Sunday, September 26, 2010

Playoff Team Predictions: West and East


(1) Vancouver Canucks: An excellent balance of experience and youth, with many core players entering their prime. The Swedish Choir surprises me time and time again with its ability to survive in the Western Conference. An excellent season last year, some key defensive additions, and the insertion of some valuable role players will earn the Canucks 50+ wins this season. Above all, this team is no fun to play against.

(2) San Jose Sharks: Improvement in the goaltending position, coupled with the best line in hockey will take this team to the top tier once again. The Sharks will play 82 games worth of additional preseason, and will be judged solely on what takes place from April onwards.

(3) Chicago Blackhawks: I applaud Stan Bowman for his restructuring of this team through the offseason. Forced to cut bait with several key depth players, Bowman simply went out and replaced these positions with even more youthful energy. The core will continue to dominate, and the likes of Pisani, Stahlberg and Kopecky will exceed expectations in depth positions. Most importantly, the addition of Turco will actually prove to be an upgrade.

(4) Detroit Red Wings: Detroit made the playoffs last season despite a wave of injuries last season, illustrating the stability of its puck-possession system. If the team can stay healthy this season, the Wings will continue to roll. Need I explain further?

(5) St Louis Blues: Young gifted forwards, a mix of experience and skilful youth on the blue line, and a playoff hero between the pipes will prepare St Louis for a break-out season.

(6) Los Angeles Kings: Much like St Louis, the youth in LA is ready to take a step forward. Unlike many teams in the league, one year of aging is actually a positive for this team. Both the high-end skill (Kopitar, Doughty, Brown) and the role players (Stoll, Simmonds, Smyth) will build on a solid 09/10 campaign.  

(7) Phoenix Coyotes: The team’s overall depth is weak, but very willing to do what it takes to win. Bryzgalov will continue to improve, and the team’s established system will continue to stifle the opposition. Tough to expect an encore from last season, but the Coyotes will grind out some important wins. Most importantly, Dave Tippett could coach a PeeWee team into the NHL playoffs, so all is well in Phoenix. Oh yeah, except the ongoing ownership issues.

(8) Calgary Flames: Okay, I’m biased. While aging, I feel this team has too many solid veterans to miss the playoffs. Kiprusoff will be reliable, the defensive core will remain consistent, and offensive components (Jokinen, Iginla, Tanguay, Bouwmeester) can only improve on career worsts last season. By no means will the Flames take the West by storm, but the team can only improve on an underachieving 09/10 season.

Some bolder predictions in the East:


(1) Philadelphia Flyers: a fantastic combination of skill and grit. One area of concern is goaltending, but that concern is shared by half of the league, and the Leighton-Boucher tandem will bring out the best of both goalies.  The shut-down defensive core will remain solid, and the Flyers offense will sit top 10 in goals for.

(2) Boston Bruins: The energy of Tyler Seguin, the skills of Nathan Horton on the top line, and the growth of Tuukka Rask will bring this team to the top of the Northeast Division. The Bruins boast solid depth of playmaking centermen, as well as solid secondary scoring potential. In addition, Chara and his cannon of a slapshot are in a contract year. Should be a great season in Boston.

(3) Washington Capitals: While less dominant, the team will remain a top offensive power in the league, and the goals against totals will be unimpressive yet again. Let the 6-5 wins continue in D.C.

(4) New Jersey Devils: Ridiculous contracts intact, New Jersey will build on its consistent performances – only in a slightly different way. With greater emphasis on offense, and a contract year for Parise, the Devils will remain in the top half of the Eastern Conference.

(5) Pittsburgh Penguins: The team got younger by letting Gonchar walk, and bringing in solid defensive pieces in Martin and Michalek. That guy Sidney Crosby is on the team, but Fleury will continue his inconsistency between the pipes, and Mike Comrie will not fill the void of the injured Jordan Staal. Look for this team to hit the highlight reels once again, but perhaps lose its ‘contender’ title – for now, anyway.  

(6) Tampa Bay Lightning: Thanks to a bounce-back year for Lecavalier, and some clever moves by Yzerman, the top-six forward group in TB will be scary. Accompanied by the addition of some key role players and more consistency between the pipes, Tampa is set to have a solid year.

(7) Atlanta Thrashers: Is anyone surprised? I hope not, because thanks to an active offseason, this team has a ton of young offensive potential. With components from the Kovalchuk deal and half the roster from the cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks, Atlanta’s offense will bring a nice combination of skill and grit. I see the Thrashers as being this year’s version of the Colorado Avalanche. In addition to a young offense, improved consistency in net and a solid top 4 on the blue line (Bogosian, Enstrom, Hainsey, Oduya), the Thrashers will bring a level of stability never before seen in Atlanta.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs: Thank goodness for “truculence.” While this team can be an absolute circus, the Leafs now boast a very solid blueline, and capable goaltending from two sources that do not include Vesa Toskala. This team is young and fast up front, and have added some much-needed offensive potential in the past year (Kessel, Versteeg, McArthur) along with some solid two-way options (Armstrong, Caputi, Bozak). Most importantly, this team will be tough to play against, rather than the push-over Leafs of the recent past. Once Ron Wilson is fired in early December, this team will turn it around and make the playoffs on a late surge. I think the team is poised to turn some heads, and I’m not even a Leafs fan.   

