Summer is officially over. Final NHL rosters have been submitted to the league, preseason games are no more, and now comes the time when the puck is dropped and the real goodness begins. Before you settle in for the 82-game season though, here is how MayorsManor thinks the standings will shake out over the next six months:
1. Chicago – Redemption is surely on the Hawks minds after losing Game 7 of the Western Conference Final at home, in OT, to the LA Kings. GM Stan Bowman has done a great job maneuvering around the upper echelon of the salary cap, but can he continue to do it much longer without crippling his talent base? They’re hoping that newcomer (and aging veteran) Brad Richards, along with 2012 first round draft pick Teuvo Teravainen, can shore up the secondary scoring. Are they ready to step up again though and try to take back the Stanley Cup while trying to fight off everyone in the Central?
2. St. Louis – Gut check time? Here is a team that displays many of the characteristics of a typical Stanley Cup contender, but hasn’t taken the next step forward. They’re possibly becoming San Jose Central. GM Doug Armstrong has tried to build his team the right way – and they’re often referred to as ‘balanced’ – but are they really just a team of second liners? Further, is Paul Stastny the first line center they’ve desperately needed? Coach Ken Hitchcock has them playing hard, solid, two–way hockey. Their only Achilles heel might be in net, where Brian Elliott isn’t a full-fledged No. 1 and Jake Allen is still waiting in the wings for his opportunity to become the main starter.
3. Colorado – Everybody wants to know, can they keep up their pace from a year ago? If we were playing fantasy hockey, I really like some of the pieces in Denver – especially Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. In goal, Semyon Varlamov was the biggest reason why the Avs went from the bottom of the standings to the top of the Central Division in just one season. For them to do it again, he’ll have to be close to his stellar performance from a year ago and their top forwards must continue to mature. Their glaring need for help on the blueline was obvious in their first round playoff loss, yet they still have that defense core by committee approach. We’ll buy into what they’re doing more when they figure out a way to add a true No. 1 defenseman to the mix. Every team wants one. However, they don’t just grow on trees.
1. Anaheim – Boudreau Syndrome? There’s no question these guys are regular season juggernauts, but can they do more damage in the playoffs? Do they possess enough grit and jam to go further than the second round? Those questions can’t be answered until next May at the earliest. For now, we think their ample supply of offense will lead them to a third straight Pacific Division crown. Coach Bruce Boudreau says he’ll manage the minutes of his top guys better this year, not burning them out in the regular season. If that happens, the Kings, and to a lesser extent the Sharks, could slide in and take the Pacific. Before the playoffs, they’ll need to find some people to put on the blueline who can scare the opposition in the corners. With the loss of Nick Bonino, they’ll also need to find some secondary scoring from the kids: Devante Smith-Pelly, Emerson Etem, and whoever else can step up.
2. Los Angeles – Is this team on the verge of becoming a dynasty? It certainly looks that way with two Stanley Cups in three years and a near miss sandwiched in-between. The defense, once the hallmark of the team, is one of the few question marks coming into the season, as chronicled in detail here. Also, can the Kings keep their foot on the gas pedal and keep the party bus rolling over the course of a full, 82-game regular season? The core is there and this team has proven they can take on anything thrown at them come the post-season. And it seems like the only thing that can beat this team are themselves. This is the likely the final year of this group as it is currently constructed, as there are just too many free agents to deal with come next summer. That’s for later though. They are primed and ready to defend the Cup.
3. San Jose – Quake aftermath? The big issue here is well documented and it is a single not-so-simple word, leadership. How will Joe Thornton respond to no longer being the captain and who, if anybody, is going to step up and take charge of this team – not on the ice, but in the locker room? With guys like Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture leading the team in scoring, there is more than enough talent for them to compete in the Pacific Division and the entire Western Conference. No matter what they do in the regular season, all year long we’re going to be hearing about their latest playoff failure. It’s the same old story that never goes away, which makes it even more curious that GM Doug Wilson is still there. It certainly seemed like the perfect time to move in a new direction. Vancouver made their drastic changes a year too late. Will San Jose experience the same thing?
WEST WILD CARD
1. Dallas – Can the young guns get it done? On paper, this is one of the up and coming teams in the West and you have to like the upside of this new version of the Stars. A lot of pundits like them to upset a few of the tougher teams in the Western Conference, but there’s also the potential they could regress a bit with the new parts. Veteran forwards Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky have been injury prone lately, so has goalie Kari Lehtonen. Plus Spezza and Hemsky haven’t been known to be fond of their own end. On the flip side, Spezza is a pending free agent and is likely playing for what will be his final chance at another big pay day. After Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley, the D in Dallas is by committee and could be prone to mistakes. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin were certainly impressive last season, but they still have some growing up to do before truly competing with the big dogs in their division.
