Saturday, 8 December 2012

World Junior Hockey Championship Preview

 Hope we'll be seeing more of this come January 5th
With the NHL creating a lot of negative publicity, I thought it was about time to inject some optimism to the hockey world. The holidays are right around the corner, which bring with them the spirit of love, giving and happiness; a (Robb) stark contrast to the feeling the NHL is giving to fans. Lucky for us, with the holidays comes the World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia. I have been fortunate to attend over 30 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) games this season and also paid close attention to the Canada-Russia Super Series last month. Through it all, I have gained a new appreciation for the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) as a whole and I might even become a permanent fan if the NHL continues on their gong show route. Without further adieu, here is my (semi) informed opinion on who Canada should choose to represent the country on Boxing Day.

The complete list of camp invitees can be found here.



With a full year lockout looking like a real possibility:

Ritchie - Scheifele - Strome
Drouin - Huberdeau - MacKinnon
Hudon - Jenner - Rattie
Wilson - Danault - McNeill

This is assuming that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be unavailable for the tournament due to a shoulder injury he suffered while playing for the Oklahoma City Barons. If he is cleared to play, he would most likely replace Drouin (which would be unfortunate for people who haven't seen him play), and the line combinations would also change. Ignoring this glaring omission, I think this is the best lineup Canada could put together. Ryan Strome and his 2.0 ppg in the OHL will be relied upon to be an offensive force on this team, but Scheifele with his size and two way play is better suited for the first line centre position. Although Ritchie's size and physicality would make him a good fit for a bottom 6 role, he and Strome have insane chemistry and it would be foolish to split them up.
The second line is one that we saw in the second game of Russia vs. the QMJHL all-stars. Although it is not common for Hockey Canada to give big minutes to younger players like Drouin and MacKinnon, this line is full of high end skill and something clicked when Drouin was added to the mix against the Russians.
The third line is exactly what you want: a combination of offensive creativity and shutdown ability. Columbus prospect Boone Jenner is one of the few returning forwards for Team Canada. He leads the OHL in goals and does it all for the Oshawa Generals. Hudon is a spark plug that never stops working, and he and Rattie are versatile players that will compliment Jenner nicely. 
On the fourth line I have players that are used to playing top line minutes for their CHL team, but are guys that can buy into whatever role they are given. Tom Wilson will add some big open ice hits and McNeill and Danault are guys you can trust in any situation. I have Monahan as the extra forward because although I haven't seen him play much, from what I've heard he would be a guy you could slot into any line.


With Canadian D man Ryan Murray out with season ending surgery there is a spot up for grabs heading to camp. Here's what I'd like to see on Boxing Day:
Harrington shows Denmark how fun it is to play against him

Reilly - Hamilton
Ouellet - Harrington
Reinhart - Dumba

A lot of things could happen on Canada's blue line because of our depth at the position, but there are also a few certainties:
  • As the only 2 returning D-men, Harrington and Hamilton will be on the team
  • Because of their talent level and style of play, both Reilly and Ouellet seem to be locks
  • For better or for worse, Ryan Murphy will be one of the 7 chosen as his coach in Kitchener - Steve Spott - will also be head coach of Team Canada 
I don't mean to rag on Murphy (as he is a very talented player), but he is too one-dimensional for my liking. His offensive ability is a little redundant on Canada's blue line with the likes of Reilly, Hamilton and Dumba in the lineup. His skating ability would be a great asset on the larger ice surface, but mobility isn't really a problem for any of the guys listed above. They defensive pairings could change, but I think I've put a good mix together. Reilly and Hamilton are a good mix of size, speed and puck moving ability, while Harrington and Ouellet are a go-to shutdown pair that Hockey Canada always likes to have. Reinhart and Dumba also compliment each other well, with Dumba being a more explosive, flashy player and Reinhart a safe stay at home guy. I was a bit surprised not to see Duncan Siemens on the invite list. After a slow start he has played much better for the Saskatoon Blades recently, and also had a good showing in the Super Series. A physical shutdown guy that can skate as well as he can would be a valuable asset on the big ice in Russia.



