THE NHL’S 2015 CHRISTMAS WISH LIST

TEN THINGS GMS, PLAYERS AND FANS FROM THE NHL SHOULD BE WISHING FOR THIS CHRISTMAS

(Originally posted on Hautnews.com on December 24th, 2015)

So here we are on Christmas Eve, and while everyone’s asked jolly old St. Nick for something this year, here are ten suggestions that should appear under some NHL Christmas trees tomorrow morning. If you’re reading this Santa, you might want to take a few of these to heart and hopefully some enterprising GMs and hockey execs will leave out some extra cookies and milk for you.

  1. A hobby for the idiots from Las Vegas who came after me on Twitter. Earlier this year I wrote a story on why the NHL shouldn’t put a franchise in Sin City (you’ll notice the absence of any other major sports league teams as well) and before I knew it I found myself in the crosshairs of some angry Las Vegas fans on Twitter, including the guy who ran the bid’s Twitter account. They apparently had nothing better to do with their time on a summer Saturday evening, so if you could Santa, maybe leave a hobby or two in their stocking. Possibly crochet or Sudoku. Or maybe Crazy 8s because I hear playing cards is a big thing in Vegas. And speaking of Twitter . . .
  1. Some exploding coal for some toxic Chicago Blackhawks fans. When Chicago Blackhawks superstar (and renowned party animal) Patrick Kane was being investigated for allegations of rape during the summer, some Blackhawk fans not only decided that he was innocent, but that anyone in the media who didn’t immediately begin singing songs of his innocence deserved threats. CBSChicago.com reporter (and Sports 670 update anchor) Julie DiCaro actually had to stay home from work after getting threatening Tweets from some Blackhawk fans. Common sense and reason doesn’t enter into the equation with animals like this Big Red, so maybe some hand grenades disguised like coal could get the job done.
  1. Some luck for my fantasy hockey team. I don’t know what it is Santa, but this year my players have been dropping like flies. Not minor injuries mind you, but the kind that sidelines players for weeks and even months at a time. Even the players I’ve drafted to replace my injured superstars have been getting themselves injured. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if some of their legs started falling off. I don’t know how you’d wrap it Big Man, but how about some fantasy health?
  1. A break for Buffalo Sabre fans. Being a Sabre fan these past few years has been a pretty tall order. The team finished dead last in both 2014 and 2015 but they were denied the first overall pick both years (losing out on Connor McDavid last June was especially painful given how Sabre management did everything in its power to finish last). But despite all that, this year was supposed to offer hope for beleaguered Sabres fans. Not a playoff spot mind you, but enough tangible improvement to warrant patient loyalty. Instead, Sabres fans have been treated to a buffet of injury and misfortune. Robin Lehtner, who was supposed to be their goaltender moving forward, has yet to start a game because of injury and Evander Kane, who was supposed to light it up riding shotgun for generational talent Jack Eichel, missed a month with a leg injury (I know, he was on my fantasy team). And speaking of Eichel, while 2015’s second overall pick has been posting pretty good numbers, he isn’t yet in the Calder Trophy conversation, another potential sore point for long suffering Sabres fans.
  1. A do-over for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus lost over 500 man games to injury last season (no other team came close) and even though their non-stop parade of injuries cost them a playoff berth, when the team was healthy it looked mighty fine, ending the season by winning thirteen of its final sixteen games. Adding rising young power forward Brandon Saad over the summer was the icing on the cake and a playoff berth seemed a foregone conclusion for a lot of pundits. No one knows exactly what happened in Ohio but wow did this team fall of the rails at light speed. Mired at the bottom of the standings again with a playoff spot looking like an impossible long shot, Columbus is now stuck with the walking talking temper tantrum known as John Tortorella as it’s coach and the team seems on the verge of dealing away superstar and franchise player Ryan Johansen (one of only two Blue Jackets not to miss any time to injury last season). It’s pretty safe to say Big Red that this was hardly how the Blue Jackets or their fans expected this season to go.
  1. Last year Santa I asked you for some Divine Intervention to save my Edmonton Oilers from themselves. Primarily from horrible management and deliberately blind ownership. Boy did you come through. When we won the right to draft Connor McDavid last April, it set off a chain of events that all fell into place like dominoes from Heaven. Within forty-eight hours our President and General Manager (both the worst in the League) had been demoted and our head coaching position vacated. Over the next few months the proven and competent leadership that replaced them systematically filled the open positions with established names and then went about transforming the roster. But now Santa, I need to ask another monumental favour for my team.

