FROM THE PRESSBOX
By Paul Bruno
Today, in From the Pressbox:
We finally get to talk about a new hockey season, although it will be shortened due to the length of the lockout. There are no shortages of storylines as each of the teams gets started and today I will highlight a significant player or situation pertaining to each of those 30 clubs. I will also provide my predicted order of finish in each Conference.
Boston - A perennial favorite to be among the Conference leaders, the Bruins still have loads of depth and experience at the forward and defense positions. The big change this season is that five-year pro Tuukka Rask takes the reins as the number one goalie, as veteran Tim Thomas has decided to take a year off. Rask enters the season with a career 47-35 mark and a sparkling 2.20 career goals against average.
Buffalo - The Sabres will need another great season from their perennial MVP goalie, Ryan Miller, in order to compete for the Northeast Division title. That's no secret. They are looking at hulking defenseman, Tyler Myers, to dial up a year like his impressive rookie campaign instead of continuing a decline in productivity over the last two seasons. When he's on they are a much more formidable foe.
Montreal - This proud franchise is coming off a last place finish in the Conference and also counts their starting goalie, Carey Price, as their signature player. They are trying to rebuild around Price and a big part of any future success is going to involve third year pro defenseman P K Subban, who is currently a contract holdout. Any potential for success in the short term, in Montreal, will hinge on how quickly he resigns with the Habs.
Ottawa - The Senators were one of the big surprises of the last NHL regular season. Jason Spezza reversed a three year downturn in his career with an 84-point campaign and emerged as a true team leader for a club that made a successful commitment to some younger players. Spezza, 29, knows this is his team to lead and that will be his challenge again this year.
Toronto - The Leafs have made a host of roster moves aimed at committing to a younger core of key players. While most observers are justifiably concerned with a pair of inexperienced goalies in James Reimer and Ben Scrivens, the Leafs need to become more dynamic offensively. Former high first round pick, Nazem Kadri, has never played more than 29 games in a season, will get that chance this season.
New Jersey - They have a future Hall of Famer in goal, one of the league's top snipers in Ilya Kovalchuk up front, but need someone to make up for the departure of dynamic Zach Parise (to Minnesota in free agency. Travis Zajac enters this campaign as the number one center after injuries limited him to 15 regular games last year. He needs to get back to his former 20-goal, 65-point level of productivity.
New York Islanders - A string of poor seasons has led to a string of top draft picks and some nice individual pieces, but the Isles have to shed the image of a one-line (scoring) team around John Tavares. Their projected second-line pivot, 28-year old Frans Nielsen, has registered between 33 and 47 points (steadily increasing totals) over the last four seasons. He needs to continue that trend with a career year.
New York Rangers - Throughout much of his career, goalie Henrik Lundqvist, has been the focal point of one of the league's stingiest teams, in terms of goals against. Over the last few years they have added top line talent up front in Brad Richards and Marain Gaborik, but failed to shed that image and get to the ultimate goal. In acquiring Rick Nash, they have added another big offensive weapon, whom they hope will put them over the top.
Philadelphia - For as long as many hockey observers can remember, the Flyers have been a team based on toughness and a wealth of offensive talent. Unfortunately, for them and their fans, consistent goaltending has also ben a prominent flaw in the organization, Spending big bucks in acquiring Ilya Bryzgalov, who faltered in the playoffs after a decent regular season. He'll get another shot this year.
Pittsburgh - Injuries and a poor playoff finish highlighted the 2011-12 campaign for the Pens, who enter this abbreviated year with all hands on deck. With arguably the two best players in the leagie (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) newly motivated and surrounded by loads of talent up front, they have to find a way to defend goalie Marc Andre Fleury much better than they did in the 2012 playoffs.
Carolina - In acquiring Jordan Staal, brother of team captain, Eric, the Hurricanes have surely established a team identity built around two big, strong and offensively gifted centers, a luxury that few opponents will be able to match. The Hurricanes have enough decent offensive parts to equip the brothers on two scoring lines. Workhorse goalie Cam Ward has shown a consistent ability to handle a heavy workload, giving the ‘Canes another competitive edge in this condensed campaign.
Florida - GM Dale Tallon cobbled together a lineup of veteran forwards who meshed well enough to finally get the Panthers back into the playoffs last year, after a lengthy absence. Front line center and longest-serving Panther forward, Stephen Weiss was a key cog in the club's offense last season. He is in the final year of his contract and if the Panthers start poorly, could be a very coveted commodity at the trade deadline.
Tampa - Like the Flyers, the Lightning boast some of the league's top offensive players at the forefront of their roster, but they have been plagued by ordinary goaltending for a few years. In a move that didn't make many off-season headlines, they acquired 6'6” Anders Lindback, who was locked behind Pekka Rinne in Nashville, in a backup role. The Lightning management like the look of his career 2.50 goals against average in 38 career appearances and hope in carries over to this season, with a first string workload.
Washington - Last season marked a visible decline in the offensive profile of the Capitals, most visible in Alexander Ovechkin's career low 65 point campaign. Injury trouble for his usual center Nicklas Backstrom and close checking opponents conspired against him. A healthy Backstrom and the signing of Mike Ribeiro give the Caps one of the league's best 1-2 punches, as playmaking centers, in the NHL.
Winnipeg - A deep defense and standout goaltending led the Jets to a dominant home ice record in their first year in Winnipeg, but a lack of offensive depth hurt them on the road. That's why it will be important for big off-season pickup, veteran Olli Jokinen, to come in anchor a second scoring line and bring out the offensive skill of young winger Evander Kane, who is counted on to become the Jets leader on offense.
Predicted order of finish in the East
4 NY Rangers
9 New Jersey
14 NY Islanders
Chicago - The Hawks have the requisite depth of talent up front and on defense to remain competitive game-in, game-out. They could gain a significant advantage over many opponents in a condensed schedule because of two capable experienced goalies, in Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, who can alternate without a drop off in quality of play as they both proved quite capable of sharing the load, posting similar statistics last season.
Columbus - Life after Rick Nash's departure means that the Blue Jackets have no signature player. However, it will be interesting to watch how this team reacts to the ensuing makeover. The array of young talent added in the Nash deal and a host of other roster moves has really changed the look of this team. How well they mesh, will determine the pace of this rebuilding effort. The continuing maturation of former number one overall draft, defenseman Jack Johnson would go a long way to helping the cause here.
Detroit - Venerable defenseman Nick Lidstrom may have retired but this veteran squad is still loaded with veteran leadership. The Wings have benefited from a strong European flavor for a number of years and have observers wondering if they have added another significant foreign talent in winger Damien Brunner, a 26 year old veteran of the Swedish elite league. He's been a top scorer over there for years and could solidify the second line in Motown.
Nashville - The Predators have evolved into one of the NHL's top defensive teams in recent years. Heading into this short season, it's not the addition of a player that will be significant here, but rather coping with the departure of Ryan Suter (to Minnesota in free agency). The Preds still have a pack of quick, rugged forwards along with Shea Weber on defense and Pekka Rinne in goal. Without replacing Suter, though, they may take a small step backward.
St Louis - The Blues were without Alex Steen and Andy McDonald, two key offensive forwards for much of last season and they were still one of the league's top teams. If they can stay healthy that will be an added shot ion the arm for the Blues, which could propel them to greater heights. They are one of the few teams in the league that boasts three bona fide scoring lines.
Calgary - Veteran leaders, goalie Miikka Kiprusoff and team captain Jarome Iginla, both 36, enter this season in the twilight of their careers and surrounded by relatively little talent and depth when compared to most other teams. Iginla has one year remaining on his contract, while Kipper has two left and if this unfold as poorly as I expect, the Flames might be best served by trying to deal one or both of them by the trade deadline.
Colorado - A rebuilding effort that had been focused on centers Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene, saw young winger Gabriel Landeskog added to the mix and he so impressed team management that he was installed as the captain of the club despite being only 20 years old. It will be interesting to gauge that move and how receptive his teammates are, in recognizing him as their team leader.
Edmonton - Most of the talk around the Oilers revolves around the young talent amassed up front (top pick Nail Yakupov will be the newest rookie in that mix) but many eyes will be watching the development of Justin Shultz, a highly touted US College defenseman who was much sought after on the free agent market. He made an impressive AHL debut during the NHL lockout with the Oilers' Oklahoma City AHL affiliate, where he tallied a remarkable 48 points in 34 games this season.
Minnesota - The big hockey story of free agency was the coup by the Wild in signing both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to long term, big dollar contracts. Of course, much is expected of them, but it is hoped that their impact will spill over to other players. Dany Heatley, who recorded a career low 53 points for any full season of his career, will be expected at the top of that list.
Vancouver - Perhaps no serious contending club has more issues than the Canucks, as they begin the season with injuries wiping out their second scoring line, carrying a second goalie, Roberto Luongo, who has an annual cap hit of $5.3 M for the next 10 years. In fact, some serious roster shuffling needs to happen here this season as the Canucks have currently got over $60M committed to 14 players, for next season, when the team Cap is only 64.3M. That leaves room for only $4M to be spread among nine roster spots. That guarantees player movement here.
Anaheim - What will happen to Corey Perry and/or Ryan Getzlaf this season, given their contract status? These two stars are the most prominent players who are possibly going to test free agency at the end of this season. It is still very possible that they both resign with the Ducks, who are slated to have only committed $25M to 15 players for next year, leaving them with almost $40M to spread among 8 more players.
Dallas Stars - What happens when one star leaves (Ribeiro), while another one joins the team (Jaromir Jagr)? Well, the first line looks very different with another incoming veteran, Derek Roy is expected to move into Ribeiro's vacated spot and mesh with Jagr and returning left winger Loui Eriksson. How quickly they mesh will go a long way to determining how successful the Stars' season might be.
Los Angeles - Will there be a Stanley Cup hangover or is this roster capable of a repeat performance? Last season they squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed, yet they became the first team to win the Cup from that point of entry to the playoffs. Make no mistake, they have three capable scoring lines, a deep blueline and a star goalie. They have all the parts to make another strong run if they are still motivated.
Phoenix - Finally, the Coyotes players enter a season, content in the knowledge of a secure team ownership situation. Franchise stability is now in place, so now the attention can turn to the ice where they boast one of the speediest rosters in the league. They boast one of the league's top defense corps. Their challenge will be to score more, as last season only Radim Vrbata and Shane Doan topped the 20-goal mark last season.
San Jose - This is another team with an aging core and the short season may provide them with their best chance at a long overdue playoff run. That veteran core allowed Logan Couture the opportunity to begin his career in a very comfortable and positive opportunity and he has delivered in solidifying a potent second scoring line, tallying 65 points in his second full season as a pro. He is expected to build upon his early career success and help the veterans position themselves for possible playoff success.
Predicted order of finish in the West
1 St Louis
3 Los Angeles
4 San Jose
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