How NHL trade deadline could affect Eastern Conference playoff race

There has not been much intrigue in the Eastern Conference Playoff race for a couple of months now as the eight playoff spots have pretty much been secured since the around the halfway point of the 2021-22 NHL season, and maybe even earlier.

No team currently on the outside of a playoff spot is closer than 11 points away from a playoff spot, and with every team having between 20-22 games remaining that is a pretty significant gap to try and make up in a quarter of a season. The only real intrigue is what the First Round matchups will look like and which teams will have home ice advantage.

Having said all of that, the eight playoff teams do seem to be separated into two different tiers.

At the top you have the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, and the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning as the clear favorites, while the Panthers are clearly ready and willing to add to their already strong roster at the NHL trade deadline.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, and Boston Bruins are on the second tier.

All of these teams are good and no matter what the first round matchups look like nobody is going to have an easy time here. Any outcome should not really be seen as a surprise, but those three teams at the top are still going to enter the playoffs as heavy favorites. What can the other five teams do to before Monday’s NHL trade deadline an effort to close that gap? Or is there anything they have to do?

Let’s examine each team and the one thing they need to do to beat one of the top-three Stanley Cup contenders.

Boston Bruins (scoring depth, maybe another defenseman)

Even without a move the Bruins are looking like a nightmare matchup for one of the two division winners in the First Round. As long as Jeremy Swayman can maintain his strong play they do not have many weaknesses. Patrice Bergeron is playing at an absurd level, they are starting to find some depth scoring with Taylor Hall and Craig Smith picking up their production, and you have to think a move of some sort is coming here, whether it be for a second-line center or a big addition on defense.

They have been connected to Arizona Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun and putting him on the same blue line as Charlie McAvoy would be a game-changer. They may be a wild card team right now, but with the way they defend and the way their top-four core players (Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pasatrnak, McAvoy) are playing right now they are going to be a hellacious matchup.

New York Rangers (forward depth)

The Rangers are going to be a scary matchup because of one man: Igor Shesterkin. He is not only the runaway favorite for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie, he should absolutely be in the MVP discussion for the way he has helped carry the Rangers this season. Their record with him as their starter versus without him is absurd, and it is not difficult to see how much they rely on him.

[Related: NHL Trade Deadline Primer: Is there a surprise trade to be made this year]

New York is the team here that could benefit from the NHL trade deadline the most. They have a dominant goalie (Shesterkin), an elite defenseman (Adam Fox), and a couple of top-line offensive players that can change a game (Artemi Panarrin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Krieder). What they are lacking is quality depth throughout their bottom six. The good news is New York has more salary cap space than any other contender to work with, a strong collection of young talent to deal from, and the flexibility to be players for pretty much anybody that is available. They already made one strong addition to get Frank Vatrano from the Florida Panthers for a fourth-round draft pick and they could still be aggressive in the coming days.

You want to take advantage of the seasons Shesterkin, Panarin, and Fox are having so this is definitely the time to strike with a big move or two if you can make it happen. As presently constructed they might be the most flawed of the eight playoff teams given their lack of depth, but they have the power to change that.

Pittsburgh Penguins (top-six winger)

The Penguins have shown that their window for Stanley Cup contention is still wide open. They have exceeded most expectations this season and been one of the best teams in the league. They are strong defensively, still have elite forwards (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jake Guentzel) and have received mostly excellent goaltending from Tristan Jarry.

Their needs are simple. They need Jarry to continue to play like he has for most of this season and avoid the type of postseason experience he had a year ago against the New York Islanders, they need to stay healthy (and get healthy; the return of Jason Zucker would be helpful), and they probably need to add another top-six winger to play next to Malkin given the struggles of Kasperi Kapanen. General manager Ron Hextall has repeatedly said he does not feel pressure to do anything, and he seems reluctant to give up much for a rental. He seemingly wants a player with term still on their deal, which would be especially helpful given the possible free agency departure of Bryan Rust after this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs (goaltending)

No team is facing more pressure to win than this team. This core has gone five straight seasons and five straight postseason appearances without a series win, and a sixth will no doubt lead to major changes. They have to win. No questions asked. The roster is strong overall, and their defensive player is better than it often times gets credit for being. They also have managed to build some solid forward depth around their big-money core of forwards.

The one thing that can undo all of that? Goaltending. Given the way it is going right now, that position has to be some major nightmare fuel for Maple Leafs fans.

[Related: Maple Leafs have goalie concerns, but trade deadline options are risky]

If there is one thing for this team to fix, that is it. Maybe Jack Campbell comes back and plays like he did in the first half of the season. Maybe.

That is no guarantee, and they really do not have a Plan B right now at the position. They look to be avoiding their long-time playoff nemesis Boston in the First Round, but are instead looking at either Florida, Tampa Bay, or Carolina. Not exactly ideal, and they are not going to beat either one with the goaltending they have.

They need a goalie. Badly. That is the position. That should be the only focus over the next couple of days. Goalie. Goalie. Goalie. Goalie. Trade for a goalie.

[Related: 2021-22 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

Washington Capitals (goaltending, stay healthy)

You could make the argument that they could use some additional forward depth, but that part of the roster looks a lot better if Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are healthy (they have each missed more than 20 games this season).

Goaltending is the big wild card here. Ilya Samsonov has not developed like they hoped he would, and while Vitek Vanecek has played well this season, is he somebody that is going to take you through this Eastern Conference playoff field? If you can get an upgrade, you have to explore it. Marc-Andre Fleury is the obvious answer here, but does he want to move again (and to Washington?) and do the Capitals want to make that investment in a position they may not truly *need* in order to win.

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    Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

    That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there Friday night.

    Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

    Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

    It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

    Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

    And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

    Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”


    Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

    In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

    He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

    Luongo was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

    “You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

    Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

    Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design paid tribute to his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks.

    He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night.


    Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

    Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

    Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

    Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.


    “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

    Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

    And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.


    Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.