Oct 062008
 

Today the Leafs placed Mark Bell on waivers and also announced that rookie defenseman Luke Schenn will start the season with the Leafs and will be reevaluated around the end of October to determine whether they want to keep him around for the full season or send him back to Junior. The decision is likely to be a tough one made tougher by the fact that the Leafs are deep on defense.

Mark Bell came to the Leafs as a part of the Vesa Toskala trade and did relatively little in his time with the Leafs last season and seemingly managed to do even less this preseason. With the additions of Jamal Mayers and Ryan Hollweg, Mark Bell and his $2 million salary just aren’t necessary.

Predicting what the Leafs will do and where in the standings they will end up is exceptionally difficult because it is highly likely that several of the players currently on the team won’t finish the season with the Leafs and with all the new players and a new coach you just don’t know how the players will mesh together. Generally forecasters believe the Leafs will be more sound defensively this season with Ron Wilson as coach but will struggle mightily to score goals without very much top end talent among the group of forwards. The forecasters may be right in the Leafs not having much top end talent but that doesn’t mean they will automatically be among the worst offensive teams in the league. Nor does not scoring necessarily mean they will be a bad team.

The Leafs were 11th in scoring last season with their top 10 point producers being Sundin, Antropov, Kaberle, Blake, Steen, Kubina, Ponikarovsky, Tucker, Stajan and McCabe. Of those 10 players, 7 are retuning this season. Sundin, Tucker and McCabe are not. Tucker’s 18 goals and 34 points will be more than made up by Niklas Hagman who had 27 goals and 41 points last year and has looked very good in the pre-season. McCabe only played 54 games last year and generally didn’t play that well compared to previous seasons scoring only 5 goals and 23 points. There is no reason not to believe that Jeff Finger (8 goals, 19 points) and/or a healthy Colaiacovo can make up much of that difference.

The big loss is Mats Sundin so unless Grabovsky can really exceed expectations you can assume that the Leafs offensive performance will drop. If the Leafs score 10% fewer goals this year they will end up with 205 goals, equal to that of the NY Rangers last year and ahead of the Devils and Ducks, all three of whom were playoff teams.

Speaking of Grabovsky, I think Leaf fans should be cautiously optimistic knowing that he scored 5 goals in the preseason and looked better and better every game out. He and Hagman looked to be developing some good chemistry as training camp went on. I am also encouraged by how well Jason Blake performed on a line with Antropov and Ponikarovsky and believe that he might improve on his 15 goals of a season ago and get back to the 25 goal guy he has been much of his career.

In short, I am cautiously optimistic that the Leafs offense, while unspectacular, will be decent enough. What Leaf fans need to watch for is their goaltending and defense. Most hockey analysts seem to believe that Vesa Toskala is a top tier goalie and that goaltending will be the least of the Leafs problems. I am not so sure. While Toskala looked good last year his numbers were still fairly unspectacular. His .904 save percentage was only good for 32nd in the league just behind Cam Ward and just ahead of Peter Budaj. Neither of those two goalies are anything to get excited about either. Beyond Toskala we have Curtis Joseph who was just OK in 9 games, just 5 starts, with Calgary last year after being pretty awful in Phoenix the year before. In his pre-season appearances he showed nothing to indicate that he has anything left in his tank or that he will be all that much better than the downright horrible Andrew Raycroft (.876 save percentage) last year.

On defense I am more optimistic that the Leafs will be an improved team not only because I think Ron Wilson is a better coach than Paul Maurice and will get the Leafs to play a smarter team game and defensive style, but because I think the Leafs will have a better mix of offensive and defensive minded defensemen. Added to the Leafs defense crew are defense first players such as Jeff Finger and Jonas Frogren as well as Luke Schenn should he stick around for the season. Van Ryn isn’t too bad defensively either. All these factors, plus guys like Hagman and Mayers, should mean the Leafs should have a much improved penalty kill which was dead last in the NHL last year.

All things considered, there are definitely some positives for Leafs fans this upcoming season and I think the Leafs could surprise many of the doom and gloom forecasters. The keys to watch for are whether Toskala can pick up his game a bit more, whether forwards like Grabovsky, Steen and others can provide consistent offense, and most importantly, do the Leafs buy into Wilson’s defensive game and does that in turn improve their penalty kill measurably.

The other person to watch this season is Cliff Fletcher as I believe that several of the current Leafs will not be on this team come next summer. Likely candidates for trade are Mike Van Ryn, Nik Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Vesa Toskala, Ian White, and possibly Tomas Kaberle if the deal is right and Kaberle waives his no trade clause. If and when those trades are made will have a dramatic effect on where the Leafs might end up in the standings.

Oct 062008
 

The Penguins are living proof that patience pays off. Bite the lip, play through 82 games knowing that you won’t get a sniff of the playoffs, and hope that your drafting holds up. It was just four years ago when the Penguins won the draft lottery and unsurprisingly took Sidney Crosby with their first pick. Just a year later they took another highly-touted player in Evgeni Malkin. Neither still able to grow much facial hair, the young duo have already managed to reach the finals, and although the result was not what they had in mind, it’s a sign of many great seasons to come. Penguins fans, be patient, the big one will come back to Steeltown soon.

