Last year after signing a still debated contract Ilya Kovalchuk got off to a poor start and was the bench mark for rookie performance. This year, I can think of no star more deserving than Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes. No one is sure if the tailspin his career is the result of guilt from potentially ending his own brothers career, or the extended confusion caused by not being able to find the other Erik who used to share the ice with him.

Forwards:

  • The Edmonton Oilers once again had the first overall pick in the draft, and he is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. While some questioned his ability to make an immediate impact in the NHL, he  is currently leading tied for the lead in rookie scoring.
  • Ask 100 hockey fans who’s tied with RNH for the rookie scoring lead, and you might get a double handful who come up with Luke Adam center for the Buffalo Sabres. Nugent-Hopkins has the better +/-, Adam wins more faceoffs and has achieved his points in significantly less minutes.
  • Right behind them with one less point is Nashville’s second leading scorer Craig Smith. Given the NHL’s lack of a picture to identify him, one can only assume he is Amish, which makes his career choice amazing, and his success highly admirable. Of the top three scorers he is clearly the most physical, and is currently on pace for 82 hits.

Defensemen:

  • Adam Larsson of the New Jersey Devils leads all rookies in time on ice with a mind boggling average shift length of 59 seconds. The scoring hasn’t come yet, but with nearly 24 minutes of ice time a night it has to come eventually for last June’s #4 pick and 1st defenseman.
  • Jake Gardiner skated onto the scene in training camp for the Maple Leafs and earned himself a spot on the crowded Toronto blueline. So far the small, slick skating defenseman has five assists on the season, enough for him to lead all rookie defensemen in scoring.
  • The Sabres second entry in the race for rookie recognition is Marc-Andre Gragnani, second in rookie scoring and with the best +/- among all rookie defensemen.

Goaltenders:

  • Sneering at the trend towards ultra-large goaltenders is Buffalo Sabres backup goalie Jhonas Enroth, listed at 5′ 10 he’s still putting up big numbers. Through four games he’s got a 1.29 GAA and .958Sv%.
  • With four starts Jacob Markstrom of the Florida Panthers is already endearing himself to fans and teammates. Slightly larger than Enroth at six and a half feet tall, he leads all rookies in saves and is sporting a2.05 GAA and .944 Sv%
  • Fussen Germany and San Jose Sharks goalie Thomas Greiss is putting up solid numbers for the  perennial regular season favorites. His 1.99 GAA and .928 Sv% are not just solid, but better by a wide margin than starter Antti Niemi’s.

Eric Staal’s numbers heading into today’s action, his line is 3-2-5 -14 through 13 games. The -14 is particularly significant because the next nearest forward is only a -5. Staal is currently averaging 19:58 a game in TOI, Anthony Steward who gets just 7:48 a night also has 3 goals and is a +1.

Every dynasty has its end. The Hapsburgs, the Mings, the Boston Celtics, and so too does the Red Wings organization find itself at the end of its time as an elite power. It is one of those inevitabilities of  human history. Some times great dynasties come to an end because they simply run out of heirs. In other cases outside forces conspire to tear them down, or simply overshadow them. Other times the faith in the cause or the bloodline runs thin and the pinnacle of the dynasty is simply no longer great. Whatever the cause, the Detroit Red Wings are there.

In 2008 when they last won the Stanley Cup they were the best team everyone wanted to be. They gave up less goals than anyone, they had the best goal differential and won their division by a jaw dropping 24 points. The next year they would slide into the the playoffs with three straight losses, 51 wins, and having given up 60 more goals than the year before on their way to losing in the Cup finals. Fast forward to last year : the goal differential shrank from +73 to +20, they would lose in the second round for the second year in a row to the San Jose Sharks, and Lidstrom would finish the year as a minus player for the first time in his career.

