NHL Season Preview- Part 2

Alright, let’s get right into it. Here are my projections for the Pacific and Central Divisions.

Central Division:

(#3)  1. Detroit Red Wings

Top Forwards: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Todd Bertuzzi

Top Defensemen: Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Ian White

Goaltenders: Jimmy Howard, Ty Conklin

There’s not much that needs to be said about these guys. Anyone who’s been following the league for the last 20 years know that Red Wings are perennial cup contenders and this season will be no exception. Pavel Datsyuk is the best two-way forward in the game and their other top forwards are excellent at puck-possession and know how to score. In goal, Jimmy Howard is very capable of backstopping this team to a deep-run.

What really stirs the drink in Detroit is the future hall-of-famer/ageless wonder, Nicklas Lidstrom, who is coming back for yet another season to anchor the Red Wings’ blueline after another Norris-calibur year in 2010-11. This guy is one of the most savvy defenseman to have ever played the game; he’s taken very little physical punishment and he’s an ace at both ends of the ice. Some may be willing to predict that he’s going to finally slow down, but I definitely won’t be doing that! Losing Brian Rafalski to retirement will hurt, but as long as Lidstrom is back there, their defense will be just fine. Overall, I like their team a little better than the Blackhawks, specifically in the goaltending department, so I will give them the nod for the division.

(#4)  2. Chicago Blackhawks

Top Forwards: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland

Top Defensemen: Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjamarlsson, Steve Montador

Goaltenders: Corey Crawford, Ray Emery

Last year, the Blackhawks had a heck of a time trying to make the playoffs after winning the cup, but they did put on a good show in the playoffs, pushing the eventual Western Conference Champs, the Vancouver Canucks to a game 7. As far as this year goes, they’re essentially bringing back the same team, minus goaltender, Marty Turco and defenseman, Brian Campbell. I think we can all agree that Brian Campbell is a lot better than Steve Montador, but jettisoning Campbell’s contract was the best thing for the Blackhawks, clearing out about $7.1 million in cap hit for the next five years. That move is going to hurt them a little bit in the short-term, but fortunately for Chicago, they’ve got two horses on the blueline in Keith and Seabrook who just eat big minutes every game.

This forward group is also pretty deep and they know how to win. Jonathan Toews is the Stevie Yzerman of this generation in humble opinion and Kane, Sharp, and Hossa are all capable of being PPG players. The two keys to their success though will be Dave Bolland and…Ray Emery?! Bolland gives Chicago a great two-way top 6 center and without him anchoring the 2nd line, teams can key in on the Toews line and stiffle their scoring. As far as Emery goes, I’m assuming that they’ll want to have him start somewhere around 20 games. Can the Blackhawks win a good enough number of games that he’ll start in? I tend to think that they’ll be pretty successful in addressing these issues, but not successful enough to win the division.

(#7)  3. Nashville Predators

Top Forwards: Martin Erat, David Legwand, Mike Fisher, Blake Geofferion, Colin Wilson

Top Defensemen: Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Kevin Klein, Jonathon Blum

Goaltenders:  Pekka Rinne, Anders Lindback

This is the chic team that people like to pick to miss the playoffs because of their lack of scoring, but this team always finds a way to make the playoffs anyway. Why you may ask? Head coach, Barry Trotz has these guys playing a system that really chokes the opposing team’s offense and when you’ve got guys like Weber and Suter running the blueline and a goaltender like Pekka Rinne to go along with a very defensively-responsible team, opposing teams are going to have a one heck of a time scoring. The caveat here is that it’s very hard to win a seven-game series in the playoffs when you struggle to score goals, no matter how great you may be defensively, which is why I don’t see a deep playoff-run in this team’s future yet again. Nashville will need their younger guys, Wilson and Geofferion to take the next step in their development for this team to be a bigger threat.

(#9)  4. St. Louis Blues

Top Forwards: Andy MacDonald, David Backes, Chris Stewart, TJ Oshie, Patrik Berglund

Top Defensemen: Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo, Barrett Jackman, Roman Polak

Goaltenders: Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliot

There’s a lot to like about the Blues on paper. They’ve got a lot of young talent at forward who are very-gifted offensive players and Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk are two extremely-promising defensemen who might end up being their version of what Chicago has in Duncan Keith and Brett Seabrook. St. Louis is also solid in goal with Halak holding down the fort most of the time. The problem I have with the Blues is their backup goaltending situation.  Brian Elliot is a mess and I don’t see this team winning  many of the games he starts. Halak will have to start 70+ games for them to have a chance at a playoff spot. Also, there seems to be some upheaval within the organization, most notably based upon the team dealing their former #1 overall pick, defenseman Erik Johnson and a core guy like TJ Oshie having his work ethic called into question after shirking a practice last year. In a lot of ways, they’re similar to the Avs who I have squeaking in the playoffs as the 8th seed. I think the team gets past the baggage from last season, but they’ll come up short of the playoffs because of their backup goaltending situation.

(#13)  5. Columbus Blue Jackets

Top Forwards: Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, Derick Brassard, RJ Umberger, Kristian Huselius

Top Defensemen: James Wisniewski, Marc Methot, Fedor Tyutin, Radek Martinek

Goaltenders: Steve Mason, Mark Dekanich

I feel bad for Columbus. They have a solid, growing fanbase and ownership really went to the mat this year, spending just under the $64.3 million cap (~$63.2 million). Unfortunately, I don’t see the playoffs in the future for them, despite the offensive firepower this team has with Nash, Carter, Brassard leading the charge and the good goaltending they have with Mason & Dekanich, for one reason: the defense.

James Wisniewski is a very good offensive-defenseman, but he’s not well-rounded enough for my liking to lead a defense. He happens to be the team’s best defenseman though and he’s going to be missing the first eight games because of his suspension for the hit on Minnesota Wild forward, Cal Clutterbuck. The rest of their blueliners are solid role-players, but they aren’t playoff calibur. Columbus could be a deep-sleeper in the West if their team defense is good enough to compensate for the deficiencies on the blueline, but I don’t think they’ll good enough to get the team to the playoffs over an 82 game season.

Pacific Division:

(#1)  1. San Jose Sharks 

Top Forwards: Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Ryan Clowe, Patrick Marleau

Top Defensemen: Dan Boyle, Brett Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlassic, Douglas Murray

Goaltenders: Antti Niemi, Antero Niittymaki (Injured Reserve), Thomas Greiss

I love the Sharks for this year. Joe Thornton finally upped his game to the next level during the playoffs and that will pay dividends for this already deep forward group. They’re built similarly to the Canucks down the middle. Thornton=H.Sedin (Elite Playmaking Centers), Pavelski/Couture=Kesler (Very good young centers), and Handzus=Malhotra (3rd line centers who are great on face-offs). Overall, I do like San Jose’s wingers a little better than theirs though. The Sharks picked up winger, Marty Havlat from the Wild over the summer too. He’s slowed down a bit, but I think he’ll be rejuvenated playing with this group.

On defense, San Jose went out and added Brett Burns who came in the Havlat deal. Burns will definitely help shore-up the defense by eating up minutes and really strengthening the Sharks in transition when they are breaking out of their zone. That should go a long way of taking some of the burden off of Dan Boyle, which should make him better. Douglas Murray isn’t exactly fast, but he’s one of the best in the league at physically punishing people who wander into the Sharks’ end of the ice. Niemi’s capable of getting the job done in goal as a starter and whatever issues the Sharks may have with Greiss should be covered up by the rest of the team. As far as their competition in the division goes, I think only Anaheim has a real chance of threatening them, but in the end, their lack of depth at forward will prevent them from doing that.

(#5)  2. Anaheim Ducks

Top Forwards: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne

Top Defensemen: Lubomir Visnovsky, Toni Lydman, Luca Sbisa, Cam Fowler

Goaltenders: Jonas Hiller, Dan Ellis

Anaheim was a team that I thought would go a little farther than the 1st round last year because of their torrid run to end the regular season, but they were done in by the Preds. They’re essentially bringing back the same team from last year with one major difference: Jonas Hiller is back to normal. The outstanding goaltender was battling Vertigo last season and couldn’t help out the team too much, but he’s symptom-free now which is bad news for the rest of the league. Dan Ellis replaces Ray Emery as the backup goalie and he should be capable enough to do the job, especially with the defense in front of him.

Visnovsky, who put up monster offensive numbers from the blueline while playing shut-down minutes will be back to lead the Anaheim defense. Toni Lydman is very underrated and brings a solid presence, as well as insane shot-blocking ability to the defense. The young guys, Sbisa and Fowler all look to be on their way to being at the very least, top-4 calibur defensemen. The only thing to worry about here is some regression if they have trouble making adjustments since they are younger players, but I think there’s enough veteran savvy on the blueline to prevent that from being too much of an issue. At forward, the Ducks have three monsters up front in Getzlaf, Perry, and Ryan, as well as veteran Finnish forwards, Koivu and Selanne. The latter contemplated retirement, but decided to come back for another year and why not? He still hasn’t lost a step after all these years and knows how to score. Depth at forward will be the issue for the Ducks. They’ll need to add a little more up front if they want to be able to match-up with deeper teams like San Jose and Vancouver come playoff time.

(#6)  3. LA Kings

Top Forwards: Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Dustin Brown, Simon Gagne, Jarret Stoll

Top Defensemen: Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Matt Greene, Rob Scudari

Goaltenders: Jonathan Quick, Jonathan Bernier

LA has certainly been in the spotlight this offseason. They traded for the former captain of the Philadelphia Flyers, Mike Richards in exchange for a couple of really nice players in Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds and we can’t forget the contentious negotiations that took place between Drew Doughty’s camp and the Kings’ brass. Fortunately for Kings fans, the negotiations finally ended with a new, long-term contract for Doughty. With him under contract, the Kings’ blueline is setup nicely. Doughty could potentially be the best defenseman in the league this year and he has a really good chance to be the “gold-standard” for NHL defensemen in the not-too-distant-future. Also, Jack Johnson is a great second-in-command and Greene & Scudari provide all-around good play and grit. In goal, they have the two Jonathan’s, Quick & Bernier who are both capable of providing great goaltending.

At forward, the Kings have a very nice 1-2-3 punch with Kopitar, Richards, and Stoll. Despite that though, they will have some trouble scoring at times. LA did bring in Simon Gagne and they do have Dustin Brown, but the scoring punch that’s lacking on the wings is very evident. Dustin Penner was brought in at the trade deadline last year to help rectify that, but he’s been a bust for the most part. Look for LA to move Quick in package for a scoring-winger if Bernier continues to play well if they’re having trouble scoring. The Kings do play great team defense though, so they should be lock for a playoff spot with that defensive core and goaltending. They’ll need more scoring to take the next step though.

(#10)  4. Dallas Stars 

Top Forwards: Jamie Benn, Mike Ribero, Loui Eriksson, Brenden Morrow, Michael Ryder

Top Defensemen: Alex Goligoski, Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, Nicklas Grossman

Goaltending: Kari Lehtonen, Andrew Raycroft

Dallas is a team that I’d like a lot better if they were stronger on defense. They did bring in Goligoski on defense at the deadline in exchange for winger, James Neal, but on a team with a good defense, he should be #3 , not a #1 and that’s what Dallas’s defense is: a mixture or 2nd & 3rd pairing defensemen. There’s no real top guy here. People have reservations about Lehtonen being the guy in goal, but I think he’ll be fine. Now Raycroft on the other hand, is a different story. They’ll be hard-pressed to win games with him in goal without selling out on defense.

The forwards are definitely the strength of the Stars and they can score with the best of them. Everyone will know who Jamie Benn is by the end of this season. Look for him to replace former Stars’ center, Brad Richards’s production and then some. Ribero is a great #2 center and their top wingers, Eriksson and Morrow have a very nice blend of size, skill, and toughness. Ryder, who came over from Boston in free-agency should be a nice compliment to their wingers too. This group up front will need to help make sure this Dallas team scores plenty of goals this season, because I don’t see them being able to grind out low-scoring defensive struggles with this blueline.

(#11)  5. Phoenix Coyotes

Top Forwards:  Shane Doan, Kyle Turris, Ray Whitney, Martin Hanzel, Mikkel Boedker

Top Defensemen: Keith Yandle, Derek Morris, Rostislav Klesla, Michal Rozsival

Goaltenders: Mike Smith, Jason Labarbera

I hate putting the Coyotes in this spot, even though everything on paper says I have every reason to do so. Their forward situation is pretty bleak at the moment, especially at center. Kyle Turris is the team’s top center and they were counting on him big-time this year, but it’s looking doubtful that he’ll ever play another game for them, given his outrageous contract demands. I don’t think he expects to get the money though. I think it’s just a polite way of him saying “trade me.” Even with Turris, they’d still lack the scoring punch. Shane Doan can’t do it all at the wing and how much can you expect out of an aging player like Ray Whitney. The defense is going to have to play a big part in the offense.

So now that we got that out of the way, you’re probably wondering why I said that I hate putting them here.  One reason: Dave Tippett. The Coyotes head coach is arguably the best coach in the league at getting more out of his team than he should and that’s mainly due to great defensive style that they play that is anchored by a strong, underrated blueline. Keith Yandle is the ring-leader of that group and he’s more than capable of putting up points and playing shut-down minutes. The rest of that group (Morris, Klesla, Rozsival, Ekman-Larsson, Aucoin) are solid and can provide all-around good play in both ends the ice. Their goaltending situation took a hit with Brysgalov leaving in free-agency, but Smith and Labarbera should be good enough to succeed in this system. The former has great puck-handing ability, so he could be a great asset to help move the puck to the defense to start break-outs. Overall, my head’s telling me that they will not score enough to be a threat, but don’t sleep on this team.

 

That concludes part 2 of this preview as well as the preview for all three Western Conference divisions. Just to make things easier for you all, here’s a more organized list of  what I think the west will look like.

1. San Jose

2. Vancouver

3. Detroit

4. Chicago

5. Anaheim

6. LA

7. Nashville

8. Colorado

9. St. Louis

10. Dallas

11. Phoenix

12. Minnesota

13. Columbus

14. Calgary

15. Edmonton

 

Look for Part 3 tomorrow. Have a great rest of the day!

One Response to NHL Season Preview- Part 2

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