Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Co-Editor Bill Morphy. This week, the Canucks are hit hard by the virus. Who knows when they will play again? The NHL trade deadline is fast approaching. We have the latest from around the league. Baseball is underway and the Blue Jays hopes are high.
Canucks This Week – The Canucks six-day March break appears as though it is going to last much longer. The number of Canuck players who have now entered the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol is at seven along with one member of the coaching staff. The players identified on the COVID list so far include Adam Gaudette, Travis Hamonic, Alex Edler, Quinn Hughes, Antoine Roussel, Braden Holtby and Zack MacEwen. An unidentified member of the taxi squad has also gone into protocol. There is deepening concern that more positive tests could be forthcoming and that some players could be infected by the more powerful variant.
The outbreak has already forced the postponement of three games, meaning the Canucks won’t play again until April 8 at Calgary at the earliest. Test results in the coming days will tell the story. The make-up schedule is sure to be taxing for a team that already suffered through a punishing schedule to open the season.
The big news this week surrounded the signing of goaltender Thatcher Demko to a new five-year contract with an AAV of $5 million. At first glance, you might think it was an overpay for a goalie in his first year as a starter. But that’s the price for buying three years of unrestricted free agency. Demko is now the 12th highest paid goalie in the league. Had the Canucks signed him to a 2-3 year bridge deal, Demko would have walked straight into free agency, a gamble they did not want to risk. If Demko continues his stellar play, the deal may end up being a bargain. If he regresses in the manner of Carter Hart, and there are no assurances when it comes to goaltending, the deal could backfire. The Canucks are banking the 25-year-old will continue to perform like a franchise cornerstone.
According to CapFriendly, the Demko contract means the Canucks will now have $9.3 million tied up in their two goaltenders next season. If the Braden Holtby contract is back-loaded, as has been reported, then the number may actually be $10.4 million. Way to go Jim! Way too much to be paying your goaltending tandem.
Canuck fans live in fear whenever the NHL trade deadline approaches. General Manager Jim Benning has not exactly done his best work at the deadline. It will be interesting to see if Trader Jim can do anything to improve the bottom half of the roster. It would be beneficial to acquire even a few extra mid-round draft picks in a year when the draft is expected to be a complete crap shoot. It looks like Tanner Pearson’s ankle injury is healing quicker than anticipated. Pearson has started skating and may be back in the lineup sooner than reported. He’s probably the Canucks best trade chip. A deal involving Brandon Sutter is possible. Several contending teams could use a right-shot centre with faceoff and penalty-killing utility. The deal will have to be money-in, money-out with a sweetener coming the Canucks way. Alex Edler and Travis Hamonic are unlikely to relinquish their no-movement rights so they are probably not moving. Benning is likely trying to determine the market interest in Adam Gaudette and Jake Virtanen which, up until now, has not been exactly feverish. However, the COVID situation puts any deal for Gaudette on the backburner.
The Athletic Ranks the Canucks Top 10 Prospects – As mentioned, you may not subscribe to The Athletic, so we are counting down their Top 10 Canucks prospect rankings. This week, we take a look at the Top 5 including a deep dive into #1 prospect Vasily Podkolzin.
5. Aidan McDonough, LW, Northeastern (NCAA)
195th overall, 2019
6-foot-2, 201 pounds
One of the fastest risers in the Vancouver system is big, broad Northeastern winger Aidan McDonough. Selected in 2019 in his second time through the NHL draft, McDonough’s stock continues to climb. The 20-year-old forward is a Thayer product attending Northeastern — the same prep school and university that Canucks forward Adam Gaudette attended. And because Canucks connections abound where McDonough is concerned, his youth hockey coach with the Cape Cod Whalers was the father of fellow Canucks prospect Jack Rathbone.
McDonough made our top 10 list as a sneaky good prospect in 2020, but we weren’t precisely sure the extent to which his freshman production at Northeastern was based on the fact that he played with one of the NCAA’s best playmakers during the 2019-20 season in former Canucks prospect Tyler Madden. After Madden decided to turn pro last summer, though, McDonough continued to produce at an auspicious rate this past season and has now cemented himself as an offensive driver in his own right.
What’s perhaps most impressive is McDonough produced at nearly a point-per-game rate in his sophomore season despite the fact industry observers and various scouting contacts insist that, in their view, McDonough was tremendously snake-bit throughout the campaign. And that his point-per-game scoring rate probably undervalues how dynamic he was throughout this season.
While he scored six power-play goals, for example, tied for seventh most in the nation, the Northeastern power play struggled to find its footing in the early going, a product of working out the kinks after Madden’s departure. McDonough began the season at the net front but fared better later in the season when he was moved to the half-wall.
The attributes in McDonough’s game that have caught scouts’ attention are some of the classic ones. He has a big body, but he also uses his size well in the home plate area and is a tremendous athlete who’s said to be adaptable. His combination of quick hands in tight and an NHL-ready frame is projectable to the professional ranks and could give him a shot to break into an NHL top six if his skating continues to play up. Like a lot of big-bodied prospects, McDonough’s skating is the one area often cited as a concern by talent evaluators. And on this subject, scouts are a bit split.
Over the course of the past week, we spoke with some NHL amateur scouts who don’t believe McDonough’s feet are quick enough to permit him to be an impact player at the NHL level, and we’ve also talked to scouts who see McDonough’s wheels as below average, but not something that will keep him from breaking into the NHL if his development continues at pace. That type of split isn’t uncommon, but the split on McDonough’s skating is even more dramatic than that.
One Boston-area amateur scout working for an Eastern Conference team suggested vociferously to The Athletic this week that, in their view, concerns about McDonough’s skating are overblown entirely. This scout insists that McDonough’s feet are superior to where current Canucks forward Brock Boeser’s skating was at the same age, and that McDonough’s squat frame, adaptable athleticism and overall intelligence will permit him to be at least an average skater in the NHL as he matures.
Whatever the case may be, McDonough has shot up our prospect list and is now a prospect of serious interest from a Canucks perspective. His season at Northeastern ended Sunday and he’s now eligible to sign his entry-level deal with the Canucks. Our understanding is that the organization plans to engage McDonough in conversations on the matter in the weeks ahead.
