With a new season set to begin on Thursday, it’s once again time to make my predictions on who will finish where in the eastern conference after all 82 games have been played. The off-season saw many teams sign free agents and swap players in hopes of improving their chances at making the playoffs. The following article will give you a brief recap of what these teams have done over the summer and my thoughts of why I believe they will finish in the following sequence.
No. 1: the Washington Capitals
The Caps won the conference last season by one point and they did it with many of their stars having sub-par seasons. The most interesting part of the Capitals' season last year was the fact that they won a lot of their games by a one or two goal margin as opposed to the typical blow out that we were all accustomed to seeing. Boudreau got his players to buy into a more defensive system but ultimately he was dealt with the same old result, an early playoff exit. So what did George McPhee do? He finally got his team a decent man between the pipes and that could spell trouble for many teams in the Eastern Conference. In Tomas Vokoun, the Caps finally have a goalie that can help them go deep in the playoffs, never mind the regular season. McPhee also signed two former Habs to round off his team, Roman Hamrlik & Jeff Halpern. Both players should prove to be a good fit in Washington. With a more balanced team and a bounce back season from Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom & Green, The Capitals should have no problem finishing first in the conference and this time the gap will be much higher than one point.
No. 2: the New York Rangers
The Rangers won the free agency lottery when they landed Brad Richards over the summer. They won because Richards was the most sought after player and he is a bona fide game breaker. Richards has the ability to make everyone around him a better player and when you consider the possibility of him playing with a healthy Gaborik, the Rangers could make noise. Let’s also not forget that Richards won a stanley cup under coach John Tortorella, something that more than likely swayed his decision to sign in NY. The Rangers also have a nice group of young defensemen who are only starting to come into their own and of course they also have guy that goes by the name of king Henrik. Lundqvist is arguably one the best goalies in the league and with a more potent attack in front of him he should have no problem collecting a large number of wins this season.
No.3: The Boston Bruins
As much as I hate to admit this, there will be no Stanley cup hangover for the Bruins. Boston pretty much has the same team that won them the cup and Chiarelli decided to go with the old adage that if it isn’t broke then don’t fix it. This might end up being a wise decision as the Bruins have many players who are just starting to make a name for themselves and they should only get better game by game. With a cup now under his belt, Julien will not need to sell his system but he will need to make sure that his players don’t become complacent in order to avoid a mid-season slump. Tim Thomas will be looking to build on last year’s MVP playoff performance and even if he doesn’t Boston has a suitable replacement in Rask. Unless the Canadiens find a way to have a breakout season, the Bruins should have no problem claiming top spot in the Northeast.
No.4: The Pittsburgh Penguins
Sorry Penguin fans, Crosby will not play in the season opener and nobody really knows when he will return. We do know however that Malkin will play and in the past Malkin has played his best hockey when Crosby was not in the line-up. Another plus for Pittsburgh is having Jordan Staal for the start of the season; Staal missed the beginning of last season and never seemed to fully recover by season end. The Pens proved last season that they can win without their star players in the line-up but having them this year should help them be more consistent. When Crosby does return he will surely be a man possessed and will most likely tear up the league. If that happens sooner rather than later then the Pens have a shot a claiming the number 2 spot.
No.5: The Philadelphia Flyers
To say that the Flyers made an overhaul over the summer would be an understatement. Paul Holmgren decided enough was enough and made some moves so he could finally get himself a true number one goalie. He got his man in Bryzgalov but it cost him a lot of money which forced him to restructure his team. The city of Philadelphia were scratching their heads when Holmgren dealt team Captain Mike Richards & Jeff Carter and then filled the slots with Simmonds & Schenn. Holmgren opened more eyes and got people talking when he came out of nowhere and signed free agent Jaromir Jagr right under the Pittsburgh Penguins beaks. Holmgren then decided to rub more salt in the wound of Pens fans when he went ahead and signed Maxim Talbot. Will all of these changes pay off? They should but not without growing pains, thus my reasoning for the Flyers not finishing higher. One thing is a sure bet though, there will be an explosion when the Flyers & Pens clash this season.
No. 6: The Montreal Canadiens
Last season we predicted that the Habs would finish 6th and we were spot on. This season I am once again predicting that they will finish 6th. Like the Bruins the Habs pretty much have the same team as last season plus the addition of Erik Cole. Cole had a great season with Carolina last year and he was rewarded with a generous contract from Pierre Gauthier. Cole has already shown us his scoring ability in pre-season but the big question mark with him is will he stay healthy? Let’s call a spade a spade, with the exception of last season, Cole has had an injury riddled career and this makes Gauthier’s decision to sign him hard to evaluate. If Cole stays healthy he could easily have a 30 plus goal season and with that being said, if the whole team stays healthy they could easily go on a run and overtake the Bruins for first in the Northeast. So far the team has only had a few minor injuries and even Markov’s recovery time is expected to be a short one, at least we hope. When Markov finally returns he will make an impact on all facets of the ice and instantly improve the team.
Other players who should have an impact and are returning from last season’s injured list are Patches & Gorges. Scott Gomez could very well be the wild card this year as he seems ready to prove that he belongs in a Habs uniform. He played with passion in the pre-season, something that we barely saw last year. Petr Budaj was signed as our new back up over the summer and the hope was that he would allow Price to have a couple more nights off this season. The problem is, Budaj has not looked very good in pre-season and he seems to be fighting the puck. I was one of the few who actually liked this signing over the summer and I still believe that he will turn it around and allow Price to be a little more fresh come playoff time. Speaking of Price, he will have another great season and he will continue to be the MVP for this team. Being in a contract year he should have an added incentive to perform and I predict he will win the vezina trophy this season.
No.7: The Tampa Bay Lightning
Guy Boucher’s Lightning turned a lot of heads last season as the manged to finish 5th in the East and made it to the Conference finals. St. Louis & Stamkos led the way and Lecavalier picked up the slack in the second half when Stamkos tapered off. Can the Lightning surprise again? Probably not, although Stamkos & company will more than likely light it up, other teams are now familiar with Boucher’s style and they will be better prepared to face the Lightning. Another factor is number one goalie Dwayne Roloson is the oldest active player in the league and if over played will be prone to injury. Garon is a capable backup but I highly doubt that he could do the job as a number one. Unless a surprise candidate emerges as the next number one, the Lightning will be allowing as many goals as they score and will be in a dogfight for one of the last two playoff spots.
No.8: The Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres got some help on defense when they signed Reghr & Ehrhoff. Both of these players will be welcomed additions for star net minder Ryan Miller. Miller had his ups and downs last season; some of the downs were caused by injuries the rest by defensive breakdowns. With a more stable defensive core in front of him, Miller will have a much more consistent season and the Sabres should make the playoffs. Another key addition over the summer was center Ville Leino. Leino will definitely be an upgrade over Connolly, a player who has talent but has always been prone to injury. Although the Sabres have improved their team so have the rest of the teams in the conference and this will ultimately keep them battling for the last playoff spot.
No.9: The Toronto Maple Leafs
Tell me if you heard this one before. The Leafs have an up and down season and then go on a winning streak attempting to snatch up a playoff spot only to fall short. This seems to be the pattern year after year for Brian Burke’s team and there is no reason to believe that things will be different this year. Yes the Leafs did score a great puck moving defenseman in Liles but their other two additions, Connolly & Lombardi have yet to prove that they can play full consistent season in the NHL. Toronto should receive another productive season out of Grabovski, Kessel, Kulemin & MacArthur but they will rely heavily on young goalie James Reimer. Reimer looks like a keeper but it is inevitable that he will go through a slump at some point this season. If he can somehow avoid that slump, The Leafs may finally break their playoff drought but I would not put any money on that one.
No.10: The New Jersey Devils
The wheels fell off the bus for the Devils last season, the injury bug hit them and Lamoriello’s signing of Illya Kovalchuk came back to haunt him. Not only was Kovalchuk a disappointment last season but he was such a disappointment that he was actually scratched for a game. Will he get back on track this season? Probably so, but it won’t be enough to put the Devils in the playoffs. New Jersey is going through an identity change. They were, for the longest time, known as one of the most boring defensive teams in the league, now they seem to be reinventing themselves into a more offensive minded team with the likes of Kovalchuk, Zajac & Parise. The problem is that it leaves aging goaltender Martin Brodeur to fend for himself with a porous defense in front of him. Brodeur is good but even he won’t be able to prevent the Devils from having another sub-par season.
No.11: The Winnipeg Jets
The Jets will probably have a good start to their season simply because of all of the excitement that will be surrounding the team. Unfortunately it will be short lived as two strikes will be against them, the first being their schedule. Because the Jets are in the eastern conference they will have the toughest travel schedule of any team considering that Winnipeg is in the west. This won’t affect them in the beginning but it will eventually catch up to them and fatigue will become a factor. The other strike against them is that after all is said and done this team is still the Thrashers and it will take a couple of seasons for the Jets to gain their own identity. The good news is they have some great building blocks to start with. Byfuglien & Enstrom make a great defensive pair, Ladd, Wheeler & Kane should be the go to forwards for years to come and Pavelec should only get better as number one. All of these players will be worth the price of admission for Winnipeg fans but they will have to be patient when it comes to playoffs.
No.12: The New York Islanders
The Islanders have some hope for the future when they look at players such as Tavares, Moulson & Grabner but it won’t help them much this season. The Islanders are weak on the back end even with returning defensemen Mark Streit they will have a hard time keeping opposing teams out of their zone. The other issue is in goal. Dipietro still has multiple years on his mega contract but he is the goalie made of glass as he has been on the shelf more often than not. They also have Nabokov but no one knows if he is truly serious about wanting to play on Long Island. The Islanders will once again search for their identity while floating around the lower tier of the conference.
No.13: The Carolina Hurricanes
The Canes just missed the playoffs last year after having a roller coaster of a season. So why am I predicting them in such a low spot, call it a hunch. Staal will have a good season as always but his supporting cast is not what it used to be. I believe Skinner will be a victim of the sophomore jinx and Tomas Kaberle will continue to be an overrated defenseman. That leaves the team in Ward’s hands and in the past Ward has played his best when he has quality defensemen in front of him, which this team does not have.
No.14: The Ottawa Senators
The Sens have gone from one of the top teams in the league to one of the worst in the last few years. During this process they also managed to trade away multiple players without getting much in return. So what’s next? My feeling is the trend will continue and we will either see Spezza or Alfredsson traded at some point this season or possibly both. Why not? Bran Murray’s done a great job of gutting this team anyways. The only good move the Sens have done in recent memory was acquiring Craig Anderson, he will give this team a chance to win on a nightly basis they just won’t return the favour. Ottawa will have to suffer through this until Murray gets fired as I can’t see Ottawa doing much in their current state.
No. 15: The Florida Panthers
Here’s another team who made a lot of changes over the summer, will it make a difference? Well since I put them dead last in the conference, I guess not. Although they signed some recognisable names at the forward position, they are mostly players who have had issues with consistency. As far as the two defensemen they brought back both Jovanovski & Campbell have skill but not enough to make a difference. What hurts the Panthers the most is their goalies. Both Theodore & Clemmensen have had success in the past but I just can’t see them stealing games for the cats. Kevin Dineen will definitely have his work cut out for him with this new Panthers team.