With less than a month until the start of the regular season, things are finally picking up around the NHL. We'll start in Carolina, where rumours are floating that the Canes are speaking to several veterans about try out contracts, including Bill Guerin and Owen Nolan. Carolina will be icing a very young team this season and would love to add a couple of older bodies to add leadership.
In New Jersey, the team faces a larger cap crunch than any other team. A couple of players are being rumoured back to their old teams, with Salvadore being linked to St. Louis and Rolston being linked to Minnesota. Both will be very tough sells due to their contracts and the Devils will have to sweeten the pot with a decent prospect or high pick going along with their respective veterans.
The Bobby Ryan saga continues in Anaheim, with the two sides still not close on a contract to end their summer-long stalemate. The Ducks would love to have Ryan signed to start training camp but at this point, it seems unlikely. It was almost a year ago that Kessel was dealt to Toronto after being unable to come to terms in Boston. It will be interesting to see how long the Ducks wait before they start seriously shopping the very promising winger. No folks, Toronto is not in the running for Bobby Ryan, they simply don't have the tradable assets needed to bring him in.
Talk out of San Jose is that the team still has one more move up their sleeve, with a puck moving d-man still being their number one target. The Blue Jackets are also looking for the same thing. Despite his NTC, Kaberle's name continues to surface, as does Sheldon Souray's. Whispers around the league suggest that both teams have asked the Rangers about Marc Staal, but the Rangers have no intention of dealing him, despite the contract battle currently going on with him.
Now for a look at the five teams who I think improved the most over the off-season, as well as the teams who I think took the biggest step backwards:
5. Atlanta Thrashers
The fact that they basically got all of Chicago's leftovers is significant. Adding Sopel, Eager, Byfuglien and Ladd will make this team better both up front and on defense, while Chris Mason is the best goalie this franchise has had yet. If some of the younger players like Kane and Little can step up their games, the Thrashers could surprise and compete for a playoff spot this season.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs
If you look back at the Leafs from the start of the season last year, they are significantly better. Between puck drop and their first tee-off of the offseason, the Leafs added Phaneuf, Giguere, Sjostrom and Caputi, while they promoted Bozak and Gunnarsson to the big club, with both excelling. Pair those additions with healthy, full seasons from Kessel, Komisarek and Gustavsson and the team the Leafs finished the year last year nowhere resembled their place in the standings. While the Leafs failed to address their biggest need in the offseason, that being a number one centre, they did make their team better overall by adding Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong, Clarke MacArthur and two depth d-men in Lashoff and Lebda. Add that to Bozak, Gustavsson, Kulemin, Schenn, Gunnarsson and Caputi all being another year older, and I think this Leafs team is significantly improved from one year ago.
I'm not saying the Leafs will go from 29th to 1st, 2nd or even the top 10, but I don't believe it's out of the question to think the Leafs could compete for a playoff spot this season, probably somewhere in the 6 to 8 range...especially after looking at what some of the other teams in the East have done, or in some cases, haven't done.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
Destined to be losing Sergei Gonchar, the Penguins already thin defense was heading into this summer facing a major crisis. Instead, the teams allows Gonchar to walk to Ottawa but replaces him with two better, younger players in Michalek and Martin, both to five year deals. The Penguins were already set up front, with Malkin, Crosby and Staal leading the way, but for the first time since the Crosby era, the Penguins have a rock solid defense core.
2. Vancouver Canucks
At the trade deadline last year I felt the Canucks needed three things: Offensive depth, a puck moving defenseman and another depth defender. The Canucks failed to add any of those parts and failed in the playoffs because of that. The Canucks, however, did use this offseason to right their wrongs, all of them.
The Canucks bolstered their blueline, making it one of the most solid defense corps in the league. After adding Keith Ballard at the draft, the team also went out and got Dan Hamhuis from the free agent market. With Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Edler also on the D roster, this is a blueline that is going to have a lot of success in 2010-11.
