The Atlantic Division and all other NHL teams released their protected lists today, and it’s time to dive into the best and worst moves.

Boston Bruins

The Boston Bruins bafflingly failed to protect Adam McQuaid who had the best on ice save percentage differential last year. He was hands down higher than anyone else over the teams even strength save percentage. Instead the protect Kevan Miller who is at least as injury prone, and less offensively productive in the playoffs. Colin Miller is exposed as well. Also protected are Riley Nash who is an interchangeable bottom six forward, and to my mild surprise the mercurial Ryan Spooner, Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes were exposed, not that there’s any chance the latter is taken.

Buffalo Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres have exposed some pretty interesting names. Zach Bogosian as a former high end pick is possibly the most notable, he was also traded to Buffalo for a top end defensive draft pick who has been protected. Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Josh Georges, and Cody Franson represent a huge amount of the leadership and a reasonable amount of talent. As much as I like Tyler Ennis, I am a little surprised that he was protected and not some of the more obvious leaders.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings are clearly going for a youth movement. You don’t need to look any further than who is unprotected to realize this. Kronwall on the outside looking in is damn near staggering, Jonathan Ericsson is another name Wings fans have been familiar with for a while. I’m a little surprised, verging on bafflement that Jimmy Howard is protected, he’s frequently injured, inconsistent, and at 33 no longer a young guy. Jared Coreau makes way more sense to protect since they are finally moving into their long, long overdue rebuild.

Florida Panthers

The two elder statesmen in Florida are unprojected. Luongo, and Jagr are both free for the picking. Neither is a long term part of the Panthers plan, but both are almost critically important right now. Jonathan Marchessault is a bit of a shocker. Yes last season’s offensive onslaught was a career year, and in the absence of several players further up the depth chart, but he’s a pretty heady name to leave dangling. Jussi Jokinen, and Reilly Smith make a modest amount of success to expose, but its hard to imagine other teams not asking for three way deals in the next couple days. Kindl and Demers being on the outside is no surprise since neither is very good. Pysyk would be a head scratcher if it weren’t for Kindl and Demers.

Montreal Canadiens

The Habs have some mighty interesting names on the outside. Tom Plekanec is a name that leaps off the page. The rest of the list is sorta like the being one of the younger Kardashians, they’re notable for being notable and who they are near too. Dalton Thrower was a well regarded prospect not long ago, Stanley Cup winner Dwight King was brought in mid season to thicken up the bottom six, Radulov and Emelin as Russians have to be considered higher likelihood losses than they would if anyone other than McPhee were drafting, and beyond that I’m more baffled at who they did pick.

Paul Byron is worthy of being protected? Really? In what universe? Philip Danault and Jeff Petry? If you missed my piece yesterday, stop and read the first bit at least, the rest of this article will still be here.

Ottawa Senators

Bobby Ryan not being protected after the playoff run he had makes sense if you have no memory of the three years previous. Alex Andre Burrows is on the outside as well. I think with his decline of late, age, and new contract he’s likely safe. I can see the arguments for and against exposing both Methot and Borowiecki, particularly given the latter’s season ending injury, it might be some cagey work in Canada’s capital to leave them both on the outside, especially since given their composition, and last year’s success I can’t fault the Senators protected lists even a bit.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Having moved Jonathan Drouin out, there are zero point zero surprises on the protected list. Of the guys exposed it’s really hard to say who they are most likely to lose. Carter Ashton might be the happiest man in the Tampa organization after the Drouin trade, and he’s unprotected. Jake Dotchin and Andrej Suster are worth looking at, Jason Garrison two years ago might have been the gimmie pick, but he’s even older now. Slater Koekkoek is another name it might be worth exploring, but after a hard look at the team, I might pick up JT Brown if I decide to grab a forward from Tampa Bay.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Two and three years ago Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak were pilloried daily in the press. Today they make the protected list for a team that curbstomped all expectations last year. There are some names who were certainly contributors last year on the outside, but no one who if lost is going to cause the team to stagger back into a top five pick next year. This isn’t a surprise given how much of the teams success was carried by rookies and second year players. The biggest thing this list does is tell us who the front office thinks is at least a part of the short and medium term plans for the Maple Leafs.

