Sep 302005
 

Well, it is that time of year again. Hockey Pool drafting season. With the NHL set to begin play less than a week away many of you will be participating in hockey pool drafts and for you, here are a few of my sleeper picks, guys who might fly under the radar of some people, or guys who might have much improved NHL seasons.

Kari Lehtonen – The Atlanta Thrashers I believe will be one of the most improved teams in the NHL and Lehtonen will be a huge part of that. Lehtonen is capable of 30+ wins this season with a very good goals against average and save percentage. If you are in a keeper league, this guy becomes immensely more valuable because his future will only be better. Lehtonen is my pick for rookie of the year.

Alexander Frolov – In his second year in Los Angeles he improved to 48 points from 31 points in his rookie year. He could be playing on a line with Roenick and Demitra this year and I could see him getting 30+ goals and 70 points.

Marc Savard – Yes, I love the Atlanta Thrashers and I really like Marc Savard in the new rules NHL playing center for superstars Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa. In 2003-04 Savard scored 52 points in 45 and there is no reason he can’t once again be greater than a point per game player. I am sure Savard is still an after though in many poolies minds, but don’t let that be you.

Ryan Malone – Malone could be considered the unknown Penguin. We all hear about Lemieux, Crosby and the signings of Recchi, Palffy, Leclair and Gonchar but a key beneficiary of all those guys will be Ryan Malone as Malone quite likely will be the “sixth” guy playing on the top 2 lines with all those new forwards.

Mike Cammalleri – Cammalleri is ready to make the jump to the NHL and he will make an impact. Cammalleri would have been in the NHL last year had there been an NHL but instead he benefited by another year in the AHL. And what a stellar year it was scoring 49 goals and 109 points. Cammalleri will play a prominent role on the Kings offense and could step into the first line center role if (or when) Roenick suffers another concussion.

Tyler Arnason – In his rookie year he had 39 points for Chicago and in his second year he improved to 55 points. I see Arnason taking another step forward this year possibly reaching the 70 point plateau. He’s a relative unknown but a worthwhile pickup in any hockey pool.

Nikolai Zherdev – Zherdev played 57 games for Columbus in 2003-04 and scored 13 goals and 34 points. He played in a good Russian league last year and scored 19 goals, 41 points in 50 games. This year he will be playing on the top line in Columbus with Rick Nash and that has to be good for his point totals. 20 goals and 60 points is certainly reachable. As a bonus tip, Todd Marchant is the likely center of that line and could see a bit of a boost in his point totals too.

Thomas Vanek – The Buffalo Sabres are hoping that Vanek will be their sniper of the future. He’s been an goal scoring threat wherever he has played. In 2003-04 he scored 26 goals in 38 games in U.S. college hockey and in the AHL last year he scored 42 goals in 74 games. This year he is going to be given every opportunity to prove his worth in the NHL and it is quite likely he will be doing so on the Sabres top line with Daniel Briere. This duo could become a serious offensive threat in Buffalo’s near future, maybe even this year.

Henrik Zetterberg – The salary cap has forced Detroit to take a youth movement and that will benefit Zetterberg who will now play a much more prominent role in the Red Wings offence. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him improve his output to 25-30 goals and 65-70 points this season.

Brandon Bochenski – Not too many people knew much about Bochenski before this pre-season having been drafted in the 7th round in 2003 by the Senators. But last year he played in the AHL along side Jason Spezza and scored 34 goals and 70 points. So far this pre-season the line of Bochenski-Spezza-Heatley has been on fire and there is no reason to believe it won’t continue. If Jacques Martin was still the Senators coach I am not sure that Bochenski would stick with the team, and certainly not on the first line. But I think new coach Bryan Murray will keep him around. Don’t go crazy and make him an early round pick, he is too risky for that, but he could be a late round steal.


