As each season begins, hockey fans eagerly anticipate who's going to do well this season, and who looks like the odds might be stacked against them.
Usually, preseason is a terrible indicator of the future, and is really just used to weed out the non-NHLers from a team's roster. Every year there seems to be a team that goes undefeated in preseason contests, and yet that somehow translates to a horrible regular season.
On the other hand, some teams are just not ready for pro-hockey in September, and despite a terrible start to training camp, can turn it around and challenge for the Stanley Cup when the games actually matter.
It's the same with the players too. Some players seem to thrive on the early ice-time, while others seem to be hanging onto summer, and don't show up to camp in the best of shape.
Take last season for example. Toronto's Phil Kessel led the league in goals (6G in 6 GP), points (10), ranked 3rd in shots on goal, and linemate Kris Versteeg had 6 assists ranking him 5th in that category. But as the regular season wore on, Versteeg didn't pan out to be the set-up man for Kessel the Leafs had hoped for, and the Maple Leafs could not translate their 5-3-1 record in the preseason to when it counted, finishing the regular season at 10th in the Eastern Conference.
Some other quick stats from last year's training camp: Dallas' Kari Lehtonen and Edmonton's Martin Gerber led the league in save percentage, both posting above .940, but at the end of the regular season, Lehtonen ranked 24th in the league and Gerber played only three games in the NHL, mostly suiting up for Edmonton's farm team in Oklahoma.
So with preseason statistics aside, here are the top 5 players to watch this season:
1. Bobby Ryan - Anaheim Ducks
Ryan had a sort of coming out party last year, scoring 34 goals and a career high 37 assists, finishing the season off with 71 points, another career-high. Originally a 2nd overall pick in 2005, Ryan's performance was overshadowed by the play of linemate Corey Perry, who won the Rocket Richard and Hart Trophy by closing out the year with 50 goals and 98 points, catapulting the Ducks into 4th in the Western Conference. But despite the play of Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, there was no doubt that there was another star in the making in Anaheim. Ryan received top line minutes, and will no doubt be another go-to-guy for the Ducks this year, especially if Perry can't repeat the same magic he ended the season with. Look for Ryan to up his 71 points from last year, and perhaps even join the 40-goal club, though he'd be hard pressed to if Perry continues to light the lamp as much as he did last season. And if all that's not enough for you, just ask David Legwand about Ryan's skill:
2. John Tavares - New York Islanders
Though the team's future in Long Island is in question, former 1st overall pick John Tavares made it clear he is committed to the organization, signing a six-year, $33 million extension to remain with the New York Islanders. Like Ryan, Tavares improved last year, setting career-highs last year in goals (29) and assists (38), and finishing the season with 67 points in 79 games played. While the team's future is up the in air, there is no doubt that the young nucleus they've been forming for the past few years is coming close to fruition, and the Islanders lack of success in the past decade has translated to high-draft picks and big name prospects coming through. It's unlikely that the Islanders are ready to make a push this season, but if they can be at least more competitive in the Eastern Conference, there's no reason that Tavares' numbers won't continue to go up. Entering his third year in the NHL since being drafted in 2007, Tavares has hit the 20-goal mark twice, coming just one shy of 30 goals last year, which will certainly be something he'd like to improve on. With his speed and goal-scoring ability (this is the kid that broke Wayne Gretzky's record of 70 goals in a season in the Ontario Hockey League), Tavares should be able to put up his best numbers yet, and give the fans in Long Island something to cheer about for once in a long time.
3. Matt Duchene - Colorado Avalanche
Selected third overall in the 2009 Entry draft behind Tavares and Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman, Duchene is one of the best young players in the game today, and has played two years in the league. At still just 20 years of age, he led the Avalanche in scoring last year (the youngest player to ever do so), and was the second runner-up for the Calder Trophy in his rookie year. In his sophomore campaign, Duchene upped his goals (27) and assist (40) totals, finishing with 67 points, ahead of Rick Nash, Mike Richards, and Nicklas Backstrom, to name a few. Duchene's challenge will be putting the relatively young Avs team on his shoulders, and fighting for a playoff spot after Colorado missed the post-season for the first time in franchise history last year. After acquiring goaltender Semyon Varlamov from the Washington Capitals this summer, the Avalanche are headed in the right direction, but they'll be tough pressed to post wins night-in, night-out with the lack of depth they have, especially on forward with the departures of Tomas Fleischmann and Chris Stewart.