Having Malkin and Crosby is reason enough for the Pens to stay competitive every year. The two forwards are amongst the top ten of the league and not enough can be said to justify how talented and skilled these two stars are. Malkin, the better scorer of the two, really proved that he can carry a team on his shoulders, while Crosby, the playmaker, proved that he was the right choice as the Penguins’ new captain – calm, collected, skilled, and more importantly, mature. It wasn’t too long ago Crosby took jabs from hockey pundits and players alike for diving and whining, but remember that Wayne Gretzky wasn’t too different when he first broke into the league, and now that Crosby has matured, to along with his great work ethic, he’s shown that he can really lead this team. Of course, no team can just win alone with their star players. Jordan Staal is becoming one the league’s premier forecheckers, and while playing behind Malkin and Crosby has somewhat limited his offensive role, with the departure of Marian Hossa (which really left a sour taste for everyone in Pittsburgh), look for him to replicate his rookie season scoring success. Losing Hossa and Ryan Malone hurt, especially when Crosby has been lobbying hard for Ray Shero to acquire a scoring winger for him to play with. The Pens’ offense, despite losing Crosby for an extended period, was seventh in the league along with a fourth ranked PP to boot. Even though Malone and Hossa were big pieces of their offense, and newcomers Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan are a clear step below them, don’t expect those numbers to falter. A sign of a superstar is the ability to make their teammates better, and both Malkin and Crosby can do that. Just ask Petr Sykora, who netted whose 63 points last year was the most since 2001. Maxime Talbot has also developed into a strong forechecker, and along with Tyler Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis may provide one of the fastest checking lines in the East. Bill Thomas was also a nice addition to the lineup, whose abrasive play may come in handy with the departure of Georges Laraque.

Losing Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney took a big chunk out of the Penguins’ offense, but this also a blessing in disguise for Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski to show the coaching staff what they can do. Gonchar is one of the league’s most underrated defenseman, and deserves a Norris nomination each year, while Whitney, who had a bit of a disappointing season last year, was looking to bounce back but will remain sidelined with foot surgery and won’t be back until late December. Letang and Goligoski were long buried in the depth charts because of their similarity to Gonchar and Whitney, which mean that stay-at-homes Brooks Orpik, Hal Gill, Mark Eaton, and Rob Scuderi often got the nod ahead of them to form a more balanced six-man group. This will be a fantastic opportunity for them to show the world what they can offer.

Marc-Andre Fleury battled bouts of inconsistency throughout his career until last year. He’s slowly becoming the number one franchise goalie he was drafted to be, and with a trip to the finals he was quickly quieted his critics. Mediocre season in the past have made Fleury no stranger to losing, but that doesn’t mean he liked it, and with a change in pads and technique he’s really valuted the Pens into one of the East’s elite. As long as he can stay healthy, the Pens will remain Cup contenders, even if they don’t have Gonchar or have an elite winger to play alongside Crosby.

The Pens have very little cap space, because of Crosby’s new contract and will have even less next year after Malkin’s extension and new cap number kicks in. However, the Pens can rest easy that both players, along with Fleury, Whitney, and Orpik, will remain in Pittsburgh for many years to come. The Pens sold out 67 consecutive regular season games in Pittsburgh, and with a new arena in place the Penguins have finally found themselves back onto Pennsylvania’s radar.

One of the Pens’ biggest problems last year was it’s PK, which was ranked a mediocre 23rd. Now that Crosby and Malkin have slowly played themselves onto the penalty killing unit, look for that number to improve. No Gonchar is a bit alarming, but with Orpik, Gill, Scuderi (who really played well in the playoffs), and a healthy Eaton it should hold up. Another one of the Pens’ weaknesses was face-offs, which was really exploited by a better Wings team. Staal was the team’s best centreman last year, and even then he was rather average. With Staal moving up to Malkin’s wing, it means that Crosby and Malkin will have to really improve in that face of the game. In key situations the Pens may still opt to have Staal take the face-off, but they’re really hoping that the more offensively talented Crosby and Malkin can do that instead.

Projected lineup:
Miroslav Satan – Sidney Crosby – Petr Sykora
Jordan Staal – Evgeni Malkin – Tyler Kennedy
Pascal Dupuis – Max Talbot – Matt Cooke
Ruslan Fedotenko – Jeff Taffe – Eric Godard

Brooks Orpik – Kris Letang
Hal Gill – Rob Scuderi
Mark Eaton – Alex Goligoski

Marc-Andre Fleury – Dany Sabourin

scratches: Bill Thomas, Darryl Sydor, Kris Beech
injuries: Sergei Gonchar (6 months, dislocated shoulder), Ryan Whitney (6 months, surgery)

Coach: Michel Therrien
GM: Ray Shero

Predicted finish: 2nd Atlantic, 2nd East

Oct 062008
 

Over the summer months I lambasted the Lightning for owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie‘s handling of the team, and the hiring of Barry Melrose, amongst other things.

On the Lightning’s official website, Melrose was advertised as the “Coach to Ignite Us.” Okay, I’ll bite, a coach who hasn’t been in the league in a decade could provide a new voice, direction, and more importantly, a breath of fresh air. However, after two straight losses against the Rangers to open the season, Melrose didn’t hold anything back:

“I hope our guys were embarrassed by that second period.”

