This years playoffs have so many interesting matchups it is going to be hard to call a best series even if you see every minute of ever game.

The Chicago Blackhawks vs the Nashville Predators

This is the western conference’s David versus Goliath matchup. While the Blackhawks aren’t quite as formidable as they were when Kane, Toews, Seabrook, and Keith first hoisted the Cup, they are still one of the strongest, best balanced teams in the NHL. If the Predators do win this matchup it will be because the team refused to be intimidated, and everyone grabbed the rope and leaned. The Preds do have the players to be dangerous, Subban, Ellis, Arvidsson, and Forsberg are more than a handful themselves.

Biggest Strength

  • Blackhawks: Explosiveness
  • Predators: Special teams

Biggest Weakness

  • Blackhawks: Special teams
  • Predators: Discipline

Ottawa Senators vs Boston Bruins

This is a first. The Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins have never met in the playoffs. The Sens have been in the NHL 26 years, and they and the Bruins have never gone eye to eye. The Senators ran the tables on the Bruins in the regular season. Both teams will enter the second season with banged up bluelines. Both coaches are relatively new to their posts. Each team has some very gifted players. Marchand, Bergeron, and Chara will need to shoulder the load for the Bruins to have a hope. Karlsson, O’Reilly, and Anderson can just be themselves so long as the rest of the squad shows up. This could be the best series to watch from an “x’s” and “o’s” point of view. This matchup probably has the highest regular season PIM total.

Biggest Strengths:

  • Senators: The ability to triple the gravity in the neutral zone
  • Bruin: Team defense and penalty kill

Biggest Weakness

  • Senators: Special teams
  • Bruins: Wildly inconsistent goaltending

 

Washington Capitals vs Toronto Maple Leafs

Everything versus nothing. That is this series in three words. The Toronto Maple Leafs are at least two years ahead of projections. The Washington Capitals should have had at least one Cup in the last five years. Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Kasperi Kapanen are all years from being able to drink (legally) in the US. Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson, and Nicklas Backstrom are all well into their second half of a decade or more chasing the last win of the season and not even coming close.

Biggest Strengths

  • Caps:  Total package
  • Leafs: Special teams

Biggest Weakness

  • Caps: Mental composure
  • Leafs: Defense

 

Predictions:

Boom or bust players are the players who’s performance have the ability to tilt the series.

Hawks vs Preds

For the Predators to win they need to stay out of the box they were penalized almost 50% more than the Blackhawks, for Chicago its pretty much a case of stay calm and be the Blackhawks. – Chicago in 6

Boom or Bust player of the series: Ryan Johansen

Caps vs Leafs

The Caps have more playoff experience, at least as good a coach, better performance at almost every measure. – Caps in 5

Boom or Bust player of the series: Alex Ovechkin

Ducks vs Flames

Goaltending wins championships, and the difference between Gibson’s season and either Johnson or Elliot is noticeable, but the Flames are not going to go down easy. – Ducks in 7

Boom or Bust player of the series. – Johnny Gaudreau

Penguins vs Jackets

Repeating is tough, if I were ever going to pick a team to do it, this might just be it. Jackets in 6

Boom or Bus player of the series. – Cam Atkinson

Oilers vs Sharks

This Oilers team is pretty compelling. How the defense of the Sharks is matched with McDavid and company will decide the series. – Oilers in 7

Boom or Bust player of the series. Milan Lucic

Wild vs Blues

This series is not as even as some people would have you believe. Wild in 5

Boom or Bust player of the series. Alex Peitrangelo

Habs vs Rangers

These teams have recent history, but one team is on the rise, and one of them has crested. Canadiens in 6

Boom or Bust player of the series. Derek Stepan

Sens vs Bs

This series will come down to how consistently the coaches can impose their will on their team and get them to execute the system. Sens in 6

 

Some of the best remaining talent in the RFA pool is still unsigned. Some of them may have plans to travel and just aren’t doing business related things right now. Others are deep in training and wanting to justify a better contract by arriving at camp at a better level of fitness than before. For others, maybe management of their teams thinks they can out wait the players and get them to sign on the teams terms.

