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Tag:Corey Crawford
Posted on: February 13, 2012 6:06 pm
Edited on: February 13, 2012 6:58 pm
 

Blackhawks coach, goalies get vote of confidence

Quenneville led the 'Hawks to the Stanley Cup two seasons ago. (US Presswire)

By Brian Stubits

Times have gotten rough for the Chicago Blackhawks, real rough. Like no wins in their last eight games rough.

It has led to some speculation that head coach Joel Quenneville's job could be in jeopardy. Imagine that, a team that's still in playoff position firing its coach not even two years after winning a Stanley Cup? Hey, sports are a "what have you done for me lately" business and lately Quenneville's team hasn't done much for anybody other than give opponents points.

Well GM Stan Bowman is trying to put an end to it. He came out with that ol' vote of confidence on Monday, from CSN Chicago.

"That's not the concern for me at all. I'm very confident in Joel's ability, our coaching staff's ability. Our players - the effort is there. They're as frustrated as anybody, you can watch it on the ice. It's not working. There's no disputing that, but I don't buy that assertion (that Quenneville's message is lost) at all. These players are on board with us. They believe in this group (of coaches). We're not far. We need to get this turned around, but we're not far from making it work."

When I asked if Joel's "the guy," Bowman responded, "Absolutely."

So, is Quenneville's heat hotter than Hades now? We know how often that vote of confidence goes well for the person they are confident in.

Call me crazy, but this is one of those times where I actually do believe Bowman. Unless the Blackhawks go eight more games without winning, I have a hunch that Quenneville has a job through this season, at the least.

So who should be feeling the heat for this skid, the goaltenders? After all, Ray Emery has a 2.81 goals against average and .901 save percentage ... and his numbers beat starter Corey Crawford (2.99, .898).

Nope, they are safe too, according to Bowman.

"We're not focused on goaltending. We're really not," Bowman said. "I know there's a lot of talk about that, but internally, we have to focus on the guys we have, and turning it around from within."

Does that mean the Blackhawks will be a completely stand pat team at the deadline at the end of this month? Are there no moves for them to make?

Well, it's still likely that they will look to upgrade the defensive corps. It's been an issue all season long and they could use some reinforcements back there. Of course, there are a lot of teams who want to find some quality defensemen and not a whole of them to be found, especially after Andy Sutton just re-signed with the Oilers.

More from Eye on Hockey

Trade deadline rumor mill

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: January 31, 2012 4:28 pm
Edited on: January 31, 2012 4:30 pm
 

Pucks & Numbers: Blackhawks' D and goaltending

Does Chicago need a backup goalie upgrade? (Getty Images)

Pucks and Numbers: a weekly statistical look at what's happening around the NHL. This week: A look at how the NHL's have top scorers have been used this season.

By: Adam Gretz

As the Chicago Blackhawks prepare to enter the second half of the regular season they find themselves in the bottom-third of the league when it comes to preventing goals.

Entering Tuesday's game in Vancouver, a rematch of last year's Western Conference Quarterfinal series, which the Canucks won in seven games, the Blackhawks are giving up just a little over 2.8 goals per game, which puts them 20th in the NHL. The only teams that are currently occupying a playoff spot that are surrendering more goals on a nightly basis are the Philadelphia Flyers (2.90) and Ottawa Senators (3.04).

So what is the biggest problem at this point? The goaltending of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, or the defense in front of them?

Actually, it's probably a little bit of both.

When the the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup two years ago it was easy to point to what their biggest weakness was -- goaltending.

It was supposed to be the position that held them back on their playoff run, and there was even a bit of concern (a lot, actually) when the trade deadline passed and the team was prepared to go into the postseason with a duo of then-rookie Antti Niemi and veteran Cristobal Huet. It raised a few eyebrows, resulted in a lot of questions, and then they went on and won the ultimate prize, ending a lengthy championship drought for the franchise.

Niemi was definitely solid in net, and he made some big saves for them in the playoffs, but he wasn't exactly Tim Thomas or Dominik Hasek back there, either.

