It's one of the most intriguing times of the NHL season. It starts now.
Here are 10 storylines to follow in the next four weeks:
Identifying buyers, sellers
The League is so close that the landscape with four weeks to go before the trade deadline is still relatively foggy. Seven of the teams on the outside of the playoff race are within four points of being above the line. Eight others are at least 10 points out of a playoff spot.
That makes it difficult to identify the legitimate buyers and sellers now. The picture should, in theory, become clearer in the next three-plus weeks.
It appears for now that the Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks are looking like teams that will try to make trades for future assets and, in the case of Ottawa, possible salary relief.
The Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers, two teams that had higher expectations, have difficult decisions to make. Neither wants to go into a rebuilding mode, but each has discovered glaring issues. The Oilers, almost shockingly after finishing eighth in the League in goals per game last season (2.96), don't score enough; they are 24th this season (2.71). The Canadiens lack depth at center.
Decision time for Rangers
The New York Rangers, who have made the playoffs seven seasons in a row, could be the rare team in the middle of the playoff race that becomes a seller before the deadline.
The Rangers are expected to explore possible returns for forwards Rick Nash, Michael Grabner and David Desharnais, as well as for defenseman Nick Holden. All four are on the north side of 30 years old and can be unrestricted free agents after the season.
Video: NYR@ANA: Nash buries rebound for second goal
The Rangers should also investigate what they could get for defenseman Ryan McDonagh, their captain, and forward Mats Zuccarello. McDonagh, 28, and Zuccarello, 30, each has one more year remaining on their contracts beyond this season.
In alphabetical order, here are the top 10 players who will be on the rental market (players in the final year of their contracts) and have a realistic chance of being traded, with their current season statistics (goals-assists-points):
Michael Grabner, New York Rangers, forward: 21-5-26, 49 games
Mike Green, Detroit Red Wings, defenseman: 5-21-26, 48 games
Erik Gudbranson, Vancouver Canucks, defenseman: 1-2-3, 32 games
Jack Johnson, Columbus Blue Jackets, defenseman: 2-5-7, 49 games
Evander Kane, Buffalo Sabres, forward: 16-20-36, 49 games
Rick Nash, New York Rangers, forward: 15-10-25, 50 games
Tomas Plekanec, Montreal Canadiens, forward: 4-14-18, 49 games
Luke Schenn, Arizona Coyotes, defenseman: 0-5-5, 48 games
Tomas Vanek, Vancouver Canucks, forward: 14-21-35, 49 games
Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes, goalie: 13-6-2, 2.87 GAA, .904 save percentage
This list doesn't include Tyler Bozak (Toronto Maple Leafs), John Carlson (Washington Capitals), Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins), James Neal (Vegas Golden Knights), Antti Raanta (Arizona Coyotes), Daniel Sedin (Vancouver Canucks), Henrik Sedin (Vancouver Canucks), Paul Stastny (St. Louis Blues), John Tavares (New York Islanders), Joe Thornton (San Jose Sharks) and James van Riemsdyk (Toronto Maple Leafs). All are in the final year of their contracts, but it's unlikely any of them is traded before the deadline.
Karlsson and Tavares
Arguably no two players will be more intriguing to follow than Senators captain Erik Karlsson and Tavares, the Islanders' captain.
Video: CBJ@OTT: Karlsson feeds Ryan to extend lead
Tavares' story is more immediate since he can become a UFA after this season. He has repeatedly said his only interest now is to re-sign with the Islanders, but the longer he goes without a new contract the louder the speculation about his future becomes.
The Islanders are in the playoff race, so it's hard to imagine they'll consider trading Tavares unless he tells them in no uncertain terms he wants to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. That seems unlikely, but it also seems unlikely that Tavares will sign a new contract before the trade deadline since he said again his focus is on helping the Islanders get to the playoffs.
Karlsson has one season remaining on his contract, but if the Senators don't think they can re-sign him they are likely to investigate his value on the trade market now. They are also expected to trade other players, potentially forwards Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Mike Hoffman.
Chicago's playoff hopes
The Chicago Blackhawks are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They have the second-longest active playoff streak in the League behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have made the playoffs every season since 2007.
