Friday, September 24, 2021

Habs Preview: Christian Dvorak: Two Autographed Cards

(team and product links go to sponsored Amazon products, player links go to related pages on my blog, news links go to source pages)

This will likely be the preface to all of this year's Season Preview posts: I liked doing last year's format, so I'll be doing it the same way this season as well, partly because of that but also because as a father of a toddler and a baby, I just do not have enough time to write two separate posts per day on each blog. I'll copy these on each one instead. Like last year, the entire scope of the analysis will take place here and the player will have some sort of direct connection to what's written.

Caveats: At this point, despite training camp being set to start, several players haven't found a team yet, many RFAs haven't signed with their respective teams, and a few clubs are currently above the salary cap, which means there is much maneuvering left to do.
Key exits: Jesperi Kotkaniemi (C), Phillip Danault (C), Corey Perry (RW), Jordan Weal (C), Cale Fleury (D), Jon Merrill (D), Tomas Tatar (LW), Eric Staal (C), Erik Gustafsson (D)

Key Arrivals: David Savard (D), Cédric Paquette (LW), Mathieu Perreault (C/LW), Jean-Sébastien Dea (C), Mike Hoffman (LW), Chris Wideman (D), Sami Niku (D), Samuel Montembeault (G)

Top prospects: Cole Caufield (RW), Cayden Primeau (G), Kaiden Guhle (D), Mattias Norlinder (D), Jordan Harris (D), Jan Mysak (LW), Ryan Poehling (C), Oliver Kapanen (C), Luke Tuch (LW), Logan Mailloux (D), Gianni Fairbrother (D), Rafaël Harvey-Pinard (LW), Joël Teasdale (LW)

I don't buy that the Montréal Canadiens played in the weakest division last year, because they didn't: the West had the three California teams, which were essentially 30 free wins for the Vegas Golden Knights, while the Habs had to contend with Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Leon Draisaitl, Jacob Markstrom, Thatcher Demko and Connor Hellebuyck in any given game while the rest of the league faced much easier matchups down the middle and in net.

What makes their odds look good:
The team gained a lot of experience during last season's playoff run to the Stanley Cup Final, and many of the returning faces up front (Nick Suzuki, Tyler Toffoli, Caufield, Josh Anderson, Joel Armia) have room to grow their game, the leadership rock remains stable with Brendan Gallagher despite Shea Weber's probable absence, and the defense is a brick wall only the Tampa Bay Lightning can pierce... year after year.

Question marks: Will Weber's health force him to retire? Which is the real Carey Price: the regular-season bottom-dweller of the past four seasons, or the quality playoff starter from last year's run? Will the team actually keep Jonathan Drouin, or is he off to clear his mind with former teammates in Colorado, or adding to a top-six in Edmonton?

Outlook:
The Atlantic is stacked. The Bolts remain the gold standard, the Florida Panthers finally delivered on par with their talent, the Toronto Maple Leafs can outscore their uncertainty between the pipes, the Ottawa Senators are on the rise, and the Boston Bruins, although older and stating to see core pieces retire, can still hold their own; the Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres don't matter in the playoff conversation, but finishing ahead of the fifth-place team in the Metropolitan does, as the team with the most points in slots 7 and 8 in the Conference make it to the dance, so the Bs, Sens and Habs may cancel each other out in the end.

Prediction:
Tied for 4th in the Atlantic Division, outside the playoff picture.

Going by comments on social media, Montréal fans do not seem to have a fucking clue how important Danault was to this team. His line with Tatar and Gallagher was the most potent for goals and shot differentials at five-on-five for the past three years combined, and in any given year also held their ground and were top-three, matching favourably with the likes of McDavid/Draisaitl/whoever, Brad Marchand/Patrice Bergeron/David Pastrnak and Gabriel Landeskog/Nathan MacKinnon/Mikko Rantanen. Even when they didn't score, their 60-point pace mixed with defensive acumen made them a better a more effective unit than any other unit in the league, including those with multiple 100-point players. In last year's playoffs, Danault even took most draws when his line wasn't on the ice.

