The second quarter of the 2013 NHL season will help us figure out which teams are contenders and pretenders in the playoff race.
Once these teams are established, it will be easier to determine the buyers and sellers at the trade deadline. As teams fall out of the playoff race, we could see a few general managers press the panic button and make a major move to save their season.
Let's look at five storylines to follow as the second quarter of the season unfolds.
Which Team(s) Will Create Activity on the Trade Market?
It usually takes just one team to kick-start the trade market, and it will be interesting to see which clubs become desperate as they fall out of the playoff race and begin to make the first major moves of the season.
Since every team is still in the playoff race right now (no one is more than six points from the eighth spot in either conference), it's no surprise that the trade market has been stagnant thus far.
With so many clubs still in the race, teams looking to make moves will have to pay high prices to acquire top-tier talent, which is probably why we have only seen small trades involving bottom-six players and late-round draft picks so far this season.
There are a few clubs that could make a major trade and force teams around the league to react with moves of their own. Let's look at a few of these teams and what their needs are.
|Ottawa Senators||Scoring, top-four D-man||Both||If the Senators win consistently and remain in the playoff race without Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson in the lineup, expect them to be buyers at the deadline in search of a top-six forward or a top-four offensive defenseman. Ottawa could be a dark horse to land a top UFA such as Corey Perry since it has great prospects to offer. If the team falls out of the race, veterans such as Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar could be dangled to contenders.|
|Boston Bruins||Top-six forward||Buyer||The Bruins have about $12 million in salary cap space, which is more than almost every other Stanley Cup contender. Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli has a history of deadline deals, and since his team is so close to another title, don't be surprised if he makes a major trade to add elite offensive skill to the Bruins roster.|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||Blue-line help, top-six forward||Both||Expect the Leafs to be busy at the trade deadline regardless of which direction they are headed in. With a number of upcoming UFAs this offseason and next summer, Toronto has plenty of players to trade for immediate help or to acquire quality assets (picks, prospects) to build for the future.|
|San Jose Sharks||Top-four D-man, scoring depth||Both||If the Sharks' losing streak doesn't end soon and the team decides to begin its inevitable rebuild earlier than expected, players like Patrick Marleau and Ryane Clowe might become available. |
|Calgary Flames||Young talent||Seller||The Flames will likely fall out of the playoff race, and when that happens, stars such as goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff and captain Jarome Iginla could be on the block.|
|Philadelphia Flyers||Top-six winger, top-four D-man||Buyer||Missing the playoffs would be unacceptable for the Flyers, so expect general manager Paul Holmgren, who is typically aggressive in the trade market, to look for upgrades if his team is in the playoff race near the deadline.|
|Buffalo Sabres||Top-six forward||Both||The Sabres could be the first desperate team to make a major move to get back into the playoff race. Buffalo is 6-9-1 this season and 1-3 in the team's last four games.|
Will the Colorado Avalanche Trade Ryan O'Reilly?
The contract negotiations between the Colorado Avalanche and RFA center Ryan O'Reilly have been at a standstill for some time.
Here's the latest on his situation from Hockey Night in Canada's Elliotte Friedman via Saturday's edition of Hotstove:
There's a belief he will never play for the Avalanche again. I do believe that this week the Avalanche and the New York Rangers kind of went down the road on what a deal would look like and they talked about Ryan O'Reilly and one of Colorado's defenseman for a package that I believe would have included Michael Del Zotto, a player that the Avalanche really like. But as Colorado started asking for more and more the Rangers pulled back and said no. So that's off right now...
Adrian Dater of The Denver Post also reported what the Avalanche are asking teams to part with for the 22-year-old forward if he's traded:
Colorado needs to move this player as soon as possible because it seems that he doesn't want to be with the team long-term. If he did, O'Reilly would probably be with the team under a new short-term contract because he's not a player who's worth over $5 million per year after just one impressive season at the NHL level.
If the Avalanche can get a player like Michael Del Zotto, who is a young and talented offensive defenseman, Colorado must make the deal.
This team already has enough scoring depth at forward, but the lack of top-tier offensive talent on the blue line is a real problem. Only three Avalanche defensemen have more than one point this season.
O'Reilly could make a major impact on the playoff race in the Eastern Conference because the team that acquires him will be getting a potential first-line center who excels at both ends of the ice. This is the most interesting trade/rumor storyline to follow right now.
