Sunday, September 30, 2007

2007-08 NHL Season
Eastern Conference Predictions

With the 2007-08 season finally upon us, it's time for predictions where I'll attempt to use my unprecedented sense of foresight to prognosticate what the regular season standings should look like next April. I ask that you don't hold me to any of these predictions, but gloating following the upcoming campaign is certainly welcome if your team proves me wrong. Without further ado, my Eastern Conference predictions:

1. Ottawa* -- It's usually agreed that the losing squad in the Stanley Cup Finals is in for a rough season the subsequent year, but the Senators' Eastern Conference rivals will be unpleasantly surprised if they take that for granted. After having a taste of the NHL's biggest stage, Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and the Sens are hungry for more. Ottawa returns essentially the same team that fell to the Anaheim Ducks in five games last Spring, with undersized (and during much of the playoffs, ineffective) forward Mike Comrie and former Sharks defenseman Tom Preissing. But with Heatley, Spezza, captain Daniel Alfredsson and goaltender Ray Emery, who truly established himself as a top-10 goalie in the league after substantially mitigating the ugliness of what could have been a far worse Finals showing for Ottawa, returning, the team will once again be among the elite in the East. However, with the Buffalo Sabres significantly regressing with their off-season losses of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, the Sens will be in a similar situation to Detroit in the West in that they're a powerful squad in a very average division, which should be enough to keep them in contention with those Red Wings for the Presidents' Trophy and should also keep them atop the East.

2. NY Rangers* -- Astute free-agent acquisitions and a solid core of veteran talent makes this incarnation of the New York Rangers arguably the best collection of Blueshirts since the 1994 Stanley Cup Champions. The signings of marquee centers Chris Drury and Scott Gomez from Eastern rivals Buffalo and New Jersey gives the Rangers two ultra-talented pivots known for stepping it up in the postseason. Add those two to a Broadway cast that already includes experience and skill in Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka, grit and sandpaper in Sean Avery and Blair Betts and a mixture of both in Brendan Shanahan and you've got one of the most potent offenses in the Eastern Conference. Of course, to emerge on top in a competetive Atlantic Division, the Rangers will need to prevent goals as well. Enter Henrik Lundqvist. Two seasons in the league, two years as a Vezina Trophy finalist for this 25-year-old netminder who will be asked to shoulder the load defensively for the Rangers, who return a very average defense corps, albeit one that supremely overachieved under Coach Tom Renney's system. The ingredients are all there for the Rangers to not only win the Atlantic, but go far in the playoffs, but with significant new faces, team chemistry may prove to be a bit of an issue for the first few weeks.

3. Pittsburgh -- As columnist Scott Burnside put it in a recent article, when a team's gravest concern is their relative dearth of right-hand shots, you know they've come a long way. The Penguins have finally made the quantum leap from joke to contender, and for the first time in nearly a decade, enter a season as legitimate Cup contenders. With superstar Sidney Crosby, who last season became the youngest player in league history to lead the NHL in scoring, leading the way and a youthful supporting cast of Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Whitney behind him, the Penguins have drawn comparisons to the Oilers dynasty of the '80s, and with good reason. A potent offensive squad content to use their youth and speed to bury opponents, Pittsburgh is decidedly the favorite to lead the league in scoring, especially if Crosby, Malkin and Staal continue to develop. However, Fleury was shaky against Ottawa in the playoffs last season and must come into his own for the Penguins to truly be considered Cup threats. Even with an average performance from Fleury, Pittsburgh will undoubtedly remain competetive for the Atlantic Division title and should once again be the most exciting team in the league.

4. Philadelphia -- While the Penguins took the better part of six years to transform from perennial bottom-feeders to contenders, their intra-state rivals seem to be on the fast track from failure to success. After finishing last in the league for the first time in franchise history, the Flyers, under the management of GM Paul Holmgren, have been carefully crafting a young roster since the trading deadline and through free agency. The advent of All-Star defenseman Kimmo Timonen, All-Star center Daniel Briere, goaltender Martin Biron, tough-as-nails defender Jason Smith and young forwards Scott Hartnell, Scottie Upshall and Joffrey Lupul has morphed what was an abyssmal squad last season into a potential Cup contender this year. While Biron remains a tad unproven in a starting role, the Flyers boast tremendous depth both up front and on defense, with Briere expected to play with fellow Quebec native, speedy sniper Simon Gagne, while the Flyers' already deep core of youngsters in Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and RJ Umberger will join forces with youthful imports Hartnell, Upshall and Lupul to provide offensive depth. On defense, the club boasts the likes of Timonen and Smith along with the inconsistent, yet physically intimidating Derian Hatcher and young blueliners Braydon Coburn, Lasse Kukkonen and Ryan Parent. Overall, the Flyers have completely reloaded and look poised to capture an Atlantic Division title, but with the Rangers and Penguins so strong, a pennant may be a little out of reach. However, with this much talent, a return to the playoffs seems to be a given.