2. Nashville – Back to basic Smashville hockey? If you had very mediocre goaltending and subpar scoring, and were only three points out of a playoff spot, it’s easy to understand the optimism surrounding the idea of a healthy and full season out of your franchise goalie. Pekka Rinne alone should be enough to get you back to the playoffs. Then, add in what should be some additional offense from new additions James Neal, Mike Ribeiro and Olli Jokinen, and the Predators have a lot to like. New coach Peter Laviolette could easily make this team into a playoff team again and turn Shea Weber into a Norris Trophy winner.
3. Arizona – Can they get back to the dance again? Picking the Yotes as a playoff team comes with risk but it could be justified. Like Nashville, they were uber close last season and just missed the post-season dance. Also in similar fashion, they lost their MVP in goalie Mike Smith near the end of the season to injury, which easily could have made the difference. Additionally, the most overlooked player in the Western Conference is Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He’s about to lead this team in scoring, along with Keith Yandle. It isn’t often you’ll find a pair of defenseman leading the way in the key offensive categories, but that’s more than a possibility here. We’ve long argued that Dave Tippett is among the top three coaches in the NHL. Few do more with less. Captain Shane Doan will again lead the group of hard working forwards and they’ll compete for a playoff spot all the way up until the final week. As we said several months ago, they should have signed Dustin Penner. He would have been a perfect player for Tippett to work with.
4. Minnesota – Will Mike Yeo be the first coach fired? Last season, we heard it was just hours from happening, and then the team pulled through. They remain a team surrounded by questions. Although there is plenty to like on this team – including center Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, and Mikael Granlund – they still seem to be missing that x-factor needed to take them to the next level. They’ve had ongoing issues in goal and Darcy Kumper has yet to prove he can carry the workload of being the No. 1 guy in net. Ryan Suter could use some more help out on the blueline, besides 2011 first round pick Jonas Brodin. There are high expectations in the State of Hockey, so Yeo is going to have to figure this riddle out quickly. If he can’t he could be the first coach given a pink slip.
5. Vancouver – Rebuild/retool? We covered this at length, and repeatedly, last season on West Coast Bias. The Canucks were fortunate to play in the old Northwest Division, where they could feast on the under armed Oilers, Flames, Avs, and Wild. Now members of the rough and tough Pacific Division, they are feeling the heat, which helped push them into a rebuild/retool. The Sedins are in their decline now, but could bounce back for another year or two. Still, there are a lot of holes to be filled all around, starting with who’s going to score after the twins? New coach Willie Dejardins has his work cut out for him and will have to be creative to make this group competitive night in and night out.
6. Calgary – Ground Zero? Starting their own full rebuild, but just a few steps behind the Oilers, the Flames should easily show they have more to offer than their Alberta rival. They’ll have to win games on 100% hard work some nights, but they have some pieces to work with. Young center Sean Monahan reminded one of his teammates of a young Anze Kopitar, so that gives you a small peak into what the 2013 first rounder may provide in years to come. Long-term, this club has a very tall order all-around, as their prospects are thin on top end talent and they have a lot of openings for grabs. Let’s see if President Brian Burke and GM Brad Treliving can build it the right way, from the ground up.
7. Edmonton – Slowly but surely? Maybe they thought that if they followed the Penguins formula of high draft picks, they would be closer to the Cup, but they are still a long ways off. You need good defensemen too, who knew? Still without a clear No. 1, their goaltending tandem looks to be a step ahead from where it was a year ago. Now, the forwards need to take that next step. Plus, they aren’t the most intimidating group. Craig MacTavish is nowhere close to getting a passing grade for what he’s been able to do with the Oilers since taking over as GM.
8. Winnipeg – Now what? In the three-team dogfight to determine which of three Western Canadian teams truly is the worst in the Conference, the Jets win out because there just – well, there just there. Ultimately, like most teams, they’ll go as far as their goaltending will take them, and Ondrej Pavelec is average. Further, they are an overall average team and appear to be stagnant. For the glass half-full brigade, there are a few bright spots – namely Bryan Little, Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, and Blake Wheeler. After that it’s wide open. And what will they do with Evander Kane’s attitude?
1 Tampa Bay – Yzerman’s Brewery? GM Stevie Y is brewing something down in Tampa and it’s evolving into a pretty interesting group that could surprise down in Florida. A healthy Ben Bishop in net could have challenged the Habs in the first round a lot more. Now, with a healthy Steven Stamkos, a full season from Ryan Callahan, the youngsters (Ondrej Palat, Alexander Killorn and Tyler Johnson), along with Victor Hedman’s development, will make this the team in the East to watch out for.
2 Montreal – Are the kids ready? Can a team with no captain lead the Habs further down the road? Will defensemen PK Subban take another step in his development? Will they miss the leadership of Josh Gorges? Do they need another sniper up front to help out Max Pacioretty?
