NHL Fantasy Preview!

Where does Malkin sit on the list of top centers for 2013?

Where does Malkin sit on the list of top centers for 2013?

With the lockout now over, the NHL is prepping for a marathon sprint of a season. With a 48-game schedule in the works and due to be released in the next day or so, the wheels of hockey are once again churning, and it is almost time to drop the puck. For those of us who play fantasy hockey, if you’re like me, you’ve probably not kept up with any of the players playing overseas, and have not had a chance to make your “big board” for your draft. Since autopick is never an option, here is your crash course for your top picks for your fantasy drafts. Please keep in mind these rankings are for standard scoring leagues.

Claude Giroux

Claude Giroux

Center

1. Evgeni Malkin – Pittsburgh

*Coming off of an MVP season in the NHL last year, Malkin has continued his dominance overseas in the KHL posting 65 points in 37 games during the lockout. With a healthy Sidney Crosby back in the fold, look out.

2. Sidney Crosby – Pittsburgh

*Speak of the devil, Crosby is primed to terrorize the NHL like he did prior to suffering multiple concussions. The best player in the world is back and healthy for the first time in two-and-a-half years, and with the short season, his point production heavily outweighs the risk of injury for your team.

3. Steven Stamkos – Tampa Bay

*Stamkos is working his way to the prime of his career, and the goal scoring machine is usually a fast starter during the season, if he’s around when your pick is up, he’s a pretty safe pick.

4. Claude Giroux – Philadelphia

*While Giroux will push Crosby, Malkin and company for the scoring title and MVP, he was injured with another concussion while playing in Germany. He left his team a month or so ago to go seek help from Dr. Ted Carrick, the same doctor who helped return Sidney Crosby for good. While Giroux should be good to go, the injuries are a point of concern.

5. Henrik Sedin – Vancouver*Either Sedin is always a good pick up in fantasy. They always post globs of points and Henrik is terrific at faceoffs, but hits and PIMs are going to be hard to come by.

6. John Tavares – New York (Islanders)

*A budding superstar in the NHL, Tavares is a fantastic all-around talent and plays in every situation. He is the type of player that can keep your team competitive when you’re having the fantasy-dreaded “off week”.

7. Eric Staal – Carolina

*Staal has been around seemingly forever, but at age 28, he is in the prime of his career. Always a top fantasy player, the Hurricanes’ lineup will be bolstered by the addition of Jordan Staal, and that may energize Eric as well.

8. David Backes – St. Louis

*Backes could be a great sleeper pick. Not too many casual hockey fans know about him, but he makes a great addition to any team. While he won’t be pushing 100 points, even in an 82-game season, Backes is consistent point producer and plays with an edge helping out your hits and PIMs.

9. Brad Richards – New York (Rangers)

*Don’t let the addition of Rick Nash to the Rangers fool you, this is still a John Tortorella coached team and defense comes first. Thank being said, Richards is one of the premier passers in the league and is playing with Nash and Marian Gaborik.

10. Anze Kopitar – Los Angeles

*Kopitar burst on to the national scene last season during the Kings’ run to the Stanley Cup. Kopitar though has always been a valuable fantasy player and looks only to continue that trend this season.

Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

Left Wingers

1. Alex Ovechkin – Washington

*The great 8 will be looking to burst out of the gates the season and one can expect that first year Caps coach Adam Oates will unleash Ovechkin without restriction. Looking to return to form and just oozing with talent and skill. Despite previous down seasons, Ovi is still a good choice as a top pick.

2. Ilya Kovalchuk – New Jersey

*Kovalchuk really came into his own as a Devil last season, and despite losing team captain Zach Parise through free agency, Kovalchuk looks to pick up right where he left off for the Eastern Conference champion Devils.

3. James Neal – Pittsburgh

*After a dreadful late 2010-’11  with the Pens after coming over from Dallas, Neal enjoyed a terrific full season with Pittsburgh last year posting 40 goals and 81 points. Oh yeah, he’ll be working a power play unit with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

4. Daniel Sedin – Vancouver

*See Henrik Sedin, subtract faceoffs

5. Milan Lucic – Boston

*Lucic is coming into the season healthy and that is huge for the style that he plays. Lucic will be a force at even strength and on the power play and will add to your fantasy teams toughness stats such as hits and PIMs

6. Zach Parise – Minnesota

*I wouldn’t expect Parise to come out of the gates hot. He spent his entire career with Jersey and now that he is in his first year with the Wild, you have to account for an adjustment period. With Parise’s talent and work ethic, don’t pencil in TOO much time to adjust, he will be a solid pick for any team sooner rather than later.

7. Taylor Hall – Edmonton

*With the shortened schedule, young guys like Hall and his Oiler teammates could be surprise names at the top of the scoring charts. Hall has improved his play every year since being the first overall pick in 2010. If Hall can stay healthy, he has the potential to be one of your team’s top players.

