As it stands now, in late January, only the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes are more than three points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, so that leaves a whole lot of teams vying for a berth in the postseason.
If the top four spots seems securely in hand in some order for Washington, New Jersey, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, that leaves nine teams within seven points trying to get one of the next four spots.
That tight competition could create some pressure on teams to make moves to improve, while some will exercise caution because this year's playoffs aren't a priority in the long-term development of the franchise. Sure, it would be nice for the Islanders or Lightning to squeeze into the postseason, but they surely won't sacrifice any of their young talent in order to improve those chances.
As time goes on, more teams will fall out of the playoff picture and turn to selling mode, but right now, Carolina and Toronto look to have the seller's market to themselves, if only they could convince the buyers to make a deal.
A couple of notes about the following chart:
Restricted Free Agents (RFA) have contracts that expire this summer, barring a contract extension in the meantime, but their current team retains the right to match a contract offer so long as they make the requisite qualifying offer. While restricted free agents haven't moved a lot, it's worth noting when decision time is coming on a young player's contract.
Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA) have contracts that will expire this summer and, without a contract extension, they will be free to sign with whatever team they choose on July 1. These are the players that often move in "rental"-type deals, ideally providing a short-term fix with minimal commitment required.
Top prospects are the top five players in each organization that haven't played ten NHL games this season. Other top prospects or those that are now with the NHL team may be listed among other players of interest. Contending teams may be more likely to dangle a top prospect or two as they try to find that final piece for their playoff mix, while it's safe to assume that young and rebuilding teams aren't going to move top prospects unless they get a significant long-term piece in return.
Other players of interest will include prospects who have spent some time in the NHL this season as well as players under contract for future seasons that may have some level of attractiveness on the trade market.
IMPORTANT: Just because a player is listed as being of interest, it doesn't mean he will be traded or should be traded. Some may just be of interest for teams looking to hit a home run when trying to swing a deal or they are players that may be considered to be underachieving for the money they are due over the rest of their contract.
Generally, then, here's a rough guide for which players each Eastern Conference team might have at their disposal in order to make a trade leading up to the deadline.
Others of Interest: Todd White.
The Plan: The Thrashers' great start to the season provided hope that they would be able to re-sign Ilya Kovalchuk, but with each passing day that prospect becomes less and less likely. It could still happen, but the vultures are circling, looking to pry the elite goal-scorer away. To make that move, the Thrashers need to bring in several pieces that will help the remaining core move forward. If Kovalchuk is dealt, it would also make sense for the Thrashers to move others in their long list of pending free agents in an effort to re-stock the system.
The Plan: The Bruins have stumbled along for most of the season, dealing with injuries to key performers, and sit on the playoff bubble though they are certainly capable of doing some damage, even as a lower seed, in the postseason. A good portion of Boston's core is in place for next season, so any moves to improve this year's team figure to come at the expense of prospects or draft picks. Speaking of draft picks, it would likely have to be an overwhelming offer to pry away the Boston first-round pick that previously belonged to the Toronto Maple Leafs; a pick that looks like a Top Three selection. But, Toronto's second-rounder could also have some appeal to selling teams.
No-Trade Clauses: Ryan Miller.
The Plan: Running away with the Northeast Division on the strength of Ryan Miller's exceptional goaltending behind a solid and deep team, the Sabres could use some upgrades, most notably a power play quarterback on defence; ideally one that could also handle top-pair minutes and ease the pressure on stalwart rookie blueliner Tyler Myers. Those don't come that easily via trade, so the Sabres may be left to patch up holes if they can't make a blockbuster.
The Plan: The Hurricanes are paying the price for loyalty, with veterans like Rod Brind'Amour, Erik Cole and Sergei Samsonov all inked for another year beyond this miserable season, meaning that attempts to purge the roster won't likely get fully undertaken until the summer. In the meantime, however, the 'Canes have a number of young prospects on the way that can use the latter portion of the season to audition for full-time work next season and Carolina should be able to get a decent return for a veteran rental like Ray Whitney, whose power play ability will make him a nice fit for many contenders, and a healthy Joe Corvo could also be appealing to a contender needing a big shot from the point.
The Plan: The season could go either way for the Panthers, who have clawed their way into playoff consideration, with strong goaltending from Tomas Vokoun but any slip in their play could put them in selling position. The recent injury to leading scorer Nathan Horton only makes the playoff push more challenging. If so, there are a few veterans on one-year deals that might help a playoff team and allow the Panthers to continue developing their young talent.
