NHL Predictions: Separating the Eastern Playoff Contenders from the Pretenders

Russell FrancisContributor IIISeptember 17, 2011

NHL Predictions: Separating the Eastern Playoff Contenders from the Pretenders

0 of 5

    With the NHL regular season set to start next month, predictions are running rampant in the blogosphere.

    And I plan on adding one more here.

    In the first part of this two-part post, I'll look at the Eastern Conference and examine each team and see what has to go right for them to make the playoffs and what could go wrong and cost them their chance.

    Will the Boston Bruins be able to overcome their Stanley Cup hangover? How will the Pittsburgh Penguins fare if Sidney Crosby misses a lot of time? How about the hungry and disappointed Washington Capitals?

The Sure Things

1 of 5

    There are three teams that are all but certain to make the playoffs, and have to be heavy favourites to win their respective divisions.

    Boston Bruins

    They won the Stanley Cup for a reason. They are one of the deepest and most well-rounded teams in the league.

    What Needs to Go Right:

    • Their top talent needs to stay healthy this year. That may be a lot to ask with Patrice Bergeron's concussion history, Tim Thomas's age and Zdeno Chara's physical style.
    • Tyler Seguin needs to make that next step, as he should be relied on a lot more this year since Mark Recchi retired and Mark Savard will not play this year.

    What Could Go Wrong:

    • They could suffer a horrible Stanley Cup hangover that saps their motivation.
    • Tim Thomas could continue his recent streak of good year, bad year and follow up his legendary performance from a season ago with disappointment.

    Pittsburgh Penguins

    They possess two of the best players in the world, an elite goalie and the reigning coach of the year.

    What Needs to Go Right:

    • Last year they finished with 106 points in the regular season after missing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal for extended periods of time. So they need them to play at least as much as they did last year.
    • Marc-Andre Fleury really carried the load last year, so he needs to be at least as good if the injury bug bites again.

    What Could Go Wrong:

    • With all that this team endured last year to eclipse the 100-point mark, I think it would take something simply catastrophic for them to miss the playoffs. I just don't see it happening.

    Washington Capitals

    This team has become a perennial favourite to win the first seed in the conference after taking the top spot for the past two seasons.

    What Needs to Go Right:

    • Alexander Ovechkin needs to ensure that next season is not a bigger disappointment than last season when he scored a career low 32 goals.

    What Could Go Wrong:

    • Thomas Vokoun could struggle with the expectations of being No. 1 on a good team.
    • This team would need an injury run similar to Pittsburgh and St. Louis from last year to even consider missing the playoffs.

Teams That Made It Last Year

2 of 5

    The following five teams all made the playoffs last year and are looking to make the big dance once more.

    Buffalo Sabres

    One of the most radically altered NHL Franchises is entering this year with high hopes, but are they justified?

    What Needs to Go Right

    • Ville Leino needs to be worth his large contract. He is getting paid like a top player and needs to prove that he can play like one for an entire season.
    • They need GM Darcey Regier to solve their salary cap crunch in an effective manner (note: they currently sit $3.6 million above the cap).
    • Ryan Miller needs to play like, well...Ryan Miller.

    What Could Go Wrong

    • Tyler Myers's sophomore slump could continue for another year, putting further strain on the defense.
    • The big new additions including Robyn Reghr, Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino could have trouble fitting into their new systems.
    • Their issues with the salary cap could lead to them being handcuffed in trades and dressing less numbers of players. In short, they could end up like the 2010-11 New Jersey Devils.

    Montreal Canadiens

    A team that always seems to be in the six to eight range, will they be there again this year?

    What Needs to Go Right

    • Michael Cammaelleri and Andrei Markov need to stay healthy.
    • Scott Gomez needs to have a rebound season; he can't get much worse, right?
    • Max Pacioretty playing a substantial amount of games this year should serve as good motivation.
    • Carey Price needs to play like, well...Carey Price.

    What Could Go Wrong

    • PK Subban could suffer a sophomore jinx—he will be counted on more in James Wisnewski's absence.
    • Their leading scorer could have only 57 points again.
    • Carey Price could fall back into his good-year, bad-year pattern, which plagued the beginning of his career.

