It’s been a busy NHL offseason with the 2020 NHL Draft being held Oct. 6-7 and NHL free agency opening Oct. 9. Teams have been hard at work adding players in free agency and trades or re-signing their own free agents. But which team is the most improved to this point in the offseason? We asked four NHL.com writers to give their view on which team has done the best job reshaping its roster so far. Here are their thoughts:
I’m going to lead off with a surprise: the Detroit Red Wings. Coming off a season when they had the worst record in the NHL since the salary cap arrived in 2005-06 (17-49-5, .275 points percentage), there is a lot of room for improvement. Under general manager Steve Yzerman, the Red Wings chose forward Lucas Raymond No. 4 in the NHL Draft with their highest pick since 1990 and selected 11 players in rounds 2-7, including three in the second and two in the third. They have signed goalie Thomas Greiss, defensemen Jon Merrill and Troy Stecher, and forwards Bobby Ryan and Vladislav Namestnikov to short-term, economical contracts as unrestricted free agents. And they have acquired defenseman Marc Staal and a second-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft from the New York Rangers for future considerations, using cap space to their advantage. They’re early in their rebuild, not close to contending for the Stanley Cup, but they have taken smart steps forward.
You definitely got us off to a surprising start, Nick. I don’t know if my answer will be surprising, but it is another team that has nowhere to go but up: the New Jersey Devils. Coming off a 28-29-12 season (.493 points percentage), the Devils had to address needs, and they did that. First, I’ll show my bias by giving them the big seal of approval in agreeing to terms with goalie Corey Crawford on a two-year contract. Crawford won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013 and 2015, and along with Mackenzie Blackwood, he should give the Devils solid depth in net. New Jersey needed more scoring, so it acquired forward Andreas Johnsson, who scored 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in 43 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season. The Devils needed help at defenseman, so they acquired Ryan Murray from the Columbus Blue Jackets. You never know until you put it all together, but New Jersey should be much better this season.
I truly like what the Montreal Canadiens did to retool their roster after a regular season that saw them go 31-31-9 (.500 points percentage), and a surprising run in the postseason when they defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers and took the Philadelphia Flyers to six games in the Eastern Conference First Round. GM Marc Bergevin said Montreal wanted to check off four boxes this offseason — a backup for goalie Carey Price, size at defenseman, a power forward and some scoring punch — and they have been checked, without surrendering prospects or high draft picks. Headed to the Canadiens are goalie Jake Allen, defenseman Joel Edmundson (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) and forwards Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli. Montreal also locked up forward Brendan Gallagher with a six-year contract extension. Not a bad couple of weeks.
Nick and I think similarly about Detroit’s upgrades, and it’s hard to argue that Montreal isn’t better with all of its moves. But I’ll hang my first choice for most improved team on a most accepted concept, better at preventing goals, and that’s the Calgary Flames, who were 36-27-7 (.564 points percentage) and lost in six games to the Dallas Stars in the best-of-7 Western Conference First Round. After signing Jacob Markstrom (23-16-4, 2.75 goals-against average, .918 save percentage in 43 games for the Vancouver Canucks last season) as an unrestricted free agent, the Flames will have stability in goal they have not enjoyed since Miikka Kiprusoff retired in 2013. Based on one of hockey’s great truisms, that goaltending is 50 percent of the game until you don’t have it, then it’s 100 percent, having a top-flight goalie again signifies a big step forward in Calgary.
Good point, Tim. Again, that’s why I like the Devils bringing in the veteran goalie to help Blackwood along. I know the success rate depends on Crawford’s health. Hopefully, that’s no longer an issue; it wasn’t last season when he was 16-20-3 with a 2.77 GAA, a .917 save percentage and one shutout in 40 games (39 starts) with the Blackhawks. By the way, I’d also consider the Stars an improved group simply because they re-signed goalie Anton Khudobin. Dallas didn’t make any real changes to the roster that went to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2000, but retaining Khudobin is key. Ben Bishop is a great goalie, but he has struggled with health issues the past few seasons. And now the Stars know Khudobin, a career backup, can handle the pressure in a starting role, especially during the postseason after he went 14-10-0 with a 2.69 GAA, a .917 save percentage and one shutout in 25 games (24 starts) during the run to the Cup Final. Be it splitting time with Bishop or taking a larger role this season, Khudobin can do it.
Ah yes, goaltending. The Canadiens haven’t won the Stanley Cup since Patrick Roy was in Montreal’s net in 1993 and 1986, with a bunch before that backstopped by Ken Dryden in the 1970s. Price’s workload is the elephant in the Bell Centre, and the addition of Allen might have been Bergevin’s offseason stroke of genius. If Price isn’t played into exhaustion, and if newcomers Anderson and Toffoli can produce, and if young centers Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi can build off their impressive playoffs … well, I still don’t see the Canadiens parading Lord Stanley down Ste. Catherine Street (too much construction, anyway), but they’ll be a fun team to watch and a hard team to play against.
OK, the boss asked for a debate on the most improved team, so rather than repeating myself, how’s this to add a little fuel? I’ll need to see more from the Stars to consider them improved at the moment. Status quo is pretty good in a flat-cap world, but they don’t make my improved list yet. I like Calgary’s moves, adding Markstrom and, in my opinion, underappreciated defenseman Christopher Tanev, but there are other candidates. Why can’t the Buffalo Sabres be in our discussion? As Nick said about the Red Wings moving in a good direction but not being Cup contenders quite yet, doesn’t adding forward Taylor Hall, the 2018 Hart Trophy winner, make the Sabres instantly better? I don’t think Buffalo rises to the contender list with that alone, but there are few stronger upgrades than that one and combined with being wary of underestimating the coaching of Ralph Krueger, it belongs in the conversation.
No one’s going to mention the Colorado Avalanche or Vegas Golden Knights? The Avalanche would have been my top pick had they been able to lure Hall to Denver on a short-term contract for a chance to win the Cup. Still, I love the addition of defenseman Devon Toews on the back end and forward Brandon Saad up front. The Golden Knights got better by adding Alex Pietrangelo, one of the best defensemen in the NHL, and deciding to keep Marc-Andre Fleury to share the net with Robin Lehner. The issue is that they had to part with center Paul Stastny and defenseman Nate Schmidt to clear cap space. Colorado and Vegas each had a high bar for improvement but cleared it, making the Western Conference all the more interesting entering next season.