Thursday, September 25, 2014

Season Preview: The Best Of The Best

To recap our coverage of the Season Previews, we're going to provide the best of the best that we've seen from each team so far.

Best Offense: The Colorado Avalanche

Best Defense: The St. Louis Blues

Best Goaltending: The Montreal Canadiens

Best Power Play: The Washington Capitals

Best Penalty Kill: The Tampa Bay Lightning

Best Team Toughness: The San Jose Sharks

Best Management: The Los Angeles Kings

Best American Team: The Chicago Blackhawks

Best Canadian Team: The Montreal Canadiens

Season Preview 2014-15: Winnipeg Jets

2014-15 Season Previews: Winnipeg Jets

Since we didn't say it the first time around, welcome back to the NHL, Winnipeg!

Team M.O.: 15 years after the NHL left Winnipeg for the sunnier skies of Arizona, the troubled Atlanta Thrashers went back to Winnipeg and rechristened themselves as the Jets (ironically, this would be the second time a team from Atlanta would relocate to Canada, as the former Atlanta Flames are now known as the Calgary Flames.) Yet while the team may have moved to a market that could better support them, they've managed to bring their losing ways with them.

Last Season: The team finished with a record of 37-35-10 and failed to qualify for the playoffs. Not only have the failed to qualify for the playoffs during their past three seasons in Winnipeg, but the franchise hasn't qualified for the playoffs since the 2007-08 season, where the Atlanta Thrashers finished atop of the former Southeast Division. Though they had a better travel schedule this past season than they had before the realignment, that all but assured they would face better competition then they faced as members of the old division.

Offense: Though there's a few new faces, this corps more or less resembles who the team relied on during their Trasher days. There also seems to be a particular lack of diversity (as far as roles are concerns) in the scoring lines.

Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane, and Dustin Byfuglien (who appears as if he'll be used as a forward going forward) could each fill a power forward role on many other team in the league. While Kane's stock is on the rise, Ladd and Byfuglien would be better suited for second-line or special team duties as opposed to being solely first line options. In Wheeler's case, he may not be a point-per-game player, but he also doesn't have true first line talent to work with either. Don't get it wrong, Bryan Little's done well for the club while Mark Scheifele (the first non-Thrasher we've covered so far) did well in his first full season in the NHL. But while the team's tried to do what it can to be patient as the team grows, a veteran player with a better history of being a leader (not one named Olli Jokinen) probably should've been traded for some time ago instead of seeing the team be in love with it.

The team did manager to acquire Mathieu Perreault from the Anaheim Ducks in the off-season to line up on the third unit (and hopefully propel them to 40 points) along with Michael Frolik (who FINALLY broke the 40 point barrier last season.) They may have to do it as a duo with whomever compliments them on the left, because Eric Tangradi and free-agent signing TJ Galliardi may not have the overall ability to be as effective offensively. Jim Slater will center the fourth unit, but injuries and lack of offensive ability essentially limit him to being a faceoff specialist. Chris Thorburn will likely round out the Top 12 forwards, giving the team a decent physical forward who can mix it up. Anthony Peluso should get inserted into contest that will be tougher than usual while Matt Halischuk faces the best changes of rounding out the lineup due to his versatility (but he'll be facing stiff competition in camp after returning on a two-way contract.)

It would be nice to see another Top-9 forward with some offensive ability to capitalize on the team's "score by committee" format that they're going for (largely because scoring from the checking unit appears as if it will be hard to come by.) Otherwise, the components are mostly there for the Top-9 in terms of talent, but they're going to have to out-work everyone on a nightly basis to be effective due to seeming lack of versatility in roles (most notably on the Top-6.) The checking unit qualifies for defensive ability, but Jim Slater's injury history (in tandem with the limited production the checking unit projects to output) isn't going to do them any favors offensively.

Grade: C-

Defense: Hope springs eternal as Jacob Trouba has graduated to the big club, providing the team with an effective shutdown defender (at age 20) who'll be able to take on more responsibility as he adapts to the NHL game. Tobias Enstrom has the overall ability to play at any end of the ice, but his overall lack of size (and decent offensive abilities) may make him more ideal as a power-play quarterback. Will Zach Bogosian ever live up to his draft position, or will he remain a second (or even third) pairing player? Paul Postma's calling card in the minors was based on his offensive prowess, but he'll need to rely more on providing a shutdown role if he wishes to stick around with the big-club permanently. Mark Stuart is dominant physically and gives the squad a defenseman who can play with an edge. Grant Clitsome gives the team a puck-moving defenseman who isn't afraid to initiate contact while Adam Pardy will round things out as the team's stay-at-home defender. Keaton Ellerby re-signed in the off-season, but is on a two-way deal and will likely begin the season in the minors.

As a whole, the case could be made that the group of defenders is actually complete. However, there's also a lot of youth, immaturity, and players who may be miscast in their roles. It's not the worst defense out there, but it still needs to collectively gel if they want to intimidate anyone this season.

Grade: C

Goaltending: Though it's usually the easy way out to blame the goaltenders, Ondrej Pavelec has the lowest save percentage of any starting goaltender in the league; his play has come into question as lackadaisical, leading one to wonder how long the Jets will go with him until they consider another option in the crease. Michael Hutchinson is ready to graduate this season to the big club; he's accomplished all he's had to in the minors so the call-up is warranted based on his play. Connor Hellebuyck will spend his first professional season in the minors while Jussi Olkinuora will spend another year trying to hone his craft in the minors after a disappointing campaign in the minors last season.

With that, the only person who's seemingly ready and good for their role is Hutchinson, as the guys in the minors need to remain there while Pavelec hasn't proven to have the mettle necessary to be the team's starting goaltender. Pavelec has to step it up if he doesn't want the Jets to be a punchline this season, much less become a potential buyout candidate over the summer.

Grade: D

Management: The main question around hockey circles is "What exactly does Kevin Cheveldayoff do?" Sure two of his early first-round selections have gone on to join the team, but the squad as a whole still has that "Thrashers stink" to them. It's great that Mark Chipman and the rest of True North Sports and Entertainment have managed to repatriate Winnipeg with the NHL, but are they really in the same boat financially as the Coyotes or the Panthers? Coach Paul Maurice experienced some mid-season success with the squad last year, but most of his success as a mid-season replacement is generally followed up with seasons of playoff-less exits that see him replaced by his successor.

Overall, the management for the Jets aren't that captivating, which seems to have a trickle down effect on the rest of the roster.

Grade: F

Prediction: Out of the playoffs because it's still the Thrashers.

They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over again and expecting the same result. Taking a team that's never known how to win and saying "Okay, go out there and win!" will lead to the same results the team found in Atlanta. It's admirable that the Jets would try to incorporate the pieces provided to them when the squad came to town, but a lot of the ineffectiveness that plagued Atlanta still prevails on the club today.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Season Preview 2014-15: Washington Capitals

2014-15 Season Previews: Washington Capitals

Team M.O.: The current Washington Capitals have been suffering from an identity crisis as of late. Though they found some moderate success as a run-and-gun team under former coach Bruce Boudreau, they've failed under a couple of other systems since his dismissal. It's disappointing when one of the best players in the world isn't being featured in a Stanley Cup Final. It's another thing when the team's missing the playoffs entirely.

Last Season: The team finished with a record of 38-30-14 (90 points), which wasn't good enough to qualify for playoff contention. Owner Ted Leonsis had little choice but to replace former GM George McPhee with his assistant, Brian MacLellan. MacLellan was able to replace former coach Adam Oates with former Nashville Predators mainstay Barry Trotz.

Offense: Though Trotz is known for his defense-first systems, no one wants to see Alex Ovechkin's offense stifled. As long as he and Nicklas Backstrom remain one of the best tandems in hockey, life should be nice for D.C. Further, if Marcus Johansson spends the entire season on the first line, he may have that breakthrough season you'd hope to see out of a first round pick.

The top nine forwards underneath them should prove capable of fashioning a scoring line that can defend and a defensive line that can score (something Trotz should be able to maximize in terms of offensive production.) Joel Ward and Jason Chimera each had career seasons well into their 30's due to their hard work and determination. The playmaking Evgeny Kuznetsov appears ready for second-line duties after defecting from the KHL to the Capitals mid-season last year. Troy Brouwer has been pretty effective as a power forward and properly compliments the team's scoring units. Brooks Laich's absence was felt when he battled injuries last season, but a healthy Laich should provide the team with 40-60 points. Eric Fehr may never match the offensive totals he put up in junior, but he's managed to fill a role as a respectable penalty killer for the team while still flirting with .5 point-per-game production.

The team's checking unit is exactly that. Jay Beagle's a solid faceoff specialist while Tom Wilson's been that physically brutal checking forward who's good at fighting. Wilson in particular is seemingly capable of providing more offense than his limited ice time indicates (hopefully the Caps aren't jeopardizing his development by bringing him into the league too early.) Aaron Volpatti provides the team with an energetic (if unspectacular) defensive forward .

The team seems to have a spot available at forward (assuming they carry eight defensemen.) Michael Latta and Casey Wellman would probably be the two closest candidates from within. It would be intriguing to see if the team went after another fighter, but their offensive corps (even with 13 forwards) still looks pretty impressive.

Grade: A-

Defense: The defense saw a few new faces come aboard this season. Problem is, one notable face appears on the way out, and the upgrades may be considered "overpaid."

