Thursday, July 30, 2015

2015-2016 National Hockey League Preview: Teams 19 and 20

19.St.Louis Blues-In sport, I like to work under the premise that every team works through a window of opportunity in having a realistic shot at a championship. I've come to the  conclusion that this particular window for the Blues has passed them by hence my extremely low ranking for one of the better teams in the National Hockey League a year ago. Also note, this ranking is based off of the teams likelihood of winning the Stanley Cup, not necessarily regular season performance based. After losing T.J Oshie in unarguably one of the worst trades in hockey history which I will touch on in the forward assessment, the Blues have to show me that they're willing to endeavor in  strong, organizationally altering tactical changes to be taken seriously.

So about that T.J Oshie trade which I quickly referenced in the opening paragraph, just awful. Doug Armstrong, who learned under Bob Gainey's wing with the Dallas Stars during the years which saw the Stars bring the state of Texas a championship back in 1999. The Stars during that era had a excellent combination of youth and veteran leadership that led to the Stars trotting out an aspiring franchise year after year. If their was any merit to the philosophy, which I don't necessarily agree with because I think a team at the end of the day that exudes itself in success, and I kind of touched on this in earlier previews, is winning trumps experience and if you give me twelve forwards that are twenty two and under yet have received a sample size of winning, I'll sign on these players any day of the week. Back to the Oshie trade, because for the millionth time I went on a rambling tangent, the trade doesn't do any favour to a team that is "win-now" mode. In recent memory, I've seen better transactions out of New York Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson who makes trades public before informing his players only to renege on a deal later on at his own discretion. Getting Troy Brouwer back does NOT make this team better even though I have respect for him as he was part of a core that turned the Moose Jaw Warriors back to respectability in the mid 2000's. If you know anything of young star Jaden Schwartz, he's a tremendous young man as at such a young age he and his family have dealt with adversity unimaginable to the common folk. Losing his sister to cancer, Jaden has shown unbelievable resilience as is already considered a leader in the Blues locker room at the age of twenty three. In order for Schwartz to take that next step on the ice, getting stronger and hitting the weight room hard is essential. Having the luxury of growing up in Western Canada, I've had the privilege of watching Schwartz develop as a player all the way back to his days in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and I know for a fact even though he potted twenty eight last year, more can be had out of him and the Blues need that because aside from Vladimir Tarasenko, there's not a lot of pure offence in the stable. Watching Patrik Berglund play, the word enigma comes to mind. Berglund has a power forward frame but yet plays softer then Mike Ribeiro. I can only speculate how frustrating it must be for St.Louis Blues ticket holders watching Berglund always have the pass first mentality and always skate around disinterested. Ken Hitchcock must consistently fume during intermissions because of Berglund could put it all together, he has the makings of being an elite player in the league. The Blues have yet to see the fruits of his labour.

In urban pop culture the term "Ride or Die" seems to be gaining steam. If I were to carry over that terminology to the St.Louis Blues then Alex Pietrangelo is the team's "ride or die". I don't think I'm being drastically blunt when I say that Pietrangelo is a top five defenceman in the National Hockey League. He's such a smooth, calm puck mover that has grown and nourished into a premier power play quarterback. The one issue that I have with Alex is I've seen a noticeable differentiation between the confidence he shows in the regular season and the confidence, or lack thereof he showcases in the playoffs. For a team that's been hell bent on succeeding in the playoffs, it's crucial that the number #1 d-man practices the same principles he's accustomed to in the regular season. As I've done previously, I like to profile someone who gets zero recognition. Case in point Chris Butler. The hometown kid, born and raised in St.Louis finally came home but it was his workload with the Calgary Flames two years ago that really got me fired up.  You're probably thinking, how does a player who had the statistical line of a -23 deserve any optimism, well....throw that stat out the window because two years the Flames were an incredibly bad organization and the fact he produced sixteen points in that charade boasts well for his future.  I foresee Butler filling a top four role this year so once the year finishes, the question of " Who the heck is Chris Butler?" will cease.

The endless debate on who should start between Jake Allen and Brian Elliot will seemingly continue in 2015/2016. For what it's worth, and I wouldn't of said this two years ago because until recently this goalie left a sour taste in my mouth, would be that Jake Allen should get the nod. I think the decision to ride Allen in the first round series against the Minnesota Wild alienated Elliot, and I can see a scenario where Elliot becomes a trade chip, because I can't imagine this former All-star will accept a back-up role once again.

20.Colorado Avalanche- I struggle with this ranking greatly. On one hand, this team is mired in dysfunctionality from the management down as for starters they have in coach in Patrick Roy that is so crazy he makes Bruce Boudreau look sane. On the other hand, this organization has some incredibly talented specimen as was impressively evidenced during their 2013/2014 Cinderella surprise run. This season could go one of two ways(basic math here), either this young nucleus accepts Roy for who he is, or the team tunes out Roy so hard that this team skids to thirtieth overall Usually, I write in stern absolutes but in this particular case I'm leaning towards them finishing somewhere in the lower half to middle.

I don't generally touch on future prospects, but I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss 2015 first round pick Mikko Rantanen. Not including the obvious Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, he's one of the few from his draft class that I feel are ready to take the splurge. Already listed at a whopping 6'4 211, he's physically adept to compete with the big boys and it would serve Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic wonders by allowing another one of their prized possessions to get his feet wet with the rest of the kids already slated to be up. Prediction time: Rantanten will be the third finalist for the Calder trophy behind Eichel and McDavid. To continue to harp on my perceived dysfunctionality of this Avalanche club, by no means do I feel Matt Duchene is being utilized correctly. Maybe with Ryan O'Reilly being shipped out to Western New York this will allow Duchene more leeway because what I'm witnessing is a player who has Markus Naslund-esque skill but is afraid to make a mistake. I remember watching the 2009 draft on TSN, and some who were doing panelist network at the time were implying that Duchene may very well have more skill then the player picked first overall that year, John Tavares. It's safe to say we can disregard those comparisons now but the point I'm trying to set in stone is that Duchene has that kind of potential and fifty five points in his twenty four year old season isn't near good enough. Continuing with Duchene, there seems to be some kind of disconnect between player and coach because throughout the year he was being stapled to the bench during key situations. Joe Sakic has to step in and be the arbitrator and fix this situation between Roy and Duchene because not only are you losing productivity out of a world class player but also it's a diminishing asset if by some god forsaken reason you elect to trade the Haliburton,Ontario native. Not exactly a household name for the Avalanche is Patrick Bordeleau. I fully am aware that the art of fighting is fading out quicker than Jeremy Lin's laughable attempt of still being a competent NBA point guard but I don't think Bordeleau should be labelled just a fighter, he can provide more if given the proper resources. A knee injury was a devastating blow to his 2014/2015 campaign but I'm hopeful for his sake he can be shown the confidence from the coaching staff to be trusted on the fourth line because his skating is deceptive and somewhere deep inside is an important game changing play.

The big piece sent back the way of the Buffalo Sabres was Nikita Zadorov. Zadorov reportedly wasn't gelling well with his Sabre teammates and a change of scenery was probably best for both sides, but the talent level is extraordinary. Zadorov was given one of the best coaches to learn from in junior, Dale Hunter and a lot experts believed that Zadorov would break that Russian mold and reputation they're so often attached to from his country but if you take the reported Sabre issues at face value, it's the same old song and dance. He plays bigger then his 6'5 frame indicates which is a scary proposition for forwards blazing through the neutral zone, but has to be more conscientious about where he positions himself in the defensive zone as he has been a minus player the last two campaigns. Probably not invited to Oren Koules' next party(to understand that reference google Len Barrie Oren Koules ownership) Tyson Barrie if he keeps up his rapid growth will continue to get invited to fan parties all over Denver. So his dad may left a black mark pertaining to ownership of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the only black mark Tyson has been leaving lately is rubber debris inside the net. The smallest defender on the team by a long shot he plays such an important role for Patrick Roy because he can be the catalyst to the Avalanche's instantaneous offence. His speed is reminiscent of Kris Russell and to be quite honest and I see a of similarities with the way they play and to quote a Paramore song, "the only exception"  between the two is Tyson is much more polished defensively early in his career. Another quintessential note I wanted to make pertaining this D-core is the amazement I have over journeyman Nate Guenin. This is Guenin's fifth team dating back to his time with the Philadelphia Flyers all the way back in 2006/2007. His statistics continue to improve year to year, and if you're a fan of sport which I most certainly am, you just hope Guenin's feel good story will continue to evolve.

Semyon Varlamov will be the man between the pipes once again. I can't imagine the intimidation Varlamov must feel coming to the rink each and every day being observed by one of the league's greatest ever goaltenders in Roy. As much as I've made clear that Roy has a bat crazy personality I can't help but think Roy would put his goaltending wisdom to good use and be able to point out any tangible faults he sees is Semyon's game. Varlamov is a good, if not great goaltender in  his own right but I just don't see it being enough to lead the Avalanche back to their distant 2013/2014 successes.

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