Training Camp Battles: Northeast Division

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With training camps starting late this week or early next, we at Pro Hockey Talk couldn’t help but wonder: what are the biggest position battles going in? To give you the most specific answers possible, we asked team bloggers to give their take. After all, these men and women follow their teams almost as much as general managers, so they would know better than us.

(Actually, some of them might watch their teams more closely than GMs, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Thumbnail image for tylerseguindraftday.jpgNortheast Division

Boston Bruins

Contributor: Cornelius Hardenbergh from Hockey Blog Adventure.

The position battle most-watched on the Bruins is Tyler Seguin vs. Himself. He’s basically assured a spot on the team this year unless he completely screws it up. There’s not much more there about him but he’s going to be good so I wanted to bring it up for sure. In rookie camp he’s been tearing up the ice on a line with Jared Knight and Jamie Arniel. I can’t wait to see him play in the rookie games.

The positions on the Bruins are for the most part filled out already. The main question is how are we going to get 3.3 million under the cap? Send Seguin back to the O? (ha!) Send Ryder to Providence? Trade? As the season (and Sturm’s return from LTIR) gets closer we get to wonder about just exactly what’s going to happen.

The team’s biggest strength is at center, because we’ve got a ton of them. Also goalie. And we do okay on defense. The team looks good. On paper. Before preseason. Nothing to do now but sit back and see how it goes.

drewstaffordtrain.jpgBuffalo Sabres

Contributor: Marty Vance.

The Sabres’ biggest battle was decided by management; you remember; during that God awful period of time when a 26 point player getting waived was headline news. When the decision came down to waive Tim Kennedy; that opened up a definite roster spot for reigning AHL Rookie of the Year, Tyler Ennis, and gave Nathan Gerbe an open shot to compete this year.

That leaves the Sabres with little in terms of roster competition heading into camp. But if anyone has a right to be worried, it’s Drew Stafford and a couple underachievers on the blue line. At this point, Stafford needs to be worried about his cushy spot alongside Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek; if 26 points can get you waived from this roster, then 34 sounds like free popcorn in the press box. But one has to think the 6’1″ Stafford still has an inside track for that 1st line, presumably because Lindy Ruff won’t want to stock a 1st line (a line annually shut down by more aggressive, more physical checking lines) with the likes of the equally diminutive Ennis or Gerbe. Maybe a kid like Corey Tropp (Michigan St.) or Luke Adam (QMJHL – Cape Breton) could make a run for a spot; but that would have to take one heck of a training camp performance.

But scoring goals isn’t the problem with the Sabres; it’s mitigating the number of 4-on-1’s that Ryan Miller must face each and every night. Chris Butler, entering his third professional season at age 23, will more than likely need to prove himself to Lindy Ruff after regressing in his sophomore campaign. Twenty four year old Slovakian Andrej Sekera seemed destined to move into the role vacated by Brian Campbell almost 3 years ago, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet. Healthy scratches throughout last season, Butler and Sekera will have to fight off the grittier Mike Weber (153 PIMs in 80 GP) and the Portland Pirates transition cog Marc-Andre Gragnani (12 G, 31 A in 66 GP) to retain their roster spots on this year’s overhauled blue line.

That said, it will take a revelation (see Myers, Tyler) for any of the current roster players to be uprooted and overtaken by any of the guys in Portland. But hey, at least the Sabres will have spiffy new sweaters. Right? Right?

(Editor’s note: I do love those sweaters.)

After the jump: Four Habs Fans cover the Canadiens, Ryan Classic takes on the Senators and Eye B Leaf shares the Maple Leafs’ biggest battles.


pksubbantrain.jpgMontreal Canadiens

Contributor: “Panger” or HF33 from Four Habs Fans.

With 17 returning players, including 20 on one-way contracts and 2 hot shot rookies all but guaranteed spots (PK Subban and Lars Eller), you’d think that there was not much in the way of training camp battles in Montreal. Of course, that would ignore the fact that not only do the Habs have to worry about having the right players on the ice, but those players also need to speak the correct language.

Ryan O’Byrne should have a place wrapped up on the blueline given his experience, size and one-way contract, otherwise prospect Yannick Weber has some NHL & Olympic experience, a cannon shot and will make it because of improved defense. Alexandre Picard and Matt Carle are both pretty much one dimensional (and injury prone) offensive D and may take the token French Canadien / PP specialist spot Marc-Andre Bergeron occupied last year, to the horror of Habs goaltenders and anyone with an awareness of defensive zone coverage. But Alex, Matt and Marc-Andre are eligible to play for Quebec at the Jeux de la Francophonie. Too bad there’s no hockey competition.

