Honorable Mention: Washington Capitals
It's hard to leave this team out. Adding Nicklas Backstrom to the lineup, and making some key free agent signings has sent the team in the right direction. The Caps added Victor Kozlov (dynamite offensively when he wants to be), Tom Poti (might as well be a forward) and Michael Nylander. Personally, I'm not going to be holding my breath. I can't see these additions putting this 14th place team over the top. Karl Alzner is a great pick up in the draft, but his impact likely won't be felt right away.
5. Chicago Blackhawks - I know this pick might surprise some, but if you look at the off season as a whole (not just free agency) the Hawks jump over the Captials thanks to Patrick Kane. That's not to say that the Caps had a bad draft -- far from it. The fact is though, it's tough to top #1. The Hawks lost Aucoin and Handzus, which may look bad on paper, but neither of them had a large impact on the team during their stay in the Windy City (thanks to injuries). Samsonov isn't much of an addition. Obviously. That being said, snagging Robert Lang is a big plus, throw in Yanic Perrault, and rumors that Kane will be ready to join the team this season, the Hawks are looking very solid down the middle. Hopefully, Andrei Zyuzin can help fill some holes on defense, and things are looking up for Chicago. Like I said, it's tough to say that this team improved more than the Caps. The difference is all signs point to Kane having an immediate impact to put them over the top.
4. Colorado Avalanche - This one is a no brainer. The Avs have a ton of young stars on the team, and all they did this off season was bring in a few current stars to put them over the top. I'm calling it already, the Avs will be in the top six out West this season. Many people say they overpaid for Scott Hannan, and that may be true, but let's be realistic; the guy can still play. We're not talking about Janne Niinimaa here. Add Smyth to the mix, and off a sudden these guys are looking scary. Imagine a Smyth - Sakic - Hedjuk top line. Pretty sweet, huh? Yes, Sakic is getting old, but at age 37 the guy had 100 points last season. 100! That's his biggest output since 2000-01.
3. New York Rangers - This one isn't hard to explain. The Rangers made a huge splash in the free agent market and had the biggest draft day steal since the Islanders sent Luongo and Jokinen to Florida for Parrish and Kvasha in 2000. Let's be realistic here, transfer agreement or not, if Alexei Cherepanov wants to play in the NHL, Alexei Cherepanov will play in the NHL. We're talking almost 20 years since Fedorov and Bure (among others) snuck out of the USSR, and nothing has changed. If a Russian wants to play in the NHL, they are going to play in the NHL (see: Evgeni Malkin). Adding Chris Drury and Scott Gomez to a team that had a stellar 2006-07 campaign may have just put the Rangers over the top to go deep into the playoffs... That is, if they can sure up their defense.
2. St. Louis Blues - It's hard to top the Rangers, but I believe the Blues did just that. Let's start with the draft. Not one, not two, but three first round draft picks. Adding Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk is about on par with adding Gomez and Drury. Although the Rangers additions were much younger, the Blues' pair has more offensive upside. Pick your poison. The best part though, is that the Blues got Tkachuk and then some. If you remember, he was traded to Atlanta at the deadline and then traded back to St. Louis on June 26. Through these two trades, the Blues essentially received Glen Metropolit and three draft picks from the Thrashers for parting with Tkachuk for a couple of months. The Blues also added Hannu Toivonen, and this may be a long shot, but if he turns into the goalie he's supposed to be, the Blues are going to be a much improved team.
1. Philadelphia Flyers - Ladies and gentlemen, at the midpoint the Flyers are your leader. They threw the house at Daniel Briere, but we're not here to debate whether or not the contract is a good one. We're here to debate how much Briere and their other additions will help the team this coming season. Briere is a dynamite offensive talent is instantly the #1 scoring threat on the team, although I'm sure Simon Gagne is going to have something to say about that. The team traded away a first round pick, but got Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell in return. Both are very solid players and Timonen is a hell of a defender. He had 50 points in Nashville last season, and still had a +20 rating. They are not stars like Briere, but they are going to make significant contributions this season. The team also added Jason Smith, the captain of the Edmonton Oilers and Joffrey Lupul, a talented youngster who is coming off a down year. This might just be a case of taking quantity over quality, but the Flyers seriously bulked up their roster this off season. And, oh yeah, they also had the #2 pick.