Back in the Saddle

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It’s been a while.

As a summer filled with weddings, fishing, camping and a great deal of SFA is coming to an end, thoughts are once gain turning to hockey.

While I’ve been closely following the minutia of the summer transaction in the NHL, I’ve reached the general conclusion that not much will have changed when the 2016/17 season officially kicks off.

I think this is especially true when it comes to the Western Conference where it appears the powerhouse teams will remain just that while the pretenders have fiddled around the margins a bit but none, with a couple of exceptions, have taken the kind of steps to significantly enhance their chances of post season success.

That’s not to say that there are no curious situations that bear watching and, of course, there may still be a few moves between now and opening night but I think we are close enough to completion to get a read on how the WC teams stack up.

Anaheim

The Ducks’ biggest offseason acquisition was Randy Carlyle. My goodness. Carlyle was brought back to, reportedly, light a fire under the Ducks vets but whether or not that old school approach will work is certainly questionable.

As of this writing, the Ducks still haven’t sorted out their defense with Hampus Lindholm still unsigned and they don’t have room on the roster for blue-chippers Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour so something has to give there and, like most pundits, I expect Cam Fowler may find a new home before the season starts.

The Ducks also, curiously added Antoine Vermette to a centre group that includes Getzlaf, Kesler, Thompson and Rakell (when signed) when their most pressing need seems to be a scoring winger.

Arizona

This team is all about the future as fuzzy-cheeked GM John Chayka keeps adding to an already deep prospect pool.

That pool features a veritable CHL All Star team:

  • Max Domi
  • Dylan Strome
  • Anthony Duclair
  • Christian Dvorak
  • Jacob Chychrun
  • Lawson Crouse
  • Anthony DeAngelo
  • Brendan Perlini

Obviously, it’ll take a bit of time but that group is ridiculously strong but I can see the Coyotes taking a big step ahead this season especially since they added Alex Goligoski to help out Ekmann-Larsson on D.

 

Calgary

The Flames were my pick as the most successful team in the offseason.

They had some very well-defined needs and filled all of them.

Replacing Bob Hartley with a coach who emphasizes high-speed attack hockey will result in a much more dangerous Flames team.

But even more important is the acquisitions they made in goal with Brian Elliot who had the best save percentage in the league last season (minimum 40 games) and capable backup Chad Johnson.

The Flames were the 4th highest scoring team in the WC last season and, if they can cut GA from worst to even average, they will be a playoff team.

They added 20 goal scorer Troy Brower at no real cost and if draft pick Matthew Tkachuk makes the team out of camp (I think he will) they should be a higher scoring team.

Critics like to point out that the Flames D is weak after you past Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton and,on the surface, that is true but those critics tend to forget that the Flames have some pretty impressive prospects in Oliver Kylington, Rasmus Andersson and Kenney Morrison bubbling under.

Obviously the Dennis Wideman, Ladislav Smid and Derek England contracts all represent obstacles but they will all be gone next offseason clearing up almost $12 million in cap space allowing the Flames to fill out their D with more useful players.

With their talent up front (once they sign Gaudreau) this is a team primed for a major move up the standings.

Chicago

Not much needs to be said about the Hawks and they weren’t busy in the offseason other than trying to stay under the cap but they should be better this season for one reason….Brian Campbell.

Campbell at $1.5 million is a huge steal for the Hawks and addresses their most glaring need for a team that has played with 3 NHL defensemen in the recent past.

Even at 37, Campbell remains an elite puck moving defenseman.

Colorado

If you’re looking for a team that could surprise this season, look no further. The deletion of Patrick Roy may have a huge impact on this team and, while their D is very questionable, they have enough talent up front to be competitive and lets remember they only missed the playoffs by 5 points last season. Replacing Roy should easily make up that gap.

Dallas

Old friend Woodguy bet me last week that the Dallas Stars, who won the WC title last season, would miss the playoffs.

I howled at that notion and even gave him 2-1 odds.

His reasoning I guess revolves around the changes Jim Nill has made to his D by letting Jason Demers and Alex Goligoski head elsewhere.

But let’s take a closer look.

Nill also added veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis who came back from injury last season to play very well for the Canucks.

With John Klingberg anchoring the top pairing and Stephen Johns emerging as a bona-fide second pairing ace, the Stars have the foundation for an exceptional young D on the RH side.

At the moment, Hamhuis joins Johnny Oduya, and Jordie Benn as a veteran presence but it’s the next wave that is remarkable.

  • Julius Honka
  • Esa Lindell
  • Jamie Oleksiak
  • Patrick Nemeth
  • Mattia Backman
  • Ludwig Bystrom

Every one of those players is very likely to have NHL careers which, when they join Klingberg and Johns in the next couple of seasons, will give the Stars the best young D in the league.

Honka is pretty much a Klingberg clone having scored 11G and 44P in the AHL last season and is likely ready for the NHL.

A right hand side of Klingberg, Honka and Johns is just ridiculous especially since Dallas has the LH vets to give them cover.

Esa Lindell is a huge LH defenseman who is also NHL ready after posting 14G and 42P in the AHL last season.

At 22 years of age and after playing against men in the AHL and the Finnish league for the past two seasons, he should have no problems easing his way into the NHL given that he’ll be sheltered by Hamhuis, Oduya and Benn.

No need say much about the best offence in the NHL except to say that the Stars, after getting break-out years from Radek Faksa and Mattias Janmark in 15/16, added Jiri Hudler to an already ridiculously deep group of forwards.

Not to mention that Jason Dickinson and Devin Shore are reported ready for NHL duty.

Edmonton

We’ll conclude our look at half the WC teams with an assessment of the offseason work of the Oilers’ Peter Chiarelli.

Anyone who has been following this blog will know that I promoted, predicted and expected a Taylor Hall trade to finally get some help on defense.

Problem is, Adam Larsson is a woefully inadequate return for Hall.

Larson may be a top pairing D some day but he isn’t now and you don’t trade a player like Hall for hope. You just don’t.

I expect Hall contributed to his demise with the Oilers with his entitled attitude but the trade leaves the Oilers going into another season with a putative top pairing of Larsson and the perennially injured Oscar Klefbom who has only 107 NHL games on his resume.

Once again we are reminded that the Oilers organization approached their 10 year infinibuild ass backwards are only now addressing their D in a meaningful way.

They have a very nice group of young forwards but the loss of Hall mitigates that fact and the addition of Milan Lucic, while a good move, won’t replace Hall’s value to the team.

Obviously you can’t talk about the Oilers without mentioning Connor McDavid and, if he can remain healthy all year, the Oilers should be able to recover somewhat from the Hall trade.

But a McDavid, RNH, Klefbom or Cam Talbot injury will expose the Oilers’ lack of depth and have them out of the playoffs race by Halloween.

On his blog, Lowetide has released his “reasonable expectations” stating that the Oilers will end the season with a net neutral goal differential, finish 10th in the WC and 21 overall. (he predicted a positive goal differential 3 seasons ago)

In our next post, we’ll take a look at the other teams who will prevent those things from happening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Wild Wild West

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14 Things

Black Friday has come and gone and we now have a pretty good idea which teams remain players in the tough Western Conference of the NHL.

The Dallas Stars have been the dominant team I expected them be in my pre-season analysis. They go into tonight’s game against Minnesota with a .784 win percentage and a record of 18-5 which, had they brought their A Game in two losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs, would have been a stunning 20-3.

Enough has been said and written about their superstar studded line up so I won’t belabour the point except to say that Jim Nill took a team that finished 11th in the conference in 2012/13 and built a powerhouse in essentially two seasons. That speaks volumes about teams that seem to need a decade to become competitive.