It should be considered a foregone conclusion that Mike Green will leave the team after this season. Sure he could stand to remain with the team for the same salary he commands now, but there may be other teams that could better utilize him as well. Of course, the Capitals may just be high on John Carlson's ability to take the next step and become the team's go-to-guy in any game situation. The team acquired Matt Niskanen through free agency and paid him rather handsomely for one solid season; he'll need to give that type of performance (or better) from here on in if he doesn't want to be considered a bust. Brooks Orpik is a decent tough defensemen, but $5.5 Million for 5 years?! For A 34 Year Old Player With NO History Of Offensive Production?!?! Wow, I've got a question for Leonsis and MacLellan...

Moving on, Karl Alzner has seemed to settle in a defensive role for the club while Dmitry Orlov can bide his time as a puck-moving defender until he's ready for tougher assignments. John Erskine gives the squad a physical defenseman who probably won't do more than beat people up. Jack Hillen may remain with the big club if the team decides to carry 8 defensemen, but he could probably be assigned to the minors without anyone noticing.

Despite the sarcastic tone with the defense, it's actually built rather well. The Capitals better take a picture though, because it ain't gonna last.

Grade: A

Goaltending: Despite their previous logjams in goal, the team is going with Braden Holtby to be their clear cut starter. He was good last season, but not great; which led to the team to trade for Jaroslav Halak in their failed attempt to make the playoffs (Halak has since departed for the New York Islanders.) Backing him up will be free agent acquisition Justin Peters. The Capitals apparently liked what they saw from when he played for the rival Carolina Hurricanes, but he'll be expected to replicate the individual numbers he posted whenever he's called upon (a change of scenery, however, may be beneficial to Peters.) The decision to sign him to a two-year/one-way deal is somewhat baffling, as Philipp Grubauer only has one season left of minor-league exemption and showed he can be a more than capable goaltender in the NHL (though the extra season's worth of development certainly doesn't hurt.) Edward Pasquale was acquired in the off-season to provide the team minor league depth.

In a perfect world, Holtby could start 55 games without issue while Peters gets the other 25. If Holtby fails as a starter and Peters falters in relief, they should be in good position thanks to Grubauer. Though having Grubauer start isn't ideal, the worst case scenario isn't the end of the world.

Grade: B+

Management: It's understandable that Leonsis wouldn't want to be the guy who couldn't build a team around Ovechkin. Yet the team's starting to have the air of one where the owner is too involved. While you want to give MacLellan the benefit of the doubt, that Oprik signing could very much come back to haunt the team. The silver lining in this is coach Trotz. Maybe his voice was becoming drowned out in Nashville, but he never had the caliber of players he has access to as a member of the Capitals, either. If someone manages to do it, it deserves to be Trotz.

If Trotz can implement a solid system, MacLellan can properly prepare for the reality that Mike Green stands a chance at leaving, and Leonsis learns to relax a little, their disappointing playoff fortunes may reverse (if even for the season.)

Grade: C+

Prediction: Stanley Cup Contender if Trotz can get them to work.

The offense is impressive, the defense is fortified (as long as everyone can focus on the task at hand), and the goaltending seems a little better than "good enough." If the Caps can smell what the Trotz is cookin', they could go deep this season.

Season Preview 2014-15: Vancouver Canucks

2014-15 Season Previews: Vancouver Canucks

Team M.O.: The Vancouver Canucks have long been a team that was capable of attacking their opponents from all directions. Tough, but not over the top; swift, but not soft. Their inspired play managed to see them have a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2011. Yet as the conferences re-aligned, they were undone when two former divisional rivals stole their spot instead. A dramatic two-season long goaltending battle didn't help things either.

Last Season: The Canucks failed to qualify with a record of 36-35-11 (83 points.) The John Tortorella experiment didn't work and it cost both he and GM Mike Gills their jobs. The team brought in Jim Benning as the GM and Willie Desjardins as the new coach during the off-season.

Offense: The team will have a better chance at being effective than they were last season, but the veteran players may have time catching up with them.

Whether it be from mismanagement from Tortorella or battling injuries, the Sedin twins weren't nearly as dominant last season as they were in season's past; the action's on them to prove they aren't on the decline. Joining them this season is former Arizona Coyotes goal-scorer Radim Vrbata, who apparently liked what he saw in Vancouver more than Phoenix. He'll produce if there's no adversity, but could also struggle while adapting to a new system. Nick Bonino comes to the team to replace Ryan Kesler; he may not be as established but he should fit into Vancouver's team perfectly. Zack Kassian is going to be given EVERY chance to prove he's ready to be an NHL level power forward with the Canucks; he better seize the opportunity if he doesn't want Jannik Hensen to snag his spot on the second line. Alexandre Burrows statistically produced the least amount of points since the 2006-07, which isn't a good sign who's used physical play as his calling-card. Come to think of it, it's entirely possible that Hensen could play the off-wing while Burrows plays on the third unit, so the heat'll be on him as well.

