Friday, August 15, 2014

Season Preview 2014-15: Florida Panthers

2014-15 Season Previews: Florida Panthers

Team M.O.: Previously, this was a team that had a defense-first style of hockey until GM Dale Tallon took over. Since then, the team has tried to roll three scoring lines (who were also expected to be defensively responsible) in addition to a fourth checking unit. After making the playoffs in the 2011-12 season (which ended a 12 year playoff drought for the club), the team took a significant step backwards (despite the fact that many of their prospects should've been coming into their own.) This ultimately cost both former head coach Kevin Dineen and former interim coach Peter Horachek their jobs. For good reason, too...

Last Season: The team won.... the lottery for first overall pick at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft because of their 29-45-8 record, good for 66 points and second to last in the Eastern Conference. The team selected defensive stud Aaron Ekblad, whom the team was hopeful would be competing for a spot at camp until he suffered a concussion at a Team Canada exhibition game. Don Cherry was not pleased.

Offense: If there's a word to describe the performance of the Panthers offense last season, it would be disappointing as a whole.

Now, it's wasn't all doom and gloom last season (and the team made some legit moves in the off-season to help stabilize the forward corps.) Regardless of whomever gets the captaincy this season, this is Nick Bjugstad's team going forward (and it's his to win or lose.) He was, without question, the guy that responded when the team leaned on him. Scottie Upshall did well considering he played a similar style during his time in Phoenix; he may never kick it up another gear but can still offer top-six point production (whenever he avoids the injury bug.) Aleksander Barkov may not have lit up the scoresheet, but he did show that he can be a capable defensive presence (and at age 19, should find his scoring touch at the NHL level as he grows.) For better or worse, Sean Bergenheim seems to have found a team he can be productive in, yet remains the guy who's good at everything but great at nothing. Tomas Kopecky took a step back in his production last season, but was still defensively responsible; this is a contract year for him so expect him to do what he can to produce. Quinton Howden had an audition last season as a penalty killer and did well in the role, could he have a full-time job with the Panthers this season? Depth forwards Bobby Butler and Joey Crabb may try and make a case of their own as well.

As for the bad.... Can someone explain how Tomas Fleischmann only put up 28 points last season?!?!?!?! That's astounding, and not in a good way. Yes the guy's had health problems in the past, but he's capable of so much more. Jonathan Huberdeau followed up a Calder Trophy-winning campaign in 2012-13 with a disappointing 28 point campaign this past season; hopefully he regains some swagger and can avoid the sophomore slump. Brad Boyes is doing well as a shootout specialist, but the team needs him to be contributing offense during regulation time on a more consistent basis than he has.

The team did well to upgrade their offense during the off-season when you consider who all was available. The team went out and landed Jussi Jokinen as a free agent from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even before skating for the Pens, he was still a capable (and versatile) point producer who should work well within the team's system. Dave Bolland (another Tallon guy) comes to the club after a somewhat disappointing season with the Toronto Maple Leafs (and even then, he was still serviceable for them.) He should benefit from playing in this style of system giving how his own game works. Derek MacKenzie was acquired as a free agent from the Columbus Blue Jackets and gives them an established defensive center for the fourth unit (though he may have to compete with the young Brandon Pirri for that role.) Shawn Thornton comes over from the Boston Bruins, giving the team an enforcer who can provide leadership for some of the younger guys.

If there's anyone to call out in particular, it's Jimmy Hayes. Why? Because considering his draft pick status and size, it's up to him to grab the spot of the team's power forward and do the team's dirty work (but if he can lead the team in hits, he'll hopefully he'll also be a leader amongst point producers.) Otherwise, the tools are there, but it's on newly minted coach Gerard Gallant to get them all on the same page.

Grade: B If Executed Properly.

Defense: Damn. Talk about a lot of potential yet lack of execution last season. These guys seem like they could use a leader...

... Oh hey, it's Willie Mitchell! A veteran defender who knows how to lead kids to Stanley Cups. That's good, because they've got a fantastic group of kids who lack guidance.

Though Dmitry Kulikov was a punisher on the blueline last season, he took a step back in his offensive production. Will he project to being a solid two-way defender, or can he become the guy they call upon in all game situations? He'll have the chance to prove that if Ekblad is out for an extended period of time. Erik Gudbranson is a capable physical defenseman, but a third overall pick is generally expected to produce more than that (but if the rest of the team does well and he develops a niche, then that'll work just the same.) Dylan Olsen did well in spot-duty during the past season and should be a viable candidate to fill a defensive defenseman rather well (and he certainly has the size to do it well.) The team needs a puck mover in that mix, both Alex Petrovic and Colby Robak will likely compete for that role.

If there's one disappointing development in the off-season, it's with Brian Campbell. He wore the "A" last year and is a top-4 (if not first-pairing) offensive defenseman. But his leadership capabilities have now come into question after a trade request; which remarkably lacks cognizance to his cap hit ($7,142,875/year) and his overall lack of defensive presence. Unless he leveraged that to make the management act in the off-season (which they did), it's pretty disappointing to hear that. He means a lot to that club and should feel vested instead of disengaged.

The good news is that the potential is there (and hopefully, the leadership.) It's just unproven, and more has to be done to overcome that.

Grade: B If The Growing Pains Stop

Goaltending: If there's a spot that's a mix of complete and proven on the squad, it's their goaltending.

