USHL preview: Cedar Rapids will ride high

Ryan Kennedy
Ryan Larkin (photo courtesy of the USHL)

The United States League begins action on Friday and it will be an interesting year for the junior circuit. While the top NHL draft prospects will mostly come from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (which plays a modified USHL schedule), there are a lot of NHL draft picks that will play for the other teams in the league as they hone their games for the NCAA. This will be a key development year for many of those raw kids taken in the middle of the draft.

Below you will find projected rankings for the teams, based off surveys I conducted scouts and writers who follow the USHL. You will also find a player or two to follow on each squad, with their NCAA commitment and NHL rights status included. Let’s get to it.

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THN’s 2015-16 NHL season preview: Florida Panthers

The Hockey News
Jaromir Jagr (Eliot J. Schechter/NHL)

2014-15 Record: 38-29-15 (91 Pts.)

THN’s Prediction: 5th, Atlantic Division

What To Expect: The long, slow rebuild orchestrated by GM Dale Tallon began bearing fruit last season. After two straight basement finishes, the Panthers took a major step forward, finishing within arm’s length of a playoff spot.

They added Jaromir Jagr, who meshed well with young guns Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov on the top line. Jagr, 43, signed on for another season in Sunrise. Centered by Nick Bjugstad, who broke out with 24 goals, the second line could feature Brandon Pirri and newcomer Reilly Smith.

Sensational teenager Aaron Ekblad is already the team’s MVP. He played with the poise of a veteran, scoring 39 points and winning the Calder Trophy. The Panthers believe their young core of Ekblad, Barkov, Bjugstad and Huberdeau will propel them to the playoffs. They might not quite make it this season, but the CAts are on the rise, and it won’t be long before they contend for an Atlantic Division title.

A low goal total and pitiful power play cost the Panthers a playoff spot, as they were bottom 10 in both. The natural progression of top youngsters will help on those fronts, as will a full year of Jagr, who clicked in the season’s final weeks. The bottom six doesn’t have much offense. Greater output from Vincent Trocheck or a rookie surge from Rocco Grimaldi will help secondary scoring.

It’s hard to imagine Ekblad doesn’t up his point total to the mid-40 range. His contributions and a better power play will rescue Florida’s offense. Tallon searched for a sniper this off-season but couldn’t acquire one. Defense parirings of Ekblad and Brian Campbell and Dmitry Kulikov and Willie Mitchell were steady. Kulikov enjoyed his best season since his 2009 rookie year.

As expected, Roberto Luongo solidified the crease. He posted his best numbers since 2010-11. He’ll maintain his career standard of dependable play.

If Florida defies projections and makes the playoffs, it will need to get both special teams units out of the basement. The Panthers have the personnel to be middle-tier on both fronts.

Florida Panthers Depth Chart Team Preview

Best-Case Scenario: The Panthers were much closer to becoming a playoff team in 2014-15 than anyone could have expected, so it’s not beyond reason to believe this team can get close again in 2015-16. The roster hasn’t changed much and they’ll continue to have good goaltending from Luongo. They’ll play a lot of close games, but could surprise some people.

Worst-Case Scenario: Finishing just a few points out of a playoff spot would be awful for the Panthers. The team is making strides on-ice and could use the post-season to build a stronger fanbase. Finishing close to the playoffs but not quite in likely puts them out of the running for a top-five draft talent. The Panthers could use the playoffs or a good shot at the top selection. The space in between doesn’t help the franchise now or in the future.

Who To Watch: Eklbad’s rookie campaign was a thing of beauty and the pressure will be on for the 19-year-old to have another great season in 2015-16. He is likely to stay paired with Campbell, whose veteran presence helped usher Ekblad into the big league, and Ekblad could even see bigger minutes this season than the nearly 22 minutes he played per outing in 2014-15.

The big thing for Ekblad, though, will be continuing to build his defensive game on top of his already stellar offensive ability. No one has ever questioned his talent with the puck on his stick, but if he improves his play away from the puck and in his own end he could become an all-star in Year 2. There will be talk of a dreaded sophomore slump, but Ekblad has all the tools to buck the down year.

What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):

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Click here for more detail on these predictions.

The Panthers are on the cusp of something very good, but they’re not quite there yet and this doesn’t look like it’ll be the year they realize it. The chances they make the playoffs this season are about 1-in-5, which isn’t very reassuring for a team that has only made it once in the new millennium. Still, the young talent on the team looks capable of getting there very soon.

As mentioned above, the forward depth is a bit suspect, but it takes a major hit from two players alone. Dave Bolland and Shawn Thornton hurt the Panthers every time they hit the ice and they’re dragging the team down as a result. Say what you want about grit and toughness or whatever, but those intangibles are better served when the on-ice results aren’t actively hurting the team. Outside of those two, the top nine doesn’t look that bad.

The defense is around average for the most part, thanks mostly to the play of Ekblad. Brian Campbell’s steady play as a partner was the perfect fit for Ekblad who exceeded all expectations during his rookie season. He’ll only get better too. On the other end of the blueline depth chart is a former highly touted D prospect in Erik Gudbranson. It’s not too late for him to turn it around, but his play so far hasn’t lived up to the high draft billing.

