Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Straighten Up and Fly Right or Else...

When the Vancouver Canucks traded away Zack Kassian this Summer, I thought this was a now or never situation for him.  Unfortunately, given what happened to him last weekend, that potential that led him to being a first round pick out of Peterborough in 2009 may never be fully realized.

Rather than explain the entire situation, I'll let Canucks Army do the explaining.

The short of it is that Kassian was involved in an accident in a truck that he was a passenger of and suffered a fractured foot and broken nose.  Montreal General Manager Marc Bergevin was not exactly sympathetic of Kassian, as the accident happened around 6:30 AM, and one of the things Bergevin called out was the character.  Kassian entered in stage 2 of the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse program and will be out of action until cleared by doctors.

As for what to make of Kassian's latest mishap, here is a player that when he was drafted, was pegged to be a power forward in the vein of Milan Lucic, a player that can fight and score.  However, he never fulfilled his potential with Vancouver despite being given multiple chances, most notably on a line with both Sedins.  Last season, he was benched for a number of games and finally, was shipped out to Montreal in a move that can be best described as the Canucks "eating their hat" and admitting that the trade for him in 2012 didn't pan out.  As for Kassian's short time in Montreal, he didn't inspire confidence in the coaches, and now, he is facing a personal crossroads, as he could find himself out of the NHL if he doesn't get his off-ice problems sorted out.  Here's hoping he gets the help he needs and wherever he ends up playing next (for all we know, Montreal could cut their losses), he can find his way again.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Ready to Fly


2014-15 record: 43-26-13 (99 points)
Lost to Anaheim in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Andrew Ladd

The Winnipeg Jets made a furious push to make the playoffs for the first time since their days as the Atlanta Thrashers.  However, like the Thrashers team that made the playoffs in 2007, the Jets were promptly swept out of the playoffs.  Unlike that team though, the Jets look primed to build on their playoff appearance with largely the same cast as the one that ended the regular season, and they may be younger than they were with a couple of additions from within.  Offensively, they were middle of the pack, but the top line of Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd, and Bryan Little all scored more than 20 goals each. Secondary scoring wasn't a problem, either, as five of the nine players that are returning scored in double digits.  Only one of the departed, Michael Frolik, will have any impact on the team, as he was counted on for versatility and penalty kill, the latter more important, since the Jets were short-handed the most times last season.  Defensively, there is great depth, something that came in handy when injuries hit.  In addition, Dustin Byfuglien's ability to move between forward and defense gives the Jets greater flexibility when it comes to setting lineups.  In goal, Ondrej Pavelec finally started to play like the goalie the Jets envisioned...some of the time.  Yes, he struggled in the first half of the season, which opened the door for Michael Hutchinson to seize the starting job for a time before he too struggled.  More consistent play in goal will be needed, but at its best, it can propel the Jets to greater heights.

Prediction: 3rd in the Central Division

The Jets still have players like Nikolaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey at the door waiting to make their NHL debuts, and with the current group finally knowing what it takes to become playoff contenders, it's time for them to take that next step and become Stanley Cup contenders.  They have the ability, but will the consistency come along for the ride?

The Road to the Memorial Cup: Red Deer, AB

This season, the Western Hockey League gets its turn at hosting the Memorial Cup, as it is rotated every three years between the WHL, the OHL, and the QMJHL.  This year, the WHL representative will be Red Deer, AB and their team the Rebels.  Since the Rebels are hosting, they get an automatic entry into the Memorial Cup tournament this season, and as hosts, like every other team that has hosted before them, they would love to put their best foot forward.  So many questions do have to be answered, such as do they mortgage the farm to try and win it all, being both the WHL and Memorial Cup championships, and what moves do they make in preparation for this event?  Throughout the season, this blog will be following the Rebels as they prepare for the Memorial Cup, a journey that began last night against division rival Edmonton Oil Kings. The Rebels would win both games by the scores of 4-1 and 3-2 in overtime. Though the Oil Kings are a team in transition, Rylan Toth looks to be a solid player, particularly in the Rebels defense first system that has helped players such as Patrik Bartosak and Darcy Kuemper win Goalie of the Year awards in the WHL.

