So here we are, on the eve of yet another National Hockey League season. It’s a time of hope for fans of every team, from defending champions to
the lowly franchise that struggled. Right now it’s carte blanche and everyone is on even footing with zero points and occupying the same place in the standings. Every organization and its fans are asking themselves the same questions; which rookie will steal a spot at training camp this year? And will he have the legs to keep that spot all season long? Which veteran will step up when needed and which one will fall by the wayside? Is this the year our goalie becomes a Vezina nominee or our coach discovers a miraculous system that will transform our squad from pretenders into contenders? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that predictions are pointless (six months ago the Toronto sports media was raving about how dominant the Toronto Blue Jays were going to be, but when Major League Baseball’s regular season drew to a close a few days ago, the Jays were dead last in their division and won just one more game this season then they did last), but even more so this season as the NHL transitions to a new alignment, condensing its previous six divisions into four and tweaking it’s playoff format as a result. Plus, basing any prediction off last year’s lockout shortened 48 game schedule is perilous to say the least and most teams faced difficult decisions over the summer as the NHL’s salary cap dropped six million dollars per franchise. Toss in a two week-long Olympic break and you have a recipe for absolute anarchy in the standings.
But with that being said, here’s our take on the 2013-2014 NHL season as we see it, offered divided by division. We’ll refrain from making any predictions outside of the obvious (no, Colton Orr will not win the scoring title) but rather we’ll try and stick to what we know here and now. But suffice to say, if you’re a serious fantasy hockey poolie, you shouldn’t be relying on us as your primary source material and we do not accept any responsibility for bad picks. You’ve been warned. Now with that mind, let’s get to it, starting with the Atlantic Division.
In Review: The Bruins came oh so close to repeating their 2011 Stanley Cup championship last spring, but came up short against the Blackhawks in the Cup finals, losing to Chicago in six games. Refusing to settle for second best, the Bruins made a number of significant roster changes over the summer with one goal in mind; winning it all in 2014. And right now, the Bruins are a lot of people’s favourites.
In The Crease: Tuuka Rask’s performance last season silenced any critics he may have had and not only made Bruins fans forget Tim Thomas, but also earned him a massive 8 year, 56 million dollar contract extension in the process. Rask looks poised to dominate the NHL’s crease for years and is destined to add a Vezina or two to his trophy case. Chad Johnson replaces Anton Kudobin as Rask’s backup and Niklas Svenberg provides insurance in the minors. Goalie prospect Malcolm Subban is a few years away yet.
The Blue Line: Zdeno Chara remains one of the best defenseman in the game and he leads perhaps the League’s most efficient blue line. The towering Slovak won’t merely shut down the opponent’s top offensive threats and quarterback the Bruins power play this season, he’ll also mentor promising young prospect Doug Hamilton along the way. Youngster Torey Krug stole a spot during last season’s playoffs and he’ll benefit from Chara’s leadership and experience as well (add off season acquisition Joe Morrow and the Bruins D looks good both now and for the future). Steady veterans Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid round out Boston’s top six while Matt Bartkowski adds depth.
Forward Corps: Boston isn’t exactly hurting in the forward department either. Playoff warrior and Selke trophy nominee Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci return to centre the Bruins top two lines (Bergeron expects to be ready for opening night after off season surgery to correct the ruptured lung, injured ribs and half a dozen other injuries he played with last spring), and they’ll have their pick of impact wingers to share the ice with. After spurning Boston at last season’s trade deadline, Jarome Iginla signed a one year deal with the Bruins over the summer while right winger Loui Eriksson also joins Boston’s offense (Eriksson has quietly become one of the League’s most effective players, averaging 70 points over the course of a full season and earning a reputation for his defensive responsibility and work ethic). Super pest Brad Marchand (who lead the B’s in scoring last season) could easily be a threat to score 30-35 goals this year and power forward Milan Lucic hopes to bounce back from a sub par season. Veterans Gregory Campbell (who played nearly a full minute on a broken leg in last year’s Eastern Conference final against Pittsburgh), Chris Kelly and Daniel Paille will complete Boston’s bottom two lines while Shawn Thorton takes care of the dirty work. Young Reilly Smith will also join Boston’s forward corps and this could be the season both Carl Soderberg and J.D. Carron join the Bruins full time. Expect talented young prospects Jared Knight, Ryan Spooner and Alex Khokhlachev to get a few cups of coffee with the big team when injuries strike.
