Put me firmly in the camp that is fine with the NHL selling some extra sponsorships. I am not a fan of anything that attracts attention on the jerseys, but I am fine with the NHL collecting what it can for most anything else. It is a business, and it boosts league revenue which helps a tiny bit for evening the playing field for smaller market teams.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe offers a quick tour of the Hurricanes new division foes.
What I most look forward to
The overarching theme of my ‘favorite players to watch’ is defensemen. Werenski and Josi finished first and second (tied) respectively in blue line goal scoring, ad Hamilton’s pace over 70 games would have beaten both. If one prefers the defensive side of the puck, players like Victor Hedman, Aaron Ekblad, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, John Klingberg and Seth Jones have as much of a claim to being the NHL’s best as anyone.
You could nearly build out some Olympic blue lines just from within the division.
For Team USA, how about team pairings of Werenski/Jones and Slavin/Pesce for the top two pairings with Yandle/McDonagh for a third pairing that also adds a good power play player and penalty killer.
For Sweden, Hedman/Klingberg could actually be the team’s top defense pairing, and Mattias Ekholm also figures to be in the mix.
Finland should also be well-represented with Miro Heiskanen arguably Finland’s best defenseman and Esa Lindell and Markus Nutivaara also in the mix.
Roman Josi should be a leader and candidate for captain for Switzerland.
And even for Canada, the team would not be overmatched with a starting point of Aaron Ekblad, Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Ellis.
So if one wants to watch great defensemen of all varieties, then the Discover Central Division should be an absolute blast.
After being as close to a dynasty as we have seen since implementation of the salary cap in winning three Stanley Cups in six years, the Blackhawks have spent the last five years trying to tinker with the secondary part of the roster to net another Cup run out of the core before they ride off into the sunset. A significant story along the way has been injuries to key players like Corey Crawford and Brent Seabrook whose injury setbacks have made his contract an albatross. Couple that with constant salary cap challenges that netted the Hurricanes Teuvo Teravainen (yay!) and Scott Darling (less so), and the Blackhawks have struggled more than thrived in recent years. Any early optimism for the 2020-21 iteration of the Blackhawks has taken a significant hit already with rising young forward Kirby Dach out for most if not all of the season with an injury and captain Jonathan Toews sidelined until further notice with an illness. At 32 years old, Patrick Kane is still good enough to put the team on his back some nights, but especially if Toews does not return, Kane likely does not have enough help offensively. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the Blackhawks are ‘meh’ at best defensively.
Best blue liner to watch: ……Patrick Kane (using my 1 cheat and picking a forward)
Was Patrick Kane the player who ushered in ‘size doesn’t matter’ in the modern NHL? Quite possibly. Even with a bag of tricks that has been seen/scouted over his 13-year NHL career and not as much help on a younger, shallower team, Kane still impresses most nights.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus is largely the same story each year. The team seems light on higher-end forwards and scoring talent (Dubois led team in scoring with 49 points in 70 games and Bjorkstrand in goals with 21 in 70 games), but as much as any team in the league has a definitive brand of hockey under John Tortorella and gets results. I thought they were the regular season story of the year in 2019-20 with the massive volume of injuries they overcame after also parting ways with stars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky and still making the playoffs. That brand of hockey includes pushing the game to the walls, playing physical making opponents earn the offensive blue line and any ice space/shots inside the face-off circles. We are one more down season for Bobrovsky combined with strong goaltending in Columbus from realizing that the strength is at least as much the team’s Islanders/Trotz-ish ability to encourage low-quality shots against. When playing the Blue Jackets, a team must be willing to fight on the walls and slog through the mud to the front of the net to get good chances or end of facing a ‘hot goalie’ who really did not have to do as much as the shot quality might indicate.
In crediting the team’s style of play and coaching, it is important not to overlook a couple darn good hockey players. Seth Jones is underrated among the NHL’s elite by virtue of playing in Columbus, and Pierre-Luc Dubois is on the rise. I am not as high on Zach Werenski as some, but he is among the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.
Right when the season might start to become a grind, the Hurricanes face the Blue Jackets in four straight games starting on March 18. Better load up the hockey bags with energy bars for that stretch.
Best blue liner to watch: Seth Jones
He reminds me a bit of Jaccob Slavin as an elite player who is recognized but I still think underappreciated. For those who prefer to go high octane offense, one cannot fault you for picking Zach Werenski instead.
A bit like the St. Louis Blues who put things together late and stormed their way to the 2019 Stanley Cup win, the Stars rose up in the 2020 NHL Playoffs and came within two wins of hoisting the Stanley Cup. True to form for the division, the strength of the Dallas Stars was a blue line that was both solid and spectacular. Miro Heiskanen would have been in the running for the Conn Smythe Trophy had his team prevailed. John Klingberg was also phenomenal with the two finishing first and second on the Stars for playoff scoring topping the team’s forwards. A hat tip should also be given to former Canes fan favorite Anton Khudobin in net, but the story of the playoffs was the Stars blue line leading the way. The team also boasts some veteran star power offensively with the likes of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov and Joe Pavelski, but interestingly that group seemed to underperform in the regular season and played second fiddle in the playoffs too. The question for the stars is whether they just caught lightning in a bottle for an unusual playoff situation or if they are a team on the rise and ready to ride the playoff momentum into the 2020-21 season.
Best blue liner to watch: Miro Heiskanen
With his coming out party on the big stage of the playoffs just after turning 21 years old, seeing Miro Heiskanen eight times this season is an odd COVID season blessing. John Klingberg is another worth watching for those who can multi-task.
The Preds are a team whose Cup window seemed to open four years ago or maybe a bit sooner when they lost the Penguins in the the 2016-17 Stanley Cup Finals and then posted a whopping 117 points in the 2017-18 regular season to win the Presidents’ Trophy. Those years the team was the deepest in the NHL on the blue line, solid in net and good enough especially depth-wise at forward. But despite being a perennial pundit favorite, Nashville has not been able to reach those levels the past couple years and parted ways with former Canes bench boss Peter Laviolette because of it. The talent and depth is still generally there, and the team figures to be one of the teams capable of winning the division. The 2020-21 season will see the Predators again looking to find a higher gear and fulfill the lofty expectations and predictions of many for a few years now.
Best blue liner to watch: Roman Josi
As noted above, the new division shapes up to be a very good one for those who like offense from the back end. Josi might just be the best of them with a full bag of tricks that includes scoring and playmaking on the power play, playing and generating offense with the puck on his stick from end to end and finishing.
In my next Daily Cup of Joe, I will preview the remaining opponents in the Central Division.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are you most looking forward to watching in the new division especially from Western Conference teams whose viewing time leaps from a normal two games to eight?
2) Of the four teams profiled today, which do you think represent the toughest competition for the Hurricanes?