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

 

The Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes has been the most interesting off ice story in hockey for almost a year. His choice not to sign with the rising Nashville Predators his irked some, and left others salivating in the hopes that he would play in their favorite franchise. The rumor and fantasy mills have focused on three seeming front runners, The Toronto Maple Leafs where he has a brother in the system and a father on the staff, the Buffalo Sabres who have his rights currently, and of course his home town Boston Bruins.

New Jersey shouldn’t be overlooked when evaluating where he might want to end up. One of the things that is most striking about his choice not to go to Nashville is that the narrative all along has been that he wanted to choose his own destiny, and forge his own career. While some might see this as a fit of pique, I think it shows an understanding of the NHL and what it takes to succeed; skill fit, wit, and chemistry.

If he goes to Toronto, he gets to play in a hockey mad city that lives half an atom outside the skin of its resident avatars of the state religion. It’s a pressure cooker, its intrusive, and it has no history of success in his life time. The current leadership aside, the head coach isn’t used to building teams, the current general manager is used to being the whole show, and the team President is best known in his post playing days as the Dean of Discipline to the NHL. One might very successfully make the case that’s a potentially if not inherently volatile mix at the top of the organization. Should he sign there he will be making it harder for his own brother to get a shot at the NHL. Yes, it is quite unlikely they would both be aimed at the same position, but there are only so many slots on the roster. There is also the specter of nepotism that will hang over him if he does land there, no matter how good he is.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are pretty much a non starter not because he wouldn’t want to play with Phil Kessel, Malkin, Crosby and Letang, but because from a cap perspective its comes pretty close to attempting to scale Everest in flip flops and a loin cloth. In order for him to get into the top six, they likely need to move a well known, expensive player. Chris Kunitz is well known, well respected and thirty six years old with only this season under contract. Pascal Dupuis’s contract is potentially trade able, but they would likely have to give up a good piece to go with it. After that is the question of moving either Carl Hagelin or Conor Sheary, financially Hagelin being moved makes the most sense, talent wise, and long term cap implications are debatable.

While many would list the Boston Bruins as the default choice, there are issues there too. Playing in your hometown is an enormous amount of pressure with zero down time, summer isn’t safe to be home, after a bad game everyone is upset, after a win everyone wants to buy you a drink, and everyone knows someone who knows you. Add to that the Bruins have coach with (an overblown) reputation for being tough on young players, one of the top ten left wings in the game in Brad Marchand, and the fact that the team desperately needs defense good enough to be paid well, and Vesey is probably not a priority to the Bruins. Another factor might be how many current local boys are in the system. I’m sure he’s friends with some, rivalries or worse, that started in early childhood can be hard to leave behind.

And then there is Buffalo. The Sabres have quite a bit of impressive young talent. Including Evander Kane, a left wing who has scored 30 goals in the NHL at a young age, plays physically, and is locked into a top six position, unless a coach is feeling like moving on to warmer pastures. They also have veteran Matt Moulson, another left wing, a three time 30 goal scorer who has had a down couple of years but can almost certainly be expected to be a big part of the leadership group both on and off the ice. The scrappy utility forward Tyler Ennis will hold onto a top 9 position one way or another as well. It is unlikely Vesey considers his chances of being more of an impact player in season one than Evander Kane, and a healthy, motivated Matt Moulson is nothing to sneeze at, which exclusive of Ennis, and other prospects makes his chances at significant minutes slim.

What does New Jersey offer?

  • They are close enough to home to be a short flight,  and manageable train or car ride for himself, friends, and family.
  • A big enough city to have night life and amenities.
  • Far enough down the media frenzy food chain to have breathing space.
  • High end team mates like Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique.
  • A team that is without him better than the Leafs and Sabres
  • Highly respected veteran leaders like Cammelleri, Zajac, and Fiddler
  • Less competition for dollars against the cap in the mid term future.

In short, for a lot of reasons the New Jersey Devils might just be team he lands with. They aren’t the sexy pick, the easy pick, or the one what might just let him ride coattails to an early career Stanley Cup, but they have a lot of things none of the other teams have. Realistically, the Devils could have won a half dozen of the games they lost in regulation last year. With 96 points, and just three of the wins coming in regulation, they would have beaten out the Philadelphia Flyers for the second wild card spot last spring.