Acquired in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes, Christian Dvorak is a 25-year-old centre who wins faceoffs, scores 15-20 goals a year and collects some 45-60 points (pro-rated) at $4.45M per, for four more seasons. He covers 80% of what Danault brought, with added net-front presence in the offensive zone and is the epitome of "cost certainty", which is nice to have under a salary cap. He cost more (a first-rounder and a second-rounder) than the Habs received for Kotkaniemi (a first and a third), who could hit the 50-point mark this season and be a very good player five years from now - although that is no certainty, especially to those who saw him fall to the ice five times per game for the past three years. Like Price and Alex Galchenyuk before him, "KK" was rushed to the Big Show way too soon for his own good.

The Canadiens' centre depth took a big hit this summer, and I'm afraid Dvorak has big shoes to fill, although casual fans might not realize just how clownesque they really are - it's a good thing McDavid and Draisaitl are in the Pacific Division this year. Dvorak has evolved nicely from the 2016 World Juniors' bronze-winning Team USA squad as a much more complete 200-foot player, but he is not the player who accumulated five more points than Mitch Marner (121 to 116) when both were teammates in their final year of Juniors playing for the OHL's London Knights.

This is what he looked like in recent years, wearing the Coyotes' purple and black (home) uniform on card #156 from Upper Deck's 2019-20 Series 1 set:
And here he is wearing their correspondig white (away) uniform, on card #144 from the 2018-19 O-Pee-Chee collection by UD:
He signed them in (fading) black sharpie before Covid-19 hit.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Lightning Preview: Andrei Vasilevskiy Jersey Card

(team and product links go to sponsored Amazon products, player links go to related pages on my blog, news links go to source pages)

This will likely be the preface to all of this year's Season Preview posts: I liked doing last year's format, so I'll be doing it the same way this season as well, partly because of that but also because as a father of a toddler and a baby, I just do not have enough time to write two separate posts per day on each blog. I'll copy these on each one instead. Like last year, the entire scope of the analysis will take place here and the player will have some sort of direct connection to what's written.

Caveats: at this point, despite training camp being set to start in less than two weeks, several players haven't found a team yet, many RFAs haven't signed with their respective teams, and a few clubs are currently above the salary cap, which means there is much maneuvering left to do.

Key exits: Yanni Gourde (C), Blake Coleman (LW), Barclay Goodrow (RW), Tyler Johnson (C), David Savard (D), Luke Schenn (D), Curtis McElhinney (G)

Key Arrivals: Brian Elliott (G), Corey Perry (RW), Zach Bogosian (D), Pierre-Édouard Bellemare (C), Charles Hudon (C)

Top prospects: Alex Barré-Boulet (C), Roman Schmidt (D), Boris Katchouk (LW), Taylor Raddysh (RW), Simon Ryfors (C), Odeen Tutfo (C), Cal Foote (D), Hugo Alnefelt (G), Jack Finley (C), Nick Perbix (D), Dylan Duke (C), Cole Koepke (LW), Gage Goncalves (C)

I have called the Tampa Bay Lightning the "best-assembled team in the cap era", but "best team" would be just as fitting. Even past Rocket Richard Trophy winner and captain Steven Stamkos, Hart and Art Ross winner Nikita Kucherov, Vezina and Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy and Norris and Conn Smythe winner Victor Hedman, there is still the ever-clutch antics of point-per-game player Brayden Point, two-way star Anthony Cirelli, playoff hero Alex Killorn, consistent beast Ondrej Palat, heart-and-soul grinder Pat Maroon, future Norris winner Mikhail Sergachev, All-Star Ryan McDonagh, sophomore Foote... they're like the Canadian Olympic team, they could ice two teams and still be serious contenders.

What makes their odds look good:
They are the back-to-back champions and replaced every departed player with their equivalent (at least on paper).

Question marks: They lost their entire third line (Gourde, Coleman and Goodrow), which had been essential for them last postseason - while Coleman and Goodrow also led the team with over 100 hits apiece in the regular season, followed by Schenn, with 99, who also left. But they have players lined up to replace them, both old (Perry, the returning Bogosian) and young (Barré-Boulet) and in-between (Bellemare and Hudon).

