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Tag:2011-12 Season Preview
Posted on: September 27, 2011 6:08 pm
Edited on: September 27, 2011 6:12 pm
 

Atlantic Division Preview: Penguins climb to top

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By: Adam Gretz

Since the NHL went it to its current divisional alignment with Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey and both New York teams occupying the Atlantic Division it's pretty much been a three-team race at the top every year.

Since the 1998-99 season only three teams have managed to win the Atlantic outright -- New Jersey (seven times), Philadelphia (four times) and Pittsburgh (one time). The Rangers and Islanders have never won it, while only one of them, the Islanders during the 2001-02 season, has finished higher than third (second place).

Will it be one of the same three teams fighting for the top spot this season, or will one of the New York clubs find a way to win it for the first time under this current setup?

This year the division is loaded with story lines. The Flyers, the defending division champs, re-tooled their roster over the summer, while the Penguins may have to start the season without their best player -- and arguably the best player in the world -- as Sidney Crosby continues to recover from a concussion.

The Islanders look to be a team on the rise, while the Rangers landed the biggest free agent that hit the open market over the summer (of course they did). Meanwhile, the Devils look to build on the momentum of a strong second half and have to figure out what to do with Zach Parise, playing on a one-year deal, as he's eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Atlantic Division (in predicted order of finish):

PenguinsPittsburgh Penguins: Playing without Jordan Staal for the first half of the season and without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the second half of the season the Penguins still managed to finish tied for the top spot in the Atlantic last season with 106 points, losing in a tiebreaker to the Flyers. That's an impressive accomplishment given how the team is built around those three players. Malkin and Staal look to be ready to go this season, and assuming Crosby returns to his former self, the Penguins should have the personnel to not only finish on top of the division, but also make up for two straight early exits in the playoffs.

Strengths: How did the Penguins manage to stay competitive last season without their three best players for such a long period of time? An outstanding defense anchored by Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin. Combine the defense with the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson and the Penguins finished the regular season allowing the sixth fewest goals per game in the league. Even if Crosby isn't ready for the start of the season the Penguins still have excellent depth down the middle with Malkin, Staal and Mark Letestu, a nice two-way player that excels in the faceoff circle.

Weaknesses: When you have so much money invested down the middle (centers, defense and goaltending) it's going to be difficult to fill in talent on the wings. James Neal is supposed to be the goal-scoring winger they've been searching for, but he struggled in his debut season with the Penguins after coming over in a trade with Dallas. Steve Sullivan signed a one-year deal this summer and can still provide some offense, assuming he's able to stay on the ice.

The Penguins power play has been, well, pretty awful the past three years, even with the talent they're capable of putting on the ice. There are a lot of reasons they went out in the first round last year, and their 1-for-35 showing on the power play is at the top of the list.

RangersNew York Rangers: Surely you're not surprised that the biggest free agent available (Brad Richards) landed with the New York Rangers. Especially when said free agent has such a great track record playing for coach John Tortorella. The two spent a number of years together in Tampa Bay, including the 2003-04 season when the Lightning won their Stanley Cup, while Richards took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Still, a lot of their success will depend on how well Richards and Gaborik play together, and whether or not Gabork bounces back from a disappointing season a year ago.

Strengths: Henrik Lundqvist is as steady and durable as they come in the crease, and a goaltender that's capable of stealing a game by himself. Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan bring a nice mix of skill and grit to the top lines.

Strong team defensively -- and Lundqivst certainly helps that -- even if their blue line, which is anchored by Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, doesn't contain a single player over the age of 27.

Weaknesses: Speaking of Staal, he's still dealing with some symptoms as a result of a concussion he suffered at the end of last season, which is not a good thing. Gaborik, for all his skill and ability, is always one shift away from his next injury (and yes, that's technically true for every player, but Gaborik's career speaks for itself: he's played more than 65 games just five times in 10 years). Mediocre power play during the regular season that scored one goal in 19 attempts during their first-round playoff loss to the Capitals.

FlyersPhiladelphia Flyers: Talk about a team that went through a transition this summer. When all was said and done the Flyers basically swapped Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Ville Leino, Daniel Carcillo, Sean O'Donnell and Darroll Powe for Ilya Bryzgalov, Jaromir Jagr, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn, Andreas Lilja and Max Talbot. Better? Worse? The same? Paul Holmgren and Flyers fans are about to find out.

Strengths: Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk are excellent young forwards, and Van Riemsdyk could be ready to have a breakout season following his impressive postseason run from a year ago. Danny Briere is still around to be one of their leading offensive weapons.

In a bizarre twist, goaltending moves from an area weakness to one of their biggest strengths thanks to the offseason addition of Bryzgalov from the Phoenix Coyotes.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, in order to improve their goaltending the Flyers had to make a series of moves that involved trading Richards and  Carter, while also losing Leino to free agency. That's three of their top-five scorers from a year ago.

It's possible the addition of Bryzgalov, combined with the development of the young players and draft picks they acquired in the Richards and Carter deals, could allow this to  allwork out for the better in the long run, but they may have taken a step back in the short-term.

Will Giroux and Briere be as productive now that they'll be facing the other teams best players in the absence of Richards and Carter?

Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen are both a year older, and Pronger's health was a big problem last season.

DevilsNew Jersey Devils: When it comes to making coaching changes, no league seems to make more than the NHL, and within the NHL, no team seems to make more than the New Jersey Devils. After a summer-long saga involving their pursuit and eventual signing of Ilya Kovalchuk (who they acquired at the trade deadline of the previous season), the Devils had a disastrous start to last season, winning just nine of their first 31 games, resulting in the firing of head coach John MacLean.

Who did the Devils turn to at the point? Jacques Lemaire, naturally, for his third different stint with the team.

They finished with a 29-17-3 record under his watch and managed to stay in the playoff race longer than anybody could have expected following their awful start. Pete DeBoer takes over behind the bench this season, making him the 9th different coach to lead the team since the start of the 2000-01 season.

Strengths: The Devils should have a strong top-six once Travis Zajac returns, and they'll also benefit from the return of Zach Parise after he missedall but 13 games of last season. He's also playing on a one-year contract (perhaps a "show me" contract. As in, show me you're fully recovered and can once again be one of the top left wingers in the league before we sign you long-term).

As always, they finished with strong numbers defensively allowing just over 2.5 goals per game. Will they be as strong defensively without LeMaire running the ship?

Weaknesses: Who on the defense is going to provide some offense? No defenseman scored more than Andy Greene's 23 points a season ago. Adam Larsson, the Devils first-round pick in June, looks to have a ton of upside but some growing pains should be expected as a rookie.

Martin Brodeur is a Hall of Famer and one of the best goalies to ever play in the NHL, but he's clearly not the player he once was. And if the Devils do make it back to the playoffs, well, he's been pretty bad in two of his past three postseason appearances, while the Devils haven't made it out of the first round since 2006-07.

IslandersNew York Islanders: The New York Islanders made headlines last season because of a massive on-ice brawl in early February. They should make headlines this season because they're an improving team that's going to compete for a playoff spot thanks to their impressive collection of young forwards, with the recently signed John Tavares leading the way.

The Islanders offseason didn't see them bring in anybody significant from outside the organization, unless you're counting on Brian Rolston returning to his 30-goal form from four years ago, but they are getting back their top defenseman, Mark Streit, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, and that can be a huge addition to a team that's thin on the blue line.

Along with the return of Streit, a full-season for Kyle Okposo, an excellent two-way forward, will be a welcome addition as well.

Strengths: Definitely their forwards. They're young, they're productive, and many of them are signed long-term for what could be excellent value against the salary cap. The Islanders had eight different players score at least 10 goals last season, and seven of them are returning this season (the only one that isn't is Rob Schremp and his 10 goals).

Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson, Tavares, Blake Comeau and P.A. Parenteau all scored at least 20 goals for the Islanders a year ago.

Frans Nielsen is one of the NHL's most underrated defensive forwards and showed last season he's also capable of chipping in some offense, scoring 13 goals. He finished sixth the voting for the Selke Trophy which goes to the NHL's best defensive forward.

