NHL Preseason 2011: 10 Games, Players and Battles to Watch for

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst ISeptember 14, 2011

NHL Preseason 2011: 10 Games, Players and Battles to Watch for

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    Hockey is almost upon us.

    Although the 2011-2012 NHL season is still four weeks away, training camp is just getting into full swing for many teams, and the preseason is just around the corner.

    With a new club joining the league for the first time since 2000, there are more eyes than ever on hockey this September as all 30 squads take the ice for the first time in quite a while. Winnipeg's return to the league isn't the only thing to watch for, however; the rest of the preseason is also sure to raise some eyebrows.

    Despite the lack of a Ilya Kovalchuk-esque saga, quite a few top-class players still remain as restricted free agents at the moment—will they sign in time for the training camp opener? Additionally, this month might give us a glimpse at how will some of the biggest FA's of the summer will mesh with their new teams.

    A number of roster spot battles are starting up around the league, too, which is always something to keep an eye on before the real season starts. And, of course, a few key games stand out on the schedule that might deserve a tune-in.

    To be brought up to date on all of the questionable players, prospect battles and intriguing matchups to watch for this preseason, just click the "begin slideshow" key below.

The Winnipeg Jets

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    The league's newest team, the Winnipeg Jets, finally have their chance to show how they can perform on the ice after months of talk surrounding the club's off-the-ice headlines.

    However, while fans in Manitoba are justifiably exuberant over the return of NHL hockey to the province, there's also the team itself to worry about. Winnipeg is inheriting an Atlanta Thrashers roster that is full of uncertainties and finished 12th in the Eastern Conference last season, after all.

    To add even more to the mystique, the new ownership made very few changes to the squad this offseason. Just a few minor players were brought in—namely Eric Fehr, Tanner Glass and Randy Jones—while Anthony Stewart, Eric Boulton and Rob Schremp all departed.

    The first glimpse of the team will be on September 20, when they will face the Columbus Blue Jackets in two split-squad games on one night. Four days later, the entire roster will play their first game all together in their new jerseys against the Nashville Predators.

    After two more road games facing off against the Carolina Hurricanes and Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg will play their first home game all together in the MTS Centre on Sept. 28 versus Carolina. The Jets will play at home again on the 30, hosting the Preds, to finish out the preseason.

    All eyes will be on Winnipeg as they compete this preseason, so make sure you don't miss checking out the entirely new get-up at least once before the true season opener.

    How To Watch: The Sept. 26 game at Ottawa and Sept. 28 game against Carolina will be available nationwide in Canada on CBC and TSN, respectively. All other games will be televised locally on TSN-Jets.

Rivalry Overload

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    With preseason schedules determined by the teams themselves, not a league-wide scheduling system, training camp matchups often feature a smoothie of same-region clubs pitted continually against one another. While this makes for quite a bit of repetition, it also leads to a sizable number of rivalry games on each and every night of the preseason.

    This month, we noticed a few recurrent rivalries that just can't be missed.

    Two particularly longstanding and bitter rivalries will see quite a bit of revisiting during the preseason, as Chicago and Detroit will meet twice, on the 25th and 28th of September, as will Edmonton and Calgary, who have a back-to-back on the 24th and 25th.

    A few other budding duels also caught our eye. The Devils and Rangers are planning to see each other on the 21st and 23rd; meanwhile, Los Angeles and Anaheim are also going to double-dip into their neighboring markets on the 25th and 30th. Furthermore, the Bruins and Canadiens, arguably the most exciting rivalry of 2010-2011, are also scheduled for consecutive meetings on the 25th and 26th.

    Albeit only the preseason, the abundance of these fierce rivalries should bring their fare share of emotions into play, even if their only result is to further enthuse each team's roster-spot combatants.

    How To Watch: The Devils-Rangers games will be televised locally on MSG...the Calgary vs. Edmonton match on the 25th is available on SNET-West (with no coverage on the 24th)...RDS will cover both Canadiens games against the Bruins...the first 'Hawks-'Wings battle is set for FSN-Detroit and WGN while the second can be seen across the U.S. on Versus...Neither Ducks-Kings game is currently planned to have TV coverage.

Must-See Games

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    Rivalries may be the headline generators of the preseason as far as matchups go, but a handful of other games caught our eye.

    Down south, the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning will go at it on September 23rd in St. Pete Times Forum. That will be the real debut of the Cats newly-recreated team (they play split-squad games on the 19th), which took the hockey world by storm this past July as GM Dave Tallon added seven forwards, two defensemen and one goalie in Spetznaz-esque speed.

