This may be my favourite time of year in the sporting world. Teams are making their final push to snag a playoff spot in the MLB. A new NFL season is underway, one in which I can struggle to stay competitive in fantasy football, but above all, a new NHL season is right around the corner.
Last year I had a long and drawn-out season preview, so this year I will try and keep it simple, posting who’s new and who’s out for each team, where I guess each team will finish in the standings, who’s a playoff squad, and the good and the bad for each club.
* indicates playoff team
1. Boston Bruins*
The Bruins were undoubtedly the “Beasts of the East” last season (until their collapse to Montreal), and even though they have lost a few players to free agency due to cap issues, they should retain that title yet again. They’re my pick as well to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final come June 2015.
Out: Jarome Iginla, Chad Johnson, Andrej Meszaros, Shawn Thornton
The Good: Even with the loss of Iginla (who potted 30 goals last year and was part of arguably the best line in the game) and Thornton, the Bruins still ice the four toughest lines to play against in the East. A healthy Loui Eriksson easily has 30-goal potential if he plays a full season with David Krejci and Milan Lucic. The Bruins still possess some of the best two-way players in the game in Lucic, Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Reilly Smith, Chris Kelly, and Greg Campbell. With Smith and Carl Soderberg continuing to improve and provide depth scoring, as well as Ryan Spooner potentially, or maybe even Alex Khoklachev getting a chance to add some fourth line scoring touch, the Bruins will continue to have four lines capable of putting the puck in the net at any given time. Not to mention they have a dominant power-play and PK still mostly intact. In conclusion, they have four lines that will beat you down at both ends of the ice.
Defensively, they’re just as good. Zdeno Chara may be aging, but if the Bruins can manage his minutes a little better than last year, then he’ll still be a force to reckoned with. The demand on Chara should be eased with a healthy Dennis Seidenberg, as well as Dougie Hamilton and Torrey Krug emerging as two of the best young defensemen in the game. It also helps that they have one of the best goalies in the world between the pipes in Tuukka Rask, and the impressive Niklas Svedberg is up from the AHL to replace Johnson.
The Bad: Hard to find fault with the Bruins, but there are a few things that could potentially go wrong. Already pressed against the cap, if Eriksson is hurt again for a long period of time, or anyone else for that matter, the Bruins don’t have cap room to add anyone. Chara looked as if he lost a step toward the end of the season, and if he struggles, the Bruins better hope Hamilton is ready to step in to cut down Chara’s minutes.
Bottom Line: They are still the best overall team in the East. Four physically dominating lines with a solid defensive unit and great goaltending. I’ll be surprised if they do not win at least 50 games.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning*
Last year I noted that with timely goal scoring and consistent, top-quality goaltending, Tampa could make the playoffs, and that’s exactly what they did, even with Steven Stamkos on the shelf for most of the season. GM Steve Yzerman has now beefed this team up for what he hopes will be a deeper playoff run in 2015.
In: Brian Boyle, Brendan Morrow, Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison, Evgeni Nabokov
Out: Anders Lindback, Mike Kostka, Teddy Purcell, Nate Thompson, B.J. Crombeen, Keith Aulie
The Good: For starters, having perennial Rocket Richard candidate Steven Stamkos healthy is a major plus. Though he may be missing set-up man Marty St. Louis, Stamkos gelled well in limited time with Ryan Callahan, and if Ondrej Palat can duplicate or improve upon a 59 PTS rookie campaign, the Lighting have a deadly first line. Valtteri Filppula turned out to be an excellent number-two centre, and he’ll be joined this year by talented rookie Jonathan Drouin. Tampa’s strength lies in it’s depth, with Palat, Tyler Johnson, Radko Gudas, Andrej Sustr, Brett Connolly, J.T. Brown, and Mark Barberio all having played together on a championship team in the AHL and forming chemistry before coming to the main club. Tampa was lacking veteran leadership though, which Yzerman has tried to address by signing Boyle and Stralman and trading for Garrison to bolster the back-end.
The trade with Ottawa for Ben Bishop now looks like a steal, as Bishop posted Vezina quality numbers last year, keeping the Lightning afloat with Stamkos injured. He now has a capable back-up in Evgeni Nabokov, this coming after a porous two seasons from Anders Lindback.
The Bad: The Lightning are pressed tight up against the cap, thanks in large part to the combined $11.1 million cap hit for newcomers Boyle, Stralman, and Garrison, so these three will need to earn their worth and stay in the lineup. If Stamkos and Callahan are not in sync, who replaces Callahan on the top line? Connolly? Nikita Kucherov? Also, if Tampa had an Achilles heal, it was their penalty-kill, which was 23rd in the league.
