THAT SPECIAL TIME is upon us once again: hockey is back. Die-hard fans everywhere are breathing collective sighs of relief, no longer having to feign interest in anything else in their lives, wondering how they ever went through an entire summer blocking the greatest game to ever be played from their minds. Well, fear no more. The rinks are filling with fans, the ice is fresh, Pierre wants to know what kind of shampoo Sidney Crosby uses in the shower and is preparing to tell you what junior team every player laced up for while he mics up between the glass. Don Cherry is picking out his next in a long line of inspiring suits, Ron McLean is holding his tongue, patiently waiting to get a word in edgewise. The Eastern Conference feels wide open, while the Western Conference is a snake pit where points are harder earned and easier lost than ever. Get out your jersey and your flare, apologize to your significant others, co-workers, bosses, and neighbors for screaming at the top of your lungs, crack a beer, and get ready for puck drop. Welcome to another fast, hard-hitting, heartbreakingly glorious season of NHL hockey.
St. Louis Blues
The pressure is on the St. Louis Blues to continue their high-level of play while sustaining their efforts into a much deeper and more successful post-season run. The pressure being placed on them to win is still a bit premature. If they had not shocked the West with their ruthlessly efficient play that steamrolled the competition for long streaks of the past three seasons, then the expectation that they finish first and must be a Cup contender would just be starting to show. The Ryan Miller experiment didn’t work, and contributed to the temporary feeling that their stunted post-season left. They made the right decision by resigning goalie Brian Elliot and leaving no doubt that he is their starter. The Blues have a balanced attack and even scoring, which was just made stronger by picking up young center Paul Stasny from Colorado. He possesses the capability of adding 30 +/- goals to an already productive offense, which could be the extra punch they need. The fact that they finished last season 7th in the league in goals for and 3rd in goals against suggests just how hard it is to play against this team. Their core of defensemen are tough as nails and will continue to tighten up their back end while still contributing offensively. If they maintain their fierce energy and balanced attack, feel confident in net and work out the addition of new pieces come April, the Blues are fit as any of the top teams to appear in the Conference final. But! If they have a strong regular season and get knocked out of the second round of the playoffs, that is not the end of the world. This team has all the right pieces in place and only needs to mature before the time comes for them to make a real run.
The Chicago Blackhawks are poised to continue their reign as one of the top three teams in the NHL. They have proven their adaptability, even if the face of mid-season slumps, and their belief in coach Quenville’s system that has netted them two recent Stanley Cups. The offense speaks for itself – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa. On the blueline, Norris trophy winner Duncan Keith just keeps on getting better, proving why he is the most versatile defensman in the league. If there was any cause for concern in net, Corey Crawford has proven over the past few season that he is indeed fully capable of leading his team to victory. They didn’t lose very much in the off-season and benefit from picking up Brad Richards from the Rangers, refreshingly at a rate that resembles his actual worth. Without a $58 million dollar contract looming over his head this season, as it had when he was with New York, Richards may feel relaxed enough to contribute 25 +/- goals for his new club, a margin that could send Chicago’s already high-powered offense into the top of the standings. They lost a tight Game 7 to the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings to end their season last year, and you can bet they want another shot at taking it all. They run the risk of slumping either at the break or to end the season, which can be more costly than it sounds where points in the West are so fought over. If they find themselves contented to sit in the middle of the playoff pack, they may suffer the fate of the St. Louis Blues last season and draw a lethal first-round opponent that they may not be able to get past. That said, they are still Chicago. They can beat anyone at any time to earn themselves another trip to the final round.
The Wild seem poised to get over the hump into the cropping of teams that will compete for the western conference championship and earn a chance to battle for the Stanley Cup. That, or they face the danger of plateauing or finishing slightly worse than they did last year. That is a slim possibility though. They are one of the stingiest, hardest teams to play against in the league, and they just need to balance out their low goals-against and strong powerplay with a goal scoring solution that has more or less eluded them up until now. They will get some offensive firepower from Thomas Vanek, though on a team with this much integrity and grit he is going to have to struggle to deliver a consistent effort the entire season. They lost Dany Heatley, so essentially they swapped one streaky goal scorer for another. Vanek will most likely pull out 10+ more goals this season than Heatley, a margin they can use. The top line of Parise, Koivu, and Pominville are ready to attack this year. If they figure out secondary scoring and have some health in net down the stretch it is possible we will see the Wild appear in the Western Conference final.
