NHL Lockout: 1 Concern Each Team Must Address When the Lockout Ends
Oh, how NHL fanbases and front offices must be pining for the simpler days when their worries concerned how a season unfolded rather than whether a season will unfold.
Normalcy needs to return at some point and there is still more than reasonable hope that it can in time to allow a 2012-13 season. Regardless of exactly how soon that is, there are already some potential lockout-induced modifications taking shape on certain teams’ outlooks.
For other franchises, the greatest area of concern held over from the end of last season has yet to be supplanted at the top of their list. For some, that is a desirable transaction left undone while, for others, it is a weakness the current roster needs to figure out on its own.
As of right now, while everybody continues to harbor their optimism or lack thereof regarding the labor stalemate, here is what the NHL’s partisan personnel should be eyeing a little down the road for their respective clubs.
Anaheim: Secondary Scoring
The lockout could presage the premature conclusion of Teemu Selanne and/or Saku Koivu’s careers. If the worst-case scenario comes to fruition, one has to wonder if the Ducks can cultivate enough from a mass rising crop of youngsters right away to supplement the elite production of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan.
For good measure, Anaheim must be ready to find a few established NHL acquisitions to help bridge the period between Selanne and Koivu’s egress and the burgeoning of Emerson Etem, Kyle Palmieri and Devante Smith-Pelly.
Boston: Cap and Crease Room
The time is now to permanently hand the torch to Tuukka Rask, bring up Anton Khudobin and find somebody to take Tim Thomas and his $5 million cap hit (or whatever it might be after the new CBA is installed). The Bruins need to keep the younger members of their goalie guild content and need to add cap space in case an emergency acquisition is in order.
Buffalo: Middle-Tier Offense
At least as far as The Hockey News is concerned, Steve Ott is slated to be the Sabres’ second-line center.
As valuable as Ott can be as a physical forward, he is put to his best use as a third-liner. If THN’s projection is accurate, then Buffalo may be inadvertently setting up their summer import for overwork and underachievement.
General manager Darcy Regier must seek another piece, whether through trade or free agency, to embolden his top six while letting Ott anchor a (literally) stronger bottom six.
Calgary: Working Overtime
En route to a third straight postseason no-show in 2011-12, the Flames had the NHL’s second-worst regular-season record in overtime/shootout games at 5-16. In five of those losses, they were ahead going into the third period.
If they had found a way to put away the opposition on five or six more of those 21 occasions, putting them in the middle of the pack in that situation, they would have had enough to finish among the top eight. As it happened, Calgary finished ninth behind the eventual champion Kings by a five-point differential.
Whether it is a matter of strategy, tactics, resolve or a blend, the retooled roster and new head coach Bob Hartley must find a way to improve Calgary’s performance when games spill beyond regulation. It could spell the difference between stopping the franchise’s playoff drought at four years and letting it extend to at least 2012-13.
Carolina: Slimming down the Shots-Against
Aside from the obvious need to ensure the reformed cast jells at a satisfactory pace, Muller’s topmost task should be ensuring that the new and returning blueliners adopt a system of stinginess. The Canes finished last in the league each of the last two seasons with 32.4 opposing shots per game in 2011-12 and 33.2 in 2010-11.
It may or may not be a coincidence that Carolina’s last playoff run followed the last regular season in which they allowed less than 30 shots on their net per game. But whittling it back down to that level should not hurt anything.
Corey Crawford is worth keeping as he continues to search for a consistent rhythm, but the Blackhawks must ensure they have a backup who can reliably motivate Crawford at all times and fill in as needed. Whether they get that done with the currently contracted Ray Emery or with a new acquisition takes a backseat to merely getting it done.
One could also make a case for the penalty kill as the most pressing matter, seeing as the Hawks were only successful 78.1 percent of the time last season. But, after all, goaltending is an integral element of killing penalties.
Colorado: Drawing Penalties
The Avalanche spent the least amount of time on the power play last year with only 362:04 man-advantage minutes spread over 223 opportunities. But they did tie Toronto for ninth in the NHL with an 18.4 percent conversion rate, meaning more assertive and flustering attacks ought to naturally help them shore up their overall output.
Columbus: A Little of Everything
This past offseason, the Blue Jackets have sought more offensive balance with the Rick Nash deal. They have sought defensive reformation with the likes of Adrian Aucoin. They have sought motivation for the perennially struggling goalie Steve Mason in the form of Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Central Division cellar-dwellers are naturally laden with concerns, but they seem to have been on top of all of them. Whether or not the retooling will be enough to make a satisfying difference shall be seen once they delve into the next season.
