Anaheim Ducks: The Future Is Just as Promising as the Present
Crazy right? The number one team in the NHL has an incredibly deep prospect pool in addition to some very strong young players on the NHL roster. Hampus Lindholm, a left-handed shooting defenseman who was drafted 6th overall just two and a half years ago is a workhorse on the blue line and one of the NHL’s best young blue liners. He is quick, big, and extremely intelligent on the ice, and reads the game as if everything is moving twice as slowly as it really is. In addition to Lindholm, the Ducks have Rickard Rakell, Jiri Sekac, John Gibson and Emerson Etem, all key quality players under the age of 23. In addition to the wealth of youth at the NHL level, they also have top prospects in Shea Theodore and Nick Ritchie developing in the WHL and OHL respectively.
With the current core of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Cam Fowler and newcomer Ryan Kesler, the Anaheim Ducks are a strong candidate for a Stanley Cup contender. They are big, they are mean, and they will play a tough cycle game that few in the NHL can match, and they are one of the most exciting teams in the NHL to watch. The Anaheim Ducks will be competing for the Stanley Cup for a while, while also maintaining their excellent drafting and development program.
Arizona Coyotes: Don Maloney is the Perfect Man for the Job
The future is a bright one in Arizona. The Coyotes have a young franchise defenseman in Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who should be a top 15 defenseman in the NHL for many years to come. He is quick, offensively gifted, and is absolutely no slouch in his own end. Signed at 5.5 million dollars for 5 more seasons, Ekman-Larsson is on one of the best bargain contracts in the NHL, and the scary thing is that he is only 23. The future of Arizona however, lies in its future talent, with Max Domi, Brandon Perlini, and Laurent Dauphin leading the prospect pool for the NHL.
This past deadline however, the Coyotes only become a stronger team for the future. GM Don Maloney managed to get a 2015 first round pick for veteran center Antoinne Vermette, and also dealt Keith Yandle for a 2016 first round pick, 2015 2nd round pick, and stud prospect and Canadian World Junior superstar Anthony Duclair. Maloney seems to have a strong plan for this team, who are expected to finish bottom three this season, and draft another potential superstar in the deep draft class 2015.
Boston Bruins: Still Built Like a Championship Contender
The Boston Bruins are not having the best season by any means, but two of their key players have missed significant time. David Krejci has only played in 43 games this season for the Bruins, and Captain Zdeno Chara has only played 59 games this season. NHL fans should still be reminded however, that the Bruins have the reigning and perennial Selke (best defensive forward) candidate in Patrice Bergeron, a stud young defenseman in Dougie Hamilton, 18 year old rookie sensation David Pastrnak, big Milan Lucic, scrappy Brad Marchand, and that Tuukka Rask guy in net, who is not bad at stopping pucks himself.
The future of GM Pete Chiarelli and head coach Claude Julien may be in question should be Bruins fail to make the playoffs, but what Boston has done over the last 5 years has been impressive, and to be frank, they have played alot of hockey. You can question how much Chara has left in the tank, or that Lucic is a shell of his former self, but the team is still built like a winner. They still have a solid number one center in Krejci (and an incredible number 2 in Bergeron), a good number one defenseman in Chara, and the reigning Vezina winning goalie in Rask. They are built like a contender, so don’t count them out.
Buffalo Sabres: Expect a Stanley Cup Within 10 Years
The Buffalo Sabres have too much talent not to win a Stanley Cup within 10 years. Rasmus Ristolainen should be a top pairing defenseman, Nikita Zadorov should be a top four defenseman, and they have Mikhail Grigorenko, Sam Reinhart, and all-star Zemgus Girgensons at center. They recently acquired winger Evander Kane and right handed defenseman Zach Bogosian from the Winnipeg Jets, and oh yes, they are expected to finish last in the NHL this season and have the best shot at landing a generational prospect in Connor McDavid.
With a prospect core as deep as this, Buffalo, in my projection, should have one of the best teams in the NHL, assuming they draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. Although it is tough to be a Sabres fan right now, GM Tim Murray is building a team that fans will cheer about for a very, very long time.
