NHL Predictions: 2011-12 Season Preview and Predictions
We're just a couple of weeks away from the start of the 2011-12 NHL regular season, and my predictions are in.
The offseason is a double-edged sword. You make certain moves and sign players, hoping that those investments pay off. On the other hand, there are times when a lack of action proves to be the best course of action.
At the end of the day, we can flood the media outlets and airwaves with endless chatter about the "winners" and "losers" of the offseason, but it's the entire picture that matters most. The overall makeup of any given team is far more telling than the quantity of free agents they bring in during the month of July.
Having said that, let's take a look at how the 30 NHL teams stack up within their respective divisions and conferences.
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Prediction: Third in Pacific Division, Sixth in Western Conference
For the most part, the Anaheim Ducks steered clear of free agent frenzy, and that's perfectly understandable. Honestly, the way things have played out this summer, if you don't need to sign too many players, you really shouldn't bother.
The Ducks are still a team in transition, but they have the tools to return to the postseason again. You know what you're going to get from Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry, not to mention from Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan.
On the back end, Lubomir Visnovsky is coming off a 68-point year. How Visnovsky wasn't in the running for the Norris Trophy is simply beyond me. As good as Nicklas Lidstrom is (and at age 41, no less), Visnovsky had a better season any way you slice it.
His offensive stats were higher and his plus-18 rating is far more impressive than Lidstrom's minus-two. And the kicker: Detroit was a better team than Anaheim last season.
Cam Fowler will be playing in his sophomore year, and assuming he's unaffected by the mythical "sophomore slump," he should be able to improve upon his 40-point performance in 2010-11. Fowler was also a minus-25, so he'll be looking to become a better defenseman at both ends of the ice.
Saku Koivu and Jason Blake can help out offensively, and if Teemu Selanne decides to return for one more season, that only makes this team better.
They've also traded for Andrew Cogliano, a 24-year-old pivot who, with a change of scenery, could finally reach his potential. In three seasons (and 328 games) with the Edmonton Oilers, Cogliano has put up 146 points.
While these forwards should complement Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan quite nicely, that won't be enough.
The Ducks can't rely on their trio of All-Stars to float the team for the entire year. If they can get some more secondary scoring, they'll be fine.
In goal, Jonas Hiller has, for the most part, done a fantastic job for Anaheim, though he'll have to bounce back from an injury-ravaged 2010-11 campaign. As long as he returns to form, the Ducks have a strong presence in the crease.
The Ducks aren't as deep as the other two Californian teams, but they're good enough to finish the year in a playoff spot.
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Prediction: First in Northeast Division, Second in Eastern Conference
It's good to be the king.
Just ask the Boston Bruins, who will enter the 2011-12 season as the defending Stanley Cup champions. There's only one team out of all 30 that can say that.
The best part is, aside from losing Tomas Kaberle, who was virtually invisible during his time in Boston, this team remains intact. All of the pieces are still in place.
Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg headline a very strong defensive corps, and they've added Joe Corvo, who notched 11 goals and 40 points from the blue line last year.
As if that weren't enough, the B's "last line of defense" is Tim Thomas, the reigning Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophy winner.
On offense, the Bruins still boast the likes of Milan Lucic, David Krecji, Patrice Bergeron,Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton. They lost Michael Ryder to free agency, but I find it very hard to believe his production (or general lack thereof) will be impossible, let alone difficult, to replace.
That's especially true when you consider that Seguin is likely going to see more ice time and a bigger role within that forward group.
Benoit Pouliot was brought in as a free agent, so he should add a bit more offensive punch as well.
As far as I'm concerned, the moves made by their divisional rivals don't pose a serious threat to Boston's place at the top. They're still in full command of the Northeast.
But are they the top team in the Eastern Conference? I'm really not sure, to be quite honest. If not the top team, the Bruins should finish second or, at the very worst, third in the pack.
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Prediction: Third in Northeast Division, Eighth in Eastern Conference
Terry Pegula purchased the Buffalo Sabres with the intention of making the team an NHL powerhouse. Unfortunately for the newly christened owner, he may have to place those dreams on hold.
He certainly put his money where his mouth was, giving GM Darcy Regier the green light to spend, spend, spend.
And spend he did, nabbing Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino to contracts that would make Alex Rodriguez sick to his stomach (well, maybe not, but you get the point).
One quick look at the current roster and you'll realize that it's not much different than the one Buffalo fielded last season. You have your main forwards up front (Derek Roy, Tomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford), plus the new guy, Leino.
It'll be interesting to see how Ville Leino plays with someone not named Daniel Briere centering his line.
The Sabres also lost Tim Connolly, who can be a point-producing forward when healthy. I consider Leino a downgrade over Connolly in terms of offensive upside.
On defense, they've definitely gotten better. The additions of Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr will certainly help out on a back line that also includes Tyler Myers. None of those players are bona fide top-pairing rearguards (Myers being the possible exception), and the Sabres also lost Steve Montador, who was arguably their best shutdown defenseman from the second half of the season onward.
Ryan Miller should be able to turn in the kind of performances we've expected from him in recent years. He's an elite netminder and, should the Sabres make the playoffs, will likely be the biggest reason for that.
The Sabres can make the playoffs, there's no question about that.
But if they don't, the reason will not be that they weren't good enough to slip into the Top Eight, but because, both within their division and the conference, a couple of teams have improved to the extent that they've surpassed Buffalo.
No doubt, it's going to be a tight race to the finish line.
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Prediction: Fifth in Northwest Division, 15th in Western Conference
Calgary fans, be prepared for a long season.
Just about every team in the Northwest Division has made offseason improvements while the Flames did virtually nothing.
They did re-sign a few players, most notably Alex Tanguay, who inked a five-year, $17.5 million contract to stay in Western Canada. Tanguay's coming off a 69-point season, but he's now 31 years old and has struggled to deliver that type of production on a consistent basis.
It was only a year ago when Tanguay mustered just 37 points in 80 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Calgary also re-signed defenseman Anton Babchuk, winger Curtis Glencross and goaltender Henrik Karlsson to new deals.
Unfortunately, the Flames' in-house moves weren't quite enough to make up for the players they've lost.
Brendan Morrison, Craig Conroy, Adam Pardy, Steve Staios and Stefan Kronwall entered the UFA market and Robyn Regehr, who was the team's best defenseman, was shipped to the Buffalo Sabres along with forward Ales Kotalik. The Flames received D Chris Butler and C Paul Byron in return, but it's not hard to figure out who got the raw end of that deal.
In terms of team depth, this roster is very thin. Aside from Jarome Iginla, an ever-slumping Oli Jokinen and Tanguay, who at this point can be considered a huge question mark, there isn't much offensive firepower.
There are a couple of players who have some scoring punch, like Glencross and Rene Bourque, but that's certainly not much to write home about.
On defense, things look even worse. Jay Bouwmeester is still here, though he's had difficulty finding his scoring touch from his Florida Panther days. Mark Giordano is also a solid blueliner, but by no means a top-pairing D-man.
Beyond those two guys, Babchuk, Butler, Brendan Mikkelson and Cory Sarich should occupy the remaining four spots, and if that's any indication, the Flames are in trouble. The Flames did sign Scott Hannan, a rugged veteran blueliner who should give them some extra snarl.
In goal, Miikka Kiprusoff is excellent, but I'm not sure he's going to be able to steal nearly enough games to keep Calgary in playoff contention.
This is a team that's going nowhere, and fast. I think that they've regressed significantly and that it will show in the standings in 2011-12.
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Prediction: Fourth in Southeast Division, 11th in Eastern Conference
The Carolina Hurricanes were excruciatingly close to making the playoffs last season and, in 2011-12, they're going to be in that same situation: good enough to be in the mix, but still missing the necessary pieces to lock down a playoff spot.
Make no mistake, they've improved the roster this summer, catching one of the biggest UFAs in Tomas Kaberle and also bringing in Anthony Stewart, a rugged winger who can also find the back of the net (Anthony and his brother Chris, of the St. Louis Blues, play an eerily similar style).
They also signed Alexei Ponikarovsky, a talented but inconsistent forward.
The Canes locked up Jussi Jokinen, who's been either a revelation or massive frustration, depending on the year. Defenseman Joni Pitkanen and forwards Chad LaRose and Jiri Tlusty were also brought back.
Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford made another shrewd move when he signed goaltender Brian Boucher to a two-year, $1.9 million contract. The addition of Boucher gives Carolina a strong goaltending tandem and should take some pressure off Cam Ward's back.
They were unable to hold onto Erik Cole, who signed with Montreal.
Jeff Skinner, coming off a fantastic rookie year that earned him the Calder Trophy, is going to need to repeat or improve upon the 63 points he racked up in 2010-11 if the Hurricanes are to have a shot at the postseason.
Additionally, Eric Staal will have to carry the offense, much like he's had to do since he first donned a Canes sweater. Jokinen and Ponikarovsky will have to step up on offense and provide some support too.
