NHL training camps are set to open later this month, and with preseason action starting Sep. 28, we could soon get an indication as to which teams made the most improvement over the course of the offseason.
Some of last season's playoff teams, like the Florida Panthers, will attempt to make the leap toward Stanley Cup contention in 2021-22. There are those like the Philadelphia Flyers looking for a bounce-back season after missing the playoffs in 2020-21. Others, like the New York Rangers, are rebuilding clubs hoping to make a major step toward playoff contender status.
Those teams are among the ones we believe are ready to take huge leaps forward this season. We'll examine the factors that should account for their anticipated improvement, including offseason trades, free-agent signings and development of young talent. You can weigh in with your thoughts on this subject in the comments section.
Detroit Red Wings
Over the past two seasons, Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman has patiently continued the roster rebuild begun by his predecessor, Ken Holland. And his busy offseason may have brought in the final pieces of the puzzle.
Yzerman's biggest additions were between the pipes and on the blue line. He acquired goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic on July 23 from the Carolina Hurricanes and signed him to a two-year, $6 million contract. A week earlier, the Wings GM brought in defenseman Nick Leddy from the New York Islanders.
The 25-year-old Nedeljkovic was a Calder Memorial Trophy finalist last season. If he builds upon that promising effort, the Wings could finally have the reliable starter they have been lacking since Jimmy Howard backstopped them to their final postseason in 2015-16. Leddy, 30, brings puck-moving skills and experience to the Wings defense corps. He's expected to pair up with Filip Hronek, who emerged as their top blueliner over the past two seasons.
Speaking of defensemen, promising Moritz Seider is expected to make his NHL debut this season. The Wings blue line will be much improved if the 20-year-old rearguard adapts quickly to the big-league game. Yzerman also brought back veteran shutdown rearguard Marc Staal on a one-year deal.
The Wings will also get a full season from left wing Jakub Vrana, who was acquired at last season's trade deadline. The addition of free-agent Pius Suter should bolster their depth at center. Healthy seasons from captain Dylan Larkin and wingers Tyler Bertuzzi and Robby Fabbri will also increase their production. Promising winger Filip Zadina could have his much-anticipated breakout season.
It's been a sometimes painful rebuild for the Wings in recent years. Yzerman's patience with his promising young players and his recent roster additions could have this team ready to move within striking distance of a playoff berth this season.
Last season was among the best in Florida Panthers history, finishing second in the Discover Central Division and fourth overall with 79 points in 56 games. Although they were eliminated from the opening round of the 2021 playoffs in six games by the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Panthers are poised for bigger things in 2021-22.
Led by center Aleksander Barkov and left wing Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers possess a powerful scoring punch, finishing fourth last season with a goals-per-game average of 3.36. Their offense was further augmented by the trade-deadline acquisition of versatile forward Sam Bennett and the offseason addition of right wing Sam Reinhart.
The Panthers suffered from the absence of top defenseman Aaron Ekblad during their series against their archrivals from Tampa Bay. Sidelined by a fractured left leg in late March, Ekblad's return will bolster their blue line. The emergence of MacKenzie Weegar as a two-way rearguard provides an additional level of skill. They also brought back veteran Brandon Montour on a three-year deal.
Goaltending will be the Panthers' wild card this season. Sergei Bobrovsky has been inconsistent in his previous two seasons as their starter. The emergence of Spencer Knight prompted management to part ways with Chris Driedger this summer. If Bobrovsky regains his Vezina Trophy form and Knight plays up to expectations, the Panthers will have a solid tandem in goal.
Several other players could play interesting roles for the Panthers this season. Free-agent signing Joe Thornton could center their third line. Promising center Anton Lundell could crack the lineup this season, providing an additional measure of scoring punch, as could winger Grigori Denisenko.
Guided by respected head coach Joel Quenneville, the Panthers have perhaps the deepest roster in franchise history. They have the talent to challenge for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and perhaps become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.