Hunt for NHL playoff spots to get really serious

The All-Star game is history — bonus points if you can remember who played for which team — and the best part of the NHL season will begin Tuesday.

The scramble for playoff berths intensifies and general managers must decide if they'll be buyers or sellers at the Feb. 27 trading deadline. The cutoff for playoff qualifiers last season was 93 points in the East and 97 in the West, and those numbers should be about the same.

Although positions within the top eight might change, teams that weren't in playoff spots at the All-Star break are unlikely to reach the playoffs. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the NHL's statistical consultant, only two teams not in playoff position at last season's break qualified for postseason play: the Kings replaced Dallas in the West and Buffalo replaced Atlanta in the East. The largest deficit a team not in playoff position has overcome to secure a berth under the current format was 12, by the 1993-94 New York Islanders.

Here's how the races look:

West

The NHL's best race is in the Central Division, where the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks are three points apart. The Red Wings were 8-2 before the break, the Blues were 7-1-2 and the Predators were 9-1-0.

The Red Wings have more than $5 million in cap space and might pursue third- or fourth-line depth. The Vancouver Canucks have been looking for depth on defense and size up front, but there's nothing behind rumors they will acquire the Ducks' Corey Perry or George Parros. The Blues should get a boost with the anticipated return of Andy McDonald (concussion).

The Kings need a scoring winger, especially with Simon Gagne out indefinitely because of a concussion. They might be able to trade Jonathan Bernier in a package for a top-six forward, but that's risky because they don't have an NHL-caliber backup goalie in their system. Ducks General Manager Bob Murray insists he won't trade Teemu Selanne, but he might deal defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, who has a cap hit of $5.6 million next season but a salary of $3 million.

The low-budget Predators and their plans for elite defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber will affect the trade market league-wide.

Suter, who can be an unrestricted free agent July 1, said he wants to stay but — reasonably — wants to see whether GM David Poile will upgrade the lineup. Suter said he won't negotiate before the trade deadline, so he can focus on the playoff drive. Weber, headed for restricted free agency, won a record $7.5-million salary in arbitration last summer and should stay around that level. The Predators might not be able to afford to keep both.

Edmonton, out of it after a good start, needs defensemen and can spare winger Ales Hemsky. The Kings liked him and Detroit might be interested now. Any inclination for Columbus to trade unhappy Jeff Carter will be hampered by his cap hit of $5.272 million through 2021-22.

Several teams will be tested by rugged February schedules. The Blackhawks, 10-9-2 on the road, will play nine straight road games in four time zones starting Tuesday at Vancouver. The 13th-seeded Ducks, 5-11-6 on the road, will play eight straight and nine of 10 away from home in February. No. 9 Colorado, 12-11-2 on the road, will play six of 12 on the road in February.

East

The race for No. 1 between the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins could be tipped when the defending champion Bruins play six straight road games and eight of 13 overall in February, and trek west for a California trifecta in March. The Rangers, by contrast, have only three games left outside of their time zone. Washington, which has been holding off the Florida Panthers in the Southeast, will be hurt while Alexander Ovechkin serves the last two games of a three-game suspension (illegal hit) coming out of the break.

The Pittsburgh Penguins overcame an array of injuries to win seven straight games and seem set, though GM Ray Shero has a knack for effective deadline-beating moves. The Philadelphia Flyers, hurting without concussion-stricken Chris Pronger, might pursue Suter or Weber or another top-four defenseman.

The Carolina Hurricanes made a surprising move Monday by signing defenseman Tim Gleason to a four-year, $16-million extension with no-trade clauses in each of the first two seasons. Gleason will stay, but forward Tuomo Ruuttu, an impending free agent, might be traded. The New Jersey Devils, eighth at the break, have it easy with no more games outside of the Eastern time zone. They want to keep skillful forward Zach Parise, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, and probably won't trade him.

Montreal, eight out in the East, is on the bubble. GM Pierre Gauthier was scouting Western teams last week, maybe looking at what he can get for gritty forward Travis Moen. Buffalo, a huge disappointment after spending big bucks last summer, will have some hard decisions to make, though it's unlikely the Sabres will trade goalie Ryan Miller.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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