NFL picks – conference finals

 

A better week last week but still only 3-4.  2-2 ATS, but I’m not feeling bad about those picks, everyone seems to agree that these have been 2 of the most messed up playoff weekends of all time.  Wildcard weekend all the games were under and the favorite won every game.  Last weekend all the games went over and the only game that really went as you would think it would was Houston at New England.  So now it’s the conference finals, and I’ve picked the dog in every single playoff game so far, and despite having shit luck the last 2 weekends I’m not changing a thing.  There is a reason I went 18 games over .500 in the regular season (egotistical I know).

 

San Francisco at Atlanta

Atlanta +4.5

Under 49.5

This is just simply common sense, the best team in the league so far this season is 4.5 point dogs at home where they have been dominant not just this season but since 2008!  I can’t believe people are taking the Niners in this spot, and don’t think for one second that this isn’t fueling the Falcons fire big time.  They’re the most disrespected team in football and while its been justified for the most part, they showed last weekend they have some fight.  That was a big hurdle for them to cross.  I know they just barely escaped, but now they’ve won 1.  Mentally its huge for them.  Now, that’s not to say the Falcons will win this game.  But you’re getting THIS good of a team at home getting 4.5, take it and run.  Maybe I’m drastically missing something here, but I just can’t see it.  As for the over/under, people will be much more inclined to take the over in this game but these were 2 very good defenses all season long.  I believe this is a 23-20, 20-17 kind of game.

 

Baltimore at New England

Baltimore +9

Under 52.5

Speaking of teams getting disrespected, ladies and gentlemen YOUR Baltimore Ravens!!!  I can’t figure out how you get to 9 (that’s where it started, that’s where it was when I made my pick, it’s now up to 7.5) points when every game these 2 teams play is tight.  This game last year was a 3 point Pats win…that the Ravens should have won.  The game this year came down to a field goal by Justin Tucker to win it for the Ravens.  This will be a tight game!  But the public drools over the Pats and everyone was down on the Ravens entering the playoffs so they think this run is more about other teams shooting themselves in the foot than the Ravens playing well.  I think you’re an idiot if you’re taking the Pats -7.5 or higher.  Now maybe that’s what will happen, but it doesn’t mean its the right bet.  A lot of the time smart bets won’t win and dumb ones will but you just have to roll with it which is why I so often “take the smart bet”.  So take the Ravens getting points even though I believe the Pats do win the game.  As for the over/under in this one, its a big number that both teams are capable of beating.  But this was a low scoring game last year and so I’m going to say it goes under yet again.  Pretty tough for these teams to repeat the offensive performances they had last weekend.

 

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NHL season preview – final predictions

 

Well here are my conference predictions, conference final predictions, Stanley Cup prediction and awards predictions.  Won’t waste anymore time, here they are.

 

Western Conference

1. St. Louis Blues – They continue to improve on their breakout 2012 season

2. Phoenix Coyotes – Boring as hell, but they get the job done

3. Vancouver Canucks – I’m not expecting a good start, but they’ll get on track

4. Nashville Predators – Suter gone but just watch how good their blueline still will be

5. Chicago Blackhawks – Questions still remain in net, but they’re still elite

6. Los Angeles Kings – No hangover, but could still struggle out of the gate

7. Detroit Red Wings – Not dead YET, but won’t be a contender

8. Minnesota Wild – Like Vancouver it might take a while, but they’ll eventually click

9. Edmonton Oilers – Will be vastly improved, but just fall short of the dance….not next year though

10. Anaheim Ducks – A healthy Jonas Hiller will go a long way

11. San Jose Sharks – I just think this is the season it all falls apart

12. Dallas Stars – Top 6 looks solid but not good enough to offset an awful blueline

13. Colorado Avalanche – Low in the standings but won’t be as bad as spot indicates

14. Calgary Flames – They do have some talent but I really don’t like the mix

15. Columbus Blue Jackets – I actually like what they’re building, but it’ll be 1 more down year

 

Conference final – Phoenix vs Vancouver

The Coyotes start to benefit from the rules being called more “2004” like last season and that will continue this season.  Vancouver as I keep saying I think will start slow but will peak at the right time, and they’ll knock off the Coyotes in 6 games to get to their 2nd Cup final in 3 years.

 

Eastern Conference

1. Boston Bruins – Well rested and a weaker division should put them on top of the East

2. NY Rangers – 2nd straight division title, most complete team in the league

3. Washington Capitals – Tougher division but expect them to be better as well

4. Pittsburgh Penguins – Is it just me or do they own this spot in the standings?

5. Carolina Hurricanes – Off season spending spree will pay off; Jordan Staal vs Pens in round 1!

6. Philadelphia Flyers – Lost quite a bit of offense and I still hate their goaltending

7. Ottawa Senators – They’ve got a good thing going, but I hate how much grit they lost

8. Buffalo Sabres – Quietly they’ve put together a real nice roster

9. Tampa Bay Lightning – I like what they have, but will come up just short

10. New Jersey Devils – Won’t recover from losing their heart and soul

11. Winnipeg Jets – I expect more of the same as last season, great at home and bad on the road

12. Toronto Maple Leafs – Burke firing not a good “distraction free” start to the season

13. Montreal Canadiens – Not much improved from last year, but headed in a much better direction

14. Florida Panthers – They lived off a hot start and O.T. loses last season, won’t have the same luck

15. NY Islanders – This is how you don’t do a rebuild, what a mess of an organization

 

Conference final – Boston vs Pittsburgh

I don’t see many road blocks for the Bruins.  Tim Thomas is gone but Tuukka Rask is one of the best in the game as well.  The Pens meanwhile did lose Staal but Sutter will be a great fit and they have the cap space to add at the deadline.  While a Bruins/Canucks rematch is enticing, the Pens are too talented to slow down and head back to the final for the 3rd time in 6 years.

 

Stanley Cup final – Vancouver vs Pittsburgh

This is the ultimate good vs evil in my mind!  Both teams are great down the middle (at least the Canucks will be when healthy), both a good in goal (assuming MAF can bounce back strong), and both teams are very well coached.  In the end I think I like the Canucks talent just a bit better….HOWEVER, they’ve never cleaned up the trash on this team and it will hurt them once again against a Pens team that will keep their heads this season.  The Pens know how to win, I don’t think this Canucks team will ever figure it out.  Pens take the series 4-2 and win their 2nd cup in 5 years.

Conn Smythe – Sidney Crosby

 

Player Awards

Hart – Sidney Crosby

Art Ross – Sidney Crosby

Richard – Steven Stamkos

Calder – Justin Schultz

Norris – Shea Weber

Vezina – Mike Smith

Adams – Adam Oates

 

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NHL season preview – Southeast division

 

Don’t call it the Southleast anymore!  The Caps had been the only team basically in the division.  But heading into this season the Florida Panthers (despite having the least amount of wins of any playoff team last season) are the defending division champ, the Lightning have the league’s top sniper and just 2 years ago were in game 7 of the Eastern conference final, the Jets pushed for a playoff spot last season and upgraded down the middle in the off season, and the Canes spent big this off season to get Jordan and Eric Staal together and are now a serious threat to win the division.  It’s vastly improved, the equivilant of the NFC West in the NFL.  Should be interesting to watch for the first time….maybe ever!

 

1. fans-glassWashington Capitals – They just missed winning the division last season, they’ve won it the previous 4 seasons, and while the division as I just stated is a lot tougher now than it’s ever been I still believe this is the top team.  But this is the Atlanta Falcons of the NHL, it doesn’t much matter anymore what they do in the regular season.  This team needs to start going on some deep playoff runs.

It’ll be interesting to see how Adam Oates does behind the bench.  Just from working with Oates I’m going to guess that every centre will get better in the dot.  I know most roads lead back to Edmonton when reading my stuff but this is actually a great example.  When Oates went to the Oilers in the 03/04 season the Oilers were horrific in the dot.  Horcoff, Stoll, Reasoner.  Once Oates arrived they improved by leaps and bounds in the dot and a big reason the Oilers went to the finals in 06 was because Horcoff and Stoll were so dominant in the dot.  But Oates expertise goes beyond the dot, this guy had one of the highest hockey IQ’s ever seen in the league.  He had to, he was 5’9 and was slow to put it kindly!  As for how he will coach this team though I really have no idea.  I would guess he will be a lot more structured than Bruce Boudreau was, but won’t be as restrictive as Hunter was, which is probably exactly what McPhee was looking for in a coach.

I like the move to acquire Mike Riberio.  He is a UFA after the season, and he’s not the ideal 2nd line centre that this team needs, but he’s a huge upgrade in that spot.  And this allows Brooks Laich to move back into the 3rd line centre role where he should be much more comfortable.  With these 2 in place and a full season from Nicklas Backstrom they should be one of the top teams in the league in the middle.

Ovechkin will greatly benefit from a full season of Backstrom.  For all the flack this guy has gotten the last few seasons, he’s scored some really big goals in the playoffs, he has still produced at a high level, and he’s done everything the organization has asked of him.  He had every reason to go “big time” last year during the playoffs and even after Dale Hunter stepped down as head coach Ovechkin never said a bad word about him.  Some don’t like him because he gets overhyped.  I don’t know why that’s his fault?  He’s an elite sniper who is very physical and plays with a ton of energy.  He will never be Crosby or Toews or Malkin mainly because wingers can’t have the same impact on a game at this level then a centre can.  But he’s still one of the best in the league.

They have a lot of size on the wings that I like a lot.  They’re not overly physical guys, but they’ll lean on you and wear a team down.  It’s scary how good this team could be on the wings in the next few seasons with Filip Forsberg, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson on the way.  George McPhee has done an amazing job of keeping his shelves stocked while putting a high end team in the ice the last several seasons.

Their blueline doesn’t get enough love as one of the best young d cores in the league.  Alzner and Carlson is a great top pairing and they’re only 24 and 23 (Carlson just turned 23 on the 10th) respectively.  Then they still have Mike Green who finally started to figure it out defensively in last year’s playoffs, although that may have been just him buying into Dale Hunter’s system.  But he’s still only 27 (usually the start of a defenseman’s prime) and then they have Dmitry Orlov who brings a lot of offense to the table from the blueline as well.  My guess is that at some point Green is getting moved.  He makes the most money, he’s the oldest, and he’s not on the top pairing.  But it’s a nice problem to have.

Again I comeback to Hunter and this time ask if it was his system or did Braden Holtby really bust out in last year’s playoffs?  My answer would be that it was a bit of both.  Holtby was allowed to see every shot and had most rebounds cleared away.  When a goaltender trusts the players in front of him his confidence will go up and that’s when you start to see the highlight reel saves.  Between Holtby and Neuvirth I believe Holtby is the better of the 2 goaltenders, but I’m not sold on last spring being his spring board to being a legit number 1 goaltender in this league, there will still be more hills to climb.

They’re really rolling the dice here on Adam Oates as the head coach.  McPhee could look like a genius or it could cost him his job.  He has built something pretty great in Washington but they must take it to the next level now.  One of these years this team will do just that, there is too much talent throughout the organization not to.

 

2. b257eb528558eca73fdf2b1052f86f34Carolina Hurricanes – The small market Canes don’t want to be small market anymore.  Jim Rutherford could have waited for Jordan Staal to hit free agency this summer, but he decided to step up and take the big swing now.  And not only did he take the swing on Jordan Staal but he stepped up and decided to take a chance on Alex Semin for 1 year/7 million.  Don’t know why anyone gave him 7 million, but for just 1 season it’s worth the risk.

The talk in the off season was that they were thinking about using the Staal brothers together on the top line with Eric moving over to the left side.  I won’t pretend that I watch a TON of Hurricanes hockey, but why in the hell would you load up 1 line when you could be one of the best teams at centre in the leauge?!  I don’t know if they’ve noticed, but teams that are great in the middle win a lot.  Add to that they haven’t got anything that even resembles a 2nd line centre.  I’m sure Kirk Muller won’t be this stupid.  Obviously there will be times in the game where you do throw them out together, much like the Avs used to with Sakic and Forsberg, the Oilers used to with Gretz and Mess, the Wings used to with Yzerman and Federov, the Pens do with Sid and Geno and used to with Mario and Francis, on and on and on.  But don’t put them out together on a regular shift.

They’re not great on the wings, but Jeff Skinner is a beauty who will be a regular 30-40 goal scorer.  Time will tell if Semin will get his act together.  If he does, they have one of the top wingers in hockey and will be able to dominate down low playing with either one of the brothers.  Tuomo Ruutu is another guy that will help this team dominate down low.  He has finally been able to stay healthy the last few years and while he isn’t the crusher he used to be, he is very effective.  As for the final piece of the top 6, I believe they got 3 candidates.  Drayson Bowman, Jiri Tlusty, and what so far has been a 1st round bust Zach Boychuk.  All 3 have talent and you would THINK 1 of these 3 could step up playing with quality centres.

The defense is easily the weakness of this team.  Joni Pitkanen can log a lot of minutes and is very talented but has always left teams wanting more.  Justin Faulk looked great in his rookie season, but how many times have we seen young d-men step in and look great in their rookie year and then have 1 or 2 down years?  It’s because in that rookie year coaches will shelter them, and as they give them more responsibilities most guys struggle.  Tim Gleason is a solid stay at home guy, but nothing to get too excited about.  Jordan Staal will definitely help at the defensive end of the ice, but it will still be a weak spot for the Canes.

No weakness in net though.  If you read my piece on the 2014 Olympic team you know what I think of Cam Ward.  This guy is money, and as long as he stays healthy they have elite goaltending.  I guess one issue would be that they’ve never really had a quality backup on the roster with Ward, but in a 48 game season you wouldn’t think he’ll need a lot of time off.  I would guess he will play 40 of the 48 games this season….again if healthy.

I really like what Rutherford has done with this team and not only do I think they’re a playoff team, but they’ll be a tough out for anyone when they get there.

