The Brooklyn New York Islanders will be going into this season with something many of their young stars have never had; NHL playoff experience. Last years six game set with the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t end the way they wanted, but to steal a line from Iron Man 2 “they made god bleed” and the sharks, or in this case Boston Bruins came. Travis Hamonic emerged out of the shadow of John Tavares and Mark Streit to stand in his own light and nearing 30 minutes a night. Brian Strait earned respect tripling his own playoff experience and playing about 22 minutes a night against his former team. Thomas Hickey went from punchline to punching his time clock in the playoffs in just one season. John Tavares went out and put up points at the same rate he did in the regular season.

This season Kyle Okposo, Casey Cizikas and Matt Moulson will be part of the effort for a return to the playoffs and not just an 8th place finish. The opening fistful of games provides plenty of variety for a team that goes in overconfident to get TKO’d, and at the same time will show them every variety of opponent they’ll see all season. The season opener sees them visit Michael Ryder and the New Jersey Devils, the next two games they are home to welcome Marian Gaborik and the Blue Jackets to the east, and square off with the Phoenix Coyotes. Then they have a two game set on the road to visit the Chicago BlackHawks and Nashville Predators.  With two back to back sets in the five game set, there won’t be any easy games and no time to nap on the ice.

Number of days 1-5: 8

Number of cities: 4

Best opponent: Chicago BlackHawks

Weakest opponent: Nashville Predators

Home games: 2

Projected points: 5

The opening set isn’t going to be easy, the defending champs headline the card, the Coyotes and Blue Jackets are always scrappy and the Devils and Predators both have the tools to win a good number of games. The only positives in the two back to back sets and five games in eight days are short travel distances from the first city to the second and it being early enough in the season fatigue and injuries should be minimal. While only one in five of their opponents were the playoffs last year, it has to be counted as an anomaly for the Predators and Coyotes. The Blue Jackets in their own right were a tough nut and finished with identical points to the Islanders.

Goaltending and leadership are the two big questions this year. They did as well as could be expected against the Penguins in the playoffs last year. This year in order to hit the playoffs again they have to get better results from Evgeni Nabokov, Anders Nilsson, Kevin Poulin or whoever ends up their starting and backup goaltenders. It is highly unlikely the  Islanders can climb back into the post season if they can’t knock their goals against under the 2.83 that was just barely good enough last year. Someone, Tavares, or Okposo or another player will need to step into the leadership void created by the exit of Mark Streit.

 This is a feature that will run about every two weeks (during the regular season)with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.
The off season’s changes restack the decks for teams and make forecasting each season equal parts intriguing and infuriating. With the NHL draft and the bulk of NHL free agent signings done, we have a passable idea who 15 or more of the names penciled into the opening night lineup of each team will be.
Players:
  • … that Daniel Alfredsson would leave the Senators, and not go to one of the top contenders at the deadline but to the once again division rival Detroit Red Wings in free agency, even knowing Bobby Ryan was being traded to the Sens.
  • … that of Simon Gagne, Nathan Horton, and Rick Dipietro, right winger Nathan Horton would be the one set to begin their season late due to major injury.
  • … over two weeks into free agency Thomas Hickey and Dustin Penner would be signed to NHL deals and Mikhail Grabovski would not.
  • Matt Duchene who has won nothing, would sign a contract for more than Dustin Brown who has his name on the Cup.
  • … Tuukka Rask who coughed up a lead in the dying minutes of a Stanley Cup Final game seven would sign a contract making him the highest paid goalie in the NHL.
  • … Seth Jones would actually get passed on by three different general managers at the NHL entry draft.
  • Tyler Seguin‘s twitter problems and eviction from the Boston Bruins locker room to the Dallas Star’s would be eclipsed so quickly by the exit of Ilya Kovalchuk.
  • … Sam Gagner would be headed towards arbitration with the Edmonton Oilers who has only been their best center the last four seasons.

Teams:

  • … on July 22nd the Columbus Blue Jackets would have the 8th highest cap hit of an NHL team.
  • … after years of saying that Jonathan Bernier was a big part of their team for years and years the Los Angeles Kings would trade him for an unproven Ben Scrivens, and a fringe NHL’er in Matt Frattin.
  • … the Toronto Maple Leafs would be retaining portions of two salaries, and have bought out two new players in addition to the ones they entered the year having b
  • ought out recently and the general manager who did all four of those things would still have a job.
  • … the Colorado Avalanche’s off season accomplishments would include, passing on a consensus franchise defenseman at the draft, waiving the defenseman who lead their team in TOI last season, and only ‘improving’ their defense with the importation of Cory Sarich.
  • … The Winnipeg Jets, a Canadian team, who have the most cap space would also have the most players elect arbitration.
  • … that with the additions of Andrew Ference and Denis Grebeshkov and the addition by subtraction of others the Edmonton Oilers would have the NHL’s most improved blueline.