The biggest concern for the Panthers this season will be goaltending. Luongo has had a resurgence since coming to Florida, but there are some worrying signs of aging over the past few years. Even if everything goes right for the Panthers skaters this season, it won’t matter if Luongo starts to fade. At 36, it looks like a likely scenario.

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THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.

THN’s 2015-16 NHL season preview: Los Angeles Kings

The Hockey News
Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

2014-15 Record: 40-27-15 (95 Pts.)

THN’s Prediction: 2nd, Pacific Division

What To Expect: The Kings won’t have to search for a source of motivation this season. They were the first defending champs since Carolina in 2006-07 to miss the playoff. The Kings’ archrivals in Chicago won a third title in six seasons and were celebrated as a dynasty. A championship in 2016 would give the Kings three in five years.

A much-needed full summer of recuperation and a beefed-up lineup put the Kings in the thick of the Stanley Cup hunt. Brawny left winger Milan Lucic was acquired from Boston after a down season and has a shot at regaining his 30-goal form on a line with Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik. Lucic, an imposing talent seeking redemption, is a perfect fit on paper.

With Andrej Sekera and Robyn Regehr departing, and Slava Voynov heading back to Russia after serving a jail sentence for domestic violence, GM Dean Lombardi insulated the ‘D’ by adding the skillful Christian Ehrhoff. Lombardi cleaned up his cap by terminating the contract of Mike Richards for a “material breach.” The Kings will have to absorb the losses of Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll, both key cogs in the previous Cup runs. Read more

Western League preview: all hail the Wheaties

Ryan Kennedy
Kale Clague (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

The Western League celebrates its 50th season this year, with Moose Jaw and Regina kicking off the festivities Thursday night. Full action gets going the next day and it will be interesting to see how things shake out in the ‘Dub.’ For starters, the Brandon Wheat Kings are the best team by consensus, even with New York Islanders pick Ryan Pilon stepping away from hockey just months after he was drafted.

Nevertheless, based on the experts out West that I surveyed, this is Brandon’s year. Below you’ll find my league rankings, plus a couple NHL prospects to watch from each franchise.

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Ontario League preview: London Knights will reign again

Ryan Kennedy
London's Mitch Marner (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The London Knights have been a powerhouse for years now and while GM Mark Hunter is now part of the Toronto Maple Leafs brass, there’s no reason to believe the OHL franchise will take a step back. In fact, thanks to a demonic recruiting summer and the return of some of the league’s top offensive lights, London is poised to dominate after an uncharacteristically short playoff run last year.

Who will be chasing the Knights? Below you’ll find my rankings, based off surveys of OHL experts. You will also find players to watch for each franchise. Two teams have moved since last season: Belleville is now Hamilton, while Plymouth is now Flint. Let’s take a gander, shall we?

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THN’s 2015-16 NHL season preview: Minnesota Wild

The Hockey News
Devan Dubnyk

2014-15 Record: 46-28-8 (100 Pts.)

THN’s Prediction: 6th, Central Division

What To Expect: Chuck Fletcher returns essentially the same group to Minnesota. The Wild GM says he’s happy about that but had little choice, as his books are weighed down by veteran contracts. Goalie Devan Dubnyk demanded a hefty payout as he hit the open market. His breakout vaulted the Wild to a wild card position, but it was by far the best stretch of a so-so career, casting doubt on how he’ll perform over his next six seasons under contract.

The Wild’s lone significant UFA addition was D-man Mike Reilly, 22, one of the off-season’s most coveted free agents. He shone at the University of Minnesota for three seasons. He won’t need much seasoning before stepping in and making an impact for the Wild. Read more

THN’s 2015-16 NHL season preview: Montreal Canadiens

The Hockey News
Max Pacioretty (Jared Silberg/Getty Images)

2014-15 Record: 50-22-10 (110 Pts.)

THN’s Prediction: 3rd, Atlantic Division

What To Expect: Atop Carey Price’s shoulders, the defensively sound Canadiens finished with the league’s second-best record last year. Goal production and power play proficiency were bottom-10, but Price’s Hart Trophy-winning heroics negated offensive shortcomings. Montreal’s lack of scoring punch was glaring, and fans clamored for GM Marc Bergevin to add a scorer this off-season.

He didn’t make a big splash but signed right winger Alexander Semin after Carolina bought him out from a lucrative deal. Semin has seven seasons of 20 or more goals but scored six last year. He is low-risk, high-reward but can’t be counted on. Read more

THN’s 2015-16 NHL season preview: Nashville Predators

The Hockey News
Filip Forsberg (Getty Images)

2014-15 Record: 47-25-10 (104 Pts.)

THN’s Prediction: 5th, Central Division

What To Expect: Defying widespread expectations of a basement finish in 2014-15, Nashville exploded for 104 points. GM David Poile liked what he saw and used the off-season to add depth, putting faith in his core group to build on its excellent first season under coach Peter Laviolette.

Poile sprinkled his roster with minor UFA additions: Forward Cody Hodgson, recently bought out by the Sabres; Steve Moses, a pint-sized KHL scoring winger; and Barret Jackman, a longtime Blues stay-at-home D-man. Read more