Hockey

The Rangers attempted to hit warp-speed on their rebuild with a couple big signings and one big draft pick. That’s all it takes in the NHL. And thanks to a mediocre division, the Rangers could be poised to make a big move. They’re not there yet, as far as being in the glitterati, but they are suddenly worth watching again. Where the lights shine bright and all that.

2018-2019

32-36-14  78 points (7th in Metro Division)

2.70 GF/G (24th)  3.26 GA/G (23rd)

46.0 CF% (30th)  47.1 xGF% (24th)

19.4 PP% (17th)  78.2 PK% (27th)

Goalies: Whatever excitement is surrounding the Rangers has to be tempered by questions about how much Henrik Lundqvist has left. He will turn 38 at the end of the season, and his .907 SV% last year was the worst mark of his career. The year before he was at .915, which would probably be good enough for the Rangers team to take a step forward. His Vezina-contending days are almost certainly over, so the Rangers have to calibrate if he can just be league average or a tick above. This was not a good team in front of him, and he saw a ton of rubber, but Lundqvist is going to have to be better if the Rangers are going to turn things around.

If he doesn’t, it’s going to back David Quinn into a corner, as he’ll be the first coach to have to deal with whether or not to cede some of King Henrik’s starts to a kid. Alexander Georgiev was pretty good last year at .914. There is some hope that he can take over when Lundqvist decides to move on, but the Rangers and Quinn in particular do not want the headache of expediting that process. Henrik isn’t the type to cause a stir, but his position has also never been under question.

Defense: The big splash was trading for Jacob Trouba in the offseason. Trouba seemed to shrink from a top pairing role on a genuine Cup contender in Winnipeg, though some of that could be attributed to hating the city and coach he played for. This is where Trouba wants to be, and he certainly has the capability of being a top-pairing guy, certainly more than anyone else here.

The Rangers blue line is starting to skew pretty young, with Adam Fox, Libor Hajek, and Brady Skjei all poised for roles on this team. The hope would be they can start to steal minutes from Marc Staal, who is absolute toast these days, and Brendan Smith, who remains the worst player in the league. Anthony DeAngelo still needs re-signing, but he would be more youthful zest on this team, and would make the Rangers pretty dynamic going forward along the blue line. The question is if any of these guys can play defense, and no one has the answer for that one.

Forwards: It’s not often you can add two-thirds of a real top line in the NHL, but that was the summer for the Rangers. They signed Artemi Panarin and got to draft (Boers voice) Kaapo Kakko. There are your wingers on the top of the roster for years. Do they have a center to play between them? Mika Zibanejad is going to get a shot, and there have been times in the past when he’s flashed that capability. He had 74 points last year playing with nothing like Kakko and Panarin. That bumps Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich to the second line, where they almost certainly belong. That is until Kreider is traded, which most in the know on Broadway seem to think is an inevitability. It’s after that where things get icky.

Ryan Strome is the wrong Strome. Vladimir Namestnikov has yet to prove to be much of anything other than a guy in both New York and Tampa. Filip Chytil has a lot of growing to do. Matt Beleskey is here, which is always an indication that your forwards have been hauled out of the back of the storage room. One line and two thirds of another one is not really enough to be a playoff team. They will hope Lias Andersson helps out with this, but is that enough?

Prediction: There is enough here to be way better than 78 points. But way better can be 88 points, which won’t be close to a playoff team. Even with the additions of Panarin and Kakko, there doesn’t feel like there’s enough scoring here, especially if Kreider is going in midseason (depending on return). The defense has a chance to be really exciting, in both senses of the word. They can’t say the goalie is a sure thing either, given Henrik’s age and creakiness. There is a lot of hope and anticipation here, but that doesn’t mean it translates into an avalanche of points. They’ll make a run at a playoff spot, but probably run out of gas in March and come up comfortably short. But with another move or two after that, they’re set up to be a real thing quite soon.

Hockey

Perhaps the biggest movers of the offseason, the Devils put themselves in a position to be paid attention to for basically the first time in their history. Even when they were winning Cups, we all pretended it didn’t happen or went about our day doing something else. Is it enough to make them a playoff team? Probably not. But it’s a world where the Devils are fast and interesting, which is the surest sign we’re all imminently doomed. Let’s hop to it.