Behind the Bench: You have to hand it to Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli; he kept people talking about his team long after they lost Game 6 of last spring’s final. But that’s merely icing on the cake as Chiarelli has engineered this franchise’s rise to prominence. Not only are the Bruins recent Cup winners (2011), current Stanley Cup finalists and as well as many people’s favourites to win it this year, but they’ve also collected an impressive group of future prospects along the way. Chiarelli also deserves credit for the graceful way he handled Thomas essentially quitting the team in 2012 and how’s he’s handled the salary cap since taking over the team in 2006. Head coach Claude Julien has earned the loyalty of the Bruins roster (new additions as well as long time core members) and fans while retaining the confidence of Boston’s head office year after year. As long as Chiarelli continues giving him a strong roster, Julien will keep the Bruins at or near the top of the standings every season.
In Review: Last season was a long one for Sabres fans and this season may not be much easier to swallow. The Sabres on ice struggles cost long time head coach Lindy Ruff (who called the shots as Buffalo’s head bench boss for 16 years) his job and placed GM Darcy Rieger squarely on the hot seat. Reiger has preached patience, publically stating that Buffalo is in the midst of a “mini-rebuild,” but Sabres fans were growing restless even before Reiger began making moves with an eye primarily towards the future. With franchise goalie Ryan Miller and leading scorer Thomas Vanek both scheduled to become UFAs next July, the Sabres are likely to generate more trade rumours this season then wins.
In The Crease: Despite a summer full of trade speculation, Ryan Miller returns as the Sabres top net minder. It’s difficult to imagine Miller not moving at some point this season lest the Sabres lose him for nothing as an unrestricted free agent next summer. In the meantime, “Miller Time,” hopes to stay healthy and impress the United States Olympic Committee for a shot at manning Team U.S.A’s crease at Sochi next February. With a little luck, he’ll impress some of the League’s other GMs along the way, greasing the wheels for a move between now and the trade deadline. Jhonas Enroth is chomping at the bit to be promoted from back up to starter and the Sabres feel they have a reliable back up in waiting in Rochester Americans starter Matt Hacket. Russian prospect Andrey Makarov gives Buffalo some added depth in goal.
The Blue Line: If 2010 Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers can rebound from a pair of sub par seasons; defense could be Buffalo’s one area of strength. To that end, they brought back his former defense partner and mentor, veteran Henrik Tallinder, to help snap the mammoth youngster out of his funk. Minute munching Christian Ehrhoff gives the Sabres a solid shot from the point on the power play and young Mike Weber turned more than a few heads last season. The Sabres brought in Jamie McBain over the summer and brought back solid vet Alexander Sulzer. Mark Pysk will probably go from prospect to regular this season and the Sabres are blessed with an excellent crop of potential NHL defensemen; they added 2013 first round picks Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov to a group that already includes Jake McCabe, Brayden McNabb and J Gauthier-Leduc. While the rest of Buffalo’s organization is surrounded by uncertainty, their defense corps has a very bright future.
Forward Corps: Buffalo boasts one elite talent in left winger Thomas Vanek, who began last season on a tear before settling down and then going down with injury. But like Miller, odds are Vanek will be wearing another teams’ jersey come season’s end and beyond him, things get a bit dicey in Buffalo. Cody Hodgson is turning out to be a steal as the young centre, whom the Sabres pried from the Vancouver Canucks in a deal that sent Zack Kassian the other way, has become Buffalo’s top pivot. 2012 first round pick Mikhail Grigorenko will most likely return to centre the Sabres second line after spending half the season with Buffalo last year but who his wingers will be remains to be seen. Drew Stafford and the diminutive Tyler Ennis return but it’s safe to say both underperformed last season. Buffalo is also hoping that Marcus Foligno, Luke Adam and Brian Flynn are prepared to become legit full time players while veterans Steve Ott, Patrick Kaleta and Kevin Porter add some depth and sandpaper. The Sabres raised a few eyebrows by not buying out expensive and underperforming winger Ville Leino, who could be sent packing via Buffalo’s remaining compliance buyout next off-season if they can’t move him or he can’t justify his considerable chunk of the payroll. There’s a solid chance prospects Joel Armia, Johan Larsson and Zigmund Girgensons will get lengthy looks at some point this season.
