Monday, September 30, 2013

Preparing for Take-Off

WINNIPEG JETS

2012-13 record: 24-21-3 (51 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Andrew Ladd

The Winnipeg Jets continue to preach patience, even in the face of a playoff drought that dates back to 2008, when the franchise was based in Atlanta.  This season figures to be the same, though this time, their top two prospects appear to be ready to join the team.  Offensively, the line of Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd, and Blake Wheeler accounted for much of the team's production, with only Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien being the others to go over the 20 point mark.  Devin Setoguchi was brought in to be on a line with Kane, and they could see 2011 first round pick Mark Schiefele as their center.  He would be a welcome improvement over Olli Jokinen, who hasn't produced since his Florida days.  The bottom two lines will be mostly role players, with Michael Frolik having a prominent role in that area.  The blue line is full of potential, but it must do better than tied for 24th on defense.  Zach Bogosian's time to become a number one defenseman is now, Byfuglien needs to continue to be better in his own end, and Tobias Enstrom actually just needs to stay healthy.  An important player to watch here is Jacob Trouba, who is likely to make the jump to the NHL after just one year in Michigan.  Goaltending was a sore spot last season, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future.  Ondrej Pavelec can be great at times, but he also gives up an alarming amount of goals at times, as well.  His backup Al Montoya isn't much better.

Prospects:  Schiefele and Trouba are as close to a shoo-in as you can get as far as prospects that can make the NHL roster.  The one other player that could make the jump is Zach Redmond, who can still make the roster provided that he's completely healed from a leg cut during his rookie year.  Because goaltending depth isn't very good, it appears imminent that Edward Pasquale's time could be coming soon.  Whether or not Pavelec should be sweating over his job remains to be seen.

Prediction: 6th in the Central Division

The Jets will finally have a travel friendly schedule with the new alignment.  However, their new rivals won't be as forgiving, as they have to play against Chicago, St. Louis, and Minnesota at least six times a year, and with a shaky defense and special teams that need lots of help, expecting the Jets to break the playoff drought will be unrealistic at this point.

The SKA Report: Taking Moscow

SKA's week began with a road game in Croatia against Medvescak, and unlike the home opener, the result was a little different.  The first period opened with Ilya Kovalchuk scoring to give SKA the lead, but Mathieu Carle tied the game.  Ryan Vesce gave Medvescak the lead with a goal in the second period and Matt Murley upped the lead to two to open the third period.  Late goals by Roman Cervenka and Kovalchuk forced the game into overtime, giving SKA at least a point in the standings.  However, they would not get any more, as Vesce had the deciding goal in the shootout to hang a loss on Alexander Salak.  Friday saw SKA travel to Moscow and their bitter rivals Dynamo Moscow, who have knocked out SKA in each of the last two playoff meetings.  Evgeny Skachkov and Maxim Chudinov put SKA up 2-0 before Leo Komarov pulled Dynamo within one to close the period.  Komarov would tie the game in the second period before SKA took over in the third period.  Artemy Panarin would score back-to-back goals, and Anton Malyshev and Patrick Thoresen would add on to give SKA and Salak a 6-2 victory in Moscow.  Sunday, SKA stayed in the Moscow region to take on Vityaz.  A scoreless first period gave way to both teams exchanging goals, Tony Martensson for SKA and Anton Korolyov for Vityaz.  Yury Koshkarov would open the third period with a goal for Vityaz, but Kovalchuk's goal halfway through the period would force overtime.  Nothing was settled there, so a shootout was needed, where Kovalchuk scored the winner, putting SKA over the top 3-2 and made a winner of Ilya Ezhov.

SKA travels east to Nizhny Novgorod to face Torpedo and will conclude the week on Thursday with a tilt in Kazan against Ak Bars.  Roman Cervenka is tied for the league lead in points and Kovalchuk is tied for second in the league in goals, with Viktor Tikhonov one spot behind.  Salak is third in GAA.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Winterhawks Weekly: Two-Faced

The Winterhawks were home for both games, and both games were wild, though not always for the right reasons.  The Winterhawks opened the week with a 6-2 loss against Tri-City, in which Brian Williams notched a hat trick and Brendan Burke was chased after the second period.  Alex Schoenborn and Taylor Leier scored for the Winterhawks.  Saturday's tilt against Seattle bore better results, as they paid the Thunderbirds back and then some for the previous game in a 10-4 laugher.  Oliver Bjorkstrand scored four goals and Burke rebounded for the win.

The Winterhawks play Wednesday against Spokane before hitting the road for back-to-back games at Kelowna.  The defense is young and they will make their share of mistakes.  However, Burke hasn't been at the top of his game to this point, but given time, he will be better and the Winterhawks can score in bunches at almost any time.  However, Spokane and Kelowna provide stiff tests, with Spokane scoring at a ridiculous rate and Kelowna a favorite to walk away with their second straight B.C. Division crown.

A Familiar Refrain

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

2012-13 record: 27-18-3 (57 points)
Lost to NY Rangers in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Alexander Ovechkin

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Washington Capitals ride Alexander Ovechkin's MVP year into the playoffs, only to get eliminated in the opening round.  No, this isn't a repeat of seasons past, though you can easily mistake last season for every other year.  The new divisional realignment won't do the Capitals any favors, or will the fact that the Caps decided to remain pat for much of the off-season.  Ovechkin returns, as will Nicklas Backstrom, who looked better than in recent times thanks to being healthy for an entire season.  However, the second leading scorer will not return, as Mike Ribeiro left for desert.  The next leading scorer after those three was Troy Brouwer, a full 15 points behind Backstrom, but a healthy 19 goals accounting for much of his production.  He should benefit from the arrival of Mikhail Grabovski, who had an off year in Toronto and was bought out.  A new start should help him regain some of those numbers, particularly if he plays like a top two center.  Mike Green still had health issues, but also still managed to lead all defensemen in goals.  If healthy, he will provide a spark once again from the blue line.  After Green, only Karl Alzner and John Carlson are guaranteed spots on the blue line.  The rest of the group is as much of a question mark as anything the Caps have done (or not done) in recent years.  Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth are back in goal, and while neither has really seized the starting role, Holtby has done enough to gain the edge in that category thanks to his effort down the stretch.

Prospects:  Only Tom Wilson appears to be ready to immediately contribute to a Caps' squad that needs all the help they can get.  He provides muscle and in time, should make Caps' fans forget about Matt Hendricks, who left for Nashville.  Evgeny Kuznetsov has a year left in the KHL, but an injury may set things back a little.  Defensive depth is an issue, and there's no player than can step in right away.  The closest player they have is Connor Carrick, who is most likely remaining in Plymouth this season.  Patrick Wey will need a year in the AHL before he's considered ready, and Madison Bowey is still a project that needs time in Kelowna.

Prediction: 5th in the Metropolitan Division

The Capitals finally have the Ovechkin that can take over games, but the lack of defensive depth and an ongoing goaltending battle may do more to derail Washington's hopes for another playoff berth.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

An Explosion Waiting to Happen

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

2012-13 record: 26-15-7 (59 points)
Lost to San Jose in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Henrik Sedin

Since 2011, the Vancouver Canucks have not played like a team that can dominate on a nightly basis.  That has led to consecutive one and dones the last two seasons, and now, they will be feeling the heat, as John Tortorella is now behind the bench.  That's only the beginning, as the Canucks finally moved a goaltender, only it wasn't Roberto Luongo, as he somehow remains on the team and will be starting again.  Cory Schneider was moved in exchange for the 9th overall pick in this past June's draft, and Luongo's mental state will be watched closely.  The blue line remains the same minus Keith Ballard, who was bought out.  That could open the door for Frank Corrado to claim the sixth spot on the blue line.  On paper, the offense should be great, but a disappointing tie for 19th was one of the reasons the Canucks were swept by San Jose.  Center depth is still an issue, and it remains to be seen if Bo Horvat remains with the team for the season.  One player that definitely needs to pick up the slack is Zack Kassian, who was brought in to be the Canucks' version of Milan Lucic, but has not lived up to that expectation.  Health will go a long way in solving the Canucks' recent woes, as Ryan Kesler, David Booth, and Kevin Bieksa all missed time last season.

Prospects:  Horvat will start the season in Vancouver, but will likely get sent back to London before the 10 game trial is up.  He provides intangibles and was a big reason London got to the Memorial Cup last season.  However, he was the player picked with the ninth overall selection, the one the Canucks traded Schneider for, so Canucks fans may be holding him to higher expectations.  Eddie Lack will be the backup to Luongo, and his issue will be how well he recovers from a hip injury that cost him much of last season.  Corrado appears to be ready for a spot on the Canucks, and given that his only competition is Yannick Weber, it means he may be there sooner rather than later, if not now.  Nicklas Jensen will start in Utica, but expect him to be on the Canucks sometime this season.

Prediction: 4th in the Pacific Division

The Canucks' philosophy changed with Tortorella coming in to coach the team.  Storylines are abound, but with a far tougher division to deal with, the margin for error is reduced, and that could spell trouble for Vancouver.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Looking for Answers

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

2012-13 record: 26-17-5 (57 points)
Lost to Boston in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Dion Phaneuf

The last team to make the playoffs since the 2004 lockout, things were looking up for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round.  Unfortunately, the game isn't 50 minutes, and that was a problem, as the Boston Bruins erased a 4-1 deficit with 10 minutes to go in game seven and would eventually win in overtime.  The Maple Leafs are not one to rest on their laurels, as they kept the drama going, trading for Jonathan Bernier and Dave Bolland, and signing David Clarkson to a new deal.  This all happened while they waited until earlier this month to re-sign Nazem Kadri and yesterday to sign Cody Franson to a new deal.  Bernier is not guaranteed a starting job, as he will be battling incumbent James Reimer for that role, Bolland will figure to be a third line center, and Clarkson will miss the first 10 games of the season for leaving the bench during a brawl in the pre-season.  Mason Raymond was also signed, and he will provide speed on the wings.  As for the players still here, Phil Kessel will still score, James van Riemsdyk is becoming the power forward he was projected to be, and Tyler Bozak will once again feed Kessel.  What will be of interest is how Kadri can build upon his breakthrough year and avoid a slump like late in the season.  Defensively, there wasn't much of a change.  Dion Phaneuf still leads the team, but Franson was the leading scorer (29 to Phaneuf's 28), and the rest of the cast is only there, with Jake Gardiner possibly getting an expanded role.  Jay McClement will fall to the fourth line role, but his value is in penalty killing, which explains why the Leafs ranked second in that category.

Prospects:  It's now or never for Joe Colborne, who has yet to develop into the center that the Leafs traded for in 2011.  Morgan Rielly is the prospect that figures to have the best shot at making the team, as he has little left to prove in Moose Jaw and the Leafs have a need on the blue line.  However, if the Leafs aren't comfortable having him on the team for a full season, he could be back in Moose Jaw.

Prediction: 5th in the Atlantic Division

The Maple Leafs made the playoffs for the first time since 2004.  However, making it back-to-back will be harder, given the new playoff configuration and the team's ever-present question mark in goal.  Defensively, the Leafs will have to prove that the game seven meltdown against Boston was an anomaly, and it will be up to Phaneuf to show why he was handed the C.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Stormy Times Ahead

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

2012-13 record: 18-26-4 (40 points)
Missed the playoffs.
Captain: TBA

The Tampa Bay Lightning were the third ranked offense in the league, with 3.06 goals per game, and have the two highest scoring players over the last three years (stick tap to Teebz at Hockey Blog in Canada), yet missed the playoffs last season.  So, what went wrong?  Well, when those same two players account (Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, in case you're wondering) for almost a third of the team's goals and the third highest scorer on the team (Teddy Purcell) finished 21 points behind the second leading scorer (Stamkos), that could be a problem.  Throw in a defense that was just plain dreadful and a goaltending situation that has been toxic for years, and you can get why the Lightning missed the playoffs.  Things don't figure to get any easier, as Vincent Lecavalier was bought out and taking his spot as the second line center is Valtteri Filppula, who himself had a bad season, finishing with 17 points, which would have put him in a tie for ninth on the team.  On the plus side, the Lightning do bring in Jonathan Drouin, who had a dynamic year for Halifax last year, and certainly, he has a chance to produce, only this time, it will be Stamkos instead of Nathan MacKinnon and St. Louis instead of Martin Frk as possible linemates.  Defensively, the Lightning return most of the same cast that gave up an alarming 3.06 GAA, and while the goaltending did them no favors, the blue line still bears the share of the blame.  One player that needs to have a big year is Victor Hedman, who has been alright, but hardly the player that merited a second overall selection in 2009.  Anders Lindback was the starting goaltender for the Lightning to begin last season.  However, he was not ready for the job, and backup Mathieu Garon fared no better.  Ben Bishop was brought in mid-season, and he will battle Lindback for the starting job this year.  Both did well at their previous stops (Lindback in Nashville and Bishop in Ottawa), but neither have sustained that success when handed the starting job to this point.

Prospects: Drouin is a near lock to make the roster on a line with both Stamkos and St. Louis.  His offensive production will be welcome on a team that has plenty, but wanting to be more than just a two man team.  Mark Barberio could join the team midway through the season, and like last year's revelation Radko Gudas, he could provide a capable body, only this time, as a puck mover.  Brett Connolly is technically not a rookie, as he played the bulk of the 2011-12 season in the NHL, but time in the AHL last year helped him out and he should be ready to contribute in the NHL this season.

Prediction: 6th in the Atlantic Division

The Lightning have the offense to win a Stanley Cup, but the defense is needing serious improvements.  Having either Bishop or Lindback seize the starting job in goal would go a long way in that regard, but until then, the Lightning will have to rely on Stamkos, St. Louis, and possibly Drouin to carry the team.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Last Chance for a Bite?

SAN JOSE SHARKS

2012-13 record: 25-16-7 (57 points)
Lost to Los Angeles in Conference Finals
Captain: Joe Thornton

Last year, the San Jose Sharks were flirting with disaster as they were on the verge of missing the playoffs.  Trading away Ryane Clowe and Michal Handzus for draft picks and picking up the mercurial Raffi Torres did little to put out the fire.  Then, the playoffs came, and the Sharks swept Vancouver in the opening round and were a win away from the Conference Finals.  Little has changed, but the window to win it all is closing fast.  The greybeards of the team (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle) are all entering the final year of their respective contracts, and the blue line could use another offensive stalwart.  The good news is that all three still have a couple of good years left, and the likes of Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Brent Burns are all expected to lead the next generation of Sharks.  Torres returns, which ought to make things interesting, especially if he is on his best behavior, as he provided the team with positive returns when he was on the ice.  The bottom two lines could use some help, but having Tyler Kennedy in the fold should help, as should Pavelski being on the third line.  Of course, it will be up to Thornton and Marleau to finally find that second gear if they want to do more than just make the playoffs.  For all of the offensive troubles, the defense was actually quite good.  There is no one superstar, as all three pairings are capable of playing well and rarely get caught out of position.  They are backed by Antti Niemi, who finally put together a superstar season in which he netted a Vezina Trophy finalist nod.  Defense will figure to be strong once again.

Prospects:  Eventually, the Sharks will need to fit in some rookies, and the player with the best shot is Tomas Hertl.  He played very well in the Czech League and could find himself on the top two lines this season.  Nick Petrecki could also see some time in San Jose, as well, but given the depth on the blue line, that may wait until in-season.  Beyond that, the Sharks won't likely rush anyone to the big club this season.

Prediction: 3rd in the Pacific Division

The Sharks return much of the same lineup that was in the playoffs last season.  However, they need to find offense, and fast.  Thornton and Marleau aren't getting any younger, and neither guy has even reached a Stanley Cup Final.  Motivation should be there, but will the offense?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Time to Hit the High Notes

ST. LOUIS BLUES

2012-13 record: 29-17-2 (60 points)
Lost to Los Angeles in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: David Backes

With higher expectations than in 2011-12, the St. Louis Blues fell a little short of them, struggling for a part of the season before making it to the playoffs.  However, they ran into a familiar problem in the playoffs: the Los Angeles Kings.  The offense dried up, and Los Angeles would end the Blues' season.  This year, expectations are even higher, and on paper, the Blues are a team that can dethrone the Chicago Blackhawks.  For that to happen in real life though, a lot of things need to happen.  First, the goaltending needs to be consistent, as neither Brian Elliott nor Jaroslav Halak were any good in the beginning.  While Halak was fighting injuries, Elliott would eventually find his game and Jake Allen would help save the day for the Blues.  Goaltending figures to be a strength once again, but can any or all remain at the top of their respective games?   Defensively, they had their issues, but the mid-season acquisitions of Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold solidified the unit.  Now with Ryan Whitney competing for time, the Blues are seven strong and will likely roll out at least two pairings throughout the season (Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, Leopold and Kevin Shattenkirk) with a third consisting any among Whitney, Roman Polak and Barrett Jackman.  The offense should be better than it is (they were 17th in goals per game), and the hope here is that Derek Roy will facilitate the wingers.  The problem here is that there isn't one consistent player that can be counted on for offense, though Chris Stewart did amass 18 goals in the regular season.  Roy will be looking for a good year, something he hasn't had since the 2009-10 season, when he last amassed over 40 assists in a season.  The wild-card is Magnus Paajarvi, who came over in the trade that sent David Perron to the Oilers.  Paajarvi has yet to find his game, and the Blues hope he can unlock his potential.

