With the NHL standings crunched three weeks before the trade deadline, teams looking to add a piece for a playoff run might be left waiting to find a seller.
As Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill sees it, this is the new normal for the league.
"I think it's changed the market and I think this is the way it's going to be going forward," said Nill. "Parity, it's in there now. Every team has a chance. I really think moving forward this is what our league is going to be. It's going to be tight. The difference is going to be 3-5 wins for everybody."
Of the 16 teams in the Eastern Conference, all but three are either in a playoff spot or within five points of one. It's even tighter out West, with bottom dwellers Calgary, Winnipeg and Edmonton still vying for a post-season position.
Parity in the league, and a generous system that awards a point for an overtime or shootout loss, is keeping more teams in the thick of the playoff race for longer. That results in a trade market with few legitimate sellers leading up to the Feb. 29 deadline, and potential buyers like Nill's Stars left waiting.
There were an average of 26 trades in and around the in the five seasons that followed the 2004-05 NHL lockout, including a high of 31 in 2010. Over the ensuing five seasons that number plummeted to 19 on average, though with a spike of 24 trades at the March 2 deadline last year.
Nill said the dynamics of parity are increasingly changing how the trade market operates. He said teams are waiting longer to determine their approach — buying, selling or neither — for the trade deadline. He estimates a group of eight to 10 teams in good position at the moment, those who are willing to consider just about anything. Most everyone else waits.
The scarcity of sellers could mean fewer options and higher prices for buyers.
"That's going to be the unknown," said Nill, whose Dallas squad sits comfortably in a playoff spot at the moment with 71 points. "There's probably 3-5 teams that are saying 'Hey we're probably out of it', but I think everybody else is saying 'You know what, we're in it.'"
Playoff picture could still change quickly
Injuries and losing streaks in the ensuing weeks could quickly alter such conversations, he added.
Detroit GM Ken Holland has never been a seller at the deadline. His Red Wings have made the playoffs in 24 consecutive seasons.
What he's hearing currently from rival general managers is "wait and see."
"They're saying 'I want to see what happens in the next month,"' said Holland. "If you're two points out of a playoff spot on the trade deadline it's hard to pull the plug and start letting players go."
Holland said the standings give general managers of a good idea of what they're going to try to do leading up to the deadline. But with more teams conceivably in the playoff race, it's harder to make definitive plans until days before the cutoff.
It was at about this point last year — a few weeks before the deadline — that Holland dialled up then-New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello inquiring about the availability of Marek Zidlicky, a right-shot defender on an expiring contract that the Red Wings coveted.
"Lou told me 'Ken, I want to see where my team goes,"' Holland recalled.
A couple days before the deadline, Lamoriello called back and said he was ready to move. The two finally agreed to a trade two hours before the 3 p.m. deadline.
"I think it's great for the league," Nill said of parity. "The competitive balance has never been better."
Good or not, it certainly stands to squeeze the market.
"If I'm a buyer I'm not going to call a team that's one point ahead of us in the standings or one point below us," Holland said. "They're in the same spot we're at."
"The standings are going to have an impact on what happens at trade deadline," he adds." That's just reality of our industry, of our business."