Behind the Bench: Ron Rolston starts the season as the Sabres bench boss, having taken over for the seemingly fireproof Lindy Ruff last February. It will be interesting to see how Rolston handles the numerous elements at play while he replaces the longest serving, most successful and arguably the most popular coach the organization has ever known. Sending hulking AHLer John Scott to essentially assassinate Leafs forward Phil Kessel in a pre-season game wasn’t a good start. GM Darcy Reiger looks like he could be living on borrowed time and if his current “plan” doesn’t yield results soon, Sabres owner Terry Pegula, who has yet to deliver on big promises he made when he bought the team in 2011, might introduce him to the unemployment line.
DETROIT RED WINGS
In Review: The Red Wings outran Father Time again last year, qualifying for the playoffs for an amazing 22nd season in a row and coming within a goal of eliminating the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the second round of the playoffs. All this despite the fact the team was supposed to fall apart following the retirement of blue line legend Niklas Lidstrom. This season will bear watching for a number of reasons as the Red Wings finally get their wish to move into the Eastern Conference and endure a less rigorous travel schedule in the process. But how will they fare while their home city wrestles with bankruptcy? It’s been joked Detroit’s sports franchises enjoy an unofficial immunity from the city’s economic woes but how far and how long the Red Wing’s immunity could well be put to the test. Add to that they’re already encountering difficulty with this season’s reduced cap, and this could be the first season in recent memory the Red Wings have had to worry about money.
In The Crease: Jimmy Howard heads into 2013 as the Red Wings unquestioned starter, and his consistently improving play has garnered him consideration for the United States’ Olympic entry in Sochi next February. Once considered merely reliable, Howard has demonstrated marked improvement every season since grabbing the starter’s job and his strong performances while Detroit’s blue line is in a state of transition have been invaluable. Young Swede Jonas Gustavsson has proven to be a capable backup while the Red Wings patiently marinate promising young net minder Petr Mrazek in the AHL.
The Blue Line: For the time being, Detroit’s blue line approaches every game with a “success-through-committee” approach. They lacked any elite defensive prospects that could ease Lidstrom’s long dreaded retirement and failed to bring in any other players who could help fill the hole left behind (Detroit was in the Ryan Suter sweepstakes right up until he signed with the Minnesota Wild in July of 2012). But vets Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson formed a steady top pairing, which allowed Detroit to gradually introduce promising young D-man Brendan Smith into their top six. The Red Wings will be expecting big things from Smith in his sophomore season as well as former college standout Danny DeKeyser, who impressed plenty of observers when he joined the Red Wings blue line during last spring’s playoffs. Kyle Quincey and Jakub Kindl round out a solid if unspectacular top six.
The Forward Corps: This is where the Red Wings will benefit from their softer travel schedule the most since the forwards Detroit currently depends on for the majority of its offensive production are at or nearing retirement age. But that’s never stopped them before. Pave Datysuk is one of the League’s hardest working and most widely respected elite talents and Henrik Zetterberg is one of the smoothest puck handlers you’ll ever see. Johan Franzen’s mere presence is worth an extra few percentage points on the Red Wings power play and management brought in centre Stephen Weiss, who long toiled in frustrating obscurity with the Florida Panthers and lost nearly all of last season to injury, to replace the departed Valtteri Flippula. Luring Daniel Alfredsson from the Ottawa Senators was one of the biggest stories of the summer and at the very least, his leadership, experience and work ethic makes the Red Wings a more potent team. But Detroit has invested a lot o cap space in its veterans, and while they were hoping to fill some supporting roles with talented, energetic young bodies, they may not be able to afford to. Beyond returning veterans Todd Bertuzzi, Mikael Samuelsson, Dan Cleary, Andrew Miller, Jordin Tootoo and Patrick Eaves, the only forwards younger then thirty the Red Wings may be able to keep on the roster are Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader. Despite the fact that the likes of Joakim Andersson, Corey Emmerton and Tomas Tatar all have varying levels of NHL experience and that Red Wings brass has been aching to unveil Gustav Nyquist, Detroit may have to keep them in the minors until they become more cap flexible later in the season.