Free Hockey Pool

 Posted by at 6:41 pm
Sep 292005
 

St. Louis Blues: They will certainly be singing the blues in St. Louis this year as no team has fallen further than the Blues. MacInnis has retired, Pronger was traded, and Demitra, Khavanov and Osgood were let leave for other teams. And to make matters worse, Keith Tkachuk is vastly out of shape. Lalime should be a decent replacement for Osgood but no one is going to adequately replace those other guys. Barring a miracle I can’t see the Blues being close to playoff contention.

Colorado Avalanche: They big loss was Peter Forsberg but they also lost Adam Foote, Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. Those would make the core of a pretty good team. Although they have lost a lot the Avalanche still have some top talent in Sakic, Hejduk, Tanguay and Blake and adding Brisebois will help the loss of Foote. They will still compete for a playoff spot but they are in a tough division.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Gone from the Stanley Cup champs are talented forward Cory Stillman, defensive defenceman Brad Lukowich and of course star goalie Nikolai Khabibulin and they have only really added Vaclav Prospal and Sean Burke to replace them. I honestly don’t think Burke can be a #1 goalie anymore (just ask the Flyers) so that means Tampa is going to depend on John Grahame to step up and be the #1 guy. Although Grahame played great in stretches last year I am not convinced he can be a top goalie on a cup contending team and I think they will be seriously worried about Atlanta challenging them for the division lead. Also, one has to wonder if Martin St. Louis can repeat his stellar season.

Detroit Red Wings: They didn’t fall as far as some people think but their old players are one year older, and honestly, how much more can you expect from Yzerman and Chelios. Gone are Derian Hatcher, Darren McCarty, Mathieu Dandenault, Ray Whitney, Brett Hull, Hasek and Cujo. But I like their pickup of Andreas Lilja who will fill Dandenault’s role and Andy Delmore could be a solid PP quarterback. They will still have a good offence with Lang, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Shanahan, Lidstrom and others but the big question mark for Detroit is in goal and can Osgood and Legace provide good enough goaltending. If they can Detroit should remain a playoff team in a weak division.

San Jose Sharks: San Jose is a team that few people seem to talk about but they did lose some quality players and didn’t replace them with anyone except rookies they hope will step up. Gone are Mike Ricci, Mike Rathje, Jason Marshall, Alexander Korolyuk and Curtis Brown. If the young players don’t step up, the Sharks will fall down.

Other teams who might fall: Vancouver Canucks have lost some valuable depth on defence with Sopel and Malik gone. Toronto Maple Leafs if *both* Lindros and Allison suffer serious injuries. New Jersey if Elias, Gomez and Mogilny can’t all come back from injury/health issues. I think they have done a decent job patching up their defense.

 Posted by at 9:06 am
Sep 292005
 

Pittsburgh Penguins: The only direction they could really go was up, but they have gone up by quite a large margin. They haven’t really lost any significant players but have added Sergei Gonchar, Mark Recchi, John Leclair, Zigmund Palffy, Jocelyn Thibault and of course Sidney Crosby. Due to their weak defense I am still not convinced that they are a playoff team, especially if Lemieux can’t play a full season, but they are much improved and will no longer be pushovers. They will be dramatically better and could jump to the 80-90 point range.

Atlanta Thrashers: I like what the Atlanta Thrashers have done and I really see big things for this team in the next couple years, if not this year. Gone is Dany Heatley and some mostly ‘depth’ type players but coming to Atlanta is Marian Hossa, Bobby Holik, Niclas Havelid, Greg de Vries and Peter Bondra. But most importantly is rookie goalie Kari Lehtonen who should provide vastly improved goaltending over 2003-04 when Atlanta had one of the worst goaltending in the NHL. They need to get Ilya Kovalchuk signed though.

Chicago Blackhawks: Like the Penguins, there wasn’t really any direction other than up that they could go. The biggest move was adding Khabibulin in net which will be a big improvement over the sub-par goaltending they got in 2003-04. They also added Mathieu Barnaby, Cutis Brown, Martin Lapointe, Adrian Aucoin, Jaroslav Spacek and a few other role players. They will be much better but like the Penguins, a playoff spot playoff spot is still no guarantee but unlike the east, the west is wide open so they have a chance.

