NHL trade tier rankings: Way-too-early edition for 2023-24

Last season around this time, the NHL trade market didn't lack for fascinating, notable names: Erik Karlsson, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Bo Horvat, Timo Meier, Brock Boeser and Jakob Chychrun were all churning around the rumor mill, with the majority of them eventually getting moved.

With one very notable exception, the potential market leading up to the NHL trade deadline on March 8 isn't exactly a galaxy of stars. In fact, it might be the first deadline in recent memory where the focus is placed on who is preventing goals rather than who can help score them.

"The main market for me right now is the goalie market, for a whole host of reasons," said ESPN insider Kevin Weekes -- and not just because he's a former NHL netminder himself.

Weekes noted around a half dozen teams that could look to improve their goaltending situations, and even more that could provide goaltending help via trade. The trick is to not create a bigger problem for oneself while attempting to solve another team's problems; and, as always, what kind of business the salary cap will allow a team to actually do.

But before we get to the masked men in the crease, we should address the elephant in the room.

The Steven Stamkos tier

Steven Stamkos, C, Tampa Bay Lightning

This isn't the first time Steven Stamkos, the Lightning's captain and all-time franchise leading scorer, has found himself in the trade deadline conversation.

Back in 2015-16, Stamkos was headed to unrestricted free agency that upcoming summer. His contract price tag made it plausible that the Lightning might not be able to bring him back, and there were certainly going to be suitors for his services, starting with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.

Stamkos expressed a desire to remain in Tampa Bay but left open the possibility he would waive his no-trade clause at the deadline. Then-Lightning GM Steve Yzerman had to put out a statement that read: "I am stating today that Steven Stamkos will not be traded before the NHL's trade deadline."

Stamkos would sign an eight-year deal in June 2016 to remain in Tampa, where he'd win two Stanley Cups with the Lightning. That deal ends after this season. Stamkos expressed frustration that there had been no conversations between his camp and GM Julien BriseBois about an extension before training camp. BriseBois said the team was taking a wait-and-see approach with Stamkos' contract until after the season, in order to get a better sense of how its cap space should be allocated -- while expressing a desire to have Stamkos finish his career with the Lightning.

So here we are again: A star player, who has 15 goals in 29 games to start the season, is a pending unrestricted free agent. But this time the Lightning are weighing a 34-year-old player vs. the rest of their roster needs. The 2015-16 Lightning were coming off a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. This season's Lightning have a 30.2% chance of making the playoffs, per Money Puck.

Stamkos has a full no-movement clause. He holds the cards at the trade deadline. Could the Lightning make their call on him by then, based on what BriseBois has seen from the team? And if so, will they seek to use his value to improve the roster before he walks as a free agent?

One assumes we'll get clarity at some point. Perhaps even another GM press release. For now, it's cloudy in the Bay concerning Stamkos' future. But if there's one thing we know about Tampa, it's how quickly the skies can clear.

Elite pending free agent tier

Tyson Barrie, D, Nashville Predators
Noah Hanifin, D, Calgary Flames
Adam Henrique, C, Anaheim Ducks
Elias Lindholm, C, Calgary Flames
Chris Tanev, D, Calgary Flames
Vladimir Tarasenko, LW, Ottawa Senators

If the Flames fail to re-sign him, Lindholm is going to be a coveted player on the trade market for his offensive upside and Selke Trophy-worthy defensive game. He posted 64 points last season and had 20 in his first 32 games this season. It's been widely speculated that the Colorado Avalanche are after the 29-year-old center to play on their second line behind Nathan MacKinnon. The Boston Bruins have shown interest in the past.

The three defensemen here all bring different skill sets to the table. Barrie, a power-play quarterback, seems the most likely to move as he has requested a trade from Nashville and GM Barry Trotz allowed his camp to seek one. Tanev's ability to stay in the lineup is a question, but he brings a crash-and-bang physicality to the blue line. Of the three, Hanifin is the youngest and most well-rounded, and hence would bring the best return to the Flames. Both Hanifin and Tanev have limited no-trade clauses.