The St. Louis Blues are performing as well as one might expect considering their deep blue line and the emergence of Colton Parayko on their bottom pairing.

The Blues will have Paul Statsny in the lineup tonight when they face Columbus. Statsny has only played 7 games this season due to injury but has 2 points in the 2 games he’s played since returning to the Blues’ top line. Look for the Blues (14-6-3) to be even better in the second quarter of the season.

The Chicago Blackhawks struggled early but have been coming on hard (6-3-1) in their last ten games led by the all world performance of Patrick Kane.

Kane is on pace for a 125 point season and would normally be running away with the scoring race if not for the Benn/Seguin/Klingberg scoring machine in Dallas.

One thing to keep an eye on though for the Hawks is that any injury to Kane would hurt tremendously as Chicago, even with Kane’s heroics, are only 10th in GF/GP and could fall off a cliff if Kane gets hurt.

The Nashville Predators, predictably, have had trouble scoring and, despite being tied with Chicago in points, could easily fall below the playoff cutline if Minnesota and/or Winnipeg make even a small surge.

You have to wonder how long it will be before David Poile is forced to move one of his hoard of defensemen to ensure his team makes the post season.

The Los Angeles Kings are leading the Pacific Division with 27 points but that total would have them 5th in the Central Division and their lead is precarious with San Jose, Arizona and Vancouver all within 4 points of the Kings.

The Kings are notorious slow starters so I don’t think there is much worry they’ll make the playoffs but one does have to be concerned about the sub standard play of Anze Koptitar who is only on a 40 point pace. I wonder if his protracted contract extension limbo is taking a toll on him. (I have a hunch that Dean Lombardi will not break open the bank for him and he may be traded before July 1st)

The San Jose Sharks have been on a tear of late, sweeping a 6 game road trip and,if they ever find a way to win at home (3-6-0) they’ll waltz into the post season.

It’s worth noting that the Sharks have been without top scoring centre Logan Couture for all but 3 games this season but he’s expected back from a broken fibula as early as tonight against Calgary…that should give the Sharks a shot in the arm.

The Arizona Coyotes somehow just keep hanging around and their not doing it with “Bettman Mirrors”.

The Coyotes have won 12 games in regulation riding a decent D and the superlative play of Martin Hanzal and rookies Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. While Chicago’s Artemi Panarin leads the rookie scoring race, he’s 24 years of age while the Coyotes’ youngsters are only 20.

I’m not convinced the Dogs can hang on to a playoff spot but what we do know is that the Coyotes have two recent draft picks, Christian Dvorak and Dylan Strome with more than 2PPG in the OHL and they should be ready to play next season. Yikes!

The Minnesota Wild have endured the loss of their best player for almost 10 games now but they are in “stealth mode in the Central Division hanging on to the final wild card spot but have a game or two in hand on everyone. Parise returned to action last night in the Wild’s loss to Winnipeg but he should give his team a big boost when he gets up to speed.

The Vancouver Sedins are on fire.

Daniel has 7 goals and and 9 assists in his last 10 games while Henrik “only” has 5 goals and 9 assists.

Ask almost any Oiler fan and they’ll gloat that the Sedins are rapidly declining and will sink the Canucks all while ignoring the fact that the Sedins have never relied on speed but instead on smarts to be among the NHL’s elite, I don’t think you get all that much dumber after 35 do you?

The Sedin’s epic play has been somewhat masking some other issues while the Canucks hang around the WC playoff cut line.

Injuries to Brandon Sutter and Brandon Prust have forced a couple of rookies into roles they aren’t ready for and only recently has last season’s top goal scorer, Radim Vrbata start finding the range.

Vrbata is 10th in the league in SOG with 83 and his shooting percentage of 7.3 is well below his career average so expect more from him.

I expect the Canucks will start winning some of the 1 goal games they are now losing but not sure if that will be enough to hold off the Ducks for the final Pacific Division slot.

The Anaheim Ducks can’t be this bad, can they?

I don’t think so either but you have to wonder if and when the dam will burst.

The last 3 teams in the WC could be thrown into a sack and into a river since all of Calgary, Colorado and Edmonton are quickly going no where.

Fans of all 3 teams seem to be expecting a surge or as some like to call it a “turn north”

To illustrate how unlikely that is to happen, let’s take a look at the Oilers next 10 game segment.

@ Pittsburgh (13-8-1)

@ Toronto (7-10-5)

vs. Boston (13-8-1)

vs. Dallas (oh my)

vs. Buffalo  (9-12-2)

vs. San Jose (13-9-0)

vs. NYR (16-5-2)

@Boston (13-8-1)

@NYR (16-5-2)

@Chicago (13-8-2)

I would be shocked if the Oilers can come any from that stretch with more than 8 points.

Even if they were to saw it off at 10 points that would leave them with only  26 after 33 games and the playoff teams will be far over the horizon by then.

Remember when Jim Nill built a powerhouse in only 2 seasons?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turning South

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It was widely expected that the Edmonton Oilers would and should make a turn north this season after 9 years as the worst team in the NHL.

The “expert panel” assembled by the fine folks at Oilers Nation were all optimistic, even delusional in some cases.

  • Lowetide 93
  • Jeanshorts 90
  • Henderson 90
  • Gregor 86
  • Willis 85
  • Baggedmilk 82
  • Brownlee 82

You may recall that I had predicted before the season began that the Oilers would finish 13th in the conference ahead only of the Arizona Coyotes which, as things are shaking out, may prove me to be slightly optimistic as well.

Old friend Darcy McLeod of Woodblog took the time over at Lowetide this morning to assess how the Oilers are actually performing:

Some comparisons of key stats from this year and last Nov 11.

First number will be this year, 2nd number is last year at this time. (running WOI Oct1/14-Nov11/14)

5v5 GF/60
2.00/60 (tied 17th in NHL)
2.10/60 (tied 18th in NHL)

5v5 GA/60
2.90 (28th in NHL)
3.10 (29th in NHL)

5v5 SH%
7.4% (tied 16th)
7.3% (tied 21st)

5v5 SV%
.904 (27th in NHL)
.900 (29th in NHL)

5v5 SH/60
26.8 (27th in NHL)
29.2 (tied 16th in NHL)

5v5 SF/60
29.9 (22nd in NHL)
30.6 (tied 22nd in NHL)

5v5 CF%
48.4 (24th in NHL)
50.6 (15th in NHL)

5v5 SCF/60
24.6 (tied 21st in NHL)
25.1 (tied 22nd in NHL)

5v5 SCA/60
24.8 (11th in NHL)
26.2 (16th in NHL)

5v5 HDSCF/60
9.3 (26th in NHL)
10.9 (16th in NHL)

5v5 HDSCA/60
11.2 (tied 23rd in NHL)
12.0 (22nd in NHL)

Sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

Oilers slightly better defensively than last year via SA, SCA and HDSA

Oilers slight worse offensively (despite McEverything playing 12 games) via SF, SCF and HDSCF.

No surprise to me as you may know…the Oilers still don’t even have ONE passable top pairing D and don’t even get me started on the over payments for Sekera and Reinhart.

I had also warned about once again going into another season without having a bonafide #1 goaltender a move which, if you consider the buyers market in goaltending, is inexcusable.

The Oilers next 3 games are against Pacific Division opponents…Anaheim tonight followed by Arizona (second games in 2 on the road) and then a third game in four nights against the Kings in LA.

The Oilers would need to get at least 3 points out of those games to even remain in the Pacific Division conversation but it’s much more likely they come away with 1or 0.

That they get to follow up that 3 game death march with a match at home against the Blackhawks likely means the Oilers season will be effectively over a week from today.

