Talkin hockey


Well, the reason I started this blog thing in the first place was to talk about my favorite sport, specifically in the American Midwest — so enough with the intros, lets get down to it.

The top level of interest of course is the professionals and out of that the primary level of course is the NHL.

There are five NHL teams that call the Midwest home and after recent changes, they are actually split up into both NHL conferences.

Two seasons ago, all five were in the Western Conference. Of course the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild remain in the West but both the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets now call the Eastern Conference home.

The timing on covering these teams couldn’t be better. I am pretty sure last season was the first that saw all five  qualify for the post season and there is no reason to think anything will change this season.

A quick look at Vegas odds shows despite not winning a second traight Cup this past season, the Chicago Blackhawks are the pre-season favorites to hoist the mug this season — and why not?

They came through one of those questionable summers, similar to the aftermath of the 2009-10 Cup win when they were forced to trim salary and ended up losing a lot of core players.

With all due respect to the players that have departed, it appears the team came through much better this time around — the key obviously being the matching contracts of captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Those deals may seem ridiculously huge right now, but based on what others of equal value have received, I believe these are actually fair deals with enough term that they will look better and better each season.

Adding Brad Richards up front could be huge, but according to the team still needs to find a way to trim some $2 million from its cap payroll before the season begins in Oct.  I thought I heard rumors earlier this summer than Patrick Sharp may ultimately have to go, but I am sure the team is looking for other ways to keep him in place. If that occurs, top two lines would probably be either Toews or Richards between Kane and Sharp, then the other center between Saad and Hossa….not too shabby.

As talented as the team is up front, the Hawks boast maybe the best and most consistent defensive corps in the league with names like Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarson and Oduya . The fans seem to have a hot/cold relationship with goaltender Corey Crawford but the guy wears two Stanley Cup rings now and that is worth a great deal of respect in my books.

The St. Louis Blues are entering a key season as far as I am concerned. The Blues may be the best regular season team since the last lockout. Now a regular Presidents Trophy candidate, the Blues have found it a little difficult to translate that regular season power into post season success. The first time around it didn’t surprise me as the team was mostly young and didn’t have a lot of playoff experience.

Entering this season though I see the Blues being in a similar position to the San Jose Sharks were a few years back. The team needs to take the next step soon or that window may start to close in and it will be a team that kind of missed its chance.

The biggest off season moves would be officially throwing in the towel on the Ryan Miller experiment in goal and adding some depth at center with the signing of Paul Stastny.

The team seems solid on the blue line with Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk among the team’s top six scorers last season.

Clearly the team has thrown the goaltending torch to Brian Elliott in goal this season. He was the most consistent down the stretch last season and he has earned the shot.

I still think this is a young team though and that means they have time to make things happen. But the tough playoff defeats have to take a toll. The playoffs are often referred to as the second season but while a team can (to a certain extent) ease itself into the regular season, you better hit the ground running in April or you will be on a golf course a lot earlier than expected or hoped.

This time next year I wonder if I will be talking about the breakthrough season the Blues had or will it be similar to this report?

The final Western Conference team is the Minnesota Wild and this is another interesting enigma.

The twin signings of both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise a few summers ago was the talk of the league and appeared to raise the team’s status to league elite and Cup contenders.

The pair did play a major part in the team’s return to the post season after a fairly lengthy absence, but the past two seasons, the path has ended at Chicago.

This past season though the team raised hopes in a big with with a thrilling first round upset of the top seeded Colorado Avalanche, then a thrilling conference semi-final ultimately taken by the Hawks, but not before the Wild left everything it had on the ice in a fierce six game series.

That was despite injuries and illness that appeared to wipe out the goaltending corps. Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding and Darcy Kuemper were all on the sidelines with Ilya Brzygalov taking the reins in a big way in the post season for the team. It doesn’t look like he will be back this season though and the goaltending situation will be interesting.

The team shaved some cap by moving Dany Heatley, a former 50 goal scorer who never seemed to fit into the Wild systems.

The Wild will be competitive and should once again be among the playoff contenders. Plenty of salary cap room leaves the door open to some additions although closing in on training camp — Nino Neiderreitter and Kuemper remain unsigned as well.

In the East, the most consistent team in the league, the Detroit Red Wings enters what should be an interesting season as well.

The team continued string of playoff appearances that goes back to well inside of the previous century this past spring, but made its earliest exit in a while and losing in five to the Boston Bruins confirmed suspicions that the Wings are no longer among the league’s elite.

The Wings who have always replaced old retiring veterans with old, still playing veterans — at least for the past decade or so, suddenly became a young team. Losing names like Draper, Lidstrom and Holmstrom in the past few seasons will do that. And while Daniel Alfredsson decided to try out the Detroit seniors community, for the most part, the team has taken the next step by moving a hugely talented group of young players to the parent team.

Sure, Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Franson are still likely the most identifiable names on the Wings, but I know Wings fans and there is genuine excitement when thinking of a talented group of new players like Tatar, Nyquist, Jurco, Kindl and Dekeyser.

Also, while thoughts of the next wave of stars is reason to pay attention, the mostly smaller contracts signed by these players leave the Wings in a far more comfortable position when it comes to the Salary Cap.

The downside though as the team discovered during this past off season is that while they suddenly find themselves in the rare position of having money in their pockets, they are no longer as popular a destination for veterans looking to take a run at the Cup in their twilight seasons.

Who knows though? If these young players advance as quickly as they did last season, the Wings won’t be out of that elite group for long.

Finally, the team that, to me, is the most interesting of them all — the Columbus Blue Jackets.

John Davidson played a huge part in turning the Blues into the team it is now and it can’t be a coincidence that the Blue Jackets finds itself in as promising a position as it has ever been heading into the 2014-15 season.

When the Jackets marched to the post season as the number seven seed this past season they were handed a ticket to the dance for just the second time in its 13-season history.

But the team made the most of the shot, second year coach Todd Richards leading his team to its first two playoff game wins as the Jackets gave the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins all it could handle before finally succumbing six hard fought contests.

In my mind, the team followed that up with the biggest steal of the off season adding Scott Hartnell, a heart and soul forward while sending RJ Umberger back to the Philadelphia Flyers.

A big part of the team’s turn around last season also was the steady, solid goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky. While the team has had some great one year stretches in past seasons from goaltenders like Mathieu Garon and Steve Mason, Bobrovsky has brought the team some consistency between the pipes.

He won 32 games last season with five goose eggs and a save percentage of .923 which was actually down slightly from the .932 he posted in the previous  campaign.

This is a team on the move and the team I think I may watch closer than any other this season as they hope to make a little more team history with its first back to back playoff finishes.

Tomorrow I will try to take a look at the Midwest entries and some of the other changes that are taking place in the other Pro Leagues.

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