 

3. stamkos2Tampa Bay Lightning – What a difference a year makes.  2 years ago it was the surprise team of the league.  5th place in the conference was amazing.  Then they came back from 3-1 against the Pens (minus Crosby and Malkin) to pull the upset.  Then they pulled an even bigger shocker sweeping the Caps.  They were scoreless against the Bruins heading into the 3rd period of game 7 of the Eastern final before Nathan Horton got one past Dwayne Roloson midway through the 3rd and the Bruins finally sent Cinderella home.  Then last season with everyone loving them, they were horrible.  So which Tampa team will we get this season?

Of course it all starts with Steven Stamkos up front.  60 goals is incredible, and the kid is improving other area’s of his game while being such a sniper.  He could stand to improve his playmaking though.  He’s a centre, and I’ve always said centre’s that are shoot first guys are very difficult to play with.  Marty St. Louis is the perfect guy to have helped bring him along, but Marty isn’t going to play forever.  He doesn’t really have to become a pass first guy, but he has to dish it more which in turn will open up more for him and his linemates.

In camp right now they have Vinny Lecavalier playing with Teddy Purcell and Cory Conacher on the 2nd line.  Conacher was Bob McKenzie’s pick at the start of the season for the Calder.  He tore up the AHL last year.  He is undersized but highly skilled, but he will have to win that roster spot.  Vinny won’t have to win his roster spot, he’s entrenched there!  I have said this before on the site and will say it again, I believe Vinny does get bought out but it won’t be by Tampa.  I see them sending him along with something like a 1st round pick to a team that can afford to buy him out and has a buy left to burn.  That way they don’t spend the money and Vinny can sign back in Tampa for a much more reasonable price.

So the forward group is really solid down there we all know that.  The big questions come on the back end and in net.  Victor Hedman will become that elite shutdown d-man one of these days.  He just has too many tools not to be that guy.  6’6, 230, can skate, has a bit of a mean streak, so it will all come together soon.  Weather he ever becomes a PP QB remains to be seen.  I liked the Sami Salo signing but as always with him he has to stay healthy.  If he can play 40 games he’s a steal, he still has one of the best shots from the point in the league.  The Matt Carle signing was just disgusting.  5 mil a year for this guy is ridiculous and it shows how desperate Yzerman was to upgrade this blueline.  He will improve the group, but he’s vastly overpaid.

Then they’re rolling the dice on Anders Lindback in net.  Definitely has the talent.  He’s 6’6, 205 and he’s very quick.  But he’s raw so it’s a big chance they’re taking on him working out those kinks in his game.  Mathieu Garon is actually a pretty good mentor to have around for him because Garon was a kid with a lot of talent once upon a time and so perhaps he can teach the kid some things that he should have done differently.  At least with Garon there, Lindback won’t be forced to play 40 games.  In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if they split the games.

I really believe this team bounces back from a shockingly bad 2011-12 season and at least is in the playoff race.  Yzerman has done a nice job so far as GM, and I like Guy Boucher as head coach even if the team doesn’t always play the most exciting style.  They need Lindback to step up and be better than what they had with Roloson last year and they need Hedman to become that number 1 d-man but both of those things could very possibly happen this season.

 

 

4. laddWinnipeg Jets -What a run this team went on last year.  They may have come up short in the end, but I followed this team very closely in the 2nd half last season and they played too many exciting, intense games.  It was great to see and unreal for the fans who had been without the NHL for 15 years.  Now this season they aren’t looking to just be a feel good story, they’re looking for the playoffs.

I really like the job Kevin Cheveldayoff has done thus far, and I’m a big fan of head coach Claude Noel.  Noel is structured, passionate, intense, runs his bench well and he got the most out of this hockey team last season.  I won’t say this about any other team, but while there are coaches I like better than Noel, I may not like a coaching staff better than this one.  Quick, name the defenseman who has underachieved with Charlie Huddy on the coaching staff?  I’ll make this easy for you, there hasn’t been one.  Seriously this guy runs a blueline better than anyone else in the game.  Then they brought in Perry Pearn in the off season and the one constant with Pearn is the PK under his watch always is among the best in the league.  It’s a great staff so I will have a tough time blaming them for anything that may go wrong this season in Winnipeg.

One guy that could be a good whipping boy is Oli Jokinen.  I actually really liked the signing at first glance.  Only a 2 year deal and under 5 mil a season.  But while he gives them some much needed size in the middle, I’m not sure I like pairing him with Kane (isn’t that a coaching decision….a staff that I just raved about?!)  Both guys are shooters which is why Jokinen never really worked with Iginla.  Now they will have crafty little Kyle Wellwood playing with them expected to be the setup man, but that mix never seems to work.

I’m a big fan of the 1st line with Ladd – Little – Wheeler.  Blake Wheeler REALLY came on last season and established himself as a top 6 forward.  He’s not physical, but he has size that he uses well and great wheels (pardon the pun) for such a big guy.  He could stand to shoot a little more, and if he does that he might be unstoppable.  Andrew Ladd has turned into a Brendan Morrow type.  He doesn’t hit like Morrow, but you can tell he is the unquestioned leader of this hockey club both on and off the ice and he will do anything to win.  Bryan Little has worked on this line, but I like him more as a winger.  He is the guy they kind of have to lean on in that 1st line centre spot right now but obviously that needs to be upgraded down the road (Scheifele?  Burmistrov?)

This defense is funny.  Dustin Byfuglien gets overrated because of his offense and personality.  This isn’t a great defenseman, he’s this generations Al Iafrate.  Big shot, big personality, leaves you wanting much more.  Tobias Enstrom also gets overrated because of his offense.  But yet I felt a lot of people around hockey last season missed that Zach Bogosian (when healthy) and Mark Stuart really became a great shutdown pairing.  I’m sure it was night and day for Bogosian to go from Atlanta where rumors were everywhere that he was being dealt to Winnipeg where he really got his game back.  This kid has all the talent in the world to be right there with Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo.  He might not take that step this season comming off surgery, but don’t quit on him being an elite guy.

They will really need Ondrej Pavelec to put the off ice problems behind him.  He was their horse between the pipes last season and a lot of the time looked incredible.  I’m guessing they lean on him for 38 games this season.  Last year was the first year he had a heavy work load in the league and it showed.  But Jonathan Quick had those same kind of issues 3 years ago and he doesn’t look too bad these days does he?

I like this team but they get outmatched talent wise by Washington, Carolina and Tampa in this division, and by at least 8 teams in the conference.  They aren’t far off being a playoff team, but I just can’t see them getting there this season.

 

5. uspw_6184886-1334585326Florida Panthers – What a great season for the cats.  Finally getting back to the playoffs after 10 seasons out of the dance.  Worse than that it had been 13 seasons since they had won a playoff game.  Worse than THAT, they only had 1 playoff win in 14 years!  Not 1 series win, 1 win.  And when they got in they played the Devils hard, twice having them facing elimination going into O.T.  But Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique spoiled the party.  Now the cats look to get back to back playoff appearances for only the 2nd time in their existence, but I don’t see it happening.

This team was catching a lot of breaks early in the season, and they stockpiled points from taking teams to the shootout.  They had the 3rd seed in the conference but they had 3 less wins than the next team with the lowest win total in the playoffs.  And I also believe this team was highly motivated considering most in the game believed they over spent on a lot of UFA’s simply because they had to get to the cap floor.  That would explain the great 1st half and fading in the 2nd half of the season.

Their goaltending is really sketchy.  Both Theodore and Clemmensen were solid last season.  But neither guy is a number 1 and they are 35 and 36 years old now.  They’re just trying to hold the fort until Jacob Markstrom is ready, but to me Markstrom should have already been there last season.  He needs to get some starts, he’s had his time in the AHL and now they need to bring him in and split starts with one of these guys.  I’m really not sure why Dale Tallon hasn’t done this yet.

The blueline is solid, and Brian Campbell actually doesn’t get enough credit for carrying this team last season.  He’s overpaid but in turn he gets underrated.  He was THE reason Jason Garrison busted out at the start of last season.  Garrison lived off the work that Campbell did on the PP.  I would guess the guy taking over Garrison’s spot on the PP now would be Dmitry Kulikov who also has a cannon of a shot.  28 points in just 58 games last season so he is more than capable of being on the 1st unit PP.  They have a couple of grizzled vets in Filip Kuba and Ed Jovanovski, but both are at best number 4 guys at this point.

Erik Gudbranson is out for the first 3 games of the season with a shoulder injury which won’t help the team out of the gate.  I don’t know that Gudbranson is ever going to be a kid that will have a great all around game, but he will eventually become a beast defensively….as long as he can stay healthy.  It’s not just this shoulder injury, this kid struggled with injuries during his time in the OHL as well.

Up front they do have a lot of depth.  Dineen should be able to roll 4 lines every night which in a shortened season could be a huge advantage.  But they have nobody that can carry the mail.  Stephen Weiss has finally developed into a very good player in this league, but he’s not a 1st line centre.  He plays a 200 foot game, he was 53% in the dot last year, he put up 57 points, but that’s a 2nd line centre on a contender.  Don’t get me wrong I would love to have him on my team, but not as the top guy.  I believe Jonathan Huberdeau will be on the roster the entire season and I’m sure the Panthers brass is excited about him.  I don’t know if he will have the impact some believe he will in the first year or two, but he has star potential without a doubt.

I really don’t know what to think of this team, it’s built unlike any other in the league.  The 1st line isn’t a very good 1st line but the 3rd line is better than a lot of teams 2nd line.  The blueline has some pieces, but they don’t seem to fit that well.  I believe this season with Tampa likely getting back on track, Carolina being improved, and the Caps getting back on track it will put the Panthers right back at the bottom of the division and conference.  I believe it was just the perfect storm last season that led to this team making the playoffs, I don’t see the stars aligning like that again.

 

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NHL season preview – Atlantic division

 

If the Central division isn’t the best division in hockey, this one is.  The Rangers were 1st the East last season and now have added Rick Nash.  The Pens won the cup just 4 seasons ago and could actually have a full season of Crosby and Malkin.  The Flyers are always a top end team and just were in the final 3 seasons ago.  The Devils went to the final last season, although they took a devestating blow in the off season.  The Islanders are also in this division, and the odd time they even win a game.

 

1. 0726S3_Nashsmall_60pNew York Rangers – Brad Richards may not have put up the point per game numbers that he had the 2 previous seasons, but it is no coincidence that with the addition of him the Rangers went from 8th in the conference to 1st.  A 1st line centre can change a ton of things, and it’s a luxery that power foward Rick Nash has never had in the NHL…until now.  Big things are expected out of the duo as the Rangers look to improve on an amazing season.

This is perhaps the most complete team in the league.  After Richards down the middle you have Derek Stepan who had a 51 point campaign and I personally see a lot of Chris Drury in his game.  I wouldn’t say he’s a great 2 way player, but he will get there.  Great intangibles, and a RH shot to boot!  Centering the 3rd line is big Brian Boyle.  The former 1st round pick is 6’7, 240 and can skate pretty good for such a big man.  He has learned how to use his size and while he won’t produce a lot of offense, he will wear out opposing centre’s throughout the game.  Hell they even brought in Jeff Halpern who is a good veteran 4th line centre that can still win a ton of draws (56.7% last season) and won’t hurt them defensively.

On the wings obviously Rick Nash is the big addition but I’m guessing Ranger fans are just as excited to see what Chris Kreider can do in his first full season.  The kid has great size, great wheels, great hands, I’ve heard him compared to Bill Guerin and definitely saw that in last years playoffs.  Marian Gaborik doesn’t have to snipe 41 goals again this season, they just need him to give them a consistent 30 now with Nash in the fold.  Ryan Callahan is a coaches dream, he puts team 1st, 2nd and 3rd.  He doesn’t do anything great but he does everything good.  Carl Hagelin, Mike Rupp, Taylor Pyatt, Aaron Asham, all the pieces just fit perfectly up front.

They might not fit as well on defense as they don’t have that elite number 1 horse back there.  But Marc Staal to me really is a number 1 guy.  He doesn’t bring a ton of offense but he is a shutdown guy that can log 25 minutes a night.  Last year’s numbers may not show him as this guy, but he was coming back off a serious concussion.  Dan Girardi is maybe the most underrated d-man in the league.  This guy has developed into a top pairing guy and like Staal he does nothing flashy but he’s extremely effective.

Ryan McDonagh got a chance to step up last season while Staal was getting healthy and then getting his game back and he took full advantage of it.  He looks as though he could develop into that number 1 guy down the line.  I found him to be erratic in the playoffs last year, but he was matched up against the opposing teams best lines every night.  I doubt Michael Del Zotto will ever be great defensively, but he is their PP QB.  He had 41 points last season and I expect him to keep improving on those numbers (per game this season of course since he’ll only have 48 games).

Then they have one of the best in net with Henrik Lundqvist.  He almost tends net as good as he dresses!  Dude easily has the best threads in the league.  Year in, year out since he arrived in the 05/06 season he has simply been among the elite goaltenders in the game and has earned the moniker “King Henrik”.  If you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere, well he’s made it in New York.

As you can tell I’m very high on this team.  I don’t see a flaw, but like any team they could stand to upgrade in some area’s.  A 2nd or 3rd line centre pushing Halpern to the press box would make them even better down the middle for example.  But they don’t have to do much and you know John Tortorella will push them to get the most out of this team.  They are just now starting to get recognized as one of the best drafting and developing teams in the league as well.  Pre salary cap this team just spent like morons.  The cap system forced them to draft and develop which was the way Glen Sather was much more comfortable building a team.  The team is young, the system is loaded (although they don’t have their 1st round pick this season) and they’ve really become one of the model franchises in the game.

 

2. 20071108pd_penguins1107f_500Pittsburgh Penguins – Last year’s end to the season was not anything close to what the Pens or NHL fans in general had in mind.  They went into the playoffs as the hottest team in the league, Sid was just getting his legs under him, they had the MVP, experience all over, the best team in the league down the middle, great coaching, and they completely imploaded.  Marc-Andre Fleury was horrific, the defense wasn’t much better, and before they knew it the Pens were bounced in 6.  It will be interesting to see if any affects from that loss linger this season.

