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Wednesday, August 21, 2002
Despite change, pecking order remains the same

By Mike Heika
Special to

There's still time to shake things up out West -- that is, if you want to.

A Gary Suter here. A Joe Reekie there. Maybe add a dash of Jiri Slegr. It's something a few teams should consider. After all, winning this conference can mean an easy path to the Stanley Cup. But if you want to win the West, you have to beat ... well, not just the best, but everyone. While Detroit and Colorado show no signs of slipping, Dallas is working hard to get back in the pack. Meanwhile, San Jose gets better with every year of experience and Anaheim and Phoenix have found a new hunger.

So who rates best in the offseason. It's not over yet, but here's the front-runners heading into training camp.

Anaheim Mighty Ducks
A year ago, you would have had a difficult time convincing anyone the Mighty Ducks could turn things around in one season. Now, there are a few believers out there. By signing Adam Oates and Fredrik Olausson as free agents and acquiring Petr Sykora in a trade, Anaheim has become instantly better on offense. Paul Kariya not only has a potential set-up man, but also a right winger to replace Teemu Selanne. Now, the Ducks aren't tied to the yo-yo that has become Steve Rucchin. The talented center can work a little magic on the second line when he's healthy. When he's not, Matt Cullen and Andy McDonald shouldn't have the pressure to carry the team. Yes, Oleg Tverdovsky and Jeff Friesen are gone, but what came back is much more valuable. Give Bryan Murray a big feather in his cap for this one.
Grade: A+

Calgary Flames
For a team with a limited budget, the Flames seem to be able to make moves that other teams fear. GM Craig Button signed winger Martin Gelinas away from Carolina and took a spin on Robert Dome, as well. He also has slotted his restricted free agents well and has his defense signed and sealed. What's more, he made a smart move to pick up the rights to Curtis Joseph, who signed a monster free-agent deal; the Flames will get a high compensatory draft pick out of that. And, while Jarome Iginla has not yet been signed, there's no fear that he's going anyplace else. Button has kept the negotiations open and Iginla has stated publicly that he loves Calgary and wants to stay. In a season where Button probably should have had to cut important players to make room for Iginla, he appears to have added to the Flames' talent pool. That's no small task.
Grade: B+

Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks lost not only a goal-scoring winger in Tony Amonte, but they also lost a little more of the confidence of the Chicago fan. The trend is clear in Chicago -- once it's time to pay the big stars, there's no money left. So far, Blackhawks fans have become attached to Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, Ed Belfour and Amonte, only to see them leave in the prime of their respective careers. That's to say nothing of the Gary Suters of the world. Signing Theo Fleury is a great coup. The Blackhawks did what they had to do, including bending over backward as an organization to make a player feel comfortable. Plus, Fleury looks to be a player who can help the Blackhawks immensely. He's tough and can score -- and he still is one of the best players in the league when he's focused. The question is why couldn't they have signed Fleury and kept Amonte? Now that would have been a great offseason.
Grade: C

Colorado Avalanche
Look, this is a talented team that really doesn't need much. And simply getting a full season out of Peter Forsberg is going to make the Avalanche one of the favorites to win the Western Conference. So, really, there wasn't much that needed to be done. But this belief of GM Pierre Lacroix's that signing unrestricted free agents is somehow less impressive than making a key trade late in the season will eventually wear on the Avalanche. Lacroix has tapped into his seemingly endless supply of prospects to trade for high-end players, like Darius Kasparaitis last season. But Lacroix let Kasparaitis walk in free agency and didn't replace him. The team will take a step down because of it. Of course, Lacroix will come riding up in March and make another big trade -- possibly to support the defense -- but you'll have to wonder then if he couldn't have done it cheaper by signing a Philippe Boucher or Scott Lachance during the summer. Bottom line, the Avalanche didn't hurt themselves, but they didn't help themselves either.
Grade: C