Unlike Mr. Bob McKenzie, I think goaltending has the fewest question marks heading into camp. Malcolm Subban is more than likely to be the starter, and Binnington will be on the team as well. Although in recent years this position has been one of Canada's biggest weaknesses (especially in big games), I am confident with Subban and his 0.932 sv% between the pipes. 

Finally, since I am acting like the head coach I might as well pick captains too, right?

C - Scott Harrington
A - Mark Schiefele
A - Boone Jenner

Other Players to watch

Believe it or not, there are other countries that compete in the tournament. Here is a list of both drafted players and draft-eligible players to keep an eye on from each country:

Russia - Yakupov (EDM) (lockout pending), Grigorenko (BUF), Nichushkn (2013), Zadorov (2013)
Sweden - Lindholm (2013), Forsberg (WSH), De La Rose (2013)
Finland - Barkov (2013), Ristolainen (2013), Maatta (PIT), Teravainen (CHI)
USA - Galchenyuk (MTL) (could have played for Russia or Belarus as well), Jones (2013), Trouba (WPG), Biggs (TOR)
Czech Republic - Musil (EDM), Frk (DET), Faksa (DAL), Hertl (SJ)


With the final game of camp complete, here is who I want on the roster:

Huberdeau - Nugent-Hopkins - Schiefele
Ritchie - Strome - MacKinnon
Hudon - Jenner - Rattie
Wilson - Danault - McNeill

I think the top 11 forwards are a safe bet, but Wilson and Drouin could be swapped for guys like Camara and Lipon (which will likely happen knowing Team Canada), respectively. I think Wilson played a lot better today and brings a physical game that is only second to Ritchie at the camp. Drouin is a guy that could really step up in big moments in this tournament if given the chance.

Reilly - Hamilton 
Ouellet - Harrington
Reinhart - Dumba

It's likely that Corrado will take Dumba's spot and Murphy will make the team as the 7th defensman, but I think Dumba played better than Murphy today. They are both highly touted guys that have so far disappointed, and if one should make it Dumba has my vote. However, Murphy's status with Spott will get him on the team, and Corrado has played well enough to earn a spot on the team.


Without allowing a goal in camp and looking solid while doing it, I think Jake Paterson has earned the backup role. What is interesting is who will be the 3rd string, and I think the safe pick would be Binnington.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

NHL Offer and its Implications

I played my first hockey game of the season Monday night, and Tuesday wake up to find out the NHL has made a proposal to secure an entire 82 game season that would kick off in 2 weeks time - serendipity at its finest. I had posts prepared to rip the owners about the negative effects of the lockout and how greed has overshadowed the core values of the game (which is still very relevant), but can instead focus on something that has been missing from the NHL for quite some time - optimism. My initial reaction to the proposal was that I did not want to get my hopes up, but the more I think about it and the more information that becomes available, I see no reason why we shouldn't see hockey played at its highest level this year. Below I have a "Col's Notes" version of the proposal and the implications of each section.

A full version of the proposal can be found here, and an explanation of the proposal here.

1. Term
 • Six-year Agreement with mutual option for a seventh year.

This part is self explanatory; I hope the NHLPA comes back with an offer of closer to 10 years, or at least hope that this CBA will solve enough core issues to avoid ANOTHER lockout in 6 or 7 years. If they use common sense, they will have this current CBA expire at the end of the season and not in September, so that negotiations are forced to commence earlier.

2. HRR Accounting:
• Current HRR Accounting subject to mutual clarification of existing interpretations and settlements.

HRR stands for Hockey Related Revenue. While there are several things that fall under this definition, they key aspect here is that the NHL is willing to keep the same definition of HRR that was in the most recent CBA. This was a major sticking point early on in negotiations, as the owners were trying to change the definition to make it more beneficial for themselves. Assuming there isn't any fine print, the NHLPA should be happy with this change.

3. Applicable Players' Share:
• For each of the six (6) years of the CBA (and any additional one-year option) the Players' Share shall be Fifty (50) percent of Actual HRR.

This will be the biggest obstacle for the players to overcome. In the previous CBA, players owned 57% of HRR and have not wanted to budge far from that. However, this is a significantly better offer than the NHL's previous 2 proposals which saw the players earning 43% and 46%. Because the number keeps rising, I can see the PA trying to wiggle a few more % out of the NHL, but you really cannot get more fair than a 50/50 split. If it is good enough for the NBA and NFL, it's good enough for the NHL.

