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Friday, August 22, 2014

A Look At The Atlantic Division: The Montreal Canadiens



Montreal Canadiens, 2013-2014: Third in Atlantic Division with 100 points.  Eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals by the New York Rangers in a 4-2 series.

Team Departures: Forwards Thomas Vanek (MIN), Brian Gionta (BUF), Daniel Briere (COL), Louis Leblanc (ANA), Ryan White (PHI), Nick Tarnasky (NYR), Mike Blunden (TB) and George Parros (Currently UFA, not expected to re-sign).  Defenseman Josh Gorges (BUF), Francis Bouillon (Currently UFA, not expected to re-sign) and Douglas Murray (Currently UFA, not expected to re-sign).  Goaltender Devan Dubnyk (ARZ).

Team Additions: Forwards P.A. Parenteau and Manny Malhotra.  Defenseman Tom Gilbert.  Goaltender Joey MacDonald.

2014 Draft: Forward Nikita Scherbak (26th overall), Defenseman Brett Lernout (73rd overall), Defenseman Nikolas Koberstein (125th overall), Forward Daniel Audette (147th overall), Goaltender Hayden Hawkey (177th overall), Forward Jake Evans (207th overall).

Coaching and Front Office Changes: No significant changes.

Caps Play The Canadiens Three Times.

The Canadiens surprised everyone but themselves when they battered all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.  A goaltending crisis found themselves just short of the prize.  But after a tight salary cap situation, can the Habs find themselves right back where they left off?

Forwards

The Canadiens have respectable lines all up and down the team, and that was evident in their playoff run.  They were simply out skating and out working their opponent day in and day out, and it started with the forward unit.  None on the team are better at their craft than Max Pacioretty.  Pacioretty has quickly gone from "that guy who was almost paralyzed by Zdeno Chara" to a common household name in the hockey world.  Pacioretty finished fourth in the entire league with 39 goals, and led the league in game winning goals with 11.  His 60 points led the Canadiens on the season.  He has become a consistent 30 goal scorer in this league, and will shock no one if he puts up more than 40.  After all, he did miss nine games on the season.

David Desharnais
Joining Pacioretty is a bunch of really, really tiny players (after all, Montreal did make a conscious effort to get "bigger" this past offseason).  David Desharnais (5'7"), Tomas Plekanec (5'11") and Brendan Gallagher (5'9") all contributed much greater offensively than in stature.  Desharnais is the team's playmaker.  He finished the year with 36 assists, good for second on the team.  You can expect to see him centering the top line alongside Pacioretty, constantly feeding him pucks to fire on net.  Plekanec is a strong player for the Habs.  At 31, his seasons with 70 points are behind him, but what you do get is a guy that is capable of putting the puck in the net as often as he records an assist.  With former Canadiens captain Brian Gionta moving on to Buffalo, Plekanec is a strong candidate to take over the "C" in Montreal.  Gallagher is a quick, tough player.  He's a 22 year old former fifth round pick, and has stepped past Montreal's expectations well and beyond.  In his first full season, Gallagher scored 19 goals and 22 assists, ranking him sixth in points for Montreal.  He will only continue to see growth in his game as he gains more and more experience.

The trade Montreal made for P.A. Parenteau will turn out to work wonderfully for the Canadiens.  Daniel Briere is well past his prime.  Parenteau really isn't.  He was never really given a solid chance in his time in Colorado, where he played behind really young superstars.  He saw just the seventh highest time on ice with the Avalanche.  It can be a fair expectation to see Parenteau getting valuable minutes on the second line, and he will most likely see time with the young playmaker, Alex Galchenyuk.  Parenteau recorded just 33 points last season.  While he probably won't see to great of an increase, a reasonable expectation for Parenteau this season would be around the 45-50 point range.

Lars Eller had a relatively disappointing regular season, finishing with just 26 points this season, his lowest output since his rookie season (even less than the lockout-shortened year).  But during the Canadiens playoff run, both he and line mate Rene Bourque became the go to forward unit.  Eller was second on the Canadiens in points during the playoffs with 13, and Bourque trailed right behind him with 11.  Now, there is no reason to believe that these two will develop into an offensive powerhouse for Montreal this upcoming regular season.  In fact, Eller could benefit his team a ton if he's willing to play a defensive-minded pivot role for the Canadiens.  He's never wowed anyone offensively, even in his time as a teen in Denmark.  If he and Bourque can provide defensive stability with the looming threat of an offensive punch, they can be a highly effective third line.  Either Brandon Prust, whose always been defensive minded or Dale Weise, who emerged during the playoffs as a highly aggressive pest, can benefit the line.

This forward unit is a little bit more defensive in their approach to the game, where the majority of the team starts off their time in the defensive zone, and most are out possessed.  While he wasn't on the team for very long, a consistent scoring threat like Thomas Vanek will hurt the Canadiens.  They also don't have a true, pure playmaker that's good for setting guys up all over the place.  But what they do have is consistency, and that alone can carry them right back to the playoffs.

Defensemen

This group lives, breathes and dies through Pernell Karl Subban.  He has emerged as a top five defenseman in this league.  He has tremendous offensive ability, leading his team in assists this season with 43.  He is an incredibly powerful skater, with the ability to knock any guy off the puck with ease, and he has tremendous hockey senses.  This off season, he was paid accordingly, and is set to earn $72 million over the next eight seasons.

P.K. Subban
But, his monetary gain came at the Canadiens productivity cost.  While there's no doubt in anybody's mind that Subban is worth that much, it put General Manager Marc Bergevin in a tight spot.  Top defensive blue liner Andrei Markov was also set to become a free agent, and he needed to be paid handsomely.  Ultimately, he signed a three year, $17.25 million contract.  But he wasn't the only one. Veteran defenseman Mike Weaver also needed to be signed.  Though he didn't cost nearly as much as Subban and Markov, he still warranted a one year, $1.75 million contract.  This put an awful lot of money into the Canadiens blue line.  Alexei Emelin was entering his new contract, signed back in October of 2013, and he added a $4.1 million cap hit.  Josh Gorges added a $3.9 million cap hit as well.  Bergevin needed to clear some space, and chose to ship Gorges to Buffalo.  Gorges was a great contributor for the the Canadiens blue line, and had really developed into a leader for the team.  The Canadiens are worse off without him.

Subban and Markov will be the shutdown pairing for the team, and they are a near perfect pair.  Subban is a highly aggressive two way player, while Markov is more of a stay at home type player.  And now that Markov is 35 (he'll be 36 in December), he has to rely on his hockey senses more than anything.  He will be able to make up for the few mistakes Subban will make, whether it's because of Subban going to far up the ice offensively or going for the big hip check.

Emelin really showed this past year that he can be a reliable puck mover.  In just his third season NHL at 28, he recorded a career high 14 assists.  He will likely play on the second pairing alongside either Tom Gilbert or Mike Weaver.  Gilbert has always been a defensive minded player, and at just 31 he still has something left in the tank.  Weaver played very well for Montreal during their playoff run.  He can provide veteran leadership for the team alongside Markov.  The sixth defenseman for the Canadiens isn't as clear, as it could be a toss up between Jarred Tinordi or Nathan Beaulieu.  Both saw time last year during the regular season, though Beaulieu did see time in the playoffs.

This unit will see a lot of time in their own zone.  They aren't particularly impressive all up and down, but they are capable of getting the job done.  But, ultimately, they are fortunate to have such a successful goaltender backing them up.

Goaltending

If Carey Price doesn't injure his knee in the Chris Kreider collision in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Montreal Canadiens would have battled it out in the Stanley Cup in a much closer final.  There, I said it.

There are very few that are better than Price.  He won gold in Sochi for Team Canada, and he easily could have carried his NHL team right to the top if he had stayed healthy.  Price had a .927 save percentage this past season, good for third in the league, a 2.32 goals against average, good for 14th, and had six shutouts, good for second.  His numbers weren't quite as good in the playoffs, but he is a strong, capable goaltender.  He started only 59 times last season, his lowest (excluding the lockout year) since 2009-2010.  But, Price may see his starts go right back up to what he's used to, because the second goaltender isn't quite as clear.

It's between Peter Budaj, whose drudged along as the Canadiens backup for the past three seasons, or Dustin Tokarski, who has 10 regular season games in his career, and just two with the Canadiens.  Tokarski was the one who stepped up in the Eastern Conference Final when Price got hurt, and, given the circumstances, he did quite well.  His .916 save percentage and his 2.60 goals against average gave the Canadiens a fighting chance in that final.  On the other side of the equation, Budaj has been pretty bad in virtually every start he's had for the Canadiens.  He had just a .909 save percentage last season, and that's just a touch over his career save percentage of .903.  These two will battle it out to become the second goaltender, but it just might be time for Montreal to give the job to the 24 year old Tokarski.

Prospects

The Canadiens have really made size their top priority in the past few drafts.  It's quite evident with forward Michael McCarron, a forward who stands at 6'6".  But he's a while from the NHL.  But, the Canadiens do have three different players at three different positions that have the potential to be outstanding relatively soon: Forward Jacob de la Rose, defenseman  Jarred Tinordi and goaltender Zach Fucale.

Jacob de la Rose
de la Rose is a workaholic Swede that plays pretty well defensively.  During the World Junior Championship, he scored three goals and three assists in seven games.  That being said, de la Rose is not considered a scoring forward by any means.  In fact, in Sweden he doesn't score more than 13 points.  He needs a little bit more time to develop before he jumps right to the NHL, so he will be seeing some time in Hamilton with the Bulldogs.  de la Rose may only be a third line player for the Habs, but his penalty kill skills and defensive prowess will be critical for the Canadiens success.

Tinordi, who saw some time this past season, is a gigantic 6'6", 227 lbs.  He is known to use his size and strength to his advantage, something the Canadiens definitely need.  He's played professionally since 2011, but he just hasn't quite made the jump to the current Canadiens roster.  He won't score too many goals or record too many assists, but Tinordi has the potential to be a great player for the Canadiens someday.  (Side note, Tinordi is from Millersville, MD and played for the Washington Junior Nationals in 2007!)

Fucale was the highest rated goaltender in the 2013 draft, playing for a stacked Halifax Mooseheads team that included Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin.  His junior level play has earned him over 100 wins.  He is very calm in the net, and finished with a .905 save percentage this past season.  He's got average size for a goaltender, but really needs to bulk up.  Fucale is tabbed as a franchise goaltender of the future, but he looked beatable in his five games at the World Junior Championship.  He will continue playing with Halifax, and he is far from NHL play, but there is no doubt within the Canadiens organization that he will one day be playing consistently in red, white and blue.

Player To Watch

Alex Galchenyuk is slowly, but surely tapping into his full potential.  The former third overall pick scored 13 goals and 18 assists in 65 games for the Habs last season.  If he's gradually given more and more time on the ice, with another skilled player, say, like, Pacioretty or Desharnais, we could see a ton of points from the 20 year old.  He consistently scored 30ish goals in Sarnia in his junior playing days, and put up 83 points in the 2010-2011 season.  His skill level is there, it's just a matter of time before he becomes comfortable on NHL ice, and we start to see his 60-70 point seasons.

Offseason News

No free agency story became larger than P.K. Subban's.  The saga had twists and turns with each growing day, and by the time it hit arbitration, it turned a little ugly.  Subban asked for $8.5 million, and Montreal said he should earn $5.25.  Subban obviously wasn't happy, and Subban's agent, Don Meehan, even stated that Subban wouldn't be willing to negotiate with Montreal after the hearing.  Ultimately, Montreal and Subban settled on the eight year, $72 million contract.  The $9 million against the salary cap is the third highest, behind only Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin.

Final Evaluation

This is still a playoff team, but they no doubt have gotten worse since their playoff team.  Losing Vanek, Gionta and Gorges just hurts the Canadiens.  Sure, they saw success without Vanek, but his constant scoring threat alone helped out the Canadiens immensely.  Gionta was the bonafide leader of this team, and Gorges led the blue line.  Ultimately, young guys like Galchenyuk and Gallagher will have to step up and perform at a high level, and Pacioretty has to continue his upward trend.  The third line really needs to develop into a solid checking unit, which they are easily capable of doing.  Price needs to stay healthy, and if he does, he's capable of carrying Montreal through the playoffs with a little more ease than his New York counterpart.  But, possibly most importantly, Subban needs to prove he is in fact worth $72 million.

(Editors Note:  I apologize for the delay.  With the deletion of the web site Extra Skater, I was looking around to find a good website that recorded possession numbers, zone starts and quality of competition.  The stats used for this, as well as the upcoming previews, were used through Hockey Abstract, and basic stats from NHL.com.  As always, thanks for reading)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Growing Hockey Statistics

With the recent hiring of Darryl Metclaff of Extra Skater by the Toronto Maple Leafs, a new age of hockey is officially upon us.  It is officially clear that teams are going to use advanced statistics to better position themselves in the future.  And it's best if you get a clear understanding of how they work.

I actually wrote a column back in April for a sports writing class at the University of Maryland discussing the emergence of advanced statistics in hockey (I got an A on it), because it became quite clear that these statistics were growing in supporters in the hockey world.  Ironically, I lead the story with....the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Here it is, again, this was written back in April:

The Toronto Maple Leafs suffered a collapse of epic proportions.  At the beginning of March, Toronto sat comfortably in a playoff position, fighting for the Atlantic Division.  But, to close out the season, Toronto saw just six wins....and 15 losses.  The Maple Leafs went from a playoff spot to missing out of a spot by nine points.  Not many people were able to predict the Maple Leafs collapse, except for a small group of people, those who believe in “fancy stats.”

“Fancy stats” are advanced statistics that are mainly used to measure possession.  There are many different types of these advanced statistics.  They were developed by Jim Corsi, the former goaltender coach for the Buffalo Sabres, and California engineer Gabriel Desjardins, who now runs one of the more premier advanced statistics websites in Behind the Net.

Now, what exactly are these advanced statistics?  The main ones are corsi, fenwick and PDO.  Corsi measures the amount of shots that your team takes when you are on the ice, whether they are on net or not.  This is called Corsi For.  You can also measure that number for the opposition as well, called Corsi Against.  So, let’s look at Alexander Ovechkin’s Corsi numbers.  This season, Ovechkin had 1110 Corsi For in all 5 on 5 situations.  His Corsi Against was 1140.  So, Ovechkin had more shots against him than for him.  You can set this up as a ratio as well, called Corsi For Percentage.  It is just a simple ratio of your Corsi For up against the Corsi Against, meaning Ovechkin’s Corsi For Percentage was 49.3 percent.

But what does that mean?  It means that Ovechkin generally wasn’t a great possession player.  Anything over 50 percent means that player was generally good at possessing the puck, and anything under means that player wasn’t good at possessing the puck.

Fenwick is pretty similar to Corsi.  It is calculated the exact same way, except it doesn’t include blocked shots or shots that missed the net.  It is generally used to calculate full-season, while Corsi is generally used on a game by game basis.  PDO is used to measure “Puck luck.”  It is calculated by adding up your shooting percentage when you are on the ice, plus your teams save percentage.  Anything over 100 PDO is considered lucky, while anything under is considered unlucky.  All of these numbers can not only be used to calculate individual performance, but it can be used on a larger scale team performance as well.

So, back to the collapse of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Why was it so obvious that they were going to drop deep into the standings?  Because they were the second worst Fenwick For percentage team in the league, but the sixth highest PDO.  They were consistently getting lucky, having an unattainable shooting percentage and save percentage, while also having horrible possession numbers.

But, is this the only time this has worked?  Not even close.

Ryan Getzlaf
This year, Ryan Getzlaf finished his season with 31 goals and 56 assists, nearly 30 points more since the last time he played a full season.  Why does he have such a huge increase?  Because this year, he finally had a high PDO.  His Fenwick numbers have stayed pretty consistent throughout his career, hovering around 51 to 52 percent.  But, this season, his PDO was 104.9, which is an astounding seven points higher since his last full season.

And what do teams with high Fenwick numbers look like?  The LA Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks and Boston Bruins have the highest Fenwick percentages.  Point wise, they finished with 100, 107, 111 and 117 points respectably, all among the top in the league.  And the teams with the lowest Fenwick percentages?  The Buffalo Sabres had the lowest, and finished with the least amount of points in the league, Toronto, Edmonton Oilers, who had the third lowest point total, and the Colorado Avalanche, who, interestingly enough, made the playoffs.  Maybe that’s because they had the third highest PDO number with 102.2.  Are they pretenders?


These statistics are continuing to grow and grow in popularity and usage.  In a conversation with Neil Greenberg, who was just hired as the stat geek (his words, not mine) at the Washington Post, says NHL front offices in Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, LA and Chicago already have individuals who understand these statistics working for them.  Conveniently, those teams are all in the playoffs.  And while you have hockey traditionalists, like Don Cherry, who call advanced statistics “a dumb-dumb stat,” the numbers really don’t lie.  And teams who develop an understanding for these statistics will see success.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Look At The Atlantic Division: The Florida Panthers



Florida Panthers, 2013-2014: 7th in the Atlantic Division with 66 points.  Did not qualify for playoffs.

Team Departures: Forwards Jesse Winchester (COL) and Scott Gomez (Currently UFA, not expected to re-sign).  Defensemen Tom Gilbert (MON) and Ed Jovanovski (Bought Out, current UFA).  Goaltender Scott Clemmensen (NJ).

Team Additions: Forwards Jussi Jokinen, Dave Bolland, Shawn Thornton and Dave MacKenzie.  Defenseman Willie Mitchell.  Goaltender Al Montoya.

2014 Draft: Defenseman Aaron Ekblad (1st overall), Forward Jayce Hawryluk (32nd overall), Forward Juho Lammikko (65th overall), Forward Joe Wegwerth (92nd overall), Forward Miguel Fidler (143rd overall), Goaltender Hugo Fagerblom (182nd overall).

Coaching and Front Office Changes: Head Coach Gerard Gallant, Assistant Coach Mark Morris, Assistant Coach Mike Kelly.

Caps Play The Florida Panthers Three Times.

The Florida Panthers played exceptionally poor last season, earning themselves the number one overall pick.  But they used that number one overall pick to acquire an exceptional player.  Will he and the other free agency signings turn the Panthers franchise around?

Forwards

This forward group has a lot of respected NHL veterans infused with young, raw talent.  The key to the Panthers success will be determined on whether or not the young guys grow in improvement.  It may be this season, it could be next season, but the future Florida superstar is already on the team, he just might not be ready yet.

Nick Bjugstad
There are really three young players that can fit that superstar forward mold: Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau.  Bjugstad gave the Panthers a glimpse of what he is capable of.  Bjugstad, a 22 year old center who stands at 6'6", had 38 points in 76 games last season for the Panthers, which led the team.  This was his first full season in the NHL.  He had played his last few years with the University of Minnesota, where he hovered around a point per game over his career.  He just has all the tools to be a fantastic player.  He uses his massive size to his advantage, shown through his 117 hits he threw last season, which ranked him in at 4th on the team.  What Florida likes about him is his two way game.  He plays defense intelligently, and knows where to be positionally.  He played a little bit more on the offensive side on the puck last season, but he will be very effective if the Panthers use him more defensively.  He only saw 27.2 minutes of penalty kill time on the entire season, and he was deployed in the offensive zone to start his shift 52.8 percent of the time.  The Panthers should aim towards using Bjugstad similarly to Patrice Bergeron, who plays primarily as a defensive forward, but is still capable of scoring points, a type of player Bjugstad could potentially become.  The big names in Florida have been Barkov and Huberdeau in recent years, but the biggest may very well be Bjugstad.

But that is no knock on either Barkov or Huberdeau.  Barkov, the 2013 2nd overall pick, played in 54 games in his rookie season, scoring eight goals and 16 assists.  He's just 18 years old, so the Panthers haven't even come close to seeing his max production.  He is a very creative player, and he will be out on the ice a lot this season.  He's going to have a little bit more offensive talent to work with with all of the Panthers incoming free agent acquisitions, which will easily help out his game.  I don't think we see a tremendous scoring output from Barkov this season, as he's still just a really young player, but seasons where he's churning out 60-80 point seasons are on the horizon.  Huberdeau took a bit of a hit this past season.  During the 2012-2013 NHL lockout, Huberdeau returned to the QMJHL with the Saint John Sea Dogs.  He was an offensive machine, scoring 16 goals and 29 assists in 30 games. By the time the NHL lockout ended, Huberdeau was definitely ready to transition into the NHL, and he did quite well.  He scored 14 goals and added 17 assists in 48 games, earning himself the Calder Trophy as the leagues top rookie.  But this past season, Huberdeau had just nine goals and 19 assists in 69 games.  He was projecting as a 20-30 goal scorer, but just completely fell short.  He missed part of last season with an upper body injury, but that was late in the year.  You have to wonder if he was playing through some sort of injury, because this past season was just not at the caliber of play he is capable of.  It makes you wonder, which season was a fluke?  I would tend to think that last season was Huberdeau's fluke year, and we will see a vast improvement this upcoming season.

The Florida Panthers went out and grabbed themselves some solid, role playing forwards this offseason.  Much like the Buffalo Sabres, the Panthers were desperately trying to get there cap above the cap of $51 million, and splurged there money on some proven players.  But what I particularly like is that they didn't just through their money at high name players, they specifically went out and grabbed certain players that they needed.  To me, that starts with Dave Bolland.  They forked over a lot of money for him ($27.5 million over five years), but what they got in return was a two way forward who can focus more defensively for the Panthers.  I like to see structure in a team, where there are clear two offensive-minded lines, a third line checking group that focuses primarily on defensive situations, and a 4th line grinding team that is capable of sparking a teams energy.  Bolland will fill in at the third line spot.  He's capable of scoring goals in all sorts of situations, and will fit nicely with Florida.  Shawn Thornton will be the heavy weight fighter for the team.  The Panthers were 18th in the league in fights, and forward Krys Barch had the majority of them.  Barch is no longer on the team, and Thornton will fill the void.  But no acquisition was better for the Panthers than Jussi Jokinen.  Jokinen scored 21 goals in a high powered Penguins offense.  He will see more time with the Panthers, and could potentially play alongside Barkov and Huberdeau.  Both could feed Jokinen the puck, and all will help each other on the ice.

Scottie Upshaw is coming off his best year yet, where he scored 15 goals and 22 assists in 76 games.  He has always been more of a goal scorer, and has never quite lived up to his full expectations, but he becomes an adequate second line option for the Panthers.  Another player that has let the Panthers rejuvenate his career is Brad Boyes.  Boyes was once a 40 goal scorer for the St. Louis Blues, but after very, very average years with the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Islanders the past three season, Boyes found his scoring touch again with Florida.  He was the only panther to crack the 20 goal plateau with 21 goals, and added 15 assists in 78 games.  He gives the Panthers another scoring option that can play on either the first or second line.  If he's centered with either Barkov or Bjugstad, he can consistently score 20 plus goals for the Panthers.  Speedy winger Tomas Fleischmann is coming off of a very poor year, where he only had eight goals and 20 assists in 80 games.  Considering his first year in Florida he finished with 61 points, and was on pace to crack 60 again in the lockout shortened season, Fleischmann could see his minutes drop with the addition of this years free agents and the growth of Florida's young talent.  Fleischmann is entering the last year of his contract with Florida, and will need to drastically improve this season if he wants a pay raise, or even a contract for that matter.

This is a surprisingly talented possession team, where the vast majority of their play is on the Panthers sticks in their offensive zone.  The problem with this team is, and I alluded to it earlier, they lack line structure, which they appeared to work on this offseason.  They also lack a true, pure goal scorer that successful teams clearly have.  If one of the young guys can be relied on to score 30 or more goals for the Panthers this season, Florida may be a surprising team.

Defensemen

No defenseman will be under a microscope more than 2014 first overall pick Aaron Ekblad this season.  He is quite possibly the most talented defenseman to come through the NHL draft in the past decade, and he has an immense amount of pressure to perform at a high level.  There's no doubt in anyones mind that Ekblad will be on the Panthers roster the entire season, barring injury of course.  He was just the second player ever to be granted exceptional status in the OHL, and he immediately showed why.  He has the size and demeanor of a 6 year NHL shutdown veteran, and he's just 18 years old.  He's become a leader on virtually every team he's been on, including this years World Junior Championship team for Canada, where, even though he was younger than the vast majority of players on the ice, he outperformed the opposition as the Canada's most reliable defenseman.  But, while he is tremendous defensively, he is also gifted offensively, scoring 23 goals and 30 assists in 58 games last year for the Barrie Colts in the OHL.  Ekblad has the potential to be a powerful, shutdown defenseman like Shea Weber, with the intelligence and grace of Nicklas Lidstrom.  He can be a truly special player.  Ultimately, Ekblad should be eased into the Panthers defensive unit.  He should start off on the third line, but he could easily work his way up towards the second and first line by the end of the season.

Aaron Ekblad
Arguably the Panthers best player is defenseman Brain Campbell.  He's a fantastic puck mover who led the team in assists last season with 30.  He is a power play and penalty kill fixture, and will be relied on heavily throughout the season to quarterback this teams defense.  He's 35, and by far the most experienced player on the Panthers roster.  Can he do it for another year?  I think his 50 point days are a thing of the past, but he is still capable of 30 point years, and having him move the puck around from the blue line does nothing but help for the Panthers.

Ekblad isn't the only young defenseman that can help out the Panthers blue line this year.  23 year old Dmitri Kulikov could potentially be the second line puck mover for Florida.  Kulikov has put up more than 25 points in two seasons for the Panthers since 2010.  But this past season, alongside since departed Tom Gilbert and Mike Weaver, Kulikov saw a little bit more defensive time against higher quality opposition.  Kulikov scored only 19 points in 81 games.  Could the Panthers be grooming him as the future top line defenseman for this team, or even a replacement for the aging Campbell?  It definitely appears so.  Kulikov could potentially find himself on the top line this season, but I believe his offensive style we be put to better use on the second line.

