NHL East: Why Every Team Will (and Won't) Make The Playoffs

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NHL East: Why Every Team Will (and Won't) Make The Playoffs
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The Atlantic

New Jersey

Why They Will: This is primarily the same team that won the ultra-competitive Atlantic and finished third in the East with 106 points and was considered one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch.

They have a good mix of returning youth and veteran players with Johnny Oduya, Travis Zajac, Patrick Elias, Paul Martin, and Jamie Langenbrunner.

The defense is solid, Zach Parise has burst into the upper-echelon, and Martin Brodeur is...well, Martin Brodeur.

Additionally, hopefully some of the youngsters like Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond (immediately one of my favorite names in the game) can step up and keep these devils dangerous.

Why They Won't: One of the reasons the Devils surprised so many people last year was because of Coach Brent Sutter, who jumped ship to Calgary to coach for his brother's team. 

While newcomer Jacques Lemaire has had success with NJ in the past, his past few years in Minnesota lead many to believe that maybe the game is starting to pass him by. Minnesota missed the playoffs last year despite allowing the second least amount of goals in the league with 200 (NJ was fourth with 209).

Parise, Zajac, and Oduya should continue their development, and while I can't see Elias or Langenbrunner dropping off much, the loss of John Madden and Brian Gionta might make it difficult to replicate the success of last year.

Brian Rolston will have to step up, and as legendary as Brodeur is, it seems time will eventually catch up with him; the only question is when. 

 

New York Islanders

Why They Will: The Islanders were fully devoted to the rebuild last season, letting their young guys play in all situations and gain valuable experience despite the standings. As a result, players like Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, and Blake Comeau emerged as the future go-to players of this team. 

Mark Streit is proving to be worth every cent of his contract, as he led the team in points last season. The additions of Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron to Rick Dipietro give the Islanders a formidable goaltending corps, as all three are more than capable of running with the No. 1 spot, and it also gives them trade bait.

With the first overall pick, the Islanders grabbed the much coveted John Tavares, who is the most hyped prospect since Sidney Crosby was picked by the Penguins. He tore up the OHL and the World Juniors, and should be the frontrunner for the Calder Trophy. All in all, this a team that could surprise.

Why They Won't: This team isn't surprising anyone. When you're led offensively with 56 points by a defenseman, the team is in trouble.

Yes, Okposo, Bailey and Comeau were bright spots last year and showed that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but the three of them combined for 89 points last season, not exactly the second coming of Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, and Clark Gillies.

Tavares hasn't done anything in the NHL yet, and even if he fits right in and is a point-a-game player, even Crosby and Oveckin couldn't turn their teams around instantly.

The Islanders also boasted the worst goal differential in the league last year with a -78. That isn't something fixed easily.

The Islanders won't make the playoffs, but at least fans can be thankful that GM Garth Snow seems steadfast in rebuilding through the draft, which is the way to build a team that will be competitive for years. That team just isn't here yet.

 

New York Rangers

Why They Will: The Rangers seem to be perennially in contention for the 4-8 spot, and there is no reason to expect that to change this year. A full year under Coach Tortorella will allow the players to become comfortable in his system, and you can be sure that system will include discipline and defensive responsibility.

Marian Gaborik was one of the prized forward UFA's, and when healthy, one of the most dangerous players in the league. Marc Staal is a bright young spot on the blueline as is Brandon Dubinsky of the forwards.

And if the defense fails, Henrik Lundqvist is as good as a last line of defense as one could ask for. GM Sather managed to trade away Scott Gomez with his cap strangling contract and got underrated Chris Higgins, who's very solid in both ends and capable of chipping in 20+, and blue chip prospect Ryan McDonagh, who could push for a roster spot.

Ryan Callahan emerged near the end of last year and, with newcomers Vaclav Prospal and Ales Kotalik, will supply the secondary scoring. All in all, this is a balanced team with a great goaltender, exactly the type of team I wouldn't bet against.

Why They Won't: The Rangers squeezed in last year, and managed to hold onto the seventh spot with mediocre play due to the teams chasing them missing opportunities.

