Nicklas Backstrom, Martin Brodeur

Are these 10 players primed for bounce back seasons?

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NHL.com’s John Kreiser is something of a maestro when it comes to off-season fodder, so it comes as no surprise that his top 10 list of “bounce back” players is an interesting read. That being said, the beauty of these lists is that they typically lend themselves to wildly subjective (and sometimes fun) debates. With that in mind, I’m going to file his 10 choices into three categories: likely to improve significantly, candidates for a marginal improvement and players who are unlikely to improve.

Let’s stay positive at first by going with the guys who should have a much better season. Again, this is going on the 10 players Kreiser listed; we might provide some other candidates at a later time.

Significant improvement

Nicklas Backstrom – The Swedish pivot’s numbers might be linked to Alex Ovechkin for quite some time, so it’s no mystery that his numbers slid when Ovi scored a relatively low 32 goals last season. Ovechkin isn’t likely to suffer with a shooting percentage at the 8.7 mark and Backstrom isn’t likely to hit just 8.9 percent himself for another season, so I bet Backstrom will be better by the sheer force of better luck. There’s one caveat, though: I think he’ll be closer to the 88-point 2008-09 campaign than his career-best 101 in 09-10 since the Caps are more defensive-minded.

Mark Streit – It’s pretty hard not to top 0 points in 0 games, eh? Streit’s return could make the New York Islanders a dark horse candidate for a playoff run next season.

Martin Brodeur – Actually, I think a better year for Ilya Kovalchuk and a healthier one for Zach Parise – and no John MacLean – will benefit the team as a whole, which will trickle down to Marty. Brodeur is getting long in the tooth, but like Streit, he’ll probably improve by default more than anything else. I still wouldn’t draft him too highly in any fantasy leagues, though.

source: APMarginal improvements

Marian Gaborik – He’d be a significant improver if a Terminator robot came back from the future and informed the world that the injury-prone winger would skate for 82 games with Brad Richards. Sadly, that scenario is about as likely as … a Terminator robot informing the world of a Slovakian winger’s surprising health. He’ll still be better than he was in 2010-11, though.

Sergei Gonchar – Another guy in the “he couldn’t get much worse” files. Don’t expect a significant improvement considering the mediocre roster around him, though.

Scott Gomez – Again, just in this category because he couldn’t get much worse than last year.

Duncan Keith – People overreacted to his struggles last season. The truth is that Keith benefited from a 2009-10 Chicago team whose overload of matchup advantages won’t be duplicated. He’s kind of like Nicklas Backstrom in that his normal expectations should probably rest somewhere in between his best season in 09-10 and his “struggles” last season.

Nik Antropov – The former Toronto Maple Leafs center had a surprisingly strong 09-10 campaign, but I just didn’t buy it. You can attribute much of that hot season to an unsustainable 19 percent shooting percentage. That being said, 41 points is far behind the totals he put together the previous three seasons and his ice time slid substantially in 10-11, so he’ll probably put up better numbers by default.

source: APUnlikely to improve

Niklas Backstrom – This isn’t meant to be an insult to Backstrom; he’s a good NHL goalie. The problem is that the Minnesota Wild defense is really poor so it’s likely he’ll be hung out to dry with regularity. Perhaps you could file him under “marginal improvement” if win-loss record is all you can are about, but I get the feeling his individual numbers might be shaky again. In fact, his .916 save percentage was pretty solid last season, so hanging the Wild’s struggles on his shoulders really isn’t that fair in the first place.

Steve Sullivan – He’ll be significantly improved … in video games. Unfortunately, you can’t turn injuries off in real life, so I fear that Sullivan might be next season’s version of Mike Comrie. This might be my riskiest pick because it could indeed be very wrong if he remains healthy, but he’s been so injury prone that I can’t see it happening.

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So what do you think about these players? Do you have some bounce back candidates of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Lightning, Islanders make East playoff races even more confusing

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes the third period save as Ryan Strome #18 of the New York Islanders looks for a rebound at the Barclays Center on November 1, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Whenever you groan at what seems like a quiet trade market, take a step back and ask yourself this: “Who is really out of it?”

For a while there, it felt reasonable to dismiss the chances of teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Now? There’s probably only a handful of teams that can really be comfortable, at this very point, with calling themselves sellers.

The Islanders took care of their business with a 3-1 win against the fading (probably selling?) Detroit Red Wings, even with Petr Mrazek making a save like this.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop might just be putting his game together (while Nikita Kucherov‘s game remains very much together) as the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Bishop might just end up being indispensable – or at least not worth trading – as he’s on a five-game winning streak.

With those wins, the races for the last seemingly available Eastern Conference playoff spots just get that much muddier.*

Third place in the Atlantic: Maple Leafs – 67 points in 59 games, 28 wins, 27 ROW

Second wild card: Panthers – 66 points in 58 GP, 28 W, 25 ROW

Bruins – 66 points in 59 GP, 30 W, 28 ROW
Islanders – 66 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 27 ROW
Flyers – 63 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 23 ROW
Lightning – 62 points in 59 GP, 27 W, 25 ROW
Sabres – 62 points in 60 GP, 26 W, 25 ROW

Wow, that’s crazy-close. Naturally, teams like the Islanders and Flyers lack the luxury of having a third spot in reasonable reach – unless things get truly wild – but that’s quite the congested group of playoff hopefuls.

And, sure, the Bolts are among those facing longer odds, but the way things keep swinging wildly this season, who knows? Especially with a team with a track record of success and high expectations like the Lightning.

* – We’ll arbitrarily cut off the East race at the Devils, but just in case you’re wondering, they have 60 points, the Red Wings have 58 and the Hurricanes have 56. Also, the Ottawa Senators hold the second spot in the Atlantic with 70 points and the Montreal Canadiens lead the division with 72, so that group could see quite a bit of movement over the last quarter of the season.

Forsberg’s hat trick, own-goal highlights Predators’ wild OT loss to Flames

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If you want to summarize the kind of night the Nashville Predators experienced, you could do worse than to draw parallels to Filip Forsberg‘s experiences.

The highs were quite high, you see. Forsberg & Co. carved away at the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 lead as his hat trick (see above) eventually gave the Predators a fleeting 5-4 edge.

We all should have seen more drama coming … and it did. Forsberg ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong time in overtime; the Flames’ 6-5 overtime winner ended up going off of his foot. Ouch.

Mark Giordano ended up being credited with that goal. The game was just a barn-burner.

While it was an up-and-down night for both the Flames and Predators, Pekka Rinne‘s evening was pretty much uniformly dismal.

Rinne was pulled early in the second period after giving up four goals on 13 shots, making way for Juuse Saros (who actually ended up gtting tagged with the loss).

The Flames can breathe a sigh of relief after winning the game despite coughing up a big lead, improving to 64 points and strengthening their grip on the second wild card spot. That “charity point” comes in handy for Nashville, leaving the Predators with 65 points and a game in hand on the Flames.

Serious performance: Blackhawks gain on Wild thanks to Toews’ five points

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If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to make up some serious ground and overtake the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division title, they’ll need wins like these.

It’s only fitting that “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews did the heavy lifting, generating a hat trick and two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-3 on Tuesday.

Yes, Toews was involved in every goal. And yes, the Blackhawks won this one in regulation after beating the Wild in overtime last time around. It’s a nice swing for Chicago:

Central Division title chase

1. Wild – 84 points in 59 games (39 wins, 36 ROW)
2. Blackhawks – 79 points in 60 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Yeah, that’s still a substantial edge for Minnesota … but this is a significant swing.

Even beyond the name recognition that comes with Toews & Co., the Blackhawks’ push shouldn’t be surprising. They’re red-hot in February so far, going 7-1-0 despite playing seven of eight on the road (strangely losing that lone home contest).

The Wild have played reasonably well in their own right, yet this loss sends them into a bye week with some frustration … and maybe some questions about whether they can hold the Blackhawks off.

Also, tonight marked a nice milestone for Joel Quenneville:

Matthews, Leafs get last laugh in OT vs. Laine and the Jets

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Hockey fans tend to get their radars up about over-hyping things, particularly promising rookies.

Is it hasty, then, to wonder if there’s something to a rivalry between Auston Matthews (and the Maple Leafs) vs. Patrik Laine (plus the Jets)? If nothing else, the two have come up big in two very exciting games.

Back in October, Laine generated a hat trick as the Jets beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. This time around, it was another 5-4 overtime decision … only Matthews and the Maple Leafs took this round.

This isn’t to take anything away from Laine’s performance, mind you. He scored two goals on Tuesday, becoming the rare modern rookie to muster 30 goals. He reminded hockey fans that he only needs the smallest window to make you pay with his deadly, world-class shot.

MORE on that goal and the violence that ensued here.

But Matthews wouldn’t be denied, either, and fittingly did so in a quieter fashion. (Virtually everyone seems a little quieter when Laine’s around, it seems.)

The Maple Leafs’ outstanding rookie managed three assists in this game, giving him 52 points in 59 games. He also has six points in a three-game run and eight in his past five.

Laine? He now has 54 points in 55 games, extending is own point streak to five games (seven goals, three assists).

In other words, it’s really close … just like the games when these two budding stars (and their young, promising teammates) meet.

You might even be tempted to believe the hype.