We've officially passed the mid-way point of the season (a.k.a. 82-game marathon). With the trade deadline looming on Feb. 28, there are currently 23 out of 30 teams within eight points of a playoff spot. The next 47 days will decide whether a team is a buyer or seller come playoff time. We're going to look into our crystal ball and make declarations on which teams will be buyers or sellers over the next six weeks and change.
Anaheim: Jonas Hiller is en fuego these days. He shut out San Jose 1-0 on Sunday and it marked his second consecutive shutout. Moreover, it was his ninth win in 12 starts since Dec. 10. He's allowed two goals or less in 10 of those 12 starts. Hiller's play has almost single-handedly vaulted Anaheim into a playoff spot, though several teams have at least a game or two in hand on the Ducks, who've played 45 games already.
Buy or Sell: This could go either way but as of now we think they'll be buyers and the top need is scoring on the wing. Ideally they can upgrade at wing and procure someone more prolific than Joffrey Lupul (eight points in 17 games) or Jason Blake (14 points in 43 games).
Atlanta: Ondrej Pavelec has hit a bump in the road after a pretty nice run. Pavelec has allowed three goals or more in four of his last six starts. Worse yet, he's allowed four goals or more in three of his past six starts. Even worse he's only stopped 49 of his last 58 shots on goal over his last two starts, a haggard .844 save percentage. Nevertheless, we don't foresee Chris Mason posing as much of a threat. Mason has just one win in eight starts since Nov. 3.
Buy or Sell: The Thrashers are sitting in 8th spot in the Eastern Conference currently tied with the Canadiens, who have two games in hand. Buy or sell? It could be a combo of sorts, as they'd love to unload Niclas Bergfors and also upgrade their third pairing on defense.
Boston: Tim Thomas shut out the Senators 6-0 on Tuesday, a day after Tuukka Rask defeated the Penguins (minus Sidney Crosby) 4-2. Thomas continues to own about a 2/3 share of the goalie pie and has actually started 69% of the Bruins games (29 of 42).
Buffalo: The Sabres are 3-1-1 over their past five games, impressive since they lost top center Derek Roy (torn left quad tendon) for the season on Dec. 24. Ryan Miller is 4-1-1 in his last six starts despite allowing four goals or more in three of those starts.
Buy or Sell: Buffalo is 10 points out of a playoff spot and we don't see them making it. That doesn't mean that they won't try to add scoring in a desperate attempt to make the postseason. We'll take "sell" and this quintet of impending UFAs could be moved: Tim Connolly, Steve Montador, Mike Grier, Rob Niedermayer, Craig Rivet.
Calgary: Miikka Kiprusoff, like the entire Flames team, has had a disappointing season. It's not so much the 16-17-3 record that has killed his owners, it's the 2.73 GAA and .901 save percentage. Kipper has been horrid of late, going 0-3 in his last three starts with 11 goals allowed in just 148 minutes - a 4.40 GAA - and 45 saves on 56 shots - an .804 save percentage.
Carolina: Cam Ward is playing his best hockey since the Canes won the Cup in 2006. Ward is 4-0-2 in his last six starts with a 2.80 GAA. The main concern would be all the shots he's facing - an average of 33 a game over the past six contests.
Buy or Sell: The Canes are three points out of a playoff spot and 3-0-2 in their last five games. We see them as buyers, looking to bolster their depth on defense (an upgrade over
Chicago: Corey Crawford is coming off a shutout of the Islanders and he'll start Wednesday against the Avalanche. Crawford is the No. 1 goalie now in Chicago for all intents and purposes. Marty Turco has not started a game in 2011. Turco last started a game on Dec. 30 and he last won a game Dec. 26.
Buy or Sell: Chicago will be buyers, likely targeting a third pairing D-man and a top-nine left winger.
Colorado: While Peter Budaj is pushing Craig Anderson for starts, head coach Joe Sacco insists that Anderson is still the team's No. 1 goalie. Sound familiar? We said that last week. It's like Groundhog Day - the hockey version. Budaj will start his second consecutive game Wednesday when Colorado visits Chicago. Budaj will be vying for his third straight win. Meanwhile Anderson has lost his past four starts and last won a game Dec. 30.
Buy or Sell: The Avs should be buyers, though the imminent return of No. 1 right wing Chris Stewart (11 goals/25 points in 23 games) will mean more to their lineup than any possible checking line forward acquisition. D-man Kyle Cumiskey (concussion) is also expected back in the lineup soon, thus reducing any need for a possible trade for a blue liner. They should be applauded for their trade for Tomas Fleischmann. The Czech native has gelled nicely with 19-year-old budding star Matt Duchene and David Jones, putting up 19 points in 19 games.