Statistically, the Blackhawks finished the regular season, as a team, near the bottom of the NHL in most of the key goaltending areas. Their overall save percentage of .901 was 23rd in the league. Their 5-on-5 save percentage of .902 was 29th, ahead of only the Ottawa Senators.

Through their first 50 games this season the Blackhawks new goaltending duo is playing at a slightly higher level, especially when it comes to even strength play. At 5-on-5 the pairing of Crawford and emery is 22nd in the NHL with a .911 mark, and at a comparable .901 mark (23rd) overall. But they're giving up nearly a half-goal more per game.

How is that possible? The team in front of the goalies isn't anywhere near as good at limiting the goaltendes workload.

The Stanley Cup team in '09-10 had ridiculous depth at forward and defense and consistently steamrolled over their opponents, controlling the puck better than any team in the league. They limited their opponents to just 25 shots per game and out-shot them by an average of nine shots per game, the third-best mark of any team over the past 10 years. A team that controls the puck like that is capable of overcoming what might be a weakness in goal.

While they're still a really strong possession team this year, they're simply not an all-time great one like the Cup team was, due in large part to the decreased depth, especially on the blue line. (Just as a quick example: Even though he has a contract that was the butt of many jokes, Brian Campbell, now a member of the Florida Panthers, was a really, really good player for the Blackhawks. And while they needed to find a taker for his contract, they do miss his play on the blue line). That decreased depth puts the below-average goaltending (and let's face it, that's what it's been for a couple of years now in Chicago) under an even larger microscope.

I'm not sure Chicago can find an upgrade over Crawford on the trade market leading up to the deadline, and even though his play has regressed a bit from last season, he can probably play a little better over the second half of the season. Their best bet leading up to the deadline would be to focus on adding some depth to their blue line, or at the very least, looking to find an upgrade over Emery to help take some of the pressure off of their second-year starter.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.
Posted on: December 14, 2011 4:45 pm
Edited on: December 14, 2011 5:06 pm
 

'Hawks' Bolland rips Sedin 'sisters,' Vancouver

By Brian Stubits

If you are looking for drawbacks in the NHL's realignment plan -- you likely aren't, most people found enough of those -- then here's one for ya. The death blow to the non-traditional rivalry that is the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks.

Playoff familiarity has bred a lot of contempt between these two teams. So much that I don't think it's exaggeration for one team to call the other their biggest rival in the sport right now. Sure, the Blackhawks have the Red Wings and the Canucks have, well, all of Canada, but no relationship seems to have the vitriol that this one is harboring at the moment.

Despite the fact that the two teams haven't played each other since Nov. 16 and won't play again until Jan. 31, they are still chirping away.

Blackhawks forward Dave Bolland is the man responsible for getting this fire burning once again when he joined WGN radio with Chicago goalie Corey Crawford on Tuesday night. He then proceeded to become the first person in the history of ever to refer to twins Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin as the "Sedin Sisters." OK, he was actually the second person on the show to say it, parroting the remarks of the show's host Dave Kaplan (full audio here).

Bolland was then asked if he would still call the Sedins sisters if they ever became Blackhawks. Bolland's response?

"Well, they'll never become 'Hawks," Bolland said. "I don't think we'd let them on our team. That'd probably be one thing. We'd be sure not to let them on our team. And, yeah, they probably still would be sisters. I think they might sleep in, like, bunk beds. The older one has the bottom one, the younger one's got the top."

But he didn't end his verbal assault on Vancouver there. No, he continued, this time branching out to the entire city. From the Vancouver Sun:

Bolland also talked about Canucks fans. Kaplan asked Bolland what Blackhawks players do in their spare time when on the road. Bolland mentioned that he tries not to venture too far from his hotel room when he has to play the Canucks at Rogers Arena.

"There's a lot of weirdos there," said Bolland of Vancouver. "You don't want to be out there too long."

A young fan asked Bolland, "Do you hate everyone on the Canucks, or just a lot of them?"

"I hate of all of them," said the Blackhawks forward.

Of course, it wouldn't be a full story without the Canucks retort. I'll give you one guess as to who was the player from Vancouver to issue a response, and you know it wasn't one of the Sedins.

That's right, it was Kevin Bieksa, the very vocal defenseman who seems to be the team spokesman in situations like this. He was equally stinging of Bolland.

