Saturday, May 31, 2014

Pool Outlook for Winnipeg

Moving to the Western Conference in the league re-alignment was going to end up being a daunting change, as the Winnipeg Jets geographically got the move that they wanted, into the new Central Division, but they did move out of one of the easier divisions to play in, the old Southeast Division.  To their credit, the Jets stayed in the race, played a reasonably consistent season, but they were a little short on skill, when you looked at them on paper, but they certainly made the most of it in the 2014 season, coming only seven points short of a playoff spot in the West.

It may not be fair to rag on the Jets too much, but they are somewhat of a rag-tag bunch of players, which were built out of the wake of the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup winning team, when they had to disband out of the salary cap rules.  Now four years removed, players like Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd still remain on the team, in large capacities, and they may be questionable pieces to build a franchise around.

The Jets have been doing a good job through the draft, finding new skilled players to help build this franchise into something their new adopted Canadian city can be proud of, but they are still lacking that identity that isn't based in Chicago.  High expectations on kids like Evander Kane or Mark Scheifele haven't bred winners just yet, but we may be able to look towards others like Jacob Trouba for leadership into the new age for this team.

Leading the team in the 2014 season was forward Blake Wheeler, who has had a rocky start to his NHL career, but after a number of seasons toiling around in the mid-range player brackets in past years, Wheeler has finally emerged as a leader on the scoresheet for the Jets, finishing 45th in pool scoring in 2013 and improving on that to 32nd in 2014, thanks to a 69-point season in all 82 games.  Wheeler has been known for having some reasonable potential in his youth, but being a late-bloomer and somewhat of a wild card, when it comes to contract negotiations, has possibly soured some on jumping on his bandwagon as a quality player.

Not very far behind Wheeler for top spot for the Jets was Bryan Little, who finished with 64 points in all 82 games, as he was trying to regain some of that magic he had with the Atlanta Thrashers, a few years ago.  Andrew Ladd also had a top-100 finish with 54 points in 78 games for the Jets, while Olli Jokinen came back with an okay year, 43 points in all 82 games.  The Jets do have some more potential coming up in the organization and it isn't until they occupy the top spots in team scoring, that the team will start to win more games and be a bit more of a force in the West.

On defense, it was very much a lot of the same that we've seen out of Winnipeg/Atlanta for the past few years, as Dustin Byfuglien led the team with 56 points in 78 games, ranking 80th overall in pool scoring.  He was followed by Tobias Enstrom, who had 30 points in all 82 games, ranking well down in 278th spot.  Jacob Trouba was a bright spot, coming up a little bit later in the season, as he finished with 29 points in 69 games and helped keep the team in the race, until late in the season.

Goaltending for the Jets was supposed to be somewhat of a steady position, heading into the 2014 campaign, with all the team's eggs on Ondrej Pavelec.  Pavelec finished with 22 wins, 1 shutout and 3 assists on the year, giving him 49 points, but he played so many minutes, that his overall scoring average in the pool suffered, falling below 1 point for every 60 minutes played (0.905), which translated into a sub-par season and a lack of playoffs.  Al Montoya was decent in relief, but the team did the right thing with their number one goalie and stuck with him, through thick and thin.

2015 Pool Outlook

The lack of an established impact scoring forward or lights out goalkeeper make the Winnipeg Jets somewhat of an anti-climactic franchise, especially when you're trying to pick your hockey pool team for the year.  Sure, the Jets have some talent on this team, but no one is going to be putting this team on their list of teams that you must get players from.  You sort of resign yourself to the Pavelec's and Bryan Little's of this team, even though you may race for a Byfuglien or Enstrom to man your blueline, but there isn't anything sexy about the blueline.

If you are going to make a comparison from how the team looks on your pool list to where they should end up in the standings, I would gather that they would end up in about the same place, no?

The Jets are not without their up-and-coming prospects, however.  We already know that Jacob Trouba should be on your list for a good defender in the 2015 season, but you should be keeping an eye on young forwards like Josh Morrissey, J.C. Lipon or Nicolas Petan.  Their impact on the league and the team may still be up in the air, but all three have certainly earned their praises in the junior ranks, enough so to earn some long looks at training camp and with how the Jets struggle offensively some games, the team would be silly not to give these guys a shot.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

Unrestricted free agency will be interesting for management and with the players that are heading to the open market, it will be a telling sign about the direction of the team when you see who they choose to negotiate with prior to July 1st or who they decide to let go.  Olli Jokinen, Al Montoya, Devin Setoguchi, Chris Thorburn and Adam Pardy are all in that group on the way out.

Of course, there is less urgency when trying to sign restricted free agents these days, but the group that the Jets have asks the question, "who won't be qualified for restricted free agency and who will be let go?"  Michal Frolik, Matt Halischuk, Keaton Ellerby and Patrice Cormier are a number of players, who could just as easily be sent packing, as they could be kept around for depth.

The salary cap will play nicely for the Winnipeg Jets, with the projected number at $71.1 million.  I currently have 15 Jets players (seven forwards, seven defensemen and a goalie) on their projected roster, coming in at around $48.3 million, leaving nearly $23 million in open space, if they choose to use it.  Not bad gap space for eight more roster players.  I don't think the Jets will be major players in the free agent market, but they could easily play in the depth player market, which won't necessarily be cheap either.

The cupboards are a bit bare on the blueline for Winnipeg, as they don't have much waiting in the wings, let alone much in the way of blue-chip talent.  I think with that being said, I don't think the Jets would sell the farm with the most offensive or the most defensive kind of guy, so they would look somewhere in the middle, which leads me to think that a guy like Roland McKeown, who played for Kingston in 2014, might be the guy to fit the bill, playing in both ends well and still learning.  McKeown is ranked in a few places to go a little bit later in the 1st round, but I could see him jump up to the early parts of the draft to fill the need.  Forwards will be available down the line, but they may be silly to pass up on a 1st round defenseman.

The strength of the Jets will fall to what they have already in the system, as they continue to grow from within.  Their strong showing in the 2014 season, plus a little bit more experience for young stars like Evander Kane and Mark Scheifele will go a long way to a better 2015 season.  The Jets will also need to exercise a keen sense of value in the market place to maintain their standing, if not improve it this coming season.

It has been well-documented that the Jets are in no hurry to really make that push to the off-season, but you would think that they would be getting close to that point.  Yes, they will be relying on their own picks and yes, it looks like Pavelec will still be the guy to carry the load and yes, the blueline will be the key component of keeping their heads afloat... so, with all of that being said, I'm predicting a lack of change in their standing in the 2015 season.  They'll keep the fans excited up until the last couple weeks of the season, but until they have that bonafide, established talent up front, I am not going to give them the benefit of the doubt any time soon.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Pool Outlook for Toronto

After making the playoffs for the first time in what seemed to be forever, the Toronto Maple Leafs carried a large amount of expectation with them into the 2014 season, especially after making a deal for Jonathan Bernier, trying to shore up their goaltending.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.  The Leafs didn't get better, rather the team failed to find some consistency, another team dogged by a few more key injuries and then some real flat spells from their scoring contingency.

You could argue that the Leafs have the pieces in place and I think for an 82-game schedule, they do, but they are in the middle of the hockey hotbed that is Toronto and I think it also takes some special teams in Canada to overcome that hotbed, as the expectations that fans and media have of these teams, get force fed down the players throats, which has to affect their play in one way or another.

Another change that will hopefully help guide the team forward in the 2015 season was the appointment of Brendan Shanahan to an upstairs job as the President of Hockey Operations, overseeing what General Manager Dave Nonis and company get up to.  A little bit more credibility in the league may help the team find their winning ways again.