Behind the Bench: The Detroit Red Wings are, without a doubt, the most efficiently run franchise in the NHL. Little wonder then that they’ve been so successful on the ice and been able to attract quality free agents year after year. Every season, a pundit or five will proclaim that this is the year the Red Wings finally crumble and every season the Red Wings prove them wrong. GM Kevin Holland has steered this franchise through a number of challenges with poise and success, transitioning it from a team that relied on big money for its success to one that maintained itself through shrewd trades and patient player development in the salary cap era, although this season looks to pose some difficult roster challenges for Holland and his staff. Head coach Mike Babcock has become an expert at taking the temperature of his room and turning his lineup into a competitive machine each and every game.
In Review: This team is a mess. Florida has missed the playoffs eleven of the past twelve seasons and barring some severe divine intervention, they’ll be twelve for thirteen this time next year. After a season full of injuries revealed their abysmal lack of depth and they finished dead last in 2013, the Panthers said goodbye to number one centre Stephen Weiss via free agency and moved into a tougher division. Remember that new season hope I talked about earlier? Florida doesn’t have any. There’s little doubt the Panthers will be this year’s League wide punching bag (and punch line) and is already the odds on favourite to draft first overall next June (Vegas bookies currently have the Panthers odds to win the Stanley Cup at 200-1 and you can expect that number to climb as the season progresses).
In The Crease: Jacob Marsktrom finally assumes the number one role as the Panthers let former number one Jose Theodore walk as a UFA over the summer. Markstrom is dripping with potential and has had Panthers brass (and fans) drooling ever since they drafted him in the second round in 2008, but given the horrible state of this team, no one should expect any astonishing numbers (which may prove lethal to the young goalie’s confidence). Florida signed Tim Thomas to a one-year deal to compensate for veteran backup Scott Clemensen’s pre-season knee injury, though how much they can expect from the 39 year old who spent all of last season on a self imposed sebattacle is a big question (the former Vezina winner is about to discover that how good Boston’s defense truly was).
The Blue Line: With some luck, Florida might not have to worry too much about its defense. Veteran Brian Campbell can quarterback the power play while captain Ed Jovanovski (who missed all but six games last season with a severe hip injury) will give the Cats’ penalty killing unit a much needed boost. Veteran and shot blocking machine Mike Weaver is also returning from injury and the team will hope for continued growth from promising young defensemen Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Alex Petrovic. The Panthers also brought in veteran Tom Gilbert and journeyman Mike Mottau for depth. And if young blue liner Colby Robak is ever going to make the jump, this will be the season he needs to do it.
The Forward Corps: In 2013, rookie Jonathan Huberdeau won the Calder trophy and winger Tomas Fleischmann (who lead the Panthers in scoring last season) had a decent season. Those were Florida’s only bright spots. The Panthers will be relying heavily on youth moving forward and aside from Huberdeau, Florida has high hopes for 2013 second overall pick Aleksander Barkov. If Florida is to have any chance at a playoff spot they’ll need the 18 year-old Finn to make an impact right away. Young centre Drew Shore is almost guaranteed a to be in Florida’s opening night roster while promising forwards Nick Bjugstad and Quinton Howden will be given every opportunity to win spots. Free agent signee Brad Boyes joins veteran wingers Tomas Kopecky, Kris Versteeg (who missed all but ten games to injury last season), Scottie Upshall (who missed 20 games) and Sean Bergenheim (who spent the season in Finland) while Shawn Mattias, Scott Gomez, Marcel Goc, Joey Crabb and Kris Barch provide depth. The fact remains, even when healthy, Florida isn’t going to strike fear into too many goalies this season.
Behind the Bench: Yes, Florida was at the mercy of an ungodly amount of injuries last season, but even had they been healthy, the playoffs probably would have been a pipe dream. If the team sputters and fails again this year, it could very well mean Dale Tallon’s job. Tallon is entering his fourth season as Florida’s GM and if they finish dead last again (as many expect), there’s a good chance he won’t be the one calling out the Panther’s picks at the draft podium this June in Philadelphia. But if things go as bad as many predict, you can expect to see Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen thrown under the bus first. How much of the Panthers current state of awful is his fault remains to be seen, because not even Gordon Ramsay could have made chicken salad much less a competitive roster with what Dineen had to work with last season.
