Battles Around The League
The preseason is a great time of year for avid hockey fans of teams around the league. Not only do you get to see your beloved veterans and franchise stalwarts for the first time in months, but you get to watch newly acquired talent find their home within the roster, and observe the prospects of team get a shot at making the big team. Typically, every team has one or two important spots available in training camp that is up for grabs to the player that performs the best in that role. It's these battles that make preseason and training camp very interesting - and here are some of most pressing questions currently going on in the league:
1. Which starting goalie will take the job in Toronto? Maybe it's because Toronto is the center of the hockey universe, or perhaps they're just our favorite team, but right now a very interesting battle is going on for crease control in Southern Ontario. Last year's incumbent, James Reimer, brought the Leafs to the playoffs for the first time in nine years, but the offseason acquisition of Jonathan Bernier has led to a showdown this fall. So far this preseason, neither has stood out - Reimer has posted a 3.26 GAA and a .909 SV%; Bernier has fared slightly better, with a 3.00 GAA and a .909 SV%. Ironically, third string goalie Drew MacIntyre posted a 1.41 GAA and .946 SV%, which bests both of the goalies above him, but he'll be starting with the Marlies in the AHL come Opening Night. Keep an eye on this situation, as it's expected that the goalie that plays the best will become the Leafs starter; the loser will have to wait for a mistake to get another chance.
2. Who is the starter in New Jersey (really)? So, you're faced with a dilemma - do you give the starter's job to arguably the best goaltender to ever play the position, but whose best years are behind him, or the future starter whose time is here and now? Cory Schneider has played in four games in the preseason, allowing only one goal in that time, and going 4-0; Martin Brodeur, to contrast, has allowed four goals in 13 shots in his only preseason game. Expect to see Schneider simply outplay him early on and win most of the starts; Brodeur will get Opening Night, Montreal, and his choice of a handful of "glamour" games in his final tour of duty.
3. What happened to Jonathan Drouin? - While the early season predictions (ours included) had Jonathan Drouin a shoo-in for the top line gig, so far in the preseason, that position has been stationed by Ryan Malone, with the 3rd overall pick playing on the second line with Dana Tyrell/Valtteri Filppula and Teddy Purcell. If this trend continues, Malone's value will skyrocket, and Drouin's will suffer. It will be interesting to see if coach Jon Cooper keeps Malone there, or elevates Drouin at some point in the near future. Important to note: Malone has done well on that line with 1G 1A in two games, while Drouin has been struggling in the preseason, posting no points and a -2 in three games. At this clip, it's possible that Drouin may get sent to the minors, as he doesn't appear up to NHL standards yet.
4. How bad will Philly's goaltending be? With the compliance buyout of Ilya Bryzgalov in the offseason, there's now a void in the Flyers net that has been filled with Ray Emery and Steve Mason. So far in the preseason, neither has been remotely good; where GM Paul Holmgren was hoping for a dog fight, he ended up with a game of hot potato. In two starts, Mason has posted a 3.00 GAA and a horrendous .854 SV%, going 0-2 for his lackluster effort. Emery, not performing much better, posted a 3.00 GAA and .914 GAA in one start, losing to Washington in a split-squad game. It's looking more and more like the first goalie to post a sub-three-goal game may get the gig - but neither is seemingly able to do so. If this trend continues, it's going to be yet another long season in the City of Brotherly Love.
5. Who are Colorado's three centers? - It's probably a good thing to have so many elite centers on your team that you have to convert one of them to wing just so they can all play together. Between Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly and first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon, it's an embarrassment of riches; it will be interesting to see who will snatch the most amount of ice-time based on merit. So far, with MacKinnon's strained hip flexor injury, there hasn't been the type of competition as one would expect - O'Reilly, who was moved to wing to start the year, has gone back to his native centre position, and performed well. Look for Duchene to get prime ice time, and Stastny's to erode to pressure from below; based on the play of MacKinnon or O'Reilly, Stastny could end up with sparse minutes on the third line or be traded.
6. Can Jonas Hiller return to form? After his bout with vertigo in the latter half of the 2010-2011, Hiller looked far more average than in his previous seasons. Prior to being inflicted with unexpected dizziness and loss of balance, the Anaheim netminder was routinely putting in GAA in the low twos and .920-.925 SV%. Following, the GAA has crept up to 2.50 GAA with a .910 SV%. With the emergence of Viktor Fasth putting up numbers similar to Hillers' old ways, the race is on to see if the old Hiller appears or if Fasth has enough clout to unseat him.
7. How bad will Nashville's offense be this year? Coach Barry Trotz has become so good at turning hamburger into steak that at this point, it's basically expected of him - but we're not sure the longest tenured coach in the NHL can do anything with this dogheap. Nashville's highest scorer at this point is defenseman Shea Weber (9G 19A 28P), followed by David Legwand (12G 13A 25P) and Mike Fisher (10G 11A 21P). Nashville finished tied with Florida for lowest goals for last season, and we expect that trend to continue. In fact, at the rate Nashville was going, the top lines from either Pittsburgh or Washington would have outscored the entire team, given an 82-game season.
8. Who is going to play where in St. Louis? With the departure of David Perron to Edmonton and Andy McDonald to retirement, St. Louis is going to look very different. The top six are almost certainly going to be Derek Roy, David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen, Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart, but in what configuration? And, how will this new chemistry work on the ice. Coach Ken Hitchcock always seems to find success with gritty forwards, so we expect nothing terribly different from last year, but losing a third of your top six is jarring for any team.
9. Who is going to get to play on the second line in Winnipeg? Mark Scheifele has been patiently putting in his time in the OHL, laying waste to goalies around junior, and his time is here. He's seemingly an ideal fit between Evander Kane and Devin Setoguchi on the second line. In their first game together in the preseason, the line scored twice. The only thing stopping him is the resurgent play by incumbent Olli Jokinen, which may just eat his breakfast. We expect that this decision will come Friday in advance of the Tuesday opener.
10. Can Tim Thomas still play in the NHL? Not many goalies leave the NHL playing at the level Tim Thomas was playing when he left. Fewer still ever make it back after a year's hiatus. His performance while playing was routinely among the best in the NHL, and if he can find that same form, Florida will have one of the best goalies in the game, and a critically important blue chip player to trade at the deadline to a team in need. How this will affect long term success for Florida in net - by potentially stunting the growth of Jacob Markstrom - still remains to be seen. We'll have to wait until this week to see him in action.
11. Who will play everywhere in Calgary? No place in the NHL has as many question marks as Calgary. With the departures of captain Jarome Iginla, Jay Bouwmeister, Blake Comeau, Alex Tanguay, Cory Sarich, and the offseason retirement of Mikka Kiprusoff, the Calgary Flames that entered last season look radically different than the Flames of this year. Every position has key openings that the youth of the franchise will be looking to for help. Sven Baertschi and Sean Monahan will be expected to elevate up-front, while Karri Ramo will likely get the nod in net. Unfortunately for fans in Calgary, it's looking more and more likely that this season will be simply an opportunity to draft Aaron Ekblad first overall in next year's draft.
12. Will Columbus' second kick at the can work? Stop me if you've heard this before: Columbus has made a big splash, not only trading to acquire some high end talent, but also opening up the wallet to sign big name free agents. We all saw how poorly the whole thing went the last time - but there's good reason to believe this time will be different. The top line of Columbus' - Marian Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov - all have experience playing together in New York. Their second line of R.J. Umberger, Ryan Johansen and new signing Nathan Horton should provide a substantial secondary kick. The defense should be solidified by the addition of rookie Ryan Murray to the mix, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is coming off his Vezina victory and all-around great season last year. Columbus fans have every reason to be more optimistic this time around.
13. How will Detroit react this year? With the arrival of two new faces in Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson, and with the adjustments that are likely to be made with their introduction into the Eastern conference, Detroit will likely look - and play - very differently. The top line is almost certainly going to be Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, but questions currently remain about who the third member of the line will be. Early ice time in the preseason shows Justin Abdelkader playing on that top line, but we would not be surprised if Daniel Alfredsson works his way up.
14. What are Boston's top two lines going to look like? With the departure of Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton, and the arrival of Loui Eriksson and Jarome Iginla, Boston's top six have undergone a not-insignificant facelift. Questions remain as to who will play on the top line with David Krejci and Milan Lucic - early play so far has shown Iginla to have the better dynamic with the two bruisers, but Eriksson will still get his shot to prove he deserves the top job. Really, this battle is one most teams would love to have - two elite wingers looking to prove themselves on new teams.
15. Which Tortorella will we see? - Alright, so this isn't going to be a battle won or lost in training camp, but the real question all season for the Vancouver Canucks is going to be: Will John Tortorella be a boom or bust in Vancouver? The "Torts presser" has become a mainstay in morning sports recaps for the last few years while in New York, but it remains to be seen if Tortorella can actually help Vancouver reach the next step. The battle here will be whether the good Tortorella provides the insight necessary, or the bad Tortorella provides another circus which will distract an otherwise good Vancouver team for yet another year. If nothing else, we look forward to another ornery display of interviewing that provides amusement for all concerned (except for poor Torts).