4. Michael DiPietro, G, Vancouver Canucks taxi squad
64th overall, 2017
6-foot, 201 pounds
Michael DiPietro is a promising goaltending prospect, but he has spent the season in no man’s land as the Canucks’ third-string goaltender on the taxi squad. Instead of getting game action, DiPietro has been limited to putting in work in small taxi squad practices, joined only occasionally by a larger crowd for optional skates on game days that occur on the second leg of back-to-backs (when at least the healthy scratches from the 23-man roster join the five-skater taxi squad).
By all accounts, DiPietro is trying to make the time count, putting in work with Canucks goalie coach Ian Clark and approaching a difficult situation with the right attitude. There’s still no way around the fact that this has been a trying developmental year for a young goaltender who had a stellar first professional season with the Utica Comets in 2019-20.
We’ve now reached a point where DiPietro hasn’t played in a professional game since March 11, 2020 — over a year ago. Since then, he’s had his rookie professional season cut short in the middle of a playoff race and spent time in Vancouver while the club made a run to the quarterfinal in the Edmonton bubble.
Finally, he returned to training camp with the club in January, worked exclusively with the smaller second group, and has since been on the taxi squad, where he’s been limited to practice time alone — and not even real NHL practice time because Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko have been working with the main group.
If there’s a ray of sunshine on the horizon for DiPietro, it’s the possibility that with Demko shouldering such a significant burden of starts of late, he may begin to get practice days off, as Jacob Markstrom used to do through dense workload stretches. If that’s the case, at least DiPietro will be able to face a full group of NHL shooters here and there.
There were advantages from a Canucks perspective to going into the season with DiPietro — who is waiver exempt — as their third goaltender. We saw that with the situation that Edmonton found itself in, not to mention the third-string goaltender carousel that has punctuated this strange hockey season.
Goaltenders need to see game action to develop, to hone their reads. That’s particularly true for young goaltenders at a precocious stage of their development, as DiPietro is. It’s looking increasingly likely DiPietro will end up going something like 18 months or more between professional starts, and it’s impossible to know what kind of lasting impact that will have on his development.
DiPietro is a pure competitor and a positive kid with excellent character. If anyone can be resilient through this, the organization believes it’s him and it may be right. He’s been put in a brutal situation, though, and it risks delaying his arrival as an NHL-ready goaltender or even seriously damaging his overall development as a player.
3. Kole Lind, RW/C, Utica Comets (AHL)
33rd overall, 2017
6-foot-1, 179 pounds
One of the Canucks’ biggest needs over the next couple of years is being able to add quality, affordable depth to the middle and bottom end of the roster. An internal option that they could have up their sleeve to someday soon fill one of the middle-six wings is Kole Lind.
The former second-round pick is a playmaking winger who can set the table for his line-mates. He’s not very dynamic but is methodical in assessing his passing options, relying on his strong vision to make smart decisions and spot the undetected open man.
This year he’s shifted to the middle, centering a line with Sven Baertschi and Sam Anas. We don’t think this is likely to stick as a long-term fit; it’s been pointed out that he hasn’t been playing the best two-way hockey at centre, but that’s to be expected from a natural winger making such a big change. At this point, we view the transition as something that will add to his future versatility rather than something that will necessarily be the stepping stone for his NHL career.
Offensively, Lind’s off to a fast start in the goal-scoring department, predominantly driven by power-play success. He’s become a multi-dimensional threat with both one-time and tip goals from the bumper in the middle and has also buried a couple from the left circle while the team was getting set in its formation.
Without the puck, Lind is growing into the kind of qualities that could help him carve out a bottom-six grinder role in the event his offence doesn’t fully develop. The Saskatchewan native is physical, breaks up plays on the forecheck and has a tendency to get under opponents’ skin.
To hit his offensive ceiling, Lind will need to improve the acceleration in his first two steps. That would allow him to be able to make more plays in transition and would ensure he can be involved enough with the puck at an NHL pace to leverage the playmaking attributes he owns. Without adding to that quickness, he’ll have a tough time finding the time and space to set up chances.
It’s not that Lind is slow per se, he just often struggles to separate from backpressure. If he can continue to make strides in that area of his game, he has a good shot at maturing into a handy playmaker who also offers some grinder qualities.
2. Jack Rathbone, LD, Utica Comets (AHL)
95th overall, 2017
5-foot-11, 190 pounds
The top two prospects in the Canucks system, with Jack Rathbone clocking in at No. 2, may as well be in their own tier. There’s a pretty good probability they could both hit as impact NHLers, and sooner rather than later.
For Rathbone, one scrimmage in particular stood out at training camp in encapsulating his game. Playing against NHL competition, his mobility was a legitimate difference-maker in all three zones. He looked like the club’s second-best skater on the back end after Quinn Hughes, swiftly turning the dime on his side’s transition game with a steady stream of clean defensive zone exits. The 21-year-old led puck rushes on his own, activated on the rush and looked especially dangerous dancing from the point during in-zone offensive play.
There was one play where he faked a slap shot from the left point to freeze the forward, burst down the half-wall with the space created and fired a sneaky cross-seam pass to the weak side that was inches away from being a glorious one-timer chance from the right faceoff dot. It’s his signature move in the offensive zone, and he pulled it off to near perfection against NHL competition.
Rathbone wasn’t a shy first-year player trying to tread water, he tried to be a difference-maker on every shift. The confidence was oozing in his game. For all the good, however, you could tell that the details of his game were just a little bit raw. There was a rush up the ice where he was forced to the outside lane and instead of being able to blow by the neutral zone trap, he got stripped of the puck at the offensive blue line. The puck went back the other way, with Rathbone caught out of position, and Marc Michaelis buried a goal to cap off the counterattack.
Those who’ve watched Rathbone closely in NCAA play last year would know this isn’t a one-off mistake, that this kind of sequence where he successfully creates the exit but gets forced to the outside lane, rubbed out along the boards and turns the puck over does surface is an issue that needs to be ironed out. There were other minor things like the way he’d accept or make D-to-D passes that would lead to the occasional mistake from time to time, too.
