Saturday, September 23, 2017

Continuing the Celebration

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

2016-17 record: 40-27-15 (95 points)
Lost to Washington in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: TBA

Last season, the Toronto kicked off their centennial year with hope, and as they continue their celebration of 100 years in existence, hope is turning into expectation, and the window looks like it is just now opening. With a generational talent in Auston Matthews, several quality young players, and goaltending that keeps them in games, there is no reason to think that the pain that the Maple Leafs front office has been expecting will continue for much longer.

Sure, the fifth best offense begins with Matthews, but there are other players who made themselves known, as Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Connor Brown all made impact in their first season in the NHL. Meanwhile, Nazem Kadri established career highs in goals and points while James van Riemsdyk may be playing himself out of Toronto after this season not for his play, but for the fact that Toronto may not be able to afford him. That was why the Leafs hedged their bets that Patrick Marleau has at least three good years left in him. Defense is improving, but there were instances where the Leafs had to try to win 5-4 shootouts because the defense couldn't hold the fort long enough. Another year together plus the addition of Ron Hainsey and the return to health of Morgan Rielly can only help. In goal, Frederik Andersen showed cracks alongside the defense, but for the most part, he was everything the Leafs hoped they were getting and more. The power play reflected the team's offensive efforts and the penalty kill was surprisingly effective, although they will need to figure out a new shutdown tandem.

Prediction: 1st in the Atlantic Division

The Leafs tear down of a few years has already produced a playoff appearance and though they say they're still rebuilding, it's tough to keep that hand for as long as Matthews does his impersonation of Jonathan Toews, as he is a game changer and the rest of the team is likely to follow suit. The Leafs may have finally figured it out and championships are not too far off in the future.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Recharged

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

2016-17 record: 42-30-10 (94 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Steven Stamkos

The Tampa Bay Lightning were an exercise in frustration last season, as their high hopes of making a deep playoff run ended before they even had the chance to get out of the starting blocks. Injuries to both Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan, as well as slow starts by everyone not named Nikita Kucherov conspired to keep the Lightning from making the playoffs. This year, they're hoping to have everything line up once again and make the deep playoff run...one year later.

Not having Stamkos for much of the season meant that someone had to keep the Lightning's hopes afloat, and it turned out to be Nikita Kucherov. After him, however, the only other 20 goal scorer was Jonathan Drouin, and he was traded in the off-season. In many ways, it was a byproduct of the team's overall struggles for parts of the season, as both Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson missed a little time to injuries and were unable to find any consistency, Alex Killorn still remains inconsistent, and scoring depth suddenly became an issue. A return to health by Stamkos, who now faces questions of durability, as he has missed time to injuries in the last three seasons, would help. On the blue line, Victor Hedman was the player everyone expected him to be and then some, as he pitched in with 56 assists, putting him just behind Kucherov for the team's scoring lead. Anton Stralman remains Hedman's reliable sidekick, but after that, questions arise. Mikhail Sergachev is in line for a spot on the team if he proves to be too good for major junior, but for the most part, figuring out the chemistry with the pairings amongst Dan Girardi, Braydon Coburn, Jake Dotchin, Andrej Sustr, and Slater Koekkoek will be important. In goal, it's Andrei Vasilevskiy's crease now, as long time starter Ben Bishop was sent out at the trade deadline. The goaltending last year was merely average, and now that there is a clear cut number one goaltender, there should be more stability. Peter Budaj, who came the other way in the Bishop trade, figures to be the backup. Special teams ranked in the top half, with the power play seeing major improvement from the previous season while the penalty kill looks to rebound from its slight decline.

Prediction: 2nd in the Atlantic Division

Health and consistency were all that stood in the way of Tampa Bay and a chance at making a deep run in the playoffs. This year, they're banking on both things being set right; however, the stakes aren't just confined to playoffs, as the seats of the coaching staff could be warmer if such problems persist.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Taking One Last Bite?

