While the NHL has remained in the background of hockey fans’ minds for most of the off season, another year of NHL Hockey has crept upon us, and we’re now only a month away from a return to action on the ice (albeit in preseason form). As such it’s time to start looking at the happenings in the off season, which teams we expect to be in the hunt for a playoff run this coming year, while taking note of which teams came out the best in the off season trade market and what we can expect out of another great season of NHL play.
I don’t think a discussion of the NHL on this site can begin without pointing out the excitement around the reintroduction of the Winnipeg Jets back into the NHL landscape. Canadian fans add another team to root for throughout the season, and exciting life comes back into the former Atlanta Thrashers franchise that went nowhere in a city that simply didn’t care for hockey. It’s been exciting to follow the fans in Manitoba as they’ve rushed to support the return of their team, generating as many season ticket holders within a week as the Thrashers had averaged in attendance over their entire stay in Atlanta. Question marks of course remain as to whether or not this club will be much improved from the Thrashers team that made the playoffs only once and only experienced 3 seasons over a .500 winning percentage. However, with an ownership group that appears intent on providing Winnipeg fans with a perennial winner, and players actually playing in front of rabid, hockey-loving fans, this team will be one to watch regardless of how well they fare in their first year back in the Great White North.
As expected, there’s a constant buzz around which team fared the best in the off season, and who will use their improved teams to make a run at this year’s Stanley Cup title. However, there are a couple of teams that fared better than most, with aggressive moves by a couple of general managers paving the way for a crop of new contenders to pop up in this season’s playoff hunt.
First up for off season honors are the Buffalo Sabres behind new owner Terry Pegula, who stuck to his word of wanting to improve his new team immediately and give the fans something to really cheer about. He by no means disappointed the Buffalo faithful. Adding Christian Erhoff, one of the best defenseman in the league, along with veteran D-man Robyn Regehr could have been enough to make the Sabres’ fans happy for another year while giving them a legitimate chance to making the playoffs. Also picking up left winger Ville Leino from Philadelphia and center Brad Boyes from St. Louis makes them a serious contender for the Stanley Cup title.
Being an L.A. guy, I have to comment on the improvement GM Dean Lombardi made to the Los Angeles Kings, who should be included in the discussion for most promising off-season moves made this year. Though the Kings gave up a talented prospect in Brayden Schenn, along with fan-favorite Wayne Simmonds, the return on investment was beyond solid. Nabbing captain Mike Richards from Philadelphia, and snagging former Flyer Simon Gagne from the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Kings get a decidedly former-flyer look for next season when factoring in Justin Williams as well. One of the younger teams in the league, the Kings will now look to re-sign key defensemen Drew Doughty to a long-term contract, which will shore up a very talented group led by Anze Kopitar, and backed by solid young goaltender Jonathan Quick.
The Florida Panthers definitely get top honors for most action in the off season, making a total of 12 new additions to their roster for the new season. From picking up former Blackhawks D-man Brian Campbell, re-adding veteran Ed Jovanovski into the line-up, and getting Jose Theodore in goal, to securing a crop of solid forwards in Kris Versteeg, Sean Bergenheim and Tomas Fleischmann, new head coach Kevin Dineen will have a lot of talent to work with, and plenty for the Panthers’ Southern Florida fans to be excited about.
A discussion of playoff contenders really wouldn’t be complete without the mention of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who can be assumed to have their star player in Sidney Crosby back for the 2011-12 campaign along with Evgeni Malkin back from surgery. Nashville transfer Steve Sullivan will be looked upon to help boost the power play, while a fully integrated James Neal at left wing should help to round out one of the more potent offensive attacks in the league. Add in score of quality defensemen led by Kris Letang and a solid goaltending tandem with Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson, and you’ve got the makings of another contender, provided that the Pens can stay healthy.
We know for certain that Head Coach Bruce Boudreau and the Washington Capitals also have a monkey to shake off their backs this year, especially after yet another disappointing elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. It’s certainly surprising that while the Caps had a number of talented weapons including Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich, they still only managed to rank 19th in the league in scoring during 2010-11. Adding in former Nashville Predator Joel Ward, a standout in last year’s playoffs, as well as Troy Brouwer from the Blackhawks should help to push the Capitals over the scoring hump this year, and hopefully for them set up a better offensive effort in the playoffs this season. Their defensive side, not lacking much to begin with, is further shored up with the addition of Tomas Vokoun as a veteran presence behind young Michal Neuvirth in goal, along with the summer signing of defensemen Roman Hamrlik, who brings 18 years experience with him into Washington.
While there are plenty of other considerations to make for teams making a push for the playoffs this season, including the usual suspects like the Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks, and Detroit Red Wings, we’re especially interested to see what the teams making the most moves in the off season do. With a number of key signings for teams on the brink of success, and a new year ahead with healthy players coming back into the fold, it’s an exciting time to be a hockey fan as we await the new season, and what is sure to be another fantastic year of NFL Hockey for 2011-12.