Incomer Willie Mitchell is coming off a Stanley Cup winning year with the Kings to potentially get more playing time in Florida.  Mitchell was a second line player for the Kings, and can find himself alongside Campbell on the top line.  He is a very experienced player, and a defensively conscious blue liner, and he can help out in multiple ways.  I think he can be effective on any line for different reasons.  He will be great on the first pairing with Campbell as the more stay at home guy, allowing Campbell to be a bit more aggressive offensively.  He can be effective for the same reason on the second line with Kulikov.  Or he could be effective on the third line with Ekblad, grooming him a bit more defensively.  Because Ekblad's offensive game is there, but he may not be NHL ready defensively.  Mitchell could provide a bit more guidance for Ekblad to improve him as a player than anyone else on the ice.

Just by adding Mitchell and Ekblad, this is an improved defensive unit that has a bit of focus both defensively and offensively.

Goaltending


Roberto Luongo
Roberto Luongo finally found a more peaceful home for hockey in Florida, where he won't be constantly hounded by the media for sub-par (actually, was it ever sub-par?) play.  Luongo originally developed his game in Florida, which earned him his long, long, long contract with the Vancouver Canucks.  When the Panthers traded for Luongo and his long contract (though part of his contract was retained by the Canucks, which is great for the Panthers), they acquired a true franchise goaltender.  Last season, Luongo recorded a .924 save percentage and a 2.46 goals against average in his 14 games with the Panthers, both improvements on his earlier season with the Canucks.  Is that due to a lower sample size with the Panthers, or the fact that a huge amount of pressure has been lifted off of Luongo's shoulders?  I think it's a bit of both, but Luongo will have a fantastic year with the Panthers.  He has a respectable defense in front of him, and hovering around a .920 save percentage.  The happy-go-lucky goaltender will enjoy his time in the sun.

He will be joined by Al Montoya, the goaltender for the Winnipeg Jets last season.  In 28 games last season, Montoya had a .920 save percentage and a 2.30 goals against average.  Those are fantastic numbers for a backup.  That's a large from the last time he saw that many games, when he made 31 appearances for the New York Islander, and only stopped .893 percent of his shots.  It's difficult to tell where his upcoming season projects save percentage-wise, but the Panthers appear to have a solid backup goaltender

What does this mean for the Panthers?  Well, they have one goalie who has been way overused in his past seasons in Luongo, who has played as many as 75 games for the Panthers in one season in the past.  If he has a goaltender in Montoya that can be relied on to play 30 games or so, that allows the 35 year old Luongo more rest throughout the season.  So, if you take away the immense pressure Luongo was under, and add the fact that he has a reliable backup, that gives you with a rejuvenated franchise goaltender capable of carrying a team a long way when it matters.

Prospects

Ekblad will continue being the biggest prospect the Panthers have, but he is almost a sure thing in the NHL this season.  But, who do the Panthers have in waiting?  Actually, a lot more defensemen.

The Panthers have two defensemen in waiting that both conveniently play for Boston College in Ian McCoshen and Mike Matheson.  I'm a big fan of McCoshen's game.  He's a great offensive defenseman that five goals and eight assists in 35 games for the Eagles.  He's got great size at 6'3", 205 lbs., but he doesn't play a very physical game for his size.  His ceiling may be limited to a second line defenseman in the NHL, but I think McCoshen can be a very good defenseman for the Panthers.  He will return to Boston for his sophomore year with the Eagles, and is still quite some time from wearing a Panthers sweater.  Matheson will be entering his junior year with Boston College, and will continue lining up alongside McCoshen.  He's another puck mover like McCoshen.  He doesn't have McCoshen's size, but he plays a bit more intelligently on the defensive side of the puck.  He will serve as Boston College's captain this season.  He, alongside McCoshen, provides a bright future for the Panthers defensive unit.

Most of the young offensive talent the Panthers have are already on the team in Barkov, Huberdeau and Bjugstad.  But there is one really little guy that will be waiting for his turn in Rocco Grimaldi.  Grimaldi is just 5'6", but plays with a lot of heart and skill wherever he goes.  He's played the last three years at the University of North Dakota, scoring 31 goals and 46 assists in 86 games.  He also served on the United States World Junior team in 2013, scoring two goals and two assists in seven games.  He skipped out on his senior year with North Dakota, and will most likely skate in the AHL with the San Antonio Rampage.  His size will always be in question, as he's two inches shorter than short super star Martin St. Louis.  Does he have the talent to make it to the NHL?  Yes, some day.  But, will he ever be effective playing against guys that are six inches taller than him?  Probably not.  But don't tell him I said that.

Player to Watch

I think it's definitely Jonathan Huberdeau.  This was supposed to be his team just two years ago, but with the addition of Barkov, the emergence of Bjugstad, and the presence of Ekblad bring that into question.  He came flying into the league as the leagues top rookie, but spiraled downwards in his second season.  He needs to prove to the Panthers that he is the face of the franchise.  Am I being too hard on him?  Definitely.  But it's because I think he can be a consistent 60-70 point guy.  He has plenty of time to get it together, but if he puts up another season like his last, a lot of questions are going to surround him when his entry level contract runs out this season.

Offseason News

Florida's cameras have been zeroed in on Ekblad anytime he steps foot on the ice or becomes available in the locker room.  He has the poise of a veteran, and speaks carefully when interviewed.  He's the real deal.

And because Florida knows he's the real deal, there was a collective gasp from Panthers Nation (or County, they probably don't have a big enough fan base to be considered a nation) when he suffered a concussion in Canada's World Junior exhibition game with the Czech Republic.  He will most likely be ok by the Panthers season opener, but it still is not fun to read about your hockey savior getting injured in preparation for a tournament he probably won't play in.

Final Evaluation

This team will surprise you.  They greatly improved their goaltending, which was a primary problem for them these past couple of seasons.  They went out and grabbed some role players for their team that desperately needed it at the forwards possession.  They have young guys that latched another year under their belts and are expected to improve.  There defense is relatively solid and they have one of the top defensive prospects the hockey world has ever seen.  This team will be fighting for a playoff spot.  They probably won't get it, but I definitely don't think this is a lottery pick team.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Look At The Atlantic Division: The Detroit Red Wings



Detroit Red Wings, 2013-2014: 4th in Atlantic Division with 93 points.  Eliminated in Conference Quarterfinals by the Boston Bruins in a 4-1 series.

Team Departures: Todd Bertuzzi (Currently UFA, not expected to return) and David Legwand (OTT). (Note: Daniel Alfredsson is currently a UFA, but it sounds like he may return to the Red Wings this season).

Team Additions: Forward Kevin Porter.

2014 Draft: Forward Dylan Larkin (15th overall), Forward Dominic Turgeon (63rd overall), Forward Christoffer Ehn (106th overall), Goaltender Chase Perry (136th overall), Forward Julius Vahatalo (166th overall), Forward Axel Holmstrom (196th overall), Forward Alexander Kadeikin (201st overall).

Coaching and Front Office Changes: No significant changes.

The Caps play the Red Wings Three Times.

The Detroit Red Wings were able to battle through the season, even after suffering numerous injuries to critical players, to make it to their 23rd consecutive playoff appearance, the longest active streak in any major sport.  But this offseason, the Red Wings made virtually zero changes to their roster.  Will the streak continue for another year?

Forwards

Everyone always gives Detroit a rough time for being an "old team," constantly being led by players past their prime with experience.  That wasn't the case last season, when the total opposite players were entrusted in carrying Detroit to the playoffs.  None were more impressive than Gustav Nyquist.  The 24 year old had played partially with Detroit for the past two seasons.  He will now see himself in a permanent spot after scoring 28 goals and 20 assists in 57 games.  He's the latest late round gem of the Detroit Red Wings, selected 121st overall in the 2008 draft.

Johan Franzen
This year, Nyquist should see a little bit more of a healthy squad.  Just to give you an idea of how badly injured this team was, only forward to see a full 82 games was Drew Miller, who plays a bottom six role on the team.  Both Captain Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk only saw 45 games of action all season.  Datsyuk is easily one of the top five players in the world.  He has unbelievably quick hands, and is an absolute wizard with the puck.  In his 45 games, Datsyuk scored 17 goals and added 20 assists.  He is realistically capable of scoring 70-80 points.  But his health is coming into question after he suffered a knee injury last season.  He's 36 years old, and while he is a superhuman on the ice, you can't help but wonder if he can perform at an elite level consistently throughout the year.  In Zetterberg's short 45 game stint, he scored 16 goals and added 32 assists.  It's the second year in a row that Zetterberg has scored more than a point per game.  If he can remain healthy, he is capable of a 90 point year, as he has appeared to play at the top of his game since being named team captain.  Another Red Wing stud that had difficulty with his health was Johan Franzen.  Franzen is a big power forward type player that compliments a guy like Zetterberg or Datsyuk perfectly.  He will get all of the rebounds, make all the ugly plays and score all the garbage goals.

One of the young guys that really found his game this past year was Tomas Tatar.  Tatar scored 19 goals and 20 assists in 73 games this past season.  He's just 23 (drafted 60th overall in 2009), and what we saw this past season was just a glimpse of his game.  Tatar has the potential to be a dynamic goal scorer in this league.  He is not a very big player, so he has to rely on his speed and outsmarting his opponents, which will grow with time.  Tatar became one of the leaders for the team when the times got tough this past season.  His play earned him a brand new contract, where he's set to make $2.75 million over the next three years.