Columbus: The Blue Jackets are 6-12-3 since December 1st. Mathieu Garon is winless over his past five starts and has a 4.60 GAA during that five-game span. Yikes! He last won a game Dec. 21. Steve Mason, currently day-to-day with a strained groin, has only stopped 42 of his last 50 shots on goal over his last two starts (.840 save percentage) while allowing eight goals in 107 minutes of play (he was pulled 47 minutes into the second game). Mason had ended 2010 on a three-game winning streak.
Buy or Sell: Though currently just six points out of a playoff spot we don't see them making the playoffs. Their defense is too weak and their goalies too inconsistent. They will try to trade Mike Commodore but his ridiculous contract still has two years and $7 million left after this season. Garon is an impending UFA and could be moved to a playoff contender that's lacking a quality backup.
Dallas: Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk assumed some risk when he boldly traded for oft-injured Atlanta goalie Kari Lehtonen late last season. This far Nieuwy has been handsomely rewarded with Lehtonen playing superior hockey this year, with a 18-10-5 record and a 2.59 GAA and .920 save percentage. These numbers are even more compelling when one considers the defense that has been playing in front of him this season: Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, Jeff Woywitka, Matt Niskanen, Niklas Grossman, Karlis Skrastins, Mark Fistric, Philip Larsen.
Buy or Sell: The early season thought concerning the Stars was that they'd shop Brad Richards by the deadline, for the team was for sale and cash was hard to come by for any new contract with the high-scoring impending free agent center. The mid-season thought is an entirely different one - namely that the team will be more attractive to prospective buyers if it's a playoff team with upside. Thus the Stars have become buyers and the return of former Dallas winger and 1999 Stanley Cup winner Jamie Langenbrunner to the fold represents the turn in direction. Adding a veteran defenseman would seem prudent between now and Feb. 28.
Detroit: Even with several important regulars out of the lineup (Pavel Datsyuk, Brad Stuart, Daniel Cleary, Valtteri Filppula) the Red Wings managed to beat Vancouver last Saturday. It was a most impressive victory by Detroit. Not all is well in Motown, however. Jimmy Howard was pulled in his next start after just 14 minutes vs. Colorado, as he allowed four goals on 10 shots on goal. Howard has allowed three goals or more in seven of his past nine starts. This is worse: he's allowed four goals or more in five of his past nine starts. His GAA hovers around 3.36 during that nine-game period. Moreover in only three of those nine starts did Howard manage to post a save percentage above .900.
Buy or Sell: Detroit will be in "buy" mode, looking to add depth on defense and on the wing. They will not overpay, though, as they expect to get back almost all of their injured players before the playoffs. Mike Modano (right wrist surgery) may be ready as well, though the Wings could add a two-way center by the deadline for insurance purposes.
Edmonton: The Oilers are 2-9-2 in their last 13 games. A youth movement takes time and there are obvious growing pains. Nikolai Khabibulin has not won since Dec. 16, a span of seven games. Devan Dubnyk has played well over his last five starts: 2-1-2 with a 2.19 GAA.
Buy or Sell: The Oilers will be sellers with veteran D-man Jim Vandermeer likely the most attractive of their impending UFAs.
Florida: Tomas Vokoun, 16-15-1 with a 2.56 GAA and .922 save percentage along with five shutouts, is without a doubt the Panthers' best player. Vokoun, 2-2 with a 2.50 GAA, is in the last year of his contract but the Panthers may make a last-minute attempt to re-sign him.
Los Angeles: While Jonathan Quick has had a tougher time of late, with but one win in his last six appearances and 19 goals allowed in his last 351 minutes. That translates to about a 3.20 GAA. Add the .820 save percentage over that time span and it's clear that Quick has not been helping his owners much lately. Still, Quick owners need not worry too much about backup Jonathan Bernier, for the rookie has allowed 11 goals over his past two starts.
Buy or Sell: The Kings will be buyers looking to add a depth defenseman and also perhaps a top-six center or winger.
Montreal: Carey Price is second in the league in wins with 21. He is well deserving of his All-Star selection. While the Habs continue to struggle to find secondary scoring they manage to win many of their one-goal games. In fact they are 4-1 in their last five games and each game was decided by a single goal. They earned nine out of a possible 10 points in the five games while outscoring the opposition 13 goals to 10. That's pretty much a microcosm of their season: getting good goaltending and eking out narrow victories.
