February is typically the point in the NHL calendar that struggling teams at least have the comfort of knowing they’re out of the playoff hunt and planning accordingly. The trade deadline always looms at the end of the month, when clubs either stock up for a postseason push or sell off players to load up on assets for the future.
And while the Eastern Conference’s playoff picture has largely come into focus, sweeping mediocrity in the West has left some teams with tough choices. Just eight points separate the last-place Los Angeles Kings (23-28-6; 52 points through Friday) and the Western Conference’s second wild-card spot, currently occupied by the Minnesota Wild (27-25-6; 60 points). In other words, no team is really out of it.
“Usually there are like four teams maybe? But this year, it’s just everybody,” Los Angeles Coach Willie Desjardins said Monday.
It’s a long shot the Kings could overcome that gap before the end of the season, and they’ve rightfully already started selling, trading defenseman Jake Muzzin to the Toronto Maple Leafs last month. (For comparison, there’s a 20-point difference between the East’s last-place team, Ottawa, and the second wild card, Pittsburgh. The Penguins are seven points better than the Wild in the overall standings, another indicator of the disparity between the conferences.)
And while the Kings and Anaheim Ducks (22-27-9; 53 points) have organizationally started to turn their attention to next season, there’s no indication that any other Western teams have followed suit. The ripple effect is that the Feb. 25 trade deadline is once again a seller’s market, and with less than two weeks to go, there’s still some confusion about exactly who is available.
Teams out of the playoff race would typically trade away pending unrestricted free agents as rentals for contending teams, but with so many teams so close to making the cut, there’s some hesitation. In other cases, there’s still some talk of extending those players by the end of the month.
“People are feeling each other out,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said earlier this month. “There are teams trying to sign some unrestricted guys. The decision, it'll come down to whether they get them signed or not. That'll have a big effect on what the trade market is. "
The St. Louis Blues started the season so poorly that they changed coaches in November and there was talk of massive roster upheaval, but they’ve won their past eight games, surging into third place in the Central Division. The Chicago Blackhawks have a sub-.500 record after they started the season 9-18-5 and fired legendary coach Joel Quenneville, but after winning eight of their past 10, they’re just three points out of postseason position.
Some teams might be both buyers and sellers, like the Edmonton Oilers, who have 53 points through Friday. Over the weekend, they swapped goaltender Cam Talbot to Philadelphia for Anthony Stolarz, clearing salary space while acquiring a netminder under team control next season, and then traded forward Ryan Spooner for Sam Gagner, a change-of-scenery deal for two struggling veterans. Even though they’re among the West’s worst teams, they’re still fighting to make the postseason, as are the Arizona Coyotes, who have been decimated by injuries this season but are just five points back.
“I’ve been in the league for like 11 years and usually [Arizona] is out of it pretty early,” Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. “Yeah, there are a few other teams that are usually out of it early. It’s usually packed to try to get in the playoffs, like four or five teams, but not all 15 teams playing for that last spot.”
Meanwhile, Minnesota, clinging to that second wild-card spot after posting a 3-4-3 record in its past 10 games, is open to trading members of the team’s core to be better positioned in the future even if it costs the Wild a playoff spot this year, according to The Athletic’s Michael Russo. That could mean forward Charlie Coyle, who has one more year left on a contract that carries a $3.2 million salary cap hit, will be on the move regardless of how Minnesota fares over the next week.
That’s good news for the Colorado Avalanche, slumping after a recent eight-game slide. Speaking to reporters in Washington earlier this month, star center Nathan MacKinnon acknowledged that in a different year or in a different conference, that kind of skid at this juncture could have been devastating. Instead, his team is just three points behind the Wild, still in it like everyone else.
“We’re lucky the West is bad this year,” he said.
Read more from The Post: