Season Preview: Sawchuk

In BOS, DEL, FFS, IHS, NAS, PWH, SFS, STL, VAN, WVR on November 24, 2011 at 10:40 am

The last five Gump Cups have gone to Sawchuk Conference teams. The five years before that went to the Plante. Are we due for a sea change? With two flat-out powerhouses, a few perennial contenders, and several rebuilding teams poised to take the next step, there’s no shortage of intrigue in the Sawchuk this season. Here’s a look at what’s changed.

In – G Michal Neuvirth, F Marcus Johansson, G Devan Dubnyk, F Jordan Caron, D John Moore, F Nate Thompson, F Adam Hall
Out – F Mike Knuble, F Paul Kariya, D Niclas Wallin, F Jason Blake, D Jaroslav Spacek, G Jason LaBarbera, F James Wright

The Banshees, under new ownership eager to make a stamp on the team, made some significant moves this off-season, shipping out vets Mike Knuble, Jason Blake, and Jaroslav Spacek and bringing in two promising young netminders in Michal Neuvirth and Devan Dubnyk. But how much will they really play behind workhorse Henrik Lundqvist? A rested Lundqvist should terrify the rest of the conference come playoff time, though, and if Boston gets good performances from some of its younger players – notably Sam Gagner and Erik Karlsson – they should be in the running for a spot.

In – F Derek Stepan, G Kevin Poulin, F Linus Omark, F Mats Zuccarello, F Anthony Stewart, D Shane O’Brien, G Peter Budaj
Out – F Cristobal Huet, F Slava Kozlov, F Michael Nylander, D Wade Redden, F Mike Brown, F Tomas Kopecky, F Jay Pandolfo

There’s no question the Sturgeon are in full-on rebuild mode, and one that’s going quite well… up front. As players like Evander Kane continue emerging and newcomers like Derek Stepan get a chance to shine, they’ll improve. But there’s still major upheaval to come as its once mighty core retires or otherwise moves on, and there are big question marks on defense and in goal, meaning a young player like Alex Goligoski is going to have to be a number one defenseman this year, because Delta has no one else to fill those skates. And, seriously, Peter Budaj?

In – F Cody Hodgson, G Robin Lehner, F Jeremy Morin, F Brandon Pirri, F Drew Miller
Out – F Steve Reinprecht, F Mike Comrie, D Brent Sopel, F Spencer Machacek, G Karri Ramo

The Saints compete every year because they have a strong core of two-way players and, with few significant off-season changes, this year should be no different. There’s word that the team intends to drop Dustin Byfuglien back to D, giving Farmington surprisingly great top-to-bottom blueline, a historical weakness for the club. Forward depth is becoming a question mark, but never count out a team that boasts Mikko Koivu and Paul Stastny down the middle.

In – F Jordan Eberle, D Jared Spurgeon, F Daniel Winnik
Out – F Steve Bernier, F Victor Tikhonov, F Keith Tkachuk

Like the Sturgeon, Ice Harbor is playing the long game when it comes to rebuilding. They have few stars but a deceptively capable roster of forwards – bolstered by draftee Jordan Eberle – and a great, young one-two punch on the blueline in Tyler Myers and Kris Letang. But questions abound: Who’s going to start in goal? Can reclamation project Mathieu Garon get the job done? And on a team where Michal Handzus may well be the number one centre, can the Storm compete in a division full of Getzlafs, Thornton, and Toewses? The best-case scenario for this team might be to play pesky spoiler for another year before the pieces start coming together.

In – F Jeff Skinner, G Sergei Bobrovsky, D Ian Cole, D TJ Brodie, D Andreas Lilja, G Mike Smith, F Jim Slater
Out – F Ryan Johnson, D Matt Hunwick, D Brett Ledba, G Antero Niittymaki, D Rob Blake, F Richard Park, G Pascal Leclaire, G Michael Leighton

The Knights turned another season of futility into young Jeff Skinner, adding to what is hands-down the league’s most exciting young group of forwards. Getzlaf. Kane. Giroux. The list goes on. This team might finally be ready to compete. The only obstacles in the way? Mainly defense, which – let’s face it – is so thin you’d need an electron microscope to Keith Ballard peering back up at you. At least they shored up between the pipes, where rookie Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to get the majority of starts  – though if he falters, there’s another four netminders behind him.