Sound a little familiar? John Tortorella may be gone, but it seems like Tampa’s players aren’t going to safe from public criticism anytime soon. Melrose may get a point because he didn’t mention anyone in particular, but it’s obvious that he’s pointing towards new captain Vincent Lecavalier and veterans Martin St. Louis and Ryan Malone. That’s fine, but here’s the kicker:

“I’m sure our ownership and management were [embarrassed].”

Seriously, Melrose? By making comments like those it really shows you how much ownership is in control of this team. Since Jay Feaster‘s departure, which was less than amicable, the Lightning have actually never officially named a new general manager, although it is assumed that former player agent Brian Lawton has taken over in that capacity, but remains Koules and Barrie’s puppet.

A lot of people are rooting for the Bolts to fail for various reasons. Count me in that bandwagon.

EDIT: And a shake-up follows. The Bolts deal Michel Ouellet and Shane O’Brien to the Canucks for prospect Juraj Simek and Lukas Krajicek. The Lightning get rid of one of their excess forwards and a replaceable defenseman with the under-performing Krajicek, who will be considered a “veteran” on a young Lightning blueline.

Oct 052008
 

The Desert Dogs of old were a complete joke. A complete country club team that didn’t hold any high regards in proper team building or hiring the right personnel. Now that there’s a new management in place, the Coyotes have made strides and have really become one of the West’s dark horses.

Bringing in Olli Jokinen was huge. The big centre, despite apparent locker room problems, brings an extra dynamic to the Coyotes’ gritty offense, and for the first time in a long time Shane Doan has a legitimate centre to play with. That’s not to saw that Peter Mueller, Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, or Martin Hanzal don’t have the talent, it’s just that they’re not quite there yet, and allowing them to really play with the truly underrated Doan and an elite centre in Jokinen will help them make big strides. The top six is well-rounded and talented, especially if Turris delivers, after much hype at the draft and being personally touted by Wayne Gretzky as one of the league’s future stars. After the team’s top six, however, it gets interesting. Dan Carcillo is really establishing himself as the league’s next Sean Avery without the comments, and it’ll be interesting to see when the division rivals match-up. Carcillo has good hands, as evidenced by his 13 goals, and plays a game that is actually quite similar to Doan’s. Needless to say, you can never have too many of those kind of players and Carcillo will be staying in the desert for quite some time. Then there’s Steven Reinprecht, the veteran who has somewhat faded into obscurity, but still provides a strong veteran presence. Then there’s the two new additions, Todd Fedoruk and Brian McGrattan. Traditionally most teams have carried only one or two enforcers, but the Coyotes felt that they needed more than what would’ve sufficed, and it remains to be seen if this is a good move or not. Neither player can provide regular minutes like Carcillo, and the Coyotes have hinted towards both players dressing for Opening Night.

Losing Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton hurt, but it’s nothing the Coyotes can’t overcome. Ed Jovanovski had a bounce-back season and is looking like the player the Coyotes committed $6.5m/year to. Derek Morris provides yet another veteran presence, and his increasing consistency made Boynton expendable, while Zbynek Michalek has also become another dependable body, averaging just over 21 minutes in ice-time last year. However, perhaps the most valuable player on their blue line could very well be the underrated Kurt Sauer. The former Av doesn’t do anything special, and his offensive game is close to non-existent, but he does use his 6’4″, 220 lbs. frame to great use and is as dependable a stay-at-home as any in the league. He won’t be expected to become a gamebreaker, but count on Gretzky to use him when protecting leads – the Coyotes posted only a .818 winning percentage when leading after 2 periods – a mediocre 22nd in the league.

Goaltending has always been a problem, but it won’t anymore with Ilya Bryzgalov on board for a full season. The Russian netminder is now a NHL starter, after playing second fiddle to Jean-Sebastien Giguere for some time in Anaheim. There’s nothing to worry about in this department.

Believe it or not, the Coyotes have tons of cap space. This is because asides from Jokinen and Jovanovski’s big contracts, and then Doan and Morris’ mid-level ones, everyone else is either on a rookie contract or sub-million contract. Don Maloney’s new philosophy is to not splurge on potential free agent busts, but to really build from within, and the Coyotes have done a great job in drafting over the past couple of years to keep their pipeline healthy and stocked. They could potentially make a run at a playoff spot and surprise some in the playoffs, and should that scenario be likely Maloney has tons of money to work with to land a big name player.

Projected lineup:
Shane Doan – Olli Jokinen – Peter Mueller
Dan Carcillo – Kyle Turris – Enver Lisin
Steven Reinprecht – Martin Hanzal – Mikkel Boedker
Todd Fedoruk – Dan Winnik – Joel Perrault

Zbynek Michalek – Ed Jovanovski
Kurt Sauer – Derek Morris
Keith Yandle – Matt Jones

Ilya Bryzgalov – Mikael Tellqvist

scratches: Brian McGrattan, Viktor Tikhonov, David Hale

Coach: Wayne Gretzky
GM: Don Maloney

Predicted finish: 4th Pacific, 8th West

Oct 042008
 

- Mike Smith proved that he can handle the load. And it also proved that the Lightning need more time to gel together, after their choppy game. Speaking of turnovers, Andrej Meszaros played one of his more subpar games. I still question whether or not he deserves the ‘A’. The Lightning couldn’t get anything going, and none of the lines other than the top line showed any real chemistry. If it wasn’t for Smith the game could’ve been a blowout had the Rangers not been so rusty.

- The Rangers’ top line looks good, but the second line, other than Brandon Dubinsky, were relatively soft. Nigel Dawes was caught standing too still on the powerplay and failed to really connect on any of his passes, and Nikolai Zherdev once again showed that he has the talent but he’s never really quite “there.”

- From what I saw, Janne Niskala could be a major gamebreaker for the Lightning this year. He’s got great poise with the puck, good patience, and like Marc Crawford said (who provided a good commentary), 19 goals in the AHL is quite something.

- I noted in the Rangers’ preview that they need to work on their powerplay. And they still do. Even with Paul Mara‘s rocket shot and the addition of Wade Redden, their powerplay was still an abysmal 1-7. The Lightning took a lot of dumb penalties and were often caught hooking and tripping when a much smoother Rangers team controlled the tempo. The Bolts have some work to do.

- Steve Stamkos looked great. He didn’t figure in the scoresheet and played only a little over 8 minutes, but he made a key defensive stop on Naslund and showed off some great speed. He could’ve had a goal but a rolling puck was quickly snatched by Henrik Lundqvist, who had a relatively quiet game.

- Matt Carle led all skaters with 29 minutes. He sure didn’t look like a guy who deserved 29 minutes out there. Look for Barry Melrose to use him a lot, and judging from the shift charts and ice times Melrose doesn’t give too much work to his bottom feeders.

- Martin Gerber wasn’t as sharp as the Sens would’ve liked, but they were outplayed in two periods by a better Penguins squad. The Sens were caught way too flat-footed and had Sergei Gonchar or Ryan Whitney been healthy the Pens wouldn’t have struck out 7 times on the powerplay.

- The Sens’ penalties means they played much of the first period with Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza on the bench. A couple of months ago, I posted that Henrik Zetterberg is a better player than Alexander Ovechkin because Zetterberg is the more complete player. He is talented enough to play in all situations of the game, a sign of a true superstar. The Pens started to deploy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on their PK, and it showed. The Sens then followed suit on a shorthanded marker by Spezza. No team will ever win the Stanley Cup if their best players can’t play in all situations of the game.

- The HNIC crew, especially Mike Milbury, say that Spezza needs to stop showboating and being too fancy if he wants to be a truly elite player. While this is true, some players just have to be that flashy. They’re good enough to pull off their moves, but if you restrain them you really take away that aspect of their game. I think that’s what happened with Jacques Martin and Spezza. Some players, you just have to turn them loose. Turnovers will be a key aspect of their game, but don’t let the opponent dictate what weapons you employ.

- The stadiums were awfully quiet. Reports say sold-out crowds, but the game in Stockholm looked liked the fans totaled less than a thousand. Definitely not a regular season opener atmosphere, and it really showed for the Sens and Lightning, both of whom were the designated home teams.

Oct 042008
 

“Back With A Vengeance.” That’s what the Flyers’ official website promised and the Flyers certainly delivered. One year after finish in the league cellar the Flyers came back with a vengeance, advancing to the third round. The team made a complete turnaround from their god-awful season, and the Flyers are going to prove this season that it was no fluke.

The Flyers are big, mean, and talented. But their biggest strength? Balance. The Flyers boasted 7 20+ goal scorers last year, which lead the league. They had 3 players with at least 70 points, and 3 more with at least 50. And all that, doesn’t include the oft-injured Simon Gagne. The sniper missed almost all of last season with concussion-like symptoms, and should he return, he gives the Flyers an even more dynamic offense, especially if paired with slick centre Daniel Briere. Jeff Carter (29 goals), Mike Knuble (29 goals), and Joffrey Lupul (20 goals) provide some good scoring depth, but perhaps no other forward is as crucial to the Flyers’ success as future captain Mike Richards. The third year pro broke out last with 75 points, and led all Flyers forwards with 21:30 ATOI per game, also amongst one of the best in the league. His strong two-way player is unrivaled by any player at his age, and after signing a long extension with the Flyers he will be the centerpiece for future Flyers squads. Richards can play in all situations of the game, and excels in all aspects. The Flyers have loaded their offense with players who can play with a chip on their shoulder, and as a result it’s very reminiscent of the old Broad Street Bullies lore. While they’re not as intimidating as the legendary Bullies, the current squad had no less than 8 players with at least 60 PIMs, and that’s not including the recently acquired Arron Asham. This area is one of the Flyers’ greatest strengths, and may perhaps boast the best core offense in the league, as evidenced last year by their 2nd ranked powerplay and 6th ranked offense. Don’t expect those numbers to dip, and should Gagne return they could find themselves tops in both categories.

