Predicting Which NHL Teams Will Make the Biggest Improvement in 2013-14 Season
It doesn't seem like too long ago that NHL fans and pundits alike were watching the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks battle for the Stanley Cup. Suddenly though, we all find ourselves in the dog days of the NHL offseason.
The draft is behind us, and the big bangs of free agency have already faded into echos.
Rookie development camps are underway, giving fans some perspective about their favorite team's future, while some safe assumptions can be made about certain teams heading into the 2014 season.
2013 will seem like a blip on the radar compared to an action-packed, 82-game season in 2014. Sprinting between various outdoor festivities and (hopefully) the Olympics, there are several teams that should see noticeable and noteworthy improvements in the upcoming season.
Columbus Blue Jackets
2013 Record: 24-17-7 (9th in the Western Conference)
Biggest Offseason Moves: Re-signed Sergei Bobrovsky; signed free-agent forward Nathan Horton; drafted Kerby Rychel, Marko Dano and Alexander Wennberg
Why They'll Improve: The Columbus Blue Jackets were almost a playoff team in 2013. They won their big games down the stretch, but couldn't get help elsewhere to sneak into the No. 8 seed in the West.
The word "momentum" has been tossed around with regard to the Jackets, and it's easy to see why. Sergei Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy last season and will be around for at least another two years. For the first time in franchise history, they were major shoppers at the trade deadline, swinging a deal for Marian Gaborik.
Add in the presence of one of the top free agents that was available this summer in Nathan Horton, and Columbus could see its first 40-win season since 2008-09.
That season felt a bit like a flash in the pan. Now, with John Davidson running things from upstairs and new general manager Jarmo Kekalainen building the team for the long haul, there's a lot to like about the Jackets heading into 2014.
2012 second overall pick Ryan Murray will likely make the team out of camp, and Boone Jenner could earn a slot at center as well, infusing the squad with even more youth, talent and tenacity.
2013 Record: 19-22-7 (12 in the Western Conference)
Biggest Offseason Moves: Traded Shawn Horcoff; traded for David Perron; signed free agents Andrew Ference, Boyd Gordon, Philip Larson and Jason LaBarbera; drafted Darnell Nurse
Why They'll Improve: There won't be a "most likely to improve" list without the Edmonton Oilers on it this offseason. The feeling is that, at some juncture, this super-talented and young team will come together and score a lot of goals.
While the group had no glaring holes at forward, Edmonton needed to improve in two vital areas: in their own zone and in the faceoff circle. While it's tough to retool a defensive unit on the fly, GM Craig MacTavish took two big steps in adding Ference and Nurse.
It's unlikely the latter will be able to step in and play immediately, but Ference is an outstanding addition.
The likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov are all a season older, and the Oilers could feature one of the most effective offensive units in the NHL. Adding Gordon will help them win faceoffs, and a strong season from Devan Dubnyk could put the Oilers over the top and into the playoffs.
2013 Record: 22-22-4 (11th in the Western Conference)
Biggest Offseason Moves: Traded for Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Shawn Horcoff; traded Loui Eriksson; drafted Valeri Nichushkin; traded for and signed Sergei Gonchar
Why They'll Improve: A team is only as good as its centers. If you look at the Stanley Cup champions over the last few decades, there were various methods and means by which they won the championship. The one common thread is strength at center.
While no one is going to mistake Peverley and Seguin for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the pair of ex-Boston Bruins are a massive upgrade over the Dallas Stars' top center in 2013.
That man was Jamie Benn, a natural and career-long wing trying to adapt to the needs of the team after Derek Roy was traded out of town.
New GM Jim Nill addressed the weakness down the middle of the ice during a whirlwind 24-hour period that saw him acquire Seguin, Peverley and Horcoff. Nichushkin could very well make the Stars out of camp, and Radek Faksa could make the jump as well.
Dallas also possesses one of the more underrated groups of up-and-coming defensemen. Jamie Oleksiak made his pro debut last season and never looked out of place. His presence, along with Gonchar, Brendan Dillon and Alex Goligoski round out a solid unit on the blue line.
2013 Record: 26-19-3 (8th in the Western Conference)
Biggest Offseason Moves: Signed Matt Cooke and Keith Ballard; traded for Nino Niederreiter; traded Devin Setoguchi
Why They'll Improve: After landing the two biggest free agents available in 2012 in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Minnesota Wild were given a one-year grace period to familiarize and get comfortable.
That grace period is over now, and big things will be expected from the State of Hockey.
The team saw firsthand what a championship team looks like during the playoffs, getting run over by the eventual Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. They've had all summer to internalize and will come out of the gates scorching in 2014.
Parise will lead the way on offense, but Minnesota also has several interesting young players in the fold as well. Mikael Granlund will look to rebound from a forgettable rookie campaign, and Charlie Coyle will look to expand on his pro debut.
The addition of Niederreiter is also an interesting one. He's always had boatloads of talent, but rubbed the New York Islanders the wrong way. He gets a fresh start in Minnesota after two turbulent years in the Islanders organization.
On the back end, Mathew Dumba could finally arrive in Minnesota. If he can transition half as well as Jonas Brodin did last year, the Wild will be a handful on a nightly basis. A healthy Niklas Backstrom will be key, but that's always been the case for this team.
2013 Record: 16-23-9 (14th in the Western Conference)
Biggest Offseason Moves: Signed Viktor Stalberg, Matt Hendricks, Matt Cullen and Eric Nystrom; drafted Seth Jones
Why They'll Improve: The Nashville Predators were strong in their own zone, but just couldn't score enough goals to get by. While the team has never been an offensive powerhouse, the lack of lamp lighting really cost the Preds last season.
To address that, they made several strong acquisitions in the offseason. Cullen, Nystrom and Stalberg aren't going to combine for 100 goals, but they are all good role players that will add at least some scoring punch.
The addition of Jones can't be overlooked, and he should make the jump to the NHL as early as next season. Word is he could even line up with Shea Weber from the get-go. Ryan Ellis should also take a step forward, giving Nashville one of the better scoring blue lines in the NHL.
Filip Forsberg is also poised to take the league by storm. He's an early Calder Trophy favorite.
The Preds didn't go outside of their team structure to improve for 2014. They signed and added players that fit in well, and they will be a playoff team next season, barring catastrophe.