It’s early in Free Agency, just a couple days in, but all of the top players are signed so it is time to grade the teams.

Boston Bruins: C-

Their biggest need was on defense. Not just a high end player that eat twenty two to twenty five minutes a night, but someone who can pick up the defensive slack as Chara ages and with Seidenberg a thing of the past. They failed to do that. Their second biggest need was to fill out the right side, and they did that with a hand in glove signing of David Backes. Style wise, experience wise, attitude wise it would be harder to find a better right wing for the team even if there is a decent amount of risk. Third on the list was filling the bottom six and getting depth at forward that can be called up from Providence and provide veteran leadership there. They first didn’t make the mistake of resigning Chris Kelly long term (or at all, so far), and brought back Tyler Randell, and added Riley Nash which are solid signings. They also signed an injury prone backup goaltender who will at least fit into the room comfortably being a retread.

Buffalo Sabres: B+

The Sabres did what they needed to continue a rebuild that is going along solidly but they took on some risk to do so. Kyle Okposo brings size, skill, physicality, playoff experience and undeniable injury history to the Sabres. They added some minor league depth, but honestly there wasn’t a lot for them to do. They have some RFA’s to resign who play a big part in the Sabres machine, and are targeting Jimmy Vesey, but they have enough depth at all the skating positions they should with only reasonable health at worst still be in the playoff conversation in late November assuming they get Rasmus Ristolainen, and Marcus Foligno signed without alienating anyone. The biggest failure would be in letting Chad Johnson go and picking up Anders Nilsson who has largely been a 3rd goalie as the seeming replacement.

Detroit Red Wings: C-

Generally peaking when your two most notable UFA acquisitions are a former all star known for scoring who barely does any more, and a former agitator who barely does that anymore you’ve already admitted you’re rebuilding. Except the Red Wings haven’t done that, and yet they went and grabbed Tomas Vanek who has seen his stats plummet in the last few years, and Steve Ott who has had exactly one twenty goal season in his career. Ott will be thirty-four when the puck drops in October. It is quite hard to be optimistic when a team that 23rd in the leagues last season in Goals For does nothing noticeable to help themselves in that category. What about Frans Neilsen you say? Good question. He’s undeniably talented, but he is also 32, the least well known of the three (outside Long Island), and has never cracked 60 points. Did Zetterberg and Kronwall lobby that hard for players who listen to the same music as they do?

Florida Panthers:  B+

On paper the Florida Panthers have spent the last several days sweeping up all the talent they need to maybe, just maybe become the front runner for Atlantic Division Title. They inked Jason Demers long term, and they also made two sneaky smart pickups signing Colton Sceviour and Jonathan Marchessault both playoff tested guys still at the height of their athleticism. If there is a concern in the moves made over the off season as a whole, it is that the team may have gotten worse defensively. That’s a bit concerning given that their number one goaltender is within a season or so of playing in his 1000th NHL game.

The Montreal Canadiens: C-

While there is nothing wrong with the talent the Canadiens have brought in, one wonders what is wrong with the decision making process in the front office. The mantra according to both deed and word is to have a locker room without personality problems, at least that was the official reason for moving Norris trophy winner P.K. Subban. But when you bring in Alex Radulov and Andrew Shaw to the mix any observer can be forgiven for wondering if there wasn’t perhaps if that official reason wasn’t even close to the skin of the matter. Al Montoya as a backup is nearly as confusing as the other moves as their were several backups available with better career numbers.

Ottawa Senators: No Grade

While they didn’t throw too much term or too much money at any big name free agents and certainly there are occasions when the signing you don’t make is the best deal of the off season, they failed to improve. That said, they did a lot of major movement towards the middle of last season, and didn’t have a lot of roster spots to fill.

Tampa Bay Lightning: No Grade

The Bolts didn’t have a lot of needs from the UFA market, if any at all. And they made no moves there. They did lock up most of their core and have a good deal of room to sign up the RFAs they have at loose ends.

Toronto Maple Leafs: C-

The Leafs added two UFAs worth naming since free agency opened, and the same thing can be said about both of them. They are tough, physical, blue collar players who can be nice contributors.  What Matt Martin and Roman Polak aren’t are cornerstones or top of the roster players. Neither is really even a middle of the roster player. Toughness, and even headedness are great but this team’s needle hasn’t been pushed closer to playoff participant yet.

