Last season, Marian Hossa was the crème de la crème of a group of players on the market leading up to the 2008 trade deadline. His acquisition by Pittsburgh helped propel the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup finals since 1992.
This season, the forward is ensconced in Detroit, where he signed as a free agent, something well-remembered by his friends in Pittsburgh. But for teams looking to add such a bauble before the March 4 deadline, well, the cupboard is looking pretty bare.
Here's a list of the top players who could be in play between now and the trade deadline.
Last season, Atlanta GM Don Waddell did his best to sign Hossa to a long-term deal, but could not. Because the Thrashers were a draft-lottery team, the decision to trade Hossa was an easy one. Not so for Florida GM Jacques Martin when it comes to the talented Bouwmeester.
The Panthers hit the All-Star break just two points out of a playoff berth. The longer the Panthers stay in the hunt, the more difficult Martin's job is going to be. Bouwmeester has never played in a playoff game since the Panthers drafted him third overall in 2002, but has emerged as one of the top young all-around defensemen in the game. He appears certain to bolt Florida as an unrestricted free agent in July. The Panthers could use more offense, but if they trade Bouwmeester and fall out of the race, that won't endear the team to the handful of fans still left in South Florida.
We know, Waddell has said a million times he's not trading his new captain. But just as sure as Friday follows Thursday, Kovalchuk will be departing Atlanta. It's just a question of when for the talented Russian, who can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season. Given the paucity of talented forwards available at this season's trade deadline, wouldn't the Thrashers be wise to at least explore the possible assets a player like Kovalchuk might yield? Just for fun, imagine him with Sidney Crosby. Or in Montreal. As for the possibility of Atlanta alienating fans by trading its best player away for the second straight season, we've got news for you -- Elvis has left the building and so have the majority of Thrashers fans.
Speaking of Montreal, did you see the response Lecavalier received when he was introduced in Montreal during All-Star weekend? In the same, "deny, deny, deny" category, Tampa Bay Lightning GM Brian Lawton continues to insist he doesn't want to move his captain. Sort of. If Lecavalier goes (his no-trade clause doesn't kick in until the summer, although management has promised to consult with him before any deal might take place), look for the gifted center to end up in Montreal in a blockbuster deal. Few other teams have the wherewithal in terms of assets, cap room and appetite for Lecavalier's services.
While Antropov certainly doesn't have the cachet of a Lecavalier or Kovalchuk, the lanky center is important because he may turn out to be the top center in play before the deadline. That means teams looking for help down the middle, like Chicago, for instance, will be testing the waters with new Toronto GM Brian Burke.
Tomas Kaberle, Toronto Maple Leafs
Speaking of Plan B's, if Martin bites the bullet and hangs on to Bouwmeester, the next best thing in terms of a puck-moving defenseman might be Kaberle, who is fresh off a berth on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. He has a no-trade clause that he refused to waive last season when the Flyers wanted him, but Kaberle has suggested he would waive it now if asked. But Burke doesn't believe in asking players to do that. But he will move Kaberle if Kaberle asks to be traded. Confused? Regardless, Kaberle might be a boon to a team like Washington that already boasts Mike Green along the blue line. Or the Rangers? Kaberle has two years left on his current contract at a manageable $4.25 million annually, a pittance compared to what the Rangers are paying underachieving Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival.
Vesa Toskala, Toronto Maple Leafs
Speaking of Mr. Burke, he's been watching closely to see if the Finnish netminder is really the guy around whom he wants to build his new team in Toronto. Toskala, so good for so much of last season, has been wildly inconsistent in 2008-09 (3.29 goals-against average, .885 save percentage). Justin Pogge hasn't exactly lit it up in the AHL, but the Leafs goaltending prospect will likely get some starts in the coming weeks to see if he's got NHL stuff.
Toskala, who has another year left at $4 million, could be on the move. Where? Well, we're guessing Montreal GM Bob Gainey won't go into the playoffs with just Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak again, and there might be some appetite to try and upgrade between the pipes in Detroit in anticipation of a playoff showdown with San Jose or even Calgary, both of whom are much better between the pipes.
Speaking of goaltenders, Fernandez represents an interesting dilemma for Boston GM Peter Chiarelli. With his 2.07 GAA and .928 save percentage, the former Minnesota netminder has been one of the most interesting stories of the season after coming back from a serious knee injury. Fernandez will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer and there is top netminding prospect Tuukka Rask waiting in the wings for the Eastern Conference-leading Bruins. Patrice Bergeron will return from a concussion in the next couple of weeks, but his durability is clearly an issue, and Marco Sturm is gone for the long haul. Does Chiarelli move Fernandez and bring in some offensive depth? Or does he look to ride his goaltending tandem deep into the playoffs?