Los Angeles Kings: The only players of significance they lost is Zigmund Palffy and Martin Strake but they have added Pavol Demitra, Craig Conroy, Jeremy Roenick, Valeri Bure and goalie Mathieu Garon. Also rookie Mike Cammelleri is ready for prime time after an excellent AHL season in 2004-05 and Alexander Frolov should be ready for a 30+ goal season.

Edmonton Oilers: They added one of the top 3 defensemen in the league in Chris Pronger and that alone should improve them. They also added forward Michael Peca whose gritty physical play should be a welcome addition to the Oilers forwards who are generally more skilled than gritty. They will be better but due to questionable goaltending and a weak set of centermen a playoff spot is anything but guarateed.

Other improved teams: Calgary Flames, Florida Panthers. Possibly Philadelphia if they can stay healthy and the rookies play well. Possibly Ottawa (in the playoffs) if Hasek can be the Hasek of old.

 Posted by at 2:27 am
Sep 292005
 

On Sunday, former first-round draft pick Dan Blackburn announced his retirement at the tender age of 22. Selected 10th overall by the New York Rangers in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, he was projected as their future starter and the heir apparent to Mike Richter. Then, in October of 2003, Blackburn suffered an injury to his left shoulder which resulted in nerve damage and left him unable to play for the following season. When he did return in 2004-05, it was with the Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL, and he sported two blockers, as his injury prevented him from being able to close a catcher. Blackburn then reinjured himself at the Rangers training camp this year, leading to his retirement. Yet, with his injuries, it’s easy to forget exactly how good Blackburn was. To put it in perspective, he’s three years younger now then Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, who has yet to cement an NHL job. While it’s difficult to find any recent statistical comparisons to a goaltender who joined the NHL from the WHL at 18, here are a few other players who have all been considered number one goaltender material at some point in their career (please note, the OHL numbers are skewed compared to WHL numbers):

Player 16 yrs old 17 yrs old 18 yrs old 19 yrs old 20 yrs old
Dan Blackburn WHL
34-8-7
2.52gaa
.912%
WHL
33-14-2
2.77
.907%
AHL
2-1-1
2.70
.905%
NHL
12-16-0
3.28
.898%
NHL
8-16-4
3.17
.890%
Injured
Player 1 HS
14-0-1
0.95gaa
WHL
17-11-2
3.29gaa
WHL
33-19-2
3.41
WHL
10-24-5
3.69
.899%
AHL
16-12-3
3.19
.888%
Player 2 SMHL
2.43gaa
WHL
27-13-1
2.38gaa
.906%
WHL
18-24-13
2.75
.914%
WHL
25-25-5
2.42
.923
AHL
21-16-3
2.01
.930%
Player 3 OJHL
2.87gaa
OHL
3-9-1
4.98
OHL
24-28-1
4.54
OHL
20-28-1
4.31
.891%
AHL
14-15-7
3.19
.899%
Player 3 MTJHL
3.94
OHL
8-16-5
4.16
.890%
OHL
17-22-5
4.11
.897%
OHL
33-20-5
3.43
.918%
AHL
8-14-4
3.37
.891%
NHL
4-6-0
2.96
.890%

As you can see, none of them really compare to Blackburn, with only Player 4 having reached the NHL by age 20. Player 1 is Brian Boucher, famous for guiding the Flyers to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and currently languishing in Phoenix, a victim of his own inconsistency. Player 2 is Minnesota prospect Josh Harding, who actually compares well to Blackburn, if with slower development, and who is projected as a future starting netminder. Player 3 is Brent Johnson, former starter in St. Louis and current third-stringer in Vancouver. Finally, Player 4 is Boston Bruins netminder Andrew Raycroft, whose statistics as a 20 year old are inferior to Blackburn as an 18 year old, despite the fact that Blackburn played for an inferior team. How though, does Blackburn compare against other phenom netminders? Here’s a look at two current stars, who unfortunately played in wildly different leagues at young ages, making it difficult to compare them to Blackburn. Here are their first NHL seasons, both with the New York Islanders:

Roberto Luongo (20 years old)
AHL- 10-12-4 2.93 GAA .908%
NHL- 7-14-1 3.25 GAA .904%

Rick DiPietro (19 years old)
IHL- 4-5-2 3.39 GAA .880%
NHL- 3-15-1 3.49 GAA .878%

Dan Blackburn (18 years old)
AHL- 2-1-1 2.70 GAA .905%
NHL- 12-16-0 3.28 GAA .898%

Blackburn again compares well, boasting superior numbers to DiPietro, and similar numbers to Luongo. With these statistics in mind, it isn’t difficult to see how Blackburn might have developed into one of the top netminders in the league.

 Posted by at 12:14 am
Sep 282005
 

(Also posted at The Devils Advocate)

What they lost: The stigma of being a losing team. The only players they lost are Kris Beech, Matt Bradley, Michal Roszival, and J.G. Aubin. Hardly the kind of players who would be considered monumental losses.

What they gained: Hope… and a ton of it. The most notable addition to this team is Sidney Crosby. While it remains to be seen just how much of an impact he will have on the ice, it is hard to imagine this kid being a flop. The future of the NHL is a Penguin. Aside from him, Pittsburgh has completely re-tooled their team. Adding firepower are Mark Recchi, John LeClair, and Ziggy Palffy. Recchi is a leader and a terrific playoff performer. LeClair’s physical brand of hockey has taken a toll on his body, but he will be influential nonetheless. Ziggy Palffy has always been among my favorite players, right from his days with the Islanders. On defense, Pitt has added the offensive-minded Sergei Gonchar and the defensive stalwart Lyle Odelein. Providing a veteran presence in net will be Jocelyn Thibault.

Staying at home: This is Mario’s team, and he’s lacing up the skates for one more run at the Cup. Most of the other players returning are top draft picks from years past. Ryan Malone and Marc-Andre Fleury headline this group. These guys have had to wait an additional year to make a bang in the NHL… look for them to explode.

Bottom line: The Penguins will win the Atlantic. They’ll be the Cinderella story of the year. With new rules that will only make Mario’s curtain call an easier one, he will be among the league leaders in all offensive categories. This season, Crosby may not be the dominant scorer that he will one day become, but he will be very good. I can’t think of a team in the entire NHL that has done as much to improve their roster as the Pens. If Fleury isn’t spectacular in net, Thibault is right behind him and more than capable of carrying the starting load. Their mix of stunningly promising young talent and grizzly seasoned vets make this team dangerous. A dynasty could be born, or at least conceived, this season.

 Posted by at 2:43 am
Sep 232005
 

In today’s Toronto Sun regular columnist Steve Simmons wonders what Pat Quinn sees in Nik Antropov and Alex Ponikarovsky and whether they deserve another chance with the Leafs.

You see, most of the hockey world looks at Nik Antropov and sees this large, gangly, marginally accomplished hockey player and they have to wonder what happened to that kid with all the promise.

But let’s compare Antropov to two other big, power forward type players at early stages in each of their careers.

Player A Player B Nik Antropov
Age Games Goals Points Games Goals Points Games Goals Points
19 5 3 4 66 12 30
20 27 3 7 76 18 39 52 6 17
21 81 18 31 64 10 23 11 1 2
22 35 5 7 74 13 33 72 16 45
23 69 14 29 32 8 16 62 13 31
Total 192 43 78 246 49 111 263 48 125

Antropov has had a better start to his career than Player A and is comparable to Player B. And he did that coming from a poor development league in Khazakastan while both Player A and Player B did it coming from successful Junior carrers in the OHL.

Player A was drafted in the first round, 18th overall. Player B was drafted in the first round 23rd overall. Antropov was drafted in the first round 10th overall. Not really a big difference in draft ranking, and thus career expectations although Antropov was a surprise pick that early.

Both Player A and Player B were traded (and given up on) prior to age 23. Player A twice.

Both Player A and Player B developed into 40+ goal, 90+ point players.

Both Player A and Player B are now all-stars playing on the top line of Stanley Cup contenders.

