NHL Preview: Eastern Conference Predictions
The NHL season will begun this Saturday and Sunday in Europe when the New York Rangers take on the Tampa Bay Lighting in Prague of the Czech Republic and the Pittsburgh Penguins play the Ottawa Senators in Stockholm, Sweden. Official NHL regular season games begin being played in North America next Thursday, October 9th. Tonight I will be giving you my 2008-09 Eastern Conference regular season predictions with some analysis on each team. These standings are by conference and in order of finish. Note that the top teams in each of the 3 divisions are seeded 1, 2, and 3 in their respective conference.
- Montreal Canadiens – This team is built for the regular season because of its lack of size but adding tough guy George Laraque (formerly of Pittsburgh) was a great move. They will be very good at home because the Habs will get the last line change so opposing teams will not be able to take advantage of the smaller Montreal forwards with Big George present. Forward Alexei Kovalev had a great season last year and was the team’s MVP. Can he be consistent again this year? Also added forward Alex Tanguay from Calgary in a draft day trade. Biggest question is can goalie Carey Price rebound from a shaky playoff run? Mike Komisarek is a physical defenseman who controls the back line for Montreal. This team is expected to do well so the Montreal fans and media will put pressure on this team. I say they do well in the regular season and then have trouble come April unless moves are made to toughen this team up for the playoffs. The less talented Flyers pushed them around in the second round of the playoffs this past spring winning the series in five games.
- Washington Capitals – Cinderella club in the NHL last year earning the title as “the Most Fun” team to watch in the league. MVP Alex Ovechkin scored 65 goals last season and Coach Bruce Boudreau went 37-17-7 after he took over for Glen Hanlon. Defensemen Mike Green led the league in goals by defensemen (18) and rushes the puck very well. Big change in net as the Caps lost Cristobal Huet and Olie Kolzig to free agency but GM George McPhee signed goalie Jose Theodore to a two year deal. Theodore is a former league MVP and played well for Colorado last season. This team is young and should continue to improve and there is great team chemistry. Biggest questions are in net and on defense but I see this team getting better as many players experienced their first full season in contention last year and learned a lot about success. I say the learning curve continues and this team will be dangerous next spring, especially if guys like Green, Shaone Morrisonn, Jeff Schultz, and rookie Karl Alzner continue to mature on defense.
- Pittsburgh Penguins – Stanley Cup runner-ups were somewhat raided by free agency losing Marian Hossa to Detroit, Laraque to Montreal, and Ryan Malone to Tampa Bay. Also received bad news this off-season with injuries to top two defensemen Ryan Whitney (foot) and Sergei Gonchar (shoulder) that will see each miss several months of the regular season. Pens do have their core of forwards Sydney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, defensemen Whitney, and goalie Marc Andre-Fleury locked up long term. Next player who is due long term money is forward Jordan Staal. Despite injuries to Whitney and Gonchar this team should win the Atlantic Division but how far they go in the playoffs depends heavily on the recovery of those two.
- Boston Bruins – This is another up and coming team. The Bruins play tough, physical hockey and are solid defensively. The big problem is offense but the addition of Michael Ryder, a Coach Claude Julien favorite, and the return of Patrice Bergeron (concussion) should help them score. Add in young guns Chuck Kobasew, Phil Kessel, and power forward Milan Lucic to go with veterans Marc Savard and Marco Sturm and this team should improve offensively. Zdeno Chara will play close to 30 minutes a game on defense and goaltending duties will fall to Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez. Every time someone tries to write Thomas off he comes up big and keeps the #1 goalie job in Beantown. I like this team and think they could do some damage in the playoffs next spring if the offense can develop.
- Philadelphia Flyers – Made it to the Eastern Conference Finals last season by playing physical and routinely running the opposition’s goaltender. Mike Richards is the straw that stirs the drink on this team and the Flyers locked him up long-term. Jeff Carter is another player who is very valuable to this hockey team. PP specialist and floater Danny Briere had a horrible regular season but started delivering in the playoffs. He is still weak at even strength. Lost forward R.J. Umberger to Columbus due to the salary cap but are hoping that the return of forward Simon Gagne (concussion) will more than make up for his loss. Defense lost Derian Hatcher due to injury and that will hurt but Braydon Coburn showed in the playoffs why he is becoming a top defensemen in the league. Kimmo Timonen is the other top defensemen. In net, it is Martin Biron and he is very inconsistent. Could win Atlantic if Pittsburgh stumbles but then again, without Hatcher and if goaltending doesn’t do well this team could slide right out of the playoffs if they are not careful.
- New York Rangers – The Rangers open the season in Prague but a couple of key Czechs from last season are gone as Jaromir Jagr left to play in Russia and Martin Straka will play in the Czech league. Also gone are forwards Brendan Shanahan who is still a free agent and pesky Sean Avery who signed in Dallas over the summer. The best Ranger is goalie Henrik Lundqvist who can carry a team. GM Glen Sather’s big off-season splashes were signing defensemen Wade Redden (from Ottawa) to a huge contract and former Canucks forward Markus Naslund. This is now Chris Drury and Scott Gomez’s team with Jagr gone. Marc Staal is an emerging defenseman and is the younger brother of the Jordan (Pens) and Eric (Hurricanes). Brandon Dubinsky is an up and coming power forward and should see his ice time and production continue to increase.
- New Jersey Devils – This team will continue to make the playoffs as long as it has Martin Brodeur but even this great goalie can’t do it all himself. This team needs comeback years from some players who disappeared last season like forward Brian Gionta who scored 48 goals two years ago but only has 47 total in the last two seasons combined and Jamie Langenbrunner. They added excellent skating forward Brian Rolston who has a powerful shot and will likely man the power play for the Devils. Defense, led by Colin White and Paul Martin, is a no name crew that must improve. They will likely make the playoffs but should be first round casualties.
