Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov still sighs and struggles to speak about the pain he felt the night of April 30, the agony he and his teammates took into the offseason after their heartbreaking exit from the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"It was a nightmare for all of us, especially for me," Varlamov said.
With so many young, high-potential forwards and defensemen, and two goalies capable of putting up great numbers, why are the Ottawa Senators projected to be so bad? -- @pwjustin
I wouldn't say they're projected to be so bad, but I think they're a bubble team at best. I find it hard to predict they will make a big jump in the standings after losing Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Mika Zibanejad has to be ready for a bigger role. He might be, but he hasn't shown it yet. Is Kyle Turris a No. 1 center? Possibly, but we haven't seen it over an 82-game season. Are you sure about Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner? They both had goals-against averages in the threes last season. Part of that had to do with the defense being played in front of them, particularly on the penalty kill (22nd in the NHL, 80.7 percent). Will that be better? Is Marc Methot going to have a better season than he did last season? Is Jared Cowen going to fulfill his potential? The point is there are a lot of question marks, and losing Spezza and Hemsky doesn't help.
Thoughts and projection for Colin Wilson? -- @EricLGA
I'd look for Wilson to start the season on the wing, likely on the first or second line. Peter Laviolette has options now that he doesn't really have to play Matt Cullen or Wilson at center because of the additions of Mike Ribeiro, Derek Roy and Olli Jokinen. I think Wilson has more to offer in that he should become a 20-goal, 50-point player. I think he should be closer to those numbers, if not hitting them, under Laviolette.
What's going to happen to Brandon Sutter in Pittsburgh? -- @jacko1616
I wouldn't anticipate any surprises. Sutter should re-sign with the Penguins and return as the third-line center behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He becomes even more important to the Penguins if Crosby's wrist injury doesn't heal properly. The Penguins went after depth this offseason, and I look at Sutter as being the most important player in what should be their bottom-six group of forwards. As for term on the contract, Sutter is two years from being an unrestricted free agent, so shorter term might make sense for him. It could for the Penguins too, provided the cap hit is reasonable for a third-line center.
Which team in the East will make the largest jump in the standings? -- @aketts15
My eyes are on the New Jersey Devils to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They needed offense after finishing 27th in goals per game (2.40) last season. They got it by signing Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat. Cammalleri could be the Devils' first 30-goal scorer since Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise. Havlat is a health risk, but it's a one-year contract and the Devils are uniting him with countrymen Patrik Elias, Jaromir Jagr and Marek Zidlicky. New Jersey's offense should be better. A lot hinges on the continued development of their young defensemen, particularly Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas. Cory Schneider has to be the No. 1 goalie everyone has long thought he can be.
Teams are so keen on keeping their own players that an offer sheet has to be exorbitant for them not to match. However, even to deliver an exorbitant offer sheet a team has to be willing to take on the big contract and have the necessary draft picks to deliver as compensation as laid out in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Even then, the likelihood is the other team will just match it. The Colorado Avalanche never wanted to pay Ryan O'Reilly $6.5 million last season, but they didn't want to lose him either, so they matched the offer sheet he signed with the Calgary Flames in January 2013 and are now dealing with the fallout from it (O'Reilly's arbitration hearing scheduled for Wednesday). The Flyers didn't think the Nashville Predators would match the 14-year, $110 million offer sheet they signed Shea Weber to, but they miscalculated on that.
In addition, general managers are leery of setting the market too high for certain players because of the domino effect it tends to have. An offer sheet sets the market higher for players because of the simple fact a team has to offer what would be an overpayment in order to get the player to sign it and to make it unlikely for his team to match it.
Also, per the names in your question, players who file for player-elected arbitration are not eligible to sign an offer sheet. Subban and Brassard were among the 20 players who elected for arbitration this year.
