Sep 302008

The Devils, under Lou Lamoriello, will always be contenders. Despite losing Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Brian Rafalski over the years, the Devils have always had someone to step up and keep them competitive. They tend not to go after the young free agents, but opted for seasoned veterans to fill in the holes. For the most part, they find affordable contracts and through clever maneuverings from “Loophole Lou” the Devils have always managed to shed the bad ones.

Scoring has always been a bit of the defense-first Devils. It’s not so much the Devils lack the talent, having 4 20+ goalscorers including 32-goal man Zach Parise, 5 if underrated captain Jamie Langenbrunner played more than 64 games. Parise, only 24 years old and in his third season with the Devils, has taken over the mantle as the Devils’ go-to offensive player, after posting a second straight 30+ goal season and improving his point total year after year. After being slowly groomed by the Devils, including spending a full year in Albany, this is now Parise’s team. The Devils refuse to play any other strategy other than the trap, which is why they have a tendency to reacquire their former players (case in point, Mike Rupp) when the new players don’t buy into the system. This summer was no different as Lou brought back two former Devil stars, face-off specialist Bobby Holik and 31-goal man Brian Rolston. While Holik’s offensive game is limited to that of a fourth liner, his face-off (58.4%) and checking abilities are still tops in the league. Rolston has managed to get better with age, and after failing to re-sign with the Wild he packed his bags and his shooter’s touch back to Jersey. The two veterans will figure very much into the Devils’ plans. Rolston will take some load off Patrik Elias‘ shoulders, perhaps re-ignite the shifty Brian Gionta‘s touch, or be a veteran presence over Parise and Travis Zajac. David Clarkson will provide some sandpaper and jam for the Devils, who otherwise lack an enforcer. With Rolston shooting the puck and Langenbrunner healthy to start, the Devils may find themselves improving drastically from last year’s 27th ranked offense and 25th ranked powerplay.

Defensively, the Devils just haven’t been the same since the last of their Big Three left. Now they’re highlighted by the much lesser known yet still effective Colin White and Paul Martin. While the Devils’ defense won’t excite anybody anymore, they’re still one of the best in the league because they play clean, simple, defensive hockey. It’s a simple enough system for any decent defenseman in the league to understand, and for that reason the Devils, since Niedermayer and Rafalski’s departures, they never felt compelled to replace either defenseman via a big free agency signing. Instead they’ve made respectable defensemen from Mike Mottau and Johnny Oduya, both who slowly creeped onto the hockey radar. The Devils’ defense is low on talent, but high on dedication, and of course, there’s always the forwards. John Madden and Jay Pandolfo both made their names in a Devils uniform, unsurprisingly, as bona fide third-liner checkers. The two have been examples league-wide of what third-line checkers need to be, and it was a healthy surprise last year as well when Madden potted 20 goals. They have been so good defensively that the Devils don’t even have to send out their shut-down pair as long as Madden and Pandolfo are on the ice. It goes without saying that the two are annual Selke candidates, and as long as Brent Sutter pays attention to matching line-ups they’ll do just fine.

The last line of defense is the Devils’ strongest area, and it has been for quite some time. Martin Brodeur will not play 77 games this year, and may not even come close to that total, but Kevin Weekes is a capable goalie and will be itching for action this year. Even though Brodeur is getting old at 36, he’s still the best in the game. No one else in the league comes close in pedigree and reputation. Helped by a defensive system and the best checking line in the East, Brodeur posts great numbers year-in and year-out.

The Devils just aren’t anything special. They stick to a clean and simple game play and take advantage of the other team’s mistakes. It doesn’t set attendance records, but it does win games, and as long as the Devils win games, fans will come. The Devils finished 5th last year in GA/G with 2.35, and didn’t sacrifice any of their key defensive weapons to add offense – in fact, it can be argued that Rolston and Holik may the Devils even better defensively.

Projected lineup:
Patrik Elias – Brian Rolston – Brian Gionta
Zach Parise – Travis Zajac – Jamie Langenbrunner
Jay Pandolfo – John Madden – David Clarkson
Mike Rupp – Bobby Holik – Dainius Zubrus

Colin White – Mike Mottau
Bryce Salvador – Paul Martin
Andy Green – Johnny Oduya

Martin Brodeur – Kevin Weekes

scratches: Rod Pelley, Fedor Fedorov, Nicklas Bergors

coach: Brent Sutter
GM: Lou Lamoriello

Predicted finish: 4th Atlantic, 6th East

Sep 292008

The topic has been beaten to death, but more articles have appeared about the NHL’s potential expansion to Europe. John Vogl at The Buffalo News believes that it’s a bad way to market hockey. Vogl argues that there are still hockey markets suffering in the US and that playing games in Europe doesn’t do anything to help.

Bettman, however, thinks its a great idea.

“Now we have an opportunity to go to more well-developed hockey markets where a number of our players actually come from. We are getting, from the early indications, a fabulous reception.”

