NHL training camps are scheduled to open on January 3, if things remain on schedule, despite COVID-19 restrictions. Before January 16, the beginning of the season, I will look at the four Western Canadian teams and do my best to project their near futures.
Let’s start with the Winnipeg Jets.
I remember being assigned by Sportsnet to go to Atlanta, the day the franchise was officially awarded to Winnipeg. It was stiflingly hot that day, but not nearly as uncomfortable as the lack of interest in hockey. Few cared about the sport, and I was happy the team was Manitoba bound.
I grew up farming in Manitoba. My late father and his friends drove 3.5 hours from the south west corner of the province to watch their beloved Jets from the late 1990’s on. Their passion for the franchise and what it means to the province will never leave me.
Throw in the small market accomplishments and they have my respect. A small city (by NHL standard) along with a not so densely populated province will always make financial challenges even more difficult. Toss in MTS Centre and its 15,000-plus capacity and dollars are hard to come by. Especially, with no projected cap space left at this time.
That said, the Jets have some very good pieces in place and a history of overachieving. They will need to do it again.
Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck is one of the game’s best netminders. His $6 million-plus price tag is not bad considering his ability. Like every team in the NHL without good goaltending, your chances are slim. Hellebuyck gives the Jets the opportunity to win each and every game unless another part of the team falls apart.
That leads us to the biggest question mark on the Jets; their defence. Calgarian Josh Morrisey is a very good player and is considered a star in many eyes. He is paid a handsome $6 million-plus and is required to do a great deal of heavy lifting. Unfortunately, the likes of Neal Pionk, Nathan Beaulieu, Dylan DeMelo, Derek Forbert, Luca Sbisa and Tucker Poolman do not put a much fear into other teams. While they may hold their own, they can be exploited. Other than Morrisey, this group must be considered the team’s weakest area.
Up front is a different story, led by Team Captain Blake Wheeler. Age 34, Wheeler is a very good player, but age has a way of catching up to you and I wonder how much he has left. $8 million a season is a hefty price tag, so Jets fans need to hope he has some left in the tank.
Same goes for recently acquired Paul Stastny, who is now 35. How will he perform? It’s too soon to say much of Stastny’s addition.
One of my favorite Jets is Mark Scheifele, now in his prime at age 27. Reasonably paid, you just have to love his two-way game. The question is, can he come back from the knee injury picked up in last fall’s years COVID-19 playoff against the Flames? It was a tough break. He will break in against the Flames’ forward Matthew Tkachuk, who was involved in the incident that injured him. Nothing like a little opening day drama is there?
Youthful stars Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Nicolai Ehlers should provide excitement and much needed offense; provided Laine continues to score and doesn’t tail off like he has shown some signs of last year. The Jets will need him to be the threat he was in the past.
Adam Lowry is a very good player and now has his dad Dave on the bench as the Jets’ Assistant Coach. Lowry is big, strong and mean enough to be a force. That will make his father proud.
Throw in the remainder of third and fourth-line players and its clear the Jets have the capability of causing some damage in the newly constructed North or Canadian Division.
To do so, injuries will have to be at a minimum and the overall team defensive group will have to make some progress.
There is a rumor Winnipeg is dangling young Jack Roslovic to others in an attempt to shore up their defensive group. If they can get that move done, I say do it.
The Jets have the potential for a great season, but they will need to make it happen and not simply hope for it.
Next up: the Vancouver Canucks.
Roger Millions is the Sports Columnist for the Western Standard
MILLIONS: Flames rebuild ready to burn
Roger Millions profiles the changes the Flames have made toward the 2021 season.
When the Calgary Flames fell to the Dallas Stars in last fall’s NHL Bubble Playoff, it became clear GM Brad Treliving was determined that his team would go forth with the motto “less is more”.
The franchise needs to drastically reduce the number of avoidable errors that led to so many goals against them last year. And most importantly, they need to put an immediate stop to the upheaval on the team. And it appears that they have.
What happened to Bill Peters was well documented. The ramifications to the Flames however was barely touched. Whether it was right or wrong while significant, didn’t really tell the whole story. Imagine the shock to the dressing room and the front office when that bomb dropped. No one was left untouched.
Fortunately for the Flames, Geoff Ward did a good job and was rewarded with a full-time gig. Treliving avoided unneeded time delay and additional questions by making this move. The general manager – while doing a great job – can ill afford another coaching mishap. No team can deal with that and he needs continuity. Like right now.
The passing of former President and CEO Ken King also was a factor. King was larger than life within the organization. John Bean is a fine replacement and his intelligent demeanor will provide a calming influence going forward.
The acquisition of free agent Jacob Markstrom showed the team clearly had enough stop gap measures. Again, a six-year contract with a $6,000,000 AAV means Markstrom will stop the revolving door, removing another key distraction. The Flames hope his outstanding performance as a Canuck will carry over to Calgary. Despite the risk, the move should provide a big reward.
Speaking of the Canucks, defenceman and former foe Christopher Tanev joined the Flames on the blueline. At age 31 – and known for his consistent performance in the defensive zone – he provides balance.
Mark Giordano at age 37 – while still a fine defender and former Norris Trophy winner – now has a stop gap defenceman to help the up-and-coming youth. Hanafin, Andersson, Jusso Valimaki and to a lesser degree Oliver Kylington represent the future. Tanev helps to bridge the gap.