"If it wasn't for the twins, I don't think anyone would hear about Dave Bolland," Bieksa said on Wednesday. "If he doesn't want them on his team, he's crazy. But it's probably b/c he'd be out of a roster spot."

Heck, even the coach is getting in on the action. You know it's getting interesting when that happens.

“When you have comments like Bolland, obviously an individual who’s IQ is the size of a bird seed and a face only a mother can look at," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said.

Now that is an original put down. Much better than the tried and clearly not true sisters line.

But don't think for one second that Bolland didn't know what he was doing. He knew full well what the ramifications of what he was saying would be. He didn't care.

He also seemed to be pandering to the crowd. It was a bit reminiscent of a wrestler being purposely outrageous to give the fans what they want. To draw a parallel to competitive sports, it was more like a booster pep rally for a college football or basketball team. If he was trying to bait the Canucks, it worked.

Figures that just when this rivalry is getting really good, they are going to only have two guaranteed meetings starting next season. Of course, if they meet in the semifinals or even Stanley Cup Final, depending how the playoffs will work, there will be that much more juice on the line.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: October 12, 2011 1:28 pm
Edited on: October 12, 2011 1:51 pm
 

Daily Skate: Canucks won't forget Methot's hit

By Brian Stubits

METHOT MARKED: The Canucks played in Columbus on Monday night and during the game Henrik Sedin took a hard check into the boards from the Blue Jackets' Marc Methot. While he didn't get any supplementary discipline from the NHL for the hit, there could be more waiting from Vancouver down the line. Kevin Bieksa says a few Canucks tried to challenge Methot to a fight to no avail, so he had this to say afterward: "Hank's a tough guy and he'll take that for the team. But we'll remember that." (Vancouver Sun)

PIN THE TAIL ON THE DONKEY: When Daniel Carcillo arrived in Chicago for his introductory press conference, he decided to fit right in and take some shots at Vancouver, including Tanner Glass, saying he'd "keep them in check" this season. Problem is, Glass is with the Jets now. "He should probably figure out what team I’m on before he starts doing stuff like that. The funny thing is, I’ve asked him to fight before, and he said no. It’s kind of surprising that he called me out in the media. I have no pre-existing relationship with him. He’s a donkey; everyone knows he’s a donkey, that’s just his thing." (Illegal Curve)

SALAK BACK: Speaking of the Blackhawks, they recalled Alexander Salak from the AHL on Wednesday. Corey Crawford had missed the previous two days of practice, but on Wednesday he was back and Ray Emery wasn't present. Interesting goings ons in Chicago. (CSN Chicago)

SPOT PRACTICE START: I just love these stories. The Capitals had to sit out Michal Neuvirth in practice on Wednesday for what Bruce Boudreau called a lower body injury (he is available for Thursday's game in Pittsburgh, coach said). Since you kind of need two goalies, they got PR man Sergey Kocharov to fill in. (Capitals Watch)

BACK TO THE TANK: The San Jose Sharks are moving their next few practices to the HP Pavilion, where they play their games. The idea? Coach Todd McLellan wants his team to get used to the new boards and glass so they can keep their home-ice advantage. Good thinking. (Working the Corners)

FASTER THAN A SPEEDING BULLET: That is one way to desribe Phil Kessel's shot. Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer talks about the invisible shot that is so quick of his team's All-Star forward. He sounds glad to be on the other side of the ice. (Toronto Sun)

TO BOO OR NOT TO BOO? That is the question begging Senators fans about Sergei Gonchar. There is no question in this blogger's mind Gonchar deserves it for his indifference in Ottawa to start the season. (Silver Sens)

NYSTROM CLEARS: The Minnesota Wild placed Eric Nystrom on waivers last week then put him on re-entry waivers on Tuesday. Both times he cleared. So even at half price, nobody was willing to take a shot on the 28-year-old who had just four goals and a minus-16 last season. (Russo's Rants)

CHANT ALONG: Finally, as a request by @CoachBlueweiss after yesterday's Daily Skate item about the Maple Leafs' (and others') new goal song, here is some love to the Islanders' for this year, a little diddy called Crowd Chant by Joe Satriani. Not bad.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.



