The New York Rangers got center Derek Stepan inked to an affordable short-term “bridge contract” now, but if Stepan keeps improving he’ll be a much more expensive re-signing come the summer of 2015.

Since his NHL debut three years ago, Stepan’s blossomed into the Rangers best center, leading the club last season in scoring.

The Rangers limited cap space forced them to re-sign Stepan to a more affordable $3.075 million per season than the rumored $5 million per he originally sought on a long-term deal. Had the salary cap not declined, perhaps he would’ve received a more lucrative deal this summer.

Of course the Blueshirts will be willing and able to pay considerably more in two years time for Stepan, especially if he remains among their leading scorers. The salary cap could reach $75 million by the summer of 2015, and they usually have little difficulty retaining their best players.

Stepan will also have arbitration rights, so don’t expect another lengthy contract standoff on his part.

 

Can the Oilers overcome losing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins & Sam Gagner to preseason injuries?

Can the Oilers overcome losing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins & Sam Gagner to preseason injuries?

The opening month of this season could be a rough one for the Edmonton Oilers.

Their two best centers – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner – are sidelined until November with injuries, forcing them to  find replacements from within, including moving winger Taylor Hall to center the first line.

This season is considered a crucial one for the Oilers, who’ve missed the playoffs seven straight years. Playing the first four-to-six weeks without their two best centers will be a significant test of their character, depth and the abilities of first-year NHL coach Dallas Eakins.

One bright spot was the preseason performance of David Perron, who was acquired from St. Louis this summer. If Perron can avoid injury and carry over his preseason scoring form into the regular season, he’ll provide a significant boost to their offensive attack.

 

Toronto Maple Leafs winger Phil Kessel was suspended for three preseason games for slashing at the legs of Buffalo Sabres enforcer John Scott during the recent donneybrook between the two clubs.

Though I certainly don’t condone Kessel’s actions, I can understand why he did it. Scott is nearly a foot taller and 70 pounds heavier than Kessel, who was probably scared witless when Scott followed through on a threat to jump him. I think Kessel’s first slash was instinctive and his second was fueled by adrenaline.

Scott apparently violated the “code” among NHL enforcers that you don’t attack your opponent’s best player. That could set up an interesting rematch between the two clubs in their first regular season game on November 15.

 

For the sake of the Florida Panthers and their fans, I hope new owner Vincent Viola is as committed to building and maintaining a winner as he claimed to be during his recent introductory press conference.

Since the turn of this century,the Panthers have been among the NHL’s sad-sack franchises, with a high turnover of stars, coaches and general managers. Since 2000 they’ve only made the playoffs once, while their attendance over that period significantly dropped, prompting whispers of relocation to Seattle or Quebec City. 

As with any struggling NHL market, build and maintain a winner (or at least try hard to do so) and the fans will come out. Nobody likes to watch a crappy team with no direction and no future. Give Florida hockey fans something worth cheering for on a consistent basis and the Panthers won’t need to offer significant ticket discounts to draw good crowds.

 

I’m not a fan of regular season predictions. The season is too long and too many variables are in play to make reasonably accurate predictions.

That being said, I suggest the Chicago Blackhawks stand a very good chance of repeating as Stanley Cup champions. While repeating is very difficult, the Blackhawks did a good job keeping the bulk of their championship roster intact this summer, which bolsters their chances.

They’ll face a stiff challenge from the Los Angeles Kings, who also kept most of their roster together and want to make amends for coming up short in last season’s Western Conference Final.

Keep an eye on the St. Louis Blues. They certainly have the depth in talent for a lengthy playoff run, but those hopes hinge upon goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott,who battled injuries and inconsistency since the 2012 playoffs.

In the Eastern Conference, the Cup Finalist Boston Bruins shook things up a bit in the off-season, replacing Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton with Loui Eriksson and Jarome Iginla. If those two become significant contributors, the Bruins could once again become the team to beat in that conference.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were swept by the Bruins in last spring’s Conference Final, but their depth in skilled talent is undeniable. Goaltending, however, remains a significant problem.  Once-reliable Marc-Andre Fleury struggled the past two years, while Tomas Vokoun is out indefinitely following surgery to dissolve a blood clot in his pelvis.

For the past several seasons the Washington Capitals garnered a reputation as a strong regular season club which came up small in the playoffs.

Alexander Ovechkin’s return last season to Hart Trophy form generated excitement over the club’s prospects for this season, but the Caps need more than his offensive prowess to get them deep in post-season.

Goaltending shouldn’t be an issue with rising star Braden Holtby. Healthy seasons from Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green will also bolster the Capitals offensive attack. Still, questions remain over their ability to stage a serious Cup run.

 

My “dark horse” teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences are the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Winnipeg Jets, and not just because they changed conferences over the summer.

The Blue Jackets have a Vezina-winning goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky. The return from the Rick Nash trade (Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov) worked out better than expected, while a healthy Marian Gaborik (another acquisition from the Blueshirts) could be a suitable replacement for the departed Nash. Their scoring punch should get stronger when free agent addition Nathan Horton (sidelined by off-season shoulder surgery) joins the lineup.

Concerns remain over their blueline depth and the health of Gaborik and Horton, while Bobrovsky will face significant pressure to maintain last season’s Vezina form. Still, their spirited effort during their late-season push for a playoff berth was impressive. While they fell just short, it could be a sign of the changing attitude of this once-moribund club.

As for the Jets, they don’t lack for individual talent in Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian. The biggest questions are their overall defensive game and the goaltending of Ondrej Pavelec.

Head coach Claude Noel’s future with the club will depend upon his club’s performance this season. If he can find a way to improve his club’s defensive weaknesses, they should be a playoff contender.

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