There have been so many changes to NHL rosters in the last couple of weeks, it’s been hard to keep track. There are probably more moves ahead for many NHL teams, the Canadiens included. They brought in Erik Cole, a definite upgrade over Benoit Pouliot and replaced backup Alex Auld with Petr Budaj but it’s not entirely certain yet how they’ll handle Roman Hamrlik’s leaving (Alexei Yemelin? Yannik Weber?) and whether it will be an upgrade or not, who takes the place of depth centre/faceoff specialist Jeff Halpern, and who steps in until Lars Eller returns from shoulder surgery.
But many of the moves made by many of the Habs’ Eastern Conference rivals were bold ones and have made the race for the playoffs — at least on paper — even more competitive than last season. So let’s take a look at the alterations made so far this offseason by the clubs who will battle Montreal for the top eight spots.
Boston — The Bruins lost Mark Recchi to retirement and free agents Michael Ryder and Tomas Kaberle. They’ve replaced them with Joe Corvo and (mysteriously) Benoit Pouliot. If Pouliot plays in Boston the way he did in Montreal and Corvo continues to be an adventure in defence, those are probably downgrades, although their core remains in tact.
Buffalo — The Sabres defence corps is stronger now with Robin Regehr (who may be a bit past his prime, but still an effective shutdown defender) and Christian Ehrhoff, losing Steve Montador. Up front, they add Ales Kotalik, who still might have something left, and Ville Lieno who at his best is arguably better and more durable than Tim Connolly at his best (although he doesn’t have an equal NHL resume), but even if he’s not, the Sabres are a solidly improved team.
Carolina – They lost Eric Cole to the Habs, but added wingers Alexei Ponikarovki and Anthony Stewart, neither of whom play with the consistency their talent hints at. They improve Carolina’s depth at minimum and, if either or both figure it out playing for Paul Maurice, they’ll be strong upgrades. They also picked up a good depth centre and penalty killer in Tim Brent. Tomas Kaberle is an improvement over Joe Corvo, so the Hurricanes should be a tougher foe.
Florida – Who are these guys? They should be way better having added Bryan Campbell, Tomas Kopecky, Scotty Upshall, Ed Jovanovski, Marcel Goc, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim and goalie Jose Theodore. The downside is that bringing in all these veterans may stall the development of some good young players they had in their development pipeline. They may or may not be a playoff team, but they’re not going to be doormats either.
New Jersey — The Devils haven’t made any major changes, and probably can’t because of their huge deal with Ilya Kovalchuk and their need to figure out how to keep Zach Parise. But they haven’t lost anyone. So it’s status quo on the player front == but they don’t have a coach yet.
Islanders — They lost Doug Weight to retirement, but added veteran centre in Marty Reasoner, a good move. They also lost veteran UFA defenceman Radek Martinek to Columbus, and he won’t be easy to replace. Still the Isles hope that a healthy season from their improving youngsters and Mark Streit will make them a better squad. They also have Evgeni Nabokov, or at least his rights, for whatever that may be worth. It’s hard to imagine they’ll be an easy opponent.
Rangers — Adding Brad Richards likely means Marian Gaborik will be a very dangerous sniper (if he stays healthy) so that’s like adding two potential All-Stars to their top line. Manning the point, Richards also will improve their power play. His presence also has a ripple effect elsewhere — for example, they can keep Brandon Dubinsky at wing, where he’s probably more effective, on either the first or second line, rather than at centre. They also added Mike Rupp, who gives them some added muscle. They may still need to add to their improving but inexperienced defence corps, but the Rangers have improved themselves significantly.
Ottawa — The Sens got tougher by bringing in Zenon Konopka and some depth in goal bringing back Alex Auld. They also picked up forward Nikita Filatov via trade and if he ever plays up to his potential, which is possible now that he’s freed from Columbus, this could be the steal of the offseason, adding an explosive dimension to Ottawa’s attack. They should be better.
Philadelphia — They surrendered Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, removing two skaters from their core and they didn’t really replace them with players who can have that sort of impact. They brought in Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, rookie Brayden Schenn and Max Talbot, none of whom are Carter’s or Richards’ equals and if they were getting the Jaromir Jagr of five or six years ago, that would address some of what was lost in their core; but this edition of Jagr is going to be slower in an NHL that gets faster every year. Jagr supposedly still has great hands, so he’ll bring some offense and, yes, he’ll play with fast forwards (at least at the outset) in Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk but he may slow them up as much as they might insulate him. And Jagr has never been good defensively. Philly will be better in goal with Ilya Bryzgalov (although his post-season history is not strong). They added Andreas Lilja for depth on D, probably important if Chris Pronger continues to get hurt. But with all those changes, it’s not clear if this is a better Flyers team. It is different and may not be as good.
Pittsburgh — The Pens lost some forward depth with UFAs Max Talbot and Mike Rupp leaving but made a good signing in Steve Sullivan, bringing in an effective winger on a team where so many resources are tied up at centre. They did a lot last year in a season filled with injuries so it’s quite possible they’ll be better, especially if healthy.
Tampa Bay – The Lightning added a backup goalie in Mathieu Garon, some blueline depth in offensive defenceman Matt Gilroy and depth up front in Tom Pyatt. We assume Steven Stamkos will return, but they lost UFAs Sean Bergenheim and Simon Gagne and its unclear how they will be replaced. This team may fall back if they’re not.
Toronto — They didn’t reel in the big fish Richards but with a smaller one in Tim Connelly, the Maple Leafs have their first legitimately skilled centre since Mats Sundin left town and someone to get the puck to Phil Kessel. They also picked up two good puck moving defencemen via trades in John-Michael Liles and Cody Fransen, who is not strong defensively. Last season, they only had Tomas Kaberle in that role and not for the entire year. They let J.S. Giguere go in free agency and may need a backup goalie if Jonas Gustafsson can’t do the job, but overall, they should be better.
Washington — The Caps may have made the most shrewd improvements in the Conference. They didn’t tamper with their core, but may have added to it if Tomas Vokoun becomes their top goalie at the amazing bargain basement price of $1.5 million. And they let some guys (like Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm) walk so they could bolster their depth: They brought in a pair of veteran UFA Habs, Roman Hamrlik to give some spine to their sometimes shaky defence corps and Jeff Halpern (who started his career as a Cap), an upgrade from Boyd Gordon as a depth centre/faceoff specialist because of his better offensive ability. They also imported some toughness picking up Troy Brower and Joel Ward, both of whom can contribute timely scoring. There’s lots of character on this team that wasn’t here before. A very impressive remodeling.
Winnipeg — The Jets didn’t make any big upgrades over their Atlanta predecessors. They lost Anthony Stewart and Radek Dvorak, but didn’t really want to keep them, and added to their depth signing d-men Randy Jones and Derek Meech, leftwinger Tanner Glass and center Rick Rypien, both of whom were with the Canucks. Like the Islanders, the Jets are banking on the development o of the in-house talent to move the team forward.