Buyers or sellers?
By now it's usually easy to figure out. You have playoff teams, 3-4 bubble teams and everyone else. Not this year. Not with every game holding the promise of two points for the winner. Not with 13 playoffs hopefuls in the east and nearly as many out west.
Take Florida for instance. They're eight points out of a playoff spot, with five teams to pass to get in. Sellers? Not yet. Florida is thinking about the playoffs. So is Boston. And San Jose. Ditto for Atlanta.
We may still see a flurry of trades before the March 9 deadline. It's almost a certainty, even with the new salary cap constrictions that came packaged in the new NHL. Just don't expect anything until right before the deadline.
This will be a critical week around the league, as many coaches and GMs will use the next 3-4 games to determine their course.
Not much changed in the Power Rankings during the Olympic break. Expect plenty of activity next week on deadline day.
(Records and rankings through Wednesday, March 1.)
1. Carolina Hurricanes (40-14-4; Previous: 1) – Doug Weight finally got his first point with Carolina Wednesday, and it was a big one. He assisted on the game-winner as the Hurricanes rallied to avoid racking up their fourth loss in six games. You don't want to let this team stay close. After the comeback against Boston, Carolina holds an 81-54 scoring advantage over opponents in the third period.
2. Detroit Red Wings (40-14-5; Previous: 2) – Will injuries and fatigue become factors? The Red Wings had seven players compete through the medal round in Turin, including five Swedes who played eight games in 12 days to earn gold.
3. Dallas Stars (38-17-3; Previous: 4) – Bill Guerin is ready to get back to work. He had hoped for better in Turin – remember he snapped out of a season-long funk with three goals in four games before the break – but there wasn't much he could do as a third/fourth line winger. Guerin was back at practice Monday while fellow Olympians Mike Modano and Marty Turco took advantage of an extra day off.
4. Ottawa Senators (37-14-5; Previous: 3) – Starting goalie Ray Emery had a 7.53 goals-against average in three January starts. His new backup, Billy Thompson, is 8-16-2 this season for Binghamton of the AHL. You think GM John Muckler is working the phones while Dominik Hasek nurses his abductor injury?
5. New York Rangers (35-15-8; Previous: 6) – No goalie has ever won Olympic gold and a Stanley Cup in the same year. After his performance in Turin for Sweden, does anyone want to tell Henrik Lundqvist, rookie or not, that he can't do it?
6. Buffalo Sabres (36-16-5; Previous: 5) – They need to get healthy – and stay healthy – for the stretch run. Center Daniel Briere returned Wednesday and Tim Connolly could return from knee problems within a week. Buffalo will need to be at full strength as they close with 16 of 26 games against Northeast Division opponents.
7. New Jersey Devils (30-22-6; Previous: 7) – So maybe New Jersey's offseason wasn't a total disaster. The Devils did, after all, hold on to Viktor Kozlov, who after scoring the only goal in Wednesday's shootout leads the NHL in decisive shootout goals with five.
8. Philadelphia Flyers (33-16-10; Previous: 8) – Antero Niittymaki came home from Italy with three shutouts, a silver medal and the respect of the hockey world. But is he a No. 1 in Philadelphia? We'll find that out in the next several weeks. Imagine that, a goalie controversy in Philly.
9. Nashville Predators (34-19-6; Previous: 9) – That brutal pre-Olympic schedule (Dallas-Detroit-Detroit) didn't exactly give way to a series of cupcakes after the break. Nashville returns with five of six on the road, and the easy one, Chicago, is already in the loss column.
10. Colorado Avalanche (33-21-6; Previous: 10) – If a post-Olympic malaise hangs over the entire NHL, Colorado will be among the hardest hit. The Avs had nine players in Turin. Colorado is one point out of the division lead, but could also fall out of the playoffs entirely by dropping seven points in the standings.
11. Vancouver Canucks (34-21-5; Previous: 11) – Vancouver has issues on defense. Ed Jovanovski was already hurt. Then blueliners Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund got dinged in Turin. All's quiet on the trade front so far, but that could change in a hurry if any of the above are slow to return.
