The final week of September is arguably the most intriguing week in North American sports. College football begins it's conference schedule, the NFL standings begin to take shape, the pennant races in baseball couldn't be hotter, and the start of the NHL season is mere hours away.
The Penguins return to the ice this season looking to make it out of the Eastern Conference for a third straight year, the Bruins begin with a gaping hole on their first line where Phil Kessel used to be, and the Capitals, maybe the most talented group of skaters in the East, still don't know who their starting goaltender is.
With that said, the Eastern Conference looks wide open heading into the 2009-10 season. Let's look at how it could shape up:
*Denotes division winner
*1. Pittsburgh Penguins - The easy pick. Despite losing defensemen Rob Scuderi, the hero of game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, and veteran Hal Gill, the Penguins are top to bottom the most well-rounded team in the East, and maybe the league. Crosby, Malkin & co. will avoid the dreaded Cup hangover, at least long enough to have a strong regular season. Look for the power play to make drastic improvements from the unit that was 20th in the league last season, assuming power play quarterback Sergei Gonchar stays healthy. Young defensemen Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski will make tremendous strides to make the Pens' blueline corps as effective as their marquee centers.
*2. Washington Capitals - Does the world's most dynamic player finally have enough help to take the Caps to the finals? The additions of Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison, as well as the quiet resurgence of Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom would lead one to believe so. Throw in Norris Trophy candidate Mike Green, who showed up to Canadian Olympic Camp in great shape after a terrible postseason showing against the Rangers and Penguins, and you've got a group of budding stars that will make divisional opponents cringe in warmups.
Despite having a dominant group of skaters, there are many questions between the pipes. Coach Bruce Boudreau hasn't tipped his hand as to who will be the starting goaltender, but has hinted that last season's playoff savior, Seymon Varlamov, may start the season in Hershey with the team's AHL affiliate.
*3. Boston Bruins - Last year's regular season conference champions made the last big splash of the offseason, trading Phil Kessel to Toronto. The cap-strapped Bruins were forced to trade the restricted free-agent forward to the Maple Leafs, leaving them with a gaping hole among their top six forwards. Though the trade will most likely benefit the Bruins over the long haul, their window of opportunity may be closing before the draft picks they received blossom into impact players.
Marco Sturm will be called on to alleviate some of the scoring woes they'll surely face without Kessel's 36 goals from a season ago. If Patrice Bergeron can manage to keep himself in the lineup, the trade won't hurt them too badly, but that's a big if. Also, keep in mind that Marc Savard, who wasn't invited to the Canadian Olympic Camp over the summer will most likely be playing with something to prove as well. Don't count them out of the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes, which could drastically change the landscape of the conference.
Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas returns between the pipes for the Bs, but will face a more strenuous workload over the Olympic break as the probable starter for the Americans.
4. Philadelphia Flyers - With the addition of veteran defenseman Chris Pronger, it seems as though the Flyers are attempting to return to the days of the Broad Street Bullies. Pronger, who has led teams on long playoff runs in Edmonton and Anaheim brings the bite to go along with Scott Hartnell's bark. Jeff Carter will try to build on a breakout season where he found the net 46 times, good for second in the NHL, while at the same time forgetting about a dismal playoff effort in which he missed several open net opportunities. Young forwards Claude Giroux and James vanRiemsdyk, the second overall pick in the 2007 draft, could both have strong rookie seasons, which would give the Flyers a ton of secondary scoring.
GM Paul Holmgren has taken a great risk in net by signing Ray Emery. If he regains the form he had in Ottawa in 2006-07, when he took them to the Cup finals, Holmgren will look like a genius. But if Emery becomes the cancer that got him exiled from the NHL in 2008, it may cost Holmgren his job.
Assuming Emery can keep it together in what seems to be his last shot in the NHL, look for the Flyers to go places in 2009-10.
5. Montreal Canadiens - GM Bob Gainey has completely overhauled Les Habitants heading into 2009. While dealing with the departures of Mike Komisarek, Saku Koivu, Alexei Kovalev, Chris Higgins, Gainey and the Habs welcome in Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Travis Moen, Paul Mara and Jaroslav Spacek. It remains to be seen if Gionta and Gomez can jell again like they did in New Jersey a few years ago, because neither was very good without the other after Gomez left for New York. The Kostitsyn brothers, who are almost the only remaining players from last season's squad, will also need to take on leadership roles. Regardless, this team looks like a first-round exit waiting to happen.
6. Carolina Hurricanes - The Hurricanes enter the 2009-10 season with as few changes as one could imagine to a core of players only three years removed from the Stanley Cup. Cam Ward, perhaps the best playoff goaltender in the NHL, returns after a strong campaign besting Martin Brodeur and Tim Thomas in consecutive playoff rounds. GM Jim Rutherford has done an outstanding job of managing a team at a mid-level market on its' best day, making sure it survives and stays in the hunt. He's done it by surrounding his stars with tough, gritty players that will do anything to outwork the opponent such as Matt Cullen, Scott Walker and Ray Whitney, who at 37, refuses to show his age on the ice.
7. New York Rangers - Wow, speaking of first-round exits. The Rangers enter the season with nearly as many new faces as returning ones to a starting lineup that blew a 3-1 series lead in the first round against Washington last season. Gone are the likes of Zherdev, Gomez, Betts, Naslund, Sjostrom, Mara and Korpikopski. Fans are buzzing about the addition of Marian Gaborik, who if healthy could challenge for the scoring title. But chances are he will be watching at least a few games from a Madison Square Garden suite by December.
Head coach John Tortorella will have a full year to implement his run-and-gun style of play that will expose Henrik Lundqvist to a significant amount of odd-man rushes, making him even more important to the team's success than he has been in the past. However, with the Olympics looming, and Lundqvist's eagerness to defend Sweden's gold-medal run from 2006, one wonders if he will have a better time handling the extended workload than he did four years ago, when the Rangers were swept in the first round by New Jersey.
Either way, it seems as though this squad is a top-six forward away from being a serious contender.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs - Bold prediction alert: The Maple Leafs will make the playoffs. Brian Burke doesn't know the meaning of the word "rebuild." He'd prefer "retool." Rather than blow up one Canada's national treasures and continue to bottom-dwell for the better part of the next decade, Burke is going for it now. The addition of Phil Kessel gives this team the added scoring touch they needed to sneak up on teams, when he comes back in November from offseason shoulder surgery. Burke has already left his signature mark on the penalty box, with the additions of Colton Orr, Garnet Exelby, Wayne Primeau and Mike Komisarek. A staple of his teams going back to his Anaheim days, Burke's Leafs will contest the Flyers for the title of the "Beast of the East." With the signing of Francois Beachemin and last year's fifth-overall selection Luke Schenn coming into his own, the Leafs have a very formidable blue line that should make an average netminder, Vesa Toskala, have a career year.
They'll be in the hunt, but look for Burke to go out at the deadline and get some more scoring help to push this team into the playoffs and get Canada crazy about the Leafs for the first time in years.
9. New Jersey Devils - The Devils, who at the start of each of the past two to three seasons didn't look all that impressive on paper, found ways to win games. Surely, it's easier than it seems when you've got one of the best goaltenders in history manning the pipes. But this year, the Devils parted ways with two key components from their previous playoff-bound squads: John Madden and Brian Gionta. Patrik Elias will also miss time beginning the season, trying to finally correct a groin problem that has plagued him since the lockout. For this team to crack the top eight, Zach Parise needs to find scoring help from the likes of Travis Zajac, Brian Rolston and even rookie Patrice Cormier. It just doesn't seem feasable. The Devils' consecutive playoff berth streak will end at 12.
