This is the third year in which I’ve offered predictions as to how the Eastern Conference will sort out although it’s the first year I’ve done so with a shortened National Hockey League (NHL) season. And it’s those variables of a 48-game versus the traditional 82-game season that makes traditional predictions much trickier: a condensed schedule, player conditioning, injuries sustained in another league (i.e. KHL) and the urgency to get off to a fast start.
Like last year’s predictions, I will assess the specific finish of each team in the 15-team conference. While this changed method is subject to more error, when it comes to the NHL and its playoffs, your seeding/position doesn’t matter.
With that, here are my predictions (in ascending order, from 1st to 15th):
1. New York Rangers – The Rangers made one noteworthy move and it was a seismic one, acquiring Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets yet not mortgaging the future and overall core of the team. Nash, one of the premier power forwards in the NHL, should flourish on Broadway as he now isn’t forced to be ‘The Man’ as he will be surrounded by premier talent and a coach who will demand much from him. Playing for a demanding coach like John Tortarella shouldn’t be any concern for Blueshirts faithful as Nash’s game blossomed under a similar coach in Ken Hitchcock. But where acquiring Nash should pay dividends is with goal-scoring support, particularly in the playoffs where the Rangers struggled to find the back of the net. Beyond acquiring Nash, the Rangers are loaded with the likes of Brad Richards, a now healthy (after off-season surgery) Marian Gaborik, Michael Del Zotto and late-season phenom Chris Kreider. In net, the Rangers boast the defending Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) recipient on Henrik Lundquist and the dependable veteran backup in Marty Biron. If they can stay healthy and if Nash makes the impact that is expected of him, the Rangers should be particularly dangerous in the post-season.
2. Boston Bruins – The Bruins will benefit from playing in what should be the Eastern Conference’s weakest division but challenges should remain for the Beantown Bears. While prickly, quirky and a distraction, the now-departed goalie Tim Thomas was a dependable warrior who could carry the Bruins, particularly during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Given Thomas’ departure, a lot rests on the shoulders of last year’s backup Tuukka Rask; however, Rask carried the workload a few seasons back and was solid in net. Beyond this change in net, the Bruins boast a solid overall unit with the likes of defensive stalwart Zdeno Chara, forwards Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin who should ascend to another level in his third season in the league. Hopefully, Nathan Horton has recovered from the concussion issues he’s suffered late a few seasons back to add scoring depth and solid two-way play. Touted prospect Dougie Hamilton should also greatly help the blueline. Overall, the Bruins should be a solid threat to the Eastern Conference playoff race.
3. Washington Capitals – The 2011-2012 season was a turbulent one for the Caps as it saw early season struggles, leading to the departure of high-respected coach Bruce Boudreau, a major mid-season directional switch in hiring Dale Hunter to coach the Caps the rest of the way and injuries to their goaltending, prompting the late-season call-up of Braden Holtby who literally carried the usually underachieving (in the playoffs) Caps deeper in the playoffs than the talent-laden Capitals have been used to. Now Adam Oates assumes the reigns as head coach and plans to institute a two-way system, a hybrid of Boudreau’s and Hunter’s respective system. As for the on-ice talent, concerns abound as to whether sniper Alex Ovechkin can resume his goal-scoring proclivity. Ovechkin went from averaging just under 54 goals over his first five NHL seasons but dropped to 35 goals per season over the past two seasons. The Caps will need the Ovie of old to return to his previous form, particularly with the departure of former setup man Alex Semin to divisional rival Carolina Hurricanes.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins – Were it based on pure, overall talent, the Penguins are easily the class of the Eastern Conference. And while the NHL’s marquee player in Sidney Crosby has returned to health, the Pens are an oft injury-prone team. Beyond Crosby, reigning Most Valuable Player (MVP) Evgeni Malkin is one of the NHL’s premier playmakers although tends to hold back on the throttle when Crosby is healthy and he no longer has to carry the load. The Penguins did trade away former Selke Trophy finalist Jordan Staal to join his brother in Carolina but were able to obtain the 8th overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft and obtain a sturdy, defensive stalwart center in Brandon Sutter. Beyond the two elite offensive giants in Crosby and Malkin, the Pens boast one of the NHL’s most aggressive shooters in James Neal, veteran winger Chris Kunitz and premier offensive defenseman Chris Letang. In acquiring veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun, the Pens should have solved their issues in backup depth in goal not to mention an insurance policy should star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury struggle. If the Pens can avoid injury, this can be a team who could easily hoist the Stanley Cup.