As far as the third and checking unit are concerned, there could be a little controversy as far as who rounds out the centers. Not so much with Brad Richardson, who was acquired specifically to be the faceoff specialist for the team, but moreso with Shawn Matthias and Linden Vey. Those two play a similar game, and Matthias may be running out of track to show that he can produce 40 points at the NHL level (if he can't, he won't be going to the minors as so much as he'll be spending time in the press box.) Chris Higgins put up decent production last season, but his time on the penalty kill did no favors for his plus/minus (still, he's probably the most versatile of their Top-9 forwards.) Dererk Dorsett was brought on to agitate the opposition while Tim Sestito is a league leader in penalty minutes (and among them in hits.) The team could use a depth forward to round them out, and Dustin Jeffrey may not be a bad option from within.

There's some players whose stock is falling, but also players whose stock is rising. Their offense isn't perfect, but it is competitive and should give them productivity more often than not. If the Sedin Duo don't have a good season, though, the "r" work might be coming soon enough.

Grade: B

Defense: Vancouver has two problems with their defense:
1. The guys who can log regular ice time can't produce any offense.
2. The guys who can produce offense aren't capable of logging regular ice time.

On a perfect team, Dan Hamius would be a second-pairing defender while Kevin Bieska would be a third-pairing physical defeseman. Instead, they occupy two of the wealthiest contracts on the team to do what others do for less (maybe not Hamius, but definitely Bieska - his offense runs too hot and cold for it to be considered dependable.) Alexander Edler should be "the guy" driving the offensive production from the blue line, but wasn't nearly as dominant last season as he was the season before (that needs to change if the club's fortunes will.) It's certianly not bad when you factor in Chris Tanev, who certainly is capable of providing the team with a second-pairing shutdown defender with the upside to evolve into something better. It would be great if Luca Sbisa proved capable of providing offensive production, but can he stay healthy enough to be effective? Yannick Weber may be a power-play specialist, but it seems as if he'll never be capable of being a full-time puck-mover. The team will be rounded out by Ryan Stanton, a defense-first defender who's known for being tough.

Will life be easy for opposing forwards? Not exactly. It's just that the apparent firepower from the blueline is rather underwhelming. Their defense reminds us of Detroit's, so the grade will be the same.

Grade: D

Goaltending: The team landed Ryan Miller in free agency during the off-season because of his relationship with Benning. Normally that would be considered a boon to the club, but his exit from St. Louis (and Buffalo) painted him as a moody goaltender who was hard to work with. He'll need to reward Benning's loyalty to him by showing that the opposite is true. Eddie Lack is decent as a Number 1A goaltender, but doesn't appear either ready or confident enough to handle a full time starting gig. Though it may bruise his ego, it would be best for Jacob Markstrom to spend the season in the minors (and like, the full-season) to regain his bearings. Spot starts wouldn't be bad here or there, but his development as part of the Florida Panthers was so botched that he needs to be given every opportunity to improve his skills and confidence before trying again with the big league. Besides, someone has to remind Joacim Eriksson that he's not the only guy from Gavle, Sweden in the system; perhaps those two could grow their North American games together for a year. This will probably push Joe Cannata to the ECHL (if he or Eriksson aren't traded to a team who need depth goaltending.)

They shouldn't have issues in the crease this season based on talent alone. If there are: Fire the goalie coach, buy out Miller, and decide whether or not it's worth starting over from scratch.

Grade: A

Management: Francesco Aquilini and the Canucks Sports and Entertainment group are loyal, but can no longer tolerate underachievement in a city that's crying for it's first Stanley Cup. Benning's come into this at this stage of his career, having started off his professional career back in 1993-94 (and winning a Stanley Cup as the Boston Bruins' Assistant GM in 2011.) Desjardins appears ready for this as well, having won championships at both the junior and minor league level.

Usually we'd hold off on giving new management a grade until they prove themselves. However, it's hard to see Vancouver's management and not like what you see.

Grade: A-

Prediction: On the playoff bubble.

Lack of production from the defense is a significant concern should the offense prove incapable of covering up for it. Further, it's on Miller to show that he can be coachable and act professionally. If that happens, it'll be a good season for them. Yet if the Canucks get the emotional guy who wants to pout, it's going to make for a short season in Vancouver.

Season Preview 2014-15: Toronto Maple Leafs

2014-15 Season Previews: Toronto Maple Leafs

Team M.O.: That last team to review that was part of the "Original Six", the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs was vibrant until their last Stanley Cup victory in 1967. Since then, the team has not been a model of success or consistency. Yes, they were able to make it to the playoffs during the pre-Salary Cap era, but they haven't appeared in a Stanley Cup Final since their Cup victory. In the post-Salary Cap ere, the team has only managed to sneak into the playoffs once in the past nine season (and the Maple Leaf Fanbase has been vocal in their displeasure.)

Last Season: Before the team's participation in the Winter Classic, it appeared as if they were going to make it back to the playoffs again (which would've been their first successive playoff appearances since the 2004-05 lockout ended. Yet when it was all said and done, the 38-36-8 record they posted was good enough for them to start their golf games in April (or participate in the WHC in Europe.) The Leafs fans didn't react well to this and as a consequence, there were a few moves made in terms of personnel during the off-season that may reshape how the team looks going forward.