Up front, Mathieu Darche in on a one-way contract and probably has a spot tied up. But he went to McGill University, so he  forfeited his French status. Tom Pyatt, Jeff Halpern and Dustin Boyd ought to earn spots given their experience and NHL contracts. If not, Ben Maxwell, Ryan White and Max Pacioretty have NHL experience and lots o’ potential. But they don’t get Moliere. Gabriel Dumont, Olivier Fortier and Louis Leblanc, are all getting lots of hype in the French media,. But they all need more time in the minors – in Leblanc’s case, junior. Remember how rushing Gui! Latendresse to the NHL worked out? Yeah, us too. David Desharnais has the best shot of the bunch, but at 5’6 he’s a long shot (heh). But they all speak Québécois, which usefulness is obvious for backchecking or goal scoring purposes.

If only Carey’s last name was Prix instead, he might get some respect.

pascaleclaireblinks.jpgOttawa Senators

Contributor: Ryan Classic of Silver Seven Sens.

The Senators’ greatest need – as it has been for the entire existence of the franchise – is a consistent, bona fide number one goaltender. After a horrific season, Pascal Leclaire finally showed some flashes of brilliance in the playoffs, but the jury’s still out on whether he can do it for an entire season. His body’s also more fragile than a Jenga tower, and he’s no use to the team if he’s injured. Brian Elliott put together an excellent 46-26-7 career record, but he’s too streaky to be a number one. The future lies with 19-year old Robin Lehner, but unless something drastic happens, he’ll be splitting time in Binghamton with Mike “Not Martin” Brodeur. 2010-11 looks to be the Leclaire and Elliott show again, for better or worse.

On defense, six one-way contracts and sophomore Erik Karlsson take up all the roster spots. Prospects Patrick Wiercioch and 2009 first-round pick Jared Cowen could make a push for a spot, but if either one makes the team it will likely come at the expense of much-maligned former first rounder Brian Lee. Lee’s on a one-way deal, but fans have grown impatient with him and it would surprise no one if he were put on waivers at the start of the season.

The story is much the same at forward. Twelve one-way deals mean twelve roster spots are taken, with rookie Zack Smith figuring to be the 13th man. If another prospect makes a case for himself – say, college star Bobby Butler or QMJHL MVP Mike Hoffman – the waiver casualty would likely be Ryan Shannon. Most of the competition in camp will be for spots with the Binghamton Senators in the AHL. There may not be many openings on the NHL roster this season, but the groundwork for the future is being laid, and that’s nothing but positive.

tylerbozakhappy.jpgToronto Maple Leafs

Contributor: Navin Vaswani of Sports and the City.

The most important question heading into training camp in Toronto, and into the 2010/2011 season, is this: other than Phil Kessel, who the hell is going to score? The Maple Leafs’ offense, if I may boldly call it that, scares no one. (It probably frightens Vesa Toskala, but he’s turning down NHL contract offers, so you know where his head is at.) Up front is where jobs will be won or lost at camp.

The Leafs are weak up the middle. Sophomore Tyler Bozak and the erratic Mikhail Grabovski are the team’s only two centers with some job security. Prized prospect Nazem Kadri will get every chance to make the big club straight out of junior hockey. He could probably use some seasoning, preferably a full season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, playing 20 minutes a night in all situations. (Which means he’ll definitely crack Toronto’s opening night roster.)

On the bubble from last season are the likes of John Mitchell, Christian Hanson, and Luca Caputi, and you’ll be wise to keep your eyes on Marcel Mueller and Jerry D’Amigo. General manager Brian Burke’s philosophy of top six and bottom six forwards likely means the top two lines are set, with any combination of Bozak, Grabovski, Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin, and newcomers Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong, and Clarke MacArthur being counted on to score goals. If a player brings his hard hat, a lunch box, and some truculence — full disclosure: I loathe that word — to camp, he’s got a chance to play on Ron Wilson’s third or fourth lines.

While the Leafs may be offensively challenged this coming season, their focus as a team must be on defense. And I’ll be watching training camp closely, and praying at the same time, to see if that indeed will be the case. On paper, Toronto’s back end is set. The Leafs have a dearth of NHL defenseman, seven by my count (Tomas Kaberle, Mike Komisarek, Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, Brett Lebda, Luke Schenn, and Carl Gunnarsson), and eight if you count those who are paid as NHL rearguards (Jeff Finger will make $3.5 million while playing in the AHL this season). While they don’t have a chance to make the team, I’ll have my eyes on youngsters Keith Aulie and Juraj Mikus in camp.

Toronto: where goaltenders go to die. Post-lockout, the Maple Leafs’ crease has been in constant disarray, and that will hopefully change this season. J.S. Giguere’s already been anointed the team’s starting keeper, with Jonas Gustavsson serving as his backup. If all goes to plan, this will be a transitional season for Toronto between the pipes. Giguere’s got an expiring contract and the Leafs are hoping Giggy will mentor Gustavsson the way he did Jonas Hiller in Anaheim. While training camp won’t see the two goalies necessarily compete against one another for the starting job, it will be interesting to watch Gustavsson push Giguere, and see what the veteran Giguere can do to motivate, and help, the young Swedish tender.

The Leafs need to know what they’ve got in Gustavsson, as they recently added another two goalies via free agency: Jussi Rynnas, from Finland, and Ben Scrivens, from the college ranks. If we’ve learned anything in Toronto after trading separate first-round draft picks, one being Tuukka Rask (this is where I go and fix a drink), for Andrew Raycroft and Toskala, it’s that you can never have too much depth in goal. But back to Giguere: in 15 starts with Toronto last season, after he was acquired from Anaheim for Toskala and Jason Blake (this is where I pour another – but this time celebratory – drink), Giggy won only six games. But, more importantly, he put up a .916 save percentage. Nine-one-six! Toskala and Raycroft don’t even dream of save percentages that high. And a number like that will go a long way in helping Toronto keep the puck out of the net, and in improving their absolutely horrific penalty killing, something they have to do if they’re serious about making the playoffs. While I know it’s “only” training camp, and that results may not transfer over into the regular season, I’ll have my eye on Toronto’s special teams during the fake games. The Leafs must be better when they’re down, and up, a man. Period.

Pacioretty on losing ‘friend’ in Subban trade

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 02:  (R-L) P.K. Subban #76 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates his goal with Max Pacioretty #67 in the second period against the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on January 2, 2014 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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P.K. Subban‘s relationship with now-former Montreal Canadiens teammates has been dissected for some time, but captain Max Pacioretty insists that he lost a “friend” in the trade.

At least, that’s what he’s saying publicly, as Sportsnet reports.

“I’d been with him for nine years, so it’s going to be very strange to come into the locker room and not see P.K. there, joking around with him all the time,” Pacioretty said.

He added that, in the Subban-for-Shea Weber trade, the Canadiens “lost a friend and hopefully gained another.”

Again, there’s been plenty of speculation that Pacioretty and other Habs viewed Subban as anything but a pal. Jacques Demers ranked among the many who believed that Montreal suffered from a “divided room,” with some believing that it came down to Subban vs. Pacioretty.

Pacioretty dismissed the claims back then:

While Subban responded in a way we’ve come to expect, wondering if he’d have to “make out” with Pacioretty to prove doubters wrong.

That Pacioretty passage might just sum it up the best: you can be friends with someone while (gasp) also occasionally being annoyed by their antics. Really, have you enjoyed a lengthy relationship – business or personal – that never had those moments of minor friction?

Chances are, such chemistry issues were really just a distraction from the more important issues, such as Montreal depending far too much upon Carey Price.

The good news for “Patches” is that he won’t field nearly as many questions about Subban now that P.K.’s plying his trade in Nashville.

The not-so-good news is that he’ll be an obvious target for blame if Montreal’s fate doesn’t change with Weber replacing Subban.

We’ll find out soon enough if Pacioretty has enough help from his friends.

Related

Owner stands behind Marc Bergevin’s moves, Subban trade included

Michel Therrien on his relationship with Subban (when they were still employed by the Habs)

Subban: This is a business

Senator says Bettman, NHL are ‘in denial’ about concussions, CTE

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 30:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks with the media during a press conference prior to Game One of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the San Jose Sharks at Consol Energy Center on May 30, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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This isn’t the first time Gary Bettman denied or downplayed the link between concussions and CTE; it also isn’t the first time that someone has been stunned by his stance.

Even so, it’s difficult to look away from the bank-and-forth between the NHL’s commissioner and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, most recently spotlighted by Sports Illustrated.

It began with Blumenthal’s letter to Bettman and the NHL, dated June 23, which cited the NFL acknowledging a link between football and CTE. He then asked Bettman nine questions related to how the NHL handles brain injuries and how it might be different from the NHL.

The New York Times passes along a response dated July 22, Bettman described the science linking CTE to concussions as “nascent” and reasserted his previous stance:

“The relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of C.T.E. remains unknown.”

Blumenthal was “appalled” by Bettman’s take, according to Sports Illustrated and the Senator himself.

Perhaps you could chalk this up to a public relations battle of sorts, although TSN reports that this latest round of comments might provide fuel for lawyers working on a concussion lawsuit against the NHL.

“We should have the chance now to walk him through some of his denials and find out why he has made his statements and ask him what makes him so sure,” Lead counsel Charles Zimmerman said. “Why is he so willing to go against conventional science which says repeated blows to the head cause damage to the brain?”

As familiar as some of this might feel for those following the way the league is handling concussions, it could mean that the NHL will follow in the NFL’s footsteps in a costly way.

At minimum, it’s been a mess for the league, and it doesn’t seem like things will get easier anytime soon.

Rangers want Kreider to become a ‘nightmare for defensemen’ again

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 19: Chris Kreider #20 of the New York Rangers moves in on Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at at Madison Square Garden on April 19, 2016 in New York City.  The Penguins defeated the Rangers 3-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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If Chris Kreider is penciled in to finish with about 20 goals and 45 points each season, the New York Rangers got a solid deal for the 25-year-old.

That nice $4.625 million cap hit could become a steal if Kreider blossoms into the 30-goal force the Rangers were hoping for, however.

NHL.com details how the Rangers hope he returns to the form that, to quote assistant Scott Arniel,* made him “a nightmare for defensemen.”

“I remember we had a conversation asking him about what kind of player did he think he was, and he didn’t say I’m a toe-dragging, stick-handling guy who can beat guys 1-on-1,” Arniel said. “He knew what he was. He said it. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and it was five things that a true power forward needs to do every game. Then he got away from those things [last season].”

As New York Newsday notes, Kreider shares that viewpoint, aiming to be “big, strong, fast, mean, imposing” and to play a “power forward game.”

(If you’re playing Power Forward Buzzword Bingo … yes, Kreider also talks about his north-south game.)

How much room is there to grow?

The biggest question circles back to the beginning; how much higher is Kreider’s ceiling than what we’ve already seen?

Kreider indicates that a strong finish to 2015-16 salvaged his numbers, but the end result is near-identical production compared to 2014-15. He spoke of pucks not going in early in the year, yet his shooting percentage was a career-high 13.5.

About the only difference that really stands out does possibly denote a dip in physicality, as his 58 PIM were low in comparison to 2014-15 (88) and 2013-14 (72). The Rangers probably don’t want him off the ice and in the box more often though, right?

Earning opportunities

Really, the big thing for Kreider might just come down to opportunities.

Despite becoming more experienced, he’s still averaging just under 16 minutes of ice time per game.

The key, then, might be for Kreider to convince Alain Vigneault to deploy him more frequently, which might come down to bring that physical edge more often.

* – That story is an interesting little peek into how the Rangers handle and develop players like Kreider. Arniel almost seems quaint at times in the piece, bringing to mind Dan D’Antoni’s inspirational notes to Leondaro Barbosa.

Linden: Virtanen must earn his spot on Canucks roster

VANCOUVER, BC - OCTOBER 10: Jake Virtanen #18 of the Vancouver Canucks skates during the pre-game warm up prior NHL action against the Calgary Flames on October 10, 2015 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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The Vancouver Canucks are loaded with question marks for next season.

One of them will be about what is best for the development of right winger Jake Virtanen, who will turn 20 years old next month and is coming off his first NHL campaign. He scored seven goals and 13 points in 55 games as a 19-year-old rookie. On occasion, he showed an ability to drive the net and to be a physical forward capable of crushing the opposition.

That big, physical, powerful forward that can also score is something the Canucks need. Virtanen could still evolve into that player. (On a similar note: Evander Kane trade speculation has been rampant in Vancouver in recent weeks.)

Becoming a consistent performer, showing more than just flashes of potential, has been a talking point surrounding Virtanen this summer.

He’ll be eligible to play with the Utica Comets in the AHL next season, and there is competition at the right wing in Vancouver, with numerous veteran players also listed at that position. That means a spot on the roster won’t be guaranteed for Virtanen, taken sixth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.

“Jake is going to be a big part of this team for years. It was a stepping stone for him and I was out there (Vancouver) for a week and saw him training and he looked good to me,” Canucks’ center Bo Horvat told Ben Kuzma of The Province newspaper.

“He doesn’t have the mindset that he’s on the team. He has to work for it. It’s the consistency part of the game and you can’t take a night off like in junior. You can take some off knowing it’s a for-sure win and an easier night. There are no easy nights in the NHL. On any night, any team can surprise you.”

Last season, the Canucks kept Virtanen and Jared McCann with the big club, despite the option of sending them back to junior and not burning the first years of their respective entry-level contracts.

It was a major step for a team as it transitions to a younger roster, a younger core. It also came with an abundance of growing pains, culminating in Daniel Sedin ripping into his team after a particularly poor effort versus St. Louis in March.

After the season ended, and the Canucks finished 28th in the overall standings, head coach Willie Desjardins threw down the gauntlet, saying the team would focus once again on trying to win, and putting the onus on the youngsters to be good enough to help in that aspect.

When it comes to Virtanen, his conditioning has turned into an emphasis this summer.

“I think Jake has … a very raw and very unique skill set,” Canucks’ president Trevor Linden told TSN 1040. “He’s come a long way. Last year was an important year for him, just having him see what it takes to get to the next level.

“Jake knows he’s going to have to come to training camp this fall and earn a spot.”

Related: Since World Juniors disappointment, Virtanen has been ‘a different player’ for Canucks