July is almost over, which means most of the big off-season moves have been made. There could still be trades (Looking at you, Roberto Luongo), but 3 of the 5 NW teams are in the top 5 in cap hits, so right now, I think it's a good time to look at how each Northwest Division team has fared this off-season. There have been many changes to be sure, but which teams improved? Which teams answered their needs? What can we expect for the 2012-2013 season (excluding a possible lockout)? We know the Wild have undoubtedly improved, but will their 4 division rivals, with which they'll play 24 games, hinder their playoff chances?
Let's talk about it. Make the jump.
D Jason Garrison, 6 years, 4.6M per year.
D Derek Joslin, 1 year, 2-way, 700K
D Patrick Mullen, 1 year, 2-way, 600K
D Aaron Rome (Dallas)
D Sami Salo (Tampa Bay)
D Marc-André Gragnani (Carolina)
F Dale Weise
F Byron Bitz
G Eddie Lack
F Steven Reinprecht
D Ryan Parent
F Viktor Oreskovich
F Mike Duco
G Matt Climie
D Nolan Baumgartner
The only actual changes they've made are on defense. Out go Salo, Rome and Gragnani, in comes Garrison. While a lot of people are high on Jason Garrison right now, I can't help but think he simply caught lightning in a bottle this season. Who had even heard of him before this year? I wonder just how well he'll produce without Brian Campbell feeding him. His defensive play is just fine though, so there's that. Salo's departure might hurt the fanbase more than the team itself. He's very good, without a doubt, but way too fragile. The Nucks can't be all too happy about Gragnani not panning out, because it makes the Hodgson trade look a little worse.
As for the forwards, a lot of eyes will be on Zack Kassian to see what he can do with a full year on the Canucks' roster. The bullish forward answers a need the Nucks had, but he has yet to show his full potential. As long as the Sedins stay healthy and Kesler keeps playing good two-way hockey, I don't think we can expect them to not challenge for the top spot in the Western Conference. They're still going to score a boatload of goals and stop a whole lot of them.
The one thing that could change that, however, is the potential trading of Roberto Luongo. I'm guessing if they do trade him, they're looking at one or two roster players to take in salary, a top/middle level prospect and/or high picks. All this would be ok, but is Cory Schneider really ready to take the reins? The #1 job is much different from the #2 job. He could just as easily succeed as he could crash and burn. What then? Eddie Lack? Is he ready to be an NHL back-up? Most people say yes, but to entrust a top team to two very young goaltenders can be dangerous. The Washington Capitals can probably attest to that. In short, trading Luongo will undoubtedly make the Nucks a worse team. How worse? Not all that much. They'd still be a playoff contender, but not as scary. As much as we like to make fun of Luuuuuu, he's not your average goalie.
The only free agents they should be looking to keep is Eddie Lack, Schneider's future back-up, and Dale Weise, an ok bottom-6 player. The rest are expendable. On that note, who knew Steven Reinprecht was still around?
F Jiri Hudler, 4 years, 4M per year.
D Dennis Wideman, 5 years, 5.25M per year.
F Roman Cervenka, 1 year entry level deal, 3.775M cap hit.
D Brian Connelly (Minnesota)
D Jordan Hendry (Washington)
F David Moss (Phoenix)
F Olli Jokinen (Winnipeg)
F Tom Kostopoulos (UFA)
D Scott Hannan (UFA)
G Leland Irving (RFA)
F Logan MacMillan (UFA)
F Ryley Grantham (UFA)
F Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond (UFA)
F Stefan Meyer (UFA)
F Guillaume Desbiens (UFA)
Well, they switched Moss and Jokinen for Hudler and Wideman. I feel sorry for Miikka Kiprusoff. Offensively, it's kind of a wash. Hudler could score anywhere from 30 to 50 points with the Flames and Dennis Wideman should help on the powerplay, but his numerous mistakes might give the Flames a bit of trouble. The rather high price-tag on both players is also a bit perplexing, considering Feaster said he wouldn't go crazy with the spending. Result: The Flames have the 3 highest cap hit in the league, yet have made basically no real improvement.
Jokinen had a pretty good second-go with the Flames and David Moss was a bit of a frustrating case. He can play, but he's often injured. The loss of Brian Connelly probably won't be all that important, but it's still the loss of a young player, something that's become rare in Calgary. None of the players are getting any younger and there will always be rumors surrounding Jarome Iginla. Also, they drafted a very long-term project in Mark Jankowski. That kind of move would suggest they're planning to compete in 3-4 years, but at the same time, the Flames keep putting a team too good to suck, yet too mediocre to compete. Thus, the Jankowski pick was a huge question mark for a team that only has Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund to be excited about in the future.