If we’re to compare camp performances, Olli Juolevi was like the Toyota Corolla with the safe, predictable, reliable showing while Rathbone was the flashy high-end sports car that needed a little bit better handling to keep traction on the road. Rathbone clearly looked like he had a significantly higher ceiling than Juolevi, but it was evident he has some areas to fine-tune before being NHL ready.
After being sent from the taxi squad to the AHL, the former fourth-round pick is getting exactly the kind of professional experience under his belt to do that. Rathbone has shown a ton of dynamic skill in Utica. His elite transition impact has come as advertised, he’s aggressively jumped down the half-wall to wheel around the attacking zone and, most important, he has complemented that creative ability with a level of poise and maturity of when to make something happen and when to be more conservative and responsible.
That’s an encouraging sign because the two hurdles that scouts have mentioned in discussing Rathbone’s NHL readiness are his risk-to-reward reads and defensive play. The former simply refers to the kind of turnover he had in camp, where he was overly aggressive and skated himself into trouble, and there were also other situations in college where he’d try threading the needle or forcing a cross-ice pass through traffic in the offensive zone.
This is a common trait of young offensive defencemen; they can sometimes try to do a little bit too much. The organization is well aware of this and very confident it can work with him to refine this part of his game.
There could be growing defensive pains, but one observer felt those concerns were overblown. He noted Rathbone is a hard-nosed competitor who handled himself pretty well physically in battles down low during his viewings. Defending the rush, he excels by playing very aggressive gaps, including one play in Utica where he used a fake stutter step to force an oncoming attack offside.
It’s also worth mentioning that, while a player like Quinn Hughes stands out for his smaller stature, Rathbone really didn’t look undersized at all when we saw him at camp — at least from our vantage point at the 400 level.
Offensively, Rathbone’s calling card is unquestionably his shooting ability. He has a rocket of a slap shot and a deceptive, accurate wrist shot too. The former can be seen on this one-timer power-play goal in the AHL. This ability to beat goalies from distance makes him a lethal trailer option when activating on the rush, though it’s also been pointed out that he could stand to be more of a distributor rather than always going shot-first in some spots.
In an ordinary season, you’d expect that Rathbone would continue building confidence in the AHL and then perhaps get a cameo at the end of the year for him to get a taste of the big-league competition level. That may not happen this year because of the bonus-related complications with recalling him, but the way he’s trending now, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see Rathbone make a serious pitch to crack the opening roster in the fall.
1. Vasily Podkolzin, RW, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)
10th overall, 2020
6-foot-4, 203 pounds
The Russian right winger has the highest ceiling and is the most NHL-ready prospect, and since there’s a lot to dissect about his game and the year he had developmentally, we decided to go deep on Podkolzin’s status as Vancouver’s top prospect.
Podkolzin had a difficult season punctuated by long stretches in and out of the lineup, a concussion and a dynamic but polarizing World Juniors performance that didn’t result in gold for the Russian team he captained.
With SKA St. Petersburg in the second round of the Gagarin Cup playoffs, it’s also looking increasingly likely Podkolzin won’t be able to make his NHL debut this season. The Canucks believe that Podkolzin is NHL-ready, and would be eager for their top prospect to sign his entry-level contract and begin his big-league career as soon as possible.
Podkolzin’s availability this season is conditional on an almost dizzying number of factors that are well outside his direct control — and the Canucks’ for that matter. The fate of his KHL club in the playoffs is the first domino, but thereafter, he’ll remain formally under contract through the end of April.
He’d require special permission from SKA, upon the conclusion of the season, to sign his entry-level contract before the expiry of his deal, which would require some epic, likely impossible political maneuvering on the Canucks and Podkolzin’s camp. And if special permission isn’t granted, since the Canucks play their last regular-season game on May 8 and Podkolzin’s entry into Canada would be subject to a two-week quarantine, it’s unlikely he will debut in the NHL this season.
It’s been a really tough year to evaluate Podkolzin. There have been many ups and downs with no shortage of extraneous factors clouding the picture. To begin the season, Podkolzin saw limited ice time with SKA St. Petersburg, notching just four points in his first 19 games while averaging less than 12 minutes per contest. There was some nervous tension in Vancouver about the lack of production, but there’s little reason to worry.
The KHL is not a development league, and the truth is that counting stats aren’t often great predictive indicators for deep powerhouse teams like SKA or CSKA Moscow. Nikita Kucherov, for instance, scored just five points in 18 games for CSKA during his draft-plus-one season, in limited minutes. There’s also been plenty of speculation that Podkolzin’s lack of opportunity was partially political, potentially motivated by the fact that he’s leaving for North America after rejecting a lucrative multi-year extension offer at the 2019 NHL Draft.
Moreover, when he did play, it was without power-play time and typically on a fourth line with offensively limited grinders. One rival KHL executive told The Athletic at the time that Vancouver’s best prospect felt the heat to simplify his game. “It’s about trust and the right to make errors,” he said. “SKA has (an) overfilled roster, any mistake — you’re benched. It’s a big pressure (for Podkolzin).”
That’s not to say his lack of production in the early going should be completely excused, but there’s a lot of crucial context behind it. At the Karjala Cup, Podkolzin had five points in three games for the Russians, but his World Junior Championship performance was a bit of a mixed bag. Captaining Russia, Podkolzin looked great in that he was consistently driving play, creating chances (many of which his linemates flubbed) and was leaned on as a leader in all situations, but the bottom line was a little bit underwhelming, with four points in seven games.
More recently, Podkolzin has rediscovered his scoring touch with five goals and eight points in his last 15 games between the regular season and playoffs, with all but one of the points coming at even strength. Watching Podkolzin play, the No. 1 thing that stands out is how much of a possession driver he is. He’s not a flashy, game-breaking forward but makes subtle, intelligent plays all over the ice to help his line establish dominant puck and territorial control. Privately tracked data has typically revealed stellar underlying numbers, which is very impressive considering he’s a 19-year-old playing in one of the toughest men’s leagues in the world.
