NHL Season Preview Part 1:Atlantic Division

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The Cover 4.com presents you with the NHL Season Preview Part 1:Atlantic Division! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

The 2013-14 NHL season is going to look a little different, in terms of teams, divisions and players, all of which have undergone major change. For the upcoming season, the realignment of the NHL is in full effect and there are new divisional names and a new playoff system.  The biggest change in the realignment is the shift of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings to the Eastern Conference. There will be new rivalries that were never able to exist in the past. The playoffs will take 16 teams, eight from each conference, and seed them. Under the new alignment, Eastern Conference teams, now consisting of the Metropolitan and Atlantic divisions, will have 30 games against their division opponents and 24 games against conference opponents outside of their division as well as 28 interconference games. To start our season preview, lets take a look at the Atlantic Division.

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BOSTON BRUINS

The Bruins skated their way last year into the Stanley Cup Final facing off against the Chicago Blackhawks, but lost in six games. The Bruins had a bit of a wild offseason in terms of players coming and going. The Bruins traded young forward and former No. 2 overall pick Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars after a disappointing year on and off-the-ice. His return netted the Bruins a natural goal scorer in Loui Eriksson, who will likely be paired on a line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Eriksson has been a reliable source of offense, producing three consecutive 70-plus point seasons before a subpar shortened season last year. Gone are Jaromir Jagr and Nathan Horton, but Boston went out signed 36-year-old Jarome Iginla in place of Jagr. Iginla is on the downside of his career, but he should fit in nicely with Boston’s style of play. The Bruins also lost defenseman Andrew Ference to Edmonton, which is their only notable loss on defense. Zdeno Chara will continue to lead the Bruins blue line as veterans Johnny Boychuk and Dennis Seidenberg are dependable. Dougie Hamilton had an outstanding promising rookie year and could become a top pairing defenseman soon. Also in the mix are Torey Krug , who made a name for himself in the playoffs, Matt Bartkowski, Adam McQuaid  and Joe Morrow, who also came over in the Seguin trade. In goal Tuukka Rask looks to build off a career year and strong playoff appearance as he is now the long-term solution in net for the next eight years. If Rask goes down, Boston will be in trouble as backups Chad Johnson and Niklas Svedberg have little, to no NHL experience.  Boston should be the favorite for this division.

Sabres goalie Ryan Miller sits on the ice after being scored on  during their NHL hockey game in Toronto

BUFFALO SABRES

Buffalo is basically in a rebuilding mode as it has a very weak team and little depth on its roster. Thomas Vanek is the veteran and big name who is looking to lead and carry the team after having his most productive season last year. The forwards for Buffalo are less than ideal and more promise and future hope than what can you do for me now.  Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis are two of Buffalo’s most optimistic players as the youngsters combined for 65 points in 2013 and should be looking for a breakout year in a full season. Mikhail Grigorenko, who was looked at as a promising hope of offensive production last year as a rookie, struggled to find his game and managed just one goal in 25 games. He does have the size and skill to be productive if given a full season to play.  Other forwards include Ville Leino, who signed a $26 million contract two years ago, who needs to stay healthy and produce as he has been nothing but a bust thus far. Buffalo will also have the likes of Steve Ott, who is used to create space and open play for guys like Drew Stafford who had the one of the worst seasons of his career last year.  Once promising youngster Tyler Myers, a 6-foot-8 defenseman, saw his minutes drop as he became nothing but a problem every time he was on the ice. The Sabers need improved play from him moving forward to have any chance of success this year. In net, Ryan Miller who many thought would be dealt last year, is back. Miller has been in steady decline since 2010 and his backup, Jhonas Enroth, didn’t look very promising either last year. It looks like it is going to be along year for Buffalo and fans can expect trades to happen and wins hard to come by.

