Sunday, September 30, 2007

2007-08 NHL Season
Western Conference Predictions

With the 2007-08 season finally upon us, it's time for predictions where I'll attempt to use my unprecedented sense of foresight to prognosticate what the regular season standings should look like next April. I ask that you don't hold me to any of these predictions, but gloating following the upcoming campaign is certainly welcome if your team proves me wrong. Without further ado, my Western Conference predictions:

1. Detroit* -- The Red Wings are arguably incrementally worse than the team that a season ago won the Western Conference regular-season title and went on to advance to the conference finals. They've lost the decidedly lazy, yet somewhat productive trio of Robert Lang, Todd Bertuzzi and Kyle Calder to free agency, a group that comprised the club's second line for the latter half of the season and through much of the playoffs. On defense, Mathieu Schneider and Danny Markov have been replaced with Brian Rafalski and Brent Sopel, which I'll call a wash. However, what's far more significant regarding my ranking of the Wings as the No. 1 team in the West is the rest of the Central Division. The Nashville Predators, Detroit's only serious competitor for the division title since the lockout, has been ravaged this off-season, leaving Detroit as far and away the class of the Central, which is populated by rebuilding teams in St. Louis, Chicago and Columbus. And despite the losses on offense, Detroit still boasts two of the best rising forwards in the NHL in Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, and has valuable youth in the likes of Valterri Filpulla and Igor Grigorenko ready to step in. It's impossible to write about Detroit without mentioning five-time Norris Trophy winner and arguably the Wings' regular-season and playoff MVP last year, Nicklas Lidstrom, who has proven he can carry a mediocre team in a competetive field on his back. This time around, he'll be asked to help carry a great team with the assistance of Zetterberg, Datsyuk and the ageless Dominik Hasek against a poor division. The Red Wings have a track record of not losing the easy games, and they'll have at least 32 of those this coming season.

2. San Jose* -- The majority of hockey pundits, following the Sharks' second straight semifinals flameout last May, cited the Sharks' defense as a prime reason why for their elimination. While San Jose certainly wouldn't mind adding a puck-mover on the backend, it was mental toughness that did them in last postseason, not an inept defense. In fact, the team ranked 5th in the NHL last year in defense and while credit is certainly due to Evgeni Nabokov, who will have the comfort of receiving the majority of the starts this year with Vesa Toskala shipped to Toronto, Ron Wilson's system, which encourages defense by committee, was a large factor as well. Of course, this team is built around its offense. Specifically, the Sharks' luxury of boasting two top-notch centers on their roster in former Hart Trophy winner Joe Thornton and two-time All-Star Patrick Marleau. If Jonathan Cheechoo can rebound from an off year, Milan Michalek can continue to blossom into a lethal two-way threat and the team's seemingly endless string of young forwards like Steve Bernier, Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski can continue to develop, San Jose will once again be one of the most high-flying offensive squads in the West. Combine that prolific offense with a solid, if unspectacular defense corps capable of playing Coach Wilson's system to perfection and an elite starting goaltender in Nabokov with the losses endured this off-season by defending Stanley Cup and Pacific Division champions Anaheim and you've got a recipe for the Sharks franchise's third division title.

3. Anaheim -- Let's face the facts. Scott Niedermayer, even if he didn't exactly deserve that Conn Smythe Trophy, was undoubtedly one of the best defensemen in the league last year and is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer who will be credited with revolutionizing the defense position. Teemu Selanne, even if he wasn't the same force in the playoffs that he was all regular-season long, holds the NHL record for most goals in a rookie season and most goals in a season by a player 35 years or older, the second of which was set last year, phenomenal bookends to what should also be a Hall-of-Fame career. Even though neither player has officially declared his retirement, Niedermayer has been suspended by the Ducks, giving him time to mull it over and Selanne, an unrestricted free agent, remains unsigned. Thus, the Stanley Cup champions enter the season with a significantly different roster, especially when one factors in the loss of Dustin Penner to the Edmonton Oilers via RFA poaching. Beyond the obvious result of Selanne and Niedermayer's absences -- that they won't be there -- three Ducks are likely to be particularly affected. Chris Kunitz and Andy McDonald were unspectacular players in checking-line roles before Selanne came along, resulting in their blossoming into bona fide NHL scoring threats. While the new NHL was definitely a factor in their breakouts, you have to wonder how effective they'll be without the Finnish Flash. Defenseman Francois Beauchemin was a seventh defenseman on Columbus before being sent to Anaheim in the Sergei Fedorov trade, where he has perfected his craft as a quiet, minute-munching blueliner alongside Niedermayer. Without his right-hand man, will Beauchemin be as effective? Questions abound in Disneyland this season, without too many answers. So you're probably wondering why I picked this team to finish as high as I did. Despite the losses of Selanne and Niedermayer, several pieces from the Ducks' Cup run are still in place, the most important being superstar defenseman Chris Pronger. Goalie J-S Giguere, re-signed over the Summer, will also don the Ducks jersey this year, as will burgeoning young forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. There's still plenty of reasons why the Ducks will challenge for the Pacific Division title, but subtract two Hall-of-Famers in Niedermayer and Selanne, a rising young power forward in Penner and lose Selke finalist Sami Pahlsson to injury for 3-5 weeks and the defending Champions will have quite a task ahead of them defending their spoils.

4. Vancouver* -- Technically, you could pick any Northwest Division team save for Edmonton to win the pennant and probably avoid humiliation. The top four teams in the conference were separated by only ten points last season, and that included the Colorado Avalanche, who missed the playoffs. Frankly, the Northwest has emerged since the lockout as the league's most cutthroat division and that trend appears to continue this year, especially with the Avalanche re-loading. But Vancouver has the added advantage of having arguably the best goalie in the NHL at their disposal in Roberto Luongo. A Vezina candidate who, in this blogger's opinion, would have won the award if it weren't for the early bedtimes of East Coast-based members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, Luongo set a franchise record for wins last regular-season with 47, and posted a 2.29 goals-against average and .921 SV%. However, his stock raised dramatically in the playoffs, when the netminder set an NHL record with 76 saves in his first ever playoff game, a 5-4 win in quadruple overtime and went on to singlehandedly carry the offense-starved Canucks to a second-round appearance against Anaheim. With Luongo in net and the defensive stylings of Jack Adams-winning coach Alain Vigneault, Vancouver will never be hard-pressed to prevent goals, but the club made further improvements to the back end, re-signing key parts Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Lukas Kraijicek and adding veteran Aaron Miller to a stacked blueline corps that ranks among the most well-rounded in the league. However, all that defense comes at a price and in Vancouver's case, it's the offense. Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison have never been the same since the lockout, leaving the entire Canucks offense in the hands of Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The twins can work magic, but they're about the only Vancouver forwards who can, a lack of depth that was painfully exposed against Anaheim last postseason. Even still, if Luongo's magical playoffs is a sign of things to come and the defense looks as good on ice as it does on paper, this team shouldn't need more than two goals from its offense to win games, something that's definitely as obtainable for this club as a Northwest Division title.

5. Colorado -- The Avs were one of the NHL's best teams the second half of the season, with the clutch play of Joe Sakic, the remarkable point streak of Paul Stastny and the timely saves of Peter Budaj pushing them oh-so-close to a playoff berth, before the team eventually fell short. But after adding some much-needed grit over the offseason in the form of tip-in artist Ryan Smith and defensive warhorse Scott Hannan, the Avalanche are locked and loaded, determined to put the franchise's first non-playoff spring since arriving in Denver behind them. Colorado boasts what is easily one of the best top-six forward units in the Western Conference, with the ageless Sakic and Calder-nominee Stastny joined by newcomer Smyth, former Rocket Richard winner Milan Hejduk, Andrew Brunette, who come out of nowhere to score 80 points last season, and talented young forward Wojtek Wolski. The offense doesn't end there with the third line boasting the likes of Marek Svatos and Tyler Arnason. The team's rather unheralded defense corps is tremendously well-rounded as well, with power-play quarterback John-Michael Liles leading a group that includes bruising blueliners Hannan, Karlis Skrastins and Brett Clark along with the finesse of Jordan Leopold. Yes, the only chink in this club's armor is the facet that their three primary Northwest Division competitors list as their biggest strength: goaltending. While Vancouver has the luxury of Luongo, Calgary boasts Miikka Kiprusoff between the pipes and Minnesota has Jennings-winning Niklas Backstrom minding nets, the Avs will rely on the relatively unproven Budaj, with Jose Theodore a decided backup plan, thanks to terrible seasons the former Hart Trophy winner has enjoyed since the lockout. However, if Budaj, who was spectacular down the stretch for Colorado, pans out, this team has the explosive offense and balanced defense to take the Northwest.

