Monday, September 10, 2018

NHL Preview 2018-19: Montréal Canadiens

GM: Marc Bergevin (since 2012). 5/10
Coach: Claude Julien (second stint, since 2017). 7.5/10

2017-18 record: 29-40-13, 71 points, 28th overall, out of playoffs.

Departures: Max Pacioretty (RW), Alex Galchenyuk (C), Daniel Carr (LW).

Arrivals: Max Domi (LW), Michael Chaput (C), Xavier Ouellet (D) Joel Armia (RW), Kenny Agostino (RW), Matthew Peca (C), Tomas Plekanec (C), Tomas Tatar (LW).

Top forwards: Jonathan Drouin (55-65 points), Domi (45-55 points), Phillip Danault (35-45 points), Brendan Gallagher (50-55 points), Tatar (40-50 points), Artturi Lehkonen (20-30 points), Tomas Plekanec (20-30 points), Nicolas Deslauriers (20-30 points), Andrew Shaw (30 points), Paul Byron (35-45 points), Charles Hudon (30-40 points).

Must-improve forwards: Domi was acquired in exchange for Galchenyuk, a third-overall draft pick who still leads his draft class in points to this day and has a 30-goal season under his belt. Domi? Two straight 9-goal seasons in Arizona. He needs to find his inner Brad Marchand and add some goal-scoring to his game, to go with the dumb penalties and suspensions.

Top defensemen: Shea Weber (30 points), Jeff Petry (30-35 points), Mike Reilly (30 points), Karl Alzner (10-15 points), Noah Juulsen (20 points), Victor Mete (10-20 points).

Goalies: Carey Price (84/100), Charlie Lindgren (79), Antti Niemi (75/100).

Top rookies: Juulsen (21 years old, D, 2015 first-round draft pick), Charlie Lindgren (24, G), Jesperi Kotkaniemi (18, C, third-overall pick in 2018), Nick Suzuki (19, C, first-round pick in 2017), Ryan Poehling (19, C, first-round pick in 2017), Jake Evans (22, C, 2014 draft pick).

So, there's that Domi thing. That's three summers in a row where Bergevin trades away his actual best player for an admittedly below-value asset. But then there's the Pacioretty-for-Tatar/Suzuki/second-rounder - and that's just amazing value for a leader who can't lead and a scorer who can't score, let alone when they're the same guy.

Tatar's not the second coming of The Rocket, but if the Habs had had him on their second line two years ago, with that dependable two-way play and assured 20-25 goals, it may have prolonged Plekanec's career as a middle-six forward in the NHL by a couple of seasons.

Of course, Montréal's biggest problem isn't the fact that their lack of offensive depth has them having to focus on winning 2-1 games; it's the fact that past Weber, Petry, and Mete, they will have to rely on a youngster like Juulsen to make the roster and hope Reilly reaching age 25 will have him become a full-time NHLer, because we saw last season that Alzner cannot play in Julien's system and Jordie Benn and David Schlemko need to be #8 Ds in the NHL, or else your team's in trouble; Benn and Schlemko played upwards of 18 minutes per game last year and Alzner over 20, with Benn suiting up in 77 games and Alzner playing in all 82. And that's saying nothing of the wear-and-tear on Weber's 33-year-old body, or his contract, which runs until the end of time.

Speaking of which, behind that rag-tag group of glorified AHLers stands (kneels?) a guy who will take up over 1/8th of the team's salary cap for the next eight years by himself, the oft-injured, buckling-under-pressure, one-season wonder and perennial All-Star Price, he of the 3.11 GAA and .900 save percentage last season, far behind Niemi's 2.46/.929 and Lindgren's 3.03/.908. Price had a single shutout in 49 games last year; Niemi had one in 19, and Lindgren had two, in 14 games.

There's worse, though, because the shit-show known as the Ottawa Senators exists.

The future is bright for the Canadiens. Mete, Juulsen, and Reilly on the back end could be mainstays for at least half a decade, maybe more; Drouin's still pretty young, Domi could become a fine middle-six winger, Kotkaniemi and Poehling could become a very good one-two punch at center, Hudon's always there to take a spot on a second line at least temporarily, Danault is still just 25 and able to fill an offensive role in case of an injury and young guys like Nikita Scherbak, Lehkonen, Deslauriers and Michael McCarron may develop well under Joel Bouchard in the AHL to fill valuable roles in Montréal.

