While the Eastern Conference seems more settled at this point in the season, the Western Conference is a little more up for grabs, making it more challenging to differentiate between the buyers and sellers as the February 28th trade deadline approaches.
Edmonton is the only team truly out of it in the West right now and that's no surprise, given how young they are, so the Oilers can continue their rebuilding plan if any deadline deals make sense for them, but after that, what?
Colorado's descent puts them in the sellers market and maybe Dallas is angling towards selling more than buying. What happens, though, with St. Louis, Columbus, Anaheim and Calgary? Too close to, or actually in, playoff position, so they can't sell, but not far enough out that they can justify throwing in the towel on the season.
Nevertheless, here's a look at each team in the Western Conference, with four days to go until the trade deadline, and what their needs might be as the deadline approaches.
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 games in the NHL 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 Western Conference team might have at their disposal in order to make a trade leading up to the deadline.
The Plan: The addition of Francois Beauchemin addressed a glaring need on the Ducks' blueline and concern over the health of G Jonas Hiller has resulted in signing Ray Emery and dealing for Dan Ellis to cover the position.
Currently in 11th, but two points out of fifth, in the Western Conference, the Ducks could still use another scoring winger to solidify their forward group, but figure to be bargain-hunters in that search.
RFA in 2011: Brendan Mikkelson.
The Plan: A couple of months ago, it was easy to write off the Flames' chances, but they've crept into eighth spot in the West, suddenly leaving the ranks of the sellers.
Considering their poor start to the season, the Flames would have to be ecstatic with a playoff berth, so they might be willing to add at the deadline, even if requires some cap creativity (like waiving Niklas Hagman, as they did this week). Given the club's salary cap situation going forward, it seems safe to assume that the Flames won't take on any additional long-term contracts without shedding some that they already have locked in.
The Plan: The defending champs sit two points out of a playoff spot, though they do have games at hand, so they definitely aren't at the level of last year's championship team, but that doesn't mean they can't be a formidable opponent.
Jammed up against the cap, the Blackhawks don't have a lot of flexibility since they're not likely to move any of their core players, so they'll need the complementary players already on the roster to perform well down the stretch to give them a chance to defend their title. The addition of RW Michael Frolik hasn't paid immediate dividends (zero points in six games), but he has the upside to make a difference if he can find the right chemistry with his linemates.
The Plan: A February free-fall leaves the Avs in 14th in the Western Conference and they've already gone for a blockbuster, dealing RW Chris Stewart and D Kevin Shattenkirk to get D Erik Johnson and LW Jay McClement as well as swapping G Craig Anderson to Ottawa for Brian Elliott, leaving the goaltending as a major question mark for the future.
With some significant trades already made, GM Greg Sherman may have an appetite for more as both John-Michael Liles and Paul Stastny have found their names in the rumour mill as the deadline gets nearer.
No-Trade Clauses: Rick Nash.
The Plan: Now within four points of a playoff berth, with three games at hand on eighth-place Calgary, the Blue Jackets aren't really in a seller's position.
Any slippage could fling open the doors for business, though, and the Jackets have a lot of moveable pieces, from veteran defencemen like Jan Hejda and Rostislav Klesla to a disappointing prospect like Nikita Filatov or even inconsistent young netminder Steve Mason, though Mason has played well to get the Jackets back into the playoff mix.
Rebuilding can't go on forever in Columbus, so it's not like the roster should be gutted, but moves that will strengthen the team long-term have to be considered because even if these Jackets, against the odds, sneak into the playoffs, they're not ready to do damage against the best the West has to offer.
RFA in 2011: Aaron Gagnon.
The Plan: Since Brad Richards is headed for free agency, his name gets tossed around as potential trade bait, and while it seemed unlikely when the Stars were leading the Pacific Division, their fall to 10th in the conference, combined with Richards' recent concussion, makes it at least feasible.
The Stars' forward depth was aided by the acquisition of Jamie Langenbrunner, then thinned out with the deal of James Neal to the Penguins, so a veteran that could fit among the top nine or even top six forwards would still be desirable. However, if the Stars are inclined to move out Richards, the haul coming back is going to have more future value, with a package of players, picks and prospects.
To their credit, the Stars did address their most glaring need -- a puck-moving defenceman to quarterback the power play -- by adding Alex Goligoski in the Neal trade, though their depth on the blueline remains suspect.
