Monday, September 15, 2014

Two Guys We Never Said Goodbye To The First Time: Rick Rypien and Wade Belak

We always have had an affinity for the the tough guys. They too often are willing to punch each other in the face for the sake of entertainment. Most people don't get punched in the face as part of their job, and that's why always respect the guys who have to do the dirtiest part of the game (much like our soldiers and veterans.)

When Boogaard passed away, people could have seen his passing as coincidental; that it was an isolated case of an enforcer who simply had problems. But when two other established fighters passed on due to issues relating to depression (while other fighters began going to treatment centers before it was too late), it made people understand that enforcers are not some robotic gladiators who are there simply for our amusement. Turns out that they're human, too.

As one compares hockey from the 1970s to the hockey of today, the slow death of enforcer culture has gotten to the point where it's almost extinguished today. People can blame injuries or nerds for taking fighting out of the game, but enforcer culture is dying because fighting was never meant to evolve with the game. There has never been any formal instructions in the game as to how to fight, nor has there been any equipment implemented to provide innovation in fighting (unless one counts jersey straps, which serves as a deterrent to the type of antics Rob Ray was known for.) If fighting in hockey had evolved like a martial art, it would still be prevalent with the game today. Instead, it was basically used a proactive tactic (for intimation) or a reactive tactic (for retaliation.) It was one thing when the players were 190 lbs like when Dave Schultz and Tiger Williams played. Yet as the Bob Probert's descended onto the world and gave birth to the George Laraque's, the fighters got bigger and meaner while the game didn't grow with them. Injuries became more gruesome and concussions became more severe because nothing was protecting the fighters.

We know that know. Unfortunately, these guys paid for it with their lives. Not to dig up the past, but it wouldn't be fitting to go on without acknowledging that it still hurts from their loss. Our thoughts, prayers, and well-wishes remain with you and your loved ones.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Season Preview 2014-15: Ottawa Senators

2014-15 Season Previews: Ottawa Senators

Team M.O.: Following the lockout, the Ottawa Senators were one of the teams who were considered a Stanley Cup Contender but never quite got the job done. After enjoying an era as a reliable playoff team (if not Stanley Cup contender), they're suddenly feeling like a team that's gonna be focused on a possible rebuild.

Last Season: A season after seeing their former captain Daniel Alfredsson leave because he didn't believe the Ottawa Senators to be a playoff team, the Senators proved him right by finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference with a record of 37-31-14 (88 points.) The team sent away center Jason Spezza to the Dallas Stars for a package that brought them an emerging power forward to their their core in Alex Chiasson.

Offense: It looks like it's Kyle Turris time in Ottawa. There's no doubt he's a scoring forward in the NHL, but he'll need to prove that he's ready to take the next step forward as a first line option. Bobby Ryan needs to do this too in a contract year, as he has the talent to dominate yet hasn't been as productive recently has he had in the past. Clarke MacArthur has signed a five-year extension with the team and has come into his own as a reliable top-six playmaker (who can also be counted on for 20-25 goals.) Needing center depth after the departure of Spezza, the team landed longtime Nashville Predator David Legwand to the team; securing a badly needed two-way center. Chiasson gives them a power forward, but he's still something of a work in progress. Also Milan Michalek had a disaster of a season after displaying a 35 goal performance two seasons ago. Can he stay healthy enough to regain his effectiveness or is he showing the signs of decline?

The team's bottom-six looks well-assembled. Mika Zibanejad should do well honing his skills on the third unit until he's ready for top-six responsibility. Zack Smith gives the team a solid faceoff man who doesn't mind punching people in the face. Wait, punching people in the face? Here's Chris Neil, who remains one of the league leaders in both hits and penalty minutes. Colin Greening is the speedy player most would want for that part of the depth chart, but it would be nice if he could do a bit better at the defensive part of the game. Erik Condra provides the team with a reliable defensive forward while Mike Hoffman does well as a grinder (now that he's ready to graduate from the minors.) The team could easily designate Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Mark Stone for the team as reserve options, but they'd be better served by going to minors if they can still benefit from the playing time.

The group looks talented, but also equal parts inconsistent and inexperienced. It'll be interesting to see how they manage to perform as a whole.

Grade: B-

Defense: It's a good thing Erik Karlsson's on the team. Otherwise, offensive production from the blueline would be hard to come by.

Yes, Karlsson's one of the league's top offensive defenders. At the same time, he's playing with Marc Methot; who's great defensively, but needs to be paired up with someone of Karlsson's caliber to even break 20 points. Considering where the team's at from a defensive perspective, it may not be a bad idea to slide Methot down the depth chart and give Patrick Wiercioch a shot as a top-pairing defender. Jared Cowen could take a step forward and become a legitimate two-way defenseman, but he still hasn't proven to be anything other than above-average defensively. Chris Phillips has long been a reliable shutdown option for him, but he's now 36 and it's questionable as to how long he can continue playing that role for the club. If Cody Ceci is going to assume the role of puck-mover and power play specialist, he's going to need to be more productive than he has been recently. Eric Gryba should round out the depth by giving them a tough physical defender.