But that's all at least a couple of years away, and it will require at least an upgrade on defense and between the pipes.

Prediction: 7th in the Atlantic Division, out of the playoff picture, but ahead of the Sens.

Friday, September 7, 2018

NHL Preview 2018-19: Carolina Hurricanes

GM: Don Wadell (since 2018). 7/10
Coach: Rod Brind'Amour (since 2018). 7/10

2017-18 record: 36-35-11, 83 points, 21st overall, out of the playoffs.

Departures: Cam Ward (G), Noah Hanifin (D), Elias Lindholm (LW), Joakim Nordstrom (RW), Derek Ryan (C), Marcus Kruger (C), Jeff Skinner (LW).

Arrivals: Petr Mrazek (G), Micheal Ferland (LW), Calvin De Haan (D), Dougie Hamilton (D).

Top forwards: Sebastian Aho (60-70 points), Teuvo Teravainen (50-65 points), Victor Rask (40-45 points), Jordan Staal (40-45 points), Justin Williams (40-45 points), Andrei Svechnikov (20 goals and 40-50 points).

Must-improve forward: Rask should be delivering more than 14 goals and 31 points, regarless of the fact that he missed 11 games; he still suited up in 71, he should have hit the 20-goal and 40-point marks.

Top defensemen: Hamilton (45-55 points), Justin Faulk (35-40 points), Jaccob Slavin (30-40 points), De Haan (30-35 points), Brett Pesce (15-20 points).

Goalies: Scott Darling (75/100), Mrazek (73/100).

Top rookies: Svechnikov (18 years old, RW, second-overall pick in 2018), Julien Gauthier (21, RW, 2016 first-round draft pick), Martin Necas (19, C, 2017 first-round draft pick), Nicolas Roy (21, C, 6'4"), Adam Fox (20, D), Jake Bean (20, D, 2016 first-round draft pick), Valentin Zykov (23, LW).

How do you know a team went through an overhaul? They're the 2018-19 Hurricanes: New owner, new GM, new head coach. A mainstay on defense (Hanifin) and an established forward (Lindholm) - both of whom were about to get raises as established young players who were restricted free agents - traded for a top-five offensive defenseman (Hamilton), a prospect (Fox) and some sandpaper (Ferland). New alternate jersey.

Out with the old: Ward and Skinner. Out with the old Chicago players: Kruger.

The Canes just forgot to add themselves an actual goalie, as Darling might not be cut out for a starter's job and neither is Mrazek, which we know for a fact after failing in Detroit and Philadelphia. At the risk of repeating myself, Jaroslav Halak was available.

Up front, Aho's the real deal; he'll finish in the top-5 in scoring every other year for the next decade, and Teravainen heads up a terrific supporting cast. Too bad the NHL is particularly strong in the Metro, meaning the Canes will once again learn at the school of hard knocks.

Prediction: 7th in the Metropolitan Division, but possibly just 5 points shy of a playoff spot. Yes, that's the same prediction as last year.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

NHL Preview 2018-19: Buffalo Sabres

GM: Jason Botterill (since 2017). 8/10
Coach: Phil Housley (since 2017). 8/10

2017-18 record: 25-45-12, 62 points, 31st overall, out of the playoffs.

Departures: Ryan O'Reilly (C), Robin Lehner (G), Chad Johnson (G).

Arrivals: Matt Hunwick (D), Connor Sheary (LW), Patrik Berglund (C), Tage Thompson (C), Vladimir Sobotka (LW), Carter Hutton (G), Scott Wedgewood (D), oh and Jeff Skinner (LW).

Top forwards: Jack Eichel (70-85 points), Skinner (45-55 points), Sam Reinhart (40-55 points), Kyle Okposo (35-45 points), Casey Mittelstadt (35-45 points), Pominville (40-45 points), Sobotka (30 points), Berglund (30 points), Alexander Nylander (30-40 points in his rookie year would be nice).