The NHL season is here, and its time to take a quick look at all 30 teams and how they will start the season.

Anaheim Ducks: On paper, if their goaltending can be sorted out they might just be the best regular season team in the NHL. That said, the regular season is nearly meaningless when you start off this damn good.

Arizona Coyotes: Maybe the return of the distractions that hung over this team for half a decade will push it back into playoff position. Ekman-Larsson may be getting better every year, but Shane Doan isn’t getting any younger.

Boston Bruins: This is a solid team but the entire right side of the team is questionable, and with the trade of Boychuk the defense becomes much less steady.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres are working very hard at getting better while getting worse, the addition of Josh Georges makes the defense better, the loss of Ryan Miller leaves two goalies shaped question marks in the crease. Almost certainly a lottery team.

Calgary Flames: This team could have two legitimate All-Star’s this year and still be 10+ points out of the playoffs, no matter how good Giordano and Monahan are the rest are not.

Carolina Hurricanes: With Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner down and out, things look grim for this season’s point total. Last year they hit 34 ROW’s, the same as the Detroit Red Wings, might not be achievable. Noah Hanflin or Oliver Kylington might not be the distant dream they seemed just a few weeks ago.

Chicago Blackhawks: Take a good long look at the core opening night, unless the cap goes up about ten million, they are really likely to be broken up, Hossa is almost 36, and Seabrook only has this and one more year left on his contract.

Colorado Avalanche: Regression to the mean is what all the advanced stats folks are expecting this season. I’ll just say that the new additions to the team, are going to slow it down…

Columbus Blue Jackets: With Johansen starting late, Horton’s career is in doubt, and Dubinsky is on the injured reserve, that said they still have a solid shot at the playoffs.

Dallas Stars: The off season fairy was kind to the Dallas Stars forward depth but their defense and goaltending could still use a gift or two.

Detroit Red Wings: Injuries, aging players, and a coach who might not return next season, what a recipe for success.

Edmonton Oilers: The Nikitin injury should accelerate the development of Darnell Nurse, add in the other injuries and it makes starting the season off on a good note difficult, on the plus side they only play three road games in October.

Florida Panthers: Willie Mitchell,, Roberto Luongo, and Jussi Jokinen are nice adds, I’m not sure the team escapes the bottom five but games will be closer.

Los Angeles Kings: Like the Blackhawks, this team is likely to be very different at the start of next season, is that enough to push them over the top into being the first team to repeat in the salary cap era? They didn’t add anyone, but this year, they also didn’t lose any of the core.

Minnesota Wild: Only four of the nine October games are at home including an opening night rematch with the Avalanche, and a visit to the defending Kings early on will tell people more about the healthy version of this team than anything else.

Montreal Canadiens: No captain, contract years for two key, young forwards, a reliable member of the defense gone, the much relied upon backup gone, this year could indeed be interesting times for the men in the CH.

Nashville Predators: For the first time in team history the Predators will have a new head coach and a new playing style, to compliment that James Neal, Olli Jokinen, and Derek Roy were added up front. General Manager David Polie has to hope he’s found the right way to make sure he’s not the next out the door.

New Jersey Devils: The End of The Brodeur Era is what is being talked about, some interesting additions have helped mask the other question; How much longer will the Lamoriello era last? On October 21st he’ll be 72 years old.

New York Islanders: The additions of Boychuk and Leddy at the end of training camp are the single most disruptive preseason moves in recent history. Fans, players, and executives have to hope upsetting balance in the standing follows.

New York Rangers: Depth and balance helped the blue shirts make the finals last year, this year they start off without Stepan, Pouliot, Richards, Dorsett, and Stralman are gone. An argument can be made that those voids are all filled, but that doesn’t mean the team is as good.

Nashville Predators: Rinne is healthy, Weber is ready, Neal and Roy are part of the squad, a better year is  ahead.

Ottawa Senators: If this team gets great goaltending they likely finish eight to ten points outside the playoffs, if they get average or bad goaltending they are in for a very long season. There just is much depth here to work with.