I agree with Vogl that playing NHL games in Europe doesn’t do anything to help the American market. While last year’s Cup finals did generate the best viewership numbers in years, the failing American teams are still failing. Most of the teams in the southern belt still struggle to sell-out home games regularly.

The ONLY thing that playing games in Europe accomplishes is re-affirm the fact that Europe is hockey-mad.

Bulin Wall Crumbles

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Sep 292008

Despite Dale Tallon‘s claims that he will go ahead and start the season with both Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin, it has been reported from various sources that Khabibulin has been placed on waivers. No word of what’s going on behind the doors, but it’s expected that Khabibulin will either be traded or claimed through re-entry waivers.

Of course the front-runners are the Kings, but no news out of their camp about the matter.

This also means that Corey Crawford will backup Huet this season.

EDIT: Mark B at the Bleacher Report thinks that Khabibulin is going out the door for Martin Gerber. I say it’s impossible because a) acquiring Gerber gives them yet another 1A/1B tandem, b) the Hawks only save roughly $2m, c) the trade doesn’t make sense for the Sens.

Sep 292008

For a team that doesn’t have a stable fan base and responsible ownership, the Predators have done very, very well. An unstable ownership group, embroiled in controversy from Jim Balsillie to Boots Del Baggio, has managed to retain a stable management group, as David Poile and Barry Trotz have remained the franchise’s only GM and coach in history. While the Preds don’t make much noise during the season, they’re always a force in the playoffs. What the Preds lack in talent and skill they make up for in hard work and discipline, a strong characteristic of a Trotz team.

The Preds were fine with Alexander Radulov and JP Dumont as their top right wingers. Now, they’re not so comfortable. With Radulov’s defection to Ufa of the KHL, it leaves the Preds with a glaring hole on offense, especially with the uncertainty of Steve Sullivan‘s health. While Radulov has expressed an interest in returning to the NHL, his cries may fall on deaf ears, but with the lack of offensive depth the Preds may want to re-consider their stance. That being said, a lot more pressure is going to be put on Martin Erat. The Czech winger was one of four players on the team to pot 20+ goals, and reaching 30 isn’t out of the realm of possibility, especially if Jason Arnott manages to get 40+ helpers again. The key player this year stepping in is rookie Patric Hornqvist. The 21-year old Swedish winger played for Djurgardens of the SEL for the past 3 seasons, putting up respectable numbers, finishing 4th in team scoring last year despite being only 20. He will get first looks at the open slot vacated by Radulov, and he hasn’t disappointed in the preseason, registering a goal and an assist in two games. The Predators don’t do anything fancy, but they do get it done, and it all starts from the bottom. Jordin Tootoo, Jerred Smithson, and Scott Nichol may be some of the most unwelcome players in the league, but they all play with such determination and tenacity that they can really change the outcome of the game. Their hits are borderline and stick work frustrating, but as grinders you can’t expect more. Too often the opponents are focused on getting back at those three that they lose focus of the game, and that’s when the Preds really take advantage.

Defense is where the Preds excel in every aspect of the game. They’ve traditionally been one of the best teams at drafting defensemen and have no problems finding able rookies to promote from Milwaukee to round out their top six. The loss of captain Kimmo Timonen hurt, but the Preds managed to make the transition without any significant bumps. Highlighted by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, the Preds have one of the youngest, fastest, and meanest defensive corps in the West. It goes without saying that without their defensemen the Preds would have trouble making the playoffs every year. Dan Hamhuis has also developed into a very capable defenseman and led the team in ice time with 22:43. Greg de Vries is the veteran presence on the blueline, but with the wealth of talent the Preds have he often finds himself marginalized, especially when youngsters Greg Zanon, Ville Koistinen, Kevin Klein, Cody Franson, and Teemu Laakso are all ready to pitch in. The Preds can spare some defensemen, and Poile may go down that road if it becomes apparent that offense is going to be a major problem.

If Dan Ellis plays like he did last year, the Preds have nothing to worry about. Ellis posted the best SV% in the league last year with a .924 mark and an equally impressive 2.34 GAA. Management was confident in Ellis enough to let Chris Mason go, which means that Pekka Rinne, last year’s wins leader in the AHL, will be making the transition to the big leagues permanently. However, although Ellis’ weight is listed as 185 lbs., there were times last year where his official weight was listed as 170 lbs. It’s not uncommon for goalies to lose weight after a game from water loss, but Ellis’ case was so extreme that in some games, especially in the playoffs against a much better Wings squad, he needed to have an IV or otherwise suffer from severe dehydration. It’s a minor concern considering the medical advances and on-call doctors teams employ, but it’s still a cause for concern. If Ellis is incapable of handling number one duties, it’ll fall on Rinne’s shoulders, but it remains to be seen if Rinne can adjust, having only 3 games of NHL experience.

