I'm back to take over the Eastern Edge after more than a year sabbatical. I'd especially like to thank Tim Lucarelli for all his outstanding efforts over the past year and for setting the bar even higher.
Well here we are again, Labour Day has come and gone, kids are back in school, NHL owners have locked out the players (again) and yours truly wants to talk about the playoffs? I realize that the playoffs are a big assumption with the current state of affairs between the NHL and NHLPA, but I am an eternal optimist, so let's focus on what may transpire come next April.
Two Eastern Conference teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs last season, stand out to me as primed for a run at a post-season position this year. Both Buffalo and Carolina have improved the mix on their respective teams enough that I forecast playoff games in those cities this spring.
Buffalo identified the need for more toughness and size, then went out and parlayed Derek Roy into Steve Ott (and Adam Pardy). One of the added benefits to moving Roy, is that it frees up top offensive minutes for pint-sized dynamo Tyler Ennis. Last season, Ennis finished with 34 points in 48 games (a 58 point pace over 82 games), but recorded a scorching 27 points over his final 26 games. That finishing kick suggests that he has the talent to hit for nearly a point-per-game totals, especially now with Roy no longer eating into his ice time.
According to Frozen Pool, Marcus Foligno took 80 per cent of his even-strength shifts with Ennis and Drew Stafford. Foligno recorded 13 points in 14 NHL games last season. Look for that unit to stay intact, as much as any line can these days.
That would leave third line duties to newly acquired Steve Ott flanked by Ville Leino and Nate Gerbe. The versatile Ott would attempt to keep teams from physically abusing Leino and Gerbe. Over the last three seasons, the 29-year-old Ott has averaged 36 points, 164 penalty minutes and 260 hits while receiving over 17 minutes of ice time per game, including over two minutes with the man advantage. He is a guy who will fight for every inch of ice and drop the gloves to defend teammates. Not to be under-rated in the face-off dot, Ott finished 14th in the league in face-offs, winning 55.5 per cent.
Two seasons ago, Ville Leino enjoyed a 53 point campaign with the Flyers. He logged 70 per cent of his even strength shifts with Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell. Last year, Leino received virtually the same amount of average ice time, but his power play time dropped from 2:18 per game to 1:02. The Sabres tried him with virtually every forward on the team, but he just couldn't find the same chemistry that he had the year before in Philly. If he ends up playing with Ott and Gerbe, the line would have some of the same characteristics that were present during his breakout season.
There is a possibility that 2012 first-rounder Mikhail Grigorenko (listed as a center) could crack the line-up as early as this season, but he would need to have a spectacular training camp to secure a top six spot.
On the back end, towering Tyler Myers is joined by Christian Ehrhoff, Jordan Leopold, Robyn Regehr, Andrej Sekera, Alexander Sulzer and Brayden McNabb. That's a nice combination of offensive ability and size.
This season should see improved numbers for Ryan Miller as well. Stealing from Dobber's Guide, "from January 24 onward, he was 19-6-5 with five shutouts." Looking even deeper at the numbers over that stretch, they present a clear picture of what Miller is capable of; a goals-against-average of 2.04 and a 0.932 save percentage.
During his great finishing kick last season, I traded for Miller, putting my money where my mouth was. Here's how the trade broke down (16 team roto league, keep eight):
I received Ovechkin, Miller and a 7th Round Pick while trading away Zetterberg, Luongo and my 3rd Round Pick. My rationale was that Ovechkin has likely hit bottom and I believe that Miller and the Sabres can continue playing close to the way they did over the second half of last season.
As well, over the past few years, I had been quietly concerned with Zetterberg's chronic back issues and was wary of Luongo's upcoming trade drama/dilemma. He's not likely to be dealt to a better team than Vancouver, so he had to go.
Meanwhile, Carolina traded for Eric's "little" brother Jordan, who will not have to compete for offensive minutes with two of the games best pivots. The Canes did give up a decent player in Brandon Sutter, but Staal is a definite upgrade.
Alexander Semin has all the skills to be a game breaker and by signing him to a one year deal, the Hurricanes have certainly given him the monetary motivation to produce. Playing on a new team may be the breath of fresh air Semin needs to take it up a notch.
The top six doesn't look too bad with the aforementioned Staal brothers, Semin, Jeff Skinner, Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen. Jiri Tlusty is waiting in the wings for an opportunity, but could face a challenge from some young guns in Drayson Bowman, Zac Dalpe and Zach Boychuk. Chad LaRose has also played in the top six in the past, but he hasn't shown the offensive abilities to excel in that role.
On defence, the Hurricanes have (too) many offensive options. Joni Pitkanen and Justin Faulk were the top two defenders in power play ice time last season. Also competing for man advantage minutes will be Jamie McBain, rookie Ryan Murphy and elder statesman Joe Corvo. Don't sell the 35-year-old Corvo short; he's hit for more than 35 points in five of his last seven seasons, including 40 points in 2010-11 with Carolina. Lurking in the weeds just waiting for an opportunity are Marc-Andre Gragnani and Bobby Sanguinetti.
While Cam Ward doesn't have the luxury of a particularly defensive group of defenders, this year he will threaten 40 wins and should be good for a 2.50 goals-against-average and 0.915 save percentage.
The only caveat that I will throw out for both teams is the word "chemistry". If for some reason, the new combination of players fail to gel with their team/line-mates, then obviously that will play a large role in how well these two teams fare.
If both Buffalo and Carolina make the playoffs this year, who then would fall out? Certainly not the Rangers, Bruins, Pens or Flyers. A new coach will breathe some life back into the talented, but disappointing Alex Ovechkin and his Caps. A reinvigorated Washington is too talented to miss the post-season.
For me, it comes down to two of either Ottawa, Florida or New Jersey not returning to the playoffs after all is said and done. My gut feel is that the Sens have the right blend of veterans and young bucks to compete for the final playoff spot in the East.
The Devils simply didn't do enough to replace the loss of their captain, Zach Parise. For a team to lose their heart and soul, and not replace him with anyone more significant than Bobby Butler is just asking for trouble. Sure Travis Zajac only played 15 regular season games last year and his return will definitely help, but it won't be enough. It is also possible that some of the offense can be replaced by Jacob Josefson or Mattias Tedenby, but what will be much harder to replace is Parise's leadership and work ethic.
Only four times in the last 13 seasons has a Stanley Cup bridesmaid failed to make the playoffs the following year. The Devils will make it five in 14.
Hard-working Florida overachieved last season and if divisional rivals Washington and Carolina improve as expected, the Panthers will regress enough to miss the post-season.