Even then, the Oilers and Blackhawks were showing signs of having more wind in their sails.
All of which suggests a lot of sleepless nights for the 15-20 general managers whose teams sit in that great mud puddle in the middle of the NHL standings. These GMs must examine and weigh their short-term needs (making the playoffs and moving up in the standings to secure a more favorable matchup) against the long view (getting assets for players who may walk away as free agents and trading players they have no intention of re-signing for draft picks and/or prospects).
To put a new riff on an old saying, an NHL GM can't win a Stanley Cup in February, but he can sure put his job in jeopardy depending on what he does, or doesn't do.
Here's a look at six GMs who could well determine their future and the future of their teams, at next week's meetings in Naples, Fla., and heading into the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
Don Waddell, Atlanta Thrashers
A season ago, we said the same thing about Waddell. His team was going sideways and looked like they might blow their first playoff appearance. But Waddell went big, acquiring Keith Tkachuk and Alexei Zhitnik in deals before the deadline and giving up Glen Metropolit, two first-round picks, a second-rounder and third-rounder (although they reacquired one first-round pick in an offseason deal with the Blues).
The Thrashers made the playoffs before losing in four straight games to the New York Rangers.
Most people point to the Tkachuk deal, but what really hurt the team was Waddell's panicked pickup of Zhitnik for Braydon Coburn. Although he's now injured, Coburn has turned into a minor stud on the Philadelphia blue line this season, logging 20:16 a night and taking a regular turn on the Flyers' second power-play unit. Zhitnik? The aging defenseman has been a washout in Atlanta and his $3.5-million price tag has set back a team that has struggled mightily to draft quality players and develop them properly.
This brings us to next week's GM meetings. Waddell has coached the Thrashers back to within a point or two (depending on the day) of a playoff spot, but he has a whopper dilemma in Marian Hossa. Most observers believe the die has been cast and Hossa will walk at the end of the season. "Not a chance," he signs in Atlanta, one veteran agent recently told ESPN.com. Which means Waddell can hang on to Hossa, hope against hope the team makes the playoffs, which would be enough to convince Hossa to remain in Atlanta. Or he can do the practical thing and deal Hossa for a stud center or defenseman and a collection of picks then look to the future.
Beyond Hossa, Waddell must decide what to do with center Bobby Holik. Sources tell ESPN.com that New Jersey approached Atlanta at the beginning of the season about acquiring Holik, who played his best hockey in New Jersey, dangling John Madden as bait. Why that deal wasn't made then is a head-scratcher, but the Devils would like to add some help down the middle and they know Holik well. Then, there's Mark Recchi, who has seen his career extended with strong play in Atlanta after being discarded by Pittsburgh. Unless Waddell really thinks his team will make a long playoff run, he needs to move Recchi to a team looking to bolster its offensive depth, like Ottawa or Anaheim.
Jay Feaster, Tampa Bay Lightning
Never a dull moment in Tampa these days. The ongoing game of "Deal or No Deal" continues with Hollywood slasher-movie mogul Oren Koules, who last week came up with a Plan B after financing fell through and is now poised to take over the team. That's good news for Jay Feaster. Under new owners, one assumes Feaster will be free to negotiate a new deal with defenseman Dan Boyle.
Boyle told ESPN.com this week the marketplace has been established for a defenseman of his caliber and he's waiting to see an offer from the team before deciding what to do (you can start at about $6.5 million a season and start heading north for the 31-year-old).
The Bolts are a long shot to make the playoffs, but still have an outside chance. They aren't likely to make it without Boyle, one of the most underrated puck-moving defensemen in the league. But Feaster desperately needs to restock the team's shelves with draft picks, and prospects and cannot afford to let Boyle walk at the end of the season if he can't re-sign him.
There are bigger picture implications here, too. Vincent Lecavalier could be an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season. When new ownership takes over, priority one will be getting Lecavalier to sign a long-term extension, a la Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Richards. But if Boyle goes and the team appears to be headed into rebuilding mode, what are the chances Lecavalier tests his value on the open market? Tough decisions indeed.
The deal we'd make: Dan Boyle to New York Rangers for goaltender Al Montoya, a first-round draft pick and defenseman Dan Girardi. (Hey, we said it's the deal we'd make, not the one Rangers GM Glen Sather would make).
Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks
The Sharks remain one of the most confounding teams in the NHL. A Stanley Cup contender on paper in the eyes of many, including this author, the Sharks remain just slightly out of sync. They are one of the lowest-scoring teams in the Western Conference, they are dynamite on the road and just average at home. Barring a major shift in the standings (always possible), the Sharks will likely open the postseason against defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim. That sets up the distinct possibility of a third straight disappointing playoff season (they haven't made it past the second round the last two seasons).
In 2006-07, Wilson rolled the dice and brought in Bill Guerin from St. Louis and Craig Rivet from Montreal. Guerin was a disaster, failing to score a single postseason goal, while Rivet signed on and remains an important part of the Sharks lineup.
This season? Wilson has already been linked to Ottawa defenseman Wade Redden, who has twice declined to waive his no-trade clause. If not Redden, Wilson will likely set his sights on Boyle, Brian Campbell in Buffalo, or maybe Tomas Kaberle in Toronto. Of course, after being bitten last season (he gave up two players and a first-round pick for Guerin), Wilson might just take a pass. Either way, the heat is on.
The deal we'd make: Matt Carle and Devin Setoguchi to Buffalo for Brian Campbell.
Scott Howson, Columbus Blue Jackets
This will be Howson's first trade deadline as the Blue Jackets GM and there are a lot of competing interests he has to consider in charting a course through what can be a minefield, especially for the uninitiated. Howson is still cleaning up the mess left by predecessor Doug MacLean, so there's no pressure on him from that standpoint. He's got plenty of leash. But coach Ken Hitchcock has muddied the waters by keeping the talent-thin Blue Jackets in the playoff hunt.
The team has never been this close this late in the season to a postseason berth. So, does Howson try to bolster his team's anemic offense and sneak into the playoffs where they'll likely get dusted by Detroit or Anaheim? Or does he stay the course and shed potential unrestricted free agents like Sergei Fedorov, Ron Hainsey, Michael Peca or captain Adam Foote (the team insists it wants to keep Foote, even though he'd be an attractive bauble at the trade deadline).
In the same way Atlanta was desperate to show progress by making the playoffs for the first time last season, there will be significant pressure for Howson to give his team all the tools he can to make that push. Still, Atlanta remains a shining example of how that strategy can backfire.
Darcy Regier, Buffalo Sabres
We don't envy Regier. The Sabres advanced to the Eastern Conference finals twice since the lockout, but haven't been able to get to the Cup finals. Despite that success, the team has been unable or unwilling to keep core members of the team. Jay McKee and Mike Grier left after the 2005-06 season and were followed last summer by co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. The perception of the team, fair or not, is it's not willing to go the distance to maintain a winning franchise. And for every player who walks out the door, the perception in the hockey community is Buffalo is a place to avoid.
This brings us to defenseman Brian Campbell. Campbell has established himself as a top two-way player capable of excellent play at both ends of the ice. As such, the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent is looking at a payday in the annual range of $6 million for anywhere between five and seven years. The Sabres have been unable (unwilling?) to lock Campbell up, and while both sides are talking, there isn't a lot that points to a deal getting done before the deadline.
This puts Regier in a bind. Despite his team going 8-0-2 over the last 10 games, the Sabres are not a lock to make the playoffs (they were seventh in the East heading into Friday's action). Does the GM hang onto Campbell, make the playoffs and hope for the best before July 1? Does he think long term and deal Campbell to any of the dozen or so teams that would love to have him?
The deal we'd make: No deal. We keep Campbell and hope to make hay in a criminally weak Eastern Conference come April.
Darryl Sutter, Calgary Flames
The Flames retooled in the offseason, starting with the stunning hiring of Mike Keenan as coach. The blue line was given more heft with the acquisition of Cory Sarich and Adrian Aucoin, and there was toughness added up front with Owen Nolan. But the Flames are pretty much where they were a season ago, hanging onto one of the final playoff spots in the West.
They remain curiously soft defensively, sitting 20th in goals allowed as of Friday morning. The scuttlebutt has Sutter trying to move talented winger Alex Tanguay (he has just 11 goals in 57 games and won't be within the 81 points he put up last season) for a big, skilled center. Keenan was credited with helping Olli Jokinen turn his game around in Florida, and there's always Mats Sundin depending the Leafs captain's feelings on waiving his no-trade clause.
Sutter did some deadline shopping last season, acquiring Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau from Boston and Craig Conroy from Los Angeles; but the Flames were ousted easily by Detroit in the first round. Unless Calgary can jump into first in the Northwest, it is looking at another unpalatable first-round opponent, assuming the Flames make the playoffs. Either way, the bloom will definitely be off the rose for Sutter unless his team can advance at least beyond the first round for the first time since the 2004 playoffs, when it marched to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.
The deal we'd make: Tanguay and a first-round pick and Dustin Boyd to Toronto for Mats Sundin.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.