Prospects: With all of the roster spots spoken for (that includes Brenden Morrow and Ryan Whitney), there just simply isn't any room for any rookies to crack the roster.  Allen is technically not a rookie, but he is ready in the event either Elliott or Halak go down.  Dmitrij Jaskin and Ty Rattie are the most likely players to see time with the big club during the season.

Prediction: 2nd in the Central Division

The Blues have the pieces to win it all.  However, consistency is the one thing the Blues lack, and it has come back to bite them in consecutive playoff exits at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings.

Winterhawks Weekly: Raising Banners and Such

The Portland Winterhawks' 2013-14 season began with a home game against Prince George on Friday and there were many banners to be raised, including one for WHL Scholastic Team of the Year, the Scotty Munro Trophy, U.S. Division Champions, Western Conference Champions, and of course, the WHL Champions banner.  No official captain has been named yet, and the Winterhawks were without Brendan Leipsic and Derrick Pouliot, who were still with their respective NHL clubs at training camp at the time.  Presten Kopeck scored for the Winterhawks and Klarc Wilson evened things for Prince George in the first period.  The second period was all Winterhawks, as Nic Petan, Layne Viveiros, Kopeck, Chase De Leo, and Oliver Bjorkstrand all scored in the period.  The third period saw the Winterhawks score three times on a five minute power play, as De Leo, Garrett Harr, and Anton Cederholm scored.  Brad Morrison would add a goal to make it a 9-2 final in favor of the Winterhawks.  Brendan Burke picked up the win with 29 saves on 31 shots.

The Saturday game at Seattle wasn't nearly as kind, as the Winterhawks would fall 4-3 in a shootout, picking up a point in the standings.  Roberts Lipsbergs (2 goals) and Jerret Smith scored in regulation for Seattle and Ethan Price, De Leo, and Bjorkstrand scored for the Winterhawks.  Burke took the loss despite a good effort.

The Winterhawks return home for games on Tuesday against Tri-City and Saturday against Seattle.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Cup or Bust

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

2012-13 record: 36-12-0 (72 points)
Lost to Boston in Conference Finals
Captain: Sidney Crosby

Everything was on a plate waiting for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals.  From deadline deals for Jarome Iginla, Douglas Murray, and Brenden Morrow to presumably the two best players in the game today (emphasis on the word PRESUMABLY) in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  A funny thing happened en route to that Final, as the Penguins were nearly undone by their goaltending and were ultimately derailed thanks to the Boston Bruins.  This year, the expectations are the same, and so is most of the cast.  While all three acquisitions at the trade deadline have moved on (Morrow to St. Louis, Murray to Montreal, and Iginla to Boston), the Penguins will be without an agitator in Matt Cooke and welcome back an old, reliable hand in Rob Scuderi.  The core of the team still centers around Crosby and Malkin, but the Crosby injury watch is always on and Malkin is coming off a mediocre season in which he only scored 33 points in 31 games.  The wings on either side of both players will get their chances, as Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis will score with Crosby while James Neal and possibly Beau Bennett will get their chances with Malkin.  The bottom two lines will be a work in progress, with role players filling those spots.  Defensively, there will come a time when the overstocking of defensive prospects will bear fruit.  Until then, that responsibility falls to the likes of Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, and Scuderi.  Goaltending is the biggest question, as Marc-Andre Fleury melted down in the playoffs again.  This time, backup Tomas Vokoun came in to save the day, as the Penguins narrowly avoided an embarrassing playoff series loss to the New York Islanders.  Without Vokoun, who is sitting out for an indeterminate amount of time while he recovers from surgery to remove a blood clot, all eyes will be on Fleury, as he looks to remain the face in goal.

Prospects: With all of the spots spoken for, there isn't likely to be any room for any rookies to start the season.  That means the likes of Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington, and Brian Dumolin will all start either in the minors or in junior.  It is not out of the question that any of the four could get a call for a cup of coffee with the Pens during the season.  Tristan Jarry is years away, but his drafting by the Pens sends a message to Fleury that if he doesn't find consistency soon, the Pens will have his replacement on hand.

Prediction: 1st in the Metropolitan Division

The Penguins are expected to win the division again.  However, the real fun won't be until the playoffs, when we will find out for sure if Fleury can be the player he was in 2009 and not the one that couldn't stop the Flyers or the Islanders in the last two playoff seasons.

The SKA Report: 3 out of 4 Recommend it

SKA returned home to start a four game home stand on Monday.  They started off the week with a 3-0 win against Medvescak in which they played without Ilya Kovalchuk and Kevin Dallman.  Dmitry Kalinin scored twice and Roman Cervenka added a goal to help Alexander Salak earn the first shutout of the season.  Wednesday was a game against Dinamo Minsk, and they were still without Kovalchuk and Dallman (Dallman would miss all four games this week).  This time, they were also without Kalinin for the game, but none of those would matter, as they took home a 5-1 win, thanks to goals by Andrei Kuteikin, Vadim Shipachyov, Viktor Tikhonov, Evgeny Skachkov, and Evgeny Ketov.  Ilya Ezhov earned the win in this game, allowing only a Geoff Platt goal.  In a battle of two hot goaltenders on Friday, it was Salak who earned the upper hand on Jeff Glass, as Glass would be chased out in the second period as SKA beat Spartak 4-1.  Spartak opened the scoring on the strength of an Alexei Krutov goal in the first period.  However, it was all SKA in the second period, as Maxim Chudinov and Tony Martensson would score, but it was Kovalchuk making an impact in his return, scoring two goals, the last one chasing Glass from the game.  The Sunday game against Donbass would not turn out so well, as Donbass would jump out to a 3-0 lead by the midway point of the game, with Maxim Yakutsenya scoring twice and Randy Robitaille adding a goal for the Ukranian squad.  Patrick Thoresen would pull SKA within one, as he scored both goals.  However, an empty net goal by Evgeny Dadonov would seal the deal for Donbass and hand SKA their first defeat of the season.  Ezhov was in net for the loss.

SKA hits the road this week, as they play on Tuesday at Medvescak, Friday at Dynamo Moscow, and Sunday at Vityaz.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Stability at Last

PHOENIX COYOTES

2012-13 record: 21-18-9 (51 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Shane Doan

The Phoenix Coyotes' financial troubles finally caught up to them, as they missed the playoffs last season after making it the previous three years.  However, the Coyotes received good news this off-season, as ownership was finally settled days after it was announced that the Coyotes would be staying in Arizona for the foreseeable future.  This bit of news is good for a Coyotes team that has operated on egg shells for much of the last ten years and in turn, may finally lead to sustained success.  First, though, the Coyotes need scoring, and that responsibility will now fall on Mike Ribeiro, who was the first significant signing by the new ownership.  His 49 points last season would have bested the Coyotes' leading scorer last season (Keith Yandle) by 19, and given the recent struggles of the Coyotes to score, it will be up to the likes of Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson to lead the way from the blue line once again.  It will help that Radim Vrbata is healthy, as he missed time due to injury and that the Coyotes finally have something resembling a top-tier talent in Ribeiro.  Defensively, the team had an off-year, but they remain a fairly deep group that has both Brandon Gormley and David Rundblad waiting to join the team.  Mike Smith will look to rebound after an off-year, and with a new contract and injury issues from last year behind him, he should thrive once again in the defensive-oriented system.

Prospects:  Gormley and Rundblad are the most likely players to start the season with the team.  However, on a team with the depth the Coyotes have at the blue line, either or both could be forced to wait until in-season before their respective promotions.  Offense remains an issue, but there isn't a player truly ready to take the leap, as both Max Domi and Henrik Samuelsson are still at least a year away.

Prediction: 5th in the Pacific Division

The Coyotes now have something they didn't have for years: stability in the organization.  However, offense remains an issue, and it will be up to the defense to once again, carry the day.  They've done it this way before, so a playoff shot isn't out of the question.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Bullying or Bullied?

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

2012-13 record: 23-22-3 (49 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Claude Giroux

The Philadelphia Flyers are a never-ending soap opera that just keeps on giving, and never was that any more evident than last season, where the Flyers never got on track and missed the playoffs.  The off-season was no different, as the Flyers cut loose Ilya Bryzgalov and Daniel Briere and signed Vincent Lecavalier and Ray Emery and traded for Mark Streit.  Offensively, the Flyers were good, with Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds leading the way in goals while Claude Giroux had a below average (for him) year putting up points.  A second year with the captain's C should help him become more comfortable with the added responsibilities.  Lecavalier is expected to provide Simmonds a center that can get him the puck and knock Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier down to the third and fourth lines, where there will be less pressure to perform.  Wing depth could be a concern if Scott Hartnell doesn't rebound from a miserable year in which he missed a few games.  Defensively, Streit should provide a spark from the blue line, though not necessarily youth, as he and Kimmo Timonen are on the wrong side of 35.  Injuries tore through the blue line, and depth remains a concern here, as there is no true dominant player and health has been a question mark for a while dating back to the days of Chris Pronger.  The Bryzgalov Error ended when the Flyers bought out the remainder of his contract, and with a 2.79 GAA, it was clear that he was nothing more than a product of the defense-first philosophy of the Phoenix Coyotes.  Emery comes in and will compete with Steve Mason for the starting role.  Both have shown flashes of brilliance, but can either one keep it going for the entire season?  Odds are both could be splitting time, but Emery holds the slight edge for now.

