Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Filling Holes

In a move designed to compensate for the recent call-up of Parker Milner to Bridgeport, the Missouri Mavericks traded for Chris Rawlings from Idaho.  Going to the Steelheads is Torin Snyderman.  Rawlings' acquisition comes as the New York Islanders, who are the parent club of the Mavericks, had to fill a hole with Jaroslav Halak out, and therefore, called up Christopher Gibson from Bridgeport of the AHL.  Naturally, there is a chain reaction, and for the Mavericks, that meant Bridgeport needed a goalie to take Gibson's spot, meaning Milner was the one to get the call.  Rawlings will be stepping in with Josh Robinson as the tandem in goal for the Mavericks until Halak gets back to full health.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Mavericks Report: Ending the Year on a High Note

With a new winning streak that includes a 3-1 win over Allen on Saturday, the Missouri Mavericks will look to not only end 2015 on a winning note when they take on Wichita on Thursday, but also begin 2016 the same way with Allen coming into town on Friday before hitting the road to Evansville for a Saturday tilt.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Mavericks Report: Perfect at Home

The Missouri Mavericks' 14-game winning streak may have ended last week, but their home record was still perfect, and they were looking to keep it that way with three games over the weekend.

First up was the Cincinnati Cyclones on Friday and Saturday, and while they had their way in a 5-2 win on Friday, they had to hold off a furious charge late in the third period to secure a 3-2 win.  Against Quad City on Sunday, they found themselves down 2-1 early in the second period before coming up with three unanswered goals to come away with a 4-2 win and their home record still spotless.

Missouri hits the road on Saturday to take on the defending Kelly Cup champion Allen Americans.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A New Boss in Storm City

It's been a trying season for the Guelph Storm, as they will have failed to crack double digits in the points standings by the time they play their first game after Christmas break, though they did manage to win today and snap a 15-game winless streak.  Today, in addition to the win, the Storm announced that Jarrod Skalde will take over as head coach starting with the December 29 game against Erie.  Skalde takes over for Bill Stewart, who resigned from the post after just three months on the job.

Skalde comes with a resume that includes 88 games in the NHL and many more games in the AHL, and he also comes with a Turner Cup won in 2001 with Orlando as a player and head coaching experience from his time with Norfolk of the AHL and Cincinnati of the ECHL.  He enters the Guelph job with the task of getting Guelph to respectability for the rest of this season and beyond, and given that the Storm are in rebuilding mode, it will be a study in just how patient Skalde will be with a team that will make mistakes this season and most likely, the next.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Back on the Road

The Zack Kassian saga is taking a turn for the better, as he was cleared for on-ice competition after serving time in Stage Two of the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program due to an incident prior to the start of the season.  The Montreal Canadiens, in response, sent him to St. John's of the AHL after he cleared waivers in an effort to get him back into playing shape.  This is a big step for Kassian, as he not only tries to find his way on the ice, but also off it, as he continues to return to good health. The moves will also help Montreal if all works out the way they hope, as they will have a big bodied player that they've always wanted.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Mavericks Report

I've been long overdue to start talking about the hockey team that plays in my backyard known as the Kansas City area, and the timing of this first of what hopefully will be a weekly segment couldn't have gone worse.

Entering the week on a 14-game winning streak, the Mavericks were looking to make it 15 on Sunday at Tulsa. However, things wouldn't go the Mavericks' way, as the Oilers would halt the streak with a 4-3 win.  Andrew Courtney, Sebastien Sylvestre, and Tanner Fritz scored for the Mavericks, who will look to start a new winning streak this coming weekend, as they will be at home to host Cincinnati on Friday and Saturday and Quad City on Sunday.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Back to the Drawing Board

The Mike Johnston-era in Pittsburgh is over after just a season and a half.  With a record of 58-37-15 and seeing a formerly powerful Penguins team go from Stanley Cup contenders to fighting for their playoff lives, someone had to fall on the sword for a team that features Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel.  Taking over is Mike Sullivan, who was in his first season as head coach of the AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.  Sullivan also coached in Boston for a couple of seasons, and will be tasked with turning around the fortunes of a team that couldn't get their power play going under Johnston.

So, what went wrong with Johnston?  To figure it out, his system while in Portland was based on defensemen getting into the action, as players such as Derrick Pouliot (who still couldn't crack the Penguins' NHL roster even with his former junior coach there) and Seth Jones thrived.  With the right defensemen, the forwards would fly around and cause problems, as players such as Nic Petan and Ty Rattie proved in Portland.  The general hope was that the system would carry over with the Penguins, which was obviously not the case.  Of the Penguins this season, only Malkin has produced anything resembling average (for him) numbers.  Meanwhile, the blueliners haven't done a heck of a lot this season, as Kris Letang has just one goal to go with 13 helpers while only Olli Maatta has played to expectations among the rest of the group.  Marc-Andre Fleury needs help, and it will be up to Sullivan to help push the offensive needle in the right direction with a system that will benefit the Penguins.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Streaking: Missouri Style

The image above has been commonplace lately for Missouri Mavericks fans, as the team is riding a 14-game winning streak in its second year as a member of the ECHL and its first as an affiliate of the New York Islanders.  In 22 games, which is a third of the ECHL season, the Mavericks are 19-2-0-1, having established a fairly comfortable lead over the next best team in the Western Conference in Quad City.  The Mavericks will have a chance to make it 15 in a row on Sunday at Tulsa and should they do so, will have three games at home the following weekend with Cincinnati and Quad City. The task will be a little tougher, as current leading scorer Jesse Root was recently called up to Bridgeport of the AHL.  However, the two-headed goaltending system of Parker Milner and Josh Robinson have proven to be more than up to the task, as they have a combined 1.58 GAA.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Dupuis Retires

Pascal Dupuis was forced to retire from the NHL yesterday due to a medical condition related to blood clots, something that began in January 2014 when the blood clots were first diagnosed.  In 2014-15, he only played 16 games before shutting it down in November due to a blood clot in the lungs.  After 18 games and a health scare on December 1 against San Jose, Dupuis decided to call it a career, citing family reasons.

Dupuis was a player that very few had a bad word for, as he was one of the most respected players in the league, especially by those for whom he played with in his career.  Undrafted, he parlayed a 50-goal season with Shawinigan of the QMJHL into a free-agent deal with Minnesota, where in his best season there, netted 20 goals and 28 assists in the 2002-03 season that saw Minnesota go to the Conference Finals that season.  He would later spend a brief time with the New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers before heading to Pittsburgh in 2008 in a trade that involved Marian Hossa.  In the 2011-12 season, he notched career highs in goals and points, and also played a key role in the 2009 Stanley Cup run with Pittsburgh.

Many times, it's the superstars that get the credit, but it's the players like Dupuis and Rich Peverley who turn in an honest effort night in and night out that truly make a team better.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Tale of Two Teams

Two seasons ago, the Erie Otters and the Guelph Storm were squaring off in the OHL Western Conference Final in which Guelph would ultimately win in five and go on to win the J.Ross Robertson Trophy before falling a win short of the Memorial Cup that season.  Here we are now, and Erie is at the top of the league while Guelph still hasn't cracked 10 points for the season.  What happened?

