LA: There’s a lot to love about the Kings. You’ve got one of the four or five most talented defensemen under 25 in Drew Doughty, and joining him on the blueline one of the shut down tandem from the Penguins most recent Cup win,  in Rob Scuderi, and then the highly regarded Jack Johnson. Up front you have one of the most underrated centers in the league in Anze Kopitar, team a team captain who reminds me of a young Shane Doan in Dustin Brown, and Alexander Frolov who as involved in trade rumors from training camp through the deadline.

What’s not to love? Well, there’s the more than four goals per game they gave up, which was in fact the most of any playoff team  There’s the equally bad penalty kill, which dropped from a middling 80.3% in the regular season to 75% in the post season.  But the most glaring fault is that they scored just seven of their eighteen post season goals 5 on 5, while giving up seventeen total 5 on 5 goals.

While penalty kill, and goaltending both need to improve for a solid run next year, they need to address the effort they make at even strength. Part of this is simply maturity, they were the second youngest team in the NHL last season, and for much of the team this was their first taste of the playoffs. The teams veterans need to step up and help steady the ship.  One of the veteran goaltenders available as a UFA might be a wise investment as a mentor and competitor for Quick. And I don’t see anyway adding a blue collar guy like Shane Hnidy or Colby Armstrong could hurt the team. A guy like that has a steady output and disposition that can be invaluable.

Atlanta: The Atlanta Thrashers led their division in PK% last season, unfortunately they were in the Southeast division and all that got them too was to be the highest team in the bottom half of the NHL’s PK%.  It is however a strength they can build on. Surprisingly, their powerplay was woeful, even the anemic Boston Bruins, and Carolina Hurricanes were their betters. They finished number 12 in scoring during the regular season, handily beating several of the teams that did make the playoffs.

The Thrashers are in a very comfortable place going into the draft and free agency. They have $28.93 in committed cap space to just 12 players, that number will likely change soon as RFA’s Bryan Little and Niclas Bergfors are due a contract.

If I’m sitting in the GM’s office with 2 first round picks and nine overall, I’d have several of the more cash strapped teams firmly in the cross-hairs and try to pot a deal that get’s me a big name forward that lets me replace some of the star power lost when Kovulchuk was traded. With the 8th and 24th picks, and a viable defense a solid goalie pick like Pickard, isn’t outside question with the second of those two picks, especially if they can sign a veteran like Turco to be the #1 now while mentoring their goalie prospect.

Columbus:  This is a team that is designed not to lose. Last year they were aggressively mediocre. They were #17 in PK%, 14 in PP%, and right around the middle of the NHL in other team categories. Their mission this off season should be to figure out who they want to be when they grow up. They don’t appear to have a team identity.  Or at least one that isn’t so Clark Kent bland as to be nearly invisible.

They don’t have much depth at forward, with four players scoring just 1 goal short of half their goals for lest season. Do they use their picks to snatch up say Connolly or Etem at #4 and hope for Kabanov to still be on the board at #34 in an effort to put their offense over the top? Do they snatch Campbell or Gudbranson and trade a later pick and or player for an RFA defenseman who can help them? It almost doesn’t matter, they just need to pick an identity and seize it with both hands.

Anaheim: If I asked you to name the top five regular season could you? If you left the Ducks out, you fail. They were tied with San Jose for percentage and finished fifth in this key statistic. They finished the season 7th ahead in the NHL in total goals for. With the 24th ranked penalty kill, and the third most penalties of any team it’s hard to say if the PK itself is horrible, or if they just show it off so much it is easily dissected, which ever is the case, they need to be more disciplined.

They’ve got a very solid goalie in Hiller, but their defense is the single biggest area of opportunity.  They’ve got money to spend with less than $39 million committed to a mostly full roster. Do we see an offer sheet from? Gunning for Ryan Parent, Mark Stuart might make sense given their situation. They might also take their two first round picks and ship them to the cap strapped Flames for Bouwmeester as a replacement for Pronger and Neidermayer.

