My Two Cents for September 14th, 2013
Moving To The West- The NHL 2013-14 season is just a few weeks away. As a matter of fact, all NHL teams reported to training camps within the past week and the first exhibition games will be played on Monday (September 16th). My Two Cents over the the month of September is previewing the NHL division by division over a four week span. The first two previews looked at the new alignment in the Eastern Conference. Over the next two weeks we will be taking a look at the Western Conference starting with the Central Division. The Central and Pacific Divisions will be composed of seven teams each. Gone from the West are Detroit and Columbus who are now making their homes in the Eastern Conference, which is better for both of those teams and their fan bases. Though not seeing the Red Wings or Blue Jackets will seem odd at first, in the long run the NHL is better served by it. Coming over from the Eastern Conference is the Winnipeg Jets who will now call the Central Division and the Western Conference home. As with the other two columns, the teams will be listed in descending order according to their projected finish and point total. So here is your preview of the NHL's Central Division:
7) Nashville Predators (72)- The Predators had a campaign to forget in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. Simply put very few things really went well for Barry Trotz crew as they struggled for a good portion of the shortened season and finished well out of a playoff spot in 14th place (out of 15 teams). The Predators have some seasoned veterans on their roster such as Shea Webber, David Legwand, Mike Fisher, and Gabriel Bourque. In addition Nashville also acquired players such as Viktor Stalberg (from Chicago), Eric Nystom (Dallas), Matt Hendricks (Washington) and Matt Cullen (Minnesota). The management is hoping that these additions will cure what ailed Nashville last season. Pekke Rinne will in all likelihood start the season as Nashville's top goalie. Lots of names here that seem to make this team better then one that finishes at the bottom of the Central Division. Truthfully, the Predators certainly could finish higher. However the fact they are picked seventh here is more or less to show how much of a mountain they would have to climb to contend for the post season. Sharing a division with strong teams such as Chicago and St Louis won't be easy, and the majority of teams ahead of them have better rosters if only slightly. Nashville will really have to sneak up on some teams to make a legitimate run and getting into the post season. Right now, they are a team in flux and probably their best case scenario maybe to challenge Minnesota and Winnipeg, and just a big maybe Colorado just to stay out of the cellar. A 14th place finish last year doesn't doom the franchise. It does however state that they have quite a long way to go starting now.
6) Minnesota Wild (74)- Minnesota is a team that can either delight or disappoint. The Wild last season clinched a post season birth last day of the season, then were promptly wised away by the Chicago Blackhawks in five games during the opening round. The Wild are a team that tends to be a tough one to really get a read on. In the summer of 2012, the Wild made probably the two boldest signings in NHL history when they signed both Zach Parise and Ryan Sutter to long term, multi-million dollar deals. The signings were to give the Wild two cornerstones that they could build there team around. Meanwhile, Minnesota also has on their rosters youngsters who in time will become solid NHL players in Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin and former Sharks number one draft choice Charlie Coyle. The Wild also brought in a promising youngster in Nino Neiderreider from the New York Islanders in the Cal Clutterbuck trade. In addition Minnesota has brought in free agent Keith Ballard from Vancouver and Matt Cooke from Pittsburgh. Anchoring the offense are Kyle Brodziak, Mikko Koivu and whenever healthy ex-Shark Dany Heatley. In the net the Wild may split it up between Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. The problem the Minnesota Wild will have this season has more to do with now being in a much tougher division with better teams being added to the mix. The Wild if they can find a formula that works could complete for a playoff spot. Despite the star power on the roster, there seems to be streaks of inconsistency that have at times plagued this team. The Wild's challenge this season is to find both chemistry and a way to get a good solid core working together between the veterans and youth. If it comes together, they will finish higher than suggested here. Sixth place is worst case scenario. That said, the Wild's challenge in the Central Division going forward is now before them.
