Pencils down, ladies and gentlemen!
The NHL trade deadline has concluded, the final bell has tolled, and teams are officially geared up as the final versions of themselves — for better or worse — in the hopes of attaining the ultimate prize at the end of the rainbow.
Whether that ultimate prize is a Stanley Cup or Connor Bedard is an entirely different discussion.
It’s time to fasten your seatbelt with the NHL season beginning its final descent as we move toward the playoffs. Here’s how all seven Canadian clubs graded out for February and a word to describe each of their trade deadlines.
Toronto Maple Leafs (A)
The Maple Leafs had another successful month both on and off the ice, and remain the class of Canada’s crop.
With a February that featured a top-five expected goal share, both special teams clicking in the league’s top three, and generally solid finishing and goaltending, Toronto moseyed along to a clean 6-3-0 record, only losing one game by more than two goals.
Most notable for Toronto is its strong defensive play. In years past, the Maple Leafs have gotten by scoring away their problems. This year, the team has taken another step defensively. The Leafs rank among the league’s leaders in goals allowed, and have added a degree of playoff-style intensity that should bode well once their preordained meeting with Tampa Bay arrives in April.
One word to describe their deadline: Heavy
The Leafs were the busiest Canadian team this deadline by a wide margin, adding multiple roster players to reshape both their forward and defensive depth. The biggest name of the group is undoubtedly Ryan O’Reilly, who brings Conn Smythe pedigree along with his steady defensive presence.
Others, including Noel Acciari and Sam Lafferty, give some punch to a depth group on the softer side at times, and further help Toronto reshape its identity.
On the blue line, a pair of additions in Jake McCabe and Luke Schenn add heaviness, while the often-under-utilized Rasmus Sandin was dealt for the more offensive-minded Erik Gustafsson and a first-round pick, providing Toronto another option should it choose to adjust its blue line this spring.
Ottawa Senators (A-)
For the first time in a while, the Senators are in it to win it. Props to general manager Pierre Dorion, who shared during his post-deadline presser that it felt nice to finally be on the buying side for a change.
While a playoff spot remains unclaimed in the nation's capital, it still feels like this team could finally be different. The Senators' February, which had its ups and downs, was ultimately good enough to manage a 6-3-1 record behind improved scoring and some sneaky good special teams, particularly shorthanded.
Ottawa’s best players, meanwhile, held their end of the bargain, as the club’s star quartet of Tim Stutzle, Brady Tkachuk, Claude Giroux, and Alex DeBrincat all scored at over a point-per-game clip during February. Just as Derick Brassard had said, the team deserved a shot at a run, as the pieces were set in motion for the Senators to do something fun.
“I honestly think we earned the right for Pierre to add a player at the deadline.”
Sitting 7 points out of a Wild Card spot, Senators forward Derick Brassard thinks GM Pierre Dorion should be a trade deadline buyer.
Do you agree with Brassard? pic.twitter.com/SjMnN1WQrV
— Tim and Friends (@timandfriends) February 27, 2023
One word to describe their deadline: Shrewd
Ottawa made a trio of acquisitions around the trade deadline, but none stood out as much as picking up defenceman Jakob Chychrun from Arizona. The king of the rumour mill finally found a new home, and the fit could not be more exciting.
Chychrun has the chance to step in and immediately serve as Ottawa’s No. 2 defender behind Thomas Chabot and provides yet another young piece to build around for an increasingly exciting Senators side.
More important, however, is the acquisition cost that it took to make the deal. Having to part with just one first-round pick, even if it could wind up in the lottery, is nothing short of an absolute masterclass.
Full marks all around here. It appears as though "Hot Pierre Summer" has morphed into "Hot Pierre Deadline."
Montreal Canadiens (B-)
There are two ways to look at Montreal’s February. On one hand, picking up six wins served as a high-water mark for Martin St. Louis and his club. Contributions from some unlikely sources (Michael Matheson had eight points in nine games, nearly doubling his season total) helped le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge build confidence and lift them from the league’s absolute basement.
On the other hand, with important future cogs like Cole Caufield and Juraj Slafkovsky already on the shelf, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of development happening here when three of your top four scorers are 26 or older. Mostly, life has just gotten harder for the Canadiens in the pursuit of a second straight first-overall pick.
Things under the hood don’t seem to indicate that some kind of secret sauce has been found, either. The club has largely gotten by on the fourth-highest shooting percentage in the league while controlling a paltry 45 percent of the expected goals, which is good for 26th. The Canadiens had a successful month, but as strange as it sounds, winning hockey games isn’t helping this club.
One word to describe their deadline: Fragile
Injuries to the likes of Sean Monahan and Joel Edmundson, among others, killed what little leverage the Canadiens had in terms of deadline aspirations. Concerns about health for several players, even those that were healthy on March 3, kept Montreal from cashing in its bets. Just one veteran was ultimately moved in the lead-up to the deadline, as Evgenii Dadonov was flipped to Dallas for fellow Russian Denis Gurianov.
It certainly wasn't the sexiest of deadlines for general manager Kent Hughes, but it's hard to see how the Canadiens' sophomore GM could have done much better with the hand he was dealt. Even healthy players, including the likes of Jonathan Drouin and Mike Hoffman, posed too much of a risk one way or another for opposing GMs to take a nibble at, leaving the Canadiens high and dry.
Edmonton Oilers (C)
There are no two ways about it, at 4-3-4, Edmonton’s month was a big disappointment given the club’s high hopes come playoff time. Its biggest undoing — goaltending — sewered what was a particularly strong month by the underlying metrics, as a combined .889 save percentage at 5-on-5 ranked fifth worst league-wide in February.