2018-2019

31-41-10 72 points (8th in the Metro)

2.67 GF/G (25th)  3.30 GA/G (26th)

46.8 CF% (28th)  48.4 xGF% (19th)

17.7 PP% (21st)  84.3 PK% (4th)

Goalies: It would seem just at the precipice of watching his career dispatched off to the Phantom Zone, Cory Schneider might have played his way back into the starter’s role. He was brilliant after returning from yet another injury in February, where he went for a .921 SV% in 17 games. 17 games doesn’t make for a season, but it sure is a hell of a lot better than the utter disaster he had been for the previous two seasons.

If it’s not him the Devils have been hoping to turn things over to fiendishly named MacKenzie Blackwood, who put up a .918 in his rookie campaign. Not bad for a kid who was 21 when the season started. He’s clearly the goalie of the future, but for now the Devils are probably going to have the two split starts. At least in the season’s first half, until one of them takes it.

Defense: It used to be you couldn’t name any Devils d-man unless you wanted to make it clear to anyone around you had outlived your usefulness to society, if you’d ever had any to begin with. That’s not the case anymore, thanks to the guy attached to Lindsey Vonn. The Devils brought in PK Subban for essentially nothing, and he’ll juice a unit that tried to approach solid but was in desperate need of any dynamism. PK and Sam Vatanen will make for a hell of a power play if nothing else. Andy Greene is somehow still here, because nothing ever dies in New Jersey, it just gets left in a swamp. I’m supposed to say Damon Severson is dependable, except I’m fairly sure he’s just a conspiracy and doesn’t actually exist. Also a joke about Mirco Mueller‘s neck goes somewhere around here, though he was surprisingly effective from a third pairing (+3.22 relative xGF%).

Past Subban there isn’t much here, but he should improve it from the top. That is if he isn’t on the decline, which a lot of experts seem to think he is, because he’s not white. And now he’s motivated, and having a PK that’s determined to fuck the world is a weapon you want to have. The joker card here is if Ty Smith, the Devils best prospect before they took Jack Hughes makes the team or not. He dominated the WHL last year, and most think he can skip the AHL and head straight to the Devils. With Subban, Smith, and Vatanen, that’s a lot of get-up-and-go for a team that wants to play that way.

Forwards: Clearly, all eyes will be on Jack Hughes, who will step right into the #1 center role and hopefully can bat his eyelashes at Taylor Hall enough, and pass him the puck enough, to keep Hall in town past this season. With Nico Hischier being bumped down to the #2 center role, the Devils hope they are set down the middle for the next decade. They were also able to pick up the scraps from Vegas and their unnoticed cap idiocy for Nikita Gusev, whom the Knights had been pumping for a couple years but apparently sucks now that they traded him. If he slots in behind Hall the Devils might have a find here. The two Jespers–Bratt and Boqvist–will bring even more speed to a lineup that was already kind of dripping with it. The Devils have filled their lineup with nippy forwards you don’t necessarily know but are getting past people constantly. You know it because you’ve seen them torch the Hawks the past two seasons.

Prediction: Most seem to think the playoffs are going to be just out of reach for the Devils. It might be, but they’re going to get pretty damn close. Hughes is going to step right in and won’t need much of an adjustment period. They’re likely to get no worse than representative goaltending. And they’re in a division where more teams are heading the wrong way or are just confusing as all hell. Adding 23 points seems like a big ask, but it’s been done before. Of course, the drama over Hall could be a distraction, and if they’re not in the thick of it come February the Devils might decide to cash in on what they can with Hall instead of watching him head for the exit in July. Still, the top line is going to be must-see TV, Smith and PK on the blue line could be a blast. There’s a lot to like here, even if it might need another year to really come together.

 

Hockey

Well, hope it was all worth it.

GM Jarmo Kekkelainen wasn’t going to let his squad go quietly into that goodnight last spring, and went all in at the trade deadline, bringing aboard Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel for the Jackets playoff push. It got them a stunning, historic sweep of the historically good Lightning. And that’s it.

Is that enough? For a fanbase that had seen their team accomplish exactly dick for their entire existence, it may be. Those memories will last a bit. But not that long, and soon they’re going to crave real success, like a division title or conference championship, two things the Jackets haven’t come within a $50 cab ride of. And neither of those look to be coming any time soon, as the squad that brought a playoff victory for the first time to Ohio has been shorn of three big pieces…and Dzingel. It’s not exactly a husk that’s left…but it’s the h-u-s of that.

Let’s run it through.

