The Central division is the toughest in the NHL. Last season five teams from the division made it into the playoffs something no other division in hockey matched. In the division you’ve got dynamic goal scorers Norris quality defensemen, top flight goalies and not a lot of mutual love.

Top Shelf

Chicago Blackhawks

They got edged for a trip to the Finals, and will likely be trading someone pretty soon. Two of their core forwards Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginning, but they are probably the best balanced team in the conference. They’ve got got great forwards, strong defense and adequate goaltending.

St Louis Blues

This team is likely to take a half to a full step back this year. Elliot has never thrived as a number-one goalie, and Jake Allen is still an unknown quantity. That said, they may have the best top three for defense in Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk, and Bouwmeester. They downgrade slightly going with Steve Ott over Vlad Sobotka, but did add Paul Stastny. Jaden Schwartz remains unsigned and doubtless need to do some catching up when he gets back into the fold.

Wild Cards

Minnesota Wild

Mikko Koivu led the team to the playoffs where he, Ryan Suter and the rest waged a fierce battle in the second round with the Blackhawks. Out are Clayton Stoner and Dany Heatley. Goaltending remains as unsteady as ever, but that doesn’t distract this team. Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Mikael Granlund and the rest will have to dig deep and pull in some more offense, but this team is capable of laying anyone out.

Colorado Avalanche

The advanced stats and the eyeball test said this team should not have been as dangerous as they proved to be in the regular season last year. It took until the playoffs to prove it. They did lose long time contributor Paul Stastny, and replaced him with the notably older Jarome Iginla. I don’t expect them to fall out of the playoffs, but 112 points again is not that likely. It will be interesting to see how older players like Briere and Iginla adjust to playing at altitude.

The Rest

The Dallas Stars

Finally a return to the playoffs last year. This year among other moves was punting the push and passion of Alex Chaisson for Jason Spezza’s finesse and offense. Anders Lindback will be this years backup in the crease. With a full season under his belt Valeri Nichushkin should be crossing the 20 goal mark this year. Given the changes in the roster, and the injury history of some players, this team a not a lock for the playoffs, but I don’t see them in the lottery.

Nashville Predators

In the off season the Predator made several moves that collectively add up to some big question marks. James Neal an elite sniper was added at the expense of Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Derek Roy, Olli Jokinen, Viktor Stalberg and Derek Roy were brought in to rearrange the forward group. I have no idea what these players will look like this season, and I don’t think anyone else does either. On the plus side, Pekka Rinne will have a full summer of health under his belt, Seth Jones and the other youngsters have played through the worst of things and the light is indeed brighter this year. Whatever else, the Predators have Shea Weber, and their opponents do not.

Winnipeg Jets

The weak sister of the division, the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs in years. Ownership needs to decide if they are building or breaking down, because what they are doing isn’t going to get them a Stanley Cup. They have a lot of talent in Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian, and Dustin Byfuglien. When you look at the talent level at the top, and an average to above average middle of the roster, you have to wonder if it isn’t either the environment or the players themselves. Without reinforcement, and a strong on ice system, this team is not making the playoffs.

Its never a good thing when a team and player can’t manage to combine for the common good. Sometimes the player is a misfit, other times the teams flat fail to appreciate the talent of a player and put him in a role that bars him from success. Other cases are just a mismatch of player and system. Whatever the cause, there are several NHL players who could do so much better elsewhere.

Ryan Johansen – Columbus Blue Jackets

The Story:

Ryan Johansen and The Columbus Blue Jackets are in the end stages of a protracted, bitter, and public dispute over exactly what Johansen is worth for his second contract. Management is arguing that with only one season of notable performance he should take a more modest contract to prove last years 33-30-63 season wasn’t a fluke. The 22 year is likely pointing at other players with similar levels of success, who likely had more years with better rosters around them.

The most popular example is Ryan O’Reilly who in the final year of his entry level deal put up 18-37-55 in 81 games for the Colorado Avalanche. O’Reilly was rewarded with a contract worth $3.5m in year one and $6.5m for an average annual value of $5m. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is another comparable, who ended up with a big contract with similar but lesser production. You can look at Tyler Seguin and Jeff Skinner as well, in the third year out of juniors Johansen was more productive or healthier than most of the comparables, in some cases both.

Evander Kane – The Winnipeg Jets

The Story:

Kane has more goals in the last three seasons than any other Jets player, one of those seasons included a coaching change in season. He’s played under four different coaches in five seasons; John Anderson, Craig Ramsay, Claude Noel, and Paul Maurice, given how different those coaches are in temperament, experience, and style it would be hard to fault Kane if he wondered if management and or ownership had a clue and a plan. Kane is a rugged winger (drafted center) who has played in all situations and even contributed shorthanded goals. He hits, blocks shots, and has averaged over twenty minutes a night the last two seasons, yet he’s still treated as some sort of leper by the team.

If some or even most of what is said about him off ice is true maybe they are just sick of dealing with that. No matter what the cause, Evander Kane trade rumors are frequent enough to not be news and he’s only entering his sixth year.

Mark Giordano – Calgary Flames

The Story:

Giordano is one of the rising stars of the NHL. On a pretty bad team last year, he none the less was voted one of the best NHL defensemen by the writers of NHL.com this year. With a very friendly salary of just over four million this year and next, he can be moved for a considerable return to a team like Philadelphia or the Islanders who want to win soon. Giordano is 31 which is not old for a defenseman, but it is highly doubtful he’ll still be near peak if and when the Flames acquire enough talent to be a contending team. Better still, with less wins and more picks, they stand a better shot at getting not only good building blocks, but someone at the top end of the next NHL draft.

Reilly Smith – Boston Bruins

The Story:

Reilly Smith is part of the return for the trade that sent Rich Peverley and Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars. He came in last year and cemented Seguin’s old spot on Patrice Bergeron’s line, and proved himself a good and willing passer and a goal scorer. With the cap crunch and a stagnating pool of NHL ready talent in the AHL, the Bruins have had little room and less inclination to sign him when cheaper options are at hand. Even if Smith is asking for a more than reasonable $2.25m, the team is likely to see him as replaceable and should part with him as soon as possible for as much as they can get.

In life, in business, in relationships and in the NHL, neither success nor failure are instant. On occasion it appears that a team or business has succeeded or failed in the blink of an eye, what you are seeing is that iceberg tip those final twenty stories of a skyscraper that bring it above the rest. On July one, Peter Chiarelli and Cam Neely swept over the horizon and promptly fell flat on their faces. They made exactly one move on the day. They signed a no name plugger who will likely never see NHL action in a Bruins uniform.

But where does this spectacular failure stem from? Last season yes they went over the cap by about 4.7 million. Yes, with that money they could have kept Jarome Iginla, but they’d still have needed to come up with money for rookie sensations Torey Krug and Reilly Smith, and likely Matt Bartkowski and or Matt Fraser. But why did they get to this place? How? When they won the Stanley Cup they had more depth than last year at every position, they had as much youth, they were just as close to the cap (they went over that year too).

The answer lies in the composition of the roster. There is exactly one player on who played most or all of last season in Boston who was drafted and developed since Peter Chiarelli took over, and that’s Dougie Hamilton. One of 23. You can add in Ryan Spooner if you’re feeling generous since he was exceptional at the AHL level and held a place for a good stretch of games mid season as well. If you go back to the Cup year, Tyler Seguin was the lone player to be drafted and developed here and well, he didn’t last long.

Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, are all players that were drafted before he took the helm. Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk, Loui Erikssn, and all the rest were either brought in via trade or free agency. The player not named Seguin (Dallas Stars) and or Hamilton to be drafted since Chiarelli took over is Jordan Caron. He of course has produced less points than Shawn Thornton during his tenure.

What does this mean? It means the Boston Bruins have overpaid for free agents from Michael Ryder,  Steve Begin, and Joe Corvo and spent too much to get under achievers like Tomas Kaberle in trade. It means that instead of bring up young players like the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, they brought in guys who no one will remember fondly like Peter Schaefer, Andrew Bodnarchuk, and Jay Pandolfo because the draft has been largely an excuse for other teams to laugh down their sleeves at consistently inept drafting.