    Former Stanley Cup winners Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky will join fellow signings Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Marcel Goc, Sean Bergenheim and Matt Bradley in Florida's much-improved offensive lineup. Top-pairing blueliners Ed Jovanovski and Brian Campbell will solidify the "D", too, and Jose Theodore will replace Tomas Vokoun. With the sheer talent and diversity of those additions, '11-'12 is bound to be an exciting and fascinating year in Sunrise, and that game on the 23rd will hopefully get it kicked off in dramatic fashion.

    The hockey world will get to see another big news-generating team this summer—the Los Angeles Kings—a few days later on September 27. The Kings brought in star forwards Simon Gagne from Tampa Bay and Mike Richards from Philadelphia, but have so far failed to re-sign cornerstone defenseman Drew Doughty (we'll get into that more later).

    All of this should be on display here, as L.A. goes up against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who may or may not have the services of Sidney Crosby at their disposal, in a most intriguing setting: the state-of-the-art Sprint Center in Kansas City.

    Lastly, two separate contests between the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues on the 23rd and 29th are also worth seeing. Both teams are under-the-radar picks to be dark horse playoff candidates in the West this year, and their opposing inexperience and finesse-oriented styles make for two well-matched games.

    Further strengthening the storylines for this one are the noteworthy additions of the offseason for both teams. St. Louis went out and landed veterans Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott, while the Avs made moves to solidify their netminding by acquiring Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastian Giguere.

    How To Watch: Unfortunately, none of these games are available on television, but you will be able to listen in on NHL Radio as well as on in-market stations.

Nationwide Telecasts

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    This year's preseason is stacked full of attention-grabbing games, which has, combined with increasing interest in the sport, finally opened it up to nationwide television networks. At last, a few of these games have managed to make it onto the program guide of the major hockey networks.

    In Canada, TSN and CBC have picked up nine nationally televised games combined. The Bruins visit to Ottawa on Sept. 21 kicks off the nationally-televised preseason action, followed by a Vancouver-Edmonton game the next day—both on TSN. CBC has a doubleheader on Saturday the 24th, with Toronto at Buffalo at 7 ET followed by Anaheim at Vancouver at 10 ET.

    The following week, Canadian viewers will see hockey three nights in a row starting on Monday. Winnipeg heads to Ottawa on the 26th (TV is CBC), the Flames host the Islanders the next day (TSN) and then the Jets complete their back-to-back by hosting Carolina that Wednesday (TSN).

    For American hockey fans, Versus—soon to be NBC Sports Net—has chosen four games to televise across the country, three of which are highlighted by Ilya Bryzgalov and the Philadelphia Flyers.

    Versus will cover Toronto's and New Jersey's visits to the Wells Fargo Center on the 21st and 29th, respectively, as well as the Flyers' voyage to Madison Square Garden on the 26th. Sandwiched in the middle (on the 28th) is one of the two aforementioned Blackhawks-Red Wings contests this month.

    Preseason hockey televised on such a large scale is a rarity in the realms of the NHL, so be sure to catch every minute you can of these wide-audience telecasts.

Games at Special Locations

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    One of the most iconic signatures is of preseason hockey is the diversity, not just in the rosters, but also in the locations.

    The NHL preseason spreads out real exhibitions to an extensive variety of arenas in minor-league and non-hockey cities. Among the most notable special locations in 2011 is Kansas City, which is beginning to attract some attention from relocation speculators, Las Vegas, a strange sleeper in the relocation discussion and Saskatoon, the only other major city in the new Winnipeg market.

    The Kraft Hockeyville Special will be played between Ottawa and Winnipeg in Conception Bay South, Nova Scotia. The Canada-wide contest was won by St. John's, Nova Scotia, but the game's location was moved slightly due to lack of a suitable arena.

    A full schedule of all special location games this preseason is below.

    Special Location Preseason Games 2011

    Baltimore, Maryland: Capitals vs. Predators, 1st Mariner Arena, Sept. 20

    Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, Credit Union Centre, Sept. 20

    Albany, New York: Devils vs. Rangers, Times Union Center, Sept. 21

    Orlando, Florida: Blues vs. Lightning, Amway Arena, Sept. 21

    London, Ontario: Red Wings vs. Flyers, John Labatt Centre, Sept. 22

    Charlotte, North Carolina: Jets vs. Hurricanes, Time Warner Cable Arena, Sept. 25

    Halifax, Nova Scotia: Bruins vs. Canadiens, Halifax Metro Centre, Sept. 25

    Conception Bay South, Nova Scotia: Jets vs. Senators, One Mile Centre, Sept. 26

    Kansas City, Missouri: Penguins vs. Kings, Sprint Center, Sept. 27

    Bridgeport, Connecticut: Bruins vs. Islanders, Webster Bank Arena, Oct. 1

    Quebec City, Quebec: Canadiens vs. Lightning, Colisee Pepsi, Oct. 1

    Las Vegas, Nevada: Avalanche vs. Kings, Grand Garden Arena, Oct. 1

New York Rangers European Journey

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    The New York Rangers will be easily the busiest NHL team over the next month, as they play just three preseason games in North America before embarking on a two-week odyssey across central Europe.

