Tag:Christian Ehrhoff
Posted on: January 13, 2012 12:04 pm
Edited on: January 13, 2012 12:06 pm
 

Sabres owner points to injuries

MllerBy: Adam Gretz

A lot of fans in Buffalo might have lost a lot of hope in the Sabres this season, but not their biggest fan, the one who became the owner.

It's no exaggeration to say the Sabres have been one of the worst teams in the league since the opening month concluded. They enter the weekend with a record of 18-19-5, good enough for 11th place in the Eastern Conference. That's not really helping Terry Pegula reach his goal of bringing a Stanley Cup to Buffalo, no matter the cost.

But as far as Pegula is concerned, the roster that GM Darcy Regier has put together is still capable of doing big things. It's just that it needs to be healthy.

Here's what Pegula told Bucky Gleason of the Buffalo News in a recent phone interview:

"What everybody is missing is that I've been carrying around 167 man games," he said by telephone Thursday evening. "Forget about the season. I'm talking about the last 25 games. We've had 18 players go down. It's like a merry-go-round every night. You look on the ice and what are your defensive pairs tonight? Hell, who knows? Who's healthy?

"I think what's important is the number of guys. You can have 167 man games with four, five, six guys out for a long period. Eighteen? Cut me a break. I told Darcy Regier one time, 'If I was you, I would be afraid to get on the plane.' "

There is no doubt the Sabres have been hit by the injury bug this season, losing several key players at one time or another, including Tyler Myers, Brad Boyes, Tyler Ennis, Jochen Hecht and Ville Leino, just to name a few. And while that's true, there's probably not many teams in the NHL that are going to feel any sympathy for the Sabres (just take a look at the injury lists for teams like Pittsburgh and Florida, for example).

Of course, injuries aren't the only thing working against the Sabres this year. The early returns on their summer-long free agent frenzy that included the signings of Leino and Christian Ehrhoff, as well as the addition of Robyn Regehr via trade with Calgary, have failed to produce much bang for their buck. And while Leino and Ehrhoff have had some injuries of their own, they haven't exactly produced when they've been healthy. Ehrhoff's offense from the blue line has taken a noticeable drop now that he's no longer getting significant power play time with the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, with the Canucks, and Leino has really only produced for one full season in the NHL.

And then there is goaltender Ryan Miller. Suddenly the target of some criticism from the local press, Miller hasn't been able to recapture the magic from his 2009-10 season when he was one of the best goaltenders in the world, not only as the netminder for the Sabres, but also for team USA in the Vancouver Olympics. This season his save percentage has dropped all the way down to .902, which is 36th in the NHL.

Are injuries hurting the Sabres? Sure, but they're not the only thing that has the team with the largest payroll in the league five points out of a potential playoff spot. There are a lot of players that are underperforming, or perhaps just aren't as good as the Sabres originally thought.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.
Posted on: December 30, 2011 10:23 pm
 

Sabres coach Ruff: Ehrhoff likely to be out weeks

By Brian Stubits

WASHINGTON -- The Buffalo Sabres are having troubles scoring in recent weeks. That continued in a 3-1 loss to the Capitals on Friday night.

It's going to be a little tougher now after the loss of offensive defenseman Christian Ehrhoff due to an "upper-body injury."

Ehrhoff engaged in a shoving match with Capitals forward Troy Brouwer at 16:49 of the first period that led to a fight. It wasn't much in the way of swinging but instead grabbing and headlocks. But after the fight, Ehrhoff didn't return to the game.

Here is the fight with Brouwer.

After the game coach Lindy Ruff said that Ehrhoff is "going to miss some time." Asked for an early timetable: "It'll probably be weeks."

These days when you hear upper-body injury in the NHL on the injury list, you have to worry that it might mean a dreaded concussion. Of course, there are so many parts of the body on the upper half that it could be a lot of things. He was in a head lock that had his shoulder twisted around during the scrap, too.

As to what the injury is, we don't know yet, perhaps it will come out in the coming days. But we do know that according to Ruff, it will be some time. Add in the fact that defenseman Tyler Myers is out and there's no timetable for his return and you see a blue line getting awfully thin.

Ehrhoff isn't one to fight often. The tussle with Brouwer was only the fourth fight of Ehrhoff's career, second this season, his first with the Sabres. He was one of Buffalo's two high-priced free-agent acquisitions this summer when he signed a 10-year, $40 million contract with Buffalo. So far in 36 games, Ehrhoff has produced three goals and 14 assists.

The other big free-agent acquisition for Buffalo this summer, Ville Leino, is also sidelined by injury at the moment.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: October 14, 2011 5:23 pm
Edited on: October 14, 2011 5:29 pm
 

Jumping to conclusions and the early NHL season

CBJ1

By: Adam Gretz

We're a little over a week into the regular season which means it's only natural to start jumping to conclusions based on a small sampling of games or head coaching decisions, and we're all guilty of it. Sometimes your initial knee-jerk reaction is accurate, and teams or players are as good or bad as they appear this early in the season, and other times it proves to be way too soon for such a judgement.

