Tag:Mike Babcock
Posted on: February 21, 2012 12:55 pm
Edited on: February 22, 2012 8:43 am
 

Datsyuk to miss two weeks after knee surgery

Datsyuk leads Detroit with 59 points (16-43=59). (Getty Images)

By Brian Stubits

The Red Wings were able to withstand the loss of All-Star goaltender Jimmy Howard just fine. But now they'll really be put to the test as superstar forward Pavel Datsyuk is going to miss the next two weeks after having arthroscopic knee surgery.

Datsyuk, who was recently lauded by his fellow players in the NHLPA poll in six different categories, is certainly as critical a component as anybody to the Wings. Some argue that he's the world's best player. The good news, though, is that he's not expected to be out long. The two weeks sounds like a solid time frame after hearing coach Mike Babcock on Tuesday.

"Datsyuk had minor arthroscopic knee surgery this morning," Babcock said before Tuesday's game against Chicago. "Everything is real good."

With that two-week timeframe -- three to be safe -- that brings Datsyuk back in the latter half of March, giving up a couple of weeks to get back up to full speed before the playoffs. So that's why they decided to take care of it now.

"This way we have an opportunity to get [Datsyuk] going 100 percent before playoff time," Babcock said.

That is a luxury Detroit has right now, holding a big enough cushion to withstand the loss of Datsyuk for a little while and still keeping their playoff position. What it might do is open the door for the Vancouver Canucks to overtake them and move into the West's top spot.

The good news for Detroit at least is that Howard will be making his return against the Blackhawks. He has missed the past few weeks with a broken finger but Detroit just kept on winning, taking the last six games without Howard in the lineup.

On the other side of the ice in Chicago tonight the Blackhawks will be missing their top forward as well. The 'Hawks announced Jonathan Toews is going to miss the game too with an upper-body injury. So at least it's an even trade in players being out for the always entertaining Chicago-Detroit battle.

The absences take away a bit of the juice that was shaping up to be about Howard's return.

More from Eye on Hockey

NHLPA poll really likes Datsyuk
Datsyuk dramatically extends Wings' streak

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

Posted on: December 15, 2011 4:18 pm
Edited on: December 15, 2011 7:05 pm
 

Jimmy Howard's all-star season

howard

By: Adam Gretz


PITTSBURGH -- By now you're probably already aware that Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard was left off the NHL's All-Star ballot, news that was controversial at the time it was announced, and you've probably already displayed the proper amount of fist-shaking at what has been an obvious snub that looks dumber by the day.

Entering Thursday's game in Nashville, Detroit's third-year starter is near the top of the NHL leaderboard for just about every goaltending category, leading the NHL in wins, while also occupying the top-10 in goals against average, save percentage, even strength save percentage and shutouts. It's been a great season for him. An All-Star season. And even though he's not on the ballot, fans in Detroit have pushed his write-in campaign, and for good reason.

Red Wings goalies, however, tend to be a different animal, and it's always difficult to figure out how much of the success is a result of the skill and ability of the goaltender, and how much of it is the goalie simply being a cog in a well oiled machine. And the discussion is usually intense. I think part of that comes from the fact the team invests so little cap space in the position, instead using its financial resources to build up the forwards and defense. During the 2008 Stanley Cup finals, when the Red Wings topped the Penguins in six games, general manager Ken Holland addressed that at the time by saying, "My feeling is if you can get one of the five or six best goalies in the league you can spend the money. We can't get into those guys, and the difference between the eighth goalie in the league and the 15th goalie, it's a big difference in money. It's not a big difference in performance."

This season the duo of Howard and Ty Conklin takes up only $3 million in cap space -- which is less than 19 individual goalies across the league, most of whom have played at a level below Detroit's pairing, and Howard in particular.

The Red Wings have been a team that smothers their opponent defensively and controls the puck in the offensive zone better -- and longer -- than just about every other team in the league. And that can obviously be very beneficial for a goaltender. The fewer shots and chances he has to face, the less chance their is for a goal, and the easier life is for him.

For years debates raged on about Chris Osgood's importance to Detroit's success, even as they went to Stanley Cup Finals and, ultimately, won them.  Among Red Wings fans, he was viewed as a vital part of the team's ability to win and a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Outside of Detroit he was (and pretty much still is) generally viewed as just another goalie playing behind a team loaded with All-Stars, whose Hall of Fame credentials are up for serious debate.

Now that Howard is having the best season of his brief career, and so far one of the best ones in the NHL, he's not getting much attention outside of Detroit, either.

Through their first 29 games the Red Wings have allowed the fifth fewest goals per game in the NHL, while also giving up the second fewest shots in the NHL at 27.4, trailing only the Ken Hitchcock-led St. Louis Blues.

