Congested standings in the Western Conference make it more difficult to ascertain which teams will be buyers and sellers leading up the February 27th trade deadline. Certainly results over the next four weeks could help make some of those decisions.
Both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Edmonton Oilers have left little doubt what their role will be as the deadline nears, and the Anaheim Ducks -- even with their recently improved play -- may join them in the ranks of the sellers.
After that, though, there are four teams sitting outside the playoffs that are within three points of eighth in the conference; that kind of small deficit makes it difficult for a team to sell, yet as long as they are sitting outside the playoffs, it is similarly difficult to get into full-scale buyer mode too.
The usual suspects -- Detroit, Vancouver, Chicago -- will be primed to add pieces for a championship run and the St. Louis Blues might be in that game as well.
What about the Nashville Predators or Los Angeles Kings? They're in playoff position and could add too, which runs the list of buyers in the Western Conference to seven before dealing with Minnesota, Colorado, Dallas, Calgary and Phoenix -- a group of teams that are clustered between eighth and 12th in the West.
The next four weeks should help provide some clearer lines between the buyers and sellers but, in the meantime, Columbus and Edmonton can expect to field a lot of calls.
Let the trade talks begin!
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. 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: It was easy to peg the Ducks as sellers based on their miserable start to the season, but their recent surge might make GM Bob Murray a little more patient before deciding to make dramatic changes. Murray did say, while the Ducks were in the throes of their woes, that all but Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne could be moved, so that has the vultures circling, looking to pry away one of the Ducks' stars.
Others of Interest: Chris Butler.
No-Trade Clauses: Jarome Iginla, Michael Cammalleri (limited), Alex Tanguay (limited), Matt Stajan (modified), Olli Jokinen, Curtis Glencross, Jay Bouwmeester, Mark Giordano, Cory Sarich, Anton Babchuk.
The Plan: After acquiring Mike Cammalleri, Flames GM Jay Feaster insisted that the club will be making a push for a playoff spot. Assuming that they don't lose ground, the Flames are close enough to keep adding. Certainly adding a legitimate number one centre has long been a need and remains one now.
The Flames recently dealt Brendan Morrison to Chicago and they've acquired Blair Jones from Tampa Bay and Blake Comeau on waivers from the Islanders earlier in the season, but if they are going big-game hunting, the Flames will have to dig deep in order to come up with the kind of package that it takes to land a premier centre.
RFA in 2012: None.
The Plan: Adding Brendan Morrison gives the Blackhawks a month to audition him in the second-line centre role to determine if that is still going to be a need approaching the deadline. Considering the kind of ice time that Jonathan Toews and Dave Bolland will command, the "number two" pivot in Chicago may effectively play third-line minutes.
Since the Blackhawks appear to be legitimate Cup contenders, expect them to bolster their blueline, looking for a top-four calibre blueliner and to get in the mix for a top-six forward if the price is right.
No-Trade Clauses: Milan Hejduk.
The Plan: So long as the Avalanche remain in playoff contention, they can't very well turn into full-fledged sellers, but with so many pending unrestricted free agents, they could certainly offer solutions to teams that are looking for third and fourth-line upgrades.
Given the emergence of Ryan O'Reilly as an offensive contributor, the Avalanche may also consider dealing Paul Stastny once Matt Duchene returns to action. Of course any move of that magnitude would have to bring quality -- a scoring winger, a top-four defenceman? -- in return.
The Plan: This season's disaster in Columbus does make the Blue Jackets very intriguing as the deadline approaches because they have so few untouchables. It seems a given that Jeff Carter is on the block, but it's conceivable that Rick Nash might even be a possibility to be moved.
The rebuilding has to begin in earnest now; the good news is that the Blue Jackets need pretty much everything and should be as motivated as any team in the league to sell off extraneous parts in order to star remodeling the roster.
The Plan: The Stars have some interesting pieces, should they decide to sell, not least of all captain Brenden Morrow, but the Stars can't very well go into selling mode if they remain so close to a playoff spot.