All said, it could be seen how Ottawa's defense could be considered complete. But there's still not enough reliable firepower or consistency for it to be considered a threat. Maybe next season things will look better, but for now, they're gonna lean to heavily on Karlsson for their defensive scoring.

Grade: D

Goaltending: Craig Anderson is the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde goaltender, as he seems to go back and forth between brilliant and spotty; which goaltender will show up this season? Robin Lehner may be a little dismayed to see the monster contract Anderson just got, but he's certainly not starving with his salary and should be expected to get around 20-30 starts and at least 35 appearances. The team has minor leaguer Andrew Hammond as their third option (who did respectable when called upon for 17 minutes last season) while Chris Driedger will be slated to spend his first-year pro in the minors.

There's a lot of talent there, what isn't there is consistency and depth. If there's a mid-season injury, this team will likely be forced to acquire an unsigned veteran (and who knows how that'll work out.) If Anderson and Lehner can platoon together, things will go well. The biggest risk factors for the team's goaltending are injury and potential locker room problems over who's the starter.

Grade: B-

Management: You have to respect Eugene Melnyk for operating a lower-budget team that has inexpensive ticket prices, but you'd think they'd be bigger players in the market for a veteran defenseman (even as a stop-gap solution.) Bryan Murray has done well to build and maintain playoff teams, but may have to bow out of his role due to his age and health concerns. Paul MacLean did well when the team was better assembled, but will need to prove that he can lead this current squad to victory.

The management isn't good or bad, but rather seemingly a shade of average. If the team falters out of the gate, the moves they make will make or break the season.

Grade: C

Prediction: Missing the playoffs because due to growing pains.

While the key players will take a step forward next season, it's questionable how well the support players will do. Further, the defense needs a bit more time to fully realize it's potential. If Wiercioch and Cowen can kick up the production a notch, the team may actually exceed expectations. For now, it's perhaps more reasonable to suspect that they'll be good - but not good enough - to challenge for a playoff spot.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Season Preview 2014-15: New York Islanders

2014-15 Season Previews: New York Islanders

Team M.O.: Once upon a time, the New York Islanders were a dynasty which featured such players as Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, Bob Nystrom, and Billy Smith. Since that era, the Islanders have been stricken by severe mismanagement which squandered the resources necessary to build a winning team. Though there have been a handful of playoff appearances here and there, the team hasn't possessed any consistent sense of winning in recent history. Yet with a few new players and a move to Brooklyn on the horizon, perhaps there's reason to believe that things could change for the better.

Last Season: Things weren't pretty last season, as the team finished last in their division with a record of 34-37-11, good for 79 points. This was the season removed from when they made it to the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The team picked Michael Dal Colle fifth overall during the 2014 NHL draft.

Offense: Astonishingly, the offense looks remarkably serviceable. Though there's a pretty significant question mark of a different variety...

John Tavares was in the midst of a career season last year when he went down with an MCL tear at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He's supposedly been doing better following surgery, but that'll need to be monitored going forward to ensure Tavares can continue his torrid production. Also, Kyle Okposo benefits from having Tavares in the line up, as Okposo managed to post career numbers last season as he enters his prime.

Continuing on with the Islanders offensive forwards, the team scooped up a package deal of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin in the off-season, which gives them an almost-complete second-line that has a playmaker and a two-way forward that work well off each other. Anders Lee did rather well in an audition for the team last season and would look fearsome if he could evolve into a power forward (the team would also be wise to let him have a fair shot at camp instead of trying to force him down to the minors since they've got too many forwards on one-way deals.) Frans Nielsen has proven to be more than capable as a playmaking two-way forward, but Grabovski's insertion into the lineup may see him centering a third scoring unit instead of being part of the top six. Ryan Strome did well in call-up duty last season, but his waiver exempt status will see him start the season in the minors and being used for call-up duty if injuries arise.

With that said, the offensive group of forwards has a few players who'll be competing for the point-producer role. Josh Bailey will likely have the best shot at this, but gives the team more of a playmaker than a guy who can also score (and doesn't necessary provide the team even that on a consistent enough basis to be ideal.) Cory Conacher came to the team as a free agent on a cheap contract to show that he wasn't merely a flash in the pan during his brief tenure with the Tampa Bay Lightning (he could figure to be the team's offensive specialist if he doesn't get the job.) Brock Nelson also seems to have the tools to handle the job as well, but may still need a season or so to figure it all out at the NHL level (and may do better off figuring that out in the minors.) Though in fairness, the team should give Nelson a fair shot at making the roster instead of let his contract status designate his assignment. Michael Grabner is worth mentioning because of the season he had when he first came to the Islanders, but his lack of consistent offensive production spells out that his speed is better used on a third line.