As for the free agents, Leland Irving is the only one of note. The rest should be forgotten if the Flames want to make any progress whatsoever.
EDIT: It's been brought to my attention that I missed the signing of KHL star Roman Cervenka, who will slot in on Calgary's top six. KHL and NHL are two different beasts, so he'll have to prove himself. That being said, unless he rips it up with Calgary, I don't expect their fate to change all that much. They'll still be excruciatingly close to a playoff spot without actually making them.
F Nail Yakupov, 3 year entry level deal, 3.775M cap hit per year.
F Dane Byers, 1 year, 2-way deal, 560K
D Justin Schultz, 2 year entry level deal, 3,775M cap hit per year.
F Linus Omark (RFA)
F Chris VandeVelde (RFA)
D Cam Barker (UFA)
D Alex Plante (RFA)
F Josh Green (UFA)
D Bryan Rodney (UFA)
They perplex me. No departures of note, two new players, Yakupov and Schultz. All they've done is make an incredibly young team even younger. Yeah, that'll work. The only thing they've done to address one of their most pressing needs is sign a guy who has played as many NHL games as you and I have. Most indications say he will be good. Most indications also said Fabian Brunnstrom would be good. Nick Schultz's veteran presence could work wonders on the kid, but I cannot believe that's the only thing the Oilers did this off-season. Actually, I CAN believe it. No team gets three 1st round picks in a row without some questionable managing.
I can't help but think they've ruined Magnus Paajarvi and RFA Linus Omark, who apparently wants out. Could it be because they have WAY too many young forwards, all of which were rushed into the league? Maybe. I also can't help but think they'll end up ruining Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and maybe even Nail Yakupov. Seriously, rushing these kids has given them one thing and one thing only: A losing culture. NHL experience? Sure, they experienced losing a lot and getting pushed around. A year or two in the AHL would've been profitable to Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the entire organization. I have no reason to believe the Oilers will have a good season this year. Expect another bottom-5 finish. Probably not dead last, but hey, there's always the lottery for that 4th straight #1 pick!
It's not all bad for them though: Cam Barker is (likely) gone.
F John Mitchell, 2 years, 1.1M per year.
F Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, 4 years, 4M per year.
D Greg Zanon, 2 years, 2.250M per year.
F Jay McClement (Toronto)
G Cedric Desjardins (Montreal)
F Kevin Porter (Buffalo)
F Ryan Stoa (Washington)
F Peter Mueller (Florida)
F Ryan O'Reilly (RFA)
D Jake Newton (UFA)
G Trevor Cann (UFA)
F Zach Cohen (UFA)
F Evan Brophey (UFA)
F Pat Rissmiller (UFA)
F Greg Mauldin (UFA)
F Justin Mercier (UFA)
D David Liffiton (UFA)
The only team except Minnesota that clearly improved. They lost one of the best defensive forwards in Jay McClement and a ''what could have been'' player in Peter Mueller, but they gained PA Parenteau, who can play well in his own end and will probably form a deadly one-two/one-two-three punch with Matt Duchene and/or Gabriel Landeskog. I honestly have no clue how the lines will be set up, but they have a pretty good top-6. The Avs' top priority right now will be securing the services of their top scorer from last season, RFA Ryan O'Reilly. He could potentially command 3.5-4.5 million per year, if we take previous off-season moves from this year into account.
On defense, they haven't lost any one and they gained shot-blocker supreme, Greg Zanon. He lost a step to be sure, but he should be a solid 3rd pairing d-man for the Avalanche. All in all, it should be hard for Avs fans to not be happy about the off-season so far. No dumb trades, no overly dumb signings (Erik Johnson contract is surprisingly decent), a new top-6 player and plenty of time and cap space to keep O'Reilly on board.
The big question is can they make the playoffs? That's a good question. They'll need Duchene to bounce back and Semyon Varlamov to have less of an up-and-down season. They'll also need Landeskog to avoid the sophomore slump, Parenteau to prove he doesn't need Tavares to succeed and some extra wins against the NW division. It could be done. They'll certainly be in the race.
F Mikael Granlund, 3 year entry level deal, 2.1M per year.
