Tag:Mika Zibanejad
Posted on: January 18, 2012 4:11 pm
Edited on: January 18, 2012 4:43 pm

Rookies facing the toughest assignments

CouturierBy: Adam Gretz

Pucks and Numbers: a weekly statistical look at what's happening around the NHL. This week: A look at which top rookies are playing some of the toughest (and easiest) assignments in the NHL.

Most NHL teams are going to put their rookies into favorable situations on the ice.

They are usually not going to be asked to play the toughest minutes on their team, against the best opponents and in defensive situations, and instead are going to be put into low pressure situations where they have the best opportunity to succeed. There are, of course, always exceptions, and some youngsters are asked to take on larger (and more important) roles, whether it be out of necessity, or because the player has shown that he's capable of taking on such an assignment at a young age. 

This year's rookie class has had some pretty impressive performances so far, including that of top overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (currently the NHL's leading rookie scorer) in Edmonton, Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson with the Devils and, of course, Philadelphia's young forwards Sean Couturier (pictured) and Matt Read, who have not only flashed some offensive ability, but have also proven themselves to be more than capabale penalty killers.

But which of the NHL's top rookies are being asked to play the toughest minutes this season?

Well, that's what the scatterplot picture below helps us figure out. We're using Relative Corsi Quality of Competition (the level of competition the player is playing against -- the higher the number, the tougher the opponent, and vice versa) and Offensive Zone starts (both via Behind The Net) during 5-on-5 play to determine which rookies are being asked to play in the toughest situations by their respective teams.

The closer a player is to the top left of the chart, the harder the assignments he's being given (playing against better players and starting fewer shifts in the offensive zone), while the closer a player is to the bottom right, the easier the assignment (playing against weaker competition and starting more shifts in the offensive zone).

The players included: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Oilers), Adam Henrique (Devils), Nick Johnson (Wild), Luke Adam (Sabres), Cody Hodgson (Canucks), Jared Cowen (Senators), Adam Larsson (Devils), Gabriel Landeskog (Avalanche), Sean Couturier (Flyers), Matt Read (Flyers), Ryan Johansen (Blue Jackets), Raphael Diaz (Canadiens), Craig Smith (Predators), Colin Greening (Senators) and Kaspars Daugavins (Senators).

Rookie Assignments

A few thoughts:

1) When it comes to the NHL's rookie of the year debate the two most common names are, naturally, Nugent-Hopkins and Henrique. They are, after all, the top two scoring rookies in the league, and before Nugent-Hopkins went out with his injury they were neck-and-neck in that scoring race. Now that Henrique is running unopposed for the foreseeable future, he's going to take over that scoring lead (barring an injury of his own, of course) and will probably become the front-runner for the award by seasons end.

Both players have arguments working in their favor.

When we did our mid-season award picks I went with Henrique based on the fact he and Nugent-Hopkins were nearly identical offensively, while Henrique was being asked to play in tougher situations (as the chart above illustrates). Along with that, he is also one of the top penalty killing forwards on the best penalty killing team in the league, and has proven himself to be a threat offensively even when his team is down shorthanded, currently tied for the league in shorthanded points. Conversely, Nugent-Hopkins is getting some of the easiest minutes in the league among the top rookies, and has played just a total of one minute and 16 seconds of shorthanded ice time this season.

That said, it can't be ignored that Henrique is already 21 years old while Nugent-Hopkins is one of the youngest players in the league at the age of 18. Actually, he's the second-youngest player to have skated in an NHL game this season, having been born just six days after Ottawa's Mika Zibanejad, who appeared in nine games for the Senators.

He may not be asked to play in tough situations, but his performance is still darn impressive given his age.

2) Don't overlook the rookie duo in Philadelphia. The Flyers completely re-tooled their roster over the summer, and halfway through the 2011-12 season they haven't missed a beat as far as being a contender in the Eastern Conference is concerned.

