NHL 2011-2012 Predictions: Five New Playoff Contenders After Free Agency

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst IJuly 15, 2011

NHL 2011-2012 Predictions: Five New Playoff Contenders After Free Agency

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    Only two weeks into the month of July and the 2011 NHL Free Agency period, much of the activity that was bound to occur has already happened. With players like Ray Emery and Sergei Samsonov now the "highlights" of the free agents, most teams are now beginning to review their new roster for the upcoming 2011-2012 season and look towards training camp.

    However, that's not to say that there still haven't been enough signings over the past 14 days to thoroughly shake up the league. Hundreds of players have switched teams, entire rosters in some cities have been transformed, and over a billion dollars (according to CapGeek.com) has been spent.

    For teams who failed to make the postseason last April, the offseason was an especially important time as they looked to solve their issues and create a completely re-formed lineup capable of being consistent playoff contenders for years to come.

    Unfortunately, not nearly all of the 14 non-playoff teams in '10-'11 were able to do that. Still, at least a few, in our minds, did. We've picked out five franchises over the span of both conferences who used an abundance of quality signings throughout the free agent period to become a team that appears, at least on paper, to be a legitimate playoff contender.

    This is the first installment in a two-part series recapping the 2011 NHL offseason to date. Part Two discusses four teams who might be falling off the playoff picture after their [lack of] free agent signings.

5. Carolina Hurricanes

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    Without any doubt, the loss of Erik Cole to free agency and, eventually, the Montreal Canadiens is a humongous blow to the Carolina Hurricanes. But, on the other hand, the Hurricanes were able to fill all of their needs and even possibly replace the production of Cole, albeit by committee.

    Typically a conservative, early July non-factor, GM Jim Rutherford and the 'Canes got rolling quickly as the bell sounded on July 1st. They swiftly filled gaps at backup goalie, fourth line center/penalty kill specialist and third line wing with Brian Boucher, Tim Brent and Alexei Ponikarovsky, respectively.

    The Hurricanes continued to stay active over the rest of opening week, as well, inking Anthony Stewart to further help ease the blow of Cole's departure and then shockingly, after a request of a trade by Joe Corvo, making a rare "big fish" signing by agreeing to terms with Tomas Kaberle and then shipping Corvo in a trade to Boston.

    For the Hurricanes, with boatloads of young talent on both sides of the puck and two other players, by the names of Eric Staal and Cam Ward, that can lead the team farther than just April, a successful free agent period simply put the 'Canes, who missed on their 2011 playoff dreams on the last day of the season over the bubble and into the postseason crop.

4. St. Louis Blues

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    The Blues went into this summer with highest number of players with expiring contracts in the entire league. As they now begin to come out, that formula for a busy offseason has translated into a just-as-balanced up-and-coming roster with a fusion of experience, as well.

    St. Louis re-inked everyone from T.J. Oshie to Patrik Berglund to Roman Polak to Matt D'Agostini and seemingly quadrupled their veteran presence as they grabbed gritty, 30-years-old-plus players like Kent Huskins, Scott Nichol, Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott.

    With a much deeper group of forwards, and underrated defense, and a netminder in Jaroslav Halak that has certainly proven he can dominate when on top of his game, the Blues might just be quietly sneaking up on the rest of the expected 2012 playoff field before our eyes.

3. Colorado Avalanche

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    There's no question that the Colorado Avalanche overpaid dearly in their trade for Semyon Varlamov when Tomas Vokoun was just sitting around without a contract waiting to accept any offer given (as we learned later). It was a nonsensical, rushed trade and a massive letdown for Avalanche fans and goalie coaches alike.

    However, it's truly impossible to deny that Varlamov is still miles and miles more talented and simply a far better goaltending option than any of Craig Anderson, Peter Budaj and Brian Elliot. Colorado can feel more relaxed, more free to play the aggressive style that better fits their team, and simply more confident about winning when Varlamov, coming from a successful (at least in the regular season) atmosphere in Washington, is in net.

    Plus, in other realms on their lineup, the Avs have gone out and made some nice signings. Chuck Kobasew will be a much-needed physical force in a unit of primarily finesse forwards, Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien make the defense far more well rounded than last season, and, even back on the goalie front, Jean-Sebastian Giguere is quite a top-notch if pricey backup.

    With the new additions that summer 2011 has brought to the team added into the youthful, high-upside team base headlined by future stars like Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, Ryan O'Reilly and Erik Johnson, the Avalanche are looking like the possible biggest surprise of the upcoming season as they hope to jump up from a disappointing 14th-place finish in '10-11.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Though the Maple Leafs made only one notable free agent signing in total this summer, that one player — Tim Connolly — and the three other men headed to Toronto through trades are all nice, smart additions that, when healthy, can bring a lot to the table.

    With a new "goalie of the future" (the most promising one yet) in James Reimer, a duo of re-signed youngsters by the names of Clarke MacArthur and Tyler Bozak, and a plethora of other 25-and-under talents such as Nikolai Kulemin and Nazem Kadri, the Leafs were already looking up at the end of the past season.

    Now, through two separate trades, GM Brian Burke has managed to add to those rising expectations by adding John-Michael Liles to a goal-thirsty group of blueliners and ripping off the Nashville Predators in a lopsided deal, bringing in risky but potential-laden Mathew Lombardi and replacing frankly horrific defenseman Brett Lebda with a much better replacement in Cody Franson. Burke also made only his second out-of-town signing of the summr with Philippe Dupuis, giving the forwards a little more depth.

    For Toronto, a city continually doomed with the prospect of an overpaid, low-chemistry team might finally have some life and prosperity as the Leafs, who actually weren't that far off the playoff bubble last season, anyhow, seem to finally have found some traction as they look to gain ground in the Eastern Conference standings.

1. Florida Panthers

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    New GM Dave Tallon went absolutely crazy this summer, and everyone can agree on that. But to us, his insane money-spending, player-adding flurry wasn't caused by heatstroke, it was caused by the realization that his new team needed to get out there and do something if they want to ever make it back to the postseason.

    The Panthers haven't made the playoffs since 2001 and were facing the issue of a technically rebuilding but really disinigrating roster heading into this summer before Tallon arrived in town. And, once that happened, the storylines quickly began to emerge.

    Listing all of the players newly signing to Florida would take a lifetime, but the truth is that if all of the new forwards added to Florida were on the team last year, they would've easily been a top-ten roster in terms of scoring. Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg are all clearly viable "top six" forwards; Marcel Goc, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, and Matt Bradley can contribute plenty of production on their own, too.

    While essentially replacing Tomas Vokoun with Jose Theodore in goal is, on paper, a quite significant downgrade, Theodore, despite all of his bad numbers, is generally a goalie who still manages to find his way onto playoff teams and hopefully can deliver the magic potion to Florida, as well. On defense, Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovsky may be expensive, but they're a big upgrade to the top end of the Cats' "D", nonetheless.

    So, while controversy may abound in the meantime, we thoroughly believe the Florida Panthers have truly become playoff contenders in a matter of weeks. Will they be more than contenders and actually make it into the crop of eight? Perhaps, but it might have to wait until 2013. Yet still, no matter how it turns out, Florida is a team that every franchise needs to add to their radar next season.