Top 25 trade targets

All eyes will be on Thomas Vanek during this year's trade deadline. Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

We can speculate. We can look at pending unrestricted free agents and make educated guesses. We can talk to those running teams and sense an appetite to make more "hockey trades" than usual.

Still, until the NHL’s trade deadline expires on March 5, we can’t say for sure how it’s going to play out. Especially not if someone right in the thick of it doesn’t know.

“Managers will be every bit as busy as they’ve been in the past,” said Washington Capitals GM George McPhee when we chatted this past week. “Will it be different than other years? I think the one thing we can count on is we don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know how to project what’s going to develop at the deadline. We never can.”

This year is definitely different than the typical trade deadline in that cap space is at a premium. In order to facilitate deals, small-market sellers might have to retain salary, which is an interesting twist on the new CBA rule that many assumed would lead to big-money teams retaining salary.

The need to include salary in both sides of the trade equation along with a thinning summer free-agent crop has general managers itching to make traditional hockey trades, rather than rentals. At least in theory.

“Probably the way to view it is that there are more teams involved in hockey trades at this point in time,” said Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford. “The races are so tight. There’s always a great appetite for trades at the deadline. It’s not always as many teams as there will be this year.”

With that in mind, here’s a look at the top 25 trade targets for 2014, with assistance from former NHL assistant general manager Frank Provenzano, who provides realistic trade return for each player:

1. Thomas Vanek, F, New York Islanders

He’s the prize of the trade deadline. Earlier this season, he cost the Islanders Matt Moulson and two draft picks (a first- and second-rounder). Considering Moulson could fetch a first-round pick at the deadline, that’s three high picks. The return won’t be as high now, especially since it’s clear Vanek wants to test free agency, but GM Garth Snow will be able to recoup some of those assets. One Eastern Conference executive estimated the return for Vanek could be as high as a first- and second-round pick and a B-level prospect. Vanek dealt with Olympic controversy after word got out that the Austrians put in a long shift partying during the tournament. That will have zero impact on his trade deadline value, said one assistant GM. “They didn’t mean to be disrespectful,” he said. “They made a bad decision, they’re not bad people.”

Provenzano’s price tag: A first-round pick and a B prospect. A roster player may have to go back to the Islanders to make the money work.

2. Ryan Miller, G, Buffalo Sabres

There was no griping from Miller when Dan Bylsma went with Jonathan Quick in the Olympics after Miller played well in limited action, which is another plus for Miller aside from his strong play on a bad team. He’s the best goalie available, and the best move yet may still be for the Sabres to re-sign him if Miller is willing. There are only a few logical destinations, with the Blues the best fit, and if he’s not dealt, that may open up a secondary goalie market that doesn't currently exist. But Miller is a team changer. He would put the Blues at the same level as the Blackhawks.

Provenzano’s price tag: An NHL roster player (like a No. 3-5 defenseman or No. 5-9 forward), plus an A-minus prospect and a third- or fourth-round draft pick.

3. Dan Girardi, D, New York Rangers

The focus has been on Ryan Callahan among Rangers trade candidates, but the belief is that GM Glen Sather will move Girardi if he can’t be signed before the deadline.