Columbus Blue Jackets
It's difficult to criticize a team for working hard to get better, but you do wonder about the direction the Blue Jackets are taking. They gave away Ron Tugnutt to move up a few spots in the draft -- a move that seemed to indicate they were tilting toward a youth movement. But they followed that up by signing two veteran free agent defensemen, Luke Richardson (four years, $11 million) and Scott Lachance (four years, $8 million) -- to significant contracts. The improvement on defense will definitely help youngster Marc Denis make the transition to No. 1 goalie a little more smoothly. In need of more scoring, the Jackets lucked out in luring ex-Canuck Andrew Cassels with a one-year, $2.5 million contract, which includes incentives and two one-year options. Reuniting Cassels with former Hartford Whaler linemate Geoff Sanderson takes the burden off 18-year-old Rick Nash, who was selected first overall in this summer's draft and will be given every opportunity to make the team. The Blue Jackets will roll the dice on a few new forwards, giving a chance to minor league sniper Don MacLean, but you have to wonder what exactly the plan is for a team that's heavy on 30-somethings and just spent a huge chunk of change on a 33-year-old defenseman like Richardson.
Grade: B+

Dallas Stars
Yes, it cost them a ton of money. And if that salary cap ever does come through, they could be in a ton of trouble. But, what the Stars did this summer has to make them a better team. They signed Bill Guerin to add a physical scoring presence in front of the net. They signed Scott Young to help Pierre Turgeon get back on track. They signed a big shot from the point on the power play in the form of Philippe Boucher and they traded for a backup goalie (Ron Tugnutt) who is much better than what many believed they could acquire. So that has to make them better, doesn't it? Well, there are a few questions. New coach Dave Tippett could ice a top line in which two players are playing out of position, he is asking his team to play a style that is considerably different than what it has been trained to do, and he will be trusting the team to Marty Turco, who has never played a playoff game. Yeah, so what, it looks good on paper.
Grade: A

Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings made the one move they needed over the summer -- and that was getting another veteran in net who is hungry to win his first Stanley Cup. GM Ken Holland did a great job of controlling the hype and keeping the pressure off of Curtis Joseph in Toronto by sending up a smokescreen that the Red Wings were more interested in Ed Belfour. Joseph was their target, and he fits perfectly into a veteran team. The rest of the Red Wings' moves were solid, but do leave some openings for criticism. Dave Lewis surely earned his promotion, but there's still the thought that maybe an outside coaching presence would have helped shake things up. The team likely will lose a little depth on defense by allowing Fredrik Olausson and Jiri Slegr to walk in free agency. Still, the bottom line is Detroit has tremendous talent and enough depth to overcome Steve Yzerman missing half the season after major knee surgery. If veteran forwards seem to be losing gas, Lewis can turn to players like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
Grade: B+

Edmonton Oilers
Juggling the current crop of restricted free agents hasn't been easy. And while GM Kevin Lowe has done a solid job of coming in under budget, the bottom line is the Oilers have done little to improve themselves in the offseason. Unloading Jochen Hecht (to Buffalo) and acquiring Jiri Dopita (from Philadelphia) is an interesting swap. Folks in Edmonton said Hecht just didn't fit in the Canadian outpost. They acknowledged his talent, but said his personality wasn't a match. The question now is: Is Dopita that much different? An amazing talent who should get a chance to play No. 2 center, Dopita is nonetheless a complicated athlete. He didn't enjoy his time in Philadelphia, and at age 33 is probably not in the mood for all this change. The Oilers are hoping for improvement from Anson Carter and a healthy season from Ryan Smyth -- and they'll likely be in contention once again for a playoff spot. But it's clear the offseason wranglings that are necessary to make Edmonton competitive each season are getting more and more difficult to pull off.
Grade: C+

Los Angeles Kings
Letting go of three regulars is hardly the best way to improve your team. The Kings did just that in bidding farewell to Philippe Boucher, Kelly Buchberger and Cliff Ronning (whose stay was so brief, "regular" is a loose term). Yet, in this case, the message was pretty clear that the Kings are moving forward with young players and hoping the infusion of new blood will be helpful. The acquisition of winger Erik Rasmussen is a nice risk. Big (6-foot-3, 208 pounds) and mean, he never really found a home in Buffalo. Maybe the forward-thinking Los Angeles system will spark some offensive juices not seen since his University of Minnesota days. The Kings will miss Boucher, but they believe the hit won't be that bad.
Grade: C-

Minnesota Wild
The Wild continues to position itself as a team that will make it difficult for anyone on any given night. The acquisition of Cliff Ronning gives Minnesota the kind of leader that Nashville rode for a few years -- and a little of the offensive pop that could help make the Wild that much tougher to play. Ronning should go a long way in helping young wingers like Marian Gaborik and Antti Laaksonen develop. And while Ronning does take a roster spot away from a youngster, the Wild are staying with its plan to play more youth by letting go of veterans Aaron Gavey and Stacy Roest. All in all, the team moved forward in the offseason.
Grade: B

Nashville Predators
Talk about a team spinning its wheels. The Predators last season bid farewell to some excellent veteran players in hopes of giving ice time to younger players. Letting go of Ronning and Tom Fitzgerald at the trade deadline wasn't easy, but it was necessary to move forward. But then owner Craig Leipold promises season ticket holders a refund if the team doesn't make the playoffs, so the Predators go out and get more veteran role players like Brent Gilchrist, Pascal Trepanier and Denis Pederson. The addition of that trio should help, but will it make up for the loss of Ronning and Fitzgerald? It's time to let the kids play and time to be truthful with Predators fans. The loss of defenseman Jere Karalahti, who is suspended from the NHL for a minimum of six months for violating guidelines of the league's substance-abuse program, and his uncertain status will hurt. This team can't be competitive for a playoff spot in the West for a couple of years.
Grade: C

Phoenix Coyotes
Signing Tony Amonte does two things for Phoenix. First, it gives the Coyotes a boost in scoring and should help the development of a young center like Daymond Langkow or Daniel Briere. More importantly, it sends the message that this team wants more -- and wants it now. Ever since Wayne Gretzky tied his name to the franchise, people around the NHL wondered aloud how patient the Coyotes were going to be. They have their answer now. The Coyotes need a new arena, they need to stay within a budget, but that doesn't mean they're giving up on winning now. The Amonte signing sends that message very clearly to a talented, young roster. In addition, Phoenix added a gritty character player in Kelly Buchberger and spiced up the goaltending situation by acquiring Brian Boucher from the Flyers. Sean Burke still is the ace in net, but if Boucher starts to show he can take over this season, Burke becomes a wonderful trade pawn in making the team even better.
Grade: A

St. Louis Blues
Losing Scott Young and adding Jason Dawe does not make for a good summer. Blues fans are panicking, and rightfully so. This is still a great team with a ton of talent, but previous poor moves (giving up too much for Doug Weight, trading Craig Conroy) have handcuffed the Blues. They are saddled with a $55 million payroll, a couple of key injuries to Weight and captain Chris Pronger, and a city that is impatiently waiting for its first Stanley Cup. The Blues are never going to be bad. They'll compete for a top spot in the West. They might even lead the NHL for a little while. But there isn't anyone in the NHL who believes the Blues can beat Detroit or Colorado in a playoff series -- and that is a sad statement. There was really nothing the Blues could do this summer, short of trading Keith Tkachuk and spreading out his paycheck. The problem was created in the previous 15 months.
Grade: D-

San Jose Sharks
Keeping Teemu Selanne at a bargain price in a place where he seemingly wasn't happy was a steal. But the Sharks still have problems. Just as this team is starting to get a sniff of real success, there is an odor of budget consciousness permeating the team. That's not horrible -- every team has to keep the bottom line in sight -- but it could create some real problems if Evgeny Nabokov and Brad Stuart aren't in camp. But, that's the chance you take when you want to do things on a budget.
Grade: C-

Vancouver Canucks
Letting go of Scott Lachance and playing hardball with Andrew Cassels is hardly the way to build a playoff team. GM Brian Burke is a staunch supporter of the labor hawks, and his actions speak even louder than his words. He is working hard to keep his payroll as low as possible. And while that might win him a few friends at GM meetings, it's not doing much for the psyche of the fans. The Canucks will be better simply because they're getting more experience. A roster thick with young talent and led by offensive mastermind Marc Crawford will score goals. What's more, goalie Dan Cloutier will probably improve his 2.42 goals-against average. Still, there would be a whole lot more optimism if Burke wasn't so heavy-handed in his dealings. Pointing out the shortcomings of his own players in the media doesn't make for a happy home. And it also doesn't sell a lot of tickets. Then again, the Devils have won under that same philosophy.
Grade: D

Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News is a regular contributor to