Showing the Panthers Top Line Some Love: These Guys are Good
With all the talk over the past couple of months about what the best line in hockey is, you always hear the same names come up. Mackinnon-Rantanen-Landeskog, Marchand-Bergeron-Pastranak, McDavid-Draisaitl-“Literally anyone it does not matter” (I mean look even Kassian is doing well) and of course, Hansen-Hansen-Hansen. While those are all fair answers to the question of what the best line in hockey is right now, I want to give credit to the one that plays in front of around 14 thousand people a night. That is the Florida Panthers top line of Jonathon Huberdeau, Alex Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov.
Who reading this knew that Huberdeau put up 92 points last year, or that Dadonov put up 70?!?! We knew they were good players but literally NO ONE talked about them last year. Barkov has long gone under the radar as one of the best two-way centres in the game and now his linemates are catching up to him. Barkov put up 96 points last year with little media attention and is off to a hot start again this year. The Finn has 17 points in 14 games, Huberdeau has 9 goals and 9 assists and Dadonov has 11 points. What also should not go unnoticed is the line’s two-way ability. They are very responsible in their own end, each is a net positive in Corsi and Fenwick.
(https://thehockeywriters.com/corsi-fenwick-stats-what-are-they/ Read Here if you do not know what Corsi and Fenwick are)
Barkov is also an unreal faceoff man and Huberdeau has shown he can step in there if need be. It can be hard for a top-line to generate offence and make sure of their duties in the defensive zone, but the Cats’ top line does a pretty good job.
What makes them so good?
The first thing that stands out when you watch these three together is how good each one is at passing. There isn’t really an elite scorer among the three. Barkov hit 36 last year, but Huberdeau has only hit 30 goals once and Dadonov hasn’t. This isn’t to say they are inadequate scorers, not by any means, they just prefer to make that extra pass to get a better goal-scoring opportunity for the team. Here are some examples of absolutely wicked passes they have made to each other for goals.
They are all also power-play specialists, Dadonov stands in the slot, with Huberdeau and Barkov on either side of Aaron Ekblad, who sits at the top of the umbrella. Their puck movement is again on full display and although it hasn’t been the strongest start for them on the PP, they have looked a lot better of late. Barkov has scored PP goals in two straight games and has 9 points in his last 5, Huberdeau has 8 points in his last 5 and Dadonov has 4. None of them have McDavid level speed or an Ovechkin level shot, but they all are very intelligent, heady players with incredible amounts of skill and are willing to work. If you have that combination of things you are going to produce. They deserve more recognition and more people should be watching them because that is the only way NHL fans will fully understand how good they are. With the Panthers rolling right now, they are a fun team to watch.
Why does no one talk about them?
Playing in Florida which is not exactly the hockey hotbed of America, let alone even their own state, doesn’t help. But seriously, it is disappointing that they aren’t getting appreciated for how good they are. Although a trip to the playoffs could go a long way. Lack of exposure is part of the issue. By my count, only 1 Panthers game was or is going to be nationally televised this year in the States. ONE! Of course, hardcore fans know how good these guys are and so do Panthers fans. But I would consider myself a hardcore NHL fan and I had zero clue Huberdeau had 92 points last year. As I said before none of these guys are especially flashy, I mean in the literal sense of the term. Barkov has shown how skilled he is in the shootout and Huberdeau and Dadonov can also dangle up there with the best of them, but we don’t see it very often. It isn’t like they are playing like grinders, not at all, but their play is more effective than flashy and that doesn’t make SportsCenter Top 10’s. It is surprising how many people think a player is good just because they scored a sick goal that one time. Take Marik Malik. The guy went between his legs once and everyone knows his name forever. (but if you don’t here’s the reference )
Just to clarify, I am not saying that these 3 are a better line than the Bruins or even the Avs top line, but I think they do deserve to be considered on that level because for too long they’ve been forgotten. For now, let’s hope they don’t go on 8 game pointless streaks all because someone gave them a little ‘love’.
12 Young-ish Players to Watch This Year
Before I begin, it should be noted that “breakout” is a bit of a loose term here. This is more of a list of young and exciting players that I like a lot. Some of these players are trying to make the step from talented promising youngster to certified NHL player. Some are trying to prove they can be a consistent point producer in the big leagues. Some are looking to make the jump from “ya, he’s pretty good” to “this guy is fucking unreal.” I was going to review a player from each team, but then I realized that it would take me a day and I have midterms coming up so 12 players are what you get. Disclaimer: This is not in order, just by random. No matter what category the player is in, everyone should keep an eye out for these 12 players this season.
