Friday, 24 August 2012

Northeast Division Preview

Hello hockey world, with the Western Conference divisions examined in full, it's time to see what the East has in store. This week I will start with the Northeast. Once the previews are over and done with, hockey should (hopefully) be right around the corner. Stay tuned to my top 5 breakout players, top 5 bounce back and if there is indeed a lockout I will be discussing more of the business side of the game regarding the CBA.

With three Original Six teams in the division, including hockey meccas in Toronto and Montreal, the Northeast  is always in the focus of the hockey world. This year will be no different, especially with big changes for the Canadiens. Here's how I see things playing out:

Boston Bruins

2011/2012 Rank: 2

Offseason Moves:

In - Jordan Caron, Anton Khudobin, Dougie Hamilton

Out - Tim Thomas, Benoit Pouliot, Joe Corvo, Greg Zanon

After entering last year's playoffs as the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Bruins looked poised for another deep run in the playoffs. However, they ran into a Dale Hunter coached Capitals team that played a stingy defensive game and limited their chances. The series went to game 7 and in overtime a controversial goal from Joel Ward ended the Bruins season. While there was disappointment in Beantown, Bruins fans still have a lot to look forward to next year. Young star Tyler Seguin led the team last season with 67 points and looks to continue to live up to his billing of  2nd overall in 2010. On D the team has one of the best in the league in Zdeno Chara, though it is possible he only has a few more good years left in him. Lucky for the Bruins, they will likely have top prospect Dougie Hamilton joining the fray this year and he should pick up some helpful tips from the 2009 Norris Trophy winner. In fact, the only players Boston will be adding to their lineup this season have all been home grown - a testament to the impressive organizational depth which few teams can match.

For almost any other team in the league, losing the Vezina and Conn Smythe winner from two seasons ago would be a disaster. Yet for the Bruins the change should go almost unnoticed; and may in fact lead to a better dressing room environment. Despite his strong play on the ice, Tim Thomas has given the team headaches in the public eye the last few seasons and him taking the year off could mean one less distraction for his teammates - and could even help improve the team if a trade comes around. It helps when you have someone with the talent and experience like Tuuka Rask has to step in and replace him. Even in his limited time in the NHL, backup Anton Khudobin has put up nothing less than a 0.942sv%. The Bruins will remain the class of the Northeast, taking the division quite handily.

Why they'll make it - Impressive depth and talent throughout their lineup, few weak spots

Why they'll miss - Long term injury to Tuuka Rask and/or Zdeno Chara

Buffalo Sabres

2011/2012 Rank: 9 (3 points out)

Offseason Moves:

In - Steve Ott, Kevin Porter, Adam Pardy, John Scott

Out - Derek Roy, Jochen Hecht

The Sabres made some noise this offseason when they traded center Derek Roy to the Stars in exchange for Steve Ott and Adam Pardy. While I think the team sold Roy a little short and could have gotten another piece, the addition of Steve Ott will be felt - mostly by opponents. As a fan of a Western Conference team, I am glad to see this guy go East. He is another player the Sabres have that you love to have on your team but hate playing against. This makes them somewhat unique in the Eastern Conference and can now compete with the Bruins when it comes to overall toughness. However, the move leaves the team very young and inexperienced up the middle. The Cody Hodgson deal at the deadline allowed the Sabres to move Roy, and he will now take on the task of the team's #1 C. This is a lot of pressure, but with a great group of wingers like Pominville and Vanek to play between Hodgson, he won't have to do it alone. Their other top 9 centers will likely be Tyler Ennis and one of Luke Adam or their recent draft picks Grigorenko or Girgensons - I told you they are young up the middle, but have a lot of promise.

On the back end the team will hope to remain healthy this year, and will be counting on Tyler Myers to return to Calder form. For me, the real key to success for the Sabres will be the play of Ryan Miller. As it has been since he took over the starting job in Buffalo, the team goes as he does. After the high expectations that come with a new owner and a high priced team, the Sabres stumbled in the first half of the season mainly because of Miller's play. He got things together in the second half of the season and led the Sabres to a late season run for the playoffs, but they fell just short. If he can play more consistently next year (and he has the ability of stealing the show), then I see the Sabres getting over that hump and into a playoff position.

