I have been thinking about the upcoming NHL Season and I think I have a pretty good grasp on every teams attempted identity change. In the next few days I will write a preview on every NHL team and then try my best to predict the league standings around the NHL Trade Deadliine in early March. So lets get right into it:
The Ducks finished #1 in the West last season and it was mostly due to their tremendous depth at forward. Getzlaf and Perry were as dominant as ever and a lot of players had some outstanding seasons Andrew Cogliano, Nick Bonino, and Cam Fowler to name a few. However, their incredible season was cut short at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings.
This offseason they lost some depth in Selanne and Koivu retiring, letting Jonas Hiller walk his way to Calgary, and trading away Bonino, Luca Sbisa, and draft picks for Ryan Kesler. So despite the loss of depth the pieces in place are actually more talented. A Getzlaf-Kesler 1-2 punch is formidable for any team and provides extra scoring as well as a smart defensive player in Kesler.
The Ducks, in my opinion, still lack a legitimate #1 Defenseman. Cam Fowler did well last season and Beauchemin is a great veteran leader but neither is the anchor a championship team can build around. In the coming years perhaps Hampus Lindholm and/or Sami Vatanen can develop into one but at this time it is still too early to say for sure.
The biggest wild card for the Ducks is their Goaltending. They will be running a 3 man squad of Fredrik Anderson, John Gibson, and Jason Labarbara. None are really a guaranteed improvement from last season. Anderson had a great rookie season and allowed the Ducks to trade away 2nd year goaltender Victor Fasth to Edmonton, and Gibson was tremendous in the limited time he was given at the end of last season and in his first few playoff games. But it is still too early to say that Gibson will be that solid and consistent throughout an entire season. Labarbera should be a solid veteran presence that can mentor the two young kids but he is far from a starting goalie for a playoff team.
Goaltending may once again be the Ducks biggest downfall this upcoming season.
I will never get used to calling them the “Arizona” Coyotes, so bare with me if I accidentally say “Phoenix” a time or two. Anyways, the newly named Arizona Coyotes are looking to destroy this playoff drought they are in right now. The team was finally given a decent payroll and they immediately gave Mike Ribeiro 5+ Mil. That ended up being a waste, because Ribeiro went after the money not thinking of where he was going. He went to a structured defense-first team where he is a player that enjoys free wheeling and creative offenses. The fit was not there and within a year the Coyotes bought out his contract. The addition of Sam Gagner will help ease that.
Gagner can produce points and center the second line, possibly the first but I would leave Vermette there for now. However, Gagners true value comes in the shootout, he has some of the niftiest mitts in the business. That will help the Coyotes win a few of the close games that you know a defensive team like Arizona will inevitably be in. Losing Vrbata will hurt but at the same time he might not work out in Vancouver (remember 5 years ago when Vrbata went to Tampa Bay after a good year with Phoenix and was soon “loaned” to Europe in order for his cap hit to be removed from Tampa's records). Hopefully some of the Coyotes young prospects can at least weaken the blow or possibly replace him entirely.
Players like Laurent Dauphin and Max Domi will be given a chance to make the team this year as well as this seasons first round pick Brendan Perlini. Domi and Dauphin both possess quick hands in tight like Vrbata has and could produce at a fraction of the cost! For a team like Phoenix and the payroll they seem to be on year-after-year that would be a huge bonus!
The defense should be as solid as ever with smooth skating Keith Yandle and young stud Oliver Ekman-Larsson eating most of the minutes. Russian vet Zbynek Michalek will play alongside one of those two and be the defensive force that allows those two to join the rush and help create offense. After those three main-stays the Coyotes will look to go in a younger direction with prospects like Brandon Gormley, Chris summers, and Connor Murphy fighting to earn full-time work on the Arizona backend.
