Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Are You Ready For Hockey Season? Eastern Conference Previews

Posted on September 24, 2009 by Scott Weldon
Sidney Crosby and Pittsburgh won the 2009 Stanley Cup.

Sidney Crosby and Pittsburgh won the 2009 Stanley Cup.

The start of the NHL season is a couple of weeks away and this is my attempt to evaluate what’s happened in the off-season and what it means for the new hockey year.

This is my look at the Eastern Conference. I’ve taken a look at each team in the order they finished last year and postulated how they’ll finish this year.

Eastern Conference

Who Will Win The NHL Eastern Conference?

  • Pittsburgh Penguins (40%, 6 Votes)
  • Boston Bruins (33%, 5 Votes)
  • Washington Capitals (7%, 1 Votes)
  • Philadelphia Flyers (7%, 1 Votes)
  • Carolina Hurricanes (7%, 1 Votes)
  • Other (7%, 1 Votes)
  • New Jersey Devils (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 15

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1. Boston Bruins (2) –
The Bruins finished first over all in the east last year and swept the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. They took too long to get moving against the Hurricanes and didn’t start playing in earnest till they were down 3-1. They eventually lost in seven games as Eric Staal and Cam Ward willed their team past the Bruins.

The Bruins had cap problems after last years run. They decided to sign Krejci, Thomas long term, Hunwick, Recchi, and Bitz. They let former veteran back-up Manny Fernandez go and apparently are ready to run with Thomas almost exclusively.

Marc Savard

Marc Savard

Youngster Tuukku Rask will be the back up this year. Expect a decline in Thomas’s league leading statistics once he starts playing three quarters of his teams games rather then just two thirds of them. More surprisingly Boston put themselves in the position of not being able to resign the young Millennium Falcon, Phil Kessel. The speedy, young, American goal scorer will be missed. This lineup needs a sniper to team with Marc Savard who is not Michael Ryder. They’ve added middle of the road puck-mover Derek Morris to a line up of offensively talented defensemen including Chara, Wideman, and Hunwick. Brad Ference, Morris and journeyman Mark Stuart probably balance out the loss of Hnidy, Montador and Aaron Ward. A better year from former phenom Patrice Bergeron will help the Bruins recover some of their lost offense.

I think the Bruins will win the Northeast division again though they’ll be supplanted by Pittsburgh as eastern champions. This team probably has a couple of series wins in them but I think they’re weaker then they were last year and could have trouble staying under the salary cap all year.

2. Washington Capitals (3) – Washington won their division by 11 points last year. They beat the Rangers in round one and then lost a tough series to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Washington will cruise again to a Southeast Division championship. The top end of this team is unassailable. Alexander Ovechkin is arguably the best goal scoring forward in the league. Mike Green is the best offensive defenseman in the league. Semin and Backman are two of the better young offensive forwards in the league. After that the drop off for Washington is precipitous. The goaltending was taken over by rookie Simeon Varlamov in the playoffs and he had a great run. He needs a good NHL veteran to platoon with and it’s unclear if former Vezina and Hart trophy winner Jose Theodore can even manage that. The Capitals have added former Philadelphia power forward Mike Knuble in an attempt create secondary scoring with aging playmaker Michael Nylander.

Alexander Ovechkin

Alexander Ovechkin

The lack of depth and shaky goaltending situation makes it hard for Washington to compete with deeper quality teams in the playoffs. The second or third seed will give them a beatable first round opponent but they should lose once they face quality opposition in the playoffs, probably by the second round.

3. New Jersey Devils (11) – This aging team won the tough Atlantic division last year and then lost in the first round in seven games to Carolina.

They are stuck in the toughest division in the Eastern Conference and I have to believe it’s finally going to tell. Martin Brodeur is one of the greatest goalies in history but after two sub-par playoff performances and a severe injury during the regular season last year you have to wonder if his time is almost up. Scott Clemmenson had a great run filling in for the injured Brodeur, but he was signed away by Florida. Cost effective Yann Danis was brought in from the Island to be back-up.

New Jersey lost veteran checker John Madden to Chicago and speedster sniper Brian Gionta to Montreal. Patrick Elias has just had groin surgery and is expected to miss 3-6 weeks. New Jersey could start the season with only Zach Parise, Travis  Zajac and aging power forward Brian Rolston able to make legitimate offensive contributions. Brendan Shanahan and Danius Zubrus are not the offensive answer. The defense lead by Paul Martin, Colin White and Johnny Oduya will be competent but unspectacular.

