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Trade: Sabres nab Jokiharju; Blackhawks receive Alex Nylander

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For the last few weeks, a thought has percolated: “Boy, the Buffalo Sabres are … kind of killing it, aren’t they?”

Sure, they might have paid too much for Jeff Skinner, but they kind of had to. After that, they landed Colin Miller for pennies on the dollar, took a flier on Jimmy Vesey, and signed Marcus Johansson to a very team-friendly contract. People also seemed pretty happy with their draft haul. It was tempting to write something praising this offseason for a nice bit of work, but there needed that one extra move to go from “scratching your chin in approval” to outright excitement.

Tuesday’s trade with the Chicago Blackhawks might just provide that extra push, as the Sabres added young defenseman Henri Jokiharju in exchange for troubled (but still interesting, maybe?) prospect Alex Nylander. According to the Sabres, that’s the extent of the trade. There are no picks or prospects to warp things, so this is as simple as it gets: Buffalo’s betting on the young defenseman, while Chicago’s betting that they can pull a Dylan Strome with Nylander by getting more out of the struggling winger than Buffalo ever enjoyed.

Sabres receive: Henri Jokiharju

Blackhawks receive: Alex Nylander

To reiterate, the two young skaters have similar contract situations, too, so this is basically a pure one-for-one trade.

No joke

Considering the fact that Jokiharju was a 19-year-old rookie thrust into a prominent role on a Blackhawks defense that needed any help it could find, he fared surprisingly well. That argument is neatly made when you consider his stats relative to his more-experienced, but in many cases, more limited Blackhawks teammates:

Ultimately, as The Athletic’s Mark Lazerus and others indicate, it seems like Chicago soured on the now 20-year-old, for whatever reason(s). PHT’s Adam Gretz pointed to Jokiharju as a reason to be optimistic about the Blackhawks just earlier today, and now he’s gone.

Jokiharju finished with zero goals and 12 assists in 38 NHL games last season, averaging a robust-for-a-rookie 18:59 average TOI. Along with Colin Miller, he gives the Sabres another promising right-handed defenseman, and that overall defense corps is looking better and better, what with emergence of wunderkind Rasmus Dahlin, along with the solid addition of Brandon Montour. Jokiharju also gives the Sabres yet another nudge toward moving on from Rasmus Ristolainen, a polarizing blueliner who may be better off traded.

But, either way, there’s a lot of promise in Jokiharju, though apparently Chicago doesn’t see it that way.

Another reclamation project for Chicago?

Jokiharju is no slouch as a prospect, as the Blackhawks selected him in the first round (29th overall in 2017) and saw the Finnish defenseman make a remarkably swift jump to the NHL.

Make no mistake about it, though, Alex Nylander carries higher expectations. The Sabres selected Nylander eighth overall in 2016, ahead of the likes of Mikhail Sergachev (ninth), Charlie McAvoy (14th), and Alex DeBrincat (soothe your wounds a bit if you’re a Blackhawks fan, he was an instant steal at 39th).

Nylander, uh, hasn’t lived up to that billing, yet the Blackhawks might see this as a sequel to The Thrilling Redemption of Dylan Strome.

That’s certainly possible, but I have some worries that it will work out that way. Much like with Strome in Arizona, it just seemed like Nylander was running out of chances to stick with the Sabres, but the difference in their AHL play provides some cause for concern. Strome generated 50-plus points in his last two AHL seasons, despite shuttling back and forth to the NHL a bit. Nylander’s AHL numbers are more modest: 31 points in 49 games this past season; just 27 points in 51 AHL games in 2017-18.

It’s more comforting to see your should-be-star at least dominating a lower level of competition as they’re struggling to acclimate to the NHL. Strome showed plenty of signs of that during his tumultuous times with the Coyotes; Jesse Pulujarvi’s limited runs with the AHL tend to result in nice production.

The Blackhawks might have more modest expectations for Nylander, yet you wonder if they’ve significantly undersold on Jokiharju’s value. It’s tough enough to find promising defensemen, let alone ones who are just 20 and are right-handed shots.