3 Boston – Another year older? This team still has the core that makes them perennial favorites coming out of the East, but are age and deep playoff runs catching up to them or are they just missing a tweak here and there? This team could easily resemble the Kings of late – they might be just good enough in the regular season and they destroy the competition in the playoffs.
1. Philadelphia – The Hextall effect? Can GM Ron Hextall bring back some of the lessons he learned from being with the LA Kings and instill that attitude into the Philadelphia Flyers? Though the Flyers did well after Craig Berube took over as coach for Peter Laviolette, there are still several questions about their blueline. You also have to wonder if Steve Mason can keep up his form from last year or if he will revert to those days after his rookie season in Columbus. Still, we like what we see from this group, especially in their division.
2. Pittsburgh – Answering the call? Sid and Company are at a crossroads now – after winning the Cup in 2009, they’ve been a favorite to win the Cup every year since but have been bounced out of the playoffs earlier than expected every season since. Is MA Fleury to blame? Will he step up in his contract year? Can Malkin carry this team on his back with Sid and get them back to the promise land?
3. Columbus – A Western team in the east? The Blue Jackets are ready to make a charge after making the playoffs for the first time since 2009, yet injuries to start the season have us ranking them third here, instead of perhaps second. They were hardened from playing in the tough Central Division in the Western Conference and they are primed to make a run in the Eastern Conference. What we really want to know is can they make that next step and win a series?
EAST WILD CARD
1. NY Rangers – A Finals hangover? They made a valiant run until they ran into the LA Kings in the SC Finals, but can they do another deep run into the playoffs without some of the role players that helped them get there? Can 40-year-old Marty St. Louis find more points in the fountain of youth? Can the more youthful core of Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider and Derrick Brassard step up and become more dominate players? Will they actually miss Brad Richards?
2. Washington – Retooling, take four? The Caps have had more makeovers than a weekend of binging on HGTV. New GM Brian MacLellan and coach Barry Trotz, along with free agents Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, will need to learn how to live in Alexander Ovechkin;s world. Braden Holtby will be given every chance to become the starting goalie, but if he falters, who will carry the load in net? Luckily, the Eastern Conference is very forgiving, so with Trotz demanding everything out of his players and tweaking the defensive core (at a huge price tag), they will make it back to the playoffs this year.
3. Detroit – Jurrasic Park? Lately, it’s been the same old story, can the elder Red Wings – now lead by Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterburg – get this rag-tag bunch of youngsters back to the playoffs? Will the shadow of Mike Babcock not having a contract distract this team? Will Daniel Alfredsson come back and make a difference? Will forwards Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar improve on their impressive numbers? And does center Stephen Weiss make an impact? This will be the year they finally miss the playoffs, believe it.
4. Toronto – Analytical enough? Can the numbers hide all the shots the Leafs allowed last year with solid goaltending? Are there enough possession numbers from their core of forwards? Ultimately, this better not be the core you plan on going deep into the playoffs with. We are looking at you, Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.
5. Ottawa – Where do we go now? The team addressed the trade request of Jason Spezza and locked up winger Bobby Ryan long-term. Rumors are they’re about to become a cap team. Yet, other than Erik Karlsson, they’re missing some real pillars to build around. A lot of things will have to go wrong above for them to make the playoffs.
6. NY Islanders – Are we there yet? This team has been trying to improve and build around center John Tavares, but players have been leery of Garth Snow and ownership. Things should be better with Jaroslav Halak in between the pipes, and the recent trades should shore things up defensively. Who will provide the secondary scoring though, after Tavares, Brock Nielsen, and Kyle Okposo? Things may turn around soon, but will Snow be gone before they relocate to the Barclays Center?
7. Buffalo – Fight for your right? You may love that they have a great stable of young assets, high draft picks galore and are in the right conference to do it. But, that means nothing this season. Even with the additions of new captain Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges, they may have more fight than most are expecting, yet they are a long way off from being a contender again. Are they in on the Connor McDavid sweepstakes still? That’s what fans should be asking.
8. New Jersey – Social Security Czech? A team full of re-treads, vets, and Czechs. Can they surprise and win more? Maybe. Cory Schneider gets his first chance in the NHL at a starter’s job, but will there be enough defense to protect him? Probably not.
9. Carolina – Wind damage? Can the Staals carry the team down the middle? Can Cam Ward ever find his groove again? There are lots of questions and not too many answers on the horizon for the Hurricanes. How about Ron Francis, can he get the Canes back into contention again?
10. Florida – Who are we? Yes, the Panthers are getting the high picks and prospects, but where is their identity? They are definitely a team in transition trying to find themselves – who will step up? At least they’ve stabilized the goaltending with the addition of Luongo, who will be more comfortable in South Florida. Plus, they’ll have one of the most beloved captains in the game with Willie Mitchell.
Agree or disagree?
West Coast Bias: 2014-15 Season Debut on NHL Radio – packed with predictions
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