Predicting the NHL Final Eastern Conference Standings

Andre Khatchaturian@AndreKhatchCorrespondent IIISeptember 23, 2011

Predicting the NHL Final Eastern Conference Standings

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    Remember the old Stompin' Tom Connors song promoting the game of hockey?

    Well the good ole' hockey game is coming back in a couple of weeks and we'll be hearing that song in arenas all over the country. 

    The beginning of the season marks a great moment for all fans. It's a moment of hope. Everyone is in first place and it's a clean slate. Anxiety looms in each fan's head as they brace themselves for another season of either glory or gloom. 

    The long grind of the regular season begins on October 6 and the goal for every NHL team in the next six months is to finish with at least the eighth best record in their respective conference so that they can qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

    So let's delve into the crystal ball and predict how the Eastern Conference will shape up in 2011-12. 

15. Ottawa Senators

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    The Senators have an aging defense with Sergei Gonchar and Chris Phillips. Both will be eligible for social security benefits in a few years.

    They also have instability at goaltending and Daniel Alfredsson is not what he used to be. Their second line center according to Yahoo! Sports is a guy I've never heard named Mika Zibanejad.

    This is a problem. 

    The Senators are a mess and may easily be the worst team in the National Hockey League this season. Residents of Ottawa are praying for global warming because they're in for a longer and colder winter than usual. 

14. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs make another head-scratching offseason move signing C Tim Connolly. Connolly is one of the most injury-prone players in the league. He hasn't played a full season in 10 years and there was a season where he only played in two regular season games. 

    They may have Phil Kessel, but every hockey fan knows how badly they lost on the Kessel trade a few years ago. Boston is out winning Stanley Cups while Toronto is still in the cellar. Kessel may be a solid player, but he's definitely not the type of person who will put his team on his back and lead them to the playoffs.

    The one positive aspect for the Leafs is their goaltending. James Reimer was a good story but it'll be interesting to see if he's able to replicate his performance from last season. 

13. New York Islanders

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    Once again the Islanders enter a season with more questions than answers. First off, the main question is if Rick DiPietro will finally be able to stay healthy. The answer to that is probably no, and when he gets hurt how will Evgeni Nabokov play after a spending time in Russia.

    The Islanders are also thin on defense. After Mark Streit, they have a bunch of aging or inexperienced players who are not battle tested.

    They do have dynamic forwards, though, with John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner and Frans Nielson, but they need more than just scoring to compete in the Atlantic Division. 

12. Winnipeg Jets

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    The Jets may start off fast because of the novelty of having hockey back in Winnipeg. Their players will be a lot more motivated playing in front of sold-out crowds every night rather than the cavernous Philips Arena in Atlanta.

    That being said, the team will probably slow down quickly as they are pretty deficient on many parts of the ice. 

    For one, the team has a very limited scoring punch. Two of their top three scorers last season were defensemen. Secondly, their defensemen are mainly offensive defensemen in Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom. Even Zach Bogosian is expected to provide offense rather than defense. 

    The Jets are steady at goaltending with Ondrej Pavelec. Despite playing for a weak team, he posted solid numbers last season in Atlanta. He's going to help them win many games singlehandedly. 

11. New York Rangers

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    There's just something about the Rangers this year that makes people feel uneasy. It's hard to put a finger on it, but the Rangers have historically busted on big-name free agents and it just feels like Brad Richards is going to underperform. If he doesn't, obviously it may be a more successful season for the Rangers—but given the team's track record, it just feels like he will take a step back from last season.

    The Rangers have an elite goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist and some good but inexperienced defensemen in front of him in Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. The rest of the Rangers defense is filled with unknowns and question marks. 

    The Rangers' secondary scoring punch is filled with names like Ruslan Fedotenko and Derek Stepan. These are names that have never been consistently putting the puck in the net. The Rangers are going to be too reliant on Marian Gaborik, who is oft-injured, and Brad Richards, who has never really lifted a team on his back. 

    As crazy as it sounds, don't be surprised if the Rangers miss out on the playoffs this season. A lot of teams got stronger and the East is very competitive at the moment. 

10. Florida Panthers

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    The Florida Panthers may be revamped but they haven't really improved. What they did over the offseason was mortgage their goaltending for some key defensemen and a plethora of secondary scorers.

    Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Tomas Kopecky, Kris Versteeg and Sean Bergenheim are all good names, but none of them have been primary scorers throughout their careers. They've been role guys who have been very effective.

    The question becomes if they can collectively help Stephen Weiss and David Booth. They probably will improve in the scoring department, but mortgaging one of the best goaltenders in the league for a bunch of marginal guys seems counteractive. 

