For an NHL team to grind their way to a Stanley Cup, a few things are almost always necessary. A hot goaltender, who can steal at least a few games through the long playoff run, center depth that can lift linemates up and provide secondary scoring, and extra defensemen who are able to step into the lineup when a top option inevitably suffers an injury. The postseason in hockey is a brutal period of injury for almost every player, and often leads to players suiting up despite major injuries.
Though you might not be able to guarantee the play of your starting goaltender at the trade deadline, you can give your team some help in the other two categories by going after players on expiring contracts. Rentals, as they are referred to because of their short-term nature, are always flipped around the league in the last few weeks of February as teams prepare for a potential playoff run. All but one team usually regret those acquisitions, but they continue anyway.
This year, the rental center market could have some legitimate impact talent in it with names like Matt Duchene, Kevin Hayes and even perhaps Eric Staal shopped by struggling teams down the stretch. Obviously any of those names or the several others available could be re-signed instead, but there should be at least a few options for teams looking to upgrade down the middle.
On defense though, teams might have to settle for players more suited to bottom-pairing or depth roles. That’s not because of a lack of pending free agents on the blue line—although the recent extensions for players like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Drew Doughty and Ryan Ellis certainly changed the market—but because of the situations their respective teams are in this season.
When looking at the group that is scheduled to be available on July 1st, one name immediately stands out. Erik Karlsson doesn’t have a long-term extension with the San Jose Sharks yet, but that doesn’t mean he won’t before the end of the year. In order for San Jose to be eligible to sign Karlsson to an eight-year deal, they have to wait until after the trade deadline to pass. Perhaps the two sides are just waiting on that to happen, though it’s very unlikely the Sharks would trade Karlsson even if they aren’t. First of all, the Ottawa Senators included a clause in the summer blockbuster that essentially prevents Karlsson from being traded to the Eastern Conference. If the star defenseman ends up on an Eastern roster by the end of the year, San Jose would have to send over another first-round pick. But San Jose is also fighting for first place in the Pacific Division, and likely would choose to keep Karlsson regardless as a sort of “own rental.”
That same situation surrounds the other impact defensive options. Tyler Myers, Jake Gardiner and Anton Stralman are arguably the next three best rentals, and all could potentially be on different teams next season. But the Winnipeg Jets, Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning are all legitimate Stanley Cup contenders and need these players to keep them on that track. Zdeno Chara can make an impact, but holds a full no-movement clause and almost certainly will not leave Boston even if they fell out of the playoff race (something that seems unlikely anyway).
Those circumstances mean that the defensive rental market could be relatively shallow this season, with Alex Edler really being the crown jewel. Edler has been logging huge minutes for the Vancouver Canucks as they continue their rebuild and could help several teams, but beyond that names like Nick Jensen, Roman Polak and Alex Petrovic start popping up. That’s not to say there won’t be movement, but if you’re looking for real impact help teams might have to look for players with a little more term.