Sep 162008

After the Habs decided to move forward with Plan B with Robert Lang, it was expected the dominoes would fall. And they did, but not like this.

It was announced today that veteran Mathieu Schneider was placed on waivers by the Ducks, after months of speculation that Schneider would be dealt after Sundin makes his decision. It was heavily rumoured that Schneider would be heading to an Eastern Conference team, or perhaps cross town and join the Kings, who are still trying to get to the cap floor. There were as many as 5 teams interested in Schneider’s services, but now that teams don’t have to give up assets to nab him, there could be as many as 20 teams interested in picking him up.

With Schneider gone it means that the Ducks will have some cap room to sign Teemu Selanne, who Finnish news sources have claimed that he has informed Ducks management that he intends on returning. Unfortunately, to make enough room for Selanne, whose contract may include a low fixed salary but bonus-laden, the Ducks will have to make some more room, as for the first time under the new CBA there will be no bonus cushion.

I think it’s unlikely that any team will take Schneider off waivers right now, because no team is in dire need of a defenseman. A lot of teams’ rosters are pretty much set, but the Ducks may elect to put Schneider through re-entry waivers so that teams can claim him for half the price. The downside to that, of course, is the assumption that no team will snatch him up before he enters re-entry waivers.

Colorado Avalanche

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Sep 152008

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Once a perennial Cup contender, the Avalanche are close to a year away from missing the playoffs. The glory days of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy, and Adam Foote are over, although two of those four remain. A string of strong regular season finishes and a couple of trades left the Avs with either a low first round pick or no first rounder at all. It’ll be a changing of the guard for the Avs, either this season or the next. Everyone knows it’s coming, it’s just a question of who’s going to fill who’s shoes.

Offensively it’s no question that Paul Stastny will be leading the charge, although it is still Sakic’s team. The 22-year old left the University of Denver after two seasons and did not miss a beat, compiling 149 points in 148 games over two season, easily one of the best point per game averages for sophomore players. His career point totals are only behind Sidney Crosby‘s 294 from the 2005 draft class. Sakic’s injury-shortened season was one of the key reasons why the Avs’ powerplay was woeful 28th at 14.6%, but that can also be attributed to John-Michael Liles and Jordan Leopold‘s disappointing seasons. With Liles and Leopold ready to go to start the season, and with Ryan Smyth finally healthy, the Avs will be looking to improve on that number. With no other big body on the top two lines, Smyth’s in-your-face style will be vital since the Northeast boasts three all-star goalies – look also for Darcy Tucker to see some spot duty on the powerplay as well. The biggest question mark on offense is Milan Hejduk. The long-time winger of Sakic’s, it has been reported that Hejduk has not skated all summer due to a bum knee, and will opt to play the entire season despite not being 100%. Hejduk has made it publicly known that he intends to retire after his current contract runs out, which has two years remaining. Hejduk’s veteran presence is vital, as young snipers Wojtek Wolski and Marek Svatos still have consistency issues to resolve. Tyler Arnason, forgotten since his Blackhawk days, has also become a consistent secondary scorer – his 179 shots were second on the team – in the Avs’ lineup, and should Sakic or Hejduk fall to injury, look for either him or rookie TJ Hensick to pick up the slack.

The Avs have one of the most balanced defensive corps in the league, which is almost a requirement in the West. Foote returns for an entire season in an Avs uniform, and will be the de facto shut-down defenseman, despite being 37 years old. Scott Hannan, the other Avs’ splurge last summer, will also continue to be counted on to provide a physical presence. Leopold and Liles are the big question marks. Leopold has been plagued by injury since the trade from Calgary, while Liles, who was expected to hit the market and be one of the most sought-after puck-moving defensemen, needs to find the game that got him 45+ points. Brett Clark and Ruslan Salei round out the top six, and these two are no slouches either. Clark has been one of Colorado’s most consistent defensemen over the years, and while his game isn’t exactly eye-catching, but he was arguably their best defenseman last year. Salei is another stabilizing presence on their blueline and will be relied on heavily on the PK, which was a rather pedestrian 21st with 81.4%.

