NHL Predictions: Preseason Eastern Conference Rankings
We’re now well under two months away from the start of the 2010-2011 NHL season, and with the fizzling out of what was already an excruciatingly boring free agent period marked with blog entries of hockey irrelevance and useless fillers, it has reached that period where predictions for the upcoming season will be a dime-a-dozen.
Despite numerous variances between each ranking system, it has always proven to be one of the best crowd-pleasers out there.
This will be part one of a two-part preseason ranking series, the second obviously being the rankings for the Western Conference, which will be released in the early afternoon tomorrow. During the season, I will provide a weekly ranking system for all the league’s teams based on the previous weekly happenings, so stay tuned for that!
Each ranking is based on my current knowledge of the team as well as their pickups and losses, and personnel changes as well.
As always, there will be many disagreements, but that makes great grounds for conversation, so post your list in the comments and let me know what you would have done differently and for what reason. I’m always open to constructive criticism and new ideas.
Keep in mind, these rankings are based on the team as it stands today, August 23, 2010, and are subject to change based on any additional transactions.
So, if you have any topics you’d like covered, no matter the team or the subject matter, send me a message and let me know, and I’ll gladly consider your idea.
So, without further ado, here are the Rankings for the Eastern Conference—Preseason Edition!
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15. Florida Panthers
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The Florida Panthers marked the turning point in their franchise when they brought GM Dale Tallon aboard to re-vamp a Panther’s team that has notoriously struggled just as much on the ice as they have with their attendance numbers.
While the future may be bright in the sunshine state, for the time being, they are in the most critical stages of rebuilding, which, a lot of the time, means shipping out some of your best players. For the Panthers, it meant sending away Nathan Horton, Gregory Campbell, and Keith Ballard, which is just one step in the long rebuilding process.
Although they lost key pieces to their limited success, they had three picks in the first round of this year’s draft, which undoubtedly means they are headed in the right direction. But all that secures for right now is a long season with a high total in the loss column.
14. New York Islanders
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You can bet the Isles and their fans would love to return to the days of Trottier, Bossy, and Nystrom, and at least get a sniff at a Stanley Cup. For in the past few years, the Islanders have seldom gotten a sniff at an eighth seed playoff spot.
However, like the Panthers, the Isles are loaded with young talent that will eventually lead the franchise back to glory. Young guns like John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo, and Matt, Moulson will, without a doubt, continue to develop and help the organization to continue moving forward.
But when your starting goaltender who you signed for 15 years has played only 13 games over the past two seasons, it makes it hard to compete game in and game out.
The Isles are on the rise back to greatness, but this season, there are still too many question marks throughout their roster and depth chart to lift them back to the coveted glory days on Long Island.
13. Toronto Maple Leafs
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Simply put, Colby Armstrong and Kris Versteeg aren’t enough to refuel a group of top-six forwards that contain only three or four real top six players.
After Phil Kessel, there really isn’t anything more than a couple of 20-goal scorers up front. However, look for Tyler Bozak to contribute pretty regularly for the Leafs offense, and for them to maybe acquire one more top-six forward via trade for Tomas Kaberle. Also, look for a sleeper in Jerry D’Amigo to get a shot with the big club, as he has shown significant improvement over the past year or so.
They do, however have a strong defensive corps, headed by Captain Dion Phaneuf. With Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, and Luke Schenn behind him, the Leafs defense looks to be ready to rumble starting the season. Plus, if they fail to move Kaberle, he will also be a piece of that defensive unit, one that could challenge for one of the best in the league.
While the Leafs may not be cellar dwellers like they were the previous year, don’t expect them to be challenging any of the powers in the East for a playoff spot just yet. Give Brian Burke a few more years to get this team back to being an annual contender, but for now, expect the Bs to get another top-10 pick, courtesy of the Leafs.
12. New York Rangers
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There are two words that can be used when trying to describe the New York Rangers over the past three years: underachieving and overpaid.
Glen Sather has been the root of the Rangers problems, being famous for signings like Wade Redden’s deal worth upwards of $6 million annually. However, the on-ice performances of once-reliable, consistent players such as Chris Drury have been the epitome of the club in recent years.
The lone bright spot for the organization at this point is Henrik Lundqvist, because anyone who thinks Marian Gaborik will come close to making it through another season untouched by the injury bug may be in for a rude awakening.
