We have now reached the halfway point in the 2013 NHL season, which means that general managers have had plenty of time to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their roster and determine which players on the trade market could help their team before the April 3 trade deadline.
Since the trade deadline is less than a month from the end of the regular season, making moves now would give players who are traded more time to settle in and adjust to their new coaches, teammates and roles.
If general managers wait until there are only 15-20 games left on the schedule to make a trade, it might be too late for their teams to make up ground in the standings.
Let's look at four struggling teams that need to make moves in the immediate future to strengthen their roster for the final stages of the playoff race.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are seven points from the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and eight points behind the Carolina Hurricanes in the Southeast Division. These deficits aren't insurmountable, but the Lightning have to improve quickly with just 23 games left on their schedule.
If Tampa Bay doesn't start defending better on a consistent basis, this team will miss the playoffs for the second year in a row. The Lightning rank 27th in goals against, 15th on the penalty kill and have allowed the second-most third period goals (33).
Last season, no team ranked 25th or worse in GAA made the playoffs, and if the season ended today, every team 26th or worse in GAA would not make the postseason. This helps prove how important strong defense and goaltending are to making the playoffs.
With that said, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman must acquire a defensive defenseman who would contribute to the penalty kill, play well in his own zone and be able to log 20-plus minutes each game.
Two blue liners who Yzerman should target are Ron Hainsey of the Winnipeg Jets and Robyn Regehr of the Buffalo Sabres. Both players would add a physical presence and plenty of experience to the Lightning blue line, and each defenseman is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, which means Tampa Bay would not have to commit salary to them beyond this year.
Ottawa Senators veteran Sergei Gonchar, who is an upcoming UFA, would also be a good fit on the Lightning blue line. He is a reliable two-way player who would improve Tampa Bay's special teams and provide the club with lots of playoff experience.
To acquire a top-four defenseman, the Lightning may have to part with a top-nine forward. Benoit Pouliot and Teddy Purcell are two quality forwards who can score goals that teams may be interested in. Tampa Bay can afford to give up some offense for help on the blue line because the team ranks second in goals scored and has the ninth-best power play.
The Lightning are 2-8 in their last 10 games, but there is still hope for them to make the playoffs because the Southeast Division is home to two of the worst teams in the league (Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals).
Adding a top-four defenseman to their roster would significantly increase the Lightning's chances of earning a playoff spot. With a little over $6 million in cap space, Tampa Bay does have some financial flexibility to make a move before the trade deadline.
The Oilers earned a hugely important 6-5 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday night that will boost the confidence of the team, but Edmonton still has a lot of work to do before its six-year playoff drought comes to an end.
Edmonton has an abundance of offensive skill, but this team lacks the proper amount of grit and toughness needed to contend in the Western Conference. Adding a veteran power forward who would provide leadership, physical play and penalty killing to the lineup is the best move for general manager Steve Tambellini to make before the deadline.
Ryane Clowe of the San Jose Sharks would be a great acquisition for the Oilers. He would provide head coach Ralph Krueger with some goal-scoring skill and toughness for the team's third line.
Clowe is an upcoming UFA, and since the Sharks need draft picks for their inevitable rebuild in the near future, the Oilers might be able to acquire the 30-year-old winger for a package involving a second or third-round pick.
It's also no secret that the Oilers need another top-four defenseman who is able to provide the team's blue line with defensive smarts, shut-down ability and leadership. These players are difficult for Edmonton to sign in free agency, so a trade is the team's best option.
Dangling Sam Gagner (an RFA at the end of the year) in the trade market might help the Oilers acquire a star defenseman because at 23 years old, he's one of the best young centers in the league. Gagner leads Edmonton in goals (9) and points (23) this season, and is versatile enough to play at center or on the wing.
Veteran winger Ryan Jones, who's also a UFA at season's end, could be offered to a team needing third-line scoring in exchange for a defenseman.
Edmonton is five points from a playoff spot in the West and has a tough schedule for the rest of March (seven of its next nine games are against playoff teams from last season).
If the Oilers don't make any moves soon, their chances of earning a playoff spot will quickly disappear because they aren't strong enough defensively to beat the top teams in the conference.
Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings need another top-four defenseman who can contribute at both ends of the ice, which has been a need for general manager Ken Holland to address since former captain Nicklas Lidstrom retired after last season.