Philadelphia Flyers: This is a team with a lot of opportunity to change peoples minds. Mason, Simmonds, Giroux, Voracek all had solid seasons last year, but the rest of the squad is more question marks than answers.

Pittsburgh Penguins: In the off season they lost a third of their defense, a top six winger, and will enter the season with at least one of their best players below 100%.

Saint Louis Blues: The Blues have a really interesting team, and have a really good good shot at playing in the second half of April and beyond, the big question about this team is goaltending as it has been for years.

San Jose Sharks: This team is imperfectly mixed concrete. With all the outside pressure, maybe, just maybe the team will come together and like that imperfect concrete hold for just long enough.

Toronto Maple Leafs: In the first 10 games we’ll see if the team has fixed their penalty kill, if they have they are a notably better team they were last year on that alone.

Vancouver Canucks: More stability in net is great, but up front this team is clearly not as good as last year, GM Benning still has a long road ahead.

Washington Capitals: Picking up a solid pair of defensemen is good, taking them off the hands of a division rival is better. Wrapped up in that is the addition of someone who can arguably improve their mushy penalty kill.

Winnipeg Jets: Evander Kane is the only player on the team making over four million a year without a no trade clause, if he’s there at the end of the season is anyone’s guess.

The Atlantic Division is probably the easiest of the four divisions to break down. The three teams that highlighted the division last year are all back with little to no change. The rest of the teams are not greatly changed either. If you missed the other previews just click the division name Metropolitan Central Pacific.

Top Shelf

Tampa Bay Lightning

This team is legitimate. Victor Hedman has emerged as a top level defenseman and the rest of the defensive group is solid. Ben Bishop is a high end goaltender. Up front is Steven Stamkos, the other forwards Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and more proved themselves formidable last year as well. The addition of Stralman to the roster just makes the team even better. When the playoffs start this season don’t be surprised when this team is in the top three, don’t even be surprised if they are at the top of the division.

Montreal Canadiens

The Habs put up a hell of a fight last spring even after Carey Price went down. Since then they brought in P.A. Parenteau and removed some older, slower players. The blueline is likely to be younger than last year as well. Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi are with the organization, Douglas Murray and Francis Bullion are not currently signed by the Canadiens (or anyone else). You can still ask “who’s going to score”, but recent history has shown that it mostly doesn’t matter if Price is playing well.

Boston Bruins

They lost future hall of fame inductee Jarome Iginla and at this point most of the team is waiting for the trade ax to fall. Even with the losses of emotional catalyst Shawn Thornton and Jarome Iginla the team isn’t a lot worse off than it was last year. The biggest question mark on for this team hovers over the real health durability, and game readiness of Seidenberg, Eriksson, Kelly, and McQuaid. Eriksson started to look better as the reason wound down, but the other three are still complete unknowns.

Wild Cards

Detroit Red Wings

In order for this team to be in the playoffs they have to get consistent star level contributions from players like Tatar, Nyquist, Joakim Andersson and more as their top level players just don’t cut it anymore. Datsyuk has already suffered an injury, Zetterberg is always just one more hit (or maybe a stack of #Pennercakes ) from a month of rehab. While I honestly expect the team to be on the outside looking in when the season ends, the brain trust in Detroit keeps surprising me.

Toronto Maple Leafs

This team should not be as bad as they were last year. I don’t think they can win the division, but in addition to a healthy David Clarkson (we hope), they made smart additions with Mike Santorelli and Roman Polack. Also of note is the return of Leo Komorov. If all are playing near peak, those four players alone are nearly enough to get the squad back into the playoffs even without David Booth who to no ones surprise is again injured. It is pretty likely that if this team isn’t in playoff position around the trade deadline they are not going to look very similar next fall.

The Rest

Ottawa Senators

The Ottawa Senators can hope for better health this season, it was a factor in last seasons finish.  With the departure of Jason Spezza, they have lost raw talent. There is however an enormous amount of room for young players to prove themselves. Mika Zibanejad, Eric Gryba, Codi Ceci, Alex Chaisson and the rest can finally go out on the ice a prove to the world where they truly stand in the NHL and hockey world. There isn’t much ahead of them on the depth chart, and who knows if they, Jared Cowen and the rest all have healthy productive seasons they might just get to bonus hockey. If you see that happening, I’d advise you not to bet the rent money, or even the tip on a mocha latte.

