Tag:Steve Montador
Posted on: January 20, 2012 12:57 pm
Edited on: January 20, 2012 3:50 pm
 

Weekend Preview: Rangers and Bruins finally meet

McDonagh's and Seguin's teams renew acquaintances. (Getty Images)

Weekend Schedules: Friday | Saturday | Sunday

By Brian Stubits

Thanks to the scheduling quirks of the NHL, it has taken us until the end of January to get a dose of some real New York-Boston feuding in hockey. No offense to the Devils and the Islanders, but the city-to-city rivalry is reserved for pretty much only the Rangers against the Bruins.

This season, though, the wait has seemed even longer than it really has been. That's because of the little fact that for the first team in a long, long time, the Bruins and Rangers are the best two teams in the Eastern Conference.

There has been some bemoaning lately of the lack of rivalries in hockey. Well this isn't on par with Yankees-Red Sox in baseball, but there's always a little extra flair when it's New York vs. Boston. This one should have a lot of extra flair.

Nobody at this point will dispute the Rangers are one of the best teams in the league this season. You'd be foolish to try. But there are people, myself included, who are still wondering exactly how good are the Rangers? Well what better way to find out than to send them to the hornets’ nest that is TD Garden in Boston to face the defending champs?

Although it’s too bad we could have had this game a week or so ago. By their standards this season, each of these teams has lost some steam going into the game. The Bruins are only 6-4-0 in their last 10 (gasp!) while the Rangers just slightly better at 7-3-0. I laugh about it a little but it was just in the last two weeks that each of these teams had won nine of 10 games.

One of the tricks for each of the coaches is to find ways to keep pushing their guys in the middle of the season, particularly when you've had as much success as these two Original Six squads have. Sometimes that can be as simple as finding a bear to poke (pun clearly intended).

Bruins coach Claude Julien took his poking stick to the midsection of Nathan Horton this week on the Bruins' recent road trip.

"Horton has got to pick up his game. No ifs or buts about it," Julien said after the shootout win at Florida. "A guy his size needs to get more physically involved. He needs to compete a lot harder. He's skating hard, you can see it on the backcheck ... but we need more from him. When he's emotionally engaged, he scores goals and he's a difference-maker. He's got to find his game. We're at the point where we're a little shorthanded and we need him to step up."

Horton responded by scoring twice in the loss to the Lightning and then one more in the win on Thursday night against the Devils. That might be mission: accomplished.

It looks like Rangers coach John Tortorella has his own target to try and prod.

Brad Richards was the star they brought to New York this summer to give Marian Gaborik that other scoring threat and finally give Henrik Lundqvist some much-deserved support. In that regard, Richards has been alright. But that's it.

In 45 games he has 15 goals and 16 assists for 31 points while carrying a minus-3. That stat still means very little, plus/minus, but on a team like the Rangers, it's tough to be negative. He and Ruslan Fedotenko are the only players on the team with more than 10 games played that are in the red.

Going into the game against the Bruins, Richards hasn't tallied a single point in the last six games. Obviously that's not very good, particularly for a guy making $6.7 million per season.

While Tortorella didn't go anywhere close to the level of criticism that Julien did with Horton, he at least made it known that Richards needs to step up some. From Ranger Rants:

Coach John Tortorella said he didn’t want to analyze individual performances after the game when asked specifically about Staal and Brad Richards. But he acknowledged that Richards’ game wasn’t spot on right now (he was a minus-1 in 16:46 though he won 12 of 16 faceoffs).

If the Rangers can get a point-per-game pace out of Richards like he has been doing for most of the past few seasons, then watch out.

This will be the first of four matchups between the foes this season and each will very likely go a long way in determining who gets home-ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.

If that leaves you wanting more ...

... Then you'll get it. There is no better way to spend Saturday if you're a hockey fan than to tune in to the NHL Network. Once that Rangers-Bruins tilt is done it's on to the next, but it takes no backseat to the first game.

The Vancouver Canucks seem to have a lot of rivalries these days. We all know about their ongoing feud with the Bruins, they have a fierce battle with the Chicago Blackhawks and pretty much any team from Canada.

