It’s Hockey Time! Division Previews, Analysis, Awards & More!

How far will the Rangers go this season?

How far will the Rangers go this season?

 

With the lockout now a distant memory, the NHL will resume business as usual today, with the regular season kicking off at 3 p.m. eastern. The lockout has completely changed the dynamic of this season as  this will be a 48 game sprint to the playoffs, instead of the typical 82-game marathon.. There will be no adjustment period for any team and any losing streak of substance will be catastrophic. Injuries and goaltending will play the biggest roles in determining who goes to the dance and who is back on the golf course before you can say Ovechkin. Lets take a quick look around the league and make some predictions.

The Divisions

Atlantic Division

Arguably the best division in the game, the Atlantic is LOADED with stars. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux, Brad Richards, Rick Nash, John Tavares and Ilya Kovalchuk highlight the star studded division that is sure to be one of, if not the tightestdivisions in the game this season.

New Jersey Devils – The defending Eastern Conference champions have more to prove entering a season than any defending conference champ in recent memory. They lost their heart and soul in team captain Zach Parise to the Wild via free agency and remaining superstar Ilya Kovalchuk nearly had to be dragged back from the KHL. Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur will return for another year, and the Devils fate is tied directly to his play.

New York Islanders – An intriguing team to watch, the Islanders have been a perennial basement dweller in the Atlantic, however they boast an emerging star in John Tavares, backed up by the likes of Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner. The Islanders are a young team who may benefit from playing every other night and if they develop of winning streak early, they can be a contender for a playoff spot.

New York Rangers – It’s Stanley Cup or bust for the Rangers this season. After having an impressive season last year despite sub-par production from superstar free agent signee Brad Richards, Henrik Lundqvist was lights out and carried them to the Eastern Conference Finals. This season, the Broadway Blueshirts have added yet another star in Rick Nash and feature an impressive young blueline with Michael Del Zotto, Marc Staal and Girardi. Up and down, the Rangers boast the most formidable lineup in the Eastern Conference.

Philadelphia Flyers – Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the biggest question for the Broadstreet Bullies will be goaltending. The bizarre and recently inconsistent Ilya Bryzgalov holds the Flyers fate in his hands. The Flyers boast one of the deepest rosters in the East with superstar Claude Giroux leading the way and their D corps is solid despite losing Chris Pronger to injury and Matt Carle to free agency.

Pittsburgh Penguins – No doubt that the thought of a healthy and extra-motivated Sidney Crosby playing with defending MVP and scoring champ Evgeni Malkin is going to cause many coaches and players to lose some sleep in the coming weeks. The two-headed monster spearheads a potent offensive lineup with the likes of Kris Letang and James Neal hiding in Crosby and Malkin’s shadows. The big question for the Pens will be on the blueline and in net after that colossal defensive breakdown versus Philadelphia lin last year’s playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury will need to return to his dominant form from the regular season and put that playoff series behind him.

Division Champion: New York Rangers

Northeast Division

The Northeast Division is perhaps the toughest division in hockey to play as a player. Three original six teams play in Toronto, Montreal and Boston, whose fan bases expect a Stanley Cup caliber team annually.  The other two division teams are Ottawa, a Canadian team and Buffalo, a pseudo-Canadian team, who share the same pressure.

Boston Bruins – Despite former MVP and Conn Smythe-winning All Star goalie Tim Thomas sitting the season out due to personal reasons, the Bruins are still sitting pretty in the driver’s seat of the division. Tuukka Rask is a more than capable starting goaltender and there won’t be much of a dropoff for the B’s in the crease. Zdeno Chara captains a roster that will see the return of a healthy Nathan Horton who was  dealing with concussion issues season. The big, physical Bruins should be in control of the division from the get-go, especially if their offense starts hot.

Buffalo Sabres – It’s pretty simple for the Sabres, they need Ryan Miller to return to dominant form in net and they need more from young star Tyler Myers and 2011 free agent signees Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff. With the addition of the gritty and skilled agitator extraordinaire Steve Ott  from Dallas in the offseason, the Sabres added to a need they were desperately lacking. If the underachievers can pick their game up, and Jason Pominville plays like he did last season, the Sabres will be competitive, if not, Lindy Ruff may be looking for a new team to coach next season.

Montreal Canadiens – It was a rough season last year for the Habs, seeing them finish dead last in the Eastern Conference, and third worst in the entire league. There is not too much reason to believe this year will be much better. Young star defenseman and future franchise player P.K. Subban has yet to report to camp as a restricted free agent and the Habs feature an aging lineup of veterans with some young upstart players like Lars Eller and Max Pacioretty. Unless Carey Price can stand on his head nightly and steal more than his fair share of games, the 48 game season will feel like an 82 game season in hockey’s promised land.