The Blackhawks are four points out of a playoff spot but have four teams ahead of them. They also don't know when, or if, goalie Corey Crawford will return to the lineup. He has missed the past 14 games with an upper-body injury.
Video: TOR@CHI: Glass denies Nylander off a turnover
The Blackhawks, who ended a four-game losing streak with a 5-1 win against the Red Wings on Thursday, also play six of their next eight games on the road, where they are 11-9-4.
Right wing Patrick Kane said during All-Star Weekend that he thinks Chicago has to win 23 of its last 33 games to make the playoffs. They have won 23 of their first 49.
Tight race in Central
The six teams above the Blackhawks in the Central Division are separated by nine points, and all are playing relatively well. The intriguing race within the race could happen before the deadline as each of the six teams could look to bolster its roster for a playoff push.
The Winnipeg Jets are first with 66 points in 50 games. They're 3-0-1 in their past four games, 6-2-2 in their past 10 and play their next 10 games at home, where they are 17-3-1. The Nashville Predators, 7-1-2 in their past 10, are second with 65 points, but they have a division-leading .691 points percentage because they've played 47 games.
The St. Louis Blues have 63 points in 51 games. They also have forward Jaden Schwartz (35 points in 31 games) back. They went 9-10-1 without him from Dec. 10-Jan. 23. They are 21-8-2 with him in the lineup. They are also 6-1-3 in their past 10.
The fourth-place Dallas Stars had a five-game point streak (4-0-1) end in a 4-1 home loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday. They have 60 points in 50 games.
The Colorado Avalanche climbed into the race with a 10-game winning streak from Dec. 29-Jan. 22. They have lost their past two games but have 57 points in 48 games.
The Minnesota Wild are sixth with 57 points in 49 games. They are 17-4-4 at home, where they play five in a row from Feb. 8-17.
The Avalanche own the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference. The challenge for them now is to maintain their place in the race.
Colorado plays 10 of its 13 games before the deadline on the road, including two at the Jets and one at the Blues. If the Avalanche can hang in, it could make for an interesting deadline for general manager Joe Sakic.
What will Vegas do?
The Vegas Golden Knights, who lead the Pacific Division with 68 points in 48 games, face arguably their toughest test coming out of the All-Star break. They start a six-game road trip at the Calgary Flames on Tuesday. The Golden Knights also play at Winnipeg, Minnesota, Washington, Pittsburgh and San Jose before returning home for seven in a row before the deadline.
The big question is will they be buyers?
Video: CBJ@VGK: Neal tips home deflected puck to extend lead
It's a question nobody around NHL thought they'd be asking when the season started, because Vegas was supposed to hang around for a little bit until it had a chance to sell off its rentals, including Neal and fellow forwards David Perron and Jonathan Marchessault, who has already signed a six-year, $30 million contract.
Instead, it's possible general manager George McPhee may have to alter his original plan and try to add to the roster for an unexpected playoff run.
January has been a brutal month for the Kings, who've dropped below the playoff line in the Western Conference. They are 3-7-0 this month, including six straight regulation losses from Jan. 4-19.
But the Kings won 2-1 in overtime against the Flames, who have points in 10 straight games (7-0-3), on Wednesday, their final game before the break. They also hope to get center Jeff Carter back in the lineup this season. He has missed 41 games with a lower-body injury.
The Kings could be looking to add a top-six forward and a top-six defenseman at the deadline. If they also get Carter back, they should be a team to watch in the Pacific Division, especially since the San Jose Sharks won't have Thornton (knee injury) for several weeks.
Beware of Penguins
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has a nine-game point streak in which he has produced 19 points (three goals, 13 assists). He's ninth in the League in scoring with 55 points (17 goals, 38 assists), nine points behind the leader, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov.
Video: DET@PIT: Crosby fires wrister past Howard for PPG
The Penguins have won two in a row, three of four and are 8-3-0 this month. They also play six of their next nine games at home, where they are 17-7-1. In addition, goalie Matt Murray is ready to return after missing the past six games because of the death of his father.
It's time to look out for the Penguins.