Feb 23, 2019
Where the contenders need to improve at the deadline
Travis Yost does an analytical assessment of the rosters of 20 postseason contenders to understand how NHL general managers might behave as they go shopping ahead of Monday’s trade deadline.
By Travis Yost
One of the things I like to do as the trade deadline nears is assess each playoff contender’s roster relative to every other contender in the league.
The spirit of the exercise is relatively straightforward: conduct a critical assessment of possible weaknesses within the current construct of a roster to understand how general managers might behave when they go shopping.
At this point in the season, there are effectively 20 teams pushing for 16 playoff spots – from Tampa Bay all the way through (generously, I might say) Arizona and Buffalo.
For the purposes of a quick roster comparison, I have leveraged Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement model for player valuation and scraped out usage rates for every skater over the course of the regular season. (Similar approaches isolating on scoring rates, defensive impact, and so on yield similar results.) From there, I simply measured all 20 teams most heavily utilized forward against one another, then all 20 teams second most heavily utilized forward against one another, and so on through the entire lineup.
Any player who sat in the bottom 10th percentile is called out here as a potential targeted area of improvement for the general managers at the trade deadline. In each section below, the parentheticals (e.g. "F3") reference the player's position and even-strength usage rank on his current team.
Let’s run through all 20 teams!
Arizona: Upgrades within the top-six forwards
Substandard grades: Many, including Clayton Keller (F1), Derek Stepan (F2), Nick Schmaltz (F3), and Vinnie Hinostroza (F4)
Arizona is at the top of the list of the teams least likely to make a considerable splash at the trade deadline. The Coyotes are well-positioned to build a true contender within the next couple of years, assuming they continue developing their superb young talent. But considering how awful recent seasons have been (and the fact that they have a real shot at grabbing a wild-card spot), you wonder if the Coyotes could take a flier on an impact forward ahead of the deadline on Monday. It’s no secret the Coyotes have struggled to score this year – their 2.6 goals per-game is 28th in the NHL – and that’s more or less because their top-six is often overpowered. Forwards like Keller and Stepan are definitive impact players, but their results pale in comparison when measured against true top-tier forwards around the league.
Boston: Upgrades within the bottom-six forwards
Substandard grades: Many, including Joakim Nordstrom (F8), Noel Acciari (F11), Anders Bjork (F13)
Stop me if you have heard this before: The Bruins are rather top-heavy. The team has notoriously struggled in past years, particularly in the playoffs, when their depth is exposed to superior talent. This is part of the reason why the Bruins targeted Charlie Coyle via trade with Minnesota last week, and it’s why you consistently hear rumours that they aren’t done yet. Considering their cap space – they have more than $15-million to remain compliant below the cap ceiling by year end – they seem like a solid bet to acquire at least one more impact forward.
Buffalo: Finding a Marco Scandella replacement
Substandard grades: Marco Scandella (D6)
Scandella has fallen out of favour with the Sabres rather emphatically this season, but Buffalo is lean on blueline talent right now and Scandella does pick up fairly sizable special-teams minutes. That said, a true third-pairing talent in today’s NHL is marginally above replacement level, and Scandella has fallen well below that. Like Arizona, Buffalo is on the outskirts of playoff contention and may just sit tight, but if there’s an opportunity we may see some traction. Keep in mind, Scandella has another full season under contract with Buffalo at a cap hit of $4-million.
Carolina: Jordan Staal insulation
Substandard grades: Jordan Staal (F2)
Staal is having a strange season. He played the earlier parts of the year when Carolina wasn’t playing nearly as well, and has since missed 32 of the last 34 games with a concussion. There is plenty of room for a player who is still so talented and reliable as a two-way forward, but it may be worth remembering he’s a 30-year-old who is seeing similar usage to the likes of Claude Giroux, Mitch Marner, Jonathan Toews, Matt Duchene, and Gabriel Landeskog. Perhaps a return from a lengthy absence will juice his game, but Carolina should have a Plan B.
Columbus: Upgrades within the bottom-six forwards
Substandard grades: Brandon Dubinsky (F9), Anthony Duclair (Traded, F10)
There’s no easier way to upgrade your bottom-six forwards than to acquire a Matt Duchene-calibre player and push every other forward on your roster down a slot. That’s ultimately what the Blue Jackets did in acquiring the aforementioned Duchene, and more recently, Ryan Dzingel. Duclair moved out in any trade Columbus manufactured seemed obvious, especially considering his coach’s most recent assessment.
Calgary: Upgrade to the third defence pair
Substandard grades: Juuso Valimaki (D6), Oliver Kylington (D7)
Virtually every third pairing in the league is the scorn of their respective fan base, but finding a sixth defender to slot in has been a bit of a particular challenge for Calgary this season. The fascinating piece here is that the combination of T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano, Noah Hanifin, Travis Hamonic, and Rasmus Andersson has been a primary driver to Calgary’s success, and all five of those defenders have been a mainstay in the lineup. But the revolving door on that third pair has been trouble, creating a possible target for general manager Brad Treliving.
