Call it the start of hurricane season, a pre-emptive strike before every single hockey fan posts their Eastern Conference predictions. Mine include Dany Heatley on the Senators because at this point, we have no reason to believe otherwise. When I started this exercise, I was prepared to keep Ottawa out of the top eight because I don't think we've improved enough to jump up from 12th. I know we're excited about Kovalev and Leclaire and Clouston, but would that be good enough to jump four teams? But a funny thing happened when I looked at the middle class - it isn't very good! So by putting Ottawa into the eight spot, it isn't entirely because I think we're the eighth best, rather it is because I think there are seven other teams that are worse. This isn't homerism, folks, because I truly have fears about if we can make the second season. I just really don't think very highly of the conference as a whole.
Here are my final Eastern Conference predictions:
This is an easy one. It isn't because I think they'll make it back to the Finals for a third year in a row, but I don't think there is another team that improved enough to knock them off. They have two of the most prolific players in the game, a strong blue line (McKee can fill in for Gill and Scuderi is this year's Tom Preissing), and they'll have Guerin and Kunitz for a full season. They're better than the rest.
The reason they can't take the number one spot, and the reason they won't get to the Finals for a few more years, is because they ignore goaltending. The loss of Fedorov and Kozlov will be made up with the further development of the young stars in DC. Varlamov will be much like Emery a few years ago - good enough to make it through the regular season but not cut out for the big time of the playoffs.
It is great to see Chara at the top of his game and it stinks that he's doing it for someone else in the division. Claude Julien has built a system that runs like a well-oiled machine. It reminds me a lot of the Ducks of a few years ago without the clutching and grabbing. Solid goalie, elite defenceman, an old guard of scorers (Savard, Bergeron, Ryder) and a slew of upcoming stars (Krejci, Lucic, Bitz). Boston isn't great, but they're going to be a top five team for a long time. Without question, they are the best team in the Northeast Division.
I'm personally terrified that we're going to see Pronger four times a year now. The guy is a monster and contrary to most pundits, he isn't slowing down. I also think Emery will have a decent year. He won't see too many shots, he won't be the biggest media darling on the team, and he has the cockiness to rise to the occasion. A healthy Gagne and Briere will be important, but Philly is good enough to give the Penguins a run for a while before settling for the 4 seed.
5. NY Rangers
Down with Gomez, in with Gaborik. To me, this is kind of a break even trade off just because Gabby is a point a game player for the 20 games he dresses. The Rags will be hanging around the 5-6 seed as long as Lundqvist is in town and that is kinda the thinking here. I still don't see them scoring a ton of goals and they still have guys like Drury and Redden on awful contracts, but there's enough talent in guys like Dubinsky, Callahan, Prospal, and Staal to get them more wins than losses.
They're like the New Jersey of the south, the team that you don't really notice until they're winning playoff games in April. Funny how it is usually New Jersey that they're beating these days! If you get a free moment, browse their roster and think about just how deep they are at forward. If Cam Ward plays slightly above average and Staal continues to turn into a top centre in the league, Carolina can actually take a shot at home ice advantage in the four-slot. The Canes are going to be around for a long time and if only Pitkanen could hit his potential, the Canes could go on a run.
7. New Jersey
Martin Brodeur. Okay, I'll continue - they have a very solid top six with guys like Parise, Elias, Zubrus, Rolston, Zajac, and Shanahan. People keep point out out that Stevens and Niedermeyer have never been replaced, but that isn't ever going to happen. Instead, they've left it to Martin, Oduya, White, and Salvador, which is good enough to make the playoffs again. The problem here is that the Caps will torch this defence in the playoffs even more than Carolina did last year.
As I said earlier, it isn't that I think we're the 8th best, we're just above the other seven teams below this. I think Clouston is putting the right system in place and AK27 will provide some fantastic secondary scoring, possibly 65-70 points. I also expect big things of Lee and Campoli on the blue line, a big step forward from last year. And most importantly, we're going to get some solid goaltending for Pascal. I really believe that. This kid seems built for the cameras of a hockey market but without the Hummer and the tardiness. We'll clinch in the last three games of the season.