The marquee player for the Maple Leafs continues to be Phil Kessel, somewhat justifying that polarizing deal that brought him to Toronto from Boston.  In all 82 games in 2014, Kessel had 37 goals and 43 assists for 80 points, ranking him 12th overall in pool scoring, also justifying him as a possible 1st round pick in the hockey pools.  In October, Kessel signed an 8-year contract extension, worth $64 million, which will keep their best player in town for days well past when he will not be the team's best player anymore.

The Maple Leafs were able to score goals this year, tied for 7th in the East with 231 goals for, which meant Kessel had some help up front.  James Van Riemsdyk offered a hand with 61 points, including 30 goals in 80 games this year, while Nazem Kadri didn't look too bad, offering 50 points in 78 games.  Tyler Bozak, Mason Raymond and Joffrey Lupul all helped out as well, with 49, 45 and 44 points respectively.

One of the big reasons why the Leafs didn't make the playoffs this year was they couldn't keep the puck out of their own net, ranking 13th in the East in goals against, with 256 pucks coming out, a -25 goal difference on the year.  This begins with the defense, which is still reasonably young and still learning.  Offensively, the blueline saw good years from Cody Franson (33 points in 79 games), Jake Gardiner (31 points in 80 games) and Dion Phaneuf (31 points in 80 games), but Franson and Gardiner were both minuses on the season, while Phaneuf was only a +2.

Goaltending for the Leafs was supposed to improve, but while the coaching staff was trying to figure out who would be number one, a battle between Bernier and James Reimer, the Leafs lost that consistency in the nets, which forced some longer outings and some harsher conclusions.  In the shortened 2013 season, Reimer finished 28th in pool scoring, which helped get Toronto into the playoffs, but when Bernier finally won the job and took over, all he could manage was a 85th place finish in pool scoring, which is a huge difference.  I would assume that Bernier will get the job on a more consistent basis in 2015, more on the merits of what it's worth to the team to have that consistent number one in place.

2015 Pool Outlook

Okay, I've touched on it a bit here already... Kessel is the team's best player, the blueline needs to find a way to keep the puck out of their own net and they need a more consistent presence in net for next season.  Two out of those three things could very well happen, the defense got a crash course for some experience and Bernier should have walked out of last season with the number one job, so I think there is a good chance that the Leafs will be a team to reckon with.  They managed to score lots of goals, thanks to their speed game and that shouldn't necessarily go away, so I think their outlook is quite positive.

Over looking what the Leafs have in the coffers for young talent and there isn't really many names that jump out and say, "hey, pick me!"  Fredrik Gauthier is the team's 1st round pick last Summer and isn't coming out with a ton of buzz, but there could very well be a spot in the team's structure next season, if he can make a push.  There is also a little bit of talk surrounding defenseman Petter Granberg on the blueline, but I am not sure if he'll be the guy to bet on in the hockey pool draft in September.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

Unrestricted free agency is going to be a hot topic for the Maple Leafs, as there are a number of key players on the list, who will get some long looks going ahead of July 1st.  Mason Raymond, Nikolai Kulemin, Dave Bolland, Jay McClement and Paul Ranger will all get some discussion time between Toronto management types.

The restricted free agents get even more interesting, as Cody Franson will go through another negotiation, not long after a small holdout before the 2014 season.  James Reimer will likely get qualified, but isn't expected to be back after the long goalie battle this past season, while Peter Holland, Carter Ashton and Jake Gardiner will also make for some interesting news bytes in the Summer.

I have the current core of the Toronto group in at 13 players, eight forwards, four defensemen and Bernier in net, which come in at a cool $49.4 million against a $71.1 million salary cap ceiling.  The Leafs have all kinds of bargaining power for new free agents, so they may be really big players, come July 1st, unless they go out and make some blockbuster deals around the draft.

The Maple Leafs will be picking in the number eight position in the 2014 Entry Draft in Philadelphia and there isn't position that they are necessarily strong in, youth-wise, so if we were to look at some of the things Toronto was lacking in the 2014 season, some more defense, as a whole, we may look for the best two-way kind of player, who can do it in both ends of the ice.  Trying to find that player that you could have in the 2nd line or 3rd line positions and give a little more defensive credibility to his line.  The top-ranked player, from what I've read, leads me to believe that Kasperi Kapanen may be the best pick in this position.  The Finns love their two-way game and if Kapanen has the same offensive touch as his former NHL'er father, Sami, he could be a great fit to this Leafs organization.

It may not be a popular sentiment outside of the "centre of the universe" to think that the Maple Leafs are finally going the right way in building their franchise, but I think that is the case.  In going over the team's assets and possibilities, one thing is very apparent and that is a questionable leadership core, which may go back to the argument that they may not have enough to deal with the hockey hotbed that they are in.  Skill-wise, the Leafs do have plenty of that and it looks like they have a number one goalie, so I will say that they are going in the right direction.

As for a prediction, I don't see the Maple Leafs challenging for a division title just yet and all of their shortcomings that I have mentioned would be the reason why.  I do see them in the middle of the Wild Card fight, with the core group that I had mentioned earlier.  If the Leafs are able to sort out some reasonable free agents, control some of their neutral zone issues and continue to press the puck as much as they can, I can see the Leafs making the playoffs again.  Yes, they will also be a pretty good team to pick hockey pool players from, which is the main focus of these posts, so we'll leave it at that.

Pool Outlook for Carolina

I don't think it would have been unfair to think that the Carolina Hurricanes had higher expectations for the 2014 season, then where they finished in the end, 13th in the Eastern Conference and 7th in the Metropolitan Division.

Injuries played a huge part in the 2014 failures for the Hurricanes, as only three players managed to play more than 80 games in the season and some inconsistent goaltending didn't help either, as three goalies were up with the team for much of the year.  The Hurricanes have the framework to do some positive things, like battle for a playoff spot near the end of the year, but they do lack in depth and maybe a little bit of luck as well.

The Hurricanes are also under new management, like a few other basement dwelling teams in the league, as Ron Francis takes over the big chair, making all the main roster moves going forward.  Francis will have to sort out a new coach as well, as Kirk Muller was sacked in the off-season, leaving another vacant position in the Eastern Conference.  Francis has a good team to start from, so it will be interesting to see what he does with it to improve their standing.

It wasn't a great year for Eric Staal, who indeed led the Hurricanes with 61 points in 79 games played, but he finished ranked 57th in pool scoring overall, his worst ranking since the 2004 season, when he emerged into the league.  With only 21 goals on the year, he wasn't able to make a difference in more games.  The Hurricanes finished 24th in the league in goals for (207) and they were 21st in goal differential at a -23 on the year.  Staal may not be the most natural goal scorer on the team, but a team's success starts at the top of the heap.

Jeff Skinner and Alex Semin had 55 goals between the two most talented goal scorers in the 2014 season, a total that each of them possibly could have had.  Of course, injuries didn't help their cause either, missing games here and there and hampered their consistent play through the year.  Skinner finished with 54 points in 71 games, while Semin had 42 points in 65 games, each could have made more of a difference.  Younger brother, Jordan Staal, played in all 82 games, but only managed 40 points in a two-way role, but he needs to find some way to be better offensively in Carolina.

On defense, the Hurricanes received a huge boost from Andrej Sekera, who had never seen the top 250 in pool scoring before, but came out on fire, finishing 143rd overall with 44 points in 74 games, finally emerging as a defender worth some pool stock.  The only other pool-worthy defender for the Hurricanes was Justin Faulk, who finished with 32 points in 76 games, improving on his rookie season ranking by about 50 spots.  Faulk showed some positives and could be one to watch next season.

