It’s not a secret that the 2003 NHL entry draft is one of the strongest drafts in history. It is arguably the strongest. The first skater taken is just a fistful of games from his 1000th NHL game, the guy taken 205th is on track to play his 800th NHL game before the season expires. I’ve made the argument you could put together a team from this draft that would beat a team from any other draft class.

Goaltending is the only position you can say this class might have as a weakness. The goalies taken in 2003 to have played serious time in the NHL are; Brian Elliot, Jaroslav Halak, Corey Crawford, Jimmy Howard, and Marc-Andre Fluery. All of these guys have played at minimum in the high three hundreds for games, and all have a sv% for their career in the teens. While I think Halak is capable of tremendous play, Crawford and Fluery are the guys I’d pick.

Defense is where it starts to get tough. Running quickly through the names draft, I came up with twelve defensemen who have played some really good hockey in their careers. My top four should surprise no one: Shea Weber and Ryan Suter as the number one pair. Next over the boards would be Dustin Byfugelin and Dion Phanuef. The physicality, offensive, and defensive ability of this foursome makes it almost irrelevant who the other guys are.

Matt Carle, Tobias Enstrom, and Marc Methot could all be expected to play the 12-14 minutes left over from the top top pairings admirably, but didn’t make the cut. Mark Stuart who’s very good in his own zone if lacking offensively, is clearly, if sadly starting to break down after roughly a bajillion hits and blocked shots. Looking at the third pairing, or arguably the 1C pair, you have to ask what the players have the other guys don’t. One is a gimmie, and that’s championships which means Brent Seabrook. The other is a powerplay specialist, which brings us to Brent Burns. Seventh defenseman is a little tougher, but I can comfortably go with Kevin Klein and sleep well.

I honestly won’t even try and number the top three lines, there’s just no point. You have Jeff Carter, Patrice Bergeron, Eric Staal, Joe Pavelski who it can be argued could all be your number one center, and all of them are worth talking about. Ryan Kesler, David Backes, and Nate Thompson are three more guys you have to look at for penalty killing, three zone play. and unadulterated ability to get under people’s skin. There’s also some guy named Ryan Getzlaf, and that’s just guys who have played a largely top nine position in their careers. Brian Boyle is worth considering for a pure checking line or penalty kill line.

The first gimmie on right wing is Corey Perry, even if he is consistently erratic in his scoring. Dustin Brown would have to be ironed out in practice as to which side he’d play, but thanks to the versatility of the centers, one or more of them will slide to a wing to fill a void.

The left side gives us Zach Parise and Matt Moulson

L to R the lines could look something like this:

Moulson – Carter – Pavelski

Parise – Bergeron – Perry

Brown – Getzlaf – Kesler

Boyle – Staal – Eriksson

Extra: Backes

In a best of seven series, I can’t see any draft class matching this one.

With each first round series begun, it is time to take our first serious look at who might be carrying around the extra hardware this summer.

Before we get to the men still playing there are some honorable mentions that had individually stellar first rounds. Out west that list is headed by pending UFA Paul Stastny who contributed not just a lot of points, but timely ones. In the east no one deserves more respect than Steve Mason who came into the second season behind a pretty porous defense and put up a more than respectable .939 Sv%.

West:

  • Ryan Suter, 29:14 a night is more minutes a night than any one else still playing. His 14 hits and 15 blocked shots blocked piled up in 8 games.
  • Anze Kopitar, the Selke finalist leads all players in post season points with 13 through 8 games, 51.6% on the faceoff dot, and is a +5 to go with it.
  • Ryan Getzlaf, seven games, 9 points, 3 power play points, a shorthanded point, and a +3 say he’s doing the job in all three zones and all situations over almost 22 minutes a night is quite the workout for a forward.
  • Jonathan Toews, three game winning goals in seven games, 23:16 a night in TOI, and 62.5% in the faceoff circle are a step or three above good.

