While it's easy to get caught up in all the trade talk and wonder how each team is going to improve itself, the reality is a lot of the deals made by the March 4 deadline won't be significant.
Teams still have to look within for that final burst to secure a playoff spot, or a contract for next season. This week's power rankings – which appear each Tuesday – analyze what is important for each team regardless of any deal they make between now and the trade deadline.
1.San Jose Sharks (41-8-9, Previous: 3) – A return to health might make those third and fourth lines look as good as the top-six group of forwards. The Sharks got Jeremy Roenick back after 10 weeks on Saturday. They'd love to see speedy Torrey Mitchell make his season debut. Marcel Goc, much improved on faceoffs, needs three more weeks to recover.
2.Detroit Red Wings (39-13-8, Previous: 2) – Is it the chicken or the egg? Can Detroit's less efficient defense be at fault for subpar play in goal – mainly Chris Osgood ‐ or is it that all goalies have the Red Wings looking a bit more mortal in their own end? Just a little improvement in goal and on defense will go a long way.
3.Chicago Blackhawks (34-16-8, Previous: 5) – This is a team that could use the infusion of a playoff-tested veteran, whether it's a role player or top-six forward to put on a wing. Barring that, players such as Brian Campbell, Martin Havlat and Andrew Ladd are going to have to convey what postseason pressure is to this otherwise very young, very inexperienced roster.
4.Washington Capitals (38-17-5, Previous: 4) – Their goals-against are second most among East teams currently in possession of a playoff spot, so focus remains in goal for needed improvement. If there isn't a new goalie on the way then the Caps need to look for ways to help Jose Theodore more, or hope he gets hot at the right time of the year.
5.New Jersey Devils (38-19-3, Previous: 1) – When Martin Brodeur returns from injury it will be as if a first-place team traded for the best goalie in the history of the game without having to sacrifice anything. However, Brodeur has to knock off rust and the team has to resist the temptation to expect Brodeur to carry them again.
6.Calgary Flames (35-18-6, Previous: 8) – Like San Jose and Detroit, the Flames have a fairly comfortable division lead in the West, but that doesn't mean they can take anything for granted. The balance between getting rest and keeping intensity high down the stretch is key, and Calgary wants to continue to reinforce its new identity – a fast, yet still tough team to play against.
7.Boston Bruins (40-12-8, Previous: 6) – The Bruins will look to re-commit to doing the little things it takes to win as they embark on a six-game homestand. Details have slipped from their game, but it was almost expected considering the torrid pace they'd set for 40-odd games. Better consistency will come with more focus on the power play.
8.Philadelphia Flyers (31-17-9, Previous: 7) – It's nothing new, but Martin Biron needs to regain the form he displayed in the Stanley Cup playoffs to earn back the confidence of management and his teammates. He doesn't have a lot of time to do it, but if the trade deadline passes and the goaltending combo is still Biron and Antero Niittymaki, the pair could benefit mentally.
9.Vancouver Canucks (30-21-8, Previous: 13) – It was a nice way to return to Toronto – scoring the shootout winner – but Mats Sundin has to be more productive the rest of the way. He's without a goal and has just two assists in his last six outings. Roberto Luongo also is going to have to be on top of his game to keep the Canucks in a playoff spot.
10.Dallas Stars (29-23-7, Previous: 9) – The Stars aren't looking for sympathy after losing Sergei Zubov, Brenden Morrow and now Brad Richards to injury. But they are looking for a few key individuals to step up and continue the team's rally from the bottom of the West standings back into the playoffs. Marty Turco owes the team a strong finish considering his horrid start, and he has started to look like the outstanding goalie of the past.
11.Buffalo Sabres (31-23-6, Previous: 11) – Who is going to step up in goalie Ryan Miller's stead? Certainly Patrick Lalime will get first crack. The former Ottawa No. 1 has his harsh critics, and maybe he also was starting to believe he was nothing more than a backup. He has no choice now but to keep the Sabres in a playoff position.
12.Florida Panthers (30-21-8, Previous: 14) – The Panthers have allowed 40 or more shots 12 times and between 35-39 in another 15 games, so while Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson have been more or less up to the task, it might be a good idea to tighten up, especially considering that's not the way to win in the playoffs.
13.Minnesota Wild (30-24-4, Previous: 16) – Coach Jacques Lemaire probably doesn't mind that his Wild have scored the fewest goals among teams currently holding a playoff spot in the West, but with Owen Nolan, Andrew Brunette and Marian Gaborik out, it's time for everyone to pick up the slack.
14.Carolina Hurricanes (31-25-5, Previous: 17) – Among three teams with only 21 games remaining in the East, the 'Canes are out of a playoff spot after allowing 14 more goals than they scored and special teams (power play ranked 25th, penalty kill 22nd) is hurting. Every part of Carolina's game could use improvement.