5. Philadelphia Flyers – Much unlike last season, when Flyers General Manager (GM) Paul Holmgren materially changed the core and direction of his roster, the Flyers remained relatively silent this past off-season. Of course, had the Nashville Predators not matched the Flyers offer sheet over the summer, the usually aggressive Holmgren could have repeated another massive reshaping of his roster. While the Flyers boast one of the NHL’s true scoring superstars in Claude Giroux and a slew of secondary forward line scoring, their blueline – Luke Schenn, Braydon Coburn, Andrej Meszaros and Kimmo Timonen – without the great Chris Pronger is highly underwhelming, adding even more chaos to their already chaotic goaltending in Ilya Bryzgalov, now that former backup Sergei Bobrovsky has been traded away. And while the Flyers should score goals with great proclivity and easily make the playoffs, the questions on the defensive end should make advancing deep into the playoffs far more difficult.
6. Buffalo Sabres – Much was expected of the Sabres, last season after the new ownership group opened up their pockets and acquired Power Play specialist Christian Ehrhoff as well as forward Ville Leino. However, a horrid stumble out of the gate created a deep hole for the Sabres and they missed the playoffs for the third time in the past five seasons. The Sabres did trade scoring for grit by trading Derek Roy for Steve Ott which should hopefully allow the Sabres to return to consistently being a hardworking bunch. This added grit should help the Sabres return to the playoffs, as they already have a talented young nucleus of defenseman Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe and Luke Adam. The Sabres can really flourish if Myers and Tomas Vanek return to form, if Cody Hodgson can develop as a true first-line performer and if Ryan Miller returns to being one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders.
7. Carolina Hurricanes – The Hurricanes reunited the Staal brothers, Eric and Jordan, to an already-solid bunch and added Alex Semin in free agency. The hope is that the enigmatic Russian Semin can thrive in Carolina and silence the character whispers that have been circulating throughout the league over the past few seasons. In addition to this talented first forward line, the ‘Canes also possess solid secondary scoring Tuomo Ruutu, Jussi Jokinen and former rookie of the year in Jeff Skinner. Their blueline is solid with a talented first pairing in Joni Pitkanen and Justin Faulk and has talent throughout their other pairings. The goaltending duties are manned by workhorse Cam Ward and hopefully Ward can avoid the injury-plagued 2009-2010 season although backup netminder looked solid in his few outings, last season. Look for the ‘Canes to return to the playoffs and possibly wreaking havoc upon their playoff opponents.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning – The Lightning struggled mightily last season due primarily to problems on their defensive end and in the net as Father Time finally paid 42 year old goalie Dwayne Roloson and Matieu Garon also struggled when pressed into being the top netminder. However, GM Steve Yzerman addressed those issues in the off-season by acquiring former Preds backup Anders Lindback as well as defensemen Matt Carle and Sami Salo. The Bolts already possess one of the league’s most dynamic snipers in Steven Stamkos and Vincent LeCavalier and Martin St. Louis continue to rack up goals and points with the best in the NHL. A major concern for the Lightning could be if coach Guy Boucher’s full-court press 1-3-1 defense and system could spell doom for Lindback as he assumes his first fulltime netminding gig.
9. Florida Panthers – Although I never doubted GM Dale Tallon’s ability to build a winner, I nor any others expected the rebuilding to happen so soon in Miami. Tallon’s plan to clear the payroll and open up the checkbook resulted in a Panthers team that had little a totally different look from previous seasons and resulted in their winning the Southeast Division and qualifying for the playoffs. With a slew of veteran talent and character – Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg, Ed Jovanovski, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Kopecky and Jose Theodore – the Panthers could certainly remain in the playoff mix; however, losing Jason Garrison, one of the top goal-scoring defensemen to free agency could hurt a team who continues to struggle to score goals.