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DETROIT RED WINGS

The Original Six team joins the Eastern Conference this year and enters as an already formidable opponent. Detroit has wanted this switch for years and it finally has it now, as it has a time schedule that is much more suitable for the team.  Detroit will have a much easier conference than years past, but still play top division teams like Pittsburgh, Boston and Montreal. Detroit was expected to have a down year last year, but went beyond expectations. Detroit has an abundance of forwards but is $2.5 million over the cap, which it will need to get down to before October 2. They added long time Ottawa  Senator, Daniel Alfredsson, as their top free agent signing as well as Stephen Weiss who will be replacing Valtteri Filppula. Alfredsson should be motivated to win a Cup as Detroit is a legitimate contender and practically quit on Ottawa last year after going down in its series to Pittsburgh. Weiss escapes a bad Florida team and can finally just be the play maker he is, and not the go-to guy he was expected to be.  Having Pavel Datysuk and Henrik Zetterberg should help him finally be himself on the ice and see his creativity go to work. Darren Helm will start the season on the IR and has had trouble staying healthy. Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Mikael Samuelsson can all be depended upon and know what their roles are on the team. Their defense was a question mark heading into last season but this year, it should be a sound defensive unit. The defense is young, a change from years past and features Danny DeKeyser and Alexei Marchenko as players to watch. Ericsson, Kyle Quincey and Kronwall are the veteran leaders on defense.  Jimmy Howard has a chance to be a top goaltender in this league and his playoff success from last year shows he can carry them deep into the playoffs. Detroit will be fighting with the Bruins at the top of the Atlantic this year.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Florida Panthers

FLORIDA PANTHERS

There is not much to say about this team other than they are going to need a miracle to even sniff the playoffs this year. They have lots of high ceiling guys, but all offered minimal production. In 2012 they were the best team in their division, but are nothing more than basement dwellers now. They have the 2013 Calder winner Jonathan Huberdeau, who is their top young forward trying to lead Florida back into hockey relevancy. They signed veteran Scott Gomez, who is nothing more than a wasted paycheck anymore, during the offseason and have invited goaltender Tim Thomas to camp for a tryout. Thomas took all of last year off and even if he does make the team, he is nothing more than a backup and mentor.  Florida is led by forwards Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg on the first line. As I said before, hope is bleak in the SunshineState. A few other notable forwards will be Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall and Marcel Goc as bottom-tier players.  Jacob Markstrom is expected to be the team’s go-to goalie and Florida needs him to be its future goalie. It’s going to be a long year in Florida, not that many will notice, as the Panthers have one of the lowest attendance figures in the league. Count on them to finish last.

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MONTREAL CANADIENS

The Habs didn’t really do much in the offseason in terms of getting better, as they only signed Danny Briere, George Parros and Douglas Murray. None of those three are expected to be game changers for this team. Montreal is banking off its late season surge last year, and feels it already has the necessary pieces in place to compete. Its division gets a little tougher this year but it has the skill and speed to keep up. It needs size and toughness which is what Murray and Parros are for. David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Rene Bourque are expected to be the point producers while the bottom two lines expect to wear you down. Lars Eller, Brian Gionta and Brandon Prust are very tough bottom-six names who can give you problems and chip in on the score sheet.  Montreal has a lot of depth on its team and remains solid overall. PK Subban will be his usual self on defense scoring goals and creating problems for other teams, as he is one of the best agitators in the league. Alexei Emelin will also be a name to look for as a key on Montreal’s blue line. Carry Price is signed for another five years and he has become a reliable goalie after showing signs early in his career that he couldn’t handle pressure. Expect Montreal to be a top 3-4 contender in this division.

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OTTAWA SENATORS

Daniel Alfredsson shocked a lot of people in the NHL by leaving Ottawa. It was a true blow to the fans to see the sides only $1 million off and not get a deal done. Maybe he didn’t really want to come back? Either way, it can be argued the Senators made the biggest offseason trade, going out and getting high-scoring winger Bobby Ryan from Anaheim for Jakob Silfverberg and Stefan Noesen. Ryan had been dealing with trade rumors the past few years and he can finally just relax and know it is over.  Ryan will be playing top-three minutes every night and has play-making ability to open space and make his linemates better. Ottawa fans should be excited about this trade because Ryan brings a wealth of talent to an already highly-skilled team.  He should be on a line with (who I assume to be the new captain) Jason Spezza. Spezza is a great passer and there should be a lot of chemistry between the two. Rounding out that line will be Milan Michalek. Kyle Turris will play with newly signed Clarke MacArthur and possibly Cory Conacher or Mika Zibanejad. Erik Karlsson is looking for another nomination for the Norris Trophy this year after being injured for most the year on a play by Matt Cooke last year. The Sens also went out and signed Joe Corvo to play with guys like Eric Gryba and Chris Phillips on the backend. If Craig Anderson can stay healthy, he is a Vezina-type goalie who should be able to backstop this team into a playoff spot. Look for them to be fighting for one of the last playoff spots in the division.

