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Early returns favor Caps, Rangers among others

by Dan Rosen
It's time to start dissecting.

With the Stanley Cup awarded, the Entry Draft completed, Free Agent Friday and the birthday celebrations of both Canada and the United States all behind us, enough has happened to form an early opinion on which NHL teams have set themselves up for success in 2011-12 and which teams still have some work to do.

Here are five teams that appear to be improved -- all pending results next winter and spring, of course -- and five others that are looking at unfinished business.


1. Washington Capitals

Caps GM George McPhee shocked the hockey world Saturday by signing veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun to a bargain shopper's dream contract of one year and $1.5 million. Vokoun made $6.3 million last season in Florida, but he was disappointed with his offers on July 1 and decided that he wants to win and the Capitals give him the best chance to do so.

Vokoun reportedly spurned bigger money offers to come to Washington, and McPhee admitted he basically got lucky.

He didn't with his other moves. They were calculated, including the trade of Semyon Varlamov to Colorado.

McPhee was able to reel in a first-round pick in 2012 and a second-round pick in either 2012 or 2013 for Varlamov, a 23-year-old who has the potential to be a stud No. 1 only if he can stay healthy, which he never did in two full seasons with the Capitals. If the Avalanche struggle again, that first-round pick could be in the lottery.

McPhee also overhauled the Capitals' depth and experience by trading for ex-Blackhawk and Stanley Cup-winner Troy Brouwer, and signing winger Joel Ward (four years), defenseman Roman Hamrlik (two years) and center Jeff Halpern (one year).

And, let's also not forget the six-year, $27 million contract that kept versatile forward Brooks Laich in Washington.

2. New York Rangers

The Blueshirts gave a nine-year, $60 million contract to get the prize of free agency. Brad Richards immediately makes the Rangers a better team because he gives them the No. 1 center that they have not had under coach John Tortorella -- who, by the way, coached Richards to the Conn Smythe Trophy a nd Stanley Cup in 2004.

Richards brings credibility to the position that the Rangers needed it most. Yes, they had to give out a hefty contract and they will be paying some huge bucks, especially in the first six years when Richards is reportedly in line to make $57 million of the $60 million contract, but he's a 31-year-old former Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe winner who already knows the coach and his system.

Don't overlook Mike Rupp jumping on board for three years at a total of $4.5 million. Rupp is a physical player who fights and can score the odd goal. He's won the Stanley Cup and he's one of the most likable guys in the dressing room.

3. Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres have a history of losing more on July 1 then actually gaining due to budgetary problems from previous ownership regimes. Well, this year, new owner Terry Pegula has given GM Darcy Regier his checkbook and told him to turn the Sabres into a Stanley Cup contender.

Regier has answered by revamping the Sabres defense by trading for Robyn Regehr and signing Christian Ehrhoff to a 10-year, $40 million contract. He picked up some snarl and some finesse with each move.

Regier also signed Ville Leino to a six-year, $27 million contract. The plan is to turn Leino, a second-line winger in Philadelphia, into a first-line center in Buffalo. Leino told the Sabres he played center until he was 23 years old in Finland, but he hasn't been a center at the NHL level.

4. Los Angeles Kings

Prying Mike Richards away from Philadelphia for Wayne Simmonds and prospect Brayden Schenn was a no-brainer for Kings GM Dean Lombardi. In Richards, Lombardi landed a former Selke Trophy finalist who has played in the Stanley Cup Final, been a captain in a major hockey market and is only 26 years old.

Simmonds is a solid second- or third-line winger and Schenn could be a star, but Richards already is a two-time 30-goal scorer and he's entering the prime of his career.

The Kings tried and failed to add another Richards (Brad), but the consolation prize of signing Simon Gagne to a two-year contract should make Mike Richards happy, as he played with Gagne in Philadelphia. That history suggests Gagne should be on Richards' left wing when the 2011-12 season begins. If Dustin Brown is on the right side, that gives the Kings an extremely versatile line.

Gagne is coming off an injury-plagued season in Tampa Bay, but if he can stay healthy he's still only a 31-year old winger with a lot of goals left on his stick.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets

Here's a team that is definitely looking to get serious 2011-12. Their fans may say it's long overdue.

The Blue Jackets, who have made the playoffs just once in their history, have made two bold moves since the end of the season that likely set off a few cannons in Columbus. GM Scott Howson pulled off a blockbuster trade to acquire center Jeff Carter at the draft and this past Friday he gave big years and money to defenseman James Wisniewski.

The hope is that Carter is the No. 1 center the Blue Jackets have never had to play with Rick Nash and Wisniewski is the No. 1 defenseman and power-play quarterback they've sorely lacked. He's costing them $33 million over six years, but Wisniewski is coming off a big year split between the Islanders and Canadiens, and now he's going to be the man in Columbus.

