The Southeast Division race is historically a turtle derby and this season's affair is no different, although there are more than the usual two teams in contention.
This time the race is more interesting because right now it encompasses the NHL's Feb. 27 trade deadline as well as the playoff race. Most of the teams involved – the Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets and Tampa Bay Lightning – could well decide to become sellers rather than buyers in the days leading to the deadline because they could fall quickly out of playoff contention. Or all of them could become buyers because the playoffs are so tantalizingly close thanks to the NHL's rule that gives the division leaders the top three playoff seeds.
The Florida Panthers lead the turtle race with 59 points, which vaults them all the way to third in the Eastern Conference. But take away their status as division leaders and the Panthers would sit eighth, barely clinging to the final playoff spot, one point ahead of the Capitals, who are officially ninth in the conference standing. Winnipeg and Tampa sit 10th and 11th in the conference with 54 and 51 points, respectively.
Such is the dilemma that faces the general managers of these teams. One day, you're sitting third in the conference and the next day you're out of playoff contention.
The temptation to gamble at the trade deadline must be powerful for three of those GMs. All three – George McPhee of the Capitals, Dale Tallon of the Panthers and Steve Yzerman of the Lightning – are under much pressure to make the playoffs to appease their fans.
The Panthers have not made the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons and desperately need a postseason appearance to have any chance of reversing their attendance woes. The Capitals have to find a way to stop their two-year slide from the NHL's most exciting young team to also-ran and the Bolts have to do likewise after a surprise run to the conference final last year sent a warming trend through their disaffected fan base.
Only the Jets can afford to miss the playoffs, although capping their honeymoon with the Winnipeg fans with a playoff berth would be nice. However, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is close-mouthed about his plans for the trade deadline, although it's obvious the Jets need a scoring forward.
With three offensive-minded defencemen on the roster in Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Engstrom and Zach Bogosian, the Jets are in position to get the scorer they need. Cheveldayoff also has seven pending unrestricted free agents among his regulars, including goaltender Chris Mason and defenceman Johnny Oduya, as ammunition.
Cheveldayoff will get an indication of what he should do this week. The Jets, who are six points behind the eighth-place Toronto Maple Leafs, have three games this week against teams ahead of them in the race, including the Leafs. The Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins are the other opponents and the Jets need three wins to realistically stay in contention.
The Capitals have the most control over their own destiny. They have 11 games left within the Southeast Division while the Jets have 10, the Panthers nine and the Lightning eight.
As trade talks heat up this week, keep an eye on Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller. He dismissed trade talk in the past but last week at least acknowledged to the Buffalo News the possibility of waiving his no-move clause:
"If they came to me and said they wanted to move me, I would want to know why. I'm not going to ask for a trade. I would like to have some kind of solution before it ever gets to that point."
Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman recently told reporters he expects to decide if he's a buyer or seller based on his team's next two home games. The Lightning won the first one, 6-3 over the Florida Panthers, and will meet the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday.
However, since the Bolts are nine points out of the last Eastern Conference playoff spot and eight points out of the Southeast Division lead, Yzerman's decision should be easy. His most important work should come around the NHL entry draft and free agency rather than the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
The Lightning's greatest need is goaltending, which will be a tall order to fill at the trade deadline. At this point, Yzerman is taking calls on winger Ryan Malone and centre Dominic Moore. Malone is a big winger who would be attractive to a contender if he can stay healthy and if he agrees to waive his no-move clause. Moore is a pending free agent who should attract a decent price because he's a reliable two-way player.
Ideally, Yzerman would like to move Vincent Lecavalier but his contract won't allow it. Lecavalier is scoring again but not enough to get any sane NHL GM to take on a salary cap hit of $7.27-million (U.S.) that runs until 2020.
WILD HOPE TO BE BUYERS
Count Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher as a buyer in the next few weeks. The Wild need a playoff appearance to placate an increasingly unhappy fan base. The trouble is, unless prices come down quickly, Fletcher may be stuck.
For example, Carolina Hurricanes forward Tuomo Ruutu would fill the Wild's need for a top-six forward. He's also a close friend of Wild captain Mikko Koivu. But Canes GM Jim Rutherford's asking price includes a first-round draft pick so it's unlikely.
Also on Fletcher's shopping list is an top-four defenceman who can move the puck. That would be the same commodity on just about every other GM's list, so good luck with that unless Fletcher is willing to package one of his goaltenders, Niklas Backstrom or Josh Harding. The latter goalie, by the way, will be an unrestricted free agent July 1.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has his eye on a top-six forward, as always, with James Van Riemsdyk of the Philadelphia Flyers, Jeff Carter of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tuomo Ruutu of the Carolinia Hurricanes the prize quantities. Throw in Ryan Malone of the Tampa Bay Lightning as well.
Since Carter is out with a separated shoulder, he may not be at the top of Burke's list depending on how close to the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline a deal is made.
But Burke has more ammunition than he has ever had since becoming the Leafs GM in late 2008. Most of his peers are looking for an experienced defenceman and Burke has several of those, plus a few forward prospects, that he could deal for the right player.
At this point, defenceman Mike Komisarek, 30, is sitting in the press box. Another blueliner, Keith Aulie, 22, is with the Leafs' farm team but has 55 games of NHL experience and a strong upside. Or Burke could move Cody Franson, 24, from his NHL roster. There are also forwards Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin and Joe Colborne to consider if the deal is a big one.
GAGNER SOLIDIFIES HIS SECURITY
Don't expect to see the NHL's hottest player, forward Sam Gagner, to be part of any trades the Edmonton Oilers may or may not make. He followed up his eight-point night last week with three points against the Detroit Red Wings, keeping his name bubbling in trade rumours.
However, Gagner, 22, remains part of the Oilers' core of young forwards even though he was having a mediocre season until his heroics last week. Ales Hemsky remains the most likely Oilers player to be moved if general manager Steve Tambellini can get a decent price.
But one name to watch is winger Ryan Smith, who is enjoying a good season with 36 points in 52 games. He is not keen to leave Edmonton, since he engineered his return last summer for family reasons, but might be talked into something.
Smyth becomes a free agent this summer, so a deal could be struck if he agrees to move to a team that agrees to a strictly rental deal. Smyth could then get another shot at a Stanley Cup and then return to the Oilers in the summer.