In the junior leagues, every team will see their share of highs and lows, some more on the high side than others. Erie was supposed to fall off a little this season with Connor McDavid moving on to the NHL.  They were still supposed to be good with Dylan Strome being the man now, but somewhere along the way, something better happened.  Alex DeBrincat has emerged as a true goal scoring threat, something that was still in question after last season even though he was the only 50-scorer in the league last season. It is clear that DeBrincat is out to not only prove that his play isn't just a result of playing with McDavid, but also that being 5'7" isn't going to be a hindrance, and given that there is a precedence for players his size succeeding in the NHL, he may do it.  On the other end, Guelph is dead last with just five points to show for the season, and it's now past the first third.  Seeing the likes of Jason Dickinson, Robby Fabbri, and Tyler Bertuzzi leave to turn pro, it wasn't supposed to be this terrible.  However, this is where they are, and now, not only can they not score, they can't stop the puck from going in, either.  Justin Nichols accounts for both of the team's victories, and he sports a decent save percentage at .914.  However, the same cannot be said for Bradley Van Schubert, who is winless in nine starts, and sports a ghastly 5.89 GAA and a .845 save percentage, which was why they brought in Michael Giugovaz, who has been well-traveled in the OHL.  Of course, he hasn't done great in two starts with the Storm, but then again, the Storm are the worst offensive team with just 42 goals, which is 20 behind the next worst team in Owen Sound, who sit in the sixth spot for the playoffs as of this writing.  Given that the Storm share a division with Owen Sound, Kitchener, London, and Erie, with the last three leading the Conference in the standings, things look bleak for the Storm this season, which means they will have the first overall pick in the OHL Priority Draft to look forward to, whoever that ends up being.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Going All In for Hamonic?

With the news that the New York Islanders' Travis Hamonic has asked for a trade for family reasons, that means the Islanders are now at the very least exploring their options as far as trade partners.  Given that Hamonic has cited a desire to be closer to family, that means the market would be rather limited, since the Manitoba-born Hamonic would be likely looking to four or five teams.  So, let's look at the teams that would be on Hamonic's list and what they can offer to the Islanders.

WINNIPEG JETS: Given that the Jets are both closest to Hamonic's home and have a plethora of players they can trade to the Islanders, it would seem that they would be the favorites to land Hamonic.  Depth on the blue line is no concern, but the Jets would be more than happy to land one of the better stay-at-home defenders, with Tobias Enstrom being the most likely to be moved plus prospects, which could be any of Josh Morrissey, Joel Armia, and either Connor Helleybuck or Eric Comrie, with other names being possibilities.

EDMONTON OILERS: The Oilers still need blue line help, and at the very least, they can offer one of their forwards (think Jordan Eberle).  Because their blue line is rather thin, as they traded for Griffin Reinhart from the same Islanders this off-season, it could be a hang-up, particularly since the Islanders would love to fill the hole left by Hamonic if he is indeed traded.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Another team that needs defensemen, the Canucks are in even worse shape than the Oilers.  The best shot the Canucks have would be to offer Alex Edler, as his play has fallen off recently and a change in scenery would do him some good.  However, the lack of defensive prospects could kill their chances of landing Hamonic.

CALGARY FLAMES: On the surface, the Flames would love to figure out their chemistry on the blue line, as they've only played with their planned six for a month thanks to TJ Brodie being out to start the season.  However, the temptation to add a solid two-way player may be too great, and the Flames can offer someone like Dennis Wideman or Brodie, though the latter may be off-limits due to his chemistry with Mark Giordano.  Prospects such as Patrick Sieloff or Tyler Wotherspoon could help sweeten the deal for Calgary.

MINNESOTA WILD: It has been mentioned that Hamonic would love to end up in Western Canada, but Minnesota is fairly close to Hamonic's hometown.  The Wild would be an outside shot, particularly since salary cap issues would be their biggest hurdle, and the Wild don't have much to offer, either in terms of prospects or NHL-ready players.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Moving Closer to Home

It's been a rough start to the WHL season for Nick McBride, as he was squeezed out of the Prince Albert Raiders roster thanks to strong play by both Rylan Parenteau and Ian Scott (both of whom, are still playing well).  That forced McBride to ask for a trade prior to the season, and now, at the start of November, McBride is finally going to get a chance to resume his junior league career, as the Raiders traded him to Prince George for a second round pick in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft.

McBride was in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects game last season, but went undrafted in the 2015 NHL Draft.  McBride had a promising start to his time in Prince Albert in 2014, taking over the starting job late in the season from Cole Cheveldae en route to pushing the Raiders to a playoff berth in a tie-breaker game with Red Deer.  However, like many of the Raiders last season, McBride had his fair share of struggles, and in some cases, was outplayed by Parenteau.  The Cougars currently have a goal differential of +2, and now have three goalies who have starting experience in Ty Edmonds, Mack Shields, and McBride, though it remains to be seen if the Cougars carry three goalies for an extended period of time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The First Month of the WHL Season

The first full month of the WHL season is in the books, and to say there are a few surprises would be an understatement.  The most recent trades have involved a Calgary Hitmen team that has struggled to score and are currently sitting in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack.  Leaving the Hitmen are Chase Lang and Ben Thomas, and incoming from Vancouver are Jackson Houck, Cody Porter, and Jakob Stukel.  Houck's arrival also spells the end for Elliot Peterson, who was placed on waivers, since Houck is a 20-year old and the Hitmen had to get within the three overage players limit.  Also leaving is Terrell Darude, who is heading to Saskatoon.  As for who the Hitmen hope to overtake, there's the Prince Albert Raiders, who lead the conference this early in the season thanks to goaltending from Rylan Parenteau and Ian Scott.  The Raiders were widely expected to struggle this season, so this early season surge comes a bit of a surprise.  The Red Deer Rebels are next in line, and they figure to be in contention all season long, particularly since they are hosting the Memorial Cup tournament.  The Brandon Wheat Kings are fourth and were surprised by Portland on Sunday in a 5-0 loss.  Other surprises include Saskatoon doing fairly well and Medicine Hat stumbling out of the block.

