This is the second year in which I’ve offered predictions as to how the Eastern Conference will sort out. But unlike how I assessed the predicted outcomes in prior seasons by determining who would be in (the playoffs), who would be out of playoff consideration and who would be on the fringe, I’ve modified my predictions by where I believe each team will place, overall.
While this changed method is subject to more error, when it comes to the NHL and its playoffs, your seeding/position doesn’t matter, particularly in the Eastern Conference—it’s all about getting in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
With that, here are my predictions (in ascending order, from first to 15th):
1) Washington Capitals—The 2010-2011 season saw the Capitals featured on HBO’s Caps/Pens 24/7, the 180-degree direction change from being a prolific goal-scoring team to becoming a defense-first team—one geared towards the playoffs. The directional change even impacted their generational super-sniper, Alex Ovechkin, in posting his fewest goal and point totals in his prolific career.
Even with the total directional shift, the results in the Stanley Cup playoffs were identical—an early second-round exit victim via a four-game sweep at the hands of the upstart Tampa Bay Lightning.
For this season, the Caps decided to forgo going with their young goalie tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth by trading Varlamov away to the Colorado Avalanche and deciding to have Neuvirth serve as an apprentice to workhorse goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who was brought in via free agency.
But, while the Caps have changed their approach towards the regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs and have changed their netminder, until they can move past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, they will be considered one of the most underachieving teams of the modern era. So while it’s quite easy to predict the Caps finishing first in the Eastern Conference regular season standings, predicting their playoff outcome will be just as easy—albeit not a flattering one.
2) Boston Bruins—In assessing how the season will go for a defending Stanley Cup champion, the tendency is to predict that a “Stanley Cup hangover” will occur. However, in the Bruins’ case, there should not be a repeat of what occurred to the Chicago Blackhawks last season.
For the Bruins, it starts in the net where Tim Thomas continues to defy his 37 years of age, not to mention speculation that Tuukka Rask will assume the starting netminding duties from Thomas and sooner than later. Thomas’ performance last season actually topped his Vezina Trophy performance of 2008-2009, and his Conn Smythe award as playoff MVP sealed his legacy not only in Beantown lore, but amongst the great goalies of his generation.
As for how the rest of the Bruins will fare, the Boston faithful can rest easy. The Bruins did not lose any key components to their core and their young nucleus of talent—Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand and Adam McQuaid—should help the Bruins continue to compete with the best in the Eastern conference, now and in the future. Joe Corvo joins ‘The Big Z’—Zdeno Chara—to man the first defensive pairing where they should form a prolific scoring combination on the man advantage.
3) Pittsburgh Penguins—The Pens' placing all depends on one thing: When will Sidney Crosby play? Or, will Sidney Crosby play? Crosby’s return to hockey was one of the NHL’s greatest mysteries and its greatest fear as the NHL’s marquee player and face of the league was sidelined after receiving two vicious shots to his head within the course of a week in January, missing the remainder of the season and casting some doubt as to whether Crosby would ever return.
The lost second half of the season was not limited to Crosby, as All-Star sidekick Evgeni Malkin missed the remainder of the season shortly after Crosby’s injury with a knee injury and Jordan Staal missed the first 39 games of the season. Were it not for the usually deft executive moves by Ray Shero, the Pens' season would have been a cataclysmic disaster.
Contingent upon Crosby’s return, the Pens’ supporting cast—Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal, Kris Letang—is both talented and was able to carry the Penguins to a franchise-best 106 points. If Crosby returns to his generational talent ability, their fortunes could be even greater.
4) Philadelphia Flyers—Back away from the bridge, Flyers fans: the Flyers will be alright. Not only will the Flyers survive the departure of their captain, Mike Richards, and their leading goal scorer over the prior three seasons, Jeff Carter, via June trades by their aggressive and adept General Manager Paul Holmgren, but the way in which Holmgren constructed the Flyers may not only be as good as their Stanley Cup finals team, but it may be designed to be a more dangerous playoff team.
While the loss of two of their signature may create a dearth of goal scoring, acquiring world-class goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov creates stability in net—something the revolving-door goalie situation of the past few seasons did not. As a result of their trades, the Flyers acquired the No. 1 prospect in hockey in Brayden Schenn, two high-energy forwards in Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek and drafted center Sean Couturier, an 18-year old who has made the parent squad and whose skill set appears to be NHL-ready.
