Jon Cooper is keenly aware that Tampa Bay’s path to hoisting the Stanley Cup a third consecutive year got more difficult after a series of big trades in recent days.
“It’s just looks like the Atlantic’s like one big arms race,” Cooper said after practice Monday. “Everybody’s trying to get that extra edge — whatever they think that is.”
The path through the Eastern Conference is now an even more grueling ordeal than it appeared to be a week ago. Even in a sellers’ market, every playoff-bound team in the East made at least one trade and each got better in a different way.
“Good teams could get upset (in the) first round and you never know what’s going to happen after that,” Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “Those eight teams are all good teams: I think on any given night, one could beat the other.”
While Colorado and Calgary have separated themselves from the rest of the pack in the West, good luck designating a favorite in the East. After all the activity in the days leading up to the deadline, at least three teams could stake that claim.
Atop the list are the back-to-back defending champion Lightning, who after losing an entire forward line to salary cap attrition last summer somehow might now arguably be deeper than they were for their last two title runs. GM Julien BriseBois lived up to his wheeling-and-dealing reputation by trading a combined three roster players, two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder for forwards Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul and Riley Nash.
Tampa Bay’s trade for Hagel came in the aftermath of the rival Panthers going all in for the stout defenseman they’ve been seeking all season in Ben Chiarot. The hefty price of top prospect Ty Smilanic, a first-rounder in 2023 and another draft pick was no object for the NHL’s highest-scoring team to solve its biggest need.
Then, for good measure, they sent their 2024 first-round pick to Philadelphia for two-way forward and faceoff ace Claude Giroux and got depth defenseman Robert Hagg from Buffalo. If Sergei Bobrovsky can recapture the form from his two Vezina Trophy seasons, the Panthers now look like they can win in the playoffs without having to outscore their problems.
The Toronto Maple Leafs might need to do just that.
Even after trading for Mark Giordano in their biggest pre-deadline move, they failed to solve their goaltending woes. The Leafs couldn’t close a deal for Marc-Andre Fleury — who went from Chicago to Minnesota in the biggest trade of deadline day — and then lost Olympic gold medal-winning goaltender Harri Sateri to Arizona on waivers after attempting to sign him for the rest of the season.
Toronto did get stronger in their own end by acquiring Giordano, who was one of the best rental defensemen available.
Hampus Lindholm was another, and the Boston Bruins over the weekend traded a first-round pick, two second-round picks and young defenseman Urho Vaakanainen for him. They re-signed him for $52 million over eight years and would have made more moves if possible.
“The bottom line is the war of attrition starts from now until when the Cup is presented, and staying healthy’s a big part of that,” GM Don Sweeney said.
MacLellan acknowledged after acquiring depth forwards Marcus Johansson and Johan Larsson for the Capitals that health will be a major factor in which team gets out of the East. It won’t be easy in the Metropolitan part of the bracket after the flurry of moves made by Carolina, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers.
Carolina, with help from Florida to make the cap math work, acquired forward Max Domi from Columbus. The Hurricanes did not give up anyone from their roster and still added a talented player who can help them out of scoring slumps.
The Rangers did a little bit of everything to solidify a young, unproven team in front of elite goalie Igor Shesterkin. They acquired veteran defenseman Justin Braun from Philadelphia and added two more versatile forwards, getting Andrew Copp from Winnipeg and Tyler Motte from Vancouver.
Pittsburgh made an even bigger splash up front by trading two roster players, a goaltending prospect and a second-round pick this summer to Anaheim for winger Rickard Rakell.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t feel like we had to make a deal,” Pittsburgh GM Ron Hextall said. “Our secondary scoring has been a little bit of an issue. Rickard adds a lot to our group.”
None of the moves made around the East made any one team stand out above the rest. The Hurricanes may have been able to make a move like that, but his decades in this business tempered Waddell’s actions even in light of all the trades happening around him.
“You watch what’s going on around you but you can’t be reactive to what’s going on,” he said. “One team’s going to win. One team’s going to win the Stanley Cup.”
It just got harder to do it.