On defense, this team looks very solid. Pitkanen, Tim Gleason and Jamie McBain round out the defensive corps, and Tomas Kaberle more than solidifies Carolina's strength on the blueline.
Assuming Kaberle plays at the level we're used to seeing him at, he's going to have that powerplay clicking on all cylinders.
Kaberle was able to put up lots of points with the Toronto Maple Leafs in recent years, and that was without anyone who's as talented as Staal or Skinner. He's got better players to work with on the man advantage, and I'm very excited to see the Hurricanes powerplay this season. It's going to be something special.
The Hurricanes still lack the depth on offense to close in on a playoff spot, but if they can acquire some scoring wingers, this team is in business.
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Prediction: First in Central Division, First in Western Conference
I think the Chicago Blackhawks will return to the top of the hill in 2011-12, largely because they've added significant depth to a team that was in need of just that.
GM Stan Bowman has taken a giant step towards patching up Chicago's roster, which lost a number of players due to salary cap constraints after winning the Cup in 2009-10. He made two excellent pickups this summer, bringing F Andrew Brunette and D Steve Montador aboard.
Brunette will give Chicago another scoring winger, adding to an arsenal that already includes Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.
I'm also expecting a bounce-back season from Michael Frolik, who was acquired from the Florida Panthers in exchange for Jack Skille. During his first two NHL seasons with Florida, Frolik notched 45 and 43 points, respectively. Last year was his third, and he definitely wasn't at his best in 2011.
He can put up even better numbers with the talent he's playing alongside in Chicago if he sets his mind to it.
Montador was arguably Buffalo's top shutdown defenseman this past year, and his presence on the blueline will only make the Hawks a better team in that department. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook haven't gone anywhere, and won't be for a while, having signed long-term contracts.
Brian Campbell was traded to, you guessed it, the Florida Panthers, but he was a colossal disappointment in Chicago and never played well enough to justify the monstrous deal he received when he was signed as a free agent.
Corey Crawford showed a lot of promise late in the regular season, and he'd stamp an exclamation point on that fact with his performance during the Hawks' first-round matchup against the Vancouver Canucks.
Chicago's goaltending woes appear to have, at long last, been resolved.
Dan Carcillo, Jamal Mayers and Sean O'Donnell will add some snarl, another area in which Chicago was certainly lacking. You might want to think twice before taking a run at Kane, Toews or any of the other Blackhawk players this season.
I like this team's chances for the upcoming season. If all the pieces click, the Chicago Blackhawks are going to have a stellar year, one that could see them looking down at the rest of the conference by the time the playoffs roll around.
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Prediction: Second in Northwest Division, Eighth in Western Conference
Just when you thought this offseason couldn't possibly get any more ridiculous, the Colorado Avalanche made a handful of decisions that can only be described as questionable, if not downright perplexing.
If GM Greg Sherman wanted to make headlines this summer, he got his wish—and not for the right reasons.
Colorado inexplicably shipped first and second-round picks to the Washington Capitals in exchange for goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who, in two seasons of work, hasn't played more than 27 games in a single year.
His statistics within that sample size are respectable, but Varlamov is still very much unproven. The Avs paid a hefty price for a goalie who hasn't exactly done much at the NHL level. He has played in 19 playoff games though (and at a young age), posting a 10-9 record, .915 save percentage and a 2.49 goals-against average, so that's encouraging.
But giving up two draft picks that could be relatively early ones when you're trying to rebuild is just not smart.
It's also mind-boggling, given that Colorado was closing in on a deal with Tomas Vokoun at the time, which would have been the ideal move. Vokoun would have provided strong goaltending without having to part with draft picks.
Also heading out of town is John-Michael Liles, the team's best offensive defenseman, who was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a second-round pick. At least they get back a draft pick which, after the Varlamov trade, was definitely needed.
Between these two trades and the deal with St. Louis last season, where they sent Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart to the Blues for Erik Johnson and the 11th overall selection in this year's draft (Duncan Siemens), it's clear to me that Sherman has no clue how these swaps work.
The Avs did sign a few quality players, most notably Jan Hejda, a 33-year-old defenseman who played with the Columbus Blue Jackets over the last handful of seasons. Hejda is underrated, largely because he played in Columbus, which, unless you're Rick Nash, tends to happen to most players who land there.
They also signed Shane O'Brien, a defenseman who, at age 27, is very responsible in his own zone. He's sported a positive plus/minus rating in each of the last three seasons. O'Brien adds size (230 lbs) and hockey sense to the Avs defensive corps.
Sherman inked Chuck Kobasew, a winger who used to hover around the 40-point mark, but has struggled in that department due to injury and consistency woes.
In order to shore up the goaltending, J.S. Giguere was signed to a two-year deal. He's expected to be Varlamov's backup in Denver.
Colorado also re-signed Milan Hejduk, who, despite being 35 years of age, has continued to be a productive forward. In 2010-11, Hejduk notched 56 points (22 goals, 34 assists). In fact, he's put up 54 points or more in five of the six seasons since the lockout ended.
All that aside, the Avs' most impressive haul may have been at the draft. Gabriel Landeskog, who was selected 2nd overall, is ready to play in the NHL right away.
Duncan Siemens (D) was picked 11th overall, though he's a few years away from making an impact at the next level.
You have to believe that with the likes of Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Hejduk, Peter Mueller, Erik Johnson, Hejda, Ryan O'Reilly and Landeskog, this team can make the playoffs, but if Varlamov can't hold the fort and the defense falters, the Avalanche could be in free-fall mode.
Columbus Blue Jackets
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Prediction: Fourth in Central Division, Ninth in Western Conference
The Columbus Blue Jackets are quietly becoming a playoff contender.
While that may surprise you, don't expect GM Scott Howson to feel the same way. He's been hinting at this from the get-go, making it quite clear that the Jackets were heading in that direction, and that he'd do whatever he could to expedite the process.
He pulled the trigger on a deal that sent Jeff Carter to Columbus in exchange for Jakub Voracek, the eighth overall pick (which turned out to be Sean Couturier) and a third-rounder, and though that may seem like a lopsided trade (and in a way, it is), it gives the Blue Jackets a center to play with Rick Nash, which is exactly what they needed.
The idea of Nash and Carter (both had 66 points last year) playing on a line together has to be scary for opposing teams.
And, if adding one playmaking center wasn't enough, the Jackets picked up a second one, signing Vaclav "Vinny" Prospal to a one-year deal.
Prospal has enjoyed moderate success with the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning over the last number of seasons, notching 45 points or more five times since the lockout. The only years he didn't were 2007-08 and 2010-11, when he played all of 18 and 29 games, respectively (due to injury).
Columbus also has Derrick Brassard (47 points), R.J. Umberger (57 points), Antoine Vermette (47 points) and Matt Calvert, a fifth round pick in 2008 (20 points in 42 games last season).
The Blue Jackets did lose Scottie Upshall (34 points) to free agency, and Nikita Filatov, a frustrating kid who could never seem to stick with the big club.
They'll also be without Kristian Huselius for much of the upcoming season. Huselius will undergo surgery after tearing his pectoral muscle. He's expected to miss 4-6 months.
Columbus should still be in decent shape though, in large part because of the moves Howson has made this summer. This offense has the potential to do some damage.
Sami Pahlsson gives them a solid two-way presence, while Jared Boll and Derek Dorsett can hit, scrap and fight with the best of 'em.
Ryan Johansen, Columbus' fourth overall selection in last year's draft, could make the team this season, and if he does, that offense becomes even better. Winger Maxim Mayorov will also have a similar opportunity.
The Jackets have improved on defense as well, signing a pair of ex-Islanders in James Wisniewski (six-years, $33 million) and Radek Martinek (one-year, $2.2 million).
I'll never understand why Columbus gave Wiz that large a contract, but he does give them the offensive defenseman they've been so desperate to find. He's a powerplay specialist and can launch rockets from the blueline. It's going to be exciting to watch him skate with Carter and Nash on the man advantage. That trio would be just about as good as they come.
How Wisniewski plays once the puck gets past the blueline, well, that's a different story entirely.
He did show improvement in the defensive zone during the second half of the season, posting a plus-four rating in 43 games for the Montreal Canadiens. He can also hit, but you won't see him do that as often as he's capable of.
Fortunately, the Jackets will have Martinek to help out on defense. His last couple of seasons have been marred by injuries, but Radek's a smart rearguard who rarely makes poor decisions with and without the puck. He knows how to handle almost any situation he's thrown into.
Martinek's never been a point-producer, so don't be disappointed when he continues that trend in Columbus. He makes up for that lack of production in other areas and, if he can stay healthy (a relatively big "if"), he'll certainly be a positive factor for this team.
Marc Methot, Kris Russell and Fedor Tyutin round out the defense, and John Moore (21st overall in 2009 draft) will also have the chance to compete for a roster spot. Moore has great potential, but he may not be ready for the NHL just yet.