My initial reaction to Gainey's moves were that he'd run them into the ground. After careful thought, I haven't changed my mind too much. Without question, he has changed the identity of that team. The problem is, nobody knows what the hell that identity is going to be. Scott Gomez has chemistry with Gionta? Gomez doesn't have chemistry with anyone right now. Cammalleri can score but he won't have Iginla helping him much. The defence is a pot pourri of castoffs surrounding their only elite player in Andrei Markov. Finally, their goalie is a basketcase and will never, EVER grow into an elite netminder in that market. Carey Price might have talent, but that city will never let his confidence catch up. The result will be more time on the outside.
Sure, they gave a run for the playoffs last year that lasted until the final week. In fact, Montreal had an OT loss point that made the difference between swapping places. The problem is that even though Booth and Olesz will continue to grow, they replaced Bouwmeester with Leopold. Even if you aren't sure if Bouw was a top flight defenceman, he took up 25-28 minutes a night and was a major part of that blue line. Leopold doesn't hold a chance of filling those minutes. It was fun last year for this team, but they'll slowly start heading back to mediocrity.
I'm sick and tired of people talking about how great Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff are and how they should not be blamed for the collapse of this team. Then who the hell do you blame? The exodus out of this town over the past few years has been alarming and nothing has been done to replace the departed. If Lindy Ruff is such a good coach, couldn't he get talented players like Vanek, Pominville, and Roy to get this team to the postseason? Isn't Ryan Miller supposed to be the future of USA Hockey? Seriously, this team is not very good and it starts with management and coaching. At some point, when the Slugs continue to miss the playoffs, people will stop showering these guys with undeserved praise.
This isn't because I think Brian Burke is an idiot. This isn't because we all hate the Leafs. This is because they are no better than last year and somebody needs to stand up and call them out. They don't have anyone to score a damn goal! Am I taking crazy pills here? Wait for the rebuttal of a Leafs fan and they'll point out that they scored lots last year and the focus was on keeping them out of their own net. Sure, and I agree that the blue line is tougher now, but I have concerns about Komisarek, Exelby, and Beauchemin. Komi was destroyed by Lucic and turtled up, Exelby has seen his development hit a major plateau, and Beauchemin is insanely overrated. Anybody could look good playing with Niedermeyer and Burkie should have known that. And Colton Orr? This isn't a new Ducks team, this is a team of thugs that will spend half the game in the box and the other half trying to pass out of their own zone. Ron Wilson doesn't last far past the Olympics before Burkie finds his own coach. If you think this is a playoff team, get a life.
This group might actually push up on Toronto and Buffalo more than people think. While a lot depends on Lehtonen's health, they'll get a boost from Kubina and they'll get some help with Antropov. The big question will be how Bogosian and Enstrom develop and if they're ready for top four responsibilities. Both players should be legit top pairing players but stalled last year (Bogosian missed a chunk of time, in his defense). Atlanta isn't playoff material, but it wouldn't shock me if they rattled off some wins late in the year to rally the fans, much like the Sens did last year.
14. Tampa Bay
Mattias Ohlund will help just enough to get them out of last place, but this team stinks. Can you tell me who their starting goalie will be? Cutting Prospal just leaves Lecavalier without his boyfriend, though him and Marty St. Louis might step up in an Olympic year. At the end of the day, though, they will let in so many goals that they'll be getting more sunburn from the goal light than from the beach. Zing.
15. NY Islanders
A step in the right direction for Garth and the boys. They actually have goalie(s) that can stay healthy and the kids will take another step in the right direction. Tavares will be much like Stamkos last year - he'll struggle early under the microscope and will eventually settle into a leadership role and put up 50-60pts. This organization is still a few years from even contending for the playoffs, but they'll get back there soon. If Charles can get them a new arena, then this might even become a destination for free agents on July 1st instead of at the end of the summer when players have no other options. It feels tough to keep these fellas in last place, but JT isn't enough to get them out of the basement yet. Another top three pick will help next year.