The Preds powerplay was a woeful 27th last year, and with Radulov gone and Sullivan’s health in doubt, it may get worse. The Preds were only average in even strength play last year, but the penalty kill was third in the league, thanks to the Preds’ deep defense. In the playoffs last year, the Preds arguably put up the best fight against the Wings, but fell short to a more talented squad. Every year the Preds seem to be poised to make some noise in the postseason, but this season may not be the case. A good defense and solid goaltending may not be enough to make up for the Preds’ offensive deficiencies. However, the team does have ample cap room ($14m) to acquire players as needed. With a new local ownership group, perhaps they will pay more attention to the already good on-ice product (given what Trotz and Poile have to work with). The Preds have to reach an average of 14 000 fans per night to qualify for full revenue sharing.

Projected lineup:
Martin Erat – Jason Arnott – JP Dumont
Steve Sullivan – David Legwand – Patric Hornqvist
Scott Nichol – Radek Bonk – Jordin Tootoo
Josh Gratton – Rich Peverley – Jerred Smithson

Ryan Suter – Shea Weber
Dan Hamhuis – Greg de Vries
Greg Zanon – Ville Koistinen

Dan Ellis – Pekka Rinne

scratches: Antti Pihlstrom, Kevin Klein, Michael Ryan

Predicted finish: 3rd Central, 11th West

Sep 282008

On paper the Habs look great. The reigning Eastern Conference champs lost replaceable players over the summer but addressed toughness issues with Georges Laraque and got their French-Canadian star in Alex Tanguay. The Habs enter their centennial season with high expectations from the team, media, and fans alike, and even pegged by some to win their 25th Cup. The Habs are skilled and fast – they may not be tough or big, but the players buy into Guy Carbonneau and Kirk Muller‘s system and as a result became one of the most efficient teams in the league, scoring 257 goals and putting together a league-best powerplay at 24.1%.

Offensively, the Habs aren’t short of anything. While they’re particularly imposing, all their players are ready to take, or sometimes give, a hit. There’s no bullying this Habs team whose players clearly know what their roles and expectations are. The success that came with it was a bonus, as not even Carbonneau expected such a successful regular season, but after finishing first they lost in the second round to a hot Philadelphia team. With the acquisition of Robert Lang, it means that the Habs can take some off some of the offensive responsibilities of Saku Koivu, and perhaps reunite Lang with Alexei Kovalev, his former linemate in Pittsburgh. Of course, that would mean separating Tomas Plekanec and Kovalev, the two top scorers on the team that combined for 153 points. The Habs’ dynamic sibling duo, Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, are also expected to step up and improve on their 53 and 27 point seasons, respectively. Chris Higgins provides a strong defensive conscience on the forwards corps, and is no stranger to scoring, having recorded 3 straight 20+ goal season, six including his last year at Yale University. However, unfortunately for Higgins, with the Kostitsyns ready to move up into the top six and with the addition of Tanguay, Higgins may be regulated to third-line duty, although that isn’t to say Carbonneau doesn’t have the personnel to ice three scoring lines. The Habs’ grinders are as hard-working as any, led by veteran Steve Begin and with youngsters Maxim Lapierre and Kyle Chipchura ready for full-time duty on the squad the Habs are 12 deep strong.

Defensively, the Habs have one of the most underrated defenseman in Andrei Markov. Markov’s 24:58 ATOI lead the team, and his career-best 58 points was no easy feat either. With Mark Streit gone, it means that Markov is the de facto powerplay quarterback and will no doubt be putting his heavy shot to good use. Mike Komisarek was ranked first in the league in blocked shots, putting his 6’4″ 240 lbs. frame to good use. With Roman Hamrlik the Habs also have no trouble getting the puck out of their zone. What the forwards lack in size is made up on defense, including recent free agent signee Alex Henry (6’5″, 220) and the giant Ryan O’Byrne (6’5″, 235), who, along with Josh Gorges, slowly played themselves into a regular role and finished the season on strong notes.

Goaltending is perhaps the Habs’ biggest weakness… or it may be its biggest strength. Bob Gainey felt that Carey Price was ready to handle number one duties, so at the deadline he dealt away Cristobal Huet, who has one of the best save percentages over a 4-year period amongst NHL goalies, to Washington. There’s no doubt that Price and back-up Jaroslav Halak have the talent, but it’s just a question of consistency and maturity. Price’s calm demeanor, often confused with indifference, and outstanding positioning allowed him to become the goalie he is and will be, but the Bruins and Flyers showed that, like any rookie, he’s prone to meltdowns, which prompted Carbonneau to go with Halak down the stretch. If Price pans out, and hopefully the next Patrick Roy as some have said he will be, it may be the strongest aspect of an already strong Habs squad. The obvious downside is that if Price falters, Halak is not quite ready for full-time NHL duty, which is probably the reason why management signed Quebec native Marc Denis to a two-way contract this summer.

