Training Camp Battles: Central Division

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.)

Previous entry: Northeast Division, Pacific Division

Current Entry: Central Division

kylebeachhawks.jpgChicago Blackhawks

Contributor: Dancing sensation Forklift from Hockee Night.

As everyone knows, between the $4 million in bonuses they had to pay, plus the new contracts for Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Niklas Hjalmarsson meant the Blackhawks had to jettison a lot of players in order to get cap legal. Now they’re at least $1.5 million under cap, and they managed to do it while not having to sacrifice any of their core group of players.

Goaltending is set with Marty Turco, and (presumably) Corey Crawford. They’ve got their 7 D-men, with the top 2 pairs set, and some sort of rotation of John “Murdersaurus” Scott, Nick Boynton and Jordan Hendry for the third pair. So it’s all happening up front.

The plum job will be on the second line with Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. Hawks’ fans are tantalized by goal-scoring meathead Kyle Beach, and it remains to be seen how he’ll perform against NHL players after some nominal time during the AHL playoffs last year. Viktor Stalberg has a shot, due to his blinding speed. When I say “blinding speed”, I of course mean that he’s fast enough to blind you to the fact that he’s probably never met his own goaltender, his defense is that bad. Fortunately, playing on a line with two outstanding defensive forwards can cover a multitude of sins.

Bryan Bickell might get a shot, since he’s got some muscle, and QStache might look at him and see Troy Brouwer 2.0, but Bickell is not fleet of foot. Ryan Potulny will also get a look. Whichever of these players don’t pan out on the second line can either land on the third line with Dave Bolland and Fernando Pisani or on the fourth line with Jake Dowell. Beach might even wind up back in Rockford, where he can get more ice time than he’d get in a 3rd or 4th line role.

How well the forwards gel will determine how successful the Hawks’ Cup defense will be.

mikecommodorecbj.jpgColumbus Blue Jackets

Contributor: Matt Wagner from The Cannon.

With a roster mostly unchanged from last year’s 14th place finish, GM Scott Howson is hoping that the more offensive, puck-pursuit based system of rookie head coach Scott Arniel will be able to mold a young Jackets squad back into a playoff contender. Though much of the squad would appear locked in place, there are several key position battles as camp opens this Friday.

Key to the success of the team in the coming season could be the jostle for spots on the team’s blue line. Coach Arniel has said that he intends to put a system in place where defensemen will feel they have the coach’s backing to make plays, and he expects them to join the rush into the offensive zone, not simply make a pass or dump the puck and begin skating backwards. Can returning players like Mike Commodore, Jan Hejda, and Rusty Klesla adapt to this more aggressive style, or will they find their jobs threatened by 2009 first round pick John Moore and other prospects like Grant Clitsome, Cody Goloubef, or David Savard?

A related question is how this new defensive system will aid starting goaltender Steve Mason, who struggled after his Calder Trophy winning performance two years ago. Mason seemed to recover his game after the departure of former head coach Ken Hitchcock, posting a .934 save percentage and 2.23 GAA through the end of the season. After revamping his offseason conditioning, the Jackets are likely to go as far as Mason’s skill and performance can carry them.

Last but not least, the team has several forwards coming into camp hoping to earn a full time NHL spot, including 2008 first round pick Nikita Filatov, energetic rookie Matt Calvert, formerly of the Brandon Wheat Kings, and former Oilers Captain Ethan Moreau. If Filatov can regain the trust of the team after leaving for Russia early last season, look for him to play on the top six, putting utlity forward R.J. Umberger down to a third line spot next to veteran center Sammy Pahlsson, while players like Moreau, Calvert, Chris Clark, Derek Dorsett, Andrew Murray, and Jared Boll compete for positions on the third and fourth lines. Despite signing a new 2 year deal, it’s entirely possible that fan favorite Jared Boll could find himself in the press box, or worse, in the AHL, if he doesn’t step up his game to be more than simply an enforcer on the ice.

The team has bet on their youth, and they are depending on players like Russell, Mason, Filatov, Brassard, and Jakub Voracek to step up after a down year. In an increasingly cutthroat Central Division, it remains to be seen if Howson’s bet will play out, of if the team will end their 10th anniversary season with another early exit.