Bobby Lu (okay, Roberto Luongo) came back to Miami last season in trade from the Vancouver Canucks (which had to happen after Vancouver grossly mishandled their goaltending situation.) He should do better now that he's not under the microscope like he was in Vancouver. Al Montoya was signed as a free agent from the Winnipeg Jets to help solidify their goaltending situation; he hasn't cut out a niche as a starting goaltender, but looked good in 28 appearances last season and is a deft puck-handler in the mold of Martin Brodeur or Marty Turco. Dan Ellis was retained after being acquired from the Dallas Stars last season, but he'd be better off starting the season off in the minors at this stage of his career because his performances range between serviceable and downright awful. Prospects Sam Brittain and Michael Houser round out their minor-league depth.

Last season, the team started off with the platoon of rookie Jacob Markstrom and veteran Tim Thomas - who sat out the entire 2012-13 season - which led to terrible results (and cost both their jobs with the Panthers by the end of the season.) In this mix, you have a bonafide starting goaltender, a goaltender who has the tools to be a solid 1A, and a guy who's an inconsistent-yet-decent backup helping the kids out on the farm. This is as good of a mix in crease as any team will have.

Grade: A

Management: Give GM Tallon credit, he's doing everything he can to get the Panthers back to respectability after dealing with both a lockout and the Olympic break. Vinnie Viola has also done well in spending the necessary dollars to get competitive players on the club. Enter Gallant, who didn't dazzle the league when he was the coach in Columbus, but should've gotten an idea of how to win during his time with the Montreal Canadiens. Here's to hoping that he can guide the team to victory more often than not this season.

For the record, this blog will always remember Gallant as #17 and rockin' the A. Make sure you rib that guy who runs the other team in Florida, will ya Jerry?

Grade: Inc.

Prediction: Depends on which team we see this season.

On paper, the team shouldn't have been as bad as they were last year. This team has the tools to at least challenge for a playoff spot. If the team takes a step forward, then all will be good. If they're still contending for a lottery pick after this season, then the team may throw that ugly "rebuild" word around again. If that happens, the other "r" word - relocate - may not be too far off in the future.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

We Interupt Your Season Previews To Bring You The Following....

It's hard to say if it was coincidental with Puck Daddy/Yahoo's publication of the the league's new terms and services, but since then, Extra Skater has gone dark and it's possible other advanced stats may be forced to follow.

Make no mistake, the NHL does provide some rather advanced stats. But even if they do "own the rights", it's not like there's not other sites out there who don't provide the basic stats as it is. It's pretty silly to try to restrict who can and cannot use it. Besides, what's the worst that happens? A few blogger nerds get into a fight over who's the better player over the other? C'mon. They might even hire a guy because of it.

Don't get it wrong, no one should advocate for piracy, misrepresentation, or anything like that; and if the league can provide it, great. It's just that we're seemingly having this fight with our own government (which, if in L.A...)" Let's not have it in hockey, too.

Peace...

Bruise Brothers

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Season Preview 2014-15: Edmonton Oilers

2014-15 Season Previews: Edmonton Oilers

Team M.O.: The Edmonton Oilers used to be one of hockey's premier dynasties and though economics supposedly dismantled the team when "the trade" happened, they were still able to ice some pretty good squads during that time. Well the 2004-05 lockout ends, the Oilers make it to the Stanley Cup Finals during the 2006 Playoffs... and everything has since fallen off a cliff to the point where they're continually rebuilding.

Last Season: The team finished last in the Western Conference with a record of 29-44-9 (67 points.) The team selected Leon Draisaitl with the third overall selection in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

Offense: Make no mistake, this would probably be a great squad if this was still the run and gun era of the 1980s. Unfortunately for the team, it's 2014 and puck-possession seems to trump firepower nowadays.

The team has a glut of young scoring forwards to the point where there it would seem logical to dangle one of them out there to shore up the other things they need on the team. Taylor Hall won't be on the move, though, as he's a consistent scorer (who averages over a point per game) and is the most dominant force on their offense. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has taken a slight step back from his production, but still gives the team a serviceable playmaker who's merely 21 and still has a whole lot of room to grow. Jordan Eberle, the old man of the group at 24, is an emerging scoring forward who'll give the Oilers offense another source of production.

The Oilers will likely turn to Draisaitl on the second unit if they can't get a playmaking center onto the roster before training camp. Shoring up the second scoring unit appears to be David Perron (who was relatively effective after being acquired from the St. Louis Blues) and Teddy Purcell (who'll need to prove he's capable of producing points now that he no longer plays for the Tampa Bay Lighting.) How will this affect scoring winger Nail Yakupov? Though the player was lauded for having a decent rookie campaign, his sophomore campaign was a disaster (for all intents and purposes) which saw him routinely scratched by the time the season came to a close. If they can't use him as a scoring forward, they may do better to let him have a fresh start elsewhere.

Though it would be nice for them to have a third scoring line with the remaining forward, there really isn't a center that permits it (though the team did land winger Benoit Pouliot in free agency, who should bring a bit of offensive production for the checking lines.) Boyd Gordon is best suited for a defensive role in the middle while Mark Arcobello (who just signed a one way deal) looks to be the team's full-time faceoff specialist on the fourth unit (though Anton Lander and Will Acton will likely get to audition for an NHL job at camp as well.) Matt Hendricks gives the team a reliable grinder while Luke Gazdic can act as the enforcer/general $#!+ starter. Jesse Joensuu should round out the group as a jack of all trades type of player, even if he isn't a master of any.