What about the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the three teams in the NHL that has yet to win a game this season as of Friday afternoon. After an exciting summer of big-name acquisitions (Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski) is it still more of the same for an organization that has known nothing but losing since entering the NHL a decade ago? Or is it just a slow start hindered by the fact that one of those players (Wisniewski) has yet to appear in a game?

Is there really a goaltending controversy in Washington because Michal Neuvirth started the first game of the season instead of Tomas Vokoun? And is Vokoun really thee guy the Capitals can trust after struggling through his first start? Is Brendan Shanhan's early season run of suspensions going to be overkill?

In the spirit of Tom Symkowski and his Jump To Conclusions Mat in Office Space, we're going to jump to our own conclusions on those -- and more -- early season storylines .

1) New Look, Same Old Blue Jackets

Our Conclusion: Too soon

A lot of the Blue Jackets success (or lack of success) this season will depend on how well goaltender Steve Mason plays, and so far, it's been a less-than-inspiring start for Columbus and its young goaltender.

But it's too soon to think these are the same old Blue Jackets.

For one, Wisniewski is still serving his suspension that runs through the first eight games of the regular season, and that has definitely been a big blow to the Jackets' lineup. Wisniewski is expected to be -- and will be -- one of Columbus' top-defensemen and anytime you're playing without that sort of presence in your lineup it's going to have a negative impact. The biggest issue for Columbus so far, and an area Wisniewski should certainly help improve once he returns to the lineup, has been its  dreadful power play, which is currently off to an 0-for-20 start. This should get better when Wisniewski returns, and while the playoffs still aren't a given this season, the Blue Jackets are going to improve and take a step forward.

2) Tomas Vokoun Isn't The Answer For Washington/Capitals Goaltending Controversy

Our Conclusion: Crazy talk. And Way Too Soon

When Michal Neuvirth received the opening night start over free agent acquisition Tomas Vokoun it started the discussion as to whether or not the Washington Capitals had a goaltender controversy on their hands. When Vokoun earned his first start of the season in game No. 2 and struggled during a shootout win against Tampa Bay, allowing five goals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, there were concerns that he's not the answer in goal for Washington.

Traditionally Vokoun has been a slow starter throughout his career. Tim Greenberg of the Washington Post, for example, recently pointed out that October has been the worst month of Vokoun's career from a save percentage perspective, and generally plays better as the season progresses. He already rebounded on Thursday during the Capitals' 3-2 win in Pittsburgh with a strong performance that saw him make 39 saves, giving his team a chance to pick up two points in the standings.

Vokoun has been one of the best goalies in the NHL in recent years, and even at 35, should have enough left in the tank to help form one of the better goaltending duos in the NHL with Neuvirth. And both will get the fair share of starts throughout the season.

3) Buffalo is a Stanley Cup contender

Our Conclusion: Probably Accurate

The Sabres were already a playoff caliber team with plenty of excitement around them heading into the regular season, and a pair of impressive wins over Anaheim and Los Angeles to open the season in Europe did nothing to hurt that. The Sabres have one of the NHL's best goalies in Ryan Miller and boosted their defense over the summer with Christian Ehrhoff and, perhaps their best offseason addition, Robyn Regehr, to go along with Tyler Myers.

They were already a top-10 team a year ago offensively -- even with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford missing extended time due to injury -- and only added to that firepower up front by signing Ville Leino to help complement their already impressive group of forwards.

With that type of scoring depth, a trio of defensemen like Myers, Regehr and Ehrhoff, and a goaltender like Miller the Sabres should be one of the Eastern Conference's top contenders for a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

4) Ilya Bryzgalov Will Be Philadelphia's Savior

Our Conclusion: Too Soon

The Philadelphia Flyers finally have their No. 1 goalie and in his first two starts managed to allow just one goal. Problem solved, right? Maybe.

I'm still not sure he's going to be enough to get Philadelphia it's long-awaited Stanley Cup, and for as much as the Flyers revolving door of goaltenders was criticized last season, they were still in the top-half of the league in save percentage and not that far below what Bryzgalov put up in Phoenix's tight defensive system.

It's not that Philadelphia isn't a good team defensively, but I have some concerns over the age -- and and durability -- of their top-two defensemen, Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, I'm just not sure Bryzgalov is going to be enough of an upgrade to make up for what Philadelphia lost up front this summer.

5) Brendan Shanahan Will Be Too Quick On The Suspension Trigger

Our Conclusion: It's simply been the adjustment period.

New rules (or new wording of one of the rules -- rule 48) and a new person in charge of handing out discipline led to a sudden spike in suspensions during the preseason and sky is falling fears that hitting and all physical contact will be removed from the game. It's no different than when we came out of the lockout when the league put an emphasis on eliminating clutch-and-grab hockey and we saw a sudden spike in penalties, which eventually started to regress once players adjusted to the rules. The same thing will happen with Shanahan and the suspensions. The hammer will be dropped early as players figure out what they can and can not do, and once they adjust, business will go on as usual.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.

Posted on: September 30, 2011 6:44 pm
Edited on: September 30, 2011 7:02 pm
 

Northwest Division Preview: 'Nucks still own it

NW1

By: Adam Gretz

This was the only division in the NHL last season to produce only one playoff team, and that was the Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks, the team that's won the division three years in a row.

Playoff teams have been difficult to come by in the Northwest in recent years, as Colorado and Calgary are the only teams other than Vancouver to reach the postseason over the past three years; and they only managed to qualify once each. You have to go back to the 2007-08 season to find the last time more than two teams went to the playoffs in the same year out of the Northwest, and it's probably not going to happen this year.

Once you get past Vancouver, the Flames are probably the best bet to reach the playoffs, and even they're not a lock, having failed to qualify two years in a row, and then there's a steady dropoff to a pair of rebuilding teams in Colorado and Edmonton, and a team in Minnesota that seems to be stuck somewhere in the middle between being in contention and in a  rebuilding phase.

The Northwest Division (In predicted order of finish):

CanucksVancouver Canucks: The Vancouver Canucks reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the third time in franchise history last season, losing to the Boston Bruins in seven games. After jumping out to a 2-0 series lead, Vancouver went on to lose four of the final five games of the series. And they not only lost, they were absolutely dominated, losing by a combined score of 21-4. Even with that disappointment in the rearview mirror, the Canucks are bringing back a roster that remains loaded from top to bottom, and is one of the top two or three cup contenders in the league.

Strengths: Just about everything is a strength for the Canucks. They're deep down the middle with Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler and the underrated Manny Malhotra at center, and even with the loss of Christian Ehrhoff, they have an excellent defense led by Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard, Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo. Roberto Luongo is still one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, and Cory Schneider, his young backup, could probably start for quite a few teams as well. They have quality depth up front with wingers like Daniel Sedin, Alex Burrows, Mikael Samuelsson, Jannik Hansen and Maxim Lapierre, and they excel on special teams, finishing with the top power play in the league last season and the third best penalty kill.

Weaknesses: It's really difficult to find one. Is there one? An obvious one? The Canucks are as deep as just about any team in the NHL at forward, defense and goaltender and have outstanding special teams. Where is the weakness?

FlamesCalgary Flames: A slow start that resulted in just 11 wins in their first 27 games put the Flames in a hole that was simply too deep to dig out of in the Western Conference, missing the playoffs by just four points. It's actually the exact opposite path they followed the previous season when they opened the with a 17-6-3 mark, only to completely fall apart over the final four months of the season and missed the playoffs by five points.

Strengths: Jarome Iginla is simply fantastic. He hasn't missed a game in four years, has scored at least 32 goals in each of those years, and managed to put in 43 during the 2010-11 season. Rene Bourque, Lee Stempniak, Curtis Glencross and David Moss is a solid group of forwards to put around Iginla, and all have the ability to score somewhere between 20 and 25 goals. A lot of other teams teams can -- and will -- do worse up front.

Weaknesses: How much does Miikka Kiprusoff have left in the tank? He's declined in recent years and his workload might be catching up with him and Henrik Karlsson could (and perhaps should) be getting a bigger role this season. Losing Robyn Regehr could be a significant loss on the blue line, and Jay Bouwmeester's first two years in Alberta have to be considered a tremendous disappointment. In his final three years with Florida he scored 12, 15 and 15 goals. In his two years with the Flames? He's scored seven. Total. And he's taking up over $6.6 million in cap space to be an offensive-defenseman. That's not going to work.

WildMinnesota Wild:  Mike Yeo takes over a team that hasn't made the playoffs in three years, hasn't won a playoff series since it went to the Conference Finals nine years ago, and he's introducing his version of the neutral zone trap (insert your own "it's boring hockey" comment here). Actually, it's pretty similar to the system the Penguins run -- the team Yeo was an assistant with for a number of years -- and is a bit more up-tempo than the Jacques Lemaire trap Minnesota fans witnessed all those years.

Strengths: Yeo is pushing for Mikko Koivu to win the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward, and he's definitely a worthy player to put on your early season watch list. An excellent two-way player that makes an impact in all three zones and all phases of the game. Dany Heatley, acquired from the Sharks over the summer, is coming off a down year (by his standards) in the goal-scoring department but possesses the best natural goal-scoring ability of any player on the roster and is a legitimate 40-goal threat.

Weaknesses: With Brent Burns no longer on the roster Minnesota has a bit of a hole on its blue line when it comes to providing offense. Marek Zidlicky, who was limited to just 46 games a season ago, was the only other defenseman to register at least 20 points. The 13th ranked power play in the league a season ago lost its top-three power play goal scorers (Burns, Antti Miettinen and Andrew Brunnette). Heatley should be able to help in that area, but will he be enough?

How good is Niklas Backstrom? He hasn't approached the numbers he put up the first three years of his career while playing under Lemaire, and his backups have pretty consistently put up similar save percentages in recent years. Was he a product of the system or is he set to play like one of the best goalies in the league again?

FlamesColorado Avalanche: Their decision to trade a first-round draft pick to the Washington Capitals for goaltender Semyon Varlamov was panned over the summer, as most observers are expecting Colorado to once again finish near the bottom of the NHL's standings, meaning that pick could turn out to be a lottery selection. The jury is still out on that trade, obviously, but there's no denying the Avalanche needed a significant upgrade in net after a disappointing season from Craig Anderson helped put the Avs at the bottom of the NHL in save percentage last season.

Strengths: The 1-2 punch of Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny down the middle is the foundation of this team, and they picked up another top young forward prospect back in June when they selected Gabriel Landeskog at the top of the draft.

Weaknesses: The Avalanche bulked up their defense this summer by putting an emphasis on adding size to their blue line, but will it result in a better product? Erik Johnson, acquired in last season's blockbuster trade with the St. Louis Blues, has the most potential of the group and is still only five years removed from being the No. 1 overall pick in the entire draft. Even with the addition of Varlamov, goaltending remains a question mark, especially since he's had problems staying injury free throughout his career.

The Avs had the worst penalty killing unit in the league last season. Can a full season of Jay McClement to go along with Daniel Winnick help improve that area?

OilersEdmonton Oilers: It's another rebuilding year, but they're getting closer, slowly but surely, to making an impact. And they might be the most entertaining -- and exciting -- non-playoff team in the league with an impressive list of young forwards led by last year's top pick, Taylor Hall.

Strengths: Even if No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins doesn't spend the entire season in Edmonton, the Oilers still have some outstanding young talent up front. Ales Hemsky is one of the NHL's most creative players with the puck and a tremendous playmaker, typically averaging near a point-per-game. The biggest flaw in his game, unfortunately, is that he tends to miss at least 10 games (or more) per season. Getting him for a full season would be a welcome change. Hall looks to be a star in the making, and players like Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Sam Gagner are loaded with potential and should make the Oilers worth watching every night, even if they don't win a ton of games.

Weaknesses: Defense. Goaltending. Goaltending. Defense. After Ryan Whitney it's a very thin team on the blue line, and additions like Cam Barker aren't likely to help that. Their defense and goaltending, led by Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk, will keep the Oilers at the bottom of the division, as well as the Western Conference, for at least another year.

NHL season preview schedule
Wed., Sept. 21: Step-back players Tues., Sept. 27: Atlantic Division
Thur., Sept. 22: Breakout players Wed., Sept. 28: Central Division
Fri., Sept. 23: Southeast Division Thur. Sept. 29: Northeast Division
Mon., Sept. 26: Pacific Division Fri., Sept. 30: Northwest Division

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.

Posted on: September 29, 2011 3:56 pm
Edited on: September 29, 2011 4:27 pm
 

Northeast Division Preview: Champ B's still tops

By Brian Stubits

For the first time since the 1993-94 season began, the reigning champion resides in the Northeast Division after the Bruins ended their Cup drought with a thrilling run through the postseason. The even better news for Boston (but not so awesome for the rest of the division) is that the Bruins are back almost completely intact.

No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champions since the Red Wings in 1997 and 98. Only two other teams have made it back to the Finals a year after winning in that time, the Stars in 1999 then 2000 and once again the Red Wings (2008, 09). There's a reason for it, the fabled championship hangover.

But in hockey, I think it plays a bigger part than any other sport. The offseason is as short as it gets, the playoffs as long and grueling as any of the major sports. The Bruins lifted the Cup in the middle of June and reported back to camp in early September. All the while they were enjoying a whirlwind of a summer that included plenty of partying and celebrating a title. The Blackhawks admittedly struggled with it last season (although the roster being ripped apart didn't help matters). If only getting rid of it were as easy as taking a couple Tylenol and drinking Vitamin Water.

If they do look sluggish and lethargic to start the season then the Buffalo Sabres will be ready to pounce on the opportunity. They are hockey hungry in Buffalo these days with hope their Sabres can become power players in the East. As for the other three in the division, the East's Canadian coalition? Well they will all be hoping to resurrect their glory days.

You can't exactly count out the Canadiens and Maple Leafs from the division crown, but this likely is a two-horse race in the Northeast.

Now we'll just have to wait and see how the Bruins respondin their quest for another Cup.

Northeast Division (predicted order of finish)

Boston Bruins: Why mess with a good thing? That's an easy philosphy to live by when you are coming off of claiming the Stanley Cup. Really, the only new additions they have to work into the fold are Benoit Pouliot as a bottom-six forward and Joe Corvo on the blue line. With the solid support all around them of a close-knit group, they should be able to seamlessly slide in and fill the voids left by Tomas Kaberle, Mark Recchi and Michael Ryder, the only pieces to the championship puzzle missing.

One thing I'm not sure many people realize, but this team is very young in addition to being super talented. There are still five players just among the forwards who will be restricted free agents when their contracts run out. The defense is a bit more grizzled, however, and that's where a good chunk of the leadership comes from, of course including captain Zdeno Chara.

There might be a slight sense of urgency for the B's to repeat as champs as they will have a lot of work to do to keep the team together as 10 of their regulars don't have contracts beyond next season. But GM Peter Chiarelli seems to be preparing for that well, saving the B's cap space to maneuver.

Strengths: What's not to like? They are very balanced as 10 players had more than 40 points a season ago, although two of them have departed (Kaberle and Ryder). Defensively they have plenty of veteran presence and have been a very good unit under Claude Julien. Plus, you know, they have that fella named Chara.

Oh, and how can we make it this far without discussing the team's best player, Tim Thomas? He was simply superb last season and through the playoffs, posting the highest single-season save percentage in league history. It's not as if his backup is chopped liver, either, as Tuukka Rask will be expected to shoulder more of the load for the 38-year-old Thomas this year.

Weaknesses: Despite all of their success when five-on-five, Boston's special teams weren't up to snuff. Without much change in personnel, they are going to have to find a way from within to improve the 20th-ranked power play and 18th-best penalty kill units. The power play was a growing concern in the playoffs, which included an 0-for-21 streak in the opening round win over the Canadiens. They tried all sorts of remedies to fix it, including parking Chara in front of the net, but they found their groove late in the playoffs when Chara and his booming shot returned to the point. Their hope is that success will roll over.

After that, we're just getting picky here. There just aren't too many holes from a team that ranked in the top five both offensively and defensively last season and was the NHL's top plus/minus team. They will have the talk of a championship hangover looming over them for much of the season and they will have the proverbial target on their backs as the champs. Those are hurdles that will be new.

Buffalo Sabres: I'm not sure what fans in Buffalo are more excited about right now: the Bills' 3-0 start or the first full season under Terry Pegula? The Sabres' biggest (and richest) fan ushers in a new era that the fans are still trying to get used to, in a good way: Buffalo is a big spender now. Pegula will make sure of that as he is willing to put his money where his mouth is. And his mouth has expressed some awfully high expectations ... multiple championships.

On that note, the Sabres were active in the offseason, most notably signing Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino to augment the core group that Buffalo has built. But possibly the biggest acquisition they made was the less-heralded of them all, and that was bringing in Robyn Regehr. The stout defenseman should prove to be a great addition as he brings a lot of toughness and all-around defense. Not to mention he will serve as a good influence for assumed partner Tyler Myers, who is in line for a nice bounceback season with more talent with him on defense.

It almost feels like an acquisition, but the return of Derek Roy will be a big boost, too. The front-line center missed the second half of last season due to a quad injury.

Welcome to Pegulaville. Buffalo still can hardly believe it.

Strengths: There is obviously a strong leader, for one. That's a very nice asset to have an owner so willing to win. But beyond him, there's a reason why Buffalo has moved into the conversation to crack the home-ice equation in the East, the new faces likely will make a very good group even better. In particular, the addition of Ehrhoff to the league's ninth-ranked power-play unit will make the special-teams unit a real asset for the Sabres.

Like their division rivals in Boston, as talented as they are all over the ice, their best player probably sits in the blue paint all game long. Ryan Miller didn't have the greatest of seasons last year for Buffalo, but that tends to happen when you come off a Vezina-winning season ... there's only one direction to go. He's still one of the absolute best in the game.

Oh, and the slug logo is gone, wiped away for good. That's positive for everybody.

Weaknesses: The cap situation is a bit troubling. With Pegula's desire to spend, the Sabres actually exceeded the salary cap over the summer, so they will have to be extra diligent with how they manage the roster. Unfortunately, it doesn't leave them much room to try and make any improvements midseason if need be.

Overall, it's not a roster with many holes in it whatsoever. It will just come down to how talented the team proves to be as there are multiple players capable of 50-plus point seasons.

Montreal Canadiens: Last season, without Max Pacioretty or Andrei Markov, the Canadiens captured the six seed in the East and took the eventual champions to the brink. I'm sure this team, almost al of it remains in town, is still stewing over blowing a 2-game lead to its bitter rival in Boston.

I definitely like the signing of Erik Cole in July, he is a solid (and physical) forward who could prove to be one of the bigger acquisitions of the summer for any team. He adds to a good, but not great group of forwards. They are capable, but need to be better than 23rd-best in the league like a season ago.

Where the success of this team will likely hinge is on the blue line. They have a couple of excellent young talents in P.K. Subban and Markov and some solid players behind them like Josh Gorges and Hal Gill.

A few steps toward a return to form for Scott Gomez (just seven goals last season) wouldn't hurt eiher.

Strenghts: Special teams. Under Jacques Martin, the Habs have been good in both departments of special teams, ranking seventh in both phases a season ago. If Markov remains healthy, the power play remains lethal as Subban and him both are excellent with the man up.

It's pretty Wild the goaltending this division features. Like both teams above them here, the Habs have an oustanding man living in the crease. It took fans a while in Montreal, but they finally warmed up to Carey Price, who finally lived up to his expectations last season. Playing a 72-game work load, Price posted a 2.35 GAA and .923 save percentage. The trick will be doing it again, but the safe bet is that he turned a corner and an encore shouldn't be a problem.

Weaknesses: Let's be honest, having to rely on Gomez to anchor a top-six line after a 37-point season doesn't have overwhelming talent. It showed in their scoring totals from last season when they averaged 2.60 goals per game. Cole will help as he not only brings a power game (among the league leaders in hits for forwards) but he can score. They would love to see him at least match his 26 goals from a season ago, that would have been good for second on the team.

A major concern all season will rest on the blue line and the depth there. Adding Chris Campoli after camp began was a nice addition to help with the concern, but they still can't really afford for injuries to set in, particularly for Markov. They just invested in him with a rich contract this offseason, so they are counting on him returning at full strength from the ACL tear and remaining that way.

Toronto Maple Leafs: How much longer will the fans in Toronto put up with a team that can't make the playoffs? The postseason drought stretches back to the lockout as the Leafs have been on the outside each season since. The only other team in the same boat is Florida, and let's just say the fans in Toronto take their hockey a touch more seriously than those in the Sunshine State. There's hope that this could be the season where they break through and return to playoff hockey, but that's a tall order for this group still.

Over the summer, GM Brian Burke really coveted center Brad Richards, but his staff was unable to convince the top free agent to head to Toronto. So as a backup plan he signed Tim Connolly from Buffalo to anchor the team's top line. If healthy, a very big if, Connolly can prove to be a good addition, the Leafs had to get deeper at center. Also, I really liked the quiet addition of John-Michael Liles to the defense.

But not much else will matter if the goaltending situation isn't solved. That has been the achilles heel for years in Toronto, but they think -- or hope -- the answer lies in James Reimer in his first full season in the NHL.

Strengths: As you'd expect for a team built by Burke, they have become a physical bunch in Toronto. The team captain, Dion Phaneuf, is one of the toughest hitters in the league. But there is obviously a danger of that being a weakness if the team is getting sent to the sin bin (or being Shanabanned with the new emphasis on safety) too often.

The second line is probably good enough to be Toronto's No. 1 group. The combination of Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin placed second, third and fourth in the team scoring, respectively. Each had at least 21 goals.

Weaknesses: The problem is, the skill on the team doesn't go much deeper. Only six players on the team last year reached double digits in scoring. The fact is the Leafs have two lines that can hold up with most in the league, but the third and fourth lines are where they feel the drop.

The center position remains a concern. Sure, Connolly was brought in to help that and same with Matthew Lombardi, but you can't be sure what you are getting from either guy from a health standpoint. As mentioned, Connolly has a history of injury issues. He has only played more than 70 games once (2009-10) since the 2002-03 season. With Lombardi, he's coming off a concussion that cost him all but two games last season. If either or both goes down, then Toronto is right back to being razor thin down the middle.

Ottawa Senators: This is odd territory for the folks in Ottawa. Never in the franchise's history have they had to actually rebuild. Since originally building the team in the early 90s, the team had a long, successful run that included a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006-07. A couple of the members from the old guard are still around -- Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, but the majority of the team is in place to win in the future, not necessarily now.

Expect to see a lot of the kids getting burn this season. It appears as though the team's top draft pick this summer, Sweedish center Mika Zibanejad, is going to make the team out of camp. Another coveted prospect, Jared Cowen, is also making a bid for the roster and join David Rundblad among the defensive corps. Nikita Filatov, who hadn't lived up to his perceived potential in Columbus, will also be given a shot to show what he can do. If he fits in and focuses on his game, his addition could prove to be a steal for Ottawa.

While new coach Paul MacLean and GM Bryan Murray are saying all the rights things about this team being competitive this season, it will serve as a good opportunity to get a glimpse of the future.

Strenghts: They didn't score much at all or play defense particularly well, but they were alright on special teams, particularly on the penalty kill, which ranked ninth in the league. Sergei Gonchar can help keep that ball rolling. That will qualify as a positive here.

We'll also throw goaltender Craig Anderson into the category. He wasn't spectacular last season split between Colorado and Ottawa, but he's shown before what he is capable of when he starred for the Avalanche two seasons ago. And his stint with the Sens was encouraging as he was 11-5-1 with his new team.

It speaks well for what is in the system that the team's AHL affiliate in Binghamton won the Calder Cup.

Weaknesses: This says a lot: No player that participated in more than 30 games for the Senators had a plus-rating last season. Chris Phillips was the lowest of them all at minus-35.

This team struggled mightily to score last season and that is unlikely to get easier this time around. Right now there just isn't a heck of a lot of talent to talk about. Spezza was the only player to top the 20-goal mark last year and he barely did so with 21.

The youth is a weakness for now as it will be error prone and show it is green, but the hope is that it turns into a strength down the line.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: September 21, 2011 12:05 pm
Edited on: September 21, 2011 12:11 pm
 

Step-back players: Can Columbus' Wiz keep it up?

By Brian Stubits

We see it over and over again in sports. Player has a career year, player gets a fat new contract with new team, said player fails to live up to the new deal.

After an offseason of numerous exorbitant contracts, this description will likely apply to plenty of players this upcoming year. That includes the guy who received the biggest bounty on the first day of free agency, James Wisniewski.

Signed by the Columbus Blue Jackets for a robust six-year, $33 million, Wisniewski is the second-highest paid player on an annual basis on a team that includes Rick Nash and Jeff Carter. That's a lot of coin for a player who has one season on his resume worthy of such. In his defense it was last season, so he picked a good time for his best season.

But surely you can see the red flags here. Wisniewski would appear to be a prime target for a step-back season. Now it's possible that last season was the Wiz actually stepping into his prime, after all he is 27 years old now, the magical age in all sports. But when a guy scores 21 more points in a season higher than his previous career high, it is only fair to wonder if it can be repeated. Such a jump indicates likelihood to regress to the mean a little bit.

Throw in the fact that Wisniewski is coming to a new environment, joining players he has never played with before and in an organization that has not had much success to talk about and you have the making for much quieter year.

What could help Wisniewski replicate his 51 points from a season ago with the Canadiens would be getting a lot of ice time, especially on the power play, with Rick Nash and Jeff Carter. Depending on how quickly they jell up front could impact Wisniewski's play and numbers. He'll certainly share the ice with the two high- scoring forwards a bit, but the more (probably) the better.

Now is as good a time as any to explain the rationale here, because it always gets misunderstood. This is no way to say that Wisniewski or any of the other players below will have bad years. That isn't the object one bit. It's simply players who might see a regression. Think of it this way: If a player is great and he regresses, he can still be very good. That fit Alexander Ovechkin last season, despite still being one of the best players in the league, it can't be argued he didn't have as strong a season last year. Now, on to the ...

Step-back candidates

Michael Grabner/Taylor Hall/Logan Couture/Jeff Skinner/Tyler Seguin/Brad Marchand: We're just throwing all of last season's top rookies into one category and labeling this one the "sophomore slump" group. Chances are one of them won't continue to blossom or match their rookie outputs. If I had to pick one, it would be Grabner of the Islanders.

Teemu Selanne, Ducks: The guy is a wonder, recording more than a point per game last season with the Ducks at 40 years old. But his offseason knee surgery and subsequent wait to see if he'd be ready to go (and advanced age) would seem to indicate a player who doesn't seem likely to keep up his pace. Just playing the odds on this one. Then again, we are talking about Selanne here.


Danny Briere, Flyers: Somebody is likely going to suffer a setback in Philadelphia with the absence of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, and Briere would be my best guess. He posted 34 goals and 34 assists last season, his highest point total in since 2007-08 and he's no spring chicken any more as he will turn 34 years old on the Flyers' opening day.


Christian Ehrhoff, Sabres: He is coming off a season where he posted 14 goals and 36 assists along with a plus-19. That in and of itself is tough to repeat. My colleague Adam Gretz wrote about the prospect of replacing Ehrhoff in Vancouver, noting that he was a bit protected. Now he will still be surrounded by a very good team in Buffalo, but it's looking like he will be paired with Jordan Leopold, the second defensive pairing behind Tyler Myers and Robyn Regehr. It's going to be very tough to replicate his excellent last two seasons.


Michal Neuvirth, Capitals: This is the gamble the Caps are taking by bringing in Tomas Vokoun. Neuvirth was very solid last season, posting a 27-12-4 record with a 2.45 GAA and .914 save percentage. They are risking him taking a step back in his growth as a player by relegating him to backup minutes, not to mention the possibility of a hit to the psyche of bringing in another goaltender and naming him the starter soon after the acquisition.


Sean Bergenheim, Panthers: He had the best season of his career with the Lightning a season ago, scoring 14 goals and 15 assists through 80 regular-season games. Where he drew plenty of attention for himself, though, was in the playoffs when he had nine goals for the Bolts. Coming up with the Islanders there had been plenty of hope and potential for Bergenheim, so perhaps he's just starting to break out. I'm expecting a point total in the low 20s, like his numbers in the days on the Island.


NHL season preview schedule
Wed., Sept. 21: Step-back players Tues., Sept. 27: Atlantic Division
Thur., Sept. 22: Breakout players Wed., Sept. 28: Central Division
Fri., Sept. 23: Southeast Division Thur. Sept. 29: Northeast Division
Mon., Sept. 26: Pacific Division Fri., Sept. 30: Northwest Division

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: September 17, 2011 4:23 pm
 

Canucks will look to Edler to replace Ehrhoff

Edler1

By: Adam Gretz

Over the past two seasons no defenseman on the Vancouver Canucks roster provided more offense than Christian Ehrhoff's 28 goals and 66 assists.

The veteran defenseman moved on this summer, signing a lucrative -- some might say outrageous -- contract with the Buffalo Sabres that will make him one of the highest paid players in the NHL this season with a salary of $10 million. The contract carries an average annual salary of $4 million, which isn't all that bad for a player that produces like he has -- until you remember that it runs for 10 seasons and Ehrhoff will be 39 when it expires.

Still, Ehrhoff has proven to be a productive player and one of Vancouver's top defenseman, and such production from the blue line would seem to be difficult to replace. Captain Henrik Sedin has an interesting perspective on Ehrhoff's absence and how the team will work to replace him.

From Brad Ziemer of the Vancouver Sun:
“He was in a spot where I think we have other guys who can step up and play in that role,” Sedin said, clearly referring to Ehrhoff’s power-play time. “Alex [Edler] is going to get more responsibility and we have a healthy Sami Salo now, and we have some other guys who are going to play a few more minutes.

“I think on the back end we were deep last year and we are deep this year. So I don’t think we should lose too much.”

A large percentage of Ehrhoff's point production came on the power play the past two seasons, while the Canucks put him in situations where, more often than not, he was starting a shift in the offensive zone as opposed to the defensive zone. He also was usually on the ice with the Sedin twins. Back when Ehrhoff originally signed his contract with the Sabres, Gabriel Desjardins at Arctic Ice Hockey put together an analysis of how the Canucks used Ehrhoff and how favorable it was for the defenseman to put up points.

From AIH back in late June:

40% of the time that Christian Ehrhoff was on the ice, the Sedins were there too.  Ehrhoff got easy ice time - either the 5th- or 6th-softest on the team this season, and the highest percentage of faceoffs in the offensive zone among the defensive corps.

Not only that, but he didn't outshine his teammates in scoring at 5-on-5

Obviously when you're playing with players like the Sedin twins, on the power play, and in a position where you're starting closer to the goal you're trying to score on offensive production is going to be slightly easier to come by, and that's the situation Ehrhoff usually found himself in as a member of the Canucks. That's not to say that Ehrhoff is a bad player or that he'll be easily replaceable, it just may not be as hard as one might expect. The Canucks still have some impressive depth on the blue line with Dan Hamhuis, Alexander Edler, Kevin Bieksa, Keith Ballard and Sami Salo. It's still an excellent group.

Edler, 25, will likely take over Ehrhoff's role and he seems more than capable of leading the Canucks blue line from an offensive perspective. In just 51 games last season he finished with eight goals and 23 assists, which followed seasons where he recorded 42 and 37 points respectively. It should be interesting to see what sort of boost -- if any -- his production gets this season taking on more power play responsibilities and filling the role that belonged to Ehrhoff the past two seasons.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.

Posted on: August 19, 2011 10:03 am
 

Daily Skate: Sabres need cuts; NHL bands

By Brian Stubits

FADE TO BLACK: After an offseason that netted them Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino among others, Sabres fans can't wait for the season to start. But before that can happen, Buffalo still has to take care of its little salary cap problem. It's a bit hard to believe but the Sabres now have the league's highest payroll, thanks in large part to the man in charge, Terry Pegula. As a result, the Sabres are too high and have to find a way to cut $3.6 million from the NHL roster. Mike Harrington at the Buffalo News suggests the most likely way would be to stash Ales Kotalik and Shaone Morrisonn in the AHL. They still have some time, though, not needing to get below the cap until opening night.

SHARK BITE: Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment reduced its workforce by 19 members yesterday (via Mercury News). That would be the Sharks' corporate parent. But of those 19 positions, none came from the hockey division of the company. One of the unfortunate 19, however, was Ken Arnold, senior director of communications. Mike Lee over at letsgosharks.com is sad to see Arnold depart as he says Arnold was instrumental in not only the Sharks' communication outreach, but the NHL's embrace of the Internet.

ROCK ON: In the depths of the offseason abyss, hockey fans must find a way to entertain themselves some way. So yesterday in the Twitterverse a bit of a contest took off under the #nhlbands hashtag where people were challenged with taking hockey names and morphing them into band names. The Toronto Sun put together a list of the best names. No. 1? Halak Sabbath. A close second goes to Crosby, Staals & Nash. I threw out a late submission of Ehrhoff Supply. Didn't make it.

TOO LATE IN THE GAME: Fellow Eye on Hockey blogger Adam Gretz has been doing a great job of keeping you up to date on the features in the next edition of EA Sports' NHL series, including all the legends in the game. One other feature -- or lack of -- worth mentioning is it looks the game will be shipped before we ever see a jersey for the Winnipeg Jets, so it will be available as an online update to the game. In the meantime, I would assume they just use the retro look at the default?

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com