5) Winnipeg Jets (78)- This will be a new beginning for the Jets franchise as they finally migrate west and in doing so eliminate a number of travel miles off of their schedule. The only catch is that they now share a division with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks who will be a tough draw. The rest of the west will not be that much easier as the Jets travel into uncharted territory for much of this next season. That could be an advantage also for the Jets who will set out to surprise a number of Western foes and prove they are worth their salt. The Jets will certainly have a great home ice advantage as Winnipeg has one of the loudest arenas in the league. The problem for the Jets will be finding consistency in their play and being able to sustain it over 82 games against teams that up until this season they have seldom seen. However the good news for Winnipeg here is that their roster has gained invaluable experience over the last two seasons which will in the long run serve them quite well in the west. The Jets have experienced players on their roster such as Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, Zach Bogosian, Blake Wheeler, Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien. The Jets also added former Shark Devin Setogucci and former Blackhawk Michael Frolik in the offseason. In the net there is competition between Ondrej Pavelec and Al Montoya to see who will be the top goalie. The Jets actually have a fighters chance at the post season in the west with the talent they have on the roster. However the competition will be very stiff and they will have to fight and claw to get there. The Jets won't have an easy journey in the west and right now are a post season long shot. However they will also not ever go down quietly either and will certainly be a team that if nothing else will be a fly in the ointment for some teams particularly come late spring.
4) Colorado Avalanche (85)- The Colorado Avalanche will enter the 2013-14 with probably one of the better young talent pools in the NHL. The Avs despite finishing at the bottom of the Western Conference last season know that they are a young team with plenty of upside going for them. It remains to be seen if that will be enough to catapult them into the post season, however they have more than enough here to at least make a better than decent climb up in the overall standings. The Avs made several moves internally to let the team know that they have a very serious investment in their youth. Colorado in the offseason locked down team Captain Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene to long term contracts making them the cornerstones of the franchise going forward. Add in Ryan O'Reilly, Steve Downey plus former Sharks Jamie McGinn and Michael Sgarbossa, the Avs will pack quite a punch this season. The Avs will need to have that punch too considering they will be competing with the Blackhawks for the division. Colorado also added Alex Tanguay and Cory Sarich in an offseason trade with the Calgary that sent David Jones and Shane O'Brien to the Flames in exchange. Also gone is stalwart Milan Hejduk who right now an unrestricted free agent. The only two ways he will see action with the Avs this season is to either take heavy home town discount or buy season tickets. There is also a new sheriff in town as the Avs hired their Hall of Fame Goalie Patrick Roy to lead the team. Roy replaces Joe Sacco who was let go at the end of last season. Roy is known to a be a very good coach in handling young players, but also is known for his no nonsense approach as well (like a "Jim Harbaugh style" coach if you will). Speaking of goalies Semyon Varlamov is expected to be the Avs top goalie. He will be backed up by a goalie with a Stanley Cup ring an a good mentor in his own right in Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The Avs if they put everything together have a better than decent shot at finishing fourth or higher in the Central Division. This is one team that truly was not as bad as it's record last year, they were mostly just unlucky. That will change in 2013-14, and the only direction the Avs can move is up.
3) Dallas Stars (91)- The Stars have been absent from the Stanley Cup playoffs for five straight seasons now after being a regular in the post season for many years before. The Stars are looking to a fresh start in 2013-14 that includes everything from a new ownership group, to new coaches, new players and even new uniforms (ditching those awful all black home uniforms for a more traditional green), and a new division to play in too. After being in the Pacific Division for many seasons despite their geographical location, the Stars have been relocated thanks to realignment to the Central Division. The Stars will still see old Pacific Division foes such as the Sharks, LA Kings, Ducks and Coyotes. The Stars will just be seeing a lot less of them and viceversa. The Stars have gone though some changes starting with a New Head Coach, former Sabres head man Lindy Ruff. Dallas also added Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley who came over from Boston in exchange for Loui Eriksson in a move to shake up a stagnant roster. In addition the Stars went out and got veteran Sergei Gonchar who despite his mileage still has plenty in the tank. The other addition, Shawn Horcoff was brought in from Edmonton to spark a line up filled with some fairly talented young players such as Jamie Benn, Cody Eakin, Alex Chiasson, and Brendon Dillon. Factor in veterans such as Vernon Fidler, Eric Cole, Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley to go along with Horcoff and the Stars have a good mix of veterans and youth that will make this franchise competitive. In goal, the Stars are looking towards Kari Lehtonen and Dan Ellis to give them very good balance in the net. The Stars like all other teams in the Central Division will have to deal with the reality of sharing the it with the Blackhawks. The Stars however have always been known to have an uncanny knack for playing teams very tough. That has always been their trait as a team and that will likely continue in the Central Division. As for a playoff position, getting that will take a lot of work on this team's part. Challenging for this division will be tough for the Stars, but the Stars are one of those teams that never backs down from any challenge. This won't be any different in that respect. If things work at as they expect this season the Stars should have enough on the roster to break their five year post season hiatus.