Losing Lidstrom's ability to move the puck, score goals and make plays from the blue line has been a huge setback for the Red Wings offense.
To strengthen the team's blue line, there are a number of quality defensemen for Holland to target via trade, but the players that make the most sense are Mark Streit of the New York Islanders and Jay Bouwmeester of the Calgary Flames.
Streit is an upcoming UFA and would be a rental as a 35-year-old veteran nearing the end of his career. He's still a quality two-way player capable of putting up points from the blue line on a consistent basis and is reliable defensively in his own end.
Bouwmeester still has another year on his contract after this season with a $6.68 million cap hit, but he's an experienced player with the ability to put up 30-50 points in a full 82-game season. He leads all Flames defensemen with 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 23 games.
Bouwmeester is known for his offensive talent, impressive skating and puck-moving ability, but his defense is an underrated part of his skill set. He's also capable of playing 20-plus minutes every game against opposing team's top forwards, and at 29 years old, Bouwmeester will excel in a top-four role for at least three or four more years.
In addition to a defenseman, Holland could also be in the market for another top-six forward because his team ranks 20th in goals scored. Don't be surprised if the Red Wings try to acquire star winger Corey Perry, who is in the final year of his current contract with the Anaheim Ducks.
Detroit needs scoring depth on the wings and someone who can become a face-of-the-franchise kind of player for when Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg no longer perform like elite players, which makes Perry a great fit in the Motor City.
Perry would also be a huge addition to the Red Wings' abysmal power play, which ranks 26th in the league. Detroit still hasn't scored a power-play goal on the road this season (0-for-36), which is one reason why the team's record away from home is only 3-5-2.
The Red Wings have nearly $8 million of cap space to work with and are one of the few teams that would be able to afford Perry if he tested the free agent market in the summer.
The Red Wings are fourth in the Western Conference standings but only two points separate them from the ninth-place Phoenix Coyotes. They have lost two straight games and need to strengthen their blue line to ensure the team's streak of 21 consecutive playoff appearances does not end in 2013.
Not many people expect the Flyers to miss the postseason even though they are 11th in the Eastern Conference and three points from a playoff spot, but there are several weaknesses on the roster that general Paul Holmgren should address in the near future.
One weakness that must be addressed is the lack of a top-four defenseman to play alongside 37-year-old veteran Kimmo Timonen, who leads all Philadelphia blue liners with 19 points (12 more than Luke Schenn, who ranks second on the team in scoring among defensemen).
The Flyers rank 23rd in goals against and their poor performance defensively has cost them lots of valuable points in the standings this season.
Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Stuart of the Winnipeg Jets are two quality defenseman that the Flyers could pursue before the trade deadline. Byfuglien is a physical player who would add some grit, goal scoring ability and power-play skill to the Philly blue line, while Stuart would provide leadership, reliable defensive play and an attractive contract that has two years left with a manageable $1.7 million cap hit.
Byfuglien's contract has four more years left on it with a $5.1 million salary cap hit, and the Flyers already have a small amount of cap space for the 2013-14 season when the cap ceiling drops to $64.3 million.
Bouwmeester is the ideal fit for the Flyers blue line because of his two-way game, but his $6.68 million cap hit is way too high for Philly to take on without sending a large contract back to Calgary.
Philadelphia's cap situation makes acquiring a rental player the best option for Holmgren. With that said, Jordan Leopold of the Buffalo Sabres, Douglas Murray of the San Jose Sharks and Ladislav Smid of the Edmonton Oilers would be good fits in Philadelphia because of the defensive skill and toughness they each bring to the ice, in addition to their expiring contracts.
Since the Flyers' offense is not as talented or deep as it was last year, they cannot rely on their top-six forwards to bail out the team's horrible defense and inconsistent goaltending on a regular basis, especially with Sean Couturier and Maxime Talbot failing to provide an adequate amount of bottom-six scoring (14 points combined).
The Flyers have just 21 games remaining on their schedule, which is the fewest of any NHL team. If Holmgren is going to make a major trade to shakeup his roster for a late-season playoff push, he would be wise to pull the trigger on a deal sooner rather than later. Missing the playoffs with the league's highest salary cap payroll would be a massive failure for Philadelphia.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs. All salary cap information courtesy of Capgeek.
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