The Eastern Conference playoff picture is settling perhaps earlier than expected, as only two additional teams are within eight points of the final playoff spot, making it easier to see who the buyers and sellers will be prior the February 27th trade deadline.
That doesn't mean that Montreal, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and the Islanders are surely sellers at this point, but they would tend to be leaning in that direction if the results don't change soon. Carolina already seems resigned to their fate and have unloaded a couple of veterans already, with more deals likely in the hopper.
It's reasonable to expect top teams like the Rangers, Bruins and Flyers to add pieces to surround their core, but any teams that are in playoff contention will consider bringing in players that can help in the short-term. Even a team like Ottawa, whose strong start has them surprisingly in a playoff spot, has to be considered a potential buyer.
The wildcard for the Eastern Conference may be the Pittsburgh Penguins. If they know they will have Sidney Crosby available, the Penguins are likely Cup contenders and can make the kind of move that might put them over the hump. If Crosby's status is uncertain, however, then the Penguins may need to be more ambitious in their attempts to provide additional help for Evgeni Malkin and company.
If there is a team that could be ripe for an overhaul, it may be the Buffalo Sabres. After spending big money last summer, the Sabres' results haven't been nearly good enough, so it's not at all surprising if GM Darcy Regier is busy.
With four weeks to go before the deadline, 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 Eastern Conference team might have at their disposal in order to make a trade leading up to the deadline.
The Plan: The defending champions are poised to make a strong title defence and don't have to make any major moves to contend once again. Depth is always going to be an issue, particularly for a team that plays a rough-and-tumble game like the Bruins, but Boston has the resources to add a top-nine forward and another body on the blueline without sacrificing anything close the team's core.
With the recent furor over Tim Thomas' decision not to go to the White House, Thomas could come into trade talks, but the summer seems a far more likely time to make a major change like that.
The Plan: After spending big bucks last summer, the Sabres find themselves languishing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. They should be better and with good goaltending, they could make a late-season charge, but it may be time for the Sabres to (figuratively) cut some of their losses, unload some veterans and start building towards a new lineup for next season.
If that's the way to go, Buffalo has several veterans, from Derek Roy and Drew Stafford to Brad Boyes and Paul Gaustad, that should draw interest from contenders looking to improve forward depth. With years remaining on their contracts, Roy and Stafford should bring more in return but a simple re-shuffling of the talent on this team is the bare minimum of what's needed, because the current mix sure hasn't worked out as expected.
The Plan: Looking up at the rest of the Eastern Conference, the Hurricanes are easily identified as sellers and their three pending unrestricted free agents figure to be popular targets for playoff teams. Tuomo Ruutu can play a top nine role, provide a little offence and play multiple positions, while Tim Gleason has played top-four minutes on the blueline for the last four years or so. Although Bryan Allen hasn't played as much in recent seasons, he's playing nearly 21 minutes per game in January, perhaps a little showcasing for a big defenceman that should be popular for teams needing blueline depth. (edit: Gleason has just signed a four-year, $16-million extension with the Hurricanes, so it appears he's settling in for the long haul.)
In return, the 'Canes can expect prospects and draft picks as they continue a rebuilding process that started at least part of the way prior to this season, with several young players getting chances to play whether they were ready or not. Tomas Kaberle and Alexei Ponikarovsky didn't provide much as free agent signings either, so they've already been moved out. Thus, this year's results haven't been shocking, but also emphasize the Hurricanes' need to improve their talent throughout the organization as there just isn't enough support for franchise's cornerstone pieces Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner and Cam Ward.
The Plan: The Panthers, somewhat surprisingly, find themselves in the playoff hunt, so they would seem more likely to add this season, rather than sell prior the deadline; at least that figures to be the case if the Panthers remain in contention. Trouble is, as time goes on, the Panthers may have trouble holding their place in the standings.
By no means would the Panthers want to sacrifice talent from their deep pool of prospects, but they are a team that could sorely use more scoring, to help ease the burden on the trio of Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann and they are currently facing the prospect of being without Ed Jovanovski and Dmitri Kulikov on the blueline for quite a while, so defence may be a more pressing need unless the Panthers are really comfortable increasing the minutes for Keaton Ellerby and Erik Gudbranson.
The Plan: It's been a disappointing season for the Canadiens, but their 1-7 shootout record hasn't done them any favours either. They don't figure to be in seller mode until closer to the deadline, at which point they'll ideally either have gained enough ground to make a push for the playoffs or not made any progress, making it easy to trade some assets in order to build for the future.
Of course, Montreal would love to unload Scott Gomez's contract, but that albatross might actually have some value in the offseason, depending on the terms of the new CBA and whether teams might be inclined to pay the lesser cash value ($10.0) over the next two seassons, for more than $14.6M in value against the cap. It may be far-fetched, but at least something to consider if there are still teams striving to reach the salary floor. More immediately, Travis Moen, Andrei Kostitsyn, Hal Gill and Chris Campoli would all have relative appeal if the Habs start selling.
RFA in 2012: Mark Fayne.