6. Calgary -- There's no two ways about it, the Flames grossly underachieved last season. Despite having a stacked line-up that included the likes of Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Dion Phaneuf, Alex Tanguay et al, former coach Jim Playfair was unable to motivate his troops, leading to an eighth place finish with the Flames clinging on for dear life as the Avs closed in on them late in the season and an unspiring first-round playoff exit, the team's second straight since falling to Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals. Instead of doing the logical thing and replacing Playfair himself, GM Darryl Sutter found Playfair what he believed to be a suitable replacement and what the rest of the hockey world believes to be a head case: Mike Keenan. With a track record of disliking Europeans, mishandling young players and humiliating skill forwards, Keenan appears to be a terrible replacement. However, Keenan's ability to motivate players is undeniable, and there really is noone better at "winning now," which is exactly what the Flames need to do. Focusing on players, Calgary enters with an almost identical forward corps as they did last season, with the addition of worn-out veteran Owen Nolan the only wrinkle. Their blueline, however, experienced significant turnover. Brad Stuart bolted to Los Angeles, Roman Hamrlik signed with Montreal, Andrei Zyuzin was traded to Chicago for Adrian Aucoin and Mark Giordano left for Russia. They were replaced by former Lightning defenseman Cory Sarich and ex-Blue Jacket Anders Eriksson. Aucoin could see his career resurrected in Calgary, but there's about an equal chance of him continuing to turn in sub-par defensive efforts. Sarich is not going to live up to the monster contract Sutter handed him, but he's a reliable veteran in his own zone. Essentially, this is a team with the potential to win the Northwest Division, particularly if Iginla improves upon an amazing 94-point season, and Tanguay, Daymond Langkow and Keenan-hater Kristian Huselius build after setting career-highs in points last season, but it remains to be seen whether the Keenan factor will work with or against the team.

7. Minnesota -- The Wild's offseason was nowhere near as eventful as their last one, which saw GM Doug Risebrough acquire the likes of Pavol Demitra, Kim Johnsson and Mark Parrish, but Minnesota still made some key acquisitions, replacing departed free agent center Todd White with Eric Belanger and, more importantly, shoring up their goaltending situation by shipping out embattled netminder Manny Fernandez and re-signing Niklas Backstrom, who came out of nowhere (technically, the Swedish Elite League) to lead the league in goals-against average and save percentage last season, followed up with brilliant goaltending in the playoffs despite a first-round loss to Anaheim. Despite the player movement, there is but one key to Minnesota's season, an ultimate factor which, if it turns out favorably, could bolster the club to the Northwest Division title: Marian Gaborik's groin. Easily one of the fastest, most exciting players in the game, Gaborik scored at a prolific rate last season, a clip that would have projected out to 51 goals -- second in the league -- had the Wild forward played 82 games, rather than 48. If the Slovak can stay healthy, he and countryman Pavol Demitra will wreak havoc upon Western Conference defenses, proving that Minnesota is a conservative defense squad no longer. However, if Gaborik's groin gives out again, Minnesota will be fighting tooth and nail to qualify for the playoffs. Still, this is a club with decent offensive and defensive depth and, more importantly, a foolproof defensive system developed by coaching mastermind Jacques Lemaire. It remains to be seen, though, how well Backstrom can perform over the course of an entire NHL season and while the defensive system is sound, the blueline corps itself is largely unspectacular, with the likes of Johnsson and Martin Skoula being asked to shoulder the load. Even still, Minnesota is a playoff team and have the potential to win the division if Gaborik can avoid the injury bug.

8. Dallas -- Gone are the glory days of Dallas hockey, at least in the regular season. But it's never been about the regular season for the Stars, whose first-round flameout streak reached three seasons last April. This time around, however, Marty Turco was far from the goat: the usually choke-prone Dallas goaltender pitched three shutouts -- and still lost! This was mostly due to a nonexistant offense, a problem that will continue to plague the Stars this season. Nobody on this team, apart from maybe defenseman Philippe Boucher, can be relied on to score goals. Mike Modano is too old to remain effective, Brenden Morrow will provide grit and leadership, but, even if his season isn't riddled with injuries, which in itself would be an accomplishment, the Stars' captain can't be relied on for more than 60-odd points, Mike Ribeiro is too soft to score more than 60 points -- the list goes on and on. So despite boasting a tremendous goaltender and a great defense headlined by superstar blueliner Sergei Zubov, Boucher and trade deadline pickup Mattias Norstrom, the Stars will once again be hard-pressed to score goals, something that should prevent them from challenging for the Pacific Division title. The Stars are probably a playoff team and, with a few deadline acquisitions, could make noise in the postseason. But they'll be clawing for a playoff berth come April and their anemic offense is a big reason why.

9. Nashville -- The Predators underwent one of the most disastrous off-seasons of any team in NHL history. They lost their entire first line in leading scorer Paul Kariya (signed with division rival St. Louis), future Hall-of-Fame center Peter Forsberg (unsigned free agent in limbo regarding retirement) and young, gritty winger Scott Hartnell (picked up by Philadelphia), their captain and No. 1 defenseman Kimmo Timonen (also signed with the Flyers) and starting goaltender Tomas Vokoun (traded to Florida). Those losses combined with persistent rumors regarding the team's imminent move to Kansas City/Hamilton/Las Vegas would logically make the Predators a lottery team. However, the Preds organization is so deep that, while they have no chance at finishing with the third-best record in the West again, will remain competetive for a playoff spot. They still have the makings of two very good offensive units, particularly if young forward Alexander Radulov steps up and Steve Sullivan doesn't sustain too many injuries and have an above-average defense corps centered around burgeoning blueliner Shea Weber. In goal, despite the loss of Vokoun, the team still has Chris Mason, who was great during Vokoun's injury last season, but largely remains a question mark. I expect the Predators to challenge for a postseason berth, but in a conference where teams need a competetive edge, Nashville lacks one -- their once high-flying offense has been replaced to two second-tier lines, their defense is unimpressive and their goaltending is average.

10. Los Angeles -- There's a reason Dean Lombardi was one of the most coveted among unemployed GMs last Summer, when the Los Angeles Kings hired him to fill their vacant position. Despite a few questionable moves during his first off-season in SoCal (trading for Dan Cloutier being the primary one), he quickly reshaped his reputation with his steal of a deal that landed him uber-prospect Jack Johnson from Carolina. This summer, he astutely stayed away from handing out big money and bigger term to the likes of Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez -- instead opting to sign a collection of second-tier free agents, including Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, Tom Preissing, Brad Stuart and Kyle Calder. The additions of Stuart and Pressing in particular, combined with the development of Johnson rounds out a very underrated defense corps that also includes former All-Stars Rob Blake and Lubomir Visnovsky. The forward unit is also extremely well-rounded, with young stars Anze Kopitar, Alex Frolov and Mike Cammalleri forming a dominant first line, followed by the likes of Handzus, Nagy, Calder, Dustin Brown and Patrick O'Sullivan rounding out the next six forwards. With that defense and those forwards, one would think this team is bound to end their three-year playoff-less slump this year. Alas, one would be very wrong. The Kings' goaltending situation is easily the worst in the Western Conference, if not the league. Cloutier endured a horrendous season that featured an abyssmal .860 SV% and an injury in late December that mercifully ended his season. Rather than risk losing AHL goalie-of-the-year Jason LaBarbera on entry waivers, the Kings rolled a carousel of awful goaltenders for the rest of the year, with likes of Barry Brust, Yutaka Fukufuji and Sean Burke minding Los Angeles nets for the remainder of the campaign, all with equally terrible results. Unfortunately for Kings' fans, despite all the positive progress Lombardi made with the team this off-season, the Kings will still fail to make the playoffs thanks to their terrible situation between the pipes, and will continue to miss the cut until highly-touted goaltending prospect Jonathan Bernier makes his debut in purple.

