NHL Predictions: Eastern Conference Standings
This past offseason was one of the biggest in NHL history. The number of player transactions was high on the all-time list as general managers across the league went out and tried to improve their respective teams through free agency and trade. Many team's have seen their rosters changed almost entirely.
Most of the top-tier Eastern Conference teams have remodelled their rosters with the goal of making a significant Cup run this season. As a result, the competition at the top is sure to be tough.
When we take a look at a prediction of what next season's conference might look like, there are a lot of surprises—a lot of ups, a lot of downs and a lot of changes. Here is a first look at what the Eastern Conference might look like come closing night in April.
15. New York Islanders
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The reason the Islanders drop to last place is that the team's around them improved, while they didn't. In fact, they took a step back.
The only significant free-agent signing was Marty Reasoner, but he won't be more than a third-line center. The team also acquired Brian Rolston from the New Jersey Devils, but he too is destined for a third-line role.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Isles lost a key player in Doug Weight to retirement. The replacement is likely to be a young prospect, maybe Nino Niederreiter or Casey Cizikas.
It's not that the Islanders didn't try. We all know they did. They traded a 2012 fourth-rounder to Vancouver to get exclusive negotiating rights with Christian Ehrhoff, but he didn't want to sign. Players consider the Islanders the worst team to play for in the league, and it is very difficult to attract free agents.
As mentioned, many of the prospects will be given an opportunity, but they will not be impact players right away. The future is bright, but the present is not.
A fourth straight lottery pick is on the horizon for the Isles.
14. Winnipeg Jets
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The first season in Winnipeg will be a tough one for Jets players and fans alike.
Management failed to make an impact in free agency and that could well come back to haunt them. Several small-money players were signed to patch holes temporarily, but the Jets failed to address their immediate needs. They are hoping that their youngsters will be able to step up and fill holes, but it's unlikely they will as soon as next season.
The difference between the top-tier teams and the bottom-tier teams really hits home when an oft-healthy-scratched player on a contender becomes a first-liner after a trade. Such is the case with Eric Fehr, traded to the Jets for a solid prospect and a solid pick. The 50-goal scorer has never quite broken through at the NHL level and the Caps were keen to trade him. Is he really the player that will unlock Alex Burmistrov's sky-high potential?
Barring midseason trades, this will be a trying season for the Jets. Mark Scheifele was a good pick, but he is no impact player. With a high pick in 2012, the Jets need to pick up a real difference-maker—a goal-machine winger for their Russian playmaking superstar.
13. Toronto Maple Leafs
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While the Toronto Maple Leafs did improve significantly with the free-agency signing of Tim Connolly, they didn't do enough to put themselves into serious consideration for a playoff spot next season.
The Maple Leafs' problem has always been that they give up too many goals, and they didn't do enough in the offseason to build on the current defensive corps of Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn, who isn't even signed yet.
More than any other team in the league, the Maple Leafs need a rebuild. They have the future tools, like Nazem Kadri and Tyler Biggs, but bad and untimely trades have led to their downfall. Where would they be now without the Phil Kessel trade?
Sitting with Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight and Dougie Hamilton.
What Brian Burke needs to do is what the Washington Capitals did five years ago: trade away everything but the bright talents for picks; stock up on 2012 and 2013 picks and build from there; sacrifice a few seasons and become a legitimate title contender in 2015.
12. Ottawa Senators
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You would have a hard time arguing that the Ottawa Senators didn't have one of the very best prospect pools in the NHL. With three 2011 first-rounders, including super-prospect Mika Zibanejad, added to the likes of David Rundblad and Jared Cowen, the future is bright.
For now, though, the Senators need to continue making good picks early on and working their way up. The Senators are in the middle of a rebuild and it showed when they traded away Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly to amass those picks. Jason Spezza could very well be the next victim of an intelligent Senators movement.
