Every season there are players who because of injuries, changes in coaches, or family issues just fall off a cliff in terms of performance or their interaction with their team. The following year some players bounce back. In some cases it will take an additional year to get back to form, and some just never make it. This season there’s a handful of notable players who might just reclaim who and what they were.

Niklas Backstrm

Last year was the worst season of Backstrom’s professional career. He made it into only twenty one games. His record was a dismal 5-11-2, and the less said about his personal stats the better. Let’s not forget this is a Vezina quality net minder with a championship pedigree. What would a good season for Backstrom be? Sixteen post season wins would be great but first you have to get there. A thirty or more win regular season, and a save percentage .914 and up are more than possible with the team he has in front of him.

Loui Eriksson

The counterbalance to Tyler Seguin in a massive trade Eriksson had a 36 goal season on his resume when he arrived and managed to scrape together just ten in his first season in one of the most scrutinized hockey markets on the planet. Part of the problem was getting two concussions, one at the flying elbow of John Scott. Part of it was less minutes in a much more defensive system. This season he’s likely to be playing on the top line and the minimum Bruins fans will accept is a 25 goal 65 point season.

Mike Ribiero

An ignoble season playing for the Coyotes ended in him being bought out. It is arguable that his issues were a prime contributor to the Coyotes missing the playoffs. This season brings a news start for the 34 year old. The Nashville Predators extended him a one year contract and the opportunity to prove he can stick to irritating just his opponents.

Michael Del Zotto

Del Zotto is 24 year old USHL alumni who at the top of his game was over half a point per game. The young defenseman was sent to Nashville last season after starting his career with the Rangers. He was not retained. This year he’s on a defense that’s in flux and with more offensive upside than the Predators, and more structure than the current Rangers. A good season for Del Zotto is should see him back over the 25 point mark.

Dany Heatley

The Anaheim Ducks are the 33 year old’s fifth team. His goal production has been in decline the last few years. Part of that is undoubtedly the lack of a world class offensive minded center. Another part has been nagging injuries and the inevitability of Father Time leaning on him. With either Getzlaf or Kesler up front and Fowler and Lindholm moving the puck on the backed there’s a chance of him reversing his declining numbers. Improving on last years -18 and just 12 goals shouldn’t be too much of an issue, a 30 goal season may still be possible. Among other positive elements are getting to play with fellow former Minnesota Wild Clayton Stoner.

It is a truism in sports; football, and hockey most of all that defense wins championships. We’ve seen it year after year. This year it seems to be adding a wrinkle to itself. Powerplays are costing teams games. Not by failing to produce, but by favoring offense so heavily, they aren’t prepared to play responsibly.

The Dallas Stars in game two of their series with the Anaheim Ducks were down two to one in the third. They were on the powerplay. On the ice are Valeri Nichushkin, Sergei Gonchar, Colton Scevoir, Cody Eakin, and Trevor Daley. Gonchar at age 40 is not in any way the skater he was ten or fifteen years ago. Nichushkin is rookie who is not only in his first NHL season, but his first season playing hockey in North America. Facing them were Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Getzlaf, Cam Fowler, and Ben Lovejoy. Either Getzlaf or Fowler deserve watching, and if you fall asleep at the switch with both of them on the ice, you deserve what happens next. The Stars did.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a lead last night, they went on a powerplay, and lost it. All the momentum they had, and it was notable, the disorder of the Blue Jackets was equally notable. But the Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, the same man who was in charge of a very mushy team USA roster not long ago, puts out a PP of Malkin, Crosby, Niskanen, Kunitz an Neal against a team that had nine short handed goals in the regular season. The most defensively capable of that group is probably the 34 year old Chris Kunitz. As you know, the BlueJackets scored, the Penguins did not and the scramble began. Momentum was reversed, an the game ended ugly for Penguins fans.