Upper management has addressed virtually everything, but the process is not complete until the coaching staff starts to get results.
Dallas: Long-Term Depth
Like the Ducks, the Stars should be prepared to respond in case a couple of leaned-on veteran scorers, namely the newly obtained Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney, retire or see their aptitude drained in the wake of the lockout.
Detroit: Defensive Depth
After losing both Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart, the Red Wings could stand to seek one more blue-line import to shore up their collective quantity and quality in that position. As they stand right now, a long-term injury to any of their NHL-level defensemen could have catastrophic consequences.
Edmonton: New Blood Around The Blue Paint
Two-way AHL rookie phenom Justin Schultz is looking like an exponentially better additive to the Oilers defense, but they will likely need more than that.
While Anaheim and Dallas have their concerns with multiple veterans up front, Edmonton has defender Andy Sutton and netminder Nikolai Khabibulin facing possible retirement by the time the lockout is over. Or, if nothing else, the lengthy layoff could drain them of their assets when they attempt to contribute again.
Florida: Offense Beyond the First Line
The Panthers’ imports and exports between the start of the offseason and the start of the lockout have not been enough to ensure more production from players not named Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg and Stephen Weiss.
Florida must find more personnel to bring in for good measure. That can be accomplished by one or both of the following methods: fishing out of what remains in the free agency pool or by trading.
If they do the latter, the Panthers could also give away backup goalie Scott Clemmensen and thus make room for the promising Jacob Markstrom to form a tandem with Jose Theodore for the next year or two.
Los Angeles: Jonathan Bernier
Their regional rivals from Anaheim seem to be getting over a rough patch that originally had Bobby Ryan seemingly keen on leaving the Ducks. Now the Kings should hope they can follow suit with a similar summer story surrounding goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who is presently the best option they have to back up Jonathan Quick.
Minnesota: Cap Room
Mass spending paid off to a not-so-negligible degree with the dual import of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. But now the Wild will want to figure out which relatively minor, expendable pieces they want to cast off so that they will have more space if and when they need to make a trade during the season.
Montreal: Defensive Stability
Although the Canadiens have six defensemen each with multiple NHL seasons on their transcript and two others with one apiece, some of their pieces may be precarious. Veterans Francis Bouillon and Andrei Markov both have a recent rash of injuries on their logs and PK Subban is still without a new contract.
Montreal’s first priority will be renewing Subban. But more than that needs to be done to prepare for the possibility of simultaneously losing Bouillon and Markov.
For that, the Habs ought to consider packaging one of their lower-ranked, less seasoned blueliners and a spare forward (perhaps Petteri Nokelainen) or draft picks or future considerations in a trade for a slightly more seasoned and sturdier defenseman.
Nashville: Overall Offense
New Jersey: Finding a Face
Captain Zach Parise has left for the aforementioned Wild and legendary netminder Martin Brodeur is not going to last much longer, nor may he be his old self in any of his remaining days.
The Devils need a new clear-cut leader on the bench to step up, fill the captaincy and maintain morale as they seek consistent contention.
NY Islanders: Even-Strength Effectiveness
The Islanders were tied with the Panthers for the NHL’s seventh-best power play last season, but finished third-to-last on the overall offensive leaderboard.
That discrepancy is suddenly less perplexing upon looking at the five-on-five category and finding the Isles dead last with a league-low 0.74 rating. Of their 196 total goals, 133 (67.9 percent) were scored five-on-five, three four-on-four, four shorthanded and 45 (23 percent) on the power play.
Reducing their dependency on the man-advantage could give the misfit Islanders a booster on the Atlantic Division landscape.
NY Rangers: Breathing Room
Nash’s arrival should help this process along, but head coach John Tortorella needs to devise a plan to cultivate a little more collective offense from his pupils in order to make everyone’s lives easier.
The Rangers made substantial strides as Stanley Cup contenders last season by playing gritty, playoff-type hockey all the way to first place in the Eastern Conference and Game 6 of the conference finals. But they could have gone farther if they had been able to put away the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals earlier, thus saving the tanks of their skaters and especially goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Ottawa: Depth in Nearly All Positions
Over the weekend, news broke that defenseman Jared Cowen, who could have made the coming campaign his breakout year, will not be able to play until at least mid-May, after hip surgery.
