Posted on: October 5, 2011 12:20 pm
Edited on: October 5, 2011 12:43 pm
By: Adam Gretz
The biggest thing we're watching as the NHL gets ready to drop the puck on the 2011-12 season is when will Penguins captain Sidney Crosby be able return to the lineup?
The only answer to that question, of course, is simply "when he's ready," and not a moment sooner.
But when will that be? That's the question we've been asking since January, and even though it appears to be getting closer, and optimism about his return is higher than it's ever been since he was knocked out of the lineup on Jan. 6, he's not going to be on the ice when the Penguins open up in Vancouver on Thursday night, and he isn't likely to be cleared for contact until Pittsburgh returns from its season-opening trek through western Canada.
Perhaps just as important as when he returns, is whether or not he'll be the same player he was before he left. Prior to the injury Crosby's game had evolved over the previous two seasons to the point where he went from being a great set-up man to the Penguins' go-to goal-scorer, as well as their No. 1 option in the face-off circle. When he left the Penguins' lineup last season he was in the middle of the best year of his career and was on a pace to shatter just about all of his previous career highs.
Not only due to the length of his absence from the game and from contact, but also because of the nature of the injury, there has to be a question of how quickly he'll be able to be that player again.
So that's the big story we're watching this year, and here the other 49 of our 50 things to know, ask and watch for during the 2010-11 season…
2. CBA Talks: This likely won't be settled during the season, but it's still going to loom large and is the giant elephant sitting in the living room ready to make a huge stinking mess all over the couch and floor if you don't feed him on time. The NFL had its lockout come and go, missing only a couple of weeks of training camp and a meaningless preseason game, and the NBA lockout continues to roll on. And soon it will be the NHL's turn. The last time the league was in this situation we lost an entire season, so there's that to keep in mind. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball continues to have labor peace. What a strange world we live in.
3. Brendan Shanahan: The first question we have is whether or not Brendan Shanahan will get tired of making those videos? (We hope the answer is no; because they're great). The second question is whether or not the suspensions will continue at the same torrid pace we saw in the preseason, or if that was simply the "message sending" phase? And if so, will the players get the message?
4. Player safety debates: After a disturbingly dreadful summer that saw the untimely deaths of three young players, all of whom were fighters, the fighting debate reached an entirely new level, even though we don't know how -- or if -- the two were connected. Should all hits to the head be banned? Is no-touch icing long overdue? Crosby's concussion is the one everybody is talking about, but there's also Matthew Lombardi in Toronto and his recovery. Marc Staal, the top defenseman for the New York Rangers, is still having problems following the concussion he suffered late last season, and there's concern as to whether or not Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins will ever play in an NHL game again.
5. Winter Classic: The highlight of the NHL's regular season schedule takes place in Philadelphia between two bitter rivals, the Flyers and Rangers, on Jan. 2. It's the first time a New York team has appeared in the game, and the Flyers host it for the first time after losing to Boston in overtime back in 2010. Last year's game in Pittsburgh featured unseasonable warmth and rain, forcing a delay and some miserable ice conditions. Here's hoping Eastern Pennsylvania gives us better weather.
6. Winnipeg Jets return: The playoffs would be great for no other reason than to see a return of the Winnipeg Whiteout, but even though that seems like a long shot at this point their first taste of the NHL since 1996 should make every game at the MTS Centre have the feel of a Stanley Cup Final game.
7. Bruins repeat attempt: Over the past 20 years we've only seen two teams repeat as Stanley Cup Champions -- the 1991 and 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 1996 and 1997 Detroit Red Wings. The Bruins seem to have what it takes to return to the top of the NHL mountain.
8. Realignment decision: The NHL hasnt gone through a divisional realignment in over a decade but it appears to be coming. Detroit wants to go to the East and claims that it's been promised that it will happen, and Winnipeg should be headed to the west. What other changes -- if any -- will we see?
9. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: The No. 1 overall pick in the June draft is starting the season with the Edmonton Oilers after a strong preseason effort. Is it simply a nine-game look before he gets sent back to his Junior team, or does he make it through the entire season with the big club? Recent history is on his side for making a full-season stay with the Oilers.
