Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Bright Beginning
Sharks 4, Ducks 1

Despite some comforting constants -- an in-arena electrical malfunction, decrepit ice conditions -- Thursday's home opener was evidence enough that the San Jose Sharks are an entirely different team under Todd McLellan compared to the club's previous incarnation during the Ron Wilson regime. Implementing an aggressive shot-blocking defensive strategy instead of encouraging players to make like flamingos on the penalty kill, having the power play take more shots than Sarah Palin on a caribou-hunting expedition rather than hoping for a miracle pass from a stagnant Joe Thornton dwelling on the right-wing half wall, imploring the team to respond to a late Anaheim goal with a tally of their own as opposed to sitting on their hands watching the clock run out -- it's crystal clear from just a 60-minute sample of McLellan hockey that the former Detroit assistant has already left an indelible mark on this hockey club. This isn't necessarily to criticize Wilson (who's currently being treated as the Messiah in Toronto after leading the Leafs to a 3-2 opening night victory over the Wings), but no one can deny change needed to occur and, so far, that change looks to be for the better. Some quick observations from Thursday's contest:

--The groin "strain" that kept Joe Thornton out of the third period of the Sharks' 3-2 loss during an exhibition game in Vancouver on Oct. 2 as well as the exhibition finale against the Kings in Salt Lake City Oct. 5 appeared to still be nagging the Sharks center in the opener. Despite racking up an assist on Cheechoo's second goal, Big Joe was not his usual dominant presence, leaving Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi to pick up much of the slack for the top line (although they did so admirably).

--Speaking of Setoguchi, his allegedly extensive off-season workout regime seems to have exponentially improved his game. Criticized during his draft year for the lack of an NHL-caliber first step, Gooch appears to have exorcised any lingering skating demons, demonstrated during several junctures of the game, including a 2nd-period breakaway from the red line in and an impressive 1st-period streak down the right wing.

--The expectation was that Rob Blake would find a happy medium this season between his past two forgettable campaigns in Los Angeles and the elite resume he compiled during his days with Colorado, but if Thursday night's performance was any indication, the second Norris Trophy winner to ever don a teal sweater should enjoy a year much more in line with the latter. Seven shots by a Sharks defenseman is unheard of and while it's very much a product of the aforementioned McLellan Doctrine, it takes considerable skill to get those shots through and that skill was on full display by No. 4 against the Ducks and he was rewarded with two assists.

--The Sharks' other prize off-season blueline acquisition Dan Boyle was expectedly still getting his feet under him after an injury-plagued season last year in Tampa. Boyle enjoyed a similar debut to that of Brian Campbell when he came over from Buffalo last season -- picking up an assist, showing good offensive awareness, but not really doing anything that elicited a "wow." It did seem as though Boyle paid somehting of a sarcastic homage to Soupy when he attempted a spin-o-rama in the neutral zone early in the game. It failed miserably, but I'll give him full marks for effort.

With Dallas, Detroit and Anaheim all falling in their season openers, the Sharks have a chance to jump ahead to a stranglehold on the Western Conference lead with a relatively light schedule for the next week featuring back-to-back games against Los Angeles, the first of which takes place tonight at the Tank, and a tilt with the Blue Jackets Tuesday night. Despite the apparent easiness of these games, I agree with McLellan that they present a formidable test of whether or not the team will be complacent to rest on their laurels or the club's leadership will take charge and convince the players to put the same effort into the upcoming three contests as they did for Thursday's opener against the Ducks. So far, so good for the Sharks in the Todd McLellan era.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

2008-09 NHL Season
Fearless Predictions

For starters, I predict that will happen again.

Yes, I'm well aware the season has already started, but anyone who had the misfortune to waste a pair of perfectly good weekend mornings watching the European premiere could tell you those contests felt more like exhibition games anyway. And, besides, if the MSM is allowed to wait until the North American inception of the campaign to unveil their predictions, I should be allowed to as well. So, without further ado, I unleash upon thee, my extensive reader base, predictions for the 2008-09 NHL Season:

Western Conference

1. Detroit -- Enough print has been spent discussing the allegedly indomitable Red Wings, so it's probably best to wait until the season begins to see whether the Cup champs can defend their title. My guess is they'll capture the President's Trophy once again in a division that, despite Chicago's resurgence, remains weak, but a second consecutive chalice is not in their future. Breakout player: Johan Franzen.

2. San Jose -- Once again, it will be a question of whether the Sharks can get over the postseason hump, as their blueline additions to an already formidable lineup should make the regular season relatively easy. Breakout player: Joe Pavelski.

3. Edmonton -- The re-tooled Oilers, relying heavily on an uber-talented crop of young stars including Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson, Andrew Cogliano and Tom Gilbert, should be an offensive powerhouse with decent enough goaltending to distinguish themselves from the pack in a surprisingly mediocre Northwest. Breakout player: Sam Gagner.

4. Dallas -- Zubov's injury stings, but with arguably the deepest defense corps in the West, the Stars should be able to absorb the blow and remain in contention for the division title all season long. Breakout player: Stephane Robidas.

5. Anaheim -- Take the Ducks' '07 championship squad, replace Andy McDonald with Brendan Morrison and Dustin Penner with Brian Sutherby, and you've got this year's incarnation of the club. Suffice to say, the rest of the conference should be very afraid. Breakout player: Kent Huskins.

6. Chicago -- While the addition of Campbell will hamstring the team financially a few years down the road when they're attempting to re-sign young stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the move was clearly completed for short-term gains and short-term gains there will be in the Windy City. Still, the gaping hole at second-line center in the wake of the Robert Lang trade should probably be filled by someone other than Dave Bolland. Breakout player: Dustin Byfuglien.

7. Minnesota -- The replacement of Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra with Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan isn't what hurts the club, it's the improvement of several formerly lesser teams that sink the Wild this low in the standings. Still, expect Marian Gaborik to have a monster year in this, his contract season. Breakout player: Mikko Koivu.

8. Phoenix -- While many are dismissing the Desert Dogs this season, their offensive corps is absolutely laden with elite young talent. The likes of Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal and rookies Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov in conjunction with huge offseason acquisition Olli Jokinen and long-time captain Shane Doan should ensure the Coyotes are never hard-pressed to score goals this year. While their defense remains suspect, Ilja Bryzgalov should again be a star in net. Breakout player: Zbynek Michalek.

9. Calgary -- It's the ultimate paradox. Despite boasting potential Hart Trophy candidates at every position in Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf and Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames' appalling lack of depth -- a problem that won't be solved with the addition of Todd Bertuzzi and Mark Giordano -- and Coach Mike Keenan's apparent alienation of the aforementioned Kiprusoff will likely keep the Flames out of the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Breakout player: Matthew Lombardi.

10. Colorado -- When your season rests squarely on the shoulders of a 26-year-old wildly inconsistent Slovak netminder, you know you're in trouble. The defections of Andrew Brunette, surprisingly prolific during his time with the Avs, and Kurt Sauer, quietly among the top defensive defensemen in the league last year, along with Peter Forsberg's retirement, are of no help to the offense or defense of this club either. Breakout player: Wojtek Wolski.

11. Vancouver -- The Canucks are weird. With arguably the best goaltender in the league and one of the deepest bluelines in the West, one would think the 'Nucks would be in contention for the division title, but an abysmal offense which won't be helped greatly by the additions of the out-of-shape Steve Bernier and the over-the-hill Pavol Demitra irreconcilably hamstrings this club. Breakout player: Alex Edler.

12. Columbus -- Acquiring Michael Nylander, reportedly placed on the trading block by over-the-cap Washington sometime last week, would really change my perspective on this team but, alas, clubs just don't make the playoffs with third-line wingers centering their top unit. Breakout player: Kris Russell.

13. St. Louis -- The Blues won't be as bad as everyone expects them to be, but the loss of Erik Johnson to a freak injury certainly spells the end of any playoff hopes. Still, the team will be able to break in all sorts of young talent like Patrick Berglund, TJ Oshie and Lars Eller, which will do wonders for the future of the club. Breakout player: David Perron.

14. Nashville -- The loss of Alex Radulov is obviously a huge hit to the team's already weak offense, but in conjunction with the inexplicable trade of Marek Zidlicky to Minnesota, the club's power play may have been dealt a death blow. The off-ice financial collapse of the team provides plenty distractions as well. Breakout player: Ryan Suter.

15. Los Angeles -- Matt Greene should not be on the top pairing of an NHL team. That tells you just about all you need to know about this year's Los Angeles Kings. Breakout player: Jack Johnson.

Eastern Conference

1. Philadelphia
-- A recent injury to Ryan Parent further debilitates an already thin blueline, but with the obscene amount of scorers in the Flyers' arsenal, it's unlikely the club will have to play much defense to win many games this season and, should worst come to worst, they'll still have Biron to bail them out. Breakout player: Braydon Coburn.

2. Montreal -- Mats Sundin would make them Cup favorites, but even without the Big Swede and despite the defection of prolific power-play pointman Mark Streit, the Habs have what it takes to win in the East: loads of goal-scorers and a good enough goalie to hold the fort. Breakout player(s): The Kostitsyns.

3. Washington -- Even if Michael Nylander is shed to create cap space, the Caps have arguably the most lethal offense in the Eastern Conference on top-end strength alone. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin are only going to be better this year (though one wonders how much better Ovechkin can possibly be) and Jose Theodore is certainly a palatable replacement for the departed Cristobal Huet. What remains to be seen is whether a greener-than-grass defense corps will be this club's Achilles' heel. Breakout player: Eric Fehr.

4. New Jersey -- It's the Devils, Loophole Lou is still in charge and Martin Brodeur is still tending goal. Move along, nothing to see here. Breakout player: Paul Martin.

5. Pittsburgh -- Injuries to Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney have the potential to be devastating blows to a team already missing two-thirds of its top line from a season ago. It's blasphemous to believe a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can outright miss the playoffs, but stumble they will. Breakout player: Kris Letang.

6. Boston -- With one of the more potent one-two punches at center in the NHL, a solid defense featuring behemoth Zdeno Chara and a respectable goaltending platoon of Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez, it's puzzling as to why many mainstream outlets have pegged the Bruins to finish out of the playoffs. Breakout player: Milan Lucic.

7. NY Rangers -- With the kind of roster overhaul the Rangers went through during the offseason, the team will undergo some bumps and bruises, but the Blueshirts still have the makings of a playoff team, particularly if Nikolai Zherdev can build on a surprisingly solid campaign. Breakout player: Marc Staal.

8. Tampa Bay -- Steve Stamkos is the real deal, but Jussi Jokinen, Vladmir Mihalik and March Recchi most certainly are not. Even still, in an overwhelmingly mediocre Eastern Conference, the Bolts have enough scoring to break away from the pack, provided Mike Smith has more performances like Saturday against the Rangers. Breakout player: Andrej Meszaros.

9. Buffalo -- The Sabres still have the makings of a postseason-worthy club and the contract extension tendered to Ryan Miller shows the front office has learned from their mistakes, but the Sabres remain frustratingly average in every category and the departure of Brian Campbell at last year's trade deadline leaves them without a viable No. 1 defenseman. Breakout player: Drew Stafford.

10. Ottawa -- After 11 consecutive years in the postseason, the Senators appear to be done. It's hard to doubt a team whose top line is comprised of three of the top-15 forwards in the NHL, but with a defense that immobile and a goaltending situation that decrepit, Jason Spezza's annual golf invitational is likely to be held a bit early this year. Breakout player: Nick Foligno.

11. Carolina -- When "injury-plagued" is the adjective most commonly associated with your team, you know you have problems. The injury bug has already struck the 'Canes this season as star winger Justin Williams appears to be spending the opening months of the season on IR. The addition of Joni Pitkanen is nice, but goaltender Cam Ward has done nothing since the '06 playoffs to prove that postseason run was nothing more than an aberration. Breakout player: Tuomo Ruutu.

12. Florida -- Trading Olli Jokinen was the right move, but it leaves the Panthers with an abysmal offense that will rely heavily upon youngsters Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton. Still, a defensive top four of Jay Bouwmeester, Keith Ballard, Bryan McCabe and Nick Boynton is nothing to scoff at, and with Tomas Vokoun's goaltending, the Cats have a better chance than you'd think. Breakout player: David Booth.

13. Atlanta -- With the advent of Mathieu Schneider, the Thrashers may actually have the best defensive top-four in the Southeast Division, but, alas, that statement is comparable to being the tallest pygmy. Kari Lehtonen has proven absolutely nothing to suggest he's capable of carrying a team and with the supporting cast around him, you can forgive Ilya Kovalchuk if he jumps ship once his contract is up. Breakout player: Tobias Enstrom.

14. NY Islanders -- Rick DiPietro is literally the only thing going for this team. An offense of Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Mike Comrie and nine journeymen/rookies won't win you a beer league championship and the addition of Mark Streit does nothing to help a defense that bled 2.93 goals per game last season. Breakout player: Kyle Okposo.

15. Toronto -- I'm not one for hyperbole, but one can be excused for wondering whether the Leafs' offensive depth chart belongs to an AHL team. A nosedive for the chance to draft superstar-in-the-making John Tavares is the only course of action for the 'Buds. Breakout player: Anton Stralman.