The Plan: Much like the Panthers, the Canadiens' season could go either way, but they have no safety net if they are going to push for a playoff spot. As long as the playoffs are within reach, Montreal figures to aim in that direction, without sacrificing top prospects. Should the Habs fade, there is the possibility of trading pending free agent centre Tomas Plekanec , the team's leading scorer, who could be difficult to re-sign when last summer's trio of acquisitions -- Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta -- are all taking in more than $5-million per season. Given the play of Cedrick Desjardins in the AHL, there's also the possibility that Montreal could move a goaltender, with Jaroslav Halak the one who has been rumoured more often.
The Plan: Once again challenging for top spot in the Eastern Conference, the Devils have a strong roster, when healthy, though injuries have been an issue, in some manner, for most of the season. Ideally, New Jersey would be able to secure the services of a big-minute defenceman which, combined with a presumably healthy Paul Martin, would have the Devils' D in fine shape entering the postseason.
No-Trade Clauses: None.
The Plan: The surging Islanders have entered the playoff race, but with such a young squad, there is no reason to get crazy and risk any of the future for an eighth seed this year. As long as the Isles hang in the race, they probably have to hold onto their veterans too, but if they fall off the pace, they have some guys who should have some marketability, including Martin Biron and Andy Sutton.
The Plan: The Rangers are in playoff position, and have strong goaltending along with a capable young defence, but could really use an offensive upgrade if they are going to stay in the mix or do any damage in the playoffs. Marian Gaborik is the only legitimate sniper and needs more help than the likes of Brandon Dubinsky or Ryan Callahan -- Nos. 2 and 3 in the Blueshirts' goal race -- can provide.
The Plan: Goaltending is going to be crucial for the Senators down the stretch. If they can get strong play in net, no matter whether it's Pascal Leclaire, Brian Elliott or even Mike Brodeur, the Senators can focus on other needs, like another solid defenceman, given the defensive challenges that rookie Erik Karlsson and Chris Campoli have gone through at times this season.
Patrick Maroon, LW, Adirondack (AHL)
Marc-Andre Bourdon, D, Adirondack (AHL)
Joonas Lehtivuori, D, Adirondack (AHL)
Jonathan Matsumoto, C, Adirondack (AHL)
Stefan Legein, RW, Adirondack (AHL)
The Plan: There's not a lot of wiggle room for the Flyers, but they do seem to have the talent necessary to make up ground in the Eastern Conference and get into a solid playoff position. Maybe a depth defenceman would help, but the focal point for Philly is going to be goaltending, whether or not Ray Emery or, improbably, Michael Leighton can be the guy to take this team up against the other Cup contenders.
Luca Caputi, LW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
Eric Tangradi, LW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
Simon Despres, D, Saint John (QMJHL)
Keven Veilleux, RW, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
Brian Strait, D, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)
The Plan: Defending the Stanley Cup isn't easy and the Penguins are finding that out, with a midseason slump revealing some vulnerability that might not have been expected. There have also been numerous injuries to deal with and the Penguins can always use another scoring winger to complement their playmaking centres, but they have lots of talent in the organization to make such a deal if it's deemed necessary.
The Plan: Within striking distance of a playoff spot, the Lightning have an intriguing mix of young and veteran talent and really need Alex Tanguay to elevate his production in order to give them to quality scoring lines to stay engaged in the playoff hunt. Otherwise, Tanguay figures to be expendable. Given the young talent on the roster, the Lightning won't sacrifice the future just to contend for a playoff spot, but the longer they stay in the playoff race, the less they could be involved as sellers.
The Plan: With no picks in the first two rounds, the Maple Leafs will be interested in acquiring draft picks and prospects in any deals and have some pieces to offer contenders, though Tomas Kaberle is the only one that would figure to net a first round pick in return. Leafs GM Brian Burke seems anxious to get dealing, wondering why teams wait until right before the deadline to make moves. The Leafs do have some prospects on the way and could use the latter portion of the season to see what kind of future they might have with Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg and Christian Hanson, but need to move out some veterans in order to create enough room in the lineup.
No-Trade Clauses: Michael Nylander.
The Plan: The Caps could be Cup contenders if they shore up their defence and have a healthy Semyon Varlamov in goal. With the cap-saving trade of Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina to Columbus, as well as the waiving of Michael Nylander and his hefty contract, Washington has room to add salary. It might seem unnecessary, but the high-scoring Caps could get involved in Ilya Kovalchuk trade talks, yet moves to bolster the defence may be more cost-effective come playoff time. If a deal doesn't materialize to improve the defence, the Caps could look internally to youngsters John Carlson and Karl Alzner to provide a late-season boost.