Wednesday, September 30, 2009

NHL Season Preview - Eastern Conference

Was it just me or was that a quick summer?

It seems like two weeks ago that the Penguins were skating off the ice at Joe Louis Arena with their third Stanley Cup in tow, while Kris Draper had a hissy-fit in the Detroit dressing room ("and you can print that, tell him I said it!").

So after enduring another season of pathetic Blue Jays baseball, thank goodness the NHL season is here.  It makes it much easier to forget the Vernon Wells pop outs and Scott Richmond losses.

While McCoy will work his magic breaking down the Western Conference, I'll lend my expertise to the more exciting Eastern Conference, where some interesting storylines are already taking place.

The Favourites

Pittsburgh Penguins:  Nobody should be surprised.  The Eastern Conference belongs to the Penguins until someone takes it from them.  While a third straight Stanley Cup Final appearance is certainly not out of the question, there are a few Eastern teams capable of uprooting the Champs from Steeltown.

The one thing the Pens have going against them is the fact they (along with Detroit) have played a lot of hockey over the last two seasons.  Will fatigue and two consecutive short summers take their toll on the Champs?  There is no doubt that it could be their biggest downfall heading into 2010.

On the other hand, they have Malkin and Crosby.  Crosby is coming off a "bad" year.  He had 100 + points in that bad year.  Malkin is coming off an Art Ross and Conn Smythe.  I don't need to tell you how good those guys are.

After his performance during the Stanley Cup run, Marc-Andre Fleury has solidified his status as an elite, world class goalie, and this year will be even more motivated.  Why?  He wants to go Vancouver in February and represent his country.

They lost Hal Gill, they lost Rob Scuderi, and sure that will hurt.  But let's not forget who the Pens lost after losing to Detroit in 2008.  Roberts, Malone, Hossa, Conklin, Hall, the list goes on.  It was supposed to be too much to rebound from.  Twelve months later, the Pens lifted Lord Stanley.

All this and I haven't even mentioned Gonchar, Guerin, Kunitz, Staal, and Letang.  The Penguins will be fine.

Boston Bruins: The Bruins didn't do much during the offseason, their biggest move was ridding themselves of Phil Kessel and stockpiling draft picks.

Besides Kessel's departure, much is the same with the Bruins, the reigning top Eastern seed.  They still have balance up front and it doesn't hurt that Marc Savard is entering the last year of his contract.  The Bruins will rely again on three young studs who broke through in a big way last year: Krecji, Lucic, and Wheeler.

Tim Thomas is coming off a Vezina win and I don't think he can repeat that this season.  If he struggles, Tuukka Rask is waiting in the wings, and is ready for prime time.

The Northeast Division was a cake-walk for Boston last year, and while I see them winning it again, it won't come as easily with the Leafs, Sens, and Habs all vastly improved.

Washington Capitals: The Caps certainly aren't far off.  However, their biggest offseason need was a big rugged blueliner, which they didn't get.  Chris Pronger would have been a perfect fit for this team, and really, just what they needed.  Instead, they went out and signed Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison.  While not bad picks ups, those two guys are not going to get the Capitals to the next level.

The Capitals do have some scary talent though.  I don't need to tell you how good Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Semin are.  Mike Green puts up the sexy offensive numbers from the point, but couldn't defend me in his own zone.  He was exploited in the Pittsburgh series last season, as were the entire Washington defense corps.

This team will only go as far as a goalie will carry them.  Jose Theodore had a great year last year, but was dumped early in the playoffs for rookie Simeon Varlamov, who's Cinderalla slipper got crushed in a brutal game seven choke job against Pittsburgh.  Whoever gets the most starts this year, shoulders a huge amount of pressure.  The Caps will be in a lot of high scoring games.

Carolina Hurricanes: Was it any surprise that the Canes and Pens were the last two teams standing in the East last season?  They were, after all, the two hottest teams down the stretch.

The Hurricanes' big weakness is also on the blueline, and the Penguins definitely exposed that in the Conference Finals.  Nothing was done to improve that problem, but the Hurricanes are deep enough up front, and have a bonafide number one goalie in Cam Ward, something that sets them apart from Washington.

The Canes are aging, however.  Ray Whitney, Rod Brind'Amour, and Erik Cole are no spring chickens.  The team will be able to offset that problem however, with an influx of young blood like Brandon Sutter and Zach Boychuk.

And beware of Eric Staal.  Like a lot of players, he is on the bubble for an Olympic roster spot, so he should be nothing short of lights out this season.

Philadelphia Flyers: It seems like a lot of pundits are picking the Flyers to come out of the East.  I'm not 100% sure why.

I know they are good.  I know they signed Chris Pronger.  I know they are going to be tough to play against.  The Ian Laperriere signing was brilliant.  I just have one question:  Do people really believe in Ray Emery that much?

I don't.

That said, they will be a force to be reckoned with.  A full season from Briere and Gagne would be nice, but they got by without that last season.

As good as their forwards are, the Flyers' big strength is on the blueline.  Pronger, Timmonen, Coburn, and Parent make up the top four, and thats as  formidable a corps as exists in the NHL.  They will have to be good to stop snipers from getting at Ray Emery and Brian Boucher.

Another problem that has plagued the Flyers forever has been lack of discipline.  Stupid penalties do the team in year in and year out.  Playing a lot against powerplays like the Caps' and Pens' may spell trouble.


New York Rangers:  As Henrik Lundqvist goes, so go the Rangers, a team that has had more trouble scoring than Steve at a high school dance.

But Glen Sather has taken steps to fix that this year.  Signing Marian Gaborik is a gamble, but if it pays off and he stays healthy, its a move that can put the Rangers in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.

A lot of guys had off years for the Blueshirts in 08-09.  Chris Drury and Wade Redden need to be much better, both on the ice and in the room.  If they are half the players they can be, it would be a drastic improvement.

The Rangers expect big things from Chris Higgins, who came over from Montreal, and still has a lot of upside.  Three rookies will make an impact on Broadway this year as well.  You might have seen Artem Anisimov scoring highlight reel goals all preseason long.  Well, he has made the team and should help offset the loss of Nikolai Zherdev.  Defencemen Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto have also made the team out of training camp and are expecting to get powerplay time on the point.

Playoff Contenders

Montreal Canadiens:  The city is abuzz over the new guys.  Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta are reunited, and Michael Cammalleri brings 39 goals to the wing in Montreal.  Gomez and Gionta looked 2005-esque in preseason, which is a good sign for the Habs' faithful.  Les Habitants should be able to score, but the big question mark up front is size.  Are the forwards big and strong enough to withstand the physicality teams like Toronto and Boston will bring?

It is no surprise that Carey Price is the big question mark on this team heading into the season.  The biggest thing he needed to do over the summer was grow the hell up.  Too many times last year he seemed like he didn't care, or was in a different universe.  If he has a decent head on his shoulders, he can be a top five goalie in the NHL.  If not, well then it will be more of the same for Montreal.

The loss of Mike Komisarek won't hurt as much as people expect.  Jaroslav Spacek brings a big, underrated shot from the blueline, and if Hal Gill is put in the right situation, then he should do just fine as well.

Ottawa Senators: Can the Sens make it back to the playoffs?  I think they can. If...

a) Pascal Leclaire is the goalie they are hoping he can be.  Can he stay healthy? 

b) Alex Kovalev does not take half the season off.

We all know that Dany Heatley is now an ex-Sen.  By all accounts, he was turning into a cancer anyway, and the return of Jonathan Cheecho and Milan Michalek from the Sharks will help people forget him soon enough.  Ottawa now has a top six of Spezza, Alfredsson, Kovalev, Michalek, Cheechoo, and Fisher.  Rookie Peter Regin is likely to bump Fisher out of that second line spot.

The Sens need big things from Chris Campoli.  He needs to be the powerplay quarterback they have been missing since Chara left.

Buffalo Sabres: This team was on its way to the postseason last year, but then Ryan Miller got injured, and that was that.  No player in the league might be more important to their team than the Sabres' star netminder.  Simply put, if he can stay healthy, the team has a good shot at seeing April hockey.  If not, then well expect the Sabres to miss the playoffs for the third straight season.

The Sabres are still young and lethal up front with the likes of Vanek, Roy, Pominville, and Stafford.

Their biggest downfall might be the division they play in.  Like I said, the Northeast will be no tea party this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs played the preseason like it was the Stanley Cup Finals.  Seriously, did they save anything for games that actually count?

There is no doubt the Leafs will be better.  They will challenge for a playoff spot.  By all accounts, they will be an abrasive, exciting team, one that is hard to play against.  The thing is, you can only get away with that for so long.  Discipline and fatigue will be problems for the Leafs.

While the acquisitions of Phil Kessel and Mike Komisarek are grabbing headlines, the best move the Leafs made was the signing of Francois Beauchemin.  He is a good, all around player.  An underrated powerplay performer who isn't a liability in his own end?  Any team in the league would take that any day.

And sorry, but I am nowhere close to being sold on Komisarek.  What do I see in him?  Bryan McCabe.

Between the pipes, the Leafs at least have options now.  The pressure is on Vesa Toskala to be better, and he will most certainly be on a short leash.  Leafs faithful is already anointing Jonas Gustavsson as the next coming of Christ himself.  Speaking of religion, God I hate this team.