This year they are on pace to score 179 goals. That is a number than any of the lottery teams has scored in the past several seasons. Their goals for goals against differential is a negative number, and if they playoffs started today they’d be looking at a long golfing season. Only perennial lottery team the New York Islanders have scored less goals than the Red Wings this season, and that team has played fewer games, and has a better goals against average. Dire is perhaps the only word that can describe the situation. Amazingly the St Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets are the only cushions between the Motor City heroes and the conference basement.

To make matters worse, they don’t have much in the way of prospects to call up. In the past decade they’ve only made four first round selections. One of those Jakub Kindl is attempting to stick with the team for the third time. 2007 selection Brendan Smith has yet to earn a call up despite good numbers in the AHL last year. Thomas McCollum was picked at the end of the first round in 2008, and has earned one NHL appearance and gave up three goals to the Blues in less than fifteen minutes, he’s assigned to the Wing’s ECHL affiliate this year. Their 2010 first round pick is a college athlete currently attending Notre Dame, Riley Sheehan has been middling on the Fighting Irish team. For later round picks, you have to go all the way back to 2006 draft class to find three picks who have hit double digit games played in the NHL. One of those three is Shawn Matthias is  Florida Panther, right wing Jan Mursak has 1 point in 19 games and is currently on the injured reserve, and 2006 left wing pick Cory Emmerton is has only broken double digit minutes once this season, despite heading into their last game with as many points as Cleary, Helm or Abdelkader.

Over the last several years the talent leaving has been an even bigger problem than what has been drafted. Brian Rafalski was lost to retirement last year to be replaced by the well traveled Ian White. Chris Chelios is long gone, Shannahan is now one of the NHL’s best known suits, and Lidstrom while still on the ice, is not the player he was when he last hoisted the Stanley Cup. The teams forwards don’t dominate any more, and depth at every position is lacking.

The brain trust in Detroit has a stark choice to make: tarnish the reputation of the organization by riding aging players down in flames or give them the opportunity to help other teams and restock the team at the same time. Of their top five scoring forwards last season only two had a positive plus minus. All five of them are 31 or older. Even if they managed to restock with a set of high end players like their division rivals the Chicago Blackhawks did, that takes 4-5 years and that would put Zetterberg and Franzen the youngest of the set at 35, and Bertuzzi would be at least 40.

In stark contrast to their neighbors to the north the Calgary Flames they are largely unencumbered by no trade and no movement clauses. Even with a contract that stretches until 2020, Franzen would catch a return of at least a first round pick and a prospect. He’s got size, plays both wings and has been to the promised land. For Pavel Datsyuk the sky is literally the limit, a quiet conference call with the teams he’d be open to moving to could yield the largest haul since Gretzky was shipped to the Oilers, possibly larger if a contract extension were worked into it. Even the teams that normally shy away from the ultra long contracts are likely to step to the plate if Zetterberg is offered up. Without a non-movement clause the 2008 Conn-Smyth winner opens the field to anyone who can pony up the picks, prospects and roster players that most appeal to Jim Dellevano, Ken Holland and their advisers.

A look at the ISS, TSN and other prospect rankings for this years draft class says there is plenty of potential to turn their defense around in short order if they have multiple first and second round picks. If they sold off early and mostly went with picks and prospects they might even have a shot at Yakupov. With all their talent in place  they are one point above the lottery as winter closes in. If they hit ctrl+alt+delete soon enough they have a chance of regaining dynasty status in two or three year and staying their a long, long time.

The NHL entry draft always has a ton of drama surrounding it. Most of it centers on the first selection and teams that may or may not be dealing from the bottom of the deck to improve their lottery odds. In some cases it is a team that trades away its known talent around the deadline for high picks, or a bushel of middle picks they hope to use to move up at the draft. Often the chase for high picks in the draft begins two or three seasons out with projections of a draft class that might or might not be stronger than the ones on either side of it.

This year despite a lackluster twenty five points in his seven games is Nail Yakupov is the consensus number one pick. Comparisons by scouts already have him as the same level of player as Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin.

