The NHL landscape has changed drastically over the past seven weeks. This seven-week window has included the NHL Entry Draft, the start of free agency, and all 30 teams' prospect development camps. With that in mind we will begin a series of articles looking at each division on a team-by-team basis to discern the important alterations that affect Fantasy hockey. We will look at departures, additions, as well as those rookies/prospects that are knocking on the proverbial door for key roster spots. This examination will not cover every player movement but rather those that are considered more pertinent for roto players. Thus don't be concerned if most fourth liners are omitted.
Carolina has little in the way of turnover amongst its top nine. The first line was exceptional last season, and it was a coming-out party for Jiri Tlusty (23 goals, 38 points in 48 games). His ascension is another classic example of seizing the day when opportunity knocks. Playing with Eric Staal and Alex Semin gave Tlusty a glorious chance to put up numbers and he made the most of it. Semin himself was on a one-year deal and he proved he could still score with 13 goals and 44 points in 44 games. Having captain Staal (18 goals, 53 points in 48 games) centering him helped him produce and thus get re-signed to a longer-term deal. The elder Staal, like Sidney Crosby, makes others around him better. Ironically, the two pivots are expected to play together on the same line for Team Canada in Sochi.
The second line has skill and grit, with Ruutu's injury issues currently at bay. Ruutu missed most of last season due to 2012 offseason shoulder surgery, seeing action in only 17 games. Ruutu had averaged 19 goals per season over the previous four seasons prior to last year. Jordan Staal's first season in Carolina played to mixed reviews, with 31 points and a minus-18 rating in 48 games. The younger Staal and winger Jeff Skinner (24 points in 42 games) should be better acquainted after last season's 48-game campaign. Hopefully a full season from Ruutu will help his linemates' numbers improve from last year. When injuries strike, however, former Sabre Nathan Gerbe may get his own opportunity. Until then Gerbe will be competing for the third line left wing spot with Kevin Westgarth. Brett Sutter will be the third line center and one of Zac Dalpe or Drayson Bowman will man the other spot, as former Cane Chad LaRose remains a UFA after eight years in Carolina. Dalpe has been putting up decent numbers in the AHL over the past three years but has yet to crack the Canes' lineup as a regular.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets have some interchangeable parts among their top nine but the two spots that are crystal clear locks are Marian Gaborik at No. 1 right wing and new addition Nathan Horton at second line right wing. Horton took the most money and the least pressure, many said when he signed as a free agent with Columbus for seven years and a whopping $35 million but he'll be expected to live up to the terms of that deal. Moreover, Columbus has the look of a playoff team for the first time in years (ever?). He won't be getting the kind of free ride that people think. While the talent level drops off after Gaborik and Horton that can be said of most teams after their top two forwards. Columbus has Mark Letestu, Ryan Johansen and Artem Anisimov at center. Letestu finished last season as the No. 1 center and he's likely to stay there for at least another year while Johansen continues to develop. Anisimov is perfectly suited for third line duty, as he's big and responsible in his own zone. Columbus' left-wingers include Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, and Matt Calvert. Atkinson is the most offensively gifted while Dubinsky and Foligno are physical players with top-six ability. Foligno can also play center.
Longtime Blue Jacket R.J. Umberger can play anywhere in the lineup at any forward position. We see him anchoring a tough two-way third line alongside Anisimov and one of Foligno or Calvert. However, with Horton (shoulder surgery) not expected to be ready until December or possibly January, Umberger should start the season on the second line. Blake Comeau was added in free agency to provide a little extra depth on the wing, as both Gaborik (shoulder) and Horton (concussion symptoms) have had injury issues over the years.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils offense loses a top-10 league-wide talent. The impact cannot be discounted. That's the first thing you realize when contemplating the Devils' 2013-14 season. You cannot replace a player like Ilya Kovalchuk, especially after he waits until most of the 2013 prime free agents are signed to announce his retirement from the NHL.
It's not all gloom and doom, however, as they did add free agent forwards Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder and Jaromir Jagr. The Newfoundland natives could form two-thirds of the first line, alongside Travis Zajac. The reasons are many with the first most obvious reason being the idea of putting the two Czech nationals Patrik Elias and Jagr together. Some pundits wonder whether the 42-year-old Jagr can keep up with Elias but the general impression is that they'll try to match them up for at least the first 10-20 games. If so the first line will start as listed above. Ryder owners, though, have to be nervous about Jagr stealing first power play minutes at right wing.