I'm personally a gigantic fan of Darren Helm.  He is a prototypical third line center that will play his heart out.  In just 42 games, Helm threw 73 hits, on pace for second on his team.  The difficult thing with Helm's style is that while he's physical, he's also really small at just 5'11" and 190 lbs.  He is bound to suffer from numerous injuries throughout each season, which will cost him games.  He's already suffered a back injury, a shoulder injury and battled concussions.  He only played in one game in 2013, and missed half of them this season.  But when he's healthy, the Red Wings get a guy capable of 40 to 50 points.

Stephen Weiss was the Red Wings big signing for the 2013 offseason, and he proved to be a huge disappointment.  Weiss played in 26 games last year, scoring just two goals and two assists.  That is absolutely terrible for a guy who has an AAV at $4.9 million through 2018.  But the Red Wings shouldn't right off Weiss just yet.  He played the entire year with a sports hernia, and admitted that he never should have played through it.  This guy scored 20 goals consistently for the Florida Panthers, he will be able to do just fine in Detroit when he's healthy.  Daniel Alfredsson also made a big splash last offseason when he walked away from the Ottawa Senators to join the Red Wings.  Alfredsson became the co-leader in points with 49 in 68 games.  He's currently a free agent, but Detroit Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland has already discussed bringing Alfredsson back, but in a more reserved role.

While the Red Wings were an injury riddled team last year, the forwards were able to possess the puck quite well.  Zetterberg was used as the shutdown forward for the team, and was still able to out possess his opponents.  The vast majority of the Red Wings started off in the offensive zone.  The only glaring point to note on with the possession numbers is how incredibly sheltered Tatar and Riley Sheahan were.  Both players started in the offensive half of the ice more than 60 percent of the time at the start of their shift against very low competition.  The main concern would be with Tatar.  If teams start stacking even remotely better opponents against him, how much will his production drop?

Defensemen

Niklas Kronwall continued to be the defensive superstar that he is.  He is an incredibly underrated player offensively, and an outstanding defensive player.  He was first on his team in shots blocked with 154, and third in hits with 93.  But, Kronwall hits hard.  Really, really hard.  But he doesn't just play great defense.  Kronwall, alongside Alfredsson, actually led the team in points with 49.  He also led the team in assists with 41.  Obviously, he won't lead the team again, but to have a guy that is as good as Kronwall at defense contribute that well offensively, he becomes extremely valuable.  And he's signed at just $4.75 million until 2019!  He is a bonafide shutdown defenseman.

The Red Wings also found a gem in Danny DeKeyser.  The undrafted defenseman was second on the team in time on ice per game with 20.1 minutes.  He's just 24, and has good size at 6'3".  He has the potential to be a top line defenseman, but he just needs to get more physical.  He has the size, but he relies more on his hockey instinct.  If he becomes more aggressive with guys on the puck, he will improve immensely, and would even be heavily considered to contribute more on the penalty kill.

Johnathan Ericsson signed a long term deal starting this upcoming season.  He is the defensive partner for Kronwall, and the match works perfectly.  Kronwall is more of a puck mover, and while Ericsson is as well, he is more of a stay at home defenseman.  This allows Kronwall to be a little bit more aggressive offensively.  Ericsson missed nearly half the season last year.  Having him back provides the blue line with a little more security.

Kyle Quincey re-signed with the Red Wings this year, and I believe the only reason the Red Wings signed him was just pure desperation.  Quincey was once a highly offensive player.  Now, he's just kind of...there.  I mean, he does contribute on the penalty kill, but he's just not at the level that you would expect.  Like I said, he's just kind of...there.  He can't be trusted in a shutdown role against a teams top line, and you just feel like he can give up a goal at any given point.

On the third line, Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl are right where they need to be.  Smith is just 25, and he's coming off a relatively productive year with five goals and 14 assists.  Jakub Kindl is not a very physical player, but he plays intelligently.  Again, these guys should just be limited to third line defensive roles.  In fact, they can't even really be given any penalty kill or power play time.  But in the third line, they get the job done, and that's really what Detroit needs from them.

Goaltending


Jimmy Howard
Jimmy Howard is this teams franchise goaltender.  He plays with a bit of an attitude, which is an excellent quality in a goaltender.  Last season, Howard recorded a .910 save percentage and a 2.66 goals against average.  Both are among his career worsts.  Initially, you'd look at how many games he played.  He was the goaltender in 51 games this year.  That's not that much.  I think it's more about the injuries the Red Wings faced, and the defense they had to put in front of Howard as a result of them.  It's easy to throw a forward on the ice and tell him to go score a goal, something he's done his whole life.  But it's harder for a new player to adjust to the speed and style of a top NHL opponent.  A bounce back year should be expected from Howard, where we see a mid-.920's save percentage for him.

Howard is will again be joined by Jonas Gustavsson as his backup.  Gustavsson played in 27 games for the Red Wings, winning 16 of them with a .907 save percentage and a 2.63 goals against average. Both numbers are actually a career high for Gustavsson, who suffered through three seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Those numbers are average to below average for a backup.  Is he a fantastic option for the Red Wings?  Probably not.  But can he adequately relieve Howard every once in a while and still give the Red Wings a chance to win?  Yes.

Prospects

The Red Wings were forced to dip into their prospect pool last season with all the injuries, giving Tomas Jurco and Sheahan solid NHL experience.  They did quite well, but the Red Wings still have a couple of guys waiting for their turn.  None are better than forward Anthony Mantha, a big, strong forward at 6'4" and 205 lbs. who is lighting up the QMJHL's Val-d'Or Foreurs.  Last season he put up an astounding 57 goals and 63 assists for 120 points in 57 games.  What makes him so great is his power, both physically and his shot, matched with his speed.  This guy appears to be one of the steals of the 2013 draft.  But the Red Wings will most likely take their time with Mantha.  He's already signed an entry level contract, and does have a legitimate shot at making the team, but he will most likely see the majority of his time next season in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins.  If the Red Wings have a similar injury situation this season, Mantha may be the first to be brought up to the team.

The Red Wings also have defenseman Xavier Ouellet in their arsenal.  Ouellet already has four games of NHL experience at just 21, but he played the majority of his 2013-2014 year in Grand Rapids.  He scored four goals and 13 assists in 70 games.  He's not a very physical guy, but he does play intelligently.  It might be quite some time until he sees consistent NHL ice time, but Ouellet definitely has a future spot on the Red Wings.

This years first round draft pick Dylan Larkin was frequently described as a future captain by NHL analysts.  In 26 games with the National Development team, Larkin had 17 goals and nine assists.  He is a strong power skater that will give it his all every game.  He will conveniently play for the University of Michigan this year, and will more than likely make the World Junior Championship squad, possibly as a captain.  The Red Wings also drafted a familiar name in Dominic Turgeon, the son of former first overall pick Pierre Turgeon.  Dominic probably won't score 500 career goals like his father, but he does play a respectable two way game.  He's a long way from the NHL, and will return to the Portland Winterhawks this upcoming season.

Player to Watch


Gustav Nyquist
The player to watch on the Red Wings is Gustav Nyquist.  There are multiple reasons to keep your
eye on him.  One, will he be able to play at an elite level, or was last year a fluke?  Ok, ignore what I just wrote, last year was not a fluke.  Two, how well will he be able to play when he has a consistent line mate like Zetterberg or Datsyuk to play with?  Alright, I'll answer that one...it will be magical.  And three, watch him because he is magical and is capable of a highlight reel play every time he touches the puck.  Just watch him, ok?

Offseason News

The biggest offseason news for the Detroit Red Wings was the fact that there was no offseason news for the Detroit Red Wings.  Once the go to destination for any free agent hockey talent, the Red Wings failed to reel any major player in after numerous tries.  Is Detroit losing it's hockey luster?

Final Evaluation

The Red Wings playoff chances will be close this year.  They were an injury depleted team last season, and still managed to make the playoffs.  With a healthy Zetterberg, Datsyuk and virtually a healthy everyone, this team is a contender.  But, if they get bit by an injury bug again, they may not be as lucky.  It's also disheartening to see that they failed to sign anyone of significance this offseason.  I believe their unbelievable playoff streak is winding down to a close...but I certainly wouldn't bet against it.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Look At The Atlantic Division: The Buffalo Sabres



Buffalo Sabres, 2013-2014:  8th in Atlantic Division with 52 points.  Did not qualify for playoffs.

Team Departures:  Forwards John Scott (SJ), Cory Conacher (NYI) and Kevin Porter (DET).  Defensemen Christian Ehrhoff (PIT).

Team Additions: Forwards Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Cody McCormick, Jordan Samuels-Thomas and Zac Dalpe.  Defensemen Andrej Meszaros, Tyson Strachan and Andre Benoit.

