2011-2012 NHL Super Preview

Suspensions, Winnipeg, Concussions, and the Rest of the NHL’s Goodness

By Trevor Magnotti

Ahh, puck is back for another season. With the NBA lockout turning ugly (Who are we kidding, the fact that there is no follow-up to one of the greatest seasons in NBA history is a downright travesty), and the NHL growing slowly more popular every year, this could be the year we see hockey’s resurgence. But who’s going to spearhead the surge this year? Will it be the aging Red Wings? Will it be the Capitals, who return everyone and add a top-three netminder? How about the Flyers or Kings, who shelled out the big bucks to try to compete? Maybe even the Blackhawks, trying to rebound from a disappointing Cup defense? This year, anyone could be a contender. Well, except Toronto. But whoever the big teams are, it’ll be a wild ride filled with big hits, big goals, and hopefully less concussions.

Atlantic Division

1. Philadelphia Flyers (2010-2011: 106 points, T-1st in Atlantic)

After adding Ilya Bryzgalov to solve their goaltending issues, Wayne Simmonds to provide a physical presence and Andreas Lilja to provide depth to an already formidable back line, the Flyers appear ready to make another run deep through the playoffs. Add in the addition of Jaromir Jagr to a front line with Daniel Briere, James van Riemsdyk, and Claude Giroux already, and this team may make another Finals appearance. Division Rankings: Goalies: 2 Forwards: 1 Defensemen: 1

2. Pittsburgh Penguins (106 Points, T-1st in Atlantic)

 The Penguins tied for the division title even without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for stretches of the season. What could they do this time around? The team looks to have more depth this time around, with Steve Sullivan joining the emerging James Neal, Jordan Staal, and Chris Kunitz as top 6 players. Defesively, the Pens hope for a follow-up to Kris Letang’s breakout 10-11, and the tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson is formidable. However, the team is top-heavy, and may not keep up with the Flyers, especially if injuries crop up again. Division Rankings: Goalies: 3 Forwards: 2 Defensemen: 2

3. New York Rangers (93 Points, 3rd in Atlantic)

The Rangers made waves this offseason, winning the Brad Richards sweepstakes. Richards gives the Rangers a significant upgrade to their top 6, which now features a scary top line of Richards, Wojtek Wolski and Marian Gaborik. Brandon Dubinsky will also be healthy again, and Ruslan Fedotenko has been decent. Also, Sean Avery is, well, Sean Avery. Defensively there still isn’t a lot besides Marc Staal, but Henrik Lundqvist asserted himself as a top 3 goaltender last season. The Rangers have enough to compete, but not enough to move anywhere forward in the division. Division Rankings: Goalies: 1 Forwards: 4 Defensemen: 4

4. New Jersey Devils (81 Points, 4th in Atlantic)

Not a lot new here on an aging team. Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise hope to rebound after very disappointing seasons that killed the Devils hopes of a playoff spot. Martin Brodeur also wasn’t himself last year, which isn’t that surprising given the fact that he’s 39. There’s also not a lot of depth here, especially on the wings. Defensively, resigning Andy Greene was big, but there’s not a whole lot of other talent here. This team could implode this year, big-time. Division Rankings: Goalies: 4 Forwards: 3 Defensemen: 5

5. New York Islanders (73 Points, 5th in Atlantic)

On paper, there’s some promise. Mark Streit is an offensive machine defensively, and John Tavares has a future as a solid top line guy. There’s lots of other young talent, with guys like Trevor Gilles, Kyle Okposo, and Milan Jurcina contributing. There’s even some veteran presence for once, even if it is Brian Rolston and Steve Staios. In net, however, could keep the Islanders in the cellar. Al Montoya, Rick DiPietro and Evgeni Nabokov is not a group you want against the other solid netminders in this division. Give it another year before the Islanders could start making some noise. Division Rankings: Goalies: 5 Forwards: 5 Defensemen: 3