Perhaps that will spur Peter Chiarelli to start making some moves to shore up the dreadful D and I would suggest the first place he should look is in Dallas where the Stars are carrying 8 defensemen because they don’t want to expose any of their young “NHL ready” youngsters to waivers:

  1. Alex Goligoski
  2. John Klingberg (untouchable)
  3. Johnny Oduya
  4. Jordie Benn
  5. Jason Demers
  6. Jyrki Jokipakka
  7. Jamie Oleksiak
  8. Patrick Nemeth
  9. Julius Honka*
  10. Stephen Johns*
  11. Esa Lindell*
  12. Ludwig Bystrom*        *in the AHL

Jim Nill might well be reluctant to part with any of those players unless the return was very significant but Goligoski is UFA at the end of the season and if he feels one of his other young players is ready to pair with phenom Klingberg, perhaps Chiarelli could get his attention.

Goligoski, while not an elite pairing D, would certainly be the Oilers #1D right out of the box and would allow the other Oilers D to slot lower in the batting order which is exactly what is needed.

Of course, the Stars have very little need to do anything at this point but Nill has proven to be a GM not afraid to make big moves if he can improve his team in the future.

On the other hand, Chiarelli, a week from now, may realize that with the season already over from a competitive point of view he’ll just sit on his hands for the final few months of the 10th annual death march and try to offload some junk at the deadline.

Going to be a fascinating week ahead.

Ranking the Rebuilds #10…The Toronto Maple Leafs.

maple-leafs-140208

The Leafs are just starting on what might be a 3-5 year journey to return the team to relevance.

But, to my eye, they’re off to a very good start.

The rebuild, of course, began with the hire of Brendan Shanahan

After a storied NHL career, which includes 3 Stanley Cup wins, a stint as league disciplinarian and an election to the HHOF, Shanahan was tasked with returning one of the NHL’s iconic franchises to respectability.

Shanahan knows what it takes to win and virtually every move he has made in Toronto shows it.

Here is a great analysis of how the leafs rebuild looked in late June.

Of course, since that date, on July 1 specifically, Shanahan showed he was serious about the task at hand when he traded Phil Kessel:

The Toronto Maple Leafs have traded Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In return Toronto gets centre Nick Spaling, forward Kasperi Kapanen, defenceman Scott Harrington, plus first- and third-round picks from 2016. Toronto will retain $1.2 million of Kessel’s salary in each of the next seven seasons.

While it’s almost impossible to get quid pro quo for an elite scorer like Kessel, the Leafs did exceptionally well in the transaction receiving two blue chip prospects, Kapanen and Harrington as well as Pittsburgh’s 1st round pick in 2016. Spaling appears to be a serviceable 3rd line player but, in reality is nothing more than a throw in in this trade.

While not only signalling the beginning of the rebuild, the Kessel trade further stocked the Leaf’s prospect pipeline that will undoubtedly swell even further as pieces of the old guard are moved out and, really, it is the prospect pool that will be important in this process.

So, let’s take a look at where the Leaf’s stand heading into the 2015/16 season from the perspective of players who will likely be around when (if) the Leafs return to respectability.

I think we have to start with 2009 1st round pick Nazem Kadri.

The 24 year old will finally get a chance this season to show he can become a true 1st line centre. There is some doubt he is up to that task but, even if he should fall somewhat short, he would still be considered a building block as a skilled #2.

Beyond Kadri though, the Leafs drafting of late has been heavy on centres and has produced very solid depth at C.

Nazem Kadri – 7th overall 2009

Mitch Marner – #4 overall 2015. (projects as #1C)

William Nylander #8 overall 2014 (projects as #1C/RW

Frederick Gauthier – 21st overall 2013 (projects as #3C)

Carter Verhaeghe – 82nd overall 2013 (projects as #3C)

But that is just the draft.

Going under the radar was the free agent signing of 6’3″ 200 centre Casey Bailey who had a stellar junior season with Penn State.

A competitive power center who brings to the table ruggedness and determination. Works hard to get the puck when he doesn’t have it, and is always productive with his ice time. Is able to come up big when his team needs him most, elevating his game to heightened levels at both ends of the ice. Possesses a tremendous shot, with the focal point being its accuracy. Decent hands and skating ability, but could be worked on. All-in-all, that one player who, by the end of the game, you definitely want to have had on your side. (Curtis Joe, EP 2014)

See more at: http://www.eliteprospects.com/player.php?player=45878#sthash.UgQNL3ps.dpuf

It’s also worth noting that Peter Holland, drafted 15th overall by Anaheim in 2009, is still only 24 and could have more upside.

Nevertheless, the Leafs have seemingly already addressed depth down the middle in a significant way although I expect Marner and Nylander will not be full time Leafs this season….Marner likely headed back to junior and Nylander to the Marlies.


On the wings, things are a little more cloudy.

Kasperi Kapanen, who came over in the Kessel trade, seems like a surefire top 6 winger sooner rather than later and James Van Reimsdyk, at 26, is likely young enough to stick around for better days but, after that, the Leafs have to hope that another pair of under the radar picks turn into players.

From Hockey’s Future:

TEAM BREAKDOWN:

Strengths: The Leafs have a trio of exciting prospects around whom a restructuring might occur. Center William Nylander is a dynamic and creative player in the Patrick Kane mold, and new Head Coach Mike Babcock is tasked with making him a complete and responsible presence.

Wingers Brendan Leipsic and Connor Brown are also smaller-framed players, but each topped 100 points in a season during his CHL career and, most importantly, showed the ability to translate that junior offense to the AHL last season.

A new regime in Toronto might mean that there is little allegiance to incoming prospects, but there is some additional depth in players like defenseman Stuart Percy, checking center Frederik Gauthier, and 2013 third-rounder Carter Verhaeghe. A European prospect like Pierre Engvall, or puck-moving defenseman Matt Finn, might also be ready for extended looks.

The real issue though is that the Leafs prospects are blocked to a large degree by long term contracts to players I am sure management would like to move,

Players like Tyler Bozak ($4.2M X3), Joffrey Lupul ($5.25M X3) Stephane Robidas( $3M x 2) and Dion Phaneuf ($7M X7) are pulling down way too much of the cap for their production and moving any of them will prove to be very difficult.

So, if this is a 3-5 year rebuild, Bozak, Lupul, and Robidas will be gone so there is that.

The biggest issue, of course is the legacy of Phaneuf’s horrible contract although, the Leafs do have some very promising young D coming up.

Jake Gardiner (at 25 just entering his prime)

Morgan Rielly (#5 overall 2012 – projects as a #1D)

Travis Dermott (#34 overall 2015 high scoring OHL defenseman)

Matt Finn (#35 overall 2012 – projects as second pairing)

Rinat Valiev (#68 overall 2014 – high scoring WHL grad)

Scott Harrington (54th overall 2011 – acquired in the Kessel trade)

Stuart Percy (25th overall 2011)

That may not be the strongest D prospect pool in the league (see Dallas) but it’s a decent place to start and if you take a close look at what the new braintrust in Toronto has done this offseason, Leafs fans should be pretty satisfied with the progress being made.

Toronto has been very aggressive in signing players to short term deals who should be able to be flipped at the trade deadline to load up on draft picks and they already are stocked.

The Leafs have 12 picks in the 2016 draft, five in the first three rounds. They have each of their own plus Pittsburgh’s first-rounder, New Jersey’s third-rounder, Anaheim’s fifth-rounder, St. Louis’s sixth-rounder and Tampa’s seventh-rounder.

The players who it’s possible the Leafs will move at the deadline for even more picks is a long one.