Why they'll make it - Strong overall depth and toughness, Myers and Miller's play rebounds

Why they'll miss - Inexperience and lack of depth up the middle

Montreal Canadiens

2011/2012 Rank: 15 (14 points out)

Offseason Moves:

In - Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong, Francis Bouillon

Out - Chris Campoli

After a dreadful season that saw them finish 3rd last in the league, the Canadiens made big changes to their front office bringing in first time GM Marc Bergevin (formerly Chicago's assistant GM). In his first major move to change the philosophy of the team, he reinstated former Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien. In a media frenzy city like Montreal, this move has been criticized and supported, but only time will tell to see if he was the right choice. To his credit, this is a very different Montreal team with much more reasonable expectations. The Canadiens are at the beginning of a much needed rebuild, but are still trying to ice a competitive team, as seen from the signings of Prust, Armstrong and Bouillon. They still have some issues to sort out though. Scott Gomez continues to be the teams biggest liability with a 7.35 mil cap hit for 11 points in 38 games last season. In fact, after Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec, there are very few forwards that can chip in offensively. David Desharnais had a very nice year, but I question his staying power as a top six centerman with a height of only 5'7. I am a huge fan of Lars Eller, but it is unrealistic to expect any huge offensive numbers from the youngster yet - if ever. The rest of the forward crop is full of 3rd line guys who are known more for using their hands to fight than to score. I know they still have Cole and Bourque, but they are inconsistent and cannot be counted on to contribute night after night.

The biggest question mark surrounding this team will be the health of Andrei Markov. His impact is so important that his health could mean a 2-3 place swing in the standings for Montreal. I am not counting on him playing a full season because he is 34 and hasn't played over 45 games since the 2009 season. However, with Kaberle, Subban, Gorges and the newly added Bouillon they should be okay even without Markov. Carey Price will do his thing in net, and continue to be the team's best and most counted on player. Because of the lack of an offensive star and Markov's questionable health, I have the Canadiens near the bottom of the conference for a second straight year.

Why they'll make it - Markov plays the entire season, Subban steps up, players click under Therrien's system

Why they'll miss - Lack of offensive strength, inexperience on the blue line, players have trouble adapting to new system

Ottawa Senators

2011/2012 Rank: 8

Offseason Moves:

In - Guillaume Latendresse,  Jakob Silfverberg, Marc Methot

Out - Nick Foligno, Filip Kuba, Bobby Butler, Matt Carkner

The Sens were the surprise team in the East last season, and their strong play earned them a spot in the playoffs. They  gave the 1st seeded Rangers a run for their money and even had them on the brink of elimination, but their inexperience showed when they lost two straight games to end their season. A lot of things went right for the Sens last year, including young star Erik Karlsson winning the Norris Trophy for best defenseman. I think it should have gone to Shea Weber (as he actually plays on the PK), but that's neither here nor there. Bottom line, Ottawa fans have a young and exciting team to cheer for. Because the team was such a surprise, I think they will fall back down to Earth this year and experience some of the growing pains that come with a young team. If healthy, Latendresse is a nice pick up for the team and should add some grit and skill on the wing. Silfverberg is a highly touted rookie, and playing with Spezza will give him all the opportunity to succeed but it is always difficult to predict how a player will adjust to the unfamiliar North American ice. Turris should continue to develop and chip in some secondary offense, but I wouldn't expect a full season from Alfy or a duplicate of what Milan Michalek did last year.

Karlsson leads a very well rounded defence, and Methot is a dependable addition. But beyond Methot there are very few players in the prime of their careers. Karlsson and Cowen, while very skilled and promising, are still young and prone to mistakes and inconsistency. On the other end of the spectrum, Phillips and Gonchar are well passed their primes and on the downswing of their careers. I'm not saying that everything will go wrong on D, just that there is a potential weak spot on the team if the youngsters struggle and experienced guys decline. In net, the Sens have a solid, but unspectacular group led by enigmatic Craig Anderson. We have seen Anderson steal the show in both Ottawa and Colorado, but we have also seen him become unravelled in his second year with the Avalanche. Being still relatively new to a number 1 role in the NHL, we will see which Anderson decides to show up. I see the Sens experiencing some growing pains this year resulting with them on the outside looking in, but still an exciting team to watch out for in the future.