Then we get to the goaltending, which had its share of troubles and mistrust.  Anton Khudobin was the best goalie for Carolina, finishing with 19 wins and a shutout for 40 points, eventually earning the number one designation on the team, but found himself injured fairly often in the year.  This left an inconsistent Cam Ward and a slighted Justin Peters to carry some of the load.  Ward ended up being the back-up for when Khudobin was in net, but they couldn't demote Peters, for fear of losing him on waivers.  That fear likely didn't help that situation in the crease much through the year.

2015 Pool Outlook

The core group of Hurricanes is nothing to sneeze at, especially if some of their new bright spots can continue to shine.  I would be keen on taking some of those Hurricanes players that have been fairly consistent in staying within the first three or four rounds of the hockey pool draft and then likely bumping a few players that have shown some real promise, possibly looking for a bargain or two.  Goaltending, on the other hand, will have to work itself out before too long, especially if the Hurricanes want to do some winning of their own.  They won't be able to run with three goaltenders any longer.

The Hurricanes saw a couple of young players really step up to take some minutes and start their NHL maturation process with the big boys.  Forward Elias Lindholm had 21 points in 58 games with the club and should be poised for much more, while defenseman Ryan Murphy only played in 48 games, but had 12 points and showed some poise as 20-21 year old blueliner.  Both players may be real bargains in the 2015 season, if you're looking for some complimentary youth near the end of your draft.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

Free agency may be one of the real benefits for Ron Francis in his new role with the Hurricanes, as it will likely clean out the cupboards a bit and leave some space to make his mark.  Between the unrestricted and restricted free agents, there are 27 players poised to be ready for new deals and it will be Francis' job to determine who goes and who stays.  Justin Peters, Nathan Gerbe, Jiri Tlusty, Andrei Loktionov, Manny Malhotra and Radek Dvorak all lead the list of players that will need decisions made upon, which should be rather interesting.

I currently have the Hurricanes sitting with $18.4 million in cap space with 14 players signed on and taking spots on the projected roster.  Seven forwards, five defensemen and two goalies make up this roster at the moment and it has plenty of open spaces to fit in some quality players to help make this team achieve greater things.  It is an enviable position, especially with some of their top players already locked in for the long-term.

I wouldn't say that the Hurricanes are rich in young player assets, waiting in the wings to push for an NHL job, as the two better prospects did play in the 2014 season and are likely expected to play a bigger role with the team in 2015.  It would be in the team's best interest to start filling up the cupboards again this Summer, but when you're only going with one pick at a time, it could be difficult.  Here, taking the best player available wouldn't be an unwise decision, even if that player is a year or two away from playing in the league.  I could see the Hurricanes looking to a bit more size and a power game, something to compliment the speed of some of their smaller players, being a point of concern for the team, which makes me believe that a kid like Nicholas Ritchie could be in their sights.  Ritchie, who plays for Peterborough of the OHL, has been touted as a potential power forward with very good hands.  Sounds like a good fit for Staal and the Canes.

I like where the Hurricanes are, despite their 2014 finish, and I like where they could end up, with proper management.  I don't think there is much doubt that a guy like Ron Francis could do well building a hockey club, especially one with the framework already in place from former GM, Jim Rutherford.  Yes, there are some questions to be answered and I think there are some spots in this organization that needs some improvement, but with a little bit of patience, this team will get there and contend again.

As for the 2015 season, the Hurricanes will see some improvement on their 83-point season the year before and I think they will be active in the off-season markets, which could very well give a hand to the Staal's, Skinner and Semin up front and hopefully solidify their goaltending situation in the back.  With that being said, they will still be in tough on a Wild Card spot in the playoffs, as the Eastern Conference remains pretty tight and teams above them still seem to be improving, so it will have to take a monster off-season for them to really make that push.  If Francis and company can make that push, sign a big name or two in the free agent frenzy, we will see the Hurricanes push.

Pool Outlook for Vancouver

The 2014 season for the Vancouver Canucks was nothing short of a disaster.  The Canucks are only three years separated from their last visit to the Stanley Cup Finals and only two years separated from their second of back-to-back President's Trophies for being the best team in the regular season and they have ended up near the bottom of the NHL standings, finishing 25th overall and missing the playoffs completely.

The appointment of head coach John Tortorella in the 2013 off-season was the tipping point to disaster, as the team was swept out of the playoffs the year before by the San Jose Sharks, which cost Alain Vigneault his job.  Under Tortorella, the offense dried up, the defensive systems that made Vancouver so successful disappeared and there were more questions than there were answers.  General manager Mike Gillis elected to move Cory Schneider at last year's draft, thus ending the goaltending drama that plagued them in 2013, but created more buzz in the crease when he dealt Roberto Luongo to Florida at the trade deadline.

These issues cost both men their jobs and the Canucks are now to start a new, now under the new management of former Bruins assistant GM, Jim Benning.

After seven years of both brothers being in the top 50 of pool scoring at the same time, neither Henrik Sedin or his brother, Daniel, could even crack the top 100, in one of the big disappointing factors of the Canucks 2014 regular season.  Despite missing 12 games, captain Henrik finished as the team leader in pool points, scoring 11 goals and 39 assists for only 50 points in 70 games.  Super-low totals from a former Art Ross Trophy winner.

Brother Daniel didn't fare much better, picking up 47 points in 73 games for the Canucks, meaning that one of the main jobs for the new staff that are about to come in, will be getting the two best players back up to NHL elite status again.  There will also be some decisions needed to be made about Ryan Kesler, who finished with 43 points in 77 games, as he was in the middle of much trade speculation.  There were a couple of reasonable bright spots in the line-up, as Christopher Higgins had 39 points in 78 games and newcomer Mike Santorelli made some noise before getting injured, finishing with 28 points in 49 games.

The blueline for the Canucks couldn't muster up a great deal of offense, even though they did get off to a good start to the year.  They fell off the map before the end of the year, leaving it with some sub-par numbers.  Jason Garrison led the way with 33 points in 81 games, while Kevin Bieksa finished with 24 points in 76 games.

In what was likely the biggest ring of the circus in Vancouver was the crease, where management gave the reins to Eddie Lack at the Heritage Classic, only days before the team was able to deal Roberto Luongo to Florida.  Lack finished with 16 wins and 4 shutouts for 40 points, which was good enough for 30th in scoring among goalies in the hockey pool.

2015 Pool Outlook

The outlook for the 2015 season is awfully cloudy, because there are so many arguments that could send the team in either a positive or negative direction, which could make hockey pool selections awfully difficult.  If you were looking at 2014's numbers, the Canucks do not have a projected 1st round pick, let alone possibly having two in the twins.  There will be lots of work to be done in getting this team, which wasn't terrible a couple of seasons ago, back to where they were, but it will rely heavily on the new coach, as the team is already locked in, contract-wise, and if the new management is going to make any changes, it will be via trade.

As of today, I wouldn't be bumping up any Canucks in my rankings, but I would always keep my eye on them, especially when we get closer to the hockey pool drafts, because by then, we'll have a better idea on the coaching staff and how they'll play.  You may get some bargains out of Vancouver, but I wouldn't say that you're going to get any locks for dominating players.

