As we anticipate another exciting season of NHL hockey, there are three teams flying comfortably under the radar. While the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings soak up all the acclaim, and the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, and Detroit Red Wings get tons of exposure, you don’t hear many people talking about the following NHL clubs – and they’re very good.
The Anaheim Ducks
It’s been half a decade since Anaheim won their first ever Stanley Cup in 2007, but the Ducks are once again a major player in the NHL. Last season, they experienced a resurgence as a top team, finishing 3rd in league standings. If not for a disappointing 1st round exit to the 8th seed Detroit Red Wings we may be giving the Ducks more spotlight now, but their failure to win a round in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs has hindered their reputation, slightly.
Led by always successful regular season coach Bruce Boudreau, the Ducks are strong enough to enjoy another visit to the post season. With a defence corps on the rise, led by Cam Fowler and Lucas Sbisa, Boudreau’s skaters have the foundation for a Cup challenging blue line already in place. Up front, the dominant Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are locks to produce at the highest level, as they have for several years now. Where the Ducks have vastly improved in the last calendar year is a massive upgrade in supporting role players to compliment the two Cup winners. Forward depth is the strongest it’s been in Anaheim since the mid 2000’s.
As for goaltending, Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth don’t necessarily elicit absolute trust, however, both have proven good enough to ensure a playoff birth. Do they have the fire to win games on a lengthy Cup run? That remains to be seen, but most goalies in the NHL are capable of winning in the playoffs under optimal circumstances. It’s unclear how the Ducks’ goaltending dynamic will play itself out over the course of 2013-14 NHL season. They may choose to split starts, or one of Hiller or Fasth will steal the job. Either way, the Ducks are one team not to be taken lightly.
The Philadelphia Flyers
It’s easy to look at the Philadelphia Flyers as the non-playoff team they were last season. For that reason, they enter the upcoming 2013-14 campaign under the radar. The truth is, the Flyers aren’t as bad as their unexpected playoff miss suggests. They have one of the best forward groups in the Eastern Conference, a two-goalie tandem with previous success, and they boldly addressed their glaring weakness on defence by acquiring Isles puck mover and power play specialist, Mark Streit.
One of the Flyers’ major ailments in last year’s lockout schedule was a lack of speed, especially on the blue line. Although they still rank as one of the slower teams in the Eastern Conference, they are by no means too slow to win a lot of games this season. A variety of size, skill and grit up front provides Philly with one of the most versatile forward groups in hockey. Versatility is hard to stop in today’s NHL.
Between the pipes, goaltenders often lose their way in Philadelphia. In fact, the legend of the goalie graveyard that is the Philadelphia Flyers is so large now, you’d almost believe Dominik Hasek himself, circa 1998, would fail to stop pucks if he wore orange and black. However bad the goaltending has been in recent years for the Flyers, things may be different this season. Ray Emery and Steve Mason both have a lot to prove, which means they’ll be locked in, ready to go.
Steve Mason enjoyed a rock star start to his NHL career. In 2008-09, as a rookie, he finished 2nd in Vezina Trophy voting. The sky was the limit. Unfortunately, Mason never managed to recapture the magic and compete for more Vezina’s. He also hasn’t played in a playoff game since that phenomenal rookie campaign. At the end of 2013-14 Mason’s very affordable contract will expire, thus, the results of this season will massively determine the amount and term of his next NHL deal. He has too much riding on this season to not work his hardest and play his best.
Emery was great for the Chicago Blackhawks one year ago. In support of Hawks starter Corey Crawford, Ray rocked a record of 17-1 during the regular season. His GAA of 1.94 and SV% of 0.922 are excellent numbers. As good as Emery was last season, aside from a pretty amazing Stanley Cup ring, all it got him was a one-year deal worth $1.65 mil. Emery didn’t start for the Hawks in the playoffs. This year he’ll be motivated to prove he is a capable #1 goalie once again.
With two likely motivated goaltenders, a more mobile defence, and a solid forward crop headed by one of the game’s best, Claude Giroux, the Philadelphia Flyers are going to be significantly better this year.
The Minnesota Wild
Two summers ago, the Minnesota Wild ran the table in unrestricted free agency, inking the off season’s two biggest names to long term deals. It’s hard to talk Wild hockey without mentioning those franchise altering moves.
2012-13 was a productive year for the Wild by their standards. They made the playoffs, only to face the misfortune of a 1st round date with the best team in hockey, the Chicago Blackhawks. They never had a chance in that series – it was the worst possible matchup, a penalty for falling to 8th in the conference after holding the top spot in the Northwest earlier in the season. When the tough got going, the Wild weren’t on the same playing field in 2012-13. But that was then and this is now. As a new season approaches, the Wild are primed to take a big step forward.
They’re building something really smart in Minnesota right now. At the top end, the Wild enjoy some of the league’s best firepower. Zach Parise is in the prime of his career, easily one of the most talented forwards in the NHL. Dany Heatley is not what he once was, however, he can still bury 30 with his eyes closed if he stays healthy and plays with top talent. Mikko Koivu is massively under appreciated around the league. The Finnish centre is very good on both sides of the puck. Jason Pominville is a solid two-way play, capable of 30 goals and sound defensive hockey. At the low end of the lineup, forwards Mike Rupp and Zenon Kenopka will guarantee that visiting opponents will leave Minnesota with some bumps and bruises next season.
In net, you know what you’re getting from Niklas Backstrom. The Fin with the Swedish name can stop the puck. There is no telling if his presence in the 1st round against Chicago a year ago would have made it a closer series, however, it’s safe to say, he would have given the Wild more of a chance to put up a fight. And I say that with all due respect for Josh Harding, who stepped up and performed great. However, sometimes it throws a team off when they don’t have their main guy between the pipes. The defence were used to Backstrom’s tendencies, they’d gone to war with him all season, and the timing of his injury allowed no time to prepare for battle without Nik in the cage.
A blue line led by Norris Finalist Ryan Suter does lack in experience, but excels in mobility and enthusiasm. The Wild’s young D, performed valiantly a year ago, showing signs of promise and potential. Suter, obviously will be a rock, once again in 2013-14. This steady blue line are likely to improve and perform much better this season, as the Wild lie in the back shadows, waiting to take sneak out and attack the league by storm.