The checking unit seems relatively tough by design. Cal Clutterbuck and Colind McDonald dish out hits on a nightly basis. Matt Martin does this too while also dishing out fists to faces. Casey Cizikas is also carving a niche as a key faceoff specialist; he was at 48.4% last season but it was also his first full season in the league. The team will be rounded out by veteran enforcer Eric Boulton, who'll make the same amount of money regardless if he's in the NHL or in the minors (though we're pulling for him to make the main club.)

If you buy into the press that the Islanders are a bad team, you'd be pretty surprised by the potential for their forward corps to do something dangerous this season (especially if Bailey and Lee take a step forward in their roles.) If they can get the team to work to their full potential, then this is going to be a pretty productive season for the Islanders.

Grade: B+

Defense: While the offense doesn't look too bad, there's going to be some question marks in regards to health, maturity, and overall skill when it comes to their depth on the blueline.

Lubomir Visnovsky battled concussion issues at the end of last season, yet may be poised for a rebound season if he can stay healthy. If he battles injury, then Matt Donovan could be called up from the minors to fill in as the team's top offensive defenseman (a role Donovan may hold by this time next season.) Travis Harmonic is keeping it defensively responsible as he evolves into a top-pairing defender, but still needs to show the production associated with a player who can be called upon in all game situations. Like Harmonic, the team's second pairing are also coming into their own at the NHL level, as Calvin De Haan is evolving into a two-way defender while Thomas Hickey is proving to be a reliable and productive shutdown defender (both of them had their first full NHL campaigns last season.) T.J. Brennan was signed to a one-way contract to fill the role of power-play specialist, but will need to tighten up his defensive presence if he wants to evolve into a legitimate puck-moving defenseman at the NHL level (much less anything higher.) Matt Carkner is the quintessential physical defenseman, but needs to avoid the injury bug if he wants to stay in the lineup on a regular basis. While it would be nice to see Brian Strait grab the role of defensive defensman, he doesn't exactly stand out in any one way at the NHL level to prove to be effective.

The X-factor here is Griffin Reinhart. If he's deemed ready to play at the NHL level, he'll likely take over Strait's job as the team's defensive defenseman (and will be eased into game situations at the NHL level as he evolves in his development.) Otherwise, the defenses is surprisingly built complete, but will need to get over their collective hump to remain competitive at the NHL level.

Grade: C- with Strait in the lineup, B- with Reinhart in his place.

Goaltending: The team traded for the rights to Jaroslav Halak and managed to secure him to a 4-year deal. He will get his wish as a starting goaltender, but does his best used when in the 50-55 start range during the regular season. Chad Johnson was rather effective in 27 starts with the Boston Bruins last season (17-4-3 with 2.10 GAA and .925 SV%) and parlayed that into a role with the Islanders as their backup goaltender. Though the goaltending is perhaps better solidified than it had been in previous seasons, it was the lack of previous cohesive strategy in net that botched Kevin Poulin's development. Though he'll certainly return to the minors this season, it should be a blessing in disguise for a player who badly needs a season at one level to improve his skills instead of ping-ponging between the NHL and the minors. The team landed minor league journeyman David Leggio to round out the depth.

Halak-Johnson-Poulin make for a better 1-2-3 punch than the recent group of goaltenders in Islanders history. Though it would be best for Poulin to spend the season in the minors, they still aren't in dire straits if there's an injury in the crease.

Grade: A

Management: Though the Islanders have oft been synonymous with boneheaded managerial decisions, GM Garth Snow has assembled a capable group of NHL players going into the season. If anything, it's been the ownership of Charles Wang that has gotten in the way of the team's progress; it feels like he was only ever in the business to have an arena built for him, so the sale of the team to Jon Ledecky can't come soon enough. This is also a make-or-break season for coach Jack Capuano, as leading the team to another playoff-less season will likely see him on the unemployment line.

Snow does an admirable job in finally getting complete roster together (all things considered), but the whole arena fiasco (coupled with losing seasons and bad decisions made on personnel in the past) gives the management an ugly mark in grade.

Grade: D-

Prediction: Playoff team?

If this team falters out of the gate, Capuano will be the first to go. If the team continues to falter, then there may be some moves to address holes in the roster (including, fairly or not, a new GM once the team is sold.) Yet the potential is there for the team to do well this year; they'll need to prove that in execution.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Season Preview 2014-15: New York Rangers

2014-15 Season Previews: New York Rangers

Team M.O.: The Blueshirts on Broadway were, are, and will likely remain the most popular (and profitable) of the teams that serve New York City (if not in the NHL.) Unconcerned with spending constraints, the team has routinely spent to the cap in an effort to win it all. Yet while that approach worked well in '94, the team faltered before the 2004-05 lockout and had to retool to get back to respectability. Turns out, this is a lot easier when your team has a stud goalie to fall back on.

