In recent years, predicting the Eastern Conference would have been much easier than predicting the balanced, consistently tougher Western Conference. However, as the Western Conference generally stayed put during the off-season, the Eastern Conference teams were much more aggressive in their pursuit to be a part of the playoff conversation.
So in a manner similar to predicting the outcome of the Western Conference, I offer my Eastern Conference predictions for the 2010-11 season. Rather than rank the projected finishes, I classify my predictions in three categories: The Ins, the Tweeners and the Outs.
Washington Capitals – Well they have Alexander Ovechkin and that’s not a bad place to start. They also have a collection of offensive weapons surrounding Ovie in Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green. Add to that a young tandem of young goalies in Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, a pair of emerging young defensemen in Karl Alzner and John Carlson and you have a team who, on the surface, seems primed for the President’s Trophy and a potential Stanley Cup run. However, the Caps are a team who has not experienced much success in Stanley Cup playoffs. Until they can get over the hump then the doubters will not view them as anything more than a regular season wonder.
New Jersey Devils– The Devils are similar to the Capitals in one respect: while more of an experienced team, they are also a team who recognizes regular season success but early-round failure. They were able to re-sign Ilya Kovalchuck to a massive contract extension, but not without much trepidation and uncertainty. Kovalchuck adds to an already offensively-gifted team lead by Zach Parise and Travis Zajac. The Devils also signed shot-blocking wunderkind Anton Volchekov to make future Hall of Fame netminder Martin Brodeur’s goaltending life even easier. But with three consecutive first-round exits and a playoff record of 10-20 in the post-lockout era, the Devils are another team for which doubt of playoff success prevails until they prove otherwise.
Boston Bruins – The Bruins recognized the fruits of the Phil Kessel trade by drafting Tyler Seguin with the No. 2 overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft. They also acquired, Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell via trade from Florida. David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, and Milan Lucic comprise a solid tandem of forwards and they have the ever large and talented Zdeno Chara manning the blueline. One area to keep an eye on will be the use of the goaltending tandem of Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas, particularly if Rask’s playoff struggles were a harbinger of things to come. But the prevailing questions will be how the Bruins can recover from blowing a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers and whether star center Marc Savard can recover from post-concussion syndrome.
Buffalo Sabres – They have arguably the most talented goalie in the league in Ryan Miller, last year’s recipient of the Vezina Trophy. They also have last year’s Calder Trophy winner in defenseman Tyler Myers. The Sabres also have a balanced scoring arsenal with four 20-goal scorers lead by Thomas Vanek, an arsenal which may be enhanced by the arrival of speedy forward Tyler Ennis. However, for the Sabres to be considered a solid Stanley Cup contender, players like Vanek, Jason Pomiville and Derek Roy must provide Miller with more offensive support.
Pittsburgh Penguins – The 2008-09 Stanley Cup champion Pens were stunned by their second round exit in last season’s Stanley Cup playoffs, another team that was upset by the other-worldly goaltending of Jaroslav Halak. But there were signs that a return to the finals was in doubt: A loss of role players such as Hal Gill and Ryan Malone, the puzzling mediocre mid-season, one in which the Penguins couldn’t win more than two consecutive games in over a three-month span, and the return of some of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s issues with rebound control were key indicators of trouble. However, the Pens do possess the league’s premier playmaker in Sidney Crosby and two premier centermen in Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. The Pens also appeared to have addressed needs in their defensive corps with the acquisitions of and Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. But if Fleury can rise up in the playoffs as he did two years ago, then the Pens have a shot at winning another Cup.
Philadelphia Flyers – The Flyers went from a team who fired their coach midway through the season, to one who barely made the playoffs,to making the Stanley Cup finals and giving the Chicago Blackhawks all they could handle. All this happened without a consistent, go to goaltender. The Flyers bring both offensive firepower with centers Mike Richards, Daniel Briere and Jeff Carter as well as an extremely physical team with the likes of Chris Pronger, Daniel Carcillo and Scott Hartnell. The biggest question is whether goaltenders Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher were living a charmed playoff life or whether they will cause the team to struggle and disappoint.
Montreal Canadiens – The Habs appeared to have been on the cusp of getting back into the conversation of Stanley Cup contenders, but they puzzled the hockey world by shipping Halak for two St. Louis Blues prospects, thereby ‘handing over the keys’ to inconsistent goaltender Carey Price. They return forwards Mike Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec and retain one of their strongest bluelines in recent memory with star defenseman Andrei Markov and rookie phenom P.K. Subban. But if Price’s recent struggles continue and the team struggles out of the gate, this could be an interesting transition year for the Canadiens’ GM Pierre Gauthier and coach Jacques Martin as expectations are always high in Quebec Province.