4. Payroll Range (Salary Cap): 
2012/13 Payroll Range
Lower Limit = $43.9 Million
Midpoint = $51.9 Million
Upper Limit = $59.9 Million

That is the proposed cap for next year. According to CapGeek there are 16 teams (over half the league) that are already above this cap. Because of this, the NHL is allowing one "transition year" that lets teams spend to the previously established 70.2M. What does this mean? Plenty of player movement during the season and into next offseason while teams try to get their books in order - which in turn will create even more parity in the league. The NHLPA will always want a higher cap because it means they can demand more from owners, but the number is a calculation based on league revenues amongst other things. Anyway, the 59.9M next year is a false cap, and if league revenues grow by next season, as will the cap. The move to a lower number was inevitable as once the cap ceiling gets into the 70M+ range it loses its purpose because only a select few owners can afford spend into that much on player salaries and we'll find ourselves back in 2003. Although it would give the Leafs a much better chance to make the playoffs...

5. Cap Accounting:
 • Payroll Lower Limit must be satisfied without performance bonuses.

Meaning cheap teams cannot tag on bonuses just to reach the cap floor - forces them to spend more money and try to stay competitive

 • All years of existing SPCs with terms in excess of five (5) years will be accounted for and charged against a team's Cap (at full AAV) regardless of whether or where the Player is playing. In the event any such contract is traded during its term, the related Cap charge will travel with the Player, but only for the year(s) in which the Player remains active and is being paid under his NHL SPC. If, at some subsequent point in time the Player retires or ceases to play and/or receive pay under his NHL SPC, the Cap charge will automatically revert (at full AAV) to the Club that initially entered into the contract for the balance of its term.

SPC stands for "Standard Player Contract", which is just a normal NHL contract. This is one of my favorite amendments to the previous CBA because it tackles a core problem that led us to this current lockout - ridiculously long contracts that have created loopholes for teams to gain a competitive advantage. For example, under this new scenario Ilya Kovalchuk's cap hit will count against the Devils until 2025, whether he is hurt, retired or still playing at at 42. If they trade him before that, they get relief of his salary but if he retires from his new team before the contract is over, then the cap hit goes right back on the Devils' shoulders until 2025. I love this unapologetic approach by the NHL. Yes, they should have been proactive and realized these loopholes at first, but it eliminates the possibility of it continuing and punishes those who tried to cheat the system. Owners and GM's alike need to have foresight about the state of the industry before signing players to these ridiculous contracts, and this will definitely prevent such events in the future. This also applies to players in the AHL or other professional leagues earning over $105,000 that NHL teams have tried to stash in the minors or overseas (players like Wade Redden, Cristobal Huet). Yet another way for the NHL to eliminate cap circumvention. While many fans of large market teams may have a problem with this, it is a proposal made by the owners that only screws over owners, there should be no reason for complaint.

To provide teams with some relief, the NHL has proposed a scenario where teams can trade cap space along with a player, with restrictions. A team can choose to retain either $3M of a player's salary or 50% of said salary, whichever number is less - for the remainder of their contract. They will also be obligated to cover that salary for the remainder of the contract. A team may do this for a maximum of 2 players, and a maximum of $5M of retained salary for any one season. In real terms, this makes it easier for teams to dump undesirable contracts if they are willing to take some of the hit themselves. For example, if the Maple Leafs want to use this tactic to trade Mike Komisarek, they can tell teams they are willing to retain half of his cap hit (2.25M). This opens up opportunities for less profitable teams to target overpaid (yet still effective) players to help their team without having to take on their albatross contracts. It also allows the team that signed the overpriced player to get an asset for someone they once thought un-tradeable while freeing up some cap space to spend more wisely elsewhere.

6. System Changes:
• Entry Level System commitment will be limited to two (2) years (covering two full seasons) for all Players who sign their first SPC between the ages of 18 and 24 (i.e., where the first year of the SPC only covers a partial season, SPC must be for three (3) years).