Teammates will love playing with Podkolzin because he’s willing to do so much of the tedious, detail-oriented grunt work along the walls, on the backcheck and in the defensive zone to retrieve the puck. He doesn’t play like a teenager at all. He looks like a 10-year veteran. His two-way commitment, nonstop motor, strong wall work and the fact that he’s killed penalties for SKA makes him an NHL-ready product, and if given a few years, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him emerge as one of the NHL’s premier shutdown, matchup wingers who can add a ton of value with his play driving.
What will ultimately determine his ceiling, however, will be his offensive impact? In this facet, he may need time to develop and unlock all of his tools. For this reason, we could definitely see a path where he marinates in the bottom six for a while before emerging as an impact player. Canucks fans may need to have some patience. The potential for him to be a top-six power forward is evident, though. Podkolzin has excellent hands with which he can make moves in high-traffic areas, protects the puck very well in all three zones and attacks the net aggressively when he sees daylight. Couple this with the physical presence that he adds and that’s why he’s earned the tag as a potential power forward. Despite that, his best offensive attribute is probably his playmaking ability. He excels in this department because of his vision, how he can mix speeds to be unpredictable and his knack for being able to go against the grain with passes, especially on the cycle.
The Canucks currently employ a system in which they like to play a fast north-south game and rely on their wingers to win pucks on the forecheck and battles along the wall, and offensively, the club generates most of its chances and goals off the cycle. This system feels like it goes hand in hand with Podkolzin’s skill set.
In terms of areas to improve, the organization wants to see him become a better finisher. Podkolzin has the finesse to convert on net drives from in tight and if you give him time and space to load up he does have a good shot, but that kind of excess room to shoot is rare at the NHL level. When time and space are constricted, his shot needs to have a stronger, more explosive release. Scouts have also pointed out that while Podkolzin’s overall pace is good, the technique behind his stride is quite inefficient and causes him to lose power.
It may take Podkolzin some time to hit his offensive ceiling but the foundation of his game is really strong. The Canucks’ top prospect is physically assertive, sees the ice well as a playmaker, drives the net and has tremendous two-way play-driving qualities. NHL teams talk all the time about wanting players “you can win with.” That may sound like a vague, cliché term but if Podkolzin hits his potential, he’ll be the perfect embodiment of that as a tertiary piece to help out Vancouver’s high-end skill in the top six.
NHL News & Notes – It boggles the mind how the Toronto sports media continues to overrate the Maple Leafs. In the latest TSN Power Rankings, the Leafs were placed second in the entire league behind only Colorado. Yes, Tampa, Vegas, Carolina, Washington and the Islanders were all rated behind Toronto even though each of those teams had fewer losses at the start of the week. The Leafs have benefitted more than any team from this year’s schedule. The Canadian division lacks even one team that could be considered elite. Case in point, the St. Louis Blues are scrambling for a playoff spot in the West Division. 18 of their final 21 games are against Colorado, Minnesota and Vegas. I wonder how the Leafs would fare running that gauntlet. Meantime, ESPN, in their weekly Power Rankings, had the Leafs in 9th place. Greg Wynshynski and Emily Kaplan do a great job with ESPN’s hockey coverage and unlike their Toronto counterparts, they are actually non-partisan in their reporting.
Also this week, TSN released Craig Button’s list of the Top 75 NHL prospects. Not surprisingly, considering the Toronto bias, Button had five Leaf prospects among the top 75 led by defenceman Rasmus Sandin at #14. Button had only one Canuck among his selections and inexplicably placed Vasily Podkolzin at #50 which is beyond heresy. He had Senators defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker at #44 and Avalanche defenseman Justin Barron at #68. Canucks prospect Jack Rathbone did not make the list. I guarantee you that JBD, Barron and Rathbone will have better careers than Sandin.
It’s no wonder U.S. media types are finally making noise about this year’s NHL schedule and the tedious back-to-back-to-back games against the same team. Don’t know about you but I’ve had enough of that. It may work in baseball but not in hockey. Two in a row, maybe, but three straight, forget it.
Flames water bug Johnny Gaudreau recently played in his 500th NHL game. When asked to comment on the milestone, Flames coach Darryl Sutter, uttered the quote-of-the-year when he said, in typically cursory fashion, “If you’re just basing it on his 500th game tonight, hopefully he has more energy than in his 499th.” Nobody inserts the needle better than Sutter.
There is a growing consensus around the hockey industry that the Flames are in need of a major overhaul. Far too many unproductive forwards. Too weak down the middle. Gaudreau and Sean Monahan could benefit from a fresh start elsewhere. Outside of Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm and young Dillon Dube, there’s not much else up front that other GM’s would covet.
Where would the Leafs be without Jack “Scotch Broth” Campbell? He’s been a revelation filling in for Freddie “Krueger” Andersen. Campbell has a 8-0 record and a 1.35 GAA and a .951 save percentage. He could make Leaf fans forget Dunc Wilson.
What a story being fashioned in Winnipeg where mammoth defenceman Logan Stanley is finally making his mark in the Jets lineup. The Jets moved up in the 2016 draft to select Stanley 18th overall. Many thought the 6’7”, 228 pound D-man was a draft bust and sure to be left unprotected in the upcoming Seattle expansion draft. Not so quick. Stanley was a minus player only once in his first 23 NHL games. Don’t be surprised if the Jets protect Stanley, Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk and leave Dylan DeMelo available to be selected by the Kraken.
Trade Deadline Analysis – After looking at the Canadian division last week and with the NHL trade deadline fast approaching on April 12, we thought it was time to take a tour around the rest of the NHL and see what each team may be planning. Here’s our assessment of what may come down by the end of business on Monday. Frankly, we do not forecast a whole lot of action. I would not want to be producing TSN’s Trade Deadline show. Get ready for plenty of filler.
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $8.7 million
Boston has significant needs and plenty of money to spend so expect the Bruins to be active. Scoring is a big issue. The Bruins have played five games against the lowly Devils without scoring a single 5-on-5 goal. The Bruins could make a play for Rickard Rakell or Kyle Palmieri. Filip Forsberg would be the ultimate ‘get.’ The Bruins will need to protect Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo in the expansion draft so Mattias Ekholm does not make sense. Arizona’s Alex Goligoski would seem more likely. Don’t rule out a big swing at Taylor Hall.
