Make or break time for bubble teams
Time is starting to run out for this season's NHL playoff bubble teams.
In the Eastern Conference, the Buffalo Sabres (9th overall) and Florida Panthers (10th) entered this week sitting five and six points respectively out of the eighth and final playoff berth.
Over in the Western Conference, the race is still considerably tight, but the Colorado Avalanche (12th), Columbus Blue Jackets (13th) and St. Louis Blues (14th) have slowly lost ground in the standings, placing their postseason hopes in jeopardy.
With the February trade deadline now less than three weeks away, their respective general managers face considerable pressure from fans and local media to do something to bolster their teams' flagging playoff hopes.
The Sabres are presently in the process of being sold to billionaire Terry Pegula, leading to hopeful speculation by their fans that new ownership could spur management to make a couple of roster-improving moves.
But if recent comments by current general manager Darcy Regier are anything to go by, that's not likely to happen. The Toronto Globe and Mail reported Regier hinted prior to the All-Star weekend he hoped to ship out some veterans by the trade deadline, leading the paper to speculate pending unrestricted free agents like Tim Connolly, Steve Montador, Craig Rivet, Mike Grier and Rob Niedermayer could be possible trade candidates.
That wouldn't be the kind of move made by a general manager hoping to upgrade his roster for a playoff run, so if the Sabres make the playoffs it'll be with their current lineup minus whichever veterans Regier ships out by the end of the month.
Panthers GM Dale Tallon suggested last month he would remain patient with his current lineup, but since then his team has failed to gain ground in the standings, fuelling speculation he'll soon turn into a deadline seller.
Tallon hopes to rebuild his team with youth and would likely shop for first- and second-round draft picks. His best trade bait would be goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who has a no-movement clause and an expensive salary, but might be willing to accept a trade to a Cup contender.
That has some observers suggesting the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers might be interested, though they might have to free up considerable cap space to fit him into their rosters.
The Avalanche made headlines this week by signing former Avs great Peter Forsberg to a one-year, pro-rated contract. But it could take more than the addition of a 37-year-old winger whose last NHL game was nearly three years ago to make the postseason.
Colorado's offense has slumped of late, but it's the defensive game which remains the biggest weakness this season, especially at goalie. The Avs have given up the most goals-against per game of all 30 NHL teams this season.
Starter Craig Anderson was the Avalanche's MVP last season, but has struggled under the heavy workload this season. An upgrade between the pipes might be necessary to salvage their playoff hopes but management continues to stand by Anderson and backup Peter Budaj.
It's been reported Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson won't be extending contract offers to pending UFAs like goalie Mathieu Garon, defenseman Jan Hejda and forwards Ethan Moreau and Chris Clark.
Other reports suggest the only “untouchable” Blue Jackets are forwards Rick Nash, R.J. Umberger and promising center Ryan Johansen.
Going by these reports, it appears Howson has given up on making the playoffs and is making preparations to commence rebuilding for next season.
As for the Blues, team president John Davidson and general manager Doug Armstrong continue to profess faith in their current lineup. But if the local media coverage is anything to go by, that faith isn't shared by the pundits or most Blues fans.
The Blues had a hot start to the season, but injuries in November to scoring forwards Andy McDonald, T.J. Oshie and David Perron robbed them of much-needed offense. Meanwhile, goaltender Jaroslav Halak has been unable to recapture the form which made him a playoff hero with the Montreal Canadiens last season.
So far there are no signs of panic or indications management could blow up the roster by the trade deadline. Oshie and McDonald have recently returned and rumors persist management could shop a defenseman for more scoring depth by the trade deadline.
But the Blues began this week seven points out of a playoff spot and cannot afford to fall further behind. If the deficit should become double digits, the Blues could moves from buyers to sellers by the deadline.