2018-2019

47-31-4 98 points (5th in Metro)

3.12 GF/G (12th)  2.82 GA/G (11th)

50.0 CF% (12th)  50.3 xGF% (14th)

15.4 PP% (29th)  85.0 PK% (2nd)

Goalies: Jarmo probably should be sued by the season ticket holders for negligence for heading into the season with Joonas Korpisalo as the starter. The story they’ll try and sell is that Korpisalo is 24, and heading into his prime, so there’s always a chance for a big step forward. It’s going to have to be an awfully big step, because Joonas hasn’t shown much in his brief cameos as Sergei Bobrovsky‘s backup. He’s played 90 games, and has a career .907 SV%, which would be just about league-average now. League-average isn’t going to get it done for this Jackets squad.

The wildcard is Elvis Merzlikins, and no he doesn’t have the traditional back-to-school parade here in Chicago. But I will allow for all the Fu-Schnickens jokes you want to make. Merzlikins was great in the Swiss league the past few years, but it’s impossible to know if that means anything. They seem pretty high on him, but he’s going to have to do an awful lot of heavy lifting if this team is going anywhere. That would also mean Korpisalo snuffed it, which is almost certainly doom for the Jackets.

Defense: The one unit that wasn’t scorched by free agent departures. Columbus can still roll out Seth Jones, Zach Werenski (assuming he ever signs), Ryan Murray, and Markus Nutivaara for two-thirds of the game, which is a nice place to be. It’s not Carolina’s blue line, but it’s still one of the better ones around. And they’re just running it back, as there’s been no additions to it in the offseason. So the top four will still be supported by David Savard, Scott Harrington, Dean Kukan, and Adam Clendening. Or some combo thereof, to be more precise. There’s a chance that Vladislov Gavrikov is part of the equation as well. The Jackets can at least point to this and know what they’ll get, which is more than you can say for the rest of the team.

Forwards: Ouch. At the moment, the Jackets are maybe one line and a lot of questions and hope. Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois are still a formidable tandem, and Atkinson scored before Panarin arrived. They signed Gustav Nyquist possibly to put on that line, but Nyquist is a support-scorer these days, not a main man. Alex Wennberg and and Josh Anderson will probably anchor the second, but that’s where it starts to sound short for the Jackets. Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky are still here to belch and fart and call it leadership, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Boone Jenner are going to have to seriously build on promising seasons from last campaign for the Jackets to score enough, and that’s always a dicey bet. They might need to toss prospect Liam Foudy into the deep end right away to up the amount of skill to even acceptable.

Prediction: The Jackets are in deep. They’re clearly behind the Penguins, Caps, Canes for the automatic spots in the Metro. The Islanders may have fallen farther than they did, which helps, and the Rangers and Devils probably aren’t ready to cycle back up past them just yet. Who ever fucking knows with the Flyers? So that leaves them tangling with the other division for wildcard spots, but there just doesn’t look like there’s enough scoring up front with this lot. And Jarmo already scraped the savings vault to go for it last year.

Hope those Tampa memories keep them warm for a while. It might not be enough to keep Torts from throwing himself off the roof in January.

Hockey

’18-’19: 46-29-7 (99 points) – Lost in Conference Final

2.98 GF/G (16th)  2.71 GA/G (6th)

17.6 PP% (2oth)   81.6 PK% (8th)

54.6 CF% (2nd)   56.4 xGF% (1st)

Something of the feel good story of last season, the Carolina Hurricanes are essentially going to try and run it back again, counting on maturing from youngsters and what is still the best blue line around. There have been a couple smaller additions, a loss of captain, and what feels like a real missed opportunity for the big splash that would have put this team over the top. But hey, their owner sunk an entire football league just to benefit himself, so is anyone really surprised?

Let’s see what’s under the hood here.

Goalies: The Canes have moved on from their partnership of last year, where they alternated between riding the hot streaks of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, and have given the job to Mrazek full-time. That might be a little strange considering that Mrazek’s performance in the playoffs was something you dug out of your ear, but it’s something of Carolina tradition to have a whatsit in goal. Mrazek was very good in the regular season, certainly the best goaltending the Canes have gotten in eons. Mrazek also put up a great season in Detroit once, but there are four seasons of mediocrity in three different places between that and last year, so who is he really?

Mrazek came in over his expected-save-percentage last year (.914 to .916 at evens), and what might be most important is he does that while cheap. Mrazek has only a $3.1M hit, and that matters to Carolina. It’s a shame they didn’t spend it elsewhere that much, though. Still, the Canes make it about as easy as a team can for goalies, as they have the puck all the time. They’ll be counting on that again.

