Three Up, Three Down: Six NHL Teams to Watch

After a 113-day lockout, it is great for hockey fans everywhere to actually talk about hockey. The NHL announced a shortened and more compact 48-game season that kicks off this Saturday. Here are three teams that should get off to a quick start and three that are likely to struggle early.

Three Teams that Will Get Off to a Fast Start

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

Vegas has the Penguins as the early season favorite to win the Stanley Cup in this shortened season--and it's easy to see why. Evgeni Malkin is coming off a Hart-award winning season and Sidney Crosby, arguably the greatest player in the NHL today, is healthy for the first time in years. These two constitute the best one-two punch in the NHL. 

Crosby is being reunited with Pascual Dupuis and Chris Kunitz on a line. Malkin is joined by big time scoring threat James Neal, but questions remain as to who will fill out this line. 

The Penguins added former Washington Capitals goalie Tomas Vokoun to back up Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury and Vokoun give the Pens one of the strongest one-two combinations in the league in net, which will be even more important in a compacted season. 

The Penguins traded talented center Jordan Staal to Carolina in the offseason. The trade netted the Pens young center Brandon Sutter. Sutter will center the Pens third line and play the physical, defense-minded game that the Pens need out of a third line center.

With a healthy Crosby, Malkin playing at the top of his game, a physical third line center, a great goalie tandem, and at least one All-Star-caliber defenseman in the form of Kris Letang, the Penguins are likely to get off to a very quick start.

Questions do remain for the Penguins. 

Despite a ton of young blue liners in the pipe, most of these prospects remain one to three years away, which means defense remains a concern for Pittsburgh. In addition to defense, the health of Crosby continues to be a concern.

2. Edmonton Oilers

There may not be an NHL team more prepared to hit the ice than the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers are stocked with amazing young talent that has been playing regularly in the AHL, KHL and World Juniors during the lockout.  Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Justin Schultz have all been playing regularly during the lockout.

Not only are the Oilers ready to hit the ice, their young legs will certainly benefit them in a compacted schedule that will take its toll on players. 

The Oilers are going to score goals. No question about it. Led by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and last year's number 1 overall pick Nail Yakupov.

Goaltending will be a big issue for Edmonton, and I am not sure how deep of a run this team could make in the playoffs with such little veteran leadership, but they should still get off to a fast start. 

3. Carolina Hurricanes

Few teams had as big of an offseason as the Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes picked up stud Center Jordan Staal in a trade with the Penguins and added dangerous, though inconsistent, winger Alexander Semin.

Jordan Staal joins his brother Eric in Carolina, and there is a pretty good chance that he will actually join his brother on a line in too (the Hurricanes are at least toying with moving Eric over to the wing). Whether they play on a line together, the Staal brothers should have a big year. Jordan is a big center, great on the penalty-kill, and has never really gotten a chance to show what he can do offensively. That will change this year.  

Joining Staal in Carolina is the talented but inconsistent Alexander Semin. Semin is as dangerous as any goal scorer in the league when he is at the top of his game. Unfortunately, that was more the exception and less the rule during his tenure in Washington. Semin will benefit from getting away from Alexander Ovechkin, and considering that he signed a one-year deal for much less than he was making in DC, Semin has every reason to have a big season.

In addition to the Staal brothers and Semin, the Canes have young goal scorer Jeff Skinner. Skinner just turned 20 and should be poised for a big season after a bit off a drop off in his injury-shortened 2011-2012-sophomore season.

Goaltending will be even more important in this compacted season, and Cam Ward gives the Canes a talented netminder that should keep Carolina competitive all season long.

For the Canes, scoring should not be a problem; defense, though, is a different story. While I expect the Canes to get off to a fast start, they will need help on the blue line to make a run in the playoffs.

Almost Made the List

New York Rangers
Vancouver Canucks

Three Teams that Will Get off to a Slow Start

I could go with obvious choices here, like the dreadful Columbus Blue Jackets or the New York Islanders (better known as Tavares and a bunch of other guys no one would want).  Instead, I went with some less obvious teams.

