Thursday, May 28, 2015

NHL Mock Draft: Picks 1-5

The NHL Draft is now a month away, and with the draft order coming into form and the cheat sheets (read: the THN Draft Preview issue) now out, it's time to start thinking of what teams will be doing come next month.  As before, I will be making predictions based on what each team needs and after the draft, will see how I stacked up against the actual draft.  Without delay, here we go with picks 1-5.

1. Edmonton Oilers-Connor McDavid, C, Erie Otters

It's pretty much a foregone conclusion how the top three picks will look, and certainly, the top pick is what every team wanted.  Unlike their previous first overall picks, there is almost no way the Oilers can screw this one up.  When a player like McDavid gets compared to the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby, you know there's something special, and McDavid's play in both junior and international only validates that, and that's despite missing six weeks due to injury.

2. Buffalo Sabres-Jack Eichel, C, Boston University

Sabres fans were disappointed that they won't get McDavid, but Eichel is almost just as good.  Just the second freshman in history to take home the Hobey Baker Award, Eichel was a driving force in getting the Terriers back to the brink of an NCAA title.  He's not the future captain material McDavid is, but very few are at Eichel's age.  I've maintained all along that the Sabres would be wise to take Eichel due to a slight size advantage over McDavid, and this is as good of an opportunity to do so for a team lacking there.

3. Arizona Coyotes-Noah Hanifin, D, Boston College

While the Coyotes need goal scorers, they also need a puck mover on the back end thanks to the Keith Yandle trade.  Because that trade also netted a goal scorer in Anthony Duclair, they can take the best available player here, which also happens to fill a need for a puck moving defenseman.  Hanifin didn't have great numbers this past season, but Boston College wasn't great as a team offensively, either.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs-Dylan Strome, C, Erie Otters

The Maple Leafs need help down the middle, a refrain that's been uttered since Mats Sundin left town in 2008.  They also need a dynamic point producer.  Strome can fill that first part out easily.  As for the second, although not dynamic, he did lead the OHL in scoring this season, and he proved that he is capable of carrying a team, as his 35 points in the 21 games without Erie teammate McDavid can attest.

5. Carolina Hurricanes-Lawson Crouse, LW, Kingston Frontenacs

The Hurricanes didn't score very often this season, and they continue to get pushed around by other teams (Brad Malone was the only player north of 50 PIM).  Crouse is considered the safe pick here, and though his potential isn't quite as high as Mitchell Marner's, Crouse does offer a big body that can get physical and who, at worst, is a third liner who can score.  I wouldn't be shocked if Pavel Zacha gets picked here, as he offers a similar skill set.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Monumental Task Ahead in Toronto

The Toronto Maple Leafs were widely expected to clean house after a disastrous 2014-15 season, and they did that.  Now, they have a guy that will be leading from the bench, as they successfully lured Mike Babcock away from Detroit.  While it would be a folly for anyone to expect the Maple Leafs to suddenly be playoff contenders next season, at the very least, they have a guy that can lead them there who knows the pressures of playing under the spotlight.

His NHL resume consists of two years in Anaheim, where he led the team to a Stanley Cup Final in 2003 and the last 10 years in Detroit, where he led them to back-to-back finals in 2008 and 2009, winning it all in 2008.  He has also coached on the international stage, leading Canada to back-to-back gold medals in the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, as well as gold in 2004 in the World Championships and 1997 in the World Junior Championships.  He has also coached in the WHL with Moose Jaw from 1991-13 and Spokane from 1994-2000.

As for the challenges that await him in Toronto, the most obvious ones would be getting Phil Kessel motivated for a full season and getting something out of a rather porous defense, as well as figuring out the goaltending mess.  The task will be monumental, and this is even before figuring in the Toronto factor, where everything is magnified.  If anyone can succeed, though, it's Babcock, who isn't likely to fold under the intense glare (Paul Maurice), do less with more (Ron Wilson), have his team turn on him (Randy Carlyle), and just do a terrible job (Peter Horachek).  Not since Pat Quinn was behind the bench do Leafs fans feel good about who's leading the team behind the bench.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Blue Jacket Leader

The big news today is which team Mike Babcock will be coaching next season and beyond.  I will get to that once I put together the thoughts I have on that matter.  For now, there was a different vacancy that was filled this week, as the Columbus Blue Jackets ended their search for a new captain that spanned three seasons.

