There's bound to be some turnover in playoff teams in 2010. There is every year. So, who's in and who's out next spring? Let's break it down in the Eastern Conference.
• Penguins, Capitals, Flyers, and Bruins are locks.
• Devils and Hurricanes are good bets.
• Islanders, Lightning and Thrashers are extreme long shots at best
• That leaves 6 teams to scrap it out for 2 spots.
There's little reason (outside of the crease) to believe the Rangers are legitimate playoff contenders this year. They're pinning all their offensive hopes on a guy who averages 40 games a season. Depth is not a strong point, and the defense is not among the better half in the East. So, unless Lundqvist can rack up 10 or more shutouts and win a buttload of games on his own, the Rangers will be sitting it out next spring.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Burke is well on his way to changing the destiny of the Leafs, but he's still a season a way from seeing a few extra home games in April. The Leafs will scrap their way to about 40 wins and will stay in the playoff picture all season, but they'll ultimately fall short one more time.
It's hard to pinpoint which of Gainey's moves in 2009 was the biggest mistake. Firing Carboneau? His own coaching performance through the round 1 sweep? $25 million to Brian Gionta? Brian Gionta??? And it won't take long for Montreal fans to realize that Gill and Spacek are no replacement for all the talent they've lost on the blueline in the past season or two. As surprising as it was to see the Canadiens fall so far so fast last season, it would be more shocking to see them turn it around with the team they've assembled. Dark days ahead for Habs fans. (Bring on the hate mail).
It seems like the Sabres exist solely for the excitement of the stretch drive to the playoffs. They're always right on the border, and lately, they've fallen down on the southern side. Unfortunately for Sabres fans, it may be the same song in 2010. The Sabres did next to nothing in the offseason to give this team some help to right the ship.
The Panthers have been knocking on the door for the past two season, and it's time for that door to open. They played incredibly well down the stretch and seem ready to be a serious contender next season. Even with the departure of Bouwmeester, the Florida defense is sound enough, while the goaltending is solid. The Panthers should be just good enough to give hockey fans in Miami their first look at the playoffs in many, many years.
It may very well come down to the wire to decide the final spot between the Senators and the Sabres, but I'd look for the Senators to rebound and get back into the playoff picture next season. Assuming they can put the Heatley distraction behind them in the next several months, this team should pick up where they left off late last season, when they began winning again under the new coaching staff. The goaltending should be vastly improved with the introduction of Pascal Leclaire, and the team is well balanced enough to slide into the final spot.
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