Friday, September 30, 2016

Getting Back in the Air


2015-16 record: 35-39-8 (82 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Blake Wheeler

The high of making the playoffs two seasons ago faded when the Jets had trouble keeping pucks out of the net. With the team generally staying the course when it comes to how they want to build the team, that meant growing pains for a lot of the prospects who came along during last season. It wasn't until a bounce of the ping pong ball that the movement gained some steam, as the Jets were elevated to second overall in the draft. There's still things to figure out, but the future beyond this season looks bright.

It was an all-around bad year for the Jets, as the offense barely made the middle of the pack status offensively. While it was relatively top heavy, with the likes of Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Dustin Byfuglien carrying the load, there is a logjam of youth that is ready to contribute, with Nikolaj Ehlers already there and any of Patrik Laine, Nic Petan, and Joel Armia, among others, at the doorstep. The offense will have to improve from within. Similarly, the defense is in the same spot, as they were 22nd overall despite trotting out Byfuglien and Tyler Myers. Now, with the uncertainty surrounding Jacob Trouba and his contract issues, that could cause a few more problems. It would help the defense a little more if goaltending was more consistent, as incumbent starter Ondrej Pavelec was hurt for half the season and when he was healthy, he wasn't great. Connor Hellebuyck got a taste of NHL action, but needs another year in the AHL while Michael Hutchinson is a back-up in every sense of the word. Special teams were outwardly dismal, as the penalty kill suffered, but the power play was even worse. Laine should help the power play, but the Jets will need to stay out of the box a little more to improve the penalty kill.

Prediction: 5th in the Central Division

The Jets are committed to a youth movement, but first, they may wish to solve their back line issues, especially since trouble could be ahead if there isn't a resolution to the Jacob Trouba situation. At the very least, their offense should see an uptick thanks to a potential superstar in Laine.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Getting Over the Hill


2015-16 record: 56-18-8 (120 points)
Lost to Pittsburgh in Conference semi-finals
Captain: Alexander Ovechkin

It wasn't supposed to be another season ending in disappointment for the Washington Capitals. Not after picking up clutch performers such as T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams last off-season. Not after winning the Presidents' Trophy by a wide margin for the best regular season. And certainly not to their playoff nemesis the Pittsburgh Penguins, who would go on to hoist Lord Stanley at the end of the playoff season. The Capitals didn't make any major moves, but expectations are the same as before: win a Stanley Cup.

Offensively, it always begins with Ovechkin, who scored 50 goals for the third straight year. Oddly enough, he didn't lead the team in scoring, as Evgeny Kuznetsov had his breakthrough year and led the team with 77 points, six more than Ovechkin. Offense is certainly not an issue, but getting a player that can score the dirty goals in front of the net may be a need moving forward, and perhaps Brett Connolly, a former first round pick in 2010, can finally fulfill his potential in that manner. Defensively, depth could be an issue, particularly since there is no true workhorse on the blue line, but a group of solid players. Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen proved to be reliable together, but the Caps would benefit better with a healthier John Carlson. In goal, don't expect Braden Holtby to carry the load the same way he did last season, not after Phillipp Grubauer showed that he could fill in when needed. However, on the days Holtby starts, expect sterling goaltending, as he is just now entering elite company when it comes to the league goaltending, as evidenced by his Vezina Trophy win. The power play was in the top five, as it should be when you're boasting the likes of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Niklas Backstrom. The penalty kill was even better, finishing second, though it remains to be seen just how much of an impact Lars Eller could have, as he is replacing Jason Chimera and Mike Richards.

Prediction: 1st in the Metropolitan Division

Unquestionably, the Capitals will make the playoffs. However, until they solve their inability to get to the Conference Finals in the Ovechkin era, all doubt will remain. In short, it will be Cup or Bust for the Capitals this season.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Bottom of the Ocean


2015-16 record: 31-38-13 (75 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Henrik Sedin

From an unexpected playoff push two seasons ago, things almost immediately fell apart for the Vancouver Canucks since then, as in most categories, they managed to hover near the bottom, including the standings. Yet, they opt to seek for a band-aid approach in a last-ditch effort to get the Sedins another playoff berth before they retire despite the need to eventually identify some young talent. It's going to be a wild ride in Vancouver, one way or another.

A team that features the Sedin twins should not be second to last on offense, yet thanks to various injuries, underperformers, and young players not quite reaching their potential, that's what happened. Their solution? Sign Loui Eriksson to a six-year deal, and while it may solve the revolving door that was the third forward spot on the Sedin line, it is still a chasm to fill, as only Daniel Sedin and Jannik Hansen scored more than 20 goals last season. Getting improved numbers from the likes of Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi, and Emerson Etem are a must. They were only marginally better defensively, though a top pairing of Ben Hutton and Chris Tanev isn't going to scare anyone. To that end, the Canucks traded for Erik Gudbranson, which will add physicality to the blue line in need of it, though it came at the cost of Jared McCann. A healthy Alex Edler should help, as will improved depth that could see as many as two rookies on the blue line. In goal, things get murky, as Ryan Miller is in the final year of his contract, and despite posting mediocre numbers, enters the season as the starter. Jacob Markstrom earned an extension and should be cutting into the number of Miller's starts. The power play, predictably, was awful, and the hope is that Eriksson, as well as new assistant coach Doug Jarvis, can boost that unit. The penalty kill was middle of the pack, though it did miss Brandon Sutter for half the season.

Prediction: 7th in the Pacific Division

No one is quite sure what the Canucks are doing to ensure future success after the Sedins, as the rebuild has hit some snags. Truthfully, it would be no surprise if the Canucks are closer to the Nolan Patrick sweepstakes, otherwise known as the 2017 NHL Draft. The Canucks want the playoffs this season, but at what cost will it be to their future?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

More Pain Ahead


2015-16 record: 29-42-11 (69 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

Entering their 100th year since they formed, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the midst of a painful, to put in coach Mike Babcock's words, process of rebuilding. That pain last season resulted in being dead last in the standings, yet brought them a sense of hope, as the lottery went their way and they were able to draft Auston Matthews. The pain will continue, but with a youthful core learning on the job, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Offensively, when your leading scorer only amasses 45 points as Nazem Kadri did, you know your offense is terrible. Of course, they also let their only 20-goal scorer from last season leave, as P.A. Parenteau went back to the New York Islanders. For better or for worse, any success of the youth movement will largely hinge on Matthews, who draws comparisons to Jonathan Toews. If true, the Leafs will have their true number one center not seen since Mats Sundin last played there. There are other young players ready to make an impact, as Mitch Marner, William Nylander, among others, will vie for spots, but having a healthy James van Riemsdyk, as well as an improved Kadri will be key. To ensure that opposing players don't take too many liberties with the group, the Leafs signed Matt Martin, and along with Leo Komarov, will be just as important to the development. Defensively, they were still bad going by rankings, but shaving 17 goals off the total was a sign that the blue line is getting better. The problem is that only Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner qualify as top four defenders at the moment. There's a lot of bodies competing for the next four spots, but no true standouts, though Martin Marincin showed his worth on the penalty kill. In goal, the Leafs are hoping newcomer Frederik Andersen will be able to replicate his numbers with Anaheim, but this will also be his first true starting job, as he's always split with John Gibson. Jhonas Enroth was signed to buy Garret Sparks a little more time with the Marlies. Predictably, the power play was awful, and it will probably be that way again until it is known just how much of an impact the kids will make. The penalty kill was middle of the pack, which was a by-product of the team buying what Babcock was selling.