@ @ @ and he will be only the third Russian to go no 1 (Kovalchuk/Ovechkin) That's pretty good company
@dominictiano
Dominic Tiano
@ @ @ barring injury, yakupov will make it impossible to not go no 1. No chl plyr has his impact this year
@BryanThiel_88
Bryan Thiel

Of the bottom seven teams from last year, only three of those teams are in the same zone now. The Senators, the Jets, the Blue Jackets are all performing poorly thus far. While it is only a few games into the season history tells ups the NHL’s standings at any point in October are less important than any other month. Most would say these three teams are performing at about the projected level.

Of the team that were in the playoffs or that no mans land between the top eight in each conference and the draft lottery some have had significant talent leave without a compensating inflow of talent. Highest on that list is the lost of Ilya Bryzgalov by the Phoenix Coyotes. The Dallas Stars also hold a prominent place on the list as well with the loss of Brad Richards. With the post-Iginla era cresting the horizon the Flames who missed the playoffs last year might not have to do much hit the lottery.

Already playing the western conferences toughest division, they lost a goalie who has been nominated for the Vezina in 2010 and played 202 of their previous 246 regular season games. The Coyotes have also had a very long running set of negotiations with Kyle Turris over his contract. The combination of the loss of a center on a team without much depth their to a labor dispute, and a world class goalie has the potential to be huge.

The Dallas Stars, one of the NHL teams going through ownership drama, did bring in two time 30 goal man Michael Ryder the talent shipped out is not balanced. With James Neal sent to the Penguins at the deadline, and Richards lost to free agency there is still a big gap between what the team was and where it is now. Michael Ryder turned in a playoff performance that made it possible for him to get an NHL contract this year, and has looked solid thus far how long will it last? Ryder has a well documented history of highly irregular production. If he’s producing regularly at the end of January might he get traded to a team needing to get better for a playoff push? Picking up a second round pick (or potentially more) for the second year of his contract would have to be tempting.

Jarome Iginla is 34 years old.  Jarome Iginla is playing on the team with the second highest average age in the NHL. Jarome Iginla is playing on a team that hands out no movement clauses like Halloween candy. Jarome Iginla is awesome, no really. Awesome. He’s never had a center who could stay within shouting distance of him and has still put up huge numbers. Unfortunately for the man with the longest name in NHL history, he’s also on a team with minimal hope of winning the Stanley Cup before his current contract expires after next season. For him a move to a strong team he could put over the top might become appealing, especially if he leaves on good enough terms to return in two years (see Keith Tkachuk) to the city he’s spent his career in. For the team, getting back prospects or picks and moving closer to this seasons holy grail might be irresistible. Done right it can be as well received as Ray Bourque’s departure from Boston.

While the Edmonton Oilers have a rather Penguins like string of high draft picks already and are off to a start that has them tied for sixth in points it is unlikely they stay there. After tie breakers they are in 9th in the west.  Worse, through four games they have nine goals, five of them credited to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.  While there’s no doubt adding Yakupov to the lineup could take a young offensive unit to the heights it hasn’t seen since a certain trade with Los Angeles before most of their roster started playing hockey, the NHL isn’t the same animal it was then.  So if they somehow managed to get the first pick in the draft, again, and decided to build their blueline up instead, Mathew Dumba, Nick Ebert, Ryan Murray, Jacob Trouba are just a few of the high end defensemen who could be picked up with an extra pick or two in the top forty-five picks.

The fun quest all season will be to see who can get publicly hammered with the least attention for it.

One of the few annual stories that is always interesting is the race for the Calder trophy. There’s always a high draft pick or two from the summers draft in the mix. A couple guys from the AHL or Europe who made the jump to the big show, and a few 2nd round or later picks who might just steal the show.

