Power rankings: Reshuffling the deck …
As the free-agent frenzy fizzles, it’s time to assess where teams are after a week of recruiting, signing, trading and scrambling to fill holes on the roster yet stay under the NHL salary cap.
A couple things are for sure, no one’s roster is perfect and every general manager still has areas of concern. But as training camp starts to appear on the horizon, at least we know now who is positioning themselves to compete and who is still planning for the future.
The midsummer power rankings, which will be periodically updated during the offseason before resuming on a weekly basis for the start of the 2008-09 season, ranks teams based on where they finished last season with tweaks according to what they’ve done thus far in the offseason as relative to the rest of the league.
1. Detroit Red Wings – The Wings were surprise winners of the Marian Hossa sweepstakes, but they shouldn’t have been. Just because Edmonton, Pittsburgh and other teams wanted the services of the prime-aged scorer, it didn’t mean they had the recruiting advantage that perennial-winner Detroit possesses. Smart move, too, to sign Hossa for one season. He should stay motivated and, hey, if it doesn’t work he’s gone. GM Ken Holland acted quicker than usual in securing his backup goalie (Ty Conklin), and he got defensemen Brad Stuart and Andreas Lilja under contract. The biggie is still to extend Conn Smythe-winner Henrik Zetterberg.
2. Dallas Stars – Bold move to sign the controversial Sean Avery to four years. Other teams were offering multiyear deals of at least three seasons. With Brenden Morrow, Steve Ott and Avery, the Stars will get under the skin of opponents. Dallas has a lot of quality pieces in place for the present. There’s a nice balance of veterans and youth on the blue line, and with the maturity up front the pressure is not on Mike Modano to carry the load. The fired Doug Armstrong put this team in a good direction, and co-GMs Les Jackson and Brett Hull have taken it up a notch with the acquisition of Brad Richards and the recent summer-time moves.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins – GM Ray Shero faced an impossible task to keep his roster intact. On the other hand, the Pens didn’t win the Cup, so at the least tweaks have to be made. The key signings have taken place – long-term deals for center Evgeni Malkin, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and defenseman Brooks Orpik. Miroslav Satan is a nice, reasonably priced replacement for Marian Hossa. Pascal Dupuis showed he can help this team, and he is rewarded with three years. Matt Cooke replaces Jarkko Ruutu. Sure, the Pens would have liked to retain Ryan Malone and Georges Laraque, but looking at the big picture, they lost who they could afford to lose and they kept their most important players for now and the future.
4. San Jose Sharks – Doug Wilson was in a tough spot PR-wise when Brian Campbell bolted for Chicago, but the GM rebounded nicely by reshaping his too-young defense by adding the offensive Dan Boyle, stay-at-home Brad Lukowich and former All-Star Rob Blake, all solid veterans. Who’s to say Boyle wasn’t Plan A all along, going back to the trade deadline when the Sharks acquired Campbell. Wilson still needs a seventh defenseman and maybe some insurance for the injury-prone and aging Kyle McLaren. Something suggests there’s still a move to come up front with maybe a popular veteran to depart (Cheechoo?).
5. Philadelphia Flyers – Philly isn’t content to pat itself on the back in reaching the conference finals a year after being the worst team in the league – it is all about winning the Cup – so the Flyers have been active even if they haven’t been making big headline-grabbing moves. A series of trades sent five players out and brought five in while five draft picks were acquired with four getting moved. The big signing was keeping restricted Jeff Carter at home for three years. Goaltending is something to keep an eye on. Is Martin Biron for real? He and backup Antero Niittymaki are set to become unrestricted free agents next summer.
6. Montreal Canadiens – You get the feeling if Mats Sundin was going to sign here he would have done it by now. The Canadiens have tried and tried to recruit top veteran forwards the past several seasons but it is just not happening. They’d love Teemu Selanne, too, but that’s not going to happen. In the meantime, Alex Tanguay is going to have to do. The Habs got tougher with the addition of Georges Laraque, and extending Maxim Lapierre came without a huge price tag. Montreal has only four core forwards signed past next season.
7. Anaheim Ducks – Brian Burke’s work is not done. Signing young forward Corey Perry was a priority, and despite the GM’s whining about inflated “second-contract” signings, Perry didn’t break the bank. The team still needs pieces, but it’s about to solve a second-line center need by signing Brendan Morrison. It appears Mathieu Schneider will be on the move. Burke has to tiptoe the ceiling of the salary cap, and while he loves his depth on defense, it’s not going to work in the big picture financially.