The third line has some potential, more so if the former L.A. King first-round pick Loktionov can continue to develop his game. Normally a sixth-round draft pick who's 20 has a limited ceiling but Myles Bell could very well prove to be the exception that proves the rule. Bell was an offensive defenseman in junior hockey with obvious skill but some maturity issues. A fatal car crash changed everything. His girlfriend died but he survived. Fast forward to last season when he was moved up to the wing. He scored 38 goals and 55 assists for 93 points in 69 WHL games for Kelowna. His experience as a defenseman apparently didn't hurt at forward, as he was a plus-46. While we fully expect him to start the year on New Jersey's AHL team, he's a name to remember - as is Reid Boucher. Boucher, at 19, is a year younger than Bell who turned 20 in June. Boucher was the first team all-league left-wing selection for the Ontario Hockey League last season while scoring 62 goals and 95 points in 68 games for Sarnia.
The overall team offense remains uncertain with all the new faces so re-signing power play quarterback Marek Zidlicky was all the more important. Zidlicky's return should help the power play, and Clowe could provide a physical net presence to the power play that they've lacked recently.
New York Islanders
The Isles are set for their top nine and it's quite possible that top prospect Ryan Strome starts the year in the AHL. Newcomer Pierre-Marc Bouchard takes over the top right wing spot from Brad Boyes, who was not brought back after his one-year deal expired. While the 29-year-old Bouchard has been an NHL regular since he was 18, he's never had a chance to play with a talent like John Tavares. If Bouchard can stay healthy, and that's a major "if" due to his concussion history, he has the skill to put up 60+ points. If injury strikes there will be a plethora of options to replace him in Kyle Okposo, Cal Clutterbuck or Strome (though a natural center). Okposo has spent some time previously with Tavares but newcomer Clutterbuck also has a history with the Isles' star center. Clutterbuck and Tavares were teammates and sometime linemates when they played junior hockey for the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League.
Speaking of familiarity, the second line has a lot of it as they've been together for a few seasons now. Last season, though, was a disappointment production-wise for the unit. Okposo's goal production dropped from 24 goals in 79 games in 2011-12 to just four goals last year in 48 games while Nielson's dropped from 17 goals in 82 games to six goals in 48 games. Josh Bailey was the best of the three with 11 goals in 38 games.
The third line has an interesting mix of skill and speed with the former 30-goal scorer Michael Grabner on the left wing, young two-way center Casey Cizikas in the middle, and the gritty tough guy Clutterbuck. Clutterbuck has decent hands for a brawler, with an average of 16 goals per season between 2009-10 thru the 2011-12 season, so this line could surprise.
While the team offense looks fairly promising with a highly-effective first line, a second line intact but motivated to improve upon last season's below level numbers, and a third line that's got a big injection of hustle and toughness, injuries will inevitably lead to Strome getting into the lineup. As far as the newcomers, we know what Bouchard and Clutterbuck are capable of bringing to the table but Strome remains the unknown, in terms of both opportunity and production.
New York Rangers
While Derek Stepan finished last season centering the top line, new coach Alain Vigneault is likely to switch back to the veteran Brad Richards to start the year. The Richards-Nash combo could have a revolving door at left wing if youngster Chris Kreider doesn't maximize both his opportunity and skill set. If Kreider stumbles Carl Hagelin or free-agent addition Benoit Pouliot would step in. As it stands now the second line features Michigan alumns Stepan and Hagelin playing alongside captain Ryan Callahan.
The third line should enjoy some skill - Mats Zuccarello, possibly Pouliot - as well as grit in either center Brian Boyle and/or Dominic Moore. Boyle had a lousy 2012-13 season with just five points and a minus-13 rating in 38 games and was a healthy scratch for most of the other 10 games. Moore, who missed last season due to the tragic passing of his wife from cancer, may start on the fourth line and work his way up. Either way, his addition gives the team another smart two-way forward who can play center or wing from line two to line four. Pouliot, who had 20 points in 34 games for Tampa bay last season, is running out of chances but remains a big (6-3,200) talented (taken 4th overall in '05) winger who's still just 26. Pouliot is clearly a low-risk signing by the blue shirts. Left wing prospect J.T. Miller, drafted by the Rangers 15th overall in 2011, will probably start this coming season in the AHL. Miller played 42 AHL games last year with 23 points and 26 NHL games earning four points.