The overpayment on free agents has translate into what can conservatively be figured at a 10% increase in the salary many of the Bruins developed players have received since. It means that instead of drafting players who fit the system, Peter Chiarelli and company have waited until two or even three years of RFA status of a player have been burned meaning not only will they over pay these players  who have little to no loyalty to the team, it means that even if they aren’t overpaid they will likely hobble the team with an unneeded no trade or no movement clause for a player who is a nice fit but is eminently replaceable.

This level of personnel mismanagement also means bafflingly bad trades that give up guys like Vladimir Sobotka and Kris Versteeg for guys no one remembers the names of. After half a decade and what most regard as a flukey Stanley Cup win the Bruins attempted a course correction with a change in scouting directors. The first run with the new leader shows he probably has as deft a touch in his current position, as his more famous brother had at coaching in the desert.

Cap mismanagement, inability to draft and negligible ability to recognize which players can be got without a no movement or no trade clause, and an over devotion to player like Caron and Hamill who consistently fail to live up to expectations that’s a hell of a dossier for his next position.

With Jason Spezza already dealt the market has seen its first bellwether. We know what the trade value for a top level offensive center. At 31, there’s still a chance Spezza could sign long term and be a big part of the Dallas Star’s success in future. Who else will set the standard for guys like them?

Jarome Iginla, the only UFA who scored 30 goals last season. A first ballot hall of famer who proved that even in the playoffs he can produce without a center showing up for work.

Josh Gorges, the defensive defenseman is overdue for change (even if it is really difficult to imagine the Montreal Canadiens without him) entering next season with four years remaining at under four million, and 30 years old he’s a 2/3 defensemen in 25+ systems in the NHL.

Paul Stastny, a young, effective forward. One can ask if he’s a piece or a complimentary player, but there’s no denying when he’s dialed in he’s damned effective.

Brooks Orpik at 33, the clock is ticking if a Stanley Cup ring is in his future. Does he feel the Penguins are moving in the right direction? Can someone offer him a great ride on a top contender? Those are the factors that will weigh in on his choice.

Ryan Miller, hands down the best goalie in the batch. Would he be the perfect fit for the Minnesota Wild? He’s been healthy which none of their guys have, he’s played with several of the the key guys on the roster in the Olympics.

P.K. Subban, the top free agent of any kind this year is an RFA defenseman, he should receive offer sheets and arguably with Gorges likely departing he should sign one of them. Whatever price is set for him, whenever and wherever he signs will be the high water mark for defenseman for the next couple years.

Jaden Schwartz put up good offensive numbers on a defensive team, with 25 goals and 56 points, its going to be hard to argue what he signs for won’t impact other RFA forwards this summer.

Anton Stralman is a defenseman who made himself more valuable with his playoff run. Is he an elite #1 defeneman, no. But then there are only about four to six of those in the NHL right now. Based on his playoff run, there are some, starting with his agent who will argue he’s in that next group of defensemen.

The Boston Bruins defense has more questions today than it has in several years. The eternal question of “who will play the point on the powerplay” is just one of them. With the end o the Andrew Ference Era in Boston, the question of who will add speed and agility to a large and imposing rosters. It is a given that Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg have their roster spots locked in. Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid will have to work hard to lose their spots, and that’s where it gets really interesting.

Injuries, illness and matchups showed us a lot bout the three young lions last year. Torey Krug’s speed, agility, and puck handling were overshadowed only by his refusal to give an inch and his ability to contribute to the offense. Matt Bartkowski proved reliable and consistent all over the ice against good competition or bad. Dougie Hamilton showed he as capapble of playing big minutes, and showed off a better defensive game than many, myself included, had expected to see. If you go purely on played as the best barometer of what Claude Julien and the coaching staff think of them, it would seem Krug is the front runner coming into camp for a spot. His scoring only strengthens the case for him.