Getting rid of Gomez opened up some cap space, but it left them weak at center, and that space was immediately used on Gaborik, who is as fragile as a Faberge egg.

True, if he stays healthy he'll be the team's X-factor, but does anybody honestly believe he avoids injury playing against Pronger six times? The bloated contracts of Chris Drury, Michael Rosival, and Wade Redden limit what NY can do if they want to make a move by trade.

The loss of Blair Betts and Fredrik Sjostrom puts a question mark on the best PK in the league last year, and the loss of underrated Paul Mara is going to hurt an already suspect defense.

Along with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Rangers were the only playoff teams that allowed more goals than they scored. Too many question marks, plus one of the toughest two divisions in the NHL, will be too much for the Rangers to overcome.  

 

Philadelphia Flyers

Why They Will: The Flyers were a very dangerous team last year and there is nothing to suggest they won't be at least as equally dangerous this year. The Flyers had an incredible four players with 30+ goals this past season, led by Jeff Carter's 46.

Philadelphia's depth and willingness to attack in any situation gave other team's fits, and will continue to do so this year.

Led by Captain Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell, the Flyers forward squad is as dangerous as there is in the league, and with expected full-time spots available for Claude Giroux and possibly James Van-Riemsdyk, they're only going to get more dangerous.

The talented blue line consisting of youngsters Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle and veteran Kimmo Timmonen seemed one player away from being formidable. Well the Flyers went out and got the most formidable bruiser out there in Chris Pronger.

His arrival, combined with recently signed Ian Laperriere and last season's acquisition of Daniel Carcillo, these Flyers, like the Broadstreet Bullies before them, will be make the Flyers a difficult opponent. This is a team that should challenge for the division and even the conference title.

Why They Won't: The loss of Mike Knuble could lead a void in the leadership, while giving away talented depth in Joffrey Lupol and Luca Sbisa to Anaheim in exchange for Pronger may hurt the Flyers if they become susceptible to the injury bug.

Additionally, Pronger is getting up in age, and considering his style of play should be expected to slow down a bit.

Bringing in Ray Emery to replace Martin Biron may blow up in Philly's face. Biron was quietly solid, and always seemed to play his best in the playoffs.

Emery, on the other hand, is known as a moody, egotistical prima donna and besides one good season with Ottawa, hasn't proven much. 

 

Pittsburgh Penguins

Why They Will: Well, being the defending cup champions proves they're good. Really, really good. This team is overflowing with talent. In net, Marc-Andre Fleury has grown into one of the premier stoppers in the league.

Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski, and Brooks Orpik are joined by shot blocking Jay McKee to form a blueline that protects Fleury as much as can be asked. Ruslan Fedotenko, Bill Geurin, and Chris Kunitz help support the tremendous depth at the center that the Pens are blessed with.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are arguably the best in the game, and Jordan Staal and Maxim Talbot round out the third and fourth lines and can be used interchangeably on the wing throughout the lineup. A full year under Coach Bylsma will prove that their scorching hot record down the stretch was no fluke.

Did I mention the Penguins did as well as they did even with a considerable injury to Sergei Gonchar (25 games played)? This is one of the few teams that you can already pencil in to a spot.

Why They Won't: Many don't remember that the Penguins were well below average midway through the season, it was only because of their ridiculous stretch to close the season that they ended up in fourth.

Obviously that coincided with the coaching change, but the season before last, they challenged for first in the East under Therrien.

With that in mind, was it really him that was holding the Pens back this year? Will they tire of Bylsma the same way halfway through this season?

Losing Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi is going to hurt this defense. Throughout the playoffs, this was the duo that kept shutting down opponents' best line after best line.

And most importantly, playing the whole season with a target on your back can wear a team down.

The Northeast

Boston Bruins

Why They Will+78 goal differential last season, Norris Winner, Vezina Winner, Jack Adams winner... Wait, you still here? What more do you need?

While San Jose got all the press last year, Boston was with them point for point throughout the season. This is a well balanced machine. Every line is defensively responsible, and contributes offensively.

