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2011-12 NHL Season Preview: Anaheim Ducks

In Hockey on September 26, 2011 at 10:44 am

Anaheim Ducks

A Look Back at 2010-11
The Ducks were able to jump back into the playoffs last year after a one-year hiatus. Anaheim was powered by the play of their top line of Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan, as well as the stellar goaltending of Jonas Hiller. Adding on to that, the Ducks got a performance from Teemu Selanne that was absolutely vintage. The Ducks got off to a slow start, but powered through the West in the second half, and all the way to the four-seed in the first round of the playoffs.

However, they were dealt a major blow down the stretch, when Hiller was diagnosed with vertigo and was sidelined for the remainder of the season. The Ducks did lose their all-star goaltender, but they got a great effort from two goaltenders that had been in exile. Dan Ellis and Ray Emery eached played great down the stretch, but in the playoffs, the two faltered and the Ducks were badly beaten by a Nashville squad that lit up the Ducks’ defense throughout. But at the beginning of the year, I would have called you a fool if you wanted me to believe the Ducks would have grabbed the four-seed. Perhaps Hiller would have been a difference-maker in the playoffs, but we’ll never know. Grade: B+ (My expectations for them were much lower than where they finished.)

A Look Ahead to 2011-12

Corey Perry was a beast in the second half last year to push the Ducks into the playoffs

Forwards
The Ducks’ top line is back once again and expected to terrorize defenses once again this year. Perry, Ryan and Getzlaf are all massive players with great skill, and they compliment each other perfectly. They don’t get the credit as the top line in the NHL (like they should) because they play in Anaheim. With Perry winning the Hart Trophy last year and Ryan scoring the goal of the year last year, everyone has been put on notice. Perry scores, dishes and fights, and helped me win a pair of fantasy titles last year. But besides that, he scares the absolute hell out of me when he’s on the ice, against the Sharks, that is. Getzlaf might be the best playmaker in the league that doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Ryan might play third-fiddle to the three, but he’s easily the funniest of the trio based on everything he has to say on Twitter. These guys are a sure thing, and will be once again.

After the top line, the Ducks run into some problems with scoring. I’m glad Selanne announced his return before I wrote this, and we get one more year of one of the most exciting players of all time. He had a great year last year, but at 40 years old and coming off another knee operation, it will be interesting to see how he holds up this year. He’s going to play with either Saku Koivu or newcomer Andrew Cogliano as his center, and most likely Jason Blake on the left side. Aside from Selanne, those other options do not scare me. Cogliano could benefit from a change of scenery, and he’s going to need to produce more than he did in Edmonton for the Ducks. Blake and Koivu are winding down their careers, and the Ducks did a nice job getting some young legs in the fold.

In my opinion, someone on the lower lines is going to need to step up. The list of players includes Dan Sexton, Brandon McMillan, Nick Bonino, Matt Belesky and Kyle Palmieri. Each of these guys are young players, and with the exception of Palmieri, has had a chance to play on the Ducks’ second line in the past. Palmieri is a guy the Ducks have high hopes for, but they’re going to have to pay their dues on the bottom lines for the time being. However, with Blake, Koivu and Selanne known to break down at their age, they need to be ready at all times to step up. George Parros and J-F Jaques will take turns filling the enforcer role on the team.

The biggest issue for the Ducks will be the team’s health, and if one member of that top line goes down, the Ducks could be in big trouble due to their lack of depth. At least for the time being, because I feel that their young players that will play in the bottom six have the talent to be difference makers. It just won’t be an instant process. Grade: B

Lubomir Visnovsky posted career-best numbers for the Ducks last season

Defense
What was expected to be a weak spot for the Ducks last year was actually much better than some (see: myself) anticipated. They’ve easily got one of the league’s best offensice combinations on defense in the league. Lubomir Visnovsky could have easily earned a nomination for the Norris Trophy last year. He was a nice mentor for young defender Cam Fowler, who seamlessly stepped into the Ducks’ lineup as an 18-year old and gave the team a shot of youth, as well as a nice second option to man the Ducks’ point on the power-play.