JVR

P.A Parenteau

Brad Boyes

Daniel Winnik

Curtis Glencorss

Shawn Matthias

Nick Spaling

Mark Arcobello

Richard Panik

Peter Holland

It’s obvious that Shanahan, new GM Lou Lamourello  and Mike Babcock have agreed that hoarding assets that can deliver another raft of draft picks is a smart strategy and I don’t disagree.

If the Leafs enter the 2016 draft with, say, 15 or more picks, they should be able to restock their prospect pool in very short order).

If, as I expect, they finish close to last in the league, they will have a tremendous chance to draft a generational player in LW Austin Matthews but will also have Pittsburgh’s 1st round pick and another high second round pick of their own in what appears to be another deep draft.

Add another 3 or 4 decent picks in return for some of the above rentals and the Leafs could be rebuilt even faster than their management thinks.

Ranking the Rebuilds #9…the Buffalo Sabres

Eichel_BU4_672x412

The Sabres rebuild hasn’t been all that long by normal standards.

They last made the playoffs in the 2010/11 season with a respectable 96 points but it was clear after early playoff exits and It’s plausible their rebuild began in February 2012 when they sent  long time Sabre Paul Gaustad to Nashville for a 1st round pick (which after a trade with Calgary would become Zemgus Gigensons)

That draft also produced Mikhail Grigorenko (since traded to Colorado) and Jake McCabe but it wasn’t enough to save the job of GM Darcy Regier after 16 years on the job.

He was replaced by longtime Assistant GM of the Ottawa Senators Tim Murray, who, since his hiring in January 2014, has been tasked with building a winner.

As anyone who pays attention knows, you build a winner from the back end out and down the middle and it would seem that’s exactly what Murray is doing.


The Sabres again had 2 1st round picks in the 2013 draft before Murray arrived and had selected Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov so Murray had two blue chip D prospects when he took over the reins as well as Mark Pysyk who was drafted in the 1st round in 2010 and, of course former rookie of the year Tyler Myers who was drafted in 2008

While those players were under development Murray wisely brought in some veteran support in Josh Gorges and Mike Weber. But he was hardly finished.

In a blockbuster deal, Murray sent Myers, veteran Drew Stafford and a 1st round pick to Winnipeg for Zach Bogosian and controversial winger Evander Kane.

Bogosian projects as a #1D as does Ristolainen so Murray felt comfortable trading from a position of strength to address the Sabres long time woes at C.

But even with a lot of promise on D, Murray today signed Cody Franson, easily a top 4 D on most any team to a bargain 2 year contract and I would imagine the Sabres are set at the position for at least the next several seasons.


With enough D in the pipeline, Murray set about fixing the Sabres long time woes at C.

First up was the 2014 draft where the Sabres took Sam Reinhart in the list round and then, after losing the draft lottery to the Oilers, got Jack Eichel as a consolation prize.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Murray then swung a trade with Colorado and got two way C phenom Ryan O’Reilly in return for  Zadorov and Grigorenko.

The results going into the season is that the Sabres have addressed their C depth in a big way for years to come.

Jack Eichel

Sam Reinhart

Ryan O’Reilly

Tyler Ennis

Zemgus Girgensons

David Legwand

Cody McCormick

Oh my.

The Sabres remain shy on scoring wingers with Kane and Matt Moulson providing most of the top 6 punch but Kane has the potential to score more than 30 goals and there is at least some secondary support coming up through the system. (source)

Strengths: After struggling in almost incomprehensible fashion this season, the Buffalo Sabres are nearly ready to climb back to respectability. The team will add a franchise-changing center at the 2015 NHL Draft, but already in the system is Sam Reinhart. Reinhart is an offensively-gifted player who processes play at an elite level, and should make his linemates more effective for years to come. After him, the center pipeline is still solid, with JT Compher and Connor Hurley both top college prospects with whom the organization can afford patience.

There are several solid prospects at right wing too, with Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste projecting as gritty supports with some upside, and Hudson Fasching a finesse player with size.

The Sabres have also had a revolving door of goaltenders since Ryan Miller left but hope to have addressed that with Robin Lehner in the offseason. Lerner, with limited experience as a start is a gamble but one that could pay off.

Given the relative short time the Sabres have been rebuilding, I think it’s fair to assert that Murray is on the right track and has already addressed the most difficult tasks.

He’s going into the season with almost $9 million in free cap space and is imposition to take advantage of any cap strapped team now and in the future.

Considering the 2015 McDavid/Eichel draft, it’s going to be almost impossible not to compare the Sabres and Oilers rebuilds going forward.

To my eye, The Sabres are well ahead of schedule and, with the prudent use of all that cap space, the Sabres could blow by the “infinite-build” Oilers in very short order.

Ranking the Rebuilds #8…the Edmonton Oilers.

12v7_Sherman

Where to begin?

I guess we can say the Edmonton Oilers rebuild started in 2010 when the Edmonton Oilers drafted Taylor Hall…although any astute observer would point out it should have (and probably did) start in 2006 when Chris Pronger led the exodus out of Kevin Lowe’s Egypt.

Lowe never was able to part the the Red Sea and employed a long list of toadies to insulate him from his failures as a general manager and, later, as a President of Hockey Operations.

No need to belabour his shortcomings as they are well documented so perhaps it will be more instructive to take the temperature of where the longest rebuild in NHL history stands now.

I’ve been saying for years that the Oilers rebuild was ass backwards from the start and that rings as true today as it did when it started.

In  2010, the Oilers drafted a winger, Taylor Hall, as the first piece of their future when a centre with at least as much potential was sitting right there.

Tyler Seguin has already gone supernova and may have won the Art Ross trophy last season had he not been a victim of a dirty hit while Taylor Hall remains an injury riddled gunslinger who gives up more than he creates.

While very far from a perfect stat, Hall’s career plus/minus is -23 while Seguin checks in at +68.

Nuff said.

A year later, the Oilers would start to address their needs down the middle when they selected Ryan Nugent-Hopkins overall but they still remained inured to the notion that, since defensemen take longer to develop, it would be prudent to try and find a top pairing D or two to kick start the process and that decision would (and will) haunt them for several more years.

Adam Larsson, Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Brodin were all top 10 picks in 2011 and all of them are highly regarded top pairing D while Hopkins is likely a second line C.

Oops.

While still void at centre and, more importantly on D, the Oilers would totally lose the script and draft Nail Yakupov 1st overall in 2012.

There is substantial evidence that the Oilers scouting staff wanted to draft a defenseman in the 2012 draft but were overruled by owner Daryl Katz who opted instead to draft the shiniest prospect in a draft that was incredibly deep in D in the top 10.

I dare say you couldn’t trade near bust Yakupov straight up for any of the D taken in the top 10 of that draft.

Ryan Murray

Griffin Reinhart (more later)

Morgan Rielly

Hampus Lindholm

Mat Dumba

Derek Pouliot

Jacob Trouba

Old Oiler nemesis Brian Burke left the 2012 draft crowing he got the best player, Morgan Rielly, 5th overall and he was probably right.

The Oilers, meanwhile, are stuck with yet another disappointing winger and have had to overpay wildly to try and correct that mistake by trading for the most disappointing of that first round draft class, Griffin Reinhart.

Apparently two wrongs make a right 🙂

A year later, the Oilers would spend the 7th overall pick to draft Darnell Nurse who has progressed reasonably well but has already been passed by Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, Mirco Mueller and will soon feel some heat from Samuel Morin, Ryan Pulock and Josh Morrisey.

Nurse may well have a chance to become a top pairing D but, most often, those guys appear early and Nurse is almost 21 years of age with only 2 games of NHL experience to his credit.

I would wager he’ll be a very good #3 leaving the Oilers without a true #1D they should have in the stable after almost a decade drafting near the top of draft.

