Kaplan’s latest trade deadline buzz: Wild so far, what’s next

Kaplan’s latest trade deadline buzz: Wild so far, what’s next

Wednesday was one of the wackiest NHL days in recent memories. The trade floodgates opened when Florida, which has been searching for luxury names without having give much up, did just that by acquiring Vladimir Tarasenko in the morning for a pair of draft picks and 50% salary.

A flurry followed.

The Edmonton Oilers traded for Adam Henrique and Sam Carrick from Anaheim. The New York Rangers got their third-line center in Alex Wennberg (though they’re not done yet). Philly finally ended its blue-line stalemate, extending Nick Seeler and trading Sean Walker — and the Flyers received the first-round pick they coveted, in exchange for taking on Ryan Johansen‘s contract.

And then we got the deal that shook everyone: 22-year-old Colorado Avalanche defenseman Bowen Byram went to Buffalo in exchange for 25-year-old center Casey Mittelstadt. A former No. 4 draft pick vs. a former No. 8 pick. The deal was one for one.

Then the Vegas Golden Knights ended the night with their typical brash flair, swooping in for Noah Hanifin.

And that might not be as chaotic as what’s going on behind the scenes. The Jake Guentzel sweepstakes are stirring; two of the Penguins’ division rivals (Carolina and New York) have legitimate chances at landing the playoff-ready winger. The Golden Knights and Panthers are in on Guentzel, too — and seeing either of 2023 Stanley Cup Finalists get him after already making moves would totally annoy the rest of the league. But Vancouver has stuck around in an attempt to go bold. On Tuesday, The Athletic’s Chris Johnston said the Canucks were exploring flipping Elias Lindholm to Boston if they can land Guentzel. ESPN’s Kevin Weekes followed that up Wednesday and said the proposed deal could involve sending Jake DeBrusk to the Penguins. I keep hearing the Bruins are plotting something big. The Canes have finished as a finalist in these type of chases before, but rarely for rentals. But sounds like they have as good a shot as anyone for Guentzel.

Outside of Guentzel, the next two days could bring other surprises. Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravalli reported that Blues GM Doug Armstrong is reducing the salary for winger Pavel Buchnevich, who is under contract until 2025, to facilitate a move. Armstrong is seriously looking at shaking up his roster. The Devils haven’t let go on getting Jacob Markstrom yet, but could also be unloading contracts, like Tyler Toffoli’s, considering there’s significant interest and New Jersey didn’t make progress with the winger on a new one.

So what’s going on? One front office executive said he felt teams were being more creative than ever this year. He theorized it could be the effects of the Panthers making it to the Stanley Cup Final as the last team to sneak into the playoffs. The parity is so extreme this season, with so many teams in the hunt for a spot, why not be bold? Anything can happen.

Here are some other notes around the league ahead of Friday’s deadline (coverage on ESPN2/ESPN+ from 2-4 ET).

EVERY TRADE DEADLINE there’s one big open secret everyone in the league catches wind of. Last year, it became increasingly apparent Patrick Kane wanted to go to the Rangers — which manifested, even after New York seemingly chose Vladimir Tarasenko as its trade deadline target over Kane.

This season? Calgary defenseman Noah Hanifin preference was Tampa, and the Flames were going to help him get there. But the deal never got done, as he ended up in Vegas.

The Lightning were a fit; their blue-line depth is thin, especially without Mikhail Sergachev. And they could have fit Hanifin’s $4.95 million salary under the cap by using Sergachev’s long term injured reserve space. But Tampa — which does not have a first- or second-round pick this year, or first-round pick in 2025 — just couldn’t match a compensation offer for Calgary. In recent years Tampa Bay GM Julien BriseBois hasn’t minded raiding the well as long as he signs the player to an extension. (See: Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul, Tanner Jeannot.) Hanifin would’ve likely re-signed in Tampa. But it wasn’t that easy for the Lightning — and it’s possible an extension would have limited their flexibility.

This season feels like an inflection point for Tampa. BriseBois tabled contract talks with captain Steven Stamkos until the summer, signaling a pause in status quo. How long can the Lightning keep going with this group? Or might they have to take a step back to recoup some depth around their star players?

I’ve always believed that how the Lightning handle this trade deadline would be telling. It’s in Tampa’s nature to be aggressive — and often unexpected — this time of year. The Lightning have cap space to spend and needs to fill. How big the Bolts go will tell us a lot about the direction they’re headed.

The rest of the league, by the way, is still bracing for a Tampa surprise. “Wait until Friday,” a rival executive said on Wednesday night. “Julien will probably trade all of his [remaining] draft picks.”

THE FLORIDA PANTHERS have been aggressive looking for upgrades — despite having one of the best teams in the league, and despite limited tradable assets. They were hopeful on Hanifin. They are still hovering around Guentzel. They could take a flier on Max Pacioretty. For now, the Panthers have made one big move with their nearly $6 million in cap space: acquiring Tarasenko for a third-round pick and a conditional fourth-round pick, with 50% of the 32-year-old’s $5 million salary retained. One rival front office executive told me on Tarasenko: “This will probably be the steal of the deadline. I wish we had guys with no-trade clauses who only wanted to come [to my team].”

That’s the big thing with the Panthers: They’re becoming a destination. It feels fitting to talk about Florida after Tampa Bay, because for so many years the Panthers envied what the Lightning had. Players coveted Tampa because of sunshine, favorable taxes and winning culture. Over the past two years, Florida has emerged as a legitimate rival. The Panthers opened a gorgeous new training facility this winter that’s so close to where players live, most drive golf carts to get there. The results are speaking for themselves on the ice.

The Panthers’ pro scouting staff has done an excellent job identifying value players to thrive in their system. But the front office hasn’t been afraid to make difficult, unemotional decisions. To that end, Florida is also gaining a reputation as a place where you can showcase yourself — then get paid elsewhere. Radko Gudas (three-year, $12 million contract in Anaheim) and Alex Lyon (two-year, one-way deal in Detroit) are recent examples. The Panthers will need to make more difficult decisions this summer, with 10 pending UFAs on their roster — most notably Reinhart, Brandon Montour, Gustav Forsling and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. But they’re not going away as a contender anytime soon.

THE VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS put all of their chips on the table. It’s in their DNA. In just seven years of existence, the Golden Knights have been extremely competitive and highly aggressive going after pretty much every big name who becomes available. It feels like ancient history, but they were chasing Erik Karlsson from Ottawa in 2018. They made one of the most impressive deck pitches to Patrick Kane this fall. There have been plenty of examples in between.

Right after Vegas won a Stanley Cup, the front office began plotting ways to win another championship. And so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Golden Knights are active at the deadline yet again — they tend to do a ton of work around this time.

Just think of the players Vegas has acquired at the deadline over the years; many are crucial to the fabric of the organization. Captain Mark Stone, for starters. Also (and not limited to) Alec Martinez, Chandler Stephenson, Ryan Reaves, Robin Lehner, Mattias Janmark, Ivan Barbashev and Jonathan Quick. Let’s set aside conspiracy theories about long term injured reserve. Yes, it’s uncanny they’re missing Stone (and therefore have the ability to spend his $9.5 million cap hit) for the second straight season, but they’d much rather have their heart-and-soul captain than his cap space to spend.

The Golden Knights did their first piece of business acquiring Anthony Mantha for a second- and fourth-round pick at just 50% of his cap hit (just $2.85 million on the books). Mantha’s talent as a true power forward with good hands is undeniable. When he is engaged, he can completely drive play. But the Red Wings gave up on him as part of their core when they realized his age didn’t match their timeline. Then inconsistency plagued Mantha’s time with Washington. He often found himself in former coach Peter Laviolette’s dog house and began this season as a healthy scratch before finding his way under Spencer Carbery. I talked to one of Mantha’s former teammates who predicted a massive impact in Vegas, noting how demanding Bruce Cassidy can be as a coach. “[He] has so much more to give,” the former teammate said. “Put him in the right locker room and culture and you’re going to see the best out of him. He’s going to be a monster for them … just watch.”

And then the Golden Knights’ second move was even bigger as they snagged Hanifin, a dynamic in-his-prime defenseman. The Massachusetts-born Hanifin didn’t want to sign long term in Calgary. He wants to play in the United States, and the Golden Knights were a team he reportedly was interested in signing an extension with.

Most teams would be done after that. Not Vegas. They still could add a forward.

NEW YORK SNAGGED Wennberg as its new third-line center. And the Rangers are not done yet.

They have looked at a ton of options when it comes to forwards. Remember, they are filling the spots of Filip Chytil and Blake Wheeler, both done for the season.

One of New York’s top targets at center was 26-year-old late bloomer Tommy Novak. The Predators tried holding out to see if they could get a haul for Novak, such as a first-round pick. But Nashville played too well to become a seller, and the Predators decided to make Novak part of their future, inking him to a three-year, $10.5 million deal.

Then New York landed on Wennberg, who should fit in quite well. Wennberg is known for his hockey IQ. He long has been an analytics darling, even though his production has rarely matched up to his underlying numbers. He led all Kraken forwards in ice time and had second-line center responsibilities. Pushed down to a third-line role, he should thrive and will help on the penalty kill.

So what’s next for the Rangers? Sounds like they were making a late push on Wednesday to land Guentzel. I know GM Chris Drury was very hesitant about including Kaapo Kakko in a package. New York might not be willing to give up the assets that the Canes (who have a deep prospect pool and could part with a roster player) or the Canucks (who are reportedly trying to engage Boston) can give up. If not Guentzel, it sounds like Frank Vatrano is still an option — though the Rangers initially balked at Anaheim’s high asking price.

I’ve heard the Ducks offered the Rangers a package deal a few weeks ago that included Henrique and Vatrano for Kakko and a first-round pick. The Rangers clearly thought that was too rich for their liking.

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