New York Hockey: season preview
1. New kid on the block
Why did the Rangers push so hard to trade for Rick Nash at the trade deadline last February? They felt they had a small window to make a run at the Stanley Cup, making the gamble worth the risk. It didn't come to fruition then, but they landed the 28-year-old winger months later in a blockbuster trade during the offseason. Nash, who has tallied at least 30 goals in five consecutive seasons, is thought to be the piece that puts the Rangers over the edge. Nash played overseas in Switzerland to ensure he could hit the ground running in his Rangers debut, but the bright lights of Broadway are a far cry from his previous home in Columbus. He's fared well when shouldering the spotlight in the Olympics, but how will he handle the transition on the NHL stage?
2. Conditioning concerns
Since arriving in New York, coach John Tortorella has taken great pains to shape and mold his team to be one of the toughest and best-conditioned -- both physically and mentally. He achieved that by putting his players through an intense and grueling training camp, but will not have that benefit with a shortened camp schedule before the regular season begins. Although players have to be secretly relieved that his infamous skating test will be scrapped, will the team suffer without having the usual type of preparation?
3. Decisions on D
The Rangers boast some of the sturdiest defensive talent in Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal, although there remains some question marks for their blue line. Michael Sauer has not played since suffering a concussion in December 2011 and is not expected to return at all for the 2013 season. Michael Del Zotto led all Rangers defensemen in scoring last year, but remains an unsigned restricted free agent with no arbitration rights and little leverage. Look for the Rangers too add some depth on D at some point early in the season.
4. Gaborik's return
For the Rangers, one silver lining from the lockout is they will have a healthy Marian Gaborik, who underwent shoulder surgery in June. The 30-year-old winger, who led the Rangers last season with 41 goals and 35 assists, used the time off during the work stoppage to rehab the injury and was medically cleared to play in early December. Tortorella said he will be ready to play the first day of training camp and has been "fine for awhile." Gaborik may have the benefit of playing on a top line with both Nash and veteran center Brad Richards, thus lessening the intense pressure to produce.
5. The curious case of Wade Redden
Defenseman Wade Redden may be the most obvious choice for an amnesty buyout under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, and the Rangers will most likely exercise that option to rid themselves of his $6.5 million cap hit. However, the situation is not that simple. Redden was a bust for the team and, in a way, a victim of his monstrosity of a six-year, $39 million deal. He's been a good soldier and a great leader while stashed away in the American Hockey League, but the Rangers are unlikely to let him play for the Connecticut Whale for the remainder of this season for fear of him getting injured before they can buy him out this summer (each team is granted two amnesty buyouts before the beginning of the 2013-14 season, but they can't be used until after the 2013 season ends). Redden will likely take the buyout and collect the money he is rightfully owed, but that may severely hinder his chances of playing in the NHL ever again; he was injured for a good chunk of last season and would not be playing this season, either. If he does want a crack at latching on with another team as a depth defenseman, he may consider voiding his contract and beginning anew.
Click here for more on the Rangers from ESPN.com.
The Islanders garnered some buzz and credibility during the lockout, announcing their future move to Brooklyn. Can they sustain that momentum on the ice? Although they have superstar John Tavares gearing up for his fourth professional season, they haven't made enough serious upgrades to their roster to help him out. Should the squad get off to a hot start, however, they could be this year's Cinderella story with a playoff bid.
1. Tavares time
The 22-year-old center had a tremendous third season, proving he is the legitimate superstar that the Islanders hoped for when they selected him first overall in the 2009 draft. After an impressive sophomore campaign in 2010-11, Tavares took the next step, showing a massive improvement in skating and strength while registering 82 points (31 goals-50 assists). What sort of season can fans expect in Year 4? If the Islanders want a chance at the playoffs, he'll need another big one. The good news? Tavares hasn't been sitting idle. He racked up 42 points (17 goals-25 assists) in 28 games playing for Bern of the Swiss A league with Islanders teammate Mark Streit.
