Showing posts with label Around the League. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Around the League. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Around the League(s): Memorial Cup Preview

Beginning this Friday in Shawinigan, four Montreal Canadiens prospects get to play a little bonus hockey, competing in the country's most prestigious national tournament: The Memorial Cup.  For those new to the event, the Memorial Cup is the final CHL championship; an event pitting the winners of each of Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, and Western Hockey League against one another, with a fourth competitor being the team selected as host for the event.

This year's teams are the WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings, OHL winner London Knights, back-to-back QMJHL champion Saint John Sea Dogs, and host Shawinigan Cataractes, who were upset in the second round of the QMJHL playoffs, and have thus had a long break between their last game and the start of the Cup.  With four players in the event, the Canadiens have more already-drafted participants than any other NHL teams, and have Nathan Beaulieu as a returnee from last year's Memorial Cup, where he won the title with Saint John.  Here's a look at the four clubs, and what to watch for from a Habs perspective if you catch any of the games live, or on Sportsnet / TVASports.

Saint John Sea Dogs


Winning back-to-back Memorial Cups is a difficult and rare accomplishment, and yet the Windsor Spitfires did it in 2009 and 2010, and now Saint John has the opportunity to win two straight directly thereafter.  A big part of last year's winning core is back, including Montreal's Nathan Beaulieu on defense, and future Florida Panthers star Jonathan Huberdeau up front.  Other names you should know up front include Charlie Coyle, a top prospect drafted by San Jose in the first round but dealt to Minnesota in last summer's Brent Burns trade, and Zack Phillips, a Minnesota first round choice from last June.  Stanislav Galiev - a 3rd round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2010 - was limited to just 20 regular season games this year, but exploded for 16 goals and 34 points in 17 playoff games.  The Sea Dogs are a veteran team with no top prospects for the upcoming entry draft, but just finished off a dominant playoff drive to the Q championship with a 16-1 record.  Though his French is questionable at best, the team's head coach Gerard Gallant has been speculated as a possible candidate for a job in Montreal.

London Knights


The Knights are captained by towering Habs' prospect d-man Jarred Tinordi who took his game to another level this season, particularly in the playoffs where his dormant offensive instincts awoke, producing 3 goals and 8 points in 19 games en route to the OHL crown against a tough Niagara Ice Dogs squad.  Tinordi and his partner, 2011 Pittsburgh second rounder Scott Harrington, form one of the CHL's most formidable shutdown pairs, while the Knights get offense from the back end in the explosive Olli Maatta, a 2012 draft eligible 6'2" blueliner who scored 23 points in 19 playoff games.  2010 Nashville first rounder Austin Watson is a 6'3" power forward who collected OHL playoff MVP honours thanks to his 10 goals, though it was undrafted 19-year old forward Seth Griffith who led the club (tied with Maatta) with 23 points in 19 games.  Another big contributor up front is 2011 Tampa Bay Lightning first round choice Vladislav Namestnikov, while Toronto 2010 third rounder Greg McKegg had a great regular season but his production dipped come post-season.  Scouts will be keeping an eye on center Andreas Athanasiou, a 6'0", 175 lbs 17-year old likely to go in one of the first two rounds next month.  Another player who may go in June but isn't on many draft lists is goaltender Michael Houser, an undrafted 19-year old who was named the OHL's most outstanding player this season.  The Knights don't have the firepower of the Sea Dogs, but they are sound defensively with a top notch keeper.

Edmonton Oil Kings


The Oil Kings are the only one of the four clubs without a Canadiens prospect on their roster.  On paper, they lack the established star power of the other three participating teams.  17-year old 2013 draft eligible Curtis Lazar scored 31 points in 63 regular season games this year, but the 6'0" centreman led his club with 19 points in 20 playoff games.  Tied with Lazar was the team leader from the season, Michael St. Croix, a 5'11" fourth round pick of the New York Rangers one year ago, who put up 105 points this year.  Perhaps most intriguing about the Oil Kings is the presence of several top-rated prospects for the upcoming draft, a group led by defenseman Griffin Reinhart.  Reinhart has a huge 6'4", 202 lbs frame, but is more of a two-way guy than a bruiser, and most scouts see him as a top 10 candidate.  Swedish import Henrik Samuelsson started the year in the Swedish Elite League, but made it in Edmonton in time to score 23 point in 28 games.  The 6'2" right winger is also an alumni of the U.S. National Team Development Program, so he is well traveled, and seen as an intelligent player with some questions on his skating but expected to be taken in round 2. Lastly, a second  defenseman on the prospect radar is Cody Corbett, just a little smaller than Reinhart at 6'1", 210 lbs, but plays more of a tough defensive game, and is projected to likely go in rounds 2 to 4.

Shawinigan Cataractes


The host Cataractes loaded up in anticipation of this tournament, but it didn't help them get past Chicoutimi in the second round of the Q's post-season, falling in a 7-game tilt.  The team is captained by Montreal prospect Michael Bournival, who had an up-and-down season that saw him set a career high with 30 goals, while totaling 56 points in just 41 games.  His playoffs, however, were disappointing, with just 7 points in 11 matches.  Hopefully the month off the team has had allowed him to refocus and heal up any possible bruises.  Acquired prior to the trade deadline, fellow future Hab Morgan Ellis has been a revelation on the team's blueline, often paired with Phoenix Coyotes first rounder Brandon Gormley.  The 6'2" Ellis was tied for third in team scoring in the post-season with 11 points in 11 games, while also leading the Cataractes with a +14 rating.  Enigmatic New York Islanders third rounder Kirill Kabanov led the team in playoff scoring with 13 points, just ahead of Philadelphia third round choice Michael Chaput.  A wildcard for the upcoming draft, 19-year old 5'11" forward Anton Zlobin led the team in the regular season, while most expect 6'1" blueliner Justin Hache to be a top 100 choice this June.  Seventeen year old netminder Alex Dubeau has already received an invitation to Montreal's pre-draft combine, indicating the club will be watching his performance as well.


The tournament opens this Friday night with a game between Edmonton and Shawinigan.  For full schedule and all the details, check the event's official website here:
http://mastercardmemorialcup.ca/

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Around the League: A Look at the Phoenix Coyotes

As the Montreal Canadiens enter what we won't call a rebuild, but rather a restructuring, starting from the top management on down, it is only natural to look at teams who are having successful seasons as a model.  One of five teams remaining in contention at the time of this writing is the Phoenix Coyotes.  Certainly, much of their success is owed to their front office and coaching staff, but today the more interesting tool will be to look at their roster.  If you look up and down the Coyotes line-up on paper, you will see a who's who of players who have flopped in other markets and been exiled from other organizations.  Yet they're making it work.  Let's dig deeper into some of the guys that have gotten them this far.

The Coyotes have used a few different players and combinations during the post-season, so we'll base this breakdown on their most recent game played, being their game 5 win to eliminate the Nashville Predators.

FORWARDS

Shane Doan
Every winning team needs its star contingent, and Doan is perhaps the only "household name" superstar the 'Yotes have up front.  He was drafted by the franchise, 7th overall by Winnipeg in 1995, and at age 35, has never left.  Winning team with a veteran leadership star, nothing unusual here.  Doan had 50 points this season and has 6 points in 11 playoff games, so as captain think of him as a Brian Gionta.

Ray Whitney
The Coyotes leading scorer in the regular season had 77 points in 82 games and was a +26.  Surely the Coyotes paid a hefty price to bring in such star talent, right?  Except not so much.  Whitney has had a great career, but just turned... 40 years old.  Acquired on the UFA market 2 years ago for just $3M per season.  For argument's sake, think Erik Cole.

Antoine Vermette
A mid-season acquisition from Columbus, Vermette was made available because he had produced only 27 points in 60 games.  Thus, the cost for the 29-year old center was a back-up goaltender and 2nd and 4th round draft selections.  Nothing crazy considering he is more than a rental with two years remaining on his reasonable deal.  And now?  He leads the team in playoff scoring with 5 goals and 9 points in 11 games.  Since Vermette is a solid two-way guy, let's say Tomas Plekanec.

Martin Hanzal
Once considered a top offensive prospect but has never panned out.  A 30-35 point center with size that Phoenix took 17th overall in 2005.  Let's call him Lars Eller.

Radim Vrbata
Vrbata bolted to Tampa Bay as a UFA back in 2008, but struggled mightily.  The Lightning straight up dumped his contract to the Coyotes, in return for David Hale and Todd Fedoruk.  He could have been had for next to nothing.  He found his goal-scoring game again in Phoenix, so the team rewarded him with a new three year deal last summer at the same $3M per season he was previously making.  Amazing value for a guy who scored 35 goals and 62 points this year, for which reason we'll equate him to Max Pacioretty.

Mikkel Boedker
Boedker was an 8th overall pick by Phoenix back in 2008, but has developed slowly.  The average-sized winger had just 24 points in 82 games this year.  He has stepped it up in the playoffs with 7 points in 11 games, but who's to say a Louis Leblanc, who as a rookie with limited minutes had almost as good of a .PPG, couldn't have done the same?

Daymond Langkow
When Langkow was limited to only 4 games a year ago, there was talk his career might be over.  When it seemed he may be able to play, Calgary was happy to dump the final year of his deal to Phoenix for the struggling Lee Stempniak last summer.  Again, not a big price to pay - something anyone could have matched - and Langkow produced just 30 points in 73 games this year.  As an offensive center with some question marks, I guess we'll call him David Desharnais?

Boyd Gordon
A checking center which the Canadiens lacked for most of the season, Gordon was available to all teams last July 1st, signing with the Coyotes for $1.325M per on a 2-year deal.  Sort of like a Travis Moen.

Lauri Korpikoski
A bust after the New York Rangers drafted him 19th overall in 2004, he was dealt to the Coyotes for fellow bust Enver Listin.  Think of it as a Pouliot-for-Latendresse swap.  Korpikoski has turned into a respectable NHL'er in Phoenix, but again is the type of guy any team could have had for a similar offer.  Let's say he's a Rene Bourque for that reason.