Add to that one of the NHL’s more talented bluelines led by Chris Pronger and the return of Jaromir Jagr from the Kontinental Hockey League and you have the makings of a very talented team.
5) Buffalo Sabres—A change in ownership of the Sabres allowed the organization to aggressively pursue premier talent in free agency and GM Darcy Regier responded by acquiring one of the biggest fish in the free agent pool in power-play specialist Christian Ehrhoff as well as signing emerging forward Ville Leino.
These additions to their talented young nucleus of defenseman Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe, Luke Adam and Zack Kassian, combined with prolific veterans in Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Brad Boyes and Drew Stafford should allow the Sabres to thrive in the vastly improving Eastern Conference. Add in one the sport’s elite goaltenders in Ryan Miller and you have the makings of a team destined for potential playoff glory.
6) Tampa Bay Lightning—The Lightning were one of the pleasant surprises in the NHL last season, buoyed by the arrival of coaching wunderkind Guy Boucher and his ‘pedal-to-the-metal’ style and the immediate impact of rookie GM Steve Yzerman’s personnel moves—Dominic Moore, Teddy Purcell and Dwayne Roloson. These moves, added to one of the most potent mixes of young talent in Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman and elite veterans in Vincent LeCavalier and Martin St. Louis, should prevent the Lightning from sliding back to the pack from their surprise Eastern Conference finals run.
If Stamkos can regain the scoring touch that eluded him during the second half of last season, a result of Stamkos unselfishly striving to become a rounded, two-way player, and if the ageless Roloson can continue to defy ‘Father Time,’ the Lightning can surge to even greater heights.
7) New York Rangers—The Rangers, no stranger to pushing the boundaries of the NHL’s salary cap, made the biggest splash of the free agency period by signing center Brad Richards. And while a premier center like Richards can help resurrect last season’s scoring slumber of forwards Wojtek Wolski and Marian Gaborik, the Rangers will only go as far as their young players— Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan—particularly on the scoring side, will carry them.
Perennial Vezina trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist remains one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL and is aided by one of the more underrated shutdown defensemen in Marc Staal. But a recent development, the release of agitator and locker-room sideshow Sean Avery, may have eliminated a disruptive force, one Richards witnessed first-hand while in Dallas.
If the supporting cast can improve their collective games, the Rangers can be a force in the Eastern Conference.
8) Montreal Canadiens—The Habs suffered a conference finals hangover last season, but injuries to key blue-line personnel certainly created a defensive hole which required GM Pierre Gauthier to acquire defensemen James Wisniewski, Paul Mara and Brent Sopel. But the Habs' injury woes took an even greater hit with the season-ending injury to Max Pacioretty, the result of devastating hit by Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara.
However, not all was gloom and doom as the Canadiens saw development from some of their young talent—David Desharnais, Lars Eller and PK Subban—and Carey Price’s reemergence as one of the NHL’s great young goalies was a source of optimism.
But while the defensive situation should improve from last year’s injury-riddled season, the Canadiens' greatest challenge is their inability to score goals. Tomas Plekanec paced the team’s scoring with only 57 points and Mike Cammalleri experienced an injury-filled and disappointing season. So, for the Habs to meet their rabid fanbase’s expectations, they will have to ignite a moribund offense.
9) Carolina Hurricanes—The Hurricanes made a solid comeback from their disastrous 2009-2010 campaign, narrowly missing the last Eastern Conference playoff spot. Jeff Skinner captured the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie and Eric Staal posted another solid season as the Canes captain.
GM Jim Rutherford also made a series of solid acquisitions in Tomas Kaberle and Alexi Ponikarovsky, but lost Erik Cole to free agency. Rutherford was also able to offer contract extensions to Brandon Sutter, Jussi Jokinen and Joni Pitkanen.
Goaltender Cam Ward posted the best save percentage of his career and returned from an injury-filled 2009-2010 season while Brian Boucher was signed to lessen Ward’s workload.
If Skinner can continue to progress as an impact scorer and if Zac Dalpe can demonstrate his vast potential, the Canes could get over the hump and qualify for the playoffs once again.
10) New Jersey Devils—The Devils' early-season debacle caused the firing of John MacLean and, despite their furious attempt to qualify for the playoffs, resulted in their missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 seasons.
