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.

Ever since the speculation of  Jordan Staal moving to the Carolina Hurricanes came into being, what the lines will look like in Raleigh has been question one. There are half a dozen possibilities worth considering, and immeasurable others.

Both Jordan and Eric Staal have played the wings, Jordan more often given his now former teammates. Skinner, and Ruutu have also played out of position as well. If the Canes decide to go loaded for bear and make their top line a three man threat lines could shake out like this( R-C-L) :

  • E Staal – J Staal – A Semin
  • J Tlusty – T Ruutu – J Skinner
  • J Jokinen – T Brent – C LaRose

If they look to go for something that looks more like a top nine than a top six:

  • J Jokien – E Staal – A Semin
  • J Tlusty – J Staal – J Skinner
  • A Stewart – T Ruutu – C LaRose

Personally speaking, I think the latter set of lines is more sustainable over the course of a season.  If Kirk Muller and company are smart, the they’ll make adjustments as the season goes along, and based on the competition. If they aren’t, well we’ll all get to refresh our lists of available NHL coaches. I suspect that a top criteria for figuring out who makes the cut this year at forward will be how well they play defensively because whatever else happens, even if a significant addition is made to the defense, the forwards will have to contribute to the defense of this team even more than last year.

Well, anyone wanting to know if the Caens were going to be active this off season got their answer early. After not engaging  in  their nearly annual salary dump at the trade deadline, they went out and got some pieces. Whatever else can be said about this years squad; they have the most effective two way one and two punch at center (assuming the two Staals both play on their own lines) in the division. Stamkos is better offensively, Backstrom is no slouch, but neither has a second in the same neighborhood.

Good News

  • Holy hell the forward talent; Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, Alex Semin are as good a set of top forwards as it gets.
  • Justin Faulk has a full season of experience to his credit and can only get better.
  • None of the other teams in the division have made any major moves to improve.

Bad News

  • As good as the forward crew is, the defense isn’t the loss of Allen and the return of Corvo really cuts into the quality of defense.
  • Goaltending is a concern, Cam Ward his worst save percentage in four seasons last year, and Boucher isn’t going to inspire much confidence.
  • It is doubtful the chaos that enveloped the Capitals last season, or the off ice concerns for the Jets will carry over to this season.

Forecast

High: Bubble team, with the funk Eric Staal was in for much of last season, and the time lost for Jeff Skinner piled onto the additions of Jordan Staal and Alex Semin the chance for the Canes to score fifty goals more in 2012-13 than in 11-12 is actually a conservative estimate since more players will slide into their proper spots on the depth chart.

Low: Afterthought.  The defense on this team is thin, while I’m not the Alex Semin detractor that certain TSN types are, he’s not going to contribute to this teams defense. I’m also not convinced Ward has the goods the be a world beater and play65+ games. Maybe if he could play 50-55 games, but you still have to wonder about what contribution Boucher can make and still allow the team a chance at the playoffs.

X-Factor

The big question for this team is how well can this teams forwards who will have to carry them do so. Realistically they look a lot like last years Flyers with how the team is balanced. In their favor is a weaker division, on the other hand their forward pool is not quite as deep.

The NHL Entry Draft is perhaps the most exciting day on the NHL schedule. July 1st as the start of Free Agency is fun, but not as good. The trade deadline is probably third, after opening day. The trades are just one of the things that make the day fun.

The New York Islanders made a savvy pickup relieving the Anaheim Ducks of Lubomir Visnovsky. The soon to be 36 year old is on the last year of his contract and will likely be in the dual roll of top defensemen and mentor to the young blueliners. Calvin de Hann will undoubtedly benefit from Visnovsky’s nearly 800 games of NHL experience, this years first round pick Reinhart may get some time riding shotgun as may Scott Mayfield. The Islanders gave up a 2nd round pick in next years draft

The Pittsburgh Penguins sent Zbynek Michalek to the Phoenix Coyotes in exchange for Harrison Ruopp, Marc Cheverie and pick #81 (3rd round). This was the second trade of the night for the Penguins.

In the biggest trade of the day, the worlds best 3rd center Jordan Staal was relieved of that title and an address in Pittsburgh area. Instead he’ll be playing with elder brother and fellow Stanley Cup champion Eric Staal. There are a number of possibilities for how Jordan and Eric are deployed separately and together. Going back tot he steel city are, Brandon Sutter, this years 8th pick Derrick Pouliot, and Boston College alumni Brian Dumoulin. This is a win, win bigger trade. The Hurricanes overpaid, but got a player who wants to be there, will have chemistry with at least one other player, and yes is very highly talented.

The Washington Capitals grabbed Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars for Cody Eakin and the 54th pick. That second round pick will be deployed sometime saturday morning. This is a curious move for the Capitals who have had one or two questions about their commitment and character and Mike Ribeiro is well, Mike Ribeiro. On the other hand I not only haven’t figured out what method George Mcfee is using to shape the team, I haven’t figured out how he’s still employed.

