By Dave Turner
1. After a tumultuous offseason, the San Jose Sharks will make a deep playoff run this year.
Already tabbed as perennial playoff underachievers, the San Jose Sharks suffered their biggest postseason disappointment to date when they blew a 3-0 series lead to the Los Angeles Kings.
To make matters worse, Joe Thornton was stripped of his captaincy in the offseason. According to some reports, there were problems within the room, so the Sharks went to Tahoe in the offseason for a team bonding session.
Considering that the Sharks enter the 2014-15 seasons with leadership questions and two juggernauts in their own state, the Kings and Ducks, to deal with, all signs seem to be pointing down in San Jose.
Sometimes it takes a cataclysmic event to bring a team together. The San Jose Sharks are a talented team. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau can still play at an extremely high level. Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture are among the best in the league.
After losing time to injury last season, exciting young winger Tomas Hertl is back and rookie winger Barclay Goodrow will be inserted into the lineup after he gets over an injury. Fellow rookie Chris Tierney will also start the season in San Jose.
With a solid mix of older veterans, playmakers in their prime and some young prospects, the Sharks will score goals. Defensively, they’ve moved on from Dan Boyle, but still have a solid back end led by Marc-Edward Vlasic and Brent Burns, who returns to defense after playing as a winger last year.
In goal, Antti Niemi struggled in the playoffs last season, but still posted solid numbers in the regular season with a 2.36 gaa and a .913 save percentage. If he falters, Alex Stalock, (1.87/.932) is waiting in the wings. If one, or both are able to play at a high level, that should result in another strong season in San Jose.
Picking the Sharks to ever make a run is risky, given their far less than admirable track record, but there’s too much talent on this team to ignore them. Maybe it will be the giant slice of humble pie that the Sharks ate at the expense of the Kings that makes the difference. Maybe it will be the move to strip Thornton of the captaincy that allows for new voices to be heard in the dressing room. Whatever the case, sometimes true adversity brings out the best in athletes and the Sharks still have the talent to play with anyone.
2. The Nashville Predators will push hard fora playoff spot in the loaded Central Division.
Barry Trotz was the only coach that the Nashville Predators franchise had ever known, but after another underachieving year in 2013-14, the team made the move to Peter Laviolette behind the bench.
Laviolette’s track record is impressive in his stints as a head coach. In his first season as the New York Islanders head coach, they had 96 points and made the playoffs. In his first full season with the Carolina Hurricanes, he won a Stanley Cup. In Philadelphia, his first year resulted in a loss to the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final.
Last season, Nashville struggled to score at times. With an offensive minded coach behind the bench and the additions of Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy via free agency and James Neal via a trade with Pittsburgh, they should be able to pump in more goals. From the back end, Shea Weber’s 56 point (23g, 33a) total may increase in the new system. Roman Josi is an offensive threat and with a year under his belt, Seth Jones should be better as well.
Perhaps the biggest reason for their struggles last season was the absence of Pekka Rinne. When he’s healthy, he’s a top-ten goalie. The Preds just weren’t the same team without him.
In any other division, the Predators could make a very strong case that they’re a playoff team. In the Central though, they’ll contend with the Blackhawks, Blues, Avalanche, Wild and Stars, ouch. It’s still not out of the question for Nashville to perhaps sneak by one of those teams, but it will most likely take something like 96+ points to get in.
After this team infused life into their fanbase with two strong playoff runs, they’ll be back to playing highly competitive hockey this season. With Laviolette’s track record, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Preds do find their way into a playoff spot.
3. Of all the Western Conference Canadian teams, it’ll be the Calgary Flames that surprise.
It was a tough season for the Western Conference Canadian clubs, as all four missed the playoffs. Though Vancouver had a recent run, the Oilers, Flames and Jets are all searching for answers amidst long playoff droughts.
Of all of those teams, it’ll be the Calgary Flames who end 2014-15 with the most potential moving forward and could finish as high as fourth in the Pacific Division. Last year, in his rookie season, Sean Monahan showed some flashes of brilliance. A year older now, he’ll be looking to surpass his point total of 34 (22g, 12a) from last season. Entering into the mix this season is another highly touted prospect in Johnny Gaudreau. The Boston College product comes in as a proven winner and his impact will be felt, as well.
The team lost veteran Mike Cammalleri in the offseason, but his production, along with his injury history, can be replaced. The team signed speedster Mason Raymond, who should do well in Alberta after a strong season in another open-ice offensive system in Toronto.
Perhaps their biggest offseason acquisition was goaltender Jonas Hiller. Hiller may not be an elite goaltender, but he’ll give the Flames some stability in net. In the Swiss netminder, they get a player that can carry a 50+ game workload and his career .916 save percentage is strong. There will be nights where the Calgary defense leaves him out to dry, but as he’s shown in the Olympics, he can play well against good talent.
It would take a collapse from one of the California teams of epic proportions for any other team from the Pacific to make the playoffs and to even think that the Flames will be in the postseason will be a bit of a stretch, but, the beginnings of the rebuild are in place. The Flames still have some promising young players waiting in the wings who will more than likely get their chance during the season. There is finally a reason for optimism during the rebuild in Calgary.