5. Washington* -- Every preseason prognosticator is entitled at least one outlandish prediction, and here's mine. In a Southeast Division, where all teams have gaping holes and considerable flaws, the Washington Capitals, who have been firmly entrenched in mediocrity since the end of the Jagr era, look poised to dramatically return to the playoffs. Young superstar Alexander Ovechkin was a one-man show on many nights for the Caps last season, but with playmaking center Micheal Nylander now in the fold, the league's newest Russian Rocket finally has a competent pivot for the first time in his career. Washington's impressive top six up front is rounded out by thirty-goal men Alex Semin and Chris Clark and solid sniper Viktor Kozlov, comprising one of the more complete forward units in the Southeast. While the defense corps is fairly nondescript and lackluster, the addition of Tom Poti certainly helps and an entire season in Washington for Milan Jurcina should assist the team's defense situation as well.

6. New Jersey -- Just a few summers ago, the Devils boasted a defense corps that featured the likes of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski and an offense with the high scoring trio of Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta as its centerpiece. Flash forward to 2007 and you'll find that New Jersey's No. 1 defenseman is Paul Martin and that Gomez is gone and both Elias and Gionta are coming off underachieving seasons. The addition of coach Brent Sutter is sure to mix things up offensively to a certain extent, which is good news for a team that will need bounce-back seasons from Elias and Gionta and have burgeoning youngster Zach Parise prove his brilliant playoff campaign wasn't an abberation in order to remain in competition for the division title. Of course, the most important thing for the Devils is that future Hall-of-Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur, coming off a Vezina Trophy campaign in which he broke Bernie Parent's longstanding single-season record for goaltending wins, is still manning the nets in New Jersey. Brodeur gives the Devils an edge that few other Eastern Conference teams have: netminding that can steal games. For this reason, the Devils are a playoff team that will have some say in how the Atlantic is won, but surpassing their second-round flameout from last Spring will be near impossible with a rather underwhelming cast on defense and more than a few eyebrow-raisers and question marks up front.

7. Buffalo -- The extent to which the Sabres' roster has been ravaged this offseason is, I feel, underestimated by much of the hockey media. Their leading scorer and co-captain Daniel Briere, who signed with the rival Philadelphia Flyers, will be very missed in the offensive zone and Chris Drury, the newest New York Ranger and fellow former Buffalo co-captain will be missed dearly during the playoffs. Assuming there are playoffs in Buffalo this season. Last year's President's Trophy winners and regular season dominators looked very human all through the playoffs, especially in a five-game, round three loss to Ottawa. And that was before they lost Drury, Briere and two-way forward Dainius Zubrus, all to Eastern Conference rivals. However, with Ryan Miller still in goal and an insanely deep offense that still boasts burgeoning star Thomas Vanek (albeit at a much heftier price tag, thanks to Kevin Lowe's workings), Maxim Afinogenov and Derek Roy up front, along with a decent defense corps headlined by All-Star blueliner Brian Campbell, the Sabres should still qualify for the postseason, but it will be an exponentially more difficult year for the Sabres this season. Former Jack Adams winner Lindy Ruff knows that the same up-tempo, goals at any cost style the team played last year will be nowhere near as effective in the absence of Briere and Drury, and will likely adapt the team's system accordingly. So while Buffalo seems good enough to make the postseason, the team's championship window has sadly shut and it's unlikely they'll be any more than first-round fodder.

