The Grey Red Wings are hands down the oldest team in the NHL. With nine players 35 or older on the roster to start the season one has to wonder if there is enough heat left to make the team viable. I suspect the answer to that is no, certainly they are no longer contenders, but they are savvy enough to expose younger teams like Colorado, Nashville, and Columbus on a regular basis. They are also deep into “cap jail” with less than a million in cap space. Last years 102 points is probably they last time they hit the century mark for a season or two.
This teams position is improved almost without their own efforts. Detroit is older and creakier, Chicago is less deep and in theory sated and exhausted by a championship winning post season. Nashville had their captain and best offensive player smacked around by the oh-so-rugged Evgani Malkin in the preseason and who knows what’s going on in Saint Louis… That said they got back Nikita Filatov and his explosive speed and shot and Steve Mason’s likely looking to build on his reemergence late last season.
With the long discussed post Cup salary dump the BlackHawks are undeniably a much different team than the one who brought the rest of the hockey world to it’s knees. It remains to be seen if they are as capable. They have improved their goaltending by jettisoning Niemi and picking up the still hungry, Turco. And their true core is still largely in tact with Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook all still ready to answer the bell. Sharp, Hossa, Hjalmarsson, the rest will have to see if they can replace the contributions of the traded Sopel, Byfuglien, and Versteeg.
This is a make or break year for the Music City. With years of failing to make the playoffs and then being knocked out early, there have to be major changes if the core of the team can’t drag it into at least the second round. This probably means that there will be major off season changes come next June. A forward group that features Flames and Leafs castoff Jamie Lundmark, the always news worthy Sergei Kostitsyn and Jordin Tootoo to support Weber, Suter, Hornquist, and Erat isn’t exactly inspiring. And yet, last season they finished with a strong 100 points. Don’t be surprised by this team, good or bad. They may not have much up front, but they arguably have the best top defensive pairing in the NHL.
After a legendary run to vault from last place to sixth in the west they fell short of the playoffs last year with play that was mostly mediocre. Not much changed in the off season. Well, except they picked up a goal tender who can just short of win playoff series himself. Jaroslav Halak is probably the single biggest reason to expect this team to make the post season. The biggest reason to expect them to miss out again is their hot and cold running forwards. Brad Boyes went from 33 goals to 14 over the last two seasons, and newly acquired Vladimir Sobotka is capable of playing well enough to make a fierce claim upon a number two center spot on most NHL rosters, and also of making one wonder how he ever got called up. On top of that last season offensive bulwarks MacDonald and Perron were a combined -19 on a team that despite mediocre goaltending managed to score more than it allowed.
When there’s a post Cup fire sale, there’s always a team that benefits most. Atlanta is that team. They grabbed defenseman Brent Sopel, defenseman turned forward turned defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Eager for in exchange for spare parts and acquired draft picks. That said, the Caps and Panthers had better defense in the division last season, and with the additions to their defense, particularly as both men can skate they have a very good chance of making the playoffs. Alexander Burmistrov’s signing adds yet more spice to the Evander Kane, Little, Bergfors contingent. Anyone who writes this team off for lacking a superstar is probably doomed to fall to them.
Well, they drafted well, but they still gave up a solid fourth line center and penalty killer in Greg Campbell, and former 30 goal scoring Nathan Horton. On top of this they lost hit machine Dennis Siedenberg, and shot blocking maestro Jordan Leopold. Their supposedly notable acquisitions include, Marty Reasoner, Chris Higgins, and the redoubtable Denis Wideman, sounds like a roster made for the lottery. Almost certainly the worst team in the NHL as their roster stands.
A lot of this teams fortunes depend on three people. One, Vincent Lecavelier. Can he return to the form that had him earning mention as one of the top players in the NHL? And can Mike Smith and Dan Ellis put together a backstop to a shaky defense and make the team a playoff contender? If the answer is yes, to each question their climb out of the basement might be quick enough to save us yet another season of the “Vinny to Montreal” rumors we all know and love, and possibly even spare us a fresh round of “relocate the sunbelt teams to Canada”, I’m slotting them into third in the division.
With the injury buy already gnawing the bones of the Canes roster, its tough to see how this already thin team can make any positive moves this year. Staal will be again expected to throw the team, and hockey in the entire state on his shoulders and carry them to the playoffs. With a defense that has to rely on Joe Corvo for name recognition, and probably the ceiling for it’s quality its doubtful the Canes can combine that and an offense that starts, and nearly stops with Staal to do anything worthwhile in front of the enigmatic and mercurial Cam Ward.
The Capitals are largely unchanged from last season. Ovechkin being named captain probably counts as the biggest change from the start of last season to this one. Knowledgeable Capitals fans probably watched the playoffs and off season in horror as GM George McFee did squat to implement a defense worthy of the name. Sure the front office can point to youngsters Alzner and Carlson and call it improvement via draft and development, but this is a bill of goods unrivaled in the NHL this season. Well, except maybe for Backstrom being named a top ten star in the NHL.
More to come: The four other divisions, and how the top and bottom of the NHL will look.