Ottawa Senators – The Sens present one of the most balanced lineups in the NHL. They’re backstopped by Craig Anderson in net, who is one of the most underrated keepers in the league. In addition, they feature a balanced forward lineup of veterans like Daniel Alfredsson , Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Chris Neil that compliment defending Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson’s solid D corps. Injuries have taken a chunk out of the D corps however and those suiting up will have to play to their max ability right from the hop for the Sens to compete for the division.

Toronto Maple Leafs – The hockey-crazed city of Toronto has been desperate for a winner and this year maybe their year. To say Toronto is a longshot to win the Cup may be an understatement, but I for one am a beLEAFer. After a monumental collapse late last season, Toronto may be a team to benefit from a shortened season. Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul had fantastic seasons last year and look to pick up where they left off. The forward unit is bolstered by the addition of James van Riemsdyk who was traded at the draft from the Flyers for Luke Schenn. While Schenn will be a tough loss, the blueline was and is the Leafs deepest spot and JVR is a stud. Of course, we can’t fo get to mention that  James Reimer needs to be lights out. If the Leafs get into the postseason, you never know what could happen.

Division Champion: Boston Bruins

Southeast Division

The Southeast is a wide open division featuring the rejuvenated Carolina Hurricanes, perennial powerhouse Washington Capitals, surprising yet steady Florida Panthers, the young and restless Winnipeg Jets and the Stamkos-led former champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Carolina Hurricanes – It’s going to be a family affair in Carolina for the next decade. The Hurricanes made arguably the second biggest roster move in the league after the Rick Nash to the Rangers trade when they traded for the Penguins’ Jordan Staal, the younger brother of Hurricanes’ captain Eric Staal. Stuck behind Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh, Jordan signed a 10-year deal to play alongside with Eric. Tough times have befallen the Canes after their 2006 Stanley Cup Victory and they have dropped to the bottom of the conference. A rejuvenated Canes’ lineup this season will feature the two lone bright spots of the franchise since the Cup year in Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward. Joining them will be Jordan Staal and free agents signee Alex Semin, the enigmatic, filled to the brim with skill, Russian winger. Young star Jeff Skinner and vet Tuomo Ruutu help bolster a young, HIGHLY dangerous team down in Dixie.

Florida Panthers – After a surprising regular season that saw the Panthers reach the playoffs for the first time in years, their dreams were derailed in double OT of Game 7 against the eventual Conference champion New Jersey Devils. They return nearly an identical roster stocked with former Cup winners Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Kris Versteeg along  with young talented players like Steven Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Sean Bergenheim. Jose Theodore must continue his solid play from last season and if he does, the Panthers can expect to return to the postseason again this season.

Tampa Bay Lightning – The Bolts boast the best goal scorer in the game today, bar none, in Steven Stamkos. The kid is a megastar and is only getting better. He ran away with the Rocket Richard last season and has a history of starting fast in a season, a considerable asset in a shortened season. Cup champs Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier back up Stamkos from the offensive standpoint and Victor Hedman is an emerging stud on the blueline. New additions help make the lightning contenders in the form of defenseman Matt Carle, skilled forward Benoit Pouliot and little known goaltender Anders Lindback. Lindback is the big wild card for Tampa as he played in the shadow of all-world goalie Pekka Rinne in Nashville. Now Lindback is the starter and like every other team in the league, the team’s destiny rests on his performance each night.

Washington Capitals – Led by superstar Alex Ovechkin, the Caps look to find their winning ways again. A perennial playoff team and often times a legitimate threat to win it all, the Caps have kept finding ways to blow it. They have yet to put a significant playoff run together and their goaltending can go from perfected to disastrous in a matter of days. Loaded upfront with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and new addition Mike Ribeiro, the Caps cut dead weight in Alex Semin. Braden Holtby proved last year in the playoffs that he is a franchise-caliber goalie. If Backstrom can shake concussion issues from last year, and defenseman Mike Green and Ovi can find their form from a couple years ago,and solid role players like Brooks Laich can hold the fort in the defensive zone, the Caps can be a truly dominant team.

