Posted by: mdegeorge | October 8, 2010

The Quest begins: 2010-11 NHL season preview

There’s a nip in the air. Versus is on my favorites list. And Slapshot is on in the afternoon.

That can only mean one thing: an NHL season preview. So, with the anticipation at a fever pitch, here are my top 10 story lines to watch in 2010-11.

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In their defense

The story of the offseason may have been the salary cap-driven ravaging of the Stanley Cups. Gone are vital cogs like Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Antti Niemi, and Ben Eager, just to name a few. In their place are bargain buys like Fernando Pisani and Marty Turco.

But the mystique of that team remains in tact. Turco, a hungry veteran looking for a Cup on the down side of 35, holds the promise of stabilizing an otherwise rickety goaltending situation that somehow survived the postseason onslaught. They’ll need role players like Tony Brouwer, a guy who showed up big in the playoffs, to replicate that performance over the long season to replace the outgoing depth on the second and third lines. There’s no need to cry over the Hawks’ plight for too long. As long as Patrick Kane, Conn Symthe winner Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa on board, along with stalwarts like Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Duncan Keith patrolling the blue line, Chicago won’t be far from the mix for the Cup.

Cinderella the morning after

The Flyers dream run to the Cup finals last year won’t soon be forgotten. There’s no doubt that they have a roster of guys capable of matching anyone in the league goal-for-goal for six week. But does that translate into 82 games of consistency?

The question abound. How will Chris Pronger hold up over a long season? Is serial back-up Michael Leighton (already injured and forcing Kyle Broflovski—I mean Sergei Bobrovsky to start the season-opener) ready to assume the starting mantle? Will the postseason renaissances of Ville Leino and Claude Giroux carry over to the season? Can disappointing stretches from Daniel Briere, Jeff Carter, and James van Riemsdyk be mitigated this season? Does Nikolai Zherdev actually help answer any of those questions?

The Flyers are certainly a good team, but last season they showed enough lapses to require a shootout win on the season’s final day to even qualify for the playoffs. The Flyers aren’t a shoo-in for the playoffs—though a team who’d be regarded as a colossal disappointment not to be playing postseason hockey—and they’ll have to guard against many of the pitfalls they faced last season to navigate arguably the toughest division in hockey.

Who’s waiting in the wings?

It’s becoming one of the most redundant questions in hockey (along with, “who’s playing goal in Philadelphia (and Washington)?” and “so, what’s the deal with Carey Price?”) but it’s just as imperative this season: who the heck is going to be playing on the wing with Sidney Crosby?

The Penguins choose to use their meager cap space in the offseason improve their offense by a) improving their defense, and b) clearing out the winger dead weight. Sergei Gonchar priced himself out of Pittsburgh, money that was turned into Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek in a major upgrade. They also parted ways with a bevy of underperforming and aging wingers (Ruslan Fedotenko, Andrei Ponikarovsky, and as much as it pained me, Billy Guerin). But the question still remains as to who Crosby will be paired with. The likely pairing of Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis ain’t exactly the Legion of Doom. Their biggest offseason acquisitions, Mike Comrie and broadside-of-the-barn Arron Asham aren’t exactly snipers. But Cormie gives them the flexibility at center to move Evgeni Malkin out to the wing, either with Crosby or Eric Staal once he recovers from injury. The key may be the play of Mark Letestu or the health of Max Talbot, either of whom could step in to center the checking line to free Staal to be a more offensive-minded top-six forward.

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The capital gorilla in the room

With the balance of power in the East resolutely residing in the Atlantic Division, it’s hard to believe that any team headlined by Alexander Ovechkin is flying under the radar. But a quiet offseason means that’s the case for the Capitals.

Washington’s core remains unchanged, with the likes of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green presumably still possessing the upside to take them to the next level without the need for further additions. The goaltending question remains largely unanswered, with Semyon Varlamov retaining only a tenuous hold on the number one spot over up and coming Michal Neuvirth.

The success of the Capitals this season rests squarely on the shoulders of two Russians, neither of whom is Overchkin. Varlamov has shown flashes of brilliance in the last two seasons; he must categorically raise his game come the spring to bring this team to the next level. Semin, a ghost in the postseason thus far in his young career, will find himself with a new address if in a year’s time if he doesn’t overcome his perennial playoff funk. With the low quality of the Southeast Division this season (and I mean like Junior B quality) the Caps will prove nothing until the playoffs roll around.

Time to put his mouth the money is

The main source of offseason drama was the Garden State, with the “will they, won’t they” contract battle between the Devils and Ilya Kovalchuk and his 39-year, $2.9 billion contract. Now, the time has come for Kovalchuk to put an underwhelming few months in New Jersey behind him to help the Devils stem the tide of playoff disappointments in recent years.