It won't take long for the Rebels to find out how good they really are, as they'll be welcoming Swift Current on Friday and the defending Ed Chynoweth champion Kelowna Rockets on Saturday.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Getting it Right


2014-15 record: 45-26-11 (101 points)
Lost to the New York Rangers in Conference Semi-finals
Captain: Alexander Ovechkin

Another year, another disappointing end for the Capitals in the Alexander Ovechkin era.  It feels like the tape is on repeat for the Capitals, who realize that the clock is ticking on getting their superstar player a Stanley Cup and given that they haven't advanced to the Conference Finals, the Caps decided to try and make the moves needed to get them to the promised land.  Last year, it was raiding the Pittsburgh blue line for a couple of key acquisitions; this year, it's the right wing and two players that have shone on the big stages.  For the first time in a while, the Capitals are no longer just a one line team, as Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie give them options on three lines.  Yes, it's still Ovechkin's team, and there is the possibility that the Caps could be without Niklas Backstrom for a while to start the season, but with Derek Roy being a possible fill-in, that could mean significant top line minutes for Evgeny Kuznetsov.  As for the left side after Ovechkin, Andre Burakovsky and Marcus Johansson are no slouches.  The concern here, as it is on the blue line is depth if anyone goes down for a significant period of time.  Speaking of the blue line, they boast two pairings that can match up with any team in the NHL, as homegrown talents John Carlson and Karl Alzner, as well as Pittsburgh defectors Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, form that group.  After that, all bets are off, as the current third pairing is Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov, both of whom missed significant time to injuries.  In goal, this is where things are great, as Braden Holtby returns and has established himself as a top-line starter.  Phillipp Grubauer will get first crack at backing up Holtby after Justin Peters couldn't cut the mustard while Peters will likely be battling Dan Ellis for the right to be third string goalie.

Prediction: 1st in the Metropolitan Division

The Capitals will be facing a now-or-never situation with Ovechkin just now entering his 30's.  The window of opportunity isn't closed yet, but another early exit could be a problem down the line.

Monday, September 28, 2015

"Should I Stay or Should I Go?"


2014-15 record: 49-29-5 (101 points)
Lost to Calgary in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Henrik Sedin

The Vancouver Canucks finished over the 100 point mark and were eighth on offense despite just having two players with 20 or more goals.  None of that mattered after they were outclassed by Calgary in the opening round.  Now, where they go from here is anyone's guess, as they seem confused as to whether to rebuild or go all in for another playoff run.

Only Henrik Sedin and Radim Vrbata scored 20 or more goals, but thanks to 10 other players finishing with double-digit goals, the Canucks had a balanced attack that netted that eighth place finish on offense.  The bad news is that they lose three of those 10 players, as Shawn Matthias, Nick Bonino, and Zack Kassian all move on.  However, only the Matthias defection has the potential to hurt, as Bonino fell off after a hot first half and Kassian never really showed the heart necessary to fulfill his potential.  Replacing that scoring output, Brandon Sutter will get his chance to show what he can do without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in front of him, as he still managed 21 goals in a third line role while Brandon Prust will add heart and toughness.  Defensively, the depth took a hit when the Canucks traded Kevin Bieksa to Anaheim and Adam Clendening to Pittsburgh in the same deal that saw Sutter and Bonino trade places.  Unless Matt Bartkowski or Frank Corrado show they can handle regular NHL duty, the depth here is going to rear its ugly head.  The unit as a whole isn't fast, another hole exposed in the playoffs, and isn't exactly getting any younger or bursting with talent in the pipeline.  In goal, Ryan Miller was okay, but when he went down to injury late in the season, Eddie Lack took control of the starting job and was the starter entering the playoffs.  Now that Lack is also moving on, that means Jacob Markstrom will see the backup job, and if Miller either gets injured or falters, the depth will be severely tested, as there's almost nothing past Markstrom.

