When NHL general managers woke up Friday morning, they had 33 days until the NHL trade deadline. While the clock is ticking, GMs must now wrestle with what their needs are, what their resources are via the salary cap and what will be the long-term implications of those potential moves.
With teams so tightly bunched (10 points separate sixth through 14th in the East and eighth through 12th in the West) and with the deadline earlier than ever before (last year it was March 9), the quantity of players on the move and the quality will be quashed.
It means GMs will have to work much harder, and perhaps ante up a little more, to find that last piece to the puzzle.
Here's a look at players whose movements could dramatically alter the playoff landscape, and maybe help lead a team to the Cup in June:
Let's start with the brightest bauble on the market, albeit a bauble with a bad hoof and recurring groin problems. But let's assume Forsberg, who spent part of the All-Star break in Sweden trying to sort out his nagging injuries, can play and will agree to waive a no-trade clause. If that's the case, he and the Flyers will command a first-round draft pick and likely an emerging prospect. When he plays, Forsberg remains a dominant player, with 28 points in 31 games, and could elevate a team from long shot to viable Cup contender.
Apart from Forsberg's health, the main issue will be whether teams can take the cap hit. Forsberg makes $5.75 million, so even the prorated cap hit will be slightly more than $2 million for an interested team. The risk will be high, too high for many GMs, but the rewards may prove to be just as great. About a dozen teams have expressed interest, but Flyers GM Paul Holmgren denied a report out of Denver that Forsberg's former team had asked to speak to the center about a return to the Avalanche.
After Forsberg, it's a pretty dramatic drop off in terms of centers. But given that there are probably six teams that would like to get deeper down the middle, veteran Craig Conroy will command attention even though he's still got one year left on a contract that pays him $2.4 million. Conroy has just five goals in 50 games in Los Angeles and is a minus-13. But the Kings aren't a very good team and Conroy needs to play with skilled players as he did in Calgary, where he enjoyed a career-best 75 points in 2001-02 with an emerging Jarome Iginla. He'll be on the move, likely to the East.
Although he got off to a slow start, Stumpel's production has picked up in recent weeks (he's got points in seven of his last 10 games), and he hit the All-Star break with 35 points in 49 games for the Panthers. He can work the power play and wouldn't cost much in terms of a cap hit (he makes $1.65 million) or assets he would demand (we're guessing a second-round draft pick or lower).
The Coyotes are fighting to stay in the playoff hunt, sitting eight points out at the break. GM Mike Barnett has two key players who are set to become unrestricted free agents: Ladislav Nagy and Shane Doan. Although Nagy is more skilled, Doan figures to be the guy the Coyotes target given his overall importance to the team. Nagy leads the team in scoring with 37 points in 47 games, and if a team thinks it can effect a trade-and-sign situation, Nagy could command a first-round pick or a top prospect. Look for Nagy to go to a team that needs power-play help and a boost in secondary scoring.
Teams are always looking for toughness and veteran experience at the deadline. Tkachuk is one of two such players the rebuilding Blues are likely to deal. Even though they've crawled back into the fray in the West, the reality is the Blues need to collect assets (draft picks or prospects) and Tkachuk will command considerable attention. Although teams will question his impact on dressing room chemistry, Tkachuk, second in team scoring with 33 points, remains one of the few true power forwards available.
Guerin is enjoying a renaissance in St. Louis after being bought out of his contract in Dallas last offseason. He was named to the Western Conference All-Star team and leads the Blues with 20 goals and 35 points. At 36, Guerin still has pretty good wheels. He's also highly affordable, making just $2 million.
Along with Forsberg, the rugged, oft-maligned Bertuzzi is the biggest wild card in the trade deadline deck. Bertuzzi hasn't played since early in the season, but is expected to resume skating in the coming days after recovering from back surgery. Panthers coach and GM Jacques Martin hopes Bertuzzi will get back on the ice before the trade deadline. He is expensive, making almost $5.3 million this season, and his considerable baggage will give teams pause. Still, when he's healthy, Bertuzzi has shown he can be a dominant player. The Panthers, who stand to see Bertuzzi walk away as an unrestricted free agent this summer, wouldn't want much in return (good thing).
Few NHL teams couldn't use some defensive depth at the deadline, and the bulk of deals at last season's deadline fell into the defensive depth category. Not surprisingly, there are few of those types of players on the market, and even fewer defensemen who could be expected to make a significant impact. Stuart, who came to Boston from San Jose in the Joe Thornton deal last season, skates well and is a better-than-average puck handler. He logs 22:48 a night and has seven goals, but he's a minus-13 on a team that has no one with a positive rating. A member of the all-rookie team in 2000, Stuart may not have developed as people expected, but at 27 he's still young and will command a lot of attention.
The former Oilers blue-liner missed most of last season with a shoulder injury after being acquired by the Blues in the Chris Pronger deal. He's back to form, playing 23:43 a night. The Blues have good depth along the blue line and will almost certainly try to move the relatively inexpensive Brewer (he makes $2 million this season) before he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer.
There will be few goaltenders on the market between now and the deadline, and given the importance of goaltending depth come playoff time, it's possible no goaltenders at all will be on the move. But unlike last season, when Buffalo GM Darcy Regier resisted all manner of prodding from fellow GMs to move Biron, he might be more inclined now. Biron is going to be an unrestricted free agent this summer and would like a shot at a No. 1 job, something that won't happen in Buffalo, where All-Star starter Ryan Miller has established himself as the franchise netminder. Regier will be cautious about giving up a proven backup like Biron (remember when he won 11 straight games during the regular season in 2005-06?), but will weigh that against adding a draft pick or two rather than risk losing him for nothing.
Roberts is currently injured, but he is the kind of rugged, proven performer who makes teams salivate come playoff time. Durability will always be an issue for the 40-year-old winger, but he's been a positive influence in a young Florida dressing room and has a respectable 27 points in 41 games this season. He's a proven winner, a valuable commodity down the stretch.
The Maple Leafs have been crippled by injury (Tucker included), dragged down by inconsistent goaltending and are one bad week away from being out of the playoff race. A foot injury has kept Tucker out of the lineup since Jan. 1, but he should be back in the lineup by the deadline. Traditionally, the Leafs have been deadline buyers, but with Darcy Tucker set to become an unrestricted free agent, there's a dilemma in the making for GM John Ferguson. Tucker has matured and loves playing in Toronto, but he may cost more than Ferguson is willing to pay, and the Leafs desperately need to continue their rebuilding process after years of neglecting their farm system. Tucker may rub some people the wrong way, but he's a fierce competitor and, come playoff time, the kind of player who will go through a wall for you.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.