Offense: There's no doubt that Phil Kessel drives the bus as far as offense is concerned, providing the team with a reliable point-per-game player. Some lament that Kessel doesn't have a clear-cut first-line center next to him, others are expecting Nazem Kadri to become said player; though Kadri's still finding his consistency at the big-league level, he's definitely established himself as a top-six center in the league (and may hit that first-line level of talent once he reaches his prime.) James van Riemsdyk is starting to make the step from top-six forward to first liner after a relatively productive season with the Leafs (not to mention a torrid performance in the 2014 Winter Olympics.) There may have been questions previously about Tyler Bozak's ability to provide offense at the NHL level, but he's definitely established himself as a consistent top-six two-way center since breaking into the league. Joffrey Lupul's offensive production returned to Earth after two seasons of being a point-per-game player, but he's still an effective point-producing winger (whenever he's not in the infirmary, that is.) Free agent acquisition Mike Santorelli could line up at one of the forward positions, but may be best used as a third-line center (or perhaps top-six if Bozak or Kadri are shuffled down the depth chart.) The team also landed David Booth as a free agent and signed him to a one-year "show me" deal, which shows you how bad a concussion can turn a prominent goal-scorer into a player who's essentially singing for his supper. The X-Factor for a scoring position is Leo Komarov, who spent last season tearing the KHL up and may get consideration for a Top-9 (if not Top-6) role with the company to replace what they lost when Nikolai Kulemin defected to the New York Islanders.

Looking at the next half of the depth chart, we see some defensive forwards mix in with a couple players who may prove useful in providing offense as well. David Clarkson is excellent as an agitating forward, but was relatively overcompensation for the two season (okay, season and a half) where he was generating .5 points-per-game (and has since started to resemble the player he was before, offensively. Daniel Winnik was acquired in the off-season from the Anaheim Ducks to give the team a versatile defensive forward who can be pressed to generate 30 points if given the ice time to do so. Another former Duck, Troy Bodie, should give the team a physical forward who keeps it simple. Peter Holland (yep, also a former Duck) may have been an offensive powerhouse at the minor-league level, but will likely fill a checking center role for the club now that he's on a one-way deal. Matt Frattin rejoins the Maple Leafs after splitting last season between the Kings and the Columbus Blue Jackets, giving them a speedy forward who'll be valuable on the penalty kill. Petri Kontiola will likely round out the forward corps given what we gave up to play in North America; will he be able to make the jump seamlessly? Power forward prospect Carter Aston, along with enforcers Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, appears to be on the outside looking in and are likely slotted for the minors.

If the team rolls three scoring lines, they may be okay. There's a lot of "growing up" going on here and while that talent's isn't "elite" overall, there's certainly other teams out there who have larger holes in their forward corps.

Grade: B-

Defense: Though Dion Phaneuf has the overall ability to be the true all-around defender in Toronto, his lack of offensive consistency is maddening beyond compare (and he may never get back to the level of production he enjoyed early on with the Calgary Flames.) Jake Gardiner, however, did rather well in his first full season with the Maple Leafs and should make a case to be a Top 4 (if not first-pairing ) offensive defenseman. The team needs a solid two way defender and while Cody Franson hits like a truck, he still needs to tighten up his defensive play overall if he wants to be a clear cut Top-4 defender in the league. The team landed Roman Polak from the St. Louis Blues in the off-season to give them a capable shutdown presence for their top two pairings. Stephane Robidas came over from the Anaheim Ducks in the off-season; while he's had the talent to shutdown top forwards, he's 37 and coming off a broken leg - which makes him more ideal for a defensive role. Morgan Rielly rounds out the current corps and will likely serve as a third-pairing puck-mover.

The team invited Hendrik Tallinder to training camp, but he doesn't offer the team anything they don't have already. What they need is a depth defenseman who can dole out the pain. Otherwise, while their group seems defined, it also seems somewhat underwhelming and perhaps in need of some fine tweaking as the season progresses.

Grade: C

Goaltending: Jonathan Bernier was pretty remarkable in his first season as a starting goaltender, though he'll certainly have to stay adjusted to the increased workload he'll face as a Maple Leaf than what he faced as a Los Angeles King. James Reimer was skilled enough to be a 1A option in net, but needs to show that "killer instinct" to seize games if he wants to be a clear-cut starting goaltender (in fairness, Maple Leafs fans should get off his back though because there are far worse goaltenders in the league.) Christopher Gibson and Garret Sparks were both unremarkable during their first professional seasons and could stand to spend more time in the minors; Antoine Bibeau will probably be in this situation as he was good but not great during his final season of Junior. The team has invited Calvin Heeter to training camp; who would be a better option at Number 3 than either Gibson, Sparks, or Bibeau.

