Caps Roster Update / 2009-10 Eastern Conference Regular Season Predictions

October 01, 2009 | Ed Frankovic

Caps Roster Update

As I alluded to yesterday, the Michael Nylander situation did impact the Capitals opening night roster and as a result forward Chris Bourque, who was placed on waivers due to salary cap implications on Tuesday afternoon after being told he had made the team, is now a Pittsburgh Penguin while the Caps received no compensation for the 2004 2nd round pick (I could rant about this but I won’t as JP over at Japers Rink already took care of this for Caps fans and the media). I don’t think GM George McPhee and Head Coach Bruce Boudreau are too happy about this development either but it is what it is for now.

So now Washington has finalized the roster that will open the season Thursday night in Boston, where the Capitals begin the 2009-10 campaign against the Bruins at 7 p.m. (VERSUS).

Washington recalled left wing Boyd Kane from the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League (AHL) Wednesday to take Bourque’s vacated roster spot and assigned goaltender Michal Neuvirth (NOY-vihrt) to the Bears. Two players – right wing Eric Fehr and left wing Tomas Fleischmann – will open the season on injured reserve. Nylander will likely be sitting in the press box unless someone else gets hurt in warm-ups or on the way there.

The 25-man roster, counting Fehr and Fleischmann, includes 22 players who played for the Capitals last season. Kane, right wing Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison are the newcomers; Kane re-signed with the Capitals as a free agent this summer so only Knuble and Morrison are in line to make their Capitals debuts tomorrow.

Kane, left wing Quintin Laing, defenseman Tyler Sloan and goaltender Semyon Varlamov have made an NHL opening-night roster for the first time in their careers.

2009-10 Eastern Conference Predictions

This past Saturday night I previewed the Western Conference and now I will focus on the Eastern Conference. In my view, there are four teams at the top that clearly separate themselves from everyone else, then positions 5 through 11 could go any way possible, and finally there are four clubs that I consider destined for the bottom of the conference. So here we go..

1. Boston Bruins – Just because I picked Boston first doesn’t necessarily mean I think they are the best team in the conference. I picked them #1 overall because they are in the weakest division and should repeat as the #1 seed since they have a bit of an easier schedule than the Caps, Penguins, or Flyers. Tim Thomas, who won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender in 2008-09, looks to continue his excellence in net and become the goalie for Team USA in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver (but Ryan Miller of the Sabres will likely have an impact on that). Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara will play close to 30 minutes a night on defense and they brought in Derrick Morris (Phoenix, NY Rangers) to try and add some offense on the blue line. Former 1st round pick, Phil Kessel, was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for two first round picks and a second round choice but the B’s still have lots of firepower with forwards Marc Savard, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Chuck Kobasew, Blake Wheeler, Michael Ryder, and the return of Marco Sturm (injured most of last season). They also have the physical Milan Lucic as a power forward to create havoc for other teams.

2. Washington Capitals – The Caps lost Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov but gained Knuble, who will help by creating traffic in front of the net and scoring the ugly goals, and Morrison (second line center). This is an upgrade. After that you have mostly the same team as last year except they are all a year older and wiser. Stars Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are only entering their 3rd full season in the NHL. With Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin up front this is a dangerous and highly skilled team. The defense is not physically intimidating but it can move the puck and is solid. The biggest question is in goal where Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov will battle for the number one position. I am projecting that Varlamov will be the team’s goalie after the Olympic break, if not before then.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins – If anyone can show that the first 4 months of the regular season are not very meaningful all you have to do is look at how bad this team was heading into February last season and then see where they finished (Stanley Cup Champs). The Pens were in 11th place, two of their best players in Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal could not stand head coach Michel Therien and their best defensemen, Sergei Gonchar was still hurt. So GM Ray Shero canned Therien and replaced him with Dan Bylsma, who was a rookie coach in the AHL, and then traded top 5 draft pick Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for forward Chris Kuntiz. He also acquired forward Bill Guerin from the Islanders for a draft pick. The big result was the Pens now had two lines and a very happy Crosby. Sid the Kid would then carry this team through the first two rounds of the playoffs before Evgeni Malkin became more consistent and helped lead them to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1992. Marc-Andre Fleury played outstanding in net and showed to his previous detractors (including yours truly) that he can win the big game. The big question for the Pens is how much of a physical toll has two straight Stanley Cup Finals appearances impacted their ability and stamina as they seek  a repeat?

