Griggsy is back with a vengeance and laying the law down once more with his Eastern Conference, as well as Stanley Cup, preview. I don’t think I can say anything more than what I said before. The man is a beast. A complete and total beast.
On today’s slate, I’ll tell you how the Eastern Conference should unfold. Again, I’ll give you a quick overview of the team, a key player to the team’s success (or failure), and give best- and worst-case scenarios for the teams’ seasons. Afterwards, I’ll give you my predictions for the Eastern playoffs, tell you who will be facing the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals, and tell you who’s taking home the chalice.
Without further ado….
–>Ottawa Senators (East #15, Northeast #5): You thought Ottawa bottomed out last season, right? Worst goal differential in the East. Injuries galore. No one having more than 21 goals on the season. A fire sale at the deadline. A coach getting fired. The sad thing? It’s just going to get worse this season. Bryan Murray is still running the show, and he has brought in another head coach for him to scapegoat. Paul MacLean is the new face (read: poor bastard) that gets to steer the ship. It won’t end well for him.
The goaltending is covered by two bald men and a prospect. Craig Anderson and Alex Auld will start the season as the netminders at the NHL level. However, they will just be placeholders for the time being. Eventually, young prospect Robin Lehner will take over, and it’s just a matter of time. Anderson fell apart in Colorado, but was surprisingly decent in Ottawa to end the season. Auld is nothing more than a serviceable backup on a good team. On this team? Yikes.
The defense is surprisingly solid, although the end is near for Sergei Gonchar. Chris Phillips has just a little bit left in his tank, and Filip Kuba is close to the same. So, Erik Karlsson is the one left to pick up the pieces. He has the talent, and his youth helps him plenty, but he may be in over his head. Offensively, young guys will continue to get a chance to make an impact, supplemented by Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek, and this man….
Key Player: Daniel Alfredsson, RW — Alfredsson struggled mightily in 54 games before hurting his back last season. He is still the most talented forward on the team, and as he goes, so goes the team. He’s going to need to play better than his 38 years of age will allow, though, if the Senators want to remain in playoff contention.
Best-Case Scenario: Alfredsson, Spezza, and Michalek all play above their heads, while a couple of the youngsters make an impact. The defense plays solid, with Gonchar regaining some form and Karlsson becoming a Norris Trophy contender. Anderson recovers his form from two seasons ago in Colorado. The Senators sneak into the last playoff spot before taking the Caps to seven games.
Worst-Case Scenario: Every player plays as they’re expected to. And that’s not a good thing. “With the first pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, the Ottawa Senators select….”
–>Florida Panthers (East #14, Southeast #5): There are some teams where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Think Nashville every year or Phoenix prior to this season. Then there are teams like the 2011-12 Florida Panthers. These are mismatched parts all stuffed into a bag together. In other words, I’m sorry, Kevin Dineen.
The Panthers no longer have Tomas Vokoun as their goalie (more on him further up the pecking order). Instead they are in the same boat as Phoenix, hoping to find lightning in a bottle. One of the guys they brought in is Jose Theodore, who improbably is a former Hart Trophy winner. Mind you, that’s 10 years ago at this point, but still. Scott Clemmensen is the other option in the short-term, but talented Jacob Markstrom, only 21 years old, looms over the situation. The defense is led by Brian Campbell, which means it’s led by a defenseman who’s not a defenseman. Aside from Ed Jovanovski, the rest of the D is young,which could lead to rough times for whomever is in net all season long.
The offense is stocked with homegrown talent and overpaid castoffs. The best of the bunch are David Booth, who played a full season last year but only scored 40 points, along with Stephen Weiss, who led the team in scoring with only 49 points last season. No wonder the team finished at the bottom of the Eastern standings last year.
Key Player: Kris Versteeg, RW — Probably the best of the castoffs, Versteeg won a title in Chicago, got sent to Toronto to dump salary, then was sent to Philly at the deadline last season, where he did very little down the stretch. That got him a one-way ticket out-of-town to Florida, once again as a salary dump. He should have a chip on his shoulder at this point, therefore motivating him to play well all season. However, he may not have the drive to do so, and he just may not care now that he’s in Hockey Hell.
Best-Case Scenario: Dineen is a master motivator, getting the team to play with fire. Theodore thrives with this last chance opportunity. Campbell plays out of his mind all year. Versteeg, Weiss, and Booth form the most underrated top line in hockey. And with all this, the Panthers fall 2 points shy of a playoff spot.
Worst-Case Scenario: Dineen is an average coach. Theodore plays uninspired. Versteeg plays with a malaise. Campbell plays reckless hockey, finishing with the worst plus-minus in the league. Weiss and Booth still lead the team in scoring with under 50 points. The Panthers are officially eliminated from the playoffs before March.