Posted on: October 6, 2011 12:25 am
Edited on: October 6, 2011 12:57 am
 

Blackhawks will rebound and lift the Cup again

By Brian Stubits

Last season there was a hangover in Chicago. Champagne-induced ones are the worst. That's a big reason why the Blackhawks had to fight at season's end to earn the West's final playoff spot.

But like a regular ol' college student, a day after being bed-ridden it's time to party again. That's my forecast for this season's Stanley Cup: a return to the Madhouse on Madison.

By now everybody has heard enough about the salary cap trouble Chicago found itself in. Former GM Dale Tallon gets a lot of credit for building a Stanley Cup winner, but when he was forced out of town, there was more than a parade to clean up after. For that, current GM Stan Bowman deserves a lot of credit.

Chicago was so crippled by their cap crunch that they lost a few key players to their championship like Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Antti Niemi and Kris Versteeg. But the core remained, and now Bowman has reshuffled the cards to stack the deck around said core again.

2011-12 NHL Season Preview

Welcome into the fold Andrew Brunette, Dan Carcillo, Jamal Mayers, Steve Montador and Sean O'Donnell to the existing group that includes two of the best young players in the game of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, it's a solid group that also now has a true grinder line. Add the apparent solution to the goal riddle with Corey Crawford and you can see why optimism is back in the Windy City.

Three reasons to like the Blackhawks:

1. Skill: There are three players on this team that topped the 70-point mark last season. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp are each capable of doing it again. Marian Hossa is right there with them. If second-round draft pick Brandon Saad really is as good as he showed this preseason as he earned a spot on Chicago's TOP line, then it's an unexpected lethal addition.

2. Defense: Oh yeah, the group on the blue line has some skill, too. There's a past Norris Trophy winner who will be in the conversation again this season in Duncan Keith. He's a horse for Chicago. Last season he played more minutes than any skater in hockey. He is teamed up with another outstanding and young defenseman in Brent Seabrook. The belief is that they don't have to rely on those two as uch this season as the corps got deeper, adding Montador and O'Donnell to round out a rock solid group that also includes Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy. But the big key is Crawford. He was very impressive in his first full season and with a group like that in front of him, can continue to look stellar.

3. Chemistry: I'm not a massive believer in the intangibles in sports, but you can't deny its impact, especially among linemates. This group in Chicago doesn't seem to have any personality problems on the horizon as it is a close-knit group. "We've had that chemistry right from Day 1 -- no question about it," the veteran Sharp said on Wednesday. "When you bring in veteran players who have had success all across the league on different teams it seems like there's one excitement in the room." Let me put it this way; good chemistry can't hurt matters. Also under intangibles: They have been there before.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: October 3, 2011 4:56 pm
 

Emery wins backup goalie job for Blackhawks

By Brian Stubits

This summer, Ray Emery was viewed as one of the better free-agent goalies on a very thin market, but he went unsigned before being given a tryout by the Chicago Blackhawks. Despite a rocky preseason, he earned the backup spot, receiving a one-year, one-way contract worth $600,000 on Monday.

To earn the spot on the team he beat out young prospect Alexander Salak, who the Blackhawks optioned down to their AHL affiliate in Rockford. On a roster that is primed to make a run this season, the backup goalie spot behind Corey Crawford was one of the few missing pieces to the puzzle.

Emery earning the contract might come as a little surprise, but it seems Chicago values the experience he brings to the table over Salak.But this preseason, his numbers have been less than stellar. In two starts he had an 0-2-0 record, 4.58 goals against average and a 0.813 save percentage. Oh, and one ugly, blooper-reel worthy goal allowed to Matt Cooke of the Penguins.

Emery was at his best back in 2006-07 with the Senators, going 33-15-2 with a 2.47 GAA in Ottawa before slipping to the point where he spent a season in the KHL. He returned to the NHL with Philadelphia in 2009-10, then played for the Ducks in Anaheim last season, being thrust into the starting position for the playoffs. He went 7-2-0 in his short stint with Anaheim with a 2.28 goals against average, leaving many to think he's get a contract over the summer. Instead he had to work his way on and Chicago apparently liked enough of what they saw to keep him around.