Sam Steel is a player who is part of Anaheim’s new crop of promising youngsters. Anaheim was, to put it simply, just not a good team last season and are in the midst of an on the fly rebuild of sorts. Steel is a playmaking centre who has very high passing skills and a wicked shot when he gets the chance to let it loose. Steel, the last pick in the first round in the 2016 draft, was called up by the Ducks late last season to get some experience and to show what he can do. He performed quite impressively for a guy being called up during an ultra-competitive part of the season leading up to the playoffs, putting up 11 points in 22 games with 6 goals. He also got a hattrick during this time, scoring 3 against the Canucks in late March. Steel had some encouraging analytics and some not so encouraging ones, but his nearly 50 percent mark at the faceoff dot is very promising. Steel started the year on the second line but sustained a lower-body injury in the first game. He missed 4 games but is back now and is looking to solidify himself as a top-six forward for the Ducks. The Ducks are quite loaded through the middle with Getzlaf and Adam Henrique, so Steel should be able to get good matchups every night and just dominate the lower lines of opposing teams. To get 20 goals and 45 points would be an extremely successful season for Steel and I expect he does it.
Victor Olofson/Casey Mittelsdat
This is a bit of a cop-out but look, I couldn’t pick one when both are just this good so Sabres fans (all three of you) it is your lucky day. Let’s start with Olofson, the guy taking the hockey world by storm. Olofson has started out the season red hot with 5 goals and 7 points in 6 games. All 5 goals on the power play, all coming from his wicked shot. Olofson, already 24, spent his last four seasons playing with men in Sweden and the AHL lighting it up everywhere he went. He scored 30 goals and dished out 33 assists in 66 games last year in Rochester before getting called up and finishing the season with the big club. He started the 2019/20 season on the first line with Eichel and Reinhart playing around 18 minutes a game. Safe to say he is taking his opportunity, Olofson’s passing ability has been overlooked too, he has linked up very well with his linemates and stud countrymen D-man Rasmus Dahlin on multiple occasions. There could be some worry about his ability to produce five on five, which is fair but the fact he is scoring goals right now is all that matters. Look for him to hit 25, MAAAYBE 30 goals this year, with Eichel as his centre anything is possible.
Simply put, Casey Mittelstadt’s skill level is through the absolute roof. The 8th overall pick in the 2017 draft, Mittelstadt went on to be the best player in the World Juniors that winter and was subsequently called up to the Sabres late in the season. Coming out of the hockey hotbed that is Minnesota, Mittelstadt has been the most talented player everywhere he went, until the NHL. Mittelstadt made the Sabres out of camp last season and had 25 points in 77 games, but there were flashes of brilliance in his play. He came into this season as the Sabres third-line centre and as their main guy on the second power play. He is only playing 10 minutes a night, but his faceoff percentage is way better than last year (albeit in small sample size) and he looks a lot more driven this year. There is no question the talent is there for Mittelstadt, his success in this league will depend upon his determination, opportunity and end product. A season of 35-40 points would be very promising for the 20-year-old.
I’m not going to lie here, Andersson is one of my favourite young D-man in the show, so if you sense some bias that’s the reason. Rasmus is slotted as the third pair right side defencemen on the Flames depth chart, but he is flying up the ranks and could soon be recognized as their best defencemen on the right side. Andersson’s ice time so far this year has gone up to 18 and a half minutes a night after playing around 16 last year. He was one of the few Flames players who had a good playoff notching 3 points in 5 games. Andersson will hit the 100 game mark soon and I think he is done getting his feet wet; he should become a bonafide top-four defenceman this season. He loves to join the rush and his ability to skate so well allows him to do so, he is by no means a defensive juggernaut, but his hockey sense allows him to be competent in his own end. He does everything a modern D-man should be able to do exceptionally well, whether that be head-manning the puck, finding an open forward via the stretch pass, quarterbacking a power play or getting his point shots through to the net. Expect a big year from Rasmus Andersson.
Not much I could find so this is what ya get
The Canes have started the season on fire, as has 2017 first-round pick Necas. The centre turned right-winger (for now) has started off his first full season in the NHL with 4 points in 6 games on the third line. The Czech native is a smooth player who loves to pick up the puck in his own end and drive through the neutral zone with speed. He has played with men since he was 17 in the Czech league and is adapting well to the speed of the NHL. A useful weapon on the power play, Necas is very adept at finding the seam to feed to his teammates one-timers in the man advantage and is equally able to finish them off himself. He is a solid forechecker when he wants to be and should be able to move to the centre position when he is ready. A 30 assist, 40 point season may be asking a lot for a guy in his rookie season, but Necas definitely has that ability. Keep an eye out for him.
