26.Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs, or as some of you may consider them as, the Toronto Maple Laughs are finally on the road to respectability but don't misconstrue respectability with contending, at least not quite yet. The Leafs a couple of years ago decided change was a necessity so what Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment have tried to administer is collecting experienced hockey minds who've had success in other markets, ie Lou Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock and unlike previous Leafs regimes, have completely handed the hockey operations to those mentioned without meddling one bit. It's not just Lamoriello and Babcock, it's Brendan Shanahan with Mark Hunter who has a keen eye in scouting junior talent that has Toronto headed in the right direction. There were growing pains throughout the last campaign and the same types of pain are to be expected, just not as severe this coming winter. You take a gander at the prospect pool the Leafs have stockpiled and it's filled with names that you begin to speculate how much longer we'll have to wait for to reach the show. In terms of an immediate impact on the back end two names that come to mind are Connor Carrick and Kootenay Ice alumni Rinat Valiev as individuals that have a real shot at cracking the everyday lineup. Having suited up for sixteen games a year ago and faring relatively well, it would be no shock if the heavy hitting Carrick inherits more responsibility out of Babcock. Carrick is small in stature being listed at 5'11 but plays a mean game, something when you examine the rest of the Leafs anticipated D core, they possess very little of. Valiev is an interesting phenomenon to say the least. I remember watching Valiev on a couple different occasions while he resided in Cranbrook and say what you want about the player, he puts that age old Russian stereotype to bed as his style exudes of what you would normally expect out of a gritty North American prospect. I chose to discuss these two particular prospects because it's my belief there's not enough heart and soul on the back end and teams for the last couple of years know full well that when they matchup versus Toronto that they'll have a decided physical edge. This couldn't ring more true for number forty four himself, Morgan Reilly. In my preview of the Panthers(#27) I criticized Keith Yandle for being soft, well Morgan Reilly puts that criticism to shame. If a Pee-Wee hockey team were to be told that the kids would be given the luxury of scouring the ice with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the natural reaction amongst parents would be a fear for their kids safety as the strength disparity is alarming but then you'd have the parents who would sign parental consent if it was only Morgan Reilly on the ice as he's built like a pee wee player on the surface. As a member of the management team/scouting staff, you're always on pins and needles wishing that the prospects you draft progress skill wise and grow stronger but the script doesn't always play out that smoothly and in the case of Reilly, his lack of development in certain areas has me conceding that he'll never reach that number one, franchise defenceman mantra although if you believe some in the front office they'll say he's already there and you take the rumblings on Social Media at face value which you can't, Morgan may soon be named team Captain which would be a mistake of epic proportions.
The Steven Stamkos pursuit turned out to be an unsuccessful one for the Toronto Maple Leafs, well essentially for all pursuers as he elected to re-sign in Tampa. That ship has now sailed with the question asked, who's going to be conduct the next ship that the leafs can jump onto? Can a ship being led by Mitch Marner, another London Knight and 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews be enough to sail this franchise to the post-season? In order to happen, secondary pieces will be required to input career years particularly the enigma that Nazem Kadri has become. Everyone who watches Nazem play sees a player who lives on the perimeter and refuses to touch down on the undesirable areas This is unequivocally his last chance to succeed as if he falters early in 2016-2017 you just know Lamoriello will be scouring the trade market to send him away. Other pieces that will need to compliment Matthews and it's funny how were talking about complimenting a rookie but that my friends is the evolution of sports where rookies can come in and very quickly ascend into the team's most reliable player. It wouldn't surprise most if Auston led the team in scoring right from the get go although James Van Riemsdyk may have something to say about that. Van Riemsdyk is a conundrum because JVR was originally brought in with a different core that included the likes of Phil Kessel. That core is a distant memory and some, and by some I mean myself are intrigued if Van Riemsdyk will stay motivated when it's likely the last meaningful game his squad will play will take place before christmas. A quintessential power forward who displays his trademark wrist shot multiple times a game is in a unenviable position being as how he's only the tender age of twenty seven years of age and he's practically a senior citizen on the team. I can't speak to the character of James but I can only imagine this must be a trying time as what first line twenty seven year old winger wants to be stuck in an endless retool? Not many!
Enlisting two veterans in James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier, it was difficult to find the appropriate amount of playing time to keep them in a momentus state. Lack of consistent reps likely attributed to poor statistical lines but that should now change being as how Toronto has a concrete starter in former Anaheim Duck Freddie Andersen. Tough luck for Bernier but even if his most loyal fans even including the fifteen that would watch him on a nightly basis while a member of the Lewiston Maeinacs couldn't orchestrate a scenario in which Babcock and company would've given him another season to strut his stuff. Andersen is a goaltender that is a big body that unfortunately plays small comparable to a young Ben Bishop before he figured out to maximize his most coveted asset. I'm not attempting to compare Bishop to Andersen fully as that would be like comparing apples to oranges, what I'm eluding to is that it would be wise for Anderson to take a page out of Ben's playbook to become a more consistent netminder.