If the 2012-13 season happens and the Senators want any chance of still playing at that point, they will likely need to reel in another established NHL blueliner to fill Cowen’s void. Bottom-six production also has an ambiguous outlook, as does organizational goaltending beyond the presumptive tandem of Craig Anderson and Ben Bishop, although Binghamton’s Robin Lehner could be a quality stand-in.
For any Flyers fans who have not had much media access in the last six months, their team has a bona fide battered blue-line brigade. Matt Carle has changed crests and both Andrej Meszaros and Chris Pronger figure to remain injured for a while. Their respective ailments could have lasting effects on their game even if and when they are able to return.
The same notion can be applied to veteran Andreas Lilja. Based on a summer report over his surgery, Lilja should be back in commission once the NHL is back in business, but might not be able to play at levels he had any time prior to his ailment.
Philadelphia’s problem juts out like a prom night pimple.
Phoenix: The Power Play
In the playoffs, an exact 14 percent conversion rate―not to pilfer any credit from Quick and the Kings―was a likely accomplice in the team’s inability to make the Western Conference finals more competitive.
The division and the conference both promise to be tougher in the next season and the Coyotes will need a more reckonable set of special teams to help them keep pace.
Pittsburgh: Full-Strength Defense
Furthermore, based on their total minutes and opposing goals occurring during their shifts, the leaned-on likes of Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin would have had a goals-against average of 2.95 and 2.89, respectively, if such a stat applied to skaters.
Head coach Dan Bylsma and his staff should be tasked with sprucing that up regardless of whether or not general manager Ray Shero pursues another piece.
St. Louis: The Power Play
The Blues power play, which did improve over time when the team started to jell under midseason coaching replacement Ken Hitchcock, still had some untimely cold spells in the homestretch in the postseason.
Sure, it did not hurt their quest for the Central Division crown when they failed to tally a single conversion in 10 of their final 13 regular-season games. And yes, in the playoffs, they did convert six of 18 opportunities against San Jose’s shoddy penalty kill en route to a five-game, first-round victory.
But they were tugged back down to reality when they went blank on 17 total opportunities in the process of being swept by the Kings.
There sits your roadblock for a team that is otherwise oozing with promise. The Blues simply need to rerun what they did for the better part of the last regular season whilst figuring out how to convert when it counts the most.
San Jose: The Penalty Kill
The Sharks’ perpetual postseason underachievement was prolonged, in no small part, the past two seasons by a 76.3 percent success rate on the PK in 2011 and 66.7 percent against the Blues last spring.
It would not hurt to try to avoid posting a sub-80 percent killing rate for the third consecutive regular season, either. It is the least the Sharks can do to reward themselves, seeing as they incurred a league-low 225 shorthanded segments in the 2011-12 regular season.
Tampa Bay: Goals-Against
The arrival of the aforementioned Carle and Sami Salo might take care of this on its own, but the Bolts will certainly want to run a good distance out of the NHL’s goals-against basement, where they were last year.
In a similar department, former Rinne backup Anders Lindback does not appear to be a bad choice for a new No. 1 netminder. However, as a precaution, the Lightning might want to explore other insurance options to back up the relatively unproven Lindback.
Toronto: Team Defense
Much like Muller in Carolina, Randy Carlyle will have a defensive reformation project to undertake during his first full year as the Buds bench boss. Last year’s defense ranked second-worst in the NHL with 3.16 opposing goals per game, which nullified an irreproachable 2.77 goals-for per night and easily contributed to the franchise’s seventh straight playoff no-show.
Vancouver: Goaltending Gridlock
There is all but no more room left for the Canucks organization to accommodate the netminding troika of Cory Schneider, Roberto Luongo and Eddie Lack. Based on recent on- and off-ice history as well as the weight of each player’s cap hit, the logical odd-man out is Luongo, so general manager Mike Gillis must seek a suitor.
Once Schneider is secure in the No. 1 slot and Lack is rewarded for his productive AHL toil, all worries of friction will be over. In addition, the Canucks will have an easier time pursuing any parts they might still be missing.
Washington: Captain’s Commitment
The likelihood of such a potentiality is difficult to gauge, but it is something that the NHL and the Capitals ought to take seriously.
While they were not at the very cellar of the league leaderboard, the Jets were still one of the NHL’s more frequently penalized teams in their inaugural season. They went to the bin a cumulative 292 times and had 58 unwelcome bailouts when the opposing power play converted.
More collective conviction in their zone could be the cure here. In the coming campaign, it might even pay double dividends as they cut back on shorthanded shifts and, by nabbing and clearing the puck legally, will set up more counterattacks featuring newly acquired forwards Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky.