The league's best division will also be one of its most fascinating at the trade deadline. Full of Stanley Cup contenders hoping to survive the playoffs, the activity in the next month might determine which team is the last standing. Here is a look at the Central's buyers and sellers heading toward the Feb. 29 trade deadline, from the divisional leader on down:
The Blackhawks made a big splash at the deadline last year in acquiring Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen with the salary-cap space created by Patrick Kane's injury. They don't have that cap space this year, and had the Blackhawks not won the Stanley Cup, history wouldn't have been kind about last year's buying spree. According to generalfanager.com, the Blackhawks will have $3.57 million in cap room on deadline day, which gives Stan Bowman a little wiggle room. Aside from last year, Bowman has traditionally tinkered at the deadline rather than made huge moves, the addition of Johnny Oduya in 2012 being the kind of deft depth move that has paid off. The addition of Artem Anisimov in the summer has addressed the Blackhawks' longtime need before the deadline to get a No. 2 center. If they're looking to add up front, it probably will be on the wing. Former Blackhawks forward Andrew Ladd, a pending unrestricted free agent with the Jets, would be a great fit if they could squeeze him in. The bigger need might end up being on defense, where the Blackhawks could use another top-four defenseman. The problem is, they're one of many teams in that category and they have to do it with cap restrictions. Keith Yandle would be a great addition considering his cap hit is so low because of the money the Arizona Coyotes retained in last year's deal with the New York Rangers.
GM Jim Nill isn't afraid to deal at the trade deadline, and the Stars' strong first half puts them firmly in the buyer category. This team is loaded offensively but could use a defenseman with experience to complement a talented but young defense. The ideal would be to add size to the top four on defense, with Dustin Byfuglien a player who would certainly fill that need while fitting right in with the dynamic offensive stars in Dallas. He would also give the Stars another playoff-experienced former Blackhawk to go with Patrick Sharp and Oduya, although the Jets might be more inclined to sign pending UFA Byfuglien than deal him to a division rival.
The Blues are definitely a team to watch at the trade deadline. There's interest in Jonathan Drouin, who would be a dynamic young player who would also be cost-controlled for the near future, an important factor considering Vladimir Tarasenko's huge raise and the pending free agency facing captain David Backes. The Blues are one of the few teams with legitimate depth on defense, and GM Doug Armstrong is willing to move one of his defensemen to help before the deadline. The reality is the Blues probably won't be able to squeeze defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk into the salary structure when his contract expires after 2016-17, so he becomes a name to watch. If Armstrong trades Shattenkirk -- no easy decision considering this team is trying to win a Stanley Cup -- the biggest return would come in the next month rather than the offseason. The Edmonton Oilers are interested in Shattenkirk but might need to be convinced he'd stay long-term before giving up a huge package. Shattenkirk would also be a great fit for the Tampa Bay Lightning if Steve Yzerman and Armstrong can make the money work.
The Avalanche have also been connected to Drouin. And in terms of instant chemistry, they'd be a great fit considering Nathan MacKinnon and Drouin's history together with Halifax of the QMJHL. But the need in Colorado continues to be on defense rather than another good, young forward. Francois Beauchemin has been a fantastic addition, but the Avs still need help, preferably a dynamic defenseman who can move and keep pace with the skilled forward group. Those aren't easy to come by this time of year.
GM David Poile struck early to get Ryan Johansen in a move that not only filled a longtime need at center but also kept him away from the Wild, who are neck-and-neck with the Predators in the standings. It's going to be hard to beat that deal in terms of impact and significance. Still, Poile is expected to continue to add, with a need for more scoring up front remaining a pressing issue. It also wouldn't hurt to see the Predators add depth on defense after Seth Jones was sent to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
GM Chuck Fletcher has been working hard to land a top-six forward, without luck. The Wild were in on Johansen but fell short. They'd love to tap into their depth on defense to add a top center, but that deal might not exist in the next month; it might get done in the offseason. The Wild need a center and the most realistic option could be Carolina Hurricanes' captain Eric Staal. Staal has a full no-movement clause and will call the shots, but he'd be a nice fit in Minnesota for the stretch run. Minnesota is also a possible destination for New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic, but it's hard to find a fit there considering the Wild's strength is on defense and if they're dealing one of their young defensemen, they're likely to get a young forward.
The Jets might end up being the only team in the division that ends up selling. If GM Kevin Cheveldayoff can't agree to terms on new contracts for Byfuglien and Ladd, they have to be moved. Winnipeg is a market that can't afford to let assets like those two walk without a real return. Of the two, Ladd is the more likely trade option. Both players will attract large interest, although Byfuglien, because of his position and skill set, would get the bigger return. There is at least one scenario where the Jets are buyers and that would be a potential deal for Hamonic. The Jets are interested in Hamonic (who has asked to be traded to be closer to home), and it would get him closer to home and ease the sting of a potential loss of Byfuglien. The asking price by the Islanders on Hamonic is high and the expectation from those around the league is that GM Garth Snow is more likely to make that deal in the offseason.