NHL Pre-Draft Power Rankings
With the 2010 NHL Draft fast-approaching, and free agency lying just ahead of it on the calendar, teams are sure to be wheeling and dealing at a furious pace over the next few weeks.
Before it all begins, let's take this opportunity to examine where the NHL's 30 teams are headed right now, as we rank them based on their prospects for success in the 2010-11 season, taking into account what their roster looks like right now, the amount of payroll or cap space they have to make necessary roster changes, and how much uncertainty there is surrounding the offseason that lies ahead of them.
30. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers were downright horrific last season, finishing with a regrettable record of 27-47-8.
The good news is that they can only get better, despite the fact the goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin is facing a serious DUI charge. After all, Khabibulin only played in 18 games last season, so losing him wouldn't knock Edmonton down much further.
Meanwhile, the Oilers have the first overall pick in the draft, which means Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin will likely be on the team fairly soon after the season stars.
The only issue is that, even if this team improves slightly, they're still going to be terrible. With only eight forwards under contract at the moment, there will certainly be some room for them to make intelligent offseason deals, but it's going to take a lot to make the Oilers contender again.
29. Florida Panthers
The Panthers showed signs of life at certain points last season, but pictures of David Booth lying on the ice after being mercilessly checked by Mike Richards pretty much sums up how things ended up for Florida.
The team didn't let Jay Bouwmeester go at the 2009 trade deadline, and it cost them. Now, they're left with little to do but rebuild, and they started doing so when they sent Nathan Horton and Greg Campbell to the Bruins for the 15th overall pick in the draft and Dennis Wideman (as well as another undisclosed draft pick).
Meanwhile, one can't help but imagine that Tomas Vokoun's days in Sunrise are numbered.
The Panthers have spent a good part of the past couple years on the bubble (more so than many expected), but the organization has clearly had enough of that. They've moved forward, and doing so understandably means making changes that hurt your chances of immediate success.
With Horton gone, don't expect too much out of the Panthers next year—but keep in mind that this team has surprised us before.
28. Atlanta Thrashers
The Thrashers have faced perennial struggles throughout their existence, and still haven't recorded a single playoff win since entering the league in 1999. However, despite dealing franchise player Ilya Kovalchuk to the Devils at the Trade Deadline this year, the team ended up being a playoff contender until the final week of the season.
The only problem is that many key players from that team are free agents, including Johan Hedberg, Maxim Afinegenov, Pavel Kubina, and Colby Armstrong. The Thrashers helped their cause by trading for Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, and Brent Sopel, but the group of guys they have still looks anything but impressive.
That being the case, it looks like Atlanta could be headed back to the Eastern Conference cellar next season, unless the new arrivals have breakout years and lead the franchise towards a turnaround.
27. New York Islanders
Seeing as it's unlikely that the cash-strapped Isles will make any significant roster moves, the improvements that the team does make next year will probably have to come through individual players stepping up their game. Essentially, there are only two sets of letters that can save the Islanders from yet another lackluster finish next year: JT & G.
No, that doesn't refer to a law firm that's going to prevent the team from moving; rather, it refers to John Tavares and goaltending.
Tavares got off to a hot start last year, but to say he cooled off after that would be an understatement. He was virtually a non-factor after appearing to be a lock for the Calder Trophy early in the season, which made the Isles significantly less potent.
The bottom line is that he's the future of this franchise, and if he isn't moving ahead then there's no way that the team can.
Speaking of the "future of the franchise", Rick DiPietro is going to have to start acting like he is even half-deserving of that title if the less-renowned of New York's two teams is going to return from the grave. Dwayne Roloson is a capable No. 1, but he won't be around for a whole lot longer.
Essentially, if the Islanders are going to start to believe in themselves again, they're going to need confidence in their netminder—and a tandem just won't do the trick. Unless DiPietro begins earning the money he's getting from his ridiculously long contract, Mike Milbury will continue to toss and turn in his sleep, as will every Isles fan in the land.
26. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes were one of the league's worst teams last year, which was somewhat surprising after their Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2008-09.
It is hard to see what went wrong for this team, which hadn't changed dramatically, but the fact is that something wasn't working—and because of that the team had to ship off a few key players.
