BUFFALO: What a difference a year makes. In the Autumn of 2011, the Sabres looked so good forecasts had them finishing as high as fifth overall in the Eastern Conference. Having undergone a major character change — a tougher, meaner team — they impress critics enough to be considered for seventh overall which is better than missing the playoffs altogether as they did last Spring. What Buffalo will need most of all is a more consistent Ryan Miller in goal. Last year’s roller coaster season for the goaltender was conspicuously un-Miller-like. He started last semester a nasty 11-15-2 with a 3.00 goals against average; not good for the 2010 Vezina Trophy-winner.
RANGERS: While plenty of fuss and fanfare accompanied Chris Krieder’s playoff heroics, the Boston College grad tended to overshadow the potential of other Rangers hopefuls. Among those who’ll eventually be getting a closer look from coach John Tortorella are J.T. Miller, the center sensation from Plymouth of the Ontario Hockey League and Dylan McIlrath, the rugged defenseman who did most of his hitting for Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League. Not to be overlooked is former NHLer Stevie Thomas’ son Christian Thomas whose stickhandling dazzled the OHL during Christian’s stint with Oshawa of the OHL. A longer shot is Brady Skjei, drafted 28th overall last June. The defenseman’s skating ability is favorably rated with Ryan McDonagh.
ISLANDERS: Of all the Islanders who have skating under the radar none have the potential to make more of a noticeable impact this season than Frans Nielsen. Among the Danish center’s prime assets has been his crafty moves on the shootout. Last season the likeable Dane topped
all of his teammates when it came to the post-game one-on-one ringing up a hefty 63.6 percent average ahead of Matt Moulson’s 50 percent. Nielsen, who has reached the prime of his career, was 17-30-47, slotting him fourth overall in team scoring. The feeling in Uniondale is that the best is yet to come from Frans’ slick stick.
DEVILS: A lifetime Devil, Patrik Elias has reached the “tipping point” in his National Hockey League career while still in a commanding position among his peers. Hard as it may be for some more casual observers of the New Jersey hockey scene to believe, the 36-year-old multi-purpose forward was the second-leading scorer for the Newark sextet, finishing with 78 points (26-52) a full nine points ahead of Zach Parise and Elias played one less game to boot. Versatility was the Czech’s middle name last season and let’s not overlook Patrik’s positive influence on his buddy Petr Sykora whose 21 goals exceeded virtually everyone’s expectations. Perhaps the most interesting facet of the Elias Saga is all about where he goes from here — at the same level, better or slipping with age. Then again, there are those who remember how the respected forward was unceremoniously dislodged as captain by then coach Brent Sutter. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Elias could have the “C” affixed to his jersey once play resumes.
• Slowly but surely Seattle is looming as an NHL city. The fact that Oilers owner Daryl Katz recently visited the Northwest metropolis underlines the point. While Katz maybe using it as a ploy to jump start a new Oilers arena in Edmonton, the fact of the matter is that just about everybody in or out of the NHL is convinced that the time is soon coming for the long-awaited Vancouver-Seattle rivalry. Whether Katz gets his way – and a new barn for his Oilers – one way or the other you can figure that Seattle will be an NHL franchise within the next few years.
• Many books have been written about the Rangers over the years but one of the best that I’ve seen has just hit the bookstores. It’s called Battle on the Hudson: The Devils, the Rangers, and the NHL’s Greatest Series Ever. Author Tim Sullivan relives the renowned territorial battle of 1994 and details the epic Eastern Conference Finals battle between the Rangers and the Devils that forever changed the game of hockey. Sullivan, east coast sports editor and executive editor at the Associated Press, knows his stickhandlers. And for further authenticity the foreword is written by Stephane Matteau. Sullivan’s work is published by Triumph Books.