Wednesday, July 22, 2015

2015-2016 National Hockey League Preview: Teams 11 and 12

11.Columbus Blue Jackets- The Columbus Blue Jackets have arguably had their most productive summer since their inception in the year 2000. For the first time, John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen have instilled a belief amongst an already rich Ohio sporting scene that this team has the make-up to contend for a Stanley Cup. Finally long gone are the days of the solo act which was Rick Nash and arrived is a core that will succeed by committee and will  beat you using it's unprecedented depth in both the forward and defence facets. The eastern conference is in my opinion substantially stronger then the West this year which will create some difficulties for the Jackets but playoffs are an absolute must for a franchise that took a step back from 2013-2014, with reaching the second round of the playoffs as an achievable goal.

It's only appropriate that after touching on the fact that the  Blue Jackets immersed themselves in their most productive off-season that we look at some new residents of Ohio. The son of former disciplinarian Colin Campbell, Greg is a great way to start. In his previous two stops with the Florida Panthers and the Boston Bruins the now veteran thirty one year old Gregory was a leader both on and off the ice. His attention to detail and reliability in the defensive zone rubbed off positively through to his teammates with the fourth line in Boston in which he anchored alongside Shawn Thornton and Chris Kelly extremely effective in the magical 2011 campaign. Campbell has limitations, as do most defensive specialists but it's his legendary compete level as in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, Campbell broke his leg during game action but showed a resilience that not many before him have shown and stayed in the game. These kind of sacrifices are what model franchises need and the addition of Campbell will go unnoticed on the score sheet but to Coach Todd Richards, it's near impossible to appropriately adulate his value. Now, we'll move on to what I perceive as the biggest move in franchise history with a hearty apology to Adam Foote, snagging the man child Brandon Saad. It's fitting that he's born and raised in Pittsburgh because from all accounts he's been blessed with the physical specimen comparable to mean Joe Greene and Jerome" The Bus" Bettis. Coming over from the defending champions Chicago Blackhawks, it's no secret that Stan Bowman and company didn't want to lose him but ultimately was made expendable due to a salary cap crunch. In Chicago, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane get most of the accolades and deservingly so but Saad is a player who at times surpassed the dynamic duo's importance because with his speed and size he created sooooo much open space for his linemates. The criticism with Brandon is his shot which is a scary proposition because he netted twenty three last year and will only improve. The Blue Jackets prior to the trade didn't possess that prototypical power forward who can score at will(please don't reference David Clarkson), now they have one. One last player worth profiling before we move over to the defence is Boone Jenner. I haven't seen Jenner in action a lot, but I can't help but recollect the player he was representing Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship. The determination to battle for pucks was second to none and essentially he's Brandon Saad without hands.

When it was first reported that the Blue Jackets acquired Saad without knowing the return, my first thought was "surely,David Savard has to be going the other way". The St.Hyacinthe, Quebec native is an absolute wonderful skater for his 6'2" frame and it's along with that size his shot is Al-MacInnis-esque. Over the course last year, due to his strong play he overtook Jack Johnson as the power-play specialist and expect more of the same in the 2015-2016 season. Full marks to the previous regime with Scott Howson finding this player with the 94th overall selection in 2009 aswell as giving credit to his junior coach from the Moncton Wildcats Danny Flynn. It's evident he was a late bloomer but Columbus is surely reaping the rewards now. Some fans associated with the Blue Jackets will say last year's disappointing campaign was largely due in part to the contract hold-out of Ryan Johansen to begin the year but a bigger reason for the free-fall as Jack Johnson. I don't know which Johnson had it worse, Jack Johnson channeling his inner Sean Hill during last years miserable year or Dustin Johnson going from someone who was in line to dominate the British Open to all of a sudden becoming a golfer who would probably struggle with his local chip and putt. Johnson has to step up this year or else Kekalainen will be frantically shopping his services to an insane bidder.  The question that will need to be analyzed throughout the course is if Johnson is truly a number one stalwart because as much as I respect the game of David Savard, a number two defenceman is his natural comfort at this stage. For a team that needs to be around come the second round, sorting to find a number one defenceman is priority uno.

Jay Onrait's favourite goalie to pronounce" Get with the force Booooooobrrrrrrrrooooooovsssssssssssskkkkkkky" is back for another kick at the can.Like Onrait, who has continued to sky rocket up the global media food chain, it will be equally important for Bobrovsky to continue to sky-rocket and attempt to find the form that made him such a formidable commodity through the 2013-2014 season. Goals against and save percentage went up last year, and those are two statistics that you don't want to see increase so we'll receive a decent benchmark on his motivation  level to see whether he can catapult himself back into the Vezina conversation.

12.New York Islanders- It's re-assuring to see that General Manager Garth Snow came to his senses when deciding not to move Kyle Okposo. Moving Okposo would be like DeAndre Jordan agreeing to goto to the lesser Dallas Mavericks(O wait....that didn't happen). Jordan came to his senses inevitably and it's nice to see the Islanders have removed themselves from the Mike Milbury circus to respectability and are starting to make structured hockey decisions. I'll be the first to admit that I had pegged the Islanders as Stanley Cup finalists  a year ago and I was loving the prediction until they ran into a hotter than hot Brayden Holtby of Washington. I won't go so far predicting them to become finalists again, but any time you control the services of John Tavares, you're an instantaneous contender. Tavares had a break through campaign individually, can Tavares parlay that into the ultimate prize, Lord's Stanley?

I'd be remiss if I didn't congratulate the Islanders on completing a fantastic draft which saw them steal Matt Barzal from the Seattle Thunderbirds with the sixteenth overall pick in exchange for a pylon(Griffin Reinhart). Barzal was injury plagued throughout last year which diminished his draft stock and leave it to the Edmonton Oilers to make such an incompetent transaction. The forwards clearly revolve around Johnny T with him reaching a point of always being in the M.V.P discussion. Coming out of junior, Tavares had noticeable skating issues which have since been corrected and actually could be considered an upper-echelon skater at this point in time. The vision that he was born with was the very reason he's been considered a prodigy at a young age and is starting to live up to that potential. Securing eighty six points a year ago you have to wonder whether he's ready to join the one hundred point club, and with it a Hart to follow?  Brock Nelson came out like a house on fire to begin last season but by the end appeared he belonged in the American Hockey League. A battery mate for Tavares if he gets his act together, but quite honestly, particularly during their first round loss to Washington he was playing like a chicken with it's head cut off and will NEED to improve and become a more consistent professional. I think Nelson has immense talent and the early season splits show that but what Brock Nelson will we get in 2015-2016?  The Toronto Maple Leafs can't take credit for much lately, but the player that Nikolai Kulemin has become falls right on their lap. The unfair reputation when it comes to Russian forwards is that their lazy defensively, and primarily that is untrue unless your name is Alexander Semin, but in Kulemin's case he actually excels defensively.  Three short handed goals last year was outstanding and I think Kulemin is one of those rearguards that doesn't require a lot of attention, but to use a 1999 Dallas Stars reference, he may just be the Jere Lethinen to this Islanders squad.

Getting rid of Griffin Reinhart was a blessing in disguise as unless you're Dylan Strome(see draft observations post), their aren't many players I'm harder on, but for good reason. Reinhart was a typical case of a player who could physically dominate the junior ranks but can't skate and has no sustainable offensive skills. Losing Travis Hamonic to a torn ligament throughout their brief playoff run was  a major detriment to their chances, but it's expected he'll be 100% come training camp and that is welcome news to the Islanders. Hamonic has an understated passing ability from the back end and when you have the likes of Tavares and Okposo upfront, that's an important asset to feed upon. Included in that understated offensive attack is loads of tenacity and physical play. Remember when Hamonic while playing for the Brandon Wheat Kings in the 2010 Memorial Cup, completely laid out Taylor Hall? This was a sign for things to come at the next level as it showed the Islanders regime that he possesses the toughness and fearlessness to succeed when it counts. For most players, keeping up to Hall is a chore but for Hamonic not only did he keep up, he man handled the speedster. Hamonic is number one defenceman quality but when you bring in Johnny Boychuk like they did last off-season, it makes for a gruesome one-two punch. Boychuk and Hamonic I feel play similar styles in the respect that they are both uber reliable in the back-end and play big, but also have tremendous shots, Boychuk wins that race in a milo-second but Hamonic's slapper is no cake walk. Continuing on former Brandon Wheat King defenceman, Boychuk was  a Moose Jaw Warrior and Calgary Hitmen btw, is Ryan Pulock. Pulock is someone that you want to root for based on the tribulations he has been through losing a brother at a young age. Pulock's emergence may spell trouble for Calvin De Haan as Pulock is NHL ready now and with Leddy and Matt Donovan having spots locked up, I have trouble seeing where Calvin fits on D. Ryan Pulock's on ice claim to fame is his electrifying shot and I'm dead serious that it very well  may rival that of Shea Weber.

Jaroslav Halak will be counted upon to be the calm at the end of the storm. Every location he's been to, and he's starting to gain the notorious reputation of being a  journey-man(MTL,STL,WASH,NYI) he's been successful which makes you wonder why he's moved around so often. Exceptional in the Montreal Canadiens 2010 playoff exploits which believe it or not had some in Montreal contemplating who the goalie of the future should've been. Safe to say they made the sound choice. Halak is a goaltender who posted a .914 save percentage doesn't have a glaring weakness that stands out although I do recall watching a regional broadcast  a couple of years ago when the Capitals were playing the Oilers and Louie DeBrusk kept harping at the fact that he has deficiencies with the blocker side, and if he does I've seemingly turned the blind eye.

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