Why they'll make it - Youngsters continue strong play and don't falter, Spezza stays healthy and Anderson stays solid

Why they'll miss - Anderson& young guys show flashes of brilliance, but not on a regular basis

Toronto Maple Leafs

2011/2012 Rank: 13 (12 points out)

Offseason Moves:

In - Jay McClement, James Van Riemsdyk

Out - Luke Schenn, Joey Crabb, Jonas Gustavsson

The Maple Leafs boast the title of being the only team in the league not to make the playoffs since the lockout. This is unacceptable from the most profitable team with the largest fan base in the league. Their reign of mediocrity has been well documented, and the God send Brian Burke has not yet been able to turn this team around in his four years as general manager. Last season, the Leafs seemed to be well on their way to breaking the streak with star winger Phil Kessel having a breakout season and Joffrey Lupul having a career year. They were riding high until James Reimer sustained a long term injury and they could not prevent more goals than they were scoring. I was extremely surprised that Burke did not get a goaltender at the deadline when the team was still very much in the playoff hunt. It was their clear weakness and might have saved the year. I say this, and to this day the goaltending issue has not been resolved. I am a fan of James Reimer and think his ice veins are amazing for the most pressure filled position in the most pressure filled city, but he still hasn't proven much as a #1 goalie and you need a plan B in case he falters.

Other than goaltending, their only other clear weakness is at the center position. Mikail Grabovski should only be counted on as a #2 center, and Bozak, McClement and Steckel are all bottom 6 players. This is why many believe newly acquired James Van Riemsdyk will be used at center - a mistake in my eyes as he has never played the position at the NHL level. The team is strongest on the wing and at defence, even with the loss of Luke Schenn. Gardiner, Phaneuf, Liles and Gunnarsson should be able to shoulder most of the load, and they have some impressive young guns in Reilly, Holzer and Blacker waiting in the wings. It will be hard for Lupul to duplicate his year, but with JVR, Kessel, and a bounce back year from Kulemin the team shouldn't have any problems scoring. Hopefully for Leaf fans a fresh start with Randy Carlyle can have them play a tight defensive game to shelter their goaltenders, and Jay McClement will also help in that regard. I have the Leafs battling for the playoffs, but finishing just outside of a playoff spot.

Why they'll make it - Reimer posts above .900sv%, Carlyle gets players to buy in, Kulemin bounce back

Why they'll miss - Duo of young goalies, still no #1C

Final Predictions
Here are my final standings for the Northeast Division:


With only Boston and Buffalo making the playoffs, and Toronto and Ottawa fighting until the end of the season.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Pacific Division Preview

In the final preview of the Western Conference, I take a look at the Pacific which has been dominated by the 3 Californian teams for quite some time. The Pacific Division title was up for grabs up until the last day of the regular season and four of the teams were all in contention until the last week. Here is what I see happening next season:

Anaheim Ducks

2011/2012 Rank: 13 (15 points out)

Offseason moves:

In - Daniel Winnik, Brad Staubitz, Bryan Allen, Sheldon Souray, Victor Fasth

Out - Lubomir Visnovsky, Niklas Hagman, Jason Blake, Kurtis Foster

With a less than stellar start to the season, Ducks GM Bob Murray decided it was time for a coaching change and scooped up Bruce Boudreau only a week after he had been let go by the Capitals. It's no surprise that the players had a tough time adapting from Carlyle's defensive system to Boudreau's run and gun game, which led to a rough first couple of weeks for Bruce. Even though they bounced back during the holidays, they did not fair much better with a coaching change as Boudreau lead them to a losing record of 27-23-8. I don't think it's a fault against Boudreau, but Bob Murray. The Ducks are just not deep enough up front after Ryan, Perry, Getzlaf and the ageless Selanne. Sure, they have some nice youngsters in Devante Smith-Pelly and Kyle Palmieri, but secondary scoring of Andrew Cogliano and Saku Koivu won't cut it in the tight Western Conference. Combine this is with the forever swirling Bobby Ryan trade rumours and the potential expiring contracts of Perry and Getzlaf next season, and I fear for the Ducks immediate future on offense.