Goaltending is an area the Avs have yet to sufficiently find a solution for since Roy’s retirement. David Aebischer was thought to be the man, but was traded to Montreal for former MVP Jose Theodore, only to find the Theodore that showed up wasn’t the one they thought they had acquired. Soon after backup Peter Budaj supplanted the struggling former-MVP, but only to battle consistency issues, and apparently Francois Giguere felt the best remedy to that was to sign an even more inconsistent yet talented goalie in Andrew Raycroft. It’ll be interesting to see what the Avs will do, either with a 1A/1B tandem or naming Budaj the starter or even just playing by ear and starting whichever goalie gets hotter. Whatever may be the case, given their goalies’ reputations and talent, they’ll be hard pressed to stay in the middle of the pack in goals against, especially with an even stronger Western Conference this year.

Even with those question marks, the biggest one of all is Tony Granato. The former head coach returns to the bench once more after Joel Quenneville‘s departure. It’s often overlooked that Granato actually did a great job with the Avs, posting an impressive winning record of 72-33-17-11 . It’s just unfortunate that Granato’s first head coaching stint with the Avs was overshadowed by the Todd BertuzziSteve Moore incident. Even when Quenneville took over for Granato, it caught many by surprise. When Granato was announced as Quenneville’s replacement it took even more by surprise, but the Avs have been known to be make the right decisions regarding the coaching staff and I don’t think this year will be any different. Granato’s style is a little more abrasive than Quenneville’s, but perhaps that’s what players like Svatos and Wolski need.

Even with Sakic’s return, the Avs have plenty of room, about $5m worth, to play around with. The Avs don’t need a major overhaul of their roster, and god forbid that happens, but should goaltending problems arise, and they will, that cap room will come in handy. This is very likely Sakic’s last season, and the Avs would love to see him raise the Cup one last time, and if the Avs are still in contention by the deadline they can make some serious moves… but that’s a big “if.” There’s just too many question marks on this Avs squad for them to make a run at the playoffs. The team remains unchanged even though the West got better, and they face an uphill battle just to squeak in.

Projected lineup:
Ryan Smyth – Joe Sakic – Milan Hejduk
Wojtek Wolski – Paul Stastny – Marek Svatos
Cody McLeod – Tyler Arnason – Darcy Tucker
Cody McCormick – Ian Laperriere – Ben Guite

John-Michael Liles – Adam Foote
Scott Hannan – Jordan Leopold
Ruslan Salei – Brett Clark

Peter Budaj – Andrew Raycroft

scratches: TJ Hensick, Kyle Cumiskey, Brian Willsie

Coach: Tony Granato
GM: Joel Quenneville

Predicted finish: 5th Northwest, 12th West

Chicago Blackhawks

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Sep 142008

Just 4 years ago, ESPN voted the Blackhawks as the worst franchise in professional sports. Today, Rocky Wirtz is the one laughing. For the first time in memory, the young and exciting Blackhawks squad will have all 82 games televised on local TV, but more importantly, for the first time since the early 2000’s, the Hawks will be in the playoff hunt. There’s really just no other word to describe this team than “youth.” The team’s top point-getter, Patrick Kane, is only 19, while captain Jonathan Toews, who pundits are expecting to follow in the footsteps of Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic, is 20. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the two stalwart blueliners, are also only 25 and 23 respectively. The sky is the limit for this young squad, and don’t expect a sophomore slump from this squad – they’re just way too talented.

Kane and Toews exceeded all expectations last year and were both in the running for the Calder until Toews got injured. The dynamic duo simply took over the team, and the team’s veterans were more than happy to oblige. Patrick Sharp was the clear beneficiary on their line, posting a 16-goal improvement over last year’s total. After that it’s the equally talented yet oft-injured Martin Havlat, who has game-breaking ability but needs to stay healthy if the Hawks want to go far. However, it’ll be interesting to see who gets to centre Havlat, after Dale Tallon traded away Robert Lang and Jason Williams left via free agency. Goal-scoring should not be a problem for the Hawks, having scored 239 goals, third in the West and 10th overall in the league. Toews and Kane are expected to improve their respective goal totals and even if Havlat goes down with injury again the Hawks have plenty of other weapons in Brian Campbell and Dustin Byfuglien. Also don’t forget about Jack Skille, the Hawks’ 1st round pick in 2005 who had been forgotten after the arrival of Toews and Kane. Skille was a late season call-up last year and was impressive in his professional debut, and is expected to be on the Opening Night squad. One area the Hawks want to improve in is on the powerplay, where it clicked for only 15.9%, ranked a mediocre 24th in the league. It’s perplexing that a team that can score 239 goals can have such difficulty on the powerplay, but don’t expect that to happen again with a premier powerplay quarterback in Campbell.

