Mailbag: Oilers, Maple Leafs, Islanders, Panthers primed for playoff run

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Who exorcises their demons first: the Edmonton Oilers getting past the first round, the Toronto Maple Leafs getting past the first round or the New York Islanders getting past the Tampa Bay Lightning/Eastern Conference Final? — @mikeybox

All three happen this season.

A concern for the Oilers and Maple Leafs is goaltending. Edmonton has Mike Smith, a 39-year-old coming off an impressive season when he was 21-6-2 with a 2.31 goals-against average, .923 save percentage and three shutouts in 32 games (30 starts). Can he duplicate that at his age and across an 82-game season? Yes, but the Oilers will need more from Mikko Koskinen through the regular season so Smith can stay fresh and ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Koskinen did not impress last season, going 13-13-0 with a 3.17 GAA and .899 save percentage in 26 games (25 starts).

The Maple Leafs have Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek after moving on from Frederik Andersen, who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. Campbell is the one to watch after going 17-3-2 with a 2.15 GAA, .921 save percentage and two shutouts in 22 games. Is that the start of a strong run for the 29-year-old goalie, the No. 11 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, or is it fool’s gold? Mrazek is used to playing in a 1A/1B situation after doing it the past few seasons with James Reimer for Carolina.

If the goaltending holds up, the Oilers and Maple Leafs are good enough elsewhere to win in the playoffs. They need to establish a four-line, grinding mentality in the regular season that they can seamlessly transfer into postseason hockey. Toronto hasn’t gotten out of the first round since 2004. 

The Islanders have no holes and a ton of experience after losing to the Lightning in the 2020 Eastern Conference Final and 2021 Stanley Cup Semifinals. They were one goal away from going to the Stanley Cup Final last season. If they reverse the score and win 1-0 against the Lightning in Game 7, we might be talking about them as the defending Stanley Cup champions. 

I’m picking the Islanders to go to the Stanley Cup Final this season. They’re deep up front, particularly at center with Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Casey Cizikas running lines one through four, respectively. The return of Anders Lee from his knee injury is huge. He’s one of the top power forwards in the NHL. It’s time for Oliver Wahlstrom to become a main scoring threat with his strong shot. 

New York has enviable size on defense with Adam Pelech (6-foot-3), Ryan Pulock (6-2), Scott Mayfield (6-5), Noah Dobson (6-4) and Zdeno Chara (6-9). The Islanders will miss Nick Leddy‘s skating; the defenseman was traded to the Detroit Red Wings. But this is where Dobson, a 21-year-old entering his third season, must be relied on to step up. Their goaltending is strong too with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin.

 

Let’s talk about the Florida Panthers. General manager Bill Zito seems to be on a mission. Could the Panthers be primed for a deep playoff run? Can this 1-2 punch of Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight be effective? Will Aleksander Barkov finally get the attention he deserves? — @theashcity

Yes, the Panthers are primed for a playoff run. The Islanders are my pick to go to the Stanley Cup Final, but Florida is good enough to be their opponent in the Eastern Conference Final. 

They saw what it takes last season in their six-game loss to the Lightning the best-of-7 Stanley Cup First Round. They used three goalies, and Knight, a 20-year-old, was better than Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger, who is now with the Seattle Kraken. Knight’s mental makeup and technical play give him a chance to be a successful No. 1 for a long time. The way he handled himself in the playoffs, albeit two games, is an indication of how special he can be. He was unfazed by the moment and the team he was facing. He stayed even-keeled and recognized the value of the experience. Bobrovsky will have to be the Bobrovsky of old to fend off Knight. 

Barkov’s talent is already recognized. He won the Selke Trophy last season voted as the top defensive forward in the NHL. He was sixth in voting for the Hart Trophy (MVP) and sixth in voting for the NHL All-Star team at center. He’s not underrated anymore.

The return of defenseman Aaron Ekblad from a broken left leg and subsequent surgery, and the addition of forward Sam Reinhart, will be big for the Panthers. They should be a strong possession team after finishing last season fifth in shot-attempts percentage (53.5 percent). Sam Bennett could be a solid No. 2 center behind Barkov, especially if he keeps playing with Jonathan Huberdeau. Florida’s depth up front is particularly strong with Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair coming off their best seasons. Verhaeghe scored 36 points (18 goals, 18 assists) in 43 games playing primarily on the top line with Barkov. Duclair scored 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) in 43 games.

Video: Florida Panthers 2021-22 Season Preview

 

Even though the New York Rangers didn’t make a splash this offseason do you see them as the team that takes the biggest step this year? — @JB_NYRfan

The Rangers should be a playoff team. Anything short of that should be viewed as a disappointment. They’re ready to be a playoff team in a full NHL season for the first time since 2017. I have them finishing third in the Metropolitan Division.

They addressed areas of weakness in the offseason. They’re deeper and grittier up front with the additions of Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais and Ryan Reaves. Adding defenseman Patrik Nemeth to play a third-pair role with either Nils Lundkvist or Zac Jones gives the Rangers a physical, stay-at-home presence to help their speedy, offensive-minded rookies at the position. 

The Rangers should have more pushback. They should forecheck harder, play in straighter lines, and generate more puck-possession time. Their forwards should have more defined roles, especially if Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov and Filip Chytil deliver on their potential. Lafreniere will get a chance to play with center Mika Zibanejad, and Kakko will be on the same line as left wing Artemi Panarin. Chytil and Kravtsov need to be effective two-way players if they’re playing with Goodrow on the third line, leaving a likely meaty fourth line of Reaves with Kevin Rooney and Blais. They will be successful in part because of their forward depth, whereas in the past few seasons they were hurt by the lack of identity in their bottom six.

 

Where do you see Kirill Kaprizov finishing this year among goals and points leaders? — @LetsgetKraken19

Kaprizov, the Minnesota Wild forward, should be top 10 in goals and at least top 30 in points if he continues his progression from last season, when he was eighth in goals (27) and tied for 22nd in points (51) in 55 games, a 40-goal and 76-point pace for an 82-game season. He won the Calder Trophy voted as the NHL rookie of the year. In 2018-19, the last 82-game NHL season, 40 goals would have been tied for 12th and 76 points tied for 35th. But Kaprizov has a better understanding of the NHL now and what he’s capable of doing. He should have the confidence to push his game more, generate more off the rush and that should create more scoring chances and/or power-play opportunities. He could play more minutes, perhaps near 20 per game, up from 18:18 last season, and that could mean some extra goals or points. With good health, Kaprizov should be about a 40-40 player, meaning 40 goals and 40 assists for 80 points.

 

How do you see the San Jose Sharks adapting to not having Evander Kane in the lineup to start the season? — @BleedingTeal

Kane’s expected absence because of off-ice issues will cause a ripple effect through the Sharks’ forward group and will require more from everyone, most notably some inexperienced players who may or may not be ready for a bigger role. Kane led the Sharks with 49 points (22 goals, 27 assists) last season.

Nothing changes for Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc. The Sharks were already planning to rely heavily on them with Kane. The pressure might increase because of Kane’s absence, but those four were going to have to produce anyway if the Sharks have any chance of reaching the playoffs.

Where it gets interesting is with players like Alexander Barabanov, John Leonard, Jonathan Dahlen, Alexander Chmelevski and Noah Gregor. It’s unrealistic to think they’ll all get a chance for a bigger role, but the Sharks will need two or three from that group to step up. Remember, San Jose was 25th in scoring last season (2.61 goals per game) and 29th on the power play (14.1 percent) with Kane. 

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