New Jersey: A Devil of a Chance

The New Jersey Devils sit in second place in the Eastern Conference. Boasting loads of playoff experience and a certain All-Star goaltender, the Devils are a threat to the Stanley Cup year after year in the NHL. Lou Lamoriello’s team has always been a threat and is one of the most consistent teams in the league, preaching defense first while still keeping solid pace in the “new NHL”.

When you have a goaltender like Martin Brodeur, you can pretty much bet that you’ll always be a threat. That’s what Lamoriello does year after year as president and GM of the Devils. Brodeur is one of the best goaltenders in the world, a staple on the Team Canada roster and an All-Star nearly every year he’s played the game. Marty has won three Stanley Cups with the Devils, won the Vezina trophy and won the Calder trophy. He is also the first goalie in history to win forty games or more in a season over four times. Brodeur is also on a roll with ten consecutive seasons with thirty wins or more. At 34 year old, he signed a six-year contract extension with the Devils last year and remains as consistent as ever. Any team with Martin Brodeur on it is a dangerous team to play against in the post-season. Unfortunately for everyone else in the league, we’re talking about the Devils.

New Jersey was pretty silent during the trade deadline period because, let’s face it, they didn’t really have to do anything. Consistency and defense are the orders of the day in a typical New Jersey season, so this year is no different. They did send 25-year old defenseman David Hale over to the Calgary Flames for a draft pick, though, but that was all Lamoriello had in mind.

In front of Brodeur skates a defensive core that could best be described as solid. Starting with 32-year old rearguard Brian Rafalski, the Devils have worked hard to replace the loss of Scott Neidermayer from a few seasons ago. Rafalski brings mobility and a good sense to quarterback to the power play, making him dangerous but prone to some errors (he had 97 giveaways last season). With Rafalski, the Devils have the experience of Richard Matvichuk, the finesse of Paul Martin, the grit and pure defensive ability of Colin White, and the stay-at-home workmanship of Brad Lukowich.

Up front, New Jersey looks quick. The forwards are typically all about the forecheck. Defensive forwards like John Madden, Jim Dowd, Michael Rupp and Jason Wiemer all add a dimension of grit and experience. They also make it tough for opposing teams to put the puck in deep. Instead, the Devils forwards force pucks into open ice for offensive players like Patrik Elias and the older-but-still-somewhat-got-it Alex Mogilny.

Patrik Elias is responsible for almost all of New Jersey’s offensive, but he is assisted much of the time by the crisp-passing center Scott Gomez. Elias sat out some of last year with a Hepatitis A issues, but when he came back he REALLY came back. Lighting it up with 16 points in his first 10 games back, Elias went on to table an impressive 45 total points in just 38 games. This year, Patrik Elias is healthy and using his speed and vision to match up with Gomez and winger Jamie Lagenbrunner to make a seriously deadly offensive punch. He leads the team in scoring at press time with 59 points in 62 games, but he is an unfortunate -2. Lagenbrunner is not far behind Elias, second on the team in scoring with 51 points in 64 games.

All in all, New Jersey remains a consistent threat at both ends of the ice. With Elias putting the puck in the net and Martin Brodeur keeping it out of theirs, the Devils look to make a hell of an impact in the playoffs this year and serious content for the ultimate prize in hockey.

The Nashville Predators: In the Hunt

The Nashville Predators are heavy favorites to win it all this year in the NHL. Sitting firmly atop the Western Conference with an impressive 43-18-4 record at article press time, the Preds lead the West in goals for. They are a consistent all-around threat, boasting strength at each position and proving that they will be a challenge to any team in the league with each game they play.

Nashville was relatively active leading up to the trade deadline. The biggest acquisition by far was, of course, Peter Forsberg. The Preds threw caution to the wind in landing the big Swede, as Forsberg has been relatively inconsistent for the bulk of the season. It took a few games for him to make an impact on the Preds, too. Acquired by Nashville on February 15th, Forsberg waited until the 24th to finally make an impact on the scoresheet. With a two-point night, Peter Forbserg looked to finally take his place on the Predators.

Nashville has a lot more than Peter Forsberg to rely on for playoff success, of course. Tough center Jason Arnott helps the Predators and, along with Forsberg, gives a nice two-line punch up the middle. David Legwand is the most productive of the Predator centers, though, with 22 goals and 31 assists at press time. Completing Nashville’s impressive roster of centers is Vernon Fiddler, Scott Nichol and Vernon BC’s Jared Smithson.