This series will focus on how each NHL team can prepare for next season. I’ll be doing a few teams at a time.

Philadelphia : It’s hard to say what to tweak on a team that takes off in the playoffs, shows incredible resilience, has a ton of grit, and is a very deep team. The obvious answer is goaltending, and with good reason, yet Leighton had a better Sv% than Niemi did who went home with the Cup or Fluery who was the last winning goal tender. Leighton’s .916% was actually second in the playoffs this year.

What they really need to tweak is their depth at defense, having a fifth defender or even a sixth who can play even 10 to twelve minutes a night would do the top four a world of good.  The other key area is pure and simple physical fitness. Mike Richards is well known for disdaining the gym, and he and more than a few Flyers looked too tired to execute properly. They had the will and strength to win, but they flat out lacked the juice to power themselves to finish line. In game six they went extended stretches without offensive pressure.

Capitals:  A team that ran away with the scoring race showed they still have room for improvement, and that perhaps the management doesn’t understand the difference between the regular season and the playoffs.  They had the same fundamental flaw this year as they did last year. Like other teams that will be covered in later posts, they don’t have anything that even slightly resembles a shutdown defensive unit. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pairing like Gill & Scuderi as was the Penguins in their most recent Cup win, or the sort of committee work that Montreal used to shutdown two teams they were given no shot against. It might be time to deal Semin or Backstrom to bring back a known quantity like Suter, or someone with similar credentials from an offense starved team.

Vancouver:  They may actually have the easiest fix. This year between the preseason, regular season slog, Olympic’s and playoffs Luongo played around ninety games. That’s a huge workload for any goalie, for a guy who is the team captain on top of that there is little surprise he looked so worn by the time the Canucks run ended.  Adding a goalie who can play twenty five games and give the team the chance to win thirteen or fourteen of them is possibly the best remedy for what ails this team. Martin Biron, Alex Auld, or Dan Ellis might be had for reasonable cap hit.  Who knows, maybe they take a chance and draft one of the top goalie prospects?

Edmonton: Tempted as I am to say almost anything that isn’t quite fair. They did have an impressive last few weeks to the season tossing W’s up over LA, Detroit, Colorado, Vancouver, and San Jose, all playoff teams on their way to a .500 record in their final dozen games. Part of their problem was simply being one of the five youngest teams in the NHL.

The first thing they can do right this off season should be easy; draft Hall or Seguin. It doesn’t matter which, both are a right choice. This is a similar situation to the Ovechkin/Malkin draft. In this case it might make sense to actually draft for need, NHL teams seem to have a fixation on drafting “the best available player”, regardless of how he fits into their system. This is what led the Bruins to draft Kessel, despite his not being a sound fit. The question for the Oilers is which need. Do they take their adequate centers and gift them with an offensive machine? Do they give their wingers the man who might be the best center of the last two or three drafts? Or do they count on the versatility of one of these young men to allow them to draft the player they like best and tweak further by moving other pieces?

If I’m the front office and ownership in Edmonton, I can’t help but notice the success the Blackhawks, Penguins, Capitals and to a lesser extent the Coyotes have had recently after being very bad for a while and drafting well.  Personally I’d want to trade as many of the 26-30 year olds on the roster for top sixty picks in the next two drafts and use that foundation and some careful free agents to create a strong playoff team two season from now.

Over the past couple months, a number of people have wondered if perhaps it wasn’t time for the C to come off Chara’s jersey. The most persistently named new destination for the captaincy has been Patrice Bergeron. There is no argument anyone can make to me that Bergeron would not make a good captain, but that isn’t the question. The question is if he would make a better or at least different captain.