Now, with Joe Corvo, Dennis Seidenberg, Matt Cullen, and Scott Walker (not to mention Michael Leighton) all having left mid-season, it's going to take an equally inexplicable season to bring this team back to its 2008-09 form.
25. Dallas Stars
The Stars should be largely unchanged next season, but there are two likely departures that could greatly impede Dallas' chances in 2010-2011: Mike Modano and Marty Turco.
Modano, the best player in team history, is likely headed toward retirement or to another team, which would lead to the Stars losing his veteran leadership (something the Stars don't have much of otherwise).
Meanwhile, franchise goalie Marty Turco has been replaced with Kari Lehtonen, who has a brighter future but a murkier present.
Dallas appears to be focused on the future, but rebuilding always comes with a price. They decided to go with Lehtonen in goal, which could spell doom for their chances next season. He has potential, but he might take some time to develop.
Don't expect them to make the playoffs Kari Lehtonen roars back into relevance. Like their new netminder, the Stars are capable of putting up an impressive performance, but they haven't done so over the past couple years.
24. Columbus Blue Jackets
With six players having been signed to contract extensions in 2009-10, the Blue Jackets' group of skaters shouldn't be too much different next year.
In addition, Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon will be back in goal, but the Jackets are going to need to make a major change in the crease: They need to put the Steve Mason of 2008-09 out on the ice, not the Steve Mason of last season.
Mason's extreme decline this season was the primary reason for Columbus' struggles, but if he can bounce back from the common "Sophomore Curse," perhaps the Jackets can get back to the playoffs. Otherwise, they'll continue to teeter on the fringes of relevance.
23. Anaheim Ducks
When the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, their core of forwards clearly had a bright future. Some changes have been made since that championship year, but Anaheim remains strong up front.
On the other hand, it was clear back then that their defense's days were numbered, with aging veterans Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger topping the depth chart. Pronger was traded during the last offseason and Niedermayer just announced his retirement.
The idea that "defense wins championships" might not have originated in hockey circles, but it's still quite applicable. The Ducks declined when Pronger left, and seem likely to do so again with Niedermayer gone.
Unless Anaheim makes major improvements on the back end, their chances of competing next year are doomed.
22. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning have their young core signed and a good amount of payroll space available to build around that core—something that would make any general manager salivate.
Make that GM Steve Yzerman, who did a fantastic job of building Team Canada in the offseason, and Lightning fans are probably salivating too. The future looks bright in Tampa Bay, but it will take some shrewd moves by Yzerman to make this team a contender next year.
A playoff berth is a real possibility for Tampa Bay, but the tweaking the organization has to do might take more than a season to complete.
21. Nashville Predators
The Predators always seem to surprise us, in part due to fantastic coaching by Barry Trotz. Last year was a prime example of how Trotz can pull success out of thin air, as the Preds made the playoffs with only two 50-point scorers.
What's more, they came 13.6 seconds away from taking a commanding 3-2 series lead on the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, but Patrick Kane's game-tying goal put Chicago in the driver's seat.
Nashville faces two big losses in captain Jason Arnott and defenseman Dan Hamhuis. Without Arnott they lose his 46 points and wealth of experience, and Hamhuis was a crucial part of their defensive corps.
With those two key players out of this mix, the Predators' odds of squeaking into the playoffs again seem slim—although inexplicable playoff appearances seem to be Barry Trotz's forte.
20. Ottawa Senators
The Senators were one of a number of surprise teams last season, and had it not been for their blowing a 3-0 lead in Game Six of the conference quarterfinals against the Penguins, they might have made a significant splash in the playoffs as well.
Ottawa seemed to make something out of nothing last season, especially in goal, but it's going to be more difficult to do so next season. Netminders Brian Elliot and Pascal Leclaire may be able to give the Senators a respectable effort, but the likely departure of stay-at-home defenseman Anton Volchenkov will make their job a lot more difficult. That alone could derail the chances of Ottawa returning to the playoffs, but if Jason Spezza ends up being traded, things could be even more grim for the Senators.
Now, Ottawa doesn't have a lot of cap to work with, but they can still make things work next year if they find a suitable replacement for Volchenkov's defense and only trade Spezza if they get a good return. A top-four finish in the conference seems a bit far-fetched, but it could perhaps be accomplished—as long as GM Bryan Murray is intelligent with how he deals with his departing players and the cap space their absence creates.