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TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Longtime face of the franchise Vincent Lecavalier is gone. His offensive production won’t be missed, but his leadership will. This team is looking to rebound from being one of the worse teams in the league last year, something no one in the NHL saw coming. Valtteri Filppula was their notable free agent signing and was given a lot of money after a disappointing season in Detroit. General Manager Steve Yzerman believes he will have a bounceback year centering the second line with either Teddy Purcell, Alexander Killorn, 2013 No. 2 overall pick Jonathan Drouin or veteran power forward Ryan Malone. My guess would have to be Drouin because he seems more like a natural fit for that line, However, if Drouin struggles early, could he be returned to junior after nine games? I could see Killorn on the top line after he was one of Tampa’s most productive scorers in the AHL. Head coach John Cooper, who took over late last year, should have had more time to establish a system that uses a combination of speed and skill. It could lead to a tougher time for the defense, but their strength is going to be on offense.  Tampa needs to be more consistent this year, after starting last year hot and then resembling a team that forgot how to play. It could score goals, but it could not hold onto leads. In goal, the completion between Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback provides no clear cut favorite for now. Both are big goalies and have the skill set to be number ones, but Tampa is usually a revolving door of goalies. I expect Tampa to struggle this year defensively, and be a brink playoff team thanks to its offense.

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TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

The Leafs have what might be their best team in more than 10 years, and they are deep with talent. Their top two lines will be Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk as line one and Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri and newly-signed David Clarkson on the second. I love the addition of Clarkson to this team because he gives them another big body on the top two lines and has proven he knows how to use his size around the net. Kessel is playing for a new contract and as the old adage goes, guys in contract years are motivated and should produce. The bottom six brings new addition Dave Bolland, fresh off a Stanley Cup with Chicago, and talented Russian Nikolai Kulemin. Dion Phaneuf is the team’s best defenseman and had an up and down year last year, but was still a reason for Toronto making the playoffs. He was top 10 defenseman scoring and was often paired against teams’ best players. He may not be a true shutdown defenseman, but he knows how create problems for setting up plays. Jake Gardiner is also a defenseman who will be the Leafs go-to offensive defenseman. Toronto’s biggest concern is its overall defense, as it are often facing a barrage of shots each game. Shots lead to scoring chances and this is something it needs to improve upon. In net, James Reimer is the starter while Jonathan Bernier will push for starting duties. Bernier was the Leafs trade acquisition from the Kings in June and is considered a future No. 1 if Reimer is not capable of fulfilling his duties. I expect Toronto to be a playoff tean this team year, somewhere in the 5-7 seed range.

The Atlantic Division will see the return of some of the sport’s best rivalries with Detroit joining the division again, and it will be a fun division to watch. We are only getting started here at the Cover 4 with our NHL season preview, and tomorrow we shift our focus out West to the Central Division. Today, we will leave you with our three choices to secure the divisional playoff bids:

Boston

Detroit

Montreal

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Chris Dazen & Patrick Riley
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NHL Season Preview Part 4:Metro Division

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The Cover 4.com presents you with the NHL Season Preview Part 4:Metro Division! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

In  the final installment of our season preview, we swing back to the Eastern Conference and take a look at the newly formed and named Metropolitan Division. The Metro is a star-studded division featuring the likes Claude Giroux, Rick Nash, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin.  This division figures to be the most intense, keeping great rivalries such as Flyers-Penguins, Flyers-Rangers and Rangers-Islanders together, while adding new, great divisional rivalries like Flyers-Caps and Pens-Caps. Let’s take a look at how the division figures to break down.

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CAROLINA HURRICANES 

The Hurricanes are one of those teams you look at on paper and wonder just why they were so bad last year? The answer is goaltender Cam Ward. He is the key to this Carolina team and when he went down last year, so did the team. Their top=six forwards are strong, and include two Staals, Eric and Jordan, as well as Jeff Skinner and Alexander Semin. The No. 5 overall pick this summer, Elias Lindholm is also supposed to make the team. Offensively this team should be ok. Where it really went wrong last year was trying to stop the puck from going in the net. In the offseason the Hurricanes lost defensemen Jamie McBain and Joe Corvo, not that they were helping out much with the defense last year, and picked up Mike Komisarek and Andrej Sekera. The Hurricanes allowed the second-most goals last season (159), ranking at the near top of list of teams who faced the most shots. It is easy to see why this team was bad. Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen, Jay Harrison and Justin Faulk, all return and are not exactly names that make teams think they are going to be running into a lot of problems. The Hurricanes made some improvements to the blue line, but I don’t see enough of an improvement here to be talking playoffs. The potential to be wrong with that prediction is there, but I feel they did not do enough to help themselves.