If you look at experience in total under Julien, Hamilton edges the others, and he’s also a first round pick who was part of the return for the Phil Kessel trade, if that matters in real hockey arithmetic. Matt Bartkowski has two important advantages, and you just can’t overlook them in the system all three play in. First and most tangible, is that Bartkowski has proved he is highly coach-able and very driven. The upswing in his positioning and skating since his first NHL appearance is the type of thing coaches and players build their careers out of. The second is his age, he may have less NHL games than Hamilton, but he looks and sounds like a veteran, and is about the same age Boychuk broke into the NHL. With Julien “the veteran factor” is every bit as important as being Russian born at draft time.

Complicating things further are not so minor considerations like half a dozen defensemen aiming for a roster spot who have a legitimate claim to being NHL ready, and money. Among Krug, Hamilton, and Bartkowski there is a cap hit difference of over a million dollars from Krug down to Bartkowski. When you factor in Tommy Cross, Chris Casto, Zach Trotman, David Warsofsky, and newly acquired 1st rounder Joe Morrow, Krug and Hamilton’s cap hits are only a few dollars off the total of any three other players.

Given his displacement in the post season, a season spent in the AHL under Bruce Cassidy would not be a surprise, and 24-27 minutes a night of consistent play would be better for his development than 12-17 a night in Boston and sitting out specific matchups. One of the other possibilities is that another defenseman gets moved either because they have been eclipsed, or for cap reasons. Chara and Seidenberg aren’t going anywhere, McQuaid’s salary isn’t prohibitive, but his injury issues might make him a candidate for movement. Johnny Boychuck is a perfect candidate for trade if the Bruins think they can be a better team without him.

Boychuck who made his name in the AHL as an offensive defensemen, hasn’t cracked 20 points in the NHL. He’s currently the Boston Bruins second highest paid defenseman, but not many would list him as the second most valuable defenseman. With this, and another year left on his contract the return he could fetch in terms of prospects and or draft picks, might just help the team fill their deficit of right wingers, as well as free up almost $3.5m this year and next. With a good playoff performance behind him, it is doubtful his value is going to be higher anytime in the foreseeable future.

If Boychuk is moved, the Bruins will be a little fleeter of foot, a bit less physical, and likely better offensively. Whoever wins the battles or the 3-7 spots, it is hard to argue they will have a bad defense.

It’s time for the last drinking game of the season (unless I do one for the draft) time to empty out the closet, and make sure you remember the results of the drinking game and possibly the series until fall when hockey starts up again.

Take One Drink:

You wish your local announce team were doing the game.

More than two players go crashing into the net.

Someone finishes a game with more than five shots and no goals.

Gary Bettman is shown and booed.

In game interview questions are answered with a cliche.

The hometown of a player is mentioned.

When asked about scoring a goal or making a save a player references a teammate.

The Junior or College team of a player is mentioned.

An exterior shot of the arena is shown and it includes people who are clearly chemically altered.

At each mention of “Original Six” in game one or two.

Someone mentions the department of player safety.

Whenever Pierre or another talking head says something that makes people just a bit uncomfortable. s/t @ChrisWasselTHW #HockeyPorn

If a fight breaks out with more than 4 million dollars in salary involved.

Take Two Drinks

The Bochenski-Versteeg trade is brought up.

Every time someone is mentioned as a Conn-Smythe candidate. s/t @HockeyMand

A team scores two unanswered goals.

At any mention of someone named Espisito or Orr.

A save is called “brilliant”, “spectacular” or “larceny” when in fact it was pretty routine.

Special teams stats are mentioned.

Highlights from the teams past Cup wins are shown not counting the last one.

A former player for either team is shown.

The other teams goal song sucks.

Someone scoring drought is mentioned.

An exterior shot of an arena is shown and no one (except maybe the commentators) is

You’re so mad at your team you want them to win only so you don’t have to read their Puck Daddy Eulogy.

A ny time a side by side comparison of Tuukka and Corey Crawford is shown. s/t @RJGreenWood

An announce uses the words “good clean hit” to describe something that turned most of one fan base into frothing mouth breathers that sound like Foamy (NSFW) :

Take Three Drinks

Every time one of the keystone players is mentioned.