Now here’s a guy (Chris Collinsworth voice) who is the definition of a late bloomer. Erik Gustafsson was drafted all the way back in 2012 with the 94th pick by Edmonton, the Oilers, notoriously known for keeping and developing their top prospects (not) allowed him to go UNSIGNED. He waited three years and in 2015 he signed an ELC with the Blackhawks. He played 41 games in 15-16, none in 16-17 and then 35 in 17-18. Overall in those two stints with the big club, he had 30 points in 76 games, a decent tally for a young defenceman. The 18-19 season though was when he truly broke out. He finished last year with 17 goals, 60 points while averaging 23 minutes a game. A defenceman with forward like offensive ability, the Swede is a crazy smooth skater and has an absolute bomb from the point as evident by his three game-winners, all one-timers. He is up there as one of the best powerplay QBs in the league
Now onto probably my favourite defensemen in the Western Conference. Sam Girard stands just 5’10 and uses probably the shortest stick I have ever seen, but he is an absolute joy to watch and is becoming one of the most underrated defensemen in the league. I could talk about this guy for hours, Girard is just 21 and yet he is already logging 22 minutes a game so far to start the year and is effective every single second. He is an incredible skater, has that special ability to get pucks through to the net instead of being forced to put it in the corner or shoot it into the forward’s shin pads. Another guy who is a great power-play weapon, his ability to make something out of nothing with his skating and puck-moving ability is ludicrous for a guy his age. Girard is not bad defensively, but he can improve. Being focused on defence before offence is an important mindset for him to have and he needs to work on that. He only put up 27 points last year in a full season and for a guy with his skill set, he should hit at least 40 points this year. This is his breakout season, he got locked up to a 7 year 35-million-dollar contract in the summer and he will prove this year that the Avs got another absolute robbery of a contract.
This Video is long, but watch it all and you will see how good he is
Roope Hintz was the breakout star of the Stars impressive run to game 7 of the second round last spring. He scored 5 goals and 8 points in 13 games and he has continued his hot form into the start of this season. The big, bulking Finn charts in at 6’3, 215 LBS and he has been the lone bright spot to the Stars season so far with 4 goals and 5 points in 7 games. Hintz is a responsible two-way centre who is surprisingly fast, has a great wrister, underrated passing ability and can throw the body. Hintz is an exciting player and he is a perfect example of what happens when you are patient with your early-round picks. A second-round pick in 2015, Hintz stayed in Finland until the 17-18 season when he played a full AHL year. Last year he started in the AHL, put up a point per game for two months and was subsequently called up. Now he is the second-line centre. A solid 40 point season should be Hintz’s floor this season.
Devon Toews is quickly becoming one of the best defensemen in the Metro Division. Toews got called up to the Isles in late December last season after impressing in the AHL. He put up 18 points in 48 regular-season games, 5 points in 8 playoff games and overall his analytical numbers were off the charts. Toews also showed his ability to run a power play from the point, he has that natural skill of being able to get pucks through traffic to the net for tips and he has a pinpoint one time half slapper. What impressed me most with Toews last year was his play defensively. The fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft is very smart with his stick and has shown his ability to anticipate play as he regularly jumps in front of stretch passes to pick them off and sen his team the other way. He can make crazy stretch passes off his back foot, he never panics, he keeps it simple when he needs to and of course, is a heck of a skater. He has 4 points in his first 6 this year and is playing 20 minutes a night. It is clear the Isles want him to be their top guy and he definitely has shown that he can do it thus far. A 50 point season would be a major step for Toews this year.
Anthony Cirelli wasn’t even drafted to the OHL, now he plays on the first power-play unit on the best team in the NHL with Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman. It has been a long road for the 22-year-old from Etobicoke, he made the Oshawa Generals as a walk-on and impressed the Bolts enough for him to be taken by them in the 3rd round back in 2015. Part of the reason why they took him is due to Cirelli’s work ethic, he is the hardest worker every night for the Lightning but he can score too. 19 goals and 39 points in his first full NHL season last year proved that. Now he is being looked upon by the Lightning to take on a much bigger role, Cirelli has played around 18 minutes a night as the second-line centre and has started off the year well, with 4 points in 6. One area Cirelli can work on is his faceoffs, he has only been 50 percent or better once this year in 6 games. He is an elite penalty killer though, scoring 5 shorties last year. A player with Cirelli’s all-around package should be able to hit 25 goals and 50 points this year on a high scoring team.
