1. Why haven't there been any big trades yet?
There have been a couple of big trades this season, but they came earlier in the campaign. To this point, the only two deals where contending teams added someone for a future return are Chicago picking up Brendan Morrison and New Jersey obtaining Alexei Ponikarovsky from the Carolina Hurricanes.
The biggest reason there haven't been many trades yet is parity. There are 27 teams either occupying or within eight points of a playoff spot with somewhere around 25 games to go. If a team is eight points out right now, it has a very small chance of actually reaching the playoffs. But there is a chance, and general managers are trying to give their guys a chance to swing either way -- either keep winning to stay in it, or lose and fall out.
In previous seasons, a lack of salary cap space available was a big issue. That is much less of a problem this month -- lots of teams have room, but finding GMs ready to give up on 2011-12 has been problematic.
2. Who are the teams that we know are going to be sellers?
Well, those three teams that aren't within eight points of the playoffs -- Columbus, Edmonton and Carolina -- are a good place to start (though the Hurricanes are only nine out). The Hurricanes have already made a trade, but they have also taken defenseman Tim Gleason off the market by signing him to a contract extension.
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There is a group of about eight teams that could eventually become sellers. The problem in the Eastern Conference is the teams currently seventh and eighth -- Ottawa and Toronto -- have scuffled of late to give the teams in the 10-14 range hope.
Of those teams (Winnipeg, N.Y. Islanders, Montreal, Tampa Bay and Buffalo), the Jets and Islanders are in the midst of rebuilding projects and aren't desperate to make the playoffs at this point. Steve Yzerman has a lot of leeway in Tampa after such a successful first season, so he's not likely to force the issue, either. That leaves Buffalo and Montreal, and both organizations might just chalk this up as a lost season unless they creep a little closer in the next week or so.
It is a little different in the West -- the teams from 9-13 are all pretty good, and the only team in the top eight that looks vulnerable right now is Chicago. Calgary is probably the least likely team to sell from this group, and Anaheim the most -- but only because the Ducks still have the smallest margin of error. Colorado is in the midst of a youth movement, so GM Joel Sherman isn't likely to push it unless his club is in the top eight or a point or two away.
4. Which teams need to make a deal the most?
The two teams that need to make a move the most are Chicago and Toronto. The Blackhawks are in free-fall mode right now, and it might take a new face or two in the dressing room to help stave off a collapse. The Maple Leafs are in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04, but they have also scuffled of late.
Other teams that need a jolt of something include Washington, Minnesota, Dallas, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Florida has the longest streak of seasons without making the playoffs, so the Panthers could be on this list as well -- although their success to this point has been a bit of a surprise.
5. Which buyers have the most assets available?
If GM Dale Tallon wants to buy, the Panthers have the deepest collection of prospects in the League. That said, Tallon just acquired a bunch of those assets at the deadline a year ago and his first priority is to build a consistent winner in South Florida. Among the teams near the top of the standings who are definitely going to be buyers, the Detroit Red Wings have a very nice group of five or six elite prospects.
Few teams ever deal their top prospect, but the Wings have several guys with impact potential and could afford to include one or two in a move for high-profile addition. The Boston Bruins dealt Joe Colborne last season, but there are still a handful of quality prospects there. The New York Rangers also have a collection of young players and prospects if GM Glen Sather does make a push for a star (more on that in a bit.)
6. Which teams might be hamstrung by the salary cap?
The teams that aren't likely to have much wiggle room are Vancouver and Washington -- especially if the Capitals expect Nicklas Backstrom to return at some point. If Buffalo decided to try and make a run at the postseason, then the Sabres are also near the cap ceiling. Pittsburgh and Calgary don't have a lot of room (that is, if Sidney Crosby is going to return for the Penguins) but there is enough to make a mid-level deal without sending some salary the other way.
7. Which teams can separate from the pack?
The two teams everyone should be scared of making a big move at this point are Boston and Detroit. While the New York Rangers have forged ahead of the Bruins, Boston has the cap space and the assets to make a significant move or two. The Bruins also proved earlier this season that when motivated, they might be the class of the League.
Detroit GM Ken Holland hasn't made a lot of high-profile moves in recent years at the deadline, but the Red Wings are atop the Western Conference and could push even further clear of the competition with the right move or two.
8. Which teams might benefit from not making a splash?
This is the group of contending teams that make trying to predict what will happen in the next two weeks quite tricky. Florida and Ottawa lead this contingent of teams. The Panthers and Senators were both very active sellers one year ago, but now sit inside the top eight in the East and are obviously trying to secure a place in the playoffs.
Does it really help those two teams to sacrifice significant future assets to speed up the rebuilding process? Probably not. Two other teams that might choose to do nothing drastic are Dallas and the New York Islanders, but for different reasons.
The Stars have a new owner, and likely will see an increase in payroll in the near future. It might be better to wait until the summer to start making drastic alterations, though. As for the Islanders, they might be better off just keeping this group together and trying to play their way into meaningful games rather than adding or subtracting any sort of key player.
9. Who are going to be the biggest names available?
The two biggest names reported to be on the market to this point are both members of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Rick Nash and Jeff Carter are interesting case studies, though -- players with several years remaining on a contract are rarely moved at the deadline. If the Ducks cannot maintain their current momentum, there is a possibility that a member of their top line (Ryan Getzlaf or Bobby Ryan) or defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky could be in the mix.
If there is a big name that becomes available late in the process, it might be someone in Buffalo. The Sabres are a high-priced disappointment right now, and GM Darcy Regier could try to create some flexibility by dealing a high-priced player.
10. What position is in the most demand?
If it feels like there are 27 teams trying to acquire a defenseman right now, it is because that number isn't far off the mark. Nearly every contending team could use a defenseman -- and the ones that don't need one probably need two. Supply isn't going to come close to matching demand on the blue line.
Expect there to be deals for defensemen where the return for the selling team appears to be high because of this. Think Tomas Kaberle to Boston last season -- there could be a few deals like that in the next two weeks.
11. Which GMs have proven they aren't afraid to make a bold move?
Speaking of Kaberle, Boston GM Peter Chiarelli certainly fits here. He made three significant moves before the deadline last year, and once traded his top young player (Phil Kessel). Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero has made several moves in the past five years to help the Penguins, and adding James Neal for Alex Goligoski last season was bold.
Other GMs who won't surprise anyone with a big move include Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren, Los Angeles' Dean Lombardi and Toronto's Brian Burke.
12. How does the 2012 Entry Draft affect the deadline?
Every year around the mid-point of the season, a narrative about the strength of the forthcoming draft forms and tends to shape what people think teams will do with their draft picks at the deadline. For instance, in a year with a deep draft, teams are less likely to deal first- and second-round picks, but in a shallow one the opposite is true.
The chatter about the 2012 draft has been that there are some high-end guys at the top, but it is not as deep as say the 2008 or 2009 drafts were. Expect teams that are likely to be picking in the 18-30 range to be more willing to include their first-round pick in a deal while trying to hold on to their impact prospects who are closer to helping the NHL club.