After the jump, Winging it in Motown on the Red Wings, On the Forecheck tackles the Predators and St. Louis Game time covers the Blues.


Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Modano3.jpgDetroit Red Wings

Contributor: J.J. from Kansas from Winging it in Motown.

Detroit comes into this season with a much better set of problems than they carried into last year. With the return of Jiri Hudler and the addition of Mike Modano, the Red Wings are looking for guys to prove that they can score at or near previously established numbers, rather than hoping for career highs or breakout rookies, like they had with Ville Leino and Jason Williams last year. The top three lines are set in stone with Zetterberg-Datsyuk-Holmstrom back together at the top, followed by the formidable trio of Franzen-Filppula-Bertuzzi. The third line of Hudler-Modano-Cleary should give the Wings one of the most dangerous third lines in the league. With these top spots wrapped up, there should be no shortage of goal-scoring for Detroit in 2010-11.

The position battles for the forward spots are all in the depth areas, with five guys realistically battling for three spots at the #12-14 depth areas. Veterans Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby join youngsters Patrick Eaves, and Drew Miller along with rookie long-shot Mattias Ritola in fighting for the last winger spot on the fourth line with Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm. Detroit likely won’t have to rely on a promising young guy to step into third-line minutes with the established NHL-level depth they have waiting to take over in case the injury bug strikes again. They need grinders at the bottom of the chart and that’s what They have. If all of those guys should fail to earn that spot, then dark horse candidate and fan-favorite pugilist Aaron Downey might be able to make the most of his invite back to Red Wings Training Camp. Look for Draper’s locker room leadership to give him an edge in a group of people who are NHL-ready, but mostly interchangeable.

On the defensive side, experience and health at the bottom is a concern. Andreas Lilja’s agent talked him out of a contract with Detroit and Ken Holland replaced him with Ruslan Salei, who’ll fight Jakub Kindl, Doug Janik, and long-shots Derek Meech and Brendan Smith for the right to play beside Mr-Sophomore-Slump himself Jonathan Ericsson. If Niklas Kronwall goes down again for an extended period due to his recurring knee problems, there will be a lot of pressure on likely 7th D-man Kindl to step up in a big way and show that he really does have the potential to be a top-flight NHL defender. Look for Meech to be traded for a cup of coffee, as soon as Ken Holland can talk a Tim Horton’s manager into taking a $500k cap hit. However you slice it, this Detroit team has depth they’ve lacked in the last couple of seasons. Training camp this year will likely be a chance for Mike Babcock to make sure chemistry is good before the start of the season while making sure his veterans showcase for the youngsters the type of work ethic it will take for them to eventually crack the lineup with the big club.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for hornqvistscoresonkipper.jpgNashville Predators

Contributor: Chris Burton from On the Forecheck.

Which position battles are most crucial to Nashville’s success?
A tough question, because the Predators are heading into camp with some amazing depth. Pekka Rinne will get the lion’s share of the starts in goal, and your other typical spots for camp battles are filled up. Nashville’s bottom six forwards, for example, have at least ten legitimate NHL players contending for a place on the opening night roster. I’m tempted to tell you that its the 6th defenseman spot, but that wouldn’t really be accurate – Ryan Parent appears to be the only likely candidate for that role.

All that said, I’m going to go with 3rd defenseman. Everyone knows that Shea Weber and Ryan Suter will anchor the Preds’ top pair, but the waters muddy when you start to look deeper. In 2009-10, it was clearly Dan Hamhuis, but he left for Vancouver during free agency. Any one of Kevin Klein, Francis Bouillon, and Cody Franson could step into Hamhuis’ shoes. Hamhuis was counted upon to eat up minutes, play against top competition, and chip in on the penalty kill; so my vote will go for Kevin Klein. He just signed a new deal, and is better suited for more ice time than Bouillon while being a step ahead of Franson defensively.

Which positions are under the greatest amount of competition?
Now this one’s easy. As mentioned above, Nashville has an astounding amount of players competing to play on their bottom two lines and penalty kill. Players are as follows, from “stone cold locks” to “keep a foot on the bus”: David Legwand, Joel Ward, Jordin Tootoo, Jerred Smithson, Sergei Kostitsyn, Jonas Andersson, Cal O’Reilly, Nick Spaling, and Wade Belak. As you’re aware, there’s only six places and I’m not sure how Barry Trotz will juggle so many players on one way deals. If I had to guess, Spaling, O’Reilly, and Belak will spend considerable time in Milwaukee or eating nachos in the press box.