The Buffalo Sabres

When your first line center is horse raise between Zemgus Girgensons, Tyler Ennis, and Cody Hodgson, that tells you about where your season is headed. When fans show up to a USA hockey event with McDavid Sabres jerseys, its a sign fans know it too. Unquestionably the best unit of this team is the defense. Tyler Myers is the best known member of the group, but Josh Gorges and Andrej Meszaros have been through the wars and know their way around the NHL, Jake McCabe has an excellent amateur pedigree and I expect him to develop well. Last year they have 21 wins, I’d bet on them being within no more than six either way of that this year.

The Florida Panthers

The Cats might just surprise people a time or two this season. Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, and Jonathan Huberdeau have all had a tour of duty in the NHL, and won’t be wide eyed rookies this year. Jussi Jokinen and Dave Bolland will help thicken up the top six, and Derek McKenzie and Shawn Thornton will play important bottom six minutes. Roberto Luongo on the backend makes a big difference in net. Don’t expect them to win the division (or even more than they lose) but expecting them in the NHL’s bottom five in April might not be realistic.

So there’s a fascinating article up over at CBC.CA. Tony Care has taken it upon himself to blame Dion Phaneuf and his contract for all that is wrong with the Leafs, or at least that’s how it reads.

According to the article Phaneuf isn’t a number one defenseman. Let’s take a look at that. Let’s ask three questions about that one. First; Can you name 30 or more better defensemen in the NHL? Second; Does Phaneuf contribute to the the Toronto Maple Leafs like a number one defenseman? And third, is he playing in all situations?

The first question is an obvious: NO. Can you name five better defensemen, sure easy as pie. Can you name ten better defensemen, probably. What that means is that Dion Phanuef isn’t an elite defenseman. But then again there are probably only about five or six of those in the NHL at most at any given time.

How much does Phaneuf contribute? Last year on a team that was middling for total offense, Phaneuf , who isn’t an offensive defensemen was still comfortably in the top 50 defensemen in scoring. He played a solid 23:33 of TOI a night with over six minutes a night on special teams. Roughly half of the players who averaged more TOI than Phaneuf last year did not make the playoffs. The highest sv% on the season or a Toronto goalie was .923 for Bernier over 55 games James Reimer in 32 games was at .911, the on ice sv% for Phaneuf last year was .928. That’s only slightly above what Bernier’s was, but significantly over where Reimer who played roughly 40% of the season managed.

When you climb deeper into the advanced stats, and look at zone starts and zone finishes, his raw offensive numbers get even more impressive, as does his on ice save percentage. Phaneuf started 61.2% of his shifts in the defensive or neutral zones. He finished just 53.7% of shifts outside the offensive zone. Ask your financial planner if they can consistently get you 7.5% increases on your investments, just be prepared to be laughed at. Then there’s the quality of competition he’s facing. He was 17th in the NHL last year for QoC Corsi, that’s ahead of the last three players to be awarded the Norris Trophy, and pretty much everyone else.

On the third count we have much of our answer earlier on. Phaneuf played more than 200 minutes more than the next Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman last year. His 17:27 of even strength time was second on the team. His 2:49 of shorthanded time was likewise second on the team. The 3:17 of powerplay time was first overall. No one on the team combined for more hit and blocked shots than Phaneuf either.

Would Phaneuf get less grief if he were an offensive minded player like Ottawa’s Karlsson or Pittsburg’s Letang, maybe, maybe not. Would the Toronto Maple Leafs have finished as high or higher in the standings with either Letang or Karlsson last year; unlikely.  Phaneuf is doing the heavy lifting defensively almost unaided, it doesn’t matter how many more goals either of those two scores, with as mushy as the rest of the lineup is defensively, it would be a not less for the Leafs to exchange him for that type of player.

For part 1 look here.

Mattias Ekholm when you get your first taste of the NHL in a season when the whole team is struggling to only suck a little, its hard to saw where your talents (or lack their-of) end and the teams balance begins. Roughly 17 minutes a night is a sign your coach has at least some trust in you, and having very slightly better road numbers than home in a very competitive division. It would be interesting to see how heavily his international experience in the SHL is counted, if at all. Only one year of NHL time to go on, and that with a poorish -8, its unlikely he gets north of $925,000.