Up front, the team focused on adding depth forwards to complement their talented twin brothers, bringing in Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres. These two players bring grit, defensive stability and yes, even some offensive potential.
With one of the world's best goalies in net and without a doubt the world's best twin hockey players up front, the Canucks already had a solid foundation in play, but credit to Mike Gillis who addressed his team's weaknesses this offseason. I think the Canucks are a top-three team in the West.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
Without a doubt, by far and away, the most improved team this season. This is a team that already featured Stamkos, Lecavalier, Malone, St. Louis and Hedman, a solid foundation for a team that should have a shot at the playoffs every year. However, a shot at the playoffs didn't seem good enough for new GM Steve Yzerman.
The Bolts adding Simon Gagne and Dominic Moore, adding both scoring and two way ability to their roster. On defense, the team further improved by adding Pavel Kubina and Brett Clarke. Finally, in goal the team once again improved by adding Dan Ellis.
With several superstars already on the roster, in addition to a few who are about to emerge, the Bolts seem destined for the playoffs in 2010-2011.
Montreal, Philly, Chicago, Calgary, Phoenix
5. Phoenix Coyotes
Don't get me wrong, I like the Coyotes, but after making a big stride last season, I think the team has taken a step back. Losing one of their top forwards (Lombardi) and arguably their best d-man (Michalek) is going to hurt this team. The sole major addition (if you can even consider him major at this point) is Ray Whitney, who I think could have trouble finding his groove in Phoenix. The Coyotes are still young and hungry, not to mention they have a hell of a goalie (who is a UFA next summer), but I felt the team could have done more this offseason.
4. Philadelphia Flyers
I felt the Flyers really needed to address their goaltending this summer, and they had options. Dan Ellis, Evgeni Nabokov, Antii Niemi, Marty Turco, the list really goes on and on. Instead, the team decided to stick with Michael Leighton and I think that will burn them this season. The team dealt Ryan Parent only to lose the player they got in return (Hamhuis) to free agency. They gave up a second round pick for a hugely overpaid d-man in Meszaros, and they traded one of their top scorers over the past five years (Simon Gagne) for next to nothing. Getting Zherdev from the KHL could prove huge for this team, but I don't think the Flyers are even close to being able to play to the same level that got them to the cup final last season.
3. Montreal Canadiens
Halak. That's all that needs to be said. You don't trade a goalie who carried your team on his back almost all the way to the Stanley Cup finals and then trade him for "futures". Instead, the Habs turn to Carey Price, who has proven nothing as of late, and have absolutely no insurance backing him up. The offense and defense are basically unchanged, and full seasons out of Gionta and Cammy should help, but this teams goaltending will have to be spectacular for this team to edge into the playoffs.
2. Calgary Flames
After dumping Dion Phaneuf, the Flames were expected to have a big offseason. Instead, the team brought back Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay, two players who struggled mightily last season. Jokinen was dumped to the Rangers before the trade deadline last season and GM Sutter was praised for his ability to get rid of him....so why did he bring him back? As for Tanguay, he's had not-so-great stops in Montreal and Tampa Bay since leaving Calgary, so it will be interesting to see if the former Avs sniper can re-find his game back in Calgary. Either way, this team didn't make the playoffs last season and doesn't seem poised to get into them again this time around.
1. Chicago Blackhawks
The first real victim of the salary cap, the Blackhawks really felt the pain this offseason, downgrading in every single aspect of their game. Up front, the team lost Versteeg, Byfuglien, Fraser, Burish, Eager and Ladd and replaced them all with young, unproven talent (save for Marty Reasoner). While their defense didn't suffer much this offseason, their goaltending did, with an over the hill Marty Turco and an unproven Corey Crawford replacing Niemi and Huet.
Chicago still is a very talented team, but never before in the history of the league have we seen a stanley cup champion get so dismantled the following summer. Even so, expect Chicago to compete for the West once again this season.