It’s hockey season, and you know what that means… more hockey ramblings from The Yinzer! Now I know it may not hold your attention as much as the best of 63 games baseball playoff round currently in progress, but I’m going to tell you about hockey anyway. But as always I trim things down to a shorter amount so as not to lose your attention. So here are some thoughts going into the NHL season.
Beast of the East- Montreal Canadiens
The scary thing about the Canadiens is that they're young. Much of this team is either still in their developing phase or in their prime, and they were good enough to take the east title last year. They added more firepower in Robert Lang and Alex Tanguay, though lost powerplay specialist Mark Streit in free agency. The player to watch will be goalie Carey Price. Young and loaded with talent, which early signs suggest he will fulfill, he was horrid in the playoffs letting an inferior Boston team go to seven games and handing Philadelphia a series win. If he falters that bad again, don’t expect the Habs to go far.
Best of the West- Detroit Red Wings
Easily the best team in the playoffs last year. Their goalie saw little action and was the hockey equivalent of QB game manager so good was the team in front of him. They beat the eastern champion Penguins in six games (and it wasn’t as close as that suggests) who had steamrolled every team they came across before the finals. They kept their roster almost entirely intact, plus added the best free agent in Marian Hossa. It's hard not to say they won’t repeat, and they are the heavy favorites, but you also have to think it’s the perfect set up for a disappointment.
Eastern Dark Horse- Boston Bruins
Though not totally a dark horse because they made the playoff last year, the Bruins did it with their starting goalie and best forward both gone for the year, and despite that feat are still receiving little love this year. With Bergeron back and Fernandez to stabilize an inconsistent goalie tandem the Bruins could be a silent power this year. Head coach Claude Julien made a lot of a little, and they added forward Michael Ryder, who though they may have significantly overpaid had his best years under Julien in Montreal. Don’t count this team out.
Western Dark Horse- Phoenix Coyotes
The Coyotes got big help last year when goalie Illya Bryzgalov fell into their laps via the waiver wire, and it gave them a shot at making the playoffs. This year they got Olli Jokinen from the Panthers, but cost them stud blueliner Keith Ballard and defenseman Nick Boynton. The replacements on defense aren’t enough to make up for their losses, but at least now they have more than one legitimate scoring threat, not to mention quite a few young forwards ready for the prime time. It’s very possible this team could sneak in. Oh, and Gretzky still sucks as a coach.
Eastern Cellar Dweller- Atlanta Thrashers
Many will put the Isles here, and they have a very legitimate argument. However, the Isles at least have a goalie to help stabilize things (note: written before DiPietro’s knee started to act up). Kari Lehtonen is young and has a lot of talent, but isn’t able to stay healthy at all and thus consistent. Up front all Atlanta has is Illya Kovulchuk and an uninspired Vyachaslav Kozlov followed by a bunch of career bottom line players. An aging Mathieu Schneider will help the defense, but it's still weak. Essentially, this is a one man team, and in a few years when Kovulchuk's contract is up may be not even be that. I just don’t see this team being able to compete to a serious degree.
Western Cellar Dweller- LA Kings
The Kings did nothing to really improve this off season at all. They dealt their best defenseman in Lubomir Visnovsky and lost veteran Rob Blake to free agency, replacing them with average (at best) defenders Denis Gauthier and Sean O'Donnell. Oft injured scorer Mike Camalleri is gone, with the under achieving Jarrett Stoll as his replacement. They have an abundance of young talent, but most of it is still raw and developing. Many of the veterans like Kyle Calder and Michal Handzus are overpaid and producing close to nothing. And did I mention they still don't have a goalie capable of carrying the load?
Eastern Most Likely to Disappoint- Washington Capitals
The Caps are on the rise now that they're young players are coming into their own. They have a pretty strong forwards corps and a defense, that while may lack flash is rather effective. What they don't have though is a goalie. Unable to resign Crisobal Huet they instead went with backup plan Jose Theodore. Theodore has only had one good year where he won the Vezina and got a large contract. Since then he has played like crap and been unreliable. At times in the playoffs the past few years he has been horrendous, letting in weak goal after weak goalie. And while a team like Detroit can get away with not having a goalie, the Caps aren’t to that level and Theodore will cost them. Backup goalie Brent Johnson isn’t exactly Mr. Capable either. They're good enough to make the playoffs, but eventually Theodore will sink this team.
Western Most Likely to Disappoint- Chicago Blackhawks
The Hawks have a good young team assembled, but they're still young. The additions of defenseman Brian Campbell (with the help of a massive overpayment) and goalie Cristobal Huet no doubt help, but the team is still a little ways away from being a serious contender. Many are predicting them to be a semi-power in the West, but they're still too rough around the edges, and lacking overall depth to be considered that in my opinion. Give them a year or two, but not this year.