8. Scott Hartnell – Philadelphia

*The long-maned Hartnell will miss departed future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr from his line, but playing with Claude Giroux still bodes well for Hartnell’s fantasy line. Hartnell also isn’t afraid of  a little confrontation  and gets significant power play time.

9. Rick Nash – New York (Rangers)

*While the newly acquired Nash could be a force in the stats, his attitude (at times) mixed with coach Tortorella’s attitude (at times) may not be a good mixture and with Torts running an extremely defensive minded team, the fantasy points by Nash may come at a slower clip than expected.

10. Loui Eriksson – Dallas

*Eriksson is bar none the most underrated player in the NHL today. With a ton of size and a great skill set, he will flourish offensively with the additions of Derek Roy and Jaromir Jagr to the Stars and the emergence of Stars’ star Jamie Benn

Patrick Kane

Patrick Kane

Right Wing

1. Phil Kessel – Toronto

*This may be the year that Toronto finally reaches the postseason,and Phil Kessel will be a big part of that. After finding his scoring stride early last year, he anchored the Leafs top line through a tantalizing three-quarters  of a season before the Leafs collapsed and fell out of contention. Look for Kessel and the Leafs to come out of the gates hot again.

2. Patrick Sharp – Chicago

*Sharp has the ability to play any forward position and is a consistent point producer. He will add to your team’s entire offensive stat line and plus-minus as well.

3. Corey Perry – Anaheim

*Entering a contract year, Perry will look to get off to a great start. If you can overcome the plus-minus stat that is sure to be lousy from playing on Anaheim’s lousy team, Perry will be a great draft choice. A 50-goal scorer and former MVP, he should still look every bit of each of those.

4. Tyler Seguin – Boston

*Another budding superstar in the league, the blazing fast Seguin sees time in every situation for the Bruins. Look for him to be a consistent producer of every good stat your fantasy league has to offer.

5. Jarome Iginla – Calgary

*While entering the twilight of his career, Iginla can still play at a high level. He may be a good investment pick seeing as he will still produce with Calgary’s OK team, but should the Flames fall out of contention, Iginla may be moved to a contender.

6. Jordan Eberle – Edmonton

*While he hasn’t put his skills together to the fullest yet and pushed the Ovechkins and Malkins of the league for a scoring title, Eberle has still been a consistent young star with the upstart Oilers. With the likes of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakapov, and Ryan Whitney playing with Eberle, the point potential is there.

7. Patrick Kane – Chicago

*After an off season, Kane looks back to return to his dynamic form  from the Cup winning season. Loaded with talent and playing with Jonathan Toews, Kane is another safe, proven pick for your team.

8. Martin St. Louis – Tampa Bay

*A perennial fantasy stud, St. Louis is getting older, however he still provides valuable production for any fantasy team even in the most competitive of leagues. Playing with Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier won’t hurt either.

9. Jeff Skinner – Carolina

*Skinner is another young emerging star that the NHL boasts, however he has had injury trouble the last couple years. Being a smaller player, he faces that risk, but the additions of Jordan Staal and Alex Semin to the Hurricanes should offer more time and space for Skinner.

10. Joe Pavelski – San Jose

*A type of under-the-radar player, Pavelski has seen better and better seasons each year he has been around. Although he is listed as a winger, he also sees time at center, adding to your squad’s faceoff stats.

Erik Karlsson

Erik Karlsson

Defense

1.Erik Karlsson – Ottawa

*The defending Norris Trophy winner, and deservedly so, Karlsson is primed for another great season. Although Ottawa’s season was somewhat of an overachievement last year, a lot of its  success hinges on Karlsson. He will see plenty of ice time and will put up a ton of points.

2. Kris Letang – Pittsburgh

*After an injury-derailing season last year, Letang looks to get back on track as an elite defender in the NHL. Before concussion issues sidelined him last year, Letang was neck-and-neck with Karlsson for the defensive scoring lead and Norris consideration. As far as fantasy goes, Letang may not put up as many points playing on a star-studded Penguins team, but Letang plays with more of an edge than Karlsson, so his PIMs will help, and his +/- will probably be better as well.

3. Dustin Byfuglien – Winnipeg

*All around talent aside, Byfuglien brings versatility to your lineup, as well as Winnipeg’s. In most leagues, he is listed as a defenseman and a winger. Although he will see the occasional forward shift with the Jets, he is a top pairing defenseman. This bodes well for your team if he is on it because you can slot him in a forward position, while he is playing defense, therefore he sees more ice time. His style of play sees him stock up on a ton hits and shots, along with working the point on the power play.

4. Brian Campbell – Florida

*A solid overall pickup every year, expect a pump in Campbell’s numbers coming off of a solid year last season. The Panthers were an underrated squad last year, and took the eventual Eastern Conference champion Devils to double OT of Game 7 in their series. Campbell’s fantasy numbers dropped late last season, so as a veteran, he may benefit from the short season.