Last Season: The Rangers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they were defeated in five games by the Los Angeles Kings. Not a bad run when all things are considered, any many of the components from their championship run will return for the upcoming season.

Offense: Many of the team's stars are along the wing instead of the center. That shouldn't matter though as some of them have the ability to make people around them better.

Martin St. Louis may have taken a step back in terms of his production, but he also has less ice time than he did with his former club (the Tampa Bay Lightning.) Playing along side him, though, has certainly rubbed of on another small offensive forward by the name of Mats Zuccarello. Though Zuccarello had flirted with sticking with the roster before the St. Louis deal, the former seemingly took his game up another level once the latter came to the club. Chris Kreider is another player who's seemingly finding more comfort producing offense at the NHL level and should do well in his third year as a pro. Rich Nash wasn't as dynamic as he was the season before, but injuries played a part in that (even then, he still led the club in goals scored by the end of the season.) In case you haven't heard, the team signed prospect Kevin Hayes after he refused to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks, giving them a prospective power forward who would be a solid compliment to the club. Lee Stempniak also comes over via free agency, but is likely slotted for a third line scoring role (if not to be used as an offensive specialist.)

The center depth is what you'd expect for a team of this magnitude (even if the former first-line center, Brad Richards, no longer plays for the Rangers.) Derek Stepan may not have had the same level of production during the regular season as he did during the abbreviated 2012-13 season, but he showed more consistency through the playoffs and should see his production increase along with his playing time. Derick Brassard is an effective top-six two-way center for the team; while some out there may be disappoint that a 6th overall draft pick didn't pan out to be a bonafide first-line forward, he's still got the tools an playing ability to make their group of offensive forwards feel complete. Matthew Lombardi comes back to the NHL after spending the past season in Switzerland, giving the team a speedy two-way center who can hopefully rediscover the scoring touch he had prior to his ill-fated stop with the Nashville Predators (in retrospect, the decision to move on from the Coyotes was not a beneficial one for Lombo.) The ability for the Rangers to roll three scoring lines depends on Lombardi's health through the season. Dominic Moore should handle the checking duties for the club while Chris Mueller will probably be used in reserve if something should happen to their top centers.

Rounding out the depth are the typical group of speedy forwards and defense-first players. Carl Hagelin's speed would make him ideal for a checking role, but his ability to be somewhat productive offensively would see him shore out the third scoring unit that could be fashioned with Lombardi and (likely) Zuccarello. J.T. Miller seems to project as an offensive forward, but his speed, hitting ability, and propensity to win faceoffs has earned him a spot with the big club as a defensive forward (at age 21, he still has a lot of time left to reach his potential. Hayes shouldn't rest on his laurels because if he underachieves, Miller will take the role he'd be competing for.) Tanner Glass rounds out the forwards as the feisty, penalty-killing agitator.

All and all, that's a pretty good group of forwards there. Wouldn't mind seeing a hair more grit than is displayed now; they have the skill to intimidate the opposition but need to not become intimidated if they get into the rough stuff with their opponents.

Grade: A-

Defense:Though the fortunes of the Montreal Canadiens have been blessed as of late, it still has to sting knowing they gave up Ryan McDonagh (the complete first-pairing defender most teams would crave to have) for a group of players who didn't have the same level of impact. Joining him this season is veteran offensive defender Dan Boyle, who comes over as a free agent from the San Jose Sharks. Dan Girardi seems to be emerging as a two-way option from the blueline while Marc Staal gives the team a capable shutdown defender until he goes to play with his brothers in North Carolina. If Kevin Klein can keep things simple in his own end, he should give the team the type of defensive defenseman clubs need to win on a consistent basis. John Moore may have played the puck-moving role last season, but free agent signees Michael Kostka and Matt Hunwick will likely compete with him in that role. The club could opt to keep two of the three, but the need for a physical defender could see them jettison two of them to the minors so that they can employ the use of young tough-ass Dylan McIlrath on the squad.

Their defensive depth is complete. As long as they use their tools properly, the blueline is going to be a boon for them this season.

Grade: A

Goaltending: Things are always great when your starting goaltender is Henrik Lundqvist, but the problem lately is having someone behind him who's capable of giving him nights off so he isn't overplayed come playoff time. Thankfully for the team, Cam Talbot took an immense step forward to provide the team with a more-than-capable backup for Lundqvist (though he needs to do a better job dealing with the playoffs.) Cedrick Desjardins will ride the plane (or bus) between NYC and Hartford as the team's third goalie and should be expected to platoon with Jason Missiaen or Mackenzie Skapski on the farm.

The Lundqvist/Talbot combo is more than sufficient to help the Rangers have a winning season. Desjardins isn't fantastic at the NHL level (otherwise, he woulda stuck by now) but can still do a respectable job if called upon. This is a good mix in the crease and should get the Rangers over the hump.