"It's a huge priority for us," said Wings coach Mike Babcock of his team's defensive play on Tuesday night after its 4-1 win in Pittsburgh. "You can't outscore everybody and you have to be able to play well without the puck."

Their defensive play was an obvious point of emphasis (if not concern) coming into this season for two main reasons: 1) The team lost one of its long-time standouts on the blue line, Brian Rafalski, to retirement over the summer, and 2) The team's defensive play saw a noticeable decline last season compared to where it was in recent years, putting additional pressure on the offensive to, well … outscore everybody.

Especially when Howard saw his number regress from where they were during his rookie season when he was a finalist in the Rookie Of The Year voting. The 2010-11 team allowed an average of over 30 shots per game, something that a Red Wings team hadn't done in more than a decade, and the result was the eighth most goals against in the league.

And now this year? Once again one of the best teams in the league defensively. In games that Howard has started the Wings have allowed more than three goals just two times. They've allowed more than two just five times. Part of that success has been due to the fact team is once again keeping teams locked up in their own end of the ice, but there is also no denying that Howard has played at a higher level this season and taken advantage of the lesser workload on a nightly basis.

Following Tuesday's game I asked him about it being another night where he only had to face around 25 shots, as has been the case much of the season, and he quickly laughed and said, "Well, it was 26 we allowed, but who's really counting?"

The only personnel changes on the blue line have been Jakub Kindl and Mike Commodore replacing Ruslan Salei, and Ian White coming in for Rafalski. Was that really enough to swing the Red Wings defense from the bottom third of the NHL to the top-third?

The system helps, as does Detroit's impressive roster, but Howard has been great, too.

"We just do a great job," Howard added. "For the most part you only have to worry about the one shot, and I just try to put the rebound into good areas, whether it's holding on to it or putting it in the corner."

The Wings' defensive play was one of the main topics of discussion in their locker room on Tuesday night, and forward Dan Cleary was quick to give a lot of the credit to his team's often times overlooked goalie.

"We pride ourselves on being good defensively," said Cleary. "That's how we won a championship here, being good defensively, and we all believe that's how you win in the end. And the other side of it is, i think, Howie has had a specatular season, and anytime your goalie is your best player, goals against are going to be good."

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

Posted on: November 18, 2011 1:52 pm
Edited on: November 18, 2011 5:09 pm
 

Weekend Preview: Bryzgalov gets to meet Winnipeg

By Brian Stubits

Weekend Schedules: Friday | Saturday | Sunday

Let's call this the Ilya Bryzgalov tour of fun.

It started with Bryz facing his former team on Thursday night, the Phoenix Coyotes. His old pals still in the Phoenix red? Let's just say not all of them had flattering comments to make about their former netminder.

There was Derek Morris (no, not THAT Derek Morris) talking about how Bryzgalov gives up soft goals. He even went so far as to say he's glad Bryzgalov is gone and Mike Smith is in. Adrian Aucoin wasn't the most complimentary either.

In the end Bryzgalov got the last laugh with a 2-1 win. Afterward he was only complimentary of his ex-squad.

"It's my former team and not an easy team to beat," he said.

That was Step I, reunion with the team he used to play for. Step II is visiting the city he could have played for, but never would have on Saturday afternoon.

You remember earlier this year, before the Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets, don't you? Most of the speculation was that the Coyotes, not the Thrashers would become the Jets. So Bryzgalov was asked for his thoughts on the matter and considering he's usually always candid, the response he gave didn't exactly sit well with the 'Peggers.

Here is what he said in April.

"You don't want to go to Winnipeg, right?" Bryzgalov said. "Not many people live there, not many Russian people there. Plus it's cold. There's no excitement except the hockey. No park, no entertaining for the families, for the kids. It's going to be tough life for your family.

"I better go to somewhere in Russia, KHL, to be honest. Because KHL is Russian people, it's family, friends. Even as a cold place, I can speak to people in Russian language."

Think the people in Winnipeg forgot about that? Of course not. After all, there is no excitement except the hock ...

Bryzgalov remembers it too, and he did back off a bit on Friday.

"I didn't mean it and I didn't want to offend anybody," Bryzgalov said (from Ted Wyman at the Winnipeg Sun). "I'm pretty sure it's good people, beautiful people live in Winnipeg. I'm pretty sure it's passionate fans. I didn't mean it to be honest. That's it."

Since returning to the NHL this season, the Jets fans have enjoyed once again the art of goalie taunting. No doubt they will serenade the goalie with "Illlll-yaaaa" chants all game long, but they could have just a little more juice in store. A popular Jets fan forum has taken to posting sign ideas for fans at the game. I'm envisioning a WWE event or ESPN College Gameday site with signs all over in the crowd. Make it happen Winnipeg.

Of course, with all of the anticipation in Winnipeg for the chance to boo and jeer Bryzgalov, it will probably be Sergei Bobrovsky that starts.

