(Ed. Note: Puck Daddy Power Rankings will return next week. But now, here's Ryan Lambert with a look at the 10 NHL teams that improved the most in the Summer of '14.)
Every summer, there are many teams that take at least some sort of step forward in terms of overall quality through drafting, signing, and trade acquisitions. This summer in particular it seemed, weirdly, as though a lot more teams in the league than usual were able to do so.
More troubling for the have-nots in the NHL, though, is that it was mostly teams that were actually good already which took the biggest steps forward.
Doesn't seem fair, but that's life.
But what good would all those changes be if we couldn't rank them arbitrarily?
It's tough to be sure the Kings really and actually count for this list, but let's say they do anyway. They didn't add anybody, but more importantly, they really didn't lose one guy in particular either.
They're a team that won the Stanley Cup and therefore had few changes to make. In the end, the barely did that: They traded center Linden Vey — who's good but was unnecessary in Los Angeles — to Vancouver (for a second-round pick; nice pickup), and re-upped Jeff Schultz. Really simple maintenance on what was already a finely tuned machine.
Oh, and they also re-signed Marian Gaborik for seven years with an AAV of just $4.875 million, giving him the fifth-highest cap hit among Kings forwards, and he took a substantial paycut because he liked all the winning he was doing. This ensured that the price Dean Lombardi paid for the rental was more than worth it. That's a pretty solid deal for a guy who was dominant alongside Anze Kopitar in the playoffs. A full, potentially injury-free season together (not that I'd go betting on that) seems like it could follow.
For a team that needed little to no help, ensuring they didn't lose Gaborik's services was key. The big knock on the Kings has always been that they didn't score a lot at 5-on-5 in particular, but this might sort that problem out pretty well.
This is another team that didn't really need the help, but made two more tangible changes.
The first was offloading Brandon Bollig on Calgary in exchange for a third-round pick. Bollig is bad and he made the team worse when he was on the ice. Getting rid of him — and his confusingly high $1.3 million-per-for-three-years deal — is addition by subtraction in perhaps its purest sense. Does his absence mean they clear some roster space for Teuvo Teravainen?
But then they went out and added Brad Richards to replace Michal Handzus as the team's No. 2 center. The tires are certainly getting a little bare for Richards, but he'll be asked to do far less in Chicago than he was in New York, and at $2 million and one year — a bargain at 1.35 Bolligs — the risk is basically non-existent. If he can find any kind of chemistry with Patrick Kane, this could pay off in a serious way, and make them an even bigger Cup threat than they already were.
Finally, we come to a team that actually needed more improvement to be competitive. One of Chuck Fletcher's biggest problems last season was that the depth on this team wasn't really there, particularly when it comes to scoring.
His solution to the problem, then, was to go out and get some depth and scoring. Thomas Vanek alone would have made for a pretty good offseason (as long as you ignore the looming calamity in net, barring a legendary coming of age for Darcy Kuemper), but tacking on Jordan Schroeder was a decent enough bet.
Vanek adds a lot more credibility to a top-six that kind of lacked it last year; the Wild were 24th in goals for last season (below Calgary!), and Vanek will certainly help there. So, too, will the continued maturation of some of the teams very promising young forwards, including Justin Fontaine, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula.
As for Schroeder, again, this is low-risk, because he's signed on a two-way deal for $600,000. He's a former first-round pick and Minnesota native AND former Minnesota Golden Gopher. If nothing else, they'll sell a bunch of Schroeder jerseys. Maybe he just needed a change of scenery.
Pity about the goaltending, though.
It's fair to say that the Oil took a bit of a risk in some regard this offseason, but nonetheless the roster today is better than it was last season.
Yes, they still have a gaping hole down the middle, and that's inescapable. It's really hard to figure out what they think they're going to be able to do about it. But they've improved in a number of other ways.
Mark Fayne is an interesting choice on the blue line, for one thing. The numbers from last season suggest that he was actually a bit of an anchor for New Jersey but was still well into the positive area in terms of possession, and his contract is extremely reasonable ($3.625 million for four years) if he works out to be what they want. Hard to guess why they're paying Nikita Nikitin more than that ($4.5 million for two), but that doesn't diminish his personal value.
The big change is up front though, as they brought in Teddy Purcell — though in doing so created the hole in the middle of the ice by trading Sam Gagner — and, more importantly, Benoit Pouliot. Both players drive the bus in terms of possession, and while they seem to be only worth about half a point a game each, that's: a) better than the dregs of the Oilers lineup last season, and b) what Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov are there for.
Getting the puck into the attacking zone (probably due to a lack of depth and maybe some wobbly knees because of all the systems changes over the last few years) was the team's big problem last year, and nearly every move they made this summer addresses it.
Total cap cost to bring on Pouliot, Purcell and Fayne, less the loss of Gagner: $8.925 million. Very solid improvement for the price.
This is another club that didn't really have to make any changes to impress, and they, in fact, only made one. Like a few other clubs mentioned on this list, the Blue Jackets didn't really have much in the way of top-six depth.
So they went out and acquired Scott Hartnell, who can still do a lot of good things well even if he is getting on in years. In doing so, they also offloaded a positively awful and needlessly expensive player in RJ Umberger, which in and of itself would have been a win. Getting a positive producer back in return — even if you have to worry about his iffy contract for several more years — is worth the additional $150,000 cap hit per year.
There's also reason to believe Brian Gibbons, the only other remotely notable NHL player they acquired this summer, can be a generally positive depth player for them, so that was a good signing too. Jarmo Kekalainen is really good.
