Stanley Cup Playoff Push: How standings are shaping the trade deadline

Nashville Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm, right, celebrates with right wing Viktor Arvidsson (33) after Ekholm scored a goal against the Florida Panthers during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Even this close to the trade deadline, the NHL's regular season standings are still shaping how certain GMs will act.

With four days until the closing of trade business, we've seen some unexpected swings lately. Nashville was the earliest mover, going on a hot run that has turned it from a hard seller to a stand-pat team at least. San Jose has had a nice little run of its own, while Arizona, a would-be seller, may have no choice but to push on now.

Each week between now and the end of the regular season, we'll capture the latest in the race for the playoffs. We still have a ways to go until the final four in each division are set, though, with 16 games or more left for almost every team. So as we take a division-by-division look at those races, this week we'll explore how these races are impacting the action that will unfold between today and April 12 at 3:00 p.m. ET.

NORTH DIVISION

If the season ended today...

(1) Toronto vs. (4) Montreal
(2) Edmonton vs. (3) Winnipeg

What the playoff race looks like today...

Trade deadline impact...

The top four teams in the North are all but set, which really dampens this playoff "race."

It does set a clear divide between buyers and sellers here. Every one of the top four teams in this division will be looking to add. Montreal already picked up Eric Staal, but Brendan Gallagher's placement on LTIR opens up the possibility for another sizeable move. The Habs were previously thought to be in on Mattias Ekholm, but if he's not available anymore they'll have to prioritize another defenceman.

Toronto has not been shy about its deadline intentions, declaring a want for top-six scoring and being open to the rental market and trading top picks and prospects. But we still have to wonder about the situation in net, with the latest update on Frederik Andersen being purposefully vague.

Winnipeg could use another defenceman to improve its blue line and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff hasn't been shy about dealing for rentals in previous seasons if it meant upgrading an area of need.

The Oilers would like to add, and have a need for a third-line centre, but GM Ken Holland has talked all about the zero dollars in cap space he has, setting expectations low. But if everyone else is going to be active, can they be the only ones to sit still?

On the other side, the Senators have been sellers for some time, but in a crowded market it's unclear how many of their rentals they'll be able to offload. Vancouver would sell, too, but its present situation with a COVID outbreak leaves a lot of uncertainty with player movement. The Flames will sell as their core seems to be at an end, though any substantial change may have to wait for the summer months.

Important upcoming games...

• The Jets head into Montreal for Thursday and Saturday games, with the Canadiens playing on a back-to-back for the series opener. The Habs have three games in hand on the Jets, but are six points back, making a takeover difficult. But a couple wins in a row here and that race will get much tighter. Whoever finishes fourth is likely lining up with Toronto, the best team in the division all season.

• The Oilers play Calgary this weekend and then are scheduled to play the Canucks twice next week. According to Iain MacIntyre, the Oilers have been told by the league to not expect the Canucks to be ready for those games yet, so will we see a schedule change? If not, the Oilers would be a week between games.

CENTRAL DIVISION

If the season ended today...

(1) Florida vs. (4) Nashville
(2) Carolina vs. (3) Tampa Bay

What the playoff race looks like today...

Trade deadline impact...

The most interesting trade deadline development here has been Nashville's sudden and surprising rise -- though it's not good news if you're hoping for lots of action. They're not in yet, but their hot streak coupled with a Chicago slowdown has given the Preds the edge and now all the players who were in the rumour mill may instead stay put. Since saying on ESPN Radio in Nashville last week that he'd let his players determine how he acts at the deadline, David Poile's Preds are 3-1, with a game against Detroit ahead Thursday night.

The other team to watch is the Columbus Blue Jackets, who looked horrible for a stretch, then beat Tampa Bay in an impressive showing Tuesday night. The math is against the Jackets, five points out with one more game played than Nashville, so they're likely to sell. But could GM Jarmo Kekalainen still wait a few days here?

At the top of the division you have the potential for all sorts of big action. Tampa Bay has been identified as a potential stealth landing spot for David Savard, while Florida and Carolina have all the cap space they could want to make big splashes. The Lightning will already be getting Nikita Kucherov back for the playoffs, too, so that will be in the backs of the minds of the GMs in Carolina in Florida as they aim to get through last year's champs.

Important upcoming games...

• If the Blue Jackets are still deciding what to do, they have two more games until the deadline to make up their mind. After beating Tampa Tuesday — their second win over the Lightning in a week — Columbus plays them again Thursday and another win could create an air of optimism. Saturday brings a date with Chicago, one of the teams they're chasing. A couple of losses, or especially one against the Hawks that would directly lose playoff ground, could cement the Blue Jackets as sellers.

• Whether Nashville is still on the edge of the playoffs or is able to create separation will be determined in the coming days. The Preds play Detroit on Thursday, followed by back-to-back home games Saturday against Tampa Bay and Sunday against Dallas, which still has an outside playoff shot itself.