If you're looking for some young players to decorate your hockey pool team with, the Canucks may not be the best team to pick from, as they are not holding a lot of spots for young players to thrive in at the moment.  Nicklas Jensen, Brandon Gaunce and Bo Horvat may get looks for some spots, but the top six already has the feel of being locked in at the moment, which doesn't bode well for these youngsters.  Frank Corrado will get a long look on the blueline, but may not see the minutes that will get him the points though.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

Unrestricted free agency won't play a huge part in the Canucks off-season, as there are not many players scheduled to be free on July 1st, with only Mike Santorelli and Andrew Alberts as the only players that have played a part in this team recently that are heading that way.

The list of RFA's for the Canucks is a little bit more interesting, as Zack Kassian and Chris Tanev heads the list, which also includes Yannick Weber and Jordan Schroeder.  These four should be locks for their qualifying offers, but that does leave a small list of players eligible for new deals, which management will have to sort through.

Out of the potential 23-man roster, I currently have the Canucks with 17 players already locked in to a spot, trying not to give too many spots away.  There are 10 forwards, five defensemen and both goalies already signed on for a cap hit of $58.8 million, which includes some retained salary for Luongo in Florida.  The Canucks have six spaces left on their projected roster and they have about $12.3 million left to spend.

At the Entry Draft in Philadelphia, the new management for the Vancouver Canucks will get their chance to make an immediate impact with who they decide to select with the number six pick.  With such disappointment in the goal scoring department in the 2014 season, there should be a move made to take the best available goal scorer, someone of that natural talent, trying to produce along side the twins or making up a new line in the team's top six.  Despite going in for some off-season shoulder surgery, possibly the best fit for the Canucks may be Jake Virtanen, who played with the Calgary Hitmen in the WHL.  He is highly regarded as a goal scorer with plenty of grit, a couple of things that could do the Canucks some good things.  Virtanen may not be available to the team right away in the 2015 season, if selected, but he sounds like a blue-chip prospect for years to come.

For me, being a Canucks fan, the appointment of John Tortorella was a sign that the 2014 season was going to be pretty poor, a point that I had made clear at the start of the season and it wasn't exactly fulfilling to know that I was right in the end.  The worst part of the whole thing is that there is some belief, even though Tortorella is gone, is that it could still happen again, if management doesn't get it right immediately.  The Canucks have talent in spots, but when they were successful, they played a good team game, which they got away from in the end.

My prediction for the team is somewhat pessimistic, as re-tooling, which is what we'll call this, is not going to be easy and for any new coach coming in at this point, will have a tough time.  The team is running with more questions than answers, like where will Kesler play in 2015 and will the goaltending they have step up and be NHL-worthy before too long.  The Canucks should be aiming for a Wild Card playoff spot in the 2015 season, but I would be far from surprised if they finished outside of the playoffs, only slightly improving on their poor 2014 season.  Things could improve for the team before the puck drops in September, but based on the situation of where they are today, I stand by my prediction about right now.

Rangers Return to the Final

The Habs are out! photo canadiensbooted.gifGame Six of the Eastern Conference Finals was a whole lot more of what I remember of what playoff hockey should be... a game played a little tighter to the vest, some great skating and exceptional goaltending. It was just a shame that the Montreal Canadiens were on the wrong side of a 1-0 result, unable to force a Game Seven in what has been an excellent series.

Instead, the New York Rangers have moved on to the Stanley Cup Finals, now awaiting the winner of the Chicago/Los Angeles series, with Game Six of that one going on Friday night.

You have to give it to the Rangers, they played a magnificent game in front of Henrik Lundqvist, who only had to make 18 saves for his first shutout of the playoffs.  The Canadiens were held to just five shots in the 3rd period, where they had to play catch-up after Dominic Moore's late 2nd period goal, which stood up as the only goal of the game.  The team defense of the Rangers was impenetrable and the Canadiens just couldn't find a way to get quality chances on Lundqvist.

Lundqvist was the only notable player in the 1-0 game, coming away with 4 points, giving the four teams in the pool that have him a better shot at the money.

So, with the elimination of the Canadiens, there was a mass exodus of players from the pool, as they were the favourites in this series, out-selecting the Rangers, 104-71.  There are still quite a few picks left out in the East, but it could have been so much more exciting with some more Habs players in the pool.

David Desharnais and P.K. Subban were the two most popular Habs removed from teams last night, striking off 21 and 19 total selections each.

Carey Price and Subban were the top two scoring players for the Canadiens on the pool sheet, finishing with 18 & 15 points, respectively.

So, what does this mean going forward?  Well, 10 teams in the pool have nine players still active, the maximum amount left, which means that these teams will have six players for the Cup Finals, guaranteed.  The top seven teams are all in there, which means that the race will be good and close down the stretch.

At the bottom of this list, Allan S. only has one player left, while three teams only have two players left.  All are fairly close, if not in, the 40's.

ImplicationsWith the Lundqvist shutout, that means that Gus M. has both teams in the money, while Travis moved into 2nd place and Corey dropped down to 3rd place.  Dale B. and Wes now sit 1 point out of 4th place and those would be the six teams that have the best shot at coming away with the four money spots, through Thursday night's game.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Pool Outlook for Long Island

Just when you thought that the rebuild for the New York Islanders was going well, finally making the playoffs in the 2013 season, the team takes a couple more steps back and falls into the basement of their division, this past year being the Metropolitan Division.

Management for the Islanders didn't help things much in the year, shuffling their feet and gambling on a deal that sent fan-favourite and potential unrestricted free agent Matt Moulson to Buffalo and bringing Thomas Vanek to the island for a look-see at what they had to offer.  The deal cost the Islanders a 1st round pick in the process and didn't pan out in the end, as they moved Vanek out at the deadline and got very little in return.

The Islanders season wasn't without their positives, as they saw some breakout years from players they have been banking on for a while, but they were also hit with numerous injuries, which kept the offensive productivity off balance for the better part of the year.  As bad as the season looks in the standings, I don't think the Islanders were too far away from being in that Wild Card playoff hunt.

For us poolies, the 2014 season on Long Island was hampered by those injuries, as they hit the better players on the team and reflected poorly in some of those key selections.  I don't think anyone should shy away from the Islanders next year, as it was more bad luck than anything.  If they are able to build on this past season, they should be back in the race next year.

One of those key breakout players in 2014 for the Islanders was also the team leader in points in the pool, as Kyle Okposo finally made a name for himself.  Okposo scored 27 goals and 42 assists in 71 games this year, which was awful close to that point-per-game mark.  Okposo ranked 33rd in overall pool scoring, which would make him into a 2nd round pick this year, if we were to have done the draft again, based on this year's scoring.  That is a pretty good year, no matter which way you slice it.

Okposo had to pick up the slack, as John Tavares' season ended premature at 59 games, not before potting 66 points and finishing 42nd in overall pool scoring.  Tavares has a legitimate shot at being a top 10 scorer in these pools, topping his previous career-high of 14th.  Frans Nielsen (58 points in 80 games) had a decent year, finishing 70th, while Josh Bailey (38 points in 77 games) and Brock Nelson (26 points in 72 games) started their ascent into a reasonable NHL career.

On defense, the team also moved one of their better players, Andrew MacDonald, to Philadelphia, leaving a core that includes Thomas Hickey (22 points in all 82 games), Travis Hamonic (18 points in 69 games) and Calvin de Haan (16 points in 51 games).  All three players were all highly-touted prospects at one time or another, so the Islanders are now finally starting to reap the benefits of their youth system.  Those three may need some veteran help down the line, but that's what the off-season is for.

