TOP STORY: Jaro who? Carey Price made fans forget Jaroslav Halak last season and there is optimism in Montreal he and fellow elite youngster P.K. Subban can form the core of a Stanley Cup contender. The Habs came within a goal of upsetting the Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round, and should be in the East's upper tier after addressing a long-standing need up front with big-bodied Erik Cole. General manager Pierre Gauthier is taking a risk by leaving his roster largely intact, but with returning injury victims Andrei Markov, Max Pacioretty and Josh Gorges, and the addition of Cole and hard-rock defenceman Alexei Yemelin, the Habs will be a tough out.
SAY HELLO TO: LW Erik Cole, D Alexei Yemelin, D Jeff Woywitka, G Peter Budaj.
SAY GOODBYE TO: D Roman Hamrlik, D James Wisniewski, C Jeff Halpern, G Alex Auld, D Alexandre Picard, D Paul Mara, C/W Dustin Boyd, C Nigel Dawes.
NUMBERS GAME: The Canadiens chose to sign the recovering Markov over unrestricted free-agent points monster James Wisniewski, inking him to a three-year deal at $5.75-million for each. With Roman Hamrlik signing with the Washington Capitals, there was plenty in the kitty to sign Gorges. overpay for Cole at $4.5-million for each of four years. The Habs still have lots of mad money under the cap – with a payroll of $60.3-million, they have roughly $4-million to play with – so they can shop at the deadline. But not too aggressively – there are long-term deals for Subban and Price in the offing.
TOP PICK IN 2011: He was projected as a top-eight pick, so when Nathan Beaulieu was still available at 17, the Canadiens grabbed him. The Saint John Sea Dogs blueliner is the first Habs first rounder from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League since Eric Chouinard in 1998. That’s an ominous precedent, but Beaulieu is a better prospect than Chouinard and projects as a top-pair defenceman. He’s a fluid skater, a smart defender, a snazzy passer and a power-play quarterback whose hockey sense is off the charts. He'll need to get bigger to play in the NHL, and will spend another year with the Memorial Cup champions, but Beaulieu could be in Montreal on a Subban-like timeline of two or three years.
TOP STORY: Since their 2007 Stanley Cup final appearance, the Senators have been on an uninterrupted downward spiral in which they’ve gone through five starting goaltenders and a couple of coaches. The rebuilding will continue this year as Ottawa GM Bryan Murray hands the keys to the kids – the Senators might be among the youngest teams in the NHL this season. After a trade deadline clear-out, Murray gave a taste of the NHL to Ottawa’s most promising minor leaguers and later fired hard-case coach Cory Clouston, replacing him with long-time Detroit Red Wings assistant Paul MacLean. Veteran Craig Anderson is the latest to occupy the No. 1 goalie spot, Jason Spezza and ageless captain Daniel Alfredsson remain the offensive sparkplugs, but now this team is all about youngsters such as 21-year-olds Erik Karlsson and Nikita Filatov, and rookies such as Stephane Da Costa, David Rundblad, Jared Cowan, and Mika Zibanejad. They could surprise and do well, or could all go horribly wrong and end up with decent odds in the Nail Yakupov sweepstakes (the Russian forward is expected to be drafted first overall in 2012).
SAY HELLO TO: LW Nikita Filatov, C Zenon Konopka, D David Rundblad, G Alex Auld, RW Mark Parrish. SAY GOODBYE TO: G Pascal Leclaire, RW Marek Svatos.
NUMBERS GAME: The Senators find themselves a de facto budget team. The payroll for 2011-12 will be $51.8-million – a generous $12.5-million under the cap. That number could climb sharply if Ottawa finds takers for high-earning veterans Sergei Gonchar ($5.5-million) and Filip Kuba ($3.7-million). The Senators have a glut of one-way contracts. Defencemen Brian Lee and Matt Carkner may find themselves making NHL money in Binghamton this year to make room for Cowan and Rundblad.