10. The NBA lockout: No, this isn't specifically an NHL issue, but if the NBA lockout rolls into the regular season will the NHL gain more exposure because of it, and, perhaps more importantly, will the league be able to take advantage of that opportunity?
11. Life in Philly without Richards and Carter and with Bryzgalov: After a revolving door of mediocre goaltending and an endless list of questions about the position over the years, the Philadelphia Flyers went all in on Ilya Bryzgalov. And now there are some questions about how they'll be able to score after trading Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
12. Capitals' offensive/defensive balance: Last season the Washington Capitals went from a run-and-gun offensive juggernaut to a defensive-minded team that went from 15th in goals allowed per game the previous season all the way up to fourth. Can they find the happy medium this season and finally get over the playoff hump?
13. Nashville negotiations: It took the arbitration process to get Shea Weber signed to a one-year deal, and he's up for restricted free agency again this offseason. Even worse for the Predators is the upcoming unrestricted free agency of Ryan Suter. And don't forget starting goaltender, and last year's runner-up in the Vezina voting, Pekka Rinne. Two big-time defensemen, a top goalie and three massive contract questions for one of the NHL's most efficient franchises.
14. Doughty's new dough: Drew Doughty is now the third highest paid defensemen in the NHL on a yearly basis, and that means he's going to be expected to play like one of the top defensemen in the NHL. He's shown he's capable of it in the past, but his production regressed a bit last season. When you're making over $7 million a year that can no longer happen.
15. Sales of Dallas, Phoenix and St. Louis: We're still waiting for some sort of resolution to the three ownership sales that have dragged on for quite a while.
16. Year two of Boucher in Tampa Bay: In his debut season Guy Boucher took the Tampa Bay Lightning to within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals, and that surely has expectations high for his second year on the job.
17. New-look Sharks: Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi are gone. Martin Havlat and Brent Burns are in. Either San Jose and Minnesota are swapping rosters one trade at a time, or the Sharks feel these are the moves that can finally get them to kick through the door that has been the Western Conference Finals.
18. Perry's encore: OK, let's be honest, nobody had Corey Perry scoring 50 goals and leading the NHL last season, right? He's always been an excellent player -- and a frustrating one to play against, and an easy player to, let's say ... dislike, when he's not on your team-- but prior to last year he only topped the 30-goal mark once in his career. Logic says he returns closer to the 30-goal player he's always been. But logic also said he wouldn't score 50 goals last year.
19. Thomas, the Vezina and the Hart Trophy: Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas has won the Vezina Trophy two of the past three years, and would have to be the early season favorite to win it again. He's also set his sights on another major NHL award: The Hart Trophy. That one is going to be tough simply because goalies don't typically win that award. It's only happened seven times in the history of the league, and only three times since the league expanded beyond six teams -- Jose Theodore in 2002, and back-to-back wins for Dominik Hasek in 1997 and 1998.
20. First-year coaches: Is there a Guy Boucher rookie success story among the NHL's new head coaches, including first-year guys like Minnesota's Mike Yeo, Florida's Kevin Dineen, Winnipeg's Claude Noel and Ottawa's Paul MacLean?
21. Pegula-ville: Buffalo has always been a great hockey town, but these people are absolutely stoked about their new owner, and he went on a summer spending spree that topped just about every other team in the league. But will it pay off?
22. NHL starts in Europe: The Ducks, Sabres, Rangers and Kings are all opening their season in Europe. Will one of these teams lift Lord Stanley's Cup at the end of the season? Fun fact: In each of the past three seasons a team that started its season overseas ended up winning the Stanley Cup -- Pittsburgh in 2008, Chicago in 2009 and Boston in 2010.
23. Brodeur's last hurrah? Martin Brodeur has accomplished just about everything a goaltender can accomplish as a hockey player, but will this be his final year in the NHL? Back in April he hinted that it could be.
24. Rangers have a new star: Hello, Brad Richards. You're the latest free agent savior of the New York Rangers! Actually, after so many free agency failures over the years this might be one signing that really does pay off for blue shirts in a big way.
25. Islanders arena situation: What will come of the Islanders quest for a new -- and needed -- home? Is Brooklyn the answer?
26. Sophomore slumps: Do you believe in the Sophomore jinx? Personally, I don't, but I am curious to see what Carolina's Jeff Skinner and San Jose's Logan Couture have to offer in year two.
