Monday, July 15, 2013

Prospect Watch: Michael St. Croix

Michael St. Croix
edmontonsun.com

When it comes to prospects, the Rangers boast few scorers in their system. The recent second round swap with the Canadiens that sent Christian Thomas to Montreal for Danny Kristo could pan out. That story will be worth following this Fall. As for recent drafts, Michael St. Croix comes to mind. He's hardly ever mentioned despite consecutive strong offensive showings with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League. The son of former NHL goalie Rick St. Croix (Flyers, Leafs) is looking to prove critics wrong.

Selected by the Rangers in the fourth round 106th overall of the 2011 Draft, the 20-year old St. Croix followed up a 45-goal 105-point season with 37 markers and 55 assists totaling 92 points in all 72 games. While the production didn't match '11-12, the Winnipeg native lit it up in the WHL playoffs tallying 13 goals and 13 helpers for 26 points- leading the Central Division winners to the WHL Finals where they fell short in a bid to repeat losing in six games to the Portland Winterhawks for the championship. Here's a closer look at the center the Rangers signed last year (9/14/12).


PLAYER: Michael St. Croix
Position: Center
Shoots: Right
Height: 6-0
Weight: 179
Born: 4/10/1993
Hometown: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Drafted: New York Rangers 2011 Round 4 No.106

2010-11: In his second season with the Oil Kings, St. Croix improved across the board achieving new highs in goals (27), assists (48), points (75), plus/minus (28) and games played (68). He scored a goal in four playoff games. It impressed Ranger scouts enough to take him in the fourth round.

2011-12: Year Three was a breakout with St. Croix's 105 points placing eighth in WHL scoring that included notables Emerson Etem and Ty Rattie. His 45 goals and 60 assist ranked in the top 10. He also improved his plus/minus to plus-40. The offensive explosion garnered East Second All-Star Team honors. In the postseason, he tallied seven goals and 12 helpers for 19 points in 20 games helping lead the Oil Kings to the Chynoweth Cup. Edmonton advanced to the Memorial Cup where they fell to eventual host champ Shawnigan. St. Croix was held to one assist in the tournament.

2012-13: His 92 points (37-55-92) was seventh best in the WHL. He was named to the East First All-Star Team. St. Croix established a career best in power play goals (20) and had six game-winners. Nearly half his production came on the power play totaling 44 power play points. His improvement during Edmonton's run to the Chynoweth Cup Finals is a positive. Thirteen goals and 13 assists is a nice split. Only four of his 26 points came on the man-advantage. His point total ranked third best.

Scouting Report: I couldn't find anything recent. Judging from previous accounts, most are undecided on him. The pluses are St. Croix's offensive capabilities. He possesses good hands that can both finish and set up. He is undersized. Don't put too much stock into him being generously listed at six feet. He definitely must get stronger. Especially entering his first year as a pro.

Video: There really isn't much. Considering his numbers, it's kind of a downer. I did find this scrap from a couple of years back.



Ironically, recent highlights of two goals he scored comes via NYR Blog contributor Adam Herman.




Future: Given that the Ranger organization unloaded another smallish prospect Thomas, it's hard to say what his future is. It could depend on how quickly he adjusts to a more physical game in the AHL. Maybe he's one of those classic overachievers. Only time shall tell.

Prospect Watch: Reid Boucher

Reid Boucher
theobserver.ca
This summer, we'll be taking a closer look at the top prospects of the Devils, Islanders, Rangers and Sabres. The list will include each teams' recent draft picks. Stay tuned for in depth features on your team's future.

First up is Devils forward prospect Reid Boucher. Taken in the fourth round of 2011, the 19-year old from Lansing Michigan has developed into a player to watch. Already signed to an entry level contract on Mar.13,  he is someone the organization has a close eye on. Especially with the sudden departure of Ilya Kovalchuk. Losing that kind of scoring threat hurts big time a year after Zach Parise went home to Minnesota. David Clarkson also left for greener pastures in Toronto. Can another American born player help lead the club back to respectability? Let's take a closer look.


Player: REID BOUCHER
Position: Left Wing
Shoots: Left
Height: 5-11
Weight: 187
Born: 9/08/1993
Hometown: Grand Ledge, Michigan
Drafted: New Jersey Devils 2011 4th Round 99th Overall

2011-12: After spending the previous two seasons playing for Team USA in the United States Hockey League, Boucher moved onto juniors playing for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League. In his rookie year, he posted 28 goals and 22 assists totaling 50 points and 19 penalty minutes in 67 games. He scored 10 of his 28 on the power play and had a minus-19 rating. In the OHL playoffs, he tallied a goal and two assists in six games. In a pro tryout, Boucher got into one game with Albany and didn't register a point.

2012-13: Boucher's second season was memorable shattering Steven Stamkos' record of 58 goals by scoring 62 in 68 games. A remarkable feat that garnered Prospect Of The Year honors. He added 33 assists to finish with 95 points placing him fifth in OHL scoring. He netted 21 power play goals, nine game-winners, a shorthanded goal and went plus-13 with 53 PIM. Unfortunately, the Sting lost in the first round a second straight year despite five points (2-3-5) and two PPG's in four games from Boucher, who struggled at even strength finishing minus-six. The monster year was enough for the Devils to sign him. In 13 games with the River Rats, he tallied five points (3-2-5) with 2 PPG's and 6 PIM.

Scouting Report: Prior to the 2011 Draft, The Hockey Writers' Christopher Ralph felt Boucher would emerge into a sleeper.

Why then am I so big on Boucher? Plain and simple, the kid has a nose for the net that you just can’t teach. He is first and foremost a pure goal scorer with outstanding hands and a quick release to go with his lethally accurate shot.  He has an uncanny aptitude to find open ice and knows how to finish when the opportunity arises, especially in clutch situations. While his skating ability has been questioned, he is very shifty to go along with some very good puck skills.

Hockey's Future also liked his ability to find the back of the net. An area the Devils need. He'll continue to need work defensively.

Boucher’s best assets are his deadly accurate shot, lightning-quick release, and his soft hands. Whether it’s in-tight or from outside the circles, Boucher can snipe with the best of them. More quick than fast, Boucher has good vision and knows where to park himself on the ice in order to get quality chances in the offensive zone. He doesn’t let his size keep him from battling for loose pucks and he does not shy away from traffic, however these are two things he needs to do more of to become more involved in the play. His overall defensive game is still a work in progress, but he has plenty of time to polish that area up.




Video: Here are some OHL Highlights of Reid Boucher lighting it up with the Sarnia Sting. You'll notice a shifty skater with a quick release. Exactly what a sniper should be. The puck comes off his stick fast. Marian Gaborik can snap it like that. We're not comparing them. Just an observation. Another point which probably didn't hurt Boucher's development was playing with Nail Yakupov. He probably learned a lot teaming up with the Oilers' 2012 top overall pick. Not only did he get to play with Yakupov but also Canadiens' first rounder Alex Galchenyuk. It must've been a treat for OHL fans. I also found Boucher's record tying and record breaking goals to pass Stamkos. Great touch around the net and offensive instincts.

 
Future: Boucher is a goal scorer. He'll probably need some polishing in the AHL with Albany before arriving in 2014. If the Devils are smart, they won't rush him. They should let him mature similar to Adam Henrique. Henrique wears number 14. So, I doubt Boucher will don it. I could see him winding up with No.9. Wouldn't that be fitting? Another American prospect with great hands.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Rangers Draft Focus: 2nd Round



In last week's introduction, we discussed past Rangers first round picks. The organization has moved in the right direction after years of failure. Drafting and development are two vital areas that determine whether a team made the right selection. For kids Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller, they're still in the developmental stage. Blueshirt fans should be paying close attention.

One area the Rangers have had success is drafting in the second round. Dating back to 2001, five former No.2 picks are still in the NHL and have had good careers. Let's break them down:

SECOND ROUND SUCCESS
Player                        Year          Overall          Team(s)       GP      G      A     Pts    PIM  
Fedor Tyutin            2001          40th              NYR CBJ   571     43    152   195    376
Brandon Dubinsky   2004          60th              NYR CBJ   402     82    138   220    494
*Mike Sauer             2005          40th              NYR            98       4      14     18      96
Artem Anisimov       2006          54th              NYR CBJ   257     50     64   114      94
Derek Stepan            2008           51st              NYR           177     40     62   102      46

*LTI for post concussion syndrome

All five were part of the club's turnaround. Tyutin played on the '07 team that pushed the Sabres six games in the Eastern Conference Semis. Following a second round defeat to the Pens, Glen Sather traded him to Columbus for Nikolai Zherdev. A gamble that didn't work out. While Zherdev stars for Atlant of the KHL, Tyutin remains the Jackets' best defenseman at 29.

Dubinsky and Anisimov were on last year's team that had the East's top record. Along with Stepan, who's currently centering the No.1 line, they helped get the Rangers to the Conference Finals. In the offseason, Slats packaged Dubinsky and Anisimov with Tim Erixon and a No.1 pick to the Blue Jackets for Rick Nash. He used assets to acquire a need. Nash is a top power forward who is an upgrade offensively. Depth has come into question. Always the risk when you make such a move.

If Mike Sauer ever returns, it would be a big boost for the Rangers blueline. Sauer was the most underrated defenseman on the team. He played with an edge that's severely lacking since he went down. Sather has failed to address this hole. Instead, John Tortorella is forced to play Matt Gilroy, who he doesn't trust enough to use in third periods. Stu Bickel is basically a goon and Steve Eminger is serving a two week conditioning assignment. Former No.1 pick Dylan McIlrath remains a year away.

Overall, the Blueshirts have done an admirable job drafting in Round Two. Dubinsky and Anisimov were solid core players who brought Nash. Stepan is currently centering the top line with Nash and sixth round gem Carl Hagelin. Stepan's improvement is crucial to the club's success. He must improve on his playoff goal total. A paltry one over 25 games. He is unselfish to a fault. Shooting more would make him a better player. The coaching staff has encouraged it. Maybe playing with Nash will bring out his best.

The Rangers are hoping Christian Thomas is part of the future. Taken 40th overall by the club in 2010, the 20-year old son of former NHLer Steve Thomas is in his second pro year with Connecticut. He's tallied 10 goals and 11 assists for 21 points in 48 games. He's in the second year of a three-year entry level contract. It's do or die for Thomas next year.

Cristoval "Boo" Nieves was selected 59th last June. Most observers liked the pick. In his freshman year playing for Red Berenson at Michigan, Nieves has 23 points (8-15-23) in 30 games. A nice start to his collegiate career.

Friday, February 8, 2013

New Project: NY Rangers Draft

Ranger rookie J.T. Miller shows off the puck from his first NHL goal.


I was discussing the Rangers with Dad and we got around to the topic of the Draft. How do they stack up? Since Glen Sather took over, they've had better success drafting and developing players.

One of our questions is whether or not the organization is developing properly. When examining each team, some players project better than others. To be clear, we're not referring to no-brainers like Crosby, Ovechkin or Malkin. Those are easier decisions for hockey executives to make. If you finish last or luck out like Pittsburgh did in 2005, it speeds up the rebuilding process.

The real test comes for teams who remain competitive. Those must draft later and discover gems like Detroit with Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Under Sather, the Rangers have evolved from a laughingstock into a playoff caliber team who entered off the franchise's first Conference Finals appearance since '97. With the acquisition of Rick Nash, many viewed them as Stanley Cup favorites entering the shortened season.

So far, the results have been mixed with the team defeating the Islanders 4-1 on the strength of prospect J.T. Miller's first two NHL goals- improving to 5-5-0. Miller is only 19 and was taken by the Blueshirts in the first round of 2011. He was selected 15th overall. The center is in his first pro season. He totaled 20 points (8-12-20) in Connecticut before the Rangers recalled him. Miller became the first rookie since Don Murdoch ('76) to score twice in his MSG debut.

In two games, he's already proven he belongs. Miller skates well and goes to the right areas while possessing tools the big club can use. He isn't afraid to go into traffic and plays aggressively. It'll be interesting to see how John Tortorella handles the kid moving forward. Expectations have increased to astronomic levels. That's how this town is. Where in the blink of an eye, you're a superstar. Ranger fans can't expect Miller to score every game. Hopefully, he sticks to provide the team with better balance.

First round picks haven't been the Rangers specialty. However, they've found some success with core defensemen Marc Staal (12th '05) and  Mike Del Zotto (20th '08). Former '09 No.1 pick Chris Kreider (19th) is in his rookie season. He notched his first goal against New Jersey on 2/5. Kreider debuted in spectacular fashion during last Spring scoring five goals and two assists for seven points before playing a regular season game. In Thursday's win, he registered an assist on Miller's early tally. Only 21, Kreider is a player the organization wouldn't part with for Nash at last year's deadline. He has a bright future.

The Rangers' influx of four first rounders is something unheard of in these parts. We're not used to seeing our No.1 picks make it. There have been many flops like Hugh Jessiman, Al Montoya, Bobby Sanguinetti, Pavel Brendl and Jamie Lundmark, who for one reason or another failed. There also have been extreme cases such as Dan Blackburn, Stefan Cherneski and the tragic death of Alexei Cherepanov that still hurts to this day.

History hasn't been kind. Until recently, you had to go back to 1991 when Neil Smith took Alexei Kovalev to find a player who was a regular that became one of the first Russians to get his name on the Cup. Niklas Sundstrom had a decent career as did Dan Cloutier, who's best remembered for this beating of Tommy Salo. Outside of that, our first round picks may as well have existed on an island. Just ask Manny Malhotra, who wasn't handled correctly until he was on his third organization with Columbus of all places.

So, what will our new project tell us? For one, we already know the unpredictability and cruelty of the Rangers first round. With the snow coming, be prepared.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Islander prospects battle Ranger prospects

JT Miller is a prospect the Rangers are watching closely.



Last night, it was a battle of prospects between the Islanders and Rangers. The Bridgeport Sound Tigers defeated the Connecticut Whale 5-4 in overtime at Hartford. Sean Backman notched the winner at 1:57.

Bridgeport rallied from two one-goal deficits. John Persson's power play tally in the third period tied the game 4-4. It was his 15th from defensemen Aaron Ness and Ty Wishart. Wishart had two assists. Three Tigers had multi-point efforts, including Backman (1-1-2) Persson (1-1-2) and Wishart (0-2-2). They also got goals from Jack Combs, Blair Riley and Matt Watkins. Kevin Poulin made 32 saves.

Regarding the Prospect Watch, Brock Nelson, Matt Donovan and Kirill Kabanov each had helpers. Nino Niederreiter was held without a point and only had one shot. It'll be interesting to see how El Nino responds following his trade request. The Islanders are doing what's best for his development. He's having a good pro year with 36 points (19-17-36) helping him become an AHL All-Star. He's only 20 and shouldn't be rushed with the big club off to a good start.

For the Whale, Blake Parlett, Micheal Haley, Brandon Segal and Kelsey Tessier scored. Haley has five goals and seven assists with 113 penalty minutes with Connecticut. He's tough as nails and has played in the NHL before with the Islanders. You wonder if the organization might consider recalling him if the Rangers continue to play soft. The fourth line is giving them zilch. At least with Haley, you know he can bang. Though he's a bit of a loose cannon.

Prospects J.T. Miller and Christian Thomas combined to set up Parlett on the power play for a 4-3 lead with 26 seconds left in the second. Miller was an integral part of Team USA's gold at the WJC 2013. He played well, setting up red hot linemate Johnny Gaudreau. Miller also did the little things, going to the net to screen goalies. The former No.1 pick is a smart player, who could see a cameo on Broadway soon. He's still adjusting to life in the pros. Yesterday, his two assists gave him 19 points (7-12-19) for the season.

Thomas is kind of forgotten. He was a second round pick in 2010. The son of former NHLer Steve Thomas possesses skill in a diminutive 5-9, 174 frame. He's had an up and down year in Connecticut, posting nine goals and eight assists in 44 games. He's just 21 and turned pro last year. The question is can he make the next level. We've seen other small players do it with other teams. The Rangers must show patience.

