Around the NHL: Vacant Captaincies

Today’s going to have a little less coverage than a normal Tuesday would because, well, NHL ’12 comes out in stores today, so you all will have to suffer through a day or two of my nerdiness, but fear not. That nerdiness will result in a review of the game coming up this week, so you’ve got that to look forward too.

As a result, though, there will be no player profile today and there will be a truncated Around the NHL, so let’s get to it!

Captain Questions
There are six separate franchises that are searching for captains this off season, so I thought that we could take a look at each of those franchises and whose chest I think that they should put the C on.

Zach Parise

First, let’s take a look at the New Jersey Devils.

Gone is Jamie Langenbrunner, their previous captain, and Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias all are listed as the alternate captains on the team’s website. So, which one of these would make the best captain for the team? Or is there an unlisted player who would fit the bill?

Well, first of all, let’s look at the three alternates.

You have Elias, the veteran, Parise, the franchise, and Kovlachuk, the player who’s going to be in a Devils sweater for the next 16 years.

To me, the decision is simple. Elias has come out and said that he doesn’t want the role and, to be honest, I don’t feel that he’s best suited to be a captain. An alternate, yes, but not the guy with the C on his chest. Elias is on the downside of his career. This season, he’ll turn 36 and, though he’s still good, he’s no longer that point-per-game player that he once was. Kovalchuk might be the choice at some point down the road, but he’s not the answer for this season. The answer for this season is simple: Zach Parise.

Yes, there’s the chance he might not be there after this season, but you’ve got to take that chance if you’re the Devils. No one else on the roster is either ready or seemingly primed to step into that role and the other two alternates just simply aren’t as good of a choice.

He’s your franchise. He’s your best player and he’s also the player that you need to woo to keep in your organization, and he also happens to be one of the best guys for the job. He’s not a free agent signing, like Kovalchuk. He’s a Devil, through and through, and the organization needs to show that confidence in him to give themselves every opportunity to re-sign him before he hits free agency next season.

After the Devils, we’ve got the Philadelphia Flyers.

Chris Pronger

The Flyers currently have no alternates listed on their website and, to be quite honest, probably have the easiest decision to make. If he’s healthy, the captain should be Chris Pronger.

He’s a veteran, he’s got experience wearing the C and he’s one of the most respected and feared players in the NHL.

If we’re going to nitpick things, yes, Daniel Briere could be a viable option, as could Scott Hartnell, but really, the job is Pronger’s to lose or to turn down.

Next, let’s look at the Buffalo Sabres.

This is probably one of the more intriguing situations out there. With Craig Rivet’s rough season last year, the Sabres played most of the season without a player wearing the C. That meant Jason Pominville, Paul Gaustad, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and Jochen Hecht

Jason Pominville

all wore the A for Buffalo last season and were the captain by committee.

So, who gets the C?

Is it one of the aforementioned five?

The answer is yes. It’s the player that has shown the endurance and the resilience to keep playing, even after some crushing hits or devastating injuries. It’s Jason Pominville.

To be fair, all of those five players are pretty suitable candidates for the job and each of them would bring something different to the job but, in my opinion, you’ve got to go with Pominville. He’s been a key player for Buffalo his entire career and he’s a proven performer. He can play in every situation and he is as much of the fabric of the Buffalo Sabres franchise as Ryan Miller (who, let’s be honest, is the de facto leader in the locker room).

So, what about the Colorado Avalanche?

Replacing Adam Foote will be no small task for this young roster, but they’ve got someone tailor made for the position.

Matt Duchene

Last season, the alternates were Milan Hejduk and Paul Stastny, but I don’t think that either will be the one to get the C this season.

That honor is going to go to Matt Duchene.

He’s the face and future of the franchise and he’s proven over the last couple seasons that he’s up to the task, not quailing under the pressure of the NHL in his first two seasons. He’s well respected in the room and he’s loved by the fans and, let’s face it, the trend in the NHL is to give the C to your young superstar. Throw in the fact that, if the Avs struggle, Hejduk and Stastny will be among the first names to get bandied around in the rumor mill and it makes sense.

