Tag:Ryan Suter
Posted on: November 17, 2011 4:29 pm
 

Preds' Suter on contract: It's going to get done

By Brian Stubits

It wasn't long ago that the Nashville Predators sort of stunned the league and re-signed Pekka Rinne. It wasn't necessarily them re-signing Rinne that was so surprising, it was the fact that they gave the Vezina quality goaltender seven years and $49 million. Plus the timing was out of the blue, the negotiations were very quiet.

Plus it was just surprising the Preds would give him so much knowing there are two other big free agents to re-sign. After years of operating on such a low budget, many were guessing that meant either one or both of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber wouldn't be back, the team wouldn't be able to afford them all.

That was the prevailing thought by some. The general thinking was that if only one was coming back, it would be Weber. That would have left Suter on the outside looking in.

I have maintained that Nashville sees a window of opportunity opening to win and is willing to spend near the cap starting next season, thus it will do all it can to get the three all under contract long-term. That is starting to look more and more possible.

With Rinne already taken care of and Weber being unable to sign until January since he received his one-year contract this summer, all of the negotiating attention is on Suter. His agent, Neil Sheehy, has been in Nashville to work on a deal for Suter, who is due to be a free agent on July 1.

“I don’t want to get into the substance of the negotiation," Sheehy told Joshua Cooper of the Tennesseean. "The Predators are making every effort to sign Ryan and Ryan wants to be here, but there’s issues you address. I think it’s always best when you can address them with each other. You take a little bit of time to reflect on it and then you come back to further discussions.”

It sounds like most agent speak. Not a whole lot to take out of it other than they are working on a deal. Then there is Suter's comment.

“We’re just talking, trying to figure everything out and that we’re on the same page,” Suter said. “I want to be here, that’s the big thing and they want me here, and it’s going to get done.”

The last part is what really sticks out, a pretty definitive statement: "it's going to get done."

One thing to consider here is that the Predators announced on Wednesday that Canadian businessman W. Brett Wilson bought a five percent minority stake in the franchise. His addition could bring about a little influx of cash to the team.

It's easy to see why the Preds would want to lock Suter into a long-term deal. He is still just 26 years old (turns 27 in January) and if it weren't for his teammate Weber, would be their best defenseman. If he weren't overshadowed by Weber, he would likely be in the Norris Trophy conversation. This season in 17 games Suter has three goals and six assists while sporting a robust plus-11.

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: November 3, 2011 7:15 pm
Edited on: November 3, 2011 7:18 pm
 

Was Rinne the right choice for Nashville?

RinneBy: Adam Gretz

There are few positions in professional sports that get as much attention and face as much scrutiny as  starting goaltenders in the NHL. There are also few positions that are as unpredictable, uncertain, maddening and completely random.

Tim Thomas, the winner of two of the past three Vezina Trophies, is probably the best one in the league right now, and he didn't become a full-time starter until he was 32 years old after being a ninth-round draft pick and bounced around Europe and the minor leagues for nearly a decade.

Pekka Rinne, the Nashville Predators goaltender who just signed a contract that gives him the highest average annual salary in the league at the position (seven years, $49 million), is another example as to just how unpredictable the position can be. During an interview back in 2006, former Predators assistant and current Penguins general manager Ray Shero told the story of how the team initially scouted Rinne prior to making him an eighth-round draft pick in 2004 -- they watched him during warmups in Finland because he rarely played in games for Karpat Oulu, a team in the Finnish Elite League. Actually, he appeared in 10 games, winning eight, during the 2004-05 season, but the first night Shero joined a scout, Janne Kekalainen, to watch him was during warmups. Said Shero in the interview: "I watch him and he's taking shots and I turned to Janne after warmup and said, 'It's your call, buddy.' I can barely draft a goalie during the game let alone warmup. "

Needless to say their decision to draft him has paid off, Rinne has become their starting goaltender, a key member of their core, along with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, and now, one of the highest-paid players in the NHL.

But was it the right move to give him such a large contract?

I'm not going to deny that Rinne is an excellent goaltender, and based on the way the team around him has played so far this season he's probably their first month MVP. It's also encouraging that the Predators were able to secure one of their home-grown players, and perhaps it's a sign that they will maybe, hopefully be able to keep one -- or both -- of their other soon-to-be top free agents (Weber and Suter). But I'm just not sold on giving out such huge contracts to goalies because, again, the position is just full of so much uncertainty, and one that can be heavily influenced by the team in front of the crease.

Over the past eight years the Predators have had no trouble finding goaltenders that are able to play at a high level, and in almost every season have managed to post a similar save percentage and finish well above (or close to) the league average no matter what their primary goaltending duo has looked like -- whether it was Rinne and Anders Lindback, Rinne and Dan Ellis, Ellis and Chris Mason, or Mason and Tomas Vokoun.

(League average in parenthesis)

2010-11: Pekka Rinne/Anders Lindback -- .926 (.913)
2009-10: Pekka Rinne/Dan Ellis -- .910 (.911)
2008-09: Pekka Rinne/Dan Ellis -- .910 (.908)
2007-08: Dan Ellis/Chris Mason -- .911 (.909)
2006-07: Tomas Vokoun/Chris Mason -- .922 (.905)
2005-06: Tomas Vokoun/Chris Mason -- .916 (.901)
2003-04: Tomas Vokoun/Chris Mason -- .912 (.911)
2002-03: Tomas Vokoun/Mike Dunham -- .911 (.909)
2001-02: Tomas Vokoun/Mike Dunham -- .903 (.908)
2000-01: Tomas Vokoun/Mike Dunham -- .917 (.903)

I'm not sure Rinne can consistently duplicate the .930 save percentage he recorded last season when he finished as a runner-up for the Vezina Trophy, and if he's back around the .915-920 area that is his career average, how much worse would they have been with a combination of Lindback and a free agent signing at a fraction of the price next season?

Like the situation in Phoenix with Mike Smith replacing Ilya Bryzgalov, there would have been a drop, but probably not as large as most would expect, or as large as the gap in salary would indicate, especially given the amount of success players like Mason and Ellis have been able to experience in Nashville (and how how much they've struggled away from Nashville). Keep in mind, Ellis, Mason and Rinne all experienced seasons with the Predators where they finished in the top-10 in the NHL in save percentage. They've consistently been able to find productive goaltenders without breaking the bank, why couldn't they continue to do it?

In the salary cap NHL every dollar counts and the wrong contract can have a large negative impact on a franchise, especially when it's a team that may or may not have an endless supply of money to keep other core players. I guess, in the end, it just goes back to my dislike of such large contracts for a position that is so unpredictable, even with seemingly established players, combined with the belief that players like Weber and Suter are simply more valuable to what they do for the long-term.

As E.J. Hradek pointed out on Twitter earlier in the day, it's a lot easier (and cheaper) to find quality goaltenders than it is to find franchise defensemen.

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: November 3, 2011 12:56 pm
Edited on: November 3, 2011 4:05 pm
 

Predators sign Rinne to 7-year, $49M extension

By Brian Stubits

The Nashville Predators made a huge splash by giving goaltender Pekka Rinne a boatload of cash on Thursday. As in $49 million over seven seasons.

“It’s just a big day for me and obviously I couldn’t be happier right now," Rinne said (from the Tennesseean). "It’s the organization that drafted me and now I have a chance to play next seven years here in Nashville. It feels great and I’m so happy right now.”

The Vezina Trophy finalist goalie was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this coming summer along with Ryan Suter while Shea Weber is facing restricted free agency again, so getting one out of the way this early is huge and makes the task of keeping the three players around long-term a little less daunting.

Or perhaps even more daunting now, some will argue. Committing $7 million a season to Rinne is a massive, massive commitment, particularly to a goalie. The Preds just gave him the highest cap hit in the league for netminders as well as the highest deal in their franchise's history.

This means if they want to keep their core three, they will have to invest around $22 million in only three players as Weber is making $7.5 million this season and Suter, at $3.5 million now, is due for a very big raise, particularly with these two deals on his team.

“Today’s signing is further evidence of our ownership’s commitment to keeping our core intact,” Predators GM David Poile said. “This is the first step of a process designed to retain our key players and leaders. Pekka has grown with our franchise, just recently established our franchise record for career shutouts and is now recognized as one of the game’s elite players. We’re thrilled to know that he will be backstopping our franchise for several years to come.”

If that's the case, the Predators just announced a major change to their organizational approach. Nashville has consistently had one of the league's lowest payrolls. This season they are the third lowest with a shade under $50 million, according to Cap Geek. To keep the core three there, they will have to raise their payroll substantially, probably living closer toward the cap instead of the floor.

Again, this is an extraordinary commitment to a goaltender, one I think caught many off guard. Fact is, the Predators are an organization that hasn't had a tough time finding quality goaltenders. If there were any organization in hockey that might have had the idea that it can always find a good goaltender, it is Nashville with coach Barry Trotz's system. This shows they would beg to differ.

None of that is to say that Rinne doesn't deserve to be in the discussion of best goalie in the league. He definitely does, without a doubt. THe Predators just made their feelings on the matter perfectly clear, making Rinne the top-paid 'minder in the league, as far as cap hit goes. Rinne's agent, Jay Grossman, said that wasn't necessarily the intention of the negotiations, but I'm sure it's a side effect Rinne and crew will take.

In 11 games this season, Rinne has a 5-4-1 record with a 2.50 goals against average with a .922 save percentage. In the early going, Rinne was the only force keeping the Preds in games as the offense struggled. Now he has a very handsom reward.

Rinne, a native of Kempele, Finland, was second in voting for the Vezina Trophy and fourth in voting for the Hart Trophy earlier this year after helping the Predators win their first playoff series. He ranked second in the NHL with a .930 save percentage, third in goals-against average (2.12) and tied for sixth with six shutouts.

He leads the NHL with the most shutouts since 2008-09, and his 22nd last weekend against Anaheim also was his 100th career victory.

Nashville, which started play in the 1998-99 season, drafted Rinne in the eighth round in 2004 with the 258th pick overall. Rinne also has played for Finland in the World Championships in 2009 and 2010.

Some are wondering if the Predators didn't do things in the wrong order here, if they wouldn't have been wiser to sign Suter or Weber first instead of Rinne. To that I say, does it really matter? If the plan is to sign all three players, which it certainly seems to be, then I see little significance to the order of which the signings happen. It isn't always easy reaching long-term deals with players, so if one is ready to sign, then strike while the iron is hot. Not to mention that signing one sends a message to the other two that the team is willing to commit and try for a winner. That's an extra bargaining chip the Preds can use with Suter and Weber.

“Yeah, it’s a great sign," Weber said. "It’s a huge commitment by the team, showing they’re committed to the guys they brought up in the organization. Obviously we’re not thinking about that right now. We’re trying to win games and I’m sure the rest will sort itself out.”

Negotiations with Suter's agent are expected to pick up in mid-November, according to Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com. I have to think this Rinne deal will help Nashville at that time.

“Yeah, we are good friends, but I’m the first one to sign, and hopefully those two sign after me," Rinne said. "I can only talk for myself, but it’s no secret we all need those two guys. I’m the first guy to sign, I feel confident they love it in Nashville, but I don’t want to comment on behalf of them.”

So this deal seems good when you are looking at it just through the prism of keeping the three would-be free agents. There is plenty of cap space in Nashville. But when you step back from that narrow approach and see how these three will command more or less 1/3 of the salary cap themselves, you begin to wonder how it effects the rest of the roster. If the Preds are able to keep the rest of their players on the cheap and stay thrifty, then it might not be an issue.

The deal is jaw-dropping. That I get. I mean seven years for a goalie? Only Rick DiPietro and Roberto Luongo are signed for longer terms than that. So I'm sure Islanders and Canucks fans have some feelings on the matter.

But I'm not convinced it's as bad of a deal as many are saying. The big IF in the equation is if the Predators are OK with spending a lot more annually. If they are and then are able to sign Suter and Weber to deals too, then Nashville has a great core on the defensive end to play behind for years. I do feel uneasy about giving a goalie so much money and so many years, but if this is what it takes ...

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: October 18, 2011 4:01 pm
Edited on: November 29, 2011 5:38 pm
 

Nashville's power outage on offense

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Pucks and Numbers: a weekly statistical look at what's happening around the NHL. This week: a look at how the Nashville Predators are being dominated on the shot charts.

By: Adam Gretz

The Nashville Predators lost to the Edmonton Oilers 3-1 on Monday night. It was a game that saw them generate just 12 shots on goal, with only eight of them coming in even strength situations. Against any team that would be a shockingly low series of numbers.

Against a young, inexperienced team like the Oilers, a team with serious question marks on its defense (and without its best defenseman, Ryan Whitney) and with a second-year goaltender, Devan Dubnyk, occupying the crease, it's downright stunning.

And it's been a problem all season for the Predators.

A few things to consider:

1) The Predators have been out-shot in every single game they've played this season, and in five games have managed just 115 shots on goal, an average of just 23 per-game, the second worst mark in the league. Calgary is the only team averaging fewer.

2) Only 84 of those shots have come in even strength situations, while Nashville has scored just six of its 14 goals during 5-on-5 play. The Predators have been out-shot 139-84 in even strength situations so far, and been out-scored 9-6.

Here's a game-by-game breakdown that illustrates just how much the ice has been tilted against the Predators so far.