They have tried to shore up their back end with signings like Bryan Allen and Sheldon Souray, but they stop gaps that aren't that impressive. Trading (pending) Lubomir Visnovsky for only a 2nd round pick and not replacing him is also unacceptable. Cam Fowler is a nice piece to have on the blue line, but he is young, raw and still has a lot to learn after a decrease in points from his rookie year to last year; as well as a combined -53 in his time in the NHL. I do believe that Jonas Hiller is one of the most underrated goalies in the league, but his set back with vertigo has prevented him from playing to his full potential. If these problems continue, they have Viktor Fasth as a backup. However, we have all seen what can troubles highly touted goalies from the SEL can have adapting to the smaller NHL ice (see Jonas Gustavsson). Right now, it seems that the West is just too strong for the Ducks to compete with their lack of depth, but they have the top end talent to make them competitive if all goes well.

Why they'll make it - The big 4 on offense, Fowler and Hiller put the team on their backs to a low playoff seeding

Why they'll miss - Lack of depth up front, lack of talent on defense

Dallas Stars

2011/2012 Rank: 10 (6 points out)

Offseason moves:

In - Derek Roy, Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney, Cody Eakin, Aaron Rome

Out - Sheldon Souray, Mike Ribeiro, Steve Ott, Adam Burish, Radek Dvorak

The Stars have been one of the most interesting teams this offseason, adding skilled vets like Jagr & Whitney and making some big trades by bringing in Derek Roy and shipping out Mike Ribeiro in separate deals. The question is, have they improved? If so, is it enough to get them back into the playoffs? My answers to these questions are yes, and no by a slim margin. While they have a very impressive offense with a young star in Jamie Benn and the often unsung but fantastic Loui Eriksson to go along with their new additions, I am skeptical of their defense. Stefan Robidas isn't getting any younger and their only other really noteworthy defender is Alex Goligoski.

I also don't believe that Derek Roy will prove to be an upgrade on Mike Ribeiro, and remain confused by the move as they are both undersized, soft forwards. Most of all, I think the loss of a heart and soul guy like Steve Ott will make opponents much less fearful of the Stars - especially with the importance physicality plays in the Western Conference. Much like Semyon Varlamov, Kari Lehtonen is an extremely talented goaltender that has been held back by injuries for most of his career. After coming off his most successful season to date, I still have faith in the Finnish netminder. It was one of the hardest predictions for me to make, but I see the Stars just missing the playoffs, ending up in 9th or 10th.

Why they'll make it - Offense carries them, Kari Lehtonen makes up for sub-par defense

Why they'll miss - Lack of defensive talent and toughness up front will have them fall just short

Los Angeles Kings

2011/2012 Rank: 8th (Stanley Cup Champions)

Offseason moves:

In - N/A

Out - N/A

Honestly, I don't have much to say about the defending Stanley Cup Champions. After acquiring Jeff Carter at the trade deadline, the Kings were one of the best teams in the league and snuck into the 8th seed in the West. On paper, the team was supposed to finish much higher than they did but a struggling offense held them back. The addition of Carter seemed to reignite Mike Richards and the consistently steady defense of the Kings and stellar goaltending of Jonathon Quick was finally complimented with offensive support. As everyone knows, they followed up their impressive late season run with a stunning 16-4 record to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup. Not only that, but they were able to retain the entire Cup winning team with cap room to spare. Anze Kopitar has taken the next step to superstar level, and if Drew Doughty stays motivated and Jonathon Quick plays like he can, I don't see any way this team does not win the division. 

Why they'll make it - Stay the course, stars and depth at all positions

Why they'll miss - Stanley Cup hangover, Doughty major injury and Quick one hit wonder (so, very unlikely)

Phoenix Coyotes

2011/2012 Rank: 3

Offseason moves:

In - David Moss, Steve Sullivan, Zbynek Michalek

Out - Ray Whitney, Daymond Langkow, Gilbert Brule, Shane Doan?

The Coyotes surprised the hockey world by making it to the conference finals last season on the back of goaltender Mike Smith. It is sad that even with a division title to their name and playoff success that there continue to be ownership issues in the desert. It seems that with all of the issues with the new CBA and realignment, that the Coyotes ownership issues will be put to the back burner and they will lose their long time captain and hero, Shane Doan. I feel sorry for 'Yotes fans as I believe if this happens, it will be the final stake in the coffin for their dying franchise. With potential loss of Doan and Whitney, their already weak offense will have lost 2 of their top 3 scorers from last season.

Although Dave Tippett and Don Maloney are two of the best in the league at what they do, you can only do so much with the ownership restrictions. They are looking very strong on D with the re-acquisition of Zbynek Michalek and Oliver-Ekman Larsson looking like a stud defenseman in this league - oh and don't forget 2 time all-star Keith Yandle. However, their defense and Smith can only do so much to help this team win games without offensive support. For this reason, I see them near the bottom of the West.

Why they'll make it- Dave Tippett coaches his way to the playoffs, strong D

Why they'll miss - Lack of scoring, Mike Smith can't stand on his head forever

San Jose Sharks

2011/2012 Rank: 7

Offseason moves:

In - Brad Stuart,  Adam Burish, James Sheppard

Out - Daniel Winnik, Torrey Mitchell, Colin White

The Sharks haven't been able to shake their title of regular season heroes, playoff zeros. Well, that may not be entirely fair as they have made it to the conference finals twice in the last 3 years, but they have a combined 1 win from those series. I mostly blame Joe Thornton (as do most others), but that's beside the point. I really like the depth the Sharks have in their lineup and think that last year was an off year for them. Their offense continues to be led by Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but they have some very impressive secondary scoring in Joe Pavelski, the talented but often injured Martin Havlat, and one of my favorite young players in the league, Logan Couture. Newly acquired Adam Burish and T.J. Galiardi should provide a boost to their bottom 6 as well.

However, the true strength of the Sharks lies on their blue line. Although Boyle is a little grey in the beard, he remains a force on both the offensive and defensive side of the puck. Brent Burns and Marc-Eduard Vlasic will be core pieces on this back end for years to come, and Douglas Murray and re-acquired Brad Stuart add depth and sandpaper to a strong group. Although Antii Niemi is always a wildcard in goal, if he can play solid enough the Sharks should make the playoffs once again. I don't think they will set the West on fire like they have in recent years, but finish in the middle of the pack.

Why they'll make it - Strong defensive and offensive depth

Why they'll miss - Niemi struggles, older stars on the decline

Final Predictions

The final rankings in my Pacific Division preview are:

L.A. Kings
San Jose Sharks
Dallas Stars
Anaheim Ducks
Phoenix Coyotes

With the top 2 in the playoffs and Dallas narrowly missing the dance.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Central Division Preview

Last season the Central Division was the most competitive in the West, with 4 out of the 5 teams finishing in the top 6 in the conference.  With a few star caliber players leaving the division don't expect a repeat result, but that doesn't mean there won't be a fight for the division crown up until the end of the regular season. Here is how I think things will end up:

Chicago Blackhawks

2011/2012 Rank: 6

Offseason Moves:
In - Sheldon Brookban
Out - Sean O'Donnell, Sami Lepisto

With a relatively unchanged lineup heading into next season, the Blackhawks will be relying on the continued development of young players like Nick Leddy and Andrew Shaw if they hope to improve in the standings.  After two playoff years in which they suffered some devastating OT losses,  the team needs to bounce back from the heart break.  The disappointing part for Blackhawks fans is that I feel if they made it past their first round opponents they would have had a great shot to make the finals. This leads to what has been their downfall - goaltending.

 Corey Crawford has shown he can make the timely saves and come up big when needed, but there is another side to his play that has let in some very soft and deflating goals for his team. Although they won the Cup with some pretty inconsistent goaltending, it makes the players in front of him lose confidence and it shows up in their play. Despite their goaltending woes, the Blackhawks are still a very formidable team that can boast the best top 6 overall players of any team in the league (Toews, Hossa, Kane, Sharp, Keith & Seabrook - I dare you to come up with a better one!). With this kind of quality on both sides of the puck, it is unacceptable that the team had the 26th & 27th overall powerplay and penalty kill, respectively. Even if these stats improve only to league average, it should lead to a few more wins for the 'Hawks next year.

Why they'll make it - Too much talent to miss, players play to their ability

Why they'll miss - Goaltending fails them, Toews & Hossa concussion woes continue

Columbus Blue Jackets

2011/2012 Rank: 15 (30th in the league)

Offseason Moves:
In - Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon,  Adrian Aucoin, Sergei Bobrovsky,  Nick Foligno, Ryan Murray (maybe)
Out - Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Marc Methot

A last place overall finish usually leads to drastic moves in the offseason, and for the Blue Jackets it was no different. They have plenty of player turnover heading into next season, but  all signs point a club will not improve much (if at all) on their finish last year. The big news was obviously the trade that saw the face of their franchise head to the New York Rangers for an unspectacular return.  When you trade Rick Nash - one of the best power forwards in the game (albeit overrated) you should get more than, at best, 2 second liners and a top 4 defenseman (who has played under 20 NHL games).