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $1.8 million
Working out of this minefield will be very difficult. Don’t expect the Sabres to move Jack Eichel until the summer. If the Sabres are willing to eat some of Taylor Hall’s $8 million contract, he may be moved. Boston, Carolina and Columbus are all teams that fit. The most interesting name here might be Brandon Montour. He’s a talented offensive defenseman whose productivity has cratered in Buffalo. Go figure. If you’re interested in a pending UFA with a $3.85 million cap hit and a right shot — and at the deadline, most contenders are — he makes sense.
New Jersey Devils
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $38.1 million
Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes are centerpieces. Ty Smith is a young, talented defenseman who isn’t going anywhere. Mackenzie Blackwood is a goalie worth keeping. Other than that, everything’s on the table. Kyle Palmieri at $4.65 million should draw plenty of interest. Sami Vatanen, Dmitry Kulikov and Ryan Murray are decent depth defensemen for contending teams. The Devils would love to dump P.K. Subban but his contract prohibits it.
New York Islanders
Projected Deadline Cap Space: Zero
The Isles could use another forward and depth defenseman but they’re capped out. Their deadline will need to be money-in, money-out. Losing captain Anders Lee to a season-ending injury was a huge blow. A player like Mikael Granlund — a versatile forward on an expiring deal, capable of adding something to the middle six — would make sense here, but the necessary salary maneuvering makes projecting anything difficult. All of this, of course, comes with the Lou Lamoriello disclaimer. The man has gotten his way for decades. As it stands, this a good-not-great team without a clear path for improving.
New York Rangers
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $4.47 million
The Rangers don’t have much to offer at the deadline with only two UFA’s who have little or no value. Eichel will be the target this summer. Brett Howden and Julian Gauthier both could wind up as trade candidates. They are useful players who are on track to be exposed in the expansion draft. It’s easy to see the Rangers essentially standing pat. As for wayward defenceman Tony DeAngelo, there’s no sense in dumping him now, even if another team, all of a sudden, had interest. He makes more sense as expansion draft fodder or a down-the-line buyout.
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $5.1 million
The Flyers ship has been drifting for weeks. Philly is a mess defensively so a move for Ekholm or any other quality defenseman should be front and center. Acquiring Ekholm would create protection problems and open the door to potentially exposing Travis Sanheim or Philippe Myers. The Flyers have far too many high-priced players not playing up to their pay scale. Shredding salary is never easy which makes Chuck Fletcher’s job all the more difficult. You may see the Flyers wait until the summer to blow it up.
Projected Deadline Cap Space: 750,000
The Penguins are desperate for another playoff run. They are another team caught in a cap bind. Nothing of consequence is coming back without something going out. So that’s where the discussion starts; if the Penguins are actually out to add, it will only be a depth move. Perhaps a centre with Evgeni Malkin injured. Erik Haula may be a potential target. Defenseman Marcus Pettersson is available. The Pens are stuck with Mike Matheson’s albatross contract so he’s not going anywhere.
Projected Deadline Cap Space: Zero
The Caps have had an outstanding season despite losing goalie Ilya Samsonov to a COVID-related setback. Backup Vitek Vanecek isn’t quite ready to start on a contender. Do the Caps clear space to pick at an underwhelming goalie rental market, or just roll with the young guys? All things considered, GM Brian MacLellan should focus on adding a forward. Washington won’t add much to the books moving forward with new contracts for Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana looming.
Projected Deadline Cap Space: Zero
The Ducks will miss the playoffs for a third straight season. This season should mark the end of the Ryan Getzlaf era. He would be a wise pick-up for a contending team looking for veteran help down the middle. Expect teams to kick tires on Rickard Rakell who has another season left on his team-friendly $3.79 million contract. If the Ducks are coerced into trading Rakell, the asking price will certainly be much steeper than what a team would have to pay for a straight rental.
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $9.24 million
Who knows what this dysfunctional franchise will do? The Coyotes have a totally new hockey operations department and the organization doesn’t appear to be in win-now mode. Instead, Arizona would benefit from adding draft picks since their 2020 NHL Draft class was a complete bust. The Coyotes will be sure to be dangling Alex Goligoski and Niklas Hjalmarsson to contending teams. Moving Conor Garland, as widely rumoured, would be a huge mistake.
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $1.29 million
Colorado could be one of the teams in the market for a veteran backup goalie in the next month, as Pavel Francouz remains sidelined with a lower-body injury. The Avalanche don’t have a ton of cap space, so GM Joe Sakic may not be as aggressive as he would like around the deadline. The Avs may also be looking to add some forward depth to complement their big guns, but with the expansion draft on the horizon, the Avs will need to be careful not to add another player that requires protection. They are already likely to lose a quality player in the expansion draft.
Los Angeles Kings
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $43.7 million
Let’s put the Kings down as sellers as it stands right now because that was their original plan heading into this season. The Kings have been one of the surprise teams in 2021 so they should stay the course. Rob Blake would like to add an experienced, left-shot defenseman to his blue line. Alex Iafallo is trade bait. Veteran winger Dustin Brown is on the block but carries a big ticket.
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $4.8 million
The Wild are in a similar spot to the Kings — a West Division team that could either be a buyer or a seller at the deadline depending on their spot in the standings. GM Bill Guerin has a handful of potential UFAs he could ship out, but he could also opt to hang onto some of them as “own rentals” if the Wild remain in the thick of the playoff race. Nick Bonino and Nick Bjugstad have been underwhelming offensively, so improving productivity at center would certainly be one of the goals at the deadline.
San Jose Sharks
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $10.4 million
A second straight disastrous season has the Sharks in the seller’s category again. With most of the Sharks core locked into long-term, expensive contracts, GM Doug Wilson’s hands are tied. Devan Dubnyk should be available for teams looking for a goalie, but his career playoff numbers are terrible. The best scenario for the Sharks would be if one of the team’s established stars — such as Brent Burns — asks for a change of scenery.
