10 things to watch this NHL season

Here we sit in the dog days of summer starving for hockey news.  We are waiting for the Ilya Kovalchuk arbitration ruling to kick start the second stage of UFA signings.  There are still many solid if not spectacular players on the market including aging stars Bill Guerin, Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne.  Useful role players like Raffi Torres, Aaron Asham and Eric Belanger are waiting to join a team in the hopes their grit will help push their new club to the next level.  And with Marty Turco taking a huge pay cut (1 year at $1.3 million) to play with the Blackhawks, one has to wonder what goalie Jose Theodore will have to settle for in order to find another NHL job.

But we all know these points as the present state of NHL affairs.  Hockey nerds like myself are already looking ahead to the NHL season, putting together line combinations for our favourite teams and contemplating the season that will be.  In saying that … here is my list of 10 things to watch this NHL season.

10. Will a big ticket player be sent to the minors to save cap room?

This is a theory that has been bandied about since the dawn of the salary cap era but so far no player of consequence has been sent to the minors for the sole purpose of saving on cap space.  Could this be the year it actually happens.  There are already whispers the Rangers would consider paying Wade Redden to play for their AHL affiliate in Hartford and save the $6.5 million cap hit in the process.  The Toronto Maple Leafs, it has been suggested, could send the overpaid Jeff Finger and his $3.5 million hit to the Marlies should they need the room to acquire some scoring punch.  Could this be the year a big contract player is sent packing to the AHL?  Time will tell.

9.     Halak vs Price

This will be the most interesting comparison of former teammates leading into the upcoming season. Did the Habs make a mistake trading Halak, the man who took the fabled franchise on his back as they rode into the Eastern Conference Finals, and hitching their wagon to the unproven and often shaken Carey Price.  Bob Gainey was always of the mind Price had the higher upside and his heir Pierre Gauthier took that advice to heart.  My money is on Halak being the more solid goaltender this season and I fear things could get ugly in Montreal if Price fumbles early.

8.     Will the NHLPA get its house in order.

Most hockey fans are sick of hearing about unions of any kind, (need I remind us Torontonians of the garbage strike last summer), let alone million dollar hockey players who can’t seem to agree on anything.  However, a healthy union is important for the players and if they happen to land current consultant Donald Fehr (former Executive Director of the MLBPA) as the new Executive Director, Commissioner Bettman better beware of the shark in the water.

7.     Have the Leafs done enough to push themselves into a playoff spot?

The culture in Leafland is definitely changing with Tomas Kaberle being the only significant member of the John Ferguson Jr. era still on the roster … for now.  Dion Phaneuf is ushered in as the new captain with the hopes his verbal enthusiasm and swagger will motivate and energize the young Leafs core as opposed to grating on his teammates like he did in Calgary.  Also added are current Stanley Cup Champion Kris Versteeg – expected to add more punch to the offense, hard hitting agitator Colby Armstrong and former Red Wings D-man Brett Lebda who is expected to help with the puck moving should Kaberle be shipped off.  For my money the Leafs will live and die by goaltending, and the tandem of J.S. Giguere and “The Monster” for a whole season will be enough to have them fighting for one of the bottom playoff spots in the East.

6.     Can the Capitals, Sharks or Kings take the next step?

For the Sharks this is old hat.  We have been asking if they can take the next step for a while now but last year felt different.  The Sharks were spectacular all the way to the Western Conference Finals until they ran into the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks.  With Marleau resigning, the machine-like offense remains in tact with the big question being whether Antero Nittymaki can improve the goaltending in big games.  For Washington, goaltending is also the big question  With most of the main offensive players returning can Simeon Varlamov finally grab the number one spot and lead the Caps deep into the playoffs.  The Kings took a HUGE step forward and although they lost Alexander Frolov and missed out on Ilya Kovalchuk they still have around $13 million in cap space.  If they add some veteran scoring punch and their young players continue to grow they should continue their climb up the Western Conference.

5.     Do the New Jersey Devils have another run in them?

With a cast of aging stars including: Martin Brodeur (38), Patrik Elias (34), Jamie Langenbrunner (35), Brian Rolston (37) and after picking up veteran centre Jason Arnott (36) it would appear that Lou is trying to squeeze one more championship out of his aging core.  On the plus side he has a young core including Ilya Kovalchuk (hopefully), Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and David Clarkson.   Add in a veteran backup tender in Johan Hedberg who should be able to give Brodeur more of a rest than he has had in the past.  It should be enough for the Devils to make one final run in the Eastern Conference.

4.     Can Steve Yzerman turn the Lightning around?

Perhaps one of the most sought after NHL front office executives in ages,  everyone knew Steve Yzerman was prime to be an NHL general manager.  That he ended up with Tampa Bay was a surprise to some however a quick turnaround is not out of the question.  The Bolts have always had offensive flair with Lecavalier, St. Louis and rising star Rocket Richard winner Steven Stamkos.  Add veteran Simon Gagne and hard working Dominic Moore to the list with agitating offensive threat Steve Downie and the forward depth looks solid.  Tampa’s week link has always been the back end.  With young phenom Victor Hedman in place and ex-Canuck Mattias Ohlund adding leadership Yzerman added former Lightning Cup winner Pavel Kubina to help solidify the defence.  He also picked up underrated Dan Ellis from free agency who should win the goaltending battle over Mike Smith.  Things are looking up in Tampa.

3.     Sid vs Alex on the NHL’s biggest stage.

The annual Outdoor Classic on New Year’s Day is one of the few NHL related events that has caught on with American viewers in mass numbers.  With the NHL’s two biggest stars on two of the NHL’s most exciting teams battling it out on a historic football stadium the Washington Capitals visit the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field, home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.  This is a can’t miss event for the NHL with the trash talking already beginning to fuel the fierce rivalry when Penguin’s pest Maxime Talbot called out the Great 8 for his questionable conduct and personality.  No matter what side you sit on in the Sid vs Alex debate this game should be pure gold.

2.     Will Taylor Hall and/or Tyler Seguin make instant impacts.

Last year’s draft was one of the most interesting and exciting in years with scouts clearly split on who should be the number one selection: Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin.  In the end the Edmonton Oilers took Taylor Hall first and the Boston Bruins (with the Maple Leafs pick from the Phil Kessel trade) chose Tyler Seguin.  With both players bursting with potential there appear to be no losers here.  The question is can either have an immediate impact at the NHL level.  Despite Sydney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin bursting on the scene and tearing up the league in their rookie season, more recent top picks Steven Stamkos (23 goals, 23 assists in rookie year) and John Tavares (24 goals, 30 assists in rookie year) had solid yet modest beginnings to their NHL careers.  Taylor Hall is hailed as the saviour in Edmonton and will be given every opportunity to shine in Alberta.  Equally big things are expected for Tyler Seguin in Boston, but the pressure to perform right away is lessened by a deeper team at forward.  My prediction is that despite the ice time Taylor Hall will get, Tyler Seguin will have the stronger rookie season based on the quality of players surrounding him.

1.     Can the Chicago Blackhawks survive the roster purge.

There has never been anything like it in the history of the NHL and we may never see anything like it again.  After capturing both the Stanley Cup and the hearts of the Chicago faithful the Hawks salary cap woes reared their ugly head quickly and it was a mass exodus of quality players.  Fan favourites like Dustin Byflugien and Kris Versteeg as well as solid performers Andrew Ladd, Colin Fraser, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel were sent packing to ease the cap strain.  On top of that Antti Niemi was awarded a 1 year, $2.75 million dollar contract in arbitration and GM Stan Bowman deemed it too rich and walked away.  He instead chose to sign veteran UFA Marty Turco to a more reasonable if short-sighted 1 year, $1.3 million dollar deal.  The good news is Chicago kept a core of Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathon Toews, Stanley Cup winning goal scorer Patrick Kane, Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, always the bridesmaid and finally the bride Marian Hossa and the solid and ever improving Brent Seabrook.  While losing a lot of fan favourites and good vibes the Hawks core should be enough to compete at the top of the Western Conference for many years.

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