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.

Penguins, Sharks discuss bumpy road to Stanley Cup Final

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 29: Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks addresses the media during the NHL Stanley Cup Final Media Day at Consol Energy Center on May 29, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH (AP) It wasn’t supposed to take the San Jose Sharks this long to reach their first Stanley Cup Final. It wasn’t supposed to take this long for Sidney Crosby to guide the Pittsburgh Penguins back to a destination many figured they’d become a fixture at after winning it all in 2009.

Not that either side is complaining.

Certainly not the Sharks, whose nearly quarter-century wait to play on the NHL’s biggest stage will finally end Monday night when the puck drops for Game 1. Certainly not Crosby, who raised the Cup after beating Detroit seven years ago but has spent a significant portion of the interim dealing with concussions that threatened to derail his career and fending off criticism as the thoughtful captain of a team whose explosiveness during the regular season too often failed to translate into regular mid-June parade through the heart of the city.

Maybe the Penguins should have returned to the Cup Final before now. The fact they didn’t makes the bumpy path the franchise and its superstar captain took to get here seem worth it.

“I think I appreciated it prior to going through some of those things,” Crosby said. “I think now having gone through those things I definitely appreciate it more. I think I realize how tough it is to get to this point.”

It’s a sentiment not lost on the Sharks, who became one of the NHL’s most consistent winners shortly after coming into the league in 1991. Yet spring after spring, optimism would morph into disappointment. The nadir came in 2014, when a 3-0 lead over Los Angeles in the first round somehow turned into a 4-3 loss. The collapse sent the Sharks into a spiral that took a full year to recover from, one that in some ways sowed the seeds for a breakthrough more than two decades in the making.

General manager Doug Wilson tweaked the roster around fixtures Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, who remained hopeful San Jose’s window for success hadn’t shut completely even as the postseason meltdowns piled up.

“I always believed that next year was going to be the year, I really did,” Thornton said. “I always thought we were a couple pieces away. Even last year not making the playoffs, I honestly thought we were a couple pieces away, and here we are.”

The Penguins, like the Sharks, are a study in near instant alchemy. General manager Jim Rutherford rebuilt the team on the fly after taking over in June, 2014 and with the team sleepwalking last December, fired respected-but-hardly-charismatic Mike Johnston and replaced him with the decidedly harder-edged Mike Sullivan. The results were nearly instantaneous.

Freed to play to its strengths instead of guarding against its weaknesses, Pittsburgh rocketed through the second half of the season and showed the resilience it has sometimes lacked during Crosby’s tenure by rallying from a 3-2 deficit against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals, dominating Games 6 and 7 to finally earn a shot at bookending the Cup that was supposed to give birth to a dynasty but instead led to years of frustration.

True catharsis for one side is four wins away. Some things to look for over the next two weeks of what promises to be an entertaining final.

FRESH FACES: When the season began, Matt Murray was in the minor leagues. Now the 22-year-old who was supposed to be Pittsburgh’s goalie of the future is now very much the goalie of the present. Pressed into action when veteran Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion on March 31, Murray held onto the job even after Fleury returned by playing with the steady hand of a guy in his 10th postseason, not his first. San Jose counterpart Martin Jones served as Jonathan Quick‘s backup when the Kings won it all in 2014 and has thrived while playing behind a defense that sometimes doesn’t give him much to do. Jones has faced over 30 shots just four times during the playoffs.

“HBK” IS H-O-T: Pittsburgh’s best line during the playoffs isn’t the one centered by Crosby or Malkin but Nick Bonino, who has teamed with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin to produce 17 goals and 28 assists in 18 games. Put together when Malkin missed six weeks with an elbow injury, the trio has given the Penguins the balance they desperately needed after years of being too reliant on their stars for production.

POWERFUL SHARKS: San Jose’s brilliant run to the Finals has been spearheaded by a power play that is converting on 27 percent (17 of 63) of its chances during the playoffs. The Sharks are 9-2 when they score with the man advantage and just 3-4 when it does not.

OLD MEN AND THE C(UP): Both teams have relied heavily on players who began their NHL careers in another millennium. Pittsburgh center Matt Cullen, who turns 40 in November, has four goals during the playoffs. Thornton and Marleau, both 36, were taken with the top two picks in the 1997 draft that was held in Pittsburgh while 37-year-old Dainius Zubrus draws stares from younger teammates when he tells them he used to play against Hall of Famer (and current Penguins owner) Mario Lemieux.

“When I say ‘Twenty years ago I was playing against Lemieux, they say ‘I was 2-years-old,'” Zubrus said.

Top prospects Tkachuk, Mitchell power London to 2016 Memorial Cup

RED DEER, AB - MAY 29:  JJ Piccinich #84 of the London Knights (OHL) collides with Jean-Christophe Beaudin #16 of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL) during the Memorial Cup Final on May 29, 2016 at the Enmax Centrium in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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The London Knights feature a line full of players with interesting NHL futures, and all three of those forwards came up big on Sunday.

Matthew Tkachuk, Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak combined forces to pull London to a 3-2 overtime win against the Rouyn-Naranda Huskies, winning the 2016 Memorial Cup.

Things looked pretty shaky for London; its winning streak looked like it was in danger with Rouyn-Naranda taking a late 2-1 lead. The Knights failed on what seemed like a golden 5-on-3 opportunity, but they didn’t let that deter them.

Tkachuk scored two goals, Dvorak generated a goal and an assist and Marner was named tournament MVP as the Knights’ 17th consecutive win wrapped up the Memorial Cup for that special group.

Tkachuk (a high-end prospect for the upcoming draft) and Marner (the fourth pick to Toronto back in 2015) are the bigger names, but Dvorak – the 58th pick back in 2014 – came up big, too.

Yes, Thornton and Marleau have been dreaming of a run like this

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 07:  Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after Patrick Marleau (not pictured) scored the game winning goal against Kevin Bieksa #3 (L) and the Vancouver Canucks in overtime of Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at HP Pavilion on May 7, 2013 in San Jose, California. The Sharks defeated the Canucks 4-3 to sweep the series 4 games to 0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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After seeing them suffer some ignominious playoff defeats, plenty of people are happy for Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton as they enter their first Stanley Cup Final.

The two veteran San Jose Sharks forwards aren’t playing coy about it, either; they’ve been picturing such scenarios for ages.

Both Thornton and Marleau seemingly uttered the same things as Game 1 approaches against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday.

“This is everything I’ve been dreaming about for a long, long time,” Marleau said.

It’s hard to believe that we are months removed from a time when it seemed like one or both of these longtime Sharks were in the thick of seemingly legitimate trade rumors. Marleau, in particular, sounded like he might be on the verge of moving on.

Instead, they’re as deep in the postseason as they have ever been and Thornton is talking about his beard.

Life is good.

Joel Ward believes NHL should retire No. 22 in honor of Willie O’Ree

RALEIGH, NC - MAY 15:  NHL ambassador Willie O'Ree talks with the Capital City Crew and the Raleigh Youth Hockey Association during a clinic, Hockey is for Everyone, sponsored by the NHL and the Carolina Hurricanes at the Cary Ice House on May 15, 2010 in Raleigh, North Carolina.   (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images for NHL)
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Sometimes players wear a jersey number as a tribute to a childhood favorite. Sometimes it’s merely to mark their birth year and other times it’s merely what was handed to them.

For Joel Ward, his 42 has a lot of meaning, and it brings to mind black athletes who were pioneers in their respective sports.

Yes, indeed, Ward wears No. 42 to honor Jackie Robinson. As the San Jose Sharks forward told ESPN, he’d love it if the NHL discussed retiring No. 22 in honor of its first black hockey player, Willie O’Ree.

“I definitely think Willie should be recognized for sure,” Ward said. “The league obviously does that with task force but I do think that Willie should definitely be a big part of the league for sure for what he did. It’s a no-brainer. Without Willie, it would be tough for me to be sitting here today. I definitely think Willie should be a big part of this.”

Sounds like a great idea, one that would echo the MLB doing the same with Robinson’s No. 42.

For more, check out that great ESPN story.