Nikita Kucharev is three years into his NHL career and has proven himself in both the regular and post season. In the last two seasons he’s averaged 29.5 points and 65.5 points in the regular season playing a bit over 18 minutes last year, and putting up over a point per game in his last playoff run just this spring. He is arbitration eligible, and if there is or was a case for anyone getting an offer sheet in this crop of RFA’s, it should be him.

Some would argue Johnny Gaudreau is the top talent in the RFA class not Kucharev, and it isn’t a clear cut choice. “Johnny Hockey” averages slightly more points per game, and is playing with largely less teammates. He does however play more time at almost 20 minutes per game. In his one playoff run, he did put up strong numbers at 4-5-9 over 11 games. Small, slight, and hard to contain, its hard to imagine he’s going to have anything but a large impact on the game for years to come. Like Kucharev he is arbitration eligible.

The Buffalo Sabres have been busy stocking the shelves with UFAs and trade pieces, not to mention the odd draft pick or two. What they haven’t done is sign Rasmus Ristolainen, a defenseman who has they found use for nearly 26 minutes a night. Not yet playoff tested, but last season his points total doubled from the previous year. The 21 year old Finnish defender was tops on the team in shorthanded time on ice, tops for defensemen in powerplay time on ice, and first overall in time on ice for the team by five hundred minutes. In all that ice time he racked up half a point a game on a pretty awful team. This year with a bolstered forward group, he has a genuine shot at sixty points if they get him resigned.

Jacob Trouba is often overlooked in the NHL landscape. Being on the Jets lineup is not an easy thing for a defenseman playing in front of a porous goaltending tandem. Trouba was second on the team in total ice time, and shorthanded time on ice. To go with that he had a strong PDO, led the team in blocked shots, finished more shifts in the offensive zone than he started there, and was just a bit behind the team leader (Tyler Myers) in on ice save percentage.

Hampus Lindholm is one of the best unknown talents in the game. If he played further east he’d be better known, and appreciated. The smooth skating Swede has been part of the wolf pack of talented young defensemen residing on the Anaheim blueline. He led the defense in games played, time on ice, and even strength TOI. If the Ducks don’t sign him they won’t be as damaged by his loss as the Jets would be without Trouba or the Sabres without Ristalienen, but they are very, very unlikely to be better.

The Pacific division is probably the murkiest to forecast, you’ve got the defending champs last seasons top team in the western conference, an several teams that made changes that could add up to a better or worse finish.

Top Shelf

Anaheim Ducks

Last season they were one of two teams to finish with more than 50 regulation or overtime wins. They addressed the need for a second line center when they acquired Ryan Kesler, and solidified the third or fourth line by adding Nate Thompson. They did get a bit more questionable in goal moving on from Hiller and bringing John Gibson into the mix. One can ask how much of a distraction the absence or even the potential return of Sheldon Souray is, but it is impossible to know. They were handily the best regular season team in the league last year, if the coach can keep from jostling the elbow of the goaltenders, they might just finish with even more points this year.

San Jose Sharks

California’s only team not to win a Stanley Cup enters the season in a unique position among contenders; they have cap space. The only other major differences from this time last year are the departure of Boyle, the ‘lack’ of a captain, and Burns going back to defense full time. If the Sharks were to help themselves out in the early season by swindling one of the cap strapped teams like say Chicago out of Kris Versteeeg, they could be more than a handful in the regular season and still have cap space to work with when the trade deadline rolls over the horizon. At first look Boyle’s departure would appear to be a big loss to the Sharks powerplay, as it is, they were 20th in the NHL last year with the man advantage.

Wild Cards

Los Angeles Kings

The defending champs are returning a very high percentage of their Cup winning roster. Which is good in the sense that there’s a high level of ability to work together successfully and feed off each other emotionally. It is bad in the sense that you have to have something to feed off of. Most of this roster has now won two Stanley Cups. Many of them have played in the Olympics as well. That’s a lot of hockey, a lot of travel, and not a lot of rest. More good news is that this year they enter with Martin Jones ably backing up Quick. The two are a great one-two punch in net.

Arizona Coyotes

They were so close to making it into the playoffs last year. This despite a rather poor overall season by Mike Smith, and the distractions surrounding Mike Ribiero at the end of the year. If the team as a whole can turn three of the overtime losses from last year into wins (preferably in regulation) they make it in. If its five they are in comfortably. A full season of Sam Gagner and Tippet willing, Domi could add a lot more finesse than the roster has seen years.

