After months of endless bickering and getting no where, the NHL has finally figured their stuff out and we will be getting some regular season hockey within the week. Lost in shuffle after the lockout took all the coverage was the teams themselves and the changes they made coming into the season. Some teams look poised to enter the top echelon of teams with bold off-season acquisitions, while some others seem to have taken a step back. Here is a division by division look at how I see the new season shaping up, and where each team should finish when the sprint to the end of the 48 game season is over.
#1 Carolina Hurricanes
Last Season: 33-33-16; 5th in Southeast; 12th in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Did Not Qualify
Goals For: 213 (18th in NHL)
Goals Against: 243 (25th in NHL)
Coach: Kirk Muller (25-20-12)
Top Scorers: F Eric Staal (24-46-70); F Jussi Jokinen (12-34-46)
Starting Goaltender: G Cam Ward (30-23-13; 2.74 GAA; .915 SV%; 5 SO)
Key Acquisitions: F Jordan Staal (Trade), F Alexander Semin (Free Agent), D Joe Corvo (Free Agent)
Key Losses: F Brandon Sutter (Trade), D Bryan Allen (Free Agent)
This is probably the most improved team in the East from last year to this. Jordan Staal could be a star in this league, and now that he'll be given the minutes he deserves I expect him to prove that. They are deep on the back end and Cam Ward is amazingly just 28 years old. This team should improve drastically on their last place finish in the division, and should get back to the playoffs.
The forward group on this team lacked scoring options last year, and couldn't create enough offense. Welcome Staal and Semin to the group, and all of the sudden you have a team with a solid amount of offensive options. Whether Jordan centers the second line, or Eric moves to the wing and he plays on the first, it is another scoring option to add to his brother, Jokinen and young stud Jeff Skinner. Add in the usually dependable Tuomo Ruutu and some nice role players like Tim Brent and Jiri Tlusty and this is a group that should compete night in and night out at a high level.
On the blue line they lack a guy who is truly a stalwart top pairing guy but between Joni Pitkanen, Justin Faulk, Jamie McBain and vet Tim Gleason they should be able to patch together a formidable and balanced top four grouping that can play in any situation. They also acquired Corvo who will help a powerplay that was below league average. They aren't anything too special or flashy, but a group that as a whole can get the job done.
I was very surprised when I learned that Cam Ward is just 28 years old, but that bodes very well for this Hurricanes team. The thing about Ward is, he's done it before. He led this team to a Stanley Cup and we will always remember that. We will always remember he is a guy who is capable of putting his team on his back and he's earned that respect. He should backstop behind the best team they've had since that cup run way back in the 2005/06 season.
X-Factor: Special Teams
This is a team that finished in the bottom third in both the power play and the penalty kill, and there aren't many teams that can have sustained success with that being the case. The younger Staal should help both the penalty kill and power play (especially when down a man) and Semin and Corvo will also help them with the extra man. Both groups should be better then they were last year.
This is a solid team. I'm not ready to really call them Stanley Cup contenders but they will contend for this division and in my mind is the favorite. Also, that rule that states the division winners get the top three seeds will help a team that will avoid the 2nd and 3rd place teams in the Atlantic (probably Pittsburgh and Philadelphia) until at least the second round of the playoffs.
Projected Record: 26-17-5 (57 Points); 3rd in Eastern Conference
#2 Washington Capitals
Last Season: 42-32-8; 2nd in Southeast; 7th in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Lost second round (4-3) v. New York Rangers
Goals For: 222 (15th in NHL)
Goals Against: 230 (18th in NHL)
Coach: Dale Hunter (30-23-7)
Top Scorers: F Alex Ovechkin (38-27-65); F Alexander Semin (21-33-54) |
Starting Goaltender: G Tomas Vokoun (25-17-2; 2.51 GAA; .917 SV%; 4 SO)
Key Acquisitions: F Mike Ribeiro (Trade), F Wojtek Wolski (Free Agent)
Key Losses: F Alexander Semin (Free Agent), G Tomas Vokoun (Trade), D Dennis Wideman (Trade)
The Capitals are a team that got to the top, winning a President's Trophy under Bruce Boudreau, but could never live up to that promise come playoff time. Those questions remain, but they are now under first time coach Adam Oates who should have them playing a more wide-open and fast style of hockey. This bodes well for a team filled with speed, and we'll have to see if that translates to playoff success.
The addition of Mike Ribeiro was a great one made by GM George McPhee and finally gives them a second centre to place behind top line guy Nicklas Backstrom. They also got wingers who can score, with Troy Brouwer probably joining Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line and Wolski and Marcus Johansson flanking Ribeiro on the second. Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera and playoff hero Joel Ward make for a third line that packs more offensive punch then most, and this group should perform pretty well from here on forward.
On the backend the Capitals have a formidable group. It's not the best but it's also not amongst the worst. They did lose their number one guy in trading Wideman to the Flames, but he isn't worth what he was paid and their probably better off not paying him that anyways. Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Roman Hamrlik and Dmitry Orlov are all guys who can do certain things well, and they can piece together pairings that will get the job done.
In net, the Capitals seem to have figured out their crowded situation with the playoff youngster Braden Holtby had and they will give him the keys to the franchise to start the year. He played spectacularly in the playoffs last season, posting a sub 2.00 goals against average and will be counted on to give them the true number one goaltender they haven't had since the days of Peter Bondra and Olaf Kolzig.
X-Factor: F Alexander Ovechkin
This is Ovechkin's team, and he is capable of taking them further then they have gone before. But we'll need the old Alex. They need the guy who scored 60 goals not the one who barely tops the 60 point plateau. A lot of people were grumbling that Boudreau and Dale Hunter ran systems that didn't best show how good Ovechkin can be and that they didn't give him the minutes that he deserves as a true superstar in the NHL. If he can get back to that dominant and superstar form, this team has enough fire power to possibly make some noise come playoff time.
Not a bad team and one that should defiantly find itself in the playoffs. They can score, they can play defense and their goalie looks like a legit number one option. I'm not sure they can hang with the true elite in the East, and a series win would probably go in the surprise column but not a bad team with a pretty good nucleus of growing talent.
Projected Record: 25-18-5 (55 Points); 7th in Eastern Conference
#3 Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Season: 38-36-8; 3rd in Southeast; 10th in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Did Not Qualify
Goals For: 235 (9th in NHL)
Goals Against: 281 (30th in NHL)
Coach: Guy Boucher (84-61-19)
Top Scorers: F Steven Stamkos (60-37-97); F Martin St. Louis (25-49-74)
Starting Goaltender: G Mathieu Garon (23-16-4; 2.85 GAA; .901 SV%; 1 SO)
Key Acquisitions: F Benoit Pouliot (Trade), G Anders Lindback (Trade), D Sami Salo (Free Agent), D Matt Carle (Free Agent)
Key Losses: N/A
This team was just flat out bad in their own end. That's made clear by the fact that they gave up more goals then any other team in the NHL last year. Also, a team .893 save percentage didn't help anything and they at least went out and grabbed one of the young goalies available in Lindback. Picking up Carle was also a nice move, although it did cost them a pretty penny (6 years, 33 million) to do so. The team can score, and have probably the best pure goal scorer in the NHL on their team, but can they prevent enough goals to make the dance?
Although a bit shallow up front, they do have some guys who have proven they can flat out score. Stamkos' track record speaks for itself, and he is clearly one of the most lethal players in the world with the puck on his stick. St. Louis had another stellar season last year, and should be around the same with Stamkos still centering him and guys like Ryan Malone and veteran leader Vincent Lecailvier can chip in offensively as well. Depth down the middle is a bit of an issue, with Nate Thompson and Adam Hall filling out the depth chart. That could be the first thing Steve Yzerman addresses come trade deadline.
The backend was a real issue last year and to Yzerman's credit he did try and address it. Carle and Salo were nice additions, and added some NHL quality depth to a group devoid of it. Victor Hedman is still coming into his own, but should be a quality NHL defenseman and this could be the year he really strides forward into a dependable and responsible NHL defenseman. Not a great group, but it is going in the right direction.
If the backend was a real issue last year, then goaltending was a disaster. It seems like age has finally caught up with Dwayne Roloson, and Garon performed admirably but is in no way a starting goaltender in today's NHL. Yzerman also did what he could to address this issue, picking up Lindback from Nashville. He was stuck behind the elite Pekka Rinne, and his potential is high but you really don't know in this league until you actually do it.
X-Factor: G Anders Lindback
When your team gives up that many goals, and your goaltender combine to stop less then 90% of pucks there is a clear problem. It'll be up to Lindback to fix that problem, and he'll get his chance early. He's the clear number one here, for better or worse, and if the Lightning are going to go anywhere with their high scoring style they are going to be better in their own end and allow less pucks to hit the back of the net. That starts and ends with Lindback.
This is an interesting team to me. They have the pieces up front to score plenty of goals and should, and have made strides to improve the back end and goaltending. I don't know if they have the horses in the back to prevent scoring chances from happening to often yet. There is some promise here, but I think they come up short of the playoffs.
Projected Record: 23-24-1 (47 Points); 11th in Eastern Conference
#4 Winnipeg Jets
Last Season: 38-36-8; 4th in Southeast; 11th in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Did Not Qualify
Goals For: 225 (14th in NHL)
Goals Against: 246 (26th in NHL)
Coach: Claude Noel (37-35-10)
Top Scorers: F Blake Wheeler (17-47-64); F Evander Kane (30-27-57)
Starting Goaltender: G Ondrej Pavelec (29-28-9; 2.91 GAA; .906 SV%; 4 SO)
Key Acquisitions: F Alexei Ponikarovsky (Free Agent), F Olli Jokinen (Free Agent)
Key Losses: F Tanner Glass (Free Agent)
The fact that this team kept themselves in the race as long as they did was inspiring and great to see for a city so starved for hockey. That enthusiasm and home support will not change and be unwavering, but this team will want to improve and make some noise in the East to appease the fans. They do have some pieces in good spots to try and make that happen, but whether they all come together or they have enough talent to take the next step is a question mark.
The group of forwards in Winnipeg is a dynamic and talented group that is capable of get goals from the top three lines. Bryan Little will center the top group in between captain Andrew Ladd and Wheeler, and can hopefully continue the success they had last year. Wheeler has developed into one of the better power forwards in the NHL. The second line features Kane and Nik Antropov on the wing centered by big off-season acquisition Jokinen. This is another line that can score, and Kane will be looking to build on what should be the first of many 30 goal seasons. Then you got the third line, the creative Kyle Wellwood and veteran Ponikarovsky centered by the ever intriguing Alex Burmistrov. Burmistrov is a guy they expected to grow into a top six center, and this is his time. The majority of their key guys here are fairly young and growing so they should only get better, but goals still should not be an issue this season in Winnipeg.
On the back-end, the Jets have a couple guys who are especially good in the offensive zone with former forward Dustin Byfuglien and puck-moving Tobias Enstrom. They have been a little shaky in their end at times, and aren't the group you slap on the elite players in this league, but they are a great group to have in the transition game and on the powerplay. They follow them up with some bigger, slower type guys like Ron Hainsey, Mark Stuart and the promising Zach Bogosian to make up what is a decent core. Their play in their own end was suspect at times last year, and this is what could ultimately hold them back this year.
Pavelec is a starting goalie in this NHL that much is for sure. He kept this team in games last year and helped them win. But he was slightly inconsistent at times and for a team that will need all the help they can get getting to the playoffs they can't have that. He's a decent enough goalie, but I'm not sure he's so good he can make up for some of the key deficiencies this team has. Also, losing locker room favorite and solid back-up Chris Mason could be a bit of issue in keeping Pavelec fresh.
The Jets have enough trouble keeping pucks out of their net as it is, but to be a team in the top third of the league in penalties taken is a problem. They will need to shore this up and stay out of the box a lot more then they did last year if they are going to take that next step and compete to play in the playoffs. It wasn't just a couple guys who are to blame either, they had five players with over 70 penalty minutes and eleven guys who topped the 40 penalty minute plateau.
I really want this team to be good and compete. The city absolutely loves them and they are a very likable group. No real superstar, just a bunch of quality NHL players put together to gel. However, their problems in their own end could prove too much this year for a playoff berth. They are building in the right direction, and I can't remember a time since their inception in Atlanta that they had a team this deep. Stay the course Winnipeg and you'll be a good team in no time.
Projected Record: 19-21-8 (46 Points); 12th in Eastern Conference
#5 Florida Panthers
Last Season: 38-26-18; 1st in Southeast; 3rd in Eastern Conference
Playoffs: Lost first round (4-3) v. New Jersey Devils
Goals For: 203 (25th in NHL)
Goals Against: 227 (17th in NHL)
Coach: Kevin Dineen (38-26-18)
Top Scorers: F Tomas Fleischmann (27-34-61); F Stephen Weiss (20-37-57)
Starting Goaltender: G Jose Theodore (22-16-11; 2.46 GAA; .917 SV%; 3 SO)
Key Acquisitions: F George Parros (Free Agent), F Peter Mueller (Free Agent), D Filip Kuba (Free Agent)
Key Losses: F Mikael Samuelsson (Free Agent), F Wojtek Wolski (Free Agent), D Jason Garrison (Free Agent)
The Panthers were a nice story in 2011/12. They took a pieced together bunch of decent hockey players and put together a Southwest division winning season that saw them make the playoffs for the first time since the last lockout. Although a nice story, I'm not sure how sustainable it'll be. They were pretty lucky when you look at their goals for/goals against numbers and when you look at the fact that their point total would have put them 7th in the East.
Up front, out are Samuelsson and Wolski and in are Parros and Mueller. I'm not sure there is really much lost or gained in that trade off, as both Samuelsson and Wolski never really found their way in Florida and Parros and Mueller bring a combined seven goals from last year. It is a pieced together group, with guys like Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg leading the way offensively last season. Those guys, as well as Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Kopecky and Jack Skille are all players they have picked up over the last season or two and they contributed well above expectations. It'll be hard pressed to repeat that performance however. One great thing to say is Jonathan Huberdeau is a stud, and he'll be debuting as their second line center this season. The potential is there to be the Calder trophy winner when the season's over.
Same sort of thing happened on the back end. Out goes Garrison, in comes Kuba and it makes for a slight drop-off. Garrison was a good player for them last year, scoring 16 goals and leading the team with a +6 and playing just over 23 minutes a game. I don't think Kuba can be that good of a player, but that isn't what will doom this team. You then have team minutes leader Brian Campbell (another successful reclamation story) and veteran Ed Jovanoski penciled in to the top 4 guys and then it gets sticky. Hopefully they come to terms with Dmitry Kulikov, as he's the next guy to fill out the top four but then it gets interesting. Keaton Ellerby, Erik Gudbransson, Mike Weaver and Tyson Strachan all got time last year, and it'll be a dog fight for the last two spots.
In net, this is Jacob Markstrom's team. That is the guy this team has hung their hat on, and there isn't much better in terms of potential in a goaltender. They got good performances from incumbent starter Jose Theodore and career back-up Scott Clemmensen but expecting the same thing from this year could be a stretch. They are both older and had shown in the past signs of slowing down. It could be Markstrom's job sooner rather then later.
X-Factor: F Jonathan Huberdeau
I'm not sure he's as much of an x-factor for this season, but he is a potential superstar for this team and his development will be crucial. I love the kid though, and I'd be surprised if he doesn't end up being a true star on this team. He's a smart, strong and instinctive guy who was arguably Canada's best player at the World Juniors and has played well everywhere he has ever played. Lets hope for Florida's sake they have found their leader of the future in him.
They got really lucky last year. Everything from their goal differential to their point total tells you they didn't deserve the #3 seed they got and took advantage of a weak Southeast division. The division is better this year, with Carolina making bold moves, Washington adding pieces, Tampa adding a goaltender and Winnipeg growing up so it'll be harder to get those division wins to boost the point total. They also lead the league in overtime losses and were actually only 19th in the league in wins. This will all even out this year in what could be a disappointing season after a promising one in Florida.
Projected Record: 17-24-7 (41 Points); 14th in Eastern Conference
Written by Jordan Adduono