If you haven’t figured it out yet Player A is Glen Murray and Player B is Todd Bertuzzi. Now before all of you jump all over my claiming I am just a Leaf lover and don’t know what I am talking about let me say that I don’t know if Antropov will continue to develop and become a 40 goal scorer. What I am saying is that he could and we shouldn’t give up on him yet. I believe that big power forward type players often take longer to develop and that giving up on Antropov at this point in his career might be a huge mistake. Don’t you think the Islanders wish they still had Bertuzzi? And if the worst case scenario is that he is a 15 goal, 40 point, third line center/winger making only around $1 million I say, hey, that ain’t so bad either. Please, let’s all keep things in perspective.

 Posted by at 9:11 pm
Sep 222005
 

With all the player movement since the NHL last played we can’t be sure if all of these lines will be used by the coaches of the teams but here is my list of the best possible first lines teams could use if desired. Be sure to also vote for your top line in the poll in the menu to the left. (poll should be up for several days)

Vancouver Canucks – Markus Naslund-Brendan Morrison-Todd Bertuzzi
While Brendan Morrison is a good player he isn’t really an elite center in the NHL but his wingers are so good and have that perfect mix of talent (Naslund) and toughness (Bertuzzi) that this has to be considered the best line in the NHL.

Atlanta Thrashers – Ilya Kovalchuk-Marc Savard-Marian Hossa
This line is probably the most talented line in the NHL. Kovalchuk might be the most talented young players in the NHL and Hossa is an established big time goal scorer. In the middle is under-appreciated Marc Savard who has found a home in Atlanta. In 2003-04 Savard scored 19 goals and 52 points in just 45 games and should be a more than adequate playmaker for his two big time goal scoring wingers. In terms of pure offensive talent, this line is probably better than Vancouver’s but Bertuzzi’s toughness gives the Canucks line an added dimension and thus the top spot.

Boston Bruins – Sergei Samsonov-Joe Thornton-Glen Murray
Another good mix of skill and size. Joe Thornton is one of the top centers in the league and provides a good mix of size and skill. Glen Murray is a big, strong, goal scoring winger and Samsonov is a flashy and highly skilled skater who should do well under the new rules. This is definitely a line to be feared.

Colorado Avalanche – Alex Tanguay –Joe Sakic-Milan Hejduk
The best line in 2003-04 had to be Tanguay-Forsberg-Hejduk, although that line did suffer some injury problems, particularly with Forsberg. Now that Forsberg has departed Sakic quite likely will step up to play between Tanguay and Hejduk and if he does this line will once again be one of the best in the NHL.

Ottawa Senators – Dany Heatley-Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfredsson
We don’t quite know how new coach Brian Murray will set up his line combinations but this is one possibility. This line has the potential to be ranked higher but as of yet Jason Spezza is a somewhat unproven talent at the NHL level and we don’t quite know if Heatley has or will make a full recovery from his injuries.

Philadelphia Flyers – Simon Gagne-Peter Forsberg-Sami Kapanen
Any line centered by a healthy Peter Forsberg is going to be a good one. Unfortunately Gagne and Kapanen aren’t quite the wingers Forsberg had in Colorado with Hejduk and Tanguay. But they aren’t bad either as Gagne will be the lines goal scorer while Kapanen will provide some solid 2-way play.

Tampa Bay Lightning – Vaclav Prospal-Vincent Lecavalier-Martin St. Louis
Vaclav Prospal returns to Tampa and replaces outgoing Cory Stillman. Tampa has a number of talented forward and a number of different line combinations could be used with Modin and/or Richards also seeing time on the top line. Whatever the combination used Tampa will put out a quality top line. The big question mark is whether St. Louis can repeat his 2003-04 season.

Calgary Flames – Tony Amonte-Daymond Langkow-Jarome Iginla
Clearly the main reason this line makes the list is Iginla. Langkow should be a bit of an improvement over Craig Conroy as Iginla’s centerman. Tony Amonte is an older player who has lost a lot from his 40+ goal days in Chicago but still has good speed and scored 20 goals in Philadelphia in 2003-04. He might do well under the new rules and could score 20-25 goals this season.