Vince Dunn is another one of those modern defensemen with a skillset that just gets you excited to see what they do every night. Dunn put up 24 and then 35 in his first two seasons in the league and should be able to hit the 40 point mark this year. An insanely talented skater, Dunn uses his edgework and speed to evade forecheckers and has the puck-moving ability to then find an open team in stride. Dunn, for now, only plays 17 minutes a night due to how good the Blues D core is, but that means he gets easier matchups and more time and space. He also runs the second power-play unit (a theme amongst these breakout D men) and is really good at getting shots through and letting go of his wicked one-timer. Dunn does have questions about his commitment to defending in his own end and can lose focus at times. But a player of his age and ability going forward is bound to have growing pains, with Alex Pietrangelo looking set to hit the free agency market this summer, Dunn could start to become an even bigger piece of that Blues D core.
The Vegas Golden Knights are just absolutely loaded upfront. So loaded that Cody Glass can’t even get into their top 6. Glass, Vegas’ first-ever draft selection back in 2017, was taken with the 6th pick. He has been waiting and improving for the last two years in juniors putting up 102 points in 64 games in 17-18 and then 69 points (nice) in his first 34 games last year before an injury sidelined him for a while. He came back and was called up for the Knights AHL team’s playoff run, where he put up 15 points in 22 games in his first action in the pros. Everyone was excited to see what Glass would do this year and after making the team out of camp, Glass has started the year on fire. Coach Gerrard Gallant has put his faith in Glass by playing him on the first power-play unit and Glass has shown he deserves to be there putting up 2 PP points in his first 7 games. Overall, Glass has 2 goals and 5 points in 7 and looks really good on that Vegas third line. A good two-way player, Glass is not scared of crashing the net and causing havoc. He has a really good shot and is great at cycling the puck down low. A nightmare for any checking line to have to deal with, I think Glass is a darkhorse for the Calder this year due to just how many goals Vegas scores. A 55 point season is not out of the realm of possibility and a player this talented has a real chance at hitting that marker.
Maple Leafs Season Preview
A new season awaits the Toronto Maple Leafs. There is no doubt this is a team with high expectations and a lot of pressure. They haven’t made it out of the first round since 2004. They have spent every single penny they can to ensure they kept everybody upfront and all eyes will be on Mike Babcock to see if he can finally take this incredibly talented team over the edge. This season preview will come in four parts. The first part will recap the offseason. The second will go over the opening night roster. The third will talk about what to expect from the Leafs this season regarding their style of play and the fourth will be the final prediction section.
The 2019 offseason was a busy one for young GM Kyle Dubas. The Leafs were coming off being eliminated by the Boston Bruins in game seven for the second year in a row. The checklist going into the offseason was probably something like; sign Mitch, get a top-four right-handed D-Man, get rid of some bad contracts and try to improve through trades. Well in many ways it wasn’t pretty but Dubas accomplished everything on that list. He signed Mitch Marner to, well let us be honest it was a god-awful deal but Mitch is a Leaf and that is all that matters. He managed to acquire Tyson Barrie, a top-four right-handed D-Man via trade. He got rid of Patrick Marleau, Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown’s horrible contracts that he didn’t sign. Lastly, he improved through trade by again getting Barrie as well as Alex Kerfoot to be the third-line centre. They had to, of course, trade Nazem Kadri but overall it was a trade win for the Leafs.
They also managed to lock down promising young wingers Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson to great team-friendly deals. As well as adding 24-year-old KHL standout Ilya Mikheyev to their bottom-six forwards. Defencemen Cody Ceci and his lovely 4.5 million cap hit also joined the Leafs this summer and well that hasn’t exactly inspired confidence amongst Leafs fans but hey let’s give him a chance. Notable departures include fan favourite Jake Gardiner (sarcasm) and 83-year-old Ron Hainsey (he is actually 38). Overall the offseason must be classified under the win column for the Leafs and fan excitement should be at an all-time high for the year.
To start, we are going to look at the Leafs forward lines.