With the acquisition of Lang, Gainey has announced that the Habs will be moving forward without Mats Sundin, with just a shade over $1.5m to spare. The Habs are likely to have finished all the wheeling and dealing they’d like to do before the season, will unlikely be making noise during the season, unless the Habs completely fall flat on their faces coming out of the gates.

It will be interesting to see how the Habs respond to higher expectations. Only expected to challenge for a playoff spot, the Habs blew everyone away and left the rest of the Eastern Conference in a cloud of dust. They were one of the best teams in the league at protecting leads, with only 5 one-goal losses, and blew out their opposition with some regularity, winning 21 games when leading by more than 3. However, there are two significant factors that could prevent them from doing so. First, is how well Price adjusts to being the number one goalie as a 20-year old. The second, is Kovalev. The Habs’ powerplay last year was successful in part because of Kovalev, whose powerplay point total was a full 12 more than his even strength output (47-35). No other Habs player has such polarizing stats, and even powerplay specialist Streit only had 6 more powerplay points than even strength. The worst part, however, is the fact that Kovalev, at 35 years old, posted the best point total of his career since 2001, when he had 95. His centre that year? None other than Lang. Perhaps Gainey went after Lang to prevent Kovalev’s seriously bi-polar production (77, 45, 65, 47 in previous years). If history is any indication, Kovalev is on his way to a sub-par year.

Projected lineup:
Andrei Kostitsyn – Tomas Plekanec – Alexei Kovalev
Alex Tanguay – Robert Lang – Sergei Kostitsyn
Chris Higgins – Saku Koivu – Guillaume Latendresse
Steve Begin – Kyle Chipchura – Tom Kostopoulos

Andrei Markov – Mike Komisarek
Roman Hamrlik – Josh Gorges
Francois Bouillon – Ryan O’Byrne

Carey Price – Jaroslav Halak

scratches: Maxim Lapierre, Georges Laraque, Patrice Brisebois

Coach: Guy Carbonneau
GM: Bob Gainey

Predicted finish: 1st Northeast, 1st East

Sep 272008

Old news, but Mathieu Schneider is now a Thrasher, pending physicals on Brad Larsen and Ken Klee, the players going the other way. Klee and Larsen are in the last years of their contracts and were not part of the Thrashers’ plans going forward. Schneider makes the Thrashers defense better, but they won’t be making the playoffs anytime soon. It also means that perhaps Atlanta isn’t too interested in finish first in the draft sweepstakes. Don Waddell was not interested in Schneider through waivers saying he was too expensive and wasn’t the right fit. The Thrashers’ payroll increased by about $4m in the deal. So much for Waddell’s explanation.

It looks like David Bolland has an uphill battle to get the coveted second line centre spot behind Jonathan Toews, and coach Denis Savard has noted his current top six are Toews, Patrick Kane, Andrew Ladd, Martin Havlat, Dustin Byfuglien, and Patrick Sharp. Savard put Kane at centre for a couple shifts but didn’t like what he saw, and the Hawks may end up with either Ladd or Sharp at centre. Kyle Beach made a good impression in his pro debut, but the hot-headed junior star will be hard-pressed to stick around. Keith Carney might also make the team.

Ken Hitchcock
is really liking what he sees from Jakub Voracek and Derick Brassard. The Jackets were absolutely dangerous offensively against the Predators last night, and more impressive were the plays of Fedor Tyutin and Kris Russell. Russell, still listed at a paltry 165 lbs., needs to put on more bulk to play in a tougher West. Courtesy of Michael Arace, the Jackets’ strategy for the season. Nothing too special, but have a gander anyway:
1. Keep the tempo high
– short shifts
– fast changes
2. Make the goalie work
– funnel the puck
– real traffic
3. Outwork the opposition
– on contact, our 2nd before their 2nd
4. Manage the puck the right way
5. Pack mentality
– 5 up, 5 back
6. Check to score
– the harder we check, the more we score

In Florida, on a radio poll Peter DeBoer was voted as the coach who would do the best job this season. Todd McLellan of San Jose finished second, Scott Gordon on Long Island third, and Jon Anderson in Atlanta fourth. There’s definitely a hometown bias there, McLellan will be blowing the other three out of the water by virtue of having a very good team.

In a very un-Nashville like move, the Preds may be giving the second line right wing spot to Patrick Hornqvist, who has spent the last three years in the Swedish leagues. Alexander Radulov‘s defection and Steve Sullivan‘s injury history means that there are a lot of holes to fill up front.

Forget about having two all-star centres on separate lines. Like the Sharks who are putting Patrick Marleau on Joe Thornton‘s wing, the Rangers have followed suit and have lined up Chris Drury on Scott Gomez‘s right wing, despite the fact that Drury had a better face-off winning percentage. Markus Naslund is the third of the trio. This means that Brandon Dubinsky, who had a lot of success last year on spot shifts with Jaromir Jagr, will have to step up after being pegged as the team’s number two. He will have Nikolai Zherdev and Nigel Dawes as linemates.

The Blues absolutely destroyed the Thrashers, scoring 9 goals. The Blues aren’t supposed to a high-scoring team this year, but they got production from all four lines. This might be a preview of what’s to come this season:
Stempniak – McDonald – Boyes
Kariya – Berglund – Perron
Tkachuk – Oshie – Backes
King – McClement – Porter
As noted before, Patrick Berglund is set to centre Paul Kariya and the pair has looked good. Keith Tkachuk seems to have moved back to his original left wing position and Jay McClement may be ill-suited for a fourth line role considering his offensive game is better than his defensive game.

Barry Melrose likes what he’s seeing from Evgeny Artyukhin (I think it was a mistake letting him go in the beginning) and may see himself on Steve Stamkos‘ line. Jussi Jokinen, who has been the subject of many trade rumours this summer, has moved to centre on the third line and is making it hard for management to cut him. Radim Vrbata has apparently been invisible and is dropping on the depth charts.

Minnesota Wild

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Sep 262008

No other player in the league holds as much stake in a hockey team’s future as Marian Gaborik. The oft-injured Slovak sniper is in the last year of his contract worth $7.5m and had a career season last year, to one’s surprise, because it was the first year Gaborik played more than 70 games since the 2002-03 season. After GM Doug Risebrough committed to re-signing Brian Rolston over Pavol Demitra, it was speculated that Gaborik was not happy with the organization’s decision to not re-sign Gaborik’s closest friend and teammate. Risebrough’s plan backfired and he ended up losing both, much to Gaborik’s dismay, adding speculation to Gaborik’s departure at the end of the season. Risebrough has made it clear that their number one priority this year, on-ice product aside, is to re-sign Gaborik to a long extension. Should Gaborik refuse to sign, Risebrough would have a very big hole to fill and may potentially cripple the Minnesota franchise in a tough Western Conference.

Gaborik’s 83 points was 20 higher than the next point getter, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, but has remained consistent and improved his point production. Rolston and Demitra finished third and fourth, and after that it’s defenseman Brent Burns with 43 points. Suffice it to say, this is a rather offensively-challenged team, although the argument has been made that Jacques Lemaire‘s teams have always stressed defense over offense. The Wild offense ranked a surprisingly average 18th for a team with an offensive dynamo in Gaborik and Mikko Koivu, who had 42 points in 53 games last year. Even with the additions of Andrew Brunette (59 points) and Antti Miettinen (34 points), and a healthy season from Koivu, it’s still not quite enough to replace the productions of Rolston and Demitra. Sophomore James Sheppard and rookie Benoit Pouliot are being tapped to make a jump into the NHL, but neither have many NHL games under their belts and will no doubt be given limited ice time until Lemaire feels more comfortable sending them out for regular shifts. Sheppard averaged almost 11 minutes of ice-time, while Pouliot averaged almost 9 minutes a game. The Northwest Division isn’t known for its high-octane offense, and the Wild are banking on Gaborik for another healthy season to be the go-to guy.

The Wild got more mobile over the summer, replacing the slow Keith Carney and Sean Hill with Marek Zidlicky and Marc-Andre Bergeron. The obvious downside is a lack of size and grit. Brent Burns is big at 6’4″ and 210 lbs., but after a career season in which he scored 15 goals, he will used more in an offensive role and will see ample time on the powerplay. Kim Johnsson and Martin Skoula also provide some nice options on the powerplay, and the hard-shooting Kurtis Foster, sidelined early last year with a broken leg, is expected to be back in January after it was believed that his hockey career was likely over. The defensive aspect of the game now shifts squarely onto Nick Schultz‘s shoulders, who was third amongst defenseman on the team with just over 20 minutes of ice-time per night. This defensive corps, while talented, might have trouble containing the West’s bigger forwards, especially with the additions of Steve Bernier in Vancouver, Darcy Tucker in Colorado, Todd Bertuzzi in Calgary, and Erik Cole in Edmonton.

Goaltending is a strong point in the Wild’s team structure, with Niklas Backstrom as the starter. Like Gaborik, Backstrom is entering the last year of his contract worth $3.1m, and with another good season he could double that on the open market. The Wild are currently busying themselves trying to get Gaborik sign an extension, and if the talks don’t produce anything substantial the Wild may move on to Backstrom and wait until the end of the season to re-sign Gaborik. Josh Harding returns to back-up Backstrom, and should Backstrom leave, it would leave them with another gaping hole to fill, as it doesn’t look like Harding is ready for full-time duty yet.

The Wild have roughly $4m to play around with and have one of the younger teams in the West, with an average of 27.8 years. It seems that the Wild don’t intend on making anymore moves before the season starts, and that cap room may come in handy should Pouliot, Sheppard, or Cal Clutterbuck reach their bonuses. Asides from Gaborik and Backstrom, the Wild don’t have any significant players heading into free agency, as Koivu, Bouchard, Schultz, and Burns are all signed to long-term extensions.

