The NHL is as good as it has been since I started really following the league when the Pittsburgh Penguins were embarking on their first Stanley Cup run following my sixth birthday. At least five teams were pegged as more legitimate title contenders going into the 2011 playoffs than the team that actually won it (Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit, Philadelphia, and yes, Washington. I said going into the playoffs). The league is so saturated with effective players that we tend to think that almost all regulars are above average NHL players.
This of course is by definition not true, but what it does mean is that the average NHL player is better than he was maybe ten years ago. If you want another way of knowing that the NHL is amazing right now, check out the AHL. When the play of a minor league looks as good as it does in the A, the major league has to be great.
What I want to do today is begin a series of extremely-too-early looks at the various divisions in the NHL, and try to predict some orders of finish with some arguments. We’ll call it “Premature NHL Prognostication,” because it’s both self-deprecating and an accurate depiction of the league’s timeline. Let’s start with the division that both has arguably the most blood rivalries (Northeast fans can skip straight to the comments section to rip me a new one) and is also universally listed first when you look at the standings anywhere: the Atlantic Division.
1st: Pittsburgh Penguins 2010-11: 106 points, 2nd in division
The fact that the Pens actually tied the Flyers for the division lead without the services of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby for the second half of the season is pretty surprising. When you consider that Jordan Staal and James Neal only played 42 and 20 games for the team, respectively, all of a sudden the upcoming season looks very promising for the 2009 Stanley Cup champions.
All reports indicate that Malkin is ready to go for this season, and we also know that Crosby has been skating for a little while now. Of course, if Crosby were unable to play hockey this year, we would have to reevaluate the prospectus, but I think he’ll play and I think the Pens should be the best team in the division.
The Penguins have one of the better situations in the crease that can be found in the entire league. Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off the best stretch of his career, and Brent Johnson was fantastic last year in keeping the Pens alive early, before Fleury found his game. Johnson seems to know his role as a backup, and so there shouldn’t be a situation where the backup thinks he should be a starter, which can lead to some dissension at times. I am big on teams with good backup goalies and/or tandems, and Pittsburgh is a team that falls into the first category.
Defensively, Pittsburgh has certainly one of the best two groups of top four defensemen in the division, along with Philadelphia. The Pens’ top four includes Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Zybnek Michalek and Paul Martin. Orpik skated 20:53 per game last year, while the other three all played more than 21 minutes a game. Letang and Martin were credited with 24:02 and 23:22 of ice time while contributing 42 and 21 assists apiece. Near the deadline last year, Pittsburgh traded Alex Goligoski away. While Goligoski is potentially a star on the blueline, the fact remains that Pittsburgh has a really solid top four without him, and also got winger James Neal out of the deal from Dallas. My feeling is that Dallas got the better end of the bargain if we look at trades in a vacuum, but real life and hockey are not played in a vacuum. Given the makeup of the Pens, the trade made sense. The offensive production of Neal will determine whether the Pens got what they bargained for in the dealing of Goligoski.
The Pens have another forward who plays a similar game to James Neal in the form of Chris Kunitz, the man who single-handedly won the CCHA in 2003 with Ferris State — a feat I’ve yet to see duplicated in college sports since. Kunitz probably won’t have as high of a point total as Neal by the end of the season, but he did a good job last season to prove that his offensive production isn’t entirely tied to Crosby. Kunitz tallied 28 points in 39 games before Crosby’s final game, and 20 points in 27 games afterward.
On the lower end of the forwards, the Pens have a good combination of gritty guys and young up-and-comers. Tyler Kennedy, Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey will all be a year older and it will be interesting to see how much they improve. And while everyone knows about Matt Cooke, the Pens also have Craig Adams and Arron Asham, and it’s not exactly like the team’s scorers are weaklings either.
Why the Penguins will win the Atlantic Division
I think the Penguins have the roster that is best apt to play winning hockey in all three zones. Some of this belief is based on the idea that Crosby will return, but not all of it. The Pens tied the Flyers in points last year, and while Pittsburgh gets Malkin, Staal and Neal for presumably twice the number of games this season, the Flyers will have to deal with the loss of two of their top forwards. I expect Fleury to have a decent season and sport something like a .915 save percentage, and Brent Johnson can be relied upon to win more games than he loses. With the skaters that those goalies have in front of them, they don’t need to be Vezina-worthy to win the division, and probably even the eastern conference’s top seed.
2nd: New York Rangers 2010-11: 93 points, 3rd in division
I know, I know. I’ve listed two teams from the Atlantic already and haven’t gotten to the Flyers. The decision between Philly and New York was tough, but I’m more sure of the Rangers for a few reasons.