On the Western Conference side, there are few surprises, though Vancouver getting Thomas and Lang indicates that they're going to give Tyler Benson some better players to work with, particularly since Houck wasn't likely to come back.  Portland's early struggles appear to be behind them after a strong weekend in which they won all three games, including the 5-0 game against Brandon on Sunday.  The Western Conference, as expected, is pretty much a bottleneck in the middle, with only Seattle, Victoria, and Kelowna pulling ahead of the pack.  With tournaments such as the Canada/Russia Subway Series and the World Junior Championship coming up, how the teams adapt will help clear the pictures.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Going Up in Lethbridge

As of today, the Lethbridge Hurricanes stand 6-2-0-0 and are riding a four-game winning streak after beating Swift Current this weekend.  That matches the team's best start in the 2001-02 season and for the first time in a few seasons, something truly positive for a team that has experienced nothing but pain.  So, what changed?  Besides the obvious, namely the coaching staff and the front office, player attitude, which was greatly helped by the changes in the first two, as Peter Anholt, who filled in as both head coach and General Manager, is now a full-time General Manager, giving the head coaching job to Brent Kisio.  Kisio is the son of ex-NHLer and current Calgary Hitmen president of hockey operations Kelly Kisio and prior to coming to Lethbridge, held various coaching roles in Calgary, gaining experience along the way in both how to run things and winning, as the Hitmen had won a WHL championship while the younger Kisio was there.  As for the core of the Hurricanes roster, it includes holdovers Tyler Wong and Giorgio Estephan, as well as youth such as Stuart Skinner and Jordy Bellerive.

Yes, the season hasn't gotten out of October yet, but for the Hurricanes, this start is exactly what the team has needed after stumbling out of the blocks the last two seasons, both times including key players asking out of Lethbridge.  It's safe to say there won't be players asking out of Lethbridge this early in the season this time around, and given their recent problems, it's the little victories such as those, as well as those on the ice, that have Hurricanes fans filled with a hope they haven't had since 2010.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Straighten Up and Fly Right or Else...

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Ready to Fly

WINNIPEG JETS

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

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

Prediction: 3rd in the Central Division

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

The Road to the Memorial Cup: Red Deer, AB

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

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Getting it Right

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

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

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

Prediction: 1st in the Metropolitan Division

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

Monday, September 28, 2015

"Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

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

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

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

Prediction: 5th in the Pacific Division

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

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Raking Up a Mess

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

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

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

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

Prediction: 8th in the Atlantic Division

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

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ready to Strike Again

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

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

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

Prediction: 1st in the Atlantic Division

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

Friday, September 25, 2015

Back in the Water

SAN JOSE SHARKS

2014-15 record: 40-33-9 (89 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

The 2014-15 season was one to forget for the San Jose Sharks, as the bad vibes that stemmed from the meltdown of the previous year's playoffs carried over into the year, with squabbles between players and coaches and in some instances, players and front office personnel.  Bizarre decisions such as not naming a captain for the season after Joe Thornton was stripped of the C prior to the season were the subject of many jokes from opposing fans, notably when the Sharks paid a visit to Winnipeg one time.  A new season will begin, and a new bench boss will lead the way, as Todd McClellan parted for Edmonton and Pete DeBoer, late of Florida and New Jersey, will be overseeing things.  The pressure to win now remains, as General Manager Doug Wilson is still on the spot.  To that end, the Sharks bolstered all three facets of their team, as Joel Ward, Paul Martin, and Martin Jones join the team.  Ward will add about 20 goals to a team that should be better than middle of the pack offensively, as Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture are capable players, but got little help from players such as Tomas Hertl and saw signs that both Thornton and Marleau could be experiencing a decline in numbers more so.  Brent Burns remains the ever-present wild card here, as he can play forward or defense as needed without his offensive production tailing off.  On defense, Martin will help, as only Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Burns played anywhere near expectations.  It's a unit that struggled, and it would help if Mirco Mueller can shake off the rookie doldrums.  In goal, Antti Niemi is out and in comes Jones, who has far better numbers in rather limited playing time.  The question will be whether Jones' numbers were a product of a superior Kings' defense.  At this point, he's a better option than Alex Stalock, who was thought to have been a potential starter-in-waiting after a solid 2013-14, but struggled last year.  In turn, the porous defense led to the penalty kill falling to the bottom third of the league, and with the power play in the top ten, it is imperative that the Sharks improve on the kill.

Prediction: 4th in the Pacific Division

The Sharks' troubles should be behind them now that there is a more harmonious locker room, but with some issues lingering, not to mention both Thornton and Marleau in decline and possibly subject of trade rumors, the Sharks are not out of the danger zone just yet.  It's still a win-or-else proposition for them, and if the Sharks don't show measurable improvement, the fans' frustrations will be on display in the Shark Tank.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Feeling the Blues

ST. LOUIS BLUES

2014-15 records: 51-24-7 (109 points)
Lost to Minnesota in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: David Backes

It's the same ol' song and dance for the St. Louis Blues, as they were their usual spectacular self in the regular season. However, once the playoffs began, it was another early exit for the Blues, as they have yet to make the Conference Finals since 2001 and have been eliminated in the opening round three years in a row and counting.  Few changes were made for the Blues, and unless you count T.J. Oshie for Troy Brouwer, the Blues' fortunes rest on the usual cast of playoff underachievers.

Up front, Vladimir Tarasenko emerged as a major scoring threat and was one of the very few Blues that showed up for the playoffs.  The 8-year contract extension was well deserved, and he will be the face of the team for years to come.  However, Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz, and David Backes accounted for three goals combined in the playoffs, and this was after each scored 20-plus goals individually.  Brouwer will be counted on to bring some playoff mojo to a team that is severely lacking in it.  Defensively, the unit was less than the sum of the parts despite Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo's best efforts.  There's still depth on this unit, but Jay Bouwmeester will need a rebound season and they will need to replace some of the toughness that left when the Blues decided not to re-sign Barret Jackman.  Brian Elliott and Jake Allen return as the goalies, and while both are good, neither has truly seized the starting role, and that may take a toll at some point.  Special teams are top-10 across the board, which is one thing the Blues have nothing to worry about.

Prediction: 1st in the Central Division

The Blues will make the playoffs once again, but given their playoff failures, anything short of the Stanley Cup Finals could signal major changes behind the bench and with player personnel.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Marching Back to the Promised Land

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

2014-15 record: 43-27-12 (98 points)
Lost to the New York Rangers in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Sidney Crosby

The Pittsburgh Penguins were supposed to be a heavy favorite to contend for the Stanley Cup last year.  Along the way, they forgot how to score and fell to 19th despite having both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup.  A closer look reveals that while Crosby played closer to the level one is used to seeing, Malkin was slowed by injuries while only Patric Hornqvist contributed significantly, and even he missed time to injuries.  With new faces in Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr, plus Russian import Sergei Plotinkin, the Penguins should see their offensive numbers rise.  Of course, it also helps that the Penguins may have finally solved their perpetual wing issue with the acquisition of Phil Kessel, whose only issue will be whether he plays alongside Crosby or Malkin.  Defensively, Kris Letang should be healthy, but he will be coming back to a pretty different blue line, as it will be considerably younger.  Olli Maatta gets a mulligan for a sophomore season wiped out because of health while either or both Derrick Pouliot and Brian Dumolin will see time now that Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff move on.  With Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy having question marks, it is possible that Adam Clendening and/or Tim Erixon could see time, as well.  Goaltending is in good hands, as Marc-Andre Fleury played like an MVP in keeping the Penguins in the playoffs, as well playing lights out despite bowing out to the Rangers in five games in the opening round.