Grade: A

Management: There may have been some derision as to how GM Glen Sather had built the team up before, but it's safe to say that his current Rangers squad resembles the Oilers squads he led during the 80s instead of the moribund Rangers squads that played during the early 2000s. If anything, owner James Dolan was perhaps too "hands-on earlier" in Sather's tenure; once Dolan began to show trust in Sather, the club's fortunes improved for the better. Also, it's safe to say that coach Alain Vigneault was one of the reasons his former team (the Vancouver Cancuks) saw any level of success instead of taking away from it now that his former club is a losing season away from a rebuild.

The money and the braintrust is there. If the club can get a cup, then Vigneault will look like one of the best coaches in the league.

Grade: A-

Prediction: Stanley Cup Contender

Along with the Boston Bruins, it's hard to find a team in the Eastern Conference that's as complete as the Rangers are. If they can get through the other talented squads in the Conference, they should be back to where they were last summer (and hopefully for Rangers fans, with better results.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Season Preview 2014-15: New Jersey Devils

2014-15 Season Previews: New Jersey Devils

Team M.O.: Through the years, the New Jersey Devils have focused on a defense-first style of hockey that was built around their former starting goaltender, Martin Brodeur. Though Brodeur has since moved on from the team, the group is still expected to play a defense-first style of hockey. However, they're going to need to give that "little extra" on offense if they want to have a shot of getting to the playoffs this season.

Last Season:The team failed to qualify for the playoffs for a second straight season, going 35-29-18 (86 points) through the end of the season. If 18 OT losses seems large, it's because the Devils failed to win a single shootout last season.

Offense: The Devils have 14 forwards on one-way deals going into the season, so there won't be any surprises about who ends up where after camp. If everything works as expected, the team will fashion three scoring lines (which will be expected to be defensively responsible) along with a checking unit.

Travis Zajac may not have the production of a first-line center, but there's no one else on the team (let alone the league) who's as capable of winning key faceoffs as he is. Patrik Elias, however, still provides the Devils with an offensive spark after all these years, much like his ageless Czech counterpart Jaromir Jagr. Free agent forward Mike Cammalleri bought into whatever the Devils sold him and signed with the club; this should work for both he and the team as he will provide them with a reliable scoring winger while he gets the opportunity to be a first line winger. If Cammalleri has problems pulling the trigger, it appears that Adam Henrique has some goal scoring prowess last season; which he demonstrated in spite of his defensive responsibilities. He should only continue to grow.

The other scoring forwards have some level of respectability, but there's also some questions as to whether or not they'll give the Devils everything they're expecting this season. Ryane Clowe is one of the better power forwards in the league, but his recent rash of injury problems is a worrisome indication as to how much he may (or may not) have left in him to play his style of physical hockey effectively. Tuomo Ruutu has a better job of avoiding the injury bug, but ranges from respectable to disappointing in terms of offensive production (Michael Ryder falls into this category as well.) Martin Havlat comes over on a cheap one-year "show me deal", which is also likely his last shot at the NHL; though he has the talent and intellect of an offensive stud, he simply can't remain healthy enough to remain effective. Damien Brunner provides the team with a solid power play specialist, but will he ever provide enough defensive presence in the NHL to factor into even-strength play?

Rounding out the offense are the usual group of utility and defensive forwards you'd expect to see at this portion of the depth chart. It's boggling to wonder why Dainius Zubrus never panned out to be that offensive threat many figured for him to be, but he plays the defensive aspect of the game well. There was a point where Steve Bernier was considered power forward potential, but has settled into the role of being a defensive grinder. Stephen Gionta and Jacob Josefson round out the offensive depth; both will play a defensive role for the club but Josefson could still prove to be an offensive contributor at some point down the line.

All and all, there's grit in the forwards even if there isn't a bonafide agitator or enforcer (Ruutu may like to mix it up as an agitator, but he'd be miscast in that role.) Though the offense has nice potential, more players need to start executing on a consistent basis if they're going to be a threat to other teams.

Grade: B

Defense: The Devils have a handful of serviceable defenders to complement an otherwise inexperienced group who're still working to find their niche at the NHL level.

As far as the established players are concerned, Andy Greene gives the team a serviceable two-way defender who is capable of playing a shutdown role (he'll be leaned upon heavily now that Anton Volchenkov has signed on with the Nashville Predators.) Marek Zidlicky is also a more than capable offensive producer from the blueline who isn't afraid of the rough going. Captain Bryce Salvador plays a hard-nosed game that make life difficult for the opposition, but his age is going up, his production is going down, and it's possible that his style of play has begun taking it's toll on him. Peter Harrold does his best when keeping it simple and could provide the team with a non-flashy defensive defenseman.