While the Flyers have also preferred their defensemen to be more the stay-at-home type, with Kimmo Timonen as their new top defenseman that will certainly change, and it showed last year with a dangerous powerplay. The new NHL has made former stalwarts like Derian Hatcher obsolete, due to their poor skating, which has really opened it up for players like Ryan Parent and Randy Jones to really showcase their skills. That’s also not to say that the Flyers are soft – Braydon Coburn, Ossi Vaananen, and Lasse Kukkonen can all step up their physical play if need be. Coburn, acquired in the Alexei Zhitnik trade from Atlanta, is really starting to develop into the defenseman many thought he would be, scoring 36 points and averaging over 21 minutes of ice-time per night. With no other all-star than Timonen, this may be the weakest part of the Flyers’ lineup, but Kukkonen and Coburn are two of the most underrated defensemen in the league, and may surprise a few. The defense was ranked 18th in the league last year, and the number may not improve much without another key addition, but with the type of scoring the Flyers boast it should be do just fine.

Martin Biron, a long-time backup, really got the opportunity to showcase his talents, and while he did battle some consistency issues during the season, he has really taken advantage of it and proven to management that their search for a number one goalie is over. Key wins in game 7 against Washington and game 5 against Montreal has him in the hearts of many a Flyers fans. Backed up by Antero Niittymaki, who is finally healthy, the Flyers have a good tandem – good enough to challenge for the division title.

The Flyers, after handing out rich contracts to Briere, Timonen, Richards, Carter, and Hartnell, will be tight against the cap this year and years to come. The Flyers don’t really have any glaring holes, which means they’ll once again be a Cup contender, and don’t expect Paul Holmgren to make any surprising moves.

Projected lineup:
Simon Gagne – Daniel Briere – Mike Knuble
Scott Hartnell – Mike Richards – Joffrey Lupul
Scottie Upshall – Jeff Carter – Arron Asham
Riley Cote – Glen Metropolit – Steve Downie

Kimmo Timonen – Braydon Coburn
Derian Hatcher – Randy Jones
Ossi Vaananen – Ryan Parent

Martin Biron – Antero Niittymaki

scratches: Jim Dowd, Steve Eminger, Dan Syvret

Coach: John Stevens
GM: Paul Holmgren

Predicted finish: 2nd Atlantic, 4th East

Ottawa Senators

 Ottawa Senators  Comments Off
Oct 032008
 

No other team in the NHL teeters as much as the Sens on being a Cup contender or just merely a playoff contender. The Sens are talented, but asides from their top players the rest of the roster looks rather average, and once again, because they failed to add some much needed scoring depth, will have to rely on their Big Three. With new coach Craig Hartsburg behind the bench, the Sens will be looking to establish an identity after a monumental collapse last season with John Paddock and the Ray Emery debacle. The Sens are one year removed from being swept in the first round, and two years removed from being Eastern Conference champs. It’s unlikely that either will happen this year, but what will happen is a big mystery.

The Sens have been searching for offensive depth for years. They failed to do that once again this summer, being able to land agitator Jarkko Ruutu after trade deadline acquisition Cory Stillman left for sunny Florida. There weren’t enough quality free agents the tight-pocketed Bryan Murray chose to splurge on, and as a result the Sens forwards corps returns relatively unchanged. The only new face that could make a significant impact is Jesse Winchester, who was signed late last year after 4 strong seasons at Colgate University. The 25-year old, 6’1″, 200 lbs., centre is expected to get a long look at the top line with Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley. The Sens, trying to balance out their scoring, will have Daniel Alfredsson on the second line with the versatile Mike Fisher and speedy Antoine Vermette. By all accounts Winchester has been only slightly above average with Spezza and Heatley, but the Sens’ coaching staff is confident that he will be able to stick, unlike Brandon Bochenski a couple of years ago. If it doesn’t hold, and history is going against Winchester, Hartsburg will have no choice but to re-unite the Big Three, and hope that Fisher and Vermette can take over second-line duties. After all, Fisher and Vermette did combine for a solid 100 points in 160 games. Chris Kelly, centering the third line, will be expected to chip in as well, while the hard-hitting Chris Neil and Nick Foligno will once again provide some sandpaper and jam. If all else fails, the Sens have a pretty good group of youngsters waiting in the wings in Binghamton, including Europeans Ilja Zubov and Alexander Nikluin, as well as AHL All-Star Josh Hennessey. The offense finished first overall in the league last year, and it’s difficult to see the Sens finish any lower than fifth in that category. Even strength wise, with Spezza’s playmaking ability and Heatley’s shooting, it’s hard to see any other duo in the league be on the same wavelength as those two. Surprisngly, however, the Sens’ powerplay was a rather pedestrian twelfth, and perhaps Hartsburg can implement a new system to improve in that regard.

