It wasn't that long ago that a team like the Calgary Flames was written off for dead, with vultures circling the beleagured club as rumor-mongers considered where Jarome Iginla or Robyn Regehr would land come February 28. And it wasn't that long ago when the Columbus Blue Jackets lost whatever luster they had at the beginning of the season and were destined for yet another trade deadline of jettisoning veterans.
And yet, here we are the just two weeks to the NHL trade deadline, and both the Flames and Blue Jackets find themselves within a handful of points of eighth place. Win streaks of various sizes, coupled with losing streaks by teams such as the Dallas Stars and the Chicago Blackhawks, have failed to create much separation in the Western Conference.
Similarly, the Buffalo Sabres have streaked to the cusp of the layoffs thanks to going 7-2-1 in their last ten. Same thing with the Minnesota Wild; the previously left-for-dead Wild streaked to 8-2-0 to creep their way into the playoff race.
Few teams have given up their playoff dreams thanks to streaky play across the board. And because of that, the traditional group of have-nots that shed salary at the trade deadline will most likely be smaller than usual. Out east, the Ottawa Senators (who've already begun to dismantle), New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils (who are long dead and buried despite their recent successes), and Toronto Maple Leafs are all but eliminated. The Florida Panthers, though hanging around at .500, have players essentially up for grabs. Out west, only the Edmonton Oilers can begin shipping players off.
A five-game win streak here or there can do wonders for hope; that means a team like the Sabres will have harder decisions to make come February 28. Is there a point in Buffalo keeping guys like two-way center Rob Niedermayer or oft-injured playmaker Tim Connolly? A few weeks ago, Alex Tanguay -- who's enjoying a nice rebound season -- would have netted some value in return for new Calgary GM Jay Feaster; now he's a critical part of a surging Flames team looking to prove naysayers wrong.
Where does that leave us come trade deadline day? The noted have-nots will definitely shed players fast and furious, but the bubble teams won't be totally inactive. After all, GMs need to be honest in their assessment of what they have, both on the books for next year and what's down on the farm. You probably won't see these teams enter into monster deals driven by pure salary-shedding of in-their-prime player. Instead, impending UFA depth players -- such as Buffalo's Niedermayer -- wil probably move given the right offer.
It makes for less drama on deadline today but greater intensity as the regular season comes to a close. Despite the fun surrounding trade-deadline coverage, I have to think that most hockey fans would prefer it this way.