Kevin Poulin is a goalie in the New York Islanders who like their next period of dominance has been a year away for as long as anyone can remember. His sv% is actually regressing at the NHL level since his debut. More than one goalie has put up better numbers in the last few years in an Islanders uniform. Arbitration may bring his deal below the qualifying offer level presumably he’d seek a higher AHL salary. Anywhere in the mid $600k range.

Derick Brassard was fourth in points for the Eastern Conference champions, had four game winners in the regular season and two in twelve games in the playoffs. Brassard is a solid player who plays all out on a pretty regular basis.  One comparable is Dave Bolland, who recently cashed in for $5,500,000 per year. Another would be Boston’s Chris Kelly $3,000,000 and a realistic salary is anywhere between them given the way Bolland playing in a market with a low ability to attract high end free agents jacked up his price.

Chris Kreider is either still developing as a player or a class one Kovalev level enigma. In the regular season he was a pretty unassuming 3rd line level contributor. In the playoffs, he was nearly a point per game. The really wonky part of this is that he only played about a minute more per game in the playoffs than he averaged in the regular season. Want even loopier? In his last 10 regular season games (March 7-24) he wasn’t playing much going pointless in 6 of them, playing under 10 minutes in two, and only crossing 15 minutes twice. Then when he returned in the playoffs, 13 points in 15 games after over a month with no game action. His NHL career is rather oddly shaped, he’s played 41 post season games and is over half a point a game in them, which is higher than his regular season conversion with 89 and 40. His price tag could go anywhere from as low as $1m to $2.75 depending on where the market is set before his arbitration, depending on the length of the contract the high end might not be so bad at 4+ years for the team for a 1-3 year deal expect them to push for something lower.

Mats Zuccarello is another of the New York Rangers players filing for arbitration. It’s hard to decide with so little NHL time on his dossier if he’s destined to be a top six guy, or a bottom six guy. Which place the arbitrator assigns him will go a long way towards setting his price. As a guy who has yet to break 20 goals in the NHL. a bottom six designation is most likely, so $2.25m is about the max you should expect to see him.

Derek Grant has a full 25 games of NHL experience and has averaged under 10 minutes a night. A fourth round he hasnt got much to build a case around but you can bet his 2:14 a night of shorthanded time will play a prominent part in his positioning of his team value. I don’t expect him to cross $750,000 but like the other guys in the lower range of the pay scale he may be angling for a one way contract or higher AHL salary.

Nick Spaling is part of the return for the Pittsburgh Penguins on James Neal. It is pretty doubtful anyone expects him to produce like Neal, and they just can’t afford to. His playoff experience and contributions are negligible, but under the most conservative and defensive minded coach in the NHL he gained minutes and responsibility steadily. He made $1.5m last year on a one year deal and was traded in the off season giving the Penguins exactly zero experience with him in their system and city. He does have a history of being a pretty disciplined player on ice with very few penalties at all.  Anything from $1.3m up is possible, P.A. Parenteau had the same number of points and just inked a deal for four years worth $4m as a UFA, Nathan Gerbe produced at the same level and will make $2m, Carl Hagelin was again in the same range and was paid $2.1 last year and will get $2.4m this year. A three year deal at $2,300,000 per should be comfortable for both, even if each side thinks they could do better.

Jason Demers is a solidly built right shooting defnsemen who played just under 20 minutes a night in the Sharks system last year in the regular season and playoffs.  As a right shooting defenseman, if he is award more by the arbitrator than San Jose wishes to pay, he can expect to be employed again anyway in a matter of days. Interesting to note is how both his short-handed and powerplay time went up in the playoffs. He has a noticeable, if not career threatening history of injuries. Slava Voynov plays with a similar level of physicality, is also a right shot defenseman with essentially the same body size and his contract (signed last year) is worth $4.16m. Former teammate Dan Boyle had similar points and is much signed a UFA deal for $4.5m per year, Cam Fowler last year signed a five year four million a year deal. Anything under $2.5 is unrealistic as is anything over five. I’m guessing a deal in the near neighborhood of Vlasic’s $4.25 will be worked out with the biggest variances being term and if Demers gets a no trade clause as well.