27. New Panthers ... new results? No team was busier this summer than the Florida Panthers, completely overhauling their roster, in part because they had to spend an obscene amount of money just to reach the NHL's salary cap floor. It's definitely a new team, but is it a better team? I guess that depends on how much faith you have in Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Scott Upshall.
28. How bad are the Senators? On paper, it looks like it's going to be a long season for Ottawa as it celebrates its 20th year in the NHL, but how bad are we talking here? Simply on the outside of the playoff picture, or are we looking at a team that's competing for the worst mark in the NHL?
29. Breakthrough year for Kings: After acquiring Mike Richards the Kings went from being a playoff team in the Western Conference to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender with the type of depth down the middle (Richards, Anze Kopitar and Jarett Stoll) a team needs to win it all.
30. Hiller's recovery from vertigo: Jonas Hiller says the vertigo symptoms that robbed him of a good portion of his season -- and the playoffs -- a year ago are gone, and the Ducks need that to be the case if they're going to make a push in the Western Conference. Hiller is one of the best goalies in the league and if he's 100 percent healthy can be a difference maker for Anaheim.
31. Heatley back on a top line: Coming off one of the worst goal-scoring seasons of his career Dany Heatley gets a fresh start in Minnesota, and he's going to be relied on to be a top goal-scoring option for the Wild. Was last year the start of a decline in Heatley's career, or does he return to the 40-goal form we're used to seeing?
32. Will Detroit's defense be good enough? The Red Wings defense has declined a bit in recent years, and this year they're looking to replace Brian Rafalski following his retirement. Nicklas Lidstrom still scores like a champ, but he's not getting any younger back there.
33. Is Matt Cooke a changed man? Penguins agitator Matt Cooke claims he's a changed man following a season that saw him earn two suspensions, including a 17-game ban following a hit on Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. It's one thing to say it, but we have to see it.
34. Varlamov gets another shot: The Avalanche need the Semyon Varlamov gamble to work out, not just because they desperately need an upgrade in net, owning the worst save percentage in the league last season, but also because their first-round pick in 2012 -- perhaps a very, very high selection -- now belongs to the Washington Capitals as a result of the trade that brought him to Colorado.
35. Benn will star for the Stars: The Dallas Stars have done a nice job developing forwards in recent years, and Jamie Benn looks like he's ready to become a 30-goal scorer.
36. Bryzgalov will be missed in Phoenix: The Coyotes will struggle to return to the playoffs for a third consecutive year as they try to replace Ilya Bryzgalov with Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera. Smith is familiar with coach Dave Tippett, but Bryzgalov was a big part of their success the past two years and he won't be easy to replace.
37. The Blue Jackets will be more entertaining: Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski fill huge needs and Ryan Johansen can be a contender for the Calder Trophy. The playoffs are a real possibility in Columbus, and even if the Jackets fail to qualify, they will at least be a more interesting team to watch this year.
38. Patrick Kane at center: Simply put, how long will this experiment last?
39. Vokoun/Neuvirth/Holtby trio of goaltenders in Washington: An experienced veteran signed for way below his market value and two extremely talented youngsters. Michal Neuvirth still thinks the job is his, and when combined with his talent that level of determination has to be an exciting prospect for the Capitals. Vokoun, though, is no slouch and has been one of the best goaltenders in the league the past few years playing on one of the league's worst teams.
40. Malkin's return to the top of the scoring race: For most players, simply averaging a point-per-game is a success. For a player with Malkin's ability it's considered a disappointment. This season he looks poised to return to the top of the NHL's scoring race and contend for the Art Ross Trophy. Speaking of which...
41. Will somebody other than the Sedin's win the scoring title? The past two years two different players from the same family have won the NHL's scoring title. Is it a three-peat for the Sedin twins?
42. Jaromir Jagr: Does he have anything left? The summer of Jagr was certainly interesting, especially if you were following the #jagrwatch on Twitter, but how much does the 39-year-old forward have left in the tank? Philadelphia might need a lot.
43. How big of an issue is Markov's knee? Andrei Markov is still Montreal's best defenseman and he's still fighting through some problems with the knee injuries that have plagued him over the past two years. After losing Wisniewski and Roman Hamrlik the Canadiens need him to be healthy.
44. Will Detroit need an upgrade on Jimmy Howard? The Red Wings say they're happy with their goaltending situation, but twice in the past seven months they've tried to add a veteran goaltender, signing Evgeni Nabokov last season only to lose him on waivers before he could report to the team, and making a run at Tomas Vokoun this summer. That's not a coincidence.
45. Center of attention in Toronto: The Maple Leafs have been searching for a true No. 1 center for quite some time, and after missing out on Brad Richards over the summer went with Tim Connolly on a two-year deal. The good news is he's not a bad player, but the bad news is he's constantly injured. Matthew Lombardi is in the mix if he can overcome his concussion problem, but after that it's a relatively thin group. Heck, even with them it's a thin group.
46. Edmonton's defense: The Oilers have loads of potential at the forward positions but their defense is a mess after Ryan Whitney. Who will step up on their blue line?
47. How many games for DiPietro? Like the Oilers the Islanders hope rests with their collection of forwards while serious questions about their defense and goaltending will haunt them all year. For the Islanders the yearly question (as it will be through 2020) is how many games will the oft-injured Rick DiPietro be in the lineup?
48. Bouwmeester: big money, little offense in Calgary: When the Flames gave Jay Bouwmeester over $6 million per year three years ago they were probably expecting way more offense than this. He's averaged just around 27 points per season since signing with Calgary after averaging over 40 during his finals three seasons with Florida, primarily because his goal-scoring ability has suddenly disappeared. Sixty-eight defenseman recorded more points than his 24 last season.
49. Parise's return: Not only his return to the lineup for the full-season, but also his return to being one of the top left wings in the NHL, will go a long way toward helping the Devils in their effort return to the playoffs after a disappointing season a year ago. In a contract year, Parise needs a big season on a personal level to strike it rich next summer.
50. How many 50-goal scorers will we see? During the 2010-11 season we saw one 50-goal scorer (Perry), down from the three we had the previous season. The preseason favorites have to be Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, and Crosby might be able to get into that mix if he returns to action early enough.
Photos: Getty Images
Tags: 2011-12 Season Preview, Adam Gretz, Andrei Markov, Boston Bruins, Brendan Shanahan, Brent Burns, Corey Perry, Corey Perry, Daniel Sedin, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Drew Doughty, Evgeni Malkin, Henrik Sedin, Ilya Bryzgalov, James Wisniewski, Jamie Benn, Jaromir Jagr, Jay Bouwmeester, Jeff Carter, Jeff Skinner, Jimmy Howard, Jonas Hiller, Marc Savard, Martin Brodeur, Martin Havlat, Michal Neuvirth, Mike Richards, NHL Discipline, Nicklas Lidstrom, Patrick Kane, Pittsburgh Penguins, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Suter, Semyon Varlamov, Shanaban, Shea Weber, Sidney Crosby, Tim Thomas, Tomas Vokoun, Zach Parise
Posted on: September 29, 2011 10:02 am
Edited on: September 29, 2011 10:09 am
CENTER STAGE: Patrick Kane played his first game of the preseason last night, and the Blackhawks went throught with their plan to try him out at center. The reviews are in and they aren't bad. When asked if there was anything about the experiement that wasn't good, coach Joel Quenneville said “No, we liked it." COuld get interesting. (ESPN Chicago) Bonus note: Kane joined the Twitterverse on Wednesday, he can be found @88PKane and has over 14,000 followers after just two tweets.
RIPPING AVERY: Boy, this year's 24/7 will be good. The animosity continues to grow in the Broad Street vs. Broadway rivalry. Things got very ugly on the ice in Philly on Monday between Sean Avery and Wayne Simmonds. At one point, Avery was overheard on TV saying he didn't want to have to f***** kill (Claude) Giroux. So the Flyers' Danny Briere took Avery to task for being hypocritical and just seeking attention. (Philly.com)
AV APOLOGY: The Colorado Avalanche were whipped up and down the ice by the Kings on Wednesday, including a hat trick for Anze Kopitar. After last year's second-worst record in the NHL, it caused some bad flashbacks in Denver. Soon after, Matt Duchene took to Twitter to apologize: “Sorry to all the fans that paid their hard earned money tonight to watch that terrible performance of ours. We WILL be better” (Denver Post)
SLOW START: Speaking of not being pleased with preseason results, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau was upset at Washington's 4-1 loss in Nashville on Wednesday. “It’s time we started to get our act in gear and start playing better.” If they don't, Boudreau's seat could be awfully warm come Thanksgiving. (Capitals Insider)
MOVING ON: James Wisniewski of the Blue Jackets received the toughest punishment from new chief Brendan Shanahan this preseason, but he's not dwelling on it. “I’m going to be around here, but I’m not going to be down about anything. No pouty face from me. It’s over. It’s done. That’s how it has to be.” (Columbus Dispatch)
SANTORELLI SETBACK: The Panthers will be missing one of their few holdovers for the first month of the season. Mike Santorelli, who had somewhat of a breakout season last year with 20 goals and 21 assists, will sit out with a shoulder injury until Halloween. (Miami Herald) Speaking of Halloween, the Panthers will give free tickets to kids who are willing to trade in candy for hockey. (Miami Herald)
GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Alex Ovechkin took time before returning to the States for the season to have a lengthy sit-down interview with Elena Khanian at Sobesednik in Russia. Here's the entire transcript in English. Among the interesting parts is this bit about his taste in women: "I think I will only marry a Russian, well, I mean, a girl from Russia. Russians are sincere, understanding and cook well." I imagine an influx of Russian women to the D.C. area soon. (Alex Ovetjkin)
IS HE READ-Y? One of the big revelations from Flyers camp -- outside of the fact that Jaromir Jagr can still play -- has been Matt Read. He leads the NHL preseason list in points and is still sticking with the big club. The unsigned free agent out of Bemidji State is doing all he can to make the roster, and it's looking good. (Philly.com)
Photo: US Presswire
Tags: Alex Ovechkin, Brian Stubits, Bruce Boudreau, Chicago Blackhawks, Claude Giroux, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, Daily Skate, Danny Briere, Florida Panthers, James WIsniewski, Jaromir Jagr, Matt Duchene, Matt Read, Mike Santorelli, New York Rangers, Patrick Kane, Philadelphia Flyers, Sean Avery, Shanaban, Washington Capitals, Wayne Simmonds
Posted on: September 28, 2011 1:48 pm
Edited on: September 28, 2011 4:15 pm
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)
Chicago 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.
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.
Detroit 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.
Nashville 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.
St. 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.
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.
Columbus 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.
Photo: Getty Images
Tags: 2011-12 Season Preview, Alex Pietrangelo, Alexander Salak, Andrew Brunette, Andy McDonald, Barry Trotz, Ben Bishop, Brent Seabrook, Brian Elliott, Brian Rafalski, Brian Stubits, Central Division, Central Division Preview, Chicago Blackhawks, Chris Stewart, Columbus Blue Jackets, Corey Crawford, Dan Carcillo, David Backes, Detroit Red Wings, Duncan Keith, Fedor Tyutin, Fedor Tyutin, Ian White, Jamal Mayers, James Wisniewski, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jaroslav Halak, Jason Arnott, Jeff Carter, Jimmy Howard, Johan Franzen, Jonathan Ericsson, Jonathan Toews, Ken Holland, Kevin Shattenkirk, Kyle WIlson, Marian Hossa, Mark Dekanich, Martin Erat, Mike Babcock, Mike Commodore, Mike Fisher, Nashville Predators, Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Patric Hornqvist, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Pekka Rinne, Realignment, Rick Nash, Ryan Ellis, Ryan Suter, Scott Howson, Sean O'Donnell, Sergei Kostitsyn, Shea Weber, St. Louis Blues, Steve Mason, Steve Montador, Ty Conklin
Posted on: September 26, 2011 11:04 am
Edited on: September 26, 2011 11:15 am
If the Blackhawks have any hole on their roster as it's currently constructed, it would be at the center position. Coach Joel Quenneville would like to have more depth in the circle, especially since Marcus Kruger isn't completely impressing the staff.
So it isn't surprising that the team is looking from within to find an understudy. But it is a slight surprise that Patrick Kane is in the discussion. The star wingman has shown enough to get a tryout at center in the coming days. Tracey Myers of CSN Chicago had the quotes from Quenneville.
"He's been playing center throughout scrimmages and practices now and we'll see," Quenneville said.
"Defensively he's gotten better as he's grown in that position with us, down low on the walls. It's something we're going to at least take a look at."
As Myers points out, how about Michael Frolik? He's been a wing man since coming into the NHL but he has potential in the faceoff dot. And by trying him out you aren't disrupting the rhythm Kane has built with Jonathan Toews on the top line.
Even if he is the best of the rest for the Blackhawks at center, I would think he's too valuable to the team in his current position to move. Sure, he could be a fill-in, but I can't imagine the team is giving serious consideration into Kane being one of the four centers. No way would they move him to the another line just to fill the position.
Much more likely scenarios if Kruger doesn't convince them he can handle the center spot include shifting the aforementioned Frolik or maybe Jamal Mayers to the position. Or they could look to fill the void from within the system or even on the scrap heap that is remaining free agents -- John Madden is available for a return to Chicago.
As for Kane's feelings on the possibility, all Quenneville would say is that Kane is "not complaining."
Photo: Getty Images
Posted on: August 23, 2011 3:17 pm
When the news came out that Blackhawks star forward Patrick Kane needed surgery on his wrist, it didn't exactly reate the wripple across the NHL the way Tuesday's tremor did on the East Coast. There was little concern it would have any impact on Chicago's season.
But the times, they are a changin'.
While GM Stan Bowman has maintained that Kane was on schedule for a return during training camp, Kane isn't as sure himself. The former No. 1 draft pick joined The Fan 590 in Toronto and talked about his own timetable for a return (H/t to Chris Koc, Chicago Tribune).
"I went to get it checked out [Monday] and everything seems to be checking in right now," Kane said. "[It was] good news [Monday]: I should be ready for the start of the season.
"I still have a little cast on so it’s probably a little bit longer. I’m not really going to rush anything, we still have a lot of time. My goal is to be ready for the opening regular-season game. Obviously, you’d like to be back in training camp but more importantly the date is Oct. 7 for our first regular season game. That’s kind of the date I’m working for. There’s really no rush because things are going pretty well right now.
"With the wrist injury all I’ve really been able to do is kind of skate by myself," Kane said. "Not really with full equipment on, just kind of been skating with one hand out there. You still have to skate That’s kind of part of our job in the summer is to get ourselves ready anyway we can. That’s what I’m doing right now. Usually at this time of year I’d probably be skating with some of the [Buffalo] Sabres, whether it’s just playing shinny or regular four-on-four games, which are always pretty fun to kind of help you get ready for the season. That’s what I'd usually be doing but this summer has been a little bit different."
Well that's not exactly inspiring. Now granted, if he is going to miss any games, it shouldn't be much and he'll be back in plenty of time to help the Blackhawks in their quest to get back to the Stanley Cup Final.
Remember that Kane didn't play a completely full schedule last season either, but it didn't hamper his final numbers. He posted 27 goals and 46 assists in 73 games.
Photo: Getty Images
Posted on: August 8, 2011 9:46 am
Edited on: August 9, 2011 3:22 pm
By: Adam Gretz
Fans in Edmonton were able to get an up close look at their most recent No. 1 overall pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, at team Canada's prospect development camp this past week, and the early returns are very promising. He helped cap off a come-from-behind win for the White team during their Red-White scrimmage on Saturday, tying the game in the third period and then winning it with 20 seconds to play.
Donna Spencer of the Canadian Press wrote about the skills he displayed on Friday, while Oilers forward Ryan Smyth, and potentially a teammate of Nugent-Hopkins this upcoming season, called him a "nifty little player" after sitting behind the bench for the Red team during the scrimmage.
It's still not known whether or not he's going to play in the NHL this season, but if recent history is any indicator, it would seem to be a mild upset if he didn't. Going back to 1997 there have been 11 forwards taken with the top pick in the NHL draft, and 10 of them made their debut the same year they were drafted. The only player that didn't, technically speaking, was Washington's Alex Ovechkin, and that was due to circumstances beyond his and his team's control: the NHL lockout. Had it not been for the work stoppage he would have been a lock to make his debut.