Change and unequal cycles of it are a constant in the NHL. The vogue for over a decade was to draft goalies in the first round, sometimes even very high or first overall. Drafting for need is now frowned upon. And in the last decade we’ve not seen more than two or three major trades. But that trend was almost certainly broken when Ilya Kovalchuk went north.

Since last summer two of the major names from “the golden draft” were traded by one team. One of them was traded a second time. Now the rumor mill is swirling around names from border to border and coast to coast. Jay Bouwmeester is one of the best (and most misused) defensemen in the NHL. There are four defensemen who I’ll accept flat statements of defensemen being better than him, and another four or five who with a different tool set are as good, no more. He’s likely the odd man out on the Calgary Flames roster.

The Nashville Predators have not traditionally been big spenders. A year ago they went to arbitration with one of the best defensemen in the game. This year if they don’t sign him long term it is quite likely he’ll disappear over the horizon next summer. On top of the very real possibility of losing this year’s (and last year’s) rightful Norris trophy winner Shea Weber, their other franchise quality defenseman has decided to test the free agent market. If the Predators can’t find a way to keep both they may just decide a radical rebuild is in order and trade their captain while they can still get something for him instead of letting him walk as a free agent for no return. Without Weber and Suter the Predators would be lucky to win 20 games, and that’s with Renne stealing at least six or seven. With one of them if they manage to get some help up front and a passable replacement they arguably have the balance to go far.

Jordan Staal has more rumors swirling around him than a Hollywood starlet the morning after an serious bender. Most of them are Hurricane shaped rumors. But given the 23 year old stars prowess, even the denial of his availability by Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Ray Shero probably won’t do much to dampen the rumors. As long as those rumors persist, the 30 goal scoring “defensive forward” is going to generate a lot of attention. If there are two teams in the NHL that don’t at least kick the idea of adding him to their roster around their warroom, I’d be saddened greatly.

With all the excitement around the fresh chum in the water its almost possible to forget the #Ranson4Rick saga is entering its sixth or seventh month. Rick Nash is unarguably a high end talent who had the misfortune of being drafted by a team with nearly a thimble full of clue. Some might say he’s been stewing in organizational failure so long he’s never going to have that extra juice to be successful in the playoffs he’s seen exactly once in nine seasons. Depending on who you disbelieve least, the rumors have him going anywhere and everywhere including the San Jose Sharks, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, and a couple of basement dwellers not much better than the Blue Jackets.

 There are conflicting reports on the truth of Evander Kane refusing to sign in Winnipeg, but honestly how many rugged, physical, 30 goal scoring 20 year olds come across the trade market? On a sign and trade there’s no conceivable way he’d fetch less than two first round picks or a pick and player. A team like the Los Angeles Kings who may lose some bodies to free agency could certainly slide him into the mix and improve themselves. The Anahiem Ducks would likewise become a much more formidable opponent. As for the Phoenix Coyotes with the aging core that they have been built around, a youngster who has a similar rugged playing style to Captain Shane Doan and more offense isn’t a bad way to pass the torch. If the ownership situation is resolved there I’d be shocked if there were no major moves in the first few months.

So is this the summer scribes across the continent get to write about things that have or are happening? Will we see more posts on how lineups project and a reordering of the standings than on fighting or contracts that are too long? Maybe just maybe the hockey media will stick to hockey and not TMZ like personal life stories of players? Could we get a trade or two that redefines the next decade of hockey? Please??

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.

What is Jordan Staal worth on the open market? Simply put, a lot. After Parise he’s potentially the most impactful forward on the market. As far as players under contract if he is moved this summer he is the most desirable player likely to become available. Because of his playoff success, offensive ability, and defensive prowess  there is a lot to like. Two important things to remember, without a no trade or no movement clause Staal doesn’t have a say in where he goes, and second if whoever picks him up doesn’t convince him to stay he’ll only be there a year.

Using the Kessel trade as a low end value, two first round picks or (or high end prospects) and one second round pick as the return isn’t really beyond the ability of any team to spend. Assuming there’s no extension and trade deal worked out between the clubs let’s take a look at who is most in need of him first.

Because of his defensive ability and offensive potential, the first team to step up for him in the western conference should be:

The Minnesota Wild. Mikko Koivu is one of the ten or so most underrated players in the league and carries the burdens of captain, defensive and offensive leaders on a team that has struggled since it it was founded. Adding Staal as the second top two center allows the team to retain it’s identity as a defensive first team, and both lower the burden on Koivu shorthanded and increase the teams five on five strength. A return of Coyle, a 1st round pick and second is reasonable, although if the Penguins are looking at a backup goaltender Matthew Hackett might end up in the mix.