The Penguins re-signed Pascal Dupuis thereby enabling their top six to stay practically intact from last season. The Pens' first line speaks to the greatness of Sidney Crosby. Would either Dupuis or Chris Kunitz be first line wingers on most NHL teams? No, they wouldn't. Crosby makes them better. Pittsburgh can then put their most talented scoring winger - James Neal - on their second line with arguably the third most talented player in the league - Evgeni Malkin. Beau Bennett is the only new addition to the top six, though he saw some time last season after his call up from the AHL putting up 14 points in 26 games. Bennett's inclusion on the second line with Malkin and Neal could quickly make him roto worthy in many leagues. If Bennett struggles mightily, though, the team has a good insurance policy in Jussi Jokinen. Jokinen, a trade deadline acquisition last season from Carolina, is a proven top-six forward who can play left wing or center.
For now Jokinen will play on an unsung but talented third line with Brandon Sutter and former Hab/Blue Matt D'Agostini. D'Agostini is a former top six forward who's fallen on hard times/injuries of late after scoring 21 goals for St. Louis in 2010-11. He's only played a total of 84 games since he played the full 82 game schedule for S. Louis in 2010-11. If he can stay healthy and find his form of a few seasons past, D'Agostini could work his way into a top six opportunity himself. Either way the Pens have a good third line.
Philly brings back its very effective first line, the only uncertainty is whether Claude Giroux will be full healed from hand surgery in time for the first game of the regular season. He's not expected to miss much time, if any. The 12-year veteran Scott Hartnell will be looking to bounce back from a horrendous season in which he scored just eight goals and 12 points in 32 games. Meanwhile Jakub Voracek will be trying to continue on from last season's breakout campaign that saw him score 22 goals and 46 points in 48 games.
The Flyers lose Daniel Briere but add Vincent Lecavalier (10 goals, 32 points in 39 games). That sounds fairly even but one can argue successfully that Vinny is younger and bigger than Dany. Also, unlike Briere, this is the first time that Lecavalier has been traded. He'll be uber motivated to prove that he's still got it. The youngster Brayden Schenn (8 goals, 26 points in 47 games), who will move over to second line left wing from center with the addition of Lecavalier, should have more room to work with Lecavalier and Simmonds (15 goals, 32 points in 45 games) both capable of playing big physical hockey. Schenn's still developing and this line has a chance to be very hostile and productive.
The third line isn't particularly flashy but it certainly will be hard to play against. It's simply a solid two-way trio of forwards that can play very physical. Matt Read would be the most likely to move up should an injury befell a member of the top six.
Switching from left wing last season to right wing eventually paid off for Alexander Ovechkin. Ovie's second half surge propelled him to the Maurice Richard Trophy leading the league in goals with 32. It was the third time he's won the coveted trophy. Backstrom, with 48 points in 48 games, has averaged at least a point per game in four of his last five NHL seasons missing only in 2010-11 when he had 65 points in 77 games.
Speaking of consistency, the second line was bolstered at last season's trade deadline with the addition of Martin Erat. Erat had scored at least 16 goals and 49 points in eight straight seasons prior to last year's shortened campaign. The second line center spot has undergone a change as Mike Ribeiro (49 points in 48 games) left in free agency. Though GM George McPhee initially refused to cave in to public pressure and sign free agent center Mikhail Grabovski insisting that they didn't need him, McPhee eventually capitulated and signed him Aug. 22. Brooks Laich had been McPhee's initial choice for the job. While there's no doubt Laich is a quality player and a quality human being (remember when he stopped to help a stranger change a flat tire?), he is not as gifted offensively as Grabovski. As such, Grabo's arrival could mean third line center duty for Laich, who was a center in junior before being converted to left wing as a pro. Erat and Troy Brouwer are better players at this point in their careers than Laich. Brouwer brings a hardnosed work ethic with underrated hands (19 goals, 33 points in 47 games). Either way, Grabovski seems like a good fit on this team. Moreover they now have some extra depth with seven legitimate top six forwards on the roster.
Aside from Laich, another possibility for third line center is Mathieu Perreault, a talented if somewhat undersized player. For now we're penciling in Laich ahead of him in at third line pivot with veteran checking forwards Jason Chimera and Joel Ward on his wings. Unfortunately for the Caps, top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov is staying in Russia for another KHL season. The 21-year-old has scored 38 goals and 88 points in his last 100 KHL games over the past two seasons. While he's expected to join the Caps in time for the 2014-15 season, he could join them as soon as next spring after the end of the KHL season.