The Stars might be the most underrated team heading into the 2014-2015 season. They added Jason Spezza from Ottawa and Ales Hemsky from Edmonton to an offense that is already firing on all cylinders. The combo of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin has led to top end scoring and a lethal power play. Lindy Ruff is fitting in behind the bench after coming over from Buffalo. He has toughened them up enough to allow the offense not to get pushed around, as well as congesting the neutral zone far more than they used to. Now, they just need to balance the great work they have done by acquiring blue line depth, in addition to Goligoski and Gonchar, to help goalie Lehtonen keeps pucks out of the net and hopefully go rested into the postseason for a chance at a deeper run.
Lone franchise coach Barry Trotz has moved over to Washington and ex-Flyers head coach Peter LaViolette is in. They will look to improve their horrific defensive numbers, finishing 23rd in the league in goals against and 25th in penalty kill. Rebuilding a young team starts in net, and elite goaltender Pekke Rinne would appreciate all the help he can get on the back end. This year, a healthy Rinne will start in net and the blue line will be anchored by veteran defenseman Shea Weber and highly-skilled newcomer Seth Jones. On offense, key additions will help their middle-of-the-pack scoring prowess. Olli Jokinen, James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, and Derek Roy all offer experience and balanced scoring to a team in flux that desperately needs it.
The newly revived Jets are the fun to watch underdog. They seek to shed their novelty status and continue improving in a more consistent direction under new head coach, Paul Maurice. They’ve shored up some depth players with the likes of Jokinen and Bogosian who will join the core group with Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, and others. It was an off year for a number of their top guys and hopes are high that this season will be different. A team doing their best to turn the corner has to get over high goals against, horrible defense turnovers, low puck possession time. A goalie tandem of Pavelec and Budaj could be the dependable back end they need to build on, but rumor has it that after acquiring Budaj the Jets already dropped him. Trade rumors continue to surround Evandar Kane, a move that could potentially benefit the team in the long run but hurt them in the short term. That potential trade could earn the Jets a key piece or mutiple picks that they could mix and match with their pool of talented prospects that are just below the cusp of being ready to compete for starting roster spots.
Colorado won the insanely competitive Central division last year, and they should not be upset by their early playoff exit, as it came on the tail end of a miraculous turnaround for the club spear-headed NHL legend Patrick Roy as head coach. With Joe Sakic in the front office and Roy behind the bench, the team is being led by franchise gold, and it shows. The Avs will be even faster and move as an efficient single unit this year. What could be given up to youthful inexperience, they have now filled gaps with veterans Jarome Iginla, Daniel Briere, and Brad Stuart. Despite losing Stasny to the Blues in free agency, their core crop of young players are just dangerous. Last season, Matt Duchene led the Avalanche with 70 points, Landeskog was second with 65, O’Reilly with 64 and Mackinnon with 63. Varlamov is a top goaltender, even if he does beat his wife. His weak postseason numbers should be attributed to depth issues on the blueline rather than poor netminding. If the Aves are going to prepare for a long postseason run, they would do best to follow up their acquisition of Brad Stuart with some big bodies on the blueline or else all the young offensive firepower in the league will not save you from death by goals against.
The Anaheim Ducks are one of the top teams in the West year in, year out, and this season is shaping up to be the one that finally brings them to their first appearance in the Stanley Cup final since they won it in 2007. They are seeing the departure of “Finnish Flash” Teamu Selanne, as well Perreault, Koivu, Bonino, Sbisa, and goalie Jonas Hiller. Spots are open in the roster to be filled by new acquisitions and prospects on the back of installing former Canucks center Ryan Kesler at second line center. The addition of Kesler brings balance to the second line and extends the almost unstoppable scoring threat posed by Perry and Getzlaf farther into their top six. The Ducks finished first in the contentious Central Division and first in the league in goals. If they can solidify their blueline, fill in the gaps between Cam Fowler, Ben Lovejoy, Francois Beauchemin, and Sheldon Souray, they should have a shot at competing again for the Western Conference final.