St. Louis Blues
Projected Deadline Cap Space: Zero
The Blues have been ravaged by injuries to key players this season, a situation that has made it difficult for GM Doug Armstrong to properly evaluate his club. Vladimir Tarasenko returned to the lineup recently, injecting the club with some much-needed skill and experience. But the status of Colton Parayko, Tyler Bozak, and Ivan Barbashev is still unclear — leaving Armstrong uncertain of how much money he’ll have to play with at the deadline. The fact the Blues have managed to stay in the playoff fight despite the injuries says a lot about this team. But with only two wins in the last ten games, Armstrong would like to make at least one addition. The Sens Ryan Dzingel might make some sense.
Vegas Golden Knights
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $140,931
The Golden Knights are always looking to make a splash around the trade deadline. Last year, they landed Robin Lehner and Alec Martinez. The season before that they reeled in the biggest fish in Mark Stone. In their first year, they pushed all their chips into the middle of the table to acquire Tomas Tatar. With little cap space, the Golden Knights may be content with their combination of top-six forwards, so any addition would likely be a depth forward added to the bottom-six group.
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $11.7 million
The Hurricanes are the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL. They are an elite team and don’t get enough respect. Maybe they can turn one bit of business — clearing their logjam of decent defensemen ahead of the expansion draft — into another. Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury seem like potential candidates for GM Don Waddell to move. They also have new deals for Dougie Hamilton and Andrei Svechnikov to worry about, so adding long-term money doesn’t make much sense. A veteran right-shot defenseman is a definite need. David Savard would be the ideal addition. Teams needing a veteran goaltender may make a call on the Canes James Reimer.
Projected Deadline Cap Space: Zero
The Blackhawks never thought they would be in this position. They are battling for a playoff spot yet need to look to the future. Dylan Strome is available and on the market. He’s young (24), cheap ($3 million, one year remaining), productive and would immediately become one of the best centers available. Moving forward, the Blackhawks have Kirby Dach, Jonathan Toews, Philipp Kurashev and Pius Suter as options down the middle. Mattias Janmark would be a decent depth forward option for several teams. Another interesting name is Calvin de Haan. His contract ($4.55 million AAV, one year remaining) is rough, but the defense market isn’t deep.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $7 million
The Blue Jackets need to come to grips with their season. They are a borderline playoff team and have multiple movable pieces on the roster. We’ll start with David Savard, who checks a whole lot of attractive boxes. He’s 30, a right shot D-man and on an expiring deal with a $4.25 million AAV. That alone makes him valuable. Throw in the fact he’s darn good and you’ve got a nice piece. The line for Savard will be a long one. Please, put in a call to Winnipeg! Nick Foligno is on an expiring deal as well ($5.5 million AAV), but his situation is a lot more complicated; he’s the captain, with deep ties to the franchise and city, and he has a no-movement clause. Who’s to say both sides wouldn’t be interested in a trade to a contender then an offseason return?
Projected Deadline Cap Space: Zero
Given where Dallas is in the division, moving out guys like Blake Comeau and Mark Pysyk should be a foregone conclusion, even if the return is minimal. There’s no point in keeping them around. Get an asset, move on and hope next season is less of an injury-filled disaster. Andrew Cogliano is a reliable, versatile bottom-six option, even if he’s not going to get anyone 20-plus-goal production at this point in his career. Jamie Oleksiak, as a better player, presents a more interesting case. He’s a positive possession player with solid expected goal numbers, a nice cap hit ($2.137 million) and a very good postseason performance in his recent past. Throw in that he’s a left shot who can play the right side, and he should be on the radar.
Detroit Red Wings
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $39.1 million
The Bobby Ryan and Marc Staal era in Detroit, someday, will be judged as a full-on success. The 33-year-old Ryan has more than justified his $1 million deal. It’s easy to see GM Steve Yzerman flipping him to a team looking for some offensive ability on a third line. Luke Glendening will be an interesting fourth-line center addition for some team. John Merrill, Patrick Nemeth and Sam Gagner are available at little cost. The bigger question is how closely Yzerman would listen to calls about guys like Tyler Bertuzzi and Anthony Mantha, and whether Jonathan Bernier is the best goalie on the market. It’s going to be a busy in Detroit.
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $16.3 million
The loss of defenseman Aaron Ekblad to a leg fracture is a devastating blow to the overachieving Panthers. It puts pressure on Florida to try and acquire a right-shot D-man which is never easy at the best of times. Although he shoots left, a Blackhawk reunion between Joel Quenneville and Niklas Hjalmarsson seems like a no-brainer. The good news is the Panthers have plenty of cap space. While they would like to add along the blueline and perhaps a body up front, the Panthers won’t jeopardize their future. There is no reason to sell, yet Florida may have no choice but to move goaltender Chris Dreidger. They will likely lose him in the expansion draft and could get a decent asset in return.
Projected Deadline Cap Space: $13.3 million
The for-sale sign is up in Nashville. Anyone not named Roman Josi can probably be had for the right price. Mattias Ekholm is the best defensemen on the market. Mikael Granlund’s name has been widely circulated. Filip Forsberg is a perennial 30-goal scorer. He could net a Mark Stone-type package with a first-round pick and a top prospect coming back. Calle Jarnkrok ($2 million AAV, one year remaining) can chip in 10-15 goals with decent possession numbers in the middle of a lineup. Viktor Arvidsson’s contract ($4.25 million AAV, three years remaining) isn’t good, but he’s still just 27 with 29-31-and-34-goal seasons on his resume.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Projected Deadline Cap Space: Zero
We’re calling the best team in hockey “buyers” because there’s no reason for them to sell, but their cap situation remains dire. The only reason they’re in the clear for this season is Nikita Kucherov’s LTIR designation. GM Julien BriseBois might be wise to acquire Brent Seabrook’s contract from Chicago as another way to free up space for next year — but that’s not a hockey trade, and it comes with its own set of challenges. So, expect Tampa Bay to let it ride and try to defend the Cup. There are worse situations.