Buy or Sell: The Habs have already bought Islander defender James Wisniewski (for a second round pick) and they will probably be looking to add a proven goal scorer as well as some size up front.
Minnesota: Great news for Niklas Backstrom owners - his injured hip will not require surgery and he could return to the lineup in as early as a week. He saw the surgeon that performed hip surgery on him two summers ago and the doctor told him it's a hip flexor strain. The action plan is four to five days of rest then begin building up strength and flexibility. Realistically he could be starting a game in about 10 days, assuming no setbacks.
Buy or Sell: The Wild maybe just two points out of a playoff spot right now and they may be 4-2 in 2011, but we still don't see them in the postseason. GM Chuck Fletcher may be a buyer just to placate the fan base and give the Wild the appearance of a legitimate playoff team. As such they are not very likely to move any of their impending UFAs such as longtime Wild wingers Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen.
Nashville: The Predators are all about hard work and great goaltending. They always seem to overcome the loss of key personnel. They have done so again this year, playing without top center Matthew Lombardi since the second game of the season October 13th. With a stalwart defense (led by the quality quarter of Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Cody Franson and Francis Bouillon) in front of him, Pekka Rinne has been fantastic of late. Rinne has allowed exactly one goal in each of his last five starts, all Nashville victories. Moreover, his save percentage has been .950 or higher in each of his past five starts.
Buy or Sell: The Preds will be buyers, looking to add a depth D-man that's better than Shane O'Brien, as well as an inexpensive scorer at either center and/or left wing.
New Jersey: The Devils are terrible. The Karma Police have made them pay dearly for all those years of boring neutral zone trap hockey. Moreover, Father Time has caught up with Martin Brodeur and the results have been painful for anyone who blew a first or second-round pick on him in their league draft.
Buy or Sell: The Devils have already begun selling. They traded their captain Jamie Langenbrunner back to Dallas, where he won a Cup in 1999 (albeit on a bogus goal by turncoat Brett Hull). Impending UFAs are Jason Arnott, Andy Greene, Adam Mair, and Johan Hedberg.
N.Y. Islanders: Kevin Poulin is the goalie to own on the Island. Poulin is 1-0-1 with a 1.97 GAA and .944 save percentage in two starts and three appearances. Poulin made 48 saves in Monday's 4-3 OT loss to arguably the league's best team - Vancouver. Nathan Lawson bombed out after his initial 99-minute foray while Rick DiPietro remains day-to-day with a strained adductor muscle (groin strain).
N.Y. Rangers: The Rangers are really struggling to score goals these days. They've scored two goals or less in six of the past seven games, the only exception being a game where the third goal was an empty-netter. The power play is a major source of grief and futility: 1-for-22 in the last six games and 3-for-35 in the past 11. Perhaps the possible return of Michael Del Zotto from the minors (two points in three AHL games) will help jump-start the PP. Recent addition Wojtek Wolski is a mystery, a big-body (6-3, 215) who doesn't particularly like playing physical hockey. He's already worn out his welcome in two cities and he's only 24. If playing alongside Marian Gaborik on the first line doesn't get him going, what will?
Buy or Sell: The Rangers have made their move with Wolski and they have perhaps one or two other moves in them, depending on whether or not Vinny Prospal (knee surgery) can make a meaningful return to the lineup. A veteran defenseman seems a need, as it does for about half of the playoff aspiring teams out there.
Ottawa: The Senators are on life support about now. They have endured a horrid season that's seen their best young players not named Erik Karlsson take a step backwards in their development. Then throw in the fact that their older, generally more expensive, players (Daniel Alfredsson, Sergei Gonchar and Alexei Kovalev) have disappointed and it's a recipe for trouble. When one includes the reality that injury-prone No. 1 goalie Pascal Leclaire has been ... injury prone ... and you have a template for terminal tepidness. The Sens are dust in the wind.
Buy or Sell: They will be sellers/beggars looking to unload virtually anyone that they can. Impending UFAs include Chris Phillips (who could be moved to a contender then re-sign in the summer), agitator/pest Jarkko Ruutu, and the woefully under-performing Kovalev.
Philadelphia: Sergei Bobrovsky had his first good game in a while when he won 5-2 at Buffalo on Tuesday. Bob stopped 38 of 40 shots, an impressive .950 save percentage. Bob and Brian Boucher should continue to share starts for the foreseeable future. Amazingly, Boucher has only allowed more than two goals in a game once in his last 10 starts. Boucher is 3-0 in 2011.