Calgary Flames: So Young, So Talented
Johnny Gaudreau is worth the price of admission himself on any given night, the kid is that talented. Sean Monahan is currently looks like one of the best players of the 2013 draft The 30 goals and 59 points he has currently is extremely impressive, but more than that, his good play in his own end and knack for scoring in the clutch make him the complete package at the center position. Jiri Hudler looks like he is getting better as he grows older, averaging a near point per game through 65 games in the season. Combined with the fact that T.J Brodie and Mark Giordano are an elite defensive partnership (top 5 in the NHL for sure), the Calgary Flames are an extremely exciting team to watch, playing with an infectious work ethic and adopting a skilled brand of hockey.
They still have a very good prospect pool as well, including recent 4th overall pick Sam Bennett (who has been lights-out since returning from a major upper body injury), and defenceman Patrick Sieloff. Calgary has kept their 1st and 2nd round picks this year, in addition to adding a couple 2nd round picks from Washington and Vancouver at the deadline, so this draft will be a chance to add more talent to their prospect pool.
Carolina Hurricanes: Good Mix of Young Talent and Experienced Vets
I like what GM Ron Francis is doing in Carolina. They have a young core of Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm, Justin Faulk in the NHL, and a decent prospect pool headed by last year’s 7th overall pick, Haydn Fleury. Eric Staal is still a very good #1C capable of contributing 20-25 goals and 65 points every year, all while being an excellent leader and responsible defensively. Jordan Staal plays a defense first, powerforward type game, and is capable of shutting down the league’s best. Although the Carolina Hurricanes are projected to be a bottom 5 team this year, the retool in Carolina could very easily lead to the Hurricanes making a playoff appearance within the next 2 years. Can you imagine a Noah Hanifin-Justin Faulk defensive pairing? How about Mitch Marner on Eric Staal’s wing, setting up Jeff Skinner? It is not all bad in Carolina.
Chicago Blackhawks: You Have Kane, Toews, and Keith Locked up for a Long Time
Patrick Kane is the most exciting player in the NHL, and is easily worth the price of admission himself. The former Conn Smythe winner always comes up big when it matters most, and was having an incredible year before he went down within an injury. Toews is amongst the most complete two-way players in the game today, combining excellent faceoff ability with elite defensive awareness and incredible playmaking skills. He is a terrific leader, does a lot of community work, works hard, and in general resembles the ideal hockey player each GM dreams of acquiring. Duncan Keith, as always, is a Norris Trophy candidate with his stellar two way play, and defenseman Brent Seabrook complements him very well.
The Chicago Blackhawks should be contenders for a very long time. They have elite players in all the right positions. The key to future success lies with GM Stan Bowman, and how he can manage the cap with so many long term contracts on the books. Winger Brandon Saad is going to be a RFA, and with limited cap room to work with, Bowman will have to get creative. Winger Patrick Sharp looks increasingly likely to leave Chicago, but I am sure Bowman will try and move Brian Bickell before he moves Sharp. Youngster Teuvo Teravainen will need to step it up, and looks to be the future 2nd line center of the Hawks.
Colorado Avalanche: Nathan MacKinnon Will Get Better
There is no way he does not get better. The former first overall pick has the speed, vision, and shot to become a top 10 player in the NHL, but it is up to him to improve. He is currently in the midst of a sophomore slump, with only 38 points in 64 games, but he is only 19, and is playing at right wing instead of his preferred center position. Matt Duchene has also had a down year, and inconsistency looks like it is becoming an issue with Duchene, but his skill set is undeniable and last year’s production was unsustainable. It will be interesting to see how Colorado handle the contract situation of winger/center Ryan O’Reilly, who has a year left on his contract is set to become an unrestricted free agent in the 2016 offseason. O’Reilly has been a tough negotiator in the past, and management’s unwillingness to pay him may lead to his exit as soon as this year’s entry draft. Colorado will also need to rely heavily on Captain Gabriel Landeskog, defenseman Erik Johnson, and goaltender Semyon Varlamov for the future, as Colorado’s prospect pool is poor to put it generously.
Columbus Blue Jackets: One of the Best Prospect Pools in the NHL. And Oh Yeah, Ryan Johansen
Ryan Johansen is an undeniable superstar at this point in his career. The 23 year old has followed up his 2014 breakout season with an even better one, already with 69 points and 5 games left to go. He is big, strong, elite defensively, and has an incredible shot. They have an elite goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky, who when provided with even an average defense, will be a top 5 goalie in the NHL. The Jackets have an incredibly young core, with forwards Alex Wennberg, Boone Jenner, Marko Dano, and often injured former 2nd overall pick Ryan Murray.
The Jackets however, have one of the best prospect pools in the NHL, lead by Sonny Milano, Portland Winterhawks sensation Oliver Bjorkstrand and Kerby Rychel. Bjorkstrand in particular has the ability to become a game breaking forward, with 118 points in 59 games this year in the WHL. Only time will tell whether or not all this young talent will pan out, but if it does, watch out for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Dallas Stars: Seguin, Benn, Nichushkin. And Klingberg Make an Amazing Core.
The Tyler Seguin trade from Boston to Dallas may go down as the best in the last decade. Dallas essentially gave up Rielly Smith and Loui Eriksson for a franchise centerman and arguably a top 10 player in the NHL, and will now reap the benefits for the next decade. Jamie Benn is an elite player on both sides of the puck, with 72 points and 28 goals in 76 games while also being top 5 in takeaways per game. The big powerforward has really formed a deadly duo with Tyler Seguin, and it could become even better with the emergence of young winger Valeri Nichushkin. The big bodied winger has been injured for the vast majority of the season, only recently coming back into the lineup, however he oozes skill and has drawn comparisons in play style to fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin. The Stars will be entering their prime in a few years, and look for them to focus on their subpar defensive core through the draft, trade and free agency to really become a contender.
Calder candidate sensation John Klingberg has 38 points in 59 games playing the right point, and has completely blown all expectations for the 2010 5th round pick in his first NHL season. Only time will tell whether he can develop into a stud #1 defenseman that is needed to go far in the Western conference, but the Stars may target a partner for Klingberg in the upcoming NHL draft, where they should have a top 15 pick.
Detroit Red Wings: Great Combination of Youth and Experience
Pavel Datsyuk is still a magician with the puck and a defensive stalwart in the center of the ice. Henrik Zetterberg, although getting up there in terms of age, is still an absolutely amazing player on both ends of the ice, and he still has a few very good years left in him. Niklas Kronwall handles big minutes like a workhorse, while also playing a big role in the offense, contributing 42 points in 74 games this season.
But I believe the strength of Detroit lies in their future, as the Detroit organization as a whole has done an excellent job of drafting and developing young talent in the draft. Tomas Tatar has 28 goals in his 3rd full NHL season, Gustav Nyquist looks more likely to match his 28 goals from last season again this season, and Teemu Pulkkinen is trying to adjust to the NHL game. The Red Wings however, still have two stud prospects in Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin in the AHL and Big-10 respectively, and both should be a huge part of Detroit’s future as they look to extend their playoff streak beyond 24 straight seasons.
Edmonton Oilers: It Can’t Take Much Longer
The Oilers will have another top 5 pick again in the upcoming NHL draft, to add to their prospect pool headed by big center Leon Draisaitl and world junior champion Darnell Nurse. These two prospects will be key to the inevitable emergence of the Edmonton Oilers, as I do not believe they are as bad as they have played this season. Under interim coach Todd Nelson, the Oilers look like a completely different team,and Nail Yakupov has played extremely well while starting to show flashes of the Nail Yakupov we saw in his rookie season 2 years ago. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle round out an impressive forward group, but the real problem still lies in the defense and goaltending. Ben Scrivens and Victor Fasth have not given the Oilers a chance to win every night, but they have received no favors from the Oilers defense core lead by Captain Andrew Ference.
The goaltending needs to be addressed, and if the Oilers can acquire a defenseman capable of playing 25+ minutes per night, whether that be through the draft or trade, they will turn it around. Assuming they finish with the third pick in the draft as projected, they will have the opportunity to draft a potential elite defender in Noah Hanifin.
Florida Panthers: Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, and Nick Bjugstad are a Scary Core
Jonathan Huberdeau is back to playing the hockey we all expected from the former 3rd overall pick, with 49 points in 72 games for the Panthers. Huberdeau is the perfect setup man for the Panther’s offense, which includes the like of big young centers Barkov and Bjugstad. Barkov, although struggling offensively this season, is still only 19, and has tremendous defensive awareness and could become a Selke candidate in the future. Nick Bjugstad is out for the season, but he has made tremendous strides offensively using his 6’6 frame and quick release to finish the season with 24 goals.
And how can we disregard Aaron Ekblad, who is the Calder favorite in my opinion. He is only 18 years old, but has 35 points and at one point threatened Bobby Orr’s rookie scoring record, all while being sound defensively. Ekblad, last year’s first overall pick, has franchise defender written all over him. He is huge, at 6’5, only getting stronger, an exceptionally good skater, and by all accounts, a growing leader who is extremely mature for someone of his age. Panthers’ fans have a lot to look forward to as this core gains more experience.
Los Angeles Kings: Big, Fast, Strong, and a Perennial Stanley Cup Contender
What is not to like about the LA Kings? Up the middle they are frightening, led by one of the best two-way players in the game in Anze Kopitar. Kopitar represents everything that is Darryl Sutter hockey. Fast, defensively strong, deceptive, smart, and a leader by committee. Jeff Carter still pots in his fair share of goals, but he is also very good defensively, and makes the players around him better by creating space using his huge frame. Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Marian Gaborik, Justin Williams, and Captain Dustin Brown round out the wings for the Kings. Toffoli and Pearson in particular have really come into their own, and the addition of Gaborik last season seems to have stopped some of the scoring problems the Kings faced in years past. Drew Doughty leads the defense, and he is arguably the 2nd best defenseman in the NHL behind Shea Weber. He is one of the league leaders in time on ice, and is a nasty competitor while being elite on both ends of the ice. Jonathan Quick himself always comes up big when it matters the most, and always seems ready to bail the Kings out if down the stretch.
The problem with the Kings comes with their financial position, as they are extremely tight for salary cap space. Dustin Brown is making 5.9 million dollars and is simply not providing the production that was expected of him when he was signed to a multi-year contract extension. Possibly the biggest mistake made by GM Dean Lombardi was not using a compliance buy out last summer on declining center Mike Richards. The Kings will be paying Richards 5.7 million dollars per season through the 2020 season, and this could be troublesome as Andrej Sekera and Justin Williams are upcoming UFAs, while Toffoli and Pearson are due for a raise when they become RFAs.
Minnesota Wild: Built the Right Way
The Minnesota Wild are a very interesting team. After the huge free-agent signings of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise 2 seasons ago immediately made the Wild a perennial playoff contender. GM Chuck Fletcher has however, done an excellent job of combining youth and veterans to develop a big, fast team built strong from the blue line forward. Ryan Suter is one of the best defenseman at eating tough minutes and does so on a consistent basis, and he really sets a sounds defensive tone for the rest of the team. Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, and Jonas Brodin combine for a very good 2-3-4 combination on defense, and former lottery pick Matt Dumba has really taken steps forward in his journey to become a star offensive defenseman.
On offense, the Wild are a very balanced team, led by Zach Parise, Mikael Grandlund, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, and Mikko Koivu. At times they have struggled to score goals, but young players like Erik Haula, Charlie Coyle, and Nino Niederreiter have really stepped it up combined with the outstanding goaltending of Devan Dubnyk. Whether or not Dubnyk is a long term solution in goal remains to be seen, however he has played unbelievably well and has given the Wild a chance to win every night.
Montreal Canadiens: Set Up For Success for a Very Long Time
The Montreal Canadiens are once again at the top of the NHL standings. Carey Price is the favorite to win the Vezina trophy, and maybe even the Hart for the league’s MVP. After a slow start the summer after signing a massive extension, PK Subban is looking better than he ever has before. Andrei Markov, Subban’s partner, has had an incredible season as a steady presence on the blue line. The case of Alex Galchenyuk however, is a very interesting one. He has played the vast majority of the season on 2nd line wing behind Max Pacioretty, and the 21 year old has hit 20 goals for the first time in his career. However the question of whether Galchenyuk can play center in the NHL. He was obviously drafted by the Canadiens 3rd overall back in 2012 out of Sarnia to eventually become a number 1 center, but David Desharnais is still the center of the top line. What is the long term plan for Galchenyuk?
The Habs prospect system, on the other hand, is very deep and has some quality pieces. They have World Junior champion Zach Fucale in net. Winger Charles Hudon has 53 points in his rookie AHL season, and looks to be a promising prospect. 2014 first round draft pick Nikita Scherback looks promising as well with 82 points in the WHL, and finally big 6’6 winger Mike McCarron looks very good in the OHL, and may become that big RW Montreal is lacking right now.
Nashville Predators: The Franchise has Turned a Corner
Nashville was slated to pick 4th in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, and were absolutely shocked when highly rated, big, smooth skating defenseman Seth Jones had fell to their pick. Jones is a right handed defenseman, so naturally he would be stuck behind Captain Shea Weber for the foreseeable future. However, when such an elite talent falls into your hands, it is better sometimes, to take the best player available rather than drafting for need. Jones, since then, has only impressed, and will only continue to get better, in a defensive crop that includes the likes of Weber, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis. Weber, who can arguably be considered the best defenseman in the NHL, has been a perennial Norris candidate, and this season he will show what he can do in the playoffs. Josi, a 2nd round pick back in 2008, has developed incredibly well, and now paired with Weber, and has 55 points in 78 games this season.
Apart from the strong defensive core, Nashville is a little bit weak up front, however they are led by rookie sensation Filip Forsberg. The 20 year old has 20 goals this season, after starting out the season on fire. Kevin Fiala, the team’s first round pick last year, has been very impressive in the AHL this season, with 18 points in 29 games as an 18 year old rookie. With Pekka Rinne, the 2nd best goalie in the NHL this season, back healthy, the Predators look to make a deep playoff run, and there is nothing stopping them from challenging the likes of the Blackhawks or Ducks in a seven game playoff series.
New Jersey Devils: Good Young Defense Core
Adam Larsson, prior to the start of this season, may have been considered a letdown for the former 4th overall pick. However this season, given regular playing time, Larsson looks solid defensively and has also picked up 23 points. He does not look like he will ever be an offensive juggernaut, however he should be a solid #2 right handed defenseman. The Devils’ strength is clearly on defense, with former 2nd round pick Damon Severson playing full time in the NHL, and looking extremely effective in his rookie season. The Devils have also been impressed with the progress of Eric Gelinas, as the big defenseman has looked good playing big minutes for the Devils.
Cory Schneider has also been very impressive in goal, with a .927 save percentage and a 2.20 goals against average, but unfortunately offense has been a problem for the Devils. They are very old, slow, and lack offensive creativity, an issue they hope to try and solve with a top ten pick in the upcoming entry draft. They should target WHL center Matt Barzal or big winger/center Mikko Rantanen to start and create an offensive identity.
New York Islanders: What A Season for the Isles, And it should Get Better!
GM Garth Snow was once considered a joke as an NHL executive not too long ago. The Thomas Vanek trade completely blew up in his face, but since then, he has propelled the Isles to a powerhouse position in the Eastern Conference. It all started with the additions of Nick Leddy from the Hawks and Johnny Boychuk from the Bruins. Both teams were up against the salary cap to start the season, so Snow got both players for bargains, and now both are signed long term with the Islanders. Adding Leddy and Boychuk as a top line defense pairing really bolstered their defense core, and Leddy in particular has propelled his play and Chicago may regret trading him for more. The addition of goaltender Jaroslav Halak was also a big addition in terms of goal prevention, as the Islanders no longer have a low end starter like Nabokov of years past.
On the offensive side of the puck, John Tavares has had nothing short of a remarkable season averaging a point per game and contributing 34 goals in the process. Anders Lee has also really broken out, with 24 goals, Kyle Okposo had 47 points in 55 games before his injury, and Ryan Strome has teken his game to the NHL level very well. The Islanders also have some elite prospects in the system, such as former 4th overall pick Griffen Reinhart, Ryan Pulock, and last year’s 5th overall pick, Michael Dal Colle. All in all, the future of hockey is very bright as the team moves to Brooklyn.
New York Rangers: Competing for a Cup
The New York Rangers are the favorite to make it the Stanley Cup final from the East. They have the best defensive core in the NHL, featuring Captain Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Keith Yandle, Dan Boyle, and Kevin Klein. Oh, and they have one of the best goalies in the world standing behind that incredible defense, with Henrik Lundqvist being unbeatable at times.
On offense, the re-birth of Rick Nash has been the story of the year for the Rangers. After a “down year”, scoring 26 goals in 65 games, Nash has potted 40 goals this season. Carl Hagelin, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard, Martin-St. Louis and Chris Kreider round out a potent, speedy, and well-rounded forward group for the Rangers, capable of potting in goals at will. Expect a deep playoff run from the Rangers, as they look to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second year in a row.
Ottawa Senators: Erik Karlsson is Playing Norris Level Hockey Again
After lacerating his Achilles tendon in February 2013, people feared Karlsson’s game may be impacted long term, especially because of the way he plays. Since then, Karlsson was the subject of harsh criticism for his lack of defensive commitment, and he looked like a shell of his former self. Even at the beginning of the year, while I was watching a Leafs-Sens game, he was constantly beaten to the puck, at it looked like he just did not really care about his play in his own end. In the second half of the year, however, Karlsson looks like a completely different player. He backchecks hard, is usually in the right position, and is producing offense at an incredible rate. Take a look, for example, at the HERO chart posted bellow, credits to ownthepuck.
Karlsson, when in his current form, is a top 5 defenseman in the NHL, and is a catalyst offensively, but it has not only been Karlsson who has led the Sens’ surge towards the playoffs. Mike Hoffman has 26 goals, Mark Stone has 19 goals, Kyle Turris has 22 goals, while both Marc Methot and Bobby Ryan have played very well. Combined with the great story of Andrew Hammond, and the emergence of Curtis Lazar, this Sens season has been very interesting to watch, and the future looks bright as well.
Philadelphia Flyers: Just be Patient
The Flyers just need time. They have a very impressive forward group consisting of elite centerman Claude Giroux, superstar winger Jakub Voracek who broke through this season, big winger Wayne Simmonds, young centerman Sean Couturier, and Brayden Schenn. Voracek has been especially impressive this year, with 21 goals and 77 points in 77 games this season. Goaltender Steve Mason has also been very good this season, with a .928 save percentage and 2.22 goals against average.
The problem with the Flyers lies on their blue line, and in their cap management. The defensive core in Philly, especially with the departure of Braydon Coburn, frankly looks AHL quality. However, the Flyers have the best group of defenseman prospects in the NHL, consisting of Samuel Morin, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Travis Sanheim. The Flyers will bank on at least one of the three defenseman becoming a #1 defenseman, and combined with the lottery pick they will have this season, Flyers fans can expect a quick turnaround.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin
When you have the best player in the world, and another top 5 player on your team, you are always a contender in the NHL. Even in a low-scoring year in the NHL, Crosby leads the NHL in points with 80 points in 72 games. Malkin has had an equally good season himself, scoring 70 points in 65 games, and looks dominant every time he is on the ice. Puck moving defenseman Kris Letang has returned to good form, scoring 54 points in 69 games for the Penguins. Even Marc-Andre Fleury, who has been criticized for his below-average play over the past couple seasons, has sported a .921 save percentage and a 2.21 goals against average. The Penguins however, in their quest for the cup, have been decimated with injuries. Olli Maatta has missed the majority of the year, Christian Erhoff has missed significant time, and Pascal Dupuis is trying to come back from blood clots.
The Penguins by no means are Stanley Cup favorites, however they should never be taken lightly. Looking to the future, the Penguins have dealt their 2015 first round pick for winger David Perron, however the cupboard is not bare. They have youngster Derrick Pouliot, acquired with the draft pick received in the Jordan Staal trade playing some NHL minutes. They also drafted skilled winger Kasperi Kapenen with their first round pick last year, and he looks like he could be a top 6 forward the Penguins in the future.
San Jose Sharks: A Retool Should Be Coming
I cannot see a situation where Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau return next season. Even with their no-movement clauses, the Sharks look destined to miss the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons. Joe Thornton will be 36 come next come the start of next season, and after the stripping of the captaincy, the Doug Wilson controversy, and the failure of San Jose this season, he will likely look to move on. Something in San Jose has to give. Will Doug Wilson go? Is Todd McLellan the coach of the Sharks come September?
Regardless, it should be a very interesting offseason for the Sharks. They are not exactly loaded with good young talent, although they do have Thomas Hertl who has had a down year after racing onto the scene last season. They also have young defenseman Mirco Mueller playing in the NHL, and have last year’s first round pick Nikolay Goldobin playing in Europe this season. A top 15 pick this year should do well for the Sharks as they try and retool for the future.
St. Louis Blues: The Vladimir Tarasenko Show
What a season for 23 year old Vladimir Tarasenko. He has established himself as a legitimate superstar, potting in 36 goals this season and contributing 36 assists as well. Tarasenko is a nightmare to guard with a lightning quick release and shifty movement, while also being resilient while battling for the puck. This season may be the best for the Blues to win it all, with the down year from L.A and with Chicago missing Patrick Kane due to injury. The Blues are one of the most well balanced teams in the NHL, combining skill, speed, two way play, and toughness.
The Blues’ best strength may lie on their back end, led by Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Kevin Shattenkirk. Shattenkirk in particular provides excellent offense from the blue line, scoring 40 points in 52 games, and stay-at-home partner Carl Gunnarsson allows him to roam free. The Blues also have a good prospect pool, staring winger Ty Rattie and centers Robbie Fabri and Ivan Barbashev.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Have All the Right Pieces to Win It All
Number 1 Centre? Check, they have a franchise player in Steven Stamkos. Number 1 Defenseman? Yup, Victor Hedman is probably a top 10 defenseman. Capable Goalie? Yes, Ben Bishop is a very good shot stopper, who if not injured, would have made a difference in last year’s playoff matchup against Montreal. Depth in all positions? The Tampa Bay Lightning may have the deepest offense in the Eastern Conference. Nikita Kucherov is coming into his own as an elite sniper, Tyler Johnson has provided elite offensive production behind Stamkos, Ondrej Palat is a dynamic two-way winger, and Vladislav Namestnikov has been on fire since being called up. Ryan Callahan is a 20 goal scorer once again, Alex Killorn complements Stamkos very well, and we still have not seen Jonathan Drouin at his best given limited minutes in his rookie season. On defense, the offseason signing of Anton Stralman looks genius, the addition of Brayden Coburn and Jason Garrison really solidify the 2nd pairing for the Lightening, and round out a very stable defense core.
The Tampa Bay Lightning should be competing for a Stanley Cup for a very long time. Andrei Vasilevski is the best goalie prospect in the world, and last year’s first round pick Anthony Deangelo has 51 points in 26 games- as a defenseman! GM Steve Yzerman and the scouting staff have done an excellent job of building this team to compete now, and for the future. Tampa Bay looks like it will be a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference for a very, very, long time.
Toronto Maple Leafs: It Is Not As Bad As It Seems
This Toronto Maple Leafs season has been nothing short of disastrous. However the struggles (to put it lightly!) of Phil Kessel, James van RIemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul, among others, may have been the best thing that could have happened for the Toronto Maple Leafs long term. For too long, the Leafs were blinded by the success of the playoff run where they forced Boston to 7 games only two seasons ago. They went all in, signed David Clarkson for 7 years at more than 5 million dollars per season, committed 49 million dollars to Dion Phaneuf, and 64 million dollars to Phil Kessel. Well, now President Brendan Shanahan has all the ammunition needed to tear this core down and rebuild it, as reports have suggested. Personally, I cannot see a way Tyler Bozak or Dion Phaneuf is in the Toronto lineup come September, their time is really done. Phil Kessel however, will only be moved if fair value is coming back the other way. Kessel is still an elite goal scorer in a league where goals are very scarce, and this year was clearly just a down year. Given the right situation, Kessel easily becomes a 40 goal scorer and back to being a point per game player. Nazem Kadri, who has had a disappointing season off the ice, has been elite at producing offense, as seen below.
The Maple Leafs situation however, is not as bad as it appears on first glance. Morgan Rielly has shown he is absolutely capable of being a number one defenseman in the NHL, and has been a bright spot throughout the season. He often starts the rush from his own end, using his elite skating to skate himself to open up space for himself and his team mates. He generates scoring chances at an elite rate, as seen below.
The Maple Leafs have 18 draft picks over the next two drafts, and should have top 5 picks in consecutive drafts. The Maple Leafs have identified the identity of the team as a skill team, and this building strategy started last draft when William Nylander was selected 8th overall. Nylander has impressed so far, with 19 points in 27 games with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL as an 18 year old. Fellow AHL rookie Connor Brown, a 6th round pick, is leading the AHL in rookie scoring with 55 points. Andreas Johnson, currently playing in the Swedish League is a top scorer and another late round pick. This of course, will be added to with the trade returns of whomever the Maple Leafs decide to move out, and this will be the most interesting offseason the Leafs have had in a long time.
Vancouver Canucks: Bo Horvat Looks like a Pro
I am not surprised the Vancouver Canucks are back in the playoffs. Led by the Sedins on offense, GM Jim Benning brought in Radim Vrbata from Arizona and has been the best signing of the 2014 offseason, scoring 31 goals. Bo Horvat, in his rookie season, has impressed even the most optimistic Canuck fans, taking key draws, playing good defense, and contributing 13 goals on offense. He looks to be the future 2nd line center for the Canucks, and could end up being a Patrice Bergeron or Ryan Kesler type player if he manages to reach his potential.
Defenseman Chris Tanev has been a rock defensively for the Canucks, is still young at 25, and is signed long term. The Canucks seem to be playoff contender’s short term, and they do have some interesting prospects in the system. Last year’s 6th overall pick, Jake Virtanen, struggled this season only scoring 52 points in 50 games, marginally better than the 71 in 71 he had a year ago. The Canucks will be banking on him bouncing back as he gets a shot with the Canucks next season.
Washington Capitals: Alex Ovechkin is Challenging Crosby for the Best Player in The World
Alex Ovechkin’s season has been nothing short of remarkable. He has scored 52 goals, again, and is back checking again! He looks like the Alex Ovechkin of the past under new head coach Barry Trotz, and the NHL as a league needs him back to his best. Ovechkin is a strong candidate for the Hart, the league’s MVP, this season, as he has been a huge reason as to why the Capitals are back in the playoffs. It is also a criminal offense that Nick Backstrom was not an all-star, with the playmaking center scoring 74 points in 78 games while being very good in his own end.
The Caps have also leaned on defenseman John Carlson, who has scored 51 points in 78 games this season. Brayden Holtby has had an incredible season in goal, sporting a .922 save percentage and a 2.23 goals against average. The Caps are one of the most exciting teams in the NHL, and also have young talent to sustain success in the regular season for a while. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky will continue to adapt to the NHL, and defenseman Madison Bowey was extremely impressive at the World Junior Hockey Championships back in December for Canada.
Winnipeg Jets: A Dangerous Team with the Best Prospect Pool in the NHL
The Winnipeg Jets have a very fast, big, and tough team that is currently fighting to make the playoffs. The Jets’ offense consists largely of big, power forwards such as Captain Andrew Ladd, and Blake Wheeler, and is supported by smart two way centers like Brain Little and Mark Scheifele. The big news of the Jets season came when they dealt winger Evander Kane and defenseman Zach Bogosian to Buffalo for Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford, Joel Armia, Brendan Lemieux, and a first round pick. Looking back at the trade, it is very easy to argue that Myers was the best player in the deal, as he is no longer hindered by playing number one minutes on an AHL level defense in Buffalo. Since coming over to the Jets, Myers has 13 points in 20 games while being very good defensively. Moving back to defense, big Dustin Byfuglien has scored 18 goals and 45 points, while being a physical monster every shift.
Whether or not the Jets make the playoffs or not, they an extremely bright future in the NHL. Last year’s 9th overall pick, Nikolaj Ehlers has lit up the QMJHL, scoring 100 points in 51 games. Josh Morrissey looked great at the World Juniors this year, and has showed in the WHL that he can be a top 4 powerplay quarterback in the NHL. Jets still have two first round picks this year and will add two more prospects to this already high end prospect pool, so look out NHL.
APRIL 4TH, 2015