–>Winnipeg Jets (East #13, Southeast #4): After another great start to the season, the Atlanta Thrashers fell apart in grand fashion, finishing in 12th place in the conference. Couple that with some of the worst attendance in the league, and no wonder new owners moved the team to Canada. This will be the last year of the franchise in the Eastern Conference, and they will leave the conference as also-rans once again.
Ondrej Pavelic is young and very talented, but still shows his inexperience as an NHL goaltender. He will be prone to more struggles this season, and Chris Mason is no more than a decent backup, incapable of fixing the problems that Pavelic’s inconsistency will create. The defense is extremely talented as well, but they seemed to struggle as a unit as the season went on. Their best defenseman was at his best in his career when he was a power forward. More on him in a moment. Tobias Enstrom, Johnny Oduya, and Zach Bogosian all have fairly good skill sets, but they need to get it done all season long.
The Jets sorely lack top-end offensive talent, however. Only one forward scored more than 50 points, and they have very little chance to improve on that this season. I could list the names they have returning, and those that are new, but I don’t want to induce vomiting. Suffice to say, they will be struggling to light the lamp, especially up front.
Key Player: Dustin Byfuglien, D — An All-Star last season, Byfuglien fell off towards the end of the season, and continued that drop with an arrest and getting horribly out of shape in the offseason. That is not how you want a team leader to act, that’s for sure. He needs to get back in shape and be a big help both offensively and defensively. The forwards do not have enough skill to carry the scoring, so Byfuglien must make an impact there, especially on the power play.
Best-Case Scenario: The best crowd atmosphere carries the Jets to a tremendous home record. It also doesn’t hurt that Winnipeg is effectively in the middle of nowhere. Regardless, the team performs well at home, and they tread water on the road. Pavelic has a breakout season, Byfuglien and Enstrom once again play at All-Star levels, and the forwards do just enough to win. They manage to pass the Flyers and Rangers at the end of the season, and take 7th place. Losing to the Penguins in 7 games saddens the fans, but they still hold a parade for the team in early May. What else are you going to do in Manitoba in early May?
Worst-Case Scenario: The crowd atmosphere can’t carry the team on the ice. Pavelic struggles. Byfuglien never gets in shape, outraging coach Claude Noel. Enstrom can’t do it all on his own. Captain Andrew Ladd (yeah, I had to look it up) leads the team in scoring with 44 points. The Jets are done early, but the fans still hold a parade for the team in early April. What else are you going to do in Manitoba in early April?
–>Montreal Canadiens (East #12, Northeast #4): I bet you didn’t expect this. As I type, riots are being planned in Montreal. Well, that was going to happen anyway. But instead of it being the usual purposeless rioting, they’ll burn me in effigy. They found a way to make the playoffs last year, and took the eventual Cup winners to the limit, before coming up just….(wait for it)…short in Game 7. They followed that up by signing Erik Cole. That’s it? That’s all? Erik Cole? THAT Erik Cole? And you wonder why I am picking them this low.
The forwards will also include the return of the midget squad. Cammalleri, Gomez, and Gionta are all still there, just a year older. Andrei Kostitsyn and Tomas Plekanec also return, so the top two lines will be decent. However, despite that list, the team scored the 4th fewest goals in the East last season. Will Cole help? Sure, he’ll add a little. But I don’t think he can do enough to offset the lack of scoring that is likely to hurt their cause this season.
The defense has Josh Gorges and Andrei Markov returning from injury, as well as Hal Gill and P.K. Subban back again. Subban and Markov will add offensive punch, while Gorges and Gill will add a stay-at-home presence to the blue line once again. They make for a decent top 4, but opposing forwards won’t exactly be shaking in their skates lined up against them. As for the goaltending….
Key Player: Carey Price, G — Price played in an absurd 72 games last season, as well as seven grueling playoff games. If you expect that to have zero effect on him this season, then either you’re dreaming, or you’re a Canadiens fan. Maybe both. He’s due to have some type of physical breakdown after this, and Peter Budaj just isn’t going to be able to fill in at a level necessary to keep the team in games.
Best-Case Scenario: Price defies the odds, playing another 70+ game schedule, and he plays at an All-Star level once more. Meanwhile, Cole sparks the offense to boost scoring, while Markov and Gorges returning leads to improved defense play. With all these things coming together, the Habs find a way to return to the top of the Northeast Division, finishing in third place in the conference. They win their first round series before bowing out to Philadelphia in the second round.
Worst-Case Scenario: Price misses major amounts of time, leaving Budaj to fish pucks out of the net for half the season. Cole adds very little to the scoring, while Gomez and company fall (you guessed it) short of expectations. The additions of Markov and Gorges are offset by Gill completely becoming a pylon. Subban’s dirty play lands him in Brendan Shanahan’s dog house. The Habs finish well out of the playoff picture, leading to another overhaul of the roster.
–>New Jersey Devils (East #11, Atlantic #5): The Devils got off to one of the worst starts possible last season under John MacLean. The first-time NHL coach was quickly fired halfway through the season, and the team thrived under interim coach Jacques Lemaire. The thriving, of course, was as a result of the team returning to a trapping style of play. Lemaire went back into retirement at the end of the season, and Peter DeBoer was named as his replacement. He has a ton of talented pieces at his disposal. However, the system will change, and the team may again struggle because of it. Will Lou Lamoriello have patience, or will he can DeBoer at the first sign of problems?
Offensively, the Devils have great talent. Ilya Kovalchuk has been a top goal scorer in the league for years. Zach Parise returns from injury, and could put himself in the Art Ross Trophy race. They are surrounded by capable players like Patrick Elias, Dainius Zubrus, Travis Zajac, and the returning Petr Sykora. Nick Palmieri acquitted himself well in a half of a season, and may make a bigger impact, given the opportunity.
The defense has some solid contributors as well. Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov are strong, while Andy Greene put up surprisingly good numbers last season. Rookie Adam Larsson will make his NHL debut this year, and if the Top 5 draft pick plays well from the start, another dimension will be added to the blue line. There’s only one man left to discuss….
Key Player: Martin Brodeur, G — His numbers started to slip, and injury concerns exist now. The elephant in the room also needs to be addressed. Is Brodeur the best goalie ever, or is he just the best system goalie ever? He played fantastically in the trap system for so many seasons, but struggled last year, especially early when the trap was gone. DeBoer may not be able to count on his Hall of Fame netminder to bail things out on the back-end.
Best-Case Scenario: Kovalchuk and Parise fly under DeBoer’s guidance. Elias and Sykora, fresh from being hooked up to the Juvenation Machine (copyright Bill Simmons), play above their heads. Volchenkov and company play great defense, and Brodeur shows that he’s not dead yet. The Devils get into the playoffs as the 5 seed, and knock off Tampa in the first round before falling to Washington in the second round.
Worst-Case Scenario: Kovalchuk’s struggles continue. Elias and Sykora start strong, but fade big-time. Parise is focused on by opposing defenses, shutting him down effectively. Volchenkov and Tallinder try to pick up the slack, but they can’t shut the stars down well enough. Most importantly, though, the end comes for Martin Brodeur. It was inevitable, but it submarines the season for DeBoer. They finish 13th in the conference.
–>Toronto Maple Leafs (East #10, Northeast #3): Brian Burke continues to put his imprint on the Maple Leafs roster. But at some point, his roster needs to start winning games. And those wins need to result in a return to the playoffs. If you look at the roster, this just feels like a team that’s one player short.
Phil Kessel moves the needle offensively for this team, and appears to be the only one of a star caliber. Sure, the team has tons of third-liners, grinders, and tough guys, but it’s tough to find a scoring partner that Kessel can rely upon. On defense, Dion Phaneuf is the big-name player, but he is surrounded by very mediocre talent. That makes him look even worse as well. Phaneuf is a good player on a good defense. But as the leader of an average unit, his play will prove to be underwhelming, too.
Goaltending is still a mess for coach Ron Wilson. Jean-Sebastien Giguere departed, leaving two inexperienced players to pick up the slack. Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer will be the tandem, with Reimer being the presumed #1. Both have sizable upside, but neither is the type of goaltender that will win playoff series.
Key Player: Brian Burke, GM — I know, once again not a player, but it’s the right choice. Burke needs to make a move at some point to bring in another player on par with Kessel, maybe even better. Until he does that, this team will not make the leap back into the playoffs.
Best-Case Scenario: One of the goaltenders establishes himself, making big saves at all the big times. Kessel puts up 50 goals, and one of the many forwards around him makes the leap, probably Matthew Lombardi or Mikhail Grabovski. Phaneuf puts the defense on his back, to the surprise of many. And with other teams in the East struggling, the Leafs grab the 8th and final playoff spot. They are swept out in the first round, but who cares? Back in the playoffs, baby.
Worst-Case Scenario: Neither goaltender performs well enough, leaving Wilson to tear his hair out. Kessel underachieves, while none of the forwards around him steps up. Phaneuf and the rest of the defense do nothing of note. The playoffs fade away from Toronto once again, and Burke and Wilson are both sent packing, another rebuilding project on the way.