Winnipeg Jets – Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending. You’re gonna see it for every team, but Winnipeg will be a key example. Ondrej Pavelic will have to hold the fort for the Jets. They are a young, talented team benefitting from years of hockey hell in Atlanta and their draft picks should be coming through sooner rather than later. Rookie of the Year candidate Mark Scheifele joins Evander Kane and Alex Burmistrov as young players looking to solidify themselves as staples on a competitive NHL team. Captain Andrew Ladd and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien have won a cup in Chicago and are just now entering the primes of their career. Experienced forwards like Olli Jokinen and Nik Antropov compliment the young core and provide a valuable presence, both of which have had long, up-and-down careers without winning a cup.

Division Champion: Washington Capitals

Central Division

The only division that can give the Atlantic a run for its money for the most competitive division, the Central is sure to be one of the tightest races in the league. It’s wide open with legitimate Cup contenders Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis leading the way, followed closely by an always dangerous Nashville team and not far behind are the new-look Columbus Blue Jackets.

Chicago Blackhawks – The Hawks are not far removed from a Stanley Cup victory in 2009-10, but their roster is very different today. The Hawks have an abundance of playoff experience on their side with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook all remaining from the Cup years, but they have been struggling to find an identity in net since the departure of Antti Niemi. Corey Crawford will get the gig and like every other team, if he holds up, they will not only challenge for the division, but will challenge for the Cup as well.

Columbus Blue Jackets – Now that the Rick Nash era and perhaps more specifically, the Rick Nash soap opera, is over, Columbus is on the rebuild. With new team president John Davidson at the helm, the Blue Jackets will arrive on the scene sooner rather than later. Davidson is one of the best hockey minds in the game, just look at where St. Louis (his previous team) was a few years ago (cellar dweller) compared to where they are today (Cup contenders). Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky who came over from the Rangers in the Nash trade, look to play bigger roles in Columbus than they had been playing in the Big Apple. Star defenseman Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski will anchor the point of what should be a fairly formidable power play and Sergei Bobrovsky will give the Jackets an option in goal if Steve Mason can’t find his rookie year form right off the bat.

Detroit Red Wings – The losses of Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom will be more heavily felt from a nostalgic standpoint than in the standings. Detroit is notorious for building a competitive NHL squad through its AHL team and that formula has been working for 20 years, seeing the Red Wings make the playoffs EVERY season. Pavel Datsyuk looks to continue his wizardry alongside new captain Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, who I feel is one of the most underrated players in the game. The signing of Swiss League star Damien Brunner may pay huge dividends from the offensive standpoint. Jimmy Howard looks to post another good season in net.

Nashville Predators – The Preds lost a huge asset in defenseman Ryan Suter this offseason to the Wild. They nearly lost captain Shea Weber to the Flyers and were forced to match the monstrous offer sheet the Fly Guys made. That being said, they still will roll out one of the best, if not THE best goalies in the game in Pekka Rinne. Rinne should challenge for the Vezina Trophy and looks to continue his dominant play from last season. I would expect the Preds, in typical Nashville next man up fashion, to replace Suter with either Roman Josi or Kevin Klein, both of whom are solid guys who have come up through the system. Mike Fisher, Martin Erat and the Kostitsyn brothers should provide enough offense for Nashville to be a top contender out west again.

St. Louis Blues – There is a ton of optimism and excitement for St. Louis entering this season and for good reason. The Blues are backstopped by the best goaltending tandem in the league with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot. The two combined for 15 shutouts last season. An impressive as the goaltending is, there isn’t much of a drop off when you move outside the crease. When John Davidson took over as team president, he began rebuilding this group and along with GM Doug Armstrong (2011-12 GM of the year) have built a top contender from within, using high draft picks through the Blues “dark years”. Captain David Backes, Patrik Berglund,T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Alex Pietrangelo and Barret Jackman have all been drafted by the Blues. Last season, they made the playoffs last season for the first time in years and bounced the perennial playoff powerhouse Sharks before losing a super close series to the Kings by a razor-thin margin in 7 games. The Blues now know what it takes to get to the playoffs and now know what it takes to win in the playoffs. With a young talented team in a shortened season coming into their own, lookout because they may not stop at the division this year.

Division Champion: St. Louis Blues

Northwest Division

The Northwest has been dominated by the Vancouver Canucks recently, seeing them take the division title the last four seasons. The Minnesota Wild have made themselves instant contenders for the division this season with their offseason moves, but the budding Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche may also have something to say about Vancouver’s dominance. Calgary plays in this division as well, but not nearly as well as the other teams.