10. Ottawa Senators - Poor Bryan Murray. The Senators' general manager was abused all summer by diva winger Dany Heatley, who demanded a trade to a select few teams. With a trade in place that would send Heatley to Edmonton and make the Senators a better team in the mean time, Heatley declined to waive his no-trade clause to be sent to what's become the NHL's Siberia. He regrouped, and finally sent his star player to San Jose, getting Jonathan Cheechoo, who's coming off a pretty significant sophomore slump, and Milan Michalek. Murray also managed to sign Alexei Kovalev, after he was shown the door by Montreal, and Pascal LeClaire to sure up the team's question marks in net. LeClaire is the key to this team, who's been without a true number one goaltender since Ray Emery in 2007. If he can regain the form he found in Columbus, the Senators will be in the playoff hunt until the very end, but will finish on the outside looking in.
11. Buffalo Sabres - Another year, another pair of Sabres' mainstays leaving Buffalo. This time, it was Maxim Afinogenov and Ales Kotalik. Granted, GM Darcy Regier brought back Mike Grier for a second tour of duty in Buffalo, but it seems as though the clock is ticking for the core group of Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford. This is a team headed in the wrong direction, and just three years removed from being the class of the Eastern Conference.
Come February, it'll be interesting to see if Ryan Miller can wrestle the starting job away from Tim Thomas for the US Olympic team. Sadly, that's the most intriguing storyline surrounding this team heading into the season.
12. New York Islanders - The savior has arrived on Long Island. John Tavares fever will be in full swing on Opening Night. Islanders' fans are eager to find out if he will have a Crosby-like impact immediately, or a lackluster begin to a career that Steven Stamkos had in Tampa Bay last season. Scott Gordon begins his second year as the Isles' bench boss as their youth movement will finally start to materialize into a formidable opponent. It seems as though Kyle Okposo will only miss a minimal amount of time despite leaving a preseason game on a stretcher after feeling the wrath of Flames' defenseman Dion Phaneuf. Snow made some interesting moves to ensure he will have a decent contingency plan should Rick DiPietro's health fail him again. Martin Biron and Dwayne Rolosson give the Islanders three legitimate number one keepers. Assuming the Isles are out of it in March, look for one, if not two, of them to be on the move, for even more draft picks in the upcoming 2010 Entry Draft.
13. Tampa Bay Lightning - Now that it seems as though captain Vincent Lecavalier will finish his career in Tampa, the Bolts can look forward to climbing back into contention for a playoff spot, but not just yet. Second-overall pick Victor Hedman and free-agent acquisiton Mattias Ohlund headline a sub-par defensive group that will be playing in front of streaky Mike Smith in goal, who's one of the team's fiercest competitors. The forwards, in addition to Lecavalier, are led by an aging Martin St. Louis, and Stamkos, who will be looking for a breakout season in his sophomore campaign. Coach Rick Tocchet is excited about his squad for 2009, but there's a good chance he's the only one.
14. Florida Panthers - The Panthers went all-in last year, deciding not to trade puck-moving defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, and got burned. They finished with the best seat in the house for watching the playoffs, at ninth in the East. You can't blame them for trying to rejuvenate a fan base that has been dead since the days of John Vanbiesbrouck. The Sunrise Express, comprised of Nathan Horton, budding star David Booth and Stephen Weiss give the Panthers one of the top scoring units in the league, but other than that trio, there's nothing to get excited about. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun seems lost at times, and previous Devils' backup Scott Clemmensen will challenge for starts for the Cats.
15. Atlanta Thrashers - What to do with Ilya Kovalchuk? Don't ask general manager Don Waddell, he has no idea. Though he's been trying to sign Kovalchuk to a long-term extension since last season, he holds the key to the 2009 playoff race. If dealt to a team in the bottom half of the playoff standings, look for them to upset one of the top four teams in the first round, and even make a deep playoff run. But the future of the Thrashers is certainly looking up, if Kovalchuk decides to stay. His supporting cast of Bryan Little, who scored the quietest 30 goals in the NHL last season, and Evander Kane, this year's fourth-overall pick could become the top line in the Eastern Conference in two years. Defenseman Zach Bogosian will be looking to build off a solid rookie campaign. Waddell also just signed speedy forward Maxim Afinogenov, Kovalchuk's fellow countryman, to a one-year contract. This team has promise to climb out of the cellar, but they'll certainly spend at least one more year there before they make any progress.
Playoffs: Philadelphia defeats Pittsburgh in Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2.