The departure of Ryan Suter hit the Predators hard. Their defense went from 9th in the NHL to 20th, their offense was 30th in the NHL as well. Despite the star power and impressive talents of Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne, the team finished 27th in the league. Injuries were a problem and only Shea Weber, David Legwand, and Roman Josi played the full 48 games. No one on the team broke 30 points, and only three players even managed double digits in goals; David Legwand with a dozen, Gabriel Bourque with eleven, and Mike Fisher with ten. Even promising sophomore center Craig Smith regressed in the abbreviated season.

For the Nashville Predator’s retooling includes bringing Matt Hendricks to music city. The left shooting center is an alumni of St. Cloud State, the Colorado Avalanche and most recently the Washington Capitals. Another college boy graces the roster in the form of University of Michigan left winger Eric Nystrom who has since played for the Calgary Flames, Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars. Filip Forsberg was added to the organization April 3rd via the Washington Capitals, the 2012 1st round  played in Sweden’s 1st division last year. It is likely Austin Watson, Joonas Rask and Taylor Beck will push for full time roster spots with the departure of Martin Erat. A backup goaltender will need to emerge to spell Pekka Rinne as well.

The season opens to a mixed schedule. The Blues are tough defensively and will open the season with a visit from the Predators, the Avalanche will be next on the opening two game road set the next night. Then they are home for five straight games at home. The home stand opens with Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter, and the Minnesota Wild. Next to visit will be Jake Gardiner, Tyler Bozak, and the Maple Leafs. Next up are John Tavares and his New York Islanders. Their opening five have four team who were in last years playoffs, but all four were eliminated in the first round.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: Minnesota Wild

Weakest opponent: Colorado Avalanche

Home games: 3

Projected points: 5

If Barry Trotz can get all his meat eaters hungry and hunting together when camp ends the Predators opening sortie will tell us a lot about this years edition of the team. No one is particularly worried about Shea Weber or Pekka Rinne and their ability to bring their “A game” in the new season.  The questions revolve around Mike Fisher who’s frequently inform, Colin Wilson and the status of his recovery, as well as the integration of new players.

With the deadline looming, and about a bakers dozen games left for many team, it is time to take a look at what we know about all the teams in the NHL.

Pittsburgh: We know Ray Shero likes to make deadline trades, we know health is sorta returning for this team. We also know that with a current cumulative cap hit higher than next years cap, and Morrow’s decline and questionable health that this is likely a one shot deal for the guys currently in uniform.

Montreal:  It’s kinda hard to figure out why more people aren’t excited about his team. They are fifth in goals for, ninth in goals against, there only real bad component is their penalty kill. While we’re at it, Tomas Plekanec deserves way more attention than he gets, if he could drag the penalty kill into respectability, or even just score a shorthanded goal or two he’d be on my Selke shortlist.

Winnipeg; We know this team needs desperately to buy quality defense at the deadline. Adding offense wouldn’t hurt at all, but the backend needs to come first they are one of just two top eight teams in the east to allow triple digit goals already.

Boston: This team needs an attitude adjustment. They do not have the raw focus or hunger they did in their Cup winning year, what body they add isn’t the solution, the size of the fight in that dog is.

Ottawa; Clearly this is a team made up of undercover superheros, or at least the guys left on the ice. They might not go to far this year, but oh man this team has some good young talent and might even lead the conference if they were healthy. A cheap rental forward who can add to the scoring would be nice, but this team could easily produce an upset or two.

Toronto: The fact that no real changes have been made to this team since Brian Burke was fired, and it has just about locked up a playoff spot means he shouldn’t have too much trouble landing his next GM job, and probably trading for Kadri, Gardiner, and Grabovski or pennies on the dollar.

New Jersey: The Devils have spent all season proving last season wasn’t a fluke. How they’ve done this is anyones guess. They are winning right now even without Kovalchuk, It would not surprise me if they became sellers at the deadline, but in a very limited sense.

New York Rangers: We know this is either the Eastern Conference’s best bad team or worst good team.  We know time is running out on the current off ice leadership for this team. We know in order to get this level of under-performance elsewhere in sports you’d have to threaten professional cycling with accurate testing and jail time for violators. We know that if the Islanders and Devils make the playoffs and the Rangers don’t the angst in Blue Shirt nation will be legendary

New York Islanders: We know John Tavares should be getting way more attention than he does, he is after all over a point per game, second in goals, and seventh in points. If the Islanders make the playoffs, he has to be on the Hart shortlist. We know that Brad Boyes would be a frickin’ idiot to sign anywhere else next season given that he has more points in 34 games this season, than in 65 last year.