Defense is where some question marks arise. The West is known for its more physical play, and the Hawks defense isn’t built to play that kind of game. The Hawks’ top 4 of Campbell, Keith, Seabrook, and Brent Sopel aren’t known for their physical or defensive play, although Seabrook has the ability to lay out a crushing check once in awhile. What the Hawks do have a lot of though, is mobility. The Hawks have such great puck-movers on their back end that they can cause turnovers and make the play go the other way in a heart beat. Interestingly enough, the Red Wings are one of the best teams in the league at doing that. Their forwards may be able to pitch in once in a while with their gritty play, especially from Ben Eager, but none of them will be contending for the Selke anytime soon. The Blackhawks’ defense will remain mediocre without a clear stay-at-home type, and will be hard-pressed to improve on their 20th ranked defense, although that shouldn’t be a major problem considering their offense.

In net, despite persistent rumours of Nikolai Khabibulin moving to Los Angeles, the Hawks seem ready to enter the season with two able number one goalies, the other of course being Cristobal Huet. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out, as Khabibulin is not expected to finish the season a Hawk, regardless of how well he plays. He will be the subject of rumours throughout the year, but after trading away Lang’s salary the Hawks have some flexibility and are willing to be patient and wait for the right deal.

Denis Savard is absolutely crazy about the type of offensive talent he gets to play around with. The Hawks can easily put out two number one powerplay units, either quarterbacked by Campbell, Keith, or Seabrook. Cam Barker has the ability to man the point as well, but consistency has been a major problem for the former junior standout. But like any young team, the Hawks have to remain consistent. Their longest winning streak last year lasted 4 games, while their losing streak was double that at 8 games. If the Hawks want to improve and find themselves in the postseason they need to avoid the up-and-down months that young teams are prone to having.

As mentioned before, the Hawks have some cap room but it’s definitely not enough to add another body. The Hawks will find themselves in a tight spot if one of their key players goes down with injury early in the season, and in all likelihood it may be Havlat and his $6m salary. Tallon will be hard-pressed to replace Havlat’s production with call-ups unless Havlat hits the long-term injury list. Khabibulin will be dealt, and it’s just more of a question of when. Right now only the Kings are in a dire need of a goalie, but as the season goes on there may be more and more spots opening up. It’s not sure who’s penciled into to be the starter, but no matter what expect the two goalies to push each other – Huet needs to show that he’s worth $5.625m/year and Khabibulin will be looking to cash in on another free agent contract.

Projected lineup:
Patrick Sharp – Jonathan Toews – Patrick Kane
Martin Havlat – Dave Bolland – Dustin Byfuglien
Andrew Ladd – Petri Kontiola – Jack Skille
Ben Eager – Adam Burish – Craig Adams

Brian Campbell – Brent Seabrook
Duncan Keith – Brent Sopel
James Wisniewski – Cam Barker

Cristobal Huet – Nikolai Khabibulin

scratches: Jake Dowell, Jordan Hendry, Kris Versteeg

Coach: Denis Savard
GM: Dale Tallon

Predicted finish: 2nd Central, 6th West

Sep 132008

There’s always no shortage of players who can put the puck in the net in Carolina. But as the old adage goes, “defense wins championships.” The Canes’ offense was one of the best in the league, ranked 5th with just over 3 goals per game, led by the ever-improving Eric Staal. However, the Canes’ defense was one of the league’s worst at 25th, and to no surprise a horrendous sub-80% efficient PK as well. Given their great offense it’s no doubt that the Canes would contend for a playoff spot, but without a premier shut-down defenseman, they aren’t going anywhere fast.

Veteran captain Rod Brind’Amour again leads the squad, but on the ice it’s all about Staal. The oldest brother of hockey’s new family regressed after a 100-point season to a mere 70 points, but bounced back with 82 points despite a supporting cast that suffered from a rash of injuries. The biggest surprise last year, however, was Sergei Samsonov, who seemed to have rejuvenated his declining career after posting an impressive 32 points in 38 games. Samsonov hasn’t produced points at that rate since the 2001-02 season, when Joe Thornton was still a Bruin. It is not a coincidence that Samsonov’s production is directly linked to how good his centreman is. The Canes are hoping that Samsonov can continue to do so to make up for the loss of Erik Cole, who was dealt to Edmonton during the offseason. Matt Cullen is also a key cog of Carolina’s offense, and as a third line centre he has the ability to score in bunches, and with him the Canes have one of the best 1-2-3 punches down the middle in the East. The biggest stumbling block for Carolina’s forwards is staying healthy, after ironman Brind’Amour went down with injury and underrated winger Justin Williams was limited to 37 games.

