February is no longer just the month on the NHL schedule that must be simply survived. It's "moving month" as teams position themselves for the March sprint to the playoffs. February also builds to the trade deadline (this year's is on the 28th), and the hype is already beginning. Yes, deadline day has become a media event as much as an endpoint for GMs to reshape their rosters.
From a fan-interest standpoint, with most moves coming at the last minute the long lead-up provides plenty of time for speculation. And with technology connecting everyone who has an opinion and a rooting interest, the deadline has become a boon for generating a midwinter spike in interest. All of this, of course, is external to what is going on internally with all 30 teams as they assess where they are, what they want to get, and how much are they willing to give up to get it.
Part of the dynamic is that very few teams are actually out of the playoff pursuit. By my count, only five (Oilers, Islanders, Devils, Maple Leafs, and Senators) cannot realistically hold postseason aspirations at this point. I also have six top teams (Red Wings, Canucks, Flyers, Penguins, Capitals, and Lightning) that are legitimate Stanley Cup threats. That leaves 19 clubs with the trickier task of honest assessment. They must decide if their moves this month will be to secure a playoff spot or raise them to Stanley Cup contention.
Overlay all of this with the salary cap and the art of the deal becomes extremely complex. Some teams, such as the Colorado Avalanche (which signed Peter Forsberg over the weekend) act prior to the deadline frenzy. Colorado needed a veteran presence and didn't want to part with picks or prospects. Adding Forsberg is low risk and might provide the bump that the young Avs need to reach the playoffs. That kind of slight roster tweak will most likely be the primary form of action that most teams take right through the month. Consider the Calgary Flames.
A few short weeks ago, the Flames were up for a major overhaul. Now, with their recent strong play, any kind of seismic roster shifting would likely jeopardize the run they're currently on. And for all of the teams that are hopeful of just getting into the playoffs, maybe the league-wide pass on New Jersey's Brian Rolston as a waiver pick-up foreshadowed how close to the vest GMs are playing their hands this season. Surely a young team in need of a veteran who can still perform would have swooped in when Rolston was on waivers.
Rolston is now delivering for the resurgent Devils -- a team that's playing as many anticipated at the beginning of the season. But the Devils still find themselves too far out of the race to matter. They made their coaching change too late. Which brings us to the final piece in all of this -- timing. The top teams can wait until the bitter end to make a move or two for the sake of adding depth players. The majority of the rest have to weigh the value of when to strike. Early conviction can have a high cost in what you must give up, but playing the waiting game can mean missing out.
So, my challenge to you is this: submit your deadline deal proposals and we'll review them as the month rolls on. Next week I'll offer up some of my own trade ideas and we can discuss those as well. After all, that's what February has become -- a time for all to share speculation while the real deals are done behind closed doors.