(Shots Att = Shots on goal+missed shots+shots blocked; SOG = Shots on goal; ES SOG = Even strength Shots on goal)

Nashville's Negative Shot Differential
Opponent NSH Shots Att. NSH SOG NSH ES SOG OPP Shots Att. OPP SOG OPP ES SOG
Columbus Blue Jackets 45 31 27 70 34 31
St. Louis Blues 35 16 9 68 33 27
Phoenix Coyotes 36 25 16 57 31 30
New Jersey Devils 48 31 24 67 41 32
Edmonton Oilers 27 12 8 57 25 19
Totals 191 115 84 319 164 139

Yes, in two games this season the Predators failed to record at least 10 shots on goal at even strength.

Basically, the Predators are being dominated when it comes to offensive zone time, as their opponents are keeping them bottled up in their own end of the ice, as shown by the fact their opponents have managed to attempt 319 shots to Nashville's 191.  And that's not exactly a who's who list of the NHL's power house offenses. If you're a Predators fan, thank goodness for Pekka Rinne, because he's facing a shooting gallery every time he steps on the ice, and according to some of the post-game comments on Monday, he's the only player that's getting any praise in the music city.

He's also probably the only reason they've managed to win the two games they did win.

Here's what Predators forward Jerred Smithson said following Monday's loss, via Joshua Cooper of the Tennesseean:
“Just embarrassing. We just got out-worked. It was right from the drop of the puck. If it wasn’t for Peks it could have been 5-1. It seems like I’ve been saying that every time now, but it’s the honest truth, we rely on this guy way too much. We don’t work, we don’t skate, we don’t forecheck, we have a hardworking team that doesn’t work hard and I don’t know, it’s beyond frustrating right now. I’ve never been a part of something like this. It’s gotta change right now, or we’re going to be on the outside looking in – December we’ll be out of this, we have to change it right now.”
He also went on to add "It’s not one guy, it’s not two guys, it’s the whole group. Pekka is the exception. He’s the only guy playing his balls off right now and if it wasn’t for him, we don’t have any points. I don’t know what to say about tonight, it was terrible.”

It doesn't get any more brutally honest than that.

Whatever optimism there was coming into this season after the first playoff series win in franchise history a year ago has seemingly been rocked with this start. This group has been built around its two All-Star defensemen (Shea Weber and Ryan Suter) and Rinne, while managing to grind out just enough goals to win games 3-2 or 2-1 with a collection of forwards that are castoffs from other teams or young, homegrown players (of which the Predators have a ton) that are still relatively cheap (by NHL standards).

It's a strategy that has led them to the postseason in six of the past seven seasons, and earned general manager David Poile and his staff plenty of worthy praise for putting together a playoff team on one of the NHL's smallest budgets. But there's also been some concern, as Dirk Hoag of On The Forecheck address before the season, as to whether or not the current makeup of the roster will ever score enough to allow the team to become a true Stanley Cup contender.

Right now they're not only not scoring, they can't even get into the offensive zone.

Following Monday's game coach Barry Trotz said the Predators were going to "start from scratch." As it stands right now, the Predators don't have the personnel to play a vastly different brand of hockey. Their strengths are still on the blue line and in net and offense will continue to be a struggle, but if they don't reverse this trend of being manhandled when it comes to puck possession they're going to need Rinne to go from a Vezina finalist to an MVP.

And perhaps a miracle worker.

Photo: Getty Images

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

Posted on: October 8, 2011 1:54 pm
Edited on: October 8, 2011 2:14 pm
 

Teams with the most homegrown talent

Hgt1By: Adam Gretz

Every team in the NHL says they want to build through the draft, and like any other aspect of the sport, some have done a better job than others, not only based on the number of home-grown players they have on the roster, but also the quality of said players.

It's always been an important part of constructing a roster and has taken on an even greater level of significance in the salary cap era where teams need to get quality production for an affordable price. There are few things more damaging to a team in the cap era than overpaying a free agent and handing out a large contract for a second-or-third tier player.

Looking across the league at every team's opening night roster and you get an idea as to which teams have done the best job at building from within. Here are the three teams with the most homegrown talent on their opening night rosters.

1) Nashville Predators: No team in the NHL has more drafted-and-developed players on its opening night roster than the Predators' 18. Their group ranges from core players like Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne, to role players like Jordin Tootoo, to young prospects Craig Smith and Blake Geoffrion.

The farm system has always been the lifeblood of the Predators organization, and it has to be. They don't have the resources to acquire superstars in free agency -- and may struggle to keep their own -- and must rely on their own system to continue to produce talent. The concern has to be whether or not Nashville will ever be able to take the next step as a championship contender, or if the organization has hit its peak with this current strategy.

