Trade speculation increases as deadline looms

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The NHL's March 3 trade deadline is over six weeks away but trade speculation has significantly increased over the past two weeks.

That's because the NHL will be shutting down from Feb. 13 -28 for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver to allow their best players to represent their countries in men's ice hockey.  A "trade freeze" will be in effect during that period, allowing for only three days of active trading between the end of the Olympics and the March deadline.

As a result, it's believed some NHL general managers might try to avoid the rush and perhaps get the jump on their rivals by acquiring the best available talent prior to the Olympics break.

Currently there aren't many teams that could be considered sellers as too many teams remain in the playoff hunt, although that could change over the next two weeks.

At this point only three teams -- the Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers -- could be considered sellers as they're so far out of the playoff race they have almost no hope of getting back into contention.

Hurricanes management has requested forward Ray Whitney and defenseman Niclas Wallin waive their respective movement clauses, which they might do for a chance to play for a Stanley Cup contender. Forward Matt Cullen is also expected to garner considerable attention.

Those three are unrestricted free agents (UFAs) this summer and might not have a future with the Hurricanes, although speculation persists that Whitney could accept a trade this season and re-sign with Carolina this summer. Other potential UFAs include forward Scott Walker and defensemen Joe Corvo and Aaron Ward.

Defenseman Joni Pitkanen is also rumored available, but the Hurricanes apparently hope to re-sign him before his current contract expires at the end of next season.

The Oilers are reportedly shopping defensemen Sheldon Souray, Lubomir Visnovsky and Steve Staios along with forwards Shawn Horcoff, Ethan Moreau and Robert Nilsson.

Staios and Moreau could attract the most attention for while they still have another season remaining on their contracts, they're also quite affordable.

The same cannot be said for Souray, Visnovsky and Horcoff, who still have two or more years remaining on their current deals with expensive salary cap hits in excess of $5 million per season.

Players like that are rarely moved at the trade deadline so the Oilers might have better luck shopping them this summer when teams have more cap space and willingness to make deals.

Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke continues to talk as though he could be a buyer before the deadline if the right deal could be made to turn his team into a playoff club, but that's simply not going to happen. Burke isn't a big fan of trade deadline deals, but this season he's likely to shop several of his pending UFA players, notably goaltender Vesa Tosaka and forwards Matt Stajan, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Lee Stempniak.

It's been rumored for weeks Leafs defenseman Tomas Kaberle might submit a list of preferred trade destinations, but he and Burke have rejected those rumors.

The Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets could be on the brink of falling out of contention in the West. A string of losses between now and Feb. 10 could push them into sell mode leading up to the Olympic break.

Potential UFAs like Owen Nolan, Kim Johnsson, Marek Zidlicky and Eric Belanger could be peddled by the Wild.

The Blues could put forwards Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk along with blueliner Carlo Colaiacovo on the market, contrary to rumors they won't be shopping center David Backes. It's also believed they'll attempt to re-sign goalie Chris Mason.

Columbus could try to move pending UFA forwards Raffi Torres and Fredrik Modin plus defenseman Milan Jurcina, who they recently obtained via trade from Washington.

The Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks could also find themselves trade-deadline sellers should they fail to gain ground in the Western standings.

It's believed the Stars could shop veteran goalie Marty Turco rather than attempt to re-sign him this summer while trade rumors continue to dog Ducks veterans Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne.

The Atlanta Thrashers remain in the thick of a very tight playoff race in the Eastern Conference, but that hasn't stopped speculation they could try trade superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk rather than risk losing him for nothing to free agency this summer.

Kovalchuk could be dealt, but it might not happen prior to the Olympic break since NHL players participating in the Olympics will still be paid their salaries. It's instead believed he could be moved at the March 3 deadline, but if the Thrashers can move up in the Eastern standings by the deadline, they could retain Kovalchuk in hopes of securing a berth.

As for potential buyers, that, too, remains a limited market for now but might open up within the next two weeks.

Currently the slumping Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference are actively shopping for help, believed to be seeking a scoring forward and a puck-moving defenseman. They aren't, however, expected to use the Maple Leafs 2010 first-round pick, which they obtained in the Phil Kessel trade last fall, as trade bait.

In the West, the Calgary Flames are in danger of skidding out of the playoff picture, leading to wild speculation that defenseman Dion Phaneuf is being offered around. GM Darryl Sutter will likely make a move to bolster his anemic defense by shopping one of his defensemen, but don't expect Phaneuf, Jay Bouwmeester or Robyn Regehr to be available.

Other potential Western buyers include the Nashville Predators, L.A. Kings and Vancouver Canucks, while in the East the New York Rangers, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders could go shopping for depth soon.