I almost expect that to happen off the start, if not for any other reason than nobody thinks it’s possible.  I don’t love this blueline.  I’m a big Kris Letang fan, but he’s not the number 1 guy he gets made out to be.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable matching him up with another teams top line night in night out.  The worry with a shutdown guy like Brooks Orpik is that the wear and tear of his style of game is starting to slow him down a bit.  Paul Martin sucks….yeah I said it.  This guy was a product of New Jersey’s system and parlayed it into a big contract.  How many guys leave New Jersey and look like trash elsewhere?  Other than Scott Niedermayer, I can’t think of another guy.

Ray Shero knows how bad his blueline is, so he’s invested every draft pick he could get his hands on in the last 2 seasons into defensemen.  While that’s an overstatement, he has stockpiled them high in the draft the last 2 years and with 4 of his last 5 1st round picks.  Joe Morrow, Scott Harrington, Derrick Pouliot, and Olli Maatta the last 2 seasons, Simon Despres in 2009.  I’m going to guess he is going to flip at least 1 of these kids in a package at this years deadline in an attempt to upgrade that D, it’s just too thin.

Nothing wrong with the forward group though!  The pieces fit up front a lot better than they have.  I was big on the Pens getting exactly what they got from the Hurricanes for Jordan Staal, I thought it was a perfect trade for both teams and even said in a prior mock draft that the asking price from the Pens should be Sutter, a 1st, and a prospect.  Sutter just fits perfectly into that 3rd line centre spot for the Pens.  He isn’t as good as Jordan Staal obviously, but he has some offense, he’s more physical than Staal, and he’s a RH shot which the Pens haven’t had down the middle.

Shero finally made a play to go get this team a big talented winger in 2011 and he hit a homerun with James Neal.  With Dupuis and Kunitz flanking Sid, Geno and Neal can continue to dominate the way they did much of last season.  Maybe he doesn’t snipe 40 again, but I bet he isn’t far off that number.  The kid has it all and is only 25.

All that is great.  The forward group is awesome, the defense is thin but they have the trade chips and cap space to upgrade it, but the big key for the Pens is Marc-Andre Fleury bouncing back.  I like bringing in Tomas Vokoun to give Flower more breaks than he’s had the last few seasons, but Dan Bylsma needs to take advantage of that.  We’ve seen before where coaches will get a quality backup brought in to take pressure off their starter and they basically ignore it and ride their horse.  I’m betting Fleury does come back strong, he’s faced adversity like this before (04 WJC) and come back strong.  They’ll need him to because they won’t win a cup without him doing so.

Everyone is sky high on this team, and don’t get me wrong I love them.  But there are holes that the Rangers don’t have.  In the regular season I believe the Rags will be the better team, but as I’ve said Ray Shero has a lot of ammo to load up at the trade deadline to make another cup run.

 

3. 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - Practice SessionsPhiladelphia Flyers – The defending Stanley Cup champs I’m certain are still on cloud 9 after their amazing 6 game win against the Pens last season.  It was amazing when the buzzer went and they had defeated the Pens 5-1, Gary Bettman came out and presented them with the cup, truely an inspiring scene in Philly that day.  Of course that’s just how it played out in the Flyers minds, not reality.  This can be a great team that could make a deep run if they can get past comparing themselves to the Pens and instead just focus on the Flyers.

It starts in net with wack job Ilya Bryzgalov.  I hate to say I told you so EVERYBODY….BUT…..yeah.  He’s a great quote, I get why so many in the media pull for the guy, but he’s a joke.  It was very clear if anyone was paying attention to Phoenix, paying attention to goaltenders numbers with and without Dave Tippett behind the bench, it was obvious this was an Ed Snider move because if it was Paul Holmgren I’m certain their pro scouts would have urged not to give this guy big money.  Now, he can be better than he was last season…that shouldn’t be hard at all!  But he isn’t the answer they’ve been looking for since Bernie Parent.  I expect him to be bought out after the season and I’m sure if they had any kind of replacement right now they would have bought him out this week.

I like what their running down the middle going forward with Giroux, Couturier and Brayden Schenn.  Might be a bit too young right now, which is why Briere will play a lot in the middle moving Schenn to the wing, but in time they’ll be one of the best in the league.  They’re loaded on the wings too.  The wildcard to me is Jake Voracek (I’m well aware his real name is Jakub, thanks).  This kid is so talented and now he’ll get his chance on their top line with Giroux and Hartnell.  He has the talent to be a 1st line winger, but now it’s time to realize that potential.  If he can, they look scary good up front.

The blueline is obviously still hurting a lot without Chris Pronger who’s all but retired.  They do have some talent there, I like the move of JVR for Luke Schenn.  Schenn really needed to get out of Toronto who had a lot of big ego guys that were toxic in that room.  Philly by all acounts has a great dressing room, and he won’t be under the microscope quite as much in Philly.  Sure, it’s a tough market as well.  But he’s not coming in there as the saviour.  Pierre McGuire wasn’t on TV yelling to Philly fans “let the rebuild begin!!!” as Luke put on a Flyers uni for the first time.  He can go there and keep it simple and when Luke Schenn is keeping his game simple he is very effective.  He’s only 23 so he is still growing.

Kimmo Timmonen always gets overlooked for his quiet yet very effective game.  He is just very smooth out on the ice and never seems to get caught out of position.  It reminds me a lot of Sergei Zubov.  Not that Timmonen is THAT good, but Zubov was always overlooked as one of the games top d-men during his time, yet he was phenomenal at both ends of the ice on one of the league’s top teams.  Nobody ever talks about Timmonen, but he is still putting up good numbers and not hurting the Flyers at the other end.

They don’t have great depth in the organization on defense so I would expect Holmgren as he usually does to upgrade it before the trade deadline, but he’s running out of bullets to make big deadline deals.  The system is very depleated in Philly.  They’ve drafted well, but teams want those kids that have been picked high in the draft.  Unless they want to move a kid like Couturier or Schenn, they’ll be able to get a d-man but I kind of doubt it would be the type of guy they really need.

I don’t like some the antics from this team from time to time.  They have a bit of “Vancouver” in their game.  But I do really respect how aggressive the organization is, and it’s not like this is an old team.  They’re very young in a lot of key positions.  If I were Peter Laviolette (who I think gets underrated as a coach), I would really be focused on tightening up defensively.  With Bryz in net and a thin blueline I believe it’s the only way they can offset those flaws, but it’s always tough getting a talented group to buy in.  But I don’t see them going very deep in the playoffs without making a change of that ilk.

 

4. brodeurNew Jersey Devils – For an organization that had gone to the Stanley Cup final 4 times in the previous 16 seasons (won 3 of them), it was a pretty unbelievable run for the Devils last spring.  It looked bleek as they faced elimination going into O.T. of game 6.  They survived that, survived double O.T. in game 7 on the road, and then went on a great run only to be run out of the rink in game 6 of the final against L.A.  Things didn’t get better in the off season as they lost their heart and soul, captain Zach Parise.  They look to bounce back from both, not an easy task.

For me (and I’m sure my buddies are sick of me saying this), Travis Zajac is one of the most underrated players in the league.  The Jon Gruden way I would describe him is “let me tell ya, this Travis Zajac is just a hockey player man there is nothin that guy won’t do out there”.  Now of course Gruden wouldn’t break down his game, mainly because he probably knows nothing about the sport, so let me do it quickly.  Great size, good skater, 200 foot game, great in the dot, good vision.  He is healthy and it’s a contract year so I expect a big season out of him.

He has a very talented winger to play with….from Russia with love.  Of course the love is for Russia, very much for Russia.  I’m sure Kovalchuk will be fine, and his teammates are saying all the right things but I’m sure him wanting to stay in the KHL isn’t sitting well in the room.  They’ll get over it if he comes out storming and they’ll need him to without Parise there.

Another guy they’ll need to keep developing is Adam Henrique.  I wasn’t a believer during the regular season as he was flanked by Parise and Kovalchuk but he made a believer out of me in the playoffs last year, he was as clutch as an rookie has ever been on that stage.  With Henrique and Zajac they look good down the middle.  Patrik Elias had an unreal season last year, but they can’t expect him to come close to those numbers again (26/52/78).  If he can, it’ll be huge but he’s now 36.  Same goes for David Clarkson.  30 goals far exceeded expectations for him but if he can keep that kind of pace perhaps the Devils won’t miss Parise at least when it comes to production.

A lot of people like their blueline more than I do.  They’re deep, but I have no clue how a team got to the Stanley Cup final with guys like Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky leading the way.  I guess it’s a situation where the whole is great than the sum of its parts, but that is very much so the exception to the rule rather than the rule.  Adam Larsson is the guy that could be the horse, but he’s only 20 years old and its not the “New Jersey way” to let a kid jump up the depth chart that fast.  Having watched Lamoriello operate over the years, I honestly wouldn’t be shocked to see Lou deal Larsson for a package of players if he could get the right guys in the deal.  He is thinking TEAM first, second and third and has some holes that need to be filled on this roster and that’s the best trade chip he has if he wants to use it.  I wouldn’t, but Lou would.

And then of course we have old man Brodeur between the pipes.  JUST when so many people (very much so myself) thought he was done, he had a great playoff run where he just kept getting better and better and better.  Remember in game 3 against the Panthers he was yanked and really didn’t look good all series.  He has a brand new 2 year/9 million dollar contract and I’m sure Lou wouldn’t have gave him 2 years unless he knew Marty would live up to it.  Johan Hedberg is still a quality backup and I would guess he gets in 12-15 games this season.

The loss of Parise will be felt, but this team always finds a way to replace big losses and stay competitive.  They’ll be hard pressed to get in the playoffs this season in such a tough division, but at worse they’ll be in the hunt right until game 48.  And expect some them to be busy on the trade front, they have a lot of holes and this franchise bleeds money at the best of times (like last season) so from an ownership perspective the playoffs are a MUST.

 

5. tavares_john640_640New York Islanders – This team is just such a freakin’ mess!  How have they been THIS bad for THIS long and still not look like they’re going anywhere?!  I mean I know how, Charles Wong is the worst owner in the league.  But with how many high picks they’ve had it is mind boggling that they haven’t even produced a competitive team by accident in the last 5 years.  I can’t see things changing this season, but maybe hanging out with Jay-Z in Brooklyn will help their street cred?

1 thing they have got right was John Tavares.  I laughed for a few years there when people who were desperate to see the Islanders get it wrong talk about how great Matt Duchene was.  Tavares was only had 1 less point on a much worse team in his rookie season, and the same amount of points in 1 less game on a much worse team in his 2nd season.  Last season officially shut those people up.  It’s nothing against Duchene, but Tavares is great, but the unfortnate thing for him is that he is trying to carry this franchise all on his own.

Matt Moulson has put up big numbers playing with Tavares, but he’s a 1 dimensional guy.  Kyle Okposo had a decent season with 24 goals last season but still much more is expected of the 2006 7th overall pick.  When he was drafted he was compared by many to Shane Doan, but he hasn’t come close to that.  Frans Nielson is playing behind Tavares and he’s ok, but he’s not a legit 2nd line centre.  47 points is nice, but he was only 45% in the dot and while he’s not a liability defensively he doesn’t have a great 200 foot game.  They competely ruined Josh Bailey.  The best thing they could do for that kid is to trade him and at least let him have a fresh start with a competent franchise.

Garth Snow finally took a d-man with a high pick in last year’s draft taking Griffin Reinhart.  My worry is that they’ll rush him.  Reinhart needs another year in the WHL in my opinion.  Huge upside there, but he needs to be brought along slowly.  At least they’ll have the Lub they bought in the off season….HEY-O.  Visnovsky will report, but I’m still skeptical about him bringing his A game to the team.  I would guess it’s more about putting up with them to get his money.  Mark Streit is one bright spot on the blueline that is currently on the roster.  He’s played very hard for them since signing there and been a solid captain, but he’s got absolutely zero help.  I like Travis Hamonic a lot, but I don’t know if his upside is more than just a nice, physical 3/4 type.

Evgeni Nabokov played well for them in net last season, but he is now 37 years old and has played a lot of games since entering the league in 2002.  He definitely isn’t a guy that could lift this franchise out of their rut.  And isn’t it amazing that I’ve ripped on this organization as much as I have without 1 mention of the Rick DiPietro contract (or the Yashin deal for that matter).  That’s saying something isn’t it, that I can easily pick apart how bad they’ve been without even brining that up.

They’re an embarrassement.  I think Charles Wong cares a lot, but he is just a fan and doesn’t have any clue how to run the team.  1 publication had the Islanders finishing 6th in the East before the lockout.  That is well beyond ridiculous.  Maybe they’ll exceed my expectations, but they will not be a playoff team and I wouldn’t be shocked if Tavares snapped one of these days and demanded a trade.

 

Follow me on twitter @TJ_Soups

NHL season preview – Northeast division

 

With 3 of the 6 original six teams in the league this is a pretty high profile division, but it definitely wasn’t one of the strongest last season.  Having said that, it’s not soft either.  The Bruins just won the cup 20 months ago, the Senators are building something pretty great and took the Rangers to 7 games last spring, the Sabres have been prone to bad starts the last few seasons but they have the talent to be a playoff team, and while the Leafs and Habs don’t look great going into the season they both have quality enough teams to make life tough on the rest of the division.

 

1. hi-res-105982943_crop_650x440Boston Bruins – They lose one of the best goaltenders in the game.  Devestating for most franchises.  This team however falls back on 2010 Vezina candidate Tuukka Rask who by the way is still only 25 years old.  Not too many teams can lose a Conn Smythe winner and possibly upgrade in net, but this might be that team.

Rask was unreal in that 2010 season.  Thomas went down with an injury and Rask stole the job and never looked back.  I would be really worried about the backup situation if I were a Bruins fan.  Anton Khudobin really hasn’t been anything great in the AHL so if Rask goes down they could be in serious trouble.  Maybe they see something in Khudobin that gives them confidence (Peter Chiarelli would know better than me), but I would be looking hard for a more proven backup.

