Saturday, July 11, 2015

2015-2016 National Hockey League Preview:Teams 5 and 6

5.Detroit Red Wings-This Motor City franchise, one of the original six teams, has accumulated six conference championships in the modern era and I expect this year could be lucky number seven as they will be in a dog fight with the Washington Capitals for the Eastern Conference trophy. Jeff Blaishill takes over the head coaching duties from incredibly successful internationally, but not necessarily incredibly successful in the NHL Mike Babcock. My take on Babcock is that he inherited a program that was put in place by Scotty Bowman and later followed through by Dave Lewis and the fact that he gets the reputation of being the league's best coach is unfounded because although he was the Head Coach during Detroit's victorious 2008 season that team had Bowman's prints all over it and anything he's put a stamp on, which I would argue was 2010 onwards has seen mediocre results. Mike is a coach that's probably best suited for taking over a team that is on the peripheral of winning, ala a Canadian Olympic team or the '08 Wings, not the 2015-2016 version of the Toronto Maple Leafs. That could be a train wreck. As it may play out, Jeff Blaishill may turn into an upgrade for a Red Wings team that absolutely has the talent in place to make a run at Lord Stanley. He's a journeyman in the hockey circles and because of this might give off the sentimental hard-working vibes and change the culture of the Red Wings, who historically have been a run and gun organization.

Because Gustav Nyquist calls Pistons country home, a lot of people situated in Detroit have no idea who he is, and in the average fan's defense, Gustav Nyquist rushed through the Red Wings farm system and reached superstardom before some some people could blink. The premise of Nyquist getting rushed through goes against built in stone Kenny Holland principle as the old joke pertaining to the Red  Wings is that if you've made the jump before the age of thirty you're breaking multiple trends. The twenty five year from Halmstead, Sweden, brings a calm to the attack of Detroit because aside from an aging and declining fellow Swede Henrik Zetterberg, Gustav is the only pure shooter in the team, someone Blaishill can comfortably pair with Pavel Datsyuk. The key now is, with  him being locked up an additional four more years, will there be a natural improvement with leadership and striving to be a more complete player because their are some gopher holes in the defensive side of his game, particularly last year. Being the premier player that he is, skating to a -11 is unacceptable and will need to show more accountability. The rookie race belongs to "McJesus"himself, Connor McDavid, but someone that because of the depth he's fallen into, may have a chance to be that Calder trophy sleeper, last year's team U.S.A World Junior star Dylan Larkin. If Larkin does crack the opening day lineup which I think he has the talent to do so, fits perfectly with the theme of the Red Wings breaking otherwise unbreakable principles. New coach, new rules so for Jeff Blaishill he may observe Dylan Larkin's game as someone who at the young age of eighteen can come in kill penalties right away. The penalty killing prowess is where Larkin specializes in and has even drawn comparisons to the game of New York Ranger Chris Kreider.  Red Wing patrons can only dream that Larkin will some day meet the same offensive upside that Kreider currently possesses. The tangent I'm about to go on relates specifically to the Red Wings, but in a wider scheme of the entire National Hockey League. Purists will say if a player is eighteen, why is he being rushed into the league. I can certainly sympathize with this argument as these ARE teenagers after all, but at the same time we are in the business of winning and if Larkin, or any other eighteen year old can come in and help you win then why on earth would the club re-assign you to junior/NCAA. Seniority runs too prevalent in the league and it's the teams that stray away from the seniority factor succeed.