As has become the standard in Columbus, the team's largest concern lies between the pipes. Can Steve Mason return to the level that won him a Calder Trophy and, more importantly, led the Blue Jackets to their first and only playoff appearance in 2009, or is he just another Andrew Raycroft?
If Mason can get his act together, this team is in postseason range. They certainly have the talent to land inside the Top Eight in the Western Conference.
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Prediction: Fifth in Pacific Division, 14th in Western Conference
This isn't going to be a fun season for the Dallas Stars.
Brad Richards knew exactly what he was doing when he refused to re-sign, citing unstable ownership as the largest issue.
Now that he's departed, the problems surrounding this team span beyond the front office.
Dallas has to figure out how they intend to replace Richards' offensive production. In his last two seasons, Richards notched 77 and 91 points for the Stars. He also ran their powerplay, so they'll be looking for help in that department as well.
Dallas did make some moves this summer, acquiring forwards Radek Dvorak, Vernon Fiddler, Michael Ryder and Eric Godard, as well as defensemen Adam Pardy and Sheldon Souray, all via free agency.
On offense, the Stars are led by Jamie Benn, Mike Ribeiro, Brendan Morrow and Loui Eriksson. Combined with the new additions, they've got a solid group of forwards. Scott Glennie could also crack the lineup out of training camp.
Ultimately, despite losing Richards, the offense should be fairly decent. Scoring won't be as much of a problem, and if anything, it's the strongest aspect of their roster.
On defense, however, the Stars are in a bit of trouble.
Six rearguards will be on the roster, and Dallas has the likes of Trevor Daley, Mark Fistric, Alex Goligoski, Mark Fistric, Nicklas Grossman, Stephane Robidas, Adam Pardy and Sheldon Souray to choose from.
Not exactly an encouraging sign.
If Souray can get his act together, he could be the one to quarterback the powerplay. When he's on his game, he has one of the hardest slap shots in the league. I believe he will bounce back. Souray's being given a second chance to reestablish himself and to put his disastrous career as an Edmonton Oiler behind him.
Kari Lehtonen played well in goal for the Stars in 2010-11, winning 34 games and posting a .914 save percentage and a 2.55 GAA. He's been a bright spot for this team thus far, and should continue that next year.
When the 2011 regular season ended, Dallas found itself in ninth place in the Western Conference, a mere two points out of a playoff spot.
That's quite unusual for a team that's in last place within its own division. The other four Pacific Division teams pulled ahead of the Stars late in the season, a telling sign of things to come.
Dallas has more talent than its position in the standings will show in 2012. Unfortunately, the Stars are falling behind several teams that are improving at a quicker pace. This is a team comprised of several inconsistent forwards and a shallow pool of defensemen.
I don't like their odds.
Detroit Red Wings
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Prediction: Second in Central Division, Fifth in Western Conference
The Detroit Red Wings have enjoyed a long run of success, but could this be the beginning of the team's descent from cloud nine?
It's certainly possible. The Chicago Blackhawks wrested the Central Division lead from the Wings just two seasons ago, and a retooled Hawks team will be looking to do it again in 2011-12.
Brian Rafalski announced his retirement from the NHL, something Nicklas Lidstrom is expected to do after the upcoming season. The franchise has all but parted ways with Kris Draper and Chris Osgood, two lynchpins of the team's successes, both past and present.
But Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen are still here, and will be for the foreseeable future.
Jimmy Howard has done an excellent job between the pipes for Detroit, while Ty Conklin has proven, virtually throughout his entire career, that he can be a very capable backup.
Chris Osgood, normally a mainstay on this roster, has retired from the NHL after 17 seasons of work, most coming with the Red Wings. It's definitely sad to see him hang up the skates, but Ozzie's earned it. He's worthy of the Hall of Fame, at least in my book.
At the end of the day, this is still a highly capable Red Wings team, loaded with experience and skill.
Having said that, there's absolutely no question that, in terms of overall depth, the Red Wings are slowly beginning to thin out.
Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart will be back as well.
Ian White and Mike Commodore were signed as free agents, but you'll have to excuse me for not being convinced that those guys will make up for the losses of Rafalski and Ruslan Salei. Additionally, as good as Lidstrom is, age is becoming a factor. His minus-two rating in 2010-11 was definitely an indication of that.
Simply put, Detroit's not as good on defense as it was a season ago.
The Red Wings are still a very strong team, and barring a major setback, are probably looking at a 21st consecutive playoff appearance, but by no means are they a lock to win the division.
If they wish to pose a bigger challenge in the Central, they need to add a major piece on defense, because they've lost more talent on the blueline than they've gained this summer.
Also, younger players, such as Tomas Tatar, Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl have to step up. Then, and only then, will the Red Wings have a strong chance to repeat as division champions.
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Prediction: Fourth in Northwest Division, 13th in Western Conference
Like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks before them, the Edmonton Oilers are becoming the next media darlings of the NHL.
The Oilers are one of the most exciting teams in the league, and if you don't believe me, head over to YouTube and search "Jordan Eberle" or "Linus Omark."
GM Steve Tambellini has assembled a group of talented forwards, drafting the likes of Taylor Hall, Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and, most recently, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
If the 2011 first overall pick makes the team out of training camp, this offense gets even better, though Tambellini has said there's no rush for Nugent-Hopkins to take the next step right away.
Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner add some more offensive punch, while Shawn Horcoff, a 50-point player when healthy, gives the Oilers leadership and experience.
Ryan Smyth is finally back in Edmonton, and he'll be a much needed veteran presence for the young guns. There's a lot for Hall and co. to learn from Smyth, both on and off the ice.
Tambellini also added some snarl to this Edmonton roster, bringing aboard Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk, while also shipping D Kurtis Foster to the Anaheim Ducks for Andy Sutton (6"6, 245 lbs).
Edmonton's investing a lot of time and energy into developing its young core, and it is commited to protecting those kids. The last thing the Oilers need is for Hall, Eberle or Nugent-Hopkins to suffer a career-altering injury. Enforcers don't operate with discretion, they hit anything that moves.
The Oilers are still looking for help on defense, but there are a handful of solid D-men here in Cam Barker, Ryan Whitney, Tom Gilbert, Ladislav Smid and Sutton.
Like last season, goaltending will be a large concern for this team in 2011-12. Nikolai Khabibulin's 10-32-4 record, .890 save percentage, 3.40 GAA and issues off the ice weren't exactly inspiring.
Backup netminder Devan Dubnyk had his moments though (12-13-8, .916, 2.71), and it's definitely possible for him to emerge as the Oilers' go-to-guy.
The future is bright in Edmonton, but this team is still very much a work in progress. Look for them to move up a couple of spots in the Conference standings, as well as within the Northwest Division.
Being YouTube-ready and playoff-ready are two different things. The Oilers aren't there yet, but they're definitely headed in the right direction.
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Prediction: Third in Southeast Division, 12th in Eastern Conference
This summer marks the beginning of a new era for hockey in South Florida.
"We See Red" is the new mantra, fitting, not only because the team is (finally) going back to wearing red uniforms at home, but also because after failing to attract fans on a regular basis, they must have seen a ton of red—at least in a financial sense.
All kidding aside, the Cats are dead serious about turning things around.
In an effort to become relevant and competitive once again (and to be compliant with the NHL salary cap), the Panthers have brought in 11, count 'em, 11 new players to the team.
Forwards Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Fleischmann, Marcel Goc, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky, Matt Bradley and Kris Versteeg were brought aboard. Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski and Nolan Yonkman were also acquired in order to shore up the blueline.
GM Dale Tallon also signed Jose Theodore, who is expected to be the starting goaltender come opening night.
Though certainly no LeBron, Wade and Bosh, this group of players will make a collective impact for the Florida Panthers.
But how good is this team?
If you were hoping to hear that the Panthers are playoff-bound in 2011-12, you're going to be disappointed. The Cats are just not there yet.
Will the new additions make a difference? Absolutely, but there are still some missing pieces to this puzzle, some of which are already in the organization, but aren't yet ready for the NHL, such as Jonathan Huberdeau, an electrifying center who was the team's first-round pick (3rd overall) at this summer's entry draft.
Defenseman Erik Gudbranson is another prospect who, as early as this year, could find himself on the pro roster. I like his chances of making the team this season.
The Panthers also have one of the top goalie prospects in Jakob Markstrom, who'll probably spend one more season in the AHL before taking the next step.
Already on the roster are Stephen Weiss, David Booth, Shawn Matthias, Mike Santorelli, Jack Skille, Dimitri Kulikov and Keaton Ellerby, so there's certainly some depth here.
Team chemistry is everything in hockey, and I think it's going to take some time for these players to get acquainted with one another (on and off the ice), figure out each other's playing styles and how the scoring lines and defensive pairings will look.
The longer this process takes, the less likely a postseason berth becomes.
