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2011-2012 Season Preview Part 1

Penaltykill

We’re a month away from the opening games of the season, and so apart from the odd rookie playing out of his skin in training camp, the rosters are pretty much solidified for the NHL teams.

Obviously the movement of the Atlanta Thrashers franchise transforming into the reborn Winnipeg Jets makes a fair bit of difference, as next year could see a reshuffle of teams in the East/West Conferences, let alone a fair amount of movement between divisions.

So, with some big moves, and some real surprises, let’s take a look at the teams for the upcoming season:

EASTERN CONFERENCE:

New Jersey Devils

The Devils have brought in a couple of players but nobody that is going to make other teams sit up and take notice. For a start, their acquisitions of Eric Boulton, known in many arenas as simply ‘that dirty, elbowing guy’, and Cam Janssen are not going to make the rest of the Atlantic scared. This season, we’re likely to see Steckel get a bit more ice time, which I think would be wise, as I reckon he’s itching to get his feet under the table on maybe the 2nd line, and be a decent backup player for Kovalchuk, Parise and Elias.

KEY PLAYERIlya Kovalchuk: Kovi can make or break the Devils season, as proved in the 2nd half of last year. If Kovi plays well, then the Devils play well.

New York Islanders

Known last season for their bust-ups and aggressive play, the Islanders decided to keep their main antagonist and resident nutcase, Trevor Gillies on their NHL roster. Along with Michael Haley, the Islanders parade two guys who are known for cheap play and throwing dangerous hits. On the plus side, their acquisitions of Brian Rolston and Marty Reasoner look to be wise moves, but the key element in the Islanders season will be the status or Evgeni Nabokov. The Russian was claimed off waivers by New York last year and refused to play. If GM Garth Snow as made friends with Nabokov, he might be able to back-stop them to a decent season.

KEY PLAYEREvgeni Nabokov: A strong and reliable goalie, who can single-handedly turn games on their head. The question will be if he decides to show up for the Islanders.

New York Rangers

Snagging probably the top free-agent of the summer will do the New York Rangers no harm at all. They’re set for goaltending with Lundqvist again in top form last season. The Swedish netminder is a wall in the Rangers’ goal and along with understated signings of Michael Rupp and Brian McCabe, the Rangers look like a team that can only do better than last season. They certainly should have no trouble reaching the playoffs again this year.

KEY PLAYER – Brad Richards: Signed a 9-year $60-million contract, turning down Calgary, LA, Toronto and even snubbing a return to his Stanley Cup team, the Tampa Bay Lightning. A big name, however, must make a big impact, and put up big numbers.

Philadelphia Flyers

Philly look to have finally sorted out their constant issues with goaltending. Having let go of Brian Boucher, they replaced him with Ilya Bryzgalov. Despite Vokoun being available, the Flyers GM Paul Holmgren chose the former Phoenix goaltender. Along with backup Sergei Bobrovsky, the Flyers might finally have a pair of goalies that they can rely on. Along with the surprise signing of Jaromir Jagr (after negotiations broke down with the Red Wings, Penguins, and apparently nailed-on Canadiens), the Flyers have added young Czech winger Jakub Voracek as a powerful offensive threat.

KEY PLAYERIlya Bryzgalov: The goaltender was Phoenix most treasured player for the last few seasons, and his move to Philadelphia will certainly put to bed many of the doubts about the Flyers weak spot in goal.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Quite a quiet off-season for Pittsburgh in terms of new signings, but there’s been lots of attention and column inches devoted to the physical status of captain, Sidney Crosby. The concussion he suffered last season limited him to just 41 games, and he’s not a dead-cert for the beginning of this season either. The Penguins have signed up Picard, Sullivan and Williams from the Canadiens, Predators, and Stars respectively, which isn’t exactly headline news.

KEY PLAYEREvgeni Malkin: If Crosby doesn’t return for a while, all eyes will be on the young Russian to make up the numbers, so long as his own injury issues are sorted come the opening games.

Boston Bruins

Last season’s Stanley Cup winners have done very little this summer, apart from celebrate, obviously. They’ve made hardly any changes to the victorious team, and so must believe that they have the winning formula for next season as well as last. Only Carolina’s Corvo, and Montreal’s Pouliot have been brought in to the TD Garden, but even in hard times, having Tim Thomas inbetween the pipes is never a bad thing.

KEY PLAYER – Tyler Seguin: Last season’s rookie had a solid first year, and won the cup for good measure. Next season could see Seguin turn in more confident performances, and perhaps become a real contributor to the Bruins forward lines.

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres have made a few signings, and none of them exactly poor. The almost ever-present defensive pair of Christian Ehrhoff, and Robyn Regehr have both signed in Buffalo, as well as forwards Ales Kotalik and Ville Leino. Some smart moves from the Sabres should see them in the playoffs once again.

KEY PLAYER – Ryan Miller: The Sabres goaltender has proven time and time again that he’s one of the best netminders of his generation. I can’t see him faltering too much this season either. A strong goalie can often make up for a poor defence.

Montreal Canadiens

A couple of strange moves in Montreal this off-season. The acquisition of backup netminder Peter Budaj isn’t going to whip Habs fans into a frenzy, but the signing of forward Erik Cole from Carolina is an excellent deal. Fans favourite P.K Subban will again be in the limelight, along with captain, Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri. Fans in Montreal are expectant of success, as it’s been thin on the ground in recent years.

