Who Can Dethrone the Caps? SSG Hockey Preview
After winning the Presidents Trophy last year the Tampa Bay Lightning were the odds on favorite to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals from the Eastern Conference going into the post season. They were quickly derailed, though, in the first round by the eventual Cinderella story Washington Capitals, who came back from 3-0 in the Finals to beat St. Louis for their first ever Stanly Cup Championship.
The bad news for the rest of the Eastern Conference is that Tampa Bay approached the off season with a vengeance and have somehow made themselves even better going into the 2016-17 season. Adding T.J.Brodie and Zack Bogosian to their back line as well as young talent Jonathan Huberdeau on offense, makes them the odds on favorite once again to emerge from the East.
They weren’t the only teams making moves, though in the Atlantic Division. Across the state the Florida Panthers have shaken things up with key additions: Blake Wheeler, Ryan Callahan, Dion Phaneuf, and game changing goalie Ben Bishop. Some of the best hockey in the NHL may be played in the Sunshine state this year. What a rivalry that will be.
Also bulking up on offense in the Atlantic were the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens, who met in the first round of last year’s playoffs. The Wings have added the goal scoring prowess of Rick Nash to an already dominant and physical offense and the Habs have added Jiri Hudler as a free agent from the Flames.
Two teams looking to make it back to the post season after long droughts in the Atlantic are the Buffalo Sabers and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Sabers are looking to rekindle some magic by bringing back goalie Ryan Miller as well as adding wingers Alex Chaisson, Paul Gaustad, and Joeffry Lupul. Throw in no.1 pick Matthew Tkachuk and you could have a very exciting season on your hands if you’re a fan of the Sabers. The Maple Leafs will look to match the offensive additions in their division with the likes of two former Blues, Alexander Steen and Paul Statsny.
Two teams that didn’t make a ton of moves in the off season but will improve if they can just avoid injuries are the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators. If Tukka Rask can stay healthy for the Bruins, with the addition of playmaker Andrej Palat, Boston should be right back in the hunt for the division again this year. And don’t count out the Ottawa Senators. Stone wall goalie Craig Anderson was also hurt a great deal last year but he looks forward to a healthy 2016-17 and the Sens have also added center Adam Henrique and more recently Matt Molson and Jason Chimira to spice up the offense and make things interesting.
Look out Tampa Bay…..repeating as division champs may not be that easy.
That brings us to the home of one of the greatest stories of the year, if not the decade. Sneaking into the playoffs on the last day the Washington Capitals stunned the hockey world by not only making the Finals but coming back from 3 games to 0 AND a score of 4-0 in game 7 to win it all. Alexander Ovechkin willed his team to victory last summer and will return to try it again with a few new faces. The defending champs have added some key players to their back line in Damon Severson, Cody Ceci, and Jake McCabe. Also joining an already potent offense will by Kyle Turris in a trade with the Senators.
Until the Caps stole their thunder, perhaps the greatest story in the division during the regular season was the play of the New York Rangers, who boasted the league’s best defense. They haven’t made many changes but were any really necessary? Until a late surge by Tampa Bay the Rangers held the league’s best record most of the year. You always have a chance to win it all with Ryan McDonough on defense and King Henry between the pipes.
Another team making few moves but remaining potent is the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they will be minus super star Evgeni Malkin who was traded to the Devils in a move that will really solidify the Penguin’s future as they make a transition to youth on the fly with Sidney Crosby again at the helm. Helping out Kris Letang on D will be the addition of Fedor Tyutin as the Pens look to win their fourth Cup.
A team in the Metro that is hoping to finally make the transition from fun young team to experienced perennial playoff contestant is the New York Islanders. Led by their captain Jon Tavares the Isles narrowly missed the post season. A big reason for that, however, was an injury to Tavares that caused the centerman to miss 30 games. If he and teammates Kyle Okposo and Anders Lee can stay healthy the skies the limit in Brooklyn.
That sound you heard over the summer was the detonation of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Fans will need a program to get used to their new team this year as the BJs made an insane amount of moves. Among the many new faces were (take a deep breath), Dougie Hamilton, Seth Jones, Sean Couturier, Andrew Ferrence, goalies James Reimer and Ondrej Pavlic. (Not done yet)…..also Sean Matthias, Troy Brouwer, and young star Sean Bennett. Time will tell if all of this will be for the better but it definitely will be exciting in Ohio.
As mentioned earlier one of the biggest moves of the summer came when the usually defensive minded New Jersey Devils added league super star Evgeni Malkin. He will definitely look different in the Red and Black but it definitely marks a change in the hockey played in the Garden State.
Another incredible story overshadowed by the miracle in D.C. was the play of the Carolina Hurricanes which many picked for last in the East. The Canes ended up with 107 pts and narrowly missed winning the division. Additions like Scott Hartnell should add some grit that could push them over the top.
Looking to the future will be the Philadelphia Flyers. Early last season the Flyers were the original Blue Jackets making several moves that reshaped their team and geared it to a youth movement. They still have the studs to be competitive, though in Claude Giroux and Simone Gagner. Last year they were in the playoff race to the very end.