Last season, the Bruins scored the second most goals in the league, and they did so with only player hitting the 30-goal plateau (Phil Kessel 36), but they had 10 players break into double digits, and that's why this team will continue to succeed.

If you want to play finesse, Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Michael Ryder can beat you with skill. If you want to play tough, Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler can beat you with grit. And oh yeah, having a tower on defence in Zdeno Chara doesn't hurt.

Why They Won'tThe Bruins biggest offensive threat, Phil Kessel, remains unsigned at the point of this writing. If Boston can't come to terms with their sniper, the team will suffer as a result.

As phenomenal as Tim Thomas has been, his unorthodox style can always set him up for a down season, and Manny Fernandez won't be here this year to fill in when needed.

Asking Krejci to replicate his terrific season may be a bit much, and can Patrice Bergeron stay healthy and return to form?


Buffalo Sabres

Why They WillThey came oh so close last season, missing the playoffs by only two points. Make no mistake, this is a dangerous run-and-gun team that I'm sure Boston was happy they didn't end up facing in the first round.

No player is more instrumental to this team's success than the man between the pipes, Ryan Miller. Had Miller not gone down to injury, it would have been surprising not to see the Sabres earn that one extra win.

Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, and Jason Pominville lead an incredibly quick group of forwards. A plethora of players like Paul Gaustad, Daniel Paille, and familiar face Mike Grier allow the Sabres to dress a physical 3rd and 4th line even with some injuries.

If the oft-injured, super-talented Tim Connolly can stay healthy and youngster Nathan Gerbe can have an immediate impact, look for this team to be amongst the most dangerous offensively in the East.

Why They Wont: Far too many "if's" on this team. IF Miller can stay healthy, IF Connolly can stay healthy, IF Vanek, Stafford, and Pominville don't have off seasons.

Most importantly, the defense was questionable last season, and losing Jaroslav Spacek to free agency and replacing him with Steve Montador makes them even worse. Rest of the East improved too much, some of the most loyal fans in the game may begin to lose patience.


Montreal Canadiens

Why They Will: Centennial pressure, injuries, and off-ice distractions derailed Montreal's season, but the Canadiens will be a drastically different team this year.

Out are long time captian Saku Koivu, talented engima Alex Kovalev, playmaking Alex Tanguay, smash mouth Mike Komisarek, and heart and soul guys like Chris Higgins, Tom Kostopoulos, Francis Bouillon, Mathieu Dandenault, and Mathieu Schneider. With them, Bob Gainey hopes to have purged the organization of any of the possible reasons that caused last season's collapse.

In come Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Travis Moen, Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek, and Paul Mara. Say what you will, but this team is faster, stronger, and younger than last year's version.

Cammalleri can be expected to pot 30, while Gomez and Gionta will look to rekindle the magic they had in New Jersey. Andrei Kostitsyn had 23 goals in a bad year, while Tomas Plekanec and Sergei Kostitsyn look to rebound from seasons to forget.

The third line of Guillaume Latendresse, Maxim Lapierre, and Travis Moen will be difficult to play against and capable of contributing offensively.

Incoming coach Jacques Martin will implement a system to better insulate young goaltender Carey Price, who will benefit from the crease clearing abilities of Hal Gill and Paul Mara.

Everything considered, Montreal could contend for the division crown. 

Why They Won't: Chemistry, Chemistry, Chemistry. The most important key to success, is unfortunately a big question mark for this year's Habs.

Will new teammates gel in a new system? Will Carey Price prove mentally tough enough to handle the pressure in Montreal? Will that second line be able to support the first line?

The new forwards are fast and skilled, but will they be able to handle the bruising they are sure to receive from oversized Toronto and Boston?

Koivu was the heart and soul of this team for a decade, and there's already questions as to who can step up and try to fill his enormous Finnish shoes. Too many question marks for success.

 

Ottawa Senators

Why They Will: This was another team that benefited greatly from a coaching change mid-season. The Sens will look to build on the momentum they gained at the end of last season.

Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Dany Heatley form one of the most dangerous lines in the league, and if Heatley stays, will surely continue to do damage to other team's defense.