Calgary Flames – There is one aspect and one aspect only that holds the Flames fate for this season. Goaltending. They have a star goalie in Miikka Kiprusoff who has played, by far, the most games for his team since the last lockout in 2005 (he leads second place Henrik Lundqvist by more than 40 games played), and despite playing this condensed 48-game schedule, it wouldn’t be a shock to see a healthy Kiprusoff play about 40-45 of those games. If they get tremendous goaltending from him consistently, then they can compete for a playoff spot and if they don’t, you can expect longtime team captain and pending free agent, Jarome Iginla to be moved to a contender, a la Ray Bourque.

Colorado Avalanche – The Avs are another team benefitting from some down years and seeing their draft picks coming to fruition. Despite leading scorer from last year and RFA Ryan O’Reilly not being with the team yet, the Avs still boast an impressive roster. Young stars Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, and newly appointed captain (youngest in NHL history) Gabriel Landeskog lead the way. They are complemented by a veteran presence of guys like Steve Downie and Milan Hejduk. Another solid goaltending tandem keep them in every game with J.S. Giguere and Semyon Varlamov. If they can get out to a quick start, they have the roster make up to contend the whole season for a playoff spot, although the divisional crown may be a long shot.

Edmonton Oilers – The Oilers are a curious team, because no team has been able to build through the draft like the Oilers since the Blackhawks with Kane and Toews or the Penguins with Crosby and Malkin. The Oilers boast Nail Yakupov, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in their lineup, all 3 of whom were number 1 overall picks. In addition, guys like Magnus Paajarvi , Sam Gagner and Jordan Eberle, who were also first-round picks, are in impact roles for the Oilers. Eberle will be the team’s captain one day, sooner rather than later, and is their BEST player. Loaded offensively, they lack on the defensive side of the ice. Ryan Whitney is their only true top pairing defenseman and only time will tell how the highly-touted college free agent signee Justin Schultz will fit in. Devan Dubnyk is unproven between the pipes and needs to learn how to use his enormous 6-foot-5 frame to his advantage. The Oilers could win the division, or they could finish dead last and in the draft lottery again, it all depends on if they can put their best foot forward night in and night out, the biggest test for a young team.

Minnesota Wild – Forget Rick Nash’s trade from Columbus to the Rangers, the Wild made, without a doubt, the biggest roster moves of any team in the NHL this offseason when they signed all-stars Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts. With the inking of these two, it has become Stanley Cup or bust in America’s hockey hotbed. The Wild were in first place in the NHL last season through November until gradually the wheels fell off. Coach Mike Yeo will win coach of the year this season. I saw him first hand as an assistant coach for the Penguins during their evolution. He knows how to get the most out of young players while still commanding the respect of the older players. GM Chuck Fletcher is savvy beyond his years and learned under Pens GM Ray Shero for a few years. Despite the Penguins connection, the Wild have their own identity with Niklas Backstrom flashing dominance at times in net. Other than Suter, the Wild’s D corps is young and inexperienced, but talented. It’s Stanley Cup or bust for the Wild for the foreseeable, but if the lockout damaged any one team’s chances more than another, it’s the Wild. In a compact season, there is no time for their two new star players to adjust to their new surroundings.

Vancouver Canucks – The story for the Canucks never seems to change. They enter every season with two things assured; there will be questions surrounding their goaltending and their top line led by the Sedin twins will put up redonkulous numbers. This year is no different, only this season they have a two-pronged goaltending question. One, will Cory Schneider be able to be consistently good like he showed last season and how long will the Roberto Luongo soap opera continue? He is this year’s version of Rick Nash and the sooner it is settled one way or another, the better off everyone will be. The Canucks are solid in their bottom six forwards and along their blueline, bolstered by the acquisition of the vastly underrated Jason Garrison from Florida, but their second line is dealing with injuries right now. For all the problems the Canucks have, they are minor compared to many other teams of the league, and expect them to be legitimate Cup contenders once again.

Division Champion: Vancouver Canucks

Pacific Division

The Pacific Division features the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, and their Western Conference Final foes the Phoenix Coyotes. In addition to those two, the Sharks are always on the cusp of a championship and Dallas is knocking on the door. Anaheim is slated for another long season.

Anaheim Ducks – It is fitting that the Ducks dropped the Mighty from the front of their team name a few years ago. They did this to separate themselves from the team from Disney’s heroic tale of District 5’s transformation from hopeless Pee -Wee team to international champions and then later, high school scrimmage champions, but the name change has reflected the transformation from Stanley Cup champions in 2006 to cellar dwellers today. They field one of the best lines in all of hockey with Ryan Getzlaf centering former MVP and Richard Trophy winner Corey Perry and young star Bobby Ryan. Teemu Selanne is still a force on the power play but that’s about it. On the backend, Jonas Hiller has shown flashes of brilliance in net but nothing consistent. After a fantastic rookie season, Cam Fowler came back down to earth and only he and Bryan Allen are defensemen worth mentioning.