Bottom Line: Yzerman has added even more depth to an already deep team, and on paper they are even better than last year. They may not be able to best the Bruins yet, but they are on the rise, and barring injury, should at least keep pace with Boston.
3. Montreal Canadiens*
Riding the netminding of Carey Price, the Canadiens managed to make it to the Eastern Final before bowing out to the Rangers. They may not have the depth or offensive firepower of other clubs, yet they still find ways to win.
In: Manny Malholtra, P-A Parenteau, Jiri Sekac, Tom Gilbert
Out: Thomas Vanek, Josh Georges, Danny Briere, Brian Gionta, Devan Dubnyk
The Good: For the first time in a long time, the Habs have a bona fide goal scorer in Max Pacioretty, as he potted 39 goals last year. Combined with David Desharnais, who bounced back after a rough start to 2013-14, and either the pesky Brendan Gallagher or new guy P. A. Parenteau (a major upgrade over Danny Briere), and the Habs will feature a gritty top line at both ends of the ice. The bottom six shined for Les Canadiens in their deep playoff run, especially Lars Eller and Rene Bourque, and both of them should see increased roles this season. The Habs have a solid, confident group of forwards, but it’s their defensive unit that really shine. Team leader P.K. Subban has started to play a more conservative game, and it has led to greater success, and he has shown he can quarterback a power-play among the best of them. Also, the Habs PK is one of the bets in the league, featuring Andrei Markov and late-season acquisition Mike Weaver. Adding Manny Malholtra should make the PK even better.
Montreal’s real bread and butter though lies with their goaltending. They have a chance to win every night with the best goalie in the world, Carey Price, between the pipes. The Habs live and die by Price. When he’s in the lineup, they appear to be a more confident club. When he’s not, ex. when Price was hurt in early-March, they look lost. As long as Price is healthy though, they should be a playoff team.
The Bad: As a whole, the Habs may be a confident bunch, but they are a fairly weak offensive team. While Price gives them a shot to win every game, they need to increase their goals for and their distribution. Pacioretty scored 18.7 per cent of his teams goals, second-highest in the league, meaning the Habs need more help from their other lines, though a healthy Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk should help that. They were also sixth worst in shots per game and 21st overall in goals per game. It’s been argued that Montreal also lack a real number one centre, and that neither Desharnais or Tomas Plekanec are cutting it. The team is toying with moving Galchenyuk to centre during camp.
Also, the Habs are a poor possession team. The eye test will show they are a small team that gets pushed around, and CORSI close confirms that, as Montreal was 26th in that category last year.
Bottom Line: Even though they are a small team with a mediocre offense, they still find ways to win games. My gut reaction is they are not a playoff team, but with Price, they have that chance for victory every game, even in games they have no business winning (which happened many, many times last year).
4. Toronto Maple Leafs*
The Leafs were in a prime playoff position last year in mid-March. Shortly after a game against Los Angeles, the team dropped the proverbial ball. With Jonathan Bernier injured, James Reimer was awful in five consecutive starts, the team struggled to score goals, and an already dreadful PK found ways to get worse, effectively killing all playoff hopes. The Leafs re-vamped the bottom six and added a few defensive pieces, while also undergoing a “culture change” behind the scenes this off-season. If the team can improve their possession numbers and penalty kill, they should be a playoff team.
In: Stephane Robidas, Roman Polak, Leo Komarov, Petri Kontiola, Mike Santorelli, Dan Winnik, David Booth
Out: Carl Gunnarsson, Paul Ranger, Jay McClement, Nikolai Kulemin, Dave Bolland, Tim Gleason, Mason Raymond
The Good: Phil Kessel may be entering camp out of shape, but he still has formed one of the most potent scoring duos in the league with James van Riemsdyk. The two combined to score 30 per cent of Toronto’s goals last year. And while Tyler Bozak is not seen by many as being a number one centre, his numbers continue to climb each year while playing with Kessel and JVR. The Leafs tried to address their problem with bottom-six depth and an awful PK by bringing in Dan Winnik, Mike Santorelli, and a returning Leo Komarov. These three will be counted on to improve the new look PK under new Assistant Coach Peter Horachek, and along with David Booth, Matt Frattin, and Peter Holland, will try and balance Toronto’s goal scoring. To improve on the back-end, the Leafs traded the much-maligned Carl Gunnarsson and waved goodbye to slow-footed defensemen Paul Ranger and Tim Gleason. In their place come veteran leadership and some grit in the form of Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak. Between the pipes, Jonathan Bernier overtook James Reimer for the starting job, and before he was injured against the Kings, he posted some of the best stats in the league.
The Bad: The Leafs have some issues they will have to correct if they want to make the playoffs. First, the distribution of offense. Joffrey Lupul needs to stay healthy and produce consistently, David Clarkson should bounce back now that will actually have some decent linemates and ice-time, and the bottom-six needs to better than last year. Also, the Leafs were a poor possession team. You don’t need any stats to tell you they struggled defensively and work offensively off the rush. Their power-play, which was fifth in the league a year ago, started to become stagnant and predictable by seasons end. Finally, while Bernier was great last year, the team in front of him needs to cut down the amount of shots he faces per game.
Bottom Line: With a re-vamped bottom-six and a new PK system in place, the Leafs should be better than they were last season. Also, if Bernier can pick up where he left off in mid-March, he should be able to steal more games that the Leafs may have no business winning. They have a tough schedule to start the year, but I think they make the playoffs come April.
5. Detroit Red Wings*
When all seemed lost with injuries to Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen, the Red Wings, led by the ultra-skilled Gustav Nyqvist, pushed onward to qualify for that 23rd straight playoff berth. While they may be a team on the decline, the Wings still find ways to win, though this may be the year that the playoff streak is snapped, but for now, I’m betting they find a way to squeak in.
Out: David Legwand, Cory Emmerton
The Good: When healthy, the Wings boast a solid lineup down the middle in Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Stephen Weiss. The team is built around speed, and while the previous three are over the age of 31 (Weiss = 31, Zetterberg = 34 next month, Datsyuk = 36), they still have wheels, as do young guns Nyqvist and Tomas Tatar. Nyqvist is emerging one of the most explosive players in the league after he scored 28 goals in only 57 games. If the three centres can stay healthy, then Detroit’s 18th ranked PP should also improve. The defensive unit was also decimated by injury, but if Jonathan Ericsson is healthy, he and Niklas Kronwall form one of the best pairings in the game, and while names suck as Kyle Quincey and Danny DeKeyser may not be household names, they form a competent top-six along with Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl.
The Bad: If they’re healthy, Detroit can compete. But that’s a big if for a team who’s age continues to climb. Even if they do remain healthy, one wonders if Detroit has the offensive depth beyond the top two lines to balance their scoring attack. Also, the Wings need to improve defensively. They were the only teams with a negative +/- to make the playoffs in the East, and it could be hard to improve on that with the inconsistent Jimmy Howard in goal. Howard had a strong 2013 campaign, but struggled last year with a 2.66 GAA and .910 SV%. Jonas Gustavsson had a decent year last season, but he’s not a strong option if Howard falters. Also, if the Wings fall victim to the injury bug again, top prospect Anthony Mantha is out until at least mid-November with a broken leg, though a plus would be that AHL leading scorer Teemu Pulkkinen could be available for duty.
Bottom Line: Parts of this team, such as the top line when healthy, make other teams envious. Other parts of the club raise many question though, namely the offensive depth and goaltending issues. I’ve doubted the Wings in the past, and it’s come back to haunt me, so I betting on them staying healthy and making the playoffs for a 24th straight spring.
6. Florida Panthers
The Panthers have been a confusing team over the last few seasons. Dead last in the division in 2011, division champs in 2012, dead last again in 2013, and a seventh place division finish 2014, though with slight improvement under Peter Horachek in the latter half of the season. They will have many new faces joining some talented young guns, and new head coach Gerard Gallant, but will it be enough to push them into the playoffs?
In: Jussi Jokinen, Dave Bolland, Willie Mitchell, Shawn Thornton, Derek MacKenzie, Al Montoya, Greg Zanon
Out: Tom Gilbert, Jesse Winchester, Scott Clemmensen
The Good: The Panthers feature a decent mix of talented youth and veteran experience. While Nick Bjugstad led the team with a mere 38 PTS last year, expect that total to rise as he becomes more comfortable in the league, not to mention new additions to the club will cause defenses to shift focus elsewhere. Bjugstad is just one piece of the young core in Florida that also features number two centre Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau (who will bounce back from a sophomore slump), Drew Shore, Brandon Pirri, and Vincent Trochek up front, with Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson, and man-child Aaron Ekblad behind them. Brad Boyes can be counted on for 20-25 goals, and with Jokinen and Bolland join the growing rookies, the Panthers should improve on that 29th ranked team GPG from last year. Willie Mitchell also brings championship pedigree to this maturing squad, and he and Brian Campbell bring stability to that young defense. The Panthers also finally have good goaltending now that Robert Luongo is here for a full season, and Al Montoya is a steady backup. These two will steal a game or two, something the trio of Clemmensen, Tim Thomas, and Jacob Markstrom could not do last year.
The Bad: Many have listed the Panthers as being a playoff team come 2015, but they are going to have to improve in many, many areas to do so. Boyes was the only player to top 20 goals, and even with Jokinen, and the continual improvement of Bjugstad, Barkov, and Huberdeau, goal scoring may still be hard to come by. Not to mention they will need major improvements from Tomas Kopecky, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, and Sean Bergenheim. The PP has to be better, as it was dead-last a season ago, as was the PK, which they hope Bolland can improve. Speaking of Bolland, the Panthers overpaid huge to get him in the summer, so the pressure will be on him to produce immediately. And while Luongo is a major upgrade in goal, and the additions of Ekblad and Mitchell will help, this team will still likely give up a lot of shots per game.
Bottom Line: The Panthers will be better than last season, but that’s really not saying much. The team GAA should go down, while the GPG will rise, but it’s unlikely either will change enough to push the Panthers into the playoffs.
7. Ottawa Senators
Sens fans have had to endure a rough year. First they lose Daniel Alfredsson to Detroit, then they struggle to find their footing in 2013-14, just missing out on the playoffs, and finally were dealt a huge blow when Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky wound up in Dallas over the summer. There is some talent on this squad, and if healthy, good goaltending, but it won’t be enough for Ottawa to be a playoff team in 2015.
In: David Legwand, Alex Chiasson
Out: Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky
The Good: The Sens have a very good top line in Kyle Turris, who is turning out to be a steal from Arizona, a bonafide sniper in Bobby Ryan, and either Clarke MacArthur or Milan Michalek on the left wing. Combined, this line has 70-80 goal potential. It also helps that defenseman Erik Karlsson is one of the most feared power-play men in the game, as he had 74 PTS last year, 31 of which were on the PP. New faces Legwand and Chiasson should also provide some much needed depth scoring into this lineup. Also, if both Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner are healthy, they could compete with each other to the highest level to earn that number one spot.
The Bad: While Ottawa has a great first line, the lack of real scoring depth is going to kill them. They were 11th in total offense last year, but the losses of Spezza and Hemsky are really going to hurt beyond that first line and on the PP. If the Sens really struggle to score goals, look to see rookies Matt Puempel and Curtis Lazar in the lineup to inject some goal scoring ability. Also, while the Sens have seven defensemen on the roster, that may not be a good thing. This is the exact group that gave up the second most shots per game, and had 265 goals scored on them. Only Florida and the Islanders were worse. Also, while the battle between Anderson and Lehner could push each to the best of their abilities, it could also turn the other way with neither being able to establish a positive rhythm of any sort.
Bottom Line: A lack of scoring depth and a defense that on paper hasn’t improved from the porous group of last year will be Ottawa’s Achilles Heel this season. It’s highly unlikely they make the playoffs, and if they’re in the basement of the division by mid-season, coach Paul MacLean may be shown the door.
8. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres confused me mightily in the off-season. Instead of better preparing themselves for the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, they actually improved this team. They will still finish in the bottom of the division, but have they improved ever so slightly to be better than, say, Calgary or Carolina, and blown a better chance to get McDavid?
In: Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Cody McCormick, Andre Benoit, Andrej Meszaros, Josh Gorges
Out: Christian Ehroff, Cory Conacher, John Scott, Alex Sulzer, Ville Leino
The Good: As I said, the Sabres are a confusing team. They rid of their best possession player in Conacher and best offensive defenseman in Ehroff, but then go out and sign sniper Moulson, bring in Gorges and Meszaros to bolster the defense, and bring in Gionta for offensive depth. So they may have actually improved slightly. Not to mention that they aren’t too bad down the middle, featuring Tyler Ennis, Zemgus Girgensons (love that name), first-round pick Sam Reinhart, and Mikhail Grogorenko. When also factoring in Cody Hodgson, Marcus Foligno, and Chris Stewart, they may have better forward depth than Ottawa. They also did themselves a favout by not bringing back goon John Scott.
The Bad: The fact they may have improved is a negative for Buffalo. They have no hope of a playoff berth, so why possibly play yourselves out of the McDavid sweepstakes? They will still be pretty terrible though, no doubt about it. They were the only team not to average two goals per game last year, and even with the new additions and rookie development, that may not change. Also, the only reason Buffalo was not dead last in goals against was because they had Ryan Miller until March. The tandem of Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth are nowhere close to Miller’s level, so even with Gorges and Meszaros in front of them, as well as Tyler Myers and Rasmus Ristolainen, the GAA will go up.
Bottom Line: The Sabres will miss the playoffs, but where will they finish? It could vary from eighth in the division, to possibly ahead of both Ottawa and Carolina in the conference.
Photo credit: blogs.edmontonjournal.com