Colorado: No obvious targets, but Erik Johnson’s ice time could use some displacement
Substandard grades: None
It’s not that no one has underperformed in Colorado, it’s that most of the team is only marginally underperforming. So while no one stands out, the team still suffers all the same. The team should still be hunting for ways to start displacing some of Erik Johnson’s ice time, though. On a rate-basis, he is the 15th most effective No. 1 defenceman in the league. That’s to be expected at this point considering (a) the competition; and (b) the mileage Johnson has accrued over the years. To some degree that displacement has already started: Samuel Girard (D2) is seeing heavy usage now, and Tyson Barrie (D3) remains a fixture for Jared Bednar.
Dallas: Upgrading the second defence pair
Substandard grades: Gavin Bayreuther (D4), Roman Polak (D5)
The Stars have been hunting for defensive help for some time now and, quite frankly, their internal options haven’t been able to step up and fill these critical holes. That’s likely one of the biggest reasons we saw the Stars go out and acquire defender Ben Lovejoy from New Jersey for Connor Carrick and a third-round pick on Saturday. The Stars need a solid unit behind the likes of John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, and Miro Heiskanen – ideally a duo that can eat up some of the tougher, defence-oriented minutes come playoff time.
Minnesota: Defensive depth upgrades
Substandard grades: Nick Seeler (D6)
The Wild are not dissimilar to the Avalanche in that their mediocrity in the standings is by and large due to marginal player degradation, not an obvious hole in their lineup. What further complicates the matter is the Wild have been seemingly holding onto a playoff spot by a razor-thin margin for months now, and the front office is kind of tiptoeing around the idea of a rebuild. I’m not sure acquiring a depth defender is really in the team’s best interests at this juncture, but under the same analysis criteria as every other team, it’s a hole and likely something they should focus on improving down the stretch of the regular season.
Montreal: Jonathan Drouin insulation
Substandard grades: Jonathan Drouin (F3)
The Drouin situation is a lot like the Staal situation in Carolina. He’s clearly a dynamic and talented player, but he’s (a) being graded against other first-line forwards; and (b) continues to see his offensive production eroded because of defensive errors and miscues. That will improve with time, but right now the Canadiens probably need to protect his minutes a bit more than they planned on this regular season – especially since, by every measure possible, the Canadiens are a credible playoff threat under a Jack Adams-calibre coaching job by Claude Julien. (Perhaps this is why they were in the Matt Duchene sweepstakes!)
Nashville: Displacing Kevin Fiala’s minutes
Substandard grades: Kevin Fiala (F5)
Kevin Fiala is a fine and talented player but there should be little question about his performance in 2018-19. It simply hasn’t been there. With Fiala on the ice, Nashville is scoring 2.4 goals per 60 minutes, and giving up 2.7 goals per 60 minutes. Expected goal rates are virtually identical to actual goal rates, so it’s not as if teammate shooting performance or the goaltender performance behind him has materially impacted his play. I mention this because Nashville has 13 forwards (as you might expect for a team that is +40 in goal differential at even strength this year) carrying favourable goal differentials this year, and Fiala is joined only by the likes of Rocco Grimaldi. Fiala will rebound, but for a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations, you really can’t have any holes in your lineup.
New York Islanders: More forwards, more forwards, more forwards!
Substandard grades: None, but Mathew Barzal (F1) and Jordan Eberle (F5) are close
The Islanders are the season’s biggest Cinderella story and this entire run is found money. It’s hard to critique the play of guys like Barzal (who is the team’s most utilized forward at the age of 21) and Eberle considering the circumstances. Really, this season is about developing their core roster players into stars. It seems more likely that the Islanders sit tight at the trade deadline and chase one of the marquee forwards in free agency, but never count out Lou Lamoriello.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Separating Jack Johnson
Substandard grades: Derick Brassard (Traded, F6), Jack Johnson (D3)
Give credit to the Penguins for recognizing the erosion in Brassard’s game, as they sent him to Florida less than one year after acquiring him in a three-team trade at last year’s deadline. Another possible issue looming concerns that of Jack Johnson, who is right on the fringe of the bottom 10th percentile for the D3 group. Johnson has been a source of much debate. He’s a player who skates well and plays aggressively, but is consistently and routinely outshot, outchanced, and outscored. The reputation Johnson developed in Columbus has carried with him to Pittsburgh. Of note: The Penguins have outscored the competition 111 to 76 (59 per cent) with Johnson off the ice, and have been outscored 50 to 34 (40 per cent) with him on the ice.