Prediction: 8th in the Atlantic Division

It'll be another long year for the Maple Leafs, yet it appears that fans are willing to buy into pain now for sustained success later. After years of short fixes and trading away draft picks, getting a player like Matthews may very well be the thing that changes their a few years.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Striking While Hot


2015-16 record: 46-31-5 (97 points)
Lost to Pittsburgh in Conference Finals
Captain: Steven Stamkos

In spite of the continuous drama surrounding whether the Tampa Bay Lightning would lose Steven Stamkos one way or another, coupled with the Jonathan Drouin problem, the Lightning somehow managed to do very well for themselves, eventually solving their bugaboos along the way in the process. After another Conference Finals appearance that saw Drouin contribute after a few months exile in the AHL, the Lightning not only got Stamkos to sign on for eight more years, but they also headed off another potential problem, as they signed franchise defender Victor Hedman to a long-term deal. The Lightning are ready to take advantage of the window of opportunity now, but there are still things to sort out.

The Lightning had their early season struggles offensively, which explains their 12th place ranking in that category. A healthier Stamkos plus having a bounce back season from Tyler Johnson and Drouin being on board for a full season should help that number. One potential issue is whether they get Nikita Kucherov signed on time. Beyond that, there isn't much for the Lightning to do here. Defensively, the signing of Hedman means the Lightning won't have to worry about their top two defenders, as Anton Stralman also returns. However, depth may be something of an issue, as it does get a little thin. Still, this is a unit that should be able to replicate their 7th ranked defense. In goal is where things get interesting, as Ben Bishop is in his final year of his current deal, and despite playing Vezina-caliber hockey, Andrei Vasilevsky is ready to assume the starting job at some point. Tampa Bay will have to make a move there at some point, especially with the Las Vegas expansion draft looming. The power play outage that the Lightning suffered was one of the more inexpiable things to happen to the team, though getting everyone back on the same page could help here. Conversely, the penalty kill was near the top, and as long as everyone is healthy, it should remain in the top third of the league.

Prediction: 1st in the Atlantic Division

The Lightning managed to make the Conference Final last year despite not having Stamkos for much of the playoff run and with clouds hovering over them all season long. Now that Stamkos is under contract for his prime years and Drouin is happy, things should be even better than before with the Lightning...if the goaltending situation doesn't become another distraction.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Circling the Waters


2015-16 record: 46-30-6 (98 points)
Lost to Pittsburgh in Stanley Cup Final
Captain: Joe Pavelski

A year ago this time, the San Jose Sharks were being criticized for sticking with Doug Wilson as General Manager and hiring Pete DeBoer, he of two failed coaching stints in Florida and New Jersey, as head coach. This season, it is now all about taking that final step, as the Sharks made their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history, but fell short in the end. Many key players return, with a couple of players hoping to make an impact.

Up front, it's the Joes, as Thornton and Pavelski led the team offense. Whereas the elder Joe was thought to be on his last legs, DeBoer's decision to include Thornton in the leadership role despite the actual captain role going to Pavelski may have been one of his moves, as Thornton was tied for fourth in league scoring. Scoring depth was big, as Logan Couture led the team in playoff scoring, and it only figures to get better, as Mikkel Boedker joins the team. Brent Burns is not only the team's best option on the blue line, but he's also been versatile enough to play up front. Given the depth on the back end, however, he may be needed there, as the Sharks aren't as good depth-wise. David Schlemko only merely offsets the loss of Roman Polak, though Mirco Mueller may be ready after an AHL refresher. In goal is where things get interesting, as Martin Jones may be backed up by Aaron Dell, who has only played as high as the AHL level for about a year. Jones proved his worth after coming over last off-season, but if he goes down for an extended period of time, things may get a little dicey here. The power play was really good, as they finished 3rd, and it only figures to be just as good with Boedker joining the forward ranks. The penalty kill could use some work though, as it was rather mediocre. Another year in DeBoer's system could help, as the Sharks were getting used to the coaching styles.

Prediction: 1st in the Pacific Division

The Sharks will have a tough act to follow, as their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance raises expectations. Much of the same cast returns, and with a little more speed, the Sharks could be back again. Then again, if something happens to Jones, it could be a problem.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Taking the Next Step...


2015-16 record: 49-24-9 (107 points)
Lost to San Jose in Conference Finals
Captain: Alex Pietrangelo

Entering year 50 of their existence, the St. Louis Blues have the ignominy of being the only team left from the class of '67 that has never won the Stanley Cup. However, last season was quite possibly their best season yet, and there is optimism that they can do it again. However, as it has always been in the Central Division, the road won't be easy.

One of the biggest changes for the Blues this season will be that they won't have the toughness of either David Backes or Troy Brouwer. While the smaller lineup may very well push Vladimir Tarasenko closer to 50-goal territory, the lack of a physical presence may make things harder for the likes of Robby Fabbri and Jaden Schwartz. The only addition was David Perron, who is back for a second run with the team. A solid defensive unit returns largely intact, and despite the persistent trade rumors surrounding Kevin Shattenkirk, the Blues can boast up to seven NHL-caliber defenders. In goal, it's Jake Allen's show now, as the Blues traded away Brian Elliott. This will be Allen's first primary starting job in the NHL, and the safety net in case he falls is Carter Hutton, who can spell Allen for a handful of games just in case. Both units on special teams were great, but the turnover, both on the ice and behind the bench, may affect the team in that regard.

Prediction: 4th in the Central Division

The Blues are looking to take the next step forward now that they know how to get to the Conference Finals. However, losing a little physicality may cause them to step back a little, though they do have a pretty good chance in an increasingly speedy Central Division.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Victory Formation


2015-16 record: 48-26-8 (104 points)
Won the Stanley Cup
Captain: Sidney Crosby

Stop if you've heard this before: the Pittsburgh Penguins struggled out of the gate despite high expectations, replaced their head coach in the middle of the season, began to play like winners, and would go on to win the Stanley Cup at the end of the season. Believe it or not, that's been the narrative of the last two times the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup, including last season. This season, they would love to repeat the narrative of 1991 and 1992, when they repeated as champions.

Despite being one of the bigger names in the league, Sidney Crosby remains a polarizing figure among fans, but you don't need to be a fan to see that he really does make his teammates better, a fact rewarded by his Conn Smythe winning performance in the playoffs. His best came when the supporting cast kept changing due to call-ups from the AHL. A healthier Evgeni Malkin will make the Penguins even more dangerous offensively, especially now that there is a viable third scoring line consisting of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel. The offense begins from the stick of Kris Letang, and with Trevor Daley as another option, offense will once again be a strength. Defensively, the Penguins were just outside the top five, and the only loss there was Ben Lovejoy. However, depth should not be a problem. In goal is where things get interesting, as it has been Marc-Andre Fleury's crease for a while, but injuries opened the door for Matt Murray, who carried the mail there en route to the Cup. Now, the question is who to go with, as both are proven in key situations. The power play was only middle of the pack, but having a full season of Mike Sullivan behind the bench should help a little while the penalty kill will look to repeat their performance, as they finished fifth.