I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but Zdeno Chara is tall and he’s good.  That tall good player is pretty valuable to this team.  Make no mistake, Dennis Sidenberg on his own is still just a run of the mill 5th d-man.  But Chara makes him look like a dominant shutdown man.  I like the Edmonton boys Ference and Boychuk.  I don’t know that either guy is a number 3 d-man but when you have a guy like Chara back there who does so much it makes slotting guys much easier.  Ference can move the puck, has experience, is a good skater and plays with an edge despite being small.  Boychuk is a stay at home guy but he can bring a bit of offense in the form of his bomb from the point.

The wildcard here will be rookie Dougie Hamilton.  It still remains to be seen if he will in fact make the team, but I don’t see how they don’t keep him.  They need him, and he’s had more than enough time in the OHL.  I believe he can step right into a top 4 role and will be very effective this season.  He is such a smart kid and has so much natural ability that all he has to do is keep it very simple and he’ll be fine.  I really like his chances of one day turning into that number 1 guy and possibly win a Norris.

It will be huge for them to get a healthy Nathan Horton back in the fold.  He was having a good season before the concussion issues came up again.  When he’s in the lineup with Lucic on their top line they are very tough to handle.  They won’t be among the top offensive lines as far as production, but they wear down bluelines throughout the game.  It doesn’t seem to matter who centres this line weather its Krejci or Bergeron, the big guys will kill opposing teams.

Some would say they don’t have a legit 1st line centre, but Patrice Bergeron isn’t far off what Jonathan Toews is.  He has such a great all around game, there really is no flaw in his game.  David Krejci is a great 2nd line centre to have.  Over 60 points, over 50% in the dot, good defensively, he is a lot like Bergeron.  They also have the choice of moving Seguin to the middle.  I’m sure they eventually will, but with 2 RH shot centres already there really is no rush to do it.  Brad Marchand brings that Pat Verbeek esq dirt bag/skilled game to the table that may piss a lot of fans off by any fan would love this guy on their team.  It’s a great top 6, and then Chris Kelly has turned into one of the league’s top 3rd line centres which is such a vital hole to have filled.

Had they been able to get past Washington last season who knows what they could have done again.  But this team has a perfect blend of youth and experience.  They won’t have the drama that Tim Thomas brought to the table last season, and they’re well rested.  It’s not an overwhelming division and one that they should win.

 

2. ottawa-senators-erik-karlsson-jason-spezza-daniel-alfredssonOttawa Senators – Just when things looked pretty bleek for Sens fans, they stunned everyone last season.  Sneaking into the playoffs and then taking the Rangers to 7 games was definitely a success for a team that most believed would be in the lottery.  But fans in Ottawa seen the same thing happen in 2010, only to fall off with a horrific season in 2011.  So the question is if they can do it in back to back years?

Paul McLean was the coach that was finally able to get through to Jason Spezza.  For years coaches have been trying to get him to quit being a perimeter player and a defensive liability.  Last year he became a player that could play in any situation and looked like he wanted to lead the team in big spots.  Spezza is only turning 30 next month, and remember it took Scotty Bowman a while to get through to Steve Yzerman on being a compelte player.  If Spezza keeps this up he could end up leading the Sens to a cup in the next few seasons.

I really liked the move last year to trade for Kyle Turris.  Most think he’s been a bust, but when he was picked 3rd overall it was a weak draft and the book was that he would need time to develop.  Then he got stuck in Dave Tippett’s system in Phoenix which of course really restricts offensive minded guys.  Starting the season with the Sens and no drama going on I’m expecting a breakout season out of the kid.  He’s not the ideal centre to play behind Spezza, but weather it’s this year or next they’ll have a great 3rd line centre playing behind the 2 of them in Mika Zibanejad who will compliment them both extremely well.

They’re OK on the wings, not great.  Daniel Alfredsson I believe is one of the best captain’s in the game, and when he’s healthy he is still a great player.  I don’t believe Milan Michalek repeats what he did last season.  Really his 35 goals was just a product of an amazing start, his play really fell off in about mid December.  They’re taking a shot on Guillaume Latendresse staying healthy, but I don’t see it working out.  He’s a big body and has good hands, but he’s a poor skater and even when healthy its not as if he has set the world on fire.

While I’m not in love with what they have on the wings, I love what’s coming.  Jakob Silfverberg and Mark Stone both gave Sens fans reason for big time optimism last season.  If just one of the 2 pan out it will be huge for a team that will need to find a winger to be paired up with Turris.  Further down the road they have Matt Puempel and Stefan Noesen on the way so it isn’t vital for Silfverberg and Stone to develop.

Erik Karlsson was the breakout star of the year in the NHL.  It was used quite a bit last season but he really does remind you of Brian Leetch.  So smooth offensively and a great stick defensively.  But don’t be confused, while he has a great stick and isn’t dreadful in his own zone, he is never going to be a shutdown guy as he’s just much too small.  Nothing wrong with that, but just don’t expect him to ever get much love defensively because of that.

Jared Cowan being out for the season will hurt, as it kind of got lost on people last season that Cowen started to establish himself as a very good shutdown d-man.  So that hurts, but they are apparently aggressively working to find a veteran defenseman to bring in.  I suggested it on twitter the other day that bringing back Wade Redden might be a great fit for both.  Redden isn’t a shutdown guy, but on the 3rd pairing I believe he can still be very effective and he won’t cost much (maybe 1 year/1.25).  He is of course familiar with the city and organization, still has friends on the team like Alfredsson and Phillips, and has something to prove.

Since the days of Damian Rhodes and Ron Tuggnutt this team has lacked good goaltending.  But last season Craig Anderson proved to be a great pickup.  He is sort of a new version of Curtis Joseph in that he needs to get peppered to get the most out of his game.  Battling it out for the backup gig are Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner who have been the tandem in Binghamton this season.  Different goaltenders.  Bishop has that incredible size, and Lehner is very quick and athletic.  That’s a good problem for the Sens to have, I believe Bishop wins out.  It won’t hurt Lehner to get more time in the AHL, although maybe they use him to upgrade elsewhere via trade.

I don’t think this team will make a jump in the standings, but they’ll maintain what they’ve had going.  I love the job Paul McLean did last season, especially in the playoffs.  I’ve never seen a coach who coached his team into a series like McLean did against the Rangers last year.  Eugene Melnyk is a bit of a wack job and their depth isn’t the envy of every team in the league.  BUT…they’re probably the envy of half the teams in the league.  They’ve drafted so well and they’ve always had great success developing their guys.  They’ve got a good thing going here and while I don’t believe this will be the year they make a big jump from playoff contender to cup contender, I don’t think its far away.

 

3. Ryan+Miller+Atlanta+Thrashers+v+Buffalo+Sabres+N7rZKi0bZMBlBuffalo Sabres – 3 original 6 teams, 3 Canadian teams always seem to leave the Sabres overlooked.  Bad starts to the season don’t help.  They’ve had high expectations the last 2 seasons and started off horrible.  They were able to overcome that in 2011 as they got into the 7th spot.  Last year they couldn’t recover.  Now they come back with some minor tweaks to the lineup.  They have what it takes to be a playoff team, but they’re a tough team to trust.

Ryan Miller is the backbone of this team.  He is still one of the best goaltenders in hockey and has the ability to steal not only games, but playoff series.  And now Jonas Enroth is there to take some heat off Miller.  This kid could be a starter for a lot of other teams in the league so Lindy Ruff has to utilize that and not ride Miller into the ground.  If I were Ruff I would give Enroth 15 starts this season so if they do make the playoffs Miller is fresh.

I like what they have on defense but Tyler Myers desperately needs to bounce back with a big season.  If he can get back to being that legitimate number 1 guy their blueline looks really good.  If not, it’s still solid but not anything like what it could be.  Robyn Regehr isn’t what he was but having him around to help out kids like Myers and Brayden McNabb.  Christian Erhoff like Myers needs to step up this season.  He was brought into be a beast on the PP and while he had a respectable 39 points, the PP was only ranked 16th.  He wasn’t a bust but he needs to be better.

The thing Darcy Regier is doing that I’m a big fan of is he’s making a concentrated effort to make them a force down the middle.  I’m one of the few that liked the Hodgson/Kassian deal for both teams, but obviously the Sabres have got the better of it thus far  He has potential to be a 70 point guy who has an excellent all around game, sort of a poor man’s Jonathan Toews down the line.  Steve Ott will add a lot of bite and they can use him either in the middle or on the wing, Tyler Ennis is tiny but has a ton of skill, Luke Adam had a good rookie season and at worst will be a solid 3rd line centre, and then they drafted both Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons in the 1st round of last year’s draft.  Future looks great down the middle in Buffalo!

I also really like the guys they have on the wings.  Drew Stafford is inconsistent but I’m still a big fan of his game.  He has a lot of skill and he does everything well out there.  Jason Pomminville is more consistent and is one of the most underrated players in the game.  Great shot, great playmaker and seems to be a great leader as well.  Thomas Vanek has all the talent in the world, but you never know when he’s going to put it all together.  The offer sheet seemed to kill some of his drive, but he’s always a threat bust out.

I got this team making the playoffs, but as you can see this team has a lot of wildcard type of guys.  I love Lindy Ruff as a coach, but I do worry much like Andy Reid in the NFL it might be getting to the point where he just needs a change.  But as long as they get off to a decent start I think they’ll be fine because the last few seasons they’ve been among the best teams in the NHL in the 2nd half.

 

van-riemsdyk4. Toronto Maple Leafs – They sure didn’t waste anytime making news coming out of the lockout now did they?  I already wrote about it but I’ll say it one more time, it was the right decision.  I have been shocked at how bad Burke was as GM of the Leafs, and I’m a Burke fan.  But the timing was dreadful.  Now Dave Nonis has a great oppurtunity to start fresh and right some of Burke’s wrongs.  But it remains to be seen if he’ll take that approach or have more of a “go for it” attitude.

I know for me if I were Nonis with a 3 year deal I would tell ownership “we are using this season to right some of the wrongs and get this ship back on course, it will only take this 1 shortened season”.  I would deal Phil Kessel because the return on him would still be very good (a 1st, a high end prospect and a roster player).  I’ve heard rumblings before that Kessel isn’t a very good teammate.  Might be the perfect time to get him out of there.  Then you don’t deal for Luongo and if the Leafs aren’t dealing for Luongo the Canucks might be forced to buy him out after this season because no other team is as desperate for a goaltender as the Leafs have been.  Then finally with average goaltending and no Kessel this team likely would finish near the bottom of the standings and get that high pick they need.  It’s a great draft to get a franchise centre, so if they had that pick and got one of McKinnon, Barkov, or Monahan they would be set both at centre and on the blueline moving forward.

I really don’t like the team that Burke built.  They do have a ton of speed, but they have a lot of 1 dimensional guys.  Lupul, Kessel, Grabovski, Connolly, Kadri, these are all guys that mostly play on the perimeter and don’t do the little things a team needs to win.  You can have a few of those guys on the team, but not that many.  And while I wouldn’t say James van Riemsdyk is 1 dimensional because he has that size to dominat down low, he doesn’t really offer a multi dimensional game.  The kid I really like up front is Tyler Bozak.  But I like Bozak to be a 3rd line centre who maybe develops into a 2nd line centre sometime down the road kind of like Mike Underwood did.  I know Ron McLean raved all season about how much he likes Matt Frattin.  He has nice size, nice wheels and he should get his chance this season.

The one area I love on this team is the blueline.  Dion Phaneuf gets a lot of flack, but they still crushed the Flames in that trade and he can still be used in all situations.  One of these seasons I expect him to put it all together, and Randy Carlyle is just the kind of coach who could get that kind of game out of him.  They also crushed Anaheim in the deal that got them Jake Gardiner.  Gardiner exceeded expectations last season.  But there is big reason to expect him to take a step back next season.  He will be given more responsibilities and he is coming off a concussion.  That isn’t a good recipe to overcome the dreaded sophmore slump.

It remains to be seen if Morgan Rielly sticks with the big club, but they definitely hit it out of the park with that pick.  It was risky with him coming off the knee injury, but the early returns have been tremendous.  I could argue it either way weather they keep him or send him back to Moose Jaw, but I would probably send him back.  Another half season in the WHL won’t hurt him at all and as I said off the top I believe the Leafs should take this chance to fix up Burke’s mistakes and start fresh next season with more cornerstones in the fold.

Nobody is giving James Reimer a shot to bounce back and that has to have him highly motivated this season.  If he isn’t dealt I believe he can give the Leafs solid goaltending.  A concussion can ruin a guys season, we’ve seen it so many times.  The last time we saw him at 100% he was taking the league by storm as a rookie.  Also now that they know what to expect from Randy Carlyle and will be in his system from day 1 I expect this team to be better defensively which of course will really help both Reimer and Scrivens….if they’re still the goaltenders.

I’ve said what I think this team should do.  If they go for the playoffs I don’t think they’ll get there.  The timing of the Burke firing was yet another distraction that this team didn’t need.  I do think very highly of Randy Carlyle and this team does have enough talent for him to raise up there level of play to a 7th or 8th place finish.  But a LOT of things would need to go right.  Take this season and fix things up, start fresh in the fall.

 

5. 470_subban_110115Montreal Canadiens – Last season was a nightmare for the Habs, no other way to look at it.  2 firings of coaches on game days was a PR disaster.  A lot of the fans and media refused to even give Randy Cunnyworth a chance as the interim coach.  Scott Gomez went from overpaid to maybe the biggest underachiever in NHL history.  It just wasn’t pretty, especially when you consider most expected them to be a playoff team last season.  But they’ve cleaned house, Marc Bergevin is the new GM and he brought back Michel Therrien for his second tenure as head coach of the Habs.  Things look up for the Habs but it just might not happen this season.

In my mind this was a blessing in disguise what happened last season.  This franchise wasn’t going anywhere under Pierre Gauthier.  They have one of the best goaltenders in the world who is still only 25, they have stockpiled d-men in the last few drafts, and they have a lot of good young wingers.  This team hasn’t had a franchise centre for a very long time and more than any other spot in hockey if you don’t have a top 5 pick its not impossible to find that guy, but its improbable.  They got the 3rd pick and Bergevin made not mistake in taking Alex Galchenyuk.