At first, the NHL wanted to extend entry level deals to 5 years, but now they decided to shorten them by 1 year. Both scenarios are attempting to reach the same goal of prolonging the time when skilled, young players get a chance to sign enormous 2nd contracts (like we saw from Hall, Eberle, Skinner and Seguin this past offseason). Players will have less time to prove themselves, likely resulting in the re-emergence of the 2nd contract - a short term, low salary "prove yourself" contract that still allows players to be RFAs once their contracts are up.

• Maintenance of existing Salary Arbitration System subject to: (i) total mutuality of rights with regard to election as between Player and Club, and (ii) eligibility for election moved to five years of professional experience (from the current four years).

Salary arbitration extended for one more year - gives players less power but not a huge issue, and one I see the NHLPA accepting it if the NHL bends on other issues, and also considering the NHL wanted to remove arbitration completely. 

• Group 3 UFA eligibility for Players who are 28 or who have eight (8) Accrued Seasons (continues to allow for early UFA eligibility -- age 26).

I see no reason fro the players to reject this - it only tags on one more year of experience before someone can become a UFA, and it is before players are in their prime. It will still result in young stars like Parise, Staal, and Suter leaving their respective teams, and mean big pay days and freedom for the players at a young age.

• Maximum contract length of five (5) years.

The PA will want to extend this number for job security reasons. You have to remember that the PA exists to protect the 3rd and 4th liners that do not know where their next pay check is coming from, and those that job descriptions call for fighting. Job security is HUGE for these players and if the superstars of the league can only earn 5 year contracts, it is likely they will be resigned to 1 or 2 year deals at maximum. That being said, I still think 5 years is long enough. If you want to retain a player beyond that, there is plenty of time to negotiate an extension. It also makes it easier for GMs to monitor their future cap, eliminates ridiculous contract length and prevents GMs from paying for potential (like Rick Dipeitro and the Hall, Eberle and Seguin contracts I eluded to earlier).
Another clause limits the amount of variability of a contract from year to year. Currently, a player's salary can reduce by a maximum 50% each year, allowing GMs to front load contracts and pay players some $10M in the first couple of years, while only paying them 1M in the last few so that players won't leave much money on the table if they want to retired. Well, instead of 50%, they have changed the number to 5% and have included bonuses. This means that the deal Shea Weber signed this offseason, which sees him earning $13M in bonuses alone for the first 4 years, would have to be stretched out throughout his deal, enticing him to finish out his contract to see that he actually gets all of that money (he will be 41 at the end of his deal).

7. Revenue Sharing:
• At least one-half of the total Revenue Sharing Pool (50%) will be raised from the Top 10 Revenue Grossing Clubs in a manner to be determined by the NHL.
• The distribution of the Revenue Sharing Pool will be determined on an annual basis by a Revenue Sharing Committee on which the NHLPA will have representation and input.
• For each of the first two years of the CBA, no Club will receive less in total Revenue Sharing than it received in 2011/12.
• Current "Disqualification" criteria in CBA (for Clubs in Top Half of League revenues and Clubs in large media markets) will be removed.

Revenue sharing in this league inevitable when half the teams are losing money (because the NHL continues to try to grow the game in places that never see snow). The NHLPA has been calling for more revenue sharing, and to the best of my knowledge this does just that. It even allows previous teams like Anaheim, NY Islanders and NJ Devils to get some revenue sharing that they were denied in the past because they were in a "big market area". This will allow more teams to spend competitively and retain players, something that the NHLPA wants to see. The fact that the NHL is willing to start a Revenue Sharing Committee with NHLPA representation shows that they are willing to work with the players to try and get this right.

8. Supplemental and Commissioner Discipline:
• Introduction of additional procedural safeguards, including ultimate appeal right to a "neutral" third-party arbitrator with a "clearly erroneous" standard of review.

Not really sure what this means to be honest, moving on.

9. No "Rollback":
• The NHL is not proposing that current SPCs be reduced, re-written or rolled back. Instead, the NHL's proposal retains all current Players' SPCs at their current face value for the duration of their terms, subject to the operation of the escrow mechanism in the same manner as it worked under the expired CBA.

Basically, the NHL is saying "look, we know you don't want to take a pay cut on contracts you just signed, so we will give you all that money we promised you, but it will take longer than expected". This escrow "mechanism" is what the players will have to evaluate, but it sounds a lot better than rolling back everyone's salary to fit under the proposed cap.

10. Players' Share "Make Whole" Provision:
I won't post the exact wording of this segment, as it's a lot of numbers, fractions and confusion. This basically outlines the type of mechanism that would be used to make up for salary that will be lost next season. If HRR is reduced from 57% to 50%, players league wide will be losing approximately 12% of their salaries next season and beyond until league revenues increase to the point where the actual number that represents 57% of this year is equal to 50% at some point in the future. This "Make Whole" provision looks to still pay the players this portion that they will be losing, just over time. Along with the 50/50 split, this is what I see as the biggest point of contention during negotiations. The wording is very confusing, and it seems that the players will be paying into a pot or "share" that will then be distributed around proportionally to fulfill these contracts. I can't be certain, but it looks like a loophole the league has created to get out of this portion of player contracts. Look for Fehr and his team to come back with a different proposal to this segment of the deal.

All in all, I can't see the NHLPA turning down a deal that sees players still able to earn their entire 82 game pay check this year, especially while the pressure of the public is entirely on them. Make no mistake, the timing and tight deadlines of this deal were not an accident on the part of the NHL, and it is an interesting strategy to finally get the public on their side. I do like a lot of what they are proposing here, and do not see the players getting a much better deal than this even if the lockout is stretched out to next summer. With some amendments see no reason why we shouldn't be watching the NHL on November 2.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Atlantic Division Preview

A day late this week, as there were some birthday celebrations in order yesterday. With a seemingly inevitable lockout looming, I will shed some thoughts on the CBA and why this is happening. I will also offer some ideas of what to do if there is a lockout, as many Canadian men will have a lot more free time this winter.

With the four best teams in the conference last year, the Atlantic division was a battle right until the end. The Rangers were the surprise champions but the Devils ended up having the last laugh in the playoffs. This is what I see happening this year:

New Jersey Devils

Offseason Moves

In - Krystofer Barch

Out - Zach Parise, Alexi Ponikarovsky

The Devils were THE surprise team from last season. If someone told you the Kings would win the Cup last offseason, it would have been plausible. If someone told you the Devils would be within 2 games of the Stanley Cup, you would have called them insane. New Jersey has been ignoring media expectations for years and has been able to continuously ice a competitive team even after the lockout - but I think next year will be a down one for the Devils. They lost their heart and soul (and captain) in Zach Parise, and have done nothing to get it back. Yes, they still have high end talent up front in Elias and Kovalchuk to go with a young, exciting and apparently clutch player in Adam Henrique. A healthy Zajac will also do wonders to replacing Parise's production, but none of these players can replace the drive and passion he brings to the game.

Not only did the Devils strike out in acquiring offensive talent this offseason, but they also have not done anything to stabilize their net presence. Brodeur had a fantastic year last season and I am the first to admit I did not see it coming, but with the oldest goaltending tandem in the league these net minders are on their last legs. If Brodeur returns to his 2011 form they are in trouble. With some nice defenders in Zidlicky, Volchenkov, Greene and the promising Larsson, the Devils are in good shape on the blue line if they can stay healthy. However, in a strong division with the amount of question marks they have, I see the Devils on the outside looking in by a small margin next year.

Why they'll make it - Great goaltending, someone  on offense (I'm looking at you, Mattias Tedenby) steps up

Why they'll miss - Parise left too big a hole, aging core comes up short

New York Islanders

Offseason Moves

In - Lumbomir Visnovsky (pending),  Brad Boyes, Matt Carkner

Out - P.A. Parenteau, Milan Jurcina, Al Montoya, Jay Pandolfo

The Islanders are one of my dark horse teams in the East. If their players perform to their potential they have a chance to make some noise next year, but I feel their tough division will keep them out of the playoffs. Look for John Tavares to break out, finishing in the top 5 for scoring. He will carry the team offensively, but they will also need big years out of underachievers like Okposo and Bailey, as well as continued production from Grabner and Moulson if they want to strike fear in the opposition up front.

