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The Deals That Have Shaped The NHL Season (So Far)

The NHL’s trade deadline is in exactly one month, and with it will come each team’s last big chance to meaningfully upgrade its roster on the path to the playoffs. But some of the most important moves of the 2021 season have already happened, with effects already evident on the ice and in the standings as we approach the halfway mark of the schedule. So which teams have gotten the most value from their recent arrivals? We looked at teams with at least a 40 percent chance to make the playoffs (according to simulations using our Elo ratings) and found those whose newest additions have added the most in goals above replacement1 through Wednesday’s games.

Montreal Canadiens

GAR per 82 from newcomers: 64.8 (40 percent of team total)
Biggest moves: Signed C Tyler Toffoli (20.5 GAR/82) and RW Corey Perry (5.2); traded for G Jake Allen (13.7), RW Josh Anderson (11.5) and D Joel Edmundson (10.8)
Playoff probability: 81 percent

After a hot start — and subsequent cooldown — the Canadiens are still in solid shape to make the playoffs. In part, that’s because they currently rank third in the North Division in points percentage2 and have an easier remaining schedule than any of the teams below them. But it’s also because they’ve gotten a ton of production from the flurry of trades and signings general manager Marc Bergevin made last offseason. Some of those moves were not without risk. Montreal dealt offensively gifted forward Max Domi (and a third-round pick) to Columbus for big winger Josh Anderson, who was coming off the worst season of his career; it also signed center Tyler Toffoli to a four-year, $17 million contract despite his production being down (7.7 GAR/82) since his 2015-16 peak (16.5). But practically all of Bergevin’s pickups have exceeded expectations this year, as Toffoli ranks 16th among forwards with 20.5 GAR/82, Anderson has bounced back with a solid performance, and netminder Jake Allen has helped salvage the Habs’ save percentage ranking in spite of starter Carey Price’s uneven play. As a result, no team has gotten more value from its new arrivals than Montreal so far this season, and it has made a big difference for the Habs’ postseason bid.


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Chicago Blackhawks

GAR per 82 from newcomers: 48.4 (40 percent of team total)
Biggest moves: Called up G Kevin Lankinen (24.6 GAR/82); recalled F Pius Suter (7.3); signed C Mattias Janmark (6.6)
Playoff probability: 48 percent

Playing in the competitive Central Division, the Hawks are more likely to miss the playoffs than make them after a recent skid. But the fact that they’re even in the mix has a lot to do with some key newcomers bolstering Chicago’s usual core (led by right wing Patrick Kane, who himself is having an MVP-caliber season). In particular, a couple of undrafted rookies are paying big dividends for the team so far, starting with Kevin Lankinen between the pipes. Lankinen went into the year third on the Hawks’ goalie depth chart, but he’s worked his way up to the No. 1 slot and currently ranks fourth in the league in GAR among goaltenders this season. Winger Pius Suter has also been a very pleasant surprise after bouncing between his native Switzerland and several NHL teams’ camps over the past few seasons. Between those two breakouts and the pickup of ex-Stars center Mattias Janmark (whose offensive output has been similar to Suter’s), the Hawks have gotten the second-most value from newcomers of any team — despite the fact that a few of their other, bigger-name acquisitions (Nikita Zadorov, Carl Soderberg) are having somewhat disappointing seasons. In turn, that’s helped keep postseason hopes alive for a team that seemed destined for the basement after numerous offseason defections and the news that future Hall of Fame center Jonathan Toews would be out indefinitely with a long-term illness.

Florida Panthers

GAR per 82 from newcomers: 41.1 (25 percent of team total)
Biggest moves: Traded for RW Patric Hörnqvist (14.5 GAR/82); signed C Carter Verhaeghe (12.5)
Playoff probability: 93 percent

In their quest to win a playoff series for the first time since 1996, the Panthers have gotten plenty of production from such usual suspects as forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau and defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle. They’ve also gotten great goaltending from Chris Driedger — who, yes, is newly battling for the starting job in net, but has been in Florida’s organization since 2018. However, the team might finally get its push over the top from a handful of important acquisitions made this past offseason by busy new GM Bill Zito. To strengthen his forward depth, Zito sent defenseman Mike Matheson and checking center Colton Sceviour to Pittsburgh for scoring right wing Patric Hornqvist. He also signed wingers Anthony Duclair and Mason Marchment and centers Alexander Wennberg and Carter Verhaeghe to cost-effective contracts, to go with a deal for physical D-man Radko Gudas. All of those additions have either met or exceeded expectations in the first half of the 2021 season,3 giving Florida a big boost in the standings. With an increase of 58 percentage points so far, no team has gained more playoff probability since preseason than the Panthers.

