The thing with the NHL is that everyone thinks they’re in the playoff hunt right up until they’re mathematically eliminated from it. And it’s in no way revelatory to say that’s because of the points system, which ensures that as long as you can get to overtime regularly, it really doesn’t matter how bad you are. You’re always going to look like you’re a three-game winning streak away from being right in the thick of it.
After Saturday night’s games, 11 of the 16 teams in the Eastern Conference were either in a playoff spot or within a point of it. Out west, 12 of 15 were only as far as two points back. There are various issues with games in hand here, of course, given that we’re still sorting through bye weeks — which, by the way, it’s incredibly silly that the league’s bye-week plan this season was “half the league is off one week, the other half the next” — but overall, well, the points system is working as intended.
The NHL and its members teams want to be able to sell competition to fans, which is understandable and fine, because that theoretically wrings a few extra dollars from the gate at every NHL game. When teams are playoff-competitive, they’re more interesting to fans. Makes perfect sense.
But man does it also make the month before the trade deadline boring and bad. There’s no deader spot in the schedule than Games 40-60, and that there are basically no sellers in the league right now despite all the evidence in the world that there are a ton of teams that just aren’t that good is a real problem.
Take Florida, for instance. They ended Saturday seven points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, held by the Penguins. Seven points might as well be a mile, especially because there are three teams between them and the reigning Cup champs. And yet, Dale Tallon says he will only make a trade if it makes sense in the long-term planning surrounding the team. He also said, “We’re not in the playoffs right now, so we have to get there.” Which is to say that this team is either going to buy or doing very little in the coming weeks.
It’s not that the Panthers have too many guys they would likely be interested in moving, or which teams would be interested in trading for, but this attitude is illustrative of a wider problem in the NHL: Everyone believes in their heart of hearts that they’re just a trade or two away from being competitive. We, of course, know this isn’t the case; unless the Panthers are trading futures for Connor McDavid (and hey, he might be available for the right price!) they’re not getting into the postseason, full stop.
Likewise, the Ottawa Senators, whose record is even worse than the Panthers’, acknowledge that their season is effectively over and is now exploring trade possibilities (at least in terms of which guys would fetch what prices), but note that it’s “too early to throw in the towel yet.” It, of course, is quite the opposite; the towel could have been safely thrown in at any point in the past month and a half at least.
Montreal also said this past week it wasn’t going to throw in the towel. Edmonton is apparently only making Anton Slepyshev available right now. Vancouver is in the middle of what is apparently a model rebuild (haha) but they’re not ready to trade Thomas Vanek quite yet.
Even Arizona, dead last in another lost season, hasn’t made the call to put Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the block. This is a guy every GM in the league would push their grandmothers in front of a bus to acquire, on a team so bad it could safely talk about selling a month ago, and yet the apparent issue is that they’re asking for the moon (two good roster players and a first-round pick). That is, of course, the benefit of selling in a clear seller’s market, but Ekman-Larsson is a 26-year-old All-Star signed for this season and next at a low price ($5.5 million AAV, but more than that in real dollars), so teams should be more interested than they apparently are.
Arizona’s only move was the Duclair-to-Chicago swap a few days ago, but that was precipitated by a trade demand, rather than the team actively seeking out something that works. And by the way, if we’re calling Arizona a seller right now, then the seller lost that trade badly, which is usually how it works when trades are demanded.
The only team to apparently grasp nice and early that their season was over was Buffalo, which was rumored to be putting everyone not-named Jack Eichel up for sale as soon as early December. And yet the only trade they’ve actually made to this point was to acquire Scott Wilson from Detroit for a fifth-round pick in 2019, so by that token, Buffalo was actually a buyer.This is one of those things where everyone acknowledges that the market is tighter than it should be. It’s also broadly believed that, a) as soon as one trade happens, some dominoes will start to fall, and b) someone should do something soon to make sure it’s not this tight until the week and a half before the deadline. But no one seems particularly interested in actually doing that.
It’s tough to tell when, exactly, something is going to shake loose. The Duclair trade, and whatever happens with Jack Johnson in the next week or two after he likewise asked out of Columbus, aren’t going to qualify as the start of selling season.
Because if you’re the buying team making such a trade right now, you’re still paying gallon prices for half-gallon players. And if you’re a seller, you’re the first seller to say, “Well that’s it for us.” And it apparently doesn’t matter whether you’re six, 10, or even 24 points out: No GM wants to be That Guy. Probably because That Guy has a greater likelihood of also being That Guy when ownership decides it’s time to make a change in the front office.
And the entire league is less interesting as a result.