Some of the biggest cities are really tight to the cap, the Bruins, Flyers, and Lightning could all use a touch more cap space to deal with. Both the Bruins and Flyers are likely to lose pieces to free agency. The Canadiens are in danger of losing Ryder and Armstrong. Boston is supposedly getting attention on Seguin, and the Lecavalier to Montreal rumors won’t die until he’s retired or the Canadiens move, unless of course he does sign there.

What We Know

(By New Divisions)

Division C

Boston: After a run to the finals with lots of injuries, and some key contracts that are due, the Bruins could be in for a bigger offseason makeover than expected. With Horton headed to free agency, questions about Seguin and a previous lack of depth at that position, the right wing position is an area of need.

Buffalo: Miller rumors persist, as do rumors of trading nearly everyone. With the eighth and sixteenth picks overall, the Sabres should be able to get at least one more building block that enters the lineup and contributes within two seasons. It is an open question if that time frame is enough to keep Regier in the general managers office.

Detroit: Moving back into the eastern conference might be an advantage in start times and travel for the Red Wings, but they are no better than the third best team in their new division. They are fortunate enough to have a solid goalie, and two stars at forward, not much else is worth noting about the team with the longest active playoff streak.

Florida: The Panthers have just about declared the starting job for Markstrom by putting Scott Clemmenson on the market. Taking home a 2nd round draft pick or solid NHL player for that trade would be great. With the 2nd pick they ought to be able to solidify one position on their team. Tallon has shown he isn’t afraid to spend on free agent so don’t be surprised by surprises in Sunrise.

Montreal: Having returned to the playoffs last year after an embarrassing hiatus they need to take a long hard look at who they expect to be the core of the team going forward. There are some clashes between players that are visible on TV, they may or may not be short-lived events. But, building around a hollow center isn’t the best of ideas. It may feel wrong to do it, but making a move to ship out a good soldier or two for more cap space, less conflict and younger picks or prospects might be the best thing to do. The Norris trophy winner also has just one year left on his contract.

Ottawa: The first two questions the Senators leadership should be asking about any player they want to sign or draft are: can they stay healthy, and are we sure about that? From there fitting them into the roster or the farm system is the next step. With a bit more health the Senators might just have knocked off the Penguins. Adding a veteran playoff competitor like Briere, or Horton might push this team to the next level.

Tampa Bay: With the expiration of the Southeast division, the Lightning find themselves more in need than ever of improving a threadbare defense. In the last three seasons they’ve finished 28th, 30th, and 21st. They’ll be drafting in the lottery forever at that rate. Swapping for defense with a team deep at the position like St Louis or adding veteran Andrew Ference would be a step in the right direction.

Toronto: They made one of the more interesting moves of the offseason by picking up Bernier. Some say there was no need and Reimer was good enough, neither Nonis nor I agree. They have a clutch of offensively gifted defenseman, a lot of roster space, and decisions to be made on Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and most the defense they iced last year. They are in a position of great flexibility but also a lot of vulnerability. The next two weeks will likely tell us how long it will be before the Maple Leafs next playoff appearance.

Division D

Carolina: With the Staal brother, Semin, Skinner, and Tlusty offense won’t be an issue for this team so long as Faulk and his henchmen can get the puck out of their own zone and away from the triage unit that served as goalies last season. Improving the defense could come at the cost of Ruutu or several draft picks. For the first time in recent memory the Hurricanes don’t have a huge amount of cap space either. With the new divisions configuration, they need to act and act smart.

Columbus: The Blue Jackets came within 2 points of getting into the playoffs last year. The most important thing they can do is to sign their goaltender Bobrovsky, after that getting some scoring and puck distributing touch up front will make them a much better team. With three first round picks 14, 19, and 27 as well as their own 44th pick, via trade or draft this should be a productive weekend for ‘Lumbus. If Lecavalier could be landed at a reasonable cap hit together with Dubinsky the team team could have a very strong 1-2 punch at center.

New Jersey: The Devils are rumored to have two suitors interested in buying the “financially stable” team. Its unknown what impact that will have on team activity over the next week to ten days, but the team has enough holes almost anything is a good move. A slick passing center to maximize Kovalchuk’s shot, an aggressive defender or two to keep Broduer from having to work to hard, a future goaltender so the team doesn’t experience its own Flyers like run of disasters in net going for stop gap after stop gap. It might just be a good idea to resign Henrique and Clarkson before to long too.

New York Islanders: The  Islanders really should reup with Hamonic, and if at all possible swing a deal for another blueliner with playoff experience. It also might not hurt to have an NHL worthy goaltender under contract. It is likely the empty forward roster spots will be filled with the return of some combination of Boyes, Bailey, Aucoin and prospects.  Hickey was a solid find too, his contract is up as well.

New York Rangers: A new coach is coming, and no one knows what he’ll bring to the roster. It is hoped he can perform some necromancy on the powerplay and get it to shamble along. Brad Richards is being given one more chance after playing less minutes and posting less points against the Bruins than their enforcer Shawn Thornton. Former coach John Torterella said the team wasn’t “stiff” enough. With most key position filled, the Rangers can afford to be picky with free agents, but might want to get a head start on locking up core players. Only one defenseman is signed beyond next season,  neither goalie is, and there are just three forwards who are.