San Jose Sharks: Goaltending
Substandard grades: Martin Jones (G1)
Do you realize how good the San Jose Sharks skater group has to have been to overcome an 89.7 save percentage (expected 90.7 save percentage) from Martin Jones? The Sharks have been mercilessly outshooting and outchancing teams for most of the season and are as impressive as any team not named Tampa Bay over the past 30 games. But this team’s goaltending has been dreadful all season long, and the immediate option in backup Aaron Dell (89.2 save percentage) seems even less desirable. Keep an eye on San Jose in the goaltender market.
St. Louis Blues: Displacing Jay Bouwmeester’s minutes
Substandard grades: Jay Bouwmeester (D3)
The Blues are the hottest team in the league and their biggest strength is their talent depth at both the forward and defensive positions. That makes for an interesting debate within the Blues organization: Do you simply draw-down Bouwmeester’s minutes in favour of other defenders like Joel Edmundson, Vince Dunn, and Carl Gunnarsson, or do you look externally for a trade option? It seems like the former is a much more viable strategy since it will cost little and all three of the Blues’ depth options have been quality this year.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Uh, probably nothing
Substandard grades: None
The Lightning are a buzz saw. Their average game – their average game – sees them winning by 1.3 goals per-game. They are 15 points clear of the second-best team in the league. The only key player who compares even remotely unfavorably to his peers is Anton Stralman (D2), who, at the age of 32, is still a fine NHL blueliner. It’s an embarrassment of riches in Tampa Bay and quite frankly I’m upset at myself for even writing this many words about a team that seems virtually flawless.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Drawing down Patrick Marleau
Substandard grades: None, but Patrick Marleau (F4) is close
Even Patrick Marleau is human and a 39-year-old being the fourth-most utilized forward for a loaded Maple Leafs forward group certainly seems curious. The Marleau issue doesn’t seem like one you replace at the trade deadline, particularly when you consider all of the weaponry behind Marleau. The Marleau problem isn’t as much a production issue (though 29 points in 60 games with this offence does seem underwhelming) as it is an ice time one. His peers in this group include guys like Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, Washington’s T.J. Oshie and Winnipeg’s Nikolaj Ehlers. A fringe first-liner at this point in his career probably is overkill, but Toronto likely takes care of this internally.
Vegas Golden Knights: Finding a second-pairing option and impact forward
Substandard grades: Deryk Engelland (D5) and the top-line, generally
Much like Marleau above, Engelland has had an incredible career. But the performance no longer justifies the usage. Vegas is a 52 per cent goal team with Engelland off the ice and 43 per cent with him on the ice, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that he bleeds shots (teams average 57.4 shots per 60 minutes with him on the ice, nearly eight shots more per 60 minutes when he’s off). While Engelland is a seemingly easy upgrade, the larger issue is really the top line. The magic of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith has worn off from last year. They aren’t in our bottom 10th percentile for any of their respective groups, but they are all sitting near the cut line. This, among other things, is probably why they are reportedly fond of Ottawa’s Mark Stone.
Winnipeg Jets: Improving the middle six
Substandard grades: Patrik Laine (F6), Adam Lowry (F7)
The argument for Winnipeg trading for Mark Stone is the same argument for any team trading for Mark Stone, but one thing it would do is help further shuffle some forwards down the lineup into more appropriate spots. A player like Laine, unfortunately, sees his value tremendously erode when he goes through scoring slumps like the one he just experienced, particularly at even strength where defensive play is more important by an order of magnitude. Lowry’s the opposite issue – he is a tremendous play-driver normally, but the scoring touch just isn’t there. It is, of course, a bit nitpicky to critique talents like Laine and Lowry considering how valuable both are to this team, but we should be judging Winnipeg by Stanley Cup potential at this point in their trajectory. That requires some nitpicking, and unfortunately neither player – to this point of the season – has been as impactful as imagined this season.
Washington Capitals: Help at the fringes
Substandard grades: Madison Bowey (traded, D5), Chandler Stephenson (F10)
Washington’s core players aren’t changing anytime soon, but the organization can make inroads at the fringes. They took care of their Bowey issue first, swapping him out with a pick for the much more capable Nick Jensen. One other player the team could manage out is forward Chandler Stephenson. The Capitals drew a lot of attention with their waiver activity concerning the likes of Dmitrij Jaskin and, ultimately, Devante-Smith Pelley. It’s worth remembering that both players are used less than Stephenson, who has 10 points with an on-ice Goal% of 35 per cent. Again, this isn’t the norm for depth forwards. Players like Montreal’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Toronto’s Andreas Johnsson, and Calgary’s Andrew Mangiapane have put up fantastic results in similar ice-time. If Washington makes another move, I expect it to come across their depth forwards.