The Atlantic Division playoff race could best be described in the lyrics to "A Boy Named Sue" written by the late, great Johnny Cash: "Kicking and a-gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer."
The playoff race is extremely close and it's going to be a heart-thumping stretch run to determine postseason positions. With the trade deadline less than a week away, GMs are prepared for the final days before Feb. 29.
"Very quiet," said one GM. "Initial discussions have taken place and teams are reassessing their needs."
Florida continues to control the top seed, but Tampa, Boston and Detroit are closing in. It's a close race and it's going to be interesting to see which teams buy and which sell. Here's where things stand now, from the divisional leader on down:
General manager Dale Tallon is trying to improve his team. The Panthers need a top-six forward and the Winnipeg Jets' Andrew Ladd is the main target. The two have a connection, dating back to their Stanley Cup days with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. Ladd, 30, is a pending unrestricted free agent and recently told reporters in Winnipeg that he understands his career with the Jets could be over, calling it "sad." Adding a player such as Ladd could help solidify the Panthers' chances of deep playoff run, but Ladd's name has been connected with other possible deals, including in Chicago and Los Angeles.
By now, everyone knows captain Steven Stamkos will remain in Tampa at least through the remainder of this season. The Lightning are serious about another deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs and Stamkos' presence is needed. GM Steve Yzerman could use help on defense, but the team received positive news when veteran defenseman Jason Garrison returned to practice this week after suffering a lower-body injury on Feb. 8. Originally, he was expected to miss 3-5 weeks, but it appears Garrison could be back sooner than expected.
Oh, and there's still the issue of exiled forward Jonathan Drouin, who refused to report for a minor-league assignment and has been suspended by the team. Yzerman could easily make a deal for the 20-year-old forward, but he'll want something significant in return. Also, it's likely Yzerman could move forward Erik Condra, who has been a healthy scratch most of the season. Condra has two years remaining on his current three-year deal that pays him $1.25 million per season.
With the emergence of goaltender Petr Mrazek, most thought GM Ken Holland would deal fellow netminder Jimmy Howard. While it could be a possibility, the Red Wings lack depth at that position and need both ready if the team earns a 25th consecutive playoff appearance. Plus, it doesn't help that Howard, 31, remains under contract through 2018-19 with an annual cap hit of $5.29 million and a full no-movement clause. Holland could look to add defensive help. In an attempt to become a more offensive-minded team, the Red Wings' defense has suffered. However, there aren't many available non-rental defensemen on the market that could fit in Detroit.
Since this week's theme involves song lyrics, it's only fitting we use the legendary "Louie, Louie" sung by The Kingsmen: "Louie, Louie/oh, no/sayin' we gotta go." The biggest question for Bruins GM Don Sweeney is whether veteran forward Loui Eriksson stays or goes. The pending UFA is having a terrific season and is the lone player on the roster to play in all 60 games for the Bruins. Boston currently owns a playoff spot, so it's a difficult decision for Sweeney. The sides have talked about a contract extension, but this could be a situation that plays itself out in the offseason, unless a pure hockey trade presents itself and the Bruins jump at it. Boston does need help on defense, and while some reports suggest the Jets could deal blue-liner Jacob Trouba, according to a source there have been zero talks involving the 21-year-old defenseman.
GM Bryan Murray also has some tough decisions to make in the coming days. Ottawa has played better of late, but still has a long way to go before re-entering the playoff structure. That means Murray could become a buyer, or decide to start selling. If he decides to sell, it's likely he'll want to move forward Shane Prince and defenseman Patrick Wiercioch. Success, or a lack thereof, on the team's current road trip could determine which direction Murray decides to go before the deadline.
We know the organization has no intentions of trading defenseman P.K. Subban this season. It would be ridiculous if GM Marc Bergevin made such a deal when the Canadiens need a strong blue line in order to be successful. Pending unrestricted free-agent defenseman Tom Gilbert would have been dealt, but he suffered a knee injury that will require season-ending surgery, so it would be hard to trade him. If Bergevin decides to sell, he could also move David Desharnais or Alex Galchenyuk. Pending UFA Dale Weise could be on the block, too. As I've said recently, the Canadiens should wave the white flag and start to focus on next season.
Colleague Pierre LeBrun believes that pending unrestricted free-agent forward Jamie McGinn could be dealt at the deadline to a team looking for help up front. That could be a chance for GM Tim Murray to add future assets to an already talented and young group. Veteran forward David Legwand has also drawn some attention from other teams.
GM Lou Lamoriello has been busy the past few weeks and his fire sale continued on Monday, when the Leafs dealt center Shawn Matthias to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for a fourth-rounder and prospect Colin Smith. Toronto then traded defenseman Roman Polak and center Nick Spaling to the San Jose Sharks, in exchange for second-round picks in 2017 and 2018 and forward Raffi Torres. Lamoriello is not done dealing. P.A. Parenteau and Brad Boyes could also be on the move in the coming days as Lamoriello continues to mold the organization to fit his blueprint.