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      Which non-contending teams could buy at the NHL Trade Deadline?

      Missing the playoffs and buying at the deadline aren't mutually exclusive, and these strugglers could look to make improvements.

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      With less than two weeks until the March 8 NHL Trade Deadline, we’re delivering at least one deadline-focused story every day at Daily Faceoff.

      Today, we explore teams in non-playoff positions that could still posture themselves as buyers in the coming days.

      2024 NHL Trade Deadline Countdown: 12 days

      The NHL’s trade deadline is perhaps the most frenzied in North American sports because of the volume of teams that feel bullish about their playoff chances. When one team moves, its direct competitors engage them in an arms race, leading to desperate deals and inflated prices. Elias Lindholm leaving the board leads to Sean Monahan costing a first-round pick, which leads to Scott Laughton, an honest player with limited top-six potential, suddenly becoming so pricey he might not change hands at all.

      In this chaotic environment, the teams that often make the smart, measured moves are the ones whose on-ice misfortunes preclude them from reckless “win-now” tactics. While other outfits feel obligated to move heaven and earth to gain a leg up in the quest for home ice, a division crown, or a Stanley Cup, the teams that have fallen out of these respective races have a little more perspective during trade season. Try asking the Montreal Canadiens to swap a first for Laughton and see how far you get. 

      That does not mean non-contending teams spend the late winter sitting on their hands. There’s always next year, and some organizations that have fallen out of the hunt will not be content to wait until the summer to address their flaws. Just last season, the Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals flipped first-round picks for defensemen Filip Hronek and Rasmus Sandin, respectively, despite their rapidly dwindling playoff hopes; the former has been critical during Vancouver’s rapid ascension to the summit of the Western Conference. As the 2024 trade deadline draws near, these struggling teams might take a page out of the Canucks’ playbook and get out ahead of the 2024-25 season by swinging some positive moves.

      Chicago Blackhawks

      The Hawks are as bad as they come. Though they have the best odds of landing a second-straight franchise player at the draft in Macklin Celebrini, the focus has to shift to getting help for Connor Bedard in the present. Bedard, a prospect whose pre-draft hype reached the Crosby-McDavid tier, looks like the real thing so far despite minimal support; he paces the Blackhawks in scoring (17G, 39P in 44GP) despite having missed 14 games. 

      The center’s frequent linemates, grizzled veteran Nick Foligno and talented but inconsistent 23-year-old Philipp Kurashev, are role players on a more legitimate roster. Though former MVP Taylor Hall will return to the fold next season, likely on Bedard’s left flank, Chicago needs more reinforcements to get the best out of their promising rookie without running him into the ground.

      Luckily for the 18-year-old, GM Kyle Davidson has shown a willingness to bring in veterans like Hall, Foligno, Jason Dickinson, and Petr Mrazek in blatant salary dumps over the past few years. By trading for Hall (signed through 2025) and extending feisty two-way center Dickinson (career-high 17G, team-high +7) and reliable goaltender Mrazek (2.99 GAA, .909 SV%), Davidson showed these moves are about more than eating bad contracts for future assets. If teams have overpaid but relevant players to shed ahead of the deadline, they know who to call; the playoffs are a blip on the horizon for the Blackhawks, but it’d be bad business to surround Bedard, slumping sophomore Lukas Reichel, top prospect in waiting Frank Nazar and 2023 19th-overall pick Oliver Moore with a totally talentless roster.

      Arizona Coyotes

      Has any team in the NHL turned more trash into treasure in recent seasons than the Coyotes? Former league-minimum forward Travis Boyd found success with the Yotes over parts of three seasons (34G, 77P, 172GP) before tearing his pec in the beginning of December. Arizona plucked AHL All-Star Connor Ingram from waivers in October 2022; the 26-year-old has gone on to stop an impressive .909% of shots over 63 games behind the league’s sixth-worst scoring defense since his arrival. The Coyotes are up to 19th in that department this year thanks in part to the contributions of Sean Durzi, who clears more than 22 tough minutes a night and has 12 power-play points. Durzi, you guessed it, is another castaway; he cost Arizona just a second-round pick during the L.A. Kings’ summer cap purge.

      Such sneaky acquisitions have become GM Bill Armstrong’s specialty since he took over Arizona’s front office in 2020; they have been necessary to attract players to the embattled organization. Though pending UFAs Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker are available after the team’s descent from playoff contention, Alex Kerfoot and Nick Bjugstad’s two-year pacts from last summer showed that the Coyotes are serious about getting better. Don’t expect that to change as March approaches. 

      This team is short on creativity beyond franchise player Clayton Keller (22G, 52P in 56GP) and youngster Mattias Maccelli (9G, 37P in 56GP), as shown by their measly 26.73 shots-on-goal per game; only the lowly Blackhawks and the even lowlier Sharks average fewer. On defense, things are wide-open beyond Durzi and sometimes partner J.J. Moser, though Juuso Valimaki and Michael Kesserling have shown NHL reliability. The Yotes need help everywhere except the crease and will sniff around any skater that can improve their roster without costing significant future assets. 

      Buffalo Sabres

      If 2023-24 was to be the year the Buffalo Sabres gifted perhaps the most tortured fanbase in hockey with a long-awaited return to the Stanley Playoffs, ending a league-record 12-season drought, no one told the guys on the ice. The high-octane, third-place scoring offense Tage Thompson and Alex Tuch led in 2022-23 has tumbled to 23rd in goals this season. Top D-man Rasmus Dahlin (14G, 43P in 55GP) is as dangerous as ever, and Casey Middlestadt (13G, 44P in 56GP) is breaking out for a career season, but Thompson is miles off his 47-goal, 94-point best, scuffling along at a 58-point 82-game pace. 

      The defense that kept last season’s unstoppable attack out of the playoffs last season is up to 14th thanks to the game-stealing heroics of breakout goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukonen (2.48 GAA, .913SV%), but there are still serious issues. Veteran acquisitions Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson have been duds on the blueline. Now that former No.1 overall pick Owen Power has a broken hand and blood-and-guts defenseman Mattias Samuelsson is out for the year, the ‘Help Wanted’ sign has been erected in Western New York.

      The 26-27-4 Sabres, doomed to miss the playoffs yet again, shouldn’t wait to fix things before next season. Tuch, Thompson, hardworking center Dylan Cozens, and veteran sniper Jeff Skinner are locked in for the future and stabilize the top six despite down seasons across the board. With so many young pieces established in the lineup on entry-level deals (Peterka, Quinn, Benson), GM Kevyn Adams could make the likes of Jordan Greenway, Victor Oloffson, and even pending RFA Middlestadt available to address Buffalo’s paper-thin defensive depth. Another goalie to keep mega prospect Devon Levi in the AHL for a while wouldn’t hurt either.

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