Now I personally wouldn’t keep Gally on the big club.  Training camp is fine, giving him a few games is fine, but he can only make this team as a winger and I don’t know if he improves their top 6 that much.  But even if he does, I don’t think this is the season the Habs want their top 6 improved quite frankly.  Let him develop back in Sarnia for the rest of this season, roll with what you have and take that high pick that I believe they’ll have and make sure you have all your cornerstones in place.  Then next season you look to get back in the playoffs.

Like I said though, the Habs don’t really suck in their top 6.  The top line of Pacioretty, Desharnais and Cole was great last season.  I’m not the biggest Tomas Plekanec fan, but he is an effective 2nd line centre.  He is solid in his own zone, and can net you 50 points a season.  I also really like what Bergevin did in upgrading the grit on this team.  Brandon Prust is overpaid, but they have been desperate for a guy like him.  I expect Colby Armstrong to bounce back with a good year.  There isn’t nearly as much pressure on Armstrong going into Montreal as there was going into Toronto.

The defense is solid, although the PK Subban situation is starting to get troubling as of typing this (Wednesday).  If they do get him locked down and it doesn’t get messy, while he’s erratic he is a guy that can log 25 minutes a night.  Andrei Markov is finally healthy and while I don’t expect him to be the d-man he was a few years ago, he will improve the blueline and the lockout should have helped him ease into things playing in the KHL to start this season.  Josh Gorges won’t grab your attention, but he is just a solid, dependable guy back there.  He kind of sums up the blueline as a group, they won’t grab you attention but they’re solid.

I’m a huge Carey Price fan.  I have him as the starter for Team Canada for the 2014 Olympics.  He really is right there with guys like Quick, Lundqvist, Miller, Kiprusoff and Rinne as the premiere goaltenders in the league.  He is effortless between the pipes and is so cool under pressure.  And I believe the struggles in 2009 and 2010 that he had to endure in such a tough market like Montreal only hardend him even more so mentally.

I really like the direction this team appears to be heading.  1 more down year will be perfect for this team.  As always you must explain that I’m not suggesting the coaches and players tank the season, no team would ever do that.  But I’m saying a down season this year is likely better for the franchise then finishing 8th or 9th.  They need 1 more stud player at the top of the draft to go with Galchenyuk, Price, Subban (if he gets signed) and others that would make them a cup contender down the road.

 

Follow me on twitter @TJ_Soups

NHL season preview – Pacific division

 

This division is pretty stacked at the top.  The 2 conference finalists, 3 playoff teams last season, another in the Stars who just missed, and then there is the Ducks who got off to a horrendous start but put together a terrific midseason only to run out of gas in an attempt to get in the playoff race late in the season.  So on the surface you would say it’s one of the top division’s in hockey.  It’s good, but I think it’s trending down.

 

1. b203ed1c4b34b736fce021bc1826Phoenix Coyotes – Finally this team got over the hump last season.  First time since 1987 that this franchise had made it past the 1st round.  They might be the most boring team in the league, but you can’t deny that they have one hell of a coach in Dave Tippett.  Now they’ll try to build on their amazing post season in what actually might not potentially be their last season in Phoenix.

It all starts in goal with Mike Smith.  He was even better than Ilya Bryzgalov.  But I have pointed this out before, Tippett’s system makes average goaltenders look good and good goaltenders look great.  The big thing the system does is lend confidence to a goaltender.  To start last season Smith got shelled in San Jose, and by the end of the year he was amazing.  When a goaltender is seeing all the shots and his d-men are clearing all the rebounds it makes life a lot easier.  Confidence goes up and then that’s when you start seeing them make acrobatic saves like Smith was doing in last year’s playoffs.  He should be even more so motivated this season because if he has a big year he could cash in huge as he is a UFA after this season.  I would look to just stay in Phoenix, but a big pay day would be tough to turn down.

I love the depth they have on defense, but I don’t like the number 1 guy.  Keith Yandle is a product of the system, and he has been badly exposed in the last 2 playoffs.  But lucky for the Coyotes they have a guy who can be their number 1 guy and that is Oliver Ekman-Larsson.  This kid plays a lot like Yandle but does everything at a higher level.  He’s more smooth, has a better stick, is more patient, and he is a smarter player.

Added to these 2 this season will be Brandon Gormley who has a similar game to these 2.  Smooth defenseman, he doesn’t do anything to wow you but he just does really good.  David Rundblad could step in this season, Rusty Klesla is a soid vet as is Derek Morris and the returning Zbynek Michalek.  Like I said, they have ridiculous depth on this blueline and more than enough to make a deal to upgrade their forward group.

And trust me this forward group needs some work.  They lost their top scorer from last season Ray Whitney in free agency.  This will allow a kid like Mikkel Boedker a chance to show he can produce at the level he was expected to be producing at by now.  Steve Sullivan though was a shrewd signing by Don Maloney.  He won’t produce at Whitney’s level, but if he stays healthy the 38 year old can still put the puck in the back of the net.  Not much to say about Shane Doan, he’ll be Shane Doan and while he can’t produce the way he used to he’s still a great all around winger.  The key up front though really isn’t how much they score in this system.  Down the middle they’re big, they play 200 feet, and they win draws.  It’s not flashy but it’s effective.

Taking the Coyotes to win the division again this season might seem like a reach with the defending champs in the same division, but the Kings know that they don’t need to finish high in the standings, they just need to get in.  The Coyotes are a machine under Tippett.  It is horrible to watch, but it works.

 

2. dustin_brown_cupLos Angeles Kings – It took 40 years, and then it took a few extra months, but the Kings will finally get to hang a Stanley Cup championship banner.  Now they look to defend their title and they are returning almost the exact same team.  Some people will think that is a huge advantage for the Kings but I don’t really see it that way.  Glen Sather was always of the belief that you need to change 15% of your team from year to year no matter what.  You need to keep your core in place, but you need changes just to keep things fresh.

There is a lot to love about this team.  Say what you want about Darryl Sutter as a GM, he’s a great coach.  Of course Jonathan Quick is one of the best in the world in goal.  Down the middle they’re loaded with Kopitar (out for at least the first week of the season), Mike Richards, and the Joe Namath of the NHL (off the ice) Jarret Stoll.  Drew Doughty is an elite d-man, and Slava Voynov is going to be a beauty moving forward.  So they’re pretty loaded on paper, but they were going into last year too and it took them all season to put it all together.  They do have things that worry me though and one is the lack of speed up front.

If I was Dean Lombardi I would look to deal Carter who is really a 1 dimensional player at this point and see if I could aquire a guy with more speed and maybe plays a better 2 way game than Carter.  What I see happening with the Kings is because there shouldn’t be a Cup hangover is that they have a much better regular season, but I don’t see them repeating unless Dean Lombardi can make a big deal to get some new faces in the lineup.

Now that I’ve told the GM of the Stanley Cup champions how to do his job….speed is just one area where I wonder about this team.  I’ve heard it brought up by a few people now that they believe the Kings being such a heavy team could really hurt them in an attempt to get their legs.  These are people whose opinions I respect saying this so I’m going to suggest that is a strong possibility as well.

Also a potential big issue for this team could be that Jonathan Quick is coming off back surgery.  They may need to lean on Jonathan Bernier early on.  However if he can shine in those starts it will be a blessing in disguise for the Kings because as we all know there are a lot of teams out there desperate to upgrade their goaltending.

Finally while Drew Doughty is one of the best and I love how Voynov has developed, I still don’t know about this blueline.  As a team they’re air tight defensively.  But they’ll have question marks, 1 being Willie Mitchell and will he start to show his age this season?  He’s now 35 and while I know he is still very useful, he likely peaked during last spring’s cup run.  Rob Scuderi just recently hit 34 years of age and so he is running out of quality time and while I like both these d-men, they aren’t the most fleet of foot.  They have time left in the league, but much like the forward group in L.A. the blueline has a few too many guys that don’t skate well on that blueline.  To me you only want 1 or 2 guys that don’t skate well on defense, they have 3 with these 2 and Matt Greene.  A change/upgrade might be needed.

But again, who am I to question this team?  They won the cup, they shouldn’t have a hangover, they’re deep throughout the organization and they’re very talented.  It is a team that as I said I don’t believe will get off to a great start, but as they showed last season all they need to do is get in.  Home ice is no factor for them come playoff time.

 

3. Corey+Perry+Ryan+Getzlaf+Anaheim+Ducks+v+Nashville+E5WxwYM2TuwlAnaheim Ducks – Had a very difficult time picking between the Ducks and the Sharks in this spot.  Both teams will be competitive, but I feel like the Ducks will bounce back with a solid season….provided Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan are all around for the entire season.

If they are, then that top line is still one of the best in the league.  They’re so big and all 3 have no problem throwing their weight around and going to the dirty area’s on the ice.  The 2nd line doesn’t suck either, despite Teemu Selanne being 70 years of age.  Ok, once again you caught me trying to pull the proverbial wool over your eyes, he’s only 42.  See that’s why I love my fan, because he or she is so smart.  Anyway, Selanne STILL hasn’t fallen off and better yet hasn’t shown any signs of doing so.  As for who will centre that line, I’m guessing it’s Koivu but Andrew Cogliano will get his chance to show what he can do in that role.  I’m not a fan of the game Cogs plays, but he will get his chance as their isn’t much talent at centre throughout the organization (which is why re-signing Getzlaf is more vital than Perry).

I’m definitely not a fan of how thin not just this team but this organization is on the blueline.  Cam Fowler is still going to be a train wreck in his own zone.  People get mesmerized by how smooth of a skater he is which blinds them from a lot of his faults.  He isn’t elite offensively, he never has been even in junior.  He isn’t ever going to be Scott Niedermayer defensively.  His ceiling to me is a poor man’s Scott Niedermayer, but don’t get me wrong that’s obviously still a very good d-man, just not the superstar that everyone was drooling over in his rookie season.

He will have Sheldon Souray to ride shotgun with him on the PP so that will be a nice luxery.  Souray can still drill it, although after a great start to last season his numbers really dropped off.  The big test for Souray as always is weather or not he can stay healthy.  Luca Sbisa took a big step forward in his development last year, but he definitely isn’t a kid that should be leaned on to anchor a blueline at this point in his career (will turn 23 at the end of the month).  Beauchemin, Allen, Lydman, they’re all shells of what they once were.  Hampus Linholm could be on the team as soon as next season, but that doesn’t help much now does it?

A healthy Jonas Hiller will be HUGE for this team.  That was THE reason this team started out so awful last year.  He wasn’t healthy, the team had lost faith in him making big stops for him and of course that affects everyone’s game.  He got his game back in the 2nd half last season and if he is on they’ll be well within the hunt for the playoffs.  They’ve invited Team USA World Junior hero John Gibson to camp.  I don’t know why they’re doing that quite frankly, but from how he looks he may only need 1 season in the AHL before he’s ready to get some time in the show.

As I said off the start, if they don’t blow it up they’ll be in the hunt.  But I really don’t know weather or not they’ll blow it up.  I would say “blow it up” is unlikely, but I would say moving 1 of Ryan or Perry is very possible.  I believed strongly the reason they were shopping Ryan last season was they wanted to clear money to re-sign Perry and Getzlaf.  This is a budget team, not a cap team and that won’t change coming off a down season followed by a lockout, and oh yeah…the defending champs are just up the highway.  The fans will be tough to get back in that market.

 

4. Scott+Thornton+Patrick+Marleau+San+Jose+Sharks+p7vP-n-CBf2lSan Jose Sharks – Yep, I’m calling it.  This is going to be the season that the Sharks window officially slams shut.  It probably closed with that generous bounce Kevin Bieksa got off the glass that nobody on the ice seen in O.T. of game 5 of the 2011 WCF, but now it will be official.  They’re getting old, their blueline is thin, and their goaltending is average.

Todd McCllean is back as head coach which I had no issue with, I feel he’s got the most out of this team since he’s been behind their bench.  But Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are both 33 now, Dan Boyle is 36, and they have nothing really on the way from the farm.

Thornton and Marleau are still the key to this teams success and while they are older they’ll still produce at a high level.  I’m not sure Logan Couture has another level.  Nothing is wrong with the level of player he currently is, but this team could REALLY use him to take his game above being a good 2nd line centre.  If he could, than that 2nd line could be one of the best in the league with him and Ryane Clowe.

One of the big problems this team has always had is quality in their bottom 6.  Doug Wilson has tried to address it in the past, but never done a real good job.  Over the span of the last CBA they rarely had a good/great 3rd line centre.  You’re all sick to death of me writing it but it’s what I strongly believe you must be loaded down the middle to win a cup.  It shows up even more when the defense hasn’t ever been an elite group.

Brent Burns flat out pisses me off when I watch him.  This guy has the talent to be the best defenseman in hockey and he just could care less to be.  When he has the body language of a guy who is just satisfied being good and could care less about being great.  If he ever flipped that switch, look out.  But he’s almost 28 now, I doubt it will happen.  Boyle is still the top d-man on this team and it’s not as though he is a guy that takes a lot of punishment, but 36 is still 36.  He might not drop off, but he’s not going to improve.

Brad Stuart was brought back to the team in the off season, but I just don’t see how he can vastly improve this blueline.  Solid signing, he’s still a top 4 guy.  But remember, he was a guy who’s play was very erratic before arriving in Detroit.  They’ve had a lot of guys look great in that system and look terrible after they’ve left.  Vlasic, Doug Murray, Justin Braun and Jason Demers round it out and while the former 2 are solid, they aren’t scaring anyone.

Back in net is 2010 cup champ Antti Niemi, but he’s not a guy that can carry this team to that level.  The 2010 Hawks were absolutely loaded, and while Niemi showed up big when he had to he by no means had to carry them.  Thomas Greiss is back after a year in Sweden, but he won’t steal the job from Niemi.  Straight up, it’s not looking good for the Sharks between the pipes.

