2013 NHL season preview: Western Conference

983813.jpg

2013 NHL season preview: Western Conference

Previewing how the NHL will play out during this lockout-shortened season. Let's start with the Western Conference.
Northwest Division
1. Vancouver: If the Canucks can survive the short term without Ryan Kesler (hip surgery), theres no reason they wont remain the favorites in the weakest division in the league. The biggest addition here is the free-agent signing of defenseman Jason Garrison (six-year, 27.6 million contract). Also, the realization -- finally -- that Roberto Luongo is not the answer and never has been in goal. Cory Schneider, the clubs outspoken player rep during the lockout, got the job in the playoffs for good. The Sedin twins remain the gold dust of the division.
2. Colorado: The Avs have gotten progressively better in recent years and now have a young Calder Trophy winner on the roster in Gabriel Landeskog. Parts of this team look very exciting. Goalie Semyon Varlamov can be better than the 2.59, .913 showing he had last season. He is also part of the 20-plus age group that is carrying this club. The Avs' biggest move was bringing P.A. Parenteau out west with a four-year, 16 million deal to help Matt Duchesne. Watch this club rise.

3. Minnesota: Only in the NHL could an owner criticize 100 million contracts and then go out and steal everyone elses thunder with two such deals that landed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Minnesota gone Wild without girls! The Wild had a puny 177 goals scored last year and now figure to hit 200 easy. Alas, these signings dont guarantee a Cup because Suter is the only force back there on the blue line. GM Chuck Fletcher toughened his lineup with Torrey Mitchell and Zenon Konopka. Dany Heatley? Anyones guess there.

4. Edmonton: The Oilers, besides looking for a new arena, keep finishing in the dregs, keep getting the top picks in the draft and keep adding new faces. This season, it figures to be Nail Yakupov, the No. 1 overall pick in last Junes draft, and free agent Justin Schultz. Now, at some point, with Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkkins, etc., youd think this speedy group might win some games and make the playoffs. Still hasnt happened. And given the Oilers' blue line and goaltending (Devan Dubnyk), it might not happen this season, either.

5. Calgary: Bob Hartley, long removed from his Cup-winning days in Colorado, takes over behind the bench with a team that still relies on the same, older players -- Jarome Iginla and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. GM Jay Feasters only two offseason moves of consequence were the trade he struck with Washington for defenseman Dennis Wideman, then signing him to a five-year, 26.25 million contract and adding Jiri Hudler up front. Simply not enough to assure Calgary again Flames out. Time to move Jay Bouwmeester?

Central Division

1. St. Louis: What a season for coach Ken Hitchcock and GM Doug Armstrong in St. Louey. The Blues' 109 points were second only to Vancouver out west. Unfortunately, the Blues hit a decidedly flat note in the playoffs when they should have gone far. Almost every core player returns, led by the trio of David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alex Pietrangelo -- all three 50-plus point getters. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott formed an impenetrable goalie tandem with a combined 1.78 GAA and .932 save percentage. Gonna be a savage battle in the division this year.

2. Nashville: No team does more with less than Nashville, though we need to mention the Predators draw hefty revenue-sharing checks, too. Yeah, Suter is gone, but GM David Poile saved the franchise by matching the Flyers 14-year, 110 million restricted free agent offer sheet for Shea Weber, and theres always Vezina finalist Pekka Rinne back there in goal. The Preds have been on the upswing for a while now under coach Barry Trotz. Theyll battle the Blues for the division crown with Rinne.

3. Chicago:A couple years removed from the Blackhawks' Cup run, they remain a team with lots of flash at forward, better than average defense, but ... very questionable in net with Corey Crawford and ex-Flyer Ray Emery. Not that the 'Hawks were that much better in goal with Antti Niemi when they won the Cup, but they were better than the Flyers with Michael Leighton. Could Patrick Sharp (33 goals) become the top scorer even with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa around? Special teams need to improve.

4. Detroit: Once upon a time, this was a place every free agent wanted to go. Not so much anymore. The lure to Hockeytown is harder now with the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom and the fact normally savvy GM Ken Holland did nothing of consequence to help his club once he lost out on Suter. All eyes are on Jonathan Ericsson to see if he will be the next Lidstrom. The club is older up front, too, and has bodies and points to replace. Among the questions: can Damien Brunner replace Jiri Hudlers 25 goals and 50 points? Luckily, the Wings have Jimmy Howard in net.