East:

  • P.K. Subban, 6 games, 2 goals, 7 assists, 9 points, leads the Canadiens in scoring.
  • Torey Krug over the regular season his ice time has increased 2:30, his on ice save percentage has climbed, he’s a point per game in the most defensive minded system left in the playoffs.
  • Henrik Lundqvist, through eight games he’s allowed 2 or less goals in six games. His sv% is up over the regular season, and of all the goalies left, he’s the only one not playing behind someone in the top 15 in post season scoring.
  • Paul Martin 7 games, 8 points, three powerplay points, 2 shorthanded points, +7, 27:29 of TOI, 20 blocked shots, arguably.

Honorable mentions still playing, Evgani Malkin, Tuukka Rask, Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Lars Eller, Corey Crawford, Drew Doughty, Zach Parise, Marian Gaborik, Matt Niskanen, Marc Staal.

 

The western conference will kick off the playoffs with the Anahiem Ducks and Dallas Stars facing off in 1st versus wild card matchup. The Jamie Benn led Stars crossover from the Central Division to face Corey Perry and his west winning Ducks. Of the 1 vs Wild Card matchups this is the one where the first place team should be safest. The Ducks are deeper and have more playoff experience, but showed last season they lacked killer instinct. The Stars are clearly underdogs but I doubt this series is over in four or five games.

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks started the season strong and spent the opening months of the season sparring for first in the division without sliding below second. The new year opened with them on top of the division, as did every month after. Their padding waxed and waned as the Sharks got hot and cool, but here we are. The Ducks are a remarkably healthy bunch especially when you factor in the extra games and travel their Olympians played. If there is a weakness to the armor of the Ducks it is their special teams, something they’ll likely point to recent Cup winners of and dismiss calmly.

Best Players:

Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are the Superman & Batman tag team of the NHL. They play physically, pass, skate, cycle, score, and defend at least as well as any two players who normally take shifts together.

X-Factor

D-E-P-T-H. If Bruce Boudreau uses his second and third lines as well as his full defensive compliment the Ducks are a very tough matchup for any team. Nick Bonino, Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, and Kyle Palmeri are all capable NHL players. Teemu Selanne has already said he’s ending his NHL career, is well rested and knows how to win, he could play a much larger part in the playoffs.

Dallas Stars

Lindy Ruff’s team is a bit of a surprise entry in the NHL playoffs this year. With just 91 points they didn’t amass the most intimidating record in the NHL this year. Offense is where the team shines finishing the season regular 10th in scoring. The team boasts two 30 goal scorers in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, but will enter the second season without Rich Peverley lost to a cardiac event and subsequent heart surgery. Alex Goligoski might just have gotten some recognition for a stellar offensive season if Seguin and Benn hadn’t turned in so much offense of their own.

Best Players

Jamie Benn can play any forward position and be in the top tier of the league doing it, but his playoff experience is nil in the NHL. Tyler Seguin has a lot of playoff experience, but we shouldn’t forget the reasons he was traded from the Boston Bruins to the Dallas Stars. Alex Goligoski has seen the playoffs, with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and done respectably.

X-Factor

Goaltending. Kari Lehtonen is not a consistent goaltender, he’s put in one his best years to date, but given how often Lindy Ruff saw Tim Thomas when both worked for other teams, might he be tempted to go to the elder statesman  if Lehtonen falters. Comparing the playoff numbers of the two, no one could blame him for doing so.

 

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

 

Players:

  • that Joe Thornton would be in the top ten in the NHL in scoring when he last finished a season there in the 2009-10 season.
  • of the top five goal scores, Ovechkin, Steen, Perry, Kane and Kunitz, Ovechkin would have both overtime goals in the quintet.
  • the leagues three leaders in PIMS Derek Dorsett of the New York Rangers, Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators, and Antoine Roussel would combine for more penalty minutes (275) than the New Jersey Devils (251) or San Jose Sharks (271) and each be playing 11:35 a night or more.
  • Brandon Dubinsky would be the only player over 20 points and 60 PIMS, and have a 56.1 FO%.
  • Mike Santorelli of the Vancouver Canucks and Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings would be tied for the NHL lead in overtime points.
  • last years Masterson Award winner Josh Harding would be dominating the league and have the best save percentage of any goalie with more than 1000 minutes on the season and be sitting pretty with a .938 sv% and a 16-5-3 record.
  • undrafted rookie goaltender Cam Talbot with ten games played would have a significantly better sv% (.934 vs .910) than teammate and the NHL’s highest paid netminder Henrik Lundqvist.

