Five players to watch leading up to this year’s trade deadline

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The NHL trade deadline arrives on Monday at 3 p.m. ET and this year’s deadline has been made more interesting thanks to all the activity leading up to it this time around. Since February 9th when Toronto traded Francois Beauchemin to Anaheim for Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner, there have been 22 trades involving 46 players and 19 draft picks changing hands.

Given that we’ve still got the weekend to get through and rumors continue to swirl around almost virtually everyone, we’re giving you five players to keep your eye on when it’s time for GMs to lay it all on the line and decide whether they’re going for it or not. Keep in mind, this list comes from the copious amounts of speculation we’ve read and by no means are any of these guys as good as traded by the deadline. For appropriate irony’s sake, making up this list likely keeps all five of these guys from being moved at all.

1. Brad Richards – Dallas Stars

He’s out with a concussion but now he’s started skating and could be back soon. He’s easily the best player rumored to be out there and his ability to help create offense and set other players up is a hugely desired quality. He’s done it through his whole career with Tampa Bay and Dallas and he’s an impending unrestricted free agent. In a perfect world, Dallas signs him to a massive contract extension and everyone goes home smiling. But with the Stars ownership being up in the air and no major financial commitments being allowed, his future in Dallas may not be long.

Whether the Stars opt to hang onto him and then look to deal him before July 1st if their ownership mess isn’t cleared up or if they strike now while the price would be the absolute highest is the dilemma facing Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk. The number of teams ideally interested in Richards would be many and the Rangers are an obvious landing spot given their desperate need for a top center and Richards’ former coach in Tampa, John Tortorella, being there. Any deal made would then see that team try their hardest to lock Richards up long term, so there’s an element of risk for anyone wanting to get involved as without that extension trading for Richards is a really expensive rental.

Oh yeah, Dallas is also smack in the middle of trying to make the playoffs. It seems crazy that they’d deal their best player, but if the reality in Dallas is that things aren’t going to loosen up off the ice, the Stars might have to make a move to get a big return to help them in the future.

2. Stephen Weiss – Florida Panthers

Weiss has made it clear before that he’d stay in Florida for as long as they’d want him to. Panthers GM Dale Tallon says it would take a huge offer to make him consider moving Weiss, but the Panthers playmaker is viewed as a guy that would make a nice second prize should Dallas not want to move Richards. With 16 goals and 24 assists this season, his numbers seem pedestrian but on the offensively-starved Panthers he’s their top scorer, a distinction he’s had the two years previous including last year when he had a career-high 60 points, including 28 goals.

For a lot of teams he wouldn’t be an ideal #1 center, but for most contenders he’d be a perfect fit as a #2 center. It’s a shame for the Capitals that the Panthers share a division with them and would then seem less likely to want to make a deal with them involving Weiss. Weiss has a no-trade clause but we’d assume if the right contending team came calling he’d waive it and look to play in the first playoff series of his career.

3. Bryan McCabe – Florida Panthers

Sure, we could put a few more Panthers on this list (David Booth, Tomas Vokoun) but there’s only so many spots we’ve got. McCabe is in the final year of his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent which makes him a prime target for a team needing defensive help with a hint of offense along the blue line. The Panthers captain has been battling injury this year but his imminent return to action means he’ll be well rested and ready to roll for anyone that acquired him. McCabe had his share of frustrations when he played for Toronto seasons ago, but he’s settled down into a solid, serviceable defenseman.

With five goals and 17 assists this season through 47 games, he can still chip in well offensively but his biggest number may actually be his plus/minus rating of +3.  On a team that’s often been giving up goals like candy, keeping that number positive is astounding. Teammate Dennis Wideman’s -26 rating tells you how bad it can get there.

4. John-Michael Liles – Colorado Avalanche

The offensive-minded Avalanche defenseman has seen interest in him pick up in a big way of late and with the Avs acquiring Erik Johnson from St. Louis last week, signs are pointing towards Liles being moved out of town to change things up even further in Denver. Toronto is supposedly heavily in the mix for Liles and with GM Brian Burke’s affinity for American defenseman that played college hockey it’s no wonder. What Liles can do is help spark the offense as he’s got six goals and 33 assists this season. He can run the point on the power play and help set everyone else up. One area where he struggles is defensively but in Toronto that wouldn’t be a big problem as he could be paired up with anyone else and get proper help. Yes, even in Toronto.

One catch for acquiring Liles is that he comes with a stiff price tag with a cap hit of $4.2 million that carries into next season. If a team wants him bad enough, they’d better be committed to paying for his offensive production and be able to look past his defensive shortcomings at that price.

5. Ales Hemsky – Edmonton Oilers

The super talented forward is one of a few guys in Edmonton that are rumored to be on the move and while either he or Dustin Penner would be the biggest gets of the pack, Hemsky’s abilities and offensive creativity make him the more attractive option. Hemsky has 13 goals and 28 assists this season and in the past, when he’s been healthy, he’s been the Oilers most dynamic scorer and playmaker. He was an All-Star this season (for whatever that might mean to you) and there’s talk leaking about that even the Capitals might have interest in him.