11. St. Louis -- Give John Davidson and the rest of the Blues braintrust credit. After finishing last in the league in 2005-06 and watching their strategy of signing washed-up veterans blow up in their face during the early stages of 2006-07 (who could have imagined?), the St. Louis brass were able to administer quite the turnaround with the hiring of coach Andy Murray and shrewd deadline deals that yielded promising young forward Brad Boyes and a slew of draft picks for Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Dennis Wideman. The re-acquisition of Tkachuk, the addition of marquee free-agent signee Paul Kariya and the development of 2006 No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson should provide a considerable boost for the team from the abyssmal status it has suffered through since the lockout, but likely not enough to get them over the hump in a competetive west. Still, the mere fact that there's reason for St. Louis hockey fans to hold their heads high again and motivation for Missouri residents to attend Blues games that doesn't involve free food is a victory in and of itself.

12. Edmonton -- If the fictitious department of obscure awards were to hand out a trophy for most off-season headlines made by a team with decidedly little chance of having even a sniff of the post-season, the Oilers would likely be the recipients. First it was the Michael Nylander fiasco, then GM Kevin Lowe shot and missed with the Thomas Vanek offer sheet until finally Lowe was successful in an RFA poaching endeavor, stealing power forward Dustin Penner from the Anaheim Ducks. While Edmonton's off-season, which also involved the acquisition of offensive defensemen Joni Pitkanen from Philadelphia and Sheldon Souray from Montreal, likely made Lowe few friends around the league, it incrementally improved an Edmonton team that was little better than a minor league outfit at the end of last season. Still, the Oilers are extremely thin up front and, despite the team's failures last season, at least they had an outlet for Ales Hemsky's passes in Petr Sykora. This year, unless Penner has somehow gained two steps over the summer, the Oilers lack a legitimate sniper for Hemsky to dish the puck to, a problem further exacerbated by Fernando Pisani's recent injury. The team's goaltending tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon is also fairly underwhelming, especially when compared to the netminding situations of their division rivals. So while this team is unlikely to be as pathetic as the unit that took the ice at the end of last season, the playoffs are a longshot to say the least and a finish out of the division basement would likely have to be considered a success.

13. Chicago -- "As Martin Havlat goes, the Blackhawks go" was the mantra chanted by Chicago last season, but unfortunately, the entire team couldn't fit in the hospital room the Czech forward frequented last year. While oft-injured, the Blackhawks' lone star was stellar last season, often a one-man show without much of a supporting cast to speak of. The Hawks hope they have that cast, with the free agent signings of Havlat's countryman Robert Lang and 2007 All-Star center Yannic Perreault, along with the hopeful emergence of the team's past two first-round picks, Jonathan Toews (No. 3 overall, 2006) and Patrick Kane (No. 1 overall, 2007). However, this is still a very young team with the likes of Brent Seabrook (22 years old), Tuomo Ruutu (24) and Duncan Keith (24) comprising the Hawks' core, and as with all youthful teams, the transitional phase their players must undergo will hamper short-term team progress, but should ensure a more competetive squad in the long run. So while the Blackhawks will likely be fighting neck-and-neck with Columbus for the Central Division basement this season, they should be a formidable opponent a few years from now, when the likes of Toews and Kane are NHL regulars and Seabrook, Keith and Cam Barker are standout defensemen. But this year, it's hard to envision a finish in the Western Conference's top 10.

14. Columbus -- The Blue Jackets have been a largely directionless franchise for the first seven years of their miserable existence, but after replacing incompetent General Manager Doug MacLean with former Edmonton Oilers GM Scott Howson, it would seem that better days are ahead for this Columbus team. Those days are well ahead, however, as the Jackets continue to be weighed down by the declining Sergei Fedorov's albatross of a contract, the lack of productivity from the talented, yet enigmatic, Nikolai Zherdev and a defense anchored by the obsolete Adam Foote. There's also the issue of goaltending, as the team employs one of the league's more underwhelming tandems featuring mediocre European call-up Fredrik Norrena and unproven, albeit promising, netminder Pascal Leclaire. It isn't all doom and gloom for the BJs, however, as new coach Ken Hitchcock brings with him a defensively conservative style which he was able to display late last season that should help the team eke out a few close wins. But one thing's for certain: if All-Star Rick Nash plans to have another 27-goal season, the Jackets might as well throw in the towel now and save themselves a lot of trouble. Even if Nash enjoys a more productive campaign, it's hard to imagine Columbus not finishing near the Central Division, and Western Conference, basement.

15. Phoenix -- Now, the Coyotes organization themselves have declared this season (and, presumably, quite a few in the forseeable future) a rebuilding campaign, so it's unfair to overly criticize the team for their relative inaction over the off-season. Some would argue their free agent dormancy was preferrable to previous off-seasons which saw Phoenix voraciously sign washed up veteran free agents (see Nolan, Owen and Ricci, Mike). Regardless, this is undoubtedly the worst team in the NHL. When Mike York and Steven Reinprecht are playing on your first line, you know any talk of offensive depth is comical. Speaking of a joke, the team's goaltending situation is one of the worst in the league with David Aebischer, Alex Auld and Mikael Tellqvist expected to battle it out for the top two netminding slots. The club's defense, however, is surprisingly above-mediocre, at least on paper, with youngsters Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek along with veterans Ed Jovanovski and Derek Morris expected to do most of the heavy lifting on the back end. Still, with porous goaltending, a poor defensive system implemented by coach Wayne Gretzky and the remaining slew of problems facing the Coyotes this season, a finish ahead of 30th overall in the league would be quite the accomplishment.

* denotes division winner

See also: Eastern Conference Preview

2007-08 NHL Season
Eastern Conference Predictions

With the 2007-08 season finally upon us, it's time for predictions where I'll attempt to use my unprecedented sense of foresight to prognosticate what the regular season standings should look like next April. I ask that you don't hold me to any of these predictions, but gloating following the upcoming campaign is certainly welcome if your team proves me wrong. Without further ado, my Eastern Conference predictions:

1. Ottawa* -- It's usually agreed that the losing squad in the Stanley Cup Finals is in for a rough season the subsequent year, but the Senators' Eastern Conference rivals will be unpleasantly surprised if they take that for granted. After having a taste of the NHL's biggest stage, Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and the Sens are hungry for more. Ottawa returns essentially the same team that fell to the Anaheim Ducks in five games last Spring, with undersized (and during much of the playoffs, ineffective) forward Mike Comrie and former Sharks defenseman Tom Preissing. But with Heatley, Spezza, captain Daniel Alfredsson and goaltender Ray Emery, who truly established himself as a top-10 goalie in the league after substantially mitigating the ugliness of what could have been a far worse Finals showing for Ottawa, returning, the team will once again be among the elite in the East. However, with the Buffalo Sabres significantly regressing with their off-season losses of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, the Sens will be in a similar situation to Detroit in the West in that they're a powerful squad in a very average division, which should be enough to keep them in contention with those Red Wings for the Presidents' Trophy and should also keep them atop the East.

2. NY Rangers* -- Astute free-agent acquisitions and a solid core of veteran talent makes this incarnation of the New York Rangers arguably the best collection of Blueshirts since the 1994 Stanley Cup Champions. The signings of marquee centers Chris Drury and Scott Gomez from Eastern rivals Buffalo and New Jersey gives the Rangers two ultra-talented pivots known for stepping it up in the postseason. Add those two to a Broadway cast that already includes experience and skill in Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka, grit and sandpaper in Sean Avery and Blair Betts and a mixture of both in Brendan Shanahan and you've got one of the most potent offenses in the Eastern Conference. Of course, to emerge on top in a competetive Atlantic Division, the Rangers will need to prevent goals as well. Enter Henrik Lundqvist. Two seasons in the league, two years as a Vezina Trophy finalist for this 25-year-old netminder who will be asked to shoulder the load defensively for the Rangers, who return a very average defense corps, albeit one that supremely overachieved under Coach Tom Renney's system. The ingredients are all there for the Rangers to not only win the Atlantic, but go far in the playoffs, but with significant new faces, team chemistry may prove to be a bit of an issue for the first few weeks.

3. Pittsburgh -- As columnist Scott Burnside put it in a recent article, when a team's gravest concern is their relative dearth of right-hand shots, you know they've come a long way. The Penguins have finally made the quantum leap from joke to contender, and for the first time in nearly a decade, enter a season as legitimate Cup contenders. With superstar Sidney Crosby, who last season became the youngest player in league history to lead the NHL in scoring, leading the way and a youthful supporting cast of Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Whitney behind him, the Penguins have drawn comparisons to the Oilers dynasty of the '80s, and with good reason. A potent offensive squad content to use their youth and speed to bury opponents, Pittsburgh is decidedly the favorite to lead the league in scoring, especially if Crosby, Malkin and Staal continue to develop. However, Fleury was shaky against Ottawa in the playoffs last season and must come into his own for the Penguins to truly be considered Cup threats. Even with an average performance from Fleury, Pittsburgh will undoubtedly remain competetive for the Atlantic Division title and should once again be the most exciting team in the league.

4. Philadelphia -- While the Penguins took the better part of six years to transform from perennial bottom-feeders to contenders, their intra-state rivals seem to be on the fast track from failure to success. After finishing last in the league for the first time in franchise history, the Flyers, under the management of GM Paul Holmgren, have been carefully crafting a young roster since the trading deadline and through free agency. The advent of All-Star defenseman Kimmo Timonen, All-Star center Daniel Briere, goaltender Martin Biron, tough-as-nails defender Jason Smith and young forwards Scott Hartnell, Scottie Upshall and Joffrey Lupul has morphed what was an abyssmal squad last season into a potential Cup contender this year. While Biron remains a tad unproven in a starting role, the Flyers boast tremendous depth both up front and on defense, with Briere expected to play with fellow Quebec native, speedy sniper Simon Gagne, while the Flyers' already deep core of youngsters in Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and RJ Umberger will join forces with youthful imports Hartnell, Upshall and Lupul to provide offensive depth. On defense, the club boasts the likes of Timonen and Smith along with the inconsistent, yet physically intimidating Derian Hatcher and young blueliners Braydon Coburn, Lasse Kukkonen and Ryan Parent. Overall, the Flyers have completely reloaded and look poised to capture an Atlantic Division title, but with the Rangers and Penguins so strong, a pennant may be a little out of reach. However, with this much talent, a return to the playoffs seems to be a given.

5. Washington* -- Every preseason prognosticator is entitled at least one outlandish prediction, and here's mine. In a Southeast Division, where all teams have gaping holes and considerable flaws, the Washington Capitals, who have been firmly entrenched in mediocrity since the end of the Jagr era, look poised to dramatically return to the playoffs. Young superstar Alexander Ovechkin was a one-man show on many nights for the Caps last season, but with playmaking center Micheal Nylander now in the fold, the league's newest Russian Rocket finally has a competent pivot for the first time in his career. Washington's impressive top six up front is rounded out by thirty-goal men Alex Semin and Chris Clark and solid sniper Viktor Kozlov, comprising one of the more complete forward units in the Southeast. While the defense corps is fairly nondescript and lackluster, the addition of Tom Poti certainly helps and an entire season in Washington for Milan Jurcina should assist the team's defense situation as well.

6. New Jersey -- Just a few summers ago, the Devils boasted a defense corps that featured the likes of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski and an offense with the high scoring trio of Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta as its centerpiece. Flash forward to 2007 and you'll find that New Jersey's No. 1 defenseman is Paul Martin and that Gomez is gone and both Elias and Gionta are coming off underachieving seasons. The addition of coach Brent Sutter is sure to mix things up offensively to a certain extent, which is good news for a team that will need bounce-back seasons from Elias and Gionta and have burgeoning youngster Zach Parise prove his brilliant playoff campaign wasn't an abberation in order to remain in competition for the division title. Of course, the most important thing for the Devils is that future Hall-of-Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur, coming off a Vezina Trophy campaign in which he broke Bernie Parent's longstanding single-season record for goaltending wins, is still manning the nets in New Jersey. Brodeur gives the Devils an edge that few other Eastern Conference teams have: netminding that can steal games. For this reason, the Devils are a playoff team that will have some say in how the Atlantic is won, but surpassing their second-round flameout from last Spring will be near impossible with a rather underwhelming cast on defense and more than a few eyebrow-raisers and question marks up front.

7. Buffalo -- The extent to which the Sabres' roster has been ravaged this offseason is, I feel, underestimated by much of the hockey media. Their leading scorer and co-captain Daniel Briere, who signed with the rival Philadelphia Flyers, will be very missed in the offensive zone and Chris Drury, the newest New York Ranger and fellow former Buffalo co-captain will be missed dearly during the playoffs. Assuming there are playoffs in Buffalo this season. Last year's President's Trophy winners and regular season dominators looked very human all through the playoffs, especially in a five-game, round three loss to Ottawa. And that was before they lost Drury, Briere and two-way forward Dainius Zubrus, all to Eastern Conference rivals. However, with Ryan Miller still in goal and an insanely deep offense that still boasts burgeoning star Thomas Vanek (albeit at a much heftier price tag, thanks to Kevin Lowe's workings), Maxim Afinogenov and Derek Roy up front, along with a decent defense corps headlined by All-Star blueliner Brian Campbell, the Sabres should still qualify for the postseason, but it will be an exponentially more difficult year for the Sabres this season. Former Jack Adams winner Lindy Ruff knows that the same up-tempo, goals at any cost style the team played last year will be nowhere near as effective in the absence of Briere and Drury, and will likely adapt the team's system accordingly. So while Buffalo seems good enough to make the postseason, the team's championship window has sadly shut and it's unlikely they'll be any more than first-round fodder.

8. Carolina -- I didn't envision it being this difficult to choose the Hurricanes, a franchise just one season removed from winning a Stanley Cup, as a playoff team. There are so many mediocre teams clogged smack dab in the middle of the Eastern Conference that picking the one least entrenched in mediocrity is largely a crapshoot. The Hurricanes became the first team in NHL history to miss the playoffs following a championship season last year, missing the mark by a measly four points. In addition to the Cup hangover that victimizes many teams, the 'Canes were without the services of top offensive defenseman Frantisek Kaberle and top-six forward Cory Stillman for almost the entire season, both players injured for considerable durations. Furthermore, star center Eric Staal and goaltender Cam Ward underachieved following brilliant playoff campaigns in '06. It's unlikely that many factors will work against the Hurricanes again, so if Carolina can stay moderately healthy and get production from Staal and more consistent goaltending from Ward, they can once again be a fierce offensive team that will never have a dearth of options up front. Still, question marks surround the team's defense and while Ward was nothing short of spectacular during the team's Cup run, the former Conn Smythe winner has never had a good regular season during his brief NHL career. While the 'Canes certainly aren't going to blow anyone away like they did two seasons ago, they have what it takes to claw to a playoff berth and be devoured in the first round by an Eastern powerhouse.


9. Toronto -- The Maple Leafs missed the playoffs by one point last season. It's funny, then, that there seems to be a million reasons why they couldn't muster up that one extra point and qualify for the postseason for the first time since the lockout. Everything from Hal Gill's incompetence to merciless injuries are offered as excuses for Toronto's failure, but the rather underwhelming play of goalie Andrew Raycroft is seldom pinpointed, which is quite shocking. A sub-900 save percentage and a slew of soft goals should have had the Toronto media circus gathering their pitchforks and torches, but instead little blame was deferred at the former Bruin, and even with the acquisition of Vesa Toskala from the Sharks, Raycroft continues to be mentioned as part of a platoon deal. As long as Leafs coach Paul Maurice can successfully eliminate Raycroft from the equation, Toskala excels despite newfound media pressures he could have never dreamed of in San Jose, marquee free agent acquisition Jason Blake gells with center Mats Sundin, who was flanked at times last season by the likes of Boyd Devereaux and Bates Battaglia, the injury bug can stay away from the Toronto locker room (whoops, too late...Wellwood's already injured), Gill and Bryan McCabe can improve defensively and young forwards Alex Steen and Mats Stajan can develop into top-six types, the Leafs should make the playoffs. Yeah, it's unlikely the majority of those will occur, which probably keeps the Leafs one point behind the postseason cutoff mark once again.

10. Florida -- The Panthers are an interesting team as no facet of their game is exceptional, but with a solid forward corps, a well-rounded blueline and newly-acquired All-Star netminder Tomas Vokoun stopping pucks, they should make somewhat of an impact in the East's playoff picture. Olli Jokinen is the real deal up front, proving his 90-point season of two seasons ago was not an aberration with an encore performance last year. Nathan Horton is the league's next star power forward and, at 22, has already shown flashes of brilliance with an impressive 31-goal season last year for a poor team. Stephen Weiss, Jozef Stumpel, Ville Peltonen and Rostislav Olesz round out a largely average top-six up front, and Florida will need serious production from all four players if they are to contend for a playoff spot. On defense, all eyes will be on Jay Bouwmeester to finally break out and have the Norris-calibre season everyone is expecting of him. However, Bouwmeester's inability to produce on the power play has barred him from crossing 40 points offensively, which is partially the reason European league veteran Cory Murphy was brought in to run the man advantage. Relative unkown Mike Van Ryn will also be counted on to bring offense from the back end, while Bryan Allen and Ruslan Salei will be expected to hold down the fort. The addition of Vokoun is obviously welcomed, but the Panthers didn't miss the playoffs last season due to inept goaltending, with the Belfour/Auld tandem enjoying some success, just as they didn't miss the playoffs during the Luongo era due to their inability to keep the puck out of the net. No, this team is unlikely to make the playoffs because, apart from a lack of depth, this team's main problem is a lack of heart that desperately needs to be rectified. Still, in a wide-open Southeast Division, the Panthers still have an outside shot at a playoff berth in the East, but team chemistry and overall grit will be big question marks going into the year.

11. Atlanta -- I'm not sure what parallel universe Thrashers GM Don Waddell and his team are living in, but in this NHL, teams need a legitimate No. 1 center to win and none of Todd White, Bobby Holik and Bryan Little qualify as such. While the team began last season with a similar lack of a top-flight pivot and started fine, the Thrashers were well off the tracks when Waddell acquired center Keith Tkachuk at the trade deadline, eventually helping Atlanta secure the franchise's first playoff spot. Unless similar antics are pulled much earlier in the season, the Thrashers look destined to finish out of the playoff picture, not only due to their lack of a center, but a deficiency on defense as well, where the club suffered the losses of Greg de Vries and Vitaly Vishnevski. Not exactly Lidstrom-types, but on what was already a mediocre defense corps, the replacement of those players with the likes of Ken Klee and Tobias Enstrom is not very encouraging. Still, with superstars Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa along with rising goaltender Kari Lehtonen, the Thrashers shouldn't be written off just yet, but it's quickly looking as if the team's brilliant start to the 2006-07 season was an aberration.

12. Montreal -- The loss of Sheldon Souray really hurts. Why would the absence of a flat-footed, mistake-prone defenseman make such an impact? Because the Habs lived and died by their power play last season, which really only lead the league because of Souray's monster season offensively. While defenseman Andrei Markov is on a different planet defensively than Souray and owns similar offensive potential, his game is less suited to running a power play, leaving the Canadiens without what was a season ago their greatest weapon. Still, the organization's tremendous depth in goal would overcome for the team's newfound man-advantage shortcomings, if it weren't for such an anemic offense that certainly won't be helped by Bryan Smolinski and European import Janne Lahti. Saku Koivu is still the man up front, but with a mediocre supporting cast headlined by the largely average Chris Higgins, the one-dimensional Michael Ryder and the enigmatic Alexei Kovalev, it's unlikely the Habs will be putting the puck in the net very often next season.

13. Tampa Bay -- Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Stanley Cup winners just three seasons ago, the Lightning have compiled two mediocre seasons that featured the team barely qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and subsequently being smoked in the first round and are finally ready to collapse. While the team will return the "Big Four" of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle (although Boyle will miss the first month of the season), their goaltending situation is by far the worst in the East and rivals Columbus for least appealing in the league. Marc Denis has experienced a Herculean fall from "good goalie on a bad team" with the Blue Jackets to press box warmer for the Bolts. Starter Johan Holmqvist is only consistent at being inconsistent and looked horrible at times during last Spring's playoffs. Thankfully for Tampa fans, the Bolts have quite the pipeline of netminders upcoming, with Karri Ramo and Riku Helenius likely to be future NHL 'tenders, but for this upcoming season, with such a terrible situation between the pipes, an extremely thin defense and a sustained offensive depth issue which will not be solved by Michel Ouellet and Jan Hlavac, it's looking like an unsuccessful season in Tampa.

14. Boston -- The Bruins are a team that could surprise everyone and make the playoffs for the first time since the lockout, but could just as easily plummet and finish last in the league. Although the addition of Manny Fernandez will somewhat shore up a goaltending situation that was bleak for much of last season, the B's will need to make quantum leaps defensively under new coach Claude Julien, which will have to start with improved play from 6'9" behemoth and Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who was downright soft at times last year. Patrice Bergeron will also need to progress into the 80-point All-Star the Bruins thought he would be when signing him to that monster RFA contract last off-season and youngsters Phil Kessel and Brandon Bochenski will have to improve as well. Marc Savard was teriffic last season, but a third consecutive 90+-point year may be asking too much of the undersized pivot. While this roster, when viewed on paper, has the makings of a potential playoff contender, especially in the wide-open East, an overall lack of team chemistry, grit and holes on the blueline will subjugate Boston fans to another season of disappointment.

15. NY Islanders -- There will be no playoff miracles on Long Island this year, certainly not with this sad excuse for a roster. While franchise goalie Rick DiPietro will remain with the Islanders after signing a 15-year contract that must seem like a life sentence last off-season, no Eastern team experienced more off-season turnover than the Isles. Their entire top line of Ryan Smyth, Alexei Yashin and Jason Blake is gone, replaced by the decidedly inferior trio of Ruslan Fedotenko, Mike Comrie and Bill Guerin. Former No. 1 defenseman Tom Poti also bolted via free agency, replaced by dinosaur Andy Sutton. Ted Nolan spun straw into gold last season with this team, but even he would have to be a certified magician for this rag-tag group to finish anywhere near the postseason.

* denotes division winner

See also: Western Conference Predictions

Battle of Backups won by Patzold

At least for now, it appears that 24-year-old Kazakh goaltender Dimitri Patzold will serve as Evgeni Nabokov's backup. In a press release, the San Jose Sharks announced the demotion of Patzold's primary competitor for the backup position, Thomas Greiss, to the AHL along with forwards Graham Mink and Lukas Kaspar. Greiss had the flashier preseason numbers, with a 1.45 goals-against average compared to Patzold's rather ugly 3.50, but as noted in an earlier post, and reinforced by Doug Wilson's comment that the move "allows Thomas to play consistently in Worcester," the odds were against Greiss from the start. Since the Sharks' brass largely perceives the German netminder as San Jose's "goalie of the future," and since starting 85% of the games in Worcester would be far more conducive to Greiss' development than opening bench doors for the majority of the season, it was essentially determined that Greiss would spend most of the season in Massachusetts.

However, coach Ron Wilson stated that the occupier of the backup goaltending position will be continually evaluated as the season progresses, meaning that Greiss could potentially be stopping pucks in San Jose somewhere along the line this campaign. But with starter Evgeni Nabokov tabbed to play upwards of 65 games, one wonders if the role of backing up Nabby is significant enough for this level of controversy and convolution.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Can Sharks live up to preseason hype?

