The 10 NHL Teams That Have Improved the Most in the 2017 Offseason

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistJuly 24, 2017

The 10 NHL Teams That Have Improved the Most in the 2017 Offseason

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    In today's National Hockey League, nearly all significant organizational moves are made during the summer months.

    The salary-cap system sets up chain reactions for virtually all transactions. Every trade and player signing impacts the associated teams' cap situations, which then trigger additional moves.

    The game for every general manager is to maximize talent and create the right roster balance while staying within cap limitations—and finding creative ways to work around the rules when things get dicey.

    As we close in on the end of July, most of summer's main moves are complete. The expansion draft, the entry draft and free agency are all in the rearview mirror, and the arbitration process is grinding along, with teams and players reaching settlements before they have to go eyeball-to-eyeball at their scheduled hearings.

    Whether it's through free-agent signings, trades, drafting or internal improvement, here's a look at the 10 teams that have made the best moves to improve next season.

    Unsurprisingly, seven out of the 10 were not part of the playoffs last season, and the other three were non-playoff teams just one year earlier.

    Staying near the top is a whole different challenge. For now, the focus is on the teams on the rise.

10. Vegas Golden Knights

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Players Added: All of them. Most notably: Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal, Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Oscar Lindberg, Nate Schmidt, Jason Garrison, Deryk Engelland, Shea Theodore and Cody Glass.

               

    Players Lost: None.

              

    Why the Team Has Improved: When you're starting at zero, there's nowhere to go but up. The Vegas Golden Knights stocked their roster through the expansion draft, with the focus on building a team for the long term rather than making a splash in their inaugural season.

    Still, they've got a few solid building blocks for 2017-18. Three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury is a recognizable face who brings world-class goaltending, while James Neal and Jonathan Marchessault are proven scorers who should be able to put the puck in the net.

                 

    Work Left to Be Done: Following the Golden Knights' first development camp, sixth overall draft pick Cody Glass and Vegas' other two first-round selections, Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom, were all signed to their entry-level contracts, per the team's website

    Defenseman Nate Schmidt has filed for arbitration; his hearing is scheduled for August 3.

    According to CapFriendly, the Golden Knights are carrying 10 defensemen and 13 forwards on their NHL roster. General manager George McPhee still needs to offload a couple of blueliners and add depth up front—two of those roster spots are held by David Clarkson and Mikhail Grabovski, who are expected to be assigned to long-term injured reserve when the regular season begins.

9. Edmonton Oilers

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Players Added: Ryan Strome and Jussi Jokinen.

              

    Players Lost: Jordan Eberle, Benoit Pouliot and Andrew Ference.

               

    Why the Team Has Improved: For the past couple of years, the Edmonton Oilers have dominated the NHL's offseason newswire. In 2015, they drafted Connor McDavid and brought in Cam Talbot and Andrej Sekera. Last summer, they reeled in Milan Lucic and swapped Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson in a blockbuster trade.

    This year, after their first playoff appearance in 10 years, the Oilers have been much quieter. McDavid was inked to that massive $100 million contract extension, Jordan Eberle was traded for the younger, cheaper Ryan Strome and shootout king Jussi Jokinen was added to the forward ranks—perhaps to be a mentor for fellow Finn Jesse Puljujarvi as much as for his on-ice skills.

    Most of the Oilers' improvement next year will come from within. McDavid will start his third NHL season as the reigning Art Ross and Hart Trophy holder. Throughout the lineup, expect to see more of the swagger that the team developed in the playoffs after getting past the San Jose Sharks and pushing the Anaheim Ducks to their limit.

               

    Work Left to Be Done: Just one member of the main roster remains unsigned—but Leon Draisaitl is a big fish in line for a big deal. Coming off his entry-level contract, he led the Oilers in playoff scoring.

    Draisaitl and McDavid should follow in the footsteps of great center pairings such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin or Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, anchoring the Oilers down the middle for years to come.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Players Added: Patrick Marleau, Dominic Moore, Ron Hainsey and Timothy Liljegren.

                

    Players Lost: Brian Boyle, Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak and Brendan Leipsic.