Taylor Pyatt
The older brother of ex-Hab Tom Pyatt, Taylor was seen as up-and-coming late-bloomer when he scored 23 goals with the Vancouver Canucks in 2006-07.  But his production dropped each of the next two years, so the Canucks let him go, and the Coyotes picked him up as a UFA in 2009 for just $600,000.  Again, easily could have been had by anyone.  His play earned him another UFA deal in Phoenix averaging $1M per season, but his production went south again this season with only 19 points.  We'll thus call Pyatt an upgraded Mathieu Darche.

Gilbert Brule
The Oilers selected Brule 6th overall in 2005, one spot after Montreal took Carey Price.  Many fans wanted the Habs to take Brule there instead; ALL are now glad they didn't.  Brule has been a bust, clearing waivers this very season (meaning he could have been had for nothing), and splitting time between the AHL and NHL.  In fairness, he's still more productive than Aaron Palushaj, so since he occasionally plays forward, let's equate him to Yannick Weber.

Kyle Chipchura
If you weren't following the Coyotes playoff run this Spring, then you might not have realized this former Canadiens' first round pick still played in the NHL.  But indeed, the 18th overall selection in 2004 - taken ahead of the likes of Travis Zajac, Andrej Meszaros, Mike Green, Dave Bolland, Brandon Dubinsky, David Krejci, Alex Goligoski, and others - plays a defensive, tough, fourth line role in Phoenix.  The Habs sent Chipchura to Anaheim for a fourth round pick back in 2009, and after being re-signed for a second season, the Ducks chose not to qualify Chipchura last summer.  So he signed in Phoenix for a cap hit of just $550,000 as a UFA last summer.  Let's call him Petteri Nokelainen.




DEFENSEMEN

Keith Yandle
Yandle is the leader of the group, topping all Yotes' d-men in regular season scoring and time-on-ice per game.  Still young at only 25, drafted all the way in the 4th round in 2005, and already a stud on D.  Let's call him their P.K. Subban.  Yes, I'd take him over P.K. today, but the comparison is reasonable.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson
The Habs sorely lacked another top pairing d-man this season due to Andrei Markov's absence.  I love Josh Gorges, but he belongs in the #3/4 slot.  Ekman-Larsson is only 20 and has a phenomenal career ahead of him after Phoenix took him 6th overall in 2009.  Even though he's inexperienced, we could already equate his two-way game to a healthy Markov's.

Derek Morris
The first two were acquired with draft picks, but the rest of the D is the kind of scraps this article was meant to highlight.  Morris has had an up-and-down career, which started going sour in Phoenix in 2008-09.  He was sent to the Rangers for a trifecta of cast-offs in Petr Prucha, Nigel Dawes, and Dimitri Kalinin, all three of whom have since moved on to the KHL.  After signings as a UFA in Boston, he was deemed expendable and sent back to Phoenix for the bargain price of a 4th round draft selection when the Bruins needed cap space for other acquisitions.  Another player who any team could have added on the cheap.  He is averaging over 22 minutes a night in the post-season.  For his ability to occasionally lay out a big hit, let's call him Alexei Emelin.

Michal Rozsival
The New York Rangers didn't want to pay Rozsival anywhere near the $5M he was making annually on his deal, and it seemed like his fate might be similar to Wade Redden's if they couldn't move him.  Fortunately, Phoenix obliged, picking him up for New York to take the disgruntled winger Wojtek Wolski off their hands.  Rozsival was dealt as a salary dump.  Certainly was available league-wide.  He is now on the final year of that contract, and playing an average of 22:30 per game this playoffs.  He doesn't have much offense to his game, so let's say he's Josh Gorges.

Adrian Aucoin
We know Aucoin has a big slapshot, but aside from that, he didn't seem to have much of an NHL future a few years back.  With a -22 rating in Chicago in 2006-07, the Hawks were basically happy to give his contract away, sending him and a 7th round pick to Calgary for "nothing" in the form of Andrei Zyuzin and Steve Marr.  He rebounded enough in Calgary for the Coyotes to sign him when he became a UFA in 2009, and he then accepted a 2 year deal to stay in Phoenix in 2010 for just $2M a season.  For his pointshot, we can see he's a Raphael Diaz.

David Schlemko

Schlemko, 25, was never drafted, but signed as a UFA by the Coyotes in 2007.  He has split most seasons since between the AHL and NHL, amassing 109 games with Phoenix.  Is he better than Frederic St-Denis?  Most probably, yes.  But there's enough here to call them comparables.

Rotislav Klesla
Klesla didn't play in the last game due to an injury, but dressed for the first 10 these playoffs for Phoenix scoring 7 points, so we'll include him.  Of the players Phoenix acquired from other organizations, Klesla was the only one they had to pay a real price for, giving up rentals Scottie Upshall and Sami Lepisto for him and Dane Byers.  The only Montreal d-man remaining is Tomas Kaberle, and putting the two in the same sentence is an insult to the more complete Klesla.  So there it is, a guy the Habs lack.


GOALTENDERS

Mike Smith
Smith is the only guy that matters in this category; some might say the only one that matters on the team.  And he fits well, a cast-off that wound up with the Coyotes.  Once a centerpiece of the deal that brought Brad Richards to Dallas, Smith never panned out in Tampa Bay.  How much did he not pan out?  The Lightning placed him on waivers during the 2010-11 season... and he cleared, being sent to the AHL for a few games.  The Coyotes gave him a shot as a UFA last summer with a two-year deal for just $2M a season, and he continues to rattle off a very impressive season.  With Carey Price emerging as a dominant young goaltender, there is little doubt Montreal can rival Phoenix in this area as well.


So what's going on in Phoenix?  Is this team of rejects and cast-offs that will play in the Western Conference Finals any better than the Montreal Canadiens who finished 15th in the East?  On paper, it's very debatable. This is a testament to league-wide parity, and as a positive to Canadiens fans, maybe all it will take for the Habs to make a run is upgrading a Kaberle to a Klesla, a good coach, staying healthy, and getting a Smith-like season out of Price.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Around the League: Playoff Time

With the excitement of the NHL Draft Lottery behind us (and if you missed it, Edmonton won the lottery, meaning the Canadiens retain their third overall selection), and having survived the below scandalous Tweet from prospect Mikhail Grigorenko last night (which may or may no be an indication of anything at all, but regardless, had Tweeters from Montreal abuzz),


we can now turn our attention to the sadly Habs-less post-season.  Here, then, are my 2012 NHL Playoffs Predictions & Previews for the first round.

WESTERN CONFERENCE


(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings


The matchups in the West are quite something this year, as all 8 post-season teams have a strong enough roster to win a best-of-seven against their opposition.  The Canucks came into the season as a Stanley Cup favourite, and haven't disappointed - Yet.  The Kings came into the year with high expectations based on an exciting off-season, but their play underwhelmed for much of the year.  They squeaked into the playoffs based on a late surge despite having scored just 194 goals - second least in the entire league.  The Canucks are on a mission to win at all costs, while the Kings will benefit from the added playoff experience of bringing in Jeff Carter (who, if/once healthy, will help the team offensively, though Vancouver is dealing with their own offensive health concern in Daniel Sedin) and Mike Richards, while being backed by a likely Vezina candidate in Jonathan Quick.

Canadiens implications: Acquired at last season's trade deadline, Vancouver was able to retain former Canadiens Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre, so that may be a reason to get behind them.  The Kings feature no former Habs, but their roster does include Justin Williams, an enemy of Habs fans for his unpenalized high stick to Saku Koivu's eye during the 2006 playoffs.

Prediction: Vancouver in 6.



(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose Sharks


The Blues and Sharks were both considered playoff contenders at the start of the year, with San Jose a perennial contender having made some significant changes, and St. Louis a younger team on the rise.  The Blues goaltending tandem has been remarkable this year, combining for 15 shutouts (Brian Elliott with 9 and Jaroslav Halak with 6), while netminding may be a weak spot for the Sharks, with Antti Niemi's numbers a little worse than last season (though he has proven he can take a team to a Stanley Cup).  The Blues may be inexperienced, but this is off-set by San Jose's reputation as a playoff choker, so it should make for an interesting matchup.

Canadiens implications: With Brian Elliott's health a question mark, former Canadiens playoff hero Jaroslav Halak should start the series for St. Louis, a team also featuring Matt D'Agostini as a depth forward.  The Sharks acquired the stud rental Montreal picked up the year of Halak's playoff performance in Dominic Moore as one of a couple of moves aimed to increase the depth on their bottom lines.  I imagine most Hab fans will be behind the Blues in this one.

Prediction: St. Louis in 6.




(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks


The Coyotes defied odds once again to win their division for the first time in club history despite the overwhelming future uncertainty always hanging over the team.  Phoenix has questions between the pipes, but have assembled a rather deep roster at forward and defense, led by the likes of Shane Doan, Keith Yandle, and Ray Whitney.  The Hawks are a far cry from the Stanley Cup team of 2010, but still feature star power at forward (Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp), and some top defenders (Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook).  If the Coyotes have questions in net, the Hawks aren't much better off, with neither of Corey Crawford or Ray Emery instilling tremendous confidence.

Canadiens implications: Former Montreal first round selection Kyle Chipchura played 53 games for the Coyotes this year, scoring a career best 16 points in a checking role.  Chicago has no player with direct ties to the Habs, unless you count the Marian Hossa gloves incident of a few seasons back.  But we'll let Hab fans side with the Hawks since P.K. Subban picked them as a team to watch in the West.

Prediction: Chicago in 5.




(4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings


The Predators find a way to qualify for the post-season with a roster of underdogs virtually every year, but for once, they've actually assembled a contender-worthy squad this time around.  Nashville is never an easy out, and has had numerous epic battles with far favourited Detroit squads in the past, so this should be a series to watch.  We can easily hand the goaltending battle to Nashville as anyone would take Pekka Rinne over Jimmy Howard, while we can give an edge to Detroit's forward group with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg compared to the Preds' lack of stars.  This may be a series, then, which comes down to defense, with Detroit's old guard of Nicklas Lidstrom, Brad Stuart, and Niklas Kronwall matching up against the younger Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.  The Preds were very active in filling out their roster at the deadline, while the Wings mostly stood pat, so we'll see what effect that might have come playoff time.