Some of the guys to watch this season:

  • Adam Larsson has two nearly insurmountable handicaps in the Calder race, first he’s a defensemen, and second he doesn’t project to be a big goal scorer. On the other hand he’s averaging more time on ice than Lidstrom, Pronger, Bouwmeester, Pietrangelo, Hedman, Vishnovsky and Seabrook.
  • Devante Smith-Pelly hasn’t quite hit his stride yet, but the coaches in Anaheim must like the six even two eleven winger as he’s picked up his first assist and earned more ice time in each of the Ducks three games. With Jason Blake out for a couple months there will be more ice time available.
  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is either the second coming of Wayne Gretzky and Jesus or not yet ready for the NHL, it just depends on who you ask. The scrawny Burnaby native has four of the five goals for the Oilers this season without a single assist. Unfortunately he’s got a faceoff percentage that’s equal to his age and less than half his shooting percentage.
  • Luke Adam of the Sabres is currently leading all rookies in scoring with solid 3-3-6 +2 line. The 202lb left shot is like Smith-Pelly probably handicapped by not being either a first round pick or in a market the media pays a huge amount of attention too.
  • Gabriel Landeskog is off to a nice start with two goals and an assist as the the Avalanche start the season with some momentum. The likely-former Kitchener Ranger is good at most of the game and skating beside Matt Duchene, another recent high pick.
  • Craig Smith is another player handicapped by market who is off to a good start. The Predators young gun is a fourth round pick in 2009. A product of the USHL, at 22 he’s the oldest of the rookie skaters to separate himself from the pack thus far.

It will be interesting to see if any goalies can insert themselves into the mix this season. I don’t yet see any on the horizon but the NHL is frequently unpredictable.

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

The New York Rangers went big game hunting this summer. They managed to take down the biggest game on the free agency market. Even with Brad Richards ( @BRichards_1991) in the fold the offense is still a question mark because there are several players who haven’t even looked like they knew it was their job to score pulling down big checks the last couple seasons.

 

High Card:

Henrik Lundqvist is the kingpin and you just can’t argue how strong he is in net. He’s had a sv% over .920 the last two seasons and played almost 150 regular season games off in that time. He’s had a total 17 nights off in two years. Marion Gaborik missed more games than that last season.

Wild Card:

Perhaps the Rangers should see if one of their players will change their name to Robin Hood. If they can swing it, perhaps they can also get Maid Marion to show up. Twenty games missed last season, twenty less goals than the season before. This from the highest paid forward on the team. Forty goal scorer or twenty? Marion Gaborik needs to be the former if this team is going to make a deep playoff run with or without Richards, Staal or anyone else Gaborik needs to man up and chase down some goals.

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

Who could have predicted last seasons New Jersey Devils results? Not me. Just about everyone had them listed as a top five team in the NHL. This season is the expected redemption. I’m not sure how I’ll replace my ilya Vs the Rookies campaign if they come out swinging this season but I’m sure some other team will have a slow, painful public death and possibly it won’t be an attempt at Steve Jobs like martyrdom.

 

High Card:

Entering last season you could have your choice of who to put here, Kovalchuk, Brodeur, Parise, Volchenkov it almost didn’t matter.  This year Zach Parise has to provide the drive to turn the page on last season. It won’t be easy given the amount of turnover on the team and the lingering questions about the clubs future in the owners box, the goal crease and on the blueline but he’s the captain, the fan favoite and one of the few players free from the shame of last seasons dismal performence.

Wild Card:

When you’re a sure first ballot hall of famer a bad season is a surprise, a massive disappointment, and unlikely to cost you your job, even if it turns into a second season. Even factoring in injuries, unfamiliar bodies on the blueline and the fatigue of having played in the Olympics the previous year the question of how much of Brodeur’s wilting last season was simply age. He enters this season at thirty-nine with 1132 regular season and 181 post season NHL games under his belt. For comparison Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson between them have 978 combined regular and post season games.  If he comes back next season will depend on a lot of factors, and that’s another one of the questions surrounding the guy who has spent nearly 80,000 minutes between the pipes for the New Jersey Devils.

