It’s that time of the season again when we need to take our first hard look at the NHL’s latest crop of wunderkids, studs, and future duds. Forwards, defensemen and goalies will be covered once more and compared to a well known NHL personality. This season the honor goes to the American Captain of last years Stanley Cup champions, Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings. The perennial 20 goal man is different breed of player than past selections Eric Staal and Ilya Kovalchuk. Brown is known more for a physical style of play and two way play than either of the rookie watch alumni.

Dustin Brown:

  • Will play his 600th NHL game Monday night against conference rivals and playoff  sparring partners the Vancouver Canucks.
  • Has started off the season 0-1-1 and a -4 as the Kings remind everyone they partied like royalty all summer, and fall long and work through their Stanley Cup hangover 1-2-1.
  • The Kings sit in 12th place.
  • Brown has a team worst -4, trailing grinder Kyle Clifford by 10, and sophomore by 1 game Jordan Nolan by 8.
  • Has 9 hits, 1 blocked shot and just 7 shots on goal through four games.

Goalies:

  • No rookie goalies have played a game yet this season.

Defensemen:

  • Matt Irwin of the Sharks has been putting in work to the tune of 19:07 average TOI, and has picked up 2 points, including an even strength goal, half a minute of short handed time on ice, and an assist. On this his first tour of duty in the NHL, the 6’2 210 blueliner has handed out 6 hits and blocked 9 shots while doing his Hockey East and AHL experience proud. He’s second in rookie defensemen TOI and 3rd in scoring.
  • Dougie Hamilton of the Boston Bruins is showing no signs of the collective malaise that sank Team Canada’s World Junior Championship hopes. The offensive minded blueliner has already earned some penalty kill time under the very conservative Claude Julien. The 11 shots he’s dished out go nicely with the 8 hits and three blocked shots. The 19 year old has averaged just over 18 minutes a night and is currently second in blueliner scoring.
  • Brendan Dillon of the Dallas Stars may not have scored any points yet, but the 16 hits through five games, make it quite certain the squads from Chicago, Detroit, Phoenix, Saint Louis and Minnesota know who he is. Two blocked shots add to the collection of bruises, and it shouldn’t be all that surprising that he leads his team in hits.
  • Justin Schultz of the Oilers was the most talked about college player in the NHL as he wound down his Wisconsin career and spurning the Anaheim Ducks who drafted him. He’s now skating behind the Oilers plethora of young talents at forward and has rolled to the top of the rookie blueliner scoring. The 22 year old is sitting atop the TOI pile with an average of 24:02.
  • Brendan Smith of the Detroit Red Wings is jumping back into the NHL this season. How well his recovery from last years derailing via a concussion. The soon to be 24 year old is not the only rookie on the blueline, and is middle of the pack in ice time on a blueline that has already skated nine defensemen and is one of just three to skate all four games.

Forwards:

  • Cory Conacher is leading the NHL rookie scoring race as a center for Tampa Bay. The highly compact forward has about the best mentor for someone his size in the NHL playing with Martin St Louis. 2 goals 5 assists and a +4 through four games makes the former Canisius College player another undrafted player in the running to leave league GM’s scratching their heads for decades to come.
  • Tye McGinn’s two points through 3 games for the struggling Philadelphia Flyers has got to be more than some expected from the 119th pick in the 2010 draft. The Fergus, Ontario native who spent last year in the AHL potted just 18 points in 63 game. The rookie is tied in team points with Sean Couterier, Ruslan Fedetenko, and Luke Schenn, and doing it in just over 11 minutes a night.
  • Nail “I do a great Theo Impersonation” Yakupov has brought a great deal of larger than life personality to the Edmonton Oilers. He’s also managed to pack in two goals, one a powerplay tally. This years 1st overall selection has spent 3:19 a night on the man advantage for one half of the Battle Of Alberta.
  • Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers much like his former Sea Dogs teammate Hamilton is off to a strong start. With 3 points in five games the former #3 pick is playing almost 16 minutes a night for the surprisingly struggling Sunrise squad.
  • Mikael Granlund of the Minnesota Wild is part of the avalanche of changes in this roster in the last year or two, and he’s popped in two points while earning more and more ice time. He started off at under 15 minutes and in his fourth game topped out at 18:30. The fancy Finn leads all rookies with an eye opening 56.4% faceoff win percentage.
  • Vladimir Taresenko is holding down a top spot with the Saint Louis Blues and is tied with Conacher for points, but has played one more game. The 21 year old Russian has been a big part of the Blues 4-1 start being even or +1 in all five games so far.

