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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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 22:  Dennis Wideman #6 of the Washington Capitals is checked by Andrej Meszaros #41 of the Philadelphia Flyers during an NHL hockey game at the Wells Fargo Center on March 22, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Paul Be
    Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

    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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    SUNRISE, FL - APRIL 9: Bill Thomas #37 of the Florida Panthers is congratulated after scoring the game winning goal against the Washington Capitals on April 9, 2011 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Capitals 1-0. (P
    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    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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    OTTAWA, CANADA - APRIL 07:  Colin Greening #52 of the Ottawa Senators chases a loose puck while being pursued by Mathieu Darche #52 of the Montreal Canadiens in a game at Scotiabank Place on April 7, 2011 in Ottawa, Canada.  (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Ge
    Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

    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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    UNIONDALE, NY - APRIL 08:  The New York Islanders watch the shoot out against the Pittsburgh Penguins with their helmets on backwards for good luck at the Nassau Coliseum on April 8, 2011 in Uniondale, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    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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    OTTAWA, CANADA - APRIL 2: Ryan Shannon #26 of the Ottawa Senators skates off the ice as the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate their win at Scotiabank Place on April 2, 2011 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Imag
    Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

    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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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 07:  Rob Schremp #13 of the Atlanta Thrashers celebrates his goal against the New York Rangers during their game on April 7, 2011 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
    Al Bello/Getty Images

    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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    WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 23:  Ruslan Fedotenko #19, Head Coach John Tortorella, Erik Christensen #26 and Vinny Prospal #20 of the New York Rangers appear dejected as they loose to the Washington Capitals 3-1 in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfin
    Len Redkoles/Getty Images

    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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    WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29:  Jeff Skinner #53 of the Carolina Hurricanes celelbrates with the bench after scoring against the Washington Capitalsduring the third period at the Verizon Center on March 29, 2011 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Im
    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    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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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 26:  Tyler Myers #57 of the Buffalo Sabres celebrates his third period goal against the Philadelphia Flyers with teammates Jochen Hecht #55 and Andrej Sekera #44 in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 201
    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    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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    BOSTON, MA - APRIL 27:  Andrei Kostitsyn #46 of the Montreal Canadiens leaves the ice after losing to the Boston Bruins in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden on April 27, 2011 in Boston
    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    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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    NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 10:  Alexander Urbom #22 of the New Jersey Devils celebrates his first NHL goal at 9:10 of the third period against the Boston Bruins at the Prudential Center on April 10, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Bruins 3-2.
    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    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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    BOSTON, MA - MAY 27:  Martin St. Louis #26 talks to Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning upon Stamkos' returned to the game after being hhit in the face with a puck in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins during t
    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    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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    TAMPA, FL - APRIL 25: Jordan Staal #11 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates a goal with teammates against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the St. Pete Times Forum on
    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    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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    BOSTON, MA - MAY 06:  BOSTON, MA - MAY The Philadelphia Flyers try to capture a ball that was tossed on the ice in the third period against the Boston Bruins in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD
    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    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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    VANCOUVER, BC - JUNE 15:  Adam McQuaid #54 of the Boston Bruins celebrates as he lifts the Stanley Cup after defeating the Vancouver Canucks in Game Seven of the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Rogers Arena on June 15, 2011 in Vancouver, British Columbia, C
    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    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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    WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 01:  Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals and the bench celebrate a Capitals goal in the second period against the Tampa Bay Lightning during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Semifinal during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs
    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    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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