NHL 2011-2012 Predictions: Bold Eastern Conference Preview and Picks

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst ISeptember 27, 2011

NHL 2011-2012 Predictions: Bold Eastern Conference Preview and Picks

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    It's that time of year again, folks. Hockey is back, and the faceoff of the 2011-2012 NHL season is less than two weeks away.

    With the preseason already underway, the ongoing river of "expert" predictions is in full swing. Not to be one left out of the fun, we had to chime in with another set of controversial, fan-angering standings projections.

    For the Eastern Conference, the offseason of '11 was an eventful one. The deaths of three recent or current players dampened the ecstasy over Winnipeg's long-awaited return to the league's fold. Elsewhere, free agent signings were the talk of the summer—Washington's signing of Tomas Vokoun, Buffalo's grabs of Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff, the Rangers' landing of big fish Brad Richards and Florida's frenzy of signings kept columnists talking throughout July and August.

    The quantity of headlines has made the conference even tougher to predict, which is why we're going to go out on a limb more than just once or twice in this predictions. Public opinion aside, this will be the blunt truth—and it might get ugly, at times.

    As a warning to hockey fans in the Philadelphia, New York and Montreal areas, we recommend you hit that "minimize" tab now before getting all wound up (as you will momentarily). All other readers, however, are free to continue...and then chime in with your own criticism in the comments section below.

    Note: We have been asked about the relative resemblance to ESPN Magazine's NHL preview, and can assure you that this was done completely independently and without knowledge of their predictions. However, it sounds like ESPN sure did hit the mark, though!

    Note No. 2: This article is the complement to our complete Western Conference Predictions, published later in the week.

15. Ottawa Senators

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    The Ottawa Senators, coming off a dreadful '10-'11 campaign, are going full steam ahead in their re-building project. They have lots of youthful talent to build upon—their AHL team, Binghamton, won the Calder Cup last season—but will be plagued by a variety of issues this year.

    Extreme inexperience will be a major concern, as will the Sens' aging team cornerstones and lack of defensive depth. Their goaltending rotation, currently consisting of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, will do no favors either.

    Jason Spezza has a few years left, but Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek are headed downhill. On defense, Erik Karlsson should be a bright spot for this team moving forward, but they badly need to work on building around him.

    Projected Top Scorer: Jason Spezza (23G, 35A, 58P)

    Projected Total Points: 71

    To read more on the Senators' preseason position battles, click here.

14. Winnipeg Jets

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    The Thrashers relocation to Winnipeg is great for hockey and for the province of Manitoba, but now, Jets fans must deal with the reality on the ice. Their new squad is, quite frankly, not that good.

    A solid defense of Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian has loads of potential, but the offense is currently lacking much of a presence. Evander Kane and Alexander Burmistrov could be promising, but, when Nik Antropov is on the first line, you know there's a problem. In goal, Ondrej Pavelec also needs a lot more conditioning and improvement to become a reputable netminder.

    The new ownership failed to improve their inheritance this summer, bringing in a remarkably measly free agent crop (headlined by third liner Eric Fehr). This roster might experience some growing pains until they really get settled in.

    Projected Scoring Leader: Evander Kane (32G, 44A, 76P)

    To find out our reasoning behind that sky-high projection, read this article.

    Projected Point Total: 75

13. New York Islanders

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    The New York Islanders have built an intriguing young team, but their lack of activity this summer costs them a chance to move into playoff contention.

    Marty Reasoner remains the only UFA signed to date. Political and financial instability is a serious distraction on the side. Goalie Al Montoya could be on the rise or could be another Rick DiPietro-esque mirage. And the defensive unit appears to be one of the shakiest in the East.

    John Tavares, Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson, Blake Comeau and Kyle Okposo might try their best to win games with offense, but there's too much facing against the Isles to anticipate all that much success this season.

    Projected Scoring Leader: John Tavares (26G, 47A, 73P)

    Projected Total Points: 79

12. New Jersey Devils

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    A year ago, no one would've dared say that the New Jersey Devils had "goalie problems." Twelve months later, though, and it's the sole reason we see them missing the postseason for the second consecutive spring.