Do you think you could lift the curse that seems to be hanging over this franchise? We     have yet to see what this squad can do since the roster has never been healthy. Jordan Eberle blew his shoulder in training camp, missing the first month of the season. Justin Schultz injured his back just before Halloween, sidelining him a month. The worst has got to be Connor McDavid, the saviour and teenage phenom who was just beginning to bust out after a slow start and dominate games the way few eighteen year olds before him had, when a pair of no talent Philadelphia pylons on skates dragged him into the boards, breaking his left collarbone and putting him on the shelf for several months. And now Oscar Klefbom, arguably our top blue liner, is out an undetermined amount of time after a broken finger somehow became a staff infection in his leg. Perhaps nothing sums up how snake bitten this season has been as much as Nail Yakupov. Finally having a good year (playing alongside McDavid), the embattled Yak has been out for the past few weeks (and will be out a few more) since being dragged down by a falling linesman. Yak sprained his ankle in the fall and will miss approximately a month with the biggest freak injury anyone has ever heard of. But don’t worry Santa, the ref was OK.

  1. A milk carton for the Pittsburgh Penguins offence and the entire Anaheim Ducks organization, since both seem to be missing. When the Penguins stunned the hockey world by acquiring sniper Phil Kessel from the rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs last July, adding him to the likes of Sydney Crosby, Evengi Malkin and Kris Letang, everyone thought Pittsburgh was going to be a regular feature on the nightly highlight reels. No one was prepared to hand the Pens the Cup mind you (much was made of the team’s remaining holes on the blue line and questions in net), but the question everyone was asking was how many goals would Pittsburgh score? Now the question going into every game is are the Pittsburgh Penguins going to score at all? Sydney Crosby has spent months mired in a scoring slump and Kessel has yet to light anything resembling a fire under the Pens offence. They’ve been downright mediocre and are miles from being the offensive juggernaut just about every one in the world predicted them to be last September.

Anaheim meanwhile is easily the biggest disappointment in the NHL this season. After falling just short of making the Stanley Cup finals last June, no other team was as aggressive as the Ducks in addressing roster needs while deftly managing the salary cap. The Ducks beefed up at every position and were everyone’s favourite to win the Cup at the beginning of the season. The team’s strength combined with their home in the NHL’s weakest division seemed a perfect recipe for regular season dominance and eventual Stanley Cup glory. But now the Ducks are in very real danger of missing the playoffs altogether, their top players have been called out repeatedly in the media and it’s considered only a matter of time before head coach Bruce Boudreau is fired. How bad has it been Santa? The Ducks won just one game in the entire month of October and fared little better in November. Even if Anaheim begins tearing it up in the New Year, they may not be able to make up the ground they lost in the first few months of the season, and could very well find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.

  1. A little more patience from my fellow Oilers fans. If you could Big Man, could you slip a little more resolve into Oilers fans stockings? We’ve been a battered bunch this past decade, saddled with the worst President, the worst GMs and the worst coaches for years, all overseen by an owner whose negligence bordered on criminal. But with Connor McDavid now on the scene and all the necessary front office changes his arrival inspired, we finally had hope-sweet, precious hope. But that hope was tested when we lost our first four games and has been bruised further by a few prolonged losing streaks that have kept us from reaching a .500 record. But if you squint your eyes and turn your head just enough, things are looking up.

The Oilers may have lost a lot of games this season, but they’ve been competitive in just about all of them, something they haven’t been able to say in years. A few more bounces go their way and a few less calls against them and this team could easily be a game or two over the .500 mark right now. They’ve actually come back to win some games, another trait they haven’t displayed since time out of mind, and they’ve managed to steal a few points here and there with some outstanding goaltending (if you would have told an Oilers fan that as recently as last year they would have slapped you in the face with a brick and told you to stop your lies). McDavid’s injury was a big blow, but it allowed the team to recall Leon Draisaitl, who has blown the doors off the NHL and Taylor Hall, who’s spent most of the season among the NHL’s top scorers, is looking every bit like the team’s future captain, both on and off the ice. And when McDavid returns sometime in January, GM Peter Chiarelli will have a surplus of assets he can trade to address other needs.