The Chicago Blackhawks' Dominance
The Blackhawks were nearly perfect in the first quarter of the season with no regulation losses, and the team has become must-see TV in Chicago and around the league.
Chicago has two more wins to go before they make history with one of the best starts in sports history (via ESPN Stats & Info):
This team has almost no weaknesses, and it ranks second in goals scored, goals against and third in penalty-kill percentage. The worry before the season was the team's goaltending, but Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have been spectacular with a combined 1.9 GAA.
The scariest part about the Blackhawks is not their immense talent, it's their championship experience. A large portion of the roster experienced the team's Stanley Cup run in 2010, which means they know what it takes to win in the playoffs.
The good news for the Blackhawks is that this kind of early season success has resulted in Stanley Cup championships multiple times in the past:
The only worry for Chicago is that there haven't been many championship runs made by President's Trophy winners since the award was introduced in 1985-86. Only seven of the 26 winners lifted the Stanley Cup, including one in the last nine years.
Expectations are as high as possible following a historic start to the lockout-shortened 2013 season, but the Blackhawks have more than enough to make another championship run.
The Defending Stanley Cup Champions are Underachieving: Will They Turn it Around?
Through the first quarter of the season, the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings have played more like the underachieving team that barely got into the 2012 NHL playoffs than the one that won the Stanley Cup with a 16-4 postseason record.
The Kings are 5-6-1 (3-5 against teams currently in a playoff spot) and just two points above the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
Two major problems this team had during last year's regular season are still issues in 2013, and they are goal scoring and the power play. Los Angeles ranks 27th in goals scored and 22nd in power-play percentage.
With eight of the team's next 11 games at home, the Kings will have no excuses if their poor start to the season extends into the month of March. If this team continues to struggle, expect general manager Dean Lombardi to make a move for a defenseman because injuries and underperforming players (Drew Doughty, for example) have really hurt the Kings blue line thus far.
Los Angeles has more than enough talent to turn their season around, and it will be interesting to see if the leaders on this team (such as captain Dustin Brown) help spark another midseason push toward the playoffs.
Struggling Superstars Need to Play Better
In sports, there aren't many worse situations than a team having a high-paid superstar performing well below expectations.
These are the players teams rely on for regular season and playoff success, so watching them fail to impress at both ends of the ice is extremely frustrating.
Coming into a high-pressure shortened season after an intense lockout was a challenge for players, but now that we are in the second quarter of the season, the excuses are gone.
Let's look at a few superstars who are not playing at a high level and must improve as soon as possible.
|Shea Weber||D||2||3||5||Weber's struggles are surprising since he is arguably the best defenseman in the game. Nashville ranks 30th in goals scored and needs its captain to be more productive offensively because five points in 16 games isn't good enough.|
|Ryan Suter||D||0||8||8||Zero goals in 15 games from Suter is one reason why Minnesota's offense ranks 29th in goals scored. This kind of production is not what the Wild thought they would get when the star defenseman signed a $98 million contract last summer.|
|Drew Doughty||D||0||6||6||With important defensemen Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell injured, Doughty's struggles could not be happening at a worse time.|
|Joe Thornton||C||3||12||15||How is a player performing at a point-per-game rate on this list? The Sharks captain was fantastic in the first week of the season, but he has one point in his last eight games. Thornton's inability to make a strong impact offensively is one reason why San Jose has lost seven straight games.|
|Phil Kessel||RW||2||11||13||Two goals in 15 games is not what the Leafs expected from Kessel, who is one of the league's best offensive players. If Toronto is going to earn a playoff spot this year, the team needs Kessel to become a more consistent goal scorer.|
|Miikka Kiprusoff||G||2-3-2||3.24||.870||The Flames goaltender has not played at an elite level this season, and his struggles are one reason why the team ranks 28th in goals against and penalty killing. Kiprusoff is currently injured, and he will need to improve quite a bit when he returns if Calgary is going to make the playoffs.|
|Jonathan Quick||G||3-5-2||2.74||.895||Quick carried the Kings to a playoff berth and a championship last season, so it's not surprising that his struggles have resulted in the team sitting at the bottom of the Pacific Division.|
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was also a credentialed reported at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.