They’ve dealt a lot of prospects and young guys over the year’s in an attempt to get over the hump.  Now they have a depleated system and they took a big step back last season.  The Sharks are in no man’s land and I think when you add in the fact that a lot of these vets haven’t been playing this season, and things don’t look good for the Sharks to get in the dance.  I believe it will be time for a rebuild.

 

5. jags_display_imageDallas Stars – They actually made a few splashes in the off season.  Trying to replicate the Stars teams of the late 90’s they added the oldest players they could literally get their hands on.  Jagr and Ray Whitney are now in and they’ll be part of a pretty good looking top 6 up front….as long as Joe Nieuwendyk can get Jamie Benn signed.

This team is actually built very similar to the Anaheim Ducks.  Good up front, good in net, weak on the blueline.  I don’t know how people would look at Joe Nieuwendyk’s tenure as a GM thus far, but 1 move I will crush him for is the Alex Goligoski trade.  I realize he had a situation where his team was loaded up front and even weaker than they currently are on defense.  But it was like when he made that deal he just targeted a puck moving d-man between the ages of x and x and was only making x.  You just can’t run your team that way and in doing so he got CRUSHED on that deal.  Goligoski can move the puck, but he is a nightmare in his own zone and I really believe what he gave up he could have got more than Goligoski.

I would actually say the guy that looks as though he should be the horse on this blueline is Trevor Daley.  He can move the puck, and won’t hurt you in his own zone.  He’s a very intelligent d-man which is the area where Goligoski lacks.  Of course Stars favorite Stephane Robidas is still around as well averaging over 22 minutes a night.  Those numbers will comes down as he closes in on 36 years of age, but still a very solid top 4 guy.  This team has always drafted well so I wouldn’t completely rule it out but from a distance they not only don’t have much on the current roster, there really isn’t anything coming on the blueline either.  Jamie Oleksiak is huge, but he’s a long way off and even then it would be far fetched at this point to call him a blue chip prospect.

The guy that might make this blueline look a lot better than it is would be Kari Lehtonen.  If I killed Nieuwendyk for the Goligoski deal I have to sing his praises for the Lehtonen one.  He pulled that trigger at the perfect time in Lehtonen’s career.  Until that point he was perhaps the most injury prone goaltender in the league that didn’t have a 15 year contract.  But since the trade Lehtonen has been money and developed into the franchise goaltender he was expected to be when drafted 2nd overall by the Thrashers in 2002.

Back to their forwards for a minute and as I stated off the top, they look really good in the top 6 as long as they get Benn signed which as of typing this nothing looks close.  There was talk of a possible offer sheet in the off season (supposedly by a Canadian team) which makes me wonder if it might have been Been’s camp trying to get the Stars going on a legitimate offer.  Benn would look great on several teams, especially after making the jump successfully from wing to centre last season.  I have to believe that the Stars get this deal done but it’s always possible that while they want him, he no longer wants them.

If he did by chance walk they brought in Derek Roy in the off season, dealt Mike Riberio (pretty similar players), and got Cody Eakin in the Riberio deal so they do have guys that could somewhat fill roles at centre in the top 6.  On the wings they’re deep with Jagr and Whitney joining Eriksson and Ryder in the top 6 and likely pushing Brendan Morrow down to the 3rd line with Vernon Fiddler (which will be one of the league’s best 3rd lines).

So while I do like quite a bit about this team, there is just nothing I really love about them.  A playoff push is possible again but even if they got in anything other than a 1st round loss seems far fetched at this point.  Lots of good, nothing great, and with a pretty bad blueline in a tough division it could go South pretty fast for the Stars.

 

Follow me on twitter @TJ_Soups

NHL season preview – Northwest division

 

This was the best division in hockey coming out of the last lockout.  They very damn near had 4 teams in the playoffs, the Flames had just gone to the final in 04, the Oilers went in 06, the next year they once again just missed putting 4 teams in the playoffs, same thing in 08 (actually in 08 all 5 teams were in the top 10 of the West).  But in the last 3 seasons the division has been one of the worst in hockey.  Now is that the Canucks dominating or are the Canucks dominant because the division has been so bad?  Probably a bit of both, but it’s getting back to what it was.  The Canucks have such a strong organization and the Avs, Wild and Oilers have stockpiled a lot while the Flames are….well….they’re a team that plays in the division as well.

 

1. imagesCAQF3EHGVancouver Canucks – The division bully will remain the division bully for at least 1 more season.  The Wild are vastly improved, the Oilers and Avalanche are both coming, and Calgary….their fans will boo MIGHTLY at them when they come to town!  But this is the first season where you start to get the sense like the door could shut soon on the Canucks Cup hopes.

The Ryan Kesler injury is devestating.  The Canucks are acting like it’s not going to be a long term thing, they better be right because this team can’t win without him.  I don’t like the way he acts on the ice, but you can’t deny this guy is one of the best 2 way centres in hockey right now and is in his prime.  If he does miss something like half of this shortened season, the fan base will be all the more pissed at Mike Gillis for the Cody Hodgson trade.

But even without Kesler they’re still a very good team.  You know what the twins will give you, Burrows is another guy who I don’t like his act but you can’t deny his ability, and I’m still a guy that believes the Hodgson trade in time will prove to be a good deal.  But having said that, Zack Kassian needs to stop worrying about proving he has an offensive game.  If he does start the season with the Sedin’s, he just needs to go out and do the dirty work.  Be a beast on the forecheck and get to the front of the net.

Their blueline is almost among the best in the league at this point.  Edler took a big step offensively last season (although he completely fell apart in the playoffs), Bieksa and Hamhuis is a great pairing, Jason Garrison probably got overpaid but I will take that contract any day of the week over what the Flames gave Dennis Wideman.  That’s a great top 4, even though there might not be a true number 1 guy.  They could upgrade over 1 of those 4, but it’s a good enough group to win a Cup.

And then we have the circus in net.  It’s a great problem to have, Cory Schneider look terrific in his 3 games against the L.A. Kings in last year’s playoffs so they have absolutely no worries about him as the number 1 guy.  Of course they also have the best and most expensive backup in the game (at least as of typing this) in Roberto Luongo.  Nobody will ever convince me that this situation wasn’t a distraction for this team during the 2011 playoffs, and all of last season.  Gillis needs to quit looking for a homerun and get him out of there.  They also have Eddie Lack coming in from the AHL to back him up who is another real good young tendy ready to see some time at least as a backup.  If there is one thing this team does better than most it is developing their draft picks.

The time is now for the Canucks, but I doubt the lockout will help this team.  They already had a lot of time off after the 1st round loss in last year’s playoffs.  I have my doubts about how this team will come out of the gate, and there won’t be much time to recover from a slow start.  But if they can get through the first 10-15 games .500 or better I believe they will be fine.

 

2. nhl_g_wild_gb1_600Minnesota Wild – Well these won’t be your 2 year older brothers Wild!!!  That sounds cool, right?  Anyway, they had the best offseason in the NHL and did it all in about a 15 minute span.  It is a lot of cap space to have tied up in 2 players and I wonder now under the new CBA if they will have to deal one of them in the next 2 years, but for now things look real good for the Wild going forward.

It’s not just those 2, Mikko Koivu is still one of the most underrated centre’s in the game.  Mike Yeo can throw him out there in literally any situation and feel comfortable.  And I love the kids that will most likely be playing behind him.  Mikael Granlund is one of the top prospects in the league and is a serious threat to take home the Calder trophy this year.  Overshadowed by Granlund is Charlie Coyle.  They might just leave Coyle down in Houston for the remainder of the season, but he is going to be a gem and more than Parise and Suter going foward I love what this team has at centre for years to come.

On the wings Danny Heatley actually played a lot better than his stats indicated last season.  He looked like he had his drive back, but I do wonder what he will look like not having played since last April.  Considering he would be the Wild’s top buy out candidate I would guess he plays highly motivated this season.  Having Pierre-Marc Bouchard back will help, but you can’t rely on him to stay healthy at this point.

The problem this team has is on the blueline.  After Suter, it is as thin as any team in the league.  I watched Tom Gilbert a ton when he was with the Oilers, and while people made a big deal about the minutes he could log trust me when I say they weren’t quality minutes.  People get fixated on a guy that can be put into all situations but it doesn’t mean that they’re good in all situations.  So to sum up, Gilbert isn’t a good number 2 d-man, and  after that it’s flat out bad.  Marco Scandella is their number 3 guy and if that’s not bad enough he is struggling with a groin injury.  Jonas Brodin would be a rookie that could step right in but he’s still injured so they MIGHT be faced with rushing in Soups on Sports favorite Matt Dumba who has been underwhelming in Red Deer this season.  If they do rush him, that could ruin Dumba.  He needs at least another 2 years of seasoning before he’s ready for the show.

This team always gets underrated in net.  Just awful news about Josh Harding having MS.  Hopefully he will be able to continue his career without many issues.  If he can, he is one of the top backups in the game.  Niklas Backstrom hasn’t been exactly the same goaltender since Jacques Lemaire left, but he still is a top netminder, and this season he is playing for a new contract.  I expect him to have a big season.  He is 35 so this is his last shot to get a big deal.

In the fall I believed if the season were to start up that this group would take a while to gel as a unit.  I don’t see that changing, but now there is an even shorter period of time to turn things around if that is the case.  I had them finishing 5th at the start of the year, now that prediction has dropped….far enough to leave them out of the playoffs?  I guess you’ll have to wait for my conference predictions to come out!  What a tease hey?!

 

schultz1023. Edmonton Oilers – I’m going to get killed for this because I don’t deny my SLIGHT love for the Oil.  I do my best to keep my bias at home.  I’m not calling for them to win the division, I’m not calling for them to be better than the Wild, I’m just saying they’ll be right there with Colorado (I say they finish higher because the Avs management is a mess) and ahead of Calgary who they started to dominate at the end of last season.  So kill me all you want, I think this is a fair predicition.

Now, allow me to say that the Oilers have had 4/5 of their number 1 PP unit playing together for most of this season in OKC.  Not many teams have had those important and vital parts of their teams playing together like the Oilers have.  They’ve benefited from this lockout more than any team.  Justin Schultz getting AHL time is huge.  Taylor Hall not having to rush back from his shoulder surgery is huge.  Nail Yakupov playing in the KHL rather than going back to the OHL or jumping right into the NHL should be good for him.  Anton Lander and Magnus Paajarvi despite not having great AHL seasons to this point will be helped by the half season in that league.  Ryan Whitney had more time to get healthy and get himself into great shape which he wasn’t throughout last season due to his surgery the previous season.  They’ve got a leg up on a lot of teams, but now they’ll have to jump on that oppurtunity.

Still not loving Sam Gagner as their 2nd line centre.  He was rushed, he is small, he doesn’t have great speed, he’s not good in the dot, and he doesn’t play a 200 foot game.  If he had gone pointless against the Hawks on Febuary 2nd of last year, he would have finished the season with less than 40 points.  The fans, the media, and the organization all love this kid.  Hell I would love it if he proved me wrong.  But time is running out for him to become the player that the Oilers thought he would be.  He’s still a useful player, but he’s not a 2nd line centre and is still a top candidate to be packaged by Tambellini for an upgrade at centre.

Other than that 2nd line centre spot, this team is loaded up front.  Ales Hemsky might see a lot of time on the 3rd line this season.  While he has produced like a 3rd line guy the last few seasons, he has 1st line talent.  Nail Yakupov will for sure be used in the top 6 but probably won’t see a lot of PP time.  That will be reserved for the junior’s and sophmore’s.  Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, maybe Smyth so you have that net pressence, with Justin Schultz and Eberle at the point.  That’s just a guess by me though.  It was the 3rd ranked PP last season and I don’t think they will drop from that.

Of course everyone always harps on the blueline, but the talent back there is good.  If (a BIG if) Ryan Whitney can stay healthy for the season, it’s a solid 1-6 with Whitney, Justin Schultz, Nick Schultz, Smid, Petry and the newly aquired Mark Fistric.  Obviously Justin Schultz needs to keep up what he has been doing in the AHL so far this season, which won’t be easy to do at the next level.  The problem is that collectively this team isn’t good defensively.  Most fans and media believe that if a team is bad defensively it’s as simplistic as the team having a bad defense core, and when they can’t score it’s because the forward group is terrible.  It’s a team game, and the Oilers biggest improvement this season needs to be at the defensive end as a team.

A big part of things appearing that way will be Devan Dubnyk.  This is it for Dubnyk.  He is now the number 1 guy.  If he can improve his play from last season just slightly, the Oilers are laughing.  I love his makeup, and at 26 he has yet to enter his prime as a goaltender.  Again, better defensive play by the team would go a very long way towards making Dubnyk look like that legit number 1 netminder.

They’re loaded moving forward but the question is will they make a big jump to becoming a playoff team this season?  They could.  The Schultz signing was HUGE for this organization, and a lot of hockey people really loved the hiring of Ralph Kruger.  But I think the safer bet is that they compete for a playoff spot, but come up just short.

 

forsale4. Colorado Avalanche – As I said above, I see the Avs and Oilers as pretty even at this point.  I can easily see the argument as to why some would have the Avs ahead of the Oilers.  But I really don’t like the combination of Greg Sherman and Joe Sacco running this show.

Sherman seemingly makes terrible move after terrible move, and while those moves don’t pan out for him he seems to catch a break elsewhere.  Chris Stewart had a disasterious season in St.Louis, yet Johnson for Shattenkirk is still a deal the Avs lose.  But they were fortunate enough to be in a spot to draft Gabriel Landeskog the summer following that deal.  While they made a horrific move trading their 1st and 2nd round picks for Seymon Varlamov, what was expected to be an amazing draft class had everything go wrong and the Avs managed to get themselves out of the bottom 10 to make the deal not so badly lopsided.  Now I still wouldn’t trade Filip Forsberg let alone another pick for Varlamov, but it looked like it could be much much worse when the deal was first made.