Northeast Division

1. Buffalo Sabres (96 Points, T-2nd in Northeast)

Last year’s nobody team that ended up giving Philly a run in the playoffs got a lot better this year. Ryan Miller is a top-flight goalie, but he has often been their only big positive lately. That should change with the additions of Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff. Ehrhoff’s contract is steep, but so is his talent level. He’ll join Tyler Myers and Robyn Regehr in forming a much-improved defense in front of Miller. Offensively, the Sabres suddenly have many more options, as Leino and Brad Boyes join Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville as top contributors. Buffalo will surprise some people this season for sure. Division Rankings: Goalies: 2 Forwards: 3 Defensemen:1

2. Boston Bruins (103 Points, 1st in Northeast)

The champs are back, but lost some key Cup run pieces. Michael Ryder and Tomas Kaberle will be replaced in the lineup by Benoit Pouliot and Joe Corvo. Otherwise, a deep but not top-heavy offensive unit returns, led by Patrice Bergeron and Milan Lucic. Defensively, things should remain similar with Corvo, a solid offensive defenseman, replacing passing whiz Kaberle. In net, the Bruins still have Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask, the best netminding combo in the league. However, Thomas is 36, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him dealt at the deadline if the team isn’t in good standing midway through the season. With the losses and aging of Thomas, and Buffalo surging forward, Boston’s going to need everything to go right again to win the division crown. Division Rankings: Goalies: 1 Forwards: 2 Defensemen: 4

3. Montreal Canadiens (96 Points, T-2nd in Northeast)

It starts in net for the Habs, where Carey Price made no one miss Jaroslav Halak last season. The combination of Price and Peter Budaj will keep the Canadiens in games throughout the season. Defensively, the loss of James Wisniewski will be felt, but maybe not as much as anticipated if P.K. Subban can continue his rise to stardom. Subban will team with Hal Gill as the top blue line tandem. The team also swapped one former Blackhawk D-man (Brent Sopel) for another (Chris Campoli). Offensively, Erik Cole and Blair Betts bring some two-way ability to a team with a multitude of scorers but not much else. Expect Cole to team with Michael Cammalleri and Brian Gionta to form a deep scoring set in Montreal. The bottom line here is this team needs to play better defensively in front of Price for them to make the playoffs. Division Rankings: Goalies: 3 Forwards: 1 Defensemen:3

4. Ottawa Senators (74 Points, 5th in Northeast)

Ottawa was swamped with injuries last season, but should fair better this time around. Daniel Alfredsson looks ready to return to from injury for a 17th season in red and gold, and he’ll join Jason Spezza and Nick Foligno up front. Exciting rookie Mika Zibanejad should also see time. There’s also the return of the annual threat of Chris Neal and Zenon Konopka actually killing someone on ice. Defensively, a healthy Erik Karlsson and Filip Kuba will help, but the team needs more from it’s back line. They’ll be helped by a full year of Craig Anderson, who hopefully has stopped the Goalie carousel in Ottawa. Division Rankings: Goalies: 4 Forwards: 4 Defensemen: 5

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (85 Points, 4th in Northeast)

This could be bad. In a division, and really conference of solid goaltenders, going into a season with Jason Reimer as your top guy is a scary proposition. He’ll have more help this year than there has been in the past, as the Leafs grabbed John-Michael Liles to team with Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek on the back line. This team may still get roasted however by teams that can move the puck well. Offensively, There hasn’t been much improvement, as outside of Phil Kessel and maybe Joffrey Lupul there aren’t any quality guys of note. Reimer may get shelled this season, and the Leafs won’t score many goals to combat it. Division Rankings: Goalies: 5 Forwards: 5 Defensemen: 2

