I've recently read a few articles discussing who's going to make the playoffs this year and I felt like throwing in my two cents. So here we go, lets start with the East. (RECENTLY EDITED)
1. Philadelphia Flyers
Man I wanted to be different and pick the Flyers to win the East, and now I can thanks to Pittsburgh early season injury woes. The Flyers return nearly unscathed from the off-season, losing R.J. Umberger and Jason Smith. Though Umberger was terrific in the playoffs, his departure shouldn't hurt that much assuming Simon Gagne can stay healthy. The loss of Smith, however, hurts. Jason Smith is one of those players who brings so much more than stats. He is a terrific leader and incredibly sound in his own zone (he was number two in blocked shots). With that said, Philadelphia isn't helpless on defence with players like Braydon Coburn continuing to develop. Martin Biron proved to be a legitimate number one last year and Mike Richards is one of the true emerging two way stars in the league and deserves all the praise Flyer fans bestow upon him. Jeff Carter should continue to develop into a very solid player. Assuming the Flyers aren't bitten by the injury bug again this year, they will compete for the conference lead.
2. Montreal Canadiens
Sticking with the general consensus here. The Habs finished first last season and added on to a very gifted core. Alex Tanguay should rebound from a mediocre season playing along side Saku Koivu. Calgary's defensive minded scheme stifled the playmaker's production, but Tanguay is in a contract year and entering his prime so 70 points isn't out of reach. Robert Lang adds depth to the Habs center position and will most likely get some time on the Power Play. Georges Laraque's presence will free up the rest of the players and gives coach Guy Carbonneau a plethora of choices for the 4th line. A solid defense led by All-Star Andrei Markov and Mike Komisarek (who was amongst the league leaders in both hits and blocked shots) is solid and should be pushed by the emerging talent in Hamilton. Carey Price is leaner and rested and should rebound from a meltdown in last year's playoffs. Jaroslav Halak should continue to develop and push Price for ice time. All in all, Montreal will roll four lines that can score, sport one of the most promising tandems in goal, and has a very reliable defense (though unspectacular) that will be at least in the top half of the league.
3. Washington Capitals
Wow my picks are predictable right now. Seriously though who really thinks the Caps don't win the Southeast? Carolina seemed average last year and just lost two of their best players (Erik Cole to trade and Williams to injury). Tampa's glaring need was defence and goaltending. To address this, they went out and signed Olaf Kolzig who had the worst save percentage of any starting goaltender, traded away three roster defensemen (Dan Boyle, Alexandre Picard, Filip Kuba) for 2 (Andrej Meszaros and Matt Carle), and signed 78 forwards. Florida couldn't score and traded away one of their best forwards (though they have a good defence) and Atlanta... well, just wow Atlanta. Could you imagine them without Ilya Kovalchuck? Yikes. The combination of the weak Southeast along with the continued emergence of Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green supporting Alex Ovechkin, who has officially reached Superstar status, cement the Caps as the favorite.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
I had Pitt 1st, but the recent injuries to Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar for AT LEAST 4 months has caused me to slide them down. My reasoning for picking Pittsburgh here is based on the fact that they nearly ended in first last season and that was with considerable injuries to Sidney Crosby and Marc Andre Fleury. Luckily for the Pens, Evgeni Malkin and Ty Conklin stepped up in their absence. I didn't see the Penguins having such bad luck with injuries this year, but I was wrong. As a result, the chances of them staying atop the conference plummets. The Pens are as deep down the middle as any team in the league with Crosby, Malkin, and Jordan Staal. The losses of personnel such as Ryan Malone and Jarko Ruutu hurt, but Miroslav Satan and Ruslav Fedotenko should fill the void well enough that the offense doesn't take a major step back.
5. New York Rangers
This one is kind of a toss up for me. The Rangers didn't really click last year like I thought they would, but they have too much talent to not make the playoffs. The departure of Jaromir Jagr opens the way for Chris Drury and Scott Gomez to take over this team, and that's a plus. Brankdon Dubinsky came out of nowhere to add some nice depth to the Rangers Center position and Henrik Lundqvist is one of the premier goalies in the league. I'm curious to see how the new additions playout. The additions of Markus Naslund and Wade Redden are up in the air (though barring spectacular season both were overpaid), while I think Nikolai Zherdev and Dmitiri Kalinin are good pickups. Assuming the defence doesn't play horribly, the Rangers should be a tough team to play against.
6. New Jersey Devils
Not much to say on this one. Every year people say the Devils don't have enough talent, won't score enough goals, that Marty will finally start to decline... and every year the Devils make the playoffs. The addition of Brian Rolston will help an anemic offense while the addition of Bobby Holik... actually the addition of Holik doesn't really change anything. All changes aside, the New Jersey defensive system has always been effective, if not entertaining. There is no reason to doubt it now.
7. Boston Bruins
I got Boston moving up a spot from last season. A good young core, with standouts like Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic, and David Krejci will develop nicely while Claude Julien's defense first style will keep Boston in most games. The real question is will the return of Patrice Bergeron and the arrival of Michael Ryder give the Bruins an addtional 20-30 goals? Considering Boston was the only playoff team last year with less GF then GA, the season could largely depend on it. The goaltending is another serious issue. Can Tim Thomas continue to play well enough to keep them competitive? Probably. If not, does Manny Fernandez actually regain his form? Probably not. The wild card here is whether the Bruins think Tuukka Rask is ready. If so, it should be an interesting year in Beantown.
8. Ottawa Senators
Ok, the only reason I have Ottawa in the final spot is cause I'm really 50/50 on them. In reality I think if the Sens make the playoffs, it will be in the top 4 of the East; however, if they miss the playoffs, they'll be 10th or 11th. Im not sure if there is a team in the league with bigger questions than Ottawa. Which was the real team, the one that dominated the first half or the one that experienced a catastrophic second half slide before being swept by the Pens in the first round? Can Martin Gerber play a whole season as the undisputed number one? Was emery really the main cause of the lack of unity and chemistry? Well I don't know these things, but what I do know is that the Sens have 3 premier players in Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfreddson, good role support in players like Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette, and one of the leagues most underrated defenses with Anton Volchenkov (number three in blocked shots), Jason Smith (number two in blocked shots), Christoph Schubert, Chris Phillips, and Filip Kuba.
Possible Prediction Buster: Buffalo Sabres
Alright, pretty boring picking the same teams from last year, but I don't see many teams making a strong push to unseat anybody. The Islanders, Thrashers, Panthers, and Leafs have almost no shot while Tampa and Carolina have an outside shot. If Ottawa proves the slide wasn't an anomaly or Boston can't get their goals up, the Sabres take the final spot.
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