5. Zdeno Chara – Boston

*Chara is a fantasy stud year after year and this season should be no different. One of the safest picks on D as his production is consistent and being a behemoth, his durability is of little concern.

6. Shea Weber – Nashville

*While Weber is still the premier total package defenseman in the league today, the loss of Ryan Suter via free agency could hurt Weber’s fantasy numbers. Don’t be surprised if, in typical Predators’ fashion, the next man steps up (Kevin Klein), and Weber and the Preds don’t miss a beat.

7. Alex Pietrangelo – St. Louis

*This will be the year that Pietrangelo solidifies himself as a top-tier defenseman in the NHL. Benefitting from the great coaching of Ken Hitchcock, the Blues rode Hitch all the way to the playoffs last season. In a jam-packed Western Conference and Central Division, the young Blues team is primed to make a run this season, and Pietrangelo will be a catalyst for that. A wildcard in terms of fantasy players, Pietrangelo sees a ton of ice time for the Blues in all situations, but the Blues have been inconsistent in the scoring department winning a lot of goaltending duels.

8. Dan Boyle – San Jose

*Another perennial fantasy producer, Boyle is in good position to put up another good season with the Sharks. Boyle is not an overwhelmingly physical player, but he puts a ton of pucks on net, works the point on the power play and has a great outlet pass that can set some of the younger Sharks’ players up to score off the rush. Expect his plus-minus, assists and power play Points to compete for best in the league, however don’t expect a ton of goals.

9. Ryan Suter – Minnesota

*Suter is finally out from the Shea Weber shadow he played his entire career under and is now the top dog on the Minnesota Wild blueline. While he may not see too much of an increase in time on the power play, expect an increase in shots, goals and assists, now that he won’t have to defer to Weber. The only caveat to his fantasy numbers maybe his plus-minus seeing as the Wild are not nearly as sound defensively or in net as the Predators were with Suter.

10. Drew Doughty – Los Angeles

*Doughty is looking to build off of an impressive run to the Cup with the Kings last season, that saw him provide some splash plays. Doughty’s offensive numbers will be there as he quarterbacks the Kings top power play unit, but defensively he is not on an elite level yet. While still young and learning the position, Doughty’s fantasy value can vary from offensive specialist to all-around stud.

Jonathan Quick

Jonathan Quick

Goalies

1.Henrik Lundqvist – New York (Rangers)

*Coming off an exceptional year that saw him win the Vezina Trophy for best goaltender and garner serious MVP consideration, look for more of the same from King Henrik this season. The Rangers play a stifling defense-first system and sport an impressive core of young defensive talent who gained some valuable experience last year with the Rangers’ run to the Eastern Conference Finals. The addition of Rick Nash will also help Lundqvist as it will be hard for the other team to get quality scoring chances on him while they are playing more defense in their own end.

2. Jonathan Quick – Los Angeles

*Last year’s Conn Smythe winner, Quick was no doubt the single biggest reason that the Kings not only won the Cup, but even made the playoffs. Quick backstopped an abysmal Kings’ offense by posting shutout after shutout last season and keeping every game within reach for the Kings to win. Once the Kings found their scoring touch, well the rest is history. Look for Quick to see less shots per game this season behind a defending champion Kings team that is only getting better.

3. Pekka Rinne – Nashville

*Although the Preds lost a top-pairing defenseman in Ryan Suter, expect this season to be more of the same Nashville Predators perseverance against all odds type of year. Although, aside from Shea Weber, the Predators lack superstar power up front, Rinne is a superstar caliber player, destined to toil in the anonymity of Nashville in the NHL. Rinne will be available in many leagues for a while, while bigger names come off the board. Don’t be afraid to take Rinne over the likes of Ward, Fleury or even Luongo.

4. Mike Smith – Phoenix

*Another leader of a band of misfits, the Phoenix Coyotes will go as far as Mike Smith takes them. From a fantasy perspective, Smith may not post the most shutouts, but his goals against average and save percentage will be tough to match. Smith could even compete for the Vezina this year if Phoenix has another outstanding year.

5. Jaroslav Halak – St. Louis

*Halak is another solid overall choice and shutout machine playing in a defensive system. Halak has proven himself as a big time goalie in Montreal and St. Louis, single-handedly shutting down the likes of Malkin, Ovechkin, and Crosby in playoff series. One problem that presents itself with Halak is the stellar play of his goaltending partner, Brian Elliot. The tandem posted outstanding numbers last year and although Halak’s stellar play earned him the starting gig, Elliot’s play earned him significant playing time, even in a backup role.

