With the NHL season officially kicking off locally on Friday, we are going to be doing a brief season preview for all three local teams. Here we go:
Secondary Scoring: If the New York Rangers want to be a playoff contender then they are going to need someone, aside from Marian Gaborik, to put pucks in the back of the net. The Rangers hope that they fixed this problem with the addition of Alexander Frolov, and with the continued development of guys like Artem Anisimov, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Michael Del Zotto. The Rangers are also hoping that Derek Stepan will add to this category.
Consistency On The Power Play: This and the secondary scoring issues go hand in hand. Obviously Del Zotto plays a much bigger role in this equation because he is the quarterback. Last year Del Zotto posted nine goals and 37 points (22 of them on the power play, good for second on the team) and he figures to have even more of an impact this year. Obviously Frolov, Dubinsky and Callahan help here as well, but Del Zotto is the biggest factor here (aside from Gaborik).
The Defense: With the Rangers having only one defenseman over the age of 30 (Michal Rozsival) the defense will be a big question mark. With rookie defenseman Mike Sauer making the team, and one-year veterans Matt Gilroy and Del Zotto, the Rangers will still be a learning team defensively. How they handle themselves defensively this season will speak to how well the Rangers will do this year.
Final Prediction: The Rangers missed the playoffs by one point last year, and this team has basically the same complexion with a few major upgrades. Don't underestimate how much of an impact Biron will have on this team's win total, and Frolov will help immensely with both the power play consistency and the Rangers scoring problems. I think that this Rangers team made some really good moves and will make the playoffs (and surprise some people in my opinion).
New York Islanders
John Tavares: Unfortunately for Tavares he is being directly compared to 2008 1st overall pick Steven Stamkos. While they had similar rookie seasons Stamkos turned into a monster this season (his second year in the NHL scoring 51 goals and 95 points). Those are lofty numbers for Tavares to live up to, especially since the team he is playing on is imploding all around him. It also doesn't help that the 3rd overall pick in that draft (Matt Duchene) was a Calder Trophy finalist. Regardless, the Islanders just want to see how their "star in the making" handles his second year in the NHL. And if they want any shot at the playoffs he has to be that star right now.
Injuries: Before the Islanders even hit the ice for their first game they lost two of their three best players. Superstar defenseman Mark Streit is going to miss six months due to a shoulder injury, and Kyle Okposo is out for three months as well. Streit and Okposo combined for 30 goals and 101 points last year,and those are hefty numbers to make up for. Especially when both of them contributed 71 assists, helping other people score goals. It will be interesting to see how the Islanders handle those.
Rick DiPietro: He's baaaaaaaaaaaack. Maybe. DiPietro, who has only played in 13 NHL games the past two seasons, is back from his injury, and expected to actually play a little this year. The 2005 1st overall pick hasn't made the impact that the Islanders expected when they made him the highest-picked goaltender in NHL history (passing over names like Danny Heatley and Marian Gaborik). Dominik from Lighthouse Hockey see's DP in more of a backup role.
Final Predictions: Some bolder experts pegged the Islanders as a potential playoff team a few weeks ago, but they are probably changing their tune now. With the massive injuries to Streit and Okposo I see this as another rebuilding year for the Islanders. I just can't see them making the playoffs with all of the injuries.
Ilya Kovalchuk: He is definitely the story of the off-season. Kovalchuk will start the process of trying to justify his 15-year $100 million dollar deal, one game at a time. Kovalchuk suddenly becomes the focal point of the Devils offense and will be expected to do magical things for them night in and night out. And hopefully to help the Devils in the playoffs, and better his 1-8 career playoff record.
Martin Brodeur: The Devils did a great job of backing up Brodeur this off-season by signing Johan Hedberg to a one-year deal, and they probably figure to actually give Brodeur some rest this season. The 37-year-old goaltender isn't getting any younger, and the Devils obviously want to preserve him as long as they can. Brodeur is a huge part of the Devils plans this year, and they want him as fresh as possible.
Defense: The Devils made two major upgrades on defense in Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder after losing Paul Martin to the Pittsburgh Penguins this off-season. Both players figure to be vital to the Devils this year, and both of them round out a great defensive group.
John, from In Lou We Trust, gave was kind enough to give me a season preview blurb. Thank him by visiting his fine website. Here is what he had to say:
The New Jersey Devils, as of this writing, still have a number of difficult roster decisions to make while getting underneath the salary cap. Unless they move one of their top players, though, they'll still be a team who will have excellent goaltending, a sound defense, and possibly the strongest top two forward lines since 2001. The fans still expect the Devils to be a strong team during the regular season, and must get past the first round. They are far too talented and have had too many recent heartbreaks for anyone accept anything less. That said, the Atlantic Division will still be a challenge to win and I predict the Devils to be close to Pittsburgh but ultimately fall in second behind them near the end of the season. I don't think many Devils fans would mind, since the goal of this season is to get past the first round is more important than winning yet another Atlantic Division title.
I agree with John that the Devils are a playoff team this year. And I also agree with the insinuation that there is a ton of pressure on the Devils to perform. Last year's season was a failure, there is really no way around it, and they have to make up for it this year. Especially with the 15-year security of Kovalchuk, the need to keep Parise in Devil's red and the additions on defense. Like John said, anything other than a solid playoff performance (past the first round at least) would be a failure.