I think this is the year the Devils and new coach Jacques Lemaire fall off the map. I look for them to finish fourth in the Atlantic and 11th in the East. Lemaire will probably be blamed and fired for it.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (1) – Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup beating Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina and Detroit in the process. It was no easy haul and the experience should benefit them in the coming year.

Evgeni Malkin

Evgeni Malkin

Pittsburgh has two of the best forwards in the league in Malkin and Sidney Crosby and one of the best offensive defensemen in Sergei Gonchar. Kris Letang looks like an adequate power play quarterback if Gonchar gets hurt again. Brooks Orpick is one of the better shut-down defensemen and the league and Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke and Maxime Talbot are one of the leagues best shut-down lines. The high strung first round draft pick goalie Marc Andre Fleury has finally come through and proved himself under pressure.

The lineup past the first five or six players is problematical. The loss of Scuderi and Gill will be felt on the back end. Jay McKee doesn’t replace either of those guys and Mark Eaton can’t be the third or fourth best defenseman in your lineup.

The last couple of years Pittsburgh has started slow and then surged at the end of the season. I believe this year they start quickly and their confidence leads them to first overall in the Eastern Conference. They’ll perhaps win a Presidents trophy. I’m thinking though they’ll lose to the flyers this year whom after they trade for a goalie will be just too deep for Pittsburgh to handle.

5. Philadelphia Flyers (4) – Philadelphia had a good year but lost a tough six game series to the eventual Stanley Cup winning Penguins in the first round.

Philadelphia addressed their most pressing need trading for perhaps the best shutdown defenseman in the league, Chris Pronger. He can still skate well and gives his team half a point a game as a bonus. They surrendered two first picks, former first round pick defenseman, Luke Sbisa and Joffrey Lupul. This trade only makes sense if Philadelphia wins the cup. They have an embarrassment of skilled forwards including
Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Daniel Briere, Simon Gagne, Scott Hartnell, and Claude Giroux. If James Van Riemsdyk can make the team he should fill the power forward spot vacated by Mike Knuble. Throw in Ian Lapierre and Danny Carcillo to handle all the fighting and the forwards look set. Pronger, Timmonen, Coburn and Jones give them a good top four on defense.

Historically Philadelphia hasn’t managed to have a first rate goalie since Pelle Lindbergh. Some people trot out Ron Hextall but I’m not buying that. They’ve settled again on a losing combination in the volatile Ray Emery and the inconsistent Brian Boucher. Once they trade for a real starting goalie Philadelphia will be fine though Cap problems will dog them all year.

I see the Flyers finally trading for a real goalie and winning the Stanley Cup, beating Chicago, who also need a real goalie, in six.

6. Carolina Hurricanes (13) – Carolina had a good season and a great playoff run. They beat New Jersey and Martin Brodeur and Eastern Champs Boston in two exciting seven game series. They were then handled abruptly by Pittsburgh.

Eric Staal

Eric Staal

Carolina has a couple great players in Eric Staal and Cam Ward and some good ones in Chad Larose, Tuomo Ruutu and Joe Corvo. The rest of the team is too old, too injured, and too unpredictable. Joni Pitkanen is expected to miss the first couple of weeks of the season with an injury. Whitney, Cole, Brindamour and Yelle are all due to spend time hurt. Ward historically takes a step back after a good playoff run. If Eric Staal or Ward gets hurt Carolina’s season is over. This team needs to reload with draft picks before it’s too late.

I look for this team to slip behind younger teams in Florida, Tampa Bay and Atlanta in the Southeast and back to 13th in the East. Hopefully their fans stay with them.

7. New York Rangers (5) – New York had a good season but lost in the first round against Washington because they could not score.

I always like a team that recognizes their weaknesses and addresses them. First New York had signed too many second string players to first line contracts.

They managed to deal Scott Gomez and his millstone to Montreal for Chris Higgins and defensive prospect Ryan McDonough. If they’d gotten nothing they’d have come out ahead. Then they convinced Markus Naslund to retire freeing up 11 million dollars in cap money. They then rushed out and signed oft-injured Minnesota sniper Marion Gaborik for five years at 7.5 million a year. The potential 50 goal scorer addresses New Yorks second problem which was offense. Higgins, Kotalik and Prospal were three other reasonably priced players with offensive potential. Throw in Dubinsky and Anisimov and this team might just score enough to be dangerous.

The youthful defense and Lundquist should be strong enough. Maybe soon New York can convince Montreal to pick up Wade Reddens contract.

New York will finish third in the Atlantic and fifth in the east. Unfortunately I see them playing and losing to Philadelphia in the first round. However I think this New York team is a lock as a playoff team and with Lundquist in nets, always a dangerous one.