The teams' two NHL goaltenders are more than competent at their roles. The lack of depth beyond them could be a concern if either Bernier or Reimer face adversity this season. Yet since so many of their young goalies need time to develop, the team should lock in Heeter (if only for the season.)

Grade: B-

Management: MLSE is one of the most financially secure ownership groups in the league. However, there seems to be this air that promotes cronyism and "yes-men" instead of landing executives who want to succeed. GM Dave Nonis oversaw a Brian Burke-built team's run in the playoffs, but wasn't able to craft a team capable of repeating the same fortune the following season. However, the team now has Brendan Shanahan and young executive Kyle Dubas in the fold, who'll be looking to take hockey to the next evolutionary level (but their influence may not be felt until Nonis steps down.) Coach Randy Carlyle may have led the Ducks to a championship in 2007, but he has the air of a lame duck coach and could be on the chopping block if the team falters out of the gate.

The addition of Shanahan and Dubas could prove valuable for the future, but the leadership and position the team is in today feels underwhelming thanks to the team's braintrust. Not the worst group we've covered, but there seems to be little incentive to improve when the team's going to be financially profitable (regardless of their performance.)

Grade: D

Prediction: On the bubble, if not out of the playoffs altogether.

If the team stood out in any one area, things might be hopeful for them. But their team ranges from "good enough" to "needs improvement" in a conference that has two extra teams than it's sister conference. That's two other teams who'll be looking to disrupt the opposition on an 82-game basis. They could have an inspired run the like first half of their previous season, but they'll need to keep the pedal to the metal if they hope to successfully handle the rigors of an 82 game season.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Season Preview 2014-15: Tampa Bay Lightning

2014-15 Season Previews: Tampa Bay Lightning

Team M.O.: The Tampa Bay Lightning have seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in their 22-year history, seeing everything from a Stanley Cup Championship to being part of a Hollywood ownership group that valued entertainment over winning. GM Steve Yzerman was brought in a few years ago to build a solid team and while his early success may have been fleeting, the team's starting to resemble a squad who should at least be playoff-bound for the foreseeable future.

Last Season: The team got into the playoffs with a record of 46-27-9 (101 points.) Yet since goaltender Ben Bishop suffered an injury at the worst time of the season, the team was left to rely on (now former) backup Anders Lindback and North American rookie Kristers Gudlevskis in the playoffs. As a consequence, the Lightning were swept in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals by the Montreal Canadiens.

Offense: Tampa Bay's offense are powered by gifted centers and a system that focuses on puck possession. Steven Stamkos has the ability to win hockey games by himself, he would be supreme if he could master spreading his offensive production out (as opposed to scoring in bunches.) Ryan Callahan didn't miss a step when coming over from the New York Rangers, but he was seemingly deflated when the playoffs rolled around (no points in 4 games); the burden is on him to be a go-to guy in those situations (especially now that he's got a new contract and significant leverage within the organization.) Valtteri Filppula was effective during his first season in Tampa Bay, but only provided one assist come playoff time; Filppula will be ready to prove it was merely ill-effects from injuries. Taking a page out of the Detroit Red Wings handbook, Yzerman managed to turn a late round selection in Ondrej Palat and watch him transform into a seminal playmaking winger (who also dishes out hits judiciously.) Tyler Johnson's career has many parallels to Palat's in that they are the team's top penalty killers, were acquired by the Lightning in 2011, and are now signed to identical deals in the off-season. Alex Killorn's skill set makes him a valuable defensive forward, but he still has the overall ability to give a team .5 point production (which is alright for a second line player.) Jonathan Drouin's shot of winning a top-six spot out of camp look improbable now that he's broken his thumb, so the team will likely look to veteran Brendan Morrow to step in and have a renaissance offensively for the team.

The tools for the defensive side of the chart are there, but in certain ways it feels lacking. Not so much by the signing of Brian Boyle to serve as the team's new checking center. But while Richard Panik is okay as a crash-and-bang player, his overall game seems sort of lacking (and may be better served developing in the minors.) Nikita Kucherov was impressive as a power play specialist in his rookie campaign, but will still experience the growing pains young players encounter as he carves his niche in the NHL. J.T. Brown was a bright spot for the team last season and should warrant consideration as one of the team's go-to guys on the penalty kill. The decision to put Brett Connolly with the big club during his rookie professional season appears to have been the wrong one, as his minor and junior scoring success hasn't translated to the NHL game at all (he may end up with the big club now that he's no longer exempt from waivers.) Cedric Paquette did well when called upon last season by the Lightning, but may be designated for the minors since he's still waiver exempt. Mike Blunden and Vladislav Namestnikov will start off in the minors, but should be expected for spot duty with the big club

Due to cap constraints, the team may not have a whole lot of flexibility to secure a veteran for depth. Though the skill is there, it's concentrated among a few individuals instead of spread throughout the team (meaning that the guys in charge of scoring are also the guys in charge of killing penalties.) There isn't much toughness up front, leaving them vulnerable to when teams wanna run roughshod in a game. Overall, the top units seem solid, but the depth units are pretty questionable. An injury to Palat or Johnson (in particular) could be devastating for the team; and injury to both means golf in April (yes, they're that important.)

Grade: C+

Defense: It took some time (along with a lockout-induced stop in the KHL, but it appears that Victor Hedman has finally arrived as that coveted all-around defenseman who can be used in any game situation. Matt Carle has remained the steady two-way defender that's also capable of putting up at least 35 points a season. The team did need some offensive reinforcement from the blueline, so they traded for Jason Garrison from the Vancouver Canucks during the off-season. Anton Stralman comes over from the New York Rangers as a free agent; though he had been used as a puck-moving defenseman in the past, he's getting compensated to also provide what the team lost when Mattias Ohlund went down with injury. If Stralman can settle into a shutdown role, Mark Barberio will probably take over as the team's third pairing puck-mover. Eric Brewer's the savvy veteran who's best suited in a third-pairing defensive role at this stage of his career. Radko Gudas was a monster last season, doling out hits and fights like the enforcers of yore.

If this lineup had a healthy Ohlund in it, it would be unfair to most other teams (save perhaps the St. Louis Blues.) While Stralman is unproven in that capacity, the rest of the defense is pretty darned spectacular.

Grade: B+

Goaltending: Last season, the lack of an experienced backup proved to be the squad's undoing. They made an acquisition over the off-season to help out in that regard.

After spending seasons honing his craft in between cups of coffee at the NHL level, Bishop has finally come to life as the bonafide NHL starting goaltender that many hockey analysts predicted he'd become. His backup this season will be the newly-acquired Evgeni Nabokov, a talented veteran who could be solid in a 1/1A rotation with Bishop. Gudlevskis was respectable when called upon by the big club last season, but could use another season adjusting to North American rinks. Russian standout Andrei Vasilevskiy will start off his first North American season in the minors, making his case to be the next big starting goaltender in the NHL.

Normally, it would be ideal to have that guy in the Number 3 spot who's basically waiting to usurp one of the incumbents, but the current depth in the crease actually serves the team well. They may do well to make a minor signing in case Gudlevskis ends up pulling spot duty in Tampa, but the Lightning should be in better position to win because of the goaltending (instead of in spite of it.)

Grade: B+

Management: Owner Jeff Vinik has stopped at nothing to give the team everything they need financially to be a winner. And give coach Jon Cooper credit, as did rather well in his first full season behind the bench. The action is on Yzerman to build a team that's capable of winning consistently season-in/season-out. Though he's young in his career as an executive, the team's build feels like he may be admiring the Red Wings or the Los Angeles Kings to the point where he's not addressing the needs to compete in the Eastern Conference. He's made great moves to give the club talent, now it's time for them to find an identity.

Grade: B-

Prediction: One key injury and it's over.

Out of the other teams covered thus far, this one seems the most fragile as a playoff team. Firing on all-cylinders, they should make a case for the playoffs. Yet if someone important goes down, it may be too much for the team to recover.

Season Preview 2014-15: St. Louis Blues

2014-15 Season Previews: St. Louis Blues

Team M.O.: After a rough spell following the 2004-05 NHL lockout, the St. Louis Blues have been rebuilt and reborn into a tough, defense-first team that relies on scoring by committee. Though they've played in arguably one of the toughest divisions in hockey, they've certainly established themselves as a playoff team. Taking the next step forward, however, has posed itself to be a challenge.

Last Season: The team compiled a 52-23-7, which was good for 111 points and second in the Central Division. The team opted to trade goaltender Jaroslav Halak prior to the trade deadline for Ryan Miller and saw themselves ousted from the Western Conference Quarterfinals by the Chicago Blackhawks. Even if he wasn't going to re-sign, perhaps trading Halak's rights for picks after the season would've been a better way to go than to bring in an ineffective Miller (who up and left the team in the off-season for nothing, anyway.)

Offense: The team's got grit and scoring in the right places. As far as a collection of forwards goes, this is perhaps one of the better-assembled squads in the division (or perhaps the conference.)

Captain David Backes remains a fearsome competitor and is capable of doing anything the team needs him to (including punching people in the face.) The ties that Paul Stansy's family has to St. Louis was enough for him to bring his talents there over the off-season, giving the squad the type of playmaking center most teams would crave on their first or second scoring unit. Alexander Steen was given an extension last season and rewarded the team by posting up a 33-goal season (though the pressure will be on to prove that wasn't an anomaly.) The team needs to agree to terms with Jaden Schwartz sooner than later, as they would be ill-advised to waste a solid campaign from a youngster who's coming into his own offensively. T.J. Oshie's has certainly established himself as a legitimate scoring winger following a slick performance at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Youngster Vladimir Tarasenko's progression has continued as well as hoped by the Blues, it may only be a few seasons until he's a point-per-game player if he can properly adapt to the North American style of hockey. It'll be interesting to see if Patrik Berglund is deemed a contender for one of the top-six scoring spots or if he finds himself on the third unit for the season. The same can be said for Jori Lehtera, a Finnish prospect who's coming to the NHL after doing all he's needed to do in the KHL.

