Close playoff races should lead to busy deadline season

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The NHL trade deadline is just weeks away, and a quick glance at the league's standings reveals few teams that could be described as sellers.

This is especially true in the East, where as of February 6, the New York Islanders - the 13th team in the conference standings - are just 14 points behind the top-seeded Ottawa Senators.

In the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings are running away with the top seed and could be crowned this year's Presidents' Trophy champion by the middle of March. But, outside of the Red Wings' dominance there are plenty of tight races in the West as well. It's been nearly impossible to keep track of how many times first place in the Northwest and Pacific Divisions has changed hands this year.

All of these close division and conference playoff races will surely have the majority of NHL general managers scrambling to get a leg up on the competition come the February 26 trade deadline. After all, picking up the right fit for your club at the deadline is the last chance at improvement before the stretch run.

Another sign that this year's trade season will be busy is the amount of action that has taken place at the first two deadlines since the league and NHLPA implemented their new collective bargaining agreement, which includes a salary cap. The two busiest trading days in NHL history have come since the lockout, as 25 deals were made at each of the last two deadlines.

Peter Forsberg
Peter Forsberg is expected to announce whether or not he is coming back to the NHL by this weekend.
Also making things interesting is an impending decision by Peter Forsberg, a former Hart Trophy winner and two-time Stanley Cup champion, who is expected to announce whether or not he is coming back to the NHL by this weekend. Forsberg may also choose what team he wishes to join at that time, and if he decides to return to the Philadelphia Flyers as many pundits are saying is the case, then that could cause a trading frenzy in the extremely competitive Atlantic Division as well as the Eastern Conference as a whole.

However, the Swedish superstar's decision to return to the NHL is tied to the status of his foot and ankle injuries. Still, it seems that every team in the NHL, including the mighty Red Wings, are inquiring about signing Forsberg, so maybe that means his time off since last playing, with Nashville in the 2007 playoffs, has helped his injuries.

As mentioned, the Atlantic is extremely tight this year and even a seemingly minor deal at the deadline could give a team the advantage necessary to win the division. After all, Philadelphia leads with 65 points, New Jersey is next with 64 and Pittsburgh is third with, you guessed it, 63 points. Just for good measure, the Rangers are in fourth with 60 points and even the Islanders aren't out of the race with 54. If Forsberg goes to the Flyers, count on the rest of the Atlantic to try and keep pace at the deadline.

In the Northeast, Ottawa, which seemed like it was going to run away with not only the division crown, but also the East's top seed, now only has a one- point edge over Montreal. The Senators are the more likely of those two teams to make a splash at the deadline, since the Canadiens are younger and weren't expected to do much of anything before this season began. Then again, try telling the rabid fan base in Montreal to be patient.

Things could get really wild at the deadline for teams in the Southeast, because if the season ended today, only the division champion would make the postseason. Washington leads the division with 57 points -- two less than Boston has while currently holding the eighth and final playoff seed in the East.

The Capitals could certainly use help on defense and in the area of scoring depth. Florida, which has the league's longest current playoff drought, may make some trades despite being a very young team. When an entire division is as mediocre as the Southeast, the best trade at the deadline could be the difference between winning the division and spending the playoffs at home.

Just because the West is being dominated by the Red Wings during the regular season doesn't mean that the rest of the conference will simply concede to Detroit. Preseason Stanley Cup contenders like San Jose, Dallas, Calgary, Vancouver and, of course, the defending champion Anaheim Ducks will try to shore up for potential postseason matchups with the Wings.

However, Anaheim may not do a great deal at the deadline since it has already made two significant midseason additions with the welcoming of Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne back to the fold. The duo were separately mulling over retirement since helping the Ducks win their first-ever Cup last spring, but both players are now back with Anaheim.

The Northwest Division is also likely to turn into an arms race, as Minnesota leads the division with 64 points and the Canucks are just five points back in fourth. In a situation similar to the one in the Atlantic, Colorado is only one point behind in second and the Flames are third with 62 points.

Out of this group, expect the Wild to rely more on head coach Jacques Lemaire's stingy defensive system, while the Canucks, Flames and Avalanche battle each other for deadline supremacy. Sorry, Edmonton fans, it looks the Oilers will be sellers this year.

The Pacific was expected to be a three-way race from the beginning and the Stars, Ducks and Sharks have certainly kept up their ends of the bargain, as just six points separate the first-place Dallas and third-place Anaheim. But, the Phoenix Coyotes and head coach Wayne Gretzky have also made their voices heard, as they are just nine points out of first, and more importantly, just one behind Nashville for the eighth playoff seed in the West.

The Coyotes already added goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov off waivers from the Ducks earlier this year, and that has helped turn their season around, but Phoenix will also need to add veteran help to its young roster if it expects to finish strong down the stretch.

Let's face it, NHL GM's love this time of year, when they get a chance to prove to their respective owners and fan bases that they have what it takes to bring a title home. And now, with so much parity in the NHL, they have the ability to make believers out of just about anyone.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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