The Carolina Hurricanes have a simple problem. When building this hockey club, and I'm sure I shared a similar sentiment when previewing the club last season, General Manager Ron Francis has seemingly forgot from his playing days in which he shone for the Pittsburgh Penguins among other organizations that in order to win in the National Hockey League, you need more then a young hot shot defence. I love the way the defence is built, don't love that they don't have the offence to compliment it but some of these chess pieces they have on the back end are salivating to write about, I just wish Francis would hire an offensive minded consultant(even though that's his background) and fix the forwards.Defensively, it all revolves around Justin Faulk. I can't find one facet of his game that he struggles with, great on a power play, excellent board work and is a smooth of skater as you will find league wide. He falls into a similar pigeon hole as Oliver Ekman-Larsson does in Arizona where his traits are Norris worthy but will likely never win one due to where he geographically situates. Haydn Fleury has come a long way in my books, When I first saw him play as a member of the Red Deer Rebels, this Saskatchewan native looked lost and for a time early in his Central Alberta employment he fell into the doghouse of Brent Sutter. The minute the Rebels were rewarded to host the 2016 Mastercard Memorial Cup, it's as if a light bulb went off in his head. Sure, he had a lengthy list of achievements from his junior career and in reality the hosting gig was only a tip of the cap as he's been a member of Team Canada at the World Juniors, participated in the Top Prospects game and was a 2014 first round pick of the Canes which at the time I perceived as a reach(he went seventh overall) but is looking like a stellar pick now. Fleury has the capability to step in right away and play a bottom two role, either that or get him acclimatized with the professional style by starting him in Charlotte and slowly working his way up to the big club in Raleigh. Jaccob Slavin is the last defender I want to touch on with this entry. Going into the past season, I knew very little pertaining to Slavin but was he ever impressive. The Hurricanes faithful had little hope for Slavin to contribute a regular role not to mention stepping in and at times fulfilling a top four role. He definitely has great offensive upside, the one critique I have for him was his timidness, which was understandable as most rookies come in and are afraid to take chances. As a sophomore, the progress that needs to be seen from the coaching staff is someone that showcases a greater level of comfortability and starts to believe he belongs because as I'm sure most Hurricane diehards would cosign, it's not incomprehensible to suggest that Jacob may have a better offensive outlook then widely praised Noah Hanifin.
I haven't been privy to a better figure skater turned hockey player like Jeff Skinner since the glory days of Kenny Wu. I thought that reference was advisable as being this enterprise is called the "Flying V", every so often I can't help myself recollecting the great Mighty Duck teams. In all seriousness, where is the productivity upfront going to come from. I peruse their entire forward roster and fail to find a reputable scoring threat behind Skinner. And even Skinner, his flare for the dramatic has tapered off since the multitude of injuries, particularly concussions he's been forced to deal with. The entertainment value is a little low in Raleigh right now, luckily for this fan base at the same time they receive the fortune every Sunday of cheering on the eccentric Cam Newton and the powerhouse Carolina Panthers. The Hurricanes even during their cup winning year of '06 and their finalist appearance in 2002, they've instilled a boring brand of hockey. Bill Peters was supposed to come in and change the culture, a culture that from my outsiders perspective has had an insignificant amount of change. I can safely speak on Peters' coaching regiment as when he was the general for the Spokane Chiefs, the type of game the Chiefs induced was that of a up tempo always to the attack type of brand, with featured, and I don't mean to re open old scars but former underachieving Hurricane Drayson Bowman. Peters can teach
an attack that encourages offence but in fairness to Bill, any style implemented won't be successful unless you have the required assets to do so., A player who I have high(higher) hopes for is Andrej Netrasil. This former Victoraville Tigre enjoyed a career last year accumulating twenty three points while playing behind both Staal brothers on the depth chart. With long time captain Eric Staal now a member of the Minnesota Wild, I would assume you'll see Nestasil jump into a top two center position. Judging from his career statistics where at least I could see from has never had a season where his goals have exceeded his assists so if I was the coaching staff, and it's not something you want to normally engrave in a young players D.N.A, and that is to be more greedy and shoot the puck. He scored thirty five goals in the QMJHL showing that he has the propensity to do just that but the tell tale sign will be who Peters allows Nestrasil to line up beside. I'm fully aware that I'm overhyping Andrej but when you're trying to pick apart this forward group, you're grasping at straws to find pucks in the back of the net. A definite contender along with Montreal, and not the kind of title you want to be competing for to score the league's fewest goals this season.
I'm all for organizational loyalty, but this blinded loyalty has gone a tad too far with Cam Ward. Ward was the netminder when he replaced the infamous Martin Gerber early on in the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs and it was a brilliant decision by then Head Coach Peter Laviolette as it elevated the franchise to it's first championship. Cam Ward was then a twenty two year old who in the grand scheme of things wasn't exactly a hot shot entering the league as the Canes went out of their way to acquire Gerber before the 2004-2005 lockout commenced from the Anaheim Ducks because I'm compelled to think with the plethora of veterans in that locker room, Brind'Amour,Stillman, Doug Weight etc etc they dreamt up a scenario where the acquisition of Gerber would supplant them to the top of the hill but little did they know it was the Sherwood Park, Alberta native Ward that was the missing link to reach Lord Stanley. The truth is however that Ward has mightily struggled with inconsistency. His numbers, more exact his Goals Against Average has hovered around the 2.40 mark the last couple of seasons and that would be classified as satisfactory but when you start adding on the aforementioned goal droughts Carolina constantly finds itself in, commendable numbers on most teams, not good enough in the Carolinas. I should clarify, the biggest gripe that most take with Cam Ward aren't the numbers as they'll suffice, it's the falling victim to the neck breaker goal each and every game. If I received a penny each and every time Ward allows a stinker, I'd be a very rich man(overused pun, I know). The value for which the Hurricanes awarded Ward diminishes the possibility of Eddie Lack getting a fair shake in this goaltender competition but undeniably Lack is the more athletic of the two and when you take that with the overwhelming consensus among fans when skimming through social media that they need to back Eddie Lack, along with and likely more importantly NHL ready prospect Alex Nedeljkovic, who had an outstanding swan song to his junior career is clamoring for increased responsibility has me concluding that there were too many warning signs that Hurricane management should've picked up on before extending Ward.