The grade for the team's offense can't be made based on any individuals skill or potential but rather the sum of it's parts. The good news is that the young core of forwards are the talented type of players the team would want to build a good support cast around. The bad news is that it feels as if the team's leadership is trying to see what sticks to the wall (and hopes that it works.) It's great that the team has talented scorers and some defensive minded players, but who's the team's power forward? How solid are their penalty killers? There's a lot of potential, but too many questions to ask to feel inspired by their offense.

Grade: C

Defense: Firepower from the blueline is beyond lacking. Though there's a few guys on the team who should give them a reliable shutdown defender (or two), one has to wonder if they made the right moves going into the season.

Justin Schultz is holding out for a better payday after spurring the team who drafted him (the Anaheim Ducks) to join up with the Oilers. Was he the team's most productive blueliner last year? Sure, but he's also something of a defensive liability, which cuts into his overall effectiveness. Team captain Andrew Ference and Jeff Petry give the club two solid shutdown defenders, but offensive production from them will likely be limited at best. The team signed Mark Fayne to be a competent puck-mover, yet acquired Nikita Nikitin from the Columbus Blue Jackets to essentially hold the same role. Martin Marincin was pretty steady in a defensive role for the club last year and is, at worst, a serviceable third-pairing defenseman (who has the potential to become more than that for the club.) Seeing as how there's a remaining spot on defense, it will likely be filled internally by either Oscar Klefbom or Keith Aulie (though the team could certainly use someone in David Musil's mold, even if he isn't ready.)

There's too many questions amongst this crop of defenders to know who's going to push them over the hump for the season. Who's the defender they can go to if things get tough? Who's the two-way defender who can help produce secondary points from the blueline? Who's the physical defenseman who can keep the flies off? This isn't a situation like Detroit's where they have guys who aren't living up to their roster, but rather too many of the "same" type of player and not enough game changers.

Grade: F

Goaltending: Similar to the Buffalo Sabres, the team's going into the season with two goaltenders who've proven to be solid backup options, but neither has grabbed the brass ring to be a bonafide starter yet.

Ben Scrivens (on his third team in two seasons) appears to be the de facto starter. Though he barely broke the 40 game mark last season (with... 40 games played) his individual stats appear promising (even if his totals were slightly inflated by backstopping the Los Angeles Kings prior to the trade deadline.) Viktor Fasth (who came over in trade from the Ducks) has shown flashes of brilliance, but tends to follow that up with inconsistent play. Richard Bachman, an established third-stringer who could prove to be a capable backup, will join the team for call-up duty and will help with the youth movement in the minors.

Now, it's not necessarily all doom and gloom, as the Scrivens/Fasth tandem has the potential to do well for the club. It just isn't proven, and needs to be for any questions or doubts to be erased.

Grade: C

Management: It kinda seems as if owner Daryl Katz is more interested in maintaining the "Old Boy's club" than he is interested in building a winning hockey club.

Craig MacTavish parlayed an inconsistent coaching career (1 Stanley Cup Finals appearance, 2 Western Conference Semifinals appearances, and 5 seasons where the team missed the playoffs) into a role as the team's General Manager. One would think that they'd consider a different direction but he's apparently their guy. Coach Dallas Eakins will return with his second season with the club, he himself simply hasn't proven to be anything other than a sort-of-successful minor league coach.

It's understandable that the Oilers may not be a hot market for players to go to, but you mean to tell me that they couldn't have made a play for a guy like Dan Bylsma? I know they don't wanna pay Eakins to sit at home but there's a proven winner on the market (and the team could stand to do something drastic to help change their losing ways.) Otherwise, you've got a guy throwing money at a GM who gets a nostalgia pop (at best) and a coach who hasn't shown that he can work with the players instead of against them.

Grade: F

Prediction: Out of the playoffs because the team will still make a buck regardless.

After losing the Winnipeg Jets and the Quebec Nordiques in the 90's due to economics, Canadian hockey fans are reluctant to show anything but 110% for their hockey club (no matter how poor or how badly managed the team is.) Due to this, the Oilers will make money regardless if they win or lose. If they manage to do the unexpected and put together a fantastic year, then good for them. Otherwise, perhaps the fans need to do a Detroit Lions-style blackout (where the seats are paid but there's no butts in them) to wake up a team that sees its fan base as an ATM.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Season Preview 2014-15: Detroit Red Wings

2014-15 Season Previews: Detroit Red Wings

Team M.O.: Up until recently, it was hard not to be envious of the Detroit Red Wings. No other team in recent history has had the dramatic effect on the overall game that the Red Wings have had. Their puck-possession style of hockey innovated the way the game was played in North America, they've had a playoff run that's spanned 23 seasons (most likely 24 if the 2004-05 lockout never occurred), and their fans are well traveled. However, their old guard from their glory years have since hung up the skates while the two current stars of the team (Pavel Datsyuk and Hendrik Zetterberg) aren't getting much younger. The team made the playoffs last season, but do they have enough in the tank to do the same this season?

Last Season: After finding themselves out of playoff contention going into the Winter Classic, the Red Wings surged ahead and secured the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference with a 39-28-15 record (good for 93 points.) The good times ended there, however, as the Boston Bruins eliminated the Wings in 5 games during the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Offense: Though many analysts will glance at the list of forwards and discredit it due to lack of star power, the team's got a solid core of forwards which are capable of getting the job done.