In 2014, it’s somewhat understandable the Oilers would address their dire need at C by taking one at #3 overall…the problem is, they took the wrong one.

Dynamic centre Sam Bennett was ranked ahead of Leon Draisaitl by virtually every scouting service including the “Oracle” Bob McKenzie.

Had Bennett not been injured in his draft year, he may have gone 1st overall but the Oilers opted to draft the next Joe Colborne when they had a shot at the next Doug Gilmour.

I expect Flames fans will be mocking that decision for the next decade.


Despite a decade  of gaffes, the Oilers defied the odds and won the 2015 draft lottery and that triggered a series of events that may give even the most jaded Oiler fan some realistic hope for the future.

I’m convinced the potential of drafting Connor McDavid resulted in a phone call from league offices and/or McDavid’s agent Bobby Orr that served as a wake up call to Oilers’ owner Katz that his old boys club gong show needed to come to a quick end.

And it did.

After conducting a “forensic audit” that, honestly, could have been conducted by a drunk chimpanzee, Bob Nicholson decided that Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish were not up to the task of building a winning hockey team.

That neither was fired outright remains a concern but at least someone else is now has the last word on team building.

Enter new GM Peter Chiarelli and new head coach Todd McLellan.

While these hirings represent a huge upgrade on the their predecessors, I believe a little critical thinking is needed here.

Chiarlelli did win a cup with the Bruins but his propensity to overpay bottom 6 role players and his decision to trade Tyler Seguin, combined with his mismanagement of the Bruins’ cap had him run out of Beantown on a rail.

The overpayments for Andrej Sekera, Griffin Reinhart and Lauri Korpikoski suggest Chiarelli may not have learned his lesson.

That he did not exercise buyouts on Andrew Ference, Nikita Nikitin or Teddy Purcell also shows that he doesn’t have a firm grasp on value for dollars.

Certainly worth watching but, in the interim, he is carrying more than $10 million in cap space for players who are below replacement value and when you consider the $3.9 million accruing to AHL level defenseman Justin Schultz, it looks even worse.

Many Oiler fans are giddy that Todd McLellan is their new coaching messiah but they haven’t exercised critical thinking in assessing his body of work in San Jose.

He took over a team that Ron Wilson had taken to the next level and, despite a star studded lineup, was never able to get the team to reach expectations.

McClellan took over a team that finished with 108 points in Wilson’s final season in 2007/08.

Over his tenure in San Jose, his record was as following:

117

113

105

96

57 (lockout season)

111

89

In other words, the Sharks slowly declined in performance during his tenure and were never able to advance to the Stanley Cup finals despite an almost all star lineup.

Whether or not he can take a young team and move them up the standings against incredibly fierce competition is a question that has yet to be answered.


So, what can we foresee for the Oilers in a season that could see them miss the playoffs for a record 10th straight season?

Well, the playoffs aren’t anywhere near a possibility….the team still has too many question marks to challenge the Big Boys in the western conference.

Once again, the Oilers go into a season with questions marks in goal, and on D and while McDavid will certainly make a difference, unless he can influence the Oilers atrocious team D even with the addition of yet another second pairing D in Sekera, it would take a Vezina Trohpy season from unproven starter Cam Talbot to move up much at all in the standings.

Calgary, Los Angeles, San Jose and, especially, Dallas will all be better this season and let’s remember the Colorado Avalanche, despite having a very disappointing season, finished 28 points ahead of the Oilers.

I have no doubt the Oilers will be better but I expect only the Arizona Coyotes will care very much.

13th in the west…again.

Ranking the Rebuilds #6…The Calgary Flames

CALGARY, AB - APRIL 9: Johnny Gaudreau #13 of the Calgary Flames skates against the Los Angeles Kings at Scotiabank Saddledome on April 9, 2015 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)
CALGARY, AB – APRIL 9: Johnny Gaudreau #13 of the Calgary Flames skates against the Los Angeles Kings at Scotiabank Saddledome on April 9, 2015 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Calgary Flames rebuild officially started on March 28 2013 when they finally pulled the trigger on a trade sending away Jerome Iginla for two prospects and a 1st round pick (Morgan Klimchuck).

None of the assets acquired in that trade have had any impact in the NHL but that doesn’t mean the Flames have been sitting on their hands.

The return on that trade was limited because then GM Jay Feaster was hobbled by Iginla’s no trade clause and, in fact, Feaster had a better deal in place with Boston before Iginla decided he would rater play in Pittsburgh.

Feaster wouldn’t survive long enough for the trade to play out after Brian Burke was named POHO in September 2013 and would fire Feaster several months later.

He was replaced by Brad Treliving, the former assistant GM in Phoenix, and the two men rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

The Flames had missed the playoffs for 4 consecutive seasons when the new regime took over and would miss again in 2013-14 but would quickly rebound in 2014/15 with a 97 point season good enough for 3rd in the Pacific Division.

The quick turnaround in Calgary came from a variety of sources.

In the first part of this series, I lauded the rebuild of the Tampa Bay Lightning as being the best in many seasons and it’s interesting to look at a comparison of the two rebuilds (Tampa vs. Calgary) from a respected Flames blogger From 80 Feet Above:

What the Lightning’s success does re-inforce is that the NHL is a young man’s game now. With Stamkos, Johnson, Hedman, Killorn and Palat all in that ‘sweet spot’ of being 24 or 25 years old, it shows what could be possible for the Flames in a few years with their young core of Ferland, Gaudreau, Bennett, Monahan and Brodie.

By turning over a portion of the roster every off-season, building up a solid supporting cast, strengthening the back-end, continually injecting youth, Yzerman has built a Lightning team that looks poised to be good for many years to come.

It’s not to say the Flames won’t be able to accomplish next season what Tampa Bay is doing right now, just don’t expect it.

What you should be hoping for instead is that Calgary stays the course on its rebuild and eventually gets to where the Lightning are at. Being a perennial Stanley Cup threat in which deep playoff runs become the norm, not the exception, should be the real goal here.

That article was written on May 31 and, of course there have been some significant changes for the Flames since then.

Chief among them was the absolute theft of young D stud Dougie Hamilton from the Boston Bruins and the signing of possession monster Michael Frolik in free agency.

Even before that, the Flames had shored up their D prospect depth by grabbing two very highly rated draft eligible players in Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington.

They added to that haul when they signed 6’3″ 210 free agent RH D Kenney Morrison out of Western Michigan University who promptly went on to score 6 points in 10 GP in a late season debut with the Adirondack Flames of the AHL

Considering their current NHL D depth chart is likely the best in the NHL, that certainly secures both the present and the future.

The Flames are in the enviable position of have no less than THREE legit top pairing D in Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton and their supporting cast of Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman and Derek Engelland, while being a little shy on the bottom pairing, has blue chip prospects who will, soon make an impact.

Like any team that is rebuilding to win, centre depth is critical and the Flames have addressed that issue through the draft.

In their first draft, the new regime selected Sean Monahan 6th overall. Monahan has already established himself as one of the best 2 way centres in the league…hitting 31 goals in his second season at age 20.

The following year, they selected Sam Bennett, who I rated the best player available in the draft, at 4th overall and, despite needing shoulder surgery, Bennett would score more that 2.0 PPG when he returned to the OHL and then managed 3 goals and 4 points in 11GP in the NHL playoffs.

How is this for C depth?

Monahan

Bennett

Backlund

Stajan

Colborne

Bouma

Jooris

Byron

Shore

Granlund

That’s 10 natural centres folks and, while some have already been shifted to wing, I think you’ll have to agree that position has been well stocked.

With D and C already solved, that brings us to the crease where the Flames have 3 legit NHL goaltenders on the roster and blue chip prospects Jon Gillies and Mason MacDonald working their way up through the system.