One thing that instantly pops out at you is speed and skill. Kyle Dubas has definitely put his imprint on this team and he knows what way he wants the Leafs to play. Other than Tampa Bay, you’ll be hard-pressed to find four lines this good anywhere else in the league. The decision to put William Nylander back with Auston Matthews is an obvious one to most but it will feel like a breath of fresh air. No more Kapanen throwing the puck in Matthews’s skates when he is waiting in the slot. Johnsson is a candidate to really break out this year and he is the perfect fit on the left side for this line. Speedy and skilled enough to keep up with the other two, he is also willing to do the dirty work that this line needs, it is a cliche thing to say, but the fact is it’s true. This line should be flying from the first puck drop. Line two will be interesting, to say the least. Marner and JT work, we know that, but it will be fascinating to see how Kapanen gels with the two superstars. He is the fastest player on the Leafs roster but sometimes he is too fast for his own good and he tends to get out of control. If he can get his shot and hands under control, then he has a real chance to get 30 goals this year as he is playing with two elite playmakers in Marner and Tavares. If anything, this line will definitely have the puck a lot.
The third and fourth lines are both very intriguing in their own way. The third line is pretty much a whole new unit as none of the players played more than 25 games for the Leafs last year. Kerfoot was on the Avs and Mikheyev was bumming it out in Russia, Trevor Moore the only player who was on the Leafs last year. Again, this line just oozes speed. Moore and Kerfoot are short speedsters who use their small stature, their hockey IQ and above-average skill to get into high danger areas. Kerfoot has put up 42 and 43 points in his first two seasons in the show, Moore impressed everyone in his short stint with the Leafs last year playing just 10 minutes a game on the bottom line. The wildcard here is Mikheyev, he is 6’2, 200 pounds and frankly looks like a beast. He put up 45 points in 62 games in Russia last season. He skates very well for a bigger guy and has great hands, he uses his frame to protect the puck expertly and his ability to beat a defender and then find an open teammate is very impressive. Safe to say I am excited about Mikheyev and the Russian gas he is bringing to the Leafs. The fourth line isn’t really anything to write home about, but it should do the job nonetheless. A good camp and a strong preseason by Fredrik Gauthier and Dimtro Timashov got them roster spots and Jason Spezza is a really old veteran player so you know what that means: LEADERSHIP!
Now onto the defence.
The Leafs issues at defence have been well documented in the past, I mean even Eugene Melnyk chirped them about their shortcomings on the blue line. But dare I say that the Toronto Maple Leafs (if everyone stays healthy) have a top ten D-Core in the league. Okay, that may be overshooting it a bit, but it is at least in the top half. A bonafide Norris candidate in Morgan Rielly (72 points last year) two high-level top four guys in Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin who form what seems to be a perfect pairing on paper. Rasmus Sandin and Travis Dermott who, once Dermott returns to full health, are two players just waiting to breakout. We will leave Ceci and Marincin off to the side for now. A backend full of puck-moving ability, both by skating and passing, as well as high-end skill and a couple of wicked shots. For the Leafs, possession and getting the puck to the forwards is the name of the game and they certainly have a top-six that can do that.
The lines look a little like this. Rielly and the newly acquired Ceci didn’t exactly hit it off in the preseason, but Rielly playing with someone who holds the stick differently than him is a good thing. Morgan is a special player and if Ceci just isn’t horrible, they should be okay.
The projected second pairing is what I am most excited for. Barrie and Muzzin are two of the most under-recognized defencemen in the league and they should complement each other very well. Both are strong skaters and are good puck movers, but where Barrie lacks Muzzin doesn’t and vice versa. Barrie is by no means a physical defenceman and he isn’t really that great at defence either based on his analytics. Muzzin, however, is a highly capable defender and as Torrey Krug found out last spring, he loves to throw the body. Look for Babcock to lean on this pairing a lot late in games and against the opponent’s top line.
The final pairing is interesting. Travis Dermott being out until probably late November opened an opportunity. Boy did 29th overall pick in the 2018 draft Rasmus Sandin take that opportunity. The former Sault Greyhound was absolutely incredible for the Toronto Marlies last year, proving he could play with men. And if that wasn’t enough he went out and had arguably the best preseason of any Leaf. The 19-year-old does not play to his age. He just does so many things well for a player his age. His passing ability, his skating ability, his knack for knowing when to join the rush, his wicked one-timer, his smart stick at the blueline, his ability to get shots through multiple players from the point. The list goes on and on. He will play with Martin Marincin to start the year which isn’t exactly great news but at least he’s playing. The hope for Leafs fans is to see Dermott return and hop in with Sandin on the third pair. Pardon my French but holy shit would that be amazing.
