KELLEY: Western Conference dealers and duds

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Jim Kelley

Time was when the National Hockey League off-season was a true summer vacation. Teams shut down, front office people took a much deserved vacation and players returned to their homes for a period of rest, relaxation and, in many cases, healing. Contracts were done at season's end or in training camp the following fall. Disputes? Well, there weren't any disputes. Teams ruled with an iron fist and players went were they were told and played for what they were offered. Not any more. In today's NHL the off-season can be as hectic (though not as long) as the regular season. There are contracts to be signed, leases to be negotiated, schedules to be determined, television deals to be finalized and marketing plans to be developed. The NHL now has a period of free agency, a period that amounts to an auction of some of the league's most sought-after talent. There's also a schedule of arbitration hearings, grievance matters and contract negotiations to be completed through a range of options that include restricted and unrestricted free agents. It's a hectic ten weeks or so, and teams that navigate it well can have a major impact on the upcoming season. The reverse is also true. With most of the work now done (the last of the arbitration rulings were to be complete this week), let's take a walk through the legal forest and rank who did well, who didn't do so well and who did nothing at all. This isn't intended to list how the teams will fare in the regular season. It is instead a rating on how they handled the off-season.

Western Conference

The Top Five

Dallas : The moved fast, hard and smart. They signed Boston's unrestricted free agent scorer (41 goals last season), free-agent winger (reuniting him with his old St. Louis centerman ) and free-agent defenseman (Los Angeles). The also made a smart trade for proven goaltender (Columbus) to work with holdover . Nice work shoring up the weaknesses so obvious in last year's lineup. Recently appointed general manger Doug Armstrong puts his stamp on the team by hiring Dave Tippett as the coach to replace Ken Hitchcock. Anaheim : Yes, Anaheim. The Ducks finally got a playmaking center for star winger in signing veteran playmaker away from Philadelphia. The Ducks also made a decent although costly trade with New Jersey, picking up scoring winger . The Ducks lose forward and defenseman Oleg Teverdosky in the deal, but both wanted out anyway. Not necessarily playoff moves, but the Ducks will be more entertaining and should ice a formidable power play. There's also a new coach, Mike Babcock, replacing Bryan Murray, who kicks up to the GM's chair. Phoenix : The plead poverty, but they opened the vault for free-agent scorer (Chicago). They also added a little size and strength in (Los Angeles) and picked up a promising goaltender to back in the form of former Philadelphia netminder . A little more size, a lot more speed and scoring and solid goaltending adds up to a good off-season. Columbus : Another team that might surprise you, but the moved up smartly in the draft to get Rick Nash, who might end up being the best of the 2002 crop. General manager Doug MacLean also signed , a solid play-making center from Vancouver, and two rugged defensemen, and , who will add toughness to a weak and undersized defense. MacLean also took a flyer on free-agent forward Donald MacLean (no relation) who led the AHL in scoring last season. Perhaps not enough for a playoff berth, but upgrades nonetheless. Detroit : There are lots of holes in the upcoming roster. That's especially true at the top, where the legendary coach Scott Bowman no longer resides, and there's also questions about the defense, not to mention the loss of to knee surgery for the early part of the season (perhaps longer?). But general manager Ken Holland did a good job of keeping most of his own and he moved wisely and quickly to secure former Toronto goaltender to replace the retired . Moving longtime aide Dave Lewis to the top coaching spot should keep things running smoothly.
Reviewing the off-season
  • Middle Five

    San Jose : Not much in the free agent market, but keeping scorer , a coveted free agent, was huge. The also made a commitment to their own, re-signing and in deals that will push the payroll beyond last season's numbers with several key players still to be signed. They could lose defenseman to retirement, but there's enough youth in the system to compensate. Nashville : The Preds take a serious body blow in losing defenseman to a substance abuse suspension (six months by the league, but likely forever in the court of public opinion), but this quick but small team did make enough good off-season moves to get our attention. They picked up leadership in the form of , picked up the option on top goalie and picked up decent role players and from Dallas and Phoenix, respectively. Small moves, but the kind that make a young team on the rise better. Chicago : You would think that a team that just signed to a two-year deal would be in our top five. Think again. The made a lot of good moves like picking up from Montreal and under-utilized defenseman from Toronto and re-signing defenseman for the power play. But there were substantial loses, including scorer , gritty winger (to Toronto) and defenseman (Vancouver). Not getting an upgrade in goal also hurts, although is still out there. Edmonton : Another club that didn't make any big free-agent moves, but re-signing top players like , Mike Greir and keeps this fiscally hurting club competitive. More importantly, the didn't lose any of the core players, something that has happened all too often in recent seasons. The club bit the bullet on , accepting a $2.3 million U.S. award in salary arbitration. That was an $800,000 raise and likely will up the ante for Group 2 free agents and . There may be budget trades in the works, but for now, the are looking fine. Vancouver : A good young team is being accused of standing pat, but the management has made some subtle acquisitions in signing from Chicago to shore up the defense. The team also added some speed in the still young (via a trade with Toronto) and picked up goaltending depth from Carolina in the form of . Losing Cassels hurts, but then he was a tad overpriced for the given the amount of injuries he's had to deal with, so Farkas should fill that gap.

    Bottom Five

    St. Louis : The deserve credit for signing many of their many higher-priced players and keeping the core of the team intact, but the unceremonious dismissal from the playoffs last season indicated more was needed. Losing (to Dallas) hurts the offense a bit. Los Angeles : The goners list is huge: , , , and even (to Anaheim). This is a good team that can absorb a lot of this, but making a trade with Buffalo for (for ) is a risk as Rasmussen has yet to play to the first-round form that saw him go seventh overall in the entry draft some three years ago. Acquiring center from the won't help much. Minnesota : Getting from Los Angeles will add character and some play-making ability. No losses of consequence, so it's pretty much status quo while waiting for the kids to develop. Calgary : Getting , a right wing from Pittsburgh, is a nice pickup that should help the offense. Also, getting , a left winger who can play both ways and still has scoring ability, is great, but not getting scoring champion signed is going to be a huge setback. The two sides are said to be at least $2 million apart and the Lester Pearson trophy winner (player's MVP) is likely to stay away from camp if there is no contract on the table. Colorado : Rare to see the Avs on the bottom of any list, but they didn't do anything in the free-agent market and lost star defenseman to the New York , a blow that weakens an already-too-thin defensive corps. The Avs have lots of young talent ready to step up, but there's no second physical defenseman to take some of the load off , and that need has to be addressed. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address, jkelley@foxsports.com.
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