I suppose this is a case of better late than never since I was supposed to have had this up a week ago. Anyway, after careful deliberation I’ve concluded that 7 of the 8 playoff teams from a year ago make it again this year. The lone non-playoff team to crack the top 8 will be Tampa. I’m sure you’ll find some of my choices debatable. That’s fine, feel free to disagree and share with me your thoughts on this year’s Eastern Conference standings. Now for my Eastern Conference predictions:
1. New York Rangers – Well yeah, how could I as a Rangers fan not pick them to win the East? Count on Gaborik staying healthy for 82 games and netting 60 goals this year while Matt Gilroy will be the runaway choice for the Calder trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. Lundqvist will win 50 games this year and the Rangers will……aw who am I kidding? Really, I am more objective than this. The Real #1 team in the East will be……
The Washington Capitals – The Caps return most of their key players and expect to replace the losses of Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov with Mike Knuble, Brendan Morrison and improved production from Brooks Laich. The only question will be in net where coach Bruce Boudreau has already stated that Jose Theodore is the starter but he will still be pushed by playoff phenom Semyon Varlamov and his fellow rookie Michal Neuvirth. My guess is they will get enough quality goaltending from some combination of those three netminders to take the East.
The Caps are a hungry team that has tasted some playoff success and clearly want more. Knuble should prove his worth in helping this young team mature come playoff time. Winning the East in the regular season won’t be enough for these guys; they expect to be playing for the Cup in June.
2. Philadelphia Flyers – I’ve got the Flyers over the Pens in the Atlantic simply because the Penguins have played a lot of hockey over the last two seasons. After winning the Cup last season I think that this squad will be more inclined to pace themselves through the regular season in order to stay as fresh as possible for the playoffs. That will allow the Flyers to take the Atlantic crown.
The addition of Chris Pronger will also allow this team to challenge the top teams in the conference as they can now ice two very good defensive tandems with Pronger, Timonen, Coburn and Matt Carle. Offensively they lost some depth with the inclusion of Joffrey Lupul in the trade for Pronger but a healthy Danny Briere and a full season from hot shot rookie Claude Giroux should replace that production.
The biggest question surrounding the Flyers, as it has been for several years now, is goaltending. The Flyers were quick to repatriate KHL refugee Ray Emery and hand him the keys to the Flyers season. He will be backed up by a former Flyers starting backstop, Brian Boucher. Emery has enough of a chip on his shoulder that I think he’ll surprise some people with his play this year.
3. Boston Bruins – This was an easy pick. The Bruins have lost some depth players (Steve Montador, Stephane Yelle and Aaron Ward have all moved on) but return all of the key contributors of their young nucleus with the possible exception of Phil Kessel. Kessel is looking to be paid more than what the Bruins are willing and/or able to offer him as a RFA. It’s likely that Kessel will be a Maple Leaf or a Predator before too long.
Even if Kessel is dealt, the Bruins are still the team to beat in the Northeast. Montreal shuffled their roster but aren’t clearly better than they were last year. Ottawa added Alexei Kovalev but lost Heatley and didn’t adequately replace him. Buffalo added some role players but lost two of their defensive stalwarts of years past in Jaroslav Spacek and Teppo Numinen. Toronto is better but they don’t have enough firepower up front even if they do grab Kessel. Clearly this is Boston’s division to lose.
4. Pittsburgh – Not to worry Pens fans, there is no need to put your fist through your computer monitors. I am picking the Penguins to finish 4th not because I don’t think they’re the best team in the NHL but because I think they are smart. They’ve played a lot of hockey going deep into the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. They’ll pace themselves this year so they are at their healthy best for the postseason. If the let the Flyers win the Atlantic then so be it; this is a team focused on repeating as Stanley Cup Champs.
Sure the losses of Petr Sykora, Hal Gill and playoff hero Rob Scuderi will be felt but re-signing Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko and having Chris Kunitz around for the full season will help immensely. I also feel that Jay McKee could turn out to be one of the steals of this year’s free agent class. The Pens will also look to youngsters like Kris Letang and even possibly Luca Caputi to take up some of the slack. This team will be in the mix for sure come playoff time.
5. Carolina – A surprising and impressive playoff run came to an abrupt stop last year when the Canes met up with the Pens in the Conference Finals. The Pens laid the wood to the upstart squad from the South and exposed a lack of physicality on the Canes; especially from their defense. While the Canes return most of their forwards, including Erik Cole, the team made some changes to the blue line by waving good bye to Dennis Seidenberg and Frank Kaberle while bringing back Aaron Ward from Boston by trade and adding Andrew Alberts via free agency. Both of those players bring a more rugged element to their game than the guys they are replacing.
The Canes also look poised to move RFA Anton Babchuk who had a breakthrough offensive campaign last year. His contract demands will not fit into the salary structure of the Canes. They may not be as dynamic offensively this year but they should be tougher to play against nonetheless. They still have Eric Staal, Ray Whitney and Cam Ward so this is surely a playoff team and definitely the 2nd best team in the Southeast.