Southeast Division

1. Washington Capitals (107 Points, 1st in Southeast)

This is a make-or-break season in Washington. The Caps surprisingly let Semyon Varlamov walk and won the Tomas Vokoun sweepstakes, giving them a top-5 goalie and solidifying a great team. The offense is set, of course, as Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom man the helm, and Mike Knuble, Joel Ward and Brooks Laich provide depth. They’ll score plenty of goals. They’ll also get plenty of help from an offensive-laden back line led by Tom Poti and Mike Green. New addition Roman Hamrlik will also contribute. The bottom line for the Caps is going to be getting better play in net, which is inevitable, and playing more mentally tough. If they can do that, expect DC to get it’s first major championship since 1991. If not, we may never see Ovechkin win the Cup. Division Rankings: Goalies: 1 Forwards: 1 Defensemen: 3

2. Tampa Bay Lightning (103 Points, 2nd in Southeast)

If any team is going to keep up with the Caps offensively, it’s Tampa. The Lightning own a great forward lineup, led by the best offensive line in hockey of Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, and Steven Stamkos. That’s not all though, as Steve Downie, Teddy Purcell, and Michel Ouellet all have talent. Defensively, the team is surprisingly deep, going four deep with quality defensemen, and being led by Mattias Ohlund. In net is the big question mark for Tampa. While Dwayne Roloson was fantastic in the playoffs last year, it’s a wonder whether the 41 year old can last many more seasons. Mathieu Garon is a career backup, but can take over if needed. and it may be needed. Division Rankings: Goalies: 4 Forwards: 2 Defensemen: 1

3. Winnipeg Jets (80 Points, 4th in Southeast)

That’s right, Winnipeg. The Jets debut this season, and have a pretty quality team to do so with. It all starts on defense, where if Dustin Byfuglien can finally prove to be a useful player for the entire season, he will team with Tobias Enstrom to form a great top two on the blue line. Offensively, it’s all about Andrew Ladd, the leader of the young club and a tough, gritty player. He’ll team with Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane to create a decent top flight, and the additions of Tanner Glass and Eric Fehr will be openly welcomed. In goal, Ondrej Pavlevec has a bright future, and with an improved club around him, will solidify a surprising Winnipeg team this season. Division Rankings: Goalies: 3 Forwards: 4 Defensemen: 2

4. Florida Panthers (72 Points, 5th in Southeast)

The Panthers put together a high-quantity of offseason moves, drastically changing last year’s team, hopefully for the better. Offensively, a previously awful front line will not be headed by Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, and Scottie Upshall, with Stephen Weiss still around to make it go. The defense is also much-improved, with the new top line being Ed Jovanovski and Brian Campbell. Dmitry Kulikov’s a sleeper out there as well. Between the pipes is the real reason the Panthers aren’t going to finish higher. After years of relying on Tomas Vokoun to bail the Panthers out of bad situations, the Panthers brought in Jose Theodore to replace him. Theodore is nowhere near as good as Vokoun, so there will be a big decline in goalie play. If the rest of the team gets it together, they could overcome him. Wouldn’t that be something. Division Rankings: Goalies: 5 Forwards: 3 Defensemen: 4

5. Carolina Hurricanes (91 Points, 3rd in Southeast)

The Hurricanes really don’t have much outside of three players: Cam Ward, Tomas Kaberle, and Eric Staal. Ward is an underrated goalie who struggles to bail out a bad defense regularly. Kaberle was brought in from Boston, and he’s a big help to a defense that otherwise would be led by Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen. Not good. Offensively, it’s a little better, with Jeff Skinner as a rising star and Brandon Sutter and Jussi Jokinen providing depth. However, it’s really just not a quality unit in Carolina. There will certainly be some regression this year, even in a weak division. Division Rankings: Goalies: 2 Forwards: 5 Defensemen: 5

