With that, we look at all 30 teams in the NHL and The Big Question each of them is facing down the stretch … as well as the most tantalizing name on their roster as the trade deadline approaches.
What's the biggest question facing your team as the playoff race heats up?
The Big Question: Does this team have a miraculous turnaround in it? Last season, the Ducks closed out with 15 wins in their last 20 games. It'll take that kind of effort to climb back up to the playoff bubble; and it'll take a coach like Bruce Boudreau, who took over the Washington Capitals in 2007 and went 37—17—7 to win their division.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Lubomir Visnovsky. Assuming (a) that the Ducks are still a ways away from the playoff race and (b) that GM Bob Murray is being honest about not dealing Teemu Selanne, finding a taker for the last year of Vis-Nasty's contract (at a salary of only $3 million) could help the rebuild. That is, if this is a rebuild.
The Big Question: Can the Bruins win the East's top seed? The defending Stanley Cup champions are slugging it out with the New York Rangers for the top spot in the East, with the Flyers and Penguins nipping at their skates. While it's not essential that the Bruins place first overall, the fact is that they won two Game 7s and Game 6 of the Final on home ice last season.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Joe Corvo. Has he been a disappointment or underrated? More to the point: Is this offensive defenseman role something the Bruins will look to upgrade at the deadline?
The Big Question: Will the moves be dramatic or expected? The Buffalo Sabres aren't likely a playoff team this season, or at least they won't be in the Top 8 when the trade deadline arrives. So the question becomes: Do the Sabres parse the rolls of impending free agents like Brad Boyes and Jochen Hecht, or do they do something more dramatic like moving a Drew Stafford of Derek Roy? As president Ted Black said: "Our commitment is to winning, not to any particular group of players that are labeled as a core."
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Derek Roy. Mired in the worst points-producing season since his rookie year, Roy has one more year at $5.5 million in salary on his deal. A break-up-the-core move that could bring back a solid return from a team weak in the middle.
The Big Question: Can they finish second in the Northwest? The Canucks are going to win the division. The second-place team will likely be the only other one that makes the playoffs, based on the Central likely delivering four of the top eight. GM Jay Feaster made the first aggressive move of the playoff push, dealing for Mike Cammalleri. It'll be interesting to see if that spurs the Avalanche or Wild to do the same.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Anton Babchuk. The Flames have a number of restricted and unrestricted free agents next summer that could move at the deadline, but defenseman and power-play specialist Anton Babchuk seems like one that will. He's been a healthy scratch in four straight games, and wasn't exactly logging huge minutes before that. The rub: He has another year on his contract and a no-trade clause. Again: Someone gave Anton Babchuk a no-trade clause.
The Big Question: Can they just Fail for Nail already? The Canes have a 0.3 percent chance of making the playoffs according to Sports Club Stats. The signing of Tim Gleason tells you that GM Jim Rutherford sees this season as a mulligan and that the core of the team is solid. So treat it as a mulligan, snag one of the top two picks in the Draft and better luck next year.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Tuomo Ruutu. Considering the forward might be traded by the time you read this, we'll go with Tuomo Ruutu here, thanks.
The Big Question: Is Corey Crawford the solution or the problem? Sam Fels of NBC Chicago said it best:
First and foremost, goaltending. It helps with every other fault you think the Hawks might have. The penalty kill will get better, the second pairing will get better because they won't be so afraid to make mistakes. The offense will get better because they won't have to pick the team up after bad goals. How that happens is pretty simple: Corey Crawford has to get better. There's not enough time now for the Hawks to cut bait with him and find another goalie elsewhere, and there's not really one to find. #50 is the only answer.
Unless, of course, they do something dramatic and call Darcy Regier in Buffalo and … that can't happen, can it?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: The AHL Prospects. The Blackhawks will have about $5 million in projected cap space to add to this roster. You have to give to get, and the NHL roster's probably not going to be fiddled with. Will they ante up a Kyle Beach, Brandon Saad, Jeremy Morin or Brandon Pirri in a deal? It has its risks.
The Big Question: Is this really a playoff team? The Avalanche are one point out of the playoff picture after 52 games, but they keep failing little tests along the way. Losing at home to the Wild, whom they're chasing. Going onto Edmonton and losing after the All-Star break. Watching Semyon Varlamov fail to grab the starting job, and watching players like Paul Stastny unable to play consistently.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Paul Stastny. Colorado has, no joke, 16 players that are either restricted or unrestricted free agents next summer, ranging from untouchables like Erik Johnson and Matt Duchene (RFA) to the potentially touchable David Jones and Matt Hunwick. (OK, that sounded creepy.) But Stastny, who is signed through the summer, is the name that keeps coming up for a potential blockbuster, and GM Greg Sherman has shown he's not afraid to pull that trigger around the deadline.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Big Question: How big will the shakeup get? The Jackets' owner John J. McConnell has already written to season-ticker holders about "action taken in the coming weeks," so one assumes there will be some taken. The Jackets have some moveable assets, but ones that are also on long-term deals. How many can they move, and how many will move in the summer?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Jeff Carter. It's not even close. A super-talented player in a bad situation for both he and the franchise, he's on the block and for way cheaper than Jackets paid to get him. But are teams scared of by his attitude?