Carter cost the Blue Jackets winger Jakub Voracek as well as the 8th and 68th picks in the Entry Draft, but Howson may finally have the guy that to pair with Nash. Carter is more of a shooter and less of a playmaker, but if Nash drives to the net he can follow in a lot of Carter's shots and get to some juicy rebounds.


1. New Jersey Devils

After coming up short in what would have been a miraculous run to the playoffs, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has spent the offseason re-signing two of his own while continuing to search for a new head coach. Swedish defenseman Adam Larsson was a nice get for the Devils at No. 4 in the Entry Draft, but nobody is sure if he helps them immediately.

Getting Andy Greene back in the fold was important, but it's fair to question giving a defenseman who was a minus-23 with 23 points last season a four-year, $12 million deal. Greene did have 37 points and a plus-9 rating in 2009-10, but the Devils were also a much better team.

Re-signing Johan Hedberg was also important as he is the perfect No. 2 goalie, especially behind Martin Brodeur. But goaltending is not the Devils' concern, at least presently.

Lamoriello might be ready to give youngsters Jacob Josefsen, Mattias Tedenby, Nick Palmieri, Vladimir Zharkov, Matthew Corrente, Matt Taormina and Larsson the opportunity for significant ice time this season. Then again, is giving their kids a chance the best way for the Devils to get back into contender's status?

And it remains to be seen who will be doling out that ice time.

2. Ottawa Senators

Save for the coach (they have Paul MacLean), the Senators appear to be in a similar boat as the Devils. They need to upgrade a roster that was good enough for only 74 points last season, but they haven't done so as of yet.

The Senators got a backup goalie for Craig Anderson by signing Alex Auld, and they inked 32-year-old Francis Lessard to a one-year, two-way contract. These are not moves that are going to make the Senators a better team.

However, the Senators do have an AHL affiliate in Binghamton that won the Calder Cup, so like his counterpart in New Jersey, Ottawa GM Bryan Murray might be poised to give youngsters like Bobby Butler, Erik Condra, Colin Greening and Zack Smith more playing time this season.

That could be good for the Senators future, but with Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar only getting older and Jason Spezza coming off an injury-plagued season, time is running short on the Senators' core.

3. Colorado Avalanche

A lot of hockey insiders were quick to criticize Avalanche GM Greg Sherman after he gave up a first-round pick and a second-round pick for 23-year-old goalie Semyon Varlamov. The fact is that Varlamov was talking about going back to Russia, but then he got dealt and signed a three-year contract to be the Avs' No. 1 goalie.

Talent-wise, Varlamov has what it takes to be a No. 1 in the NHL. But he wasn't able to stay healthy over his two full seasons in Washington, which means there are legitimate questions about his durability. Plus, if the Avalanche go through another rebuilding season, it's possible that Sherman gave up a lottery pick for Varlamov.

Sherman also signed Jean-Sebastien Giguere to serve as Varlamov's backup, defenseman Jan Hejda to replace John-Michael Liles, who was traded to Toronto at the Entry Draft, and Chuck Kobasew to add depth up front.

Giguere struggled in Toronto last season, but maybe moving to a full-time back-up role will help him at this stage of his career. Hejda, who got a four-year, $13.3 million contract, is a solid 33-year-old defenseman who is two years removed from his best season in the NHL. Kobasew is a former first-round pick who has never really panned out and has struggled to stay healthy.

4. New York Islanders

Nobody can fault GM Garth Snow for his efforts, but the net result has not been good for the Islanders.

Snow traded a fourth-round pick to Vancouver for the negotiating rights to Christian Ehrhoff, but talks fell through and he had to ship Ehrhoff's rights to Buffalo to recoup that fourth-round pick.

Snow likely had irons in other fires, but the best he's been able to come up with so far is veteran forward Marty Reasoner, who got a two-year deal after scoring 32 points in 82 games with the Panthers last season. Reasoner is a nice complementary player for the Islanders, but he's hardly the big-splash get the team was hoping for after showing some promise in the second half.

There's a chance Snow is trying to upgrade in other areas, but he appears to be having a hard time selling his franchise.

5. Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago GM Stan Bowman gave himself some extra money to spend by shipping Brian Campbell and his hefty contract to Florida in exchange for Rostislav Olesz at the draft. Armed with the cap space, Bowman went out and signed five players to one-year contracts and a defenseman to a four-year deal.

But are they the right players?

The certainty is that the Blackhawks got tougher by getting Steve Montador to sign a long-term deal and Andrew Brunette, Sean O'Donnell, Daniel Carcillo, Jamal Mayers and Brett McLean to sign short-term contracts. However, this is a team that relies on puck possession to win games and none of the players Bowman has signed are regarded as the best suited for that job.

Brunette seems like the best fit to slide in to replace Troy Brouwer's production and perhaps O'Donnell serves as the team's sixth or seventh defenseman with Montador likely in a No. 5 role. Mayers and Carcillo might be fourth-liners/healthy scratches and McLean could be targeted for the American Hockey League.

So while they are tougher, it's fair to ask if the Hawks are any better now compared to the end of last season.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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