 Losing Mike Richards and Jeff Carter looked like it was going to be a major blow to their forward depth, and while they are definitely a different team from a year ago, they're still boasting an impressive group of forwards, including their two prized rookies Couturier (selected with the draft pick that came from Columbus in exchange for Carter) and Read. Both are among the Flyers' top penalty killing forwards, and among Flyers forwards that have played at least 20 games this season Read is currently facing the fourth-toughest competition on the team.

3) Mike Yeo, head coach of the Minnesota Wild, appears to have a lot of faith in Nick Johnson, a player the team picked up on waivers before the season. Not only is he playing, by far, the toughest minutes of any of the top rookies in the NHL (he's currently 11th among rookie scorers) his Qual Comp is the highest of any forward on the Wild roster. Perhaps that faith shouldn't be much of a surprise given the connections both have to the Pittsburgh organization (Johnson was drafted by the Penguins, while Yeo was a former assistant).

Of course, age once again needs to be taken into account. While Johnson is playing tougher minutes than all of these other rookies, he's also by far the oldest player on the chart having already turned 26 back in December. A 26-year-old rookie and an 18-year-old rookie aren't exactly the same thing.

Taking into account performance, assignments and age I'd still choose Henrique as the top rookie in the NHL this season (so far), with Nugent-Hopkins, Read and Craig Smith coming in just behind.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.
Posted on: October 26, 2011 3:28 pm

Sens send Mika Zibanejad back to Swedish team

By Brian Stubits

The Ottawa Senators made a move most expected on Wednesday when they announced that top 2011 draft selection Mika Zibanejad will not remain with the team and instead will be returned to his Swedish team.

There was optimism before the season began that Zibanejad might just stick around. First of all, he has the size to play now. Secondly, he was coming off a strong preseason showing. Third, well, the Senators figured to have room for some growing players this season considering their long-shot status to make the playoffs.

“We think, for the long-term development of him, to give him the opportunity to become what we believe he has a chance to become," Sens GM Bryan Murray said, "and that is a quality NHL player, that this is the right step for him at this moment.

“I think the reason we’re probably sending him back is that we want him to have the puck, we want him to have a chance to score points, to be a legitimate top-six NHL player,” Murray explained. “I think at 18 years of age, he was playing the last little bit to survive and not make mistakes, rather than be a creative kind of kid that we think he’ll turn out to be.

Whatever the reasoning, it's a good move. Zibanejad one assist in his nine games and averaged 12:54 of ice time per game. Those aren't the types of numbers you look for from a top-six forward. The hope is more time spent in the Swedish Elite League, playing against adults, can help him grow and he can play more minutes there than in the NHL.

"It's hard, but I'll have this experience for next year," Zibanejad said. "It's sad, but on the other hand it's a good opportunity to improve my game."

Zibanejad will be eligible for the same nine-game tryout next season as he will still just be 19, but considering how some of the people in the organization struggled to make the call this time around, you'd have to think the second time will be the charm.

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: October 20, 2011 4:06 pm

Slide risks: Who returns to juniors, who stays

By Brian Stubits

One of the rules of the CBA I love is the ability to give young prospects extended tryouts with the parent organization without risking a contract kicking in. It's a great opportunity for players to learn from some NHL experience and, in some cases, prove they are too good to be sent back to their junior team.

These players are known as "Slide-Risk" players. Here's what the CBA rule states specifically:

"In the event that an 18 year old or 19 year old player signs a Player Contract with a Club but does not play at least 10 NHL games (regular season and/or playoffs) in the first season under that player's Player Contract, the term of his Player Contract and his number of years in the Entry Level System shall be extended for a period of one year, except that this automatic extension will not apply to a player who is age 19 according to Section 9.2 by virtue of turning 20 between September 16 and December 31 in the year in which he first signs a Player Contract."

To summarize, if a player under the age of 20 doesn't play more than 10 games at the NHL level, his contract doesn't kick in. So that's one more year to hold off restricted free agency. What's not to like about the provision?

This season, there are 12 players who could be returned and have their contract years delayed. Without further ado, let's see the names (in alphabetical order, of course).