If he leaves, Ottawa will gain something in the trade, and new-comer Alex Kovalev can step in on the first line. Either way the Sens look alright in that respect.

Pascal Leclaire finally gives them a bona fide No. 1 goalie and an underrated defense will surely rebound from an off year. The Sens will make the playoffs, and could do some real damage once there.

Why They Won't: Remember when Ottawa had locker-room problems, and everybody blamed Ray Emery? Well they got rid of him, and picked up veteran leader Jason Smith...and they still had problems. Now Heatley is causing a stir, and  everybody thinks he's the problem.

If Bryan Murray (who is flirting with disaster by not trading him) isn't able to move him, don't let hope delude you, this team will be in serious trouble. And Alex Kovalev is certainly not the guy to calm the situation.

Additionally, while Leclaire is a No. 1 on paper, it has yet to be seen if he can recover from his injuries and surgery. On top of that, only two defensemen were in the plus (Filip Kuba and Chris Campoli both ended the season with +4).

The defense is a major concern, and they still have a drastic drop-off in talent after their big three (four if you include Kovalev).


Toronto Maple Leafs

Why They Will: Brian Burke went out and put his stamp on this team in a hurry. While the offense isn't stacked with All-Stars, people seem to ignore that they put up 250 goals last season.

The problem wasn't scoring it was getting scored on, and that is exactly where Burke put his attention. Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin, both of whom were considered amongst the best available defensemen, eagerly signed to play for the blue and white.

In both players, you get a physical guy who is solid in his own end and uses his size well. They join an increasingly appealing blueline consisting of Tomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn, Mike Van Ryn, and trade acquisition Garnet Exelby.

In net, Jonas Gustavsson joins the Leafs and will push Vesa Toskala. This team has no illusions, they are set up to flat-out beat you up, and that's what they'll do. 

Why They Won't: While Burke is doing a good job of rebuilding the team, they aren't ready to make a push for the playoffs. Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore were big parts of the offense last season prior to the deadline, and they won't be there this year.

While it is true that the defense is big and mean, people are expecting way too much. Mike Komisarek, while a physical shot blocker, has absolutely no offensive upside. He can't hit the net, he isn't a tremendous skater, he doesn't have great vision, and is an average passer.

He was exposed last season when separated from Andrei Markov, who made him look better than he was. And while Beauchemin is a solid player, he isn't the top pairing Dman that many are making him out to be.

People seem to forget that in Anaheim, he was playing with two future Hall of Famers in Scott Neidermeyer and Chris Pronger, a luxury he won't be afforded in Toronto. 

Gustavsson, while highly touted, hasn't done anything in the NHL yet. On top of all of this, the team let up an abysmal 293 goals this season, which was good for dead last in the league. You don't fix that overnight.

The Southeast

Atlanta Thrashers

Why They Will: Atlanta was another team that seemed to play best when they had no pressure. After hitting nearly rock bottom, the Thrashers put together a solid end to the season.

Led by the ridiculously talented Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta will once again be a team that can score. What makes them dangerous though, is the talent that nobody outside of Atlanta seems to know.

Todd White might have put up the quietest 73 points in the league last year, and Bryan Little had the quietest 31 goals. Nik Antropov will fit in on Kovalchuk's line, and it's always nice to have a 6'6" winger.

Zach Bogosian put up an impressive 19 points and a +11 as an 18-year-old, and showed all the potential in the world. And one last thing, Kovalchuk in a contract year, might be fun to watch...just maybe.

Why They Won't: The Thrashers seem to always play well after they've been eliminated from playoff contention, so there's no reason the expect them to build on their end of the season success. Even with some of the talent Atlanta has flying under the radar, they still are not a complete enough team.

While the defense has potential, it is still young, and allowed an embarrassing 280 goals last year. Kari Lehtonen never seems able to put together a complete season, and Johan Hedberg, while an efficient backup, isn't capable of taking the reins year round.

Too many questions on the defensive side of the puck will prevent the Thrashers from going back to the post-season. Kovalchuk can't outscore everybody every night.

