The Eastern Conference title race is wide open this season, and that was evident Wednesday when 11 of the top 12 teams in the standings made moves to improve at the NHL trade deadline.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins, who sit atop the Metropolitan and Atlantic divisions, respectively, clearly are the class of the conference. They battled for the conference title last season and are expected to do so again, but most of the second-tier of contenders in the East made trades over the last week to increase their chances of pulling off an upset in May.
The New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning made an ultra-rare swap of captains in a win-win deal for both teams. New York gave up top-six winger Ryan Callahan and two draft picks for reigning Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis.
This deal gives the Rangers additional speed and scoring on the wings. St. Louis, 38, is still a point-per-game player with 61 points (29 goals, 32 assists) in 62 games this season. With improved scoring depth, a talented blue line, a healthy roster and an elite goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist, the Blueshirts are well-equipped for a deep playoff run.
As for the Lightning, they landed a top-tier two-way forward in Callahan, who will have a positive impact on the fifth-worst penalty kill in the league. First-line center Steven Stamkos will return Thursday after a three-month absence, and with Ben Bishop playing like a Vezina Trophy candidate, the Lightning will be a tough out in the postseason.
The Montreal Canadiens made the biggest addition at the deadline by acquiring top-line winger Thomas Vanek from the New York Islanders. Vanek, an eight-time 20-goal scorer, joins a Canadiens offense that has only one player with 40 or more points (Max Pacioretty). He also dominates the Bruins, which makes him an ideal fit in Montreal.
Thomas Vanek vs Big, Bad Bruins, career: 53 games, 30 goals, 31 assists. CC: Bergy, Shero—
Chris Botta (@ChrisBottaNHL) March 05, 2014
Montreal is 6-2-2 in its last 10 games and starting to play consistent hockey at the perfect time. The Habs are a serious threat in the East post-trade deadline, especially after Carey Price’s stellar performance as Team Canada’s starting goaltender at the Sochi Olympics.
The Washington Capitals addressed weaknesses in net and in their top-six by acquiring goaltender Jaroslav Halak and winger Dustin Penner from the Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks, respectively. The Ottawa Senators bolstered their scoring depth with the acquisition of veteran winger Ales Hemsky from Edmonton, and Detroit added a top-six center in David Legwand from Nashville.
As well as the Penguins and Bruins have played, neither team made a notable addition at the deadline. Pittsburgh’s biggest move was trading for bottom-six center Marcel Goc from Florida, and Boston only added two depth defensemen (Andrej Meszaros and Corey Potter). These teams didn’t address their major weakness, which was the need for a top-four defenseman.
Before the trade deadline, the Bruins and Penguins were locked in a two-horse race for the Eastern Conference title, but that number changed to four or five after 3 p.m. Wednesday.
A No. 1 and 2 seed have been eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in each Olympic year with NHL participation, and that trend could continue this season with the Eastern Conference becoming more competitive after the trade deadline.