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.

Canucks sign free agent defenseman Philip Holm to one-year deal

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The Vancouver Canucks announced on Friday that they have signed free agent defenseman Philip Holm to a one-year, entry-level contract.

Before signing with the Canucks Holm had been rumored to be on the verge of joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, but that obviously did not come together.

“Philip is a mobile, two-way defenseman who adds depth to our blue line,” said Canucks general manager Jim Benning in a statement released by the team. “He made strides in his development last season with Vaxjo and played a strong series with Sweden at the World Championships We’re pleased to welcome him to the Canucks organization.”

The 25-year-old Holm has spent the past seven seasons playing professionally in Sweden for Vaxjo HC and Djurgardens IF.

He is regarded as a smooth skating, puck-moving defenseman and had a pretty strong season for Vaxjo this past year, scoring four goals and adding 17 assists in 52 games. He was the top-scoring defenseman on the team.

He also had three points (one goal, two assists) in seven games for Sweden at the 2017 IIHF World Ice Hockey Championships. Sweden won the Gold Medal at the tournament by defeating Canada in the championship game.

The Canucks already have six defensemen under contract for 2017-18 (and they do not seem to be in a hurry to trade any of them) but it was a unit that clearly needs an upgrade, so Holm should be an opportunity to make an impact next season.

Sabres fire AHL coach Dan Lambert

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The Buffalo Sabres continued to overhaul their organization under new general manager Jason Botterill on Friday when they announced that Dan Lambert, the coach of the Rochester Americans, their AHL affiliate, has been relieved of his duties.

“I would like to thank Dan for his hard work and contributions to our organization during the last two seasons and I wish him the best in the future,” said Botterill in a statement released by the team.

“I felt this was the right move for both the Sabres and Amerks and we will begin the process of searching for a new head coach immediately.”

The 2016-17 season was Lambert’s only season as the head coach. The team ended up finishing with a 32-41-3 mark.

When he was hired by the Sabres Botterill talked about wanting to improve the team in Rochester and this appears to be the first step in that process. The entire Sabres organization took a pretty significant step backwards this season with the NHL team finishing with a worse record than it did a year ago. That resulted in general manager Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma all being replaced.

The Sabres have yet to hire a replacement for Bylsma.

Now both of the top teams in the organization are in need of a new head coach.

Report: KHL team in talks with Capitals’ Orlov

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After losing in the second-round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs again and entering an offseason where they have several free agents, it is expected that the Washington Capitals roster is going to be look very, very different next season.

One of those upcoming free agents already seems to be drawing some interest, and not from an NHL team.

According to a report from Sport-Express’ Igor Eronko, the KHL’s CSKA Moscow is in talks with defenseman Dmitry Orlov.

Orlov, who turns 26 in July, is slated to be a restricted free agent this offseason. He has played in every game for the Capitals the past two seasons and has emerged as a solid defenseman on the team’s blue line. He has posted pretty dominant possession numbers the past two seasons and has tallied 29 and 33 points during that stretch. He played nearly 20 minutes per game for the Capitals this season and should be in line for a pretty significant pay raise.

Along with the Orlov news, the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan mentioned on Twitter that another KHL team may also be in talks with restricted free agent Evgeny Kuznetsov, though she downplayed the possibility of him leaving. Given that Kuznetsov is one of the top offensive players in the league that would certainly be a shocking move, but it still seems like a long-shot to think that he would leave the NHL.

The Penguins’ run to the Stanley Cup Final has been filled with challenges

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PITTSBURGH — When a team wins the Stanley Cup there is always an expectation that it should be able to come back the next season and contend for it once again. So it shouldn’t be a huge shock that the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team with an All-Star cast of forwards led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, are back in the Stanley Cup Final for a second year in a row (and for the fourth time in 11 years) thanks to their thrilling 3-2, double overtime Game 7 win over the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night.

What is a shock is how they managed to do it.

Getting back to the Stanley Cup Final two years in a row is a heck of a lot easier said than done.

Keep in mind the NHL has not had a repeat champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. It has only had two repeat champions since 1990 (the Red Wings, and the 1991 and 1992 Penguins). Only six teams have even made it to the Finals in back-to-back years. It is a grueling task that requires not only a talented, well-coached team that is playing well at the right time of year, but also a lot of luck.

And luck is not just limited to puck luck or getting the right bounces. It is also about having the right matchups and having the right players healthy all at the same time.

All of that seemed to be working against the Penguins this postseason in what has been a run that has, in a lot of ways, defied the odds. Not only did they have to get through two of the top-three teams in the NHL this season in the first two rounds, but they had to do it with an injury list that seemed to grow by the day, leaving them with what was at times an undermanned defense.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan talked extensively about their journey so far after their Game 7 win on Thursday night.

“It’s been hard. It’s been a really hard playoffs, and I give this group of players so much credit,” Said Sullivan. “They find ways to win, and we’re not perfect on some nights by any stretch. But this group of players has a will to win as a group more so than any other group I’ve been around.”

“I think it starts with the leadership group we have. We’ve got a group of veteran players. I think they have a certain perspective that they understand the opportunity to play this deep and compete for the Stanley Cup doesn’t come around every year. And when it does, when a team like ours puts itself in the position like we have, we have to maximize this opportunity. It’s a great opportunity. And our veteran guys know it. They’ve been around the game a long time, and they understand when they have something special, and we believe we have that with the chemistry of this team. We did it last year, and we’re finding ways to do it again this year. But it’s hard to win. This is the hardest trophy in sports, in my mind. It’s a war of attrition. And I don’t think any team has endured more injuries than this group of players has endured, and we continue to find ways to win.”

The injury situation has been especially brutal.

After entering the playoffs without their best defenseman (Kris Letang), forcing the team into a defense-by-committee approach that is almost unheard of for teams going this deep into the playoffs, they have also had to spend time without Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley for stretches.

All of that, combined with the daunting path through two of the NHL’s best teams, resulted in a style of play that has not been quite as consistently impressive as their run a year ago.

Until Game 4 of their series against the Senators the Penguins had been dominated on the shot chart and were bleeding chances against, spending the entire postseason to that point defending and relying heavily on the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury to get through.

“I mean, just the competition,” said Chris Kunitz, the Game 7 hero on Thursday night when asked about the different challenges they have faced this year.

“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. It’s tough to overcome them, or sustain maybe that pressure that we had last year. It felt like we were in more of a flow. This year it’s been back and forth. It’s been tough,” he continued. “We’ve had great individual performances. We had great goaltending. It’s something every night. We haven’t dominated the play that maybe we wanted to. Maybe we’ve done a better job these last couple of games. But it’s something we’re going to have to get better at playing a 60-minute game if we’re going to have a chance to beat Nashville.”