The Rest

Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks have a new General Manager, a new goalie, and are almost certainly worse off than last season. No Kesler, and a cut rare replacement. The Sedins are past their prime. To put it in perspective, last year despite less games played Mikko Koivu finished with more points than either twin. While Ryan Miller is probably a better goalie than Roberto Luongo, it remains to be seen if he can catapult the team into the playoffs given how patchy the roster is. The good news I suppose, is that when the trade deadline rolls around they have some depth players who can be dealt for picks and young prospects.

Calgary Flames

This team has an inside lane to the draft lottery. They lost Mike Cammalleri to free agency. Even with the young, and talented players who may be added to the roster for the season this is not a good team. Between Giordano and Hiller they’ll likely stay in a lot of games. but beyond that there’s not a lot in the way of difference making talent on this team. There are some solid players like Hudler and Glencross who will be a help to younger players like Sean Monahan,  Johnny Gaudreau, and Lance Bouma.

Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers on paper are better than they were last year. Hockey is played on ice. I happen to consider Nikita Nikitin a bit under rated league wide. He’s a solid second pairing defenseman who finally got a tastes of the playoffs last year. I’m not quite as high on Aulie or Fayne, but they are at least serviceable. Benoit Pouliot joined them for the opportunity to become a highly paid third line winger who has never scored twenty goals. Not a great decision, especially he length of the contract. Even if you consider all the additions worth twelve points and the maturation of the core talent worth another five, come April they’ll still be looking up at more teams than they are looking down at.

The NHL offseason is a time to rest, recuperate, restock and reevaluate for teams, players and fans. In the Pacific division we have teams that are doing one of the four, two of the four or seemingly none of the four.

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks don’t seem to have decided what direction they are going off season. They added Heatley as the teams official aging star with Selanne and Koivu unlikely to return. They let Hiller walk, swapped youngster Nick Bonino, Luca “Valgia” Sbisa, and two draft picks for the perennially injured soon to be 30 year old Ryan Kesler. And in the backend they added Clayton Stoner, and reupped with Mark Fistric, on the whole they are likely very slightly better in skaters (when everyone is healthy) but weaker in goal. Grade: Better

San Jose Sharks: California’s only team not to win a Stanley Cup is as baffling as ever. They’ve made some off ice changes, because as we all know shaking up your broadcast team is the first step towards winning a championship, they also bought out Havlat who never made it on the ice. Based no doubt on the enormous success he helped bring the Buffalo Sabres the San Jose Sharks also brought in John Scott. The veteran of 236 NHL games has 2 goals and 4 assists, with one of those goals being his only point last season to two with disciplinary action that kept him off the ice for his six or so minutes a night.  Grade: Worse

Calgary Flames: The Flames added Jonas Hiller this off season giving them at least two veterans who are recognizable to non-Flames fans. Johnny Gaudreau will theoretically play for the the Flames this year, and if he does he will replace some of the offense lost with the departure of Cammalleri and Stempniak. Grade: Worse

Los Angeles Kings: Not much change for the Kings, most of it in the realm of job security for Muzzin, Greene and Schultz. There’s reason to think that even with the Cup win Jonathan Quick will be better this year, and if not there is Martin Jones, no longer an unknown. Perhaps the biggest loss is the departure of Matt Frattin, and even that is not especially significant. Grade: Better

Edmonton Oilers: At some point the Oilers have to get better don’t they? This past season was clearly not the year, and next season is still very, very iffy. Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth with play their first full seasons in Edmonton this year. Keith Aulie, Mark Fayne and especially Nikita Nikitin will bolster the blue line. Up front they’ve added the reliable if not flashy Teddy Purcell, and the ever interesting Benoit Pouliot. Gone is Sam Gagner who was shoved into a third line slot, and given third line quality linemates. Grade: Better (on paper)

Arizona Coyotes: I’m hardly alone among NHL observers who have been left standing around wondering where the earth shattering ka-boom is after the ownership question was settled. Most people expected moves that would launch the team to contender status in fairly short order. They haven’t come. This year the forward group is bolstered by the talented yet maligned Sam Gagner, the towering Devan Dubnyk will share crease time with Mike Smith, but beyond that there just ain’t much to write about. Derek Morris is likely at the end of his NHL career, Jeff Halpern is gone as well, Paul Bissionette is still unsigned. The team will be younger and more athletic on the whole, what that will translate to in terms of wins and losses for a team that was three points and or five ROW’s from a playoff spot. Grade: Better

