NHL Eastern Conference Review and Predicition
As every hockey fan shuffles into their basement, grabs out whatever memrobilia they can find about their favorite team as training camp looms, everyone can only agree on two things; Dany Heatley pissed off just about everyone and this off-season has been defined simply by one word; "transactions".
So many moves have been made, some teams played the stag game and did nothing, others pretty much wiped the slate clean and went in another direction completely.
A lot of predictions have been made from Atlanta to Washington, almost always never in agreement. Let's take a look at how each team in the east sizes up, and then a prediction on when the smoke settles, where everyone will stand. Keep in mind, this prediction will be most probably 0% accurate, as are almost all predictions before a season starts.
Most people begin their assessment of the Thrashers by speaking about the Kovalchuk, situation. Will Kovalchuk sign an extension for whatever the GM Don Waddell throws his way or will he go the way of Hossa, going to the most predictable Stanely Cup Champion so that he can finally have some post-season success? That whole debacle aside, one of the key factors in Atlanta is Kari Lehtonen. The Goalie was sined in 2002 with the second overall pick, and was predicted to be a stellar NHL-calibre goalie in the ranks of Marty Brodeur and Roberto Luongo. That clearly hasn't happened, in fact this goalie has rarely played over 50 games (only once) and his injuries are the only consistent thing about him. The rest of the team bears the broad title of 'mediocre' and Kovalchuk lacks the supporting cast needed for a playoff-bound team. Even if Lehtonen plays the way everyone predicted he would, the only corner stone in this franchise is ready to jump ship after a short season.
My goodness this team was a surpise last season. In 2007-2008 the Boston Bruins finished with a grand finale of 94 points, good enough for 8th place to squeek into the playoffs. It took the Canadiens 7 games to beat them, despite the fact that they where heavily favored but it gave the Bruins a shot to show the NHL what was in store for next season. This team underwent changes that flew under the radar for quite some time. During the last season they shot up to a conference-best 116 points, one point shy of a league best just losing out on the Presidents Trophy for best regular season standings. They didn't make it past the second round, losing out in the 7th game to the surprising Carolina Hurricanes. Huge role players like David Krejci and Milan Lucic stepped up big for the Bruins, cornered by the tower that is called Zdeno Chara. And a surprise goaltender like Tim Thomas didn't hurt either. The only downside is cap space is tight, and Phil Kessel still hasn't been inked with the Bruins. Kessel was their top goal scorer last season, and while plenty of depth is available on the roster losing him will make the Bruins slightly more exploitable in the upcoming season.
Buffalo had one of those off-seasons that can only be called perplexing. A team that doesn't make the playoffs typically makes some changes to their lineup to improve from their faults from the previous seasons. Buffalo was not one of those teams. Clearly, the Sabres are banking on Tim Connolly and Ryan Miller staying healthy for the season . When Miller is healthy, it seems that he can be in the top 5 talent of the NHL goaltending gene-pool. His health is paramount to the Sabres success. With the loss of Briere and Drury some time back, the Sabres have never really filled the gap that those two corner stones left when they departed. That is where the bulk of weight rests on Tim Connolly's shoulders; proven to be a point per game player but somewhat injury ridden during the past two seasons. Personally, I expect this team's performance this season to remain stagnant, unless some players play beyond their potential for an extended period of time.
Surprise surprise, this team is nothing but a bag of surprises. Playing past the first round last season against the Devils and Marty Brodeur last season was probably one of the biggest upsets in the playoffs. Some called it fluke, citing that bare last second goal against Brodeur in the first round. But the Hurricanes proved their strength by toppling the heavily favored Bruins in the second round over seven games. A series that people expected the Bruins to sweep as they did the Canadiens turned out to be a small preview of the determination and strength of this underrated team. The only reason I feel that Pittsburgh swept them in the conference finals was simply the Hurricanes had nothing left in the tank. Two grueling game 7's against statistically better teams took it's toll on the better players and their run came to an end. Cam Ward was able to dismiss rumors that his performance to a cup run a few years back was simply conjecture, and he is trying and able to gain a place as an elite NHL goaltender. Eric Stall proved why he was on the cover of NHL 08. If he can play the way he did in the playoffs for the entire season, it will prove to be a healthy return for the Hurricanes. Even if they just edge into the post-season, this team will prove to be a tough nut to crack.
I'm going to call this team "just what where you thinking?". How do you lose Boumeester, Luongo and Jokinen for relatively nothing over such a short period of time? This team has pretty much nothing to speak about. No franchise players and nothing breaking out in terms of depth. I don't expect much from them and quite frankly, I don't know if anyone on the roster does either. This group is relatively young with an average age of just under 28, this team still needs serious work in order to become a contender and getting into the post-season. I wouldn't put them much higher then 12th.
If you can name one aspect of this team that stayed the same you'd be shocking me. The core of players, the coaching, the owners, rumors of ousting the current president Pierre Boivin even the goaltending and condition coaches have been shuffled. Nothing of this team whose performance was just ranked under 'crap' right above 'looking forward to playing golf' has stayed the same this season. An eye-popping $100 million was spent this off season on inking names from the far corners of the universe; Mike Cammalleri, Travis Moen, Brian Gionta, Jaroslav Spacek, Paul Mara and Hal Gill all don the Canadiens Jersey for the first time. Say goodbye to local heros Alexei Kovalev and Saku Koivu, alongside Matthieu Schneider, Francis Boullion, Mike Komisarek, Alex Tanguay and so many others I don't even want to list them. Where will this team rank shouldn't be predicted, it should be determined through a good game of 'pin the tail on the donkey'. This team pretty much relies on its young goaltender Carey Price, who was pretty upset with himself last season waiving the post-season goodbye a la Patrick Roy style in the game 4 sweep that the Bruins handed the Canadiens. No less during their centennial season. When they finished 1st in the conference a season before that. The stings kept rolling for Montreal this past season and no one knows where they will land. All I can say is I would hate to be GM Bob Gainey if this team starts off poorly come ten games into the season.