Mike Babcock has been far too critical of Jakub Kindl throughout the years.  This twenty eight year old Czech Republican has spent more time in the dog house than out on the ice and this has been a gross display for a player that's a dyamo offensively, and unless you subscribe to Babcock's theory that he was better on the bench defensively than he was on the ice, you'll know that Kindl's shot blocking ability is actually above par and it's one of this more underappreciated skill sets.  This big body was outcast during there brief playoff run and when this happens the first worry that comes to mind pertaining to a European is that he'll bolt back home. He didn't, he showed maturity and a willingness to prove the doubters wrong and I believe this resounding loyalty will lead to him excelling on the first pairing this season. Unlike Kindl, Niklas Kronwall gets much more recognition because he lays out those thundering body checks that you see nightly on your regional highlight packs but he really is more than just a heavy hitter. Detroit fans will not soon forget the NHL's controversial decision when head disciplinarian Stephane Quintal handed out a one game suspension for a high hit on Nikita Kucherov even though Kucherov returned that very game six. This was ultimately part of the demise that cost the Red  Wings the pleasure of advancing but the Motor City knows that Kronwall is a marquee talent that will be again be counted upon to anchor a very underrated defence core. I share the same sentiment of Kronwall being a special player but from a technical point of view my one criticism is he's got to perfect the art of getting more pucks through on net. He possesses one of the league's better shots, and the Red Wings will ask that the shot accuracy portion is focused on because if that's accomplished, it's not out of the horizon for Kronwall to score twenty goals, full well realizing the Power-play time he's responsible with. Throughout this team's preview, we've discussed the change in philosophy in allowing the younger players to grow at the National Hockey League, and I'm wondering if the same can be applied with Xavier Ouellet. This French-Canadian was outstanding when he participated in the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championships for Team Canada and now with his former coach at Grand Rapids fully in charge, one would have to surmise that he'll be given every look necessary meriting a fair shake to make the club full time.

I compare the Red Wings goaltending to that of a R.A Dickey knuckle ball. One day, it has so much movement and productivity, other nights there's no movement whatsoever causing his earned run average to take a Brock Lesnar beating. Goaltender coach Jim Bedard must see enough in Jimmy Howard to continually instill the confidence in him because as of late, Howard's statistics have been anything but pleasant. So much so, that during the  Red Wings first round series v Tampa, younger and at times more sure handed Petr Mrazek was given the important starts. Bedard, seventeen years into his goaltending coach tenure with the Wings mastered the art of working with unconventional goalies like Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek that you begin to suffice if he hasn't quite got the hand of working with more of a traditional netminder. Howard for example, skated his way to a .910 save percentage which is nothing to cry home about but I think more of the issue with Howard is his penchant giving up that momentum changing goal, something that Mrazek didn't fall victim to as much. Just on a pure gut, my spidey sense that barring an unforeseen disastrous training camp by Mrazek, it's job to lose and he'll be the opening night starter.

6.Pittsburgh Penguins- Anytime one stable can boast the arsenal of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a sports gambler would take their chances prognosticating a triple crown. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2009 against the aforementioned Pittsburgh Penguins, hockey writers aplenty predicted by the time 2015 rolled around, Crosby and company would have at least three Stanley cups in pocket, but as we currently dissect this team in July 2015, they are still only 1/3 to that elusive "Triple Crown". What's happened in Pittsburgh is complacency and General Manager Jim Rutherford thought he had ridded himself of what was the catalyst of this complacency when electing to go in the direction of bringing in head coach from the Portland Winterhawks Mike Johnston.  The 2014-2015 season did little to dispel that notion that the Penguins are becoming notorious underachievers as they fell in the first round to the New York Rangers. Sid the kid Crosby will have to find a way to break that stigma of becoming a complainer to the referees and re discover that game that has so many calling him the best player in todays game.

The terminology of being "all in" is over- used these days and I'm as guilty as anybody. By saying that, when you make the organizational decision to finally make that bold transaction(Alex Anthopoulos are you listening?) you provide a sense of relief amongst the fan base that you're seriously committed to doing anything you can to bring the community a championship. Rutherford, who himself orchestrated a Stanley Cup back when he was employed by Carolina decided to throw all his poker chips in on one hand by acquiring the great on ice talent, yet non media friendly Phil Kessel  Kessel is the complimentary piece that Sidney Crosby has been need of to play on his wing since he broke into the league. Now, I realize the vast majority would argue and say that the likes of John LeClair, Paschal Dupuis, and Chris Kunitz all held their own playing alongside which I would argue that although they did fine, the results of these particular experiments brought back moderate results.  When perusing Kessel's statistics courtesy of Hockey DB, the kind of player that Crosby and Malkin are getting showcased his ability in a big way by accumulating one hundred and eighty one goals just with the Leafs...the leafs people, when at times he was playing on the line with David Steckel during a time when then coach Peter Horachek was seemingly experimenting with a million different combinations. Ultimately, it didn't matter what line Kessel found himself on because he re-defines the word sniper. Some talk through the Pittsburgh grape vine that you potentially may see coach Johnston utilize Kessel alongside Evgeni  Malkin while playing Hornqvist beside Sid. I personally find this kind of talk silly, because training camp will be the sizeable determinator when judging who Kessel should play with. The other reason why this kind of trade will suit Phil just fine is because he's no longer the team spokesperson. In Toronto, particularly in his dealings with TSN's Steve Simmons there was a feud evident that no matter what Kessel would proclaim, would get misconstrued in a fashion that would upset "Phil the thrill". In Pittsburgh, the media responsibilities fall under the sword of one of the better spoken individuals in Crosby.  Crosby's not one to supply the media with a lot of juicy banter but what he says always has the purpose,  and that purpose is protecting more  fragile personalites in Kessel.  This oft talked about trade has created an unknown role for last year's trade deadline acquisition David Perron. From the get go with Pittsburgh my sense was that Perron was never truly comfortable with his role and eventually got passed over on the depth charts by Beau Bennett. Perron, to use a Brian Burke reference carries a great deal  truculence but what happened last year, even going back to when he was still was employed by the Oilers, he lost his trademark physicality whether it was at request from the coaches we'll never know. To regain his effectiveness for the 2015-2016 campaign, he'll need to re-channel his inner Brad Marchand and become that agitator that will get under the oppositions skin thus bringing way more power play escapades for the new big three in Pitt, Kessel, Crosby and Malkin.