Staying in the west, two teams that are young and strong but  would likely want as much in the way of offense out of Staal as defense are:

The St Louis Blues and Dallas Star, Pietrangelo and Backes highlight the first, while Benn and Eriksson lead the latter. The two teams finished back to back in the low twenties in offense this season. Adding Staal’s offensive production over anyone internal gives either team the chance to level up. For the Blues who have to be considered to be in “win now” mode given their high finish, he’s got the potential to put them over the top. For the Star’s, he represents the difference between breaking up in mid April and having to worry about arena availability through at least one round of the playoffs.

The biggest question for either team is what is ownership willing and able to spend to keep him long term.

Staying in the Central, one of the NHL’s longest snipe hunts might be concluded if this team were to pickup on Staal:

The Columbus Blue Jackets might just find the center to compliment Rick Nash. With Johnson and Wisniewski to patrol the blueline, and Nash, Staal, and Umberger up front all that’s needed to get out of the lottery is an average performance in net to lift the team out of the lottery. Arguably it could be done with the goaltending they’ve gotten if you factor in Staal’s penalty kill prowess. Having taken on Carter and then Johnson’s contracts after signing Wisniewski’s it’s doubtful they’d be unwilling to sign Staal long term if he decided he liked the move about three hours drive west of his current team. There isn’t a great deal on the Jackets roster that could be traded out that is something the Penguins would need currently, so straight draft picks are most likely.

Coming up a look at the eastern conference possibilities.

Jordan Staal is the new sexy. Since the idea was first kicked about that he might need to be moved to make it possible for the Penguins to extend Sidney Crosby and Evgani Malkin. But let’s not get excited over nothing. The salary cap could rise significantly over the next two off seasons. The Devils have restructured their ownership. The Stars have been bought, the Canes look like they’ll be opening their purse for company for Eric Staal. The Sabres are now spending to the Cap, and the Blues could have new ownership. On top of that the Coyotes are of course (again) near new ownership, and the Panthers and Lightning, not to mention the Winnipeg Jets have committed stable ownership and management.

If the salary cap goes up even four million in the next two years, the Penguins have all the space they need to keep all three. They can even keep other top components like Kris “Submarine” Letang, Zbynek Michalek, and some others. All of the current defense is 31 or younger, James Neal may have gotten a new deal this year but other players will need deals or to be replaced in the next two or three years as well.

Then there is the question of health. In the last two seasons, Jordan Staal has averaged 52 games played. That’s not great. His first four seasons he only missed one game, but the drop off is alarming. Then there is the health of his teammates. Crosby has missed extensive time. In three of his seven seasons Crosby has played less than sixty games, this season he played just twenty two games and with multiple concussions the question of how many more hits his career survives is always on the table. Evgani Malkin’s had injuries to both knees, his shoulder, feet and not played every game since the 08-09 season. Knee’s in particular don’t get better with time and wear.

The question has to be asked if it’s to the best option for trade is Jordan Staal. With the injuries to Malkin and Crosby he’s spent time as the number one and number two center. He’s also spent a reasonable amount of time at wing. As an excellent two way presence on a team decidedly lacking in a history of attention to defensive niceties, he might be more valuable than any return that could be reasonably acquired. Both Malkin and Crosby could be traded for an almost unlimited return. Using the trade of RFA 36 goal scorer Phil Kessel as a bench mark, or even Ilya Kovalchuk, the return for either star could be enormous and pay dividends for a decade or more.

The Selke is probably the most under-appreciated award in hockey. It may just be the most under-appreciated award in sports. It goes to one of the most important players on a team, and possibly the league. A team with mediocre defensemen who are gifted with a Selke quality forward can probably expect that forward to save more than a handful of scoring chances and goals a month. Depending on the game, and the opponent it could happen several times a game.  In the case of all three of the players, in this post, and you can order them however you like, they are generally good for disrupting opposition offense once or twice a shift.

Jonathan Toews. Chicago BlackHawks

  • Of the three he’s the most physical. Like his two counterparts he’s good at faceoffs and capable of playing twenty plus minutes a night.  Solid in all three zones and remorselessly chases wins.

Mikko Koivu Minnesota Wild

  • The best skater of the three, and the one who has had the least offensive support in years past. Being stuck in flyover country on a team with little success and no wealth of talent many people haven’t noticed him. Hands down a player to watch and appreciate. I may have been the only person outside the twin cities who didn’t bat an eyelash over his contract.

Patrice Bergeron  Boston Bruins

  • Like the others, he’s good at just about everything. Not as good a goal scorer as Toews, but probably the best of the three defensively. Top notch penalty killer. As game 7 of the most recent Stanley Cup Finals illustrated he’s willing and able to turn defense into offense in the blink of an eye. Arguably the second best defensive player on his team behind the Norris winner Zdeno Chara.

There are several other forwards who play a savvy and effective defensive game, but none are in the same league as these three, no matter how many awards they have one in the past. The next best three are probably: Jordan Staal, Ryan Kesler, and Pavel Datsyuk.