Brett Bulmer, Minnesota Wild: Bulmer was selected 39th overall by the Wild two drafts ago, but his toughness and energy seem to be welcome as far as first-year coach Mike Yeo is concerned. Bulmer seems like he has earned a spot on the third line, although he hasn't been playing all that much (9:38 per game). He does have a pair of assists in that time. He might not play a whole lot, but Yeo talks pretty glowingly about him. Verdict: Wild ride continues.

Brett Connolly, Tampa Bay Lightning: This is an iffy call. Connolly, taken sixth overall two drafts ago, has the skill. That's evident by his playing alongside Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis at times already this season. Here's what coach Guy Boucher told the Tampa Tribune: "He eventually will be an NHL player. Now will he be an NHL player starting this year for a long time? It's up to him and it's up to, I think, circumstances, too, for us to see if he can manage it because we don't want to hurt the kids." Verdict: 50/50 still.

Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers' top pick in this summer's draft might have surprised a few by earning such a strong look from the staff in Philly, but he has continued to impress. Couturier at this point seems like a fixture already on the team's penalty-killing unit and he is averaging 14:53 minutes on ice per game. He also has a goal and two assists through the first five games. Verdict: Looks like a lock to stay.

Erik Gudbranson, Florida Panthers: The rough-and-tumble defenseman who went third overall two years ago has found himself a defensive partner in Ed Jovanovski, the veteran the Cats brought in this summer. He has only managed 11:49 of ice time in five games, but that's partly because he has racked up 24 minutes in penalties already, getting himself into a pair of fights against the Lightning. Verdict: There seems to be no inclination to send him down. Fine in Florida.

Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets: He has played in only three of the Blue Jackets' six games this season, getting on the ice for just 8:18 per game. If he sticks around, his role won't be a big one, likely finding a home on the third of fourth lines. He is their big prospect in Columbus, but he might benefit from more time in the WHL, especially if the team isn't committed to playing him night and night out. Verdict: Could go either way still.

Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche: Landeskog was the player who was universally dubbed with the "most NHL ready" tag prior to this past summer's draft. The expectation for whichever team took him, he would become a fixture almost immediately. That still seems to be the case in Colorado as Landeskog is playing close to 17 minutes a game, has shown solid speed and strength and amassed three points (two goals and an assist). Things are going good in Colorado with him there, that should say enough. Don't mess with a good thing. Verdict: Get comfortable in Denver, kid.

Adam Larsson, New Jersey Devils: Many believed the Devils got a steal by grabbing Larsson with the fourth pick of the draft this summer. But the three that went before him look pretty darn good too, so it's understandable. But that doesn't mean he might not be the best rookie of them all. The Calder candidate has been averaging a whopping 24:14 of ice time with New Jersey and is expected to be a rock on the blueline at the Rock. Verdict: Jersey boy for sure.

Nino Niederreiter, New York Islanders: The fifth overall pick two years ago was given an extended look last season when he played nine games for the Islanders, totaling two points. He was expected to earn a roster spot this year but he has yet to play because of a groin injury. When he's ready, he'll get his nine-game tryout started and they will go from there. Verdict: Good chance he's staying on the Island.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers: There was some skepticism if Nugent-Hopkins was ready for the grind of an NHL season but the Oilers would keep him anyway, it's important the franchise show the future. Well if he's shown anything in the first few games it's that he's good enough to stick around on his own merits anyway. He leads the team in scoring thanks in part to a hat trick already in his career. Verdict: Bundle up for an Edmonton winter.

Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets: The Jets turned lots of heads with their selection of Scheifele early in the draft, but he was impressive during camp and the preseason. So he earned his right at an extended look from the team. He does have a goal on the power play but he has averaged just 11:25 of ice time. "We'll do what's best for him," was coach Claude Noel's cryptic response to Scheifele's place. Verdict: A little more seasoning in juniors before a full season in the NHL.