Garth Snow legitimized the defense when he traded for Lubomir Visnovsky, although the move is still pending and could fall through. The also have a mini Shea Weber in Travis Hamonic and the experienced Mark Streit to shoulder the load. Calvin De Haan should compete for a position this year after being picked 12th overall with his buddy Tavares in 2009. It is always an adventure in goal on the Island, but Nabokov is still a good goaltender and should be a sufficient stop gap until DiPietro gets healthy or they  fix the problem in another way. For now, the Islanders are a good young team with some nice pieces, but I just don't see them getting over the hump quite yet.

Why they'll make it - Stay healthy and players play up to their potential.

Why they'll miss - Too many green players playing prominent roles.

New York Rangers

Offseason Moves

In - Rick Nash, Arron Asham, Jeff Halpern, Taylor Pyatt

Out - Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Ruslan Fedotenko, Brandon Prust, John Mitchell

The Rangers made one of the biggest splashes in the league when they traded for Rick Nash in late July. Glen Sather worked his magic again when he landed the star winger for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Tim Erixon. It's always nice as a GM when you can trade depth for elite talent. Without losing any impact player on their lineup, Sather seems to have made a 1st place team even better. Nash joins an impressive list of forwards in Ryan Callahan, Marian Gaborik, and Brad Richards, complimented with talented youngsters like Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider. The signings of Pyatt, Halpern and Asham really solidify the team's bottom 6 and should fill the void of any lost presence left by the Anisimov and Dubinsky departures.

The Ranger blue line remains in tact, and one of the deepest in the league. Staal, McDonagh, Girardi and Del Zotto all play their role to perfection and are still improving. I know Bickel isn't the best option as a #6 defenseman, but if that is my biggest weakness on paper, I'm a happy camper. Add these already big names to a team led by the best goaltender in the world (well, top 2 with Rinne at least) in Henrik Lundqvist and you have a team built for success. Needless to say, I like this Ranger team top to bottom, including their coaching staff and front office. I would emulate a lot of their philosophies on the game if I were to run a team (it also helps when you have all the cash in the world). They fooled me once when they were a first place team last year, and I do not get fooled twice. I have the Rangers once again in tops of the conference, and if I were a Ranger fan anything less than a Stanley Cup final appearance would be a let down with the amount of talent on paper. Stranger things have happened though.

Why they'll make it - 1st place team last year that only improved

Why they'll miss - Injury bug takes out at least 3 star players

Philadelphia Flyers

Offseason Moves

In - Luke Schenn, Ruslan Fedotenko, Bruno Gervais

Out - Jaromir Jagr, James VanRiemsdyk, Matt Carle, Pavel Kubina

After being a part of one of the most exciting series (with the least amount of defense) in last year's playoffs, I'm not sure that either Pennsylvanian team improved this offseason. The Flyers watched as veteran star Jaromir Jagr signed in Dallas and Matt Carle followed the money to Tampa, and have done little to mend these holes. They also traded former 2nd overall pick James VanRiemsdyk to the Leafs for Luke Schenn and lost more offense in the process. I'm not convinced  that Luke Schenn will be able to have a complete 180 in his play immediately next season especially under  the offensive system Laviolette employs. I think a full year under Randy Carlyle would have done much more for Schenn's development, though I still think he will have a much better year in his new environment (plus playing with his brother should help).

The Flyers still boast one of the best lineups in the East, led by the immensely talented Claude Giroux. For a little man, he shoulders a lot of pressure as the leader of this team and only knows how to thrive under it. Though they lost some size up front, they still have enough sand paper in Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell. Look for Jakub Voracek to replace Jagr on the top line and have a break out season. On the back end, it is more than likely (especially after the Schenn trade) that they will have to go without their captain Chris Pronger as his career is likely - and sadly - over. Timonen is still a very underrated force and a great #2 Dman; amd with Cobourn, Mezaros and Grossman they should be fine on the back end even if it isn't their strength. Bryzgalov is the X factor for this team and they need him to regain his form and stay consistent if they want to see success. As of now, I have the Flyers finishing right around where they did last season, anywhere from 4-6.