There’s still a long way to go Santa, but could you just make sure my fellow members of the Copper and Blue Nation stick around just a little longer for the good times? No one should have anticipated a playoff spot this season anyway (though a recent winning streak has put us back in that conversation, a place we haven’t been in December for years), but there would be a certain poetic symbolism if we returned to the post season dance next season, the first in our shiny new home.

  1. A healing factor for Connor McDavid. You know Santa, like the one Wolverine has. And maybe some of those unbreakable Adamantium bones as well. Because if McDavid’s injury in November at the hands of much less talented, slow of foot blue liners, it’s that the young heir apparent has a target on his back. McDavid’s blinding speed coupled with his cat like agility and his sublime puck handling skills proved impossible for most NHL D-men to defend against, so the thug like antics displayed by Flyers blue liners Michael Del Zotto and Brandon Manning, where they basically gang-tackled him into the boards, are likely going to become more common. And more accepted (the NHL has never been eager to protect its stars).

But there’s one other reason Connor’s going to need an ability to heal fast Big Red, and that’s because of Hockey Trolls. McDavid’s good. Really good. He’s been lauded by everyone from Steven Stamkos to Wayne Gretzky (who described him as the best player to come along in the last thirty years) and his skill set is pure offense (though he’s proven he can use his offensive instincts to protect a lead as well), meaning that there’s a sizeable portion of “traditional” hockey fans who will never respect him. There was no shortage of them on social media before the season began begging for him to fail and they tripped over themselves with glee when he went down with his injury. The Great One had his fair share of detractors back in the day, fans who didn’t consider him a real player because he didn’t fight, but Gretz didn’t have to contend with Twitter and Reddit. So if it isn’t too much trouble Santa, could you wrap up a nice healing X-gene and put it under Connor’s tree?

  1. A big pat on the back to P.K. Subban. Already heavily involved in charity work (P.K. and his family are the faces of Hyundai Hockey Helpers, a non profit organization that assists parents struggling with cost of enrolling their kids in North America’s most expensive sport), the popular (and often controversial) Montreal Canadiens defenseman pledged ten million dollars over the next seven years to the Montreal Children’s Hospital. It is by far the biggest single donation a member of the venerated Habs franchise has ever donated to charity. Subban’s contributions on the ice never go unnoticed by his teammates or Habs fans (or their opponents, for that matter), and now, with a wing of the hospital bearing his name, his presence and generosity to the community won’t either.

          An honourable shout out to Washington Capitals winger T.J. Oshie and Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price in this category as well. When the St. Louis Blues traded the popular Oshie to Washington last off-season, five-year-old Libby Lu was so distraught at his departure that she locked herself in a closet crying, refusing to come out. Well, T.J. reached out to little Libby twice, first calling her on a Sportscenter talk show and then by mailing her a crate full of Washington Capitals swag, all of it autographed, ensuring that Libby would not only be a T.J. Oshie fan her entire life, but also a hockey one as well. Meanwhile Carey Price has been heavily involved in a number of youth programs, everything from donating equipment to Aboriginal communities to raffling off his game masks. Price’s community work won him the Jean Beliveau award last October, awarded by the legendary Beliveau’s wife. Good job, gentlemen, good job.

Shayne Kempton

libby-lu-caps-jersey

NO THANKS, LAS VEGAS

WHY THE NHL SHOULD SAY THANKS BUT NO THANKS TO THE LAS VEGAS EXPANSION BID

(Originally Posted on hautnews.com September 2015)

The NHL announced last month that the expansion applications for both Quebec City and Las Vegas had progressed to Phase 3, bringing their realizations of having an NHL franchise a little bit closer. How much closer though is anyone’s guess because no one has the slightest idea what the significance of Phase 3 is and the NHL is pretty mum on the subject. For all we know the two hopeful cities are just taking the first step on the proverbial thousand mile journey.