In the first game of their series, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced the Montreal Canadiens.  The Bolts are up 2-1 on home ice, a raucous crowd is making the building shake. P.K. Subban is in the box for slashing.  Onto the ice storm Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, they are joined by Ondrej Palat, Ryan Callahan and completing the unit is Valeri Filppula. We can argue about who the best defender in that group is, its probably Callahan, but it doesn’t matter. They got cute, and got beat by Brian Gionta setting up Lars Eller. To highlight how little offense the pair produced only seven more points than rookie Ondrej Palat, and neither actually surpassed Stamkos who was limited to 37 games and 40 points, while Gionta and Eller played 81 an 77 respectively. While the teams went back and forth scoring on a game that went to overtime, the Lightning never led again, and lost the game.

This is a feature that will run about every two weeks with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.

 

Players:

  • Dion Phanuef at a staggering .956 would have the highest on ice sv% of any NHL defenseman with 30 or more games played.
  • that after leading the Ducks in scoring in the 2011-12 season, and finishing fifth in scoring last year, Teemu Selanne would be 12th in points this year.
  • of the top 10 players in PIMs one would be both a first round pick, and a teenager; Tom Wilson.
  • also among the top 10 players in PIMs Radko Gudas would be the only one playing more than 20 minutes per night.
  • US Olympian Cam Fowler would not only lead the Ducks in total ice time, but shorthanded TOI/G as well.
  • despite fewer games and trailing the overall points race Patrick Kane would lead the NHL in road points.
  • of the top to players in points at home, only two would appear in the top ten for road points: Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby.
  • Blake Wheeler would have the highest points total of any right wing against his division.

Teams:

  • the Phoenix Coyotes would be the only team without a shorthanded goal.
  • based on Capgeek.com rankings, the top 10 spending teams would all be in the playoffs, 2 of the bottom ten (Montreal, Colorado) would be in leaving just 4 playoff teams in the middle 10.
  • the New Jersey Devils and Nashville Predators would be the only teams without even one shootout win.
  • 40% of the Washington Capitals wins would come via the shootout, higher than any other team currently in a playoff spot.
  • the 26th place Florida Panthers would have as many wins in 41 games this season as in the 48 game lockout shortened season.
  • the Nashville Predators would be the only team to not allow a shorthanded goal.
  • the Calgary Flames would be the only NHL team to play three full games without a penalty, and all three would be in November: 3rd against the Blackhawks, 20th against the Blue Jackets, and 30th against the Ducks.
  • the Minnesota Wild would be the only team to make it to the new year without a bench penalty.
  • 4 of the 5 most teams with the most PIMS would be in a playoff position while only three of the five least penalized would be.

The west is a very intruiging mix this year. Because of how few teams there are in the west, the races will be very, very tight after the number two slot in each division.

The Pacific Division:

The Phoenix Coyotes:

Good news is there is no more ownership drama. The better news is the roster was filled out a little bit more with the addition of the fiesty Mike Ribiero and at least currently with David Rundblad on the backline.

Bad news is they are an above average roster on paper in a division with several teams who are on paper better.

Anaheim Ducks:

Good news: Depth was added to the forward group over the summer, last years home grown young players are more developed as well.

Bad news: With the exile of Bobby Ryan, this team that was for so long Getzaf, Ryan, Perry, up front will have to recreate their on ice identity.

San Jose Sharks:

Good News: The teams core group is still intact.

Bad news: With the exception of Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, this group is aging rapidly, and prone to breaking down in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Kings:

Good News: The roster is changed very little since they won the cup. Tyler Toffoli is in, Dustin Penner is gone.

Bad News:  They are bad news for their opponents.

Vancouver Canucks:

Good news: No more “1a and 1b starters”, better depth at center.

Bad news: A backup that no one can name or recognize who hasn’t proven he’s NHL ready

Edmonton Oilers:

Good news: The defense has finally been upgraded. Finally.

Bad news: They still need to learn how to play defense as a team.

Calgary Flames:

Good news: Leadership finally acknowledged they need to rebuild.