Florida will be a stronger team than it has been in years past. The Panthers aren't going to be cellar-dwellers in the Southeast Division anymore, those days are over. There's light at the end of the tunnel for this organization.
Los Angeles Kings
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Prediction: First in Pacific Division, Third in Western Conference
Much like the Panthers, the LA Kings were a team in a warm-weather market, struggling to reinvigorate its fledgling fan base over the last several years.
It seems as if all the excitement and hype surrounding the franchise disappeared just as quickly as it began once Wayne Gretzky was traded to the St. Louis Blues.
Kings GM Dean Lombardi has stuck to the game plan and that's paying huge dividends these days.
LA is stacked on defense, boasting two of the NHL's best young rearguards in Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson. Throw in Matt Greene, Rob Scuderi, Willie Mitchell and Alec Martinez, and you're looking at a blueline that's as good as it gets.
The Kings have also improved on offense every season since this extensive rebuild began. Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Dustin Penner, Justin Williams and Jarrett Stoll comprise a strong group of forwards.
Oh, and that's without the new additions.
Mike Richards was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers and Simon Gagne signed on as a free agent.
LA did have to pay a steep price to get Richards, sending top prospect Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds to the City of Brotherly Love. Having said that, the Kings are a team that's looking to win now, and they're better suited to do so with Mike Richards than they would have been with Schenn, who's young and would need more time to develop into a true impact player.
Also, as much as I like Wayne Simmonds, he's certainly replaceable.
It's been three years since Simon Gagne notched 74 points, and he's been trying to rediscover his scoring touch ever since.
Needless to say, the French-Canadian "sniper" hasn't been very successful in doing so over the last two seasons, averaging around 60 games played per year and posting identical numbers (17 goals, 23 assists, 40 points) during that span.
He's still in his prime though, and could definitely benefit from a change of scenery.
In the event that Gagne can't patch up those holes in his game, the Kings are well-prepared. There are a number of players on this team who can step up offensively.
But he'll be hard-pressed to justify the two-year, $7 million contract he signed, if that's the case. 40-point forwards don't make $3.5 million per season, and though his more recent paydays have been rewarding, the next one won't be if he can't get it together.
Lombardi also signed veteran forward Ethan Moreau, a former captain and longtime member of the Edmonton Oilers, to add leadership and heart.
Did I mention that the Kings have one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL?
Jonathan Quick has been nothing short of spectacular, finishing with 35 wins, six shutouts, a 2.24 GAA and a .918 save percentage in 2010-11. Of the 175 games he's played (all with the Kings), Quick has won 96 of them. To date, he's averaged a respectable 2.44 GAA and a .912 save percentage.
Hardly anyone was surprised when Quick was named to the US Olympic Team in 2010 for the Vancouver Games.
Quick's backup is no slouch either. Jonathan Bernier could be a starting goaltender on a number of other teams, and scouts have been raving about his potential for quite some time now. Bernier went 11-8-3 this past season, with three shutouts, a 2.48 GAA and a .913 save percentage.
At just 22 years of age, he still has plenty of time to develop as an NHL netminder, and Quick's strong performance has given Bernier a flexible, no-pressure environment in which to do so.
The Los Angeles Kings are the most complete team in the Pacific Division. Sure, they may not have as much firepower on offense as the San Jose Sharks, but they're absolutely the better team on defense and in between the pipes.
LA's first-round loss to San Jose can be chalked up to a lack of experience and, without Kopitar in the lineup, its offense was in disarray. Despite all of that, the Kings were still able to stick around for six games.
This team is now more experienced, has brought in a pair of battle-tested veterans (Richards, Gagne) and is capable of taking the next step. If all the pieces come together, this club should be looking down at the rest of the division come April of 2012.
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Prediction: Third in Northwest Division, 10th in Western Conference
The last three NHL seasons haven't ended well for the Minnesota Wild.
If you wanted to see playoff hockey in the "State of Hockey," you had to settle for Rosseau High, Warroad or the (University of Minnesota) Golden Gophers.
Since Marian Gaborik bolted for New York City, the Wild hasn't been able to muster a whole lot of offense, which has easily been the team's achilles heel during this postseason drought.
GM Chuck Fletcher seems to have rectified the situation, making a pair of trades with the San Jose Sharks. He shipped Martin Havlat and Brent Burns off to California (in separate deals) and, in return, landed Dany Heatley, a two-time 50-goal scorer who's had one bad season in the last six (and when 64 points is considered a down year for you, odds are you're in good shape) and Devin Setoguchi, a 24-year-old who, when at his best, is a 60-point player.
The loss of Burns will hurt the defense, but his contract expires at the end of the 2011-12 season and he wasn't expected to re-sign. It's hard to say that Fletcher would've necessarily had the chance to nab a talented scorer like Setoguchi at the trade deadline in February, had he waited until that point to trade Burns.
On the blueline, Minny's left with Marek Zidlicky, Greg Zanon and Nick Schultz, plus a handful of other solid young defensemen to work with. There's also plenty of time to add another one, whether via free agency or trade, this summer. There are still some available UFAs who could help this team defensively.
Prospects Marco Scandella and Tyler Cuma could make the team out of training camp, and Jonas Brodin, the team's top pick in this year's draft, should be a strong rearguard for the Wild down the road.
In addition to Heatley and Setoguchi, the Wild has Guillaume Latendresse, who only dressed for 11 games this past season but put up six points in that span. Latendresse found the back of the net 27 times in 2009-10 though, and has proven that he's more than just an energy guy.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard's career has been severely hampered due to concussions, but he's highly-skilled and has a knack for showing it when he's healthy. Last season, Bouchard took a fairly large step on the road to recovery, notching 38 points in 59 games for Minnesota, so if he can continue that trend in 2011-12, he could have 60-65 of them by April.
And, of course, the centerpiece of this Wild offense is still Mikko Koivu, native of Turku, Finland and brother of Saku Koivu. This is the guy who sets the wheels in motion for this team. He knows how to find open teammates and set them up for scoring chances.
To put things in perspective, Koivu racked up 62 points (17 goals, 45 assists) for a team whose top goal scorers had just 22 (Martin Havlat) and 19 (Cal Clutterbuck) in 2010-11. Like I mentioned earlier, this is a Wild team that's been starving offensively.
Just imagine how Koivu will do playing with someone like Dany Heatley and/or Devin Setoguchi. It's going to be something special.
Expect a bounce-back year from Heatley, who was on a line with Logan Couture and Ryan Clowe in San Jose, and now has the opportunity to play with an upper-tier playmaker (Koivu). He's been most effective when that's been the case (Spezza and Alfredsson in Ottawa), and despite struggling with the Sharks, excelled on the powerplay with the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski.
Mikael Granlund is far and away the top prospect in the organization, and if he makes the team, could provide additional, much-needed scoring punch.
Contrary to what his 22-23-5 record in 2010-11 might tell you, Nicklas Backstrom is still a very capable goaltender. If anything, his "poor" stats can be attributed to the team's overall struggles. Josh Harding missed all of last season, and hasn't quite lived up to expectations early in his career.
Putting the pieces together, the Minnesota Wild is definitely a better team than it was a season ago. Whether or not it makes the playoffs remains to be seen, but it's in that discussion. The Wild is likely a year away, but it could sneak into the Top Eight if it stays healthy, makes some moves to improve the defense and gets strong goaltending out of Backstrom.
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Prediction: Second in Northeast Division, Seventh in Eastern Conference
Several hockey "experts," fans and members of the press underestimated the Montreal Canadiens last season, and they'll probably do it again in 2011-12.
When the Habs and Boston Bruins faced off during the first round of this year's playoffs, most people I spoke to figured that the series would be over in four, maybe five games. I actually predicted the Canadiens to knock out the B's in seven, and you might laugh at me for that, but you can't say I wasn't close.
Montreal came within one goal of defeating the B's, the eventual Stanley Cup champions. They also, at one point, held a commanding lead in that series. That's pretty solid, especially for a team that wasn't given a fighting chance.
But that's all in the past. Now, the only question is, will the Canadiens be a better team this season?
That depends on your perspective.
If you're going to focus on where the Habs finish in the standings, you're not likely to be impressed. There are a handful of teams within the Eastern Conference that have improved this summer, which will make it difficult for Montreal to leapfrog its opponents in the standings.
Like last season, the Habs will place second in the Northeast Division and around sixth or seventh in the conference.
Take a look at their roster though, and you'll see an improvement.
On the UFA front, the Canadiens adressed their biggest (no pun intended) issue, which was the lack of size up front, when they signed Erik Cole to a four-year, $18 million deal, worth $4.5 million per year. At 6'2", 205 pounds and given his skill set, Cole's an effective power forward, who, at age 32, is still capable of scoring 20-25 goals a season.
Did he deserve such a large contract? Absolutely not, but that was the nature of this summer's free agent market. If you wanted your man, you were going to pay dearly to get him.