The Avs franchise has been in flux for a couple seasons now and naming Duchene would lend a sense of stability to the organization.

But what about the Florida Panthers?

Ed Jovanovski

Their website only lists one alternate, and that’s Stephen Weiss, but I don’t see Weiss getting the C just yet.

That honor is going to go to the guy who started his career with the Panthers and helped lead them to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first season. Ed Jovanovski.

Jovo Cop is the man for the job. Indeed, why bring him back to a young team unless you plan on him being a major part of your leadership core. Yeah, he’s a newcomer to the squad as it stands now, but he’s well liked by the fans and he’s got a huge history with the organization and, the symbolism behind naming him captain alone would be worth it.

And finally, we have the New York Islanders.

Both Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo are listed as the team’s alternates, and I think that they have a future captain on their squad in John Tavares, but I don’t think that is the route they’re going to go quite yet.

Mark Streit

As evidenced by their building process, Garth Snow is exceedingly cautious and exceedingly patient and, it stands to reason that his coach would be as well. I think that Tavares is their captain of the future, without a doubt, but right now the honor will and should fall on Streit.

The Isles are still a very young team. They’re still growing and they need someone who’s been there and done that, and Streit is that guy. He’s been around the block a couple times and he’s going to be the guy to help lead these youngsters this season.

So there you have it. My view on the captaincy situations of these six teams. What do you think? Am I crazy? Am I dead on? Let’s hear it!

Wild Nation’s Ridiculously Early Season Previews: The Southeast Division

Last time, we took a look at the Northeast Division but, today, in our final division preview of the Eastern Conference, our view moves south to the division that is considered by many to be the weakest in the East.

Those perceptions, however, look as if they may be changing. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Atlanta Thrashers – Atlanta found themselves second in the Southeast last season, despite their tumultuous season that saw them deal superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils for a king’s ransom.

Their biggest off season change, in my opinion, was the insertion of Rick Dudley into the general manager position, moving former GM Don Waddell to a more administrative position.

The move has already started to pay dividends, as Dudley has brought in the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel from Chicago as well as Chris Mason to share the net with Ondrej Pavelec.

Let’s be clear. The additions of Byfuglien and the like make the Thrashers a better team, but don’t necessarily make them a contender.

The Thrashers are still missing that gamebreaker that they had in Kovalchuk, though Little, Bergfors or Kane could easily turn into that. The mantra for this team for this off season has seemed to be “get harder to play against,” and for the first time in a long time it looks like there is a distinct plan in place to mold this team into a contender.

The bottom line is that the Thrashers are getting better and they’re heading in the right direction – they just might have a little farther to go.

Carolina Hurricanes – The question that everyone is going to be wondering about this Hurricanes team is whether they were the team that started the season so miserably or that ended their season so strong.

Injuries hampered the ‘Canes last season and Staal, Ward and Ruutu should be healthy and ready to go this season and their defense will be anchored by four familiar faces. If Cam Ward is healthy, this is a team that could really do some damage in the Southeast.

The ‘Canes have been relatively quiet in free agency, compared to their Atlanta counterparts, but have brought back Anton Babchuk who played last season in the KHL.

What Carolina is counting on is the growth of their younger players. The losses of veteran leaders Ray Whitney and Rob Brind’amour are both big for the team but their top-six could be considered relatively in tact as Chad LaRose or Brandon Sutter will step in to the spot vacated by Whitney.

Let us not forget that this is still relatively the same team that marched to the Conference finals two seasons ago. The ‘Canes have a good team and, if everything lines up right they could be heading back to the playoffs.

Right now, however, there are too many question marks to say that this is a playoff team, but all the parts are there for a successful season.

Florida Panthers – It would be easy to write off the Panthers as being in a re-building phase of their franchise’s history, but the fact of the matter is that they’ve been re-building now since the trade of Roberto Luongo and they have been surprisingly competitive the last few seasons.

