The NHL trade deadline has turned into a dumping ground for expiring contracts, frequented by teams looking to shore up their rosters for a potential Stanley Cup run.
But this year could be different. While those short-term options will still be front and center, this market could be defined by the movement of players who remain under control, either with term on their contracts or locked in as restricted free agents.
Consider it a product of a maturing cap system, one in which general managers are becoming more savvy about the ebb and flow of competitiveness and the value of roster flexibility.
With that in mind, here are seven non-rental players who could be on the move before the bell rings on Monday:
• Valeri Nichushkin, F, Dallas Stars
Contract status: RFA
Recent rumors notwithstanding, I get the sense that Nichushkin is available only in the way that most good young players are: If the right deal comes along, Stars GM Jim Nill would be willing to listen. The right deal in this case would be a contract-controlled defenseman—not a top-four, a top-two, meaning someone who could immediately boost Dallas’s status as contenders. Ideally, that would be someone like St. Louis’s Kevin Shattenkirk, although the possibility that these Central Division rivals will meet up in the first round makes that particular swap less than likely. If there's another player out there who could have that kind of impact, Nill would have to listen.
• Nazem Kadri, F, Toronto Maple Leafs
Contract status: RFA
Is Kadri a foundational player? Or is he more valuable to the Leafs as a trade chip to bring in assets that better suit their rebuilding plans? With the 25-year-old expected to command term and a sizable raise when his current $4.1 million deal expires this summer, there's a good chance that Toronto's management is leaning towards the latter. Kadri would have appeal to an contending team that is looking for an influx of youth and scoring touch on its second line. The Blues might be a nice fit as would the Predators, although the price would be high: a first-rounder and a top-tier prospect or an established defenseman (yep, Shattenkirk again).
• Nail Yakupov, F, Edmonton Oilers
Contract status: one year at $2.5 million
GM Peter Chiarelli has made it clear that he's willing to trade anyone not named Connor McDavid as he looks to shake the Oilers out of a decade-long funk. While it's hard to picture him moving Taylor Hall or Jordan Eberle at this point, Yakupov is definitely on the block. The problem is that he won't generate a huge return. The top pick of 2012 is viewed as damaged goods, a player whose effort levels rarely match his physical gifts. Best-case scenario is that Chiarelli finds another team with a young player of its own who would benefit from a change of scenery. Maybe a team in Tampa, for instance ...
• Justin Schultz, D, Edmonton Oilers
Schultz has never lived up to the promise that made him such a highly coveted free agent out of the University of Wisconsin, and it's probably best for both parties if he moves on. But is there a highly structured team out there that believes it can unlock the full potential of the two-time 30-point defender? The Oilers can't expect much in exchange, but since they were certain not to qualify him this summer anyway, gaining anything beyond a mid-round pick would be like found money.
• Scott Hartnell, F, Columbus Blue Jackets
Contract status: Three years remaining at $4.75 million
Why would the Jackets move their leading point producer? Simple: Age and money. Hartnell will be 34 when next season rolls around, and players who employ his roughneck style are bound to break down sooner than later. And that contract is a luxury that the Jackets' 27th-ranked attendance can't justify. There's almost certainly a team out there that's willing to take on that risk, especially if Columbus is willing to retain some of his salary. A mid-level prospect might be all the Jackets can expect in return. He has a no-trade clause, but you have to think he'd waive it for the chance to join a contender.
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• Jannik Hansen, F, Vancouver Canucks
Contract status: Two years remaining at $2.5 million
The 29-year-old winger has scored a career-high 19 goals and comes with a comfortable cap hit. Those qualities make him well suited to remain in Vancouver as part of the rebuild-on-the-fly, but they also make him very attractive to contenders who would love to add his versatile, two-way game to their roster. Given where the Canucks are it makes sense to listen to offers, but only if they involve a young, NHL-ready player coming back in return. Teams offering draft picks and long-term prospects need not apply.
• Mikael Backlund, F, Calgary Flames
Contract status: Two years remaining at $3.575 million
With several expiring contracts up for grabs, the Flames are expected to be busy ahead of the deadline. But while all eyes will be on Kris Russell and JiriHudler, Backlund may be the first to go. Calgary needs to clear salary ahead of granting extensions to main cog forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan this summer, and Backlund makes too much money for a role that's likely to be reduced next season. At 26, it's safe to say he is what he is—a decent, two-way center good for 30 to 40 points. A young team looking for experience in the middle might be willing to take a shot.
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