Nick Foligno was named captain after a season in which he was the face of the Columbus Blue Jackets' All-Star showing and was one of the bright spots in the team's recent years.  Acquired in a largely unheralded trade with Ottawa for Marc Methot, Foligno would experience his best years to date, as he and Ryan Johansen would represent the team in this year's All-Star game in Columbus.  He set career highs in points as the Blue Jackets were taking their time to identify an on-ice leader after disastrous runs with Adam Foote and Rick Nash.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Memorial Cup Field Set

The participants for this year's Memorial Cup were already set as of Friday, thanks to the WHL and OHL determining champions plus the two participants in the QMJHL Finals.  However, the QMJHL had to determine a champion in their league, and now, we know who will be walking into the Memorial Cup tournament as the Presidents Cup champion thanks to a thrilling 2-OT game seven.

The Kelowna Rockets, Oshawa Generals, Rimouski Oceanic, and Quebec Remparts will be competing for the right to hoist the Memorial Cup in a tournament that begins this Friday.  Let's look at each team, how they got here, and why they could win.

KELOWNA ROCKETS: The Rockets are the WHL representative, and boast a strong blue line unit that features Madison Bowey and Josh Morrisey.  Leon Draisaitl leads the way offensively, but Nick Merkley isn't far behind.  Jackson Whistle has played well in goal.  The Rockets had little trouble getting past Tri-City and Victoria before finally conquering their demons in the form of Portland in the Conference Finals.  From there, they took care of a young Brandon Wheat Kings squad to secure their spot in the tournament.  Of all the teams, the Rockets are the most balanced of the group.

OSHAWA GENERALS: The Generals were the stingiest team in the league in giving up goals, and they handily dispatched Peterborough and Niagara before paying back North Bay for last year's ouster.  They also found a way to contain Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters long enough to win the OHL spot in the Memorial Cup tournament.  The team has size thanks to Michael McCarron and Hunter Smith, but they also boast a solid defense led by Mitchell Vande Sompel and goaltender Ken Appleby.  Michael Dal Colle leads the offense, but Cole Cassels is a key, as he was the guy charged with containing McDavid in the OHL Finals.

RIMOUSKI OCEANIC: The top team in the QMJHL regular season, the Oceanic qualified just by making the Finals, since their opponent was also hosting this year.  The Oceanic were also well-balanced, but made their living by keeping opposing teams from scoring, as they were second best in goals against.  They breezed through Victoriaville, Gatineau, and Val D'Or before nearly running out of gas against Quebec, but thanks to the 2-OT winner, they will be walking in as Presidents' Cup champions.  Alexis Loiseau leads the way offensively, but their bread and butter is defense, as Jan Kostalek and Samuel Morin are the leaders of the blue line while Frederik Gauthier is a presence up front.  Louis-Phillip Guindon and Phillipe Desrosiers are a solid tandem in goal.

QUEBEC REMPARTS: The team that is hosting the Memorial Cup this year, the Remparts nearly had disaster in the first round against Cape Breton, but finished them off in seven games.  Momentum took them past Charlottetown and Moncton in consecutive sweeps before they met their match against Rimouski in seven games, thus denying the Remparts the opportunity to walk into the Memorial Cup tournament as champions for the first time since Kitchener did it in 2008.  The Remparts have the best goaltender of the four, as Zach Fucale was also a member of the 2013 Halifax Mooseheads team that won both the QMJHL and Memorial Cup titles.  Anthony Duclair and Adam Erne are great offensive options up front, and their defense, while solid, look a lot better with Fucale behind them.

Monday, May 18, 2015

NHL Draft Order Coming into Focus

The NHL Draft is a month away, and with teams dropping like flies in this year's playoffs, the NHL Draft order is looking clearer.  While it's a near foregone conclusion as to who will be taken with the first two picks and where they're going, there are 28 other picks to be made in the first round.  Here is the order, and at some point, I will be trying my hand at who will be picking who.

1. Edmonton
2. Buffalo
3. Arizona
4. Toronto
5. Carolina
6. New Jersey
7. Philadelphia
8. Columbus
9. San Jose
10. Colorado
11. Florida
12. Dallas
13. Los Angeles
14. Boston
15. Calgary
16. Edmonton (from Pittsburgh)
17. Winnipeg
18. Ottawa
19. Detroit
20. Minnesota
21. Buffalo (from NY Islanders)
22. Washington
23. Vancouver
24. Toronto (from Nashville)
25. Winnipeg (from St. Louis via Buffalo)
26. Montreal
27-30. Tampa Bay (from NY Rangers), Philadelphia (from Tampa Bay), Arizona (from Chicago), Anaheim

As you can see, the last four spots will be determined as the playoffs continue to progress.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Conference Finals Preview

What started as 16 teams is now down to four.  Puck drop for the Conference Finals begins tomorrow, so catch your breath until then.  On to the preview...

