The All-Star break is has come and gone. The second half of the season is here. The playoffs loom in the distance.
Thus, the next big event on the NHL's calendar is the annual trade deadline swap meet, scheduled for March 4, roughly five weeks from now.
Looking at the Northwest Division, it's hard to say who will do what.
After all, as the break arrived, only Calgary's fate this season seems fairly secure. The first-place Flames entered the break 11 points ahead of the teams are queuing up on the outside looking in.
On the other hand, Edmonton and Vancouver were in the playoffs, but with only a two-point cushion. Minnesota was two points out of the playoffs and last-place Colorado was four points out of the playoff picture.
If the race is equally close as March 4 approaches, it will be interesting to see how the Oilers, Canucks, Wild and Avalanche approach the deadline.
You figure the Flames will want to add to their roster, and you figure the Canucks would feel the same way, given that they didn't just sign Mats Sundin
so they could become trade-deadline sellers.
With the Oilers, Wild and Avalanche, it seems likely their performance between now and March 4 will dictate what -- if anything -- they do.
Here's a team-by-team look at the division as the trading deadline begins to come into focus:
They've been among the NHL's hottest teams for the past two months, finally living up to the expectations of their talent. During the weekend, the Calgary Sun reported that the Flames might be interested in acquiring a more seasoned backup than Curtis McElhinney
to spell goalie Miikka Kiprusoff
. The paper suggested Martin Gerber
of Ottawa could be a candidate. But overall, the Flames are looking strong, especially in light of two recent victories against the San Jose Sharks
Edmonton has been inconsistent all season, but the Oilers were showing some signs of life before the break. There have been two major problems -- the failure of top-line forwards such as Dustin Penner
and Erik Cole
to produce consistently, and inconsistent goaltending. On the positive side, defenseman Sheldon Souray
is having a strong year. Leading scorer Ales Hemsky
is back after being sidelined with a concussion. Meanwhile, Penner and Cole have been improving lately. Goaltending, however, remains a question mark, though one that was somewhat clarified when the team recently unloaded Mathieu Garon
on the Penguins. The juicy rumor of the week had the Edmonton Journal suggesting the Oilers try to swing a trade with Tampa Bay for Vincent Lecavalier
. "It's just a pipe dream that people think we're going to trade him," Lightning GM Brian Lawton
If anyone would have told you the Canucks would be in the playoffs at the break, despite losing star goalie Roberto Luongo
to a groin injury, you'd have looked at them funny. But indeed, the Canucks are in position for a good stretch run, especially with Sundin gaining comfort in his new surroundings and Luongo healthy again. Still, they entered the break in a deep slump, and after Sundin and the Sedin twins, scoring is thin in Vancouver. The Canucks might be able to spare a defenseman for some more help up front, or they may want to wait for a while and see just how great an impact Sundin will have.
They've gone from a 6-0-1 start to playoff oblivion. The will-they-or-won't-they talk about star forward Marian Gaborik
might be raging right now, given that he'll be a free agent this summer. But abdominal surgery means he won't be healthy until after the trading deadline, so that would seem to eliminate him as a potential asset to be dealt anytime soon. As for the team Gaborik left behind, it's pretty much the history of the Wild franchise in microcosm. They don't score enough, but they're good defensively, so they have a chance. Niklas Backstrom
has been a difference-maker in goal, but unless the Wild add some offensive pop to their lineup, they'll be a quick playoff out if they somehow happen to squeak in.
They don't have to make any trades to become a much better team. What they need is for Joe Sakic
and Paul Stastny
to get healthy and return to the lineup, the sooner the better. They've gotten solid years from Milan Hejduk
and Ryan Smyth
, and goalies Peter Budaj
and Andrew Raycroft
have, for the most part, been adequate, if not scintillating. An upgrade in goal combined with the return to health of Sakic and Stastny could lift the Avalanche into the playoff picture -- if they can stay in the picture in the upcoming weeks.
Mr. Nice Guy --
Hockey is a rough-and-tumble sport that is often the butt of jokes about constant brawls on the ice. But there's at least one guy in the NHL who would make Lady Byng look like a thug by comparison.
According to the Vancouver Sun, winger Kyle Wellwood
brought an amazing streak of 153 games without a penalty into the All-Star break. Wellwood was happy to make light of his passivity in an interview with the Sun.
“It’s a mental battle not to give in to that kind of pressure from people to conform,” he told the paper. “It’s kind of a rebellious thing, I guess.”
Teammate Kevin Bieksa
told the Sun that Wellwood's lack of penalties is "embarrassing."
Wellwood's last penalty was April 11, 2006, when he was with the Maple Leafs and he high-sticked then-Florida Panther Joe Nieuwendyk
In a perfect bit of symmetry, Wellwood's teammate, Shane O'Brien
, is the NHL leader in penalty minutes.
“I give him a hard time every day,” O’Brien told the Sun. “I just want him to take a roughing penalty. Go out there and punch someone so the streak’s over. I went five games in a row without a penalty and I thought that was pretty good. He’s not the most physical player, but he’s respected. He’s a smart player.”
Wellwood said he's probably gotten away with a penalty or two during his streak simply because of his reputation as a clean player.
“Sometimes I give the referees big, puppy dog eyes,” he said.
For trivia buffs, though it's not an official record, it's believed Wellwood is closing in on the longest streak ever, 185 games, by former Penguin Val Fonteyne
in the early 1970s.
Good-bye, backstop? --
In the Twin Cities, there's concern that a star hockey player heading into free agency might be heading out of town.
Admit it: You probably figure this is yet another entry in the Marian Gaborik
But it's not.
"I really got mentally prepared that it could come down to this -- not being signed (and trade talk). You have to find a way so it doesn't affect you. The only thing I can control is playing hockey, and the rest is up to our (management)."
-- Niklas Backstrom
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Wild fans should be concerned about the future of All-Star goalie Niklas Backstrom
The newspaper recently raised the issue of whether the team will be able to re-sign him; whether it should consider trading him before the deadline if there's a chance he might walk after the season. If trade isn't made, the paper also speculated on Backstrom's future with the franchise and whether or not he would escape, without compensation to the Wild, as a free agent.
"I hope it's not going to be a distraction the next four or five weeks," Backstrom told the Star Tribune. "So far, it's been pretty easy to just focus on hockey. The standings are so tight, you don't have time to focus on these things. We need every game, and we need to be at our best.
"What's good is last summer, I really got mentally prepared that it could come down to this -- not being signed (and trade talk). You have to find a way so it doesn't affect you. The only thing I can control is playing hockey, and the rest is up to our (management)."
Hello, backstop? --
Rumors were flying in Calgary about the possible addition of Ottawa goalie Martin Gerber
via a trade. But the Flames are strongly denying the reports.
General Manager Darryl Sutter
said the Flames don’t need another backup to Miikka Kiprusoff
because Curtis McElhinney
is up to the task.
"We signed Curtis McElhinney
to a one-way contract because he's an NHL goalie, and he's our goalie," Sutter told the Calgary Herald. "We are not interested in acquiring any other goaltender."
Additionally, Gerber's $3.7 million salary appears to make him an addition the Flames can't afford.
"I think it's out of the question," coach Mike Keenan told the Herald. "I think his contract is a little heavy. So if you look at contracts and players available in that position, I think that Curtis is the best solution for us."
What does the 25-year-old McElhinney think?
"If it happens? So be it," he said. "Till I see somebody else here, I'm not going anywhere. We'll allow everybody to speculate on everything, and I'll just go about my day-to-day business. If anything happens, you can come ask me then how I feel about it."