    New York Rangers

    Last year's eighth seed made a huge splash by going after the biggest fish in the free-agent pond, Brad Richards. Will it help them move up in the standings?

    What Needs to Go Right

    • Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik need to find chemistry, and early.
    • Youngsters Brandon Dunbinsky and Ryan Callahan need to continue to step up, especially the new captain, Callahan.
    • With the last of the triad of bad contracts (Redden, Gomez and Drury) all gone, they need to be sure to instill a new culture in the dressing room.
    • Henrik Lundqvist needs to play like, well...Henrik Lundqvist.

    What Could Go Wrong

    • The HBO 24/7 Cameras could prove to be a distraction in the build-up to the Winter Classic.
    • The big new contracts handed out could backfire like they have on this franchise many times in the past.

    Philadelphia Flyers

    Perhaps the most reworked team in the NHL. The Richards-Carter era that has dominated the team for the past four years has ended. What will it be replaced with?

    What Needs to Go Right

    • The new-look dressing room needs to get behind the presumed Pronger captaincy.
    • Young forwards James Van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux need to handle the pressure of leading the offense.
    • Jaromir Jagr should be able to readjust to the NHL game.
    • Dany Briere needs to prove that he's worth the contract he signed years ago.
    • Brayden Schenn needs to play up to his potential.
    • Ilya Bryzgalov needs to play like, well...Ilya Bryzgalov.

    What Could Go Wrong

    • Like the Rangers, the HBO 24/7 Cameras could prove to be a distraction in the build-up to the Winter Classic.
    • The team chemistry could be completely ruined after the major upheavals of this past summer.
    • Ilya Bryzgalov may suffer the dreaded Flyers-goaltender curse.

    Tampa Bay Lightning

    The NHL's most improved team from a year ago shocked the hockey world with their run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Can they repeat, or improve this performance?

    What Needs to Go Right

    • Steven Stamkos needs to hope that his second-half slump from last season was a fluke.
    • Martin St. Louis and Dwayne Roloson need to dip back into the fountain of youth once more.
    • Eric Brewer needs to continue his career renaissance.
    • Steve Yzerman's culture of success needs to be permanent.
    • Dwayne Roloson needs to play like, well..Dwayne Roloson, of 10 years ago.

    What Could Go Wrong

    • The rest of the league could be onto Guy Boucher's systems.
    • Dwayne Roloson could play like he is 41 years old, leaving the team scrambling for options.

Ones Looking to Move Up

3 of 5

    These teams all missed the cut last year and have a good chance of making it this year.

    Carolina Hurricanes

    This team missed the playoffs on the last game of the season; could they muster that extra win in 2012?

    What Needs to Go Right

    • Brian Boucher needs to be capable of winning a few games to give Cam Ward some rest.
    • Eric Staal will continue to lead this team both on and off the ice, so he must stay healthy at all costs.
    • Tomas Kaberle needs his bad time in Boston to be a thing of the past.

    What Could Go Wrong

    • Jeff Skinner could suffer a sophomore slump, putting more pressure back on Staal.
    • Improvements in Winnipeg, Florida, and Tampa could make the Southeast Division very tough all of a sudden.
    • Their lack of a real shut-down defensemen could come back to haunt them.

    New Jersey Devils

    Last season's most disappointing team looks to rebound in a big way.

    What Needs to Go Right

    • Ilya Kovalchuk plays like he is worth $100 million.
    • Martin Brodeur has one more year left in the tank, doesn't he?
    • Zach Parise needs to stay healthy and play like we all know he is capable of.

    What Could Go Wrong 

    • Kovalchuk could be on coast mode for the next 14 years.
    • Zach Parise may be starting to check out and countdown for his big UFA payday.
    • Maybe Jacques Lemaire is the only one who can actually coach the team...

    Toronto Maple Leafs

    One of only two teams to not make the playoffs since the lockout is looking to change their recent trend of mediocrity.

    What Needs to Go Right

    • New centres Tim Conolly and Matthew Lombardi need to be concussion free; could one of them be Phil Kessel's missing centre?
    • Dion Phaneuf returns to the game-changer he was earlier in his career.
    • Nikolai Kluemin should have another great year; hopefully he can score 30 again.
    • James Riemer exorcises the ghosts of Patrick Lalime, Jim Carrey, Andrew Raycroft and other mediocre goalies whose careers started hot.

