The cream is rising to the top in a Pacific Division that has taken its lumps this season. You can mock the Pacific all you want, but if the three California clubs end up as top three in the division, as seems likely, you've got three teams who can do some damage come playoff time. The first-place Kings are back to being one of the top five Stanley Cup contenders. The second-place Sharks have retooled and are back with a balanced lineup after only one season out of the playoffs. The third-place Ducks have the third-best record in the entire league since Christmas after a brutal opening three months. The rebuilding Coyotes and retooling Canucks are in the playoff race too, but not as solid a bet.
Here is a look at the Pacific's buyers and sellers heading toward the Feb. 29 trade deadline, from the divisional leader on down:
General manager Dean Lombardi acted swiftly with an early January trade for veteran center Vincent Lecavalier and third-pair defenseman Luke Schenn. Lecavalier has been terrific since coming on board, a motivated and proud player determined to go out on his terms. But are the Kings done? If at all possible -- even with their salary-cap issues -- L.A. would love to add a top-four blueliner, preferably a right-handed shot. As I reported earlier, pending unrestricted free-agent star Dustin Byfuglien has long topped the Kings' wish list, but it's not clear if L.A. could pull that off, especially without a first-round pick in this year's draft to send to Winnipeg. Of course, Byfuglien could also re-sign with the Winnipeg Jets, taking him off the trade market. If not Byfuglien, I think the Kings will look elsewhere to bolster their blue line. No team is perfect in the cap world, but that's the area that still concerns them to some degree.
Just like the rival Kings, the Sharks would like to bolster the blue line. Their defensive corps has been terrific, but playoff-bound teams love to add defensive insurance. I think anyone who would fit in the four/five/six role would make sense for the Sharks. A guy I love for them is pending unrestricted free-agent blueliner Roman Polak of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He's more of a five/six depth guy but has great character, plays hard and kills penalties. The Sharks, meanwhile, will have to decide how to proceed on the Patrick Marleau front. The 37-year-old winger asked for a trade at the start of the season. No promises were made by Sharks GM Doug Wilson, so it remains to be seen how this plays out. Marleau's agent, Pat Brisson, has continued to work the market after Wilson gave him permission to talk to teams. But I suspect it's more likely Wilson waits until after the season to trade Marleau when a bigger market of teams is normally available. But, if a fit came along before Feb. 29, the Sharks could always look at it.
The surging Ducks have already made a few trades, although none were blockbusters. They dealt Carl Hagelin to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for pending unrestricted free agent David Perron in a deal that created more payroll flexibility for the summer, although Perron has played well since coming over, jelling on a line with Ryan Getzlaf and Chris Stewart. The Ducks also got Ryan Garbutt from Chicago for Jiri Sekac in a minor move to add solid bottom-six depth. The Ducks are loaded on defense, so much so that Shea Theodore had to be sent back to AHL San Diego even though he's clearly ready for the NHL. So if the Ducks made another move before Feb. 29, I bet it would involve dealing from their blue-line depth. They could use more scoring up front. My sense is Ducks management views the first two weeks after the All-Star break as a critical time to determine if the club is truly on the way back to being contenders or if they would go back to their inconsistent ways from the opening half. So, like many teams, the next little while will greatly influence the trade deadline for Anaheim.
The rebuilding Coyotes are playing with house money in a season that has gone way better than they ever envisioned. Just the fact that they're still within earshot of a playoff spot in February is nothing short of stunning, although it was helped in part by a forgiving division. And now that the Ducks, in particular, appear to have gotten their act together, let's see if Arizona can hang with them down the stretch. As far as the trade deadline goes, the Coyotes very much remain focused on the long term and the big picture. They've got a young, exciting team that has the chance to become a powerhouse over the next few years, with more kids not even at the NHL level yet. One player to keep an eye on is winger Mikkel Boedker, a pending UFA at the tender age of 26. There have been some contract talks but still no deal. There's no way the Coyotes can afford to lose this guy as he's just entering his prime years. I also think it sends a bad message if the Coyotes lose yet another free agent. But what do they do if he's still unsigned by Feb. 29?
The Canucks are trying to retool on the fly, which is to say they are trying to get younger while not plummeting into the basement. GM Jim Benning has done a pretty good job early in this process, but there's more work ahead. Veterans Chris Higgins and Brandon Prust are among the roster victims so far as the Canucks turn over more ice time to the kids. But they also want to make the playoffs as a bonus, which is why if they're just a point or two out of a playoff spot, they might not trade a pending UFA such as Radim Vrbata if he can help them get in. It's going to be an 11th-hour call, I think. Trying to win now and also win later is a delicate balancing act.
It's been a disappointing season for a Flames team that was the toast of the NHL in 2014-15 after not only surprising everyone by making the playoffs but even winning a round. Within office walls, the Flames knew they'd take a step back this season after all the bounces they got a year ago, plus the fact they remain a team very much still growing, but I don't think they thought they'd be near the basement. Unless they go on a big February run, they're going to trade pending UFA winger Jiri Hudler (who has already generated interest from other teams) and perhaps pending UFA Kris Russell if they can re-sign him. Disappointing season, yes, but in the big picture, this is a team still going in the right direction. The trade deadline will reflect that big-picture view.
If the darn Oilers could stay healthy and have their entire roster just once, they'd love to know what they really are. It would also give first-year GM Peter Chiarelli a clearer view of what he has before he decides to start moving a key piece or two to improve his blue line. Jordan Eberle was injured at the start of the season, prized rookie Connor McDavid was gone for three months before returning this week, and now Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is out six to eight weeks. Not until he has all of his top forwards healthy and on the ice at the same time can Chiarelli truly get a sense of how the puzzle fits and which of his players -- Eberle or Nugent-Hopkins, among others -- he might move if the deal was right for a top-four blueliner. Thing is, he can make that deal in June and not necessarily before Feb. 29. There's no urgency given that the playoffs are out of the question this season. The right deal will be made when it's right, in February or in the summer. The Oilers have long coveted Travis Hamonic, but it's not clear Islanders GM Garth Snow wants to deal him before the summer. Look for Edmonton to keep pushing on him, though. The Oilers either need to re-sign pending UFA winger Teddy Purcell or put him on the trade market. Defenseman Justin Schultz, a restricted free agent July 1, could be moved for the right price.