But don't forget about their rivals to the south in San Jose, too. They've had some damn good playoff battles as well, including that Western Conference final matchup a season ago where Kevin Bieksa was the only person on the ice who knew what the heck was going on.

The Sharks are an interesting team to me. Perhaps it's a situation of just getting used to it, being desensitized to them, but once again they are right there in the race for the Presidents' Trophy this season. Remember, they have games in hand on every single Western Conference team.

Yet they are just quietly trudging along on the West Coast. It's expected from them now to be honest. That's a great compliment to give to the ownership and front office in San Jose.

Unlike the Eastern powers mentioned above, these Western heavies have already met three times this season, so when they dance on Saturday night in Vancouver, it's the last time they'll see each other until next season. Unless ...

Hot, hot, hot!

The Ottawa Senators are 12-2-2 since Kyle Turris came to town. They are in the midst of a very challenging road trip to the West Coast, starting it off with a win on Thursday in San Jose.

When they looked at the itinerary for the road trip, they had to look at the Saturday visit to Anaheim as a little bit of a reprieve on the tough trip. Not anymore.

It took a while, but Bruce Boudreau is seeing the Ducks play the way we all thought they would this season. All of a sudden, these are the two hottest teams in the NHL (what?!?). The Ducks are 6-0-1 in their last seven games in their own right.

It's likely well past the time for them to get back into the playoff picture. Even with these 13 points in seven games, they are still 13 points behind Colorado for the eighth spot in the West. What a really strong finish can do, though, is affect the way general manager Bob Murray views his team and thus how much of a seller the Ducks will be at the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

In the meantime, each of the Sens and Ducks gets a heat check in one of the few places in either the USA or Canada that it's actually warm right now, Southern California.

Familiar foes

Friday night will feature some old friends facing off as the Florida Blackhawks visit the Chicago Panthers. Wait ...

Since Dale Tallon took over in Florida as general manager, the Panthers have taken on quite a strong feeling of the Blackhawks. They currently carry five former players from Chicago: John Madden, Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky and Jack Skille. Of them, only Skille wasn't a contributor to the Stanley Cup a couple of seasons ago.

To make that happen obviously Tallon had to send some of his Panthers players to GM Stan Bowman in Chicago. It's not as strong the other way but the Blackhawks currently employ former Panthers Michal Frolik, Steve Montador and have Rostislav Olesz and Alexander Salak in the system.

But the player to watch in this battle? How about Andrew Shaw, who is quickly making a big name for himself in Chicago. The 20-year-old forward who was a fifth-round pick by the 'Hawks has five points in the last four games on the strength of a goal in each game. That's led to the Twitter hashtag of #ShawFacts where fans have taken their best Chuck Norris jokes and tailored them for Shaw.

Something else worth watching: With weather conditions as bad as they are in Chicago this weekend, will the Panthers have any problems getting out of town and into Winnipeg in time for their game Saturday against the Jets?

Speak of old friends ...

What would the Tampa Bay Lightning give to have the summer over and keep Mike Smith instead of Dwayne Roloson?

The Bolts will get the chance to see firsthand what has happened to Smith since he moved to the desert this offseason. For those not in the know, what has happened is that he has become a quality starting goaltender for the Coyotes.

The Lightning are giving up more goals than any team in the league. Don't you think Smith and his 2.41 goals against average would be handy in Tampa Bay this season?

Then again, it probably wouldn't be too much different if the defenders in front of Smith were playing the same/as injured as they are in front of Roloson and Mathieu Garon.

Fun doesn't stop Saturday

On Sunday there is a nice pair of battles for matinee games in the Eastern Conference.

The Bruins will take on another one of the I-95 corridor powers in the Philadelphia Flyers while the Pittsburgh Penguins will host the Washington Capitals for their final bout this season. It might be a bit watered down without Sidney Crosby playing, but it's still worth watching.

Both games are worth it, so get ready to wear out the "last" button on your remote.

We're going streaking!

A look at the winning and losing streaks heading into the weekend.

Penguins: Remember how they just lost six in a row? This is how you rebound from that. The Pens take a four-game winning streak into Friday night's game against the Canadiens before the game against the Caps.

Detroit Red Wings: For the moment, they have taken the lead in the Central Division, which is an unbelievable race this season. Their five straight wins will be put on the line Saturday vs. the Blue Jackets.