All this, and not a mention of Johnny Gaudreau who was the most electrifying rookie in the NHL last season.

The former 4th round pick scored 24 goals and 64 points as a rookie and I expect he’ll build off that success in the upcoming season.

The Flames rebuild isn’t quite done since they’ll have to find another scoring winger and need to move out some deadwood on D (Smid, Engelland) but their future is very bright according to Hockey’s Future:

TEAM BREAKDOWN:
Strengths: The Calgary Flames have a bright future ahead of them as they have transformed into a resilient team that will only get better. It was thought the rebuild would take years before the Flames would contend for the postseason, but the bar has been raised following a special year that saw them reach the second round of the playoffs through determination and skill.

Most of their graduated prospects from this season were impact players, but their prospect pool is still flush with talent across the board. Markus Granlund has settled into a second/third line role while Michael Ferland stepped up in the postseason.

Expect Sam Bennett to push for a spot in the NHL next season.

There is also competition coming from the AHL ranks with a strong cast of players like Emile Poirier, Tyler Wotherspoon, Kenny Agostino and others fighting for an NHL job.

Further down the pipeline in the NCAA and CHL, there are a host of skilled forwards with promise including Mark Jankowski, Morgan Klimchuk, and Hunter Smith. In spite of their shallowness in goal, Joni Ortio, Jon Gilles and Mason McDonald have shown prospective for the future of the Flame’s net.

Weaknesses: Calgary is fortunate to have a deep defensive pool, but the system needs a high-end, puck-moving defenseman who can transition the puck up ice and run the power play. The Flames also need more depth on the right wing and in the crease.

Please note the bolded.

The Flames acquired Dougie Hamilton to cover the first weakness and added Michael Frolik to address the second.

There is some concern that The Flames were “lucky”last season based on their possession stats but I find it difficult to project that going forward considering the offseason additions of Hamilton, Frolik and Bennett and potentially Morrisson and others.

This rebuild isn’t quite finished but, damn, it’s close and, when you consider it’s only been underway for 2 years, while provincial rival Edmonton has been rebuilding for almost a decade, it’s remarkable.

Ranking the Rebuilds #5…The Florida Panthers

florida_panthers_wallpaper_by_nascarfan160-d6ofwpo

I’ve long been a fan of Florida GM Dale Tallon.

Tallon built the foundation of the Chicago Blackhawks team that has won 3 Stanley Cups in the 5 seasons.

Tallon’s first season as the Blackhawks general manager was a busy one. The 2004–05 NHL season was lost to a labor dispute, and the new collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players was signed in July 2005. Between the new financial structure and many rules changes intended to produce a higher scoring game, Tallon was challenged to build a new team. Tallon signed many free agents, including goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin,[5] defenceman Adrian Aucoin,[6] and forward Martin Lapointe,[7] which led to raised expectations. The Blackhawks finished Tallon’s first season with 26 wins, 43 losses and 13 overtime losses for 65 points, ranking the Blackhawks 14th in the 15-team Western Conference, and with the third-least points in the NHL.

Under Tallon, however, the Blackhawks steadily improved, raising their points totals to 71 and 88 in the next two years. Though not enough to make the playoffs either year, their poor overall standing allowed Tallon high draft picks to work with. In 2006, he selected Jonathan Toews third overall, then Patrick Kane first overall the following year. The two forwards went on to quickly become franchise cornerstones and were joined by fellow young talents Patrick SharpKris VersteegMartin Havlát and Brian Campbell, all of whom Tallon either signed or traded for.

With a new core of players in 2008–09, the Blackhawks finished the season with a 46–24–12 record for 104 points. Ranking fourth overall in the Western Conference, the team qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Chicago made it to the Western Conference Finals, where they were eliminated in five games by the Detroit Red Wings.

Tallon further bolstered his team in the off-season by signing star winger Marián Hossa and Selke Trophy-winning John Madden. That same off-season, however, Tallon and the Blackhawks management came under fire in early July 2009, when the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) claimed the team did not submit qualifying offers to their restricted free agents before the deadline.[8] In the worst-case scenario, the team’s unsigned restricted free agents at the time, including Kris Versteeg, would have become unrestricted, earning them additional salary and negotiating rights.[8] Tallon was able to sign all his restricted free agents, although at a cost of millions more than he would have to had he qualified them in time.[9]

Soon thereafter, on July 14, 2009, the Blackhawks demoted Tallon to the position of senior advisor, while Stan Bowman, son of Scotty Bowman, was promoted to general manager.[10] The following day, Martin Havlát, who was no longer a Blackhawk, criticized the team’s management and defended Tallon.[11] He stated, “Every single player on that team is with Dale. I still talk to the guys all the time, hockey players know a phony when they see one.”[11] He specifically berated John McDonough, the team’s president, commenting, “McDonough couldn’t stand that Dale was so successful and getting the credit for building the Hawks from a last place team to making the Conference Finals in 3 short years.”[11]

The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in June 2010. The Blackhawks engraved Tallon’s name on the Cup and issued him a Stanley Cup ring.[12] Source

Tallon remained in limbo until May 17th 2010 when he was hired by the Florida Panthers as GM and immediately setting about rebuilding his new team.

After serving as a senior advisor with the Blackhawks for nearly a year, Tallon was hired on May 17, 2010, by the Florida Panthers as general manager, replacing Randy Sexton.[13] The Panthers had finished last in their division, the Southeast, the previous season and had not made the playoffs since 2000. Seeking a rebuilding process similar to that which he accomplished in Chicago, Tallon immediately began trading away several players, most notably forward Nathan Horton and defenceman Keith Ballard.

In his first season as general manager, the Panthers finished last in their division for the second straight year, prompting Tallon to fire Head Coach Peter DeBoer (later replacing him with former NHL player Kevin Dineen) and to continue trading for younger players and draft picks. At the NHL trade deadline, he dealt away captain Bryan McCabe, as well as veterans Cory StillmanRadek Dvořák and Christopher Higgins. In the off-season, he acquired three former Chicago players — Brian Campbell, Tomáš Kopecký and Kris Versteeg— while also signing Tomáš Fleischmann and former Panthers fan favourite Ed Jovanovski.

Tallon’s personnel changes helped lead the Panthers to their first Southeast Division title in franchise history, improving by 22 points in the 2011–12 season. Qualifying for the 2012 playoffs as the third seed, they were eliminated in the first round by the eventual finalistsNew Jersey Devils, ironically led by former Panthers head coach, Peter DeBoer. As a result of his leading the team to their first playoff appearance in twelve years, Tallon was nominated for the 2012 NHL General Manager of the Year Award.

We can assume the rebuild in Florida began with Tallon’s tenure with the Panthers in 2010 but unlike the rebuild of the Edmonton Oilers which began the same season with the drafting of Taylor Hall, Tallon’s efforts were much more complicated,

After 3 year’s of lacking the resources to build a winner, that all changed in 2013 when Vincent Viola bought out a rag tag group of minority owners and committed to providing the dollars and stability the team needs to move forward.

Viola said Friday that he was committed to giving the Panthers “the resources needed to win the Stanley Cup,” which brought a smile to Tallon’s face.

“I believe in what he believes in,” said Tallon, the architect of Chicago’s 2010 championship team.

“He’s committed to putting a winning team out there on the ice. That’s all I can ask for. We’re going to get terrific commitment from him and that’s exciting. The fact I can go to them and say ’this is what we need, what are your thoughts?’ is important. That’s the support we need to fix whatever we need fixed.’’

