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NHL teams need post-season depth

By Lori Bennett

National Sports Columnist

NHL Noise

On Tuesday, Feb. 6 the Edmonton Oilers lost a tight game to the Vegas Golden Knights, ending their winning streak at 16 games. Losing to the reigning Stanley Cup Champions is nothing to be ashamed of, and it may serve the Oilers well to focus less on the potential to beat a record and more on getting ready for the playoffs.

The turnaround is dramatic. In November when they fired Coach Jay Woodcroft, the Oilers had a record of 3-9-1. By the end of the streak, Edmonton found themselves challenging for their division lead with a 29-16-1 record.

Under Coach Kris Knoblauch, the Oilers look like a serious playoff threat and GM Ken Holland has to be considering how he can add to the team to ready themselves for a long Spring. An upgrade on defense may be in order, along with another top six forward. Who knows what they have in mind to shore up their unpredictable situation in net.

The best trade partner might be found just 300 kilometers south in their home province, at least in the defenseman category. The Calgary Flames have already been active on the trade market, but they possess two key pending unrestricted free agents — Chris Tanev and Noah Hanifin — who are on the top of every trade board.

The Flames set the market on centres when they dealt Elias Lindstrom during All-Star week. They are expected to set the market on defensemen when they find a trade partner for Tanev. But there is a long list of suitors for Tanev, likely including the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets.

The Tampa Bay Lightning may also begin circling, having lost defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to injury on Wednesday night. A core member of the Lightning defense group, Sergachev underwent surgery on Thursday to repair his broken leg. This is very bad news for the Lightning, who are trying to hold on to their competitive window while having very few assets upgrade and fill some holes.

The Leafs are not as bad off as the Lightning, but their position is similar. They may wish to upgrade at every position, but they lack assets to offer for the best options. The good news for them is that goaltender Ilya Samsonov seems to have found his game, at least for the time being. Two of their offseason signings — Tyler Bertuzzi and Ryan Reaves — have not lived up to expectations.

The conversation happening around Toronto is whether this version of the team is good enough to spend any further assets to try and improve for a playoff run, or if they are better off waiting to do small retool in the summer and go all in next year. GM Brad Treliving will probably do something, but the fact that this is a conversation at all is concerning with the amount of talent at their disposal that multiple management groups have not been able to lead to success.

GM Kent Hughes and the Montreal Canadiens are paying attention to the defense market. Once the biggest names are off the board, the Habs have considerable defensive depth and could make one or two players available for the right price. 

David Savard is expected to be a target, but the Habs are in no rush to move him. Nothing less than a haul is likely to pry him out of Montreal since he has another year left on his contract. The left side of their defense group is also looking crowded in Montreal, so a team looking for depth would be wise to look in Hughes’ direction.

The Pittsburgh Penguins made a half-hearted attempt to improve their lot this past week when they signed Jesse Puljujarvi to a two-year contract that covers this season and next. Puljujarvi was drafted fourth overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, but never lived up to expectations, even when playing alongside stars like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. He topped out at 36 points in Edmonton. Now he will get a chance with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, where first-year GM Kyle Dubas is trying to make the best of their window of contention with limited resources.

Raptors Racket

The NBA trade deadline came and went on Thursday, Feb. 8. The Toronto Raptors had already dealt two of their best trade chips in the weeks leading up to the deadline, getting ahead of the market. Nevertheless, the management duo of Masai Ujuri and Bobby Webster went scouring the market trying to find some way to improve their team while business was open. Two deals were made.

In the first deal, the Raptors sent guard Kira Lewis Jr. and forward Otto Porter Jr., along with a first round pick, to the Utah Jazz for guard Ochai Agbaji and big centre Kelly Olynyk. Toronto held three first round picks going into the deadline, and the lowest of these picks went to the Jazz in this deal.

Olynyk is a Canadian player, born in Toronto and raised in British Columbia. He has played internationally for Team Canada and has committed to play at the Paris Olympics in July. Agbaji is a former first round pick, selected at 14th overall in the 2022 NBA draft. 

The second deal saw guard Dennis Schroder and forward Thad Young moved to the Brooklyn Nets for guard Spencer Dinwiddie. Schroder, a player that Coach Darko Rajakovic seemed to favour, signed a two-year deal with Toronto this past summer. But his role on the team was diminished when Immanuel Quickley was acquired in the OG Anunoby deal.

Shortly after acquiring Dinwiddie, the Raptors announced they would be waiving him. The implication is that they made the deal just to offload Schroder and Young.

So where were the Raptors at the end of the day? Agbaji is a promising prospect who fits the Scottie Barnes window. Olynyk brings size to make space for Barnes and brings the total of Canadian players on the roster to three, along with RJ Barrett and Chris Boucher, who avoided being traded on Thursday. The Raptors also have two open roster spots, and Webster said they would be looking to fill those spots with players they would like to assess.

This was a clear sell, and the rest of the season may be a slog to watch. But the rebuild is on, and things can turn quickly in basketball. Let’s see what happens by the draft.

Blue Jays Babble

Another item got sorted this week in off-season business for the Toronto Blue Jays, but perhaps not in the way that management hoped.

On Wednesday, first baseman and three-time all-star player Vladimir Guerrero Jr. won his salary arbitration case, and will earn just under twenty million dollars this coming season. Guerrero is eligible for arbitration again in 2025, before hitting free agency. The Jays have a brief window to decide about Vladdy’s future and get him signed to a long-term deal. 

That decision would get simpler if Guerrero could return to his 2021 form when he hit .311 and had 48 homeruns and 111 runs batted in. A clutch performance or two in the postseason wouldn’t hurt either.

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