Western Conference race for players well underway ahead of NHL trade deadline

Rick Tocchet and Rick Bowness were together at NHL All-Star Weekend when news broke that the Winnipeg Jets traded for Sean Monahan.

Bowness’ team made a big addition less than 48 hours after Tocchet’s Vancouver Canucks acquired Elias Lindholm, considered the top centre on the market.

“It’s a great trade for them,” Tocchet said. “It’s a great move by Winnipeg, great move by Vancouver getting our guy.”

Vancouver Canucks’ Elias Lindholm (23) celebrates his goal with his teammates during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings, in Vancouver on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Cairns

Toss in the Colorado Avalanche signing veteran winger Zach Parise around the same time, and the race for players is already well underway in the Western Conference. And there’s still three weeks left until the March 8 deadline, as trade talk picks up and plenty more movement is expected.

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One thing is for sure: getting through the gauntlet that is the West has already gotten more difficult for the top contenders eyeing a run at the Stanley Cup.

“The West is really tight,” said Nathan MacKinnon, a front-runner for the Hart Trophy as league MVP two years removed from leading the Avalanche to a championship. “It’s wide open.

“Hockey’s such an even sport right with the parity. Teams are definitely making some moves. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I like our team.”

There’s plenty to like about a lot of teams in the West, starting with the league-leading Canucks who have not lost more than two games in a row all season. The Dallas Stars, atop in the Central Division, are legitimate threats along with Colorado, Vancouver, Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers and — of course — the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights.

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“There’s a lot of good teams battling,” Lindholm said. “Obviously, (we have) a lot of good players and a lot skill — strength throughout the whole lineup. Winnipeg has a great team, too. It will be fun.

“Hopefully our team can go on and have a long season.”

Getting Monahan certainly boosts the chances of that for the Jets, who have won back-to-back games to steady the ship after a five-game skid sandwiched around the All-Star break. In the second season under Bowness, Winnipeg has depth, elite goaltending in Connor Hellebuyck and plays the hard-nosed style that’s needed in the playoffs.

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“You see the game progress from pre-season to regular season, and I think there’s another step from the trade deadline on and then obviously the playoffs,” said all-star Kyle Connor, who leads the Jets with 19 goals. “It’s a completely different game.

“The best that we can to try to translate our game, play playoff hockey now, is only going to better prepare ourselves for that.”

While Connor and the Jets are hoping to peak at the right time this spring, the Avalanche know exactly what that’s like from their 2022 Cup run. They almost certainly need another centre to fill the void still lacking from the departure of Nazem Kadri and could use a solid backup behind Alexandar Georgiev, who has started more games this season than any other goalie in the league.

Getting Parise without having to give up draft picks, prospects or players from their roster was a nice first step for general manager Chris MacFarland.

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“It’s obviously very valuable,” veteran Andrew Cogliano said. “You don’t have to give up any assets in getting a player like him, someone that knows what he’s doing, someone that’s played with so much experience and is just a good hockey player.”

While Parise came at no cost other than money, that won’t be the case for the dozens of players traded in the coming days and weeks. Calgary defencemen Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev and goaltender Jacob Markstrom, Montreal goalie Jake Allen, Anaheim’s Adam Henrique, Washington’s Max Pacioretty, Nic Dowd and Anthony Mantha and Philadelphia’s Nick Seeler and Sean Walker are among the players likely to change places before 3 p.m. EST on March 8.

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The playoffs begin just over six weeks later, at which time Colorado could get captain Gabriel Landeskog back from a two-season absence with a nagging knee injury that required surgery. And there’s a chance do-it-all forward Valeri Nichushkin is back at some point, though there’s no timetable because he’s currently in the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program.

The Avalanche can dream about getting them back. But like Tocchet, who doesn’t even like saying the word “playoffs,” they’re focused on the stretch run.

“You think about it: It’s hard not to,” defenceman Bowen Byram said. “There’s a lot of excitement of guys possibly coming back and that.

“But at the end of the day, this is what we’ve got in the room right now and we’ve got to find some ways to put some wins together.”

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