RFA in 2011: None.
The Plan: So long as they can get healthy, the Wings will have a team capable of competing with the best, though their attempt to sign G Evgeni Nabokov might have indicated a lack of satisfaction with G Jimmy Howard, who hasn't been nearly as good as he was last year, but Howard has been better in February.
If the Wings are still in the hunt for a goaltender, they don't have a lot of room under the cap, so they may have to shed some salary in order to make a significant move.
The Plan: In last place overall, the Oilers are the rare Western Conference team that knows where they stand and can comfortably make plans to sell assets to contenders in an effort to acquire more value for the future.
If they get really bold, the Oilers could shop top scorers Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner, both of whom should hold appeal for teams needing an offensive upgrade, and could bring more quality young talent into an organization that may still be a few years away from being truly competitive.
The Plan: A talented enough team, though one that could use another scoring winger to shore up their top six and may want a veteran depth defenceman for insurance purposes, but it remains to be seen if this is the year that the Kings push the envelope rather than patiently building.
Not that there is anything wrong with patiently accumulating assets, but now that the Kings appear to have a team to be competitive for years to come, might they be inclined to deal a prospect or two in order to improve their chances now?
RFA in 2011: None.
The Plan: Perhaps surprisingly fifth in the Western Conference, the Wild have a solid, if not spectacular, group of forwards, but may need some help while star C Mikko Koivu is sidelined with a broken finger.
The bigger need is on defence, where Cam Barker's been a mess and a cast of rookies -- Justin Falk, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner and Marco Scandella -- have been thrust into action. While Stoner and Spurgeon have fared pretty well, a playoff contender could surely use more stability on the blueline.
Others of Interest: Jordin Tootoo.
The Plan: It would always help the Predators to add scoring, particularly down the middle, where they've gone without Matthew Lombardi for virtually the entire season, Cal O'Reilly is out for a ocuple of months with a broken leg and Marcel Goc is done for the season with a shoulder injury.
As always, budget concerns could affect the Predators' acquisition plans, but GM David Poile found a way to bring in Mike Fisher and could do it again if the Predators need to tighten their hold on a playoff spot.
Others of Interest: None.
The Plan: The Coyotes currently hold down a playoff spot, and just had their eight-game winning streak snapped, but can't get overly excited about it yet considering most of the teams behind them have games at hand.
While they aren't blessed with great pure goal-scorers, offence hasn't really been a problem for Phoenix -- they're in the top half of the league in goals per game -- but they've surprisingly been far less effective defensively than they were last season.
So, the natural might be for an upgrade on the blueline, but it doesn't appear like there are any easy holes to fill unless young blueliners Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Sami Lepisto are bumped aside and that's not likely to be in the long-term best interests of the franchise.
So maybe the answer is to snare another goal-scorer and push ahead with an improved attack and hope that the veteran blueliners can get it done down the stretch and into the playoffs.
The Plan: After adding LW Ben Eager and C Kyle Wellwood, the Sharks have decent depth up front and G Antti Niemi has turned his season around, leaving the blueline as the primary concern for a Sharks team that has been mediocre for much of the year but has been rolling recently, reaching first place in the Pacific Division.
Bringing in Ian White ought to help, to the point that the Sharks are most likely in the market for depth, both up front and on the blueline.
The Plan: Injuries have threatened this Blues season, but their forwards are relatively healthy now (David Perron aside), and not a moment too soon. The Blues are seven points back of eighth, but also have three games at hand and seem re-energized after their big trade to acquire Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk from Colorado.
At this point, they may be too close to the postseason to make any dramatic sell-off moves -- certainly not more dramatic than already moving their top two minute-eating defencemen (Eric Brewer and Erik Johnson).
The Plan: A Stanley Cup favourite, the Canucks don't have glaring needs, but may shoot for another top nine winger that can offer some offensive upside (unless they think they can get that from rookie Cody Hodgson).
When healthy, the defence is a strength, but Alexander Edler is out long-term, while Kevin Bieksa and Andrew Alberts are sidelined as well. Given the unbelievable run of injuries on Vancouver's defence, it's possible that adding another veteran would be worthwhile.
* - Contract information comes from www.capgeek.com