The team needs a few young guys to find their niche if they're going to get over the hump in the Eastern Conference. Jon Merrill could fill the team's need for a top 4 all-around defenseman, but needs to prove that the character issues that he encountered during college are behind him today. Adam Larsson may have been rushed to the league too early, but could stick with the Devils (and the NHL as a whole) if he begins to adopt a shutdown defenseman style of game. The team needs to get Eric Gelinas re-signed and for good reason to, as he wouldn't be a bad option to have as a puck-mover (and could eventually take over Zidlicky's job one day.)

All and all, the tools are there, but the execution's been lacking. If they can prove to warrant a higher grade as a whole, then they'll have a better season than the one they had last year.

Grade: C

Goaltending: After years of playing in someone else's shadow, it's finally Cory Schneider time in New Jersey. He's gonna get his wish to be "the guy" going forward. Scott Clemmensen returns to the Devils as a free agent after spending five seasons with the Florida Panthers and is expected to compete with Keith Kinkaid for the backup job. Clemmensen has NHL experience but hasn't posted stellar numbers for the past two seasons, so Kinkaid should be given every opportunity to earn the position. Scott Wedgewood rounds out the depth and will spend the season honing his skills in the minors.

All and all, the team has a solid starting goaltender, but the veteran backup is in decline while the "rookie" backup is largely unproven at the NHL level (save 26 minutes in the 2012-13 season.) It's too bad that Brodeur couldn't adjust to life as a backup but this is the mix they have. If all goes well, Schneider will stay healthy and the backup will perform capably. If Schneider goes down though, things may get kinda rough in the crease.

Grade: C+

Management: After the team's financial woes became too much to bear, former owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek sold the team to an ownership group headed by Joshua Harris. So far, the team does not resemble one that will be spending closer to the floor than the cap, so that's encouraging. GM Lou Lamoriello has been the Devils GM for 27 years and still makes the moves necessary to field a competitive team. It all comes down to how coach Peter DeBoer fares this year. After leading the team to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012, DeBoer saw the team miss the playoffs for the following two seasons and essentially has this season to figure it out.

Grade: B-

Prediction: On the playoff bubble, if not missing the playoffs altogether.

This team, in theory, should work to at least spoil the opposition, if not make their own case to make the playoffs. Yet with inconsistency on offense, immaturity on defense, and lack of depth in the crease, it's going to take a collective effort for the team to get itself over the obstacles that will come up over an 82-game season. Will they have it in them, or will adversity prove to be their undoing?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Season Preview 2014-15: Nashville Predators

2014-15 Season Previews: Nashville Predators

Team M.O.: The team had long been a low-budget, defense-first team that acted as the spoiler for opponents in the Western Conference. Yet as the game had changed, so must the Nashville Predators. This season, the team will experiment with a more up-tempo offensive driven system in an effort to make them competitive against the talented Western Conference.

Last Season: After two consecutive seasons of reaching the Conference Semifinals (back in 2010-11 and 2011-12), the team regressed and was on the outside looking in for the two seasons after the lockout. Last year, they finished 38-32-12 (with 88 points), which was enough for GM David Poile (the only GM the franchise has ever known) to allow Barry Trotz (the only coach the franchise has ever known) to walk away to the Washington Captials. Coach Peter Laviolette will take over as the second-ever coach for the team.

Offense: The Predators did make some moves to bolster up their offensive depth. One of which was signing the most coveted centers of 2007-08 (though too bad they're not nearly as dominant as they were seven years ago.)

With Mike Fisher on the shelf with injury concerns, the team signed the offensively-minded Olli Jokinen, oft-injured playmaker Derek Roy, and the talented yet behaviorally-challenged Mike Ribeiro to inexpensive one-year deals that say "You have this season to show you still belong in the NHL." Jokinen has the most overall talent, but he's not getting younger and still raises questions about his defensive game (and his reputation of being a difficult player to work with is one that make be stuck with him until retirement.) Ribeiro was unceremoniously dumped by the Arizona Coyotes in the off-season and while he may get it together this season, one has to wonder if he went to Nashville because he work out his welcome anywhere else. Roy is the X-factor here; he's sought out assistance to bolster his conditioning in the off-season, and a healthy Roy has the potential to outshine everyone else. We'd love to be discussing Calle Jarnkrok for one of these spots, but he struggled heavily in the faceoff circle last season and the team obviously sees him as a center instead of a winger. You'd think that Colin Wilson would be in that discussion as well, but he seems better suited as a winger and still has to prove he can be productive at the NHL level.

Speaking of wingers, the team went and landed James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins, who should give the team a big offensive presence (even if he isn't lining up next to Sid and Geno any longer.) Craig Smith is also coming into his own as a legitimate scoring winger for the club and factors to give them a much needed source of scoring. Matt Cullen isn't getting any younger, but still gives them an experienced, versatile playmaker who'll hopefully find the requisite chemistry with the newcomers to provide offense on a semi-consistent basis. The team would do well to find a power forward (or a scorer if Neal could fill that role). The team may be tempted to put Filip Forsberg in that spot, but it may not be a bad idea to let him go into the minors and perhaps let one of the spare centers play wing.

