The change of address cards have been filed -- well, most of them, anyway. New name plates have been glued on the office doors and on the backs of sweaters. And with most of the significant movement of the offseason in the books (other than some free agent in New Jersey, anyway), it's time to assess which teams have done the most to ensure a short-term, or long-term, improvement to their fortunes.
Not all of the moves took place on the ice, and not all will be felt immediately. Change works like that sometimes. But each of these clubs made the sort of formula alterations that give their fans hope for the future.
No points were awarded for the mind-bobbling acquisition of Olli Jokinen, or for adding the fractious presence of Raitis Ivanans. In fact, it's a good bet next season's on-ice product won't be much better than the squad that ended up watching the playoffs from the sidelines last year. But these Flames took a significant step forward when they established a logical -- and looming -- successor for GM Darryl Sutter with the hiring of assistant GM Jay Feaster. The signing of Jokinen stunned the team's fans, but at least gave them hope that Sutter's days of stepping on every single rake, à la Sideshow Bob, are nearly over. Feaster, the architect of the 2004 champs in Tampa, is a proven builder. As soon as he's officially handed the reins, the long, frustrating decline comes to an end.
They changed the locks and forgot to give new keys to Mike Modano and Marty Turco, arguably the two biggest stars in Big D, but this was a case of addition by subtraction. The Stars might not be appreciably better in the standings this season, but by turning the castle over to Kari Lehtonen in net, and by creating an opportunity for building blocks like James Neal and Loui Eriksson to assume a larger presence in the room, the team is taking a bold step into the future. And don't underestimate the long-term impact of first rounder Jack Campbell, a puck-stopping wizard who just might develop into the best goaltender in franchise history.
The most pressing issue facing the B's this summer is finding room under the cap. So far, GM Peter Chiarelli has done little to address that and with scant market demand for his preferred trade bait (Marc Savard and Tim Thomas), he may have to cut a little closer to the bone to make everything work. How he eventually handles this problem will ultimately determine his final grade for the offseason.
That said, Chiarelli managed to tackle his second biggest issue: a team that ranked dead last in offense last season. He turned a package of assets (including Dennis Wideman and a mid-first rounder) into Nathan Horton, a frustrating but still tantalizing first-line winger who might finally tap into his full potential, then used the second overall pick pilfered from Toronto to select Tyler Seguin, a dynamic, Sakic-like center who could contribute to the second or third line next season.
They haven't developed a goalie since Curtis Joseph joined the team more than 20 years ago. They haven't done much better in the free agent or trade markets, either, settling for a succession of stopgap options. So is it really safe to assume Jaroslav Halak is the No. 1 stopper they've longed for?
Sure, he's coming off just one solid season -- and one exceptional playoff run -- so he's no one's idea of a top-10 goalie ... yet. But ask around and you'll find plenty of hockey people who believe he wasn't just a six-week flash in the pan. And honestly, he doesn't have to be the miracle worker he was for the Habs last spring. As long as he provides a reliable presence between the pipes, and maybe steals one here and there, the good times should finally arrive for the promising Blues.
For all the brave "We'd do it all over again" talk from Brian Burke re: the Phil Kessel trade, you know that watching the Bruins take Seguin with Toronto's pick had to eat away at the Leafs GM. With the B's holding Toronto's first rounder next summer as well, Burke seems driven to ensure that one won't be in the lottery.
He's added scoring punch by acquiring Chicago cap casualty Kris Versteeg, a bit of truculent depth in winger Colby Armstrong and a wild card with top-six potential in massive German free agent Marcel Mueller. And while he's yet to play his ace in the hole, any deal involving Tomas Kaberle should further improve the forward corps. Look for that deal to come down sometime in August, and expect the Leafs to be a considerably feistier opponent come October.
After chalking up another aborted playoff run to a defense as thin as John Waters' mustache, GM Mike Gillis was left with little wiggle room in the eyes of an increasingly impatient fan base. They demanded significant improvements to the blue line and, to his credit, he delivered. Dan Hamhuis (free agent) and Keith Ballard (trade with Florida) can both play on a top pairing (although each is better suited for the second pair), giving the Canucks a group as solid as any in the West. He then added a trio of physically imposing defenders with his first three picks in the draft, improving a relatively weak group of blue-line prospects. The Sami Salo injury (no, really, another one) throws a wrench in the early season, but at least the team has the depth now to absorb this kind of hit.
The standard line is that championship teams are built from the goal out, but when the Bolts make their return to Cup contention, their success will have come from the top down. Jeff Vinik's hiring of Steve Yzerman as general manager didn't just deliver fresh leadership -- it gave the floundering franchise the respectability it threw away over years of ownership squabbles and wonky decision making. Despite a tenure measured in weeks, Yzerman's already made a significant impact on the squad, starting with the bold hire of coach Guy Boucher. The former Hamilton Bulldogs bench boss is expected to deliver an aggressive, exciting brand of hockey that should make revitalize a flagging fan base. So should the acquisitions of top-six forward Simon Gagne, veteran stopper Dan Ellis and defenders Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina. Now if he can just do something about scoring from the depth lines ...
Gone, finally, is dithering GM Don Waddell, replaced by Rick Dudley, a manager who clearly understands that today's teams need a little steak to go with the sizzle. Example? After seeing the Cup-winning 'Hawks flattened by a salary cap semi, Dudley flew in like a crow to pick the meat of Chicago's exposed bones. And while no one should mistake his acquisitions for Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane, he added significant talent along with that winning attitude in Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd,Brent Sopel and Ben Eager, along with assistant coach John Torchetti. He made a savvy move by signing free agent Chris Mason, a reliable netminder who can handle the mail as often, or as little, as necessary to expedite the development of Ondrej Pavelec. He also quietly tabbed Boston assistant Craig Ramsay to take over behind the bench, ensuring that an offensively aggressive, physically accountable style will become the hallmark of this club moving forward.
These Thrashers may not boast the wattage of previous editions, but it'll be a more consistent and more competitive group. A playoff berth is within reach.