Next season, Senators fans can expect a major sale at the deadline and another year with some high picks. The organization is very much on the rise, and the team is once again building around Sweden with Rundblad, Zibanejad and Erik Karlsson at the center. If those three perform this year, the Sens could make a long playoff run as soon as 2013.
11. Montreal Canadiens
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Simply put, the Montreal Canadiens didn't do enough in free agency this season to make me think that they will make the playoffs. Last year, it was brutally obvious that the Habs needed to add top-six—and bottom-six—toughness to make themselves more durable come the postseason. They didn't.
Erik Cole was a good pickup, but he was overpaid and will only serve to add more top-end skill on a team flush with it. Louis Leblanc will make a good impact, but you have to ask yourself how much you can expect from a rookie. The Canadiens will enter the season with high hopes, but they are too fragile to be able to endure the rigours of a full season and still be successful.
Maybe a tough season and a top-10 pick will make the Canadiens see what they are missing. Unless they sign a physical forward, like Jarkko Ruutu or Chris Clark, in the months leading up to the new season, they will not make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
10. New Jersey Devils
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The New Jersey Devils knew that they were heading into the offseason with the task of re-signing Zach Parise to a long-term deal. Pair that up with Ilya Kovalchuk's monster contract, and you find yourself with a severely compromised roster.
While the Devils are deep at both forward and defense, the reason they faltered last season was that they were faced with an unfamiliar problem: goaltending. Martin Brodeur is in the twilight of his career and now is a good time to ease out the Hall of Famer. There are some good goalies in the first round in the 2012 draft, and the Devils need to capitalize.
As for right now, the Devils are in a good position for the future. Having drafted Adam Larsson, they have some good pieces in place and they now need to surround that with some cheap, efficient talent. The 2012 summer will be a big one in New Jersey, and if they perform well, they will be back among the NHL's top teams after last year's setback.
Only time will tell.
9. Carolina Hurricanes
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The Carolina Hurricanes did some great things in free agency. They went out and got Tomas Kaberle, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart, all on good deals, and all with a lot of upside.
Their problem? Everyone else did too.
They also have some top prospects ready for NHL duty. The likes of Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk and Bobby Sanguinetti are all ready to play, and with plenty of AHL experience between them the transition should be fairly smooth.
The Hurricanes are likely to make a hard charge at a playoff spot, and will be a bubble team. This will be one of those years where everything comes down to the wire. Last year they missed out. We'll see this year...
8. Florida Panthers
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Yes, you heard it here first. The Florida Panthers will finally make the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.
It seems Dale Tallon decided to pull the plug on the rebuilding plan on July 1st, when he went out and signed several top-tier free agents to long-term contracts. Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, Matt Bradley, Ed Jovanovski and Jose Theodore all came in through free agency. The signings come in addition to acquiring Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky and Brian Campbell through trade. Throw in the fact that Jacob Markström is more than an adequate replacement for Tomas Vokoun, and you have a very, very strong team.
That's what happens when you have bags of money to spend and bags of salary cap space to spend it in. With those players complementing the team's outrageously strong prospect pool, the Panthers could be deadly.
7. Tampa Bay Lightning
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Like the New Jersey Devils, the Tampa Bay Lightning were heavily bound by the fact that their superstar was due a contract extension. Steven Stamkos would eventually sign a five-year contract on July 19th, worth $7.5 million a season, but by then it was too late.
Because the Lightning had that task ahead of them, and the burden of not knowing how much it would cost, it was very difficult for them to make any plans in free agency. They were only able to sign role players to small contracts. Sean Bergenheim, Cedric Desjardins, Simon Gagne, Randy Jones, Mike Lundin and Mike Smith were all lost through free agency (not to mention the $6 million in cap space lost to Stamkos). In come Matheiu Garon, Bruno Gervais, Matt Gilroy, Ryan Shannon and rookie Brett Connolly.
The Lightning have a significantly different look to the team that broke through last season. Can Guy Boucher work his magic again? With a weakened team, the odds are he won't be able to do so to the same extent as last year.