Teams:

  • a month after losing Steven Stamkos to injury, the Tampa Bay Lightning would still be holding a top 3 spot in the Atlantic division.
  • on December 13th the spread betwen the 1st and 8th place teams in the east and west would be 10 in the west with 3 teams tied for 8, and 13 in the east.
  • to date, no team in the east would have scored 100 goals.
  • Of the teams in the bottom five (tie for 5th) last year in the NHL, only two would currently be in that place.
  • the Buffalo Sabres who are dead last in the NHL in points would have allowed just one more goal than the Chicago Blackhawks who have the most points in the league.
  • the Edmonton Oilers would be the only team to allow more than 4 shorthanded goals.
  • there would be no apparent pattern to the four teams yet to score a shorthanded goal as to date the Coyotes, Penguins, Panthers and Sabres would all be on the outside looking in.
  • four teams in the west would have scored 100 or more goals.
  • under offensive minded coach Alain Vigneault the New York Rangers would be producing over half a goal per game less than under the blueshirt’s previous bench boss in prior two seasons.

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.

#1 Vs #8

The Chicago Blackhawks seemingly have everything going this season. They have two goalies putting up top flight numbers. they have an upgraded defense that has allowed Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to reclaim the form that helped the team win the Cup a few years back. Better still, they have arguably the best forward group in the NHL; Toews, Kane, Hossa, Saad and Sharp.

The Minnesota Wild are that new kid in playoff town no one knows quite what to make of. On paper the Wild have every tool they need to be dangerous, and even contend. In reality, they lack playoff experience, especially with Pominville and Heatley on the shelf. Add that to five of six blueliners who have never seen the NHL playoffs, and you have a recipe for a dicey playoff series.

Players to watch:

For the Wild, don’t be surprised if rookie Charlie Coyle comes up big in spots, Setogouchi is a threat, and Mikko Koivu is never to be underestimated.

On the other side of the puck for the Blackhawks, Kane, Hossa and Toews can all take over games individually.

Edge:

Chicago, it isn’t purely the quality that they lead in, it is the playoff experience, particularly on the blueline that will decide this series.

#2 vs. #7

Anaheim Ducks have almost no pressure this year. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are drawing an inexplicable amount of attention, and Chicago was start to finish the best team in the NHL. The Ducks simply have to get on the ice and execute. They have savvy older veterans in Koivu and Selanne. They have high quality younger veterans still in their prime in Ryan, Getzlaf, and Perry. They also have a surprisingly strong backend in net and on the blueline. They don’t have any dominant or elite players there, but they do have several really good ones.

The Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs again keeping their two decade long streak intact. They have Jimmy Howard who again very quietly put up impressive numbers, they have Datsyuk, and Zetterberg. These are not your Dad’s Red Wing’s though, they just don’t have even one elite talent on their blueline, much less two or three as they have had in years past.

Players to watch:

If the Wings don’t have Howard playing top notch goaltending, they don’t have anything, For them to win,  guys like Tootoo, Smith, and other role players will have to elevate their game.

The Ducks need to have their defense continue to smother their opponents, and have at least one of their goaltenders show up and never take their eyes off of Zetterberg and Datsyuk.

Edge:

Wings can’t win this if the Ducks show up and execute. It’s just that simple.

#3 vs. #6

Vancouver Canucks, it is put up or shutup time in Vancouver. They drama in their net has covered up the fact that this isn’t as good a team as it was in years past. They only won their division by four points, by comparison the Washington Capitals won by 6, and of the six division winners this is the team that scored the least this season. The Sedin twins combined for less goals than Jiri Tlusty. They put up the mediocre season numbers with three of the bottom four teams in their conference playing in their division.

San Jose Sharks are also at the point where if they don’t win the Cup it is tie to break up the band. Marleau, Boyle, and Thornton don’t have many more years left in them and behind them there isn’t much to write home about. What gives this squad a bit of believability is that Niemi, who was part of the Chicago cup run, has turned in the best regular season of his career and played in 43 of the teams 48 games.