Dallas Stars – The Stars took a hit when they traded the agitation specialist and blood and guts kind of guy in Steve Ott to Buffalo, however they received Derek Roy back, who will replace Mike Ribeiro (whom they traded to Washington) on their second line. They signed future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr, which will help their power play. Another team led by young stars in Jamie Benn and the unheralded Loui Eriksson, Dallas could contend for the division. Kari Lehtonen had a fantastic season for them in net last year and if that story continues, the Stars could be a sleeper team, especially in a shortened season.

Los Angeles Kings – I think by now that we have established how important goaltending will be for every team and the Kings are no different, despite being the defending Cup champs. Jonathan Quick won the Conn Smythe for playoff MVP and for good reason, had the Kings finished in the top half of the conference last season, Quick would have been MVP of the league. He was dominant from the gates last year, at one time earlier in the year posting THREE shutouts in a row. With the Kings offense lacking the consistency that as a coach you would want to see, whenever they would be slumping, Quick would hold them in each game. Despite having surgery this offseason, Quick still looks to pick up where he left off. If Drew Doughty can continue his Norris-caliber play again and Kopitar, Williams, Richards, Carter and Penner can keep some offensive consistency, the Kings will be right in the mix for Lord Stanley again.

Phoenix Coyotes – The Yotes are the darkhorse of the entire league. Under-appreciated, under-rated, and underestimated year in and year out, they’re the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL, they get no respect. Despite riding Mike Smith to the conference finals last season, they were seen more of an aberration than  a well-built contender. Well, lucky for you, I’m here to lay a little knowledge on you, Phoenix is loaded with talent. The previously mentioned Smith is by far their most important player (goaltending, goaltending, goaltending), but the blueline is anchored (at least for now) by Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. OEL had a good year last year, but expect him to have his coming out party this season. Captain Shane Doan, the single most underrated player of his era (been there since they were the Jets), leads the way upfront along with a cast of underrated and undervalued forwards like Antoine Vermette, Steve Sullivan and Radim Vrabata. The Coyotes are solid, and come late April/early May, I’ll be right here to say “I told ya so”.

San Jose Sharks – The Sharks are always a contender for the Division and the Conference and I think they will be again this season. The Sharks have a nice mix of veteran leaders like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle who are showing the next generation of Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Logan Couture how to be great professionals and contenders year after year. Sadly for Sharks fans, I feel that they are TOO balanced in that they have the young talent to compete, stuck behind the veterans who have never won the Cup and don’t know what it takes to win. If the Sharks fall out of contention, look for one of the veterans to be moved around the deadline to not only open up a space for one of the young players, but to add pieces to support them. I doubt this will happen though, as Antti Niemi is a solid goalie, and a Cup winning goalie at that.W ith a shortened season, the aging veterans have had time to rest, and if they can play to their potential all the way through the condensed schedule, this could be the year of the Shark.

Division Champions: Phoenix Coyotes

Awards Predictions

Hart Trophy (MVP): Steven Stamkos – TB

Art Ross (Points Leader): Sidney Crosby – PIT

Rocket Richard (Goals): Steven Stamkos – TB

Vezina Trophy (Best Goalie): Pekka Rinne – NSH

Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman): Drew Doughty – LA

Calder Trophy (Best Rookie): Alex Galchenyuk – MTL

Lady Byng (Sportsmanship): Pavel Datsyuk – DET

Selke (Best Defensive Forwad): Jordan Staal – CAR

Jack Adams (Best Coach): Mike Yeo – MIN

Bill Masterton (Perseverance): Pierre-Marc Bouchard – MIN

Ted Lindsay (MVP as voted by Players): Claude Giroux – PHI

William Jennings Trophy (Goalie(s) with lowest GAA): Jose Theodore – FLA

GM of the Year: Chuck Fletcher – MIN

Eastern Conference Champions: New York Rangers

Western Conference Champions: St. Louis Blues

Stanley Cup Finals: Rangers over Blues in 7

____________________________________________________________________________
Thank you for reading The Cover 4! Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook & Twitter.

Oh yeah, tell your friends too!

Pat Davis
Sports Activist for The Cover 4
http://www.facebook.com/thecover4
http://www.twitter.com/thecover4

http://www.twitter.com/PatDavisRiley

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: