- Sean Allen
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More than a dozen deals on draft day kicked off what figures to be an action-packed offseason in the NHL. Three seasons removed from the lockout, parity among NHL teams is becoming more apparent by the day. Are there any teams you honestly can say will not be in position to compete for a playoff berth depending on how free agency shakes out? I don't think I'd be comfortable writing off any of the 30 NHL teams right now. Four years ago and before that, you usually could pick out a half-dozen teams that didn't stand a chance.
The free-agent market is teeming with talent and could help push some of the teams that have been on a level playing field to being considered favorites in their divisions. Plus, from a fantasy perspective, there now are preferred destinations for the many free agents. For instance, would it help much if Brian Campbell became a Red Wing and effectively became almost irrelevant in fantasy?
With those thoughts in mind, let's look at the teams that likely will change the most. We'll go over the holes they have -- or will have -- and how they could go about filling them, with a fantasy twist:
Anaheim Ducks: After Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim was full of lame ducks when it came to secondary scoring last season. This team needs some new blood for the second line. With or without Teemu Selanne's return, Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Chris Kunitz have little to back them up. Yes, Bobby Ryan likely will be more effective this season, but at the end of the day, he won't cut it. Perry is a restricted free agent and must be priority No. 1 when it comes to signing big contracts. Look for the Ducks to be top-heavy this season, as GM Brian Burke must throw several low-cost darts toward second-line centers, hoping one of his throws hits the bull's-eye.
Boston Bruins: The Bruins are expected to make a push for at least one of the big-name free agents who has a nose for the net. The Bruins have assists to go around in set-up man extraordinaire Marc Savard and could use a finisher on the upswing of his career (as opposed to the downside, such as Glen Murray). Ryan Malone has been mentioned, and Michael Ryder is a possibility, but the B's also could choose to go with a more established player such as Marian Hossa or even Markus Naslund. Whoever joins the Bruins is sure to increase in value, as the team has several talented youngsters in Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and David Krejci. First-round draft pick Joe Colborne won't have an impact this season, but his reputation as an assist machine does lend credence to the idea that if the Bruins do sign someone to a multiyear contract, it probably will be a proven goal scorer as opposed to a set-up man.
Calgary Flames: With a free-agent list that includes top-six forwards Daymond Langkow, Kristian Huselius, Craig Conroy and Owen Nolan, it's safe to say Calgary needs to make changes up front. For starters, it dealt Alex Tanguay to Montreal after a poor season (by his standards). Then the Flames acquired Michael Cammalleri from L.A., an interesting acquisition. Both he and Jarome Iginla must be considered goal scorers first and playmakers second, making it difficult to project how the team will deploy the tandem. Cammalleri's versatility allows him to play either left wing or center, so he certainly could end up on a line with Iginla (a right winger by trade), but trying to project what the team will do with its first two lines is difficult given the uncertainty about who will land among the top six spots. Langkow is expected to return, but there are no such indications from Huselius, Conroy and Nolan.
Dustin Boyd is a Calgary prospect with tons of playmaking potential, but he has never played anything but a reserve role in the NHL. More trades and/or a dip in the free-agent pool appear to be a must for Calgary in the coming months. Looking at the list of available players, Brendan Morrison jumps out as a rejuvenation project with a history of being a set-up guy.
Colorado Avalanche: To reassemble the 1996 Stanley Cup team yet again or not to reassemble the 1996 Cup team? That is the question. Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote and captain Joe Sakic will be on the open market July 1, but it's more likely all three would retire before moving to another franchise. Also hitting the free-agent list is top defenseman John-Michael Liles, goaltender Jose Theodore and top-six winger Andrew Brunette. Yes, the Avalanche have some serious decisions to make before they can consider some of the other players on the market, and some of those decisions rival the decision that fantasy owners will have to make with respect to these players. Theodore: a bounce-back season or a brief spike in his tumble downhill? Liles: one bad season or a lost cause without Rob Blake? Forsberg: Are the ankle and groin problems really going to let him play another season? Brunette: If linemate Sakic hangs 'em up, do we even care if he walks?
Luckily, Colorado also has some younger players who are on a strong upswing in their careers, and Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski and T.J. Hensick should all prove to be valuable fantasy commodities regardless of the surrounding cast and crew.
Florida Panthers: If you want to go on a prospect hunt for your fantasy team, the best place to start is in Florida. After dealing captain Olli Jokinen to Phoenix for a couple of above-average defenders (Nick Boynton and Keith Ballard), the Panthers have a terrific defensive group and solid goaltender in place for the coming season. Up front, though, they have Nathan Horton and a bunch of question marks. Shawn Matthias, Kenndal McArdle, Anthony Stewart and Michael Frolik are all prospects with elite offensive upside who now have a chance at not only making the team but also coming away with a top-six forward job. The Panthers are not known for making free-agent splashes, so I more than expect to hear a lot about a couple of those prospects throughout the season. We'll have to see who impresses coach Peter DeBoer in training camp.
Los Angeles Kings: One of my favorite breakout candidates for this season is Patrick O'Sullivan. After a solid history in the minors, O'Sullivan got his first crack at consistent ice time last season. The bulk of the year he was relegated to a checking and penalty-killing role, but as the season wore on, O'Sullivan found himself in more and more scoring situations, and he wound up with 26 points in 31 post-All Star games. Now the team must find someone for O'Sullivan to play with. After shipping Cammalleri to Calgary on draft day, the Kings are left with a first line of Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov and Dustin Brown; beyond that, you have O'Sullivan and a bunch of role players. Prospects Teddy Purcell and Brian Boyle had a cup of coffee with the team last season but won't provide the secondary scoring needed. Depending on whom the Kings land in the free-agent market, O'Sullivan and possibly others could go from fantasy-draft leftovers to solid sleepers.
Montreal Canadiens: As a mover and shaker on draft day, Montreal might have come away the biggest winner. In a trade with Calgary, the Canadiens brought over Alex Tanguay, then turned around and acquired exclusive negotiating rights with Mats Sundin until he becomes a free agent on July 1. Getting Sundin would turn the Habs into a four-line offensive machine; Sundin, with Tanguay and Alexei Kovalev as the first line, and Saku Koivu with the Kostitsyn brothers (Andrei and Sergei) on the second line. Not to mention they also have Tomas Plekanec, Christopher Higgins and Guillaume Latendresse. I already like Tanguay to bounce back to the 80-point range with Montreal -- Sundin or no Sundin -- so tab him as someone to boost in your rankings.
New York Rangers: A free-agent list that includes Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan, Martin Straka, Michal Rozsival, Paul Mara and Sean Avery means opposing NHL teams theoretically could sign the entire 2007-08 Rangers first power-play unit. Depending on which players re-up with New York, this team could be either rejuvenated or stagnant this coming season. Some fresh blood might be a good thing for last year's free-agent splashes Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, who never found chemistry with the holdover Blueshirts. Rozsival's and Mara's futures specifically interest me because both were serviceable as power-play quarterbacks, but neither excelled at the job. If the Rangers can land Brian Campbell as a free agent or the equivalent through trade, I think I would be much more excited about whoever ended up sticking around on the Rangers' power play.
Phoenix Coyotes: There is a movement afoot in the desert, and the Great One might get a chance to coach a team that finishes above .500 this season. Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes had one of the best draft days, at least among Western Conference teams. Not only did the Coyotes land a couple of legitimate, possibly NHL-ready prospects in the first round, but they also secured one of the best centers in the game by dealing two defensemen to Florida for Olli Jokinen. Jokinen has been toiling in South Florida the past few seasons with little hope for a turnaround. I like Nathan Horton and all, but exactly who was Jokinen supposed to work with last season for the Panthers?
veteran Shane Doan, combined with youngsters Kyle Turris, Martin Hanzal, Peter Mueller and possibly even Mikkel Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov, will give Jokinen countless options. That isn't even considering the possibility that their second-leading scorer, Radim Vrbata, could choose to re-sign with the club. Sure, Phoenix dealt away two stalwart defensemen in Nick Boynton and Keith Ballard, but it looks as if Gretzky is planning to run one heck of a run-and-gun offense this season. I wouldn't want to be goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov this coming season, but the forward crew for the Coyotes should supply plenty of firepower for fantasy owners.
St. Louis Blues: It has been awhile since the Blues were a solid source of fantasy players, but they could start turning the corner toward being a gold mine once again in 2008-09. A first line of Andy McDonald, Paul Kariya and the surprising Brad Boyes is a formidable group. Erik Johnson should take another step forward to lead the defensive core, and Keith Tkachuk can make the second line better than expected. Plus, four of their top prospects are close enough that they must be considered threats to make an impact in the NHL (T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Lars Eller and Patrick Berglund). Their goaltender situation is a mess, though. Manny Legace should retain and provide value as the No. 1 goalie, but that would eliminate several other intriguing options. Chris Mason is better served as a backup but is streaky enough to provide some value, Hannu Toivonen might bolt for Europe despite his vast potential, and Marek Schwarz may never get the chance to take over.
Toronto Maple Leafs: It's going to be one ugly season in Toronto. I know I spoke of parity in the lead above, but if you forced me to pick one team that wouldn't compete, it would be the Maple Leafs. With it looking more and more like Mats Sundin will go elsewhere, the team's returning points leader (with 56) would be Nik Antropov. Ouch. Darcy Tucker and Pavel Kubina could be bought out of their contracts as well. This season certainly looks like a write-off already, as management begins the rebuilding process for 2009-10. For fantasy purposes, I'm not touching a Maple Leafs player with a 40-foot pole. Not even John Pohl. Oh wait, he's also a free agent.
Washington Capitals: Wanted: starting goaltender. Competition for job: no one (at the moment). The Capitals have two, that's right, two unrestricted free-agent goaltenders and a clock that is quickly ticking toward July 1. Olaf Kolzig, who might as well have the creases named after him in Washington, is, for all intents and purposes, done in Washington. Cristobal Huet might be demanding more money than he could be worth. What is a franchise to do? It's definitely too early to start watching the Semen Varlamov clock, and Brent Johnson might have been a No. 1 goaltender option 10 years ago, but he is a No. 2 goalie now. Jose Theodore, Patrick Lalime, Ty Conklin and Johan Holmqvist are all free agents, but they come with question marks. Whomever ends up as the netminder for this Washington team will be more than fantasy-relevant, thanks to Alexander Ovechkin & Co. It's just a matter of finding out who that lucky player is.
Sean Allen is a fantasy baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.