade talk to continue, especially if teams feel that Kane simply needs a change of scenery, and don’t be surprised to see Kane wearing a different jersey in the next year. Any jersey would be better than an orange jumpsuit, as the hockey world can all join in hoping that a great young talent like Kane can sort out his off-ice issues and get back to focusing on his NHL career.
Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings
Howard is the first of several goalies on this list, and realistically only one of them is likely to be moved before the season begins, if any at all. Detroit is in trouble with the salary cap, having just awarded Danny DeKeyser with a new contract that carries a $5MM cap hit and still working out a new contract with Howard’s heir, Petr Mrazek, who is also looking for $5MM a season. Even if the two sides are able to agree to a deal that keeps Mrazek at about $3MM or so for next season, the signing will effectively put Detroit over the salary cap limit of $73MM. Johan Franzen will be put on Long-Term Injured Reserve as soon as possible, erasing his nearly $4MM cap hit, but the Red Wings must be cap compliant before then. If GM Ken Holland can find away to squeeze his roster in under the cap using his two-way contracts and other roster management magic, then maybe Howard or other could be spared. However, if that is not possible, expect Howard to be the main focus of a trade. The 32-year-old Howard and his 2.80 GAA and .906 save percentage were soundly supplanted by the 34-year-old Mrazek, who posted a 2.33 GAA and .921 save percentage in 13 more games during the regular season. Howard now is just an expensive backup at over $5MM. While there is value in keeping the former starter on board, both for depth and for expansion draft purposes, when push comes to shove for cap compliance, an expensive backup is an easy trade chip. However, there may only be one real suitor for Howard, as well as any starting-caliber goalie on the market, and that is the Dallas Stars, whose tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi didn’t quite get the job done last year, despite having a combined cap hit of $10.4MM. The problem this presents to a cap-strapped team like Detroit, is that they would have to take one of the two back in return, and even if Dallas held on to a portion of either contract, it might not provide the Red Wings with the space they need. Howard’s name will continue to come up, but he seems more likely to be traded during season when new suitors start to arrive, or perhaps not dealt at all.
Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings
If the Red Wings cannot move Howard and are getting desperate as the deadline approaches for cap compliance and there’s no tricks up Ken Holland’s sleeve, it seems like Nyquist could be the next man up on the chopping block. The college hockey star from the University of Maine was once considered untouchable in Detroit, after he lit the hockey world on fire in 2013-14 when he scored 48 points in 57 games in his first full NHL campaign. However, relative to his recent production of nearly a point per game in 2013-14 at the age of 24, and even his 54 points in a full 82 games in 2014-15, Nyquist layed an egg this past season with just 43 points and only about half of the goals of each of his prior two seasons. The worst part was that he did so in the first year of a new four-year, $19MM contract. Now Nyquist, who will turn 27 in September, is far from untouchable and is likely the leading trade candidate among a deep forward group in Detroit due to his financial burden relative to his production. The Red Wings would surely prefer not to trade him if they don’t have to, but they can rest assured that if he is truly put on the market, teams will line up for his services and the return will be more than satisfactory.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins
Another goalie who could be on the move is Marc-Andre Fleury. After being surprisingly overtaken by the young playoff hero, Matt Murray, everyone and their grandmother seems to know that Fleury’s time is up in Pittsburgh. With an expansion draft looming, there is no way that the Penguins allow Murray to be left unprotected, which means that Fleury (whose No-Movement Clause makes him automatically protected, and teams can only protect one goalie) must go. GM Jim Rutherford has already said that he is happy with the two goalie situation and plans on having both when the season starts. However, the true intentions of the veteran executive are transparent, and the words are simply a farce that are likely meant to simply keep the morale of the former-All-Star starter up. Whether Rutherford truly plans to keep Fleury for the start of the season or not does not hide the fact that he does not plan to keep Fleury until the end of the season. Some way, somehow, it seems as close to a sure thing as a trade can be that Marc-Andre Fleury will be traded. Again, Dallas appears to be the lone suitor for a starter right now and the Penguins are no better off with the salary cap than the Red Wings, which causes confusion in making any potential deal regarding Niemi or Lehtonen. However, even if the Penguins are able to re-sign Matt Cullen, their roster has the flexibility to allow them to be cap compliant before putting Pascal Dupuis’ $3.75MM cap hit on LTIR. So, the Penguins both don’t have to trade Fleury before the season and also are able to trade Fleury before the season. One thing is certain, he will be traded soon enough.