Their immediate strength is in net with goaltender Tomas Vokoun coming off the two best seasons of his career.

In front of him, they have a group of solid, but not flashy defensemen anchored by Bryan McCabe and Dennis Wideman. Youngsters Keaton Ellerby and Dmitry Kulikov give some hope for the future on the blueline and will get some valuable ice time this season.

Where this team will struggle is up front. David Booth and Stephen Weiss lead a corps of forwards that are unimpressive, to say the least. The team lost its second leading scorer last season and did little to nothing to replace him. The additions of Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner will help, but not enough to help a team that was 28th in goals for last season.

If the Panthers are going to be successful, it’s going to be on the strength of their defense and their goaltending and, in an offensively powered Southeast Division; that could pose a problem.

Tampa Bay Lightning – Like the Thrashers, the Lightning’s best move could have been the hiring of Steve Yzerman as their General Manager.

Yzerman has already made some big moves for the team, trading for Simon Gagne, as well as signing Pavel Kubina, Dominic Moore and Dan Ellis.

The trade for Gagne is a huge addition to the squad as he gives the team a legitimate fourth scoring threat if he is healthy, and also allows them the ability to break up the big-three without losing anything. Once Steve Downie is re-signed (he is a Restricted Free Agent), the Bolts will have themselves one of the most potent top-six forwards in the league.

On top of that, the additions of Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim give this team two players that may not be top-six forwards, but that are capable of logging powerplay time and pitching in offensively as well.

But offense may not be this team’s downfall. With 260 goals against last season, they desperately needed an upgrade on defense and in net and Dan Ellis and Pavel Kubina represent that.

While Kurtis Foster had a remarkable season last year, it was obvious that he wasn’t exactly what the team needed. Kubina, however, gives them another top-pairing defenseman that is both comfortable in the city and is able to log even strength, powerplay and penalty kill time. The team has yet to re-sign Paul Ranger, but once that is accomplished, this could be a very solid defense.

But, by far the biggest upgrade is in net. The team will have Dan Ellis and Mike Smith sharing the net – something that they hope will benefit both goaltenders, who have struggled at times in starting roles.

With an improved defense, however, they hope that Ellis and Smith will be protected enough to find themselves as contenders again and, with this offense, they could most certainly be that.

Washington Capitals – Let’s be honest here – this is the easiest pick to call.

The Caps will be good. They’ll be first in the division and back in the playoffs.

How’s that for a bold prediction?

In all seriousness, though, the Capitals will be a very good team again this season. They will score goals and they will win games. But will they be Cup contenders?

As with many other teams, the answer to that question lies in goal.

Semyon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth are taking over the duties in goal and it’s going to be interesting to see if these two young netminders can handle the pressure of what will be expected of them. Both have shown flashes, but it is still uncertain as to whether or not they can go the distance for the team.

Meanwhile, the team is still built to win. They haven’t lost any important cogs on either offense or defense and, in fact, should see both Karl Alzner and John Carlson improve on defense to make for a very potent blue line unit. In fact, the Caps even have some cap room to make improvements throughout the season or even before the season starts.

And that is a scary thought for the other four Southeast teams wanting to take over their crown.

Predictions

So, how will this conference break down? Let’s take a look:

1) Washington Capitals
2) Tampa Bay Lightning
3) Carolina Hurricanes
4) Atlanta Thrashers
5) Florida Panthers

As for the playoffs, I see the Capitals and Lightning making the playoffs and the Hurricanes and/or Thrashers again being a bubble team. The Panthers, as is likely expected, will be on the outside looking in as they build towards a Stanley Cup contending team.

Up Next: The Central Division

The Walking Wounded and other Wild Updates

Per Russo,

Goalie Niklas Backstrom will indeed have left hip surgery Friday in Vail. Brian Stensaas was on a conference call with acting GM Tom Lynn. He reports he has two cysts on the bony part of his hip.

Lynn says they won’t know how long he’ll be out until they operate. Worst case scenario, Stensaas says, could be four to six months!

But Lynn said the doctor cautions they can’t give a timetable yet. More from Stensaas in Wednesday’s paper.

Also, I hear Brent Burns is having shoulder surgery probably on Thursday.

This is in addition to Andrew Brunette having reconstructive knee surgery this off season and Derek Boogaard having shoulder surgery.

So what does this mean for the Wild?  Well, if the prognosis for Backstrom truly is 4-6 months, that puts Backstrom back at the earliest, August 24th and at the latest October 24th.  Knowing Backstrom, he will work his hardest to rehab and be back sooner, but this essentially makes the top priority for the new GM hammering out a deal for back up goalie Josh Harding.

If this is indeed the case, you can take Harding off of the table as a bargaining chip.  That is, unless the new GM is suddenly stricken by Barry Brust-mania and believes that Brust can shoulder the load as an NHL starter.  What this could do, however, is drive Harding’s stock through the roof.  If Harding can perform like Backstrom did when he wrested the starting job away from Manny Fernandez a few years back, Harding could easily become a hot commodity among NHL teams.

The Search Begins
After being denied permission by Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs to speak with Dave Nonis, Wild owner Craig Leipold recieved permission from the Nashville Predators to speak with a couple of his old employees; Director of Hockey Operations Mike Santos and assistant GM Paul Fenton.

From Russo,

Leipold declined comment on them, ”just like I won’t comment on any of the other candidates.” 

There are lots of candidates that have surfaced. These are just two that so far I know he’ll be allowed to talk with. I’m sure there are others. I’m working the phones.

Santos is in his third year in Nashville and is responsible in negotiating player contracts and preparing for salary arbitrations. He served as assistant GM for the New York Islanders from 1997-2002 and director of hockey operations for the Florida Panthers from 2002-03.

He was Commissioner and President of the North American Hockey League from 2003-06. He’s worked for USA Hockey and the NHL.

Fenton is in his third year as Nashville’s assistant GM after eight as the director of player personnel. He oversees the Predators’ amateur player development and managers the team’s pro and amateur scouting staffs. He’s also GM of the AHL Milwaukee Admirals.

Fenton, who played eight years in the NHL for seven teams and was a former Boston University standout, also spent five seasons working for the Anaheim Ducks. 

It hasn’t happened yet, but another person I’d assume Leipold would request permission to speak with his Pittsburgh assistant GM Chuck Fletcher. He’s 41 with 16 years of experience. He’s immensely respected after years in Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh.

Remember, Leipold has a fabulous relationship with Penguins GM Ray Shero, who used to be assistant GM in Nashville.

In addition, the Wild have been denied permission to speak with Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill.  Nill is under contract until 2010-11 and has a commitment in his contract to stay in Detroit.  In fact, this quote was run in the Windsor Star when Toronto was inquiring about Nill’s availability.

The way we do things here, I’ve already got most of the responsibilities and input that a general manager would have. Ken [Holland] and I work really well together.

I’m comfortable, I’m well-compensated and I like the organization. I know which side my bread is buttered on.

Risebrough Presser
You’ve got to love hockey guys.  Doug Risebrough held his “exit presser” yesterday and held it at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub.  Gotta love it.

Anyway, Russo had some snippets in his blog regarding the players and it just shows how well respected Risebrough was by his own players.  Derek Boogaard had his fiancee drive to the pub after he literally just woke up from having shoulder surgery, just so that he could thank Risebrough for the opportunity and have a chance to say goodbye.  Risebrough also spent some quality time with Marian Gaborik at the arena and went to Brent Burns’ home to meet with the youngster after the new broke regarding his concussion problems.

Again, on a personal level, I’m sad to see Risebrough go.  He was a great guy, probably the nicest associated with the NHL that I’ve had the pleasure to meet.  Part of me feels that he deserved a bit better treatment than he received from Leipold; however, that’s also Leipold’s perogative as the owner.  It’s his team and he can run it as he sees fit.