Worth watching:

  • Forwards: Mark Scheifele, Stefan Matteau, Sven Baertschi, Jakob Silfverberg.
  • Defensemen: Paul Potsma, Brian Lashoff, Mark Borowiecki, Korbinian Holzer, Patrick Weircioch

This feature will be run roughly every two weeks.

There were some sneaky changes in this division that make it quite interesting to watch. Hall of Famer Adam Oates is the newest coach in Washington, and the unification of Jordan and Eric Staal in Carolina among them.

Carolina: On the plus side they added Jordan Staal and have had time for a lot of guys to climb off the trainers table. On the down side, their defense is no better and almost certainly worse as a unit that it was last season. If we know anything about the southeast division it is that we know nothing about the southeast division. The Enigma on Ice that is Alex Semin is also signed to the Canes. In no particular order playing at 90%+ any of Jordan and Eric Staal, Alex Semin and Jeff Skinner are a handful, if all of them can get going and sustain it for at least a month, the team has a damned good chance despite all its deficiencies of returning to the playoffs.

Florida: Panther Power or Sun Sickness? Which propelled the team into the playoffs last year? Their own power or simply teams falling prey to the sun and fun of Sunrise? Their elimination would seem to indicate the latter, but the fact they sustained such a high place in the division pecking order under a rookie coach, with waves and waves of injuries might point towards the former. I think this team is better than many gave it credit for, and maybe nearly as good as a division win all by itself makes them appear.

Tampa Bay: Two seasons ago they were in the eastern conference finals, last year they didn’t make the playoffs. The difference? Goaltending. The biggest problem: poor defense.While Matt Carle and Keith Aulie are certainly new integers to the equation, one wonders if they will add up to a better blueline, or at least better enough to make up for the ravages of time on several of the teams aging forwards.

Washington: Will the real Washington Capitals please stand up. This team has had coaching upheavals, roster tweaks, injuries, and then finally goalie stability (just not the guy anyone expected) and now the long layoff. If Oates hasn’t devised a system to maximize the talent of his roster and can’t generate buyin quickly Seth Jones could be greeting a new rookie coach next season. If he can, the sky is the limit.

Winnipeg:A suspect backend was one of the problems last season with the team allowing 8 more goals than they scored and still being 12th overall in goals for. Grant Clitsome is a serviceable defenseman we probably haven’t seen the best from yet, but their goaltending needs to be consistent, and certain skaters need to stop doing stunning impersonations of turnstiles before this team can go anywhere, an upgrade in the form of a two way or defensive defenseman for the #3 spot or higher would work wonders as well.

Top Dog: Pack Run, this division will look very similar to what the Pacific did in the regular season last year, every one of them with healthy stars can do damage, with contributions from lines three and four or stolen games in net, it is going to be a case of who breaks, blinks or draws an idiotic reactionary suspension from the league first.

The Panthers had one of their best seasons ever last year. A division title, a huge surge in fan interest and an absolute dog fight in their first playoff appearance in a very long time. Most of their talent was retained, and a bit more was added.  Some questions remain about key positions, but for year over year improvement two seasons ago to last year, the organization has a lot to be proud of.

Good News

  • Their young players gained valuable experience last season.
  • They retained their core.
  • Their coach has had a full season to learn the tendencies of most of the roster.
  • It is still the the Southeast division so they can count on at least two of their division rivals to be a hot mess all season.

Bad News

  • Depth at center and proper use of players their has yet to be addressed, Peter Mueller might help, but his health is only slightly better than Rick Dipietro’s.
  • The goalie tandem is still old and highly variable in quality.
  • The quest for a solid trio to make a quantifiable number one line this season will be ongoing.

Forecast

High: 89-97 points  They were not a healthy squad last with just one top six forward, and one top defender playing in all 82 games.  They had a lot of help from a division that was quite mediocre.

Low: If the wheels come off the goaltending, or the other teams in the division play just well enough to get three more regulation wins each the Panthers are going to be crispy kitties. They realistically they need to play better than last season to get the same results.

X-Factor

If the Panthers manage to pull off a trade for a quality center or goaltender that can contribute a lot to the teams success this because a whole new game. If there is a sophomore slump behind the bench things could get ugly fast.

Joe Thornton is the name of the day. For those who someone missed it, he’s still one of the best centers in the game. He’s got a 200 foot game, plays physically, and nearly as dirty as Sidney Crosby or Danny Briere at times. He skates well, is one of the three best passers of the last 30 years, and he’s never won a cup.

