Tag:Brian Elliott
Posted on: January 8, 2012 3:11 pm
Edited on: January 8, 2012 3:32 pm
 

Weekend Wrap: This one's for the good guys

By Brian Stubits

While you were busy worrying about the upcoming summer of labor after the NHLPA declined the realignment plan ...

With all due respect to the guys of Green Day, nice guys really can finish first. Or at least succeed.

Saturday was a milestone day for two of the classiest and most loyal players in the NHL. One milestone awesome, the other simply dumbfounding, on a couple of levels.

First, the awesome: Jarome Iginla's 500th goal in Saturday night's win against the Minnesota Wild. Nobody is surprised that Iginla hit the 500-goal mark in his career. I've seen it argued that he would have passed that milestone a while ago if he had played with some better centers in his time with the Calgary Flames.

It doesn't matter how ugly it might have been. Iginla's had enough beauties in his career, I don't think for one second he was worried about it coming on a pass from the boards that bounced off skates and into the net.

I could go on about with platitudes about the class of guy that Iginla is. People already know that and my personal experience with the guy did nothing at all to change that impression for me. I like to point to this somewhat infamous and incredibly cringe-worthy exchange with Iginla and a reporter earlier this season that Iginla dealt with as patiently as any player could, even though nobody knew what exactly was being asked.

Iginla became only the 42nd player in NHL history to hit the plateau. So we're talking about a pretty exclusive club. Iginla's case is even more unique when one realizes that he became only the ninth player ever to score his first 500 goals with one team.

Every franchise usually has a designated Mr. (fill in the team name). Iginla no doubt is Mr. Flame.

The second milestone also came from a Mr. Franchise type and it was a bit more amazing.

Unless you work for the Elias Sports Bureau or are the biggest Phoenix Coyotes fan out there, it probably caught you by surprise that Shane Doan's hat trick on Saturday night was the first of his career.

It took him 1,161 games to get there, but Doan finally put three in in one game. And it's not like we're talking about a guy who doesn't score. He joins Scott Mellenby as the only other player in NHL history to score 300 goals before his first hat trick.

The most amazing part of all? It took Doan 59 minutes, 59 and 9/10 of a second to get that third goal.

Sometimes you can't make this stuff up.

Like Iginla, Doan has been a consummate professional, a player with the loyalty to a franchise that fans love to see in sports these days. This is a guy who has stuck with a franchise that has been surrounded in questions for a couple of years but has stuck with the only team he has ever known.

A little bit of irony in Doan's goal coming with only 0.1 second left, the Coyotes fell victim to a similar situation earlier this season. The Rangers potted a goal with the same exact amount of time on the clock. The only difference between those two last-second tallies? The Rangers' was for a win, Doan's for the hat trick in an already-decided game.

And all those hats he collected? They are reportedly being donated to the Phoenix Children's Hospital.

It was almost as if Saturday was a night for the good guys in the NHL. Two great honors for two great players. Certainly beats more concussions.

Blue moon

The St. Louis Blues are no fluke, people. This sample size with Ken Hitchcock at the helm is big enough to draw that conclusion.

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The Blues are in the Central Division. They compete with the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators. Yet, after Saturday's games, it's the Blues that are sitting in first place of the monster division, for my money the best in the NHL.

St. Louis dominated the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night, pitching a 4-0 shutout. The Avs had been maybe the hottest team in the NHL, bringing a four-game win streak into the Lou. Instead they were just another victim for St. Louis.

That moved the Blues to 18-5-5 under Hitchcock. Their sole lead isn't going to last long. By the end of Sunday they will at least be in a tie with either the Blackhawks or Red Wings. But they are right there and will remain right there for the entire season.

The goaltending duo of Brian Elliott -- who had another shutout -- and Jaroslav Halak has rightfully received a lot of the attention for the Blues' success, but the guys in front of them deserve a lot. Just look at what the Avalanche were able to -- or unable to -- do: They only had 15 shots on goal for the entire game. That's why Elliott didn't even get one of the three Stars of the game. The most shots in one period that Colorado had? Seven. In the first they had just two.

I'll admit I'm happy for the fans of St. Louis. It's not a market that gets a lot of recognition as a big one like the cities in the Northeast or Canada, but it's been a strong market for hockey and remains that way. They haven't had a lot to cheer for in the past couple of years but they do now.

And of course the Western Conference has another team to be reckoned with.

Jerseylicious

The story out of Pittsburgh on Saturday was that the Penguins lost their fourth straight game, something they had not done in two years. On Sunday it was compounded by the announced injuries of James Neal (broken foot) and Jordan Staal (out 4-6 weeks).

But that's taking away from the success of the New Jersey Devils.

Their 3-1 win in Pittsburgh came a night after their 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers at home on Friday. They have points in seven of their last 10 games. They have also hurdled the Penguins in the Atlantic Division and are creeping up on the Flyers, four points behind Philadelphia.