8. Montreal Canadiens (9) – Montreal snuck into the playoffs past Florida by the slimmest of margins and then proceeded to be swept by the Boston Bruins last year.

Montreal started free-agent season with the smallest number of players signed and the most cash available to sign free agents in the league. They took this opportunity to completely retool their lineup. A first line of Koivu(Ana), Kovalev(Ott) and Higgins (NYR) has become Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri. They’ll have five years in Montreal to get used to each other.

Carey Price

Carey Price

An old defense has added two more 35 year olds in Hall Gill and Jaroslav Spacek. Paul Mara helps replace the hitting that Mike Komisarek provided. It ends and begins with most teams in nets. Montreal is no exception and they have young goalies Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak again trying to prove they can carry this medium talent team to the playoffs.

I think Montreal has moved a lot of players to, in my estimation, move sideways talent wise. I think the time it takes all these new players to play together will be the difference between the Habs making the playoffs last year and not this year. Look for Gainey to get fired after this season and a new retool to begin in 2010/11.

9. Florida Panthers (12) – Florida lost out on a playoff spot to the Montreal Canadiens because they lost the season series with Montreal.

Florida has a collection of young talented forwards like St Louis does but without the mentoring veteran presence. Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, Rotislav Olesv, Michael Frolik, Shawn Mathias and Greg Campbell only have Cory Stillman and Steve Reinprecht to lead them. The defense that gave up the most shots in the league, by far, last year, lost all world Jay Bouwmeester and added Dennis Seidenberg and Jordan Leopold. Adding checker Steve Reinprecht and the return of Bryan Allen back from injury should make the defense better this year. Vokoun and Clemmensen will be asked to stop a lot of shots again but they’re good at that.

I see them dropping a little further down the depth chart again but this is a team  that could get better in a hurry. Add a veteran playmaking center and a young shut-down defenseman. Until they add those pieces I think they’re 12th in the east.

10. Buffalo Sabres (6) – Buffalo missed the playoffs by two points last year and have then done nothing in the offseason.

Critical for Buffalo was the injury to top ten goalie Ryan Miller at the end of the season. Back-up Patrick Lalime was given the job of carrying the Sabres in to the playoffs. He failed miserably. His .900 save percentage and 3.10 GAA in 1300 minutes played was not enough. Unfortunately no major league back-up has been sought out and the hope may be that young Jhonas Enroth can fill the job. Or else management isn’t planning on having Miller get hurt this year. I’m thinking the fact that this lineup has been kept together might actually allow them to step forward this year past a few teams like Montreal that have completely revamped their lineup.

Ryan Miller

Ryan Miller

I’m looking for Buffalo to finish second in the Northeast division and sixth in the east and be one of those bad playoff teams that get eliminated early.

11. Ottawa Senators (7) – Ottawa went through a traumatic year continuing their decline from their Stanley Cup appearance versus Anaheim in 2007.

Ottawa looked to fill the organizational gap in nets that’s always been there. Pascal Leclaire was picked up from Columbus for speedy checker Antoine Vermette. If healthy he should thrive in Ottawa’s low shot environment.  Malcontent Dany Heatley was moved to San Jose for Milan Michalek and Jonathon Cheechoo. The signing of Kovalev theoretically leaves Ottawa with six talented forwards on the first two lines: Alfredsson, Spezza, Kovalev, Fisher, Michalek, Cheechoo. I’m afraid Cheechoo might be out of the league in two years though. Now they just need the power play quarterback to replace Joe Corvo. Maybe Eric Karlsson gets a shot.

I believe some offense and some goaltending will be enough to put this team back in the playoffs though I don’t see them going anywhere. Look for Ottawa to finish seventh in the East.

12. Toronto Maple Leafs (14) – The Leafs were just good enough last year to miss out on the Tavares sweepstakes.

The defense is certainly one of the deepest in hockey with Kaberle, Beauchemin and perhaps Ian White to carry the offensive load. They have Komisarek, Finger, Schenn, Exelby, and Van Ryn there to thump people. A deal for a first line center can only help. Quality forwards Blake, Hagman and Stempniak will have speedster/sniper Phil Kessel added to the mix. They need a first line center and Stajan and Grabovski are not it.  Glacially slow playmaker Jason Allison probably can’t do it either. Until they get a first line center this group will have trouble scoring. Vesa Toskala will get another chance to prove he’s a top quality goalie. He should do better this year then last. Youngster Gustavsson the big off-season goaltending signing had heart surgery before training camp. That’s a bad sign.