Outlook:
This team can withstand missing an entire season of Stamkos and win the Cup. This team can withstand missing an entire season of Kucherov and win the Cup. This team can withstand a sub-par postseason by Hedman and win the Cup. They could possibly only get challenged by losing two MVP-level players, as losing "just" one clearly still had them on top of the rest of the league. We have three more years of them being heavy contenders for the title - or until they get bored and tired of winning.

Prediction:
1st in the Atlantic Division.

Of course, Vasilevskiy will have a great say on whether the Bolts finish first, second (if he misses time to injury), third (if for some reason he falters and completely loses his way) or fourth (if he misses nearly the entire season due to unforeseen cicumstances), but unless the team's plane crashes altogether, Tampa will make the playoffs and be a threat to win it all again this year. The only thing standing between Tampa Bay and a third consecutive Stanley Cup is fatigue - not just accrued from the last two championship runs, but also because a lot of their best players (Vasilevskiy, Hedman, Kucherov, Palat, Point, McDonagh, possibly Stamkos) will be representing their countries in the Olympics mid-season.

You may recall my attempts at ranking Vasi with the best of the best last season, admitting he was currently the best in the world at covering the bottom-third of the net, but that he had flaws up high; in terms of "which goalie would be best playing behind the same team as his counterparts", I would likely have him second behind the Winnipeg Jets' Connor Hellebuyck with an asterix for John Gibson in that he would be capable to elevate his game to #2. Rounding out my top-five for the upcoming season are Marc-André Fleury and Jacob Markstrom, with Robin Lehner right outside. Thatcher Demko is making a strong case for consideration as well. In terms of a farther future, say five years down the line, Spencer Knight, Cayden Primeau and Devon Levi are probably the bigger names coming, ahead of Carter Hart, who I do not necessarily view as a future perennial Vezina candidate the way many pundits do.

Here is #88 sporting the Bolts' blue (home) uniform on card #GJ-AV from Upper Deck's 2017-18 Series 1 set and UD Game Jersey sub-set:
It features a matching game-worn jersey swatch.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Oilers Preview: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Jersey Card

(team and product links go to sponsored Amazon products, player links go to related pages on my blog, news links go to source pages)

This will likely be the preface to all of this year's Season Preview posts: I liked doing last year's format, so I'll be doing it the same way this season as well, partly because of that but also because as a father of a toddler and a baby, I just do not have enough time to write two separate posts per day on each blog. I'll copy these on each one instead. Like last year, the entire scope of the analysis will take place here and the player will have some sort of direct connection to what's written.

Caveats: At this point, despite training camp being set to start, several players haven't found a team yet, many RFAs haven't signed with their respective teams, and a few clubs are currently above the salary cap, which means there is much maneuvering left to do.

Key exits: Adam Larsson (D), James Neal (LW), Alex Chiasson (W), Ethan Bear (D), Caleb Jones (D), Dominik Kahun (LW), Tyler Ennis (LW), Jujhar Khaira (C), Dmitry Kulikov (D), Joakim Nygard (LW)

Key Arrivals: Duncan Keith (D), Zach Hyman (LW), Cody Ceci (D), Warren Foegele (LW), Derek Ryan (RW)

Top prospects: Evan Bouchard (D), Dylan Holloway (C), Raphaël Lavoie (RW), Xavier Bourgault (C), Philip Broberg (D), Carter Savoie (LW), Ryan McLeod (C), Tyler Benson (LW), Ilya Konovalov (G), Olivier Rodrigue (G), Stuart Skinner (G), Tyler Tullio (C), Dmitri Samorukov (D)

As a lifelong Edmonton Oilers fan, I must admit the departures of Bear and Jones were baffling, particularly with the team unable to keep Larsson in the mix, who would have been the ideal partner for Keith on a second pairing.

What makes their odds look good:
They have the best player on the planet (Connor McDavid) and the third- or fourth-best centre on earth (Leon Draisaitl), who are finally complemented by a decent surrounding cast at nearly every position...

Question marks: Will the goaltending duo of 41-year-old Mike Smith and the untradeable Mikko Koskinen (he of the 3.17 goals-against average and .899 save percetage last season) hold up or anchor the team?

