With less than two weeks until the trade deadline, the Metropolitan Division remains home to the NHL's top team, with the Capitals running away with the division and Eastern Conference leads. But just 10 points separate the next five Metro teams, which means that playoff spots and playoff positioning 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:
The Capitals are unstoppable. All they do is win, and they win in every way imaginable. They are in the top four in the league in all the major statistical categories: goals for per game, goals against per game, penalty kill, power play. So, what does GM Brian MacLellan do at the deadline? Our guess is he adds, but judiciously. Some defensive depth would be a priority. Mike Richards, who on Monday scored his first goal since joining the team in January, has been a nice fit for the fourth line, and MacLellan would have to be wary of adding a top-six forward given the emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. Who could be added on defense? If Dan Hamhuis didn't cost a fortune, he'd be a nice add, or even a lower-profile veteran such as Fedor Tyutin.
The Rangers are definitely positioning themselves to add up front, even though they continue to get improved play from youngsters J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes. The team has opened up a gap in the race for second place in the Metro, which would mean home-ice advantage in the first round. It seems now a given that defenseman Keith Yandle will remain in New York given his strong play, especially with recent multiple injuries to captain Ryan McDonagh. Both are left-handed shots. Veteran help up front seems to be the biggest need, and a right-handed shot on defense if possible. Dale Weise of the Montreal Canadiens has shown streaks of offensive capability and has an edge to his game, and he's a former Ranger. And, of course, there's Hurricanes captain Eric Staal, whose brother Marc is a Rangers defenseman and would help provide a soft landing if Eric opts to waive his no-move, no-trade clause. Eric Staal can play the wing or center.
The Isles are on a six-game road trip through Western Canada and back, a trip that will finish March 6 with a visit to Madison Square Garden to face the hated Rangers. How different will the Isles look on that day? Well, an injury to Calvin de Haan created a gaping hole on the blue line, which probably wasn't deep enough to tackle the Rangers or Capitals to begin with. The usual suspects in Hamhuis and Tyutin would be nice fits. Up front, a veteran scorer with playoff experience wouldn't hurt, and the Winnipeg Jets' Andrew Ladd is the obvious bauble with those qualities. But he won't come cheap given the paucity of impact players available. Jiri Hudler of the Calgary Flames lacks the grit, but has lots of playoff experience. And what about the goaltending? Jaroslav Halak has looked better in recent outings, but has had flat moments throughout the season. Thomas Greiss has played well also, but it's hard to say the Isles would be favored in goaltending matchups with other top teams in the East.
The Penguins remain a team very much in the playoff picture (they sit in the second wild-card spot as of Tuesday morning, with games in hand on the closest teams), but nothing is guaranteed. The continued absence of the injured Evgeni Malkin is more than a little problematic, and they lost defenseman Ben Lovejoy over the weekend. GM Jim Rutherford has a move or two up his sleeve, and Rutherford knows Ladd from their shared Stanley Cup in 2006 in Carolina (Ladd also won a Cup in Chicago), but the price may be too steep for the Pens.
The Devils are fading, having lost three straight. They are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference and not out of it by any stretch, but the slump and the continued absence of offensive spark plug Mike Cammalleri might push GM Ray Shero more into sell mode. David Schlemko has shown offensive spark from the back end and is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in July. What about Lee Stempniak, who has been a stabilizing force up front? The Devils would certainly entertain keeping Stempniak beyond this season, but could Shero return more assets by dealing Stempniak at the deadline and then re-signing him in the summer? Possible. The Devils play the Rangers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning before the deadline. Either way, don't look for Shero to add anything that isn't about the future.
The standings tell us the Canes are still on the playoff bubble. But the long-term plan for GM Ron Francis tells us he is a seller. The key question is whether Eric Staal will be among the assets Francis has at his disposal before next Monday. If Staal agrees to a move to a contender, Francis should see a nice return given the dearth of centers available, even if Staal's numbers are well off his normal level of production. Goalie Cam Ward has played well since returning from injury and is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Could he be a nice Plan B in net for a team like the Islanders or San Jose Sharks? Kris Versteeg would also be an attractive asset given his playoff experience. He is a right-handed shot who has had a solid season with the 'Canes and is headed toward free agency.
With injuries to Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier (who is set to return) the Flyers have faded slightly from the playoff picture. As of Tuesday, they were five points out with three teams to catch. It's a moot point, really, because GM Ron Hextall is focused firmly on the future. He has already off-loaded some superfluous pieces such as Luke Schenn and Vincent Lecavalier, so it's hard to imagine the Flyers being very active in the next week, even though they will begin a six-game home-stand against mostly beatable opponents this week.
The Blue Jackets are, for the second season in a row, following up a dreadful first half with strong play down the stretch. That's bad for opponents and more than a little frustrating for GM Jarmo Kekalainen, who has to decide which pieces to ship out before the deadline and which to keep in hopes of replicating this level of play from the start of next season. Tyutin will likely be on the move, although the Blue Jackets would likely have to eat some of the salary on his two remaining years. Scott Hartnell's name has come up, too. He has three more years left at an annual cap hit of $4.75 million, but he's been productive.