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Flames Training Camp - Day One

Training Camp is finally here! My overall review of the morning: between both the veterans and young guns, there was some sloppy play out there – shots high and wide, poor passing, and the overall chemistry of the group was weak. To be expected on Day 1 of Training Camp I suppose, but noteworthy nonetheless. Some positives and negatives from the first day of training camp:

I kept a keen eye on this fella throughout the morning. As advertised, this guy is an enormous goaltender – that’s the good news. The bad news? His five-hole becomes more of a target, because when all 6’6 of him stands up, there’s some room between those pads. For what it’s worth (not much) he made 11 stops on 15 shots (73.3 SV %) in a breakaway relay-type drill, while Kipper went 12 for 17 (70.5 SV %). What does that tell us? Absolutely nothing – but at least it’s one metric we can assess. From the hour-long sample I had, he isn’t much of a reactive goaltender. He seems to rely primarily on his positioning and size.
Speaking of reactive, he doesn’t possess the same calm, cool demeanor as Kiprusoff (but who does?) He’s a tad more firey and passionate. The reason I say this? There was some frequent stick-smacking and cursing going on this morning between sequences, and he seemed to get rattled somewhat easily. Personally, I can’t blame him, as I would be an emotional wreck if I were to play the goaltending position, but it’s a change from what we’re used to seeing with Kiprusoff. Having said all of this, he looked solid, and he will learn to be calmer in the net working with McLennan and Kipper I’m sure. Very excited to see this guy play a game or two in the pre-season.  

Quick note: While I wasn’t blown away by Olli this morning, he does seem to have a “bee in his bonnet.” Very serious in practise this morning, and seems more agile than one calendar year ago. He’s out to prove something and silence the entire North American hockey world. Please do sir.

Personally, I find it difficult to assess defensemen in these training camps, because they don’t usually stick out unless they’ve done something wrong, but I want to touch on Staffan Kronwall. You feel for this guy, because he is far advanced from the young guns that surround him, but there simply isn’t room for him on the big club. Regardless, I was very impressed with Staffan in some of the skill-related drills this morning, and his ability appears head-and-shoulders above his AHL peers.

When this guy was originally signed, I thought of him as a fringe enforcer. Today, I was pleasantly surprised with Jackman. He’s very quick considering his size, and had a very impressive shot from what I saw! He was out with the skill players at the end of practice shooting around and actually showed some decent skill. Above all, he should be a pain in the butt to play against.

Unfortunately, Backlund was set up on a line with Ivanans and Jackman today. I’m trying not to read into that combination too much, because I think it would be more valuable for Backlund to serve as a leader in Abbotsford than a 4th line energy guy on the big club. However, he settled in to his plugger line well, as he took a stick in the face and left practise. He didn’t return, as he was likely getting some stitches and some mean tattoos to fit in with his enforcer linemates.

Personally, I feel the resurrection of Kotalik’s career got off to a bad start today. Even in training camp, I was privileged enough to see Kotalik’s indifference and lack of energy out on the ice. He was missing passes, skating half-speed and flipping the puck over the net. The day wasn’t a total waste for Ales though, as he spent most of practice working with his semi-illegal curve to propel the puck into the top-half of the empty net. A couple more weeks of this, and he will be all set in his role as 3rd string goaltender, while logging 3 minutes a night chopping the puck over the net from the blueline on the powerplay - vintage Kotalik.

While awkward in almost every other aspect of the game, Bryan Cameron has a heck of a shot. Here’s hoping he becomes more of a Brian Gionta-type than a David Moss-type in the coming years.

It’s tough for me to say this, because I’m rooting for this guy to make the team: Matt Pelech struggled today, even alongside fellow AHLers. He’s big, but not a great skater, and his play with the puck is just plain awkward. The bad news for him is that we have plenty of Sarich/Staios style defensemen as it is, so there simply isn’t a need for that type of player right now. From my perspective, John Negrin has a leg up on Pelech at this stage.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see enough from John Armstrong that differentiates him from any other energy forward in the Flames organization. At this point, I think you have to place less importance on Junior numbers with this guy, and just watch him play. His skill-set is limited, and yet I don’t see him fitting in as a 4th line center on the Flames either. Darryl has a soft spot for this guy, but I just don’t think he stands out as a player destined for the big club.

Who stood out most to me among the Abbotsford group? Stefan Meyer. That’s right. Stefan Meyer. He continued to strike me as a Glencross-type player, only a more feisty version of Glencross. Let’s call it a cross between Nieminen and Glencross: he keeps his game simple, has very impressive speed and relentless hustle. Even in practise, he was driving hard to the net and jabbing at loose pucks. I had heard this guy was an agitator – and it certainly appears that way – but he also seems to have much more to contribute. On top of all of this, he had by far the most impressive shot in his group. I would say 80% of the opportunities he had to shoot in the drills, he would fly down the wing and fire it short-side over the goaltender’s shoulder. I think this guy could be a fan favourite if given the opportunity – but it’s unlikely he will get that chance in Calgary.

What are you looking to see in training camp? For those of you that went today, what did you notice?

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