I’m looking for Toronto to slip down the depth chart. Now that they’ve traded their first round pick for the next two years people will be screaming about a Toronto team that finishes second last in the East. Boston will be happy though.

13. Atlanta Thrashers (8) – Atlanta finished 17 points out of the playoffs last year. They were second last in the Southeast division.

Ilya Kovalchuk

Ilya Kovalchuk

Atlanta has returned their defense over the last two years. Hainsey , Enstrom, Bogosian and Kubina give them a nice core. I’m guessing this outfit will give up fewer then their fourth worst in the league 32.7 shots per game. They tighten up that defense and suddenly former first round pick Kari Lehtonen’s 31.2 saves per game start looking pretty good.

The offense managed to do well last year scoring 257 goals with Kovalchuk,
Slava Kozlov, Bryan Little and Todd White leading the way. A quick smart playmaker to put with Kovalchuk probably would have helped the team considerably. Instead they signed the huge, plodding, soft handed Nik Antropov. Hopefully he’ll help a bit but this team could still use another speedster. First round pick Evander Kane is probably too young and too small to be that guy. Maybe Angelo Esposito will make a contribution to the big club.

I’m looking for Atlanta to improve a lot this year, maybe too much. I believe because of their goalie and the weak SE division they make a jump into second in the SE and eighth in the east grabbing that last playoff spot. This time I think they win a game or two in the playoffs.

14. Tampa Bay Lightning (10) – Tampa had the second worst year in hockey picking up second overall pick Victor Hedman for their trouble.

Tampa Bay decided to run last year without NHL defensemen. It’s an interesting experiment that’s never been tried before in the NHL and never will be again. The addition of Ohlund, Hedberg, Foster, Walker, and Wishart to Ranger, Meszaros and Krajeck should make the fans in Tampa Bay think a collection of Norse gods have descended from Valhalla to play for them.

The defense will be much better this year. From last years lineup they’ve lost Recchi and Prospal and added Tanguay,Veilleux and goaltending back up Antero Nittimaki. Stamkos will be another year more seasoned so the offense will improve. A healthy Halpern leads what should be a good shut-down line. Mike Smith will get a chance to actually be evaluated as an NHL goalie and I’m afraid this might be where the plan falls apart.

I look for Tampa Bay to move up the depth chart to tenth place but they’ll probably be looking to draft a goalie by the end of the year.

15. New York Islanders (15) – The New York Islanders were the worst team in hockey last year.

Owner Charles Wang made the encouraging announcement that he’s sorry he ever got involved in hockey. That combined with the plan for the Phoenix Coyotes to default on their lease in Glendale looks like he’s a long way off from getting public funds for his Lighthouse Project.

New York picked up can’t miss superstar John Tavares to play with their other young talent Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau, Josh Bailey and Jeff Tambellini.

The defense lead by offensive defenseman Mark Streit is one of the cheapest in hockey and surprisingly enough, one of the worst. Despite the presence of the man Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated dubbed the Idi Amin of hockey (goaltender for life) Rick Dipietro, the Islanders used two draft picks on goalies. They let Joey Macdonald and Yann Danis walk and signed Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron giving the team theoretically three starting NHL goalies. Now I know their GM is a goaltender but this is ridiculous. One of these guys has to be traded by years end.

Will the Habs pick up that crazy long-term contract of Dipietro’s? It seems only fair after they helped out the Rangers with Gomez. The good news is the Islanders still have money to spend to reach the cap floor. The bad news is they’re probably going to spend it on another goalie.

The New York Islanders are the safest bet in hockey to finish last in the east and in the whole league. Hello Taylor Hall?

Eastern Conference

Final Standings 08/09                    Prediction 09/10

1. Boston                        116                        1. Pittsburgh                        120

2. Wash                        108                        2. Boston                        110

3. NJ                        106                         3. Washington                        105

4. Pitts                        99                        4. Philadelphia                        101

5. Philadelphia                        99                        5. NYR                        96

6. Carolina                        97                        6. Buffalo                        94

7. NYR                        95                        7. Ottawa                        90

8. Montreal                        93                        8. Atlanta                        89

9. Florida                        93                        9. Montreal                        88

10. Buffalo                        91                        10. Tampa Bay                        84

11. Ottawa                        83                        11. New Jersey                        78

12. Toronto                        81                        12. Florida                        77

13. Atlanta                        76                        13. Carolina                        75

14. Tampa Bay                        66                         14. Toronto                         70

15. NYI            61            15. NYI     55

Scott Weldon is a regular NHL contributor for Sports Then and Now.

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