As stated before, Datsyuk and Zetterberg aren't getting any younger and both missed roughly half the season last year. Though both gave the team point-per-game point production during the playoffs, it was "too little, too late" for the 21 other guys who had to make up for their absence (that's not a knock against the other players, but rather an indication as to how much these two mean to the squad.) One of them (namely Zetterberg) should be more than able to play one the wing for the other; largely because the remaining logjam at center is ridiculous (and would provide excellent trade bait for that right-handed offensive defenseman they covet... more on that in a little bit.) Riley Sheahan's done riding the bus along I-96 between Detroit and Grand Rapids, as his two-way play (and loss of waiver-exempt status) all but assure he'll get a spot with the big club next season. Stephen Weiss (who was brought in last season to be the team's second-line center) had a disastrous campaign that saw him go out early due to injury; leaving fans to wonder if he'll ever be the player for Detroit that he was for the Florida Panthers. Speedy Darren Helm brings an amazing level of speed to the team (so fast we had to say it twice), but he's gotta avoid the injury bug so the team can benefit from this. It's not like the team's lacking on defensive centers, however, as both Joakim Andersson and Luke Glendening are more than capable of handling the duties if called upon (though Andersson has a bit more potential, overall.) Andy Miele was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes through free agency and will give the team a depth offensive forward when called upon from Grand Rapids.

Looking on the wings and we see that it's not exactly terrible there either (though this will be supplemented when some of the centers will be asked to play on the wing this season.) Johan Franzen gives the team a capable scoring forward, but the hopes of him having the scoring touch he had pre-lifetime contract are seemingly gone now that he got his payday. Frustrating to be sure, because he'd be a bonafide goal-scoring power forward if he lived up to what he was capable of providing. Scoring from the Wings shouldn't be a problem though, as Gustav Nyquist had an 18.3 shooting percentage (along with 28 regular season goals) to all but assure that he's graduated onto the big club. Tomas Tatar's also a legit scoring winger who fits the Wings mold and looks to further establish himself as an NHL scoring forward. If Daniel Alfredsson opts to retire, then Tomas Jurco could be a contender for one of the spots up front (but Jurco does have the option of going back to the minors if he needs to.)

Rounding out the forwards are the established defensive wingers for the squad. Justin Abdelkader's a favorite to insert on the top lines when coach Mike Babcock likes to line juggle, but his overall skill set makes him better suited for third-line duty on a regular basis. Dan Cleary returns to the club and while some of the Wings fans may not understand the value of this signing, he provides the club with a versatile defensive forward (even if he won't reach the 40-point plateau like he did in his prime.) Drew Miller gives the team a reliable defensive forward and penalty killer, even if he won't factor into the team's offensive production.

As far as the scoring forwards are concerned, the Red Wings need to have their veterans avoid injury to both win and best serve the development of the young guys. As far as the checking forwards are concerned, they have a group which can defend, but not a group that can intimidate. Maybe that worked when they were in the Western Conference, but the Eastern Conference teams are known for playing a rougher style. If they could find a way to insert sandpaper into the lineup (and for Babcock to want to keep them with the main club), they'd do better to avoid the intimidation factor that comes accompanied with playing the tough "traditional" teams in the East.

Grade: B

Defense: A team that used to have Niklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski may be spoiled, but no one would expect them to have a defensive corps that seems both incomplete and perhaps underwhelming.

As far as bright spots are concerned, Niklas Kronwall's done well to pull his weight on offense. He needs to tighten up his puck possession and avoid giveaways, but he's at least managing to give them relatively consistent point production from the blueline. Danny DeKeyser and his camp may be holding out for a better deal from the Red Wings camp, but he'll give the team a reliable two-way defender (once re-signed) who could ultimately blossom into the player that they'd hope Brendan Smith would turn into. Brian Lashoff could stand to improve his fighting skill, but he has the size and overall tenancity to be a solid third-pairing physical defenseman for the club.

Then there's the rest of the defense, which should rightfully leave Wings fans yearning for more. It's possible that Brendan Smith may have been rushed to the league too early (a rarity for Wings players, to be sure) but he hasn't come close to looking like the first rounder who many projected would have a complete game similar to Lidstrom or Kronwall (at this point, it may be more of an issue with maturity than skill.) Jakub Kindl has managed to stick around as a third-pairing puck-mover, yet is getting paid to provide more offense than he actually does. Kyle Quincey does provide the team with an NHL-caliber shutdown defender, but he wasn't the player they needed this off-season; they essentially paid him more to come back than they would've if they hadn't let him go on July 1st as an unrestricted free agent. The big Jonathan Ericsson isn't gifted enough to produce offense, turns the puck over too often to be reliable on defense, and doesn't have the toughness to intimidate opponents on a nightly basis. Though he'd be a decent stay-at-home defender if he could limit the turnovers, he also gets paid to provide so much more for the club.

The X-Factor here is Ryan Sproul, who's a right-handed offensive defenseman in their system (and will no doubt get a long look during camp.) Unless these guys step up their games, though, the team's going to have to make up for their deficiencies on defense.

Grade: D

Goaltending: Being the Red Wings' goaltender is the toughest job in Detroit. Though Detroiters often pride themselves on being knowledgeable when it comes to hockey, they'll far too often blame the goalies when the blame may lie elsewhere at times.

Jimmy Howard has established himself as a proper starting goaltender in the league and is just as every bit as good as he was with Lidstrom in front of him (and it's probably safe to say Lidstrom never turned the puck over as often as the current crop of Detroit defenders do.) Jonas Gustavsson is as good of a backup goaltender as anyone else in the league; he seems content working on a team that's known for it's winning history and Swede culture. If any of them falter, then look for Petr Mrazek to break out of the minors and secure a spot with the big club (he'd be on the NHL squad of any other team, but the Red Wings like to keep players in the minors for as long as permissible by the waiver rules.)

