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Offseason makeovers: Western Conference

4/8/2011

On Thursday, we looked at the six eliminated clubs in the Eastern Conference, so now we look at what transpired this season and what lies ahead for the Western Conference teams not in the playoffs.

Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames end the season exactly where they did a year ago, 10th in the West, falling just short of a playoff berth.

There was much drama this season, however, with GM Darryl Sutter forced out in December and his ex-team putting on a second-half run that mirrored New Jersey's near-miraculous effort in the East. But just like the Devils, it fell short.

The Flames went 27-11-8 after Dec. 23 (Sutter would leave five days later) but couldn't finish the trick, running out of steam with a 6-6-2 record in March that ultimately would doom the team.

"The hole we dug ourselves from the beginning of November to mid-December was pretty significant," interim GM Jay Feaster told ESPN.com this week. "Then we had quite a run. Unfortunately, it fell short. We have to be honest here. We're a cap team [payroll at the salary cap ceiling]. Having a run and falling short isn't acceptable, so there's a lot of work to be done."


Feaster said he has sent in preliminary frameworks to upper management and ownership in terms of what he views as the necessary offseason work. Of course, he needs to find out whether he'll be the man to execute those plans. Feaster said once player exit meetings were held and end-of-season discussions were had with the coaching staff, he would sit down with ownership and figure out his future.

What now for this Flames team that's missed out two years in a row? Some people in Calgary want to see a total rebuild. That won't happen under Feaster.

"I don't think it's a total rebuild, but we clearly have work to do," Feaster said. "We have areas we have to address. It's going to be a very busy offseason for us."

When pressed for exact areas he wants to upgrade, Feaster said it's a bit of everything.

"It's the whole mix," he said. "We have good pieces on the blue line, we have good pieces up front, but it's the entire mix. When the season started, some people wondered how this team was going to score goals. We're going to finish top 10 in goal scoring. Our problem has been our commitment to strong, two-way play. It's been about the commitment to play the way the coaching staff has asked on the defensive side of things."

Indeed, the Flames were seventh in goals scored Friday morning but only 18th in goals against, not your usual Brent Sutter output. A year ago, the Flames were fifth in goals against but 29th in goals scored. So all they did is flip those stats, and they still ended up outside the top eight in the West.

Alex Tanguay and Curtis Glencross are the most notable unrestricted free agents on the roster, Tanguay putting up a fantastic season playing alongside Jarome Iginla.

"Alex and Curtis clearly are priorities," Feaster said.

Brendan Morrison, a sly pickup by Darryl Sutter this past fall after he was cut at Canucks camp, is also an UFA. He had found a nice spot between Tanguay and Iginla in February but a knee injury ended his season in early March.

"There's no question our lineup was weakened when he went out with the injury," Feaster said. "As far as next year, it's complicated a little bit more now because of the return of Daymond Langkow. And another guy that makes it interesting for us is David Moss who can play center. So for Brendan Morrison, that's something we'll likely turn our attention to a little later in the offseason. Whereas Tanguay and Glencross are immediate priorities."

St. Louis Blues

The Blues were ninth in the West with 90 points a year ago and fell back this season to 11th with 85 points, having one game left to play.

It's a substantive disappointment for a franchise that pictured itself a playoff team this year. Almost every team in the league had key injuries this season, but the Blues really got hammered by losing two-thirds of their top line, T.J. Oshie and David Perron, for most of the season. Perron remains out with a concussion.

On the morning of Nov. 8, the Blues stood atop the NHL with a 9-1-2 record and topped the ESPN.com Power Rankings that week. Then the injuries started to pile on, and the season was lost.

"I think it's a good lesson for everyone in the organization that you have to be always prepared to play under adversity and to play without your best players," Blues GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com this week. "But I think it takes a toll when you have to play an extended period of time with them out together. Unfortunately, we had to play without those top guys for a long time and we couldn't seem to hold serve when they were out. We played some good hockey at the start and at the end here, but certainly not enough to get in here in the Western Conference."