For one reason or another, the Sharks have been receiving a lot of love from media prognosticators this preseason, tabbed by many to either win the West, the Stanley Cup or both. First, the Canadian Press predicted the Sharks would win the franchise's first Cup this season. Then, The Hockey News polled knowledgeable pundits, with the Sharks being the Cup favorite among those media types as well. Soon to follow was EA Sports' simulation of the NHL season, concluding with the Sharks vanquishing Pittsburgh in six games for Lord Stanley. Now even ESPN has bought a pair of teal-colored glasses, with its most popular hockey-affiliated personalities, John Buccigross and Barry Melrose, crowning the Sharks the class of the West, with Buccigross predicting them to finish first in the conference and Melrose proclaiming San Jose the best team in the league. I'll get around to my own predictions in a couple of days and, while I think the Sharks will win the Pacific Division, even I'm not drinking the Sharks' Kool-Aid to the extent that I believe they are the unequivocal Cup favorites. Challenge for Lord Stanley they will, but unless the Sharks' five-on-five play improves to the level that they no longer need to rely on an oft-sputtering power play for offensive chances and the team defense continues to be a strong unit in the absence of Scott Hannan, it's tough to say whether San Jose will drink from the Cup next June. But there's definitely reason for Sharks fans to be optimistic as the season nears, and you don't need a sizable contingent of the hockey media to tell you that.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Odds and Ends

It's been relatively quiet around these parts as of late as I prepare for the upcoming season with predictions that should be up here before the season begins in North America, though preceding the commencement of the London games is looking unlikely. The Sharks are currently 3-0-2 in preseason action as the franchise's shootout woes continued last night in Calgary. In light of Torrey Mitchell's foot injury against the Flames, it's looking like Devin Setoguchi remains the lone rookie with a legitimate shot at making the roster up front, with the vacant backup goaltending position still largely up in the air. Thomas Greiss seems to be the early favorite, but Patzold wasn't bad against the Canucks on Saturday. With not much else Sharks news to report, here's some tidbits from around the league:
  • "Dollar" Bill Wirtz, oft-vilified owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, named recently by ESPN as the fifth-worst owner in all of pro sports, has passed away. I would assume this news is met by most Hawks fans with restrained jubilance. On one hand, it's socially unacceptable and ethically questionable to celebrate the death of a fellow human, especially one as philanthropic as Wirtz, but at the same time, this is the man whose terrible marketing decisions, most notably his policy on blacking out Chicago home games, have incinerated a once potent fanbase and have turned who knows how many potential fans away from the Hawks. Again, my condolences to the family, and by all accounts, Wirtz was a good man outside the realm of hockey, but having tarnished the image of an Original Six franchise, which is as sinful as it gets in the NHL, the Hawks can look forward to better days in Wirtz's absence.
  • How many hits to the head that result in significant injuries must occur for Colin Campbell and the rest of the NHL's pathetic excuse for a justice system to make a statement significant enough to pre-emptively discourage any similar incidents in the future? That unnecessarily lengthy question is likely, in some form or the other, in the minds of many hockey fans in light of last night's concussion to Ottawa forward Dean McAmmond. In preseason action, no less, Philadelphia forward Steve Downie raced the length of the ice and pummeled an unsuspecting McAmmond, resulting in the latter's concussion. Compounding the matter is that McAmmond had just returned after off-season rehabilitation following Chris Pronger's elbow to the head that the Senator sustained during last season's Stanley Cup Finals. Unconscionable act by rookie Downie that should certainly be punished by exponentially more than the standard 2-3 games Campbell and Co. seem to dish out at every misdemeanor.
  • Finally, on a Sharks-related note, the San Jose Mercury News have finally gotten their act together and established a Sharks blog, titled Working the Corners. So far, Sharks beat writer David Pollak has been the sole contributor, but it's fathomable that other Merc writers involved with the team, like Mark Emmons or perhaps even columnist Mark Purdy, may contribute. The advent of heavier online coverage for the team is just further evidence that print media's future lies in the confines of the intertubes, a fact that's becoming more profound by the day, as several big-name newspapers begin the transition to a solely-online publication. Regardless, congratulations to David, and hopefully he continues to provide valuable insight on the Sharks. Several beat writers around the league, including the Kings' Rich Hammond and the Avs' Adrian Dater, maintain very successful blogs, and there's no reason Pollak won't follow suit.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sharks Gameday: The Rise of Torrey Mitchell

Vancouver Canucks (2-0-1) @ San Jose Sharks (2-0-1)

I'll admit I knew precious little regarding Sharks prospect Torrey Mitchell prior to this month. Yeah, I read a few stories last March regarding his agreeing to a contract with the Sharks and subsequent stint in Worcester that had AHL coach Roy Sommers giving the forward rave reviews, but I didn't pay too much attention. I mean, how good can a guy drafted 126th overall be, right?

Pretty damn good, apparently, if the radio commentary of "Dictionary" Dan Rusanowsky and David "I have a speech empediment" Maley along with a few Mercury News stories are to be believed. It would appear that the Sharks have once again struck gold with a post-first round pick out of the NCAA, a trend that is evident in the development of Matt Carle and Joe Pavelski.

A University of Vermont alum, Mitchell is dazzling with his speed, skill and two-way effectiveness and, along with fellow prospect Devin Setoguchi, is making a legitimate case for an opening-night roster spot and is sure to get a long look now. Mitchell is scheduled to play between Patrick Marleau and Milan Michalek tonight as the Sharks host the Vancouver Canucks in preseason action at the Tank. A 3-1 decision over the Ducks last night raised San Jose's exhibition record to 2-0-1.

The Sharks announced another series of roster cuts on Thursday and PJ over at Sharkspage takes a look at the remaining training camp roster. Eliminating longshots Tomas Plihal, Craig Valette, Riley Armstrong, Graham Mink, Brennan Evans, Derek Joslin, Brad Norton, Tom Walsh and Taylor Dakers, and assuming Patrick Marleau will stick at left wing, we're left with a depth chart that somewhat resembles this:




I'm not a big fan of playing Marleau up at LW, but Ron Wilson has given every indication that's exactly what he plans to do. I could very well see Marcel Goc and/or Joe Pavelski traded to make room for Mitchell or Devin Setoguchi, but there's a chance either of the latter two will start on opening night anyway, granted they build on already impressive preseason showings with good games tonight against Vancouver.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sharks score first win of preseason

The Sharks defeated the Ducks in Anaheim last night by a score of 1-0, registering their first preseason victory this year.

By all accounts, goaltender Thomas Greiss, expected to battle Dimitri Patzold for the Sharks' vacant backup goaltending position, was phenomenal. Although he was only forced to make 19 saves for the shutout, several of them, at least according to Mercury News reporter Mark Emmons, were of the acrobatic variety. This certainly is good news for the young German netminder, especially on the heels of Patzold's 6-5 shootout loss to the Kings Tuesday night, when the Kazakh gave up five tallies and bit hard on a deke by the Kings' Dustin Brown in the shootout.

Now, as I mentioned previously, reading too far into preseason victories can yield disastrous results. However, the Ducks, after trimming 18 players from their training camp roster as the team gears up for their September 29th season opener against the Kings in London, save for third-stringer Jonas Hiller stopping pucks rather than J-S Giguere, iced a lineup that very much resembles the squad that will face Los Angeles in that England opener. Sure, Francois Beauchemin, one of the team's steadier defensemen, wasn't playing, but with Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne and Dustin Penner no longer with the team (regarding the first two, at least not currently) and Sami Pahlsson and Niedermayer replacement Mathieu Schneider injured, the Ducks' roster was essentially complete.

On the other hand, while the Sharks had Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo at their disposal (albeit without a competent left wing), Patrick Marleau, Milan Michalek, Marc-Edouard Vlasic et al were not playing, yet the team still defeated Anaheim 1-0.

Again, reading too much into this game is clearly not the smart thing to do, but it'll be interesting to see if the Ducks fare any better Friday when the teams meet at the Tank.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sharks Gameday: Who says preseason doesn't count?

San Jose Sharks (0-0) @ Los Angeles Kings (1-1), No TV

As a disclaimer, It's unlikely I'll be able to get up a gameday post for every Sharks game this season (What do you think this is? Battle of California?), but when I have time on my hands or a particularly marquee matchup is upcoming, I'll try to post one.

I neither have much time nor does an exhibition game against the Kings constitute a marquee matchup, but seeing as this game will mark the first time our beloved Los Tiburones take to the ice in NHL competition in four-and-a-half months, it's probably worth noting.

But what's even more notable is the general stigma that pre-season is meaningless, a sham, an artificial construct to drive up revenues. While that may be true in that pre-season success doesn't necessarily translate to regular-season victories and players who tear it up in September don't always go on to have big years, where the pre-season is very relevant lies in the determining of roster spots.

One could argue that Marc-Edouard Vlasic would not have made the Sharks had it not been for an outstanding preseason. Vlasic impressed the Sharks brass enough during exhibition season to claim a roster spot, and was consistently the Sharks' most reliable defenseman for the rest of the year. Many other of my training camp queries will likely be answered as the pre-season rolls on. A Mercury News article earlier this week featured a Ron Wilson quote that implied Evgeni Nabokov would start 3-4 preseason games, with the remainder to be divvied up between Dmitri Patzold and Thomas Greiss.

