Thursday, September 18, 2014

Next Steps Forward

MONTREAL CANADIENS

2013-14 record: 46-28-8 (100 points)
Lost to NY Rangers in Conference Finals
Captain: TBA

Even after an improbable run to the Conference Finals, the Montreal Canadiens are changing the infrastructure of the core of the team.  The older leadership that was in place last year is gone save for Andrei Markov, and he will be joined by Tomas Plekanec, PK Subban, and Max Pacioretty as alternate captains, as they will be going that route for this season.  In all likelihood, this is a chance for the Canadiens to see how both Pacioretty and Subban handle the leadership responsibilities while having Markov and Plekanec provide a helping hand for both players.  As for on-ice production, it's not a surprise that both will be counted on to produce at the levels they're capable of, but it will be up to the supporting cast to provide the secondary goals, as the team was in the bottom third of the league on offense.  It would help if Alex Galchenyuk shows he's ready for the added ice time and if new acquisition P-A Parenteau does better than Daniel Briere did last season.

Subban and Markov will be the top pairing, though the unit was solid last season, there will be at least one rookie cracking the roster, whether it is Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, or Greg Pateryn.  Carey Price is backing those guys up, and he had a great year all around.  Had he not gotten hurt during the Conference Finals series, it is possible the Canadiens would have made the Stanley Cup Finals.  Dustin Tokarski proved that he could handle the pressure, playing well in Price's absence, but he will be competing with Peter Budaj for the backup role.

Prediction: 2nd in the Atlantic Division

Even with the change in on-ice leadership, the Canadiens still have the pieces in place to compete with the big boys in Boston and Pittsburgh.  However, offensive production is a must because Price and the defensive unit cannot bail out the team every night.

Time to Step Up

MINNESOTA WILD

2013-14 record: 43-27-12 (98 points)
Lost to Chicago in Conference semi-finals
Captain: Mikko Koivu

Year three of the Parise/Suter experiment will begin with the same expectations as the previous two had, which means a deep run in the playoffs or else.  A good start would be to make the playoffs with room to spare, as they've practically had to play to the last game in the regular season to get there.  The offense should be better than tied for 24th in the league, and while Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, and newly acquired Thomas Vanek will help, it is up to the young players such as Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, and Nino Niederrreiter to step up.  Defensively, they did well despite having a revolving door in goal due to injuries.  Ryan Suter is a minute-munching defenseman that sets the tone for the other blue liners, and it's possible that either Matthew Dumba or Christian Folin could be in the mix for a third pairing role.  The Wild had five players play a game in goal, beginning with Nicklas Backstrom and ending with Ilya Bryzgalov.  Health is something the Wild would like to have on their side, but Josh Harding is already injured, leaving Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper as the prohibitive duo that will be on the roster come opening night.

Prediction: 3rd in the Central Division

The Wild have the pieces to make a deep run.  However, an offense that plays less than what is on paper and a goaltending unit that hasn't had the best of luck in terms of health will likely make it another down the wire season for the Wild.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

WHL Preview

The WHL season kicks off Friday, and nearly half the teams will be entering the season with a new bench boss. The Edmonton Oil Kings raise the banners for both the Ed Chynoweth and the Memorial Cup championships on Saturday against the Kootenay Ice. The East Division is looking to get a team to the Finals for the first time since 2006, and the Brandon Wheat Kings are prohibitive favorites to claim the division. In the Central Division, the Oil Kings will feel the pressure from the Calgary Hitmen, who have depth in most places, though they will be without Jake Virtanen for a month or two while he recovers from off season surgery.

Kelowna is expected to contend in the BC Division while looking to end Portland's reign atop the Western Conference. Speaking of the Winterhawks, they will have a new bench boss in Jamie Kompon as they look to reach the Finals for the fifth straight season. The Seattle Thunderbirds look to dethrone the Winterhawks in the US Division.

Seeking Dynasty

LOS ANGELES KINGS

2013-14 record: 46-28-8 (100 points)
Won the Stanley Cup
Captain: Dustin Brown

The Los Angeles Kings just wouldn't stay down.  Down 3-0 in the opening round, they won four straight, and down 3-1 in the following round, they took the next three games.  In fact, had they not used their comeback magic to beat the Rangers in five games, they would have played the maximum number of games in the playoffs.  Their offense was nothing special in the playoffs, and it was up to their defense to carry the day.  When playoff time rolled around however, the Kings were able to turn it on at the right time every time, and the result was their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.  The task now is to become the first team to repeat as champions since Detroit turned the trick in 1997 and 1998.

Offensively, only two players cracked the 50 point barrier (Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter).  The 26th ranked offense in the league, it was the top ranked defense that put them into the playoffs, and though there were moments where the Kings were headed for a quick playoff exit, clutch scoring and a never-say-die attitude carried them through the playoffs.  Having Marian Gaborik and Tyler Toffoli for a whole season should improve the offense.  Only Willie Mitchell is not returning to a defense that was tops in the league, and there is no shortage of players that can take his place.  Jonathan Quick is the man in goal, and despite a slight dip in playoff numbers, he did well enough to lead them to another Cup.  Martin Jones showed that he can handle the backup duties, and will be counted on to spell Quick for 25-30 games.