The lower depth looks decent for the Predators, even if it's more meat-and-potatoes as opposed to caviar. Paul Gaustad gives the team a faceoff machine who isn't afraid to mix up the rough stuff. Eric Nystrom looks good as a grinder while Viktor Stalberg should be able to use his speed for defensive purposes (he lacks the production of a top-flight winger.) Gabriel Bourque should provide defensive presence in the forward ranks while Rich Clune serves as the middleweight agitator who's pretty tough.

Fisher will be missed because while he had been the de-facto top center, his two-way ability will likely see him on the third unit when he returns. Another tough guy to compliment Clune would be ideal, but the team may need skill more than toughness. There's a lot of playmaking ability there, but they could benefit from someone stepping up and establishing themselves as a trigger man. As good as the offense may seem to some on paper, there's a few questions about the character of the older newcomers and the ability of the young guys who're still evolving.

Grade: C

Defense: If there were any doubts as to whether or not Shea Weber could be as productive without Ryan Suter, those questions went out the window after last season. Roman Josi looked pretty spectacular for the club as well and should be capable of filling the role that was left open with Suter's departure. Seth Jones did well in terms of the offensive aspects of his game, but will need to be more reliable at his defensive game if he's to secure a spot on the second pairing (give the kid credit though, he's not even 20 yet and is doing well when all things are considered.) Anton Volchenkov was acquired through free agency to provide the team with a veteran shutdown defenseman (even if he won't do much else other than defend.) Mattias Ekholm looks like he's made the jump to the big roster and should do fine as long as he can keep his game simple. The team has Victor Bartley and restricted free agent Ryan Ellis to round out the group; both could play the puck-mover role well but neither provide the club with the physical presence that they could use at that portion of the depth chart.

One day, Josi and Jones will rise to dominance as Weber should still be a key contributor for years to come. Until then, the defense is evolving due to the team having young bucks in key roles. A physical presence on defense would be nice as well, and this could be better addressed from within (by prospects Jaynen Rissling or Jonathan Diaby) instead of making any additional moves.

Grade: B-

Goaltending: Normally, this is the part where everyone goes gaga over Pekka Rinne, but there's a few red flags in regards to how his season may go. First off, the system is going to change, and while the old system mdressed the goaltenders up rather well, it's not like former starters Tomas Vokoun and Chris Mason went on to have a crazy level of success once they left the team. Further, even though Rinne has seemingly overcome the injury issues he suffered last season, the last two years have been statistically "good" but not "great." He's going to need to prove that the past two seasons were an anomaly.

Carter Hutton was given the opportunity to backup Rinne last season and did relatively well in relief. The injury concerns also thrust youngster Marek Mazanec into game action this past season, but he'd be better off starting off in the minors so he can get better acclimated to North American ice rinks. Same can be said for Magnus Hellberg, who seems to be getting it, but has required a bit more patience with his own development in comparison to Mazanec.

All and all, the goaltending is capable and there's a lot to be excited about. It all rests on how well Rinne can bounce back and if another season's worth of development can thrust Mazanec into contention for an NHL job.

Grade: B+

Management: Peter Laviolette may have flamed out with the Philadelphia Flyers, but he still managed to get a Flyers team without a solid starting goaltender to the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals (in addition to the Stanley Cup he won in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes.) Poile may not assemble the most exciting rosters on paper, but he does what he can with the budget constraints imposed upon him. At this point, the formula for success depends on how tight the ownership is with a buck. No one expects them to spend to the cap, but there has to be a point where their lack of spending comes to bite them in the behind. Dynamic players don't generally come cheap and while the investment in Weber and Rinne are promising, they could stand to land an elite forward to kick the club into overdrive.

Grade: B-

Prediction: Out of the playoffs due system changes (if not the potential for locker-room cancer.)

Here's a fun fact: The only time Olli Jokinen has ever made it to the playoffs was when the playoff-bound Calgary Flames acquired him at the trade deadline prior to the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs (in which the Flames lost in the Western Conference Quarterfinals and haven't been back since.) Though things could certainly swing in the opposite direction, it's mostly fair to expect that it will take a season or two for the team to adapt to Laviolette's style of playing. If the older guys can act like leaders, then everyone will win. But if Jokinen and Ribeiro act like they're more important than the rest of the team, it's going to be a painful season in Nashville.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Season Preview 2014-15: Montreal Canadiens

2014-15 Season Previews: Montreal Canadiens

Team M.O.: "Les Glorieux" are the most prolific hockey team in NHL history, having won no less than 24 Stanley Cups. The team hadn't been as dominant in recent history, so former GM Bob Gainey was relieved of his duties as Marc Bergevin took over the reigns. Bergevin installed coach Michel Therrien and the two went to work in an effort to improve the fortunes of the Canadiens.

Last Season: The team posted a respectable 46-28-8 record, good for 100 points during the regular season. The team swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, defeated the Boston Bruins in a grueling seven game series during the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but were eliminated by the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Offense: There seems to be a lot of playmaking forwards and not enough goal scorers amongst their mix of offensive forwards. Luckily for them, they have Max Pacioretty, who put up 39 goals last season and should be a regular to hit the 30 goal mark for at least the next few seasons. Tomas Plekanec remains the team's reliable first-line center (who'd look good with the captaincy, to be honest) while David Desharnais has come to life as a legitimate playmaking center. After completing their first full NHL seasons, Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk look poised to become regular contributors on offense (Galchenyuk likely has more goal scoring potential, but Gallagher plays with intensity despite his size.) The team signed PA Parenteau from the Colorado Avalanche to provide an offensive boost. That's a good mix, though they'll have to lean on each other to produce goals (save Pacioretty.)

The bottom six is decent, though any offensive production will likely be hard to come by. Lars Eller might have the ability to put up more points if used on a higher line, but he's likely being groomed to eventually take Plekanec's spot in the top-six and will be used for his defensive prowess in the meantime. Remember when Rene Bourque could provide second-line production? Those days seem gone, but he can at least provide the team with a solid checking winger. The checking unit is fortified with grit, as Travis Moen gives the team an important grinder while Brandon Prust is better than your average agitator. Dale Weise would be the enforcer in a perfect world, but his fighting ability doesn't scare anyone and is best used as a straight checking forward. Michael Bournival made the transition to the NHL as a checking forward; will he ever ascend beyond that or will that be his role going forward?

The team made some other depth free agent acquisitions to round out the group. Manny Malhotra was acquired through free agency to give the team a faceoff specialist while undrafted forward Jiri Sekac joined on with the Canadiens after spending last season in Russia (though he played junior hockey in North America, so the transition shouldn't be extreme for him.)

All and all, the forward group is decent and serviceable. They have a lot of young guys who're going to need to take steps forward offensively, and the team will need to show that they don't need to lean on Prust for team defense. They aren't the most exciting forward group out there, but it serves them well.

Grade: B

Defense:Wow, talk about a well-assembled group of defensemen.

P.K. Subban's come to life for the Canadiens and though his new contract may be expensive, the Canadiens are getting what they're paying for (and offensively skilled defeseman with the tenacity to hit.) Andrei Markov managed to avoid the injury bug last season and did rather well as the team's shot-blockin' power play quarterback. Alexei Emelin's ready to return as a second-pairing defender, but will injuries affect his overall potential this season? The team needed a two-way defender to accompany him regardless, and landed Tom Gilbert through free agency to fill the role.

The third pairing looks well rounded. Though Mike Weaver figures to be more of a defensive defender, he got the mobility to serve as a third-pairing puck mover. Nathan Beaulieu will likely challenge him for this position, but he could also serve the team by playing a defensively simple game. Jarred Tinordi is both tough and young, giving them the necessary component of grit on their lower pairings.

That looks like a solid mix of defenders. Barring any injury problems, they should do rather well on the blueline this season.

Grade: A

Goaltending: Carey Price's time is now and there's no doubt that he is a capable starting goaltender. Peter Budaj has been the reliable backup up to this point, but a faltering playoff performance may have Dustin Tokarski looking like a better option in the crease. The club also acquired Joey MacDonald as a free agent, who'll likely report to their minor league affiliate at the start of the season to give them a good (but not great) backup option should something else happen to their goaltenders (he's getting $300K in the minors though, so they'll likely keep him down there ahead of Tokarski or Budaj.)

It's a good thing the AHL veteran limit rule doesn't apply to goaltenders, otherwise they'd potentially be using the spots in the crease. Just the same though, they've got a decent starting goaltender, a young guy who looks like he could be a solid 1A, a legitimate backup, and a depth goaltender with NHL experience. That's a pretty good mix right there.

Grade: A

Management: It's not hard to be the owner for one of hockey's most profitable teams, and the Molson family has done well to ensure the finances are there for the Canadiens to be a contender. Bergevin has put his seal of approval on a team that seemingly gets better by the season under his watch. It's on Therrien to get this squad going and while he's had success with talented teams in the past, he has to show capable of taking the next step to lead the team to it's first Championship in over 20 years.

Grade: B

Prediction: A decent playoff team with the potential to go deep.

The team's above-average offensive group is complemented by a well-crafted defense and some solid options in net. They should make the playoffs and if last season was any indication, they could factor to be in the mix for the Eastern Conference Finals. It would be nice for the fans if they made the Stanley Cup Finals, but there may be a handful of other teams who cold solve them if the offense runs out.