Weaknesses: Even with the return of Streit, as well as the presence of emerging young defenseman Travis Hamonic, who looks like he's going to be quite a player, there is still a lot of questions about this team defensively and in goal, and in the end that could prove to be their downfall this season. 

Rick DiPietro is still signed through the 2020-21 season and has appeared in just 39 games over the past three years.

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

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: September 26, 2011 5:15 pm
Edited on: September 27, 2011 9:54 am
 

Pacific Division Preview: San Jose still on top

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By: Adam Gretz

The San Jose Sharks have comfortably controlled the Pacific Division the past four seasons, winning it each year by an average margin of about 11 points.

Regular season success hasn't been much of an issue for the Sharks, reaching the 100-point mark six of the past seven seasons. The issue has always been whether or not they can avoid what seemed to be an annual early exit from the playoffs. They've done some work to help break their negative postseason reputation the past two years, reaching the conference finals each year before ultimately losing to Chicago and Vancouver respectively.

Will this be the year they finally break through and win the Conference? Will they be able to continue their dominance within the division, or did their four divisional rivals do enough to catch up this summer?

The Pacific was the only division in the NHL last season to produce four playoff teams, as Anaheim, Phoenix and Los Angeles joined the Sharks in the postseason. The Ducks boast the NHL's reigning MVP in Corey Perry, while the Los Angeles Kings made what was perhaps the biggest addition in the Western Conference by acquiring Mike Richards in an offseason blockbuster trade with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Pacific Division (In order of predicted finish)

SharksSan Jose Sharks: The Sharks avoided disaster in the second round of the playoffs last season by escaping with a Game 7 win over the Detroit Red Wings after watching a 3-0 series lead slip away, advancing to the Conference Finals for the second year in a row where they lost to the Canucks in five games. General manager Doug Wilson made a few significant changes to his roster this summer by sacrificing a bit of offense (Devin Setoguchi) to get a defensive upgrade in Brent Burns, while also sending Dany Heatley, a player that is coming his worst goal-scoring season since his rookie year, to Minnesota for Martin Havlat.

Strengths: Even after trading Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi the Sharks still have two outstanding lines with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. Boyle, Burns, Marc Eduard Vlasic and Douglas Murray is a strong top-four on the blue line that combines offensive ability (Boyle and Burns) and strong defensive play (Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Douglas Murray, who also happens to be one of the biggest hitters in the league). They have an outstanding power play that should still be a force even with the loss of Heatley and his 11 power play goals from a year ago. Burns (eight power play goals a year ago) gives them another weapon on the point to go along with Boyle.

Weaknesses: The third and fourth lines aren't great, and the injury questions surrounding goaltenders Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki should be a concern early in the season, but should go away once Niemi returns to the lineup, and may be as early as the season opener. Penalty kill was a major problem last season -- can the addition of Michal Handzus make a difference?

KingsLos Angeles Kings: The Kings haven't advanced beyond the first round of the Western Conference playoffs in over a decade, and have only won one playoff series since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals all the way back in 1993. This roster, on paper, looks to be their best chance for postseason success -- assuming they finally work out something with unsigned defenseman Drew Doughty. For years we've been waiting for the Kings to make a big move given their tradable assets and cap space, and they finally pulled off the blockbuster trade this summer by acquiring Mike Richards from the Philadelphia Flyers.

Strengths: If you believe championship teams are built down the middle, then the Los Angeles Kings should have a great foundation. Already having Anze Kopitar on the roster, the Kings added Richards, one of the best two-way centers in the NHL, back in June in exchange for Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and a draft pick. Combine those two with Jarret Stoll, and the Kings top-three centers should be able to match up with just about any team in the Western Conference. Thanks to steady stay-at-home defensemen like Rob Scuderi and Willie Mitchell the Kings had one of the top penalty killing units in the league last season.

On the wings Dustin Penner, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams and Simon Gagne help create what should be an improved offense over the one that finished 25th in goals scored last season.

Weaknesses: As of this moment the biggest weakness for the Kings might be the fact that their best defenseman, Drew Doughty, remains unsigned as a restricted free agent, and with each passing day we're one day closer to him missing games that actually count in the standings. The power play needs to improve, finishing just 21st in the NHL last season.

DucksAnaheim Ducks: Without looking it up, do you know which player led all NHL defensemen in scoring last season? Nicklas Lidstrom? Shea Weber? Maybe Dan Boyle? Try again. It was Anaheim's Lubomir Visnovsky, giving the Ducks the NHL's top-scoring defenseman as well as the leading goal-scorer (Corey Perry, the only player to hit the 50-goal mark).

Strengths:  Corey Perry. Ryan Getzlaf. Bobby Ryan. Teemu Selanne. Those four players combined for nearly 60 percent of Anaheim's goals in 2010-11, and that was with one of them, Getzlaf, missing 15 games. Perry, who finished as the NHL's leading goal-scorer and won his first MVP award, probably isn't going to score 50 goals again, and Selanne is a year older (but still productive) but this is still an excellent quartet of forwards.

Weaknesses: Which forwards after the four mentioned above can provide offense?

Jonas Hiller is an excellent goaltender when he's in the lineup, but how much will his battle with vertigo impact him this season? If he has to miss any extended time the options behind him (Dan Ellis is currently the backup) aren't really all that promising.

The defense can certainly provide some offense with Lubomir Visnovsky, who is coming off a career year with 68 points, and Cam Fowler having a very promising rookie season -- from an offensive perspective -- with 10 goals and 30 assists, but questions remain as to how good they can be in their own zone.

StarsDallas Stars: There are disappointing ways to finish a season, and then there's what the Dallas Stars did to close out the 2010-11 season, losing nine of their final 14 games to miss the playoffs -- the only team in the division to do so -- by just one point. All they had to do on the final day of the regular season was beat the Minnesota Wild, a team that had completely gone in the tank and won just seven of its final 22 games. The Stars lost, 5-3, allowing the Chicago Blackhawks to clinch the No. 8 spot.

Strengths: Some very good forwards with players like Louii Eriksson and Jamie Benn leading the way, and Mike Ribiero still gives them a No. 1 center in the absence of Brad Richards who signed a huge deal with the New York Rangers in free agency. Based on his play after coming over in a mid-season trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Goligoski looks like he could be on the verge of a breakout season.

Weaknesses: Losing Brad Richards to free agency is a big blow, even with Mike Ribiero -- who trailed Richards by just six points last season -- still on the roster. No disrespect to Steve Ott, who is a fine all-around player, but a 1-2 punch of Richards and Ribiero down the middle is more dangerous than Ribiero-Ott from an offensive perspective.

Mediocre special teams a year ago with the Power Play finishing middle of the pack and the penalty kill in the bottom seven.

CoyotesPhoenix Coyotes: Yes, the Coyotes are still here, and yes, they're looking to make the playoffs for a third consecutive season after having been eliminated by Detroit in each of the past two seasons. They locked up one of their most important players to a long-term contract extension by signing Keith Yandle to a five-year deal this summer, but also said goodbye to another key player in goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.

Strengths: Dave Tippett has done a masterful job the past two seasons with the Coyotes taking a team in a financial mess with little star power to speak of and helping to get them to the playoffs each year with a disciplined, defensive style that the players have bought in to. Keith Yandle is one of the best up-and-coming defenseman in the NHL,

Weaknesses:Replacing Bryzgalov with Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera seems like a significant drop in talent. The one thing Phoenix does have going for it here is that it has a tight defensive system and some excellent two-way players, while Smith has past experience playing in Tippett's system. Still, will that be enough to overcome the loss of Bryzgalov? The Coyotes don't have a true big-time goal-scorer on the roster, but did manage to have 11 different players score at least 10 goals last season. Three of those players (Lee Stempniak, Eric Belanger and Scottie Upshall) are gone, and another, Kyle Turris, is holding out with some absurd contract demands.

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

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: September 23, 2011 1:41 pm
Edited on: September 26, 2011 2:09 pm
 

Southeast Division preview: Still chasing Caps

By Brian Stubits

The days of the South-least Division are slowly fading away.

For the last half decade, the Southeast Division has been the Washington Capitals' playground with four teams chasing. Of course the Caps have been very good through that time, but fattening up on their division "rivals" undoubtedly helped them to four straight division championships.

Just take the 2009-10 season as an example. That year the Capitals had 18 more points than the next closest team in the East while no other team in the division finished even in the top nine of the conference standings. That's especially amazing when you consider there are only 15 teams in the East.

They stil finished atop the East despite a transformation. Head coach Bruce Boudreau changed the way the team plays, trying to lock down on defense. As a result, the league's highest-scoring team the past few years dipped all the way to 19th in scoring. Alex Ovechkin had a very good season by almost anybody's standards. Just not his own.

The trick for Boudreau is to find that happy medium. They showed defense is something they can and in the past they showed they can score. Now they need to show they can do both. If they don't, especially early, Boudreau will hear the calls for his firing. The most successful regular-season team hasn't done enough after it to satisfy the increasingly antsy and demanding fan base.

But the somewhat surprising emergence of the Lightning last year has beefed up the division's rep. Tampa Bay figured to be on its way back up the NHL ladder, but the boom that came out of last season seemed to be ahead of schedule. Now the division has two of the game's elite scorers in Steven Stamkos and Ovechkin. With the Bolts unceremoniously sweeping the Caps in the playoffs last year, we just might have the beginning of an actual division rival for Washington.

The division also features something new: the most amped up fan base in the league, at least for one season. The Winnipeg Jets are still stuck playing in a division that will have them being true fish out of water. To say the Jets will suffer from jet-lag isn't just a fun pun but a reality they face. With that said, what was one of the easiest road trips in the NHL just became one of the toughest, especially for the teams in the Southeast that should look into taking the Concord to Manitoba.

Southeast Division (in order of predicted finish)

Washington Capitals: The Caps have become one of the league's elite teams and have done a pretty remarkable job of keeping their core together. Well this offseason owner Ted Leonsis and crew decided it was time to shake up the roster a touch to try and find the missing recipe to move Washington deeper into the playoffs. Enter Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Tomas Vokoun among others. I don't think there was a bigger offseason addition in this division than the Caps getting Vokoun, especially when you factor in the salary he'll be getting. Vokoun's talents have been hidden in Florida in the past four seasons, but he's an excellent goaltender but he is (or at least was) prone to prolonged slumps. As for Ward and Brouwer, they considerably beef up the Caps' toughness up front along the boards who are very capable two-way players.

Strengths: They have shown they can do every facet of the game well. It is a challenge to find a more talented team in hockey, including on the blue line. That's not something you could say in the past, but John Carlson and Karl Alzner complement each other well enough to make one of the best young defenseman duos in the NHL.

Weaknesses: It is tough to pinpoint any with this team, it is very well-rounded. It will be interesting to see how they handle expectations and increased heat when they hit some rough patches. Also, from an organizational standpoint the team has very little room to maneuver under the salary cap. That could be worth monitoring if/when GM George McPhee decided to tweak the roster.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Everything came together for a great run to a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference finals last season under new coach Guy Boucher. He brought in the ol' 1-3-1 system that seemed to be a magic trick for the Bolts. Now the question becomes can they repeat or was last year lightning in a bottle (that pun really was not intended)? One thing strongly in their favor is that the return almost the entire roster intact from last season. They did lose a couple of players such as Simon Gagne, but not much in the way of being unable to repair. one player who is back is Eric Brewer, and he'll be better for having spent camp and beginning the season in Tampa Bay. It will be interesting to see how this team fares with expectations on their shoulders.

Strengths: They roll out two excellent lines at the top. The Ryan Malone-Stamkos-Martin St. Louis line is one of the best in the game and the second group of Nate Thompson-Vincent Lecavalier-Teddy Purcell isn't too shabby, especially if Purcell continues his growth. They also had excellent special teams last year, ranking in the top 8 of both power play (it helps to have Stamkos, who scores 17 on the PP last year) and penalty kill a season ago. I also love the man on their bench as Boucher is a star in the making among coaches.

Weaknesses: I am still not in love with the goaltending situation. Dwayne Roloson was very good after being picked up by GM Steve Yzerman (he would qualify as another strength), but he just doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in me to keep it up. The addition of Mathieu Garon to back him up is a good one, though. Moreover, consistency might be an issue, especially for Stamkos. He really slowed down last season, failing to score 50 goals when he appeared to be on his way to 60 midseason.

Carolina Hurricanes: If the playoffs were a night club, the Hurricanes have been the guy standing at the front of the line until the bouncer says they're full. Every year it seems they are squarely on the playoff bubble, including last season when it came down to Game 82, which was a sound defeat. This season figures to be more of the same for the 'Canes as they might just be the next-best thing to a playoff team the East has to offer. They had a very pleasant surprise in Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner last season and captain Eric Staal is still leading the show. Gone, though, is another Carolina long-timer in Erik Cole (now in Montreal). One thing you have to love about this franchise, though, is its consistency. GM Jim Rutherford has been there ever since they became the Hurricanes (and before). It seems like their best players don't leave the organization, either. Hopefully for them the consistency in their finishes doesn't stay the same, but instead they crack the postseason. But in a beefed up East, that will be tougher said than done.

Strengths: They have an excellent captain in Staal, both from a leadership standpoint and player quality. They also boast one of the better goalies in the league in Cam Ward, an All-Star last season. And there's that whole consitency thing they have going on, often helps in the old chemistry department.

Weaknesses: There is not much depth to talk about in Carolina. After Stall, Skinner, Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu, they aren't likely going to find a whole lot of scoring. They also don't posses a ton of size among the forwards, hence the reason they brought in Anthony Stewert and Alex Ponikarovsky this offseason to help. There just doesn't seem to be enough to crack the postseason, but Rutherford admits to this being somewhat of a "rebuilding" phase. That's a pretty competitive team for one that's rebuilding.

Florida Panthers: The Panthers were incredibly active in the free-agent market in July, adding a slew of veterans to hold the tide while the youngsters develop. Undoubtedly the Panthers are better than they were last season, but how much better? They did lose arguably their best player in Vokoun and are replacing him with the combination of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen, not exactly an exciting development. But it can't be denied that the Panthers now at least have NHL-quality players across their lines (and defensive pairings, led by Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski), but they still aren't high-quality players, not guys that you figure can get them into the playoffs, finally. The trick in Florida is not doing anything now to hinder the future, which is very bright as the system is loaded.

Strengths: I do like the defensive corps they are putting together, especially if 2010 No. 3 overall draft pick Erik Gudbranson makes the team as expected. It's very hard to say at this point with so many new faces coming together what kind of strenghts we're looking at, it's tough to predict how they will play together. But we do know something that isn't likely be a strength this year ...

Weaknesses: The aforementioned goaltender position. With Vokoun gone, the Panthers are relying on the combination of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen. Now, both do have experience, Theodore more so than the Clemmer, but in no way do they make up for what Vokoun, Florida's best player in recent seasons, took with him. You also have to wonder about chemistry issues with this team having brought in so many new faces. We'll put new coach Kevin Dineen as an "unknown."

Winnipeg Jets: The virtue of such a home-ice advantage will likely make the Jets a little better than the Thrashers were last season, but not enough. Thankfully for them the new home crowd in Winnipeg will just be jacked to have hockey back. They will need to take advantage of the home crowd, especially with a stretch of 10 home games in 11 contests that stretches from the end of November through December. But they will need to find scoring punch, especially from the forward group. They have excellent point producers among the defensemen in Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, but Ladd needs more help. Hopefully, that's where Evander Kane will fit in. In his third year since being drafted in the first round (all of his time spent at the NHL level) this could be the year he steps up his game and becomes a franchise fixture. He is already a popular figure partly by virtue of his Twitter account and the way he has taken to Winnipeg.

Strengths: They were above average on the power play last season, finishing 12th in the league thanks to Byfuglien and Enstrom. Thrown in the potential of Zach Bogosian as an offensive weapon and that's a lunch of firepower coming back the blue line. I like Ondrej Pavelec in net if he can get a little better support from his teammates. I will put one more in this category, and that's the patience of the front office. They have a lot of first-round talent on the roster and they don't seem willing to abandon the long-term plan for a quick fix to appease the riled up fans.