Players to watch:

Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa are two guys you should never ever count out, for the Canucks to do well, these two will likely be the biggest impact players.

Joe Thornton appears to have learned how to play big in the playoffs, and Raffi Torres (when he plays clean) is a surprisingly good playoff player.

Edge:

This series is almost a push, but I give the edge to San Jose, Thornton, Marleau, Couture are are better right now than any three forwards you can name for the Sharks, and with Schneider’s injury and the general chaos in British Columbia I don’t like the Canucks chances.

#4 vs. #5

The Saint Louis Blues boast some damn fine players no one talks about because the team is too far south. David Backes is a game changer, Pietrangelo is one of the best defensemen in the game, and Chris Stewart turned in more points in 48 games this year than he did in 79 last year. Goaltending is clearly this teams weakness, but with Oshie coming back the team gains immediately in two way play.

The reigning champions the Los Angeles Kings have to get scoring from more people than just Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, if for no other reason than Jonathan Quick is not as good this year as last. They’ve gotten a slight refresh adding Regehr and injecting Muzzin into the lineup, but the roster is really almost identical. You have to question the teams hunger a little.

Players to watch:

Drew Doughty emerged as an elite two way defenseman during last year playoffs establishing his bona fides in his own end in addition to the offensive ability he’s always displayed, he and Mike Richards who is frequently overlooked on this team will be crucial to this team going anywhere.

For the Blues, Vladimir Sobotka just finds an extra gear in the playoffs and he can tilt the ice, but he won’t be enough, Bouwmeester, Oshie, and Perron will have to show up and put in work.

Edge:

This is a push, the Blues I think have the edge in hunger, the Kings have the edge in knowing how to win in the post season.

Total Wins by eliminated teams this round; 9

 

There are four teams who have set themselves apart  from this season. They play different styles, are split in two different conferences and have accomplished their dominance in different ways. The real question is, can they keep it up, and are they legitimate contenders?

The Chicago BlackHawks:

The Chicago Blackhawks have had the most spectacular season to date, they’ve attacked the league and gotten even non-hockey fans and media to take notice.

Facts:

  • Fifth in goals for.
  • Second in goals against.
  • Sixth in penalty kill.
  • Fourteenth in powerplay.

How they can get better:

  • Powerplay is only mediocre.
  • Patrick Sharp is injured, when he returns at anything like his normal self the team is instantly deeper and instantly more dangerous.

How they can get worse:

  • Emery and Crawford are playing way outside the zone of their normal skill set. Emery’s career save percentages is .908%, and his only season over 910 with more than 30 games played was back in 2005-06. Currently He’s at .917% Crawford in his previous two seasons has had sv%’s of .917% and .903%, for a career number of .912%, this season, with most of his numbers coming prior to the injury he’s at a.925%.
  • No injuries to date on their defense.
  • They can regress to something like last years road record where they were a .500 team.

Are they contenders:

  • Yes, they’ve won with worse goaltending, the west is weaker now than it was then, and the short season means if they stay healthy they’ve got a better than 50% chance of being in the Western Conference Finals.

The Montreal Canadiens:

Many people are surprised the Canadiens are this good and that the Northeast Division is very good this season. On the first one they shouldn’t be, last season was the perfect storm of disasters for Montreal.

Facts:

  • Fourth in goals for.
  • Tenth in goals against.
  • Ninth in powerplay.
  • Fifteenth in penalty kill.

How they can get better:

  • Special teams are only average.
  • They are quite bad at faceoffs at 23rd.
  • Prust, Bourque, Diaz, can come back and contribute.

How they can get worse:

  • Essentially a one goalie team with no real depth in the system, as goes Price goes the Habs.
  • They are getting solid contributions from rookies, if Galchenyuk and Gallagher hit the wall, particularly i it is at the same time the team could suffer more than some expect.
  • The NHL or officials could get serious about diving/embellishment and take a long hard look a the team that has had more than twice as many powerplay opportunities as their nearest rival in the division.

Are they Contenders?

  • Maybe, not many of these players have been deep into the playoffs. More importantly, the goalie who last took them deep is no longer on the roster.