8. New York Rangers – The Rangers have never proven to be shy at this time of year, salary cap or not. They made two bold moves by giving defenseman Wade Redden $39 million for six seasons and declining forward Markus Naslund $8 million for two years. Those are a couple of significant and expensive gambles. The steady and improving Michal Rozsival looks like a steal at four years for $20 million. And speaking of gambles, New York takes on Nikolai Zherdev in a four-player trade with Columbus. This one has an upside if the enigmatic Russian finally blossoms, but Midtown Manhattan sure isn’t Middletown, Ohio.
9. Minnesota Wild – After getting off to a slow start in the market, the Wild have come on to make some moves that might make sense considering anyone who plays in Minnesota has to fit into the Jacques Lemaire mold. Veteran forwards Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan were signed. The acquisition of defenseman Marek Zidlicky from Nashville might fly under the radar a bit, but it could turn out to be a nice pickup. Even Marc-Andre Bergeron might help on the power play or for depth on defense. The team still needs to negotiate a new deal for restricted free agent Pierre-Marc Bouchard.
10. New Jersey Devils – Looks like the Devils certainly had a plan, and they executed it with the signing of four veterans. But are they any better for it? Brian Rolston, Bobby Holik, Bryce Salvador and Jay Pandolfo cost a combined $42.5 million. Rolston is the only player who can help the lackluster goal support of Martin Brodeur. GM Lou Lamoriello must still have cards to play because this wouldn’t appear to be enough of an upgrade.
11. Calgary Flames – It’s hard to challenge Darryl Sutter because he does his homework, knows the game and is usually right. But it seems like a lot of Calgary’s moves have been getting something that it just lost. Alex Tanguay goes out, Michael Cammalleri comes in. Owen Nolan goes out, Todd Bertuzzi comes in. Craig Conroy and Daymond Langkow have new deals, and that’s important, but the Flames still lack that No. 1 center, and they’re not easy to find.
12. Colorado Avalanche – There are some head-scratchers here. After taking care of some of their own – John Michael Liles, Adam Foote, Wojtek Wolski – the Avs took a couple of flyers by throwing money at goalie Andrew Raycroft and veteran forward Darcy Tucker. Goaltending looks to be an early concern for Colorado. Here’s hoping the Avs are setting new second-time coach Tony Granato up to succeed, not fail.
13. Washington Capitals – The big risk here is the team letting Cristobal Huet walk and taking a chance that Jose Theodore is back in the goaltending form that meant Vezina and Hart trophies years ago in Montreal. This will be worth watching early on as the Captials’ blue line gets used to yet another new goalie and Theodore gets used to the less-than-defensive Southeast Division. Securing up-and-coming Mike Green for four years was a must. The Caps have otherwise been quiet.
14. Chicago Blackhawks – Fresh off the monster signing of Brian Campbell ($56.8 million over eight years), the Hawks learned that young defenseman James Wisniewski will need surgery to repair torn knee ligaments, an injury suffered during recent workouts. Cristobal Huet is an interesting signing. Nikolai Khabibulin is the starter, but Huet might be the man to push the veteran to bring his ‘A’ game on more nights.
15. Boston Bruins – The Bruins haven’t done anything to set the hockey world on fire, but they expect to get Patrice Bergeron back, which is like adding a new player considering all the time he missed last season. Boston is taking a chance on Michael Ryder, who fell out of favor in Montreal (non-production does those sorts of things). Is anyone excited about the acquisitions of Matt Marquardt and Johnny Boychuk? We thought not.
16. Ottawa Senators – This should be a very good team and its goalies are Martin Gerber and Alex Auld. Does anyone else sense a problem here? Sens fans have to hope more moves are coming (Mathieu Schneider from Anaheim?) because right now the team doesn’t look any better on paper than when it finished the season getting swept in the opening round.
17. Carolina Hurricanes – No big splash in the market, but the ‘Canes looked to improve the backline by sending Erik Cole to Edmonton in exchange for defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who they signed to a three-year, $12 million deal. The team took care of other potential free agents Michael Leighton, Tim Gleason, Tuomo Ruutu and Josef Melichar, but you get the feeling more is coming, even if they’re smaller additions for depth.
18. Nashville Predators – Hard to tell what direction the Predators are going. While they locked up a couple of key restricted free agents on the blue line – Shea Weber and Ryan Suter – they went about stockpiling four draft picks while cutting free vets Darcy Hordichuk, Chris Mason and Marek Zidlick. There’s got to be more moves here. It looks like Nashville is having trouble recruiting. You have to wonder if the uncertain new ownership and problems centering on William “Boots” Del Biaggio III has free agents casting a weary eye.
19. Vancouver Canucks – New GM Mike Gillis continued to reshape the roster by acquiring Steve Bernier from Buffalo and signing Kyle Wellwood, Darcy Hordichuk and Ryan Johnson. Once Brendan Morrison signs in Anaheim that means everyone from the Markus Naslund-Morrison-Todd Bertuzzi line, arguably the best in the league three years ago, is gone. It doesn’t appear Gillis has any interest in retaining vets Aaron Miller, Byron Ritchie, Brad Isbister or Mike Weaver either.
