Boston Bruins

 Boston Bruins  Comments Off on Boston Bruins
Sep 052008

The Bruins made the playoffs with one of the league’s worst PK units and offense, yet managed to sneak into the playoffs. The bears caught fire at season’s end and put up a formidable fight against the top-ranked Habs. The Bruins are one of the more physical teams in the East with emphasis on defense, although after captain Zdeno Chara the talent level of the defensive corps dives right off a cliff.

Marc Savard is perhaps one of the most skilled playmakers in the game, and with coach Claude Julien‘s help, he has become a stronger two-way player as well. Savard’s 63 assists ranked third in the league and that total alone is more than the second-leading Bruin scorer (Marco Sturm with 56). The Bruins will also be counting on Chuck Kobasew and Phil Kessel to improve on their 22 and 19-goal campaigns respectively. Kobasew’s 22 markers is a career high and Kessel improved 8 goals from the previous season. More importantly, Patrice Bergeron is once again healthy, after missing 72 games last year with a concussion. The young centre is one of the best players in the game today and will give Boston’s offense (24th) and powerplay (16th) a big boost. The Bruins may not be the most talented team in the East, but what they lack in talent they make up for in size and grit. Milan Lucic became a fan favourite with his hard-nosed, never-back-down style that Bostonians love, and he will provide a strong forechecking presence as well as the ability to pot at least 10 goals. Also figuring into the mix is David Krejci, who may break the 50-point barrier this season after his 56-game, 27-point debut. Also to keep an eye out for is Michael Ryder, who has been reunited with Julien whom he has had the most success with. However, veterans Peter Schaefer and PJ Axelsson‘s futures may not look so bright, at least in the yellow and black. Schaefer has at times played himself out of Julien’s favour and could find a home elsewhere by midseason, while Axelsson is in the last year of his contract. Should the Bruins fail to qualify for the playoffs he will be trade bait at the deadline.

Boston’s defense ranked in the top half of the league, their PK was near death last (28th) with a 78.6% efficiency. After Julien took the reigns the team did a complete 360 and played a defense-first game. The Bruins chopped off roughly 70 GA from their previous year’s total, and was thus granted a playoff spot and managed to keep a high-octane Habs offense relatively in check. Asides from Chara, and enough things have been written about him over the years, the rest of the defensive corps doesn’t look too good. Dennis Wideman is coming off another strong season and is definitely benefiting from being Chara’s partner. After that comes veteran mule Aaron Ward, then Andrew Ference and Andy Alberts. It’s not exactly an elite group, but the Bruins defensemen buy into Julien’s system and block lots of shots, but most often overlooked is the two-way play of their players, in particular, Axelsson and Lucic. Axelsson has been hailed as one of the league’s premier defense forwards, while Lucic will take any body in his own end. Underrated also are the two-way plays of Savard, Bergeron, and Kessel, who is slowly establishing himself as a strong two-way player.

The Bruins once again enter the season with two starters, but this time Tim Thomas is penciled in as the number one. The perpetual underdog will finally enter the season without having to look over his back as Manny Fernandez continues to get healthy. Both goaltenders are in their final year of their contracts so both will be looking to maximize their playtime, and some healthy competition might do the ultra-competitive Thomas good, but Fernandez’s noted poor temperament may cause some troubles. Tuuka Rask will spend another year in the AHL to resolve some consistency issues, but may not stay down there long, as Fernandez’s $4.5m contract may be on the way out. Management wants Rask to get one more full season’s worth of gametime before deciding if the young netminder is ready for the NHL.

The Bruins are cutting it a little tight by being only $1.5m under the cap, which means come Christmas-time Peter Chiarelli may be looking to unload some contracts to make room for call-ups. Axelsson ($1.85m, 1 year remaining), Schaefer ($2.1m, 2YR), and Alberts ($1.25m, 1YR) are potential trade bait. There will be no significant rookies stepping into the Bruins’ lineup this year, although Zach Hamill or Blake Wheeler may challenge for a spot, but he would be better off spending a season in Providence first. However, a lot of sophomore players will be expected to do further step up their game (Vladimir Sobotka and Petteri Nokelainen) while some may get more than just a couple of call-ups (Martins Karsums).

Boston’s future stars, Kessel and Bergeron, need to have excellent seasons to allow this team to stay in contention all-year, while Lucic needs to establish himself as a 10-15 goal scorer as well as a hard-hitter. He could very well supplant Kessel or Bergeron as the face of the Bruins, so Lucic needs to stay away from the sophomore slump before fickle Boston fans pick him apart.

The Bruins will again find it tough get into the playoffs this year. The team remains largely unchanged from last year, save for Bergeron’s health and the recently bought out Glen Murray. While Bergeron’s return will definitely help take some pressure off Savard, he is not enough to vault this team into the playoffs. They still have too many question marks surrounding their goal scorers and consistency issues in net that need to be worked out.

