Our NHL consultant shares some of his early thoughts pertaining to the Eastern Conference for this upcoming season. Join us in reading this preview article highlighting some props this season.
2015-2016 NHL Season Creeps Up
It’s a bit hard to imagine, but the start of NHL training camps are less than a month away. It doesn’t seem that long ago that we witnessed the Chicago Blackhawks parading around with the Stanley Cup this past June. I’m going to cover some topics pertaining to the Eastern Conference which have piqued my interest during these summer months.
No drastic improvement for Leafs in Babcock’s First Year
Although Mike Babcock’s NHL head coaching resume is an impressive one, it will still require some time in order for him to resurrect Toronto into a relevant team. He won’t have nearly the talent level he possessed during the last 10 seasons with Detroit. After all, the Red Wings were playoff participants during each of those ten years. Compare that to Babcock’s current situation he inherits in Toronto, and he may question his sanity pertaining to making the decision in leaving Detroit. Toronto has failed to attain a Stanley Cup Playoff berth in two of the last three, and ten of their previous eleven seasons. At the culmination of the 2014-2015 NHL campaign, the Toronto roster was filled with underachieving and overpriced veterans. The Maple Leafs organization also possesses a less than stellar young prospects pool. I do believe the hiring of Babcock will pay dividends in the long term, but expecting immediate results borders on a pipe dream.
Tampa Bay primed to be an Eastern Dynasty
The Tampa Bay Lightning finished third overall in the Eastern Conference regular season standings in each of the past two years. They finished with 103 points in 2013-2014, and 108 during the 2014-2015 regular season campaigns. I firmly believe they will amass even more points this year. According to current NHL betting odds at TheGreek.com, Tampa Bay is +850 to win the 2016 Stanley Cup, and my wager has been made already for them to win it all. In case you have a short term memory, Tampa Bay fell to Chicago in six games during the recent 2015 Stanley Cup Finals. Unless something unforeseen occurs, the Lightning roster for this coming season will remain virtually intact. Considering the majority of their key personnel is still very young, and with Steve Yzerman proving to be a brilliant General Manager, this is a franchise that possesses the potential to be an Eastern Conference dynasty for several years to come.
NHL Rookie Class Thoughts and Projections
I was fortunate enough to be in attendance this past year for games involving Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Connor McDavid. Let me share my personal observations and impressions in that regard.
I saw McDavid play twice in the 2015 OHL Playoffs. The first time came in Game 2 of a Conference Quarterfinal series for the Erie against Sarnia. McDavid was dazzling in that contest, evidenced by a 1 goals and 3 assist performance. The last time came in Game 2 of the Conference Semifinal series versus London. I left the building in Erie that night in total awe. McDavid had a five goal night, and I swore I had just witnessed the second coming of Wayne Gretzky. On both occasions, there was a huge disparity pertaining to skating ability between McDavid compared to any other player on the ice. That aspect of his game possibly won’t be as dominant on the NHL level, but it certainly will be apparent. I would be more than shocked if this future Edmonton Oiler doesn’t develop into a bona fide NHL superstar during the next two to three years.
Ironically Paul Reinhart (2014) and Jack Eichel (2015) were identical #2 overall picks in each of the previous two NHL entry drafts, and both were taken by the Buffalo Sabres. Let me start by saying this, I truly believe Eichel will eventually have the better overall NHL career than Reinhart. However, I’m going out on a limb in projecting Reinhart will have the better rookie season of the two this year for Buffalo.
Reinhart had the luxury of starting last season with the Buffalo Sabres. Granted he was totally ineffective in ten games, scoring 0 goals, and adding only 1 assist. Nevertheless, he was able to get his feet wet at 18 years old in the NHL, and that will pay dividends during this upcoming year in which he’ll still be technically considered a rookie. Reinhart tied for the scoring lead in the 2015 World Junior Hockey Tournament. He had 5 goals and added 6 assists in seven games which sparked Canada to a World Championship, and tied for the tournament’s overall scoring lead. He also led the competition with an outstanding +13 rating. During the last two seasons, Reinhart was a prolific scorer for his junior team in Kootenay. During a combined 123 games played, Reinhart scored 67 goals, amassed 135 assists, and had 202 points. More importantly, he’s become accustomed to playing a lot of games, and that will be essential in transitioning to the grueling rigors of a NHL slate.
I was able to catch Eichel play at the Buffalo Sabres prospects scrimmage game this past July. By the way, that game drew over 17,000 at the First Niagara Center, and a majority of those fans in attendance were there only to see Eichel. Similar to the 2015 World Juniors Tourney, Reinhart once again outshone Eichel by scoring 2 goals and adding an assist, while Eichel was held of the score sheet. My concern regarding Eichel is specifically for this coming year, and not beyond that point. It has nothing to do with talent level or up side. The 18 year old Massachusetts native has plenty of both. Eichel was the 2015 NCAA Hobey Baker winner while playing for Boston University, and that’s an equivalent to college football’s Heisman Trophy. Eichel led his team to the 2015 NCAA Championship Game where they fell to Providence College. His season was one for the annals of NCAA hockey, scoring 26 goals in addition to 45 assists for 71 points during just 40 games. Eichel also proved he could hold his own against NHL caliber players. He participated during the 2015 IIHF World Championships which were held in the Czech Republic this past May. He tallied 2 goals plus 5 assists for 10 points in seven games, and it aided Team USA in earning a Bronze Medal. However, after playing in just a total of 57 games combined this past season, Eichel looked physically spent and listless during the Sabres prospect scrimmage game last month. My concern is quite simple, how will he transition to the long hard grind of a NHL regular season campaign in his rookie year.