Good thing for GM Dale Tallon that Khabibulin didn't follow through on a plan to play in Russia this season. Like Fernandez and Tim Thomas in Boston, Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet have formed an unlikely tandem that has the Hawks imagining a long playoff run. Would Tallon like help down the middle? Yes. Would he move Khabibulin to get it? That's a big risk to take, but one he might consider. Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi might be intrigued by Khabibulin, who became the first Russian netminder to lead his team to the Stanley Cup when he guided Tampa Bay to the 2004 championship.
Mathieu Schneider, Atlanta Thrashers
Hard to imagine the 39-year-old Schneider won't be headed somewhere with the Thrashers a million miles from the postseason. Could he help the Ranges' power play? Sure. And if the Blue Jackets remain in the playoff hunt, he might help out Ken Hitchcock's crew in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets boast the NHL's worst power play.
Chris Higgins, Montreal Canadiens
The Habs are deep and young, and Higgins' name has constantly surfaced as a possible part of any deal the Habs seem to be contemplating. The Smithtown, N.Y., native was rumored to be headed to Atlanta for Hossa last season, and his name came up in more recent Lecavalier discussions. Although injuries have limited him to just five goals in 21 games, Higgins scored 72 goals in the three seasons leading up to this one.
Niclas Havelid, Atlanta Thrashers
The underappreciated Havelid is a solid player who would be a boon to a team looking to add defensive depth with a little offensive pizzazz. A member of the gold-medal effort by Sweden at the Torino Olympics, Havelid will be an unrestricted free agent in July.
Tkachuk has been a rental player before, and given the fact the Blues are on a collision course with being a draft lottery team again, it stands to reason teams will be asking about the veteran forward. Tkachuk has never really managed to put up stellar playoff numbers, but he's still got toughness and a nose for the net. We know the Coyotes have no money, but would Wayne Gretzky want him in the lineup with his group of youngsters in Phoenix? It'd be an interesting bit of symmetry for Tkachuk, who came to Phoenix when the Winnipeg Jets relocated there.
Speaking of rental players, Weight went from St. Louis to Carolina in early 2006 and won his first Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes. The Blues sent him to Anaheim last season and it looked like it was all over for the classy veteran, but he's had a solid season on Long Island. Injuries have recently kept him out of the lineup, but he could be a nice depth player and he is a center.
With the Predators springing a leak and sinking out of the playoffs, the veteran defenseman who won a Cup in Colorado back in 2001 might make a nice addition to a team looking to shore up its toughness for the playoffs.
Steve Sullivan, Nashville Predators
Speaking of the Preds, you have to wonder if GM David Poile would be tempted to try to move Sullivan, who just returned to action after missing almost two years with back issues. Sullivan is a risk long-term, but for a team looking for offensive depth for the playoffs, he might be just the answer. Hmm. Think he might be a nice fit for Crosby in Pittsburgh? Since Sullivan is set to become a free agent in July, Poile could always bring him back in the offseason if he wanted to.
Mike Comrie, New York Islanders
Speaking of centers, Comrie will be available, as well. Two seasons ago, he was part of an Ottawa team that went to the Stanley Cup finals. He could help out on the power play and add some secondary scoring for somebody.
The talented Slovak is well down our list of players who could be on the move for the simple reason that no one knows what they'd be getting if they did deal for the oft-injured forward. He's out until after the trade deadline, recovering from surgery to correct a chronic hip problem. He has played in just six games and would garner very little. Of course, he could be the prize of the deadline frenzy. Or he might not ever step on the ice for the rest of the season and walk out the door July 1, when he'll become an unrestricted free agent.
There are a lot of reasons to suggest Spezza won't be going anywhere before March 4, chief among them the five years and $37 million left on his contract. But if the Senators really don't believe Spezza is part of what looks more and more like a rebuilding project, they'd be wise to test the waters before his no-trade clause kicks in this summer. Would Spezza help out in Anaheim, which is on most nights a one-line team? Montreal was interested in Mats Sundin and Lecavalier, both big-name centers. What about Spezza?
The big-hitting blueliner with the powerful shot was a big part of the Ducks' run to the Cup in 2007. Now he'll be an unrestricted free agent and is out for the balance of the season with a torn ACL in his left knee. Can the Ducks afford him? Or will GM Bob Murray look to move him to shore up his offense for another run at the Cup before Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne hang them up for good? A team on the rebuild, like Atlanta, the Islanders or Ottawa, might be interested.
Brendan Morrison, Anaheim Ducks
The center has endured another hard season after moving over from Vancouver. The Ducks can ill afford to give up any offense (they rank 19th in goals per game); but Morrison is going to be an unrestricted free agent and Murray can move him and get some kind of upgrade on offense that might make sense. The Ducks, who have never adequately replaced Andy McDonald down the middle, might be interested in more help there.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.