19. St. Louis Blues
St. Louis just missed making their second-straight playoff appearance by five points, and now the Blues face a gaggle of free agents that they need to deal with.
They've already replaced Chris Mason with Jaroslav Halak (who they still have to sign to a contract), but defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo and Erik Johnson's contracts are up, as are those of forwards Paul Kariya, Alex Steen, and David Perron (among others). Throw in Keith Tkachuk's retirement, and you know St. Louis in store for a busy offseason.
Judging by the Blues' payroll from last season, they've got about $20 million to spend. But with so many spots left to fill, allocating even this much money might be a challenge.
If the Blues can be intelligent in how they deal with their key free agents, and keep the team at the level it's been at for the past couple years, all it will take for the Blues to get back into the playoffs is strong goaltending from Jaroslav Halak.
It's up to the front office to put the pieces in place, but after that, it's going to be mostly up to Halak to make this team a contender again.
18. Minnesota Wild
Expectations for the Wild boil down to this: Teams that remain mostly healthy and still finish 13th in their conference probably won't do much better unless they make major changes.
The Wild probably didn't play as well as they could have last year, as they have the talent in place to make the playoffs, but with their core likely to remain in place for next year, and only minor changes seeming to be on the table, how much more can we expect from the Wild next year?
17. Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche will have a multitude of free agents to deal with this offseason and an equally large amount of payroll space at their disposal. They'll be able to make a number of moves, and there certainly could be a radical changing of the guard up front.
Now, because of the number of free agents the Avs have to deal with, as well as the fact that they received contributions from all sorts of sources last season, it's difficult to project where the team will finish next year.
Perhaps the most telling feature of their most recent campaign was that their blazing-hot start fizzled into a tough run that almost caused them to miss the playoffs. When you bring that into consideration, things don't look too great for Colorado next year.
16. New York Rangers
Let's face it: Glen Sather isn't the sharpest tool in the shed.
With the young talent and money the Blueshirts have, they would easily be one of the league's best teams if it wasn't for the massive free agent contracts New York's general manager gave out to Chris Drury, Wade Redden, and Scott Gomez (who he somehow convinced former Canadiens' GM Bob Gainey to deal for last offseason). Luckily for Sather, he saved his behind with his brilliant (or at least less stupid) Marian Gaborik signing this past offseason, so he's still got his job.
However, the mess remains.
The Rangers missed the playoffs in a heartbreaking shootout to the Flyers last year after putting together a strong stretch run that had saved their season. Such a finish was obviously heartbreaking, but it was especially so for a team that had blown a 3-1 series lead to the Capitals in the 2008-09 playoffs.
The Rangers' offseason priorities will be to sign restriced free agent defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi (who could perhaps be trade bait, whereas Staal is unlikely to go), as well as replace the offense of free agent forwards Vaclav Prospal and Olli Jokinen.
Sather has about $13.4 million in cap space to work with, but once he deals with those players and a few other departures there won't be much room left for improvement.
The Rangers will probably end up being a bubble team again unless he can finally convince CableVision, who owns the team, to eat Redden's contract (if not other contracts as well) by sending the overpaid defenseman down to the minors. That would create some much-needed cap space, but seeing as how such a move hasn't happened yet when it should have happened long ago, it doesn't seem too likely to happen any time in the near future.
15. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs are in a great position—they have a fantastic core of defensemen and a seasoned goaltender in Jean-Sebastian Giguere, as well as over $15 million in cap space to improve their lackluster core of forwards.
Normally, that kind of money would be sufficient to make the improvements that the Leafs need to make up front in order to become a contender, but GM Brian Burke hasn't exactly been a front office wizard.
He certainly gets bonus points for building the surprisingly good United States Olympic Team, but his trade for Phil Kessel (which cost the Leafs this year's second-overall pick as well as their picks in the first two rounds of next year's draft) was a complete head-scratcher.
That being said, perhaps the key for the Maple Leafs heading into 2010-11 is how smart Brian Burke is in his dealings.
