The first round of the playoffs may have been the best opening round as a whole in years. The Columbus Blue Jackets traded blows and goals with the Pittsburgh Penguins and had the Metropolitan division winners looking just a bit weak. The loss of David Backes due to a suspend-able hit by Brent Seabrook was clearly the tipping point of the series between the Saint Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks. The San Jose Sharks went from unmitigated domination of the Los Angeles Kings to going into the night with a whimper.

The Philadelphia Flyers played a pretty even series with the New York Rangers that came down to a memorable game seven decided by one goal; the series was also the coming out party for Steve Mason who put up a stellar 1.97 GAA and .939 sv%. The Alex Goligoski and Shawn Horcoff led Dallas Stars put a two game scare into the Anaheim Ducks before succumbing to a focused and superior team. In the battle between snowy Montreal and snowbird heaven Tampa Bay, the Lightning went down in the opening rounds only sweep, minus Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop. In the opening round the Boston Bruins lost the opening game to their Original Six rivals, and then laid them in the dust in four straight wins.

Biggest surprises of the first round:

  • 169 players having more goals than Sidney Crosby, including Luke Schenn, Bryan Allen, Raffi Torres, Jordan Caron and Devante Smith-Pelly
  • How much Jonathan Quick struggled in the first few games, and that Sutter didn’t go to Jones full time.
  • Paul Stastny ending a playoff run with well deserved accolades like “heroic performance” being thrown his way, even around all the love for the shiny new rookie.
  • Paul Martin weighing in at over a point per game. Yes, that Paul Martin.
  • Alex Goligoski gaining zero attention while playing 28:30 a night, putting up 4 points and being a +7 in a six game losing series.
  • How well the very young Colorado Avalanche held together through some very tough games.

Top 3 series of the opening round:

  1. Columbus Blue Jackets vs Pittsburgh Penguins, the pure drama in this matchup was amazing to watch.
  2. Minnesota Wild vs Colorado Avalanche; There is so much young potential in this series it is staggering, Coyle, Neiderrietter, Brodin and Spurgeon we’ll see more of this year, MacKinnon, Landeskog, Hishon, and Duchene we’ll have ot wait until fall for more from.
  3. Chicago Blackhawks vs Saint Louis Blues, as far as the best hockey played game in and game out this series wins, but the drama level wasn’t quiet as high as the other two series.

The 2012-13 season wasn’t one Carolina Hurricanes fans are going to holdup as a sign of a great things to come. Despite the arrival of Jordan Staal and Alex Semin they finished 13th in the east, and 26th in the NHL overall. Injuries to Cam Ward, and Dan Ellis, and (of course) Jeff Skinner would have doomed them even if their defense had been up to supporting a playoff run. With the loss of Bryan Allen, it was not. On the positive side Jiri Tlusty emerged as a dominant offensive presence. Further, having iced 35 skaters in the abbreviated 48 game season the organization got to see a good deal of the depth it has. With only four draft picks they took Elias Lindholm in the first round. 

The Hurricanes schedule to open the season is not easy. They square off with the Red Wings to open the season at home before hosting the Flyers. Then they depart for a trip to Pittsburgh and Washington before coming home to host the Los Angeles Kings. Stylistically, the Penguins and Flyers might be the least difficult, but the Flyers are much more physical, and the Penguins have a (slightly) better defense. They also play their first back to back of the season with the Capitals and Kings on the road then home.

Number of days 1-5: 7

Number of Cities: 3

Best Opponent: Los Angeles Kings

Weakest Opponent: Philadelphia Flyers

Home Games: 3

Projected Points: 3+

While I don’t expect the season to start well, they still have a formidable forward group, The blueline remains very interesting as well. With Faulk entering his 3rd NHL season we can expect more from him. Mike Komisarek is a complete wild card. Before his feud with Milan Lucic he was a very solid 4th defenseman, since then he has managed to slip entirely out of the NHL. If the prefeud Komisarek is evidence for a large part of the season  the Canes will likely have one of the better bargains in their locker room. Andrej Sekera is another player who could bring a big upside to the team. He’s capable of playing big minutes, he skates fairly well and the change of scenery could be all he needs to emerge as a name to know. As of now, they have 11 forwards and 6 defensemen listed on their roster, the fight for the other roster spots should reveal a great deal about the team.

