Sigh, the 2021 NHL trade deadline.
We all sorta knew it was going to be a bust, what with the flat cap and the loss of revenue and the fact that teams didn’t want to overreact to anything happening — good or bad — in this janky, truncated season. We were all hoping someone might get aggressive and pull off an illogical blockbuster in a craven attempt to win the Stanley Cup. Perhaps the general managers are saving all of their ill-fated moves for the expansion draft.
Before the season, we published our NHL Contender Tiers, ranking all 31 teams with regard to how close or far they are from hoisting said Cup. We decided to revisit them again after three-quarters of the season and the trade deadline were over, and found some teams had leveled up … while others have seen their fortunes plummet.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have joined the elite.
The other three teams were in this grouping before the season, and have done nothing to shake our belief in them as primary Stanley Cup contenders. Sure, the Lightning are a discouraging 4-6-0 in their past 10 games, but they’re going to be fine. They also have a healthy Nikita Kucherov coming back for the playoffs, which has half the league crying about cap circumvention and the other half in awe that a team could have Nikita Kucherov in street clothes for the regular season and still probably win its division.
The Avalanche and Golden Knights have continued unabated toward their Kong vs. Godzilla showdown in the West Division, with a combined plus-90 in goal differential. It’s interesting that neither team really made a splash at the deadline — Colorado’s acquisition of goalie Devan Dubnyk was more about insurance than impact — although it wasn’t for a lack of trying, as both pushed hard for Boston-bound Taylor Hall. It was especially intriguing in the Golden Knights’ case, having made a significant deadline move in every year of their existence. Ugh … we were so close to the dream of having Ryan Getzlaf chasing another Cup as the center Vegas desperately needs.
The Leafs, meanwhile, go from “The Waiting Room” to the elite tier. They can score with the best of them (3.30 goals per game). We knew that. The knock on the Leafs is that they couldn’t defend at a playoff-caliber level and were too easy to play against. Their team defense has shown a significant improvement (2.07 expected goals against per 60) over last season (2.32). GM Kyle Dubas has been doing his best Brian Burke impression, adding truculence and pugnacity in players like T.J. Brodie, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian and now Nick Foligno, whose leadership and defensive prowess had the Leafs sending a first-rounder to Columbus, and cost many in the analytics community their sanity. But Dubas knows that based on the current league alignment and the success of the current roster, it’s go time for a big Stanley Cup push.