What is Nashville’s biggest weakness?
Goal scoring forward. Quite simply, there isn’t one. Patric Hornqvist came out of nowhere to score 30 last year, but who knows if he can do that again. Center Colin Wilson is the organization’s top prospect, although he’s regarded as more of a Joe Thornton-type player than a goalscorer. The Predators have 50-60 point forwards in abundance, but none of Martin Erat, Steve Sullivan, JP Dumont, or Matthew Lombardi are threats to continually light the lamp. There’s hope for Alexander Radulov coming back in 2011-12, which would greatly help an anemic power play. Till then, though, Nashville will have to rely on the scoring by committee approach once again.

Other Interesting Battle
Finally, the Predators’ backup goaltending situation bears watching. The departure of Dan Ellis means that for the first time in years, Nashville will be without a proven backup. Going into camp, the spot is wide open – each of Mark Dekanich, Chet Pickard, and Anders Lindback have a chance to start the year in the NHL. If none of them prove worthy, however, then expect David Poile to look outside the organization for help.

Thumbnail image for keithtkachuk1.jpgSt. Louis Blues

Contributor: Brad Lee from St. Louis Game Time.

With the Blues, the most interesting aspect of training camp will come down to the final defensemen on the roster. The breakdown is simple: a couple of overpaid veterans (Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman), a guy entering what the team hopes is the prime of his career (Carlo Colaiacovo), some younger players with experience (Erik Johnson, Roman Polak) and some kids fighting for the sixth defenseman spot and a possible seventh that doesn’t play every night (Tyson Strachan, Alex Pietrangelo, Ian Cole and Nikita Nitkitin). This group is kind of like a beef stew. Some bites you get a nice chunk of potato and tender beef, the backbone of a rib-sticking stew. Others, it’s just pees, corn and carrots – the junk your wife or mother insists putting in there to make it healthy but more often than not ends up left at the bottom of the bowl at the end of the meal. Blues fans hope there’s more meat than carrots in that player list.

The troubling part for most fans is that while the team addressed goaltending with the trade and signing of Montreal playoff hero Jaroslav Halak, the front office didn’t seem to make an effort to bolster the forwards, a group that is fairly young and still promising but will be missing veterans Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk, who while decrepit last season still scored more than 30 goals combined. In the Halak trade, the most mature forward in the pipeline, Lars Eller, was the main trade chip. So the cavalry is not on the way. If players like David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and David Perron don’t all make improvements, this team will be at home, out of the playoffs for two straight years.

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    Lonnie Cameron, hockey-tough linesman, shakes off puck to head (Video)

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    Talking about hockey toughness is pretty much a trope at this point, yet there are still moments that impress even the cynical among us.

    Linesman Lonnie Cameron accomplished that for many on Tuesday, as he returned to the Nashville Predators – Vancouver Canucks game despite taking a puck to the head in a scary moment.

    Judging by the Twitter feed of Brooks Bratten from the Predators’ website, Cameron missed mere minutes of time.

    So, yeah, it seems like Cameron qualifies as “hockey tough.”

    As far as the game itself went, the Canucks beat the Predators 1-0 thanks to Henrik Sedin‘s goal (his 999th point) and Ryan Miller‘s 30-save shutout.

    Is this more than just a slump for Henrik Lundqvist?

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    People have been wondering for years if Henrik Lundqvist would finally fall off track and, you know, look human. After the New York Rangers’ zany 7-6 loss to the Dallas Stars, those rumblings are probably getting a little louder.

    Don’t expect the Rangers to throw their star goalie under the bus, though, especially after a wide-open game like Tuesday’s goal-filled game at Madison Square Garden.

    In fact, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault is already penciling Lundqvist in for Thursday’s game against the rising Toronto Maple Leafs.

    “He’s going to play, he’s going to try real hard, and we’re going to try to play better in front of him,” Vigneault said, according to the New York Post’s Brett Cyrgalis. “This is a team.”

    Lundqvist, meanwhile, said about what you’d expect:

    Naturally, Lundqvist and plenty of other Rangers threw the word embarrassing around quite a bit to describe this game, or at least the first 40 minutes. It’s just that no one’s really raking Lundqvist over the coals.

    Is this time different?

    Again, Lundqvist is no stranger to struggles, even if he struggles less often than just about any franchise goalie in recent memory.

    Still, the sample size is getting large enough for this stretch to be a concern for the 34-year-old netminder.

    While goal support and stretches of good play open the door for a respectable 18-12-1 record, Lundqvist’s allowing almost three goals per game (2.89 GAA) and has a backup-level .902 save percentage this season. And that’s over 32 games.

    Things get even uglier if you focus on more recent events.

    He’s allowed 20 goals in his past four starts, including allowing 12 tallies over four periods during the past two games. Lundqvist has a putrid .841 save percentage in January after producing great work in November (.925 save percentage in 11 games) and nice numbers in December (.915 in eight games).

    Lundqvist has given up four goals or more on nine different occasions since Nov. 23.

    In other words, there are a lot of different ways in which he’s struggling:

    Is this a matter of Lundqvist regaining his focus or is “The King” finally abdicating his throne?

    The Rangers are going to let him try to work through this. Otherwise, they might just need to hope that this is an off-year and *gulp* at least consider how far (an eventually healthy?) Antti Raanta could take them.

    Supporting cast rallies Blackhawks in win against Avalanche

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    For much of the season, the Colorado Avalanche’s biggest names have let them down while many believe that the Chicago Blackhawks are getting it done despite a mediocre supporting cast.

    On Tuesday, the script was essentially flipped. The Avs’ stars were productive, yet so were lesser-known Chicago forwards like Tanner Kero and Vinne Hinostroza.

    The most important narrative stayed the same, however, as the Blackhawks found a way to get by the Avalanche in a 6-4 decision.

    The Blackhawks took a 2-1 lead into the second period, but the Avs put together one of their best stretches of this lousy season. Blake Comeau tied it up, Matt Nieto scored his first goal with Colorado and then Matt Duchene answered Chicago’s only goal of the second period (by Kero) to give the Avalanche a 4-3 edge.

    The Avalanche doubled Chicago’s shots on goal in the second period, generating an 8-4 edge. It felt like a rare moment where Colorado’s talent actually flexed its collective muscles.

    Then the Blackhawks turned it on in the third, generating a 12-5 shot edge of their own and finding a way to win.

    Hinostroza ended up making the biggest difference, scoring the tying and game-winning goals before Kero iced it with an empty-netter thanks to an unselfish pass by Jonathan Toews.

    (It’s not to say that Chicago’s big names outright slept through this game, either. Toews got that assist and Marian Hossa made a bunch of plays to help make life easier for Hinostroza and Kero.)

    This wasn’t always pretty, but the Blackhawks are doing enough to get points night after night. On some nights, that’s the real difference between a contender like Chicago and a languishing squad like Colorado.

    Blue Jackets move back to first in Metro, NHL after beating Hurricanes

    COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 7:  Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Columbus Blue Jackets warms up prior to the start of the game against the New York Rangers on January 7, 2017 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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    After stumbling for a bit, Tuesday was a reassuring night for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    With a 4-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus moved back to the top of the Metropolitan Division (and thus, the NHL) because they now match the Washington Capitals’ 64 points but have more wins (30 to 29) and hold a game in hand.

    Also comforting for Columbus: Sergei Bobrovsky returned to the Blue Jackets net, allowing one goal on 25 shots.

    They were probably also happy to see Brandon Dubinsky enjoy a strong night (two goals) and Boone Jenner collect an assist and this absolute beauty of a goal:

    The Hurricanes actually did hold a 1-0 lead in this game, but it lasted all of 11 seconds, as that Jenner goal erased that advantage.

    The Blue Jackets face the Senators in Columbus on Thursday and then host the Hurricanes once again on Saturday. They follow that up with five straight road games and six of seven away from home beginning on Jan. 22. Columbus will pass another big test if they can stick with the Capitals and the rest of the NHL’s best through that stretch.