    The real potency of the Devils is likely somewhere between their two radically different styles of play we saw last season. The Ilya Kovalchuk-driven unbeaten run was a pure phenomenon, but New Jersey is certainly better than the miserable squad we saw for much of the '10-'11 campaign.

    Silence was their strategy in the free agent market, but rebound years are probably in store for Travis Zajac, Zach Parise and Henrik Tallinder. The one hampering issue, however, will be in goal, where way-over-the-hill goalies Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg have yet to be provided a prospective replacement option.

    Projected Scoring Leader: Ilya Kovalchuk (38G, 41A, 79P)

    Projected Total Points: 83

11. Florida Panthers

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    Opinions have flared in every possible direction on this matter, but personally, we're large fans of what the Florida Panthers did this summer. A team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2001 is in desperate need of something new, and that's what GM Dave Tallon accomplished this summer; he added 11 players.

    Among those are eight forwards, who will pair up with current stars Stephen Weiss and David Booth to create an incredibly well-balanced and incredibly untested attack for the Cats. Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovsky should be solid back on the blue line, but the defensive lineup is fairly bleak beyond them.

    In goal, the new duo of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen, two career backups, is a far cry from the old days of stellar Tomas Vokoun. That sacrifice, conversely, is merely the con to a spectacular summer of spending that transformed Florida into one of the better offensive teams around.

    Projected Scoring Leader: Tomas Fleischmann (28G, 30A, 58P)

    Projected Total Points: 87

    To read more about the Monopoly-like offseason of signings in South Florida, and our thoughts on why they'll finally contend for a playoff spot next season, glance over this article.

10. New York Rangers

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    Injuries claim the dreams of at least one club every year, and we're betting that 2012's victim will be the New York Rangers.

    Defensive star Marc Staal is already under health questions heading towards the season opener, and this young team is poised for a unopportunistic meltdown. The largest signing of the entire free agent market, Brad Richards, is expected to mesh perfectly with underperforming Marian Gaborik, but there's one issue: both players are very injury-prone. Plus, when one of the two goes down, the entire centerpiece of the offense is destroyed.

    The Rangers also failed to provide much support behind Richards, putting all of their faith into him as the newcoming savior. Henrik Lundqvist and Co. have skills and balance, but might be taking a risk with their health this autumn.

    Projected Scoring Leader: Marian Gaborik (27G, 27A, 54P)

    Projected Total Points: 91

9. Montreal Canadiens

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    Erik Cole will be the NHL's 2011 Bust of the Year.

    His four-year, $18 million contract is an outrageous sum for a 32-year-old at his skill level, and the Canadiens, who sacrificed a lot to make room for him, will be paying the price. Cole's numbers benefited from playing 82 games last season, something he's never done before and is unlikely to do again, and is only one season removed from a miserable 40-game, 16-point effort in '09-'10.

    A player who's, if anything, over the hill doesn't deserve $4.5 million if his career best is just 30 goals (which came five years ago), and Cole is no exception. The departures that cleared the way for this salary—namely James Wisniewski, Roman Hamrlik and Benoit Pouliot—will hurt Montreal far more than how much Cole's 40-or-so points will help them.

    Even with Carey Price in goal, the Habs' gap between their aging stars and their next generation of cornerstones will cost them a postseason appearance during this transitional season.

    Projected Scoring Leader: Michael Cammalleri (29G, 35A, 64P)

    Projected Total Points: 93

8. Carolina Hurricanes

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    The Carolina Hurricanes have quietly built a very formidable offense during their annual postseason just-misses. Team captain Eric Staal is undeniably well-known, and God-like teenager Jeff Skinner's secrets are out, but the exposure from that duo hasn't stopped Carolina from building an underrated cast around them.

    Hard-hitting Tuomo Ruutu and breakaway specialist Jussi Jokinen are both consistent 20-goal scorers, offseason additions Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart have both had impressive training camps, and up-and-coming prospects such as Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk and Jerome Samson are all poised to be the "next big thing".

    A young defensive core, including players like Jamie McBain, Derek Joslin and 2011 first rounder Ryan Murphy, are preparing to overtake top-liners Joni Pitkanen and Tomas Kaberle. Helping out this unit will be franchise player Cam Ward and his new, much-improved backup: Brian Boucher.