Carolina: With several games in hand their current 10th place position is deceiving, we know however they need to win those games. We know that Cam Ward isn’t nearly as irreplaceable as the faithful would have you believe. We know that Jeff Skinner (signed to a big endorsement deal by Dewey, Slewfoot and Diver) will probably not like the attention he receives night after night from top defenses.

Washington: We know that Adam Oates deserves a boatload of capital for turning the ship around on the fly without the benefit of a training camp, stable goaltending, or a team with any confidence in itself. He’s also got Ovechkin back to a point per game by using that weird thing called logic and letting him play more minutes. We also know that this team still isn’t built right and that problem still resides at a higher level than Oates.

Tampa Bay: We know that Yzerman is just as good at constructing a defense as he was at fighting.

We know he needs to fix that if he’s going to make it to his fourth year as general manager. He’s clearly good at identifying offensive talent, so swapping some of the current stable to rebuilding or needy teams for a veteran defenseman or two shouldn’t be completely impossible.

Buffalo: We know Terry Pegula can’t be pleased with the state of his hockey team. We know that with next years realignment no one with an ounce of hockey sense would pencil this team into next years standings about sixth place without major changes. We know if they blow up the team right they could have a pretty good chance at drafty both Seth Jones and Connor Mcdavid.

Philadelphia: We know the keep defenseman healthy the same way The Real World finds the mentally unbalanced to film every season. We know that no to long ago the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup finals, and have regressed further and further every year. WE know this is another team that’s due for some administrative housekeeping even if the health problems make things look worse than they are.

Florida: We know that last year despite an absurd amount of injuries the team went toe to toe with the eventual Eastern Conference champions. We know that this year, another absurd amount of injuries and dramatically poorer goaltending from the guys not named Markstrom have lead not to the Southeast division title but once again to the eastern conference basement. We know they have a couple more solid prospects in the pipeline. We know there is tons and tons for Dale Tallon and company to do.

The NHL trade deadline is less than three weeks away, some players may or may not be healthy by then, but should still be shuffled of onto the roster of someone else either for a strong return, a change of scenery for them or the potential return and or cap space.

Thomas Vanek:

It is as plain as the snow on Buffalo streets that the team is in need of rebuild. Vanek has shown this season he can contribute big time but at 29, it is unlikely he’ll be as powerful offensively in 3-5 years when the team might be ready to contend. For Deroit, Nashville, or Los Angeles who have cap space and might want to add scoring, he’s the number one option who might be available.

Mike Green:

The Washington Capitals are retooling on the fly, and trying to develop a new system of play. You can’t do that if you aren’t in the lineup. Last season Green played just 32 games, a total he may have trouble matching this year, the year before just 49. Since breaking into the league he’s had just one year where he played all 82 games. With cap contraction a reality, his six million dollars would look mighty fine if it belonged to someone else. If anyone is willing to take him for more than a 2nd round pick and a solid prospect, the return is worth it.

Jarome Iginla:

One of the great ambassadors for the sport deserves a chance to win a cup.  Of the top contenders, all of them have cap space and can likely be parted from two or three prospects and or picks. Better still, all three of the four are American teams so there’s less likelihood fans see it as a betrayal. Far be it for me to suggest that waiving a no movement clause doesn’t burn bridges or imply collusion between players being traded and management, but one could take a look at Keith Tkachuk’s career and draw their own conclusions.

Andrei Markov:

While as constituted the Montreal Canadiens are a likely contender, swapping the injury prone Markov out for a first or second line center who can actually win faceoffs would shore up their penalty kill, give them more puck possession, and likely improve their goal scored. With a full year left on his contract, a few teams ought to be interested just to see how much he can help groom their young blueliners.

Jake Gardinier:

Why in the world he’s in the Leafs dog house is anyones guess. His fall from grace has happened faster and just as inexplicably as Keith Aulies, and the time he’s spending in the AHL is as wasteful as Nazim Kadri’s, maybe worse since the big team has a coach who is getting results. If the Leafs don’t want him, there’s a good 20 teams who will be happy to exchange “AHL prospects” with the Leafs to relieve them of their burden. With his agent getting in on the inquiry via social media, it is only a matter of time before the situation becomes a distraction to the team.

