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TGS SPECIAL REPORT... NHL SEASON WINS TO WATCH!

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It's no secret that many professional sports handicappers believe some of the best edges can be found in the NHL. We concur, which is why for the past few years we have been offering our featured hockey selections on TGS NHL, available Monday thru Saturday (and Sundays once the football season concludes) at goldsheet.com.

With the first pucks to be dropped October 14 for the 2021-22 NHL term, we wanted to provide a few of our best “over/unders” for the campaign (in the case of the NHL, it’s over/under season points) as presented below. The accompanying NHL Regular Season Points are provided by Bet 365.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Arizona Coyotes (68.5)... Good news first; the Yotes have brought back the “Kachina” coyote as their primary logo. And the team has been stockpiling picks for the next two drafts. Now the bad news; Arizona is going the tank route this season as it looks for the highest-pick possible in the next draft, considered top-heavy, and hasn’t even tried to put together a competitive roster. Case in point is in goal, where the functional Darcy Kuemper-Antti Raanta combo has been discarded in favor of 35-year-old Carter Hutton (1-10-1 last season in Buffalo) and non-descript Josef Korenar. Make no mistake, this is a full rebuild, with even the remaining vets on the roster like Phil Kessel, Jay Beagle, Loui Eriksson, and Antione Roussel likely to be moved by the trade deadline by GM Bill Armstrong. The goal? Get rid of all of the bad contracts and start fresh, and this season is the first in that transition. There's also a new coach iin Andre' Ourigny, a former Sens and Avs assistant repalcing Rick Tocchet, who by us did pretty well under the circumstances.  One more bit of bad news (we think)...the Yotes have been evicted from Gila River Arena, effective end of this season. The arena locale at the west end of the Valley, adjacent to the NFL Cardinals’ State Farm Stadium, was never the most convenient for much of the metro area, especially for weeknight games, and look for an announcement soon of a new arena complex to be built in Tempe, near the ASU campus and not far from the Cubs’ spring training base in Mesa (almost at the Tempe city line). In the interim, the Yotes likely move back downtown to the Suns Talking Stick Arena, where the Yotes spent their first few years in the desert. One more...with Seattle making its debut, Arizona has moved to the Central Division, which looks at least a couple of notches better than the Pacific. But the Kachina logo is pretty cool! Getting near 60 points would be a neat trick for Touigny, never mind near 70, so we look “under” for one last spin at Gila River.

Nashville Predators (83.5)... The Pekka Rinne era is finally over at Bridgestone Arena, though the transition to Juuse Saros as the number one goalie was already well underway. But the Big Fin isn’t going to be the only familiar face gone from the Music City mix; D Ryan Ellis, RW Viktor Arvidsson, RW Erik Haula, C Brad Richardson, have also moved, with F Calle Jankrok gone in the expansion draft to Seattle. So, the general consensus is that the Preds have downgraded, reflected in this modest points total. But the team seemed to develop an identity for coach John Hynes about midway thru what was looking like a disastrous 2021 campaign, rallying to make the playoffs and then putting up a real fight vs. favored Carolina in a tense 6-game opening round. What happened? The Preds started to play “heavy” and suddenly the wins began to pile high. Shrewd GM David Poile is not to be underestimated as he refers to the current situation as a “competitive rebuild,” and to that end will probably ASAP want to ink blue line star Matthias Ekholm and key sniper Filip Forsberg, both on expiring deals; in the last year of a bargain for Nashville, Ekholm holds one of the most valuable contracts in the league and will be looking for a significant pay raise, which Poile should be glad to grant. Along with past Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi, Ekholm forms one of the most formidable defensive duos in the league. While Poile would like to secure both into the future, he might prefer to move out centers Matt Duchene and Ryan Johanson unless they start producing. One of the NHL’s best home-ice advantages will also come alive again this season, and we expect the Preds to get into the high 80s and perhaps the low 90s as they scrap for one of the last playoff spots in the Central. It’s an “over” for us at Bridgestone..

Seattle Kraken (89.5)...Let’s say the obvious that the bar has been raised for all expansion teams, especially in the NHL, based upon what the Vegas Golden Knights did in their maiden voyage four years ago, making it all of the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. So, should the brand-new Kraken consider it a failure not to match the feats of the Golden Knights? Hardly, and no one  expects as much in the Northwest. But at this same time four years ago, nobody really knew what Vegas had, either; comparably speaking, Seattle’s roster looks as good as the Golden Knights’ did entering the 2017-18 season. And this aggressive projected points total (about 19 points higher than VGK at a corresponding point before 2017-18, and above about 11 other NHL entries for this term) suggests the oddsmakers don't think this team is going to be chopped liver. Kraken GM Ron Francis did it a bit differently in the expansion draft than did VGK’s George McPhee a few years ago, mostly bargain shopping, then hitting the free-agent market hard. Thus, coach Dave Haxtall starts with a big-time goalie in ex-Av GK Philipp Grubauer, ex-Blues winger Jaden Schwarz, and ex-Panther C Alexander Wennberg as newly-minted free-agent additions. Throw in ex-Lightning center Yanni Gourde and ex-Isles winger Jordan Eberle from the expansion draft and the veteran nucleus isn’t bad, featuring plenty of two-way players. Grubauer and ex-Panther Chris Driedger also give Seattle what appears to be one of the best goalie tandems in the league right from the go. One other plus is playing in the very-suspect Pacific Division, where many insiders believe the Kraken already hits the ice a couple of notches above the Ducks, quite possibly above the Kings, Sharks, and Canucks, and who knows with the Flames and Oilers. Indeed, Vegas looks the only team in the Pacific that we can safely say rates above the Kraken at the outset, and who knows how the Pacific table will look a few months own the road.  Look "over" at Climate Pledge Arena, the new/old arena that still keeps the same, teepee-style roof from the former Key Arena/Seattle Center Coliseum that dates to the 1962 World’s Fair, but a brand new arena underneath!