In Review: GM Marc Bergevin’s first season as Montreal GM can easily be considered a success. The Canadiens went from last in the East and third last in the entire NHL to tops in their division and second overall in the East. While Habs fans were understandably disappointed by the teams’ first round loss at the hands of the Ottawa Senators, they must have been happy with their team’s dramatic turnaround in such a short amount of time. Now the question is, can they do it again in a more crowded division (which they now share with Detroit) over a full 82 game season.
In The Crease: Carey Price must be on medication, because the difference between his regular season performances of past years and his last season are pretty schizophrenic. Price was one of the NHL’s top goalies during the regular season in 2011 but during last season, including the playoffs, he looked positively average at times. The Habs need Price to return to his dominant form. The fact that he’s still a big part of Canada’s Olympic conversation following his mediocre playoff performance is a testament to how good he can be. Peter Budaj returns as his backup but don’t be surprised if prospect Dustin Tokarski makes a case for that job later this season.
On The Blue Line: Things look much better here then they did at this time last year as Norris trophy winner P.K. Subban and wily veteran Andrei Markov (now with two working knees!) headline the strongest blue line Montreal has seen in years. Josh Gorges is one of the most under rated shut down men in the League and Raphael Diaz adds extra mobility and offense. Francis Bouillon gives them a solid bottom sixer and since hard hitting Alexei Emelin will be out until December with an injured knee, the Habs brought in big, steady veteran Doug Murray to beef up the defense corps. Emelin’s injury will also open the door for six-foot-six prospect Jared Tinordi to make the lineup as a regular. Nathan Beaulieu still needs a season or two of seasoning in the AHL but a few cups of coffee in the big leagues as early as this season may not be out of the question.
The Forward Corps: Rookie surprise Brendan Gallagher sums up both the Habs strengths and their weaknesses perfectly. The 2013 Calder trophy nominee is a tenacious competitor with plenty of skill and speed to burn. And he’s also very, very small. There is hope in the form of budding young power forward Alex Galchenyuk, but the nineteen-year old sophomore isn’t ready to carry the team on his young shoulders yet. The Habs do have some bigger bodies in the lineup, but they’re either injury prone (Rene Bourque), support players (Travis Moen and Lars Eller) or pests who play and act bigger then they are (Brandon Prust). Max Pacioretty has the speed, skill and size to be an effective power forward but has yet to assert himself enough to fill that role. Off-season addition Danny Briere joins the likes of Gallagher, Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta and David Desharnais as fast skaters who are long on skill but desperately undersized. The Habs brought George Parros in to fill an enforcer’s role but his limited skills (he’s been described by some as a pylon with skates) may keep him out of the lineup more often then not and Montreal’s capable and physical prospects (Michael McCarron) aren’t ready yet. Vincent Lecavalier would have been the perfect tonic for this team.
Behind The Bench: Bergevin has done an excellent job retooling this team, but Montreal fans have a short memory span and patience isn’t in most of their vocabularies. If the team can’t duplicate their success from last season over a full schedule and in a tougher division, it won’t take very long for local fans and media to start calling for changes. Michel Therrien has done an excellent job in Montreal during his second tenure behind the Habs bench. Therrien has overcome his teams’ lack of size, relying on Price’s (usually) strong goaltending to keep the Habs in games while the blue line contributes some offensive support and the forwards slowly chip away at the opponents D with their speed. But when Price isn’t on his game and opponents adjust to the Habs speed based attack, you need look no further then last season’s first round playoff loss to the Ottawa Senators to see the results.