Some teams and how he’d fit in:

  • Boston: a full circle story with him going back almost certainly means a trade package like Krejci,  Spooner or Khoklachev, O’Gara, a 1st and likely another prospect or pick goes back. If the roster isn’t ripped up too much he’s likely the cure for what ails the teams powerplay. He’s done the major hockey market media before so the adjustment would be slight, and he likely still knows his way around the North end.
  • Nashville: This is almost the perfect landing spot for him. Even if half the fanbase hated him yesterday, him landing their tomorrow in the wake of the defection of Suter and the Weber scare means they have not just a high end player to fill out the roster but a face for the forwards and a tutor for the young prospects in the system.
  • Chicago: while their search has been for a  second line center, this might just fill the whole. Kane, Hossa, Sharp and the other wingers probably wouldn’t complain too much about second line minutes next to him. 
  • Calgary: Jarome Iginla has never had a legit top line center to play with. Joe Thornton would be that. The Flames may not have what is needed to ship back in return, but career years for both as a duo aren’t out of the realm of possibility. 
  • Phoenix: The desert dogs are so far under the cap floor they’ve probably got mushrooms growing on their heads. Even if they added Thornton without sending back a single roster player they would still be almost two and a half million under the floor. Throwing Thornton down as an inducement to keeping Doan would probably help a tiny bit. 
  • Florida: If there’s one thing we know about Dale Tallon it is that he is not afraid to pull the trigger on a big trade. The Panthers need a good center, they also have one of Thornton’s buddies, Bryan Campell who stayed at Thornton’s place after being traded out of Buffalo. 
Obviously the pending CBA negotiations are going to be a big factor, especially for teams paying closer to the cap floor than the ceiling, but it should not be forgotten that Joe Thornton does have a NTC/NMC. If Jumbo Joe does get moved, it will likely be the biggest trade of the offseason. Yes, bigger than the possible Bobby Ryan or the just elapsed shuffling of Nash to the Rangers. Both are younger than Thornton, and talented, but neither has the potential to impact the game at the same level. 
Whoever is going fishing in the shark tank should be dangling, forwards, draft picks, forwards and more forwards. The Sharks one strength in terms of prospects is on the backend. Their forward pool is nothing to brag about, and years of trading for established talent and playoff finishes have left them drafting in the bottom half of each round each year for about a decade.

The Krejci for X discussions across the Boston sports scene have never been hotter. Bobby Ryan is the current most lusted for player, but moving him, even for a good return creates issues of who slides into what position.

As we all know by now Chiarelli’s lust for drafting small skilled forwards is as great as making moves for defenseman no ones ever heard of. The problem isn’t so much a question of do we have someone else who can play center but a question of who makes the most sense. If this is “a bridge year” it almost doesn’t matter who is the other pivot. If the team is in “win now” mode or at least wants fans and media to believe it is, then it might matter a touch more. Off ice issues will have to be weighed in as well.P

The case for moving Seguin to center and putting him between Lucic and Horton is one that will likely make the rounds. The problem is all three can be regarded as shoot first players. I don’t claim to be the worlds foremost mathematician, but three shooters (not counting the defensive pair) and one puck doesn’t add up to well. Another consideration is that Seguin has so far shown to be indifferent at faceoffs. Moving Bergeron to between the two big bodies would put the maximum amount of size in the top nine forwards together, and they did look good together for stretches last year.

Moving either is less than desirable for another reason. Together the Selke winning Patrice Bergeron flanked by Brad Marchand and Tyler Sequin were the most consistent line on the team all season. Given the departure of Benoit Pouliot and assuming Krejci is indeed traded they could be the only trio of the top three lines to return.

Chris Kelly played the best hockey of his career last year and did some of it with Milan Lucic to his left. He’s never held a top or second line role for long since arriving with the Bruins. The same can be said for Rich Peverley who’s played up and down the Bruins lineup. Peverley’s offensive upside is a little bit higher, but he’s also had more health and consistency issues over his career. Plugging him into the pivot slot between Lucic and Horton would certainly improve both the speed and defensive quality of the line. Peverley has averaged top line type minutes in his career, but mostly at wing and not center and in Claude Julien’s system the center position is the lynchpin of transition, defense and offense.

There are also the AHL players and Juniors graduates. Ryan Spooner’s hands have been compared to Marc Savard. I’ll leave that comparison alone for a half decade or so, but say that they are pretty damn slick. Size and adjusting to the NHL are questions 1 and 1a, speed, skating, passing aren’t in question.  Carter Camper and Max Sauve both earned time in Boston last year, both have played the pro game, both have done well. Sauve’s durability is issue number one, but like Spooner is an excellent passer and has a ready shot. Camper is also on the small side, but led the Providence Bruins in scoring despite the time he spent in Boston.

