Since the lock-out, new rule implementations, and the addition of the salary cap, the NHL hasn’t been the same – and that’s for the better. The game is faster-paced and much more competitive. There are few exceptions, as with anything, but for the most part teams are evened out as far as the amount of all-star players per team. Impossible-to-beat teams, such as the mid-90′s Detroit Red Wings, no longer exist. And, although some teams have still struggled in recent years, three teams in particular are starting to make moves that have opened the eyes of everyone involved with the NHL and should have them climbing up in the league’s rankings to heights that haven’t been reached in years – if at all.
Let’s start on the West coast, where the Los Angeles Kings, who were involved in one of the biggest trades this year, have continued to add fire power to their roster. Sure, they may have fell short when it came to landing Brad Richards, but it’s safe to say that missing that deal will not cost the Kings a thing.
The Kings were already making waves in the NHL before the free agent signing period had begun. The Kings made a deal with the Philidelphia Flyers – sending Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, and a 2012 second-round draft pick for the Flyers team captain, Mike Richards. Richards, still only 26-years-old, has already hit the 30-goal mark twice in his career of six NHL seasons. Taking over the long-term contract fit nicely into L.A.’s plan of building a team around a young, elite leader.
Adding Mike Richards into a roster that already consists of players such as Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Dustin Penner, and Jarret Stoll seems dangerous enough. But, the L.A. Kings didn’t stop there. Once the free-agent signing period commenced, the Kings jumped on star-forward Simon Gagne. Gagne didn’t receive the long-term offer he wanted from the Tampa Bay Lightning and so he looked elsewhere. The Kings answered his request, signing Gagne to a two-year, $7-million contract.
Gagne is a seven-time 20-goal scorer who has played with Justin Williams before, and he and fellow ex-Flyer Mike Richards made the 2010 Stanley Cup finals together.
The Kings have lost a few names, such as Michal Handzus and Alex Ponikarovsky, but it’s safe to say that the Kings have improved and will have plenty of attention on them this October.
Moving over to the East, state rivals the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning have also made significant changes to their teams that could see the Bolts repeating their Eastern conference finals appearance (if not bettering it) and allow the Panthers to make the playoffs.
The Bolts, so far, have done the opposite of the Kings – choosing to focus more on developing the depth of the club, strengthening the core by signing a solid group of blue liners as well as goaltenders. The back end of the Tampa Bay club is looking as solid as ever coming into the 2011-12 season.
Dwayne Roloson, the goaltender who was a large part of the playoff success of the Bolts, was re-signed to a one-year, $3-million deal before even testing the free-agent market. The goaltending team was rounded off when Tampa let last season’s back-up Mike Smith go and brought in former teammate of Roloson, Mathieu Garon. Garon was signed for two-years by the club. This will be Roloson’s first full season with the team and if his numbers from the end of last season come into play for next season, the team should see a lot of success. Having another veteran and familiar face as Roloson’s back-up should also produce more confidence for the 42-year-old goalie.
In front of Roloson and Garon will be a healthy mix of young and veteran defenceman. The first major signing for Tampa was the four-year deal reached with experienced blue liner Eric Brewer. His gritty play and experience as a former team captain make him an essential piece. Also re-signed by the Bolts was Marc-Andre Bergeron. Bergeron is also a depth player whose rocket point shot is a truly underrated weapon for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Bruno Gervais and Matt Gilroy are new defenceman signed to the team. Both are only 26-years-old and are already showing promise. Surrounding these two with Brewer and Bergeron as well the other blue liners on the team, such as Pavel Kubina and Mattias Ohlund, should mould these youngsters into elite players.
The Bolts may have lost some offence, but Lecavalier and St. Louis are still up front. And, provided a deal is reached with Stamkos, the forward lines shouldn’t be anything to grieve over – especially when the team has the confidence in knowing that behind the offence lies an intimidating, almost unbeatable sounding blue line and, more so, unbelievable goaltending behind that.
Florida was the team that combined the strategies of both L.A. and Tampa Bay, signing an essential combination of offence, defence, and goaltending.
One player chose to sign with Florida rather than Tampa Bay. That player is Sean Bergenheim. Bergenheim wasn’t anything immaculate during the regular season with Tampa but his performance in the playoffs was, at one point, league leading. The 27-year-old was signed to a 4-year, $11-million contract. Also signed by the Cats was 27-year-old Kris Versteeg. The three-time 20-goal scorer was acquired for two draft picks. This deal is one of the biggest bargains so far this season – with the Panthers clearly coming out on top. Add to these two players the signings of Scottie Upshall and Tomas Kopecky, it’s impossible to deny that the Panthers’ offence hasn’t greatly improved.
Ed Jovanovski and Brian Campbell have been added to Florida’s blue line. There are still some weaknesses facing the defence core of the Panthers but add to the mix veteran goaltender Jose Theodore and one can see that the Florida Panthers definitely have a fighting chance this year – more so than any other season.
With all this in mind, hockey fans in the Southern states should look forward to improvement for 2011-12 season – a season that should last longer than 82 games. I’m sure these players won’t mind having to hold off on their tan work for this opportunity. See you in the playoffs!
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