The officials call one side of an altercation that should be a both or neither situation.

Someone “speculates” about the NHL awards for this season.

A player is asked about their previous playoff experience.

Two players on the same team skate into each other.

Anytime the word “momentum” is used.

At any puck over the glass delay of game.

The past awards of a player are mentioned.

Someone discusses rule changes.

The captains not having touched the conference title trophies is shown.

Any top six forward finishes a game with zero shots.

At any too many men penalty.

Take Four Drinks

If there is a post whistle scrum that does not involve Marchand or Shaw.

If NHL.com fails to make a punny headline for their update in game.

Gary Bettman is shown and not booed.

Someone says the referees have “swallowed the whistles” or otherwise won’t be calling much.

A coach or player says “we just need to be better in our own end” after a bad period or game.

At each mention of Original Six in game three or later.

A faceoff is missed for yet more advertising.

You can hold your breath between the bad call and the makeup call.

The fourth lines are mentioned.

If the career records of either coach are mentioned.

Whenever a clip of a game winning or cup clinching goal is shown.

The handshake line in mentioned and it is not a close out game.

Chug

Either team goes more than four minutes without a shot on goal.

Either team is called for three or unmatched penalties in a row.

Each time an owner is shown or mentioned before the Cup is awarded.

A player gets a short handed shot on goal.

Someone specifically highlights one of the matchups in the Keystone Players article.

Either team scores two powerplay goals in the same game.

A player argues with a call that was clearly a penalty.

 

For maximum fun, enjoy a different beverage each period. Calling in sick for work for the next day is advisable in some cases. It might not hurt to have a handy bucket and or a pre arranged ride to the hospital. Maybe you can even pin a “please take me to the hospital, and put on the hockey game” note on your shirt ahead of time.

 

Disclaimer:

No one is responsible for the stupid act you commit in any chemical state. Nor is anyone but you responsible for the permanent damage you’re likely to do to your body if you follow this game faithfully.  This game might just be a spectacular way to end up on Tosh.O, Intervention or at least Texts From Last Night. If you really must blame someone, blame your parents they should have known better anyways. PuckSage, the NHL, NHLPA, The Bruins and Blackhawks take no responsibility for your actions, have a nice day.

With the addition of future first ballot hall of fame inducted Jaromir Jagr, the Bruins field Marshall Julien has some thinking to do. He can slide Jagr into a line, but with the roster 100% intact it means someone is going to be demoted to a lower line and or removed from the ice.

Here’s a couple looks at what the lines could be L-C-R depending on how things shake out.

1:

Marshand-Bergeron-Jagr

Lucic-Krejci-Seguin

Daugavins-Peverley-Horton

Merlot

2:

Marshand-Bergeron-Horton

Lucic-Krejci-Jagr

Peverley-Seguin-Caron

Merlot

3:

Marshand-Krejci-Jagr

Lucic-Bergeron-Horton

Daugavins-Seguin-Peverley

4:

Lucic-Krejci-Jagr

Marchand-Bergeron-Seguin

Daugavins-Peverley-Horton

 

Of course whatever lines are decided with Chris Kelly expected back, things are only going to get messy again. Peverley and Seguin may have more speed than Kelly, but neither is as good at faceoffs, and Kelly is more than sound defensively. Depending on the opponent, and who is in the lineup and healthy on defense, I can see the Merlot line getting spelled out for a mix of Pandolfo, Caron, Daugavins, and various AHL call ups.

If there’s anything more prone to producing hysteria and hysterical behavior in the hockey universe than the humongous big trade deadline, I’ve never seen it. This is the time of year when my follow list and the blogs I read have the most turnover. Why?

Well, you get things like this:

Just thinking out loud, the Kings trade Bernier+ for Iginla. Turn around and then trade Kiprusoff to the Leafs for Joe Colborne+? #NHL
@bMacdonald8
Brandon Macdonald

That get taken seriously, grow legs, and inspire flame wars and silly amounts of swagger.