The goaltending situation on the island wasn't anywhere near where they wanted it to be in the 2014 season, as Evgeni Nabokov, who had 15 wins and 4 shutouts, didn't play near as much, thanks to injury, and his understudies didn't quite fill the bill in his absence.  This is something that the Islanders have already addressed in the off-season with the acquisition of Jaroslav Halak's rights.

2015 Pool Outlook

As of May 22nd, the New York Islanders are best described as a work in progress.  If you wanted another possible description of how I see the Islanders for the 2015 season... I may sway towards saying that they are just hoping to stay healthy and from there, good things can certainly happen.  Of the 17 players I have locked into a position for the coming year, only two of them managed to play in 80 or more games, which means that being healthy is a huge concern for the team.

The Islanders are ripe with potential, but those 17 players, 11 forwards, five defensemen and a goalie, will need some help and this could be a make-it or break-it year for the team's management.  After giving away Matt Moulson for next to nothing in the end, the team will need to hit some home runs with some new acquisitions to help this team improve and be a better team to pick from, fantasy-wise.  Tavares will be strong, Okposo will remain a question mark for another big year and we'll hope that Michael Grabner can have a bounce back year.

The Islanders did sew up Jaroslav Halak to a new deal in this off-season already, not waiting long after they acquired his rights from the Washington Capitals.  The inclusion of Halak should provide this young team with plenty of confidence, making everyone better in front of him.

If you're looking at the youth movement on Long Island, it may finally be a good time to give some thought to Ryan Strome, who came up in the middle of the season and showed some flashes at the NHL level.  Strome scored at just under half a point-per game and had to fill in for the injured Tavares, someone he could potentially play with next year.  On the blueline, Kevin Czuczman came up and played 13 games and didn't look too bad, while Griffin Reinhart may get a good look in camp, as he showed some flashes at the junior level this year.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

Restricted free agency will be the most important look for the Islanders, as they'll have to re-sign Casey Cizikas, Calvin de Haan and Anders Lee from their skaters and they'll have to make some decisions on their goaltending, as Kevin Poulin needs a new contract.  The team won't need to spend much here, but it is just work that needs to be done.

As for their UFA's, it doesn't look like Evgeni Nabokov will be back and I can't see Radek Martinek coming back either, both players well over the age of 35.

The 17 players that I have locked in for the Islanders at the end of May are coming in at a cap hit of about $44.3 million, which gives them all kinds of space to play with, as they move to sign on the veteran goalie and really only add a few more players to become whole in the 2015 season.

On May 22nd, the club announced that they will be keeping their 1st round pick for 2014 and they will send their 2015 1st round pick to the Buffalo Sabres to complete the deal for Thomas Vanek and that's probably a wise decision, as the team plans to improve greatly in 2015 and be in no shape to be in the hunt for Connor McDavid.

With that being said, I would be looking for the Islanders to build up their stable on the blueline, trying to find a steady defender that could work alongside Thomas Hickey or Griffin Reinhart down the stretch.  This leads me to believe that a kid like Haydn Fleury would be the guy the Islanders may look to, as he has been drawing some rave reviews for his skating and strength.

It has been a pretty slow go for the Islanders in this rebuilding period, but thanks to the steadiness of John Tavares, the Islanders have been able to gain some respect in some circles, including the hockey pool circles.  This team isn't too far away, just a couple of keen moves by management and they should be back in the playoff hunt, making the Eastern Conference races all the more exciting.

In offering up a prediction for the 2015 season, I would go so far as to say that the season will ride on the lapels of GM Garth Snow and how he can help Tavares and company.  Finding a defenseman to guide his youngsters will be key, as Lubomir Visnovsky doesn't seem to be the guy, thanks to injuries and likely a lack of drive at age 37.  If Snow can get a piece or two like this in order for the Islanders this Summer, I think we'll see some real excitement on Long Island and likely some good hockey pool draft picks.  Oh yeah, and they'll be in the Wild Card race for the playoffs.

Pool Outlook for Calgary

If the Calgary Flames organization has anything over their provincial counterparts up the road in Edmonton, it would be that they managed to acknowledge that a change has been needed for some time and they finally took the necessary steps, that everyone else saw as a no-brainer step for quite a while.  The Flames organization finally said, internally more than publicly, that a rebuild is in order and in order to do that, some pieces had to shuffle.  Of course, some of those pieces left out of necessity, forcing the hand of the rebuild, but when the Flames hired Brian Burke as their President in September last year, the winds of change began to blow.

With a new season upon them, there was an interesting approach to how the team was being coached, trying to stick to the basics and playing within the means of a team that doesn't quite have the stats on paper or the developed skill through experience.  The Flames played an exciting brand of hockey at the beginning and the end of the season, but when teams started to get their legs underneath them, the Flames' shortcomings were apparent and losses piled up, when games started to matter.   Nevertheless, the Flames did make more of their fair share of games exciting to watch for their fans, despite their results.  If that counts for anything, it should be somewhat of a success, instead of falling down into the misery of a team with the rebuild label.

The Flames did the best they could with the talent they had and quite often in the season, they found themselves having to supplant their talent with more youth, because injuries were a troubling concern with this young team in 2014.  Jiri Hudler, the team's leading pool scorer, missed some time in the year, but still finished with 54 points in 75 games for the club.  That was good enough for 89th overall in pool scoring.  Arguably, most would say that Hudler is a support scorer, like he was in his days in Detroit, and for that, we shouldn't expect him to be the team's leading scorer for too long, as there is plenty of talent coming up the pipe to dethrone of him of this title after one year.

Mike Cammalleri (45 points in 63 games), Mikael Backlund (39 points in 76 games), Sean Monahan (34 points in 75 games) and Matt Stajan (33 points in 63 games) were all examples of players who had their seasons interupted by injury through the year, which certainly was there to upset their consistency.  Monahan was definitely the brightest spot of the bunch, because of out of the 34 points that he posted, 22 of them were goals, as he showed a real nose for the net, especially when the team was running hot.

On the blueline, it came as no surprise when the team named Marc Giordano as captain of the team and he did a stand-up job, leading by example and on the scoresheet.  Giordano was 2nd in team scoring, finishing with 47 points in 64 games (another injury-plagued year for the team).  T.J. Brodie had somewhat of a breakout year, picking up 31 points in 81 games, followed closely by Kris Russell, who had 29 points in 68 games.  Russell was a solid addition in the off-season, last time around.

Probably the biggest indicator that the team was in a proper rebuild mode was how they approached their goaltending situation throughout the year.  The team went through the better part of four goaltenders, Joey MacDonald and Reto Berra through the first part of the year, then Karri Ramo came in for MacDonald, took the reins for a while and then Joni Ortio stepped into some games when Ramo was hurt through the year.  Ramo will be the number one going into 2015, but it does appear that the team is happy with him and Ortio likely being the tandem, with possible short leashes either way.

2015 Pool Outlook

The Flames, at their core, are not a playoff-bound team in the 2015 season, mostly because they haven't molded into that legitimate team yet.  By core, especially up front, I would only include guys that are absolute locks for next season, not taking into account a player's hype.  Hudler, Backlund, Monahan, Stajan, Glencross, Giordano, Brodie, Russell, Wideman, Ramo and McGrattan... all proved to be good role players for the team, but besides Monahan, none have the real potential to boost their rankings for hockey pool selection.

If there is going to be a push for some of these core players, there should be a grain of salt taken with them as well.  There isn't much for players in the first three rounds of the draft, so I would say the outlook there is pretty bleak.

Of course, there is always going to be the hyped up players, like John Gaudreau, Bill Arnold, Markus Granlund, Emile Poirer and even still, Sven Baertschi, but in the developing sense of this hockey club, I don't think it would come to me as a surprise if the coaching staff decided to hold some back, instead of the sink or swim mentality in other markets.  Baertschi was a prime example of how the hype hampered a player's development, a lesson they may not want to learn again in others.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

Unrestricted free agency may be kind to the Flames, despite the lack of return they may have been able to get for Mike Cammalleri.  Cammalleri could very well go on July 1st, leaving the Flames with nothing to show for his departure, like they could have at the deadline, but opening up $6 million in cap space is nothing to sneeze at either.  Chris Butler, Joey MacDonald, Kevin Westgarth, Blair Jones and Derek Smith are also heading towards free agency as well.

There is some more work that needs to be done with their restricted free agents, but with less haste.  Joe Colborne, Lance Bouma, Joni Ortio, Ben Hanowski and Olivier Roy headline the RFA's for me, as they have the real potential to make the team better down the stretch.

As for the salary cap, I am only taking into consideration the core group that I spoke of earlier, since I don't like to give away jobs before camp has even started yet.  These numbers do allow for a little more flexibility, I think, which allows us to play a little bit more on our scraps of paper.  I have 14 players at Calgary's core right now, seven forwards, six defenseman and a starting goalie, all coming in at $39.9 million, leaving over $31 million in cap space.  Spending to the cap ceiling this year would be bad for the Flames' bottom line, so I don't expect them to do it this year, especially when they can fill a lot of those holes with youth, who are signed on for much less.

The Calgary Flames will be picking with the 4th overall selection in Philadelphia in June, which many scouts are saying is still in the realm of getting a franchise player this year.  The Flames will want to compliment their breakthrough player, Sean Monahan and/or help their speedy players like Baertschi and Gaudreau, who could grow with a top end centre.  There is plenty of hype around Leon Draisaitl and the Flames do like their hype.  This kid is supposed to bring all the main components of a top line centre, so if there was any thought to keep this exciting game going forward, this could be the kid that they are looking for.

The Flames lacked a true identity in the 2014 season, because a team that is rebuilding shouldn't have an identity.  Being plucky on a nightly basis isn't exactly an identity, nor should any team want to be pigeon-holed as plucky.  The 2015 team will likely be a somewhat remodeled version of the 2014 team, but without knowing all of who will be helping to build this team going forward, there still won't be any real need for an identity and being plucky might have to do.  It doesn't look like they will be hard to play against, but they will have enough skill to torch the scoreboard some nights.

If Monahan suffers from the sophomore jinx, which isn't the worst fate of an NHL player, just a bump in the road, the Flames may suffer a little bit more than the 2014 season.  Gaudreau will likely be quick out of the gates, but will quickly be the target of opposing coaches in the league, as they quickly review tape before a team's game against the Flames and could be shut down for stretches.  That's all a part of growth.  If the Flames can sort out some quality two-way defenders, keep a few more pucks away from Ramo, they could be in some games longer, but all in all, I am expecting much of the same from Calgary in 2015, but at least they'll have some growth as a squad to show for it.

Pool Outlook for Edmonton

If there was a statistic for expectation levels going into the regular season, you would think that the Edmonton Oilers would lead the league in it for the last few seasons.  The drafting of so much upper-echelon talent with some premier draft positions has garnered them absolutely no success and there still doesn't seem to be any movement to make changes in the team's front office, so naturally you would think that expectations might tail off for the 2015 season, right?

Even under the guidance of new head coach Dallas Eakins, another high profile pick-up for the Oilers, the story remained somewhat the same.  Watch the top scorers play their way for a little while, see that it doesn't play defense very well, try to teach these top players to play both ways and then the offense dries up, which hurts the overall confidence of the team and then everything dries up until nothing matters anymore.

President Kevin Lowe, GM Craig MacTavish and their staff have another shot at putting the right pieces in place for another crack at getting out of the Western Conference basement and it may take something drastic, rather than trying to add another piece to this jumbled puzzle that they have already assembled.

Taylor Hall has been the only real exception to the faults of this Oilers franchise, as his play has continued to get better as the years have gone on.  Hall led the Oilers with 80 points in 75 games in the 2014 season, which ranked him 13th in pool scoring overall, making him into a legitimate 1st round pick in just about any fantasy league out there.  He does continually get better and a top 10 finish doesn't seem to be out of the question, assuming that he can stay healthy for the year.

Jordan Eberle (65 points in 80 games) bounced back from a bit of a drop in the 2013 season, finishing 44th in pool scoring and he got some help from David Perron, who was acquired from the Blues in the off-season and had a career-year with his new team, scoring 57 points in 78 games.  Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also saw a small increase in his career rankings, finishing 81st in pool scoring with 56 points in 80 games.

On the blueline, Justin Schultz didn't quite have the impact that he had in his rookie season, as his scoring ranking dropped from 149th in the shortened 2013 season to 249th, with only 33 points in 74 games.  Schultz didn't get much offensive support from his other blueliners, as Andrew Ference was next best at the end of the year, finishing with only 18 points in 71 games.

The goaltending carousel for the Oilers in 2014, had some interesting spins.  What had started with Devan Dubnyk and Jason LaBarbera, ended up as the duo of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth, both acquired in deals during the year.  Some may have argued that the goaltending wasn't necessarily the issue during the team's sub-par performances and the acquisitions of Scrivens and Fasth seemed to help those arguments, because even though they played well, the team still couldn't tread water in the standings.  Scrivens finished 177th overall in pool scoring with 41 points, a good portion coming from his time in Los Angeles, while Fasth only managed 10 points, thanks to injuries in the year between Anaheim and Edmonton.

2015 Pool Outlook

The Oilers are going to play a role in the hockey pool next year and I'm sure Hall will be a big part of the scoring race again.  It will be the pieces that the management team puts in place, which will decide how much of an impact the number one goalie, Scrivens or Fasth, will have on the rest of the league, meaning that there may or may not be some extra points in there somewhere.

That extra pieces likely won't come from the draft this year, rather they will have to make a play for some veteran help, which gives the team a little bit more stability throughout their line-up.  A good two-way centre and an offensive defenseman that the team doesn't have to worry about in his own end have to be among the top two pieces they're looking to acquire.  Then we might have an Oilers team that is worthy to pick from throughout their line-up.

Despite some of the slack that the Edmonton management takes, they have managed to address their blueline concerns with some pretty good prospects over the last couple of seasons, but of course, not every blueliner is going to make immediate and sustained impacts, so allowing them to grow before jumping in is important.  Going into training camps this year, I'll have my eye on Oscar Klefbom and Martin Marincin, who have now hit their 20's and could be ready for that jump.  2013 1st round pick, Darnell Nurse, has been drawing some rave reviews this past season, but I would be surprised if he walks onto the roster in 2015.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

It appears as though unrestricted free agency will help with a bit of the roster cleaning that the Oilers need this Summer, as forward Roman Horak and defensemen Denis Grebeshkov and Anton Belov have all reportedly signed in Europe, while Ben Eager doesn't appear to be coming back.  Restricted free agency doesn't appear to be the biggest concern either, as it is mostly depth players that are without a deal, heading into the Summer.

Salary cap-wise, I believe that the Oilers have some real flexibility again this year, especially with the projected cap number going up to $71.1 million.  I am only seeing 11 locks for their roster in the 2015 season, which only takes up $42.7 million of that total and that gives them seven forwards, a pair of defensemen and their goaltending tandem.  They will feed from their talent pool of forwards and defensemen, but they won't exactly take a huge hit from any of those players, leaving some space for some quality acquisitions.  If the Oilers were to also make a move with one of their top 11 players, they could also take on a little bit more salary, if needed.