If his moves are the right ones, a division title isn't out of the question. However, if he doesn't use his cap space well, Toronto could be doomed to suffer another year without playoff hockey (at least at the NHL level).
14. Phoenix Coyotes
The Coyotes were probably the biggest surprise of last season, finishing fourth in the Western Conference and even contending for the top seed late into the season.
They were a well-coached team that got contributions from throughout their roster and a great performance in goal from Ilya Bryzgalov. They ended up losing in seven games to the Red Wings in the first round, but that finish wasn't too bad for a team that seemed a heartbeat away from moving to Ontario when the season started.
Now, as the page turns to next year, the Coyotes find themselves faced with a plethora of free agents but not a ton of money ($10-15 million) with which to deal with them. These include Wojtek Wolski, Lee Stempniak, Robert Lang, Martin Hanzal, Matthew Lombardi, Mathieu Schneider, Derek Morris, Zbynek Michalek, and Sami Lepisto.
It's going to take some bizarre voodoo ritual or complicated magic spell to get even close to all of those players under contract for next year, and even then, the 'Yotes will still have the same team that exited in the first round last year.
It's very unlikely that Phoenix will have as much luck as they did last year, and even though the experience of a playoff run counts for something, it simply isn't enough to compensate for the losses the team will probably suffer this offseason.
The Coyotes might end up as a bubble team next year, but even that isn't guaranteed. The only way they're going to return to the playoffs is if they re-sign a healthy portion of their free agent class, bring in a couple of players who can give the team a little more goal scoring, and play well as a team as they did last year.
Dave Tippett did a fine job last season, but it is next season that will be his true test. Phoenix can remain a top contender, but it'll be on Tippett and the front office to keep the Coyotes headed in the right direction.
13. Detroit Red Wings
Last season taught us a valuable lesson: The Red Wings are the Red Wings. Even if they're struggling, you can never count them out because they always make a splash.
They were a bubble team for much of the season, but roared back into the thick of things down the stretch and knocked off an upstart Coyotes team in the first round of the playoffs. By then, many had learned the aforementioned lesson, leaving few to pick the higher-seeded Coyotes in that series.
Alas, we saw in the second round that Detroit isn't the powerhouse they used to be, but the Wings had still proven their mettle. They're a team that does a great job of finding ways to win when it counts, even when they look like underdogs on paper.
The Red Wings will have to deal with a number of free agent forwards, including Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Patrick Eaves, and Drew Miller, but they should still field a respectable team next year. Their core will remain intact, and while it will be another year older, it's hard to count Detroit out of things.
You can break down the effects of the minor departures and arrivals all you want, but when it comes down to it, they're still the same squad that's shown that they know how to win even when they aren't dealt the best hand.
There are no guarantees that Detroit will be a playoff team, but as is often the case with the Red Wings, the sky is the limit.
12. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres should look largely the same next year, but a couple of changes might be in store for the navy and gold.
First of all, their defense will probably take a bit of a hit as Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder are headed toward free agency. Second, and more importantly, their goaltending is bound to decline next season, although their man in the crease will be the same as this year.
Ryan Miller was simply incredible in 2009-10, posting a 2.22 goals against average and a .930 save percentage, along with five shutouts. He carried the team throughout the regular season, and did everything he could during their first-round playoff exit. His numbers were great, but it's hard to imagine him having the same performance next year. Success like that often doesn't translate into the next season, and while Miller is likely destined for continued year-to-year success, it still isn't likely that he'll have as phenomenal of a season.
Likewise, the chances of the Sabres having another run like they did this year aren't fantastic.
Like their goalie, Buffalo had a breakout season during which the stars aligned in their favor. It's important to remember that, while things went right for the Sabres in the regular season, they still lost in the first round of the playoffs.
They're absolutely a playoff-caliber team, but to take their game to the next level it's going to take a little more luck, an unlikely hero or two, and another superb performance by Ryan Miller.
11. New Jersey Devils
The Devils were the winner of the trade deadline's Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes, but their trade for him drew criticism because of the team's defense-first trapping style. The move didn't pay dividends for the Devils, who were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, lasting only five games against the Flyers despite a second-place regular season finish.