This current expansion process (the first undertaken since Minnesota, Nashville, Columbus and Atlanta joined the NHL between 1998 and 2000) has smeared more then a little egg on the League’s face. In June the NHL sent out sixteen invitations to parties it was convinced were interested in NHL expansion, yet only received responses from Las Vegas and Quebec City. The NHL even got a little catty in the press release announcing the two responding applicants, taking swipes at those who didn’t respond.

The simple fact is that the earliest word on the chances of these two cities joining the NHL club won’t come until December and fans should manage their expectations. There’s just as much chance that both applications will be rejected as there is of either one being approved. But if in their clandestine discussions the NHL decides to only approve one of the applicants, word is that it would most likely be Vegas, and that should inspire more then a little head scratching around the sports world as well as more then a little concern in the hockey one.

This isn’t about Vegas’ long-term prospects or its viability as a hockey market. Vegas is in the middle of building a state of the art arena that can house over seventeen thousand hockey fans and they have taken deposits for over twelve thousand season tickets based on just the hope that the NHL comes to Sin City. And it doesn’t look like the 500 million dollar entry fee will be a problem for potential owner Bill Foley (more on that a little later).

Rather it’s about the complications that would inevitably arise from having a franchise in a city that’s slogan is “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.” (Or roughly translated: Spend Your Vacation here Doing Things That Would Get You Arrested, Fired and Divorced at Home!”)

There’s a good reason none of the other major professional sports leagues have ever called Vegas home. The truth of the matter is that in the U.S., the NHL trails the NFL, the NBA and MLB in popularity by a mile and in many parts of the country NASCAR, professional golf and apple pie are more popular then professional hockey. Yet none of the NHL’s more popular competitors have ever considered a franchise in North America’s casino capital. If the NHL were to expand into Vegas, it would be the first genuine sports franchise ever in that city.

And while there have been plenty of top of mind reasons not to put a team in Sin City, the number one reason no pro sports league has wanted anything to do with Las Vegas is simple. Bad headlines.

Consider the following scenario: As an expansion team, Vegas would have one of the first selections in the NHL entry draft for it’s first few seasons in the league. That means that the initial influx of talent would be 18 and 19 year old kids, many probably hailing from small towns. On top of that, they’ll be signed to multi-million dollar deals and most will have little to no experience managing their own finances or money, let alone the millions of dollars dropped in their lap their first day on the job. In Las Vegas, a city notorious for selling every vice known to man on every street corner and in every price range.

So you’re essentially taking a teenager from Nowhere Manitoba or Tiny Town Pennsylvania, giving them a couple million dollars and dropping them in a city where you can buy, sell or indulge in anything? Grown men can’t handle that kind of temptation let alone a nineteen year old. How long until one of their mug shots winds up on CNN? How long until it’s for a crime worse then possession or solicitation? How long until one of them finds themselves wrapped in the tentacles of the less then admirable forces behind the Vegas gambling industry (which is the biggest reason the NFL and NBA will avoid Vegas until the sun burns out)? The prospects would make a bookie’s head spin.

Hockey sells itself as a family sport, celebrating hockey moms, bringing dads along on road trips, supporting anti-bullying initiatives and sponsoring minor league teams, but the NHL has lost some of its PG lustre this summer. Between Mike Richards recent indictment for crossing the border with oxycontin, Slava Voynov spending the summer in a jail cell for spousal abuse (which could conclude in his deportation) and Patrick Kane being investigated by New York authorities for rape, the NHL’s PR department can’t wait to forget the summer of 2015. The inevitable complications that would almost instantly arise from a franchise in Las Vegas would inflict a relentless barrage of body blows on a fragile family image.

And even if the NHL is convinced it could manage the inevitable image problems (an exercise in delusion), there are still a number of other concerns that another franchise in the desert could pose (see Coyotes, Arizona-who were sued by their home city of Glendale this summer). So the next question should be does the NHL really think it should be first professional sports league to try and make a go of it in Vegas? Does Gary Bettman really want to be the Pro Sports-Las Vegas guinea pig?