The problem with gunning for Hemsky (or Penner) is the asking price. The Oilers reportedly want a solid roster player, a prospect, and a draft pick in any deal involving either of these players. With that kind of price attached, it’s tough to see either of them going anywhere. All told, the Oilers might be better off hanging on to them and allowing Taylor Hall to keep emerging as the top talent that he is while having these veteran running mates. Whether or not Oilers GM Steve Tambellini gets blown away by an offer or not remains to be seen.

PHT Morning Skate: Is it too early for the Caps and Pens to be meeting?

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–Here are NHL.com’s 10 storylines to keep an eye on in the second round of the playoffs. Obviously, Crosby vs. Ovechkin is up there, but so is a matchup between Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne (who would’ve thought). Both goalies were incredible in the first round.  (NHL.com)

–The Edmonton Oilers were able to knock off one team from California in the first round, and they’ll look to do the same in round two against Anaheim. The Edmonton Journal looks at eight positive and eight negatives for the Oilers going into the series. The Ducks are a little banged up right now, and the Oilers did pretty well against them during the regular season. On the downside, Anaheim is a deeper team, and they’re fully capable of playing a nasty brand of hockey. (Edmonton Journal)

–Former NHL goalie Corey Hirsch breaks down the five different types of playoff beards. No surprise that Joe Thornton and Brent Burns‘ beards find themselves in the “jumbo” category. (The Score)

–Everyone is looking forward to the series between the Pens and Caps, but is it too early for them to be playing each other? Washington Post writer Dan Steinberg isn’t impressed with the way the playoff format works. Steinberg writes: “The Caps and Penguins-the first- and second-best teams in the NHL- both won in the first round, and will face each other this week, starting Thursday night. Seven other teams finished with at least 100 points; four have been eliminated. And so the second-round matchups have all the logical consistency of a third-grader’s Pynchon plot diagram.” (Washington Post)

Mark Scheifele had some interesting things to say during a Q&A with Sportsnet. One of the things he touched on was the NHL deciding not to go to the Olympics. It’s safe to say he’s not a fan of the decision. “I look at it as it’s misrepresenting our sport. I think [Jonathan] Toews said that. The Olympics is a big honor, and for us to turn that honor down is junky.” (Sportsnet)

–The Hockey News’ roundtable looks at the four teams that should be most disappointed by their first-round exit from the playoffs. After finishing at the top of their respective divisions during the regular season, the Blackhawks and Canadiens being bounced early has to be incredibly difficult for each of those two markets. (The Hockey News)

It doesn’t sound promising for Matt Murray

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Matt Murray wasn’t available for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Columbus Blue Jackets. If he ends up being an option vs. the Washington Capitals, it might not be for a while.

The Penguins provided a less-than-promising update on Monday: he hasn’t yet resumed skating.

Now, there is some time for him to even get ready by Game 1, as their second-round series doesn’t begin until Thursday.

Considering Washington’s firepower, it would be nice for the Penguins to have two championship goalies to choose from in case things get ugly, but at the moment it seems like it’s Marc-Andre Fleury or bust.

“MAF” has his critics, but his overall work was strong vs. Columbus.

He won four of five games, generating a fantastic .933 save percentage. That’s a promising start to the playoffs, providing some hope despite a shaky .907 career playoff save percentage and a middling regular season (18-10-7, .909 save percentage and 3.02 GAA).

The less-than-positive aspects of Fleury’s numbers make Murray’s continued injury issues more unsettling, but Pittsburgh will just need to hope for improvements.

Or for Fleury to remain at the top of his game.

Kings want to increase scoring, but can Stevens make it happen?

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If sheer exposure to a team translates to make that team better, then no candidate can lift the Los Angeles Kings quite like John Stevens.

The hockey world tends to lose track of assistant (or “associate”) coaches far more easily than the main guys, and that is the case with Stevens. Seriously, Stevens has been with the Kings since 2010-11. How many Kings fans occasionally forgot he was there?

(Be honest.)

Anyway, Stevens has been able to keep an eye on the Kings for some time, so does he really have a chance to make them better? That remains to be seen, but give Stevens and new GM Rob Blake credit; they at least seem to offer some specifics about improving Los Angeles’ offense beyond “score more goals.”

The presser starts around the 8:00 mark:

Stevens provides a fun line about wanting to “lead the league” in goalie interference challenges which …

*gets interrupted by Bruce Boudreau GIF*

No, but really, LA Kings Insider transcribed some of the more interesting bits about how management believes that they’ll approach zone entries and attempting to score from the center of the ice. Here are some choice bits via Rosen’s transcription:

Blake: “We were at the bottom of controlled entry, goals off of controlled entry … We were near the bottom at getting the puck to the slot whether we were skating it or passing it so there were a lot of things that, the way goals are being scored now, that we weren’t having success in.”

Stevens: ” … Analytics tells you we don’t get enough scoring opportunities from the middle of the ice and that’s clearly an area where, whether it’s quickly off a transition forecheck and you’re going to try to get to those areas, you’re going to have people there more, and spend more time around the net. But it’s clearly an area we’re going to focus on.”