Johnny Boychuk:

The former AHL defenseman of the year has stagnated badly. It began almost as soon as he got to the NHL, clearly a change of scenery is in order. While his $3.3million cap his isn’t by itself that bad, hes the Bruins second highest paid defenseman, and currently has as many points as Shawn Thornton and has seen his powerplay time on ice go from  1:01 per game in 2010-11 to 0:09 per game this year.

Jay Bouwmeester:

Until the team finds a goaltender who can stop a beach ball, it doesn’t matter who is on the blueline. Bouwmeester is contributing at half a point per game, his highest level since arriving in Calgary. His contract is up after next season, and I can’t see him wanting to resign in Calgary, so the sooner he waives his no trade clause and get’s moving the sooner he can rebuild his market value an maybe not have to take an enormous pay cut in 2012-15, with luck he might win a cup a long the way.

Sam Gagner:

While he’s the surprise leader of the Oilers scoring race, he’s also due a new contract July 1. With the wealth of forward talent the team has and no chance of making the playoffs, Gagner might be the best trade piece the team has to acquire a solid, defensive minded top pairing defenseman or at least a couple very strong prospects.

Marc Staal:

When it comes to luck, if Marc didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any at all. Both his brothers have won a Stanley Cup and he hasn’t, one of them concussed him, and now he’s caught a puck with his brow. From the team standpoint, his time downchecked due to injury has left a great deal of space for other players to mature into. The Rangers have just 17 players signed for next season and only nine million to sign the six other roster spots something has to give, of the players who need a contract come July the first are Michael Sauer, Carl Hagelin, Ryan McDonaugh, and Derek Stepan, moving out Staal’s four million for a rasher of picks or prospects before the deadline or at the draft makes a lot of sense.

Way back in September and October as I was evaluating teams I had this to say about the Maple Leafs:

Toronto Maple Leafs, some deceptively good low level moves by Burke in the off season and late last year should see this team notably improved if they can get all the misfit toys to march in the same direction. Phaneuf, Kessel, Komisarek, Lupal all need to pull their weight this season for the team to succeed. Will bite at the heels of whoever is third in the division.

Which made the early third of the season very entertaining as Phil “Mr October” Kessel did his normal explosion out of the starting gate and Dion Phanuef held up his end of the bargain on the backend. The team was healthy, motivated and many players were competing for jobs. Then there were the injuries. Then the holes in their game got exposed as other teams got rolling. As November turned to December, the team as a whole began its slow backslide. December first they were one point behind Boston for the division lead, but their leaky goaltending and under skilled defense began to show. The scoring was fine, and has remained so, but through 25 games they allowed 80 goals. As of December 1st only two teams had allowed more goals.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have three fundamental issues no coach can fix.

  1. Bad, fragile goaltenders. Both physically and mentally the goaltending in Toronto is well below championship caliber. James Reimer is up and down, but is in no meaningful way a better goalie than Steve Mason, he is playing on a better team with slightly more capable defense, but that’s about it. Health issues and the name on the back of the jersey seem to be the only difference between Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson the only consistent thing about his play is that whatever mode he’s in lasts about a month.
  2. Youth. The Toronto Maple Leafs are the second youngest team in the NHL. On the current roster there are only three players over the age of thirty. This is particularly bad for defense as it really does take a good 200 games to figure out how to play defense (well) at the NHL level.  Coming into today Franson, Gunnarsson, Gardiner are all under that number.
  3. Weakness at center. If you look at the last four teams to win the Stanley Cup about the only thing they all had in common was strength at the center position. Aside from Grabovski who just doesn’t seem to mesh with Kessel and Lupul, I can’t think of another center who could legitimately be considered at least a strong #2 center. Connolly you can make a case for but with his health issues, I can see coaches shying away from trying to build their offense around him.

Until at least the goaltending and center position are shored up, hitting the playoffs is fighting well out of the teams weight class. It can get there with a hot streak, and playoff experience is good for young players but expecting to climb as high as sixth and avoid Boston or New York in the first round is a stretch with so few games remaining  Against those two team a moral victory could be declared if they play a fifth game. Ron Wilson was not the problem with this team. On the ice there are a couple players who just don’t get it, and some who don’t have NHL talent. Randy Carlyle may or may not prove to be a better coach for this team, but simply ousting Wilson isn’t a solution.