The Big Question: Mo' money, less problems? With Tom Gaglardi in pace as the new owner, GM Joe Nieuwendyk said the Stars can "at least test the waters more" when it comes to conversations about trades. They're hovering around the playoff race, and could be buyers; or, according to Gaglardi, they could lay off the deadline and build in the offseason.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Brenden Morrow. The Stars captain has one more year at $4.1 million after this one and he's the quintessential "last piece" for a team that needs a gritty, veteran forward for a Cup run. We've said for months that he'd be the perfect fit for the Canucks, for example. But is he healthy enough for that kind of investment to get him?
Detroit Red Wings
The Big Question: Can they win on the road? The Wings are a stellar 20-2-1 at home, accounting for 41 of their 69 points. On the road they're 14-14-0 and bit more human. Last night's win in Calgary was a good start.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: No one, really. Unless the Red Wings get oddly aggressive with Brad Stuart before free agency, this roster shouldn't see much movement out the door. Movement in the door, with $25 million in cap space, is another matter …
The Big Question: Can The Nuge Win the Calder? Let's keep "Will the Oilers once again win the lottery?" as a postseason question and focus on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who was running away with the rookie of the year earlier this season. But an injured shoulder sidelined him for January, allowing the pack to catch up. Can he hold off Adam Henrique, Matt Read and a hard-charging Cody Hodgson to win the Calder?
The Most Intriguing Player At the Deadline: Ales Hemsky. Will we finally, finally see Hemsky traded after years of rumors and speculation? They aren't going to give him away, but if the price is right …
The Big Question: Can they win the Southeast? The Panthers' unlikely success this season has them positioned near the top of the division, one point behind the Capitals as of Wednesday. They've benefited from more charity points (11) than anyone else in the NHL, so tie-breakers will be tough. The best path to the playoffs will be to win the division; can this team keep pace with the resurgent Caps?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Scott Clemmensen. The health of Jose Theodore probably means they hang onto Clemmer, but there aren't many goaltending options out there for teams looking for help; his effective play, low cost and expiring contract might get some sniffs.
Los Angeles Kings
The Big Question: Is this a division champion, a playoff team or a bubble team? The Kings have played better under Darryl Sutter but they still haven't gotten on a big-time roll. They could chase down San Jose in the Pacific, or they could hang around the playoff bubble. Everyone thinks this team has the potential to contend; can they reach it?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Jonathan Bernier. By far the biggest chip they could play, if they chose to play it, would be to trade their long-gestating goalie prospect that remains second fiddle to Jonathan Quick.
The Big Question: Is a healthy Wild team a playoff Wild team? Injuries to Mikko Koivu, Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard helped derail the Wild in January, which ended with that terrible loss at home against the Predators last night. Was their fall down the standings due to player losses or something more systemic?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Marek Zidlicky. Because this will not end well.
The Big Question: Will Scott Gomez score a goal? Due respect to the Canadiens' playoff chances, coaching and roster decisions, but Feb. 5 is the one-year anniversary of Scott Gomez's last goal in the NHL. Will he score another one before the summer?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Hal Gill. The kind of quality defenseman you want on a winning team, which is why the Habs will trade him to one.
The Big Question: Will there be any clarity on Shea Weber or Ryan Suter? It's not exactly a sense of impending doom, but there is a sense this is the last ride for the Big Three. GM David Poile met with Suter's agent yesterday; is there any chance they can sign him long-term before the playoffs?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Suter, for the simple reason that there are a few teams (Detroit, Philadelphia) that might come knocking with significant antes on the table for him. We imagine Poile will at the very least listen.
New Jersey Devils
The Big Question: Can Marty Brodeur back-stop this team to a Cup? Lou Lamoriello is building for now, and will continue to do so at the deadline. Brodeur has lost something on his fastball, for sure; does he still have enough magic left to win a playoff series for the first time 2007?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Bryce Salvador. A contributor on their defense for sure, but also a pending UFA with some value. It all depends on how Lou views his blue line entering the stretch.
New York Islanders
The Big Question: How interesting can the Islanders make it? The team has 47 points in 49 games, sitting nine points out of a playoff spot. They're 6-3-1 in their last 10. Could we see a little run here, or are the Isles straight spoilers?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Evgeni Nabokov. Will the price come down for one of the most renowned veteran goaltending options available?