    The 'Canes seem more well-rounded than ever in '11-'12, so expect some fireworks in Raleigh.

    Projected Leading Scorer: Eric Staal (35G, 46A, 81P)

    Projected Total Points: 94

    For more season preview information on the 'Canes, take a look at this slideshow. For a recap of the Hurricanes' offseason changes, take a look at this column.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    If James Reimer lives up to his potential in '11-'12, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be able to make the playoffs. Regardless of the fact that they likely will have a bottom-10 offense and bottom-10 defense, Reimer is the savior-in-waiting for this long-suffering Leafs squad.

    The 23-year-old goalie showed incredible flashes of heroism last spring and remained respectable at worst each and every night. Reimer, a former fourth round draft pick, overcame a continually senseless defense to post a 20-10-5 record, .921 save percentage and three shutouts, bringing Toronto the closest they'd been to qualifying for the playoffs since '06-'07.

    The summer improvements made the this roster will also help their quest for that eighth spot. Tim Connolly solidifies the top six forwards, while Matthew Lombardi will be a low-cost, high-potential new facet. In terms of defending their own goal, John-Michael Liles, Cody Franson and the recently re-signed Luke Shenn coagulate a slowly improving 'D'.

    With a bit of luck, Toronto just might finally find themselves in the postseason when next April rolls around.

    Projected Top Scorer: Nikolai Kulemin (37G, 28A, 65P)

    Projected Total Points: 96

    For a more detailed breakdown of why Toronto can make the playoffs this season, click here.

6. Philadelphia Flyers

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    Ilya Bryzgalov is on the brink of being the next big thing in Philadelphia and should immediately make an impact. "Bryz" has always been a great regular season goalie, so he should prosper behind the Flyers' strong defense and put up very impressive numbers.

    It's in the playoffs, though, where Bryzgalov will falter and leave some Philly fans wondering if he was worth the price. The 31-year-old netminder has made the playoffs four times over his five-year career, but has won just one series on his own and has a 12-16 career record in the postseason.

    So, the ultimate question: Was a top-10 goalie like him worth the price they paid? Not just the literal price—though it was a whopper in itself—but the resulting trades they were forced to make, sending off two major leaders in Jeff Carter and Mike Richards and losing two bright stars in Ville Leino and Kris Versteeg. How much Bryzgalov will improve this team is really yet to be determined, and, for now, we're saying it won't change a lot.

    A slip down to the 15th-to-20th range on offense could possibly counteract any improvement in goals against, forcing the Broadstreet Bullies out of the home-ice-advantage field of playoff teams.

    Projected Leading Scorer: Danny Briere (33G, 30A, 63P)

    Projected Total Points: 99

5. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    A few seasons of wear and tear will likely relegate this aging Lightning squad back down into the cellar, for, in truth, they're really one of the riskier elite teams even today. However, we see Dwayne Roloson enduring enough for another decent campaign, and St. Louis and Lecavalier not far enough into their 30's to start dropping off the map.

    The losses of significant scorers Simon Gagne, headed to Los Angeles, and playoff hero Sean Bergenheim, snatched up by the in-state rival Panthers, take away some of the mid-line depth that was one of Tampa Bay's greatest assets last season. Tom Pyatt and Ryan Shannon could be smart buys; it was really the stressful re-signing of Steven Stamkos that highlighted the summer for the Bolts.

    One positive note, conversely, is the defense, which might be prepared to have a breakout season. Victor Hedman (3G, 23A, +3 in '10-'11) is ready for the spotlight, and he'll appreciate better years from veterans Matthias Ohlund (just five points, minus-seven last year) and Pavel Kubina. Eric Brewer, a trade deadline acquisition from St. Louis, rounds out the top four.

    It's all a matter of survival for Tampa Bay, as injuries could devastate this already-shaky cast, but they'll play to live another day.

    Projected Leading Scorer: Steven Stamkos (46G, 52P, 98P)

    Projected Total Points: 100

4. Boston Bruins

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    Tim Thomas is a wonderful story and a fantastic goaltender, but there's no realistic way the Bruins can call on him for another performance as good as last season. At 36, Thomas may not have as much wear on his tires as it appears, but is still a tad creaky in the bones.

