Atlantic Division (projected order of finish and records; points)
New Jersey Devils (50-25-7; 107) – After yet another first round playoff exit, the Devils come into 2010 with a new coach, John McLean, and if he’s up to the task, New Jersey should have its’ eyes set on a division title and a deep playoff run. A number of offseason additions should complement their offensive stars, Kovalchuk and Parise, rather nicely, and though the championship window is certainly closing, Brodeur is still as good as they come in net.
Pittsburgh Penguins (49-27-6; 104) – In what was an entirely backwards postseason, Pittsburgh was also an early out, but things should return to form with a better squad in 2010. Their defense has certainly been upgraded, and as always Crosby and Malkin buoy their offense. The Penguins will be entrenched in a three or four team race at the top of the Atlantic Division, but regardless, they undoubtedly possess a threat to return to a third final in last four seasons.
New York Rangers (43-31-8; 94) – A bitter end to a disappointing season left New York just a point shy of reaching the postseason, and though they didn’t overwhelm in the offseason, they certainly have shedded some of the bad and added to their team nicely. Gaborik is a candidate to lead the league in goals, and though they haven’t won much in the past few years, Lundqvist will certainly shoulder the load enough for the Rangers to make the playoffs.
Philadelphia Flyers (40-32-10; 90) – The defending conference champs got to the finals with a lot of scoring, but little goaltending, something that is sure to prevent their return to such places. Carter, Richards and others provide the bulk of the scoring in front a good defense core led by Pronger, but little additions made in the offseason and their achilles’ heel in goal revert the Flyers to their status as a bubble playoff team rather than a sure thing.
New York Islanders (32-42-8; 72) – There won’t be any playoffs for the Isles this year, especially in such a loaded division, and it may even be difficult to build off of their 79-point effort last year with injuries to key players before the season even starts. New York is well under the cap, and could afford to make a few additions to improve this perennial cellar-dweller. Inconsistency in goal could also be a problem, as seen by the third-most goals allowed last year.
Northeast Division (projected order of finish and records; points)
Buffalo Sabres (45-30-7; 97) – For as many times people didn’t believe in Buffalo last season, they persevered, winning the Northeast, but were another victim to early playoff exit. They lose a lot on defense, but Ryan Miller has grown to become an elite goalie. They have only won two playoff games in the last three seasons, but a pack of mediocre teams below them in this division will not make it very difficult for Buffalo to repeat as champs of this group.
Boston Bruins (42-32-8; 92) – The Bruins are a playoff team with larger aspirations than blowing a 3-0 lead in the conference seminfinals, but it looks as if Boston’s chances may be on the decline rather than on the rise. They may not have Savard for an extended period of time, but their defense and goaltending have clearly made them into the contender that they have been recently. They’ll get into the playoffs again, but don’t expect any sort of notable run this year.
Montreal Canadiens (41-32-9; 91) – A healthy Canadiens team is a threat to win the division and make noise in the playoffs, something that they achieved for the first time in a while last year. However, a changing of the guard in net may prove to be catastrophic for the Habs, and even though their star forwards had good years, the hurdle that is Carey Price is too much for even a potent Montreal attack to overcome and return to the conference finals.
Ottawa Senators (38-34-10; 86) – I think that the Senators will be the only team not to return to the Eastern Conference playoffs this season. They played an extremely up and down season, characterized by long winning and losing streaks. Their uncertainty is their goaltending tandem, and even though they have scorers, most are aging, making Ottawa a non-factor and returning them to a status of mediocrity. Even if they reach the playoffs, they will not go far.
Toronto Maple Leafs (31-38-11; 73) – Good defense and goaltending gave the Maple Leafs reasons to be encouraged coming into this season, but only 210 goals gave them a net result of -53 last season. It would be difficult to tighten the blue-liners, led by Phaneuf anymore, so their offensive output must increase. In my opinion, Toronto is a distant fifth in the balanced Northeast, should not have any playoff aspirations, and go back to the drawing board.
Southeast Division (projected order of finish and records; points)
Washington Capitals (55-20-7; 117) – It would be insane if the Capitals had a regular season better than last year’s, but maybe they can project some of that success into playoff prosperity. A grossly disappointing first-round exit was shocking for a team that had and still has the likes of Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, and Green. With an improving young goaltender, it would be impossible for the Caps not to win the conference and possibly the title this season.
Tampa Bay Lightning (38-37-7; 83) – The Southeast takes a substantial step down after Washington, but it looks as if the next best of the quintet is Tampa. They have improved and should top their 80 points from last season. Weak output beyond the top six was a problem for the Lightning as was both shaky defense and goaltending. They have a great young star in Stamkos, and some good veterans to assist with offensive matters, but aren’t good elsewhere.
Carolina Hurricanes (36-38-8; 80) – It’s been a downward trend for Carolina after their magical season just two years ago. A dreadful start last year left them well shy of postseason contention, and their roster doesn’t look nearly as attractive as it did just twelve months ago. Their scoring punch is average, they are very young, and Cam Ward has become a shell of himself. The ‘Canes fall into the mediocre pack that is the Southeast rather nicely this season.
Atlanta Thrashers (33-39-10; 76) – The Thrashers are improved, especially after the addition of Dustin Byfuglien, but when all is said and done, they will fall about 10-15 points shy of a playoff spot. No more Kovalchuk will take away a ton of goals, and a lot of young talent has to fall into place and mesh in short order for Atlanta to reach its second ever postseason. Another coaching change won’t help matters as this team looks to be stuck in the mud for now.
Florida Panthers (29-43-10; 68) – In like a Panther, but looking more like a lamb this year, Florida may be the worst team in hockey. They don’t have near enough to compete in any facet of the game, with the exception of the solid, but overpaid Tomas Vokoun in goal. A shuffle in the front office has resulted in a number of players moving elsewhere and has left coach Peter DeBoer with a young and inexperienced roster in no position to compete.
Eastern Conference First Team
F - Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh
F - Alexander Ovechkin, Washington
F - Nicklas Backstrom, Washington
D - Mike Green, Washington
D - Chris Pronger, Philadelphia
G - Ryan Miller, Buffalo
Eastern Conference Second Team
F - Alexander Semin, Washington
F - Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey
F - Zach Parise, New Jersey
D - Zdeno Chara, Boston
D - Tyler Myers, Buffalo
G - Martin Brodeur, New Jersey
Eastern Conference Third Team
F - Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh
F - Marian Gaborik, NY Rangers
F - Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay
D - Sergei Gonchar, Ottawa
D - Mark Streit, NY Islanders
G - Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers