Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Peerless' Peerless Rankings -- The Eastern Conference

1. Ottawa Senators

Why they will be better – Dany Heatley’s contract status is settled, Martin Gerber found his game (must have been lost in baggage last year after moving from Carolina), and they still have the most dominant top line in the NHL.

Why they won’t – No Stanley Cup final loser has made an appearance in the following year’s final since Edmonton won the Cup in 1984 after falling to the Islanders in 1983.

Key Player: Wade Redden. He is in the walk year of his contract, and there will be whispers of his being traded so long as that issue is unresolved. If it is a distraction, the Senators will suffer.

On paper…this is the best team in the East. It is deep, balanced, and experienced. But they will not reach the final.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins

Why they will be better – Experience. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the rest of the kids are a year older. They added some needed support on the wing (Petr Sykora) and on the back line (Darryl Sydor).

Why they wont – 24. No, not the TV show, the number of points they earned from Philadelphia and Washington last year. That was almost 23 percent of their 105 point total. Both of those clubs are much better this year, and so are the Rangers, against whom the Penguins were 5-1-2.

Key Player – Marc-Andre Fleury. He simply has not established a reputation as a big-game player. He might win 40 games again for the Penguins, but that might be a product of the prolific offense more than Fleury’s play. Here is something to consider – Fleury has not won a playoff series in his last six tries, going 4-17, with a GAA of 3.77 and a save percentage of .878.

On paper…this is the best offense in the NHL, and they will test the proposition that this is the next go-go version of the NHL. But their defense is not of similar talent, and if Fleury goes down to injury, what is the backup plan?

3. Washington Capitals

Why they will be better – The Capitals found the timing right to add talent to the developing home-grown mix. Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov, and Tom Poti address specific shortcomings on the club – a bona-fide playmaking center, a partner (either as a center or wing) for Alexander Ovechkin, and someone to eat minutes from the blue line and quarterback the top power play unit. Then there are the kids – Steve Eminger, Shaone Morrisonn, Boyd Gordon, Alexander Semin, for instance – who are a year older.

Why they won’t – The defense is still very green. Only Poti and Brian Pothier are as old as 30. And, the club is trying to integrate a lot of new parts; Nylander, Kozlov, and Poti come from different organizations, and the Caps have several additions who were in Hershey last year.

Key Player – Olaf Kolzig. He is the straw that stirs the drink in terms of the team’s personality. And he’s hinted that he will not be as accommodating regarding what he sees in front of him this year. He has to play around 60 games for this team to have a chance, but he’s seen his minutes decline in each year since his Vezina year on 1999-2000.

On paper…this team suffers the same problem as every other team in its division – serious flaws among some considerable talent. But this team has perhaps more upside in the talent it’s bringing in, and it has the second best player in the league, perhaps looking to demonstrate that last year’s 46-46-92 “disappointment” won’t be repeated.

Buffalo Sabres

Why they will be better – It is hard to see how they will be. You don’t remove your top two centers, not to mention Teppo Numminen to a medical condition and expect things to get better, despite the Sabres’ depth.

Why they won’t – The aforementioned losses, and perhaps the hangover of being expected last year to reach the final. And, despite Ryan Miller’s gaudy statistics going back to his college days, he’s been good enough to fall just short of the big dance.

Key Player – Miller. The Sabres are still very deep at forward and have a capable defense, but more pressure will fall on Miller to be the rock that backstops the whole affair.

On paperBuffalo will slip a notch or two, but they are still a formidable club that is engineered for the new NHL.

5. New York Rangers

Why they will be better – As much attention as has been lavished on the two centers – Scott Gomez and Chris Drury – in free agency, Henrik Lundqvist is a bona fide stud in goal who can carry this talented, but flawed team on his back.

Why they won’t – The Rangers can’t help themselves. Not content with signing a top free agent center, they had to have two. It looks real pretty, but they might spend the first month figuring out which one (if either of them) can play with Jaromir Jagr. It’s as close to “management-by-checkbook” as you can come in the CBA-era, and the Rangers did really well with that strategy before the lockout, didn’t they?

Key Player – Jaromir Jagr. Naturally…if he’s happy, the world is Mary Richards tossing her beret into the crisp winter sky. If he’s not, he’s the Diva from Hell.

On paper…this team is, for the moment, all on paper. History – their own, as a matter of fact – suggests that the strategy they are employing will not be nearly as successful as they might hope.

6. New Jersey Devils

Why they will be better – Refreshment. Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski are gone, but in their place is the new blood of Dainius Zubrus and Vitali Vishnevski, as well as greater roles for Andy Greene, Zach Parise, and Travis Zajac to complement a solid veteran core. Besides, there is that Brodeur guy in the back, and they’re in new digs. Things just might be, well…”fresh.”

Why they won’t – All good things must end. The Devils have been a playoff staple since before Washington crossed the Delaware into Trenton in 1776. And, here is your Devils number to ponder – 4,100. Martin Brodeur has played at least 4,100 minutes in nine of the last 10 seasons, including almost 4,700 minutes last year, the most of his career. Last year, it started to show late.

Key Player – Kevin Weekes. No, really. If Weekes can’t spell Brodeur effectively, this club could slip all the way out of the playoffs.

On steady as the Devils have been, they are teetering on the brink of a fall. It isn't likely to be this year, but they can see it from here.

Carolina Hurricanes

Why they will be better – The hangover from the Stanley Cup win has worn off. Some key guys slipped last year (Cam Ward, Eric Staal), and a rebound might be in order. Freak of Nature Rod Brind’Amour will probably get 80 points, win a gazillion faceoffs, and bench press Raleigh.

Why they won’t – Everything came together in the Stanley Cup year, supplemented by such as Mark Recchi and Doug Weight, who are elsewhere. And there is the matter of Ward…was he a one-note wonder? Is he the guy who won the Conn Smythe in 2006, or is he the 2.93, .897 decent-if-not-special goalie of last year?

Key Player – Brind’Amour. Since the retirement of Ron Francis, Brind’Amour has been the heart and soul of the club. He does everything right, including get under the skin of opponents. He has to maintain his level of play demonstrated the last couple of years for everything else to fall into place.

On paper…this club is somewhere between the Cup winner of 2006 and the 11th-place finisher of last year. They can probably sustain injuries better than any other team in the Southeast. That will be a consideration in a division as tight as that one is.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Why they’ll be better – they are deeper at goaltender with the addition of Vesa Toskala and more potent on offense with the addition of Jason Blake.

Why they won’t – Pressure is always going to be an issue for a team that plays before fans who think a Stanley Cup an entitlement of residence. And, the defense isn’t really any better than the one that was 12th in the East in goals allowed last year.

Key Player – Mats Sundin. Sundin is one of the most reliably consistent players in the history of the sport. 1,232 games, 1,245 points. It isn’t much different looking at his numbers year-by-year. Wind him up, watch him get a point a game. And only once in a full season has he played less than 75 games. Does he have another in him, considering he will be 37 in February?

On paper…the Leafs are marginally better than last year, and given how close they were last year, they should get over the hump this year. But if they start slow, and the fans get annoyed…

Tampa Bay Lightning

Why they will be better – We got nothing here. They seem to have marked time with the players swapped in and out. Marc Denis can play at the level expected when he joined the club, they could squeak in.

Why they won’t – Goaltending and an unbalanced lineup. Denis and Johan Holmqvist don’t, at the moment, scare many shooters. And after you get past the big three of Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Martin St. Louis, the skaters aren’t particularly fearsome, either, especially since losing Dan Boyle for several weeks to a freakish skate injury in his locker room. Last, the club might just finally tune out John “Genghis” Tortorella.

Key Player – Chris Gratton. He is one of the more underachieving players of the last decade. He has the physical tools, but has never really ever put together the kind of year that justified his third-overall pick in 1993 by...the Lightning. He has to provide some support to the big-three.

On paper…this club looks too much like last year’s club, and another year of Tortorella’s rants and Tom Coughlin-esque discipline isn’t a plus.

Philadelphia Flyers

Why they will be better – They retooled a ghastly lineup with players such as: Daniel Briere, Scottie Upshall, Martin Biron, and Joffrey Lupul. Besides, they can’t possible be worse than last year’s franchise low 56 points. They would be better by accident.

Why they won’t – Martin Biron. The loser of the Sabres Sweepstakes for starting goalie, he was moved to Philadelphia. The thing is, is he a bona fide number one goaltender for a playoff contender? And, there are so many new parts for coach John Stevens to try to integrate.

Key Player – Simon Gagne. He’s pretty much the grand old man of the Flyers in terms of service, not to mention their most accomplished winger. He has to be the glue that binds the new parts and keeps the notoriously cranky Philadelphia fans off the Flyers’ backs.

On paper…they are better, by a lot. But it just isn’t possible to tell how all the new parts will fit. If this team makes the playoffs, Stevens deserves Adams Trophy consideration.

Florida Panthers

Why they will be better – They will have (they hope) stability in goal with Tomas Vokoun. He faced a ton of shots in Nashville, but still ranked high on the usual statistical lists. They also have another year of experience under the belts of Jay Bouwmeester and Nathan Horton, both of whom had fine years last year, and have Olli Jokinen, who has 180 points in two seasons since the lockout.

Why they won’t – Depth. It is not an especially deep team, especially at forward. The Caps tried Richard Zednik as a top winger. It didn’t work here; it won’t work there.

Key Player – Vokoun. Any consideration of this as a playoff team is largely predicated on his playing, playing a lot (he’s missed a major chunk of last season to injury and suffered a blood clots late in the previous season), and playing well.

On paper…this is a team that can win the Southeast, just like any of the other four could. But this team seems to lack the upside Washington has in terms of talent and emerging youngsters, and is not a deep as Carolina. They’ll need help to win this division.

Montreal Canadiens

Why they will be better – they won’t. They won’t be much worse, but this might be a year of pause for the Canadiens. Then again, if Carey Price does this year what he did last year as a late arrival in goal in Hamilton

Why they won’t – Whatever one thinks of that -28 Sheldon Souray put up, he was a monster on the power play. This might be a year to work some of those Calder Cup winning Bulldogs into the lineup…growing pains will ensue.

Key Player – Saku Koivu. He’s been inspirational once with his comeback from medical problems; now he has to be inspirational in another way. The Canadiens are in the midst of swapping out some parts and working youth into the roster. He is the guy who has to lead and inspire on the ice and in the locker room.

On paper...the Canadiens had their power play ripped apart, and there isn't enough elsewhere on the roster to make up for that. It wasn't a very good 5-on-5 team last year, and it won't be this year.

Atlanta Thrashers

Why they will be better – a year’s experience for Kari Lehtonen, who is among the best young goalies in the league. Ilya Kovalchuk, who seems to have been lost in the wash of the Crosby-Ovechkin tidal wave, should have a better year than the 42-34-76, -2 year he had last year.

Why they won’t – Fo’ and no mo’. That obliteration by the Rangers in the first round of last year’s playoffs can have the effect of stunting the growth of a young team, especially with respect to a young goaltender. And, since Atlanta had a long history of frustration before last year’s first-ever playoff appearance, a step back – and a big one – might be in the offing.

Key Player – Lehtonen. If last year’s spring swoon put some steel in his spine, he has more than enough talent to be a force to carry this team through rough patches. If it plays in his head, this team is headed for a big fall.

On paper…this club is explosive enough on offense with Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa, and sturdy enough (on paper) with Lehtonen in goal to reach the 97 points they earned last year. But this is a club that didn’t finish all that well in the regular season last year, either (14-12-3 from February 1 on). As much as, perhaps, Washington, this club could be very, very good…or very, very bad.

Boston Bruins

Why they will be better – A healthy Phil Kessel and Manny Fernandez in goal. That Kessel had 29 point in 70 games after undergoing treatment for cancer had to rank among the best stories in the NHL last year. Fernandez was pretty much “Wally Pipped” out of the lineup in Minnesota by Niklas Backstrom, playing one game after January 30th after suffering a knee injury. If he’s healthy, he helps upgrade the position.

Why they won’tBoston’s defense, once you get past Zdeno Chara, simply isn’t very good (they weren’t much with him…14th in the East in goals allowed). This just isn’t a talent-rich team, the big signings of Chara and Marc Savard last year, notwithstanding.

Key Player – Fernandez. He’s the only real addition on the defensive side of the ledger. If the Bruins are go make any move, he’s got to play very well, despite what will be in front of him.

On paper…the Bruins aren’t awful, but it is hard to find an upside or a spot where a breakthrough could really come out of their roster.

New York Islanders

Why they will be better – The only way this happens is…well, no…there isn’t any way this happens.

Why they won’t -- Gee, where to start…they lost Jason Blake, rental Ryan Smyth, Viktor Kozlov, Tom Poti, Alexei Yashin (ok, we’ll give you that one), another rental Richard Zednik, Sean Hill, and cab fare to Uniondale. And that was from a roster (less the rentals) we thought was a mortal lock to be dead last, last season. Plus, their front office is still bats.

Key Player – Rick DiPietro. One has to feel for the kid. He’s matured into a fine, not to mention entertaining goaltender. But he’s got so little in front of him, there will be a lot of long nights. If he survives to April, he should get some Vezina consideration.

On paper...this is the worst team in the East. But for DiPietro, this is a club that would be a mortal lock for worst record in the league. As it is, they'll have to settle for "just about the worst."