NHL Predictions 2011-12: Picking the Divisional Winners and Losers from the East
One month closer to hockey, and that is always a good thing. I don't know about you but I just have a hard time feeling hockey-ish when I look at the calendar and see August scrolled over a picture of some guy fishing or some kids playing in a pool or whatever. It's too hot outside, and the only ice on the minds of most are the cubes in their sweet tea.
Over the last few months a lot of players have found new homes, and there has been some shifting in power among the top teams in the East. The lower seeds in the conference continued to close the gap on the top squads, and a few of them will be looking to challenge for more than a playoff spot.
These moves shifted power in almost all of the divisions, and we're going to see some different teams raising divisional champion banners two Octobers from now. Here is who I think will win each of the divisions in the East, why I think they will win it and why the other teams will fall short.
And keep an eye out for the Western edition, which will be out soon.
Atlantic Division Winner: Pittsburgh Penguins
Why the Penguins Will Win the Atlantic Division
Mostly every other team in the NHL would have crumbled upon losing such massive and crucial chunks of their forward corps for extended periods of time. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal all missed significant time with injuries.
That this team still managed to somehow scrape together a 106-point season is mind-boggling.
Some outstanding coaching from Jack Adams winner Dan Bylsma and a nearly flawless transition to a more defensive system as the season progressed landed the Penguins in a tie for first place in the Atlantic.
Once one or two of their star centers return to action, Pittsburgh shouldn't have much trouble wrapping up the division.
Crosby's status is up in the air, but Staal is healthy and has been training hard all offseason to get back into top shape. Malkin hasn't been shy about his recovery, as tapes of his workouts have been posted on NHL.com.
They still boast a big-game goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury, and their defensive structure is still mostly intact. Expect a healthier, well-rested Pittsburgh to explode out of the gates and never look back. Once all gears are greased this will be a team that could very well find itself in another Stanley Cup Final.
Why the Rest of the Atlantic Teams Won't Win the Division Title
New York Rangers
The New York Rangers will be better offensively now that they have a No. 1 pivot for Marian Gaborik in Brad Richards. If the duo finds chemistry then their No. 1 line could be one of the most explosive in the league.
Gaborik could even be a dark horse for the Rocket Richard Trophy if he stays healthy—always a big if for the super-talented Slovak.
The upgrades should be enough to get them into the playoffs, but won't be enough to get them over the loaded Penguins.
New Jersey Devils
New Jersey will look to continue to build on the chemistry that they seemingly found during the second half of the season. A laughable first half kept them out of the playoffs, but they were one of the best teams in hockey after the All-Star break.
But this time around, they'll have to find a way to positively respond to a new coach.
That isn't a task that the Devils have been up to for quite some time. Ilya Kovalchuk should be a little more settled in now that some of the media attention isn't on his monster contract, and Zach Parise will look for a big season heading into free agency next year.
This is still a good hockey team but, just like New York, they don't have the weapons to compete with a healthy Penguins squad for the division.
New York Islanders
There is a lot to like about the New York Islanders. They have stockpiled young talent via the draft and have found a gem or two on the waiver wire. Michael Grabner may be the most underrated player in the league, and Kyle Okposo will have a breakout year after missing all but 38 games due to injury last season.
John Tavares is the leader of one of the most unheralded groups of forwards in the league. But unless they can convince Evgeni Nabokov to live up to his contract and play in net, they just don't have the netminding and defense to make the playoffs, much less win the division.
Getting Mark Streit back and healthy will be a huge boost, but this squad is still one or two years away from taking a legitimate shot at the Atlantic crown.
The Flyers won the division last season, and are only a few seasons removed from a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. But the on-the-fly rebuild that we have witnesses this summer is pretty unprecedented.
Gone are familiar faces like Mike Richards and Jeff Carter who were apparently causing a stir within the Flyers locker room with their party-boy antics. And in come a boatload of new faces. Ilya Bryzgalov is now the guy in Philly, and will need to get off to a quick start to keep the harsh media happy.
Jaromir Jagr is an interesting addition, and if he can prove to be an effective top-six guy, he will give the Flyers a very solid group of forwards.
Health is the question on defense, but if Chris Pronger can play 60-plus games, then the team will be that much better for it.
The defending Atlantic champions will have a lot on their plates to start the season, however, and suddenly having to mesh with new teammates up and down the lineup could cost them a few games. And as we saw last year, that's all it takes to lose or win the Atlantic banner.
