Season Preview w/ NHL Insider Kevin Allen

It’s safe to say that Kevin Allen knows a thing or two about hockey. He’s been covering the sport since the early 80’s – including nearly 25 years for USA Today – and is a featured guest each week on NHL Home Ice (radio and television), as one of their NHL Insiders.

Today, he brings his view on the game and upcoming season to MayorsManor for an exclusive season preview.

Of course, we’ll get into all the big issues in the Western Conference -covering topics like why did the Ducks keep Cam Fowler in Anaheim, what should the Sharks do with Joe Thornton, can the Coyotes have another 100-point season, which free agent signing last year was a major bust, who will and won’t go through sophomore slumps, did the ‘Hawks lose too many players, are the ‘Wings too old and much more.

First though, we just had to find out how in the world he lists Slap Shot so far down the list of the best sports movies of all time. Not even top five? Really?

MM: Slap Shot only made it to #9 on your list of the greatest sports movies. How is that even possible?

KA: I do enjoy the movie. But, my list includes a lot of sports movies that aren’t about hockey. As for the ones above it – Field of Dreams is just a classic movie and Rudy, I’m a sentimental guy. It’s hard for me to say anything bad about Slap Shot though. It’s almost like a cult movie now, with a non-hockey following. Through the years it’s almost seen as like a satire of hockey.

Who will be the most disappointing player in the NHL this year, somebody who is coming into the year with a bunch of hype that you just don’t buy into yet?

We need to see how good Dustin Byfuglien is.  I think when the Blackhawks were faced with salary cap issues they were a little too quick to move him.  They had other options.  They would probably argue that they cut down to the core players and he had to be expendable.  Sure, he was an important part of their Stanley Cup team.  However, prior to last season, I think he was looked at as just sort of an average player.  A big guy, weighed over 260lbs, could play some defense and forward – but, really didn’t have the reputation that he developed last year in the post-season, when suddenly he looked like a crucial player.  So, I guess he is a player I would look at as even though he has some notoriety, he still has a lot to prove in my estimation.

Young defenseman have been all the rage the last few years in the NHL.  With Cam Fowler making the Ducks opening night roster, is that an indication of how good Fowler is or is it more of an indication of how thin Anaheim is on the blueline?

Yes is the answer to that, on both accounts.  Cam Fowler is a dynamic presence.  Even though he dropped on draft day, earlier last season I had scouts tell me that he was right up there with Hall and Seguin.  He’s a tremendous talent and he has a chance to be a terrific offensive defenseman.  Not so different from Scott Niedermayer.  Though when I talked to Fowler when he was 17, he sort of compared himself to Nicolas Lidstrom.  I think he wanted to be a better all-around defensive player, who was known as much for his defensive play as his offensive play. 

In the limited time I’ve seen him, what I’ve noted is he is one of those players where it looks pretty effortless.  I think he’s above average in everything he does.  He certainly is among the top skaters in the league already, even though he hasn’t officially played in an NHL game.  There is a lot to like about him.  So, I think they wanted to get him into the system early, to teach him. 

The way the game has developed since the rule reformation, after the lockout, there is room for younger defenseman – guys like Drew Doughty and Zach Bogosian.  They couldn’t have done that in the pre-salary cap era because it was all about hooking and holding.  It was about physical strength.  Now, that isn’t allowed, so younger defenseman have a fighting chance to make the roster.

Joe Thornton is the new captain in San Jose, even though he is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.  If the Sharks aren’t able to win the Stanley Cup this year, should they still go ahead and sign him to a long term deal?

Initially I would have said no.  But, Patrick Marleau is back with the team.  A lot of us thought if they were going to make a change it was going to be last year, when they had the opportunity.  I think people thought the Los Angeles Kings, with Dean Lombardi at the helm, a GM who is very familiar with Marleau – they thought that was a match that seemed like a perfect fit.  But, it didn’t happen because the Sharks wanted to keep him.  So, it will be interesting to see. 