Cam Ward will be the real key for this team though. I’ve already had lively debates about Ward. I made the mistake of referring to Ward as “not an upper echelon goalie” or words to that effect. Well, I still feel that way. Ward is good, don’t get me wrong. He has had great success in the playoffs including a Conn Smythe award. Fine, I get that. I will call him an upper echelon goalie when I see him put it all together in the regular season. Last season, he finished in the middle of the pack in both GAA (tied for 12th) and Save % (tied for 11th). I’d like to see a top 5 finish before I put him in the “upper echelon”. Look, there are times I don’t think the King is an “upper echelon” guy. In fact the only guys that I can say with certainty fit into that category for me are Roberto Luongo and Marty Brodeur. It’s not an insult to be called a very good goalie by me.
6. New York Rangers – This was a hard pick for me to make; it’s my team after all. It’s hard to stay objective and to keep the fan in me quiet. As a fan I want to be optimistic about this team, I want to believe what I wrote earlier about Gaborik staying healthy and scoring 60 goals. I want to believe that the incoming rookies will step right in and play like seasoned pros. Yes, the realist in me even believes all of that is possible; but I also believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life too so……….
The realist in me knows that the Rangers are counting heavily on having a healthy Gaborik, getting quality minutes from several young players and being able to add a bunch of new faces to the lineup and getting them to gel quickly. One or two of these could happen but probably not all three. The realist in me sees a team that could miss the playoffs entirely.
The combination of the fan and the realist though knows better than either of them does separately. I know that the Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist and that makes them a playoff team. It’s a very similar situation in Jersey with Marty Brodeur. Every year that organization sees quality players leave town and many people believe every year that this will be the year they don’t make it to the playoffs. And every year they find a way. It’ll be the same for the Rangers as long as Lundqvist is the backbone of the team.
7. New Jersey – See above. No seriously, the Devils have been counted out more often than I can remember but ever since Marty Brodeur has been around they have proven the skeptics wrong. Again this off-season the Devils saw more talent depart than talent brought in and yet I still can’t pick against them. Last year they did it without Brodeur for most of the year and this year they get him back so it seems pretty cut and dried to me. They’re in until they’re not.
8. Tampa – Yes, the Lightning edge out the Canadiens and the Sabres for the final playoff spot. After playing fantasy hockey last off-season, Lightning management, under GM Brian Lawton, was far more controlled with their spending this year. They made a wise move bringing in veteran defenseman Mattias Ohlund to mentor hot shot rookie Victor Hedman. The team also added veteran blue liners Matt Walker and Kurtis Foster to address the team’s weakest point.
Any team that boasts a potential top line of Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Alex Tanguay has firepower to burn. With Steven Stamkos looking to build upon a solid finish to his rookie season and Ryan Malone around to provide more secondary scoring, the Lightning should have no problems scoring goals.
The problem has been in net with the Lightning ever since Nikolai Khabibulin chased the free agent bucks to Chicago several years back. Last year’s starter, Mike Smith, will have to over come his concussion issues from last season. That is why I think that the signing of former Flyer Antero Niitymaki could prove to be a great move. The guy is talented; he was a former first round pick after all. He just didn’t pan out in Philly but is still young enough that he can turn it around in a less pressurized environment here in Tampa.
9. Buffalo – There are just too many ifs and not enough new blood on this roster to crack the top 8. Losing Teppo Numinen and Jaroslav Spacek and not adequately replacing them is risky. This is a team that will have to rely on Ryan Miller to be excellent and healthy in order to be competitive for a playoff spot. A full season from C Tim Connolly would also be of great help but I’ll believe that when I see it. Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy are both very good and I have nothing but respect for Head Coach Lindy Ruff but this team is too thin to be a contender.
10. Montreal – They went into last season hoping to cap off their 100th anniversary season with a parade; instead they finished it off with a whimper after getting hammered by Boston in the playoffs. GM Bob Gainey decided it was time to overhaul his roster. He allowed long-time Canadiens Captain Saku Koivu to leave as a free agent. Also leaving the free agent route were Alexei Kovalev, Mike Komisarek and Alex Tanguay while Christopher Higgins was sent to the New York Rangers in exchange for Gainey’s first pricey off-season acquisition, Scott Gomez.
Joining Gomez in Montreal as 1st year Canadiens are forwards Brian Gionta, Travis Moen and Mike Cammallerri and defensemen Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek and Paul Mara. Weighing the additions against the subtractions, I can’t say that the Canadiens are improved. It will be hard for so many new faces to gel into a cohesive unit. If the Canadiens are going to qualify for the playoffs then goalie Carey Price is going to have to really up his game.
11. Toronto – Brian Burke didn’t take long to cast the Leafs in his image. He has always favored bigger players that play with a mean streak and his off-season additions fit into that mold very well. The Leafs added free agent defensemen Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin while picking up tough defender Garnet Exelby via trade with Atlanta in exchange for D Pavel Kubina.