Canadiens implications: Nashville is the team perhaps most supported by Canadiens fans, since they added to a roster that already included Sergei Kostitsyn and Francis Bouillon by bringing in Andrei Kostitsyn and Hal Gill prior to the deadline.  Interestingly, however, the pick Montreal acquired for Gill is for this year's draft, meaning it will be slightly higher if the Preds get bounced in the opening round.  The Wings' core hasn't changed in many seasons, and has no direct ties to former Habs.

Prediction: Detroit in 7.




EASTERN CONFERENCE

(1) New York Rangers vs. (8) Ottawa Senators


Some are predicting an upset in this series based on the Sens having won the season series 3 games to 1, but the playoffs are a beat of a different kind.  Ottawa was a big surprise this season as many saw their rebuilding team still a few seasons away from the playoffs, but a remarkable year for Erik Karlsson helped to speed up the curve.  Similarly, it was in part defensemen who helped New York win the conference, with the emergence of Dan Girardi even earning him Norris talk in some circles.  The series doesn't lack for stars at forward either, with Jason Spezza proving his career wasn't washed up thank to an 84-point season in Ottawa, while Marian Gaborik stayed healthy to play all 82 games for the first in his career for the Rangers.  The difference is likely to be goaltending, with Henrik Lundqvist being among the game's best.

Canadiens implications: The Rangers D boasts a talented young player whose name alone pains Canadiens fans, even though he never played a game in Montreal.  Former Hab first round pick Ryan McDonagh was sent to New York in the devastating Scott Gomez trade.  Ottawa also has a player drafted by Montreal but who never played for the team in tough guy defenseman Matt Carkner, while also featuring backup goaltender Alex Auld who battled for the #2 spot with the younger Ben Bishop this season.

Prediction: New York in 4.




(2) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Washington Capitals


The defending Stanley Cup champions had a strange season of cold streaks and incredibly hot runs.  Their roster hasn't changed terribly much since last year's playoffs, though they will miss the injured Nathan Horton who helped the Bruins through 3 and a half rounds a year ago.  Replacing him will be a much bigger contribution from sophomore Tyler Seguin who was a reservist for much of the run last season.  Washington made some depth moves this summer that sought to address the club's weaknesses for a run at the Cup, but the team disappointed.  We can begin with Alexander Ovechkin who finished below the point-per-game mark for the first time in his career, though 38 goals and 65 points are nothing to scoff at for most players.  The decline of Alexander Semin also continued, with the forward matching last season's points but in more games, and scoring just 21 goals - the least since his rookie season in 2003-04.  Still, many of the Caps additions (Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik, Tomas Vokoun...) focused on guys they believed could help in the post-speason specifically, so we will have to wait and see if they pay off.

Canadiens implications: As mentioned, the Caps signed both former Habs Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Halpern last summer, while goaltender Tomas Vokoun started his career (albeit briefly) in the Canadiens organization many years back.  Boston lost Michael Ryder who was important in the playoffs last year, but filled their ex-Canadiens quota by signing Benoit Pouliot instead.  Unfortunately for Boston, Pouliot was always entirely invisible in the playoffs in Montreal, even when he had a good regular season.

Prediction: Boston in 6.




(3) Florida Panthers vs. (6) New Jersey Devils


Like Ottawa, Florida surprised in a big way this season, but doing so more through strategic free agent and trade acquisitions than the emergence of younger players.  Though they won their division, the Panthers will be in tough in round 1 against a deeper and more experienced Devils group, which is led by their top trio of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and re-emergent 35-year old Patrik Elias.  New Jersey has also gotten important contributions from rookie Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson, providing balance to the roster that no longer depends solely on Martin Brodeur to steal games.

Canadiens implications: Goaltender Jose Theodore continues to revive his career, bettering his last season's numbers in Minnesota this year in Florida.  Montreal captain Brian Gionta's younger brother Stephen is on the Devils' roster, called up for one game this season in which he scored his first NHL goal.  6'5" New Jersey forward Dainius Zubrus was also once a Hab for parts of three seasons earlier in his career, before being a part of the trade that brought Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis to the Canadiens from Washington.

Prediction: New Jersey in 5.




(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers


The Penguins may be the fourth seed, but they earned that while dealing with a plethora of key injuries all season.  If there's a team that has no sympathy for that, it's Philadelphia, who had to get by without top players for much of the year as well.  The difference is that the Pens are now basically at full strength, while the Flyers are still getting by without defensemen Chris Pronger and Andrej Meszaros.  And in a matchup as tightly-contested as the battle of Pennsylvania - sure to be one of the most physical and entertaining of the opening round - that could be enough to make the difference.  The Penguins know what it takes to win and have arguably the top two players in the league with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, while Philadelphia will attempt to counter with their own wave of young talent that includes Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and Matt Read, supported by proven playoff performers Daniel Briere and 40-year old long-time former Penguin Jaromir Jagr.

Canadiens implications: Flyer Blair Betts was Hab property for a few days this season, but the injury that saw Montreal return him to Philadelphia following their waiver claim kept him out the remainder of the year.  Big Penguins forward Arron Asham was a third round pick by the Canadiens in 1996 and played 121 games for Montreal over 4 seasons.  Both clubs have contingents of French Canadian players, but both are also recent Montreal playoff rivals, so fans can go either way.

Prediction: Pittsburgh in 7.



Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Around the League: Playoff Predictions

It's around this time of year every season with the trade deadline distancing itself in the rear-view mirror that I make my first post-season predictions. The playoff picture may not be fully clear yet, so I'll wait before dissecting possible matchups, but with rosters more or less set for the stretch run, here are some of my favourites.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Expected playoff participants:
New York Rangers
Boston Bruins
Florida Panthers
Pittsburgh Penguins
Philadelphia Flyers
New Jersey Devils
Ottawa Senators
Washington Capitals

The Winnipeg Jets currently hold the 8th and final playoff spot but - while it would be a nice story - I expect the Caps who are 2 points back and hold a game in hand to catch them by early April. Washington has underachieved throughout the season but they are deep and talented enough that I expect them to put together enough of a hot streak in the remaining games to salvage a post-season birth - think the Habs of 2009 (and then quickly forget that painful memory). With the immense parity in the league, I expect the buffer established by the top 7 to be sufficient to hold on to their spots.

First Round Weak Links:
Florida Panthers
Ottawa Senators

Barring a head-to-head matchup, I expect the East's Cinderella clubs in Florida and Ottawa to be the first round's easiest outs. 2011-12 was a huge step forward in the building process for both teams, but at least on paper, neither stacks up the conference's elite. The Sens have been led by phenom Erik Karlsson, but it should be noted that he and top center Jason Spezza rank 2nd and 8th in the league in powerplay points (Ottawa's PP ranks 6th overall). With powerplays tougher to come by in the post-season, the team may struggle to score - a significant problem when considering that they've allowed more goals than any other team in a playoff position.

Florida's patchwork club rising to the top of its division may be more linked to the struggles of Washington and Tampa Bay than the team's own strong play (a statement supported by their -21 goal differential on the season, worse even than Montreal's), but certainly they've surpassed expectations. The Panthers are one of the league's lowest-scoring teams and have only 3 40+ point forwards, one of whom (Stephen Weiss) has zero playoff experience. This will be a good year to bring some of the team's new core along and help them gel, but it is too early to be thinking about any kind of long run without a spectacular streak from either Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen, which I would doubt in either case.

Projected Eastern Conference Playoff Champion:
Pittsburgh Penguins

Evgeni Malkin has a Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume and his outstanding play this season is my main reason for picking Pittsburgh to return to the Stanley Cup Finals. With big wingers like James Neal and Chris Kunitz, the team has the resources to get passed the Zdeno Chara wall in Boston and to overwhelm the New York Rangers's young back-end. The team's top 4 is rock-solid, with strong production from Kris Letang compensating for the hole in the depth chart left by the absence of superstar Sidney Crosby. The Pens were my pick even before yesterday's news that Crosby has been cleared for contact and may play in the near future, but if he can return healthily, it will take the team to another level. Above all, the team's core, from Marc-Andre Fleury out, has been there before. They've been to the finals and lost, as well as won a Cup, and this experience will carry them a long way once again.



WESTERN CONFERENCE

Expected playoff participants:
Vancouver Canucks
St. Louis Blues
San Jose Sharks
Detroit Red Wings
Nashville Predators
Chicago Blackhawks
Dallas Stars
Los Angeles Kings

On the strength of a 7-1-2 record in their last 10 games (including their win over the Canadiens), the Dallas Stars currently lead their division. However, I expect either them or the Phoenix Coyotes to slip up down the stretch, allowing the Los Angeles Kings to sneak into the post-season. Hey, my preseason picks to win the regular season conferences look pretty bad right now in Los Angeles and Washington so I have to stick to my guns at least a little bit, no?!

The Kings bolstered their league's worst-offense with the addition of Jeff Carter prior to the deadline and should start to see some dividends in the coming weeks. They are tied with San Jose in points (though the Sharks hold a game in hand) and sit 1 point behind the Coyotes (with a game in hand on them) to make the second season and with the sound goaltending they've been getting, should be able to jump over a club or two if those teams stumble.

The Sharks have seen a solid season collapse over the past little bit, but could still take their division if they can turn fortunes around.

First Round Weak Links:
Dallas Stars

The West looks rather evenly matched, with only the Stars (or Coyotes if they make it in Dallas's place) appearing like an easy out. Dallas's defense is suspect and they are the only team in the Western playoff picture with a negative goal differential. The team has gotten strong production from their underrated forward group, but it seems unlikely to hold up over a 7 game series against a tough opponent.

Projected Western Conference Playoff Champion:
Vancouver Canucks

Like the Penguins before them, the Canucks will avenge a loss in the Stanley Cup finals by returning to the dance and this time winning it all. Their offense is led by the usual cast of characters in the Sedins, Ryan Kesler, and Alex Burrows, but they've bolstered their bottom 6 with proven playoff shutdown guru Sammy Pahlsson. The addition of toughness in Zack Kassian allows them to match up better against bigger squads, as does the size of Marc-Andre Gragnani bringing depth on the back end. This team has seen what it takes to get oh so close, and as a now famous Sidney Crosby NHL commercial once said, "never wants to be in that spot again." This is their year.