East Playoff Picture

1. Washington

2. Philadelphia

3. Buffalo

4. Pittsburgh

5. Boston

6. Montreal

7. Tampa Bay

8. New York

Next best team: Winnipeg

Central Division

1. Detroit Red Wings (104 Points, 1st in Central)

There may be a slight regression from the Wings this year, as the team is getting much older. Todd Bertuzzi, Tomas Holmstrom, and Nicklas Lidstrom aren’t exactly spring chickens. However, this is still a very talented squad. Defensively, Niklas Kronwall and Ian White will help replace the retired Brian Rafalski, and Brad Stuart and Mike Commodore round out an impressive unit. They’ll provide excellent support for Jimmy Howard, a young goalie who continues to get better. Offensively the Red Wings should continue to be a juggernaut. Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen are a great one-two punch, and Henrik Zetterberg is also still helpful. The support group combines veteran leadership with young talent, as Holmstrom, Bertuzzi, and Dan Cleary team with Drew Miller, Darren Helm, and Val Filppula to make the Wings soar. This team is a Cup contender until proven otherwise. Division Rankings: Goalies: 2 Forwards: 2 Defensemen: 1

2. Chicago Blackhawks (97 Points, 3rd in Central)

If Chicago is going to rebound, they need big seasons from Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, who really regressed last season. Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp should all be effective once again, as one of the best top sixes in hockey will be at it again. Joining these guys will be some veteran leadership in Andrew Brunette, rising scorer Michael Frolik, and the ever-gritty Dave Bolland. Defensively, trading Brian Campbell frees space for Nick Leddy and Nick Hjalmarsson to step up, and Steve Montador will help with leadership. The team also got much more physical, signing Sean O’Donnell, Jamal Mayers, and Dan Carcillo. These three will help provide what the team lost with the departure of Ben Eager last season, and mean Jon Scott should never see ice time. Corey Crawford stepped up big last season, and should be even more solid. Division Rankings: Goalies: 4 Forwards: 1 Defensemen: 3

3. Nashville Predators (99 Points, 2nd in Central)

This team is build from the back forward. Pekka Rinne asserted himself as a top 5 goaltender last season, and should once again provide a great backstop for Nashville. On the blue line, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are possibly the best tandem in the conference. They’re going to need some help from Jonathon Blum and Kevin Klein. Offensively, the loss of Steve Sullivan hurts, but everything else is mostly the same. Expect lots of Patric Hornquist, Mike Fisher, and Martin Erat once again. And if this team makes the playoffs, they’ll give any team a great run. Division Rankings: Goalies: 1 Forwards: 5 Defensemen: 2

4. St. Louis Blues (87 Points, 4th in Central)

The Blues will be much-improved this season. They have a lot of new offensive toys to play with, namely Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner. Adding them to an already talented group with David Backes and T. J. Oshie makes this team much better on offense. Chris Stewart and Alex Steen are also formidable. Defensively, Kevin Shattenkirk and Barret Jackman always come to play. Kent Huskins is another new face that will be a welcome addition. All this will aid a now-healthy Jaroslav Halak, who is still an iron wall against the net. The Blues will surprise some people in an absolutely potent division this season. Division Rankings: Goalies: 3 Forwards: 3 Defensemen: 5

5. Columbus Blue Jackets (81 Points, 5th in Central)

The Blue Jackets will be improved this season, particularly on defense. James Wisniewski is a big addition to the back, and teams with Grant Clitsome and Fedor Tyutin for an underrated group. Offensively, the trade for Jeff Carter was huge, and he and Rick Nash may score more goals than any tandem that isn’t Sedin-Sedin or Perry-Getzlaf. Antoine Vermette and R.J. Umberger are also good scorers. In net, Steve Mason needs to put together a solid season. that is an absolute must in a division with Rinne, Howard, Crawford and Halak. This team is still too many big pieces away in a tough division to make any noise. Division Rankings: Goalies: 5 Forwards: 4 Defensemen: 4