20. Phoenix Coyotes – Acquiring Olli Jokinen was the Coyotes’ big strike, but the veteran center will be up against it in a division full of top first-line centers (Joe Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Ribeiro and Anze Kopitar). The defense will eventually look different as Keith Ballard, who had his moments, and underachieving Nick Boynton have departed. Brian McGrattan from Ottawa is an interesting pickup considering Phoenix has Dan Carcillo, who might be told to choose his battles wisely now, and Todd Fedoruk. Phoenix continues to try to toughen up but must remain cognizant it needs skill to compete as well.
21. Buffalo Sabres – The Sabres took advantage of the Sharks’ need to shed payroll by acquiring Craig Rivet, a solid veteran defenseman, who if not asked to do too much will be a real upgrade for the Buffalo blue line. Rivet can log 20 minutes a game, is a leader on and off the ice and isn’t afraid to scrap. He instantly becomes the team’s top-paid defenseman. Buffalo gets two high picks for Steve Bernier, so the Brian Campbell trade at the deadline in February to San Jose really nets first-, second- and third-round draft picks.
22. Edmonton Oilers – OK, GM Kevin Lowe has made a number of moves, but do they make any sense? The Oilers take on defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky (overrated), Gilbert Brule (top pick Columbus gave up on) and Erik Cole. They lose Jarret Stoll, who looked to be on the brink of breaking through a couple years ago and is still young; Matt Greene, an average D-man; Joni Pitkanen, an underachieving D-man; and Raffi Torres, who when not injured is one of the best third-line agitators around. It just seems like a bunch of bodies moving around.
23. Columbus Blue Jackets – Clearly the franchise is weeding out the non-Ken Hitchcock players, and this summer that has meant good-bye to Gilbert Brule, Nikolai Zherdev, Michael Peca, Dick Tarnstrom, David Vyborny, Duvie Westcott and Dan Fritsche. The signings of Mike Commodore, R.J. Umberger, Kristian Huselius and acquisitions of Raffi Torres, Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman signal the team has a clear plan of putting established veteran role players around a solid core. Under GM Scott Howson and Hitchcock, this team is starting to take shape.
24. Toronto Maple Leafs – It’s not as simple as adding the necessary pieces here. It’s all about dismantling first, and adding along the way. That’s why there’s a brouhaha awaiting Bryan McCabe, and why the otherwise attractive Original Six destination has only been able to attract Jeff Finger and Curtis Joseph. Stay tuned, there’s more to come, assuming there’s more that they can force to leave.
25. St. Louis Blues – Unlike last summer when the Blues were busy remaking themselves into a team somebody might want to come watch, they’ve been fairly quiet this offseason. The only recognizable name that is gone is Jamal Mayers, and the only one added is backup goalie Chris Mason, or we assume it’s for the backup role. The Blues are going to have to get creative or they are going to sink fast in an ever improving Central Division and ultra-difficult Western Conference.
26. Tampa Bay Lightning – You’ll definitely need a program to recognize the players on this upside-down roster. New ownership wanted a new look, and they’re getting it as veterans Ryan Malone, Vaclav Prospal, Adam Hall, Olaf Kolzig, Gary Roberts, Ryan Craig, Radim Vrbata and Mark Recchi have come from all corners to join the organization.
27. Los Angeles Kings – What has to happen here is obvious – go with the youth and stick with the youth. And that’s exactly what Dean Lombardi is planning. But it doesn’t help when a key veteran like Rob Blake, who could mentor young defensemen, bolts for a one-year deal in the same division. It sends a troubling message when a guy who is a King through and through, and loves where he lives, is not comfortable enough to stick around.
28. New York Islanders – We’re not sure how they pulled it off, but the successful recruitment and signing of Mark Streit for $20.5 million over five years might turn out to be the best blue line deal of the summer. On the other hand, a team that struggled offensively should know better than to think Doug Weight is going to help the cause. At least they didn’t invest more than a year in Weight, who has seen his skills diminish in a hurry.
29. Florida Panthers – Well, the Panthers have finally rid themselves of Olli Jokinen, but getting Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton won’t solve their problems. They certainly would have to match any offer sheet, but if restricted free-agent defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is lured away, the Panthers might as well fold the franchise.
30. Atlanta Thrashers – Does anyone else wonder if the team John Anderson used to coach – the AHL champion Chicago Wolves – could beat the one he coaches now? Or are you more excited about the signing of defenseman Ron Hainsey and the retention of backup goalie Johan Hedberg? Is that all the Thrashers have done this summer? That would be affirmative. Wow.