Now I wasn’t going to talk about the goaltending situation because frankly, it is quite simple but alas. Freddy Andersen has played over 60 games in his first three years with the Leafs. I personally, do not see any issue with Freddy playing 60 games a year, he is a top ten goalie in the league and well a lot better than the second option. But some fans and maybe even the coaching staff believe that if Andersen continues at this pace, he will burn out in the playoffs or worse, suffer a long-term injury. The Leafs backup right now is Michael Hutchinson. Look maybe it is because he catches left-handed, but Hutch doesn’t exactly inspire me. Sure, throw him in on a backend of a back to back but if he isn’t needed then why put yourself at a disadvantage? Garrett Sparks cost the Leafs home-ice advantage last year due to his poor play when he filled in for Freddy and the Leafs cannot have that happen again.
What to Expect
This may come as a shock to some, but the Leafs do a lot of things very well. Now I am not going to act like I am some analytics guru. (for more info on analytics and what they mean read here: https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/corsi-pdo-explaining-hockeys-analytics-terms/) But I do find them very useful and extremely telling to see what a team is good at and how they play. For starters, the Leafs were in the top three in the league last year in expected Goals For and Goals For per 60 and in the top two in both Corsi For and Corsi For per 60. They also had the third-highest shooting percentage. So, what does this all mean? Well it means they have the puck a lot, they shoot the puck a lot and well they have some skilled shooters getting some very good chances. Obviously, all good things. They were also third in the league in scoring chances against, so ya that isn’t great. But that should tighten up at least a bit this year and hopefully, Fredrik Andersen isn’t as worked as he has been in previous years. The point being here is that well, expect a fun, high scoring, fast team this season. The only thing that should or could stand in their way is the Head Coach. The Leafs have high-end skill pretty much everywhere which is why it was a mystery as to why their powerplay was so bad last year. With more balance between the two units, the Leafs should also go back to be a top ten powerplay in the league. Goals, goals and more goals are ahead, probably for both teams whenever the Leafs are involved.
(You can find all the information about Leafs analytics on corcsica and hockeyreference.com)
If you are still reading, thank you. Here is the part where I probably embarrass myself. (self-depreciation is key) Here’s the thing, the Atlantic is good, really good. It probably houses the three best teams in the East if not the entire league. Then there is Florida who looks like this could finally be their year to breakthrough, there is the pesky Canadiens who missed out on the playoffs by a point last season. Buffalo could make some noise…. Ottawa and Detroit are there too. The Leafs should and will come in the top three, but it won’t be that easy. Here is my prediction, the Leafs come second in the conference with 105 points behind the Lightning and open the playoffs at home against the team that they have absolutely zero histories with, Boston.
Auston Matthews scores 50 goals, Nylander hits 80 points, Tavares and Marner both hit 90 again and Fredrik Andersen comes in the top three for Vezina voting. Oh, and Rasmus Sandin gets a few Calder votes too. The Leafs beat the Bruins in six games in the first round and move on to a date with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Leafs’ first trip to the second round in a decade and a half sees them go the distance in an enthralling series between the leagues two best teams (a reminder of how dumb the NHL playoff structure is) but ultimately fall short in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champ. Now to paraphrase what The Big Lebowski once said, this is just like my opinion man. As a Leafs fan, I could not be more excited for the new year, hockey is back everyone, let us enjoy it while it lasts.
Four NHL Teams to Watch This Year
With the NHL pre-season now underway and the regular season right around the corner, I decided to take a look at the moves teams have made this off-season and compile a shortlist of teams that could potentially surprise a lot of people and end up having successful seasons.
2018 record: 37-37-8
2019 Projected Record: 45-33-4
If the Philadelphia Flyers are the question, goalie trouble is almost certainly the answer. The Flyers have had the misfortune of jumping between starting goalies year after year for almost a decade now, but maybe, just maybe now their prayers have been answered. Sophomore goalie Carter Hart put up promising stats last season in the 31 games he played; posting a 16-13-1 record with a .918 save percentage and 2.84 GAA, now these aren’t Vezina award-winning numbers by all means, but it was great to see a netminder show some glimpses of success in a Flyers uniform. Philadelphia’s talent outside of the crease can’t be denied either; their forwards consist of a great mix of young players and guys who are still in their prime; names like Giroux, Couturier, Voracek, Konecny and newly acquired free agent Kevin Hayes headline the Flyers forward core along with exciting prospects like Nolan Patrick, Morgan Frost and Joel Farabee; it’s safe to say that they won’t be finding it hard to score in the upcoming seasons. As for the defensive core, the Flyers noticed that now with Hart as the bonafide starter, they need to find a way to make the 20-year old’s job as comfortable as it can be; picking up veteran defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun to play with their youthful defensive core; doing this added security and a bit of veteran leadership to the team. If all goes well for the Flyers and they can stay healthy this year, I feel that they can really make an impact; Hart seems like the real deal between the pipes, and they were able to make some intelligent moves this off-season that will really benefit the team’s performances this season.
