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Head-to-head NHL 2014–15 season preview

By Sonny Sachdeva and David Song, October 9 2014

As the puck drops on the National Hockey League’s regular season, Gauntlet sports writers Sonny Sachdeva and David Song break down all you need to know.

Which rookie will have the biggest impact this season?

David Song: For years, the Florida Panthers lacked offensive firepower and defensive strength, but Aaron Ekblad will be a big step towards changing that. The Panthers selected the Ontario native No.1 overall in this year’s entry draft. Florida chose him because of his athletic frame standing 6-foot-4, 216 pounds, skating ability and overall two-way upside. Ekblad will likely be pressed into service right away, and when he steps on the ice, he can provide his team with a level of star power they dearly need. He alone can’t bring them success and he still needs time to mature, but nevertheless, he has the potential to serve as a pair of jumper cables for the Panthers’ game.

Sonny Sachdeva: Jonathan Drouin was drafted in 2013, but sent down to juniors last year to develop. However, he’s primed for a big rookie year.

With the departure of Martin St. Louis, the Tampa Bay Lightning are missing the skill on the wing they were known for when St. Louis and Steven Stamkos tore it up together from 2008 to 2014. The inclusion of Drouin will remedy that problem quickly, as the young forward has the raw skill and limitless potential to make an immediate impact in the NHL. While he will most likely start on the third line alongside Tyler Johnson, Drouin could eventually see minutes alongside Stamkos on the team’s first line. His elite creativity will be the perfect long-term fit for Stamkos’ unparalleled scoring ability.

Which off-season addition will have the biggest impact on their new team?

DS: When the Anaheim Ducks signed Ryan Kesler, they added a versatile and lethal weapon to their already considerable arsenal. Kesler is an excellent two-way centre who wins faceoffs and screens goalies on the power play. He’s capable of shutting down opposing scorers and putting the puck in the net. And despite being a moody teammate, Kesler will elevate the Ducks to another level. It’s a coach’s dream to have a man like him centering the second line.

SS: James Neal on the Nashville Predators will provide the biggest and most needed upgrade of any free-agent addition this season. Few teams were more starved for offence last year than Nashville, who finished in the bottom half of the league in both goals-per-game and shots per game. While elite teams often boast a few 30-goal scorers, Nashville was led last season by forward Craig Smith’s 24 and defenceman Shea Weber’s 23. A pure sniper like Neal, who put his all-star calibre talent on display with a 40-goal season two years ago, is exactly what Nashville needs to inject some life into its stale offence.

Which player is poised for a breakout year in 2014–15?

DS: Last year, Nathan MacKinnon scored 24 goals and 63 points as an 18-year-old rookie. Since then, the Colorado Avalanche have added the still-powerful right winger Jarome Iginla, aging but savvy centre Daniel Briere and a tough veteran defender in Brad Stuart. All of this means greater depth through the lineup, which gives MacKinnon greater support and enables him to focus on offence. The Halifax native has given no reason to believe that his performance will slump this season, as he has otherworldly talent and solid teammates.

SS: The Dallas Stars’ Tyler Seguin is going to reach another level this season. After posting higher numbers in each successive year of his career, Seguin took a step forward last year after meshing with elite winger Jamie Benn, finishing fourth in scoring with 37 goals and 84 points. Such a successful season could already be labeled a breakout year, but the kid has the goods to move up into another echelon — into the realm of Toews, Stamkos and Crosby.

Will the Calgary Flames’ youth movement allow them to make the playoffs this season?

DS: The future of the Calgary Flames is bright, but success is still a few years away. Despite a stellar season by captain Mark Giordano, a respectable first-year showing from last year’s number-six-pick Sean Monahan and latent potential in a number of other rookies, the Flames still lack the firepower they need to crack the postseason.

Giordano and winger Jiri Hudler represent the apex of proven talent on the roster, and as things stand right now, they don’t have enough backup to out compete the best in the West.
The Flames may not finish high in the standings this year, but they possess an impressive collection of greenhorns waiting in the wings. All they need is time.

SS: The Calgary Flames will be a better team this season, but given how competitive the Western Conference is, and the fact that other Western fringe teams like the Dallas Stars and the Minnesota Wild have upgraded their rosters, I don’t think Calgary will book a trip to the postseason quite yet. As long as they allow their young stars — Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett — to develop at the NHL level, they should be poised for a successful playoff bid in a few years.

Which team is your sleeper pick?

DS: The Colorado Avalanche have made a number of solid additions in the off-season. Their offence is nothing to sneeze at, with the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay and Ryan O’Reilly. Iginla in particular will be a top-notch wingman and mentor for the young guns — MacKinnon, Landeskog and Duchene — backing up their scoring talent with his experience, offensive acumen and physicality.

The Avs’ defence boasts a versatile top four in Erik Johnson, Jan Hejda, Brad Stuart and Tyson Barrie, while Semyon Varlamov is solid in net. Colorado boasts the potential to upset a few teams and make some noise this season.

SS: The Dallas Stars will make a serious run this year. The Seguin and Benn experiment paid off last season, and the Stars now boast one of the most dangerous offensive tandems in the league. On top of that, Dallas made significant improvements to their offence this summer when they signed centre Jason Spezza and winger Ales Hemsky. As long as Dallas’ defence and goaltending avoid injuries and hold strong, the Stars will have enough talent to compete with the big boys.

Do you see the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks as the continuing favourites to win the Cup, or will we have a new champion this year?

DS: Every season holds the potential for an upset, but on paper, there is no reason to bet against either the Los Angeles Kings or the Chicago Blackhawks. Both teams wield a formidable set of top-six forwards, all-star defencemen and intimidating depth up and down their rosters. The Blackhawks’ addition of Brad Richards reinforces their lineup at centre ice, while the Kings return with virtually the same unit as last year. Both squads will face stiff competition, but at the end of the day, Lord Stanley’s Cup is theirs to lose.

SS: The Stanley Cup hangover is very real, despite it often being ignored in contender projections. A team that plays well into June every season is more likely to run out of gas the next time around.

The Kings and the Blackhawks are dominant teams. On paper, it seems unlikely that anyone will knock either of them off. But you have to wonder if all of those trips to the late rounds — four of the last five finals have included one of these two squads — will take its toll. Especially since we’re coming off an Olympic year where many of their key players had no rest during the all-star break. Throw in the fact that many other contending teams made meaningful upgrades this summer, and there is a very real chance that the Stanley Cup will be going somewhere other than Los Angeles or Chicago this season.

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