2. To buy out or not?
Rick DiPietro's albatross of a contract -- 15 years, $67.5 million -- has long been the subject of scorn as one of the worst deals in the history of the league. Not DiPietro's fault -- who wouldn't take that? -- but he hasn't stayed healthy. If the Islanders make the wise decision, they'll buy him out. They can't do so until this summer, but they should be making plans accordingly. They can always add another proven NHL goaltender to challenge 37-year-old netminder Evgeni Nabokov, plus they've got talented young Kevin Poulin playing in the AHL. It would be a mistake to keep DiPietro around to reach the cap floor rather than sever ties and devote some extra money to adding talent to the roster. I believe this is a win-win for DiPietro, as well. He receives the money he is rightfully owed and can try to resurrect his career without the heavy burden of his whopper of a deal.
3. Short leash for Capuano?
In his first full season as Islanders head coach, Jack Capuano escaped the chopping block despite the team's dismal 27th-place finish. He will likely have a shorter leash in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, however. Plagued by slow starts the past two seasons, the lockout-shortened 2013 schedule places even more importance the Islanders having a quick burst out of the gates. From a cost perspective, Capuano makes sense for the Islanders, but his lack of cachet hasn't helped the struggling club ice a competitive squad. He'll have to change that to stay aboard, otherwise other candidates -- say, newly-appointed assistant Brent Thompson or former captain Doug Weight -- may receive the nod.
4. No show
Islanders GM Garth Snow added veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky via trade with Anaheim this summer, but it's been a bumpy ride ever since. First, the 36-year-old filed a grievance with the NHLPA claiming his no-trade clause, which was waived when he was dealt to Anaheim from Edmonton, was not honored. He lost that battle but now appears to be picking another option by opting to stay in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. Visnovsky issued a statement Monday saying he will remain with his team there, Slovan Bratislava, for personal and family reasons. The NHL or IIHF, hockey's international governing body, has yet to intervene, but this is becoming a worrisome pattern for the Islanders (see: Evgeni Nabokov, circa 2011).
5. Ryan Strome
A dominant force in the Ontario Hockey League the past two seasons, the 19-year-old center has a good shot at cracking the lineup for the goal-starved Islanders. The former fifth overall pick in 2011 still needs some time to fill out physically, but he's a dynamic player who can provide the team an extra weapon. Strome, who most recently participated in the World Junior Championships for Team Canada, should be able to hit the ground running and challenge for a roster spot. Sparkplug grinder Casey Cizikas is another young guy who could challenge some bubble players for a role on the team.
After missing the playoffs in 2011, the Devils bounced back last season with a surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals. The 2012 Eastern Conference champions will be facing an uphill battle to replicate that success this season, however, due to the loss of superstar forward Zach Parise, who signed with Minnesota.
1. Ilya's year?
Ilya Kovalchuk averaged more than a point per game while playing in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), keeping his skills sharp during the lengthy work stoppage. The question is: Will he return? Rumors were rampant on Tuesday that he was considering staying with his club, SKA St. Petersburg, despite the agreement between the NHL and KHL that all NHL players shall return once the lockout is lifted. The Devils could void his whopper of a 15-year, $100 million deal should he choose to stay, but conventional wisdom is that he will return to avoid any international sanction. Assuming he returns, Kovalchuk is by far the Devils' most potent offensive threat. He led the Devils in scoring with 87 points (37 goals and 46 assists) last season and will now get the opportunity to play his natural position on the left wing. Kovalchuk was moved to the right wing for a good chunk of the year to play on a line with Parise and, although he still thrived there, he may feel more comfortable switching back. Will Kovalchuk's numbers increase as the No. 1 guy or will Parise's absence have an adverse effect on him? And more importantly, will he come back at all?
2. No more Zach
The New Jersey Devils didn't fare well the last time they were without Parise for a significant chunk of time -- the superstar winger missed all but 13 games in 2010-11 because of a knee injury -- and this time his absence is permanent. The dynamic forward signed with his hometown Minnesota Wild this July, and the Devils will need to account for the void all over the ice. One of the premier, do-it-all, hard-working, abundantly skilled players in the game, Parise can't be replaced. But they'll have to hope for an ensemble effort that helps to fill the void. Parise's departure also requires the Devils to designate a new captain for the second time in two seasons.