As far as the game on the ice is concerned, the Jets are playing better hockey these days and have been getting the habit of knocking off some of the traditionally stronger East teams at home. They come into the game against the Flyers -- the top team in the East at the moment -- having won the last two home games, both against teams in the playoffs last year (Capitals and Lightning). They also knocked off the Penguins at home early in the season.

When you add in the absence of Jaromir Jagr for the game and it won't be a walk in the park (get it?) for Bryzgalov and the Flyers.

Back on track

It was only a couple of weeks ago that the Canadiens were in disarray. They were off to their worst start in more than 60 years. Assistant coach Perry Pearn was fired. Jacques Martin seemed to be only a couple of losses away from meeting the same fate.

Since an October 24 loss to the Florida Panthers and the subsequent dismissal of Pearn, the Canadiens have very quietly rebounded. I mean, when have you known the Habs to do anything quietly? They have posted a 7-3-1 record since that game and have climbed within three points of the division-leading Sabres.

The natural connection to make is to see the team has done well since firing Pearn, so that must have something to do with it. While I don't want to completely dismiss the idea -- there could be some credence to the belief that it was a "wakeup call" for the Habs players -- it probably is more coincidental than anything. Montreal just happened to have a rough patch at the beginning of the season.

This is where I caution you not to get too high with the highs and too low with the lows. The Canadiens have evened themselves out and are at .500 (if we treat OT losses as ties). Of course, that doesn't mean Martin's seat isn't still hot, it's just not scalding at the moment. He's been passed by Scott Arniel and Paul Maurice in the hot seat rankings.

We will get a better idea of which team more closely resembles the truth: the one that started the season or the one that is 7-3-1 of late. That's because they will go up against arguably the hottest team in hockey on Saturday night. What the Rangers been up to lately? Oh, they're just on a seven-game win streak.

Roller coast of tough love

Speaking of highs and lows, check out the Detroit Red Wings. Talk about a roller coaster of emotion.

The Wings came out of the gate winning their first five games. They followed that up with six straight losses before rebounding with four consecutive wins. Now they have lost two in a row. Pretty amazing for a team to be 17 games in without anything but a streak.

Overall, they have lost five in a row on the road.

"It's tough, nothing that we want to do," said Henrik Zetterberg of the road losing streak. "We have another chance Saturday [in Los Angeles] to turn it around."

That will come on Saturday afternoon against an on-the-up Kings team, 4-1-0 in their last five.

"Do we want to be a good team or not?" coach Mike Babcock said about what will be the subject matter of a team meeting (Detroit News). "Life doesn't just go on good for you. You make a decision it's going to go good for you. You decide for yourself you're going to be successful. You decide for yourself that you're going to make a difference and have a good career. No one just gives you stuff.

"The other teams are trying to. We have to make some decisions."

Ovie debate continues

Alex Ovechkin is drawing a lot of heat these days, and unfortunately for him it isn't over goal celebrations.

At first glance, his numbers don't seem bad (seven goals and seven assists in 17 games) but this is Ovie we're talking about here. Obviously a lot is expected of him.

Right now he is struggling. And, maybe as a result, the Capitals are struggling. Are the two connected? Somewhat. Obviously No. 8 is a big part of the Caps. They especially need more than one goal in a five-game span, such as his current stretch.

So what better place than Toronto for Ovechkin and Washington get find their confidence again? Since James Reimer went down, the goaltending in Toronto has returned to its pre-Reimer state: atrocious. Moreover, Ovechkin has always put up good numbers at the Leafs' place, scoring 23 goals in 23 games there.

It would help ease some of the increasing hysteria in "the nation's hockey capital" if he and the Caps could bust out the scoring stick again in a Hockey Night in Canada showcase.

How much more for Maurice?

That's becoming a popular question in NHL circles right now. Is Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice one or two more losses away from being fired?

Something's gotta give right now in Carolina. The 'Canes have lost six of seven and their star player, Eric Staal, is still struggling to make much of an impression. This was supposed to be a year of progression, not the other way around. After just barely missing the playoffs last spring, the hopes were that the 'Canes would again contend for the postseason as presently constructed.

It would probably go a long way toward calming the panic that is setting in not only among the fans, but GM Jim Rutherford as well, if they handle the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night. As you'll recall, Rutherford has fired Maurice before, he could certainly do it again.

We're going streaking

As the great Lou Brown said in Major League: "Gentlemen, we won yesterday. If we win today, that's two in a row. If we win tomorrow, that's what they call a winning streak. It has happened before."

So with that obvious definition in mind, here's a look at the winning streaks in play.

Flyers: As mentioned above, they play in Winnipeg on Saturday and they enter having won three in a row.