A common thread in those two weekend wins? Ilya Kovalchuk had the game-winner. He's up to 15 goals on the season now, tied with David Clarkson for the team lead. He has the penchant for turnovers -- that's nothing new -- but is still as electric as almost any player in the league with the puck on his stick. What Peter DeBoer wouldn't give to continue to get that kind of production from Kovalchuk.

Danny's dance

What a day it was Saturday for Danny Briere. The Philadelphia Flyers veteran had a double rarity in the Flyers' 3-2 win over the Senators: He finished off a hat trick with a goal in the final seconds of overtime and dropped the gloves with Kyle Turris (!).

First, here's the bout from HockeyFights.com.

Not terrible for a couple of guys who don't normally go a round. For Briere it was only his third career fight.

But in the end it was his fifth career hat trick that was the biggest moment of the night. Apparently content to take the game to the shootout, the Senators seemed to give up once the clock moved under 10 seconds. It was up to Craig Anderson to keep them alive. He made the first stop on Briere from point-blank range but couldn't prevent the second from slipping in and winning the game with 5.3 seconds left.

Buffalo bull

They're getting pretty desperate up there in Buffalo where the Sabres just can't seem to do anything right.

It's a solid cast of characters. There's a reason why people thought this would be a contender in the East this season. Add in the ownership takeover of Terry Pegula, and there was a lot of noise coming out of Buffalo. Now, not so much. Really.

"Married couples fighting upstairs, you can hear that on the ice," Ville Leino joked to John Vogl of the Buffalo News.

That'll happen when you're not scoring much. Like they didn't score in the 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday night in Buffalo.

Their lack of scoring is the biggest culprit for the following: Since Nov. 12 -- as in the day Ryan Miller met Milan Lucic -- the Sabres have the fourth-worst record in the NHL. The fans are beginning to beg GM Darcy Regier to do something. This isn't how it was supposed to go.

Quote of the weekend

"It got a little tight, so we're being careful with him. We took him and pulled him out." -- Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter on defenseman Mike Green and his hamstring.

The Caps just got Mike Green back from a hamstring-induced absence that stretched back to early November. Now it might cost him even more time now. If so, that will be the third time that Green has been out with injury. He also had an ankle issue cost him time earlier this season.

The Capitals saw their four-game winning streak come to an end on Saturday night in San Jose to the streaking Sharks. It was actually the first loss of the season for the Caps when Green played. They are now 9-1-0.

Looking beyond this season, Green will hit free agency this summer and here's one argument being laid out for why the Capitals shouldn't re-sign him. It will be worth a debate for GM George McPhee.

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

Posted on: December 30, 2011 1:25 pm
 

Weekend Preview: Central the center of the action

By Brian Stubits

Earlier this week, the St. Louis Blues visited Joe Louis Arena and battled the Detroit Red Wings in one of the better games of the season. In it, the Wings came back from a two-goal deficit and stung the Blues 3-2.

That was just on Tuesday. Apparently it was so good, they're going to do it again this Saturday, same arena and all.

Two teams playing each other twice in one week isn't rare in hockey. Happens a lot of weekends actually with home-and-home series. But playing twice in one week in the same city? Unless we're in the playoffs, not that common. But the Red Wings won't mind, I'm sure.

In hockey, home-ice advantage doesn't compare all that well to home-court advantage in the NBA, for example. Most teams fare better at home, but it's not as much of a lock as basketball. However for the Red Wings, it is. After beating the Blues on Tuesday, Detroit has won 11 consecutive games at the Joe. Overall this season, the Wings are 14-2-1 at home.

And they want to get rid of that place, huh?

Then again, it's probably a lot more about the team on the ice than where the ice is located, huh? I mean any team that has Pavel Datsyuk has to be good.

The three-time Selke winner and Russian stick wizard took the first-star honors after Tuesday's win, scoring a goal on a fantastic redirection and setting up Detroit's first goal of the game.

The year began a little slowly for Datsyuk -- he didn't score his third goal of the season until No. 19 -- but he's back to old tricks. For the most part, I mean that literally for that's what you think you're seeing when Datsyuk is playing the puck, trickery. He's been in the NHL since 2001 but he still leaves people amazed.

Detroit will be looking for a bit more of that amazing this weekend. Obviously their battles with the Blues have grown this season with St. Louis taking off under Ken Hitchcock. The two teams are separated by only one point in the standings and it sure seems like neither team will go away this season. So all of the head-to-head games are big with the points up for grabs.

If the rematch comes close to being a repeat of the meeting earlier this week, it might still be one the best game this weekend.

Friday night's alright in the Central

That's not the only big interdivision matchup in the Central Division this weekend. Both the Blues and Red Wings have massive matchups on Friday night, including the season's first Blackhawks-Red Wings matchup.

Hard to believe that the Oilers and Wild have already played each other six times while the Blackhawks and Red Wings have yet to renew acquaintances, but that's the case. Until Friday, at least.

This is the matchup in a very good Central. The two top dogs, big rivals and true Stanley Cup threats. It begins Friday in Chicago.

Meanwhile, the Blues will be tangling with the Nashville Predators in what has become a very nice -- or should I say not nice? -- rivalry in its own right.