Armstrong got a head start on his offseason makeover when he pulled off one of the biggest trades in recent NHL memory in February, sending former No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson, forward Jay McClement and a first-round pick to the Avalanche for winger Chris Stewart, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and a second-round draft choice. All four players involved are former first-round picks.

The Blues have responded well to the big trade, and Stewart has rocked as the club looks to hit the reset button ahead of next season.

"We're excited about the direction that we're going," Armstrong said. "We do understand that we have to take a large step next year. Really, you're looking at maybe 100 points to be safely into the playoffs; 96 or 97 points might just put you on the edge. So we understand that the step we need to make next year. We like where we're at, but we know we have to still have internal growth. The Patrik Berglunds can't take a step back; they have to contribute and move forward. David Backes has emerged as a 30-goal player, and [we] need him to stay there. We need our second-year players like [Alex] Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk to make sure they were as good next year as they were this year."

The Blues' biggest offseason pickup might already be in-house: getting Perron back.

"That's a huge addition for us just by getting a player of that caliber back," Armstrong said.

Armstrong hopes to be active at the June draft as well.

"We do have a lot of draft picks over the next couple of years. I think we'll be active at the draft either to use those picks to gain younger assets or to use those picks to get more immediate help. We'll [see] what the market is with our counterparts."

Minnesota Wild

What a difference a year makes? Well, not really, it turns out.

The Wild were 13th in the West with 84 points last season and Friday morning sat 12th in the West with 82 points, having two games left to play.

After hitting a season-high 10 games over .500 on Feb. 12, the Wild subsequently went 7-15-3 to completely fall out of it. An 11-game injury absence by star captain Mikko Koivu certainly had an effect.

Make it three straight years out of the playoffs in hockey-crazy Minnesota, and that's not sitting well with the locals.

GM Chuck Fletcher politely declined an interview, telling ESPN.com via email that he wanted to wait until next week when he'd hold court at his season-ending media availability.

We don't need to hear from Fletcher to know change is coming. There are whispers coach Todd Richards could be on the hot seat after failing to get the Wild into the playoffs in his two years behind the bench.

And the team has seven UFAs: Chuck Kobasew, Andrew Brunette, Antti Miettinen, John Madden, Jed Ortmeyer, Jose Theodore and Josh Harding. Kobasew, through his agent, wanted out at the trade deadline, while Brunette will be 38 in August.

It's not hard to see where an upgrade is needed: offense. The club as of Friday morning ranked 26th in the NHL in goals scored per game. Fletcher needs to find a way to augment his top-six forward group.

It should make for an intriguing and busy summer in Minnesota.

Columbus Blue Jackets

What a roller-coaster year it was for the Blue Jackets.

"Really disappointing," GM Scott Howson told ESPN.com this week. "We had a great start, we were 14-6-0, and the league kept getting better and we didn't seem to be able to adjust to it. We did get it going again in February and got right back in the race and then fell off in March. Disappointing certainly from March 1 on; we've only won three of our last 20 games. That just shows we're not good enough."

The Jackets entered the week of the trade deadline very much in the playoff race. Since Feb. 27, however, they've gone 3-10-7 to plummet out of it.

Ownership announced last month that Howson would stay on board, so it's his task now to figure out how to get this team over the hump. After making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history two years ago, the Jackets placed 14th in the West last season with 79 points and as of Friday sat 13th with 81 points and two games to play.

About half of the Jackets' roster has expiring contracts, both RFA and UFA (Scottie Upshall the most notable UFA), which gives Howson the chance to make important changes. He's not locked in.

"Yes, we probably have more flexibility than we've had over the last few years," he said. "Some of our free agents are restricted. We're going to do an end-of-season evaluation with our coaches and management and decide where we want to go."

The team's never-ending search for a bona fide No. 1 center likely will continue without a solution. The Brad Richards of the world don't sign UFA deals in Columbus. Howson's real focus is on the back end.

"We'd really like to improve our defense; that's probably priority No. 1," the Jackets' GM said.