First there’s the obvious addition of Brad Richards. It may take more time for him to click with his new Ranger teammates than most fans will want to wait, but by the break I would expect Richards to be doing what he does: creating numerous scoring opportunities a game while not being a huge defensive liability. The player most likely to benefit from the addition of Richards has to be left winger Marian Gaborik. He’s had to deal with not living up to expectations in New York for a while now, but this year he has a legitimate top-end center to play with, instead of a steady rotation of rookie Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, Erik Christensen, and whoever else he had to hope to take feeds from last year. By no means is Gaborik an underrated player, but it is interesting that he is maligned while Rick Nash has always gotten the excuse of never playing with a capable center. That is probably because Nash plays a more likable style of hockey than Gaborik, but both guys have their chance to break out this year.
Another reason I like the Rangers to improve this year is that they have a really solid young core of players. This core has been pared down a little, but the big pieces still remain in the form of defensemen Marc Staal and Daniel Girardi, and forwards like Anisimov, Stepan, Brandon Dubinsky, Mats Zuccarello, Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust (if you want to count 27 as “young”). Ryan McDonagh should be ready to compliment Staal and Girardi as a minute-chewing defensman who can skate, hit, block shots and move the puck. The Rangers also have a couple of guys in Wojtek Wolski and Ruslan Fedotenko who have the capability of contributing on the offensive end, but also could turn out to be worthless, as they have been at different points of their careers. One red herring on this Rangers team is the complete lack of depth on the blue line. After Girardi, Staal and McDonagh (who are all young by the way), the Rangers have only two defensemen on the roster: Tim Erixon and Mike Sauer. Neither should be expected to set the league on fire this season, although Sauer was a cool plus-20 last season with the Rangers. Erixon is 20 years old and spent the last few seasons in the Swedish Elite League with Skelleftea AIK. Erixon tallied a point every other game last year, and was a first round pick of Calgary in 2009. All things considered, the defensive leaders might have to play upwards of 24 minutes a game this year, and you wonder if that might take its toll on Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Probably not though, since they are young and hockey players.
As far as goaltenders go, I wouldn’t take a single one ahead of Henrik Lundqvist. The 2006 Olympic gold medalist is steady and technically as good as anyone there is, and when he’s in the zone, Lundqvist can make it seem like somebody turned the video game level to the toughest setting. Backing up the best active goalie to never win the Vezina is Martin Biron, who posted a .923 save % and 2.13 goals against average in 17 appearances last season before breaking his collarbone. Biron’s record was only 8-6, but that’s more of an indictment of the Rangers’ anemic offense than Biron’s play, as his peripherals would indicate. It should be noted that in 68 games, Lundqvist matched Biron’s save percentage and himself only allowed 2.28 goals per game. With goaltending like that and a maturing skating corps that added a Cup winner like Brad Richards, there’s no reason the Rangers shouldn’t have a better 2011-12 than the season prior.
The key to this team rounding out its roster is getting right winger Ryan Callahan back in the fold. The hybrid forward is a restricted free agent and has an arbitration date set for July 28, but most times we see a deal get done before an arbitration ruling. If the Rangers are unable to lock Callahan down before an arbitration ruling, he would then be on a one-year contract and would be set to become unrestricted next summer. New York probably doesn’t want this to happen, but they are up against the salary cap. They have about $5.77 million to add three roster players, and a player of Callahan’s impact probably demands a good share of that available pie. The Rangers may be alright with an arbitration ruling because they know that they can use Wolski’s expiring $3.8 million deal, as well as a few other smaller contracts that are set to come off the books next July, to help fund Callahan when he would become a UFA next summer. There are two things I’m certain of — 1) The Rangers want Ryan Callahan to be a Ranger for a while, and 2) The Rangers need Ryan Callahan if they are going to have a chance at a top two spot in the division and/or a second round appearance in the playoffs.
3rd: Philadelphia Flyers 2010-11: 106 points, 1st in division
The Flyers might be the most talked-about team in the last month, and for good reason. On June 23, the team traded away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, two centers who can also wing it who are both in their mid-20s. Those boys clearly weren’t aging rapidly, but it’s not like they were mere prospects either. Both Richards and Carter played integral roles in getting the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010. There have been insinuations that the Flyers had some locker room issues, but I’m not interested in sensationalism — just premature prognostication.