What can be reasonably expected of Nugent-Hopkins should he play for the Oilers this upcoming season? Here's a look at what the recent straight-to-the-NHL top picks have done during their rookie seasons:
*Ovechkin's first season came after the lockout, which was a year after his draft year.
With the exception of Patrik Stefan, every one of these players has gone on to be a productive player or a star player in the NHL (the jury is still out on Taylor Hall at this point after just one season, but we like his chances).
What's a reasonable expectation for Nugent-Hopkins should he play for the Oilers this season? Well, nobody should expect Crosby/Ovechkin levels because those guys are from a different planet. But 20 goals seems like it would be a solid goal based on recent performances by other top picks, assuming he's able to withstand the physical toll of the NHL. And that seems to be the chief concern for Nugent-Hopkins; it's not his skill or ability, but simply whether or not he has the strength to do it at this point. He currently weighs in at 175 pounds according to Spencer's Canadian Press report from over the weekend. That would make him one of the smallest players in the league
Posted on: August 3, 2011 12:55 pm
Edited on: August 3, 2011 1:42 pm
The Chicago Blackhawks cleared enough space in the past couple of offseasons to keep the core of the team together. Now they are locking up those guys, the most recent being Patrick Sharp, who the 'Hawks inked to a five-year extension on Wednesday.
According to TSN's Bob McKenzie, the deal will be for an average salary of $5.9 million. Using quick work of my math skills, that's $29.5 million over the five years.
Sharp is coming off a spectacular season for Chicago, having led the team with 34 goals and chipping in 37 assists in 74 games. The 34 goals were two shy of his career high, set back in 2007-08 with Chicago.
"Patrick is a very important member of our organization and we are looking forward to him being part of a core group that will be a contender for many years to come," Blackhawks Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman said. "Over the last several years we have seen him develop into one of the game’s elite players as well as a fixture in the community and we are proud to be able to announce this news today."
The extension is a fantastic move by the Blackhawks as Sharp is truly an instrumental piece to their puzzle. The dynamic duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane draws the brunt of spotlight, and rightfully so, but Sharp is as key a piece as either in Chicago. It's hard to call a guy who won the All-Star Game MVP underrated, so we won't, but perhaps he's a little unheralded.
Not that there was any concern the Blackhawks wouldn't keep Sharp around, but it's always nice to get it wrapped up and not have to worry about future negotiations.
Sharp is still scheduled to make $4.2 million next season with a cap hit of $3.9 million, the final year of his previous contract, after which he would have become an unrestricted free agent. The 'Hawks now have themselves a large core under contract to make another run at Lord Stanley's Cup.
Photo: Getty Images
Posted on: July 19, 2011 5:07 pm
Edited on: July 19, 2011 6:21 pm
By: Adam Gretz
The Steven Stamkos restricted free agency saga finally came to its expected conclusion on Tuesday afternoon when it was announced that the 21-year-old forward signed a five-year deal that will keep him in Tampa Bay through the end of the 2015-16 season. His current cap hit of $7.5 million is tied for the seventh largest number in the NHL along with Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik, and it places him behind Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Eric Staal, Rick Nash and Vincent Lecavalier.
It's the first major contract for Stamkos coming off his entry level deal and compares favorably to contracts signed by other young forwards at similar points in their careers. Here's a quick look at how this deal stacks up with the NHL's other top young forwards that have signed their first major contracts in the salary cap era (ranked in order of cap hit)...
Five years is a pretty common contract length, unless you're looking at the Washington Capitals, who have made sure their two best players are taken care of for the next decade (at which point they will still only be in their early 30s). The cap hit puts Stamkos slightly below players like Crosby and Ovechkin and slightly above players like Backstrom, Kane, Toews and Kopitar. And that seems fair based on the on-ice production. He's more productive than the second group and still somewhat behind the first.
The only real concern for Tampa Bay fans at this point -- and this is still years away from being an issue -- is this: Once the deal expires (and yes, we're already looking ahead to the next Stamkos free agency saga) he will be hitting the open market (as an unrestricted free agent -- and that's assuming the age for unrestricted free agency remains the same) at the age of 26, well into the prime of his career.
Salary figures via CapGeek