Maybe we should have started with the West because in comparison to the explosion of moves in the East this is actually quite boring as far as the off season goes. Don’t let it fool you though. There are just as many power houses and Cup contenders on this side and there is something to the philosophy of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
One such team is the St. Louis Blues. All year they dominated opponents and were the choice of many to win it all. The addition of James Neal mid-year to the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko and D man Alex Pietrangelo made them the class of the Central and the West. The plan worked perfectly until the very last period of the year in the very last game…..game 7 of the Finals in one of the most heart-breaking losses in sports history. After being up 3 games to none earlier in the week the Blues seemed to finally come back to life with a 4-0 lead midway through the game only to lose it in the end.
Though not many changes were made in the summer they come back with a fire similar to that of the Lightning as both will have their sights set on revenge and dethroning the Capitals.
Standing in their way though are some very tough opponents in what is clearly the stronger division in the Conference. The Chicago Blackhawks will be battling their arch rivals all year for the top spot with their star studded cast of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and several others. They were rudely bounced from the playoffs in the first round last year by the Minnesota Wild and will be yet another team playing with a renewed fire.
Speaking of the Wild, They emerged as a powerhouse and are never fun to play against. Not many moves, other than a recent addition of Alex Killorn, but with Zack Parise, Mikko Koivu, and Ryan Suter in the lead they will look to build on the sweep of Chicago in round one and take it to the next level in the upcoming season.
As far as the next level goes the Winnipeg Jets surprised many by kicking it into another gear after the holidays and not only making it into the playoffs but reaching the Conference Finals only to lose to the Blues. The addition of Jeff Carter and TJ Oshie will only add to the excitement the Jets created in the city last spring. A healthy Andrew Ladd for a full season wouldn’t hurt the cause either.
Yet another playoff team from the Central, though they faded a bit in the end, is the very talented Colorado Avalanche. Led by Matt Duschene the Av’s bring an excellent blend of youth and experience. Young stars like Nate McKinnon play with great role models such as Jerome Iginla and Alex Tanguay.
There is no drop off in talent in the Central when you get to the two teams that missed the post season. The Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators were in the hunt until the last game of the season and would surprise no one if they finished high up in the division this year. Jason Spezza, Tyler Seguin, and Jamie Benn are as good a trio as any and a healthy year could definitely lead the Stars late into May. In Nashville the addition of C Ryan Johansen as well as some talented young rookies could easily bring the same result for the Predators and you always are in the game with Pekka Rinne as your goalie.
Other than the Los Angeles Kings, it seemed for most of the year like no one wanted to go to the post season in the Pacific Division. Teams like the Sharks, Ducks, Canucks, and Flames seemed to show signs of making a run and then would drop back. The Kings did eventually emerge as division winners and they were joined in the playoffs by San Jose and Vancouver, neither of which would have finished even fifth in the Central. That said, with some changes on and off the ice many of the teams are looking for a strong year in the Pacific.
The Kings are probably once again the favorite. Despite losing Drew Doughty LA has replaced him with D Tyler Myers and also added the likes of Matthieu Perreault and Milan Lucic. Also a new face will be goalie Steve Mason replacing the departing Jonathan Quick.
Where did Quick go? Maybe to the most exciting young team in the division the Edmonton Oilers. The fans have had enough bottom dwelling and with the emergence of young star Connor McDavid the Oilers are hoping a few moves have put them over the top. How can you not improve with a goalie like Quick and a star defenseman like Drew Doughty? Additions on offense like Patrick Wierioch and Cam Atkinson can only help the young stars as well. This could definitely be the year the Oilers end their post season drought.
Their Alberta rivals will also be looking to end a dry spell. The Calgary Flames finished strong last season winning 9 of 10 but could not recover from a dismal winter of hockey. Despite having young stars such as Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau to go with captain Mark Giordano the Flames felt their needed to be some changes and shook things up a bit in the off season. A huge trade with the Blue Jackets brought in goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and D Jack Johnson to help out in their own zone and also added two Brandons to their top line in Saad and Dubinsky.
The other team making it interesting in Western Canada this year will be the Vancouver Canucks. Much like the Sabers with Ryan Miller the Canucks have brought back a familiar face in goal, Roberto Luongo. They have also added great speed in Michael Grabner to help out the Sedin twins on offense. Just making the playoffs is getting old in British Columbia and their fans will be looking for at least a second round appearance this year.
Some fans also tired of early exits in the playoffs are those of the San Jose Sharks. Adding Nick Foligno to the mix of veteran stars like Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau will help but the Sharks aren’t getting any younger and experienced stars in San Jose will be desperately looking to push past LA and the division to the next level.
Rounding out our 2016-17 preview of the Pacific Division is two teams that missed the playoffs last season but who definitely have what it takes to change that outcome. The Anaheim Ducks and Arizona Coyotes both showed signs of competing last year but came up short in the end. Ryan Getzlaf, Cory Perry lead a talented offense in Anaheim that also showcases the incredible speed of Carl Hagelin. The Ducks will have to improve on the back line though if they are going to make it back to the post-season.
The Coyotes will showcase some exciting young talent to go with players like Mikael Boedker and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Max Domi, Anthony DuClair, and Dylan Strome will make Arizona one of the most fun teams to watch for years to come in the SSG Hockey league.
Will one team repeat the miracle season of the Capitals? Or will one of the SSG powerhouses finally push through to a Cup raising in June? With all of the changes it promises to be an exciting season and the fun begins this Friday with the first games.
Good luck gentlemen. Bring on the Zambonis and let’s play!!!!!