Citing his disappointment with how the team was generally manhandled by their opponents last season, Burke also reached into the free agent pool to grab former Ranger enforcer Colton Orr. Orr had improved his overall game while in New York but wasn’t a fit for the new John Tortorella system and was allowed to leave. He was welcomed with open arms by Burke.
The team is still light on scoring up front and the potential is here for the Leafs to lose a lot of 2 -1 and 3 -2 games. If the new goaltending duo of Vesa Toskala and Jonas Gustavsson are as solid as hoped for then the Leafs will be in the hunt for most of the year before finally falling out of it in the end due to their lack of offensive firepower.
12. Florida – I feel bad for Randy Sexton. Jacques Martin’s inaction as it related to franchise defenseman and pending UFA Jay Bouwmeester hamstrung this team. Instead of dealing him at the deadline for tangible assets, Martin hung onto Bouwmeester in the vain hope of qualifying for the postseason. After failing to make the playoffs, Martin bailed out to go coach the Canadiens (good luck with that Jacques) and left Sexton holding the hand grenade. Well Sexton did an admirable job of dealing Bouwmeester’s rights to Calgary for useful, if unspectacular, defenseman Jordan Leopold and a draft pick.
Then poor Randy Sexton had to navigate the entire off-season with the dreaded “interim” label attached to him. He tried with the Panthers limited resources to improve the team but outside of swapping Bouwmeester’s rights for Leopold and swinging a trade for former Coyote C Steven Reinprecht, Sexton was unable to do much to improve a roster short on proven talent.
The hope here is that some of the young players step up their game. Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, Rostislav Olesz and Shawn Matthias all of the ability to be good to excellent NHl’ers but haven’t reached their full potential yet.
Goaltending is in the hands of the very capable tandem of Tomas Vokuon and Scott Clemensen who stepped in and helped save Jersey’s season after Marty Brodeur got hurt.
Unfortunately the Panthers won’t improve enough internally and didn’t do nearly enough from an external standpoint to make this a playoff caliber team. That’s a shame too since Pete DeBoer is proving himself to be a pretty good coach. P.S. Make Sexton your permanent GM for goodness sake!!
13. Atlanta – I like the moves that GM Don Waddell did this off-season by adding D Pavel Kubina and Nik Antropov. They’ll certainly make this a more potent offense. The top 4 of Tobias Enstrom, Kubina, Zach Bogosian and Ron Hainsey is nothing to be sneezed at as far as defensive groups go.
Offensively, this team is staring to put together two decent scoring lines with Antropov joining franchise winger Ilya Kovalchuk, Bryan Little, Todd White and Slava Kozlov. There are some young kids too like Rich Peverly who can help out in the goal scoring department too.
In net is really where I see the problems for the Thrashers. Kari Lehtonen has yet to develop into the stud he was projected to be when drafted. The Thrashers also have young Ondrej Pavelec knocking on the door. To add further to the mix, the team brought in veteran backstop Manny Legace for a tryout. Someone is going to have to step up and take charge in net for the Thrashers to challenge for a playoff spot. They are improving but still a little thin both up front and on D to survive with substandard goaltending.
14. Ottawa – Yes, the Senators have fallen this far. Trading star winger Dany Heatley for 2 second line wingers, one of whom has seen a huge decline in his output in recent years, will hurt greatly. The team had added veteran sniper Alex Kovalev to help with secondary scoring and now he becomes a primary weapon in Ottawa. It may be good to get rid of the locker room distraction but the decline in talent is palpable.
In net, the Senators hope they have finally solved their need for a long time starter between the pipes by acquiring Pascal Leclaire from Columbus. Leclaire was finally starting to play up to his advanced billing 2 years ago but last year was a disaster as he was injured early and lost his job to super frosh Steve Mason. Leclaire gets the reins here in Ottawa as there is no proven back-up on the roster. Instead, the Sens will go with young Brian Elliot to spell Leclaire. Sens fans had better hope Leclaire stays healthy.
15. NY Islanders – The Isles finally started to focus on rebuilding their farm system and have stopped taking fliers on journeymen NHL’ers to plug holes. The Isles have young stars in the making with Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and now #1 overall draft pick John Tavares. Doug Weight was encouraged to stick around to tutor the young talent.
The ridiculous 15 year contract awarded to Rick DiPietro is looking worse by the minute. Clearly the Islanders didn’t think he was going to be ready to start the season or else they wouldn’t have signed both Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron. When and if DiPietro regains his health, Biron will prove to be a valuable trade chip assuming GM Garth Snow chooses to cash it in.
On D, the Islanders are very thin. Some experts thought that the team would have been better off taking Victor Hedman # 1 overall for that reason. Outside of Brendan Witt and Mark Streit, I’m not too sure the Islanders have any quality top 4 defensemen. Their system lacks top-drawer defensive talent as well.
They are finally on the right track though it will be another long season on the Island. The Taylor Hall watch begins officially…..now for the Islanders.