Weaknesses: The forwards need to show more. Outside of Ladd, nobody up front cracked the 20-goal barrier last season in Atlanta. They need to find a way to tighten down defensively after giving up the second-most goals per game in hockey last year at 3.20. The forwards doing a better job of creating scoring chances and possessing the puck will certainly contribute. The penalty kill was almost equally bad last year, clocking in at 27th in the NHL. Like the Panthers, we'll put new coach Claude Noel as an "unknown."

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 22, 2011 4:16 pm
Edited on: September 26, 2011 5:48 pm
 

Breakout players: JVR ready to shine in Philly

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By: Adam Gretz

There are plenty of new faces in the Philadelphia Flyers locker room this season, and they are going to have the difficult task of replacing the offensive production that belonged to several of last season's top-scorers that are no longer with the team, including Mike Richards (traded), Jeff Carter (traded) and Ville Leino (free agency). Players like Danny Briere and Claude Giroux are still there to help lead the charge, and big things are expected from 2007 No. 2 overall pick James van Riemsdyk.

The 22-year-old van Riemsdyk is entering his third season in the league and signed a brand new six-year, $26.5 million contract extension earlier this summer, coming off a 21-goal, 19-assist season for the Flyers in 2010-11. Solid numbers for a second-year pro, but it was during the playoffs where he really started to excel. Considering the expensive new deal he signed a couple of months ago, it's pretty obvious the Flyers expect him to continue his development and become a top player in a suddenly re-tooled Flyers lineup. And it's something he should be able to do.

Van Riemsdyk's breakout started during last year's playoffs when he played top-line minutes against Buffalo and Boston, typically against their best players, and finished tied for the team lead in playoff goals with seven. Along with the goals he was arguably the Flyers' best overall forward in the playoffs, making an impact every time he stepped on the ice, even with star players like Richards and Carter still on the roster.

That should continue to be the case in 2011.

He's going to be asked to take on a larger role for the Flyers this season, and as he showed in last year's playoffs, when the game becomes a little faster and goals a little harder to come by, he is more than capable of handling that assignment. Thirty-or-more goals shouldn't be out of the question.

Four more players, in no particular order, that could be on the verge of a breakout season…

OshieT.J. Oshie, Blues A former first-round pick by the Blues in 2005, Oshie has had his ups and downs in St. Louis, including a suspension last season following an unexcused absence. He's reportedly shown up to Blues camp in top shape and has apparently dedicated himself to becoming more of a pro. Talent has never been an issue for the 24-year-old Oshie, and now that he appears to be in great shape and committed to becoming a top player, a breakout season could be right around the corner.


SubbanP.K. Subban, Canadiens With Andrei Markov's status for the start of the season up in the air due to a setback in his recovery from a knee injury, as well as the departure of Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski, Subban could quickly become the top offensive option for the Canadiens along the blue line. And the flashy 22-year-old definitely has the tools to make a huge impact. He's kind of a polarizing player at this point in his career -- among both fans and players -- and seems to have that "love him or hate him" attraction, but there's no denying the ability and upside. As a rookie he scored 14 goals to go with 24 assists, which is impressive enough, but he's capable of doing even more damage to opponents.

WilsonColin Wilson, Predators There is perhaps no team in the NHL that relies on its farm system more than the Nashville Predators. This year's team has a couple of interesting youngsters including Nashville native Blake Geoffrion, who scored six goals in 20 gameas last year, and Craig Smith, a fourth-round pick in 2009 that had a sensational summer at the World Championships and the recent prospects tournament. There's also former first-round pick Colin Wilson who has a ton of talent but has yet to fully realize it at the NHL level. Entering the final year of his entry level contract, this could be the season the 21-year-old forward becomes the player the Predators anticipated when they selected him at the top of the 2008 draft.


CarlsonJohn Carlson, Capitals Like Subban, Carlson is coming off an excellent rookie season with the Capitals and has All-Star level potential. He already has experience playing top-pairing minutes -- he also saw time in every situation, including the power play and the penalty kill  as a rookie -- and is loaded with offensive ability. One of the top young defensemen in the NHL and figures to be a core player for one of the best teams in the NHL.

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

Photo: Getty Images

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


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

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

By Brian Stubits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step-back candidates

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

Photo: Getty Images

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

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