TJ Brodie – a long-time defenceman for the organization – signed as a free agent in Toronto. A brilliant skater and gifted with puck, Brodie will help the Leafs, but his departure may also assist the Flames in another way. Brodie has had a challenging personal life with his wife’s illness and young child. Not to mention last year’s collapse on ice during practice. His health is better and moving closer to his Southern Ontario home will help him. It also clears the deck for younger Flames.
As does the departure of Travis Hamonic, who opted out of the playoffs in the fall. As I mentioned in my Canucks preview, Hamonic’s Calgary exit was not really a surprise. Perhaps another distraction is gone.
Up front, Treliving is starting to add some depth. That effort may help relieve some of the reliance on the tandem of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.
Both have talent, but the clock is ticking, especially for Gaudreau. Johnny has two years left on his contract paying 6.75 million per year. The suspicion is Gaudreau has been figured out by the league’s defenders. His size and strength forever in question, it now presents him with his greatest challenge. Can he remove those doubts? Was he indeed on the trading block? If so, those questions may be the reason he remains a Flame. I look for Gaudreau to be much improved, although I’m not so certain he remains in Calgary for the long term.
The Flames have some balance on the forward lines. Matthew Tkachuk – almost every team’s public enemy number one – is a born leader. His issue is staying healthy. He needs to show he can perform over a full season.
At 26 years of age, Elias Lindholm has been a steal. His overall game and skill set can be built around. He is going nowhere.
In the end, do the Flames have enough? Provided the new emphasis on goaltending and improved defensive play, the answer is yes. Playoffs and perhaps more than one round are entirely possible. However, if the pucks keep going in their net at the same pace as last year, they could very well be surpassed.
Roger Millions is the Sports Columnist for the Western Standard
MILLIONS: The age of the Oilers is about to dawn
Roger Millions writes the Oilers may have just have it takes to go all the way.
At first glance at the Edmonton Oilers training camp roster, you simply have to wonder out loud; ‘isn’t it time?’
They have the most dynamic and gifted player in the game. They have perhaps the second as well. A winning season and a playoff spot has to be inevitable.
Throw in year-two under the watchful eyes of GM Ken Holland and Head Coach Dave Tippett and the post season should be very much a reality. I have all the time in the world for the classy Holland and Tippett. They are solid individuals with outstanding pedigrees. The second season these two will be in charge will vault the Oilers into more than just contention.
It doesn’t hurt to have Connor McDavid. One veteran NHL defenceman I know well described McDavid with the puck as “frightening”. That coming from a former award winner himself. Toss the gaudy statistics aside and concentrate on what McDavid brings to the table, and it’s clear he’s ready to not only dazzle but to win. The million-dollar question remains: does he have the supporting cast to get the job done. For the most part, I believe he does.
Leon Draisaitl took the strange COVID-19 plagued season by storm a year ago and not only won the scoring title in the regular season, but the Hart Trophy as Most Valuable Player and the Ted Lindsay award as well. If those credentials don’t vault you to the next level in hockey what will?
Throw in free agent Kyle Turris for depth. The reliable and gifted Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as very good two-way centre. The youthful Kailer Yamamoto seems ready to blossom as the Oilers have an offensive bag of riches that most teams would drool over.
Sprinkle it Zach Kassian and Jujhar Khaira for size and sandpaper, and I don’t know what more a team could want up front.
The worry remains how the Oilers’ backend will stand up.
Goaltending may be the lone question mark. The experience of 32-year-old Mikko Koskinen and 38-year-old Mike Smith showed flashes of brilliance a year ago. They also showed a propensity for some below average net minding. Somehow, the 56-game shortened regular season will help Koskinen and Smith out. The reduced travel time for these elder statesmen can’t hurt either. Many experts have panned the Oilers chances because of these two – but if healthy – I have to believe they will improve.
The biggest difference for the Oilers may be their defence. Another year older for many of these kids should pay dividends. The loss of injured Oscar Klefbom is certainly a blow to Edmonton, but I have to believe that they have the depth to make up for it.
Darnell Nurse may be on the verge of stardom. I love his nasty streak and his skating ability.
Yet, it’s the potential of Ethan Bear and Evan Bouchard that makes me think the Oilers defence will grow in leaps and bounds. Bear – with a new contract – will anchor the team’s power play. And if and when he falters, free agent Tyson Barrie should carry some of the load. Bear is much more than a power play specialist, and being rewarded by Ken Holland to the tune of $ 2 million AAV over two seasons will be added incentive.
Bouchard will be the biggest addition, if not out of training camp, then as quick as possible. His game in Bakersfield in the American Hockey League was far better than most 20-year-old players would produce. This kid, now 21, can supply points, and as the London Knights in junior days gone by can attest, he has leadership qualities. The Oilers have a lot to look forward to with Bouchard, who I think will be an NHL star down the road.
It’s a very glowing review for the Oilers who are on the verge of coming of age. McDavid has been great and patient in his leadership. The disappointing days are coming to an end.
In fact, if they avoid the COVID-19 nastiness and major injury problems, this team will make the playoffs. And after that, with McDavid, anything is possible.
Rogers Millions is the Sports Columnist for the Western Standard
WATCH: Sports columnist Roger Millions on the 2021 NHL season
In his first broadcast appearance with the Western Standard, sports columnist Roger Millions talks to Cory Morgan about what to expect in this unique hickey season.
How are teams coping with the COVID-19 restrictions? What are the financial implications? What are gameplay implications?
Roger also speaks to his recent columns where he breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of the Winnipeg Jets and the Vancouver Canucks this season.
Millions also speaks of the Calgary Flames and what we have to look forward to.
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