Prediction: 2nd in the Metropolitan Division

Much of the cast that was on the ice for the Stanley Cup presentation returns, and Sullivan will have a full season to further implement his system. The pressure of repeating will loom, but if there is a team that has the potential to do it, Pittsburgh is it.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Serving the Youth


2015-16 record: 41-27-14 (96 points)
Lost to Washington in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Claude Giroux

The Philadelphia Flyers were supposed to be a team in transition last year, as they were shedding dead-weight contracts left and right and were getting used to a head coach whose experience consisted of college. However, something happened along the way, and the youth that was supposed to have trouble learning the game for much of the season put it together enough to sneak into the playoffs and give the Presidents Trophy winning Washington Capitals all they could handle. This time around, expectations will be higher, but in a tough Metropolitan Division, they may be forced to scrap for a playoff spot once again.

Offensively, the struggles of getting used to coach Dave Hakstol's system were evident for much of the season. This was especially true of Jakub Voracek, who followed a career year with a rather dismal one, as he could only muster 11 goals. However, Brayden Schenn began to show signs of why the Flyers traded for him in 2011, as he finished only behind Wayne Simmonds, plus the emergence of Shayne Gostisbehere added an element from the blue line. Improvement across the board would be nice, especially from the secondary options. They Flyers drafted defensively the past few seasons, and now may be the time where some of those players begin to compete for spots. Gostisbehere is already there, and he may be joined by 2015 first round pick Ivan Provorov, who has nothing left to prove in the WHL. Of course, the veterans of the group provide solid, if unspectacular play. In goal, it almost seemed as though if one goalie got hurt, the other stepped up. That was the case for Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth, both of whom posted good save percentage numbers and split the load in the playoffs, though Neuvirth had the better showing there. Both special teams units fell from the previous season, though the power play proved to be in better shape than the penalty kill. Boyd Gordon comes over to help the penalty kill while a full season of Gostisbehere should improve the power play standing.

Prediction: 5th in the Metropolitan Division

The Flyers will be a better team, but by how much will be determined by just how well they navigate a tough Metropolitan Division. A wild card spot is more realistic than finishing third in the division, but they will be a tough out themselves.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sens-e of Urgency


2015-16 record: 38-35-9 (85 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Erik Karlsson

There was no furious finish to make the playoffs this time for the Ottawa Senators, and it was shortly after that disappointing result that the Senators decided to make wholesale changes. Bryan Murray stepped down from the General Manager position and Pierre Dorion is now running things. His first move was replacing Dave Cameron as head coach and coaxing Guy Boucher from Switzerland for a second try at the NHL coaching carousel. Dorion would also convince Marc Crawford to come in as an associate. To further emphasize the win now mode that owner Eugene Melnyk has, the Senators traded away Mika Zibanejad for Derick Brassard. The moves have been made, but will it get the Senators a playoff spot?

Offensively, the Sens ranked ninth, and a fair amount of that can be attributed to Erik Karlsson, who starts everything from his own end and led the team in scoring by 21 points. Some of those pucks from Karlsson's stick have to find forwards, and five different players scored more than 20 goals, though the Sens are still waiting on Bobby Ryan to fulfill his 30-goal potential he flashed while in Anaheim. Of course, having a healthy Kyle Turris and Clarke MacArthur wouldn't hurt, either, as both missed time to injuries, with MacArthur missing almost the entire season. Defensively, they were not good, and a large part of the problem was lack of depth on the blue line. When Karlsson is your leading defenseman, that carries as much good as it does bad, as he's not the greatest in his own end, but he does work well with his usual defense partner in Marc Methot. After those two plus Dion Phaneuf and Cody Ceci, things become worrisome, as the Sens don't have a regular fifth defender that can play most nights. In goal, Andrew Hammond was bound to fall off from the previous season, and he did, as he battled injuries and inconsistency. That opened the door for Craig Anderson to become starter once again, and he did fairly well despite the numbers. Things could have been worse for the Senators without the goaltending. Special teams was another problem, as they finished in the bottom fifth in both categories. Changes will have to come from within, though the penalty kill could benefit from the return of Chris Kelly.

Prediction: 7th in the Atlantic Division

The Senators have the offense to compete, but without a defense that can hold the fort better, any hopes of making the playoffs are remote. Whether the coaching changes will improve the team remains to be seen, though any success will still be on the shoulders on the goaltending.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Out of Time?


2015-16 record: 46-27-9 (101 points)
Lost to Pittsburgh in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Ryan McDonagh

Two consecutive seasons after reaching the Conference Finals, the New York Rangers took a couple of steps back. Yes, they made the playoffs, but they showed signs of wear and tear, and their defense that had long been known for locking things down suddenly looked mortal. The Rangers went into the bargain bin for free agents, and figure to be a little younger, thanks to a trade and a signing of the hottest college free agent of the off-season. As always, though, the Rangers are in win now mode, but is the window closed?

Despite having five players finish with more than 20 goals, thus their 7th place ranking offensively, not having a healthy Rick Nash hurt here, as he is still a difference maker even as he continues to drift further into his 30's. Trading for Mika Zibanejad cost them Derick Brassard, a difference of -6 goals, but the Rangers do get younger up front. The quest to get younger got a boost when Jimmy Vesey opted to sign with the Rangers as a college free agent, and along with Brady Skjei and Pavel Buchnevich, the Rangers could have an injection of youth to go along with the tested veterans. Defensively, Skjei would be a welcome addition to the team, as many of the blue liners had off-years. Even Ryan McDonagh, who led the team in the +/- category, didn't post his usual offensive numbers. The task gets even tougher, as Keith Yandle took his offensive output to Florida, leaving the rest of the unit to make up for the loss there. Is the Henrik Lundqvist that showed up in the first round loss to Pittsburgh a sign of things to come or an instance of an elite player having a bad spell at the wrong time? That is a question of whether the Rangers finally decide to give him a little more rest, as Antti Raanta more than showed that he could shoulder the load when necessary. The power play was middle of the pack, and this is where Yandle's contributions will be missed the most, as there is no immediate replacement. On the penalty kill, it was as bad as it could get, which explains why the Rangers picked up both Nathan Gerbe and Michael Grabner in free agency.

Prediction: 4th in the Metropolitan Division

The longer Summer for the Rangers should help in getting them back to deeper playoff runs. However, their defense must shore up, as they began to show cracks, and Lundqvist must show that his dismal playoff showing was not a sign that he is slowing down. Youth will be served one way or another, but the veterans will have to have bounce back seasons if they want to be Stanley Cup contenders again.

Monday, September 19, 2016

No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn


2015-16 record: 45-27-10 (100 points)
Lost to Tampa Bay in Conference semi-finals
Captain: John Tavares

For the first time since 1993, the New York Islanders won a playoff series. However, that euphoria would be short lived, as they were thoroughly outclassed by Tampa Bay in the following round. Though there was considerable roster turnover when it came to the forwards, as well as the potential problem of having too many goalies that could start for other teams, the Islanders are actually positioned well for a deep playoff run. After all, the team does still center around John Tavares.

Tavares will have new linemates, as the right wing formerly occupied by Kyle Okposo is open, with one-time linemate P.A. Parenteau and Ryan Strome competing for that spot while Andrew Ladd should hopefully end the carousel at left wing. The key component to the Islanders' continued success will be the younger players such as Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Strome, as they all took a step back. Of course, they also lost Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin, which may very well open the door for Mathew Barzal if he has a strong training camp. Defensively, the top four spots are spoken for, and the only battle will be for the final two spots, as Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech are ready for the NHL. In goal is where things truly get interesting, as Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Greiss, and J.F. Berube all showed starter caliber goaltending. Halak was the starter to begin, but went down for the season in March, opening the door for Greiss, who led the Isles through the playoffs. Berube proved to be capable when pressed into action. The power play could be better, and it remains to be seen how Ladd and Parenteau will help improve that unit. As for the penalty kill, how much the loss of Okposo and Nielsen will impact the fourth ranked unit will be one to monitor.

Prediciton: 4th in the Atlantic Division

After Washington and Pittsburgh, the battle for the third spot in the Metropolitan is anyone's guess, and the Islanders are squarely in the middle of it. How they manage their losses from last season, as well as how quickly the new guys integrate into the system will determine whether they can move up in the league. Of course, getting production from whoever ultimately seizes the starting goaltending job will also help.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Heating Up


2015-16 record: 38-36-8 (84 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Andy Greene

The first season after longtime General Manager Lou Lamiorello stepped down from the role ended the same way it began: good goaltending, but needing offense. To that end, the Devils' attempts to be more of an up-tempo team took another step forward, as they traded for the franchise forward that they lacked since Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk left town. They still need to improve, but it's a step forward.

Despite getting 30 goal seasons from Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique, the only other players to notch double digit goals were Travis Zajac, Mike Cammalleri, and Devante Smith-Pelly, the last of the three actually split time between New Jersey and Montreal. With that in mind, the Devils pulled the trigger on a trade for Taylor Hall, who should benefit from not having to face the more physical Pacific Division teams for half the season. Obviously, he will have the burden of being the franchise forward the Devils have lacked since 2013, but he is also motivated. Scoring depth will still be an issue, which could also open the door for Pavel Zacha to make the jump to the NHL from the juniors. Despite losing Adam Larsson in the Hall trade, the Devils have good depth on the blue line when it come to their own end. However, that same group was complicit in the Devils' lack of offensive punch, as Damon Severson led all defenders with 21 points. Finding scoring there will be much harder. Goaltending has no such issue, as Cory Schneider has made the transition from Martin Brodeur fairly seamless. He's been the team's best player by far, and backup Keith Kinkaid is competent, but will need to rebound from a less than sterling season in which he posted just okay numbers and Scott Wedgewood waiting in the wings. Special teams were in the top ten each, and while Hall will only add to the power play while the penalty kill was up there, too.

Prediction: 7th in the Metropolitan Division

The Devils need more offense, especially from their blue liners, but getting Hall will answer the Devils' need for a focal point when the Devils have the puck. As always, defense and goaltending will continue to rule the day for the Devils, who need it until the offense comes around.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Onward March


2015-16 record: 41-27-14 (96 points)
Lost to San Jose in Conference semi-finals
Captain: Mike Fisher

The Nashville Predators made history last season, as they not only got to play in a game seven for the first time in franchise history, but also win that game seven against Anaheim in the opening round. However, they would go on to lose to San Jose in the following round after a dismal showing in game seven of that series. Sensing urgency, the Preds decided to make a couple of franchise-altering moves, trading long-time defender Shea Weber to Montreal for PK Subban, changing the dynamic of the blue line there, as well as going for a more team speed oriented squad, something that will be further cemented by the Subban trade. The Predators believe they can stay ahead of the curve in the Central Division, but will those moves be enough to get them over the top?

Down the middle is still a weak point for Nashville, although picking up Ryan Johansen last season gives them a center with number one potential. However, other than Mike Fisher, the depth there remains rather thin. On the wings, there is no such issue, as James Neal and Filip Forsberg are the lead scorers there, with Craig Smith providing solid secondary scoring. However, Colin Wilson will need to prove that he's more than just a playoff performer, as his regular season numbers were rather ordinary. The swap of franchise defenders leaves the Predators with a decidedly different outlook on how to approach games from the blue line. Subban is faster, and regardless of who he ends up being paired with, things will be more exciting there. However, the most important player there is Roman Josi, who may very well be the best overall defender on the team. Depth-wise, there will be a number of players battling for the last two spots on the chart, but the Preds are very good on their top four. Pekka Rinne finally stayed healthy after a couple of seasons battling injuries, and while he isn't the player he once was, the rest for a stretch of games leading into the playoffs helped, as he almost single-handedly stole a game or two in the playoffs. He may be forced to play a little more in the regular season, as the backups are Marek Mazanec and Juuse Saros, neither of whom have had extensive NHL experience. Both special teams units were in the top half of the league, but as it is for the even strength, how Subban will change the dynamics of the power play and penalty killing units will be one to monitor.

Prediction: 2nd in the Central Division

The Predators are gearing their team towards playing the likes of Dallas and Pittsburgh, teams that use speed to score goals and generally cause havoc with the opposition. This may be the best Predators team yet, but until they reach the Conference finals, it will remain a paper dream.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Getting the Pride Back


2015-16 record: 38-38-6 (82 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Max Pacioretty

The Montreal Canadiens' season began like a house of fire, but injuries to key players such as Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher caused that house of fire to eventually burn to the ground. That colossal failure to make the playoffs forced a number of changes, including swapping franchise defensemen, as PK Subban was sent to Nashville for Shea Weber. The Canadiens' roster is better suited to coach Michel Therrien's style, but as last season proved, they're only going to go as far as Price can carry them.

Contrary to popular belief, the Canadiens don't have as much trouble scoring as you think. Yes, the power play stunk, but the real problem was the lack of scoring depth, as beyond Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty, no one else scored more than 20 goals (Gallagher missed by one despite missing almost half the season). Out is Lars Eller and in comes Andrew Shaw and Alex Radulov. Shaw provides a bulldog presence that was absent when Gallagher went down, and now, with both in the lineup, the Canadiens should be twice as hard to play against, while Radulov is a one-year gamble in that his previous NHL stints didn't pan out so well. The Canadiens are hoping that his most recent time in the KHL, where he was a three time scoring champion and found happiness off the ice, will help result in a better run this time around. Defensively, injuries were a major problem, as the Canadiens employed enough players to supply two NHL teams a defensive unit. Weber will fit in better with what Therrien wants, but he may very well be the focal point of fan vitriol if he doesn't produce to normal standards, as Subban was a popular player there. In goal, it's all about Carey Price. While Mike Condon held down the fort admirably, there were instances where he was in over his head. To that end, Al Montoya was signed to provide insurance against another Price injury. While the power play was terrible, the penalty kill was just outside the top ten. They figure to be good again, and the power play will benefit from having Weber's shot at the point.

Prediction: 3rd in the Atlantic Division

The Canadiens saw what life without Price was like, and it wasn't very pretty. Of course, a locker room that wasn't on the same page half the time wasn't helpful, either. A new season, and a vote of confidence in Therrien later, the Canadiens are banking on a more harmonious locker room atmosphere, but until proven otherwise, it is about Price and how many games he can play.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Prey for Glory


2015-16 record: 38-33-11 (87 points)
Lost to Dallas in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Mikko Koivu

It seems to be an annual ritual for the Minnesota Wild since they decided to blow money on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in 2012, as they almost always seem to struggle to make the playoffs. Whether it is the failed gambles for Dany Heatley and Thomas Vanek or a pipeline that hasn't had the returns that they hoped for, the Wild almost always seem to fall short of expectations. Now, it's Bruce Boudreau's turn, and all he has to do is get the Wild to play with more consistency for a whole season. Given that the salary cap continues to be a hindrance, that will be easier said than done.

Parise, when healthy, can usually be counted on for 30 goals a season. While Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle are solid when it comes to secondary scoring, the rest of the unit needs to pick up, especially Jason Pominville, Jason Zucker, and Mikael Granlund. Unfortunately, the reinforcements are Eric Staal and Chris Stewart, with the former coming off the worst season of his career since his rookie year while the latter has always been maddeningly inconsistent in production. Defense has been a strength, and will continue to be again. Suter is not a true number one defender, but he is certainly the Wild's best player on the blue line, and while the rest of the unit is still growing, as Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, Mike Reilly, and Marco Scandella are all 26 and under when the season starts, there is potential to be even better, especially since Scott Stevens steps in as an assistant coach. The challenge for Boudreau is to give Devan Dubnyk a little more rest, as he's played over 70 games last season to go along with the 38 in a row he started the season before. That workload helped to explain his troubles in the playoffs, and it will be up to Boudreau to work Darcy Kuemper in a little more, something that the previous coaching staff did not do. The power play was middle of the pack, and certainly, improved production across the board will help a little in that regard. However, the penalty kill was near the bottom, and a more aggressive approach would be helpful.

Prediction: 6th in the Central Division

While everyone else ahead of them in the Central Division improved in the off-season, as well as the Winnipeg Jets, the Wild face an uphill climb once more if they hope to make the playoffs. It could be a long year in Minnesota this season.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Kingdom Crumbling Down?


2015-16 record: 48-28-6 (102 points)
Lost to San Jose in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Anze Kopitar

The Los Angeles Kings have been going all in for another Stanley Cup since 2012, but the last two seasons, the results have been far less than what they've hoped for, as they fell way short both times. Now, the salary cap threatens to have a stranglehold on the team's chances, thus closing a window of opportunity that may be there for just another season or two. Yes, they still have elite players at key spots, but whether they can field a team that be filled out with competent role players is another question.

Up front, Anze Koiptar has been their best player since he joined the NHL, and now, he has the captaincy added to his name. Unlike predecessor Dustin Brown, it shouldn't be a problem for him to adjust to the role while maintaining his production. Tyler Toffoli figures to be the next great offensive star for the team, and he already is a 30-goal scorer, while Jeff Carter continues to post solid numbers. Beyond that, there are question marks, namely can the Kings get continued secondary scoring from the likes of Tanner Pearson, Teddy Purcell, and a presumably healthy Marian Gaborik? They'll need it because Milan Lucic took both 20 goals and an imposing power forward type that opened doors for the offensive stars with him to Edmonton. A spike in numbers from Brown is hoped for, especially now that he no longer has the burden of wearing the captain's C. Defensively, they're as good as ever, and they are led by Drew Doughty, who finally got the recognition he deserved with his first Norris Trophy win. Jake Muzzin is solid, and a healthy Alec Martinez would certainly help, as would a healthy Matt Greene. However, the rest of the unit will be cobbled together by a combination of Brayden McNabb, Tom Gilbert, Zach Trotman, and Rob Scuderi. In a perfect world, either Kevn Gravel or Derek Forbort make an impact in the NHL. In goal, Jonathan Quick will continue to get the lion's share of the starts, and he shows little signs of slowing down. In the event he has to rest, one-time understudy Jeff Zatkoff will fill in. The power play was in the top ten, and figures to be again with Doughty and Kopitar leading the way. However, the penalty kill needs improvement, and certainly, not having their full compliment of players will help a little.

Prediction: 3rd in the Pacific Division

The Kings still have all the pieces necessary to make another Stanley Cup run, but time may be running out, as the salary cap looms large against their chances. They cannot afford to miss on another gamble the way they did when they traded for Andrej Sekera two seasons ago.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Readying the Roar


2015-16 record: 47-26-9 (103 points)
Lost to NY Islanders in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: TBA

It was two seasons ago that the Florida Panthers were practically the doormat of the NHL. In truth, that was the most recognition they received in 14 seasons other than the 2011-12 aberration that saw them make the playoffs the lone time in that stretch. That anonymity began to fade a little in the 2014-15 season and seemingly, the 2015-16 season provided hope that the Panthers would be in it for the long haul. Despite an early exit in the playoffs, an Atlantic Division crown is an indication that the Panthers are on the right track, but they'd like to accelerate that evolution, and the off-season moves were a sign of that.

Up front, it's the kids' show, as Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, etc. are all 25 and under and are under contract for a few seasons, at least. Jaromir Jagr, who is definitely not a kid, but seemingly plays like one despite his 44-years on the planet, has been setting good examples for the rest to follow, and he led the team in scoring last season. If there is a concern, it's how the new pieces will fit in on the right side, especially the bottom two lines. Defensively, they're basically retooling and building around Aaron Ekblad, who is also under contract for the foreseeable future. Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, and Mark Pysyk are the new faces that will fill out the defensive six along with Ekblad, Mike Matheson, and whoever emerges from the group of Jakub Kindl, Alex Petrovic, Ian McCoshen, and Steven Kampfer. In goal, Roberto Luongo has been great since returning to the Panthers almost two and a half seasons ago, but he is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season after hip surgery. James Reimer was signed to not only be the goalie while Luongo recovers, but also provide quality backup goaltending and provide a buffer against next season's expansion draft. Reto Berra was also picked up for depth. If the Panthers hope to harbor Stanley Cup aspirations, they will need to fix their special teams, though picking up Yandle should help the power play. On the penalty kill, that's less of a certainty, though Demers may likely be seeing penalty killing minutes.

Prediction: 2nd in the Atlantic Division

The Panthers still need to win a playoff series, as they haven't done so since 1996, when they made the Stanley Cup finals. However, as last season proved, they are finally putting it together and feel that with a youthful core combined with veterans that can contribute significant numbers, the window of opportunity may be open for a while. The question is whether Florida can take advantage.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Bigger and Tougher


2015-16 record: 31-43-8 (70 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

The same story of the Edmonton Oilers missing the playoffs yet again keeps going, but this time, it feels different, as the current regime are actually sticking to a plan. Yes, these are not the Oilers of recent years, as they've made an effort to not only build from the back out, something that was started prior to last season, but also get bigger. Let's not forget that there is that McDavid kid up front that is expected to be the one to lead them into the playoffs.

It's Connor McDavid's team for better or for worse, as the off-season trade of Taylor Hall almost officially makes him the face of the franchise. Despite missing half the season, he did manage just over a point a game to finish third on the team in scoring. He makes everyone better, and the latest player that may get the opportunity will be Milan Lucic, a big, physical player that fits the vision of General Manager Peter Chiarelli and head coach Todd McClellan. He joins fellow bigs Patrick Maroon and Zack Kassian as guys you'd have to get through if you're going after McDavid and Co. That should afford the latest first round pick Jesse Puljujarvi the luxury of not having to face the best players off the bat. On the blue line, it's still a work in progress, and the return for Hall was Adam Larsson, who may very well be finding his stride. Still, like the rest of the group, he does come with questions, as he doesn't provide great offensive numbers, a sore spot that saw only Andrej Sekera provide anything from the blue line. In time, Oscar Klefbom and Brandon Davidson could help, but both had injury issues last season. Darnell Nurse provides a physical presence while the sixth spot will be a rotating group amongst Griffin Reinhart, Mark Fayne, and Mark Fraser. In goal, Cam Talbot struggled for the first month of the season, losing the starting goaltending spot for a time to then-backup Anders Nilsson. However, between Nilsson's struggles and Talbot finding his game, it seems that Talbot is now comfortable as starter and will look to have a more consistent season. Jonas Gustavsson will back him up this season. Special teams were middle of the pack, as the power play only needs a quarterback from the point on that unit. Penalty killing wise, having everyone healthy will go a long way to determining what is needed for improvement.

Prediction: 5th in the Pacific Division

The Oilers are inching closer to making the playoffs for the first time since 2006, but they may be a year away before that streak finally ends. They're building around Connor McDavid, and it is unquestionably his team now, but more consistency from the back end will be needed if they want to be more than just on the cusp of a playoff spot team.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Clipped Wings


2015-16 record: 41-30-11 (93 points)
Lost to Tampa Bay in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Henrik Zetterberg

It took the final game of the regular season, but the Detroit made the playoffs for the 25th straight year last season. However, they were dispatched fairly quickly by Tampa Bay in the opening round. It took some luck to extend the playoff streak last season, but that luck may be gone if they want to make it 26 seasons in a row.

Offensively, if it weren't for Dylan Larkin pacing the team with 23 goals, the Wings would have missed the playoffs. Now, they have to replace Pavel Datsyuk, who intends to finish his career in Russia, and that won't be an easy task. Henrik Zetterberg is still there, but beyond that, the rest of the team will need to rebound from a collective drop in goals scored. Bringing in Frans Nielsen will at least replace some of the production Datsyuk took with him, but Thomas Vanek is a reclamation project and Steve Ott adds almost nothing at this point in his career, so it will be up to the likes of Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, and the rest of the young players to pick up the pace. Defensively, they have never been able to replace Nicklas Lidstrom since he walked into the sunset in 2012, and the unit as a whole is largely a collection of players that are solid, but not great. They will have to be this way again for Detroit to be be competitive, especially since the leader from that group was Mike Green with 35 points, a respectable number, but more was to be expected. In goal, Petr Mrazek was inconsistent, losing the starting job for a few weeks to an even worse Jimmy Howard. A more consistent Mrazek would help, especially since despite the lack of consistency, he did post solid numbers in goal. Neither special teams unit was particularly special, as both finished in the middle of the pack, but the power play took it worse, as it was closer to the top the season before.

Prediction: 6th in the Atlantic Division

The Red Wings benefited from Dylan Larkin's presence last season, as he was enough to get the Wings to another playoff appearance. This time around, the rest of the team will have to rebound after a collective decline in numbers. There's not much to get excited about for the Wings, but if nothing else, they will have motivation to close out the time at Joe Louis Arena with another playoff appearance.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Shooting for Greater Heights


2015-16 record: 50-23-9 (109 points)
Lost to St. Louis in Conference semi-finals
Captain: Jamie Benn

A top-flight team in the regular season thanks to the offense, the Dallas Stars were ultimately undone in the playoffs thanks to a defense that still needs work and goaltending that only gave back modest returns on a $10.4 million investment for both goalies. Still, the Stars have considerable talent to work with and with a pipeline that is giving them a fairly wide open window of opportunity to win it all, expecting the Stars to make a Stanley Cup run isn't out of the question, health willing.

Everything that the Stars owe to their success begins with offense, and despite only having John Klingberg on the blue line that provides any offense, the front lines score in bunches. Jamie Benn topped 40 goals while Jason Spezza and Tyler Seguin scored north of the 30 goal barrier. That trio is good enough to carry the team offensively, but there is good depth in terms of players that can score, and provided Seguin is healthy, something that wasn't the case in the playoffs where he missed all but one game, the Stars can cover for some of their deficiencies in their own end. The blue line is going to be breaking in two new faces from within in Stephen Johns and Esa Lindell, as well as Dan Hamhuis via free agency. While it remains to be seen if the moves add up to a better defense, it can't be worse than Alex Golligoski, who was a disaster in his own end, something that was exposed in the playoffs. If there's any position that the Stars truly need to address though, it's in goal. The $10.4 million duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi only produced moderate results, as their combined 2.78 GAA and .905 save percentage in the regular season may have been good enough to skate by, but it fell apart in the playoffs, as seemingly neither is capable of carrying the mail for the long playoff grind. When it comes to special teams, the offensive sparks carried over to the power play, where they ranked fourth. Of course, if they drew a few more penalties, that would make it even more deadly. The penalty kill was in the top third of the league, a product of the overall team speed that is capable of making teams pay if they're asleep at the wheel.

Prediction: 1st in the Central Division

The pieces are in place offensively, and certainly, they got bigger defensively. Whether the latter got any better will be answered during the season, but until the goaltending situation gets solved, it may be the one thing that holds them back from hoisting the Stanley Cup in June.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Regrouping the Troops


2015-16 record: 34-40-8 (76 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Nick Foligno

Just about anything that could go wrong with the Columbus Blue Jackets' season did, ranging from a slow start that cost Todd Richards his head coaching job early in the season to Ryan Johansen butting heads with John Tortorella, leading to his trade to Nashville for Seth Jones to goaltending that either couldn't stay healthy, get any decent production, or both. A full season of Tortorella behind the bench should at least give the team some stability, plus the pipeline is ripe with players that will either help the team at the NHL level or in Cleveland, where a Calder Cup winning year undoubtedly gave the youth playing there a major boost.

Up front, there's a lot of talent on the wings, but no number one center. That used to be Johansen, but given the trade, that leaves a collection of second line centers to try and fill the top center role until Pierre-Luc Dubois is ready for the role. Dubois has a pretty good chance of sticking with the Blue Jackets straight out of the draft, but won't have to produce right away, as Boone Jenner, Brandon Saad, and Cam Atkinson all are fairly sure bets to score more than 20 goals apiece, with the first two netting 30 goals each last season. However, production took a major nosedive beyond the top four, particularly with Nick Foligno, who may have been the one to suffer the worst from the Johansen trade. Besides Dubois, other rookies up front that could make the opening night roster include Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson, and Sonny Milano. The return for Johansen was Seth Jones, who was thought to be the heir apparent in Nashville. Columbus is now his team, and he won't have to wait to see if he's ready to be the lead dog on the Blue Jackets' blue line. Along with Ryan Murray, who finally stayed healthy for a full season, David Savard, and possibly Zach Werenski, youth will be served on the blue line, and the potential to be great is there. That would greatly help the overall defense that saw only Calgary end up worse than them. It is Sergei Bobrovsky's crease for now, but he must remain healthy and produce consistenly. The backup role is Curtis McElhinney's for now, but even worse numbers may put his spot on the NHL roster in peril, particularly since Joonas Korpisalo played well enough when he filled in on the NHL and was lights out in the AHL playoffs. Special teams suffered, as well, as the offensive woes from the back end manifested itself on the team's dive in the power play standings while the team was too undisciplined too often to offset any ability on killing penalties.

Prediction: 6th in the Metropolitan Division

The Blue Jackets must avoid another slow start, an undesired trademark of Richards' teams as head coach, and they must rediscover what made them on the verge of perennial playoff appearances. Of course, health is one thing that can solve a lot of problems, but figuring out who can carry the mail down the middle is going to be a bigger issue that won't be solved so easily.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Digging Out Again


2015-16 record: 39-39-4 (82 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Gabriel Landeskog

Despite the fact that the Colorado Avalanche have made the playoffs just twice since the turn of the decade (I'm counting the 2009-10 season), things are rarely dull in the Centennial State these days. As badly as the Avs fell apart towards the end of the season, that would just be the tip of the iceberg, as a rather underwhelming free-agency haul was punctuated by Patrick Roy leaving the head coaching spot about a month and a half later. New head coach Jared Bednar will be tasked with not only getting his system implemented with a little more than a month to go, but also get the team to buy into a defensive system that actually works.

Despite the talent up front, the Avs were not very good offensively. Matt Duchene did hit 30 goals, but as it was with the rest of the team, more was expected of him. Nathan MacKinnon will be in an Avs uniform for several years, but he has to stay healthy, as injuries have hit the last two seasons. Only Duchene, MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Jarome Iginla scored more than 20 goals, and all have their fair share of question marks heading into the season, with Duchene being perpetually on the trading block, MacKinnon's heatlh, Landeskog showing lack of discipline at times, and Iginla nearing the end of the road. Other than Carl Soderberg, Joe Colborne, and Mikko Rantanen, there isn't much scoring depth up front. Defense is just as bad, and it was that way the entire time Roy was head coach. Erik Johnson is solid, but appears to be miscast as a top pairing defender while Tyson Barrie is primarily an offense-first player. Francois Beauchemin was one of the better defenders on the team, which is a clear indictment on just how bad the Avs are on the blue line, and now, they're breaking in Nikita Zadorov and Chris Bigras into the mix, meaning two players that are just barely old enough to drink are going to be tasked with fairly significant minutes. That could be a problem, particularly since they only added Fedor Tyutin and Patrick Wiercioch for depth. In goal, someone has to pay the price for total team relapses on defense, and unfortunately for Semyon Varlamov, he's that guy. Yes, he hasn't played up to his Vezina finalist billing of 2014, but now that Calvin Pickard will at least stick as the backup, he will have someone breathing down his neck for what may possibly be a battle for the starting job in Colorado. Both sides of the special teams ledger were not very good, and if the power play is to get better, someone other than Iginla must step up.

Prediction: 7th in the Central Division

Unlike most teams, the Avs are basically having a cram session when it comes to breaking in a new head coach, and given the troubles on both sides of the puck, especially defensively, anything other than a last place finish in the division would be considered overachieving.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Climbing Back


2015-16 record: 47-26-9 (103 points)
Lost to St. Louis in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Jonathan Toews

Individually, the Chicago Blackhawks players were award winners, as Patrick Kane became not only the first U.S. born player to win the Art Ross Trophy, but he also took home both the Ted Lindsay and Hart Trophies as MVP, as voted by both the players and the press, respectively, while teammate Artemi Panarin took home the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. As a team, however, falling well short of the ultimate goal of the Stanley Cup, one that would have made them the first back-to-back winner since Detroit turned the trick in 1997 and 1998 is one that will not sit well with them. As it was then, the salary cap struck again, this time, forcing the Blackhawks to try and find replacements for guys like Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, and letting rental Andrew Ladd walk. Their replacements are likely coming from within, as some of the prospects that have bide their time in Rockford should be ready to go.

Up front, it's still the Patrick Kane-Jonathan Toews show, as Kane finally stayed healthy long enough to win the scoring title while Toews remains the man that steers the ship when it comes to on-ice and locker room leadership. Adding Panarin prior to last season was a major plus, as he was the second leading scorer on the team. However, secondary scoring will be needed, as the gap between Kane and the fourth leading scorer (Brent Seabrook) was almost 60 points. Given that youth will have to be served, expect around three or four rookies to be around for the duration of the season, so the bottom six spots are going to be varying. On the blue line, things are much more in place, as the top-four of Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Brian Campbell will take up the majority of the time. Michal Roszival, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Michal Kempny will vie for the final two spots, though Ville Pokka will also be in the mix for one of two spots remaining. In goal, Corey Crawford is the starter and Scott Darling is the backup, so nothing has changed since the middle of their last Stanley Cup run. The power play was the second best in the league, but fixing a penalty kill that ranked 22nd is imperative if the Blackhawks hope to win another Stanley Cup this season.

Prediction: 3rd in the Central Division

A longer summer after three straight seasons of at least making the Conference Finals figures to make the Blackhawks more motivated and well-rested. However, is the salary cap finally taking a toll on their window of opportunity to win another Stanley Cup? The Blackhawks have been counted out before, and we all know the results some years, so it wouldn't be wise to bet against them even in an increasingly tough Central Division.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Gaining Strength


2015-16 record: 35-31-16 (86 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

Last year was a step in the right direction for the Carolina Hurricanes, even after missing the playoffs yet again and despite trading away longtime face of the franchise Eric Staal near the trade deadline. Between building up the blue line and players buying into coach Bill Peters' system, there is every reason to believe that the Hurricanes will sooner or later make the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and sustain that success for the future.

Up front, the trade of Staal means that the Hurricanes will need a new locker room leader, and while there is no clear cut candidate, that doesn't mean there isn't a player that can do the job, as the younger players are beginning to take on more prominent roles with the team and the veterans are helping out, too. Offensively, they were challenged even with Eric Staal, but on the bright side, Jeff Skinner finally showed no ill effects of his concussion issues in recent years to post 28 goals and show the potential for 30 goals a season. Victor Rask also showed goal scoring potential in his second season, and while Jordan Staal will never post the numbers big brother did at his best, he does provide a solid two-way presence. However, a bounce back season from Elias Lindholm, as well as contributions from newly acquired Teuvo Teravainen and possibly Sebastian Aho are imperative. Defensively, the Hurricanes are showing major growth despite the fact that only Ron Hainsey is the only player there with regular playing time that is over 25. It begins with Noah Hanifin and is led by Justin Faulk. The better news here is that there is more talent in the pipeline, a clear indication that General Manager Ron Francis is wanting to build from the back out. Cam Ward returns at a pay cut, and despite respectable GAA, he didn't have good save percentage numbers. It would help if Eddie Lack can put last year's miserable numbers behind him and play like he did in Vancouver.

Prediction: 8th in the Metropolitan Division

Growing pains are still to be had in Carolina, especially when it comes to offense. At the very least, the defense will be better and the youth will be served.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Reigniting the Furnace


2015-16 record: 35-40-7 (77 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Mark Giordano

At the start of last season, there was much optimism for the Calgary Flames, as they were coming off of a Conference Semi-finals appearance and were welcoming in Dougie Hamilton into the defensive fold. Along the way, however, things went horribly wrong, as the goaltending was the absolute worst and the defense in front of it was not what it had hoped to be. This season, a new head coach and a new goaltending duo will join a team that features some great young talent up front and on paper, a great unit on the blue line. The rest is up to the new faces to improve upon last year's numbers.

The most obvious change on the ice will be in the blue paint, as Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, and Nicklas Backstrom, three of the four goalies responsible for the worst goaltending numbers in the league, were not retained. Incoming will be Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, and both put up good numbers last season. While it is reasonable to expect Elliott to have a slight drop-off in numbers, Johnson's numbers should be good for a 25-30 game spell. Defensively, health will be a major factor, as TJ Brodie missed time at the start of the season and combined with Mark Giordano, those two should figure to be the top pairing once again. Dougie Hamilton struggled with expectations for most of the season, but appeared to find a groove late in the season. The rest of the unit is filled with role players, although Jyrki Jokipakka figures to get some more ice time. Up front, while the status of Johnny Gaudreau remains up in the air, as he is unsigned as of this time, his running buddy Sean Monahan was signed to a long term deal, and when both are under contract, there are few teams that can match their production. Sam Bennett will look to build upon a respectable rookie season while Troy Brouwer will add grit on the wings. Like the blue line, health up front is something to watch, as key role players such as Micheal Ferland, Michael Frolik, and Lance Bouma were out for stretches of time, robbing the Flames of continuity and some toughness.