On a business level, however, it was time for a change.  Risebrough had become increasingly defensive about his decisions over the past few seasons and it seemed as if fans, management and players alike were all growing tired of his smug, “I know best” attitude.  As disappointed as I am that it had to end like this, it certainly had to end.

In the transcript of the presser, however, there was one quote from Risebrough that really rings true to me.

I think the club, I believe the club is in really good shape, and I’ll tell you why. I think it’s got a good core of players. It’s got good youth. I think it’s got great flexibility in terms of the salary cap. It’s got lots of room this year, it’s got lots of room next year. So whether that means what do you want to do immediate signings or future signings, it’s all there. It’s got a great fan base that’s still in love with this team. So it’s going to be energized. I believe players that had poor years will rebound. I’m pretty comfortable to say the injuries aren’t going to be the same magnitude. So I think it’s a great opportunity for a manager and I think it’s a great opportunity for a coach. And I feel good about that. I made decisions on a regular basis for the right  reasons, and the right reasons never included me. They never included me, they were always for the franchise. Now I can say, I didn’t always make the right decisions, but I did them for the right reasons. And I feel good about that.

That right there, to me, says it all.  Whoever it is has a good base, but also has his work cut out for him.  This is a solid team in need of a few key components to become a serious contender.  I don’t think this team needs to be blown up and start from scratch again, but at the same time I don’t think that this team is ready to contend next season after all of this going on this off season.  One thing’s for sure, though.  It’s still an exciting time to be a Wild fan!

If the Playoffs Started Today – 3/12/09

It’s that time of the year.  The time when every point matters.  The time where the difference between losing in regulation and losing in overtime could mean a playoff spot.  Both conferences are jam-packed, especially towards the bottom, so we’re going to keep an eye on potential first round match ups and even do a little prognostication as to how the teams match up.  We’ll also keep an eye on who’s on the outside looking in.

And here…we…go…

Eastern Conference
(1) Boston Bruins vs. (8) Florida Panthers - This is a pretty intriguing match up for the first round.  You’ve got the Bruins, who have been struggling recently against the Panthers who have been one of the biggest surprises of the season.  The Bruins struggles have been in large part to the disappearing acts of Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler, as well as some inconsistency with the rest of their offense and the Panthers are a scrappy team that may thrive on the close quarters and pressure of the playoffs.  All told, though, it’s hard to think that the Bruins couldn’t pull out a seven game series in this one.  Advantage Boston.

(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Carolina Hurricanes - If I’m the Devils, Carolina is the absolute last team I would want to face in the first round.  The ‘Canes are buzzing right now and the acquisition of Erik Cole has re-energized Eric Staal.  On the other hand, the Devils have a fresh Martin Brodeur and one of the most dynamic group of forwards in the league.  This series could be an instant classic, with both teams having unlimited amounts of energy as well as fresh and re-energized superstars.  Brodeur ultimately gives the Devils the edge in just about any series, but this one would be fun to watch.  Advantage New Jersey.

(3) Washington Capitals vs. (6) Pittsburgh Penguins - Is it just me or would this be the NHL marketing department’s dream come true?  I can’t think of a more compelling match up for the first round and the only thing that I can think of that would be better is if the two teams met in the Conference Finals.  The Pens are the hottest team in the league, while the Caps are, well, the Caps.  The animosity between these two teams has continued to grow throughout the season and a playoff series between the two would send it over the top.  This is also a series that could go either way.  It’s hard to pick a clear cut winner in this one.  Draw.

(4) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (5) Montreal Canadiens - To round out the first round, a Philly/Montreal series?  This could ultimately be some pretty exciting hockey in the first round.  The Flyers were the team that knocked the Habs out of the first round last season and don’t think that the Habs or their fans have forgotten it.  This is another series that could make for an instant classic; mostly because of how well these two teams match up against one another.  Looking at this, it’s very hard to pick a team that would have a distinct advantage, but Philly’s physical game could easily put them over the top.  Advantage Philadelphia.