These two Friday night showdowns pit four of the West's top six teams against one another (Nashville is tied with the Sharks and Kings with 42 points). More importantly, they are all fighting within the same division.

It's going to be a great weekend of hockey in the Midwest.

B's buzzing

At this point it's beyond absurd. The Boston Bruins are in the middle of one of the best stretches in the history of the NHL, and that's not hyperbole. In their last 24 games, Boston is an astounding 21-2-1, including the current seven-game win streak they take to Dallas.

In that time they have obliterated opponents. Eleven of those 21 wins were by a margin of three goals or more. By anybody's definition of dominant, the Bruins fit the bill.

Now they head to Dallas to face the Stars and get a glimpse of an old pal in Michael Ryder. The Stars forward was part of the Stanley Cup champs last season before migrating to Texas in the summer. The Bruins he played for were very good obviously, but not even that team was ever this great.

Of the many amazing things about the Bruins, one is the fact that not one of their players appears in the top 30 of the NHL in points. You have to go to No. 33 on the list to find Tyler Seguin. That's all in spite of the fact that the Bruins have the most productive offense in the league with 3.47 goals per game. Talk about balance. As Stars center Steve Ott would say "look at NHL.com."

Classic tuneup

While the Philadelphia Flyers are already back in the City of Brotherly Love and waiting to play in Citizen's Bank Park on Monday for the Winter Classic, their foes are making one stop in sunny South Florida first.

The New York Rangers, fresh off a 4-1 loss in Washington to the Capitals, would love to take a win with them into Philly for the game, so they'll take a crack at the Florida Panthers. It's the third meeting between the two teams this season, the most recent a Rangers demolishing of the Panthers in Madison Square Garden. The first meeting came in Sunrise and went to the Panthers.

The good news for Florida is that Stephen Weiss is a game-time decision. The top-line center has missed the past couple of games while the Panthers have made due with almost two lines worth of AHL forwards.

The game is just about as big for the Panthers as it is the Rangers. Florida has been atop the Southeast Division for most of the season, but the Winnipeg Jets have crawled to within four points of the 'Cats for the division lead.

Happy New Year!

Typically, the Winter Classic has been the first game played in the new year in recent seasons. Not this year.

Because of the final Sunday of the NFL season falls on Jan. 1, the Winter Classic -- and majority of the NHL schedule -- has been pushed back to Monday, Jan. 2. But one game will be played on Sunday.

The Calgary Flames will visit the Predators and the two will have the (meaningless) honor of being the first teams to play in 2012. Ring it in, boys.

We're going streaking!

Here are the streaks, good and bad, entering the weekend. Not a whole lot.

Bruins: As mentioned, take that seven-game win streak into Dallas.

Vancouver Canucks: The other Stanley Cup Finalist last season is almost as hot as the Bruins. The Canucks have won three in a row and seven of the last 10. They have a date with the Kings in L.A. on Saturday.

Phoenix Coyotes: Phoenix heads to face the Minnesota Wild as losers of four straight games. The good news? The fourth-place Coyotes are still only two points behind first-place San Jose in the Pacific.

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: December 11, 2011 4:34 pm
Edited on: December 11, 2011 4:55 pm
 

Weekend Wrap: Just stop it, Brian Elliott

By Brian Stubits

There was concern going into this season for the people in St. Louis regarding the team's goaltending situation. Jaroslav Halak had been subpar in his first year with the Blues, exacerbating the need for a quality backup should things not improve.

So with the choices on the board, who did they sign? Brian Elliott, a castoff by both the Senators and Avalanche. His signing was so underwhelming that there was no guarantee he would even open the season with the Blues. There was an honest-to-goodness competition for the second goalie spot between he and young Blues prospect Ben Bishop.

If you've been paying attention to the first third-plus of the season, then you know how that competition turned out. But it's my duty to pretend that my readers are dumb and don't know a thing (sorry people) so I'll just tell you that Elliott won out.

And he's been winning ever since.

Despite being the "backup" to Halak, Elliott is tied for the league lead in shutouts after Saturday's blanking of the San Jose Sharks. He also leads the league with his jaw-dropping save percentage (.947) and goals against average (1.45).

"I'm satisfied, but I'm not too high on myself," Elliott said after the 1-0 victory on Saturday. "Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you don't."

Truth is, he has had to be that good. The Blues aren't exactly scoring like their division foes in Detroit.

While the coaching change from Davis Payne has worked wonders for the Blues and Halak, it would be unfair to credit Elliott's success to that, too. He was outstanding before the change, he's been just as excellent after it.

It's rather amazing when you think where he came from. As we mentioned, his signing was just a little underwhelming and uninspiring. Why? Consider that last season he played for both the Senators and Avalanche after a mid-season trade, a straight goalie swap for Craig Anderson. For the whole season, Elliott was 15-27-9, including 2-8-1 with the Avs. That .947 save percentage this season? Last season it was .893.

That's quite a turnaround. It's not like he's just become suitable this season, he's been outstanding. You could make the argument that he's been the MVP for the Blues this season. Honestly, I have a hard time making an argument for anybody but Elliott considering Hitchcock isn't a player.