Northeast Division Winner: Buffalo Sabres
Why the Sabres Will Win the Northeast Division
When Terry Pegula purchased the Buffalo Sabres he explicitly expressed that he would not be afraid to open his checkbook to help make the team a winner.
Pegula put his money where his mouth is in a hurry, as he bumped Buffalo from a mid-range cap team to a squad that is currently almost $4 million over the cap.
Villie Leino was brought in on one of the priciest gambles of free agency, but the faith could yield big rewards for the Sabres top six. This is one of the deepest forward groups in the league, boasting skill up and down the lineup.
Leino joins a group that already includes Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Brad Boyes, Jochen Hecht, Ales Kotalik...the list goes on, and there isn't a stopgap among them. This Sabres squad resembles the teams of old that were making runs to the Eastern Conference finals in that they will be able to roll out four very solid, similar forward lines.
There is a lot to like on a suddenly deep blue line in Buffalo as well.
Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff, Jordan Leopold and Tyler Myers make for an outstanding top four that is more than good enough on both ends of the puck to facilitate and stifle attacks.
(Cough, Ryan Miller, cough.)
This is a team that is ready to do some serious damage, and they'll start by winning the Northeast Division.
Why the Rest of the Northeast Won't Win the Division Title
The Ottawa Senators are in an undeclared state of rebuild. They have $12 million in cap space, which they could end up utilizing at the deadline or earlier. I'm not so sure what rumor mongers would write about next season if Jason Spezza was traded now that Tomas Kaberle is no longer in Toronto.
The Sens do employ some of the tougher forwards in the league in Chris Neil (tough...) and Zenon Konopka, but winning fights doesn't count on the score board. They will serve to keep Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson safe while they try and put up enough points to keep this team afloat while the kids develop.
There is a lot of youth to like here. Guys like Bobby Butler should be impact players, and Erik Karlsson will look to continue his development on the blue line. The hastily signed Craig Anderson will have his hands full, however, as this team won't be in contention for at least another year or two.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto is a playoff team. I honestly believe the tools are there for the Maple Leafs to see some playoff action after the season is over. How they finish within the division weighs heavily on the back of James Reimer, who has been dubbed the savior of Toronto after playing in all of 37 games last year.
If Reimer is for real—and I hope he is because he has one of the coolest nicknames in sports—then he should be able to finish the playoff push that he started last season.
The group of forwards that the Maple Leafs boast is outstanding, and if Tim Connolly can find some way to stay healthy and develop some chemistry with Phil Kessel, well, maybe the trade won't look so sideways after all.
The defense is hard to play against per usual Brian Burke-style, and this team will be contending for some banners soon. But Buffalo just has too much power up front, and too much junk in the trunk (you know, on the blue line and in net) to lose out this year.
The mini-me Montreal Canadiens got a bit less mini with the signing of Erik Cole, but otherwise the Habs have stood pat with the team they have.
Their top forwards are all wicked-fast skill players as has been the case for the last several years. Scott Gomez living up to a third of his albatross of a contract would be a boost for the top six, but there is plenty of offense to go around while Gomez makes Ovechkin-money for drinking Gatorade.
Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta are waterbug forwards that will continue to do what they've always done—make guys like Hal Gill look super tall in photographs—by scoring with their speed, skill and ability to find open patches of ice.
P.K. Subban will look to continue his growth as a defender, and Carey Price will always keep the Canadiens in games. Again, though, the squad just lacks the depth up front to compete with Buffalo for the banner.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins appear to have had one hell of a summer. After winning the Cup, the bullseye is officially on the backs of the guys in black and yellow, and that always takes some time to adjust to.
There have been no serious departures from the team that lifted the Cup, but the loss of Marc Savard for the year is a sad one. On the business side though, the Bruins suddenly have a lot of cap space to play with, and could shake things up if need be.
The Bruins have a great mix on offense with both skilled smaller players and big guys who are good within a few feet of the net. Milan Lucic will continue his campaign to one day be a politician in Boston (if he gets any more popular he could probably run), and David Krejci will try to build on a solid effort from last season.
Things in the defensive zone remain largely intact, as I don't believe a single Boston fan will notice that Tomas Kaberle is no longer a Bruin. Zdeno Chara is still the anchor on the blue line, and the rest of the pairings fall into line from there.
Tim Thomas seems to be getting hated on a bit this summer. A lot of people think he is too old to repeat his magic from a year ago. We shall see.
The race for first in the Northeast will come down to Boston and Buffalo, but I think a sluggish start due to a mild Stanley Cup hangover will put the Bruins behind the Sabres when all is said and done.