4. Jeff Skinner - Carolina Hurricanes
19-year-old forward Jeff Skinner hardly flew under anyone's radar last season, scoring 31 goals and 62 points in his rookie year, enough to capture the Calder Memorial Trophy for the NHL's top rookie. And though Skinner may well suffer the infamous 'sophomore slump' that seems to plague so many rookies, there are aspects of the young Kitchener Rangers alumni's game that can easily translate to another huge year for the Hurricanes. Night after night. Skinner continued to impress by scoring big goals for a Carolina team that was fighting to stay in the playoffs through the stretch, eventually missing out by finishing two points behind the New York Rangers for the last spot in the East. Skinner's poise, hockey sense, and the remarkable sense of calm he had for an 18-year-old playing in the NHL, helped him put together an impressive rookie year and the only more impressive thing Skinner could accomplish would be repeating that success in the 2011-12 season. Though the Hurricanes are one of the younger teams in the legaue, they are by no means a rebuilding team, so unlike the Islanders and Blues, Skinner is thrown right into a competitive team bound for playoff contention. If he can continue doing the right things that allowed him the time and space to score 31 goals in his rookie season, there is no reason Skinner can't improve on that mark and even challenge to break the 40-goal mark.
5. James van Riemsdyk - Philadelphia Flyers
Labelled as a top upcoming prospect ever since he was taken 2nd overall by the Flyers at the 2007 Entry Draft, JVR hasn't quite put up the big numbers that were expected of him in his first two years with the team. He set a career-high with 21 goals last year, playing in 75 games, as the Flyers coasted into the playoffs with a 47-23-12 record. It was in the post-season that JVR truly emerged as one of the top young power forwards in the game. He scored seven goals in the Flyers disappointing playoff run, which ended in a sweep to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Bruins, and used all of his 6-foot-3, 211 lbs frame to turn heads across the league. With the recent changes in Philadelphia (the departure sof former captain Mike Richards and Jeff Carter), van Riemsdyk will get a chance to fill the hole, and make up for the lost production of two 60+ point players. He and Claude Giroux - who would have also ended up on this list if he didn't already score 76 points last year - will be looked upon to lead the charge in Philadelphia, along with the likes of Danny Briere and Jaromir Jagr.
Cam Fowler - Anaheim Ducks
The young stud on defence for the Anaheim Ducks is entering his second full season with the team, and at only 19-year-old. Fowler stood out offensively for the Ducks in his rookie campaign, contributing 10 goals and 30 assists, including six goals on the powerplay. While his offense was a positive, Fowlers -25 plus-minus rating ranked eighth worst in the entire league. With a year under his belt, and a Ducks team that seems destined to challenge for the Stanley Cup again soon, Fowler has the skills and size to be able to bounce back defensively, as well as continue his production on the offensive end.
David Backes - St. Louis Blues
Another team that has been stockpiling prospects and draft picks for the past few years are the St. Louis Blues. One of those picks, 2nd rounder David Backes, has become one of the Blues' top players, and he led the team in scoring last year with 31 goals (a career high) and 31 assists. Backes played all 82 games for the Blues, which doesn't necessarily suggest that he's in line for a jump in production, but like Tavares, Backes is hoping to benefit from a better overall team effort next year, as the Blues will look to get out of the Western Conference basement. They finished fourth in the tough Central Division behind Detroit, Nashville, and Chicago, but as those teams age and lose key members of their squad under the salary cap (in particular as Chicago and Nashville have the past two years), the Blues' rookies begin to enter their prime. Backes will get a full season alongside Chris Stewart, the former Colorado Avalanche forward that came over in the Erik Johnson trade. Stewart had 23 points in 26 games as a Blue since coming over from Denver, and has been just shy of a point-per-game player for the past two years. That, combined with the development of top prospects Alex Pietrangelo and Patrick Berglund, should contribute to a better year for the Blues and a better year for Backes too.
Phil Kessel - Toronto Maple Leafs
With all of the press that Phil Kessel's received in his first five seasons in the league, it's hard to believe he's still only 23-years-old. He's already hit the 36 goal mark once in his career, and suited up for the U.S.A at the Olympics in Vancouver. Despite all of this though, inconsistencies have always hurt Kessel's final numbers, and watching him play enough, it's very clear that he has the skill to put up even bigger numbers. Kessel has the rare ability to be able to change a game at any moment. His blinding speed and his quick release can turn a harmless looking play into a goal in the blink of an eye. Leaf fans didn't quite get the centre they were hoping for this summer, after Brad Richards signed in New York and the Leafs opted to sign Tim Connolly instead. But just as Kessel has never had a bonafide #1 centre to set him up in Toronto, a case can be made that Tim Connolly hasn't played with a sniper of Kessel's calibur (with the exception of maybe Danny Briere, and in his best year with the Sabres, Connolly played just two games). The challenge will be on both Kessel and Connolly to click, and we'll see them together for the first time tonight as the Leafs take on the Flyers in preseason action.