Offseason makeovers: Western Conference
Earlier today, we looked at the offseason makeovers for the Eastern Conference. Now, here's a look at what the nonplayoff teams in the West need to address this offseason.
Edmonton Oilers: Where to start with the NHL's 30th-place club?
"Lots and lots of holes," Hockey Hall of Fame writer Jim Matheson of The Edmonton Journal told me Thursday. "They need a No. 1 center in the worst way."
I agree. Shawn Horcoff is a terrific No. 2 center, a real solid two-way player. But he's a poor fit as the No. 1 man, where he's been forced to play. Sam Gagner is also a talented forward, but not a No. 1 center.
"This is why, I think, they'll take Tyler Seguin if they get the first overall pick and not Taylor Hall," said Matheson.
And that's the good news for Oilers fans. They win either way with Seguin or Hall, the two sure-bet thoroughbreds at the top of the draft. Seguin centering your top line with Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner isn't too bad at all.
In the meantime, Oilers GM Steve Tambellini needs to shed some contracts, starting with veteran blueliner Sheldon Souray and the $5.4 million cap hit he carries over the next two seasons. His no-trade clause runs out July 1.
Forwards like Robert Nilsson (one year left at $2 million) and Patrick O'Sullivan (one year left at $2.9 million cap hit) are potential buyout candidates. Veteran center Ethan Moreau (one year left at $1.75 million) will again be on the trade block.
Goalies Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk both showed promise this season after Nikolai Khabibulin was lost to injury. Deslauriers, in particular, could be No. 1 material. But what do you do with Khabibulin and the three years he has left at $3.75 million per year on the cap? He was over 35 when he signed, so he counts against the cap even if he never plays another game for the Oilers. They could try to trade him, but at this point, which team would possibly take his contract? That's a big problem.
Overall, there's a lot of work to be done, but hope is on the way. Young prospects Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson have huge promise and there are other pieces in defenseman Jeff Petry, center Anton Lander and forward Linus Omark.
Columbus Blue Jackets: A year after lifting their fan base with their first playoff appearance, the Blue Jackets fell on their face with a miserable season that cost coach Ken Hitchcock his job. Claude Noel took over on an interim basis.
"Our first priority obviously is to hire a permanent head coach," Jackets GM Scott Howson told ESPN.com on Thursday. "Claude has done an impressive job, so that's where we'll be turning our attention to immediately."
While Howson would not shed any more light on the coaching situation, I suspect Noel has done enough to warrant at least being a candidate; but there's little doubt the Jackets will interview other coaches, as well.
On the ice, Howson hasn't yet fully decided on his game plan.
"Honestly, we're still in an evaluation period," he said. "We've had some young players that have really played well the last two months. Kris Russell has really taken a step, [Jakub] Voracek has taken another step, [Steve] Mason's been pretty good the last 2-3 months. So we're still evaluating sort of what needs to be done."
What will likely top Howson's wish list is acquiring a high-end center, not something that grows on trees.
"We have to improve our center-ice position if we can," he said.
I don't think the Jackets will be big spenders come July 1, so I would look for the team to try to pick up help down the middle via a trade, perhaps take advantage of a cap-challenged team that needs to move a contract. There is one forward who could help out next season: Nikita Filatov. The 19-year-old Russian bolted to Russia, with the Jackets' blessing, early this season after a falling-out with Hitchcock. The question is, will Filatov return?
"I think he's coming back," said Howson. "I have no indication that he's not coming back. He wants to play in the NHL. He'll be here in September. That's my expectation."
St. Louis Blues: There's a new sheriff in town and his name is Doug Armstrong. OK, it's not that dramatic because the plan was in place a long time ago, but it's finally happening. Armstrong, the former Dallas Stars GM, is moving into the GM role in St. Louis and taking over for Larry Pleau, who becomes a key adviser.
"We're actually just starting to work through some of the details of it now," Armstrong told ESPN.com on Thursday. "The focus has always been on this year's team and making the playoffs. Now that the playoffs won't be part of our experiences this year, Larry and I are just beginning to work on how we can improve next year's team and working on our transition together."
The team must make a decision on interim coach Davis Payne, as well as potential unrestricted free agents in veteran star winger Paul Kariya and goalie Chris Mason. But for now, Armstrong is going to sit back and do some scouting and evaluating before making those difficult decisions.
"What I'm going to do is let the dust settle on the season," said Armstrong. "Unfortunately, we've got lots of time on our hands. I'm going to go to Europe [to scout] and reflect back on the season. I want to meet with our coaching staff, meeting with our scouts."
Mason will be an interesting call. Pleau tried to sign him to an extension, but the two sides couldn't come together.
"He's been a very good player for us," said Armstrong. "He's an excellent teammate. I know Larry and his agent in the past had talked about an extension and it wasn't able to work itself out. He's got a big say in where he wants to play now, so we'll see what happens."
The killer again for the Blues this season was a bad first half. For the second year in a row, the team came alive in the second half, but there was no miracle playoff berth this time around.
"I think that's going to be a real focus, we're not going to run from that," said Armstrong. "We're going to tackle that head-on in how we prepare over the summer, to come into training camp and be ready for a long, six-month journey. We have to hit the ground running, we have to be consistent, we have to be professional and be ready to play right from the start. We can't give away any points early."
Star blueliner Erik Johnson, as well as forwards David Perron and Alex Steen, are the key RFAs. Johnson and Perron, along with the likes of T.J. Oshie and David Backes, represent some of the young core on this team. Armstrong believes they must take the next step in their development next season.
"It's no longer the young core -- it's the core," he said. "When they started, they wanted to be NHL players. They can check that off on the completed column. Now they have to decide what kind of NHL player they want to be. That's going to be the decision that they're going to have to make: Do they want to become a special NHL player? We believe they have the talent to be special players, but they're going to have to perform because they're at that part of their careers now. They're not first- or second-year players anymore. We're going to need that type of play from them. We're going to have to count on them to get better."
Calgary Flames: I didn't bother trying to get GM Darryl Sutter on the phone given the uncertainty with his own future. It's a tough business, the NHL. Sutter guided the Flames to five straight postseason trips before this season's failure, including a trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004. On the flip side, the Flames haven't won a playoff round since 2004 and had mighty high expectations this season.
"The time has come for some sweeping changes in Calgary, and it should start at the top," Calgary Sun hockey writer Randy Sportak told me Thursday. "In his quest for a Stanley Cup, Flames GM Darryl Sutter has built an organization woefully low on prospects, without draft choices and in a salary-cap crunch that will burden the club for the next couple of years. Unless Sutter, or his replacement if it comes to that, can come up with a way to jettison some crippling salaries -- Ales Kotalik, $3 million for two more seasons; Steve Staios, $2.7 million next season; and Cory Sarich, $3.6 million cap hit for two more seasons -- the Flames will continue to struggle scoring goals and not have the salary space to add another game-breaker."
Whether it's Sutter or a new GM, a priority has to be to find a bona fide center to play with captain Jarome Iginla. Enough already. Matt Stajan is not a No. 1 center.
Defenseman Ian White, acquired in the Dion Phaneuf deal, is the key RFA, and he's got arbitration rights, which might make things interesting. The UFAs include Craig Conroy, Christopher Higgins, Eric Nystrom, Jamal Mayers and Vesa Toskala.
Interesting times ahead in Calgary.
Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks had high expectations this season, buoyed by a 2009 playoff run that saw them upset top-seeded San Jose and push Detroit to seven games in the second round. The departures of Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin certainly hurt, but Anaheim hoped the up-front additions of Joffrey Lupul and Saku Koivu would generate much-needed secondary scoring and the blue line would still hold tight around Scott Niedermayer, Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski.
As it turns out, the blue line didn't hold up, Whitney was dealt and the secondary scoring didn't materialize until late in the season. And the Ducks could not recover from a dismal first half of the season despite recording the NHL's sixth-best winning percentage in the second half.
"We got off to a bad start again this year," Ducks GM Bob Murray told ESPN.com. "That's four out of five years in Anaheim we've got off to a bad start. That can't continue. And quite honestly, my special teams aren't good enough. That's a huge concern of mine."
