Taking a look around the league

We’re shooting from the hip, as opposed to from the blue line or the slot – and hoping every shot is right on target.

Don’t you just love how television’s talking heads are already referring to teams fighting for “those last few playoff spots?” Give me a break. Aside from Carolina, Toronto, Edmonton and Columbus everyone is still very much alive in the playoff race. And get this, it will be even tighter with a month to go.

Jonathan Toews and the Blackhawks burst onto the scene last year, but they are serious Cup contenders this time around.
(Jamie Sabau/Getty)

Chicago and San Jose are the class of not only the West but of the league. Everyone else in the West is a Stanley Cup pretender, but six of those pretenders will get into the postseason tourney. Buffalo and New Jersey have splashy records in the East, but no way do they hold up through even three rounds of the playoffs. Washington is not built for winning a Cup, at least not prior to the deadline. Pittsburgh is, and the Penguins are the East’s only hope before the roster reshuffling otherwise known as the trade deadline.

Now, back to those bottom feeders, or the teams most likely able to strike a deal before the Olympic break also will shut down the trade market from Feb. 12-28.

By far and away the best rental from the four teams will be Ray Whitney(notes). That guy still has it at age 37. He’s a clever top-six forward and very good on the point on a power play with a lot to give. He’s easy-going, has won a Cup and no commitment past this season. He’d be a great fit in San Jose, right where he started.

Scott Walker(notes) could give a team looking for third- or fourth-line jam a playoff boost. Defenseman Joe Corvo’s(notes) hard shot will be attractive to someone. Aside from Jamal Mayers(notes), for much the same role as Walker would fill, the Leafs have nothing to offer. Although Garnet Exelby(notes) is an intriguing name, more so for the future.

Can’t get too excited about that Edmonton roster, unless someone thinks Jason Strudwick(notes) can give you a good 10 minutes at No. 5 D. Didn’t think so. Raffi Torres(notes) jumps off the Blue Jackets’ roster. He’s be a good playoff pick-up. I see him in a Kings’ uniform. Dean Lombardi loves the guy, at least he did at one time.

So what that means is there will be very little movement before the two-week roster freeze, and only a couple shopping days will remain before the March 3 trade deadline. It will probably be a lot like the July 1 free-agent period when bodies move all over the place at the second the floodgates open. General managers warn there won’t be many deals this year. Don’t believe it. There will be 20-25 deals involving 40-45 players moving. Count on it.

So that brings up the next question: Who should blow up their roster even at the risk of missing the playoffs? What we mean here is what’s the better tradeoff: getting into the postseason and losing in the first round or positioning to build toward next season by dumping salary and vets?

I’d throw Montreal and Anaheim into that mix. Bob Gainey’s moves have not worked for the Canadiens, and maybe he won’t get an opportunity to go in another direction. General managers are not allowed many mistakes in Montreal. I’m not convinced Carey Price(notes) is the future of the franchise. The Habs need to take a long look at what they really have in goal.

Scott Niedermayer could be dealt if the Ducks decide to rebuild.
(John Russell/Getty)

The Ducks, too, are probably in for big change. Randy Carlyle is a good coach, but he was Brian Burke’s hire and many suggest the message has long since stopped being heard. It’s Teemu Selanne’s(notes) last year and does Saku Koivu(notes) really fit if Selanne is gone? Does he want to fit? It also seems as if Scott Niedermayer(notes) will have a new address before the end of the first week in March. In fact, maybe he’ll go back to where he started – New Jersey.

Have we seen the last of the in-season coach firings? Early-season changes were made in Philadelphia and St. Louis. The Flyers and Blues have sparked a bit since the moves, Philly more so than St. Louis, but both have work to do to return to the playoffs.

Three places jump out – Columbus, Toronto and Anaheim. Both Ron Wilson with the Maple Leafs and Carlyle with the Ducks have received public votes of confidence. It’s been a little quieter in middle-America for Ken Hitchcock, where the Blue Jackets are aware that fan apathy is a factor.

Hitchcock is an excellent coach and the biggest reason why Columbus finally qualified for the postseason for the first time last year. If you fire a coach you better have a pretty good idea who can do better. Is that guy really out there?

And that finally gets us to blowouts. Get used to them. Not that it’s going to happen every night, but there are going to be a bigger number of lopsided games from here on out because this is the most brutal NHL schedule of all time.

Every time you turn around someone is playing back-to-backs, three in four nights or for their fourth time in six nights When the super tired team runs into the somewhat rested team & regardless who the two teams are – it’s going to get ugly and stay ugly.

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jan 21, 2010