The 2012-13 season wasn’t one Carolina Hurricanes fans are going to holdup as a sign of a great things to come. Despite the arrival of Jordan Staal and Alex Semin they finished 13th in the east, and 26th in the NHL overall. Injuries to Cam Ward, and Dan Ellis, and (of course) Jeff Skinner would have doomed them even if their defense had been up to supporting a playoff run. With the loss of Bryan Allen, it was not. On the positive side Jiri Tlusty emerged as a dominant offensive presence. Further, having iced 35 skaters in the abbreviated 48 game season the organization got to see a good deal of the depth it has. With only four draft picks they took Elias Lindholm in the first round. 

The Hurricanes schedule to open the season is not easy. They square off with the Red Wings to open the season at home before hosting the Flyers. Then they depart for a trip to Pittsburgh and Washington before coming home to host the Los Angeles Kings. Stylistically, the Penguins and Flyers might be the least difficult, but the Flyers are much more physical, and the Penguins have a (slightly) better defense. They also play their first back to back of the season with the Capitals and Kings on the road then home.

Number of days 1-5: 7

Number of Cities: 3

Best Opponent: Los Angeles Kings

Weakest Opponent: Philadelphia Flyers

Home Games: 3

Projected Points: 3+

While I don’t expect the season to start well, they still have a formidable forward group, The blueline remains very interesting as well. With Faulk entering his 3rd NHL season we can expect more from him. Mike Komisarek is a complete wild card. Before his feud with Milan Lucic he was a very solid 4th defenseman, since then he has managed to slip entirely out of the NHL. If the prefeud Komisarek is evidence for a large part of the season  the Canes will likely have one of the better bargains in their locker room. Andrej Sekera is another player who could bring a big upside to the team. He’s capable of playing big minutes, he skates fairly well and the change of scenery could be all he needs to emerge as a name to know. As of now, they have 11 forwards and 6 defensemen listed on their roster, the fight for the other roster spots should reveal a great deal about the team.

Last year at about this time we took a look at some of the players expected to break their own personal glass ceiling.

 

David Perron: since the end of last season Perron has been traded to a a new address, but during the year is of course the story we’re after. The previous year was clearly his best on a points per game, and at a .912 ppg and a slide back from an elite level isn’t surprising. Unfortunately Perron’s slide was a bit worse than taking him back to average. His career PPG is .582, last seasons .520 probbly wrote his ticket out of town.

Sam Gagner: With another year of rising stats, it gets harder and harder to overlook Gagner. At just under .80 ppg on the season, arguing that Gagner is not capable of being a top flight center. The Oilers have possibly more problems than solutions, but Gagner is clearly not one of the problems. The only thing he needs to do now is peg the meter at over .70 fo a whole season.

Bryan Allen: Allen had an utterly average offensive season last year. His hits and blocked shots were right on the mean. And for just the fourth season in his career he got a taste of the playoffs. This time he doubled his career playoff games played. In game two against the Detroit Red Wings he picked up his first playoff point an assist.

Justin Falk: In his first full season withe Wild Falk was pushed aside by the emergence of Jonas Brodin. The arrival of  Ryan Suter also pushed out a player or two. Between his own still developing maturity, the lockout, and  the arrival of others Falk took a bit of step back last season. This year he will be a member of the New York Rangers.

Anton Khudobin: Playing  nearly a third of Boston’s games Khudobin put up  a very solid .920% with only sporadic stars on a Bruins team that never seemed to get out of third gear. At times he outplayed Tuukka Rask who signed an enormous contract this year. The Boston Bruins went on to the Stanley cup finals, in part because Khudobin’s solid play allowed them to protect Rask from the injuries he’s shown he is prone to him the past. This season he will be sharing the crease with the injury challenged Cam Ward in Raleigh.