High Hopes – If you caught the Blue Jays opening day win over the New York Yankees, you have to be encouraged about the Jays prospects this season. It was an incredible game with a promising outcome. Julian Merryweather came on in relief in the tenth inning and nailed down a 3-2 victory by striking out the side on 11 pitches. His fastball was clocked at 99 mph and his change was registering around 79 mph. That kind of range between pitches is unheard of. Obviously, the Yankees had no answer. With closer Kirby Yates shut down for the entire season with his second Tommy John surgery, Merryweather may end up being a huge factor. Most encouraging were the numerous outstanding defensive plays turned in during the game, a definite weak spot last season. Vladdy Guerrero Jr. looks poised for a breakout season. He ripped the first pitch he saw this season from Gerrit Cole up the middle for a base hit. The ball had an exit velocity of 114 mph.
The Blue Jays need to stay the course even if things don’t go as planned this season. The Jays need to resist adopting a win-now mentality before the time is right. The Chicago Cubs won a World Series but may have kept their window for contention open much longer had they resisted selling top prospects for immediate help. You will remember they sent shortstop Gleyber Torres to the Yankees for a package that included reliever Aroldis Chapman who signed back with New York at the end of the season. The Cubs also dealt Eloy Jiminez to the White Sox for a package that included pitcher Jose Quintana. The Jays would be smart to avoid those kinds of mistakes.
The Blue Jays payroll is set at $141 million which puts them in the top 10-13 range in major league baseball, a healthy bump from $118 million last season. The Jays are fortunate to have an ownership group that has stayed the course despite the pandemic interruption. It’s a competitive advantage that’s helped the Jays continue charting an upward course. The Jays benefitted last season from an expanded playoff format which had eight teams in each league in the post-season. This year, we are back to only five playoff teams. Get ready for 162 games in 185 days. It’s going to be a fun ride.
2021 MLB Pre-Season Preview – We are not in the prediction business so we will sidestep any pre-season divisional prognostications. However, we will serve up a few observations as the ’21 season gets underway.
Fantasy Picks – Here’s a couple of names that you may want to keep under your hat if you are playing any Fantasy Baseball. We like Alejandro Kirk of the Blue Jays. You might want to take a flyer on Mariners second baseman Ty France. He’s got a live bat. We also like Arizona second baseman Josh Rojas. Don’t be surprised if Canada’s Jameson Taillon has a huge bounce-back year now that he is wearing Yankee pinstripes. Left-hander Logan Allen is a break-out candidate with the Cleveland Indians. He has been opening eyes in training camp. Texas first baseman Ronald Guzman has a ton of power and could fly under the radar in fantasy pools. Indians right fielder Franmil Reyes is another big bat that could bust out this season.
Most Likely to be Dealt – There are several players heading into the final year of their contracts who could be on the move by the trading deadline. The Cubs are looking to deal third baseman Kris Bryant. The Cubs could be convinced to move shortstop Javier Baez who’s also a free agent at the end of the season. Slugger Joey Gallo of the Texas Rangers can be had for the right price. It would take a bounty but the Indians might consider a deal involving third baseman Jose Ramirez. Ace left-handed reliever Josh Hader would be a great pick-up from the Milwaukee Brewers for any contending team. Outfielder Starling Marte is the best hitter in the Marlins lineup but everyone’s available in Miami so you may as well inquire.
Rookies to Watch – There is no shortage of fine young players who are on the verge of making an impact at the major league level. Here are a few who will be arriving very soon.
Nick Pratto, 1B, Kansas City: The 22-year-old Pratto, chosen 14th in the 2017 draft, lit up the Royals’ alternate site last year and has continued to rake this spring. Kansas City signed Carlos Santana to a two-year deal this winter, but with Jose Soler potentially leaving via free agency, Santana could slide to the DH slot and open up first for Pratto in 2022.
Jonathan India, 3B, Cincinnati: The fifth pick in the 2018 draft, India has wowed the Reds this spring and should find himself in Cincinnati sooner than later. The Reds are so enamored of him they tested out third baseman Eugenio Suarez at shortstop this spring.
Adley Rutschman, C, Baltimore: The Orioles have seen this before — a pedigreed, switch-hitting catcher who has all the makings of a star. Baltimore is banking on Rutschman doing what Matt Weiters never could: turn into one. Evaluators are convinced it’s only a matter of time before the No. 1 overall pick in 2019 becomes the best catcher in the AL.
Aaron Ashby, SP, Milwaukee: With an over-the-top delivery and a predilection for varying the timing of his delivery, the 22-year-old Ashby has impressed evaluators. His slider is an absolutely devastating pitch. Couple the slider with a mid-90s fastball, and Ashby — the nephew of longtime pitcher Andy Ashby — has been a breakout star this spring.
Riley Greene, CF, Detroit: For a 20-year-old, Greene has uncommon poise and presence and has positioned himself to be at the center of the next generation of Tigers. One evaluator thinks he could play — and play well — in the big leagues right now. Detroit will take its time and unleash its young pitching — Matt Manning, Tarek Skubal and Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 — at the big league level before Greene (chosen fifth in what is looking like a generationally strong 2019 draft) and 2020 No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson arrive.
Trevor Megill, RP, Chicago Cubs: Megill is an absolute giant, 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, and with a fastball from the left side that touches triple digits, he’ll almost certainly pitch at Wrigley Field this season. Unlike those on this list before him, Megill is wizened: 27 years old, a Rule 5 pick in 2020 from the Padres and without much real projection left. He is what he is, and what he is may be good.
Willi Castro, SS, Detroit: The Tigers aren’t sure if the 23-year-old Castro is a shortstop long-term, but they are confident he can really hit. In 140 plate appearances last season, he hit .349, and this year will be a test of both his versatility to potentially switch to another position and ability to sustain a reasonable-enough semblance of production for a season that he positions himself alongside that Greene-Torkelson core.
Jarren Duran, CF, Boston: Never has Duran’s athleticism been in question. It’s simply been a matter of whether he’d hit at higher levels. His swing has been locked in all spring, and if Franchy Cordero doesn’t perform in right field, Alex Verdugo can slide back to a corner, where he played last season, and open up center for Duran.
Wander Franco, SS, Tampa Bay: The best prospect in baseball left major league camp with a titanic home run added to his résumé and aspirations of playing in the big leagues this season clearly on his mind. If Franco does at Double-A or Triple-A what he did at both Class A levels in 2019, the Rays won’t be able to deny him. Especially if he succeeds at second base and third base like he has every other challenge given him.
