The trade deadline is over, and we know what the Maple Leafs did and didn’t do. Many people used the term “arms race” to describe the Eastern Conference moves at the deadline because it seemed as though every top team was active. That’s not new, but what is true about this season is that two of those top teams are knotted up in the standings in a tight ball, and the other six teams are not far behind. Every team in the Metro and Atlantic is a potential Maple Leafs rival.
As of the morning after deadline day, or Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, these are the Eastern Conference standings:
Standings on March 22
No other team is in this race, but the question of who plays whom in the first round is very up in the air.
If the Leafs stay in second or third place in the Atlantic, they will play another Atlantic team, and that’s most likely to be Tampa, so that’s a good place to start:
Tampa Bay Lightning
Before the deadline, Tampa was a team with the best goalie in the NHL and two Cups under their belts. You can quibble about Connor Hellebuyck being the better goalie to Andrei Vasilevskiy, but at this time of the year, being great on a bad team is pointless.
In front of Vasilevskiy was a good defence and a good offence, neither great. The gulf in offensive power between Tampa and Toronto, Florida and Carolina is marked. Their power play was good, nothing like Toronto’s for power, and their penalty kill is amazing — possibly as much due to goaltending as anything else.
They had no major weakness and look like a serious contender yet again.
The Lightning added players of a very specific type — underpaid players with talents that outstrip their cap hits. The most meaningful move was adding Brandon Hagel at the cost of some depth forward prospects. He’s got a hot shooting % this year that isn’t real, but he plays the game well, and has drawn comparisons to Michael Bunting. They needed a player for their middle six with some scoring, and here he is. In fact, he’s starting on their top line.
They also added Nick Paul, who is all defence and will not be the best player on his line as he often was in Ottawa. He’s a solid addition who replaces the best of the depth players they gave up.
The Lightning also added Riley Nash as an extra depth guy — not a meaningful move.
The only meaningful loss was the potential of the younger players traded away, and potential doesn’t win you anything today.
Result: The Lightning made themselves better at forward with these additions. How much better depends on your read on Hagel, and as we saw with David Kämpf and Michael Bunting, a player going from a terrible team to a good one can be tough to predict.
The Lightning are good at everything and never worry about their goalie. They were good enough to win the cup before, now it’s a touch easier.
If the Leafs and Bruins swap places — unlikely as that is — the Leafs could face Carolina in the first round.
Carolina, before the deadline, had offence almost as good as the Leafs, although their style isn’t the same. Their defence wavered a bit, as does the Leafs’, so that both teams get a lot of mileage out of just never letting the other team have the puck. Frederik Andersen has produced results near the top of the NHL for them. Their power play was tepid, when it shouldn’t be, and their penalty kill looked amazing, which is likely some goaltending mixed in. Andersen is traditionally weakest when shorthanded, though.
Carolina’s weakness is that they shoot a lot from the point, giving away some value on their offence, and lowering their overall chances of scoring. They traditionally have a low team shooting %.
The only move they made was acquiring Max Domi, who has one claim to fame, and that’s an occasionally high shooting %. He has played in a top-six role on bad teams, but has been a third-liner more recently.
Result: It’s hard to see how this move does much for the team. They are who they are, and they can withstand some of their inefficiencies in offence with good goaltending. Andersen is much less a sure thing than Vasilevskiy, but they have to be considered a serious cup contender this year.
It seems at this point like whoever wins the Stanley Cup is either Florida, or they have to go through Florida to get it. Everything they touch turns to gold.
Before the deadline, they were the top team in the east, and have sustained what is about the highest points % imaginable given the strength of the other eastern contenders. Their offence was stunning, truly magical, and better than Toronto’s. They were doing everything right — shot rate, shot location, ability to forecheck, everything.
Their defence was good but not spectacular, and if they have a weakness at all it is left-side defending. Their power play was shockingly pedestrian, and I always wonder if that’s a holdover from when their system was entirely “Mike Hoffman plays here”. Their penalty kill wass fine.
Their goaltending has also been exceptionally good, and of the three teams topping the east, theirs has the most risk of imploding. So far, so good though.
The Panthers got Robert Hägg from Buffalo, likely because Aaron Ekblad is hurt. Hägg is not very good, and won’t help them in the interim. Ekblad is not expected to be out for long.
They also got Ben Chiarot, and one imagines that’s because they noticed their left-side issues. Chiarot has been utterly horrible this season, but has been effective in the very recent past.
And, of course, they were gifted with Claude Giroux, by the man himself.