SAN JOSE SHARKS

2016-17 record: 46-29-7 (99 points)
Lost to Edmonton in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Joe Pavelski

A year after making the Stanley Cup Finals, the San Jose Sharks discovered that the Stanley Cup hangover was a reality, as they were given the run around by Edmonton in the opening round. Now, the Sharks are facing a crossroads, as for the first time since 1997, they will be without Patrick Marleau. They will also be another year older, and with few solutions in the pipeline that are ready for primetime.

Marleau was the main player that left the Sharks, and he took 25 plus goals with him to Toronto. It will be up to the likes of underachieving Joonas Donskoi, Chirs Tierney, and Mikkel Boedker to get their offense up and running. Joe Pavelski is still productive, as is Joe Thornton, but both are on the wrong side of 30. Defensively, they're still very good, as Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are signed to long term deals, and both should provide at least five good seasons each. Third pairing players are a question, but they have good depth here and should be fine. In goal, Martin Jones is proving by the day why he was given an extension, though Aaron Dell is likely to see more time, as he proved to be a solid backup. Special teams will need work, as both were in the bottom half of the league.

Prediction: 3rd in the Pacific Division

The Sharks still have the talent to make the playoffs, but the window is rapidly closing, and it bears watching the job security of Pete DeBoer, as they took a step back from their Stanley Cup Final run.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Singing a Different Tune

ST. LOUIS BLUES

2016-17 record: 46-29-7 (99 points)
Lost to Nashville in Conference semi-finals
Captain: Alex Pietrangelo

By the All-Star Break, the St. Louis Blues were underachievers who expedited the succession plan and put Mike Yeo in as head coach in February, replacing Ken Hitchcock. By the time the season ended, the Blues were in the playoffs and even handled themselves fairly well, advancing past Minnesota in the opening round. The task at hand for this season will be for Yeo to prove that he was the right choice to succeed Hitchcock.

The Blues have largely gone away from their bruising style of past seasons, watching both Troy Brouwer and David Backes walk prior to last season, and now, trading Ryan Reaves. The good news was that the Blues finished in the top half on offense. However, other than Vladimir Tarasenko, there was very little consistency. That was why Brayden Schenn was brought in, and he will provide more capable scoring in the middle. The defense was better after the Kevin Shattenkirk trade, and this unit figures to be better. Depth may be an issue, however, as Jay Bouwmeester is expected to miss time to start the season, so it may be sink or swim time for this unit. The Jake Allen that started the season wasn't very good, but like everyone else, the coaching change helped improve his game, and now there is no question that he is the starter that the Blues were hoping for when they traded Brian Elliott prior to last season. The special teams were great in the regular season, but they will need to figure out where it went wrong with the power play in the playoffs.

Prediction: 2nd in the Central Division

The Blues didn't do very much in the way of moves, but it is clear that they are trying to adapt to what the rest of the division is wanting to do. Whether or not they have enough to put in a deep run remains a question.

Monday, September 18, 2017

March of the Penguins

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

2016-17 record: 50-21-11 (111 points)
Won the Stanley Cup
Captain: Sidney Crosby

Just when you thought it was safe to count out the Pittsburgh Penguins last season, they decided to rise from near death to not only make a great first impression, but also come off the mat three times en route to becoming the first team since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. This time around, there are a few notable changes, but the one constant is that the key players remain.

The mark of a great player is that he makes his teammates better, no matter who they are or their skill level. Exhibit A: Sidney Crosby and his linemates in Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. Bear in mind that Guentzel finished his first year as a pro after a few years of college and Rust is more of a role player. The same can be said for Evgeni Malkin, whose primary linemates were Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary. The lone question mark is who centers Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, as Nick Bonino left for Nashville after the season. Defensively, the Penguins were average, and that was BEFORE Kris Letang went down to injury prior to the start of the playoffs. No matter, as Justin Schultz stepped up in a big way to lead the unit. Letang returns, and the unit as a whole is full of solid, if unspectacular types. In goal, they couldn't hold back Matt Murray for much longer, and though it was a team effort in the playoffs, as Marc-Andre Fleury and Murray had the starting job in the playoffs at varying times, the torch has officially passed to Murray. Antti Niemi will be expected to fill in every once in a while and hopefully not mess things up too badly. The power play was good enough to finish third in the league, but had its moments of lapses while the penalty kill has room to improve.

