NHL 2011-2012 Predictions: 4 Declining Playoff Contenders After Free Agency
Only a little over 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 16 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 made the playoffs last April, no matter their fate once getting there, this offseason was about renewing the team to equal the task of meeting their goals yet again next year and, in many cases, even stepping it up another level from their 2010-2011 effort.
However, not all 16 playoffs teams were able to improve on last season's team during their free agency signings. These four, in particular, seemed to us that they even went downhill from their old roster.
Whether because of little maneuvering room due to the salary cap, poor decisions with trades and contracts, or simple inactivity in a busy time, each of these GM's might be a little more nervous about his franchise during the next regular season than he was in the last.
This slideshow is the second installment of a two-part series recapping the 2011 NHL offseason to date. Part One discussed five teams who became playoff contenders with their free agent signings.
4. Nashville Predators
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For Nashville, the list of new things in the 2011 offseason is headlined by their new gold music-themed jerseys, not any free agent signings...because, in truth, they really didn't have a single notable one.
Complete silence on the signing front on July 1st never helps, and Nashville's roster was eaten apart by more energetic GM's from other franchises who signed Marcel Goc, Joel Ward and Steve Sullivan away from the Preds on that first afternoon of free agency.
Later in the week, GM David Poile accepted perhaps the most lopsided trade of the summer, sending injury-prone but talent-laden forward Mathew Lombardi to Toronto for spare change and also making a horrendously large downgrade on defense by exchanging Cody Franson for Brett Lebda.
Though the eventual signing of up-and-down Niclas Bergfors will help ease a small amount of the blow on the offense, there's little doubt that the Predators' scoring attack, ranked tied for 21st last season, is going to be even worse next season.
With an inexperienced blueline as well, Nashville's small-profile team could be in for some trouble next winter.
3. Philadelphia Flyers
When do you know your team needs a complete makeover? Well, when that team is Philadelphia, it's when you lose in the Conference Semifinals to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion.
The Flyers, the frontrunners of the East for most of the past year, will be a little tougher to project in '11-'12 with their reconstructed roster. Encouraged by the need for cap space to sign other out-of-town players, GM Paul Holmgren got his insanity started before even the draft took place and continued the massive overhaul for well over a week.
Two stunning blockbuster deals were the first headlines: Jeff Carter was dealt to Columbus, while Mike Richards went to Los Angeles. Holmgren then quickly inked former Coyotes netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, who's rights had been acquired beforehand, to a massive contract.
In addition to Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Shenn, three youngsters that came over in the mega-trades, the Flyers added even more risky talent to their new group of forwards by inking controversial NHL returnee Jaromir Jagr and longtime rival Max Talbot to contracts.
However, in the meantime, an equally-important group of Kris Versteeg, Ville Leino, Daniel Carcillo and Darrol Powe all parted ways. While it's yet to be seen exactly how their newly added players will fare, we do know for certain that the Flyers' offense has taken a step backwards.
As for defending their own goal, Ilya Bryzgalov will be a big upgrade, but the loss of reliable veteran backup Brian Boucher will hurt and the replacement of Sean O'Donnell with Andreas Lilja may, or may not, be an improvement.
2. Montreal Canadiens
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Without doubt, Erik Cole is a game-changing new forward added to Montreal's deck of cards. While he was far overpaid, Cole can be a very viable first line forward with unrivaled production in clutch moments. Unfortunately, though, all that money headed his way put the Habs in a cap space jam without any means of holding on to a plethora of other cornerstones of their team hitting the market.
As it turned out, they dearly paid for it.
James Wiesniewski, even though they technically traded him, will carry a great deal of blueline scoring away with him, and Roman Hamrlik's new contract in Washington also depletes the Habs' group of "Top Four" 'D'-men. As for the forwards, almost all of their depth scoring from a year ago was lost as Jeff Halpern, Benoit Pouliot, Nigel Dawes and Dustin Boyd all headed elsewhere.
Furthermore, Peter Budaj, inked out of Colorado, will be no improvement over Alex Auld and Curtis Sanford, who went to Ottawa and Columbus, respectively, with the job of backing up Carey Price. Price, too, has no guarantees that he can live up to his '10-'11 level of play, either.
For an Eastern Conference gradually dividing itself into two categories—the "playoff teams" and the "perpetual rebuilders"—the Canadiens may have slipped out of the upper group and become one of the few teams on the postseason bubble with their below-par offseason.
1. Phoenix Coyotes
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Though the Coyotes cannot, in any way, be named among the winners of the free agent period (to date), their most horrifying change was the belief that what goalie Ilya Bryzgalov did for this team can be replaced with the netminding of Mike Smith, Jason LaBarbera and Curtis McElhinney.
Bryzgalov, traded to Philadelphia, was replaced with a three-man rotation of inconsistent, unreliable and incompetent starting goalies, none of which, even when shifted through the roles of starter, backup and undressed extra daily, can truly be playoff goalies when the time comes.
The unit of forwards may also have lost some of their firepower. We can't really see new additions Raffi Torres and Boyd Gordon evening out the losses of Vernon Fiddler and Eric Belanger. Back on the blue line, Ed Jovanovsky's signing with Florida will be a big blow to Phoenix's "D."
Though they did manage to re-sign crucial pieces in Radim Vrbata and Keith Yandle, two FA's who were threatening to also be on the list of free agent losses, the Coyotes are bound to see a big drop in all parts of their team for the upcoming year.