It's the best time of year!
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
It’s safe to say Steve Yzerman and owner Jeff Vinik came to Tampa with high expectations this summer. Under the tutelage of Red Wings GM Ken Holland, Yzerman was more than ready to step in as the Lightning GM… and we saw that first-hand this summer.
Yzerman re-tooled the back end with the signings of Pavel Kubina, Brett Clark, and goaltender Dan Ellis. In the process, the new Bolts GM got rid of Andrej Meszaros’ contract ($4.0M). Later on in July, the Lightning were able to acquire Simon Gagne via trade; he will be a solid addition, making their top-six one of the most lethal in the NHL. And don’t forget the sneaky signing of Dominic Moore, who should slide in as the team’s third-line pivot.
The on-ice product will be a lot more fun to watch than it has been the last few years, thanks to the quick mastery from Yzerman and Vinik. Look for Tampa Bay to make a big splash this upcoming season.
2. Atlanta Thrashers
Atlanta also underwent change at the top, as Don Waddell was removed as GM (though still in the organization) being replaced by Rick Dudley. The front office had a lot of work to do, but have filled necessary needs nicely.
Dudley’s first order of business was the blockbuster deal he made with the Blackhawks. He acquired Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, and Ben Eager from Chicago in exchange for picks and prospects. If Byfuglien becomes the consistent power forward we saw in the playoffs for an 82-game stretch, Atlanta struck gold. His versatility could come into play, too, as some time on defense is possible. In a separate deal, Dudley managed to take RFA Andrew Ladd off of ‘Hawks GM Stan Bowman’s hands. They found a steal on July 1 by signing steady netminder Chris Mason to a $3.7 million deal over two seasons.
The Thrashers – who finished 10th in the east despite the subtraction of Ilya Kovalchuk – underwent a makeover that has more people thinking playoffs instead of lottery.
3. New Jersey Devils
Going into July 1, it was obviously unclear of whether Ilya Kovalchuk would remain a Devil. Heck, it’s late August and we still haven’t come to a resolution. But now that it appears the NHL will approve of the latest contract and New Jersey will ultimately hang on to its marquee rental, you can make an argument this Devils club is better than it was when they were eliminated prematurely by Philly. And that’s not just because of Kovalchuk.
GM Lou Lamoriello inked defensemen Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder as free agency opened, replacing the departed Paul Martin. Volchenkov’s presence in front of Martin Brodeur is just scary to think about. Backing up Brodeur will be Johan Hedberg, who should give the multi-record-keeper more rest. A couple weeks prior, Lamoriello reached into his old bag of tricks by bringing back Jason Arnott in a trade with Nashville.
4. Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks’ biggest bugaboo late in the 2009/10 season and into the playoffs was defense. Their offense was just fine, beating to the tune of 272 goals – second-most in the NHL. However, GM Mike Gillis realized that the blueline needed a bit of a makeover to finally get over the hump in the ‘second season’.
British Columbia native Dan Hamhuis was considered one of the top defensemen in free agency this summer, and the Canucks locked him up with a five-year contract. Joining him as a new face on the back end is Keith Ballard, coming over from Florida. Willie Mitchell is gone, and Sami Salo is likely out until January… but Vancouver’s defensive unit is (much) better than it was when we last saw them, getting scored on repeatedly by Chicago in May.
Gillis also signed Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres to re-do the team’s third line. These crafty changes are a big reason why many people think this is their year to get their first Stanley Cup.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
When Sergei Gonchar’s contract talks went sour before July 1 came around, many worried that Pittsburgh’s blueline would take a major hit. It did… for about two hours.
GM Ray Shero made some noise very early in the frenzy by bringing in a pair of skilled defensemen: Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. Martin makes the move from New Jersey to Pittsburgh, and will be a key two-way cog on the Pens’ back end. Michalek is more of a stay-at-home defenseman, something they were lacking in this past postseason (Brooks Orpik couldn’t do it all).
Other than the defense receiving a considerable boost, Shero recently inked semi-skilled sandpaper winger Arron Asham for a bargain ($700,000). Pittsburgh seems to be going the ‘winger-by-committee’ method once again, but it’s worked before. I like what the Pens have done this summer, and they some room to bring in a goal-scorer in March if needed.
Bruins, Red Wings, Predators, Maple Leafs
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