The Panthers were previously controlled by Cliff Viner and a multitude of minor partners, including local heavyweights H. Wayne Huizenga, Alan Cohen, Mike Maroone and Jordan Zimmerman. They were all bought out by Viola. Viola owns a majority of the franchise now, with only longtime business partner Douglas Cifu joining him. Cifu is the new vice chairman and alternate governor of the Panthers. Source

So, if we consider the Panthers rebuild got a reboot in 2013, we’re now only a couple of years into the process.
In the past two years, Tallon has been very busy remaking his team while allowing his exceptional draft record to provide his team with young elite players.
After acquiring Roberto Luongo in trade, the Panthers are set in goal.
The D, anchored by possession monster Bryan Campbell propelled the Cats to a middling 2.60 GA/GP last season but Campbell is on the last year of his contract and it’s expected Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad will assume the role of #1 stud defenseman as early as this season.
With Dimitri Kulkov, Erik Gudbranson, Alex Petrovic, Dylan Olsen and Michael Matheson in the under 25 group, the Panthers are loaded with high end D prospects once Campbell, and Willie Mitchell are done.
Likewise, their prospect centre depth, due to astute drafting, is among the best in the league with Alexander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trochek, Rocco Grimaldi and 2014 draft Jayce Hawryluk all surging.
The Panthers weakness is, and has been, scoring wingers and they will need Jonathan Huberdeau, Brandon Pirri and newly acquired Reilly Smith to step up.
The addition of the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr gave the Panthers and immediate boost last season but the teams rebuild, while solid in goal, at D and at centre is remarkable, they need more scoring from the wings to make things hum.
Since wingers are the easiest players to acquire in trade or free agent signings, I expect Tallon will solve the issue sooner than later considering he is sitting with almost $12 million in free cap space.

Ranking the Rebuilds #4…The Columbus Blue Jackets

Blue-Jackets-Cannon-Logo

The Blue Jackets are about to embark on their 15th season in the NHL…a period of time in which they’ve made the playoffs twice and suffered a first round exit both times.

As you might expect from an expansion team, they were pretty awful in their first 3 seasons but with drafting Rick Nash 1st overall in 2002, there was some hope they would become legitimate.

But in the iconic 2003 draft, the Jackets selected enigmatic Nikolai Zherdev 4th overall and Dan Fritsche in the second round and the positive momentum stalled. For several years running, the Jackets floundered with a mix of disappointing draft picks and underperforming veterans.

But that would all change beginning in 2012 (when I think we can establish the start of the rebuild in Ohio) with 3 very significant moves.

In June of that year, former Blues executive John Davidson was appointed the President of Hockey Operations.

Davidson, just a few months later, would fire Scott Howson as General Manager and replace him with draft wizard Jarmo Kekalainen.

2012 was also the year that the Jackets traded Rick Nash to the Rangers, severing ties to their former 1st overall pick, perhaps realizing that investing your biggest cap hit ($7 million) in a winger was not the best winning strategy.

But, to me, the hiring of the new management team was the most significant part of the Jackets’ rebuild and a review of that management team indicates why:

The Columbus Blue Jackets started to turn a corner when John Davidson became president of hockey operations. When Davidson named Jarmo Kekalainen the team’s new general manager, the Blue Jackets were ready for launch.

They are rapidly ascending and not slowing down anytime soon.

The combo of Davidson and Kekalainen is a known commodity within hockey circles. They spent years together in St. Louis. They’re back together again in Columbus, pulling the same tricks that helped resurrect the Blues to a team of prominence.
So what is their secret? How have they been able to enjoy success over the long haul? It all starts with execution at the draft table. It specifically starts with the genius of Kekalainen.

How else can you explain the Blue Jackets landing three first-round draft talents in this past June’s draft, when starting the night with only one? The Blue Jackets drafted University of Michigan star Zach Werenski with the eighth pick. Then just before the night was over, the Blue Jackets used a second and a third to trade back into the first round. They landed the second-best skater on Central Scouting’s European list in Gabriel Carlsson. If that wasn’t enough, they still had an early second-round pick and drafted Paul Bittner, who many consider a first-round talent.

This shouldn’t surprise you. A look back at Kekalainen’s history suggests that this is the norm for him.

Let’s turn the clock back to the year 1995 for a minute. This is where the story of Kekalainen really starts.

Kekalainen served various roles within the hockey operations department of the Ottawa Senators. He spent a total of seven years with the Senators, most notably as their director of player personnel. He also oversaw both the amateur draft and European scouting for a time.

In his time with Ottawa, Kekalainen helped draft Jason Spezza, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Antoine Vermette and Ray Emery. At the same time, he also served as a general manager in the Finnish Elite League.

Kekalainen then joined the Blues and spent eight seasons with them from 2002 to 2010. He served as their director of amateur scouting. He was later named their assistant general manager.

The list of players that Kekalainen helped bring to St. Louis include David Backes, David Perron, T.J. Oshie and Alex Pietrangelo. His eye for talent is superior.

This begs the question: Has Kekalainen cracked the code of sorts when it comes to draft success? He brought star-caliber players to both Ottawa and St. Louis. He’s doing the same now in Columbus. How is he able to consistently do this over the years with different teams?

The answer is surprisingly simple. Kekalainen is one of the best in the business at spotting talent. (source)

***Worth noting that Bob MacKenzie had all 3 of Werenski, Carlsson and Bittner ranked in his top 30 and Columbus got all of them.***

Of course, the new management team doesn’t get credit for the drafts of Ryan Johansen and Dalton Prout in 2010, Boone Jenner in 2011 or, perhaps, even Ryan Murray in 2012.

But the Jackets went into the 2013 draft with 3 first round picks and appear to have hit pay dirt with all 3. (C Alexander Wennberg, LW Kerby Rychel and C Marko Dano (who was traded in this offseason in the Brandon Saad acquisition).

Then the Jackets plucked WHL scoring sensation RW Oliver Bjorkstrand (63G 118P with Portland last season) in the 3rd round which in hindsight was a huge steal.

It’s too early to make a call on 2014 1st round pick Sonny Milano but the speedy LW had 5 points in 10 AHL games late last season and looks like a player.

Hockey’s Future has the Jackets prospect depth ranked 10th in the NHL:

Strengths: The Columbus Blue Jackets have oodles of depth at forward. Centers Alex Wennberg, Marko Dano, and William Karlsson are all close to playing regular minutes at the NHL level, and others such as Sonny Milano and Kerby Rychel are not too far behind. The system also had several other forwards with extremely high upside, namely WHL standout Oliver Bjorkstrand, who has been one of the top goal-scorers in Canadian major junior hockey. There is also strong depth in net, with Anton Forsberg and Joonas Korpisalo competing for starts at the minor league level.

Weaknesses: The Blue Jackets lack both talent and depth along the blue line, an issue that was made all the more pressing when standout defensive prospect Mike Reilly opted to test free agency instead of signing with Columbus. The team could probably stand to add more depth along the wing, though given their depth at center, it is not as pressing an issue as it could be.

Top 5 Prospects: 1. Alexander Wennberg, C, 2. Sonny Milano, 3. Marko Dano, C, 4. Kerby Rychel, LW, 5. Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW.

If there is a weakness on the Jackets roster, it is indeed on D.

While Ryan Murray is still an outstanding prospect, he has been plagued by injury playing only 88 games since being drafted #2 overall in 2012.

To get to the next level, the Jackets need Murray to live up to his draft pedigree and become the legit #1D that he was projected to be. If he doesn’t. the Jackets may have to parlay their impressive forward depth into a top pairing D or wait on their impressive 2015 draft picks.

The addition of blue chip D prospects Zack Werenski and Gabriel Carlsson will likely solve their D issues in the medium future but, until they arrive, the Jackets will have to outwork and outscore the opposition.