    The rest of the team's leaders are going to have to play top-notch for a repeat of their Stanley Cup victory. That's not to say we haven't seen them do it before; still, with their fellow elite competitors all improving more than the Bruins did this summer, Boston might be in danger of falling just short of a division crown.

    Joe Corvo replaces Tomas Kaberle on the back end, an equal exchange at best regardless of Kaberle's struggles, and the fact that the team's top scorer last year, Milan Lucic, had merely 30 scores (the second-lowest team-leading total among all of the top 14 offenses in '10-'11) means that some rivaling superstars might be able to outshine this even-keel group.

    Boston will, nevertheless, remain a contender, but we foresee another dark horse taking over their slot at the top of the Northeast.

    Projected Scoring Leader: Patrice Bergeron (31G-37A-68P)

    Projected Total Points: 107

3. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Everything the Pittsburgh Penguins have built a dynasty on now hangs in the balance. How will Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin's health fare this fall, and how effective will they be on the ice?

    If the answer isn't good, then a number of other difficulties might arise in Steel City. First of all, are Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz really capable of taking over No. 1 and No. 2 roles in a top-10 offense? Also, can moving-on-up prospects and Steve Sullivan be able to adequately replace Maxime Talbot, Michael Rupp, Chris Conner and Alex Kovalev? And how will the lower pairings of the Penguins D do with the added pressure?

    One steady factor that Pittsburgh will hopefully be able to rely on is Marc-Andre Fleury, who will hopefully be reliable enough to keep the Pens leading the Atlantic Division. Some emerging scorers like James Neal, Tyler Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis might be able to fill the gaps in the upper lines, as well, though that's definitely not yet set in stone.

    2010-2011 should be a testing season for the Penguins. We predict that they'll find a way to overcome their plethora of challenges, but their fate could easily swing the other way, too.

    Projected Leading Scorer (with Crosby and Malkin):  Sidney Crosby (39G-41A-80P)

    Projected Leading Scorer (without Crosby and Malkin): Jordan Staal (25G-37P-62P)

    Projected Total Points: 102

2. Buffalo Sabres

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    The Buffalo Sabres now have it all.

    Offense? Check. Derek Roy is returning from injury. Explosive Ville Leino was added to the elite crop already highlighted by Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford. Plus, youthful stars such as Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe and Luke Adam are primed for to become headline players.

    Defense? Check. Defensemen Christian Ehrhoff, a Stanley Cup finalist last June, and Robin Regehr are now Sabres. It's hard to go wrong with Tyler Myers and Andrej Sekera. Furthermore, with Chris Butler already gone and Shaone Morrisonn soon to be cleaned out, room has been made for fully-developed prospects Mike Weber and Marc-Andre Gragnani.

    And goaltending? An absolute check, because of just two words: Ryan Miller.

    For a full breakdown of why Buffalo is a club capable of overtaking Boston and contending for a Stanley Cup, read this earlier column of ours. But it's really not necessary, for the Sabres are, without doubt, a real contender once again.

    Projected Scoring Leader: Drew Stafford (39G-30A-69P)

    Projected Total Points: 108

1. Washington Capitals

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    The July signing of Tomas Vokoun makes the Washington Capitals the complete team.

    Although Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth (who remains on the team, actually) are both quality goalies, they don't hold a candle to the veteran star Vokoun. After finally escaping the anti-playoff Florida hellhole, the 35-year-old goaltender has the surroundings to see a renaissance in the U.S. capital.

    His arrival is also likely to set off a for-the-better chain reaction in the Caps strategy. The team dialed back immensely in their aggression to compensate for their inexperienced backstop Neuvirth, and it really hurt. NHL mega-star Alexander Ovechkin's production dropped to only 32 goals, and the team shockingly finished 19th in scoring.

    Now, a return to the old days of running up the scoreboard is in store for opponents. Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern and former Cup winner Troy Brouwer will provide strength beyond the stalwart top line, and Roman Hamrlik joins two existing top-notch offensive defensemen (particularily Mike Green and Dennis Wideman) back at the point.

    Postseason success hangs in the balance, but it sure looks like the Capitals have at least the regular season in the bag once again.

    Projected Leading Scorer: Alexander Ovechkin (48G-59P-107P)

    Projected Total Points: 113