Say what you want about Wade Redden, about his inconsistency and turnovers, but the fact of the matter is, losing him hurt the Sens. He hasn’t been quite the same since Zdeno Chara‘s departure, but the Sens wouldn’t budge from their $3.5m figure and with Redden’s departure it means that Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov are the de facto top pairing. It’s a little worrisome, because although Phillips and Volchenkov are tops defensively, there’s not much going on in terms of offense – the two defensive stalwarts combined for only 33 points. By comparison, Redden had 38 in a disappointing year, and the recently departed Andrej Meszaros had 36. Jason Smith once again brings another stabilizing presence, but his offensive game is even more limited, which means that the puck-moving duties will solely be placed on the shoulders of Filip Kuba, acquired in the Meszaros trade, and rookie Brian Lee, the Sens’ first round pick in 2005. Lee showed promise in his short Sens’ stint last year, and the Sens might have to throw him into the fire. Kuba was Tampa’s powerplay quarterback last year, averaging close to four minutes of powerplay time per game, but managed to only score 6 goals, and only 2 on the powerplay. Without a true powerplay quarterback the Sens will be hard-pressed to ice a powerplay as lethal as their even strength offense, as strange as that might sound, but the upshot is that the Sens could potentially ice a powerplay with 5 forwards, something Edmonton had experimented with last year.

Martin Gerber enters the season without having to look over his shoulder, and seems ready to take on the challenge, complete with a newly painted mask. The much maligned goalie has often been booed, but played well enough last year down the stretch to quiet some critics and show that he does have the skill set to be a regular number one goalie. Inconsistency has eluded him, which has fueled rumours of a Gerber-Nikolai Khabibulin swap, but with Alex Auld pushing him should help Gerber focus. The Sens’ defense was a weak 24th, but a lot of it had to do with injuries, mainly Volchenkov, but also inconsistent goaltending. It’s PK wasn’t much better at 22nd, but with Hartsburg behind the bench, expect the Sens to be held more accountable and improve in both categories.

The Sens are 4m away from the cap ceiling, and that may be as high as they’re willing to go to start the season. That leaves ample room for emergencies or acquiring extra depth if they wish to do so. Once the season gets underway, and as the rosters start to really shape up, the Sens may wish to pursue better players via trade. The Sens, behind a dedicated owner in Eugene Melnyk, are prepared to do whatever it takes to bring the Cup to the nation’s capital.

Projected lineup:
Dany Heatley – Jason Spezza – Jesse Winchester
Antoine Vermette – Mike Fisher – Daniel Alfredsson
Nick Foligno – Chris Kelly – Chris Neil
Jarkko Ruutu – Dean McAmmond – Shean Donovan

Anton Volchenkov – Chris Phillips
Filip Kuba – Jason Smith
Christoph Schubert – Brian Lee

Martin Gerber – Alex Auld

scratches: Cody Bass, Alexandre Picard

Coach: Craig Hartsburg
GM: Bryan Murray

Predicted finish: 2nd Northeast, 7th East

Oct 022008
 

Much ado has been made about the Canucks making Roberto Luongo their captain. The move was very surprising, considering goalies are not allowed to wear the traditional ‘C’ on their jersey and there hasn’t been a goalie captain since Bill Durnan in the 1940s. One of the reasons it became illegal was because of the inefficiency of being both a captain and a goalie. Captains are designated by their respective teams to provide an on-ice voice for the team with the refs, and because the game is so fluid and the refs are constantly moving, it made it very difficult for goalies to talk to them, in part because of the very small area on the ice the goalie patrols. They can’t wander the length of the ice as most players do, and if the referee was at the other end of the rink it would be impossible to talk to them, since goalies cannot cross the red line.

I can’t help but think this move by the Canucks is a ploy to show Luongo that this is his team. Willie Mitchell has been named as the guy who would talk to the refs on a nightly basis, but the Canucks still elected to give Mitchell an ‘A’, even though he would be fulfilling the traditional duties of a player wearing the ‘C’. It goes without question that this is Luongo’s team – no one else in the league is as crucial to their team’s success as Luongo. By officially naming him captain is a mere formality that really doesn’t carry much substance, other than re-affirm the fact that Vancouver wants Luongo to stay, and will do anything to please him and accomodate his needs. But it also means that no one in the Vancouver locker room has really stepped into the captain’s void left by Markus Naslund, which has led to a committee of three players wearing A’s on a nightly basis: Mitchell, Ryan Kesler, and Mattias Ohlund.

Perhaps at the end of the day the letters don’t quite mean anything – Mitchell will talk to the refs and Luongo continues to stop the pucks. The world keeps spinning.

EDIT: The Lightning have named Martin St. Louis and, surprisingly, Andrej Meszaros as their alternate captains for this year. The Rangers have yet to name a captain, although all signs point towards Chris Drury and Mike Richards is the front-runner in Philadelphia. The Wild and Sabres are expected to continue their rotating captaincy. The Panthers, Kings, Thrashers, and Leafs have yet to name their captains for the upcoming season.

EDIT #2: The Rangers have officially named Drury their captain, while Markus Naslund and Scott Gomez will serve as the alternates. May I also add that all three players may potentially play on the same line?

Oct 022008
 

The first season of the new CBA saw the once high-spending Rangers build their team from within, and for once the new Rangers squad, under the meticulous Tom Renney, were bringing them back to respectability. Little did everyone know that this strategy would be shortlived, as the Rangers splurged on the market the following year, signing Scott Gomez and Chris Drury to multi-million, multi-year deals that saw both players take up a total of $14.5m combined. It remains to be seen if the Rangers’ two centres can build on their disappointing Blueshirt debut, and if the Rangers’ big spending this year, Wade Redden, will find more success than his last couple of seasons in Ottawa.