On defense is where it gets very interesting. When the Canes made the finals, Mike Commodore emerged as the team’s go-to shut-down guy, and he did his job to perfection, culminating in a Cup win. Since then, however, Commodore has come back down to Earth and is no longer a Cane. Looking at the Canes’ defensive corps on paper, there is a striking lack of size and grit. The team’s new top two defensemen, Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo, are not considered to be great in their own zone. Jim Rutherford believes that the addition of Pitkanen will help defensively, but it’s wishful thinking. Pitkanen, despite his great size, registered only 32 hits and 59 blocked shots in 63 games. Corvo is a PP QB and not expected to shut anyone down, and neither is Niclas Wallin (who has been subject to some trade rumours) or Frantisek Kaberle, whose game is starting to really regress. It’ll be a miracle for the Canes if they manage to place in the middle of the pack defensively in the league. Their defense remains their biggest weakness and Rutherford has not addressed this problem for quite some time.

In net, Cam Ward has to find the high level of consistency he achieved when he was named the Conn Smythe winner. A lot of hockey pundits had noted that perhaps Brind’Amour deserves the trophy, and their case keeps getting stronger. Ward has been good enough to keep the Canes afloat, but that simply won’t be good enough, especially with a stronger division this year. The Southeast has a plethora of players who can tickle the twine, and the key to winning that division is goaltending. Right now, the Canes have arguably the most talented goalie in their division and Ward needs to play with a bigger sense of urgency if they want to win.

This is also the year that Peter Laviolette finds himself on the hot seat yet again. Laviolette was rumoured to be fired late into the season last year when the Canes were in the playoff hunt, but Rutherford elected to let Laviolette stick around for one more season. Should the Canes miss the playoffs again this year, or sputter off to a slow start, it would not be surprising to see Laviolette get shown the door. That may pave the way, perhaps, for John Tortorella, who has expressed a desire to coach and may very well return to hopefully haunt his former employers.

The Canes have a self-imposed cap of around $45m, and as of now they sit $4m over that mark, but management may choose to let it slide instead of dumping some salary. Needless to say they have tons of cap room to play around with, and the Canes are no strangers to adding deadline pieces. Rutherford isn’t afraid to pull the trigger, but you have to wonder when he’s going to notice that his defense needs some serious bulking up.

There won’t be any surprises from the Canes this year. Their team remains largely the same, and the same weaknesses that plagued them last year haven’t been fixed. You have to wonder if the Canes would be in the same position had they not dealt away Jack Johnson, and to this day that deal continues to be a little perplexing. A high octane offense to go along with a mediocre defense just won’t do. Past cup winners have proved that you need to ice a balanced team and be good in all aspects of the game. The Canes aren’t that team.

Projected lineup:
Ray Whitney – Eric Staal – Justin Williams
Sergei Samsonov – Rod Brind’Amour – Scott Walker
Chad Larose – Mark Cullen – Patrick Eaves
Ryan Bayda – Tuomo Ruutu – Wade Brookbank

Joni Pitkanen – Tim Gleason
Frantisek Kaberle – Joe Corvo
Niclas Wallin – Josef Melichar

Cam Ward – Michael Leighton

scratches: Tim Conboy, Dennis Seidenberg, Patrick Dwyer

Coach: Peter Laviolette
GM: Jim Rutherford

Predicted finish: 2nd Southeast, 9th East

Sep 132008

The Habs’ acquisition of Robert Lang from Chicago means a couple things:

1. Mats Sundin will not be a Hab. That is with utmost certainty after Bob Gainey made that clear in his press conference. Lang will be slotted into the third line, which means that Kyle Chipchura, who is expected to make the squad, may start the season in the AHL unless he has a good camp.

2. Chicago will still be looking to dump salary, but it looks like they may actually start the season with a Cristobal HuetNikolai Khabibulin tandem as Dale Tallon had suggested they would. By dumping Lang’s $4m salary, the Hawks are roughly $1.5m under the cap, good enough to start the season, but a little dangerous should the need for injury replacements arise early in the season. The Hawks are saddled with a lot of sub-$1m rookie contracts, which makes creating room a lot more difficult because it would have to involve multiple players. There is still a chance that Khabibulin ($6.75m) get moved, and if he does that means the Hawks will have plenty of cap room to play around with. The Khabibulin to LA rumours won’t die down until he is actually moved.