–>New York Islanders (East #9, Atlantic #4): Very quietly, the Islanders have been acquiring a surprisingly deep group of talent. The key thing now? Jack Capuano and especially Garth Snow need to stay the hell out of the way. A terrible start to the season doomed the Islanders, and a willingness to have goons throughout the lineup set them back to some extent. If they go with the right players in their lineup this season, there is potential for something special to occur.
Goaltending is an interesting subject for the Isles. They have 3 capable goalies, but all three have flaws. DiPietro is oft-injured, Nabokov’s heart can be questioned, and Al Montoya has yet to get it done long enough to make the team feel confident. When they decide the direction they want to go, it could all be sabotaged by each goalie’s flaws.
The forward positions are clearly the team’s strength. John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner, and P.A. Parenteau all return, while Brian Rolston comes over from New Jersey. More depth could come in the form of first-round pick Nino Niederreiter. This could be a very dynamic and explosive scoring attack.
The questions exist mostly on defense. The depth is virtuallynon-existent. They are also relying on someone they don’t know theycan rely on….
Key Player: Mark Streit, D — The freshly named team captain is coming off a completely lost season due to injury. Will he be able to fully recover and get back to his previous level of play? Will he be able to be a leader on and off the ice, when he hasn’t had the ‘C’ on his sweater previously? Can he help his unit turn into a solid set of defensemen, or will they fall apart? Big questions for Streit to answer.
Best-Case Scenario: The offense, as expected, carries the team, scoring the most goals in the league. Tavares lives up to his new contract, while Okposo rebounds from an injury plagued 2010-11. The rest of the team does just enough around them. DiPietro is injured again, but it’s a blessing in disguise, as Montoya and Nabokov share the load. The goonery that permeated through the team is forgotten completely, and the defense jells, mostly due to having less penalties to kill. The Isles crash the playoff party, getting in as the #7 seed. They take #2 seed (and appropriate playoff opponent) Pittsburgh to 7 games before falling to Crosby and company. Regardless, the NHL world knows the Isles are back.
Worst-Case Scenario: The offense does perform better, but not well enough. Some guys they expected more from, including Tavares and Parenteau, do very little. Meanwhile, Nabokov gets traded away, then DiPietro gets injured soon after. The job is Al Montoya’s, and he struggles with a weak defense in front of him. The Isles are in lots of wild games, and most of them end with the Isles’ comeback falling short. The NHL world doesn’t find out about the Isles yet. Well, not because of good play, at least. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Trevor Gillies.)
–>Philadelphia Flyers (East #8, Atlantic #3): The Flyers once again fell short of winning a Stanley Cup, being swept out by the Bruins in round two. GM Paul Holmgren opted to shake up the roster, trading away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and allowing Ville Leino to walk away (more on him later), while bringing in Ilya Bryzgalov, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Maxime Talbot, and Jaromir Jagr.
….I said Jaromir Jagr!
There, that’s better. Anyways, the roster has changed quite a bit, but the Flyers are still against the cap, still are old on defense, and still have a goalie who is unproven in the playoffs. This will go well.
Claude Giroux and Daniel Briere are the mainstays after all the upheaval in Philly, but even they aren’t immune to change. They are now being relied upon to change from being great wingers to become the top two centers on the team, taking Carter and Richards’ spots. This is not an easy adjustment to make, either. Jagr will be relying on one of them to make his job easier. Not a guarantee to happen. There is more even spread of talent for the Philly forwards. But this may result in a drop in goals scored.
If that happens, the defense will be more important than ever. That could be a problem. Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen are the top defensemen, and they are getting older (read: very old), while Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle, and Andrej Meszaros will be needed more in support, which may cause struggles for them. Meanwhile, the goaltending position, while well-paid, is still a question mark….
Key Player: Ilya Bryzgalov, G — Bryzgalov played very well in Phoenix. I want to get that out of the way, because what I say now may make it sound like I didn’t think so. The truth is, playing well in Phoenix guarantees nothing about his success in Philadelphia. Phoenix had a strict defensive system, which helped him a lot. Also, the pressure of hockey in Phoenix is much different from the pressure of hockey in Philadelphia. Let in a soft goal? In Phoenix, no big deal. In Philly, you may be beaten up. Welcome to the pressure cooker, Ilya.
