One of the greatest things about following the NHL is that, really, the season never stops. The Los Angeles Kings may have won the 2014 Stanley Cup championship, but the calendar has still been busy, and teams are already gearing up for 2014-15. We saw that this past week as major names changed locations during the start of the free-agent signing period.
Here are some of the biggest things I've seen since July 1:
THE STARS ARE SHINING
No team in the League, in my estimation, changed themselves for the better this past week like the Dallas Stars. Adding Jason Spezza in a trade with the Ottawa Senators was the biggest move so far this offseason as far as I'm concerned. This really changes that team. Dallas was already on the upswing, having returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season and looking good doing it. Now though, when you add Spezza and Ales Hemsky to that team, there's another very good team out there in the West. In theory, Dallas has added 60 goals to an already potent offense.
The second biggest move might have been the Minnesota Wild signing Thomas Vanek. The Anaheim Ducks acquiring Ryan Kesler also makes a huge impact; Anaheim's centers might be able to compete with L.A.'s now. But I think when you look at Vanek going to Minnesota, that significantly changes that team. One of the biggest weaknesses the Wild had was scoring. Now there's a 30-40-goal scorer on a team that's already coming off two consecutive Stanley Cup Playoff appearances. The Wild didn't address their goaltending, but I don't think they really could have with the salary cap.
Center - DAL
GOALS: 23 | ASST: 43 | PTS: 66
SOG: 223 | +/-: -26
The Stars bringing in Spezza doesn't only make that team significantly better, it makes the Central Division that much tougher. Dallas can score with any team in the NHL right now, they're big and their goaltending is good with Kari Lehtonen and now Anders Lindback. That team is for real, and it makes the Central the best division in hockey. I don't know how you can say it's not.
BIG ADDITIONS IN BUFFALO
The Buffalo Sabres made some key moves when they added Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson in free agency. If you look at the Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo is basically going to be Edmonton East for this season and maybe one or two after that. The Sabres have a lot of high draft picks this season and next season. They're completely re-tooling. They don't want to take as long as Edmonton, though. They want to be like the Colorado Avalanche and have a quick turnaround, and that's where Gionta and Moulson come in.
The Sabres will have a lot of young kids, and they needed someone to come in there that doesn't accept losing. The needed someone who can teach those kids to win. If you've ever seen Gionta play, he plays hard every night. He's always been able to overcome the "too small" peg, both in college and the NHL. He'll be a leader and an important piece of that puzzle, and Moulson will help play that role also. Moulson is a little younger, and a potent guy offensively. He doesn't look like he'll be past his prime when this team should start to get good again, and he'll provide an important bridge to the next era of Sabres hockey.
Another important thing about Gionta is he's a western New York kid. He wanted to go there. That's important. They need people that want to go to Buffalo again. The Sabres realize they can't just put 20 high draft picks on the ice and expect to win. Edmonton has proven that doesn't work. The Sabres needed to add some good veteran leadership, and that's what they accomplished.
THE UNPREDICTABLE EAST
One of the big trends from this past season was how much tougher the Western Conference appeared to be than the East. Since the season ended, we've seen more big names crossing conferences, with Spezza, Jarome Iginla, Benoit Pouliot and Mark Fayne among them. The way I see it right now, the only team in the East that is guaranteed to make the playoffs again is the Boston Bruins, and they still had a loss with Iginla signing with Colorado. The East is so wide open that you really have no idea who is going to be in that top eight, and that includes the defending conference champions.
The New York Rangers certainly don't look as good as the team that reached the Stanley Cup Final. Pouliot is gone. Anton Stralman is gone. Brian Boyle is gone. Brad Richards, who still contributed despite not living up to his now bought-out contract, is gone. At the same time, the New Jersey Devils got better. The New York Islanders got better. The Florida Panthers got better.
The East is just crazy, and Boston looks like the only shoo-in to me. I have a hard time believing any other team is certain to make the playoffs next season, which is part of what makes the East so wide open. If you make the playoffs in the East, you have a chance at winning the conference title. In the West, you have to beat three great teams to get a shot at the Stanley Cup. In the East that's not the case. The Rangers could easily miss the playoffs next season, but I could say that about seven of the eight teams that made the postseason in 2014.