Brandon Sutter: Last season was his second best goals per game season, and his first (s0rta) full season in Pittsburgh. The playoffs saw him gain just 3 points in fifteen games, but given how poorly the team did in the second round, it is unlikely much of the blame falls as the feet of one of the scions hockey’s first families.

Jiri Tlusty: If there is one player spotlighted last year who had the year I projected it is clearly this one. I projected a 20 goal season, before the lockout became every NHL fans living nightmare. I’m not sure even his biggest fans expected him to succeed wildly not just in having his best ppg total on the season, but simply his best career season.I’d pegged hi for 25g/55p across an 82 game season, in the truncated 48 game he had 23 goals, and 48 points both career highs. With the depth around him at both win and center, how high he flys this season will be limited only by how hard he works.

Look for a guide to next seasons potential breakouts in the coming weeks.

This division had both western conference finalists last year, despite low point totals from all five teams.

Phoenix: The Coyotes had a really good going until the ran into Quick and Co. Their young players were maturing before the world’s eyes, some of the elder statesman were having career years, and Mike Smith was every bit as good as Quick. Some of their older players have moved on, but the next generation is more than ready to pick up the slack. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mikkel Boedker will be household names in the Western Conference by seasons end.

Dallas: The Stars added several names in the off season; Whitney, Jagr, Roy up front should be a huge boost. In a shortened season where Jagr and Lehtonen’s injuries from last season should have had time to heal fully and the pair should have been able to get to full strength and range of motion in all body parts. Now if they’d just get Jamie Benn under contract or traded off for a kings ransom they’d have not only a shot at the division title, but seeing the second round.

Los Angeles; The Kings did it all, and then did nothing. They are returning almost their entire championship roster. One wonders if they lockout will help or hurt this team. Any Cup hangover should be long gone, but not many of the players have played overseas or in the AHL in the extended break. Even with an enormous wealth of talent of his own, and an unmatched blueline in front of him, it is unlikely J Quick has a repeat of last years numbers. This means for Orange County to see a second Cup parade this year, the offense has to actually work more often than one in five games.

San Jose: One way or the other, this is likely the end of the line for this core group. Last year was a big regression over previous seasons. It’s cup or bust, which oddly puts them in a similar position to the Chicago Blackhawks a couple years back, although with a much higher percentage of their roster on the downslope of their career. If Stuart slides into a #3 or #4 role, the team is in good shape, if he’s leading the team in minutes things are quite unlikely to be pretty.

Anaheim:  Last years Ducks were dead on a arrival, fueled partly by persistent scapegoating of Bobby Ryan in lieu of actually fixing the lack of depth at any position. While I like Bryan Allen as much as anyone, and Sheldon Souray was a big slice of what was right in Dallas last year, anyone who looks at this blueline and dreams of drafting thirtieth is probably indulging in a controlled substance. That said, Hiller is entirely capable of stealing a season this short and putting the team in the playoffs with little regard to how well his team plays in front of him, if he’s healthy, and the top forwards are motivated and in sync this team is very dangerous.

Top dog(s): Coyotes and Kings are too close to call.

This season will see lots of players in unfamiliar situations. Some are on new teams, some have had their teams overhauled, and others will be climbing up the depth chart. With all the movement, all the acquired experience, some players are due to rise and rise fast.

Jiri Tlusty has spent two full seasons in the Carolina Hurricanes system after three years with the Leafs. In that time he’s only hit double digits in goals twice. Last season was one of those years, and this might just be his year. In his 228 career games he’s go a meager 74 points, this year don’t be surprised if he cracks the 20 goal and fifty point plateaus, 25/55 isn’t outside possibility either.

Brandon Sutter has the unenviable job of filling Jordan Staal’s spot in the Pittsburgh Penguins depth chart. The good news for him is that everyone is expected to start the season healthy, meaning even if he’s on the ice, given the Penguins depth at forward, he’ll be the third or fourth player most opposing defenses look for, at least for a little while.

Anton Khudobin regardless of who owns the title of number one goaltender in Boston by the end of the season, all Khudobin has to do to have played his last AHL game is simply play smart. If he can do a solid job even as the number two, he will get a lot of interest from other teams when he becomes a UFA next July 1.