Now, New Jersey faces the prospect of having to re-sign or replace Kovalchuk, as well as defenseman Paul Martin and a few free agent forwards other than Kovalchuk. GM Lou Lamoriello claims he can keep both Martin and Kovalchuk, but even that would leave the Devils with the same team that faltered this year.
While it's possible that Kovalchuk and the Devils could flourish more under new coach John MacLean, perhaps it may be better to let Kovalchuk go and use the Devils' nearly $13 million in cap space elsewhere. They could certainly improve if they do so, but even if they don't, they're still probably going to end up being a top contender.
The only issue for the Devils is their playoff struggles. This team has been fantastic the past three years and yet inexplicably continues to fall apart in the first round. This undoubtedly can be pinned on Martin Brodeur, who in recent years has been superhuman in the regular season but pedestrian in the playoffs.
Because of his struggles, New Jersey has been left somewhat demoralized, and with free agency looming for nearly every key player on this team in the next couple years, the pressure to perform might be too much for Marty or his teammates to handle.
The pieces are in place for the Devils too make a run—it's just that those pieces haven't been materializing into any fantastic postseason performances. In light of that reality, the expectations for the Devils are fairly low when you consider their fantastic 2009-10 regular season.
10. Calgary Flames
Last year, Flames GM Darryl Sutter used a strategy that has been quite popular since the lockout (at least among fans): Cutting the fat. He shipped off two of his overpaid, underperforming players in Olli Jokinen and Dion Phaneuf, bringing in some talent and creating some cap space that gives the Flames a little breathing room this offseason.
Calgary will certainly have some room to tweak their roster, but considering the fact that their team shouldn't be changing too much, they should be headed for a similar fate as previous years.
The Flames missed the playoffs last year (probably in part due to a number of upstart squads making their mark), but they generally tend to be a playoff team. They've choked in the first round of the playoffs four times since the lockout, but at least they've gotten to the postseason, where anything can happen.
The way they're shaping up at the moment, this team should be on the bubble yet again next year, and whatever tweaking they do this offfseason could go a long way in determining whether or not they return to the playoffs.
9. Chicago Blackhawks
It was never a secret that the Blackhawks were built to win a championship in 2010 and not so much in the years to follow. They were able to win the Stanley Cup when they were supposed to (which is not as easy as it sounds—many teams built to contend in the short-run have failed to win a championship), but now they face a challenging offseason that will inevitably lead to some sort of decline next season.
The only question is how big that decline will be.
Considering the fact that fitting under the cap will be more complicated for Chicago than solving a 15-by-15 Rubix Cube, it's simply too soon to guess exactly who will be returning and who won't. We know already that Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager, and Colin Fraser have left via trade, but more departures could be in store.
It's been rumored that Cristobal Huet might be sent down to the minors, which would free up a much needed $5.625 million in cap space and give the Hawks a substantially better chance of keeping Antti Niemi, who has both a brighter present and a brighter future than Huet. However, such a move is a rarity, so there's no guarantee that it will even be considered. Huet could be traded instead, but his cap hit makes him unattractive.
While there's a lot of uncertainty for GM Stan Bowman this year, one thing is clear: If the Blackhawks are to win another title next year, they won't be able to do it on raw talent alone. It's going to be a much tougher road for the defending champions in 2010-11, and they'll need to learn to work with what they have if they want to repeat.
8. Los Angeles Kings
Despite the great strides the Kings made in 2009-10, it's hard to call Los Angeles' season "surprising" for any other reason than that they didn't do better.
Aside from Anze Kopitar contributing 34 goals and Drew Doughty having a breakout season, the rest of the Kings' players performed well, but hardly reached their respective full potentials. Many of them improved, but can do better.
That being the case, hopes for the Kings are high next year. If Jonathan Quick (or perhaps top prospect Jonathan Bernier) can give them a slightly better showing in the crease, and the Kings' young guns continue to improve, this team could make a major splash next year. They might not have all the pieces in place that would allow them to win a Stanley Cup, but they're getting there.
The Kings could settle for essentially the same roster that they had last year, but if they really want to become a top contender, they probably will need to make a big move this offseason. One name that has come up as a potential addition is superstar free agent winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who could bring a tremendous offensive jolt to Los Angeles and form a powerful one-two punch with Anze Kopitar.