TOP PICK IN 2010: Mika Zibanejad, sixth overall. He’s a Swede of Iranian and Finnish extraction, and plays the game like a Canadian. Zibanejad’s stock rose considerably in the lead-up to the draft because he brings a tantalizing package of size ( 6 foot 2, 195 pounds) and skill. The Sens like to be conservative with their youngsters, but in a season of low expectations and few options up the middle, it’s not inconceivable that Zibanejad, who impressed at a rookie camp this summer, could crack the team as an 18-year-old.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
TOP STORY: Netminder James Reimer is going to continue to be the focus for the Leafs. After signing a new three-year deal for $1.8-million a season, he’s essentially guaranteed the No. 1 role on opening night. Whether he can duplicate his remarkable half season from a year ago will likely be the single biggest factor in whether Toronto can end its seven-year playoff drought next April. Also sure to make headlines will be coach Ron Wilson’s contract status, as an early losing string could mean he doesn’t finish the season behind the bench, and the health of new centres Tim Connolly and Matt Lombardi. Depth down the middle was a huge problem for the Leafs last season, one that can be rectified if those two can play close to full seasons and bump youngsters such as Tyler Bozak into supporting roles.
SAY HELLO TO: C Tim Connolly, D John-Michael Liles, C Matt Lombardi, D Cody Franson, C Philippe Dupuis, RW Matt Frattin, D Jake Gardiner, assistant coaches Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin
SAY GOODBYE TO: G Jean-Sébastien Giguère, C Tim Brent, D Brett Lebda, LW Fredrik Sjostrom, assistant coaches Tim Hunter and Keith Acton.
NUMBERS GAME: The Leafs have roughly $6.5-million in salary cap space but are awaiting a contract for defenceman Luke Schenn, a restricted free agent who should sign in the $3.5-million-a-season range in the week leading up to training camp. That leftover $3-million or so gives GM Brian Burke some wiggle room if he needs to make an addition in midseason.
TOP PICK IN 2011: Tyler Biggs, selected 22nd overall. The big winger from Loveland, Ohio, is just starting his freshman season at Miami (Ohio) University and won’t be on the NHL radar for some time to come. Doesn’t project as much of a scorer but, at 18, is already built for the pro game.
TOP STORY: It barely requires mention – the Jets are back home after 15 years in the wilderness. Only they didn’t return from Phoenix, where they foolishly ran off to in 1996, but from Atlanta, where the Thrashers had soiled their own nest for 14 years and, astonishingly, never won a single playoff game in all that time. Bad location, good loonie, new rink and deep-pocket ownership all combined to produce an unexpected miracle for Winnipeg. But how bad are the Thrashers-Jets? Can’t say, as less than a year ago the Thrashers were considered comers, with D Dustin Byfuglien being talked about for the Norris Trophy and coach Craig Ramsay for the Jack Adams Trophy. Now Ramsay is gone, with a new coach in (former Manitoba Moose coach) Claude Noel and a new GM in Kevin Cheveldayoff. Byfuglien is back, as is leading scorer and captain Andrew Ladd, signed to a new five-year, $22-million contract. For middling teams, the most important position is goal, with young Ondrej Pavelec thought to be a rising star and veteran Chris Mason capable of challenging for the starter’s job. Even so, the Thrashers allowed the second-most goals in the league last season, so one of them will have to be exceptional.
SAY HELLO TO: The Crowd – if hockey truly has a seventh man, then Winnipeg Jets can boast the biggest off-season signing of the year. The MTS Centre crowd, and the city, will be huge. Also new: Talented mystery F Kyle Wellwood, signed to a one-year, $700,000 deal over the summer.
SAY GOODBYE TO: Atlanta, with no regrets. Ramsay’s coaching staff is gone. President Don Waddell and GM Rick Dudley are history. Whether new lamps for old works in front offices will be decided on the ice.
NUMBERS GAME: According to CapGeek.com, the Jets are more than $15-million under the salary cap, which gives them considerable opportunity to play should the team become a surprising contender by the new year.
TOP PICK IN 2011: The Jets were blasted for skipping top prospect Sean Couturier in favour of taking Mark Scheifele seventh overall. The rangy Barrie Colts centre was apparently highly recommended by former Jets superstar Dale Hawerchuk, one of the game’s greats at that position. Not likely to play this year, though.
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