San Jose Sharks
After suffering a heart-breaking loss in Game 7 after being up three games to none on the Los Angeles Kings, this Sharks team has had to do some soul-searching before the start of the 2014-2015 season. Hoping to find its footing, it has shuffled some key pieces and seen the departure of key defensemen Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart, while losing Martin Havlat as a depth winger. They are a team depending on their youth to operate in the structure that familiar veterans like Joe Thornton have created. The young faces are led by wunderkind Tomas Hertl, who after a dazzling debut – which included a 4 goal game and contender for goal-of-the-year – went out prematurely last season with a knee injury, and second line center Logan Couture, their incredibly reliable young center. On the back end, the biggest surprise to many who are not avid Sharks fans is the all-out dominance of the man-beast known as Brent Burns. At 6′ 5”, 230 lbs, Burns anchors the entire Sharks back end, and finished last season with a mind-blowing 69 points, recording 22 goals and 26 assists. He is playing the best hockey of his career and is a player worth watching this upcoming season. With their starting goalie and captainship still up in the air, they still have a lot of pieces to work out. The Sharks are without a doubt the league’s most promising failure, and they are finally looking to work that out of their DNA so that they can finally compete for the Stanley Cup. Despite explosive scoring tandems and strong defensemen, unfortunately the Sharks could realistically have their worst finish in years, a fate that may benefit their transformation into a more consistent postseason team. The problem is, they are already so good. So how to go about achieving that is anyone’s guess.
Los Angeles Kings
The defending Stanley Cup champions will begin their campaign to win their third Cup in four years and cement themselves as the NHL’s new dynasty. There is not much that can be said about them. No matter their play in the regular season, when the postseason hits, this team is all business. They are stacked with goal scorers, tough on D, and spectacular in net on the back of Jonathan Quick. The Kings play an all-together nasty brand of hockey, that is equal parts possession, transition, and death-by-scoring-committee, all the while being stonewalled by a magician between the pipes. Quick has been known to lose his focus, scoring can slump for short stretches, and the depth of the team can coast through parts of the regular season. The elite core of this team is still intact, so look for more fun, physical hockey from Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Justin Williams, and now Marian Gaborik. Drew Doughty continues to be one of the best defensemen in the league and together with Muzzin, Voynov, Reghr, and Martinez, make up the core of an astonishingly efficient group on the back end. The team went virtually unchanged since their most recent victory and there is nothing to suggest that we will not be watching the Kings again this June.
The Coyotes are saying goodbye to some familiar faces – Radim Vrbata, Mike Ribeiro, Paul Bissonnette, and Derek Morris, and saying hello to some fresh new additions that are bound to change the makeup of the talented but often middling team. Adding B.J. Crombeen, Sam Gagner, and Joe Vitale will provide some much needed new offensive threat to be added to the front end attack led by Shane Doan, Martin, Hanzal, and Antoine Vermette. If Martin Erat, acquired last year from Washington, sees a gain in points and minutes, they may need to make room for him on a nearly full offensive roster. Mike Smith is one of the best and most expressive characters in the league. They were smart to lock him up with a long-term contract that should cement his place between the pipes for years to come. If anything, their defense is threadbare past their core players of Yandle, Michalek, and Ekman-Larsson. They are going to need to lower an abysmal goals against percentage if they are going to give Smith a chance to defend and provide their offense enough leverage to allow their medium-strength goal production be enough to win games. The Coyotes hope to see a return to the playoffs, but in a competitive division that scraps for points, they are going to have to play their best hockey yet to make the cut.