There's other teams that don't have that type of depth in the crease, and the Wings are going to need it if they want a chance at cracking the playoffs again.

Grade: A

Management: A lot of the Wings' faithful lament the lack of transactions that occurred over thew 2014 off-season, some taking it as a sign that former assistant GM Jim Nill was the real brains behind the operation. Yet surprisingly, no one seemed to feel the same when GM Ken Holland landed Alfredsson and Weiss last season without Nill around. A lot of the media makes noise about Babcock's hard-nosed approach to hockey, but his ability to lead a team full of injury replacements to the playoffs proves that his method works. Owner Mike Illitch will stop at nothing to get the right players on the squad, even if he has to open his wallet up in the process.

The Wings have a winning culture and will do what's necessary to keep that culture alive. If playing for a hard-nosed coach is too much for some players, then perhaps they should go find a team where they'll be playing golf come early April.

Grade: A

Prediction: On the playoff bubble.

Some teams would tank to draft higher, but the Red Wings have too much pride. The forwards are decent and the goaltending is rather underrated, but that defense is on par to make many mistakes over the course of an 82 game season. How well the Wings finish is dependent upon how well their defense can limit their turnovers and produce offense. Since they're going into the season with the same underwhelming defensemen they had last year, they're going to need their forwards to score and their goalies to stand up if they wanna keep the streak alive.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Season Preview 2014-15: Dallas Stars

2014-15 Season Previews: Dallas Stars

Team M.O.: One upon a time, there was a team in Texas which was a Stanley Cup Champion in 1999 (and even made it to the finals the season afterwards.) Though the club missed the playoffs in the 2001-02 season, they soon hired a shrewd defensive coach who ensured they made the playoffs on an annual basis (if not finished atop of their division.) Well in 2008, an inexperienced co-GM decides to bring a guy into their locker room who didn't mesh well with the players at all. The locker room threw themselves into a tizzy and it cost the head coach his job. Did things turn around after that? Hardly, as the team had troubles with bankruptcy (though not to the degree of which was publicized by the Arizona Coyotes) and couldn't build a winning club at the time. Once the team had an owner who was tired of losing, they went and secured Jim Nill from the Detroit Red Wings to serve as their General Manager (who went out and acquired Lindy Ruff as their new head coach.) Losing wasn't an option, and a few aggressive moves made last season ensured that wouldn't be the case during their first season with the club.

Last Season: The team ended their five-season playoff drought through securing the final wild card spot with a record of 40-31-11 (91 points.) That's about all they did, though, as the Anaheim Ducks eliminated them within six games in the Western Conference Semifinals.

Offense: If you like centers, this is probably the best 1-2-3 combination since Sid, Geno, and Jordan.

One of Jim Nill's first moves in the 2013 offseason was to acquire top-flight center Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins (who they got in virtue from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Phil Kessel deal.) One of Nill's first moves in the 2014 was to acquire a top playmaking center in Jason Spezza. Put them alongside the emerging Cody Eakin as the industrious two-way center and you've got a group of centers that look fantastic. And if you want to get a faceoff specialist whose as good as his game as those other guys are, then Vern Fiddler is the perfect player to round out the centers. Heck, this team doesn't even need centers to win draws; goal-scoring stud (and team captain) Jamie Benn is pretty fantastic on the draw while Shawn Horcoff can be called upon to take draws for the defensive lines. Travis Morin (and that's Morin, not Moen) could warrant call-up duty, but he seems best suited for the minors (where he also named the 2014 AHL Calder Cup MVP.)

The remaining collection of wingers for the scoring lines isn't as impressive as their centers (and Benn) are, but there's more hopes it will evolve than fall apart. Ales Hemsky certainly gives the team a keen playmaking winger, but can he prove to avoid injury and not be a defensive liability to be effective? Erik Cole will return as the team's power forward, but his point totals are in decline and it's not likely he'll ever get back to the production he was once known for. 19-year-old Valeri Nichushkin's certainly evolving into a top-six (if not first line) two-way forward who'll posted a pretty amazing +20 during the regular season. The team's gonna need another person to round this out, so the players most likely to compete for this spot in camp would be Colton Sceviour, Curtis McKenzie, Brett Ritchie, and Jason Dickinson (if not one of the veterans.) Sceviour may not be a bad candidate to stick around as a reserve offensive forward if he doesn't get a regular top-six spot.

The remaining checking wingers are pretty solid. Ryan Garbutt and Antoine Roussell both play a chippy game and saw point production north of the 30 point mark. Roussell probably has the ability to grow a bit more while Garbutt's entered the prime of his career (but hey, I could think of worse things that being a serviceable top-nine physical forward in the NHL.) Patrick Eaves was signed as a free agent to be a defensive winger, but needs to have better luck avoiding the injury bug than he did while playing in Detroit.

So the center depth is fantastic, the checking wingers are legit, but there's maybe a question or so about the scoring wingers. The X-Factor in all of this is Rich Peverley. If he comes in mid-season, then it's gonna kick everything else up a notch (guy's a legit playmaker and sound faceoff specialist.) If he doesn't, then they still have a competent group of forwards to which the addition of an enforcer and the evolution of their scoring forwards will make elite.

Grade: B+ as a whole, but their centers are A+!

Defense: While the offense is seemingly capable, there's still something about the defense that leaves you wanting more.