That’s the part most people hate.

For me, it is amusing. But, the really fun part is finding out what people know about the systems of various teams, and of course what general managers think of various players and prospects in their systems.

Dean Lombardi of the LA Kings:

I don’t think that’s feasible at all right now.

of trading backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier back in January, and hasn’t changed his tune at all as of this week.

Or his Boston counter part Peter Chiarelli on a 19 year old prospect:

I’m not trading Malcolm Subban

Which when you consider how rarely Chiarelli, a former lawyer, makes definitive statements, this is a landmark statement. If he does go ahead and trade Subban, players who are told “we won’t trade you” but we can’t give you a NTC are going to have their entire world into question, but that’s not the point of this post. We now know for sure, that Subban looms large in Bruins plans, and arguably is the top prospect in the minds of the Bruins front office. Lombardi has effectively said the same thing.

With Doug Wilson of the San Jose Sharks saying it is “very doubtful” he’d seek a rental player, you have to wonder if the time for an earth shattering kaboom in San Jose.

That’s why even more than the draft, or the Cup finals, or even the ever disappointing July first free agency kickoff, I love the trade deadline.

The Avalanche are in the midst of yet another signing saga. At present they’ve spent the past eight months holding their leading faceoff man and leading scorer from last season by the choke chain known as “RFA status”. The other marks in O’Reilly’s favor are nothing to sneer at. He had two overtime tallies, led the team in assists, won 53% of his faceoffs, potted four powerplay goals, played in all situations and generally contributed to the teams success.

The level of the teams success sheds a different light on his accomplishments, so does the fact that it was his third season and one where he more than doubled his career  assist and points totals on a team that finished 20th in the NHL. Anyone who doesn’t see the potential for steady growth for the 22 year old 200lb center is probably convinced we’ve seen the best from Taylor Hall and John Tavares. I don’t think anyone puts the ceiling for O’Reilly quite that high, but the chance for growth is coupled with one regression as well. He could just as easily turn into a half hundred other forwards like Peter Schaefer who got some ice time, got lucky and then fell apart when he had to repeat it.

If the Avalanche are determined not to give into his teams demands, where else he could land is a matter of finding a GM who sees O’Reilly continuing to get better, and has the assets and the inclination to go after him. Kent Wilson of FlamesNation thinks the Calgary brass must make a play for him. While it is unarguable that the Flames are a bit cool at the pivot position, what they have to offer up isn’t much. The Flames farm system is rated 23rd best in the entire league. Would a package of Jankowski, Seiloff and a 2nd round pick do the trick? And would that package actually be good for either team?

The Florida Panthers are currently underwater on faceoff win percentage, 23rd in the NHL in goals, and almost as poorly off in the east as the Avalanche are in the west. It’s highly unlikely any talks around the Panthers actually include Jonathan Huberdeau since the rookie is currently leading the team in goals, but perhaps Kris Versteeg is due for his sixth jersey since draft day and draft pick or two could accompany him back to the western conference. O’Reilly and Huberdeau could arguably be the best 1-2 punch at center in the Southeast division in a couple years.

Assuming Washington wants to make a shakeup, and they probably should, Backstrom and O’Reilly as a the moving points of the offense for the Capitals could actually get the team out of the lottery even before the seasons end, like Backstrom who Ovechkin has played longest and best with, O’Reilly is a left handed shot. Going back could be any number of pieces, ideally Carlson, although that would prove what just about everyone should suspect about McPhee, but Yevgeni Kuznetsov is a very attractive piece, if they can woo him across the pond, in some combination with Tom Wilson, Filip Forsberg and or picks should seal the deal.

It’d be nice to include the Wild in this list but there problem isn’t talent on the ice. The system in Nashville prevents offensive stars, and I don’t see the new GM in Columbus looking to take on a big contract for someone who seems likely to want to wrangle over it ever time. There are other teams who might make a move to juice their line up, but the Panthers, Flames, and Washington top the list of teams O’Reilly, at the right price makes sense for.