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COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Columbus is one of my favorite up-and-coming teams in this league and it has finally found themselves in the Eastern Conference where it belongs.  It has what is essentially the same roster back and barely missed the playoffs last year. It is in a much tougher division this year however, and will need to play its best hockey every night to have a chance at making the playoffs. With that said, the Blue Jackets will need to ride Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky throughout the year to succeed. Bobrovsky was practically given away from the Philadelphia Flyers two years ago and last year blossomed into what he was supposed to all along. He was out to prove many wrong, and he did just that. Their biggest off season signing, Nathan Horton, is recovering from shoulder surgery but his offensive production is expected to help when he returns. Marian Gaborik, who is in a contract year, will look to lead the team offensively, but like always with him, he will need to stay healthy.  Artem Anisimov was re-signed and is also expected to score and be a top-six forward while R.J. Umberger, Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky are also secondary scorers. Jack Johnson, Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski are all veterans who can fill big defensive roles for this club. The No. 2 overall pick in 2012, Ryan Murray hopes an injury from last year is behind him, and he is ready to go for this season. If they can replicate everything that went right for them last year, the Blue Jackets should be in the mix for a playoff spot.

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NEW JERSEY DEVILS 

Who exactly is supposed to score goals on this team? Over the last two years it has lost any resemblance of a team that knows how put pucks in the net. The Devils lost Ilya Kovalchuk to his “retirement” to the KHL, David Clarkson to Toronto and Alexei Ponikarovsky, who was never really that great to start with. They added Jaromir Jagr, Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder doing themselves no favors trying to get younger and still being as equally goal challenged as before. These are hard times for the Devils as they are now owned by the NHL, and Martin Brodeur fades into retirement after this season. Adam Henrique, Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac get the call to light the lamp, but don’t expect staggering numbers. If one thing went right this offseason, it was finding an eventual replacement for Brodeur via Vancouver. Cory Schneider will be the backup, but he should also get a bulk of the starts as well. The Devils likely will have their worst season in years and finish last in the division.

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NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Over the last four years, it may not have looked like it at the time, but the Islanders were building a team with a lot of potential. Last year, that team finally came out. A team built from newly-named captain John Tavares  features the young talent of Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner , Kyle Okposo Josh Bailey, Travis Hamonic, Ryan Strome and soon-to-be NHLer Griffin Reinhart. The Islanders are one of the fastest teams in the NHL and can hang and wear teams down over the course of a game. See the Pittsburgh series from last year’s playoffs. The Islanders should have beaten the Penguins, but go no help from their goaltending. Okposo had an awful year last year scoring just four goals, and will be needed this year to help contribute. The team lost defenseman Mark Streit, which hurts their power play but Lubomir Visnovsky can fill that role. Among their other defensemen, the Islanders are in trouble. There is not much there in terms of overwhelming talent and will be a weakness for them this year.  Evgeni Nabokov is 38 and played OK in the regular season, but his postseason was one to forget. Backup goalie Kevin Poulin provides no hope. Expect the Islanders to be fast and sexy, but I think this team needs some help on defense and in goal before talking playoffs this year.

Henrik Lundqvist

NEW YORK RANGERS

Out is head coach John Tortorella and new bench boss, Alain Vigneault formerly of Vancouver, takes over. Vigneault should be the right coach for this team, finally freeing the players from the defensive-minded vice grip Tortorella had on them. That means Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Derick Brassard have their handcuffs off and should be ready to fire at will at the net.  Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan, two of the best two-way forwards in the NHL, will also have an easier time playing more to their game, although not much is expected to change with how they produce. New addition Benoit Pouliot is also an ideal third-line player and should be interesting to watch on this team as he can score if paired with the right players. On defense, Marc Staal is recovered from a career-threatening eye injury. It will be interesting see how he approaches stepping in front of a puck now. Also in that group is Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto who are all sound NHL defensemen.  Goaltending, we all know what to expect from Henrik Lundqvist, but with a less defensive sound team now, it will interesting to see how he responds. Expect for the Rangers to compete for the top of the division.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