Say what you want about Jaromir Jagr, but even in some of his worst games it’s hard to replace his production. Now that Jagr is gone, there is no one on the Rangers’ squad that brings quite the same scoring pedigree as Jagr. Nikolai Zherdev comes close, but the enigmatic winger has a tendency to disappear for stretches and Markus Naslund hasn’t had the same wrist shot after wrist surgery. Gomez and Drury will have to return to their pre-Ranger forms and earn their paycheques, or face the wrath of a fickle Manhattan crowd. Perhaps the two forwards that can make the most difference in the Ranger lineup this year are second years Nigel Dawes and Brandon Dubinsky. Dawes, a marginal player on the fabled North Dakota Canadian World Junior squad, slowly played himself onto the team and has become one of the Rangers’ fastest weapons, while Dubinsky, who really clicked with Jagr near the end of the season, is looking to build on his 40-point rookie season in which he appeared in all 82 games, itself an already impressive feat. Perhaps another body that the Rangers will miss is Sean Avery‘s. The no-holds barred player whose antics caused multiple frustrations for the other team, but when Glen Sather didn’t budge, even though the Rangers had a much better record with Avery in the lineup than without. Aaron Voros and Pat Rissmiller were signed to vacate his spot, but neither players brings as much agitating or scoring ability to the team. Petr Prucha is also expected to rebound, after posing a paltry 17 points after back to back 40+ point seasons. The Rangers offense is talented, there’s no question about that, but the Rangers are banking an awful lot of their core offense (Drury, Gomez, Naslund, and Zherdev) on 4 players that have had disappointing seasons of sorts last year. It’s a little risky, but perhaps a change of scenery and new wingers might ignite a latent offense (25th overall, 22nd PP last year).

The biggest name coming out of New York these days is Redden. The former Senator hasn’t been the same since Zdeno Chara left, and there was some talk about them re-uniting in Boston, but it was the Rangers, to one’s surprise, that were able to cough up big money ($6.5m) to land him. Time will tell if Redden is really worth the money, after the Sens made it clear he wasn’t going to get a cent over what Chris Phillips ($3.5m) was making. The talent is there, but Redden needs to be more consistent and be more careful with the puck if the Rangers are to be successful. Michal Rozsival returns once again after testing the free agent waters, and both sides are glad to be re-united. With Redden, they could potentially combine to be the best pair in the East, rounded up by the ever-emerging Marc Staal and the steady yet underrated Dmitri Kalinin. Dan Girardi and Paul Mara round out a very good defensive corps (4th overall, 6th PK).

No goalie since Mike Richter has captured the hearts of Rangers fans, but Henrik Lundqvist has just done that. “King Henrik,” as the fans call him, exploded onto the hockey radar and has since then transplanted himself as one of the best goalies in the East. If it wasn’t for Martin Brodeur, the East would be completely under King Henrik’s reign. This is one part of this talented team that Renney doesn’t have to worry about consistency issues. It was the emergence of Lundqvist that allowed the Rangers to cut loose long forgotten prospect Al Montoya, which means that Stephen Valiquette will be back to backup Lundqvist, although it is safe to say Valiquette won’t be seeing much game time.

The Rangers have only about $2m cap room left, but it hasn’t stopped the rumour mill from churning. After the Drury, Gomez, and Redden signings, it looks like the Rangers are back to their free-spending ways, and had been heavily linked to Mats Sundin, which would have culminated in them trading away Gomez. While that rumour has died down, the focus now shifts to Brendan Shanahan, who has been in talks with the Rangers over the summer about a contract, but he has not been invited to training camp yet and with the Rangers’ tight cap they have little room for him, and signing him would mean that an extra body would have to be moved. So far management has shown confidence in Zherdev and Naslund, but still are legitimate question marks and it would not be surprising if Sather starts looking for help if the Rangers have a poor October.

The Rangers are well-rounded in all aspects of the game. They have two solid two-way centres with good playmaking abilities, wingers that can really shoot the puck, a strong PK unit, a well-rounded defense, and an elite goalie. The problem for the Rangers is putting it all together into a winning team.

Projected lineup:
Markus Naslund – Scott Gomez – Chris Drury
Nigel Dawes – Brandon Dubinsky – Nikolai Zherdev
Patrick Rissmiller – Dan Fritsche – Petr Prucha
Aaron Voros – Blair Betts – Ryan Callahan

Michal Rozsival – Wade Redden
Paul Mara – Marc Staal
Dmitri Kalinin – Daniel Girardi

Henrik Lundqvist – Stephen Valiquette

scratches: Colton Orr, Lauri Korpikoski, Fredrik Sjostrom

Coach: Tom Renney
GM: Glen Sather

Predicted finish: 3rd Atlantic, 5th East

Oct 012008
 

It’s hard to find good things to say about the Islanders. Their squad, especially the blueline, was decimated by injuries, but still managed to finish 13th in the conference. One thing you could always count on the Isles to do was work hard, a trademark of former coach Ted Nolan. After disagreeing with management about the direction of the team, Nolan was let go and replaced by Scott Gordon, who led the Providence Bruins to a 55-win season last year, only to be ousted in the second round.