5. Columbus: The exodus of decent players and even high-end players continued in Ohio over the summer as young Scott Howson also continued to prove to be the worst GM in hockey. The Rick Nash trade that brought Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov plus Tim Erixon was a disaster. Sergei Bobrovsky could win the starters job in goal, but hes not going to excite people. If ever there was a chance for R.J. Umberger to shoot to the top the charts, this season is it. Hes the top goal scorer (20) coming back.

Pacific Division

1. Los Angeles: When was the last time you saw us pick the Kings over San Jose or Anaheim to win the division? When was the last time a defending Cup champion brought back its entire championship lineup? That is such a rarity in hockey or any sport for that matter. Kudos to GM Dean Lombardi for re-signing Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie Jonathan Quick to a 10-year, 58 million contract -- a reasonable cap hit for a guy who pretty much proved once again that the goalie makes all the difference in a Cup Final. L.A. scored the fewest goals in the division and needs some forward to become a 30-goal guy again. Anze Kopitar injured his right knee playing in Sweden during the lockout and could miss a few games at the beginning of the season.

2. Phoenix: The biggest hurdle for the Coyotes was whether they would get to stay in Glendale and actually resolve their ownership issue. Much of that was finalized heading into September for the defending Pacific Division champs. Shane Doan dragged out his negotiations all summer before re-signing, but the Coyotes' leading scorer, Ray Whitney (77 points), headed to Dallas to join Jaromir Jagr. Goaltending was and remains the Coyotes' strength in Mike Smith, who has thrived under goalie coach Sean Burke. Smith was brilliant -- 2.20 GAA and .930 save percentage last season. Phoenix almost made it to the Cup Final, too.

3. Anaheim: Likeable coach Bruce Boudreau didnt get it done in Washington and he didnt do it in Southern California either, as the Ducks failed to make the playoffs last season. Teemu Selanne is now 42 and Bobby Ryan is either very unhappy or very misunderstood, yet still wanting to be a Flyer down deep. Goalie Jonas Hillers health was an issue last season despite his 29 victories. Ryan Getzlaf has to regain the magic in his stick because hes capable of more than twice the number of goals he had last season -- 11.
4. San Jose: Lets face it. Boston was right. The Bruins just were never going to win a Cup with Joe Thornton. And it appears that the Sharks wont, either. No team in the NHL has been picked to win so many times and disappointed every time. And with each year, these Sharks lost some of their collective bite. It's interesting that GM Doug Wilson went out and signed Adam Burish because, other than Marty Havlat, there was no one on this roster with any snarl left in them. Dan Boyle is 36, but the Flyers could have used him on defense.

5. Dallas: What a truly odd fit: Jagr in Dallas. With Whitney, too. GM Joe Nieuwendyk is hoping that what Jagr inspired in Philadelphia -- a strong, across-the-board commitment to fitness on and off the ice -- will transpire in Big D, where the Stars havent been to the playoffs in four springs. If Jagr gives them 50 points and can remain healthy throughout -- a big question -- maybe it works. His influence on youngsters Loui Eriksson (71 points) and Jamie Benn (63 points) could mean tons. Benn, a RFA, remained unsigned as of Wednesday.

E-mail Tim Panaccio at tpanotch@comcast.net

Stanley Cup: Offseason moves send Sharks to final after missing playoffs

usa-logan-couture-sharks.jpg
USA Today Images

Stanley Cup: Offseason moves send Sharks to final after missing playoffs

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- After watching the San Jose Sharks miss the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, general manager Doug Wilson set out to remake the team last offseason.

Individually, none of the moves sent shockwaves through the NHL. The Sharks hired a coach who made the playoffs once in seven seasons as an NHL coach, traded a first-round pick for a goalie who had been a backup his entire career, added two playoff-tested veterans for depth at forward and defense and signed an unheralded Finnish rookie.

Together, the additions of Peter DeBoer, Martin Jones, Joel Ward, Paul Martin and Joonas Donskoi to a solid core that had underachieved proved to be the right mix to get the Sharks to their long-awaited first Stanley Cup Final appearance.

