One of the best analogies I’ve heard of for the beginning to the free agency portion of the offseason is that it’s a lot like a speed dating service.
Does anyone really think that a player signed just minutes after the opening bell really mulled over all of his offers? Or that a team that signs a big name free agent minutes after that opening bell got the best deal they could have?
Of course not.
It’s all about making the best decision in the least amount of time so as to not miss out on your soul mate.
Or so I’ve been told.
Whether it’s a match made in heaven or one that will ultimately end in heartbreak, only time will tell. But that doesn’t stop us from judging and prognosticating and prognosticating and judging which, let’s be honest, is the fun part of the job.
So, let’s take a look at the most improved teams this offseason, shall we?
If you don’t think that the Maple Leafs have improved this offseason, you’re kidding yourself.
While the Leafs didn’t leave themselves much wiggle room for this season, they acquired a solid offensive forward in Kris Versteeg, a tremendous checking forward in Colby Armstrong, and a solid defenseman in Brett Lebda.
Those three acquisitions on their own give this team a much different look than they had last season and one that is much closer to the Brian Burke model of what he wants his team to look like.
Are they good enough to make the playoffs this season? There’s a good chance that they’re not.
But, have they improved from last season’s team? There’s no doubt about it.
More than a few hockey pundits have looked at the Thrashers’ offseason trades and scoffed.
Replacing Ilya Kovalchuk with Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd? Ridiculous.
When you’re looking at it that way, you’re definitely right. Byfuglien and Ladd are most certainly not Kovalchuk. But there’s definitely a method to new general manager Rick Dudley’s madness.
If you have a team that doesn’t have much of a chance at landing the big fish, what do you do as a GM? Make them harder to play against.
Ladd has two Stanley Cup rings, is a reliable checker and has offensive potential, while increasing his goal total every season he’s been in the league.
Byfuglien came out of his shell in the post season this last season, but the Thrashers are hoping that he can be the same annoying presence in front of the net in Atlanta that he was in Chicago.
Both Ladd and Byfuglien bring physicality to the team’s forward corps that wasn’t previously there and both bring a winning mentality—something that this organization desperately needs.
The additions of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson immediately make this team better, but add Kurtis Foster to the mix and this is a team that is on the rise.
Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi-Svensson coupled with the team’s young core make this a team that could easily find itself in the same position as the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins in a few years with the right moves.
While they still have a way to go yet, the Oilers have certainly found themselves some gems in the draft and a hidden gem, in Foster, in free agency.
You might be wondering why the Wild are on the list, and you’d be right to, but the fact of the matter is that the team was one player away from having a very potent top-six forwards—a number two center.
The addition of Matt Cullen has given them just that and has given them a gritty center that can play between Guillaume Latendresse and Martin Havlat, which is great news for the organization as Havlat has proven to be most effective when slotted with a couple of gritty players.
The additions of Eric Nystrom and Brad Staubitz should prove invaluable as they will make the Wild much harder to play against (something that is becoming a common theme amongst the non-playoff teams).
It’s safe to say that next season the St. Louis Blues could be a surprising team.
They have some needs to address yet, but the addition of Jaroslav Halak in net has made this team better by leaps and bounds.
The impending re-signings of Erik Johnson and David Perron lend this team a sense of hope that the Blues haven’t had for quite a while. Combine that with Alex Pietrangelo and this is a team that is looking up.
You might be asking yourself how the team could be improved with just one player, but this is now a young team that has a net minder that has significant Stanley Cup experience.
That’s got to count for something.
Stevie Y said that he wasn’t going to go out this offseason and overpay for a free agent and, thus far, he hasn’t.
What he has done, however, is brought in two players that will fill important roles in the squad—one that was greatly lacking last season and the other that is a replacement.
The addition of Dan Ellis gives the Bolts a goaltender that can split time with Mike Smith and Pavel Kubina gives them another top pairing defenseman that can help young budding superstar Victor Hedman grow.
Yzerman has a good core to build around and the additions this offseason are already looking like they could pay dividends.
One thing that the Devils have needed since the departure of Scott Stevens is another bruising defenseman and the addition of Anton Volchenkov gives them exactly that.
He, along with Henrik Tallinder, gives the Devils more than a suitable replacement for the departure of defenseman Paul Martin.
The acquisition of Jason Arnott gives them another veteran presence up front and one who is more than capable of putting up points. While the rumor is that the Devils are still in on the Kovalchuk sweepstakes, at this point it may be better for them to just kindly bow out and run with what they’ve got—a solid forward unit and a much improved defensive unit in front of Martin Brodeur.
The Pens are still missing the scoring winger that they need so badly, but they have improved their team greatly; even with the departure of Sergei Gonchar.
The signings of defensemen Zybnek Michalek and Paul Martin gives this team five players that are legitimate top-four defensemen in the NHL, giving them a solid unit in front of what many perceive to be the team’s greatest weakness—goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
While these signings don’t provide them with secondary scoring (as it stands now, Pascal Dupuis could be the team’s most productive winger), they do help the Pens and make them a better team than they were when their season ended just a couple months ago.
It could be argued that the Canucks were a couple solid defensemen away from a parade for the Stanley Cup or, at the very least, an appearance in the Finals.
At least, that was what the front office of the Canucks thought.
So, in order to improve upon that area of weakness, the team went out and traded for Keith “A Goalie’s Best Friend” Ballard and signed the supposed cream of the free agent defensive crop in Dan Hamhuis.
Behind a still potent offense led by the Sedin twins, the Canucks now have more protection for goaltender Roberto Luongo and can hopefully avoid being pushed around in front of the net again this season.
How do you improve upon a Stanley Cup Final appearance?
Well, if you’re the Philadelphia Flyers, get more defense.
The additions of Sean O’Donnell and Andrej Meszaros give the Flyers one of the best defensive units in the NHL and the addition of three-time 20-plus goal scorer, Nikolai Zherdev, gives them another offensive weapon in their arsenal.
There is the pesky little matter of the salary cap, but they have all off season to worry about that.
For the time being, however, they are looking more and more like the front runners for the Cup next season.