By Allan Muir
The storylines are the same almost everywhere you look around the league. The Rangers need more scoring. Blue Jackets hope to increase offense. Bruins need to improve power play.
That desire to light the lamp with greater frequency isn't an isolated issue. Scoring has steadily decreased since the 2004-05 lockout, and while there's little that can be done about the root causes -- stringent attention to defense and goalies who are bigger and better trained than ever -- that hasn't stopped the NHL from trying to solve the problem anyway.
In his cover story for this week's NHL preview issue of SI magazine, Michael Farber visits with Kay Whitmore, the NHL's "goalie cop" who is spearheading the effort to cut netminders down to size. The league has imposed a new series of restrictions on the size of goalie equipment for this season, shortening leg pads by about two inches (depending on the height of the goalie). This, in theory, creates a five-hole that's about four inches wider when a keeper drops to his knees in the butterfly position. Most will quickly close it, but even a split-second opening could lead to some pucks slipping through that would easily have been blocked in the past.
There's also a reformatted net that's shallower -- creating more space behind the net for playmaking and allowing for quicker wraparound opportunities -- and with different corners that create new angles for shooters to exploit.
They're both good ideas, and should pay off with bigger numbers for traditional sharpshooters like Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
But those guys were always going to put up their share of points. That means teams will be looking within for something extra from players who are ready to step up and handle a bigger share of the load.
Here are some of the guys who could be up to the task.
GALLERY: NHL's greatest offensive performances
Seguin was a natural center stagnating as a third line right wing in Boston. Benn was a natural wing overwhelmed by the responsibilities that come with playing up the middle. Now lining up together in Dallas, with each back in his preferred position, the duo is poised to spearhead the revival of that moribund franchise. “They both play the game at such a high pace, so they bring out the best in each other,” an Eastern Conference scout told SI.com. “There's already a chemistry there, and that's something that will continue to develop over the course of the season.” Seguin was a volume shooter in Boston, but he'll be more successful in Dallas by relying on his playmaking skills. Benn, a tremendous physical force, could become a top-10 goal scorer thanks to a quick release and the willingness to battle for space down low. Both players should flirt with point-per-game production.
While four 30-goal seasons disqualify him as a classic breakthrough player, Ryan is on the verge of a special season in Ottawa. Always cast as a complementary scorer while with the Ducks, he'll be the primary finisher with the Sens, and with premier playmakers like Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson putting it on the tee for him, Ryan should top his previous career bests of 35 goals and 71 points. To get there, though, he'll have to do significantly more damage on the power play, where he had just 10 goals in his last 210 games with Anaheim. It should help that he'll be a fixture on the top unit in Ottawa after being used primarily in the second grouping with the Ducks.
Skating left wing on a line that includes former MVP Evgeni Malkin and 40-goal man James Neal sounds like the sort of role in which a fire hydrant could excel, but it hasn't been easy for coach Dan Byslma to find the right fit. Enter Bennett, a growing boy (6'-2", 205 pounds), with an appetite for physical play and a decent set of mitts to go along with it. “He's got quick feet and a real hunger for the puck, so he can be the first man in on the puck, working the boards, winning the battles and setting up the big boys,” the scout said. “He can finish, too. He has a great shot and a knack for finding space for himself.” Bennett, who has 14 points in 26 games as a rookie, could be a 20-40-60 guy if he sticks on the second line.
Opportunity is everything in the NHL, and Frattin -- a spare part in his Toronto days -- is seizing his after being dealt to Los Angeles in the Jonathan Bernier trade. The Kings had a vacancy on the second line alongside Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and the north/south style of the ex-Leaf makes him a perfect fit for the high-intensity duo. “He's someone who has more skill than he showed in Toronto,” a scout said. “He's a strong skater and has a terrific shot. He'll do a lot of the dirty work for that line, but he can make plays, too.” 15 goals and 45 points -- triple his career high -- isn't out of the question.