The Oilers currently hold the number three pick in the Entry Draft this year and that could open them up for business.  Even though the team has some quality coming up the ranks for their blueline, it would seem like Aaron Ekblad would still be the best pick for this organization going forward.  Should Buffalo and Florida take both Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett, there is a good chance that Ekblad could fall to the Oilers.  Should Ekblad be swooped up by one of the two teams ahead of the Oilers, I would dangle that 1st round pick to a team that has one of those assets I had mentioned earlier, which would propel this franchise into a better state.  The Oilers will have options, but they are now coming to the point to which winning now is far more important than building for the future.

Already in these pool outlooks, I have talked about how good management is key to the rebuild process and the Edmonton Oilers are the case for fans of other teams not being keen on their team going through a tear down before a rebuild.  Yes, the Oilers have been toiling at this whole rebuild for some time now and it is wearing on their fan base, which at the end of the day, is what you want to avoid, since it is the fan base that is helping to pay most of the bills.  How much time does this front office have left to get it right?

My prediction for the Oilers in 2015 today doesn't reflect well upon what they have in the bank, so far.  The Oilers are likely to make a big push in the off-season to help accommodate their goals for the playoffs, but these goals get pushed further from their grasp, as every team gets the benefit of a raised cap ceiling and the talent pool for free agency isn't quite as deep as it once was.  If the Oilers can persuade two or more key free agents to join their cause, I would go so far as to say that they will finally start pushing for a playoff spot, but I would rather suggest that very little will change until the Old Boys Club of Former Glory move out of the way for some more relevant hockey thinking.  I don't expect to Oilers to improve without significant change.

One Game Six Deserves Another, Hawks Extend

If the Los Angeles Kings were to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals early in this series, they would have to do so on the road at the United Center in Chicago. The hosts were also not going to be very hospitable, allowing it to happen very easily.  They weren't and the didn't... at all.

If there was one thing I'm sure most of us didn't expect out of this series is the number of goals being scored.  It has been a wild series, with 26 goals scored between the two teams going into Game Five and the game started off with a bunch of flashing red lights.

Before the 14-minute mark of the 1st period, the Blackhawks already held a 3-2 lead in the game, which included a 3-1 lead, just after the 11-minute mark.  The goals were coming fast and it was hard to gauge which way the result would lean.

Sure enough, the Kings would tie up the game and take the lead in the 2nd period, as it was 4-3 Los Angeles heading into the 3rd and the Kings were able to tighten up earlier in the series and it was fully expected that they would again to close out the series.

No, but wait!  Chicago ties up the game on a Ben Smith goal, early in the final frame and then it was last goal wins hockey until the end.

The 3rd period ended without a deciding goal, the 1st overtime period came and went, but in the 2nd overtime period, Michal Handzus picked up a loose puck in front of Jonathan Quick and was able to roof it on a beautiful finish, ending the game, two minutes in.

The Blackhawks force one more game, Game Six, which will go in Los Angeles on Friday night, a 7pm MT start.  Chicago facing elimination one more time, but this time, they'll be in the hostile environment, where the Kings have been lights out.

In the pool, the notable players for Chicago in the game were Patrick Kane, who had 4 assists, Brandon Saad, with a goal and 2 assists, while Johnny Oduya and Corey Crawford each came away with 2 points.  On the Los Angeles side, Dustin Brown came away with a goal and an assist to lead pool players on his team in a losing cause.

ImplicationsWhat does it all mean? A new leader! Corey M., who has been hanging around as one of the better teams in round three of these playoffs, managed to jump both Dale B. and Gus M. for 1st place, based on the first tie-breaker, goals for.  Gus' first team also has 228 points, tied with Corey's team, but sits 7 goals back.

Dale B. drops down to 3rd place with 226 points, while Travis G. sits in 4th, also with 226 points, 4 goals back, and now Wes M., joins the fray with 226 points and is 8 goals back of Dale B. for 3rd place.  How tight is this?  The answer: very.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pool Outlook for Buffalo

How bad were the Buffalo Sabres in 2014?  The Sabres only won 21 games in the year and finished 14 points back of the 29th ranked team in the league.  They couldn't score, they didn't play great defense and their goaltending, for the better part of the season, was under the microscope of the trade deadline and likely couldn't keep his concentration from one game to the next.

After they dealt Ryan Miller at the trade deadline, the Sabres couldn't keep a goaltender healthy, running through a handful of young goalies all the way to the end of the regular season.  Some of the better players were dealt throughout the year to try and kickstart their year, but nothing really helped.

Now, the team makes the move to rebuild, using a large number of assets taken from deals this year.  The Sabres will carry two 1st round picks into June and they could still get another 1st round pick, if the St. Louis Blues were to sign Miller to a new deal.

Some of the team's young talent, the foundation of what they will build upon, was on display in the 2014 season and under some tough circumstances, I don't think the audition for the future went all that bad for them.

Cody Hodgson led all forward in points, by the end of the season, as he finished with 44 points in 72 games played, which was good enough for 141st in pool scoring.  Between his health and a myriad of different linemates throughout the year, Hodgson did okay considering.  Tyler Ennis, Cory Conacher, Zemgus Girgensons and Marcus Foligno all showed some reasonable talent and they are all under the age of 25, which bodes well with their foundation.

On the blueline, the 2014 season was highlighted by Christian Ehrhoff, who led the back end with 33 points in 79 games, which may be a far cry from some of his personal bests, but he isn't playing on the same kind of team that he played his best on.  Tyler Myers started to bounce back in 2014, but still has some room to improve, while Jamie McBain started to make a better name for himself with more ice-time in Buffalo.

The Sabres had six goalies hit the ice for regular season action in the 2014 season and the goalie that remained with the team and had the most points was Jhonas Enroth, who only managed to register 4 wins on the season for 8 points.  Miller took all the points and ran to St. Louis at the deadline and left the Sabres with just about nothing.

2015 Pool Outlook

There is a pretty good chance that the best player to take in your hockey pool draft from the Buffalo Sabres will be whoever they take in the Entry Draft.  By the sound of things, they'll be in for an exciting young player that could be NHL-ready.  That being said, Hodgson ranks as a late 6th round pick in my hockey pool draft, assuming we have 24 teams again.  Ennis, Drew Stafford and Chris Stewart may see some time in the pool next season, but they'll go late as well, as there won't be much desire for the team's lack of offense on paper.

The team's defense may be the more interesting group, especially if they can get some confidence early on.  Ehrhoff and Myers will be looked towards, possibly at a lower rank than some years, but they can easily come up as bargains.

The Sabres have no goaltending that would be worthy of a high pick today, which generally means they have no real goaltending to build from.  I think there will be some goaltending taken from Buffalo, to help some teams fill the void, late in the draft, unless they go after a big free agent name in the Summer.

Maybe some of the Sabres' young players are what you're looking for?  Girgensons, perhaps?  He had 22 points in his rookie season and didn't look out of place, especially in the Olympics for Latvia.  Their 2013 1st round draft pick, Rasmus Ristolainen, played in 34 games for the Sabres, only scored 4 points, but took some valuable experience as a 19-year old.  Another youngster, Mikhail Grigorenko, played in 18 games before getting sent back to junior and should get a good look in training camp in September.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

Henrik Tallinder, Cody McCormick, Alexander Sulzer (already gone to Europe), John Scott, Kevin Porter and Jamie Tardif, all played in the 2014 season and are heading to unrestricted free agency.  Tallinder is an interesting situation, as he wasn't dealt at the deadline and may want to stick around, but with only 8 points in 64 games, maybe the Sabres could improve there a little?

