Saturday, September 24, 2016

Taking the Next Step...

ST. LOUIS BLUES

2015-16 record: 49-24-9 (107 points)
Lost to San Jose in Conference Finals
Captain: Alex Pietrangelo

Entering year 50 of their existence, the St. Louis Blues have the ignominy of being the only team left from the class of '67 that has never won the Stanley Cup. However, last season was quite possibly their best season yet, and there is optimism that they can do it again. However, as it has always been in the Central Division, the road won't be easy.

One of the biggest changes for the Blues this season will be that they won't have the toughness of either David Backes or Troy Brouwer. While the smaller lineup may very well push Vladimir Tarasenko closer to 50-goal territory, the lack of a physical presence may make things harder for the likes of Robby Fabbri and Jaden Schwartz. The only addition was David Perron, who is back for a second run with the team. A solid defensive unit returns largely intact, and despite the persistent trade rumors surrounding Kevin Shattenkirk, the Blues can boast up to seven NHL-caliber defenders. In goal, it's Jake Allen's show now, as the Blues traded away Brian Elliott. This will be Allen's first primary starting job in the NHL, and the safety net in case he falls is Carter Hutton, who can spell Allen for a handful of games just in case. Both units on special teams were great, but the turnover, both on the ice and behind the bench, may affect the team in that regard.

Prediction: 4th in the Central Division

The Blues are looking to take the next step forward now that they know how to get to the Conference Finals. However, losing a little physicality may cause them to step back a little, though they do have a pretty good chance in an increasingly speedy Central Division.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Victory Formation

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

2015-16 record: 48-26-8 (104 points)
Won the Stanley Cup
Captain: Sidney Crosby

Stop if you've heard this before: the Pittsburgh Penguins struggled out of the gate despite high expectations, replaced their head coach in the middle of the season, began to play like winners, and would go on to win the Stanley Cup at the end of the season. Believe it or not, that's been the narrative of the last two times the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup, including last season. This season, they would love to repeat the narrative of 1991 and 1992, when they repeated as champions.

Despite being one of the bigger names in the league, Sidney Crosby remains a polarizing figure among fans, but you don't need to be a fan to see that he really does make his teammates better, a fact rewarded by his Conn Smythe winning performance in the playoffs. His best came when the supporting cast kept changing due to call-ups from the AHL. A healthier Evgeni Malkin will make the Penguins even more dangerous offensively, especially now that there is a viable third scoring line consisting of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel. The offense begins from the stick of Kris Letang, and with Trevor Daley as another option, offense will once again be a strength. Defensively, the Penguins were just outside the top five, and the only loss there was Ben Lovejoy. However, depth should not be a problem. In goal is where things get interesting, as it has been Marc-Andre Fleury's crease for a while, but injuries opened the door for Matt Murray, who carried the mail there en route to the Cup. Now, the question is who to go with, as both are proven in key situations. The power play was only middle of the pack, but having a full season of Mike Sullivan behind the bench should help a little while the penalty kill will look to repeat their performance, as they finished fifth.

Prediction: 2nd in the Metropolitan Division

Much of the cast that was on the ice for the Stanley Cup presentation returns, and Sullivan will have a full season to further implement his system. The pressure of repeating will loom, but if there is a team that has the potential to do it, Pittsburgh is it.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Serving the Youth

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

2015-16 record: 41-27-14 (96 points)
Lost to Washington in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Claude Giroux

The Philadelphia Flyers were supposed to be a team in transition last year, as they were shedding dead-weight contracts left and right and were getting used to a head coach whose experience consisted of college. However, something happened along the way, and the youth that was supposed to have trouble learning the game for much of the season put it together enough to sneak into the playoffs and give the Presidents Trophy winning Washington Capitals all they could handle. This time around, expectations will be higher, but in a tough Metropolitan Division, they may be forced to scrap for a playoff spot once again.

Offensively, the struggles of getting used to coach Dave Hakstol's system were evident for much of the season. This was especially true of Jakub Voracek, who followed a career year with a rather dismal one, as he could only muster 11 goals. However, Brayden Schenn began to show signs of why the Flyers traded for him in 2011, as he finished only behind Wayne Simmonds, plus the emergence of Shayne Gostisbehere added an element from the blue line. Improvement across the board would be nice, especially from the secondary options. They Flyers drafted defensively the past few seasons, and now may be the time where some of those players begin to compete for spots. Gostisbehere is already there, and he may be joined by 2015 first round pick Ivan Provorov, who has nothing left to prove in the WHL. Of course, the veterans of the group provide solid, if unspectacular play. In goal, it almost seemed as though if one goalie got hurt, the other stepped up. That was the case for Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth, both of whom posted good save percentage numbers and split the load in the playoffs, though Neuvirth had the better showing there. Both special teams units fell from the previous season, though the power play proved to be in better shape than the penalty kill. Boyd Gordon comes over to help the penalty kill while a full season of Gostisbehere should improve the power play standing.