Now they just need to get Ryan Johansen signed.
5. St. Louis Blues
We're back to a team that really didn't need a whole lot of help, but the help they got was far more substantial than what Chicago and Los Angeles received.
Adding Paul Stastny for the value they did was a coup for Doug Armstrong, because the reason the Blues didn't get past the Blackhawks last season was that they didn't have any additional scoring pop beyond their top line. Their No. 2 center in terms of time on ice last season was Patrik Berglund. No. 3 was Steve Ott. Adding someone that good in the middle, and consequently shuffling everyone else down a spot in the lineup, will go a long way to shoring up the competitive quality of an already-good team.
That's the clear headline here, for sure.
Another underrated decision the team made, though, involved a pretty quiet swap: They sent Roman Polak to Toronto for Carl Gunnarsson. Sneaky move, because Polak was a couldn't even stay above water in terms of possession on a team this good, despite soft competition. Meanwhile, Gunnarsson was buried under Randy Carlyle's ultra-passive system, and drew more difficult assignments. Prior to last season, he was always about break-even in terms of relative corsi, so moving to an actual well-coached team could do wonders.
One could make a fairly reasonable argument that the Ducks were a one-line team last season. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry both posted more than a point a game. No one else put up more than 49. This was also evident in the fact that the possession numbers weren't good for the entire team, but drove over a cliff when Perry and Getzlaf were off the ice.
To that end, Bob Murray went out and traded Nick Bonino for Ryan Kesler, and in doing so added significant credibility to the club's Cup chances (though perhaps not enough). The last few years, the numbers have suggested that all the success was driven by Getzlaf and Perry, and without much foundation beyond. Actual deep teams could and did knock them off in the playoffs. That won't be as much of a problem.
People knock Kesler because he was hurt a lot two years ago and doesn't produce as much as he did when he was putting up 70-plus a year for that little while. But turning your nose up at a guy who played 77 games and had 25 goals last season seems, uh, ill-advised.
As for the Dany Heatley gamble, having a guy to whom Getzlaf or Perry can say, “Stand there and put it on net when I pass it to you” might just smooth over the loss of Teemu Selanne ... realistically but not spiritually. At least he's cheap.
Final word on Kesler: He's not as good as Stastny, but the price they paid to get him (the overrated, sheltered, and lucky Nick Bonino) and the team's need for a player like what Kesler brings to the table makes him arguably more valuable.
Steve Yzerman has generally moved his team in a positive direction since taking the job, though with a few baffling decisions mixed in every once in a while, presumably to keep things interesting.
This summer, though, the questionable moves are nowhere to be found — well, except for adding Evgeni Nabokov for reasons that don't seem too sane at all — and all that's left are the biggies: Adding two former New York Rangers and shedding a bunch of salary qualifies as a significant step forward.
Tampa's biggest weakness was on defense (only two guys with positive corsi relatives on that blue line, and one of them was Sami Salo), and adding the all-of-a-sudden properly rated Anton Stralman sure does help ease that concern. He makes everyone he plays with better, and the chance to add someone like that in free agency doesn't come along often.
Tacking on a very strong No. 3 center — albeit for a little more money than he's probably worth — isn't a bad look either, because Brian Boyle can pick up a lot of slack if Tyler Johnson takes a step back in his sophomore campaign. Certainly, he's an improvement over Nate Thompson.
Those two, plus having Steven Stamkos's leg back in working order, should make the Bolts a much better team. Just watch out for falling Ben Bishop save percentages.
2. Dallas Stars
I've spent a lot of this summer feeling like the Stars took the biggest step forward, from borderline playoff team to sure-thing with a chance to do a little bit of damage in the Central, of any team in the league.
Adding Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky in a few days to shore up the team's pop was maybe the single biggest power move by a general manager this summer. That immediately adds so much credibility to the team's power play and 5-on-5 scoring that they might have pulled even with St. Louis in terms of overall quality, which is saying something.
Going with a 1-2 punch of Tyler Seguin and Spezza probably gives Dallas the best two-center combination in the division, and puts them pretty close to tops in the league.
The team still has a little ways to go on the blue line, unfortunately, but they have some very good young pieces that give them a little flexibility in this regard to go make a trade happen if they deem it absolutely necessary.
But because of that, now that I really sit down and think about it, it feels like the top spot should actually go elsewhere.
It's hard not to love what the Islanders did this offseason.
They traded for the rights to Jaroslav Halak then, in a twist on an old Islanders trope, actually signed him. Reasons this is a win: Halak is pretty good and the Isles' previous goaltending situation was among the worst in the league. Then they added Chad Johnson, who seems like he could be a pretty decent backup.
That immediately made the team as much as 12 or 14 standings points better, because Evgeni Nabokov should not be an NHL goaltender in 2013, let alone going forward. If this was the only improvement the team made, that would be a great one, and would probably land them at top-3 on this list.
But Garth Snow wasn't going to rest on his laurels. He also went out and added both Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, both advanced stats darlings who also happen to be able to put up pretty good points totals when used correctly (Randy Carlyle used neither correctly).
In addition, it should be noted that the team will likely improve because of circumstances that lingered from last year. They got rid of Andrew MacDonald (this is huge!) and will likely have healthier seasons from Lubomir Visnovsky and John Tavares to really shore things up, along with improving young players.
It would be shocking if this team didn't make the playoffs. Can you imagine saying that about the Islanders four months ago?
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