Prediction: 3rd in the Pacific Division

The Flames should be better in goal, if only for the fact that they can't get any worse than last season. Scoring from their best players doesn't figure to be a problem, but it will be up to the depth players to step up on some level.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sharpening the Blades


2015-16 record: 35-36-11 (81 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Brian Gionta

It's been six seasons since the Buffalo Sabres made the playoffs, but last year was the first time since then that a sense of hope surfaced. It began with the trade for Ryan O'Reilly and the drafting of Jack Eichel, and it has steadily been going since. Of course, there are still growing pains to be had, but getting the best player in free agency after Steven Stamkos spurned them (and others) to return to Tampa Bay is another step in the right direction.

Up front, new signing Kyle Okposo represents a major piece of the puzzle and potentially a new linemate for last year's first round pick Jack Eichel. Eichel put up 56 points in 81 games, a good showing, but it was O'Reilly that broke through, as he led the team in points. Down the middle, they're set, as O'Reilly, Eichel, and Sam Reinhart are the top three centers on the team. Okposo upgrades the wings that range from unpredictable (Evander Kane) to needing a bounce back season (Matt Moulson, Zemgus Girgensons). Defensively, there is potential for success here, but each defender has at least a couple of question marks tied to them. Improvement in their own end (Rasmus Ristolainen), injuries (Zack Bogosian), and adjusting to a new system (Dmitry Kulikov) are things the Sabres need to solve here as a unit. For all the questions there, it's the goaltending that has the most to answer for, as Robin Lehner's first season as undisputed starter didn't go as planned, thanks to injuries. He showed glimpses of what he can be, but ironing out his game and avoiding injuries are on his to-do list. Anders Nilsson has his own consistency issues to iron out, but he will hold the backup spot while Linus Ullmark gets more time in the AHL. Special teams were very good, as they were on the border of the top ten line in both categories, a sign that the team is buying what Dan Bylsma is selling.

Prediction: 4th in the Atlantic Division

The Sabres are on track in their rebuild, but any and all future success will hinge on the goaltending, as they need health and continued good luck (the Sabres' goaltenders individually had no worse than a 2.60 GAA) to keep them in games.S

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Bridging the Gap


2015-16 record: 42-31-9 (93 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Zdeno Chara

Another season of just missing out on the playoffs for the Bruins happened, and in rather embarrasing fashion, as they were given a beating at the hands of an Ottawa team that was eliminated a week earlier. Despite another playoff-free spring, the Bruins decided to keep Claude Julien on as head coach. He will be entering the season with the best center depth he's ever had as the Bruins coach, but questions abound on the blue line and in goal do remain.

Up front, despite losing Loui Eriksson to free agency, they did pick up David Backes, who figures to slot in as the third line center at worst. Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci hold down the top two spots in the middle, and Brad Marchand set career highs in goals, though he does have a little work in keeping out of trouble, as he missed a couple of games due to suspension. It's going to be a by-committee approach as far as offense beyond those four, and if anyone has to step up, it must be the young players, particularly Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak, who are the best they have that are under 25 right now. Defensively, what was a strength when they were winning the Stanley Cup five years ago is now suddenly a major question mark. Zdeno Chara is still their best player there, but he's also nearing 40, and he's not the player he was even during that Stanley Cup run. Torey Krug is clearly the second best player there, but after that, look out below. Adam McQuaid can't stay healthy, Joe Morrow still needs to prove himself, and Colin and Kevan Miller haven't locked up regular NHL duty yet. In goal, Tuukka Rask has seen his number take a dive, as the 2.56 GAA represents a spike from the 2.00 GAA of 2013. Part of the problem has been the reluctance to use the backup, as Anton Khudobin returns to the Bruins after three years away. In that time, Niklas Svedberg, Chad Johnson, and Jonas Gustavsson have kept the backup seat warm, to little success. Last year's numbers were also an indication of an unstable blue line, that in large part due to injuries, never really established itself, and Rask figures to have to compensate for it once again. At the very least, special teams isn't a worry, as the power play ranked in the top ten while the penalty kill finished just outside the top ten.

Prediction: 5th in the Atlantic Division

The Bruins aren't quite bad enough to be in the Nolan Patrick sweepstakes next June, but they are also not quite good enough to get back into Stanley Cup contention. Until they stabilize the blue line, it will be up to the front lines and goaltending to go beyond their norms to succeed.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Building an Oasis


2015-16 record: 35-39-8 (78 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Shane Doan

For the first half of the season, it looked like the Arizona Coyotes might challenge for a playoff spot, but as it does with all teams going with a full youth movement, that thought hit a wall. There were bright spots, though, as the Coyotes continue to build through the draft and trades for prospects, and already some of them are making an impact.

Up front, Shane Doan is going to be 40 during the season, yet he led the team in goals scored. It's no surprise, given his legendary workouts off the ice, and some of those habits are finding their way to Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, who are the youngsters already making an impact. While Martin Hanzal is still there and Radim Vrbata is back for one more round, it will be the next wave that will decide the Coyotes' future on the ice, as the release of Antoine Vermette clears the way for either or both Christian Dvorak and Dylan Strome to make an impact this season. Last season, defense was Oliver Ekman-Larsson and a bunch of question marks, so to that end, the Coyotes went out and got Alex Goligoski from Dallas and then signed him to a deal before he could hit free agency. Of the rest of the blue line, only Michael Stone appears to be a sure thing in the top four while the likes of Klas Dahlbeck, Jarred Tinordi, and Connor Murphy will try to establish themselves as regulars. Goaltending was a problem in the early going, as Mike Smith was horrible before a mid-season injury wiped out part of his time. By the time he came back, Louis Dominique established himself enough that it became a time-share, and both went on to post respectable numbers despite a porous defense in front of them. Offense remains an issue, but solving their penalty kill woes would go a long way in helping the Coyotes win more of the close games.

Prediction: 6th in the Pacific Division

Other than Doan, Ekman-Larsson, and the D-Brothers (Domi and Duclair), there are far too many question marks for the Coyotes to think about the playoffs this season. However, it is not necessarily out of the question, particularly if everything breaks right, especially when it comes to keeping the other team from scoring.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Back to the Future


2015-16 record: 46-25-11 (103 points)
Lost to Nashville in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Ryan Getzlaf

The Bruce Boudreau era in Anaheim ended the same way it started: unable to win a game seven. This time, it happened in the opening round to a Nashville Predators team that until that point, never played in one. That failure cost Boudreau his job, and in his place as new head coach is the guy he replaced originally. Randy Carlyle is back as head coach and it will be up to him to get the Ducks back to playing a more physical style to compliment their offensive output.

Despite the slow start to last season, the Ducks still won the Pacific Divison title, but thanks to a sudden offensive outage that saw Corey Perry net precisely no goals in the seven series defeat, there is much for the Ducks to prove when it counts the most. Neither Andrew Cogliano nor Nate Thompson should be outscoring Perry in the playoffs. The regular season isn't much of a problem, particularly since four players scored 20 goals or more, with Getzlaf providing 50 assists. Defensively, while there is no true number one defenseman, the unit as a whole does a good job, and certainly, depth is a major strength, as there are two players (Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour) still waiting their turn to land full time jobs. In goal, it's John Gibson's job to lose now, and despite having a rocky playoff start that caused him to cede the job to Fredrik Andersen for the rest of the time, he did make the All-Star game during the regular season and he did net a 2.07 GAA in 40 games. Special teams only have down to go, as both the power play and penalty kill units were top ranked.

Prediction: 2nd in the Pacific Division

Familiarity with an old coach should help the Ducks, but just how soon the bad feelings the previous time subsides will determine how well they go out of the gate. Of course, their success will ultimately fall on whether or not they make the Stanley Cup Finals.