                     

    Why the Team Has Improved: With a year of experience under their belts, the Toronto Maple Leafs' young guns should take another step forward in the 2017-18 season.

    The sophomore jinx can bite hard, but Calder Trophy winner Auston Matthews is the real deal. He and his teammates showed during the playoffs that they can go toe-to-toe with the best in the league. As long as coach Mike Babcock keeps working his magic, the Leafs will keep getting better.

    New acquisition Patrick Marleau is also a familiar entity to Babcock, winning gold medals with the Leafs bench boss as part of Team Canada at both the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.

    Marleau turns 38 in September, so nearly a generation separates him from many of his new teammates, but he can still skate and has been a dependable scorer throughout his career.

                 

    Work Left to Be Done: The Leafs recently inked Zach Hyman to a new four-year deal, leaving Connor Brown as the only restricted free agent still to be signed.

    In the big picture, they'll be fine for cap space once they move Nathan Horton and Joffrey Lupul on to long-term injured reserve at the beginning of the season, but it'll be a little trickier to become cap compliant for the first day of the regular season. 

    Don't rule out another significant trade. Both James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak are due to make more than $4 million this year and are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents at season's end. One of them could be dealt for picks, prospects or more help on the blue line.

7. Buffalo Sabres

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Players Added: Jason Pominville, Benoit Pouliot, Nathan Beaulieu, Marco Scandella, Victor Antipin, Matt Tennyson and Chad Johnson.

               

    Players Lost: Brian Gionta, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Cody Franson, Dmitry Kulikov and Anders Nilsson.

                

    Why the Team Has Improved: The Buffalo Sabres tore down their organization during the offseason, hiring former Pittsburgh Penguins associate general manager Jason Botterill as their new GM and then bringing in franchise icon Phil Housley to run the bench after four years as an assistant with the Nashville Predators.

    Botterill has gifted Housley an upgraded group of defensemen for next season thanks to new additions Nathan Beaulieu, Marco Scandella and Russian free-agent signing Victor Antipin.

    One-time team captain Jason Pominville also returns—four-plus years after he was traded to the Minnesota Wild and just as captain Brian Gionta steps aside.

    Up front, the Sabres should also get a boost from the return of a healthy Kyle Okposo. He missed a total of 17 games in 2016-17 with a rib injury and a mysterious late-season illness, which he told the Sabres website he believed was concussion-related.

                    

    Work Left to Be Done: Three Sabres players filed for arbitration. Winger Johan Larsson quickly re-upped on a new two-year deal on July 8, but goaltender Robin Lehner (July 27) and defenseman Beaulieu (August 4) both remain unsigned. 

    Zemgus Girgensons also remains an RFA. The 23-year-old elected not to go the arbitration route, coming off a season in which he scored a career-low 16 points. The Latvian signed his most recent contract on September 1, 2016—a one-year deal that carried a cap hit of $1.15 million.

6. Calgary Flames

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    Players Added: Travis Hamonic, Mike Smith and Eddie Lack.

               

    Players Lost: Brian Elliott, Chad Johnson, Lance Bouma, Deryk Engelland and Dennis Wideman.

               

    Why the Team Has Improved: Travis Hamonic is one of the prize acquisitions of the 2017 offseason—a minute-munching shutdown defenseman whose game also includes a dash of toughness and a pinch of offense. When he lines up with Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie this fall, the Calgary Flames will be icing a top four that rivals the Nashville Predators' as best in the league.

    But the Flames' issues on the back end last season were about goaltending more than they were about defense. As a result, Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson are gone. It remains to be seen whether the Mike Smith-Eddie Lack tandem will represent a true upgrade.

                 

    Work Left to Be Done: Restricted free agent Sam Bennett still needs a new contract. CapFriendly shows the Flames have plenty of cap space—more than $7 million—but they will also have only 20 NHL players signed once the 21-year-old's deal is done. 

    Competition for the seventh and eighth defense spots will likely come down to Rasmus Andersson, who's on his entry-level contract, and restricted free agents Brett Kulak and Tyler Wotherspoon.