Rangers: Also covered, they have won seven games in a row and take that streak into Saturday's tilt against the Habs.

Boston Bruins: The B's also enter the weekend winners of their last seven games and only have one game to play, that's Saturday at the Islanders.

Ottawa Senators: Yes, the Sens have found themselves on another run, winning three in a row. Their lone weekend game comes on Sunday night in Vancouver.

Chicago Blackhawks: Riding a four-game streak, the Blackhawks will have to do the Alberta two-step with the Flames on Friday and Oilers on Saturday.

St. Louis Blues: That's right, that Ken Hitchcock move is working out pretty well. The head to Minnesota having won three consecutive.

Kings: Lastly (boy there are a lot of streaks right now) the aforementioned Kings also take a three-game run into their Saturday game against the Red Wings.

Among the losing steaks, we'll just list the top (or bottom) and that's the Oilers, losers of four in a row.

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: October 25, 2011 5:25 pm
Edited on: October 25, 2011 5:39 pm
 

Players still see protective visors as a choice

VisorsBy: Adam Gretz

The eye injury suffered by Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger on Monday night produced the obvious reaction, as the debate as to whether or not protective visors should be made mandatory at the NHL level was instantly fired up.

Had Pronger been wearing one it's likely he wouldn't have suffered the injury and wouldn't be out of the lineup for a couple of weeks. When he does eventually return to the lineup it's expected that he'll be wearing a visor.

Will this injury, isolated as it may be, bring the NHL any closer to making visors a required piece of equipment? Probably not, and we're still probably a long way off from that becoming a reality.

As Greg Wyshynski pointed out on Monday afternoon there are still more than enough players -- including some of Pronger's own teammates, players that had to watch him take a stick in the eye on Monday night and then frantically race off the ice  -- that view it as their face, their risk and their decision. Whether or not Pronger keeps the visor he's expected to wear once he returns for the remainder of his career remains to be seen, but he wouldn't be the first player to have a change of heart after suffering an injury to his face.

Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press spoke with Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom who started wearing a protective shield following an incident during the 2008-09 season when a puck hit him in the face. Said Lidstrom:
"If I'd had a shield on, it probably just would have hit the shield," Lidstrom said. "That's why I put one on. It kind of gave me a wake-up call, not having been wearing a shield for 17, 18 years maybe. So that's why I put one on. That's one of the precautions I wanted to take.

"You just have to get used to it, get over the hump of wearing it," Lidstrom said. "When you're so used to not wearing one and put one on, it's not the same. But once you get used to it, you're OK with it."
Despite Lidstrom's experience and comments, he still thinks it should be the players decision, a sentiment that was seemingly echoed by his head coach, Mike Babcock, who said "A guy like Prongs, who plays the game the way he does, and he's been doing it so long, and suddenly, someone is going to make you wear a visor. I don't know. I don't know the answer. It's an individual question."

It is an individual question, and the players, despite the occassional incident when a preventable injury does occur, seem to like it that way. And if past NHL history is any indication we're still probably a long way from having that particular piece of equipment become mandatory. Take, for example, how it took the NHL 11 years to officially make helmets mandatory following the death of Bill Masterson which came after he fell and hit his head on the ice during a game in January, 1968.

There was a time when something as practical -- and now accepted -- as helmets, and even goalie masks, were considered to be the individual players choice. And even then it was a struggle. When Jacques Plante wanted to wear his first goalie mask, because he had so suffered so many broken bones in his face, his coach, Toe Blake, attempted to prevent him from wearing it during games because, as the story goes, he felt it would hurt his goaltenders vision (oddly enough, that's one of the biggest complaints current players have regarding visors).

Eventually common sense prevailed in both cases, and helmets and goalie masks are now accepted pieces of equipment at all levels of hockey. It seems inevitable that the same thing will one day happen with the visor, but based on the mindset of so many current players it doesn't seem like that day is as close as it probably should be.

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: September 30, 2011 11:13 am
Edited on: September 30, 2011 1:15 pm
 

Wings' Smith suspended five regular-season games

By Brian Stubits

Brendan Smith of the Detroit Red Wings has been suspended for the remained of the preseason and the first five regular-season games after his illegal hit to the head of Blackhawks forward Ben Smith on Wednesday.

Here's the description from the other night.

With the game tied, 3-3, early in the third period, Chicago's Ben Smith carried the puck into the offensive zone and tried to cut across the middle of the ice. At that point Detroit's Brendan Smith, who is fighting for a roster spot, connected on a hit that resulted in his ejection from the game (as well as a match penalty), while Smith was clearly shaken up and needed assistance in getting off the ice. According to Rule 48, the Match Penalty can be issued if the referee, "in his judgement, feels the player attempted to or deliberately injured his opponent with an illegal check to the head."

Now for Shanahan's breakdown.

In addition to the suspension, as with each suspension, Smith will face a fine, forfeiting all the money he would earn in the games he sits out. Based on his annual salardy, Smith will forfeit $23,648.65. The money goes to the Players' Emergency Assistance Fund. The fund is having its best preseason donation period perhaps ever. Here is the staggering amount of money already given up, courtest of the Canadian Press. "NHL players are paid during pre-season, but they've forfeited $666,547.42 in combined salary with suspensions."

"I thought it was a little extreme, to tell you the truth," coach Mike Babcock said of the suspension on Friday.

I was very interested to see how Shanahan was going to rule on this hit. I felt there was perhaps the best defense any offending player had in this case as he was coming fromt he side. In all of the cases so far, Shanahan has pointed out the player had his back to the hitter well before the contact and that there were no sudden moves.

But it can't be ignored that Ben Smith is now day-to-day after suffering a concussion on the play.

It was argued by some that Ben Smith put himself in the vulnerable position. That's a point Babcock was trying to get across after the game.

"[Brendan Smith] should have hit him in the shoulder or chest but he missed," he said. "But the technique and the way he went about it, that's what you teach.

"I understand Chicago's reaction. But I also know what hockey is and what's going on in the game. We have to be smart not to be put in bad situations."

Shanahan addressed this very issue in the video, noting he believed Brendan Smith when he said he didn't intentionally hurt Ben Smith, but it doesn't matter. Ben's head did not significantly move prior to the hit and Brendan still made it the principal point of contact. He could have hit the body but did not.

Clearly, the hitting of the head is Shanahan's ultimate focus, as it should be.  Considering that's where the Smith-on-Smith contact was, you see the suspension of five games (and the remaining three in the preseason).

Blackhawks veteran defenseman Sean O'Donnell had some interesting thoughts on the matter. Not the hit itself, but the seeming increase of these hits all across the league.

“It seemed like when I first broke into the league, you would hit hard, but if a guy was in a vulnerable spot, you would ease up,” veteran Sean O’Donnell, 39, said. “And now it seems like some of the guys, when guys are in a vulnerable spot, their eyes light up. I don’t know where this mind-set came from. I’m not saying that about [Wednesday’s] hit. I’m talking about in general.

“Some of that self-respect for your fellow teammate, fellow NHLer or human being doesn’t seem to be there. I’m not sure why, but we do need to eliminate this because those brain injuries are dangerous things.”

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

Posted on: September 28, 2011 1:48 pm
Edited on: September 28, 2011 4:15 pm
 

Central Division Preview: 'Hawks, Wings battle on

By Brian Stubits

Enjoy this while you can, there's no telling what the Central will look like next season.

One of the premier rivalries in the sport is the Blackhawks vs. the Red Wings. The only two Original Six teams in the West, they have long been fierce combatants. In recent years the Blackhawks have awoken from the doldrums, making this a great series once again.

But this could be it, especially if Detroit has its way. Realignment is coming to the NHL, that much is guaranteed after Atlanta moved to Winnipeg. The Red Wings organization has made it no secret it wants to move East, rivalry with Chicago be damned. Columbus and Nashville would both welcome a move East as well. Something's gotta give, and it will be the Central Division.

It's too bad. Because this year the division is set up to be about more than just these two powers.

Nashville is always sneaky good. People seem to sleep on the Predators every season, but you know they will be there. They are looking to build off the first postseason series win in franchise history with their three Stars in contract seasons. St. Louis seems to think its Blues are ready to make a leap, so long as they can stay healthy. That was a challenge last season. And Columbus? Well there is at least optimism for the first time in a while and some buzz around the team after the addition of Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski to join Rick Nash.

But as many strides as those teams have and are taking, in the end it will likely still be about the two powerhouses. That's because the Blackhawks are back. They suffered a little last year after winning the Stanley Cup as they had to shed a lot of salary. That meant jettisoning a good chunk of the team that won the Cup. But the core remained together and the team found its groove in the end, pushing the Canucks to the brink in the first round. But after an offseason of reinforcing the roster, Chicago figures to be in the thick until the end.

And Detroit? The Red Wings are ... well they're just the Wings. It's hard to imagine them not being good. Although this year they don't seem to be as loaded as usual, those are some pretty lofty standards. They will still be a threat not only for the division title but in the Western Conference, they can flat out score. That much we know.

So if this is it as division rivals, it should be fun.

Central Division (in predicted order of finish)

PenguinsChicago Blackhawks: Ah, it's nice to be out of salary cap hell, isn't it Chicago? After having to do major salary shedding, the Blackhawks still come out with a cast of characters that includes the names Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and newcomer Andrew Brunette. Throw in Dan Carcillo and Jamal Mayers to give the team some nastiness power and the forwards are well-rounded.

On defense they will miss Brian Campbell, just not his salary. Sure, he is overpaid, but that doesn't mean he didn't bring anything to the table for the 'Hawks. But the defensive corps is still solid, led by Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Expectations are very high in Chicago once again.

Strenghts: It's tough to find a better pair of linemates than Toews and Kane. They are both still stepping into their primes, so they have a lot more to show. Those two are also part of the reason why the power play should once again be successful. Last season the unit ranked fourth in the NHL with the man up, led by Sharp's 12 goals on the power play.

They figure to be better at killing penalties thanks to the additions of Mayers, Steve Montador and Sean O'Donnell, an area where Chicago struggled last season.

Weaknesses: Depth at center is a major concern at this point. The team has been experimenting during camp with Patrick Kane, of all players, manning the center position. Maybe it's an indictment on the centers on the roster. Perhaps it's an indication of Patrick Sharp's health (or lack thereof). Whatever the reason, it's slightly concerning.

I would also be a little worried about the backup goaltender situation behind Corey Crawford. Alexander Salak is going to have the job and he might be more than adequate in the role, we just don't know much about him at the NHL level where he has little experience.

PenguinsDetroit Red Wings: The Wings are remarkably consistent as they have made the playoffs in each of the past 20 seasons. They also stay consistent in their roster, retaining a lot of their players over time. Case in point, this year's forward group. The Wings will trot out mostly all the same forwards as a year ago for when they finished second in the NHL in scoring.

But the defensive corps received quite a shakeup after last season's 2.89 goals against average, the retirement of Brian Rafalski and loss of Ruslan Salei.

In net they have Jimmy Howard with Ty Conklin backing him up. You have to wonder how much confidence Ken Holland and Mike Babcock have in their starter Howard, though, after the team had a failed pursuit of Tomas Vokoun.

Strengths: As mentioned, the Red Wings can score, almost all of them. Last season there were 13 players that recorded double digits in goals scored, led by Johan Franzen's 28. There is certainly loads of experience in Detroit, too. These guys aren't in their first rodeos. That especially includes defensive stalwart Nicklas Lidstrom, who put of retirement for another year on the ice.

Having the leadership that players like Lidstrom can provide certainly doesn't hurt. Also, you might have heard this Babcock fellow on their bench isn't so bad.

Weaknesses: Defense, defense, defense. That is the major concern/question mark here. They revamped the D, bringing in Mike Commodore and Ian White through free agency. Young defenseman Jonathan Ericsson received a pretty lucrative new deal, so he will be expected to improve.

In the defensive vein, the goaltending will also need to get better. Of course, that goes hand in hand with the defense, but Howard has room to improve. Playing for the Wings, his record was solid -- a nice 37-17-5 mark -- but the goals against average of 2.79 (36th out of 47 eligible goalies) and save percentage of .908 (33rd best) aren't worth writing home about.

PenguinsNashville Predators: Hope is high in Smashville coming off the best showing in franchise history, making it to conference semifinals. The Predators have more or less become the NHL's version of a Moneyball team, continuing to cultivate home-grown talent and win on the cheap.

The team is led by the high-profile trio of goalie Pekka Rinne (Vezina finalist) and defensemen Shea Weber (Norris finalist) and Ryan Suter, who are all going into contract seasons. It will be interesting to see how that plays out for each of them. For some players, it's a major distraction, for others it brings out the best playing for a new deal.

If there's anything we've learned about the Predators in recent years it's not to count them out, at least as long as Barry Trotz is on the bench. Maybe this will be the year he finally wins the Jack Adams as the best coach?

Strengths: The Preds have one of the best defenses in all of hockey. That's due to a multitude of reasons stretching from Trotz's system and philosophy to the outstanding personnel on the blue line -- which might get stronger with the addition of heralded prospect Ryan Ellis -- and the elite goaltending of Rinne. All in all, it led to the team posting the third-lowest GAA a season ago.

The farm system is also a strength, it usually is for Nashville. In addition to Ellis, they have forward Craig Smith, who drew rave reviews by scoring six goals in two games in the team's rookie tournament games.

Weaknesses: You would love to have somebody who is the clear-cut scorer on the team. Unfortunately, the Preds just don't score a lot, period, forget about one player. Only two players (Sergei Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist) topped the 20-goal mark with Kostitsyn pacing the team with 23. Perhaps a healthy Mike Fisher can help with that, at least that's the hope.

As you'd expect with low offensive numbers, the power play placed in the bottom five of the entire league a season ago. The leading power-play scorer was Martin Erat last season with seven.

PenguinsSt. Louis Blues: After coming out of the gate firing 9-1-2 last season, the Blues slowed down as the season wore along, eventually missing the playoffs by 10 points partly because the team dealt with a rash of injuries. Despite that finish, there is positive momentum going in St. Louis and the ownership sees it. That's why they left the young core of the team pretty much untouched this offseason, just electing to bring in a couple of savvy veterans in Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott to make an impact.

You can see the potential here, especially with another year under their belts. It will be interesting to see how they fare over a full season with Chris Stewert, who they acquired midseason from Colorado last year. After getting the forward, the Blues' offense saw a big uptick in scoring, eventually finishing 10th in the league.

Defensively they came in just below the median at 18th in the league. The Blues should be in the playoff picture all season long.

Strengths: There is a good amount of individual talent here, starting with Stewart and new captain David Backes. In all, they had six players last season score 20 goals or more and one of them, Andy McDonald, reached that plateau in just 58 games. With the abundance of talented and skilled skaters this is a team with plenty of speed up and down the lineup.

You also have to like the young defensive corps that has two stars in the making with Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, who each had 43 points from the back end a season ago.

Weaknesses: We weren't entirely sure where to put goaltending in this equation since Jaroslav Halak had some struggles in his first season as a No. 1 goaltender. However he showed what he's capable of when he was with the Canadiens. But based on his just average numbers of a season ago and the unsure situation behind him (Ben Bishop vs. Brian Elliott), we'll put this as our best guess.

Another area where the Blues are lacking is in the physicality department. You wonder where exactly the toughness will come from.

PenguinsColumbus Blue Jackets: What is that coming from Columbus? Is that hope? Why yes, I think it is. GM Scott Howson was active this summer by bringing in Wisniewski and Carter along with Vinny Prospal and Radek Martinek on the blue line. In addition to signing new players, Howson was also busy in signing his current players to long-term deals, specifically R.J. Umberger and Fedor Tyutin.

Yes, the Jackets are spending money, that's not the problem. What is is the matter of how bang for the buck they are getting. To put it in perspective, the Jackets currently have a higher payroll than the Boston Bruins. The hope is that it translates into success, and a few more fans at the turnstiles as Columbus was 27th in the league in attendance last season.

Strenghts: They have struggled to score recently, but that should be done with, or at least minimized. They have a true No. 1 center now in Carter, which should only further help Nash show he is one of the best players people don't talk about in the NHL. The power play, perhaps Columbus' biggest bug-a-boo in recent seasons, should be significantly better now that they have a quarterback for the unit in Wisniewski (when he's back from suspension) and two very capable scorers up front. It had to get better from last year's 29th-ranked unit.

Weaknesses: Did somebody say goaltending? This is one area where the Blue Jackets didn't do a whole lot of upgrading. Instead, they elected to give the starting reins back to Steve Mason and signing the inexperienced Mark Dekanich to be his backup. Since winning the Calder as the league's top rookie, Mason has struggled. Last season he had a 3.01 goals against average and .901 save percentage. That's a big reason why the Jackets were 26th in scoring in the league.

And while Wisniewski helps, there still isn't much scoring threat from the blue line. Tyutin led Columbus in scoring among defensemen with just 27 points.

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 21, 2011 10:13 pm
Edited on: September 22, 2011 10:25 am
 

Red Wings unhappy with call on Cleary

By: Adam Gretz

PITTSBURGH -- Midway through the third period of their 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night Detroit Red Wings forward Danny Cleary was issued a five-minute major for boarding Pittsburgh rookie defenseman Philip Samuelsson. Cleary, who averages between 20 and 40 penalty minutes per season throughout his career, and has been called for just two major penalties since joining the Red Wings in 2005, didn't seem happy with the call following the game.

"Listen," said Cleary. "There's going to be a crackdown on everything like that, you know? In my opinion I thought he turned at the last second and it's hard to slow down. What are you going to do?"

Earlier in the day players across the league watched a video sent out by the NHL that showed examples of good hits, as well as hits that will be penalized this season, and Cleary said he felt his hit on Samuelsson, based on the video they watched, was a good hit. When asked if he felt there would be any supplemental discipline from the league he simply said, "I don't know. No. I doubt it."

Red Wings coach Mike Babock, meanwhile, not only didn't think the play was worthy of a five-minute major, but also felt the play should not have been penalized at all.

"I didn't think it was a penalty," said Babcock. "But we're going to see a lot of that this year, don't you think?"

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

Posted on: September 7, 2011 1:06 pm
Edited on: September 7, 2011 5:03 pm
 

Hockey world mourns KHL team plane crash



(Pavol Demitra/Getty Images)

By Brian Stubits

For the fourth time this summer, tragedy has struck the hockey world. This time it comes in the form of a plane crash in Russia carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team of the KHL, a team that includes many former NHL faces.

Among those who were on the roster are former NHL players Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei Karlis Skrastins, Josef Vasicek and Karel Rachunek. The coaching staff was led by former Bruins, Whalers, Flyers and Red Wings defenseman Brad McCrimmon and also contained former NHL players Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev.

Plus, there were numerous others who were prospects for NHL teams. Among those was Devils prospect Alexander Vasyunov, who played in 18 games for the Devils last season.

"Words cannot express what has transpired," Devils GM Lou Lamoriello said. "I knew a lot of players that were on that team. Nothing could prepare the hockey community for the devastating news ... [This] has left all of us beyond words.

More on KHL crash

"[Vasyunov] wanted to go over and play a lot and come back here. He was so proud to be a Devil. I can't say enough about him."

Riley Armstrong, brother of Colby Armstrong, is part of the team but was not on the plane. He tweeted after the ordeal that he was OK.

"I'm safe, but thanks for the kind words but pray and think of the players and their families on that flight."

As you can imagine, in a league that now contains many Russian players and has its ties grow every year with Russia's top league, the responses have been numerous and distraught. Alex Ovechkin simply said "I'm in shock!!!!!R.I.P ...."

Panthers defenseman and former Lokomotiv player Dmitry Kulikov was left stunned. "It's just an empty feeling. Words can't express how I feel."

Then there was Lightning defenseman Nate Thompson. "A tragic loss for the hockey world. Plane crash with an entire KHL team on board. Thoughts and prayers go out to there families and friends."

Perhaps Demitra is perhaps the best known former NHL player among the bunch. He spent most of his NHL career with the Blues, where he had his best seasons as a player. His best year was 2002-03 when he scored 36 goals and had 57 assists. He was named to three All-Star teams; 1999, 2000 and 2002. He most recently played for the Canucks in 2009-10 before moving on to the KHL.

Moreover, he developed some tremendous friendships in the NHL. The bond he created with Keith Tkachuk in St. Louis was tremendous and Tkachuk was predictably hurt.

"I am beyond devastated by the tragic news involving my good friends Brad and Pavol and the rest of their teammates in Russia. Brad was my teammate in Phoenix and later coached me in Atlanta and was truly a wonderful man who will be greatly missed. Pav was like a brother to me and I cannot believe that he is no longer with us. This is a terrible day for the hockey fraternity. My family’s thoughts and prayers are with their families during this difficult time.”

Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star- Tribune penned this story back in 2007 (at the bottom of the entry) about the strong bond Demitra developed with Marion Gaborik when the two were playing together for the Wild.

Ruslan Salei and Karlis Skrastins also had lengthy stints in the NHL, even being traded for one another at one point. In the 2007-08 season, the Avalanche sent Skrastins to the Panthers in exchange for Salei. In his one full season in Florida, Skrastins had his most productive offensive year, scoring four goals and 14 assists. The tough-nosed defenseman then played his final two NHL seasons with the Stars. Terry Frei of the Denver Post chronicaled Skrastins' trip to the NHL from Latvia.

"The Dallas Stars are saddened by the loss of former defenseman Karlis Skrastins in today's tragic plane crash in Russia," the team released in a statement.

Salei spent nearly a decade playing for the Ducks in Anaheim before he was signed by the Panthers. Like Skrastins, he had his best offensive season playing with Florida, scoring six goals with 26 assists in 2006-07 before being traded the next season to Colorado.

He was playing with the Red Wings just last season, playing 75 games with Detroit.

Vasicek played parts of seven seasons in the NHL, six of those with the Carolina Hurricanes. Team captain Eric Staal had this to say about Vasicek: "Joe was an awesome guy, always in good spirits, always smiling. It's just a tragedy."

Chad LaRose echoed those sentiments. "It's a shocker, a tragedy. Joe was a great guy. A life ended too early."

Vasicek's final season in North America was with the Islanders where he played alongside Radek Martinek.

"He was one of my best buddies. He was in my wedding. I can't believe this," Martinek said.

Among the confirmed dead is former Red Wings and Flyers defenseman McCrimmon, Lokomotiv's coach. The news was just as somber in Detroit with Wings coach Mike Babcock.

McCrimmon had been an assistant with the Red Wings the past three seasons, having spent time wit the Thrashers, Flames and Islanders as an assistant as well. He left Detroit to lead the KHL team in hopes of becoming a head coach in the NHL some day.

As a defenseman, he put up some absolutely unbelievable numbers in his career. In only two of his 18 seasons did he ever record a negative plus-minus mark and he posted a career-high plus-83 in 1985-86 with the Flyers. He ended his career with a plus-444, the 10th best mark in NHL history. Each of the nine players ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame.

This will go down as one of the biggest, if not the biggest sports tragedies we've ever seen. About the only things I can think that compare are the plane crashes that affected the Marshall football team and Oklahoma State basketball teams. Hopefully, and we hope with every bone in our body, this is the end of what will be known as the Summer of Sorrow in hockey. This has truly been an offseason from hell and hopefully one that we never see again.

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