Prediction: 3rd in the Metropolitan Division

The Penguins should know by now what coach Mike Johnston expects of them, and with Kessel on board to play alongside either Crosby or Malkin plus Fleury's MVP-like performance, there's no reason to think the Penguins shouldn't be strong contenders once again.  However, they do play in a division with Washington and the Rangers, so anything can happen.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Back to School

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

2014-15 record: 33-31-18 (84 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Claude Giroux

The Philadelphia Flyers, with the exception of their power play, were awful.  That season cost Craig Berube his job as head coach and now, it will be up to Dave Hakstol to right the ship.  Keep in mind that Hakstol's coaching experience consists of several years at the University of North Dakota, which is college hockey.  After a trying season, it will feel like back to Fundamentals 101 for many of the Flyers players who underperformed.

Offensively, bottom third of the league, although they had no trouble scoring on the power play, which ranked third.  Better play at even strength, particularly from players like Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier would help, as well as, unreasonable at it may sound, better play from Vincent Lecavalier and R.J. Umberger.  Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux did much of the heavy lifting up front, and that's too much for two guys to do.  Wayne Simmonds and Michael Raffl will both be counted upon to improve their goal totals, as both have 30-goal scorer potential.  Defensively, this is where things get interesting, as one or two rookies could be getting a crack.  Mark Streit is an offensive force from the blue line, and Michael Del Zotto is solid.  Beyond that, they're banking on Radko Gudas and Andrew MacDonald to be solid stay-at-home types while any of Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Robert Hagg could be seeing time in a Flyers uniform as rookies.  Steve Mason posted good numbers in goal, but when he got hurt, that's where the problems occurred in goal.  Health will remain an issue for Mason, which is why they brought in Michal Neuvirth, who himself will be looking to show that his numbers last season were a mere product of a bad team (Buffalo) and show that his confidence is back to where it should be.

Prediction: 6th in the Metropolitan Division

The Flyers are still a team of underachievers with a couple of players playing closer to or exceeding expectations.  For the Flyers to contend, they will need better years from key players, particularly the young players, and hope that one or two rookies on the blue line will make a big impact.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Staying With It

OTTAWA SENATORS

2014-15 record: 43-26-13 (99 points)
Lost to Montreal in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Erik Karlsson

The Ottawa Senators were well on their way to an early Spring in January when they fired Paul MacLean as head coach and tabbed Dave Cameron as interim coach.  By mid-April, the Senators found themselves in the playoffs on the backs of both an unheralded AHL lifer in Andrew Hammond and superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson.  The good times ended in the first round though, as Hammond looked mortal before Craig Anderson kept the team in the thick of things before succumbing to Montreal in six games.

The same cast of significant players save for Eric Condra and Eric Gryba return, as the Senators will now find out if Cameron is indeed the right fit for the Senators.  Anderson and Hammond will form the backstopping duo, as Robin Lehner was shipped to Buffalo, thus defining the goalie situation better, as they will hold down the fort while Matt O'Connor develops in the AHL.  Defensively, it's Karlsson's team, and his pairing with Marc Methot is clearly the best on the team.  Cody Ceci is a rising player while Patrick Wiercioch and Mark Borowiecki are solid players.  Chris Phillips is on the downside of his career and he may not be ready in time for the season to start, which places pressure on Jared Cowen to finally start living up to the promise that led him to be a first round pick in 2009.  Offensively, it also begins with Karlsson, as he led the team in scoring.  Kyle Turris is pretty good, but it was a pair of rookies in Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman who stepped up, and both will look to avoid the sophomore slump. Mika Zibanejad is another rising star up front, but Bobby Ryan begins a contract extension and will need to do better than the 18 goals he registered last season.

Prediction: 4th in the Atlantic Division

The Senators will benefit from a full year under Cameron's guidance and though Hammond's epic run shouldn't be expected, he should be good if he can unseat Anderson, who has a slight edge on the starting goaltending job.  As always, the Senators' hopes fall on the shoulders of Karlsson.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Back on Stage

NEW YORK RANGERS

2014-15 record: 53-22-7 (113 points)
Lost to Tampa Bay in Conference Finals
Captain: Ryan McDonagh

The New York Rangers dealt with the adversity of not having one of the best goalies in the NHL for a quarter of the season, yet were able to come away with the Presidents' Trophy.  However, any and all magic that could have carried them to a second straight Stanley Cup Final disappeared before they could get there, as they were eliminated by Tampa Bay at the doorstep.  A few tweaks here and there, and the Rangers figure to be near the top once again.

Up front, they lose Martin St. Louis to retirement and traded away Carl Hagelin to Anaheim.  Replacing them is Viktor Stalberg, who was last seen in Milwaukee of the AHL, and Emerson Etem, a developing talent that has goal scoring potential, but was unable to unlock it in Anaheim.  Finding pieces to fill the depth there will be a challenge, as the Rangers had to get a little creative with the salary cap to re-sign Derek Stepan.  The biggest unknown here is how Mats Zuccarello will be after injuries cut his playoff run short after the opening round against Pittsburgh.  Defensively, a great unit got better with Keith Yandle arriving at the trade deadline, and having him for a full season should offer balance to a team that is already great in its own end.  A player to watch is Brady Skjei, who is likely ticketed for Hartford, but could crack the NHL roster at some point, particularly if Dan Boyle struggles to get out of the gate again.  In goal, Lundqvist missed time because of injuries, but was still the player the Rangers are accustomed to seeing when healthy.  Antti Ranta will have a tough act to follow, as he replaces Cam Talbot and his 16-4-3 record while Lundqvist was out as the backup.

Though the penalty kill slipped in the playoffs, it was great in the regular season, and figures to be so again despite losing Hagelin.  The power play should be better with a full season of Yandle, as they struggled for much of the season.

Prediction: 2nd in the Metropolitan Division

The Rangers will always be near the top of the division for as long as their defense and goaltending hold true to form.  Their third ranked offense was a bit of a surprise, though having Rick Nash discover his elite scoring touch had much to do with it.  How the Rangers handle the grind over the season will determine if they make the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three years.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Brooklyn Bound

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

2014-15 record: 47-28-7 (101 points)
Lost to Washington in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: John Tavares

For most of the season, it looked like the New York Islanders would win the Metropolitan Division.  However, entering the playoffs, their special teams, namely the power play, betrayed them as they went down to Washington in seven games in the opening round.  Pretty much the same cast returns from last season, and with only the New York Rangers likely to take a small step back, making the playoffs will be tough in a Metropolitan Division fraught with six potential playoff contenders.