2018 record: 33-39-10
The Buffalo Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since the 2010 season, they haven’t finished outside of the bottom two teams in their division since 2012, so I think it’s safe to say that the city has waited long enough for this phase to end. The Sabres have acquired pieces for a playoff run over the years and finally were ready to make a push last season after starting out as one of the hottest teams in the league. But unfortunately it all fell apart at a bad time and the Sabres weren’t able to repair themselves and get back on track. With good production from the forwards last year and two new additions in Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey, the Sabres piece together a dangerous top six; capable of providing enough offense for a playoff team. The defenseman, as we know, is not Buffalo’s problem; with one of the best young defensemen in the NHL today in Rasmus Dahlin, backed up by the likes of Jake McCabe, Rasmus Ristolainen and Brandon Montour, this D core is solid enough to at least contend for a top 8 spot. Where the question comes into play with the Sabres is in goal, last season Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark created a tandem and each played around half the games, the problem was they both sucked! The Sabres need to find some stability in goal; whether they roll with the gruesome twosome of Ullmark and Hutton, try to make a move for a starting goalie before the deadline or maybe, something I’d personally like to see would be if they give 2019 OHL Goaltender of the year Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen a chance in goal, the 20-year old looks towering in net and is coming off a tremendous year with the Sudbury Wolves and with his country as he won gold with Finland at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
There shouldn’t be any doubt that at the very least the Sabres will provide some very fun hockey to watch this season just by looking at their roster, the key for them will be staying consistent; they finished 12-24-5 on the road last season, this is something that can’t repeat if they wish to make the playoffs this year and personally I think they can, if one of or both Hutton and Ullmark add some consistency to their game the Sabres could easily become a force to not be reckoned with.
2019 Projected Record: 42-28-12
2018 record: 37-36-9
The Pacific division is very, very difficult to play in. It’s so evenly matched that last season, not one of the teams finished with a losing record; the Wild finished dead last in the Central last year which was a bit of a head-scratcher because the year before they finished in 3rd with 101 points and nothing really changed within the team; this turned out to be the problem, the Central is so tight that if you aren’t improving after every year, you’ll be left in the dust by the other seven teams. And that’s just what happened to the wild, they sat back last season and the division past them. Obviously the Wild noticed this; getting rid of the old and bringing in the new, the wild made a number of trades this past season to give themselves a new look. Getting rid of top 6 forwards Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund in exchange for Kevin Fiala, Ryan Donato and Mats Zuccarello. A few changes here and there and the Wild are looking like the dangerous wild card that they have been known as recently. Taking a look at their forwards they have a really nice balance of play styles and a good ratio of veterans to youth players. And defensively the Wild has been one of the most sound teams in recent years; with the likes of Suter, Dumba, Spurgeon and Brodin and a goalie who I think just misses out on top 10 in the league in Devan Dubnyk. I admire the changes the Wild made to their offence and I think it will benefit them in the scoring department this season. Zuccarello and Fiala are natural goal creators, Donato will be an effective role player for years and years to come and they didn’t lose any pieces that I think are key for them. Of course, being in the Central; just about anything can happen but, I am confident in saying that the Wild will be a playoff team this season.
2019 Projected Record: 47-26-9
New Jersey Devils
2018 record: 31-41-10
Saving the best for last here, oh boy what an off-season the Devils have had. Not only were they fortunate enough to win the draft lottery where they went on the pick who is supposed to be the next Patrick Kane in Jack Hughes. But they were also able to acquire one of the best defensemen in the NHL today; P.K Subban. These two alone is enough for me to be convinced that the Devils could contend for the playoffs this season, but they also went along and added veteran power forward Wayne Simmonds from Philadelphia who has eleven seasons under his belt in total and five of them finishing with 28+ goals. They also were able to add Nikita Gusev; an elite playmaker who put up 17 goals and 65 assists in 62 games playing for St.Petersburg SKA of the KHL last season. These four added to the Devils roster help their team and especially their offence. They added three guys that, to say the least, know how to score, and also strengthened their back end with an all-star defenseman. In goal this year, New Jersey should go with a tandem this season, much like what Cory Schneider had success with way back in Vancouver with goaltender Roberto Luongo, both goalies will benefit immensely in sharing the workload, it will keep them fresh and in a confident mindset, This could be just what Cory Schneider needs to get back on track after his shocking performances in recent years and it’s just what Blackwood needs in order to grow into the starter that the Devils hope to have in the future.