Could the Rangers sink to last in the Metropolitan Division this year? -- @ndantonio8
I take it you're not a fan of what the Rangers have done this offseason. I'd be shocked, floored, aghast (name your adjective) if the Rangers fell to the bottom of the division. You can make the case that the Devils (I already made that case), Washington Capitals and New York Islanders got better, but they won't all jump the Rangers. And the Carolina Hurricanes aren't better than the Rangers, at least not on paper. Henrik Lundqvist is enough to keep the Rangers out of last place. I think they will make the playoffs. Cheer up.
Your thoughts on Brad Richards fitting in with the Blackhawks and will they raise the Cup in 2014-15? -- @r0bertwaters
Richards will fit in with the Blackhawks, but that's not a concern, the issue or a question. The first question is are they deep enough at center with him? The second is will he eventually lose minutes to Teuvo Teravainen? Other than that, Richards is a veteran leader and he'll fit in perfectly in Chicago's no-nonsense, professional dressing room. He'll take some time, but he'll be a voice that you hear plenty of coming out of that room.
And I'm not making any Cup predictions yet. Too early.
The Devils are overloaded with forwards. Who can be moved to make room for youth? -- @C_Diercks
The Devils have depth up front. Depth is essential to winning. They have a couple of young forwards who might be ready for bigger roles (Reid Boucher and Stephane Matteau), but why trade away depth just to give a young guy a chance? Those players will get their chance through injuries and/or if their play in the American Hockey League warrants it. No reason to force it when you're a cap-compliant team with depth.
With essentially the same team returning, will the Hurricanes be in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes? Is that ultimately what we need? -- @dshort_0610
Every team needs a prospect like McDavid, so to say he's what the Hurricanes need is shortsighted. However, all I've seen from the Hurricanes from a player-personnel perspective this offseason is a few depth moves (Jay McClement, Brad Malone, Tim Gleason). That doesn't bolster a roster that wasn't good enough last season. It's not enough to get them back in the playoffs. But the lack of activity suggests Carolina is banking on younger players like Elias Lindholm and Ryan Murphy to step up. If they do, when you factor in Justin Faulk and Jeff Skinner, Carolina could have four core players who are 22 or younger. That's good for the future, but it might land the Hurricanes in the McDavid-Eichel conversation leading up to the 2015 NHL Draft.
Leading by a goal against the Minnesota Wild with less than three minutes left in regulation of Game 7 in the Western Conference First Round series, it was right there for the taking for the Avalanche. They had played at a surprisingly high level all season and needed to keep it up for a few more minutes to advance in the playoffs for the first time in six years and face the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
It didn't happen, and maybe -- as coach Patrick Roy repeatedly has said, in public and one can only assume in private as well -- it didn't happen for a reason.
Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon scored the tying goal at 17:33 of the third period and forward Nino Niederreiter scored the winner 5:02 into overtime as Minnesota capped a thrilling, back-and-forth series by erasing four one-goal deficits in Game 7 to win its first playoff round since 2003.
"I would certainly like to have [2:27] at the end of Game 7," Roy said. "Up by one goal, it would have been a great experience for our players to go on against Chicago, but at the same time maybe it just wasn't our time yet. I think everybody was talking to the players and they were all disappointed. I think it hurt us a lot. I think we learned a lot from it."
How the Avalanche respond to the heartbreak remains to be seen, but the players returning to Colorado universally agree there are lessons to be taken from the loss to the Wild that could be the driving force behind a longer playoff run in 2015.
It starts with overcoming the fear of being a legitimate contender in the playoffs for the first time as a team. The Avalanche hadn't been to the playoffs since 2010. Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly, Ryan Wilson and Cody McLeod were the only holdovers from that team.
The lesson: Have no fear.
"I think we're going to deal with the word fear. I think we're going to be a winner," Roy said. "Just look at L.A. I mean, down 0-3 against San Jose, they had no fear, just played their game and they won that series. Down 2-3 against Anaheim they did the same thing. Whether we like it or not, it takes time and it's a process. I think we're in this process, and I think we're all learning from it."