Toni Lydman might have been the most underrated defender of last season, providing stay-at-home stability while producing his best offensive season to date. Francois Beauchemin was brought back last year, and he can still bring it with the best of them on D. Luca Sbisa could easily take a big step forward this year as the Ducks’ second bright young defenseman. The final spot should be occupied by Kurtis Foster, who came over from Edmonton in a deal for Andy Sutton this offseason. Foster won’t be counted on to provide the offense he was expected to give the Oilers, but having him as a third or fourth option is a nice luxury for the Ducks to have. Sheldon Brookbank, Matt Smaby and Matheiu Carle provide the Ducks depth. For a position that I felt was weak last year, this Ducks’ defense looks mighty tough and could handle an injury or two. Grade: B

Jonas Hiller will look to battle back from a bout with vertigo this season

Goaltending
No person on the Ducks could impact the team’s finish quite like Jonas Hiller. The good news for Ducks fans is that he says he feels great heading into this year. Hiller is the kind of goalie that the Ducks can count on to occasionally steal a game for them. The more rubber Hiller sees, the better he seems to play. And while I feel the Ducks’ defense is good, there will be nights where they give up 35+ shots. If Hiller’s headaches stay away, the Ducks are going to be just fine for the season. Ellis is back to backup Hiller, and he seemed to be rejuvinated by moving to Anaheim. I think that the Ducks should look to ease Hiller back in to the starting role, and Ellis should see quite a bit of time in the early part of the season. Jeff Deslauriers was brought in as insurance. Bottom line is that the Ducks will go as far as Hiller takes them. His health and the way he adjusts to getting back into games determines everything for them Ducks. Grade: B (If Hiller had no injury questions, I would say the Ducks are a dark horse to win the Cup.)

Prediction
They have a strong top line, deep defense and one of the game’s best goalies, when he’s healthy. They’re going to need to get some help from their younger players to take the pressure off of the monsters on the top line. It won’t be automatic, but I feel someone will step up for them. They also play in the league’s better conference and toughest division in the league, but they’ll be playoff bound once again. 3rd in Pacific, 7th in West.

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2011-12 NHL Season Preview: Vancouver Canucks

In Hockey on September 23, 2011 at 10:41 am

Vancouver Canucks

Grab something to drink and use the bathroom now, because this one’s going to take a while. There’s also going to be a certain measure of reality I’m speaking with on this, because these guys disgusted me so much as a hockey fan last year.

A Look Back at 2010-11
Last season, everything was set up warly for the Canucks to be the team of desitny in the NHL, much like the Blackhawks were in 2009-10. Offensive talent? Present. Solid checking forwards? Done. Mobile defense with some snarl? There. Elite goaltender? Without a doubt. Outstanding special teams? Best in the league. Weak division? None was softer.