3. The dominoes are starting to fall. The Habs decided to move on after Sundin stated that he will not be making a decision prior to camp, which means that more teams will do the same. A lot of players, notably Brendan Shanahan and Mathieu Schneider, will find out their new homes in the coming weeks. I would think that both players would be dealt before camp begins, although under the new CBA it looks like more and more GMs are hesitant to pull the trigger and willing to be patient. Mark Parrish, another player who is looking for a new home, may find one soon after he complained that Sundin’s indecisiveness was holding up league transactions.

4. Now that the Habs have made the first move, other East teams may do the same. The Rangers could be busy in the coming weeks, perhaps signing Shanahan or acquiring Schneider, but then of course should they choose to do that they’d have to dump some salary too.

5. The Canucks are in a tight spot. While having $10m to spend is a luxury, it’ll be interesting to see how they spend it. There were rumours flying around that should Sundin land in the Big Apple that Gomez could be in a Canucks uniform, but now that seems less likely than ever. Parrish is on the Canucks’ radar and could find himself there very soon.

NHL Europe

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Sep 132008

So Bill Daly thinks that 10 years down the road, we could be seeing franchises pop up in Europe. This is not the same thing as two North America-based teams playing exhibition or season (god forbid) games in Europe. Daly is directly stating that it is not completely out of the question that places in Sweden, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Russia could have NHL teams.

While Europe does have a fantastic fan base, and I have no doubt that should a NHL team suddenly pop up overseas that it’ll do moderately well financially, you have to not think about the dollars when making a decision such as this.

First off, there are still many untapped markets in the NHL, most notably, southern Ontario, as Wayne Gretzky had suggested yesterday. The struggling franchise 5-6 years ago are still struggling today. Nashville, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and numerous teams in the southeastern US and California are still struggling to win fans over. One of those teams is still stuck in turmoil after an ownership debacle and now the Boots Delbaggio investigation. Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City have been pining for a NHL team, and while their potential is still hotly debated, it’s no secret that Gary Bettman and Daly still have a lot of work to do to make this game “stick” in the US. During the lockout, a poll of all 50 states showed that only residents of Minnesota missed the NHL. In some states, such as California, where it hosts 3 NHL teams, the answer was a very alarming and surprising 70% “no.”

Second, with the increase of oil prices, a hectic 82-game schedule plus playoffs, back-to-back home-and-home series, the travel is just simply impossible. Unless the NHL cuts its regular season games down to around 70, which will never happen, players will start fatiguing before the playoffs. Could you imagine if Anaheim or Vancouver got to the finals and had to play a team based in Prague? Fatigue and injuries would start to kick in, and that doesn’t make for a very good finals – never mind that it doesn’t feature a team from a big American market – I would think that it would be very hard to keep track given the time differences. The logistics of it just don’t make sense. A team based in a city without a very big international airport, say Ottawa, would have to fly through either Toronto and/or New York to get to European destinations. Could you imagine?

Third, Daly made no mention of franchise re-location – meaning that it’s assumed that the NHL may expand to over 30 teams in 10 years. Thanks, but no thanks. The NHL seriously needs to think about downsizing, perhaps just be even 2 teams. There’s tons of talent in the NHL to make all 30 teams relatively competitive, although not all at the same time, but losing two teams won’t hurt. In fact, it may even be beneficiary to the league. While that does mean that 40 regular spots are gone, it also means that the game itself becomes that much more competitive. The fringe players will continue to trickle through to Europe, but the best of the best remain in the NHL.

Gretzky manages to have some kind words for Bettman and his crew, but unfortunately the fans (the ones who matter most), disagree. As a side note, I wonder what Bettman would do if Gretzky had some choice words to say about the direction of the league. Would he hand down a strict fine to Gretzky to show everyone who’s boss of the league, or would he simply let it slip, as Gretzky is the NHL’s premier spokesperson?

Calgary Flames

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Sep 122008

I apologize for the lack of updates, as school has just gotten underway and I’m still trying to sort things out. But without further ado, let’s continue our countdown.