Justin Falk I’m a firm believer the best thing you can do for a young defenseman’s development is give them a good mentor. Falk and the Wild’s other youngins are going to have Suter to lean on. Look for his points to double, and his plus-minus to get a lot easier to look at.

Bryan Allen has never been known for his offensive touch. This year he’ll be playing alongside guys like Cam Fowler, and behind Perry, Getzlaf, and possibly Ryan. If Hiller can regain his mojo Allen might just have personal best point totals, and make it to the post season for the first time in since the last lockout. With all the offensive talent on this team, him hitting 30-35 points, as much as ten more than his previous career high is almost a given.

David Perron given the injuries this man has faced in the last couple seasons, last year might be considered a breakout season. 42 points in 57 games is a solid contribution on a very defensive minded team. Do not be surprised if he pops in seventy points this season. It is more than within his talent, and that even allows for the defensive nature of the Blues system.

Sam Gagner Its hard to remember that despite the 8 point night Gagner had about an average season for himself last year. Coming into this season though, there is no reason he can’t get slotted in between top six talent. Eberle, Hall, Paajarvi, Smyth, and potentially Yakupov this team should have a good amount of offense.

Lots, and lots of action on day one with perhaps the most talked about contract going to someone who only held the spotlight for one season, Jason Garrison. I’m not a big fan of contracts over five or six year, so I won’t assassinate anyone based on those, but there were a number of not bad signings, and only a few of the horrible ones.

Best Low Risk Contract:

Brad Boyes to the New York Islanders. Boyes has all the skill he needs to become a terror to defenses and goaltenders across the NHL, anyone who pots seventy-six goals in two seasons, has to have them. What he hasn’t had in recent years is anything like consistency. If he get’s it back and hits the 20 goal mark the Islanders are well ahead on the deal, if he hits 25 to 30 the Islanders made money.

Worst Collection of Signings:

Montreal Canadiens, some of the players signed yesterday are going to contribute and be a big part of the team, but they don’t address the teams biggest underlying issue: offense. The team has finished 20th, 23rd, and 26th in goals for the last three seasons and yesterday’s additions don’t address that.

Best Blueline Upgrade:

Anaheim Ducks, Sheldon Souray will bring some experience to help fine tune Cam Fowler and some of their other prospects, Bryan Allen is a smart stay at home defenseman who’s probably destined to become Hiller’s very best friend.

Worst Sentimental Signing:

Dustin Penner who scored seven goals in the regular season, and three in the post seasons was brought back for $3.25 million, which is a lot to pay for someone who produces like a 4th liner.

Best Stealth Move:

Jeff Zatkoff was picked up by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and might just be their goalie of the future. The American netmidner has had success at the college level, played well in Manchester and could unseat one or two of the names ahead of him if given an honest shot.

Best Team Movements:

Every team that didn’t over pay in a horribly thin market.

 

Assuming the top UFA’s to be like Suter and Parise are not available at the dead line, here’s a look at the best teams in the NHL and what could be done to put them over the top.

New York Rangers:

The Rangers lead the east in total points,Lundqvist is a beast and the team is in sync. What the could use is a little nitrous in the offensive tank. Of all six division leaders only the Panthers have less goals. The highest scoring left wing on the team is rookie speedster Carl Hagelin, making Ray Whitney a solid pick to slide in as an offensive upgrade who’s played well in a system that requires a defensive accountability. Better he’s old enough John Tortorella won’t hate him on sight.

Detroit Red Wings:

As always a well balanced team, but a look at the minutes played by defensemen says there is a clear divide between the guys Babcock and company trust and everyone else. A veteran defenseman who can contribute to the system is the item to covet.  Jaroslav Spacek would slide nicely into the 5-6 if he get’s some powerplay time at worst he’ll provide a different look than the crew that has them 16th in the NHL.