Sergei Gonchar took his talents to Dallas, leaving an opening on what should be a lethal power play in Ottawa. Wiercioch, a 6'-5", 210-pound beast of a defender, seems likely to inherit the enviable position as Erik Karlsson's partner with the extra man. It'll require some adjustment -- he'd have to switch to the right side after playing on the left all his life -- but he has the tools to make it work. “He can really bring it from the point,” our scout said. “Just a great shot. He'll give that unit a whole different look.”
Maybe it's best not to expect too much of a second-year player who played at Harvard just two seasons ago, but Killorn looks like a guy who can dodge the sophomore slump. With question marks up and down Tampa's left side, he's a good bet to claim a top-six role and could end up skating alongside Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos on the top line. “He'll shoot from anywhere on the ice,” our scout said. “He's one of those guys who can catch a goalie napping. You watch. He'll be someone who takes advantage of the [new shorter goalie pads]. He'd bring a nice physical element to that [Stamkos] line. Wouldn't surprise me if he gets a look there.”
Last year was supposed to be the big breakout season for Schenn, a player who has been hyped consistently since he was acquired by the Flyers back in 2011. Instead, it was a series of tough lessons. He struggled at both ends of the ice and while he showed an improved playmaker's touch, he produced just eight goals -- a major disappointment.
This time around, the 22-year-old will slot in as a left wing on a line with Vincent Lecavalier and Wayne Simmonds. With the former Lightning great setting up the plays and Simmonds working the boards, Schenn can focus on regaining his confidence around the net. “He's a handful down low, a real tough guy to move when he sets up,” the scout said. “Deflections, rebounds, tips . . . you know, he won't score a lot of pretty ones, but he'll score a lot more this season.” We think 20-25 goals seems like a good bet.
Just entering his third season, Hodgson's game remains a work in progress, particularly when he's playing without the puck. But when he has the biscuit, he boasts some of the best instincts in the league. Newly signed and installed on Buffalo's first line, Hodgson is primed for a career year as long as, our scout says, he commits to shooting the puck more often. He scored 19 goals as a rookie while taking just 154 shots -- a total that 151 players topped last season. The temptation will always be there to dish it off to Thomas Vanek -- and he'll pick up plenty of points that way -- but he has the hands and timing to score 30 this time around. “I'd like to see him be a little more selfish,” the scout said.
With 17 goals in just 48 games as a rookie, Yakupov proved tha he knows his way around the net. He finished hot, scoring eight goals in his final nine contests . . . and that success wasn't a coincidence. He was trusted with a heavier workload down the stretch, playing a season-high 18:47 in the team's season finale and responding with his first career hat trick. After seeing around 14 minutes per game as a rookie, he probably would have gone on to at least 16 or so this season, but with Edmonton's top-six in flux due to injuries, he'll be sent over the boards more frequently. As long as he gets more pucks to the net (he averaged just 1.7 per game last season), he should net 30-35 goals this season.
Fans have been waiting for this young Dane to establish himself as a consistently dangerous offensive weapon ever since he was drafted eighth overall back in 2008. The tools are there. He''s blessed with great wheels, good hands and high-end hockey sense, but the finish has been missing. He scored just seven goals last season after netting 11 the year before, and there are some who think he'll always be a player who leaves you wanting more. So that's why this season is so pivotal. He has an opportunity that he's never had before -- the chance to skate with an elite playmaker in Mike Ribeiro -- and motivation to produce after settling for a two-year, $5.1 million contract that was more of a challenge than a reward. Look for him to come through with 20-25 goals.
Increased ice time is a key vector when considering players whose performance might improve from one season to the next. Byfuglien, however, can't play much more than he already has for the Jets, averaging more than 20 minutes a night at even strength and more than 24 in total to lead the team in both categories. But those were fat minutes -- he reportedly weighed more than 300 pounds at the end of last season. This year, he's come to camp in the best shape of his life, either inspired by the chance to make Team USA for Sochi or just sick and tired of being a lard ass. That should allow him to get the most out of his skating and allow him to maintain his level of play late in the game, and later in the season. It's clear that 53 points is an underwhelming career best for a player of his abilities. Look for him to smash it this season.
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