Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Winter Is Here: Returning to the Fold

Darryl Sutter and the Kings remain at the zenith of the NHL.
It’s been a weird summer in a lot of ways for me personally, unlike any other in my short life.  After graduating from college in May and leaving behind a niche that I had spent four years carving out in a community that was my home away from home, I went back home to try and begin a career in my home city.  The journey has been a long one so far, filled with fun weekends working on the golf course and musings on sports with my friends.  I watched the West Wing and House of Cards through on Netflix over the summer. I went to visit my two very best friends in Boston in July. I didn’t write very much as the Capitals finally did what people had been predicting they would do for a very long time indeed. 
But opening night is finally upon us once again, and I’m writing again. If for no other reason than I’m tired of not doing it.

1: First, on the Capitals. The signing of Matt Niskanen this offseason was a necessary one.  Niskanen has almost certainly had his career year running a power play with the best and third-best players in the world on it, but he is a good player and he will improve Washington’s defense in more ways than just points.  His cap hit could have been a lot higher, and despite the long term of the deal, his age and the fact that the cap will go up significantly during his time here mean that it’s justifiable in many ways.  He was the guy, and sometimes you have to pay for your guy.

2: When all of the Capitals’ defensemen are healthy, Brooks Orpik is the sixth most valuable player in that group.  He’s making more money against the cap than all but Nick Backstrom, Mike Green, Alex Ovechkin, and Niskanen this season. He’s 34. He’ll have his moments, but those expecting some huge turnaround from Washington’s defense because of Orpik will be sorely disappointed – both this season and in the future.

3: The fact that Orpik is on the roster should spell the end of John Erskine’s time in Washington.  They are the exact same type of player, and two players of that caliber taking up $7+ million on the salary cap for a team that wants to contend is untenable.

4: The Capitals still lack anything that remotely resembles a second above-average center to complement Nick Backstrom on the teams’ second line.  They had one in Mikhail Grabovski, but allowed him to walk for reasons unbeknownst to the public.  As a result, they will be forced to play young, unproven, or overvalued players in that role for a majority of the season.  Be prepared for a constant game of musical pivots.

5: Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, and Joel Ward will take a step back this season (and one or more should have been traded at the peak of their value this past summer). All three will remain effective-ish players, but I worry that Chimera and Ward especially will be hurt by the loss of Eric Fehr on their line (Fehr was unequivocally the best player on that “Green Line” last year).  All three players can also expect to see a drop in their PDO, which will mean fewer points.

6: When Tom Wilson returns, he should be given an opportunity to play top-six minutes over Brouwer.

7: Braden Holtby is already one of the NHL’s best goaltenders. This season he finally convinces the doubters in the national media and everywhere else. Mitch Korn will help him, the departure of Adam Oates will help him, and a less historically awful defense will help him.

8: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Eric Fehr will combine for 80 goals and 210 points.  Forced to carry the offense because of a lack of depth elsewhere, a top unit that fans have been clamoring for throughout the last two seasons finally comes together and dominates at even strength.  Extra run on the power play for Fehr helps, too.

9: Despite the rather neutral nature of their offseason in which they didn’t really improve their overall personnel, the Capitals make the playoffs based on a combination of luck and goaltending. It won’t be pretty, and they won’t be very good, but the Eastern Conference and the Metropolitan Division are both awful enough that DC finds a way to sneak in. Columbus is missing two thirds of its top line for an undetermined amount of time and its second line center indefinitely, the Rangers lost two of their best players, and the Flyers still have Steve Mason in goal.
Ultimately, Barry Trotz is able to make the group overachieve because that’s the kind of coach he is, even though possession won't improve a ton. And somehow, Orpik will get the credit. Mike Green will play his last season in Washington despite having his best campaign since 2010-11.

10: On to the rest: The New York Islanders will make the playoffs this season.  They finally got themselves a competent goaltender in Jaroslav Halak and added two great possession forwards in Nik Kulemin and the aforementioned Grabovski. Trading for Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk on the eve of the season instantly upgrades their one area of question, defense, at a fair cost. The one question mark is Jack Capuano, but if he falters early, Garth Snow should have no trouble getting Dan Bylsma to come coach his team (if he so chooses). Whoever their coach is, the Islanders will be good. It’s time.

11: New Jersey will challenge for a playoff spot, and will probably capture one because of Cory Schneider, who is one of the best goalies in the NHL and is finally freed from the shadow of Marty Brodeur. The Devils’ pathetic record in shootouts isn’t likely to last either.  Peter DeBoer gets his own little island of misfit toys to continue to dominate possession despite (apparently) almost being fired this past offseason.

12:  Toronto is a weird team with more ups and downs than that new crazy water slide in Belgium.  It remains to be seen if Randy Carlyle can change his coaching style to emphasize having the puck, and whether or not a team with Tyler Bozak as its first-line center can actually contend. My bet is that after a hot start the Leafs falter around Thanksgiving and Brendan Shanahan bites the bullet by firing Carlyle. He then hires either Bylsma, if he hasn’t been hired somewhere yet, or Guy Boucher. One of those coaches figures out how good Nazem Kadri is, plays him with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, and the Maple Leafs make the playoffs – with James Reimer as their starting goaltender.

