Tag:Jaroslav Halak
Posted on: December 3, 2011 11:40 am
Edited on: December 3, 2011 11:45 am
 

Halak's overtime save fooled everybody

By: Adam Gretz

Fun times in Colorado on Friday night, as the Avalanche picked up a 3-2 win in a shootout over Ken Hitchcock's St. Louis Blues.

Before it could get to that point, however, the Avs thought they had a win in overtime when a bouncing puck off the stick of Ryan O'Byrne made its way behind Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak, which was then called a goal by the on-ice official, sparking an Avalanche victory celebration, complete with the goal horn going off and all of the Avalanche players rushing off the bench to greet their teammates to celebrate what appeared to be a game-winning goal.

The only problem is the puck never crossed the goal line, and the only person in the building that didn't believe it was a goal appeared to be Halak, and after review, it was correctly ruled no-goal.



Fortunately for the Avalanche they were able to get the win in the shootout, because it would have been extremely frustrating to lose a game just minutes after celebrating what you thought was a win.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz 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 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: November 1, 2011 2:32 pm
 

Handing out some first month grades

octgrades

By: Adam Gretz

The first month of the NHL season is in the books and we're still trying to figure out which teams are good, which teams are bad and which hot start is for real and which one is simply an early season mirage. Let's check in with a progress report on some notable players and teams for the month of October.

Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs: Let's pretend, just hypothetically, that Phil Kessel is able stay near the top of the NHL's scoring list all.

Now, you shouldn't expect him to maintain his current pace (his shooting percentage is currently 26 percent -- that's probably not sustainable for a full season), but what if he were to do something completely unexpected like, say, win the NHL's scoring title and help lead the Maple Leafs to the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. Would that do anything to change your opinion of the the trade that brought him to Toronto? Should it? Brian Burke has already said Boston won the trade because it has a Stanley Cup, but that trade -- which landed the Bruins two first-round draft picks, including a No. 2 overall selection used on Tyler Seguin, and a second-round pick -- had little to do with that championship. Seguin played about 12 minutes a game and scored 11 goals during the regular season, and only appeared in two postseason series. It's not like he was the driving force behind that cup run. The steep price Toronto paid still overshadow the fact that Kessel is a pretty darn good (three straight years of 30-plus goals) player and still only 24 years of age.

Even if he doesn't maintain this current pace he's been the most dangerous offensive player in the NHL this season and one of the biggest reasons the Maple Leafs are off to their best start in a decade, and that's worthy of a top-grade for the first month.

Other players and teams earning A's for the month of October

Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings) -- had one of the best months of any goaltender in the NHL, including three consecutive shutouts; James Neal (Pittsburgh Penguins) -- for a Penguins team that continues to deal with injuries, Neal has been their best overall player and looks to be the young goal-scoring winger they've been searching for for years; Nikolai Khabibulin (Edmonton Oilers) -- He leads the NHL in save percentage and goals against average for what has been, so far, the toughest team in the NHL to score against; and the Dallas Stars -- winners of eight of their first 11 games, thanks in large part to the play of Kari Lehtonen.

Ottawa Senators: For the first two weeks of the season the Ottawa Senators looked to be every bit as awful as they were expected to be.

Over the next two weeks? They won six games in a row and end the month two game over .500. Even through the awful stretch to start the season the Senators were impressive with their determination to never quit in a game, regardless of the score, resulting in acouple of late come-from-behind victories (against Minnesota and the Rangers).

They've been outscored 27-15 over the first two periods but have outscored their opponents 21-18 in the third period. It's not likely they'll be able to continue to rely on huge third period comebacks to get wins, and they're going to have to start getting some better starts in games so they're not constantly trying to play catch up, but a 7-5 record at this point is more than could have (or should have) been expected.

Other players and teams earning B's for the month of October

Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators) -- He's been the best player on a Nashville team that is losing the possession battle just about every single night and is facing more shots than any other goaltender in the league. He's keeping the Predators in it while they search for some offense; Jaromir Jagr (Philadelphia Flyers) -- Three years away from the NHL and at 39 years of age Jagr opened the season and showed everybody that he can still play at the highest level with a point-per-game pace for the Flyers.

Detroit Red Wings: The A-plus honor student that brings home the rare and unexpected C. You know they can do better, and you expect them to do better. (And they will do better.) But after starting the season 5-0 the Red Wings dropped four in a row by a combined margin of 16-4. That streak includes a 7-1 thrashing at the hands of the Washington Capitals, a game that was followed by a 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets for their first victory of the season. Their defense definitely took a hit when Brian Rafalski retired over the summer, and they're not the defensive stalwart they were a few years ago, but they should be better than they've looked over the first month.

Other players and teams earning C's for the month of October

Montreal Canadiens -- Injuries to their defense, as well as top forward Michael Cammalleri, didn't help, but a rather uninspiring start for the Canadiens that only started to turn around when an assistant coach was forced to take the fall.

Ville Leino, Buffalo Sabres: Terry Pegula spent a ton of money this summer in an effort to make the Sabres a Stanley Cup contender, and one of his biggest investments, Ville Leino, has been a complete non-factor through the first month of the season. In 10 games the 28-year-old Leino has scored just one goal to go with one assist and has recorded just five shots on goal, or one every other game. He's definitely talented, but based on what he's actually produced at the NHL level the six-year, $27 million contract was, at the very least, one hell of a gamble. And so far it's a losing one.

Other plays and teams earning D's for the month of October

 Jaroslav Halak (St. Louis Blues) -- And he's probably right on the line between D and F. Let's just say this: the only goaltender in the NHL that has a worse save percentage entering November is Ottawa's backup, Alex Auld.

Columbus Blue Jackets: An offseason with such excitement and a season that seemed to have so much promise was opened with … the worst start in franchise history and the worst record in the NHL. There is obviously time to turn it around -- and I still believe the Jackets can -- and the two big offseason acquisitions have been limited so far, which isn't helping things. James Wisniewski was suspended for the first eight games of the regular season, while Jeff Carter, acquired from the Flyers, was limited to just five games in October due to a foot injury, scoring zero goals. Still … the worst start in franchise history?

Other players and teams earning F's for the month of October

The Boston Bruins -- Defending champs with the second-worst record in the league.

Photo: Getty Images

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

Central Division Preview: 'Hawks, Wings battle on

By Brian Stubits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central Division (in predicted order of finish)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: September 15, 2011 7:00 pm
Edited on: September 15, 2011 7:23 pm
 

Halak's mask features Demitra tribute

HalakBy: Adam Gretz

Pavol Demitra was one of the 37 players, coaches and staff members that lost his life in last week's tragic plane crash in Russia when the KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was traveling to what would have been its season opener. During his NHL career Demitra was one of the top Slovakian born players to ever play in the NHL, finishing with 768 points in 847 games with the Senators, Blues, Kings, Wild and Canucks, fifth among all players from Slovakia.

One of his fellow countrymen, St. Louis Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak, will be paying tribute to him on his goalie mask which will feature a backplate (pictured) that includes an image of Demitra celebrating a goal in front of the Slovakian flag. The artist, Jason Livery of Head Strong Grafx, provided some images to InGoal Magazine, including one of the backplate.

You can check out more over at their site.

Halak and Demitra were teammates during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver where Slovakia finished in fourth place, losing to Finland in the Bronze Medal Game by a 5-3 margin. Demitra finished as the leading scorer in the tournament, scoring three goals and adding seven assists in seven games.

Demitra played for the Blues between 1996 and 2004, scoring at least 20 goals for the team seven times, including three 30-goal seasons in 1998-99, 2001-02 and 2002-03.

Halak's mask is the second one in the past week to feature a tribute to players that passed away during this forgettable summer for hockey. Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding recently had a mask designed that also features a tribute on the backplate to Demitra, as well as Harding's former teammates Derek Boogaard (in Minnesota) and Rick Rypien (in Juniors).

Photo: InGoal Magazine

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

Posted on: July 28, 2011 10:35 am
 

Daily Skate: Preds, Weber prepare for arbitration

By Brian Stubits

ALWAYS BE PREPARED: Even though all other arbitration hearings haven't come to fruition so far (not counting Chris Campoli, who the Blackhawks decided to walk away from well before), Shea Weber and the Predators are both preparing for their battle (the Tennesseean). The chances still are good that a deal will be reached in time, but the sides maintain they aren't close right now. The arbitration meeting is set for Tuesday, Aug. 2, so expect things to stay at a stalemate until Monday. If they still go to arbitration, then Nashville has to take whatever award Weber gets since it filed for arbitration and it will only be a one- or two-year deal. You can see why the Preds would love to handle this on their own.

PITTSBURGH IS ON THE CLOCK? No site has been selected for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft yet, but Pittsburgh has stepped to the front of the table as the leader (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review). The city's main foe appears to be the Tampa Bay Lightning. Last year the draft was held in Minnesota. But that's not all the Penguins are up to in the middle of the summer. The team is also going to unveil a Mario Lemieux statue outside of the arena at some point before then. Certainly a worthy gesture.

GETTING WITH THE TIMES FORUM: Steven Stamkos got the most money from Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, but a close second is the St. Pete Times Forum. The team's new owner Jeff Vinik is serious about rebuilding the franchise, and one of those steps is rebuilding the arena. The Forum is in the process of receiving a $35 million facelift (St. Petersburg Times) to the arena which will feature a whole bunch of new and interesting aspects. You know the pirate ship at Tampa's football stadium? Well the Lightning are looking for something similar as far as a recognizable destination goes. The way team CEO Tod Leiweke put it: "we felt the building in some ways needed a soul."

BACKUP BLUE: When free agency began, the Blues got in the action by signing former Senators goaltender Brian Elliott. It wasn't long after that they re-signed massive (literally) prospect Ben Bishop to the same exact two-way contract as Elliott. Now the two are primed for a camp battle for the same spot. Pro Hockey Talk takes a look at the backup battle and notes its importance considering Jaroslav Halak played a career high in games last season and it was just 57. The backup will certainly be relied upon.

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

 
 
 
 
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