It's going to be something to watch this season for Chicago. Crawford appeared to really settle in to being a No. 1 keeper last season, helping Chicago turn things around down the stretch and almost knocking out the ventual Western Conference champion Canucks in the playoffs. And while you can't read much into preseason numbers, Emery's aren't very comforting for Chicago fans, so they'll hope it was a matter of Emery just getting his feet wet.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: October 1, 2011 10:34 am
 

Video: Matt Cooke scores from center ice



By: Adam Gretz


The Chicago Blackhawks brought veteran goaltender Ray Emery into the camp this year on a tryout contract to have him compete with Alexander Salak for the backup job to second-year starter Corey Crawford. The early results haven't been promising for Emery, and the worst moment of all came during a 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night.

Emery came out of his crease to play a loose puck at the top of the faceoff circle to the right of his net and sent it off the boards into the neutral zone. Unfortunately for Emery and the Blackhawks, that's where Penguins forward Matt Cooke was patiently waiting to fire it from the red line into the open net that Emery abandoned, as you can see in the above video.

The puck not only took an awkward bounce over Emery's stick as he made a desperate attempt to scramble back and stop it, but it also went through the five-hole of Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook as he tried to bail out his goaltender and make the save himself. For the game Emery stopped just 15 of the 18 shots he faced (Pittsburgh's fourth goal was an empty net goal).

It's been a rough preseason for Emery in his quest to make the team.

After giving up four goals in his debut against the Edmonton Oilers back on Sep. 20, he took over halfway through a game in Pittsburgh and gave up four more goals on 19 shots. Over the past two games, both of which have come against the Penguins, he's managed to stop (small sample size alert!) just 30 of the 37 shots he's faced for a save percentage of .810.

By comparison, in Salak's two appearances he's recorded a .926 mark (38 saves on 41 shots).

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.

Posted on: September 28, 2011 1:48 pm
Edited on: September 28, 2011 4:15 pm
 

Central Division Preview: 'Hawks, Wings battle on

By Brian Stubits

Enjoy this while you can, there's no telling what the Central will look like next season.

One of the premier rivalries in the sport is the Blackhawks vs. the Red Wings. The only two Original Six teams in the West, they have long been fierce combatants. In recent years the Blackhawks have awoken from the doldrums, making this a great series once again.

But this could be it, especially if Detroit has its way. Realignment is coming to the NHL, that much is guaranteed after Atlanta moved to Winnipeg. The Red Wings organization has made it no secret it wants to move East, rivalry with Chicago be damned. Columbus and Nashville would both welcome a move East as well. Something's gotta give, and it will be the Central Division.

It's too bad. Because this year the division is set up to be about more than just these two powers.

Nashville is always sneaky good. People seem to sleep on the Predators every season, but you know they will be there. They are looking to build off the first postseason series win in franchise history with their three Stars in contract seasons. St. Louis seems to think its Blues are ready to make a leap, so long as they can stay healthy. That was a challenge last season. And Columbus? Well there is at least optimism for the first time in a while and some buzz around the team after the addition of Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski to join Rick Nash.

But as many strides as those teams have and are taking, in the end it will likely still be about the two powerhouses. That's because the Blackhawks are back. They suffered a little last year after winning the Stanley Cup as they had to shed a lot of salary. That meant jettisoning a good chunk of the team that won the Cup. But the core remained together and the team found its groove in the end, pushing the Canucks to the brink in the first round. But after an offseason of reinforcing the roster, Chicago figures to be in the thick until the end.

And Detroit? The Red Wings are ... well they're just the Wings. It's hard to imagine them not being good. Although this year they don't seem to be as loaded as usual, those are some pretty lofty standards. They will still be a threat not only for the division title but in the Western Conference, they can flat out score. That much we know.

So if this is it as division rivals, it should be fun.

Central Division (in predicted order of finish)

PenguinsChicago Blackhawks: Ah, it's nice to be out of salary cap hell, isn't it Chicago? After having to do major salary shedding, the Blackhawks still come out with a cast of characters that includes the names Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and newcomer Andrew Brunette. Throw in Dan Carcillo and Jamal Mayers to give the team some nastiness power and the forwards are well-rounded.

On defense they will miss Brian Campbell, just not his salary. Sure, he is overpaid, but that doesn't mean he didn't bring anything to the table for the 'Hawks. But the defensive corps is still solid, led by Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Expectations are very high in Chicago once again.

Strenghts: It's tough to find a better pair of linemates than Toews and Kane. They are both still stepping into their primes, so they have a lot more to show. Those two are also part of the reason why the power play should once again be successful. Last season the unit ranked fourth in the NHL with the man up, led by Sharp's 12 goals on the power play.

They figure to be better at killing penalties thanks to the additions of Mayers, Steve Montador and Sean O'Donnell, an area where Chicago struggled last season.

Weaknesses: Depth at center is a major concern at this point. The team has been experimenting during camp with Patrick Kane, of all players, manning the center position. Maybe it's an indictment on the centers on the roster. Perhaps it's an indication of Patrick Sharp's health (or lack thereof). Whatever the reason, it's slightly concerning.

I would also be a little worried about the backup goaltender situation behind Corey Crawford. Alexander Salak is going to have the job and he might be more than adequate in the role, we just don't know much about him at the NHL level where he has little experience.

PenguinsDetroit Red Wings: The Wings are remarkably consistent as they have made the playoffs in each of the past 20 seasons. They also stay consistent in their roster, retaining a lot of their players over time. Case in point, this year's forward group. The Wings will trot out mostly all the same forwards as a year ago for when they finished second in the NHL in scoring.

But the defensive corps received quite a shakeup after last season's 2.89 goals against average, the retirement of Brian Rafalski and loss of Ruslan Salei.

In net they have Jimmy Howard with Ty Conklin backing him up. You have to wonder how much confidence Ken Holland and Mike Babcock have in their starter Howard, though, after the team had a failed pursuit of Tomas Vokoun.

Strengths: As mentioned, the Red Wings can score, almost all of them. Last season there were 13 players that recorded double digits in goals scored, led by Johan Franzen's 28. There is certainly loads of experience in Detroit, too. These guys aren't in their first rodeos. That especially includes defensive stalwart Nicklas Lidstrom, who put of retirement for another year on the ice.

Having the leadership that players like Lidstrom can provide certainly doesn't hurt. Also, you might have heard this Babcock fellow on their bench isn't so bad.

Weaknesses: Defense, defense, defense. That is the major concern/question mark here. They revamped the D, bringing in Mike Commodore and Ian White through free agency. Young defenseman Jonathan Ericsson received a pretty lucrative new deal, so he will be expected to improve.

In the defensive vein, the goaltending will also need to get better. Of course, that goes hand in hand with the defense, but Howard has room to improve. Playing for the Wings, his record was solid -- a nice 37-17-5 mark -- but the goals against average of 2.79 (36th out of 47 eligible goalies) and save percentage of .908 (33rd best) aren't worth writing home about.

PenguinsNashville Predators: Hope is high in Smashville coming off the best showing in franchise history, making it to conference semifinals. The Predators have more or less become the NHL's version of a Moneyball team, continuing to cultivate home-grown talent and win on the cheap.

The team is led by the high-profile trio of goalie Pekka Rinne (Vezina finalist) and defensemen Shea Weber (Norris finalist) and Ryan Suter, who are all going into contract seasons. It will be interesting to see how that plays out for each of them. For some players, it's a major distraction, for others it brings out the best playing for a new deal.

If there's anything we've learned about the Predators in recent years it's not to count them out, at least as long as Barry Trotz is on the bench. Maybe this will be the year he finally wins the Jack Adams as the best coach?

Strengths: The Preds have one of the best defenses in all of hockey. That's due to a multitude of reasons stretching from Trotz's system and philosophy to the outstanding personnel on the blue line -- which might get stronger with the addition of heralded prospect Ryan Ellis -- and the elite goaltending of Rinne. All in all, it led to the team posting the third-lowest GAA a season ago.

The farm system is also a strength, it usually is for Nashville. In addition to Ellis, they have forward Craig Smith, who drew rave reviews by scoring six goals in two games in the team's rookie tournament games.

Weaknesses: You would love to have somebody who is the clear-cut scorer on the team. Unfortunately, the Preds just don't score a lot, period, forget about one player. Only two players (Sergei Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist) topped the 20-goal mark with Kostitsyn pacing the team with 23. Perhaps a healthy Mike Fisher can help with that, at least that's the hope.

As you'd expect with low offensive numbers, the power play placed in the bottom five of the entire league a season ago. The leading power-play scorer was Martin Erat last season with seven.

PenguinsSt. Louis Blues: After coming out of the gate firing 9-1-2 last season, the Blues slowed down as the season wore along, eventually missing the playoffs by 10 points partly because the team dealt with a rash of injuries. Despite that finish, there is positive momentum going in St. Louis and the ownership sees it. That's why they left the young core of the team pretty much untouched this offseason, just electing to bring in a couple of savvy veterans in Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott to make an impact.

You can see the potential here, especially with another year under their belts. It will be interesting to see how they fare over a full season with Chris Stewert, who they acquired midseason from Colorado last year. After getting the forward, the Blues' offense saw a big uptick in scoring, eventually finishing 10th in the league.

Defensively they came in just below the median at 18th in the league. The Blues should be in the playoff picture all season long.

Strengths: There is a good amount of individual talent here, starting with Stewart and new captain David Backes. In all, they had six players last season score 20 goals or more and one of them, Andy McDonald, reached that plateau in just 58 games. With the abundance of talented and skilled skaters this is a team with plenty of speed up and down the lineup.

You also have to like the young defensive corps that has two stars in the making with Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, who each had 43 points from the back end a season ago.

Weaknesses: We weren't entirely sure where to put goaltending in this equation since Jaroslav Halak had some struggles in his first season as a No. 1 goaltender. However he showed what he's capable of when he was with the Canadiens. But based on his just average numbers of a season ago and the unsure situation behind him (Ben Bishop vs. Brian Elliott), we'll put this as our best guess.

Another area where the Blues are lacking is in the physicality department. You wonder where exactly the toughness will come from.

PenguinsColumbus Blue Jackets: What is that coming from Columbus? Is that hope? Why yes, I think it is. GM Scott Howson was active this summer by bringing in Wisniewski and Carter along with Vinny Prospal and Radek Martinek on the blue line. In addition to signing new players, Howson was also busy in signing his current players to long-term deals, specifically R.J. Umberger and Fedor Tyutin.

Yes, the Jackets are spending money, that's not the problem. What is is the matter of how bang for the buck they are getting. To put it in perspective, the Jackets currently have a higher payroll than the Boston Bruins. The hope is that it translates into success, and a few more fans at the turnstiles as Columbus was 27th in the league in attendance last season.

Strenghts: They have struggled to score recently, but that should be done with, or at least minimized. They have a true No. 1 center now in Carter, which should only further help Nash show he is one of the best players people don't talk about in the NHL. The power play, perhaps Columbus' biggest bug-a-boo in recent seasons, should be significantly better now that they have a quarterback for the unit in Wisniewski (when he's back from suspension) and two very capable scorers up front. It had to get better from last year's 29th-ranked unit.

Weaknesses: Did somebody say goaltending? This is one area where the Blue Jackets didn't do a whole lot of upgrading. Instead, they elected to give the starting reins back to Steve Mason and signing the inexperienced Mark Dekanich to be his backup. Since winning the Calder as the league's top rookie, Mason has struggled. Last season he had a 3.01 goals against average and .901 save percentage. That's a big reason why the Jackets were 26th in scoring in the league.

And while Wisniewski helps, there still isn't much scoring threat from the blue line. Tyutin led Columbus in scoring among defensemen with just 27 points.

NHL season preview schedule
Wed., Sept. 21: Step-back players Tues., Sept. 27: Atlantic Division
Thur., Sept. 22: Breakout players Wed., Sept. 28: Central Division
Fri., Sept. 23: Southeast Division Thur. Sept. 29: Northeast Division
Mon., Sept. 26: Pacific Division Fri., Sept. 30: Northwest Division

Photo: Getty Images

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