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Winning fixes everything. Not too long ago, there were serious questions about the Calgary Flames’ future. The team seemed on its way to another listless season and with Johnny Gaudreau eligible to become a UFA along with Matthew Tkachuk set to become a RFA, there were genuine questions as to whether the Flames should stay the course or prepare for a major roster overhaul.
Then the Flames won 10 consecutive games and suddenly the conversation is not about if they can make the playoffs, but how well they’ll do once they get there. To be fair, there are reasons to believe that they’re capable of making a strong run. The Pacific Division is wide open. Vegas and Edmonton both have tons of potential, but also substantial question marks and it’s not unreasonable to believe that the Flames could beat either or both of them in a seven-game series.
In the short-term though, the question is if their recent hot streak will end up being record breaking. To that end, Thursday’s contest against Vancouver will be huge. If the Flames are able to beat the Canucks, then they will set the record for the longest winning streak in franchise history. Elias Lindholm’s current eight-game goal scoring streak is also tied for the franchise record, so he would make team history with a goal tonight.
While their hot streak has gone a long way towards improving the Calgary Flames’ outlook, it hasn’t really helped the Columbus Blue Jackets’ much. If anything, the Blue Jackets are an example of how hard it is to dig yourself out of a hole once you’re in one.
Columbus has won eight of its last 10 contests, jumping from a 18-21-1 record to 26-23-1. However, even after all that, the Blue Jackets are nine points back from the Boston Bruins in the battle for the final Wild Card spot. Back on Jan. 26 when the Blue Jackets were still 18-21-1, Boston was 24-13-3, the Blue Jackets’ incredible run has only closed the gap by five points over a month. Assuming Boston gets just 32 points over its final 32 games, then Columbus would need to get 42 points over its last 32 games to best them. So the Blue Jackets need a record of 21-11-0 the rest of the way just to have even a decent shot of making the playoffs. If Boston ends up being anything better than mediocre over that stretch, then even a 21-11-0 record wouldn’t be sufficient for Columbus.
So while the Blue Jackets’ recent success has made things a bit more interesting, it’s probably given them more false hope than anything else. One thing it has done though is make the situation with Patrik Laine intriguing. He’s playing through a one-year, $7.5 million contract and can become a RFA again this summer. Laine has played a huge part in the Blue Jackets’ recent success, scoring 12 goals and 20 points in his last 10 games. That’s pushed him up to 18 goals and 35 points in 31 contests this season.
It’s tough to determine what’s fair value for him, especially when it comes to a long-term contract. At times he’s played as if he was the league’s best goal scorer, but he just hasn’t been consistent. There have been stretches in his career where he’s struggled significantly. Take 2020-21 for example, when he was limited to 12 goals and 24 points in 46 contests. The 2018-19 campaign also stands out as an odd one. Although he reached the 30-goal milestone that season, it was because he had a stretch of 18 goals in the span of just 12 contests. Outside of that one amazing run, he was more miss than hit that season. If he signs with the Blue Jackets long-term, he might prove to be an offensive leader that leads the Blue Jackets to contention, but it’s a high-risk, high-reward bet to make.
In the meantime, the Blue Jackets are better served being sellers at the trade deadline than putting their hopes in this year’s playoff race. The trade deadline is on March 21, so it hasn’t heated up yet, but some trades have begun to trickle in. Over the last week we’ve seen the Arizona Coyotes make three trades, though two of them were very minor.
Arizona sent Carter Hutton to Toronto for future considerations and they dealt the rights to defenseman Michael Callahan to Boston for a 2024 seventh-round pick. Neither trade is noteworthy enough to warrant analysis, but the other deal they made is worthy of discussion. Arizona sent Ryan Dzingel and Ilya Lyubushkin to Toronto in exchange for Nick Ritchie and their choice of a 2023 third-round pick or a 2025 second-round selection.
For Toronto the big thing in this trade was getting out from under Ritchie’s salary. The Leafs signed him to a two-year, $5 million contract as a UFA over the summer, but it didn’t work out. He had two goals and nine points in 33 games while averaging 12:00 minutes and his stock in Toronto had fallen to the point where the Maple Leafs sent him to the minors.
Toronto’s a team constantly up against the cap, so if Ritchie wasn’t going to serve a role on the squad, they naturally wanted to move his contract, especially to clear up the $2.5 million in cap space that he was going to consume next season. This trade accomplishes that, which by itself makes this a solid trade for the Maple Leafs. From Arizona’s perspective, they got the cap space and may as well give Ritchie a chance to see if he can bounce back. At his best, Ritchie is an okay middle-six forward, so perhaps the fresh start will benefit both parties.
This trade also has benefited Dzingel, albeit indirectly. The Maple Leafs’ plan was to send him to the minors, but the San Jose Sharks claimed him. Dzingel made his Sharks debut on Feb. 22 and while he didn’t record a point, he did log 16:47 minutes. If he continues to serve in a top-six role with the Sharks, he might end up having a bit of fantasy value down the stretch. At his height with Ottawa, he had 26 goals and 56 points in 78 games in 2018-19, but ever since that stint with the Senators, his role has been limited. Perhaps that will change in San Jose.
As for Lyubushkin, he’s more of a physical, defensive minded defenseman who will help round out the Maple Leafs’ blueline. He’ll be of use to Toronto, but his fantasy impact is negligible.
Circling back to Toronto’s cap situation, it’s worth adding that Jake Muzzin has been moved to the long-term injured reserve list after suffering his second concussion in a matter of months. The Maple Leafs naturally want to be cautious with Muzzin under the circumstances and you just have to hope that he recovers smoothly for his own sake. From a hockey perspective, losing Muzzin leaves a big hole in Toronto’s blueline, but it also frees up a significant amount of cap space. Combining that with Toronto’s ability to shed Ritchie’s contract and suddenly the Maple Leafs are in a position to make a major splash before the deadline. Keep in mind that the salary cap only applies to the regular season, so if Toronto adds a contract now while Muzzin’s cap hit is covered by LTIR and then Muzzin is able to return during the postseason, that doesn’t complicate things at all for Toronto cap wise.
This would only work complication-free though if Toronto was adding a rental. So if the Maple Leafs added JT Miller, for example, who is signed through 2022-23, fitting him under the cap ceiling while Muzzin is unavailable is perfectly doable right now, but then over the summer, Toronto would need to do some maneuvering to be cap complaint. It’s also more likely that the Maple Leafs will be looking for defensive help given that that’s their area of greatest need.