This point should be clear: considering how explosive Chicago’s offense can be, if Nylander can’t excel there, then you might just have to fasten the “bust” label to him.

***

Yes, the Blackhawks likely view their defense as improved, and they were hoping to add some supporting scoring. They’ve also had some luck with reclamation projects, particularly (somewhat) similar story in Strome.

As of July 2019, this sure feels like a pretty big win for a Sabres team that badly wants to improve its defensive personnel. If Nylander is the bust many feared, Buffalo managed to avoid squandering his name value. Instead, they landed an intriguing prospect who’s already shown some promise at the NHL level.

If you had to choose a side, and had to project based on what you know right now, who won this trade? Consider my vote strongly in the Sabres’ camp.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Trade: Avalanche clear space for free agency; Coyotes get Soderberg

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Are the Colorado Avalanche loading up for a big free agent push this summer, or are they merely worried about how much it will cost to re-sign RFA star Mikko Rantanen? Or is it a little of both?

Such thoughts come to mind with Tuesday’s trade, as the Avalanche send center Carl Soderberg to the Arizona Coyotes. It’s largely a cash-clearing deal from Colorado’s perspective, considering the current details reported by The Athletic’s Craig Morgan, TSN’s Darren Dreger, and others:

Coyotes receive: Soderberg, a 33-year-old forward whose $4.75 million cap hit expires after 2019-20.

Avalanche receive: Kevin Connauton, 29-year-old defenseman, whose $1.375M cap hit expires after 2019-20. Also, the Avalanche receive a 2020 third-round pick.

One team clears cap room, the other profits

If there’s a theme of recent moves, it’s that one team is hoping to land a big fish in free agency, while another is happy to take on another contract to get better in a more modest (and maybe safer) way.

The Nashville Predators received a paltry return for P.K. Subban in that stunning trade, and on face value, the Avalanche didn’t receive much for Soderberg, either.

But, of course, context matters: both the Predators and Avalanche made their moves to save cap space.

Puck Pedia places Colorado’s cap space at just a little bit less than $38M, with 14 roster spots covered, and Rantanen headlining an RFA list that also includes Alex Kerfoot. The Avalanche boast some absolute bargain deals – most obviously in Nathan MacKinnon, yet also getting nice value in Gabriel Landeskog and Tyson Barrie – and Soderberg’s expiring contract was another reminder that the future was bright. Apparently the Avalanche believe that the future is now … although they’d probably argue that they’re enjoying both, as their 2019 NHL Draft weekend was acclaimed after they nabbed Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook.

Don’t sleep on the Coyotes’ takeaway, though.

Soderberg a hidden gem?

Soderberg might not be the sexiest talent in every way, yet he might have been the best example of Colorado’s sneaky value outside of their top guys. The bad news is that MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Rantanen generated the vast majority of the Avs’ offense during the past few seasons. The better news is that players like Soderberg and Kerfoot were strong two-way players who could hold down the fort when those guys weren’t on the ice.

Soderberg scored 23 goals for Colorado last season, and his 49 points ranked fifth-most on the team. There are a number of ways where he seems sneaky-good, including where he falls on this Goals Above Replacement chart among Avalanche forwards (visualization by Sean Tierney; data via Evolving Hockey).

Impressive, right? Surprising, even, considering that Soderberg compares so well to Rantanen, at least by those metrics.

The Coyotes have been building their roster by taking on other teams’ cap concerns, as much as by drafting, particularly since some of their picks haven’t worked out quite as planned (Clayton Keller rules; if Dylan Strome is going to rule, it will be for Chicago).

In Soderberg, the Coyotes might only be leaning into what almost got them into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: grinding opponents into a paste. On paper, the Coyotes figure to play a not-so-pretty style, but it’s increasingly trending toward being effective. At least, Soderberg inches them closer to having waves of quality players, maybe enough to wash over opponents and back into the postseason. Maybe their style will end up being desert-dry, but this gives them another quality two-way player, and at a reasonable price.