Last year after signing a still debated contract Ilya Kovalchuk got off to a poor start and was the bench mark for rookie performance. This year, I can think of no star more deserving than Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes. No one is sure if the tailspin his career is the result of guilt from potentially ending his own brothers career, or the extended confusion caused by not being able to find the other Erik who used to share the ice with him.

Forwards:

  • The Edmonton Oilers once again had the first overall pick in the draft, and he is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. While some questioned his ability to make an immediate impact in the NHL, he  is currently leading tied for the lead in rookie scoring.
  • Ask 100 hockey fans who’s tied with RNH for the rookie scoring lead, and you might get a double handful who come up with Luke Adam center for the Buffalo Sabres. Nugent-Hopkins has the better +/-, Adam wins more faceoffs and has achieved his points in significantly less minutes.
  • Right behind them with one less point is Nashville’s second leading scorer Craig Smith. Given the NHL’s lack of a picture to identify him, one can only assume he is Amish, which makes his career choice amazing, and his success highly admirable. Of the top three scorers he is clearly the most physical, and is currently on pace for 82 hits.

Defensemen:

  • Adam Larsson of the New Jersey Devils leads all rookies in time on ice with a mind boggling average shift length of 59 seconds. The scoring hasn’t come yet, but with nearly 24 minutes of ice time a night it has to come eventually for last June’s #4 pick and 1st defenseman.
  • Jake Gardiner skated onto the scene in training camp for the Maple Leafs and earned himself a spot on the crowded Toronto blueline. So far the small, slick skating defenseman has five assists on the season, enough for him to lead all rookie defensemen in scoring.
  • The Sabres second entry in the race for rookie recognition is Marc-Andre Gragnani, second in rookie scoring and with the best +/- among all rookie defensemen.

Goaltenders:

  • Sneering at the trend towards ultra-large goaltenders is Buffalo Sabres backup goalie Jhonas Enroth, listed at 5′ 10 he’s still putting up big numbers. Through four games he’s got a 1.29 GAA and .958Sv%.
  • With four starts Jacob Markstrom of the Florida Panthers is already endearing himself to fans and teammates. Slightly larger than Enroth at six and a half feet tall, he leads all rookies in saves and is sporting a2.05 GAA and .944 Sv%
  • Fussen Germany and San Jose Sharks goalie Thomas Greiss is putting up solid numbers for the  perennial regular season favorites. His 1.99 GAA and .928 Sv% are not just solid, but better by a wide margin than starter Antti Niemi’s.

Eric Staal’s numbers heading into today’s action, his line is 3-2-5 -14 through 13 games. The -14 is particularly significant because the next nearest forward is only a -5. Staal is currently averaging 19:58 a game in TOI, Anthony Steward who gets just 7:48 a night also has 3 goals and is a +1.

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

 

Brian Burke pulled another one out his sleeve just hours before I wrote this by picking up one of the NHL’s faceoff from the cap constrained New Jersey Devils for a fourth round pick. Add this to picking up Cody Franson and John Michael-Liles in the off-season and there is reason to hope the teams late surge last year might be more than a mirage. If you toss University of Wisconsin alumni Jake Gardiner into the mix you’ve got half your blueline revamped in one short off season.

 

High Card:

Mikhail Grabovski has demonstrated that he’s the best forward on the team since arriving. Well rounded, aggressive and skilled. While no ones is going to pick him to win the Art Ross, he is quite likely to be the Toronto Maple Leafs MVP again. Kessel put up a few more points than Grabovski last season but was a turnover machine. Grabovski is much more of a Jordan Staal or Mikko Koivu type two way presence and is the type of guy who gets it.

Wild Card:

Is it real or is it beginners luck, that’s the question James Reimer has on his plate this season. A .921 2.60 20-10-0-5 line on a team that couldn’t collectively beat one of their wives previously is nothing to sneeze at. Unfortunately it was clear to anyone who could do math the Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t going to have their travel plans restricted by work in mid April by the time he arrived on the scene.  Will the pressure of potentially jumping into the post season be too much for what is probably the divisions fourth best team and their goalie?