We hear it every year, they have the two best players in the world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The team around them is built to win and score, as the Penguins were NHL’s highest-scoring team at 3.38 goals per game during the regular season. They lost all those shiny new “old” toys in Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray they acquired last year as well as gritty forward and fan favorite Matt Cooke, and Tyler Kennedy to a trade. Instead of going out and signing new players with high upside, they put all of their money into known commodities Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. The top six will look the same, minus a potential rotating door of Beau Bennett  and Jussi Jokinen on the Malkin and James Neal line. Where the Penguins will really be hurting is the lack of size and grit from their bottom six forwards. Brandon Sutter and newcomer Matt D’Agostini will try to help with lower line scoring. On defense, they kept Kris Letang around, which is huge and signed defenseman Rob Scuderi, an old familiar face, back to the team. The Penguins are beyond loaded with organizational depth on defense and once again it should not be much of an issue (although it was during the playoffs). The biggest question mark is goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who once again fell apart in the playoffs. He saw a sports psychologist during the offseason to help, but this is a make or break year for his career. Backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun is out indefinitely with a blood clot. Vokoun carried the Penguins through the playoffs last year, so Fleury will really need to be on top of his game. Expect this Penguins team to be at the top or finish second in the Metro.

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PHILADELPHIA FLYERS 

When I look at the Flyers, I see a team who has top tier offensive talent, but lacks the overall fear I would normally have in a Flyers team. There is no question their talent at forward is one of the better looking ones in the division.  Claude Giroux is one of the most talented and gifted players in the NHL and will be the team leader in points. Jakub Voracek had a breakout season recording 46 points in a short year while Scott Hartnell will look to bounce back after breaking his foot and only scored 16 points. Wayne Simmonds and Matt Read had nice years, while Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn need to improve after producing well below what was expected of them last year. Newest addition Vincent Lecavalier, who is replacing the departed Danny Briere, should be the second line center and if healthy, he will have a similar role he shared in Tampa over the past few years. On defense, the Flyers had more injures than they could have imagined and were never able to recover. Kimmo Timonen had 29 points on defense and Luke Schenn was nothing special. Their biggest addition was Mark Streit who will ease the pressure of Timonen and become the quarterback of the power play. Health will be a huge determent again as to how well this team does. It’s never the Flyers unless they are having goaltending issues, and always, they are. Gone is head case Ilya Bryzgalov, and a tandem of sub-par goaltending in Steve Mason and Ray Emery will be called upon to play well beyond their better years.  I expect the Flyers to finish either third or fourth in the division.

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WASHINGTON CAPITALS

The Capitals were the Southeast Division winners last year, but this year they join the Wild West run-and-gun Metropolitan Division  where they will need to learn how to defend.  Adam Oates needs more credit for revitalizing Alex Ovechkin’s career, forcing him to right wing where scored a league-high 32 goals and won his third Hart Trophy. Ovechkin seemed lost and many were starting to wonder if this was beginning of the end to his career as an elite player.  But Oates brought out in Ovi what he had been missing for the last two seasons, and Ovi seems to have responded. Mikhail Grabovski was a big pick up and should be the second line center after losing Mike Ribeiro. He has a scoring reputation that the Capitals love and top to the bottom, the Caps have four sound lines. Brooks Laich and Nicklas Backstrom should have no problem putting up their expected point totals for another strong Washington offense. The Capitals defense is a big question this year. The big names; Mike Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlson will be fine, but it is the other three remaining defensemen who bring a lot questions. Green obviously will need to stay healthy, as this has become a re-occurring problem for him. The final three defensemen will be names like John Erskine, Tomas Kundratek and Dmitry Orlov. Erskine is the name that many will recognize and is someone the Capitals will need to perform as bottom type defenseman. The goaltender job is Braden Holtby’s to lose, but seems to have finally answer the call as to who should be starting. He had a strong end to his season, but struggled in the playoffs leading to questions if he was the right goalie. He is, but will need to show it was not a fluke. It can be said the team in front of him did not play well, but this is a team effort and he deserves equal blame.  I predict the Capitals will finish somewhere around third or fourth in the division, competing with Philadelphia for one of those spots.

As you can see, the Metro Division is going to be a tightly contested division, with tons of star power battling for supremacy. The headlines are there, the stars are there, and the excitement will surely be there. For our money, here is who we expect to receive the automatic bids out of the Metro this season:

Pittsburgh

Rangers

Capitals

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

Oh yeah, tell your friends too!

Chris Dazen & Patrick Riley
Guest Sports Activist for The Cover 4

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