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KINNEY… We are clearly into the dog days of hockey summer. There are various skill and development camps taking place, the summertime gem, the Hlinka-Gretzky Tournament will kick off on August 5th with games taking place in Piestany, Slovakia, and in Breclav of the Czech Republic. With the Stanley Cup tourney concluded weeks back now, the Entry Draft over with and the Free Agency Signing period mostly complete, is it too soon to begin thinking about what might unfold this upcoming season? Yes, it probably is. But then again…
Most of the big-name Free Agents have been signed, and while some are still available, my thinking is that few, if any are going to be franchise changers. And speaking of which; is anyone going to sign the Maple Leaf’s-Minnetonka native Jake Gardiner to an UFA deal? Yup, he is still available which surprises me. He isn’t a Bobby Orr clone, but he is effective and can give a club some minutes on the backend. After thinking about this, I believe what’s really going on is that he will end up forging a deal to stay in Toronto shortly after a deal for RFA Mitch Marner gets done. I feel that a 4 to 5-year deal is in order for between $4mil per on the low end to $5mil on the high end. Popular opinion was that some club would offer sheet Marner, and it almost seems that that’s what the Leaf’s are waiting for. That would set the market on this player and allow the Leaf’s to see what the compensation for him would be if they decided not to match the offer.
Marner however is a pretty important piece of the puzzle for the Leaf’s. I can’t envision them not doing everything in their power to hang on to him. Can the Leaf’s get a deal done with him that will protect their ability to build a roster around him and the other handful of Leaf Superstars and go “all in” for a potential Cup win? That’s the question. I think a deal gets done and Gardiner signs right afterward. Will the Leaf’s have enough on the backend to make it farther into the tournament? Right now, at least, my answer would be no. They still lack the depth necessary to make a run and at least some of their Superstars are still too young to drive a club all the way through this tourney.
So, if I’m looking at which teams might be in the running to be the “Final 8” in the Cup race for next season, who would they be? The first part of this exercise would be to eliminate those who likely won’t be candidates to get in the tourney or get beyond the 1st round of it. For starters, repeating as Champion or even as a finalist is challenging beyond description so let’s cancel out STL and BOS right away. I could see both teams getting IN to the tourney, and I could see both teams getting bounced in that 1st round. Next let’s look at the teams that had the 1st, 2nd and 3rd overall picks at the draft in June. That’s the NJD, the NYR and CHI in those slots. All three clubs are in flux currently and were not playoff participants this past year. The Devils got Jack Hughes with their 1st pick, the Rangers got Finnish star Kaapo Kakko and the Blackhawks selected centerman Kirby Dach. These are 3 strong, young players. Based upon other roster moves I could see the Devs and the Rangers getting playoff spots this year, but the Hawks still have work to do on their backend. They have some age and depth issues. None of these 3 will get into the final 8 in the Cup run.
Let’s eliminate some other clubs simply because of various issues like a rebuild process going on, or the fact that they may not have that strong of a roster to get in or go far in the Cup. In the East, in the Metropolitan Division, I’ve addressed NJ and the NYR, also likely not getting into the Conference Semis will be CBJ, too many star departs, PHI, unsettled in goal, new coach, new systems, PITT, decline in overall depth, especially backend, and uncertainty in goal. WAS, they got their Cup, might come in rejuvenated after early playoff depart, but will not have enough. This leaves CARO and the NYI again.
In the Atlantic, OTT and DET will still be in rebuild/transition mode, BUF is still kind of floundering, they resigned Jeff Skinner, but that’s not enough. I have addressed the Bruins, MON will be improved, and with Carey Price, anything can happen, but they get in and are one and done. This leaves the TB Lightning and the Maple Leaf’s as the 2 powers in this group. Have the youngsters on the Leaf’s learned enough about playoff hockey to get past a first and a second round? I think we might find out this year.
In the West, Pacific Division, I think its safe to say that the LAK aren’t ready for any upward movement yet. I’m not sure VAN is ready to make a move yet but are improving, albeit slowly. The ANA Ducks are a club in transition and lacking depth in several key areas. The EDM Oil have had another offseason of new GM, new Coach, blah, blah, blah. But they still have the 2nd best player in the world, and a handful of other pretty good players, just not enough. I feel that this might be a season where the VGK take a slight step back. I like them, but hey, they are still an “expansion” club for crying out loud. The SJS were able to re-sign Erik Karlsson, good for them, but lost Joe Pavelski. They could get in, but that’s it for this group this year. ARI swung for the fences and picked up Phil Kessel from the Pens. This has been a sneaky team to me for the last couple of years. They get in and make the group of 8. They will end up with the CAL Flames in the Final 8, and I am not certain if they have added enough for them to go much further then last spring. They bombed due to goaltending and scoring issues.
This leaves the Central, I’ve already dropped the Blues and Hawks. Go ahead and drop the Wild as well. They will only be slightly retooled when they step on the ice this fall and are in a transitory mode. NASH won the Duchene sweeps on UFA day, and I think they are better w/o PK Subban, but they are an aging team with a closing window. WINN is also in flux. They haven’t done much but have $22mil in cap space and a bunch of unsigned players. This leaves COL and DAL. These are the 2 teams that will fight for the division this year. Who wins? McKinnon versus Seguin. Oh Boy…. PEACE