On The Outside Looking In: With just 15 games remaining in the season, a big part of the Eastern Conference is already eliminated (not necessarily mathmatically, but realistically).  The two that remain in contention are the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Rangers.  Of those two teams, the Rangers have the most realistic chance of supplanting the Panthers in the 8th seed, seeing as how they are one point behind.  Both teams have struggled recently, with the Sabres losing Ryan Miller to injury and the Rangers having to be broken into a new coach, so it’s likely that the way the playoffs sit now could easily be how they sit come the end of the regular season.

Western Conference
(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Nashville Predators - Once again, the Preds are making a hard charge at the playoffs late in the season.  Meanwhile, the Sharks are, well, the Sharks.  They have struggled lately, but are still a strong team and, though he has had a sub-par season by his standars, Evgeni Nabokov is one of the top goalies in the league.  It is pretty hard to think that the Preds could give the Sharks a run for their money as they did with the Wings last season, but if the stars align, anything is possible in the playoffs.  Advantage San Jose.

(2) Detroit Red Wings vs. (7) Edmonton Oilers - The last time the Wings and Oilers met in the first round, the Wings were bounced unceremoniously en route to the Oilers magical run to the Cup finals.  Don’t expect that to happen this time.  The Red Wings are one of the most talented teams in the league and, despite not having a designated “enforcer,” have a great deal of sand paper on their roster.  Meanwhile, this Oilers team is nowhere near as gritty as the team that contended for the Cup.  The Wings should have no problem in this series.  Advantage Detroit.

(3) Calgary Flames vs. (6) Columbus Blue Jackets - This series is a crap shoot in that there’s really no telling how the majority of Columbus’s roster is going to react to playoff hockey.  They could take to it like a fish to water and fly, or they could flounder.  Looking at the Flames roster, however, it’s very difficult to bet against this team as they have a roster that is even better than the last time they reached the finals.  As hard as it is to discount a team coached by Ken Hitchcock, you can’t look past the talent and depth of the Flames roster.  Advantage Calgary.

(4) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (5) Vancouver Canucks - This is an interesting series.  The Blackhawks are certainly more talented, but have limited playoff experience, while the Canucks have multiple players on their roster that have been involved in deep Cup runs.  The wildcard for the Canucks, however, is Roberto Luongo.  Time and again he has proven that he’s one of the best in the game, but he’s also only played in the playoffs once (though he was dazzling).  Ultimately, you’ve got to believe that the ‘Hawks talent would win out of the ‘Nucks experience in a seven game series.  Advantage Chicago.

On the Outside Looking In: There are four teams within three points of the playoffs and and one more within four.  The Wild, Stars and Ducks all are within one point of 7th, the Blues are just two points back from them and the Kings are just one back from the Blues.  In a tight playoff race, the extra points can make or break a season.  The team that could have the best shot of squeaking in is the Wild.  They hold a game in hand over both Dallas and Anaheim as well as Nashville and they hold the tiebreaker over Edmonton.  The Wild are a good team mired by inconsistency and they will be getting their most dangerous offensive weapon back soon.  It’s no stretch to think that they could make a solid run at the playoffs in the last weeks of the season.  Both the Ducks and the Stars have been inconsistent at best of late, while the Blues and Kings have been streaky as well.  If one of these five teams finds any modicum of consistency, they could easily streak into the playoffs.

Tuesday's Links

There are a whopping 11 games on the docket for tonight.  Check out NHL.com for the full list, but here are some of the highlights.  First, the nationally televised game on Versus, the Sabres take on the Flyers.  In a battle of division leaders, Calgary visits New Jersey.  With playoff positioning on the line, Florida travels to Pittsburgh to face the red hot Penguins.  Also on the list, the Sharks will try to exact revenge on the Wild after their embarrassing 4-3 OT Loss.

That’s all for now.  Enjoy and make sure you check back for my thoughts on the San Jose/Minnesota tilt tonight!