8. Carolina -- I didn't envision it being this difficult to choose the Hurricanes, a franchise just one season removed from winning a Stanley Cup, as a playoff team. There are so many mediocre teams clogged smack dab in the middle of the Eastern Conference that picking the one least entrenched in mediocrity is largely a crapshoot. The Hurricanes became the first team in NHL history to miss the playoffs following a championship season last year, missing the mark by a measly four points. In addition to the Cup hangover that victimizes many teams, the 'Canes were without the services of top offensive defenseman Frantisek Kaberle and top-six forward Cory Stillman for almost the entire season, both players injured for considerable durations. Furthermore, star center Eric Staal and goaltender Cam Ward underachieved following brilliant playoff campaigns in '06. It's unlikely that many factors will work against the Hurricanes again, so if Carolina can stay moderately healthy and get production from Staal and more consistent goaltending from Ward, they can once again be a fierce offensive team that will never have a dearth of options up front. Still, question marks surround the team's defense and while Ward was nothing short of spectacular during the team's Cup run, the former Conn Smythe winner has never had a good regular season during his brief NHL career. While the 'Canes certainly aren't going to blow anyone away like they did two seasons ago, they have what it takes to claw to a playoff berth and be devoured in the first round by an Eastern powerhouse.


9. Toronto -- The Maple Leafs missed the playoffs by one point last season. It's funny, then, that there seems to be a million reasons why they couldn't muster up that one extra point and qualify for the postseason for the first time since the lockout. Everything from Hal Gill's incompetence to merciless injuries are offered as excuses for Toronto's failure, but the rather underwhelming play of goalie Andrew Raycroft is seldom pinpointed, which is quite shocking. A sub-900 save percentage and a slew of soft goals should have had the Toronto media circus gathering their pitchforks and torches, but instead little blame was deferred at the former Bruin, and even with the acquisition of Vesa Toskala from the Sharks, Raycroft continues to be mentioned as part of a platoon deal. As long as Leafs coach Paul Maurice can successfully eliminate Raycroft from the equation, Toskala excels despite newfound media pressures he could have never dreamed of in San Jose, marquee free agent acquisition Jason Blake gells with center Mats Sundin, who was flanked at times last season by the likes of Boyd Devereaux and Bates Battaglia, the injury bug can stay away from the Toronto locker room (whoops, too late...Wellwood's already injured), Gill and Bryan McCabe can improve defensively and young forwards Alex Steen and Mats Stajan can develop into top-six types, the Leafs should make the playoffs. Yeah, it's unlikely the majority of those will occur, which probably keeps the Leafs one point behind the postseason cutoff mark once again.

10. Florida -- The Panthers are an interesting team as no facet of their game is exceptional, but with a solid forward corps, a well-rounded blueline and newly-acquired All-Star netminder Tomas Vokoun stopping pucks, they should make somewhat of an impact in the East's playoff picture. Olli Jokinen is the real deal up front, proving his 90-point season of two seasons ago was not an aberration with an encore performance last year. Nathan Horton is the league's next star power forward and, at 22, has already shown flashes of brilliance with an impressive 31-goal season last year for a poor team. Stephen Weiss, Jozef Stumpel, Ville Peltonen and Rostislav Olesz round out a largely average top-six up front, and Florida will need serious production from all four players if they are to contend for a playoff spot. On defense, all eyes will be on Jay Bouwmeester to finally break out and have the Norris-calibre season everyone is expecting of him. However, Bouwmeester's inability to produce on the power play has barred him from crossing 40 points offensively, which is partially the reason European league veteran Cory Murphy was brought in to run the man advantage. Relative unkown Mike Van Ryn will also be counted on to bring offense from the back end, while Bryan Allen and Ruslan Salei will be expected to hold down the fort. The addition of Vokoun is obviously welcomed, but the Panthers didn't miss the playoffs last season due to inept goaltending, with the Belfour/Auld tandem enjoying some success, just as they didn't miss the playoffs during the Luongo era due to their inability to keep the puck out of the net. No, this team is unlikely to make the playoffs because, apart from a lack of depth, this team's main problem is a lack of heart that desperately needs to be rectified. Still, in a wide-open Southeast Division, the Panthers still have an outside shot at a playoff berth in the East, but team chemistry and overall grit will be big question marks going into the year.