Goaltending is weirdly this teams strong suit. Where did Mike Smith come from?! Drafted by Dallas and traded to Tampa Bay for Brad Richards (obvisouly some potential then), but could never seem to win the starting job there. After Tampas 7-game loss to Boston in 2011 he signed with Arizona trying to earn the starting nod. Boy did he run with it. Since then not only has he earned the #1 job, but he has put himself and Arizona on the hockey map! First he led the team to their first playoff series win since end of the Cold War, then before these past Olympics he was actually in the running to have a spot on the Gold Medal winning Team Canada! Thats a long way from the guy who was playing on a team that played bad enough they got the 1st overall pick and drafted Steven Stamkos.
Calgary showed a resiliency last season that is rare in bottom-dwelling teams. That showed in their NHL-record tying 47 1-goal games. Despite having, in my opinion, the least talented team in the league at the start of last season, they remained competitive.
Mark Giordano in his first season as captain finally emerged as a solid two-way defenseman. He was always a great defensive player but never put up offensive numbers with names like Phaneuf, Bouwmeester, and Regher ahead of him on the depth chart. The Flames under his leadership saw several players emerge out of their shells. Sean Monahan looked like a stud as an 18 year-old rookie, TJ Brodie was stellar in his role as a smooth-skating puck-moving defender, and while rolling a squad of Kari Ramo, Reto Berra, and Joel Ortio, they still had close to league average goaltending.
Coming up for Calgary is another season of resiliency but with a few reinforcements. Sam Bennett was drafted with their 1st pick (#4 overall) and could very well center the second line behind Monahan. The Flames also signed a few players they hope to help earn a few more wins in those 1-goal games. Players like Mason Raymond and Devin Setoguchi were brought in to help spark the offense and with their speed they could really help the forecheck as well. Jonas Hiller was brought in from Anaheim and he will look to also tilt those one goal games in Calgary's favor. In a season like last year with all those 1-goal games it is safe to think that these additions would have made the Flames win a few more of those games and possibly finish closer to a playoff spot.
The Chicago Blackhawks, what needs to be said that hasnt already been said? Arguably, the model franchise in the NHL. The best captain (in my opinion) in Johnathan Toews, leading the best group of offensive weapons in Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad, and newly-acquired Brad Richards. The most mobile defense in the sport with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Nick Leddy, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya. Their biggest question mark is in net with Corey Crawford, yet whether you like "Craw-ful" or not it is hard to deny that he has had moments of brilliance to keep the Hawks in games and in series.
The Hawks lost in 7 games to the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings. What did the most talented team in the NHL do to combat that? They got more talent. Brad Richards came in to fill the only hole the Blackhawks have, a #2 Center. Also, he did it for an absolute bargain at only $2 mil. Because the Hawks are so adept at winning players are willing to take pay cuts to play with the likes of Kane, Toews, Sharp, and Hossa. A lot of people refer to this as a "home-town discount," but that couldnt be further from the truth. When players are on teams that win, they want to keep winning so they take less to keep the team as a whole intact. If they are on a losing team, they will either ask for more money to stay around or leave and take less than market value from a winning team.
Once again, the Blackhawks are favored to win the Stanley Cup and once again their biggest problem is goaltending. Fortunately for them, each year they have won that was their biggest problem. The Blackhawks are such a talented team that they do not need a goaltender to steal them a series like most other teams do. All they need is a goalie that wont allow enough bad goals to cost them a series. Despite his faults Crawford has shown that he is capable of being that guy and look for the Blackhawks to have yet another long playoff run.
Colorado is coming off a season for the ages. They were the first ever team in NHL history to finish dead last in their conference one season just to finish #1 in their division the very next. Not only that but they did in the first season of the NHL's new alignment that went from 3 divisions to 2, just to make that feat even more impressive.
The Avalanche have had a mixed offseason. They lost a great player in Paul Stastny, but made up for it in signing Jarome Iginla. Due to age it would seem as a down grade however still having the ability to run Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon as their 1-2 punch is incredible. They Avs still have all of their other offensive weapons in Iginla, Ryan O'Reilly, Captain Gabriel Landeskog, Jamie McGinn, and recently acquired Daniel Briere.
Despite all of that offensive talent the Avs are yet to address their biggest weakness, the same thing that caused many to think the Avs would remain a bottom dweller last season... Their defense. They still have Jan Hejda and Erik Johnson which was as good of a defense pairing as any in the NHL, but after that the depth goes away. Tyson Barrie and Brad Stuart should provide a little help. However, there is always the possibility of a sophomore slump for Barrie. Nick Holden was a splendid surprise but if he ends up in the Top 4 the Avs may be in trouble.
The Stars did very well last season and made the playoffs for the first time in 6 years. After their successful year the team went out and got even better. They traded chump-change for Jason Spezza, almost immediately after the trade they signed Spezza's short term line mate Ales Hemsky. Dallas' top 6 is impressive with Spezza and Hemsky as well as Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Valeri Nichushkin, and Erik Cole.
Their goaltending is as solid as ever with Kari Lehtonen returning and having young prospect Jack Campbell as his back up. Campbell has had a slow progression into the professional ranks but several years after being drafted #11 in 2010 he is starting to come into his own. Lehtonen has become a great starting goalie after being traded to Dallas and having his injury history become just that... history.
The Stars biggest problem remains its defense. Names like Trevor Daley, Alex Goligoski, and Sergei Gonchar headline the team but age has diminshed the effectiveness of Gonchar. Goligoski has not really developed into the player the Stars thought they were getting when they dealt James Neal and Matt Niskanen for him 4 years ago. Trevor Daley has been a solid underrated player for Dallas. He is a smooth skating defensive defenseman and is still in his prime years. Reinforcements are on the way though. After a strong run to the Calder Cup, defensemen like Patrick Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, and Cameron Gaunce are on their way up.
Yet another season of failed aspirations for the Oilers in 2013-2014. Just as many had said about Edmonton leading into last year their defense core was not very strong. Because of the players in front him management decided to give Devan Dubnyk a vote of confidence and signed him to be the long term starter. Unfortunately for both parties, Dubnyk continued to put up mediocre (at best) numbers and with have the season he was dealt away to Nashville and little known Ben Scrivens came to take over. Early on he showed Edmonton something they could look forward to. He gave them a 51-save shutout again a high powered San Jose Sharks team. That alone would have made him the starter for the Oilers but Scrivens continued his impressive play that started in Los Angeles when he was thrown into the spotlight because Johnathan Quick was injured with a Grade II groin sprain. This season Edmonton is looking for Scrivens to not only continue last years play but if possible improve on it.
The offense will be as powerful as ever with names like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins leading the way. Because of the physical nature of the Western Conference Edmonton made a pledge to get bigger this season and they did. They drafted German Center Leon Draisaitl who has been compared to Anze Kopitar for both his size and two-way play. Left Winger Benoit Pouliot came over from New York and will provide some depth and size on the wing. Keith Aulie was let go by Tampa Bay and signed with Edmonton and the 6' 6” defenseman will make Scrivens life a little easier. There are also a few defensemen in the pipeline ready to make the jump in David Musil and Darnell Nurse. They will look to earn jobs out of training camp. Musil is more defensive while Nurse can bring a good two-way game helping the powerplay and work against the other teams better offensive players.
Look for the Oilers to make some noise early but like most young teams, stumble towards the middle of the season. We have seen Edmonton do it before but they could never get over that mid-season hump and would fade away to bottom 10 finishes. However, this year their goaltending looks more competitive than years past with Scrivens and Viktor Fasth battling for playing time. That alone should help provide Edmonton with a few more wins.
Los Angeles Kings
The defending Champs in LA did not do much this offseason to revamp the team, but why would they? The team is always near the top in all the defensive categories and they have one of the most well-rounded forward groups in the game. Any type of game you want to play the Kings can match it. A Quick team? Marian Gaborik, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Drew Doughty wash that out. Physical team? The Kings have Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll, and Robyn Regher. The Kings also have one of the most dynamic goalies in the NHL with Johnathan Quick, who can easily steal a game or an entire series (2013 WCSF vs San Jose).
