Monday, September 25, 2006

12 training camp battles to watch

Every year, a cast of 40-plus characters take the ice for all 30 NHL teams, and it’s up to their respective coaching staffs to whittle that group into a competitive 20 to 23 man roster. With 1,200 players all playing preseason games, it can be daunting for fans to keep track of what’s happening where as team’s rosters take shape.

(To me, the biggest questions are coming on defence. Last season saw more fresh-faced youngsters playing on NHL team’s bluelines than I believe we’ve ever seen before, and picking through the rosters that clubs are going forward with, that looks to be the case again.)

With all that in mind, here’s my list of 12 battles to keep your eye on during the exhibition campaign.

12. Dallas Stars - Defence.
After adding Janne Niinimaa late last season, GM Doug Armstrong brought in two more veteran blueliners in Jaroslav Modry and Darryl Sydor over the off-season. The moves create an interesting eight-man logjam of veteran defencemen, a luxury no other NHL club has been able to afford under the salary cap. Who gets shipped out will likely be determined through preseason and the first few games of the year, but don’t be surprised if Dallas deals one or two defencemen rather than see them lost through waivers. Prediction: This one’s tough to call, but Jon Klemm or Stephane Robidas may be the ones to get the boot.

11. Toronto Maple Leafs - Goal.
All indications so far have the organization’s darling, Belleville, Ont., native Andrew Raycroft, as the go-to guy, but that leaves a curious pairing of J-S Aubin and Mikael Tellqvist behind him — both of whom have one-way contracts. Three netminders with NHL deals is going to be unheard of under the new CBA, but given the glut of goalies available around the league, what are the options? Prediction: The Leafs will inexplicably pay $500,000 for Tellqvist to share the AHL duties with Justin Pogge.

10. New York Rangers - Offensive defenceman.
Sandis Ozolinsh was supposed to provide some sort of a solution here last season when he came over from Anaheim, but his knee surgery — and the loss of Tom Poti as an UFA — leaves the door open for someone to step in. Most of the blueliners here are of the stay-at-home variety, as none bettered 30 points last season. Prediction: Russian reclamation Karel Rachunek will likely get this role, at least to start, and Marc Staal is another option.

9. Florida Panthers - Forward.
A funny thing has started to happen in south Florida: They’re getting overstocked upfront. That’s something that has never been the case previously, but with the arrival of Todd Bertuzzi and Ville Peltonen, as well as the emergence of prospects Rostislav Olesz, Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton and Anthony Stewart, the question in preseason would seem to be: How will all these skaters find ice time? Of course, that remains contingent on Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts staying healthy. Prediction: The Panthers will have the most talent-laden fourth line in the league.

8. Los Angeles Kings - Scoring at forward.
Marc Crawford’s going to have to get creative here, because even with Pavol Demitra last season, the Kings were on par with the Pittsburgh Penguins (T-17th) in goal scoring last season. Alex Frolov, Craig Conroy and Mike Cammalleri are all guaranteed power-play ice time, but after that, it will be up to Crawford based on what happens in camp. His main options come in the form of unproven offensive threats (Brian Willsie, Alyn McCauley), unheralded role players (Derek Armstrong, Eric Belanger, Sean Avery) and youngsters (Dustin Brown, Patrick O’Sullivan, Anze Kopitar). Prediction: This is a tough one for Crawford, and the answer’s likely to involve a scoring-by-committee approach. If at least one or two of the above can’t top the 50-point mark, however, that leaves the Kings in tough to compete in the Pacific Division.

7. Vancouver Canucks - Defence.
Ah yes, how could anyone forget? Gone from the Canucks blueline last season are Ed Jovanovski, Keith Carney, Eric Weinrich, Nolan Baumgartner and Bryan Allen. In comes Willie Mitchell, Lukas Krajicek, Rory Fitzpatrick and Yannick Temblay. Prediction: Vancouver has never been a strong team defensively, and that’s not going to change this season. Mitchell, Krajicek, Mattias Ohlund and Sami Salo are all but guaranteed the top four spots, and it’ll be between rookie Luc Bourdon, Kevin Bieksa, Fitzpatrick and Tremblay for No. 5 and 6. The veterans will likely win out here, if only to start, and goaltender Roberto Luongo will have his work cut out for him.