New York Rangers
The Big Question: Can this team win the Stanley Cup? James Dolan famously believed so, to the chagrin of John Tortorella. But the Rangers have the defense and the scoring and the work-ethic of a champion. If they can win the top seed in the East, all the better.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Wojtek Wolski. He's played his way into being spare part, and still has value to someone out there.
The Big Question: What can they add to the roster that won't upset the chemistry? The Senators could use another big veteran offensive weapon in the top six, but they're also a tight-knit room that's thrived on the atmosphere Paul MacLean had created. The right player needs to be the right fit as well.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Filip Kuba. Once thought to have one skate out the door, he's now an essential part of the team's success. As Ian Mendes wrote: "Trading Kuba, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent, could have a very negative impact on Karlsson down the stretch."
The Big Question: Which defenseman do the Flyers get to help fill the Pronger void? Tim Gleason's off the market, Ryan Suter looks like he'll be a summertime decision for the Preds … the numbers are dwindling. Bryan Allen? Hal Gill? Or do the Flyers add a veteran puck-mover?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: James van Riemsdyk. He's got an extended contract and a ton of value. Would the Flyers deal him in a blockbuster for a run at the Cup or is he untouchable?
The Big Question: Where is this team going to play in 2012-13? This has been like a skipping record for the franchise, of course, but now there's not even a straightforward "Winnipeg or Glendale" choice. It's a complete mystery, from the ownership bidding to the fact that Glendale could keep the team there for another season.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Ray Whitney. Shane Doan isn't going anywhere, but if there's one guy that's always mentioned during the deadline it's the Wizard.
The Big Question: Does Richard Park deserve more power play time? Just kidding, it's actually: Will Sidney Crosby come back, for how long and how good is this team when he does?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: None. The Penguins are buyers. Beware.
San Jose Sharks
The Big Question: What's the final piece of the puzzle? The Sharks just feel like they're one or two pieces away from the Cup contender many felt them to be this season. A veteran sniper in the top six would seem like the most pressing need, but another veteran defenseman wouldn't be a surprise.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Ryane Clowe. If only to finally know if the nagging trade rumors about his have been poppycock.
St. Louis Blues
The Big Question: Can the Blues finish as the NHL's best defensive team? It's a fight between Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers and the two-headed monster of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak for the Jennings, as the Blues have a 1.93 Team GAA. Which is preposterously good.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Alex Steen and Andy McDonald. Not because they're going anywhere, but because their play in returning to the lineup will determine whether the Blues need to go out and buy more help.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Big Question: Are we witnessing the revival of the Lightning's playoffs hopes? The Bolts are getting healthier, getting slightly better goaltending (though the bar was set low) and are still getting huge goals from Richard Trophy favorite Steven Stamkos. They've crept up the standings, but is the run too late?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Dominic Moore. The modern day Mike Sillinger is the perfect depth player for a playoff team, and goes UFA next summer.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Big Question: Playoffs or bust for Ron Wilson? He was given a one-year contract extension, presumably to keep the heat off during the playoff push (and give him a soft financial landing if he's fired). But if the Leafs miss the playoffs again, is Ron Wilson spared the coaching guillotine (again)?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Mikhail Grabovski. Due a raise, has a ton of value; one could see him getting a solid return from a team looking for a top six forward with an expiring contract.
The Big Question: Is this Roberto Luongo's team or Cory Schneider's team? It's OK to answer "both" we suppose, but the bottom line is that Schneider is getting some key starts lately and thriving in them. Is it a showcase? An attempt to battle test him for the playoffs? It's obviously a good problem to have when you're choosing from two world class goalies … but it's still a choice that needs to be emphatically made.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Mason Raymond. Robin Scherbatsky's favorite player is being tossed around in various scenarios so that the Canucks can acquire a rugged, veteran forward that can beat if a few Bruins (should the opportunity present itself again).
The Big Question: Can Dale Hunter locate this team's swagger? The Capitals are 5-3-2 in their last 10 games, at times looking like a team that could run away from the pack in the division and at times looking like a team that gives away critical goals and points. (See last night's OT loss to the Lightning). Is a healthy Mike Green really the only thing that'll bring back this team's pimp walk?
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Alex Semin. With due respect to Jeff Schultz, the pending UFA probably isn't going to move, but if GM George McPhee (a) doesn't want to lose him for nothing and (b) thinks that kind of move can shock the team into contention, would it surprise you?
The Big Question: Can they win on the road? The incredible enthusiasm (and travel advantages) for the Jets have produced a 15-8-2 record at home … but an 8-14-4 mark on the road.
The Most Intriguing Player Near the Deadline: Johnny Oduya. The swift-skating defenseman goes UFA next summer. At 12 points in 50 games, and averaging less than 20 minutes per game, he's expendable and has some value as a depth D-man.
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