If the Kings make that move, and are smart in their other dealings, they could be headed towards a top-four finish in the Western Conference next year. Trading top goaltending prospect Jonathan Bernier (or perhaps current goalie Jonathan Quick) could also allow them to bring in another skater. However, even if they don't pull the trigger on a big deal, the Kings will still be a team that has the makings of a perennial contender.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh's season came to a shocking end last year, with a Game Seven collapse by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and the Penguins' defense. They allowed the Canadiens to take a 4-0 lead, and went on to lose 5-2. The game was a microcosm of the Pens' season—everything seemed to be be working in their favor, but things didn't go their way.
The question is whether their finish last year was a case of "Stanley Cup Hangover" or a sign of things to come.
Marc-Andre Fleury was subpar for much of the regular season and playoffs, as was Evgeni Malkin. Those two can only get better next year. Sidney Crosby, on the other hand, had a superb regular season, as well as a great first round against the Sentaors, but he virtually disappeared in the second round. Sergei Gonchar seemed to do the same.
Meanwhile, trade deadline acquisition Alexei Ponikarovsky was just plain awful throughout his time in Pittsburgh.
The big question for the Penguins this offseason is whether or not to make major acquisitions. They'd like to bring Sergei Gonchar back, but their talks with him have gone south, meaning they'll likely have to pursue a replacement. The Pens will also have to make a decision on if they want to bring in another top-line winger like Ponikarovsky to supplement Crosby.
If the salary cap is too big of a concern to GM Ray Shero, the alternative to both of these choices is to make a minor acquisition or call-up a young player from the minors, but both of those options could be problematic, as they would involve the Pens not dealing with two major areas of need.
In the end, whatever the Penguins do, the key for them in 2010-11 is going to be getting turnaround seasons from their key players who struggled this year—mainly Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, and Marc-Andre Fleury. If Shero makes smart moves (as he had done up until the deadline this ear), those three step it up, and both Crosby and the team's role players play as well as they always have, the Penguins could very well be headed toward their second Stanley Cup in three years.
However, if their stars continue to struggle, the Penguins will be lucky just to win a playoff series.
6. Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks wouldn't have accomplished a top-four finish in the Western Conference this season if it wasn't for Henrik Sedin's MVP performance, but Sedin wouldn't have won MVP if it wasn't for the issues that one of his teammates experienced.
Roberto Luongo missed over twenty games for the second straight season, but that was hardly the biggest problem surrounding him. Luongo's numbers were approaching pedestrian during the regular season, as he posted a goals against average of 2.57 and a save percentage of .913 in 68 games. He did even worse in the playoffs, allowing a sobering-at-best 3.23 goals per contest and stopping just nine out of every 10 shots he faced.
Luongo already had a history of injuries and playoff collapses, which makes Vancouver's prospects for 2010-11 especially uncertain. The Canucks shouldn't face any drastic changes in their roster, so whatever group of skaters they end up with will probably be capable of producing another division title.
The only question is if Luongo will have a bounce-back year and finally silence his critics. If he plays like the top netminder that we know he can be, and the rest of the team puts up a similar or even slightly less-impressive performance, the Canucks could win a championship next year.
This doesn't seem like too far off of a goal for Vancouver, and it's hard to imagine Luongo—who was impressive in the Olympics—having back-to-back-to-back playoff collapses.
However, if Luongo plays like he did this season, Vancouver will be a very depressing place come May 2011—and this time there won't be any Canadian Olympic victories to cheer them up.
5. San Jose Sharks
The Sharks are a perennial powerhouse with a lot of depth, and many of their key players should be back next season.
After back-to-back first-place finishes in the Western Conference, it's difficult to picture the Sharks not being a playoff team—especially after the experience they gained in last year's playoff run, in which they finally started to break free of their reputation for early exits from the postseason.
San Jose will have to deal with two big losses next season in goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and defenseman Rob Blake. Both brought their fair share of experience to the Sharks, but neither are irreplaceable. Nabokov (a free agent who will not be re-signed) has been a solid regular season performer, but he's always been a big part of the reason why the Sharks fall short of expectations of the playoffs. Blake (who retired) was a key part of their defensive core, but he can be adequately replaced by any of the many free agents available.