The Flames are one of the toughest teams to play against in the league. Like previous versions of Darryl Sutter‘s Flames, this year’s version will continue to play the wear-and-tear type of hockey. For the Flames, despite the fact that they aren’t the league’s most talented team, they’re successful in part because of their playing style. Any hockey system or strategy is only as good as the players on the ice, but the Flames’ particular brand of hockey suits their best players, Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf, perfectly. The two players are the faces of the franchise and can hit and score. They’re players that Mike Keenan and Sutter have a penchant for, and gone are Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay, talented players, but not quite the ones that fit. Once again, despite another disappointing showing in the playoffs Sutter elected not to give this team a face lift but rather just tinker around with the supporting players, and they’re better for it.

The key for Calgary has always been finding the right winger for Iginla. Tanguay and Huselius were definitely talented enough, but just couldn’t quite mesh with Iginla, and as a result both are gone. Huselius was not going to be re-signed and management wasn’t going to wait any longer for Tanguay to become the player they wanted him to be. And surprisingly, Sutter got an even smaller forward in Mike Cammalleri, who stands 5’9″, 4 inches shorter than the 6’1″ Tanguay. However, Cammalleri plays with a much more noticeable jam and consistency. After an impressive top line, the second line has been almost completely revamped. Craig Conroy is slotted to be the number two centre, but could very well find himself on the checking line if speedster Matt Lombardi shows that he can handle the duties. New addition Todd Bertuzzi, a player that is very well in the Keenan-Sutter mold, is expected to create traffic in front of the net, and with his ability to play either wing effectively, it would not be surprising to see him line up alongside Iginla should the need arise, giving the Flames one of the biggest lines in the West. Rene Bourque, coming off a 10-goal campaign last year with Chicago, is also a question mark, and the second line spot is his to lose. The Flames’ forwards have their share of holes and question marks, but that shouldn’t be a problem if Phaneuf and Aucoin chip in 30-40 goals combined.

The Flames have one of the deepest and strongest defensive corps in the league. Anders Eriksson and Rhett Warrener, regulars on any other team, will find themselves starting the season in the AHL with Quad City. The return of Mark Giordano, who played for a year in Russia after failing to come to terms on an extension, will definitely improve the Flames’ puck-moving ability. Cory Sarich and Jim Vandermeer will provide a tough veteran presence on the blueline. Adrian Aucoin will man the point with Phaneuf in what could develop into one of the league’s most dangerous powerplays. They will improve on their 19th ranked powerplay from last season.

Despite the Flames’ deep defense, the stats don’t really show it. The PK was ranked only 20th with an 81.5% efficiency and it’s GA was ranked a very pedestrian 16th. A lot of this has to do with Finnish goalie Miikka Kiprusoff‘s notorious slow starts. The athletic and talented netminder seemed to be playing his way out of the lineup after a stretch of horrible games, but by the mid-season mark he was beginning to find his form. It’s a little mysterious that a goalie as talented as him could take so long to get into the groove, but if the Flames want to succeed he really needs to get his game together early on in the season. They can’t afford to be a .500 team all year in a very tough West.

The biggest question mark for the Flames is coaching. While Bertuzzi and Bourque do bring their fair share of question marks, Keenan is the one that’s really going to be put under the microscope this year. He hasn’t had success since 1994, and has since then been labeled as a “destroyer” of sorts of teams. Could he be another one of Sutter’s mistakes, like Jim Playfair? Even though Keenan has mellowed out over the past few years, he really has to be careful as not to turn away his own players. He has been known to bring out the best in underachieving players, and perhaps Bertuzzi could be a huge benefit from that. However, Keenan has a tendency to become quite unpopular in the locker room, including a brief incident in which Iginla and Keenan had allegedly exchanged heated words. For Sutter, this is still Iginla’s team, and should Keenan fail to realize that he’d be the one going out the door.

The Flames are about $1.5m over the cap, which means anywhere from $3-$6m could be moved by Opening Night. Sutter has publicly stated that he has no intention of buying out Warrener and/or Eriksson, which means that perhaps Aucoin may be out the door. The veteran has enjoyed some success in Calgary, but with his upcoming UFA status and his $4m salary he is a prime candidate as trade bait. The one luxury that Sutter has is that all of his key players, Iginla, Phaneuf, Regehr, Kiprusoff, and Langkow, are all signed for years to come.

The Flames are the team to beat in their division. The Northwest is arguably the toughest division in hockey, and the Flames are built just for that. The Flames stumbled out of the gate last year and Keenan is going to make sure that it doesn’t happen again this year. If the Flames get Kiprusoff in a groove fast, they could very well put themselves in a comfortable position. Though winning the division may put the Flames in the top three, they will have an uphill climb in the first round, should they reach it, because quite frankly, the best of the Northwest is not the best of the West.

