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From the Press-Box: Tight Division Races

Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno

Paul is a 22-year veteran of the STATS INC reporter network, scoring play by play for the Blue Jays and Maple Leafs. He is also the creator of the statistical platform which evolved into the NHL's Real Time Scoring System, which was unveiled in 1992. You can also hear him on XM Sirius and nextsportsstar.com, talking hockey and baseball.In addition to all of Toronto's teams, he is also a big fan of the Dallas Cowboys.


Today in From the Pressbox:

Some teams entered the trade market well in advance of the trade deadline. We evaluate those deals. Columbus seems to be the focus of most teams looking for an upgrade. Is there anyone other than Rick Nash who might be dealt? The Lightning is very active in the trade talks. The Leafs have a great deal of depth on defense and may be in position to deal one of them. The Boston Bruins are showing signs of slowing down with a couple of injuries. Five of six divisional races and a top three seeding for the playoffs are up for grabs in five of six divisions. We take a brief look at all of them.

We saw a couple of deals last week and this week that trend continued, with the Tampa Bay Lightning at the center of a couple of moves. First, they sat out big blueliner Pavel Kubina while General Manager Steve Yzerman publicly declared his availability. Within days of that announcement, the Philadelphia Flyers stepped up with an offer of a second round pick, a fourth rounder and minor leaguer winger Jon Kalinski. Kubina, 34, and a potential UFA next season, has already expressed a desire to re-sign with the Flyers and looks like a pretty good replacement for the injured captain Chris Pronger. Kubina has a great slapshot and considerable experience on special teams, which make him a valuable component here. Playing with this perennial contender may rejuvenate Kubina's career.

The Lightning was also involved in a three-team trade that saw them send pesky winger Steve Downie to Colorado in exchange for veteran defenseman Kyle Quincey. The Lightning subsequently dealt Quincey to the Red Wings in exchange for a first round draft pick. In the end, Downie is a nice fit on the Avs' roster because his role will likely include a physical responsibility to protect some of their young and talented forwards. Downie is not one-dimensional, though, and he hopes to rediscover a scoring eye, that saw him tally 22 goals in the 2009-10 season. From Detroit's perspective, they have brought back a player in Quincey who started his pro career with the Wings. Detroit adds more depth for their expected attempt at another long playoff run wit this acquisition. The first round pick going to Tampa, while a late one, gives them two early draft choices. For a team that has holes on defense and in goal, they are in position to address these needs with top prospects.

The Blue Jackets are in most of the trade headlines because they are one of the few teams out of the playoff race already and they have apparently dangled their franchise player, Rick Nash, who is the biggest name on the trade rumor charts at the moment. Obviously, before moving Nash, the Jackets' brass will need to be bowled over, but another top talent may be available. Jeff Carter has underperformed relative to his long-term cap hit of $5.27M and the Jackets might like to see what he will fetch in trade talks. Carter has had some off-ice issues and is not too fired up about the poor situation that currently surrounds him in Columbus. With a resume that includes three 30-goal seasons and a career high of 46 goals, Carter should afford the Jackets a significant return if GM Scott Howson decides to move him.

The Maple Leafs are pointed in the right direction under the guidance of veteran GM Brian Burke, who has restocked a minor league system and provided the Leafs with plenty of depth along the blueline. The top names in trade talks are Luke Schenn, and Jake Gardiner and Carl Gunnarsson three young defenders who have earned a regular shift on the Leafs blueline this season. They each offer a different main trait in their skill sets that will make them attractive to potential suitors. Gunnarsson has been installed as the stay-at-home steady partner to Dion Phaneuf. He has taken on the responsibility of a heavy workload with the poise of a veteran. Schenn is most known for his physical player and is settling in as that Adam Foote-type of defensive shutdown blueliner that every winning team seems to have. Gardiner may wind up being the most prominent of the three as he is drawing rave reviews for his poise, hockey IQ and smooth skating ability. He is already drawing comparisons to all-time greats like Paul Coffey and Scott Niedermayer. None of these young Leafs will be moved unless a big-time compensation is coming back the other way.