6. Cory Schneider – Vancouver

*Schneider is in line for his first season as a starter in the NHL after overtaking the much maligned Roberto Luongo as the starter in Vancouver. Although Luongo’s play has been wildly inconsistent, Schneider’s outstanding play down the stretch last season cemented his role as starter this season and forcing the Canucks hand in probably dealing Luongo. With amazing talent himself while getting the majority of the starts, Schneider will be playing behind one of the best defensive corps in the game, so expect his wins to be near the top of the league along with his goals against average.

7. Ryan Miller – Buffalo

*Buffalo’s only hope at a successful season, Miller is looking to rebound off a sub-par season for himself. Miller is one of the most talented goaltenders in the league and arguably the most valuable to his team. If Miller’s save percentage and goals against numbers are in good standing, so will his, and Buffalo’s wins. You can also expect Miller to face a lot of shots playing behind a less than overwhelming Sabres offense.

8. Carey Price – Montreal

*Price is a phenomenal talent that has people drawing comparisons between him and Patrick Roy. Although he isn’t quite in the same breath as Roy, he is a fantastic goalie on an average team. Price’s shots faced and save percentage look to be quite high, although his wins and goals against average may leave a lot to be desired playing behind the Habs skaters.

9. Tuukka Rask – Boston

*After losing his starting job to the enigmatic Tim Thomas and seeing Thomas post one of the best seasons from a goalie in recent history, Rask has his starting job back with Thomas sitting out the year because he’s a complete weirdo. This, however, doesn’t change the fact that Rask is a terrific goaltender playing on a great team. Rask’s stat line probably won’t feature one mind-blowing stat after another but will see a solid line all the way across. Rask is not an ideal workhorse for a fantasy team but can be a tremendous compliment to your main keeper.

10. Marc-Andre Fleury – Pittsburgh

*Ok, forget about the redonkulous playoff series loss to the Flyers last year. Fleury is a perennial  regular season stud. Last season, many of the Penguins players were pushing for Fleury to receive MVP and Vezina consideration. While teammate Evgeni Malkin won the MVP and Fleury wound up with consideration for neither award, he still posted a fantastic regular season. This season, Fleury has the privilege of playing behind the likes of Crosby, Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang, just to name a few. Fleury may be a fantasy trap though as he will not put up too many shutouts and his save percentage and shots faced will not be overwhelming, however his wins, and goals against average may be too good to pass up.

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You’re Doing It Wrong

The Phoenix Suns top players are nothing to brag about.

The Phoenix Suns top players are nothing to brag about.

 

In an era when NBA franchises have realized they need at least two or three superstars to compete for championships, the Phoenix Suns, for several reasons, have taken an unconventional approach, and are dearly paying the price.

 

The Suns sit second-to-last in the Western Conference (only ahead of New Orleans) and hold the fifth-worst record in the entire NBA at 12-25 after losing a close game to the Boston Celtics Wednesday night. Last season the team pushed to make the playoffs in what fans knew would likely (and later proved to be) Steve Nash’s final year with the franchise, but the team came up short. This was the beginning of a string of bad decisions coupled with poor luck. Due to their average record, they did not get a high pick in the lottery and settled for North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall, who proved to be a project and has only seen minutes during garbage time this season. The team then attempted to sign Eric Gordon away from New Orleans over the summer, but the Hornets matched the Suns max contract offer and retained their star.

 

It was at this point the team decided to dump fan-favorite Steve Nash in a sign-and-trade with the Lakers, and proceed without a superstar for the 2012-2013 season. They claimed Luis Scola after he was amnestied from Houston, and signed Goran Dragic to run the point with the departure of Nash. Although Dragic and Scola have proven themselves to be solid NBA players, they are nowhere close to the level of the Nash-Amare’ Stoudamire tandem the team relied on for much of the 2000s.

 

Simply put, this is the problem for the Suns: they have several good players that would be valuable second or third options on many teams. However, they lack a proven superstar to turn to late in games that will pull them through in the clutch. Looking at the main players other than Dragic and Scola, an average NBA fan will recognize the names: Sebastian Telfair, Marcin Gortat, Jermaine O’Neal, Jared Dudley, Michael Beasley, Shannon Brown and Markieff Morris.

 

The franchise tried to sell fans on the concept of balance and teamwork, and they have held to that philosophy with five players averaging in double figure scoring, but none of those five are even averaging 15 points per game. The team has played many close games against top-level opponents, but lacks that killer-instinct player teams like the Heat, Thunder and Clippers possess. The team’s listed attendance on a given night will range around 14,000, but anyone watching the game sees the empty seats. Even people who have already paid for seats don’t want to come watch a team without a face. Ownership went to the extent of a bizarre “have fun at the game or get your money back” promotion to try to get fans to come watch the team. To their credit, they do play hard every night, they rarely get blown out even on the road, and at times play an up-tempo style that is fun to watch, they simply aren’t good enough to win, the only thing that truly matters to fans.

