My favorite expression about the standings this season is that they are like a crushed beer can because the 30 teams have been jammed so closely together.
I'm not sure I remember ever being past the midway point of the season and seeing so many teams still in the playoff hunt, which could have an interesting impact on the trade deadline, which is Feb. 29.
Normally, as we approach the trade deadline we have more teams waving the white flag as sellers. Those teams are few and far between this season.
"You look right now, everything is so close, everything is so tight," Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving said over the phone this weekend. "Is there going to be separation in a little under two months? Maybe."
Yes, there's still a lot of time for the sellers to announce themselves, but I think we're headed for a different kind of year with the standings sandwiched so closely together. And to me, Treliving was a great example last season of what more GMs will face this season.
Last season, the Flames were a surprise playoff candidate, but Treliving didn't let that fool him into making short-term decisions he would regret. Calgary kept a big-picture view of its needs last season before the deadline, and it was the right thing to do.
This season, it seems there are going to be more teams faced with that situation, and the key for them will be to make truly honest assessments of their teams like Treliving did with the Flames last season.
For example, we bring you the New Jersey Devils, one of the great surprises this season. The Devils are sitting in a wild-card spot as of Tuesday morning, although just one point clear of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators.
What do you do if you're Devils GM Ray Shero in terms of the trade deadline?
"As a manager, you always want to help the group out," Shero said over the phone last week. "It's why in September we signed Jiri Tlusty and Lee Stempniak, there were a couple of holes up front and those guys have done a good job. When it comes to Feb. 29 ... when it comes to New Jersey, it's about our assets and trying to retain them to a certain extent. If there's something that needs to happen, maybe it's more of a hockey deal than a rental deal."
Translation: There's no way Shero is dealing high picks or top prospects for short-term help, even if the Devils are in a playoff spot on Feb. 29. He's not going to lose sight of the bigger picture.
Why? Because the only teams that should be in the arms race for the bigger rental players are those that feel they've got a Cup run in them. The kind of bigger trade that would interest Shero would be something that helps the Devils both this season and beyond.
And the reality is that many teams this season will be in the same boat.
Treliving might be in a similar position again, with the Flames entering Tuesday night four points out of a playoff spot but with two games in hand on the Vancouver Canucks.
Tricky decisions ahead again for a Flames team that wants to get in, but also wants to continue to build a long-term, sustainable product. Treliving, speaking more broadly about the entire league and this season's deadline, sees some of the same truths revealing themselves even within the parity-filled season.
"No. 1, there's always going to be activity," said Treliving. "No. 2, have people distanced themselves in one or two groups in terms of buyers or sellers? And No. 3, you always have the issues -- which plays a little bit into where you are in the standings -- but you always have those pending UFAs. Do you sign, do you hold on to them for a playoff run and hope you can get something done in the summer? Or are you looking to maximum return and get some young assets?"
A great example for the Flames would be pending unrestricted free-agent defenseman Kris Russell. If the Flames are sitting one point out of a playoff spot Feb. 29, what do they do with him? He could help them get in and win a round, but do they collect whatever assets they can get for him via trade? Or do they re-sign him before the trade deadline?
Many teams on the bubble are going to have similar dilemmas. That's not a new problem, but there are more teams on that bubble this season because of the compressed standings.
I thought Treliving showed great vision last season with a tempered approach to the deadline despite his team's playoff position. I think you'll see the same from Shero and the Devils as well as several other teams.
"We want to present a vision that at the end of the year, whether we're in or out, the fans respect the type of team that was on the ice, how hard they played, and whether you're in or out at the end of the season, they do see some type of plan as to what you're trying to do," said Shero.
"If you can combine the two of those, I think you're going in the right direction and that's what we've been trying to do since day one of training camp. We have a long way to go, obviously, a lot can happen, we're keeping the bigger picture in mind, but also, we live this stuff day to day. Everyone wants to make the playoffs -- players, coaches, owners, fans."
In a perfect world, making the playoffs this season would be a terrific bonus to what the Devils are trying to do within their long-term plan. As for the trade deadline, they're not really buyers or sellers, but just a team looking to improve itself if the deal is right.
They're not alone in that gray area. That's the reality of this season for so many teams.