There is a certain yin and yang to the trade deadline furor.
All of the names that float about are interesting to debate, but they have to have a team with which to land to make the rumors anything more than white noise.
So, which teams should we be watching as the March 5 trade deadline draws near? Read on.
Los Angeles Kings
There is a certain déjà vu all over again with this season's edition of the Kings. It's a team that is meandering a bit, dealing with injuries and the obligatory offensive drought. Sound a bit like 2011-12? Yes. Yes, it does. The Kings rank 26th in goals per game and have been waiting for captain Dustin Brown (11 goals through Thursday) and Mike Richards (seven goals) to come around, but just like in 2012, it seems as though it's going to fall to general manager Dean Lombardi (and the Kings' ownership, of course) to ride to the rescue, as Lombardi did two years ago when he deftly acquired Jeff Carter from Columbus at the deadline.
A number of options are open to Lombardi, including Thomas Vanek and two former Kings prospects, Mike Cammalleri and Matt Moulson. Ryan Callahan is out there as well, and if anyone can play Darryl Sutter hockey, it's Callahan. The question is, how much will Lombardi give up? The obvious targets other GMs will covet will be Tyler Toffoli, Linden Vey or Tanner Pearson, whom Lombardi has likened to young talent back in the day working their way through the Dodgers' system. Can the Kings make the playoffs without adding offense? Maybe. Can they maneuver their way through the treacherous Western Conference waters without more offensive oomph?
We mention the Penguins, but not because they're in trouble. They are in first place in the Eastern Conference and are going to win the Metropolitan Division in a walk, even though they've been dealing all season with a slew of injuries to key personnel. But GM Ray Shero never sits idly at the trade deadline. With Pascal Dupuis and Kris Letang out long term, there are some places he would like to shore up, most notably a scoring winger who could play with Sidney Crosby (isn't that the position Shero tries to fill every year?). We like Matt Moulson as a fit, but really, who wouldn't fit with Crosby?
Our interest in the Penguins, though, has to do with Shero's plans for his goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury has had a terrific regular season and might actually garner peripheral Vezina Trophy discussion, but he also has had a few off performances in the postseason, including last spring, when he was replaced by Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun is just now skating after missing the entire season because of a blood clot, and his timetable is an unknown. That means Jeff Zatkoff is the current Plan B if Fleury falters. But what about Martin Brodeur or Tim Thomas, or someone else? Maybe Fleury regains his postseason form, the Pens go on a long run, and this becomes a huge non-story. Or maybe Plan B, however it plays out, becomes one of the stories of the spring, as it was last season when Vokoun was so solid in relief of Fleury to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Wild aren't locked into a postseason berth by any means and they are a long shot to catch Colorado in the Central Division, but they are comfortably in control of their destiny in terms of nailing down one of the two wild-card spots in the Western Conference. That would then mean a date with Anaheim, Chicago or St. Louis (i.e., one of the top two teams in the conference). But can the Wild keep pace with a goaltending tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom? Kuemper has been terrific since taking over the starting job, with Josh Harding dealing with medical issues that appear no closer to being resolved. Backstrom has not been up to the task physically or technically, so that leaves GM Chuck Fletcher with a big decision. Does he try to upgrade his goaltending, at least for the short term, and maybe get on a roll and knock off one of the big boys?
There's no guarantee that if Fletcher added a Ryan Miller or Martin Brodeur, or even Justin Peters or Cam Ward, that the Wild would be able to get through even the first round. But there is lots of pressure on the Wild to be more than one-and-done for the second straight season, and the status quo might not be the right answer for a team that on some nights looks like it could be a playoff dark horse.
Tim Murray, who took over midseason for longtime Sabres GM Darcy Regier, has lots of work ahead. The team has actually played pretty well for coach Ted Nolan, and now Murray must maximize the return on assets Ryan Miller and Matt Moulson and possibly Steve Ott. There is a market for all, and Murray could always circle back to Ott in the offseason and repatriate the current Sabres captain, who is perfectly suited for the kind of rebuild about to be undertaken in Buffalo. The trick for Murray will be in making sure he doesn't price himself out of the market, especially with Miller, because it's always tough to deal a top-end goalie at the deadline (just ask Vancouver's Mike Gillis, who never got around to dealing Roberto Luongo).
The Sabres are going to be chock-a-block with top draft picks thanks to the earlier deal that saw Thomas Vanek go to Long Island, and Moulson has the potential to yield another first-round pick, given his value as a scorer. These are the kinds of weeks that have the potential to shape a team's future for years, so the spotlight will be on Murray in his first trade-deadline frenzy.
New York Rangers
In some ways, the Rangers are the poster boys for the new NHL landscape. In the old days, good teams wouldn't bat an eye at having players with expiring contracts in their lineup. In fact, teams such as the Rangers often brought on lots of those players because they could always offer them big contracts in the offseason to get them to stay, or find someone else on whom to lavish big-money deals. Today, the pendulum has swung so that teams are loath to entertain even the possibility that top players could walk away in the offseason without some sort of asset in return. And to be sure, teams such as New Jersey, Nashville and Florida have seen their development in recent years stunted after losing players such as Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis and Jay Bouwmeester without getting anything back.
Which brings us back to the Rangers, who are nudging Pittsburgh and Boston as the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference but have two key figures who could become unrestricted free agents in July: team captain Ryan Callahan, and defenseman Dan Girardi. Both would command hefty returns if they're dealt, yet the absence of one or both would create significant holes in the Rangers lineup, if that's the way GM Glen Sather decides to go. It looked like Girardi would be more likely to sign an extension with the Rangers, but right now neither player is close to such a deal. Delicate, interesting times on Broadway, that's for sure.
New York Islanders
Ah, the lovable Islanders. Remember April 2013, when they were the team on the rise, about to take advantage of their tremendous potential after pushing the Pittsburgh Penguins to a sixth game in the opening round of the playoffs? Today, it's just another fire sale for the franchise that travels only in ever-diminishing circles. Whether this is GM Garth Snow's last kick at the can with the beleaguered franchise is moot, because these next few days will say much about Snow's legacy on Long Island. Having overspent to acquire Thomas Vanek from Buffalo earlier in the season (a first- and a second-round pick and Matt Moulson), Snow has to deal Vanek to try to recoup some of those assets as the Isles languish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Vanek represents the top-end offensive player on the market, but can Snow close a deal that includes a first-round pick and some sort of draft pick/prospect package?
There's also defenseman Andrew MacDonald, who also will have considerable value, given the scarcity of defensemen available at the deadline. Boston is looking for defensive depth, as are the Anaheim Ducks and a handful of other teams. The Islanders have never addressed their goaltending issues and depth on the blue line, so this is where Snow goes after plugging those holes. Or not.
It's always a bit of a dilemma for a GM of a top-end team that has lots of good young players looking for a bite of the NHL apple, especially if you're the defending Stanley Cup champions. Last year, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman tinkered, adding Michal Handzus before the deadline to help his depth down the middle, but still allowed young players Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad to play roles during the Cup run. There are still questions about the depth down the middle, and whether Antti Raanta is ready to handle being the playoff backup to Corey Crawford. Crawford was consistently good for the Blackhawks as they won the Cup for the second time in four years, but there was always a comfort level knowing Ray Emery was the backup.
Is there the same kind of comfort with Raanta, who is playing in his first NHL season? Or does Bowman explore the option of adding a backup with NHL experience, someone such as Martin Brodeur, who seems open to a move from New Jersey, Tim Thomas or one of the three goalies with the Carolina Hurricanes?