Now that we are around the halfway point of the NHL season, teams are about to begin looking forward to their trade deadline moves so they can load up for the playoffs. This means we are about to hear that nearly every competitive team is looking for “A top 6 scoring forward” and a “Top 4 puck moving defenseman”. The best GMs don’t wait until the final minute of the trade deadline to make their moves, which means teams should be getting to work pretty soon. For once it is a great time to be looking for that coveted top 6 forward as there are some flashy options possibly available like Evander Kane, Max Pacioretty, and Mike Hoffman. These names can definitely help your team win, but the problem is not every team is going to be willing to part with the big assets that would be required to land a big fish. So today let’s get a little more creative and find players that can help a contending team win while probably costing significantly less in a trade.
The Buffalo Sabres are not a good hockey team and already appear to be sellers (again). As I mentioned above, there will likely be an expensive bidding war in Buffalo for Evander Kane. So if I was trying to acquire any of the Sabres forwards I would steer clear of the bidding war and start with Jason Pominville because he can still provide first line value. He was acquired by the Sabres this summer for depth players in a sort of cap dump because he is a 35-year-old with a $5,600,000 cap hit for the next two seasons. This probably scares most potential buyers off and is why I can’t imagine the price tag on him is nearly as high as his teammate. On top of this the Sabres probably value future assets more than a 35-year-old winger right now meaning he could definitely be available for just a pick or prospect. So, if he is available for picks let’s dig into his numbers to see why I’m so high on Pominville. (All data from Corsica.hockey and uses the 338 forwards playing at least 1200 minutes from the 2015-16 season to the present):
If the ask is simply a “top 6 scorer” Pominville definitely fills that roll. Over the past 2 seasons and so far this year he has registered 1.78 points per 60 minutes of 5 on 5 ice time (P/60), which ranks him in the 75th percentile of forwards in that time. This is just inside first line range suggesting he could either be a passenger on a contender’s top line or a fantastic second line scorer. When we look beyond points we see even more value in Pominville. He ranks in the 96th percentile in Corsi relative to his team (Corsi Rel), and the 87th percentile for Expected Goals relative to his team (XG Rel). What this means is not only does he put up 1st line point production, he is also borderline elite when it comes to driving play by consistently out shooting and out chancing the opposition.
Finally we can find even more value in his penalty differential. He consistently draws more penalties than he takes which is why he ranks in the 73rd percentile in penalty differential (PIM Dif/60) which is also just barely a first line rate. So Pominville is a first line point producer, nearly elite at out-shooting and out chancing the opposition, and puts his team on the power-play way more than the penalty kill. All in all this makes him guy who can probably play well on a contender’s top line and you may not have to break the bank to trade for him. This is why Pominville is an underrated player I would definitely target in the near future. If he isn’t available, there is one other bargain bin buy that I believe can also provide first line production for cheap, so next let’s look at Pominville’s former teammate Jason Zucker.
The Minnesota Wild’s left winger is probably the most under rated player in the entire NHL. I have no read on the Minnesota Wild so I don’t know if Jason Zucker would even be available, however I believe there may be a chance. Alex talked about the Wild and how the odds of them missing the playoffs appear to be high, and I’m inclined to agree with him. On top of this is an argument to be made it’s time for the Wild to start looking towards the future. If that was to happen Jason Zucker is the name I would be calling about. I believe he can provide value comparable to Mike Hoffman, but would surely cost less to trade for. Zucker is not a household name so not many people agree with that last sentence, so to prove my point let’s look at some of his statistics to see what I mean:
Again, let’s start with point production. Zucker has also put up 1.78 points per 60 minutes of 5 on 5 ice time so he also ranks in the 75th percentile in terms of point production. This point production suggests he can be a solid passenger on a first line of a contending team, however when we look beyond points towards his ability to drive play we see more evidence Zucker is a solid first line player. He is good but not great having his team out-shoot the opposition while he is on the ice which is shown by his Corsi ranking in the 70th percentile. Again this would suggest he can be a first line passenger, but we begin to see extreme value when weight those shots are adjusted for quality. Once the shots are weighted for danger, Zucker appears to be an elite play driver because he ranks in the 96th percentile in expected goals relative to his team.
Combine the corsi with the expected goals and Zucker appears to be a definite first line play driver to go with his first line point production. To end we can look at the most under valued aspect of player evaluation, penalty differential. Zucker is also elite at putting his team on the power play and keeping them off the penalty kill which is why he ranks in the 93rd percentile in penalty differential. Combining these 4 statistics we can conclude that Jason Zucker is a solid first line winger who only has a cap hit of $2,000,000. This is why Zucker is the second player I would inquire about and avoid the bidding war for a name like Hoffman. Zucker and Pominville are the only 2 players that I believe can provide top line production while costing much less to trade for than their bigger name comparables, so these next few names are more non traditional deadline buys but can perhaps produce in a contender’s top 6.
Andreas Athanasiou is a weird one. He is a 23-year-old who makes under $1,500,000 and is an RFA at the end of this season so he is not a traditional deadline buy. I have no idea if Athanasiou would actually become available, however he is currently the Red Wings 11th most used forward at 5 on 5 and even considered bolting to the KHL this summer, so it doesn’t appear the brass in Detroit has a tone of love for Athanasiou. This signals to me he may be available for relatively cheap in a trade, and if he is let’s look into his numbers to see what he can provide to a contending team.
Most hockey players who have one elite skill have many others, but Athanasiou is not one of those players. Going off just points you can trick yourself into thinking Athanasiou is borderline elite because his points per 60 minutes rank in the 88th percentile. This is largely because he is one of the most efficient goal scorers in the entire NHL. Usually players who are this good at producing points also drive play well, but I don’t have words to describe how bad Athanasiou is at driving play. Ranking in the 11th percentile in just shot attempts (corsi rel), means he is ruthlessly effective at getting out-shot despite his great point totals. Maybe he is just a shot quality guy then? Nope, when quality is taken into account with expected goals he ranks in the 5th percentile at tilting the shot clock. This is impressively bad and your team’s favorite AHL player can probably drive play at a better rate, which is why he must absolutely not be the one driving a line but rather a passenger.. .So with just those two things i’m not sure I would give him a shot in my top 6, however he has one other elite skill that suggests he is worth a look.
This is his penalty differential, where Athanasiou ranks second in the entire NHL and only trails Connor McDavid at putting his team on the power play more than penalty kill. Combining this elite skill with his point production, I think this could make him an interesting passenger on a scoring line that can produce a ton of points, drive penalty differential, and hopefully be carried to better possession numbers by his linemates. To make matters even better, Athanasiou appears to be better off on the wing which is where I would prefer him to be anyways. This is why I’d love to see a contender give him a shot as a more non traditional trade deadline buy. If Athanasiou being a black hole at driving play scares your team away, I have one final underrated player that can contribute in a more balanced way.
The final name I think teams should look closely at is also likely going to be over shadowed by a superior teammate. If your looking for a Sens forward most people will start by calling about Mike Hoffman, who is obviously the superior player, however I think Ryan Dzingel could be a cheaper option with some upside. He is a 25 year old with a cap hit of $1,800,000 for this season and one more, so I’m not sure if he is even available, but if there were even whispers of an Erik Karlsson trade I’m just going to assume anything is possible in Ottawa. In case Dzingel is available, let’s end with Dzingel’s numbers to see why I’d give him a shot.
Beginning with point production Dzingel seems a little underwhelming. He ranks just above average however if you assume all 31 teams have 6 top 6 forwards he is still by definition a “top 6 scorer”. On top of this he appears to be a slightly better play driver as he ranks in the 60th and 59th percentile at tilting the shot clock and producing expected goals. This is again nothing special but suggest he can hold his own being a passenger in a teams top 6. A nice little cherry on top is that his penalty differential creeps into first line territory ranking in the 77th percentile. So with Dzingel there is really nothing special here just decent all around, this makes me believe he can be a decent second line passenger contenders should consider calling about in their trade talks.
Over the next few months there are plenty of massive names we are all going to hear a lot about in trade rumors. Hoffman, Pacioretty and Kane are good players so I hope these are some names you won’t hear quite as much about but could still plausibly be acquired (I’m not a GM or insider I have no clue who’s actually available) and produce as a “top 6 forward” archetype for a contending team, while being significantly cheaper to trade for than other players cut from the same cloth.