Pittsburgh Penguins: The only direction they could really go was up, but they have gone up by quite a large margin. They haven’t really lost any significant players but have added Sergei Gonchar, Mark Recchi, John Leclair, Zigmund Palffy, Jocelyn Thibault and of course Sidney Crosby. Due to their weak defense I am still not convinced that they are a playoff team, especially if Lemieux can’t play a full season, but they are much improved and will no longer be pushovers. They will be dramatically better and could jump to the 80-90 point range.
Atlanta Thrashers: I like what the Atlanta Thrashers have done and I really see big things for this team in the next couple years, if not this year. Gone is Dany Heatley and some mostly ‘depth’ type players but coming to Atlanta is Marian Hossa, Bobby Holik, Niclas Havelid, Greg de Vries and Peter Bondra. But most importantly is rookie goalie Kari Lehtonen who should provide vastly improved goaltending over 2003-04 when Atlanta had one of the worst goaltending in the NHL. They need to get Ilya Kovalchuk signed though.
Chicago Blackhawks: Like the Penguins, there wasn’t really any direction other than up that they could go. The biggest move was adding Khabibulin in net which will be a big improvement over the sub-par goaltending they got in 2003-04. They also added Mathieu Barnaby, Cutis Brown, Martin Lapointe, Adrian Aucoin, Jaroslav Spacek and a few other role players. They will be much better but like the Penguins, a playoff spot playoff spot is still no guarantee but unlike the east, the west is wide open so they have a chance.
Los Angeles Kings: The only players of significance they lost is Zigmund Palffy and Martin Strake but they have added Pavol Demitra, Craig Conroy, Jeremy Roenick, Valeri Bure and goalie Mathieu Garon. Also rookie Mike Cammelleri is ready for prime time after an excellent AHL season in 2004-05 and Alexander Frolov should be ready for a 30+ goal season.
Edmonton Oilers: They added one of the top 3 defensemen in the league in Chris Pronger and that alone should improve them. They also added forward Michael Peca whose gritty physical play should be a welcome addition to the Oilers forwards who are generally more skilled than gritty. They will be better but due to questionable goaltending and a weak set of centermen a playoff spot is anything but guarateed.
Other improved teams: Calgary Flames, Florida Panthers. Possibly Philadelphia if they can stay healthy and the rookies play well. Possibly Ottawa (in the playoffs) if Hasek can be the Hasek of old.