NHL Eastern Conference Preview

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NHL Eastern Conference Preview

IconLast week, I took a look at the Western Conference, proclaiming San Jose as the team to beat.  Today, I examine at the East.

Non-Playoff Teams

 
15. Boston Bruins

Last summer, Boston signed Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard to ensure the team would make the playoffs. Well, it didn't work.  This summer, Manny Fernandez was the choice to start in goal. 

While this roster is not as poor as the Western bottom-feeders, some team needs to come in last in the logjam of mediocre Eastern teams—and this one will be the lucky winner, in a manner of speaking.

Team MVP:  Patrice Bergeron

 
14. New York Islanders

The Islanders made the playoffs by the slimmest of margins last year, and then proceeded to lose their two best offensive players.  Although the Isles signed Mike Comrie and Bill Guerin, the two will not match up to the production of Jason Blake and Ryan Smyth.

Given the small margin for error in the conference, this could lead to a steep decline in the standings.  The Islanders will need big seasons from so many different pieces to secure a playoff spot, but will likely fall on their face.

Team MVP:  Mike Comrie 

 
13. Florida Panthers

This team has been a sexy pick to make a significant move in the East this season.  The Panthers only missed the playoffs by six points last year, and they improved in the off-season by signing Tomas Vokoun to serve between the pipes.  In the end though, the Panthers will fall victim to the improvement in several of the other teams in the East, as opposed to their own regression. 

A similar point total is probable, but teams like Philadelphia and Washington are poised to make the leap to the playoffs, while Florida is still a season away.

Team MVP: Olli Jokinen

 
12. Philadelphia Flyers

It is not often that a team finishes dead last in a conference and then improves so drastically in one off-season that many expect them back in the playoffs the next season.  I do not think that the improvement is that vast, but Daniel Briere is a great piece of the puzzle to add.  The addition of Briere will probably lead to a better season out of Simon Gagne.  The big question is in goal, where Martin Biron will start the season. 

For the Flyers to compete for a playoff spot, however, it will require Antero Nittymaki to overcome his injuries and take back the job he once had.

Team MVP:  Daniel Briere

 
11. Montreal Canadiens

Unlike many of their conference counterparts, Montreal did not make significant changes to their team in the off-season, though they had high turnover.  It was more just a case of trading a product of one brand for the same product of another. 

The lack of improvement—combined with more question marks in goal—will lead to a second consecutive finish out of the top eight for Montreal.

Team MVP:  Saku Koivu 

 
Icon10. Toronto Maple Leafs

Nothing said more about Toronto's season last year than the final two days of the season.  After prevailing in a must-win against bitter rival Montreal, they watched the Islanders steal the eight seed with a dramatic shootout victory over New Jersey.  Toronto did improve by signing Jason Blake from the Islanders.  Blake will be a fine compliment for Mats Sundin, who lacked a scoring winger last year.  The Leafs also picked up Vesa Toskela from San Jose to be the starting goalie. 

With the improvement to their roster, it would seem Toronto is a lock for a playoff spot. While they will be within 5 or 6 points of that eight spot, they will eventually be squeezed out of the playoff picture, especially with crucial games in the last week of the season against Buffalo, Ottawa, and Montreal.

Team MVP:  Mats Sundin

 
9. Washington Capitals

Every year, this team adds another piece.  Alexander Ovechkin is the best pure goal-scorer the NHL has to offer.  Alexander Semin provided another great young gun last year.  They traded Dainius Zubrus and signed Michael Nylander from the Rangers, which is an upgrade.  The Caps also will look to bring up 2006 1st Round Draft pick Nicklas Backstrom, and might even have him center Ovechkin.  Olaf Kolzig holds down the fort in net for another season, though the team will need to decide what direction to move in after Kolzig finally calls it quits. 

This team is still one year away from contending in the East, but they will be fun to watch this year.  Ovechkin alone puts the Caps in playoff contention, and if they do sneak in, they are dangerous in a series.  Without him, this team will plummet back down to where they finished last season.

Team MVP:  Alexander Ovechkin

 

Playoff Teams

 
8. New Jersey Devils

Tell me if you have heard this before, but the Devils will make the playoffs on the strength of their defense and goalie.  Martin Brodeur is still the best goalie in the league, and the system allows pretty much any defensemen to step in and play pretty well.  They still have Brian Gionta, Patrik Elias, and Zach Parise to score goals.  In addition, if any team can deal with the loss of a player like Scott Gomez, it is the Devils.  By signing Zubrus, New Jersey found a player that will post similar numbers to Gomez in that system for less money.  The Achilles heel of the team is lack of depth, and that is what will keep them from really contending in the East.

Another playoff spot is on the horizon for the Devils, but for them to compete in the playoffs, they need to get Brodeur down to about 60-65 games on the season instead of the 75-80 he wants to play.  

