Now that the mania surrounding the kickoff of NHL free agency has subsided, which teams have improved most so far this off-season? That’s our focus in today’s THN.com Top 10. In reverse order:
I’m still not sold on the notion the free agent signing of Brad Richards makes the Blueshirts one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams, but it is indisputable that the 31-year-old pivot’s presence makes them a more potent offensive force.
9. Maple Leafs
Yes, the Leafs’ acquisitions of Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi have giant “ifs” attached to them (in no small part due to their concussion history). However, landing 6-foot-5 Cody Franson makes Toronto’s already-imposing defense corps that much more intimidating.
Don’t get me wrong - I think there’s more chance of Atlanta (you heard me) making the playoffs this season than the Panthers, especially when Jose Theodore is their No. 1 goalie. Still, the additions of Scottie Upshall, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Kopecky, Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski will provide a better base from which their younger core players can excel.
7. Blue Jackets
The cash-bleeding Blue Jackets had to make significant moves this summer to reassure an increasingly frustrated fan base - and that’s exactly what GM Scott Howson did in bringing in Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski and Radek Martinek. None of those newbies will make much difference if Steve Mason continues to play “one for you, one for me” with the opposition’s shooters, but with its new skaters, Columbus not only kept up with the Central’s Joneses, it did as well as any team in its division.
Injuries to key Blues players this past season revealed a lack of depth and veteran resilience in the organization, but GM Doug Armstrong addressed that problem with free agent deals for Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, two greybeards with Stanley Cup championships on their resume. With both players on one-year contracts and Langenbrunner without a no-trade clause, Armstrong will have the option of moving him at the trade deadline should the franchise not meet expectations.
To land now-former Sharks snipers Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, the Wild had to give up two of their top-four scorers last season: blueline cornerstone Brent Burns and No. 1 point-producer and goal-scorer Martin Havlat. That may sound like a high price to pay, but considering Minny wasn’t making the playoffs with either of those two contributing at a high level, it’s going to benefit from the high-octane offensive infusion Setoguchi and Heatley will provide.
The Sabres received enough of a boost this past season when new team owner Terry Pegula assumed control of the organization. And Pegula put a lot of his money where his Sabres-loving mouth is this summer, ponying up for D-man Christian Ehrhoff, outbidding numerous teams for left winger Ville Leino and adding rugged blueliner Robyn Regehr from Calgary. If the Sabres don’t challenge Boston for the Northeast Division title, it won’t be because they don’t have the players.
The Blackhawks didn’t land any marquee names and sent regulars Brian Campbell and Troy Brouwer packing, but the guys they did bring in - including Andrew Brunette, Jamal Mayers, Steve Montador and Sean O’Donnell - were just the type of complementary players they lacked this past season.
Talk all you want about the Kings trading away some of their depth and youth this summer, or the relatively steep drop-off in talent that occurs after their top two lines. The fact is, with Mike Richards and Simon Gagne on those top two lines, L.A. (which had just two fewer wins than San Jose in the Pacific last year) is now a serious and dangerous Cup contender. They’re Philly West, but with far better goaltending than Richards or Gagne ever had in Pennsylvania.
GM George McPhee didn’t have a boatload of cap space with which to work this summer, yet somehow, he added experience - and a distinct hunger to win a Cup - at every position: up front with Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern and Brouwer; on defense with Roman Hamrlik; and most importantly, in net with Tomas Vokoun. Consequently, the Caps are absolutely stacked and will be the pick of many to win the first championship in franchise history.
This Top 10 originally appeared in THN's Book of Hockey Lists.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.
If you enjoy this feature, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine for the exclusive countdown, Starting From 5, and other great features from the world of hockey.