In – G James Reimer, F Colin Greening, F Tomas Kubalik, G Rick DiPietro, F Jiri Tlusty
Out – G Martin Brodeur, D Matthew Corrente, F Kevin Porter, F Cory Stillman, D Alex Plante

For a team basically built on big, ballsy moves, the ‘Hawks once again came through with some eyebrow-raising transactions, ditching veteran Martin Brodeur and solid vet Cory Stillman last week. Coming off a first-round exit last season, Portland has a lot to prove, but there’s just no question that they’re still one of the teams to beat in this league. Thornton, Iginla, Kovalchuk, Spezza, Brown, Doan… Portland is primed for a comeback – something that should make the entire conference’s blood run cold.

In – F Jacob Josefson, D Keith Aulie, F Matt Frattin, F Tomas Tatar
Out – F Cody McLeod, G Andrew Raycroft, D Matt Carkner, G Devan Dubnyk

The Blues’ hopes completely depend on two positions: centre and defense. Led by Henrik Sedin and Patrice Bergeron up the middle, and an incredible blueline boasting Chris Pronger, Drew Doughty, and Erik Johnson, Saint Louis is a lock to make noise. But that’s been the story for a few seasons now – can they rise out of the middle of the pack in the ultra-competitive playoff race?

In – D Cam Fowler, G Al Montoya, D Alec Martinez, F Brett Sutter, F Tomas Kopecky, F Ryan Shannon
Out – D Cody Franson, D Nick Boynton, F David Moss, F Jordan Tootoo, D Ivan Vishnevskiy, F Mike Modano

A long, long rebuild may finally be about to pay dividends, just as this franchise pulls up roots from Oregon. The Seals are built around John Tavares and Dion Phaneuf, but they’ve assembled a strong, young supporting cast led by Milan Lucic, Brandon Dubinsky, and newly drafted Cam Fowler. The real wild card is in goal: after a brilliant rookie season, Steve Mason managed an appalling .869 save percentage last season. It will once again be down to his counterpart, Jimmy Howard, to step up in a big way.

In – F Tomas Plekanec, D Oliver Ekman-Larsson, F Zac Dalpe, F Kyle Palmieri, D Nikita Nikitin, F Adam Henrique, F Stephane Da Costa
Out – F David Jones, F Fredrik Sjostrom, F Vladimir Zharkov, F Oskar Osala, D Filip Kuba, D Adam Foote

After a strong ’09-’10 that made it seem like they’d finally arrived, the Night Train took a nosedive last season. They need more – a lot more – from players like Jonathan Toews and Pekka Rinne to have any hope of getting past the Portlands and West Virginias of the conference. They answered the problem of a declining Scott Gomez by picking up Tomas Plekanec in the off-season, unloaded one of their longest-tenured defensemen in Filip Kuba, and brought in a pile of youth that’s mostly a season or two away. On paper, they’re a better team… but it looked that way a year ago, too.

In – F Nick Palmieri, F Evgeny Dadonov, F Mark Olver
Out – D Scott Niedermayer, F Maxim Afinogenov, D Jonas Junland

If it ain’t broke… Last season’s Gump Cup champs lost Scott Niedermayer to retirement but otherwise made very few changes heading into this year. The loss of Max Afinogenov to Europe might be felt but the Rats have the depth to make up for it. This team has no glaring holes, but there’s a catch – rumours have begun swirling that last season’s leading scorer, Sidney Crosby, might be nursing a nagging injury. Still, West Virginia might be one of the only teams with enough top talent (Eric Staal, Thomas Vanek, Alex Semin) to make up for the loss of a star of Sid’s calibre. Still a Gump Cup favourite.


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