2) St Louis Blues (99)- If you go back three or four years, the St Louis Blues looked like a team well on it's way to becoming one of the worst teams in the NHL. Two years ago, something changed and the next thing you knew the Blues were hell on wheels and hammering opponents on the ice and on the scoreboard. In a playoff series against the Sharks two years ago, the Blues made the Sharks look like a team that barely belonged in the NHL let alone the post season losing only one game almost by accident. The Sharks were not alone, the Blues dominated many opponents in 2011-12. Last season, the Blues did come back to earth a little bit but were still a very formidable opponent. This season the Blues look to return to their form of two seasons ago and will expect to give the Blackhawks a better than decent run for their money. Ever since Head Coach Ken Hitchcock arrived two seasons ago, the Blues have become a bona fide force in the Western Confernce. Led by Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen, Kevin Shattenkirk, Vladimir Sobotka, and Alex Pietrangelo (who just signed a new seven year deal with the team), the Blues have more than enough to contend and challenge almost any team in the Western Conference. The addition of Derek Roy in the offseason will bring more balance to an already potent Blues attack. In the net the Blues are one of the few teams who have three viable options with veterans Brian Elliot, Jaroslav Halak and strong prospect Jake Allen. The Blues only problem really is that they have all this talent and can only be called the second best team in their division thanks to their neighbors 300 miles to the northeast. However look for the Blues to also use that fact as their ultimate motivation this season. The Blues will be one of the hardest teams to play against in 2013-14...guaranteed.
1) Chicago Blackhawks (112)- The Blackhawks story by now is well known to all in the NHL Aside from winning their second Stanley Cup in four years, the Blackhawks in between Cups made some hard business decisions that ultimately not only led to last season's end result, but have the true making of a possible dynasty in the NHL. Baring injuries or a bad case of complacently (which is somewhat unlikely), the Blackhawks are the one team that can truly write their own ticket and are the clear team to beat in the entire NHL, not just the Central Division. To state the obvious, the Blackhawks are the odds on favorite to win the Cup again in 2013-14 if not the prohibitive favorite and are the class of the league right now. The Blackhawks actually run one of the more shrewder franchise in the league. After winning the Cup, the Blackhawks let go David Bolland, Mike Frolik and veteran (backup) goalie Ray Emery almost a week to the day of having won their latest championship (Bolland scored the Cup clinching goal in last seasons finals versus Boston). With players that you can comfortably build around like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Chicago knows it's not just a matter of putting together the best players, just the right ones. The Blackhawks meanwhile also resigned and retained Nick Leddy, Marcus Kruger, Bryan Bickell, Michal Rozsival and ex-Shark Michal Handzus. Younger players such as Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Drew LeBlanc and Brandon Pirri will give Chicago balance in the right places. In goal Cory Crawford will be the undisputed top man in the net. His backup will be NHL veteran Nikolai Khabibulin who returns to the team after four years in Edmonton. Coach Joel Quenneville alongside General Manager Stan Bowman have worked well together in putting together an NHL team that is was the envy of the league last season. Baring a huge upset late next spring, they will most likely be the envy of the NHL again with the second place team being just that, and by a good distance.
Next Week- The fourth and final installment of My Two Cents' 2013-14 NHL season preview will finally venture out to the newly realigned Pacific Division. This will ofcouse feature the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Phoenix Coyotes and now the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers too. That will be posted here next Saturday.
Sharks Notes- The San Jose Sharks vs Vancouver Canucks exhibition games on Monday September 16th (at Vancouver), and Tuesday September September 24th (at the Shark Tank) will both be carried on TV by the NHL Network.
...just my two cents...
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