Back again to complete my NHL prediction blog extravaganza with my Eastern Conference predictions. Enjoy!
1. Washington Capitals: This may be my “what is he smoking?” pick of the 2007-08 season but the Caps have the parts to do some real damage. The arrivals of Nicklas Backstrom and Michael Nylander, in addition to Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin give the Caps two very scary lines of O. The blueline is huge in D.C., led by Milan Jurcina (6’4”, 233lbs) and the new #1 guy, Tom Poti (6’3”, 210lbs) and opposing forwards will have trouble reaching the front of the net. Plus they have some slick puck-movers in Brian Pothier and Mike Green to complement the monster on the line. Olaf Kolzig has been the one bright spot for this team in the down years and he’ll make it his mission to get this team to the playoffs.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning are all about offense. I expect Richards to bounce back from a 70-point season with his new linemates of Michel Ouellet and Jan Hlavac, and Lecavalier and St. Louis are both almost guaranteed for 100 points. This offensive explosion should more than cover the defensive problems this team may have. The defense is more offensively minded, but can still take care of business in it’s own end. The goaltending tandem was not great last year but Denis is determined to improve on his performance last year and Holmqvist surprised everyone and is a capable goalie. The keepers will be good enough to keep the Lightning close which is all they’ll need to be with all the talent up front.
3. Florida Panthers: My dark horse pick for the East (although I guess I could say I have two, Washington included), the Cats will surprise many and, again along with the Caps, will make the lives of the other teams in this division (mainly the two teams slotted 4th and 5th) miserable. Led by Olli Jokinen and Nathan Horton the Panthers have three solid scoring lines. Bouwmeester who is on the cusp of greatness leads the defense and Van Ryn, Salei and Welch all have top 4 talent. Vokoun solidifies the goaltender position which was the downfall of the Cats last year, and could single-handedly get the Panthers the 6 points they would have needed to make the playoffs last season.
4. Atlanta Thrashers: Kari Lehtonen has the makings of an elite goaltender and can carry this team, so the organization better stop jerking him around like they did in last year’s playoffs. With Lehtonen firmly in the crease for 60 games the Thrashers will go a long way in making their marquee keeper happy. Marian Hossa, Slava Kozlov and Ilya Kovalchuk should keep filling the net and the D is decent and very experienced. Perhaps a bit too experienced, with 1/3 of their top 6 born in the first half of the 70’s, injury problems are likely. And the Thrash still don’t have a number one centre (sorry Todd White) to dish the puck to their bevy of talented wingers. A playoff miss is likely here.
5. Carolina Hurricanes: How far the Cup champs of two years ago have fallen. To be honest I had difficulty placing the Canes here but I think another long year in NASCAR country is in the cards. The offense is top notch with Staal, Williams, Cole and the ageless Rod Brind’Amour, but what’s behind these guys is where I see the Canes downfall. Frantisek Kaberle and Niclas Wallin are a solid 1-2 punch, but Kaberle’s health is still a question mark. If he goes down there is no one to replace him as Wesley and Hedican aren’t getting any younger and Gleason is still in the learning stages. Plus I’m still not sold on Cam Ward’s ability as a #1. Of course, if everything falls into place this team could take the division. The Southeast is very wide open this year.
1. New York Rangers: Unlike in years passed the Rangers wild spending in the offseason will actually improve the team and not hinder it. The new additions of Gomez and Drury coupled with Jagr, Straka and Shanahan give the Rangers one of the best top two lines in the league. Drury isn’t too shabby on the defensive either, and along with Blair Betts and Marcel Hossa, the penalty kill is bound to improve. The defense isn’t flashy, but that’s the point. The best defensemen are ones you don’t notice too much. While, individually the Rangers D-men won’t win any Norris trophies, as a group they are one of the best in the league. Oh! And it doesn’t hurt to have one of the top goalies in the Eastern Conference in goal either.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on offense. Jordan Staal on penalty kill. Ryan Whitney on defense and M-A Fleury in goal. That’s pretty much all you have to say. The best core of young guns in the entire league and they are all playing to potential right now. The Pens will be a tough team to play every single night and they’ll prevail more times than not. Having Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi as mentors for the kids ain’t too shabby either. The D is a little too offensively minded, but Marc-Andre Fleury is showing that he can handle the workload and handle it well. While no longer able to sneak up on people the Penguins will still dominate on most nights.
3. Philadelphia Flyers: Completely listless and an embarrassment last year the Flyers are ready for a resurgence. The defense is the most improved blueline at the start of this year with Kimmo Timonen and Jason Smith joining the ranks, along with Derian Hatcher who started to show he could adapt to the new rules. Having Martin Biron in goal for a full season will do more to improve the Flyers win column than anything. Up front, the talent is there with the additions of Daniel Briere, Joffrey Lupul and Scott Hartnell joining Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble. This will be a breakout year for Gagne and I see 100 points being a possibility. Problem for the Flyers though is they have to face the Rangers and the Pens too many times. Making the playoffs out of the Atlantic will be tough for this squad.
4. New Jersey Devils: The Devils were gutted in the offseason. Gomez is gone, and all due respect to Dainius Zubrus, his offense will not be replaced. Brian Rafalski bolted for Motor City and no one even close was brought in to fill the spot, and the rest of the blueline, although talented, are not good enough to shutdown the offensive juggernauts of the rest of the division. Martin Brodeur is still a world-class goalie, but he is going to have to take more time off this year to rest and that’s bad news for Devils fans. The Devils are unfortunately going to miss the playoffs the first year in their new arena.
5. New York Islanders: There won’t be any last second miracle for the Isles this year. Garth Snow has done an admirable job in filling up the roster holes caused by the exodus of players from the Island during the offseason, but this hodgepodge of players won’t get them back to the post-season, despite Ted Nolan’s best efforts. The offense is decent but not spectacular, and the defense has loads of talent but most of them, Campoli, Meyer and Gervais, are still in the development stage. Rick Dipietro can steal plenty of games for the Isles but just not enough to get them back to the post-season.
1. Ottawa Senators: The Stanley Cup finalists of a year ago are back and are hungry to get those 3 extra victories. The team is mostly intact from last year although the offense is likely to take a hit with the losses of Comrie and Schaefer. However, the defense is still one of the best in the East and Martin Gerber seems fired up about maybe stealing the #1 job back from Ray Emery (whose currently out with injury). Alfredsson, Spezza, and Heatley could all crack 90 points with the latter again likely to exceed the century mark. While the Senators are a bit less talented this time around the losses suffered by other teams (see below) should allow the Sens to take the division.
2. Buffalo Sabres: One of the most damaged teams following the UFA feeding frenzy, losing their top two centers and having to overpay for a third year player in Thomas Vanek, the Sabres still have the sheer talent to easily cruise into the playoffs. The offensive skills of their forward lines are unmatched anywhere in the league (except maybe Pittsburgh) and their defense is solid if not unspectacular (although the loss of Numminen for a large chunk of the year will hurt). Ryan Miller (the best American goalie ever?) is still manning the crease and he’ll make it difficult for the opposition every night. While falling back to the pack a bit can be damaging to the fan’s ego it won’t hurt the Sabres chances in making the post-season.
3. Toronto Maple Leafs: Missing the playoffs by one point is tough. Missing it by one point and it wasn’t in your control is worse. The Leafs had two problems last year: offense and goaltending. John Ferguson Jr. did his best to remedy both. Jason Blake will give the Leafs a potentially 40-goal guy (although 30 is more likely) and a player that will cause opponents to focus less on Mats Sundin (a good thing for him and the fans). Andrew Raycroft won a record 37 games last year but was still booed off the ice regularly, so in comes Vesa Toskala. Both these guys can be #1’s in this league, so the goalie situation in T.O. is bright. Better offense, better goaltending and division foes taking a step back will see the Buds back in the playoffs.
4. Montreal Canadiens: Les Habitants are in for a long year. While the rest of the division improved (Leafs) or remained relatively static (Sens, Sabres), the Canadiens spun their wheels. They lost their powerplay quarterback in Sheldon Souray and replaced him with Roman Hamrlik. While the defensive side will improve immensely because of this the PP has nowhere to go but down (literally, the Habs finished first in ’06-’07 with a 22.8 PP%). The offense wasn’t improved at all (sorry B-Smo, Bryan Smolinski) and that was an area that really needed to get better, especially playing the high-flying Sabres and Senators 8 times a piece. Habs fans do have reasons to be excited though as the rookies and younger players are going to play important roles all season (but not post-season) long.
5. Boston Bruins: Like the Canadiens, the Bruins did little to improve their team in the offseason at all positions safe one. In goal, the B’s did acquire former Wild netminder Manny Fernandez. He’ll do much to settle the situation in goal, where the flip-flopping, acrobatics of Tim Thomas have done admirably the past couple of seasons, if only on an inconsistent basis. Unfortunately, Fernandez was the only addition of consequence for Boston, a team that was in the bottom 5 in both offense and defense. Unless, Bochenski, Kessel and Bergeron suddenly all explode for 35+ goals and the mediocre D led by Zdeno Chara tighten up considerably, the Bruins are looking at a last place finish in the East.
Eastern Conference Predictions
1. New York Rangers
2. Ottawa Senators
3. Washington Capitals
4. Buffalo Sabres
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
7. Philadelphia Flyers
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
9. Florida Panthers
10. New Jersey Devils
11. Atlanta Thrashers
12. Montreal Canadiens
13. Carolina Hurricanes
14. New York Islanders
15. Boston Bruins
Well there you have it folks! I will be back to own up to predictions at the end of the season, you can count on that.
Again leave a comment if you agree or disagree!
See you again soon!