Saturday, September 23, 2017

Continuing the Celebration

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

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

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

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

Prediction: 1st in the Atlantic Division

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

Friday, September 22, 2017

Recharged

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

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

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

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

Prediction: 2nd in the Atlantic Division

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

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Taking One Last Bite?

SAN JOSE SHARKS

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

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

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

Prediction: 3rd in the Pacific Division

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Singing a Different Tune

ST. LOUIS BLUES

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

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

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

Prediction: 2nd in the Central Division

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

March of the Penguins

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

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

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

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

Prediction: 1st in the Metropolitan Division

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Uphill Flight

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

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

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

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

Prediction: 6th in the Metropolitan Division

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

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Keeping The Course

OTTAWA SENATORS

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

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

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

Prediction: 4th in the Atlantic Division

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Reloading Blueshirts

NEW YORK RANGERS

2016-17 record: 48-28-6 (102 points)
Lost tp Ottawa in Conference semi-finals
Captain: Ryan McDonagh

The New York Rangers actually had a decent season. However, because they play in the tough Metropolitan Division, they ended up taking one of the Wild Card spots, where they proceeded to make the Conference semi-finals. The path the playoffs for the Rangers once again figures to be through the wild card, as each of the teams in front of them are still at the very least, as good as them, if not better. This time around, they will have one more year of experience for the rookies of yesteryear, as well as a little more pressure to succeed.

Offensively, the Rangers came out like gangbusters, which largely explains their fourth place finish in that category. However, the scoring was spread around pretty well, as the four leading scorers had over 50 points, but none reached 60. They will be minus one of them, Derek Stepan, as he was traded to Arizona, but they pin their hopes on a healthy Mika Zibanejad, who showed his potential in the playoffs. Defensively, they should be better, but the lack of offense from that unit was staggering, as Nick Holden led the team in goals by defensemen. To that end, that was why they sought out Kevin Shattenkirk to help in that part. A player to watch here is Anthony DeAngelo, acquired in the Arizona trade, and whether or not he can crack the lineup at some point in the season. If he does, that would help the team's offense from the blue line. As for their defensive issues, it would help that Henrik Lundqvist returns to his form, as he missed time to injuries, and his play was affected by inconsistency and a shorter break prior to last season. He won't have Antti Raanta looking over his shoulder, so he should feel less pressure to succeed in that regard. This time around, Ondrej Pavelec will be the backup, and he has something to prove after spending most of last season in the AHL. The power play was good, but had room to grow, and Shattenkirk should be a factor here, while the penalty kill wasn't great.

Prediction: 4th in the Metropolitan Division

It's not often that a team that had over 100 points in a season can be thought of as a dark horse, but the Rangers are in that position thanks to a division that features many heavy hitters. They have the talent to make some noise in the playoffs, but do they have enough to make the Finals?

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Stranded

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

2016-17 record: 41-29-12 (94 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: John Tavares

The New York Islanders had a disappointing season, one that saw their head coach get fired midway through the season and their long-time starter get sent to the AHL for a chunk of the season. While Doug Weight was able to right the ship just enough to get the Islanders close to a playoff spot, it may prove to be a single patch on a boat that is springing several leaks. Yes, this year's Islanders will have the potential to be more exciting off the ice than on. Unfortunately, off-ice may consume the team's on-ice product if it doesn't get resolved.

Offensively, the Islanders ranked in the top third of the league, but that number is largely deceiving because the defensemen contributed a fair amount, as five players topped 20 points, and the front line remains top heavy. John Tavares still leads the way, but heading into his free agency year, his contract has the potential to be a distraction to himself, the team, or possibly both. Anders Lee led the team in goals, but the Isles need much more out of Andrew Ladd, who only amassed eight assists, which largely explains his paltry 31 point total. Jordan Eberle should help with the offensive totals, but the Isles are going younger, albeit a year or so too late. Matt Barzal, Josh Ho-Sang, and Anthony Beauvillier are all expected to have roles up front. The blue line has no trouble pitching in on offense, but they also contributed to the team's bottom third finish on defense. Losing Travis Hamonic won't help, as he was the team's best defender in his own end. Of course, it will help that the goaltending will finally have some semblance of order, as Halak and Thomas Greiss are splitting duties, which is a far cry from the weird three goalie system that also included the since departed J-F Berube. Halak was better after his AHL exile, and Greiss showed that he was ready to be the starter, and both will have plenty to prove. The penalty kill wasn't bad, but the power play was the team's undoing, as they were near the bottom of the league. Eberle figures to help with the man advantage.

Prediction: 7th in the Metropolitan Division

The Islanders almost always seem to be in some kind of turmoil off the ice, and certainly, issues with their home arena and Tavares' contract qualify. On the ice, the team should be better, but until goaltending and the power play both get resolved, the Islanders will have a hard time making way in a tough Metropolitan Division.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

In Purgatory

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

2016-17 record: 28-40-14 (70 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Andy Greene

The rebuilding process for the New Jersey Devils has been long, slow, and often painful, and never was that any more evident than last season, when just about everything went wrong and they finished last in the Conference. The good news is that their talent level will be improved. The bad news is that it's barely moving the needle and they will likely endure another long season.

The offense of the Devils is slowly, but surely improving, as they went from last in the league to last in the Conference, as only Vancouver and Colorado were worse. Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall will be getting some help, as Marcus Johansson and possibly Nico Hischier will join the team. Hischier is a favorite to stick with the team straight out of the draft, as Travis Zajac is out with injury to start the season, and they're woefully thin in the middle. On the wings, the Devils are fairly good, as Hall and Palmieri are joined by Adam Henrique, Johansson, and Drew Stafford. The defense has the players to field a competent squad, but no real chemistry to even field one competent pairing. Andy Greene will be 35 during the season, and many of the good offensive players from the blue line have defensive issues, though Damon Severson should improve with one less distraction, as he was recently signed to a new deal. Goaltending, once a strength, was an unmitigated disaster, as Cory Schneider was uncharacteristically awful, and by the end of the season, was splitting starts with Keith Kinkaid. Special teams were just as bad as the team's five-on-five play, and outside of Hischier, help from the pipeline isn't really expected, particularly if players such as Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian don't make the team out of training camp.

Prediction: 8th in the Metropolitan Division

Expect another brutal year in New Jersey, where just about everything needs to go right just to be competitive. The offense will be a little better, but unless Schneider rebounds from a horrible season, that improvement may be all for naught.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Smash Hit

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

2016-17 record: 41-29-12 (94 points)
Lost to Pittsburgh in Stanley Cup Finals
Captain: TBA

The regular season for the Nashville Predators was anything but extraordinary, as they needed just about the entire season to secure the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Once the playoffs started, they got Red Light Fever, as they didn't just beat Chicago in the opening round, but did so in a sweep and in rather dominating fashion. That set the tone for a playoff that was filled with firsts, and though they fell two games short of the Stanley Cup, it only opens the door for future playoff runs. The question is the same that befalls all runners-up and whether they can avoid the Stanley Cup hangover.

The Predators needed most of the season to figure out who to pair PK Subban with, and once they figured it out (it was Mattias Ekholm), the Predators had three above average pairs, but with Ryan Ellis slated to be out until January, that means they will have to figure out who to pair with Roman Josi. Newcomer Alexei Emelin figures to be the favorite to be slotted alongside Josi. Depth should be no issue, especially if either Samuel Girard or Alexandre Carrier crack the opening night lineup. Up front, they will need to find replacements for James Neal and Mike Fisher, though that shouldn't be too difficult, as there is no shortage of hungry players wanting to crack the lineup for good (Pontus Aberg and Fredrick Gaudreau) and leadership. The JOFA line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson are all signed to long-term deals, and are expected to lead the way offensively, and newcomer Nick Bonino will be the second center. Scott Hartnell was brought back to provide solid third-line play. The Predators were kicking the tires on Matt Duchene, an indication that they were looking to improve center depth, but if Colton Sissons and/or Calle Jarnkrok can step up, that may be solve their problem without moving any pieces. In goal, Pekka Rinne benefited from playing less games in the regular season, and the result was a playoff performance that almost got the Predators the Cup. He'll be 35 in November however, so crucial play from Juuse Saros will be a factor in just how much rest Rinne gets during the regular season. Special teams were pretty good, though they clearly benefited from the number of power play opportunities, something that they will have to create once again.

Prediction: 1st in the Central Division

The Predators will have less rest than in past seasons thanks to their playoff run, but don't expect the Predators to rest on their laurels. They will not only be motivated to finish what they started, but also have a chance at claiming their first division title. The latter won't be easy, since every team has always been tough, but the Predators are more ready now than they've ever been.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Setting Things Right

MONTREAL CANADIENS

2016-17 record: 47-26-9 (103 points)
Lost to NY Rangers in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Max Pacioretty

The Montreal Canadiens once again, were reliant on Carey Price to carry the team and once again, that strategy failed, as the Canadiens won the division, but were bounced in a rather weak effort by the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. Now, they may be on the verge of salary cap hell, and there just simply isn't enough bodies to field a Stanley Cup contender. Sure, they'll likely make the playoffs once again, but it may not be long before this version of the Canadiens are talked about in the same breath as the late 90's Buffalo Sabres teams.

Up front, the Canadiens are very strong on the wings, but as always, are weak down the middle. The failure of Alex Galchenyuk to finally claim the top center role only complicates things, as his allergy to playing competent defense is all that holds him back, especially in a Claude Julien system. Max Pacioretty was a 30-goal scorer again, but disappeared in the playoffs, but he was hardly the only one. They really need to find secondary scorers, as Alex Radulov left and Jonathan Drouin is still in prove it mode, and solidify the center spot, and it wouldn't hurt if Phillip Danault takes that next step forward. The blue line was a strength a year ago, but it also lacked speed, something that the Canadiens found out the hard way when they saw what Shea Weber provided as opposed to PK Subban. Weber is still a weapon with the slap shot, but the rest of the supporting cast is changing, as Andrei Markov wasn't tendered an offer and left for the KHL, and Alexei Emelin was plucked in the Expansion Draft. David Schlemko is likely to compete for a spot on the last pairing and Karl Alzner was a nice pickup, but offers nothing that last year's group didn't already have. Price showed no ill effects of injuries that wiped out his 2015-16 season, and as a result, was given an 8-year extension in the off-season. The Canadiens are going to go as he goes once again, and Al Montoya and Charlie Lindgren will see action every once in a while and in the AHL, respectively.

Prediction: 2nd in the Atlantic Division

The Canadiens are still a strong team for as long as Price mans the nets. However, they did little to actually improve their team, as Drouin came at the price of Mikhail Sergachev, who was almost certainly ready for the NHL, and Drouin only merely replaces Radulov, one of the few Canadiens to show up in the playoffs. The Canadiens may be having their last stand as Stanley Cup contenders if they fall well short this season.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Climbing Out

MINNESOTA WILD

2016-17 record: 49-25-8 (106 points)
Lost to St. Louis in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Mikko Koivu

The Minnesota Wild began last season like gangbusters, as they had a hot start to their season. However, as the season drew to a close and the playoffs began, they hit a lake-sized pothole and were done after just five games in the playoffs. Expectations weren't high last season, and despite the hot start, expectations are not very high this season. Minnesota might as well be Missouri, as they are now in "Show-Me" mode with the fans.

Offensively, that hot start was most evident in the fact that they finished the regular season second in goals per game. Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter are driving forces that are just now reaching their prime while Eric Staal had a career resurgence after a few down years. However, players such as Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle struggled not only with injuries, but also consistency. The rental of Martin Hanzal didn't work out, and the team offense struggled mightily in the playoffs, as they scored only seven goals in five games. Defensively, they were very good, but they are now needing to figure out the depth problem, as the third pairing looks like a sore spot, particularly since Gustav Olofsson and Mike Reilly are unproven at the NHL level and Kyle Quincey and Ryan Murphy are nothing more than depth players at this point. In goal, there's nothing to worry about when it comes to starter Devan Dubnyk. He's as advertised, but the need for a reliable backup reared its ugly head late in the season, and as a result, Dubnyk had too much on his plate. Still, he kept the Wild in the playoff games despite not getting much help in the scoring department. The special teams ranked in the top third of the league, but losing Scott Stevens behind the bench may affect the team's penalty killing unit.

Prediction: 5th in the Central Division

The Wild are a team that just barely avoided salary cap hell when they found a taker for Jason Pominville's contract, but that only scratches the surface of the problems ahead. The investments to both Parise and Ryan Suter haven't translated to wins when it matters the most, and now, Parise's contract has the potential to be a millstone for a team that simply doesn't have the resources to patch up the holes that are beginning to spring. They'll be in tough to make the playoffs, but they should be thankful that Dubnyk is playing his best hockey right now or it could be worse.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Losing Their Touch

LOS ANGELES KINGS

2016-17 record: 39-35 -8 (86 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Anze Kopitar

Once again, the defense of the Los Angeles Kings was near the top of the league, but like recent seasons, the offense was lagging far behind. The result was not only missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, but also sweeping changes in the front office. Dean Lombardi's trade deadline gambling and inability to manage the salary cap cost him his job as General Manager while Darryl Sutter's inability to adapt to the current NHL style of play cost him the head coaching job. The Kings are a team in transition, now, but they intend to maintain their identity as one of the toughest teams to play against. Whether they can strike a balance between offense and defense is a question that won't be answered overnight.

The defense begins from the back end out, and even though it got bad from the outset, as Jonathan Quick missed a chunk of time, this group was pretty good given the circumstances. Peter Budaj, and later Ben Bishop, helped keep the ship afloat until Quick returned, and now with Quick ready to go again, it will be up to Darcy Kuemper and Jack Campbell to stake a claim to the backup job. The blue line is in good hands with Drew Doughty, as he drives this unit. The group behind him is still solid, but Jake Muzzin must rebound from a terrible season. Depth here is not a problem. Up front is where the problems were, as Anze Kopitar was far from his usual self, as he had trouble balancing production and captaincy duties. Jeff Carter was reliable, and Tanner Pearson did well, but the rest of the group was not. Tyler Toffoli is looking to be healthy and return to 30-goal territory while Kopitar is just hoping to be more comfortable with the added responsibilities. Adrian Kempe will be looking to make an impact, while Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik are contractual millstones at this point. The penalty kill was great, but the power play reflected the team's troubles scoring.

Prediction: 5th in the Pacific Division

A return to health may help prop up some of the offensive numbers, but given the team's lack of overall speed, the Kings just might be treading water until the cumbersome contracts of Brown, Gaborik, and the long-since departed Mike Richards come off the books.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Licking Their Wounds

FLORIDA PANTHERS

2016-17 record: 35-36-11 (81 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Derek MacKenzie

To call the Florida Panthers a hot mess last season would be an understatement. The Panthers stumbled out of the gate, the acquisitions prior to the season weren't panning out, the head coach was left at the airport after a road loss and being fired, and oh yeah, they missed the playoffs by a fairly wide margin. If there was ever a team that needed to hit the reset button, it was the Panthers. Dale Tallon was reinserted as General Manager, and now, with stability returning to the team's front office, the clean up on the ice begins.

Things were brutal for the Panthers, and offensively, it doesn't figure to be much better, as leading goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault was plucked in the Expansion Draft. That leaves Vincent Trocheck and Aleksander Barkov as the only 20-goal scorers from last season that are returning, and Barkov missed considerable time to injuries. Their next two leading goal scorers are also not returning, as Jaromir Jagr was not tendered a new contract and Reilly Smith was traded to Vegas. That's a lot of goals going out the door, and ex-KHLer Evgeny Dadonov and free-agent signing Radim Vrbata were signed to replace some of that production. It would also help if both Barkov and Nick Bjugstad can stay out of the trainer's room and Jared McCann can finally break into the lineup full time. 2017 first round pick Owen Tippett will also have a shot at sticking on the NHL roster. The blue line wasn't much better, as Aaron Ekblad hit a wall in his third season while the rest of the unit was merely okay. There's talent on this unit, and they will need to show more than what they did last season. In goal is where things may very well get dicey. Roberto Luongo never truly recovered from off-season hip surgery, and James Reimer was forced into the lineup more often. The result was a goaltending duo that may see a shift in who sees more starts, as Reimer is more likely to see starts with Luongo needing more rest. The offensive struggles carried over onto the power play while the penalty kill was surprisingly near the top of the league.

Prediction: 6th in the Atlantic Division

The Panthers are in clean up mode, and any hopes of making the playoffs will hinge on whether or not key players can stay healthy. At worst, off-ice distractions should be a thing of the past, but on the ice may be a far different story.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Striking it Rich

EDMONTON OILERS

2016-17 record: 47-26-9 (103 points)
Lost to Anaheim in Conference semi-finals
Captain: Connor McDavid

A decade of failure and lottery picks that have mostly not panned out put the Oilers in the bottom leading up to last season. What a difference one year makes, as now, they are a team truly on the rise. Of course, it helps that one of the lottery picks that has panned out is Connor McDavid. There's no question that the team will go as he goes, but the other problems that the Oilers had in the past were also solved along the way. The question now is whether they can keep the momentum going.

McDavid gets all the headlines, and rightfully so, but Leon Draisaitl also deserves some press, and the Oilers agree, as both players were given extensions heading into this season. McDavid made a goal scorer out of Patrick Maroon, who scored 27 goals, but can the effect carry over to newcomer Ryan Strome? He was picked up in a trade for Jordan Eberle and can bring a solid two-way game, but will his offensive game benefit in the same way? Offensive scoring depth may be an issue, as there just simply isn't enough spots to play on the same lines as McDavid and Draisaitl, but there are now enough big physical players to keep teams honest about taking liberties with both players. If Jesse Puljujarvi can get past his growing pains of last year, the Oilers will be even better. On the blue line, it was often a black hole, as the Oilers looked lost often in the dark years. Last year, it was a strength thanks to General Manager Peter Chiarelli committing to fixing the unit. From an offensive standpoint, Oscar Klefbom was finally able to stay healthy, and his offensive output was welcomed by a team that had lacked a playmaker from that end. Signing Kris Russell prior to last season paid off, as his play helped the likes of Adam Larsson and Darnell Nurse realize more of their potential, and while Larsson will never be half the player Nicklas Lidstrom was (see the scouting report from Larsson's draft year), he at least provides smart, calm play in his own end that may never be an offensive force. In goal, Cam Talbot was a workhorse, as he solidified another major problem spot for the Oilers since the lockout. One potential problem is that there still isn't a reliable backup, and if the workload causes problems, look out below. Special teams were about what you thought, as the power play was great, but the penalty kill could use a little work.

Prediction: 2nd in the Pacific Division

The Oilers are built to win now, and certainly, they can make a deep run as soon as this season. One thing to watch for is health, as the Oilers were largely unscathed last season, and everyone say what the Oilers were without McDavid the season before. This is McDavid's team, and the Oilers will need the stars to align once again to keep everything in order.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Clipped Wings

DETROIT RED WINGS

2016-17 record: 33-36-13 (79 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Henrik Zetterberg

As the final seconds ticked down before the reality of missing the playoffs hit, it was icing on the cake for a Detroit Red Wings team that has only just begun to feel the pain of rebuilding. Almost everything that could have gone wrong did, and though they are entering a new arena in downtown Detroit, it's going to be a while before they can be playoff contenders again.

Up front, many of the young players that were expected to take the next step forward didn't, and the result was a team near the bottom in scoring. Henrik Zetterberg put up good numbers, but he's also on the wrong side of 35, and apart from Tomas Tatar and Anthony Mantha, there wasn't much in the way of improvement. Dylan Larkin took the biggest tumble, as he was able to get only 32 points in 80 games, and certainly, the stubborn coaching of Jeff Blashill wasn't helpful, as he waited a little too long before letting Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou loose. The veterans other than Zetterberg were also complicit in the team's struggles, as they too, took downward turns in numbers. Defensively has long been a sore spot since Nicklas Lidstrom retired in 2012, and it doesn't figure to be better anytime soon. Mike Green is a fine option for offense from the blue line, but the unit as a whole isn't going to put fear in anyone. Trevor Daley was added to at least make the group look respectable, but this is a unit in trouble. In goal, Petr Mrazek was supposed to be the starter, but he struggled with the role, and generally outplayed by Jimmy Howard when he was healthy. Mrazek has a lot to prove, especially since he was left exposed in the expansion draft, while Howard just simply needs to repeat last season while staying healthy.

Prediction: 7th in the Atlantic Division

This is just going to be plain bad for the Red Wings, as there isn't much to inspire confidence that they will even be competitive. With ownership changing hands after Mike Ilitch's death, as his son Chris runs the team now, this could be the last season for General Manager Ken Holland and Blashill if they don't show signs of growth.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Putting the Shine Back on the Star

DALLAS STARS

2016-17 record: 34-37-11 (79 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Jamie Benn

The Dallas Stars once again had issues preventing the other team from scoring. Unlike 2015-16, however, they weren't able to score enough to compensate, and as a result, missed the playoffs. This inconsistency under General Manager Jim Nill's watch led to major changes, none more so than behind the bench, where Lindy Ruff was handed his walking papers and in comes Ken Hitchcock, whose goal is to shorten the goal differential gap. Other changes to the team should also come in handy.

Up front, it still goes through Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, but secondary scoring behind them wasn't nearly as present, as Brett Ritchie was the only other player to score over 15 goals. That was why Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal were brought in. Depth remains an issue, as the team is clearly reliant on their superstars up front. On the back end, John Klingberg was great on offense, but allergic to playing defense, and that isn't going to fly in Hitchcock's system. To that end, Marc Methot was picked up in a trade with Vegas to quite possibly paired with him and do for him what he did for Erik Karlsson in Ottawa. Beyond that, it's pretty much a logjam, as Dan Hamhuis will pair with either Esa Lindell or Julius Honka while the third pairing is far from settled. For the second straight year, goaltending was a disaster. Antti Niemi was bought out, and Ben Bishop was signed to a six-year deal to take hold of the starter's job. While it still remains the same system money wise, as Kari Lehtonen is still on the team, it establishes roles, and in Lehtonen's case, he's better suited as a backup at this point in his career. Special teams need to be fixed, and the moves made were designed to that end.

Prediction: 3rd in the Central Division

The Stars still have the pieces in place offensively, and for the first time in a few seasons, roles in net are clearly defined. However, the uncertainty of the blue line past the second pair could provide problems. In theory, the Stars should be better in the standings, but in practice, it may tell a different story.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Reloading the Cannon

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

2016-17 record: 50-24-8 (108 points)
Lost to Pittsburgh in the Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Nick Foligno

A 16-game unbeaten streak highlighted the Columbus Blue Jackets' season as they finished with the most points in franchise history, yet a first round loss to Pittsburgh illustrates that they have a long way to go where they want to be. The pieces are in place for a sustained playoff run, and with many of their key players yet to reach 30, the window may be as wide open as it gets.

When John Tortorella was brought it, he brought accountability to a team that had largely struggled with that in recent years. It begins with Nick Foligno, who rebounded to post respectable offensive totals while providing much needed leadership. Cam Atkinson was an offensive force that should be better with Artemi Panarin joining the team in a trade from Chicago. The trade came at the cost of Brandon Saad, but there are more than enough players who can provide what he provided. There isn't a true number one center, but Alexander Wennberg took a big step in that direction, and now he has the contract to prove it. They will need to replace Sam Gagner and William Karlsson, but if Pierre-Luc Dubois can step in right away, that will take some pressure off the rest of the team. The blue line is the strongest it's ever been, and provided Zach Werenski shows no ill effects of an eye injury suffered in the playoffs, figures to be a strength for a long time. Werenski and Seth Jones are both top defenders while David Savard and Jack Johnson have provided the team with a solid shutdown pair. Gabriel Carlsson could push for time, and the pressure is now on Ryan Murray to do something or get left behind. Sergei Bobrovsky finally stayed healthy for the first time since 2013, and it was reflected in his second Vezina Trophy. Playoff success still eludes him, but staying healthy was a major step for him, and provided the injury issues are behind him, he should be a major player for a while.

Prediction: 3rd in the Metropolitan Division

Despite falling off a little towards the end of the regular season, the Blue Jackets are a team on the rise. Health will always be an issue until proven otherwise, but we've seen what happens when key players are healthy. The Blue Jackets figure to be in the mix in a tough Metropolitan Division.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Digging Out...Again

COLORADO AVALANCHE

2016-17 record: 22-56-4 (48 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: Gabriel Landeskog

It was a season to forget for the Colorado Avalanche, and it was awful BEFORE the season started. Anything and everything that could go wrong, did, and the result was a historically bad season that began with a coaching change a month before the season started and dropping out of the top three spots in the NHL Draft after the season ended. Most of the core returns, which means digging out is going to be far easier said than done.

The Avalanche learned that picking up short-term veterans with no speed was death, which in large part explains why they will be going much younger than usual. Of course, it would help if Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Matt Duchene (if he isn't traded before the season starts) all hit the 20 goal mark, something that only Mikko Rantanen was able to hit. If that weren't enough, the next two leading goal scorers after those four are no longer on the team (Rene Bourque with 12 and Mikhail Grigorenko with 10, also the only other players to hit double digits). Incoming are Colin Wilson and Nail Yakuppov, both of whom are undoubtedly reclamation projects. If there is a positive, Tyson Jost is expected to make the leap to the NHL, and he should provide badly needed help in possession numbers up front. The blue line is still a mess, though it is clear that they are finally going to let the prospects sink or swim here, as Francois Beauchemin was bought out, and Fedor Tyutin and Patrick Wiercioch were not the answer in supplementing the defense. The current group really can't do any worse, as Tyson Barrie was dreadful, Erik Johnson couldn't stay healthy again, and Nikita Zadorov remains unsigned at this time. There isn't much hope with this unit, and with Chris Bigras and Andrei Mironov near locks to make the NHL roster, this will also be a unit that will have no choice but to learn on the job. In goal, it's not much better. In fact, it might actually be much worse, as Semyon Varlamov couldn't stay healthy for a third straight season, and a solid but overmatched Calvin Pickard is now backing up Marc-Andre Fleury in Las Vegas. Jonathan Bernier did fairly well in Anaheim last season, but he still has a bad habit of letting in the soft goal every now and then. If he's starting in Colorado, the Avs are in even more trouble.

Prediction: 7th in the Central Division

Keeping Jared Bednar as head coach despite the wretched season was smart, seeing as this will be his first real chance at implementing his system with his staff in place. It remains to be seen if the Avs will actually do anything, as they largely return the same crew that didn't crack 50 points on the season. At the very least, things will begin much calmer to start the season, but where it goes from here is likely not good.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Chicago's Last Stand?

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

2016-17 record: 50-23-9 (109 points)
Lost to Nashville in Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Jonathan Toews

The Chicago Blackhawks were supposed to have another deep run in the playoffs last season, with a Conference-leading 109 points and a core that is still going strong. Nashville and its stonewall defense had other ideas, and now, the Blackhawks are a team on the verge of collapsing. Key players were traded (i.e. Artemi Panarin, Niklas Hjalmarsson), left the team through other means (Trevor van Riemsdyk) or are retired/not playing this season (Brian Campbell and Marian Hossa). The core of the team is still here, but depth will be tested in a major way, with their playoff hopes being at its most endangered since Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews' rookie years.

Up front, everything still goes through Kane and Toews, though Kane is the far better offensive option. Losing Panarin will hurt, but he could have either returning Blackhawk on one line, as Patrick Sharp is out to prove that he still has something left while Brandon Saad returns a more complete player than when he left in 2015. Richard Panik showed that he could step up in a bigger role, and it wouldn't be a major upset if Alex DeBrincat contributes right away if he ends up on a line with either Kane or Toews. The blue line is where there is more concern about depth. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook remain, but Connor Murphy, picked up in the Hjalmarsson trade, is the next best defender on the team while Michal Kempny will be having a bigger role. If that didn't set things up well, it can only get worse if the youth (Gustav Forsling and Ville Pokka) fail to step up and/or Czech import Jan Rutta doesn't play to expectations. Goal could be an issue, too, as Corey Crawford didn't hold the fort as well last season, and now, his backups are unproven Anton Forsberg and J-F Berube. The moves aren't too helpful in fixing a dreadful penalty kill, which will now be minus both Hossa and Marcus Kruger.

Prediction: 4th in the Central Division

In the past, the Blackhawks have been written off any time trouble rears its ugly head, but each time, those reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated. This time, they may not be so lucky, as depth will be tested, and this season will be a referendum on just how well they have developed their prospects. Buckle up, it's going to be a wild ride in Chicago.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Next Step Forward

CAROLINA HURRICANES

2016-17 record: 36-31-15 (87 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

The good news for the Carolina Hurricanes is that they're building a very good team stocked with defensive prospects. The bad news is almost everything else, as they still didn't have enough offense to overcome their deficiencies in goal and that was reflected in the fact that they finished dead last in attendance. It should be noted that General Manager Ron Francis and coach Bill Peters are making the most of the hand they are dealt, and while it's resulted in a pipeline that is rich in talent, there hasn't been a top player that can put the team on their shoulders, though that too, is being resolved slowly.

Offensively, they could use some help scoring, as only Jeff Skinner and Sebastian Aho broke the 20-goal barrier, with Skinner almost hitting 40 goals. Down the middle is where things get dicey, as Jordan Staal is better suited to centering the second line while Victor Rask didn't take the step the Hurricanes hoped he would take. Getting increased production from Teuvo Teravainen would help, but it appears that Elias Lindholm may have hit his ceiling. From the time Francis took over as General Manager, one of his missions was to improve a blue line that had been short on homegrown talent. Consider that done, as Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Noah Hanifin are all regular contributors, and all still have room to grow. Adding Trevor van Riemsdyk in a trade secures part of the third pairing, but there will be competition to be his partner, as no less than three players are in the running. Goaltending was a major issue, and with no imminent help in the pipeline, that was why they went out and got Scott Darling from Chicago. This will be his first time as full-time starter for an NHL team, so it remains to be seen how well he can handle that pressure. Cam Ward remains, though as a backup.

Prediction: 5th in the Atlantic Division

Carolina badly needs to make the playoffs if they hope to see some semblance of a spike in attendance numbers. At worst, the Hurricanes have improved in most areas, while at best, they may just become the playoff team that they've wanted to be since the rebuild. It's been painful for them, but the light at the end of the tunnel may be fast approaching.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Stopping the Merry-Go Round

CALGARY FLAMES

2016-17 record: 45-33-4 (94 points)
Lost to Anaheim in the Conference quarterfinals
Captain: Mark Giordano

Despite making the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, the fatal flaw in the Calgary Flames' gameplan has been the same ever since Miikka Kiprusoff retired: goaltending. That flaw, along with a lack of scoring punch, was a big reason they were swept aside in the first round last season. Now, the names in goal have changed once again, but the goal remains the same.

Starting in goal, Mike Smith and Eddie Lack are the new tandem, and they are the seventh and eight goaltenders to get regular playing time since the end of the 2013 season. Combined with very little in the way of goaltending prospects developing in that time, something that the Flames hope finally ends soon, it is why the Flames have been middle of the pack for so long. On the blue line, they should be great on paper, as they are five deep as far as quality players go. Finding the sixth and seventh guys will be a challenge, but not one that should be of major concern. Up front, most of the players had down years on the stat sheet, but the emergence of Mikael Backlund as a Selke candidate has given the Flames peace of mind on who to slot behind Sean Monahan. Dougie Hamilton showed what he is capable of, starting the offense from the back end at least 50 times (the number of points he put up). If there is someone that needs to step up, it's Sam Bennett, who fell victim to the sophmore slump.

Prediction: 4th in the Pacific Division

The Flames are even better on the blue line, but until the goaltending finally solidifies itself, it may not matter who's in front. Getting the offensive bite back to the team would also go a long way in helping the overall team take the next step forward.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Dulled Blades

BUFFALO SABRES

2016-17 record: 33-37-12 (78 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

Another season of missing the playoffs was nothing new for the Buffalo Sabres. However, constant infighting, failure to take that next step forward, and overall poor play led to Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray losing their jobs and in their place, Phil Housley will be the new man behind the bench and Jason Botterill as General Manager. Their task will be not only to get back to the playoffs, but also get Jack Eichel to buy into their system.

Eichel missed the first portion of the season to injury, but still managed to lead the team in scoring while only playing 61 games. Given that he's being perceived (fair or unfairly) by some as the guy that got Bylsma fired, however, he is definitely in the hot seat. It didn't help that Kyle Okposo missed the last part of the season due to his own injury issues, which exposed a major lack of scoring depth. The closest thing they have to a pure goal scorer is Evander Kane, and it remains questionable if that ability outweighs his off-ice issues. To add to the front lines, they picked up an old favorite in Jason Pominville, who should at least provide 50 points for a team that needs any scoring they can get. Defensively, Rasmus Ristolainen has become the team's best defender, but badly needs help, as depth remains an issue. That was why the Sabres picked up Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella in separate trades. In goal, things weren't that much better, as Robin Lehner has yet to prove that he's a capable starter. Chad Johnson was brought back after a year in Calgary to push Lehner.

Prediction: 8th in the Atlantic Division

The Sabres will struggle again, and it remains to be seen if Eichel and Housley will get on the same page quickly. Whiat is certain is that the Sabres are starting over, and need a lot to go right just to contend for the playoffs.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Search for Stability

BOSTON BRUINS

2016-17 record: 44-31-7 (95 points)
Lost to Ottawa in Conference quarrterfinals
Captain: Zdeno Chara

The Boston Bruins have been a team in transition for the last few years, and despite being inconsistent again, they did have more hot streaks and managed to give Ottawa a run for their money in the first round of the playoffs. However, the Bruins did little in the way of free agency, and are banking on their youth to make meaningful contributions.

Offensively, this is Brad Marchand's team, and though he has ramped up his offensive output, he also remains a pest, which puts the Bruins in trouble if he heads to the box. Having David Pastrnak step up is not only helpful, but also takes some of the pressure off of Marchand. The drawback here is Pastrnak is a RFA, which could be problematic if he misses any time to start the season. They could use another offensive defender to go along with Torey Krug, and that is where Charlie McAvoy has the potential to step in, as they Bruins are looking to go younger with Zdeno Chara about to hit 40 and Adam MacQuaid being a perpetual injury risk. Without any major free agent additions, it will be up to McAvoy, Pastrnak, and Brandon Carlo, among others to seize the opportunities afforded to them. In goal, Tuukka Rask had a good enough season, but was overused again, and unless the Bruins can figure out the backup situation, as Anton Khudobin didn't answer the question well enough, the Bruins could be one and done again.

Prediction: 5th in the Atlantic Division

The Bruins will be in tough to make the playoffs once again, with Tampa Bay unlikely to crater again after injuries decimated their unit and Florida having a sense of stability once again, but their core is still intact, and if the youth steps up in a major way, they could surprise.

Monday, August 21, 2017

A New Era

ARIZONA COYOTES

2016-17 record: 30-42-10 (70 points)
Missed the playoffs
Captain: TBA

It was no surprise that the Arizona Coyotes were not very good last season. What was surprising was that the young players failed to take a step forward in their development. That was why Dave Tippett was replaced by Rick Tocchet as head coach and Shane Doan was not resigned. Now, with new faces in goal and veteran experience on the blue line and up front added, the Coyotes hope to take the long awaited step forward.

The offense was rather abysmal, with players such as Max Domi and Anthony Duclair failing to take that step forward. Part of the problem was that outside of Doan, there wasn't much in the way of veteran leadership helping to guide them when things got rough. Derek Stepan was added to provide some semblance of a number one canter, a sore spot for years. On the blue line, Oliver Ekman-Larsson had his worst year, but he should be in line to have a bounce back season. Having Niklas Hjalmarsson to help on the blue line should be a step forward, as will another year of experience for Jakob Chychrun. In goal, Mike Smith was traded and Anttii Rantaa will be the starter, though it remains to be seen if his time learning from Henrik Lundqvist the last two seasons is time well spent. Clayton Keller is expected to make the leap into NHL duty, and it is hoped that Dylan Strome can do the same.

Prediction: 7th in the Pacific Division

The Coyotes are in full transition mode, as it may take some time for the new pieces to gel, but one thing that the Coyotes won't be is boring, something that characterized Tippett's teams the last few seasons. They might be closer to the first overall pick than the playoffs, given the teams in front of them, though.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Taking That Final Step

ANAHEIM DUCKS

2016-17 record: 46-23-13 (105 points)
Lost to Nashville in Conference Finals
Captain: Ryan Getzlaf

For the second time in three seasons, the Anaheim Ducks made the Conference Finals and for the second time in three seasons, that's where their season ended. The difference this time around is that there is no feeling of never getting over the hump, but rather what could have been had they stayed healthy. That is why the majority of the Ducks' roster remains intact.

The only changes to the roster are the losses of both Clayton Stoner and Shea Theodore to Vegas and swapping out Jonathan Bernier for Ryan Miller as the backup goaltender. They were able to re-sign Patrick Eaves to a new deal, which should help their power play, as his absence during the Nashville series was a big reason for the power play failure. Miller should provide a more established presence to push incumbent starter John Gibson, who also had an impact during the Nashville series thanks to injuries that knocked him out for the last two games of that series. Barring that, it's the same Ducks squad from last year, one that will need Corey Perry to rediscover his scoring touch and a defense that should be better for having fewer distractions (see: Hamphus Lindholm's contract dispute at the beginning of the season). As for who to look for to step in from within, Brandon Montour's emergence helped make parting with Theodore a little easier, as he appears to be ready for full-time NHL duty while they will need Nick Ritchie to step up and know when to show restraint during play, as he's cost the Ducks a game or two due to reckless play.

Prediction: 1st in the Pecific Division

Until the Edmonton Oilers show that their defense is at least average, it is the Ducks' division to lose. However, they will face stiff competition and will need to show that they can win no matter who's on the ice.

Monday, August 14, 2017

History of Hockey: Dixieland Edition

With NHL hockey coming soon to Las Vegas, this is a good opportunity to look at how hockey has flourished in a non-traditional market. Today, it is about what may very well become the future home of this writer, that being Nashville, TN.  Long before the Predators started play in 1998, they had a few iterations in lower level leagues, to greatly varying degrees of success.

Prior to both the Predators and the then-named Nashville Arena (now Bridgestone Arena), the hockey teams in Nashville played in the old Nashville Municipal Auditorium, which still stands today and hosts events. Hockey in Nashville dates back to 1962, when the Dixie Flyers hit the ice in the EHL. That franchise was the longest iteration of the pre-NHL days, as they lasted from 1962 until 1971. After that franchise folded, Nashville went without hockey for 10 years before the South Stars hit the ice with the CHL for the 1981-82 season. That franchise lasted just one season before going under. However, Nashville would resurrect the team name for the following season, this time, in the ACHL. They would last a season and a half before they picked up stakes to Salem, VA and became the Lancers, leaving Nashville without a team for five and a half years.

In 1989, the Knights entered the fray and played in the ECHL, back when it was the East Coast Hockey League. They had a seven year run and drew fairly well in their first four years. and notable players to have come through Nashville in that time included Harry York, Link Gaetz, and Glen Metropolit. After that franchise relocated to Pensacola after the 1995-96 season, Nashville had two different teams in the CHL in the Nighthawks for the 1996-97 season and the Ice Flyers in the 1997-98 season before the NHL came calling, and the Predators began play in 1998 in the newly built Nashville Arena (now known as Bridgestone Arena).

There you have it, the history of hockey in Nashville. While the early days have seen varying degrees of success on the ice, the roots of what would become the Predators and the city's hockey fascination were laid with those teams, and now coming off of a Stanley Cup Finals run, the future looks even brighter for hockey in Nashville.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Time to Eulogize the Capitals?

It's been a rather interesting time for the Washington Capitals, as they have not only failed to make the Conference Finals in any of Alex Ovechkin's time there, but now there are many questions of whether their window of winning a Stanley Cup is about to slam shut.

To understand where the Capitals are in terms of potential salary cap hell, a spot currently occupied by the Los Angeles Kings and however it shakes out in the future, the Montreal Canadiens, let's look at the Capitals since the off-season began. They signed TJ Oshie to an eight-year extension, which isn't bad until you realize that he's going to be 38 by the time his contract ends and that is far too much term and possibly money, as it's a $5.75 million hit per year according to CapFriendly, for a player that simply isn't a leading guy. Next, the failure to buy out Brooks Orpik's contract meant that the Capitals risked losing a defender in the expansion draft, which they did, when Nate Schmidt was taken by the Vegas Golden Knights. This year's draft can be considered a waste for the Capitals, as they didn't have a pick in the first three rounds, and the picks they did make may very well have little to no impact in the long run. With the start of free agency, they lost Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Williams, and Karl Alzner on the first day. While losing Williams isn't a fatal blow in the long run, Shattenkirk will be the scar of another playoff failure, as a first round pick in this year's draft was the cost of a Shattenkirk rental while Alzner was a reliable player on the blue line. It should be noted that they also extended Dmirty Orlov for five years, which takes effect after next season. Meanwhile, Evgeny Kuznetsov was signed to an eight-year deal, which carries a near-$8 million hit annually. In case you're asking, they also signed Andre Burakovsky to a two-year, $3 million bridge deal and will have another year of Phillipp Grubauer, both of whom carry reasonable cap hits.

Where the Capitals stand, they need to find six other warm bodies and only have a shade over $4 million to play with. They have at least three years of Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Holtby left, so their window is really closing, and seemingly, they can ill-afford another Shattenkirk situation, as they will need to soon replenish their prospect pool in everywhere except in goal, as they appear pretty well-stocked there. The reality is that at some point, the Capitals will fall by the wayside in pretty much the same manner that Vancouver Canucks have from 2010 (their height) up until now.

Friday, June 30, 2017

NHL Draft Grades

The NHL Draft has come and gone, and I've had a little time to assess what every team has done. If you're keeping score on how many predictions I got right, I got Cale Makar, Cody Glass, and Owen Tippett with the correct teams and in the right slots, plus Klim Kostin going to the right team, but 11 slots lower than expected (he went 31st overall). Now, it's time to look at what each team did and hand out arbitrary grades.

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks lost their first round pick in the Patrick Eaves deal, and given that they just resigned him to a new deal, it appears to be a first round pick well spent. They did incredibly well to pick up both Maxime Comtois and Antoine Morand in the second round while they addressed their potential black hole in the goalie pipeline with Olle Eriksson-Ek in the fifth round. Jack Badini and Kyle Olson were also picked, and clearly, the Ducks have confidence in their blue line, as none of the picks were defensemen. Grade: B+

Arizona Coyotes: Most of their picks were on the blue line, with Pierre-Olivier Joseph having the most potential of the bunch. He needs to add weight, but he has all of the makings of another Oliver Ekman-Larsson. I didn't like that they didn't take a goalie in the draft, as it's rather barren beyond Adin Hill, but I did like Tyler Steenbergen, as he could be a steal in the fifth round. Grade: B-

Boston Bruins: The Bruins went predominantly centers and defensemen, with no wingers taken. Urho Vaakanainen was a safe pick, and given Jakub Zboril's slight regression in his development, it's not a bad pick. Jack Studnicka was a pick I liked here, as he fits the Bruins mold for centers. Grade: B

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres picked the best player available when it came time for their turn in the first round in Casey Mittelstadt. He will need a year, minimum, but he can eventually slot in behind Jack Eichel as a number two center. Other than Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen, however, the rest of the draft wasn't necessarily that great, as I thought they took a little long to address their blue line deficiencies. Grade: B-

Calgary Flames: For just having one pick in the first three rounds, the Flames made it count, as Juuso Valimaki will eventually slot in with TJ Brodie once he gets developed. The rest of their draft was throwing darts and hoping they hit the bullseye, but they did pick up Travis Hamonic in a trade, bolstering their blue line right away. Grade: C (not counting the Hamonic trade)

Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes need a number one center, and while Martin Necas doesn't necessarily have that ceiling, he does provide speed, another aspect that the Hurricanes currently lack. Most of their picks have rather low ceilings, but are largely safe bets for lower end roles if they make the NHL, especially Stelio Mattheos. Grade: B

Chicago Blackhawks: With losing Trevor van Riemsdyk and Niklas Hjalmarsson in the days leading up to the draft, it was no surprise that the majority of their picks were defensemen. Henri Jokiharju was a reach, but he fits what the Blackhawks want out of their defensemen. With nine picks, the Blackhawks filled every position except in goal, where they could have used someone for much later. Grade: B

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs needed to hit a homerun on their first pick, and with Cale Makar, that's exactly what they did. While he is a year away, minimum, he has all of the makings of a franchise defender. They also did well in drafting Connor Timmins in the second round, further fortifying their shaky blue line. The rest of the draft wasn't as inspiring. Grade: B+

Columbus Blue Jackets: With no first round pick this year, the Blue Jackets could afford to just simply add warm bodies into the prospect pool. Picking Alexandre Texier was a surprise choice, but he fits exactly what the Blue Jackets want in a player, as he provides grit. Grade: C+

Dallas Stars: The Stars addressed their biggest problems in the first round, as Miro Heiskanen will add stability to a blue line that sorely lacked a steady presence while Jake Oettinger adds a top end goalie that should be ready by the time Ben Bishop's contract ends. They also drafted Dylan Ferguson, who got flipped for Marc Methot, further helping their blue line. Grade: B+ (moved up to A- after the trade for Methot)

Detroit Red Wings: For the most part, it was about getting as many players as they could for the Red Wings. They did fill a need for offense in Michael Rasmussen, who also happens to fill a size need as well. It helps that he can skate well. I liked the pick of Keith Petruzzelli, who could figure into the golatending future if he picks up a few extra pounds and develops as expected in college. Grade: C

Edmonton Oilers: They took a major chance on Kailer Yamamoto, but not based on skill. He's got a fair amount of filling out to do, but only a 5'9" frame to work with. However, his skill set should work with either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. Getting Stuart Skinner in the third round was also a smart move. Grade: B

Florida Panthers: The Panthers only had five picks, but they already have a considerably deep prospect pool. Getting the best scorer available in Owen Tippett was great, though reaching for Aleksi Heponiemi could be the bigger payoff if he gains weight, as he's just a buck-forty. Grade: B-

Los Angeles Kings: The Kings are still in salary cap hell, given they're still on the books for both Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik. However, they did incredibly well in the draft, going down the middle with all their picks, as only wingers were not picked. Getting Gabe Vilardi at 11 was smart, as was picking up a rising Jaret Anderson-Dolan. Matt Villalta is another option in the eventuality that Jonathan Quick will retire, but the Kings hope that won't happen for a few years. Grade: B+

Minnesota Wild: Without a first or second round pick, the Wild had to make the most out of what they did have, and it seems like only Ivan Lodnia could be a potential NHLer. Size was largely ignored, as four out of the six picks are under 6' and only one breaks the 200 pound mark. Grade: D+

Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens need scorers, and none of the picks look like a gamebreaking scorer. As a matter of fact, none of the picks were wingers. Ryan Poehling's potential ceiling is 60 points while they appeared to overcompensate for losing Mikhail Sergachev by adding four defenders. Grade: C-

Nashville Predators: The Predators paid lip service to each of the positions, with every spot getting one player richer after the draft. The best picks were Eeli Tolvanen, a pure goal scorer who fell to them at 30 and may very well begin his pro career sooner rather than later, and Jacob Paquette, the second to last pick in the draft who could see his numbers go up with a bigger role in Kingston. Grade: A

New Jersey Devils: They get a passing grade just for picking Nico Hischier, a player that may need another year in major junior, as he needs to pack on a few pounds, but he provides a dynamic presence down the middle. While they didn't fill their blue line needs until late, they did pick up a potential steal in the fourth round in Nikita Popugaev, who fell due to a drop in production late in the draft year. Grade: A-

New York Islanders: The Islanders went defensemen with their first three picks and left wingers with their last two picks. It is debatable whether any of them will have an impact, but the trade of Travis Hamonic for a 2018 first round pick indicates they may be hedging their bets in the case that this year doesn't pan out for them. Grade: C

New York Rangers: They reached on their two first round picks, but Lias Andersson was a solid pick while Filip Chytil could surprise if he pans out. The Rangers are still in win-now mode, as none of this year's picks are expected to contribute in two years. Grade: C+

Ottawa Senators: For just having four picks, the Senators did pretty well in shoring up their depth. Shane Bowers isn't a top center, though the draft was pretty thin on top centers after Hischier and Nolan Patrick, but he should be no worse than a quality third line center. Alex Formenton could be another London Knight that breaks out post-draft year while Jordan Hollett was a value pick late in the draft and could be a factor in net. Grade: B-

Philadelphia Flyers: Nolan Patrick was obviously a great pick, as he now figures to make the opening night roster thanks to a trade that sees the Flyers saying good-bye to Brayden Schenn. Morgan Frost was a reach, but they made up for it in value by taking Isaac Ratcliffe in the second round and Matthew Strome in the fourth round. The Flyers continue to replenish their pipeline, and now, all facets appear to be plentiful. Grade: A

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins traded out of the first round to take Ryan Reaves, who figures to be the cop on a team that can use one. As for the actual draft, the Penguins drafted four defenders, with the best potential going to Zach Lauzon. As is the case with recent drafts, the Penguins are in no hurry to rush any of their prospects. Grade: B+

San Jose Sharks: They reached for Josh Norris, but the potential as a Logan Couture clone was great, and the Sharks would gladly take it if that is the case. The Sharks stocked themselves down the middle with two other centers, a need that may be coming if Joe Thornton bolts in free agency. Grade: B-

St. Louis Blues: The Blues added Brayden Schenn and lost Ryan Reaves in draft day trades, and they added a solid two way player in Robert Thomas, as well as power forward Klim Kostin in the draft. They addressed their blue line late in the draft. Grade: B

Tampa Bay Lightning: Going with mostly centers in the draft, their best pick was defenseman Callan Foote, who suddenly gives the Lightning a strong prospect pool of defenders, which includes recently acquired Mikhail Sergachev. If Alexander Volkov and Alexei Lipanov come over to North America within a few years, they stand a decent chance of making an impact on the Lightning. Grade: B+

Toronto Maple Leafs: Timothy Liljegren headlines a pretty good draft pool for the Maple Leafs, and while he had a poor season, his potential is such that he could be the offensive starter from the blue line that the Leaf have lacked since Tomas Kaberle. Eemeli Rasanen is an intriguing defender who is a project, but has the size to be a difference maker while Ian Scott is a good option in goal. Grade: A-

Vancouver Canucks: Elias Pettersson was a slight reach in the first round, but his potential marks out to be a number two center, at worst, once the Sedins move on. Their next three picks were great, as Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich were solid picks, as was goalie Michael DiPietro. Grade: B+

Vegas Golden Knights: The Golden Knights' plan was go down the middle, and they did incredibly well with most of those picks. Cody Glass was a great pick at six while Nick Suzuki figures to slot behind him within a couple of years. Erik Brannstrom was a bit of a reach, but Nic Hague was a solid value pick in the second round. One sleeper to watch is Jake Leschyshyn, who figures to get a bigger role with Regina next season. Grade: A

Washington Capitals: Bereft of a draft pick for the first three rounds, this looks like a throwaway draft for the Capitals. None look like a contributor down the line, but the Caps have proven people wrong before. It's just harder to say so for this year. Grade: F

Winnipeg Jets: Though well stocked on prospects, the Jets did alright this year, with Kristian Vesalainen providing a possible big body that can score up front, thus cutting down on the possibility of moving Dustin Byfuglien to forward. Dylan Samberg is a few years away, but he has potential on the blue line. Grade: B-

Friday, June 23, 2017

Fielding a Team

The Expansion Draft has come and gone, and now, each of the 31 teams will be ready to go on the ice. The Vegas Golden Knights spent close to the cap, with just $0.9 million left over after the draft and various trades. With that, let's look at each of the players taken from the existing 30 teams plus trades.

Clayton Stoner-Taken from Anaheim, the Golden Knights were enticed to take him when the Ducks agreed to also trade Shea Theodore to them. Theodore is more likely to make an impact than Stoner, whose contract comes off the books after next season.

Teemu Pulkkinen-AHL goal scorer who is on the clock to find his game in the NHL or be doomed to career AHL'er. The Golden Knights will be his fourth NHL team, after Detroit, Minnesota, and Arizona couldn't get much out of him.

Colin Miller-The Bruins needed to make room for Charlie McAvoy, and Miller's departure will do just that. As for the Golden Knights, a third line role appears likely, though if he can get his PPG closer to his rookie year, a second pairing role could be in his future.

William Carrier-Buffalo traded a draft pick to the Golden Knights as a likely guard against them taking Linus Ullmark. Carrier will be on his third NHL team, but will likely be given a bigger role.

Deryk Engelland-He was entering free agency, but the Golden Knights convinced him to sign a new deal, enabling them to bring him home. Adds grit and not much else.

Connor Brickley-The Hurricanes traded a fifth-round pick to entice the Golden Knights into picking Brickley, and they may not be done dealing.

Trevor Van Riemsdyk- Solid defensive option taken from Chicago, he too, could be on the move if the Golden Knights decide he isn't an answer on the blue line. He's on the move, as Carolina traded to get him.

Calvin Pickard-Every team needs a backup goalie, and Pickard will fit that description (more on who he's backing up). He wasn't ready for a full-time starting gig, but the Golden Knights will be a better team up front than his former home in Colorado.

William Karlsson-The Blue Jackets threw in their first round pick to ensure that the Golden Knights would take him. Karlsson figures to challenge for a spot on the second line, as...

Cody Eakin-Barring anything out of the blue, Eakin enters the season as the Golden Knights' first line center. A very good second liner, this is his chance to shine with a bigger role now that he isn't behind Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza.

Tomas Nosek-Likely headed for the AHL, Nosek couldn't crack a rather thin Detroit lineup.

Griffin Reinhart-Reinhart has yet to fulfill his potential, and now that the Golden Knights are his third team since being drafted in 2012, he is on the clock to prove that he is not a bust.

Jon Marchessault-A 30-goal scorer, the Panthers threw in Reilly Smith to ensure that the Panthers would not lose either Roberto Luongo or Jason Demers.

Brayden McNabb-The Kings didn't lose when McNabb was taken, but given that they're still saddled with the contracts of Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, they were hoping for a lot more, especially since they're officially in salary cap hell.

Erik Haula-The Wild threw in Alex Tuch and an assurance from the Golden Knights that Haula would be signed to a new deal if they took him. At worst, he's a solid fourth line player.

Alexei Emelin-Physical presence, was likely picked as part of a later trade, which will be discussed then.

James Neal-Nashville didn't want to lose him, but given their lack of center depth plus Neal agreeing to waive his NMC, it had to happen. Vegas gets a player good for 30 goals, but also with just one year left on his contract.

Jon Merrill-Second pairing defender duty is likely awaiting Merrill, who may very well be paired with a defensively responsible player that the Golden Knights picked up, which will be mentioned later.

JF Berube-Most likely headed to the AHL, he was picked because the Islanders threw in Mikhail Grabovski and a first round pick this year.

Oscar Lindberg-Solid center who will likely see third-line duty and possibly more if he outplays William Karlsson.

Marc Methot-Defensively responsible, his likely defense partner could be Jon Merrill.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Likely AHL bound, he can fill in on an NHL roster if injuries impact the team, and he provides grit and leadership in the locker room.

Marc-Andre Fleury-The face of the franchise, he needed a fresh start now that Matt Murray is firmly entrenched as the Penguins' starter. Still, Fleury has a few good years left and can be a sure thing on what is most likely few sure things on the Golden Knights.

David Schlemko-The likely condition of the Golden Knights taking Emelin, Schlemko is headed to Montreal.

David Perron-Offensively gifted, but consistency forever remained an issue in his NHL career thus far.

Jason Garrison-Considerable money freed up for the Lightning, they also threw in negotiating rights to Nikita Gusev, and given that the Golden Knights not only have a solid top pairing guy, but also a lure for Gusev in his former SKA teammate Vadim Shipachyov, they made out pretty well here.

Brendan Leipsic-The forgotten man in the Maple Leafs' youth movement, he gets a fresh start, but is now on his third team. Expect him to challenge for a spot on the NHL roster.

Luca Sbisa-Possible that he could be paired with Jason Garrison, but also possible he plays third pairing minutes, too. Much maligned in Vancouver, he's far better in his own end.

Nate Schmidt-Defender with promise, he will see more time in the NHL, as he isn't behind the likes of John Carlson and Karl Alzner.

Chris Thorburn-Fourth line duty awaits this physical presence. The Golden Knights also acquired the Jets' first round pick this year and gave up the first round pick originally owned by Columbus in return.

The Golden Knights now own the 6th, 13th, and 15th overall picks in this year's draft. The question is whether they decide to move two of the three or all three in an effort to get either the first or second overall pick.