Bad news: The job they are doing with that rebuild is still iffy.

 

Top three teams:

Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks.

If the Ducks can get solid performences from the guys after Getzlaf, Perry and Selanne, like Kyle Palmeri and Matthieu Perreault upfront, and on the backend Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm the division is there to be taken. If they can’t the Kings will grab it.

The Anahiem Ducks had an enormous regular season. Then in the playoffs they fell to the weaker Detroit Red Wings when they couldn’t push the dagger into finish the series and advance. Since then they have traded away Olympian, and consistent 30 goal man Bobby Ryan. In exchange they got even younger adding Jakob Silfverberg, Stefan Noesen, and a first round draft pick in the 2014 draft. The team already had youngsters Kyle Palmieri, Nick Bonino, Cam Fowler and Emerson Etem. Teemu Selanne is not signed, David Steckel and Matthew Lombardi are even less likely to return. Jonas Hiller crept back towards his previous career save percentage, and turned in a very solid seven games in the playoffs. Pushing him every step of the way was Victor Fasth who if he’d been a bit younger or played a few more games might just have won an individual award last year.

The Ducks season starts with a three game road trip taking them to visit the Avalanche, Wild and Jets. They open at home and host the New York Rangers and their new head coach. After that they throw down with the Ottawa Senators and old friend Bobby Ryan.

Number of Days 1-5: 11

Number of Cities: 4

Best Opponent: Toss up, there isn’t muchto separate the Senators and Wild

Weakest Opponent: Avalanche

Home Games: 2

Projected points: 5+

Overall the season outlook is very good for the Ducks, their own youngsters are maturing and got a taste of the NHL playoffs and Silfverberg should slide in nicely having gotten his second taste of the NHL playoffs last season. Cam Fowler’s game is rounding out to a more well rounded three zone game than in his debut season. And they have two solid goalies going into the season.

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.

 

The first team to win a Stanley Cup in California did not have a great season last year. Undoubtedly part of that was goalie Jonas Hiller having the worst year of his professional career. Sadly he still ended up having to play 73 games due to a complete absence of organizational depth at the position. However, putting most of the blame on Hiller would be a copout and moronic. Bryzgalov, Brodeur and Crawford all had worse sv%’s and their teams made the playoffs. Their teams were better and more consistent.

If the season started in January no doubt the Anaheim Ducks would win the Presidents trophy most years. Unfortunately for them it starts in October. Like the Maple Leafs the Ducks need a self starter who only has two modes: medically induced coma and GO. While they could certainly use some more offensive depth, this isn’t a forward rich draft. More importantly with so much of their blueline 30+, adding a player who can skate with Fowler and potentially create a Niedermayer/Pronger like situation with two top talents on the blueline should not be dismissed lightly.

Based largely on complimenting Fowler’s abilities and deficiencies I’d go with Cody Ceci. Big body, could be more physical, but defense first with some offensive ability.  Up front, an option that could play his rookie season and slide into center in the future if he made the team out of camp is Radek Faksa. He’s got the tools both physical and mental to be a catalyst for players older and better paid who may still want to be regarded as better players too.  A future with Getzlaf/Faksa as one and two centers or Ceci and Fowler patrolling the blueline and being the fulcrum the game turns on has to be appealing to fans, current players and management.

The Western Conference has quite a few storylines to keep the NHL’s scribes busy this year, most on the ice, some off. Ownership issues reign supreme in Coyote territory, the Blues and Stars are likely to change hands soon, and several major players are entering their walk year.

Northwest Division:

The northwest is pretty clearly divided between the haves and have-nots, of all the western divisions I expect my predictions here to hold up best.

Calgary Flames. As long as Iginla is healthy this team always has a shot. If they somehow managed to get some scoring depth the sky is the limit. They’ll likely finish second in the division.

Edmonton Oilers, still a so young the squeak. They will win about any game that their opponent allows to become a track meet and shootout, and lose any time they have their perilously thin backend exposed.