***

In a vacuum, this trade is a nice win for the Coyotes. However, if the Avalanche win by landing Artemi Panarin, then chances are, they’ll be OK taking the L in this one.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sharks add depth, agitation by trading for Moore

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One of the fill-in-the-blank insults for the San Jose Sharks is that they’re too easy to play against. (Surely Ryane Clowe loves to hear that.)

The Sharks just became more irritating to deal with as they acquired agitating center Dominic Moore from the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts received a 2012 second-round pick (originally Minnesota’s, which likely makes it more valuable) and sent a seventh rounder to San Jose to complete the deal.

With 19 points on the season, Moore won’t add a ton of firepower, but that’s OK because the Sharks are ludicrously explosive at center right now. (Seriously, their top-six forwards are crazy heavy on pivot talent.)

Moore is a good faceoff guy (an impressive 55.7 winning percentage this season) and averaged an even two minutes of penalty kill time per game with Tampa Bay, so his role should be fairly obvious.

This isn’t the kind of move that will push the Sharks over the playoff hump on its own, but we might look back at this as a subtle move that gives the team much-needed depth and a spicy note of irritation.

Blackhawks add center depth by acquiring Brendan Morrison

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The Chicago Blackhawks are gearing up for a tough month by adding a little depth at center. GM Stan Bowman acquired veteran center Brendan Morrison from the Calgary Flames for defensemen Brian Connelly.

With Jonathan Toews and sometimes-center Patrick Sharp on the mend – not to mention Dave Bolland’s frequent tendency to get hurt – it makes plenty of sense to add Morrison to the mix, especially at a minimal cost. It’s unclear if this is a sign that Toews might need more than the All-Star break to heal up, though.

My first instinct was to think that Morrison might help on the PK merely because of where he’d fit into the depth chart, but he certainly wasn’t piling up much shorthanded time in Calgary (less than nine minutes overall this season). He’s a decent faceoff guy (50.3 percent success rate) and scored 40+ points in each of the 2009-10 and 10-11 seasons.

It’s not a big move by any means, but I’d bet Bowman thinks of Morrison as another John Madden (although, again, Morrison doesn’t bring the same defensive game to the table). The Blackhawks can’t afford to go into February with a threadbare roster as they start a brutal eight-game road trip in Vancouver on Tuesday.

The best part for Chicago is that they have plenty of cap room left after having little breathing room the past two seasons. They’ll have a little under $13 million remaining under the ceiling even with Morrison in the fold.

Connelly is a 25-year-old minor league defenseman with some offensive skills – at least at the AHL level – so the Flames can say that they got younger. The real question is if they’ll make more veteran-for-prospect-type moves as the trade deadline approaches.

Hurricanes ship Alexei Ponikarovsky to Devils

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Are the Carolina Hurricanes already in “everything must go” mode?

That’s a bigger picture discussion, but however you slice it, GM Jim Rutherford just traded forward Alexei Ponikarovsky to the New Jersey Devils, according to Chip Alexander. It’s tough to see this as much more than a money dump since Carolina only gets defenseman Joe Sova and a 2012 fourth-rounder for its troubles.

After spending most of nine seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ponikarovsky has bounced around the NHL after the Buds traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009-10. Ponikarovsky played for the Los Angeles Kings in 2010-11 before Carolina signed him on the cheap last summer. With just 15 points and a -12 rating in 48 games this season, the Hurricanes basically got what they paid for, so he likely won’t be missed.

The Devils’ perspective is reasonable enough, though. New Jersey needs depth scoring and Ponikarovsky at least has the potential to provide that. If not, they just gave up a middling draft choice and a marginal prospect to give it a try.

It’s a solid low-risk, medium-at-best reward move for Lou Lamoriello … but then again, that’s pretty much how you’d describe Carolina signing him, too.

In case you’re wondering about that marginal prospect, Sova had been playing for the AHL’s Albany Devils after New Jersey scooped him up as an undrafted free agent from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.