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The best-laid plans can hinge on deadline deals

Two years or less is all it takes to rise and fall in the NHL these days, although we can usually find Detroit, San Jose and Pittsburgh near the top and Edmonton, Columbus and the New York Islanders near the bottom. But with free agency and the salary cap, it can all change in a couple of seasons.

Washington ran away with the Presidents' Trophy in 2009-10, blazing through the schedule with 54 victories, 121 points and 318 goals. The Capitals won the conference again last season after revamping their style and convincing Alex Ovechkin & Co. to use less offense and better defense. This year, after a slow start, they fired their coach.

Where did it get them? Tied for ninth place in the Eastern Conference going into Saturday's games.

Winnipeg, two years after finishing 10th in Atlanta, is battling perennial loser Florida for the Southeast Division lead. The Rangers, who missed the playoffs two years ago, are atop the conference and looking to charge toward the Stanley Cup.

Ottawa finished 13th last season but was three points behind Boston for the Northeast Division lead. Buffalo won the division two years ago and was in 11th place going into the second of back-to-back games, against the Rangers. The Sabres need significant changes but not a complete overhaul to get back into contention.

It can all come together, or fall apart, in two years or less. Twenty-seven teams were either in playoff position or within eight points of eighth place going into the weekend. Columbus is not one of them, which was why management started making moves with hopes for a quick U-turn.

The Blue Jackets should take comfort knowing an about-face is possible in short order if -- IF -- they make the right decisions. The trade for Jeff Carter last summer was a failure. Columbus had the worst record in the NHL before they shipped the miserable center to Los Angeles for defenseman Jack Johnson and a first-round pick.

GM Scott Howson, once thought to be on the chopping block, was looking for at least one NHL player, a prospect and a first-round pick for star winger Rick Nash. Howson's rebuilding efforts call for clearing cap space and getting younger. It's why he shipped Antoine Vermette to Phoenix for two picks and goalie Curtis McElhinney.

A single trade between now and the 3 p.m. deadline Monday could push some teams into Stanley Cup contention, help others on the road to recovery in the next two seasons or send them on the road to ruin. Here's a team-by-team look at needs and trade possibilities going into the annual swap meet.

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Atlantic Division

*New York Rangers. They're looking to add more offense and had an inside track on Nash, but the price is steep for a team already in control of the conference without him. Taking him now could be too disruptive to their chemistry.

*New Jersey. Rumors have been swirling all season about Zach Parise being shipped out, but he's not going anywhere. They added defenseman Marek Zidlicky due to the uncertainty about the health of Henrik Tallinder.

*Philadelphia. The Flyers added defensemen Pavel Kubina and Nicklas Grossman to sturdy the blue line. James van Riemsdyk has returned from a concussion, taking pressure off them to get another forward.

*Pittsburgh. Eric Tangradi's name has been mentioned as possible trade bait. The former second-round pick is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds but hasn't become the power forward they had hoped. The best addition for them would be Sidney Crosby.

*New York Islanders. P.A. Parenteau will be an unrestricted free agent and could give a team like the Sharks scoring pop for the right price. Brian Rolston is a veteran leader but hasn't produced and comes with a $5 million cap hit.

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Northeast Division

*Boston. Injuries to Nathan Horton and Rich Peverley create a need for help up front. GM Peter Chiarelli isn't looking to make drastic moves but he's keeping his options open for a right-handed shooting defenseman or a right winger.

*Ottawa. Craig Anderson suffered a gash in his hand while cooking at home, which could put the Senators in line for a goaltender. They want to keep their roster mostly intact but could take a good look at Minnesota's Josh Harding.

*Toronto. GM Brian Burke is open to acquiring Nash and grabbing a goaltender, but he's not going to get pressured into paying a steep price. He'll likely wait until the offseason to make big moves unless he's blown away by an offer.

*Buffalo. Paul Gaustad still looks like the leading candidate for departure and could be a good fit for Detroit. Brad Boyes hasn't produced all season. The Sabres need to figure out where they're going, how to get there and who's taking them before deciding on whether to keep Derek Roy and Drew Stafford.

*Montreal. Forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and rugged winger Travis Moen are pending UFAs who can help a playoff team looking for a push. Chicago needs a forward who has size and toughness. They already shipped out Hal Gill.

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Southeast Division

*Winnipeg. They need help up front. Kyle Wellwood and Tanner Glass will be unrestricted free agents, but the Jets still believe they can win the division with them. Same goes with defensemen Johnny Oduya and Randy Jones.