The Isles so-called offense is lead by Mike Comrie, whose 47 points (he did only play in 65 games) led the team, and was one of the lowest point totals posted by a team’s leading scorer. Captain Bill Guerin was only one of two Islanders to post 20+ goals (Comrie being the other with 21), and they’d be hard-pressed to top that. In fact, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Isles finished dead last yet again in the league in offense. The Isles have made it clear that they’re commited to a full youth movement, with veterans Miro Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Josef Vasicek all leaving via free agency. However, Garth Snow saw it fit to sign 37-year old Doug Weight to provide not only veteran leadership and guidance, but also for offense, penciled in as the Isles’ number two centre. It’s a bit of a perplexing move, considering that with Weight in the lineup it leaves one less room for a rookie to make the squad, although the Isles have plenty of spare parts on their bottom two lines. The other key veteran forward on the squad, Mike Sillinger, will once again be counted on to provide a hard-working conscience on the team, as will journeymen Jon Sim, who is once again healthy, and Richard Park. If there’s any bright part of the Isles’ roster, it’d be two players: Kyle Okposo and Trent Hunter. Yes, Trent Hunter. While Hunter hasn’t regained his scoring touch since his rookie season, he’s quickly developed into a hard-hitting, hard-working, two-way player, much like Dustin Brown for the Kings. He’s a future captain of the Isles, and remains integral to any Islanders defense or penalty kill. While Hunter cleans up defensively, it’s Okposo who will provide much of the offensive punch for years to come. Okposo played just a year and a half at the University of Minnesota before the Isles pulled him out and placed him in Bridgeport, where he made the transition well enough to earn a late call-up and impress critics with 5 points in a 9 game stint. Interestingly enough, the only other Nigerian-Caucasian player in the league is none other than Jarome Iginla. After that it’s two former AHL standouts Andy Hilbert and Jeff Tambellini, who have yet to translate their AHL success to the bigs. The Isles are counting on them to provide some much needed offensive depth, and if neither player starts scoring, they made find themselves elsewhere soon.

The Isles defense is mobile, but it’s also incredibly average. While the addition of Mark Streit will help their awful powerplay (29th), Streit won’t be playing with players as talented as the Habs’. Streit will be counted on to provide some direction for a defense that seems to be going nowhere offensively, especially when considering that the Isles’ top three of Radek Martinek, Andy Sutton, and Brendan Witt are all of the stay-at-home type. The three managed to keep this team from having the league’s worst defense (23rd) and surprisingly successful on the PK (19th). It’s a hallmark of a Nolan-coached team, getting a lot out of a little, although that may not be the case anymore, the three veteran defensemen are all quite reliable. With that being said, it will be up to Chris Campoli and Freddy Meyer to round out the top six, and perhaps Bruno Gervais may figure into the mix, but they do bring some balance and puck-moving ability to the Isles’ defense.

Goaltending isn’t a problem… when Rick DiPietro‘s healthy. The 15-year contract man has been plagued by hip injuries over the years, and enters this season with big question marks, after having surgeries on both hips and a string of concussions. Isles fans have always wondered what it would’ve been like had they kept Roberto Luongo, but DiPietro is more than capable, posting one of the league’s best stats before the All-Star break (2.57, .911). If DiPietro falters, it’ll be 28-year old career minor leaguer Joey MacDonald who takes over, with just 17 games of NHL experience and had a losing record with Bridgeport the year before. Like many of the re-building teams in the league, the Isles have a decent goaltender in net, the problem is just putting the puck in the net. DiPietro can only bail the team out of one goal games (the Isles won 23 out of 40 in one-goal games) for so long before the house of cards starts to crumble.

Which version of the Isles will we see this year? Granted, they’re not going anywhere, but after Nolan departed citing “philosophical differences,” the Isles will have a new strategy in place, just when they were about to establish themselves as the league’s best blue collar team. Gordon will not have the same luxuries to work with as he did in Providence, and inherits a team that is deeply in need of an identity and star. DiPietro won’t cut it because of his injury history and the relative lack of success he’s had over the years, although he certainly boasts the right brash attitude. Okposo is now the Isles’ future and a lot rests on his shoulders, as his has made leaps and bounds in his development, putting him atop the depth chart above players like Ben Walter, Frans Nielsen, Blake Comeau, and Jesse Joensuu, although all four are also expected to make a good run at cracking the squad. It’ll be a long road ahead for the Isles, and this season, Okposo’s first full season, is just the beginning. Perhaps the lone bright spot on the team will come at the end when the Isles get the first overall pick.

Projected lineup:
Jeff Tambellini – Mike Comrie – Bill Guerin
Sean Bergenheim – Doug Weight – Kyle Okposo
Andy Hilbert – Mike Sillinger – Trent Hunter
Jon Sim – Frans Nielsen – Richard Park

Brendan Witt – Mark Streit
Andy Sutton – Chris Campoli
Freddy Meyer – Radek Martinek

Rick DiPietro – Joey MacDonald

scratches: Ben Walter, Blake Comeau, Thomas Pock

Coach: Scott Gordon
GM: Garth Snow

Predicted finish: 5th Atlantic, 15th East