Roy said the Avalanche weren't afraid to succeed in the playoffs, but they need to find a way to marry their desire to be a contender with the ability to win under the umbrella of high expectations.
The lesson: Manage what now will be higher expectations together.
"When expectations are there people expect you to perform at a certain level," Roy said. "That's going to be the key for us as coaches, to make sure we try to boost them up and be with them. I think the partnership is going to be even more important because you don't want to put extra pressure on the players. You want them to feel good on the ice and feeling that they're not alone in this and we're all together. I think this is how we're going to get on the winning track."
The strongest competitors say injuries are an excuse used by the weak, but the Avalanche had their share (Tyson Barrie, Duchene, John Mitchell). Even Roy, a four-time Stanley Cup champion known as one of the fiercest competitors ever in the game, admitted injuries were a factor.
The lesson: Depth is essential.
The Avalanche feel they addressed that issue this offseason, particularly in their bottom-six forward group, with the additions of Daniel Briere and Jesse Winchester. They added to their defense by signing Brad Stuart and Zach Redmond.
Jarome Iginla was the big offseason addition and Stastny was the major subtraction, but they can offset each other if Nathan MacKinnon slides to center, where he excelled as a junior player with the Halifax Mooseheads. Iginla would take MacKinnon's minutes on the wing and MacKinnon would take Stastny's minutes in the middle.
"We added size, we added toughness, experience," Avalanche president of hockey operations Joe Sakic said. "Everything we wanted to do, we feel we accomplished."
Not everything, at least not yet. The Avalanche finished one piece of business Wednesday, signing O'Reilly to a two-year contract worth a reported $12 million hours before their club-elected salary arbitration hearing. However, they still need to re-sign Barrie, who is a restricted free agent.
Once Barrie is under contract all the Avalanche players, coaches and executives will be able to give their full attention to the upcoming season. They'll turn the page on the nightmarish conclusion to last season and try to use it to their benefit.
The lesson: Don't let it happen again.
Hitchcock opens up in Twitter chat
If you weren't following the St. Louis Blues Twitter feed Tuesday (@StLouisBlues) you missed an insightful hour-long question-and-answer session with coach Ken Hitchcock titled #AskHitch.
Hitchcock answered 49 questions ranging from his feelings on 3-on-3 in overtime to his favorite battle in the Civil War (Note: Hitchcock is a history buff and said if he wasn't a coach he'd be a history teacher). Among the followers who asked questions were T.J. Oshie and Brett Hull.
Here are some of the highlights:
* He likes the idea of the overtime format including 4-on-4 for four minutes and if no winner is decided going to 3-on-3 for four minutes before a shootout. He also is in favor of teams changing ends for overtime, which likely is going to be part of the rules this season.
* The Battle of Gettysburg is Hitchcock's favorite Civil War battle and "April 1865" is his book recommendation.
* He said he prefers Wayne Gretzky over Mario Lemieux and his best all-time starting lineup would be Terry Sawchuk in goal, Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey on defense, and a forward line of Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Hull.
* He said the toughest buildings for the Blues to play in are SAP Center in San Jose and Staples Center in Los Angeles.
* Hitchcock uses advanced statistics for "matchups and chemistry."
* Asked for insight into lines to start next season, he said to look for pairs: Oshie and David Backes, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen and Joakim Lindstrom. He also said Patrik Berglund will play with Backes.
* His favorite players to coach have been Mark Recchi, Sergei Zubov, Derian Hatcher, Keith Primeau and Rick Nash. He called them "great 200-footers." He also said Steen has the same qualities as Jere Lehtinen, a three-time Selke Trophy winner with the Dallas Stars.
* Oshie asked Hitchcock for his thoughts on toe drags and if the Blues should do more of them. Hitchcock responded, "Only in practice with nobody around 74."
* Hull wanted to know why he wasn't mentioned as a Blues alumni player Hitchcock would have wanted to coach. Hitchcock clarified that he loved watching Hull, an indication that coaching him might have been too much.
What Benning sees in Sbisa
Luca Sbisa has gone the other way in trades for Chris Pronger and Ryan Kesler. Each time he's been targeted by the team acquiring him, first the Anaheim Ducks and most recently the Vancouver Canucks, as a defenseman with upside, potential and difference-making ability.
The Canucks think they can be the team that finally unlocks all of that.
Vancouver general manager Jim Benning said he used to scout Sbisa as the assistant general manager of the Boston Bruins and always came away impressed with his skating, ability to make a clean and accurate first pass out of the defensive zone, and his physicality.
"I think if we work with him and we add structure to his game -- he's a good teammate, sticks up for his teammates, physical -- I think we can turn him into a real good player for us going forward," Benning said.
The Philadelphia Flyers brought Sbisa into the NHL as the No. 19 pick of the 2008 NHL Draft. He checked off all the boxes as a player with size, speed, skill, intelligence and poise. He played 39 games in 2008-09 before he was sent to Anaheim in the trade that brought Pronger to Philadelphia.
Avalanche coach Patrick Roy on whether a goal for his team is to rely on Vezina Trophy finalist Semyon Varlamov less than it did last season, when he faced 32 shots per game:
"It's a bit the way we want to play. We're an offensive team. We're a team that wants to go on offense. We have the speed and the skill up front. We give up a lot of shots, yes, but it's not a concern to us in the way we try to cut down on scoring chances. That's what we did at the end of the season. We gave up less chances."
Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper on how captain Steven Stamkos rose to be a team leader:
"I've watched it. I've only been the coach here a short time, and ironically this is my third captain. But I've watched the progression. I don't know how it's been on other teams, but there's a pecking order and players know it. When Vinny [Lecavalier] was the captain, Marty [St. Louis] didn't say as much and neither did Stammer. When Vinny left, Marty was much more outspoken and Stammer was a little more outspoken, but not the same. When Marty left, Stammer became much more outspoken. I don't know if guys are held back from saying things that they want to, but now they are not. Stammer, it's his team and deservedly so. Because our team is so young, Stammer is the age of the team coming up."
The Ducks thought they were getting a gem, but Sbisa never became that. He signed a four-year contract in 2011 and has been a full-time NHL player the past three seasons, but put up only 32 points in 151 games. He was limited to 30 games last season because of various injuries.
The Canucks need him to play a significant role. They traded Jason Garrison to make room for him.
"He gives us some physical play from the back end," Benning said. "He's strong. He plays a heavy game. I think in our division his heaviness is going to come in handy for our group.
"We feel like Sbisa is going to develop into a real good defenseman for us."
Bowman isn't into numbering things
For the past several seasons a knock on the Chicago Blackhawks, probably the only knock on them, is they haven't had a No. 2 center. General manager Stan Bowman agrees, only for reasons quite different than, say, a fan or critical media member.
Bowman has become famous in Chicago media circles for saying the Blackhawks do not number their lines one through four, but rather try to develop four lines that can contribute in similar ways.
So to say that Brad Richards and Teuvo Teravainen are competing to be the No. 2 center behind Jonathan Toews and in front of Andrew Shaw is wrong, at least according to Bowman. He explained his thinking soon after the team signed Richards to a one-year, $2 million contract.
"The strength of our team going back five years has been the depth, and it's the ability of us not to tax one player or one line too much," Bowman said. "For that reason, Brad is coming into a good position here where he doesn't have to carry the load and he can allow his talents to play out that way. Ultimately who he is paired up with and how the coaches structure the lines, we're looking for some balance from our forwards. We like the fact that we can play four lines and have all of them be offensive threats and be responsible at the same time. He's going to be just fitting in with the other guys and hopefully that's going to help him as we look to have a strong four-line rotation."