NFL News & Notes – Don’t be surprised if quarterbacks go 1-2-3-and-4 in the upcoming NFL Draft. Acquiring a franchise quarterback in the NFL is a fool’s paradise. Since 2015, 20 quarterbacks have been selected in the first round. If Sam Darnold of the Jets is traded as expected, nine of those QB selections will no longer be with the team that drafted them. That’s nearly a 50% whiff rate.
The San Francisco 49’ers didn’t finagle their way into the third overall pick without having a QB in mind. Right now, it looks like Trevor Lawrence will go first overall to Jacksonville, Zach Wilson of BYU next to the New York Jets, then it’s either Justin Fields of Ohio State or Trey Lance of North Dakota State to the 49’ers. Fields is the likely choice, leaving Atlanta to select Lance, who’s only 20 and the wild-card in this year’s draft. He made only 17 starts in his college career. Neither 49’er coach Kyle Shanahan nor GM John Lynch attended the Pro Day for Trey Lance so it’s doubtful they have him in their sights.
If the 49’ers are indeed considering drafting Fields, I would not put any stock in the fact that he clocked a 4.4 in the 40 at his Pro Day. I could care less. Can he process what’s in front of him and make good decisions with the football? Can he read defenses and throw into tight coverage? That’s all I want to know. The 49’ers claim Jimmy Garoppolo will be their starting quarterback next season but he’s clearly on the clock.
Getting a top quarterback is costly business. Matthew Stafford cost the Rams a pair of first-round picks and a third. The 49’ers gave up this year’s first pick, 12th overall, plus two additional first-round picks and a third to move up to third overall. Man, if you swing and miss, it sets your program back immeasurably.
Rather than trading up in the draft to select a quarterback who may not live up to expectations, would quarterback-needy NFL teams not be better off trying to pry Deshaun Watson out of Houston despite the current sexual misconduct allegations against him? If Watson is steadfast in his refusal to play for the Texans next season, would it not be advisable to move him before the draft? Now that the charges against him have become public, the Texans may have lost their best shot at maximizing his value.
Watson has hired famed attorney Rusty Harding to defend him. Harding is legendary in Texas law. Something tells me Harding will get Watson off with a wrist slap, like it or not. The NFL will certainly have something to say about it in terms of a potential suspension but you can expect Watson to be playing football at some point next season.
Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard had a difficult final season with the Cowboys. The Sherwood Park, Alberta product was hampered by an ankle injury. At his Pro Day this week, he reportedly turned in a 4.36 40-yard time. Still, Hubbard is not expected to be drafted until the third or fourth round.
A Season of Turmoil – Despite winning on Friday night by the largest margin in team history, it’s still been a nightmarish season for the Toronto Raptors. They closed out the month of March with a record of 1-13, the third worst month in club history. The Raptors have lost 15 of their last 18 games. The team went 9-5 in February and appeared to be back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Since then, it’s been a downward spiral. What’s most alarming, in the past six weeks, the Raptors have lost to the cellar-dwelling Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets, a team that had dropped 20 in a row. They’ve also been beaten three times by the Detroit Pistons who have 13 wins all season.
The positive COVID tests that hit Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and O.G. Ogunoby pretty much derailed the season. Each of the three players are saying they often hit a wall in the second half of games and are attributing their lack of energy to the virus. Kyle Lowry has been sidelined with an injury and it may be time to shut him down for the season. If you are keeping score, there’s an outside chance the Raptors could finish in the bottom four in the league and put themselves in position for a draft lottery jackpot.
PGA Notebook – We could have two more Canadians on the PGA Tour next season. Surrey’s Adam Svensson captured the Korn Ferry Tour’s Club Car Championship in a playoff at The Landings Club in Savannah, Georgia last weekend. The win pushes Svensson to 12th in the Korn Ferry standings. The 27-year-old lost his Tour card in 2019 after finishing 167th in the PGA standings. The top 25 at the end of the Korn Ferry season will earn PGA cards for next season. Taylor Pendrith of Richmond Hill, Ontario is currently sitting second in the feeder circuit standings.
Leftovers – It didn’t take long for Sportsnet 650 in Vancouver to take advantage of the demise of TSN 1040. Mike Halford and Jason Brough are now the new morning team on Sportsnet from 6-9am. They replace Perry Solkowski and James Cybulski who were fired in the latest shuffling of the deck chairs. Sportsnet 650 has also switched things around in the other time slots. In addition to a new show on CHEK TV in Victoria with cohort Rick Dhaliwal, Don Taylor will be making regular appearances on the 3-7pm afternoon show.
Amidst all the uncertainty surrounding the future of the CFL is the uncertain future of the BC Lions. The team is currently in the hands of the estate of late owner David Braley. The Lions are reportedly for sale but who is going to purchase the team in the middle of a pandemic and potentially, two cancelled seasons? There has to be concern with how much money is available to continue day-to-day operations. No potential ownership group will look at the Lions right now.
It was great to learn that each of the teams in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four has a Canadian in the lineup. UConn reached their 13th straight Final Four but were upset on Friday night by Arizona. It was welcome news because one of the problems with women’s sports is there is simply not enough competitive balance. We know that’s the case in women’s hockey where the U.S. and Canada dominate but we are also finding it in other sports as well.
Harvard-Westlake High School is a Los Angeles high school baseball powerhouse. A few years ago, their starting pitching staff included Lucas Giolito, now with the White Sox, Max Fried of the Atlanta Braves and Jack Flaherty of the St. Louis Cardinals. They are not just three pitchers who made it to the big leagues. They are three of the best pitchers in all of major league baseball. I sure hope they won the state championship that year.
Spotify Songs of the Week – Here’s a few tracks that we thought you might like to check out this week. Have a listen to “Dyin’ Days” featuring Anders Osbourne and the North Mississippi Allstars. Check out “Wide Eyed and Legless” from “The Very Best of Andy Fairweather Low.” And finally, we recommend the track “Sunset, Santa Fe” from an album by Dave Barnes called “Carry On, San Vincente.”
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