Vancouver Canucks. While not as talented as last season, two of the additions bring a higher level of mental toughness than was seen on the ice from this team last year. Marco Sturm and Byron Bitz probably don’t have a shot at the Conn-Smythe next June, but they can sure as hell support whoever of their teams leading lights gets closest to it. They should win the division again, for what it means.

Minnesota Wild. Unless one or more of their prospects turns out to be a stud this season they appear to have shuffled the deck chairs and done little else this off seasons. The trades weren’t bad but did they address the problems and not create other problems just as pressing? A bubble team that could as it stands finish anywhere between 7 and 11.

Colorado Avalanche. Fans in Denver and surrounding area should take advantage of the opportunity to watch Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog play without the pressure of making the playoffs. This team drafted well, but the current defense and likely penalty kill will drag this team into the lottery abyss.

Central Division:

This is honestly the  most interesting division in the west to forecast.  You can make a reasonable argument for any of the five teams to win the division. Unfortunately for the teams in the division this isn’t because any has an overwhelming strength at all positions.

Chicago BlackHawks, like the Wild, they did a great deal of deckchair shuffling to questionable effect. Having had the opportunity to watch Steve Montador and Sean O’Donnell, not to mention Jamal Mayers live and over the course of several season I’m not sure how they push this team over the top or even nearer it. On the other hand the cup hangover should be long over for the talented young core who are still hungry. Probably in the playoffs.

St Louis Blues What has been a combination frat party and hospital ward for the past two or three years could turn into an uptempo hard checking playoff team if it can tone down either of those aspects. Talented yes, focused, sometimes, healthy, in spurts.  If you really want to know where the team will finish, pull out your d30 and roll it a few times that should be just as accurate as anything anyone else can tell you.

Nashville Predators. Same Preds different year. Great defense, top notch goaltending and a giant question mark about where the goals will come from. This year there is the added question of which if any of Suter, Weber and Rinne will return next season. Fun times in Music City.  Almost certainly a playoff team, and possibly the division winner.

Columbus Blue Jackets. What an interesting off season. They imported a sniper. They imported a powerplay quarterback, and they (in theory) lowered their overhead. If things gel, and certain new defensemen can avoid multiple suspensions they too have the weapons to make the post season.

Detroit Red Wings, will this be the victory lap for Lidstrom? Who knows. The odds of this team making the playoffs come down to a flip of the coin. They have some huge talents, huge liabilities and huge unknowns.

Pacific Divsion

Far and away the strongest division in the conference it honestly wouldn’t surprise me to see the conference finals come down to two teams in the division.

Phoenix Coyotes. With the departure of Bryzgalov in the off season they are the weakest link. Not a playoff team, and possibly a lottery team.

Dallas Stars. With last seasons renaissance in goal, a mostly stable roster, a team that learned to play without a superstar forward, and the infusion of a seemingly rejuvenated 30+ goal scorer they might be the sleeper in the conference to make it to the post season. I’d be surprised if they didn’t flip positions with the Coyotes and make it in to the playoffs over them.

Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks had their most important player move happen when Jonas Hiller came off the injured reserve. With a full season under his belt and having managed to be a plus player in the post season after 75 games in the red Cam Fowler should be an even more important piece of the roster. Devante Smith-Pelly may end up in the Calder conversation. Oh yeah, they’ve got these guys named Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf up front who are supposed to be pretty good too (if anyone can confirm this leave a comment) to play with Vishnovsky. All this will likely lead them to third in the division.

LA Kings. If this team can gel as a unit and put up more goals they are likely to be finish around the 110 point mark.

San Jose Sharks. This is one of those teams that seams to own the regular season without even a signed offer sheet on the playoffs. They have a very good chance of winning the division if they can keep their goaltenders from having to be any better than average.

The last several weeks have seen quite an improvement in the hundred million dollar man, and his team. They are the hottest team in hockey right now and he’s having a respectable season all of a sudden.  Kovalchuck enters the day with a line of 21-21-41 -20. The last the biggest area of improvement.

