Now that the Sochi Winter Olympics have come to a close, with Canada again bringing home the gold medal, the NHL will resume play with an action-packed schedule and a trade deadline a little more than a week away. With less than seven weeks remaining until the end of the regular season, here are the top storylines to watch:
1. Who will make the biggest splash on trade deadline day?
There isn't much time for general managers to wheel and deal before the March 5 deadline, so don't be surprised if conversations really begin to heat up with the NHL players back on North American soil. The market is taking shape, separating the buyers from the sellers. Penguins GM Ray Shero has never been shy at the trade deadline, and with top winger Pascal Dupuis on the shelf, he may be an aggressive shopper. St. Louis is a team to keep an eye on as well, with the Blues remaining the odds-on favorite to go after a goaltender like Buffalo's Ryan Miller. The Bruins also would like to shore up their blue line to address the absence of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.
2. Where will Thomas Vanek land?
With the Islanders a whopping 12 points back of the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and star center John Tavares done for the rest of the season with a knee injury suffered at the Olympics, the team will be looking to move Vanek. The 30-year-old winger, who rejected a lucrative long-term deal from the Islanders earlier this month, surely will be one of the most coveted rental players on the trade market. Though there will be no lack of interest for his goal-scoring ability -- Vanek has recorded two 40-goal seasons -- his $5.75 million cap hit may be prohibitive to some, even pro-rated for the remainder of the season.
3. Will Ryan Miller remain with the Buffalo Sabres?
With the Sabres in dead last with a dreadful 15-34-8 record and Miller set to hit the market as an unrestricted free agent this summer, he is the top target for playoff contenders looking to bolster their goaltending. This will be the first significant test of Tim Murray's tenure as Sabres general manager, the enormous pressure to fetch a solid return for their franchise player. Goalies can be difficult to move, and Miller does have a limited no-trade clause, so he has some say in where he could end up.
4. Will the Rangers move captain Ryan Callahan?
This was the most buzz-worthy development heading into the Olympic break, and you can bet the rumors and speculation will only intensify as the deadline nears. Callahan emerged from a disappointing U.S. Olympic performance unscathed -- a relief for the Rangers, who have seen him suffer numerous injuries because of his rugged, physical style of play -- which means he may still be on the block. A source told ESPNNewYork.com on Sunday that no progress has been made toward a contract extension for the 28-year-old captain, so this one may go down to the wire. The Rangers are currently second in the Metropolitan Division with 23 games left to play. Trading their captain would be a risky move, but GM Glen Sather has never been afraid to be bold.
5. When does Steven Stamkos return to the ice?
It had to be gut-wrenching for the former No. 1 overall pick to watch Team Canada win Olympic gold without him, but Stamkos stayed home at the advice of the Tampa Bay Lightning's medical staff because of a broken leg that had not fully healed. That may turn out to be the best thing possible in the long run for the Lightning, who sit in second place in the Atlantic Division and third in the conference. Whenever Stamkos returns, he'll provide a huge boost with his lethal shot and proven offensive acumen. Stamkos practiced with the Lightning last week and said he felt "definitely very close" to being cleared to play. Tampa Bay faces the Predators in Nashville on Thursday for its first game out of the break.
6. Which team comes out on top in the West?
One of the most entertaining battles to watch will be the big dogs -- Anaheim, Chicago, San Jose -- slugging it out in what has been a dominant, competitive Western Conference. The Blues and Blackhawks are tied with 84 points in the race for the Central Division title, though the Blues have three games in hand. Also, don't sleep on a young and exciting Colorado Avalanche team, a squad that had been scorching hot in the weeks prior to the Olympic break.
7. Does Sidney Crosby secure the Hart Trophy?
Adding another Olympic gold medal to a laundry list of honors in what has already been an illustrious career for the 26-year-old, Crosby has proven yet again that he is capable of shouldering the type of expectations reserved for the league's biggest superstar. After missing time last season with a broken jaw and losing out to Alex Ovechkin, Crosby is pacing the field this season with an impressive campaign. Crosby leads the NHL in both assists (50) and points (78), though Ovechkin has posted a league-leading 40 goals.
8. Where will the Islanders end up?
Tavares' injury was not a devastating blow to Team Canada, which steamrolled the competition to win the gold medal, but it was absolutely crushing for an Islanders team that was fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive. With Tavares out and Vanek likely to be moved, the Islanders will be without two of their top three forwards ( Kyle Okposo rounds out that top-line trio), and they might not have defenseman and pending unrestricted free agent Andrew MacDonald around much longer, either. That will open the door for some youngsters, but it might also mean a tumble down the standings and another top-five draft pick. The good news for general manager Garth Snow is that he can retain the team's first-round pick that was surrendered in the Vanek- Matt Moulson deal with Buffalo, should the Islanders finish in the bottom 10. The bad news is that Snow may have to instead give up a first-rounder in the 2015 draft, a class that features highly touted prospect Connor McDavid.
9. Can Detroit hold onto a playoff spot in the East?
Nice to see coach Mike Babcock win gold with a star-studded Canadian squad during the Olympics, especially considering the raw deal he's gotten leading an injury-decimated Red Wings team this season. Credit to Babcock and the Wings, who have pushed on despite their unfortunate list of hampered stars and unrelenting ailments, but they were hit by another tough loss in Sochi when it was revealed that captain Henrik Zetterberg would have to undergo back surgery that will sideline him for eight weeks.
10. Did Ted Nolan earn himself an extension in Buffalo?
One of the most captivating Cinderella stories of the Olympics was the surprising performance of the Latvian team under coach Ted Nolan. Leading a group that was given virtually no shot in Olympic play, the Latvians ousted Switzerland and gave Canada quite the scare in the quarterfinal round. A big part of that was the leadership of Nolan, whose ability to turn a group of underdogs into believers may convince Murray he has his guy in Buffalo. In January, Murray hinted at a potential extension for Nolan. Could that be in the works once NHL play resumes?