Last season Zdeno Chara was 16th in scoring for defenseman in the NHL, in the 08-09 season he was 12th and had six more points. The 08-09 season was as all remember the year he just about walked away with the Norris trophy dominating all three zones.  In 08-09 Chara also had the #9 scorer for forwards in Marc Savard, the #31 in David Krejci, the #55 in Mark Rechhi, the #57 in Phil Kessel, #81 in Michael Ryder, to support him. That’s five forwards in the top 100 on a team that was second in goals scored, the team also boasted seven forwards who scored twenty or more goals.

In the 2009-10 season the highest ranked Bruins forward was #84, Patrice Bergeron. That’s three positions lower than the fifth highest player for the previous years team.  So pinning the lack of offense on Chara is a non starter, especially when none of the defenseman ahead of him on the points last had anywhere near as many as his league leading shots on goal.

Another point to consider is leadership qualities. Chara has in his time here displayed remarkable conditioning, has managed to chase down Ilya Kovulchuk from behind to break up a break away without taking a penalty, has fought some of the (other) biggest, meanest men in the NHL, played an entire season with a dislocated finger, averaged more than one hundred each blocked shots and hits while playing through other injuries and not quitting on his team ever.  Bergeron has played through similar situations, and led in key stats for his position. The two of them have irreproachable work ethics, and tenacity that is probably not great for their long term playing prospects. I doubt either one will be playing in the NHL at Recchi’s age.

Both Bergeron and Chara are quiet, soft spoken guys who do a great deal of community service and make themselves available to the press are on a regular basis. They play hard, practice hard and if anyone doubts the heart of these two they just don’t know hockey or either player.

One quality lacked by both players, and probably the only one you can use as a legitimate attack on either as leaders is that neither is likely to be the guy who goes into the locker room after the team played a poor period and kicks over trash cans, throws things and calls people out by name. Neither guy is a fire eater in the way Phaneuf and Pronger are said to be. On the other hand, I don’t think I can picture Toews, Lidstrom, or Crosby doing any of those things either. Ray Bourque probably wasn’t big on those qualities either.  While I think that the team needed at least one fire-eater all season, I don’t see someone who can be both an elite level player and fulfill that role on the roster.  Recchi has been mentioned for his passion, but I don’t think he qualifies as elite, and isn’t an improvement over either Chara or Bergeron in other categories.

Pronger:  Pronger took two penalties, at least one of which was just dumb. Gotta love his game, he never quit and didn’t make any stupid hockey plays even under pressure, even when the team was down and struggling.

Hit: Tough to say, Richards laid out a couple bodies, Buff ran through Coburn, and several minutes of the second period seemed to be inspired by Drowning Pool.

Conn Smyth: Eh. Toews no doubt earned the honor, but he didn’t make this series his own anywhere but the faceoff dot. And yet, that was enough. He provided enough of a distraction for the Flyers top defenders to loosen the jessies on the rest of the team.

Top players:  Kane broke loose with a three point night, including the goal that got his team the Stanley Cup, and Briere quietly had a three point night, was a +2 and went 60% in the faceoff circle.

Gallery or Guarded: The answer to this one should satisfy fans of both styles of play as we saw both tight defensive hockey in bursts, and a track meet for stretches.

BQ: He used words.

It’s game six, one team can clinch and that’s just barely the most interesting question of the day. Here’s a couple I can’t wait to see the answer too:

Will Chris Pronger take out any anger he may have over a certain picture on the Chicago players? Or will he lay his hits on the media during interviews?

Will the biggest hit of the night be by one of the usual hulking suspects, or will Mike Richards show us once again that big hits can come in small packages that don’t know where the weight room is?

Will one of the candidates step up and etch their name into the Conn Smyth trophy tonight?

Can the top lines and top players buck the trend of this series and fill the score sheet as we’re more used to them doing?

Will we see another wide open shooting gallery where its not a question of if the goaltending will be victimized, but how often or will we see the type of tight defensive match both squads are capable of?

Bonus Question:
How did Gary Bettman explain “Chrissy Pronger” to his daughter?