We'll start with the good first. Alex Goligoski's doing a solid job as the team's top defender, as he's capable of being productive while playing in any game situation at any time. Trevor Daley is as equally adept in playing in any game situation as a reliable two-way defender (though you'd wish he could show a bit more production.) While Brenden Dillon and Jordie Benn may never tear up the score sheet, they're proving to be fantastic defensive options when going up against the opposition.

Then there's the questionable. Sergei Conchar is entering the final year of his contract, and it's not unreasonable to think he'll limp into retirement as opposed to having his swan song. The team needs a puck-moving defenseman; while Kevin Connauton may be in line for the shot, he hasn't established himself to be the guy and will face plenty of internal competition for the spot. The team could stand to have some sandpaper on the bottom line; can Cameron Gaunce prove that he should stick with the big club this season?

If you like meat and potatoes from your defense, this group's for you. However, most would want a bit more production from the back end, and in the end, that makes the blueline seem average as opposed to extraordinary. If it all works out, Gonchar would be healthy (and productive) while Connauton would establish himself as the team's proper third-pairing puck mover. Yet if it fizzles, the team will have to address their offensive deficiencies from the blueline to remain competitve.

Grade: C+

Goaltending: The problem with the goaltending isn't that there isn't a capable starter, but rather the lack of proven "go-to" guy to give the starter the rest he'll need during the regular season.

Kari Lehtonen has made the "Hamburgler" jokes a thing of the past as he's proven capable since coming over to the stars. Yet while he doesn't have a whole lot of playoff experience to fall back on, it's a bit much to expect someone who starts in 65 regular season games to be just as dominant come playoff time. Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas were both signed to one-way deals in the offseason (with Rynnas getting a two-year contract) to compete for the backup goaltender role on the club. Lindback had the NHL experience last season, but didn't exactly put up inspiring numbers in limited game time during the regular season and was not able to bail out his former club when called upon for playoff duty. Rynnas did well last season in Europe, but hasn't established himself as a full-time player in North America (let alone the NHL level.) It doesn't make any sense to talk about Jack Campbell at this point, as pulling him out of the minors would be developmental suicide.

Was there something the team didn't like about getting a guy like Martin Brodeur in the club? Good luck to the goaltending squad (though if the coaches turn water into wine with in the crease, they deserve more than simply an award.)

Grade: C-

Management: Despite the fact that the team is rebuilding (for all intents and purposes), you have to give credit to Nill for making moves to solidify the blueline defensively and significantly improving the forwards. As far as Ruff is concerned, you don't remain the head coach of a team for 15 years if you don't know how to communicate with players and extract talent from them. He's in a good place to be as their coach.

They'll need a few years to prove they're championship caliber, but they're certainly off to a solid start.

Grade: A

Prediction: On the playoff bubble.

It's a bit unreasonable to expect that Nill was going to field them into a true playoff contender overnight. They were fortunate to get into the playoffs this past season, but will need to have solid performances from the team on a nightly basis to reach the Top 8 in a talented conference. If they do, then good for time. If not, then the team would do well to take the higher-than-average draft pick and go for a goaltender or defender.

Season Preview 2014-15: Columbus Blue Jackets

Editor's Note: Sorry for the absence the past few days, we'll get back on track here before long.

2014-15 Season Previews: Columbus Blue Jackets

Team M.O.: The team had been known as the punching bag for the rest of the NHL for too long. Tired of being the team that free agents don't come to (or one where players try to negotiate their way out of town because of managerial ineptitude), the team acquired Jarmo Kekalainen to act as the team's General Manager and John Davidson to act as the team's President. Deeming coach Todd Richards to have good enough tools to help them succeed, the team went forward as they pressed into the 2013-14 season.

Last Season: A record of 43-32-7 for 93 points was sufficient enough for them to secure the first wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs (their second playoff appearance in franchise history.) Though they set the milestones for first playoff win and first home playoff win, they were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games during the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Offense: The forwards aren't spectacular. But for all intents and purposes, the team looks like it will field a squad that's built complete and ready to compete this season.

The whole Ryan Johansen holdout deal's a downer; sure players should be paid what their worth, but a player shouldn't be holding out after one productive season on a three year entry-level deal (certainly not when the gap is reportedly in the $3M range.) Brandon Dubinsky didn't hold out though, he signed a two year extension and is in the mix to be the team's next captain. Nathan Horton returns as last season's big free agent acquisition who is a solid scoring winger, but has to do anything possible to avoid injury problems if he wishes to be a constant factor night in/night out. Speaking of acquisitions, the team landed Scott Hartnell in a trade from the Philadelphia Flyers; though Hartnell likes to hit and stir the pot, he'll have to prove that he can still provide top-six production when not skating next to someone of Claude Giroux's caliber. Cam Atkinson, however, has given the team solid second-line production for the past few seasons; he's only 25 so it's possible he still has enough room to take his game up a notch and become someone who gives the team 60 points as the classic "small but useful point producing forward." Boone Jenner will likely round out the top-six forward corps, as he's found some success playing wing for the squad as he develops into an all-around NHL player.

Things certainly aren't terrible as far as the "bottom-six" goes; the team may even be able to fashion a third scoring unit from some of the players at that side of the depth chart as well. Artem Anisimov gives the team a reliable third-line center who coaches really hope can start to generate the production of a legitimate top-six forward. Matt Calvert's a speedy forward who's adept at both providing offense and killing penalties and though he may challenge Jenner (or anyone else) for top-six ice time, he might be best suited as a third-line forward. Nick Foligno's the team's "Heinz 57" type of player who would make a solid third-line addition to any club (and would look rather well next to Calvert and Anisimov.)