In Review: Ok, ok, I admit it, last summer I predicted the Sens would miss the playoffs and would be scouting the draft’s top prospects come spring (in my defense I wasn’t the only one, especially after the avalanche of injuries started). But not only did they make the playoffs, they also bounced the highly favoured Montreal Canadiens in the first round and they did it all despite suffering catastrophic injuries from the moment the puck dropped on opening night. Fast forward to the here and now when the 2013 Sports Forecaster Yearbook made the Sens their pick to win both the President’s trophy AND the Stanley Cup. What a difference a year makes. And speaking of differences, this is the first time in seventeen seasons the Senators will enter a campaign without Daniel Alfredsson in an Ottawa jersey. How the team adjusts to his absence when things get tough will go a long way towards gauging the current character of this team.
In The Crease: Craig Anderson would have been a lock for a Vezina Trophy nomination had injury not cost him a sizeable chunk of the season. But he made up for lost time when he outperformed Carey price in the first round of the playoffs and helped the Sens send the Habs packing after five games. Anderson faltered though when faced with the offensive deluge known as the Pittsburgh Penguins. Anderson will be looking for that Vezina this season as well as a spot on Team U.S.A. in Sochi next February. Meanwhile Robin Lehtner, Ottawa’s goalie of the future, will be looking to steal as many starts as possible as well as earn the title of the NHL’s best backup. Ottawa’s current goaltending tandem is the envy of the league.
The Blue Line: Erik Karlsson (one of the aforementioned catastrophic injuries) is the most skilled offensive blue line presence in the League today and Ottawa is a threat to score every time he’s on the ice. The Sens brought back Joe Corvo to provide a little extra mobility while young Jared Cowen (who missed almost all of last season with a damaged hip) is turning into a top notch, all around defender. Veterans Chis Phillips and Marc Methot anchor the penalty killing units while young Eric Gryba is earning himself a reputation for being a feared open ice hitter (if anyone has any doubts about Gryba’s ability to throw a body check, ask Montreal’s Lars Eller). Expect prospects Patrich Wiercoch and Mark Borowiecki to battle it out for the final roster spot, although don’t be surprised if former Ottawa 67 Cody Ceci plays his way into the conversation.
The Forward Corps: Ottawa has the potential to be an offensive juggernaut this season. Don’t believe me? Set up specialist Jason Spezza has fully recovered from the back injury that caused him to miss almost all of last season and if he finds chemistry with new Sen and proven sniper Bobby Ryan, Ottawa could boast the most dominant line in the League. Don’t forget the Senators also have 30-goal scorer Milan Michalek (another one of last season’s casualties, missing 25 games to knee surgery), Kyle Turris (who proved last season he is a bona fide number two centre), Cory Conacher (acquired at last season’s trade deadline) and super grinder Clarke MacArthur (signed away from the rival Maple Leafs as a UFA). But beyond their top two lines, the Sens could also have the best bottom six in the NHL. There’s veteran Chris Neil (a team character guy who can hit, fight and even play), versatile young Zack Smith (a hard hitting faceoff specialist in the making), rugged Erik Condra (who displayed some offensive upside in the playoffs) and underrated utility forward Colin Greening. And barring some last minute addition, Sens fans can expect to see rookie playoff hero J-G Pageau join the team on a regular basis. 2011 sixth overall pick Mika Zibanejad will look to earn his way back onto the team some time this season.
Behind the Bench: Murray took immediate heat for Alfredsson’s departure, but he soothed his fan base’s collective temper by trading for Ryan the second the news hit that Alfie was no longer a Senator. Signing Clarke MacArthur the same day didn’t hurt either. But Sens management was dogged all summer by questions lingering about the departure of their captain, as well as owner Eugene Melnyk’s finances (outside of signing MacArthur, the Sens were pretty stringy on the free agent market and enter the season with around eight million in cap space). If a leadership void results and proves to be a distraction, Murray will be the first in line to feel Sens fans ire. But if there’s any coach in the League who can guide his team through the loss of it’s long time captain, it’s Jack Adams winning coach Paul Maclean. What he did with last year’s injury depleted lineup was nothing short of miraculous, so watching what he may be able to do with a healthy, talent laden one could make this a season to remember, with or without Alfredsson.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
In Review: It was hardly the season Tampa fans had expected. After losing the first three months to the lockout, Bolts fans then watched as their hopes were flushed away by a team that sank to the bottom of the standings and would have finished last in the East had it not been for their lowly neighbours in Florida. Long time captain and former franchise player Vincent Lecavalier has moved on via a compliance buyout and the raw excitement over 2013 third overall pick Jonathan Drouin was doused when Tamp sent the promising young sniper back to the Halifax Moose two days before the start of the regular season. Based on last season’s dismal finish and the holes still apparent in Tampa’s roster, Lightning fans’ pre season excitement is laced with a healthy, warranted dose of apprehension.