1. Washington

I think the Caps are a playoff team, but, right now, they are a team in transition.  A new coach--Adam Oates-- with a completely different system than Dale Hunter’s (the coach brought in last year to replace Caps coach Bruce Boudreau) is now in charge. Oates is bringing a more offensive-centered game, one that should make Alex Ovechkin--the face of the franchise--very happy (and very productive). The problem is that Oates system is a complete 180 from the system implemented last year by Dale Hunter. Hunter’s system stressed defense first and marginalized the talented Russian winger Ovechkin.  While Ovechkin should thrive in the new system, it is going to take time for the new system to gel.

Not only are the Caps facing life under a completely different system, they are also facing life without Alexander Semin.  Plenty of Capitals fans are going to ask themselves what Ovechkin and Semin could have done under the offensive-minded Oates.  Unfortunately, Semin is now in Carolina. 

2. Toronto 

Rex Ryan looks at the Toronto Maple Leafs and thinks, “what a friggin’ mess.”  The NHL’s only billion dollar franchise, the crown jewel of hockey, has turned into a perennial also-ran that more closely resembles a B-rate soap opera.

The always-controversial Brian Burke was unceremoniously dismissed as Leafs general manager just days after the agreement to end the lockout was reached. Burke's dismissal is a truly bizarre decision--at least in terms of timing--by the new Leafs’ ownership of Bell and Rogers.  Burke’s four years in Toronto produced zero playoff appearances.

Unfortunately for Leafs fans, it is highly unlikely that this year's Leafs squad will end their playoff drought. The Leafs have a new head coach--Randy Carlyle--whom I actually like long-term in Toronto. 

Carlyle has his work cut out for him. The Leafs are lacking a top-line scoring threat and a shutdown goalie. The goalie situation may be fixed if new general manager Dave Nonis can pull the trigger on a deal with Vancouver for Roberto Luongo. Luongo, however, may come at a high premium--both in what Toronto may have to give up to get him and certainly in what it will cost long term to keep Luongo and his big contract.

Joffrey Lupul exceeded expectations in 2011-2012 and will need to show he can repeat this performance in 2013 - and that’s no sure thing. Tyler Bozak is not a first line center, but will center the Leafs' first line.  Talented young defenseman Jake Gardiner will likely miss the opening of the season after suffering a concussion.

3. Winnipeg 

No city deserves a winning hockey team more than Winnipeg. Winnipeg, the smallest market in the NHL, lost their beloved Jets in 1996 when the team relocated to the Arizona desert. After 15 years without NHL hockey, the Jets returned to Winnipeg when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to the working-class Canadian city last year.  

The Jets struggled in their first year in Winnipeg on the ice, and then Jets fans had to endure the loss of hockey again via the lockout. Sadly for Winnipeg, the return of hockey doesn't mean the return of a winning Jets team.

The conference-only schedule the NHL produced for this shortened 48-game season was intended to cut down on travel in an already compacted season. This all makes sense unless you are the Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg, which is to the west of Minnesota, is stuck in the Eastern Conference and more specifically the Southeast Division--along with Carolina, Washington, Tampa Bay and Florida--as a result of the team's move from Atlanta.  

No team in the NHL has a rougher travel schedule than Winnipeg.

The Jets will need more production out of talented winger Evander Kane. Kane, who already has a rocky relationship with the Jets fans and the Winnipeg press, needs to avoid a slow start to avoid turning this rocky relationship into irreconcilable differences.

Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec struggled last year, and will need to step up to keep the Jets competitive.  

The Jets had a busy offseason, adding veteran forwards Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Both will need time to gel with the young Jets core, something that will take time--and doesn't bode well for the Jets getting off to a quick start. 

Almost Made the List

Columbus Blue Jackets
New York Islanders 

Follow Chris R. Barron on Twitter @ChrisRBarron 


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