Kovalchuk anchors one of the most formidable lines in the league along with budding superstar Zach Parise and the still youthful Travis Zajac. But the supporting cast reads like an pre-lockout All-Star team. Jason Arnott (35), Jamie Langenbrunner (35), Brian Rolston (37), and Patrick Elias (34) have all won Cups with the Devils; with the Devils’ last triumph coming in 2003, it’s understandable that their production has dropped somewhat in the decade since their halcyon days together. We all know that Martin Brodeur will be a 70-game, 42-win mainstay, but the offensive questions are what will hamper this team until they can dispel them. A large part will be Kovalchuk, but even he can’t single-handedly be responsible for three lines worth of production.

Change we can believe in?

With the exception of the Wings, there hasn’t been much you can count on in the Western Conference year after year. Among the most reliable teams have been Vancouver and San Jose, perennially depended upon to fold by the end of April. Both were bullish in the offseason (change for the sake of change perhaps) to buck the trend.

Cap-strapped San Jose had little flexibility in bolstering the attack, including the loss of serviceable forward Manny Malholtra, meaning six forwards will bear the brunt of the scoring load. Granted those six include Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski. But two lines do not a champion make, especially when they’re backed by a young defensive corps that, while talented with the likes of Marc-Eduoard Vlasic and Jason Demers, lacks the veteran presence to compensate for the retirement of Rob Blake. Perhaps the goaltending committee of Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki takes the step forward that Evgeni Nabokov never could. If not, expect the Sharks to be watching the Western Conference Finals from the couch yet again.

A pathologically scant offense was always the downfall of the Canucks. But when the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, and company ramped up the offense last season, they still lacked the mettle to surpass their recent albatross, the Blackhawks. Their elimination called into question Roberto Luongo’s big game ability for the umpteenth time. In response, ownership went out and retooled the defense, bidding adieu to Sami Salo and Willie Mitchell in favor of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard. With Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin also getting reinforcements in the form of Malhotra and Raffi Torres, a Northwest Division title looks likely, but that would hardly fit the Canucks’ definition of a successful season.

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Which Price is right?

Oh, the ongoing Carey Price saga. He was the chosen one, then abandoned one in favor of Jaroslav Halak, and now has been deemed the prodigal son for the Habs’ net yet again. He’s got possibly the biggest pads to fill in recent memory after the Canadiens saw enough promise in him not to pay Halak’s salary demands after a storybook postseason that saw him best the Penguins and Capitals in road Game 7s.

It’s been a rocky start already, with the boo-birds coming out early and often in preseason. Montreal certainly isn’t the most forgiving of fan bases, but at least Price will benefit from a decent defense in front of him and a lot of gritty forwards to limit the damage. The majority of the battle may be mental for Price who’s known to get rattled easily. It’s obvious he has the talent and having just turned 23, the upside is still monumental.

Get the moving vans ready?

What would a season be without a little drama over the future of a couple franchises? Last year, the ownership/relocation drama did little to effect the feel-good story of the season, the Phoenix Coyotes and their 107 points.

This season, the Coyotes are still unsettled as to who their owner will be. Though the NHL and the city of Glendale have held promising negotiations for months, they’ve set and missed several deadlines that don’t bode well for the long-term future of the Coyotes. Another potential move candidate may be the Islanders under the guide of Charles Wang and his desperate need to escape from the crumbling confines of the Nassau Coliseum.

The injury bug cometh

Injuries are nothing new, but there seems to be an especially high number of them entering the season that may have major ramifications for the playoff races.

The Pens will start the season without Staal, the first games he’ll miss in his brilliant young career. Their Atlantic Division rival Flyers will also be without Pronger for stretches, including the opener, and starting goalie Leighton. Rangers’ captain Chris Drury starts the season on the shelf, as do vital Islanders Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit. Boston will be without Marc Savard and Marco Sturm to start the season, a blow their already anemic offense may not be able to survive. And Vancouver starts the season without the extra potency afforded by Burrows.

The surprise of the season

The Coyotes were the shock of last season. My pick for this year’s big shock: the Lightning. They benefit from an awful division in which they can make some hey. Thanks to the acquisition of Dan Ellis, they have an insurance policy that manes they won’t go only as far as Mike Smith takes them. Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis don’t have to be world-beaters as they did in the past thanks to the emergence of bona fide superstar Steven Stamkos. The defense may be the weak spot, though Victor Hedman and Pavel Kubina are capable anchors. They have a veteran presence with the likes of Ryan Malone and new acquisitions Sean Bergenheim, Dominic Moore, and Simon Gagne. They won’t exceed, say, the sixth seed in the East, but they’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot if all goes to plan.

***Full NHL Standings predictions to come tomorrow.***

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