Buy or Sell: Again, like last week, we remain strong believers that the Flyers will acquire a veteran goalie by Feb. 28 - the NHL trade deadline. The two leading contenders are Florida's Tomas Vokoun and Toronto's Jean-Sebastien Giguere. A checking line stud like Minnesota's John Madden may be another intriguing target for GM Paul Holmgren.
Pittsburgh: The Pens are 0-2-1 without Sidney Crosby (concussion). One can still recall people stating that Evgeni Malkin was better than Crosby when they won the Cup two years ago because Malkin had more playoff points and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP. Malkin got to face the enemy's No. 2 checking line each game while Crosby faced the top checking line. Fast forward to now and Malkin is struggling without Crosby taking up the defense's attention and drawing the top checking line nightly.
Buy or Sell: The Pens will be buyers and should target impending UFA wingers who can put the puck in the net.
San Jose: With a total of just six goals scored in five games it's no wonder the Sharks are 0-5 in their past five games. News could be getting worse as second-line forward Logan Couture suffered a knee-on-knee hit from Toronto's Colton Orr on Tuesday and had to leave the game. Suddenly it's mattering less and less who's playing in nets. Owners of either Antti Niemi or Antero Niittymaki can expect few victories as this time share becomes less and less attractive with each mounting loss. Is it the curse of
Buy or Sell: GM Doug Wilson will go down swinging. Expect some buy activity, likely on defense but also at forward, especially if Couture misses significant time.
St. Louis: Jaroslav Halak has started 33 of the Blues 41 games this season. He has been everything they hoped for in going 15-13-4 with a 2.54 GAA and .910 save percentage. Consider these numbers with the inclusion of all of their injuries this season and they're even better.
Buy or Sell: The Blues are three points out of the 8th seed with three games in hand. They will try to buy. They already have but Marek Svatos didn't clear waivers and was snatched by Nashville. Now they've signed Kyle Wellwood, another low-cost attempt at adding some scoring. Whether they do something more ambitious depends on when their injured forwards return. While T.J. Oshie is just weeks away the conditions of both David Perron (concussion) and Andy McDonald (concussion) remain a mystery.
Tampa Bay: Dwayne Roloson's arrival has changed how hockey people view Tampa Bay. His addition, combined with the fact that the Bolts have their full complement of forwards for the first time all season, makes them a dangerous dark horse playoff team.
Buy or Sell: The Bolts have already signed D-man Marc-Andre Bergeron to act as their seventh defenseman and power-play specialist. They may be buying more in the coming weeks but it won't likely be sexy. They could just look to beef up their bottom two lines with gritty types like John Madden, Rob Niedermayer, or Jarkko Ruutu.
Toronto: The Leafs have won four straight on the road. Leafs nation is waking from its season long slumber just in time to be teased, as they always are once the Leafs are out of true playoff contention. While the so-called Monster Jonas Gustavsson is 6-12-2 with a save percentage of .896 and a GAA of 3.13, a rookie named James Reimer is 4-1-0 with a .947 save percentage and GAA of 1.92. All hail the savior Reimer! Pick him up if you think it will last. I don't.
Vancouver: There is no doubt that the Canucks have one of the top two or three teams in the league. They enjoy excellent depth everywhere now. Before the season there was uncertainty about the backup goalie spot after Andrew Raycroft left for Dallas (where he's been great). Corey Schneider has been superb in going 8-0-2 with a 2.31 GAA and .920 save percentage. Schneider has a better GAA than Roberto Luongo and an identical save percentage. The depth on defense is intense with a top five of Edler, Ehrhoff, Bieksa, Hamhuis, and Ballard. Even No. 6 D-man Andrew Alberts is a plus player this season.
Buy or Sell: While they appear to be obvious buyers, the Canucks have little in "needs" to address. They may package together a 2-for-1 deal where they use their depth to improve their top nine talent, but there's certainly no glaring need anywhere in their lineup.
Washington: On Tuesday night Michal Neuvirth played his first game since Dec. 23. Neuvirth lost 4-3 at Florida. He's now 2-4-3 in his last nine starts. Semyon Varlamov has not allowed more than two goals in a game in his last six starts. At this juncture of the season it will take an injury to Varlamov in order for Neuvirth to re-assert himself as No. 1. As Varly is prone to injury it's worth keeping Neuvirth on your roster.
Buy or Sell: The Caps will be buyers, looking for a puck-moving D-man who can play on one of their power plays. They also need a North-American top-six forward who can play in traffic and doesn't shy away from the physical aspects of the game.