Outlook:
The Vegas Golden Knights are the cream of the Pacific Division, so much so that they can withstand injuries to an entire line from their top-six and an elite defenseman without worrying aout losing home-ice advantage in the first two rounds, but the Oilers are definitely the best of what's left, if only because of their firepower up front. Their defense is also no longer an issue, with Darnell Nurse reaching elite status himself and Bouchard making for a nice wildcard to have, in addition to such steady defensive defensemen as Kris Russell and (believe it or not) Ceci, while a guy like Tyson Barrie can produce upwards of 50 points from the blue line.

Prediction:
Second in the Pacific Division.

For the past three years, most of the focus in Edmonton has been centered around McDavid and Draisaitl, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins figuring as an afterthought at best and perhaps a serious question mark regarding his production versus his salary and re-signing value, a situation GM Ken Holland dealt with well last summer by signing him to a long extention that diminished his cap hit by a little bit, saving the team nearly a million per season. I believe last year's points totals (13 goals, 19 assists and 35 points in 52 games, for a points-per-game average of 0.67 as a 27-year-old) to be an outlier in terms of his prime (0.77 PPG at 24, 0.84 at 25, 0.94 at 26), and that hovering between the third line when playing on the road and manning the second unit with Hyman and Kailer Yamamoto at home will enable him to return to at least 0.75 points per game, possibly 0.8 if he gets a few looks with either of the two superstars here and there.

As a former first-overall pick (2011), he cannot be considered on even footing with McDavid as a generational player, but he can be seen as a success, particularly in light of other recent Oiler first-overall players like Nail Yakupov. In his draft year, he currently ranks sixth in point production behind Nikita Kucherov (58th overall), Gabriel Landeskog (2nd), Mark Scheifele (7th), Jonathan Huberdeau (3rd) and Johnny Gaudreau (104th), and ahead of the likes of Sean Couturier (8th), Mika Zibanejad (6th), Ondrej Palat (208th), J.T. Miller (15th), Dougie Hamilton (9th), and Vincent Trocheck (64th). I believe he will catch up to Gaudreau, but Couturier and Zibanejad will give him a run for his money in terms of who will round out that draft class' top-five when their careers are over.

Here he is wearing Edmonton's orange (home) uniform on card #GJ-RN from Upper Deck's 2020-21 Series 1 collection and UD Game Jersey sub-set:
It features a white swatch that is certified as having been used in an NHL game. I was pretty stoked to land it, as it's my first RNH "hit" ever.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Sabres Preview: Travis Turnbull Autograph Card

(team and product links go to sponsored Amazon products, player links go to related pages on my blog, news links go to source pages)

This will likely be the preface to all of this year's Season Preview posts: I liked doing last year's format, so I'll be doing it the same way this seaosn, partly because of that but also because as a father of a toddler and a baby, I just do not have enough time to write two separate posts per day on each blog. I'll copy these on each one instead. Like last year, the entire scope of the analysis will take place here and the player will have some sort of direct connection to what's written.

Caveats: at this point, despite training camp being set to start in less than two weeks, several players haven't found a team yet, most RFAs haven't signed with their respective teams yet, and a few teams are currently above the salary cap, which means there is much maneuvering left to do.

Key exits: Sam Reinhart (C), Linus Ullmark (G), Rasmus Ristolainen (D), Jake McCabe (D), Will Borgen (D), Matt Irwin (D), Tobias Reider (RW), Riley Sheahan (C), Taylor Hall (F, at last year's deadline)

Key Arrivals: Aaron Dell (G), Craig Anderson (G), Devon Levi (G), Robert Hagg (D), Mark Pysyk (D), John Hayden (C), Vinnie Hinostroza (RW), Will Butcher (D)

Top prospects: Owen Power (D), Jack Quinn (RW), Arttu Ruotsalainen (C), John-Jason Peterka (LW), Isak Rosen (F), Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (G)

The Buffalo Sabres are a complete trainwreck, and have been for the better part of the last two decades. They have not made the playoffs since the 2010-11 season and haven't won a round since 2005-06. Even before then, they were acting as if they were in the middle of a pandemic, making drastic cuts to their drafting budget, letting go three-quarters of their staff and having the ones that remain work mostly from video footage instead of actually traveling to see the young players perform live. They failed to extend captain (Daniel Brière) after captain (Chris Drury) after captain (Jason Pominville) after captain (Thomas Vanek), they wasted elite goaltending (Dominik Hasek, Ryan Miller), and even getting rid of a locker room cancer with a habit of drunkenly crashing his cars into coffee shops such as Ryan O'Reilly did nothing for them but allowed ROR to win a Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues.

