Know Thy Enemy
Let’s get right to it. Adam Cohen from Growing Up With The Isles weighs in his team.
After a disappointing 2007-2008 season, the 2008-2009 New York Islanders are a team in transition. Fed up with the mediocrity he has experienced since joining the Islanders in 2001, GM Garth Snow decided to chart a new course for the team. Putting an emphasis on developing the young players already within the organization and incorporating new ones through the draft, Snow parted ways with a number of underperforming players starting at last season’s trade deadline. Gone from the team are Marc-Andre Bergeron and Chris Simon (trade for draft picks), Miro Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko, Aaron Johnson, Bryan Berard, Wade Dubielewicz, and Josef Vasicek all via free agency. With the exception of Dubielewicz, all were expendable with the new direction the team is taking. Dubielewicz, on the other hand, I feel is the best person available to backup Rick DiPietro. While Joey MacDonald looked good in the two games he started last season, he was not considered the number one goalie in Bridgeport. Will the more controlled play of the NHL benefit him? With DiPietro coming off hip and knee surgery, Islander fans will be watching nervously.
During free agency, the Islanders made three key acquisitions. First they signed defenseman Mark Streit. Mark Streit was the third highest scoring defenseman in the league. The Islanders will be looking to him to help their awful Power Play that finished 29th in the league. This season will show whether Streit was the beneficiary of a strong offensive team, or if he was creating the offense himself. The Islanders then signed play-making centerman Doug Weight. Weight is looking to rebound from the lowest point total of his career in a season that was split between St. Louis and Anaheim. Signing with the Islanders reunites Weight with his long time friend Bill Geurin, whom he has had much success within the past. The Islanders will be hoping that chemistry continues this season. Weight will also be asked to provide leadership to the young players coming through the organization this year. Finally goaltender Yann Danis was brought in to provide competition for Joey MacDonald and bring some stability down in Bridgeport.
Going into the new season, one player who will be thrust into the spotlight is Jeff Tambellini. A prolific scorer in the AHL who has yet to translate that success on Long Island. This is sure to be Tambellini’s last chance to make a name of himself and stick on the Island. Also can some of the other up-and-coming Islanders, namely Sean Bergenheim, Blake Comeau, and Frans Nielsen, continue improving their game and become quality NHL players. How will Kyle Okposo perform for a full season in the NHL? Was his nine game preview a mark of things to come, or will the rigors of a full NHL season wear on him? With Sillinger, Weight and Guerin all playing not only for their future on Long Island, but in the NHL, can they turn their games up? Will Rick DiPietro remain healthy all season, and how many games will play? And finally will Scott Gordon and his system translate to the NHL? The answers to these questions will determine where the Islanders finish this year.
With all these questions, I see the Islanders finishing 12th in the East and 25th overall.
Next we have Doug Fischer from Blue Shirts On Broadway. Be sure to stop by his site this year.
Another year, another second round exit… Hopefully for Tom Renney and the Rangers, the past is the past. The Blueshirts last hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup in 1994 but a very new-look team hopes to achieve hockey immortality this year.
Last year, the Rangers had a very potent but often times lackadaisical offense, that this season will be very different. Jagr, Straka and Avery are out, Naslund and Zherdev are in. On defense, Glen Sather went out and added Wade Redden and Dmitri Kalinin who both look to bolster the blue line. One thing for sure, this team has plenty of leadership, adding Naslund and Redden to a roster that already had Scott Gomez and Chris Drury gives the younger players plenty of veteran talent to learn from. In net, nothing will change, Henrik Lundqvist will suit up about 90% of the time and Steve Valiquette will return to his backup role for another year.
As for who to watch, I can’t narrow it down to just one. But keep an eye one all the young talent this team possesses, specifically, Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, both of whom grew immensely a year ago and will hope to see their stars shine even brighter over Broadway this time around.
The Rangers may slump early, especially after returning from the Czech Republic, but once they get things going it could be a special year at the Garden, I see them barely edging out Pittsburgh for the division crown and ending up with the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Next we have John Fischer from In Lou We Trust.
The New Jersey Devils are a model of consistency – their critics proclaim every September and October that this season will be their undoing. And why not? The team doesn’t score enough goals, the last time the Devils finished with more than 250 goals was back in 2000-2001 and their power play makes some fans wish penalties could be declined. The Devils don’t have any names on defense that have adequately replaced Brian Rafalski, Scott Neidermayer, and Scott Stevens. I mean, they started formerly marginal NHL player Mike Mottau on defense in their top 4. Plus, Martin Brodeur is over 32 so he eventually has to stop. Yet, like clockwork, the Devils make do with what little production they can, the nameless defense gives their opponents fits, and Martin Brodeur still rules the world of NHL goaltenders with four Vezinas in the last five seasons. Before you know it, they are either winning the Atlantic or contending for it. The only thing the Devils haven’t done since 2003 is have a deep run into the playoffs – and they should be particularly angry about losing to their hated rivals, the Rangers, in the first round in the last postseason.
As far as the team is now, there’s no reason to believe they won’t make the playoffs. The new additions are former Devils Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik. Rolston has been a consistent scorer with Minnesota and the team expects him to produce. He will start on the top line and be featured on the powerplay due to his slapshot, so special attention should be paid to his performance. Holik will not be relied on to be the top checker as he was in Atlanta; his line will either provide energy or spell the consistently-effective checking unit of John Madden and Jay Pandolfo. As far as who left that was important, this will be the first year since 1995 that Sergei Brylin will not be the team’s utility player. On defense, the addition was made by subtraction as the Devils let Vitaly Vishnevski and Karel Rachunek, two players who never really stuck and were a reason the team went with as many as nine defenseman on the roster.
The big player to watch this season will be Martin Brodeur. He’s a living legend and you should see him as he will at the least break Patrick Roy’s wins record this season. He may be 36, but he came into training camp looking fitter than usual. He’s ready to play and that’s never good for the opposition’s offense. As far as the Devils go this season, they will once again astound critics who think they should be finishing fourth in the division by finishing second in the Atlantic and fifth in the Eastern Conference.
Finally, taking a look at the cross-state rival Flyers, Wexler Smith from Flyers Phans voices his concerns about key losses for Philadelphia.
The 2008 off season was an odd one for the Philadelphia Flyers. They regained their best player; getting Simon Gagne back adding more top-end to a team that was already 6th over –all in scoring with the #2 PP in the league in 2007-08. The problem with the off season was what GM Paul Holmgren didn’t, or better yet, couldn’t do: upgrade the defense.
The Flyers have two gaping holes on their back-line and a potential special-teams issue. In this fan’s opinion that will be part of a prevailing problem for the 2008-09 campaign – giving up goals…maybe as many as they score.
Two off season acquisitions to try to help fill the backline gaps were Steve Eminger and Ossi Vaananen. Eminger, an unknown commodity given the same opportunity that allowed for Braydon Coburn to flourish the season prior, will be expected to step in and immediately assume #4 or #5 minutes. In 20 regular season games played, Eminger never cracked the 18 minute mark. In his last tour in the NHL, Ossi Vaananen was averaging 15 to 16 minutes a game. (As of this writing I have yet to see Eminger actually play, and only watched Vaananen play in one pre-season game…)
In losing two key veterans in Smith and Hatcher the Flyers are immediately a “softer” team to play against. By the numbers, Smith was 29th in the league in hits for d-men and Hatcher, playing in only 44 regular season games, registered 106 hits (only Scott Hartnell, new Captain Mike Richards and Smith had more). Smith was the #3 shot blocker in the NHL last season with 204 and was the team Captain, adding grit and substance to a team that had no identity at the start of last season. The team with Hatcher was 24W 15L 5 OTL, without him they were 18-14-6.
Beyond physical play, you see the holes left by losing Hatcher and Smith when you take on the problem from a TOI and Penalty Kill perspective. Hatcher, when he played, was clearly the Flyers #1 penalty killing defenseman with 3:54 pk/g, and Smith was third with 2:54 pk/g. Only Kimmo Timonen had more PK time than Smith. At even strength, Hatcher was the Flyers #1 minutes eater, Smith was #4.
From a 20,000 foot view (or from the press box at the Wachovia Center – which ever comes first) the void is clear: loss of leadership, loss of toughness, loss of PK players, loss of trusty minute eaters. The key question is – who steps in?
The candidates are a group of unproven players: Randy Jones, Eminger, Ryan Parent, Lasse Kukkonen or FA try-out Brian Berard. In my opinion, this will be a work in progress until a decision, or a trade, is made. Vaananen is probably going to pan out to be a #6 battling with Kukkonen for a job. Parent, a promising, steady positional d-man, is not ready for prime time #4 minutes, let alone being a regular on the NHL level.
Jones showed flashes of being a top 4 guy in the late rounds of the post season, but has also had great peaks and valleys in past performance. My guess is it’s going to be Eminger – who couldn’t crack the Caps line-up last season, and Jones. Combined, those two couldn’t match the nastiness of going into a corner with Hatcher, or the number of total hits he would have in a full season.
A true gauge of the Flyers back-line troubles will be if Berard not only makes this team, but secures a top 5 spot. Steve Duchesne anyone? With the hapless Islanders Berard averaged 13:08 at even and led the defensemen with 4:10 pp. Eminger and Jones should be able to handle the #2 PP unit…if not, this teams still won’t have trouble scoring goals, and it’s not worth the risk of Berard giving up bad goals or missing defensive assignments.
On the forward side of the equation, losing your #5 point producer of the season would seem to be a big gap on any other team. When you take a deeper look, the loss of RJ Umberger, a player that had no firm line and no firm position to play last season, is on Special Teams. Umberger was the #2 PK killer from the forward unit. Thanks to Umberger, Smith and Hatcher, the Flyers finished with the 10Th best PK in the NHL.
The loss of Umberger was an indication of one of the deepest, if not the deepest, forward group in the NHL. The return of Gagne, and his most underrated skills of penalty killing and defensive play, at the cost of Umberger is clearly an upgrade. Richards, Danny Briere, Jeff Carter, Joffrey Lupul, Hartnell, Gagne, and Mike Knuble all should be expected to score 20+, and that doesn’t account for buzz-saw Scottie Upshall, promising rookie Claude Giroux and loose cannon Steve Downie.
The key concern for this incredibly deep unit is the “Briere-factor”. Briere was a -22 last season, and clearly the Flyers weakest link in line-match-ups and in the defensive zone. There has been a short lived experiment with Briere on Richards’ wing – a sign that the Flyers acknowledge Briere’s defensive issues more than a need for additional scoring.
The solution, in my opinion, is to reunite Gagne and Knuble – two pillars that play both ends – and have them safeguard Briere. This gives the Flyers the amazing 3 line depth that they came to enjoy last season, at the sacrifice of limiting Gagne’s scoring opportunities as he compensates for his center.
If the Flyers do move Briere to the wing it exposes new center Glen Metropolit. If Bergeron doesn’t go down thanks to that infamous Jones hit last season, Metropolit remains a 10 to 12 minute 3rd/4th line center who kills penalties. Instead, Metropolit averaged 16:25 which included 2:49 in PK on a struggling Boston team. That, to me, seems to be Peter White with a shaved head.
In conclusion, the good: the Flyers will retain their amazing scoring depth. The bad: the Flyers are most likely going to have to lose one of their scoring assets in order to sure up that shaky back 6 before the post season.
Thanks to each of these guys for participating. Be sure to stop by their sites throughout the year!