Also to be considered is new acquisition Christian Hanson who’s half season of NHL games is more than just about all his competition combined. At 6’4 and 222 he’s got size to spare over any of the other claimants. Then there is Alex Khoklachev. The skilled Russian is in the same size range as Spooner, Sauve and Camper. He signed his entry level deal at the recent Boston Bruins development camp, and also signed a deal that would will take him to the KHL. The KHL contract is for one year, to the club his father is the manager of. If however he makes the Boston Bruins out of camp he stays here in North America.

Another possibility is trading for a skilled center who can play about as well in similar ice time as Krejci. A team like the Edmonton Oilers could certainly use some better depth defense, and the looming arbitration date with Sam Gagner lowers the likelihood they will retain him after that date. The Panthers barely used Mike Santorelli last year, and he would come with a low cap hit.

Also to be considered is sliding Greg Campbell up to the third line and sliding in either a rookie, Hanson, or Whitfield into the Merlot line. Campbell has done well in a Bruins uniform managing the heavy grinding role of the fourth line and the smart penalty kill minutes and making it look easy.

Two of the more interesting players to hit the news in the last couple days are Derek Roy and Mike Santorelli. The Buffalo Sabres Roy has one year left on a contract that will pay him five and a half with a cap hit of four. Santorelli of the Florida Panthers is likely a less prohibitive gamble. His salary is one point six this year and like Roy he’s a center.

In his first full year in the NHL Mike Santorelli put up 20 goals and 21 assists good for second in points and third in goals on a not very good Panthers team. That was two seasons ago where he played just over sixteen minutes a night and potted a short handed goal and powerplay goals. He was also above 50% in faceoffs. This year under the new head coach, and with an influx of new players he saw drastically less time. Kevin Dineen did a remarkable job with the talent, and injuries his team had. Between Santorelli’s shoulder injury to start the season, and the new system of Dineen he found himself marginalized and has since been waived.

Derek Roy has been a member of the Buffalo Sabres since he drafted 32nd overall in 2001. He’s only had one NHL head coach in that time. During Lindy Ruff’s tenure, the longest in the NHL, the Sabres have been up, down and largely a low spending team. Terry Pegula taking over the team recently has led to a change in the tableau and not only is the teams attitude toward spending different, expectations are much higher. Roy was not alone in having a sub-standard season, but he seems to be one of the scapegoats for it. During this season Ruff was injured and ended up loaning head coaching duties to one of the assistants. This may or may not have played a role in Roy’s slide to his worst NHL full season point total.

Do we blame the coaches? Did Dineen dismiss a player who had had success the previous season because of an injury? Is not getting the best out of an experienced player a failure on Ruff’s part? Or did Santorelli go have as much trouble learning the new playbook as Ochocinco? Is Roy tuning out Ruff, giving into the teams malaise?

Either way, both players present intriguing options for teams looking for help at center. Roy has a potential claim to a top line in some cities. Santorelli is more likely a second or third line center. Puck possession being a priority, especially for teams like the Flames, Ducks, or Lightning both players offer a chance to make starting play with the puck

The Jordan Staal trade short circuited a hype fest that could have gone on all summer and right up to the trade deadline. It’s kinda disappointing honestly. Sure it’ll be fun to see how many times announcers and the press confuse them this season, but hey there are other players who we’ll all get to talk ourselves sick about.

Bobby Ryan:

The Ducks don’t want to move him. If they did they would have gotten in on some of the big name players in the last two years. Or they would have traded him for a boat load of picks in this draft. Left wing tends to be the weakest forward position for a lot of teams. And a team as starved for depth as the Anaheim is, shouldn’t be looking a signed all star in the mouth.

Jay Bouwmeester:

Anyone not smart enough to grab him when Florida was dangling him years ago, probably hasn’t wised up. A good solid stroll through the stats will show he’s being used much more defensively in Calgary than Florida. A deeper look will show that for the first two years he was there the scoring was more tightly concentrated than his last two years in Florida showing how much less talent the Flames had than the Panthers in forwards.

Zach Parise:

Despite the hopes and dreams of 29 other fan bases, I don’t see Zach moving on unless the Devils are getting ready to fold.

Patrick Kane:

Cabbies across the continent can rest peaceful in their beds. The 140lb bane of all livery drivers is a darling of ownership, and too promising a talent to be tossed aside for anything that hasn’t gotten to the point of criminal behaviour that threatens fans or team staff. Even if despite the denials of others he is the only twenty something millionaire to ever go out and party.

Tim Thomas:

Peter Chiarelli and Cam Neely have spent forever bad mouthing him and trying to replace him. Those things don’t go hand in hand bros, you might wanna work on that.