Prediction: 1st in the Metropolitan Division

The only things that could derail the Penguins' hopes of three-peating are injuries and the short rest from the past two seasons. Crosby and Co. aren't exactly over the hill yet, so the window to win more championships is still wide open.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Uphill Flight

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

2016-17 record: 39-33-10 (88 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Claude Giroux

The Philadelphia Flyers are team that is seemingly stuck in the rut of mediocrity. Not bad enough to be dead last (yet somehow still managed to pick second overall in this year's draft), but not good enough to be playoff contenders. Yes, it's that weird middle ground that the Flyers will continue to occupy until something major happens. Until then, it's anyone's guess where the Flyers will be when it comes to the playoffs.

For all the talent up front, the Flyers still finished in the bottom third of the league offensively. It's not good when three of the four leading scorers were the only ones to score above 15 goals. It gets more complicated, as one of them, Brayden Schenn, was traded in the off-season. The good news was that Nolan Patrick was the prize for landing the second overall pick in the draft, and he may very well land a spot on the second line. The bad news is that not much else was done up front other than swapping Schenn for Jori Lehtera. Defensively, the team was merely okay, although there is a good chance that the Flyers could see one or two rookies make their debuts. Ivan Provorov leads the way, and any of Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg, Samuel Morin, and/or Philippe Myers could join him alongside veterans Shayne Gostisbehere, Radko Gudas, and Brandon Manning. In goal, the Steve Mason/Michal Neuvirth experiment didn't work, so now they are planning to pair Neuvirth with Brian Elliott, who himself is coming off an average season in Calgary. It may just be a matter of time before Anthony Stolarz stays with the Flyers for good, as he's been knocking at the door for a couple of years now. The special teams were a reflection of the team's inability to be anything besides average, as the power play was middle of the pack and the penalty kill was bottom third of the league.

Prediction: 6th in the Metropolitan Division

The Flyers may do just enough to make things interesting in a crowded Metropolitan Division, but until something dramatic happens, there is no denying that they are going to be nothing more than just your average NHL team.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Keeping The Course

OTTAWA SENATORS

2016-17 record: 44-28-10 (98 points)
Lost to Pittsburgh in Conference Finals
Captain: Erik Karlsson

The Ottawa Senators in recent seasons have been a hard team to figure out. One year, they're playoff contenders, and the next, they're in the hunt for the first overall pick. So it goes for a team that wants to gain consistency when it comes to making the playoffs. One thing is for certain, the Senators will be a team to watch.

For a team that features Erik Karlsson, the Senators didn't do all that great offensively. Yes, they have the firepower in Kyle Turris, Mark Stone, and Mike Hoffman, but the drop-off was fairly precipitous. The good news was that Bobby Ryan, who has largely struggled in his time in Ottawa, may have finally turned that corner in the playoffs and will look to continue to build on that momentum. It also helped that Clarke MacArthur was finally healthy after missing nearly two seasons to concussions. On the defensive side, the only uncertainty here is who gets paired with Karlsson, as Marc Methot was claimed in the expansion draft, then traded to Dallas. Coach Guy Boucher's system was instrumental in the team's top third finish on defense, and as long as Karlsson buys into it, so will the rest of the team. In goal, Craig Anderson is still the guy in goal, and certainly, his resolve with the off-ice issues helped galvanize the team. He's still got life in him, but now for the first time in a while, there is a future after him, as Mike Condon played well when Anderson tended to his wife. Special teams must improve, as both finished in the bottom third.

Prediction: 4th in the Atlantic Division

What we've known about the Senators and Guy Boucher is that both can provide spetacular flourishes when no one's looking. However, when all eyes are on them, it's often unpredictable as to what will happen. One way or another, the Senators are going to make things interesting.