They’re very “Oiler like” up front, and I LOVE what they have down the middle with Duchene, Stastny and O’Reilly.  I already mentioned Landeskog, and while I think Sherman is terrible he did do a great deal to get Steve Downie at last year’s trade deadline.  Still kind of thin on the wings, but better to be loaded down the middle and thin on the wings than the other way around.  You never want to have a bunch of great WR’s with no QB, and you don’t want to have a bunch of great wingers with no centres.

The one thing that I don’t like was the contract they gave to P.A. Parenteau.  That has potential to be one of the worst of the off season.  I can’t help but think that 49 apples was a lot of 2nd assists as a result of being on a line with Tavares and Matt Moulson last year on the Island.  He has good wheels, but whenever I’ve watched him play he has not impressed.  To me he’s very 1 dimensional, although the Avs have a lot of multi dimensional guys up front so perhaps he will fit nicely.

Where they look scary bad however is on the blueline.  Fans and analysts think the Oilers blueline is bad, take a look at what the Avs have….or lack there of.  Erik Johnson isn’t very good offensively, doesn’t log a high amount of minutes, and he’s just flat out never lived up to expectations…not close actually.  He’s still only 24 and it takes d-men longer to develop, but he’s not a top 2 d-man at this point.  And guess what….he’s far and away the best they have!

I like the potential of Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliott, but in no way can they depend on them.  It’s scary bad, and while I know Varlamov had a good season last year I would say the jury is still out on him.  Sacco basically had the Avs playing a more defensive version of the 2003 Ducks trap.

They have some pieces, but I don’t like the sum of the parts here.  I think they’ll have a similar season to last year, maybe a few spots lower in the standings but still competing for a playoff spot.  Like I say, the Avs and Oilers in my mind are interchangible.

 

imagesCARD1TLK5. Calgary Flames – By this point I’m pretty certain if you’re reading this that you don’t need me to tell you what I think of the Flames mangement.  In a word….humiliating.  They refuse to rebuild, they’ve thrown big money at average free agents, and there is seemingly no end in sight to this mess.

This is the worst team down the middle in the league.  Their top centre is WINGER Alex Tanguay.  That sounds like a bad joke I would say, not a fact.  Sorry Flames fans, that’s a fact.  This team used to be bad at centre with Darryl Sutter as GM.  Roman Cervenka is expected to be their 2nd line centre.  I don’t know that the “best player in the NHL” has ever been good when brought into the NHL.  I recall Jiri Dopita being a total bust for example.  Then they have Matt Stajan who was going to be this teams 1st line centre when they dealt Dion Phaneuf.  I guess Mikael Backlund is still on the roster?  It’s bad down the middle in Calgary….like expansion team bad.

They look ok on the wings, but I wouldn’t have given Jiri Hudler that kind of money.  That contract will bite them in the ass for sure.  The fan base is jacked about Sven Baertschi and rightfully so, but they have a lot of guys like him up front.  Feaster has turned them into one of the smallest teams up front and I definitely think it’s the softest forward group in the league.  Maybe Bob Hartley can fix all their problems, but I somehow doubt it.

It’s a scary situation because if they start off poorly, Hartley isn’t a guy that will help the chemistry in the room.  And he won’t be going anywhere as long as Feaster is there.  He stuck with John Tortorella all through the days with the Lightning, and Hartley is closer with him than Torts was.

The defense doesn’t look a whole lot better than the forwards.  If the Jiri Hudler signing was bad, then I don’t even know how to describe the Dennis Wideman signing.  He was the 5th defenseman for the Caps during the playoffs.  He got points because Mike Green was hurt for a lot of last season so he was given all the power play minutes with Ovechkin and company.  That will boost anyone’s stats.  The last time Wideman had a big season was with Boston in 09 and once he got his big pay day he bounced around because he underachieved and nobody wanted him.  He is a 2.5-3 mil a year d-man getting 5.25 mil per.  Add to that, it’s a 5 year deal with a no movement clause.  Just horrific.

Mark Giordano has become the anchor of this blueline and I like his game, hell I picked him for my 2014 Olympic team!  And I rip on Jay Bouwmeester a lot but he is still useful.  Grossly overpaid….but useful.  Solid in his own zone, and maybe getting away from Sutter will help him get his offensive game back.  After that there isn’t much.  T.J. Brodie can skate, but he could be in their top 4 and I don’t believe he’s ready for that.

In goal Mikka Kiprusoff has to collapse one of these years doesn’t he?!  He is a freak and quite frankly still doesn’t get enough credit as one of the games best tendy’s even after all these years.  He’s a horse, but it can’t last forever.  He’s now 36 and he like Iginla should be dealt now why the organization can still get something for them…but they won’t.

Feaster will have you believe that they have stocked the cupboard in terms of prospects, but I’m very skeptical.  John Gaudreau was incredible at the WJC, but it’s a much different story dangling guys on big ice and dangling them in the NHL.  For every Marty St.Louis and Theo Fleury, there are 20-30 Ryan Shannon’s and Eric Boguniecki’s.  Baertschi is the only serious prospect they have right now, the rest are a lot of guys that still need a lot of time to see what they are.

Talent is there to be what they’ve been for the last 3 seasons, but I think it’s the year the wheels fall off which could easily be a blessing in disguise for the Flames.

 

Follow me on twitter @TJ_Soups

NHL season preview – Central division

 

Maybe the best division in hockey right now.  The poor Columbus Blue Jackets, not only are they awful but they’ve now got 4 beasts to put up with.  Big year for the Blues last year, but any of these teams are still capable of winning this division.  If the Hawks get some goaltending they’ll be right back to being a cup threat.  The Wings need to rebuild their defense but they’re still the Wings.  The Preds will need some of their young D to develop quickley, but Trotz always gets the max out of his guys.  Great division and it should be interesting to follow.

 

1. pietrSt. Louis Blues – It was about freakin time this team finished their rebuild!  They just about went from CBA to CBA rebuilding this team and at the start of last season it looked like they would.  But they brought in Ken Hitchcock just in time to not only get them over the hump and into the playoffs, but they took a very competitive Central division and nearly took home the President’s Trophy.  They knocked off the Sharks rather easily in last year’s playoffs, but got a bit exposed by L.A. in the 2nd round.  Hitch’s system makes average goaltenders look good and good goaltenders look great but in the playoffs that stuff ususally gets revealed.

I have the Blues getting top spot in the conference.  This was far and away the best team in the league from December on.  They really don’t have a flaw, but when playoff time rolls around they really need Jaroslav Halak to be healthy this time to go anywhere.  Elliot is the goaltender who is average that looks good playing for Hitch.  Halak is good and looks great.  Add to that Halak has done it in the playoffs before with Montreal in 2010.  For the regular season however the goaltending will be just fine.  Also they have Jake Allen who will likely get his shot next year.  Both Halak and Elliot have 2 years left on their deals, I would guess that 1 will be dealt prior to next season so this could be an audition for both guys.

I’m a very large fan of Alex Pietrangelo.  This kid is great at both ends of the ice and is just so smooth.  In my mind he is on par with Drew Doughty right now.  And I love what they have surrounding their horse too.  Kevin Shattenkirk is a great number 2.  He can fly, brings a lot of offense and he showed last season that he can do that while sticking with the system.  Barret Jackman is that tough vet who can still be used in a shutdown role.  His game is more suited for the old NHL, but he can still be very effective.  They could stand to add another guy back there, I know rumors were out that they were looking hard in the summer for one, but the blueline is very solid the way it is.

Up front they don’t score a ton, but again that’s a product of Hitch’s system.  They don’t have an offensive star but they can roll 4 lines at you regularly.  Jaden Schwartz should have benefited greatly from the half season he spent in Peoria, although he only put up 19 points in 33 games.  Vladimir Tarasenko has been playing against men now for years in the KHL, but I’m sure the smaller ice and North American life style will be an adjustment for him.  Both kids have potential to be offensive stars, but Hitch isn’t known for being a guy that develops offensive stars.

David Backes is Ryan Kesler without the BS.  One of the best 2 way centres in the game, he’s physical and he is a great leader.  You don’t see him diving, you don’t see him bitching and moaning out there, and you don’t see him skating by the opposing bench after scoring acting like a jack ass (can you tell I’m not big on Kesler’s act?)  He plays the game the right way and I have heard that Hitch has said “he is a coaches dream”.  Having said all of that, he would be much better served being the 2nd line centre.  Doug Armstrong could stand to package some of their youth up for a legit 1st line centre which could take this team to the next level.  They’re good down the middle, but not great.

I have become a fan of Hitchcock as a coach over the years, mainly because I took off my fan goggles and put on my objectivity goggles.  His teams are boring, but he gets the most out of what he has.  It helps coaches like him and Tippett that clutch and grab has been creeping back into the game, especially last season when concussions started to be a real worry.  But he is one of the smartest coaches in the game and he is a grinder much like Bill Belicheck or Andy Reid in the NFL.  This team is in good hands, although it’s been proven that Hitch has a shelf life.

More will be expected of this team come playoff time if they do indeed finish 1st in the West.  I don’t believe they’re ready for a deep playoff run, but finishing with the division crown and 1st in the West is well within their reach.  And they have a lot of cap space and assets to really load up come the trade deadline.

 

2. 88-19Chicago Blackhawks – The 2010 Stanley Cup seemed like a distant memory as the Blackhawks went down in 6 to the Coyotes last spring.  Mike Smith was incredible, but it really seemed like they lost their edge.  Corey Crawford was abysmal to say the least in the series, which was a dramatic change from his heroics against the Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs.  They really didn’t do anything to change this roster in the off season, so it’s the usual suspects looking to get the Hawks back to contender status for this season.

If there is one glarring hole on this roster it’s the 2nd line centre spot.  I’m a huge Dave Bolland fan, but he’s much more of a 3rd line centre than a 2nd line guy.  They’ve tried using Patrick Kane in the middle but while he has good chemistry with Marian Hossa, he’s much more comfortable on the wing.  Joel Quenneville doesn’t like using Patrick Sharp in that spot for some reason.  I guess he feels Sharp’s game is better on the wing than at centre, but the Hawks seem to play better when they’re running Toews, Sharp and Bolland down the middle.  They need an answer, mine would be to package prospect Mark McNeill with a pick and another prospect and see if it can fetch you that player.

Other than that the forward group is loaded.  Some good young players will be in some key roles for them this season like Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Jimmy Hayes.  Also I would expect a pretty good season out of Victor Stalberg.  He’s always been a guy with a lot of talent, and he is a UFA this summer so he has a chance to really cash in being a 6’3, 205 guy that can fly.

The defense as always is anchored by Keith and Seabrook.  It’s one of the top pairings in the game, but after them it gets sketchy.  I have no clue why Stan Bowman brought in Johnny Oduya last season, and even less of a clue as to why he re-signed him after a dreadful playoffs.  I know you want puck movers Stan, but the reason the position is called DEFENSEman is because you’re expected to play at least some DEFENSE.  There are some good young d-men on this roster like Nick Leddy and Dylan Olsen, but both guys are still growing.  Just like that 2nd line centre spot, they could stand to package up one of those guys and bring in a guy who is more established.

I am pretty surprised they haven’t upgraded their goaltending, but then again we are only a year removed from believing Corey Crawford was one of the games best young goaltenders.  They’ll give him the first half of this shortened season I believe.  If he isn’t performing, they’ll need to look for someone else.  If he can’t step up then that makes 3 pretty big holes in the lineup and they don’t have enough trade bait to fill all of those holes.  Could be tough for Bowman between now and the trade deadline.

The hot rumor after last season was that Joel Quenneville was waiting to get fired.  He wanted out, but he wanted to be fired.  Of course it never happened.  I would guess coach Q is on a very short leash this season.  But he has been a great coach in this league for years, so I can’t see it happening with a roster that is so talented.  They’re a threat to win the division and to be contenders.  But there definitely is a lot of potential there for things to go completely off the rails.

 

3. Montreal Canadiens v Detroit Red WingsDetroit Red Wings – The big question heading into this season, people are asking “will this be the year?”  It’s so tough to say because this team has lost guys before but they have such a winning culture, such great leadership, such great coaching that could offset the loses of Lidstrom, Stuart, and Holmstrom (they’ll easily replace Hudler).  I think it’s safe to say expectations haven’t been this low in Detroit since the early 90’s, but it’s still a lot higher expectations than most of the league has.

It’s not so much about what they’ve lost for me, it’s what they still have.  Mike Babcock in my opinion is the best coach in the game.  He’s won both ways.  He took a talentless team to game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2003, boring us all to death the entire time.  Then 5 years later, he lead a loaded team to the cup that played a very fluid, up tempo game.  I said it about Hitchcock and it’s true for Babcock as well, he is a grinder much like a Bill Belicheck.  You won’t catch Babcock smiling much, nor should a coach be smiling much.  He’s as serious as a heart attack, and he will figure out the best system for the group of players he has.

The Wings also still have one of the best 1-2 punches down the middle in the league in Datsyuk and Zetterberg.  Both men are incredibly talented, both are among the best 2 way centres in hockey, both are extremely experienced, and both have been playing during the lockout.  To complement these 2 they have big wingers who skate well, like Johan Franzen.  Damien Brunner tore it up with Henrik Zetterberg during the lockout and big things are expected of the Swiss winger in his first NHL season.  He isn’t one of those wingers that has nice size, but he has great skill and wheels.  He is more than capable of replacing Jiri Hudler.  And if he can’t, Gustav Nyquist has been playing great in the AHL this season and is ready to see some time on the big club.

Everyone knows the big flaw this team is facing is on the blueline.  Already hit on it a bit, but let’s take a “glass half full” approach that nobody else is.  Both Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl should be ready for big roles on this club after years in the AHL.  Kindl got 55 games in last season but only got 14:03 minutes a night.  The Wings hate rushing their players, especially their d-men (of course to them rushing a player is only getting 3 seasons of AHL hockey).  But they’re going to have to give these 2 in particular a chance.

Kyle Quincey, Ian White, and Jonathan Ericsson are serviceable, but I would be stunned if they all of a sudden become guys that can be quality 2, 3 or 4 d-men on a playoff team.  White has played well for the Wings, but he’s been playing a role he is comfortable in.  Same with Nik Kronwall who now has to be the number 1.  They might be able to step up, we’ve seen the Wings get more out of less before, but it’s a very tall task.

And then you have Jimmy Howard in net who has been great in the regular season but come up small in big spots come playoff time.  Some might say “that’s the total opposite of Chris Osgood”.  Well, at the end of his career yes.  But in 96, 97, 99, 2000, and 2001 Osgood was that guy.  He won the cup in 98, but people looked at the Wings winning inspite of Osgood being their starting goaltender.  I believe Howard will be challenged this season by Jonas Gustavsson.  This is a classic Red Wing reclammation project.  Big talent, played in a system and city that wasn’t goaltender friendly.  If Howard goes down with an injury I could really see the Monster stealing the starting gig.

Some have this team finally missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990.  I just can’t count them out.  I don’t think this group as it is are contenders, but they’ll get in the dance.  Babcock is too good, Datsyuk and Zetterberg are too good, the blueline isn’t great but it’s good enough, and the goaltending is solid.  Again, it’s not about what they’ve lost, it’s what they still have and if Ken Holland could work his magic before the trade deadline and upgrade their defense they might be right back among the elite in the league.

 

4. 72569_Wild_Predators_Hockey-400x300Nashville Predators – It wasn’t an easy off season for Predators GM David Poile.  He lost Ryan Suter, he nearly lost Shea Weber, he already was losing Alex Radulov, but he did get a new deal done with Mike Fisher and I think I speak for ALL hockey fans that we like that….and more so we like that Fisher’s “deal” with Mrs. Fisher A.K.A. Carrie Underwood has yet to expire!

Contrary to what some will have you believe, it doesn’t all start in net with Pekka Rinne.  It starts with Barry Trotz who is one of the top coaches in the game.  They’re not as boring of a team as the Blues or Coyotes, they have a forecheck.  But it’s not by any means fire wagon hockey either.  He always gets so much out of his players, and he along with David Poile have built a pretty good thing in Music City.

AFTER Trotz, Rinne is the guy for this franchise and he has developed into quite a goaltender.  He’s huge, and he’s athletic.  Also, he was a horse last season which allowed them to move Anders Lindback to Tampa.  He is that goaltender that can simply carry a team much like Mikka Kipprusoff has done in Calgary or Henrik Lundqvist in New York.  This will be the first year of his new 7 year deal and while it’s definitely not a cheap cap hit at 7 mil per, I believe it’s worth it.

Luckily for Rinne he will still have Shea Weber leading the protection in front of him….for this year anyway.  We will see how this season goes but I don’t think anyone in hockey is going to be surprised if Weber asks for a trade after this season if things don’t go that well.  He kept his mouth shut when he originally signed that offersheet in July, but his agent didn’t really hide the fact that they wanted out.  That is now 2 summer’s in a row where Weber had a run in of sorts with David Poile.  Probably fair to say they didn’t want Poile to match the offersheet last summer, and the summer before that in arbitration Poile low balled them badly (I believe he claimed Weber was only worth 4 mil for the 1 season).  Weber always puts on a brave face in the media and claims he’s happy and understands its a buisness, but I have my doubts that is actually the case.

The big issue for the Preds will be finding someone to replace Ryan Suter.  It will start with Roman Josi as far as Weber’s D partner.  Josi was a 2nd round pick in 2008.  He looked real good in 52 games last season once he was called up, but it was in a limited role.  He has all the tools to be as good as Suter, but only time will tell if he can reach that level.  Ryan Ellis is more likely to join Weber on the PP.  I have my doubts if Ellis can ever be anything more than a PP specialist in this league, but he should be great at that.  The kid they could really use stepping up is Jonathan Blum, but he is such a disaster in his own zone that it will be tough for him to crack a Barry Trotz lineup that way.

Up front they may have lost Radulov, but he didn’t bring much to the table anyway.  I didn’t like what Poile did at last year’s trade deadline.  People praised him for him, but I thought it was trying to fit square pegs into round holes with guys like Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn.  So I don’t think now losing those 2 will affect them.  They have 2 way centres that win draws, and wingers that aren’t affraid to go to tough area’s on the ice and have a lot of speed.  Nothing flashy, but they always find a way to score goals….at least enough to get wins.

I believe David Poile gets overrated as a GM, yet I still believe organization wide it is one of the best run franchise’s in the league.  Losing Ryan Suter won’t be the blow that so many people believe it will be.  I believe they’re getting in the playoffs again this season and they’ll be a tough out once there.  But again, I won’t be shocked if they get dealt a devestating blow this off season with Weber asking to be dealt.

 

5. jackColumbus Blue Jackets – I had a tough time trying to come up with a picture to go with this team!  This team literally has no face of their franchise.  That won’t help ticket sales, neither will the lockout.  Things look pretty bleek in Columbus, but they do have some building blocks in place and if their 9 fans can gut out one more season, things could look extremely promising starting next season.

I don’t know how he might pull it off because I really believe he and Jay Feaster are battling right now to win the moniker of “worst GM in the league”, but Scott Howson actually might be doing a nice rebuild.  They’ve done a nice job building the blueline, an area where this team has never been strong.  Jack Johnson will be the anchor, and he himself will get a chance to grow some more.  Johnson has the talent to be a legit number 1 d-man, but to this point he has just been too erratic.  He just turned 26 on Sunday, so he’s really only entering his prime in the next year or two.

Tim Erixon, John Moore, David Savard, and of course when he’s back next season Ryan Murray will give them a pretty good start to rebuilding the rest of this defense.  None of those first 3 really stand out as a guy that could be a stud, but I believe they’ll all be regulars with 2 of the 3 being at least 2nd pairing guys.  The Murray injury hurts, but I’m sure he’ll be back strong to start next season.

If I was a Columbus fan (like so many are world wide), I would be drooling at the thought of getting another centre like McKinnon, Barkov or Monahan in the draft.  If they were to draft 1 of those 3 to join Ryan Johansen and Boone Jenner down the middle, it wouldn’t be long until they’re one of the best teams in the middle.  It would be 3 kids that have size, can skate, and play a 200 foot game which is a coaches dream to have at centre.

I guess just for this season you could say they have depth up front, but the way some of the pieces will have to fit is just head scratching.  It’s almost like Howson just got 12 forwards rather than actually trying to figure out how they would fit.  Hey!  That’s kind of what Jay Feaster did too….the war for the worst continues….  They have a quite a bit of gritty guys that should get playing time, but nobody close in this forward group to a guy that can carry an offense.  It’s pretty awful.

The good news in net is that Steve Mason apparently came into camp 15 pounds lighter so that’s positive.  It’s also positive that now with Sergei Bobrovsky getting more starts we will get to hear Jay Onrait say “BOBROVSKY!!”  Although Jay is now on holidays for a while so we will have to wait.  This team hasn’t had great goaltending outside of Steve Mason’s rookie season (in Hitchcock’s system…surprise surprise), and it is vital that 1 of these 2 develop into a serviceable starter because Oscar Dansk is still a long way’s away.

Other than what they could be in 2 or 3 years I really don’t know what else positive I can say about this team, and even then I don’t trust Scott Howson to keep it all together.  This has become the worst franchise in the league, and they would need a lot of guys overachieving to get out of the basement in the Western conference.  Expect 15th in the West, likely 30th overall.

 

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Joe to haters: “Flacc-off!”

 

What the hell, am I going to have to write this piece every year?!?  Did I not say last year that Flacco got his team into the Super Bowl and his team (Lee Evans, Billy Cundiff) screwed it all up and this is a family show so I won’t say anything more harsh than screwed.  For some reason it just doesn’t seem to matter what this guy does in big games, people only want to focus on his negatives.  How you like him now….he’s back in the AFC championship game for the 3rd time in 5 years.

This guy has won at least 1 playoff game every season of his career!!!  You know who didn’t do that in their first 5 seasons?  Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway, Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas, not 1 freakin QB has ever done that!  I don’t know what the American media and fans expect out of this guy, he gets his team in the playoffs every year and when he gets there he’s never 1 and done.

I’m not anywhere near old enough to remember Ken Stabler.  I’m 29, Stabler I believe was done by 1983.  But Stabler from my understanding was very similar.  Had a great team around him (Flacco hasn’t had a GREAT team around him for a few seasons now) and he would get bored unless the game was big or the moment was big.  That’s Flacco.  When Flacco has to step up, he usually does.  But sometimes he plays games like he did last season in Jacksonville or this season at home against the Steelers.

And speaking of the Steelers game at home, that seemed to be the game where critics jumped off his bandwagon after being on it for the first half of the season.  I know why they did too.  As a guy that bets I usually know the lines off by heart.  Most people had the Ravens -8 in that game and thought it was easy money because the Steelers were starting Charlie Batch.  Flacco lost and I couldn’t believe the outrage on twitter towards Flacco.  My thoughts were “he got shutdown by a great defense, that will happen”.  Just about everyone else was saying “if he can’t beat Charlie Batch he can’t win anything!!!!!!!!!”  O….K….or perhaps you lost big money on a game you thought was a gimme since Charlie Batch was starting for the Steelers?

How soon they all forgot how he was a dropped pass away from going to the Super Bowl last season and quite possibly winning that Super Bowl (they matched up better with the Giants than the Pats did), how soon they all forget a clutch drive to win a huge regular season game in Pittsburgh the season before.  If those critics thought he couldn’t get the job done before yesterday they had damn well believe he can now.

It wasn’t just the throw to Jones to tie the game at 35 (I’m sure his detractors will say it was horrendous coverage).  On 3rd and 13 in his own endzone in O.T. he made a great, clutch throw to get a 1st down.  That drive stalled so it may not have seen like much, but if he didn’t complete that throw the Ravens would have been done right there.  The Broncos likely get that ball at mid field which opens up more of the playbook in O.T. and it’s lights out for the Ravens.

Now they roll into Gillette for a rematch of last year’s AFC title game, a game where Flacco out played Tom Brady.  I don’t know if the Ravens will win this one and move on to the Super Bowl, but all I know is that ONCE AGAIN Joe Flacco proved himself as a QB more than capable of leading a team to a Super Bowl.  He’s never going to win the hearts of gamblers and fantasy GM’s because he’s inconsistent when it comes to betting on him and he won’t put up huge numbers.  But he is smart, has a big arm and is clutch.  I don’t know what more people want.

 

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NFL picks – divisonal playoffs

 

Well that went BAD!!!  1-6, and to be very honest….I felt great about those picks going in!  Trust me, I took a bath on those games, and I believe a ton of people did as well.  I know my man Colin Cowherd had almost the exact same picks (and I had mine posted before he did his…no cheating here).  When 2 of the 4 QB’s that you bet on are hurt it’s clearly not going to be your weekend.  But, chance to bounce back this weekend.  Awesome games this weekend.  The 2 NFC games look like they’ll be tight, the 2 AFC games are lines of 9.5 and 10 respectively.

 

Baltimore at Denver

Baltimore +9.5

Under 46.5

I know I usually start off talking about a dog like this, but this is WAY too many points to give the Ravens.  This team is highly motivated.  Don’t forget, this might not be the last run for only Ray Lewis.  Ed Reed has flirted with retirement for a few seasons now.  And for the first time all season, the famed Ravens defense actually looked like the Ravens defense.  And everyone is selling on Joe Flacco.  I wrote a piece after the AFC championship game last season saying “don’t blame Flacco” and in it I mentioned how people would forget that he had them in the Super Bowl.  Lee Evans had a horrible end zone drop late in that game which would have sealed it, and Billy Cundiff missed a chip shot that would have tied the game.  Flacco did the job and he’s done the job in a lot of big spots in his career that people choose to ignore.  Add to this the Broncos will likely be rusty.  I expect a low scoring game here (hence taking the under), and I expect the Ravens to keep it close.  They AT LEAST keep this within a TD, I don’t understand the line being so big for a playoff game.

 

Green Bay at San Francisco

Green Bay +3

Everyone is taking the Pack in this game which makes me a little uneasy.  This Niners defense will come into this game pissed off having heard all week how they’ll be 1 and done.  But Aaron Rodgers has been pissed since he fell to 24 in the draft, and you can bet your ass he’ll be fired up for taking on the team that passed on him in that draft and the team that he grew up cheering for.  I like Colin Kaepernick but it is so tough to take a rookie QB when he’s facing a guy who has been the league MVP, has won the Super Bowl, and might be the best QB in the game today.  I’m not like everyone else in thinking the Packers are a slam dunk to win this game, it was a pretty similar situation last year when the Saints who also had won the Super Bowl 2 years previous and had an MVP/Super Bowl winning QB on their side and the Niners walked out of that classic with the win.  Having said that, the points are too tough not to take.

 

Seattle at Atlanta

Seattle +3

Under 46

Don’t put all the Seahawks win on RGIII getting hurt.  He still played, he was still making good throws, and while yes there were some drops this is one of the scariest defenses in the league.  And Russell Wilson I thought was a rookie?  He was outstanding in that win.  Now, they’re facing a fired up Falcons team that has had the playoffs on their mind since that disaster in the Meadowlands last January.  2 very tough defenses going up against each other, so take the under, and while I fully expect the Falcons to come out very hard in this game I just have to take the Seahawks getting the points.  They’re the hottest team in the leauge.

 

Houston at New England

Houston +10

Over 48

2nd week in a row where I’m taking all the dogs.  That is a freak thing that happened last week and I just can’t see it happening 2 weeks in a row.  The Texans have not forgotten what happened the last time they went to Foxboro.  Now, Matt Schaub I don’t believe has what it takes to go in there and beat Tom Brady in this game.  But I fully expect them to play with a bit of a chip on their shoulders and better prepared than they were in the last game.  Of course the weather could play a factor, but I checked the forecast and things look real good on Sunday neither team should be effected.  Both offenses can put up a lot of points and neither defense is elite so the over seems like the right bet here.  Pats win but the Texans make it a game.

 

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