A couple of days ago I went through the rosters of the teams I’ll be following this year and tried to determine where they might have some holes that need to be filled, or questions that need to be answered. Here’s what I came up with for my top three teams:
Practically perfect in every way.
But seriously, barring injuries and meltdowns, I can’t see any real holes in the Canucks’ lineup. They have deep offence, plenty of D who can move the puck, good two-way forwards, speed, toughness, and lots of organizational depth. It remains to be seen whether Hamhuis can be the true #1 defenceman we’ve been waiting for, but we can spread the workload out across this D corps so well that I don’t think that’s even really a problem. Luongo has to have a bounce-back year to prove himself again, but we should have a good enough team that we can win just fine even when he isn’t on his A game.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning’s top 6 forwards are as good as anyone could hope for. Stamkos and St. Louis are elite point producers, and Lecavalier should be in that category, though he has to have a return to form this year. Gagne, Malone, and Downie are all really solid players, too. It’s the bottom 6 that could use some help. Dominic Moore is a very serviceable third-line center, but I’m not convinced that Tampa will be able to get the supporting offence or the shutdown defence they need from the third and fourth lines this year. An injury or two could really devastate their forward group, as well. Yzerman has to hope for a healthy season up front, and for a couple of young guys to break out.
On D, Ohlund is a rock, and Hedman should continue to get better. The return of Pavel Kubina is welcome, and Brett Clark can play some decent minutes. The problem here, again, is what happens if injuries strike. I think the Tampa D could sustain one injury and keep on trucking, but two injuries could put them in a rough place.
The goalies in Tampa are Dan Ellis and Mike Smith. As goaltending tandems go, this one could be a lot more exciting. These guys have shown that they can play well, but they’ve never really, in my observation, stood up and said, “Look at me! I’m a legitimate, consistent, proven number one goaltender!” I hope I’m wrong, but I’m worried about inconsistent play in net this year. If one of Smith or Ellis steps up and shows that he can win 35 games, that will go a long way towards getting Tampa into the playoffs, but this is where I’m putting the biggest question mark.
At the end of last year, Phoenix had a couple of guys really step up their offensive game. Wojtek Wolski and Lee Stempniak, in particular, had really strong stretch drives. The team is going to count on them to push 60 or 70 points each. If they can do that, and if Shane Doan gets his 30 goals and 60 points, then the ‘Yotes offence should do alright. Phoenix has several other players who could finish with 20+ goals and between 50 and 70 points this year, too, including veterans Ray Whitney and Vernon Fiddler. There’s lots of balance in the offence. There are also some good two-way players, including Doan and Eric Belanger. The only thing really missing from the Coyotes’ forward group is true star power, but they got by just fine without it last year, and they look to be in better shape up front this year.
Losing Zbynek Michalek to the Pittsburgh Penguins via free agency this summer will hurt the Coyotes’ defence. Michalek is a strong young player just coming into his prime. But the continued presence of Ed Jovanovski and Adrian Aucoin (both former Canucks!) is a good anchor for this D group, and Keith Yandle is another strong young blue-liner who will make a solid impact on the back end. Lepisto and Morris can put in some quality minutes. Beyond this, the question marks start popping up. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a fantastic D prospect, but D-men often take some added time to be ready for the NHL, so it may be a bit of a stretch to pencil him in on the Coyotes’ top 6 or 7 D. He may be better served by another year or two of development, and that leaves the number 6, 7, and 8 spots wide open for the desert dogs. Depth on defence will be a big question.
As far as goaltending goes, I have to admit that I was skeptical of Ilya Bryzgalov going into last year. I didn’t think he was #1 material. Boy was I wrong. Now my only question is, “Can he really be that good again?” If he regresses a little this season, Jason LaBarbera is a more-than-competent backup who can spell him for 15 to 25 games.
So in summary, I think the Canucks are God’s gift to hockey, the Lightning aren’t deep enough up front and will have goaltending issues, and Phoenix needs more NHL-quality defencemen.