12. Calgary Flames (33-18-7; Previous: 12) – Calgary needs more scoring. Only Chicago and Columbus have fewer goals on the season, and team officials realize that a deep playoff run will require more than steady play from Miikka Kiprusoff. Some names mentioned as possible trade targets: Olli Jokinen, Robert Lang, Patrick Marleau, Brad Richards, Darcy Tucker and Marc Savard.
14. Edmonton Oilers (30-21-8; Previous: 14) – The season ends with 24 games in 48 nights. Do the math, that's a game every-other night. Goaltending depth will be a key, not just the play of an established No. 1, and the Oilers, in case you haven't noticed, don't have one of those. Curtis Joseph and Martin Biron are two likely targets.
15. San Jose Sharks (28-21-8; Previous: 17) – They caught a break Tuesday, getting Detroit minus its five Swedish Olympians. They have cap room and goalie prospect Nolan Schaefer as a bargaining chip. GM Doug Wilson probably isn't done dealing.
17. Montreal Canadiens (27-22-8; Previous: 23) – The playoff push is firmly in the hands of Cristobal Huet. Jose Theodore says he'll be back in net for the season's final two games, but by then Montreal's playoff fortune should be decided, and the play of Huet will have a lot to do with how that turns out.
18. Los Angeles Kings (32-23-5; Previous: 19) – If their goalie play doesn't get better, GM Dave Taylor will have to make a deal. That is, of course, assuming their backslide doesn't continue all the way out of the playoff race. The Olympics weren't kind to Los Angeles, as both Pavol Demitra and Alexander Frolov sustained injuries.
19. Boston Bruins (24-25-10; Previous: 15) – Things could go either way for Boston down the stretch, and we'll know sooner rather than later. The Bruins limped into the break having lost four of five, and will face Carolina and Buffalo (twice) coming off vacation.
20. Minnesota Wild (29-26-5; Previous: 18) – Minnesota earned points in five of six games entering the break. If it was a prelude to a playoff push, they didn't show it Tuesday when they were outplayed in every facet of the game in a 4-2 loss to Colorado.
22. Florida Panthers (23-27-8; Previous: 21) – Contract talks with center Olli Jokenen have resumed. Negotiations have done nothing to quiet trade rumors. Both Jokenen and goalie Roberto Luongo could be dealt. Or Florida can build on Tuesday's 8-2 win and make a run at the playoffs. It could go either way, really.
23. Atlanta Thrashers (27-26-6; Previous: 22) – It's time for Atlanta to make good on GM Don Waddell's playoff guarantee. So far, so good. Atlanta won its first game after the break to stay two points behind Montreal in the race for eighth in the east. Does Waddell know Montreal has two games in hand?
24. St. Louis Blues (17-31-9; Previous: 26) – St. Louis hasn't lost in regulation since Feb. 1.
25. Phoenix Coyotes (27-28-4; Previous: 25) – Wayne Gretzky hasn't committed to coaching in 2006-07. It's hard to imagine him stepping aside after a season marked by a gambling scandal, the Olympic debacle and, now, Phoenix's possible playoff fade. Remember when his lineup card fiasco made big headlines?
26. Toronto Maple Leafs (27-26-5; Previous: 24) – Depending on who you listen to, the Leafs are either close to trading defenseman Bryan McCabe, or they're on the verge of locking him up for four years. Pat Quinn should get the axe. Ed Belfour is washed up. These are the headlines you get in Toronto when its March and the team is slowly sinking below .500.
27. New York Islanders (25-28-4; Previous: 27) – New York took a step closer to the seller's side of the market Tuesday, losing on home ice to Montreal in what was essentially a four-point game in the playoff race. Even interim coach Brad Shaw admitted that the for sale sign will come out if the Isles stumble in the next four games.
28. Washington Capitals (20-32-5; Previous: 28) – Pop quiz: Who is Washington's most expensive forward? Few would guess Jeff Friesen, be he's the guy, chipping in with five points in 29 games while collecting $2.28 million. If the Caps can find a taker – and don't rule out a return to San Jose – he'll be gone by the trade deadline.
29. Chicago Blackhawks (19-31-8; Previous: 29) – Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien scored on his first NHL shot Wednesday. Expect the Blackhawks to rotate several prospects between Chicago and the AHL in the final 25 games as an extended audition period replaces what the team hoped would be a playoff push.