Projected lineup:
Mike Cammalleri – Daymond Langkow – Jarome Iginla
Rene Bourque – Craig Conroy – Todd Bertuzzi
Curtis Glencross – Matt Lombardi – David Moss
Eric Nystrom – Wayne Primeau – Dustin Boyd

Dion Phaneuf – Adrian Aucoin
Robyn Regehr – Cory Sarich
Mark Giordano – Jim Vandermeer

Miikka Kiprusoff – Curtis McElhinney

scratches: Andre Roy, Jamie Lundmark, Brandon Prust

Coach: Mike Keenan
GM: Darryl Sutter

Predicted Finish: 1st Northwest, 3rd West

Sep 082008

Things just haven’t been the same since Daniel Briere and Chris Drury left. While the Sabres’ scoring depth remains 9 deep, the continuing rotating captaincy means that no one has quite stepped it up in the batter’s box in terms of leadership. Brian Campbell was expected to fill that role in some sort of capacity but after failing to re-sign him he was dealt to San Jose at the deadline. Ownership and management have built a somewhat rocky reputation around the league, after failing to show full commitment to its players and they paid a heavy price. The Sabres aren’t short of talent, but they do seem to have a hard time retaining them.

Up front, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville are expected to lead the way after posting 80+ point seasons. The two forwards will also be counting on snipers Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov to provide some scoring, especially Afinogenov, who is coming off a very disappointing 10-goal, -16 season. Vanek, who was the subject of the first-ever offer sheet under the new CBA, needs to show that he is worth every single penny that Buffalo is paying him. Granted, the amount is not what the Sabres originally had in mind, but Vanek is taking up a significant chunk of the Sabres’ cap space and needs to show that the Sabres made the right decision. Scoring is not a big problem for the speedy Sabres (their 3.06 goals per game was 4th best), but size and toughness is. Management has chose not to address this issue and continue to play a finesse game, but it has yet to bear fruit in the playoffs asides from a short appearance in the 2007 Conference finals.

Buffalo’s defense isn’t very imposing. Their six-man group is well-balanced and after Campbell’s departure really lacks a go-to guy. The addition of Craig Rivet will help, defensively and in the locker room, while Teppo Numminen‘s return must’ve been a warm welcome. Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder are expected to reclaim their status as Buffalo’s number one shut-down pair. Players who are expected to become full-time regulars, like Andrej Sekera and either Mike Weber or Nathan Paetsch, are also counted on to alleviate the loss of Campbell.

What Buffalo lacks on defense they make up for in goaltending. Ryan Miller is easily one of the East’s best, but Lindy Ruff has a tendency to ride his starter for stretches, which resulted in Miller appearing in 76 games and showing signs of fatigue near the end. Patrick Lalime was brought in to help shoulder some of the load, and will most likely see at least 20 games before the season’s up.

The Sabres finished 4 points out of a playoff spot last year, and with no major changes to the lineup they’re expected to contend for a spot again. The Sabres’ greatest weapon, that their offense runs 3 lines deep, is also their greatest weakness. They lack the go-to scorer, and you can bet that Ruff has a hard time deciding who to send out on a last-minute offensive-zone play. The Sabres are one elite player, be it a forward or defenseman, away from vaulting themselves back into the East’s elite, although it remains to be seen if Darcy Regier is willing to go out and get that guy. Even with the addition of Rivet, the Sabres aren’t expected to drastically improve their 22nd ranked defense, but that should be fine as long as Pominville and Roy don’t take a big step back.

Sabres fans have grown restless after the less than amicable departures of their former big three (Briere, Campbell, Drury), but Regier has apparently learned from his mistakes and is undergoing contract negotiations with Pominville. The deal is expected to be worth roughly $30m over the next 5-6 years. The Sabres have ample cap room (about $9m) to make some noise during the season or at the deadline, although I would think Afinogenov ($3.33m), the oft-injured Tim Connolly ($2.9m), and veteran Ales Kotalik ($2.33m) would be approached for extensions before the end of the season. Buffalo is comfortable starting the season with their current roster, but with no clear-cut leader or elite player don’t expect them to repeat their 2007 successes.