Here's the dilemma for Murray. His team showed what it is really capable of in the second half. Is there a danger in overreacting to missing the playoffs?
"Yes," Murray allowed. "But it's still not good enough. Yes, we were a better team than what we showed all year long, but we're not in the playoffs. That's the bottom line."
Murray wants to beef up the blue line if he can. He's willing to make one or two significant trades to improve his team.
"Yes, I will have an open mind because this isn't good enough. I will be listening [to trade offers]," said Murray.
Big decisions await from veteran stars Teemu Selanne and Niedermayer, both UFAs contemplating retirement. Either way, Murray will need an answer by the NHL draft in order to react.
"I spoke to both today," Murray said Thursday. "I told them of my schedule. I've got some trips coming up, so when I come back we'll talk again a month or so from now. I'll know well before the draft what's going to happen with those two guys."
Meanwhile, Team USA winger Bobby Ryan is the most notable RFA. He's in for a raise from his entry-level deal.
"We'll get to work on that in a little bit," said Murray. "He would be the first on the list right now."
Keep an eye on the Ducks. They've got a good team, one that should have made the playoffs this season; but I think Murray is willing to be creative this summer.
Minnesota Wild: The Wild started the season winning only three of 12 games, and that was pretty much it despite a brief tease in the second half. That's too big a hole to dig out of.
"When you have a tough start, it just seems so tough to come back. You're chasing all year," Wild GM Chuck Fletcher told ESPN.com on Thursday.
So, what now? Fletcher's patient approach will continue. He doesn't believe in rash decisions.
"You can't always look to the outside for answers to your woes," said Fletcher. "We'll have anywhere from 15 to 18 players returning next season from this year's squad. We do have a core group in place. To me, I just feel we have a lot of players in our group that can do more. We haven't had very many, if any, players have career seasons. We've had some players play very well and we've had some players play below average, so we feel there's internal growth and still areas we can get better right here."
It's not as if Fletcher sat on his hands this season. He traded for forwards Guillaume Latendresse (great trade), Chuck Kobasew and Kyle Brodziak, and blueliner Cam Barker, while also signing college free-agent forward Casey Wellman.
"The few additions we do make this summer, we have to make sure they're the right ones to make a difference," said Fletcher. "But it's still not a tearing-down project. We don't think we're far away. ... We still like the core of our team."
The big unknown for the Wild is Pierre-Marc Bouchard, whose season consisted of 10:44 minutes (the top-six forward was felled by a season-long concussion).
"If he's healthy and comes back, you're adding a potential 50- to 60-point guy and a guy that can help our power play," said Fletcher. "If he doesn't make progress this summer, then that's an important factor we'll have to look at. But we need to improve our offensive depth. We're like lots of teams, we definitely need some help up front."
Latendresse and backup goalie Josh Harding are the key RFAs for the Wild.
Dallas Stars: First things first. This team needs a new owner, and until that happens, GM Joe Nieuwendyk is limited in what he can do. And there are big decisions ahead for the Stars.
The RFAs include blueliners Nicklas Grossman and Matt Niskanen, forwards James Neal and Fabian Brunnstrom, and newly acquired starting goalie Kari Lehtonen. The UFAs include goalie Marty Turco, winger Jere Lehtinen and future Hall of Fame center Mike Modano, who seemed to tip his hand during an emotional game Thursday night.
"It certainly felt like the end," Modano told The Dallas Morning News. "But I might come down with Favre-itis."
I'm betting on Modano retiring. By now, I think everyone knows Turco will hit the free-agent market with Lehtonen chosen as his replacement. That leaves Lehtinen, the quality two-way winger who has called Dallas home for his entire NHL career. The betting money is on Lehtinen re-signing.
Then what? What the Stars need is a new owner willing to spend more money, or else Nieuwendyk (who did not immediately return a call from ESPN.com) has to move some bodies. If it's the latter, speculation has already begun that center Mike Ribeiro could be moved in order to bolster the blue line.