    Brian Campbell was a great addition and Ed Jovanovski will be a solid leader in the locker room, but even together they're not enough to get the Panthers in the playoffs because of the lack of depth on defense and the downgrade at the goaltending position.

    They will make a run and perhaps find themselves in playoff position at some points of the season, but in the end there are too many other teams that are better than the Panthers. 

9. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    After making the Eastern Conference Finals last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning will likely take a step back.

    Folks, it may sound crazy and everyone believed the Lightning to become Cup contenders after a great run last season, but that's all an overreaction. 

    What makes people think that Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are going to continue to produce at the rate they did last year? In fact, Lecavalier took a step back last year in terms of production. Steven Stamkos may be a future legend, but the Lightning need more support if they want to make the playoffs again. They lost Sean Bergenheim and that will hurt them. St. Louis and Lecavalier aren't getting any younger either.

    Finally, the biggest reason why the Lightning will miss out is the same reason why they went so far last year. Dwayne Roloson is approaching age 42. It's very difficult seeing him being successful between the pipes throughout the grind of an 82-game season, especially after the short rest he got this offseason.

    It can be argued that the Lightning went far last season because of Roloson's great play, but that was just a stretch where he was really hot. The chances of Roloson repeating those heroics are not high. We saw Chris Osgood fade away in the regular season the year after he won the Cup with the Red Wings in 2008.

    With so many teams in the East improving like Buffalo, Philadelphia, Washington and Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay needs to reexamine the direction they are headed. They have an aging scoring support system and goaltender. They will come close but barely miss out. 

8. Carolina Hurricanes

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    Why Carolina over Tampa Bay?

    First of all, after missing out on the playoffs by just two points, Eric Staal and the Canes have an invigorated hunger that will be unmatched in the Eastern Conference. 

    Here is an interesting stat: When the Carolina Hurricanes failed to make the postseason in two consecutive seasons, they have always made the playoffs the following year. This has happened in two separate occasions. 

    In fact, the longest postseason drought in Hurricanes history is just two years. In other words, they do a good job in bouncing back as an organization.

    This year, their young superstar Jeff Skinner is a year older and should provide more of an impact for the team. The Hurricanes also have better goaltending than the Lightning do with Cam Ward. 

    Finally, the Canes added Tomas Kaberle on the blueline which will bolster an already steady defense anchored with Joni Pitkanen, James McBain and Tim Gleason

7. New Jersey Devils

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    The New Jersey Devils missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in ages last season. They started off terribly, but they didn't go down without a fight going 28-10-3 in the last 41 games of the season. Unfortunately, they had dug themselves in too deep of a hole to climb out of.

    That being said, the New Jersey Devils team we will see this season will be more like the team we saw last year in the second half, rather than the atrocious team we saw in the first half. 

    First off, they get one of their best players, Zach Parise, back from injury. Ilya Kovalchuk, who was stunning in the second half, has adjusted to the environment in New Jersey and needs to get on a hot start. If he plays anything like he did in the second half, the Devils are going to be very dangerous.

    They also have a legitimate defense with veterans like Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov. It's not the Devils defense of the past that featured guys like Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko, but it's still a potent defense.

    Finally, with Martin Brodeur between the pipes, the Devils will be in every game. Their holes at defense won't make them the Atlantic Division kings like they usually were, but they have a good enough team to get back in the playoffs. 

6. Boston Bruins

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    It's only natural to take a step back after winning the Stanley Cup. The Bruins will still make the playoffs and make a run, but they might start off struggling a bit. It's not uncommon to see the Stanley Cup champion start off slowly.

    Tim Thomas was absolutely on fire last spring. It won't be a surprise to see him slow down a bit in the beginning of the season. The Bruins might actually get into a little bit of a rut early on, but they will climb out of hell and qualify for the playoffs.

    There is no reason why anyone shouldn't believe in the Bruins. They have the same team as last year, pretty much. Their defense remains the same with guys like Zdeno Chara, Andrew Ference, Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk.

    Their forwards are all familiar faces, too. Nathan Horton will return from his injury he sustained in the Stanley Cup Final. Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin are a year older and they will be dominant. And guys like Shawn Thornton will never be afraid to drop the gloves.

    The Bruins are a great team to love, but the Stanley Cup hangover will hurt them early on. 

5. Montreal Canadiens

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    If Andrei Markov can stay healthy, the Montreal Canadiens can have one of the best defenses in the league. Chances are he won't. But even if he doesn't, the Canadiens have a potent defensive corps. Shut-down guys like Hal Gill and P.K. Subban will take forwards out of games. 