Two teams I can name had difficulty scoring last year, and yet each had one enigmatic player in the fold who had the pedigree to be a or even the go to guy on their squad. One organization admitted no rift between itself and their wayward lamb while exiling them to the outskirts of Siberia, the other gave their will-o-wisp forward adequate ice time and a rotating cast of opposite wingers, and three or four different centers.

Neither team got what they wanted. I speak of course of Nikita Filatov, at least nominally of the Columbus Blue Jackets even though he spent most of the year in the KHL on loan to a team that was supposed to let him grow as a player with plenty of ice time. CSKA Moscow of the NHL finished their season without straining their endurance with a playoff run, much as the Blue Jackets did

Michael Ryder who had the odd off ice distraction to deal with also had to work with a center who some feel returned from off season hip surgery too soon, and a linemate who experienced what can be gently called a sophomore slump. He spent time trying to find chemistry with Marc Savard, which failed miserably, again. Watching the two of them together and expecting something positive to happen was like waiting for a bowling bowl to dissolve in a tub of baby shampoo. His time with the teams other centers was only slightly better. This was his second worst NHL season, and the second to last of his contract.

From watching the two players I’m convinced they are in the wrong type cities. I have seen nothing to indicate Ryder can stomach the attention of playing in a big hockey market. Remember Boston is a city that six years after he played his last game in Bruins uniform can still be seem sporting PJ Stock t-shirts and jerseys to games.  For all the heart and hard work Stock had, he scored exactly one goal in a Bruins uniform.

Filatov who is younger, a bit more outgoing and uptempo was born in the hot bed of Russia’s social and political nexus. Moscow is much more like a top tier North American hockey market in it’s size, sprawl, and concentration of humanity and scrutiny than Ryder’s more pastoral Bonavista New Foundland.  By comparison, Moscow is estimated to be over ten million people, making it about a third the population of all of Canada, much less the less than four thousand people currently living in Bonavista.

So the trade is simple. Filatov is an RFA with two seasons left on his entry level contract who was drafted sixth and had nearly a point per game for CSKA. Ryder will be a UFA on July 1, 2011, is making $4million a year, and has four times scored twenty five or more NHL goals in a season.

To Boston:

Filatov

3rd round pick 2011

To Columbus

Ryder

2nd round pick 2011

Since there just aren’t enough possible angles to cover free agency from, I decided we all need one more, well maybe it’s three more. So here goes.

Bloggers who wish to participate should comment here, or send me a message @pucksage on Twitter to be linked to and for bragging purposes. All entries must be up by the Noon ET on June 30, 2010. Bloggers can participate in any or all parts of the challenge. For the sake of everyone using the same source, we will use NHLNumbers ( www.nhlnumbers.com ) for the free agent listing and TSN.ca or NHL.com for any signings that don’t make the NHLnumbers site by deadline. You can of course make more than one post to cover each part.

Part 1: The First Domino

Pick a player at Forward, Defense & Goal off the UFA list who you expect to be the first to be signed.

Part 2: Team UFA

Very simple, really. Make a team 13 forwards, 7 defensemen, 2 goalies that is all off the UFA list and under the cap. Projected salaries for each player should be realistic.

Part 3: Worst Contract

Name the team likely to hand out the most absurd contract on July 1.

Part 4: Where’s Ilya

That right, you too can gaze into your crystal ball, ask your magic 8 ball or ouijia board or just sprinkle some Angel Dust on your Poptart and use it to tell the world where Ilya Kovalchuk will be playing next season.

Remember, prizes are bragging rights, pity beer from your friends, and not having to think of something to blog for at least one day. Void where prohibited!

The Bruins might be forced to sacrifice one of their top three centers to either reel in a top scoring winger, free up cap space, or possibly a puck moving defenseman.

