9.Tampa Bay Lightning-The Tampa Bay Lightning came oh so close to winning it's franchise's second Stanley Cup this past season losing out to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals. On the premise, the Lightning have enough to again be a major force in the Eastern Conference but that will be largely dependent on whether the likes of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat can repeat their utter domination that they displayed, particularly throughout the playoffs. Natural progression based off of Johnson's, and Palat's statistics would illustrate that they are ready to take the next step, and when you compound the services of captain Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, the expectation in Tampa will be no worse then another Eastern Conference final appearance.
Last year's playoff run is where coach Jon Cooper and the Lightning get all the accolades and deservingly so as although they were hand picked my a number of the esteemed hockey media to contend, not many slated the Lightning to be finalists. General Manager Steve Yzerman and Cooper deserve immense credit for the culture change in a market that in between this past year and their heroic feat of 2004, have notoriously under achieved. So what can the Lightning fans expect? Well, if it's alright with you even though the question is rendered moot because I am the sole controller of this enterprise, I'm going to voice some concerns with one of last year's break-out stars, Nikita Kucherov. The Moscow, Russia product had an enormous leap from the 2013-2014 campaign in which we witnessed a forty eight point increase. The implication for being concerned doesn't have to do anything with his point totals but has everything to do with the fact that he rode the coat tails of Palat and Johnson and when I see something like this take place, my first inkling is to imply that a drastic decrease in productivity may be in order. When I view Kucherov, I noticeably see a lack of aggression and he's always content with the play coming to him, with Nikita never pressing the issue. Opposing teams will have gotten a heavy dose of tape to scout the tendencies of him and the game plan will be to, to steal a line from the fantastic Mighty Ducks Trilogy in which we can substitute Kucherov for Conway's name and that is,"Make him make the first move Kucherov". Making him beat you as opposed to the defenceman beating himself will be paramount when shutting down the swift #86. Saying that Steve Stamkos had a "slow" season netting fourty three goals just shows what kind of talent this kid has. Make a case for Ovechkin, go ahead, but at the end of the day unquestionably Stamkos is this game's best sniper and will continue to petrify goaltenders unless your name is Corey Crawford. The Sarnia Sting alum I predict could be on the precipus of another sixty goal trot fully taking into account the struggles he faced in the playoffs. "Stammer" is such an underappreciated skater and as a defenceman, you can't begin to slow down because any pending stall and he's gone to the races and going top cheddar. I could laud the efforts of practically every Lightning forward in lieu of their playoff success but one player that needs to be earn his coin is Ryan Callahan. I understand the reasoning of the trade when they shipped Martin St.Louis to the New York Rangers for Callahan as a rift was apparent between Yzerman and St.Louis due to an initial 2014 Sochi Olympic snub but Callahan has been awful for a year and a half and needs to be triple time better then he has been. Callahan brings leadership intangibles which I've stated countless times on this blog are an overrated valuator but on ice is where Callahan has to become the player Yzerman envisioned he was pre-trade.
I have no idea whether Jon Cooper is a sound sleeper but I can make an educated hypothesis that the play of Nikita Nesterov causes daily nightmares in season. His style of play on the surface would make you believe that his statistics should be comparable to someone like Duncan Keith but unfortunately it's nowhere close and his fearless attitude on the ice creates as many odd man rushes one way as it does the other. By saying all of that, I'm very optimistic with the ceiling of Nesterov as in his arsenal he has an under used shot and with this 6'0 200 pound frame, perhaps reaching the forty point plateau shouldn't be out of reach. Some would disagree so I'll preface this by saying facts will be facts that Brayden Coburn and Andrej Shustr are getting long in the tooth and their skating technique will slowly weed themselves out of the league. I respect the fact that they both were reliable in the playoffs but over the course of an eighty two game schedule they will be eaten alive just like Brayden was in Philadelphia. I hate to rag on a good ol' Saskatchewan boy like Coburn but his played has diminished significantly over the last two years and should make for an interesting training camp battle especially considering Anthony DeAngelo will be looking to snap up a spot. DeAngelo, a reported hot head who surprise, surprise has Sarnia Sting connections, seems like a common theme when doing these previews has skating skills that would leave anybody emphatic with his redemption story which includes publically echoing a racially sensitive comment to a junior teammate to a year or so later becoming one of the more respected players in the Ontario Hockey League. It's a story you can root for, and you know DeAngelo will be fighting tooth and nails to start the year in Tampa Bay.
Ben Bishop had a stellar performance in the Stanley Cup playoffs despite grinding through a groin tear but never altered his demeanor which is the classic sign of a player that will do anything to assist his team in victory. Not necessarily tested in the first two rounds, although the Detroit Red Wings have them a scare in the seven game series but the impression wasn't given off that Bishop was ever being peppered, he got stronger as the playoff led on. With a career best GAA of 2.18 a year ago, he'll need to be as good to further Tampa's chances as Andrei Vasilevsky is patiently waiting in the wings.
10.Anaheim Ducks- Bruce Boudreau and another close call in the National Hockey League. Seems like the yearly script for Boudreau and is becoming a broken record. Arguably home to the league's worst uniform(bring back the Mighty Ducks already), they certainly are far from the worst pertaining to the roster. General Manager Bob Murray conducted some savvy off-season moves and the Ducks are preparing themselves to be, to again aptly construe a Mighty Ducks sound bite, the "California Miracle Men".
Pertaining to the projected thirteen forwards on the roster, only two are listed under six feet which is no surprise as size has become a customary modern day Duck template as size has been a staple in the Ducks repertoire ever since Brian Burke laid his hand prints on this team. When analyzing how the size of the Ducks works to their advantage, look no further then the former Calgary Hitmen Ryan Getzlaf. At first glance, the size stands out but his creativity with the puck deserves a lot more of the credit. The only player in the league that comes to mind that utilizes size and hands better then Getzlaf is maybe Evgeni Malkin, but I'd be open to being convinced that Getzlaf is ahead of Malkin on the food chain. One could suffice labelling him as the modern day Joe Thornton with speed. Just another run of the mill type season for Ryan as he accumulated seventy points and I know full well that if linemate Corey Perry smartens up and re-discovers his 2013-2014 self, reaching one hundred points should be a reachable goal. Understandably, their was some outrage amongst Ducks fans when they moved Bobby Ryan to the Ottawa Senators but that disappointment quickly changed to exuberance after Southern California hockey fans got a taste on how good Jakob Silfverberg is. The oddity on the roster as other then him, the Ducks have a very veteran group up front, Silfverberg is ready to explode onto the scene. Thirty nine points in the regular season is a little less then commendable but it was his playoffs that was the real show stopper. Jakob was someone who became the Ducks go-to and someone that the Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville had to spend late hours game planning for. Eighteen playoff points in sixteen games was tremendous and with that I'm curious to whether Boudreau will consider stacking the first line and throwing him out there with Perry and Getzlaf. In the trade of the summer, the Ducks acquired Carl Hagelin, a player who makes Luis Mendoza look like Luke Schenn, I apologize in advance for anymore Mighty Duck references, it's getting out of hand..I know, but getting back to Hagelin, people should start looking past his skating because he really is a complete player. One of the league's elite penalty killers will be a valued asset the expense of who?....O, that's right underachiever Emerson Etem.
I could've gone on and on praising the Hagelin acquisition but there comes a point where you must move on. As much as I was pro-Hagelin, I'm almost as much Anti-Bieksa which could off-set the brilliant piece of work Bob Murray constructed. Kevin Bieksa admittedly asked for a trade from the Vancouver Canucks, and my issue with the trade isn't all on the player because at it's core, Bieksa can be a third pairing defenceman but I take offence with it in the sense of acquiring Bieksa, it'll take away a spot from Shea Theodore who I firmly believe in my heart of hearts is NHL ready. We must raise the question, is a team better served exuding a veteran who has clear limitations(Bieksa) in the third pairing or are they better of using that position on developing a future top four chip(Theodore). This move signals 100% that Theodore will be spending the year in the American Hockey League which frankly, for a team who everybody, including myself thinks they can contend are rostering players based off of the name, not based off of what a player will contribute. Sadly, to stay within Ducks lore, this is Rob Niedermayer all over again. I'll never forget when watching the NHL draft on TSN, when the New York Rangers got to the podium and selected Dylan McIlrath with Cam Fowler readily available, Pierre McGuire acted like the apocalypse was before us and the world was ending. Five years later, the New York Rangers are now sharing Pierre's sentiments as McIlrath is on the verge of busting and Fowler who for a long time now has been a steady NHL defenceman. As much as the Ducks got a steal, I need to see a little more from Cam as I KNOW he' has untapped potential still left and hasn't displayed his entire arsenal. Bruce Boudreau would agree in my critique when I say Fowler was not very good in the playoffs, and just Okay this past regular season. I'm sure in post-season meeting the mandate between the organization and Fowler was to spend the summer beefing up so he can assist super stud Hampus Lindholm in forming one of the league's best pairings.
I'm torn determining which direction I feel the Ducks are best suited for heading into this 2015-2016 season. Frederik Andersen did nothing evidenced by his 35-12 record last season to feel danger of losing his starting job. The merits are laid out flat and clear as not only was his regular season incredulous, but his playoffs exceeded expectations as well. When analyzing between the pipes, I'm tirelessly going back and forth to whether Andersen is a premier goalie or whether he has Antii Niemin syndrome, just playing safe guard for an already elite team. Compounding the goaltending dilemma is the readiness of a goalie who I feel some day soon can be the leagues best, John Gibson. He was GREAT in the 2014 edition of the playoffs and lost his job to an early injury. I don't envy Boudreau's decision when it comes to managing playing time but if I was at the helm, I would've strongly considered using Gibson as a very valuable trading commodity and trying to bring in another top four defenceman, not the pylon in Bieksa who they foolishly think still has top four tendencies.