The Canadiens also signed Brian Willsie to a one-year, two-way deal. Willsie has size too (6'1", 202 lbs), but hasn't seen semi-significant playing time at the NHL level in two years, making this more of a depth move. Michael Blunden (6"4, 207) was acquired via trade for that same purpose.
Replacing the outgoing Alex Auld with Peter Budaj should also help, because, for the first time since Jaroslav Halak was here, the Canadiens will have a reliable backup goaltender.
I think Carey Price felt (and succeeded under) a great deal of added pressure last season, knowing he was really the only goalie that gave his team a chance to win. Auld only made 16 appearances in 2010-11, a very telling statistic. While Price is definitely becoming an elite netminder, that's not the reason why he started so many games.
Honestly, I don't care how good he is. Forcing a younger goaltender to shoulder that heavy a load isn't a good idea, and hopefully, the Canadiens won't have to do that again this season.
On offense, the Habs are led by Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Andrei Kostityn. Throw Erik Cole into that mix, and you're in pretty solid shape.
Scott Gomez would have been mentioned too, had he even remotely resembled the star player he once was. Gomez only managed 38 points in 80 games for the Canadiens in 2010-11, and if he doesn't shape up, he'll find himself on the waiver wire rather quickly.
The depth players are there: Mathieu Darche, David Dasharnais, Max Paciorretty (returning after a near-decapitation by Zdeno Chara) and Lars Eller, who's young, but seemed to improve as the season went on.
On defense, Montreal's Hal Gill is the only physical threat. Easily the team's biggest d-man, at 6'7" (the next biggest is Josh Gorges at 6'1"), Gill has to make his presence felt, or Zdeno Charas will take runs at Max Paciorettys without thinking twice about it.
But they do have Andrei Markov, who was re-signed to a new deal. The Habs were able to lock up their best defenseman for the next three seasons. He's been decimated by injuries over the last two years, and there's no guarantee Markov will stay healthy in 2011-12.
The problem is, the Canadiens don't have the personnel to make up for his production.
James Wisniewski, whose job was to make sure Montreal fans forgot about No. 79's absence in the lineup, did so admirably, but he's departed for Columbus. Roman Hamrlik added 34 points from the blue line, and he was not brought back.
Fortunately, the Habs have P.K. Subban, who posted 38 points in his rookie campaign and will need to build upon that mark if this team hopes to make the playoffs.
Josh Gorges, Yannick Webber and Jaroslav Spacek need to, at the very least, contribute with a strong two-way effort, night in and night out, in order to make up for their lack of size and offensive firepower. They were able to last season, and they'll have to do it again in 2011-12.
Ultimately, the Montreal Canadiens are a playoff team, but there's a gigantic asterisk next to the word "playoff."
If (and that's a big "if") Andrei Markov can, dare I say it, stay healthy for the majority of the season, Gionta, Plekanec, Cammalleri and Cole can produce, and Carey Price can repeat, and even improve upon, his 2010-11 performance, the Habs will land inside the Top Eight in the Eastern Conference.
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Prediction: Third in Central Division, Seventh in Western Conference
The Nashville Predators took a major step in the right direction, reaching the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history during this postseason.
It seems as if they've made a U-Turn this summer though.
Now, you might look at the list of players who've left for greener (mainly in a financial sense) pastures, and say that none of them are star-caliber, and you'd be right.
However, on a team that's comprised and reliant upon a core of solid hockey players, losing one or more to free agency can be devastating. The Preds don't have Top 6 and depth forwards, they have 12 guys who can do a bit of everything, but don't necessarily stand out in any aspect of the game.
They've lost a handful of key players to free agency, such as Joel Ward, Steve Sullivan and Marcel Goc.
J.P. Dumont, a six-time 20-goal scorer, was bought out this summer and became an unrestricted free agent.
Shane O'Brien, one of the more underrated defensemen in the league, was also lost to free agency, and signed with the Colorado Avalanche.
As if that weren't enough for Nashville GM David Poile, he also managed to engineer one of the more mind-boggling trades of the summer, sending forward Matthew Lombardi and young, up-and-coming blueliner Cody Franson to the Toronto Maple Leafs, in exchange for the ever-disappointing Brett Lebda (D) and forward Robert Slaney, who's perhaps best-known (or rather invisible) for playing in the ECHL last season.
To his credit, Poille did make two shrewd free agent signings, adding F Niclas Bergfors and D Jack Hillen.
Bergfors struggled to produce last season, but he did score 21 goals just a year ago, and should, at the very least, approach that number with increased ice time in Nashville. He absolutely fits the mold of the prototypical Predators forward.
Hillen spent the last few seasons on Long Island, establishing a career-high 22 points (four goals, 18 assists) in 2010-11. He's a solid defenseman who makes smart decisions on the ice. Hillen won't necessarily bring fans out of their seats, but he won't upset them either.
Ultimately, the major building blocks, upon which the team's recent success has been built, are still in place.
Shea Weber's back, and to the tune of a whopping one-year , $7.5 million contract thanks to an arbitration ruling.
Weber's not just the team captain, he's one of the best defensemen in the league. Without him, the Predators would have been all but doomed.
Ryan Suter, a star in his own right (and a U.S. Olympian), is the perfect compliment to Weber, a major factor in Nashville's defensive success.
The rest of the defense corps features Hillen, Francis Bouillon, Jonathan Blum and Kevin Klein. Top prospect Ryan Ellis will get a crack at the roster in training camp, but it's too early to tell whether or not he'll make the team.
Forwards Bergfors, David Legwand (the first draft pick in team history), Martin Erat, Sergei Kostitsyn, Mike Fisher, Colin Wilson and Jerred Smithson are all capable of chipping in offensively.
And then there's Pekka Rinne, the puck-stopping maniac who was, in my opinion, undeservingly robbed of a Vezina Trophy this summer.
Of course, that only serves to keep him under the radar, which only works to his benefit.
The Nashville Predators are still a playoff team, regardless of whether or not others take notice.
New Jersey Devils
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Prediction: Fifth in Atlantic Division, 13th in Eastern Conference
The New Jersey Devils enter 2011-12 looking to rebound from a disappointing season in which they failed to clinch a playoff spot, a rare occurrence in Jersey.
Jacques Lemaire was brought back in-season, and the team immediately awoke from its slumber.
Unfortunately, that was too little, too late, as history, and ultimately mathematics, worked against and doomed the Devils.
But with failure comes early draft picks, and the Devils received the fourth overall selection in this summer's NHL Entry Draft.
With that pick, they chose Adam Larsson, considered to be the top defenseman in the draft and one who should make the jump to the big leagues this year.
Larsson was easily the team's most significant pickup of the summer, and in fact, the only free agent the Devils actually signed was Eric Boulton, a fourth-line checker and grinder.
Whether or not GM Lou Lamoriello wishes to admit it, the Devils are in a rebuild.
Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Josefsen, Nick Palmieri and Larsson are the first fruits of that process.
Additionally, the fact that Peter DeBoer was tabbed as the team's new head coach tells me that they're committed to and focused on developing their young players, as DeBoer specializes in working with young talent.
Zach Parise re-signed with the team for one year, and the hope is that the two sides will reach a long-term agreement during the regular season.
In addition to Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus, David Steckel and Tedenby round out a solid offensive corps, though Zajac is expected to miss the start of the season while recovering from a recent surgical procedure.
Veteran forward Brian Rolston was traded to the Islanders in exchange for winger Trent Hunter, who was subsequently bought out.
On defense, Larsson, Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov and Andy Greene (re-signed for four more years) do provide some stability, but there isn't a whole lot of depth on the New Jersey blueline.
Longtime Devil Colin White was also bought out, becoming a UFA and signing with the San Jose Sharks.
There was a time when Martin Brodeur could be relied upon to shoulder the heaviest of loads. That time has passed, and the Devils know that full well, realizing the importance of re-signing Johan Hedberg, who performed quite admirably in Brodeur's absence during stretches last season.
Brodeur and Hedberg should provide the Devils with strong goaltending, but there is definitely some concern for Marty's age and health.
I think the Devils are going to miss the playoffs again. This team is just not ready to compete at that level right now.
Even with Kovalchuk, Parise and Zajac, there isn't a lot of depth up front. One strong scoring line is not enough, and while Elias may produce, Zubrus, Steckel and Tedenby cannot be counted upon to provide the necessary offensive support.
I firmly believe that a lot of the team's second-half success had to do (and coincided) with Lemaire's return to the Devil bench. Without the right system, this team will not win many hockey games.
Not only that, there's going to be a learning curve under DeBoer, and it's going to take time for the players to really understand his coaching style and strategy.
The Devils also made a grave mistake this summer, in that they failed to be aggressive in the offseason while other teams made moves. A handful of teams have surpassed them, and we're going to see that come April when the Prudential Center is hosting concerts instead of playoff hockey.