They are on their fourth GM (Kevyn Adams, following in the footsteps of Jason Botterill, Tim Murray and Darcy Regier), who themselves have overseen head coaches Lindy Ruff, Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma, Phil Housley, Ralph Krueger, and now Don Granato; job security or stability do not have a home here.

What makes their odds look good:
Only a die-hard fan or gambler in need of a long-shot win would put their money on Buffalo. They'll perhaps be better than last year in team play, but the talent level just isn't there apart from a few pieces - and Granato as a coach is not Barry Trotz, so this isn't the next New York Islanders, either.

Question marks: When does disgruntled captain Jack Eichel get traded, and what will the return be? Is Aaron Dell really going to be their starting goalie, or will Devan Dubnyk agree to sign with the one team left that still has an opening for top spot in net?

Outlook:
There are building blocks here: Casey Mittelstadt is looking like a centre who can play on one of the top two lines, Victor Olofsson can score on the powerplay and would ideally be slotted in the middle-six on a good team but will see top-line ice time here, and Dylan Cozens shows promise up front as well, with Jack Quinn and J.J. Peterka possibly coming in in a few years, but re-signing Jeff Skinner was always going to be dead money, and Anders Bjork, Tage Thompson and Cody Eakin only seem to be placeholders at this point, either to play out their contracts while the team tanks or (particularly in Eakin's case) until a trade deadline deal to a contender makes enough sense. There are more defensive sure bets per capita, with Rasmus Dahlin seeming like he's regained form under Granato, Owen Power graduating from College eventually and Robert Hagg as a rescue project from the Philadelphia Flyers. I can't say I'm as optimistic about former New Jersey Devils prospect Will Butcher, though. But you don't lose your two best centres, you legitimate #1 goalie and your two most consistent defensemen without replacing any of them and purport to leave the bottom of the standings.

Prediction:
8th in the Atlantic Division.

Which brings me to Travis Turnbull, whose father Perry was a useful NHL journeyman who finished his career playing in Italy and Germany. Undrafted, the Sabres signed Travis as a free agent following a four-year career with the Michigan Wolverines in the NCAA; after four seasons in the Sabres' system, consistently improving from one season to the next, he was allowed to suit up in three games with the parent club in 2012-13, scoring a goal. Unfortunately, the 2012-13 lockout happened, and he set his sights for Germany, putting up 46 points and 88 penalty minutes for Düsseldorfer EG, so he may have preferred being a star player overseas than a grinder in North America. His point production regressed starting in 2016-17, but what he brought to the game was still appreciated nonetheless. He was captain of the Schwenninger Wild Wings last season (11 points in 32 games), and I suspect he will be this year as well. This is leadership the Sabres could have brought back at just about any moment in the last decade, but instead chose ROR to lead the room, then handed the reigns to his heir apparent without ever earning it or showing him what he should keep from O'Reilly's teachings and what to throw away. Since Ruff's firing, the Sabres have seemigly always hired the wrong leader at every crucial position, strating with management down to the coaching staff all the way down to the players on the ice. They will need to admit it to their fans before embarking on another rebuilding phase.

Here is Turnbull wearing the team's retro white (away) uniform, on card #SI-TR from Panini's 2013-14 Select collection and Select Signatures sub-set:
It features a blue-sharpied on-sticker autograph.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Hurricanes Preview: Rod Brind'Amour Autographed Card

(team and product links go to sponsored Amazon products, player links go to related pages on my blog, news links go to source pages)

This will likely be the preface to all of this year's Season Preview posts: I liked doing last year's format, so I'll be doing it the same way this season as well, partly because of that but also because as a father of a toddler and a baby, I just do not have enough time to write two separate posts per day on each blog. I'll copy these on each one instead. Like last year, the entire scope of the analysis will take place here and the player will have some sort of direct connection to what's written.