With good size and strength up the middle, the Nashville Predators can rely on their wingers to get to open spaces and fire pucks at the net. In terms of firing pucks, nobody does it quite like speedy winger Paul Kariya. Leading the team with 63 points (20 goals and 43 assists), Kariya has one of the quickest and deadliest releases in the game. He’s not shy about it either, firing off nearly 180 shots so far this year.

Joining Kariya on the wing is Steve Sullivan, who has enjoyed a massive career resurgence since hitting the Preds. Sully’s only three points back on Kariya and has contagious energy. He typically plays with Kariya, too, making for one heck of an impact on the top line. Put Forsberg between those two and Nashville is looking mighty deadly in the first round of the playoffs.

JP Dumont, the speedy Martin Erat, the impressive Russian rookie Alexander Radulov, the pesky Jordin Tootoo and Vancouver’s own Darcy Hordichuk round out a solid core of wingers for the Nashville Predators. They are one of the fastest squads in the West and boast offensive prowess that many other teams envy.

The defensive situation in Nashville isn’t too shabby either. It all starts at the back with solid goaltender Tomas Vokoun. Backed up by Red Deer’s Chris Mason, Vokoun is the epitome of the calm starting goaltender. He’s a fierce competitor in every sense of the word, battling pesky blood clot issues to maintain a solid starting position on the Predators. Vokoun can be rattled slightly from a bad goal, but he typically maintains his composure and will be a serious threat deep into the playoffs.

In front of Vokoun, the Predator defensive core is solid and swift. Led by the dazzling Kimmo Timonen, the Preds are capable of standing up opposing forwards or popping in some serious firepower from the blue line. Newly acquired Vitaly Vishnevski is a solid defender that hits like a ton of bricks and Shea Weber is a rookie sensation. Ryan Suter, Marek Zidlicky and Dan Hamhuis round out one of the most impressive defensive groups in the league.

All in all, Nashville looks to be incredibly dangerous heading into the playoffs. They have the tenacity and the firepower to make an impact this year and they are certainly one of the teams to watch in the Western Conference.

The Buffalo Sabres: Making Moves for Lord Stanley’s Cup

With the playoffs approaching and the trade deadline over, it’s time to take a look at a team-by-team and conference-by-conference breakdown of the Stanley Cup hopefuls. Starting with the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference, we’ll be taking a look at each team and how they’ve progressed through the season up until this point.

The busy trade deadline saw the Buffalo Sabres make a few moves. Martin Biron, the Sabres backup goaltender, headed off to Philly. Ty Conklin, from the Columbus Blue Jackets, came to the Sabres to fill the backup role and take some of the pressure off of the Sabres fiscal resources. Also, Dainius Zubrus from the Washington Capitals made his way to Buffalo.

In Conklin, the Sabres get a backup that is on a significantly lower level than Biron. Buffalo hopes, however, that they’ll be able to ride starter Ryan Miller all the way through the remainder of the year. The worst case scenario at this point for the Sabres would be a Miller injury, as relying on Conklin deep into the playoffs would nearly spell a death sentence for Buffalo.

Dainius Zubrus is the really interesting pick-up, though. In Zubrus, the Sabres get a versatile size player with good play-making abilities. He can play any forward position, too. The big Lithuanian brings experience to Buffalo and will likely fit quite nicely on either of the top two lines. With Drury out, look for the Sabres to use Zubrus in key roles on both the power play and the penalty kill. He’s coming off of a Washington squad where he was able to play with one of the most talented players in the league in Alexander Ovechkin, so the Sabres are hoping that some of that talent comes their way.

With these acquisitions, the Sabres look to make serious impact in this year’s playoffs. Boasting an incredible record of 42-16-5, Buffalo is three points up on New Jersey for the lead in the Eastern Conference. They also lead the league in goals scored.

The Sabres are extremely deep at center, even without Drury, and may still be able to use Zubrus on one of the wings. With Briere, Connolly, Hecht, Roy and Paul Gaustad all available and healthy, the Sabres boast one of the fastest center cores in the league. With speedy talent circling on the wings in players such as Afinogenov and Vanek, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Sabres lead the league in goals. If Drury comes back soon enough, Buffalo will give opposing teams even more to worry about up front.

