The NHL season is much like a puzzle. Not a nice one that you buy in the store with a picture on the box, more like an old one that you find piled into a shoebox in the attic.
You don't know if you have all the pieces, and you don't know what the picture is. But now that the trade deadline has passed, we can begin to see the playoff picture coming into focus.
When you start a puzzle, you look for corner pieces to build from. These are the major parts that shape your team. If you have a given amount of time to assemble your puzzle and you are still looking for these pieces over three quarters of the way into it, you are in trouble.
That is why teams that make blockbuster trades at the deadline almost never win the Cup. The team identity must be established long before that.
What you want to be looking for are a couple key pieces that help you figure out the puzzle's identity, so that instead of looking for a piece of a certain shape, you can begin looking for pieces that fit the picture.
It's much easier to look for a church steeple than for a piece that has two prongs on the right and bottom side but one on the left and top.
This year, there were no real blockbuster trades, but the picture is coming into focus for many teams. Thus, I feel I can now accurately predict the playoff teams for both conferences; below is my predicted final seeding in each conference along with a comment for each team:
- San Jose Sharks: they mitigated the loss of penalty-killer Mike Grier somewhat with the addition of Travis Moen and added depth on the blue line with steady stay-at-home defenceman Kent Huskins. They lost no one who was going to play this year, and this move was just enough for the team to maintain their game-and-a-half lead on Detroit in the West.
- Detroit Red Wings: did nothing; but, they have a safe lead over Calgary for the second seed and Chicago for the division title
- Calgary Flames: did the most to improve, essentially upgrading from Matthew Lombardi to Olli Jokinen at centre and re-acquiring Jordan Leopold to secure their blue line, but it will not improve their seeding
- Chicago Blackhawks: added a good two-way centre in Samuel Pahlsson while giving up a defenceman (James Wisniewski) that they can replace with depth. But much like Calgary, this will not be enough to help them catch Detroit.
- Vancouver Canucks: whatever minuscule chance that they had to catch either Chicago or Calgary is gone, since they made no moves. However, their move in adding Mats Sundin in January has improved them enough that I also think that they will not be caught by Columbus.
- Columbus Blue Jackets: trading away Pascal LeClaire for Antoine Vermette filled the dual purpose of improving them in both the short and long run...unless Steve Mason is a flash-in-the-pan or gets hurt. That move secured their position as the sixth seed in the West, but is probably not enough to let them catch Vancouver.
- Edmonton Oilers: they did well on the deadline, losing Erik Cole but gaining Patrick O'Sullivan and Ales Kotalik. These separate moves will ensure that they make the playoffs.
- Dallas Stars: they added veteran centre Brendan Morrison off waivers from the Anaheim Ducks, and traded away Doug Janik for Steve Begin a couple days ago. That is just enough to get them in, since they have only one game remaining against the Sharks, and two of the teams in their division sold, including the Anaheim Ducks that they are competing with. They also have fewer road games remaining than the Minnesota Wild, who stood pat and are better than Nashville
- Boston Bruins: they improved more than any other team in the East, adding Mark Recchi and Steve Montador while losing only Petteri Nokelainen from their core contributors. Having already had a three game lead over the second best team, they are a lock to win the East's top seed and will likely win the President's Trophy.
- New Jersey Devils: they made their move a couple days early, acquiring Nicolas Havelid to strengthen their blue line. Their other big move was reactivating Martin Brodeur from injured reserve, and he already appears to be in late season form. They are a lock to finish second.
- Washington Capitals: they made no moves, but have a comfortable lead over the second place team in their division.
- Philadelphia Flyers: this team added some pop, with intimidating but undisciplined forward Dan Carcillo and veteran hard-hitter Kyle McLaren, but they did give up a pretty solid two-way player in Scottie Upshall in order to get them. Not enough of an impact to either let them catch New Jersey or be caught by Montreal or New York.
- Montreal Canadiens: adding Matthieu Schneider and Janik to their blue line before a couple days ago (and losing Begin), they did nothing on the deadline. But they should still be strong enough to maintain their one game lead on the fifth seed.
- Pittsburgh Penguins: this team has been hot since changing coaches, and recently traded D Ryan Whitney for F Chris Kunitz. Now they have added Bill Guerin in place of Miroslav Satan and are getting healthy for the first time this season. They are not only going to make the playoffs, they are going to leapfrog a couple of teams and be dangerous when they get there.
- New York Rangers: adding Sean Avery, Derek Morris, and Nik Antropov while losing Dmitri Kalinin, Petr Prucha, and Nigel Dawes may seem like an exchange of unproductive role players, but it is an upgrade. For whatever reason, Prucha was not playing much, and the one place Avery has performed well is New York. This is enough to stop this team's slide, but not to get them back where their talent says they should be.
- Florida Panthers: essentially traded Noah Welch for Steve Eminger on their roster, and while that is not much of an upgrade, it is enough to keep them in the playoffs since they are currently two games up on Carolina, who improved marginally at most, and Buffalo, who may have lost more than they gained.
- Sharks in six: the Stars will not have enough of their talent back to be able to keep up with the Sharks, who will have most or all of their injured players back. Red Wings in six: their goaltending will keep the Oilers in the series, but they have too much talent to lose. Flames in five: this improved version of Calgary is too much Columbus in their first playoff. Canucks in seven: better goaltending, Mats Sundin's final run (?), and more playoff experience together leads to a game seven upset in Chicago. Bruins in five: Florida just does not stack up against Boston's talent. Devils in six: a talented Rangers squad and Henrik Lundqvist will make things interesting. Penguins in six: Washington will struggle against the more experienced Pens. Flyers in five: they have only questions in net, Montreal has many.
- Sharks in six: Vancouver has too little depth and too narrow an advantage in net. Flames in seven: their upgrades are just enough to allow their superior goaltending to get them past Detroit. Penguins in seven: Boston's goaltending will fail them against the high-scoring Pens. Devils in six: Philly's savvy does not match Jersey's, and there is no contest in net.
- Sharks in seven: it will take all the Sharks have to beat the Flames, but last season's first-round win and shaking the second-round jinx will help. Devils in six: Pittsburgh's edge in their forwards is not as significant as Jersey's in net, and they have the edge on the blue line, too.
- Devils in six: the Devils win in 6-6-6, then do it again! Brodeur will be fresher than any playoffs in his life, and will be like a young player in energy but a vet in savvy. Plus, San Jose will have done too much traveling and played too grueling a series against Calgary.