1. The Dallas Stars: The Stars were their own worst enemies last season, missing the playoffs by just two points and allowing the defending champions a change to repeat. Chicago didn't exactly have a great finish to the season either, or even a good beginning or middle, but Dallas somehow managed to blow their chance to get back into the playoffs. Cut to the offseason where Dallas lost forward Brad Richards to "greener" pastures in New York. Jamie Langenbrunner skipped town as well. Fortunately, Dallas made a couple of key moves in free agent signings, grabbing Michael Ryder, Radek Dvorak, Vernon Fiddler, and Sheldon Souray. While none of these signings are mind boggling, they help to fill out a lineup already desperate for some depth. Souray finally leaves Edmonton where he was vastly overpaid to ride the pine and Dallas picks up a competent defenseman if only for the power play. The key to Dallas' success, methinks, hinges on Loui Eriksson having another solid 70 point season and goaltender Kari Lehtonen putting up some outstanding performances between the pipes like he did last season. They just missed the playoffs last season; this year I think they finally get in after three seasons of being MIA in April.
2. The Calgary Flames: If I give credit to Dallas for just missing the playoffs by 2 points, I have to give credit to Calgary for missing by just one more point. They sort of blew their chances in March with a 2-5-2 skid that included two back-to-back 4-3 losses at home. Ouch. The question for Calgary's success is simple: is Jarome Iginla still here? Check. Is Miikka Kiprusoff still here? Check. Did the supporting cast get better for their two stars? Well, it didn't get worse. Resigning Brendan Morrison and Alex Tanguay were excellent moves, but I can't help but wonder about their backup goaltending situation. All due respect to the resigned Henrik Karlsson, I think Calgary needs to sign someone who can shoulder a bigger load to prevent Kipper from playing another 70 game season. Kiprusoff is a workhorse and has played 70 games for the last six seasons. That's a lot of time in the crease. Since the lockout and Calgary's fabled run in 2003-2004, Kipper and the Flames have played just 26 playoff games, winning a grand total of nine of them. I don't want to say it's fatigue, but by the numbers, Kipper plays worse. I think bringing in someone like Marty Turco, another aged veteran who can shoulder a decent load, Calgary could keep the pressure off of their star goalie in the back half of the season but not sacrifice credibility in the crease. Turco needs a job, Calgary needs a strong veteran backup to keep them from skidding late in the season. It's a match made in heaven and it should propel them at least into 8th.
3. The Carolina Hurricanes: The Cardiac 'Canes were exciting last year, as usual, and just missed the playoffs by two points. Carolina really suffered most in the first half of the season and had a ho-hum February. The difference between them getting in and staying at home was an 0-4-1 skid in March that included three one goal losses. to Atlanta in OT and a 3-2 chess match with Columbus. Still, there's plenty to be excited about for next season. Cam Ward, Jeff Skinner, and Eric Staal are still there, which means more speed and heart attack inducing play. They gleaned Brian Boucher, Tomas Kaberle, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart from various teams, but lost the underachieving Erik Cole. Overall I like their forwards and the dynamic nature of their lineup. Lots of youth and lots of speed. I don't think they will lose as many one goal games anymore, and they can rely on Boucher in nets a little more than their last backup.
4. The Toronto Maple Leafs: Despite my own personal grudge towards the Leafs, I can't deny that the team is improving. Were it not for a horrible start to the season (13-19-4 before 2011) they would have finished less than eight points out of a playoff position. Still, the Leafs problem last season was primarily that of a team lacking defensive prowess and goaltending. Luckily for them James Reimer came out of nowhere and put forth a 20-10-5 effort that included 3 shutouts and a .921 save percentage. Not bad for a rookie. The offseason was a busy one for the Leafs, acquiring John-Michael Liles from Colorado, dumping Brett Ledba for Cody Fransen and Mathew Lombardi, and signing porcelain scorer Tim Connolly. These were all good improvements for the team but the problem next season will be to keep the goals against down....way down. Only four regulars in the lineup who played more than 50 games were above a +/- if zero. Phil Kessel can't score 64 points and be a -20 on the year anymore. If this team is to make the push up the standings, which I believe they can, they need someone to play with Kessel and they need their defense to work hard.
5. The Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers are going to be the sexy pick everyone takes to make the playoffs this season. As grim as 2010-11 was for the team, there is more hope in the city of Edmonton than there has been in...oh, say 23 years ago to the day. While nobody on the team is anywhere close to Wayne Gretzky in any sense, the lineup is stacked with young, talented players who are about to explode out of the gate. Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi, Ryan Whitney, Linus Omark, and now Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are all going to be stars very soon. The Achilles heel of this team right now is the situation in nets. There was a point last year where it seemed as though former Stanley Cup Champion Nikolai Khabibulin was just there for the paycheck and nothing more. Devan Dubnyk will challenge the Bulin Wall for his job and hopefully will force Khabibulin to play at a level that isn't embarrassing. The return of Ryan Smyth will mean less pressure on the kids to be leaders, which should set up a season similar to Carolina's 2010-2011 season. Exciting but just a bit short.
That's all for now, folks. Enjoy the offseason.