(3) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (1) Anaheim Ducks

The Blackhawks are getting hot at the right time, and a large part of that is thanks to Patrick Kane, who has proven to be what the Blackhawks needed.  Still, the key will be in goal, as in which Corey Crawford will we see: the one that dominated against Minnesota or the one that struggled out of the gate against Nashville?  The Ducks experienced a little trouble against Calgary, but like the Winnipeg series, the Ducks came through when it counted the most.  Depth has been a key to their success, and Fredrik Andersen has proven to be solid in net.

Prediction: Ducks in 6

(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (1) New York Rangers

Tampa Bay looked like they were going to roll over the Canadiens in the last series, but had some trouble before finally closing out in six.  Offensively, they are the best team remaining, yet their defense is still a work in progress as they search for consistency.  The Rangers had to come back from a 3-1 deficit to knock off the Capitals in the semi-finals, and even with Rick Nash pulling off his usual no-show this time of year, Henrik Lundqvist has been every bit of the clutch goalie that the Rangers have hoped for this series.

Prediction: Rangers in 7

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

WHL Finals Preview

The WHL Finals begin Friday, and for the first time since 2010, it won't involve the Portland Winterhawks. Instead, we get a rematch of the 2005 Finals, as the Kelowna Rockets take on the Brandon Wheat Kings. The Rockets are in the finals for the first time since 2009, when they last won the championship while the Wheat Kings are in for the first time since 2005. Both teams were pre-season favorites to represent their respective conferences, and both boast potent offenses and strong defenses. The Rockets are led by Leon Draisaitl, and players such as Nick Merkley, Josh Morrissey, and Madison Bowey help lead the team in front of Jackson Whistle. The Wheat Kings are a young team led by the likes of Tim McGauley, Jayce Hawryluk, Ivan Provorov, and the brothers Quenneville, John and Peter. That team is backed by Jordan Papirny.

As for who will win, the Wheat Kings played well so far with few bumps along the way, and given their relative youth, this team could be the next team to go on a dominant run in the following seasons. The Rockets played well in the first two rounds, but needed comebacks against Portland to secure a spot here. Kelowna will need to avoid falling behind, as the Wheat Kings are a far better defense than Portland.

Prediction: Wheat Kings in 6

Monday, May 4, 2015

End of a Historic Run

With the loss last night to the Kelowna Rockets, this will be the first time in five years that someone other than the Portland Winterhawks will represent the Western Conference in the WHL Finals.  The Winterhawks had made the WHL Finals in the previous four years, winning it all in 2013, and despite being denied their fifth straight final, the Winterhawks did well considering their slow (even by their standards) start and a new head coach/general manager.  So, what roster decisions need to be made for next season?

For one, the trio of Miles Koules, Adam Henry, and Josh Hanson will be moving on, as they were the three over-agers this season.  Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand are likely turning pro, meaning the team's top two scorers are going to be gone and need to be replaced.  As for potential over-agers for next season, the Winterhawks will have to choose from Alex Schoenborn, Chase DeLeo, Anton Cederholm, Blake Heinrich, and Layne Viveiros, which is five players for three spots.  Of that group, Cederholm also occupies an import slot, and it is possible the Winterhawks could use both picks in the upcoming Import Draft.

Goaltending is in good hands for next season, as Adin Hill is penciled in as the starter, and other than the last game, where the defense in front of him deserves some of the blame, Hill played well when given the starting job.  As for backup, Evan Johnson is in that spot, though the Winterhawks could go younger, as both Hill and Johnson are 1996 born players.  As for defensemen, Keoni Texeira will return, along with Brendan DeJong.  Nick Heid will have a chance to prove himself next season, as will newcomer Caleb Jones, though Jones will have some (unfairly) lofty expectations put upon him, as he is the younger brother of Seth Jones, who played for the Winterhawks in the 2012-13 season.  Paul Bittner would be the top returning leading scorer if DeLeo is allowed to turn pro.