Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
As recently as late December, it looked like the Ottawa Senators were going to run away with the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Fast forward to the present, and it's clear that there is no powerhouse in the Conference. The Senators are facing a major challenge for the top spot in the East, and find themselves barely holding onto to the lead in the Northeast Division as well.
Currently, the Senators and Canadiens each have 75 points, but Ottawa is still first in the Northeast and East by virtue of having more wins than Montreal.
Then there are Pittsburgh and New Jersey, who each have 73 points and are duking it out for the Atlantic lead while also keeping an eye on the conference race.
And it's not just the few teams currently at the top of the East that could battle for the conference lead. After all, Boston and Philadelphia, who are tied for the final playoff seeds in the East after Tuesday's action, are just nine points away from the Senators and Canadiens.
Also, just 19 points separate Ottawa and Montreal from Tampa Bay, the last place team in the East.
In the West, there are plenty of tight races for playoff positioning, but the Detroit Red Wings still hold a comfortable lead for the conference's top spot.
Now, with the trade deadline less than a week away (Feb. 26), the question is, will any team from the East make a blockbuster deal and take charge of the conference?
With so many clubs in striking distance of both the conference lead and the final playoff spots, it must certainly be tempting for general managers in the East to try and pull ahead of the competition with a trade.
The Senators' strength lies in the amazing production of their top line, which consists of centerman Jason Spezza and wingers Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley.
Ottawa added some scoring depth when it acquired left wing Cory Stillman from Carolina in the deal that also brought bruising defenseman Mike Commodore, but the Sens will likely need more than Stillman to give the club a balanced scoring attack. The organization could go after Toronto centerman Mats Sundin, but it's unlikely the Maple Leafs will trade their captain within the conference, let alone send him to one of their main rivals.
Therefore, Ottawa will probably set their sights high by targeting Atlanta winger Marian Hossa, a former Senator, or make a less costly deal for Columbus forward Sergei Fedorov. Goaltending has also become a problem for Ottawa, but outside of Chicago's Nikolai Khabibulin, there isn't much available in that regard.
Ottawa will probably set their sights high by targeting Atlanta winger Marian Hossa.
Montreal came into this season with a young nucleus, and most folks thought the Habs would hold onto what they had at the trade deadline. However, the Canadiens are now in position to win the East, and could use their abundance of young talent to at least land a veteran scorer.
The Canadiens will also be interested in acquiring Hossa, but could alternately take a shot at getting centerman Olli Jokinen from Florida or San Jose pivot Patrick Marleau.
The Penguins are also a young team, and could use veteran help at forward and defense. Last year, Pittsburgh posted 105 points in the regular season before being exposed in the opening round of the playoffs by the more experienced Senators.
Pittsburgh will be yet another team making a push for Hossa, and could also take a shot at prying veteran defenseman Rob Blake away from Los Angeles.
As per usual, do not expect the Devils to make a big splash at the deadline. General manager Lou Lamoriello will likely let future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur do the heavy lifting for New Jersey down the stretch. However, the Devils should also be interested in landing Blake or fellow blueliner Adam Foote of Columbus.
The Flyers and New York Rangers came into the season with big expectations after busy offseasons, and the fact that neither club has played up to its potential so far could make both teams players at the deadline.
Philadelphia is in the midst of a lengthy losing streak that has dropped it from first to fourth in the Atlantic Division. Also, the news that Peter Forsberg will most likely not be returning to the NHL is disheartening for the Flyers, who were a leading candidate to land the former Hart Trophy winner.
Without Forsberg as an option, the Flyers could also target Hossa and Jokinen or someone else to add scoring depth. Philadelphia, which acquired defenseman Jaroslav Modry from LA this week, may try to get Blake from the Kings as well.
The Rangers have lacked scoring consistency for most of this season, and would like to add another centerman, possibly Marleau, to the mix.
Carolina may also try to add a center now that captain Rod Brind'Amour is out for the season, but don't expect the Hurricanes or any other team from the lowly Southeast Division to sell the farm to acquire a top-notch player. At this stage of the season, only the division winner from the Southeast would make the playoffs.
In the end, it appears that there are too many suitors for the top seed in the East, and not enough impact players available at the deadline. Still, choosing the right player to add before next Tuesday could certainly swing the balance in one very crowded conference.