Vancouver Canucks: Possibly the most active team in the NHL this off season they dealt away their only top six two way player in Ryan Kesler, signed former Ryan Miller, but potentially created a three headed monster in net. They bought out defenseman Keith Ballard and forward David Booth. New arrivals include Derek Dorsett, Nick Bonino. Luca Sbisa, and Radim Vrbata. Overall the team is different, with an upgrade from what was present at the end of the year in goal, and arguably better at forward, defense is still an interesting project as is team chemistry. Grade: Better

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Yesterday we looked at the surprises the preliminary rosters had given us. Now, its time to look at who should be there over who is.

Forwards:

  • Jason Pominville, with a roster that will struggle for offense, at least compared to some, leaving out a the guy who finished seventh among American scorers last season, and second the season before is unabashedly embarrassing.
  • Brandon Dubinsky is one of the best two way forwards in the league. He’s capable of throttling the life out of opposing powerplays, winning faceoffs reliably, and will play physically against anyone. He’s well over a point a game internationally.
  • John Gaudreau makes the most sense of any non-NHL player for this Team USA squad to field. He’s money in the bank scoring goals, and is over a point per game at every level he’s played, USHL, NCAA, WJC and others.

Defense:

  • Alex Goligoski had his most productive season in points per game, despite having two of the top forwards traded mid season and no describable NHL quality centers on the team.
  • Torey Krug, unlike certain invitees, Krug played a significant number of his teams playoff games and managed to make the Bruins walking dead powerplay look like it had a pulse. Speedy, great passer, plays well against larger opponents (nearly everyone).
  • Matt Greene while offense is undoubtedly needed, a shut down defenseman who can hit like a freight train is never something to be without. Arguably the best American shutdown defenseman in the NHL, certainly top 3.

Goal:

  • Jack Campbell has international experience and even if he doesn’t make the final roster the organization should take a good look at him for next time around. It is unlikely Howard, Anderson or Miller will be at or near their top form as goalies in four years.

 

Filling out the Team USA roster will require a mix of youth, international experience, and attitude. The Russians, the Canadians, and the upper echelon of European teams will not be intimidated by half the roster returning, or even two thirds. Part of what will be needed is a bit of familiarity, so anyone who has played with likely players wins the tie breaker over complete outsiders.

Top Priority:

  • Craig Anderson, he’s played with Erik Johnson, he’s the best goaltender in the NHL this season, and he’s got enough of a different style from both Miller and Quick that if the coach has to make a change, the opposition will have to make adjustments.
  • Dustin Byfuglien, big body, can play defense and forward, has won the Stanley Cup has played with Patrick Kane.
  • Jason Pominville, an infusion of skill is needed and this guy has it.
  • John Carlson, is highly talented, knows the tendencies of several of the big names from some of the other national teams.
  • Max Pacioretty has turned into one of the most interesting players in the NHL. Almost a point per game player on a team that has been injury prone over the last two seasons.

Priority:

  • Kevin Shattenkirk, has played well in the very defensive system in St Louis, has also played in the more free wheeling Colorado system in the past.
  • Seth Jones, has won World Junior gold, will likely be part of team USA for years to come, even if he only plays seven or eight minutes a game, good experience for the future.
  • Alex Galchenyuk, has played with Jones internationally, and plays with Pacioretty on the Habs.
  • Rob Scuderi, no international experience, but has won Stanley Cup’s in two radically different systems, the Los Angeles Kings and the Pittsburgh Penguins, among the leaders for US born defenseman in shorthanded ice time.
  • James van Riemsdyk has had solid international experience, currently playing with 2010 Silver Medalist Phil Kessel.