On the bottom half of the depth chart, the team has plenty of shift-disturbers to go along with a few talented players who are honing their craft until an opening appears on one of the top scoring units. Colin Fraser comes over as a free agent to give the team an agitating center much like Maxim Lapierre and super-pest Steve Ott (though since Ott has a proven history of point production, he'll likely get the nod on as a top-nine player instead of being solely a checking forward. Ryan Reaves gives the team an element of toughness and may serve as the team's de-facto enforcer this season (assuming Paul Bissonnette doesn't win a job out of camp.) Magnus Paajarvi can use his gifts to round out a checking unit, but the jury's still out as to whether or not he can put it all together to develop into a legitimate scoring forward. The competition will be rounded out by youngsters Dmitrij Jaskin and Ty Rattie (who each did well in call-up duty but may benefit from more time in the minors), Benn Ferriero (who's perhaps better suited for the minor game), or by former Coyotes teammates Peter Mueller and Joakim Lindstrom (who both spent the past season in Europe.)

Pretty decent mix up front, even if none of them are bona-fide point-per-game players (Stansy hit that mark earlier on in his career, but not as of late.) They should be able to pick the right group amongst them to remain competitive going into the season.

Grade: B+

Defense: You wanna talk about a sexy group of defensemen...

If Alex Pietrangelo can keep up his overall level of development, it may only be a few years before he's regarded in the same breath as players like Niklas Lidstrom. Jay Bouwmeester may not be the supreme defender everyone thought he was before his time with the Calgary Flames, but he looks more than comfortable supplying the team with a two-way defenseman. Kevin Shattenkirk had another prolific campaign last year and gives the team with a steady source of offensive production from the blueline. Carl Gunnarsson may not be flashy, but his shutdown capabilities and attention to detail defensively benefit the Blues, regardless. The prevailing toughguy Barrett Jackman may not have the scoring touch associated with a first round selection, but he's supreme in his role as the team's physical defender. The team's quintessential puck-mover Jordan Leopold may have spent a lot of time in the infirmary last season, but he'll have every chance to round out the team's third pairing (and should be absolutely effective in doing so.) Ian Cole will likely secure the final role as the team's shutdown defenseman, but he'll face steady competition from shot-blocking machine Chris Butler in that role (though in fairness, Butler needs to improve significantly on his tendency to turn the puck over at the wrong time.)

There might not be another defensive corps in the league that's this well assembled. Well done, St. Louis. Well done.

Grade: A+

Goaltending: Though capable, the current collection of St. Louis Blues don't exactly scare the competition as they did the season prior.

For better or worse, Brian Elliott is now the de facto starter for the club. Though he has stretches of play where he is absolutely brilliant, he typically follows this up with stretches of play that leave you wondering if he's capable of being a bona-fide starting goaltender. Jake Allen appears as if he'll get promoted permanently to the big club this season; his stats in the minors were legit but his time in the NHL has been adequate thus far at best. Behind them are Jordan Binnington (who is looking to complete his first full season in the AHL this year) and Niklas Lundstrom (who, thus far, hasn't played North American hockey at any level outside of preseason games.)

It's a no brainer that the team would invite Matt Clime to training camp. Even then, another depth goaltender wouldn't be a bad idea to help the kids on the farm. As it stands, Elliott is talented but not consistent, Allen is a backup goaltender but little else, and there isn't much depth beyond what the first two guys provide. In the end, you have a squad who'll be leaning on a guy who falters if overplayed during the regular season (let alone reaching the playoffs) as well as a rookie goaltender who has yet to show any dominance at the NHL level.

Grade: D

Management: After years of ownership uncertainty, the current ownership group (led by Tom Stillman) is providing the Blues with the resources necessary to be competitive. GM Doug Armstrong has made a series of calculated moves to make the team better than it was when he took over, but the goaltender gaffe at the end of last season may provide unwanted problems going into this season. Coach Ken Hitchcock has implemented a system that has made the club a playoff team, but he can't keep going on as a "Stanley Cup-winning coach" when he's 15 seasons removed from that victory. There could be some changes in that regard if the team doesn't advance past the Quarterfinals (let alone miss the playoffs.)

Grade: B-

Prediction: A playoff team, if not on the bubble.

Make no mistake, the team is loaded with talented forwards and stud defensemen, which would normally make them a lock to have a good playoff run. Yet the goaltending is far from desirable, no doubt partially inflicted due to their cap concerns. If they can score more goals than they allow, life will be good. If any offensive inconsistency occurs, they might get leap-frogged by other teams such as the Dallas Stars or Arizona Coyotes