Northwest Division

1. Vancouver Canucks (117 Points, 1st in Northwest)

As long as the Sedins and Ryan Kesler are on the front line and Roberto Luongo is in net, the Canucks will win this division. Luongo only falls apart completely in the postseason, not the regular season, remember. The forwards may miss Tanner Glass and Raffi Torres, but Maxim Lapierre and Mikael Samuelsson are still around to protect the Sedins and rough opponents up. Defensively is where the big loss is at, with Christian Ehrhoff in Buffalo. The Canucks need Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler to step up big-time in his absence. The only real addition the team made in the offseason was Marco Sturm, but this team still has enough to repeat the division title. Another Cup run, however, is doubtful. Division Rankings: Goalies: 1 Forwards: 1 Defensemen: 1

2. Minnesota Wild (86 Points, 3rd in Northwest)

Minnesota set themselves up for a nice season after resigning Josh Harding and trading for Danny Heatley and Devin Setoguchi in the offseason. Harding has a promising future in net, and he teams with Niklas Backstrom for a great tandem in net. Offensively, Heatley and Setoguchi join Mikko Koivu and Guillame Latendresse to form a nice scoring unit. Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Eric Nystrom are underrated as well. Losing Brent Burns on defense hurts, but the Wild will be okay still with the talent up front. Nick Schultz and Marek Zidlicky headline things on the back line for the Wild. This isn’t the most quality team in the conference, but it’s a gritty one that finally has some star power in Heatley, and will once again contend for the playoffs. Division Rankings: Goalies: 3 Forwards: 2 Defensemen: 5

3. Calgary Flames (94 Points, 2nd in Northwest)

The Flames’ big offseason acquisition was Scott Hannan. There isn’t much new to the Flames, who came within a couple games of making the playoffs last season with a team that frankly wasn’t that good. Defensively, Hannan adds to a group that needs to improve, as Jay Bouwmeester was a disappointment last season, and Mark Giordano needs to be the player the Flames think he can be. These guys need to play better, as Mikka Kiprusoff is 34 and may not have much left in the tank. Offensively, the Flames will stick to their old standbys in Olli Jokinen, Jarome Iginla, and Curtis Glencross. Lee Stempniak was brought in to battle for time as well. The Flames are a pretty unremarkable team, but they still could be competitive if they stay healthy. Division Rankings: Goalies: 2 Forwards: 4 Defensemen: 3

4. Edmonton Oilers (62 Points, 5th in Northwest)

The Oilers are a good pick to be way better than anyone thinks. A team with this much young talent will surprise some this season. It all starts up front, where the line of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle represents the future of the organization. The present is also well represented, as Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky once again will be among the team leaders. The young stars will also have some insurance, as the team picked up Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk to bust some skulls. Defensively, Cam Barker and Ladislav Smid have a bright future working together, and Theo Peckham will join Hordichuk and Eager in the box. The big question mark is Nikolai Khabibulin, who is 38 and injury prone. If Devan Dubnyk could step in and supplant him, that’d be great for the Oilers. Edmonton will be much better, and may be a year or two away from being a serious playoff threat. Division Rankings: Goalies: 5 Forwards: 3 Defensemen: 2

5. Colorado Avalanche (68 Points, 4th in Northwest)

While Edmonton was awful last year and got a lot better, Colorado was awful and did nothing this offseason with their extraordinary cap room. The team had an obvious goaltending hole and money to pay Vokoun, but instead will go into the season with Semyon Varlamov and J.S. Giguere as the top two. Questionable move. On defense, the team let John-Michael Liles walk, and hope Erik Johnson, Jan Hejda, and Shane O’Brien can step it up as a unit. Offensively, Paul Stastny leads the unit, with Matt Duchene, Milan Hejduk, and Gabriel Landeskog providing support. There is some talent here, but after letting Liles and Wojtek Wolski walk and missing on Vokoun, the Avs are going to need everything to go right to get out of the cellar. Division Rankings: Goalies: 4 Forwards: 5 Defensemen: 4

Pacific Division

1. Los Angeles Kings (98 Points, 4th in Pacific)

The Kings made some big moves in the offseason, transforming from defensive focus to being a complete nightmare for opponents. Simon Gagne, Mike Richards, and Trent Hunter greatly improve a weak forward line from last season, and a healthy Anze Kopitar will complete the unit. There’s also no way Dustin Penner lapses back into his end-of-season slump, and Dustin Brown and Justin Williams can definitely stick it to opponents. Defensively, the back combo of the newly rich Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson is top flight. Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene aren’t too bad either. Then there’s Jonathan Quick, who’s miniscule GAA and Save % carried the team last year. Jonathan Bernier could also start on several teams. Even with the NBA lockout, who needs the Lakers? In 11-12, L.A. is a hockey town. Division Rankings: Goalies: 1 Forwards: 1 Defensemen: 1

2. San Jose Sharks (105 Points, 1st in Pacific)

The Sharks parted ways with Danny Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to shake up a roster that couldn’t get over the hump. The result was a team with a lot of depth and better defense. Offensively, the addition of Martin Havlat gives the Sharks three solid facilitators to work with, with Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton leading the charge. The roster shakeup sets up Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture to have increased roles as well. Defensively, Brent Burns and Colin White shore up a weak unit that also includes offensive contributors Dan Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. In net, the Sharks begin the season with Antero Niittymaki and Antti Niemi banged up, but both should be back in relative time to lead the Sharks. A slow start with the Kings roaring and Ducks looming, however, could be bad for the Sharks. Division Rankings: Goalies: 3 Forwards: 3 Defensemen: 2

3. Anaheim Ducks (99 Points, T-2nd in Pacific)

Not much radically different in Anaheim. This team will again be high-scoring, with Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, and Ryan Getzlaf leading the big charge. They also have big hitters in George Parros and Brian McGrattan. In net, Jonas Hiller should be back to 100%, meaning another year of Hiller’s crazy high save percentage because he faces so many shots. That will again be the case, as Cam Fowler is the only real defensive presence the Ducks have. And with as many offensive threats as the west has this year, it will be tough for the Ducks to always keep up with the scoring. Division Rankings: Goalies: 2 Forwards: 2 Defensemen: 5

4. Dallas Stars (95 Points, 5th in Pacific)

Dallas lost Brad Richards and replaced him with Vernon Fiddler. That’s a bit of a talent dropoff. That said, a line of Fiddler, Brendan Morrow, and Michael Ryder is enticing. Jamie Benn, Radek Dvorak, and Jake Dowell being thrown into that mix makes Dallas a pretty solid team offensively. Defensively, Trevor Daley, Stephane Robidas, and Alex Goligoski are quality players, and the Stars look solid there as well. Kari Lehtonen’s not awful in net, but he’s no Hiller or Quick. Dallas has some tools to be competitive, just not enough to make the playoffs. So nothing new here. Division Rankings: Goalies: 4 Forwards: 4 Defensemen: 2

5. Phoenix Coyotes (99 Points, T-2nd in Pacific)

It’s a new look in Phoenix this season, as the team no longer has Ilya Bryzgalov to carry them through the season. Instead it’s up to Mike Smith, who’s never made it through a whole season, and Jason LaBarbera, who isn’t any better. This puts more pressure on the offense to produce. Raffi Torres will be a good addition to bolster the forwards, but when your top three scorers are Shane Doan, Ray Whitney, and Taylor Pyatt, the phrase “offense must carry us” isn’t too appealing. Defensively, no more Ed Jovanovski means Keith Yandle and Derek Morris will have more pressure on them to be leaders. It’s obvious the Coyotes will have to win games on the blue line. Division Rankings: Goalies: 5 Forwards:5 Defensemen: 4

West Playoff Picture

1. Los Angeles

2. Detroit

3. Vancouver

4. San Jose

5. Chicago

6. Anaheim

7. Nashville

8. Minnesota

Next best team: St. Louis

Finals Predictions

East: Washington over Philadelphia

West: Detroit over Los Angeles

CUP: Washington over Detroit

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