While they did add Alexander Frolov and missed the playoffs last year by only a shootout goal, don’t expect much contention from the Rangers, for they always find a way to fall off the map when the going gets tough.
11. Atlanta Thrashers
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The Thrashers are another organization that are on the rise, especially now that they have Rick Dudley at the reigns. Already in his short tenure, he has made acquisitions such as Dustin Byfuglien, Chris Mason, and Brent Sopel.
However, they have also lost a few pieces that played a large part in their consistent rise in the past two years, losing Pavel Kubina and Maxim Afinogenov. Hopefully for them, Zach Bagosian can return to his freshman form and pick up some of the slack from the blueline, which could really push this team over the top.
Also, look for continued improvement and success from young talent Evander Kane, which could give them a much needed boost. And let's not forget about Nick Antropov and Rich Peverly, who proved to be consistent threats for the Thrash.
At the end of the day, it will be tough for Atlanta to surpass the teams in front of them, but if they add a couple more significant players before or during the season, it could greatly affect their current rank.
10. Carolina Hurricanes
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While they found a way to turn around their starting line struggles last season, the Hurricanes don’t seem to have the firepower to put them into playoff contention.
There haven’t been many notable moves coming out of Raleigh, except for the departure of the “Wizard” Ray Whitney, as he signed a new deal in the desert with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Lucky for them, they have Cam Ward to backstop the team, for he is, as many goaltenders are, the rock of the 'Canes. And being one of the league's best tenders, that's a good sign for the Hurricanes.
The bottom line: the 'Canes are going to need more than a 20-goal campaign from Eric Staal if they are looking to even come close to competing past the regular season, and he doesn’t pick up his offensive game like he’s been known for, so it’ll be a long season in Raleigh.
9. Montreal Canadiens
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Goaltending is going to be a big concern for the Habs and their fans this year, with or without Carey Price. Price has yet to show he is of starting goaltending quality, and the pressure is on him alone now, as the Canadiens shipped out Jaroslav Halak early in the offseason to the St. Louis Blues for a promising prospect in Lars Eller.
Yes, they made it to the Eastern Conference finals, but let’s not forget that they rode the hot play of Halak all the way there, and with him gone a repeat will prove to be difficult.
Montreal has seemed to be one of the teams that has actually gotten worse over the course of the offseason and will likely not be as high in the standings given the moves made thus far.
If the Canadiens look to move up a spot into a post season berth, they must get more production from guys like Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, and continued help from Mike Camallerri, who was a bright spot for them last year.
8. Ottawa Senators
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The Ottawa Senators replaced one of the best defenseman on the defensive side of the puck with one of the best offensive powerplay quarterbacks in the game today, Sergei Gonchar. Not a bad trade-off in anyone’s book, though they are completely different players.
It will hopefully boost their 21st ranked powerplay with Gonchar, alongside youngster Karlsson on the point.
Yet, there are still numerous question marks for the Sens, with inconsistent goaltending and an aging captain, look for them to finish just outside a playoff spot. If Spezza can return to form and avoid injury, they could definitely steal a spot in the postseason.
However, without a lengthy win streak last season, Ottawa would have been nowhere near the spot they had finished in, based on their ups and downs before and after that streak. Still, look for the Sens to compete and be knocking on the door for a chance to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
7. Tampa Bay Lightning
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This is a dangerous pick, considering last year there were high expectations for this club and they never seemed to find that chemistry you need to be a powerhouse in the NHL. And on top of that, new GM Steve Yzerman really seems to have this club headed in the right direction on and off the ice, making numerous pick-ups for the betterment of the club as a whole.
Well, this year, they look even better on paper, and that’s why we’re betting on them to hit their stride and really gel as a unit this season.
With Lecavalier, St. Louis, Malone, and now Gagne, their offense seems cocked and ready to strike, doing some damage in the East this year.
Barring any unforeseen injuries and internal issues, the Lightning seem primed to make a playoff appearance this season as long as their goaltending can hold up.
6. Buffalo Sabres
As everyone in the hockey world knows the fate of this team will come down to the play of Ryan Miller 99 percent of the time. If he has an off night, the team will likely not win. He is their anchor, and rightfully so (most of us saw what he did for Team USA in the Olympics).