Best-Case Scenario: Bryzgalov answers the bell. He plays at Vezina Trophy level all season. Giroux and Jagr develop instant chemistry, while Briere comes into his own as a center. The new guys all chip in. The defense plays very well. The Flyers win the Atlantic Division, and the top seed in the East. After knocking out their biggest tormentors in recent years (Montreal, Boston, Pittsburgh), they arrive at the Stanley Cup FInals against the L.A. Kings. The Flyers quickly show that they are better off without Mike Richards, and win in 5 games, their first cup since the Broad Street Bullies days.
Worst-Case Scenario: Bryzgalov struggles mightily, drawing the hatred of Philly fans. Jagr looks old and slow quickly, proving himself to be a waste of money. Pronger and Timonen look old and slow, leaving the defense in disarray. Giroux and Briere never seem quite in the right place. Mediocrity reigns supreme. And the Flyers just miss the playoffs, being eliminated with a loss to the Penguins on the last day. Bobby Clarke weeps.
–>Carolina Hurricanes (East #7, Southeast #3): The Hurricanes came up two points short of the 8th playoff spot in the East last season. Going 7-2-1 down the stretch just wasn’t good enough, and that’s saying something. Erik Cole has moved on, but his absence may give some great young stars a chance to step up. The defense gets a bit of an upgrade, and with all else being (more or less) the same inRaleigh, expect an upgrade in the standings. Eric Staal is the do-everything leader for the forwards. He had a big part in the team’s hot closing stretch, scoring 12 points in his last ten games. He gets assistance from Jeff Skinner, Tuomo Ruutu, and Jussi Jokinen. The team also attempted to ease the loss of Cole by bringing in Alexei Ponikarovsky. It may work out for the team,provided he is not expected to make any huge contributions.
The defense returns most of their regulars from last season, including offensive threat Joni Pitkanen. Joe Corvo is the one well-known departure, but the team clearly upgraded. They picked up Cup winner Tomas Kaberle from Boston, and they will gain much from his experience, offensive abilities, and his defensive talents. The other guys are solid, even if you don’t know their names. Yeah, I didn’t know them either until I looked them up. Piss off.
Yet again, we go goalie with the….
Key Player: Cam Ward, G — Or is it CamWard? John Forslund confuses me with that. Anyways, Ward played more games than Carey Price last season. Does that worry me? Absolutely. But Ward has done it before, and with Brian Boucher as his backup, he’ll get a lot more rest this season, and more than Vanilla Price will in Montreal. The guy won the Conn Smythe Award. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Best-Case Scenario: Ward does get support from Boucher, which allows him to thrive at about 60 games. Staal plays to his capabilities, with Skinner avoiding a sophomore slump, and solid contributions from the Finns and from Ponikarovsky. Kaberle is a natural fit, back with his former coach Paul Maurice. The Canes get on a run again this season in the late stages, but this one lifts them to the #4 seed and home ice in the first round against fellow Southeast Division member Tampa Bay. Carolina knocks off the Lightning, then takes another Southeast foe, the Caps, to a Game 7 before falling in D.C.
Worst-Case Scenario: Cam Ward can’t handle the workload this season, looking like a fatigued goaltender in the middle of the season. Brian Boucher is decent, but decent isn’t good enough this season. Staal is his usual solid self, but he doesn’t get any help. Skinner swoons, Jokinen only excels in shootouts, Ruutu suffers an injury, and Ponikarovsky goes AWOL. Kaberle and Pitkanen try to pick up the slack, but they abandon their defensive responsibilities far too often, and Boucher suffers because of it. The Canes miss the playoffs once again, and this season, it isn’t even close. Maurice suffers the consequences, and is sent packing by Jim Rutherford.
–>New York Rangers (East #6, Atlantic #2): The Rangers managed to impressively hold off the Canes down the stretch last season. They quickly ran out of steam, though, falling to the Capitals in the first round, going out with a whimper. John Tortorella is back again, and while he has a lot of returning players this season, there is one new name sure to make an impact on the roster up front. On the blue line, there is a big absence early on due to injury, which will be a challenge. Will it all come together and allow them to make an impact in April (and beyond)?
If the Rangers are going to do anything, Henrik Lundqvist will be at the forefront. He played 68 games, but a lot of those were down the stretch, while Martin Biron was on the shelf. King Henrik responded well, including a very good 2.26 GAA in the playoffs. Needless to say, he wasn’t the reason that the Rangers were done in 5 games. The defense in front of him wasn’t a problem either. That may not be the case this season, though. Marc Staal, the best player on the Blueshirts’ blue line, won’t be around to start off the season due to injury, leaving a gaping hole. Dan Girardi will do all that he can in the meantime, but Lundqvist may be cleaning up many messes, at least until Staal returns.