6. Philadelphia Flyers
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The Philadelphia Flyers traded away some key players this offseason, and at first glance the returns in those trades appear to be more for the future than for next season.
Out go Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Darroll Powe, Matt Clackson, Ville Leino, Kris Versteeg, Brian Boucher and Sean O'Donnell. In come Ilya Bryzgalov, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Max Talbot, Jaromir Jagr, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier. Hard to tell if it's better or worse, but personally, I'm leaning toward the latter.
The Flyers heavily fortified an embarrassingly weak prospect pool, but they did not improve. They are still really deep at forward, but they are still lacking quality on the second- and third-line defensive pairings. The future is bright, but this is not the year for the Philadelphia Flyers.
5. New York Rangers
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The New York Rangers may not have done much this offseason, but they got the prize of free agency: Brad Richards.
The signing is so, so good for the Rangers not only because Richards can put up 80-90 points, but he can make Marian Gaborik a 40-goal scorer again, something nobody has done since Pavol Demitra in Minnesota.
Incredibly, he Richards move might not even be the most significant one of the Rangers' offseason, though. By going out and acquiring Tim Erixon from the Calgary Flames, they got one of the NHL's best prospects, a solid, two-way defenseman. He'll be more than an adequate replacement for Matt Gilroy.
If Richards and Gaborik can perform like they should, then the sky is the limit for the New York Rangers.
4. Buffalo Sabres
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The Buffalo Sabres have been knocking on the door for a top-four spot for a while, and they finally get it.
Terry Pegula did some great things in free agency and in the draft. To be able to bring in two great defensemen in Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff, added to a guy like Tyler Myers, is great for a start. But then to get Ville Leino as well? Having already gotten Brad Boyes at the deadline? And prospects Luke Adam and Mark Pysyk? And getting Joel Armia at 16th in the draft?
Wow, what an offseason...
The key to the Sabres' success will be defense, and they will likely have one of the best in the league. With those guys complemented with elite goaltender Ryan Miller, the Sabres are going to be a legitimate shutdown force next season.
3. Boston Bruins
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Coming off a successful Cup run, the Bruins come into next season with a largely similar team. The one big difference? Tyler Seguin will be back better and stronger, and with his skill as a second overall pick, that's a big plus.
Again, the Bruins' fortunes once the playoffs roll around will sit on the shoulders of goaltender Tim Thomas, and whether he plays like an invincible or a mere mortal. During the regular season, however, the Bruins will be able to succeed on a strong all-around team despite having superstar Marc Savard injured again.
Ninth overall pick Dougie Hamilton could play as soon as next season. Prospect Jordan Caron will play, and will provide a big boost to the second line.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
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The Penguins' fortunes depend on one thing: whether or not Sidney Crosby can stay fit. If he comes into the new season without any concussion issues, the Penguins will be a very, very good team.
The team didn't do much in free agency, but their best players are still young and are still getting better. It will obviously be important to have Evgeni Malkin back, but he will be fit when the new season starts.
The Penguins will come into the new season in a fierce battle for Atlantic supremacy with the Philadelphia Flyers. Also, expect a fight for first place in the Eastern Conference with...
1. Washington Capitals
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The Washington Capitals are the best team in the Eastern Conference for the third season in a row. They were, in fact, already the best before the offseason. Now, with Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik, Jeff Halpern, Troy Brouwer and Tomas Vokoun added to the equation, they are incredibly even better.
The Caps' superstar, Alex Ovechkin, is taking his offseason training a lot more seriously this year. He'll be better. The youngsters, Marcus Johansson, John Carlson and Karl Alzner, are a year better and more experienced.
The only question facing the Caps is who will be the starting goalie—Tomas Vokoun or Michal Neuvirth—and that is a pretty good problem to have. Look for the Caps to dominate the Southeast and the East.
The changes are directed at being better in the playoffs. This could very well be the year for Alex and Co.