Boston Bruins:

It’s hard to tweak the defending champs when they have the best goals differential in the NHL, and have strong special teams. That said they’ve suffered some serious brain cramps lately, and Nathan Horton’s outlook is rather murky. Claude Julien and Peter Chiarelli have a near fetish for depth on defense, and Marek Zidliky could almost certainly be talked into waiving his NTC, and there have been hints about Chris Stewart of the St Louis Blues being available. As short term stand-in for Nathan Horton he’s intriguing.

Vancouver Canucks:

Statistically this team is very similar to some of the Red Wings teams of the past, but I don’t see the same mental makeup. Those teams could deal with other teams playing a more gritty style and still win, I’m not sure this team can. Someone who combines enough skill to be on the ice fairly often, and enough composure to roll with the punches as they come up against imposing teams. Bryan Allen might be an  option, he’s likely to throw the body, and can eat up some of the PK time in the playoffs.

Florida Panthers:

While many aren’t quite ready to put the word “contender” on the board next to their name, they’ve led their division most of the season. Upgrading a 23rd ranked penalty kill going into the second season is never a bad idea. For that Hal Gill could be a their savior. Offensively there are a number of players who could help them climb a bit closer to the top offensive teams in the NHL.

San Jose Sharks:

The 26th ranked penalty kill isn’t something any team wants going into the playoffs. Mark Eaton is a UFA to be, and currently plays a good bit of time shorthanded on the Islanders 8th ranked PK, so is Steve Staios.

Philadelphia Flyers:

A defensive upgrade is a must. If they want more than a rental, or someone who’s not discussed here it probably mean sacrificing a roster player like Briere or Schenn. Having given up the most goals of the top four teams in each conference they’ll be lucky to escape the first round without some sort of fix. If the Wild become sellers or swappers, Clayton Stoner might be a good fit, likewise if the Stars sell Souray could be on the table.

Nashville Predators:

Pekka Rinne has been huge for this team, and Weber and Suter have put in their normal performances that earn superlatives like at rate similar to Scott Gomez’s dollars per point.  What the team needs is a skilled goal scorer. They aren’t desperate for goals at 12th in the league which is one behind the New York Rangers, but they are led in goals by Hornquist and Fisher who each have fifteen goals. They very quietly have the 2nd best power-play in the NHL but as we saw last year special teams don’t always decide championships. Cap space not being a serious issue, taking a flyer on Alex Semin might not be the worst idea ever, but for a player who can add some playoff experience, Jason Blake has some attractions, as does Ray Whitney.

There’s more than one team in the NHL that needs a good defensemen (or in some cases five or six). The after looking like baby seals being clubbed by hunters today many are adding the Philadelphia Flyers to the list. The Washington Capitals could also use a defensive minded defenseman.  Shocking as it is to know a team who counts both Steve Montador and Sean O’Donnell among its core. Here’s a look at some of the UFA’s to be that might be rentable.

Josh Gorges may have become the odd man out with the Habs picking up Kaberle. Yes they only have two defensemen signed for next season, but Subban, Price, Kostitsyn, and others due new deals and concerns the salary cap will go down, something has to give.  Good penalty killer, blocks a lot of shots.

Hal Gill possibly the standard bearer for stay at home defensemen. Was an integral part of the Penguins rise to the Stanley Cup a few years back, and won’t get many more chances to get the Cup. Quiet, not especially physical but good in the locker room too. With the blueline getting healthier (sorta) he’s probably the safest bet not to be extended on a blueline with lots of older players.

Francois Beauchemin the Ducks need some sort of shakeup, while this would be a huge piece of their defense to move, and they’d probably want a very nice return, he’s averaged over five minutes of short handed time on ice this season.

Ryan Suter I honestly don’t expect him to be moved, even if it means the Predators lose him for nothing to free agency, but he has to be considered the best of the pending UFA defensemen, and possibly the best pending UFA overall.

Bryan Allen is playing important minutes for the Carolina Hurricanes, the big  defensemen play hard, kills penalties, hits and blocks shots. Carolina is in need of a lot so an appealing package might be easier to put together than some think.

Scott Hannan waited a bit to long to sign a new contract and got stuck at just above league minimum. This hasn’t stopped him from being 2nd on the Flames in SHTOI or leading them in blocked shots.