NHL preview, Madison style: Ten storylines with UW impact

2011-10-06T04:45:00Z NHL preview, Madison style: Ten storylines with UW impactJASON KARNOSKY | jkarnosky@madison.com | Twitter: @JKarnosky madison.com

With 17 former University of Wisconsin men's hockey players on National Hockey League rosters heading into the start of the season Thursday, there are no shortage of storylines with local angles. Here are the Top 10:

1. New Digs For Heatley

It was another eventful summer for Dany Heatley. Coming off a difficult season in which he managed just 26 goals and 64 points for the San Jose Sharks -- his lowest totals since an injury-shortened 2003-04 campaign -- the rugged winger was shipped to Minnesota in exchange for Martin Havlat, another former sniper with question marks. Desperate for offense, the Wild are rolling the dice on the former Badgers All-American, hoping that he can return to the 50-goal output he achieved in back-to-back seasons from 2005-07. A fresh start in Minnesota might represent the last stand for the 30-year-old Heatley, whose career is headed in the wrong direction.

2. Can Pavelski help the Sharks over the hump?

For the second straight season, ex-Badgers forward Joe Pavelski and the San Jose Sharks reached the Western Conference finals, and once again their postseason run ended there. The Sharks' big offseason changes didn't stop with the acquisition of Havlat; they also snared talented defender Brent Burns. Anything short of the franchise's first Stanley Cup Finals appearance will be a disappointment, and the Sharks will need another great playoff performance by the Plover native to fulfill expectations.

3. What's next for Blake Geoffrion and Craig Smith with the Nashville Predators?

Blake Geoffrion showed tremendous progress in his rookie season, which started just months after he became Wisconsin's first Hobey Baker Award winner. After starting the season with the Milwaukee Admirals, the Predators' American Hockey League affiliate, Geoffrion was called up at midyear to Nashville, becoming the NHL's first fourth-generation player. Not only did he record his first career hat trick for his hometown club but he took part in the deepest postseason run in franchise history, with the Predators advancing to the second round before falling to eventual Stanley Cup runner-up Vancouver.

This season, Nashville adds another former Badgers skater, Madison native Craig Smith, who surprised many by making the Predators' roster straight out of training camp. Playing alongside Geoffrion, the highly touted prospects represent the future of a franchise on the rise.

4. Is the window closing on Ryan Suter and Shea Weber's time with Nashville?

The catalysts for Nashville's breakout season were the NHL's top defensive pairing, Madison native Ryan Suter and Norris Trophy contender Shea Weber. The duo combined for 11 points and logged nearly 37 minutes of ice time per game as the Predators pushed the Vancouver Canucks to the brink in the second round of the NHL playoffs. Each is 26 and entering the prime of his career, and both their contracts expire at the end of the season - so this could be their last ride together.

5. It's time to say goodbye to Brian Rafalski

For the first time in 12 years, Brian Rafalski won't be wearing an NHL jersey. And it's by his choice. The 38-year-old defenseman surrendered a big contract for the upcoming season, announcing his retirement from Detroit on May 25 after managing four goals and 44 points in 63 games while helping the Red Wings win the Central Division title. His storybook career included three Stanley Cup titles - with New Jersey in 2000 and 2003, and Detroit in 2008 - as well as 79 goals and 515 points over 11 seasons at hockey's top level. Not bad for a guy who, after concluding a stellar career at Wisconsin in 1995, needed a four-year audition in Sweden and Finland before Devils general manager took a chance on him as a free agent in 1999.

6. Will Derek Stepan avoid a sophomore slump with the New York Rangers? How about Ryan McDonagh?

Despite the perception that Derek Stepan left UW too soon to make an initial impact with the New York Rangers - he turned pro following his sophomore year, when the Badgers reached the NCAA finals - Stepan turned in an impressive rookie season, scoring 21 goals and 45 points over 82 games. In the offseason, the Rangers added star center Brad Richards to the mix, improving the talent level of New York's core of forwards. Stepan should be one of the beneficiaries, stepping into a more comfortable No. 2 center position, while getting the chance play alongside the former Dallas playmaker on the power play.

Meanwhile, former Badgers defenseman Ryan McDonagh is looking to make more of an impact with the Rangers in his second NHL season. McDonagh appeared in 40 games in first year with New York, picking up nine points. But with Rangers blueliner Marc Staal still suffering from concussion issues, McDonagh could be in line for a bigger role this year.

7. Has Tom Gilbert worn out his welcome in Edmonton?

The last two seasons have been disastrous for the Edmonton Oilers, who accumulated just 124 points while twice finishing in last place. (For perspective, Northwest Division mate Vancouver amassed 117 last season alone.) Ex-Badgers defenseman Tom Gilbert has been a victim of the Oilers' slide, having seen his offense numbers slip in each of the past two seasons from a career high of 45 points in 2008-2009. In an attempt to right the ship, Edmonton, which has had the top overall pick in each of the last two NHL drafts, has restructured around young and developing players. If Gilbert is unable to turn things around this season, the 28-year-old veteran might end up as the next player jettisoned in the Oilers' rebuilding process.

8. What is the ceiling for Rene Bourque in Calgary?

The last few years have represented a dramatic rise for Rene Bourque with the Calgary Flames. Cast away from the Chicago Blackhawks during the summer of 2008 after injury troubles, Bourque found new life in his native Alberta. He posted a career high of 27 goals and 58 points in 2009-2010 with the Flames, an output he nearly matched last season. With Calgary letting go of players during the offseason to create salary cap flexibility, Bourque has a chance to rise up the Flames' depth chart and become one of team's veteran leaders.

9. The Jack Skille Saga moves to South Florida, while Steven Reinprecht's NHL run may have ended

After a midseason trade to the Panthers last winter, it looked like Madison native and former UW athlete Jack Skille would finally get the opportunity at the NHL level that the former first-rounder always believed he deserved. But in the offseason, Florida made several transactions to bring their payroll up to the league minimum, adding proven veterans like Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, Kris Versteeg and Scottie Upshall. As such, Skille's place on the depth chart was once again compromised and he'll need to earn his playing time.

One of the players who attempted to catch on with the Panthers during training camp is ex-Badgers centerman Steve Reinprecht. The 35-year-old was placed waivers last week, perhaps bringing to an end Reinprecht's NHL career after 12 NHL seasons and 663 games with Los Angeles, Colorado, Calgary and Phoenix.

10. Kyle Turris wants a new contract with Phoenix

Few former Badgers entered the NHL with more promise than Kyle Turris. But after one stellar season at Wisconsin, Turris' professional career has been tinged with disappointment. Things turned for the better last season when the forward caught on full time with the Coyotes, managing 11 goals and 25 points in 65 games. After finally showing off some of his lofty potential, Turris made significant salary demands with cash-tight Phoenix during the offseason. So far the Coyotes have yet to take the bait, resulting in a training camp holdout for Turris, a situation that may be on its way to a bitter ending.

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