Why they'll make it - Talent throughout their lineup, have one of the top players in the game in Giroux

Why they'll miss - Recurring concussions continue to haunt them, forcing young players like Schenn and Couturier to step up, poor goaltending

Pittsburgh Penguins

Offseason Moves

In- Brandon Sutter, Benn Ferriero, Tomas Vokoun

Out - Jordan Staal, Steve Sullivan, Zbynek Michalek, Arron Asham, Brent Johnson

As I mentioned in the Flyers section, the Penguins seem like another team that have downgraded heading into next year. They had their hands tied with the Staal situation and I certainly don't blame them for getting something for him now rather than losing him for nothing next offseason. I like Brandon Sutter, but he is slightly behind Staal defensively and cannot replace his presence on the ice or his offensive creativity. The move I found bizarre was shipping out Zbynek Michalek for a draft pick. The Pens have probably the best crop of defensive prospects in the league, but it remains to be seen if anyone is ready for full time action in the big league.  For a team that has the ability to make noise and win now, it was a downgrade in a position that was already the squad's biggest weakness (and it showed up in the playoffs).  Paul Martin will have to rebound and Letang stay healthy if the team wants to prevent pucks from going in their net.

Sidney Crosby starting the season healthy will  obviously provide a boost for the club, as it would for any team that had the best player in the game. The addition of Vokoun was an interesting one as it showed Ray Shero's faith (or lack thereof) in goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and provides them with a very nice backup option  in case he falters. The Pens will have no problem scoring goals and should have a successful year, finishing right around where they did last year with Philly in the middle of the pack (but perhaps the 2nd or 3rd best team in the conference). With their question marks regarding team defense, I don't expect them to make much noise in the playoffs.

Why they'll make it - High end talent, with 2 of the best centers in the game and Letang to boot

Why they'll miss - Lack of team defense, Malkin and Crosby never stay healthy at the same time

Final Predictions
This is how I see the seeding next year for the Atlantic Division:

New York Rangers
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders

With the top 3 teams making it to the dance.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Northeast Division Preview

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

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

Boston Bruins

2011/2012 Rank: 2

Offseason Moves:

In - Jordan Caron, Anton Khudobin, Dougie Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalo Sabres

2011/2012 Rank: 9 (3 points out)

Offseason Moves:

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

Out - Derek Roy, Jochen Hecht

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

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

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

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

Montreal Canadiens

2011/2012 Rank: 15 (14 points out)

Offseason Moves:

In - Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong, Francis Bouillon

Out - Chris Campoli

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

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

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

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

Ottawa Senators

2011/2012 Rank: 8

Offseason Moves:

In - Guillaume Latendresse,  Jakob Silfverberg, Marc Methot

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

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

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

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

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

Toronto Maple Leafs

2011/2012 Rank: 13 (12 points out)

Offseason Moves:

In - Jay McClement, James Van Riemsdyk

Out - Luke Schenn, Joey Crabb, Jonas Gustavsson

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, 17 August 2012

Pacific Division Preview

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

Anaheim Ducks

2011/2012 Rank: 13 (15 points out)

Offseason moves:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dallas Stars

2011/2012 Rank: 10 (6 points out)

Offseason moves:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Los Angeles Kings

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

Offseason moves:

In - N/A

Out - N/A

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

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

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

Phoenix Coyotes

2011/2012 Rank: 3

Offseason moves:

In - David Moss, Steve Sullivan, Zbynek Michalek

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

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

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

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

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

San Jose Sharks

2011/2012 Rank: 7

Offseason moves:

In - Brad Stuart,  Adam Burish, James Sheppard

Out - Daniel Winnik, Torrey Mitchell, Colin White

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

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

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

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

Final Predictions

The final rankings in my Pacific Division preview are:

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

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

Friday, 10 August 2012

Central Division Preview

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

Chicago Blackhawks

2011/2012 Rank: 6

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

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

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

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

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

Columbus Blue Jackets

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

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

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

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

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

Why they'll miss - Weak goaltending, poor offense

Detroit Red Wings

2011/2012 Rank: 5

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

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

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

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

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

Nashville Predators

2011/2012 Rank: 4

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

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

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

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

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

St. Louis Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Predictions

The standings in the Central Division will go:

St. Louis

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