Cody Franson is another right shooting defenseman. He’s a bit larger than Demers, but points wise they are about the same guy. Franson accumulates more hits and blocked shots, and has steadily increased his offensive production. His overall defensive game may limit him to a smaller contract than Demers will get, but identical deal wouldn’t be unfair.

James Reimer lost the starting job over the course of last season with a sv% .012 lower than creasemate Jonathan Bernier. That said, last year was clearly his worst NHL season for goals against average, and last season he brought the team into the playoffs. With the exception of the lockout shortened season he’s never played the bulk of the schedule in either the AHL or NHL. He and his will undoubtedly argue for starter money, but reality says he’s a backup and a good one. Comparable are Anton Khudobin, $2.25m, Ben Bishop, or Alex Stalock so a deal between $1.8 to $2.2m is a solid landing zone.

The trade deadline always has surprises. Sometimes it is who doesn’t gets traded, sometimes it is how lopsided a trade appears to be. Right now all eyes are on Ryan Callahan of the New York Rangers, Ryan Kesler the Selkie winning Vancouver Canucks defenseman and of course the healthy goalie void for the Minnesota Wild. Drawing their own buzz are Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza, future first ballot hall of famer Martin Brodeur, and Matt Moulson the three time thirty goal scorer currently taking line rushes for the Buffalo Sabres.

Some names that could be moved who aren’t getting the attention:

Bryce Salvador:

With one more year left on his contract he’s more than a rental, and given that he’s going to be 39 before his contract expires that might give some teams reasons to hesitate. On the other hand he’s a very savvy stay at home defender who has more than once in his NHL career met or exceeded his regular season goal total in the playoffs. Teams that are looking to add a defenseman before the playoffs could do much, much worse than the Brandon Manitoba native.

Brooks Laich:

The soon to be 31 year old forward for the Washington Capitals has seen better seasons than his last two in the nations capital. The three time 20+ goal man has not cracked that mark since 2009-10 season, and it is curious why that is. The Capitals trail all teams in the playoff structure in ROW and not surprisingly sit third in the eastern wild card race. A team looking for a 2nd or third line scorer might roll the dice on a player who has all the markings of a guy in need of a change of scenery.

Evander Kane:

It has been consistently rumored that the pugnacious winger is unhappy in Winnipeg. The young 30 goal scorer might not be a player you want to trade, but the depth brought back from that sort of trade could be exactly what is needed to right the ship for the Jets. If Kesler’s asking price is a roster player, a first round pick and solid prospect despite greater age and an extensive injury history, what could the return for a younger, grittier player with four years left on his deal be?

Kevin Bieksa:

With all eyes on a potential Kesler deal, it is easy to overlook Bieksa. Both have no trade clauses, and two years remaining on their contracts, both made an impression on fans around the world in their run to the Stanley Cup finals a few years ago as being the only Canucks skaters to put up a fight in game seven of the the finals against the Bruins while the rest of the team just laid down on the job. While he’s lost a noticeable amount of games to injuries, he’s still had solid offensive production throughout his NHL career.  If the Canucks brain trust decide to turn the page on the rosters core group, Bieksa could be asked where he wants to go.

Brad Boyes:

Last year when he put up 35 points in 48 games in the regular season it was assumed that most of the revival of Brad Boyes was due to playing next to John Tavares. This year however he’s playing in Florida on a team much less well structured or talented than last years Islanders and has put up 17 goals in not a great deal of ice time giving him the team lead in goals. He’s second in scoring on the sons of Sunrise, and earlier this year picked up his first shorthanded goal since the 2006-07 season. As a rental or a player with potential to play someplace for two or three years, Boyes is solid option.

Cody Franson:

The 26 year old blueliner has seen a dip in per game production over last years grueling pace. If the Maple Leafs decide to make changes, this pending RFA blueliner might find himself playing in a different jersey real soon. Due largely to highly uneven goaltending, the Leafs have the fifth highest goals allowed per game. Franson might find himself moved for any number of reasons, from a crowded blueline, to the desire for someone better than average defensively to replace him in the lineup