For a team that found themselves in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals three years ago, literally no semblance of that team remains going into this season. The Canucks hit bottom, blew it up, and are now seeing their way back to winning ways. The Canucks are going into this season with a new General Manager, head coach, and starting goaltender in US Olympian Ryan Miller. They are seeing the departure of Ryan Kesler, their stalwart center, to the Anaheim Ducks, as well as losing David Booth, Mike Santorelli, and Jordan Schroeder. The open spaces in their roster are being filled with a healthy list of new additions. Nick Bonino will fulfill his role as a top six center, and for a team that has traditionally played fast transitional hockey, they have added a balanced mix of size and scoring in Derek Dorsett and Radim Vrbata. It is a new era for a team uncertain of its future and a fan base that has not always reacted so well to being unfairly toyed with and tortured by the powers that be. Hopefully they will keep the pressure and unrealistic expectations away long enough for a new team to emerge and hit their stride.
It can feel like a cliché to talk about teams approaching five years of “re-building” as developing. Calgary has gone through some seismic changes in the past year, instigated by a front office doing everything it can to change the culture and make-up of the team from the ground up. When any team re-builds, it is always best to start in goal. It is hard to imagine Calgary had grown so soft during the career-long tenure of franchise goalie Miikka Kiprusoff that it just slipped their minds to either trade for a dependable replacement or develop one in house. Finally, they can feel as though they have taken more than one step forward by adding Finnish goaltender Jonas Hiller to start in net. The Flames lost a lot of players, most notably T.J. Galiardi and Mike Cammalleri, but they gained a lot, too. They traded for much needed scoring in capable winger Devin Setoguchi and Stanley Cup winner Brandon Bollig, still keeping with their interest in a mixed combination of size and firepower, as well as picking up veteran defenseman Deryk Engelland to help secure the blue line in front of Hiller. Still, personnel on the backend isn’t the only problem, the Flames need a real, brand new defensive system in place before they start to see results. This season should not be about where Calgary finishes in the standings or how many goals they score per game. A season where they start from the net out and concentrate on building a backbone of centers that control possession, positional and sound defensemen, and getting wingers confident in their ability to score, should prove enough of a task. If the Flames are serious about building a new culture, a new attitude in the locker room, with new strategies, rules, and habits, this season may be the most telling of what is to come.
The Oilers have been a whole lot of fun to watch in the past few seasons in which they have managed to grab first round pick after first round pick in the draft. This season, they are dressing a mind-boggling ten first-round picks. In addition to recent first rounders Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and Taylor Hall, this includes a lot of new faces, including newcomer Leon Draisaitl. The young core always promises many surprises, but that is leveraged with a high risk for disorganization and disappointment. We will see just how much new GM Craig MacTavish can improve upon a talented young roster, one that is begging for structure, hoping to develop some sustainable elements of two-way hockey that can last them sixty minutes night in night out for eighty two games this season.
The one-time Stanley Cup champions have missed the playoffs for their fifth year in a row. The drought has led to changes in their front office and a few roster moves designed with the hope of getting something, anything going. The season already started off with bad news, as Jordan Staal will not start due to an ankle injury that will require surgery. Cam Ward has gone through his ups and downs but this past season was easily his worst. It used to be that you couldn’t blame the guy for his numbers considering the non-existant defense playing in front of him. But now, after a season plagued with injury and subpar bounce back, Ward’s performance this season will be definitive. Will he continue his slide, or return to form? Where the Hurricanes land in the standings hinges largely on that factor. Back up goalie Anton Khudobin is a suitable alternate and could easily start the season. Carolina possesses the ability to score, with the likes of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin, and Swedish newcomer Elias Lindholm. But they must keep the scoring from drying up while keeping goals against low if they are to have a shot at making the playoff cut, or it will be another lost year for the Canes.
New York Islanders
The New York Islanders are trying to improve upon a rough, disappointing season that followed up a surprise showing in the playoffs against the Penguins two years ago. They have taken care of their goalie situation by signing Jaroslav Halac to a 4-year deal as their netminder. They had a busy offseason, bringing Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin over from the Leafs. This is a smart trade that will immediately stabilize their third line and contribute to the overall depth of the team. The recent signing of top four defenseman Johnny Boychuk from the Boston Bruins was a huge step forward in solving their weakness on the blueline. Boychuk is a Stanley Cup winning defenseman capable of carrying top minutes, allieviating some of the pressure on newcomers such as T.J. Brennan. The Isles first line will be back in order, despite the departure of Thomas Vanek. Star center Jonathan Tavares is returning healthy from a leg injury and is eager to again lead his team. If the pieces start to click, the Islanders could be poised for a wild card entry to the postseason.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets are coming off of their most successful season as a franchise. Even though they lost in the first round to the more dominant Pittsburgh Penguins, their tenacious effort energized their fan base and galvanized the team to improve upon their efforts this year. Despite the good intentions, there could be trouble looming if they do not address serious roster issues. Nathan Horton is still out with a chronic back injury and has only played 36 games since Columbus acquired him from Boston. Scott Hartnell was added on the top line, but unless he can park himself in the crease and Dubinsky can score off the blade of Hartnell’s stick with half the accuracy that Claude Giroux did in Philly, he may not be the addition on offense that they had hoped. Expect to see a trade to mix and match slots with the second line for the correct combination of top six forwards, especially if Horton does not return healthy by spring. The third line of Foligno, Anisimov, and Calvert are the unsung heroes of the Jackets. They were excellent in the playoffs last year against the Penguins and will prove to be a major factor in the team’s success. Bob Bobrovosky (the number one cop in town) is returning healthy and looks to have his best season to date in net. All in all, the Jackets are an energetic young club coming into their own and if they address some of their issues they’ll continue to pose an upset threat in the first rounds of the playoffs.
New York Rangers
The Rangers were lucky to be in the Stanley Cup finals against the Los Angeles Kings last season. However, they rallied and delivered a team effort that displayed every strength of the Rangers game plan. Ryan McDonagh had a great year and it is fitting that he is starting the season with the C on his jersey. Martin St. Louis brought veteran positivity, grit, and determination which was indispensible down the stretch. They have balanced offense spread out across all four lines, but with the exception of Rick Nash, who has been underwhelming to say the least, they do not have any one combination that could elevate them out of a do-or-die situation. Their defense continues to be balanced and the combinations of McDonagh and Girardi, Boyle and Staal help Henrik Lundqvist get the job done in net, not that he needs it. Even still, the Rangers will not be returning to the Stanley Cup and stand to finish the same or below where they did last year.
The Caps are entering their first season being led by new head coach, Barry Trotz. Trotz has a hardnosed but even-paced style that should help solve the pendulum-swing of the all offense days at the height of the Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom era, and the all defense reaction to that eras failure in the past few seasons. Neither one has worked and coaching and roster changes are sure to deliver a new looking Capitals team. They have inherited Orpik and Niskunin from Pittsburgh, who can help Braden Holtby keep the goals-against down. Ovechkin lit up the second half of last season and he is poised to do the same again, this time for 82 games, give or take a few spells. He is still a player with a lot of drive and pure unadulterated skill. When #8 gets going, he can carry the whole team with him. With some new blood and the guidance of a new coach, the Capitals could find themselves nipping at a low-seed come playoff time.
The Penguins won the Metropolitan division last season, but yet another early playoff exit saw the GM Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma move on. Restructuring saw the movement of a ton of players. Over thirteen players departed while Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, Christian Ehrhoff, and Patric Hornqvist were added to the starting roster. Going into a season with an entirely new front office could be cause for concern, but with Crosby and Malkin at the helm the ship will not veer too far off course. First the trading of Matt Cooke and now the absence of James Neal has made them considerably less hateable, which is always a plus. Due to the stringent demands of the salary cap, the Penguins parted with many talented D men and in turn have to place their trust in the development of several new young guys, such as Bears and Maata.Crosby and Malkin have both been beleaguered by injury, each carrying the team when the other goes down, but with both of them healthy they will once again be the engine that places the Penguins at the top of their division.
