This time last year, I was over in Slovakia and the Czech Republic eyeballing the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, which annually features many of the top prospects for the upcoming NHL Draft class.
For example, of the top 12 picks in the 2012 draft, eight of them (Alex Galchenyuk, Griffin Reinhart, Morgan Rielly, Mathew Dumba, Derrick Pouliot, Slater Koekkoek, Filip Forsberg and Mikhail Grigorenko) participated in the 2011 Hlinka tourney. That’s a pretty significant number, eh?
The Canadians – this year under the direction of former NHL player Todd Gill – are seeking their fifth straight Hlinka title. And they’re on the right track, going 3-0 to advance to Friday’s semifinal against the Czechs.
Team USA, meanwhile, is 0-2-1 in its three games after an 8-6 loss to Finland on Wednesday. That’s not necessarily a surprise. USA Hockey prioritizes the Hlinka tourney differently than Canada and the other participants. In other words, they view it as an opportunity to see players outside their U.S. Development Team program. For me, I wish they’d send their best. The Americans will finish against Slovakia on Friday.
While I didn’t make the trip across the pond this year, I am here for you! Yeah, it’s time for another dip into the mailbag. Remember, you can follow me on Twitter (@ejhradek_nhl) and tweet me your questions.
Are the Caps still the team to beat in the Southeast? -- @Pivonkasghost
First things first -- the Florida Panthers ended the Washington Capitals' four-year stranglehold on the Southeast Division last season (albeit by just two points), so that gives them some standing coming into the new season.
E.J. Hradek's Weekly Mailbag
I do figure the Caps, under first-time head coach Adam Oates, again will be a major player in the division.
It seems they’ve finally found the second center they’ve been looking for with the addition of Mike Ribeiro, acquired in a draft day deal with the Dallas Stars. The 32-year-old is a skilled pivot who’ll fit nicely behind top center Nicklas Backstrom. And, in the final year of his current contract, Ribeiro will be extra motivated to have a big year.
On defense, they Caps will have to hope puck-moving ace Mike Green can stay healthy and productive. Due to various injury issues, he’s played 49 and 32 games, respectively, in each of the past two seasons.
It will be interesting to see if Braden Holtby (who’ll turn 23 in September) can grab hold of the No. 1 goaltending job after a fabulous performance during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In 14 postseason games, he put up a 1.95 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. Michal Neuvirth will push him for playing time.
Alex Ovechkin and Co. won’t have any easy time in the division, though. I expect the Southeast will be very competitive with the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning each making major additions in the offseason. And, like I mentioned, the Panthers are the defending division champs. I could see things coming down to the final weekend of the season. In the end, I believe the Caps have a great chance to take their fifth Southeast flag is six seasons.
Well, I guess anything is possible, right? With the ongoing CBA negotiations, I get the sense there’s no rush to make a move right now.
At some point, Luongo will be traded, most likely to the Panthers. That seems to make the most sense. Clearly, Florida doesn't want to give up much to reacquire its former star stopper. General manager Dale Tallon knows the Canucks aren’t eager to keep a high-profile, big-money player on their roster as a backup goalie.
On the flip side, Canucks GM Mike Gillis wants to get some value for Luongo, who’d be an upgrade at the position for the Panthers.
In this case, Tallon has time on his side. He can stand pat with 35-year-olds Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen. After all, that duo did lead the Panthers to a division title last year. And I think Gillis would like to avoid the circus atmosphere in hockey-crazy Vancouver that would no doubt surround the team until Luongo’s departure.
Bob Murray has some interesting decisions ahead. Getzlaf and Corey Perry are entering the final year of their contracts. If the current CBA rules regarding free agency don’t change dramatically, they could opt to test the open market on July 1, 2013. The Ducks haven’t been a franchise that likes to spend to the salary cap. So, if Murray can’t sign one or both forwards, he might have to think about shopping them – if he already hasn’t.
That thinking (concerning Getzlaf and Perry) likely figures into what Murray is going to do with Ryan, whose name has been connected to multiple teams in various trade rumors. Ryan, 25, has scored 30-plus goals in four straight seasons. If the Ducks are going to move him, they’d better get something of significance in return.
As for Subban, I just don’t see the Montreal Canadiens moving him. There’s too much upside in his game. The ongoing contract negotiations between the team and the defenseman might take some time, but I see him back in Montreal for the coming season.
In a League with so much parity between the clubs, any key personnel losses could set a team back. But, though both teams did take a significant hit losing star players on the free-agent market, I don’t think they’ve been impacted to the point where they won’t make the playoffs.
In New Jersey, GM Lou Lamoriello kept the remainder of his Eastern Conference championship roster intact; in Nashville, the Predators stepped up to match the monster offer sheet on Shea Weber, keeping him in Music City.
At this point, I think both franchises have more than enough on their respective rosters to make the playoffs in 2013.
Moving Rick Nash was tough, but do you feel the Blue Jackets are finally building a TEAM the right way? -- @Xoggz22
As a whole, I do think the Columbus Blue Jackets are moving in the right direction. But they’ve still got a long way to go.
Sergei Bobrovsky from the Philadelphia Flyers. If Bobrovsky and Steve Mason can provide steady goaltending, the Blue Jackets will have a much better chance on a night-to-night basis.
On defense, their blue line is probably deeper than it has ever been. (I don’t know how much that really says.) I’ll be curious to see how top draft pick Ryan Murray performs in camp. They see him as cornerstone defender to build around.
Obviously, they'll miss Nash’s scoring punch. They do seem to have a deeper group of forwards, though. For me, center Ryan Johansen is part of the long-term solution for the Blue Jackets. I can see him developing into the top center they’ve never really had in Columbus.
Is Jack Capuano the long-term answer for the NY Islanders? Is he on the hot seat this season? -- @MJR419
I don’t feel Capuano is the long-term answer behind the New York Islanders’ bench, and I do think he’s on the hot seat. I think expectations are starting to build on Long Island with the continued development of franchise center John Tavares, the goal-scoring prowess of Matt Moulson, and the arrival of several good young players.
If Capuano’s team were to get off to a weak start, I could easily see the club making another change at coach.
The Islanders aren’t helped by their geography. In the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division, they have to deal with the Rangers, Penguins, Flyers and Devils. Simply put, that isn’t easy.
Do you like Max Pacioretty’s new deal (six years, $27M) with the Habs? -- @kennyb1ao
I have to admit I’ve liked Pacioretty’s game since seeing him play for the U.S. World Junior team in 2008. He has good size (6-foot-2, 212 pounds) and he’s not afraid to get into the battle.
Last season, he had a breakout season, putting up 33 goals and 65 points. At 23, the Canadiens see him as a core player. Based on one good season, new GM Marc Bergevin might have been wiser to stick with a more short-term approach. In that way, Pacioretty would have to earn a longer deal.
If the forward builds on last season’s production over the next six campaigns, the deal will be a steal for the Canadiens. If, however, last season proves to be a high-water mark offensively, the Canadiens probably will wish they took a more conservative approach. In this case, because I like Pacioretty’s game and his upside, I can see why Bergevin took the risk.