Posted: Wednesday July 28, 2010 5:51PM ; Updated: Thursday August 5, 2010 7:19PM
Allan Muir
Allan Muir>INSIDE THE NHL

Eight franchises that have improved the most this offseason (cont.)

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4. Toronto Maple Leafs

For all the brave "We'd do it all over again" talk from Brian Burke re: the Phil Kessel trade, you know that watching the Bruins take Seguin with Toronto's pick had to eat away at the Leafs GM. With the B's holding Toronto's first rounder next summer as well, Burke seems driven to ensure that one won't be in the lottery.

He's added scoring punch by acquiring Chicago cap casualty Kris Versteeg, a bit of truculent depth in winger Colby Armstrong and a wild card with top-six potential in massive German free agent Marcel Mueller. And while he's yet to play his ace in the hole, any deal involving Tomas Kaberle should further improve the forward corps. Look for that deal to come down sometime in August, and expect the Leafs to be a considerably feistier opponent come October.

3. Vancouver Canucks

After chalking up another aborted playoff run to a defense as thin as John Waters' mustache, GM Mike Gillis was left with little wiggle room in the eyes of an increasingly impatient fan base. They demanded significant improvements to the blue line and, to his credit, he delivered. Dan Hamhuis (free agent) and Keith Ballard (trade with Florida) can both play on a top pairing (although each is better suited for the second pair), giving the Canucks a group as solid as any in the West. He then added a trio of physically imposing defenders with his first three picks in the draft, improving a relatively weak group of blue-line prospects. The Sami Salo injury (no, really, another one) throws a wrench in the early season, but at least the team has the depth now to absorb this kind of hit.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning

The standard line is that championship teams are built from the goal out, but when the Bolts make their return to Cup contention, their success will have come from the top down. Jeff Vinik's hiring of Steve Yzerman as general manager didn't just deliver fresh leadership -- it gave the floundering franchise the respectability it threw away over years of ownership squabbles and wonky decision making. Despite a tenure measured in weeks, Yzerman's already made a significant impact on the squad, starting with the bold hire of coach Guy Boucher. The former Hamilton Bulldogs bench boss is expected to deliver an aggressive, exciting brand of hockey that should make revitalize a flagging fan base. So should the acquisitions of top-six forward Simon Gagne, veteran stopper Dan Ellis and defenders Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina. Now if he can just do something about scoring from the depth lines ...

1. Atlanta Thrashers

Gone, finally, is dithering GM Don Waddell, replaced by Rick Dudley, a manager who clearly understands that today's teams need a little steak to go with the sizzle. Example? After seeing the Cup-winning 'Hawks flattened by a salary cap semi, Dudley flew in like a crow to pick the meat of Chicago's exposed bones. And while no one should mistake his acquisitions for Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane, he added significant talent along with that winning attitude in Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel and Ben Eager, along with assistant coach John Torchetti. He made a savvy move by signing free agent Chris Mason, a reliable netminder who can handle the mail as often, or as little, as necessary to expedite the development of Ondrej Pavelec. He also quietly tabbed Boston assistant Craig Ramsay to take over behind the bench, ensuring that an offensively aggressive, physically accountable style will become the hallmark of this club moving forward.

These Thrashers may not boast the wattage of previous editions, but it'll be a more consistent and more competitive group. A playoff berth is within reach.

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