The poor play of Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell, however, obfuscates a pretty encouraging month, all things considered. The club’s historic power play continued to click at over 30 percent, good for second in the NHL, while Connor McDavid continued to do Connor McDavid things, leading the league in scoring in February by five points — the same difference between second and fifteenth. Ho hum.
One word to describe their deadline: Stabilizing
The Oilers' defining deadline pickup of Mattias Ekholm was exactly what the doctor ordered, as the defensively sound, eternally calming, and perpetually underrated defender was traded from Nashville in exchange for Tyson Barrie and futures.
Ekholm’s well-reported defensive acumen gives coach Jay Woodcroft a tool in his kit that Edmonton lacked, as the Oilers' minute-munchers largely consist of the offensive variety. Paired alongside Evan Bouchard, who earned his own promotion to PP QB1 upon Barrie’s departure, the duo seems ripe to mesh nicely down the stretch.
Winnipeg Jets (C-)
Will the real Winnipeg Jets please stand up?
From Central Division favourites just a few short weeks ago, to clinging to a wild-card spot and tumbling down the standings, the Jets have hit another bumpy patch, with red flags to boot.
There’s some poor luck in play here, including a paltry 6.7 percent 5-on-5 shooting percentage that ranked 29th league-wide last month. However, once again, it seems as though the Jets remain directionless with time working against them for the playoff push.
Not helping matters is that Connor Hellebuyck has once again fallen back to Earth. His .913 save percentage in February was his lowest in a given month this year, and while Winnipeg did control play to the tune of a 54 percent expected goal share, those chances didn’t turn into reality in the box score. Among all the Canadian playoff hopefuls, Winnipeg looks particularly prone to stumbling during the stretch drive.
One word to describe their deadline: Calculated
The Jets were definitely buyers during the past few weeks, but it isn’t entirely clear if their bargain-bin shopping spree — which might still be a generous description — will provide enough juice to get this team over the hump in April.
Picking up a pair of quietly effective forwards in Nino Niederreiter and Vladislav Namestnikov for a second- and fourth-round pick, respectively, was some tidy work, but it's hard to envision either serving as a needle-mover. The cost was cheap, and the talent is there, but it’s hard not to feel the Jets could’ve been more aggressive given the ceiling they showed earlier this season.
Vancouver Canucks (D)
The Canucks had a better month in the win column than the Jets did, but things remain as frustrating and puzzling as they’ve been all year for Canada’s westernmost club.
For starters, Thatcher Demko’s merciful return at the end of the month spelled the Canucks from a stretch of unmatched ineptitude between the pipes. No other team got less help from its netminder, as a combined .867 5-on-5 clip between Collin Delia, Spencer Martin, and Arturs Silovs killed any hopes Vancouver had of putting together a decent stretch.
That dubious distinction is particularly disappointing given the team markedly improved during Rick Tocchet’s first full month on the job. At even strength, the Canucks had their best month thus far, nearly breaking even by expected goals. On an individual level, heir-apparent captain Elias Pettersson showed out with 18 points in 11 games, tying his single-month high in fewer games.
Sure, the plan here should undoubtedly be to tank, but if you squint your eyes enough, it’s possible to make out the core of a team with playoff aspirations down the line.
One word to describe their deadline: Perplexing
With all that said, the Canucks stand no chance of being good this year, and probably not next year either. That’s what makes it so ridiculous that they felt the best way to augment their team was not by adding and retaining futures, but instead by pushing their chips in with a half-baked group.
Dealing a potential lottery pick for Filip Hronek was a significant head-scratcher, with the rearguard looking like a good but not great option on the Vancouver blue line. But somehow the Canucks found a way to top that.
In a non-move that can only be described as egregiously incompetent, Patrik Allvin reportedly passed on multiple draft picks from the Pittsburgh Penguins for J.T. Miller and his bloated contract. Allvin reportedly did so not because the asking price wasn’t met, but because the offer was based around futures. Vancouver would not only have gotten out from under an incoming boat anchor contract, but would’ve been able to improve its future core in the process.
Calgary Flames (F)
There are still 20-odd games left on the calendar, but for all intents and purposes, the Calgary Flames are dead in the water.
Since coming into the season as bona fide Stanley Cup contenders, the Flames have done nothing but underwhelm through three-quarters of the season. There are plenty of descriptors for how this year has gone, but forward Blake Coleman seemingly put it best.
“Right now, we’re a really good team that doesn’t know how to win," Coleman said on Thursday.
The Flames ended February with an astonishing 22 one-goal losses on the year, then added a 23rd to begin March against the Maple Leafs. The team cannot buy a clutch save or a timely goal and heads into the home stretch five points out of a playoff spot despite good underlying metrics.
The reason for the struggles is also clear as day. An .870 5-on-5 team save percentage in February topped only the aforementioned Canucks, as Jacob Markstrom continues his transformation into a pumpkin. In tandem with backup Dan Vladar’s brutal month, it has become hard to envision a bleaker scenario for the Flames.
One word to describe their deadline: Stagnant
It’s hard to blame general manager Brad Treliving for not pushing his chips in on this Flames group. Besides a modest depth swap with the Coyotes that saw the Ritchie brothers flip sides, deadline day in Calgary passed with little fanfare, and probably for good reason.
One does have to wonder, however, if Treliving’s expiring contract prevented more drastic measures from being taken. Calgary’s core is largely locked up through next season, but it isn’t hard to imagine that this team could have been sellers come deadline day. Instead, the board at Calgary Sports and Entertainment might have put the kibosh on matters, leaving the Flames paralyzed and inactive. That means all eyes are on the team’s underperforming core to right the ship with a particularly short runway between them and the edge of a proverbial playoff-less cliff.