With less than two weeks until the trade deadline, the Metropolitan Division remains home to the NHL's top team, as the Capitals are running away with the division and Eastern Conference lead. But just 10 points separate the next five Metro teams, which means that playoff positioning and, more specifically, playoff spots are very much up in the air as the deadline approaches. Here is a look at the Metro's buyers and sellers heading toward the Feb. 29 trade deadline, from the divisional leaders on down:
All eyes will be on veteran Brooks Orpik, who is expected to return to action Tuesday night after missing more than three months with a lower-body bone injury. Orpik has been credited with helping John Carlson elevate his game and was playing more than 19 minutes a night for one of the league's top defensive teams, so he's a big part of the Capitals' Stanley Cup plans. If Orpik steps back into the rotation at full speed, it would take pressure off general manager Brian MacLellan to make an impact move at the deadline. The Caps will still be looking for defensive depth, but if Orpik remains healthy, MacLellan could pay less for a player such as Fedor Tyutin. If there are concerns about Orpik's durability, however, the Caps could turn to bigger targets such as Dan Hamhuis, who played for Capitals coach Barry Trotz back in Nashville and would come at a bigger premium. Mike Richards has fit into a fourth-line role, and Jay Beagle is recovering from injury, which likely will negate the need for any serious additions up front.
The Rangers are in a nice little groove, going 8-2-1 in their past 11 games and looking like the team to beat for second place in the Metro. But there are challenges for GM Jeff Gorton, who is without Rick Nash (bone bruise). Captain Ryan McDonagh remains out with a concussion after being popped in the head by Philadelphia's Wayne Simmonds more than a week ago, but he is expected to return to the lineup on Wednesday. The uncertainty surrounding McDonagh's health almost guarantees the Rangers will not move Keith Yandle, who is a left-handed shot like McDonagh. Yandle, who has played very well of late, is expected to depart as a free agent in July, but the Rangers likely will accept that in the hopes that the smooth-skating defender will help in a long playoff run. Look for the Rangers to try to add offensive depth without sending too much out the door after they emptied the vault for Yandle a year ago.
The Isles have won four of five but are in no way guaranteed a playoff spot. There is more than a little pressure on GM Garth Snow to upgrade his lineup, but don't look for him to move Kyle Okposo even though Okposo will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer and is likely to test the market in July. Travis Hamonic would presumably still like to move West, but that's more likely to happen in the offseason. Could the Isles use Andrew Ladd? Absolutely. And another body along the blue line? Sure. But Snow will have to be cautious that he does not spend too much of the Isles' promising future on a team that still appears not quite ready to be a contender, especially with the goaltending still not at Stanley Cup level.
Good on GM Ray Shero and rookie head coach John Hynes for keeping this group in the playoff hunt. As of Tuesday, the Devils own the top wild-card spot, although Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have games in hand. Nonetheless, look for Shero to hang on to Lee Stempniak, who leads the team in scoring, even though he can become an unrestricted free agent in July. It wouldn't be a surprise if the two sides agreed to continue their mutually beneficial relationship. The continued absence of Mike Cammalleri to injury is a problem, and the team needs scoring. But Shero will add only if it means adding for the future, so don't look for any rentals to come to Newark. Teams likely will be asking about defenseman David Schlemko, who has been a nice surprise and whose contract is up at the end of the season, and if Shero could parlay that into a piece for the future -- likely up front -- he probably would consider it.
The Penguins are hanging around the playoff picture, and my guess is they'll find a way into the top eight, although they are once again being bedeviled by injury. Evgeni Malkin is out along with a handful of other regulars, and the offense has struggled as a result. GM Jim Rutherford will be kicking the tires looking for depth, but my guess is the Penguins have already made their big moves.
The Canes are another team playing unexpectedly meaningful games leading up to the deadline; they are four points back of the second wild-card spot. But this is all about the future for GM Ron Francis as he tries to restock the shelves. His biggest issue is whether captain Eric Staal will accept a move to a contending team as he approaches free agency. Given the dearth of centers in the marketplace, Francis could add a couple of nice pieces if Staal is amenable to leaving the only NHL team he's ever known. But with a no-trade/no-movement clause, Staal holds all the cards. Kris Versteeg is another player with value on the market, and he is well-known to contenders in Chicago and Florida.
It's hard to imagine the Flyers will be active at the deadline unless they can find a team desperate enough for defensive help that it would entertain the idea of Andrew MacDonald and his bloated contract. As we've seen, no contract is really untradable. Would the Flyers be willing to eat a bad contract in exchange for MacDonald? Never underestimate GM Ron Hextall's ability to get out from under a bad deal. As for adding for a playoff push, Hextall is focused on the big picture, even though the Flyers are just six points in arrears of the second wild-card spot.
The Blue Jackets might be playing their best hockey of the season. Yeah, we know, the bar was set pretty low. Still, good on coach John Tortorella and his squad for embracing the spoiler role, even if it costs them a shot at the No. 1 draft pick in June. Joonas Korpisalo has had a nice turn in relief of Sergei Bobrovsky in goal, and you can bet GM Jarmo Kekalainen is getting calls on Tyutin and Scott Hartnell -- even though Hartnell has three years left on his contract with a $4.75 million annual cap hit. At some point, Kekalainen will have to try to fill the void down the middle created by the trade of Ryan Johansen to Nashville.