Five NHL Players who Need Fresh Starts on New Teams

Sometimes, players can't live up to their top-end pedigrees until they land in the right situations. These five former blue-chippers might blossom with changes of address.
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It’s not quite peak trade season for the NHL yet. The deadline is two months away. The standings haven’t separated the contenders from the pretenders at this juncture, particularly when the COVID-19 pandemic has so many teams quarantined at the moment. The rental market hasn’t taken shape for pending UFAs.

But we are seeing some trade buzz pop up for a different category of player: the change-of-scenery guys. There's a common theme among the names appearing in the rumor mill these days: a former prospect turned legit NHL starter who seems to have lost his way and no longer has the trust of his coach. And that player is still young enough to possess significant upside and thus carries strong trade value.

Which players fit that description and need a change of scenery the most right now? Consider these five. Most fall into the category above.

We start with Patrik Laine. Just kidding! Too soon?

Sam Bennett, LW, Flames

The Bennett story has been out there for more than a week now. It started when his agent, Darren Ferris, expressed that this client desired a change of scenery. The Flames front office was shocked to hear about it. Bennett has since ping-ponged between being a healthy scratch and moving to the right wing on Calgary’s top line with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. The Flames have made it clear they would still like to keep Bennett. There’s also to reason to retain him for the purpose of losing him later, as Bennett is the ideal expansion-draft bait for the Seattle Kraken.

Still, now that the news of Bennett’s restlessness in Calgary leaked, teams will keep sniffing around. He’s not going to live up to his status as 2014’s No. 4 overall pick, but he has brought useful snarl as a net-crashing third-liner with the Flames and might flourish if given a chance as a second-liner elsewhere

Travis Dermott, D, Maple Leafs

The Leafs have spent years trying to shore up the right side of their blueline, but the left hasn’t been the problem. They have Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly anchoring the top two pairs there, with Rasmus Sandin almost ready to break through as a full-timer and Mikko Lehtonen getting looks. Dermott has been a healthy scratch twice across Toronto’s first 14 games this season. He wasn’t benched for poor play, but the fact he was nudged aside for the Leafs to get a look at Lehtonen is still very telling. Dermott is not ticketed for a major long-term role. After averaging exactly 17 minutes per game in his first three NHL seasons, Dermott hasn’t even cracked 15 minutes in any game this season, and he’s dipped below 10 minutes three times. That’s partially the product of Toronto experimenting with a seven-defenseman lineup, but it still tells us how low Dermott sits on the depth chart.

And yet – he’s only 24 and brings a respectably tidy defensive-defenseman profile to the table, with decent mobility mixed in. Plenty of teams could use Dermott to calm things down in their own end. If the Leafs decide their forward depth needs a boost, might they explore a hockey trade involving Dermott? His name seems to surface in virtually every Toronto rumor at the moment.

Vince Dunn, D, Blues

It’s just not happening for Dunn in St. Louis, and he’s eventually going to make another team look really smart for acquiring him. It seems it’s only a matter of time before we see a Dunn trade. Blues coach Craig Berube has called Dunn out publicly for his 1-on-1 defensive play and even scratched him. No one could’ve imagined that happening after 2018-19, when Dunn busted out for 12 goals and 35 points as an emerging puck-mover and secondary power-play option on a Stanley Cup champion squad.

Analytically, Dunn’s numbers have been promising throughout his young career, but they largely reflect his usage. As part of a deep D-corps, he’s primarily feasted on inferior competition with insulated deployment. Since the start of 2018-19, 200 defensemen have played 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5, and Dunn ranks 10th among them in goals per 60 and 34th in points per 60. But among that group of 200, only three players – Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes and Torey Krug – have started a higher percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone. Anyone trading for Dunn, 24, will be acquiring major offensive potential but also someone who hasn’t yet proven himself with heavy responsibility against tough competition.

Still, Dunn has done enough to earn a chance to establish himself as a rising star. Teams will line up to acquire him. And the Blues, who are expected to use a 7-3-1 protection scheme for the expansion draft, could lose Dunn to the Kraken anyway, so there’s plenty of motivation to move their arbitration-eligible RFA.

Anthony Mantha, RW, Red Wings

It really felt like Mantha was ready to pop off this season if he could stay healthy. He generated shots and chances at the highest rate of his career in 2019-20, and his numbers in an injury-shortened campaign pro-rated to 31 goals and 72 points over an 82=game schedule. A month into this season: Mantha has a disappointing four goals and seven points in 13 games and ended up scratched last weekend by coach Jeff Blashill for lack of effort.

Mantha’s propensity to take plays off was a red flag on his scouting profile dating back to his days as a top prospect and eventual first-round pick. The Wings continue to tilt the ice favorably with Mantha on the ice, holding a 163-140 edge in shot attempts at 5-on-5 with Mantha out there, but he's generating by far the fewest individual chances and shots of his career on a per-60 basis right now.

Looking at Detroit’s big picture: the rebuild remains glacially paced. The Wings are waiting on sniper Lucas Raymond, center Joe Veleno and big D-man Moritz Seider, among others, and will pick high in the first round again in 2021. Mantha is 26. By the time this Detroit team peaks, he could be nearing the end of his prime.

Might it make sense, then, to listen on offers? There would be a market for him, even in Year 1 of a four-year contract carrying a $5.7-million AAV. The idea of Mantha landing on a competitive team with a more of a pure playmaking center feeding him passes is exciting. He could experience a rapid and dramatic breakout.

Jake Virtanen, RW, Canucks

It feels like Virtanen could have appeared on a list like this several times over the past few years. It’s taken him that long to find himself as a power forward after the Canucks nabbed him sixth overall in the 2014 draft. Last year Virtanen busted out for career highs in goals, assists and points with an 18-18-36 line in 69 games, but he still ended up a healthy scratch to start the playoffs. He just hasn’t been able to win coach Travis Green over. Canucks GM Jim Benning is now actively shopping Virtanen, 24.

At 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds, he still offers an intriguing package of size, strength and scoring touch, but the marriage with the Canucks will soon end. Both parties need the change. He has one year left on his contract at a $2.55-million cap hit before becoming an RFA. 

Advanced stats courtesy of naturalstattrick.com

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