After those 8 lines there is a lot to choose from. The Kings potential line of Frolov-Roenick-Demitra looks good and with a healthy Lemieux the Penguins should be able to put out a very good line with Mario and two of Pallfy, Recchi, Leclair and Crosby. Although the Leafs are a little weak at wing either Sundin’s or Allison’s line could potentially provide a nice combination of grit and skill with O’Neill, Tucker or Czerkawski on the wing. If Modano can recover from an off year Dallas could have a strong first line with Guerin and Morrow on the wings and certainly Montreal has some good talent in Koivu, Kovalev, Ribiero and Ryder. Who knows, maybe even Columbus’s potential line of Nash, Marchant and young Zherdev could surprise. There is a lot to choose from.

 Posted by at 7:04 pm
Sep 222005
 

(Also posted at The Devils Advocate)

What they lost: The heart of their offense. Gone are LeClair, Recchi, Amonte, Roenick, and Zhamnov. That’s four future-Hall of Famers gone in one extended offseason. Four of their top five scorers, and five of their top ten are gone. No team in the division was harder hit on offense than the Flyers.

What they gained: Peter Forsberg, one of the all-time great talents in the game, has come back to Philly. Unfortunately for the Flyers, he isn’t the same player he was when they originally gave him up for Eric Lindros. Forsberg still has the talent to win the Hart trophy, but he averages less games played than the Big E over the past five years. Mike Knuble will be a great fit in Philly with size and a scoring touch, and Turner Stevenson will toughen up the offense. Philly also picked up a huge trio on defense… Chris Therien, Mike Rathje, and Derian Hatcher. This is a gamble on GM Bobby Clarke’s part. With added emphasis on speed and puck-movement in this new NHL, big guys like these could get left behind and prove to be a weakness. We’ll have to wait and see if size-over-skill pays off on D for Philly. One way or another, Hatcher is a great pickup for the team. He was captain for coach Ken Hitchcock when they won the Cup together in Dallas in ’99, and you can’t underestimate player/coach chemistry like that.

Staying at home: Captain Keith Primeau is still there, and that is great news for Philly. With Mark Messier and Scott Stevens retiring, that leaves Primeau as the most tenacious captain in the division. Simon Gagne will be expected to step up his offensive game this season big time. Robert Esche and Antero Nittymaki will probably end up in the middle of a goalie controversy at some point this season, and I believe Nittymaki is the better of the two. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards are stepping up from the AHL champ Phantoms and right into important roles in the Flyers offense. Michael Handzus is the only remaining player from the Flyers top five scorers from last season.

Bottom line: The Flyers lost 99 of the 229 goals they scored last season by letting their big four forwards go, and are replacing them with two rookies and three forwards who combined for 53 goals last season. Philadelphia’s hockey team has been cursed in two areas for the past decade: injuries and goaltending, and those fortunes don’t seem to be changing just yet. They go into training camp without Forsberg, Hatcher, and Kapanen because of injuries. Esche won’t last the whole season as starter and Nittymaki will take over around the Olympic break. Lack of consistency up front, speed on the blue line, and steadiness in net will leave them in 3rd in the division. If they are healthy come playoff time, they will be a legitimate threat for the Cup.

 Posted by at 7:21 am
Sep 202005
 

Significant Subtractions: Bryan Berard, Jocelyn Thibault

Significant Additions: Nikolai Khabibulin, Martin Lapointe, Mathieu Barnaby, Jim Dowd, Adrian Aucoin, Jassen Cullimore, Jaroslav Spacek, Todd Simpson.

Goaltending: He cost a bundle (4 years, $27 million) but the Blackhawks managed to significantly upgrade their goaltending with cup champion Nikolai Khabibulin. Khabibulin is one of those guys who when he is on his game is one of the best around but who at times can look mediocre as well. On a couple occasions during the 2003-04 season he all but lost the starting job to John Grahame but come playoff time he was the go to guy. Michael Leighton and Craig Anderson will battle for backup duties but Leighton will likely to win that job.

