2011-2012 season preview

Dallas Stars v Phoenix Coyotes

2011-2012 season preview: Dallas Stars

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2010-2011 record: 42-29-11, 95 points; 5th in Pacific, 9th in West

Playoffs: Did not qualify

It’s never a good thing when ownership is a major storyline around a team. For the last few seasons, the Dallas Stars ownership has been a problem as the team has and an internal budget and has not been able to spend money like they used to. After narrowly missing the playoffs and losing their most dynamic player, Dallas acquired a new coach and handful of players as they look to transform the face of their team. Needless to say: transition can be tough.

Offense

In recent years, the offense has been the strongest part of the Stars’ lineup. They started last season with James Neal, Brad Richards, and Loui Eriksson creating one of the most dangerous lines in the entire NHL. A year later, Richards is the newest multi-millionaire in on Broadway and Neal has long since been traded to Pittsburgh for help on the blue line. The Stars will ask Mike Ribeiro to move up in the lineup to top-line center with captain Brendan Morrow and newly acquired Michael Ryder on his wings. Loui Eriksson will play with 22-year-old budding star Jamie Benn on another scoring line — potentially with uber-pest Steve Ott. After the top two lines, there’s a huge drop off in offensive talent on the third and forth lines this season. What was a strength only a season ago could be the Achilles’ heel this year.

Defense

Unlike the offense, the Stars defense is in a better position that it was at this time last season. Stephane Robidas is one of the most underrated defensemen in the league and Alex Goligoski showed that he just needed some playing time after he was acquired from the Penguins. Niklas Grossman looks like a solid second pairing defenseman and Trevor Daley continues to tease with potential. Newcomers Sheldon Souray and Adam Pardy will fill depth roles and will join Mark Fistric as bottom pairing defenseman. The Stars bottom pairing guys were a liability at the beginning of last season. They shouldn’t be a huge problem this season.

Goalies

Kari Lehtonen had a breakout season last year proving that he was capable of carrying an NHL team for the majority of the season. The injury-plagued netminder appeared in 69 games last season and posted a decent 2.55 goals against and .914 save percentage. It wasn’t just his numbers that looked good – although they were good – it was the quality of the saves that he was able to make that made him so valuable to the Stars last season. On more than one night during the season, the Stars defense left Lehtonen alone to keep the team in the game. More often than not, he answered the bell. For that matter, Andrew Raycroft came in and showed that he can be an adequate back-up.

Coaching

Glen Gulutzan takes over for Marc Crawford behind the bench in Dallas. The first-time NHL coach has had great success in both the AHL (Texas Stars) and ECHL (Las Vegas Wranglers). Expect the Starts to play with much more defensive structure than they did while Crawford was at the helm. To a man, all of the players who played under him in Austin believe that he’s the right man for the job. Now it’s time to prove it.

Breakout candidate

Watch for Goligoski to take the Western Conference by storm this season. The ‘other guy’ in the James Neal trade showed in the second half that he has the potential to be a work-horse in Dallas. He’ll play big time minutes on the power play and his underrated defensive play will allow Gulutzan to play him in every situation. He never really got the chance to play extended minutes in Pittsburgh because of their depth on the blueline. He won’t have that problem in Dallas. Look for Goligoski to be among the top 10 in defensemen scoring this year.

Best-case scenario

The Stars can hope to have the same type of season that they just completed. They were in a playoff spot for the majority of the season and if it weren’t for a loss on the last day of the season, would have snuck into the 8th spot. Benn will have to step into a larger role this year and a full season with Goligoski will help solidify the blueline. If things fall right, the Stars may find themselves in the same position next April fighting for one of the last playoff spots.

Reality

Losing Richards creates a gigantic hole on the top line. There’s no other way to put it — a team that depended on their scoring last season lost their best scorer. The team challenged up until the last day of the season for a playoff spot last year, but this season looks like it could be a step backwards for the Stars. Look for them to finish fourth in the Pacific Division (an improvement from last season), but chances are they won’t be battling down the stretch for a playoff spot. Think less about the eighth or ninth seed and more along the lines of the 12th spot.

2011-2012 season preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

Jeff Carter

2010-2011 record: 34-35-13, 81 points; 5th in Central, 13th in West

Playoffs: Did not qualify

After another last-place finish in the Central Division and losing a ton of money last season, the Blue Jackets management knew they needed to do something to shake things up this offseason. Mission accomplished. They went out and acquired a bona fide top-line center in Jeff Carter and signed pending unrestricted free agent James Wisniewski to help bring points and mobility from the back-end. The good news is that there’s much more buzz around the team than your average 13th-place team. The bad news, of course, is that they were the 13th-place team in the West last season.

Offense

Offense should be the strength in Ohio’s capital this season. Jeff Carter joining Rick Nash gives the Blue Jackets one of the best pure scoring duos in the entire league. In fact, over the last four seasons, Carter and Nash are among the league leaders in goals (5th and 6th respectively). Any right wing the team chooses to put on the top line with the pair should instantly become one of the more feared lines in the league.

It’s not just the top line either. The center situation in Columbus is better than ever with the Carter addition, Derick Brassard possibly making the permanent move to center, and Ryan Johansen making the jump to the NHL. Youngsters Matt Calvert and Cam Atkinson will join veterans Kristian Huselius, Antoine Vermette, and R.J. Umberger to give the Blue Jackets some decent forward depth this season.

Defense

The Blue Jackets think they answered their defensive questions for the next few seasons by bringing in James Wisniewski and Radek Martinek to man the blue line. They also were able to sign Marc Methot to a four-year extension in the offseason to keep the puck out of their own net as well. As long as the Jackets understand that Wisniewski is not a shutdown defenseman and put him in the position to succeed as an offensive blueliner, they should be happy with what he brings to the table. They haven’t had an offensive blueliner with Wisniewski’s skill set to take care of the point on the power play in a while — maybe ever; Wisniewski will join Grant Clitsome to create offense. The major question at this point is whether the stay-at-home defensemen will be able to hold their own throughout the season. Methot and Fedor Tyutin will be key to the Blue Jackets success.

Goalies

This is the biggest question mark in Columbus — maybe the biggest question mark in the entire Central Division. Steve Mason was once again handed the keys to the car this offseason. With Mathieu Garon leaving town via free agency, it’s the former Calder Trophy winning goaltenders team to lead. Since the Blue Jackets went out and signed unproven Mark Dekanich to a one-way contract as their back-up, it’s clear that it is Mason’s job to lose.

Everyone will be happy in Columbus if Mason can rediscover the form that showed he was a legit No. 1 goaltender in the league. His 2.29 goals against average is almost a full goal lower than his 3.02 goals against average he’s posted in the two seasons since. Simply put: the difference between the 2008-09 goaltender and the last two years, is the difference between a team fighting for a playoff spot and one fighting for a top draft pick.

Coaching

Scott Arniel wasn’t the most successful guy in his first season with the Blue Jackets, but most around the team will tell you that it wasn’t his fault. He’s been able to get the team to buy into his system and play hard on a nightly basis. The problem was that last season the team simply didn’t have the talent or consistent goaltending to win on a nightly basis. As most people will tell you: a coach is only as good as the players he has on the ice. With the high-profile acquisitions and increased expectations, Arniel must find a way to put more wins on the board.

Breakout candidate

The boom-or-bust candidate is unquestionably Johansen. The No. 4 overall pick has made the team out of training camp and will be in the lineup on opening night. The coaching staff has also said that Johansen’s training camp is ongoing and they haven’t closed to door to sending him back to the Portland Winterhawks (WHL) for another season in juniors. If he sticks with the big club, he could push for a role on a scoring line before the end of the season. He’s a big, rangy center with spectacular vision that has impressed just about everyone who has seen him play. With the talent the Blue Jackets should have on the wing this season, Johansen could be racking up the points in no time.

Best-case scenario

If everything falls right for the Blue Jackets, they could fight for a playoff spot. Carter and Nash will have to prove their styles can work together (both shoot a ton) and Wisniewski will have to prove that he can be responsible on both ends of the ice while playing big time minutes. If the newcomers produce to the level management expects and Mason can find the game he’s lost the last two seasons, the Blue Jackets will have a shot at one of the final playoff spots.

Reality

The Blue Jackets have a lot of questions they need to answer before we can call them playoff contenders. Martinek needs to figure out a way to be health, Brassard needs to take advantage of the opportunity as second-line center, and Clitsome and Methot need to prove that they can be top-four defensemen for an entire season. Even if all of those questions are answered, the season still will hinge on Mason’s ability to stop the puck. If he can’t, there is no safety net to speak of. Those are a lot of questions for a team playing in one of the most difficult divisions in the NHL. They should do better than last season, but the playoffs still look like they could be out of reach.

2011-2012 season preview: Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red Wings v San Jose Sharks - Game Seven
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2010-2011 record: 47-25-10, 104 points; 1st in Central; 3rd in West

Playoffs: Defeated Phoenix 4-0 in Western quarterfinals, lost 4-3 to San Jose in Western semifinals

It wasn’t long ago when the Red Wings were within a single game of winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, but after a couple of second-round exits to San Jose, some people think Detroit’s best years are behind it. That could be true — but let’s face it, the bar was set pretty high. Even if the Wings aren’t as good as they were three or four years ago — they’re still good enough to compete with any team in the league on any given night.

Offense

With guys like Pavel Datsyuk and Hank Zetterberg leading the way, the Wings have one of the most potent offenses in the league. Their combination of top-end talent, underrated forward depth, and a strong power play had Detroit as the second best scoring team in the NHL last season. The entire stable of forwards returns intact this season as they look to take on the league once again.

One of the keys to the Red Wings’ success in recent years has been their ability to put the right players in the right roles. They expect Zetterberg and Datsyuk to be superior two-way players that score at least a point-per game. But behind the two stars, they have forwards all over the roster that can fill a specific spot. Dan Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi, and Tomas Holmstrom are not asked to do anything more than their role — go to the dirty areas and pitch in goals through hard work. Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula are asked to develop into the next generation of high-end scorers and energy guys like Patrick Eaves, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm are asked to play superior energy roles. It’s a formula that has worked for the last 20 years.

Defense

Offseason news on the blueline was a mixed bag for the Wings this summer. Nicklas Lidstrom deciding to come back for another season must have had management dancing on tables, but Brian Rafalski’s retirement caught most people by surprise. They brought in Ian White to fill Rafalski’s top-four role and they’ll expect 6-foot-5 Jonathan Ericsson to start earning his new contract in a bottom-pairing role. With Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall playing behind Lidstrom and Ian White, the Red Wings will be set for about 50 minutes every game.

Goalies

Jimmy Howard has proven in his first two seasons that he can win. He’s racked up 74 wins in the NHL and is unquestionably the No. 1 goaltender for the Wings. But despite the strong record, Howard’s numbers took a dip last season. His save percentage decreased from .924 during his rookie season to a pedestrian .908 last season. Likewise, his goals against average was a stellar 2.26 in his first campaign, but his 2.79 mark last season left plenty to be desired. The Wings have enough scoring to compensate for a few off nights by their goaltenders, but if they want to return to the elite team in the playoffs that they expect to be every season, Howard will need to improve.

Coaching

Many people will tell you that Mike Babcock is the best in the league — and it’s hard to argue. He’s shown throughout his coaching career that he can manage expectations, work well with superstars, put players in the right role, and still meet lofty expectations. He’s a great motivator and can manage the in-game coaching decisions with the best of them.

Breakout candidate

On a team with so many established veterans, finding a player to break out onto the national scene could be difficult. For the Red Wings, it could be White, who is simply getting the best opportunity of his career. After signing with the Wings in the offseason (his fifth team in less than two years), White is slated to play next to Lidstrom. He showed at the end of last season with the Sharks that he can be a valuable player on a good team. Now that he finally has a solidified role with a team and has gained a few years of NHL experience, it wouldn’t be surprising to see White take a huge step. Breaking his career high of 38 points in 2009-10 is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Best-case scenario

For the Red Wings, the best-case scenario is always the Stanley Cup. With the overall depth of established players all over the roster, surviving the playoffs could be in the cards. They don’t have many question marks: the Red Wings just need their established players to play the best of their ability. If they do, the Central Division and Western Conference crowns are reachable goals.

Reality

The Red Wings are certainly one of the very good teams in the league. If the team stays healthy, Detroit should make it back to the playoffs for the 21st consecutive season (the longest active streak in major pro sports). The Red Wings should compete with the Blackhawks (and perhaps the Predators) for the Central Division crown — even if they fall short, they should battle for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Look for the Wings to have yet another 100-point season, but fall just behind the Blackhawks in the Central race.

2011-12 season preview: Winnipeg Jets

Hurricanes Jets Hockey

2010-11 record (as the Atlanta Thrashers): 34-36-12, 80 points; 4th in Southeast, 12th in East

Playoffs: Did not qualify

To some, it might be appropriate to throw out last season. The Atlanta Thrashers are now the Winnipeg Jets, transforming a team in a non-traditional (but huge) market into a second opportunity for a small but rapid Canadian market to support an NHL team. Kevin Cheveldayoff is the new general manager, Claude Noel will be the new coach and the jerseys and arena will be totally different.

That being said, the roster remains largely the same. They’ll just be playing with a bigger home-ice advantage and the higher level of scrutiny (honeymoon stage or not) that comes with it.

Offense

Normally it’s reasonable to keep defensemen out of this category, but when has Dustin Byfuglien been normal? The hybrid blueliner can play a wing or defensive position, but the general idea is the same: he should bull his way around the ice and unleash his terrifying slap shot without hesitation. Byfuglien earned an All-Star appearance with a blazing first half before falling apart in the second half. He may be a defenseman (or the Jets might decide to move him back to forward), but there’s no denying that he’s the catalyst of this team’s attack.

The rest of the forwards are rounded out by some players with size (Eric Fehr, Nik Antropov), guys who’ve had one strong season but need to prove they can do it again (Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd) and promising youngsters with unclear potential (Evander Kane, Alex Burmistrov). It might be hard to deny 2011 first-round pick Mark Scheifele a spot in the lower end of the lineup, if the team decides that he’s better off in that role at the NHL level (instead of getting higher profile reps at a lower level).

On paper, the Jets’ attack isn’t too frightening, but a lot of wild cards are at play.

Defense

For all the blustery praise about Byfuglien, he wasn’t quite the same when his talented scoring partner Tobias Enstrom got banged up. The small Swede put together two consecutive 50-plus point seasons that largely went under the radar because of the Thrashers’ woes. He should get some well-deserved attention if he puts together another strong campaign, even if he might get lost in Buffy’s shadow.

Zach Bogosian has been a disappointment so far – he’s seemingly an unshaped form of clay but has all the tools you’d hope for in a future star defenseman. It’s the intangibles such as hockey IQ that keep holding him back, but perhaps a change of scenery might help him reach his first-round potential.

Ron Hainsey is a three-time 30-plus point defenseman, but his scoring numbers keep tumbling. That’s not a huge problem with the offensive gems this team could sport from the blue line, as long as he uses his size to continue to improve in his own end.

Overall, defense is a strength for Winnipeg – at least from the perspective of scoring points. The Jets’ weakness though is keeping the puck out of their own net.

Goalies

Both Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason are in contract years, so each guy has a lot on the line. Pavelec hopes to show that his flashes of potential can turn into seasons full of sustained success while Mason needs to prove that he deserves to continue working at the NHL level.

Pavelec was outstanding at times last season, although consistency might be the key (that or not getting too frustrated with a defense that might hang him out to dry more often than other goalies). Mason produced some solid work in St. Louis and Nashville, so the Jets have reason to believe that he’ll bounce back from a rough season in which he sported an ugly .892 save percentage.

Coaching

Sure, he coached the Columbus Blue Jackets on an interim basis in 2009-10, but in the grand scheme of things, this is Claude Noel’s first real chance at a coaching job. Craig Ramsay did a nice job of getting the most out of an unusual roster, so Noel has his work cut out for him. Finding the right balance between getting the most out of the team’s greatest strengths (youth and dangerous offensive defensemen) and limiting the drawbacks of their weaknesses (such as the mistakes that come from being so aggressive) remains key. Perhaps his years as Ken Hitchcock’s assistant will influence him in a positive way.

Breakout candidate

Sure, he hasn’t been totally under the radar in his first two seasons – people still revere him for knocking out Matt Cooke – but Kane seems primed for a leap. Maybe it’s because he received Bobby Hull’s blessing to wear number 9 or perhaps it’s just the natural maturation of a power forward, but there are some who believe he could flirt with 30 goals this season.

Best-case scenario

Some might argue that this team should stock up on prospects, but honestly, the people of Winnipeg would go insane over a playoff run in the first year. The best-case scenario would involve the team earning a postseason bid thanks to an All-Star season from Pavelec, dynamic work from Byfuglien and a score-by-committee approach from their offense.

Reality

The Jets feature a strange mixture of players. The ceiling seems fairly modest (sixth seed), but it’s not crazy to at least think about a playoff run of some kind. On the bright side, fans would probably let a rough season slide, so the Jets are in as close to a win-win situation as an NHL team can enjoy.

That being said, winning is always appreciated, too.

2011-12 season preview: Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin
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2010-11 record: 48-23-11, 107 points; 1st in Southeast; 1st in East

Playoffs: Defeated New York Rangers 4-1 in Eastern quarterfinals, lost to Tampa Bay 4-0 in Eastern semifinals

The Capitals’ recent history has been dominated by a common theme: great regular seasons deleted by playoff disappointments. To some, those postseason failures erase all of the good things that happened in those 82 games. Fair or not, casual fans will paste the “choker” label on this team until they win a Stanley Cup.

Even after coach Bruce Boudreau changed the game plan from all-out offense to a more traditional (read: conservative and boring) approach, the team still flopped in the big time after posting the top record in the Eastern Conference. This season won’t be the final straw for Alex Ovechkin and a few others, but it’s a make-or-break campaign for Boudreau, Mike Green and much of the team’s familiar faces.

Offense

The Capitals’ 224 regular-season goals was the second-lowest total of all Eastern playoff teams – only Montreal found the back of the net less frequently (216 goals).

While Washington might not be as high-flying as its once was, expect the top guns to soar again. Both Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom should bounce back after suffering from career-low shooting percentages. Alexander Semin must realize that this could be his last shot to stay in Washington (and he is only signed through the season, which should add more incentive for a strong campaign).

Along with likely bounce-back seasons for incumbent stars, the Capitals’ future should look different after GM George McPhee added a few helpings of elbow grease. Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward are two wingers who play physical styles, adding grit to their upper ranks along with returning garbage goal specialist Mike Knuble and two-way center Brooks Laich. Jeff Halpern is a blast from the past who might work out nicely if he can stay healthy.

Jason Arnott might have been a voice of reason, but the team probably won’t miss him, eternal injury-list member Marco Sturm, Eric Fehr and other departed forwards all that much.

Defense

The defense is an interesting mix of players whose strengths could surprise some.

Green should be a bigger factor after an injury-plagued second half last season. Health is a big hurdle for Dennis Wideman, who’s essentially a less potent (but more physical) version of Green. Those two offensive defensemen are complemented by the up-and-coming shutdown pair of youngsters in Karl Alzner and John Carlson.

While Tomas Vokoun ranks as a bombshell of an upgrade in goal and Ward covers the “slightly overspend for a missing piece” aspect of the offseason, Roman Hamrlik is a big upgrade over Scott Hannan. He might not be as physical, but still manages to slow scorers down. Hamrlik can provide some offense as well, which might earn him some time on the power play.

Overall, the Capitals have an interesting group that could round out to one of the better defense corps in the East – if they stay reasonably healthy.

Goalies

Vokoun gives the Capitals something they haven’t had in their previous runs: a legitimate difference-maker in net. Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth had their moments and Jose Theodore did what he could, but none of them can match Vokoun’s impressive resume. Maybe big-time pressure might rattle a goalie who put up dominant numbers under the radar, but chances are good that he’ll thrive with the kind of goal support he’s never seen in Florida or Nashville.

The Capitals have fantastic insurance if Vokoun doesn’t work out (or shows his age a bit). Neuvirth’s individual numbers weren’t great in the regular season, but teammates and onlookers raved about his calm demeanor – something that shouldn’t be overlooked in a reactionary atmosphere. Even Braden Holtby showed some flashes of brilliance in spot duty last year, although fans should be warned about the dangers of small sample sizes.

Coach

Boudreau is a likeable guy who turned around a moribund franchise (with the help of an incredibly talented young cast, of course). That being said, people who constantly compare the Capitals to the Pittsburgh Penguins might view Boudreau as Washington’s Michel Therrien – a guy who bridged the gap from bad to good but couldn’t win a Cup. This might be Bellicose Bruce’s last chance to prove people wrong. It would be nice if he went out his way by playing a “guns blazing” style rather than last season’s compromised system, but either way, Boudreau needs some big results in the playoffs.

Breakout candidate

Alzner and especially Carlson could grab even more attention, but they played big enough minutes that they cannot be called breakout players. That title might go to the Capitals other Swedish center, Marcus Johansson. He looked solid (13 goals, 27 points) in his first 69 games at the NHL level and could provide valuable depth scoring for a team that might be a little top-heavy skill wise.

Best-case scenario

Vokoun proves he’s the real deal, finally giving the Capitals the hot goalie that felled them in postseasons past. Ovechkin and Backstrom go back to being, well, Ovechkin and Backstrom. Green, Semin and Boudreau silence their critics with a dominant run to earn that elusive Stanley Cup win. People who love calling professional athletes “chokers” turn their attention back to the San Jose Sharks – even if the Capitals beat them in the championship round.

Reality

The Capitals are loaded in almost every area, although they could use a better second-line center. Laich is a great checker but might be better off with a third-line role and Johansson might not be ready for that job either.

Things are looking pretty good if that’s your biggest trouble spot, although Semin and Green haters will probably disagree. Simply put, Vokoun pushes Washington to the level of genuine favorites.