Possible:

  • Alex Goligoski, the Dallas Defenseman gets overlooked a lot, but it should be noted he’s putting up almost identical offensive numbers on the far less talented Dallas team as he did with the Penguins. Has a small amount of international experience.
  • Justin Faulk, great young defenseman burdened by a poor defensive team. Has played under the flag, plays in all situations, like Jones will likely be around for the next three Olympic cycles, has played with Gleason.
  • Drew Stafford, scored 52 points in 62 games including 31 goals two seasons ago, plays with Pominville, some international experience.
  • Erik Cole, former Olympian, World Championship experience, two time thirty goal scorer, played briefly with Galchenyuk, and a season with Pacioretty.
  • John Gaudreau, speedy little pure goal scorer,
  • John Gibson, WJC tournament MVP, stud goaltender.
  • Rocco Grimaldi, speedy, agile, had two goals in the WJC win over Sweden.
  • Blake Wheeler, great reach, good speed, plays in all situations.
  • J.T. Miller, played in on the WJC gold team with Gibson, Gaudreau, Grimaldi, Jones, playing for the Rangers and getting compliments from John Tortorello.

Long Shots:

  • Emerson Etem has proved himself at the junior level in the WHL, he’s yet to make a big mark in the NHL, but he’s got speed to burn and plays on the same team as Bobby Ryan, some games for the NAHL national team.
  • Tyler Myers if he can somehow get his grove back he’s undeniably talented, has developed some aggression, and is both a good skater and puck handler.
  • Brandon Dubinsky, has had a downturn in production lately, but had a good World Championship and is a great two way player.
  • Jack McCabe, captain of the gold team, solid defender, but the defense is the area where the team is likely to have the least turnover.
  • Jimmy Howard no slight on his talent, but he’s about the fourth best American goaltender in the NHL right now. National development team veteran.
  • T.J. Oshie, depending on how the top lines shake down he might find himself tapped to captain the penalty kill effort, also plays with Backes, some national experience, plays physical.
  • Kyle Palmeri has a hat trick this season, and half of his goals have been game winners, national experience, and plays with Bobby Ryan.
  • Paul Gaustad, incredible faceoff man, great penalty killer, like Oshie could end up as a “role player”, team guy.

Given the eventual composition of Teams Canada and Russia, ensuring there is a viable penalty kill, players at all positions who can skate, and guys who won’t wilt under physical play or the bright lights of Olympic play take priority over pure skill with questionable fortitude. With a deep enough team, playing against the weaker teams gets easier because you can use your whole bench and stay reasonably fresh for the games where one bad five minute stretch can bounce you from the metal round.

 

 

A team USA hockey squad without New England ties would be something close to criminal. No, I take that back. It’d be a crime against the region that hosts America’s oldest NHL franchise, and nurtured the Hartford Whalers for decades. New England is where the AHL has their home offices. The Manchester Monarchs, the Providence Bruins, Springfield Falcons, Bridgeport Sound Tigers, Worcester Sharks, Connecticut Whale, and Portland Pirates all have their roots deep in the communities of New England. The Eastern Junior Hockey league holds sway over young players. Hockey East is the battle ground for some of the best academic and athletic institutes in the world.

At the current camp for team USA’s world junior squad their are four New Englanders. At six foot five overlooking Jon Gillies would require a monumental effort. One look at the numbers the towering tender has put up for the Indiana Ice over the last two years say putting the puck past him is no easier. Concord New Hampshire and South Portland Maine both claim him.

Colin Blackwell, a draft pic of the San Jose Sharks is in camp as well. The North Andover, Ma native doubled up his New England ties and is a Harvard scholar-athlete. ECAC competitors would probably rather he didn’t sharpen his skills any further at the international level as his rookie campaign’s assist total was third among forwards for Ted Donato’s Crimson.

A north shore home address didn’t stop Jim Vesey from skating into the draft as a member of the South Shore Kings of the EJHL. Nashville got a the EJHL MVP in the third round. While he’s likely headed to Harvard this fall, if he does end up playing for the Predators he would be joining Hal Gill of Concord Ma, and Colin Wilson of Greenwich Ct on the roster.

North Andover is represented by 2012 Boston Bruins draftee Matt Grzelcyk. The blueliner is headed to Boston University after having helped Team USA reach the post season in the USHL last year. Soft hands, and wheels to spare are Grzelcyk’s stock in trade.

John Gaudreau who hails from Carneys Point New Jersey will be returning to the home that adopted him sometime during last years Boston College campaign where he put up some eye popping numbers.