So while the Stanley Cup isn't won in September, the pre-season is extremely significant to depth players jostling for roster spots and with the Sharks still uncertain on who will claim both their sixth and seventh defense slots on the depth chart as well as their backup goaltender, exhibition games this year will definitely be worth paying attention to. But above all, hockey's back, which in and of itself is a reason to celebrate.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sharks unveil new jerseys

Meh. The numbers on the front will take some getting used to, and the bottom stripe causes the design to somewhat resemble the Sharks' retro dubs, but overall, it's better than I expected. The whole advent of the "Rbk Edge" design is nothing more than a cash grab, but as far as cash grabs go, this doesn't look half bad. I'll probably have additional perspective when I actually see one of these in person. Sharkspage has additional coverage, including a YouTube video of the press release itself.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sandis Ozolinsh?

I reported earlier that ex-Shark Mark Smith joined the New York Rangers training camp on a tryout basis. Ironically enough, former Ranger (who has also played for the Sharks, among other teams) Sandis Ozolinsh has been brought into Sharks camp on a tryout. The Latvian defenseman was last seen in the NHL this past season, playing 21 games for New York before riding the bench the rest of the way.

I honestly don't understand this move. Even if you disregard the rumors that Ozolinsh enrolled in the NHLPA's substance abuse program two seasons ago, the guy is a headcase. Yes, he owns the Sharks single-season record for goals and points by a defenseman, but not only is he no longer potent offensively, he is, as he has always been, a defensive liability. Now, it's certainly not given that he'll make the team and the good thing about a tryout contract is that it's noncommittal, but Ozolinsh is a known locker-room cancer and may disturb the chemistry of the Sharks' current defense corps. Then again, anything to push Alexei Semenov, Rob Davison and Doug Murray should be considered a good thing, so I can see where Doug Wilson is coming from in making this move. If anything else, it'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Mark Smith invited to Rangers camp

Former Sharks forward Mark Smith, drafted 219th overall by San Jose in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, has joined the New York Rangers training camp on a tryout basis, according to this report. Smith played 323 games in a Sharks jersey, scoring 22 goals, 66 points and racking up 398 penalty minutes. A fan favorite at HP Pavilion, Smith was renowned for his hard-nosed style of play and inspiring grit. Smith was also well known for his musical career. The frontman and lead singer of Bay Area group The Vinyl Trees, Smith is a talented musician and also owns a record label, Lunar Records. Smith's chances of making the Rangers are decent as New York's fourth line is far from set. That bottom unit will likely include some combination of Jarkko Immonen, Ryan Callahan, Colton Orr, Ryan Hollweg and Smith. Here's hoping Smitty gets the job, and wishing the ex-Shark a long and productive career, as a hockey player and a musician. Other training camp invites include Brent Sopel in Detroit, David Tanabe in St. Louis and Adam Hall in Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Bell suspension official: 15 games

I reported earlier that former Sharks forward Mark Bell, sentenced to six months jail time for hit-and-run charges stemming from a drunk driving incident in San Jose last September, would receive a suspension from the league and the terms of that ban were doled out earlier today by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. According to this TSN report, the suspension will last 15 games and will be without pay. The NHLPA, however, are vocally against the penalty, seeing "no basis for the excessive suspension Gary Bettman has imposed" on Bell. In my opinion, this is an appropriate length as it was an off-ice incident that Bell is facing legal repercussions for, and it does set somewhat of a precedent in a league where drinking and driving is a fairly significant off-ice issue.

As training camps around the league begin, NHL-related news is steadily picking up. With the Sharks opening up camp today, here's a trio of Sharks-related articles worth reading. First, the Canadian Press announces their preseason Stanley Cup pick, and it's San Jose, with Joe Thornton emphatically agreeing. has begun their season previews and today was the Sharks' turn. This article in particular piqued my interest, not necessarily because of the content, but the author: former San Francisco Chronicle Sharks beat writer Ross McKeon, who seems to have resurfaced as an correspondent, after being let go by the Chronicle. Congratulations, Ross. Finally, the Mercury News takes a look at Logan Couture's chances of making the team this year.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Training camp thoughts

Well, that was fast. It seems like only yesterday Chris Pronger was knocking out Dean McAmmond and the Anaheim Ducks were lifting Lord Stanley. Yet training camp is upon us, with the Ducks and Kings setting up shop today and the rest of the league following suit later this week. The Sharks will open camp on Wednesday and are faced with a reasonable number of questions as they prepare for a season which they hope will bring a Stanley Cup to Northern California. Here's a look at five of those queries.

5) Is Jeremy Roenick ready to play?
True, this answer is unlikely to be derived until Christmas at the earliest, but we should get a feel for whether JR is in as good shape as he claims he is in and -- more importantly -- is as concerned with "blending in" as he says he is during camp. Doug Wilson has maintained that those who play the best will play and if Roenick has a lackluster showing at camp, it's possible he may not make the team at all.

4) Can Lukas Kaspar land a roster spot?
Members of the Sharks' braintrust were high on Kaspar when they selected him with the 22nd overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. The Russian forward's transition to the North American game, however, hasn't quite been seamless. While he had an excellent season with the Ottawa 67s in 2004-05, tallying 51 points in 59 regular-season games, then adding 20 in 21 playoff games as Ottawa advanced to the Memorial Cup Final, Kaspar's scoring prowess has been absent in his first two professional seasons in the AHL. While his two-way play has progressed considerably, Kaspar only has 76 points in 154 career AHL games. At this point, he would need a particularly exceptional showing in camp to make the opening-night roster, especially with the signing of Jeremy Roenick. However, if the injury bells toll for the Sharks later this season, it's very plausible Kaspar will see his first shift in the big leagues before the end of this year.

3) Can Devin Setoguchi land a roster spot?
Setoguchi, the eighth overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, endured a trying campaign last season. Injury woes wiped out any chance of Setoguchi making the Sharks, rendering him unable to show up at camp. The Alberta native was then traded from the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL to the Prince George Cougars, where his production dipped initially. However, an extremely strong finish to the season saw Setoguchi post 36 goals and 65 points in 55 games with Prince George, a campaign that was overshadowed by Setoguchi's amazing playoffs. The forward scored 11 goals, 4 of them game-winners and 21 points in 15 postseason games, dramatically raising his stock. Setoguchi will likely compete against Joe Pavelski for the final roster opening and his chances are good. Although Setoguchi's development is significantly ahead of Kaspar's, he is in a similar situation to the Russian forward in that even if he fails to make the opening night cut, he will likely begin the season in Worcester and be the first potential call-up.

2) Which one of Davison/Murray/Semenov will make the team?
Which member of the club's three-headed monster will step up and claim the sixth defense spot? Of the three, Rob Davison has the most NHL experience, but that doesn't guarantee him a spot in the lineup. Alexei Semenov was the club's biggest (monetary-wise) unrestricted free-agent signing, as the ex-Panther and Oiler inked a 1-year deal for a whopping $650,000. Suffice to say, Doug Wilson didn't embark on much of an off-season spending spree. Regardless, all three are large, physical specimen with Davison listed at 6'3", 220 lbs., Murray at 6'3", 240 and the beastly Semenov at 6'6", 232. As in most cases, with size comes sub-par skating ability. Murray is easily one of the team's hardest hitters, but his repeated flat-footedness impinges upon his ability to deliver his trademark, open-ice bodychecks. The pugnacious Davison is a good fighter, but doesn't accomplish much else. He's primarily been a spare part in the equation for the Sharks since entering the NHL and has even been slotted in at left wing for a game or two. However, with Scott Parker gone and Ryane Clowe cast in a more offensive role, his pugilism could give Davison an advantage, although to be fair, Murray's above-average with the gloves off as well.

Semenov is decidedly the wild card here. Drafted in the second round by Edmonton back in 1999, he was named the top defenseman in the OHL in 2001, but mediocre play with the Oilers got him a one-way ticket to Florida in late 2005. A lack of ice time with the Panthers motivated him to pack up and play in Russia last season, but he's back in the NHL now and hoping to do damage with the Sharks. I honestly believe that if the Sharks can inspire this guy, they can have a real gem here. Still only 27, Semenov, who has one of the hardest slapshots in the NHL, can easily turn his career around and become a very reliable two-way defenseman. He's my pick to round out the top six on the back end, but Murray and Davison are capable defenders as well, if given limited ice time.

1) Who will back up Evgeni Nabokov?
For the first time in over a decade, the Sharks enter training camp without a crease controversy regarding who will stop the majority of the pucks for the upcoming season. No Vernon/Shields tussle, no Nabokov/Toskala/Kiprusoff issue, nothing. Instead, a new position between the pipes is in dispute: who will serve as Nabokov's backup? The Sharks brass largely perceives Thomas Greiss as the goalie of the future, but his development would likely benefit greater from 80% of the starts in Worcester than limited action with the Sharks. So with Greiss likely penciled in as the AHL starter, the Sharks' backup job is largely up for grabs. Many teams focus on goaltending in regards to scouting, but for the Sharks, netminder development is more of an obsession. San Jose currently has the likes of Greiss, Dmitri Patzold, Timo Pielmeier, Taylor Dakers and Tyson Sexsmith in the pipeline -- all of whom have the potential to be NHL-calibre goalies someday.

Pielmeier and Sexsmith, while impressive in the Sharks rookies' recent two-game sweep of Ducks' prospects, were just selected in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft and are unlikely to land the backup job, leaving Patzold and Dakers. Before his death, former Sharks goalie coach Warren Strelow commented that Patzold was more than capable of handling a job as a No. 2 stopper in the NHL, leading to mass speculation that the Kazakhstan native will play behind his countryman Nabokov this season. That's probably true, but Dakers has a chance as well, and there is a slight possibility that the Sharks will in fact turn to Greiss.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Fence-sitting Duck

Who holds press conferences to reiterate the status quo? Scott Niedermayer and the Anaheim Ducks, that's who. Now, Niedermayer certainly shouldn't be rushed into making a decision that will determine not only his career, but essentially the rest of his life, but holding a press conference with anticipation building as to whether or not a decision will be made, then stating basically nothing seems so ridiculous, so blatantly unnecessary that I would go so far as to say it breaks the primary statute of press conferences: Thou shalt only hold a press conference if thou has something to say that is worth printing in the press. Ironically enough, part of the reason Niedermayer will eventually attain hockey immortality in the Hall is his sound, decision-making ability on the ice. Apparently, this doesn't translate too well to off-ice decisions.

But one thing you can say about Niedermayer's drawn-out retirement affair is that he's kept us updated every step of the way. Initially, he made it clear he was preparing to retire and had essentially filed his papers on July 1st before getting cold feet. Two weeks ago, the Hall of Fame-bound defenseman stated that he might consider coming back, but he would miss training camp and arrive only after the Ducks' London series against Los Angeles. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the other future Hall of Fame Duck contemplating retirement, winger Teemu Selanne, hasn't said a word regarding his future hockey plans since stating in passing following the Ducks' Cup win that he was considering "going out on top." The Hockey News reported earlier this week, however, that Selanne's retirement is more of a sure thing. As a Sharks' fan, it's hard not to root for these guys to throw in the towel, which would make the Ducks an exponentially easier draw, but with the teal-colored shades off, these are two phenomenal, outstanding careers that are destined to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and for that reason, neither should be backed into a decision due to impatient fans. The irrelevant press conferences, however, have to cease.

In other hockey-related news, the Sharks announced today that they will begin selling tickets to regular-season games September 15th at the HP Pavilion box office as well as Ticketmaster. What the statement didn't mention, however, was whether ticket prices will be slashed in the wake of the Red Wings' announcing the inception of $9 tickets. Of course, San Jose isn't home to a declining automobile industry and all Sharks playoff games sold out (Take that, Hockeytown!...even if the Wings are the reason there weren't more postseason sellouts at the Tank last year), but it's a thought.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Sharks sign Roenick

You've got to be kidding me. Back in the infancy of Bleed Teal (a whole two months ago), I reported that nine-time All-Star Jeremy Roenick was calling it quits, as per Tim Panaccio of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who received a text message from the former Blackhawk, Flyer, Coyote and King announcing his retirement. Weeks later came murmurs that Roenick spoke too soon and the inevitable rumors that he would return to Chicago to don a No. 27 jersey once more en route to reaching 500 goals (he currently sits at 495) ran rampant. Those fires were eventually quelled and most in the hockey world assumed that Roenick had, indeed, thrown in the towel. Well, apparently that isn't the case, as the San Jose Sharks, in an official press relase, stated that they have signed Roenick to a one-year deal, worth $500,000 as per TSN.

Doug Wilson has been mumbling for a good two weeks now that he was intending to bring in a player from "outisde the organization" to battle for a roster spot in training camp. Who could have imagined JR Superstar was that player? At this stage of his career, especially with his post-lockout statistics, Roenick isn't much more than a bottom six forward, but on a deep team like San Jose, that's all he needs to be. He will also become the first Shark to score 500 goals when he joins that club sometime during the season. A rough sketch of the Sharks' current depth chart:


This signing likely signals that the Sharks will not be signing Mark Smith, although it doesn't necessarily rule it out entirely. And in celebration of the signing, I managed to unearth from the gallows of YouTube a TSN Top 10 featuring some of JR's most unforgettable antics.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Bell suspended

Ouch. The National Hockey League lowered the boom on former Shark Mark Bell, traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs along with Vesa Toskala on Draft Day 2007, suspending the forward indefinitely after Bell pleaded guilty in August to charges stemming from his hit-and-run/drunk driving incident dating to exactly one year ago, Labor Day 2006. According to the TSN article, how soon Bell is eligible to return to the NHL will be under the discretion of the league's substance abuse program doctors. Those close to the Maple Leafs postulate that, even if Bell is cleared to return, it's likely he'll be suiting up for the Marlies rather than the Buds. Then again, with the likes of Nikolai Antropov and Bates Battaglia patrolling the Leafs' top line last season, they need all the offensive depth they can get.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The cost of extensions

In the wake of Marleau's extension, I mulled over potential cap figures using and the Sharks, for the 2008-09 season, will have roughly $38.75 million committed to these 13 players (in order of cap hit): Thornton, Marleau, Nabokov, Michalek, Rivet, Cheechoo, McLaren, Grier, Couture, Setoguchi, Vlasic, McGinn, Greiss and Murray. Breaking it up, those are eight forwards, four defensemen and two goalies. Rounding out the forwards will likely be RFAs Steve Bernier, Marcel Goc, Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski, although the Sharks are high on both prospect Torrey Mitchell, who would make $715,000 playing for the big club and potential RFA Lukas Kaspar, either of whom would replace Pavelski. The remaining two defensemen would likely be RFAs Matt Carle and Christian Ehrhoff.

Rough, and rather conservative, estimates would likely see Bernier and Clowe receiving contracts with cap hits of around $2.5 million, unless one or the other has an exceptional year. Goc should be looking at $1 million, as should Pavelski. Carle and Ehrhoff is where it gets tricky. Would Carle be willing to sign a contract similar to what Phoenix Coyote Keith Ballard agreed on earlier this week, one that averages slightly over $2 million? Ballard posted similar rookie numbers to Carle in his inaugaral campaign, with 39 points where Carle scored 43 last year. If Carle has a similar or better season offensively this year, which he should, quarterbacking the Sharks power play, it's likely contract negotations would enter Paul Martin territory, with a $4 million average likely coming into play. I'll predict a $3.5 million/year cap hit, which may be too low or perhaps even high depending on how well Carle performs this coming season. Predicting Ehrhoff's contract is largely a crapshoot, as the German defenseman has been anything but consistent thus far in his career. He could very well ride his booming slapshot to a 15-goal, 50-point season or his lack of work ethic to a 25-point season. $1.5 million is probably a decent estimate.

So assuming Bernier, Clowe, Goc, Pavelski, Carle and Ehrhoff are signed to contracts worth those estimated numbers, that would represent an additional $12 million against the cap, increasing the Sharks' overall cap figure to $50.72. The NHL's current salary cap is $50.3 million. If the cap increases by 13%, as it did this year, it would potentially equal a $57 million upper limit, but that will largely be rendered irrelevant by the Sharks' internal budget. San Jose spent roughly $42 million on salary last season and unless the team wins a championship or changes owners, that amount is likely to stay static. For every action there's a reaction, and the response to an active offseason in terms of doling out contract extensions, the latest to Marleau, will likely be tickets out of town to more than a few 2008 RFAs.