What it all boils down to is that the NHL is hungry for the half a billion-dollar entrance fee, nothing more. It is blinded to all other concerns by its financial obsession (probably to subsidize the mounting losses in Arizona). Which is fine, just as long as the NHL stops trying to convince everyone that money isn’t its primary concern and is prepared to live with the inevitable PR fallout. Because at the end of the day, much bigger, much better managed sports leagues have repeatedly looked at Vegas and decided it isn’t worth it, which is why the NHL should respond to Vegas’ application with a resounding no thanks.

Shayne Kempton

THE NHL’S 2014 CHRISTMAS WISH LIST

WHAT TEAMS AND FANS SHOULD PROBABLY ASK JOLLY OLD SANTA FOR THIS CHRISTMAS SEASON

 Well hello Santa. So good to see you again. How is Mrs. Claus doing? Well I hope (because let’s be honest Big Man, we both know the whole operation comes tumbling down without the Missus). And the elves? The reindeer? Rudolph still getting up to his regular hijinks? That polar scamp. Totally incorrigible.

Y’know Santa, it’s not just Christmas we celebrate at this time of year, but we’re also at the point on the calendar where just about every team in the NHL has played at least a third or more of their current regular season, and there are a few franchises (and in the case of number two, a long suffering and oft ignored fan base) who are probably counting on a goodie or two in your sack to salvage the rest of the campaign. Or at least make life a little more bearable until the mercy of the balmy summer months.   But just in case any have forgotten amidst the hectic hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, I’ve taken the liberty of assembling a list of ten things that teams or fans should ask you for this Yuletide.

10.  Another Hart trophy, scoring championship and First Team All-Star berth for Sidney Crosby. I’m not a Pens fan Santa, or a Crosby one, but Sid the Kid’s critics (and he has many) act like a pack of rabid, ravenous wolves that pounce on any chance to diss or put him down. A Stanley Cup champion and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, Sid’s got more personal hardware then any other player currently skating. In the world. But still, there are millions of “fans” who love to hate on him with savage abandon.   He could discover a cure for cancer tomorrow and they’d all flock to Facebook to bash him for not devoting every waking second to hockey and defying nature. A bunch of new awards won’t really silence Sid’s haters, but it will make their absurd, petty rhetoric look even more foolish.

9.  If you could Santa, you might want to consider wrapping super-prospect Connor McDavid in an Ottawa Senators jersey this year, and gifting him, not to Sens fans in general, but the ones who didn’t throw Jason Spezza under the bus last year. Now the Sens don’t have to finish last in in the NHL in order to draft Connor first overall this June (the Oilers had all but wrapped up dead last by Halloween) but the Sens playoff chances this season are looking a little less then 50/50 (far smarter people than yours truly have crunched the numbers using a decade’s worth of data and have determined that Ottawa, who was several spots removed from a playoff spot in early December, has around a twenty-five percent chance to make the post season next spring). Any team that misses the playoffs this season will have at least a 13.5% chance to land The Next Big Thing. Bigger gambles have paid off.

8.  Glasses for the people who apparently didn’t see the Montreal Canadiens 2014 playoff run and refuse to accept that Habs blue liner P.K. Subban is one of the game’s elite defencemen. The 2013 Norris Trophy winner and member of Canada’s Gold Medal winning 2014 Olympic team, Subban was a dominant one man force who, combined with Carey Price’s heroics in net, dragged the Habs to victory over their much bigger, deeper, more skilled and much more favoured Beantown rivals during their second round matchup last spring. Subban got in the Bruins’ face, he never let up and when he wasn’t getting in Boston’s head or under their skin, he was putting pucks in their net. Even after the Big Bad Bruins took a 3-2 series lead and everyone wrote Montreal off, Subban refused to throw in the towel and somehow stepped it up a notch, leading the Bleu et Blanc to victory in seven.  If after all that people weren’t ready to acknowledge P.K.’s place among the game’s current best, there’s something desperately wrong with their eyes. Of course, for a few of these rotten apples (and I’ve tangled with one or two online), their hatred really only runs skin deep. And speaking of skins . . .