2014 Draft: Forward Sam Reinhart (2nd overall), Forward Brendan Lemieux (31st overall), Forward Eric Cornel (44 overall), Forward Vaclav Karabacek (49th overall), Goaltender Jonas Johansson (61st overall), Defenseman Brycen Martin (74th overall), Forward Maxwell Willman (121st overall), Forward Christopher Brown (151st overall), Forward Victor Olofsson (181st overall).

Coaching and Front Office Changes: No significant changes.

The Caps Play The Sabres Three Times.

The Sabres finished dead last last season.  You know what, that doesn't even do there awfulness justice.  How about, they actually had the fewest amount of points in the since 2004-2005, or the beginning of the salary cap era.  So, last years team was literally one of the worst teams we've ever seen in the modern day of hockey.  So, the question is, will the Sabres suck more or less than they did last year?  The answer might surprise you (well, it probably won't, but for the love of God, I have to make this post somewhat interesting so you continue reading).

Forwards

The forward unit was an absolute mess last year.  Their best forward may have been Tyler Ennis, who is a solid player.  He finished the year with 21 goals, best on his team, and 43 points, good for second.  Ennis has really suffered with the Sabres for the past few years.  He's a good player, and just 24.  But he's being used as the top line center.  On this team, he easily should be the top line center, but on any other good team, he'd be considered a solid second, really good third line center.  He and fellow Sabre Cody Hodgson were the ones that kept Buffalo afloat.  Is that even a good way to describe it?  Afloat?  Maybe those two kept the Sabres from being considered an AHL team.  Hodgson will be coming off his most productive year yet, where he finished with 44 points.  Hodgson is also only 24, so the fact that the Sabres are being led by two young guys in a rebuilding era in Buffalo is a relatively good sign.

Tyler Ennis
But this year, these two will have some help.  The Sabres brought back Matt Moulson.  Moulson bounced all around the league last season, where he first started with the New York Islanders, was traded to Buffalo for Tomas Vanek, and was traded again at the trade deadline alongside Cody McCormick to Minnesota for Torrey Mitchell and two second round picks.  Moulson scored 41 points last year, but he is a legitimate 50-60 point guy.  He will be the Sabres clear first line winger, and he will be apart of the rebuild for Buffalo for the long haul, as he signed a contract through 2019.  Buffalo also managed to bring in Brian Gionta from Montreal.  Montreal was in a tough cap situation, and would have loved to bring their captain back.  He had 18 goals and 22 assists, and played a role in the Canadiens playoff run.  But Buffalo was just able to sign him for far more money than the Habs could.  But, at 35, how much does Gionta have left in the tank?  He will most likely be the core leader on a team full of young, inexperienced talent.  You may not see his production on the ice, but this is the exact type of guy the Sabres needed to bring in.

One player that could potentially develop into the Sabres top player this season is Chris Stewart.  Stuart was sent to Buffalo just before the trade deadline when the St. Louis Blues acquired goaltender Ryan Miller.  Stewart is a ferocious power forward that is not afraid to drop the gloves.  He played more of a third line role with the Blues, as they are just littered with scorers all throughout the lineup.  In 58 games for the Blues, Stewart scored 15 goals, which is pretty solid production from a third line player on a stacked team.  But in Buffalo, Stewart should see first to second line minutes.  The last time Stewart had that prominent of a role was in his time with the Colorado Avalanche, where Stewart scored 28 goals.  He is more than capable of reaching that number with Buffalo, as he will be heavily relied on the power play and he'll see a lot of minutes.

Marcus Foligno may see an increased role on the team as well.  He is a high energy type player that has some size to him at 6'3".  He's also just 23, and put up 19 points in 74 games last season.  He hasn't reached his full potential, but on a good team, Foligno is capable of 30 points.  It might be quite some time until we see that kind of production from him, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see his point production increase this season.  Drew Stafford is the grizzly veteran (at just 28) for this team.  He becomes a free agent in 2015, so it will be interesting to see if he sticks it out through the rebuild period to see some success with the Sabres.  He's stuck with them this long, so why not?

This forward unit is hard to judge because they are just so young.  Sabres General Manager Tim Murray brought in a policy that allowed some of the young guys to develop in juniors and the AHL.  His goal was to allow their young talent to develop in a winning atmosphere, as opposed to stunting their growth with a terrible Sabres team.  He's definitely not wrong, but it would be suspected that a couple of forwards will see some time this year (more on that later).

But to give you an idea just how bad this team was, not a single player had a fenwick score higher than 50 percent, meaning every player was out-possesed.  And even worse, not a single player started in the offensive zone more than 50 percent, meaning the puck was in their half waaaaaay more than it was in the offensive half of the ice.  So the Sabres really can't get much worse than they were last year.  Can they?

Defensemen

The best Sabres defenseman last year was Christian Ehrhoff.  He was virtually the only solid NHL defenseman the Sabres had last year.  But this offseason, the Sabres opted to exercise their compliance buyout on Ehrhoff.

But the Sabres did bring in two respected NHL defensemen in Josh Gorges and Andrej Meszaros.  Gorges is an underrated defenseman, who brought leadership to the Canadiens blue line last year.  His possession wasn't fantastic, but he was used in a shutdown role for Montreal last season, and played 20.9 minutes per game, third on the Canadiens.  But he did block 177 shots last season, second highest on his team.  He also played the most minutes among defensemen on the penalty kill.  He will be used in a very similar situation for the Sabres, a shutdown defensive role that will eat up a lot of minutes on the penalty kill.  He will also be the experienced veteran for the Sabres on what will be a very young defensive corps.  And the best news about Gorges is that he actually wants to play for Buffalo.  Gorges had a no trade clause in his contract.  He blocked a trade that would have sent him to Toronto, but was happy to be sent to Buffalo. Meszaros will never wow you on the ice, but he is a solid second line defenseman that has recently served for solid Flyers and Bruins blue lines.  His possession numbers are sub-par, but the Sabres will be happy that they got an NHL defenseman capable of logging minutes.

Tyler Myers
The most interesting player among the Sabres defensemen is Tyler Myers.  Myers is a gargantuan 6'8" former Calder Trophy winner that just has loads of potential.  What makes him interesting?  His play has slipped dramatically ever since his rookie year.  He started off his career as a 40 point player, and has since dropped to half of that production.  But that's not even the half of it.  His possession numbers went from  52.8 percent fenwick in 2010 to a 43.4 fenwick score this season.  He was also on the ice for 22 more goals against this past season than he was on the ice for goals for, his worst ever.  He is just going in the polar opposite direction than what was expected of him.  But the Sabres haven't given up on him yet.  Myers just needs to play smarter hockey.  He certainly uses his size to his advantage (he threw 107 hits this past season), but something is obviously not right.  Now, obviously he plays for a bad team, and that will hurt his numbers, but Myers isn't even doing exceptionally well when compared to his teammates.  He just needs to get it together, and he is more than capable of playing a high quality form of hockey.  Having a defensive minded, experienced partner in Gorges can certainly help.

Mark Pysyk could be the one that fills in for Ehrhoff's offensive production on the blue line.  Pysyk played 44 games for the Sabres last year, and played quite well.  His fenwick relative rating was +2.5 percent, and he generally saw second line minutes.  He's just 22 years old, so he's already gained a decent amount of NHL experience (he also played 19 games in the shortened 2013 season).  In his junior playing years, Pysyk twice recorded over 30 assists for the Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL.  Puck movers like Pysyk really help out any team, and if he can discover his offensive game, it will only benefit the Sabres.

This is actually a super exciting defensive unit because they could potentially play three really, really young guys that have extremely high expectations (more on that later).

Goaltending

The Sabres started off the year with one of the top goaltenders in the league in Ryan Miller.  He was sent to St. Louis, and the Sabres acquired solid goaltender Jaroslav Halak.  Then he was traded away to the Washington Capitals for goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who they see as a goaltender in their future.

Now, the Sabres have two solid goaltenders that will play as duel threats for the Sabres in Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth.  It is fair to say that these two are pretty equal in talent, and will play the season pretty much 50-50 this year.  Neuvirth only played in 15 games last year and only won four of them.  But, he did have a .921 save percentage and let in 2.78 goals a game.  Enroth played in 28 games last year.  He also won four of them.  He recorded a .911 save percentage and let in 2.82 goals a game.  Over their careers, these guys have both hovered around the .910 range in save percentage and the upper 2's in goals against per game.  Both are 26, and really haven't entered their prime yet.  It's good to see for the Sabres that they do have a decent amount of games played at this point in their careers.  Are they good?  Yes.  Can they be franchise goaltenders?  Probably not.  But can they be effectively used as a dual combo throughout the season?  Yes.