The Wild have a lot of holes up front, but it can all be made up with great coaching under Lemaire. He doesn’t always get the most talented group of players to work with, but Lemaire’s an excellent x’s and o’s guy, so expect this team to once again finish tops in the league on special teams, obviously key to a winning team. The defense has become more mobile, but it remains to be seen if this is the more suitable type of defensive corps under the new CBA. The Ducks won the Cup without the most mobile defense asides from Scott Niedermayer, while the Wings’ Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, and Brian Rafalski are all fantastic skaters. The Wild defensemen can cover a lot of ice with their quick feet and make great breakout passes, but when they’re forced to play a more physical game it remains to be seen if the team can step up.

Predicted lineup:
Andrew Brunette – Pierre-Marc Bouchard – Marian Gaborik
Antti Miettinen – Mikko Koivu – Owen Nolan
Stephane Veilleux – Eric Belanger – Benoit Pouliot
Derek Boogaard – James Sheppard – Craig Weller

Nick Schultz – Brent Burns
Kim Johnsson – Marek Zidlicky
Martin Skoula – Marc-Andre Bergeron

Niklas Backstrom – Josh Harding

scratches: Erik Reitz, Cal Clutterbuck, Colton Gillies

Coach: Jacques Lemaire
GM: Doug Risebrough

Predicted finish: 2nd Northwest, 7th West

Los Angeles Kings

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Sep 232008

It wasn’t too long ago that the Pens were a lock to finish in the bottom 5 of the league. The Kings are headed down this road for the foreseeable future. But, at least the future looks bright. Very bright. The Kings are blessed with enough talent, and this year will be a audition of sorts for many of the young kids to crack the lineup for next year. However, the most important thing for the Kings is to be patient. The wins will come when the time is right.

Offense is not a problem for the Kings. The hard-hitting Dustin Brown, talented Anze Kopitar, and the slick Patrick O’Sullivan form one of the most talented and feared top lines in the league. Sniper Alexander Frolov, long-time King Derek Armstrong, and the hard-shooting Jarret Stoll also forms a solid second line. However, the bottom two lines are where it starts to get messy. First, there’s Kyle Calder and Michal Handzus, Dean Lombardi‘s ill-advised signings and $7m mistake. The two veterans were complete busts for the Kings, and will be counted on to have comeback years, especially on the defensive end, where Handzus was a team-worst -21, despite being noted for his strong two-way play. Then it starts to get interesting. The Kings aren’t short of energy players to put on the fourth line. The problem is figuring out which ones to play. Former Cornell University standout Matt Moulson led the charge with 22 games played, but it’s sniper Teddy Purcell who will get the most looks after an impressive 83-point campaign in his first pro season with Manchester despite having spent only one year at the University of Maine. It’s a little known fact that the 6’3″ Purcell, who has created much buzz in the Kings’ front office, was actually undrafted and was not even the leading scorer in his one year at Maine. There’s a hoard of players for Terry Murray to pick from, from the tough as nails Raitis Ivanans to “veteran” Matt Ellis to Andy Murray‘s son Brady Murray to the speedy Brad Richardson to the forgotten Marc-Andre Cliche. This is one area Lombardi and Murray are happy to have the headaches.

As a side note, as of today O’Sullivan has yet to re-sign and does not appear on the Kings’ roster on their website, although management has made it publicly known that it is merely a formality and that they do not allow players to attend camp without a contract. It’s been reported that O’Sullivan is possibly holding out for a better contract and the Kings do have a lot of cap room to spare, but it’s also been suspected that a couple teams have made inquiries about O’Sullivan, possibly stalling contract talks.

The acquisition of Matt Greene was an excellent move for the Kings, having gotten rid of the older and disgruntled Lubomir Visnovsky. For a defense that isn’t particularly physical and whose top defenseman, Tom Preissing, is only 5’11”, the 6’3″ 235 lbs. Greene will definitely help stabilize the blueline. Greene averaged almost 17 minutes a game with Edmonton, and as arguably the Kings’ best shut-down defenseman, expect that number to balloon to as much as 22 minutes a game. Jack Johnson rounds out the top three, and while he has fallen behind former teammate Erik Johnson in terms of development, Jack can still put up some good numbers and plays with a level-head, evidenced by his 21 minutes per game average under former coach Marc Crawford, who doesn’t like to use his rookies often. It’ll be open season for the remaining spots, but look for Denis Gauthier, who spent the season with the Flyers’ AHL affiliate, and Peter Harrold, who saw action in 25 games last year, will be the front-runners. The main intrigue at camp, however, is Drew Doughty. The Kings’ first round pick in this summer’s draft was signed to a pro contract a month ago, and many are wondering if Lombardi means to keep the 18-year old around for the season. Some people have said that Doughty’s heads and shoulders above the competition in the OHL and has the size and strength to make the jump, but others have argued that Doughty would be better off playing 20 minutes a night in a winning environment rather than 10 minutes a night for a team that could potentially lose 45 games.