While it upgrades the Jackets' depth, I never like moving quality for quantity when you don't get an impact player as part of the package. It saddens me to say that this trade combined with their poor drafting in the top 10 in recent years will keep the team in the depths of the league. It seems that Mason will never bounce back in goal, and Sergei Bobrovsky is not the solution. While they have nice depth on D, Jack Johnson as a #1 is also worrying. In a strong central division, the Jackets will continue to be a bottom feeder.

Why they'll make it  - Bobrovsky/Mason provide consistent and solid goaltending, forwards mesh and all exceed expectations

Why they'll miss - Weak goaltending, poor offense

Detroit Red Wings

2011/2012 Rank: 5

Offseason Moves: 
In - Jordin Tootoo, Mikael Samuelsson, Gustav Nyquist, Damien Brunner
Out - Nicklas Lidstrom, Brad Stuart, Jiri Hudler, Tomas Holmstrom

 The Wings have lost one of the greatest defenseman of all time in Nik Lidstrom this offseason, and it he is impossible to replace. Although over the last few years his role has been reduced slightly, the 7 time Norris winner was still one of the best in the game even in the twilight of his career. Detroit also lostthe steady and consistent Stuart on the back end, which means they will need some of their veteran defense to step up and replace those lost minutes. Nicklas Kronwall, Ian white, Kyle Quincey and  will have to go from their usual roles as number 3 & 4 D men to 1 & 2s; something that does not bode well for the Wings' defensive ability. Promising rookie Brenden Smith will also be relied upon to have an immediate impact on the blue line. Because of this, it should come as no surprise that Wings are rumoured to be interested in adding Jay Bouwmeester to their lineup.

While he would be a definite upgrade, the Flames would be looking to add a top 6 centerman in Valtteri Filppula, which would hurt and already mediocre offense. Zetterberg and Datsyuk are still premier players in the league, but are passed their prime and only getting older and an injury to either of these two will spell trouble for the Wings. After that, the Wings do not have many established forwards to carry the offense (outside of Franzen) and will be relying on rookies like Brunner and Nyquist to step up. After being the epitome of success for the better part of two decades in the league, I expect the Red Wings to just fall short of the playoffs this season - hey, it had to happen sometime!

Why they'll make it - Babcock gets the most out of his players, rookies all exceed expectations

Why they'll miss - Lack of talent on defense, significant injury to Datsyuk or Zetterberg

Nashville Predators

2011/2012 Rank: 4

Offseason Moves:
In - Paul Gaustad, Brian McGrattan
Out - Alexander Radulov, Ryan Suter, Andrei Kostitsyn

After beating the Red Wings in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, the Predators were favorites heading into round two versus the Coyotes. Unfortunately for them, Mike Smith continued his hot play and the Yotes'  ousted them in 5 games. This was beginning of their offseason woes. The enigmatic  but supremely talented Alexander Radulov returned to the KHL after re-joining the team late in the season. As if losing one star player wasn't enough, they also lost a key part of what was the best defensive pairing in the league in Ryan Suter to the Wild. With no significant upgrades thus far, expect the Predators to slide in the standings from their finish last year. Similar to goaltending in Philadelphia, the Preds have continually lacked a dynamic offensive force up front and will be relying on forwards from all four lines to contribute on any given night. It is time for Colin Wilson to make the next step in his development and show he was worth 7th overall selection in the 2008 draft.

Even with the loss of Suter, the Predators have always been a defensive factory and have a wealth of young talent highlighted by Jonathon Blum, Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi. While the Predators lack in offensive flare, they remain one of the toughest teams to play against because Barry Trotz remains one of the best coaches in the game. Add in Pekka Rinne, a top 3 goalie in the league, and I still have Nashville sitting in a playoff position.