Prediction: 2nd in the Pacific Division

It's fashionable to pick the Kings to repeat as the Stanley Cup champions.  However, the Chicago Blackhawks are in the same conference, and they are none too happy that the Kings took the Cup back from them.  There's also St. Louis, Anaheim, and Minnesota to deal with, but one should never count out the Kings.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Clawing Their Way Back

FLORIDA PANTHERS

2013-14 record: 29-45-8 (66 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

The Florida Panthers began the season with Kevin Dineen as head coach and Tim Thomas as their starter in goal.  They ended the season with Roberto Luongo as the starting goaltender and an interim coach getting canned.  Oh, and they finished only ahead of Buffalo in the standings.  Luongo returns as the starter, and he is going to have to stop a lot of pucks if the Panthers want to make the playoffs.  The defensive unit is decent, but only Edmonton prevented the Panthers from finishing last in GAA.  Of course, every goaltender not named Luongo or Tim Thomas had something to do with that, and with Luongo and even Al Montoya there, the defense should be improved.  Aaron Ekblad has the potential to be a star, but defensemen coming straight from the Draft rarely make a big impact right away.  That is why the Panthers brought in Willie Mitchell to add mentorship plus a winning pedigree to a unit that needs it.

Nick Bjugstad led the team with 38 points.  That's not a typo.  It gives you an idea of just how terrible the Panthers were in scoring.  A healthy Aleksander Barkov would help, and he was given some help in the form of Jussi Jokinen.  In addition, Dave Bolland, Derek MacKenzie, and Shawn Thornton were added to boost the team's bottom two lines while providing a toughness that the Panthers sorely lacked.  That should open a few more lanes for the offense.

Prediction: 5th in the Atlantic Division

To think that the Panthers could make the playoffs is outrageous on the surface.  However, Luongo's presence offers a peace of mind for the team, and that alone could boost the team morale.

Digging for Oil

EDMONTON OILERS

2013-14 record: 29-44-9 (67 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Andrew Ference

The Edmonton Oilers missed the playoffs...again.  Once again, it was the defense that let them down, ranking last in the league.  However, their offense wasn't exactly any help, as only four players scored north of the 50 point mark, and those four (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, David Perron, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) were also the only players to score more than 11 goals.  Part of the problem was that the Oilers were easy to push around, which was why the likes of Nikita Nikitin, Mark Fayne, Teddy Purcell, Keith Aulie, and Benoit Pouliot were brought in.  All are 6'3" and taller, which will at least add size to a team that has lacked grit and size for years.  They are still short in those categories, but the gap isn't nearly as wide as in previous seasons.  Offensively, a bounce-back season from Nail Yakupov would help, as would Leon Draisaitl...if he makes the team straight from the Draft.  The addition of the defensemen will at least provide the team with the idea that they actually have NHL caliber defensemen, something they could not claim for their starting six last season, as players such as Jeff Petry and Justin Schultz had to play more minutes than they needed to at times.  Goaltending is the biggest question mark, as the duo of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth have never gone into a season as the starter.  Someone has to emerge as the starter because it can't be any worse than the duo that started last season (Jason LaBarbera and Devan Dubnyk).

Prediction: 7th in the Pacific Division

The Oilers have been in rebuild mode since their last playoff appearance in 2006.  It's time for the fruits of that rebuild to show up, but there are far too many holes for them to be anywhere other than in the running for the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel sweepstakes.

Regaining Their Wings

DETROIT RED WINGS

2013-14 record: 39-28-15 (93 points)
Lost to Boston in the Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Henrik Zetterberg

Yes, the Detroit Red Wings made the playoffs, thus extending their streak of playoff appearances to 23, and yes, they did it despite losing 421 man games due to injury.  However, their less than sterling showing against Boston in the opening round raises quite a few questions.  Nothing in the way of significant additions were made, and it wasn't necessarily because of lack of effort.  In fact, they did attempt to go after a top-four defenseman, but their only move there was re-signing Kyle Quincey.  It's fair to ask whether Detroit is still a choice destination for free agents to be, particularly when both Ken Holland and Mike Babcock are in last year of their respective deals and the fate of either man is unknown past this season.  Staying healthy would be a great thing for the forwards, particularly Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsuyk, both of whom lost half a season each because of injuries.  While Datsyuk showed that he was over his injury come playoff time, Zetterberg will be figured out this season, as he managed to play just two of the team's five games.  Having both healthy and at the level they were playing at before the injuries would add to an offense that saw Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar emerge as future stars.  If Anthony Mantha cracks the lineup and plays like the goal-a-game player he was last season with Val D'Or of the QMJHL, the Red Wings will be formidable up front.

The blue line has a bunch of solid, if unspectacular players, but many of them are still second pairing players, at best, with only Niklas Kronwall being a proven top pairing player.  There isn't a second coming of Nicklas Lidstrom on the horizon, which was why the Red Wings were looking to upgrade this unit, to no avail.  Jimmy Howard missed a few games to injury, but he was also never great in net, which for a team like Detroit, is not enough.  He will have to play better than the 2.66 GAA he posted last season.

Prediction: 6th in the Atlantic Division

The Red Wings should be better just for the fact that they will be healthy.  However, there are many questions, mainly on the defensive and front office sides of the team.  Will the Wings play better than the sum of the defensive parts?  Will Howard bounce back from a bad season?  Will the contracts of the primary men in the front office and behind the bench be a distraction?