Projected lineup:
Thomas Vanek – Derek Roy – Jason Pominville
Jochen Hecht – Tim Connolly – Maxim Afinogenov
Dan Paille – Paul Gaustad – Ales Kotalik
Clarke MacArthur – Adam Mair – Drew Stafford

Toni Lydman – Henrik Tallinder
Jaroslav Spacek – Craig Rivet
Andrej Sekera – Teppo Numminen

Ryan Miller – Patrick Lalime

scratches: Nathan Paetsch, Andrew Peters, Mike Weber

Head coach: Lindy Ruff
GM: Darcy Regier

Projected Finish: 3rd Northeast, 8th East

Sep 062008

If there’s anything John Tortorella knows how to do, it’s to speak his mind. The former Tampa Bay coach had choice words for his former employers:

“You got a couple of cowboys in there as owners. You finish 30th in the National Hockey League, I was there for seven years, I know it’s coming as a coach, and it probably should come to a coach if you finish 30th. But how it all goes about and how you treat your people and run your business is very important in this league. I look at the club and how some things have been done and how they treated Danny Boyle and really lying to the kid, and some of the other things that have gone on there, it’s a total different team. Do I think the team needed to be blown up for it to get back to competing? No, I don’t.

There still are some good players there. But new owners come in and they try to reinvent the wheel. I’m anxious to see what happens. I don’t wish anything bad on them. I have a lot of loyalty to the players who are still there and people who work in the office. But as far as the two cowboys that went in there and bought that team, I have zero respect for them.”

Tortorella further elaborates on Dan Boyle:

“I knew that was going to happen… during the trading deadline where myself, Jay Feaster and all the administration of that team were locked in the room with owners that were still in the process of trying to buy the team. It turned ugly in there because of some of the thoughts they had, and they still hadn’t even dropped a penny on the club. I sat across from Lennie Barrie and Lennie Barrie started talking to me about Dan Boyle when he played with him seven, eight years ago in Florida, which makes no sense to me because I think after seven or eight years a guy may mature and improve his game. I begged them to sign Danny Boyle. If you’re going to trade Brad Richards at the deadline, which we shouldn’t have done at that point in time, and then let Danny Boyle just go, what do you think Vinny and Marty (St. Louis) are going to think about there the next year starts? They grudgingly decided to sign him but I knew once they signed all these forwards during the summer, during the free agency, (he) was going to go.”

It’s hard not to agree with Tortorella’s points. His departure left a sour taste in his mouth, as did former GM Jay Feaster, who realized that he was quickly being pushed aside, and Boyle, who was expecting to stay a Lightning for the next 5 years.

Len Barrie and Oren Koules‘ activity this summer has been perplexing, electing to grab as many free agent forwards as they could get their hands on, while neglecting a young defensive corps and big question marks in net. Management, led by former player agent Brian Lawton as head of hockey operations, created a severe logjam up front, and Jussi Jokinen and Michel Ouellet still haven’t been moved yet. The Bolts led the free agency charge but didn’t quite address all of their weaknesses.

Barrie was not one to back down from the war of words, and concluded with this:

“What were there, nine openings for coaches? That’s why he’s working for TV. I’ll be sure I wear my cowboy hat for the first game.”

Also, Barrie proudly stated that the Bolts would win the Southeast.

Sep 062008

– Asides from Florida, Bryan McCabe‘s other preferred destination was Manhattan. When the Rangers landed Wade Redden, Florida remained the only city McCabe was willing to waive his no-movement clause for.

– With Dan Boyle and Rob Blake stepping in, and San Jose’s talented young blueline a year older, Kyle McLaren may be the odd man out, and he knows it too. McLaren has made it known that he would like to remain in San Jose, but understands if he is traded.

Jarret Stoll‘s extension has not been formally announced yet because there are still a few kinks to work out. While it has been confirmed that the annual cap hit will be $3.6m over 4 years, the Kings would like the deal to be front-loaded. By doing so, the Kings will have ample room to re-sign Anze Kopitar and Jack Johnson to lucrative, long-term contracts. It will also make buying out Stoll’s contract (should that event ever arise) easier.

– The KHL-NHL drama continues, as the Kings signed prospects Vjateslav Voinov (Chelyabinsk) and Andrei Loktionov (Yaroslavl) last week on August 27. The KHL contends that the two youngsters were still under contract when the Kings signed them, but Bill Daly has denied such allegations and Alexander Medvedev is expected to meet with IIHF officials next week about the matter. Neither Daly nor any other NHL representative will be in attendance.