It would make more sense for new ownership to do some tweaking in order to improve the Stars' chances at the postseason. A top-six forward should be the main priority if the Stars are bidding for a playoff berth, but upgrading their depth forwards could also be a reasonable starting point.
The Plan: As always, the Wings are contenders, so they should be looking to add some pieces before the deadline and can accomodate high-end skill or upgrades in the bottom half of the lineup.
The Wings also have a talented group of prospects on the way up, so they don't need to overpay in their attempts to land a top-nine forward or a depth defenceman, but given the age of Detroit's core players, there also should be some urgency to make a strong push for the Cup this season.
The Plan: Headed for another high pick in the 2012 draft, the Oilers have exciting young skilled forwards around which to build, but they need help, particularly on defence and, possibly, in goal.
Edmonton's most marketable commodity will be Ales Hemsky, their oft-injured winger who is having his worst year as a pro. Nevertheless, Hemsky will draw interest for teams looking for an upgrade in skill among their top six forwards and, since demand for top six wingers figures to outweigh supply, Hemsky should bring a decent return for the Oilers.
RFA in 2012: None.
No-Trade Clauses: None.
The Plan: Darryl Sutter has brought better results since taking over behind the bench, lifting the Kings into playoff contention, but the Kings' lack of scoring makes offensive upgrades a high priority. A couple top nine forwards that might improve the Kings' offensive output would be most welcome.
Expectations were high for the Kings coming into the season, but their struggle to just get back into the playoff race could send a signal that this team isn't yet ready to be a Cup contender, no matter what kind of deals they make before the deadline.
The Plan: After stunning success early in the season, the Wild have been fading since. With Mikko Koivu sidelined, they are facing an uphill battle to finish in a playoff spot, yet as long as they remain in contention, the Wild ought to be looking to add as many scoring forwards as they can find.
It would be premature for the Wild to sell off prospects in order to improve short-term, but perhaps they'll be able to parlay a move that ships out veteran blueliner Marek Zidlicky, who has fallen out of favour, with moves that lead to upgraded forward lines.
The Plan: The primary concern for the Predators may be the status of defenceman Ryan Suter, who will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer, but as long as Nashville is sitting in playoff position, it's hard to believe that the Predators would jeopardize their current lineup. Assuming that Suter stays put, the Predators can look to improve depth, perhaps adding some veteran muscle on the back end, as rookies Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis have been patrolling the blueline more and more.
The Predators have tended towards making measured moves, like last season's addition of two-way pivot Mike Fisher, and the results have been generally favourable, while still allowing the Predators to keep a strong farm system. Will Suter's pending UFA status force any more urgency for the Predators at this year's deadline?
The Plan: Though the Coyotes are just on the outside of the playoff picture, they're mentioned frequently as a target for contending teams, with veterans like Shane Doan and Ray Whitney holding appeal for many teams.
It's hard to imagine Doan in another sweater, but the perpetual uncertainty of the franchise, combined with his contract status, does at least lead to the possibility of a deal. Otherwise, Whitney and veteran defencemen Aucoin and Rozsival would be reasonable acquisitions.
The Plan: The way the Blues have played since Ken Hitchcock took over as head coach, they have to operate as a Cup contender this season, which means filling in the holes so that they can make the most of the strong goaltending they've been getting from Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak.
While goals don't come that easily to the Blues, their lineup might be bolstered internally if they get Andy McDonald and Alex Steen back from concussions and get some improvement from Chris Stewart and Patrik Berglund, both of whom have more to offer than what they've produced thus far.
The Plan: The Sharks have denied rumours that Ryane Clowe could be moved, but San Jose does look like a team that could get involved in some deals, at least to upgrade their third and fourth lines and/or depth on defence.
The Plan:Now that the Canucks are finally healthy, they are as talented as any team in the league, with excellent depth, but it wouldn't be altogether surprising to see them target more toughness that they can include in their postseason lineup.
Last year's loss to Boston in the Cup Final, to say nothing of a possible matchup against Chicago, should emphasize the Canucks' need to get down and dirty when the situation demands it.