Last week, we touched on the fact that the Bruins were starting to come back to earth, after running roughshod over all of their early season competition. Injuries to Nathan Horton (concussion) and Rich Peverley (knee) have forced some line juggling and obviously messed with a chemistry that existed during an injury-free start to this campaign. The Bruins still lead the Northeast Division, but a 4-6 mark in their last 10 games has allowed their division rivals, Ottawa and Toronto, to draw within two and seven points respectively. The Bruins need to rebound from this recent slide or they will risk a shockingly low playoff seeding.

This is the same scenario with multiple teams in most of the divisional races. The only exception in the Northwest Division, where the Vancouver Canucks have overcome a poor start to open up a 13-point lead on the rest of this group. They appear well positioned to consider resting, or reducing the workload of their top players if they can maintain this pace through the final weeks of the regular season.

The Atlantic Davison features the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers, but they are currently being over-shadowed by the New Jersey Devils, who are currently on a 9-1-1 streak that has them within seven points of their hated rivals from Broadway. The combination of a potent offemse, led by Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, along with the traditional commitment to defense, where goalie Martin Brodeur continues to be the focal point, projects this Devils' team a real tough out in the playoffs.

For their part, despite some tough injury situations that have impacted them throughout the season, the Flyers are also solidly in the mix, only a point behind New Jersey. They will need a big final push to maintain a favorable playoff position. Claude Giroux, Daniel Briere and Jaromir Jagr have to be at the top of their offensive game, otherwise these Flyers can be an upset victim. Meanwhile a fourth contender, the Pittsburgh Penguins, is hanging around this race, getting healthier with the return of Jordan Staal and Kris Letang. Sidney Crosby's continuing efforts to rejoin this team before season's end could vault this club into a position as a Conference favorite come playoff time.

The Southeast Division is also a four-team race where the Lightning, despite their early indications as a seller, have moved to within only five points of the Division lead. Since there is real possibility that the only playoff team to emerge from this group is the eventual division champion, there are a number of hotly contested games ahead for these teams.

The Lightning will rely on their key offensive pieces, including their league-leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos, to overshadow a shaky defense and subpar goalkeeping situation. The Florida Panthers, who have surprisingly led this Division for much of the year, have been decimated by injuries and a bit of slippage due to a reduction in offense. They seem to be headed in the wrong direction at the moment. Conversely, the Winnipeg Jets are hoping to maintain their current uptick through an important long home stand that they are currently enjoying. The enigmatic Washington Capitals, who, (on paper, at least) boast the best collection of talent this group, are reeling and their best player Alex Ovechkin seems lost without his injured centerman Nicklas Backstrom (concussion), whose return uncertain at this time.

The Pacific Division features the closest race, where the teams are only separated from top to bottom, by a mere nine points. San Jose appears to be the class of this group, but they are mired in a four game losing streak and in the midst of a nine-game road trip that is making their currents prospects look unfavorable. Shaky goaltending is the main culprit and they will be making every effort to improve that aspect before the trade deadline. The Phoenix Coyotes are the talk of this division because of their current 8-1-1 stretch that has them tied with San Jose. The Coyotes boast no superstars but are simply a hard-working and strong-skating squad that is very organized at both ends of the rink. It's nice to see them in the hunt, as opposed to hearing about the franchise's off-ice instability for a change. The Kings, Stars and Ducks all have a shot here because they each have some top tier talent that could lead them to a division title. This should be quite a race.

The same can be said, and then some, when we look at the Central Division, where four of the league's top eight teams reside. While Detroit, St Louis, Chicago and Nashville should all reach the post-season, they all have the incentive of the easier road through the post-season, which is the reward for this division crown. While the Red Wings cruise along as the top team in league standings (at this time), coach Ken Hitchcock has molded a dynamic young team into the biggest surprise of the season with this edition of the St. Louis Blues. They have succeeded despite a host of injuries and hope to get another key piece back soon (Alex Steen was their leading scorer when he went out with a concussion in late December).

Nashville, buoyed by their staunch defense corps and solid goaltending, are already playing a solid brand of playoff hockey and you cannot discount the Blackhawks when they can throw out the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa against you.

All in all, we can expect some of these teams to get stronger with key additions at the trade deadline. Now the real fun of the NHL season begins.

I invite you to send your feedback and you can follow me on Twitter (statsman22). You can also listen to me on Saturday afternoons, at 3:15 p.m. EST on Sirius/XM Radio, on "THE FANTASY DRIVE", Sirius 210 and XM 87, with host Ray Flowers.

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