Eastern Conference Predictions
Obviously, coming out of a 10-month work stoppage, the league is in both an exciting place and a confusing one. Even though we all have our guesses as to who will do well and who will flounder, because it’s been so long, and the rosters have changed so drastically since the last time there was hockey, it’s really a crapshoot. Making predictions is always a difficult task, usually consisting of mostly guesswork, but this year, you might as well be picking names out of the hat. Combined with the new rules, and the uncertainty that surrounds how the players will respond to them, it really is anyone’s guess.
But what’s a hockey blog without predictions? A good one, you say? Well then I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you.
1. Boston Bruins
Yes, as a Sens fans, I am not picking them to win the division. Though if everything goes right they should finish on top, Boston has less question marks to me. I love a lot of the offseason moves they’ve made. Adding Brian Leetch may end up being the signing of the year, as he proved to me with his play in Toronto last year that he still has it. I’m ashamed to admit I forgot how good he was. In Boston, where he has a lot of roots, expect him to shine. As well, adding Alexei Zhamnov, Shawn McEachern, and Dave Scatchard for scoring depeth helps ease the pain of losing Brian Rolston and Mike Knuble. And finally, two of their core players, goalie Andrew Raycroft and Patrice Bergeron, are a lot older, and thus, a year better. They will need both to not only equal their outstanding rookie seasons, but have better years, in order to finish on top, but I expect each is up to it. With his new contract in tact, there are no more questions about the future of Joe Thornton and so he needs to make this HIS team, and the organization needs to support him. If all of the above happens, the B’s will win the Eastern Conference. Of course, this is all dependent on Nick Boynton re-signing sometime soon.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
Even with losing their starting goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who was a major part of their success during their Cup run, I still expect the Bolts to finish high. There is too many talent up front, and adding Vaclav Prospal during the summer of 2004, a move that many have seem to forgotten, only adds to their explosiveness. They’re able to roll the best first two lines in hockey, and though their defence lacks a franchise player, from 1-6 it’s very solid. Having said all that, they’re dangerously close to the salary cap carrying only 20 players, a result of signing Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis to new deals, so if they suffer a major injury to any of their core players, they could be in trouble. Because they’re so committed financially, this may be the last year this group has a shot, with Brad Richards eligible for UFA status next year and the team not expected to have much room to sign him. Playing in a division that will be among the league’s worst, in a time when the NHL has emphasized divisional play, only helps the defending champs.
3. Philadelphia Flyers
The apparent consensus favorite to win the Cup this year, the Flyers seem to have the hockey world at their feet, and though I think they’ll do well, I don’t feel as though they’ll take home the championship. Their offseason moves have only solidified their standing as the choice to win Lord Stanley, but I’m not convinced said moves will work out for them. Adding Peter Forsberg is a no-brainer, as when he’s healthy, he can be the most dominant player in the game, but that’s a big caveat. He’s already had health problems and the season has yet to start. They also lost a lot of scoring depth (Mark Recchi, John LeClair, Alexei Zhamnov, and Jeremy Roenick) with the expectation that their new crop of rookies, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter will be able to step in and fill the void at a much cheaper price. While both did well in the AHL last year as major parts of the Philadelphia Phantoms team that won the league title, it’s still a gamble leaning on two freshmen like that. On defence, they added three skyscraper sized blueliners, with the rationalization from Bob Clarke apparently being that the new NHL will see a ton of penalties called, and you’ll big defenders to play the PK. The inherent flaw in Clarke’s logic, as I see it, is that it is likely those big, slow defencemen who will be taking most of the penalties in the first place. And like every year it seems, there are question marks in goal. The organization is putting all their chips on Robert Esche, and I’m not so sure he’s capable of carrying the load. He had an alright season the last time there was hockey, and looked real good in the World Cup as part of Team USA, but I can’t help but remember all the bad goals he was prone to give up. The Flyers won’t need Esche to be a Vezina candidate to win, but they do need solid, consistent play between the pipes. Can he rise to the occasion?