Must-improve forward: Okposo used to be a 30-goal forward. Of course, he played with John Tavares back then. Eichel may become as good as Tavares, but he's not there yet - and by then, maybe Okposo will have been bought out.

Top defensemen: Rasmus Ristolainen (40-50 points), Rasmus Dahlin (look for 35-45 points in his NHL debut), Marco Scandella (20-30 points), Jake McCabe (20 points), Zach Bogosian (20 points).

Goalies: Hutton (79/100) as #1 goalie by default, Linus Ullmark (78/100).

Top rookies: Nylander (20 years old, RW), Dahlin (18, D, first-overall pick in 2018), Mittelstadt (19, C), Brendan Guhle (21, D), Rasmus Asplund (20, C).

The Sabres will be the NHL's most-improved team, with a third line essentially lifted from the Blues that can finally stop the opposition, improved youngsters and the addition-by-subtraction of ROR moving on to Missouri. Captain Eichel will finally be able to rally "his" team instead of having his message muddled by a dissatisfied voice. Former captain Pominville will surely help in that regard.

Skinner is a potential 30-goal man who can play on the first line on a weak team or middle-six on a contender. The problem for the Sabres is they're two or three years (and a goalie) away from being one, and Skinner's going to be a free agent at the end of the year; if he performs well in the first half of the season, the team might be willing to sign him long-term at $7-8M per, which would be a huge mistake, not just because he's more fragile than thin ice, but also because he's not a lock for 55 points, let alone more.

Speaking of not-60-point-men, at 30 and 31 years old, it's safe to say Sobotka and Berglund will never be the point producers St. Louis had hoped for. However, they're dependable middle-six guys (ideally on a third line) who will not feel out of place in Buffalo, wearing blue and yellow.

I can live with the Sabres' defense, but I'm really not sold on their goaltending. Hutton is not a #1 and Ullmark is not yet ready, if he ever will be. A 40/45-game stopgap would have been preferable to Hutton, say a Ryan Miller or a Jaroslav Halak.

I think the Sabres will start hot but cool off in February; they should miss the playoffs by just a couple of wins.

Prediction: 5th in the Atlantic Division

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

NHL Preview 2018-19: Philadelphia Flyers

GM: Ron Hextall (since 2014). 9/10
Coach: Dave Hakstoll (since 2015). 5/10

2017-18 record: 42-26-14, 98 points, 13th overall, first-round exit to Pittsburgh in 6 valiantly-disputed games.

Departures: Matt Read (RW), Petr Mrazek (G), Johnny Oduya (D), Brandon Manning (D), Valtteri Filppula (C).

Arrivals: James Van Riemsdyk (LW), Christian Folin (D).

Top forwards: Claude Giroux (70-90 points), Jakub Voracek (70-85 points), Wayne Simmonds (40-45 points), Sean Couturier (65-75 points), Nolan Patrick (35-50 points), Travis Konecky (30-40 points), Van Riemsdyk (45-55 points, 30-35 goals), Jordan Weal (20 points).

Must-improve forwards: Simmonds is a very good hockey player who plays hard. There is no reason why he can't reach the 50- or even the 60-point mark.

Top defensemen: Shayne Gostisbehere (45-55 points), Ivan Provorov (30-45 points), Travis Sanheim (15-25 points), Radko Gudas (10-20 points), Robert Hagg (20 points).

Goalies: Brian Elliott (81/100), Michal Neuvirth (72/100), Anthony Stolarz (75/100).

Top rookies: Oskar Lindblom (21 years old, LW), Philippe Myers (21, D), Morgan Frost (19, C, first-round pick in 2017), Carter Hart (20, G), German Rubtsov (20, C, first-round pick in 2016).

Ron Hextall has proven to be one of the better GMs in the NHL. He's stacked a roster of blue-chip prospects (Gostisbehere, Provorov, Hagg, Patrick, Samuel Morin, Sanheim) to an elite veteran core (Giroux, Voracek, JVR, Couturier, Simmonds).