With Sergei Bobrovski (.918) in net, and several high end G prospects, the Jackets seem set at that position so, in the upcoming season, it will fall to their forwards to win the war.

They are loaded at C with Ryan Johansen, Boone Jenner, Branson Dubinsky, Alexander Wennberg and Gregory Campbell so no issues there.

And the addition of Brandon Saad should give their depth at wing a shot in the arm but it will likely take the emergence of Milano, Bjorkstrand, Rychel and Bittner to turn them into perennial contenders.

The Jackets missed the playoffs last season due to a perfect storm of injuries:

End-of-Season-NHL-Man-Games-Lost-Quality-April-12-2015-600x300

Barring another catastrophic season of walking wounded, that won’t happen again and the Jackets will easily be a playoff team next season.

Ranking the Rebuilds #3…The New York Islanders.

New York Islanders' John Tavares reacts after scoring the winning goal during the overtime period of Game 3 of a first-round NHL hockey playoff series against the Washington Capitals Sunday, April 19, 2015, in Uniondale, N.Y. The Islanders defeated the Capitals 2-1. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
New York Islanders’ John Tavares reacts after scoring the winning goal during the overtime period of Game 3 of a first-round NHL hockey playoff series against the Washington Capitals Sunday, April 19, 2015, in Uniondale, N.Y. The Islanders defeated the Capitals 2-1. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

For more than a few seasons, Garth Snow was mocked as one of the worst General Managers in hockey.

I have to say that much of that mockery came from fans of the Edmonton Oilers who have become very familiar with incompetent management through the tenures of Kevin Lowe, Steve Tambellini and Craig McTavish but we’ll get to that later in this series.

The Snow era began in an odd way back in 2006 when oddball owner Charles Wang promoted Snow immediately upon his retirement as the Isles goaltender.

From Wikipedia:

On July 18, 2006, Snow officially confirmed his retirement and was named general manager of the New York Islanders following Neil Smith‘s dismissal after 41 days on the job.[2] There was much criticism directed the Islanders way for firing a Stanley Cup-winning GM after such a short tenure in favor of Snow, who at the time of his hiring held no experience in management.

Defenders of the organization pointed to Snow’s Master’s Degree in Administration and Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Maine.[3]

In Snow’s first season as GM, he earned praise for making moves to open up space under the salary cap and using the space to trade for Marc-André BergeronRichard Zedník and Ryan Smyth. Snow was named NHL Executive of the Year for 2006–07 by Sports Illustrated.[4] Snow also received a great deal of praise from commenters on XM Radio[5] and other reports for his organization’s picks in the 2008 and 2009 entry drafts. In 2012, Snow reportedly offered all seven of the Islanders’ draft picks – one in each round, including the fourth overall – to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for the second overall pick. Columbus GM Scott Howson turned down the trade offer, and the Islanders ended up picking defenceman Griffin Reinhart at number four.[6]

Snow took over a team that had missed the playoffs the previous season with a 36-40-6 record and, while the Islanders would squeak into the playoffs the following season (when Snow acquired Ryan Smyth from the Oilers), they would go to miss the post season in the subsequent 5 seasons.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when (or if) the Islanders embarked on a full on rebuild but they hit rock bottom in the 2008-09 season when they finished dead least in the NHL with 62 points so, for our purposes we’ll use that as a starting point as to when Snow started returning his team to respectability.

Following that dismal season, the Islanders were “rewarded” at the NHL draft when they picked cornerstone player John Tavares at #1 overall.

But Tavares was not the only player Snow identified in that draft which has set the Islanders up for much more of their relative recent success:

#1 John Tavares

#12 Calvin de Haan

#62 Anders Nilsson

#92 Casey Cizikas

#152 Anders Lee

That the Islanders were able to pluck 5 actual NHL players from one draft is remarkable and they were able to obtain a couple more in the 2010 draft.

#5 Nino Niederreiter (since traded)

#30 Brock Nelson

In the 2011 draft, the Islanders continued to build up the middle by selecting Ryan Strome #5 overall and then, in the 2012 draft, Snow and his team, went all in selecting a defenseman with all 7 of their picks.

First among those, of course, was Griffin Reinhart who Snow would have preferred not to draft but, as noted above, Columbus refused to trade their #2 overall pick (Ryan Murray) for all 7 of the Isles picks.

But, if nothing else, that draft indicates Snow knows the value of strong D prospect depth and he followed that draft by selecting Ryan Pulock #15 overall in 2013.

While Griffin Reinhart has been discarded after being passed on the depth chart, it’s worth noting that the Isles have a tremendous number of those picks ripening in the AHL with Scott Mayfield, Ville Pokka, Adam Pelech and Pulock all playing significant roles in Bridgeport.

After loading up on D, Snow has spent the past 2 drafts stockpiling forwards with high end potential:

#5 2014 Michael Dal Colle

#28 2014 Josh Ho Sang

#16 2015 Mat Barzal

#28 Anthony Beauvillier

As we’ve seen, Snow has never been timid about swinging draft day deals like the one in which he traded a spare part like Reinhart to acquire extra picks, and from this point of view, he’s been tremendously successful although it’s early to make a call on some of those picks.

Hockey’s Future has the Islanders team prospect ranking at #2 and it’s very difficult to disagree:

Strengths: Now that the New York Islanders have turned the corner, they are in a prime position to contend for the Stanley Cup for the years ahead thanks to their strong farm system. While Ryan Strome and Anders Lee graduated, there is still top-six talent developing on the wings in Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang. Defense has become the strongest unit in the system as Griffin Reinhart, Ryan Pulock, and Scott Mayfield are the next wave of youth that look to shore up the Islanders on the backend. Behind them are a deep, diverse group of players that may slot into depth roles. Toughness is another attribute amongst the skaters. There is quality and promising potential in the goaltending pool with Ilya Sorokin, Linus Soderstrom, and Stephon Williams.

Interesting that HF had Reinhart listing as the Isles’ top prospect but that Snow didn’t agree and dealt from a position of tremendous strength to acquire a couple more blue chip prospects.

With 2008 draft Travis Hamonic, de Haan and the aforementioned picks all jockeying for a spot on the big club you would think Snow would have been somewhat reticent to add veteran D to his stable but a year ago he patiently waited for Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk to become available and plucked them from their cap strapped teams after astutely picking up former #4 overall pick in 2007 Thomas Hickey when the LA Kings put him on waivers.

It can’t be stated often enough that centre depth is a key to building a winning team and Snow has not been recalcitrant on that front either.

John Tavares

Ryan Strome

Mikael Grabovski

Anders Lee

Frans Neilsen

Brock Nelson

Casey Cizikas

Josh Ho Sang

That’s 7 actual NHL centres folks with Ho Sang bubbling under. That may be the best centre depth in the entire league and it has allowed Snow to focus on adding highly skilled players in the draft and through trades and free agent signings.

I would imagine that both Ho Sang and Barzal will debut as wingers and will be vying for a roster spot with highly touted power forward Michael Dal Colle.

An eventual 1st line that might include Tavares, Dal Colle and Barzal could be a thing of beauty.

For more than a few years, the Islanders glaring weakness was in goal but Snow has also addressed that issue with the signing of Jaroslav Halak and backup Thomas Griess who should provide at least league average goaltending. Considering the Islanders were the 4th best team in the league in GF/GP last season at 2.99, it’s not hard to imagine the Islanders will improve on the 101 points they garnered last season with the maturation of their young D and the addition of significant firepower from their young draft picks.

I don’t think anyone with credibility is calling out Garth Snow any longer and it’s with noting that he has built a contender all while having more than $8 million in free cap space pending the signing of RFA Brock Nelson.

Rebuild over!