That's my take on how things will shake up for now. I'll certainly provided round-by-round predictions as the post-season gets underway in April, as depressing as it is to not count the Canadiens among the qualified teams.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Around the League: Catching Up With Old Friends, pt 2

Back in November, I compiled a post under the name Catching Up With Old Friends to look at former Habs around the league and how they were faring. Given how attached we as fans become to some of these players, after (in some cases) the sting of their departure passes, I often find myself interested in their performance and hoping for the best for them. As we are now past the halfway point of the season, it seems like a good time to catch up with some players who once sported the blue-blanc-rouge.

Marc-Andre Bergeron - D - Tampa Bay Lightning
Bergeron started the season on fire in Tampa, being at or near the top of the league in terms of defensemen scoring. He has slowed down since, registering just 3 points in his last 16 games on a struggling Tampa squad, but what might be surprising to many Habs fans is that he was a +7 over that span. In fact, on the season, he is a +8 (a team high!) to go along with his 24 points while averaging 19 and a half minutes a night. It seems he has found a good fit with the Lightning.

Sheldon Souray - D - Dallas Stars
Like Bergeron, Souray was also never known for his defensive zone play, but he has impressed in Dallas, with his +9 rating being the best of all Stars defensemen. He has missed a couple of games due to injury, but has still scored 17 points while playing over 20 minutes per game. He also seems to fit in well in the locker room with frequent pictures being posted on the internet of Souray with bombshell girlfriend Kelly Kelly alongside teammates and their significant others.

Jaroslav Halak - G - St. Louis Blues
Halak was slow out of the gate to start the season, but he has turned it on in a big way. He is 12-1-5 in his last 18 decisions, riding a 6 game win streak that includes 3 shutouts in his last 4 starts (even if they were "easy" shutouts of 22, 19, and 15 shots against respectively). His 4 shutouts on the season rank 4th in the league, while his sparkling GAA of 2.00 ranks 6th. The Blues have a very underrated team, and if Halak can play anything like he did during the 2010 playoffs this post-season, the team could be a sleeper to make a run.

Matt D'Agostini - RW - St. Louis Blues
D'Agostini isn't enjoying as much success as his teammate between the pipes, unable to successfully follow up on last season's breakout with 21 goals and 46 points. He has fallen outside the top 6 on the depth chart, putting up just 17 points (though 9 are goals) in 46 contests. It was struggles with consistency that ultimately led to D'Ag's departure from Montreal, so hopefully he can put things together soon.

Roman Hamrlik - D - Washington Capitals
Many - myself included - were saddened by Hamrlik's departure this past summer. Though he is showing clear signs of aging, throughout his time in Montreal, he was a steady rock on the back end, answering the bell whenever Andrei Markov went down with an injury. At 37, his years seem to be catching up to him as he has had a tough go in Washington, scoring just 5 points in 41 games (he had 34 points in 79 games last year in Montreal), with a -2 rating. Unhappy with his play, the Caps had limited his ice time back in November and early December, but over the past month, he has been back to his 20+ minute self. At this point, it seems the Habs made a good move not to offer him the two-year contract he really wanted.

Jaroslav Spacek - D - Carolina Hurricanes
Immediately following the deal that sent him to Carolina, Habs fans watched closely as Spacek put up a goal and 3 assists in his first 5 games with his new team. In 10 games since, he has failed to register a point, while seeing his ice time diminished of late. Spacek is a depth d-man and nothing more, but was a great locker room guy. A number of Canadiens players have spoken out about that, with Max Pacioretty even suggesting he was the best teammate he had ever had. It will be interesting to see if Spacek gets a contract from an NHL club this coming summer or faces a decision between retirement and playing in Europe.

Sergei Kostitsyn - RW - Nashville Predators
The younger Kostitsyn brother has had a hot-and-cold season, which got off to a great start but then went through a spell where he had points in just 2 of 17 consecutive games. Things seem headed in the right direction for him lately, on a streak which started with a hat trick on New Year's Day against the Calgary Flames. Starting with that game, he has 6 goals and 9 points in his last 9 games as a run by the Predators has them in the driver's seat for a playoff spot.

Mikhail Grabovski - C - Toronto Maple Leafs
Grabovski is another who has had ups and downs this season, but through 40 games played would be on pace for a 30 goal year had he not missed a few games due to injury. He is unlikely to reach last season's total of 58 points with just 27 so far, but with 8 goals and 14 points in his last 16 games, it's not out of the question either.

Maxime Lapierre - C - Vancouver Canucks
Yappy Lappy looked rejuvenated last season during the Canucks' run to game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, but the momentum hasn't so much carried over to this year. His one-time 15-goal season in Montreal seems destined to never be repeated, though with 5 goals and 9 points through 47 games, he may finish with his second best offensive season to date. He is a 4th liner in Vancouver, averaging 11:14 per game on the season, but frequently playing fewer than 10 minutes.

Chris Higgins - LW - Vancouver Canucks
Higgins was another forward who found his game during the post-season last year and he hasn't disappointed, scoring 10 goals and 24 points through 42 games this season. Like Lapierre, Higgins may never reach his career high 27-goals season in Montreal again, but he could very well reach the 40-point mark, which would be his second best offensive campaign.

Benoit Pouliot - LW - Boston Bruins
Bruins fans were quite unhappy with Pouliot at the start of the season, with the big winger even finding himself a healthy scratch on a few occasions. But more recently, he has shown flashes of the player he looked to be when the Canadiens first acquired him; a skilled player just waiting for the right fit to light it up. With 4 goals and 11 points in his past 16 games, it is fair to wonder if perhaps Montreal should have given him one more season to prove his worth.

Guillaume Latendresse - RW - Minnesota Wild
The player the Canadiens give up to acquire Pouliot once upon a time, Latendresse has sadly struggled with injuries for a second straight season. After being limited to just 11 games last year, he has played only 16 this season, though he remained quite productive, scoring 5 goals and 9 points when in the line-up. At 24, Latendresse is still young with lots of potential, but if he can't stay healthy, he may lack the longevity needed for a successful NHL career.

Tom Pyatt - C/W - Tampa Bay Lightning
I was always a big Pyatt fan in Montreal, and he forced his way into the Lightning's line-up with his strong and responsible play. He surprisingly already has 5 goals in 40 games this season, more than the total he scored over 101 games with the Habs. He played a season-high 19:11 in his most recent game against Boston and earned a two-year extension with the Lightning earlier this month.

James Wisniewski - D - Columbus Blue Jackets
The Wizz started the year on the sidelines in Columbus with a suspension, but his return failed to turn around a horrendous season for the Blue Jackets, who lead the Fail for Nail race. After being a +4 in Montreal last season, Wisniewski is a -18 in the 29 games he has been limited to due to suspension and injury. He does have 17 points, which would average out to a 48-point campaign over 82 games, but he has seen his role reduced to a more manageable ~20 minutes a night after starting the year playing close to 30 per game.

Saku Koivu - C - Anaheim Ducks
The second longest serving captain in Canadiens history, Koivu recently recorded a hat trick in a win over the Dallas Stars on January 10th. He remains a productive player in Anaheim, with 25 points in 37 games thus far, and his +12 rating far and away leads all Ducks. At age 37, Koivu has seen his ice time reduced from 19:08 last season to just under 18 minutes a game, which has helped him maintain a high level of play. I would love for the Habs to find a way to allow Koivu to retire a Canadien, or even more to see him spend one final season on the team's third line, but he seems happy to play alongside countryman and good friend Teemu Selanne in California.

Mike Cammalleri - LW - Calgary Flames
Cammy has appeared in 3 Calgary games since being dealt out west with an output of 1 goal and a -2 rating. His ice time has increased each night, going from 15 minutes to 20 and most recently 23 minutes in a shootout win over Los Angeles where he also had a marker in the tiebreaker. This one is still fresh, so we'll leave it at that, but keep in mind as I said yesterday, how Cammalleri performs in Calgary won't impact whether or not Montreal "won" that trade from the Canadiens perspective. Gauthier managed assets well in that deal, regardless of Cammy's performances for the remainder of his contract.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Around the League: Catching Up With Old Friends

As diehard hockey fans, Habs fans develop what feel like close personal relationships with the players on the team. It is not uncommon for Montrealers to feel like their mood is defined at least in part by the club's successes, so it is normal to feel an emotional bond with the players who determine the team's fate.

Unfortunately, between following the current Canadiens, Hamilton Bulldogs, junior prospects, and everything else, we don't always have time to continue following former Habs once they leave the city. Thus, today we look around the league at the starts of some who once wore the blue, blanc, et rouge. Note that the intent is not to lament over the fact that they were traded or allowed to leave, but just to provide an update on some of the athletes we used to love (or hate) watching.

Matt D'Agostini -RW, St. Louis Blues
In his first full season with the Blues last year, D'Agostini set career highs in goals (21) and points (46). He is off to a similar pace start to this campaign with 4 goals and 6 points through the first 11 games. I've always been a fan of D'Ags since watching him speed down the wing in Canadiens' development camp, so I'm glad he has found a home on a scoring line in St. Louis, averaging between 14 and 17 minutes a night.

Jaroslav Halak - G, St. Louis Blues
After being the Canadiens' playoff hero in 2010, Halak had a very average first season as the #1 in St. Louis (.910 save percentage and 2.48 GAA). He is off to an even shakier start this year, with his starting job in question as he has split time with Brian Elliott (who has outperformed him to date). At the moment, Halak's numbers come in at an atrocious .843 save percentage and 3.58 GAA with a 1-5 record.

Kyle Chipchura - C, Phoenix Coyotes
Chipchura has played only 1 game for the Coyotes this season before being assigned to the AHL's Portland Pirates. The former first rounder hadn't played in the American League since being a Hamilton Bulldog in 2008-09, when he scored 35 points in 51 games. In Portland, the awkward skating two-way center has 4 goals and 6 points through the first 8 games.