Prospects

You know how all throughout this post I've just been saying "more on that later."  Well, this is why.  Most of the players that will play prominent roles for the Sabres, some this year and some within the next two years, haven't even played half a season in the NHL yet.  None are more important to the Sabres future than center Sam Reinhart, this years second overall pick and the youngest brother of the Reinhart clan.  Reinhart can do it all.  He played as one of the top penalty killers for Canada's World Junior team, where he was playing with guys that were a year or so older than him.  He can also destroy you on the power play.  And, of course, he's solid at even strength.  He's a little undersized for a two-way center at just 6'0" and 185 lbs., but, of course, he still has room to grow at just 18.  Last year for the Kootenay Ice in the WHL, Reinhart had 36 goals, 69 assists for 105 points in just 60 games, good for 5th in all of the WHL.  He plays smart, disciplined hockey, he only had 11 penalty minutes last season.  Reinhart is the type of player that Buffalo will build a franchise around, and he has the potential to become the next Jonathan Toews-type player.

Rasmus Ristolainen
But he's not the only one that the Sabres are waiting for.  Those three young defensemen that will play big roles for the Sabres, possibly even this season?  Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov and Jake McCabe.  Ristolainen has already played 34 games for the Sabres.  He's 6'4", and has a little bit of offense to his game.  In the World Juniors for Finland, Ristolainen had three goals in five games.  And in 34 games for the AHL Rochester Americans, he had six goals and 20 assists.  That translated to the NHL, where he's scored two goals and two assists, and he's just 19 years old.  The 2013 8th overall pick just plays intelligent, and will one day be a top line defenseman for the Sabres.  Fellow 2013 pick Zadorov is even bigger than Ristolainen at 6'5".  Just think about that.  The Sabres could have 6'8" Myers, 6'4" Ristolainen and 6'5" Zadorov.  That's a lot of hockey player on the blue line.  Anyways, Zadorov is also a little more offensive minded than the average defensemen.  He's also played seven games for the Sabres, recording one goal.  But he played the vast majority of his 2013-2014 season with the OHL's London Knights.  Zadorov had 11 goals and 19 assists in 36 games.  He also translated his offensive style to the World Junior tournament with Russia, scoring four goals and an assist in seven games.  He and fellow Sabres prospect Ristolainen earned All Star honors at the World Junior Championships.  Right behind those guys in talent is Jake McCabe.  McCabe has played the last three years at Wisconsin for the Badgers.  Like the other two, McCabe is a two way player.  McCabe scored eight goals and 17 assists in 36 games at Wisconsin.  He also captained the 2013 World Junior Championship team for the USA, where he won a gold medal.  And, you guessed it, he was apart of the 2013 all star team at the World Junior Championships.  He signed an entry level contract with Buffalo this year, foregoing his senior year at Wisconsin.  These three could easily find themselves on the opening roster this season.

But that's not all.  Center Mikhail Grigorenko should find himself on the team full time as well.  He's played 43 games for the Sabres over the course of the past two years, but has never been able to stay full time (partially because of Murray's philosophy).  He's 6'3" and plays a strong, physical game.  He's not defensively apt to play on the fourth line, but may do so anyway on this team if he is to make the roster this year.  He played the majority of his year with the Quebec Ramparts in the QMJHL, scoring 15 goals and 24 assists in 23 games.  He also saw time in Rochester, recording four assists in nine games.  This may finally be the year he fully makes it with the Sabres.  Joel Armia is also big at 6'3".  The Finnish forward has played with full grown men his whole life, and has excelled at the International level.  Last year with Rochester, he scored seven goals and recorded 20 assists.  There may not be room for him on this years team, but he is getting very close to cracking the lineup.  Another forward at picked up at this years draft was second round pick Brendan Lemieux.  The son of former NHL enforcer Claude Lemieux is pretty much the exact type of player that his dad was.  He recorded 145 penalty minutes for the OHL Barrie Colts, but also added 27 goals and 26 assists in 65 games.  He hasn't signed with Buffalo yet, meaning he will probably return to the OHL for another season, but he could be a force on the ice for the Sabres one day.

Player to Watch

Tyler Myers will be the player to watch until this team actually becomes good.  He's signed through 2019 at $5.5 million.  This team had the option of buying out his contract, or even moving him, but instead opted not to.  I agree 100% with that decision, but it's up to Myers to prove the Sabres right.

Offseason News

The Cap floor was set at $51 million, and after the Ehrhoff and Ville Leino buyouts (Both Ehrhoff and Leino were set to make $4 million this year) the Sabres were around $20 million short of making the cap floor.  The Sabres went out and bought five players on the first day of free agency, doling out a hefty amount of cash to pretty respectable players.  Did they do too much?

Final Evaluation

This will still be a bad team.  They definitely improved from last season, but they have far too many inexperienced and young players to expect anything more than a last place finish.  That being said, the future of this organization is incredibly bright, with talent in waiting scattered all around.  They will be an outstanding team within five years.  But the Sabres did go out and get pretty good players.  This is a team that will be fighting to secure a top pick so they can land Jack Eichel or Connor McDavid in next years draft.  Did the Sabres get too good to secure the top pick?  My gut says no, but they are certainly making it close.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Look At The Atlantic Division: The Boston Bruins



Boston Bruins, 2013-2014: First in Atlantic with 117 points.  Eliminated in in Conference Semifinals by the Montreal Canadiens in a 4-3 series.

Team Departures:  Forwards Jarome Iginla (COL) and Shawn Thornton (FL).  Defensemen Andrej Meszaros (BUF) and Mike Moore (WSH).  Goaltender Chad Johnson (NYI).

Team Arrivals: Goaltender Jeremy Smith.

2014 Draft Picks: Forward David Pastrnak (25th overall), Forward Ryan Donato (56th overall), Forward Danton Heinen (116th overall), Forward Anders Bjork (146th overall), Defenseman Emil Johansson (206th overall).

Coaching and Front Office Changes:  No significant changes.

Caps Play The Bruins Three Times.

The Boston Bruins continued their dynasty of excellence in the regular season, winning the Presidents Trophy as the leagues top team.  They seemed destined for a deep playoff run, with scorers scattered all throughout the lineup, a tough (but depleted) blue line and a Vezina winning goaltender.  But, their season ended with a game seven loss and a player threatening to murder opponents in the second degree.  Murder probably won't happen, but the Bruins are once again expected to finish out on top, and add another Lord Stanley to their rich collection.

Forwards

Boston's forward group is among the best in the league.  They have four complete lines, and each player knows his role well.

There are few players better at what they do then Patrice Bergeron.  Bergeron, the winner of the 2013-2014 Selke Trophy (his second time), is the definition of a two-way forward.  Only forward Chris Kelly started off in the defensive zone more times than Bergeron, and no forward played against higher competition than Bergeron.  And what was he able to do against opponents top forwards and defensemen, starting primarily in the wrong half of the ice?  He was still able to put more shots on target than any player on this team.  In fact, no person in the entire league had better possession numbers than Bergeron.  A strong argument could be made that Bergeron is the most valuable player a team could possibly have.  Even while starting in a defensive role, Bergeron co-led his team in goals with 30, and was tied for third on the team in assists, making him second on the team in points.  He's the future captain of this team, and fully expect him to have an incredible season.

David Krecji
I could gush about Bergeron for an entire post, but there are far more players in the Bruins
organization than just Patrice.  David Krecji led the team in assists and points last season, with 50 and 69, respectively.  He has quietly become the Bruins most productive offensive player.  I mean, everyone in Boston knows him well, but outside of the Boston, he isn't really one of the go to guys when you're talking about the leagues top offensive players.  The 60 to 70 point range has pretty much become the norm for Krecji, and playing top line minutes for the Bruins will certainly almost guarantee he produces again.

There are two types of players every team needs:  a point producing power forward, and a point producing pest.  The Bruins may have the best players at both in Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand.  Lucic is a bear of a hockey player at 6'4" and 235 lbs., and definitely uses his size to his advantage.  He fought seven times last season, and scored 24 goals and 35 assists.  There are just few, if any, players that have his strength and speed.  Lucic could see top line minutes this year.  Marchand is one of those extremely annoying players who slash you across the hands, talk a lot of smack, and maybe even hit you late.  But theres a difference between a guy like Marchand and a guy like, say, Matt Cooke or Sean Avery at the height of their fame.  Cooke and Avery sucked at virtually every other aspect of hockey (though Cooke was a good penalty killer at his time with the Penguins), but Marchand is a pretty solid forward.  He's coming off his second most productive year as a Bruin with 53 points.  Like Lucic, few are better at their specific role than Marchand, and though you may hate his guts, he is a pretty good hockey player.