The Canucks indeed had a special team, bringing in Manny Malhotra to improve the checking game and penalty killing, and Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard to shore up their defense that got abused by Chicago in two straight playoffs. The result? They waltzed through the regular season on the way to their first ever President’s Trophy. Then, the playoffs began and all hell broke loose. I thought that the Canucks would cruise through the first two rounds of the playoffs before getting tested by either Detroit or San Jose in the conference finals. Instead, they nearly suffered the game’s second giant meltdown in as many years against Chicago in the first round. Up 3-0 on the Hawks, they were blown out in game four, which was to be expected in the Hawks’ barn. But they came out with a chance to slam the door shut in game five in Vancouver and got lit up by a team that played hard all game and were very physical with the Canucks. Oh, the Hawks also chased Roberto Luongo in each of the two losses. Game six was easily one of the best hockey games I’ve ever watched. Vancouver benches Luongo, only for him to be forced into the net because Michael Frolik blew up Cory Schnieder’s hamstring on a pentaly shot, and the Hawks get the winner in OT on a horrible rebound Luongo allowed. Despite winning game seven, they nearly blew that game as well as Jonathan Toews scored a shorty with under two minutes left. Thankfully, Chris Campoli was secretly wearing a Canucks sweater that night, turning the puck over in Chicago’s zone for Alex Burrows (more on him in a bit) to get the winner. No way that series should have gone to seven games with the talent advantage Vancouver had over Chicago. Maybe the Hawks really were in Vancouver’s heads, but everyone in Vancouver thought it was smooth sailing to the Cup after that. They then held off a very game Predators team in the most boring series I’ve ever watched in the West semis. After that, they mowed through the Sharks in the West Finals and drew the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals. Seemed like a total mismatch on paper, especially with the way the Bruins struggled on the power-play all through the playoffs, and even at times on defense against Tampa in the East Finals. Everything starts off well, with the Canucks taking the first two games in Vancouver, doing about what I and everyone else expected from them in the process. Then game three happened. First, it was the hit by Aaron Rome that knocked Nathan Horton into next season and Rome out of the playoffs. So of course, the hit not only costs the Canucks a defenseman, but it wakes the Bruins up. They hammered the Canucks in Boston in all three games, chasing Luongo twice and showing that if you get him to give up one bad goal, another one is soon to follow. When it was all said and done, the Canucks couldn’t get much past Tim Thomas, and Boston, and riots ensued in Vancouver. But what the Bruins did was everything the Canucks didn’t do. Namely, play the game the right way. The easiest way to deal with a team that relies on its skill to beat you is always subject to being soft. I refuse to say the Canucks were soft, but when Boston turned up the aggression, you could tell how much it affected the Canucks. It inhibited what the Sedin twins were able to do in space, even more so when the officials refused to give the two any calls because of how many times they were caught embellishing calls in the series. As good as I think the Sedins are, that’s an absolute embarrassment to resort to diving as much as they did. No reason Brad Marchand should be able to get away with what he did, but because of what those two did in terms of diving, he was given the freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted short of stabbing Daniel Sedin with a broken off stick.

Aaron Rome’s afformentioned hit was blatantly illegal, and Alex Edler pulled off something similar but less malicious in game six that led to Boston’s third goal of the game.

Alex Burrows bit Patrice Bergeron and got no suspension for it. Max Lapierre then proceeded to taunt Bergeron, one of the game’s good guys, about the incident in the second game. These incidents proceeded to turn to majority of tweener fans against the Canucks as a result. Look, I know that facewashing is a part of the game and happens in scrums more often than not. But, under no circumstances, is it ok to bite a dude.

And then, there was the talking. And overconfidence. Lots of it. Luongo had his legendary soundbite about how Tim Thomas never “pumps his tires” about the way he plays. Roberto, the reason he wasn’t pumping your tires is because there were about 5 giant holes in them (Get it, 5-hole? You’re right, I tried a little too hard on that one). Daniel Sedin guaranteed the Canucks would win one of the clinching games, I believe it was game seven of the Cup Finals. Mike Gillis had a solid rant about how the officials were calling penalties in favor of the the Blackhawks in the first round. As if that had anything to do with the beat-downs the Canucks got in games four and five. And my personal favorite: the team offering the broadcast rights to their celebration party mid-way through the Finals. I’m a firm believer in not pissing off the karma gods, and that was a clear violation of everything I would want to avoid. Was I happy that Boston handed Vancouver’s lunch to them in four of the last five games? You’re damn right I was. Had nothing to do with the fact they’re a Canadian team (that’s a horse s*** reason that I always hear from my fellow countrymen, I’ve cheered for Canadian teams in the past and without them, hockey doesn’t exist) or that they beat the Sharks in the West Finals (San Jose did plenty wrong in that series anyway). You can’t act the way that team did and deserve to win. In the end, they didn’t and have no one to blame but themselves. Don’t run your mouths, don’t take cheap shots, quit diving, play the game the right way and the rest will take care of itself. Now I’m done. Grade: C (I can’t fail them, they did make it to the Cup Finals and had a chance to win it all. But they were expected to be the best team and go that far, so a C is appropriate.)

A Look Ahead to 2011-12

The Cancuks will miss Ryan Kesler's precence for the first few months of the season

Forwards
The one constant in the Vancouver lineup has always been the Sedin twins. This year, they should each be more motivated than ever before. These two are an absolute joy to watch when their twin-ESP in clicking. Henrik does the passing, Daniel does the shooting. Provided they stay healthy, these two are good to light up the score sheets again this year. Burrows should be placed back on the team’s top line with the twins and I expect him to thrive in that spot. Burrows is also one of the team’s top penalty killers, teaming with Ryan Kesler as one of the league’s best PK pairs. Speaking of Kesler, the Canucks are going to have a long stretch of time pass before they are fully healthy once again. Kesler will be out with a hip injury, and Mason Raymond will be sidelined with a back injury he suffered in the Cup Finals. That’s 2/3 of the team’s second line, a second line that’s dangerous when they’re on the ice and open up room for the top line to play they way they do. Mikael Samuelsson should slide back in on the second line, as that’s where he found himself for much of last season. Manny Malhotra is still one of the league’s top checking centers, and he will find himself in a similar role once again this year, although he could see an increased offensive role until Kesler returns. The Canucks were a deep team last year at the forward position, but they face a major test with Kesler and Raymond out. That should give the likes of Marco Sturm, Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen and one-time prized prospect Cody Hodgson the chance to grab those minutes. Lapierre might be the most hated guy in the league (not to mention Dan Carcillo’s top target), and he will play on the team’s bottom two lines. Andrew Ebbett, Mark Macari, Victor Oreskovich and Aaron Volpatti will each compete for ice time as well. The team did extend tryout contracts to both Todd Fedoruk, and my sentimental pick to make the team, Owen Nolan. Welcome back to the league, Buster. I hope you stick somewhere this year, but you’ll always be The Captain to me. Besides, having Fedoruk, a former Cup winner, and Nolan for experience and knowledge wouldn’t be the worst thing for the Canucks to have. Without question, surviving without Kesler and Raymond is going to be the tough test. But there’s enough offense available to keep them at the top of the division from wire-to-wire this year. I expect the Sedins to elevate their game early on this year. Grade: A- (As dangerous as it gets when everyone is healthy)

Kevin Bieksa took a discount to remain in Vancouver this year

Defense
This was an area that had been a big problem in the Canucks advancing past Chicago. They lost Christian Ehrhoff to Buffalo, but this unit is still one of the league’s best when everyone is healthy. Kevin Bieksa earned a nice payday and was the smart pick for the Canucks to keep. He’s a right hand shot, plays with an edge and has improved his game every year since he’s been in the league. Alex Edler, Sami Salo, Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis will all be back in the fold for the ‘Nucks again this year as well. Not having Hamhuis for much of the Finals last year was a big factor, as he’s easily the team’s best defender in his own zone. Edler plays a solid game on each side of the ice. Salo still has a huge shot from the point and isn’t afraid to use it, provided he stays healthy this year. Ballard fell out of favor with the coaching staff, but the departure of Ehrhoff should allow him to slide back in. Andrew Alberts, Aaron Rome and Chris Tanev should all see time at points throughout the season. They’re still a deep unit that can hurt the opposition in many ways. That’s a nice thing to know as a coach. Grade: A-

Goaltending

Roberto Luongo will be under a microscope all season long

I’ve already broke Roberto Luongo down mentally. But the fact remains that he’s still one of the best in the game. He’s a big goalie with great reflexes and he almost always seems to have a beat on the puck. But at times last year, it looked like he was fighting the puck, especially with his glove hand. Since he will get to play against some of the League’s worst teams this year, especially in his own division, you can count on Luongo putting up stellar numbers again. I do hope that his head is in the right spot. From what I’ve been told, he’s one of the NHL’s good guys and the quote about Thomas clouded people’s opinion of him as such. But make no mistake about it, he’s going to be a beast once again this year. Behind Luongo, the Canucks have an interesting situation with Cory Schneider. He’s going to be a number one goalie somewhere in the NHL. It just won’t be in Vancouver because of Luongo’s lifetime deal that no one will trade for and is too rich to buy out. And when Schneider was called upon in the playoffs last year, I felt he played very well, even in a high pressure game six against Chicago. Schneider needs to see the ice though, and he should play 25-30 games this year in order to keep Luongo fresh for the playoffs. But if his AHL counterpart plays well, and the Canucks need an extra skater at the trade deadline, do not be shocked to see Schneider be traded elsewhere. Of course, that depends on how well Eddie Lack plays for the Chicago Wolves this year. For those that don’t know him, Lack is a tall, lanky goaltender that played very well for Manitoba last year, and was part of a superstar goaltending tandem for Brynas two years ago with fellow Swede and goaltending phenom Jacob Markstrom. The three combine for what might be the League’s best goaltending depth. Grade: A