10. Ottawa Senators – The Sens were arguably the NHL’s most pleasant surprises as I and many others expected them to finish at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. However, the emergence of Norris Trophy recipient (NHL’s top defenseman) Erik Karlsson and the return to elite form of Jason Spezza bolstered Canada’s capital city’s team. An interesting battle should emerge in goal with the trade deadline acquisition of massive goaltender Ben Bishop and the highly-touted prospect Robin Lehner to back up Craig Anderson. Their blueline was boosted by the acquisition of the highly underrated defenseman Marc Methot from the Blue Jackets. A major concern is how much 40-year old Daniel Alfredsson still has left in the tank.
11. New Jersey Devils – The Devils early-season debacle was buoyed by the injury sustained by Zack Parise for the majority of the 2010-2011 season and their return was equally buoyed by the return to health of Parise. Now that Parise has departed and because the Devils, after an ownership change, weren’t able to acquire anyone to withstand the loss of the heart and soul of their team, should plummet back to the ‘also rans’ of the NHL, even with premier sniper Ilya Kovalchuck remaining with the team. After rebounding from a horrid start, future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur returns for one more season. However, with the loss of Parise, an already offensively-impaired team has to hope for Brodeur to grasp the ‘fountain of youth’ in order for the Devils to stay in playoff contention.
12. Toronto Maple Leafs – The Maple Leafs new ownership group didn’t waste any time in making the transition back to hockey from the lockout even more exciting by relieving former GM Brian Burke Patience from his duties. The Leafs continue to have struggles in finding a franchise goaltender as James Reimer and Ben Scrivens haven’t exactly exuded confidence in the NHL’s greatest pressure cooker. Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul have formed one of the more dynamic duos in the NHL and the blueline is solid with team captain Dion Phaneuf and offensive defenseman J-M Liles but the chaos of Burke’s dismissal and the questions in goal should result in another empty season for the Maple Leafs.
13. Montreal Canadiens – The NHL’s premier dynasty suffered perhaps their most embarrassing season in memory, finishing the season with the NHL’s 3rd worst record. The Habs responded by changes with the GM in Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien. While Therrien has a familiarity with the culture in Montreal and has an ability to exceed expectations, the talent pool, if you can call it that with the Habs, is sorely lacking. With the exception of goaltender Carey Price, current contract holdout, defenseman P.J. Subban and now-healthy defenseman Andrei Markov, the Canadiens will have to rely on grit and effort to be competitive in the Eastern Conference. The Habs deftly were able to acquire what should be a cornerstone center in Alex Galchenyuk as the 3rd overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft but overall, it should be a long season in Quebec.
14. Winnipeg Jets – It was great to see the Winnipeg Jets return to the Manitoba Province, last season, even though the Jets failed to qualify for the playoffs, once again. The Jets do possess a nucleus of outstanding young talent, led by budding superstar Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, and Zach Bogosian, who began to fulfill the promise of being the former no. 3 overall pick in the draft. However, Bogosian is out indefinitely after wrist surgery. However, the Jets do possess one of the NHL’s most potent first defensive pairings in Dustin Byfulglien and Tobias Enstrom. In goal, Ondrej Pavelec emerged as budding workhorse in the Jets’ net. However, for the Jets to emerge to playoff contention, they have to fix their road woes, which plagued any momentum they gained while playing at home.
15. New York Islanders – On the positive side, the Islanders have left the archaic confines of the Nassau Center and are moving to the new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. However, once again, the bad news is that the Isles are stuck in neutral of sub-mediocrity. The Isles do have one of the great young talents in John Tavares but otherwise, like their Western Conference counterparts, the Columbus Blue Jackets, questionable drafting and putrid player development continues to hinder the once-proud organization. The slew of 1st round misses – Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielson, Josh Bailey – has haunted the Isles as has the mind-numbing 15-year contract for poster child for sick bay in Rick DiPietro who has averaged less than 12 games played per season over the past four seasons. And while Evgeni Nabokov played well after holding out from returning to the NHL during the prior season, playing for possibly one of the NHL’s greatest versions of Siberia will make for long winters on the island.