3. Aging goaltenders
After briefly flirting with free agency this summer, Martin Brodeur inked a two-year, $9 million deal this summer to remain with the team that drafted him more than 22 years ago. Even at 40, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer was superb in helping the Devils reach the Stanley Cup Finals, but he and the team will be dogged by questions about how long he's able to hold up. The Devils have one of the most reliable -- certainly one of the most beloved -- backups in Johan Hedberg, but he's no spring chicken either at 39. Whether those two can keep the fountain of youth flowing for another season will be a concern, as will the physical effect of a lockout-shortened season on older players.
4. Key injury
Without Parise, the Devils would like to lean heavily on young center Adam Henrique, who had a breakout rookie season and tremendous postseason. Unfortunately, the 22-year-old Calder Trophy finalist is coming off hand surgery that is expected to sideline him for another month. The injury leaves the Devils with some depth issues down the middle, meaning the club will have to get big contributions from fellow pivots Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson. Both missed big chunks of last season with injuries, so they are looking to have bounce-back performances.
5. Defensive depth
Perhaps the most underrated move by Devils GM Lou Lamoriello last season was nabbing offensive-minded defenseman Marek Zidlicky in a deal with Minnesota leading up to the trade deadline. Zidlicky, who publicly clashed with Wild coach Mike Yeo, added a veteran presence and a weapon to the Devils' power play, but the Devils still lack depth on their blue line. Veteran Andy Greene is a steadying force on the blue line, but New Jersey could use someone with the size and snarl of Scott Stevens or the skating ability of Scott Niedermayer. Rookie Adam Larsson showed promising flashes but was inconsistent in his first professional season. The Devils will have to hope he takes a major step forward in his development -- he'll have to do so without the tutelage of former assistant coach Larry Robinson -- and the rest of the defensive corps can stay healthy. Mark Fayne is an underrated blueliner that quietly had a strong year for the Devils. His play could factor in huge to the team's success.
Based off of little more than the team's injury situation, I'd think Niederreiter has a great shot at sticking for the full season. If he's sent down either before or after his nine-game trial period, it's likely because the team is focusing on the future rather than the present. de Haan on the other hand faces a little steeper climb due to the team's additions to the defense over the offseason and his need to get good ice time in order to continue his development. That likely means he'd need to crack the top four defensive slots.
And finally, some good news from the ice this morning as the team Twitter feed tweets that Niederreiter is back and practicing after undergoing some examinations following a pair of slashes from Mike Cammalleri. Yesterday, the NHL served Cammalleri with a one-game suspension for the chops.
- Scott Burnside pens the Islanders preview for ESPN.com. It’s a pretty frank assessment of the franchise right now, meaning he sees the team’s ownership and relocation worries blocking any silver lining from its growing collection of talent.
- Jim Kelley of SI examines the deep hole in which the Islanders find themselves.
- Over at NYI Point Blank, Chris Botta writes on the team’s defensive upgrades.
- Lighthouse Hockey evaluates the breakout potential of F P.A. Parentau.
- Larry Brooks wrote over the weekend that the Islanders are making a mockery of the salary cap by using payments to past players Alexei Yashin and Brendan Witt to reach the salary cap floor.
- Puck Daddy asks the fans if Cammalleri got what he deserved.
The rankings, powered by the VUKOTA projection system of Puck Prospectus, break down each team into eight categories, weighted by importance. The Devs score a little over 6 on the 10 point scale, good for third in the East. Most interestingly though, the only get a 5 (out of 10) in the scoring category, despite acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk this summer.
Division foe John Tavares was a little more wary of the new-look Devils. From the article:
"They've always been a hardworking team," [Tavares] says. "They're one of the few teams in the league that plays as a five-man unit. And now, in addition to being tough defensively, they're going to have a huge weapon that can score at any time."
It's an Insider article (though free for ESPN The Magazine subscribers), so I can't divulge too much, but it serves as a nice teaser for the rest of the day's reading.
- The Post writes that Jason Arnott thinks the Devils were mad he didn't skate in Game 5 of the 2001 Stanley Cup finals after suffering a concussion, and wonders if it led to his departure from the team.
- Larry Brooks writes that the NHLPA was responsible for saving the Devils a $3 million salary cap penalty after the Great Kovalchuk Compromise of 2010.
- The Devils team site discusses the first goal scored by rookie Matt Taormina.
- Fire and Ice has news of the seven Devils placed on waivers today: C Tim Sestito, RW Patrick Davis, RW Stephen Gionta, C Brad Mills, LW Chad Wiseman, D Olivier Magnan-Grenier, G Mike McKenna.
- Tom Gulitti also adds more on tomorrow's lineup when the Devils face Philly.
- Rich Chere writes on the Adam Mair, Marcus Nilson roster battle.
With the NHL and NHLPA having already altered the current CBA, the Isles may want to lock up the former No. 1 pick and future franchise center with a career-length contract before any more restrictions are added. But if they did, would Tavares even be open to accepting one?
In a one-on-one interview this morning, Tavares supplied his view on that matter.
"There’s always pros and cons to it. You’d love to be in one place your whole career and you’d love to not have to worry about your contract coming to an end or talking to the media about it," Tavares said when asked if he could see himself signing a 15-year-plus deal with the Islanders. "But as we’ve seen with Kovalchuk’s contract, sometimes with these long-term deals there can be issues. Still, I think when you have that security and can be in one place for your whole career and not have to worry and just focus on playing, I think that can be beneficial for some guys."
Take it as you will, I'm sure we'll hear plenty on the subject over the next two seasons.
In the meantime, here's what Tavares had to say about Kovalchuk's courtship by the Islanders and ensuing deal with the Devils, as well as a few notes on the past and coming season:
Did you follow the summer drama with Kovalchuk’s contract?
"Yeah, everyone was wondering what was going to happen. I was hearing what was going on with us and thinking he could come here for a bit, but now he’s going to be in our division and be a weapon for the Devils. As for that contract itself, obviously it was sorted out and it’s probably something that will be sorted out more in the next labor talks."
Given what the Devils had to go through to get him, would you have liked to have him on the Islanders?
"[GM] Garth [Snow] said he was always inquiring and I think he thought we would improve with the team we’ve got going. So, he felt it was best to stay away and I think that’s going to allow a lot of our young guys to grow. You know, [Kovalchuk] is kind of at that point where he’s in his prime and we’re still a little young. Obviously he would be a good addition, but at the same time, you don’t want to mess up the chemistry we already have."
What was the hardest thing about last season for you?
"Just getting acclimated to everything on and off the ice. It’s a lot at first. I was lucky that Doug Weight was able to help me quite a bit. That took a load off so I could just focus on playing. That helped me to some early success."
How happy are you that the Islanders re-signed him?
"I was pumped. He’s been huge for me, a big mentor, also a great friend. I’m pretty close with him and his family, who have welcomed me with open arms. I think everyone likes him, our core guys benefit from his experiences and he’s still a great hockey player."
Around the middle of last season you had a bit of a scoring slide. Were you getting tired or how do you look back on that stretch?
"I think it was a combination of things. For a week or two I was trying to just get over the hump mentally, but after I thought I was playing some really good hockey. Some of those weeks when pucks weren’t going in I thought I was playing well and making things happen. It’s one of those things; you just have to tough it out. I really learned a lot about myself and how I could contribute in other ways. It was a good test for me and I think it will benefit me in the future."
What do the Islanders need to do this season to take that next step?
"In our division, we haven’t done so well the last couple of years. Last year, we were in the playoff race pretty late, which shows we were a competitive team. We were really close, but I know we didn’t have enough success in our division [Ed. note: 7-15-2 against the Atlantic in 2009-10], especially on the road with some teams [Ed. note: combined 0-9 against the Devils, Flyers and Penguins], and that’s tough when everyone in your division is trying to get in [the playoffs]. I think if we can finish .500 or better that will give us a great shot at the playoffs."