Rick Nash:

Unless someone medicates Scott Howson or Nash and company expand their list, Rick Nash is likely to be a Columbus Blue Jacket for a while longer.

The Western Conference has already kicked off it’s final round, and done so in style. The East has its time in the limelight now.

The Rangers and Devils will at least from the perspective of travel both get to play as many home games as it takes to finish the series. That rest could come into play for both teams. The Rangers while a much younger team overall, have had several overtime games including that triple overtime game against the large and physical Capitals. The Devils.

The Devils have the advantages of two less games, notably less overtime, and more rest since the end of a not very taxing series with the Flyers. They may need it. They have a much higher average age, but also have their own rookies in the lineup. In addition to a legend in goal who is playing some of his best hockey in a decade, they have the most skilled player left in the playoffs Ilya Kovalchuk.

The breakdown:

Goaltending:

  • Lundqvist is having hands-down the best post season of his career, one concern might be that the Devils take more shots per game than anyone the Rangers have faced, and part of his success is that the Rangers typically allow very few shots.
  • Brodeur looks more like the legend than we’ve seen in recent years. This could be a tipping point either way. If he reverts to the player of the last two or three post seasons that will be the death-knell for the team. If however he has two strong games to start the series he will be in the head of a team who mostly grew up watching him.

Forwards:

  • The Rangers forwards have been enough to get the job done, but not spectacular. How well they do will be determined by how well Gaborik and Hagelin use their speed, and players like Callahan and Stepan distribute the puck in a timely manner.
  • Kovalchuk, Parise, Zajac need to push through a much better defense than they have seen this post season. I expect the adjustment to be harder for Clarkson and Henrique, which means it’s just about time for Ponikarovsky to come out of his coma and contribute.

Defense:

  • The Rangers defense is the most reliable component of the team. McDonagh and Girardi have been huge, Staal has rounded back into Norris-like form, and Del Zotto has been key figure, as a six man unit a defense doesn’t play much better. The question will be how well they handle some of the big, skilled, bodies of the Devils in a seven game series after all the hard play of the Caps, and extra time.
  • The Devils defense has seen its defensive defensemen earning the most ice time. It’s a formula that’s worked thus far. The Devils will need timely contributions from the more offensive minded defensemen in order to advance.

Intangibles:

Neither team has had to come back from being down 0-3 or run into a game they had to come back from four goal down to win or golf. But neither has had an easy post season, the Devils went the distance with the scrappy Panthers in the opening round, the Rangers will play their fifteenth game of the second season against the Devils. After health which becomes a huge drain this late, depth is going to be huge in deciding the series. Both teams have five players who have scored three or more goals in the post season. The Devils however who have played less games have gotten at least one goal from 15 players, while the the Rangers have had only 11 light the lamp.

These division rivals could also see the return of good scraps to the playoffs. 22 Fighting majors in six regular season games isn’t the type of emotion you can smother in the playoffs.

“Lazy Russian Count”*

  • Rangers: 1
  • Devils: 2

“Good Canadian Boy Count”*

  • Rangers: 10
  • Devils: 7

*Both counts taken from current rosters as displayed on team websites.

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

 

Teams:

  • none of the teams in last years conference finals would make it out of the first round, and one wouldn’t even make the playoffs
  • the Florida Panthers would not only make the playoffs but claim their first division title
  • the Phoenix Coyotes would also emerge from the regular season atop their division, and would go one further and make the second round
  • it would take until the fourth game of the second round for the St Louis Blues to get a goal from a defenseman (Shattenkirk)
  • the team that had the 29th best regular season offense in the regular season would have the best goal differential coming into action on 5/6/12 (LA Kings)
  • two teams in the second round, the Kings and the Flyers would be perfect when the other team scores first
  • the biggest question facing the Boston Bruins after a first round loss would be which UFA’s will be brought back
  • the Montreal Canadiens would pick a general manager the press didn’t hate

Players:

  • Andy McDonald would be the third leading scorer in the NHL playoffs going into play 5/6
  • in ten games with seven points Keith Yandle would lead all defensemen in scoring without a single goal.
  • of the 340 skaters to take a shift in the playoffs Zach Parise would lead the league in 1st goals
  • in the twenty (and counting) overtime games only one player would have more than one OT goal, and he’d be Danish winger Mikkeal Boedker
  • that Mike Richards who had just three fights in the regular season would pick up a Gordie Howe hat trick
  • that Dan Girardi would be outscoring Drew Doughty through 5/6
  • that Mike Smith would enter the playoffs a Vezina snub, and continue the playoffs a Conn-Smythe favorite
  • Vladimir Sobotka would have more game winning goals (1) than Claude Giroux (0)