Eastern Conference 08-09 Preview

After a very hectic offseason, the balance of power in the NHL has shifted quite dramatically. James Murphy takes in all the changes and breaks down how he expects things to go in the Eastern Conference in 2008-09…

1. Montreal Canadiens: The Habs come into this season with heightened expectations after a surprisingly strong 2007-08 season. While that will obviously prevent them from sneaking under the radar as they did last year, the experience they gained from their playoff run will prove critical. As our predicted Norris Trophy winner Mike Komisarek put it, “we’re heading into this year trying to win the Stanley Cup, not just make the playoffs. We have a different mentality where we think we can compete for the Cup.” That mentality, combined with the additions of Robert Lang, Alex Tanguay, and Georges Laraque, makes the Canadiens our pick to finish atop the Eastern Conference.

2. New York Rangers: Much has been made of Jaromir Jagr’s departure, but in truth, the Rangers’ offense (25th in goals scored, 22nd in power play effectiveness in 2007-08) will actually benefit. In his place, a trio of newcomers (Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev, and Wade Redden) will give the Blueshirts a much more balanced offensive attack. Jagr’s slow-down, along-the-boards style didn’t mesh well with centers Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, and his divisive dressing room presence won’t be missed either. Redden and Naslund are both strong candidates for “Comeback Player of the Year.” And even if the offense sputters, a healthy Henrik Lundqvist (three-time Vezina Trophy Finalist) automatically makes the Rangers a legitimate contender.

3. Carolina Hurricanes: Three seasons removed from the Cup victory, the ‘Canes are ready to get back into the mix as contenders. Look for a bounce-back year from goaltender Cam Ward, whose Conn Smythe Trophy-winning performance was no fluke. The power play was eighth overall last season, and should get a nice additional boost from the addition of Joni Pitkanen. Up front, the ‘Canes will miss Justin Williams, but they have enough depth to make up for it with the likes of Eric Staal, Matt Cullen, Tuomo Ruutu, Sergei Samsonov, and Ray Whitney picking up the slack. And of course, the leadership and faceoff prowess of ageless center Rod Brind’Amour is always a huge factor in the ‘Canes’ favor.

4. Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers should be in the thick of the battle for first-overall in the conference and the former Patrick Division, with newly named captain Mike Richards leading the way. A gritty two-way center in the mold of former Flyers legend Bobby Clarke, Richards brings a sandpaper-like edge that appeals to the Broad Street Bullies’ fan base. If Simon Gagne is able to remain healthy and return to his former All-Star form, the Flyers could very well emerge as the cream of the crop in the East. The biggest question marks are on the back end. The blue line corps is somewhat thin behind Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, and there is reason to wonder whether netminder Martin Biron can play for an entire regular season and playoffs at the level he did last spring in backstopping the upstart Flyers to the Conference Finals.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins: The defending Eastern Conference champions enter the season faced with two huge challenges. The first is whether they can avoid the Stanley Cup Finals hangover that has plagued every Finalist dating back to the 2000-01 New Jersey Devils. And the second is whether they can survive injuries to their top two defensemen, Sergei Gonchar (shoulder) and Ryan Whitney (foot). The Pens are solid between the pipes with Marc-Andre Fleury, who proved his finally “arrived” with last spring’s scintillating playoff run. Much like on the blue line, there are question marks up front, with a huge drop-off in talent after star centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal. The X-factors are veterans Pascal Dupuis and Petr Sykora, who will need to play like legitimate first-liners if the Pens are to repeat their success from 2007-08.

6. Washington Capitals: Back with their retro uniforms last season, Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals became the darlings of the NHL. After taking over for Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving Day, head coach Bruce Boudreau took the Caps on an amazing run to the playoffs before bowing out to the Flyers in a thrilling seven-game first round series. He missed most of the 2007-08 season, but playmaking center Michael Nylander is back and should help give the Caps some much needed scoring depth up the middle. The main questions lie on the back end and in goal, where Jose Theodore takes over for Cristobal Huet. Whether the Caps get back to the postseason depends largely upon whether sophomore rearguard Mike Green can repeat his breakout rookie performance.

7. Boston Bruins: The Bruins were one of last season’s most pleasant surprises, reverting back to the hard working, bruising style that defined them when the likes of Terry O’Reilly and Cam Neely wore the black and gold with pride. Much like those Bruins icons, sophomore winger Milan Lucic has become one of the faces of the franchise. The biggest additions are three players returning from injuries—center Patrice Bergeron, defenseman Andrew Alberts, and goaltender Manny Fernandez—all of whom could make a huge impact. If Tim Thomas can deliver a repeat performance between the pipes and Fernandez can provide a solid complement, the Bruins are fine in goal, and the Zdeno Chara-led defense is unquestionably stout. The biggest question is whether newcomer Michael Ryder and the returning Bergeron can conspire to make the Bruins’ offense click.

