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Analysis: Trading frenzy creates little clarity in East

by Corey Masisak

It is fair to suggest that every team in the top nine of the Eastern Conference standings is better than it was a week ago.

If that's true, it is also fair to suggest all of the activity in the past few days was more about keeping pace with the competition than providing any clarity on what should be a fascinating fight to reach the Stanley Cup Final.

Everyone got a little better, so the Stanley Cup Playoff picture remains murky.

The top seven teams in the East entered the day of the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline within nine points of each other. Prices were high in a seller's market, and teams were willing to pay. Given how close the teams are, there was an opportunity for one or two to pull out in front of the rest, but at this point it doesn't feel like anyone did.

"Predicting is a tough thing to get into; if we stay healthy and have enough depth and everyone performs and we get the good goaltending we think we will have, then we can go all the way," New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather said. "But there are a lot of teams thinking the same thing that I am thinking, everybody made deals, and we are all optimistic about where we will end up."

The best teams at possessing the puck in the Metropolitan and Atlantic divisions (the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning) have the worst goaltending. The two best goaltenders, Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist, play on the teams that are the worst in their division at keeping the puck (Montreal Canadiens, Rangers). That's a subjective assertion, because Lundqvist actually has not been one of the best goalies in the NHL this season, but his track record suggests picking him ahead of Jaroslav Halak of the Islanders, Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals and Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins in a seven-game series.

So who helped themselves before the deadline? Everyone did. Each of the nine teams made at least two trades in the past five days.

The Metropolitan is the most compacted division in the League, and a few days of wheeling and dealing hasn't changed that. The Islanders upgraded in net with Michal Neuvirth replacing backup Chad Johnson, and forward Tyler Kennedy gives them a shot-producer who could play on one of the bottom two lines. They will also get injured forward Kyle Okposo (eye) back soon.

The Islanders were later to the trade party, because the three other teams already made a flurry of moves. The Pittsburgh Penguins added depth forward Daniel Winnik and defensemen Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole in the past week, and forwards David Perron and Max Lapierre in early January.

"The Penguins have as good a chance as any in the Eastern Conference," Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford said. "And as the year's gone along, we got stronger and stronger with the additions that we've made and all the adversity that we've had to deal with. Where we sit in the standings now shows what kind of team we have. For the most part, when we played those teams, we didn't have a full team. Now we're starting to get up. You saw what the added depth does to our forwards in the last game we played and now we have added depth on defense. So we have every bit of a chance as they do."

The Rangers made the biggest splash, landing defenseman Keith Yandle while also adding depth center James Sheppard. The Washington Capitals added a No. 6 defenseman (Tim Gleason) and a forward (Curtis Glencross) who is likely to play on one of the top two lines to start.

Washington is the fourth-place team in this group, but Holtby might be a Vezina Trophy finalist and the Capitals probably have the deepest group of defensemen in the NHL. And there are forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, of course.

The Islanders lead the division, and they've played very well against the Penguins and Rangers. This is also the last season at Nassau Coliseum, and it would be foolish to think the atmosphere isn't going to play at least a small role in home playoff games.

At this point, any scenario feels possible. Any of the four teams could lose in the first round or reach the conference final and there would be little surprise involved.

In the Atlantic, the Montreal Canadiens added a right-handed defenseman who could fit on the second pairing, Jeff Petry, and a couple of depth forwards (Brian Flynn and Torrey Mitchell) from the Buffalo Sabres. Petry in particular could help shore up Montreal's possession problem, though it will be interesting to see who Flynn and Mitchell take roster spots/minutes away from up front.

Tampa Bay also added a veteran left-shooting defenseman, Braydon Coburn, and with everyone healthy, the Lightning can match up on the blue line with any team in the East.

The Detroit Red Wings addressed two issues, adding Erik Cole, a veteran forward who can do some of what injured forward Johan Franzen did, and a right-handed defenseman, Marek Zidlicky. Detroit's defense is underrated -- the Red Wings lead the NHL in suppressing shot attempts at even strength -- but it was very left-handed, and coach Mike Babcock's proclivity for balance is well known.

The Florida Panthers' one trade already looks to be paying dividends; the light-scoring Panthers have nine goals in two games since acquiring forward Jaromir Jagr. The Boston Bruins, who without injured forward David Krejci (knee) were far from certain to hold off the Panthers, added forwards Brett Connolly and Maxime Talbot.

Connolly was a highly coveted prospect not long ago but has struggled to move up a talented Lightning depth chart. Given a chance to play significant minutes, he might be an offensive spark for the Bruins.

Either Boston or Florida likely will be the second wild card, but suggesting that goalies Tuukka Rask or Roberto Luongo could steal a series is far from far-fetched.

It's not that there are no great teams in the East (a common assertion in 2013-14), but there is a not a lot of separation among the contenders. There wasn't a week ago, and with every team active and improved, there isn't now as the stretch run and the postseason beckon.

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