National Hockey League (NHL): An Eastern Conference Mid-Season Assessment

Ed CmarCorrespondent IJanuary 24, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 01:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks to pass against the Washington Capitals during the 2011 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic at Heinz Field on January 1, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Washington won 3-1. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Early in the season, I provided my predictions as to how I believed the Eastern Conference would pan out.  While I fared pretty well in my mid-season assessment of the Western Conference predictions, I learned two things in assessing how I did in previewing the Eastern Conference:

- I should stick to covering the Western Conference, and

- I really needed to assess the impact of the Kovalchuck signing as to its fit with the Devils' style of play and salary cap implications.  Then again, who really saw that coming?  It apparently wasn't Louie Lamoriello, either.

In a manner similar to assessing my Western Conference Predictions, I will provide a brief synopsis of what I predicted for the respective Eastern Conference team, how they are currently faring, and what the rest of the season may or may not hold for the team.

With that, here are my assessments.

The Ins

Washington Capitals

Prediction:  With superstar sniper Alexander Ovechkin, a young collection of offensive weapons and defensemen, and a solid tandem of young goalies in Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, the Capitals seem primed for the President's Trophy and a potential Stanley Cup run.  The primary concerns are whether they will disappoint, as in seasons past, come playoff time. 

Current State:  This has been both a disappointment and a mystery—while the Caps are solidly in the fifth position in the Eastern Conference standings, much more was expected of them, particularly on the offensive end.  Perhaps the greatest mystery in the entire NHL is Ovechkin's inability to score goals this season.  Ovechkin is projected to finish with easily his fewest goals in his career. 

Future State:  While the commitment to the defensive side of the game is far improved, their offensive struggles may hinder even such a marked defensive and goaltending improvement.   

New Jersey Devils

Prediction: The Devils are similar to the Capitals in one respect: while more of an experienced team, they are also a team who recognizes regular season success but early-round failure.  So the concerns were once again with the post-season. 

Current State:  Quite possibly the NHL's biggest story but for all the wrong reasons.  The Devils possess the NHL's worst record at 14-29-3, prompting the firing of John MacLean and bringing back old coaching hand and Lou Lamoriello confidant Jacques Lemaire to coach the remainder of the season.  $100 million man Ilya Kovalchuck has been a major disappointment, but signs—the Devils' inability for a playoff push or meshing a sniper like Kovalchuck into a defense-oriented team should have been a sign of potential trouble. 

Future State:  Basically just counting the days until the NHL Entry Draft, although, with the salary cap mess the Kovalchuck contract made, signing their number one draft pick might be an issue.   

Boston Bruins

Prediction:  The Bruins made some changes to their overall team—drafting Tyler Seguin with the No. 2 overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft and acquiring Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell via trade from Florida.  There were also questions as to who the No. 1 netminder would be, Tuukka Rask or Tim Thomas, after Rask unseated Thomas during the later part of last season.  But the prevailing question was whether the Bruins could recover from blowing a 3-0 lead in their Stanley Cup playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers, this past spring. 

Current State:  The Bruins are solidly in the third overall position in the Eastern Conference standings and Thomas has returned to his Vezina trophy winning form of two seasons ago. 

Future State:  The Bruins appear headed towards another playoff appearance and a solid seeding.  Their Stanley Cup aspirations depend upon who the Bruins are seeded against.

Buffalo Sabres

Prediction:  The Sabres prospects appeared bright with their post-season trophy tandem of Ryan Miller0Vezina Trophy—and Tyler Myers—Calder Trophy.  The primary issue was their ability to score more goals, thus lessening the pressure to win squarely on the shoulders of Miller. 

Current State:  The Sabres started out the season horribly to the extent of rumors of Lindy Rupp's job being in jeopardy.  However, the Sabres have steadily been improving and have climbed above the .500 mark, recently.  While Miller has not quite returned to last season's form, it's Myers' sophomore season struggles (five Goals, eights Assists and a -18 +/- rating) that has Sabres' fans primarily concerned. 

Future State:  The Sabres need to continue to progress in order to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, as they currently occupy the 10th spot in the Eastern Conference standings.  Goal scoring—the inability to—remains the primary issue to realizing the team's potential. 