Other teams across the league are not only able to draft and develop same type of core players, they are also able to re-sign them and keep them long-term once they're eligible for free agency and add complementary pieces from outside the organization.

2) Buffalo Sabres: There's a ton of excitement in Buffalo right now thanks to new owner Terry Pegula. He proved over the summer with his spending that he's committed to utilizing every possible resource he can to make sure the Sabres a contender.

The signings of Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino, as well as the trade for Robyn Regehr, made all the headlines, but the Sabres roster is made up of 15 homegrown players. And we're not just talking role players and and roster-filler. Ryan Miller, Tyler Myers, Derek Roy, workout warrior Drew Stafford and their newest captain, Jason Pominville, were all drafted and developed by the Sabres front office.

3) Detroit Red Wings: While teams like Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington, Edmonton and the New York Islanders have collected multiple lottery picks at the top of the draft to rebuild their franchises, the Red Wings have managed to do it by routinely picking near the bottom of the draft, and finding impact players after the first two rounds. Whether or not it's great scouting ability or great player development is a chicken-or-egg debate, but the Red Wings open the season with 15 players they drafted. That list includes Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetteberg and Tomas Holmstrom, taken in the sixth, seventh and tenth rounds respectively, as well as third-rounders Johan Franzen and Nicklas Lidstrom.

In the pre-lockout NHL, before the salary cap, some of the Red Wings' best teams were built largely with big-money players from outside the organization, whether it be Brendan Shanahan, Luc Robitaille or Brett Hull. Today, their roster is made up almost entirely of players they brought up themselves, and whatever players they've managed to acquire through trades or free agency are mainly role players (Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller) or players they managed to pick up on the cheap and developed into productive players (Daniel Cleary).

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

Posted on: October 5, 2011 12:20 pm
Edited on: October 5, 2011 12:43 pm
 

50 things to know, ask and watch for this season

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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?

SW313. 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.

BR124. 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...

Sedins

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

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.

Posted on: September 26, 2011 9:59 am
Edited on: September 26, 2011 3:37 pm
 

Daily Skate: Avalanche's Yip out 4-6 weeks

By Brian Stubits

LOSING THE YIPS: The Colorado Avalanche will be opening up the regular season with Brandon Yip on the sidelines after breaking a forearm this weekend against the Blues. He will miss 4-6 weeks. Avs defenseman Jan Hejda is also dealing with a setback, 2-4 works after suffering a knee injury in the same game. (Denver Post)

WHAT'S HIS NAME: Tomas Fleischmann is new to the Florida Panthers, and it showed over the weekend. Check out the jersey that he was sporting in the team's home game against the Lightning. (For those who can't see, it spells F-L-E-S-I-C-H-M-A-N-N) I guess the people in charge of putting names on jerseys didn't brush up on their offseason acquisition list. (Getty Images via Litter Box Cats)

SCOTT'S SCARE: Scott Hartnell played only nine minutes of the Flyers' game against the Red Wings over the weekend because of a heart scare. During the intermission it was discovered he had an elevated heart rate that didn't slow down during the break. A checkup on Saturday showed things were normal, but he will still be evaluated by a cardiologist. (flyers.nhl.com)

SUTERWATCH STARTS: It's almost another full year before free agency begins again, but fans in Nashville are already holding their collective breath. In addition to Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber, Ryan Suter doesn't have a deal for 2012-13 and LeBron James-like quotes aren't helping soothe the anxious Predators fans. (Pred Gold)

HEIDI STRIKES AGAIN: While it wasn't exactly the movie interrupting a regular-season NHL game, but it's close enough. In Montreal the television feed pulled away from the game just moments before Scott Gomez scored the winning goal. It is the latest positive step in a good preseason for the much-maligned Gomez. (Montreal Gazette)

MORE, PLEASE: The biggest concern for this season in Columbus has to be the situation in net for the Blue Jackets. Chris Mason hasn't exactly kept up his rookie form that saw him win the Calder Trophy in 2008-09. But optimism is rising in camp that a return to form might be coming for Mason. (Columbus Dispatch)

MEET MIKA: Branding is the big thing for athletes these days, you have to find a way to sell your "brand." Well Senators rookie Mika Zibanejad is already getting started. Take a look at his personal web site. Not too bad for a guy who hasn't played a game in the NHL yet. (Senators Extra)

OH BOY O'BERTO: Red Wings veteran Todd Bertuzzi is becoming a shootout star. Just check out his latest move on a hapless goaltender, going between his legs to pass it back up to himself and back-handing the puck into the net.

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