Rebuilding year number four for the Flyers. Giroux has been one of the most productive forwards over the last four years, but the team has forced him into a position where he bears too much of the responsibility of not only his line but the entire set of forwards, and just one injury could derail him and the entire Flyers offense without any backup plan. A lot more scoring is expected out of Coutourier, but they should look to bring in a trade by deadline and fill depth positions in both offense and defense with prospects. Defense has been Phillys Achilles’ heel. Ever since the permanent loss of Chris Pronger, the team has not responded with enough decisive action in restoring the blueline from the ground up. Coburn and MacDonald serve as the top pairing with dicey plus-minuses, costing $9 million a year for pucks to jump over their sticks, lose offensive zone possession time, and give up costly scoring chances against which no one is back to defend. Shayne Gostisbehere is a hyped prospect that could move up on D, but it will take a lot more than that to get the Flyers competing at the top of the rankings. Mason is expected to play well, but any thinking individual would not take bets on the strength of the Flyers in net. Expect them to miss the playoffs and maybe, for once, with new GM Ron Hextall in the front office, make some deep trades to clear cap space and bring up a whole new string of prospects through their system.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils perform well but have been languishing for the past few seasons and this season will not be much different. Their once-best player is still in Russia and legendary Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur is dabbling in the waters of free agency. The fact that forty-four year-old Adam Henrique was the Devils’ top scorer at a whopping 25 goals just shows how much trouble this team is in. That said, help is on the way. Mike Cammelari coming over from Calgary is the perfect pick up for New Jersey’s gutted offense. A top line of Cammelari, Jaromir Jagr, and Travis Zajac should inject some much needed scoring to balance out their stingy defense. A trio of young defensemen – Merrill, Larsson, and Gelinas – have come from the AHL to earn starting roster spots. Their presence could add some fluidity and up-ice transition game to a traditioanlly stay-at-home defense, which could spark more two-way communication between offense and defense in an age when the game is moving faster than ever, an age that the Devils organization desperately needs to catch up to.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Call it a changing of the guard. GM Steve Yzerman and the Tampa organization made the best moves this off-season to deliver a well-prepared and hungry team to a strong season and deep run in the playoffs. Not only did the Bolts resign Ryan Callahan, they traded for two of his buddies from New York, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman, who will only add grit and leadership to an already scrappy team. The addition of veterans Brenden Morrow and Jason Garrison serve to shore up the A-list core of a healthy Steve Stamkos, Callahan, Palat, Johnson and Killorn. If Ben Bishop can continue his Vezina-esque play from a year ago, and more importantly stay healthy, Tampa should hop the Bruins and finish first in the Atlantic division, earning top seed going into the playoffs.
Montreal ended last season by disappointing the the rival Presidents Trophy winning Boston Bruins and then flopping in the Eastern Conference final to the New York Rangers. The Canadiens had a solid off-season, saying goodbye to familiar faces Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges, as well as talented but aging part-timers Danny Briere and Thomas Vanek. Montreal will depend on depth and talented youth to take a big step forward this season, but a lot still depends on their core. For the first time in recent memory the Canadians are starting a season without a team captain. This should kickstart motivation from team leaders and alternate captains Subban, Markov, Pacioretty, Plekanec to earn the C. If Carey Price stays healthy and Montreal leadership continue to move pieces around until they find the right fit through the first half of the season, this team should continue to be difficult to play against and push toward top three in the Eastern conference.
The Senators are officially in a rebuild. With Daniel Alfredsson in a Red Wings sweater and Jason Spezza finally gone, the Sens will have a full season of growth for young players. The Senators inked Bobby Ryan to a new seven-year contract, which should keep him in place as prospects find their spots in the years ahead. For Senators fans this season will be about watching Kyle Turris, their new number one center with Spezza gone, and Norris trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson help a very young core learn how to play in the NHL. Although these type of season’s are important for the rebuilding of a franchise, it will be a very long and difficult season to watch for the Senator’s fans.