Pittsburgh Penguins

Prediction: While last season's performance was a major disappointment for Penguins, its corps of premier centers in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, along with Ray Shero's deft off-season acquisitions of Paul Martin and Zbynek Milchalek to offset the departure of Sergei Gonchar, the Penguins appeared primed for a return to their previous elite status.  The key to their championship fortunes, however, lie with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and whether he can return to his Stanley Cup winning form of two seasons ago. 

Current State:  The Penguins also struggled out of the gate but recovered in an epic fashion, winning 12 consecutive games and going on a 14-0-1 tear.  Their biggest concern is the hopeful return to the lineup from Sid Crosby (concussion) as Crosby was playing at a level not seen in many a year. 

Future State:  Their prospects hinge on Crosby's return along with the consistent performance of Fleury, particularly during the playoffs.

Philadelphia Flyers

Prediction:  The Flyers nearly pulled off capturing a Stanley Cup, this from a team who barely qualified for the playoffs.  This balanced team's only prevailing question was whether their goaltending tandem of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher was capable of carrying the Flyers into and well onto playoff glory. 

Current State:  The Flyers have not suffered a Stanley Cup finals letdown and occupy the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings.  But the biggest surprise was the emergence of Sergei Bobrovsky in goal.  Bobrovsky has made an early claim for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie. 

Future State:  The Flyers should be a popular pick to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup finals; however, they will need both the return to health of Chris Pronger from foot surgery and to finally defeat their arch nemesis the Pittsburgh Penguins who have regularly defeated the Flyers in previous playoff encounters. 

Montreal Canadiens

Prediction:  The Habs puzzled the hockey world by trading playoff hero Jaroslav Halak for two St. Louis Blues prospects, thereby handing over the reigns in goal to inconsistent goaltender Carey Price.  Otherwise, the Canadiens' playoff aspirations appeared to be strong, but their playoff hopes would rise and fall on Price. 

Current State:  The Canadiens currently occupy the Eastern Conference's seventh position in the standings.  Price has played much better than expected, but it's their inability to score goals that is cause for concern. 

Future State:  The recent injury to Mike Cammalleri's separated shoulder, depletes an offensively-impaired unit.  The recent acquisition of James Wisniewski was a brilliant move by GM Pierre Gauthier and should bolster the Habs blueline and overall scoring.

The Tweeners

Tampa Bay Lightning

Prediction:  The Lightning's biggest moves in the off-season were made in their front office and behind their bench in hiring Steve Yzerman as team President and by landing coaching's "Next Big Thing" in Guy Boucher.  The primary questions were not whether Boucher's "pedal to the metal" system along with his offensively-prolific stars such as Steve Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Simon Gagne, it was whether their defense and their goaltending was sufficient enough for the Lightning be of playoff caliber. 

Current State:  While the Lightning have not lit the lamp to the extent anticipated, they have been quite a pleasant surprise in occupying the second position in the Eastern Conference standings. 

Future State:  While the Lightning appear to be playoff-bound, questions remain in goal and on defense for the Lightning.  While trading for dependable veteran Dwayne Roloson should help their situation in net, their lack of overall defensive prowess may be a stumbling block, come playoff time.

Ottawa Senators

Prediction:  Coming off of a reasonably successful 2009-10 campaign, the free agent signing of defenseman Sergei Gonchar and having two of the NHL's more prolific forwards in Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, the Sens appeared to be in the overall playoff mix even with questions in the net. 

Current State:  Panic has ensued in Canada's capital city—the Sens are a mess.  Spezza has been injured, Kovalev is unhappy (actually, that's nothing new), LeClaire is injured once again, Elliot has been shaky and the team has greatly underachieved.  Both Sens GM Bryan Murray and Coach Cory Clouston are on the hot seat. 

Future State:  Expect a mass selling spree between now and the NHL trade deadline and don't be surprised if both coach and GM are gone come season's end.

New York Rangers

Prediction:  Once again, the Broadway Blueshirts duo of doom—Glen Sather and James Dolan—made cap obliteration and stupefying spending an art form, and I don't mean that in a positive way.  If Marian Gaborik returned to his pattern of an injury-filled season, it could make for a long season Madison Square Garden. 

Current State:  The Rangers have been a pleasant surprise, currently possessing the seventh position in the Eastern Conference standings.  Although Gaborik did miss the early part of the season with another injury, he has since returned and has provided the Rangers with his usual elite sniping skills. 

