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Stars in their eyes Big names may find themselves in play as teams work the phones up until trade deadline

The NHL trade deadline is next Wednesday, and nobody is quite sure what to expect in the days ahead. Six teams were within nine points of fourth-place Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference heading into Wednesday night. Eight points separated fifth-place Vancouver and 13th-place St. Louis in the West.

Buy, sell or flip a coin?

So many teams, so many players, so many possibilities. Several superstars are almost certain to change addresses, and several more are capable of pushing teams into contention. Here are a few items worth watching leading into Wednesday while pondering trade rumors du jour.

>Star gazing

*Jay Bouwmeester, D, Florida. General Manager Jacques Martin didn't rule out trading away his top player during a conference call last week, which was telling. Bouwmeester will be among the most coveted players before the deadline and after the season, assuming he reaches unrestricted free agency. Teams are expected to line up for him, but you never know. It's quite possible, despite the talk about him, that he stays in Florida.

*Chris Pronger, D, Anaheim. Pronger is signed through next season at $6.25 million, which is reasonable for a game-changing veteran who has won the Cup. The Flyers like his style and could make room if they moved forward Joffrey Lupul and defenseman Matt Carle to the West Coast. The Devils also need him or someone similar (see: Niedermayer, Scott). Leafs GM Brian Burke also could make a play for Pronger and make him a building block.

Carolina is another possible destination.

*Jason Spezza, C, Ottawa. The Senators have $83.6 million committed to Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson over the next four years, including $25.1 million next season. Spezza appears to be the likely candidate to be shipped out. He's a terrific player but has largely underachieved in becoming the poster boy for their problems. The challenge is finding a team willing to take his $8 million annual salary.

*Keith Tkachuk, LW, St. Louis. Boston is looking for some help up front and could make a play for the local boy. Tkachuk would be a rental, and the Bruins or any other team would need to send a prospect and/or high pick to the Blues to get him. Tkachuk has scored 18 goals and would give a boost to any power play. He's looking for a chance to win the Cup. There's no better place than home.

*Scott Niedermayer, D, Anaheim. He's not going to give Anaheim the return that Pronger can because he's older and a rental, but he's still worth taking for any contender. New Jersey could bring him back for another kick at the Cup, but it would likely mean sending David Clarkson and/or a high draft pick back to Anaheim.

*Alex Kovalev, RW, Montreal. It's not a good sign when management figures its team is better served without a key player than with him. Kovalev is one of 13 pending UFAs on the roster. If the Habs aren't convinced they'll fully recover from their recent slide, they could dump his salary on Edmonton and start concentrating on Vincent Lecavalier this summer.

>Another six pack

*Tim Connolly, C, Buffalo. This is among the most intriguing possibilities because he's capable of averaging a point per game, but his health is a major issue. Would he come back at the right price? If not, who would the Sabres get in return? Columbus is interested.

*Jordan Leopold, D, Colorado. No need for him to stick around with the Avalanche all but out of contention and free agency looming. There's a chance he could return to the Flames, whom he helped reach the finals in 2003-04.

*Olli Jokinen, C, Phoenix. He could become a victim of the money crunch and would get the Coyotes a solid return. He's signed through next season for $5.5 million, which is fair even though he never played in a postseason game.

*Marian Gaborik, LW, Wild. He has played only six games this season but should be back for the playoffs. He's a franchise player, but he's hitting the open market in July. If the right team snags him and he stays healthy, look out.

*Tomas Kaberle, D, Toronto. GM Burke has publicly said he would need to be blown away by an offer. Kaberle has given him a list of 10 teams for whom he would waive his no-trade clause.

*Manny Fernandez, G, Boston. The Bruins need to be careful here. Trading him is one thing. Trading him to a team that could come back and beat them in the postseason is another. It rules out Washington, the team that needs him most.

>Buyers beware

*New Jersey: The Devils put themselves into contention but still need a rent-a-player who can help push them over the top. Niedermayer is the obvious choice because he's a top player who wouldn't threaten their future. New Jersey isn't about to give up a fresh body who played a significant role in getting them this far.

*Calgary: GM Darryl Sutter is looking for help after recent injuries to steady forward Rene Bourque (high ankle sprain) and defenseman Mark Giordano (shoulder surgery, out indefinitely). One strong possibility is bringing back Derek Morris, a rental who is playing out the season in Phoenix.

*Boston: Scouts for weeks have kept a close watch on Oilers forward Erik Cole, but they're not banking on getting him and could reach for Tkachuk. The Bruins have room under the salary cap with Marco Sturm sidelined. They could get into the Bouwmeester sweepstakes if they see other contenders making moves around them.

*Columbus: GM Scott Howson has been looking for a capable center since rookie Derick Brassard was sidelined in December. If they can't get Connolly, they could turn their attention toward Jokinen. Columbus desperately wants to make the playoffs and would take long-term risks for short-term gains.

*Carolina: The Hurricanes aren't far away from joining the middle of the playoff pack. It's going to take a few moves, but they're well below the salary cap. More than anything, they're looking for forwards who can boost their struggling offense. Mark Recchi could be had for a song, but they'll take anybody who can get them into the postseason.

*New York Rangers: No team currently in the playoffs had fewer goals than the Rangers' 151 going into Wednesday night. History suggests they would make a pitch for Spezza, but they already have too many high-priced players on the roster. New coach John Tortorella twice had Vinny Prospal in Tampa. Prospal could be had for the right price, and he has three years and $10.5 million remaining on his deal.

>For sale

*Florida: GM Martin will make Bouwmeester available, but he wants a top four defenseman and a veteran forward he can sell to the fan base. The Panthers are trying to make the playoffs, but they would be foolish to keep Bouwmeester and watch him leave for nothing this summer.

*Toronto: GM Burke is usually quiet at the deadline, but he's expected to be working the phones this year. Big center Nik Antropov isn't coming back and could fit into Columbus' plans. Jason Blake also could be headed elsewhere. Rookie defenseman Luke Schenn could be the only player on the roster who's safe.

*Anaheim: The plan calls for getting younger and less expensive after having the third-highest payroll. It starts with shipping out Pronger and Niedermayer, but they also have a handful of UFAs who won the Cup and can help playoff teams. Anaheim could clear some $18 million from its current payroll, just in time for free agency this summer.

*Phoenix: Teams will keep close watch on the price tags for Jokinen and Morris, but speculation was rampant that defenseman Ed Jovanovski also could be available. He has two years and $12 million remaining on his contract after this season. He's no longer the dominant defenseman he once was, but he hasn't had much talent around him.

*Ottawa: GM Bryan Murray hopes to peddle physical forward Chris Neil and defenseman Filip Kuba, but he can't stop there. Defenseman Christoph Schubert became expendable when Chris Campoli's arrival made for a crowded blue line. The same goes for part-timer Brendan Bell, still developing at age 25. The challenge is unloading Spezza before his no-trade clause kicks in July 1.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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