2019 Projected Record: 49-30-3
What is Going on in Winnipeg?
Sixteen months ago the Winnipeg Jets were three games away from being the first Canadian team in the Stanley Cup Finals since 2011. For Jets fans, that must seem like a decade ago at this point. The Jets have had a turbulent offseason, to say the least. Since their game six loss against the Blues back in April, they traded away young defencemen Jacob Trouba to New York, lost key pieces Ben Chiarot, Brandon Tanev and Tyler Myers to free agency. They are yet to sign their two dynamic restricted free agent forwards, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and recent reports say that they aren’t close with either player. Two of their young prospects, Sami Niku and Kristian Vesalainen, got in a car crash on the way to training camp last week. And last but certainly not least, their best defencemen and assistant captain, Dustin Byfuglien, is taking a leave of absence for personal reasons and it is being reported that he is contemplating retirement. All this has happened in just four months after a disappointing season which ended in the first round at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup Champion St Louis Blues
To put it simply the Jets are an absolute mess. It is becoming a real possibility that they will not have Connor or Laine for opening night and well without them their forward lines are looking pretty uninspiring. Here is the Jets projected lineup for opening night as of today.
It doesn’t look too strong, does it? The first line is still strong, but the second line is one of the worst on the league on paper and the bottom two lines aren’t great either. The defence is Josh Morrissey and then two unproven young defencemen and two bottom pairing defencemen. For the sake of argument let’s say that at least two of Byfuglien, Connor and Laine come back. Since Laine is looking the least likely to return we will go with Byfuglien and Connor. Connor either slides in on the first or second-line left side and Byfuglien would probably slide in beside Nathan Beaulieu on the right side. This obviously makes the Jets a better team but does it make them a playoff team? Last year the Jets started off the season very well, they were first in the West heading into the new year. But they ended the year horribly, going 14-13-3 from February to the end of the season and limped into the playoffs. Their advanced analytic numbers weren’t great and showed why maybe we should have expected a drop-off but to see the team fall apart at the end of the year was still surprising.
Looking at that Jets roster it is difficult to see how much more the team can improve. Blake Wheeler is 33, Bryan Little is also getting older and Mark Schiefle overachieved last season. The Jets also have to deal with the fact that they play in the best division in hockey, the Central. There are five teams not including the Jets, that have a legitimate shot at going deep in the playoffs. If the Jets are able to get Byfuglien back and resign Laine and Connor to good but not great deals then they as well should be a playoff team. But they still are a worse team on paper than they were last year and last year they couldn’t make it out of the first round.
The Jets are in a tough spot because they have a good team, with most of their core group locked up long term but they are wavering on the brink of mediocrity. The problem is this core is objectively not good enough to legitimately contend for a Stanley Cup. It looks as though this Jets team is destined to make the playoffs and then get knocked out in the early rounds for the next three to four years. Now if none of the three aforementioned players return, this Jets team still isn’t bad enough to get a top-three pick in the draft but again they are not good enough to make the playoffs. Point being here is that no matter how many of the three players return to the lineup, the Winnipeg Jets are destined for a season of disappointment.
2019-2020 NHL Season Predictions
It is Finally Back
It’s baaaaaaaack. Finally, the NHL season has returned and Sam and Raine are here to give us their potentially hot, potentially cold takes. From the Stanley Cup to who will win the Art Ross, our two hockey guys go through just about everything you can predict ahead of the new season.
Raine: Tampa Bay
Sam: Tampa Bay
Sam: Tampa Bay
Raine: Tampa Bay
Sam: Tampa Bay
Stanley Cup Champ
Sam: Tampa Bay
Team Most Likely to Surprise
Raine: New Jersey
Team Most Likely to Disappoint
Sam: St. Louis
Best CDN Team
Number of CDN Teams in Playoffs
Raine: Nathan Mackinnon
Sam: Tyler Seguin
Raine: Nathan Mackinnon
Sam: Connor Mcdavid
Raine: David Pastrnak
Sam: Auston Matthews and Alex Ovechkin
Raine: Quinn Hughes
Sam: Cale Makar
Raine: Frederik Andersen
Sam: Sergi Bobrovsky
Raine: Seth Jones
Sam: John Klingberg
Jack Adams Winner
Raine: Joel Quennville
Sam: John Tortorella
Player Most Likely to Breakout
Raine: Nico Hischier
Sam: Nolan Patrick
Player Most Likely to Disappoint
Raine: Phil Kessel
Sam: Jordan Binnington
Here is a little pump up vid to get you ready: https://youtu.be/3AbLcUa3Dx4