The defensive core isn’t too shabby either. With Spacek, Campbell, Lydman, Kalinin, Tallinder and Numminen powering the blue line with tremendous offensive talent, the Sabres look to be the full package at both ends of the ice.

Look for the Buffalo Sabres to make it deep into the post-season and likely make a serious challenge for the Cup. As long as Miller stays healthy and the Sabres can remain in good condition up the middle, Buffalo will be one of the most favored teams in the league to win it all.

Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a look at the top team in the West, the Nashville Predators.

Ryan Smyth is a New York Islander

In a trade that baffled the pundits and shocked the majority of the hockey world, Ryan Smyth was moved, twenty minutes before the expiration of the trade deadline, to Long Island. The trade sent shockwaves through the core of Edmonton, causing many fans to shake their heads in disbelief on what was to be the night that the Oil would raise Mark Messier’s hallowed Oilers jersey to the rafters. The moment was bittersweet, as the current events surrounding it reminded many fans of other dark days in Edmonton’s history, such as when Gretzky left town for Los Angeles or when the Moose was moved.

Ryan Smyth was the heart and soul of the Edmonton Oilers and had been since he began as an Oiler over twelve seasons ago when the Oilers drafted him in 1994. Since then, Smyth or “Smitty” blocked shots, got in the way of opposing goalies, scored goals, passed the puck and led the team as a true locker room leader. Ryan Smyth, to many in the hockey world, was the epitome of the hard-working Edmonton Oilers. He wasn’t particularly skilled, but he left it all on the ice each game and that was more than enough for many fans to call Smitty “Mr. Oiler”.

Surely, the Oilers franchise turned a page of sorts on trade deadline day in 2007. The new face of the franchise will come along soon enough for Oilers fans, but for the time being many Edmontonians will be licking their wounds. As the team likely misses the playoffs, General Manager Kevin Lowe has a rebuilding process to contend with. The move of Smyth, says Lowe, was a hockey decision and not a financial decision. This financial decision sent hockey pundits scrambling yesterday, as the only previously understood conceivable reason to trade a player like Ryan Smyth would be for cash purposes.

Smyth’s contract expires at the end of this season and he will be a free agent unless the Islanders sign him to a deal that runs after the season. In return for Smyth, the Oilers picked up a pair of forwards in prospects Ryan O’Marra and Robert Nilsson. The Islanders also sent their 2007 first-round pick over in exchange for Captain Canada.

The Islanders, as of their win last night, stand at seventh in the east and in a steady race for a playoff spot. The Edmonton Oilers, on the other hand, do not look like a playoff team this year and will likely end up on the outside looking in for the remainder of the stretch drive. With Smyth in their line-up, the New York Islanders stand a good chance of picking up more momentum rolling into the post-season. With Smyth not in their line-up, the Edmonton Oilers stand a good chance of packing the golf bags early and watching the playoffs from home.

It is the end of an era in E-town, again.

Canucks Prep for Playoff Run

The Vancouver Canucks remain one of the league’s most practical teams, picking up exactly what they need by trade deadline day. The efficiency of Dave Nonis shone through again Yesterday as Vancouver exchanged a conditional second-round pick for Bryan Smolinski out of Chicago and tossed a second-round and a fourth-round pick over to the Los Angeles Kings for defenseman Brent Sopel.

Canuck fans will recognize Sopel from his tenure on the Vancouver Canucks from 1998 to the 2003-2004 season. Sopel was drafted by the ‘Nucks, actually, in the sixth round at 144th overall in 1995. Since then, he found himself attached to the city of Vancouver despite being shipped off to the New York Islanders after the NHL lockout and then traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 2005. Brent Sopel brings a booming right-hand shot that the Canucks can use on a second power-play unit, taking some of the pressure off of Sami Salo.

Bryan Smolinski, said to be very excited about coming to Vancouver, is a talented two-way center with over thirteen years of NHL experience. He joined Chicago after playing for several years as a third line stalwart on the Ottawa Senators, where he enjoyed a solid tenure. On the Canucks, Smolinski is heavily expected to play with Markus Naslund and a possible energy winger like Matt Cooke. This should form a solid line that will rely heavily on Smolinski’s defensive responsibility and his ability to get Naslund the puck in open spaces.

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