    What Could Go Wrong

    • Their lack of offensive talent behind Kessel could continue to plague them.
    • Gambling with a young goalie is always risky, gambling with two young goalies is down right dangerous.

    Winnipeg Jets

    The reborn franchise looks to fly in their first season back.

    What Needs to Go Right

    • This team needs to ride the amazing home-ice advantage they are sure to have this entire season.
    • Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom proved last year that they were among the top defensive pairs in the league, this should continue this season.
    • Their odd placement in the Eastern Conference could really help them. Eastern teams are not used to time zones and long travel.
    • Ondrej Pavelec needs to summon the spirits of Nikolai Khabibulin. At least the spirits of Khabibulin when he played in Winnipeg, not the DUIs in Edmonton.

    What Could Go Wrong

    • The perils of long travel go both ways, don't they?
    • Dustin Byfuglien's arrest and reported weight problems could be quite the distraction.
    • Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler fail to take that next step, leaving their top scoring with only 59 points yet again.

The Long Shots

4 of 5

    These three teams in the East have pretty long odds of playing past the first week of April, but that doesn't mean they won't try.

    Florida Panthers

    Dave Tallon has made an admirable effort to change the culture of the NHL's longest suffering franchise. Will it make a difference this year?

    What Needs to Go Right

    • Jose Theodore plays like it's 2002 again.
    • Tomas Fleischman recovers from his blot clot last year.
    • The Stanley Cup rings of Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell and Tomas Kopecky must finally instill a winning attitude to this team
    • David Booth stays healthy and scores 30 goals again.

    What Can Go Wrong

    • All the money they spent this summer could very well be a bust.
    • They still do not have any elite-level forwards.
    • Ed Jovanovski and Brian Campbell as the top defensive pair seems like a big gamble in 2011.

    New York Islanders

    It can be difficult to figure out when exactly a young team will break out. Could this be their year?

    What Needs to Go Right

    • The forward contingent of Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Michael Grabner and Jonathan Tavares make that next giant leap together.
    • The goaltending mess gets sorted out, either Rick DiPietro stays healthy, Evgeni Nabokov stays motivated or Al Montoya steps up.
    • Brian Roloston serves as a good dressing-room influence.
    • Nino Niederreiter competes for the Calder Trophy, which is well within his grasp.

    What Could Go Wrong

    • None of their goaltenders are able to truly secure the No. 1 spot.
    • Beyond Mark Streit, their defense is suspect at best.
    • Trevor Gillies gets suspended again, causing some sort of a distraction.
    • All the talk about their arena and relocation distracts them even further.

    Ottawa Senators

    The run of excellence for this franchise seems to be a distant memory, as the eyes are clearly aimed at the future. Will the great influx of young talent be ready to step up so soon, or will they need to wait a few more years?

    What Needs to Go Right

    • The stars need to align and Bobby Butler, Peter Regin, Nikita Filatov and Nick Foglino all need to have breakout seasons.
    • Craig Anderson needs to continue his strong play, which he started after he was acquired by the Senators in February.
    • Erik Karlsson needs to build on his great year.
    • Jason Spezza needs to stay healthy and score at least 80 points.
    • Daniel Alfredsson goes to the well once more, despite his age.

    What Could Go Wrong

    • Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba continue to struggle, leaving neither of them as possible trade bait.
    • The lack of toughness can lead to them being pushed around again.
    • Milan Michalek continues his struggles in a Senators uniform.

My Predictions...

5 of 5

    Just in case you are wondering, I think the East will end up like this..

    1. Washington Capitals

    2. Pittsburgh Penguins

    3. Boston Bruins

    4. Tampa Bay Lightning

    5. New York Rangers

    6. Philadelphia Flyers

    7. New Jersey Devils

    8. Buffalo Sabres

    9. Winnipeg Jets

    10. Montreal Canadiens

    11. Carolina Hurricanes

    12. New York Islanders

    13. Toronto Maple Leafs

    14. Florida Panthers

    15. Ottawa Senators

    With the Penguins beating the Capitals in the Eastern Final to go to the Cup and face...Read my Western Conference preview in a few days to find that one out.

    But enough about me, what do all of you think?