The Eastern Conference playoff picture is relatively clear, making it easier to determine which teams will be buyers and sellers as the February 28th trade deadline approaches.
Sure, teams like Buffalo, Atlanta, Toronto and even New Jersey may still harbour playoff hopes, but those teams have to make up ground. Maybe they're not sellers, but it's tough to be huge buyers given where they are.
Otherwise, Florida, Ottawa and the New York Islanders would figure to be sellers based on their place in the standings, though some will be more inclined to make dramatic moves than others.
Ottawa got into the swing of things early, shedding many veterans and Florida could follow with moves that would fit with GM Dale Tallon's long-term rebuilding plans, but any team can make moves based on their situation -- contenders take on rentals in the hopes that they can make the difference down the stretch and through the playoffs while teams out of the playoff mix continually make moves for the future, hoping that, at some point, their accumulation of young talent will end their cycle of mediocrity.
Given the injuries that have hit the Pittsburgh Penguins, it seems like the other contenders in the East are loading up, perhaps sensing a better opportunity in a year that the Pens don't have Evgeni Malkin and, possibly, Sidney Crosby, available to them.
The trade deadline is only four days away. Even though a lot of deals have come down over the last week, there will surely be more action to come.
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.
The Plan: Early-season success made it look like the Thrashers could be buyers heading towards the deadline, but now that they have slipped from a playoff spot, it's tough to justify a move that would sacrifice future value just for a shot at making the postseason this year. Gained some long-term potential when they acquired Blake Wheeler from the Bruins, but may not be any further ahead after that two-for-two swap.
At various times, young players like Niclas Bergfors and Zach Bogosian have been healthy scratches, but if they are going to be considered in deals, they had better bring a significant return with long-term value.
Failing a blockbuster along those lines, veterans like Fredrik Modin and Brent Sopel may have some appeal as depth for contenders, but wouldn't bring huge value in exchange, or cost-cutting could come by way of shopping Ron Hainsey, Johnny Oduya and Nik Antropov, though Hainsey and Antropov will have some say in the process due to their modified no-trade clauses.
RFA in 2011: Brad Marchand.
The Plan: After acquiring Tomas Kaberle, Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley in separate deals, the Bruins have likely addressed their needs, but still have assets to move if they feel additional pressure to enhance the roster.
After all, when your 36-year-old goaltender is having a career season, it only makes sense to try to take advantage of the situation, particularly if it means tweaking with a depth forward or seventh defenceman.
The Plan: Within striking distance of a playoff spot (three points with two games at hand), the Sabres aren't in a position to start selling off their free agents and new owner Terry Pegula is loosening the purse strings, so the Sabres don't figure to be sellers.
While the Sabres may be too close to a playoff spot to be sellers, they still don't seem likely to invest heavily in this season; after losing top center Derek Roy for the season, merely reaching the postseason should be considered a bonus.
The Plan: The Hurricanes have climbed into playoff position and, while they don't seem likely to take on massive salaries, they do have enough prospects available that they could further bolster their roster.
Carolina does have a bunch of unrestricted free agents that they could shop, but with a decent mix of veterans and youth on the current team, Carolina could be a dangerous lower seed, particularly if they could add another proven scorer into their top six.
Others of Interest: Bryan Allen.
The Plan: Long-term thinking has to guide the Panthers, who sit eight points out of a playoff spot at the moment, which means pending free agents like D Bryan McCabe and G Tomas Vokoun could be among the most sought-after commodities at the deadline. Both vets have no-trade clauses, but if the Panthers are going in full rebuilding mode -- and the organization's prospect depth has increased significantly since Dale Tallon took over as GM -- it could be possible to move them to contenders for more pieces with future value.
Stephen Weiss also gets mentioned as a frequent trade target, since his two-way skills make him a fit for just about any team, but if the Panthers are going to consider moving him, they had better get a massive return. Otherwise, there is no reason for a team to give up its best skater who is signed to a reasonable contract for two more seasons. LW David Booth is another veteran who could be discussed, while any of the other unrestricted free agents should be ripe for the picking.
Others of Interest: Lars Eller.
Additional depth up front wouldn't hurt either, but now that Mike Cammalleri is back, the Canadiens could have a decent top six forwards, depending on what they can get from Andrei Kostitsyn and Max Pacioretty, but a forward with some size that can score a little has to hold appeal.
The Plan: Well this season has gone anything but according to plan for the Devils, so even though they are playing better lately and are within nine points of a playoff spot, it's hard to make moves based on a miracle run towards eighth place in the conference.
While he has a no-movement clause, and has definitely slowed down in recent seasons, Jason Arnott may have some value for a team looking for a forward with size and playoff experience.
Defenceman Andy Greene, who has proven to be effective as a puck-mover that can quarterback the power play, could also have some suitors as playoff contenders look for blueline depth.
Neither Arnott nor Green figures to bring a huge bounty in return but, as unrestricted free agents, they don't seem likely to be part of the Devils' plans for next season and any moves, at this point, should be geared towards putting together the best possible roster for 2011-2012.