 

After constructing a championship-level team in the 2004-2005 season that many around the league saw as favorites to win it all before Joe Johnson broke his face against the Mavericks in the Conference Semifinals, Suns management has made awful personnel decisions at every turn. That team’s key pieces were Nash, Stoudemire, Johnson, and Shawn Marion, playing in a Mike D’Antoni system perfectly suited for their talents, locals knew them as “The Run-N-Gun Suns.” Following that season, Johnson was traded after owner Robert Sarver refused to pay him top-level money. Marion was traded a couple years later, and Stoudemire was let go during free agency due to long-term health concerns. The reasons for letting go of Stoudemire were completely valid, but what the team tried to do to replace him was idiotic at best, signing Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick and Channing Frye to long-term big money deals (Frye is the only one still with the team, sitting out this season due to injury). The team has gone from four all-stars to none in a span of eight years. For anyone who thinks the future is promised to successful teams with young talent, think again. Win when you can, the future isn’t guaranteed.

 

For fans, there isn’t even a player on this team who excites you. New Orleans may be the worst team in the West, but fans there can look at Gordon, Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers and see hope for the future. Markieff Morris is a good option off the bench for the Suns, but not a player who shows any signs of becoming a superstar down the road. One would imagine opponents don’t know how to defend the Suns coming into a game not because they are so stacked it’s scary, but because no one on the roster demands a double-team. An optimist will say, “Anyone could go off on their team and lead if they get hot on a given night.” A realist will say, “No one on that team is good enough to lead them, even if they do get hot.”

 

Suns fans can look at the team and say at least they are tanking it badly enough to get a good spot in the lottery. Other teams can also look at them as a viable trading partner for solid pieces to add down the stretch of the season without having to make a substantial financial move, with Dragic as the team’s highest-paid player at $7.5 million this season. Few of the Suns players are signed past this year, so there will be flexibility in the off-season as the team tries to rebuild. They also have the benefit of an additional first-round pick acquired from the Lakers in the Nash trade, a pick that would be in the lottery if the season ended today.

 

For now, there is nothing exciting about the Suns. Parents raising their kids will emphasize the value of teamwork over individual talent, but even the best of parents realize the teams with the best players will win as long as those players can co-exist (take a look at the aforementioned Lakers for an example of talent that can’t co-exist). The Suns players work very well together, they just aren’t very good individuals. Teams need superstars. Superstars put butts in seats, get cities excited and proud to be supporting their home-town team, but most importantly, they win games. When you put multiple superstars together, you win championships. The Suns have no superstars, no chance of winning a championship, and practically no hope.

 

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Top 10 Players Affected By NHL Lockout

The Cover 4 will feature a number of writers to cover a variety of topics. This article is by our very own Rick Davis, NHL insider.

Talks have picked up again between the NHL and the NHLPA in an attempt to salvage any season that they can. By no means do things looks good for the league but progress is progress. As fans, we are becoming numb to this whole process, but I am sure it is not much easier for some NHL players. With a sport as grueling as hockey, you have very limited time to begin with, and for many of the league’s players, this is the second long lockout of their career sucking precious time away from them.

Here is a look at the top 10 players affected by the lockout.

10. Evgeni Malkin – PIT

Ok, I know, Malkin is a Stanley Cup champion, Conn Smythe winner, reigning MVP and scoring champ, what more does he have to prove? Plenty! The big Russian is a proud player, and one of those players whose genuine love of the game exudes from him every time he laces the skates up. Malkin is currently tearing up the KHL right now, riding high off of his 50-goal, 109-point MVP season last year, but as with everything in Malkin’s NHL life, there comes the mention of Crosby. Crosby missed the majority of the season last year, and in his absence, Malkin flourished with a dominant season, but the Penguins suffered a humiliated series loss to arch rival Philadelphia in the playoffs with both Crosby and Malkin healthy in the lineup. The question that has hovered over Malkin his entire career; Can Malkin play at his top, MVP level WITH Sidney Crosby in the lineup. Playing the best hockey of his career right now (that has already seen him win a Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP) and with Crosby back, Malkin is primed to silence his critics for good, and truly enter the conversation for best player in the world, separate of Crosby.