Defence: The Blackhawks also focused on improving their defence this past offseason with Adrian Aucoin being their key signing. Aucoin is a good all-round defenseman who can log big minutes and will be a good guy to anchor their defense. They also added Jaroslav Spacek, who should do a good job replacing Bryan Berard, and Jassen Cullimore, an underrated defenseman who is coming off a Stanley Cup win with Tampa. After those three defensemen things look a little more uncertain. They signed tough guy Todd Simpson and also have Jim Vandermeer who is nothing more than a depth guy. The Blackhawks are really going to depend on one or two of their top defence prospects (Cam Barker, Brent Seabrook and Anton Babchuck) to step up and contribute big time this year. All have the talent and ability, but the question is whether they are ready yet. Time will tell.

Forwards: Up front the Blackhawks only did some tinkering by adding some useful role players in tough guy Mathieu Barnaby and 2-way forward Martin Lapointe. Both those guys will add some much needed veteran leadership to an otherwise youthful set of forwards consisting of Tyler Arnason, Mark Bell, Kyle Calder, and Tuomo Ruutu. They will also benefit big time if they could get Eric Daze to remain healthy for a full season. There isn�t a lot of depth up front and unlike defense, there aren�t a lot of top prospects ready to step in. Things could get dicey should injuries happen.

Outlook: The Blackhawks look to be an improved team this year but some people might be expecting a lot from them considering the big signings they made in August. They are still a very young team and will still suffer some inconsistency issues because of that. And if they suffer any significant injuries it could be a long season for hockey fans in Chicago. The 2005-06 season will likely be a transition year in which in which some young Blackhawk players will get some valuable experience and that should set them up well in 2006-07 and beyond. The Blackhawks have a good chance to get out of the cellar in the Central division and could threaten a playoff spot but expecting much more than that is a stretch I think.

 Posted by at 10:22 pm
Sep 172005
 

Anaheim: J-S Giguere should start again for Anaheim, although he may not be recognizable without his over-sized equipment. Russian prospect Ilya Bryzgalov is a strong possibility for the backup role, however, former Ducks netminder Steve Shields has also been invited to camp and could claim the role. The expectation is that Shields and Adam Wall will play net for Anaheim’s farm team.

Calgary: Mikka Kiprusoff headlines Calgary’s attempt to return to as Western Conference Champions, and there is some question as to whether he can maintain the form he showed after being acquired from San Jose. The backup position remains less clear, as Philippe Sauve has struggled at the pro level (he played in the ECHL during the lockout) and Brent Krahn’s numerous injuries have limited his mobility and potential. Sauve, however, is expected to win the job.

Chicago: Given that six goaltenders saw NHL ice time for the Blackhawks last season, the signing of Stanley Cup champion Nikolai Khabibulin should ease the minds of fans. Although Thibault has played well since being acquired from Montreal for Jeff Hackett, Khabibulin is an instant upgrade. Michael Leighton is his likely backup, although he’ll be challenged by Illinois-native Craig Anderson in camp. Corey Crawford is a distant, if talented, prospect.

Colorado: David Aebischer, who unsurprisingly played in Switzerland during the lockout, returns as the undisputed number one man. Peter Budaj, a 22-year old prospect, seems likely to graduate to the NHL as his backup, although he may face a battle from free-agent signee Vitaly Kolesnik, who is currently the top goaltender for the Kazhakstan National Team. 26-year old Tom Lawson and CHL-starter Tyler Wieman are likely ticketed for the minors.

Columbus: Although GM Doug MacLean has stated that Martin Prusek will contend for the starting job, expect to see Marc Denis once again starting in net for the Blue Jackets. Prusek’s inconsistency and injury problems make it unlikely that he will be a viable starter. Pascal Leclaire, long tagged as the “goalie of the future” sits third on the depth chart. Tomas Popperle and Andrew Penner will likely only see minor league duty.