The Sabres never look particularly dangerous on paper but have been a playoff team pretty consistently as of late.
Losing Tony Lydman and Henrik Tallinder are the two main subtractions from last year’s squad but should be replaced for the most part by Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrison. They also added Rob Niedermayer up front, who will help out in the defensive zone as well as chip in offensively from time to time.
With a healthy Thomas Vanek, the Sabres offense should get a nice jump-start, as he was struggling to recover from a high ankle sprain late last year—one of the worst injuries for a hockey player that will greatly affect his lateral movement and will continue to nag.
But, as was stated earlier, the overall success of the Sabres heavily relies on the form of Ryan Miller; if he holds true to his Vezina title, look for the Sabres to make some noise in the East yet again.
5. New Jersey Devils
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This rank will stand with, or without Ilya Kovalchuk, because, quite frankly, the Devils could use that money elsewhere and get a better team-oriented free agent to add to their already dynamic offense. It would also give them a little room to re-sign Zach Parise who is due for a new contract pretty soon, and a Kovalchuk contract could hinder the money they have to offer Parise.
However, I think the Devil’s view Parise as more of an asset than Kovalchuk and will do what it takes to keep him in New Jersey.
They also re-acquired Jason Arnott from the Predators, and if he can keep his head on straight (a poorly constructed pun referring to his concussion history), then he could prove to be a valuable piece of the Devils' offensive prowess.
Either way, they still have Marty Brodeur and Patrick Elias, so the Devils will hold their own as they always do, and they are hungry to get past the first round this time.
4. Philadelphia Flyers
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This may be a little high for the Flyers, seeing as they just snuck into the eighth seed and got by an injured Bruin’s squad to advance, but we feel the Flyers have the grit to still compete.
Despite losing Simon Gagne, who provided the team with a surge of energy upon his return, kick-starting their offense immediately against the Bruins, and Aaron Asham, who just signed in Pittsburgh, the Flyers should be able to hold form.
The one biggest question mark will be Michael Leighton in goal, and if he will be able to put up starting goaltender numbers and give the team a chance to win night in and night out. If he can’t look for the Flyers to go after a goaltender on the market or via trade, Antti Niemi and Tim Thomas immediately come to mind.
Another cause for concern is Chris Pronger’s surgery and his timetable for return. Missing training camp could leave him out of shape, and his absence for the start of the season will be felt on the Flyers' back line.
Still, look for the Flyers to hold their late postseason form, because making it to the Stanley Cup Finals is a fete in itself.
3. Boston Bruins
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After a heartbreaking playoff exit, look for a hungry Bruins team come the start of this season.
The Bs have gone out and addressed their scoring woes and look to be ready to finally make a deep playoff run this season after acquiring scoring winger Nathan Horton from Florida and potential packed Tyler Seguin, who is also expected to crack the lineup this season.
With a healthy Marc Savard, David Krecji, and Dennis Seidenberg, the Bs are looking as good as they have in a long time and should be a beat in the east, barring any more underachieving after a plethora of it last year.
If Tuukka Rask can avoid the dreaded sophomore slump and put up numbers like he did last season, working in tandem with Tim Thomas, then you can pencil the Bs in for a top-four seed in the East, without question.
It’s going to be a fun season for Bruins fans, and I’m not just saying that because I am one.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
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Having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the same team alone qualifies the Penguins for a top spot in the east every year, especially if Malkin can return to form after a somewhat disappointing 2009-2010 campaign.
Although they lost Gonchar, they were able to pickup Zybnek Michalek from Phoenix, who should really make a big impact on the Penguins back-end.
They also added Aaron Asham from the Flyers, who proved to be a great role player for them, and I believe with the right line combination, he could be a regular contributor for the Pens.
Barring any serious injuries to their biggest players and maybe re-signing Bill Guerin, the Penguins are poised, as always, to make yet another playoff appearance.
1. Washington Capitals
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Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green are four reasons the Capitals and their offense will drive them into yet another playoff convincingly. It’s what they’ll do when they get there, however, that is the question mark.
A couple of early playoff exits have plagued the Caps the past three years, so they are hoping for everyone’s sake that they can break that trend this season.
Their one biggest concern is their goaltending, but if it can remain consistent, then their offense will surely be able to take care of the rest.
I mean, after all, they do have Alex the Great—what more could you ask for?