 

Carolina Hurricanes

Why They Will: Wow this team was hot down the stretch. Eric Staal is a beast of a player, and Ray Whitney continues to produce at almost a point per game without recognition. Cam Ward once again proved that he is a stud goalie.

There really isn't a lot to have to say here. Solid depth support and underrated defense propel this team back to the playoffs. And make no mistake about it, this is as team-first a group as you can find.

Why They Won't: Carolina has a tendency to have a down season after a good one, as does Cam Ward. Rod Brind'Amour is a great leader, but the normally defensively sound captain had a team worst -23 and at 39 may finally be succumbing to his age.

As good as this team can be, and it's difficult to root against them, if any of Staal, Whitney, or Ward have an off-season or go down with any considerable injury, the Canes will struggle. 


Florida Panthers

Why They Will: Florida couldn't have come closer to the playoffs without making them, losing out due to a tiebreaker with Montreal. They will be led by emerging youth David Booth, Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, and Michael Frolik, all four of whom have first-line talent.

While losing Jay Bouwmeester hurts, they could have done worse than replacing him with Ville Koistinen and Jordan Leopold. They won't be the most exciting team to watch, but they will be very sound defensively.

Being backstopped by Tomas Vokoun, who has the second-best save percentage over the last three seasons, should boost the confidence of any team. As Coach Deboer grows into his role, so shall the team grow into a playoff contender. 

Why They Won't: Ex-GM Jacques Martin gambled and lost in not trading Bouwmeester at the trade deadline. And while they did get Leopold in return, they could have had much more.

This team's bread and butter is defense, and at least on paper, they're worse off in that department than they were last year when they missed the playoffs. Florida may not have taken a step back, but too many teams took steps forward for them to survive.


Tampa Bay Lightning

Why They Will: At the beginning of last year, everybody talked about how great the Lightning were going to be thanks to all the personnel changes. Well that obviously didn't work out as planned.

But Tampa has learned from their mistakes and accepted that they need a defense to compete. In comes prized free agent Mattias Ohland and bluechip prospect Victor Hedman. Joining them are solid depth defensemen Matt Walker and Kurtis Foster who were picked up at a steal.

Put them with the incumbent Andrej Meszaros, Paul Ranger, and Lukas Krajicek, and suddenly Tampa has a very good looking blueline. Good enough to get them back to the dance.

Why They Won't: The defense is improved, and that was a drastic need that management addressed (279 GA, third worst overall) but why does everybody forget how poor this team was offensively.

People see names like Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, and Ryan Malone instead of the results, which was a measly 210 goals (5th worst overall).

Learn your lesson from last season and ignore all those guaranteeing you a vastly improved team, because the Lightning will once again be on the outside looking in.


Washington Capitals

Why They Will: Fresh off a second-round exit to eventual cup winner Pittsburgh, the Caps are hungry and looking to learn from their playoff experience. Washington was an offensive juggernaut last season, led by the explosive play of Rocket Richard winner Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green, who led all defensemen in scoring.

Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin round out the high-end talent, while role players like Brooks Laich, David Steckel, and Tom Poti help fill out an admittedly top-heavy team. As last year, watch for Bruce Boudreau to let his guys fly.

Equally as dangerous 5 on 5 as they were on the Eastern Conference leading PP, the question isn't whether this team is going to score on you, it's how many they want to score. 

Why They Won't: Yes this team can score, but the defense was unspectacular to say the least. Green is certainly an offensive dynamo, but his game in his own end is average.

In fact, behind Tom Poti, nobody really jumps out at you, and even Poti on most teams wouldn't be considered above a 3 or 4. Considering his physical style, what would happen to this team if, god forbid, Ovechkin goes down with an injury?

This is a team that needs to score to stay in games. Jose Theodore is a major question mark in net, putting up a very pedestrian .900 SP. While Simeon Varlamov played terrifically in the playoffs, that isn't a full season, so hanging your hopes on him might be a little much to ask.

A big factor is the loss of Sergei Federov, who really brought the young talent on this team together. While Mike Knuble will help fill the veteran void, Federov's leadership as well as his versatility will be greatly missed.

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