13: The Montreal Canadiens shocked just about everyone last year with their run to the Eastern Conference Final. Their success this season should not be a surprise. With Douglas Murray, Josh Gorges, Brian Gionta, and Daniel Briere gone, the stage is set for younger and/or better players to take on bigger roles. PA Parenteau is going to have a big year, as is Alex Galchenyuk. PK Subban is one of the best defensemen on the planet and Carey Price is likewise at the top of his profession.  Tom Gilbert will be a big upgrade over Gorges.  Of course, all of this optimism depends on coach Michel Therrien continuing to do what he did in the latter stages of last season. If he reverts back to his anti-possession ways, this is another potential landing spot for Boucher or Bylsma (just kidding, he can’t speak French).

14: Tampa will supplant Boston as the best team in the Eastern Conference. The Lighting have an excellent coach in Jon Cooper and a deep roster that was made better by the addition of Anton Stralman (how’s that for a shutdown pair? Stralman and Hedman? Mercy). They also have one of the most exciting young players in hockey in Jonathan Drouin and many excellent prospects after that. If their big guns stay healthy and Ben Bishop continues his excellent play, Tampa will win the Atlantic Division.

15: The Bruins will still be good. They have the best two-way player in the world in Patrice Bergeron (who is way better than David Krejci), one of top three defensemen in the league, and the best goaltender alive in Tuukka Rask.  However, they’ve been hurt with some losses on defense and some of their depth players are getting older and less effective, like Chris Kelly and Dan Paille. And for some reason, Claude Julien continues to insist on carrying an enforcer. As his better players age, that may come back and hurt him (Julien is still without a doubt one of the best five coaches in the league).

16: Out west, St. Louis finally takes the next step. Bolstered by the additions of Paul Stastny and Carl Gunnarsson to an already very good team, they also get a breakout from Tri-City Storm alum Jaden Schwartz. The Blues win the Central by a nose over the Blackhawks. Ken Hitchcock’s one question mark is goaltending, but with a team that good and stacked from top to bottom, Brian Elliott should be able to hold the fort. Don’t let their early playoff exits the last few years fool you. They’ve lost to the Kings or the Blackhawks in each of the last three seasons.  They’re thisclose.

17: Dallas will continue their meteoric rise by finishing third in the Central, behind St. Louis and Chicago.  Jim Nill has added two top-flight centers in two offseasons, which really is absurd when you think about it because the Capitals have been searching for one since I was in middle school.  Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin continue to run roughshod on opponents while Ales Hemsky puts up a career high in points on a very good possession team. Valeri Nichushkin is unleashed as a 6-4, 240 pound freakshow and, like Schwartz in St. Louis, breaks out in a big way alongside Benn and Seguin.

18: The Kings have a bit of a Stanley Cup hangover before dominating the Pacific Division, winning it at least 6 points clear of San Jose and Vancouver, who are better than people think. Jonathan Quick continues to be regarded as one of the very best goalies in all of hockey despite posting a league-average save percentage on one of the best defensive teams in the league. Darryl Sutter works wonders with another batch of young players coming up through the Kings’ system.

19: Colorado, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Ottawa, and Detroit all disappoint. Three of them miss the playoffs (and one probably won’t be Minnesota). Paul MacLean gets fired because the Senators traded away Ben Bishop for someone currently playing in New York.

20: The 2015 NHL Awards will be as follows:
Art Ross Trophy: Sidney Crosby. Duh.
Hart Memorial Trophy: Sidney Crosby. Duh.
Ted Lindsay Award: Sidney Crosby. Duh.
Rocket Richard Trophy: Steven Stamkos.  He’s healthy, he’s motivated, and his team is gooood.
Selke Trophy: Anze Kopitar. Bergeron is the best two-way forward in the game, but voters give it to Kopitar after another wonderful season in the Western Conference gauntlet.  Jonathan Toews finishes third in the voting.
Norris Trophy: Erik Karlsson. The Senators’ newly minted captain puts up a point per game as one of the only elite offensive threats on his team. He is the lone bright spot in Canada’s capital. He narrowly beats out Drew Doughty, who has a great season but makes a run at the Norris as a result of his playoff performance last spring.  Alex Pietrangelo finishes third. Zdeno Chara probably deserves to win.
Vezina Trophy: Tuukka Rask.  The Bruins’ goaltender tightens his vice-like grip on the title of best goalie in hockey. Henrik Lundvist and Carey Price finish second and third, respectively.
Calder Trophy: Filip Forsberg. Because of course.
Jack Adams Award: Jon Cooper. He probably deserved it last year, but was beaten out by Semyon Varlamov. With a better team, he’s likely to capture the award in only his second full season. Barry Trotz and Darryl Sutter finish second and third.

21: I think the Kings win the Stanley Cup again, beating the Blues in the West final and the Canadiens (who beat the Penguins in the East final) in the Cup final. If any team can repeat, it’s them. Doughty wins the Conn Smythe.

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