11. Atlanta -- I'm not sure what parallel universe Thrashers GM Don Waddell and his team are living in, but in this NHL, teams need a legitimate No. 1 center to win and none of Todd White, Bobby Holik and Bryan Little qualify as such. While the team began last season with a similar lack of a top-flight pivot and started fine, the Thrashers were well off the tracks when Waddell acquired center Keith Tkachuk at the trade deadline, eventually helping Atlanta secure the franchise's first playoff spot. Unless similar antics are pulled much earlier in the season, the Thrashers look destined to finish out of the playoff picture, not only due to their lack of a center, but a deficiency on defense as well, where the club suffered the losses of Greg de Vries and Vitaly Vishnevski. Not exactly Lidstrom-types, but on what was already a mediocre defense corps, the replacement of those players with the likes of Ken Klee and Tobias Enstrom is not very encouraging. Still, with superstars Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa along with rising goaltender Kari Lehtonen, the Thrashers shouldn't be written off just yet, but it's quickly looking as if the team's brilliant start to the 2006-07 season was an aberration.

12. Montreal -- The loss of Sheldon Souray really hurts. Why would the absence of a flat-footed, mistake-prone defenseman make such an impact? Because the Habs lived and died by their power play last season, which really only lead the league because of Souray's monster season offensively. While defenseman Andrei Markov is on a different planet defensively than Souray and owns similar offensive potential, his game is less suited to running a power play, leaving the Canadiens without what was a season ago their greatest weapon. Still, the organization's tremendous depth in goal would overcome for the team's newfound man-advantage shortcomings, if it weren't for such an anemic offense that certainly won't be helped by Bryan Smolinski and European import Janne Lahti. Saku Koivu is still the man up front, but with a mediocre supporting cast headlined by the largely average Chris Higgins, the one-dimensional Michael Ryder and the enigmatic Alexei Kovalev, it's unlikely the Habs will be putting the puck in the net very often next season.

13. Tampa Bay -- Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Stanley Cup winners just three seasons ago, the Lightning have compiled two mediocre seasons that featured the team barely qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and subsequently being smoked in the first round and are finally ready to collapse. While the team will return the "Big Four" of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle (although Boyle will miss the first month of the season), their goaltending situation is by far the worst in the East and rivals Columbus for least appealing in the league. Marc Denis has experienced a Herculean fall from "good goalie on a bad team" with the Blue Jackets to press box warmer for the Bolts. Starter Johan Holmqvist is only consistent at being inconsistent and looked horrible at times during last Spring's playoffs. Thankfully for Tampa fans, the Bolts have quite the pipeline of netminders upcoming, with Karri Ramo and Riku Helenius likely to be future NHL 'tenders, but for this upcoming season, with such a terrible situation between the pipes, an extremely thin defense and a sustained offensive depth issue which will not be solved by Michel Ouellet and Jan Hlavac, it's looking like an unsuccessful season in Tampa.

14. Boston -- The Bruins are a team that could surprise everyone and make the playoffs for the first time since the lockout, but could just as easily plummet and finish last in the league. Although the addition of Manny Fernandez will somewhat shore up a goaltending situation that was bleak for much of last season, the B's will need to make quantum leaps defensively under new coach Claude Julien, which will have to start with improved play from 6'9" behemoth and Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who was downright soft at times last year. Patrice Bergeron will also need to progress into the 80-point All-Star the Bruins thought he would be when signing him to that monster RFA contract last off-season and youngsters Phil Kessel and Brandon Bochenski will have to improve as well. Marc Savard was teriffic last season, but a third consecutive 90+-point year may be asking too much of the undersized pivot. While this roster, when viewed on paper, has the makings of a potential playoff contender, especially in the wide-open East, an overall lack of team chemistry, grit and holes on the blueline will subjugate Boston fans to another season of disappointment.

15. NY Islanders -- There will be no playoff miracles on Long Island this year, certainly not with this sad excuse for a roster. While franchise goalie Rick DiPietro will remain with the Islanders after signing a 15-year contract that must seem like a life sentence last off-season, no Eastern team experienced more off-season turnover than the Isles. Their entire top line of Ryan Smyth, Alexei Yashin and Jason Blake is gone, replaced by the decidedly inferior trio of Ruslan Fedotenko, Mike Comrie and Bill Guerin. Former No. 1 defenseman Tom Poti also bolted via free agency, replaced by dinosaur Andy Sutton. Ted Nolan spun straw into gold last season with this team, but even he would have to be a certified magician for this rag-tag group to finish anywhere near the postseason.

* denotes division winner

See also: Western Conference Predictions

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