The guys rounding out the fourth unit are the types that you'd expect to be there. Mark Letestu's proven to be effective as the team's go-to guy on faceoffs (his point production is also pretty decent given his role), Corey Tropp gives the team a good (if unspectacular) defensive forward, and Jared Boll returns as the chief enforcer and $#!+-starter to throw everyone else off their games. The team signed Simon Hjalmarsson out of the Swedish Hockey League and Brian Gibbons from the Pittsburgh Penguins; the duo will likely be competing with Dana Tyrell for a roster position as well as Blue Jackets prospects Kerby Rychel and Alexander Wennberg.

In a perfect world, Tropp could establish himself as a reliable agitator, Johansen will re-sign at a deal that makes sense, and Horton will avoid the injury bug this year. Yet since life is imperfect, the same can be said for their group's potential this year. However, the team's still above-average in that regard and don't look to have any glaring deficiencies. They'll just need to play a team-first game and follow the system if they wanna have a shot at strolling into the post season this year.

Grade: B-

Defense: It's not a matter of question as to whether or not the team will get offense from their blueline this season, but rather will they get defense from their blueline.

Jack Johnson is a go-to guy for offense from the back end (including posting 7 points in 6 playoff games) who also leads the team in hits and blocked shots. That sounds great until you also realize he leads the team in giveaways as well; he's gonna have to cut that out if he wants to deliver an optimum performance for the club. James Wisniewski put up a franchise record for points from a defenseman last year, but will need to limit the antics to perform at the level which he's capable of performing at. Fedor Tyutin is a tireless two-way defender who's supplemental stats are looking better now that he doesn't play on a poor team. Young defender Ryan Murray may still be best suited on a second-line pairing for now, but he'll likely get a taste of first-pairing action if injuries or poor play arise. David Savard's the invaluable third-pairing puck mover who'll likely line up next to physical defenseman Dalton Prout. Tim Erixon signed a one-way contract over the summer and factors to round out the defensive corps; he should ideally give them a stay-at-home defenseman who can play the puck-mover role if need be. Frederic St. Denis and Cody Goloubef signed two-way deals over the summer and will likely act as injury call-ups during the season.

Much like the offense, it's not spectacular, but it's "there." It would be best if there was a bit more security from the blueline instead of firepower, but it should be on the guys in their roles to figure that out as opposed to having a team that didn't have the right components.

Grade: B-

Goaltending: As a whole, the goaltending isn't bad. In a few years' time, this could also be the brightest spot on the club as well.

Sergei Bobrovsky went from being a guy who the Philadelphia Flyers couldn't see as a starting goaltender to being the Vezina Trophy winner in 2013. Whoops! He didn't show any sign of slowing down last season either after posting a 35-20-5 record (though he'll need to readjust to the expectations of being on a playoff team if he's gonna be the dude who carries the team deep into the playoffs.) Journeyman goaltender Curtis McElhinney seems to have found a home with the Blue Jackets (at least for now.) He's not spectacular, but he's certainly an adequate option to back up Bobrovsky while the youth movement comes to fruition. Speaking of which, Oscar Dansk and Joonas Korpisalo were both signed to entry-level deals last spring while Anton Forsberg signed an entry-level deal the season before (and did rather well in limited contests in the minor leagues.) Though the three should be tabbed for duty either in the minors or Europe, it's only a matter of time until at least one of them develop into an NHL-level goaltender.

Would it be nice if there was someone else with a hair more talent backing up Bobrovsky? Sure. But with the promising goaltenders they have now graduating from Junior/Europe to the North American professional system, the song stands to be merrier sooner than later (maybe as early as next season.)

Grade: B+

Management: Give Davidson and Kekalainen an immense amount of credit, as they came in and established a culture of winning almost overnight for the previously moribund club. However, Todd Richards needs to prove that he's capable of being an NHL-level coach after enjoying success in the minor leagues. Making the playoffs this past season was a good place to start, but questions will be asked if they don't make it that far this year.

Grade: B

Prediction: On the playoff bubble.

The reoccurring theme when looking over everything is "good enough." On a good season, "good enough" will get you into the playoffs, but not the cup. On a bad season, "good enough" can leave you on the outside looking in while other teams with more skill (or a hair more tenacity) are competing for hockey's Holy Grail. They have the tools to compete during the regular season, but will have to provide that extra "something else" to secure a playoff spot (much less go deep in the playoffs.)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Season Preview 2014-15: Colorado Avalanche

2014-15 Season Previews: Colorado Avalanche

Team M.O.: Though one of the most balanced and formidable teams in the league when they originally came over from Quebec, the Colorado Avalanche have rebuilt themselves into a high-offense team that's lead by a collective of scorers who are barely old enough to drink (and in certain cases, still aren't!) Though playoff appearances have occurred with relative inconsistency recently to the dismay of the fans, it was those poor seasons which allowed them to retool and get back into the game as fast as they could as well. Can the good times continue into this season?

Last Season: The team finished a-top of the Central Division with a record of 52-22-8 (112 points). The team ran out of gas during the playoffs, though, as they were eliminated in seven games by the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference Semifinals. This led to a little retooling during the off-season, but the team did have most of the components to ice a competitive squad, anyhow.

Offense: Kinda hard to pick out the team's bright spot when four of the forward core are under the age of 23 or younger. As hard as it is to believe, 23-year-old Matt Duchene will be entering his sixth NHL season as the team's star center, generating 70 points in 71 regular season games last year while getting 3 points in 2 playoff games after returning from an ACL injury. You'd think he'd be the team captain, right? Nope, that honor belongs to 21-year-old Gabriel Landeskog, who put up 65 points last season while laying out 176 hits on his opponents. Wowie. If this were the old NHL, you'd expect to see a little more of this outta his game...

... He's too talented to fight though, so don't expect it out of him unless he means it (and if he fights, the team better wake up in response.) Nathan McKinnon took to the NHL like a fish to water last year and put up 10 points in 7 postseason games; he'll anchor the second line and make everyone else look good around him. Ryan O'Reilly's a talented forward whose advanced stats paint a clearer picture over his plus/minus, but his tenuous relationship with the team makes him a probable player to move. It's on both the team and the player to both make it want to work. The team shouldn't have tried to low-ball a player who plays a similar game to Marian Hossa simply because THEY drafted him in the second round, but the KHL and offer sheet nonsense from O'Reilley's camp is pretty silly, too.

Don't know if ya heard, but the team signed a few veterans in the off-season. Apparently, some guy named Jarome Iginla signed with the team. He's only one of the best power forwards in NHL history who, at age 37, remains one of the best leaders in hockey. There's no doubt he'll be instrumental in helping Landeskog kick his own game up another notch. The team also managed to acquire Daniel Briere. who's a leader in his own right and should help out with the team if Alex Tanguay is out for any period of time. Tanguay put up 11 points in 16 games despite injury problems, so there's no doubt that his absence will still be missed (despite the overall talent of the offensive core.)

Having John Mitchell and Jamie McGinn as third line options sure as well isn't a hindrance to the team. Those two have excellent production when you consider that they're third-line options on this team (this is a win-win for both the team and the players.) Maxime Talbot provides the team with a more than capable defensive forward, but he needs to not disappear offensively in the playoffs when he's got the talent to provide more for his club (he could stand to do a better job in the dot, too. Not saying this as a hater, but rather a fan...) Marc-Andre Cliche gives the team a serviceable defensive forward while Cody McLeod is the prototypical grinder any team would want on their club. Jesse Winchester was acquired from the Florida Panthers, who's a reliable defensive forward that's best suited as a reserve forward.

The most remarkable player of the bunch to a blog named Bruise Brothers, however, is Patrick Bordeleau. Team leader in hits? Check. Capable fighter? Also check. He may never make Patrick Kane money, but it's great to see the tough guys thrive in the league. He put up 11 points last season and was in all of the team's playoff games.

We can sum up Colorado's offense in two words: Holy $#!+!

Grade: A+

Defense: As we look to their blueline, we can figure out they've been scouting the Columbus Blue Jackets for a minute. (Oddly enough, so have the Los Angeles Kings; maybe Jarmo Kekalainen can figure it out, but that's a different article at a different time.)

Erik Johnson's the team's top offensive producer in terms of goals from the blue line. Jan Hejda (from... oh, Columbus!) provides the team with a player who's capable of providing defense against a first unit, but won't provide first unit offense (and at this stage of his career, probably never will.) Brad Stuart was traded to the Avalanche from the San Jose Sharks to give the team a reliable second-line shutdown defender while Nick Holden has done enough to warrant consideration as a two-way defender in the NHL. Tyson Barrie gives the team a reliable puck-moving defenseman, Nate Guenin is good at keeping the pests away, and Ryan Wilson should be more than capable of defending against the opposition. Further, Zach Redmond was acquired as a free agent, who'll no doubt be willing to push these players for a roster post of his own. The same can be said for Maxim Noreau, who was signed from the Swiss NLA to provide offensive support for the major team if injuries or inconsistency should arise. There's a lot to like here.

If Erik Johnson can produce the points Jan Heija can't, this will be a good season for the Avalanche on the blueline.

Grade: A-

Goaltending: Semyon Varlamov enters the season as the team's starting goaltender. A dominant player in the regular season, he remains a solid team player who'll need to take on the role of being "the guy" come playoff time. Reto Berra enters the season as the team's backup (and has the tools to do so.) He did rather acceptable when one considers that this was his first year in the North American system, but may not be given the amount of track other goaltenders are given to become a successful goaltender in the league. Yet since Sami Aittokallio, Calvin Pickard, and the newly-signed Roman Will need to figure out their game at the minor-pro level, he'll be given plenty of race track to get that going.

The goaltending here isn't as dominant as it is on other teams, but it apparently had to fall off somewhere. Though the offensive and defensive expectations should be relatively set, this season remains something of a proving grounds amongst the goaltenders.

Grade: B

Management: Patrick Roy became a coach the right way: By going to the lower-levels (and therefore getting a better understanding of the evolving psychology of players) and then made the jump to the major leagues. Yes, the team may have exited the playoffs earlier than expected; but with a squad that young, it needs to be expected. Greg Sherman has done an excellent job at being an eye for talent. Sure Joe Sakic may be "the guy" as far as team-building is concerned, but don't underestimate what Sherman provides for the team. You never want to embarrass the Wizard of Oz...

Grade: A

Prediction: Stanley Cup Contender?

If Berra rebounds this year and "get's" the North American game, then this team will be one of the most dominant contenders in the league. Yes there's some rookies who are prone to inconsistency up front, but there seems to be enough redundancy in the system to provide as a fail-safe (IT geeks, rejoice that someone else got it!) There's a balance that must be achieved to differentiate between "playoff team" and "Stanley Cup Contender" that the team may either figure out this year, or need another season (or so) to figure out going forward.