With the first week of free agency in the books, several of the available big guns around the NHL have already become sheriffs in new towns. If you take a look around the Western Conference, not many teams have done anything overwhelming to make you concerned about the Red Wings place amongst the class of the Conference. The only negative is that the teams that may have been the most impressive are those teams in the Central Division (Chicago and Columbus). Let’s take a quick look at who’s up, who’s down, and some of who’s where in the West.
#1 Vancouver Canucks – The Canucks got hurt in their quest for the Cup, literally, because of the injuries and the suspensions they underwent in the final round. Assuming every player comes back healthy, they still may have the best team in the West. To the Sedins. Ryan Kesler, and co., they added Marco Sturm, who is a better option than Raffi Torres, to balance out a three line attack. They did lose Christian Ehrhoff, but that was to a Eastern Conference team. That loss, allowed them to resign Kevin Bieksa. All in all, not bad for a week.
#2 San Jose Sharks – The Sharks lost Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, and Scot Nichol upfront and acquired Michal Handzus and Martin Havlet. They lost on this deal. If Havlet stays healthy, the loss may be slight, but I’d still rather have Setoguchi. Defensively, they dealt with the loss of Ian White and Kent Huskins by bringing in Brent Burns. Again, probably not an equal move. Kyle Wellwood and Nic Wallin remain unsigned, and the Sharks would be best served resigning them both.
#4 Anaheim Ducks – Let’s face it, this team comes down to the first line of Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry. As long as they each play at least 75 games, the Ducks should be fine. Their biggest question is if Teemu Selanne’s knee will allow him to come back. Weather he does or doesn’t, they might want to get Jason Blake under contract. The did pick up Jean Jacques from Edmonton, but he won’t be a replacement for Selanne. As with typical Anaheim teams, they should be solid defensively.
#5 Nashville Predators – The have Shea Weber for another year to pair with Ryan Suter. Pikka Rinne is still the goaltender. The should win games with that alone. They were able to get rid of some injured vets (Steve Sullivan and Matthew Lombardi), but also lost one of their best scorers (Joel Ward). The signings of Nic Bergfors and Zach Stortini don’t excite me in terms of top flight talent. I see them putting their hopes in the growth of Patric Hornqvist, Blake Geoffrion, and Matt Halischuk. Defensively, it would be beneficial to resign Shane O’Brien, especially with Cody Fransen being traded for Brett Lebda.
#6 Pheonix Coyotes – Another season and another round of “Where Will We Play.” Well, Ilya Bryzgalov and Ed Jovanovski won’t be in Pheonix and that isn’t good news for them. They did resign Keith Yandle so that’s a big sigh of relief. Upfront, they lose Eric Belenger, Vernon Fiddler, and Andrew Ebbett, and replace them with Raffi Torres, Boyd Gordon, and Marc Pouliot. It’s like dealing with interchangeable parts. I think they are hoping that Lee Stempiank bounces back from the underwelming season he had last year.
#7 Los Angeles Kings – Sign Drew Doughty. Sign Drew Doughty. Sign Drew Doughty. That’s step one, two, and three. Again, this is a team that changed pieces, but pieces from the same mold. Awesome to bring in Mike Richards and Simone Gagne. Yet when you lose Ryan Smyth and malcontent Wayne Simmonds, as well as Alex Ponikarovski and Michal Handzus, it doesn’t matter how much better your top talent is if the bottom half doesn’t scare an AHL defensive corps.
#8 Chicago Blackhawks– The fire sale continues. There was a long list of players that left after the 2010 Cup victory, and other group headed out this summer. Troy Brower, Tomas Kopecky, and Brian Campbell continued the exodus. To their credit, they do have their core of Towes, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Bolland, Keith, and Seabrook. After that, they acquired a lot of low risk, high potential reward veterans (Andrew Brunette, Sean O’Donnell, Jamal Mayers, Rastislov Olesz, and Dan Carcillo). They also got goaltender Corey Crawford under contract. Now they need to get Michael Frolik, Chris Campoli, and either Viktor Stalberg or Fernando Pisani under contract, and they could once again be a threat in the Central, if not the West.