    After two games against the Devils and one against the Flyers, the Blueshirts have a mere three day break before taking the ice for the first time on the other side of the Atlantic. New York will first play Sparta Praha of Prague, Czech Republic, on the 29th, followed by an exhibition against Goteburg in Gothenburg, Sweden the next day.

    Once they rest up (and rack up more frequent flier miles) on the 31st and 1st, the Rangers then will then face the local team in Bratislava, Slovakia, and then play their fourth and final European preseason match against Zug, Switzerland on October 3.

    The grueling journey isn't just for the preseason, though; the Rangers will also take part in the 2011 NHL Premiere on the 7th and 8th. New York opens the regular season against Los Angeles on Day One and Anaheim on Day Two, with both games being played in Stockholm, Sweden.

    The key target for most of the media attention across this hectic trek will be Brad Richards, the Rangers' most hyped free agent signing in quite some time. With Marian Gaborik coming off of a relatively poor season, all eyes will be focused on how well this pair performs against such unfamiliar opponents.

    However, the underlying storyline, at least for the time itself, will most certainly be the travel. In a matter of 12 days, New York's entire team will travel approximately 10,570 miles—the same distance as flying from the Big Apple to L.A. four different times.

    Note: Distances courtesy of GeoBytes.com.

Ottawa Senators Prospect Battle

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    Arguably the biggest disaster and disappointment of the 2010-'11 season, the Ottawa Senators are starting anew this autumn, and that means a lot of competition—and a lot of youngsters—battling for jobs during training camp.

    For the moment, it appears as if four spots on offense and two on defense are up for grabs for youngsters. That's not to say, though, that there is a lack of candidates to fill those positions.

    In terms of forwards, the Sens have a lot to choose from considering their AHL farm team, Binghamton, won the league championship last spring. Members of that squad vying for inclusion in Ottawa include Colin Greening (who had 13 points in 24 NHL games last year), Erik Condra (11 points in 24 games), Bobby Butler (21 points in 36 games), Jim O'Brien, Kaspars Daugavins and team star Zack Smith (nine points in 55 games).

    Ottawa's first round pick in the 2011 NHL draft, Mika Zibanejad, is another good bet to grab a spot, and recent entry-level contract signees Stephane Da Costa, Wacey Hamilton, Louie Caporusso and Patrick Cannone are also in the mix.

    Back on the blue line, more Calder Cup winners abound in the training camp scramble; Eric Gryba, Patrick Wierioch, Craig Shira and 2009 first rounder Jared Cowen are all present. Other prospects Mark Borowiecki and David Rundbland also join the 'D'-men.

    With such a humongous collection of youngsters vying for a job on the Opening Day roster, the Senators official lineup is not something to you want to forget about as the preseason wears on.

Other Roster Battles of Interest

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    Although they'll most definitely attract the most attention in this field, Ottawa isn't the only squad with an intriguing roster battle on their hands.

    In Carolina, this year's prospects fighting for spots have some expectations in front of them—they'll be following behind Jeff Skinner, who was one of the winners of last year's camp. With two spots on offense left open, there should be lots of competition as four top-notch youngsters battle it out: Zach Boychuk, a former first round selection who hasn't quite lived up to his potential yet, Zac Dalpe, a former second rounder, Drayson Bowman, a former third round pick and Jerome Samson, a local undrafted player.

    Last year, while also helping AHL Charlotte make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals, three of the four played 23 games at the NHL level (only Dalpe made just 15 appearances). Boychuk's four goals and seven points led the group, followed by Dalpe's three tallies and one helper. The four-some have a total of 131 games of top-level experience under their belts.

    Elsewhere, two defensive battles are bringing in the big hitters.

    For the Minnesota Wild, recently-inked first round choice Jonas Brodin will fight for an Opening Day job along with Jared Spurgeon, the surest bet to make it with 53 games played last season, Marco Scandella, who saw 20 games of action, too, and Tyler Cuma, the 23rd overall selection in the '08 draft.