KEY PLAYER – Carey Price: Last season, Price and Bruins goalie, Tim Thomas regularly duelled for the top goaltender stats. With a goalie that’s regularly up there with the best save percentage, as well as one of the best goals against averages, then it’s hard to argue against him being one of their top players.

Ottawa Senators

The Senators have an absolutely enormous roster to choose from. A massive 41 players have NHL contracts, but none of them really stand out. Only Spezza, and recent signing Konopka really look like being able to put up any good numbers. The goalie tandem of Auld and Anderson just doesn’t appear strong enough, and I think Ottawa are really going to struggle this year.

KEY PLAYER Sergei Gonchar: The 37-year old defenceman will play his second season in Ottawa this year. If he plays as well as we have seen he can, then Gonchar can neutralise the most successful forwards in the NHL. However, age is catching him up, and it may be a year too far for Sergei.

Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs have made a few changes this summer, most of look on paper, to be smart deals.Incoming, there’s a young, quick defenceman in Franson, and a young, quick forward in Dupuis. Sounds like the Leafs have a game plan.To add a bit more experience and work rate in the dirty areas, they’ve also added Colorado defenceman Liles, and Sabres forward Connolly. That’s four players that have justification in maybe feeling their effort or skill was perhaps a grade above the rest of their old teams.

KEY PLAYER – Dion Phaneuf: The rock-solid main D for Toronto is the main deterrent for most opposition team’s 1st line of forwards. Phaneuf has the skill, the poise, and the experience to control a team that’s successful, or that’s struggling. Players like those, need to be kept hold of.

Carolina Hurricanes

Carolina enter the pre-season with a little change here and there, but nothing that’s going to shake the foundations of the franchise. Former Flyer, Brian Boucher has a new home backing up Cam Ward, whilst ex-Toronto forward Tim Brent is hoping he can put in another solid season of 70+ games for the Hurricanes. Tomas Kaberle may have won the Cup in Boston, but never really settled, nor did they with him, and so he signed in Carolina for three years. Ponikarovsky is a solid winger, and Anthony Stewart from what was Atlanta, is a promising young forward.

KEY PLAYER – Jeff Skinner: Last season’s Calder trophy winner (Top Rookie) is going to be under a lot of scrutiny this year, to see if his first NHL season of 82 games and 63 points was fluke, or the makings of a truly gifted player.

Florida Panthers

The amount of trades that seem to involve the Panthers is incredible. This summer, Florida brought in Bergenheim (Lightning), Campbell (Blackhawks), Goc (Predators), Jovanovski (Coyotes), Kopecky (Blackhawks), Upshall (Blue Jackets), and Versteeg (Flyers). Add to this the acquisition of goalie Jose Theodore, and the Panthers might actually be there or thereabouts this season. Theodore signed from the Wild, despite having his lowest GAA for 3 years and his best save percentage for 7 years in Minnesota. He seems a perfectly capable replacement for Vokoun.

KEY PLAYER – Stephen Weiss: A member of the Panthers since 2001, Weiss is the longest serving player, and when the management chop and change the roster so frequently, they must see something in him worth keeping. 49 points last season was surprisingly low, as he’d hit 60 or more for the previous two.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The dark horses of last year’s playoffs return with a couple of aces up their sleeves. Goalie Mathieu Garon signs for his 5th NHL team in 7 years, whilst Bruno Gervais joins in defence from the Islanders, where he put up modest 3rd pairing numbers, along with young D-man Matt Gilroy, who heads south from the New York Rangers. A pair of forwards also sign for the Lightning with Pyatt joining from Montreal and Shannon from Ottawa.

KEY PLAYER – Martin St. Louis: Although the second oldest player on the roster, St. Louis is definitely one of the most dangerous. An incredible post-season saw him collect 20 points in 18 games. St. Louis has missed just 2 NHL games in the last 8 years.

Washington Capitals

Michal Neuvirth’s summer was probably great for about 2 days. When Varlamov was signing for the Avalanche, Neuvirth would be forgiven for assuming he’d be given the starting role in net for the Capitals. Unfortunately, just a day later, Tomas Vokoun shows up and suggests a contract to the Capitals, which they accept, and it’s back to backup duties for Michal. 37-year old Roman Hamrlik joins his 6th NHL team, and he is joined by former Blackhawk Tory Brouwer, and journeyman Jeff Halpern. Maybe the most interesting signing, is of Joel Ward, the Predators winger who stormed the playoffs, and finished with over a point-per-game in the post-season.

KEY PLAYER – Alex Ovechkin: Although he had a self-confessed ‘tough season’, Ovi still managed 85pts off 79 games. When his last three seasons were all 100pts or more, you can understand the comment, but there are few teams out there who wouldn’t be happy with a 1st line forward who can rack up 85pts a year, tough season or otherwise!

Winnipeg Jets

The old new boys (some of us can remember the Jets the last time round!) take to the ice in Winnipeg this season, looking to make a bit of a splash with some of the old Atlanta team mixed with a few new faces from Free Agency. Former Red Wings defenceman Derek Meech looks to finally break into the roster an be part of a top 6 pairing, whilst ex-Vancouver winger Tanner Glass looks to get his spot solidified. Former Thrashers Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd will certainly be able to compete, but will the rest of the roster?

KEY PLAYER – Dustin Byfuglien: Buff never fails to give everything he has, every shift he takes. Although his scoring is never going to be up there with the Crosby’s, Ovechkin’s and Datsyuk’s, his ability to read the game makes him an excellent two-way player. His skills will be a great example to the younger guys given a chance in Winnipeg.

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