The Plan: Back in the playoff picture, the Devils have added Alexei Ponikarovsky to improve their third line and they may want another top-six forward if Travis Zajac's Achilles injury continues to linger, but the primary issue is the blueline, where the Devils have added Kurtis Foster and called up Matt Taormina, but injuries to Henrik Tallinder and Andy Greene leave an already thin group extra lean.
Improved defence ought to make life easier on goaltender Martin Brodeur, who hasn't been on top of his game this season, but he was substantially better after the All-Star break last year (and there's no way the Devils are bringing in a replacement), so improving his supporting cast would give the Devils a better shot at returning to the postseason.
RFA in 2012: Matt Martin.
The Plan: The Isles have played better recently, yet remain far enough out of the playoff picture to expect that they will be sellers before the deadline unless this recent improvement carries on for several more weeks. With a long list of pending unrestricted free agents, the Isles are prime candidates for teams not wanting to take on a lot of salary at the deadline, but most of those bargain veterans aren't going to bring a substantial return either. How many mid-round picks can they accumulate?
Nevertheless, the if the Islanders can move out some of the players near the end of the line, there might be some opportunities opening up for prospects to step in and show what they can do late in the season, getting a head start on next year when, as always, the Islanders need to take the next step in their development.
Others of Interest: Artem Anisimov.
The Plan: At the top of the Eastern Conference, the Rangers are certainly in position to add some pieces as they push forward. Someone to upgrade the power play, whether that's a scoring forward or puck-moving defenceman, should be a priority, but after that, depth is really the only issue.
Even though the Blueshirts have been the beneficiaries of strong performances from the likes of call-ups LW Carl Hagelin and D Stu Bickel, an accumulation of injuries on defence could drive a desire for even more NHL-calibre talent in reserve.
The Plan: The surprise of the season, the Senators are in playoff position after being widely forecasted (including by yours truly) for a season in the basement. Since adding Kyle Turris from Phoenix, the Senators have really taken off and have to be considerd buyers before the deadline. Of course they won't mortgage the future, as that would be an overreaction to this pleasant surprise, but when the team is getting solid production from veterans like RW Daniel Alfredsson and D Sergei Gonchar, it would be a shame not to take advantage of it.
Ideally, the Senators could find room for a scoring forward (or two) and another solid defender, but addressing those needs may require some creativity if Ottawa isn't inclined to sacrifice their up-and-comers.
The Plan: That the Flyers are in playoff position isn't surprising. That they are doing it without Chris Pronger, however, makes it a more impressive achievement. At the same time, given that Pronger is out long-term due to a concussion, the Flyers would naturally like to add on their blueline.
Thanks to contributions from rookies (Matt Read, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn among others), Philadelphia has enough depth up front, when healthy, that they should be able to deal from that position of strength in order to bolster their defence. James van Riemsdyk has been rumoured as a possible trade candidate, but as long as he's sidelined by a concussion, his value would seem to be diminished.
The Plan: Certainly the biggest issue facing the Penguins is the health of Sidney Crosby and Crosby's presence affects what Pittsburgh may do before the deadline. If Crosby does suit up again this season, the Penguins could be Cup contenders, as the 1-2 punch of Crosby and Malkin vaults the Pens among the league's elite.
If not, then Pittsburgh should at least upgrade their secondary scoring. Even once Jordan Staal returns to the lineup, Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz could use additional support if the Penguins are going to make serious noise in the postseason.
The Plan: This season has been pretty much a washout for the Lightning, thanks in large part to substandard goaltending. If Tampa Bay harbours any illusions of competing for a playoff spot this season, upgrading between the pipes is naturally the first place to look. If the price for goaltending is too steep, Tampa Bay may have to wait until the summer.
Failing that, or any upgrades on the defence, the Lightning may have to punt and make the most of what they can get for veterans with expiring deals, aiming to re-load for the 2012-2013 campaign.
The Plan: Generally, the Maple Leafs under Brian Burke have tried to make their deals well ahead of the deadline, so it won't be a surprise if the Leafs deal sooner rather than later. With improved prospect depth and a surplus of bodies on defence, the Leafs appear to be in position to make a significant addition to help improve their chances at a playoff berth.
Adding size up front has been the primary focus for Toronto and if it happened to be a big forward that can score, well, all the better. Those players don't come cheaply, however, so if the Leafs are going to land a big forward that can score, expect some significant pieces to move the other way.
The Plan: It's been an underwhelming season for the Caps, but they still appear to be the favourites to emerge from the Southeast Division, which would mean a top three seed in the Eastern Conference. Thus, look for Washington to buy as the deadline approaches, whether that involves upgrades on the blueline or adding some grit for the fourth line.
The most dramatic improvement that the Capitals might expect could come internally, if Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin rebound from subpar first halves and Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green get healthy, well, those factors would go a long way towards making the Capitals more serious playoff contenders.
The Plan: It wasn't terribly reasonable to expect the Jets to reach the postseason this year, but they are still lingering around playoff contention, which could put a hold on any plans to sell until the standings determine whether Winnipeg has a viable shot at the playoffs.
If there is adding to be done, the Jets certainly shouldn't turn down any proven scorers, but this team may end up selling some veterans before the deadline and building towards long-term objectives.