Tampa Bay Lightning– The Lightning’s biggest moves in the off-season were made in their front office and behind their bench in hiring Steve Yzerman as team President and by landing coaching’s ‘Next Big Thing’ in Guy Boucher. Boucher’s ‘pedal to the metal’ system has yet to have been solved and with the likes of prolific young star Steve Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and recent acquisition Simon Gagne manning their forward lines, the ‘Bolts should have no trouble generating offense. The question with Tampa Bay is whether their goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis is good enough to make them a serious playoff contender. But the future does indeed look bright and this could be the one team to watch for in the Eastern Conference
Ottawa Senators – The Sens had a reasonably successful 2009-10 campaign and bolstered their blueline with the free agent signing of Sergei Gonchar. They still possess two of the NHL’s more prolific forwards in Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza. It will be interesting, however, to see the effect of how Spezza will perform given his unhappiness with name being floated around in off-season trade speculation, as well as his coming off of a disappointing season and a mid-season MCL (knee) injury. Where the Senators may fall short this year is in the net, with oft-injured Pascal LeClaire and wildly streaky Brian Elliot manning the duties.
New York Rangers – While the Rangers narrowly missed the playoffs last season, one is hard-pressed to see how this team should even be considered for playoff consideration. Further, with the tandem of GM Glen Slather and owner James Dolan, it is surprising that fan unrest hasn’t risen to unprecedented levels. The Broadway Blueshirts have never been shy about obliterating a salary cap, and while they obtained a slight break in sending Wade Redden and his $6 million plus/year contract to the AHL, GM ‘Slats’ Slather continued to puzzle with the $1.6 million signing of pugilist Derek Boogaard. If prolific sniper Marian Gaborik returns to his pattern of struggling to stay healthy, this could be a long season in Madison Square Garden.
Toronto Maple Leafs – You can say many things about Leafs’ GM Brian Burke, but you can never accuse him of not having gumption. Burke has continued to re-shape the Leafs by building their blueline into a formidable group, particularly with last season’s trade deadline deal of acquiring premier defenseman Dion Phaneuf. Burke has also assembled a physical, gritty team in the mold of his Anaheim Ducks teams with pugilist Colton Orr and the hard-hitting forward Colby Armstrong. While they did bolster their offense by acquiring Kris Versteeg, much more is needed from Kessel and the rest of the offense to make the Leafs a legitimate playoff contender.
New York Islanders – The Isles were a much-improved team during this past season, surprisingly hanging around the playoff chase for the majority of the regular season. While John Tavares didn’t nab the Calder Trophy, he had a solid rookie season. The hope is for Tavares to make the next step in a manner similar to Stamkos’ meteoric rise to NHL elite status. However, the team’s fortunes were dealt a serious blow with the serious shoulder injuries to their best defenseman Mark Streit and to one of their best forwards in Kyle Okposo. Add to that the continued uncertainly as to whether Rick DiPietro will ever be healthy enough to recoup the 15-year contract investment the Islanders made in him, and you have the makings of continued struggles on The Island.
Carolina Hurricanes – To the ‘Canes credit, they showed a great amount of pride in trying desperately to return to the playoffs after a horrific start and an equally horrific injury to goaltender Cam Ward. The ‘Canes are a team in transition as they look to build with young players like first-round pick Jeff Skinner and Zac Dalpe. They hope for the return to good health of Eric Staal and the return of recently-departed defensemen Anton Babchuck and Joe Corvo. They will need a healthy and steady performance from Ward if they can expect to return to the playoffs in the near future.
Atlanta Thrashers – A team with so many different directions and spare parts has now added a new distinction of being named “Blackhawks South”, by acquiring former Blackhawks’ Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel. They also brought in Rick Dudley from the Blackhawks front office in an attempt to bring stability and a forward direction to this rudderless organization. They made a very nice move in acquiring goaltender Chris Mason from the St. Louis Blues, who should be expected to challenge for the starting job as well as push young Ondrej Pavelec into becoming their franchise netminder of the future. The Thrashers are slowly building a core of young talent with recent drafts of Alex Burmistrov, Niclas Bergfors, Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane. However, the Thrashers are still a few years away from playoff contention.
Florida Panthers – Former Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon was brought in to rebuild the Panthers in the way he rebuilt the Chicago Blackhawks. However, given the eroded fan base, the current lack of offensive firepower and a drab, aged team, this second attempt at a turnaround will be a much taller order. The Panthers still depend on goaltender Tomas Vokoun to keep them in the majority of their games, while waiting for the development of successor Jacob Markstrom. The Panthers’ hope of building of their blueline were dealt a blow with their inability to sign No. 1 draft pick Erik Gudbranson to a contract, as Gundbranson was expected to make the Panthers team out of training camp. This will be a long year in South Beach for the Panthers.