Philadelphia: The bloodletting began with the Bryzgalov and Briere being bought out. It is unlikely to end any time soon as this team is a disaster cap wise and not much better on the ice. To make matters worse Coburn is one of the names most active on the rumor mill and their defense is not pretty even with him.

Pittsburgh: Kris Letang has the gratitude of Penguins scribes for giving them something to write about. He’s rejected long term huge money deals. I’ll be shocked if he’s a Penguin on opening night and even more shocked if he’s still there after the trade deadline. The Penguins still need to come to terms with the issues with Fleury, and there is something wrong with the mental makeup of this team when the playoffs arrive. They’ve lost composure and the ability to play at both ends of the ice in the same game over the last three post seasons. Maybe they should reacquire Gill and Scuderi?

Washington:  Oates had done solid work rehabilitating this team, but he can only work with what he’s given. A big roster shakeup is overdue for this team. Regardless of what they say to the media, there is too big a gap between their regular season scoring and their post season scoring for this team to believe in itself. Without that swagger you just can’t win in May or June.

There’s two players whose performance make them a natural for this feature.

Just making it to the NHL was a victory for the former punchline of the 2007 draft. For more than half a decade, it was a running joke that the 4th pick of the draft was clearly a flub, a mistake, or pure incompetence on the part of the Los Angeles King’s draft team. At the start of this season, Patrick Kane who went first overall in that draft had already won a Cup, Sam Gagner had a 8 point game, and the second defenseman taken in the draft had already played 220 regular season games. Thomas Hickey on the other hand languished in Manchester getting jumped over by Slava Voynev, Jake Muzzin and others. And then things changed.

January 15th the Los Angeles Kings waived him. The New York Islanders pounced. After playing nearly every game of the regular season Hickey could look at his NHL stats and say “I belong”. On a team that despite lacking a training camp, and having turnover on its blueline improved it’s penalty kill rank year over year, as a rookie he contributed over a minute of ice time there. He also boasted a better plus-minus than any of the teams defenders save Vishnovsky. On a team whose total goal differential was a minus-4, Hickey put up a plus nine tying him for third among all rookie defensemen. Most importantly, he helped an NHL team to the playoffs.

The other guy who needs some public adulation today, if less of an introduction is Brian Elliot. The resurgence of the Saint Louis Blues goaltender has him making a startling leap over last years numbers through four games. In last years team wide second round meltdown against the eventual Cup winners, he struggled to put up a .904sv%. This year, his four games is the most of any goaltender, and his .935sv% is hands down the best of his playoff career.

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

Players:

  • … Chris Stewart, Brad Marchand and Jiri Tlusty would be in the top 21 goal scorers in the NHL and Ryan Getzlaf, Rick Nash, and Phil Kessel would not.
  • … Luke Schenn would be second among Flyers defensemen in +/- and one of just three players with a positive +/- to play more than 20 games
  • … in the same number of games, John Tavares would have more more points (31) than Jonathan Toews (29).
  • … Thomas Hickey would play more minutes and shifts through two thirds of the season than Lubomir Vishnovsky.
  • … Artem Anisimov’s 80% shootout success rate would lead the league.
  • … Ben Bishop would be 3-0 in shootouts and Robin Lehner would be 0-3, both for the Senators.
  • … the active leader in game winning goals, Jaromir Jagr would have just one through 27 games played.
  • … Ilya Kovalchuk would have four short handed goals, four game winning goals, and just ten total.
  • … in just 19 games played the leagues penalty minutes leader would be Mike Brown
  • … the top five shooting percentage leaders in the NHL would be 1: Patrik Berglund  29.2% 14 goals 2: Mike Ribeiro 27.8% 10 goals 3: Chris Kunitz 26.9% 18 goals 4: Alex Tanguay 26.5% 9 goals 5: Brad Marchand 26% 13 goals

Teams:

  • … having fired their general manager at the start of the season and made no significant trades, the Toronto Maple Leafs would be tied for sixth place with more ROW than any team below them and even or less games played than any team within five points.
  • … that in less games, the New York Islanders would have scored more goals than the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • … the Tampa Bay Lightning who are second in goal per game would have only one player with more than ten goals.
  • … half of the top ten powerplays in the NHL would belong to teams currently out of playoff position; Capitals, Islanders, Oilers, Flyers, and Flames.
  • … with at least 27 games played, the Canucks, Flames, Lightning, Canadiens, Penguins, and Wild would all have failed to score a 4 on 5 goal.
  • … each having played 28 games only the Oilers and Ducks would not have a 4 on 4 goal.
  • … the Northwest division would be separated by the least points with just ten between the division leading Minnesota Wild and the fifth place Colorado Avalanche.
  • … six of the top ten shot blocking teams would be out of the playoffs: Colorado, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Edmonton, Nashville, and Phoenix.
  • … the only two teams without a regulation loss in their last ten games would be the Columbus Blue Jackets (7-0-3) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (10-0-0)
  • … eleven teams would have a double digit negative goal differential while just eight have positive double digit differentials.

How much of this would you have believed in if I told you in September?