The pressure is on to improve this roster and get it back in the playoffs. Another year out next season just won't cut it.

Colorado Avalanche

Ugly.

What else can you call this season for the Avalanche?

Last season's darling story, one of the league's youngest teams surprising the league to make the playoffs in the tough West, has produced one of the biggest 12-month collapses in recent memory.

Try 95 points last season and No. 8 in the West, to 66 points and 14th as of Friday morning with two games to play. Yes, yes, there were numerous injuries, much like many teams.

OK, maybe the Avs did overachieve last season with their young core, and some of us believed they were in for a bit of a correction this season. But a 29-point drop in the standings? Stunning.

That blockbuster trade with St. Louis in February at this point looks like a dud. Still early, of course, since Colorado has a first-round pick yet to draft, but Chris Stewart has been lighting it up like a house on fire in St. Louis. Erik Johnson still looks lost in Denver. Did we mention the Blues also got impressive rookie defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk?

"Whoever is responsible for that deal deserves to be fired," Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla wrote in a scathing Avs column for Friday's paper.

But as Kiszla brings up, is it really GM Greg Sherman running this team or president and former GM Pierre Lacroix pulling the strings? Joe Sakic's front-office appointment last month just adds to the intrigue. (Sherman, via a team spokesman, declined an interview request from ESPN.com, wanting to wait until next week's season-ending media availability to say his piece.)

Will coach Joe Sacco be back? If he is, he no doubt hopes to have a goalie.

The trade of Craig Anderson to Ottawa for Brian Elliott doesn't look good, either, although it might have been all along that the Avs hoped to really upgrade in goal this summer. Elliott isn't starting material; neither is Peter Budaj. Surely, Colorado must loosen the purse strings and take a run at UFAs Ilya Bryzgalov or Tomas Vokoun come July 1.

Center Paul Stastny (three more years at $6.6 million salary) and defenseman John-Michael Liles (one more year at $4.2 million) were front and center in the trade rumor mill this season. Will they be moved?

We count 17 expiring contracts on the team, although 12 of them are RFAs. Adam Foote is among the UFAs, and he won't be back; the splendid former star blueliner announced his retirement Friday. Milan Hejduk and Tomas Fleischmann are other notable UFAs.

This team should have a drastically different look next season. It has to.

Edmonton Oilers

Well, a 30th-place finish this season really took no one by surprise in Edmonton. The plan all along was to stink out the joint one more year to get another lottery pick, and along with the impressive young core already in place, the Oilers could finally begin to take flight next season.

They better, because Oilers fans aren't in the mood for another season of this. The club sold hope instead of wins this season, and it worked. But the general feeling in that market is that it's enough now.

"The Oilers faithful is getting a little restless," Hockey Hall of Fame columnist Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal told ESPN.com via email. "They have to be in the hunt for a playoff spot next March even if they pull a Columbus and fall out of it, or the fans will be in a foul mood."

A team spokesman told ESPN.com that Oilers GM Steve Tambellini wanted to wait until next week's season-ending media availability to share his synopsis.

If the Oilers do get to draft first overall, and odds are they should since they'll have the most balls in the lottery, the feeling is they'll take either Swedish defenseman Adam Larsson or Red Deer Rebels center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Both defense and center are clear needs.

The Oilers also have the Kings' first-round draft pick, which they got in the Dustin Penner trade. Matheson believes they might try to package it along with their high second-round pick to try to move into the top 15 in the draft.

Matheson said the Oilers have uncovered a gem in Finnish winger Teemu Hartikainen, a 210-pound winger (former sixth-round draft pick). He is only 19 but looks like a keeper. He's getting a look right now with the Oilers, having played 10 games.

On the trade front, Ales Hemsky (one year left at $4.1 million) and defenseman Tom Gilbert (three more years at $4 million per) should be in play again. With Hemsky's shoulder surgery, however, it's not clear whether any team would want to risk it.

A year from now, it's hoped Taylor Hall and company won't be in lottery territory.