9. Ilya Bryzgalov – PHI

Whoa, talk about pressure, there may not be a single player in the NHL under more pressure, and scrutiny than Bryzgalov. Philadelphia is vying with Toronto for the toughest home city in hockey, and may have even surpassed them (now that the expectations in Toronto for playoffs every year are lofty at best). Philadelphia is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, make no mistake about that. In the 2010 playoffs, they rode Michael Leighton (who is now backstopping their AHL team, adequately at best) to the Finals before falling to an absurdly good Chicago Blackhawks team. The knock on the Flyers for years has been their lack of a franchise goalie, and have not had one since Ron Hextall. The Flyers signed Bryz to a 9-year, $51 million deal in the summer of 2011, and officially placed a gigantic target for the fans on his back, and a microscope in place of the overhead net cam. Every mistake this guy makes is magnified because, with the like of Giroux, Briere, Hartnell, the Schenn brothers, Talbot, and many more young talented players, the Flyers truly believe (as well they should) that each year could be their year. If you talk to anyone in the game of hockey, the number one thing they will tell you needed to win a Stanley Cup is goaltending, and the Flyers are going to lean on Bryzgalov for it. After an insane playoff series last season against Pittsburgh, in which everything you thought you knew about either team was thrown out the window, the Flyers fell quite easily to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Devils. Bryzgavlov must be dying to get back in between the pipes at the Wells Fargo Center and prove that he was worth every penny they gave him.

8. Alexander Ovechkin – WSH

The Great 8. Without a doubt, in my mind the most raw skill and talent of any player in the league today. He is a large man, measuring in at 6’ 3”, 220 lbs. with blazing speed, quick hand, a nasty edge, and an other-worldly shot. He has shown it throughout his whole career what a once-in-a-lifetime type of player this kid it. For whatever reason over the past couple seasons, the Washington Capitals have tried to take focus off of Ovie, and focus more on their team AS a team. They have asked Alex to buy into a more defensive minded system which has seen his production “plummet” from 60-goal seasons to the 38-goal season he posted last year, still god enough for top 5 in the league. Since the Capitals heart-breaking 7-game series loss to Pittsburgh, on Pittsburgh’s route to their Stanley Cup victory in 2008-09, the Capitals have not been the same team. That series loss eliminated the swagger that the team, and namely Ovechkin had as the top young-guns team in the league. I feel losing head to head vs. Sidney Crosby and the Pens that season was a bit of a blow to the ego of Ovechkin and the whole Caps organization. They have put together some pretty good seasons since, but have not really put too much fear into the league as a top Cup contender, and with the talent of their team, it is only a matter of time before this Caps team is playing some serious hockey in early summer. The one thing missing that will be needed for them to do so is the reemergence of Ovechkin back in to his truly dominant form, in which everyone else in the league shoots for second in goals. Ovie is a proud player, and he knows this, and I doubt he will need much more motivation once a new CBA is signed. He is entering the prime of his career and with the past few “off seasons” and this work stoppage cutting into the early prime of his career, I would expect a scary version of Alex from the drop of the puck of the new NHL season, whenever that may be.

7. Sidney Crosby – PIT

The easiest choice to put on this list, Sidney Crosby is ready for training camp for the first time in the longest time. Perhaps in the eyes of Pens fans, Crosby is benefitting from this lockout in the sense that he has more time to put his last concussion and next hit further away from each other. The golden boy of the National Hockey League may be one of the most seriously competitive players the game has ever seen, and I can assure you that the Penguins’ Stanley Cup victory in 2009 is a distant, distant memory for him. Since that victory, the Penguins lost a tough 2nd round series to the Canadiens the following year, dropped a 7-game opening round series to the Lightning the next year (without Crosby or Malkin), and dropped a redonkulous opening round series to the Flyers last season, that may have sucked every last molecular drop of confidence from both goalies involved in that series. Sidney Crosby IS the Penguins, no doubt about that, and the Penguins have gone from darling child of the league to underperforming playoff team year-after-year lately. Couple the pressure of trying to get the Pens back to the promised land with the uncertainty of Crosby’s recent concussion history, and the pressure to stay healthy, the 25-year old mega star has a lot facing him the next time the pucks drops on an NHL season. If there is one thing that fans and detractors know all too well about Crosby, is that he brings it night in and night out, and I’m sure is the most eager player to get back to his pre-concussion form in which he was on a scoring streak for the ages, and one of the most dominant streaks the league had seen in decades. If Sid can stay healthy, the Penguins will be one of a handful of teams along with their archrival Flyers, expected to challenge for the Stanley Cup.

6. Roberto Luongo – VAN

There is probably not another player whose future is being held up by this lockout more than Roberto Luongo. Bobby Lu is currently situated as one of the most expensive back ups in the league. Luongo has 10 years remaining on his huge 12-year, nearly $64 million contract with the Vancouver Canucks, but his inconsistent play has opened the door for Cory Schneider, and Schneider has taken control of the crease in Vancouver. The Canucks have all but said publically that Schneider is, and will be their starting goaltender moving forward, so an obvious move would be to move Luongo to not only avoid distraction, but to clear cap space as well. During the work stoppage, no trades can be made, and Luongo has already come out in the media and telling them about his time in Vancouver “I had 6 great years”, but “It’s time to move on”, so from the outside it appears that his departure is all but certain. Toronto and Florida are rumored to be pursing his services, but until a new CBA is reached, Luongo is in Limbo.