The forwards are largely the same going into the 2011-12 season. Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan will be stalwarts, while Marian Gaborik will try to score goals at the pace he is capable of. The depth at forward is underrated as well, with names like Fedotenko, Boyle, Prust, Anisimov, Stepan, as well as new addition, Mike Rupp. However, Rupp isn’t the new addition getting everyone’s attention….
Key Player: Brad Richards, C — The big signing of free agency was this man, who left Dallas and was wooed by just about every team with cap space. The Rangers won the bidding for his services, and now it’s on Richards to deliver. He needs to play like a man of his paycheck, and he didn’t always do so in Dallas. It was a risk for Glen Sather to sign him. Richards’ ability to live up to his billing will ultimately decide the Rangers’ fate.
Best-Case Scenario: All the pieces fit together in the puzzle. Scoring starts with Richards and Gaborik, and goes all the way down to the 4th line. The defense is serviceable until Staal returns, at which time they really lock teams down. Lundqvist makes the saves he needs to make. The Rangers tread water early, but really come on strong after the Winter Classic, taking the division lead in March and never looking back. They take the #2 seed, and dispatch their Winter Classic opponents, the Flyers, in the first round. After that, they are tested by the Bruins, but eventually pass the test. They still can’t get past their postseason nemesis, the Washington Capitals, but a run to the conference finals is the start of a great run by the Rangers in the years to come.
Worst-Case Scenario: Staal’s absence is immediately noticed. The defense has Swiss cheese-sized holes that are exposed, with Lundqvist left hung out to dry. The offense, expected to be a real strength, flounders for most of the season. Gaborik’s fragile body comes back to haunt him again, and without their sniper, the rest of the forwards struggle to pick up the slack. The supposed marquee matchup at the Winter Classic is instead an embarrassing affair for the Rangers, and it leads to a tailspin that keeps them out of the playoffs. Tortorella gets the ax, and Larry Brooks weeps.
–>Buffalo Sabres (East #5, Northeast #2): The Sabres, with one change, have changed their franchise’s future, maybe forever. Terry Pegula’s purchase of the team turned one of the NHL’s strictest-budgeted teams to one of it’s biggest spending teams. The checkbook was opened, and because of that, this Sabres team may be a team on the rise.
The team’s offense is stronger going into this season, thanks to keeping key players while adding a talented winger in Ville Leino. Leino was a big part of Philadelphia’s season last year, and will do wonders to take on some of the scoring load that is typically on Thomas Vanek’s shoulders. Vanek often delivers despite the pressure, but Leino’s addition will be a welcome one. Derek Roy, Brad Boyes, Jason Pominville, among others, will similarly be looking to take on more of the scoring load. The team scored the 4th-most goals in the conference last season, and with this lineup, the Sabres are likely to go up that list.
The defense retains great players in Tyler Myers and Andrej Sekera, while adding two more in Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff. It may not be the best Top 4 in the league, but it’s damn good. And behind them, capable defensemen will fill in the remaining minutes ably. This is all in front of….
Key Player: Ryan Miller, G — The best American goaltender today still has yet to lead his team to the Stanley Cup. Now, the last couple years, the team in front of him hasn’t been good enough for that. But this season is a different story. The scoring is deep, the defense is good. If Miller can play like he did in the Olympics, we might see the Sabres lift the Cup for the first time.
Best-Case Scenario: Leino adds another scoring dimension right away, while Vanek takes advantage of teams paying a little less attention to him, putting home 45 goals, a career high. The new additions on defense make life hell on other teams’ forwards, leaving Miller to clean up the small messes. The Sabres take the Northeast Division, and ride momentum all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. A loss to the Canucks in the Finals ruins the storybook ending, but the Sabres will hold their heads high.
Worst-Case Scenario: Leino becomes an immediate bust, doing next to nothing all season long. Vanek draws all the attention, and again struggles (for him) with no one fully helping. The defense, expected to be reliable, struggles at times, leaving Miller helpless for (too long) stretches. What looked to be a promising season flames out in early April, and the Sabres miss the playoffs.
–>Tampa Bay Lightning (East #4, Southeast #2): The Lightning almost ended up back in the Stanley Cup Finals last season, but fell just short. Guy Boucher’s system caught many teams by surprise, and really wreaked havoc on the entire Eastern Conference. Now, the challenge is duplicate that feat, but actually make it to the Cup Finals. Oh, yeah, not to mention win the whole damn thing. They have the talent. Will they still have the success, though, with 29 other teams having time to prepare for them?
On offense, it’s tough to get better from 1 to 3 than Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Stamkos. Beyond that, Ryan Malone hopes to finally fulfill the monetary investment Tampa made, and then, well, um, uh, Dana Tyrell? Steve Downie? Yeah, they are thin towards the bottom, which can be a problem sometimes. Another problem is that the defense doesn’t have a consistent threat to create offense. They have very good to great defensemen, but none will make you worry about knowing where they are on a rush. Brett Clark, Mattias Ohlund, Victor Hedman, and Eric Brewer are perfect in Boucher’s system. But that’s all you will get out of them.
Here’s the real question mark….
Key Player: Dwayne Roloson, G — Another perfect fit under Boucher, Roloson came over midway through last season, and immediately showed he belonged by shutting out the Capitals in D.C. However, Roloson is 41 years old, and all the games he played are sure to take a toll this season. If he can handle the rigors of the season, then Tampa can be even better than last season. I don’t know how secure I’d feel as a Tampa fan.
Best-Case Scenario: Stamkos puts up 60+ goals, Lecavalier and St. Louis continue their great play, and enough support comes from the rest of the team offensively. The defense continues to thrive in Boucher’s system. Roloson plays a reasonable number of games, while his backup, Mathieu Garon, plays well in his work. Tampa challenges Washington all season long, then finally overtakes them in the last week of the season. With an easy road, the Lightning get back to the East finals, but this time, Roloson leads them into the Stanley Cup Finals. And with Stamkos taking the Conn Smythe Trophy, Tampa brings the Cup back to Florida with a win over the Blackhawks.
Worst-Case Scenario: Roloson flames out, and no matter what the rest of the team does, they can’t make up for it. Not only are the Cup Finals out of reach this season, the playoffs disappear, too.
–>Boston Bruins (East #3, Northeast #1): You may wonder why the Bruins, the Stanley Cup Champions, are sitting in third place in the conference. They kept the roster nearly the same. They have Tim Thomas in net, and Tuukka Rask backing him up. They have scoring depth, great defensemen, and a coach that knows how to get the most out of his team. What could possibly cause me to think a little less of them?
Two words: Championship hangover.
Well, that’s why I don’t expect them to win the Cup again. They aren’t given #1 in the East because the two teams ahead of them are likely to amass more points in the standings.
Thomas was great throughout the playoffs, no doubt. He showed his mettle repeatedly, culminating with his performance in the Cup Finals, repeatedly shutting down the Sedins. This season, as with last season, Thomas will split duties with Rask, allowing both to be well-rested and prepared for the playoffs. Also adding assistance to this will be the Zdeno Chara-led defense. Tomas Kaberle left for Carolina, but Joe Corvo effectively traded himself to the Bruins to fill the spot that was vacant. Dennis Seidenberg is back, along with the rest of a deep and skilled blue line.
The offense is once again led by committee, including David Krejci,Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, and Nathan Horton. Mark Recchi has retired, but the team is still extremely deep up front. Rich Peverley and youngster Tyler Seguin will add more to the team this season. But will it mean anything come playoff time?
Key Player: Claude Julien, Coach — Yes, off the board once more. Julien did a tremendous job with his team in the playoffs, leading them ably to the Stanley Cup. This season, however, will prove to be a different challenge. Will the players be focused at all times? Will they play with the necessary intensity? Can the team catch all the good breaks and avoid the bad ones, like they did last season? Julien may not be able to control everything, but he absolutely must control all that he’s able to in order to get this team back to the promised land.
Best-Case Scenario: The Bruins hum along on all cylinders once again. The offense gets many contributions. The defense plays at a high level. Thomas and Rask both thrive in their time-share. Julien keeps the boys focused. They take the division, then make it through three grueling series to see the Cup Finals once more. They face Detroit in an Original Six matchup, and in 7 games again, Thomas and the Bruins win back-to-back Stanley Cups.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Bruins can’t seem to fire on enough of their cylinders. Injuries and ineffectiveness galore. Thomas and Rask both struggle mightily in the time-share. Claude Julien can’t understand why, but the team never responds, falling out of the playoff race in the last week. Julien is shown the door soon after.
–>Pittsburgh Penguins (East #2, Atlantic #1): The Penguins suffered massive injuries and it ruined any chances they had in last season’s playoffs. Without the two best players on the team, it was a long shot to do any damage. The fact that they fell 2 points short of the top seed in the East is a testament to Dan Bylsma and Marc-Andre Fleury. A new season brings renewed hope, and injuries are on the mend. There is still one question to be answered for this Penguins team. The answer to that question will decide a lot for the Penguins’ season.
Marc-Andre Fleury was incredible for the Penguins for large stretches last season. His numbers may not have been Vezina-worthy, but he played at an MVP level, making every big save, allowing the team to find ways to win without their best players. He could not win the Hart Trophy, but he definitely deserved it for what he did carrying the team. Brent Johnson backs up Fleury, and the drop-off is nearly nil when he’s in between the pipes.
The defense is led by arguably the best Top 4 in all of the NHL. Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek give nothing up to opposing forwards, while Kris Letang and Paul Martin play fantastic two-way hockey. When you have a Top 4 at this level, you or I could be #6, and the Pens would be fine. The forwards are led by former top picks Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. They are surrounded by many solid wings, including Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Steve Sullivan, and Tyler Kennedy. Those are all capable 20-goal scorers. However, this team all depends on one man….
Key Player: Sidney Crosby, C — He’s the best player in the world today. He was at his peak (to this point) when he got injured, and everyone wonders if he can ever get back to that peak when he returns. Even if he doesn’t get back there, he would add so much to the roster, and would easily be the best in-season acquisition in all of the league if/when he returns. Will he return, though? And if so, when?
Best-Case Scenario: Crosby returns in November, and makes an impact as the season wears on. It also helps that Evgeni Malkin plays like the best player in the world all season long. He wins the Art Ross and Hart Trophies. The Penguins ride Malkin’s coattails to the #1 Seed in the East. Marc-Andre Fleury plays well in the playoffs, while Malkin and Crosby take things by storm. And when they face off with the Kings in the Finals, it’s an inevitablity. The Penguins raise the Cup inside the Consol Energy Center.
Worst-Case Scenario: Crosby does return, but it’s not until January, and when he returns, he feels concussion symptoms return after 3 games. Malkin continues to struggle as he has over the last 3 years. James Neal can’t score. Marc-Andre Fleury has trouble stopping pucks. The Pens fall to 7th in the East, and are knocked out promptly by Boston in the first round. Some begin to wonder if a big change is coming to the Penguins, and that change comes in the name of a Sidney Crosby retirement announcement. I just threw up in my mouth.
–>Washington Capitals (East #1, Southeast #1): The Capitals have the best regular season squad in all of the NHL. But Stanley Cups aren’t won in the regular season. The Caps know this, and at least they continue to try to change the roster, adding playoff-tested players repeatedly. It hasn’t helped yet. And now, no matter what is done there, a playoff-untested competitor will be most important to the Caps’ playoff run.
Alexander Ovechkin is still ridiculously talented. He’s still surrounded by a great group of forwards. They have no problem scoring goals in the regular season. They do have problems scoring goals in the playoffs, which they continue to try to fix. This year, Joel Ward is added to the mix to be a contributor, especially in the playoffs. He should fit in well with the team, but his success, along with the success of the entire team, will be defined by the team’s playoff outcome.
The defense is still the same as the one that was eviscerated at times by Tampa in the playoffs. Alzner and Carlson showed themselves well in the regular season, but struggled in the playoffs, which was no surprise. Mike Green was inconsistent all season long. Dennis Wideman was a solid contributor after coming over from the Panthers. This is a defense that could be great or inconsistent all season long. But again, this is not about the regular season.
Key Player: Tomas Vokoun, G — After the Capitals unloaded Semyon Varlamov, for 24 hours, we thought they had decided on Neuvirth with Holtby as his backup. Instead, we were all thrown a curveball when Tomas Vokoun was signed (for a low monetary value). Vokoun is easily the best goalie to play for the Caps since their resurgence started. He has not been successful in the playoffs in his career, though. So, any Caps fan must temper their enthusiasm, and just hope that Vokoun can fit with this skilled team and make it better.
Best-Case Scenario: Nothing fancy here. It’s winning the Stanley Cup.
Worst-Case Scenario: Anything short of the Best-Case Scenario.
So, there you have the preseason previews. Now, it’s time for the Eastern Conference predictions:
(1) Washington def. (8) Philadelphia, 4 games to 3;
(2) Pittsburgh def. (7) Carolina, 4 games to 1;
(3) Boston def. (6) New York, 4 games to 2;
(5) Buffalo def. (4) Tampa Bay, 4 games to 3
(5) Buffalo def. (1) Washington, 4 games to 2;
(2) Pittsburgh def. (3) Boston, 4 games to 3
Eastern Conference Finals-
(2) Pittsburgh def. (5) Buffalo, 4 games to 2
Pittsburgh represents the East in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Stanley Cup Finals-
(E2) Pittsburgh def. (W2) Los Angeles, 4 games to 2
Conn Smythe Trophy Winner: Sidney Crosby
So, there you have it. The Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup once again, with Sidney Crosby back in the saddle. But, these are not professional predictions. So, please, no wagering. Enjoy the NHL season….