In The Crease: Lightning GM Steve Yzerman gambled that former Nashville backup Anders Lindback was the solution to Tampa’s woes in net. If the big Swede is indeed the answer to the Lightning’s prayers in the crease, Bolts fans didn’t pray quite hard enough last season. While still showing flashes of promise, Lindback struggled with his new responsibilities and workload. He still has time to prove he can be a capable number one but last year’s baptism by fire didn’t seem to be the way to go. So Yzerman brought in Ben Bishop at the trade deadline to help stabilize the situation. Bishop also has starting goalie potential and was a big reason why the Ottawa Senators were able to survive their season of injury hell, but he found himself the odd man out when starter Craig Anderson returned from injury. The two promising young goalies will probably find themselves in a platoon system to start the season, battling each other for the starter’s job.
The Blue Line: With Mattias Ohlund likely facing retirement because of injury, Tampa’s blue line now belongs to Victor Hedman. 2009’s second overall pick has shown recently that he’s on his way to becoming a solid two way force, though that day isn’t today, as much as the Lightning may need it to be. Yzerman has surrounded his young Swedish D-man with a handful of capable veterans including Matt Carle, Sami Salo and Eric Brewer while young Keith Aulie adds important depth. Expect young Radko Gudas to become a regular on the roster after he impressed both team brass and fans with his hard-hitting style in a late season call up last year. Tampa desperately needs their blue line to avoid injuries this season because they lack substantial depth on D and have no quality prospects ready to join. Considering that their blue line isn’t all that awe inspiring when it’s healthy . . .
The Forward Corps: Now that Lecavalier is gone, this team belongs to Steven Stamkos. Already one of the League’s premier talents, Stamkos now carries the expectations of this franchise, and being re-united with 2013 scoring champion Martin St-Louis can only help. But at 38 years old, the question needs to be asked how much longer can St-Louis be an elite, league leading performer (he has two more years on his contract)? The feisty St-Louis has overcome a lot in his career, but no one overcomes Father Time. Valtteri Flippula replaces Lecavalier as the number two centre and Tampa hopes to get the strong performance he had in 2012 as opposed to last season’s disappointing one (which convinced Detroit to let him walk as a free agent). Veteran Ryan Malone (who was briefly the subject of buyout rumours himself) hopes to stay healthy and he joins young forwards Teddy Purcell, Brett Conolly and Alex Kilhorn to support Tampa’s proven scorers. Nate Thompson, B.J. Crombeen and Tom Pyatt give Tampa some depth up front. And while the Bolts raised more than a few eyebrows sending Drouin back to junior, they may have a Calder trophy sleeper in the likes of Tyler Johnson. The talented young forward seems to have flown beneath jut about everyone’s radar but he could prove to be this season’s Cory Conacher.
Behind the Bench: Perhaps the biggest test Tampa head coach bench John Copper faces this season will be guiding his team without long time leader Vincent Lecavalier. Overcoming the loss of his on-ice contributions will also pose a considerable challenge as will getting Tampa Bay’s defense, which was one of their weak points last season, back up to snuff. How he handles his goaltending situation will also go a long way in determining how long he collects a salary from the Lightning. Expect Steve Yzerman to also face some questions this season if Tampa disappoints as much as they did last season. If his can’t get them back to the post season soon, or earn back a little respectability, he could find out just how much job security he really has in the Sunshine State.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
In Review: Leafs fans started last season on a roller coaster, firing GM Brian Burke days before the beginning of the regular season, and then ended it on one when they watched their team suffer one of the biggest on ice meltdowns in modern history; losing game seven to the Boston Bruins in overtime despite having a 4-1 lead with only ten minutes left in regulation. Regardless, there were plenty of positives to take from last season, including the end of Toronto’s lengthy playoff drought. But this team still has its fair share of questions. Last year’s squad had Brian Burke’s fingerprints all over it as his replacement, Dave Nonis, made minimal changes during the course of the season. That won’t be the case this year after a busy summer, and Nonis’ moves will be under heavy scrutiny from opening night right through to season’s end. Toss in the growing uncertainty surrounding potential 2014 UFAs Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, and this could be a very interesting season in the self proclaimed Centre of the Hockey Universe.