5. Rick Nash – NYR

Free at last, free at last, thank god almighty he’s free at last. Rick Nash has been put out of his misery brought on by his commitment to being a team player when the Blue Jackets traded him this offseason to the New York Rangers. The 28-year old is just entering the prime of his career, and has toiled dedicatedly and honorably in Columbus since being drafted first overall in 2002, with ZERO playoff wins to show for his hard work. Even when it was clear he wanted to play on a competitive team, he was very professional in the public eye, and let the Jackets get what they could for him. His reward: A top line role on an extremely talented and dangerous New York Ranger squad. If Nash can smoothly transition from playing in the relative obscurity of Nationwide Arena, to the unblinking eye and bright lights of Madison Square Garden, he may begin to reap the rewards he deserves sooner rather than later.

4. Alex Semin – CAR

Perhaps the most enigmatic player of the past few years, Alex Semin possesses the most intriguing skill set of any player on this list. He just oozes with talent, has a shot that rivals former teammate Ovechkin, has the hands to compete with Malkin, and skating sleeker than Crosby, but Semin had a tough time finding ANYONE to take him in the NHL this season. After the Capitals declined to resign the winger, he made it clear that he would not sign a 1-year contract or a contract that paid him less than his previous $5.5 million per season contract with the Caps. After no offers late into July and with the lockout looming, the rejuvenated Carolina Hurricanes took a chance of Semin, signing him to a 1-year, $7 million contract. That sharpshooting Russian’s work ethic is constantly in question and his desire to be a factor on a nightly basis is lacking at best. Semin’s production also varies drastically; starting with the 2006-07 season through last, Semin’s goal totals fluctuated from  38,26,34,40,28,21. Of the 21 goals he scored last season, 12 of them were scored in 4 different games, meaning Semin scored only 9 goals over 73 games. With a fresh start in Carolina with a vastly improved team in a relatively weak division, Semin will look to silence his detractors, and post a huge year, after all, it will be a contract season.

3. Jarome Iginla – CGY

One of the most well respected and admired players in the NHL, Jarome Iginla is a fading star. A personal favorite of mine, Iginla personifies everything you want in a hockey player. He has toughness, grit, a laser beam for a shot, pretty good wheels, pin point precision, and some of the best leadership skills in the game. One thing Jarome Iginla does not have is a Stanley Cup ring. He came within 60 minutes of one, but has been nowhere close since. He is beloved in Calgary and respected in nearly every city he plays in, but at the age of 35, his time for being THE GUY on a team is extremely limited, and his career is beginning to slowly wind down. Offensively he is a consistent force, but he cannot do everything himself. Calgary has made a few moves this offseason bringing in a proven commodity in Jiri Hudler, along with Mike Cammeleri, a noted sniper who was acquired last season in a trade with Montreal. Iginla loves Calgary and if he had his way, he would finish his career there with a few championships, but rest assured, if the Flames start of slow or begin to fall apart during their next season, the front office will move Iginla, and begin to rebuild. Hopefully, if that happens, he will be moved to a legitimate contender a la Rick Nash.

2. Corey Perry – ANA

The pesky Perry has one of the best silent resumes in the league. Making up part of Anaheim’s big 3 alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan, Perry has put together a pretty good career. Picked 28th overall by the Ducks in 2003, Perry has a Memorial Cup championship in the CHL to his credit, along with a 2007 Stanley Cup Championship with the Ducks, and a Hart Trophy for MVP on record as well. Now it is time for Perry to get PAID, thus why he is ranked second on our list. With Anaheim being moderately competitive on the ice, and posting $32 million in losses last season, logically thinking I would say Perry will be taking his talents elsewhere, as he is an Unrestricted Free Agent after the next hockey season. Perry must be on pins and needles waiting for the lockout to end to add to his body of work, which also includes a 50-goal season. Perry’s current contract is a 5-year $26.625 million deal, and with his resume, he could expect a significant pay bump from a contending team looking to add his skill set and sand-paper style of play to their team.

1.The Old Guard of the NHL

When the last lockout wiped out an entire season, when the league came back, they featured a mix of some of the top players of the past generation and the stars of tomorrow (today). Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby played together on a team with Mark Recchi, Sergei Fedorov and Alex Ovechkin were teammates. At the age of 24, and being a lifelong hockey fan, there are few players left playing still that have been playing as long as I can remember. In addition to Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla, the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Martin Brodeur, Teemu Selanne, Shane Doan, Chris Pronger, and Ray Whitney are all former (and some still current) All-Stars , pushing 40 and in the twilights of their careers, some of which may never play another second in the NHL if this current lockout takes the whole season. In addition to the stars, the character guys that have forged commendable NHL careers like Dwayne Roloson, Sean O’Donnell, and Mike Knuble may also never play again. This as an avid-lifelong fan, is the saddest part of this lockout. While some of the “old-guard” are surely not household names, and others are sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famers, they have all built a career upon personal sacrifice, dedication, and hard work. It would be a shame if they do not get one more shot to play the game they love because of the dispute about money.

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Honorable Mentions

Jordan Eberle – EDM – Eberle is poised for a breakout year. Perhaps one of the best young players in the game today, Eberle, surrounded by an embarrassment of young talent and #1 picks, Eberle is emerging as THE GUY in Edmonton. In my opinion (feel free to write this down now) Eberle will give Crosby, Malkin, Stamkos, and Ovechkin in the conversation for best player in the world in the next 2-3 years.

Joe Thornton – SJ – Playing on a contending team with a good mix of young players and veteran leaders, Thornton’s time to reach hockey’s highest point is running out. The former MVP is clearly on the downslope of his career, but still has some top tier hockey left in him, and a good team around him.

Patrick Kane – CHI – Two years removed from scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal, Kane has had a couple rough, injury and inconsistency-plagued seasons. The speedster has tons of talent but some may argue he hasn’t reached expectations (seeing a Chicago had to tear apart their cup team because of the salary cap, so the likes of Byfuglien, Ladd, Campbell and others were moved to keep Kane a Hawk). Kane is a great talent and I would bet he has a bounce back season.

Marc-Andre Fleury – PIT – Fleury is coming off a complete meltdown of a playoff performance with the Penguins last season. After a solid regular season that saw him post 42 wins, one win short of tops in the NHL, Fleury gave up 30 goals in 6 games and for the most part, looked lost at BEST. The Penguins rode the former number 1 overall pick to back to back Stanley Cup Finals, and one victory, in 2007-08 and 08-09, but since then, a woefully inconsistent “flower” has factored heavily into poor playoff performances by the Penguins. Despite having Malkin, Crosby, Neal and company, the Pens will only go as far as Fleury takes them.

Rick Davis

The Cover 4 Featured Sports Writer

http://www.facebook.com/patrick.d.riley.1?fref=ts

How the West was Won

I’m not a Laker fan nor do I claim to be on the Laker bandwagon. The only time I ever rooted for the Lakers was when my boy Shaquille O’Neal was Kazaaming the streets of LA with his sidekick Kobe Bryant.

Who will ever forget the alley oop that Kobe sent to Shaq  in Game 7 of the 2000 West Finals against the Blazers?! One of the best moments of my young life. Too bad Shaq and Kobe let their egos get in the way because they would still be winning rings (okay maybe not but they would have won plenty more).

Gives you chills doesn’t it?

Although I’m in a serious relationship with football, my first love was basketball but we all know white men can’t jump and my basketball dreams went out the window real quick.

I love the offseason, sometimes more than I love the actual games. Player movement and free agency just gets me so excited; I love the idea of wooing players to join the team or trading pieces to get to the championship. When the rumors of Dwight Howard being traded surfaced I thought he would be a Net. The idea of Howard being traded to the Lakers was near impossible. As the trade rumors began to progress, I figured there was no way other GMs would let this move happen. If it did then Bynum & Gasol MUST be included for competitive balances sake. The Lakers would have to part with their entire squad. Wrong.

KD5 and the rest of the Thunder team have a very bright future but when news broke that the Lakers acquired Nash & Howard, I sent in my ticket to the sports book for the NBA Finals. (Call Kendrick Perkins the Howard stopper if you please. He has only slowed Howard down and has lost about 60 pounds since).

Nothing against any team in the West but a combo of Kobe, Howard, Nash, Gasol plus some solid bench players (Jamison is still a solid player at his old age) sounds unreal, on paper of course.

Nash won’t need to carry the team like he did in Phoenix and should be a very effective player with the Lakers. Nash may not be the best defensive player (to say the least) but he  does has Howard protecting his back. The former two-time MVP will be running the pick ‘n roll for days.

Howard and Gasol give the Lakers one of the biggest front courts in the NBA; Gasol will no longer need to take any pressure off Kobe and can be the effective role player he really is (Gasol may be the worst star in the NBA. He has so much talent but doesn’t know how or when to put it all together).

When Kobe Bryant finally passed Shaquille O’Neal in the ring count, numerous sources reported Kobe was taunting Shaq; he was eying that moment for years. Now that he has surpassed the Diesel, the Black Mamba has his sight on something bigger: passing the almighty Michael Jordan. But can he do it?

Kobe and crew have a dream squad for Laker faithful. The team has one of the best players of all-time, the most dominant big man in the game, one of the smoothest point guards in the past decade, Ron ron defensive skills and a few other pieces to bring a championship home to LA.

We all know that championships aren’t won on paper nor in the offseason but if the Lakers can mesh together, they look poised for another Championship run and a probable meeting with the defending Champion Miami Heat.

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