Prospects:  With the Flyers all set to go, there is no real room for a rookie to make an impact right away.  Scott Laughton could join to start the season, but he will likely be sent back to Oshawa for another year.  Blue line depth remains an issue, yet there is no elite prospect in the Flyers' pipeline.  The best they can do right now is Brandon Manning.

Prediction: 4th in the Metro Division

Offense is still a strength of the Flyers, but these are not your father's Flyers, as they don't have a physical presence defensively, and given the injury issues on that unit, it would not be surprising if the Flyers have to win 6-5 shootouts every night...unless either Ray Emery or Steve Mason or both can elevate their games.

Friday, September 20, 2013

KHL Coaching Carousel

The KHL season is barely three weeks old and already, the coaching carousel is going full speed.  Tuesday, Avangard ended the tenure of Petri Matikainen and replaced him with Milos Riha.  A team with high expectations, Avangard stumbled out of the gate, and the loss Sunday against Barys Astana was the final straw in Matikainen's time as head coach.  Wednesday, Atlant parted ways with head coach Sergei Svetlov and assistant coach Alexander Nesterov.  Like Avangard, Atlant stumbled out of the gate, losing four games to start the season.  Alexei Kudashov is the interim coach for the season.  Today, Lokomotiv ended the tenure of Tom Rowe and replaced him with Pyotr Vorobyov.  Dmitry Yushkevich and Igor Yefimov were also named assistant coaches.  Rowe took over Lokomotiv in their return after taking the 2011-12 season off due to the plane crash in September 2011.

A New Era

OTTAWA SENATORS

2012-13 record: 25-17-6 (56 points)
Lost to Pittsburgh in Conference semi-finals
Captain: Jason Spezza

The Ottawa Senators had a rough go of last season, losing Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Milan Michalek, and Jared Cowen to injury for much of the season, yet made the playoffs and managed to pull off an upset of the second seed Montreal Canadiens in the opening round.  All four are expected to be at full strength to begin this season, but they will have to do so without longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson, who left for a chance at a Stanley Cup with new division rival Detroit.  Spezza takes over as captain, and in addition to trying to recreate his 2011-12 campaign, he will also have some added responsibilities.  Chris Phillips and Chris Neil, two of the the three Sens lifers remaining (Spezza is the other) should help him out, as they are the alternate captains.  Karlsson is going to be the most watched player as he will be a few months out from recovering from a severed Achilles on February 13.  His offense from the blue line will be an important part of what Ottawa wants to do on offense.  The beneficiaries here include Spezza, Bobby Ryan, Kyle Turris, and Clarke MacArthur.  Defensively, Marc Methot proved to be a solid shutdown defender and he will allow Karlsson to do what he does best offensively.  Cowen is just now beginning to tap into his potential, but it will be interesting how well he plays after losing most of the season due to a hip injury.  Goaltending is in good hands, as Craig Anderson is a Vezina candidate every year...provided he remains healthy, which didn't happen last year, as he missed a few games after cutting his hand while trying to cut a frozen chicken.  Robin Lehner is the backup, and he is here to stay after the Sens traded Ben Bishop at the trade deadline last season.

Prospects:  The Sens have been unafraid to play prospects as a means to get them meaningful experience in the NHL.  Jean-Gabriel Pageau got a cup of coffee during the regular season and shined during the playoffs.  He is undersized for a center, so it will be interesting how well he holds up during a full season.  Mark Stone and Stephane Da Costa are facing make or break years, particularly Da Costa, as neither have been able to stick with the big club for a sustained period of time.  Mark Borowiecki could see time on the blue line, as the Sens have a need for sandpaper, and the sixth defender is Joe Corvo.  Matt Puempel and Cody Ceci are still at least a year away from making a jump to the NHL.

Prediction: 3rd in the Atlantic Division

The Sens made the playoffs despite injuries to significant players.  This year, the adversity that faces them is in the form of losing Alfredsson, the face of the franchise for much of their existence.  Spezza, Neil, and Phillips remain, and those three should help the rest of the team focus on the task at hand.  There is potential for a deep run, but everything needs to go right for that to happen.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Putting the Wheels Back on the Bus

NEW YORK RANGERS

2012-13 record: 26-18-4 (56 points)
Lost to Boston in Conference semi-finals
Captain: Ryan Callahan

With John Tortorella coaching the Rangers, it was only a matter of time until the wheels came off the bus, and the shortened 2012-13 season was the time.  The lowest point was a pitiful showing against Boston in the playoffs, which led to the ouster of Tortorella and the arrival of Alain Vigneault, who should provide a more up-tempo approach to the game.  That's the good news for Henrik Lundqvist, who has had to steal games for the Rangers on a nightly basis and for the blue line that will benefit from having to block fewer shots.  Offensively, Rick Nash scored, but was not nearly as present when the games counted the most, and now, he will have to score without Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin and possibly Derek Stepan if he isn't signed on time.  Derrick Brassard played well after coming over in a mid-season trade, but he has to keep it going over a full season.  All eyes are on Brad Richards, who had his worst season, as he was relegated to the fourth line and was a healthy scratch for most of the Boston series.  Defense should be a strength once again, especially if Marc Staal can prove he's healthy after suffering an eye injury.

Prospects:  With Stepan still unsigned as of press time, that could open the door for JT Miller to start the season with the team.  Center is a sore point beyond Brassard, and Miller would be a leading candidate to fill the spot.  Injuries to Callahan and Hagelin also mean openings for other forwards, meaning Danny Kristo and Jesper Fast are in line to fill those spots until they return from injury.

Prediction: 2nd in the Metro Division

Offense remains an issue, but a change in philosophy could help in that regard.  Team defense should remain a strength and even benefit from having to block fewer shots.  If the offense doesn't return, the Rangers could be in trouble, as they don't have the cap space to get a goal scorer.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Brightening Things Up

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

2012-13 record: 24-17-7 (55 points)
Lost to Pittsburgh in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: John Tavares

It's a new day for the New York Islanders, as they are fresh off a playoff appearance for the first time since 2007.  In addition, they are also rid of the albatross contract of Rick DiPietro (rumors of him getting hurt while getting bought out are unsubstantiated) and are a team that will see a new home in Brooklyn with a new captain in John Tavares.  Tavares is far and away, the team's best player and with his designation of the captain's role, the official face of the franchise for the foreseeable future.  He makes good players out of guys like Matt Moulson, P-A Parenteau, and even Brad Boyes.  The next reclaimation project is Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who has not been able to stay healthy.  If he's healthy, he may very well be the next success story in the Tavares legend.  As for everyone else, a rebound year from Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey would be nice, as would another 30 goal season from Michael Grabner.  Cal Clutterbuck was brought in to bring grit to a team that could use more of it.  Defensively, there is no offensive spark plug now that Mark Streit has moved on, but the Isles may have found a shutdown pair in Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald, the former of which was recently locked up with a seven-year deal this offseason.  The rest of the pairings is being held together by chicken wire and duct tape, as the likes of Joe Finley and Thomas Hickey (former first round picks that didn't pan out with the teams that drafted them) occupy the spots at the moment.  Evgeni Nabokov is back for one more year in goal, and while he is no longer the elite goalie that he was in San Jose, he is still a capable player and will buy time for either Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson to develop.

Prospects: With the Isles' blue line not as strong as it needs to be, they would be thrilled if either or both Griffin Reinhart and Matt Donovan make the roster.  Reinhart has the upside of the two, but Donovan appears to be more NHL ready at this point.  Center behind Tavares will be a strong point if Ryan Strome and/or Brock Nelson make the team, with Nelson more likely to contribute right away.  Strome has the ability to contribute, but size does appear to be a bit of a concern.

Prediction: 6th in the Metro Division

The Islanders have the pieces in place to make the playoffs once again, but questions of who will provide offense from the blue line and goaltending if Nabokov goes down make cause problems for an Islanders team that is finally looking good.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Putting Out the Fire

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

2012-13 record: 19-19-10 (48 points)
Missed the playoffs.
Captain: Bryce Salvador

The 2012-13 season was one the New Jersey Devils would like to forget, as they fell to 28th in offense and were unable to replace Zach Parise's production.  This offseason was off to a decent start, as the Devils would acquire Cory Schneider from Vancouver to become Martin Brodeur's eventual successor at the 2013 Draft.  Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder were signed to both compliment Ilya Kovalchuk and replace David Clarkson, who left for home and the Toronto Maple Leafs the same day.  A week later, Kovalchuk decides to call it a day in the NHL and return home to Russia and an equally ludicrous contract from SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL.  His replacement?  41-year old Jaromir Jagr, who played well in the regular season, but did not score a goal in the playoffs for Boston last season.

To say the Devils had an interesting off-season would be an understatement, but now the problems are about to mount, as only Patrik Elias now remains of the team's top three scorers.  Damien Brunner is a training camp invitee, but expect him to make the roster, as the Devils can use all the scoring they can get, particularly since there's no real number one option here.  Beyond Ryder and Elias, everybody else has question marks, particularly down the middle, where Travis Zajac is the number one option by default.  It would help if Adam Henrique can prove that the sophmore slump that claimed his season is behind him.  The Devils' blue line as currently constituted will remind no one of the Scott Stevens-led blue lines of the 90's and early 2000's, as it pretty much a no-name group led by Bryce Salvador, whose 2011-12 season appears to be an anomaly for his career.  Perhaps Adam Larsson will finally tap into his potential, but don't hold your breath.  Goaltending is more of a question mark than at any other time in Martin Brodeur's career in New Jersey because now, he will have to fight to keep his starting job with Schneider in town.  Both can hold down the fort, but who will get the most time this season?

Prospects: If the Devils were ever in need of their young players to step up, this is the season.  Stefan Matteau had a 17-game cup of coffee last year before getting sent back to Blainville-Boisbriand.  He figures to stick around for good this year.  Reid Boucher led the Canadian Hockey League in goals scored with Sarnia, and he is a near certainty to open with New Jersey this season.  62 goals would be too much to ask for, but anything he contributes, the Devils would be happy to accept.  The blue line has at least one opening for any of Jon Merrill, Alexander Urbom, and Eric Gelinas, with Merrill being the favorite.  Growing pains are to be expected here, especially if Larsson is unable to find his confidence.

Prediction: 8th in the Metropolitan Division

Financial troubles led to some down times last season, and given Kovalchuk's unexpected departure, the Devils were left in even more of a hole, as they could not fill it with a big name player like Vincent Lecavalier or even re-sign Clarkson.  Goaltending will keep them in some games, but team defense will have to carry the day once again, and that may be asking too much.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Needs More Bite

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

2012-13 record: 16-23-9 (41 points)
Missed the playoffs.
Captain: Shea Weber

For all of the talk about what impact losing Ryan Suter would have on Shea Weber, the real story of the Nashville Predators was one that has been all too familiar in their entire existence: scoring, or the lack thereof.  Tied for last in goals per game, their defense had to pick up for them, and it eventually caught up with them, as everyone had off years, including 2012 Vezina finalist Pekka Rinne.  Not a lot figures to change, as the Predators will once again try to cobble together an offense by committee, one that they hope will be spearheaded by their blue line, as Weber, Roman Josi, and potentially Seth Jones are in fact, three of the team's four best players.  Defensively shouldn't be a problem for as long as Rinne remains healthy, but there will be a new backup, as Magnus Hellberg is penciled in that role.  The hope here is that he is a little better than last year's backup Chris Mason, who posted a dreadful 3.73 GAA.  As for who will provide the offense up front, it will have to be by committee, as newcomers Viktor Stalberg and Matt Cullen will join Mike Fisher, David Legwand, and Patric Hornqvist.

Prospects:  Jones is likely to make the opening night roster, but he won't have to perform as a number one defenseman every night, as that is Weber's role.  He will most likely open on the second defensive pairing.  Filip Forsberg came over in the Martin Erat trade last year, and he also could have an impact right away, as the Preds need all the goal scoring they can get right now.  Austin Watson could use a little more weight, but if he has a strong first few months, he could force his way onto the roster at some point in the season.  Mattias Ekholm could make it four rookies on the roster with a strong training camp, but it would have to be as a third pairing player.

Prediction: 4th in the Central Division

While the Predators won't have the offense of 2012, there is also no way they will be ranked in the bottom third on defense again.  The back end is just too good to be posting those numbers, but it will take a better offensive effort to prevent the defense from being overtaxed once again.

Captaincy Updates

At the start of August, as many as eight teams were needing to name a new captain.  As of last weekend, that number is down to six.  Earlier in week, the New York Islanders made official what many already knew and made John Tavares the face of the franchise by handing him the captain's role.  He replaces Mark Streit, who was traded to and subsequently signed by the Philadelphia Flyers.  Tavares' appointment is no surprise, as the 2009 first overall pick has improved every year on the score sheet and it culminated with a Hart Trophy nomination last year.  His ability to make players around him better (ask Matt Moulson, P-A Parenteau, and Brad Boyes, among others) is just now getting noticed, and with a move to Brooklyn in 2015, the Islanders suddenly have a bright outlook.

Saturday, the Ottawa Senators named a successor to Daniel Alfredsson, who left for Detroit on the first day of free agency.  Jason Spezza, the second overall pick in 2001, was named captain a day after the Sens came to an agreement with Jared Cowen for four years and he will have expectations closer to the 2011-12 season he produced, when he finished fourth in scoring that year.  Chris Phillips and Chris Neil, the only Sens players that have been with the team longer than Spezza, are the Alternate Captains.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Bigger is Better

MONTREAL CANADIENS

2012-13 record: 29-14-5 (63 points)
Lost to Ottawa in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Brian Gionta

Year one in the Marc Bergevin era started off great, as the Canadiens won the Northeast Division.  However, come playoff time, they were exposed by an Ottawa team that had more size.  To that end, the Canadiens sought to get bigger, and while they still have a ways to go, at the very least, they're competitive once again.  It begins with Norris Trophy winner PK Subban, who finally played to his enormous potential.  It certainly helped that defense partner Andrei Markov was finally able to play a full season, and Markov himself showed little in the way of ill effects from injuries that wiped out almost two full seasons.  Up front is where the Canadiens are needing the most size, as Brendan Gallagher, Daniel Briere, Brian Gionta, and David Desharnais are all 5'10" and under.  If Max Pacioretty can become the power forward the Canadiens desperately need, then things will fall into place.  Otherwise, the pressure falls on Rene Bourque, who needs more consistency in his offense, and Lars Eller, who hasn't played to full potential since being drafted in the first round in 2007.  Goaltending is slowly becoming a sore spot, as Carey Price hasn't been the dominating force the Canadiens envisioned.  Peter Budaj is a good backup, at best, which left the Canadiens little choice but to take Zachary Fucale with one of their second round picks, something that will put the pressure on Price to perform or else he gets replaced down the line.

Prospects:  The blue line will almost certainly get bigger, as Jarred Tinordi acquitted himself well in a playoff cup of coffee.  He figures to be a favorite to join the Canadiens on opening night.  Louis Leblanc and Nathan Beaulieu could also see time during the season.  Forwards need size, but will have to wait on 2013 first rounder Michael McCarron to develop, something that should be accelerated as he will be in London of the OHL.

Prediction: 4th in the Atlantic Division

The Canadiens are still likely to get pushed around, and as long as that happens, it will be up to Carey Price to steal a few games for them.  The Canadiens got a few breaks last year, but don't expect the same results this year, as more teams will be ready for them this time around.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The SKA Report: Coming Home With Momentum

SKA Saint Petersburg wrapped up their four game road trip this week with victories over Yugra and Barys Astana.  In the 5-1 win at Yugra on Tuesday, SKA jumped out to a 4-0 lead thanks to goals by Roman Cervenka, Patrick Thoresen, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Viktor Tikhonov.  A Yugra goal late in the second period was all they gave up, as Igor Makarov would add a fifth goal after that in an easy win.  The Thursday game in Kazakhstan was a little tougher, as goals by Kovalchuk and Tikhonov in the first period sandwiched a Dustin Boyd goal for Barys.  Dmitri Kalinin, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and Cervenka all added goals in the second period, ensuring that SKA would walk out with a win.  Roman Savchenko would add a goal for Barys, but it was too little, too late, as SKA won 5-2.  Alexander Salak was in net for both wins.

The home opener is Monday against expansion Medvescak, with games on Wednesday against Dinamo Minsk, Friday against Spartak, and Sunday against Donbass.

Time to Deliver

MINNESOTA WILD

2012-13 record: 26-19-3 (55 points)
Lost to Chicago in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Mikko Koivu

A year after handing nearly $200 million to both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Minnesota Wild find themselves with higher expectations and a farm system that hasn't quite lived up to its billing so far.  There is still time for the latter to change, but because of the former, time isn't on its side, as without a big splash in free agency this off-season, it will be up to the youth to fill in the blanks this season.  Suter played himself into consideration for the Norris Trophy last season, but Parise led the team with 38 points, which isn't going to be enough.  Of course, it would help if Mikael Granlund can shake off a rookie slump and players such as Dany Heatley, Jason Pominville, and Mikko Koivu can all play close to their own expectations or better.  Defensively, they were great...for the first pairing (Suter and Jonas Brodin).  However, none of the other four projected defensemen on the other two pairings inspire confidence, and that could spell trouble for the Wild.  The best hope here is that Matt Dumba can make the jump from Red Deer to the NHL and take one of those spots.  Goaltending will once again fall to the duo of Nicklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, and the hope here is that both will be healthy.  If not, Darcy Kuemper can step in as an emergency call-up.

Prospects: Dumba is a favorite to make the roster of all the prospects the Wild have.  Brett Bulmer is another possibility to make the roster at some point in the season, and Kuemper is not far away if either Backstrom or Harding go down to injury.

Prediction: 3rd in the Central Division

Raised expectations are nothing new for a Wild team that play in a hockey mad state.  However, the heat has never been higher than it is now, and the time for just making the playoffs is no longer there, as the Minnesota fans expect nothing less than a Stanley Cup.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Looking to Get Crowned

LOS ANGELES KINGS

2012-13 record: 27-16-5 (59 points)
Lost to Chicago in Conference Finals
Captain: Dustin Brown

The Los Angeles Kings were hardly the team that won the Stanley Cup for much of last season, as they meandered to a fifth place finish in the Western Conference.  Once the playoffs began, however, they were their usual selves...for the first two series.  Unfortunately, they ran into a buzzsaw in Chicago and were ousted in five games in the Conference Finals.  Much of the same players from the last two seasons return, meaning that the Kings are once again near the top of the list of teams that could take home the Stanley Cup come June 2014.  For that to happen, the Kings will need to rediscover an offensive touch that disappeared in the playoffs, particularly on the road.  That means Anze Kopitar will once again need to be the team's leader on offense and someone other than Jeff Carter and Justin Williams will need to step up on offense.  Mike Richards will get his share of points feeding Carter, but Dustin Brown needs to shake off a disappointing playoff effort.  On the blue line, Slava Voynov is emerging as a top offensive defenseman, and as much as Drew Doughty needs to rediscover his offensive game, he is the team's best all-around defenseman, as he can play both ends of the ice.  The question here is whether Willie Mitchell can recover from an injury that wiped out his 2012-13 campaign, as his presence could offset the loss of Rob Scuderi to free agency.  Jonathan Quick wasn't at his best for much of the season, but he was himself as more was on the line late in the season, but he will have a new backup, as Jonathan Bernier was flipped for Ben Scrivens.

Prospects: Tyler Toffoli received an audition during the playoffs, and he will almost certainly be on the opening night roster.  He provides another offensive weapon, which is great news for either Kopitar or Richards.  Even Jarrett Stoll can be the beneficiary if Toffoli starts on the third line.  No else is ready to immediately contribute, but should injuries hit, the possibilities to make the jump are likely coming from Manchester of the AHL, as Tanner Pearson, Linden Vey, and Brandon Kozun are players they will consider.

Prediction: 1st in the Pacific Division

The Kings are still in the same division as their in-state rivals Anaheim and San Jose, but now, they also have Vancouver to contend with.  The good news is that while much of the Kings' roster remains the same, the other teams, especially San Jose and Vancouver, are facing a rapidly closing window to win it all.  A division title (they were eighth when they won it all in 2012 and were fifth last year) would be a great reward for the consistency the Kings have shown the last two years.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Cram Sessions

FLORIDA PANTHERS

2012-13 record: 15-27-6 (36 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Ed Jovanovski

Just when you thought the Florida Panthers were on the path to respectability, last season happened, and it was not pretty.  And now, the Panthers will be minus Stephen Weiss, who bolted for Detroit in the off-season.  The Panthers were roundly criticized for taking Aleksander Barkov instead of Seth Jones in the 2013 Draft, but given Weiss' departure, Barkov is now, for better or for worse, the Panthers' number one center.  He will be given a chance to center a line between the team's leading scorer Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg, who missed time due to injury.  Jonathan Huberdeau is the team's best hope for anything exciting, as they were tied for 29th on offense and last on defense.  As if that wasn't enough, the Panthers may very well be breaking in rookies on half of the forward spots.  The blue line is in better hands, provided that Ed Jovanovski can make a full return from injuries that limited him to six games last year.  At the very least, the Panthers can roll six capable players on defense that have played in the NHL prior to this season.  It will have to be good, as the goaltending will be very young, as in right now, Jacob Markstrom is the starter with Michael Houser as the backup.  With Scott Clemmensen expected to miss the first part of the season, it was no wonder the Panthers extended training camp invites to an old hand (Jose Theodore) and two goalies on their own planet (Tim Thomas and Ilya Bryzgalov).

Prospects: Barkov is a given to make the Panthers' roster, as the Panthers don't really have anyone else at center capable of being even a good second liner.  Quinton Howden, Nick Bjugstad, and Vincent Trocheck are likely to get a look as the season progresses, as will Alex Petrovic on defense.

Prediction: 8th in the Atlantic Division

The playoff appearance in 2012 was an encouraging sign for a team that needed a confidence boost.  In 2013, the Panthers crashed back to Earth, and now, they are about to find out just how accurate their drafting and development in recent years really is, as potentially a third of their roster could be made up of players getting their first taste of NHL action.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Now or Never

EDMONTON OILERS

2012-13 record: 19-22-7 (45 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

For all of the first overall picks and top end talent in the pipeline, the Edmonton Oilers have consistently fallen short of expectations.  The culprit has been a rather shoddy defense that remains an issue going into this season.  Yes, the Oilers have offensive firepower in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Justin Schultz.  However, they all don't perform consistently at the same time, and that is bad for a team that is still lacking sandpaper.  To that end, Andrew Ference and Boyd Gordon were bought in to provide that for a team that needs it in spades.  David Perron was also brought in via trade, and while he's a small upgrade over Magnus Paajarvi (the guy he was traded for), it still doesn't solve the team's biggest issue: blue line grit.  Ference will help some, but beyond that, the Oilers are still nowhere near ready for primetime, and that has a trickle down effect on the goaltending, meaning Devan Dubnyk has to be on his game every night.  He posted decent numbers despite the porous defense, but now, he has to step up his game, as Jason LaBarbera is now his backup.

Prospects: The Oilers don't really have anyone that is ready to occupy a roster spot to begin the season, but expect Oscar Klefbom, if he's fully recovered from a shoulder injury, to join the team at some point in the season.  All the other prospects, including 2013 first round pick Darnell Nurse, are at least a year away from contributing.

Prediction: 6th in the Pacific Division

The Oilers are a talented team on paper, but without a viable blue line, the Oilers' young forwards will continue to get pushed around on a consistent basis.  In a division with Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose, the push for a playoff spot will be hard to accomplish this year.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Brave New World

DETROIT RED WINGS

2012-13 record: 24-16-8 (56 points)
Lost to Chicago in Conference semi-finals
Captain: Henrik Zetterberg

The Detroit Red Wings played much of last season as most people expected: in disarray in their first year of the post-Nicklas Lidstrom era.  However, they snuck into the playoffs and were a completely different team, as they took down Anaheim in seven before falling to eventual champions Chicago in seven.  This year, the Red Wings will move to the travel friendly Eastern Conference and will be bringing in a couple of players to help with house warming.  Daniel Alfredsson will add to a veteran front line, as will Stephen Weiss, who will undoubtedly be motivated to make a deep run in the playoffs.  They join Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, two of the league's better players, as well as Johan Franzen and Justin Abdelkader.  There is still no clear cut successor to Lidstrom on the blue line, but the unit as a whole, led by Niklas Kronwall, got better as the season went on, and it will have to improve once again if the Wings are to make a run at the Stanley Cup this season.  Jimmy Howard is becoming the superstar goalie that Detroit hasn't had since the days of Mike Vernon in the mid-90's, and with a spot on the U.S. Olympic roster on the line, Howard is looking to be even better this season.

Prospects: Detroit likes to take their time with their prospects, which leads to times like last season, when players such as Dan DeKeyser and Gustav Nyquist became regulars for the first time last season and will be counted on for bigger roles this season.  This year's version is likely just one player: Tomas Tatar, who was playoff MVP of the AHL playoffs.

Prediction: 2nd in the Atlantic

The Red Wings survived the first year without Lidstrom, and now, they are heading to the Eastern Conference, which should be a relief for the often travel weary team.  Fortifying their forward depth with Weiss and Alfredsson should help in scoring, but it will be up to the defense to continue their maturation from last year's playoff run.

Monday, September 9, 2013

New Stars, New Outlook...Maybe

DALLAS STARS

2012-13 record: 22-22-4 (48 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

The Dallas Stars have missed the playoffs since 2009, and their most recent miss led to some major changes with owner Tom Gaglardi finally able to make his own imprint on the team.  Gone: Glen Gulutzan as head coach, Joe Nieuwendyk as General Manager, and since the midway point of last season, Loui Eriksson, Michael Ryder, Jaromir Jagr, and Brenden Morrow.  Incoming is Jim Nill as General Manager, Lindy Ruff as head coach, and Sergei Gonchar, Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, and Valeri Nichushkin.  The biggest change for the Stars, however, is their branding, as in they completely overhauled their looks to something that they can now call their own after 20 years.  Will all of this lead to success?  Ask again in a few years, as the current Stars are still needing to fill some holes.  The Seguin trade certainly shored up a center position that was lacking in recent years, as Peverley and Seguin, as well as Shawn Horcoff, were all brought in to fill the top three lines in that role.  For a team that only had three double digit goal scorers on their roster at the end of the year (Jagr would have led the team in goals had he not been traded), the Stars did surprisingly well in goals scored per game, as they tied for 11th.  However, their defense let them down considerably, and their goaltending in particular, especially when it was someone other than Kari Lehtonen in goal.  Gonchar should at least help the blue line in its puck possession, but without a true shutdown defenseman, the Stars will need all of their players to give their best here.  Lehtonen is pretty good, but he doesn't quite deliver when the games count the most, and certainly he's been counted on for a lot of games, as the backups have been horrible when they've had to spell Lehtonen.  Unfortunately, it doesn't figure to get much better, as Dan Ellis (he of the 3.13 GAA last season) is the backup this season.

Prospects: Nichushkin may very well be the steal of the 2013 Draft, as he somehow fell to Dallas at number 10.  Expect him to be on one of the top two lines right away, as the Stars have an opening on the wings.  Alex Chiasson is less heralded, but he also figures to start the season with the Stars, as he gained valuable experience in a seven game cup of coffee last season.  Jamie Oleksiak could fill the shutdown defenseman role in time, but for right now, he is likely to start on the third pairing.

Prediction: 5th in the Central Division

The Stars look like a new team, but until they fill some holes in their defense and can get better than average goaltending from their backups, it will be another long season for the Stars.  At the very least, they're finally going in the right direction on all accounts, including their uniforms.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The SKA Report: Getting off on the Right Foot

The KHL season could not have started any better for SKA Saint Petersburg, as they kicked off the season in Siberia for a four game road trip.  A 5-1 victory on Friday at Avangard Omsk was highlighted by a two goal effort by Viktor Tikhonov, which started an unanswered run of five goals after Avangard opened the scoring in the first period.  Kevin Dallman, Alexander Kuchareyavenko, and Roman Cervenka also scored for SKA to give Alexander Salak a victory in his team debut.  Sunday was a trip to Yekaterinburg to face off against Avtomobilist.  SKA jumped out to a 3-0 lead thanks to goals by Vadim Shipachyov, Patrick Thoresen, and Tikhonov before Avtomobilist could score a goal.  SKA would lead 5-1 after two periods, but would need to hold off a furious rally to eventually win 6-4.  Kucheryavenko, Evgeny Skachkov, and Artemy Panarin also scored for SKA.  SKA will finish the road trip with games on Tuesday against Yugra and on Thursday against Barys Astana before their home opener on September 16 against Medvescak Zagreb.

"Defend NWA"

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

2012-13 record: 24-17-7 (55 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

The Columbus Blue Jackets were staring down life after Rick Nash prior to last season, something that the Blue Jackets fans knew was inevitable, yet was no less comforting.  Something funny happened along the way, however, as defense became the order of the day, with Jack Johnson emerging as a number one defenseman and Flyers cast-off Sergei Bobrovsky emerging as a top flight option in goal en route to a Vezina Trophy win.  A mid-season trade for Marian Gaborik added to the hope for fans and despite missing the playoffs due to a tie-breaker, the Blue Jackets are looking forward with hope and a new Conference, as they move to the Eastern Conference this year.  Offense could use some improvement, as Vinny Prospal was the leading scorer with only 30 points.  Enter Nathan Horton, who will add a power forward element that the Jackets were lacking last year, though his debut won't be until a month or two into the season as he recovers from off-season surgery.  Gaborik will be there to start the season, and he is playing for a new contract, which should benefit players such as Nick Foligno, Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson, and Artem Anisimov.  Johnson leads the blue line that should feature Ryan Murray and Fedor Tyutin, and they will be playing in front of Bobrovsky, who is out to prove that last season was no fluke.

Prospects:  Murray missed much of last season due to injury.  He is a likely candidate to crack the roster on opening night.  Boone Jenner played well in Oshawa last year, and he, too, is a candidate to make the Blue Jackets' roster.  Beyond that, there isn't much room for any other rookie, as the trio of first round picks (Alexander Wennberg, Kerby Rychel, Marko Dano) are at least a year away.

Prediction: 3rd in the Metropolitan Division

The Blue Jackets have a new Conference, which should cut down on travel.  The biggest benefit is that the Blue Jackets are finally sticking with an identity and are moving in the right direction in every way.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Digging Out

COLORADO AVALANCHE

2012-13 record: 16-25-7 (39 points)
Missed the Playoffs
Captain: Gabriel Landeskog

The Colorado Avalanche were a dysfunctional unit last year, from the Ryan O'Reilly RFA fiasco to backup goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere calling out his teammates for not giving it their all to the less than stellar defense.  The end result was the first overall pick, which was used to take Nathan MacKinnon, and he will be expected to contribute right away.  Offense wasn't too much of an issue...for either Matt Duchene or P-A Parenteau, both of whom posted close to a point per game.  However, the drop-off from those two was pretty steep, as the next leading scorer (Paul Stastny) was 19 points behind Duchene and Parenteau.  Even Gabriel Landeskog wasn't immune, as his numbers took a dive, possibly from the extra weight of having to grow into his responsibilities as captain.  The offensive numbers should see a spike now that O'Reilly is on the team for a full year (he posted 20 points in 29 games) and MacKinnon will likely see time on a line with O'Reilly and returning Alex Tanguay.  The blue line was a major problem last year, and will continue to be a problem until some of their prospects start stepping up.  Tyson Barrie (the leading scorer amongst the Avs defensemen) is the first, and the team hopes he won't be the last to step up, as both Stefan Elliott and Duncan Siemens will likely be seeing significant time this season.  It would help significantly if Erik Johnson finally plays to his first pick overall status, but time is running out for him.  A not-so strong blue line was part of the reason both Giguere and Semyon Varlamov were shelled in net, but both, particularly Varlamov, are not exactly blameless here, as the Avs paid a large amount to get Varlamov and he hasn't given enough on the returns and Giguere is nothing more than a competent backup at this stage in his career.  Coaching should be better, with Patrick Roy behind the bench, and given his experience in Quebec of the QMJHL, he will be needing to teach some of the young players how to play properly, though there will be no shortage of fireworks behind the bench.

Prospects: MacKinnon is sure to make the team, though he may start out as a third line center on opening night.  Siemens has a chance to make the roster, as well, given the lack of talent on the blue line.  However, he may need another year before he makes the roster for good.

Prediction: 7th in the Central Division

The forwards as a whole, didn't play to expectations last season.  There is simply too much talent up front for that to happen again this season.  The blue line, however, is going to continue to struggle without a clear-cut number one player, something that won't happen until either their prospects grow into that role or Johnson finally sheds the "bust" label.  Varlamov wasn't given an ultimatum, but he may feel the heat if he posts a GAA north of the 3.00 mark again this season.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Circling the Wagons

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

2012-13 record: 36-7-5 (77 points)
Won the Stanley Cup
Captain: Jonathan Toews

The Chicago Blackhawks started off hot and ended up with a Stanley Cup for their troubles.  While the core of the team remains intact, they also lose Dave Bolland, Michal Frolik, and Ray Emery.  However, the Blackhawks have a pipeline that should more than fill in some of those holes to compliment the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Patrick Kane.  Goaltending will once again be a question mark, but this time, it will be whether Corey Crawford can repeat last year's performance as opposed to whether he can be a starting goaltender.  He won't have Emery behind him, but with Nikolai Khabibulin behind him, Crawford should be just as motivated  in playing like a number one goaltender even after he just got paid like one recently.  Having Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson in front of him for the forseeable future will help greatly, as those three are the key players on the blue line.  Second line center remains a concern, as was even with Bolland, but with a pipeline stocked with centers, the Blackhawks will find a solution there.