15.Montreal Canadiens (31-22-7, Previous: 15) – Time to stop reading the press in Montreal, usually advice given to the Canadiens any time of the year. Distractions can either bring a group closer together or drive them further apart. Which way will it go in Montreal?
16.Anaheim Ducks (29-27-5, Previous: 12) – It's a hockey cliché, but the team's best players have to be at their best throughout a difficult trip and down the home stretch of the regular season. That means players such as Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger have to set the tone, they have to stay out of the penalty box, and they have to lead.
17.Columbus Blue Jackets (30-24-6, Previous: 18) – Kudos to rookie goalie Steve Mason and Columbus' most serious playoff push, but can a team really get into the playoffs with the worst power play in the league? No, it's not possible. It must improve.
18.Edmonton Oilers (29-25-5, Previous: 10) – The Oilers need to continue the recent trend of playing tougher. Edmonton was a soft team in the first half of the season, but recent injuries on defense and the addition of size at the wings has been the right blend to compete as points get tougher to earn. That must continue to the end if the Oilers are to slip into a playoff spot.
19.Pittsburgh Penguins (29-26-6, Previous: 19) – The Penguins are going to have to buy into what Dan Bylsma is preaching, and they're going to have to do it fast. The new coach says the team needs to play like it practices, and he plans to practice them hard. The only problem is this is the wrong time of the year for grueling practices.
20.Phoenix Coyotes (27-28-5, Previous: 27) – It's hard to ask young and inexperienced players to give more, especially when the last three months of the season are harder than the first three. So it's up to the Coyote veterans – Shane Doan, Ed Jovanovski, Olli Jokinen, etc. – to take some heat off the young core and shoulder the load.
21.New York Rangers (31-23-7, Previous: 20) – It'll be all about how the Rangers react to a new coach going forward. Hey, let's face it, when a coach is fired this late in the season it's a move of desperation. And, in most cases, it's not really the ex-coach's fault. New York made a lot of hard decisions in the offseason, a good start masked some of the inevitable problems, but this is why they play 82 games.
22.St. Louis Blues (25-26-8, Previous: 22) – The playoff drive has been valiant considering all the injuries and inexperience in the lineup, but the best that can come from it is the experience itself of playing tough games down the stretch. And don't rush any of those injuries either, it's all about the future here.
23.Nashville Predators (28-28-4, Previous: 23) – This is probably where too much is being asked them, but the Predators simply need more, especially on the offensive side of the equation, to hang in there down the stretch. The fact of the matter is, offense comes from defense, so while the defense has been decent, it has to be even better to keep the pressure on opponents at the other end of the ice.
24.Los Angeles Kings (25-24-9, Previous: 24) – The Kings are getting the steadiest goaltending they've seen in quite some time, even enough to say they really are in games every night. If they keep scrapping, they'll learn a valuable lesson about how to win important games down the stretch, whether it benefits this season or next.
25.Colorado Avalanche (28-31-1, Previous: 28) – The Avs have been looking for consistent goaltending all season, and it's probably not going to just happen by chance now. One thing Colorado can control is better, more poised play late in periods and especially late in games. The Avs have suffered some crushing late losses when either one or two points were very much in their grasp.
26.Ottawa Senators (22-27-9, Previous: 21) – The Senators are trying to fix one age-old problem – finding a dependable starting goalie – and if they really want to make sure rookie Brian Elliott doesn't see too much rubber so early in his career, it'd be wise to simplify the system and play more defense-first. In fact, that's a good idea around here regardless of who is in goal.
27.Tampa Bay Lightning (20-28-12, Previous: 26) – This team will probably play a lot more relaxed once the deadline passes and veterans know they're either staying or going. Until then, mental strength will be tested and continuing to play the role as a spoiler is about all the Lightning have right now.
28.Atlanta Thrashers (21-33-6, Previous: 25) – The Thrashers played well, especially offensively, on the recently-completed Western swing, but they need to clamp down on the defensive end and focus on that moving forward. Kari Lehtonen has his critics, but he'd look a whole lot better with a little more help.
29.Toronto Maple Leafs (22-26-12, Previous: 29) – The Leafs are in a tough spot because the players know the team is very much in seller mode. Like Tampa Bay, Toronto will probably play better once the deadline passes. There hasn't been much pressure on the Leafs in terms of expectations this season, but everyone wants to play somewhere so it really is about playing for contracts next year.
30.New York Islanders (18-35-6, Previous: 30) – It's no secret here, the Isles are all about stockpiling picks and gearing for the future. The players who remain have to resist the temptation to look over their shoulders. Certainly veterans who are not currently injured don't necessarily expect to be around after the deadline, but they must continue to proceed in a professional manner.