Team MVP:  Martin Brodeur

 
Icon7. Atlanta Thrashers

It is hard to imagine a team having a worst postseason than Atlanta last year.  Their goaltending was a mess in the playoffs, and they had no answer for the offensive skill of the Rangers.  Much of the team was kept in tact, and they didn't lose any star players.  Their goaltenders, for what it is worth, are back—and Keri Lehtonen is considered one of the better young goalies in the NHL.

The team didn't change much, and neither will their results.  They will get enough points to make the playoffs, but will be one and done.  This franchise is stuck in neutral right now and they need to find a way to reach that next level.

Team MVP:  Ilya Kovalchuk

 
6. Buffalo Sabres

The President's Trophy winners from a year ago took a beating in the off-season, losing Briere and Chris Drury.  They took another hit when Edmonton signed Thomas Vanek to a huge offer sheet, which they matched, but for more money than they were looking to pay him.  This team featured excellent depth last year, so guys like Vanek and Derek Roy will have great seasons now that they are out of the shadow of Briere and Drury.

This team is way too good not to make the playoffs.  Ryan Miller will be great in goal and the defense remains in tact.  They do have some cap room, so it's possible that the team will look to either make a trade, or try to woo Peter Forsberg into coming up to Buffalo.  With the current roster, Buffalo is a playoff team that will not be able to repeat as the league's top seed.

Team MVP:  Ryan Miller

 
5. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning are a goalie away from being one of the most dangerous teams in the East.  The big three of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Brad Richards all return to a team that has had postseason success in the last five years.  The offense has picked up some new pieces in order to try and bolster the depth of the frontline.  

This team will be a big surprise this season.  Expect Johan Holmqvist to take the starting goalie job from Marc Denis and play well.  Lecavalier scored 52 goals last year, and it isn't impossible for him to improve on that number.  Any team with this amount of offensive firepower gives itself a chance in the postseason.

Team MVP:  Vincent Lecavalier

 
Icon4. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens are the most intriguing team in the NHL.  Many expect Pittsburgh to explode and be the class of the East, but the team is still young.  Sidney Crosby plays well beyond his age, and Evgeni Malkin proved last year that he is for real as well.  The backline is the mitigating factor here.  If the defense plays as well as they are capable of, this team could be the top seed in the conference.  I expect them to play well, but not that well.

Pittsburgh will likely be the dominant team of the East in the years ahead, but they still lack depth as they look to build around Crosby.  Many pieces are there, and this will be a crucial season for them to make some noise in the playoffs—as this will be the first year that they will likely have at least one round of home-ice advantage.

Team MVP:  Sidney Crosby

 
3. Carolina Hurricanes

From Stanley Cup champion to playouff outsider in the span of one season.  The question all the Caniacs want to know is which Carolina team will it be this year—the 2005-06 team, or the squad from last season.  The team didn't tinker with the lineup too much, but did bring back center Matt Cullen after a season with the Rangers.  Cullen was a big part of the Canes two seasons ago.  Eric Staal is still one of the best young guns in the league, and a healthy Erik Cole will help the team out as well.

If Cam Ward plays like he did in the 2006 playoffs, then this team will win the division and be a force in the playoffs.  If Ward struggles like he did for big chunks of last season, then this prediction will look rather foolish.

Team MVP:  Eric Staal

 
Icon2. New York Rangers

It did not take the Rangers long in free agency to make their intentions to win this year known.  With the signings of Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, the Rangers turned a dangerous offense into a VERY dangerous offense.  If Gomez can create good chemistry with Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka, the Rangers will have the best offensive line in the NHL.  Henrik Lundqvist showed that '05-06 was not a fluke—and while the defense gets a lot of criticism, the statistics show that this is a solid, if not nameless, bunch.

The Rangers are ready to take the division, conference, and league by storm.  Expect them to have one of the three best records in the league and to be a favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

Team MVP:  Jaromir Jagr

 
1. Ottawa Senators

While Ottawa didn't look great in the finals against Anaheim, they did have a chance to win it.  The Sens dominated the East in the playoffs, and brought back the core of their team.  They have a good goalie, a solid defense, and incredible forward depth.  They have so many scoring threats that stopping them is very difficult for opposing teams.  Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson are a great one-two punch, and Jason Spezza has been slightly underrated in comparison to the guys he came into the league with.  While the media fauns over Ovechkin and Crosby, Spezza has been great for Ottawa.

Ottawa will be hungry to get back to the finals after how close they came to winning it all last season—and they have the skill players and depth to make another run.  They are a dangeorus team with playoff experience—a vital combination.

Team MVP:  Dany Heatley 

 
Upcoming in Part 3 of his NHL Preview, Jared Reback will predict his Stanley Cup Champion, as well as some of the major award winners...

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