4. Philadelphia Flyers – GM Paul Holmgren basically mortgaged his future by trading two first round draft picks, defenseman Luca Sbisa, and forward Joffrey Lupul for top notch defenseman Chris Pronger. Adding Pronger to Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn gives the Flyers arguably the best top 3 defense in the Eastern Conference. Up front they lost the gritty Knuble but they still have stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. They are counting on 21 year old forwad Claude Giroux to continue to mature and they expect a healthier and better season from Daniel Briere. 20 year old James Van Riemsdyk looks to crack the lineup and Philly still has net crasher Scott Hartnell to create problems for opposing defensemen and goalies. Speaking of goalies, that is where this team is weak. They signed former Ottawa outcast, Ray Emery, and brought back 32 year old Brian Boucher and jettisoned Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki.

5. Carolina Hurricanes – After firing Stanley Cup winning coach Peter Laviolette and replacing him with former head coach Paul Maurice the Canes took off and went from not making the playoffs to the Eastern Conference finals where they were swept rather easily by the Pens. Goalie Cam Ward is the key for this team. If he plays well they will have a very good season and could challenge the Caps for the divison title. If he has an average year then Carolina just struggles to make the playoffs. Superstar Eric Staal leads this team and the return of Erik Cole via trade with Edmonton helped to get this fast skating team going last season. Carolina didn’t really make any big off-season acquisitions and their defense consists of Niclas Wallin, Joe Corvo, Joni Pitkanen, and Tim Gleason.

6. New Jersey Devils – I see this team on the decline despite still having one of best goalies in the league in Martin Brodeur, although he is now 37 years old. Coach Brent Sutter bolted for Alberta and the Flames and Jacques Lemaire, he of one of the most boring systems in NHL history, is back as head coach. Brian Gionta took off in free agency for the Canadiens but New Jersey is led by forward Zach Parise. Parise is quickly becoming one of the best forwards in the league and he is flanked by Travis Zajac, Brian Rolson, and Jamie Langenbrunner. On defense there are no big names but they have several players, such as Paul Martin, who just get the job done. This could be one of the least entertaining teams to watch and if Brodeur goes down this year they don’t have Scott Clemmensen to bail them out (in Florida now).

7. New York Rangers – Head Coach John Tortorella is attempting to put his stamp on things with this team and one of them is being abrasive with the media. We’ll see how long New York Post writer Larry Brooks tolerates this and I don’t think he is a “Torts” fan. But the former Stanley Cup winning coach doesn’t care about that and will do whatever it takes to make his team tough and battle tested. The best Ranger player is still Henrik Lundqvist in goal but GM Glen Sather did make another splash in free agency by signing Marian “Rubber Band Groin” Gaborik to a big contract ($7.5M per year). Gaborik, who played in Minnesota for all of his NHL career to date, is explosive but is injury prone. Chris Drury, Ryan Callahan, Christopher Higgins, and Brandon Dubinsky are solid forwards and then they have the pesky Sean Avery and added tough guy Donald Brashear from the Caps (but at a steep price of $1.4M per year). I can see this team competing well and challenging for the 5th seed or I could see them imploding and finishing out of the playoffs. Much of that depends on the play of overpaid defenseman Wade Redden.

8. Buffalo Sabres – If Miller, who is competing with Thomas of Boston for the #1 goalie job for Team USA, does not get hurt in March last year the Sabres make the playoffs and the Canadiens are out. I think this team makes the playoffs if it stays healthy but that is a big if. I mean, has the highly skilled Tim Connolly ever been able to make it though an entire season? One thing is for sure, Tomas Vanek (39 goals last season) will come to play every night and Jason Pominville is another forward who can bring it offensively. Their defense lost Jaroslav Spacek to the Canadiens and is not very impressive on paper (Toni Lydman, Craig Rivet, etc).