Marc Savard has led the Bruins in offense three of the four seasons he’s been on the team. In his time here he’s developed his defensive game to a point where he’s consistently killing penalties. He’ll be 33 at the start of the next season, and just signed a long term contract. He’s not known for being a gym rat, and had a concussion this season that he appeared to recover from fully.

Patrice Bergeron is larger and more physical than either Krejci or Savard. As one of the members of Canada’s Olympic team, it’s probably safe to call him one of the thirty to fifty best players in the world.  Neither Savard or Krejci has ever scored 30 goals in a season. He’s hands down Boston’s best faceoff man, and is probably peaking now as a player and will stay at that level another 2-4 years depending on health.

David Krejci when healthy and on his “A game” is a dynamic play maker with world class vision of the ice. His faceoff prowess is nothing to write home about, but not going to cost him playing time. He’s been effective on both sides of the puck, and can be counted on to play if he can be made to stand and still hold onto his stick. He’s the youngest of the Bruins top 3 centers and will probably peak in a year or two. He was hit with a nasty wrist injury that ended his season early, but should be back for training camp and the Bruins European Vacation this fall.

The other centers in the system lack the experience or pedigree to be highly valuable, but may find themselves part of a trade package.  Not to be forgotten among the guys who were drafted at center is Blake Wheeler. We’ve seen him played exclusively on the wing here, Wheeler has the size, reach, speed and defensive prowess to make some people  ponder him at pivot.

Much has been made of the probability of the Bruins drafting Seguin and the need to then trade a center. First as Bergeron, Krejci, and Sequin have all played wing and will probably do so again this is not a given. Chiarelli has expressed his confidence that both Sequin and Hall can play all three forward positions so if the Oilers take Sequin and Boston fans are left to deal with those sloppy seconds, it doesn’t mean we will see Hall playing at the position he is best know for. Add in the fact that despite his paltry offensive numbers Vladimir Sobotka has a lot of fans in the Boston area and that he’s better at center than wing and you’re at four pivots  without even considering prospects or UFA’s.

Among those prospects are 2008 first round pick Zach Hamill who saw his first NHL action this season. Many expected him to make more appearances this year, especially after he helped lead rookie camp and was one of the final cuts during regular training camp.  Like Krejci, he’s a smaller player who’s more a skilled player than a grinder. He appears to have half a step or more of speed on Krejci. In his sole NHL appearance, he put in a more than creditable 12:08 of TOI with 1:36 of powerplay time. Both Bergeron and Savard were out of this game, and he finished with an assist and +1 against the high powered Washington Capitals.

Maxime Suave is another of the youngsters listed at center who has played at other positions which will probably help him into the NHL sooner.  I wanted him here after watching him in training camp and the preseason. He’s got speed, a willingness to shoot that on the whole is lacking on the Bruins, and just a touch of on ice swagger. The word that described him best at camp was raw. I can see him being the 13th forward to start the season if he’s doesn’t carve himself a top 9 spot in camp.  Like his draft year-mate Colbourne, Suave was signed to a pro contract late this season and played a handful of games for Providence.

Joe Colbourne is billed as “the second coming of Thornton” by some loudmouths. I hope that’s true, in fact if he turns out to have 2/3’s of the talent and skill of Joe Thornton I doubt he’ll ever be scrambling to find NHL work for as long as he’s healthy enough to play.  One of the things that the Bruins have been trying to do since Chiarelli took the reigns in Boston was get bigger at forward. at 6’5 he won’t be quite the largest player on the team, but he’s a whole lot taller, than Savard, Krejci, Recchi, Sobotka and either of the other prospects. Unfortunately at this point he’s still raw boned. He’s listed at five inches taller than Bergeron and four pounds less.  Like Wheeler he’ll need to fill out some before the size is good for anything but reach. Taken in the first round in 2008, he’s well regarded in a draft that looks like it’s going to take a while to creep into the NHL. Just about half of the first round, none of the second and just a handful of others have played in even one NHL game.