Caveats: At this point, despite training camp being set to start at the end of the month, several players haven't found a team yet, many RFAs haven't signed with their respective teams, and a few clubs are currently above the salary cap, which means there is much maneuvering left to do.

Key exits: Dougie Hamilton (D), Alex Nedeljkovic (G), James Reimer (G), Petr Mrazek (C), Warren Foegele (W), Cédric Paquette (F), Brock McGinn (LW), Morgan Geekie (C), Jake Bean (D), Jani Hakanpaa (D)

Key Arrivals: Tony DeAngelo (D), Jesperi Kotkaniemi (C), Ian Cole (D), Frederik Andersen (G), Derek Stepan (C), Ethan Bear (D), Antti Raanta (G), Josh Leivo (LW), Brendan Smith (D), Jalen Chatfield (D)

Top prospects: Seth Jarvis (RW), Dominik Bok (W), Ryan Suzuki (C), Anttoni Honka (D), Noel Gunler (RW), Scott Morrow (D), Vasiliy Ponomarev (C), Jack Drury (C), Pyotr Kochetkov (G), Aleksi Heimosalmi (D), Joey Keane (D)

For a team with a low budget that moved on from captain Eric Staal only to hand the title to his little brother Jordan, that couldn't afford to give its best goalie (Nedeljkovic) $3M per season and who let its star defenseman (Hamilton) leave as a free agent to sign to a $9M cap hit with the New Jersey Devils, the Carolina Hurricanes sure turned heads when they gave Kotkaniemi an offer sheet that the Montréal Canadiens were smart not to match, but the 21-year-old forward is a nice project for the coaching staff to develop while the rest of the well-constructed team (a legitimate top line of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov, a second line that can put up points with Vincent Trocheck and Martin Necas, and the aforementioned Staal II manning the third line, with Nino Niederreiter and Jesper Fast able to spend time on one of the top two lines as well, and a defense that still includes Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, Brett Pesce, Jake Gardiner and new acquisitions DeAngelo, Stanley Cup winner Cole and Smith. There is a wealth of talent on that team.

What makes their odds look good:
The roster is as stacked as a team not based in Tampa Bay or Vegas can be.

Question marks: If Andersen's an upgrade over Mrazek, can he get back to his 2017 form and adequately replace Nedeljkovic instead? Will DeAngelo become a DeIstraction? Will Kotkaniemi sign a more reasonable extension in January, or has he messed up the Canes' salary structure forever?

Outlook:
This team is built to withstand roster turnovers whenever a player's production has him reach a paygrade deemed too rich for owner Tom Dundon... except for maybe Aho - a 24-year-old centre who can do it all and produce at a point per game pace - and Slavin, who remains the most underrated defenseman in the game. If they had decent goaltending, they would be (and would have been) serious contenders for years.

Prediction:
First in the Metropolitan Division.

Head coach Rod Brind'Amour seems to be the perfect person to lead this troupe and instill team spirit, which is one benefit of having a former captain behind the bench. Not only can he coach this team to success despite never having a true #1 goalie between the pipes, but he's walked the walk as well, waiting until each of his assistants and trainers got extended before signing his own three-year deal. Oh, and he won the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year the same day.

Although the award was well-deserved, I think most people know Brind'Amour isn't the best coach in the league, but he's the ideal bench boss for this team, just like he was a great fit as a player, and a perfect member of the Philadelphia Flyers, with whom he played 633 regular-season games and posted 235 goals and 366 assists for 601 points to go with 563 penalty minutes in the heart of the Dead Puck Era, and another 51 points (24 goals and 27 assists) and 31 penalty minutes in 56 post-season games.

On a team where the top line of Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg was viewed as dominant (and the best line in the NHL), it was Brind'Amour's 13 goals that led the league in the 1997 playoffs, and his two-goal game on March 25th that eliminated the New York Rangers and sent the Flyers to the Cup Final for the first time in a decade. Here he is wearing the team's white (then-home) uniform, on card #121 from Upper Deck's 1997-98 Series 1 collection:
He signed it in black sharpie 10-15 years ago, when he was still playing for the Canes.