EASTERN CONFERENCE

New York Islanders (99.5)... If the Isles start a bit slowly, don’t panic; with the finishing touches still being put on their new UBS Arena at Belmont Park, Barry Trotz is going to lead his troops on a sadistic 13-game road trips (yes, 13 games!) out of the chute, with only one of those games in metro NY (November 11 at Newark vs. the Devils). After five weeks away, the Isles open their new arena November 20 vs. the Flames, but we suspect Trotz will keep his team above water before taking advantage of a favorable stretch into January, with 15 of their next 21 at home after the opening road swing. The team has a familiar look to the one that has pushed Tampa Bay hard in the East finals the past two seasons, and even after winger Jordan Eberle was lost in the expansion draft, adding vet winger Zach Parise from the Wild was the latest bit of good business done by GM Lou Lamoriello. And the giant ancient defender Zdeno Charo will add great leadership in the clubhouse and can still contribute in his handful of shifts on the ice. Keep in mind that the Isles advanced deep last June without rugged winger Anders Lee, one of the spiritual leaders on the team, and a full season of Kyle Palmieri will also take some fo the scoring load off of Matthew Barzal, with JC Pageau and a re-signed Anthony Beauvillier offering further support. Moreover, the Semyon Varmalov/Ilya Sorokin goalie duo is one of the NHL’s best. In the end, however, the Isles’ edge is always going to be Trotz, whose ability to muck-up things at center ice for the opposition is likely to key more 3-1 and 3-2 wins for which his teams have become famous. Look “over” at the new Belmont Park arena.

Pittsburgh Penguins (91.5)... Some storm signals started to form last season at PPG Paints Arena, especially in the playoffs when Tristan Jarry sprang too many leaks in goal as the Islanders rolled past the Pens in the first round. Now, it’s up to GM Ron Hextall, in his first full season on the job (Hextall and the Penguins seems an odd mix, doesn’t it?) to re-mold the Pittsburgh roster while trying to keep the team relevant. Jarry’s postseason struggles got the rumor mill whirring in the ‘burg that maybe Marc-Andre Fleury could return to a hero’s welcome in a reunion tour, but Hextall has chosen to run it back with Jarry and Casey DeSmith instead, hoping that Andy Chiodo, Jarry’s goalie coach in the AHL, can fine-tune the netminders. We’ll see. But for how long is Pittsburgh going to go to the well with its aging core of Sidney Corsby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang? Holdovers from the Stanley Cup era, the Pens stars are beginning to remind more than a bit of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and a few others from the great Blackhawks generation who were still the featured components as the Chicago machine would grind to a halt. We’re not sure the Pens are at the end of the line quite yet, but now Crosby has more injury issues (core muscle surgery) and sidelined at the outset, and Malkin possibly out until the festive period after late-September knee surgery. With two aging key cogs already hurting before the season begins, things already are looking ominous for Mike Sullivan, who might have to rely on another mid-30s sort, Jeff Carter, and Jake Guentzel to lead the power-play while Sid and Evgeni are on the mend. Moreover, Pittsburgh will likely miss the grit of winger Brandon Tanev, lost to Seattle in the expansion draft. With a slow start likely amid a preseason rash of injuries, we might be on the verge to witnessing the final act of the once-great generation in Pittsburgh, ready to exit stage-right. “Under” for us at PPG Paints.

Washington Capitals (99.5)... Good news in D.C. is that Alex Ovechkin has been signed to a long-term deal, almost assuring that he finishes his career where he started it with the Caps. Showing few signs of slowing down, Ovechkin remains lethal and has a proper coach to unleash his talents in Peter Laviolette, though the first-round playoff exit vs. the Bruins still stings. While Ovechkin importantly remains in the mix, C Nicklas Backstrom will be sidelined to open the season with a hip injury and will not be rushed back into the lineup. Still, it’s not a season-ender, and he’s likely back on the ice sometime in November. The offense-minded Laviolette still looks like a good fit to us behind the bench after numerous distractions last season, including various injuries and Covid disruptions, plus Henrik Lundqvists’s late scratch from the season that forced Lavi to blood Vittek Vanacek and Ilya Samsonov in goal. Now, with Vanacek having been retained In a bit of hocus-pocus with the expansion Kraken, there is some seansoning and stability in goal as Washington might have one fo the better net-minding tandems in the league. Meanwhile, there are still plenty of grinders in the mix like Tom Wilson, John Carlson, and Nick Jensen. Granted, the core is aging, but doesn’t look over the hill quite yet, and the nucleus of the team did win a Stanley Cup not too long ago in 2018. Besides, as long as Ovechkin is still...Ovechkin, the Caps will be a threat. Look “over” at Cap One Arena.


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