4. Ottawa Senators
Ah, the home team. Though the games ultimately mean nothing, their fantastic pre-season, losing only one game in eight contests, did make me feel more confident of their chances. The HSB line lit it up throughout the exhibition season and though I don’t think they will maintain that pace for the entire regular season, there’s no reason to think they’ll fall off significantly enough to not be a force. The secondary scoring also seems to be in place, with two 30 goal scorers on the “second line”. Their defence looks to be as good as ever, with perhaps the best three defencemen in the league in Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, and Chris Phillips. The question mark for most people seems to be in goal with 40-year-old Dominik Hasek in place as the go-to-guy, but he has looked real good in the pre-season.
5. Montreal Canadiens
I suppose this is the first “risky” choice thus far, as up to now, my picks have been sort of predictable. I will say that I consider the top four teams the cream of the crop of the East, and the drop off from 4th to 5th will be significant, I think. Once called too small for the Eastern Conference, if the new rules are enforced and the game speeds up the way most people seem to think it will, I expect the Habs to prosper. There are some questions on their D, because beyond Sheldon Souray, it has a tendency to be pretty average, but the addition of Mathieu Dandenault will help in a lot of ways, including teaching the young players how to win. In order to win anything though, they’ll need Jose Theodore to be on the top of his game.
6. New Jersey Devils
Many have chimed in that the losses of Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, who for 10 years made up 2/3 of the core of the team with Martin Brodeur, will cripple the Devils. While I think there will be a drop off as far as how they fare, this is an organization that always finds ways to win and so to expect this year to be any different seems to me to be foolish. They will need the players who remain, and especially Brian Rafalski, to step up their play, and a few of the forwards will have to fill the void left by Patrick Elias’s Hep B, but the have the tools to be competitive, and might surprise some people. 6th place might be underestimating this group.
7. Atlanta Thrashers
One of the most active and aggressive participants in the offseason frenzy, it’s possible Atlanta did more to improve their standing than any other club in the league. The addition of Marian Hossa is massive, and even though at $4 million he’s just a tad overpaid, Bobby Holik gives them a veteran who’s won before, as does Scott Mellanby. The Thrashers still need to get Ilya Kovalchuk back into the fold, and reports indicate they’re pretty far apart, but I suspect, eventually, it’ll happen, as he’s too good a player for the team to not have him on board. Defensively, they’ve made some improvements by adding veteran Greg de Vries, who’ll mean a lot more to this team than he would’ve the Senators, and Nicolas Havelid, so it shouldn’t be the weakness it’s been in previous years. They’ll lean on rookie Kari Lehtonen a lot, and though by all accounts he’s as ready to be an NHL starter as any goalie will ever be, he’s still unproven. The Thrashers aren’t guaranteed a post season spot, but they’ve made the changes that give the organization since coming into the league.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
As much as I would love to place them 15th in the East, like some pundits have been doing, I do not feel as though their drop will be as major as others. As I said a month ago, when commenting on the most interesting teams to follow this season, the fun involved with the Leafs is, as much as we all like to think we know what we’re talking about, they really could finish anywhere from the top to the bottom and it wouldn’t be a shock. They’ve made a ton of moves, and the line-up that takes to the ice tomorrow night against Ottawa will look VERY different from the team that knocked them out of the playoffs in April of 2004. Most of the additions have major question marks: Jason Allison hasn’t played a game in 33 months and seems to be made of glass, Eric Lindros is one hit away from being a vegetable, and Jeff O’Neill is coming off a major family tragedy and his worst season ever. For the Leafs to accomplish anything, all three will have to be back on their A-game. And in nets, Ed Belfour has to have yet another stellar season for them to be competitive against the conference’s best. Leafs fans have drawn parallels between the Sens goalie situation and Toronto’s, but the difference lies in what they need from that position. Ottawa doesn’t need Hasek to stand on his head to win, instead simply requiring steady, reliable play, while the Leafs have to have “The Eagle” perform like a top netminder in the world.
9. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Renaissance in the Steel City is very much on, but the talk of a playoff run seems to be more ambitious than this team is capable of. Even though it wasn’t their full roster, the team that I saw in a pre-season game looked very unpolished, raw, and incapable of being a contender. Still, hockey fans in Pittsburgh should be excited, because for the first time in years, the organization seems to at least be on a competitive level with the league’s best, and coming off years of being the embarrassment of the league, that should be enough to tide them over until Sidney Crosby develops into the superstar we all anticipate he will.
10. Buffalo Sabres
If they were any other division, the Sabres might just be a playoff team, but having to play Boston, Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto eight times will squash whatever prospects they have. It’s a shame, because I expect them to be a very exciting club to watch play, with guys like Daniel Briere, Maxim Afinogenov, Chris Drury and rookie sensation Tomas Vanek all on board. They also have, for my money, one of the best coaches in the league in Lindy Ruff behind the bench, and he’s always elevated the teams he coaches. I expect them to be in almost all games they play, but in the end, they’re the Toronto Blue Jays of the NHL: wrong division, no chance.
11. Florida Panthers
The Cats have made a lot of changes, with the hopes of finally returning to the post season (no more rats if ya do though, please), but I don’t think it’s enough. Hiring Jacques Martin was a wise move, because he thrives in working with young players, and adding Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk gives them some veterans to mentor them along. The way they handled Roberto Luongo was a lesson in how to not keep your franchise player happy, and it looks like it’ll end with #1 bolting at the first opportunity. How will that affect his play this year, as he clearly still has a chip on his shoulder, and they’ll need him to have another terrific year to make the playoff push they’ve promised their fans.
12. New York Islanders
This is now Alexei Yashin’s team. Understand why I pick them 10th? Even though his play frustrated Islanders fans over the last couple years, the truth is that his previous role of being nothing but a scorer was the ideal job for Carol Alt’s boytoy. Depending on him to be a leader is akin to asking Sean Avery to represent the interests of French Canadians around the world. He’s not a leader, and this will only end poorly. The losses the team took, losing Adrian Aucoin, Kenny Jonsson, and Mike Peca, hurts, and the people they’ve replaced them with, Alexei Zhitnik, Miroslav Satan, and Mike York don’t bring the same things to the table. I expect it will be a long year on Long Island.
13. Carolina Hurricanes
The way Carolina has gone about building their team for this season made me scratch my head somewhat, but with Jim Rutherford, that’s nothing new. I like the additions of Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman, but the issue of goaltending, the position that had held them back for a few seasons , remains questionable. Is Martin Gerber ready to be a starter? If not, is prospect Cam Ward NHL ready yet? If the answer to either is no, which is what I’m going with, they’ll fall.
14. New York Rangers
With the Islanders 12th and the Blue Shirts 14th, I imagine I’m not the most popular blogger with New York hockey fans right now. Oh well, I’ll deal. Hockey fans in every other market in the league take great pleasure in seeing a team that had, for years, driven the costs of players through the roof. They have a bunch of good young players, including two apparent blue chippers in goal, and if they stay on this path, will be competitive in a few seasons, but for the one that is upcoming, it does not look good. The real fun will be seeing how long Jaromir Jagr lasts in the Big Apple. I can’t see him finishing the year a Ranger.
15. Washington Capitals
Obvious, right? Even with the explosive Alexander Ovechkin coming to D.C., the Caps are still too bare in almost every other area to be anything but a disaster in ’05-‘06. They’re rebuilding and unfortunately have made no attempts to pretend otherwise, which means there will be a whole lotta empty seats at the MCI Center this year. For the veterans who remain, including class act Olaf Kolzig, it will be painful to endure.