What we do know is that the 2011-12 Flyers should look a lot different than the team of the previous couple years. While those two borderline star players were shipped out, the Flyers brought in five forwards who should all see time in the top nine. Philadelphia scored a couple coups by bringing over Pittsburgh Cup-winners in Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot. Talbot adds toughness to an already tough team, while Jagr’s impact is less certain. Some people think that returning to the rigors of the NHL and its 82-game schedule after a three-year absence will be too tall an order for a player who will be 40 years old in February. But really, even if Jagr needs some precautionary scratch games, isn’t having him for 60 games potentially a boon for Philadelphia? I think that Jagr is primed for a solid 65-point season in which he probably won’t play all 82 games. And while most people criticize Jagr for his lack of defensive intensity and general disinterest in getting physical despite his huge stature, I would ask what the Flyers lost when Jeff Carter was shipped out. A big forward with elite hands who plays more like Sergei Fedorov than Chris Stewart? Okay, well, are Jagr’s hands not as elite as Carter’s? I guess we’ll find out.
Philadelphia got Jakob Voracek back from Columbus for Carter, and Brayden Schenn, hockey’s top prospect, from Los Angeles in return for Richards. Both players can contribute this season, but Schenn’s ceiling is higher as far as careers go. But while I enjoy looking pretty far into the future, this is supposed to be a writing of the 2011-12 season only. The Flyers also got winger Wayne Simmonds from the Kings in the Richards deal. Simmonds looks like he could be a hybrid-type of winger, but I’m not entirely sold on the scoring part of the deal. We do know what Simmonds goes full blast into the corners and plays a physical style that looks like it belonged in Philadelphia all along.
Defensively, it’s hard not to love the Flyers. The orange-and-black sported something of a “top five,” as Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros and Braydon Coburn all skated between 21:04 and 22:30 per game, in descending order. All five are back in the fold this season and make the Flyers one of the most formidable defensive teams on paper. The unit clearly missed Pronger during the latter parts of last season, but assuming he can stay healthy this year, nobody will be able to take a shift off against Philadelphia.
The biggest acquisition this offseason for the Flyers is the guy who will play behind those tremendous blue liners. Some of the purpose of dealing away Richards and Carter was to make cap space for Ilya Bryzgalov, who comes over from Phoenix and gives the Flyers the big, athletically gifted goalie that the Flyers haven’t had since Ron Hextall. Bryzgalov is about as unproven in playoff hockey as a Cup winner can be, but he did get the Coyotes to a seventh game with Detroit in 2010, and also was 3-1 with the Ducks in 2007 while largely backing up J.S. Giguere en route to that Stanley Cup. I’m not sure that Bryzgalov will justify a nine-year contract that forced the moving of Richards and Carter, but the Flyers were desperately seeking the guy to fill their starting goalie hole, and we now get to see if Bryz is that guy.
The Flyers are not lacking big time physical players, but it’s two smaller guys who have come up huge offensively in recent seasons. Claude Giroux has emerged as a world-class playmaker, and Danny Briere has resurrected his once-drowning career by scoring timely goals and bringing it every shift. I believe that Briere and fellow forward James van Riemsdyk are the two swing players for the Flyers this year. If JVR is able to improve his game like a young player should, and Briere is able to maintain his high level of output, the Flyers can be the best team in the east. But if either JVR or Briere falters, the Flyers could finish third and barely get in the playoffs. I think they should be about even on points with the Rangers, but less than 50% of me likes the Flyers over the Rangers at this extremely premature point.
4th: New Jersey Devils 2010-11: 81 points, 4th in division
Everybody seems afraid to speak ill of the Devils as if they were the dons of hockey, but I can’t see where the return to a high level is going to come from for this team. Sure, they made a run of sorts last year, but they still finished 12 points out of the playoffs and don’t have any key additions save for probably Zach Parise’s return from injury.
New Jersey should be solid in net again with Martin Brodeur back in the fold. They don’t have a great backup, but Johan Hedberg did his job last season and certainly can’t be blamed for the team’s early season flub.
It’s true that Ilya Kovalchuk played a pretty great second half of last season, but he’s one man. Also, people seem to forget that New Jersey finished 4-5-1 in their last ten games last season, so it’s not really like they charged hard and just couldn’t dig out of their hole. Had they gone 10-0 they would have qualified for the playoffs with 92 points to NYR and Carolina’s 91 (assuming an April 9th win over NYR). I know that 10-0 shouldn’t be expected, but the narrative on New Jersey’s gladiator-like charge is kind of funny to me.
As far as Parise goes, I wrote earlier that endangering the ability to keep Parise by signing Kovalchuk to a ridiculous fifteen-year deal was about as smart as cheating on your Swedish model wife and mother of your children with waitresses and women who live in trailer parks. I’m looking at you, Eldrick Woods. The best American non-goalie is scheduled for arbitration on August 3, a week after his 27th birthday. I expect Parise to remain a Devil through that process, but it shouldn’t have come to this and if he is a UFA next summer I would liken that to Elin finding out about Woods’ indiscretions. If Parise has a reason and the ability to go, only dumb loyalty would keep him there.
To prove my point, let’s look at the rest of the Devils’ top six forwards and their salaries.
- Patrik Elias $6 million — He’s a Devil through and through. I could nitpick the figure, but he belongs on this team the way Parise does.
- Brian Rolston $5.06 million — Are you serious?
- Travis Zajac $3.89 million — Yeah, I’ve watched him play. It’s not there, at least not for that money.
- Dainus Zubrus $3.4 million — This made me spit out my coffee. Then I remembered the ’97 Cup Finals and I smiled again. Oh, Dainus Zubrus, you’re all growns up now.
To add to the Devils’ lack of scoring at high prices, the back end didn’t play well last year either. Andy Greene was a solid -23, albeit mostly early in the season. And besides Greene and Henrik Tallinder, no defenseman played over 20 minutes a game consistently. Matt Taormina achieved just over 20:00 in ATOI, but that was in only 17 games played. Colin White was still Colin White. Anton Volchenkov appears to have done his best Greg Louganis impression with his career, although I like the big guy’s defensive game. What a relief that he signed that big six-year contract last summer!
All in all, people claim to like the Devils to have a bounce back year, but I think they’ll play to their ability in this division, which should leave them fourth again.
5th: New York Islanders 2010-11: 73 points, 5th in division
I hate to have to do this, but there’s no way I can pick a team owned by Chazz Wang to outplay any of the above four teams. The Islanders have a lot of really good young players, but I like to think that organizations need to be strong and efficient at the top in order to succeed. If my thesis is true, then NYI is due for an entertaining chase for fourth place that should ultimately come up short this season. I mean Chazz Wang was actually quoted as wondering aloud why 35 year-old goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who had spent a decade playing in important games, wouldn’t want to come play for the Isles. If Wang doesn’t know the answer to that question, then he’s as clueless as a sports owner can be.
On the positive side, the Islanders might get the most wins per dollar spent on salary this season, since they are currently $9 million under the cap floor with only three players left to sign. Blake Comeau has an arbitration hearing scheduled for August 4, and I’m actually not sure what the deal is with fellow forward Josh Bailey’s contract, but both players appear to be RFAs right now.
Aside from center John Tavares, who has drawn comparisons to Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos since being drafted #1 overall in 2009, the Islanders’ most exciting question mark appears to be between the pipes. I’m about over Rick DiPietro, but some still think he has the stuff to justify his top overall draft pick from 2000. If Rick D falters or picks up yet another injury, the Islanders can feature a number of goalies with some upside. Al Montoya was really good at the end of last season, despite once letting a dump in bounce off the side boards and into his net against Bowling Green while a member of the University of Michigan (I was there, and the fact that Montoya was a “chosen one” only added to the hilarity of that moment). Montoya didn’t make it with the Rangers, who drafted him 6th overall in 2004, but he’s still only 26 years old and may have finally figured out the mental game of NHL goaltending.
Deeper on the depth chart sits Kevin Poulin, a 21 year-old Canadian who rocked a .924 save percentage in 10 appearances for the Islanders last season. Mikko Koskinen is a 6’6” former 31st overall pick of the Islanders in 2009 who is just 22 years old. Koskinen struggled last season in four games with NYI and throughout his season in the AHL with Bridgeport, but perhaps he can follow the Montoya timeline and figure it all out later. The Islanders drafted another big goalie in 2009 in the form of Anders Nilsson. He stands at 6’5” and has played 58 games over the last two seasons with Lulea HF of the Swedish Elite League. All of these guys appear to be assets that the Islanders could hypothetically flip for established players, but who knows how these guys will turn out and whether Chazz Wang will put GM Garth Snow in a position to hunt for help before the trade deadline. Seeing as NYI flirts with the salary cap floor, I wouldn’t expect much.
I do like a lot of the Islanders’ young players, and I think it’s conceivable for them to finish fourth in the division, but when it’s all over I expect the team to bring it up the rear in the division, and the fans to take it there from old Chazz while he waits for the new arena that, to his credit, he has fought long and hard for.
I hope you enjoyed the Atlantic Division edition of Premature NHL Prognostication. Next up: the Northeast. Cheers.