New Jersey Devils:  They Devils' time has come.  To not be as good as they usually are.  More than ever, its Martin Brodeur versus the world.

The Devils are in desperate need of offensive help on the back-end.  Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya just are not going to cut it.

Up front, they have Parise, Zajac, and aging guys like Rolston, Elias, and Langenbrunner.  After that there is nothing.  The Devils just might find themselves on the outside looking in come April.  If the team makes the playoffs this year, Brodeur will deserve Hart Trophy consideration.

Bottom Feeders

Tampa Bay Lightning:  The Bolts could be a surprise this year, but it all depends on Mike Smith and his ability to stay healthy.

The Tampa defence is greatly improved with Victor Hedman, Mattias Ohlund, Matt Walker, and Kurtis Foster arriving.  Hedman is expected to log heavy minutes in his rookie season, and no doubt will be mentored by fellow Swede Ohlund.

Up front, they subtract career enigma Vinny Prospal, and replace him with a much more consistent Alex Tanguay.  The best news for Tampa Bay is that Vincent Lecavalier is still on the roster.

New York Islanders: Let the John Tavares show begin.  If anything, at least there is hope on the Island now.

Tavares is expected to jump and be successful right away, and he should be able to live up to expectations.  Beside Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and Trent Hunter though, the Isles are pretty weak at the forward positions.

Actually, the Islanders are pretty weak all over. 

There is a logjam in goal, with new acquisitions Martin Biron and Dwayne Roloson signed for insurance because Rick DiPietro hurts himself every time he sneezes.

The Islanders have a long road back.

Florida Panthers: The Panthers came close to the playoffs last year.  They won't this year.  No Jay Bouwmeester, plain and simple.

While there is lots of young talent up front in the likes of Booth, Horton, Weiss, Olesz, and Frolik, in order to make a run, all of them need to have career years.

Tomas Vokoun also needs to be more consistent down the stretch for the Panthers to have any shot.

The bottom line is that with Bouwmeester gone, you're missing not only the backbone of the blueline, but also the biggest part to the transition game.  Now Florida has to rely on Brayn McCabe to fill the void.  Good luck with that.

Atlanta Thrashers: Like last year, the Thrashers will be able to score.  Kovalchuk in a contract year?  Yes, please.  But they also have unheralded Byan Little, Rich Peverley, and two new bodies in Nik Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov to bolster their attack.

The problem will once again be keeping pucks out of the net.  Will the real Kari Lethonen stand up this year?

The most intriguing thing happening in Atlanta this year (besides the Kovalchuk trade talk that will start in November), is first round pick Evander Kane making the team out of training camp.  If given enough playing time, he could be in the Calder sweepstakes.

How They'll Finish

1. Pittsburgh
2. Boston
3. Carolina
4. Washington
5. Philadelphia
6. New York Rangers
7. Montreal
8. Ottawa
9. Buffalo
10.New Jersey
11. Toronto
12. Tampa Bay
13. Florida
14. New York Islanders
15. Atlanta

Stanley Cup Finals

Pittsburgh vs. Anaheim


ranndino said...

I stopped reading at "Jose Theodore had a great season last year". There went my respect for your hockey knowledge. As a Caps fan let me tell you something that all Caps fans and I thought all hockey fans knew. He was absolutely terrible. I personally was screaming all year for him to be dumped in favor of the great young Varlamov and thankfully Boudreau finally did it in the playoffs. My only regret is that Jose is still on our team as we couldn't get rid of him. Varlamov is clearly a much better goalie. Jose was good 5 years ago, but he's done now.

Mark! said...

He got you to the 2nd seed, bet you were happy with him more 3/4 of the season.

ranndino said...

My suggestion would be for you to stay away from gambling because you can't possibly be more wrong. You jump to conclusions and assume things too much also based on your own biases. I was not happy with him from game 1 in a Caps uniform (there's proof in the archives of the Capitals Insider blog) and we got the 2nd seed DESPITE him, not BECAUSE of him.

Speaking of gambling watching him is actually just like gambling. Every shot on goal has a good chance of going in and as a Capitals fan you're sweating bullets constantly. It's also become clear as day midway through last season that the players have completely lost confidence in him regardless of the PC crap they say to the media.

The only reason he's still on the team is because no one else would take him and his fat contract off our hands because every team knows that he's a grossly overpaid "has been". Both of our young netminders, Varlamov and Neuvirth are infinitely better in every single asset of goaltending.

Anonymous said...

This is the most pathetic season wrap up I've ever read. Shut this shit pile down.

ranndino said...

Hahahaha @ previous comment. About right. My grandma knows more about hockey and she still confuses it with soccer.