"I thought this team has a lot of the pieces of that puzzle," Martin said. "Doug did a great job bringing guys in that he did, to make that push for it. I don't think many people would have guessed that we'd be here right now, but I think we believed."

The players all said the disappointment of blowing a 3-0 series lead to Los Angeles in 2014 and then missing the playoffs entirely last season served as fuel for this season's success.

DeBoer also credited former coach Todd McLellan for helping put the foundation in place that he was able to capitalize on. The Sharks became the second team in the past 10 seasons to make it to the final after missing the playoffs the previous season, joining the 2011-12 Devils that pulled off the same trick in DeBoer's first season in New Jersey.

"Everyone was ready for something a little bit fresher and newer, not anything that much different," DeBoer said. "The additions that Doug made, it just came together. I inherited a similar team in New Jersey when I went in there. First time they missed the playoffs for a long time the year before I got there. I think when you go into that situation, when you have really good people like there was in New Jersey when I went in there, like I was with this group ... they're embarrassed by the year they just had, and they're willing to do and buy into whatever you're selling to get it fixed again. I think I was the benefactor of that."

The transition from McLellan to DeBoer wasn't seamless. As late as Jan. 8, the Sharks were in 13th place in the 14-team Western Conference and seemingly on the way to another missed postseason.

But with Logan Couture finally healthy after being slowed by a broken leg early in the season and the move by DeBoer to put Tomas Hertl on the top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, the Sharks rolled after that and made the playoffs as the third-place team in the Pacific Division.

In-season additions of players like depth forwards Dainius Zubrus and Nick Spaling, physical defenseman Roman Polak and backup goaltender James Reimer helped put the Sharks in the position they are now.

"With the new coaching staff we needed to realize how we needed to play to win," Thornton said. "Once that clicked, and that probably clicked maybe early December, I think after that, we just exploded. I think that's really when we saw the depth of this team. Everybody plays a big part."

That has been especially true in the playoffs when longtime core players like Thornton, Couture, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau got the support that had often been lacking during past postseason disappointments.

Jones has posted three shutouts in the playoffs, including the Game 7 second-round clincher against Nashville and back-to-back games in the conference final against St. Louis. He has proven more than capable of being an NHL starter after serving an apprenticeship as Jonathan Quick's backup in Los Angeles.

Ward scored two goals in each of the final two games of the conference final and has 11 points this postseason. Donskoi exceeded expectations just to make the team as a rookie and has solidified his spot on the second line with five goals and nine points.

Martin's steady play has allowed offensive-minded defenseman Brent Burns to roam at times and given San Jose a strong second defensive pair that had been missing in previous seasons.

Zubrus and Spaling played a big role as penalty killers and on the fourth line, while Polak has been one of the team's most physical players.

"Doug did a great job this summer, this season," Couture said. "A lot of credit needs to go to him for the guys he brought in."

Flyers defensive prospect Ivan Provorov named CHL Defenseman of the Year

052816-provorov-webbestvideo3_1920x1080_694956611777.jpg

Flyers defensive prospect Ivan Provorov named CHL Defenseman of the Year

Flyers prospect and Brandon Wheat Kings defenseman Ivan Provorov on Saturday afternoon was named the 2015-16 Canadian Hockey League's Defenseman of the Year.

Provorov, who the Flyers drafted with the seventh overall pick in 2015, recorded 21 markers, 73 points and was a plus-64 in 62 games with Brandon during the regular season.

The 19-year-old beat out Windsor's Mikhail Sergachev and Shawinigan's Samuel Girard for the honor. Both Sergachev and Girard are eligible for this year's draft, which is June 24-25 in Buffalo, New York.

In 21 playoff games with the Wheat Kings, Provorov added three goals and 10 assists. Brandon beat the Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL Championship Series to capture the Ed Chynoweth Cup. However, in the Memorial Cup, Brandon lost to the Red Deer Rebels on May 25.

What's next for Provorov?

The defenseman will come to Flyers training camp in September with his eye on making the roster. Many believe Provorov is ready to make the jump to the NHL, but Flyers general manager Ron Hextall has built a reputation of being patient, especially with his defensive prospects.