Result: You basically can play a power play system that is “Claude Giroux plays here” so that problem was seen to in the best possible way. Otherwise, the result of their moves depends entirely on how Chiarot does. But if Giroux fixes that power play and their goaltending holds, they are the team to beat.
New York Rangers
The Rangers are the weakest team in the east, and it’s not even close. Prior to the deadline, they were fueled by Igor Shesterkin having the best goalie season in recent memory and not much else.
Their offence was a net negative — as in they are below average — their defence was the same by about the same amount. Their power play was much better, and helps them win some games, but the penalty kill was terrible. They were bad in terms of possession and systems and lacked skater skill.
The Rangers added Tyler Motte, Andrew Copp, Justin Braun and Frank Vatrano, which indicates their fans might scream that they are not weak, how dare you, but management knew what was up.
Result: Copp is the big impact player here, and he’s no Giroux, but he makes the team better. All their additions improve the team. Is it enough? Combined with their goaltending, they can win a close series. If they stay in second or third in the Metro, as is likely, they will play the Penguins in the first round, and that’s going to be an interesting matchup. Will they go deep? I really doubt that.
The Penguins have been quietly rolling along as a playoff team garnering zero buzz this year. Prior to the deadline, they were just below the top teams offensively, nicely very good defensively, and had a very good pair of special teams. Just looking at their skater performance makes you think they’re a cup contender.
Their starter has been good, their other goalies are good enough, and the Penguins once again look like a sleeping giant. The only reason they aren’t seriously challenging for the top of the Metro is because they actually have a lower shooting % than the Hurricanes do. Their offensive systems are fine, so it’s either lack of skill or bad luck or both.
They went out and got Rickard Rakell, who used to be offensively gifted and has drifted into mediocrity like most Ducks. They also got Nate Beaulieu, a defenceman who just is not very good.
Result: They’ve likely improved in their one area of weakness, but not remarkably. They might just quietly wipe their opponents out for a couple of three rounds of the playoffs, though.
The Capitals have so much reputation built on years of success, that’s it’s easy to not notice how bad they are this year. Their whole concept for years has been mild mediocrity at five-on-five, excellent goaltending and special teams that win games.
Before the deadline this year, they were genuinely below average offensively with some defensive skill to make up for it. Their power play was bad on paper because it is a genuine exception to the rules on how you score power play goals. Their penalty kill was just okay.
Their rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov has been bad, their surprise tandem partner for him, Vitek Vanecek, has been okay, and they shouldn’t even have made the playoffs. Seriously, Columbus and the Islanders should feel shame over this.
They got Johan Larsson, a depth forward, and their bro from the old days Marcus Johansson, who is frequently very bad.
Result: unless Marcus Johansson is only good in Washington, this was not enough to get them out of the first round. They’ve got a lot of history and the playoffs are weird, but they look too weak for the east.
The Bruins have remained a still legible copy of who they’ve always been, but the ink is fading fast. Before the deadline, they were astonishingly good defensively this season, so good even an average goalie should look like a star.
Their offence was very tepid, but their special teams were a big improvement on that, particularly on the power play.
They added Hampus Lindholm and then gave him eight years. They also got Josh Brown, a poor quality defender. The other thing they did was extend the unhappy Jake DeBrusk, giving him a reason to feel like part of the team.
Result: Hampus Lindholm is not an offensive defenceman, they know that right? This trade is incomprehensible for a team that thinks it can go deep. I don’t think they do think that. I think they know they need to retool up front, and they just didn’t this year. Lindholm is for the future, and I bet he’s a Bruin longer than DeBrusk is.
The Bruins are riding on the coattails of a hot run from Jeremy Swayman, playing whoever wanders by as their 2C, and hoping the last bits of Bergeron glory are enough. They might be a challenge in a low-scoring playoff series, but at their best, the Bruins system worked because of their offensive talent. They don’t have enough for a deep run because you can’t win 16 games in a row 1-0.
Florida won the day. It’s true that it wasn’t their great trading prowess that got them Claude Giroux, instead he took his prodigious talents to the best team in the NHL that actually needed a player with his exact skillset.
Florida won deadline day long before it ever came because they made themselves good enough for the best pending UFA by a mile to pick them as his trade destination.
Tampa is the runner up because Tampa looks like they can genuinely three-peat, and they still managed to add some interesting players.
Carolina did the least, and that seems like a strange choice. Washington and Pittsburgh made token efforts, while Boston looks like they’re planning a re-tool already.
That leaves the Leafs. They did what Florida did and upgraded at their weakest point with the best player they could get, possibly the best available. They did not fill any other holes in very meaningful ways and likely simply couldn’t. They’re rolling the dice on goaltending and their forwards coming through this time.