NHL 2011-12 Preview: Eastern Conference Standings Predictions

Kyle NicolasContributor IJune 20, 2011

NHL 2011-12 Preview: Eastern Conference Standings Predictions

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    With the Boston Bruins winning the Stanley Cup, teams from around the league have put this season in the past and are looking forward to next year.

    With only a few short months away until the puck drops for a new term, some are already beginning to examine their team's chances at possibly scaling the hockey world and capturing the Stanley Cup.

    It is a little early to give an exact prediction of where teams will finish for next year because of two things: the 2011 NHL draft on June 24th and the NHL's free agency window, which opens on July 1st.

    So while it's hard to know who will be playing for which team come next season, here are my initial predictions as to where each of the 15 Eastern Conference teams will finish next season.

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15. Florida Panthers

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    Between a shaky ownership situation, a limited pocketbook and a host of other off-ice struggles, the Florida Panthers have been extremely lackluster in the Eastern Conference for the better part of the past decade.

    As of right now, things only appear to be getting worse for the club from Sunrise.

    Goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who stole his fair share of games for this team over the past several seasons, will be an unrestricted free agent come July 1, and it's nearly certain that he will be moving to a different club.

    Combine that with the Panthers having one of the worst offensive outputs in the entire East last year and it looks like this team is headed down hard.

    However, on the positive side, they currently hold the third pick in this year's NHL Draft, and could use it to select one of several talented youngsters who could possibly be NHL-ready this fall.

    Additionally, they will be debuting a new, red-themed home jersey that they will be wearing starting at this year's draft.

14. Ottawa Senators

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    The Ottawa Senators found themselves floundering in the East last season and this year don't look like they're going to be much better.

    They're banking heavily on deadline acquisition Craig Anderson to find his stellar game again, as well as another great year from Henrik Karlsson, who is facing the prospect of the dreaded "sophomore slump."

    Combine that with Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza both being about as offensively effective as a particularly sluggish sloth, and the Senators have a lot of big questions to ask during the summer and this upcoming season.

    They've got a lot of work to do if they want to dig themselves out of this hole and not see a few years at the bottom of the East in rebuild mode.

13. New York Islanders

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    I'm not exactly sure why they've got their helmets on backwards in this picture (some enlightenment would be nice, Isles fans...) but I will say this bunch of goofy kids have shown some flashes of potential and possibly some signs of the end of a long and difficult rebuilding road.

    If they can get a solid year from former first-round pick John Tavares, as well as a year in which forward Kyle Okposo can stay healthy, this team does look to be on the upswing.

    Playoff bound? Not yet.

    However, the Islanders may surprise a few teams, and I wouldn't be surprised if they managed to spoil a few nights for some opposition.

    I know that the Pittsburgh Penguins probably aren't looking forward to battling these guys again anytime soon.

12. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Much like the Islanders, the Toronto Maple Leafs are beginning to show signs that perhaps GM Brian Burke's long-term rebuilding plans are beginning to work.

    They made a great surge at the end of last season to come from the bottom of the conference, making a case for a playoff position before ultimately falling short.

    For many fans, this could be the year that the Leafs break out of their slump and make a triumphant return to the playoffs.

    While there still is a very important NHL Draft and free agency still to come, the Maple Leafs don't quite look ready yet. However, they will once again steadily improve and become an even better threat down the line.

11. Winnipeg...Somethings?

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    For all intents and purposes, I believe the NHL is going to keep the relocated Atlanta franchise, whatever it's new name might be, in the East for one more year before realigning the divisions. Thus, they sit here.

    Winnipeg has the potential to play extremely well, with talents like Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom both being in the conversation for the Norris Trophy for some time last season.

    However, they just can't seem to keep their act together for 82 games.

    The bottom line for this year is they need to get their young players to improve, and they need to push the playoff contenders as much as they can all season.

    Yes, ultimately, just like in years past, they will fall just short, but with a new ownership dedicated to winning, a freshly revived fanbase and a completely new start, it won't be long before this team is competing hard and winning a lot of games.

10. New York Rangers

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    Unless the New York Rangers can do some significant work on both the draft floor and in free agency, they're in some serious danger of a very disappointing year.

    Even though they hung on to finish eighth in last year's standings, they didn't show much resolve in the playoffs and were quickly disposed of by Washington, a team that New York had initially won the season series with.

    Once again they will be relying on Henrik Lundqvist to hold them up defensively and will be hoping to get some offenseive production from their big guns at forward.

    They've got a lot of work to do come free agency, however, they are showing some signs of recognizing this, as rumors say that the Rangers are looking into buying out the rest of his contract.

9. Carolina Hurricanes

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    They put up a heroic fight for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East last season, but the Carolina Hurricanes are not necessarily bound to return to the big dance next spring.

    The bottom line for this franchise is they're banking far too much of their success on the play of Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner. While these players are both no doubt amazing, Cam Ward was many times the only reason this team was even competitive during games.

    They do have some budding potential, and the team showed some chemistry last season; but they will need to do some work this offseason if they want to have a chance of cracking back into that top-eight.

    This is particularly magnified with the potential of Tuuomo Ruutu signing elsewhere as a free agent.

8. Buffalo Sabres

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    Even with Derek Roy once again healthy, and Ryan Miller looking to regain his Vezina-winning form, it looks as though the Buffalo Sabres will probably still barely scrape their way into the playoffs purely on the basis of how strong their division will be next season.

    Between the Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, and defending-champs Boston Bruins, the Northeast is going to be one extremely unpopular place to go through next year.

    That being said the Sabres will likely find their place in next year's playoffs as long as they stay healthy. They can't afford to lose Derek Roy for another entire year again.

7. Montreal Canadiens

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    Perhaps their exit from this year's playoffs was a little bit too early for the boys from Quebec, who were playing better than their fate.

    But in their defense, they did take the eventual Stanley Cup champions to a Game 7 before losing in overtime.

    With Carey Price showing he was unquestionably the right choice to keep in net, and the Canadiens playing well, they should cruise into next year's playoffs without much trouble.

    But that said, they are facing some pretty big free agency deals with nearly their entire defense sitting as UFA's this summer, including Roman Hamrlik and Andrei Markov.

6. New Jersey Devils

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    After the Devils had one of the worst starts in franchise history, they managed to put together a pretty stellar second half to show that they might have finally figured out an identity, but just a little too late to salvage their season.

    That being said, watch out for them this year.

    Realistically, the Devils only face one problem this offseason, which has proven to be a bit uglier than anticipated, as the Devils have filed for arbitration for their contract negotiations with Zach Parise.

    If the Devils can keep him in the fold, expect them to be dangerous again next year. It looks like Ilyia Kovalchuck has also found his stride in this lineup, and Martin Broduer is going to want to bounce back from a year to forget.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    The Lightning's new tagline, "All in," is very appropriate for this team, who absolutely threw it all in last year on their way to an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.

    They are bound for an interesting offseason this year, however, with players like Steven Stamkos, Sean Bergenheim and Teddy Purcell all becoming free agents this July.

    With Steve Yzerman as GM, Lightning fans can be sure that this team, which will be dawning new sweaters to start next season, will be just as competitive. Still, it'll remain to be seen how they will fair in next year's playoffs.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Despite the chaos of last season which saw their starting goaltender begin the year in a horrible slump, their two top scorers go down with severe, season-ending injuries, and other key components of the lineup miss significant time with injuries of their own, the Pens found a way to put it together and finish fourth in the East.

    And for that, I've got to hand it to them.

    This year's Penguins will be looking to bring back their championship-caliber form that saw them win the Stanley Cup two years ago.

    They will face a bit of a hiccup getting there, though, as the fate of young hot shot Sidney Crosby still isn't fully known (though he is progressing), and Evgeni Malkin will be returning from a pretty bad injury that has kept him out for nearly an entire year.

    General Manager Ray Shero will also have to work some deals this summer, as a huge portion of their team's forwards group is up for contract renewal, or they'll head for the door.

3. Philadelphia Flyers

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    Without question the four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins was not the end the Philadelphia Flyers wanted to their season.

    So why do I think they'll finish better than the Pittsburgh Penguins?

    Defense.

    Assuming the Flyers can stay healthy, they have one of the best defenses in the East on their roster with the likes of Chris Pronger, Andrej Meszaros and Kimmo Timonen all patrolling their blue line.

    Combine that with the Flyers having a good chance of picking up goaltender Ilyia Bryzgalov in the free agency market to solidify their goaltending issue, and this team could be set for a good run this playoffs.

2. Boston Bruins

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    It's hard not to show the most recent Stanley Cup champions some love when predicting next year's finish.

    However, there's a lot about this Bruins team to love to begin with.

    Start with the fact that they really aren't losing much in the way of players this offseason: Michael Ryder, Brad Marchand and Tomas Kaberle are their only significant free agents.

    Add the fact that they're one of, if not the most, physical team in the Eastern Conference, and you've got a Bruins team that might very likely make the Conference Finals yet again next spring.

    Will they repeat? I don't think so. But I think they've got just as good a chance as any of the previous champs have at this point.

1. Washington Capitals

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    They might be the best regular-season team in the NHL, and after three straight seasons of playoff disappointment, you can bet they're going to come back as hungry and as eager to tear apart anyone in their way.

    That being said, I think the Caps will win their third straight Eastern Conference championship, boosted slightly by playing their game in what is without question the weakest division in the East and possibly the entire NHL. Vancouver proved this year: Those points you get from beating up on the lowly teams can go a long way when securing home ice throughout the playoffs.

    However, in my eyes they do need to work on their defense still, which was ultimately their downfall in their four-game exit to Tampa Bay.

    The Capitals do need to figure out what's bringing them down in they playoffs as well and they're running out of time. The fans are impatient, the management knows it and another year's early exit would bring some pretty devastating consequences.

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