***

OK, so there’s a blueprint. But roster construction matters as much as system – let’s not forget that the Kings remained a possession mammoth until the end and that Darryl Sutter remains a respected coach – and that’s where the real questions come in.

Simply put, there are some reasons to wonder if things might actually get worse.

The Kings will find out if Anze Kopitar merely experienced a down year or if this is the new reality as he turns 30 in August. Jeff Carter could hit the wall some expected him to already hit. Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are two rare Kings scorers who are in their primes … but they’re not going to be nearly as cheap after getting new deals this summer.

Ultimately, Stevens can only do so much. Blake will need to be creative to help this team … be more creative.

But hey, at least they have a plan that seems a bit more concrete than only spewing out buzzwords like “being tough to play against.”

Blues think they’re ‘as sound as ever’ on defense without Shattenkirk

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Knowing Kevin Shattenkirk wasn’t in their long-term plans, the St. Louis Blues traded the talented defenseman and braced for the immediate blow to their playoff hopes.

That never happened. The Blues actually got better without him.

When the Blues dealt the pending free agent at the trade deadline, they seemed to be creating a giant void on their blue line and gift-wrapping the NHL-best Washington Capitals with their deepest defense in a decade. Yet St. Louis has thrived thanks to the elevated play of captain Alex Pietrangelo and second-year defenseman Colton Parayko while Shattenkirk plays a limited, specialized role for Washington.

With Pietrangelo taking over top power-play duties, Parayko pitching in and 6-foot-4, 221-pound Robert Bortuzzo providing some bulk on the back end, the new-look Blues cruised into the second round with a 4-1 series win over Minnesota and haven’t missed a beat without Shattenkirk.

“We’re bigger, all six guys are big men, and now we have two players that play with a little more nasty than we had when we had five guys that played one way and sort of Joel Edmundson doing the majority of the physical work,” general manager Doug Armstrong said. “Now we have two players that are bringing some of that physical play.”

Armstrong won’t mince words: He didn’t trade Shattenkirk to shake things up. He dealt the 28-year-old for picks and young forward Zach Sanford because there was no chance of re-signing him this summer.

On the flip side, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan only got involved in the bidding when it became clear Shattenkirk was a rental and not long-term commitment.

After being a top-four defenseman in St. Louis, Shattenkirk is a third-pairing player and power-play specialist for Washington. He was among the team leaders in overall minutes in Games 1 and 2 before having his ice time slashed to a career playoff low 12:54 in Game 4 and ranking fifth or six on the Capitals’ blue line the remainder of their first round series against Toronto.

Shattenkirk said he’s fine with that and doesn’t need an explanation from coach Barry Trotz, who called ice time “irrelevant” to players this time of year. He’s still on the top power-play unit, is counted on to feed Alex Ovechkin the puck from the point in crucial situations and leads Capitals defensemen with three points.

But he’s not in St. Louis anymore.

“I do think that we roll our D pairings a little bit more here, and everyone gets to play a regular shift for the most part,” Shattenkirk said. “St. Louis, we were a little more reliant on our top two guys of playing the big-time minutes, and then power plays and penalty kills kind of determined where the rest of us played more or played less.”

Saying so long to Shattenkirk shifted the big-time minutes on the right side to Pietrangelo and Parayko. Ranked 26th among NHL defensemen in points and 11th in ice time before the Shattenkirk trade, Pietrangelo was second with 18 points and fourth at 26:35 a game after it.

Thrown into tougher situations than his first playoffs last season, Parayko has grown up fast without Shattenkirk around.

“It’s good for me,” the 23-year-old said as the Blues prepared to face the Nashville Predators. “I think that’s the best way to do it, get in there and learn from experience.”

Even the experienced Blues defensemen like Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson have thrived since the trade. Part of it is the structure of Mike Yeo, who replaced Ken Hitchcock as coach in early February, but the defensive improvements have made up for the loss of Shattenkirk’s offensive talent that will earn him a big contract somewhere July 1.

“Defensively I think we’re sound as ever,” Gunnarsson said. “Without Shatty I think we were lacking, especially the first couple games (of the playoffs), some offense. He was huge on the power play for us and that poise with the puck. Some guys stepped up.”

Yeo said his team being in must-win mode from the deadline on helped spur a late-season run that allowed them to also eliminate the Wild in five games. And if the Blues need an offensive spark from a right-handed-shooting first-round pick, they can plug 23-year-old Jordan Schmaltz into their lineup.

In Washington, Shattenkirk is glad to be on a Stanley Cup contender readying for a second-round matchup against the defending-champion Pittsburgh Penguins. He doesn’t mind St. Louis enjoying success without him.

“When I was there this year, we knew we had that capability. For whatever reason we just couldn’t get to our full potential,” Shattenkirk said. “They were a group that believed that they could play this way all year, and they’re doing it at the right time.”

AP freelance writer Nate Latsch in St. Louis contributed.

More AP NHL: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

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