Future State:  So long as Gaborik can stay healthy, the Rangers should be in the playoff mix; however, a rash of injuries to key supporting players—Vinny Prospal, Derek Boogaard, Ryan Callahan and the season-ending injury to Alex Frolov—will make the task that much harder.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Prediction:  Leafs' GM Brian Burke has molded his team into a physical, gritty team, a near mirror image of his Anaheim Ducks teams.  While they did bolster their offense by acquiring Kris Versteeg, much more is needed from Kessel and the rest of the offense to make the Leafs a legitimate playoff contender. 

Current State: After a solid start, the Leafs have struggled and are currently in the 12th position in the Eastern Conference.  Their scoring forwards, with the exceptions of Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski, have been disappointing.  The Leafs overall have been outscored by a margin of -25 and their goaltending tandem of JS-Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson have struggled, particularly the much-hyped Gustavsson. 

Future State:  The Leafs fan base have been both disgusted and restless, as calls for head coach Ron Wilson to be fired have been festering for quite a while.  Any hope for a draft phenom to rectify the mess won't be happening, as Toronto traded away their first pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft for the rights to Kessel.

The Outs

New York Islanders

Prediction:  The rebuild of this once proud franchise continues on the island; however, serious shoulder injuries defenseman Mark Streit Kyle Okposo appeared to derail any serious improvement to the teams fortunes.  Adding to the lowered expectations is the continued uncertainly as to whether Rick DiPietro will ever be healthy enough to recoup the 15-year contract investment the Islanders made in him. 

Current State:  Not surprisingly, the Isles have struggled which lead to the firing of Scott Gordon in Mid-November.  As for DiPietro, while he has been healthy for the first time in a long while, he has not displayed the form of seasons past, ranking as one of the worst statistical goalies in the NHL. 

Future State:  Okposo has returned from his shoulder injury, but the Isles' chances for the playoffs are nil.  They have begun to unload veteran players in exchange for draft picks, so the rebuild will continue on.

Carolina Hurricanes

Prediction:  This team in transition now looks to build with young players such as first-round pick Jeff Skinner and Zac Dalpe.  Their hopes will primarily hinge, however, on the health of goalie Cam Ward who suffered through an injury-riddled 2009-2010 campaign. 

Current State:  The 'Canes have mildly surprised, currently occupying the ninth position in the Eastern Conference standings.  Ward has been both healthy and effective in net and Skinner has staked his claim for Calder Trophy consideration.  Staal's return to health and his usual stellar play have also aided the 'Canes playoff prospects. 

Future State:  While the 'Canes have been both mildly surprising and steady, they will have to step up their play in the remaining months in order to return to the playoffs.

Atlanta Thrashers

Prediction:  The team labeled "Blackhawks South" appeared to have finally begun a long overdue process of establishing stability and a direction for the organization by bringing in Rick Dudley from the Blackhawks front office.  The Thrashers are also slowly building a core of young talent with recent drafts of Alex Burmistrov, Niclas Bergfors, Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane. 

Current State:  One of the true surprises in the entire NHL, the Thrashers currently occupy the eighth position in the Eastern Conference standings.  While the infusion of former Blackhawks' players has certainly helped, overall, it was the brilliant decision to move Stanley Cup playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien from forward to defense that has bolstered their aspirations.  Also, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has been an absolute gem in net. 

Future State:  While the Thrashers have struggled, recently, they remain one of the great "feel good" stories in the NHL.  So long as they commit to the future without sacrificing any of their prospects, as they did during the 2006-2007 season, the future does indeed look bright for the Thrashers.

Florida Panthers

Prediction:  Former Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon was brought in to rebuild the Panthers in the way he rebuilt the Chicago Blackhawks.  However, this second attempt at a turnaround will be a much taller order, given the numerous obstacles Tallon inherited.  Their prospects will once again hinge on the play of elite goaltender Tomas Vokoun. Overall, a long season is to be expected in South Beach for the Panthers. 

Current State:  While one of the least entertaining teams to watch in the NHL, the gritty Panthers are still in the playoff mix, with a 21-21-5 mark.  Vokoun once again been as good as ever, but Vokoun receives little, if any, goal-scoring support as their leading goal-scorer is David Booth with only 14 goals scored. 

Future State:  Rumblings of trading Vokoun to a Stanley Cup playoff contender have been circulating, but if the Panthers do entertain a trade offer, it should generate a generous return of NHL-ready talent or high draft picks.


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