9. Montreal Canadiens – GM Bob Gainey did his best Dan Snyder impersonation this summer by trying to rebuild his team totally through free agency. Gone are Robert Lang, Saku Koivu, Alexei Kovalev, Alex Tanguay and Mike Komisarek and in are Gionta, Scott Gomez, Spacek, Hal Gill and Mike Cammalleri to name just a few. This team will need to find some chemistry and gel but I am having a hard time seeing it. Goalie Carey Price will determine if this team makes the playoffs or they are golfing in mid-April.

10. Ottawa Senators –  Dany Heatley demanded that GM Bryan Murray trade him and when #15 would not go to Edmonton, Murray was finally able to at least get forwards Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo out of San Jose. The Sens still have first liners Jason Spezza and team captain Daniel Alfredsson but they need center Mike Fisher to return to the form he showed in 2006-07 when Ottawa made the Stanley Cup Finals. Murray also added Alexei Kovalev and I expect him to play much better than last season in Montreal (he couldn’t play much worse). In net they are going with Pascal Leclaire, who is only 26 and 24 year-old Brian Elliott. Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips, and Anton Volchenkov lead a shaky defense.

11. Toronto Maple Leafs – GM Brian Burke overpaid for Kessel but overall I like what he did this off-season, although if the former first round pick of the Bruins doesn’t score 40 goals or more this team cannot make the playoffs. This team has a good crew of d-men for Coach Ron Wilson’s defense first system. Komisarek, Tomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn, and Francois Beauchemin are a good top four core of blue liners. In net, Vesa Toskala will be the #1 and he is backed up by 24 year-old newcomer Jonas Gustavsson from Sweden. After Kessel and Jason Blake there isn’t much to their group of forwards so Wilson will continue to try and win every game, 2-1.

12. Florida P anthers – Jay Bouwmeester is gone to Calgary for a draft pick so a really good defense has gotten significantly weaker. Bryan McCabe, who is very good but injury prone, anchors this defense that added Denis Seidenberg from Carolina and Jordan Leopold from the Flames. Up front they have some young up and coming forwards in Nathan Horton, David Booth, and Stephen Weiss. Tomas Vokoun and Clemmensen will battle it out in goal. Gone is GM Jacques Martin, who is now coaching Montreal, but head coach Peter Deboer remains (and he did a good job last season).

13. Tampa Bay Lightning – The soap opera continues in Tampa with owners Len Barrie and Oren Koules disagreeing on most things but one thing they did do right was sign Vincent LeCavalier long term to go with second year man Steven Stamkos (#1 pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft). Martin St. Louis will still be one of their best players night in and night out, Ryan Malone needs to play up to the level commensurate with his salary, and Tanguay was brought in to add more offense (although he can be a real floater). The Lightning’s defense was awful last year but they made another good move in signing Mattias Ohlund from the Canucks and he will mentor rookie, and 2nd overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry draft, Victor Hedman. I simply don’t like their goalies in Niittymaki and Mike Smith.

14. Atlanta Thrashers – Will Ilya Kovalchuk re-sign in Atlanta after the 2009-10 season or will he leave in free agency? My take: If GM Don Waddell cannot sign Kovalchuk long term than they might as well fold up the franchise and go home. So who else is on this team? Well when you go to the main webpage for the Thrashers you see two players, #17 and Nik Antropov. That tells me all I need to know about this team. I like Kovalchuk but counting on Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov won’t get it done. Brian Little is only 21 years old and he shows a lot of potential. On defense they have second year man Zach Bogosian who can rush the puck well, Tobias Enstrom, and they traded for the aging and seemingly unmotivated Pavel Kubina. In net it is Kari Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg once again. I keep hearing that Lehtonen is going to be really good but I’ve yet to see any consistency there.

15. New York Islanders – Their owner says buying the team was a mistake, the Nassau Coliseum is an absolute dump, and the goalie they signed for an eternity, Rick DiPeitro, is hurt. Sounds like a disaster to me but they have some hope with John Tavares, the #1 pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Tavares is an exciting player and will sell some tickets and could be the guy they need to get some support for a desperately needed new building. Tavares will learn from center Doug Weight, who along with Kyle Okposo will comrise the top line. After that there isn’t much at forward. On defense Mark Streit carried them offensively and is superb on the power play at the point. The rest of the defense leaves alot to be desired and that includes underachieving former Capital Brendan Witt. DiPietro is listed on the roster but he still has injury issues so Dwayne Rolosson and Biron will share goaltending duties.