Prediction: 5th in the Metropolitan Division

The Flyers will be a better team, but by how much will be determined by just how well they navigate a tough Metropolitan Division. A wild card spot is more realistic than finishing third in the division, but they will be a tough out themselves.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sens-e of Urgency

OTTAWA SENATORS

2015-16 record: 38-35-9 (85 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Erik Karlsson

There was no furious finish to make the playoffs this time for the Ottawa Senators, and it was shortly after that disappointing result that the Senators decided to make wholesale changes. Bryan Murray stepped down from the General Manager position and Pierre Dorion is now running things. His first move was replacing Dave Cameron as head coach and coaxing Guy Boucher from Switzerland for a second try at the NHL coaching carousel. Dorion would also convince Marc Crawford to come in as an associate. To further emphasize the win now mode that owner Eugene Melnyk has, the Senators traded away Mika Zibanejad for Derick Brassard. The moves have been made, but will it get the Senators a playoff spot?

Offensively, the Sens ranked ninth, and a fair amount of that can be attributed to Erik Karlsson, who starts everything from his own end and led the team in scoring by 21 points. Some of those pucks from Karlsson's stick have to find forwards, and five different players scored more than 20 goals, though the Sens are still waiting on Bobby Ryan to fulfill his 30-goal potential he flashed while in Anaheim. Of course, having a healthy Kyle Turris and Clarke MacArthur wouldn't hurt, either, as both missed time to injuries, with MacArthur missing almost the entire season. Defensively, they were not good, and a large part of the problem was lack of depth on the blue line. When Karlsson is your leading defenseman, that carries as much good as it does bad, as he's not the greatest in his own end, but he does work well with his usual defense partner in Marc Methot. After those two plus Dion Phaneuf and Cody Ceci, things become worrisome, as the Sens don't have a regular fifth defender that can play most nights. In goal, Andrew Hammond was bound to fall off from the previous season, and he did, as he battled injuries and inconsistency. That opened the door for Craig Anderson to become starter once again, and he did fairly well despite the numbers. Things could have been worse for the Senators without the goaltending. Special teams was another problem, as they finished in the bottom fifth in both categories. Changes will have to come from within, though the penalty kill could benefit from the return of Chris Kelly.

Prediction: 7th in the Atlantic Division

The Senators have the offense to compete, but without a defense that can hold the fort better, any hopes of making the playoffs are remote. Whether the coaching changes will improve the team remains to be seen, though any success will still be on the shoulders on the goaltending.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Out of Time?

NEW YORK RANGERS

2015-16 record: 46-27-9 (101 points)
Lost to Pittsburgh in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Ryan McDonagh

Two consecutive seasons after reaching the Conference Finals, the New York Rangers took a couple of steps back. Yes, they made the playoffs, but they showed signs of wear and tear, and their defense that had long been known for locking things down suddenly looked mortal. The Rangers went into the bargain bin for free agents, and figure to be a little younger, thanks to a trade and a signing of the hottest college free agent of the off-season. As always, though, the Rangers are in win now mode, but is the window closed?

Despite having five players finish with more than 20 goals, thus their 7th place ranking offensively, not having a healthy Rick Nash hurt here, as he is still a difference maker even as he continues to drift further into his 30's. Trading for Mika Zibanejad cost them Derick Brassard, a difference of -6 goals, but the Rangers do get younger up front. The quest to get younger got a boost when Jimmy Vesey opted to sign with the Rangers as a college free agent, and along with Brady Skjei and Pavel Buchnevich, the Rangers could have an injection of youth to go along with the tested veterans. Defensively, Skjei would be a welcome addition to the team, as many of the blue liners had off-years. Even Ryan McDonagh, who led the team in the +/- category, didn't post his usual offensive numbers. The task gets even tougher, as Keith Yandle took his offensive output to Florida, leaving the rest of the unit to make up for the loss there. Is the Henrik Lundqvist that showed up in the first round loss to Pittsburgh a sign of things to come or an instance of an elite player having a bad spell at the wrong time? That is a question of whether the Rangers finally decide to give him a little more rest, as Antti Raanta more than showed that he could shoulder the load when necessary. The power play was middle of the pack, and this is where Yandle's contributions will be missed the most, as there is no immediate replacement. On the penalty kill, it was as bad as it could get, which explains why the Rangers picked up both Nathan Gerbe and Michael Grabner in free agency.