Dallas: Marty Turco, one of the best regular-season goalies in the past three years will start in net again. He hopes to rebound from a poor 2003-04 playoffs, where he went 1-4, with a 3.32 GAA and .849 SV%. Johan Hedberg, who struggled in Vancouver last season, was signed to back him up. Possible (but unlikely) challengers include minor-leaguers Mike Smith and Dan Ellis. Ellis played one game for Dallas in 03-04, making 25 saves for the win, but started the season in the ECHL.

Detroit: Although the combination of Chris Osgood and Manny Legace seems like a duo best suited to a 1a/1b goaltender scenario, coach Mike Babcock is on record as stating that he prefers one starting goaltender. If he in fact implements this system, give Osgood a slight edge to claim the top job, as Legace struggled last season when asked to play more than 30 games. 25-year old Joey MacDonald provides depth, while 2003 second-round pick Jimmy Howard represents a possible future starter.

Edmonton: Ty Conklin and Jussi Markannen will likely rotate games this season, and either could emerge as the starter. Markannen played well during the lockout, while Conklin emerged as Edmonton’s starter in 2003-04. There are questions about depth, as prospect Jeff Drouin Deslauriers needs seasoning and Mike Morrison needs more oppurtunities at the AHL level. Devan Dubnyk, projected as a future starter, will return to junior.

Los Angeles: Given the turmoil in net in previous seasons, it should come as little surprise that the Kings are once again sporting a new tandem. Replacing Cechmanek is 27-year old Mathieu Garon, a veteran of only 43 NHL games. Garon has long been tagged as a future starter, and played exceedingly well in the AHL during the lockout. Whether he can duplicate that success as an NHL starter is still unknown. His likely backup, 2003-04 AHL MVP Jason LaBarbera, has proven all he can in the minors, but with only 5 NHL starts is unlikely to take over if Garon struggles. Adam Hauser provides depth.

Minnesota: As in previous seasons, the tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez will handle goaltending duties for the Wild, with Roloson likely getting the bulk of the work. Fernandez, who has previously requested more playing time, may be dealt. 21-year old Josh Harding provides depth and could eventually succeed Roloson as starter.

Nashville: Tomas Vokoun, who won the gold medal with the Czechs at the 2005 World Championships should again be one of the better starting netminders in the league. Current backup Chris Mason may be pushed by 1999 first-rounder Brian Finley, whose development has been stalled by a serious groin injury, although Finley seems likely to return to the AHL.

Phoenix: For a team that made a mountain of changes in the off-season, the biggest acquisition may be Curtis Joseph, who is likely to relegate inconsistent Brian Boucher to a backup role. This gives David LeNeveu, often described as a can’t-miss prospect, a little more time to play in the AHL, rather than being rushed into the big leagues. Veteran Steve Passmore will provide depth and injury insurance.

San Jose: Evgeni Nabokov will be back again as the Sharks starter, and should again perform well. The 1994 9th round pick played sparingly in Russia during the lockout, playing just under twenty games. Barring injury, Toskala should play a little less than his career high of 28 games from 2003/04. Dmitri Patzold and Nolan Schaefer, who split time in the AHL during the lockout will provide depth.

St. Louis: Patrick Lalime, following struggles in Ottawa, will receive a chance to rebound with a changing Blues team. He should be an upgrade over previous starters Chris Osgood and Brent Johnson. Reinhard Divis, Curtis Sanford, and Jason Bacashihua, all of who played during the lockout will battle for a roster spot, with Divis the likely winner. Marek Schwarz could provide goaltending farther down the line.

Vancouver: Dan Cloutier, having just signed a two-year contract, returns for his fourth season as the starter in Vancouver. He played in Austria during the lockout, going 7-0-5 in 13 games in an inferior league. The real battle will be between backup possibilities Alex Auld and Brent Johnson. Auld has the edge, and seemed to be guaranteed the job before the lockout; however, his play in the minors was eclipsed by depth goalie Wade Flaherty, who took the starting job in the playoffs. Johnson, four years removed from a 34-win regular season and a playoff round with three shutouts, could surprise.

 Posted by at 10:23 am