Southeast Division Winner: Washington Capitals
Why the Capitals Will Win the Southeast Division
The Capitals seem to have turned into the San Jose Sharks of the East. They blow it during the playoffs, but during the regular season they are money.
The Caps made arguably the best free -agent signing of the offseason when they added top-notch goaltender Tomas Vokoun for $1.5 million. That's a huge upgrade in an important area, and Washington will be that much better off for it.
That move alone could put the Presidents' Trophy within their reach.
But the other additions they made were savvy as well. They are so sick of losing in the playoffs that they went out and picked up Joel Ward, a guy who has only proven that he can play during the playoffs. Adding him to a mix that already includes a Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin and Alex Ovechkin adds a depth to the attack that wasn't there before.
Ditto for Troy Brouwer, another proven winner with a playoff-type attitude that could help change the culture in Washington. There may be a little pressure on him to perform since he cost the Caps a first-round pick, but it isn't something that should be an issue.
All these pieces add up to at least another Southeast Division title for a team that is capable of so much more.
Why the Rest of the Southeast Won't Win the Division Title
The Florida Panthers finally found an excuse to try and ice a competitive hockey team come October. The cap floor raised so much that it gave them the space to pick up a plethora of players that they may not have been able to sign a year ago.
With each passing signing and trade, I got the feeling that Dale Tallon was just throwing darts at the names of free agents, and then spinning a roulette wheel to determine salary, but that is besides the point.
This is a considerably better version of the Panthers, but that isn't saying much. By my count they added eight new players to their roster, all of them adding a little something that wasn't there prior. Could Brian Cambell and Jose Theodore combine for a winning record? Perhaps.
But this is still a team a ways away from being able to down the mighty Caps for the division crown. There is youth here, a lot of winners and perhaps a newfound energy, but that isn't going to cut it this year.
Winnipeg finally has their hockey team, and unlike their aforementioned southern counterparts, will sell out every home game no matter what the on-ice product is. There is a good foundation here, but what stands out the most here is an abundance of cap space.
No team in the NHL has more than the new Jets.
They have an exciting group of young forwards that includes the likes of Evander Kane and Bryan Little, and Andrew Ladd will be one of the most popular athletes in Canada by the end of the season. Outside of the top five or six guys, however, the goals and point sources dry up considerably.
No disrespect to Tanner Glass or anything.
The strength on this squad last year was points from the defense, but that may be in question now as Dustin Byfuglien has apparently put on a lot more weight than he should have this summer. Like, a lot more weight.
Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason will continue to soldier on in net, and a playoff appearance is not totally out of the question for the Jets, but is a bit unlikely. Not as unlikely, however, as taking down the Capitals from their high perch.
Some winds of change were blowing for the Carolina Hurricanes this summer, as the team made several noteworthy moves during free agency. Overlooked were the additions of players like Anthony Stewart and Brian Boucher—who could actually allow Cam Ward more than five or six games worth of rest this season.
The biggest shakeup came in the form of Tomas Kaberle, fresh off of a Cup run with the Boston Bruins. He brings his big shot to the Carolinas, where talented blueliners Jame McBain and Joni Pitkanen await.
Eric Staal is still in place as Captain 'Cane, while Brandon Sutter and Jeff Skinner will need to continue to mature for this offense to reach full capacity.
Cam Ward won't lose many games for you, and he'll be sturdy as always as the Hurricanes try to get back into playoff contention. While the changes were positive, it still isn't enough to knock the Capitals out of the air. (I'm done with Hurricane plays-on-words forever now...I think.)
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning have a feeling about them. Much like the Chicago Blackhawks did before their Cup run, this squad has a touch of destiny to it that is hard to ignore. The pieces are falling into place in rapid succession, and the squad isn't far off from competing for the Cup (if they are far off at all).
It's hard to write it, but the biggest hiccup for the Lightning could come in net. Dwayne Roloson is just getting old. He was the savior of the season last year, and one of two brilliant trades made by GM Steve Yzerman—I will never get used to typing that—that pushed the Lightning further than most thought they could make it in the playoffs.
Which was up and over the heavily favored Capitals.
The second trade acquisition, Eric Brewer, was kept on board as he was pivotal in securing Tampa's blue line. Victor Hedman won't win any scoring races for you, but he will concuss league-leading scorers and play good stay-at-home D.
No big moves were made on offense, and none were needed. This forward corps is as dynamic as any in the league, and Steven Stamkos could be primed for a monster season after a summer of ridiculous training.
All the firepower in the world isn't going to keep the Caps from winning the division, though if the two squads meet again in the playoffs the story could very well be the same.
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