8. New Jersey Devils: The Devils always have to be considered a playoff contender with Martin Brodeur between the pipes. And for the first time in a long time, the offseason brought addition rather than subtraction with the signings of UFAs Bobby Holik and Brian Rolston, both of whom are former Devils. The question is whether these additions can erase what has been a constant problem for the Devils and help them improve their anemic offense. If they once again fail to provide Brodeur with adequate goal support, they will find themselves quarreling for this final playoff spot with an exhausted Brodeur between the pipes. More likely, youngsters Zach Parise and Travis Zajac must take their games to another level if the Devils are to avoid this scenario.

9. Ottawa Senators: On paper, the Sens’ defense lost some skill with the departures of Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros. But new head coach Craig Hartsburg’s mantra is to play as a team, and if newcomer Jason Smith can be the emotional glue that this defense has lacked, then the Sens might not be as bad off as many pundits have projected. Up front, they still have three of the best forwards in the NHL in Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, and Dany Heatley, but they will need depth players such as Jarkko Ruutu and Antoine Vermette to give them a balanced scoring attack. Between the pipes, the departure of Ray Emery leaves Martin Gerber as the number one goalie. The controversy that constantly surrounded Emery won’t be missed, with Gerber and back-up Alex Auld providing more stability and tranquility.

10. Tampa Bay Lightning: The question in Tampa will be whether their season plays out like owner Oren Kroules’ “Saw” movies or whether the team’s offseason makeover pays off. Brian Lawton takes over for Jay Feaster, while Barry Melrose provides an entirely new personality behind the bench in place of the ornery John Tortorella. There is no question that the Lightning have improved at the forward position, bringing in the likes of Ryan Malone, Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts, Radim Vrbata, and first-overall pick Steven Stamkos to give them what should be one of the NHL’s most potent offenses. But what happens when the puck enters their zone, with a very offensive-minded defense anchored by newcomers Andrej Meszaros and Matthew Carle and a goaltending duo of 38-year-old Olaf Kolzig and unproven youngster Mike Smith? The more things change in Tampa, the more they remain the same…

11. Buffalo Sabres: The recent signings of Ryan Miller and Jason Pominville show a commitment by management and ownership to the Sabres’ future. However, one has to wonder whether this team has recovered from the lack of commitment shown in previous offseasons, when stars like Chris Drury and Daniel Briere were lost to free agency. The Sabres have a talented nucleus up front, but there’s good reason to wonder whether Maxim Afinogenov and Tim Connolly can stay healthy and motivated. Miller is a rock between the pipes, but the defense is shaky even with the addition of the ever-steady veteran Craig Rivet. Speed will be a major issue on the blue line, and it’s doubtful that they’ll be able to keep up with the team’s blazing-fast forward corps.

12. Atlanta Thrashers: The Thrashers’ fortunes heavily depend upon forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who no doubt will challenge Alexander Ovechkin for the Rocket Richard Trophy (most goals). And if they battle their way into the playoffs, he’ll also contend for the Hart Trophy (league MVP), but that’s a far less likely scenario. With a young and unproven team, new head coach John Anderson will have to continue to do what he did with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves and develop young talent into cohesive contenders. In goal, Kari Lehtonen is one of the league’s most talented netminders, but his injury history is cause for huge concern. One area that the Thrashers may be better than expected will be on the blue line, where they combine youth (Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian) with veteran experience (Mathieu Schneider and Ron Hainsey).

13. Florida Panthers: Unfortunately for Panthers fans, their team continues to mire in mediocrity. The loss of captain Olli Jokinen will make an already-depleted offense even more anemic. However, the three additions to the blue line corps—Bryan McCabe, Nick Boynton, and Keith Ballard (the latter two arriving in the Jokinen trade)—should make life far easier for starting netminder Tomas Vokoun, who himself will keep the goals-against to a minimum. If the Panthers get a typically strong contract year performance out of UFA-to-be Jay Bouwmeester, it will go a long way towards making up for the lack of top-tier talent up front.

14. New York Islanders: New Islanders head coach Scott Gordon was hired for his skill at developing young prospects. That is what he will no doubt be doing on the Island, with his lineup consisting of over-the-hill veterans and unproven prospects. The key for Gordon will be how to distribute ice time to those most deserving while keeping the elder statesmen happy. Isles management needs to realize that they are in a rebuilding mode and give Gordon the green light to develop. While this team will not make this playoffs, netminder Rick DiPietro will keep them competitive and the fans will at least get a glimpse of a brighter future.

15. Toronto Maple Leafs: If the Maple Leafs truly want to return to glory and are building towards that goal, as MLSE chairman Larry Tennenbaum claims they are, they need to a) take “no trade clause” out of their vocabulary; b) let new head coach Ron Wilson develop what few prospects they have; and c) let the scouting department draft and develop more prospects in order to replenish the organization’s stark cupboard. This is without question a rebuilding year for the Maple Leafs, and if they finish where we peg them to be, they may have the luxury of accelerating that rebuilding effort by drafting John Tavares or Victor Hedman.

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