Losing Zach Parise for the majority of the season was a devastating blow, but it was the asymmetric match of the Devils defense-first system and the freewheeling scoring prowess of an elite sniper like Ilya Kovalchuk that created both salary cap issues as well as an underachieving team.
Future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur experienced one of his worst seasons during an injury-riddled campaign, creating speculation as to how much longer Brodeur will continue to play or if he wants to play for a team which no longer strikes fear in the hearts of Eastern Conference foes.
Even with the return of a healthy Parise and the arrival of underrated head coach Peter DeBoer, last season’s downturn could have been a harbinger of struggles to come.
11) Toronto Maple Leafs—Patience has worn thin in Toronto, as the Brian Burke regime and model for success has produced little in the way of becoming a playoff-caliber team. The Leafs failed to make much of a splash in free agency, obtaining oft-injured Tim Connolly and offensive defenseman John-Michael Liles.
Phil Kessel has proven to be a reliable scorer and Dion Phaneuf reemerged as an elite scoring defenseman while providing grit and leadership. While the Kessel trade created a hole for acquiring talent through the draft, the Leafs have been able to develop young talent nonetheless in Clarke McArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.
If the Leafs can get production from some of their premier prospects—Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin—and if James Reimer can be the reliable workhorse in goal that the Leafs sorely need, a return to the playoffs is possible. Otherwise, the calls for head coach Ron Wilson’s departure will increase as will Burke’s.
12) New York Islanders—The Islanders are a team on the rise, led by John Tavares and supported by emerging wingers Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson, Blake Comeau and the electrifying Nino Niederreiter, who dazzled during the World Championships this past spring.
The return of Mark Streit, who missed all of 2010-2011 due to injury, will be welcomed and Travis Hamonic is developing as one of the NHL’s great young blue-line talents.
The success or failure of the Isles will rest on their goaltending situation, where Rick DiPietro hopes to bounce back from an awful return season after many years of injuries, Al Montoya hopes to continue his solid play at the end of last season and Evgeni Nabokov is stuck in limbo after being suspended by the Isles but refusing to report and play after being claimed by the Isles this past January.
13) Florida Panthers—After failing to make the playoffs for a 10th season, Panthers GM Dale Tallon’s plan to clear the payroll and open up the checkbook resulted in a Panthers team that has a totally different look from previous seasons.
Tallon brought in a slew of veteran free agent talent—Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg, Ed Jovanovski, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Kopecky, Marcel Goc and Jose Theodore—to bolster their offensively-impaired forward lines, which should help underrated players such as Stephen Weiss and David Booth.
Highly-touted defenseman Erik Gudbrannson gets the opportunity to play with the parent club and should become a blue-line stalwart for years to come.
14) Winnipeg Jets—After too many years away from the province of Manitoba, the Winnipeg Jets return, this time in the form of the former Atlanta Thrashers, who were relocated after putrid attendance and mounting financial losses hobbled the organization.
While the Jets teased the Atlanta fans with a furious start, they struggled towards the second half of the season. The Jets may be a few years away from seriously contending, but they do possess a nucleus of outstanding young talent, led by budding superstar Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler and Zach Bogosian, who, while not yet fulfilling the promise of the former No. 3 overall pick in the draft, possesses the skill set to become a future All-Star.
The Jets possess one of the NHL’s most potent first defensive pairings in Dustin Byfulglien and Tobias Enstrom and Ondrej Pavelec emerged as budding workhorse in the Jets’ net.
15) Ottawa Senators—How the once-mighty have fallen—the Sens have returned to the point totals of their expansion days, prompting the dismissal of yet another head coach while retaining GM Bryan Murray, the executive responsible for their downfall. Murray cleaned house during the NHL’s trade deadline, trading several veteran players for future draft picks. Murray also acquired via trade the enigmatic but talented forward Nikita Filatov from the Columbus Blue Jackets, where the hope is a change of scenery will help Filatov flourish in Ottawa.
Murray does possess a bevy of young talent, starting with their promising blueline duo of David Rundblad and Jared Cowen, along with forward Bobby Butler and first-round draft pick Mika Zibanejad.
Craig Anderson also hopes that a change of scenery allows him to return to his stellar form during the 2009-2010 season, when he helped carry the Colorado Avalanche into the playoffs. Otherwise, it will be a long season in Canada’s capital city.