7.  A thick one for current Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson. The slick young Swede is superbly skilled, his awesome skill set leans towards the offensive side of the game, he isn’t overly physical and he’s European. In short Big Red, he’s everything Canadian “purists” hate in a hockey player. If the Sens struggle the rest of the way and fail to qualify for the post season, it won’t take long for the Sens Army to turn on Karlsson the way it turned on then captain Jason Spezza last season. Sports fans eat their own like no one else, and Ottawa’s hockey community has proven just as eager to chow down on anyone in a Sens jersey if things don’t go as well as they planned at season’s end.  Karlson will prove no exception.

6.  A huge lump of coal for the pretentious ass hats who run the Hockey Hall of Fame. The late Pat Burns was finally inducted into the Hall this year Santa, four years after he died from cancer. The kicker is he was eligible for admission before his unfortunate death and his wife confided after his passing that he secretly hoped he would be alive to see the day when he’d be inducted. It would have been such a little thing for the brains at the HHoF to bend a rule here or there and induct him while he was alive to see and enjoy it. But no, the walking, talking vials of syphilis that run the Hall couldn’t lower themselves to be actual feeling human beings. And Santa, that coal you put in their stockings? Could you make it the exploding kind? Pretty please?

5.  A lifetime ban from the Canadian Tire Centre for the Sens and Leafs fans that got into a flying brawl last November (during the game where both teams observed a moment of silence for the recently slain Cpl. Cirillo, no less). I don’t know how it started but everyone saw how it ended, with a member of each tribe hugging each other as they hurtled down the concrete stairs. In the days following the video’s Mach speed tour of the Internet, everyone was picking sides. IT WAS THE SENS FAN’S FAULT!  IT WAS THE LEAFS FAN’S FAULT! The truth is Big Red, it was the fault of everyone involved; everyone wearing a jersey during that scuffle was a douchebag, regardless of the logo. And while odds are the idiots who went down the stairs are still feeling it (good), justice will only truly be served if the two of them, Sen and Leafs fan alike, are prevented entry into the CTC (or any other Ottawa arena). For the rest of their lives.

4.  For Martin Brodeur to retire as a New Jersey Devil. The legendary Brodeur is currently doing a fine job holding down the fort in St. Louis crease, but his contract ends in June and once Blues starter Brian Elliot recovers from injury or future franchise goalie Jake Allen is ready to assume the reigns full time, Brodeur will be a 42 year old goalie on the outside looking in. So Santa, I think it only fair (and reasonable), that next September the New Jersey Devils sign Brodeur, who wrote an entire record book during his time manning New Jersey’s net, to a one game contract. Give him a start him against Edmonton or Carolina so he can grab one final win and then retire wearing the Devils jersey on a victorious note.

3.  A case of finger leprosy for the Leafs fans who took to Twitter to criticize, insult and berate Toronto goalie James Reimer’s wife, April. When Reimer struggled last spring (during a meltdown that affected every member of the roster and spelled the end of Toronto’s post season chances) and had a few lack luster games this past fall, some Leafs “fans” thought it would be a good idea to use Twitter to go after the man’s wife. Cause y’know, that’s the bravest and most reasonable thing of all to do. It should be mentioned that Mrs. Reimer handled the situation with grace and there were no shortage of other Leafs fans who rallied to her defense, but the idea they’ll get away with it still ticks in my craw. I made a tweet criticizing the Twidiots who targeted her (and I was completely civilized-I swear!) and found myself in the cross hairs of one or two malicious malcontents. And not only that Santa, even you have to admit that the mental image of a bunch of enraged fans racing to Twitter to voice their angry venom but have to resort to pecking the keyboard with their noses because they shed their diseased fingers is hysterical.

2.  A playoff berth for the Edmonton Oilers. I’m gonna be frank with you on this one Big Red, I, like millions of other Oilers fans, have abandoned hope that we’re ever going to see another meaningful game of hockey played in the month of April without divine intervention. Our coach is a one man blunder factory who ESPN recently named the worst bench boss in the NHL, our current GM doesn’t seem to have a long term plan or know what he’s doing (an affliction also suffered by his two predecessors), we’re saddled with the worst team president in the history of, well, ever, and an owner whose indifference to the strained loyalty of the team’s suffering fans is bordering on being criminally reckless. Even the most hardcore fan and the loudest team apologists have given up. It’s isn’t like we haven’t had opportunities to right the ship that’s been sinking for nine consecutive years Santa, but we seem to have gone out of our way to squander each and every one of them. I fear if you can’t fit a small miracle under Oiler Nation’s collective Christmas tree, the playoffs will become a permanent pipe dream and we’ll be forced to sustain ourselves on the memories of our long distant glory years.