Prospects:  The trades of Bolland and Frolik mean that someone will step into the roles they occupied, which means there will be some rookies on the team.  Brandon Pirri is the favorite to claim the center spot vacated by Bolland, but don't count out either Mark McNeill or Phillip Danault.  If Teuvo Tereavainen comes across the pond this season, he could be a dark horse candidate to crack the opening night roster.  Jeremy Morin is a favorite to take the spot that Frolik occupied on the wing.  The blue line will essentially return everyone from last year's Cup run, which means there likely isn't going to be any room for Adam Clendening, and Khabibulin is a stopgap solution until either Antti Raanta or Mac Carruth is ready for the back-up job in Chicago.

Prediction: 1st in the Central Division

Unlike the post-Stanley Cup team of 2010, this version of the Blackhawks will return many of the key players, as well as some of the key role players on the team.  It helps that they won't have to break in a new goaltender this time around, and as long as Toews leads the team and Kane continues to build on his breakthrough year, the Blackhawks will be considered a favorite to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Rough Seas Ahead

CAROLINA HURRICANES

2012-13 record: 19-25-4 (42 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Eric Staal

The Carolina Hurricanes were supposed to be major contenders for a playoff spot last year after making moves for Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin last off-season.  However, an injury to Cam Ward derailed those hopes mid-season, and the Hurricanes were drafting in the top 10 this past June once again.  One could blame a less than sterling blue line that continues to be in the bottom third in goals given up.  Not having a capable backup for Ward didn't do much to help matters, either, which was why the Hurricanes went out and picked up Anton Khudobin, who posted good numbers backing up Tuukka Rask in Boston last season.  Their blue line is hoping for a career resurrection from Mike Komisarek and for Andrej Sekera to be an upgrade over both Joe Corvo and Jamie McBain.  Offensively, the Hurricanes did alright, but it didn't carry over to their power play, which was ranked 27th.  Either Joni Pitkanen or Justin Faulk needs to step up and be the power play quarterback.  Eric Staal and Semin put up good numbers, but the offense will need a rebound from Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner to be healthy, and for Jiri Tlusty to continue to build upon his career highs in points.

Prospects: The Hurricanes' developmental system hasn't turned out too much in the way of good prospects lately, and even with a  few spots open, the only player that figures to get any true playing time would be Elias Lindholm.  The Hurricanes hope for a result similar to the one with Skinner back in the 2010-11 season, with Lindholm making the smooth transition to the NHL directly from the draft.  Beyond him, there's no sure fire bet for anyone else to make the team, but Ryan Murphy and Jeremy Welsh are expected to get looks at some point in the season.

Prediction: 7th in the Metropolitan Division

The Hurricanes would be ranked much higher, but Cam Ward's health has been a question in recent seasons, and the blue line is still the same mess it has been in recent years.  A lot of things have to go right for the Hurricanes to make the playoffs, which may be too much to ask for this year.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Rebuilding from the Ashes

CALGARY FLAMES

2012-13 record: 19-25-4 (42 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

In a season where just about everything that could go wrong did, the Flames finally swallowed their pride and decided to enter a rebuilding mode.  The trade deadline saw the team's all-time leading scorer Jarome Iginla and highest paid defenseman Jay Bouwmeester leave for greener pastures, and this off-season is likely the last time anyone will see Miikka Kiprusoff in an NHL game, as he is expected to walk away.  The trades of Iginla and Bouwmeester free up some money for future considerations, but the Flames are expected to focus on rebuilding a farm system that has been in dire need for years.  Mike Cammalleri, Curtis Glencross, Jiri Hudler, Mark Giordano, and Dennis Wideman are all expected to take on more of a leadership role, now that they are the veterans on the team.  Meanwhile, the young players such as Sven Baertschi, T.J. Brodie, and Mikael Backlund are expected to take a major step forward, and Karri Ramo is the clubhouse leader to be the starting goaltender for the Flames.  Very little of this sounds exciting, but thanks to three first round picks in this past June's draft and some prospects (lower-end, but still prospects, nonetheless), the Flames are at least taking that first step forward in rebuilding for the future instead of trying to win now.

Prospects:  In trades the past few months, the Flames have picked up prospects that have a chance to contribute this season.  They include Marc Cundari (acquired in the Jay Bouwmeester deal), Corban Knight (traded from Florida in June), and Ben Hanowski (acquired in the Jarome Iginla trade).  Also with a chance to join the Flames is Sean Monahan, the first of three picks in the NHL Draft by the Flames in the first round.  Center remains a sore issue, and Monahan could help there immediately.  The blue line is also holding auditions for one or two spots, so don't be surprised if either (or both) Cundari and Tyler Wotherspoon make the opening night roster.

Prediction: 7th in the Pacific Division

Rebuilding is never going to be without its pains, and Calgary will be feeling those many nights this season.  They never had a real chance with their past model of spending to the cap for players that don't pan out, but now the Flames are finally offering hope for a better future to the fans.  It's just going to take a few years.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A New Day for the KHL

Tomorrow, the KHL will kick off its sixth season with Dynamo Moscow and Traktor Chelyabinsk squaring off in a rematch of last year's Gagarian Cup Finals.  Three more games are on the slate Thursday, and SKA Saint Petersburg will kick off their season against Avangard Omsk.  The conclude the opening week with a game on Sunday against Avtomobilist.  There is no game on Saturday, since that will mark the two year anniversary of the plane crash that claimed the lives of the 2011-12 Lokomotiv squad.

Beginning Monday, a weekly report on SKA Saint Petersburg will happen, and should any interesting things happen around the rest of the KHL, it will be talked about here, as well.

Sharp Pains

BUFFALO SABRES

2012-13 record: 21-21-6 (48 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

The story of the 2012-13 Buffalo Sabres was one of underachievers and a team in rebuilding mode.  The team will be looking for a new captain, since Jason Pominville was shipped to Minnesota last season, and it appears that the leading candidate is Steve Ott.  Speaking of which, he was brought in to provide a toughness that the Sabres didn't have previously.  However, offense was nowhere to be found outside of Thomas Vanek, who was last seen on the trading block.  Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis were the next two leading scorers, and the only others to have cracked the double digit total in goals.  Defensively, Tyler Myers underperformed again, and the Sabres hope that bringing back one-time defensive partner Henrik Tallinder will boost his game once again.  Christian Ehrhoff performed decently, but fellow free agent signee from 2011 Ville Leino continues to have trouble living up to his contract, only netting six points in eight games.  Ryan Miller was also last seen on the trading block, and with a rather leaky defense in front of him, his best years are being wasted.

Prospects: The woeful mismanagement of Mikhail Grigorenko was evident last season, as he only scored five points in 25 games on the fourth line before being sent back to juniors.  With a team desperate for offense, he should get a better shot this season.  The Sabres have room for quite a few rookies, and the one that could make the biggest jump is Johan Larsson, acquired in the Pominville trade.  Don't count out Rasmus Ristolainen or Mark Pysyk on the blue line, as either or both could be on the roster on opening night.

Prediction: 7th in the Atlantic Division

If not for the youthful Florida Panthers, the Sabres would be last in the division.  Should Vanek and Miller not be traded before the season starts or ends, the Sabres could very well finish a spot higher.  However, that isn't saying much, as there isn't much beyond those two.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bruising Their Way Back to the Top

BOSTON BRUINS

2012-13 record: 28-14-6 (62 points)
Lost to Chicago in Stanley Cup Finals
Captain: Zdeno Chara

The Bruins were a minute away from forcing a game 7 in the Finals when goals seconds apart put an end to that dream and a chance to make it two Cups in three years.  This year will look a little different.  Sure, you have Zdeno Chara still leading the way on the blue line and Patrice Bergeron setting the tone up front and Tuukka Rask holding things down in goal.  Gone, however, are Nathan Horton, Rich Peverley, Andrew Ference, and Tyler Seguin.  Replacing them are Jarome Iginla, Reilly Smith, Torey Krug, and Loui Eriksson.  That means chemistry amongst the lines will have to be found with at least three new players with significant roles will have to be fit in somewhere.  The key player to watch is Eriksson, who will most likely provide a more consistent effort that had been lacking in Seguin.

Prospects: There's not much room for rookies to crack the roster here, though Krug did gain some vaulable experience in the playoffs, and is likely ticketed for a pairing with Dougie Hamilton, who himself will be looking to rebound from being a healthy scratch for most of the playoffs.  The backup goalie is also a concern, as Niklas Svedberg is a possibility here, and if Rask goes down for any significant amount of time, all bets are off, as Svedberg and Chad Johnson are listed as his backups.

Prediction: 1st in the Atlantic Division

The sting from coming so close to a Stanley Cup should motivate the Bruins.  However, there is that matter of a Stanley Cup hangover, in dating back to the 2007-08 season, only three teams have made the Conference Finals the following year from when they made the Finals (Detroit and Pittsburgh in 2009, and Los Angeles in 2013).  The Bruins still have the core pieces intact, but how well the new guys jell will determine how far the Bruins go this year.