In The Crease: Despite a strong regular season and an even better playoff performance, James Reimer just can’t seem to earn the confidence of Toronto management. Perhaps wary of Reimer’s potential over the course of a full 82 game season and not entirely sold on his potential as Toronto’s number one starter, Nonis brought in Jonathan Bernier, a potential starter in his own right who was trapped behind Jonathan Quick in L.A. While the move raised some eyebrows in the hockey world, it gives Toronto plenty of stability in net and a potential trade chip down the road to address other needs.
The Blue Line: Leafs captain and top D man Dion Phaneuf has become a lightning rod for criticism-and a few costly errors in the Boston series last spring didn’t help his cause-but he remains one of the better two-way defenders in the NHL today. How he plays under the regular pressures that go with his job as well as the trade rumours that are sure to dog him all season long will be closely observed. Mark Fraser, a waivers pickup that proved to be gold, returns to start the season on Toronto’s blue line and the Leafs also brought in veteran Paul Ranger and to stabilize their blue line. But most eyes will be on the Leafs young rear guards this season. Nonis managed to resign Cody Franson to a one-year deal during training camp, and they’re hoping that his performance last season (when he lead all Toronto defensemen in scoring) was a breakout year. Jake Gardiner is looking more and more like a defensive superstar of the future while Carl Gunnarson is considered just about the only good thing former Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. ever did. There’s also a very good chance Morgan Rielly could stick around all season as the Leafs sent veteran John-Michael Liles to the minors to make room for the highly touted prospect.
The Forward Corps: The Leafs current list of centres doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in most of their fans, but that could change. Tyler Bozak is back and Nonis traded for defensive centre and two-time Stanley Cup champion Dave Bolland, but the real name to watch is Nazem Kadri. Drafted seventh overall in 2009, Kadri had been written off as a bust by many Leafs fans. Until last season that is. Kadri played all 48 regular season games, lead all Leafs centres in points and finished second in team scoring. Last season raised the bar for the promising young centre, and after a summer long contract negotiation, Kadri will be under the gun to prove last year wasn’t a fluke and that he’s the real deal. And Toronto has no shortage of wingers to help him out. Impending UFA Phil Kessel (who, along with Phaneuf, will be the subject of trade rumours until he’s resigned or traded) has established himself as one of the fastest, most dangerous snipers in the NHL today and the Leafs attack begins with him. Joffrey Lupol has played the most productive hockey of his career since joining Toronto, though his health is always a concern. James Van Riemsdyk began resembling the power forward the Flyers always dreamt he’d be when he joined the Leafs last season and Nikolai Kulemin has proven a capable shut down third liner. The Leafs netted the gem of last summer’s free agent class in power forward David Clarkson (who’ll miss ten regular season games serving a suspension) and added speedy (but recently injury prone) Mason Raymond to the mix. Complimenting a very capable attack this season, the Leafs also have a competent fourth line centre in Jay McClement while Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr will police the opposition. Expect appearances by prospects Carter Ashton, Tyler Biggs and Brad Ross this season as well.
Behind the Bench: There’s no reason to believe the Leafs will regress this season and that they won’t be a playoff team next April. But there’s not a whole lot of reason to believe they’ll be all that much better either. Nonis inspired some head scratching when he acquired Bernier, and upset more than a few Leafs fans when he bought out the popular Mikhail Grabovski (who had some memorable parting words regarding Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle) so he could bring back Bozak. The size and length of the deal he used to lure Clarkson also raised a few questions (the Leafs were a million dollars over the salary cap just days before the season opener) and Leafs Nation is already concerned with how he handles Phaneuf and Kessel’s impending UFA status (in truth, the pair are just two of nine potential UFA s on the Leafs current roster). There’s little question last year’s team, and all of its success, belonged to Brian Burke. This season, any credit, along with any controversy and shortcomings, will belong exclusively to Nonis.