The strange thing about the tough decisions facing Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff all year: they've gradually become easier. Entering 2015-16, his team was fresh off a playoff appearance, with an elite farm system. The arrow pointed decidedly upward. Dealing with his two prominent unrestricted free agents, left winger Andrew Ladd and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, was a daunting proposition. Winnipeg needed both players if it wanted to remain a playoff contender, so Cheveldayoff would have to ponder retaining them through the trade deadline, even if he hadn't re-signed them by then, which would risk losing them for nothing in July.
Flash forward to late January, and Winnipeg's season looks grim. The Jets are closer to last overall in the NHL than they are to a playoff berth. They have games in hand on Western Conference wild-card occupiers Minnesota and Colorado, but a 10-point deficit will be difficult to overcome. Byfuglien and Ladd suddenly look like much more realistic trade options, especially when each would fetch a first-round pick and then some.
Ladd expressed interest in re-signing with the Jets earlier in the year, and negotiations with Big Buff were infrequent, but the tide recently reversed. Talks have broken off or at least stalled with Ladd and resumed with Byfuglien. Ladd, even as team captain, appears more likely to move by the Feb. 29 deadline. What teams are the best fits for his extremely valuable services? Consider these five.
I've already pegged the Ducks as an ideal landing spot for Jonathan Drouin, and their need for a front-line left winger makes them nice fit for Ladd. It's a matter of short- versus long-term value for GM Bob Murray. The recent acquisitions of David Perron and Ryan Garbutt already give Anaheim some mix-and-match options at left wing, and Drouin isn't such a slam-dunk first-line producer at age 20 that he'd automatically stick with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and help a playoff push this season. Drouin would be under team control as a restricted free agent, at least.
The short-term fix who absolutely could slot in as a first-line left winger with Getzlaf and Perry: Ladd, of course. He blends physicality and offense same way they do. Better yet, he's familiar with Getzlaf and Perry. Ladd and Getzlaf came up together in major junior as teammates with the WHL's Calgary Hitmen. They also made beautiful music as linemates on Canada's 2005 world junior squad, arguably the best in tournament history. They're proven producers as a tandem. Ladd reunited with Getzlaf and Perry in 2012 as teammates on Canada's World Championship squad, too.
The Ducks are arguably the best landing spot for Ladd in a pure hockey sense, and Cheveldayoff could ask Murray to surrender a defensive prospect as part of a package for Ladd. Sami Vatanen may be too much for a rental, but Simon Despres doesn't have any movement restrictions on his contract. Just sayin'. The more likely scenario would be Anaheim surrendering a 2016 first-round pick as the centerpiece.
The Bruins are loaded at left wing right now with Brad Marchand, Loui Eriksson and Matt Beleskey. Eriksson can play the right side too, though. Imagine a top six of Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Eriksson, David Krejci, Ladd and one of Ryan Spooner, David Pastrnak or Jimmy Hayes. That's some nice depth and an ideal blend of size and skill. It would make Boston a dangerous team in the highly winnable Atlantic Division.
The question is what GM Don Sweeney would surrender for Ladd. Sweeney would have to swallow a ton of pride to deal away one of the three prospects he drafted in the first round last June following the Dougie Hamilton swap. The better bet would be Boston dealing a 2016 first-rounder, as it's pencilled in for two of them after getting a bonus one from San Jose in the Martin Jones flip.
Credit ESPN's Pierre LeBrun for this idea. As he points out, Panthers GM Dale Tallon has quite the history with Ladd. Tallon made Ladd a Chicago Blackhawk in the first place, acquiring him straight-up for Tuomo Ruutu in 2008. It was Stan Bowman, not Tallon, who dealt Ladd away to Atlanta in 2010 as a salary cap casualty after the Hawks won the Stanley Cup.
The Panthers' first line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr is set, and the second unit has even begun to stick. Vincent Trocheck centers Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith at the moment, with Nick Bjugstad, the long-term No. 2 option, centering the third line. Pair Ladd with Bjugstad, though, and you get a new second unit, creating three effective lines. Ladd could recoup some of the size the Panthers lost dealing away Jimmy Hayes for Smith. Ladd would essentially play the Lawson Crouse role for Florida before Lawson Crouse arrives as a full-time NHLer.
Speaking of which, Crouse would be too much to demand in return for Ladd, but the Panthers could part with someone like Rocco Grimaldi plus an early-round pick, no?
The Habs are a no-brainer landing spot for Ladd. They check off every box. They desperately need offense. They desperately need size and strength among their top six forwards. Their GM, Marc Bergevin, is on the hot seat to say the least.
Ladd would really balance out Montreal's first two lines, especially since he wouldn't even have to play on the top unit. Max Pacioretty could keep his spot, but Ladd could bump Galchenyuk back to center on the second line (where Galchenyuk, hint hint, has been more effective this season anyway).
it's safe to assume Ladd, even as a UFA, will cost at least a prospect plus an early-round pick. After all, the likes of Antoine Vermette netted that much a year ago, and Ladd is more valuable as a superior offensive weapon. Montreal may have to dangle a decent 'B' level prospect, a Jacob De La Rose or a Sven Andrighetto, plus a pick if it wants Ladd.
On one hand, we could think of the Preds and GM David Poile as "finished." They made their big move. They mined their position of strength, defense, and traded Seth Jones to land their elusive first-line center, Ryan Johansen. But Nashville remains offensively deficient. Poile doesn't want his team to take a step backward and fall out of the playoffs. He's also a notoriously aggressive stretch-run trader, the man who brought Peter Forsberg, Steve Sullivan and Mike Fisher to Music City over the years. As good as Kevin Fiala might be someday, he doesn't appear ready to produce as a first- or even second-liner just yet. That's a lot of pressure. Ladd would alleviate it nicely.
The Preds aren't exactly bursting with futures but could dangle their 2016 first-rounder and a lesser prospect such as Viktor Arvidsson or Austin Watson.
Other teams to watch: Chicago Blackhawks New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin