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Pittsburgh Penguins 2013-14 Season Preview

In Hockey on September 29, 2013 at 8:38 pm

2013 Recap
The Penguins rolled through the regular season thanks to a high-powered offense led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. After easily winning the Atlantic, the Penguins ran into a snag against the Islanders in the first round when Marc-Andre Fleury forgot that his job was to stop pucks from going in. Fleury was benched starting in game five, and the team rallied behind Tomas Vokoun to dispatch the Isles and Senators, winning six of seven games.

But all thoughts of a Cup win came to a screeching halt thanks to a sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins, in which the team scored only twice in four games. The Penguins were flustered by a physical Bruins squad, leading to a disappointing end to a stellar season.

Led by Sidney Crosby, the Penguins should be on the short list of teams that could win the Stanley Cup.

Led by Sidney Crosby, the Penguins should be on the short list of teams that could win the Stanley Cup.

Forwards
Not a whole lot of change at forward for Pittsburgh, and that spells trouble for opposing goaltenders. Crosby, Malkin, James Neal, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz and the rest of the Pittsburgh attack is bound to put up video game style numbers, especially on the power play. Beau Bennett has been touted as a guy that could see time on one of the top-two lines, and could have a breakout year playing with one of the two best centers in the world.

The bottom six, led by Brandon Sutter, won’t be counted on for much offense, but it’s an energetic group that is capable of scoring the occasional goal.

This isn’t an area of concern for the Penguins. Carry on.

Defense
After experiencing some breakdowns in the playoffs, Rob Scuderi was brought back to join Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, etc. and make this team a better unit in their own zone. Letang was awesome in the regular season, but was dreadful at times in his own zone in the playoffs. I expect the unit to get better with the addition of Scuderi.

Deryk Engelland, Matt Niskanen, Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Depres will all see time as the 5-6 defenseman. The team is also stacked with prospects Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, etc. in the system. Not a bad problem to have.

Goaltending
You wanna talk about a fall from grace? Hi, Marc-Andre Fleury! After I dubbed him the best clutch goalie in one of my meaningless past posts, Fleury has melted down in the last two playoffs against the Flyers and Islanders. He hasn’t been under the microscope much in his career, but he will be this year. Tomas Vokoun was good when he stepped in for Fleury last year, but he will miss time with yet another blood clot (although apparently it’s not as bad as we were all led to believe). Until he gets back, Fleury is going to be the guy in net.

The Hat Trick

1. Now What Did We Learn?
This is a great team with excellent veteran leadership. But what did they take away from the beating they got at the hands of the Bruins in last year’s playoffs? It won’t take long for us to find out.

2. Wilting Flower
Fleury has no safety net behind him until Vokoun gets healthy. So we’re going to find out real fast if he’s really put last season’s playoff debacle behind him. And if you don’t like the Penguins, it could be fun to watch.

3. Lofty Expectations
The Penguins are already being tabbed as the favorites to come out of the East this year. They’ve been in this spot before, but now there appears to be more pressure on the team than ever, especially after last season.

Prediction
They’re good, make no mistake about it. They’ll beat up on the this division once again and will have another serious look at a Cup. First in Metropolitan.

Must-Follow Penguins Twitter AccountI have to give a shout out to Penguins uber-fan and fantasy hockey co-owner Lexi, who is someone that you need to follow. Also, Blitzburgh Brian is an insightful guy who’s probably sick of covering the Steelers right about now.

I am Ryan Thomas, and these previews are only gonna get shorter. Follow me on Twitter @rthomas_22, because I could use the followers.

Philadelphia Flyers 2013-14 Season Preview

In Hockey on September 28, 2013 at 6:48 pm

2013 Recap
Good lord. Where do I start? This team was downright bad last year. The Flyers were poor at even-strength, the defense was a mess, injuries decimated the team and the goaltending was once again a disaster. Needless to say, the Flyers didn’t make the playoffs.

So how did they improve to get back to the playoffs? Paul Holmgren made a mockery of the salary cap, spent a ton of money of forwards, some more money on an old defenseman, and brought in a goalie that went unbeaten in regulation off the bench for the best hockey team the league has seen in years. At least he did SOMETHING right in buying out Ilya Bryzgalov and Danny Briere, but everyone expected that to happen.

So now that they’re finally healthy and the circus brought on by Bryzgalov is gone, are they better off for it?

Give me a reason to post a picture of a guy with a sweet mustache, and I'm going to take it. Claude Giroux has plenty to prove heading into an Olympic year.

Give me a reason to post a picture of a guy with a sweet mustache, and I’m going to take it. Claude Giroux has plenty to prove heading into an Olympic year.

Forwards
Perhaps only the Penguins can say they boast a group of forwards as dangerous as this one. Not something you’d expect to hear about a team that missed the playoffs.

Claude Giroux is back from a freak golfing injury, and is joined by a stellar supporting cast that features Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, etc. I like the addition of Vincent Lecavalier to the second line. While he may not be the offensive he once was, he’s still an effective player that will help the team out. Jakub Voracek had a great year last year, but he’s been hurt for most of the preseason.

Guys like Matt Read, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier and Max Talbot are all capable of scoring from the third and fourth lines. Zac Rinaldo is still on the team, and will probably be suspended more often than not.

Defense
When healthy, this defensive unit isn’t bad. But health was a big problem last year. Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Luke Schenn and new Flyer Mark Streit make up the top-four. Nicklas Grossmann and the oft-injured Andrej Meszaros make up the remainder of the top-six.

Again, not an awful unit, but they can’t afford to suffer any serious injuries. They have a nice mix of physical guys and pucker movers, but they all need to be better to keep the focus off the goaltending.

Who am I kidding? There will always be complaints about the goaltending.

Goaltending
I don’t hate the move to bring back Ray Emery. He had a nice year with Chicago last year and the Flyers got him for a good price. But he ain’t playing behind the defensive juggernaut that the Hawks had last year. He and Steve Mason are going to be tested alot this year. Mason was good after being traded to Philly, but that was for a team heading nowhere. It will be fun to see how they both fare in a full year in goaltending hell. But wake me when someone starts talking about bears in the forest. I demand to be entertained!

The Hat Trick

1. Even Strength Nightmares
Did you know the Flyers finished in the top-10 in both special team areas this year? I didn’t until I actually looked. That just goes to show how bad they were at 5-on-5 last year. Since that’s where most of the game is played, the Flyers need to clean up their act in order to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot.

2. Who Carries the Mail in Goal?
Some things never change. I expect the Flyers to use a platoon in net until further notice. At some point, I expect Emery to earn the bulk of the starts. But how will they both fare behind a questionable defense? Man is it gonna be fun to watch.

3. All About Giroux
I don’t know if there’s a player in the league that has more to prove this year than Claude Giroux. After being touted as the “best player in the world” after the team’s win over Pittsburgh in 2012, Giroux had a bit of a rough year in 2013. Now he has some incentive not only to re-establish himself as a player that’s at the same level as Sidney Crosby, but he’s in the mix to represent Canada in the Olympics. I expect a big year from Giroux, who is one of the most entertaining players in the league to watch.

Prediction
They’ll score alot, but they’ll give up alot of goals. In this division, that’s a recipe for trouble. I think the Flyers will be in the mix for a playoff spot, but come up just short. Fifth in Metropolitan.

Must-Follow Flyers Twitter Account
Follow Scott Hartnell and enjoy his special brand of self-deprecation. Just do it.

I am Ryan Thomas, and these previews are only gonna get shorter. Follow me on Twitter @rthomas_22, because I could use the followers.

New York Rangers 2013-14 Season Preview

In Hockey on September 25, 2013 at 10:13 pm

2013 Recap
Last season, the Rangers took a step back that few people thought would happen. After finishing atop the Atlantic Division and acquiring Rick Nash as the final piece, the Blue Shirts’ offense dried up, the locker room became toxic, players shifted in and out and the Rangers became a John Tortorella sideshow at times. But the team was still good enough to finish sixth and make the playoffs.

After struggling to get the offense going against Washington, the Rangers were able to take four of the last five games of the series to advance to the second round. Waiting for them was the pending buzzsaw known as the Boston Bruins, who dispatched the Rangers rather easily in five games.

When the dust settled, the Rangers ended the Tortorella era, hiring Alaaaaain (sorry, that’s become a habit) Vigneault to right the ship. This is still a talented team, but will they be able to re-gain the form that saw them get to the East Finals two seasons ago?

Forwards
There’s still plenty of talent up front that should keep the Rangers formidable. Brad Richards could be due for a bounce back year now that he’ll be playing for more of an offensive-minded coach, and Derick Brassard meshed nicely with the Rangers after he was acquired from Columbus. Right now, those are your top two centers. Nash will slide onto the top line once again and continue to produce the way Rick Nash always has. Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider will also battle for top line minutes, but the Rangers will enter the year without two of their most important pieces.

Ryan Callahan will start the year on injured reserve, and the team’s top center, Derek Stepan, is currently locked in a nasty and pointless contract battle with GM Glen Sather. Callahan will miss a few weeks of the regular season with an injury, and that’s a huge blow for the club as the man does everything when he’s on the ice. I expect a deal with Stepan will be done, but it’s going to put the Rangers right at the salary cap when that happens.

Brian Boyle, Taylor Pyatt, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Dorsett, Dominic Moore, Benoit Pouliot and Arron Asham will all compete for spot on the bottom six. Prospects J.T. Miller and Oscar Lindberg could snatch spots later in the season if the team is looking for a little more offense.¬†And let’s be honest, they probably will be.

Defense
One of the steadiest blue lines in the league. While you won’t know what to expect from the team offensively, the defense should keep the Rangers in games. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh remain one of the top shutdown pairs in the game, and they’ll draw the opposition’s on a nightly basis. Michael Del Zotto is the team’s top puck mover on the back end, and he’ll be joined by John Moore and Anton Stralman once again. Rounding out the top-six is Marc Staal, who seems to be ready for action after missing a significant amount of time with a horrific eye injury. He was the team’s top defenseman before the injury, but he should slide in on the second pair with Del Zotto and not miss a beat.

The team still lacks depth, and for a blue line that has logged heavy minutes over the last four years, they’ve managed to remain relatively healthy (except for Staal). Aaron Johnson, Justin Falk and Danny Syvret will all compete for the seventh spot on D.

Henrik Lundqvist has alot to play for heading into the last year of his contract.

Henrik Lundqvist has alot to play for heading into the last year of his contract.

Goaltending
The backbone of the team still remains the uber-dreamy Henrik Lundqvist. Hank has been one of, if not the, top tendy in the NHL since he made his debut back in 2005. And this year, he’s going to have extra incentive as he enters the final year of his contract. That spells bad news for opposing shooters. Even as he enters his mid-30s, there are still no holes in his game and he gives the Rangers a chance to win every time he’s between the pipes.

Martin Biron will backup Lundqvist, and should see somewhere around 20 starts this year. He’s still a great guy for the Rangers to have in the room, even with his game slipping as he gets older.

The Hat Trick

1. New Coach, New Era
Not only did the media breathe a sigh of relief when Tortorella was let go, but you have to wonder if the players did as well. It’s no secret Torts demanded alot out of his players, including going down to block every shot the opposition attempts. They played two straight years of what Jeff Marek calls “heavy hockey,” and they looked burnt out against the Bruins last year.

In Vigneault, the team will have a chance to start fresh. Look for the offense to take some more chances offensively. They may not asked to block near as many shots, which helps when you have Lundqvist in net.

2. Contractual Issues
This team needs Stepan in the lineup immediately, and when Sather wants to stop playing hardball and pay his best offensive player, the Rangers will be better for it. With Lundqvist, he has said he won’t discuss a new deal in the season. If you’re Sather, do you chance having maybe the best goaltender in franchise history walk? I still think this team can win now, so it only makes sense to get a deal done.

(Ed. Note: Stepan was signed to a two-year deal a day after this was written. I’m not changing this point though.)

3. Rebound for Richards
Yes, he wasn’t great last year. But for the Rangers to compete in this division, Richards needs to be much better than he was last year. Playing under Vigneault should help, but the guy looked like he couldn’t keep up last year. He’s still a smart player, and he’s going to have to rely on those smart to keep a spot in the lineup. If not, he’s probably going to get bought out in the offseason.

Prediction
The Rangers are going to be in the mix once again thanks to their defense and goaltending. They could struggle out of the gate without Callahan and Stepan, but I still see this as a playoff team at the end of the year. Third in the Metropolitan.

Must-Follow Rangers Twitter Account
Much like the Islanders, I don’t follow any Rangers fans or bloggers on Twitter. Follow Blueshirt Banter and go from there.

I am Ryan Thomas, and there’s no way in hell I’m getting these done on time. Follow me on Twitter @rthomas_22, for more #WestCoastBias.