Prediction: 5th in the Pacific Division

The Canucks surprised many by making the playoffs last season.  However, the playoffs exposed them as needing much work. Whether the work they've done in the off-season will translate to another playoff is anyone's guess, and for that matter, no one knows if they're rebuilding either.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Raking Up a Mess


2014-15 record: 30-44-8 (68 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Dion Phaneuf

The Toronto Maple Leafs are used to being known as a laughingstock of the NHL, but never was the laughter louder than last season, and it was brutal for Leafs fans.  To that end, president Brendan Shanahan took an ax to most of the front office and coaching staff, as well as one of their best goal scorers in recent years.  For new General Manager Lou Lamoriello and new head coach Mike Babcock, it's going to be a house building from scratch, and there will be bound to be mistakes.  At the very least, the quick fixes of years past are history.

Up front, a dreadful offense will now have to find some way to replace Phil Kessel's production.  Kessel often had a love/hate relationship with Toronto media, and given that he didn't always put his best foot forward, the move was a big step in Babcock establishing his authority within the locker room.  That puts the likes of Nazem Kadri and Dion Phaneuf on notice.  As for goal scoring, James van Riemsdyk will be looked upon to pick up a little bit of the production, as will Kadri, who faces a now or never situation to be the top center the Leafs have lacked since Mats Sundin left town.  As for who else will be stepping up, it's going to be a bunch of short-term fixes in Shawn Matthias, P.A. Parenteau, Mark Arcobello until the youth such as Kasperi Kapanen, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner are ready to carry the load.  Defensively, they were just as bad, and Phaneuf's reprieve should serve as motivation to be closer to the player the Leafs envisioned they were getting.  Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are facing critical years, as both will be expected to step up their games to the next level.  Young depth here is good, but unproven, as Martin Marincin, Scott Harrington, and Stuart Percy haven't had much NHL experience to show for it.  In goal, it's Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer, and neither were any good last year.  The team in front was partially culpable for the problems here, but Bernier will need to cut down on the soft goals while Reimer has hit his ceiling as a good backup/spot starter.

Prediction: 8th in the Atlantic Division

The Maple Leafs will still be terrible this year, but for the first time since the lockout, there's actually a sense that things will be changing for the better with a new coaching staff and a new front office.  Now, if only they can get a player like Auston Matthews in next year's draft...

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ready to Strike Again


2014-15 record: 50-24-8 (108 points)
Lost to Chicago in Stanley Cup Finals
Captain: Steven Stamkos

The Tampa Bay Lightning ended up two wins short of winning their second Stanley Cup in franchise history, but the development of many of their key players has them believing that they can get back this year to the point of practically staying pat.  Up front, the Lightning is still led by Steven Stamkos, though he is in his final year of the current contract and no deal has been in place as of this writing.  Whether or not it is a distraction remains to be seen.  Beyond him, the Lightning are stacked, as they led the league in offense, and it's been no accident that players such as Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat have broken through together through the minors and now the NHL.  Certainly, coach Jon Cooper knows the buttons to push, and the Lightning can roll four lines of offense, so keying on Stamkos is no longer an option for opposing defenses.  On the blue line, depth is a concern beyond the top four, but the top four are as good as any in the league, and it begins with Victor Hedman, who has become the team's number one defender.  The signing of Anton Stralman prior to last season was also a shrewd move.  The five through seven holes on the blue line can be considered up for grabs, which means don't be surprised if either Slater Koekkoek or Anthony D'Angelo end up starting on the Lightning roster on opening night.  In goal, Ben Bishop was sterling, and he also showed his toughness by playing through pain in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Losing Andrei Vasilevsky for 2-3 months will hurt, as he showed he was ready for NHL duty last season and even held his own when he had to start in place of Bishop in the Finals.  Ray Emery gets his chance to back up Bishop in the interim.  The power play was passable, but the top-ranked offense should be better than middle of the pack.  On the penalty kill, the Lightning were top-10, and with pretty much the same roster and coaching staff in place, that should figure to remain the same.

Prediction: 1st in the Atlantic Division

The Lightning didn't make any significant changes to a roster that made the Finals last year, and health willing, they should make another deep run in the playoffs.