AHL vet Mike Vernace had two assists. Prospect Andrew Yogan added a helper as did Kris Newbury. First-year pro Kyle Jean had no points and was minus-one. He's cooled considerably since a hot start. The undrafted rookie center from Lake Superior State has eight goals and 10 assists. Goalie Cam Talbot faced 41 shots and stopped 36.

Some notables from Bridgeport this season are Donovan and Johan Sundstrom. Donovan has performed well on the blueline. He's a name Islander fans should be hearing from in the future. With 21 points (6-15-21) in his second pro year, he's a player with upside who can help the Islander back end. Sundstrom is faring well in his first season. The 20-year old Swede has 11 goals with 14 assists for 25 points and a plus-10 rating. He's tied with Nelson for third in team scoring. Nelson being a former second round pick who also flies under the radar due to '11 No.1 pick Ryan Strome.

When the Islanders hit Brooklyn, they'll be rich in talent and ready to be a playoff contender.

Prospects Plus

Seth Jones (right) battles Nathan MacKinnon.


For over five years, we've covered hockey as best we can. New York Puck has continued that tradition of the Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Sabres and NHL.

One of the best aspects of the lockout was having the opportunity to follow our prospects playing in the AHL, hockey juniors and the NCAA. We're going to continue to see how those former draft picks are doing on this page. This way, we give you two quality blogs to follow.

When the NHL restarted, I never wanted to deviate from keeping up with kids in each system. We're not going to limit it to only our teams. I will include players who are 2013 Draft Eligible.

In Bob McKenzie's recent mid-season rankings, American Seth Jones topped the list. His strong performance in Team USA's run to gold at the WJC in Russia pushed him over Nathan MacKinnon. Most experts love MacKinnon because he projects as a power center who could be a franchise player. However, the teammate of Halifax Mooseheads' Jonathan Drouin didn't have as prominent a role for Canada.

Jones was outstanding for USA playing big minutes for United States Hockey Hall Of Famer Phil Housley. The smooth skating and skills on both sides of the rink were on display. Jones is the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, who is a Nets assistant. It's a pretty cool story. He's expected to go in the top three.

Much will depend on what a team's need is. It's looking like it could be the Blue Jackets, who took big defenseman Ryan Murray last year. They likely need another forward. Keep in mind that all 14 teams who miss the playoffs will have the same chance in the Draft Lottery. There could be some surprises joining Columbus. Especially if the Flyers, Caps and Panthers keep struggling. In a 48-game sprint, anything's possible.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Untitled: The thoughts of a hockey fan

I'm not real sure on a title for this. So I called it, "Untitled: The thoughts of a hockey fan." As August nears conclusion with no solution to another potential lockout causing more heartache and headaches, I just don't have it in me to write about a dull topic. One side will never be satisfied. There's not much more to add.

As someone who listened to Program buddy Chris Wassel interview Spectors Hockey's Lyle Richardson on the very depressing issue, it was numbing. They painted a gloomy picture with basically, a remote chance that the two sides will work out a new CBA agreement by Gary Bettman's September 15 deadline. Donald Fehr is a tough negotiatior who may have learned from the '94 baseball strike. The NHLPA will lose again because there's no other choice. I don't foresee a long work stoppage because there's too much at risk. The Winter Classic which pits Original Sixes Detroit and Toronto against each other should bring the sides closer. Right now, figure the first month to be wiped out. If we're lucky, we'll have plenty to be thankful for if you catch my drift.

In the mean time, I will stick to what little hockey discussion we have which is predictions, projections, fantasy hockey rankings and overall. Lately, I've been on a Russian kick over at New York Puck. Since I upgraded into the 21st Century with an iPhone, I've linked up Alexei Cherepanov video tributes along with other Russian hockey players. Somewhat astonishingly, it'll be four years since the young Russian the Rangers selected in the '08 Draft tragically died during a KHL game for Omsk Avangard. Maybe it's all the free time but I can't help but wonder how things couldn't been different for the Ranger organization if disaster was prevented. Of course, who knows if Cherepanov would've ever played hockey again.