Jason LaBarbera, a cast off from the Rangers, enters camp as the Kings’ number one goalie, but he’ll have to have a strong showing at camp or risk losing his job to either Erik Ersberg or Jonathan Bernier, who is not expected to return to his junior club this year. LaBarbera, at 28 years old, has only 79 games of NHL experience under his belt, and while he did play spectacular hockey for stretches last year, he’s not consistent enough. But that’s not what Lombardi’s worrying about – for all he knows, LaBarbera is merely a stop gap until either Bernier, Ersberg, or even Jeff Zatkoff can handle NHL duties full-time. Lombardi simply wants LaBarbera to hold up for as long as possible so that their young goalies won’t have to shoulder the load and risk injury, burnout, or being labeled as a “bust.”

Murray returns as head coach after an 8-year hiatus, and was best remembered as the coach who led the lowly Panthers to a club record 98-point season. Murray definitely comes from the right bloodlines – he’s the brother of Senators GM Bryan Murray – and having been part of the Flyers coaching staff for the past four season he knows all about the ups and downs of hockey. The Flyers’ collapse two years ago will provide some experience for Murray and motivate the Kings to play hard every night to just get through the season despite not being expected to win anything at all.

Wait, scratch that. There is one thing the Kings can win: the John Tavares/Oscar Hedman sweepstakes. The Kings aren’t expected to stray far from the cap floor, which means that there won’t be any improvements to the team from outside of the organization. They could be sellers at the trade deadline and could dangle Calder (one year remaining on contract) or Handzus, if he has a good year, as bait. One thing’s for sure: the Kings have a very tough season ahead of them.

Projected lineup:
Dustin Brown – Anze Kopitar – Patrick O’Sullivan
Alexander Frolov – Jarret Stoll – Derek Armstrong
Kyle Calder – Michal Handzus – Teddy Purcell
Matt Moulson – Brad Richardson – John Zeiler

Jack Johnson – Tom Preissing
Peter Harrold – Matt Greene
Drew Doughty – Denis Gauthier

Jason LaBarbera – Erik Ersberg

scratches: Brian Boyle, Brady Murray, Raitis Ivanans

Coach: Terry Murray
GM: Dean Lombardi

Predicted finish: 5th Pacific, 15th West

Sep 222008

Training camp’s all about establishing chemistry and figuring out which players go where. ESPN’s Sean Allen provides some insight and here are the highlights:

Zach Bogosian seems to be penciled in to make the team, and Allen figures him to hit the 40-point mark, but I highly doubt it. I think their top powerplay quarterbacks are going to be Ron Hainsey and Tobias Enstrom.

With Justin Williams out for most of the season it means a spot has opened up beside Eric Staal. The likely candidate is Patrick Eaves, although Sergei Samsonov, who has rejuvenated his career in Carolina, may get a call too. I also think that perhaps Tuomo Ruutu or AHL standout Ryan Bayda may get some looks.

Even with Joe Sakic‘s return, the Avs are pegging Paul Stastny as their number one centre, who will most likely have Milan Hejduk and Wojtek Wolski on his wings. Sakic will get Ryan Smyth and Marek Svatos, although given Hejduk and Sakic’s chemistry together I would think they would stay on the same line, with Smyth and Wolski switching spots.

The Wings want balance and they have publicly stated that Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk will start on different lines. This means that Marian Hossa is definitely getting first-line minutes. Allen notes that Valtteri Filppula may drop to the number three centre slot, but I think that spot is still Kris Draper‘s and Filppula may just end up on Zetterberg’s left wing. Dan Cleary was Allen’s choice as Zetterberg’s left wing but I think he’s better suited for the bottom two lines.

With the addition of Robert Lang, it looks like Saku Koivu will be starting the season on the third line, potentially with Guillaume Latendresse and Chris Higgins, giving them one of the most talented third lines in the league. Andrei Kostitsyn and Sergei Kostitsyn may find themselves on the same line with top centre Tomas Plekanec, allowing the enigmatic Alexei Kovalev to lineup with former Penguins teammate Lang.

Craig Hartsburg wants to break up the Big Three (again) and see where it takes them (again). John Paddock tried that last year with mediocre results and with no significant changes up front it remains to be seen what Hartsburg will do, but it’s almost a sure bet that captain Daniel Alfredsson will start on a separate line. The coveted spot beside Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley will be up for grabs, but it looks like the leading contender is little-known Jesse Winchester. Allen notes that Alfredsson may get Nick Foligno and Chris Kelly as linemates, but I would think the speedy Antoine Vermette and/or Mike Fisher would be better fits.