New York Islanders
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Prediction: Fourth in Atlantic Division, Ninth in Eastern Conference
This summer hasn't been an easy one for Islanders fans.
GM Garth Snow selected Ryan Strome and, overall, came away with an impressive haul from the draft. But that excitement quickly faded when Christian Ehrhoff rejected a "significant" offer (little did we know he wanted 10 years, but that's for another time).
Then, free agency came and went with little fanfare on Long Island, though Snow did sign veteran forward Marty Reasoner, who can skate well and kill penalties.
On August 1, things went from worse to catastrophic.
After the failed referendum vote, which would have given Nassau County the green light to borrow $400 million for the purpose of building a new arena, Islanders Country was left in complete disarray. I don't think the team will relocate outside of New York, but there is still a sense of uncertainty and insecurity here.
Not long after, Snow pulled the trigger on a deal, sending the fragile Trent Hunter to New Jersey in exchange for another veteran, Brian Rolston.
Rolston provides the Islanders with a much-needed veteran presence, and I think he's the perfect mentor for Kyle Okposo, in that Brian was the power forward KO hopes to become, and he plays the point on the powerplay, something that Kyle is expected to do.
Nino Niederreiter should be on the roster, newcomers Marty Reasoner and Brian Rolston are instant upgrades over Zenon Konopka and Trent Hunter and, except Nino, all of the young players have gained a full year of experience and have no doubt benefited tremendously from that season.
But despite all of the negatives, there's hope for the New York Islanders, and even more intriguing is the fact that this year's squad figures to be better than last year's.
During the second half of last season, the Isles were among the top teams in the Conference and they defeated playoff teams such as the Penguins, Kings, Lightning, Red Wings, Canadiens, Rangers and Sabres. They nearly beat the Canucks, Flyers and Capitals, pushing each of those teams to the brink.
John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner should all reach the 30-goal plateau, while Blake Comeau, Okposo and Niederreiter have 20-plus-goal potential, at least for this season (Niederreiter and Okposo could develop into 30-goal scorers in a few years, but as far as 2011-12 is concerned, they're probably not there yet).
Combine those youngsters with the veterans (Rolston, Reasoner), and there's a solid mix.
Frans Nielsen has emerged as one of the better two-way forwards in the game, and will be back at it again this season.
But Josh Bailey has struggled, and unless he has a breakout year, it's hard to imagine him staying with the team once Ryan Strome is NHL-ready. If he does break loose, the Islanders become dangerous.
The bottom line is that the days of this team being incapable of offensive production are in the past, and the Islanders, who ranked 12th in goals for last season, are going to be even better this year.
On defense, the Isles do have some holes to patch up. Mark Streit is finally healthy, and his reinsertion into the lineup improves this team significantly, both defensively and on the powerplay.
Travis Hamonic had an impressive rookie season, and Andrew MacDonald proved that he could be relied upon as a steady presence on the back end. Milan Jurcina, Mark Eaton, Ty Wishart, Mike Mottau and Calvin de Haan will lobby for the remaining three spots on the Isles blueline.
If they're to become a playoff team, the Islanders will have to find a way to acquire another Top Four defenseman. There's just not enough depth there right now, especially if the team runs into injury troubles, as has been the case over the last few years.
Between the pipes, the Islanders have really opened up Pandora's Box, and there are lots of questions yet to be answered.
Can Evgeni Nabakov return to elite form, and, if not, can Al Montoya play as well as he did for the Isles down the stretch last year?
Can Rick DiPietro actually stay healthy and contribute to this team?
These are all issues that must be sorted out if the Islanders wish to contend for a shot at the postseason. I do think they're awfully close, but I just cannot peg them as a surefire playoff team yet.
The Islanders can make the playoffs. It's up to the players and coaching staff to work hard enough to get there.
New York Rangers
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Prediction: Third in Atlantic Division, Sixth in Eastern Conference
When free agency began, there was only one player the New York Rangers absolutely had to sign.
Fortunately, GM Glen Sather got the job done, signing the cream of the crop, Brad Richards, to a nine-year contract that should keep him in a Rangers jersey for the remainder of his career.
The Rangers have signed marquee free agents before, but unlike many of those other acquisitions, this one is about more than just hype and ticket sales.
No matter how you want to spin it, the New York Rangers needed Brad Richards. This team hasn't had a bona fide top center (that has actually panned out) in quite some time, maybe since the days of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
Michael Nylander performed admirably during his short tenure in Manhattan, but fizzled out too quickly, never mind the fact that, talent-wise, he's miles behind Richards.
Richards and Marian Gaborik, who struggled last season, should become one of the best one-two punches in the game, never mind the Eastern Conference.
It's also hard to be unimpressed with the Blueshirts' secondary scoring. Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan have certainly shown a knack for contributing, both on the scoresheet and with their defensive play. A little more consistency from those three would be nice, but otherwise, there's little else to complain about.
On defense, the Rangers finally appear to have figured things out.
Marc Staal and Dan Girardi have emerged as two of the more effective shutdown blueliners in the league, while Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh impressed and had their moments last year.
Rookie Tim Erixon, acquired via trade in the offseason, and Michael Del Zotto, who was demoted to the AHL in 2010-11, are the favorites to nab the final two roster spots on defense, though veteran Steve Eminger is also in the mix.
And, of course, I'd be remiss without talking about Henrik Lundqvist, the man most responsible for the team's recent playoff appearance.
Lundqvist has been the most consistent Ranger and has proven that, not only can he take on a heavy workload, he can also win most of those games and stay healthy. He's definitely a Top Five goaltender in this league.
Chris Drury was bought out and has since retired from professional hockey.
Bryan McCabe was not re-signed, ditto for forward Vinny Prospal.
New York did sign scrappy winger Michael Rupp, giving the team a second enforcer—the other one being Brandon Prust.
The Rangers will be a better team than they were a season ago. This isn't a team that's going to barely sneak into the postseason, and in fact, it should land within the Top Six in the conference. But there are still some questions left unanswered.
Richards and Gaborik are a fantastic combination, but who's going to be the other winger on that top line? Is it Wojtek Wolski or perhaps even Ruslan Fedotenko?
Can Michael Del Zotto prove that his rookie campaign wasn't a fluke, and that he can be relied upon as the big gun from the point on the powerplay?
Will Sean Avery get his act together and be effective, and will head coach John Tortorella continue to keep him on a short leash?
And speaking of Gaborik, can he stay healthy (which he has, historically, been unable to do) and get back to the elite level he played at during his first season in New York?
These are all questions that need to be answered before the Rangers are to be taken seriously as Cup contenders. I have no doubt this team can (and should) make the playoffs this year, but as history has shown us, making the playoffs and succeeding in the playoffs are two very different things.
Nevertheless, the Rangers are at least capable of getting there, and that's definitely a good start.
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Prediction: Fifth in Northeast Division, 15th in Eastern Conference
These are trying times for Sens fans, and this rebuild will test their patience and true mettle.
Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson are still around, but even those two forwards have had their setbacks.
Alfredsson's age is really starting to affect his game, and the Swedish veteran (who turns 39 in December) only managed 31 points in 2010-11. Granted, he missed 28 games last year, but even had he played in those contests, his projected stats wouldn't even approach the levels we've seen him reach for the majority of his NHL career.
There's cause for concern regarding Spezza as well. Despite averaging nearly 80 points between 2005-06 and 2008-09, he's notched just 57 points and has missed at least 20 games in each of the last two seasons.
No doubt, the dip in offensive production could be a byproduct of the lack of surrounding talent, but the injuries and games missed are becoming an issue.
Beyond Spezza and Alfredsson, the cupboard is rather bare.
Nikita Filatov, who was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets, could prove to be a steal for the Senators if he can produce. The coaching staff and front office might tell you differently, but I think there's little to no chance he doesn't make the team out of training camp.
Nick Foligno, Peter Regin and Milan Michalek should provide some secondary scoring, but likely too little to make Ottawa a competitive team.
Erik Condra had 11 points in 26 games for the Senators last year, and will probably be with the team full-time in 2011-12.
The Sens also picked up free agent Zenon Konopka, who will become a fan favorite in Ottawa for his competitive spirit, prowess in the faceoff circle and his willingness to stand up for his fellow teammates.
Mika Zibanejad, the team's top pick in this summer's draft, will get a shot at the big club during training camp, and perhaps even a nine-game stint in the pros at the start of the regular season, but he's likely a year or two away.
At least things are looking bright on defense.
Sergei Gonchar might be a massive disappointment, but youngster Erik Karlsson had 45 points last year, and there are more on the way.
It's not inconceivable to think that Jared Cowen and David Rundblad could make the team.
Chris Phillips and Filip Kuba may not be what they once were, but they still give the Sens a veteran presence and some sense of stability.
The biggest question mark is between the pipes. Craig Anderson is the front-runner to become the starter, but he's been inconsistent. Alex Auld and Robin Lehner will compete for the right to serve as Anderson's backup.
Ottawa's season isn't looking too bright. Talent-wise, this is definitely the worst team in the conference. And I think, unfortunately for them, it'll show in the standings.
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Prediction: Second in Atlantic Division, Fifth in Eastern Conference
GM Paul Holmgren kicked off the summer by trading away his two best players, including his captain, as Mike Richards was sent to Los Angeles and Jeff Carter to Columbus.
When the dust settled, the Flyers were left with top prospect Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier (from the draft pick they received in the Carter trade).
But perhaps the most shocking news came when Holmgren signed longtime Penguin Jaromir Jagr to a one-year deal.
It's not clear how much Jagr has left in the tank, but I think he'll manage to score at least 25 goals this season.
Ville Leino bolted for greener pastures (literally), taking mega bucks from Terry Pegula and signing on with the Buffalo Sabres for six years and $27 million.
But all things considered, Philly still appears to be offensively solid, though definitely not as capable as they were a year ago.
Daniel Briere (68 points), Claude Giroux (76) and James van Riemsdyk (40) give the Flyers attack a great deal of punch.
The newcomers should help out as well.
Voracek was a 50-point player on the offensively anemic Blue Jackets, and logic suggests he'll, at the very least, produce at that same level in Philadelphia, though he could be even better now that he's surrounded with more talent.
Simmonds has shown he's a solid two-way forward, and Schenn should make the team. If he lives up to the hype, he will give the Flyers even more firepower.
Couturier's probably still a year or two away, and will be a future mainstay on the roster. For now, he'll settle for the QMJHL.
Holmgren added another former Penguin, signing free agent winger and agitator Maxime Talbot, who'll add depth and toughness to the roster.
Philly still has a phenomenal defensive corps, and I'd venture to say it's the deepest unit in the league.
Chris Pronger, Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros and Andreas Lilja round out a very strong blueline.
The Flyers made their biggest splash of the summer when they traded for goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov's negotiating rights, then signed him to a nine-year, $51 million contract.
Bryzgalov gives Philly a surefire No. 1 goalie, which was arguably the missing link to the team's Stanley Cup hopes over the last several years. The length of the contract might be absurd, but the decision to bring him aboard was a critical one.
Sergei Bobrovsky will serve as backup goaltender, and the young Russian showed flashes of brilliance last year. He's certainly capable of succeeding under less pressure, which is probably better for him in this early stage of his career.
There's still a lot of depth on this Flyers squad, and while I no longer believe they're the team to beat in the Atlantic Division, they're still not to be taken lightly.
A playoff berth is likely, but how far they can go remains to be seen.
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Prediction: Fourth in Pacific Division, 11th in Western Conference
The Phoenix Coyotes have made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, but 2011-12 will be different, and unfortunately, not in a good way.
Ilya Bryzgalov's departure leaves a gaping hole between the pipes.
The Coyotes are left with Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera, two inconsistent goaltenders who, regardless of how they play, cannot and will not perform at the level of an Ilya Bryzgalov, who was directly responsible for the team's recent playoff appearances.
Up front, the situation isn't as dire. Mikkel Boedker, Shane Doan, Kyle Turris, Raffi Torres, Martin Hanzal, Radim Vrbata, Ray Whitney, Lee Stempniak and Taylor Pyatt are all solid forwards. I'd say an accurate comparison would be the Nashville Predators, who, like Phoenix, are comprised of several quality offensive players.
Keith Yandle has matured into one of the better defensemen in the league, and he re-signed with the team and will be here for the next several years.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson made the jump to the NHL last season, and this year, it could be Brandon Gormley's turn.
Phoenix has Adrian Aucoin, Michal Roszival and Derek Morris under contract as well.
Looking at the overall picture, the offense and defense are, as they were last season, decent enough to allow the Coyotes to be competitive. But the lack of an elite (I'd even settle for "good") option in net will kill any postseason aspirations they might have.
Phoenix had Bryzgalov to pull it through, but it no longer has him, or someone remotely capable of performing at that high level. That is why this team will be on the outside looking in come next spring.
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Prediction: First in Atlantic Division, Third in Eastern Conference
The Pittsburgh Penguins are ready to return to the top of the Atlantic Division.
Last season, we watched, in utter astonishment, as the Pens managed to hold on to a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, sans Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Jordan Staal notched 30 points in just 42 games (putting him on pace for roughly 60, had he played a full season), as the Pens, not used to the underdog role, marched onward.
Malkin's expected to be ready for the start of the upcoming season, which gives the team a critical boost.
It's beginning to sound as though Crosby will not be so fortunate, as the rumors and whispers regarding the superstar's condition continue to fly around.
GM Ray Shero has been quick to dispel any such notion, but in a world where secrets are few and far between, it's become increasingly clear that the truth is not as rosy as Shero would like you to believe.
Sidney Crosby is, very likely, the most criticized and taunted player in all of hockey. I'm not afraid to admit that I'm part of that. But I know, just as much as anyone, that the NHL needs him. When he's not ticking off opposing teams and their fans, he's making our game a more popular and well-known one. He's a household name, an excellent ambassador of the game and a genuinely good guy (at least from what I've heard). I don't wish what he's going through on anyone, and I hope he gets well soon.
Hopefully, he'll be back soon, and when that happens, the Pens attack becomes lethal.
We've all seen Crosby and Malkin wreak havoc on the powerplay, and aside from that pair of elite forwards, Staal, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi have also shown they can provide secondary scoring.
Shero made a shrewd move when he signed free agent veteran Steve Sullivan, a 40-50-point player when healthy. He'll provide some more scoring punch and leadership.
On defense, Pittsburgh will benefit from the likes of Paul Martin, Kris Letang, Zbynek Michalek, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.
Marc-Andre Fleury has, despite some inconsistent stretches, gotten the job done for these Penguins year after year.
If Crosby and Malkin stay healthy, the Pittsburgh Penguins should finish atop the Atlantic Division.
San Jose Sharks
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Prediction: Second in Pacific Division, Fourth in Western Conference
Much like the Washington Capitals, the San Jose Sharks have always entered the regular season with much fanfare and the greatest of expectations, only to crash in spectacular fashion come playoff time.
After yet another letdown, the Sharks have, at least in my opinion, made the right moves this summer.
GM Doug Wilson went out and traded for star defenseman Brent Burns, then signed him to a contract extension. He then signed veteran blueliner Colin White, a longtime member of the New Jersey Devils with a pair of Stanley Cup rings.
In an unexpected development, the Sharks also traded sniper Dany Heatley to the Minnesota Wild for Martin Havlat. I do consider the Heatley trade a poor decision on their part, but I understand why Wilson traded him.
While Heatley was primarily a goal scorer, Havlat is the better all-around player, which is what the Sharks were clearly looking for.
And besides, in addition to Havlat, the Sharks still have Joe Thornton, Patirck Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, not to mention depth players like Ryane Clowe, Torrey Mitchell and Jamie McGinn. This is still an offensively sound unit.
But they no longer have Devin Setoguchi, who was dealt to Minnesota for in exchange for Burns.
On the back end, Burns and White are joined by Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Jason Demers and Douglas Murray, and I think, finally, the Sharks have gotten things right on defense.
Ultimately, the Sharks' position in the standings will be largely determined by the performance of goaltender Antti Niemi, who starred in the playoffs but got off to a slow start during the regular season.
He has to be ready to go, or the Sharks won't be.
I think they're going to make the playoffs, but not within the Top Three in the Western Conference. I think the Los Angeles Kings are a better all-around team than San Jose, regardless of what transpired between these two teams in the postseason.
St. Louis Blues
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Prediction: Fifth in Central Division, 12th in Western Conference
The St. Louis Blues are an improving young team in a highly competitive division.
I guess you'd say they're the Toronto Blue Jays of hockey, because the Jays are constantly forced to play in the shadows of the Yankees, Red Sox and now the Rays, while the Blues have to deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.
Even worse, the Nashville Predators have leapfrogged the Blues, and with their offseason moves, the Columbus Blue Jackets may have done so as well.
Veterans Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott were signed, and will provide leadership and some offensive support.
They'll join forces with Andy McDonald, David Backes, Chris Stewart, David Perron, Patrik Berglund and TJ Oshie up front.
This is a team that's going to be fun to watch with the puck, less fun to watch without it.
Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are the future on defense, while the rest of the spots should be filled by the likes of Carlo Colaiacovo, Roman Polak, Barret Jackman and Kent Huskins. Needless to say, there are questions to be answered on the blueline.
Jaroslav Halak performed admirably last season, winning 27 games while sporting a 2.48 GAA and a .910 save percentage.
His backup, Brian Elliot, does not come with such accolades, and we'll have to see how he plays in the limited playing time he's likely to receive. It's not the preferred scenario, but one that the Blues have no choice but to consider. Halak's going to have to shoulder a heavy load.
Though they are getting there, I don't think the Blues are a playoff team right now. There's just not a whole lot of depth on defense, and that's going to hurt their cause until that issue's rectified.
Tampa Bay Lightning
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Prediction: Second in Southeast Division, Fourth in Eastern Conference
Tampa Bay nearly made the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011, and it is certainly capable of returning to that level.
Aside from losing Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim, the roster remains virtually untouched and all the pieces that made the Lightning successful last year are still in place.
You know what to expect offensively, with Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Steve Downie, Ryan Malone, Ted Purcell and Dominic Moore.
Lecavalier was a bit of a disappointment last year, only managing 54 points, but I expect a bounce-back performance from the star forward. He also missed some time due to injury, 17 games to be exact.
It's, more or less, the same story on defense with Victor Hedman, Mattias Ohlund, Pavel Kubina, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Eric Brewer and, in all likelihood, Brett Clark (though Matt Gilroy and Bruno Gervais will also have a shot).
GM Steve Yzerman smartly re-signed goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who was acquired from the New York Islanders in exchange for defenseman Ty Wishart last season.
Roloson was simply phenomenal down the stretch and in the playoffs for the Bolts, who are almost certainly headed back there in 2011-12.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Prediction: Fourth in Northeast Division, 10th in Eastern Conference
There's a great deal of hope and optimism in Leafs Nation going into 2011-12.
The team played well down the stretch last year, and though it came up short, it didn't go down without a fight and showed flashes of the future.
Perhaps the biggest contributing factor to that success was the trio of Clarke MacArthur (62 points), Nikolai Kulemin (57) and Mikhail Grabovski (58). There's no reason to believe that line will not remain intact next season. They're the closest thing to a legitimate scoring line that Toronto's had in years.
Phil Kessel finished last year with 32 goals and 64 points, doing so without the help of a top-notch pivot feeding pucks to him. Despite his inconsistency, I cannot ride him and claim that he hasn't produced, and it's not his fault GM Brian Burke vastly overpaid to get him.
Though no Brad Richards, Tim Connolly should help, and is just one year removed from a 65-point performance. The hope is that he'll be centering Kessel, and that his numbers will hover near that 60-point mark, while Kessel's stats would then possibly stretch into the 70s.
Obviously, it's too early to tell whether or not that's realistic. I'd lower my expectations a bit, but that's just me.
It goes without saying the Leafs would like nothing more than for Nazem Kadri to stay at the NHL level full-time, but he's yet to really prove he deserves an everyday roster spot. How much he does (or doesn't) produce will have a profound impact on the Leafs' playoff aspirations.
On defense, the Maple Leafs boast one of the better units around. Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, John-Michael Liles, Cody Franson, Mike Komisarek and Keith Aulie round out a strong defense, and there's a nice mix of big bodies and offensive stalwarts.
Burke's offseason trade with Nashville was an instant win, as he was able to get the young and talented Franson as well as depth scorer Matthew Lombardi in exchange for mere peanuts.
The biggest question this team faces is in goal. Is James Reimer the answer, and is he prepared to handle 50-60 starts (and win the majority of them)?
If he can, the Leafs have a strong shot at the postseason. If not, they're in serious trouble.
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Prediction: First in Northwest Division, Second in Western Conference
Still reeling from their meltdown in this year's finals, the Vancouver Canucks obviously felt content with their current roster, because they made very few changes this summer.
Forward Marco Sturm was signed, and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff opted not to re-sign, but other than that, the key cogs are all in place.
The Sedins, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond and Chris Higgins on offense.
Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Keith Ballard, Dan Hamhuis, Alexander Edler and Andrew Alberts on defense.
Roberto Luongo and Corey Schneider in goal.
What makes this year's edition of the Canucks different is that they've finally been to the Cup finals and got a taste of what that's like. This team wasn't merely eliminated in a semifinal matchup, it had to watch as the Boston Bruins skated around with the Stanley Cup. On its own home ice.
That kind of failure hurts the most, and it's what you take away from that experience that determines whether or not you can rise up and overcome it the next time around.
Look, in terms of sheer talent, the Vancouver Canucks are just about as good as it gets.
And, make no mistake, come October, they'll be dominating the NHL once again. They'll be back to the playoffs, but whether or not they get another shot at Lord Stanley will be up to them.
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Prediction: First in Southeast Division, First in Eastern Conference
“We couldn’t figure it out.”
Those words belong to Bruce Boudreau, the occasionally embattled head coach of the Washington Capitals, and were said following his team’s season-ending Game 4 loss in Tampa Bay.
It’s a short sentence, nothing deep or profound. But so accurately does it describe the feelings and emotions of virtually everyone in the Caps locker room during that particular moment.
Even Alexander Ovechkin, the team’s brightest star, was simply left dumbfounded. “I don’t know what to say right now.”
Needless to say, this was certainly not the first time Washington couldn’t seem to “figure it out.” The Caps have made the playoffs four years in a row now, coming up short in each instance.
In 2010-11, Boudreau’s bunch underwent a philosophical change, prioritizing defense and smart decision-making, with and without the puck. For much of the regular season, and in their quarterfinal matchup with the New York Rangers, it was working, and the Capitals were thriving.
Players were buying into the new system, from the first line down to the fourth. There was no reason to believe, given the way the Caps were playing at the time, that they were about to get swept aside.
And yet, they still failed.
Say what you will about how Washington’s always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Continue to label them “underachievers.”
This is a team that’s highly capable of shattering the moniker. Despite all the negatives currently surrounding this franchise, there is hope for the upcoming season, largely because of GM George McPhee’s offseason efforts.
He’s retooled a lineup desperate for some more character and experience, signing veteran forward Jeff Halpern, an original draft pick of the Caps who hails from nearby Potomac, Maryland.
Role players like Joel Ward, one of the main reasons for Nashville’s advancement into the 2011 semifinals, and Troy Brouwer, who’s averaged 19 goals and 38 points in the last two seasons with Chicago and sports a Stanley Cup ring, were also inked.
When looking back upon the acquisition of forward Mike Knuble, it’s easy to recognize the impact role players can have on a team, even one as talent-laden as the Washington Capitals.
Expect Ward, Halpern and Brouwer to give the Caps a similar boost, picking up the slack when the stars are slumping and becoming a spark plug of sorts.
But perhaps the biggest game-changer of the summer was the addition of goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who unexpectedly signed on with the Capitals for just one year at $1.5 million. In Vokoun, Washington has something they haven’t since Olaf Kolzig: a dependable starting goaltender with a strong track record.
Even better, McPhee was able to simultaneously unload goalie Semyon Varlamov, sending the Russian netminder to Colorado for a pair of draft picks. This leaves the Caps with Michael Neuvirth and Brayden Holtby, two quality young goalies, who will battle for the right to back up Tomas Vokoun.
The goaltending is now top-notch, whereas, in recent years, it simply has not been.
The Caps have the right mix of superstars (Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin), secondary scorers (Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble and Jeff Halpern) and role players (Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, Matt Hendricks and Joel Perreault).
Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Jeff Schultz, Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik, who was signed as a free agent, comprise the deepest defensive unit this organization has had in years.
McPhee and the Capitals have made all the right moves this summer, addressing the most glaring needs and patching up the gaping holes on this roster.
All of that hard work is about to pay off, likely in the form of a large, silver trophy (assuming everything goes according to plan). If you were looking for the best team in the Eastern Conference, look no further than the Washington Capitals.
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Prediction: 5th in Southeast Division, 14th in Eastern Conference
After a lengthy and painful absence, hockey is back in Winnipeg. Playoff hockey might take a bit longer.
The Jets are a young team, filled with raw talents like Evander Kane, Alex Burmistrov and Zach Bogosian.
Mark Scheifele, the team's top pick in this summer's draft, is probably a couple of years away.
On offense, Kane, Burmistrov, Nik Antropov, Andrew Ladd, Brian Little, Blake Wheeler and newly-acquired Eric Fehr should provide some firepower and excitement, though not enough to get the Jets to that next level.
Last year, the organization decided to keep Dustin Byfuglien on defense full-time, and so far that's turned out to be a stroke of genius.
Byfuglien racked up 53 points from the blueline (20 goals, 33 assists), earning an All-Star appearance.
In addition to Byfuglien, the Jets are fortunate enough to have Tobias Enstrom, the unheralded defenseman who quietly put up 51 points in 2010-11. Enstrom has not gotten the attention he deserves, but I figure it won't be long before that changes.
Bogosian, Ron Hainsey, Johnny Oduya and Mark Stuart should occupy the other four spots on defense.
In the crease, Ondrej Pavelec put up solid numbers (2.73 GAA, .914 save percentage), but that wasn't enough to keep the team in playoff contention. It won't be enough this season, either.
The offense needs a lot of work and the goaltending is a bit shaky, and while the Jets are impressive on defense, I still don't think they're ready for to take the next step. They're not a playoff team yet.
Comments are welcome.
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