So how do teams play and beat the Kings? They dont try to play like the Kings. They score early and dont take their foot off the pedal. The Kings forwards over the past few years are notorious for not scoring despite having some of the best shooters in the game. So when the Kings do get a lead they soffocate you defensively and let Quick do his thing to get the win. Just having Gaborik for an entire season might change that just for the fact that he is a dynamic scorer who will be playing a lot with a stud center in Kopitar. Look for Kopitar to get his first ever point-per-game season this year with Gaborik by his side.
Too much depth gives the Kings an advantage over every team except maybe Chicago. That coupled with knowing Quick will be there and the defensive mind of Daryl Sutter will be behind the bench make LA a favorite to win the Cup again this year. Barring injuries or player regression watch for LA to have yet another long playoff run.
The Wild had an impressive season this past year. Through the guidance of star players Zach Parise and Ryan Suter the Wild were able to surprise a lot of people and defeat the Colorado Avalanche in overtime of Game 7 in the first round. Unfortunately, that is basically where their season ended. The next round was against the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks who did away with Minnesota in 5 games.
In order to match the offense of teams like Chicago the Wild bolstered their forward group with the addition of Thomas Vanek. Minnesota already had several well known forwards with players like Parise, Captain Mikko Koivu, and Jason Pominville but with Vanek it gives the team another option for the Top 6 that will be rounded out with youngsters Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund. There should be no shortage of goals in the “State of Hockey” this coming season.
The Wild's offense better be good because the defense still suffers from a lack of depth. After Suter the back end talent drops, players like Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, and Marco Scandella are very serviceable players but if anything happens to Suter there is no one that can replace his league leading 27+ minutes per game.
The goaltending is another conundrum. Niklas Backstrom has lost a step over the past couple years and isnt as consistent as he used to be. Josh Harding could easily be the starting goalie but due to his continued fight with Multiple Sclerosis he misses a lot of time whether it be from medications, treatments, or old-fashioned injuries. The last choice is Darcy Kuemper who was a big reason for the Wild's upset of the Avs. He is a young goaltender and has shown promise in the minors and in his limited action it the NHL. However, it might be a bad idea for a playoff team with Stanley Cup aspirations to put all their faith in a player who has not played a full season yet.
There are stories of teams winning with young goaltenders but it is very rare. That seems to be the Wilds biggest problem, but at the same time it is a good problem to have. Three goalies makes it easier to decide ice time based on on-ice performance, plus it adds depth in case one of the three suffers an injury.
4 years ago the Predators were one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. They have not been to the playoffs since that season. With goaltending from the Fantastic Finn Pekka Rinne and a defense led by Shea Weber the Predators always have a shot at the playoffs, but their offense has been their biggest weakness. It is hard to win every game 1-0 or 2-1, but the Predators thanks to a minimal budget have had to work like that.
For the first time in their history the Predators go into a season with a coach not named Barry Trotz. The defensive strategist was let go this summer in hopes that a new coach can revitalize a stagnant offense. Defenseman Shea Weber has led the Predators in points each of the past two seasons and is consistently in the top 5 point-getters for the club. That is a huge compliment for the hulking defenseman but it also says a lot about the forwards who have been on the team.
Goaltending and defense will be fine thanks to the big names like Rinne and Weber, along with some young emerging players like Roman Josi, Seth Jones, and Ryan Ellis. However, there are gaps in the forward lines. That is what General Manager David Poile tried to fix this offseason. The veteran GM traded for power forward James Neal from Pittsburgh and signed centers Mike Ribeiro, Derek Roy, and Olli Jokinen. Those four should really help an offense that has always excelled through committee. Now Nashville has a potent sniper with Neal and two guys who are solid playmakers in Ribeiro and Roy. If one of those two or any of the current centers develop chemistry with Neal the Predators can finally start becoming a more offensive team.
New coach Peter Laviolette will also help with that. Over the course of his career he has always been a gifted offensive mind and that could help Nashville surprise some teams this season. Look for Nashville to finally break the playoff drought this upcoming year.
San Jose Sharks
Arguably the best team to not win the Cup. Every year the Sharks boast a team with talent throughout its roster and every year ends in tears.Why cant a team with this much skill and fire power win? Over the last season or two the Sharks have gone to a more north-south approach rather than the ticky-tacky dipsy-doodle type offense they ran with Ron Wilson. This is evidenced by the acquisitions of Raffi Torres, Mike Brown, and the conversion (or re-conversion) of Brent Burns into a forward. The Sharks wanted to increase their physicality to show they were willing and able to stand up to the tougher in the west. However, they still have players like Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton who can beat you with skill and finesse as well.
Even the defense is solid. Marc-Eduard Vlasic is the best defenseman you've never heard of and Dan Boyle was a great playmaker on the blueline until he left for New York. Scott Hannan is a terrific veteran defenseman as long as his minutes are limited. Younger players like Jason Demers continue to improve, Justin Braun has developed into a good skating defensive defenseman, and Matt Irwin has emerged as a nice piece to have on the powerplay. To bring more balance to the team San Jose has decided to returned Burns into a defenseman, and he was no slouch when he was there originally.
As it has been since the departure of Evgeni Nabokov, the Sharks biggest weakness remains in net. Antti Niemi was a Stanley Cup winner in Chicago, but that team had enough fire power to save themselves from a bad goal or two. San Jose despite all the offensive talent always seems to lose that offensive spark come playoffs and so they need to have that security blanket. Niemi is the most “San Jose Shark-ish” goaltender ever, he has incredible statistics during the regular season but then withers away in the playoffs.
Even with their claim to be a “team of tomorrow” the Sharks still have the talent and ability to compete in the West and just like every other year have a decent chance to win the west. It will all just depend on how well the goaltending is.
St Louis Blues
Another year of first round exits may lead us to start labeling the Blues as chokers rather than the Sharks. At the trade deadline last year many had the Blues slated as the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. However, the last two weeks of the season werent kind to the Blues. The team lost 7 or their last 8 games and the Colorado Avalanche beat them on the second to last game of the season to overtake the Blues for first in the Central division. Because of that flip in the standings, St Louis' first round matchup was against the star-studded defending champs the Chicago Blackhawks. Everything looked fine after the first two games in St Louis when the Blues had a two games to zero advantage. Thats when the tires fell off... the Blues lost the next four games and the series.
The Blues have a defensively sound team that has several players that can score but still score by committee. Forwards like TJ Oshie, Alex Steen, David Backes, etc show the amount of two-way play on this team. In my opinion the one thing the Blues have lacked is a top line center. Backes currently fills that void but his style of play is best either on a second line or as a winger like he used to be. Apparently team management felt the same way, because on July 1st during “Free Agent Frenzy” the Blues signed Paul Stastny away from division rival Colorado. Stastny is not the prototypical top line center but he has always seemed to excel playing along side a powerforward. Most recently it was Gabriel Landeskog, before him it was Chris Stewart. Now Stastny finds himself on a team chalk-full of power forwards. Whether he finds himself on a line with Backes, Steen, Oshie, or some kind of combination, it will be hard for any opponent to stop them. Stastny could be the missing piece in the Blues championship puzzle.
A defense core with players like Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Kevin Shattenkirk would be the envy of many teams, and it is. Those three make up an awesome top 3. Now the Blues have traded for Carl Gunnarsson from Toronto and he will slide in almost perfectly with Shattenkirk on that second pairing and really help this defense take off. Playing on a poor defensive team like Toronto Gunnarssons stats may be skewed but considering he was on the top pair with Dion Phaneuf playing against top players every night and finished at a +12 is remarkable. Now he will be playing more generous minutes and against easier competition, his numbers should flourish.
Like a lot of other teams the Blues seem to have goaltending as their biggest question mark. Brian Elliott has been amazing since he went to St Louis on a tryout. However, if his track record is any indication he does not do well as a #1 netminder. When his starts reach to 50+ range his stats drop. With that said, young Jake Allen has the potential to take over between the pipes but a team like St Louis might not want to put all their playoff hopes into a kid who has only played in 15 NHL games.
It is very confusing to see what direction the Canucks are headed. First they decide to trade away center Ryan Kesler and defenseman Jason Garrison for young players, later they also bring in Linden Vey who few have said has been LA's most skilled prospect. When a person sees that they think the team is getting ready to rebuild and start fresh. However, fast-forward to July 1st and Vancouver signs winger Radim Vrbata to play with the Sedins and goaltender Ryan Miller to be their undisputed number one netminder.
Many claim for it to be a “re-tool” where a team basically removes expensive pieces to replace them with fresh faces. So they arent exactly rebuilding where they fight for lower draft picks and try to build from there, they are getting younger while still having pieces that allow them to stay competitive now. Brian Burke attempted this in Toronto 5 years ago and when you look there, the team is completely different but it still is in a hole. So maybe its not possible to do, but Vancouver does have something Toronto didnt have when they tried... talent. To retool you must have talent to trade for younger talent. Back then Torontos #1 center was Matt Stajan and their #1 goalie was Vesa Toskala.
When looking at the Canucks they still have a decent team. The Sedins can still play, Edler is entering his prime years, Hamhuis and Bieksa are still in their early 30's. The team is still a solid team, do I think they can compete? No, not for the cup and in the new divisions it might be impossible for the Canucks to beat out Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, or Dallas for a playoff spot. It might make sense to blow it all up because all of the older pieces you have would still hold value and you could recoup quite a bit for all the pieces. However, what kind of a message would that send to your fans? Trade away prime aged players, sign older players, then trade old-ish players for younger assets. It would look like uncertainty. Basically, it looks like this team will try to be competitve for at least this season and depending on how far back of a playoff spot the Canucks are that might be when they decide to deal away a couple pieces.
The Jets have talent everywhere except in net and that is their biggest problem. When a team has a forward group consisting of Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, and Bryan Little it would look to be a strong offensive team. Then you add names like Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien from their defense and you think the team would be a great offensive team. Unfortunately for Jets fans, the goalie keeps biting them in the butt.
I have been a strong supporter for Ondrej Pavelec over the years, but I have had enough. I used to pin it to the defense in front of him or the forwards lack of goals whatever reason the Jets/Thrashers lost I would feel Pavelec did well or alright and the rest of the team let him down. Now though, it is becoming the opposite. Byfuglien, Enstrom and others like Jacob Trouba make up a decent defense, and forwards like the ones mentioned playing with guys like Mark Schiefele should score enough to help the bad games look a little better. Pavelec just doesnt seem to have what it takes. 3 years in Winnipeg, no playoffs, and their position in the standings is getting worse while the overall talent is getting better. It has to be Pavelec, he is a teams starter and only posts NHL average numbers by that math it means that some teams back-ups have better numbers than him.
Everything starts with the goalie. To be a defensive team you must have a netminder that can makes enough saves to allow you to win 1-0 or 2-1. To be an offensive team you have to have a goalie you are confident in because if defensemen join the rush at pucks are turned over there will be a lot of odd man rushes going against him. If you dont have confidence in your netminder you cannot win. Period. You focus too much on helping him that you either mess up or you get in his way.
I will guarantee that if the Winnipeg Jets were to get a solid NHL goaltender they would be a hard team to beat. Every player on their team likes to hit and wear down their opponents. The offense is potent enough to post close to 3 goals a game. The defense loves to contribute to the offense and their physicality would be more than the forwards. If they could play that way without worrying about their own zone they would win a lot more games.