5 NHL Trades That Could Decide the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals
With 2 months to go in the NHL’s regular season, the top contenders for the 2018 Stanley Cup are clear.
The Tampa Bay Lightning has been the best team in the league all year and currently tops BetOnline’s Stanley Cup futures at +600 odds. Meanwhile, the only other teams in the league that are listed below +1200 odds are the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, 2017 Western Conference champion Nashville Predators, red-hot Boston Bruins and, stunningly, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
With the NHL trade deadline looming on February 26, however, the rest of the field still has time to make some big moves that would significantly close the gap on the 5 current favorites. With that in mind, I present 5 deadline trade chips that may just end up deciding this year’s Stanley Cup champion.
1. Rick Nash to the Blue Jackets
After earning the fourth-most points in the NHL last year and establishing themselves as legitimate Stanley Cup threats, the Blue Jackets have regressed badly in 2017-18. At the time of writing, Columbus was 1 point out of playoff position with 25 games remaining in the season, and BetOnline had them as a +4000 longshot (the 18th-worst odds in the league) to claim the Cup this spring.
Adding a proven goal-scorer like Rangers veteran Rick Nash at the deadline would not only make the Jackets a likely playoff participant, it would also vault them back into Cup contender status. That’s because Columbus’ greatest weakness is a lack of finishers at the offensive end, illustrated by the fact that the Jackets own the unique distinction of having both the most shots on goal and the worst shooting percentage in the entire league.
Nash has scored more than 400 goals in his career, with nearly a quarter of them coming on the power play (Columbus is also last in the league with the man advantage.) He’s no stranger to central Ohio, having begun his 15-year NHL career there, and he enjoyed his best statistical season (42 points in 44 games) under current Jackets coach John Tortorella when Torts coached the Rangers.
With Nash helping Columbus generate more offense, the goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky and the Jackets’ strong defensive work ethic would make them a team no one would want to face in the postseason.
2. Ryan McDonagh to the Maple Leafs
Might this be the year that Toronto finally ends its 51-year championship drought, tied for the longest in the league? As the Leafs’ +1600 Cup odds at BetOnline suggest, it’s at least a possibility. These young Leafs are way ahead of even the most optimistic Toronto fan’s schedule for the rebuild that began just a couple of seasons ago under coach Mike Babcock, GM Lou Lamoriello and president Brendan Shanahan.
At the time of writing, Toronto had won 9 of its last 10 games and its 75 points were tied for fifth-most in the entire league. Unfortunately for the Leafs, however, they’re in the Atlantic Division, where the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins also reside. Unless Toronto can overtake both down the stretch to finish first in the division, the Leafs seem destined for a brutal first-round matchup against either the Bolts or Bruins.
A solid two-way defenseman like the Rangers’ McDonagh is exactly what the Leafs need to have a chance against Boston, Tampa or any other potent offense they may meet in the playoffs. Toronto is allowing more than 34 shots per game (third-most in the NHL), relying far too often on goaltender Frederik Andersen to bail them out. McDonagh would instantly be slotted into Toronto’s top defensive pairing and allow Babcock to no longer have to give minutes to marginal blueliners like Roman Polak.
3. Max Pacioretty to the Blues
This year’s edition of the Blues looks like the one we seem to see every season. You know, the team with an excellent defense and a solid record (St. Louis was 34-21-5 at the time of writing, good for third spot in the tough Central Division), but not really a threat in anybody’s mind to win the Stanley Cup.
BetOnline is currently offering +2000 odds on the Blues to win their first title in franchise history, and that’s probably not even enough to entice anybody to bite on a team that hasn’t even made the Stanley Cup final since 1970.
But if the Blues were to find a way to add Pacioretty into their lineup, we’d have to take St. Louis’ Cup chances a lot more seriously. The Blues’ Achilles heel every year seems to be scoring depth, which is once again an issue as the team recently went into a prolonged offensive funk when winger Jaden Schwartz was injured. With Pacioretty, who has scored the eighth-most goals in the NHL over the past 5 years (and fourth-most at even strength), St. Louis would have 2 lethal forward lines and the Blues’ power play (currently 27th) would be much more dangerous as well.
Pacioretty also brings intangibles of experience and leadership, having captained the Canadiens for the past 3 years. He’d fit in tremendously on a team that just needs to score 3 goals most nights in order to win.
4. Evander Kane to the Sharks
Of all the forwards clearly available at the trade deadline, Kane may have the most untapped upside. He’s one of the most talented players in the league, but lack of both motivation and maturity have held him back in the past. That’s why he was shipped out of Winnipeg a few years ago (a few off-ice incidents led to him being a healthy scratch in his last days with the Jets), and it’s probably why the offensively-challenged Sabres are ready to move on from him as well.
When put in the right environment, however, I think Kane could finally prove why he was the third-overall pick in the 2009 draft. And of all the clubs out there who might vie for Kane’s services, the Sharks look like the perfect fit. San Jose has a winning culture that the 26-year-old Kane would want to fit into, and veterans like Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and no-nonsense head coach Peter DeBoer would ensure that Kane keep his head on straight and his priorities in line.
Even if Kane were only to keep producing at his current clip, that would still be a big boost to the Sharks who are always in need of more offense. San Jose (+2500 on BetOnline’s Stanley Cup odds) is solid once again this year in its own end, but Kane’s 18 goals would rank second on the Sharks’ existing roster.
5. John Tavares to Any Team
Alright, so the trade of the league’s 11th-highest scorer seems extremely unlikely. But with the Islanders sinking out of playoff contention and the potential of Tavares looking to finally get out of Long Island when he becomes a free agent this summer, it’s still a possibility that we have to at least entertain.
Though Tavares has repeatedly said he likes the direction in which the Islanders are going, I’m sure he’s just toeing the company line. This is a guy who was targeted for stardom before he was a teenager and all those years of media training have made him sound like an obedient robot. Deep inside, I’m sure he’s frustrated by toiling in relative obscurity on the Island and can’t wait to get out of town. If New York management isn’t in denial and recognizes this, they’d be smart to get what they can for Tavares before he walks out the door.
Tavares would be a boon for any contending team, assuming that whichever team trades for him doesn’t have to deal any significant parts of their current roster in return. You can never have enough scoring depth in the playoffs, and if Tavares were to be teamed up with another elite talent (ie. Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh), it’s scary to imagine how much more effective he’d be than he’s been this year with guys like Anders Lee and Josh Bailey.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are a war of attrition, and even the smallest of moves at the trade deadline to bolster a team’s depth can be a huge difference-maker in the postseason.
This year’s NHL trade deadline may have an even bigger swing on the Stanley Cup futures, thanks to the high caliber of players who are openly on the block. Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, Max Pacioretty, Evander Kane and John Tavares are all pieces that can instantly turn a championship darkhorse into a legit contender.
Keep an eye on those trade rumors in the NHL, because when there’s smoke this time of year, there’s generally fire as well. If you can get your futures wagers in on teams like the Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs, Blues and Sharks before they make their move, you’ll have tons of extra value on your side once the puck drops on the Stanley Cup playoffs in April.