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

 

The Kings have been slowly climbing the ladder towards the top of the NHL for a couple seasons. Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown are three pretty good building blocks. Add in players like Rob Scuderi who have won the Cup elsewhere and you get a strong matrix to add pieces to. This summer two potentially huge pieces were added, Simone Gagne and Mike Richards.

High Card:

Anze Kopitar needs to take advantage of added weapons and facing thinner defenses this season. Opposing teams will now have to honor the threat of Mike Richards as well. With two legitimate #1 centers the team has the opportunity to score some serious goals, and Kopitar has all the skill he needs to embarrass the opposition. With Gagne, Penner, Brown and the rest on board it is time for Kopitar to aim for the 100 point mark.

Wild Card:

Can Mike Richards shed the if not apathy then certainly lowered interest of the past season or two? If he can turn back into the hungry, aggressive SOB that made opposing fan bases hate and respect him the team he could well be able to raise the Cup with his new team. The other part of the equation is how well will he adjust to a new team, the western conference travel, a new coach and a roster that includes only one person he’s played with in the NHL? He also won’t be the captain here and that could be either good or bad for his focus.

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

The Winged Wheel is looking a bit different than it did when they last won it all. While undeniably they are more gritty and less likely to be physically intimidated they are also older, slower and less skilled. If anyone had said three years ago that Mike Commodore, Ian White and Todd Bertuzzi would all wear the Red Wings Jersey at oncepeople would assume either a massive change leadership or insanity. We know for sure there hasn’t been a chance in leadership, on the last one we’ll wait for the jury to respond.

High Card:

Datsyuk.

 

Wild Card:

Nicklas Lidstrom. It is clear to everyone who watches hockey that the Detroit Captain has lost a step or three in the last couple years. This says more elegantly much about him receiving the Norris Trophy last season than I ever could. He’s still one of the smartest defensemen in the NHL, still able to make great passes and shoot the puck, but I don’t think players hold him in awe the way they used to. There’s a good reason for this, for the first time in his career last year he was a minus player. Nicklas Lidstrom, a double digit minus player a concept so alien one can only assume the people who cast ballots for the Norris assumed it was a persistent typo.  If he can get back to the form he had two or three seasons ago the Wings have a lot to look forward to in what may be his fair well tour. If he plateaus at last seasons level or slips further the Wings can look forward to a long summer to rest up and scout.

 

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

The Senators had one of their worst seasons last year. Not just statistically, but in terms of performance of those on the ice. They weren’t fun to watch, and it was clear even with all the walking wounded and star eyed AHL prospects levied into the roster that more than one veteran was counting the days until they didn’t have to interrupt their golfing, hunting and self pity with hockey. There were some bright spots, Bobby Butler put up 21 points in 36 games while shuttling between Ottawa and Binghamton, Erk Karlsson nearly doubled his points production in a fifth more games, and Jason Spezza ended his season with a four game points streak and healthy.

 

High Card:

Key veterans are all motivated to stop being the division punch line. Given age, health and consistency concerns among Aldredsson, Spezza and Anderson it’s hard to say which  (if any) will emerge as the rock the teams upward climb from last seasons futility will rest upon.  All three are capable of carrying play and team for stretches, who knows maybe they all get in the zone at once.

Wild Card:

Youth, youth, youth. If Zibanejad, Karlsson, Butler, Cohen, Rundblad, and the enigmatic Filatov can play near potential this year the Senators are going to be a hell of a lot of fun to watch. The Sens Sixpack has all the talent to be the core of the team for the next ten years and could easily spark a Chicago like renaissance. But, given what has been said about the attitude of certain players in Ottawa, the vast age gulf between them and team captain Alfredsson, and the lack of a true #1 defenseman to guide the backend, one wonders what this group will do and how well.