The Flyers are a very good goalie and good had coach (or vice versa) away from being true Stanley Cup contenders for a decade. I can't comprehend why they didn't try to sign Barry Trotz, Darryl Sutter or Alain Vigneault to replace Hakstoll last summer, because half the job would've been done already. There's also the fact that the Blue Jackets will not be able to re-sign former Flyers netminder Sergei Bobrovsky - a.k.a. the best goalie in the league in the regular season - making him available via trade.

There's a curse in the Flyers' net, and perhaps even Bob can't cure it. But a good system would limit the chances against in the defensive zone and might be able to mask or shelter a middle-of-the-pack starting goalie if that were to be needed. Just for a while, until Stolarz or Hart can take over the crease.

This team is on the verge of greatness. The NHL needs its classic teams (Habs, Leafs, Bruins, Wings, Hawks, Pens, Flyers, Rangers, Oilers, Jets, Flames, Isles) to be good at least 60% of the time, perhaps even 75% of it, to be exciting - and having Philly back on top would only mean great things and healthier rivalries.

Prediction: 2nd in the Metropolitan Division.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

NHL Preview 2018-19: St. Louis Blues

GM: Doug Armstrong (since 2010). 6/10
Coach: Mike Yeo (since 2017). 5/10

2017-18 record: 44-32-6, 94 points, 18th overall.

Departures: Carter Hutton (G), Kyle Brodziak (C), Patrik Berglund (C), Vladimir Sobotka (LW), Tage Thompson (C).

Arrivals: David Perron (RW), Tyler Bozak (C), Patrick Maroon (LW), Brian Flynn (C), Chad Johnson (G), Ryan O'Reilly (C), Jordan Nolan (C).

Top forwards: Vladimir Tarasenko (75-80 points), Jaden Schwartz (55-70 points), Brayden Schenn (55-70 points), Alexander Steen (40-45 points), O'Reilly (45-65 points, probably closer to 60 since it's first year with the team), Maroon (20-30 points), Robby Fabbri (30-40 points, depending how many games he misses to injury), Bozak (20-40 points), Ivan Barbashev (20-30 points).

Must-improve forward: GM Armstrong got rid of the usual suspects (Berglund, Sobotka, even Paul Stastny at the trade deadline), which leaves the ghost of Alex Steen. He's being paid like a 60-point player but has not reached that level of production since 2014-15. He's 34, so chances are he'll never reach those numbers again.

Top defensemen: Alex Pietrangelo (45-50 points), Colton Parayko (35-40 points), Joel Edmundson (15-25 points), Vince Dunn (10-20 points), Jay Bouwmeester (10 points).

Goalies: Jake Allen (80/100), Johnson (65/100).

Top rookies: Jordan Kyrou (20 years old, C), Robert Thomas (19, C, 2017 first-rounder), Samuel Blais (22, LW), Jake Walman (22, D), Klim Kostin (19, C, 6'3", 212 pounds), Ville Husso (23, G).

Mike Yeo is not an NHL-caliber coach.

The Blues' players have a history of choking in high-pressure situations; the core used to be made up of Team USA chokers, now they're mostly just very experienced playoff under-performers.

Jake Allen needs an elite goaltending coach, someone whose goalies wins Vezinas, or else he's done as a starter. Johnson's not any better. In fact, he's among the lower tier of NHL backups.

Bouwmeester has looked like an already-retired defenseman at times last year, and it's not going to get any better for him this year.

The Blues have plenty of good pieces to build around in Tarasenko, Schwartz, the good Schenn, and Pietrangelo, but a bunch of uncoachable guys who just managed to get rid of Ken Hitchcock just got coach-killer and selfish star two-way center O'Reilly added to the roster. Look at his time in Colorado, look at his time in Buffalo: he's at his best on mediocre teams because he can't stand not being the best player around, and he gets jealous when he's not the de facto leader, then just stops trying altogether.

This could turn out to be a spectacular shit-show. Chances are Yeo and Armstrong won't be in town at this time next year.

Prediction: 5th in the Central Division.

Monday, September 3, 2018

NHL Preview 2018-19: Boston Bruins

GM: Don Sweeney (since 2015). 6/10
Coach: Bruce Cassidy (since 2017). 7.5/10

2017-18 record: 50-20-12, 112 points, 4th overall, 2nd in the Atlantic. Eliminated in second round.

Departures: Anton Khudobin (G), Riley Nash (C), Nick Holden (D), Tim Schaller (C), Kenny Agostino (RW), Austin Czarnik (C).

Arrivals: Jaroslav Halak (G), Joakim Nordstrom (LW), John Moore (D), Chris Wagner (C).

Top forwards: David Pastrnak (65-80 points), Brad Marchand (60-75 points, 35 goals), Patrice Bergeron (55-65 points, amazing face-off numbers), David Krejci (55-65 points), Ryan Spooner (30-40 points), Frank Vatrano (20-30 points).

Must-improve forward: David Backes. Again. 33 points last year. 38 the year before that. 45 the year before that. 58 the year before that. That's a pretty constant regression. Like Milan Lucic in Edmonton, he's starting to look like a extremely expensive fourth-line grinder.

Top defensemen: Torey Krug (40-50 points), Charlie McAvoy (35-40 points), Zdeno Chara (20-30 points), Brandon Carlo (20-35 points), Kevan Miller (15-22 points).

Goalies: Tuuka Rask (90/100), Halak (88/100).

Top rookies: Ryan Donato (22, C), Urho Vaakanainen (19, 18th overall pick in 2017, D), Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson (22, C), Zachary Senyshyn (21, 15th overall pick in 2015, RW), Jakob Sboril (21, 13th overall pick in 2015, D).

I was hard on head coach Cassidy last year. The truth of the matter is he led his team to a fourth-place finish when they should be rebuilding, what with all the veterans they have. He also helped Marchand focus on playing hockey for 97% of the time he's on the ice, making him a lethal offensive force when paired with Pastrnak and Bergeron. He'll still fly off the handle a few times, but he seems like less of a diver/faker nowadays, at least.

McAvoy, Krug, Chara and Carlo make a decent top-4 on the back end, but look for Chara to regress more and more as his 40s take hold; take a look at Jagr, who seemed timeless and immortal on the Panthers' first line then with just one summer of not training at full capacity (he was spending more time looking for a job than preparing for it) went on to become a healthy scratch in Calgary - that's what awaits #33 eventually. Soon. And injuries will also start piling up on his 41-year-old body, each one harder to come back from. I wouldn't be surprised if he was already a gigantic jumble of arthritis and pain.

Rask is still an elite goaltender. As I said last year, he just needed help. He gets that with Halak, a 1A goalie who could be in the crease for as many as 41 games, leaving Rask rested for the playoffs. And ready to take over if Rask keeps failing in the Spring.

Offensively for the Bruins, the biggest question mark is Krejci. Will he again miss nearly half a season of play? Can he get back to the 60-70-point mark? At 32, he should still be in what's left of his prime, but he fell to 44 points in 64 games last year and only hit the 20-goal mark once in the last six years. If he can't put up at least 45-50 assists to compensate, he's a waste of $7.25M on the second line.

Boston still desperately needs to add depth both on their third and fourth lines and in their bottom-pairings to make a dent in the playoff picture. A lot of teams have what it takes to make the playoffs close to a Wild Card spot, but only a few powerhouses have rosters that, on paper, project to go deep. The Bruins lack what the Bolts, Preds, Caps, Jackets and Jets have - a line-up that doesn't have five-to-ten minutes per game where the other team just has free reign on the ice because the guys playing are a deep cut below the opposition's in terms of raw talent.

Prediction: 3rd in the Atlantic Division.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

NHL Preview 2018-19: Arizona Coyotes

GM: John Chayka (since 2016). 7/10
Coach: Rick Tocchet (since 2017). 6/10

2017-18 record: 29-41-12, 70 points, 29th overall.

Departures: Max Domi (C), Zac Rinaldo (LW), Luke Schenn (D), Joel Hanley (D), Jordan Martinook (LW).

Arrivals: Alex Galchenyuk (C), Vinnie Hinostroza (C), Michael Grabner (RW), Hudson Fasching (RW), Jordan Oesterle (D).

Top forwards: Derek Stepan (55-65 points), Galchenyuk (60-65 points), Clayton Keller (55-60 points), Dylan Strome (40-50 points), Christian Dvorak (30-40 points), Grabner (30-40 points), Richard Panik (35-40 points), Christian Fischer (30-35 points), Brendan Perlini (25-30 points).

Must-improve forward: Strome had a difficult start to the season last year but finished strong, with 8 points in the team's final 10 games. He's being penciled in as the franchise's long-term #2 center, although he may start on the wing. He may not be ready to fill that role yet, but he needs to consistently put points up on the svcoreboard at a rate of one per two games regardless.

Top defensemen: Oliver Ekman-Larsson (40-50 points), Alex Goligoski (30-40 points), Jakob Chychrun (20-30 points), Jason Demers (25-30 points), Niklas Hjalmarsson (20-25 points).

Goalies: Antti Raanta (87/100), Darcy Kuemper (77/100).

Top rookies: Barrett Hayton (18, 5th overall pick in 23018), Pierre-Olivier Joseph (19, D, 23rd overall pick in 2017), Christian Fischer (21, RW), Adin Hill (22, G), Nick Merkley (21, C, 2015 first-round draft pick), Tyler Steenbergen (20, C).

The 'Yotes took a step back last year, falling two spots to 29th overall, albeit with the same amount of points as the previous seasons.

How many lives does GM Chayka have? Well, he added essentially 50 goals by acquiring Galchenyuk and Grabner, which would take Arizona from 30th to 10th overall in last year's stats column. He's got some decent young players, enough for them to compete and for the team to have options going forward. And going back to the Peyote jersey is a great move as well.

Re-signing captain Ekman-Larsson was a no-brainer, and Raanta found his game as the season went on, so if it wasn't that the 'Yotes play in such a strong division, I might have pegged them as a playoff team instead of a bubble team.

Prediction: 7th in the Pacific Division.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

NHL Preview 2018-19: Anaheim Ducks

GM: Bob Murray (since 2008). 8/10
Coach: Randy Carlyle (second stint, since 2016). 8/10

2017-18 record: 44-25-13, 101 points, 8th overall, swept in the first round.

Departures: Kevin Bieksa (D), Jason Chimera (LW), Antoine Vermette (C), Derek Grant (C), Chris Kelly (RW), J.T. Brown (RW).

Arrivals: Luke Schenn (D).

Top forwards: Rickard Rakell (70-75 points), Ryan Getzlaf (captain, 60-70 points), Corey Perry (45-50 points), Jakob Silfverberg (50-60 points), Adam Henrique (50-60 points), Patrick Eaves (15 goals), Andrew Cogliano (30-40 points), Ryan Kesler (30-35 points), Nick Ritchie (30 points).

Must-improve forwards: Perry is so far fromoved from his last 50-goal season in 2010-11 that it's a wonder why he's in the upper echelon salary-wise. Then again, so is Kesler, so that just may be the way things work in Anaheim. Silfverberg needs to bounce back as well.

Top defensemen: Cam Fowler (35-45 points), Josh Manson (30 points and over 100 penalty minutes), Sami Vatanen (30-40 points), Hampus Lindholm (25-35 points), Brandon Montour (25-30 points), Beauchemin (15 points), Rasmussen (eating up minutes for 50-65 games).

Goalies: John Gibson (91/100), Ryan Miller (83/100).

Top rookies: Sam Steel (20, C, 2016 first-rounder), Jacob Larsson (21 years old, D, 2015 first-rounder), Marcus Pettersson (22, D), Max Jones (20, LW, 2016 first-rounder), Troy Terry (21, C).

The Ducks are slowing down offensively as their defense and goalie are about to peak. It's a good thing some of the kids are ready to take over, but the aging veterans (Getzlaf, Eaves) and dead wood (Perry, Kesler) are here to stay barring summertime buyouts.

Gibson will win a Vezina in the next decade, whether that's this year or not. When he does, Anaheim will have an outlier season and win its division. In the meantime, they'll struggle and have to hustle to make the playoffs.

That being said, they do have good leadership and coaching, and with the right stroke of luck (early eliminations for all top teams, for instance) could become Stanley Cup contenders.

Prediction: 4th in the Pacific Division.