    Futhermore, the Nashville Predators, who generally manage to boast a rock-solid defense, have 24-year-old Teemu Laakso, 22-year-old Jonathan Blum, 21-year-olds Mattias Ekholm and Roman Josi and 20-year-old Ryan Ellis invited to camp. Everyone listed was a fourth round pick or better in their draft year, including two first rounders—Blum in '07 and Ellis in '09.

Contract Waits

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    If the summer of 2010 was the year of free agent drama, the summer of the 2011 is the year of free agent stubbornness. Some of the best restricted free agents of the year have still not signed with their clubs, leaving many to speculate which major stars will force their hand to get a trade.

    In Los Angeles, the headliner of the contract holdouts, Drew Doughty, continues to not budge after rejecting a massive $61 million deal last week. The 21-year-old former second overall pick has been a staple top-pairing player along with Jack Johnson over the past three seasons, and was rewarded with an invitation to the 2011 All Star Game. He reportedly wants a salary closer to $8 or possibly even $9 million.

    In Winnipeg and Toronto, two more young defensemen—Zach Bogosian and Luke Shenn, respectively—are also lacking on the contract end. The two past top-10 draft picks have expectations on opposite ends of the production scale, with Bogosian more of a power-play quarterback while Shenn standing tall in his own end. Coming off of relative down seasons, these two players could have contract sagas that go on well into training camp.

    For the defending Stanley Cup champions, one of the Bruins' playoff heroes, Brad Marchand, has stayed in the shadows most of the summer, but has shockingly not recieved an extension, either. The sneaky center had 21 goals in his rookie season of '10-'11 and then boasted 11 scores, second-best in the NHL, 19 points and a plus-12 rating in 25 playoff games. He is said to be very willing to sign a new contract, but the Bruins seem to be having some trouble getting their act together and signing him.

    Lastly, a different sort of contract holdout is continuing in Anaheim, where ancient yet still productive forward Teemu Selanne remains waiting for a God-given message on his retirement future. The 42-year-old scored a whopping 80 points a year ago, but, given that he's been playing since 1992, it may yet be time for him to go.

    Update: As of 1:02 PM ET, NHL.com's Adam Kimelman is reporting that Marchand has signed a two-year, $5.0 million deal in Boston. Will some of these other holdouts soon follow suit, or will they stay off the ice even as the preseason begins?

    Update No. 2: It seems this overview set off a firestorm of re-signings. NHL.com reports at 4:49 PM ET that Zach Bogosian has been re-signed by Winnipeg on the same terms as Marchand - two years at $2.5 million each. Could Doughty be next in line?

Teams to Watch Closely

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    Through the traffic jam of must-see games, must-watch battles and must-follow holdouts, it can be hard to keep things straight during the preseason. Well, we will make it even tougher: here are five teams that you can't ignore this September.

    Columbus Blue Jackets: The small-market team is Ohio, long the suitor of Rick Nash and pretty much no one else you've ever heard of, finally has some big names to build around; a true center, Jeff Carter, and a true offensive defenseman, James Wisniewski. Without worrying about the size of their contracts, it's undoubtable that this new firepower will give the Jackets more of a presence in the stacked Central Division.

    Los Angeles Kings: From the additions of Simon Gagne and Mike Richards to the wait on Drew Doughty to the game in Kansas City, L.A. is going huge this preseason. We fully expect them to be the talk of the league over the next several weeks, and with a lot of experts also jumping on board their ever-growing bandwagon, the Kings might just end up on of the most-discussed teams of the season, in truth.

    Buffalo Sabres: Christian Ehrhoff took a tour of northern North America last June, but finally settled in Buffalo, where he'll take a major role in a team on the verge of returning to their '06-era dynasty status. Risky but talent-laden Ville Leino was also signed to supplement an offense already thrilled with the return of Derek Roy, additionally, so expect some big things out of Buffalo.

    Minnesota Wild: A year's worth of trades with the San Jose Sharks has given the spark that the Wild were hoping for, but now we have to see if that fresh new energy will actually improve this perennial underperformer. Hopefully, Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley can bring the explosiveness and experience to jumpstart the goal-scoring.

    San Jose Sharks: On the other end of the Minnesota trades was San Jose. The Sharks seem to have finally ended their continual playoff woes, but, nonetheless, they've yet to take it all the way. Brent Burns is a huge addition to a blue line that was suffering from a major gap between the old and young, and more reliable veterans Martin Havlat and Michal Handzus are expected to be an improvement over past-his-prime Heatley. Keep an eye on this team this September just to ensure that the spruced-up roster is meshing as well as planned.

    Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. In his 35 months so far with the site, he has written over 305 articles and received more than 350,000 total reads.

    Visit his profile to read more, or follow him on Twitter.