I think Doug Wilson is a little unpredictable.  But, how long can they go on like that?  We’ve had high expectations for the Sharks for a long time.  If they don’t do well this season, then maybe they’ll decide it’s the time to change.  But, also to be factored in, maybe Joe Thornton will want a change of scenery as well.  If I had to guess, I would say he’ll be elsewhere if they don’t perform well.  But, who knows, we’re only guessing at this point.

How was Dave Tippett able to get 107 points out of the Coyotes when Wayne Gretzky had nothing but problems there as a coach?

I think Wayne Gretzky was a terrific hockey player and a great hockey mind and he’d be a very capable administrator.  But, coaching in this era is a professional game.  By that I mean, you have to come in – Mike Babcock gets into the office every morning at 6:30 and he pretty much works a 12 hour day, almost like an NFL coach.  I think that’s Dave Tippett too.  He’s a guy that’s x’s and o’s, he’s a video guy, breaks things down, etc.  I’m not sure Wayne really wanted to do all of that.  I don’t mean that as a criticism. I just mean it as that wasn’t the way he was brought into the system.  But, I think that’s the modern day coach. 

Dave Tippett was the perfect blend for that team.  They needed some defensive discipline.  They needed a guy to come in who knew how to win 3-2 because they didn’t have a lot of scoring.  Tippett knows how to do that.  So, I think because of that, they were very successful. But, all the planets had to be aligned for the Coyotes to be that good last season.  It’s hard to replicate that kind of season, where everything goes right and Ilya Bryzgalov was unbelievable.  I think he’s a great goalie, but could he possibly be as good as he was last season?  That will be hard.

The Coyotes seem to have several questions actually.  Besides the goaltending, you have to wonder if they’ve done enough to to replace the players they lost.  Given all the factors, do you see another 100 point season out of them?

I think they can replace Lombardi.  The guy I don’t think they can replace is Zbynek Michalek, he was particularly good in the Dave Tippett system.  He was a terrific one-on-one defender.  That’s the crucial aspect of what happened in the off-season.  Can they overcome his loss?  They were able to keep  Derek Morris, which I thought was a key thing.  Ray Whitney will pick up the scoring.  Keeping Lee Stempniak was pretty crucial as well.  Then, adding a veteran like Eric Belanger – he’s not a 30-goal scorer, but he’s a guy who can chip in 15-20 goals. 

GM Don Maloney has done a pretty good job.  The rest of the league shops at Saks and he shops at KMart. Yet, he puts together a pretty good team.  I’m not sure they’re going to be able to get (107-points again), but I think they have a shot at 100 points if Bryzgalov plays well.  I think he’s a terrific goalie, it wasn’t an aberration.  I wonder if he’ll be able to be quite as good as he was last season.  Although, I think they have a shot to make the playoffs.

One little nugget slipped into your article earlier this week was that you think the Nashville Predators are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.  Please explain.

Last year’s playoffs, game five, first round – they have a one-goal lead and then Patrick Kane scores with 14 seconds left.  If Nashville wins that game, they’re up 3-2 in that series.  I’m not so sure they don’t win that series and the course of history will be changed.  The Nashville Predators had something like 102-points last season.  They’re a terrific team.  Matthew Lombardi will increase the team’s speed.  Colin Wilson’s going to play a bigger role, he’s a 215lb guy who can play center and wing.  He can score, he can do a lot of things. Their defense is as solid as any in the league.  When Shea Weber and Suter play together, I think they’re the top pairing in the league.  That twosome just works really well together – the big shot from Weber, the physical presence and solid dependability from Ryan Suter

Of course, Barry Trotz is one of the best coaches in the league.  Even when they were an expansion team, most coaches around the league couldn’t believe how much he could get out of a team that really didn’t have a lot of talent on their roster.  So, I think Nashville is quite capable of rising up.  I have them in the middle of the playoff pack in the Western Conference.  But, nothing would surprise me.  They’re quite capable of winning a series against any team in the West, if they’re playing well.  And Pekka Rinne is a terrific goalie. 

Most people have Edmonton, Columbus and Minnesota as the three teams at the bottom of the West.  Just how bad are those clubs right now?

Well, Edmonton is on the rise obviously, because they have Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Taylor Hall.  I think Gagne will get a little bit better.  We’ve all forgotten about him.  They’re a team that should be a little bit better than last season.  A lot will depend on their goaltending.  They’re certainly not going to challenge for a playoff spot, but they’ll be improved.

Columbus has been a disappointment to me.  How long has Rick Nash needed a center?  And they don’t seem to be able to go out and find him one.  Their GM Scott Howson is under tremendous pressure this year. The fan base has been very tolerant and patient.  It’s going to fall off though if they don’t start to perform at a higher level.  A lot of their issues last year centered on a sophomore slump from their goaltender Mason.  He wasn’t even close to being the same goaltender he was as a rookie.

Minnesota is also a team I expected more from.  I thought they would be a little bit bolder in the off-season.  I like Chuck Fletcher there as a GM, he does a pretty good job.  He’s not afraid, he’s not timid.  Whereas, I thought they were sort of stuck in neutral when Doug Risebrough was GM there.  They weren’t able to go out and make the big signing though.  John Madden is a nice piece to add.  But, he’s not a difference maker, in terms of that roster.  So, they need some luck.  They need Bouchard, who will start on the IR, to come back from his concussion.  Havlat needs to be a much better player than he was, particularly the beginning of last season when he was a disaster.  When you have a big signing like that, he has to be a difference maker – he wasn’t.   They have solid goaltending, Backstrom is terrific.  We all expected his save percentage to go down when Jacques Lemaire left as coach, and it did.  But, he’s still among the top-10 goalies in the league.

You mentioned Mason’s sophomore slump, is that something Jimmy Howard will experience in Detroit this season?

It’s hard to tell what happens with that one.  They really don’t need him to be better than he was to improve.  They just need him to be as good as he was.  And he was pretty darn good.  That defensive is still pretty solid.  I’m bullish on the Red Wings.  A lot of people think they’re on the way down because they look at the age of Lidstrom and Rafalski.  But, I look at a team that after everybody got healthy, I think they only lost three of their last 20-25 games.  Johan Franzen came back from a knee injury, he’s now fully healed.  They’re bringing Jiri Hudler back this year.  He was their third best passer before going to the KHL last season. 

Mike Modano – people say, well he’s 40 years old.  Look, they’re only asking Modano to play on the third line.  I think he skates well enough to play on anybody’s third line.  If you don’t expect him score 30 goals, he can be a help.  Jonathan Ericsson went through a sophomore slump himself last year.  he wasn’t very good.  If he can come back and play like he did as a rookie, the defense is going to be better.  Kronwall will pick it up this season as well.  The young players like Daren Helm and Abdelkader are going to be better.  I would assume Howard will be close to what he was last year.  If he is, the Red Wings are the team to beat in the Western Conference.

Overall, is too much being made of all the players lost in Chicago?

That’s a good question.  It remains to be seen, it’s a hard read.  From one perspective, they lost players – but, they weren’t players that were in the core group.  We talked about Byfuglien, I think they can replace him.  Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and Adam Burish, those are all guys who provided a lot of energy.  But, they have guys who can come in and provide that energy.  Guys like Jake Dowell and Bryan Bickell – these are guys who can come in and play those roles.

Joel Quenneville, the coach, and I had an interesting conversation.  We talked about this maybe being a good thing for the team, because they wont go through that complacency.  With the half the roster being new, maybe they wont experience the same Stanley Cup hangover.  All their core guys – Towes, Kane, Sharp – they’re still on their way up and could be better than they were last year.  Hossa missed a good chunk of last season with an injury.  If he stays healthy, that’s a plus right there.  Their core defense, led by Norris winner Duncan Keith, is still intact.  I could argue there is an important loss in Sopel because he was an important penalty killer, but Boynton has just just as much experience as Sopel. If he plays a very conservative style, he could replace Sopel.  John Scott gives them a little more bite, probably the only true heavyweight they’ve had in a few years. 

I think they have a chance to be the same team.  Saying all that, it’s hard to repeat.  We haven’t had anybody do that in 12 years and there’s a reason for that – there is so much parity around the league.

The Mayor
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