Prediction
They have the squad to make another run at the Cup. However, teams know how to get them off their games now, body up with them and get in their kitchen. That or install ‘Chelsea Dagger’ or ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’ on their arena’s PA system. And since they’re the defending conference champions, they’re going to have a target on their backs. I’ll end this lengthy preview with this thought: If the Canucks aren’t motivated for this season after the way last year ended, nothing will motivate them. 1st in Northwest, 1st in West.

2011-12 NHL Season Preview: Minnesota Wild

In Hockey on September 22, 2011 at 10:38 am

Minnesota Wild

A Look Back at 2010-11
The second year of the Todd Richards era in Minnesota would ultimately be the last. It seemed to be the same story for the Wild last year; struggle to score goals and hope for the defense and goaltending to bail them out. However, Niklas Backstrom was average for most of the season. For someone that is counted on for so much of the team’s success, Backstrom’s struggles became a bigger problem than the Wild’s inability to score goals. The team decided that enough was enough, and they went through a major overhaul as a result. I feel that they should have been better last year. They were a team that I felt had the talent to battle for the final playoff spot in the West, kind of like a more offensively gifted version of Nashville. But when the backbone of your team, in this case defense and goaltending, fails on you, you have the 2010-11 Minnesota Wild. Not a good effort by the Wild, and for a hockey market that would thrive with a winner, even more of a shame. Grade: D (I know you hear it often, but the Wild don’t have a face or identity. Last year might have been the worst case of that statement.)

A Look Ahead to 2011-12

Dany Heatley comes to Minnesota and will be counted on to aid the Wild in an area they struggle; goal scoring

Forwards
The knock on the Wild is the fact that they’ve never been able to score with other teams since they entered the league. I fully expect that to change this year with Martin Havlat out and Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi in. As a Sharks fan, I was sad to see the two guys go but knew why it needed to be done. But the two should be good for 50-70 goals on the season that the Wild weren’t getting elsewhere. Heatley has lost a step over the last few years, but he still gives the team a proven scoring threat that they haven’t had since Marian Gaborik left Minnesota. Setoguchi could miss playing with Joe Thornton, and he’ll have to work harder than ever in order to score the way he did in San Jose. Even if he was streaky in his scoring for the Sharks. Mikko Koivu is going to get a chance to center one of those two, and he’s due for a bounce back season. The younger Koivu is one of the league’s best, and even managed to record 62 points on an awful offensive team last year. Much respect, Mikko. Pierre-Marc Bouchard is set for his first full season in years, and I hope he’s got his concussion issues behind him because he gives the Wild another playmaker in the top six. Matt Cullen is expected to center the second line  once again this year. Cal Clutterbuck is also back and will hit everything in sight when he’s on the ice. Clutterbuck can also be counted on for around 20 goals and some form of awesome facial hair. Guillame Latendresse is an interesting case, as he is coming off of an injury. He was expected to carry major responsibility in the Minnesota offense, but he couldn’t stay healthy last year and was another reason the Wild finished 26th in the league in goals per game. Hopefully the ailments that cost Latendresse most of his 2010-11 season are gone, because he’s a major part of the team’s potential success as a big body with a nice touch around the net. Kyle Brodziak had a nice year last year, potting 16 goals while playing more of an offensive role than he has ever been used to. Don’t expect him to duplicate that success this year, however. One move that I thought was brilliant on the Wild’s part was bringing in Darroll Powe from Philly. Powe is an energy guy and good penalty killer that was beloved in Philly, and he brings the skill of a top penalty killer to the Wild this season. Eric Nystrom should team with Powe on the team’s fourth line and penalty kill as an energy player. Brad Staubitz will be around in case the Wild need someone rubbed out. The Wild do have a few nice pieces that are hoping to crack the roster this year in Cody Almond and Colton Gillies, as well as Charlie Coyle, who arrived in the deal for Brent Burns but will probably need another year to play in college. However, I think it’s time to unleash the Wild’s top offensive prospect on the league and bring a little enjoyment to Wild home games. I’m talking about Mikael Granlund hopefully joining the team this year. Granlund earned high praise for his playmaking ability and his smarts on the ice the year he was drafted and has played very well against the adults in the Finnish Elite League for the last two years. But no one talked about how good he is around the net or how ballsy the kid is. Seriously, who even tries a move like this in an event the size of the World Championships? He’s no slouch in the shootout either, and he busted out this beauty over the summer during rookie camp. I’ve heard that he’s on his way over this year, but I’ve also heard that he’s staying in Finland for another year to fulfill his military duty. Regardless of what is true, I want him to come over and play. He’s already a rock star in Finland because of his work at the World Championships this year. He could easily achieve that status in Minnesota, and having fellow countryman Koivu already on the team could help his decision. Grade: B (I actually like this group without Granlund, but the Wild get an added dimention to their offense if Granlund plays.)

Nick Schultz returns for his eight season on the Minnesota blue line

Defense
While the Wild did get better up front, it came at the price of top defenseman Brent Burns. Burns is now partying in San Jose, and the Wild are going to have to get contributions from everyone to replace his 19 goals from last year. Marek Zidlicky is the team’s top returning offensive defender, but as always, he struggles to remain healthy. The Wild are going to hope Zidlicky has better luck this year, their power-play success depends on it. Nick Schultz is one of two remaining members of the Wild’s last playoff series win back in 2003. Schultz isn’t fancy and plays his role as a stay-at-home defender very well. Greg Zanon joins Schultz in that same role, only Zanon scored much less. Mike Lundin was brought in from Tampa, giving him a chance to play at home and bring some of what he learned to a team that has yet to figure out how to win. Those four are the elder-statesmen of the Wild blue line. Clayton Stoner, Marco Scandella, Justin Falk and Jared Spurgeon will each get a chance to earn a spot in the lineup each night. While neither of these guys is considered a blue-chipper, Scandella and Spurgeon have been tabbed as the ones most likely to see time with the Wild this year. It’s only a matter of time before Jonas Brodin comes over from Sweden to help solidify the team’s need for an offensive-defenseman. As for this year’s squad, they’re going to need a ton of help from the young defenders, and that’s not always a good thing. Grade: D+ (You tell me why I should trust this group, because I can’t think of a good reason why. Also, tell me where the offense comes from now that Burns is gone.)

Niklas Backstrom has to bounce back for the Wild to contend for a playoff spot

Goaltending
What has been the strongest position for the Wild since their inception, last season was the first time in recent memory that goaltending gave the Wild any kind of trouble. Niklas Backstrom has been bugged by injury over the last two seasons, and thus, he hasn’t been at his best. It’s unfair to Backstrom to ask him to carry the Wild as much as he’s had to since he took over for Manny Fernandez back in 2007. But much like Pekka Rinne, he has to bail the Wild out more often than not. Now that there is more offensive help, Backs is going to have some pressure taken off of him, but not by much. He’s still going to have to be good almost every night for the team to make a playoff push. He’s going to have Josh Harding backing him up once again this year, after missing all of last year with a torn ACL. Just like normal, this is the most important part of the team for the Wild, and Backstrom can’t be as average as he was last year. Matt Hackett is waiting in the AHL, but this is Backstrom’s team right now. Grade: B (I don’t want to think Backstrom is on the downslope of his career, but I can’t help it. If he plays the way he did when he was nominated for a Vezina a few years ago, the Wild will be in the playoffs.)

Prediction
The Wild are sick of being mediocre, and what they did this offseason to try and fix that is a positive. But they’re still short on blue line production and there will always be the question as to whether or not they can score until the produce consistently. New coach Mike Yeo is going to have a tough test in front of him, but his team will battle, just falling short of the playoffs. 2nd in Northwest, 9th in West.