5. Philadelphia Flyers

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Players Added: Brian Elliott, Nolan Patrick, Jori Lehtera, Michael Vecchione and Oskar Lindblom.

               

    Players Lost: Steve Mason, Brayden Schenn, Michael Del Zotto, Nick Cousins, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Nick Schultz.

               

    Why the Team Has Improved: Second overall draft pick Nolan Patrick is likely to step straight into the Philadelphia Flyers lineup this fall. If he can stay healthy, he should provide a sharp boost to the team offensively.

    Patrick won't be the only prospect to get a look. After successfully integrating Ivan Provorov into the defense last season, the Flyers will look to add more youth to the blue line with some combination of Samuel Morin, Travis Sanheim and Robert Hagg.

    Up front, soon-to-be 21-year-old winger Oskar Lindblom has been signed to his entry-level deal and will make his way over from Sweden, while college free-agent signing Michael Vecchione will also get a chance to stick.

    The Flyers received utility forward Jori Lehtera and a first-round draft pick from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for two-way forward Brayden Schenn.

    There's no guarantee Brian Elliott is going to be an upgrade over Steve Mason in the Flyers net, but crease controversy seems to go with the territory in the City of Brotherly Love. The team hasn't had a clear-cut star as its starting goaltender since general manager Ron Hextall snagged a Conn Smythe Trophy in a losing cause against the Edmonton Oilers back in 1987.

                 

    Work Left to Be Done: CapFriendly shows the Flyers with 20 players signed and just over $5 million in available cap space. All key veterans are locked up for next season—expect to see those open roster spots filled by inexpensive young players.

4. New Jersey Devils

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    Players Added: Nico Hischier, Brian Boyle and Marcus Johansson.

               

    Players Lost: Mike Cammalleri, Beau Bennett and Devante Smith-Pelly.

               

    Why the Team Has Improved: The New Jersey Devils chose first in the draft for the first time in team history when they selected Nico Hischier in June. The Swiss forward is likely to slot straight into the NHL lineup this fall.

    He isn't McDavid or Matthews, but considering how aggressively he climbed the rankings during his draft year, it's not unreasonable to think Hischier has upside that could make the Devils a fun team to watch next season.

    In a lower-profile front-office move, New Jersey hired Rollie Melanson as the team's goalie coach for the new season. He and Cory Schneider formed a successful partnership during the latter's time with the Vancouver Canucks—he could be just the ticket to get the 31-year-old back on track after an uncharacteristically bumpy campaign in 2016-17.

                

    Work Left to Be Done: The Devils still need to sign soon-to-be 23-year-old RFA Damon Severson, who led the team's defense, with 31 points, while playing most of last season on the top pairing with captain Andy Greene.  

    The Devils are also trying to sign Harvard captain Alex Kerfoot, a two-time ECAC champion who was a finalist for ECAC player of the year in 2016-17.

    New Jersey drafted Kerfoot in the fifth round in 2012—a year before he started college. Now he has graduated, he'll become an unrestricted free agent on August 16 if he doesn't ink a deal with the Devils before that date—a similar situation to that of the Harvard captain who preceded Kerfoot, Jimmy Vesey, last summer.

    Turning 23 in August, Kerfoot is undersized at 5'10" and 175 pounds, but his 45 points in 36 games in his senior year compare nicely with Vesey's 46 points in 33 games.

    Devils general manager Ray Shero told Mike G. Morreale of NHL.com on July 15: "I hope he signs here; we like him as a kid, and we value him."

3. Arizona Coyotes

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    Players Added: Antti Raanta, Derek Stepan, Clayton Keller, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Adam Clendening, Emerson Etem, Michael Latta and Zac Rinaldo.

                

    Players Lost: Mike Smith, Radim Vrbata, Shane Doan, Connor Murphy and Anthony DeAngelo.

              

    Why the Team Has Improved: The Shane Doan era is over for the Arizona Coyotes—and so is the Dave Tippett era.

    Behind the bench for the past eight years through seemingly endless ownership turmoil, Tippett and the Coyotes mutually agreed to part ways on June 22, per the Associated Press, (via the National Post).