The Leafs may experiment with former Hab Mikhail Grabovski on the top line, but I would think that a combination of Jason Blake and Nik Antropov, along with either Alex Steen or Alexei Ponikarovsky would be it.

Sep 222008

Where did everyone go? The former core of the Panthers, which included Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen as the centerpieces, have both been traded away to the Western Conference. A string of bad trades crippled the organization and its depth chart, and the Panthers are scrambling to get everything back together. The Panthers have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive years, and this year’s no different, although management seems to think otherwise and will be looking for forwards Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss to step up their game and lead the charge.

For a team that’s called the “Panthers,” the team’s offense is rather tame. With the departure of Jokinen, that means Horton is the de facto go-to guy – all 62 points of him. Weiss, the team’s other offensive weapon, is a full 20 points less at 42, with only 13 goals. Then there’s the young David Booth, who surprised many, including himself, who potted in 22 goals and 40 points. It’s not very imposing, but on the bright side, all three youngsters finished the season with pluses. It’s a testament to Panthers’ forwards strong two-way game, but also a system that former coaches Mike Keenan and Jacques Martin have carved into their brains. Some hockey pundits have noted that the departure of Jokinen signals the start of another youth movement in Miami, but the signing of 34-year old Cory Stillman is a counter-argument to that. The veteran forward had 65 points with Carolina and Ottawa last year, and will most certainly be slotted onto the first line which Horton may very well be centering, despite playing right wing with Jokinen for much of his career. After the first line, there will be plenty of chances for rookie Shawn Matthias, who impressed many in the WJHC and during brief call-up (2 goals in 4 games), to prove that he is ready for the NHL game, otherwise expect the underrated Brett McLean to take over duties. A player that the Panthers will be really looking to step up is Rostislav Olesz, Florida’s 1st pick in the 2004 draft. Olesz was on pace for a career season before being sidelined by injuries, but thus far has only recorded a paltry 77 points in 190 NHL games. Olesz is only 22 years old, but has to step up his game and live up to his first-round pick label, and even if he doesn’t perform well this year, he can rest assured that the Panthers will wait, after signing him to an extension that will keep him in Miami until 2013.

Defensively is where the Panthers get top marks. Although the Panthers didn’t receive anything significant from the Jokinen trade up front, the additions of Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton will definitely help a defense that was only average last year. Jay Bouwmeester once again leads the defensive corps, and will be looked upon to provide more leadership on a young Panthers squad. He has always played second fiddle to Jokinen, and it remains to be seen how he adjusts to the spotlight as the Panthers’ new best player. Bouwmeester was the subject of trade rumours throughout the summer because of his unwillingness to be part of another youth movement, and as a result is on a one-year contract. It’s almost with utmost certainty that Bouweester will be testing the free agent waters this summer, and the Panthers may elect to trade him at the deadline instead of letting him walk. Even the acquisition of Bryan McCabe hasn’t made Bouwmeester budge from his original stance. Rounding out the defense is the positionally sound Bryan Allen and the dependable ironman Karlis Skrastins. With those six players the Panthers have one of the best defensive corps in the league and don’t be surprised if they post some of the best defensive numbers the franchise has ever seen.

If the Panthers’ new plan is to build from the net out, they sure are doing an incredible job. After losing Luongo in what has been hailed as one of the most lopsided trades in history, the Panthers managed to get themselves back on their feet by acquiring Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun’s numbers were definitely MVP-worthy, especially considering that the Panthers allowed the second-most shots in the league on a per game basis (33.6). Craig Anderson proved to be a capable backup as well, and their combined save percentage of .920 was the best in the league along with Anaheim’s. This is one aspect of the team that Martin won’t lose sleep over.

Other than Bouwmeester, much of the focus on the Panthers this year will be on Peter DeBoer, who makes his NHL debut. The former Kitchener coach is one of the most respected coaches in the OHL and one of the most decorated as well, having been named OHL Coach of the Year in back to back seasons (1999, 2000) as well as Memorial Cup and Robertson Cup victories. DeBoer inherits an offensively challenged team, and it’ll be a welcome challenge for DeBoer, who coached the OHL’s best offense in Kitchener last year.

It’ll be an interesting season in Florida, which features a new coach, a disgruntled star defenseman, and a crop of underachieving youngsters. With an ownership that hardly cares about the team, did anyone really expect anything different?

Projected lineup:
Cory Stillman – Stephen Weiss – Nathan Horton
David Booth – Brett McLean – Richard Zednik
Radek Dvorak – Kamil Kreps – Rostislav Olesz
Ville Peltonen – Greg Campbell – Wade Belak

Bryan Allen – Jay Bouwmeester
Keith Ballard – Bryan McCabe
Karlis Skrastins – Nick Boynton

Tomas Vokoun – Craig Anderson

scratches: Shawn Matthias, Tanner Glass, Cory Murphy

Coach: Peter DeBoer
GM: Jacques Martin

Predicted finish: 4th Southeast, 13th East