Depth up front is not a concern.  However, finding consistent linemates for John Tavares is, as the left wing was a revolving door.  The right side is just as uncertain, as Kyle Okposo could very well be on the move as he enters the final year of his contract.  He's also still recovering from an eye injury that cost him a quarter of the season.  There are many good players up front, which made one-time 30 goal scorer Michael Grabner expendable.  It's simply finding the right chemistry for the top three lines, though Nikolay Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski are comfortable enough to constitute two-thirds of a line and Frans Nielsen is a Selke Trophy candidate year in and year out.  Defensively, things really fell into place with pre-season trades for both Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, both of whom signed extensions during the season.  The unit as a whole is better than the 23rd ranking they have, though the Isles would love for either Scott Mayfield or Ryan Pulock to eventually make at least the third pairing.  Depth is not a concern here, either, which allowed them to move Griffin Reinhart for draft picks.  In goal, things get a little dicey, particularly if Jaroslav Halak goes down for any period of time.  Last year, he was exactly the goalie the Isles needed.  However, he wore down as the season progressed and the cavalcade of backups (Kevin Poulin, Michal Neuvirth, and Chad Johnson) were not very good.  This year, it's Thomas Greiss' turn, and if he falters, well, there may not be much of a choice but to put recent acquisition Christopher Gibson in.

Prediction: 4th in the Metropolitan Division

The Islanders return much of the same lineup, which is a good news, bad news kind of deal.  The good news is that the Isles are talented enough and deep enough to make a good run in the playoffs.  The bad news is that until they improve their special teams, particularly their power play, that run may be shortened.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Frozen Over

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

2014-15 record: 32-36-14 (78 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

Since 1983, the New Jersey Devils had one General Manager in Lou Lamoriello, and in the time since, the Devils won three Stanley Cups and made two more Finals.  Many of those came with Martin Brodeur as the goalie.  Those days are long gone (three years, really, but it feels like an eternity for Devils fans) and with Lamoriello stepping down, only to resurface in Toronto, there will be a new regime in New Jersey.  Unfortunately, the same sad sack Devils of the last three seasons remains.

To try and improve the third worst offense, the Devils picked up Kyle Palmieri and Jiri Tlusty. That's not exactly great moves, but they should move the needle a little, particularly if Adam Henrique and Mike Cammalleri both improve on their numbers and if guys like Travis Zajac and Reid Boucher find their games. A player to watch could be Pavel Zacha, who has the tools to be a great power forward. Defensively, there is decent depth, with Adam Larsson finding his way and Damon Severson showing he belongs. Adding John Moore and David Schlemko should give both Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill time in the AHL if neither take that next step forward in their development. Goal is where there are no questions, as Cory Schneider is the guy, and once Devils coaching realized that Keith Kinkaid was a viable backup, it improved the Devils immensely from the beginning of the season. However with the new coaching staff, whether the special teams remain status quo is up in the air. Basically, it will be Penguins East, as Ray Shero is the General Manager while John Hynes is head coach and brought along Alain Nasreddine with him. Geoff Ward also joins the coaching staff.

Prediction: 8th in the Metropolitan Division

The Devils are basically starting over this season, and it will be a long season, particularly on offense. Realistically, a chance at Auston Matthews is what Devils fans hope for this season.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

On the Prowl for More

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

2014-15 record: 47-25-10 (104 points)
Lost to Chicago in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Shea Weber

For most of the 2014-15 season, it appeared that the Nashville Predators would be the ultimate out of the playoffs to Persidents' Trophy story.  However, the last fourth of the season and the playoffs showed that the Predators began to run out of gas, ultimately falling to a playoff-tested Chicago team that would win the Stanley Cup.  Most of the Preds players return except for trade deadline acquisitions Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli, as well as Taylor Beck.  In their place is Barret Jackman, Cody Hodgson, and KHL import Steve Moses.  Jackman will provide a stay-at-home presence that could help Shea Weber be more effective on the power play by reducing his penalty kill responsibilities.  Hodgson will be looking for a fresh start after bottoming out with 13 points in Buffalo while Moses will be looking to break the KHL Curse that the likes of Roman Cervenka and Alexander Radulov have failed to do.  Offensively, they found a couple of players that can spearhead it from the front as Filip Forsberg and James Neal proved to be solid while support players such as Mike Ribeiro, Craig Smith, and Colin Wilson contributed their fair share.  The defensive unit is also solid, with Weber and Roman Josi being the top pairing while both Seth Jones and Ryan Ellis still have room to grow.  Pekka Rinne proved that his injury problems of the previous two seasons were behind him as he played his way into Vezina Trophy consideration, and a repeat of last season wouldn't hurt, as Carter Hutton is merely serviceable while Marek Manzanec will continue to develop in Milwaukee.

Prediction: 4th in the Central Division

The Preds fine-tuned their roster with the hope that Jackman still has something left and Hodgson will benefit from leaving Buffalo.  Still, the roster as currently constituted is not likely to be enough against powerhouses like Anaheim, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Gambling in Leaf Land

I will get to today's Pucks and Rocks NHL Season Preview, which will be the Nashville Predators in a little while.  However, today's developing story does require my attention, as the New York Islanders traded Michael Grabner to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Taylor Beck, Matt Finn, Christopher Gibson, and a couple of other prospects.

As you know, this blog is not exactly above Leaf bashing, and if you've figured it out already, you know where this is going.  Before I do that though, the Islanders have proven to be gamblers when it comes to player moves, and most of the time lately, it's worked for the best.  Getting a solid bottom two line player in Beck will help, as will replenishing the pipeline with Gibson and Finn, who help the goaltending and defenseman area, respectively.  As for the Leafs, this is a major gamble in that the Leafs are betting they will be getting the Grabner who put up 34 goals in 2010-11 and not the Grabner that has not only been injury prone, but also the player that has put up 20 goals in the last two seasons...combined.  Add to the fact that seemingly, Grabner's only other positive attribute is speed, and it ca be said that the Maple Leafs gave up far too much for a player that teases with 40-goal potential, but hasn't come close to delivering in all but one season since he became an NHL regular.  More telling is that the Leafs would be willing to give up two of their better prospects (Finn and Gibson) and a player that they just traded for this off-season (Beck).  Yes, this is Brendan Shanahan's team now, and this trade may already be a defining point in his time with the Leafs.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

How About Some Goals?

MONTREAL CANADIENS

2014-15 record: 50-22-10 (110 points)
Lost to Tampa Bay in Conference semi-finals
Captain: TBA

Entering the playoffs last season, it was expected that the Montreal Canadiens would make a deep run to the Stanley Cup Finals, with some even picking them to win it all.  However, an anemic offense and a Tampa Bay Lightning team that solved Carey Price and the defense long enough to win undid a sterling 110-point season by the Canadiens.  You can pretty much expect the same from this year's Canadiens.  Outside of Alex Semin and Zack Kassian, both of whom flamed out in previous stops, that 20th ranked offense and 23rd ranked power play doesn't figure to budge much.  Yes, there's Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, and PK Subban, but who else will be scoring on a regular basis?  While contributions from Tomas Plekanec and Alex Galchenyuk are nice, the scoring depth is rather thin.  Defensively, the Canadiens have no such problem, as they were the best defense in the league and it begins with a blue line crew featuring Subban, Jeff Petry, and Andrei Markov and ends with Carey Price, who took home four trophies including the Hart Trophy.