Calgary Flames – Talk about apathy. It looks as if they are going to go with the exact same roster as they did last season. In there defense, they were actually one of the league’s best teams after Christmas, but they’ve made no off-season strides. As a matter of fact, they’ve lost Adam Pardy and Robyn Regehr, while only getting Chris Butler from the Sabres in the Regehr deal. It might be a last ride for Iginla and Kipper as a pair.
Colorado Avalanche– Well, they did take care of any goal-tending issues, that’s for sure. JS Giguere and Semyon Valarmov should help keep them in games, but this is a team that absolutely tanked after a hot start. I think hope in the mountains is based on the eventual emergence of Erik Johnson, the continued success of Kyle Quincey, and new acquisition Jan Hejda. Bottom line, resigning Milan Hejduk and bringing in Chuck Kobasew won’t be enough to get this team enough goals on the score sheet most nights, no matter how good Matt Duchesne is.
Columbus Blue Jackets – It wouldn’t surprise me if this team made the playoffs. Adding Jeff Carter to Nash, Huselius, Vermette, Umberger and company gives the Jackets a really nice font line. They also got some youngsters experienced because of troubles in 10-11. James Wisniewski will help the back end, but they would love another top 4 defenseman back there. The majority of this team’s hopes depend on whether rookie Chris Mason appears, or the Chris Mason of the last two years is in net.
Dallas Stars – They missed the playoffs by one game last year, and it’s possible to see the same happen this year. They lose Brad Richards and Jamie Langenbrunner, but do add Micheal Ryder to help cushion those losses. Outside of Ryder, they pulled a Chicago by signing several veterans to add depth including Vernon Fiddler, Radek Dvorek, Adam Pardy, and Sheldon Souray. Keeping goalie Keri Lehtonen healthy will be huge for them going forward.
Edmonton Oilers– They are probably happy enough just getting their Captain to come home. Ryan Smyth returns to Edmonton, which is the only place he says he should be. Him and Eric Belanger need to help the kids progress (Sam Gagner, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi). There is definitely talent on this roster, including Ryan Whitney at the point, and new acquisition Cam Barker there as well, but I still think the Oil are one more year away. They lost Sheldon Souray, Jim Vandermeer, and Theo Peckham which is why I still feel they need time finding a defense corps.
Minnesota Wild – Perhaps the Minnesota Sharks would be more fitting. Setoguchi and Heatley should really help a normally offensively challenged team add some scoring. The did lose Chuck Kobesew and Andrew Brunette, but I think the two Sharks should help recover their loss as well as the loss of Havlet. Their problem will be defensively. They lost a top four in Cam Barker and top six in Brent Burns, and could really use a replacement, unless Clayton Stoner, Drew Bagnall, and Jared Spurgeon are more ready than I think. Good luck Nick Backstrom.
St. Louis Blues – As Detroit fans well know, it’s very risky signing aged veterans. It can work as in Todd Bertuzzi’s case. It can also work like Mike Modano’s. I’m sure the Blues have a lot of faith in the Arnott and Langenbrunner signings. I think for the Blues, the best thing they did was making sure T.J. Oshie and Patrick Berglund resigned and are still in the fold. They also signed ex-Shark Kent Huskins to their blueline, but they are still one or two d-men away from really pushing. Unless Jaro Halek can find his innner 2010 playoffs and channel that for a whole season, the Blues will cause trouble, but will stay on the outside looking in.
The general theme for most of the teams on the lower end is replacement, not betterment. The higher end teams (Sharks, Ducks, Predators) didn’t even really seem to replace lost or possibly lost talent. They look as if they are hoping they still have enough in the current line-ups (or kids in the AHL) to survive. Vancouver I feel did stay strong, but no one in the West should knock Detroit out of the top three. Next time, I’ll take a closer look at the Wings roster and what it will potentially look like next year. But I want to give them one more week. I think another forward is on the way, and I’m not talking about Chris Conner. Stay tuned!