A shot of two Florida Panther players on the ice, standing next to each other and talking to someone we can’t see

Related: The Florida Panthers Haven’t Made A Real Playoff Run In Decades. That Could Change This Year. Read more. »

Toronto Maple Leafs

GAR per 82 from newcomers: 38.2 (20 percent of team total)
Biggest moves: Signed G Michael Hutchinson (12.4 GAR/82), D T.J. Brodie (7.7) and C Joe Thornton (5.7)
Playoff probability: 99 percent

Although Toronto has stumbled a bit in the past week, the Leafs still look like a formidable Stanley Cup contender. (Which is something that seldom can be said!) That’s mostly thanks to the homegrown quartet of forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander and D-man Morgan Rielly, along with 2018 free agency big-fish John Tavares. But the Leafs have gotten some nice production from their newcomers on the margins, too. Once-maligned reserve goalie Michael Hutchinson has been the sixth-best backup in hockey this year by GAR,4 after being reacquired by Toronto via free agency in October. Defenseman T.J. Brodie has lived up to expectations in the first year of a four-year, $20 million contract, forwards Travis Boyd and Jimmy Vesey have provided a spark on the fourth line, and right wing Wayne Simmonds should be back soon — the former 30-goal scorer was playing well before an injury in early February. Last but not least, 41-year-old Joe Thornton is having a fine year in his Toronto debut (and 23rd season in the NHL overall). While holdovers have largely powered the Leafs’ strong season, they wouldn’t have a 7 percent chance of winning the franchise’s first Cup since 1967 without the contributions from their newcomers.

Washington Capitals

GAR per 82 from newcomers: 29.6 (23 percent of team total)
Biggest moves: Signed D Justin Schultz (11.2 GAR/82) and D Zdeno Chara (8.8)
Playoff probability: 77 percent

Last season, two years removed from winning the Cup, the Capitals ranked 18th in goals allowed and 28th in save percentage, eventually seeing their season end against a vastly better defensive team in the New York Islanders. But Washington addressed some of those shortcomings over the offseason, inking Justin Schultz and former Bruins captain Zdeno Chara to free agent deals on the blueline. Both have provided strong early returns. The team also had designs on replacing longtime netminder Braden Holtby (who departed for Vancouver) with erstwhile Rangers legend Henrik Lundqvist; those plans were put on hold when Lundqvist was discovered to have a potentially serious heart condition. However, that opened up an opportunity for rookie Vitek Vanecek to make most of Washington’s starts in net this season, and the 25-year-old has responded well to the challenge, adding to the Caps’ GAR tally from newcomers. Add in the solid play of forwards Conor Sheary (acquired in free agency) and Daniel Sprong (who was dealt to Washington last February but didn’t make his debut for the team until 2021), and the Capitals have taken advantage of some fresh talent this season — even if they do have the oldest roster in the league.

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Minnesota Wild

GAR per 82 from newcomers: 29.2 (17 percent of team total)
Biggest moves: Recalled LW Kirill Kaprizov (12.9 GAR/82); traded for D Ian Cole (6.4) and C Nick Bjugstad (5.8)
Playoff probability: 79 percent

As we mentioned in our NHL chat last week, the Wild have been one of the most impressive breakout teams of the 2021 season so far. Only the Panthers and the Carolina Hurricanes have improved their postseason chances more since preseason than Minnesota, and it’s happened despite many of the team’s established stars (Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Kevin Fiala, captain Jared Spurgeon) having various degrees of down years.5 Picking up the slack have been newcomers like Kirill Kaprizov, the 23-year-old Russian left wing who’s establishing himself as a Rookie of the Year front-runner, and to a lesser degree center Nick Bjugstad (acquired via trade in September) and D-man Ian Cole (picked up in an early season swap with Colorado). Not all of Wild GM Bill Guerin’s moves have been beauties: Free-agent goalie Cam Talbot has already been unseated by second-year standout Kaapo Kahkonen, who makes $2.9 million less than his understudy. Center Nick Bonino, picked up in an October trade, is pacing for -1.4 GAR per 82 games in one of the worst seasons of his career. But on balance, Minnesota’s newcomers have been among the most productive in the league, playing for one of the league’s most surprising contenders.


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Footnotes

  1. Our spin on Tom Awad’s Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) and Hockey-Reference.com’s Point Shares, which we calculate by running a series of regressions and properly rescaling leaguewide value to better distribute it among forwards, defensemen and goalies. (We assign forwards 60 percent of leaguewide value, while defensemen get 30 percent and goalies get 10 percent; the metric also creates more separation among league goaltending performances and balances total league offensive value against the value of defense plus goaltending.)

  2. The top four teams in each division make the playoffs.

  3. Even Duclair, who is producing slightly below his career average on offense, is helping drive possession while on the ice.

  4. Among netminders who don’t lead their team in minutes between the pipes.

  5. This teammate-on-teammate collision between Fiala and Parise kind of sums up the year they’ve been having.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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