The Canadiens are still rather small up front, though the addition of Kassian and the emergence of Jacob De La Rose helps in this regard.  However, if either Nikita Scherbak or Michael McCarron make the roster, it would not only add more size, but also scoring, as Scherbak is immensely talented while McCarron can make his living in front of the net.

Prediction: 3rd in the Atlantic Division

Unless some key players find the scoring touch that has eluded the Canadiens, it will be up to Price and the defense to keep the team in games most nights.  And woe be the Canadiens should Pacioretty goes down due to injury.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Fighting Through the Wilderness

MINNESOTA WILD

2014-15 record: 46-28-8 (100 points)
Lost to Chicago in Conference Semi-finals
Captain: Mikko Koivu

The Minnesota Wild had to fight their way just to make the playoffs for the second straight season, and had mid-season acquisition Devan Dubnyk not played the role of Superman, the Wild would have been a rather expensive disaster sitting at home instead of making the Conference semi-finals.  With largely the same lineup thanks to salary cap constraints, the Wild will have to make do in order to make the playoffs in an increasingly tough Central Division

Despite finishing in the top half of the league on offense, only Zach Parise lived up to expectations consistently while the other scorers either had stretches of inconsistency (Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker) or fell below expectations (Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville).  Consistent production from key players plus Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund would be nice.  Defensively, the Wild are as good any of the elite teams in the league, having finished sixth.  Dubnyk provided stable goaltending that had struggled amongst Niklas Backstrom, who is still in Minnesota despite being a $4 million third string option, Darcy Kuemper, and John Curry.  Expecting Dubnyk to play 38 straight games again would be a folly, so it will be likely up to Kuemper to be the player he was late in 2013-14.

Great defense did translate to a great penalty kill, and that figures to be the case once again while the power play was just awful, and was proven to be a downfall in their loss to Chicago in the playoffs.

Prediction: 6th in the Central Division

The Wild return basically the same team as last year.  That would be great...except that just about every other team in the division improved.  For the Wild to make the playoffs this season, they will have to be more consistent from beginning to end.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Rebuilding a Kingdom

LOS ANGELES KINGS

2014-15 record: 40-27-15 (95 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Dustin Brown

After three straight years of at least making the Conference Finals, winning the Stanley Cup in two of those years, the Los Angeles Kings' late rally towards the playoffs finally fell short.  The 2014-15 season was a forgettable one for them, as the cloud of legal issues and under-performance by some key players conspired to finally bring down a team that was looking to make their usual late push.  Now, they will have to soldier on without clutch performer Justin Williams and defensemen Robyn Regehr and Andrej Sekera.  In addition, the dark cloud off the ice claimed both Jarrett Stoll and Mike Richards, while the same cloud still hangs over Slava Voynov, who missed much of last season while he was sorting out those issues.  The good news is that 2015-16 will be a new year, and they add Milan Lucic to the mix, who will be looking to add physicality.  A healthy Tanner Pearson, as well as a bounce back year from Dustin Brown, would help immensely, as players such as Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Tyler Toffoli, and Jeff Carter had to carry the load too often up front.  Defensively, Drew Doughty was a Norris Trophy finalist despite just registering one power play goal, but along with Jake Muzzin, wore down as the Kings' blue line depth was severely tested throughout the season.  Getting healthy support players is key to continued success, although it would help more if the offense picks up a little.  Jonathan Quick was his usual self, though 72 games is a little much, particularly since the Kings didn't have a great deal of confidence in the since departed Martin Jones despite equally solid numbers from him.  It will be up to Darryl Sutter to find a way to give Quick more rest and have confidence in new backup Jhonas Enroth.

Prediction: 2nd in the Pacific Division

The Kings will rank near the top in puck possession once again.  However, more of those pucks need to end up in the back of the net if they want to try for a third Stanley Cup in five seasons.  Getting some much needed help for star players such as Quick, Kopitar, and Doughty would also be great, as well as some consistency in winning games, as the slow start, end strong method finally caught up with the Kings last season.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Ready to Pounce

FLORIDA PANTHERS

2014-15 record: 38-29-15 (91 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Willie Mitchell

After a couple of seasons where they finished at the bottom of the league, the Florida Panthers had a respectable showing last season, staying in playoff contention for much of the season.  Now, with the youth a year wiser and veterans that are still with the team providing a winning mentality, the Panthers will be looking to make the playoffs for just the second time since the turn of the century.

The Panthers were still dreadful offensively, as just two players cracked the 20-goal barrier, and one that just missed the mark (Jimmy Hayes' 19) was traded in the off-season.  However, those numbers were somewhat deceptive, as the offense had a bit of a spike thanks to trade deadline acquistion Jaromir Jagr, who showed that he has some life left in his 43-year old body.  His presence also helped Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, and both will likely be having him as a linemate again, as Jagr re-signed with the team after the season ended.  Nick Bjugstad and Brandon Pirri (the two 20-plus goal scorers) will have Reilly Smith, who came over in the Hayes deal, as a linemate.  The bottom two lines are a nice balance of skill and toughness.  Defensively is where the Panthers make their hay, as the blue line is fairly well stocked as far as depth is concerned, and that begins with Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad.  While he showed why he as taken first overall last year, he did benefit from the presence veterans Wille Mitchell and Brian Campbell, who both also helped Dmirty Kulikov rediscover his game.  In goal, it begins and ends with Roberto Luongo, who picked up where he left off from the last stint he had in Florida.  He stole games for lesser talented Panthers teams of the past, and now, with an improved team in front of him, he won't have to steal as many games, though he is still capable of doing so if the youth don't progress as planned.

Prediction: 6th in the Atlantic Division

In a division where just about any team save for Toronto could be playoff contenders if the cards fall right, the Panthers can boast the most balanced team.  However, for them to take the next step forward, the youth has to step up and be better than what they were or else another year of playoff-free hockey awaits.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

On the Ninth Year...

EDMONTON OILERS

2014-15 record: 24-44-11 (62 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Andrew Ference

The light at the end of the tunnel has arrived for the Edmonton Oilers.  Not since the days of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier has one player been seen as The Guy like Connor McDavid, and given the Oilers' luck lately, they need him.

Other than the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes, no team was a bigger disaster than the Edmonton Oilers last year.  The Dallas Eakins era lasted all of a season and a half before he was finally given his walking papers and though interim head coach Todd Nelson did indeed inject a little life into the horrible offense, the defense was still an outward mess, as both regular goalies (Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth) registered a GAA of over 3.00 each, and the blue line was a special kind of terrible.  Gone is Fasth and in his place is Cam Talbot, who showed he can play when he substituted for Henrik Lundqvist, but the question is whether he can replicate some of that success behind a still unstable defensive unit.  Speaking of that unit, the Oilers are bringing in some new faces, as they picked up a puck mover (Andrej Sekera), a stay-at-home player that is still growing as a player (Griffin Reinhart), and a hard-hitting sandpaper type of player (Eric Gryba).  Don't forget about Darnell Nurse, who could be a major player if he makes the team this season.