Make no mistake about it, being a Stanley Cup contender year in and year out comes at a very large cost. GM Peter Chirrelli and the cap strapped Bruins know that more than most but will still have a very compeitive team that should be one of the best in the Eastern Conference. For Bruins fans this season will be unlike many of the past five seasons, as the team will officially be dipping into their farm system for offensive players to help alleviate the loss of Johnny Boychuk, Jarome Iginla, and Shawn Thornton. With the core intact, coach Claude Julien is being asked to mix and match on all four lines and show a youthful approach to a league that now depends more on speed and precision than grit and strength. The defensive core is among the best in the league, even with the loss of Boychuk, including: Chara, Hamilton, Seidenberg, Krug, Bartkowski, Miller, McQuaid, and young AHL defensman David Warsofsky. It will be interesting to see who starts the season with an overpacked roster that is being slashed to stay under cap. The Bruins have the incentive and the pieces to put together a major deal before trade deadline to bring some much needed experience and scoring ability to the top six forwards.
Another rebuild year for the Sabers, but one step farther in the right direction. The team has finally been put in a position to be competitive and continue to improve. The addition of Brian Gionta, Matt Moulson, and Josh Gorges provides the Sabers with solid leadership that the young team can look to finally steer the ship in the right direction. The Sabers are loaded with youth and draft picks that this team will be dangerous in a few seasons but will keep fans interested with a team that will play hard night in and night out as Ted Nolan’s team’s typically play. Plus fans will get a taste of 18-year-old forward second-overall draft pick Sam Reinhart, who is sure to have some highlight reel goals as he develops in his rookie season.
Detroit Red Wings
Much like the Bruins, the Red Wings will depend on great coaching and players already in their system to help guide them through a very hard to predict year. There are a lot of “what if’s” and they all revolve around how their young core of Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Danny DeKeyser, and Brendan Smith develop and play. Ken Holland has an eye for this type of development and that is why the Red Wings have been competitive for over twenty years, but their recent emigration to the Atlantic divison and Eastern conference proves to be more competitive than last year. This is still a playoff team, but there are some key pieces missing to bring them back to elite status. Zetterberg and Datsuk are heading the team and providing veteran leadership for the new young core, but it could still be a few seasons before Detroit makes it to the top of the Eastern Conference.
The Panthers finished at the bottom of nearly every category last year, so it is no surprise that they had a busy and productive off-season. Last year’s news that they had re-acquired their one-time goaltender Roberto Luongo from the fiasco in Vancouver was a breath of fresh air. Since then, the Panthers recently acquired former Chicago Blackhawks center Dave Bolland, scoring winger Jussi Jokinen, and tough fourth line center Shawn Thornton from the Boston Bruins. Not to mention a new coach in Gerard Gallant. On the back end, Mitchell, Gudbrandson and Eckblat are among the better defensive croppings the Panthers have started with in a few years. The diverse and widespread quality of these new signings is sure to bring balance to the younger of the pack, particularly Huberdeau and Eckblad, and bring some early signs of progress to this struggling team.
Toronto Maple Leafs
What does a team that under-produces every year do to finally become competitive? They hire a person with no managerial experience to become the president of a hockey operations, Brendan Shanahan. Shanahan handed coach Randy Carlyle a contract extension after two seasons of collapse and left Dave Nonis as the GM, the same GM that gave David Clarkson a seven-year, $37 million dollar buyout-proof contract. Assistant coaches Dave Farrish, Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon have been replaced with Steve Spott and Peter Horachek. Assistant GMs Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle were fired in favor of Kyle Dubas, a blogger and self-proclaimed “analytics expert.” Although this has been a very entertaining off-season to watch for the Leafs, this team has added and subtracted players that should amount to the same type of season from a year ago, with the noted exception that they moved noted tough guys Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren off the roster, finally showing some acknowledgment of the direction of the NHL. Although the Leafs have a solid team on paper, when it comes to execution they still lacks what it takes to win down the stretch. Until the ownership group stops treating their franchise like a 14-year-old playing NHL ’15, the Leafs will not be a deep contender.