Prediction: 4th in the Metropolitan Division

The longer Summer for the Rangers should help in getting them back to deeper playoff runs. However, their defense must shore up, as they began to show cracks, and Lundqvist must show that his dismal playoff showing was not a sign that he is slowing down. Youth will be served one way or another, but the veterans will have to have bounce back seasons if they want to be Stanley Cup contenders again.

Monday, September 19, 2016

No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

2015-16 record: 45-27-10 (100 points)
Lost to Tampa Bay in Conference semi-finals
Captain: John Tavares

For the first time since 1993, the New York Islanders won a playoff series. However, that euphoria would be short lived, as they were thoroughly outclassed by Tampa Bay in the following round. Though there was considerable roster turnover when it came to the forwards, as well as the potential problem of having too many goalies that could start for other teams, the Islanders are actually positioned well for a deep playoff run. After all, the team does still center around John Tavares.

Tavares will have new linemates, as the right wing formerly occupied by Kyle Okposo is open, with one-time linemate P.A. Parenteau and Ryan Strome competing for that spot while Andrew Ladd should hopefully end the carousel at left wing. The key component to the Islanders' continued success will be the younger players such as Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Strome, as they all took a step back. Of course, they also lost Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin, which may very well open the door for Mathew Barzal if he has a strong training camp. Defensively, the top four spots are spoken for, and the only battle will be for the final two spots, as Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech are ready for the NHL. In goal is where things truly get interesting, as Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Greiss, and J.F. Berube all showed starter caliber goaltending. Halak was the starter to begin, but went down for the season in March, opening the door for Greiss, who led the Isles through the playoffs. Berube proved to be capable when pressed into action. The power play could be better, and it remains to be seen how Ladd and Parenteau will help improve that unit. As for the penalty kill, how much the loss of Okposo and Nielsen will impact the fourth ranked unit will be one to monitor.

Prediciton: 4th in the Atlantic Division

After Washington and Pittsburgh, the battle for the third spot in the Metropolitan is anyone's guess, and the Islanders are squarely in the middle of it. How they manage their losses from last season, as well as how quickly the new guys integrate into the system will determine whether they can move up in the league. Of course, getting production from whoever ultimately seizes the starting goaltending job will also help.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Heating Up

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

2015-16 record: 38-36-8 (84 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Andy Greene

The first season after longtime General Manager Lou Lamiorello stepped down from the role ended the same way it began: good goaltending, but needing offense. To that end, the Devils' attempts to be more of an up-tempo team took another step forward, as they traded for the franchise forward that they lacked since Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk left town. They still need to improve, but it's a step forward.

Despite getting 30 goal seasons from Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique, the only other players to notch double digit goals were Travis Zajac, Mike Cammalleri, and Devante Smith-Pelly, the last of the three actually split time between New Jersey and Montreal. With that in mind, the Devils pulled the trigger on a trade for Taylor Hall, who should benefit from not having to face the more physical Pacific Division teams for half the season. Obviously, he will have the burden of being the franchise forward the Devils have lacked since 2013, but he is also motivated. Scoring depth will still be an issue, which could also open the door for Pavel Zacha to make the jump to the NHL from the juniors. Despite losing Adam Larsson in the Hall trade, the Devils have good depth on the blue line when it come to their own end. However, that same group was complicit in the Devils' lack of offensive punch, as Damon Severson led all defenders with 21 points. Finding scoring there will be much harder. Goaltending has no such issue, as Cory Schneider has made the transition from Martin Brodeur fairly seamless. He's been the team's best player by far, and backup Keith Kinkaid is competent, but will need to rebound from a less than sterling season in which he posted just okay numbers and Scott Wedgewood waiting in the wings. Special teams were in the top ten each, and while Hall will only add to the power play while the penalty kill was up there, too.

Prediction: 7th in the Metropolitan Division

The Devils need more offense, especially from their blue liners, but getting Hall will answer the Devils' need for a focal point when the Devils have the puck. As always, defense and goaltending will continue to rule the day for the Devils, who need it until the offense comes around.