F Zenon Konopka, 2 years, 925K per year.
F Torrey Mitchell, 3 years, 1.9M per year.
F Jake Dowell, 2 years, 2-way for the first year, 1-way for the second year, 700K per year.
F Zach Parise, 13 years, 7,538,462$ per year
D Ryan Suter, 13 years, 7,538,462$ per year
D Brian Connelly, 2 years, 2-way deal, 612,500 per year.
D Matthew Dumba, 3 year entry level deal, 1,633,333 per year.
D Mike Lundin (Ottawa)
F Guillaume Latendresse (Ottawa)
F Warren Peters (Pittsburgh)
F Nick Johnson (Phoenix)
F Erik Christensen (KHL)
F Nick Palmieri (RFA)
D Jeff Penner (UFA)
F Jed Ortmeyer (UFA)
F Carson MacMillan (RFA)
D Kurtis Foster (UFA)
D Kris Fredheim (UFA)
Wow. This is a completely different team now. Revamped bottom-six, shiny new 1st liner and 1st pairing D, a bajillion young players ready to make the jump to the pros. Here's a checklist of what the Wild needed to address in the offseason:
Scoring: Parise, Granlund and Suter. Check.
Defense: Suter, possibly Jonas Brodin. Check
Depth: Konopka, Dowell, Mitchell, turning pro are Zack Phillips, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Brett Bulmer, Jason Zucker, Johan Larsson. Check.
Mixing all this with the fact that they can't possibly have worse injury luck than they did last season (knock on wood) should make them a playoff team. Everyone saying that the Wild staying in first place in the league for an entire month was a fluke is basically saying they think any schmuck with a stick and skates could come in and do Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Devin Setoguchi and Guillaume Latendresse's jobs as well as they could. Warren Peters is in no way, shape or form equal to Mikko Koivu. If you think injuries had nothing to do with the Wild's collapse, you're out of your damn mind. Like I said, this is an entirely different team now, it just can't be compared with last season's team.
Keep in mind, I'm not saying Suter and Parise automatically or single-handedly make the Wild a contender. I'm saying that the Wild are finally past the era of GM He Who Shall Not Be Named and the blueprints laid out by Chuck Fletcher are finally coming to fruition. Injuries won't hurt as much now because Fletcher's drafted players, most of which were top players in their respective leagues, are ready to be called up to the NHL when needed. Players like Matt Cullen, Marco Scandella, Devin Setoguchi and Kyle Brodziak won't be asked to do more than they are capable of doing. The X may become a more difficult place for visiting teams to play in because of the invigorating effects of the offseason moves on the fanbase.
Tom Gilbert penciled in on the second line will give him less pressure in his own end and more liberty in the offensive end, which could help improve his numbers. I don't like the idea of someone making that many mistakes getting 30 minutes a game. A Heatley-Koivu-Parise line could be one of the scariest in the Western Conference. The arrival of Granlund as a true 2nd line center could provide a big boost provided he gels well with Setoguchi and whoever happens to be there, whether it's whoever is replacing the likely injured Pierre-Marc Bouchard or Bouchard himself. I think we can safely predict about 40 points for Granlund.
The loss of Latendresse kind of stings, especially since he could have scored a boatload playing alongside of Granlund, but his reasons for leaving are hard to complain about. The other departures are rather inconsequential and the only RFAs are Nick Palmieri and Carson McMillan, both of which should be signed for extra depth.
The big question on almost everyone's minds: Will the Wild make the playoffs? A lot of people thought they could make them when they acquired Heatley last year. A lot of the same people now believe they won't make them despite getting Parise and Suter. That's absurd. Last season was an anomaly is so many ways. They weren't a top team in the league like their record through December suggested but they also weren't a bottom feeder like the rest of the season suggested. Hence, last season should not be considered in trying to predict whether or not they'll make the playoffs this year. Not only is the team completely different, but there's no possible way they're as unlucky as they were last season. Mike Yeo will be in his second year as an NHL coach and he'll have better weapons with which to make his strategies work. He showed that with the right mix, he could accomplish great things with his system, but it was hard for him to make his system work with a half-and-half NHL/AHL team for 4 months. I have absolutely no doubt that the Wild can be a 6-8th seed this year as long as they stay relatively healthy.
It's been a hell of an off-season for us Wild fans. You're lying if you say you've ever been more excited for the season to arrive. Parise, Suter, Granlund. Hot diggity damn.