Up front, the young talent up front hasn't turned into what the Oilers thought they were getting, and much of that is the lack of continuity with coaching systems.  While Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins did alright, Taylor Hall missed a fair amount of time and Nail Yakupov only did well once Eakins was shown the door.  Now, throw in Leon Draisaitl, who was nearly ruined at the hands of the previous regime, and of course, Connor McDavid, and the offense should be better.  As for the coaching and front office, Todd McLellan adds credibility to the coaching spot and though he could never get San Jose to the promised land, just guiding the Oilers to playoff contention would be enough this year.  If nothing else, the players will buy into what McLellan is selling on both offense and defense.  Peter Chiarelli brings experience to the General Manager position, something that the often Oiler legend retreads showed little of in the times since the lockout of 2005.

Prediction: 6th in the Pacific Division

With so many new faces and yet another new system, it may take a while for the Oilers to find their rhythm.  Instant success, even with McDavid there, won't come easy, but for the first time in years, hope is finally here for a fan base that has suffered since 2006.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Still Soaring

DETROIT RED WINGS

2014-15 record: 43-25-14 (100 points)
Lost to Tampa Bay in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Henrik Zetterberg

The Detroit Red Wings cracked the 100 point barrier last year and were one of the better balanced teams in the league.  However, cracks started to show, as a goalie that started the year in the minors had to rescue them from falling out of playoff contention and their leading scorer had trouble finding the back of the net late in the season.  Not even a well-played series against eventual Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay could take some of the hurt out of the Red Wings.  The departure of coach Mike Babcock for greener pastures in the off-season didn't help matters, nor did Pavel Datsyuk needing surgery that will likely force him to miss the start of the season.  However, there is good news, as the man that will be replacing Babcock as head coach is Jeff Blashill, who despite having no NHL coaching or playing experience, is a familiar face to many of the Red Wings players thanks to a year as an assistant coach with the team and more recently, three years as head coach in Grand Rapids, where Detroit has their AHL affiliate.

Unlike recent years, the Red Wings didn't lose anyone of significance, as only Stephen Weiss was bought out.  In addition, the Red Wings finally got the right-handed shot from the blue line they wanted, as Mike Green will be coming over from Washington.  Brad Richards was also signed in the hope that he has something left as a second line center.  Still, it will be all about youth up front, particularly since Datsyuk may miss the start of the season and Zetterberg may be experiencing the early stages of a decline.  That means guys like Justin Abdelkader, Gustav Nyquist, and Tomas Tatar will be expected to lead they way offensively and beyond while Zetterberg will continue to provide leadership by example.  Defensively, even with Green, depth remains a concern, as beyond the top three, the other defensemen are either unproven still or average, at best.  In goal, there will now be a fight for the starting job, as Jimmy Howard struggled mightily after an injury not only derailed what was a stellar season, but also his momentum.  Those struggles, plus Jonas Gustavsson's injuries, opened the door for Petr Mrazek to take the job late in the season and for the playoffs, where he showed that he belonged.  With the competition, it will be the best man winning the starting role.

Prediction: 2nd in the Atlantic Division

Despite ongoing issues on the back end, the problems there aren't nearly as glaring as one may think. Up front, it is scoring by committee, as five players (Datsyuk, Tatar, Nyquist, Abdelkader, and the since departed trade deadline pick-up Erik Cole) scored 20 goals or more.  That balance, plus familiarity with the new coach, should help the Red Wings make the playoffs once again.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Pushing for More Offense

DALLAS STARS

2014-15 record: 41-31-10 (92 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Jamie Benn

How does the second best offense manage to miss the playoffs?  If you're the Dallas Stars, you negate that with a defense that tied for 26th.  To fix that problem, the Stars will now have more than $10 million tied to its goaltending, as Antti Niemi joins Kari Lehtonen in goal.  That's one goalie who posted a respectable 2.59 GAA, but could never get his team over the hump when it counted the most and another goalie that posted a dreadful 2.94 GAA, numbers that would have been at home on last year's Edmonton Oilers squad.  Of course, some of the problem can also be tied to the longstanding problem of the blue line that hasn't been able to identify a number one defender.  That doesn't figure to change anytime soon, although Johnny Oduya is a slight upgrade over Trevor Daley and Stephen Johns could get a look as a sixth or seventh defenseman.  At least John Klingenberg broke through last season and he figures to replace Daley's production easily.

Offense is where there is no problem, as returning Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn returns along with Tyler Seguin.  Along with Jason Spezza, they will be joined by recent Stanley Cup winner Patrick Sharp and a healthy Valeri Nichushkin, who could be the next big star in Dallas.

Prediction: 5th in the Central Division

The Dallas Stars have the offense to be Stanley Cup contenders, but until questions about their defense and goaltending are answered, the Stars will have a hard time moving in the tough Central Division.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Out of the Infirmary

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

2014-15 record: 42-35-5 (89 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Nick Foligno

Last year, the Columbus Blue Jackets were expected to expand upon their breakout 2013-14 season in which they made the playoffs.  However, a slow start and over 500-man games lost helped stunt the team's growth as they missed the playoffs.  This year, they add a couple of Stanley Cup winners up front and will rub rabbit's feet that they can avoid the trainer's room as much as possible.  Their offense didn't suffer too greatly, as both Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno led the team in points while being one few players that didn't miss any significant time, with Johansen being one of just two players to play all 82 games (David Savard was the other).  Continued production from those two players and Scott Hartnell, plus bounce back years from Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky would keep the team heading in the right direction.  It would also help if any of Alexander Wennberg, Kerby Rychel, or possibly Sonny Milano takes the opportunity to have a breakout year and if either or both Rene Bourque and David Clarkson rediscover their offensive touch.

Defensively, this was where injuries severely tested the team depth, as only Savard and Jack Johnson played more than 70 games.  To that end, the Blue Jackets drafted Zach Werenski to help the pipeline, but it would be to their benefit if 2012 first round pick Ryan Murray can stay healthy, as injuries have prevented him from fulfilling his full potential.  In goal, this was also where injuries took their toll, as Sergei Bobrovsky was never the player he was in the lockout-shortened 2013 season or even the season where the Blue Jackets made the playoffs.  Curtis McElhinney is a fine backup, but 32 games from a career backup is not exactly something that inspires confidence from the fan base.