1.  This might be the biggest one of all to ask for Santa, but if you can swing it, how about a few comfortable years of remission for Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray? Things aren’t looking too bright for Mr. Murray as he battles stage four cancer and both he and his doctors have admitted that at this point the best anyone can do is manage the situation. There are few guys out there in professional sports as classy as Mr. Murray, and if anyone in the NHL currently deserves a miracle of this size, it’s him. If you can only pull off one thing on this list Santa, it should be this one and I’ll make you a deal; if you can swing this particular stocking stuffer, I’ll leave out an extra large plate of double stuff Oreos.

Shayne Kempton

NORTHERN DRAFT

MY ARMCHAIR SELECTIONS FOR CANADA’S TEAMS IN TOMORROW’S ANNUAL NHL ENTRY DRAFT

     Has it been a year already? It just seems like yesterday that I was cheering the Edmonton Oilers selection of Darnell Nurse in the first round (as a long-suffering Oilers fan, draft day is about the only I get to look forward to on the NHL calendar).  Tomorrow marks the beginning of yet another busy off-season for the NHL as the league holds the first round of its annual entry draft in Philadelphia (rounds two through seven follow Saturday), and while there are always a few surprises on the draft floor (seriously, did anyone expect Seth Jones would fall to fourth last year?), this year promises a little more intrigue than most.   The teams that finished in the League basement will be looking to pick up a future star or maybe even a franchise player to build around with an eye on a quick (or in the case of the Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers and New York islanders an eventual) return to respectability while other organizations will focus on collecting assets and potential building blocks for the future. This draft is a little different though, as there’s no definite consensus name that tops the prospect list. Instead, a handful of players have emerged as potential first overall picks, making predictions even tougher. And since there are few things I enjoy more than playing armchair GM, I’ve decided to offer my totally unqualified advice on which young player Canada’s NHL teams should pick up in this weekend’s draft.

Edmonton Oilers: In an ideal world, the perpetually rebuilding Oilers would be able to draft Barrie Colts standout defenseman Aaron Ekblad, but the odds that the top rated d-man in this year’s draft will still be available when Craig MacTavish takes the podium to make the third selection falls somewhere between zero and none (and Florida’s asking price for the first overall pick is apparently stratospheric). But center Leon Draisaitl is a pretty nice consolation prize. He’s been described as the “German Gretzky” and the fact that 67 of his 105 points last season on a weak Prince Albert Raiders team were assists speaks volumes about his skills as a smart, slick playmaker.   Draisaitl isn’t a power forward, but at 6’1 and 208 lbs., he has pretty good size and doesn’t get pushed around. He’s also drawn comparisons to Jaromir Jagr for how well he protects the puck and he looks like the kind of elite playmaking talent that could develop instant chemistry with a pure sniper like Nail Yakupov. Throw Taylor Hall on the left-wing of that line and the Oilers may just start to demand some respect from their opponents’ blue line.

Calgary Flames: With the fourth overall selection, the Flames will draft someone with the first name Sam. What their last name is depends on who’s still available. If Sam Bennett is still on the board, expect the Flames to pounce on the Kingston Frontenacs star, whose combination of skill, speed, tenacity, hockey I.Q. and sheer competitive spirit have drawn comparisons to Doug Gilmour (upon hearing the comparisons, the Hall of Famer replied that he was never as good a skater as Bennett). If Bennett’s gone when Flames GM Brad Treliving announces his pick, expect them to go with Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart. Reinhart’s older brother Max is already in the Flames system and was one of only two prospects to score 100 or more points with his junior team last season (both he and Draisaitl collected 105 last season) A natural center, Reinhart also plays a strong, smart two-way game. But rest assured, whichever Sam the Flames add will form a strong one-two punch with 2013 sixth overall pick Sean Monahan down Calgary’s middle.

