No matter how the landscape has moderately shifted this season, it's still a two-team NHL until another team says otherwise.
Consider the biggest move of the day by the defending champion Kings, made almost a full five days before the March 2 trade deadline.
The Kings shipped a conditional first-round pick and prospect Roland McKeown to the Carolina Hurricanes for defenseman Andrej Sekera, a pending unrestricted free agent and arguably the best available rental on the market.
Sekera fills a huge need for the Kings, who have struggled mightily (at least, before winning eight straight) on the back end since losing Willie Mitchell to free agency and having Slava Voynov suspended early in the season after he was charged with domestic violence. The Kings usually go shopping for offense (Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik) this time of year, but they had a glaring issue on the blue line and general manager Dean Lombardi addressed it.
"It's the one area of the team that we felt could be targeted in terms of an upgrade, and that means as a group," Lombardi said during a conference call. "Whenever you look at you back end, it's a mix type thing. He's very mobile. Even though he's not big, he's certainly a smart player. I think with the seven [defensemen] that we have, this was a chance to upgrade this team."
The timing of the deal, however, is almost too convenient to not be a coincidence.
The Blackhawks turned a negative into a positive earlier Wednesday, placing potential league MVP Patrick Kane on long-term injured reserve, then announcing he would miss 12 weeks for surgery on a broken clavicle. The transaction leaves the Blackhawks without their best player until the conference finals but also frees about $6.3 million in cap space for a team that had almost none of it before the injury.
By losing Kane, GM Stan Bowman can add about $6 million worth of rental talent, then bring back Kane in the postseason should the Blackhawks still be alive when Kane is healthy. That can be a scary proposition for whichever team has to potentially face them then.
Hmmm. Who could that possibly be?
The past two Western Conference Finals, played between the Blackhawks and Kings, determined the eventual Stanley Cup champion. The Blackhawks got the best of the Kings in 2013 with the Kings exacting revenge last season.
By adding Sekera a few hours after the Blackhawks found themselves swimming in cap space, Lombardi made things a little more difficult on the Kings' biggest (sorry, San Jose) championship rivals.
However, Lombardi said that wasn't the motivating factor for getting the trade done now.
"Not really," Lombardi said. "This has been an ongoing thing. The player essentially controls when it happens. They were very forthright through the whole process about what it would probably take. From our end, I don't have any control over that."
|L.A. Kings' potential defense corps|
|Left defense||Right defense|
|Jake Muzzin||Drew Doughty|
|Andrej Sekera||Alec Martinez|
|Robyn Regehr||Matt Greene|
With Sekera in the fold, here's the Kings' blue line if and when everyone is healthy.
It's hard to foresee Voynov returning to the lineup before the end of the regular season after this move. Voynov's domestic violence trial begins March 2, and even if he is acquitted March 3, the league won't necessarily reinstate him immediately. For a host of reasons, hockey- and human-related, that's the smart way to go.
Lombardi didn't rule out the possibility of Voynov returning but seemed to genuinely lack an idea of what will happen with Voynov.
"It's like a chemistry project," Lombardi said. "It's fair to say it's very uncertain, and that's what lends itself to having X, Y and Z [potential scenarios] on the board here. As a practical matter, we don't have any more insight for what's going to happen here."
Alec Martinez has been out nearly three weeks with a concussion after initially receiving a day-to-day prognosis, so there's nothing guaranteed about his status over the remainder of the season, making the addition of Sekera that much more important, although it wasn't the impetus for the deal.
"This is something we've been looking at prior to [Martinez] getting hurt," Lombardi said. "To say it was triggered because of [Martinez], no. This is something we were looking at as we monitored the Voynov situation all year."
Sekera is 28 years old, although he doesn't bring a wealth of playoff experience (eight games) to the lineup. He has been a solid possession player on a downtrodden Hurricanes team all season, posting a 52.8 on-ice unblocked shot attempt percentage. He had a career-best 11 goals and 44 points last season but has dipped to two goals and 19 points this season.
The Kings are following the blueprint that won them Cups in 2012 and 2014: plod during the regular season, step on the gas toward the end of the regular season, add a piece at the trade deadline, win a title.
All that's left now for the Kings is to raise a third Cup in four years...as long as they get in the playoffs first.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.