The USA Today’s Kevin Allen was kind enough to sit down with PHR and survey the hockey landscape as the season is just under a month away from starting. Allen takes a look at early contenders, whether the Red Wings are in as much as trouble as some think, and of course, some insights on Jimmy Vesey.
Allen has written for the USA Today since 1986, and won the Lester Patrick Award in 2013 and the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award in 2014. He was also inducted into the USA Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013 and the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014. Make sure to give Kevin a follow on Twitter @bykevinallen. You can also catch up on Allen’s coverage here.
PHR: Very early predictions: Who do you see as contenders for the upcoming season, barring any unforeseen injuries?
Allen: The Tampa Bay Lightning are my early pick to win it all. With Steven Stamkos now healthy and not worrying about his future, I foresee him uncorking a monster season. This team has all the necessary ingredients to win it all, and Jonathan Drouin will make the Lightning stronger by having a breakthrough season. Don’t be surprised if Andrei Vasilevskiy becomes the No. 1 goalie. That might allow GM Steve Yzerman the opportunity to deal Ben Bishop at the trade deadline to add another piece for his puzzle. I’m also not discounting the Pittsburgh Penguins, although we all know how challenging it is to repeat. Also, the Washington Capitals will be right there again. The Montreal Canadiens, with a healthy Carey Price, and the addition of Andrew Shaw, Alexander Radulov and Shea Weber, will be much improved. Radulov is not Alexander Semin.
In the West, I like the Chicago Blackhawks because Brian Campbell will make their defense whole again. The erosion of their depth does, however, concern me. I have the high-scoring Dallas Stars number two because I believe they will deal for a goalie near the trade deadline. Wouldn’t Bishop be a good fit for them? I have the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks in my next grouping. The Predators’ have more potential than fans seem to realize. P.K. Subban is a much better fit for coach Peter Laviolette’s attacking offensive system than Weber was. The Sharks will be the same force they were last May and June.
PHR: Concern seems to be rising about the Detroit Red Wings–everything from contract terms, direction, and what seems to be an aversion to invest in the youth of the team. Do you think that concern is warranted?
Allen: Yes, only because we simply have no idea how effective their younger players are going to be. The Red Wings are a hard read because there are too many variables. Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist seemed to take a step back last season, and it’s anybody’s guess whether Anthony Mantha will be an impact player. How sharp will Petr Mrazek be this season? The Thomas Vanek signing was a good roll of the dice, and Frans Nielsen will be a quality No. 2 center. But the Red Wings are the league’s mystery team. It wouldn’t be surprising if they missed the playoffs by 10 points, and it wouldn’t be shocking if they were the No. 4 or No. 5 team in the Eastern Conference.
PHR: Who do you feel had the best offseason?
- New York Rangers: Jeff Gorton improved the team speed with the addition of Michael Grabner. Nathan Gerbe is also quick. He signed skillful Pavel Buchnevich out of the Kontinental Hockey League. They stunned plenty of people by landing Jimmy Vesey and they changed their look by trading finesse center Derick Brassard for bigger and younger center Mika Zibanejad; Defenseman Nick Holden also wasn’t a bad pick-up.
- Montreal Canadiens: Addressed many problems. They will be more difficult to play against now because of the addition of Andrew Shaw and Shea Weber. In the long-term, the Canadiens will lose the Subban-for-Weber trade. But in the short term, Weber is the perfect fit for this team.
- Arizona Coyotes: Young GM John Chayka added Alex Goligoski, Jamie McGinn, Radim Vrbata and a few prime prospects. I like the addition of Lawson Crouse and Jakob Chychrun.
PHR: How will Jiri Hudler fit in with Dallas? Do you see a season closer to 2014-15 or 2015-16?
Allen: It’s a nifty pick-up by GM Jim Nill who knows Hudler well from their days together in Detroit. This merely adds to the team’s already strong offense. He still has magic in his hands. He should be a 55 to 60-point guy.
PHR: After all the hoopla with Jimmy Vesey, how do you see him fitting in with the Rangers?
Allen: He may play on a line with his buddy Kevin Hayes. Obviously, there are several examples of major college free agents not panning out. But scouts believe Vesey will be a quality NHL scorer. Depending upon whether he receives power play time, he might be a 20-goal guy this season.