St. Louis Blues: They are doing what they can to keep pace with the Red Wings and Blackhawks, and they're doing it just fine. They ride a three-game run into a home game against the Sabres, losers of 10 straight on the road.

Buffalo Sabres: As just mentioned, 10 straight road losses, four in a row overall. Only the one chance in St. Louis to snap it this weekend.

Panthers: They haven't won a game in their last three chances but they have picked up points in two of those three. The double dip this weekend is at Chicago and at Winnipeg.

Minnesota Wild: The ship keeps on sinking. Remember when they were first in the NHL? I hardly do either. Four straight losses and Dallas on tap this weekend.

Dallas Stars: Misery loves company, I suppose. Dallas brings its own losing streak of three games into the weekend, but they get Tampa Bay before facing the Wild.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.
Posted on: November 15, 2011 2:57 pm
Edited on: November 29, 2011 5:33 pm
 

Chicago's power play will improve

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Pucks and Numbers: a weekly statistical look at what's happening around the NHL. This week: A look at the struggling Chicago Blackhawks power play that may not be as bad as its early season numbers indicate.

By: Adam Gretz


The Chicago Blackhawks power play has been struggling to score goals through the first month-and-a-half of the season, which is kind of surprising given the talent they have on the on their roster. Not to mention the fact they were one of the best teams in the NHL on the man advantage last season, finishing with the fourth best power play percentage in the league.

Entering last week's game against Columbus, the Blackhawks owned the worst power play percentage in the NHL, converting on just eight percent of their chances on the man advantage. Certainly not something you would expect for a team that boasts players like Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews.

During that game against the Blue Jackets, which Chicago won 6-3, the Blackhawks used an interesting alignment on their second power play unit (which we wrote about here) sending three defensemen out on to the ice -- Duncan Keith, Nick Leddy and Steve Montador, with Montador positioning himself in front of the net as if he were Chicago's version of Tomas Holmstrom.

Not only did the seemingly makeshift line generate some offense, it scored twice for what was Chicago's first game of the season with multiple power play goals. Two games later in another 6-3 win, this time against the Edmonton Oilers, the same group of players scored another goal on the man advantage, with Montador again standing in the slot and re-directing a Leddy one-timer into the cage. In three games this week Montador scored two power play goals and assisted on another, after scoring just two power play goals over the first 11 years of his career. Crazy stuff.

Over that three game stretch (all Chicago wins) the Blackhawks power play has converted on four of its 11 attempts to help them climb from 30th in the NHL up to 24th. In the 15 games prior the unit was just 5-for-57.

Was the power play really that bad -- or underachieving -- over the first 15 games of the season? And was the presence of Montador in front of the net all they needed to get the ship going in the right direction?

Not exactly. Though, you have to give Montador credit for filling in and doing his job extremely well. (It's worth noting that Toews told Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday that Montador's experience on the PK may be serving him well in his new role. “He does a great job of boxing guys out on the penalty kill in front of our net, so he’s a workhouse ... He’s good at getting himself open when he’s on offense.”)

Small sample sizes early in the season can create some misleading percentages, and it's been found that one of the best indicators of future power play success is the number of shots on goal a team generates (you can read about it in part here). So far this season the Blackhawks have been one of the best teams in the NHL when it comes to getting shots on goal during 5-on-4 play, and prior to their recent three-game power play explosion, they had a shooting percentage of around 5 percent on the power play.

In three different games over the first month Chicago had at least 10 power play shots on a given night and failed to score. How long could that really continue? Kane and Hossa, for example, each have 17 shots on goal at 5-on-4 with no goals (Hossa's one power play goal this year came during a 5-on-3). That, too, will not continue.

We saw something similar take place with the Detroit Red Wings a couple of weeks ago during their panic-inducing six-game losing streak when their offense all but disappeared. They were still dominating their opponents in the shots department, but were going through a run where, as a team, they had an incredibly low (and unsustainable) shooting percentage. Eventually that was going to turn around (and it did. They've since won four games in a row, scoring 18 goals).

I'm not sure how long Montador is going to keep finding the back of the net on the power play, but I am confident that as long as heavy hitters in the scoring department (Kane, Toews, Sharp, Hossa) keep generating chances and shots, the goals will start to return.

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

Posted on: November 10, 2011 10:05 pm
Edited on: November 10, 2011 10:17 pm
 

Steve Montador is here to fix 'Hawks power play



By: Adam Gretz

The Chicago Blackhawks entered Thursday's game in Columbus with the worst power play unit in the NHL, converting on just five of their 57 attempts on the man advantage. That was not going to continue, simply because the Blackhawks have too many gifted playmakers and too much firepower on the roster to allow it to continue.

Perhaps all they needed was a game with the Columbus Blue Jackets to get things going in the right direction. Or maybe they just needed to give Steve Montador, of all people, a little bit of time on the power play.

During their 6-3 win over the Blue Jackets, who continue to secure their spot at the bottom of the NHL standings, the Blackhawks had a breakout game of sorts on the power play, going 2-for-3 during the win. It was the first time all season they scored more than one power play goal in a game, which is definitely good news. The surprising development isn't so much that they finally started to score, it's that it wasn't the usual suspects -- Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa -- getting the goals. And not only were they not the ones getting the goals, they weren't even on the ice.

Both power play goals came with the same group of players on the ice: Duncan Keith, Steve Montador, Nick Leddy, Andrew Brunette and Marcus Kruger. That's three defensemen and two forwards.

Montador is probably the most surprising name on the list, seeing as how entering Thursday night he had played just 8:32 of power play time during the regular season. That's an average of just 32 seconds per game. And not only did he play nearly two minutes on the power play on Thursday, the Blackhawks had him planted in front of the net, and he ended up recording two points, including his first goal of the season (shown above) as well as a helper on a power play goal scored by Brunette.

It was Montador's first power play goal since Jan. 29, 2008, and only the third of his career, so you probably shouldn't get used to seeing this.

Nice night for a struggling Blackhawks power play unit, and another ugly night for the Blue Jackets, whose record now stands at 2-12-1.

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

Posted on: October 6, 2011 12:25 am
Edited on: October 6, 2011 12:57 am
 

Blackhawks will rebound and lift the Cup again

By Brian Stubits

Last season there was a hangover in Chicago. Champagne-induced ones are the worst. That's a big reason why the Blackhawks had to fight at season's end to earn the West's final playoff spot.

But like a regular ol' college student, a day after being bed-ridden it's time to party again. That's my forecast for this season's Stanley Cup: a return to the Madhouse on Madison.

By now everybody has heard enough about the salary cap trouble Chicago found itself in. Former GM Dale Tallon gets a lot of credit for building a Stanley Cup winner, but when he was forced out of town, there was more than a parade to clean up after. For that, current GM Stan Bowman deserves a lot of credit.

Chicago was so crippled by their cap crunch that they lost a few key players to their championship like Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Antti Niemi and Kris Versteeg. But the core remained, and now Bowman has reshuffled the cards to stack the deck around said core again.

2011-12 NHL Season Preview

Welcome into the fold Andrew Brunette, Dan Carcillo, Jamal Mayers, Steve Montador and Sean O'Donnell to the existing group that includes two of the best young players in the game of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, it's a solid group that also now has a true grinder line. Add the apparent solution to the goal riddle with Corey Crawford and you can see why optimism is back in the Windy City.

Three reasons to like the Blackhawks:

1. Skill: There are three players on this team that topped the 70-point mark last season. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp are each capable of doing it again. Marian Hossa is right there with them. If second-round draft pick Brandon Saad really is as good as he showed this preseason as he earned a spot on Chicago's TOP line, then it's an unexpected lethal addition.

2. Defense: Oh yeah, the group on the blue line has some skill, too. There's a past Norris Trophy winner who will be in the conversation again this season in Duncan Keith. He's a horse for Chicago. Last season he played more minutes than any skater in hockey. He is teamed up with another outstanding and young defenseman in Brent Seabrook. The belief is that they don't have to rely on those two as uch this season as the corps got deeper, adding Montador and O'Donnell to round out a rock solid group that also includes Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy. But the big key is Crawford. He was very impressive in his first full season and with a group like that in front of him, can continue to look stellar.

3. Chemistry: I'm not a massive believer in the intangibles in sports, but you can't deny its impact, especially among linemates. This group in Chicago doesn't seem to have any personality problems on the horizon as it is a close-knit group. "We've had that chemistry right from Day 1 -- no question about it," the veteran Sharp said on Wednesday. "When you bring in veteran players who have had success all across the league on different teams it seems like there's one excitement in the room." Let me put it this way; good chemistry can't hurt matters. Also under intangibles: They have been there before.

Photo: Getty Images

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: June 29, 2011 6:10 pm
Edited on: June 30, 2011 10:14 pm
 

Free agency: Ehrhoff atop veteran defenseman list

It wasn't long ago that we had a free-agent defensive class that was shaping up with names like Kevin Bieksa, Andrei Markov, Joni Pitkanen and Christian Ehrhoff.

NHL Free Agency

Now all of them are off the market before it even begins. Capped off by the Sabres signing Ehrhoff to a long-term deal, each has signed contracts to stay with their teams (except in Ehrhoff's case since his rights were traded).

As a result we're left with an overall veteran group with mixed-in youngsters.

The hard part is naming a defensive headliner. Is it Ed Jovanovski, the veteran who played most recently in Phoenix? Could it be Roman Hamrlik, a 17-year veteran that still has a few miles left on the tires?

Here are this year's best defensemen (in alphabetical order).

Jonathan Ericsson -- Red Wings: The 6-foot-5 Swede is just 27 and skates well, so he's an intriguing prospect, even if he has been playing mostly as a third-pairing defenseman. At this point there is no deal in place to keep him in Detroit, but that can still be done. If not, though, there will be some suitors intrigued by the big man with very modest offensive numbers (six goals, 15 assists last season). (June 30: Re-signed with Red Wings)


Ehrhoff -- Canucks/Islanders/Sabres: He rejected an offer from the Canucks that was reportedly the exact same as Kevin Bieksa's five-year, $23 million deal and has since been sent to Long Island -- for a few days, at least. Ehrhoff has plenty of offense, scoring 14 goals with 36 assists last season in Vancouver. It's likely the Red Wings will be hot and heavy to sign Ehrhoff to fill Brian Rafalski's void now that talks have broken off with the Islanders. (June 30: Signed with Sabres)

Hamrlik -- Canadiens: At 37, Hamrlik has already declined a one-year offer from the Habs, looking to get something for two or three years. He has taken a lot of heat from the fans in Montreal, but he's still a solid player on the blue line who helped cover for an injured Markov this season. A return to Montreal is still possible, but other teams will a shot, too.


Jovanovski -- Coyotes: He's 34 but can still be a nice addition as a top-two pairing defenseman. The big question is if he can stay healthy. He will surely have a pretty hefty pay cut coming his way after the five-year, $32.5 million contract he signed with the Coyotes, but could be a target for teams like Colorado or Florida looking for experience on the back end.


Tomas Kaberle -- Bruins: He wasn't a great fit in Boston this year, as his time diminished during the playoffs. The big bug-a-boo was not giving much life to the power play, which was a year-long struggle for Boston despite the team's success. The Bruins are still trying to figure out if they want him back, but it looks like the answer will be no. He still can be an offensive contributor, though; he had four goals with 43 assists last season.

Bryan McCabe -- Rangers: Acquired by New York midseason, McCabe's greatest attraction is the offense he provides on power plays. He is coming off a big contract that was big in his falling out with Toronto when the fans didn't feel he was living up to the money. That shouldn't be a problem this time around as he won't get the big bucks.


Wisniewski -- Canadiens/Blue Jackets: He is in the 20-something crowd at 27 and has plenty of offensive potential. After coming over to Montreal from the Islanders, Wisniewski actually put up the most points of any player on this list last season with 51 (10 goals, 41 assists). There are plenty of concerns about him as a defensive player and it looks like the Blue Jackets are going to try and lock him up after acquiring him Wednesday afternoon.

Others of interest: Andy Greene (NJ), Scott Hannan (WAS), Sami Salo (VAN), Brent Sopel (MTL), Steve Montador (BUF)

By Brian Stubits

Photo: Getty Images

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

 
 
 
 
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