Henrique recently remembered it's a contract year, scoring six goals in five games, including a hat trick against his former team, the New Jersey Devils. The 33-year-old center has a 10-team no-trade clause. The Ducks might have to pick up some of his $5.825 million cap hit to make something work.

Tarasenko has a full no-trade clause and a $5 million cap hit. The Senators are a mess and the general manager who brought him in, Pierre Dorion, was ousted. It could be two straight years as a deadline rental for the goal-scoring winger.

Elite players with term tier

Mario Ferraro, D, San Jose Sharks
John Gibson, G, Anaheim Ducks
Morgan Frost, C, Philadelphia Flyers
Adam Larsson, D, Seattle Kraken
Andrei Kuzmenko, LW/RW, Vancouver Canucks
Rasmus Ristolainen, D, Philadelphia Flyers
David Savard, D, Montreal Canadiens
Frank Vatrano, LW/RW, Anaheim Ducks

Of the players listed here, Kuzmenko could be the most likely to move. After a breakout season with 39 goals in 2022-23, he has been one of the few elements that hasn't worked for the Canucks this season. Kuzmenko has six goals through 29 games and his playmaking has dried up, too, with 11 assists. He has a limited no-trade clause and another season on the books at $5.5 million. There will be interest in him as a "change in scenery" candidate.

Frost is 24 years old and is getting the tough love treatment from coach John Tortorella. Ears perked up when he was a healthy scratch earlier this season, but word was that the Flyers weren't seeking to trade him at that point. Frost is signed through next season; Ristolainen's contract runs a bit longer (2026-27) and is a bit richer ($5.1 million AAV). As with all of the Flyers players, it's hard to imagine anything happening while the team is contending. But this remnant from the Chuck Fletcher regime could be someone GM Daniel Briere moves if there's a taker for that term.

Larsson and Savard are two other stay-at-home defensemen who could move. The Kraken like Larsson, and he plays a ton (23:48 in average ice time per game), so there would have to be a strategic reason to deal the defenseman, who makes $4 million against the cap through next season. Larsson has some trade protection; Savard does not. He's signed through next season at $3.5 million AAV. Savard has already been a trade deadline coup once, winning a Stanley Cup as a rental with the Lightning in 2021.

Could the Ducks part with Vatrano while he's an attractive addition? He's signed through next season at $3.65 million AAV and leads the team with 14 goals in 31 games.

The two most notable names here are, of course, Ferraro and Gibson. In the case of the Sharks' 25-year-old defenseman, he's signed through 2025-26 with a very friendly $3.25 million AAV for a player who plays the left side on the blue line. Teams have called San Jose to check on his status during the Sharks' rebuild, but Ferraro expressed a desire to stay with the organization. "I feel like I have unfinished business here," he told San Jose Hockey Now.

With no trade protection, that decision might not be up to him.

Gibson is the most fascinating name here and the best NHL goalie who might be available after Connor Hellebuyck re-signed with Winnipeg -- and with the Predators apparently unwilling to part with Juuse Saros. If the Ducks do want to move him, Gibson has a 10-team no-trade list. But more importantly, he has a $6.4 million AAV through 2026-27.

Many have been matchmaking Gibson with the Devils, who have the want for a goalie upgrade and the future assets the Ducks would require. But someone would have to pick up some of the freight on that contract to make it work, and that won't come cheaply.

That's if New Jersey, or anyone else, sees Gibson as the solution in goal. He has been good this season -- and was great recently against the Devils, no less -- but he has been underwater analytically for about four seasons. With that contract, and that cost of acquisition, teams would have to be sure on Gibson as the solution. Otherwise, there might be more frugal fixes elsewhere.