• By the time Dallas gets to that game against Nashville on Sunday, it could be what ultimately sets its deadline tone. The Stars have the toughest schedule left and though they still have three games in hand on Nashville, their point deficit is now seven. The Stars play in Chicago Thursday, and host Florida Saturday before heading to Nashville Sunday. Anything short of a sweep and they may have to sell some rentals.

• If Tampa doesn't finish first, then one of Florida or Carolina will be "rewarded" for a great season with a Round 1 date against the champs. So, their head-to-heads take on heightened urgency. The Panthers already lost 5-2 to Carolina once this week and the two meet up again Thursday. The winner will hold first place Friday morning.

WEST DIVISION

If the season ended today...

(1) Colorado vs. (4) Arizona
(2) Vegas vs. (3) Minnesota

What the playoff race looks like today...

Trade deadline impact...

Colorado and Vegas were expected to be all-in this season and that remains on track. They won't be approaching the deadline on the same footing, though. While Vegas is capped out following an off-season of big moves that forced it to sell a few players off cheap, Colorado will arrive at the deadline with more flexibility — about $2 million in cap space. Whether the Avalanche add to their defence or forwards, or instead focus on a backup goaltender remains to be seen.

The Wild are an interesting case because they have exceeded all expectations this season, but are still ahead of schedule and may want to be cautious about their deadline moves. A case could be made to give this roster some help in the form of a rental to avoid any further Seattle expansion complications, but they're likely to face either Vegas or Colorado in Round 1, which could be an uphill battle. But remember this: while the Wild are 3-5 against Colorado, they're 4-1-1 against Vegas, so don't count them out just yet.

The Coyotes are the biggest question mark. They need picks and prospects and have rentals who would be appealing to other teams, plus players like Darcy Kuemper or Conor Garland who are under team control for at least another season each. But how can they sell now? Thanks to a 7-3-1 run, along with a cold stretch from the Blues, Arizona has control of fourth place.

Anaheim could be the most intriguing seller if it decides to move pending UFA Ryan Getzlaf or Rickard Rakell, who has another season under contract.

Important upcoming games...

• The Coyotes have two more games ahead of the trade deadline — both on the road in Vegas Friday and Sunday. Meanwhile, the Blues play twice at home to Minnesota on Friday and Saturday. How they each do in those games and what the playoff picture looks like Monday morning will be a huge factor in how both the Blues and Coyotes approach the deadline.

• San Jose's four-game winning streak was ended by a crushing 5-1 loss to lowly Anaheim Tuesday, but it has a game in hand on St. Louis and two in hand on Arizona, so perhaps there's still an outside shot at the playoffs. The Sharks play at home against Los Angeles Friday and Saturday — a couple of losses locks them in as sellers, though it's worth mentioning that goalie Devan Dubnyk and forward Marcus Sorensen are their biggest rentals available. Possibly Patrick Marleau, too, though he's set to break Gordie Howe's all-time games played record a week after the deadline and could stay put to do it in a Sharks jersey.

EAST DIVISION

If the season ended today...

(1) Washington vs. (4) Boston
(2) NY Islanders vs. (3) Pittsburgh

What the playoff race looks like today...

Trade deadline impact...

The Islanders made their big move Wednesday, acquiring Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the Devils. The Capitals don't have the cap space to make that sort of splash, but could think about adding to their goaltending depth. The Penguins don't have tons of cap space either, but the way the team responded to a slow start after new management came in makes them a likely buyer. GM Ron Hextall told The Athletic he's in the market for a "big, physical forward."

In Boston, it's not clear what's going on with Tuukka Rask or when he might return, which warps what the team's deadline outlook will be. But with Philadelphia fading, the Bruins are getting a little separation in the standings and since we don't know how many more years this core has left as a contender, they should be considered as buyers anyway.

The Flyers, well, they've had a miserable stretch where the defence and goaltending have imploded, making them somewhat of a wild card. Scott Laughton would be an interesting addition to the rental market and someone who many teams might want for the third line, but could the Flyers seek a shake up now, or wait for the summer?

New Jersey has already started its selling period and with Palmieri moved, Buffalo's Taylor Hall becomes the focus of the "top-six forward market" even if he might fit better on the third line in some cases.

Important upcoming games...

• Do the Flyers have any hope at a playoff spot at all? In two meetings with Boston already this week, Philadelphia won in overtime and followed it up with a loss, losing a point in the process. The Flyers next play the Islanders Thursday and then Boston again on Saturday and Buffalo on Sunday. A sweep of the three could get them back in it, but a further spiral could open up more trade possibilities.

• While Boston has one more game against the Flyers this week to try and separate, it also faces Washington on Thursday and Friday. Losses there could also open up an avenue for either the Flyers or Rangers to make up ground.

• The Rangers are 6-3-1 in their past 10 and have scored four or more goals in four of their past seven. Five points back of Boston with two more games played, the Rangers are still a long shot to get in, but cracks are starting to show in the Bruins. New York has tough games against Pittsburgh and two on the road against the Islanders ahead of the deadline. Those games probably won't turn the Rangers into sellers, but it could re-shape the playoff race and push the Bruins into a more desperate buying position.

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