Last year, the Bruins dove into the offseason with a blockbuster trade that sent former 2nd overall pick Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Ryan Button to Dallas in exchange for Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser and Joseph Morrow.  Whether or not the Bruins lost that exchange is up for debate (I think they ultimately did, as Seguin has the right tools to be a franchise player, if he's not already), but few expected that Reilly Smith would be the big return for Boston.  In his first full 82 game season, Smith turned in 20 goals and 31 assists.  Smith produced well for the top lines, and will return there this season, where it would be expected that he improve on his numbers.  That's no knock on Eriksson, who missed 21 total games from a couple of concussions from brutal hits from Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik and Buffalo Sabres forward John Scott.  Eriksson was a consistent 25-30 goal scorer for the Dallas Stars, and he should see an increased role on the team, earning top line minutes.  It's not impossible for Eriksson to push 35 goals, if he remains healthy.

This forward group was near perfection possession-wise.  Only Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille and since departed Shawn Thornton finished with negative possession numbers.  Really only defensive forwards Bergeron and Chris Kelly started off primarily in the defensive zone, because the Bruins really contain the puck in the other half of the ice.  There is one type of player this team is missing, a bonafide goal scorer.  They had that in Jarome Iginla, who has now moved on to the Colorado Avalanche in his desperate search for a Stanley Cup.  Iginla was really the only pure goal scorer the Bruins had, though they wished he would have been a 28 year old Iginla rather than a 37 year old one.  But, he still scored 30 goals, but the Bruins really lack that 40-50 goal scorer that some teams do have.  They have a ton of playmakers, a ton of really good playmakers, but if they had a guy capable of scoring 40 plus goals matched up with a guy like Krecji, their goal output would increase dramatically.  The Bruins may look to the trade deadline for a goal scoring rental, say Bobby Ryan, who enters his last year of his contract with the Ottawa Senators.  But, there is no doubt this is one of the top forward units already in the NHL.

Defensemen

Last season, the Bruins suffered many injuries, forcing them to require Andrej Meszaros as a rental piece for a Stanley Cup run.  This year, the Bruins stout defense should be at full force, and expect another solid output.

Aging shutdown defenseman Zdeno Chara was still tremendously productive, even without fellow shutdown line mate Dennis Seidenberg.  Chara is slowing down, after all he's a 6'9" 37 year old.  Including next season, he still has four years left on his contract.  But, at what point does his game become too diminished to be considered a top shutdown defenseman?  I mean, I'm being overly dramatic, because he still finished at the top of his team in time on ice, second in hits and second in blocked shots, and faced the highest competition among his team with a positive possession rating.  But he plays such a physical, powerful game that at some point, his body is just going to be forced to quit.  I'm not saying it happens this upcoming season, but the clocks ticking.

The return of Seidenberg is going to help out the Bruins defense tremendously.  He is a physical forward that will be right at Chara's side in a brutal shutdown pair.  It will be interesting to see how he plays after tearing his ACL and MCL in his right knee.  He's still got a few more productive years left at 33, but could his game slow down a bit?  It's a possibility, but I wouldn't bet against him.

Johnny Boychuk
The bottom four defensemen are already pretty much set in stone.  Johnny Boychuk is among the best second line defensemen in the league.  He led the team in blocked shots with 151, and was third on the team in hits with 158.  He is a critical point in the Bruins success.

The Bruins will be happy to see Adam McQuaid return from multiple injuries.  He suffered a quad injury on Jan. 20th, and when he was nearing return, it was announced that he would need surgery on his ankle, knocking him out for the remainder of the season.  McQuaid is a tenacious fighter.  He just adds to the physicality and toughness for this defensive unit.

It would be expected that Dougie Hamilton gets more ice time this season.  He's just 21 years old, stands at 6'5", and is the future of this Bruins back line.  He has a little bit of offensive game, and given the top three defensemen's more defensive tendencies, it might be best if Hamilton gets thrown at the top to generate some offense.

That being said, the teams offensive defenseman is clearly Torey Krug, who was pushing for a Calder Trophy as the leagues top rookie.  The Bruins had seen flashes of brilliance in the 2013 playoffs, and it earned him a spot for good.  He scored 14 goals and 26 assists during his 2013-2014 campaign.  He saw top ice time for defensemen on the power play, and it would be expected to see him produce once again on the man advantage.  If given a larger role, Krug's production would increase even more; he was just seventh amongst his defensemen in average time on ice.

This unit has a tremendous mix of brutality and offense, and they will continue to push forward all throughout the season.

Goaltending

None were better than Tuuka Rask.  His .930 save percentage was second in the league, and his goals against average was 4th at 2.04.  His seven shutouts were tops in the entire league, and his 36 wins were fifth.  The numbers were good enough to give Rask his first ever Vezina Trophy as the leagues best goaltender  He has long been considered the future top option for the Bruins goaltending since he was acquired from the Maple Leafs for Boston's goaltender Andrew Raycroft in what may have been the worst trade in the Toronto Maple Leafs history.  Rask is signed through 2021, and it would surprise no one if there are more Vezina Trophies or Stanley Cups for him within the time frame.

Malcolm Subban
What I believe is interesting is who will play the Bruins backup goaltender role, Niklas Svedberg or Malcolm Subban.  Svedberg saw one game last season, and recorded a .943 save percentage.  It's not really fair to judge him solely on that one game, but in for the AHL's Providence Bruins, Svedberg had a .910 save percentage with a  2.63 goals against average in 45 games.  That's pretty outstanding.  But, equally outstanding was Subban, the younger brother of defensive juggernaut P.K..  Subban had a .920 save percentage  and a 2.31 goals against average in 33 games.  Those numbers made him one of the top goaltenders in the AHL.  Svedberg is 24, and Subban is 20.  The Bruins can't go wrong with either option.  Personally, I'd pick Svedberg solely based on his two year experience in the AHL, but you can't deny how awesome it would be to see Subban potentially playing against his brothers Canadiens.  That being said, there's really only room for one of them, and both have tremendous trade value.  Svedberg becomes a restricted free agent after this year, and it will be very interesting to see if the Bruins consider trading his rights away for a hefty price.

Prospects

Subban remains the Bruins top prospect.  He just has so much potential.  His AHL came to no one as a surprise.  In his 46 games in the OHL with the Belleville Bulls, Subban had a .934 save percentage, only letting in 2.14 goals a game.  He is getting extremely close to being NHL ready, it's really just up to Bruins management if they want to include Subban in their future.

Joe Morrow give the Bruins another young defenseman to work with in the future.  The defenseman came from Dallas as a part of the Tyler Seguin trade last year.  He's a 6'1", 196 lb. puck moving defenseman.  Last year, Morrow recorded six goals and 23 assists in 56 games for Providence.  For some teams, Morrow would probably find himself on an NHL roster, but the depth that the Bruins have on defense is just too deep to consider Morrow a top option for the Bruins at defense, unless the Bruins see a similar injury situation to their blue line as last year.

Both Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak are the Bruins top options at the forward positions in the prospect pool.  Spooner actually saw some NHL time last year, playing in 23 games and recording 11 assists.  Those are pretty solid numbers.  In his 49 games with Providence, Spooner had 11 goals and 35 assists.  He is probably going to make the roster, as the Bruins do have a couple of forward spots open with Thornton and Iginla moving on.  Pastrnak was this years first round draft pick for the Bruins.  Playing in Sweden, Pastrnak had eight goals and 16 assists in 36 games for Sodertalje.  He also excelled for the Czech Republic's under 18 team, with five assists in seven games.  He also saw time in the World Junior Championship, scoring a goal and two assists in five games.  He projects as a future scoring option for the Bruins, and will return on loan to Sodertalje for the 2014-2015 season.

Player to Watch

There really isn't one single player to watch, as the Bruins play so well together as a team, but I'd keep my eye on Loui Eriksson.  Eriksson never really got a fair shot on the top lines for the Bruins, as there really wasn't any room for him.  But, with the departure of Iginla, a top three spot opens up, and Eriksson will fill it.  He just needs to stay healthy.  But this Bruins team is the best team Eriksson has ever played with.  He is a dynamic playmaker capable of 70 points.  If he's able to play a full 82 game season, he will improve his career high point total of 73.  This is a guy that has the opportunity to push 80 points on his year.

Offseason News


Brad Marchand
Brad Marchand can't even keep quiet during the offseason.  In a Q&A at Phoenix House Champions For Change dinner in Halifax, Marchand was asked which player irritated him the most.  And, in Marchand fashion, he answered.

"Tomas Plekanec from Montreal.  I hate him.  I can't stand him.  No, I probably shouldn't say that.  I dislike him very much.  Somebody is going to call and get mad at me tomorrow."

Plekanec heard about the comment, and responded.

"I enjoyed his comment.  It comes from a person that actually almost everybody in the NHL hates."

Marchand is doing his pest job well, and further fueled the hatred between Montreal and Boston.  The rivalry is becoming the top showdown in the league.

Final Evaluation

It's still the best team in the Eastern Conference, no doubt about it.  They just have the top offense that plays a complete game, and the best goaltending tandem.  Their defense has the potential to falter, but still, at this point, it's only a potential to falter.  Once again, you will see classic games involving the Bruins, they will be fighting throughout the playoffs, and they very well could see themselves lifting another Stanley Cup trophy.