Projected Lines:
Peter Schaefer – Marc Savard – Phil Kessel
Marco Sturm – Patrice Bergeron – Chuck Kobasew
Milan Lucic – David Krejci – Michael Ryder
PJ Axelsson – Stephane Yelle – Shawn Thornton

Zdeno Chara – Dennis Wideman
Mark Stuart – Aaron Ward
Andrew Alberts – Andrew Ference

Tim Thomas – Manny Fernandez

scratches: Petteri Nokelainen, Vladimir Sobotka, Shane Hnidy

Head Coach: Claude Julien
GM: Peter Chiarelli

Projected Finish: 4th Northeast, 11th East

Sep 042008

Two years ago, the Thrashers’ future looked bright. A final push made by Don Waddell when he acquired Keith Tkachuk, that year’s biggest deadline day catch, and the Thrashers’ first ever playoff appearance meant the team was going in the right direction. The people of Atlanta had high hopes the following season, but the team sputtered all season and it cost them Marian Hossa at the deadline. The team, once again, was back to square one.

The Thrashers are once again by Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, who may very well be considered one of the best snipers of his generation. However, for the first time in a long time, Kovalchuk will not have a 30+ goal scorer on his line, which means that the Thrashers are counting on him even more to provide the majority of the offense. In the past, Dany Heatley or Hossa had been able to take some pressure off Kovalchuk, but heading into this season only Slava Kozlov (17) has more than 15 goals. He will also once again be without a premier set-up centre, but don’t expect the Russian to fire any less pucks or score any less goals. Jason Williams was signed to help out in that department and realistically he can only be viewed as a band-aid solution. The spot to centre Kovalchuk will be his to lose, and new coach John Anderson can elect to go with more smarts (Todd White), more size (Erik Christensen), more speed (Bryan Little), or more skill (Eric Perrin). After that Kozlov will be expected to provide some secondary offense. With no significant changes up front, don’t expect them to finish higher than 20th in GF. However, should the Thrashers finish near the cellar once again, it could be the last they ever see of their star.

The Thrashers’ defensive corps should also not be underrated. Although they had the league’s worst shots for-shots against ratio and the second-worst defense, they aren’t expected to repeat this horrific numbers. They’re aided by their biggest free agent splash this year in Ron Hainsey, who left Columbus for greener pastures. Hainsey is coming off a productive season in Columbus and will no doubt help Atlanta in the offensive department. Niclas Havelid also has the ability to shut-down the opponents’ top scoreres, while the surprising Tobias Enstrom will once again be the puck-moving specialist. Look for him to man the other point on the PP with Kovalchuk. Veteran Ken Klee and Garnet Exelby will round out the top 5, while the sixth spot is Boris Valabik‘s to lose. Valabik was drafted 10th overall in 2004, and with his 6’7″ frame has been compared to Zdeno Chara, but has yet to play up to those comparisons. The player with the most intrigue this season will be Zach Bogosian and his quest to make the team. The recent draftee has the NHL skills and smarts, but Waddell has to decide if Bogosian would be better off playing 25 minutes a night in Peterborough or 6 minutes a night in the NHL.

The biggest enigma in the Thrashers’ locker room isn’t the direction of the team or leadership, but Kari Lehtonen. The Finnish netminder was drafted 2nd overall in 2002 and was tagged as the goalie of the future, and had the skills and talent, but never the body or consistency. The 25 year old had posted a career-high 34 wins the season before and made the playoffs and managed to play 68 games. However, the injury bug would bite again and limit him to 48 games, the least posting the worst win total (17) in his North American pro career. Johan Hedberg is back to back up Lehtonen and could see plenty of playing time should Lehtonen go down with injury yet again. The talented Ondrej Pavelec will start on the farm, but don’t be surprised to see him as a mid-season call-up and perhaps steal a few games and play spoiler down the stretch.

Atlanta still has a little more work to do before reaching the cap floor, and once they do, there’s no sign that they’ll go any higher. They have re-signed all of their key RFAs, but with the team not expected to do well Atlanta Spirit (the owners) will not be looking to potentially lose more money. The Thrashers’ biggest concern this year isn’t worried about the quality of product on the ice, but rather trying to convince Kovalchuk to stay, although the two should be related. Kovalchuk has two years remaining on his contract, including this year, but management doesn’t want to wait to get Kovalchuk on board for the next 6-8 years. To do so they have to win some games, and that may be the biggest challenge facing them. With a stronger Southeast Division they won’t be a player in the last season playoff hunt, which means perhaps a shot at the number one pick in 2009.

With Hossa’s departure Hainsey is expected to alleviate some of the holes, along with Enstrom who is expected to improve on his impressive 38-point NHL debut season. Havelid is one of the premier shot-blockers in the league and was sixth among defensemen with 184, but will expected to step it up a notch along with Exelby. The success of Atlanta doesn’t hinge so much on the players this year, but the coach. If Anderson, who has had success with Atlanta’s AHL affiliate, can infuse a new system that Kovalchuk can buy into, perhaps it may convince him to stay. Anderson has coached many of the young players coming up through Chicago and his familiarity with them will no doubt aid him. Waddell is hoping that Anderson could become the next Bruce Boudreau, although to be fair to Anderson, Boudreau did have the better roster.

Projected Lineup:
Ilya Kovalchuk – Jason Williams – Colby Armstrong
Slava Kozlov – Todd White – Eric Perrin
Brett Sterling – Erik Christensen – Chris Thorburn
Brad Larsen – Bryan Little – Eric Boulton

Tobias Enstrom – Niclas Havelid
Ron Hainsey – Garnet Exelby
Ken Klee – Zach Bogosian

Kari Lehtonen – Johan Hedberg

scratches: Marty Reasoner, Jim Slater, Boris Valabik

Head Coach: John Anderson
GM: Don Waddell

Projected Finish: 5th Southeast, 14th East

Sep 042008

For Mats Sundin, whose latest press conference revealed no new information about his hockey career. The Swede is still contemplating offers from as many as 6 teams, and potentially be the stumbling block of all the trades that would’ve been made already. Sundin now says that he will not make a decision before the NHL season, which means that guys like Mathieu Schneider, who was expected to be moved depending on where Sundin signs, won’t have to anymore. The sitting Duck has been itching to find out his new home, and sources say it is rumoured to be a strong Eastern Conference team. The Sundin saga has dragged itself out for far too long, and I doubt any new news will surface until he puts the ink on the paper.

And all smiles also to…

Brad Isbister, who has now found a home in Ottawa, thanks to Bryan Murray‘s new-found hobby of collecting former Canucks, including the speedy yet diminutive Ryan Shannon.

Jarret Stoll, who has finally inked a contract with the Kings worth $3.6m/year over 4 years. The two-way centre was on his way to a breakout season with the Oilers after an impressive 68-point season, but sputtered to start the season and never regained his form. The Kings are also happy that they are now $3.6m closer to the cap floor. $9m more to go, Dean.

Alex Pietrangelo and Zach Bogosian, who have agreed to entry-level contracts with the Blues and Kings, respectively. Pietrangelo will be a long-shot to crack the Blues’ regular lineup, but Bogosian, with a strong camp, may be able to secure a spot on the Kings’ blueline.

Anaheim Ducks

 Anaheim Ducks  Comments Off on Anaheim Ducks
Sep 032008

It’s a month until Opening Night, and so as a countdown I’m going to do a short preview of all 30 teams, 1 team per day, in alphabetical order. So, we kick off the countdown with the Ducks…

The Ducks looked lost and fatigued in last year’s playoffs. While Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne‘s returns gave the Ducks a quick boost, they were no where near playoff shape, having missed the majority of the regular season. Their offense took away some pressure off Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who found themselves thrust into a first line scoring role after Selanne’s short absence and Andy McDonald‘s departure. The Ducks won the Cup in 2007 because their scoring went two units deep, on offense and defense. Getzlaf and Perry were an excellent second line to compliment Selanne, and Dustin Penner‘s emergence came at the most opportune time. Now that Selanne and Niedermayer are committed to return for an entire season, don’t expect the Ducks’ offense to rank anywhere close to last season’s rank (28th). The Ducks’ kids will also be counted on to provide some offense, most notably from rookie Bobby Ryan, who has proved that the AHL is no longer the right league for him. The Ducks’ 197 GF were among the league’s worst but they could boast as many as 3 30-goals scorers this season: Getzlaf, Perry, and Selanne.

The Ducks have arguably the best 1-2 punch on defense in the league. Niedermayer is one of the most decorated defenseman of all-time, and Chris Pronger is an annual contender for the Norris. With Niedermayer back it means a potential bounce-back season from Francois Beauchemin (just 2 goals last year), his long-time defensive partner in Anaheim, and allows Pronger to move back to a much-delighted Sean O’Donnell as the shut-down pair. The main intrigue, however, lies on the third pairing. Kent Huskins is the favourite for the fifth spot, but the sixth spot remains up for grabs, and while Steve Montador has more NHL experience, rookies Brendan Mikkelson, Brian Salcido, and Brett Festerling will all figure into the mix. All three are coming off very impressive AHL campaigns, although with the Ducks’ hard-hitting style Mikkelson (6’2″, 205) has the edge.

J-S Giguere has his fair share of doubters, after being pegged as a “big pad” goalie. However, even with the pad restrictions he has backstopped the Ducks to consecutive playoff appearances while posting 3 straight 30+ win seasons. Backup Jonas Hiller is more than capable, and perhaps could find himself as a starting goalie elsewhere, but for now expect him to play anywhere from 25-30 games, giving Giguere some much-needed rest for the playoffs.

Selanne has yet to sign, but reports from Finland says he will. Mathieu Schneider will be moved in order to accomodate him, but that still won’t be enough, which possibly means that the fleet-footed Todd Marchant may be going out the door, along with his $2.65m salary. Marchant’s limited offensive upside despite his good skating have rendered him as a fourth line centre behind Samuel Pahlsson, and at that price tag he’s simply too expensive. The Ducks have at least 3 kids (Petteri Wirtanen, Andrew Ebbett, and Ryan Carter) and Joakim Lindstrom waiting in the wings to take his spot. Logan MacMillan, who signed with the Ducks this summer after 3 seasons with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, is a long-shot to make the squad.

One of the x-factors to Anaheim’s success is Chris Kunitz. Like Penner, Kunitz exploded onto the hockey radar in the playoffs, whose hard-nosed play despite his rather small stature (he stands only 6’0″) was applauded by all. However, after being named alternate captain, Kunitz has developed a propensity to disappear for stretches, especially if he’s not on Getzlaf and Perry’s line. Some of that can be attributed to coach Randy Carlyle‘s line-juggling, but the Ducks need more out of the left winger, whose production slipped from 60 to 50 points. The third defensive pairing must also hold together, even though Pronger and Niedermayer can log over 50 minutes a night combined.

Projected Lineup:
Chris Kunitz – Ryan Getzlaf – Corey Perry
Andrew Miller – Brendan Morrison – Teemu Selanne
Travis Moen – Samuel Pahlsson – Rob Niedermayer
Brian Sutherby – Todd Marchant – Bobby Ryan

Scott Niedermayer – Francois Beauchemin
Sean O’Donnell – Chris Pronger
Kent Huskins – Steve Montador

J-S Giguere – Jonas Hiller

scratches: George Parros, Brad May, Ryan Carter

Head Coach: Randy Carlyle
GM: Brian Burke

Projected finish: 2nd Pacific, 4th West

Catch Me If You Can

 Nashville Predators, NHL  Comments Off on Catch Me If You Can
Sep 032008

Alexander Radulov took the money and bolted, enjoying a much lucrative contract from Ufa while the NHL, KHL, and IIHF attempted to sort out the mess. The Predators, who own Radulov’s rights, announced yesterday that they have suspended their young winger indefinitely without pay (not that it really bothers him any).

Radulov’s sudden departure left a sour taste in the NHL and Nashville’s mouths and have cried foul over Alexander Medvedev‘s dealings, but once again the IIHF lacks any real teeth in either league and the KHL doesn’t feel pressure to return Radulov to the NHL, where he has one year remaining on his contract.

It was reported that Medvedev had offered the NHL $250k as compensation for losing Radulov, the same amount that the NHL used to pay the RSL for players, but Gary Bettman and Bill Daly apparently scoffed at the deal. Ufa and the KHL don’t feel pressured to return Radulov to the NHL. As a league they face no real consequences, and it’s only Radulov who has suffered, being suspended from international competitions sanctioned by the IIHF. The IIHF cannot penalize Ufa or the KHL.

It seems as though Medvedev won this round. But what about in the future? Lyle Richardson, aka “Spector,” has noted that it does set a precedent for all future international player movements, as well as potential consequences for fledgling Russian league. Medvedev may have won this little battle, but in the long run, who wins? It’s interesting that it is Medvedev, not the NHL, that is pushing harder for a transfer agreement. Not only have they “stole” a NHL player, but is also asking the IIHF to side with them on the matter while pushing for a new transfer agreement. Talk about conflict of interest.

Even if the IIHF sides with the NHL (which I think they will), the KHL has every right to ignore its ruling. However, I don’t think Medvedev is stupid enough to do that. He should realize that if he ignores the IIHF’s ruling, it would be close to impossible to broker a new transfer agreement. No one wants to do business with a guy who will pull the carpet out from under you.

However, should the IIHF side with the KHL, it means that we should see more players jumping ship – the borderline NHLers, the aging European veteran, or more importantly, the occasional big name. This doesn’t only apply to Russians, but all Europeans. Many Swedish players have been noted to have a desire to finish their playing careers back home, and the Radulov precedent could mean that these players could jump ship, with year(s) remaining on their NHL contracts, and go home to finish their careers. However, keep in mind that the KHL is the only league that can offer NHL-type salaries. The average salary in the SEL, according to 2001-02 estimates, is about $100k/year. Top flight players may get anywhere from 250k to 300k/year.

Whatever may be the case, the NHL is still the best hockey league in the world and Radulov just jumped ship for a quick fix. Needless to say, I don’t think he’ll be back in the NHL anytime soon, and even if he does, it most definitely won’t be in a Predator uniform.