For the Sharks, a large part of their offseason activity will involve finding a good replacement for Nabokov. They might end up signing (or trading for) a goalie who won't put up the same regular season numbers that Nabokov tends to, which might result in the Sharks finishing lower in the standings next year.
However, they're almost certainly going to be a playoff team no matter who they bring in, and once they're there, whoever is patrolling the crease will probably be more successful than Nabokov has been in the postseason.
It's a classic case of addition by subtraction, and for the Sharks, that could just be the strategy that finally gets them to the Stanley Cup Finals.
4. Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens made a plethora of acquisitions during the 2009 offseason using the massive amount of cap space that had been freed up due to a number of players hitting free agency, including Saku Koivu, Alexei Kovalev, Alex Tanguay, Saku Koivu, and Matthieu Schneider (among others). The additions to the Habs included Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Hall GIll, Jaroslav Spacek, and Travis Moen.
The new-look Canadiens squad looked quite potent heading into this season, but the team understandably took a while to click. However, once they did, they were able to push their way into the playoffs, where they made a tremendous impact, shockingly knocking off the two favorites in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals and Penguins.
This Canadiens "Cinderella" run undoubtedly hinged on goaltender Jaroslav Halak donning the glass slippers. Still, it was a stretch to call the Canadiens as a whole an underdog team because they clearly have the pieces in place to beat any team in the NHL.
Now that they've found their stride, they may very well be one of the league's best teams next season.
The only question is whether Carey Price finally starts to play like the number one goaltender than the Canadiens think he can be.
Jaroslav Halak was never destined to be the Habs' "goaltender of the future," and he's now just as much a memory as the team's incredible playoff run is. Now, it's up to Price to make his mark, and you have to imagine that the Canadiens are going to do everything they can to make sure he succeeds. Expect him to have a backup this year who can tutor him, and perhaps take the reigns if the Habs feel Price needs more time.
Either way, it's hard to picture the Canadiens not improving substantially next year now that they've finally begun to mesh.
3. Washington Capitals
After the Capitals' shocking playoff exit, it became easy to forget one simple fact: The Caps were very good last season. Very, very, very good.
"Dominance" is a tremendous understatement when it comes to describing what Washington accomplished last season. They didn't get the job done in the playoffs against the Canadiens, but at the same time, they weren't the only favorite to get shocked by the Habs.
The bottom line for the Capitals is that they're going to remain mostly unchanged from last season. All of their stars will be back, and while Jose Theodore won't be in net again, Semyon Varlomov will, and Varlamov has proven himself to be a more-than-adequate No. 1 goaltender in both the regular season and playoffs.
The popular knock on the Capitals has been their inability to win in the playoffs, but criticizing the Caps because of this isn't entirely warranted. They nearly overcame a 3-1 series deficit to Philadelphia in 2008, ended up accomplishing the feat against the Rangers in 2009, lost in seven games to the Penguins after leading 2-0 in the next round, and blew a 3-1 lead to the Canadiens in 2010.
The thing that should really concern the Capitals is their inability to protect a lead. They've proven that they can comeback from all sorts of deficits both in games and in series, but they always seem to flop as soon as they become the clear favorites.
There are flaws in their strategies as well, but this basic trend is indicative of the fact that their stars (most notably Alex Ovechkin) often lose focus when the team is in control of a key game or series.
The blame for Washington's issues could be pinned on the coaching staff or perhaps on the players themselves, but it's still important to remember that this is a young team that still has a lot to learn. This current squad has only gotten a few chances to compete in the postseason, one which nobody expected (2008).
The popular criticisms of the Capitals aren't invalid, but it'd be a stretch to call this team anything but a powerhouse based on a couple of unexpected playoff exits.
2. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers put together an unbelievable run to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, during which they had oceans of both good luck and bad luck.
The Orange and Black were picked by many to win the Eastern Conference, but the road they took to get there was downright bizarre. They had goalies going down like bowling pins, needed to adjust mid-season, a new coach with a radically unfamiliar style, faced boiling tensions in the locker room, and seemed to forget how to score goals at multiple points during the season.
At the same time, though, they got contributions from a number of unexpected heroes, including Michael Leighton in net and Ville Leino up front.