Sergei Kostitsyn - RW, Nashville Predators
The younger Kostitsyn brother continues to impress offensively, following up on a 2010-11 season where he hit the 50 point plateau. On a team that lacks in the forward ranks, Sergei plays 18+ minutes on most nights, though he was recently sidelined with a minor injury. Through 9 games played, he has picked up 3 goals and 8 points, one assist more than brother Andrei's output thus far.

Chris Higgins -LW, Vancouver Canucks
After leaving the Canadiens in the ill-fated Scott Gomez deal, Higgins' career took a tailspin. In Montreal, Higgins felt he was a deserving top 6 winger, capable of topping the 30 goal mark (and his career high of 27 didn't disagree). But with stops in New York, Calgary, and Florida over the next two seasons, he seemed penciled into a third line defensive forward role. Since joining the Canucks at last year's trade deadline, he has rejuvenated his career, playing an important role on the team's run to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, and now starting the current campaign on an offensive tear. In 12 games, Higgins has scored 6 goals and added a pair of helpers, well on pace to smash last season's 13 goals and 28 points.

Maxim Lapierre - C, Vancouver Canucks
The Canadiens decided Lapierre wasn't in the long-term plans last season, resulting in his requesting a trade. The Anaheim Ducks also couldn't get the best out of Max, and so, like Higgins, he was moved to the Canucks at the trade deadline. Playing alongside Higgins, Lapierre was a valuable roleplayer during last season's playoff run, and has had a productive start to the year with 3 goals and 5 points in 12 games, numbers that would beat his highs of 15 goals and 28 points averaged out over a full season. Laps could have been a quality fourth line center for the Habs this year, averaging 11:46 of ice a night and going 51% in the face-off circle.

Pavel Valentenko -D, New York Rangers
Valentenko never played a game for the Canadiens, but was considered a top prospect when they brought him over from Russia. After a first season in the AHL, the tough defensive defenseman decided he could not support his family back home on an American League salary, and left back to Russia. He was tossed in as an incentivizer in the Scott Gomez deal, and the Rangers convinced him to give North America another shot. With a solid season back in the AHL under his belt, Rangers fans expected him to challenge for a job this year, but despite injuries on the back end, a disappointing training camp (and his own injury) has him playing for the Connecticut Whale, collecting 1 assist through 3 games.

Ryan McDonagh - D, New York Rangers
This one's still a sore spot for Habs fans, so I'll keep it brief. A first round pick in 2007, McDonagh was the central piece sacrificed by the Habs to acquire Gomez, amidst rumours of a slowed development and even one story claiming he didn't want to play for a Canadian team (very unconfirmed). He made his pro debut last year, playing 38 games in the AHL and 40 for the Rangers, and has gradually taken on a bigger and bigger role, being one of the team's top blueliners in the absence of the injured Marc Staal this season. McDonagh is second to only Dan Girardi in ice time on the team, averaging 24:49 per game, and despite traditionally being a defense-first player, has scored 3 goals and 5 points in 10 games. I don't think I need to tell anyone how much of a welcome addition he'd be to the Canadiens right now.

David Fischer - D, Florida Everblades
Speaking of first round picks, Fischer also never played a game for the Habs, and the team even decided they'd rathe rnot sign him and instead take the compensatory 2nd round pick. So what ever happened to the skinny 6'3" d-man? He signed with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL, scoring 29 points and a +12 rating over 63 games in a successful rookie season in which he saw action on both the penalty kill and powerplay. He re-signed with the club in September to spend a second season in the ECHL, where he is off to a 2 goal and 6 point start through 8 games. Should he continue at such a pace, an AHL club may take notice and his hockey career may be prolonged.

Mikhail Grabovski - C, Toronto Maple Leafs
Habs fans knew that Grabovski would be a solid offensive contributor when he was dealt away, but it was his off-ice issues and attitude that led to the trade. In Toronto, he has fit in well with Nikolai Kulemin in a top 6 forward role, being a 20+ goal and 50+ point contributor. After a slow start to this season, he has picked it back up, now with 4 goals and 7 points in 11 games. Many Canadiens fans get frustrated that the team "gave Grabovski away for nothing," but let's keep in mind there was a reasonable return at the time. The Habs received prospect defenseman Greg Pateryn and a 2nd round pick. Pateryn continued to develop nicely at the college level, while the 2nd rounder was traded to Chicago for Robert Lang, who was proving to be a nice addition prior to a season-ending injury.

Francis Bouillon - D, Nashville Predators
Bouillon fans will be happy to know that the 5'8" defenseman has made a full recovery from the concussion that limited him to 44 games last season. In 4 games this year, the 36-year old has played between 15 and 19 minutes, but has no points and a -3 rating thus far.

Tom Kostopoulos - RW, Calgary Flames
Canadiens fans were sad to see Kostopoulos go, as he was a quality fourth line energy guy in Montreal. After a year and a half in Carolina, the 6'0" winger now fills the same roll in Calgary where he averages just over 10 minutes a game, including 1:20 on the penalty kill. In 9 games this year, he has 2 points and a fight.

Jeff Halpern - C, Washington Capitals
Halpern's face-off stats are off the charts in Washington, which makes one wonder why Jacques Martin was so insistent to play him on the wing. He lacks Petteri Nokelainen's right-handedness, but has won draws at a 65.2% clip while posting 3 assists and a +2 rating in 9 games. He is averaging 11:50 per game, including 1:41 shorthanded and 0:40 on the powerplay.

Roman Hamrlik - D, Washington Capitals
Staying with the Caps, a guy I was really sad to see leave this summer was Roman Hamrlik. Sure, he's getting older and has lost a step or two, but he is a dependable defensive d-man who could have thrived with reduced minutes. His 1 goal and -2 rating in Washington may not be impressive, but the tough minutes he continues to log are, leading the team in total minutes played and second in average per game to Mike Green. His nightly average of 21:52 includes 1:47 shorthanded and 1:49 on the powerplay. If only there had been a way to retain Hamrlik's services for one final season instead of Jaroslav Spacek's.

Craig Rivet - D, Elmira Jackals
Many were surprised at Rivet's decision to sign a one-way ECHL contract this year after playing 14 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. The fact is, certainly he could have gotten an AHL contract, but by signing an ECHL only deal for now, he will be free to sign a try-out with a club that may need his services dearly later into the season, such as one depleted by injuries at the NHL level. In 6 ECHL games, Rivet has collected 4 assists and 20 penalty minutes.

Guillaume Latendresse - RW, Minnesota Wild
Much like Benoit Pouliot in Montreal, Latendresse was on fire immediately following the deal that sent him to the Wild. While Pouliot's play trailed off after that first season, Latendresse's problems were conditioning and injury, playing only 11 games over the 2010-11 season in which he scored 3 goals and 6 points. Healthy again, he has been amongst Minnesota's best forwards in several of the first 10 games, though he has just 1 goal and 5 points to show for it. To his credit, while averaging over 16 minutes a night, he is a team-leading +4.

Benoit Pouliot - LW, Boston Bruins
There was a fear amongst Habs fans when this signing was announced that somehow Pouliot would put it all together in Boston. Well Canadiens faithful, you can breathe a collective sigh of relief. Pouliot has played 8 of Boston's 11 games, averaging just 9:43 a night. He has yet to pick up his first point, to go along with a -3 rating on the struggling Bruins.

Tom Pyatt - C/W, Tampa Bay Lightning
I was a big Tom Pyatt fan as a safe, penalty-killing fourth liner, though it was a fair assessment that the 4th line in Montreal needed to be bigger and tougher. I'm glad he has gotten a shot in Tampa, dressing on the wing in 7 of the team's first 12 games and playing just under 12 minutes a night in those appearances. Amongst T-Bay forwards, only Adam Hall and Nate Thompson have averaged more shorthanded minutes per game played than Pyatt, who has 1 assist and a -1 rating.

Marc-Andre Bergeron - D, Tampa Bay Lightning
After leaving Montreal, Bergeron split the 2010-11 season between the Tampa Bay Lightning and their AHL affiliate in Norfolk, with identical 2 goals and 8 points production in each league. He was in Tampa for their run to the conference finals, appearing in 14 post-season games. He was solid there... but no one saw this start to the 2011-12 season coming! Through 12 games, Bergeron is tied with Erik Karlsson for the NHL's defenseman scoring lead with 13 points. Though he doesn't play on the penalty kill, his 18:59 on ice per game are fourth most on the Tampa back end, and he has maintained a +2 rating. Of course, he leads all Lightning d-men in powerplay time with an average of 2:23 a game.

Alexandre Picard - D, Pittsburgh Penguins
After playing 43 games for the Canadiens last season, Picard started this campaign with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL. In 9 games, he collected 3 points while showing a +7 rating, enough to earn him a call-up today as an injury fill-in with the Penguins.

James Wisniewski - D, Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets started the season off horribly, and their modest turnaround has coincided with Wisniewski's return from an 8 game suspension. With The Wizz in the line-up, the Jackets are an even 2-2, and though I still don't consider him a legitimate #1 defenseman, Wisniewski has averaged an astounding 28:20 of ice time per game, including 5:47 on the powerplay and 2:32 shorthanded. He seems to be handling the time fairly well, with 4 assists and a +2 rating to show for it thus far. Still hate the contract, but can't argue with the numbers to date.

Alexei Kovalev - RW, Moscow Oblast Atlant
Injuries have limited the 38-year old winger to just 5 of his KHL team's 16 games thus far, but he has produced well, with a goal and 4 points. For those that don't follow the Russian league closely, some of his teammates you may be familiar with include Nikolai Zherdev, Branko Radivojevic, and Janne Niskala.

Saku Koivu - C, Anaheim Ducks
Of course, I save my all-time favourite Hab for last. I was heartbroken when the Canadiens chose to let Saku go, but even I can acknowledge he is in the late stages of his career (though I would take him back in a heartbeat). Koivu found a home on the Ducks' second line with fellow Finn Teemu Selanne and veteran Jason Blake, though his output dropped from 52 points in 2009-10 to 45 in 2010-11. He had his first big game of 2011-12 last night with a goal and an assist, but still has just 5 points through 12 contests (while the ageless Selanne is up to an amazing 14 points). 36-year old Koivu unfortunately still takes the occasional undisciplined penalty that saw his time in Montreal cut short, but he plays big minutes in Anaheim, averaging 18:02 a game and winning 52.4% of his face-offs. With an average of 1:24 on the penalty kill a night, he is the only one of Anaheim's top 6 forwards to take a regular shift when down a man.

Monday, September 5, 2011

2011/12 NHL Preview - Atlantic Division

Last week, we covered 4 of the 6 NHL divisions in our season previews (Southeast, Northwest, Central, Pacific), so today we continue on with the Atlantic, before wrapping up with the Northeast tomorrow and then finally our overall predictions on Wednesday.











NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Projected depth chart / lines:
Patrik Elias - Travis Zajac - Zach Parise
Ilya Kovalchuk - Dainius Zubrus - Nick Palmieri
Mattias Tedenby - Jacob Josefson - David Clarkson
Eric Boulton - Dave Steckel - Cam Janssen

Henrik Tallinder - Anton Volchenkov
Andy Greene - Adam Larsson
Bryce Salvador - Matt Corrente

Martin Brodeur
Johan Hedberg

The Devils were among the hottest teams in the league over the second half of last season but it wasn't enough to overcome a disastrous start. While the return this season of star forward Zach Parise from injury will be a boost to the club's chances, another year of wear on Martin Brodeur can't help. Still, it could be an exciting year offensively for New Jersey with the emergence of three young forwards who should earn full-time roles in Nick Palmieri, Jacob Josefson, and Mattias Tedenby. All three have the potential to be top 6 contributors and now that all have gotten their feet wet in the big league, they will look to improve on last year's point totals. After signing his huge long-term contract, Ilya Kovalchuk was hot and cold last season, finishing below a point-per-game for the first time since 2006-07. Given that they'll be on the hook for his deal for many years, N.J. will need to find a way to get the best out of him quickly.

On D, the big addition will be first round selection Adam Larsson who should be expected to earn a spot right out of training camp. The 6'3" Swede was a real gift to the Devils at 4th overall as the top 3 teams opted to take forwards. If Brodeur isn't getting any younger, he will at least be well protected by the team's top shutdown pair of Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, provided the former can stay healthy after playing just 57 games last year.

Clearly this is Brodeur's team, but at least Johan Hedberg is capable of providing the Quebec native with more rest than his career averages would suggest. Hedberg played 34 games for the Devils last year, and 47 for the Atlanta Thrashers the year before, with numbers that compare

YourCanadiens Verdict: Bubble playoff team.


NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Projected depth chart / lines:
Matt Moulson - John Tavares - Michael Grabner
Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau - Brian Rolston - Blake Comeau
Josh Bailey - Frans Nielsen - Nino Niederreiter
Matt Martin - Marty Reasoner - Trevor Gilles

Mark Streit - Milan Jurcina
Mark Eaton - Travis Hamonic
Ty Wishart - Andrew McDonald

Rick DiPietro
Al Montoya

The Islanders are still in rebuild mode and will likely only begin to look competitive in time for the arrival of 2011 first round pick Ryan Strome. There are some pieces in place, however, as Michael Grabner unexpectedly showed tremendous progress last season, and Matt Moulson topped the 30 goal mark for the second straight year. If Brian Rolston shows to have any gas left in the tank, he will be a good veteran presence to take some pressure off the young John Tavares and Frans Nielsen (also coming off a career year) at the center position. If players like Nielsen and Grabner pleasantly surprised, Josh Bailey was a disappointment, scoring just 28 points in 70 games despite having 17 points in 11 AHL games. Turning 22 in October, the days remaining for Bailey to establish himself as an offensive threat are getting shorter. If Bailey can't do it, though, look for a breakout from rookie Nino Niederreiter who got a 9 game trial last year before putting up 70 points in 55 WHL games.

On the back end, Mark Streit will return after missing all of last season with injury and - poolies be aware! - 50+ points is not an unreasonably expectation from the club's #1 d-man and PP quarterback. The rest of the defense still needs lots of work though, with the team looking to 21-year old Travis Hamonic, 23-year old Ty Wishart, and eventually - possibly even as soon as this year - 20-year old Calvin de Haan to form a new up-and-coming core.

Starter Rick DiPietro has played a total of 39 games over the last 3 seasons combined and given that he is under contract until 2021, fans around the league tend to enjoy mockingly following his injuries. Al Montoya was a nice story for the Islanders last year, seen as a bust since being taken 6th overall back in 2004, but posting a strong .921 save percentage and 2.39 GAA in 21 games, his only NHL action to date outside of 5 games with Phoenix in 2008-09. There is a big question mark in goal with regards to the status of Evgeni Nabokov, who the Islanders plucked off waivers after the Detroit Red Wings tried to sign him from Europe during last season. Nabokov initially refused to report, but there has been word over the summer that he expects to be at camp this month.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Out of the playoffs.


NEW YORK RANGERS

Projected depth chart / lines:
Sean Avery - Brad Richards - Marian Gaborik
Brandon Dubinsky - Derek Stepan - Ryan Callahan
Mats Zuccarello-Aasen - Artem Anisimov - Ruslan Fedotenko
Wojtek Wolski - Brian Boyle - Mike Rupp

Marc Staal - Daniel Girardi
Mike Sauer - Ryan McDonagh
Tim Erixon - Michael Del Zotto

Henrik Lundqvist
Martin Biron

To no one's surprise, the Rangers landed the big fish on the UFA market this summer, signing Brad Richards to a long term deal until the summer of 2020. With Richards in the mix, New York has a deep group of talented forwards buoyed by the young Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello-Aasen, both of whom made strong NHL debuts last season. Marian Gaborik missed 20 games last season and his production trailed off significantly from his first with New York, so he'll look to bounce back playing with a new center. The team's bottom 6 presents an impressive mix of size and skill with the addition of Mike Rupp giving Sean Avery some breathing room to perform his pest antics that get opposing teams off their game. Offensively, Glenn Sather has done a nice job in assembling a mix of young and old, talent and strength, for a nicely balanced group of forwards.

There are some questions on defense though, given the age of the group likely to start the season with the club. Though still only 24, Marc Staal can't be considered a green rookie, emerging as a true top pairing stalwart. When Michael del Zotto regressed in his play last season, it was former Habs' draft choice Ryan McDonagh who stole his spot as a regular contributor by year's end. In addition to those two, this season should mark the debut of Tim Erixon - a Calgary Flames first round pick in 2009 - in the NHL after signing to come over from Sweden. The 20-year old is a two-way d-man who will battle with Steve Eminger and Pavel Valentenko for a spot in the top 6.

Henrik Lundqvist is coming off another excellent season which saw him lead the league with 11 shutouts despite playing fewer than 70 games for the first time since his rookie season in 2005-06. This enabled him to set a career high for save percentage with a .923, so expect back-up Martin Biron to get enough action to keep Hank fresh.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Bubble playoff team.


PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Projected depth chart / lines:
James van Rimesdyk - Claude Giroux - Daniel Briere
Jakub Voracek - Brayden Schenn - Jaromir Jagr
Wayne Simmonds - Maxime Talbot - Scott Hartnell
Andreas Nodl - Blair Betts - Jody Shelley

Chris Pronger - Matt Carle
Kimmo Timonen - Andrej Meszaros
Braydon Coburn - Andreas Lilja

Ilya Bryzgalov
Sergei Bobrovsky

We previously went over this summer's remodeling of the Flyers and many in the hockey world are eager to see how it pans out. Replacing all of Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Ville Leino, and Kris Versteeg up front will be no easy task, but youngsters Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn, and Wayne Simmonds are no slouches. Voracek's offense may end up equaling Carter's alone, while Schenn begins his rookie season in the NHL after putting up 7 points in 7 regular season AHL games and adding 4 points in 5 playoff games at the end of last year. If Simmonds does play on our projected third line with Maxime Talbot and Scott Hartnell, they will be a trio as tough to play against as perhaps any in the league. After much talking this summer, it will be fun to see if Jaromir Jagr truly does have what it takes to be productive in the National League or if he is limited to a minor powerplay specialist role.

It appears Chris Pronger's injury problems are ongoing as he may not be ready for training camp. The Flyers' D looks far better with him in the line-up eating up minutes and covering for a softer partner. Still with the always underrated Kimmo Timonen, who, despite his offense slowing down with age, remains a very solid veteran, Philadelphia's top 4 is top tier in calibre and cements them as a conference contender.

But even if the D misses Pronger for any period of time, they've addressed what has long been their Achilles heel by bringing in Ilya Bryzgalov as their starter. Bryzgalov has been out of the spotlight spending the last four years in Phoenix, but put up a save percentage of .920 or better in three of those four years despite a young and inexperienced team in front of him. The only question will be how he holds up in the post-season where his experience and success are far less. As a positive, he should be a great mentor to fellow Russian Sergei Bobrovsky, but with Bryzgalov signed until 2020 it's most likely the Bob's next real shot will be with another team.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Conference contender.


PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Projected depth chart / lines:
Chris Kunitz - Sidney Crosby - James Neal
Tyler Kennedy - Evgeni Malkin - Steve Sullivan
Matt Cooke - Jordan Staal - Pascal Dupuis
Craig Adams - Dustin Jeffrey - Arron Asham

Kris Letang - Brooks Orpik
Paul Martin - Zbynek Michalek
Matt Niskanen - Ben Lovejoy

Marc-Andre Fleury
Brent Johnson

The Pens were rather quiet this summer while sitting and anxiously waiting for updates on the health of Sidney Crosby. Depending on who you believe, it looks at best that he'll miss the start of the season, and at worst that he perhaps will never play again. His absence is a huge loss for the Penguins, but also one for the league in general as he represents a generational talent. Still, Pittsburgh silenced many doubters last season by maintaining their Eastern Conference positioning despite having to play without both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, so getting just one of the two stars back is still a major addition. After trading for James Neal last year, the signing of Steve Sullivan finally provides the team with enough depth at wing to go along with their trio of stud centermen and Sullivan is a darkhorse fantasy pool option for a strong bounce back performance.

Last summer's additions of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek went a long way to stabilizing the Penguins' back end, and if Kris Letang can repeat or improve upon last season's performance, he may be on the verge of becoming a Norris candidate calibre blueliner.

