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Red Wings among best this offseason

by Larry Wigge /

After 12 seasons in Vancouver, winger Markus Naslund will have a plethora of centermen in New York, and will solidify the Rangers as a legitimate contender after their busy offseason.
WATCH: Naslund on becoming a Ranger
Christmas in July. Well ... not quite.

Not when impact players Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, Brendan Shanahan and Teemu Selanne have yet to announce their intentions for the 2008-09 NHL season.

We've definitely seen a lot of packages opened halfway before Christmas. Pricey gifts.

On the surface, you might ask, "which teams have been the best shoppers?"

Red Wings -- With the defending Stanley Cup champions and their mentoring system that seems to make players better in a Red Wings uniform, they ended up with one of the best offensive players on the free-agent list in winger Marian Hossa. This team worked wonders in incorporating defenseman Brad Stuart into the lineup and seeing him perform his best since being the third pick in the 1998 Entry Draft. The Wings also moved quickly after seeing Dominik Hasek retire by signing goalie Ty Conklin, as well as having enough under the salary cap to re-sign defenseman Andreas Lilja.

Rangers -- No matter what you think the Broadway Blueshirts will look like without star wing Jaromir Jagr after he bolted to big money in Russia, Markus Naslund has been ready for a new hockey life, and the Rangers are hoping it will begin in New York where centers Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Brandon Dubinsky have a way of making wings perform better. Not to mention the 26 goals by Nikolai Zherdev that should improve in much the same way. What puts the Rangers over the top this offseason, however, is the signing of free-agent defensemen Wade Redden, Dimitri Kalinin along with the re-signing of Michael Rozsival.

Lightning -- In addition to penciling the name of Steven Stamkos behind Vinny Lecavalier at center, the Lightning were the quickest off the mark in free agency when they added Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Adam Hall on the wing from the Stanley Cup finalist Pittsburgh Penguins, as well as luring 27-goal scorer Radim Vrbata away from Phoenix and Mark Recchi, who seemed rejuvenated in Atlanta, where he scored 12 goals and 28 assists in 53 games after being obtained from Pittsburgh. Olaf Kolzig joins Mike Smith as competition in goal. But can Matt Carle get back on track production-wise from defense to help offset the loss of defenseman Dan Boyle? And is Barry Melrose still in touch as a coach after a decade with ESPN?

Blackhawks -- It's no secret that Nikolai Khabibulin never lived up to the big free-agent contract he got from the Blackhawks a few years ago. Cristobal Huet will be better than the “Bulin Wall” in Chi-town. But the big-news signing by the Hawks was defenseman Brian Campbell, who together with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook could give Chicago one of the top-3 d-man corps in the NHL. Campbell will not only help improve the Hawks’ power play, but with James Wisniewski and Brent Sopel rounding out the defense, Huet's job should be easier this season.

Sharks -- Dan Boyle vs. Brian Campbell and Rob Blake vs. Craig Rivet. That's the big news with the Sharks, who also brought in Detroit assistant coach Todd McLellan to replace Ron Wilson behind the bench.

Some would argue for a couple other teams in that top-5 shopping success. We think there are still questions, however.

Capitals -- Getting Sergei Fedorov to return to the Capitals after a rebirth of sorts in D.C. is definitely a plus. And if the Caps are getting the Jose Theodore that led Colorado to a playoff berth in the second half of the season amidst so many injuries in Colorado, well, then, the net in Washington is in better hands than it was with Kolzig, Huet and Brent Johnson.

Wild -- The names may not be impact monikers, but Owen Nolan, Antti Miettinen and the return of Andrew Brunette up front looks strong. Gone are big producers Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra, but rookie James Sheppard showed he's ready to take over at center for Demitra and Pierre-Marc Bouchard is one of many forwards ready to take the next step. On defense, Marek Zidlicky and Marc-Andre Bergeron will certainly help the Wild's transition game.

Canucks -- Under new GM Mike Gillis, the Canucks acquired depth up front in the name of Pavol Demitra, Steve Bernier, Ryan Johnson and Kyle Wellwood. That means a center position headed by Henrik Sedin, Demitra, Wellwood and Johnson -- and perhaps Mats Sundin.

Oilers -- Erik Cole is one of those core leaders that every club wants. Well, the Oilers got him from Carolina for inconsistent defenseman Joni Pitkanen. They had replaced Pitkanen in an earlier deal for a more impact defenseman Lubomir Visnovski.

Flames -- Michael Cammalleri is a faster and more productive goal-scorer than Alex Tanguay. The Flames hope that Todd Bertuzzi can be re-invented in Calgary the way Mike Keenan helped make him one of the best power forwards in the game a few years back in Vancouver.

Blue Jackets -- If R.J. Umberger can be the No. 1 center that Rick Nash has never had with the Blue Jackets, then a 50-goal season isn't out of the question, especially with the help of playmaking wing extraordinaire Kristian Huselius over from Calgary as a free agent. Depth? The Jackets never were sure what they were going to get from Nikolai Zherdev. They've gone more conventional with hard-working additions like Umberger and Raffi Torres in a trade with Edmonton. Fedor Tyutin just might be Columbus' best defenseman right away, coming over from the Rangers with fellow blueliner Christian Backman.

Sakic, Sundin, Shanahan and Selanne could very easily help put another team or two into the top dozen most improved teams in July.

Colorado, for instance, would look much better with “Super Joe” returning to a team that added Darcy Tucker up front and Andrew Raycroft to help replace Theodore in goal.

Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal (with the additions of Tanguay and Georges Laraque) would certainly really be better with the addition of Sundin.

Ditto the Rangers -- if they can find room under the cap to add Shanahan's power forward and leadership contributions. Same for Anaheim if Selanne decided to return.

Of course, there are four months until Christmas -- and championships are rarely won in July. Or December. We all know, of course, that there's another six months after Christmas until the Stanley Cup finals get underway.

But it's interesting to open the summer wrappings and speculate, isn't it?


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