    Rick Tocchet gets his second crack as an NHL head coach after spending the past three seasons as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He'll be charged with running a team that is rich with young talent—including a prospective Calder Trophy candidate in Clayton Keller.

    Offseason moves have also seen the Coyotes add some solid veterans—goaltender Antti Raanta, center Derek Stepan and three-time Stanley Cup winner Niklas Hjalmarsson on defense.

            

    Work Left to Be Done: Forward Jordan Martinook was signed to a new two-year contract four days before his scheduled arbitration hearing. That leaves Anthony Duclair as Arizona's only unsigned restricted free agent.

2. Carolina Hurricanes

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    Players Added: Scott Darling, Justin Williams, Marcus Kruger, Josh Jooris and Trevor van Riemsdyk.

                 

    Players Lost: Eddie Lack, Bryan Bickell, Jay McClement, Ryan Murphy, Matt Tennyson and Connor Brickley.

                  

    Why the Team Has Improved: The Carolina Hurricanes finished seventh in the tough Metropolitan Division and improved by just a single point in the standings last season.

    The Hurricanes are rarely seen on TV, but general manager Ron Francis has been laying a strong foundation of young talent. This summer, he made some impressive moves that should give his team a chance to end its eight-year playoff drought, now the longest in the NHL.

    It all starts in goal, where the 28-year-old Scott Darling will bring his career .923 save percentage to a starter's role for the first time.

    Up front, the Canes will get a boost from Justin Williams, who returns for his second tour of duty after winning his first Stanley Cup in Carolina back in 2006. Marcus Kruger could also see a more dynamic role than he did as a defensive specialist during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks.

                

    Work Left to Be Done: The Hurricanes are in a tidy place contractually, with all their main roster players signed. Defenseman Jaccob Slavin has already been inked to a seven-year extension that will take effect after his entry-level contract expires at the end of the 2017-18 season.

    CapFriendly shows the Canes with just six NHL defensemen signed. Seventh overall pick from 2014 Haydn Fleury could make the jump after a year in the AHL, or Carolina could use some of its $17 million in available cap space to snag an extra blueliner or two closer to training camp.

    This year's first-round draft pick, Martin Necas, has also been signed to his entry-level deal, but he could spend at least one more season playing in his native Czech Republic.

1. Dallas Stars

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    Players Added: Ben Bishop, Marc Methot, Alexander Radulov, Martin Hanzal, Tyler Pitlick, Brian Flynn and Miro Heiskanen.

                   

    Players Lost: Patrick Sharp, Cody Eakin, Ales Hemsky, Jiri Hudler and Antti Niemi.

                  

    Why the Team Has Improved: A 30-point drop in the standings from the 2015-16 season sounded an ear-splitting alarm that changes needed to be made in the Dallas Stars organization.

    Returning coach Ken Hitchcockwho won a Stanley Cup with the Stars in 1999will tighten up the league's second-worst defensive team, while Ben Bishop provides a massive upgrade in net.

    Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are in their primes and will be supported by rapidly improving young players such as Radek Faksa and Brett Ritchie up front, as well as scoring sensation John Klingberg on the back end. New acquisitions Radulov, Hanzal and Methot provide veteran depth.

    Third overall pick Miro Heiskanen was signed to his entry-level contract on July 8. After a strong performance at the Stars' development camp, he'll be given a chance to make the big club as an 18-year-old this fall, according to Sean Shapiro of NHL.com.

              

    Work Left to Be Done: According to CapFriendly, the Stars have 23 players signed for next season, with just under $800,000 in cap space remaining. RFA forwards Faksa and Ritchie have been inked to new multiyear deals which leaves only defenseman Jamie Oleksiak unsigned.

    Like Faksa and Ritchie, Oleksiak elected not to file for salary arbitration, which would suggest he and his agent feel a new contract shouldn't be too hard to pin down. The 6'7" 24-year-old hit a new career high with 41 games played last season on a one-year deal that carried a cap hit of $918,750.

                

    All stats from NHL.com. Contract and salary information from CapFriendly.