The Anaheim Ducks

Anaheim has been mighty this season. They added defense, they pulled a goalie surprise out of their back pocket, and they’ve not been shy about playing hard and fast.

Facts:

  • Third in goals for.
  • Ninth in goals against.
  • First on the powerplay.
  • Twenty-Eighth on the penalty kill.

How they can get better:

  • Penalty kill, penalty kill, penalty kill.
  • Hiller needs to play better, a sub .900s% isn’t gonna cut it.
  • At 25th in faceoffs, they absolutely need to get closer to 50%.

How they can get worse:

  • Their scoring depth could vanish, they only have 1 player with 10 goals or more, but have eleven with more than five.
  • The league could finally put together a book on Victor Fasth.
  • Management/Ownership could panic on the Corey Perry front and drop him for little, no, or the wrong return.

Are they Contenders:

Probably, Selanne is awesome, Perry, Getzlaf, and Ryan together are more to handle than most teams have the blueline talent for. On the other hand, a lot of their team are either rookies or have no NHL playoff experience.

The Boston Bruins

New year but not much has changed in Boston, same coach, same top forward in Patrice Bergeron, same legitimate Norris contender in Zdeno Chara, and same physical, puck control style.

Facts:

  • Tenth in goals for.
  • Third in goals against.
  • Twenty-third in powerplay.
  • First in penalty kill.

How they can get better:

  • Milan Lucic and their third line could show up and start scoring.
  • Their powerplay could get better.
  • They need to get better when trailing.

How they can get worse:

  • They’ve been phenomenally lucky on the injury front.
  • Rask has not been the healthiest goaltender in team history.
  • Scoring could decay.

Are they Contenders:

Yes, the goaltending remains a question but there is very little difference between this team and the one that won the Cup not so long ago.

 

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.

With the CBA negotiations looking more and more likely to vent heat from both sides, the possibility we will see a large number of high end UFA’s all at once is growing daily. In addition to those top UFA’s this season: Suter, Parise, Semin, Selanne, Whitney, Jagr, Parenteau, Holmstrom, Garrison and more if there is cancellation of this season, the next year the market gets even more mouthwatering. Add in some or all of: Crosby, Iginla, Staal, Quick, Alfredsson, Backstrom (goalie), Perry, Getzlaf, Thomas (goalie), Vishnovsky, Lupul, Streit, Hartnell, Clowe, Howard and well, you get the picture. Coming out of the last lockout we saw a number of players sign with friends to teams and go for it all. We also so the Avalanche load up with a who’s who of hockey in their last cup win.

Even going with just the players from this year, that’s more talent than most teams boast.  Even cup winning teams. If the labor negotiations stretch to a point where the season is shortened, say camp starting the week before (American) Thanksgiving, and the first real games being played on December first, organizations hungry for a championship might be willing to accommodate the wishes of a group of players who all wanted to play together for one (shortened) year for a reasonable sum.

Say for example the Coyotes sale does actually go through. They currently have 17 players signed for next season, and total cap hit of just under $35,000,000. If they somehow magically (wanted and got) all nine of the above, to sign one year deals for $3,300,000 they could trade a few other pieces for roster space and draft picks or assign players back to the AHL, and still have wiggle room under the cap for injuries, and or other additions. The nine would have a total cap hit of $29.7 million, and for a team in need of a shot in the arm that could be just what the accountant ordered. Even Nashville would be in position to make a similar move, they have only 12 players signed for next year and already have a solid goaltender.

Assuming the dispute did cancel next season, the possibility of one or more super-teams goes up. A team that could play a duo consisting of a combination of a well rested Quick, Thomas, and/or Howard in net is absolutely frightening. If they managed to push each other to still higher levels of performance the potential goaltending records for the year are absolutely mind-numbing. Forward lines that had Parise, Staal, Iginla, Afredson, Crosby, Semin, Selanne would be unlike anything the NHL has ever seen. We aren’t talking an All Star semi-competitive practice billed as a game, or even an Olympic campaign where the players practice together for a couple weeks. We’re looking at months of synergy building practice, play, and travel from some of the biggest talents in the game.