Provorov is one of five prospects in the Flyers' system that has created excitement, joining Travis Sanheim, Samuel Morin, Robert Hagg and Philippe Myers, an undrafted free-agent signing who made noise this season. Could Provorov — or any of the other prospects — join Shayne Gostisbehere on the Flyers' blue line in 2016-17?

After the Flyers' season ended with a playoff series loss to the Washington Capitals, Hextall hinted he'll continue to be patient with his prospects (see story).

“What we're building towards remains the same,” Hextall said after the season. “I'm not an impatient guy by nature. Maybe I was a little bit on the ice, but I've been off the ice for 17 years or whatever it is, so the whole thing that we started to build two years ago — our vision is the same and we're on a path.

“And we're a lot closer than we were two years ago."

But all eyes will be on Provorov come training camp. Can he force Hextall's hand?

End to End: Which Flyer has the most to prove in 2016-17?

052716-wch-rosterbestvideo3_1280x720_694622787541.jpg

End to End: Which Flyer has the most to prove in 2016-17?

Each week, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End this week are Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone, all producers/reporters for CSNPhilly.com.

The question: Which Flyer has the most to prove in 2016-17?

Dougherty
Scott Laughton will be given every opportunity to prove himself, and if there is any single player under contract on this Flyers roster with the most to prove, it's Laughton.

Laughton, the 20th overall pick in 2012, is coming off his first full season with the Flyers and he left much to be desired. He struggled to stay in the top nine and found himself a healthy scratch for seven games during the most crucial stretch of the season.

What concerns me about Laughton is Dave Hakstol struggled to find a position for him. Laughton is a natural center and the original thought process was he would play center in the NHL, which he still very well may. But Laughton ended up playing some wing this season, too. It was similar to what the Flyers were doing with Brayden Schenn in 2014-15.

Still, Laughton, who turns 22 on Monday, failed to show much at either position. He finished with seven goals and 21 points in 71 games. He found his way into the lineup for three games in the playoffs because of Sean Couturier's shoulder injury and showed little before suffering a scary injury that left him motionless on the ice for a few minutes.

We've said it before — Laughton will have every chance to earn his spot on the opening night roster in training camp. The Flyers won't give up on him after one disappointing season, but Laughton has to come to camp in shape and with an edge we haven't seen yet.

Looking into our crystal ball, the orange and black could have one or two more forwards from outside the organization in camp come September and Travis Konecny will be hungry to crack the lineup. Laughton is going to have competition for his spot on the roster.

And he has to prove to Hakstol, general manager Ron Hextall and the Flyers he deserves it.

Hall
There will be no shortage of pressure for Jakub Voracek next season.
 
Not much went his way this past season, the first after signing an eight-year, $66 million extension following his career year in 2014-15.
 
He started slow. He changed positions. He got hurt and then played through it.
 
It all culminated in a taxing and disappointing season.
 
So, if anyone, Voracek has the most to prove in 2016-17. He’ll want to show that his career season was no fluke, that he can produce near that clip and is worth the hefty deal doled out by the Flyers.
 
Voracek’s health/production will be one of the hottest storylines to start the season.

Paone
No player on the Flyers’ roster has more to prove next season than Voracek.
 
Remember how great he was in 2014-15 when he finished fourth in the NHL with 81 points after leading the league for much of the year in that category, was named an All-Star for the first time in his career and earned a massive eight-year, $66 million extension shortly thereafter?
 
Those contract numbers are important because what Voracek has to prove this season lies in those numbers. His play last season wasn’t necessarily befitting of someone with that type of contract.
 
Voracek put up solid numbers last season with 11 goals and 44 assists in 73 games, but he just didn’t have the same effectiveness that he did in the prior season. If you recall, it took him 17 games to net his first goal of the season, an overtime winner in Carolina on Nov. 14. His ineffectiveness caused Dave Hakstol to move Voracek up and down the lineup and even send him over to the opposite wing, a position Voracek had rarely ever played before.
 
It just so happens that contract extension kicks in this season.
 
The soon-to-be 27-year-old forward holds himself to incredibly high standards. He’ll be out to prove to himself this season was an anomaly and make sure people know he’s a star worthy of those contract numbers.