"He seems to always be our best player in the third period," said Kevin Shattenkirk, who scored the only goal in the game. "When we're up by a goal, he's always there to make a huge save."

He had to make 11 saves in the third against the Sharks to preserve the win, obviously with no room for error.

I can't say that Elliott is the reason why the Blues are knocking on the Blackhawks' and Red Wings' doors in the Central. It would obviously neglect a lot of other factors at play. But Elliott could very well be at the top of that list.

Power boost

The Washington Capitals had one of the worst power-play units going into Friday night. The Toronto Maple Leafs had one of the worst penalty-killing units. Advantage: Capitals.

Among a lot of the concerns surround the Capitals, one was the power play's struggles. They had recently just gone through an 0-for-17 streak -- or skid, if you'd prefer. Then the Caps scored all four goals in a 4-2 win over Toronto on Friday with the man up.

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Originally three were credited to Dennis Wideman with an assist on the fourth goal, but it was reviewed at Wideman's request on Saturday and the hat trick was taken away. But for a night at least, Wideman had the first hat trick by a Capitals defenseman in more than a decade (Sergei Gonchar in 2000).

But more immediately, there is hope that the Capitals might have found some hope for the man-up. Of course, the opposite side of the coin is that it came against the Leafs.

There is no doubt that the PK continues to be the Achilles' heel for Toronto. After Friday's awful showing, the Leafs are above only the Blue Jackets in successful PKs at 74.3 percent.

Bachman overdrive

When it was announced that the Dallas Stars would be without Kari Lehtonen for some time due to injury, Stars fans were right to be worried at the process of Andrew Raycroft getting more time. Not a reason for much optimism.

However Richard Bachman is. The rookie got his first start of his NHL career on Saturday and he turned in a great effort, holding the Kings to one goal for the 2-1 Dallas win.

With the win, he likely earned himself a start for the Stars' next game Tuesday at the Rangers.

"He's a competitive guy, and he's pretty clean when it comes to rebounds," said coach Glen Gulutzan, who coached the former Colorado College goalie in the minors last season. "I just told him when he went out there, `It's the same game that you've been playing.' He has that ability, and he's going through the natural progression. He deserves another start, and most likely we'll give him that opportunity and see if he can run with it."

The two points put the Stars back on top of the Pacific Division, which has been surprising this season, and not so much in a good way. The Stars and Coyotes are tied atop the division, but they are each 10 points behind the top team in the West, the Wild. If the division winners weren't awarded the one of the top three seeds, the Stars would be the sixth seed.

On the other bench ...

What's going on with the L.A. Kings? I'll tell you one thing, Terry Murray can't be feeling very comfortable with his job these days.

There was so much hope coming into this season for the Kings. They had been growing every season, they added Mike Richards. It appeared the Kings were on their way to their best season since the days of Gretzky.

They still could be, but they'll have to right the ship in a hurry. Would you believe that there is no team in the NHL worse at scoring goals than Los Angeles? Its 2.21 goals per game ranks at the bottom of the NHL< including below the Ducks in nearby Anaheim. Nothing like low-scoring games to sell hockey in SoCal.

When your cross-town rival makes a move firing its coach and you are being booed off the ice, it's time to wonder if the end is in sight for Murray.

The Wings are good

Just in case you missed that memo.

I was getting ready to start talking about the Winnipeg Jets and how they were extremely quietly inching their way up the Eastern Conference. Then they went to Detroit and were railroaded.

The Red Wings had seven goals from six different scorers -- and none of them was Pavel Datsyuk. It was Detroit's ninth straight win at home where they are 12-2-1 this season. Those are the most wins at home for any team this season.

Some things never change.

One-sided rivalry

What is it about the Battle of Alberta that the Oilers are having so many problems with?

Half of the season's six games have been played between the Oilers and Calgary Flames this season, and the boys from Edmonton have yet to pick up a single point. Against the rest of the NHL, the Oilers are 14-10-3.

The most recent rendition of the provincial rivalry saw Jarome Iginla flash some of his old form with a pair of goals and the Flames took the game 3-0.

Most everybody would agree that the Oilers are likely the better team between the two, but they just can't beat their neighbors. I guess that's why they play the game (well that and winning, right Herm?).

Quote of the weekend

If I were to take a poll of NHL fans who have the Center Ice package which announcer is the biggest homer around? I think it would be a two-horse race between Paul Steigerwald in Pittsburgh and Bruins play-by-play announcer Jack Edwards.

So for this week's QOTW, we're going to take a light-hearted look at a call from Edwards in the Bruins' win over the Blue Jackets.

On the play, Derek Dorsett is driving toward the net to try and beat Tim Thomas, but his shot attempt is stopped and he then goes skidding into the boards. Here is Edwards' call, you might be surprised (like me).

Yes, that is Edwards rather vehemently arguing against a penalty that went on an opposing player. Clearly he was right, in no way, shape or form was that goaltender interference. If anything, it was interference from Tomas in the form of a trip on Dorsett, who was a bit worse for the ware afterward.

Before you jump down my throat, calm down. I have no problems with local announcers catering to the home team, that is their audience. But sometimes it goes overboard and is comical. So when I hear somebody this adamant in another team's defense, it's "ear-catching."

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: November 30, 2011 1:48 pm
 

Blues have that winning itch with Hitch on bench

By Brian Stubits

WASHINGTON -- When a team fires a coach midseason, what the St. Louis Blues are doing is exactly what that team is hoping for.

It was 11 games ago that the Blues fired head coach Davis Payne and brought in former Stanley Cup-winning coach Ken Hitchcock to fill his spot. Since then the Blues, once seemingly meandering, are now dominating. How else would you describe an 8-1-2 record under his watch?

They aren't flashy, they don't have any real superstars. So unless you've been paying really close attention, it might catch you by surprise that the Blues sit only one point behind the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild for the best record in the Western Conference. But Surprise! They do.

The team has taken to Hitch like a fish to water. The same can't be said for the Hitchcock to the team. He has been around the NHL a while, but there was still plenty to learn.

"It's been a wee bit of a whirlwind," Hitchcock said. "But at least I know how to get to the rink so I'm doing good." That after getting lost for the first five days on the job.

"I think the two things was that surprised me was that we took two penalties and I didn't even afford myself enough time to put my head up and see who was in the box," Hitchcock said before Tuesday's game. "I knew somebody in our sweater was over there, but I didn't know the numbers. That's when I came home and said, 'Man, I got to get going here.' I would go home and visualize rotations, visualize numbers. I spend at least 30 minutes at home just visualizing how I want to match lines, how I want to get the right people out at the right times."

Well, so far so good. More like so far so great.

"We're starting to dial in and playing the way we need to play to win hockey games," Hitchcock said. "Doesn't matter who's in or who's out, when you play this well it's a good feeling."

Here's where I point out they are doing with defense. Considering who their new coach is, is anybody surprised by that? If you are, you haven't followed Hitchcock's career very much. This could as well be his motto: "The only way you can play defense in the league is you've got to sustain forecheck." That was Hitchcock after Tuesday's 2-1 win in Washington.

The Blues have the best defense in hockey right now. They are allowing the fewest goals per game in the league (2.00). They are only surrendering an average of 25.1 shots per game --including only 19 to the Capitals -- 1.5 shots fewer than No. 2 Detroit.

Statistically, the Blues were already doing a good job with Payne when it came to shots against and overall defense. It's just they are doing even better now under Hitch.

"We're still working through some things," T.J. Oshie said. "Those first few games, everyone is playing for a new coach and everyone's trying to make a good first impression and work hard and it seems like we haven't taken our feet of the gas since then."

One player who has floored it and taken off speeding since Hitchcock arrived is goaltender Jaroslav Halak. In his first season-plus in St. Louis since coming over from Montreal was less than superb. To put it frankly, he was one of the worst starting goaltenders in the NHL.

But check this out. In his last seven starts, Halak has a 1.57 goals against average and .937 save percentage. Now he's almost plays as well as fellow goalie Brian Elliott who has been, without a doubt for me, the most surprising individual player this season.

So when it comes to his goaltenders, Hitchcock doesn't have much to worry about. Just a little concern with Halak.

"The only time that we're nervous is when he has the puck," Hitchcock said of Halak. "So when he has the puck we're all nervous. We've got to fix that. But he's solid, he's been good, both goalies have been great. I trust both of them. But we've got to clean up Jaro when he goes out to play the puck because there's miscommunication there. If we can clean that up, he can have a really big impact on us winning games."

A lot of people think that if you have two goalies you really have none, like the old adage about quarterbacks in football. In most cases, that is true. It's usually because the starter is struggling and a coach is looking for the best fit. In St. Louis they have two because right now neither deserves to come off the ice.

It really seems that Hitchcock is having a really big impact on the entire team winning games. You can't argue with results.

"The first three games felt quick. One of the reasons it did is that, I've never had a card. I carry a card now because I'm still getting used to the players," Hitchcock said. "Here's it's like get behind the bench and get coaching. So I think it's hard. I think it's a lot harder than I said it was and a lot harder than I thought it was."

His team is sure making it look easy.

"I think first game it was pretty simple," Oshie said about the change in coaches. "Getting pucks behind the dmen and getting as many shots on the net and things like that. We're still working a few things out. Other than that, it's going really well."

Hard to argue.

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: November 13, 2011 3:21 pm
Edited on: November 13, 2011 9:31 pm
 

Weekend Wrap: Where was the Sabres' response?

By Brian Stubits

Results: Friday | Saturday

Let's start with the shot heard 'round the world from Saturday night.

Early in the Bruins' 6-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres (their fifth straight win for those keeping track at home) Milan Lucic found himself chasing down a puck on a breakaway. Ryan Miller found himself in the tough position of playing the puck before Lucic or waiting for the breakaway attempt. Miller chose option A and the following was the result.

The play had Miller peeved. He gave the hockey world a contender for quote of the year after the game when he was asked about any injury he might have sustained on the play.

"I'm not really going to get into that," Miller said. "I just stuck around because I wanted to say what a piece of [feces] I think Lucic is. Fifty pounds on me, and he runs me like that? It's unbelievable. Everyone in this city sees him as a big, tough, solid player. I respected him for how hard he plays. That was gutless. Gutless. Piece of [feces]."

Of course seeing their goalie get trucked by Lucic was tough for the Sabres to see. But maybe the biggest problem of the day for them is why didn't it look like it bothered them? Lucic was given maybe a nudge or two. That's why he skated to the penalty box with a smirk on his face that would have made the Grinch proud.

His comment after the game must have been equally as cutting.

"You know, we wouldn't accept anything like that," Lucic said. "We would have [taken] care of business. But we're a different team than they are."

Ouch. That's pouring salt squarely onto the wound.

The worst part, though, was the Sabres knew they didn't respond in the right away. Paul Gaustad was embarrassed with how his team reacted immediately after the play. And he was on the ice.

"I can do more. I'm embarrassed that we didn't respond the way we should have," Gaustad said. "It falls on myself. I look at myself first, and I wasn't good enough.

More on Bruins-Sabres

"We didn't push back. There's no reason to be scared. We had to go after it, and we didn't."

The only player who seemed genuinely intent on getting back at Lucic was Miller himself. He took a swing with his stick as Lucic went by after the hit and then was restrained by a linesman and was left to shout -- presumably -- some obscenities at Lucic when he was escorted to the box.

I can't help but think back to a quote from last week from John Vogl of the Buffalo News. He said a player on the team told him the Sabres weren't playing as hard in front of Miller as they are for Jhonas Enroth. The general consensus on that was that it was because Miller is so good and the team has grown a bit complacent in front of him. This lack of response and that quote from Vogl could still not be linked, but it makes you wonder.

What I do know is that coach Lindy Ruff wasn't too pleased with his team's response either. He was reportedly hot in the team meeting on Sunday and left the building without speaking to the media, instead responding "[Bleep] the media" when informed reporters were waiting to talk to him.

I can't agree more with the crowd saying the Sabres showed no spine in response to the play. It was no coincidence that the game got away from the Sabres in a hurry after that and the Bruins went on to the 6-2 rout. You have to stand up for your goalie when he gets trucked like this. It's standard procedure to get in a guy's face when a goalie gets a snow shower, let alone a big hit like this.

Should Miller have made this play? Probably not. If you venture into the jungle, expect you might get bit. Either way, he certainly wasn't expecting a hit like that. Lucic saw a golden opportunity to hit a goalie and took advantage of it. It's like anytime a quarterback throws an interception, all the defenders are looking for a chance to lay the quarterback out with a big shot in the name of blocking.

But that doesn't mean that it was a legal play by Lucic. Here is what Rule 69.4 states specifically:

69.4 Contact Outside the Goal Crease - If an attacking player initiates any contact with a goalkeeper, other than incidental contact, while the goalkeeper is outside his goal crease, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.

A goalkeeper is not “fair game” just because he is outside the goal crease. The appropriate penalty should be assessed in every case where an attacking player makes unnecessary contact with the goalkeeper. However, incidental contact will be permitted when the goalkeeper is in the act of playing the puck outside his goal crease provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such unnecessary contact.

When a goalkeeper has played the puck outside of his crease and is then prevented from returning to his crease area due to the deliberate actions of an attacking player, such player may be penalized for goalkeeper interference. Similarly, the goalkeeper may be penalized, if by his actions outside of his crease he deliberately interferes with an attacking player who is attempting to play the puck or an opponent.

When the Bruins meet the Sabres again, we could be looking at a slugfest. Buffalo will look at that game as a chance for retribution. Hey, better late than never, I suppose.

Russian rut

Alexander Semin is one of the more talented players in the NHL, speaking strictly on a matter of offensive skill. It was only two seasons ago that he had 40 goals and 44 assists in 73 games for the Capitals.

But he's also a player that's been singled out for not caring. That was an offseason storyline after former teammate Matt Bradley basically said as much. Funny how there weren't many Caps fans and media rushing to defend Semin for the slight. I think many actually agreed with Bradley.

But that was the offseason. This season isn't going much better for the 27-year-old Russian. He's off to a very slow start by his standards with three goals and five assists in 15 games. He's also a minus-1 and has a team-high 11 minor penalties this season. It seems they have all been some sort of stick penalty (mostly tripping) in the offensive zone.

With coach Bruce Boudreau on an accountability kick this year, it has led to some reduced time for Semin. So much so that he was benched in Washington's 2-1 win on Friday night against the Devils. He only logged 8:25 of ice time according to the official stats.

He did see a return to some normal ice time in Saturday's 3-2 loss to New Jersey as Boudreau doesn't seem to want to bury his star's confidence.

“I thought he tried really hard. You're not going to keep benching him and benching him and benching him,” Boudreau said after Saturday's game. “He got a penalty early -- he went for the puck. That wasn't a lazy penalty.

“You guys are getting the wrong impression: The penalties are part of why he didn't play [Friday], but it wasn't the whole reason. He just wasn't playing very well, and we wanted to win the game. So we went with what we thought were the nine best players at the time. Everybody assumes it's because he took two penalties. He was still playing after he took the two penalties.”

Semin declined to talk to reporters after the game on Saturday, both the English-speaking media and the Russian-speaking crowd.

This is getting to be an interesting situation in Washington. Semin is obviously gifted, that is not in dispute. He is a free agent after this season. If things don't improve not only on the ice but off of it, it will be interesting to see how interested the Caps will be in bringing him back, particularly with the money he will likely command. He is making $6.7 million this season.

Rangers rolling

It was such a pedestrian start for the Rangers this season. They were 3-3-3, were still having troubles scoring and the addition of Brad Richards didn't seem to make a difference.

Then coach John Tortorella got this crazy idea to switch up the lines and split the tandem of Richards and Marian Gaborik that had New York fans dreaming big before the season began. Wouldn't you know it's worked. The Rangers are on fire these days, dumping the Hurricanes 5-2 on Friday night for their sixth straight win.

I'm starting to think the Rangers like their plush new (or renovated) digs at Madison Square Garden. They are now 5-1-1 at home this season. That's their best start since 1992-93..

Oh, and the Rangers are 4-0-0 with Sean Avery back in the lineup, outscoring their opponents 16-6 in those games. He scored his first goal of the season Friday. Just sayin'.

It's all in the Hitch

The Ken Hitchcock era is off to a nice and somewhat predictable start in St. Louis.

In the three games the Blues have played under their new coach, they have two shutouts, including Saturday's 3-0 blanking of the Tampa Bay Lightning. In those three games, they have earned five of the six possible points.

We all had an idea that the Blues would get better defensively and thus would have better goaltending under Hitchcock, but this quickly? I'd like to credit it more to the wakeup call of a coach being fired and a new one leading them than anything tangible at this point.

Either way, victorious goaltender Brian Elliott was pleased.

"That was the complete game we've been wanting," Elliott said. "Everybody was hustling. Everybody was working hard. No one took a shift off."

Veteran's Day surprise

We return to Boston for maybe the best moment of the weekend.

Before the game at TD Garden on Saturday night, the Bruins, honoring a family of an active soldier in Afghanistan, helped offer a special surprise. When the parents of the soldier came out to drop the ceremonial first puck, the Bruins announced there was a surprise and they were soon reunited with their son, on leave from Afghanistan.

It's hard not to get a little choked up watching that, it's a great moment brought to us by the Bruins.

I'm a sucker for these reunion videos. I got lost one day going through all the videos at the Welcome Home blog. It's chicken soup for the soul type of stuff, especially on Veteran's Day. I'd just like to say thank you once again to any vets out there reading.

Not Flame retardant

Nature isn't the only place where a flame will conquer snow any day of the week. It appears to be a law of hockey too.

The Colorado Avalanche just can't beat the Calgary Flames, no matter where the game is played. On Saturday the Avs failed for the eighth straight time trying to beat their division rivals, and that was with one spirited comeback.

Miikka Kiprusoff is as composed as any goalie in the league when he's under pressure. Just see the final minute of the 4-3 on Saturday as an example. The final minute was incredibly intense and Kiprusoff didn't look like he was trying to hang on to the tenuous lead; he had the poise of a goalie with an 8-1 edge.

Meanwhile the Avalanche, after that 5-1-0 start have now fallen back to 8-8-1 with their seventh loss in nine games.

Quote of the week

First of all, we all know it's Miller's quote referenced above. But consider this the Miller-less category.

It's hard to pick just one, but all my choices are coming from Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo. To say the he has been unimpressed with his team the last few outings would be pretty accurate. This quote came on the heels of the 5-2 loss to the Kings on Saturday.

"Like, we think we’re there. We’re not even close," Yeo said (courtesy of Michael Russo at the Minneapolis Star Tribune). "Like, we think we’re good enough yet, that because we won five games in a row that we’re there. It’s not even close. We said this when we were winning these games. We’re not there. We along the way forgot what we have to put in to winning hockey games.”

It sounds to me like a coach who is trying to bring his team back down to Earth after a great stretch of games, that Yeo sensed his team needed a little humbling.

Photo: US Presswire

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

Posted on: November 8, 2011 11:11 pm
Edited on: November 8, 2011 11:16 pm
 

Halak records shutout in Hitchcock debut

HalakBy: Adam Gretz

Surely it's going to take more than 48 hours for Ken Hitchcock to put his stamp on the St. Louis Blues, but it was a promising debut on Tuesday night as his new team picked up the type of win one might expect for a Hitchcock-coached team -- a grinding 3-0 shutout.

It was a much needed win not only for the Blues, a team that entered the night a game under .500, but also for struggling goaltender Jaroslav Halak who was given the start in one of Hitchcock's first moves as the team's new bench boss.

Halak, the starting goaltender in St. Louis since the start of last season when he was acquired in a trade from the Montreal Canadiens, has been mired in a dreadful slump to start the year and came into the night with one of the worst save percentages in the NHL. His backup, Brian Elliott, has outplayed him from the start of the season.

Against Chicago, however, it was a completely different story as Halak played what was arguably his best game of the season turning aside all 29 shots he faced for his first shutout of the year.

Given Hitchcock's career track record as a defense-first coach, and considering how much better goaltenders have played for him throughout their careers, Halak could prove to be a beneficiary of the coaching change in St. Louis over the long-term. Granted, Tuesday's game probably had little to do with that given how little time St. Louis has spent with its new coach, but it's definitely a good start.

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: November 8, 2011 4:25 pm
Edited on: November 29, 2011 5:34 pm
 

Ken Hitchcock's defensive influence

Hithcock1Pucks and Numbers: a weekly statistical look at what's happening around the NHL. This week: A look at the defensive improvement teams and goaltenders have seen under the coaching of new St. Louis Blues bench boss Ken Hitchcock.

By: Adam Gretz


Ken Hitchcock was recently named head coach of the St. Louis Blues, taking over for Davis Payne in what was the NHL's first coaching change of the 2011-12 season. 

Throughout his coaching career Hitchcock has developed a reputation for being one of the best defensive coaches at the NHL level. It's a reputation he's earned during three different stops with the Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets, a tenure that's seen him win over 530 games, reach the Stanley Cup Finals twice (winning one) and coach in the Conference Finals four times.

In the 10 full seasons he's coached in the NHL, his teams have finished in the top six in goals allowed seven times, including two seasons at the top of the NHL -- once with the Dallas Stars during the 1998-99 season, and once with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2002-03. It also helps that Hitchcock's teams are typically among the best in the NHL at not allowing shots on goal. Since 1997-98, every team he's coached for a full season, including those in Columbus, has finished in the top-nine in terms of allowing the fewest shots on goal in the NHL, with seven of them finishing in the top-six.

Of course, some of that defensive success comes from the fact that some of those teams, particularly the ones in Dallas, were loaded with defensemen like Richard Matvichuk, Derian Hatcher, Daryl Sydor and Sergei Zubov, as well as a three-time Selke winner in Jere Lehtinen. But every team he's coached, whether it's been in Dallas, Philadelphia or Columbus, has been a difficult team to score against, no matter what players have made up his defense or filled the net. And goalies seem to play better for his teams than at any other point in their careers.

Just looking at the season's that he coached a full season, here's a look at each team's overall save percentage (compared to the league average) and where they've ranked in total goals allowed:

Ken Hitchcock Defensive Record (Full Season Coaching Only)
Team Year Save Percentage League Avg. Dif. Goals All. Rank
Dallas Stars 1996-97 .906 .905 +.001 3rd
Dallas Stars 1997-98 .913 .906 +.007 2nd
Dallas Stars 1998-99 .915 .908 +.007 1st
Dallas Stars 1999-00 .920 .904 +.016 3rd
Dallas Stars 2000-01 .910 .903 +.007 2nd
Philadelphia Flyers 2002-03 .920 .903 +.017 1st
Philadelphia Flyers 2003-04 .912 .911 +.001 6th
Philadelphia Flyers 2005-06 .896 .901 -.005 17th
Columbus Blue Jackets 2007-08 .910 .909 +.001 9th
Columbus Blue Jackets 2008-09 .906 .908 -.002 9th

In eight of Hitchcock's 10 full seasons, his team has posted a save percentage above the league average, and in some cases significantly above the league average. And while it's true he's had some strong goaltenders over the years, he also had the best defensive team in the NHL in 2002-03 with a Flyers team that used Roman Cechmanek and Robert Esche as its two primary goaltenders.

But what about the individual goalies? How much of a boost do they see while playing in what has traditionally been a tight-checking, defense-first style of play?

When looking at Steve Mason's recent struggles in Columbus I made mention of how much better he performed during his rookie season, when Hitchcock was in charge, and how his play rapidly dropped following Hitchcock's exit from central Ohio. Let's look at seven goalies that spent significant time playing under Hitchcock's systems and saw an improvement in how they performed within them, compared to how they performed under other coaches throughout their careers.

Goalies With Hitchcock vs. Without
Player Team Save % With Save % Without Dif
Steve Mason Columbus Blue Jackets .908 .895 +.013
Pascal Leclaire Columbus Blue Jackets .908 .900 +.008
Robert Esche Philadelphia Flyers .905 .890 +.015
Roman Cechmanek Philadelphia Flyers .925 .916 +.009
Ed Belfour Dallas Stars .909 .904 +.005
Marty Turco Dallas Stars .922 .908 +.014
Roman Turek Dallas Stars .910 .906 +.004

Good news for Jaroslav Halak, perhaps?The Blues' goalie has been off to a dreadful start to the 2011-12 season (and has been outplayed by backup Brian Elliott) and if there's a goaltender in the league that could use any sort of a positive boost right now, it's definitely Halak, who gets the start on Tuesday night in Hitchcock's debut against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Photo: Getty Images

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

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