Why they'll make it - Strong defense and goaltending, will win those 1 goal games

Why they'll miss - Lack of offense will have them fall just short

St. Louis Blues

2011/2012 Rank: 2 (2 points from President's Trophy)

Offseason Moves:
In - Vladimir Tarasenko
Out - Jason Arnott, Kent Huskins, Carlo Colaiacovo

The Blues were the surprise team of the 2011/2012 NHL season, all thanks to Jack Adams winning coach Ken Hitchcock. His defensive system single handily vaulted the Blues from 13th in the West to the top of the standings in the final 65 games of the season.  Going into the season they were my dark horse team to do well, but I don't think anyone could have predicted just how well they finished the year - goes to show the effect good coaching can have on a young team. The Blues are relatively unchanged heading into next year, which should mean another successful season. On the back end, they are anchored by emerging star and future Norris contender Alex Pietrangelo and another young stud in Kevin Shattenkirk.

They have multiple offensive options up front that include David Perron, Andy McDonald, Patrick Berglund as well as T.J. Oshie, Chris Stewart and captain David Backes that can hurt you on the ice and the scoreboard. Add in talented rookies like Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues are a team with 3 lines that can score which will give opponents fits night in and out. Although they are strong at every position, I think Brian Elliott's season was a statistical anomaly that he will not be able to replicate. Good news for the Blues is that  they still have Halak as their starter. 

Why they'll make it - Impressive talent and depth throughout their lineup, strong coaching

Why they'll miss - Injury bug bites, and injury prone players like Perron, McDonald and Halak all go down for a significant amount of time

Final Predictions

The standings in the Central Division will go:

St. Louis

With the top 3 making the playoffs, and a very tight race for the title between the Hawks and Blues.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Northwest Division Preview

Every week I will be writing up a preview for each division, analyzing their lineup for next year and where I think they will finish in the standings. This week, we begin with the Northwest Division.

The Northwest is one of the most interesting divisions this year, and probably the most improved across the board of any in the league. Here is how I see it shaking out:

Calgary Flames

2011/2012 Rank: 9 (5 points out)

Offseason Moves:
In- Dennis Wideman, Roman Cervenka, Jiri Hudler
Out -Olli  Jokinen, David Moss, Scott Hannan, Brendan Morrison

The Calgary Flames remind me of the pre-Brian Burke Toronto Maple Leafs - a team with false hope of making the playoffs that will continue to end up on the wrong side of the playoff bubble. And that is exactly where I see this team finishing next season. They should have traded Iginla and/or Kipprusoff in one of the last 2 seasons, but instead of cleaning the slate and starting the re-build, they keep signing overpriced unrestricted free agents and handing out no-trade clauses like candy on Halloween. That being said, Calgary does not have a terrible lineup, just an aging core that is on the decline. They do have some nice depth up front, but the gaping hole right now is at the center position with the loss of Olli Jokinen. All signs point to Cammalleri starting the year at center because their only other capable top 6 center is Roman Cervenka - and no one can predict how he will make the transition from the KHL (though in the past, most have struggled). Kipprusoff will take the team on his back once again, although his time is running out as a top goaltender.  On D, Calgary will be anchored by Jay Bouwmeester and Giordano, but will have to count on some youngsters in Brodie and Butler to perform well if they are to contend for a spot. I think they come up short once again, and for their fan's sake I hope they ship out some pieces at the deadline and focus on the future.

Why they'll make it - Iginla, Kipper & Tanguay refuse to decline, Sven Baertschi has a strong rookie campaign, Bob Hartley gets team to buy in to his system

Why they'll miss - Serious lack of depth at center position, best players continue to decline

Colorado Avalanche

2011/2012 Rank: 11 (7 points out)

Offseason Moves:
 In - PA Parenteau, John Mitchell, Greg Zanon
Out - Jay McClement, Peter Mueller, Kevin Porter

The Colorado Avalanche finished out their season on a high as they stayed in contention for the last playoff spot in the West until the last week of the season  (a spot that was eventually taken by the Cup winning L.A. Kings). They hope to continue that late season success in the upcoming year.  The Avs were ranked 25th in the league last year for goals per game, a stat that should improve with a full season of Jamie McGinn, Steve Downie and the addition of PA Parenteau on the wing. On the back end, the Avs are riddled with defensive defenseman, making the Zanon signing a little curious. With the lack of puck moving defensemen after Erik Johnson, look for Stefan Elliott or Tyson Barrie to impress and possibly earn a spot out of camp. It will be hard for John Mitchell to replicate what Jay McClement brought to the ice, but in a fourth line role the effect should be minimal. Between the pipes, the Avs will counting on Semyon Varlamov to continue his strong play post all star break and at the World Championship, where he won gold for Russia posting a 8-0 record with a 1.77 GAA and .939sv%.  With the youngest roster and lowest payroll last season, all signs point to the Avalanche improving on their finish last year.

