Thursday, October 6, 2011

Fearless (Maybe Just Crazy) Eastern Conference Predictions

The ice is down in the NHL's 30 rinks. Training Camp is over. Puck drops in Boston in a matter of hours. The time as come for...

[just pretend there's a drum roll here...]

...FEARLESS PREDICTIONS in the NHL for 2011-12!

Or maybe just misguided... and/or crazy predictions for the Eastern Conference.

We'll start with the SOUTHEAST DIVISION...

The Washington Capitals will look to contend for the Presidents' Trophy this year. They should probably keep looking. The days of breezing through the "Southleast" Division are over, with the emergence of the Tampa Bay Lightning as contenders. Yes, Alexander Ovechkin is very good hockey player... and I'm sure he's relieved to be getting some help via free agency from Troy Brouwer and Roman Hamrlik. However, the factor that continues to plague the Capitals come Playoff time is goaltending. Tomas Vokoun was the top free-agent goaltender available this summer… which I don't think says too much for the crop. The Caps likely realized that and only signed him for a year at $1.5 million. Michal Neuvirth is the goalie of the future in Washington, but could be the goalie of the present again... essentially, expect another goaltender controversy. The front office can say all they want how they're comfortable with playing three good goaltenders (throwing Braden Holtby in, too). Problem is, you need one who can win a Cup... which is why they will struggle for another year to come up with excuses to explain why Ovi won't hoist it again this year.

The Tampa Bay Lightning promise to be a team to watch this year, taking the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. The Bolts are still loaded, with a cast lead by new hella-millionaire Steven Stamkos. Despite the loss of Simon Gagne's offensive skills, this team will be tough to beat. Dwayne Roloson was insane for the Bolts down the stretch and in the Playoffs, and aims to match that level as he turns 42 next week. Mathieu Garon should provide a capable back up when he needs rest. Expect the Bolts to be breathing down the Capitals' necks in April.

After Washington and Tampa, the rest of the Southeast is quite up in the air. However, the Carolina Hurricanes stand the best chance of at least making progress this year. Jeff Skinner brought a solid rookie campaign to the Canes in 2010-11, and young guys like him and Brandon Sutter will be relied on to step up and support veterans stars like Eric Staal and Jussi Jokinen. If they overachieve and a couple other teams run into problems, this team could even make the Playoffs this year.

Believe it or not, I truly believe there will be a team in the Southeast Division worse than the very non-Southeast-based Winnipeg Jets... even with the hellish commute. But we'll get to that in a sec. The Jets can at least say they have a number one goaltender, some scoring ability on defense in Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, and a cadre of experienced guys with potential at forward who can score goals, such as Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler. The question is, can they score enough? To win more than the next team, yes. To get in the Playoffs, no.

However… at least the Jets seem to have a plan. The other good news: They have a rabid fan base that could make the MTS Centre a very interesting place to play this year.

I'm not sure that the Florida Panthers have either of those things. Or a plan, for that matter.

The Panthers make me wonder if that whole space between the salary cap and the salary floor is too small. I mean, how much does it suck to be a team forced to overspend on a bunch of random guys just to meet the floor? Think of this year's Florida Panthers team as a lower-budget New York Rangers… with even less return on investment.

One thing is certain: I do not envy Claude Noel or Kevin Dineen – both of whom are still well-liked and respected here in Columbus – in their first full time head-coaching positions.

In the ATLANTIC DIVISION, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins look to have a fun fight brewing for tops in the division (and a fun fight, period). It is hard to say for how long, but Philly has the advantage as long as Sidney Crosby is sitting for the Penguins. While goaltending problems have haunted the Flyers for the better part of the last two decades (at least), they may finally have their answer in Ilya Bryzgalov. Their acquisitions in free agency or trade were certainly interesting, as they added Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn… and of course the acquisitions of Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot will certainly spice up the series against the Penguins this year.

However, depending on how quickly Crosby gets into contact, practice, and NHL games, the Pens could be making a case very soon in the Atlantic. Steve Sullivan was their only major addition this off-season. Keep in mind that even without Crosby for about two months and Evgeni Malkin for longer, the Penguins still managed 49 wins... the most since Crosby came aboard. If Crosby and Malkin stay healthy, the Pens could contend for tops in the East half-asleep.

Brad Richards is ready to take the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup. Yeah … not so fast. You can only fit so many clowns in that SmartCar. Sure, Richards is incredibly talented, and will be able do a lot of great things for the Rangers, but the fact remains that Glen Sather has not managed to build a contending hockey team in New York for quite some -- well... ever.

Any fool can write Brad Richards a huge check... and any fool did. Still, the Rangers should look a little better this year with Richards in the lineup. They've cut a large salary or two, and have some decent guys in the lineup, but some of those guys have really underachieved, for all the significant money the Rangers are paying (looking at you, Marian Gaborik). Henrik Lundquist is a pretty good goaltender, but he's not a $6.9 million, Cup-winning goaltender. Give the Rangers time. Just don't expect them to do anything relevant this year.

The New Jersey Devils could push New York for third in the Atlantic, and possibly for a playoff spot. There are no excuses for how New Jersey played last year. Now, since "Crazy Lou" Lamoriello essentially kept the same team intact, it is clear that the Devils are not panicking after last year. However, it also means it's much more important for them to get it together, especially with Martin Brodeur getting ready to ride off into the sunset. And heaven knows, the Devils have treated their goaltending situation as if Marty was always going to be there. They don't have a backup plan.

They had better find one soon.

The New York Islanders are… pleading the fifth. This team is so bad that if they don't plead the fifth, they just might manage to finish sixth in the Atlantic.

But seriously... prodigal goaltender Evgeni Nabokov looks to be the man in net (or will be, when that pesky torn cuticle in Week 2 sidelines Rick DiPietro for the foreseeable future). Or... maybe the man is Al Montoya. Or maybe... you know what, it's a mess. The Blue Jackets rescued Radek Martinek from the Island. Let's leave it at that.

Last and certainly not least, the NORTHEAST DIVISION...

The Boston Bruins look to be the first team to repeat since Detroit won back-to-back Cups in 1997 and 1998. They have most of the team intact to do it as well. Negotiations with Bard Marchand ended on a positive note, and at a reasonable rate so if Marchand builds on last year's breakout season, it's going to look like a steal. The only major piece missing is Tomas Kaberle, who signed with the Hurricanes in the off-season as a UFA. In an interesting coincidence, the Bruins signed Joe Corvo, formerly of the Hurricanes, to fill Kaberle's puck-moving defenseman slot. The big question lies in goal, as Tim Thomas, now 37, tries to repeat the mind-boggling goaltending spectacle he put on throughout the Playoffs. The question is not whether Thomas can do it, but how the Bruins will distribute the workload between Thomas and heir apparent goaltender Tuukaa Rask.

Looking to threaten the Bruins at the top of the northeast are the Buffalo Sabres, who upgraded their defense by adding Christian Ehrhoff and Robin Regehr, and added Ville Leino to bolster their top six forwards. Factor in the steady goaltending of Ryan Miller, and you have a formidable challenge for the top of the Northeast.

The other team painting at target on the Bruins' backs are the Montréal Canadiens. Though they lost James Wisniewski's playmaking abilities on the blueline, they still have a solid defensive corps, and P. K. Subban still provides an impressive offensive boost. They also snagged Erik Cole away from the Hurricanes, to help them add scoring at forward. If Carey Price continues to improve, the Canadians could make the Northeast race very interesting this year.

A lot of people in Toronto watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs: people that live there, people in the league office that work there, guys in suits who call back legitimate goals. Sadly, the Toronto Maple Leafs also watch the playoffs a lot. At home.

The Leafs have been on the sidelines in April for the past six years. We probably shouldn't expect that to change this year. However, this team could be a couple deals away from contention for a coveted playoff spot. The Leafs added Tim Connolly and Philippe Dupuis to their forwards, and John-Michael Liles to their blueline, and those are definite improvements. However, since Jean-Sebastien Giguere has moved on to Colorado, the team looks to lean heavily on James Reimer, who had a decent showing last year. The question is whether he can carry the load, and how much the Leafs expect him to carry. Still, if Toronto manages to be in it at the trade deadline, maybe Brian Burke will swing something.

The Ottawa Senators will at least be not as bad as the Islanders. They are making progress, and have made moves that they hope will kickstart them back into an upward trend. Craig Anderson is a decent goaltender, but the Sens need a lot better then a 2.83 GAA for their starter, to make up for the lack of offensive firepower. Their hope is that Nikita Filatov will get a fresh start with a new team, and that their young guys can step up and give players like Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson some much-needed help.

With the divisional breakdowns done, I give you:

2. Philadelphia Flyers
3. Boston Bruins
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
5. Tampa Bay Lightning
6. Buffalo Sabres
7. New York Rangers
8. Montreal Canadiens
9. New Jersey Devils
10. Toronto Maple Leafs
11. Carolina Hurricanes
12. Ottawa Senators
13. Winnipeg Jets
14. Florida Panthers
15. New York Islanders

With that having been said, let's get this season underway already.

Game on!

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