Philadelphia dealt tremendously with adversity throughout their run, proving their heart and their mettle with a shootout win that propelled them into the playoffs, an incredible comeback from a 3-0 series deficit, and many other notable accomplishments.
Now, a Flyers franchise that has been notorious for falling short of expectations will try to return to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010-11.
The good news for them is that their locker room issues are all but in the past, they have had plenty of time to adjust to Peter Laviolette's system, and they have finally have proven to themselves and the world that they can be a contender. Their core of skaters should be improved upon last season (when it was already quite powerful), but the main issue for the Flyers is goaltending.
A plethora of options exist, but none seem certain to pay dividends. The Flyers can re-sign Michael Leighton, who was great except for when the Flyers needed him most, bring up prospect Johan Backlund, or look outside the organization for help.
No goalie on the market is a sure bet (as if any netminder is these days), as even the best ones on the market (such as Jose Theodore, Tim Thomas, and Evgeni Nabokov) come with their fair share of baggage, so it's too soon to tell both who will be stopping pucks for Philadelphia and how good of a job that player will do.
Either way, the Flyers seem destined for great things next year. A fair share of the struggles they faced last year were caused by uncontrollable forces, and almost all of the issues they needed to deal with are the sorts of things that don't happen in back-to-back years (e.g. a plethora of injuries to goaltenders, a coaching change, locker room tension that has since dissipated, etc.).
Now, while the Flyers are also unlikely to get four playoff shutouts out of a waiver-wire pickup, acquire a Conn Smythe-caliber forward (i.e. Ville Leino) for a third-line defenseman and a late-round draft pick, or overcome any more 3-0 series deficits, these positives are things they can build on, accomplishments whose impact will carry into next year—whereas the same can't be said for the negative aspects of last season.
The Flyers were extremely impressive in the playoffs last year, and they clearly earned the Prince of Wales trophy. It was a great run for Philadelphia, yet given the likelihood that next year's Flyers squad will be even better, the Orange and Black might be hoisting a decidedly larger trophy come 2011.
1. Boston Bruins
For a team that experienced a playoff defeat as crushing as the Bruins did, getting mentally ready for the next season can be a difficult task. To be so close to advancing only to lose four straight is one of the worst experiences in all of sports, but there's hope on the horizon for Boston.
Say what you will about the team's lack of effort and their choking, but the Bruins' front office clearly has their act together.
The trade that put the yellow and black in prime position to win a Stanley Cup was an atypical move for a contender. They sent one of their best players, Phil Kessel, to Toronto for the Leafs' first-round picks in both 2010 and 2011, as well as their second-round pick in 2010. While trading Kessel might have hurt the Bruins' chances of winning a cup in 2009-10—something tough to do after a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference—it immediately increased their chances of winning a title in 2010-11 astronomically. Needless to say, everything really hit the fan last year, but that doesn't change Boston's incredible outlook for 2010-11.
Draft picks are invaluable for contenders because they are exactly what most cellar teams want if they are dealing their star players. A team with draft picks can turn their picks into top players via trading (as Toronto did, albeit in an ill-advised fashion), or simply improve their longevity by using those picks. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli received a tremendous boost (and Leafs GM Brian Burke probably developed a terrible headache) when the Maple Leafs were awarded the second pick in the NHL draft, because that pick then belonged to Boston, who also held the 15th pick.
The Bruins have since traded away the 15th overall pick to Florida, but they have three very attractive picks still at their disposal, which means they have the ability to improve tremendously. They will probably draft Tyler Seguin or Taylor Hall second overall, but generally speaking, they could trade any number of their picks.
It's very likely that they will make a big deal or two on draft night, which along with their acquisition of Nathan Horton would more than compensate for the probable departure of Marc Savard, even if they don't get a tremendous return for him.
We've seen glimpses of greatness from this Bruins team over the past couple years, and they have two proven starting goaltenders on the roster. It's possible that they could trade Tim Thomas and that Tuukka Rask could struggle, but even then, the team will likely have the pieces in place to acquire a new goalie.
The bottom line is that the Bruins are already quite good, and their potential for growth this offseason is nothing short of tremendous. When you take that into account, the Bruins look destined to dominate next season.