Others of Interest: Trent Hunter.
No-Trade Clauses: None.
The Plan: The Islanders are once again in contention for the first pick overall as the team continues to stockpile young talent and there's no incentive to deviate from that plan.
It might be nice to get something in exchange for the likes of Zenon Konopka or Radek Martinek if they are going to hit the free agent market in the summer anyway, but the primary focus has to remain getting reps for the young players already on the roster so that, just maybe, the Islanders can be more competitive in 2011-2012.
The Plan: The Rangers are holding down a playoff spot, but aren't exactly home and cooled out either, having played a league-high 62 games to this point.
With the forward ranks bolstered by call-ups (Mats Zuccarello), trades (Wojtek Wolski) and players returning from injury (Vaclav Prospal, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan), the Blueshirts may have enough depth up front to compete, even while Marian Gaborik is sidelined by a concussion.
If rumours are to be believed, the Rangers could be stepping up their pursuit of Stars C Brad Richards who, incidentally, is also dealing with a concussion. Barring that kind of blockbuster, the Rangers should look to acquire a veteran defenceman that can handle big minutes.
The Plan: The Senators have been cleaning house rather effectively, moving out veteran forwards Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu and Alex Kovalev in four separate deals, paving the way for young players like Nick Foligno, Bobby Butler, Peter Regin (when healthy), Erik Condra and Colin Greening to get more minutes. With this roster purge, the Sens are already making a strong push for the first overall pick in the 2011 draft.
The selling off could really be complete if veteran D Chris Phillips, who has endured a brutal season has a change of heart and is willing to move his no-trade clause. Phillips has indicated he wants to stay in Ottawa, but his experience as a shutdown defender could make him desirable to a contender.
Others of Interest: Oskars Bartulis.
The Plan: Boasting a very deep lineup already, the Flyers don't need to do anything more than minor tweaking, especially since it seems that rookie G Sergei Bobrovsky has the goaltending situation under control.
A veteran forward and/or defenceman doesn't hurt the cause for a Stanley Cup contender, but the Flyers don't have a ton of room under the cap (though there is a little more after waiving Nikolay Zherdev) so any moves will have to be completed with financial considerations kept in mind.
RFA in 2011: Tyler Kennedy.
Simon Despres, D, Saint John (QMJHL)
Robert Bortuzzo, D, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (AHL)
Beau Bennett, RW, Denver (WCHA)
Tom Kuhnhackl, C, Windsor (OHL)
Carl Sneep, D, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (AHL)
The Plan: The expectation would have been for the Penguins to need a few minor adjustments so that they, too, could be thrust into the mix of Stanley Cup contenders, but as they have lost Evgeni Malkin for the season and have no definitive timetable on Sidney Crosby's return from a concussion, the Penguins have been more aggressive in an attempt to ensure a strong finish, acquiring wingers James Neal and Alex Kovalev in separate swaps.
With Brooks Orpik sidelined by injury and Alex Goligoski extracted as the price to get Neal, Pittsburgh could also use some improved depth along the blueline, but any hopes for the postseason clearly rest on whether or not Crosby is able to return and, with each passing week, that seems less and less likely.
The Plan: Surging towards the top of the conference, the Lightning have already addressed their most glaring need by dealing for G Dwayne Roloson.
While their forward depth is already strong, though not so strong as to pass up veteran depth, the Lightning have upgraded on the blueline, adding Marc-Andre Bergeron and Eric Brewer. Even so, another defenceman wouldn't hurt the cause; it's just not quite as big a priority now.
Others of Interest: Jonas Gustavsson.
The Plan: Six points out of a playoff spot, it looks like the Leafs are making plans for the future, again, though their recent play has them harbouring illusions of competing for a playoff spot while dealing away veteran talent as Tomas Kaberle, Kris Versteeg and Francois Beauchemin have all been moved out.
So, while the Leafs have shed some veterans, Brian Burke still makes noises about acquiring immediate help and the Leafs have been rumoured as a possible suitor for Avalanche D John-Michael Liles. As long as James Reimer is providing stellar goaltending, there's a chance for Toronto to sneak into the postseason, it just makes no sense to sacrifice anything resembling significant future value in order to get there.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, C, Chelyabinsk Traktor (KHL)
Dmitri Orlov, D, Novokuznetsk Metallurg (KHL)
Cody Eakin, C, Kootenay (WHL)
Braden Holtby, G, Hershey (AHL)
Stanislav Galiev, Saint John (QMJHL)
No-Trade Clauses: Scott Hannan.
The Plan: The Caps aren't nearly the scoring juggernaut that they were last season, and some of that could be rectified with an upgrade to the second-line centre spot, where Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson may have some potential, but aren't ready to handle that responsibility for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
While they might seem like a natural target for a team with a veteran goaltender, the Caps seem set with their young goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, and the Caps already added Scott Hannan on the blueline so, barring injuries, there may not be a lot of movement on defence.
* - Contract information comes from www.capgeek.com