The goalie tier

Jake Allen, G, Montreal Canadiens
Mackenzie Blackwood, G, San Jose Sharks
Jack Campbell, G, Edmonton Oilers
Eric Comrie, G, Buffalo Sabres
Kaapo Kahkonen, G, San Jose Sharks
Spencer Martin, G, Columbus Blue Jackets
Elvis Merzlikins, G, Columbus Blue Jackets
Petr Mrazek, G, Chicago Blackhawks
Cayden Primeau, G, Montreal Canadiens
Antti Raanta, G, Carolina Hurricanes
James Reimer, G, Detroit Red Wings
Karel Vejmelka, G, Arizona Coyotes
Dan Vladar, G, Calgary Flames

Some teams need goalies. Some have a surplus.

"I really don't understand Montreal having three goalies," Weekes said. "I'm always a Jake Allen booster for what he's done and who he is. Are you going to retain money on him or not? And if you retain, are willing to retain a million and half?"

Allen has a partial no-trade clause on a contract that runs through next season with a $3.85 million annual cap hit. Speculation turned back to his status after Montreal gave Sam Montembeault a three-year extension that kicks in next season.

Those two, along with 24-year-old Cayden Primeau, make up the Canadiens' goalie battery.

"Then you got my man Cayden, who's just kind of like there," Weekes said. "He's played some good games, but he needs run. He needs to play."

Comrie and Vladar are on rosters that run three goalies deep and include bright young prospects.

The Canadiens are over .500 and lingering around the playoff bubble. That isn't the case for other teams like the Sharks, Blackhawks and Blue Jackets, who might all have goaltenders available via trade. Weekes had heard there was action on Kähkönen and Blackwood, with the latter signed through next season at a reasonable $2.35 million annual cap hit.

Sportsnet reported this week that Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets feel it's time for him to play elsewhere. But his contract runs through 2026-27 and carries a $5.4 million AAV -- not exactly a cap-friendly contract for a goalie who was last in the league in goals saved above expected last season.

Vejmelka will, once again, garner a ton of interest for his strong play and cap-friendly deal ($2.725 million AAV through next season). But the Coyotes like their goaltending situation, with Vejmelka and Connor Ingram.

Reimer's value was underscored recently with the Red Wings' goalie injuries. But if he's available, he'd be a great bargain acquisition at $1.5 million AAV.

Campbell and Raanta are both currently in the AHL, with the latter having gone unclaimed through waivers this week.

"I can't believe he didn't get claimed," Weekes said of Raanta.

Help up front tier

Alexander Barabanov, RW, San Jose Sharks
Jonatan Berggren, RW, Detroit Red Wings
Anthony Beauvillier, LW/RW, Chicago Blackhawks
Anthony Duclair, LW, San Jose Sharks
Brandon Duhaime, C, Minnesota Wild
Mike Hoffman, LW, San Jose Sharks
Tyler Johnson, C, Chicago Blackhawks
Kevin Labanc, LW/RW, San Jose Sharks
Anthony Mantha, F, Washington Capitals
Pat Maroon, RW, Minnesota Wild
Victor Olofsson, RW, Buffalo Sabres
Jack Roslovic, C, Columbus Blue Jackets
Jakob Silfverberg, LW/RW, Anaheim Ducks
Jakub Vrana, LW, St. Louis Blues
Jason Zucker, LW/RW, Arizona Coyotes

With some exceptions, these are forwards from teams not expected to contend who are on expiring contracts. Among the more interesting options:

  • Mantha is in a contract year, with a current AAV of $5.7 million. He has 11 points in 24 games for the surprising Capitals. Has he improved enough to where there's a market for his services?

  • There have been reports that the Red Wings are shopping Berggren, 23, who makes $925,000 and is a restricted free agent after this season.

  • Johnson has significant playoff experience with the Tampa Bay Lightning, winning the Stanley Cup twice with them. He has just 10 points in 30 games for the Blackhawks this season but could help as a depth forward. Chicago could pick up part of his $5 million cap figure, too.