Prediction: 5th in the Metropolitan Division

Yes, the Blue Jackets improved, but so did the Islanders, Capitals, and Penguins.  Even the Rangers, who took a slight step back in the off-season, remain a top contender.  That's a formidable challenge for the Blue Jackets to overcome, particularly with the injury bug that hit last season still fresh in the team's mind.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Digging Out

COLORADO AVALANCHE

2014-15 record: 39-31-12 (90 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Gabriel Landeskog

A year after making the playoffs as the Central Division champions, the Colorado Avalanche took a step back and ended up missing the playoffs.  The culprit?  Their less than sterling defense.  This time, their offense also took a step back, as it was largely inconsistent for most of the season and only got back on track towards the end of the season.  In a division where every team is good enough to make the playoffs, the Avalanche will have a hard time making headway even with the new additions.  Gone is Ryan O'Reilly and taking his place is Carl Soderberg.  Meanwhile, the Avs added Blake Comeau to provide responsible two-way play, Nikita Zadorov and Francois Beauchemin to bolster a blue line unit that lost its way more so when Erik Johnson went down with an injury, and Mikhail Grigorenko as a reclamation project for coach Patrick Roy, who should be able to do something for his former pupil in Quebec of the QMJHL.  The offense, on paper, should be better than the 59 points that leading scorers Jarome Iginla and Gabriel Landeskog put up, but a large part of the offense's success hinges on players getting hot at the same time more often.  The blue line figures to be better, but by how much remains to be seen.  Beauchemin is no longer a top-flight option while Zadorov is still developing, and there's also how Johnson will feel after missing the second half of the season.  The only truly sure thing here is Tyson Barrie, who has proven to be a solid offensive option from the blue line.

Semyon Varlamov fought injuries last year and wasn't the same player that was a Vezina finalist the previous season.  The result was Reto Berra proving to be a disaster while Calvin Pickard showed he was ready for NHL duty,  The quandary here what to do with Berra, who is still under contract.

Prediction: 7th in the Central Division

Anything can happen in the Central Division, as all seven teams are better than what their records indicated, and that includes the Avalanche.  However, that also means the Avs will have a harder hill to climb, as they still have defensive concerns.  Of course, getting Nathan MacKinnon to overcome his sophmore slump last year would help immensely.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Same as it Ever Was...

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

21014-15 record: 48-28-6 (102 points)
Won the Stanley Cup
Captain: Jonathan Toews

The Chicago Blackhawks have survived key players leaving for other teams due to salary cap issues and they've survived the ever-constant scrutiny of fans and analysts at the first sight of trouble.  They've even survived a few weeks without Patrick Kane because of injury.  Yet, here we are, the Blackhawks raising another Stanley Cup banner for the third time in six years.  Predictably, the same problems that have plagued them post-championship time have reared their ugly head once again.  Sure, they could survive the losses of Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, and Johnny Oduya.  However, the cloud that hangs over Kane could be something of a distraction and is potentially something that the Blackhawks will have to deal with this season.

As for the team at hand, the Blackhawks do return a very formidable defensive unit that boasts a strong top-four group that will now feature Trevor Daley taking Oduya's place.  Conn Smythe winner Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are both great, but it was the Niklas Hjalmarsson who really stepped up when the games counted the most.  Up front, even with Kane's issues, the Blackhawks still have Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa.  The questions here will be whether the new additions (e.g. Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov) will be able to fill the void left by the departed players.  Two players to watch for potential breakout years are Teuvo Teravainen and Marko Dano, as both are young and are eager to prove they belong.  Goaltending is in good hands, as Corey Crawford showed his resilience in the playoffs after a disastrous beginning and has now cemented himself as a clutch performer.  His backup Scott Darling was a feel-good story last year and can fill in if Crawford needs a rest.

Prediction: 2nd in the Central Division

The Blackhawks will be looking to do something that hasn't been done since 1998, and that is repeat as Stanley Cup champions.  As their two previous Stanley Cup reigns have shown however, it won't be an easy task.  Is this year the time they finally do it?  A little luck and a lot of playoff magic would help.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Regaining Strength

CAROLINA HURRICANES

21014-15 record: 30-41-11 (71 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Eric Staal

An outwardly disastrous start by the Carolina Hurricanes (they didn't win a single game in October) was an omen for a team that has long been a good team up front on paper, but short on production on the ice.  Finishing fourth worst on offense, the Hurricanes entertained offers for much of their core, with the only real change being Alex Semin being bought out after he couldn't escape Coach Bill Peters' doghouse for much of the season.  Besides that and Eddie Lack coming in to challenge Cam Ward for the starting goaltender's job, not much has changed for Carolina as they continue to stockpile talent in the pipeline, particularly on the blue line, which had been long neglected in former General Manager Jim Rutherford's time.

Where to begin?  The entire offense underperformed, with key players such as Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner scoring well below where they should be while Jordan Staal missed half the season due to injury.  About the only players up front that did decently were Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask, and while it's reasonable to expect more from Lindholm entering his third year in the league, Rask's production was a pleasant surprise.  Defensively, they actually got better once Cam Ward got into a rhythm late in the season, and now entering his final year in the current contract, he will be pushed by Lack in an effort to improve a defense that has three solid players on the blue line in Ron Hainsey, Justin Faulk, and James Wisniewski, and not much else at the moment.  Noah Hanifin and Haydn Fleury will be impact players there, but to expect either to make the team this coming season may be too much to ask.  For the struggles of the offense, they actually did well on the power play, and continued to have success on the penalty kill, and those units will be counted upon to keep the team in games.

Prediction: 7th in the Metropolitan Division

Off years from many of the key players plus about a half a season of getting used to Peters' coaching style led to one of the worst seasons in Hurricanes history.  There's a lot of factors that need to go right for the Hurricanes to think about the playoffs, but that's far too many ifs to contend with for a team that will have a hard time escaping the basement.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Reignited and Ready to Go

CALGARY FLAMES

2014-15 record: 45-30-7
Lost to Anaheim in Conference Semi-Finals
Captain: Mark Giordano

A year ago, the Calgary Flames were expected to be one of the harder working teams with little to show for it.  However, that hard work translated to a playoff berth and a series win for the first time since 2004.  Now, expectations are higher, and the Flames didn't stand pat, as they improved an already solid defensive unit and got one of the better free agents on the market.  Though the Flames were in the top ten on offense, a majority of that was the Johnny Gaudreau/Sean Monahan, Jiri Hudler line.  A fully healthy Sam Bennett could change that, as he proved to be worth the wait after missing much of the season due to shoulder surgery and spending time in Kingston to get back in playing shape.  Michael Frolik comes to the Flames as a solid two-way player that can help a penalty kill unit that wasn't great.  Sometimes, the best defense is a good offense, and the blue line provides just that, as three players (Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, and Dennis Wideman) scored over 40 points each while Kris Russell missed by six points.  Now, they will have Dougie Hamilton as a teammate, and the Flames look dangerous in that area, with any combination of Deryk Engelland, Tyler Wotherspoon, newcomer Jakub Nakladal, and a recovering Ladislav Smid competing for that sixth defenseman role.

If you're looking for a potential weakness, it's in goal, as Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, and Jani Ortio are all competing for the starting job.  While the Flames finished in the middle with a similar configuration last year, three goalies on one-way contracts could either be a genius move or a disastrous one.

Prediction: 3rd in the Pacific Division

Expectations are higher in Calgary, and even though the goaltending situation is far from settled, everything else looks good.  The question is whether how the players will respond to increased pressure to succeed now that they are no longer in the shadows.