*Florida. GM Dale Tallon has been reworking his roster all season and could tinker more going into the deadline. The Panthers haven't made the playoffs in 11 years.

*Washington. Alexander Semin desperately needs a change in scenery. He's not expected to be back next season, but the Caps are having a hard time dumping the remains of his $6.7 million salary. The Sharks are looking for offense to rent.

*Tampa Bay. GM Steve Yzerman already pulled off a three-way trade last week in his effort to stockpile draft picks. He would part with Ryan Malone for the right price, but it's unlikely. Dwayne Roloson to Chicago for a late-round pick?

*Carolina. Bryan Allen is a pending UFA, but he's respected within the organization and has a no-trade clause. The better bet to be traded is former Sabres defenseman Jaroslav Spacek, who offers mobility and experience.

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Central Division

*Detroit. GM Ken Holland acquired a familiar face in defenseman Kyle Quincey from Colorado, via Tampa Bay, for more depth along the blue line. The Wings are still looking for a forward, such as Gaustad, to add size up front while filling a role.

*St. Louis. Their best move this season was hiring coach Ken Hitchcock to replace Davis Payne. They could be very quiet with players coming off the injured list and the uncertain future with ownership. Trading a goalie could get them a piece they need.

*Nashville. The Predators are still looking for help at forward, preferably one with scoring touch. Gill was acquired for beef on the back end. They're not giving up another first-round pick after losing one last season for Mike Fisher.

*Chicago. GM Stan Bowman for weeks has been looking for a fifth or sixth defenseman who can provide depth. Goaltending could be an issue with Corey Crawford's lack of consistency. Jonathan Toews' injury could prompt them to make a play for a forward, such as Kostitsyn.

*Columbus. It would not be a complete shock if Nash remained until the summer. Toronto appeared to be the only team on his short list that could pay the price for him without worrying about disturbing strong chemistry, but such a move looks like a reach.

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Northwest Division

*Vancouver. Backup goalie Cory Schneider could land them a good player, but it would likely mean making room under the salary cap. One name tossed around the front office is Anaheim tough guy George Parros, who would stiffen their backbone.

*Calgary. GM Jay Feaster is in a tough spot with his team straddling the line for the postseason and injuries across the roster. They already acquired Mike Cammalleri. The best way they can add is getting their players healthy.

*Colorado. The Avalanche added much-needed grit when they acquired Steve Downie. Paul Stastny, once available for the right price, is no longer on the market. Winger Cody McLeod is another name mentioned as trade bait for Vancouver. They have mixed feelings about whether to wheel young forward T.J. Galiardi.

*Minnesota. Zidlicky forced his own trade to the Devils, bringing prospects in return to the Wild. They would move Nick Schultz if they can get scoring help in return, but it would likely mean taking a chance on a prospect. Harding has been available for a long time.

*Edmonton. Ales Hemsky rumors had been flying for months before he signed a two-year extension for $10 million. The decision forced Detroit and Chicago to look elsewhere. The Oilers are still listening to all offers for Cam Barker.

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Pacific Division

*San Jose. Talk was rampant last week the Sharks were interested in Nash even though they were not on his short list. Carter was in play before he landed in Los Angeles. They could take a flier on a winger such as Boyes. The Sabres would likely be looking for a second-round pick, the price they paid for him.

*Phoenix. The Coyotes added a forward in Vermette with hopes he can keep them in playoff position after a 9-0-1 stretch. Shane Doan will be sticking around. Taylor Pyatt is the only pending UFA who doesn't have a no-trade clause.

*Dallas. The Stars are another team on the playoff fence, complicating options that would include trading defenseman Sheldon Souray as a rental. It would leave them thin along the blue line after they shipped out Grossman.

*Los Angeles. GM Dean Lombardi's job could be on the line if the Carter deal fails to provide immediate dividends. Carter getting reunited with Mike Richards should spark their offense, if not their nightlife. Anyone want Dustin Penner?

*Anaheim. The Ducks hit the weekend on a 16-3-4 run, closing the gap to eighth place from 20 points to four going into the weekend. Their problem, similar to Buffalo's, is passing five teams to reach the postseason. Teemu Selanne is sticking around. Pending UFA Jason Blake, who has one goal and two points in 14 games, could be had.

email: bgleason@buffnews.com