  • Duclair has 11 points in 27 games for the Sharks, but like Labanc and Hoffman doesn't figure into their long-term plans. He could help a team looking for an offensive boost on the wing and is one of the best character guys in the league.

  • Maroon has extended his career as a fourth-liner who can be the special sauce for a contending team. If the Wild aren't one, it's possible they move him to a Cup contender.

  • Zucker has 10 points in his first 23 games for the Coyotes, missing some time due to injury. Arizona is in the playoff hunt and does need to surround its young core with quality veterans. But Zucker could garner interest with an expiring contract ($5.3 million AAV) to help a contender.

Help on the blue line tier

Adam Boqvist, D, Columbus Blue Jackets
Philip Broberg, D Edmonton Oilers
Jalen Chatfield, D, Carolina Hurricanes
Tony DeAngelo, D, Carolina Hurricanes
Matt Dumba, D, Arizona Coyotes
Erik Johnson, D, Buffalo Sabres
Ilya Lyubushkin, D, Anaheim Ducks
Mike Matheson, D, Montreal Canadiens
Andrew Peeke, D, Columbus Blue Jackets
Marco Scandella, D, St. Louis Blues
Justin Schultz, D, Seattle Kraken
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, D, San Jose Sharks
Jakub Zboril, D, Boston Bruins
Nikita Zaitsev, D, Chicago Blackhawks

DeAngelo, Zaitsev, Dumba, Scandella, Johnson, Schultz and Zboril are unrestricted free agents after this season. Lyubushkin makes $2.75 million on an expiring contract and is an all-defense player. If Chatfield is available, he could be attractive in that he makes just $762,500 against the cap and is an UFA next summer. He can provide some offensive help, but not much else.

Broberg is reportedly seeking a trade from the Oilers. Matheson has two more years on his contract with an AAV of $4.875 million, but would be a quality addition somewhere on the left side.

The Blue Jackets could be looking at another overhaul, which could put Boqvist (23) and Peeke (25) in play. Peeke has rounded into form recently and is signed through 2025-26 ($2.75 million AAV). Boqvist carries a $2.6 million cap hit through next season. Again, this is more about what could come back the Jackets' way than simply change for change's sake.

Few things would be more shocking this season than to see Vlasic, who is signed through 2025-26 with a $7 million cap hit, get moved by the Sharks. His is one of the most unmovable contracts in the league.

Bargain beauty contracts tier

Matt Benning, D, San Jose Sharks
A.J. Greer, LW/RW, Calgary Flames
Dominik Kubalik, LW/RW, Ottawa Senators
Sean Monahan, C, Montreal Canadiens
Nick Seeler, D, Philadelphia Flyers
Sean Walker, D, Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers' expiring contract duo of Seeler ($775,000) and especially Walker ($2.65 million) could be impactful additions for contending teams. While Philly is contending for a playoff spot, Briere has said that the team isn't going to be shortsighted in its planning.

Benning ($1.25 million AAV) is on a cap-friendly deal through 2025-26. Greer was a waiver claim for the Flames who makes $762,500 on an expiring contract. One could easily see him flipped for a pick to a team needing energy in its bottom-six forward group.

Kubalik's deal is still a bargain at $2.5 million. He hasn't worked out in Ottawa, with just seven points in 26 games, but he's an above-average finisher who can help a team that needs scoring on the left side. Plus, he's on an expiring contract.

Monahan had 19 points in 31 games for the Canadiens, skating 18:15 per game. He has generated trade interest, partially because he makes only $1.985 million against the cap on an expiring deal.

This is just the current snapshot of the trade market. Obviously, the opportunity exists for other teams to become sellers, including ones that could significantly deepen the talent pool like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning or Minnesota Wild, depending on how aggressive they want to be in reshaping their rosters.

That's the beauty of the NHL: A few good weeks, or bad weeks, can change everything.