Mailbag: Breakout candidates, Devils backup goalie options

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Which player is going to have a breakout year? With a shortened season, is anyone hitting 50-plus goals or 100-plus points? — @mv_28_

I can’t just give you one player who could have a breakout year. There are so many to consider.

Among the rookies, there are obvious candidates like New York Rangers forward Alexis Lafreniere, Ottawa Senators forward Tim Stutzle, Minnesota Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov, Anaheim Ducks forward Trevor Zegras and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Bowen Byram, if he makes the lineup. Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin and New York Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin will be impact players. All could be in the running for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the NHL rookie of the year.

The not-so-obvious candidates among rookies are Rangers defenseman K’Andre Miller, San Jose Sharks forward John Leonard and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nicholas Robertson. Miller will start the season on the Rangers’ top pair with Jacob Trouba. Leonard could start on the Sharks’ second line. Robertson will get insulated behind forwards John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander and Joe Thornton, giving him some favorable matchups.

I think Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews will get noticed more than he did last season with the Islanders. Colorado is my favorite to win the Stanley Cup, and Toews could play a lot with Cale Makar, my favorite for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the best defenseman in the NHL. Nick Suzuki could be the Montreal Canadiens’ No. 1 center, taking a lot of offensive zone face-offs. He may have a big season. So could Vegas Golden Knights center Cody Glass, who might toggle between the second and third line. Glass will also take a lot of offensive zone face-offs and could get some time in between Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, a good place to play for any center.

As for 50-plus goals and 100-plus points, those are elite numbers in an 82-game season. Though I won’t say no for sure (yes, Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid can do it), I will say that I’d be shocked if anyone hit those numbers in a 56-game season.

Video: Fans’ choice for best in NHL North Division

 

Who is the better option, Ilya Sorokin or Igor Shesterkin? And if you needed to grab one of their backups, which pair would it be? — @bengoldberg1

Shesterkin is the better option if you’re asking me for your fantasy hockey pool. Sorokin is going to play behind Semyon Varlamov at least at the start of the season. Varlamov is the Islanders’ No. 1 goalie, coach Barry Trotz said Sunday, and expected to start when they open the season against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. Sorokin will play, and how he plays will dictate how the Islanders’ goalie rotation plays out this season. If he plays well and Varlamov continues to play at his usual level, I see it being close to a 50-50 split for the Islanders. But Sorokin’s playing time is more of a question mark right now than Shesterkin’s with the Rangers.

Shesterkin is not being tabbed as the Rangers’ No. 1 by coach David Quinn because Alexandar Georgiev will also get plenty of playing time. The Rangers view it as having two Grade A options. They’re not wrong, but I’d be surprised if Shesterkin is not the starter against the Islanders and if Shesterkin, if healthy all season, doesn’t get at least 30 starts. Georgiev certainly will play, and he’s a legit NHL goalie, so I expect him to play well.

If you need one of them in your pool, I’d go with Shesterkin. If you’re looking to take two from the same team, at least based on history, I’d go with Varlamov and Sorokin because of Varlamov’s experience and because the Islanders are at this point more reliable in the defensive zone with their system than the Rangers, who have plenty to prove in that area.

 

Where do you see weaknesses on the Washington Capitals? I think they have a legitimate chance to win it all again this year if their key players stay healthy. Do you agree or not? — @puckhunter2020

I agree. The Capitals will be in the mix all season. In our season predictions, I have them third in the MassMutual East Division behind the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins, one spot ahead of the Islanders. They’re a veteran team that obviously needs its core players to stay healthy, but I think the same can be said for a lot of teams. The question for the Capitals, or the one area of perceived weakness, is goaltending. It’s Ilya Samsonov and then what? If Henrik Lundqvist were healthy and playing, I would object to anyone who questioned the Capitals’ goalie depth, but Lundqvist won’t be there this season because of a heart condition that required open-heart surgery.

So the Capitals lack quality depth behind Samsonov, a 23-year-old who has played 26 NHL games (22 starts) and is coming off an injury that prevented him from playing in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. His backup right now is Vitek Vanecek, who has no NHL experience. Goaltending is a big question mark for the Capitals. That’s not to say Samsonov can’t be the answer, but he and Vanecek have so much to prove and not much time to prove it this season.

Video: Fans’ choice for best in NHL East DivisionS

 

With Corey Crawford deciding to hang up the skates, what options do you think make the most sense for the New Jersey Devils, who are now in the market for a 1B/No. 2 goalie? — @Rob_Oswald

I have four names to consider, but I’m not sure the Devils will get someone to replace Crawford, who announced his retirement from the NHL on Saturday, roughly three months after agreeing to a two-year, $7.8 million contract with New Jersey. The Devils have Scott Wedgewood, a 28-year-old with 24 games of NHL experience who they initially brought back to be their No. 3 goalie. They claimed Eric Comrie, a 25-year-old who’s played eight NHL games, off waivers from the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday. Either could play behind Mackenzie Blackwood, a 24-year-old who has played 70 NHL games. Blackwood is supposed to develop into a bona fide No. 1 goalie, so the Devils might leave Wedgewood and Comrie as the 2A and 2B options behind him and ride it that way. That could make sense too if the Devils don’t want to give up an asset for a goalie who might play 20 games for them, if that many. But if they stick to what they thought initially, they’ll consider a veteran goalie a need.

The top option on the unrestricted free agent market is former Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, who is 36 years old and was 2-23-0 with a 4.20 goals-against average and .882 save percentage last season. Take those numbers and put them aside because the Red Wings were the worst team in the NHL last season (17-49-5, .275 points percentage), and Howard was hung out to dry on many nights. He is an experienced NHL goalie and could help Blackwood find his way as a No. 1, but he’s clearly not the goalie he once was.

If Howard is not a palatable option, I give you Aaron Dell, who is with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Devils would have to acquire Dell in a trade, so maybe that’s why he remains the third goalie on the Maple Leafs roster. Toronto could roll with Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell as their top two goalies, with Michael Hutchinson on the taxi squad as the No. 3. It makes Dell somewhat expendable.

And if you’re not in love with Dell, the Devils could look to the Arizona Coyotes and check in on the potential for Antti Raanta or Adin Hill. Each is in the final year of his contract. Darcy Kuemper is the established No. 1, but the Coyotes have hopes of making the playoffs, so they could be less inclined to think about moving Raanta. Hill might be a more realistic option, but that also remains to be seen because of the importance of goaltending depth.

 

I would like to know if there is any player that can get to 50 goals in 50 games again? — @aaroneh09

Sure, why not? I mean, we can all dream, right?

Scoring 50 goals in 50 games has been accomplished eight times by five players in the NHL, and not since Brett Hull in 1991-92.

The players I consider to be the best candidates to do it are Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, Jets forward Patrik Laine and Bruins right wing David Pastrnak.

Pastrnak scored 48 goals in 69 games last season. He played 70 but didn’t score in the 70th game. Matthews scored 47 goals in 70 games. Laine scored 28 goals in 68 games, but three seasons ago he scored 44 in 80.

If that doesn’t tell you how difficult it is to score 50 in 50, I’m not sure what will. But if someone is going to do it, I think it’ll be one of those three.

Let me also mention that I won’t rule out Alex Ovechkin, arguably the best goal-scorer of all time.

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