When you draft as talented a kid as him, you're not fearing the worst. You're dreaming. The highlight reels of Chery17 showcase his supreme skills. A player who combined fast skating with slick moves and a quick release. He also went to the dirty areas to score. Something highlighted in a strong second effort finish against Sweden. Cherepanov had flair. It's a shame he's gone so soon. Worst of all, I can't imagine how his family is dealing with the loss of their son. Even all this time later, it never goes away. When tragedies strike such as the devastating Lokomotiv flight crash that wiped out an entire team, the pain is always with us. For the families who lost their husbands/fathers, it's indescribable. My heart goes out to them.

Pavol Demitra was the most notable former NHLer who was lost. One of my favorite European players. His best years came with St. Louis after Ottawa gave up on him. The skilled Slovak developed into a dependable scorer who was part of some good Blues teams that never could get over the hump. In over eight years, he tallied 70-or-more points four times while eclipsing 30 goals during three seasons. His best campaign came in '02-03 when he finished with 93 points, including 36 markers and 57 helpers. The most goals he ever scored were 37 in '98-99 when the club made the Western Semis. Following the '04-05 lockout, he spent his final five NHL seasons with the Kings, Wild and Canucks before going to Russia to play for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv ('10-11).

Though he never won any major awards aside from a Lady Byng for most gentlemanly player in '99-00, Demitra was a very good playmaking pivot who made teammates better. He could play in any situation including on the penalty kill where late in his career, he had five shorthanded goals with LA in '05-06. A career mark which beat his previous high of four nine years prior with St. Louis. In 16 NHL seasons, Demitra played in 847 games tallying 304 goals, 464 assists for 768 points. That included half a dozen years of 60+ points. In fact, 10 of 16 seasons saw the underrated Slovak register at least 50. A credit to his consistency.

The three-time All-Star was a fixture representing his native country Slovakia taking part in three Olympics including a final swan song in Vancouver 2010 where he also finished his NHL career. At 35, Demitra played with the enthusiasm of a teenager turning back the clock to score three goals, seven assists and 10 points in the Winter Games. I've seen plenty of clips of Demitra coming down the right wing to finish off a Marian Hossa feed that led to a great celebration. There's also a nice congrats from current Blueshirt Marian Gaborik, who probably wouldn't be here if not for the contributions of Demitra and other greats such as Peter Bondra and Miroslav Satan, who also was part of that Olympic team.

All this time later, there's something cool about seeing stars in the twilight of their careers performing as well as they did under such a big stage. Whether it's Jaromir Jagr getting the best of Martin Brodeur or Brodeur outperforming Henrik Lundqvist, it shows how much pride these athletes have to still compete at the highest level. Representing your country is something special. As we saw again with passion exhibited during the London Games, the Olympic spirit is alive and well. It's why no matter what happens with the upcoming CBA which eventually will get done, I hope there's Olympic hockey over in Sochi 2014. It wouldn't be the same. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Atlantic Division Preview: New York Islanders

John Tavares and Evgeni Nabokov lead the way for the Islanders in 2012-13.


Last season, the Islanders finished 34-37-11 with 79 points finishing last in the Atlantic Division and 14th in the Eastern Conference. It was another retooling year under Jack Capuano, whose club endured some growing pains before recovering. Perhaps expectations were too high for a team that didn't have enough scoring or defense.

One of the issues that's plagued the Islanders has been Rick DiPietro's health. Fortunately, Evgeni Nabokov decided to play on Long Island instead of causing more headaches. The veteran netminder was solid in his first year for the Isles, winning 19 games while posting a 2.55 GAA, .914 save percentage with two shutouts over 42 contests. Even with Garth Snow removing DiPietro from the injured reserve due to the CBA, Nabokov is expected to carry the burden. You can't expect much from youngsters Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson, who are still in the development stage. Our guess is as good as anyone's on what DiPietro has left. If the Isles are to be taken seriously, they need consistency in net. At 37, Nabokov can't be expected to start over 60. Even that's a stretch.

Aside from goaltending, the Islanders need stronger support for top scorer John Tavares. In his third year, the 21-year old former first overall pick improved from 29 goals and 67 points in '10-11 to career highs in goals (31), assists (50) and points (81). Most encouraging was his minus-six. An area he struggled in. JT91's stronger skating and magic touch soon could put him among the game's best. If he can get off to a better start in '12-13, the sky's the limit. Consistency will be the key. He and sniper Matt Moulson (36-33-69) have formed a dynamic duo with both combining for 67 of the Isles' 203 goals. They accounted for a whopping 33 percent. If you include former Islander P.A. Parenteau (signed with Colorado), the cohesive trio connected just under 50 percent of the team's power play goals (Moulson-14 Tavares-7 Parenteau-6). As a team, New York totaled 45 including five from Frans Nielsen and three apiece from Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit.

With Parenteau cashing in with the Avalanche, Snow gambled on former 40-goal man Brad Boyes. He once totaled 76 goals and 137 points over two seasons with St. Louis. The trouble is he hasn't been the same since with the Blues dumping him on Buffalo where he frustrated Western New York. In an injury riddled '11-12, he had only 23 points (8-15-23) over 65 games. At 30, can a player with his skill set really be done? Boyes isn't overly big (6-0, 204) but has something to prove on a one-year contract. He has to do better with Tavares. The Isles need him.

Aside from Boyes, it's up to ex-first rounders Okposo and Josh Bailey to perform. They've been around too long to go through prolonged scoring slumps. Even with better finishes, neither cracked 50 points. Capuano needs a consistent second line. He knows what he'll get from Nielsen, who's developed into a solid player who's a third liner on a contender. The jury's still out on Michael Grabner (54 goals in 2 years). Second seasons are usually tough. I'd put more stock in the gifted Grabner lighting the lamp than either Okposo or Bailey. He's more of a finisher. At least Bailey became a fixture on the penalty kill netting a team best three shorthanded goals. Sooner or later, Okposo has to fulfill his potential. He once scored nine power play goals. Only three of 29 the past two seasons (117 games) have come on the man-advantage.

One area Snow addressed was team toughness, adding defenseman Matt Carkner and enforcer Eric Boulton to a roster that features Matt Martin. Martin is the Isles' toughest player who can not only fight but also contribute as his seven goals and seven helpers suggest. He finishes every check and is a great teammate. Like Devil David Clarkson, he needs to become more disciplined. There's no reason why he can't double that output. With Carkner around and Boulton, he can become a better player under Capuano. The kind who'll be a pain in the ass for foes.

Aside from adding Carkner to beef up the blueline, he also went out and got Lubomir Visnovsky. Even though the offensive-minded vet is having an arbitrator decide if Anaheim violated his no-trade clause with the Slovak entering the final year of a five-year deal originally signed with Edmonton, expect him to be an integral part of a D that has Streit, Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic. Visnovsky's experience should prove instrumental in allowing the organization to ease prospects Ty Wishart, Matt Donovan, Calvin de Haan and Aaron Ness along. If they're lucky with health, the top five should include Carkner, meaning two spots are up for grabs. Defensemen take patience. How they're handled could prove pivotal to the club's future.

The Islanders will also keep a close eye on 2011 first round pick Ryan Strome, who one day could fill a void as back up for Tavares. Strome is very talented with great wheels and vision. He's only 19 and shouldn't be rushed like Nino Niederreiter, who must be handled differently in his third pro year. El Nino has great two-way potential along with physicality. The forgotten man looms large. David Ullstrom should be back.

Other kids include Casey Cizikas, Johan Sundstrom and Brock Nelson. On paper, depth isn't a problem. But it's still a long-term project with the Islanders in the best division. The Devils, Flyers, Penguins and Rangers are all better. Is this the year they make a dent? Stay tuned.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Dubinsky, Anisimov, Erixon part of Columbus rebuild

There are always two sides to a deal. Even if everyone believes the Rangers stole Rick Nash, the Blue Jackets still received two solid NHLers who can contribute right away to their rebuild.

Brandon Dubinsky is an established two-way forward who can play almost anywhere. Whether at center or on the left side, he will bring experience and leadership to the league's worst team. Having gone deep last postseason, he'll be determined to turn a laughingstock around. The trade might serve as motivation to prove his former club wrong. He's due for a bounce back season. Now, he'll get to play more consistent minutes under Todd Richards, which should benefit a player entering his prime.

Artem Anisimov is a couple of years younger with potentially a higher ceiling. The lanky Russian has more skill. Despite his skating, he's capable of evolving into a 20-25 goal, 60-point scorer. What he becomes depends on consistency and strength. . If he can improve in these facets, the 24-year old could combine with Dubinsky to turn what looks like a bad trade into a good one. It's not like they're garbage with both second liners who were at instances misused by John Tortorella. With a new team that doesn't boast as much talent up front, each will be looked upon to elevate their level. A challenge that makes following Columbus intriguing. You want to see each do well. Both were well liked here and deserve a fresh start.

Tim Erixon remains a prospect at this stage, having only played in 18 games last year. Hardly given ideal ice-time, he could have a chance to crack the Jackets out of camp. At 21, the former Calgary first round pick who came to New York for Roman Horak spent most of last season with the Connecticut Whale. Over 52 games, he tallied 33 points (3-30-33) with 42 penalty minutes while registering four assists during the postseason. Once the Whale were eliminated in the second round, Erixon spent the rest of the season with the Rangers during their run to the Conference Finals. Even though he didn't play, it's still a good experience that could prove beneficial. He practiced with the team and probably learned a great deal under John Tortorella. He's still considered to have a bright future but now is on his third NHL club before he's scratched the surface. If he is to stick with Columbus, he'll have to surpass players ahead of him on a revamped blueline that features Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, Fedor Tyutin, Nikita Nikitin and Adrian Aucoin. He'll be competing with John Moore and David Savard.

For Dubinsky, Anisimov and Erixon, it'll be a new challenge. They'll have to adjust to life in a new city while also probably having to deal with adversity. Especially in one of the league's strongest divisions. Right now, the Blue Jackets rank last in the Central behind St. Louis, Detroit, Nashville and Chicago. All of which went to the postseason. Those are established teams who should all be competitive once again. Especially with the Predators keeping cornerstone Shea Weber. Despite Nick Lidstrom's retirement, the Red Wings still boast plenty of arsenal in Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall and Jimmy Howard. Don't expect a slip up. The Blues and Hawks both are loaded. Neither lost much this summer. It'll be tough climbing for Columbus. Just the divisional games alone could put them in a hole.

When looking at the roster GM Scott Howson's putting together, much depends on how quickly the team meshes. It's never easy when you bring new players in. There won't be any pressure. Expectations are low. Howson acquired Sergei Bobrovsky from the Flyers to upgrade in net. He'll likely split time with Steve Mason before Richards chooses a starter. Gone is former captain Rick Nash, who leads by a mile in most offensive categories. Ironically, ex-Flyer R.J. Umberger ranks in the top five in goals and points. He's been a good player. If you toss out a contract that sees him earn an average cap hit of $4.6 million per year, he's solid overall. He won't blow you away but is usually good for 20+ goals and 50 points. No doubt he must improve on the 20-20-40 from '11-12. Along with ex-Blueshirt Vinny Prospal, Johnson, Wisniewski, Tyutin and Dubinsky, they'll be looked towards for leadership.

It will take time. The West is a very difficult conference that also boasts defending champ Los Angeles, Vancouver and San Jose. I still expect Phoenix to surprise even if Shane Doan departs. They have one of the game's best coaches in Dave Tippett who has a strong system. With Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota and Edmonton all on the rise along with free spending Calgary, it should be a struggle for Columbus. Sometimes, when you're written off you can sneak up on teams. Without the Nash distraction, they should be able to focus more on hockey. That could only be positive moving forward.


CLIMBING THE MOUNTAIN

West Summer Rankings

1.Los Angeles
2.Vancouver
3.St. Louis
4.Detroit
5.Chicago
6.San Jose
7.Nashville
8.Phoenix
9.Colorado
10.Dallas
11.Anaheim
12.Calgary
13.Minnesota
14.Edmonton
15.Columbus

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