Despite the distinct possibility of not having hockey to enjoy in the very near future, let’s make some predictions anyway. Since we did some reviews of the professionals from last season and the NHL Yearbooks are hitting the shelves as we speak, we can at least talk about hockey, even if the games are but a pipe dream.
The Eastern Conference will be our first target of highly detailed guesswork. This is extremely difficult because to me there are no really “bad” teams per se, though some cases can be made for the Islanders. I think that spots 9-14 are interchangeable.
The Southeast is the toughest one for me to deliberate on. The Capitals, Tampa, and Carolina are all improved and very competitive, so do not be shocked to see any of these teams take this division. The Atlantic I will hand over to the NY Rangers while Boston will still be the champs in the Northeast. This is going to be very hard to pin point the exact position of each team, but I do have a crystal ball I got from a Russian gypsy back in the 90s while on a moonshine binge, so we should be fine.
15) NY Islanders
You know what tells a story? The amount of goals you score and the amount of goals you do not score. The Islanders had a big problem on both ends of the ice in that department. Being -52 as a team while only being able to score 203 goals is not a good sign that things are getting better. With no clear numero uno goaltender and losing Parenteau it seems things will not get better any time soon. Combine this with being in one of the toughest divisions of in the NHL, the Atlantic, this team will have to take another step back before being competitive. You have to see a very bright future with Tavares leading the way, but not next season. Maybe they can pull an “Oilers” and start stock-piling number one picks to complement JT?
14) Florida Panthers
I may get a bit of flack for this pick, but to be honest, let’s look at what we have. We have a team that was -24 combined and only scored 203 goals. This was also with having some good years from mediocre players, most of whom over-achieved. The goaltending seems to be a bit of a mess here, too. I know they got a young guy, Huberdeau, coming in that should spark the offense, but to me this will not be enough. The reasons are the divisional rivals in Tampa Bay, Washington, Winnipeg, and Carolina. The stiff competition of its division rivals and the fact that the team was mediocre at best playing away from home, sums up to me a disappointing season.
13) Montreal Canadiens
Scott Gomez will make a difference this year…I can feel this. The difference he will make will be a few more goals than last year. I think this team can be better and has young talent, but it will be a slow climb. Price will carry the load for a long time and the line of Cole, Pacioretty, and Desharnais is very promising. They do need a player that can hop over or at the very least hover near the 80-point mark before we can consider this team a playoff team. On the bright side of things, to me it is always tougher to get a good defense, which Montreal certainly has. There is no pressure on this team and we saw what that did for the Panthers last year. Secondary scoring will be the Achilles heel here, so do not expect too much from my favorite city up north.
12) Winnipeg Jets
Young team with some very good offensive players that is looking to give the hungry fans an even better show then last year. The injury to Enstrom really hurt last season. He is good for 40 plus points this year. The important part is that he is very effective on the powerplay, however the back-end is not the issue for this team. The real issue is scoring goals. Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler stepped up last season, but that is not enough. Kane needs to progress into a dominant force and score in the 35-40 goal range. Right now they have a bunch of decent players who can put up 50 points, but we need 10 or 15 points more from a bunch of them to get a sniff of playoff hockey. The two Russian MIGs, err, Jets, especially need to have better seasons. Burmistrov and Antropov definitely need to raise their games, and while some people doubt him, I think you can trust Pavelec to be a good enough goalie. Let us stay on the safe side here and let this team get seasoned a bit more.
11) Toronto Maple Leafs
This team started last season very well but finished a bit flat and out of the playoffs. I do not think you have the pieces here to be called a playoff team, mainly due to goaltending woes. The bright side is that I like the trade to acquire JVR. Defensively the team is not going to suck. It is difficult going into a season with a big question mark in net, but that may be resolved with a trade. The bright side is that I think the top six unit is better than it was last year. The approach to this team has been slow and steady, but a solid number one goaltender would certainly speed up this process, which is important considering how hungry Leafs fans are for the playoffs. It will not be this year, unfortunately, because Kessel/Lupul will miss 10-18 games and that will be too much. My gypsy crystal ball has spoken!
10) Tampa Bay Lightning
Yes, this team got better in goal, and yes, they can score goals like it’s no one’s business. The problem here is that defense is still a question mark. Carle and Salo are solid at the back-end, but will that help them turn around one of the worst defensive teams in the East? I’m not a believer yet. Salo is a question mark to play more than 65 games and Carle was never known for his shut-down role to begin with. Lindback has yet to get his feet drenched in the NHL (has not played more than 22 games) and while he had decent numbers, he did not have elite numbers playing behind one of the best defensive teams in the league. With any cracks in the defense in front of him, the dam might just break. A tough Southeast division certainly doesn’t help here. Look for Tampa to fight for a playoff spot all the way to the end, but fall a bit short.
9) New Jersey Devils
Look, I am not saying Brodeur does not have anything left in the tank, though most others are. The problem here is that most people think that Parise was the glue that kept the ship from sinking, but I don’t think that is the case. The Devils have a new offensive leader and his name is Kovalchuk. He led them in scoring in both the regular season and in the playoffs. Do not forget about Patrik “under-the-radar-for-the-last-decade” Elias and Travis Zajac. With Adam Henrique proving he is the real deal in the playoffs, there is plenty of offense to be found here. Marty and Hedberg don’t give up much and you know the Devils will have an excellent defensive game. I am probably shooting myself in the foot here, but I think the Devils will suffer from the extra tough Atlanticdivisionitis. This will force them to miss the playoffs by a game or two, but don’t come back with pitch forks if they make it. I blame it on that gypsy.
8) Buffalo Sabres
Remember the hype from last year? The money that was spent? Well it is sort of back this year. Look, it was a bad start that led to a hugely disappointing season. The good thing about a new season is that it is a new season and they are tied for first overall – temporarily. They shipped out the bad apples and got a lot tougher during the off-season. Miller is as good as you get in the NHL and he proved it with the second-half play. The team also has young talent that will make a leap this year. Ennis, Hodgson, Foligno, Grigorenko, and Adam are NHL ready players and will play for the Sabres this year. How much will depend on what they can bring and how consistent they can be. This squad will be much better and with Montreal and Toronto being a bit on the softer side, look for this team to get back into the playoff scene.
7) Carolina Hurricanes
The thing is that when you pick up talent like Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin, while not losing anything important from your last season roster, you win. The fact is that without Semin and Jordan, the Canes had 82 points. That is 10 points out of the 8th spot from last season and probably this coming season, too. The Southeast is not as top-heavy as the Atlantic so these games can go either way. You have an improved PK and a helluva improved powerplay (that was 20th last season). The defensive game needs to be improved, but Jordan and Semin can play defensively. The best thing about this team is the availability of quality centers they can pair alongside Semin. I am not saying Semin will be a 40-goal scorer again, but he will score 30 and might flirt with 40 (at least if he wants $7 million next year). He will score more goals than anyone else had on the team last year. This move also adds depth to the top 9 and that is always a recipe for winning. Playoffs…play-offs.
6) Ottawa Senators
Alfredsson is back and that is all you really needed to hear, right? Well, not quite. Spezza resurrected himself last season and rose back to that elite status. If he does not get hurt and stay healthy, he is magic sauce. With Spezza, Turris, and Zibanejad as the projected top-3 centers, this team has enough steam to lift itself up to 6th place in the east. Another young gun is Silfverberg, who should make a debut as well. If Anderson can continue to have Ottawa’s faithful fall in love with his consistent play, we can count on this team being more than a playoff bubble team.
