Steven Stamkos and Martin St-Louis will try and lead the Lightning back to the post-season. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
The final green has been played (even if it was a three-putt), the final out has been made (even if our team was blown out of the park) and the final bonfire has been slayed (by the fall rain, unfortunately). Just 16 more days, folks.
But who am I kidding? The hockey talk is already in full swing as training camp battles rage in some corners of the NHL world, while new faces try and become familiar with new places in others. Thanks to parity, the NHL standings are susceptible to great upheaval and the next Phoenix tale or Calgary sob story is just around the corner.
A lot has changed and I’m interested to see how some of the off-season antics and acquisitions play out in real time. In a conversation with my dad recently, he asked “Which teams are you excited to see play this season?” and it got me thinking.
Two years ago it was Columbus, with promising kids like Derick Brassard, Jake Voracek and Kris Russell, and proven commodities like Rick Nash, R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette. And rookie sensation Steve Mason wouldn’t even become the full-time starter until November.
Last season it was Los Angeles, who, after a long and patient rebuild, looked poised to take a step towards respectability and relevance with a nice mix of hungry players on the cusp of something great.
This season there are a few interesting options. Whatever type of game you like to see, you’ll find it out there in 2010-11. Here are three teams I’m interested to watch and why.
Ryan Dixon took the words right off my keyboard when he said he wasn’t originally sold on Tampa Bay as a playoff team, but is starting to be swayed as the season nears. I couldn’t agree more.
At first the Tampa experiment looked to me like a quick-fix approach that slapped together parts of a roster to plug holes from the previous season. It looked like a recipe for improvement, but still fell short of achieving anything substantial. However, the more I read and look down the depth chart, the more I’m starting to believe in a stark improvement.
They have the excitement factor with 51-goal scorer Steven Stamkos teaming up with playmaker Martin St-Louis; they have the bounce-back factor with Vincent Lecavalier now likely to play alongside newcomer Simon Gagne; they have the toughness factor with Steve Downie; and they have the motivational factor with new coach Guy Boucher (who made his players skate recently for not reacting to his whistle quickly enough).
And it’s not just all about flash and dash – Brett Clark is an underrated shutdown defender and Pavel Kubina is simply underrated because of past big contracts.
Who doesn’t like watching prospects break into the league and establish themselves? Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi and Jordan Eberle will surely have bumps through Season 1, but they’re all dynamic and hungry for ice time. While part of the excitement for me around the Lightning is about their potential to turn it right around and make the playoffs, Edmonton has different reasons.
Last season Dustin Penner and Ales Hemsky went together like peanut butter and jam for the first 22 games before Hemsky succumbed to the injury bug; in that period the two combined for 45 points. While Penner’s production tailed off without Hemsky, the two will be reunited in 2010-11 and will make Edmonton a better team than expected if they can find that chemistry again.
Plus you have Andrew Cogliano and Sam Gagner, two players who really haven’t seen any improvement since they enjoyed respectable rookie seasons in 2007-08. Perhaps the fact there is a newer wave of youngsters blowing through will help take some of the pressure and expectations off these two and open the door for something more.
OK, so they weren’t the most exciting team last season, when new coach Dave Tippett and assistant Dave King just tried to shut it down and keep games close. But though they’ll still pride themselves on defense, the team is aiming at improvement in the offensive end as evidenced by the signing of Ray Whitney and re-signing of Lee Stempniak; Shane Doan led all full-time Coyotes last season with a mere 55 points.
If you look at Tippett’s track record you’ll see the goals ebb and flow with his teams: He’s coached seven NHL seasons and has ranked top-10 in offense three times and been 20th or lower the other four times.
Will Kyle Turris finally play like a No. 3 overall pick? Will Oliver Ekman-Larsson live up to the hype? Can Shane Doan compete with the league’s scoring elite?
We saw how exciting this team can be when they played the Detroit Red Wings in a back-and-forth opening round series last playoff season – my favorite Round 1 matchup. It opened right up and the Coyotes were able to keep up with the world-class Wings, so who’s to say that type of play shouldn’t continue?
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