Devante Smith-Pelly, Anaheim Ducks: It wasn't long ago that Smith-Pelly seemed like a bit of a long-shot to make the roster. But he's giving his best effort to make it a tough call on the staff. He has seemed to work well with Andrew Cogliano and Andrew Gordon on the third line. Averaging a little more than 11 minutes per game, he has picked up one assist. Verdict: Have a feeling he stays since he can't be recalled if he's sent to juniors again. Few more games will tell the tale for sure.

Mika Zibanejad, Ottawa Senators: This is a tough call. From a physical standpoint, Zibanejad seems ready. This hit from his European days pre-draft drew a lot of attention. And earlier this year, GM Bryan Murray said Zibanejad would stay with the Sens. But with just one assist in 12:35 per game and Ottawa being as dreadful as it has been, you wonder if he wouldn't benefit more by being sent down. Verdict: Should probably return to Sweden but gut tells me he stays in Ottawa.

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: September 30, 2011 10:12 am

Daily Skate: Panthers' Theodore cause for concern

By Brian Stubits

TROUBLE IN PARADISE: Jose Theodore, the Panthers' new starting goaltender, played the entirety of the team's final preseason game, a 7-1 shellacking in Dallas. Kevin Dineen expressed some concern over a bad camp but says there's lot of time. (Miami Herald). If he struggles, it will be Jacob Markstrom to come in as he beat out Tyler Plante for the backup job. (Miami Herald)

TRAVEL Kings: Ever wonder who does the most traveling in the NHL every season? Well this year it will be the Los Angeles Kings, who will rack up more than 55,000 miles with 15 back-to-back games and 13 one-game road trips. The Florida Panthers come in second. Surprisingly, the Winnipeg Jets are just 10th on the list. (Shark Page)

WHAT'S YOUR NUMBER?: There will be a change to the helmets in the NHL this season, but we aren't talking about player safety here. Instead, this season players will have their numbers plastered on the front of their domes in addition to the back, their jersey and shoulders. Just in case, you know, you missed it everywhere else. (Icethetics)

SECOND, BEST?: Most think if Phil Kessel when talking about the Toronto Maple Leafs and their best players. While he did lead the team in scoring last season, it just might be the second line of Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur in Toronto that really does the damage and dictates the Leafs' success. (Globe and Mail)

MIKA MAKING IT?: The Senators figure to get a lot of time to look at their prospects this season as the prospects for a good season aren't high. So on that note, the team's first pick in the draft this summer, big Swede Mika Zibanejad, has pretty much nailed down a roster spot with the Sens. (Senators Extra)

RISING TO THE CHALLENGE: Brett Connolly is the top prospect for the Tampa Bay Lightning, a ballyhooed player the fans can't wait to see skating in Tampa. The 2010 sixth-overall draft pick is having a great camp and showing he's worthy of at least a longer look, the first nine games of the season. (St. Petersburg Times)

PICK MIGHT STICK: The Pittsburgh Penguins might have found themselves a real gem in the back end of the first orund. Their top pick Joe Morrow is still hanging around camp and keeps a chance to earn a roster spot alive, especially as long as Brooks Orpik is out with an abdominal injury. (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

LOOKING GOOD: Nashville, music city, has plenty of good-looking people. A few minutes watching Country Music Television will tell you that. Nashville Lifestyles put together a list of the 25 most beautiful and wouldn't you know it, Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne cracked the list. (Nashville Lifestyles)

SUSPENSIONS STICK: Tom Sestito of the Flyers and Jean-Francois Jacques were each suspended by Brendhan Shanahan for action in preseason games and have both been subsequently sent down to AHL affiliates. Well the AHL announced on Thursday that it will enforce the suspensions as well. (TheAHL.com)

STILL GOT IT: Don't think Martin Broudeur has llost much yet. Check out this rob job in last night's Devils game in Philadephia, somehow keeping the puck out of a wide-open net.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL 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 26, 2011 9:59 am
Edited on: September 26, 2011 3:37 pm

Daily Skate: Avalanche's Yip out 4-6 weeks

By Brian Stubits

LOSING THE YIPS: The Colorado Avalanche will be opening up the regular season with Brandon Yip on the sidelines after breaking a forearm this weekend against the Blues. He will miss 4-6 weeks. Avs defenseman Jan Hejda is also dealing with a setback, 2-4 works after suffering a knee injury in the same game. (Denver Post)

WHAT'S HIS NAME: Tomas Fleischmann is new to the Florida Panthers, and it showed over the weekend. Check out the jersey that he was sporting in the team's home game against the Lightning. (For those who can't see, it spells F-L-E-S-I-C-H-M-A-N-N) I guess the people in charge of putting names on jerseys didn't brush up on their offseason acquisition list. (Getty Images via Litter Box Cats)

SCOTT'S SCARE: Scott Hartnell played only nine minutes of the Flyers' game against the Red Wings over the weekend because of a heart scare. During the intermission it was discovered he had an elevated heart rate that didn't slow down during the break. A checkup on Saturday showed things were normal, but he will still be evaluated by a cardiologist. (flyers.nhl.com)

SUTERWATCH STARTS: It's almost another full year before free agency begins again, but fans in Nashville are already holding their collective breath. In addition to Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber, Ryan Suter doesn't have a deal for 2012-13 and LeBron James-like quotes aren't helping soothe the anxious Predators fans. (Pred Gold)

HEIDI STRIKES AGAIN: While it wasn't exactly the movie interrupting a regular-season NHL game, but it's close enough. In Montreal the television feed pulled away from the game just moments before Scott Gomez scored the winning goal. It is the latest positive step in a good preseason for the much-maligned Gomez. (Montreal Gazette)

MORE, PLEASE: The biggest concern for this season in Columbus has to be the situation in net for the Blue Jackets. Chris Mason hasn't exactly kept up his rookie form that saw him win the Calder Trophy in 2008-09. But optimism is rising in camp that a return to form might be coming for Mason. (Columbus Dispatch)

MEET MIKA: Branding is the big thing for athletes these days, you have to find a way to sell your "brand." Well Senators rookie Mika Zibanejad is already getting started. Take a look at his personal web site. Not too bad for a guy who hasn't played a game in the NHL yet. (Senators Extra)

OH BOY O'BERTO: Red Wings veteran Todd Bertuzzi is becoming a shootout star. Just check out his latest move on a hapless goaltender, going between his legs to pass it back up to himself and back-handing the puck into the net.

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

Posted on: August 10, 2011 3:47 pm

Sens celebrate '20-year' anniversary, look ahead

By Brian Stubits

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the rebirth of the Ottawa Senators franchise (19th season thanks to the lockout). Is there another team that has ever had such a rich history to honor in a "20-year" celebration? Methinks not.

That's because the Sens aren't celebrating just the last 20 years. No, they are also basking in the glow of the original Senators, the team that played from 1883 to 1954 and racked up 11 Stanley Cups stretching through the Silver Seven era to the official adoption of the Senators nickname. Clearly they are taking some liberties here, but that's OK.

After all, it's a rich history indeed. And it hasn't been too bad since the team was reborn in 1992-93 either. Take into consideration that right now the Sens are in the clichéd rebuilding mode. This is the first time they have truly had to "rebuild." The only other time the franchise went through this tough a stretch was when it was just starting out. An awful, awful stretch. But that was just the building phase. Now they rebuild.

It isn't something they are used to in Ottawa, suffering through growing pains. That's what makes this celebration season so perfect for timing. It's going to help (only very slightly) ease the pain of a struggling team. How can videos like this not help?

The buzz word is heritage. The team will wear retro jerseys (not historic, just retro ... this sweater was never worn) for select games this season (seen at the top) and everything will likely culminate in the All-Star Game, hosted by Ottawa.

While that's all well and good, all of the celebration, it's not what the big fans will truly be looking for. They want to see the future of hockey in the city, not the past. The future that seems pretty bright.

Last season's Calder Cup champions, the Binghamton Senators, are a large source of the inspiration. You can expect to see a few of those players being slated into the big Senators lineup this season like Zack Smith and Erik Condra. Then you have prospects like Mark Stone, who was turning heads at Canada's junior national team tryouts, and Mika Zibanejad, who I personally love as a prospect and who is a candidate to jump right to the NHL.

Count Sens veteran Jason Spezza among the excited.

"It doesn't matter if a lot of people don't know who these guys are. They have lots of time to make names for themselves," Spezza told OttawaSenators.com. "We can be a good team and compete with some of the best teams. And then for them to go and win [the Calder Cup] ... the chemistry that they'll get there, hopefully it'll carry over to our room and we can make it a really cohesive team. I think that'll be the biggest thing, just the camaraderie and the chemistry. They've won together and [they've shown] they know how to win together."

So the future is exciting. There is something to wait for in Ottawa. But for now, the team will still be led by the veterans like Spezza and career Senator Daniel Alfredsson, who is past his prime at this point but still effective when healthy. Those two helped give the modern-day Senators their best season in 2006-07 when they anchored the top line with Dany Heatley and took Ottawa to the Stanley Cup Finals.

But it's somewhat astonishing the Senators had the playoff run they did with all the troubles the franchise had. They made the playoffs 11 seasons in a row and 12 of 13, but all the while they went through trade demands (Heatley), miserable contracts (Alex Daigle) and terrible slips (letting Zdeno Chara go). Not to mention a bankruptcy filing. That all came after the franchise's first season with a 10-70-4 record.

While they embark on a season honoring the heritage of Ottawa hockey, the birthplace of the Cup as they say, the Senators usher in a new era. Welcome rookie head coach Paul MacLean, who comes over from Detroit to replace the fired Cory Clouston (Alexei Kovalev's BFF).

"If I can come in and have a good, strong camp, it'll set the tone for a lot of guys and show that we can compete for a playoff spot," Spezza said. "And once you get into the playoffs, you never know what can happen. So I'm looking forward to the challenge of having a young team and having to be good every night."

Which the Senators likely won't be. That makes the timing of this celebration seem so perfect. It gives the Senators some positive pub (but not all fans like it) while they grow.

Photo: Icethetics

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

Posted on: June 22, 2011 12:32 pm

NHL Draft positional rankings: Centers

If your favorite team is in the market for a good young center (and who isn't?) then this year is for you. The cream of the NHL Draft crop can be spotted in dotted spots.

Everybody has pretty much settled on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins being the best player in the draft, but it took a long time to come to that conclusion because there are more than a couple of guys who were in that conversation, two of the others also being centers.

Point is, if you aren't picking first (and unless you are Edmonton -- or possibly Florida as, trade rumors speculate -- you aren't) don't worry, there is plenty of talent to be had up the middle.

1. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 6'0/177, Red Deer (WHL): Before the combine a couple weeks ago, there were doubts about Nugent-Hopkins as the best overall player because of his size. That was until he surprised scouts by coming in 13 pounds heavier than expected. He is the true definition of a play-making center, leading the WHL in assists last season with 75 while scoring 31 goals for the Rebels. NHL Central Scouting's Peter Sullivan had this to day: "A couple of people high up -- and not naming names -- said Hopkins has the best vision since No. 99." How about that for pressure? Oh, and he's really fast. Yes, there's a reason why he's everybody's No. 1.

2. Jonathan Huberdeau, 6'1/170, Saint John (QMJHL): Has already been drafted once this year, being selected sixth overall in the KHL draft in May. Needless to say, he's not going to report. That's because Huberdeau is one of the elite prospects available. He's a player that is seen as a center, but could possibly play left wing at the next level. He became the face of Saint John's run to the Memorial Cup, setting new club records in points (105) and assists (62) that went along with 43 goals and a league-high plus-59. Central Scouting's Chris Bordeleau says "He definitely has NHL hands and playmaking ability." Sounds about right.

3. Sean Couturier, 6'4/197, Drummondville (QMJHL): He has fallen down the boards some since being the preseason favorite as the top prospect, facing criticism for his less-than ideal speed and explosiveness. Couturier was still good enough this season to be named the QMJHL's MVP over Huberdeau after a 36-goal, 60-assist campaign. One thing that scouts love in addition to his size is his defensive abilities as he is a true two-way player. He will still be a highly coveted player with a big frame already. Player profile

4. Ryan Strome, 6'1/175, Niagara (OHL): Along the line of Nugent-Hopkins and Huberdeau, he is a playmaker, posting 33 goals and 73 assists in 65 games for Niagara, being named the OHL East's best playmaker by coaches. Strome is also a guy willing to get physical and into the tough spots, showing a nice ability to wield the stick on tip-in opportunities. To further see how well he can handle the hockey stick, just watch this sick goal -- he just might be the best scorer of all the centers available. Player profile

5. Mika Zibanejad, 6'2/190, Djurgarden (Sweden): Already possessing the size many teams look for in a center, Zibanejad is a physical force who is hard to knock off the puck and is a big-time hitter (see!). His production in the Swedish Elite League wasn't much (five goals, four assists in 26 games) -- but that's good for a teenager in that league. He popped onto many radars with his five goals and four assists in just six games at the World U-17s. He's the type of player about whom you will hear such superlatives as "high-motor guy" and "plays the right way." Player highlights

6. Mark McNeill, 6'2/201, Prince Albert (WHL): McNeill is not the most physically gifted center available, but he is one of the centers who plays tough at both ends of the ice. He saw a massive jump in his numbers from last season to this, when he scored 32 goals with 49 assists in 70 games, up from 24 points the season before. But that can easily be chalked up to maturing more as a player. One intriguing aspect is that he's a right-handed center, something a lot of teams could use. Player highlights

7. Zack Phillips, 6'1/178, Saint John (QMJHL): Yet another Sea Dog to make it on one of the prospect lists, is it any wonder Saint John won the Memorial Cup? A linemate of Huberdeau, Phillips has enough skills to have distinguished himself on a stacked team. According to coach Gerard Gallant: "Zack has great vision and is strong on the puck. He's a solid center and has come a long way in a short time. He kind of reminds me of an Adam Oates-type of player." Not bad. Stats wise, he had 38 goals and 57 assists in 67 regular-season games. Player highlights

8. Vladislav Namestnikov, 6'0/166, London (OHL): The Russian native led the way for the Knights with 30 goals this season, his first in the OHL. He projects at a center but could end up playing on the outside. At this point, he doesn't quite have the size you'd look for out of a centerman. According to Central Scouting's Jack Edwards: "Vlad plays a high-energy, two-way game he's very aggressive on the forecheck and backcheck and has the ability to beat defenders outside and cut back to the net. He has an excellent wrist shot that he can release with accuracy on the rush." Player profile

9. Boone Jenner, 6'1/204, Oshawa (OHL): Jenner is one of those players that doesn't really do anything great but does everything well. He does the stuff that earns him the labels like gritty -- forechecking and backchecking well, blocking shots, going into heavy traffic, etc. Leading a line featuring two other draft prospects, he scored 25 goals and had 41 assists in 63 games. He might not be a top-line center in the NHL, but that doesn't mean he won't be a reliable and good player for a long time. Player highlights

10. Shane Prince, 5'10/174, Ottawa (OHL): Hailing from Upstate New York, Prince hardly passes the sniff test with his smaller stature. But what he lacks there he makes up for in his speed as he flies on the ice. He clearly has good vision and knows what to do with the puck, racking up 63 assists and 25 goals in 59 games this season. “I've been doubted my whole life, from day one. I was either too small -- I was a bit of a late-bloomer -- and I've seemed to prove those people wrong my whole life," Prince says. Not exactly Rudy, but he's got a bit of American bulldog in him (just watch the highlights, fights and all). Player highlights

-- Brian Stubits

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @cbssportsnhl on Twitter or @BrianStubitsNHL

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