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Canucks kept quiet on deadline day, while Pacific Division rivals made major moves

"I didn't want to change the chemistry of our group that much."
Andreas Athanasiou was traded Monday to the Edmonton Oilers. photo: The Canadian Press

The Canucks made their biggest move a week before the NHL trade deadline when they acquired Tyler Toffoli from the Los Angeles Kings. He was one of the best players available in the trade market and the Canucks, particularly with a significant injury to Brock Boeser, didn't want to wait around and let someone else outbid them.

When it came to the actual deadline, Canucks GM Jim Benning made just one minor move, swapping AHL goaltenders with the New Jersey Devils. While that minor move for Louis Domingue had major implications for the Canucks and Jacob Markstrom, it was still a trade for a player that, if all goes well, will see minimal playing time for the Canucks.

While Benning explored making other trades at the deadline, he ultimately decided that he was happy with the current construction of the team.

"I'm happy with the group," said Benning after the deadline closed. "I like the way our guys have played all year, how they've overcome some adversity through the year, how they play hard for one another. I didn't want to change the chemistry of our group that much.

"Going into it we were selective. There's deals we could have made that we talked about with our group, and we like the players that are already playing here or the players that we could call up instead of reaching from the outside."

That's a vote of confidence for the players already on the Canucks, who were already boosted by the addition of Toffoli. The winger already has two goals and four points in his first two games with the Canucks.

"Given the prices at the end, I was happy that we did the Toffoli deal earlier, rather than later," said Benning. "As it comes down to the end, teams are looking to add that one more piece that they think can make a difference in their team and, as we saw today, the prices went up. There were some high prices paid, I thought, today."

Some of those prices were paid by Pacific Division rivals, who invested heavily in improving their teams for the stretch run to the playoffs. The Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, and Vegas Golden Knights all made trades at the deadline; the only Pacific playoff threat that didn't was the Arizona Coyotes, who made their major move earlier in the season when they acquired Taylor Hall.

The Oilers made three moves, the first coming Sunday night when they acquired Mike Green from the Detroit Red Wings. While Green has lost his fastball since his heyday with the Washington Capitals, he's still a capable puck-moving defenceman that was playing 21 minutes per game for the last-place Red Wings. At the very least, he provides some useful depth.

The two more intriguing trades for the Oilers came on Monday, acquiring Andreas Athanasiou from the Red Wings and Tyler Ennis from the Ottawa Senators.

It makes all sorts of sense for the Oilers to load up for a playoff run, if only because they have to at some point with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl racking up points. Draisaitl leads the NHL in points by a 10-point margin and McDavid is right behind him in points per game. The main issue for the Oilers is wingers.

Draisaitl has found recent success with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto on his wings, but McDavid was making do with Sam Gagner and Alex Chiasson. McDavid still made it work because he's Connor McDavid, but that's not a line that inspires much confidence heading into the playoffs.

Trying to find wingers that can keep up with McDavid's blazing speed is a big problem, which is why the Oilers' two moves on deadline day make perfect sense: Athanasiou and Ennis have tons of speed — Athanasiou is one of the few players in the league that might actually be faster than McDavid. Both wingers could realistically line up alongside McDavid on the top line.

Athanasiou has defensive issues in his game, but he matches his blazing speed with a great shot, scoring 30 goals last season. Though he has just 10 goals this season, that's with a shooting percentage well below his career average. With the opportunities he should get playing with McDavid, that shooting percentage should rebound nicely. 

The Red Wings picked up two second-round picks in the deal, with is a hefty haul for Athanasiou. The Oilers also added Sam Gagner, whose $3.15 million deal likely needed to be moved to make the cap work, and received AHL winger Ryan Kuffner in return.

Ennis, meanwhile, is a playdriving winger that has been significantly underrated in his career because of his 5'9" stature. Ennis has three 20-goal seasons under his belt, though the last one was five years ago with the Buffalo Sabres. He represents a solid bet for the Oilers, only costing them a fifth-round pick, but he has the potential to be even more impactful than Athanasiou with his responsible two-way game and occasional scoring pop.

That makes the Oilers both a more dangerous team at the top of the lineup and a more well-rounded team, as the two additions on the wing should mean less ice time for some of the wobblier members of their bottom six.

The Calgary Flames, meanwhile, focussed on their defence with Mark Giordano and Travis Hamonic out with injuries. First they added Derek Forbort from the Los Angeles Kings, then they traded for Erik Gustafsson from the Chicago Blackhawks.

Forbort represents depth that can play. He averaged over 20 minutes per game for the Kings in each of his last three seasons, though injuries have limited him to just 13 games this season. He's solid enough that he can eat some minutes until injured defencemen return, then either sit in the press box or shore up the third pairing

The more intriguing addition is Gustafsson, who had a whopping 17 goals and 60 points from the blueline last season. That was good enough for sixth in league scoring among defencemen and tied with new teammate Giordano for third in goals.

While Gustafsson has been less impressive this season, with 6 goals and 26 points in 59 games, he's still a solid gamble for the Flames. While he's not very good defensively, he's got some pop in his stick and can play on the right side, filling a need for the Flames until Giordano and Hamonic return from injury, at which point he can play a sheltered role on the third pairing.

Gustafsson only cost the Flames a third-round pick, which is a small price to pay for a defenceman that scored 60 points a year ago.

The biggest news for the Flames, however, was the deal that never happened. Johnny Gaudreau caused a firestorm when reports came out that he left practice early, but it turned out to be for a very mundane reason.

Finally, there's the Golden Knights, who arguably made the biggest improvement of any Pacific Division team.

The Golden Knights have been dominant in puck possession this season, leading the Western Conference in corsi and expected goals, but have been unable to rise above the battle in the Pacific. The main reason? Their goaltending has been dreadful.

Marc-Andre Fleury has a .906 save percentage, well below both his career average and this season's league average. His backup, Malcolm Subban, has been even worse, with an ugly .890 save percentage.

So, the fact that the Golden Knights acquired one of last season's Vezina finalists seems significant. The Golden Knights traded Subban, a second-round pick, and defenseman prospect Slava Demin to the Blackhawks for Robin Lehner, who finished third in Vezina voting last season. 

That's a modest return for Lehner, but goaltenders never seem to have as much trade value as you might expect given the importance of the position. For the Golden Knights, it was a small price to pay to shore up their greatest area of weakness.

Lehner has a .918 save percentage this season, good for seventh in the NHL among goaltenders with at least 30 games played. That's particularly impressive when you consider the Blackhawks give up the most shots in the league. Lehner is having a superb season, even if he's been a bit shaky in recent starts.

That is an immediate upgrade on Fleury for the Golden Knights, giving them a very good tandem of goaltenders heading into the playoffs.

Should the improvements made by the Oilers, Flames, and Golden Knights worry the Canucks? Not according to Benning.

"What other teams did doesn't concern us. We need to take care of our own business," said Benning. "We need to keep playing well as a team and win our share of games. We played together all year as a group, so I think there's something to be said for that too."


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