Going into the off-season, I have the Sabres listed with 17 players on their projected roster, which includes 11 forwards, four defensemen and a pair of goalies and they go in with a cap hit of $39.7 million, which includes some buyout calculations.  The Sabres likely won't be dropping large contracts on anyone during free agency, but they should be throwing some money around, just to get up to the salary cap floor.

Going to the draft, the Sabres could be rolling in the picks, currently sitting with one 1st round pick, but could end up with two or possibly three 1st round picks to start off.  The key pick should be the 2nd overall pick, which they ended up with after the draft lottery.  There is no reason to be disappointed, as there are three potential players ready to go number one, so the Sabres should end up with one of those players.  If the Panthers take a forward, then I think the Sabres should go with the other top-ranked forward, be it Sam Bennett or Sam Reinhart.  As much as defense is key in the NHL these days, some of the better rebuilds have stemmed from franchise forwards.  The Sabres could do really well with either Bennett or Reinhart.  If the Islanders let this year's pick go to them, after the Thomas Vanek mid-season deal, they would then have the 5th overall pick in the draft.  If the Blues trade the rights to Ryan Miller before the Entry Draft, the Sabres would gain their 20th overall pick.

Yes, the rebuild could be made much easier with three top end picks this Summer.

Rebuilds take time.  Some are longer than others and some are almost non-existent, it seems.  This boils down to management, pro and amateur scouting and making good use of the assets that you have.  Teams like Pittsburgh, Chicago and now St. Louis, have all seen the fruits of the labour in some winning season, while other teams have struggled by making some poor decisions with their line-up.

In predicting the Sabres 2015 season, it is somewhat difficult, as the team is now operating under some new management and offering an optimistic prediction may be a tad silly today.  The Sabres have the opportunity to make their future bright, but their present may be still laced with hardships and tough decisions to make.  With all of that being said, their depth is not very strong, there isn't much for goaltending on their side going into the Summer and if these issues are not addressed, it could be another long season in 2015.  I don't like their odds of a good season, rather, I like their odds of another good draft pick in June 2015.

Pool Outlook for Florida

What is old is new again.  Is that how it goes?

Only two years removed from their last playoff appearance, the Florida Panthers have not improved whatsoever and I think that's kind of a shame.  Instead of improving, they fell down to the 30th position in the 2013 season and now the 29th position after the 2014 season.  I mean, that leaves them with great drafting capability, losing the lottery in 2013 gave them Alexander Barkov, while they won the lottery for this Summer and have their choice of a few top prospects.

But speaking from a hockey pool draft perspective, the Florida Panthers are not exactly the first well you would tap for talent.  The team, as individuals, has a remarkable amount of talent, but when you take the sum of all the parts, it really hasn't added up to too much, but there is still a glimmer of hope that GM Dale Tallon knows what he's doing there.

In the 2014 season, the Panthers were not a hotbed of hockey pool talent and by my scoring, at the end of the regular season, there was only one player in the top 200 in overall scoring and that was Roberto Luongo, who spent the better part of the season with the Vancouver Canucks.  Luongo finished with 58 points between Vancouver and Florida, good enough for 72nd overall in pool scoring, 17th in goalie points.

Everyone else that finished the 2014 season in a Florida Panthers jersey was below the top 200, as Nick Bjugstad was the top forward and he finished 204th with 38 points in 76 games.  Scottie Upshall was 2nd in forward scoring on the team, finishing with 37 points, good enough for 213rd overall.

Also of note would be their top defenseman, Brian Campbell, who had a cap hit of $7.14 million and finished with 37 points in 82 games, good enough for 219th overall in pool scoring.  Campbell was 32nd in defenseman scoring, which should be considered well-below expectation.

Injuries to Sean Bergenheim, Jonathan Huberdeau, Alexander Barkov, Tomas Kopecky, Erik Gudbranson and Ed Jovanovski were certainly solid reasons for a lack of production throughout the season, but it could be more a lack of depth that was unable to keep the team a float, an issue the team will be looking to address in the off-season.

2015 Pool Outlook

There are going to be a lot of trust issues with the Florida Panthers at next year's draft, I can already tell.  Luongo is an elite goalie in the NHL, but when the team in front of him fails to excel, we all know how that goes and it isn't very good.  The Panthers are stacking up with talent up front, with Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Barkov already in tow and Quinton Howden & Vincent Trocheck not far behind.  By no means, will they have playoff expectations, but with the way free agency will clean out their roster, there is a chance they'll start to make some noise.

Right now, I cannot see any Panthers player picked higher than the 4th round in the draft, assuming we have the same 24 teams in next season, as Luongo's stock goes as high as the team in front of him plays.  I don't think any of their young scorers are ready to break out yet, because they have little help, although they should see some improvement in their numbers.

I think I might be bumping Nick Bjugstad up the pool rankings, possibly near the top 150 mark, as he has established himself on a poor team to be someone to watch.  The last time I wrote a Pool Outlook for the PanthersQuinton Howden's name did appear as someone to watch, but he never really panned out, until the 2014 season.  With 16 games under his belt, scoring 4 goals, Howden may have finally reached the point where he could be a reasonable bet for a final forward taken on your draft team.  Acquired during the year, Brandon Pirri also showed some reason to possibly get a bump in the rankings.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

Tom Gilbert, Jesse Winchester, Scott Clemmensen, Scott Gomez, Krys Barch, Matt Gilroy, Mike Mottau and Ryan Whitney will all be hitting unrestricted free agency on July 1st and other than Gilbert, I fully expect them all to find new homes.

By my count, the Panthers only have about 16 semi-locks to their roster, as of May 6th, which rounds out to be 11 forwards, three defensemen and Luongo in net.  With buyouts and retained salary, this brings their current cap hit to a shade below $49 million, giving the team about $22.2 million to the projected $71.1 million salary cap ceiling.  That should be plenty of room, if the Panthers decide to clean up the dregs of the free agency pool, like they did last Summer.

The Florida Panthers finished 29th in the NHL overall standings in the 2014 season, but won the draft lottery after the season, giving them the 1st overall pick in June.  For as much potential that Jonathan Huberdeau may have to realize in his career, it may still be somewhat of a gamble to lean on him to become a franchise player, so I believe it would be in the Panthers' best interest to find the player that has the potential to be a franchise guy.  The scouts are all torn on who the number one guy is, but there seems to be a number of good candidates in forwards Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart or defenseman Aaron Ekblad.  Personally, I would go with one of the forwards in their case.

Now, to offer up my early prediction for the 2015 season.  It has been a few years since I've done these, so I won't go back to my prediction for the 2011 season, because that'd be moot.

GM Dale Tallon has done a good job to slowly build up his prospect pool and gain some stable pieces to his puzzle, but his franchise is far from ready to compete for the long-term.  As good as Luongo may be, an unstable blueline can and will be the death of this franchise.  Dimitri Kulikov, Dylan Olsen and Erik Gudbranson are all under 25 years old, but are coming along.  Finding some solid veteran help for these kids will be key, since Campbell and Jovanovski haven't been able to fill those qualifications of late.  Unless the Florida blueline can improve with veteran leadership and experience, I cannot see much improvement in the standings for 2015.  Today, I still expect to see the Panthers in the bottom five of the league, come 365 days from now.