Best Offseason Eastern-Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa started off with the smartest move and kicked GM Jay Feaster out the door, who has consistently been one of the worst GM's in the league in recent years. The new owners proceeded to revamp the fading roster by adding half the Pittsburgh Penguins roster in Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi and Adam Hall, plus Radim Vrbata, Olaf Kolzig and dealing for Andrej Meszaros. They also dealt their blue line anchor in Dan Boyle, which I don't really agree with. Their forward lines are stacked but it may not be enough to return to the post season as they have an unproven starter in goal and a defensive corps they weakened through trades.
Best Offseason Western- San Jose Sharks
The Sharks kind of win by default as most teams only made a single big move or minor moves. The Sharks dealt for defensemen Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich though it cost them a first rounder and young defenseman Ryan Clowe. Boyle will help to anchor a blue line that has lost former anchors in Mike Rathje and Scott Hannan in recent years. They also added Rob Blake, a former all star who still has some left in the tank. That's pretty much it though. Honorable mention to Detroit for keeping their guys and adding Marian Hossa on a one year deal.
Worst Offseason Eastern- Toronto Maple Leafs
This was a tough one since so many Eastern teams did almost nothing in the off season, but it goes to the Leafs because given every team's situation they were the most incompetent. They signed a defenseman to a large deal who was never anything more than a 7th guy, not to mention couldn’t break into the NHL until he was 27. They bought out Darcy Tucker who was making $3.5mm only to add Niklas Hagman for $3mm a year who has had one good year and lacks the intangibles of Tucker. They then dealt Bryan McCabe, who they had made the scapegoat of their recent woes because of the massive contract they gave him, for an above average defenseman just to get McCabe off the books. They then dealt picks for future prospects (their current prospect pool is practically non-existent mind you) to obtain support players who could have been had in free agency for nothing. One of which, Ryan Hollweg who I’m sure Ranger fans remember well, has been suspended more games for hits from behind then any team has actually played this season. All in all poor decisions that weren’t even made for the right reasons.
Worst Offseason Western- Anaheim Ducks
I used to think highly of Brian Burke. He did a lot with a little when he was with Vancouver, and quickly added pieces in Anaheim that gave the team a Stanley Cup. Since then he has done terrible. He lost a good young forward in Dustin Penner to an offer sheet the year before, and signed Todd Bertuzzi and Mathieu Schneider to replace the possible losses of Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne. Both came back and he has been forced to buy out Bertuzzi and trade Schneider for nothing to get under the cap, along with dealing Sean O'Donnell. His only addition has been Brendan Morrison who he wanted as a top line center, but Morrison has yet to demonstrate he can score when not teamed with all stars. So all in all, he gave up a lot of defensive depth for minimal forward depth, and he's probably going to continue this trend as time goes on.
Worst Eastern Contract
Jeff Finger, Toronto Maple Leafs, 4 years $13.5mm. This wasn’t even close. The first thing out of everyone's mouth, and I do mean everyone's, was "who the hell is Jeff Finger?" The answer is a 28 year old 7th defenseman who has less than two years NHL experience. This is just a mind numbing contract, and no one believes Toronto when they say there was a bidding war for him and multiple teams offered this amount. You don’t give an unproven defenseman who couldn’t even make the league until his late twenties a large deal like this.
Worst Eastern Contract not belonging to Jeff Finger
Ron Hainsey, Atlanta Thrashers, 5 years $21.25mm. Atlanta is desperate for defenseman, so much so they gave an average defenseman who played well for a bad team (Columbus Blue Jackets) a deal for twice his actual worth. Hainsey isn’t bad, but he's not a difference maker, and definitely not worth this. It shows how tough it is to get someone to sign in Atlanta.
Worst Western Contract
Mike Commodore, Columbus Blue Jackets, 5 years $18.75mm. Let me tell you about Mike Commodore. He's known for one reason alone: the massive red fro and beard he grows during the playoffs. He has no offensive skills to speak of, is slow as hell, makes questionable choices in his own end, and half his hits are cheap shots. He's a good bottom pairing guy, and an ok mid pairing guy. That said, you don’t pay a player of that caliber the rate of a good second pairing defenseman. Just like the Hainsey signing, this reeks of a bad team overpaying someone to get them to play there. This is the same amount Brooks Orpik went for, and he's superior to Commodore in every way.
Worst Western Contract having to do with Sean Avery
Sean Avery, Dallas Stars, 4 years $13.5mm
Avery is the premier agitator in the league not just because he's good at getting under people's skin, but also because he can actually play. That is, when he wants to. That said, you don’t pay an agitator the same amount of money you give a second line scoring winger who nets you 25+ goals a year. I have no doubt Avery will be a good addition to Dallas, but the price, not to mention dealing with his ego and fashion shows, just isn’t worth what he brings.