6. Nashville Predators - Defence.
Another team that has had somewhat of a blueline overhaul, the Predators are going to employ three defencemen in their Top 6 who will be unfamiliar to casual fans. Prediction: Shea Weber is a lock to make the team, as is Ryan Suter. The fourth spot is likely to go to Finnish league veteran Mikko Lehtonen, although prospects Kevin Klein, Greg Zanon and Nolan Yonkman are all in the mix. And while this may look like quite a green crew, keep in mind that Weber and Suter are both top-flight prospects. Weber, in particular, is noteworthy for being paired with Dion Phaneuf for Team Canada on the gold-medal winning world junior team in 2005. A Phaneuf-like season isn’t out of the question for him.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning - Scoring-line wingers.
The Lightning have four players who put up substantial numbers the past two seasons, but beyond that are depth poor. It’s a situation that left Tampa Bay only 16th in NHL goal scoring last season, and with the loss of Fredrik Modin, there’s suddenly a need for a whole lot more scoring punch. Prediction: Rusland Fedotenko, who broke out in the 2004 playoffs with 12 goals in 22 games, had 26 goals last season and should contribute more. Ryan Craig had a nice half-season audition last year and will be in the 45-point range this time around. Dmitry Afanasenkov is getting a scoring-line audition in training camp, but given the lack of numbers he’s put up elsewhere, it’s unlikely he’ll last long in that role. The real dark horse here is Andreas Karlsson, a 31-year-old Swede who led the Swedish Elite League in scoring last season. If he can emerge as a 60-point option, that solves a lot of coach John Tortorella’s problems.

4. San Jose Sharks - Defence.
Trading away Tom Preissing creates a curious hole on what was otherwise one of the league’s top young defence cores. Rookie Matt Carle is tabbed to fill his spot, and given his successful audition last year, that’s not too far out of line. Christian Ehrhoff showed during the postseason he’s ready for more, but there aren’t a lot of other candidates to step up here. Prediction: Carle will be fine, and should be able to replace Preissing’s offence. Still, you have to wonder about the youth of this crew given that spots No. 5 and 6 will likely be filled by Josh Gorges and Doug Murray. Household names, these aren’t. (Which is why it’s curious how many people are picking the Sharks to cruise to a division title this season.)

3. Atlanta Thrashers - Centre.
Out goes Marc Savard after a record-setting campaign. In comes? A pretty motley cast of characters who could foreseeably fill the top-line centre spot — none of them very appealing options. Prediction: They’re in trouble here. Really, there’s no other explanation, and it’s a shame given the steps forward the franchise took last season. It’s going to be one of either Steve Rucchin, Niko Kapanen, Glen Metropolit or Bobby Holik centring Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk, and one can’t help but think that’s going to cramp their high-flying style.

2. New Jersey Devils - Scoring at forward.
There’s a little more than a week remaining before GM Lou Lamoriello has to pull a rabbit out of a hat and fix his salary-cap situation, and I’m waiting with bated breath to see what key pieces of the puzzle will be lost. Both Brian Gionta and Paul Martin remain unsigned, and Lamoriello is going to have to drop some significant pieces in order to fit them in. Prediction: What it adds up to is a revamped forward configuration, and bigger roles for the team’s few quality prospects. Zach Parise will definitely be playing a big role, but so, too, will the likes of Barry Tallackson, Nicklas Bergfors, Travis Zajak and Jason Ryznar. The Devils have managed just seven goals in four preseason games so far — a low-scoring trend that’s likely to continue once more payroll is shed.

1. Edmonton Oilers - Defence.
But of course. Pundits have been pointing to what they call a Swiss cheese blueline ever since Chris Pronger requested a trade out of Oil-town, and just who will fill the top six blueline roles has been a source of debate from Bonnyville to Cold Lake (har har). Prediction: It’ll be a green blueline (or Greene, if you’re into puns), to be sure, but not necessarily an ineffective one. Look for youngsters Matt Greene, Ladislav Smid, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Tom Gilbert complement Steve Staios, Jason Smith and Daniel Tjarnqvist. No, they’re not going to scare anyone — but that’s what that forward corps is for.



At 3:07 p.m., September 25, 2006, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

I liked Barry Tallackson as a Gopher, and the guy can touch the boards on both sides of the ice when he spreads his arms, but nothing about him really said "quality NHL player" when he was here. I wish him the best, and I'll be very glad if I'm wrong, but I think the Devils are in trouble.

My father, a Michigan fan, feels the same way about Jason Ryznar.

At 3:54 p.m., September 26, 2006, Anonymous nick said...

Curious why you'd list Vancouver's defense ahead of their offensive lines? The last 2 spots on D are pretty much guaranteed to go to Bieksa and Bourdon - Fitzpatrick is a 7th defenseman at best, and Tremblay, well, if he weren't on a one-way contract, I'd have him pegged as Moosemeat. I don't see Bourdon being unseated in the #6 spot (too much riding on him to make the club this year) and Bieksa just signed a 2-year one-way deal... and had a pretty solid back half of the season last year.

It seems to me the big question right now is the Canucks' forward lines. We don't even know who will be on the first and second line, let alone the bottom 6 - Naslund played with the Sedins last game, but a lot of folks are thinking a trade may be in the works, with either Morrison or Cooke heading out of town (or both). Both Patrick Marleau and Scott Hartnell have been rumoured to be on the move here.. I don't know about you, but the defense pairings seem much more clearly defined this year than the foward lines.

At 5:23 a.m., September 30, 2006, Anonymous Zanstorm said...

You mean Vancouver Canucks-OFFENCE, right? That could be the bigger problem in Vancouver. I like their defence.


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