    Carey Price has proven that he is the guy in Montreal. Ever since the Jaroslav Halak trade, Carey Price has shown the people of Montreal that the organization made the right decision sticking with him. 

    The Canadiens forwards may not be big names, but they definitely can put the puck in the net. Guys like Michael Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec, Erik Cole, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta will get the Montreal faithful on their feet numerous times this season. 

    Can the Canadiens finally help bring the Cup back to where it belongs in Canada?

4. Philadelphia Flyers

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    The Philadelphia Flyers mortgaged their forwards this offseason to address their number one concern: goaltending.

    They did the right thing, too. 

    In 2010 they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final because they didn't have a goalie. They used Michael Leighton at times, who is irrelevant nowadays. Last year they seemingly had a different guy in net every other game. 

    It's been atrocious for the Flyers. Now, they finally have Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryzgalov is a guy who singlehandedly took the Phoenix Coyotes to the playoffs in consecutive seasons. The Coyotes never had a great offense in the desert, yet they were able to compete in the Western Conference.

    This Flyers team has an offense that isn't as good as last year, but is still a high-flying offense. Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk will be relied upon to score, score and score. It'll be interesting to see what capacity Jaromir Jagr plays with the Flyers. He showed the world he still has skills, scoring a hat trick for Czech Republic in the World Championships this past spring. Can he last the whole season, though?

    Finally, the Flyers defense will provide a nice, protective wall for Bryzgalov. Guys like Andrej Meszaros, Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen are great at what they do and are going to make it awfully tough for opponents to score. 

    So, with all that being said, why won't the Flyers win their division?

    Keep reading. 

3. Buffalo Sabres

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    The Buffalo Sabres really made huge improvements this offseason. First of all, they got rid of Tim Connolly. This was addition by subtraction as Connolly was oft-injured and wasn't contributing that much to the team because he was so injury prone.

    Secondly, they bolstered their defense. They signed Christian Ehrhoff who was an integral part of the Canucks team that went to the Stanley Cup last year. Tyler Myers is one year older and is developing into one of the most feared defensemen in the league. 

    The Sabres defense doesn't stop there. They bring back Jordan Leopold and Andrej Sekera from last year's squad. They also signed a potent defender in Robyn Regehr.

    Did we forget something?

    Yes we did.

    The Sabres have one of the best goalies in the league with Ryan Miller. He will keep them in games and he is always a front runner for the Vezina.

    Finally, the Sabres offense brings a lot of punch with guys like Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and the newly acquired Ville Leino. Many criticized the Sabres saying Leino was overpaid, but with guys like Roy and Vanek surrounding him, he will have all the help he'll need in his new uniform to succeed.

    The Sabres are also deep with solid forwards who will provide secondary scoring and grit.  

2. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    This is the reason why the Flyers won't win the division.

    Sidney Crosby has been practicing with the Penguins and this is bad news for the rest of the league. Even if he misses the first two months, the Penguins will be unstoppable when he returns.

    Anyone remember how great they were last year in November and December? Crosby went on a 25-game point streak, scored 66 points in 41 games, and was on a torrid pace to easily win the Hart Trophy until he got his concussion. The Penguins also had a stretch where they recorded points in 15 consecutive games. 

    Having Crosby, Malkin and Staal is unfair. The Penguins are going to be lethal once No. 87 returns. 

    On the defensive front, the Penguins are very deep. Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik are names that make any Penguins fan smile.

    Finally, Marc-Andre Fleury is a world class goaltender who will keep Pittsburgh in any game. 

    So in review, the Penguins match up defensively and goaltending wise with their cross-state rivals. Their offense is also much deeper than Philadelphia's offense. It's really not hard to see why Pittsburgh can run away with the division if Crosby stays healthy for a majority of the season. 

1. Washington Capitals

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    Like the Flyers, the Washington Capitals made major improvements in their weakest position.

    It's not that Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby played poorly in the regular season, it's that they struggled mightily because of their inexperience in the playoffs. The Capitals were sick of quick exits in the playoffs. 

    Now they have Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun is not battle tested in the playoffs, toiling years away for the lowly Florida Panthers. However, he's always played well in the regular season and he should be dominant for the Caps.

    Alex Ovechkin will look to bounce back after an uncharacteristic season last year. Combined with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin, the Capitals have one of the best offensive first lines in the league. 

    The Capitals defense is probably the weakest when compared to the Penguins and Flyers, but this is compensated for when considering they play the Jets and Panthers six times each. It may seem like a small difference, but the difference in points between the Penguins, Flyers and Capitals may be that infinitesimal.