On the blueline we find Kevin Shattenkirk with a new zip code and tied for points with Cam Fowler. Just behind the two in points andahead of them in +/- is das wundermouth PK Subban. Not to be overlooked is the Washington Capitals John Carlson. The  breakdown:

  • Shattenkirk, is playing as much as 2:30 minutes less a night than the three guys immediately behind him in scoring, has also played five less games than Fowler who has the same number of points, and seven less than Subban.
  • Fowler, while his -22 is startling, it should be noted over 55% of his points have come on the powerplay. May or may not be living up to his reputation for softeness with just 16 penalty minutes. A lot of people would call that disciplined.
  • Subban, with more than 50 more shots on goal than the second active shooter among rookie defensemen it appears Subban swings his stick almost as often as his jaw. Unlike Fowler and Shattenkirk, Subban also sees significant penalty kill time with over 2 minutes a night on average.
  • Carlson is clearly the most complete player of all the rookie defensemen. He plays in all situations, has a team leading +/- and is second to only the Bruins defensive stalwart Adam McQuaid in +/- for rookie blueliners. Useless fact: While he’s got less points on the road, his +/- is better away from home.

Forwards are an increasingly more interesting story. Some guys have bounced in and out of the statistical leaders, some have fought their way in, and one or two have been at or near the top all season. Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks and Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes look to take the race for the top of the heap from coast to coast. Michael Grabner, Brad Marchand, and Taylor Hall have worked their way to the top of the pile, while Derek Stepen and Tyler Ennis have bounced in and out of the top tier.

  • Ennis has earned his minutes on a weak Sabres squad with lots of speed and a willingness to shoot the puck.
  • Stepan is very, very quietly third in scoring on his team. That might be a more impressive stat if his team, the New York Rangers wasn’t 22nd in goals for. Their 25th ranked powerplay isn’t helping his stats either.
  • Hall hit the middle of the season and hit his stride, while third in scoring he is also playing more minutes than any other rookie forward.
  • Grabner is the sleeper for post season recognition. His speed is absurd, and the All Star weekend was something of a coming out party for him. On a team with a collective -32 his +9 is eye opening. Of his 25 goals, 17 have come since 1/1. Is second to Marchand in rookie shorthanded goals.
  • Couture, lots of goals from lots of shots on goals, with lots of time on ice would be less impressive if he weren’t maintaining a high +/- on a team in the bottom half of the NHL for goal differential.
  • Marchand, leads all rookies in shorthanded goals and points, leads all rookies in +/-, leads all the scoring leaders in short handed time on ice, has more hits than any of the top scorers is the most complete player of all the rookie forwards.
  • Skinner. Mr Consistent, has been the scoring leader for most of the season, is producing more points per minute than other top rookies. Has an impressive take away to turnover ratio.

Once clear as day, the rookie goalie landscape has been turned over several times.  Injuries, trades, the retrn of other goalies and cold spells have made this an interesting position to watch, but assured us the Calder Trophy winner won’t be coming from the crease unless something extraordinary happens over the next twenty games.

  • James Riemer hasn’t been in the NHL long, but he’s making it damned hard to ignore him. In just 17 games played he’s 1 win short of  team leader J.S. Giguere’s win total, and has a 2.24 GAA and .931 Sv% on a team that’s not worth much.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky, is still hanging around the top of the pack despite being shuffled into the background in Flyer country.  With more wins than any other rookie a 2.46 GAA and a .918 Sv% you can’t complain about much of his game and not sound like a moron.
  • Corey Crawford is the show stopper though, he’s just a couple wins behind Bobrovsky, with a slightly better Sv% at .923 and a much better GAA at 2.11, he leads rookies in both and does it behind a much weaker defense than Bobrovsky. He might just manage to drag his team into the playoffs too.

In no particular order the five best rookies are:

Crawford, Skinner, Marchand, Carlson, and Subban.