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James Murphy | NHL.com correspondent
Jan 31, 2007, 12:00 PM EST


With the NHL trade deadline less than a month away, NHL general managers are working the phones, looking to improve their roster with a deal or two. But with an earlier deadline this season, February 27, and so many teams in playoff contention, many GMs are trying to decide whether to improve their current roster or build for the future.

Such is the case in the Northeast Division, where as of Tuesday, every team in the division, was either in the top eight of the Eastern Conference or within striking distance of the eighth slot. Combine that with the restrictions of the salary cap, as well as impending free agents, and one can understand why the job of an NHL GM is no easy task.

"I wouldn't want to be a GM right now," an NHL pro scout said recently. "What do you do right now, when you're still in it, but you have guys who could walk in July? So many teams are right on the verge of either going on a run and fighting for a playoff spot or fading off.

"You really need to follow trends. If you think you're team has a chance based on recent trends, then I guess you become a buyer, but then if your team has been losing lately, do you become a seller? What if they turn it around and not making the necessary improvements prevents them from making it? There are some very tough decisions to make."

The scout, whose job it is to help his GM make those decisions, is happy he isn't the one to make the final call.

"Yeah it's my job to help him make those calls, but the final decision is his and he's the one that either gets applauded or maybe loses his job," the scout said.

Boston Bruins Assistant GM Jeff Gorton echoed those sentiments.

"It is harder now with so many teams in the thick of it at this point," Gorton said. "I think for sure there will be more buyers, but that makes it harder to get what you need. What you need may not be there with the few sellers."

Gorton also pointed out how the deadline and salary cap changes your approach to trades, forcing you to trade for the present and future simultaneously, in effect minimizing the "playoff rentals" of the pre-salary cap era.

"You have to really evaluate whether you're going to make a legit run in the playoffs and not just make it," he said. "If you can't tell, then you can't just trade away the future for now. You need to address both when you trade."

So what do you do if you're Peter Chiarelli, John Ferguson Jr., John Muckler, Bob Gainey or Darcy Regier right now? Well, let's take a look at some of the decisions facing all five Northeast GMs and what they might be looking to do between now and Feb. 27. Here's the list of who might be buyers, sellers or both.

Boston Bruins -- Chiarelli is in a tough position right now. His team is on the outside looking in, and has been inconsistent all season. Yet they still have a chance to make the playoffs if the Bruins finally find some consistency.

Besides deciding whether or not his team is capable of doing that, he must also figure out whether impending unrestricted free agents Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau are in his future plans and whether the Bruins are in the plans of this trio that came to Boston in exchange for Joe Thornton last season.

If they end up walking for nothing, the Bruins would be in the midst of yet another public relations nightmare, having essentially gotten one full season of their services in exchange for the 2005-06 Hart Trophy winner. But if Chiarelli deals them and receives help for the future in the form of players or picks, then fans may claim he's throwing in the towel on a season in which the organization promised to return to the playoffs.

If Boston can finish off this week with a win against Buffalo and then on the road at Carolina Saturday, then look for Chiarelli to wait a bit longer and be both a seller and buyer at the deadline. If not, look for one or more of the many Stuart, Sturm and Primeau rumors to become reality and for the Bruins to become sellers.

Toronto Maple Leafs -- Ferguson is in a very similar position to that of Chiarelli. He not only has to decide whether his team has a legit chance at the playoffs and a possible run in the playoffs, but also what to do with his captain Mats Sundin and the team's heart and soul, Darcy Tucker, both unrestricted free agents on July 1.

Unlike Chiarelli, Ferguson has to make these difficult decisions in a city where hockey is everything and one that demands success every season. To become a seller and build for the future is unheard of in Toronto, so what is Ferguson to do with a team that has been just as inconsistent as the Bruins?

Look for all these elements to cause the Leafs to be both sellers and buyers. Sellers if they can secure a return for Sundin or Tucker that helps them now and in the future and buyers because, well to reiterate the environment Ferguson works in, the Leafs need to make the playoffs, or else!

Ottawa Senators -- The Senators have actually already become buyers indirectly when they acquired Mike Comrie in early January to fill in the void left by the injuries to Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher. Now with the latter players back in the lineup, Ottawa is one of, if not the deepest teams at center in the Northeast Division.

Look for Muckler and the Senators to continue to buy, adding complimentary pieces, most likely some gritty players, something they've lacked in previous playoff runs. Add that element to go with the team's playoff experience and the Senators won't just make the playoffs, they could also be Stanley Cup contenders.

Montreal Canadiens -- The Canadiens play in a city just as hockey-crazy as Toronto, so they too face the same demands as the Leafs. But Gainey, like Muckler, has a team that continues to play like a playoff contender. Better yet, if he is able to add a second-line center, Montreal could also be viewed as Cup contenders.

But Gainey, also has to deal with some key unrestricted free agents, namely defensemen Sheldon Souray, Andrei Markov and Craig Rivet. Therefore the burning question is do you keep this blue-line trio and hope to re-sign them in the summer or try to get something for them now?

If Gainey believes he can find a return for one of those three that will help the Canadiens make a playoff run, then he will deal one of them. Otherwise, look for Montreal to try and find that second-line center via its deep list of prospects, quite possibly a goaltending prospect. Either way, Gainey will be a buyer for the present and not a seller for the future.

Buffalo Sabres -- Thanks to a sensational start, successful first half, and plenty of depth, the Sabres will also be buyers. But unless a knock-your-socks-off type deal is offered to Regier, Buffalo will simply add complimentary pieces.

The Sabres still have almost the same team that came within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final last season, and they have thus far kept their word, that they will do everything in their power to take that final step forward and try to win the franchise's first Cup.

Who's hot -- Heading into last night's game with Washington, Ottawa defenseman Tom Preissing had five points in five games and was second in the NHL with a plus-28.

The Leafs are also getting some offensive punch from their blue line lately as Tomas Kaberle continues to be one of the better offensive blueliners in the league. Kaberle had 40 points heading into last night's game with Carolina and three points in four games. Pavel Kubina, meanwhile, has finally shown the offensive skill that enticed the Leafs to sign him last summer, with four points in his last two games, including a two-goal performance in a 4-1 win over Montreal Saturday.

Black and blue -- Defenseman Jason York remains out of the Bruins lineup with knee injury. York is nearing a return and could be back by Saturday, when Boston plays at Carolina.

The Sabres got another key piece of their blue-line corps back last night as Henrik Tallinder returned from an ankle sprain. Buffalo is still without Jiri Novotny, who is also suffering from an ankle sprain, and Tim Connolly who is on the injured reserve with post-concussion syndrome.

The Canadiens remain without the services of forward Steve Begin who is out indefinitely with a rib injury.

The Senators cleared their injury list recently, with the return of Jason Spezza last Saturday and Mike Fisher last night.

Toronto defenseman Ian White returned from an ankle sprain last night. But the Maple Leafs still have three players on the injured reserve list. Michael Peca (broken fibula), Kyle Wellwood (sports hernia), and Andy Wozniewski (shoulder), are all out indefinitely. Darcy Tucker though, is nearing a return from a broken foot.

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