Personally, I'm not the biggest Marc-Andre Fleury fan but he is a starter of sufficient quality to take this team to the promised land if they get healthy contributions from all of their forwards. He's a fine goalie when you're trying to win games 6-3 as opposed to 1-0 and will benefit from playing behind some strong defensive defensemen.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Solid playoff team.

Tomorrow we wrap up our divisional previews with the Northeast before getting into specific predictions league-wide on Wednesday!

Friday, September 2, 2011

2011/12 NHL Preview - Southeast Division

We've covered the West (Northwest, Central, Pacific), so now we turn our attention to the Eastern Conference, beginning today with the Southeast. Seen for several years as the league's softest, the Southeast has rebounded, now with two clubs that have legitimate eyes on taking the East.









CAROLINA HURRICANES

Projected depth chart / lines:
Jussi Jokinen - Eric Staal - Jeff Skinner
Tuomo Ruutu - Brandon Sutter - Alexei Ponikarovsky
Chad Larose - Zac Dalpe - Zach Boychuk
Jiri Tlusty - Tim Brent - Anthony Stewart

Joni Pitkanen - Tomas Kaberle
Bryan Allen - Jamie McBain
Derek Joslin - Tim Gleason

Cam Ward
Brian Boucher

The 'Canes have missed the playoffs for two seasons in a row, and were as active as they could be this off-season to try to get back into contention. The club managed to keep most of their pending UFA like Joni Pitkanen and Jussi Jokinen, only really having to say goodbye to Erik Cole. The club will hope young players like Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe are ready to pick up the offensive slack left by Cole's departure, as free agent signings Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart are low-risk gamble shots in the dark. After a strong sophomore season in 2009-10 where he topped the 20 goal mark, Brandon Sutter regressed last year, so Carolina will need him to bounce back. The club must also hope that last year's standout 18-year old rookie Jeff Skinner doesn't hit a sophomore slump, or else it could be a long season for the Hurricanes up front.

On defense, Tomas Kaberle was a great value signing after his poor play with the Boston Bruins minimized interest in his services league-wide. Kaberle has topped 45 points in 5 of the last 6 seasons (the only miss being a year he scored 31 points in just 57 games), despite playing for some pretty poor clubs. 23-year old offensive d-man Jamie McBain should continue his development after putting up an amazing 10 points in 14 NHL games at the end of the 2009-10 season, and building that into a 30 point rookie season last year. He is a nice sleeper pick for a late round of a deep hockey draft.

If the 'Canes due have a chance to surprise this year despite some holes and questions, it's because of Cam Ward. After winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe as a rookie, Ward has shown he is amongst the game's best goaltenders and will give his team a chance to win on any given night.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Bubble playoff team.


FLORIDA PANTHERS

Projected depth chart / lines:
David Booth - Stephen Weiss - Kris Versteeg
Tomas Fleischmann - Sean Bergenheim - Tomas Kopecky
Evgeni Dadonov - Scottie Upshall - Matt Bradley
Jack Skille - Marcel Goc - Mike Santorelli

Brian Campbell - Mike Weaver
Dmitry Kulikov - Ed Jovanovski
Jason Garrison - Keaton Ellerby

Jose Theodore
Scott Clemmensen

We covered the remodeling of the Florida Panthers in an earlier piece, and certainly the club that will begin the 2011-12 season looks nothing like that which finished 2010-11. Up front, the acquisitions were numerous as the team struggled to reach the salary cap floor. Kris Versteeg has become somewhat of a journeyman, now joining his fourth club since 2009-10, but his ability to contribute offensively cannot be questioned. Sean Bergenheim and Tomas Fleischmann were great high-potential-payoff underrated signings (both were high on our initial wish list of Habs targets), though the team did have to overpay to bring them in. When Bergenheim was taken in the first round in 2002, he was seen as a similar player to fellow Finn Saku Koivu, but his offense never seemed to translate at the NHL level. He broke out last season, first with a career high of 29 points, but then far more importantly, 9 goals and 11 points in 16 playoff games - certainly the kind of clip the Panthers would love to see him at this year. A third round selection in 2007, skilled Russian Evgeni Dadonov should see full-time action at the NHL level after scoring 17 points in 36 games with Florida last year. It will be interesting to see how this chemistry experiment plays itself out, but it is unlikely to yield immediate results.

On defense, the big ticket acquisitions of Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski will soak up minutes to allow the young core to develop at their own pace. Leading this group of youth is 2009 1st rounder Dmitry Kulikov, already entering his third season in the big league after scoring 26 points in 72 games last year.

The team lost starter Tomas Vokoun to free agency this summer, instead going with a duo of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemensen to hold the fort until top prospect Jacob Markstrom is ready for full-time duty. Over the last two seasons, Theodore seemed to have refound his game, so he should be an adequate stop-gap.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Out of the playoffs.


TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Projected depth chart / lines:
Ryan Malone - Steven Stamkos - Martin St. Louis
Teddy Purcell - Vincent Lecavalier - Steve Downie
Ryan Shannon - Dominic Moore - Nate Thompson
Tom Pyatt - Dana Tyrell - Adam Hall

Victor Hedman - Mattias Ohlund
Pavel Kubina - Eric Brewer
Brett Clark - Matt Gilroy

Dwayne Roloson
Mathieu Garon

The Lightning lost quite a bit of offensive depth this summer, but still possess perhaps the game's top duo in Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis (though I'm sure the Sedins would disagree... so let's say best non-brother duo). Dominic Moore set a career high with 18 goals last season and looks to have perhaps finally found a more permanent fit after stops in New York, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Toronto, Buffalo, Florida, and Montreal (all by the age of 31 - WOW!). Teddy Purcell is coming off a breakout season with 51 points after joining the Lightning from the Los Angeles Kings at the 2009-10 trade deadline, and the team hopes that young first rounder prospects Carter Ashton and Brett Connolly will be able to follow his progression and make the jump to the big league in the near future to replace the likes of Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim.

Tampa has quietly assembled what might be the best overall D in the league for the coming season, with Victor Hedman - now in his third year - expected to emerge as a true #1 workhorse. The team managed to retain Eric Brewer after picking him up during last season, and added Rangers cast-off Matt Gilroy in an underrated move (we wanted him in Montreal), ensuring that Marc-Andre Bergeron won't have to form part of the permanent top 6.

It's a good thing the team's defense is so strong, as starter Dwayne Roloson will turn 42 just after the season kicks off on October 12. Rolli had a great year and is a very impressive athlete given his age, but did show signs of fatigue as the playoffs rolled on. Fortunately, the team locked up a very capable back-up in Mathieu Garon who could easily split time with Roloson to give him any rest he needs.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Solid playoff team.


WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Projected depth chart / lines:
Alexander Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Alexander Semin
Troy Brouwer - Brooks Laich - Mike Knuble
Marcus Johansson - Joel Ward - Jason Chimera
D.J. King - Jeff Halpern - Matt Hendricks

Roman Hamrlik - Mike Greene
John Carlson - Dennis Wideman
Jeff Schultz - Karl Alzner

Tomas Vokoun
Michal Neuvirth

The Capitals seemed to make all the right moves in all the right places this off-season, adding size up front in budding power forward Troy Brouwer while cementing their bottom 6 with the additions of playoff vets Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern. They are a popular pick as a league favourite at this stage, now boasting a far deeper team than just the top line of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin. Their 2nd line - with Brouwer, Brooks Laich, and Mike Knuble - offers three big bodies that are certain to be a challenge to defend against. Marcus Johansson had a strong rookie season at the age of 20 last year when put into a big minute role due to injuries. When the team is healthy, he should be able to play against opposing bottom lines and thus may be able to surpass last season's 13 goals and 27 points.

On defense, Roman Hamrlik seems like the perfect signing to balance out the offense-first Mike Greene and John Carlson. The veteran may be slowing down with age, but he provided very valuable services to the Canadiens and will be missed. Former first round selection Karl Alzner should take on a bigger role entering his second year as a full-time NHL'er. The club has a bit of a log-jam on the bottom pairing, with both Tom Poti and John Erskine also under contract, at $2.875M and $1.5M respectively. Given that the team still needs to do a bit of wiggling to get under the salary cap, expect one of the two to find a new employer soon enough.

The team's biggest coup this off-season, however, was in nets. After getting a king's ransom in return for Semyon Varlamov - who some felt would ultimately end up being a third stringer behind Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby - the club signed star keeper Tomas Vokoun to a dirt cheap one year contract, filling perhaps the last hole needed to make the Caps a true top flight contender.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Conference contender.


WINNIPEG JETS

Projected depth chart / lines:
Andrew Ladd - Nikolai Antropov - Bryan Little
Evander Kane - Alexander Burmistrov - Blake Wheeler
Chris Thorburn - Jim Slater - Eric Fehr
Patrice Cormier - Ben Maxwell - Tanner Glass

Dustin Byfuglien - Tobias Enstrom
Ron Hainsey - Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart - Johnny Oduya

Ondrej Pavelec
Chris Mason

Excitement over the return of the Jets gave way to a bit of disappointment as the former Atlanta Thrashers were rather quiet over the off-season. This may have been in part intentional, however. It gives management and ownership one year to evaluate the talent that is in place, and besides, given the crazy travel schedule they'll have playing one year out of the Southeast Division, even the best of rosters would have likely had some difficulty in succeeding. So perhaps the bigger splashes come next summer.

Meanwhile, the team should benefit from the continued development of Bryan Little and Evander Kane up front, two young stars who just happen to be western Canadian born and should feel at home in Manitoba. Alexander Burmistrov, the team's first round pick in 2010, had a quiet season as a 19-year old, but with a full year of experience under his belt should easily surpass the 20 points he finished with. Team captain Andrew Ladd (who conspiracy theorists will remind you is also a western Canada kid) set career highs with 29 goals and 59 points last year so he'll look to continue on that high armed with a new long-term contract. While there is a solid young core in place, the team lacks in depth at the moment, and without sufficient go-to talent on the top lines, they will struggle to produce for stretches this year.

On the backend, though, the Jets can count on a solid group of 7 (the 6 above + Randy Jones). Developing star Zach Bogosian remains unsigned but hopes to have a deal in place for camp. While the team lacks in offense, the top pair of Dustyin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom are skilled in supporting the attack and will both be counted on when the younger forwards slump.

In goal, it is reasonable to expect that Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason split games at about a 50-30 ratio, provided the former's health concerns are all behind him. When he has been on the ice, Pavelec has shown improvement year over year and this could be the season he establishes himself as a true number 1.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Out of the playoffs.

Thanks for reading. Monday we move on in the East to the Atlantic Division, before previewing the Habs and the Northeast Tuesday, and finally our full predictions on Wednesday.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

2011/12 NHL Preview - Central Division

After previewing the Pacific yesterday, today we turn our heads to the Central, a division where all five teams could be seen as having realistic post-season aspirations.




















CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Projected depth chart / lines:
Patrick Sharp - Jonathan Toews - Patrick Kane
Andrew Brunette - Dave Bolland - Marian Hossa
Michael Frolik - Rostislav Olesz - Bryan Bickell
Daniel Carcillo - Ben Smith - Viktor Stalberg

Brent Seabrook - Duncan Keith
Niklas Hjalmarsson - Steve Montador
Sami Lepisto - Nick Leddy

Corey Crawford
Alexander Salak

The Blackhawks got deeper over the summer with a number of veteran roleplayer signings like Andrew Brunette, Daniel Carcillo, Steve Montador, and Sami Lepisto, enabled by the trading of Brian Campbell. Up front, the team has plenty of offensive firepower but lacks depth at the center position. In the projected line-up above, both newly acquired Rostislav Olesz (who will feel some pressure to put up a good year as his career appears to be sputtering) and surprising youngster Ben Smith are natural wingers, but might be pressed into duty down the middle depending on the club's final moves. Either that or the team may opt for a more balanced roster by moving Patrick Sharp off of a top line and back into a center role where he is equally at ease.

On defense, the duo of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith is one of the best in the league, equally as good in their own end as they are in supporting the rush. Look for former first round selection Nick Leddy to break out as a solid NHL d-man as a 20 year old this year after getting in 46 games with the Hawks last season, straight out of college.

While I'm not personally 100% sold on Corey Crawford as a top notch starting goaltender, he will certainly be given the chance to prove me wrong, as though Alexander Salak has shown quite a bit of potential, he is much less proven than Crawford. Of course, both may find themselves out of the starting spotlight if training camp invitee Ray Emery shows he is healthy enough to earn a contract.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Conference contender.


COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Projected depth chart / lines:
Vaclav Prospal - Jeff Carter - Rick Nash
R.J. Umberger - Antoine Vermette - Derick Brassard
Matt Calvert - Ryan Johansen - Kristian Huselius
Derek Dorsett - Samuel Pahlsson - Jared Boll

Marc Methot - James Wisniewski
Fedor Tyutin - Radek Martinek
Kris Russell - Grant Clitsome

Steve Mason
Mark Dekanich

The Jackets are a very deep offensive team bolstered by big ticket off-season moves on which many felt they overpaid. If Chicago has a lack of centers, they should look no further for a trade partner than Columbus, as 5 of the team's top 6 forwards (everyone but Rick Nash) are natural C's. Winger Kristian Huselius will be sidelined to start the season, but the money freed up allowed the club to sign Vaclav Prospal to a reasonable contract, and he should be a perfect set-up man for Nash and Jeff Carter. No disrespect to Carter, but I think it will be fun to monitor who has more points at year's end between him and Jakub Voracek - the player sent to the Philadelphia Flyers along with a first round selection for Carter. Big things are expected from rookie Ryan Johansen, who will be well insulated thanks to the club's depth, and may play alongside 21-year old Matt Calvert who is looking like a complete steal as a 5th round pick in 2008.

Columbus took a huge gamble in handing a very large contract to former Canadien James Wisniewski this summer, one that many consider the off-season's worst deal. The Wizz provided valuable service to Montreal, though, and Marc Methot seems like an ideal partner for him being a reliable no-nonsense defense-first type.

In goal, it looks like the team will give Mark Dekanich a shot at an NHL job after his dominance in the American League, but ultimately a big part of Columbus's fate will rest on starter Steve Mason's ability to bounce back after two subpar years.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Bubble playoff team.


DETROIT RED WINGS

Projected depth chart / lines:
Valtteri Filppula - Pavel Datsyuk - Todd Bertuzzi
Johan Franzen - Hernik Zetterberg - Tomas Holmstrom
Patrick Eaves - Jiri Hudler - Daniel Cleary
Drew Miller - Darren Helm - Justin Abdelkader

Nicklas Lidstrom - Brad Stuart
Ian White - Niklas Kronwall
Mike Commodore - Jonathan Ericsson

Jimmy Howard
Ty Conklin

The Red Wings are perennial contenders, though for a change, they were quite quiet this summer, leaving the team with more cap space than they've had at any point in recent memory. Offensively, the team looks just like that which was bounced from the playoffs, but one could make a strong case that they were as good as any other club remaining had the injury bug not stricken many of their stars. Pavel Datsyuk is arguably the best all-around player in the league, and the team makes good use of big body wingers like Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, and Todd Bertuzzi - the type of players Habs fans have been craving for years. The club was supposedly in on Jaromir Jagr until the final hours, which means they may still look to bring in some additional scoring punch, particularly with an aging group of wingers.

While the offense looks the same, Detroit had some holes to fill on defense after the surprising retirement of Brian Rafalski. With Rafalski contributing at both ends of the rink, Ken Holland looked to two players to fill the roles - Ian White for the powerplay, and Mike Commodore for his defensive game. As per usual with the Wings, both were signed for good value, perhaps a reason why the team wasn't more active on other players with many receiving far more than they are worth in a shallow market. A big question for the team will be how much longer Nicklas Lidstrom decides to play, as there is no heir apparent for his very large skates to fill.

In goal, Jimmy Howard showed to be a reasonable starter last year, though Detroit's puck control game tends to limit shots on net better than most, offering support for whoever is between the pipes. The retired Chris Osgood was replaced by Ty Conklin, a suitable back-up but not one who will take the team far if pressed into service.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Solid playoff team.


NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Projected depth chart / lines:
Martin Erat - Mike Fisher - Sergei Kostitsyn
Blake Geoffrion - Colin Wilson - Patric Hornqvist
Cal O'Reilly - David Legwand - Jordin Tootoo
Niclas Bergfors - Nick Spaling - Jerred Smithson

Shea Weber - Ryan Suter
Francis Bouillon - Jonathan Blum
Kevin Klein - Jack Hillen

Pekka Rinne
Anders Lindback

Every season I predict a drop-off for the Predators, and yet every year they manage to prove me wrong. Do I just severely underrate them? Is it all Barry Trotz's coaching? I will again suggest that a few key losses and no real additions will mean that the Preds miss the playoffs in 2011-12, but that's not to say they can't make it interesting. Mike Fisher was a big ticket addition prior to last season's trade deadline, and a big part of his role will be mentoring Colin Wilson into the top 6 center that he projects to be. 6'1" winger Blake Geoffrion (grandson of Habs legend Bernard "Boom Boom" Geoffrion)had a great rookie season at the pro level, putting up 37 points in 45 AHL games and adding 8 points (including 6 goals) in 20 with the Preds, something he hopes to build on in the coming year. Certainly a good candidate if your pool obliges you to take a rookie (he's still Calder eligible). This could be former first round pick Niclas Bergfors's last chance to prove he belongs in the NHL, as he joines his third club in the past year and will have to battle for ice time.

If Geoffrion has legitimate Calder aspirations up front, Jonathan Blum might be one of the league's best rookie rearguards, rounding out a top 4 anchored by the newly re-signed Shea Weber and the pending UFA Ryan Suter. With a lack of star presence at forward, Weber's offense from the blueline is key to Nashville's success.

Pekka Rinne proved last season that he is amongst the most solid netminders in the game, while Anders Lindback showed he is more than capable of stepping in when called upon - perhaps a future asset for the team to move to add some scoring. But will a Weber-led defense in front of Rinne be sufficient for the team to make the West's top 8? It looks like it will be a tall order.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Bubble playoff team.


ST. LOUIS BLUES

Projected depth chart / lines:
David Backes - Patrick Berglund - Chris Stewart
David Perron - Andy McDonald - T.J. Oshie
Matt D'Agostini - Jason Arnott - Alexander Steen
B.J. Crombeen - Vladimir Sobotka - Jamie Langenbrunner

Barret Jackman - Alex Pietrangelo
Roman Polak - Kevin Shattenkirk
Carol Colaiacovo - Ian Cole

Jaroslav Halak
Brian Elliott

The Blue look like an up and coming exciting young team ready to do some damage. Offensively, bringing in veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner on one year deals makes the forward group exceptionally deep and nicely surrounds the younger players. Chris Stewart was on a torrid pace after being acquired from the Colorado Avalanche, scoring 15 goals and 23 points in 26 games, while Andy McDonald quietly produced another 50 point season despite injuries limiting him to only 58 games. McDonald isn't the only one hoping for better health, as 23 year old David Perron scored 7 points in the only 10 games he was able to play last season. With a bit of luck, it is far from unreasonable for this team to have 7 or 8 50-point scorers, a testament to how dangerous the offense is.

The trade of Erik Johnson will be felt on defense, though his offensive production is easily replaced (and even surpassed) by the acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk in that same deal. As a rookie last season, Shattenkirk scored an impressive 43 points - 5 more than Montreal's P.K. Subban - to lead all freshman blueliners. Ian Cole is another young d-man who will be entering his first full season at the NHL level, making for a great young core along with Shattenkirk and of course top pairing stalwart Alex Pietrangelo.

In nets, Jaroslav Halak will have to shake off a season of injuries and inconsistencies to prove that he is capable of shouldering the load as a full-time #1. He shows flashes of looking like a dominant goaltender, but has yet to show the endurance to carry it over a full year. Still, he adds to a group that the Blues hope to keep together for a while and may not be far off from contender status.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Low seed playoff team.


Thanks for reading. Tomorrow we preview our first Canadian teams as we hit the Northwest Division!