- Buffalo Sabres – Signed goalie Ryan Miller to a long term deal giving Sabres fans hope for the future. Up front they have some good young forwards in Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Derek Roy. Forward Maxim Afinogenov has enormous potential but can’t stay healthy missing over 20 games each of the last two seasons. Defense is very suspect and 40 year old Teppo Numminen is hoping to make a comeback after missing all of last season with heart issues. This team is squarely on the bubble but I see them sneaking into the playoffs.
- Carolina Hurricanes – It is hard to believe that this team won the Stanley Cup in 2006 because they’ve missed the playoffs the last two seasons. Eric Staal is their best player and the forward is flanked by Rod Brind’Amour, Sergei Samsonov, and Ray Whitney. In goal, Cam Ward is hoping to be more consistent. The team traded forward Erik Cole to Edmonton for defensemen Joni Pitkanen, who has been a huge disappointment in his career so far. This team is just too weak in too many places to make the playoffs or contend with Washington for the division.
- Ottawa Senators – The top line of Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, and Jason Spezza is very good but after forward Mike Fisher on the second line this team has lots of question marks. Can Antoine Vermette improve on the 24 goals he scored last season? Defensively they lost Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros but added Filip Kuba. Chris Phillips anchors the back line. Major distraction Ray Emery is gone so the Sens will rely primarily on Martin Gerber in net with backup help from Alex Auld. GM Bryan Murray hired Craig Hartsburg from Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League to coach the team this year but I can’t see the former NHL’er working magic and getting this team into the postseason.
- Tampa Bay Lightning – New ownership, a new coach (Barry “The Mullet” Melrose), and a ton of crazy trades and signings had this team grabbing off-season headlines left and right ala Redskins owner Dan Snyder from NFL off seasons past. Tampa still has Vincent LeCavalier and Martin St. Louis up front but they overpaid for Malone from Pittsburgh and added two “has beens” in Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi. On defense, Dan Boyle was traded to San Jose for Matt Carle and Meszaros was brought in from Ottawa. Best off-season acquisition was first pick in the 2008 NHL draft, Steve Stamkos, who should mature into a very good player eventually. Goaltending will be Mike Smith, acquired from Dallas at last year’s trade deadline, and Olie the Goalie. Smith could go either way and I think Kolzig is done. The new ownership went so far as to say that they will definitely win the Southeast Division prompting Caps Coach Boudreau to state sarcastically that Washington was just hoping to finish second. My take: Melrose is out of touch with the new NHL plus his goaltending is very shaky which will cause this team to miss the playoffs once again.
- Florida Panthers – Let’s start with the good: Goalies Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson can win games by themselves. Now the mediocore: lots of name defensemen on this roster including Bryan McCabe (from Toronto), Jay Bouwmeester, Bryan Allen, plus Nick Boynton and Keith Ballard who were acquired in the Olli Jokinen draft weekend trade from Phoenix. Finally the bad: Where are the goals going to come from? Jokinen is gone leaving forwards Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, and Cory Stillman as the primary scorers. Prediction: Bottom feeders.
- Toronto Maple Leafs – GM Cliff Fletcher fired Coach Paul Maurice and brought in Ron Wilson, who was fired by San Jose, as head coach. Wilson is a good defensive coach that typically does well in his early years with a team before wearing out his welcome. This team is still a mess and the fan base is hoping to be bad so eventually they can be good by getting top draft picks. Drafting defensemen Luke Schenn with the 5th pick was a good start but he is not NHL ready yet nor should he play at that level at this time. Vesa Toskala is good in net and Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina are back on defense. The Leafs overpaid for former Colorado defensemen Jeff Finger who will see lots of ice time on defense as well. At forward this team is terrible. Jason Blake hopes to rebound from his tough first year in Toronto in which he fought off cancer but after that they are counting on Nik Antropov, Niklas Hagman, Alex Steen, and Alex Ponikarovsky to supply the offense. Fat chance!
- New York Islanders – With Charles Wang as owner and Garth Snow as GM this team doesn’t stand a chance of competing. Wang finally figured out that former coach Ted Nolan is a backstabber and let him go. The new coach is Scott Gordon who was the AHL Coach of the Year in Providence last season (Bruins affiliate). On the ice much will depend on the health and goaltending of Rick DiPietro who had hip problems last season and still remains a question mark in that department. The rest of the team is flat out old from defensemen Brendan Witt to forwards Doug Weight, Mike Sillinger, and Bill Guerin. Mike Comrie led the team in scoring last year and he only had 49 points. I don’t see this team being any better or competing for a playoff spot.
- Atlanta Thrashers – GM Don Waddell is trying to pull a McPhee by hiring long time minor league coach John Anderson to take over the reigns in Atlanta. Unfortunately the talent is not there in Atlanta like it is in Washington. Ilya Kovalchuk remains one of the top goal scorers in the league but when is he going to be come a leader? At age 25 the time is now for him to step up. Atlanta traded to get 39 year old defensemen Mathieu Schneider from Anaheim and did Ducks GM Brian Burke a huge favor by allowing him to unload salary to clear way for Teemu Selanne. Rookie Zach Bogosian, the 3rd overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, is very impressive with speed and skill and can really move the puck. He has a bright future but this franchise just seems doomed due to poor management and a general lack of interest in Atlanta. They could very well be the worst team in the league and the goaltending tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg is suspect, at best.
Check back later in the week for the Western Conference preview.