To maintain success in professional sports, the role of Free Agency and how a team goes about maneuvering throughout is paramount to success. In the Penguins, to consider them as a "success" the last three years would be an aberration as a better descriptor would be "modest" but the original point regarding free agency holds true because they did lose a significant piece on defence in Paul Martin and I'm severely questioning if they did enough to replace the loss notwithstanding the bang they made with the forwards. Kris Letang has been hampered with some health issues that truly put the game of hockey in perspective but nonetheless they will hope that he's healthy and raring to go because if he wasn't already, Paul Martin going to the Shark tank has re-solidified he is Pittsburgh's number one defensive commodity. When Letang is completely on his game, he's widely regarded as one of the league's best passers and can when I view his games, I can't get the visual of Sandis Ozolinsh out my head. Whether it's that renowned passing prowess that they both had or the way in which they skate, their is an uncanny resemblance. Letang posted fifty four points this past season and in order to keep defenders minds off the likes of the aforementioned big three, he'll have to continue to push the envelope and open space up which has the skill level to do.  One of the staples of this blog is to plug players who are criminally underrated amongst the hockey public, and Ian Cole, now of the Penguins fits that mold to a T. A prospective fan of his home town Michigan Wolverines, I find it utterly ridiculous that the Blues felt he was the player to dump, and dump they did as in return the Blues received Robert Bortuzzo??? Doing these previews gives you a renewed appreciation for the general managers that build teams the right way, and a distain for GM's that are throwing their team down the toilet. With his pending appointment to oversee the 2016  World Cup of Hockey entry, Hockey Canada has a different outlook with that Armstrong has accomplished but when analyzing his recent trades and surveying his underwhelming recent playoff results, you'll understand why I don't think fond of Doug Armstrong and why the Blues are further down,  much further down these rankings. Ian Cole as a member of the Penguins is a coup if you know what you're getting. His role essentially will be to shut down the eastern powers such as Stamkos, Tavares  and Nash, not to provide consistent effort. I think where a player is drafted sways people's opinion on what they think a player is capable of, and in Cole's case, selected by the St.Louis Blues with the eighteenth overall selection in 2007, the presumption is that offense comes naturally, but maybe the 2015-2016 season will be Ian Cole's coming out party, and fans can stop mistaking him for what he isn't.

Marc-Andre Fleury gets about as much flack as Tony Romo does playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.  Under the same guidelines of Ian Cole, Fleury's draft status has created mightily unfair expectations and anything that he does that doesn't resemble  a Glenn Hall-esque performance, who for an useless tidbit was a friend of my Grandpa, then people will give off the impression that's he not doing enough.  The Penguins as one of the wildcard representatives in this years playoffs, were quite a bit more competitive then most gave them a chance for and one of the main reasons for this, if not the sole reason was the play of the Quebec native.  The series could've very easily done a 180 and Pittsburgh would've had a second round date. This wasn't meant to be, and if Fleury adjusts himself in the regular season to how he was in the playoffs, that's one scary proposition for the rest of the National Hockey League.

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