Why they'll make it- Gabriel Landeskog breakout year, Matt Duchene bounce back year

Why they'll miss -Shallow defense, young players inconsistent play

Edmonton Oilers

2011/2012 Rank: 14 (21 points out)

Offseason Moves:
In - Justin Schultz, Nail Yakupov
Out - N/A

The only thing the Oiler's have won lately is the draft lottery the last three years. These three 1st overall picks have given them an abundance of young talent at the forward position. However, that is only one part of a hockey team. Although the Oiler's had an amazing start to the year, they crashed and burned down the stretch which began with a horrendous road trip after the Christmas break. Not surprisingly, this stretch coincided with an injury to star rookie Ryan Nugent - Hopkins. The Oiler's will go as far as their offense will take them, as their all around team defense and goaltending remain far below average. The development of their youngsters should lead to an improvement in the standings, but I think that it will be another rough year for Oilers fans.  While they will show flashes of brilliance,  Nail Yakupov is, so far, an unproven commodity in the NHL; and him, Nugent - Hopkins and Hall all have an injury history. If one or all go down at any given time, they do not have the overall depth in their roster to carry the weight. The Oiler's have a very bright future, but until they shore up their D and goaltending, they will continue to finish out of a playoff position.

Why they'll make it - Offense stays healthy, and more than one of they're young stars have a breakout year. Dubnyk and defense play consistently solid.

Why they'll miss - Inconsistent youngsters, Nugent-Hopkins sophomore slump, lack of skill on D and depth up front.

Minnesota Wild

2011/2012 Rank: 12 (14 points out)

Offseason Moves:
In - Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell
Out - Guilamme Latendresse, Erik Christensen

            The Minnesota Wild landed to two biggest names on the free agent market in Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, making them the most improved team (on paper) heading into next season. Both players will have an immediate impact on the Wild's success - I mean how many times do you get to add a number one defenseman and top line winger without giving up any assets? Perhaps more importantly, I think the Parise signing will provide a huge boost to the profile of Mikko Koivu. Already a premier 2-way center, being on a line between Parise and Heatley will finally give him quality wingers and people will begin to recognize just how good this guy is. The success of the Wild will rely on the play of their defense. After Ryan Suter, there are few to none established names and the play of these young, unrecognizable players will dictate where the Wild finish in the standings. Health will also be of huge concern for the Wild this season. After starting the year in first place in the West come December, injuries to Koivu, Bouchard and Backstrom contributed to a slide out of playoff contention. Top prospect Mikael Granlund will also be counted upon to have a strong rookie campaign and provide secondary scoring.

Why they'll make it - Top players play like they can, avoid injury bug

Why they'll miss - Lack of depth on defense, lack of secondary scoring

Vancouver Canucks

2011/2012 Rank: 1 (President's Trophy Winners)

Offseason Moves:
In - Jason Garrison
Out - Aaron Rome, Sami Salo

 The back-to-back President Trophy Winner Vancouver Canucks have another exciting season to look forward to. They did not lose any significant parts of their lineup and Garrison may prove to be an upgrade on Salo on the blueline (especially when it comes to durability). Up front, the Canucks will continue to be led by the Sedin twins, and although their best seasons are behind them, they should still produce near a point per game pace. Ryan Kesler's absence early in the year may lead to a slow start, but it's likely that Mike Gillis is not finished tweaking his roster. There are rumours abound that the Canucks are on Shane Doan's short list and there has been more than enough speculation about a Luongo trade in the near future. It will be interesting how these two scenarios play out, as I believe the Canucks would really benefit from adding more leadership and scoring (Doan) and another skilled defenseman to help them rebound from a disappointing playoffs.

Why they'll make it - Consistency, staying the course, solid depth at all positions

Why they'll miss - Luongo trade happens, Scheider can't handle the pressure

Final Predictions:

The standings in the Northwest will be:


With the top 3 all making the playoffs.