5) Philadelphia Flyers
Everyone knows the good, the bad, and the ugly with this team. The blue line is thinner than OJ’s defense, but just like OJ had a good lawyer, the Flyers have their own Bobby Shapiro in their offense. Pronger is the big question mark here; it does not look good, but there is still some hope here that he may play again. Bryzgalov is another question. If he plays a bit better than he did last year, we are looking at a very scary team. It is crazy how in just one year we are questioning Bryzgalov’s goaltending instead of praising it, but that is how this story goes. I am sure Penguin fans will not be too excited to be having Luke Schenn playing vs Crosby six times this year. He delivers pain. Flyers do not expect anything less than playoffs, but only with a bit more ruckus in the playoffs would it be considered a winning season here.
4) Pittsburgh Penguins
I know Crosby and Malkin might play over 70 games each next season, which is scary considering both can put up over 110 points and make it look easy. The problem here is the back-end. Fleury is not the all-world goaltender Pittsburgh have been waiting for, and the defense in front him is not all world either for that matter. They can score tons of goals, but last year the team posted a .903 save percentage as a team – not very good. This is not to say that simply outscoring your opponent every game will not do the trick, it can and it will. The loss of Jordan Staal hurts those intangibles, such as team depth, that help you win. The penalty kill is very important and Crosby might have to play some PK time. Consider that Staal averaged two minutes per game killing penalties – quality like that is hard to find and replace. There is not enough here to take down the NY Rangers to win the division.
3) Washington Capitals
Ovie and Backstrom. That is all. This team will go as much as these guys will. I think Adam Oates is the right man for the job to jump-start the red machine. Adam Oates did wonders for the Devils powerplay and he will fix this one, too. 18th overall powerplay is not the best this team can do. Mike Green will be moved about on the powerplay to make him as effective as possible, and if you have not noticed the trend yet, I am a strong believer that a strong powerplay equals wins. Mike Ribeiro finally gives the Capitals a true number two center. This will give more time for Ovie and Backstrom to play with each other (on the ice…). While there are some wild cards on the players’ side, the goalie situation to me looks very good. In Holtby I trust. Some may compare him to Crawford and the woes he had last season, but to this I say “nonsense”. Holtby is one of the most focused goaltenders I have seen in a long time, and guys like that tend to be consistent. The fact is that even if he plays well, this will not be enough to keep the job if Neuvirth plays well, too. We saw what competition between the goalies can do on the Blues. The best goaltending the Capitals had yet, look for a tight squeeze, but winning the Southeast is in the books.
2) Boston Bruins
Well, it seems like nothing ever changes for the Bruins, right? Oh, yeah, Tim Thomas went into hiding. All should fall apart, but not-so for Boston. It seems like they have been waiting for this, or something like this, to happen for a while now, holding on to Rask for dear life. Rask will be very good – he has no reason not to be. The team in front of him is almost identical to the one that won the cup. They do need a bit more from the top six as far as scoring, and I think Rich Peverley is a great candidate to break-out if healthy, for 50 points and will move land himself in the top six. Look for them to dominate their division and slide in as 2nd in the East.
1) NY Rangers
What could make losing Marian Gaborik for the first two months of a season seem like no big deal? Having Rick Nash slide in to take his spot. To me Rick Nash will become a game breaker once again, while he is paired with Brad Richards. Fact is that Rangers were winning without him and were very, very good. Nash gives them another explosive option and that scoring threat to help Gaborik that they desperately lacked. Chris Kreider is expected by the NY fans to challenge for the Calder trophy and should be fun to watch. No matter how you look at this team, they got better. The young defense got a tough lesson in the playoffs and the offensive unit has not looked this good since 94, while if all of that breaks down you still have Henrik Lundqvist. There is hardly anything that will satisfy this Broadway show other than a Cup final as most fans will agree. The Atlantic is theirs to take, so is the East, and so is the President’s Trophy. I see zero weakness in this team. My Stanley Cup favorite.
There you have the Eastern Conference. Check back soon for my breakdown of the Western Conference. If you need some good bathroom material, why not check out my column, “NHL Happy Hour“, and see how various players can be compared with vodka. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter – @LastWordOnNHL.