New Jersey Devils
Let me introduce two old friends, trap this is New Jersey. New Jersey, this is the trap. The return of Jacques Lemaire's defensive-styled play won't be welcomed to much in New Jersey. Oft considered the most boring hockey to watch, you can't argue with the success Lemaire has had in the past with the trap. Lemaire returns to see old faces like Marty Brodeur but has some new superstars like Zach Parise. The question, what do you get when you mix Lemaire, the trap and pretty much 0 time devoted to offense with a 45-goal scorer like Zach Parise?
New York Islanders
Instead of writing a lengthy review, can I just sum it up and say John Tavares and everyone moves on as pretty much every Islanders fan did this off season? That's all they pretty much did except for stack up on goaltenders. This kid may be good, but he can't make a team successful over the regular season to make the post-season himself. No one can do that, Sidney Crosby couldn't do that himself without a decent supporting crowd. More moves needed on the offensive and defensive unit, stop stacking goaltenders.
New York Rangers
Hello Marian Gaborik. This guy is a top sniper in the NHL. Who cares if his legs are made of glass and his torso composed of play-dough. Sure they made great progress by freeing up cap space by sending Gomez to Montreal, but who fills that role of a number one center? Cap space is comparable to to the economy; everything says its starting to look up but the entire nation is still broke. No money for a first line center to support Gaborik means a key ingredient is missing, but the post-season is pretty much locked for the Rangers. See below for where they will fall.
Every time I talk about the Senators to someone I'm oft called profanities I'd rather not repeat. I don't care what you say, if Heatley stays then this team marches to the Playoffs. Kovalev may be inconsistent but if you couple him with any of the big three in Ottawa (Spezza, Alfredsson or Heatley) and it's just not fair anymore. Chemistry is down, but it will go up. A few good games (and there will be many) will mean these 4 will light up the opposition more then anyone will predict. Even if Heatley and his 50 goals a season walks, Kovalev will put up a little more then half of that with the supporting crowd here. Only question mark is in nets and if Pascal Leclaire is ready, and healthy enough to be a star.
Welcome back, Ray Emery. Have you left your ill-temper in Russia and find your heart yet? Obviously Emery is a key here, but not as important as people may think. The blue line has been bolstered with the inking of Chris Pronger, who will surely help out Emery from time to time. Emery has something to prove, and his cockiness and ego will be bruised beyond repair if he can't find his form that led the Senators to the Cup Finals way back when. I think he will return to form, perhaps not an elite level but with the supporting cast on this team perhaps an elite level Goaltender isn't needed.
I've never hopped on the Crosby bandwagon. I still stand by my firm statement that Ovechkin trumps Crosby from the day of the entry draft and I point to the entry of Malkin as the turning point for this teams rise and claim to fame. Will this team be able to repeat? I don't think so. Big holes have been created on the blue line, with only Jay McKee coming in to try and close them but I fear it just won't be enough. Nothing else really ground breaking here, Bill Guerin signed on again but Petr Sykora is gone, as well as his production and leadership. He was a sniper and even at his age, he knows how to shoot. This team didn't fall apart by any standards, but they've peaked and they know it as well.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Every off season this team gets me going. I always said this team is star-studded but the chemistry just falls. Goaltending has always been an issue here, but the supporting cast of Lecavalier, Tanguay, St Louis, Stamkos and now Victor Hedman make this team highly volatile and dangerous at least on paper. I have to say this is the end of the bottom-feeding for them. I see them in the post-season and I see them there strong. Disagree with me if you must, but can you imagine if this team gets another top-3 pick? I think they've hit rock bottom and are going to crawl up from here on in.
Toronto Maple Leafs
You know I read a prediction earlier today that pegged the leafs at 8th. I just don't see that, Burke knows how to manage a team better than anybody in the NHL. He came in and saw something he didn't like. A team that got pushed around and was lit up too often for his taste. So he did what he thought best; make this team the one that does the pushing. With the additions of Komisarek, Beauchemin and Colton Orr, he did just that. This team is one of the bigger muscle teams in the NHL. Burke relatively ignored offense, which is needed as well. Burke is relying on the fact that rebuilding a team doesn't take one year and he is right. He fixed the defensive corps so Toronto doesn't get manhandled this year, soon it will be time for offense. Just not yet.
Alexander Ovechkin. Period. The most clucth player in the NHL today, and apparently made of steel as well. We know offense isn't exactly a red flag, but how do defense and goaltending stack up here? You have the emerging Semyon Varlamov, who is giving every announcer a run for his money, up and coming and looking to plant his feet in Washington. Then you have Jose Theodore, the one Vezina winning goaltender looking to remake his image and credibility in the NHL. Both have something to prove and want to establish themselves (in Theodores case, once again) so you can assume that Goaltending will only rarely breakdown on this team. Besides, with Ovechkin putting up over 50 goals how many saves does a goaltender need to put up?
And finally, dear readers my absolutely 0 guarantee at how the regular season will end.
1 Washington Capitals
2 Boston Bruins
3 Pittsburgh Penguins
4 Tampa Bay Lightning
5 New York Rangers
6 Philadelphia Flyers
7 Montreal Canadiens
8 Ottawa Senators or Carolina Hurricanes (to close to call)
Hope you enjoyed the read, I'm sure some of you have a thing or two to say to me about the above critique, so feel free to use the comments and I'll be sure to reply.
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