Vancouver Canucks: After years dominating the regular season (and only three seasons removed from being a Stanley Cup finalist), the Vancouver Canucks find themselves in uncharted territory with the sixth overall pick. A new regime is calling the shots in Vancouver, as longtime Canuck captain and fan favourite Trevor Linden has taken over the duties as President, Jim Benning has taken over as GM and John Tortorella has been replaced by Willie Desjardins as head coach. The most interesting one of the three is Desjardins, whose been described as a teacher who possesses strong communication skills with young players. And that’s why if I were the Canucks, I might take a chance on Nick Ritchie. The physically imposing right-winger is a beast (6’2, 230 lbs.) with plenty of hockey skill, collecting 74 points in 61 games with the Peterborough Petes last season. There have been some questions about his commitment on a nightly basis, but that’s where the Canucks new player friendly, communicating coach could come in handy. The Canucks need some talented size up front, especially with Ryan Kesler’s inevitable departure, and in a season or two, Ritchie could well be lining up on a line with the Sedins.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Odds are that the Leafs aren’t going to draft anyone with the eighth overall pick that will be able step in right away and be the difference maker they need at any position, but Toronto could do worse than drafting Red Deer Rebel defenseman Haydn Fleury. After Ekblad, Fleury is the next highest rated blue liner in this year’s draft and he’s an efficient combination of size (6’2, 205 lbs.), skill and poise. He’ll need a season or two before he makes the jump to the show, but he’s the kind of defenseman that plays his way into a team’s top four and stays there for years. And if Toronto’s late season implosion proved anything, it’s that defensive stability is something the Leafs are in desperate need of.

Winnipeg Jets: Winnipeg is in need of some elite scoring up front, especially if this is the summer they decide to trade much-maligned winger Evander Kane. If he’s still available, Willie Nylander (son of long time NHLer Michael Nylander) would fit that bill and then some. Not the biggest player at 5’11 and 170 lbs., Nylander more than makes up for it with his game breaking skill. His skillset is dynamic enough that he can play both center and right-wing at an impact level, making him even more valuable. Even though he spent all season playing against men for various squads in Sweden, he’ll probably need a season of North American hockey to adjust to the difference in speed and style. But once he does, watch out. He’d be the perfect compliment to Mark Scheifele in Winnipeg.

Montreal Canadiens: Not only has Montreal built the foundation of a strong team (they went from drafting third overall in 2012 to playing in the third round of this year’s playoffs), but they’ve guaranteed themselves a bright future by locking up most of their young pieces long-term (you can bet that when P.K. Subban signs on the dotted line of a new contract this summer, it’ll be for seven or eight years), as well as assembling a shiny collection of prospects. And if Red Deer captain Connor Bleackley is still available when the Habs draft twenty-sixth, they should think long and hard about adding him to their prospect cupboard.   A natural leader with character, heart and work ethic, Bleakely is tailor-made to center a contending team’s third line (with second line potential) while wearing the C. This is the type of player teams need to win championships.

Ottawa Senators: As it stands, the Sens don’t have a first round pick this year (it goes to Anaheim as part of last summer’s Bobby Ryan trade) but if Boston College goalie Thatcher Demko is still hanging around when the Sens draft at number forty, they should definitely snap up the highest rated goalie in this year’s draft (remember, last year’s highest rated net minder, Zach Fucale, went 36th to the Montreal Canadiens, so crazier things have happened). If Demko is gone, the Sens should look at Swedish goalie Linus Soderstrom or Finn Kaapo Kahkonen. Ottawa looks like they’re on the cusp of a rebuild, and successful rebuilds almost always start from the net out, so getting a strong goalie prospect or two right off the bat can’t hurt. The Sens would have the luxury of giving whichever goalie they draft a season or two of development before taking them pro, which is never a bad thing for any prospect but especially for the game’s masked men.

Shayne Kempton

 

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

English: BOSTON, Mass. (Nov. 4, 2007) - Boston...

English: BOSTON, Mass. (Nov. 4, 2007) – Boston Bruins team captain, Zdeno Chara. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Dave Kaylor (RELEASED) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

 BOSTON BRUINS

 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.

BUFFALO SABRES

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.

FLORIDA PANTHERS

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.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

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.

OTTAWA SENATORS

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHnaUoYapFs

2013-14 NHL PREVIEW-EASTERN DIVISION