There is a more than decent insurance policy here though in James Reimer. Optimus Reim has an off-year in Florida last season, but had racked up league-average SV%s or better the previous three seasons. He has been a plus-backup for the back half of his career, and the kind that can usurp the top job for a stretch when he gets hot/the starter goes to the zoo for a bit. He has made over 39 starts each of the past three seasons, either due to Luongo’s injury problems or just taking the job, so there is a safety net in net for the Canes. Pretty shrewd here, really.

Defense: Still the team’s strength, even with the subtraction of Calvin de Haan and the addition of Gustav Forsling (assuming he ever gets out of Charlotte, which he shouldn’t). The Canes still roll a top four of Brett Pesce, Justin Faulk, Dougie Hamilton, and Jaccob Slavin (and his superfluous c). You’d be hard-pressed to find a team that can match that top four anywhere, and if the bottom pairing becomes a septic tank accident through some combo of Forsling, Haydn Fleury (and his missing e), Trevor van Riemsdyk and his missing talent, or kid Jake Bean, they can just run the top four out there between 40-45 minutes a night and not get too worried about it.

There will be some drama around Faulk this year, as he enters the last year of his deal and the whole will-he-or-won’t-he be traded or re-signed thing. Considering what the Canes could accomplish this year it would be near farce for them to trade Faulk, but one wonders what the actual budget is here for this team and we know how teams are loathe to lose players for nothing, even if they have everything to gain here. Still, it’s not that hard to make a case for the Canes to be division favorites now, and you don’t maintain that status by losing Faulk in the middle of the season.

That behind us, this unit can do just about everything, whether it’s pushing the play and supporting the offense or locking things down. You wish the Hawks took notes.

Forwards: In a dream world, the Canes would have already offer-sheeted Mitch Marner for $12M a year, and gotten ready to be the East favorite. They thought smaller however, signing Ryan Dzingel and trading for Erik Haula, who is just about the perfect Hurricane. They’ll also get a full season out of Nino Neiderreiter this time, another perfect Cane, and maybe the production they get from those three is enough to offset the retirement of Justin Williams as well as boost an offense that needs to be a touch better.

They’ll also expect a leap forward from Andrei Svechnikov and possibly Martin Necas, who was excellent in the AHL last year. They still seem intent on using Jordan Staal as a #2 center, and that’s simply not what he is anymore and likely never was. He’s a checking center and should be used as such. When the Canes go deadline-shopping, another center probably should be top of the list.

Sebastien Aho is now locked down and flourished moving to the middle last season. Our Dear Sweet Finnish Boy is still here to break our hearts. I’ve never been totally sold on Dzingel, who didn’t do much in Columbus last year after a trade there and his goal-scoring in Ottawa screams “production because someone had to score.” They look a little short on the wing as well, with only Turbo Targaryn, Nino, and Svechnikov feeling like genuine top-six wingers and none really being genuine top-line wingers for a Cup-contender. Marner would have been perfect here, just as Tavares would have been the year before.

Outlook: This is still a great team coached very well by Rod The Bod. It’s hard to see where the goaltending will completely sink them as it has in years past, and there’s no reason to think their possession numbers are going to go anywhere given the defense they sport. The only thing that’s going to nab them is a lack of frontline scoring, and Svechnikov has a chance to remedy that (but not by himself). With the Penguins and Capitals having to be in decline, the Islanders being run by Nosferatu, and the Rangers, Flyers, and Devils still in a rebuild, and the Jackets a complete mess, there’s little reason the Canes can’t take the Metro crown away from the Caps for the first time in eleventy-billion years or whatever it is. They were only five points short of that last year, and that gap is going to shrink if not disappear. There should be no boundaries for this team.

 

Everything Else

With Labor Day behind us and something of a crispness in the air, and the incompetence of the Bears about to be on display, it’s time to look forward to what will go on inside the heavily sponsored walls of various arenas around the continent. We’ll go team by team over the next month, so let’s kick this pig…

Boston Bruins

2016-2017: 44-31-7  95 Points   3rd in the Atlantic   Lost in 1st Round (Ottawa 4-2)

Team Stats: 54.3 CF%  55.2 SF%   55.7 SCF%  6.6 SH%  91.3 SV%  21.7 PP%  85.7 PK%

It only seems like 16 years ago or so that the Boston Bruins were an Eastern power, racking up a Cup and another Final appearance. But it all decomposed so quickly, much like Zdeno Chara’s mobility. Hey, think those things might be linked? Toss is some hilariously bad roster and cap managing, with a focus on just about all of the wrong things, and you get a tired, old roster with not enough kids that are going to be able to make up for it. This Bruins teams looks like it’ll happen in a vacuum, as they’ll play the 82 games their allotted and you won’t remember any of them.