We’re a bit tardy with this, but we are in the bidness of prognosticating, so here is the East…
The good: Power play (tops in the league last year) and balance (seven players with 50+ points last year, six of whom return, and four players with at least five game-winning goals, all of whom return).
The bad: Carey Price won his last seven regular season decisions last year, then went 5-6 in the playoffs, was sat down in favor of Jaroslav Halak before returning to lose the clinching game in the second round to Philadelphia. Price might be the gold standard for goaltenders in the NHL someday, but he’s having to contend right now with being the unquestioned number one in the biggest fishbowl in the league.
Outlook: Price will need some time to grow into his role, but he’ll do that. As for the rest of the team, Montreal returns a formidable power play. One might wonder if Alex Kovalev can, at age 35, duplicate his point-plus-per game output of last year (84 points in 82 games). Robert Lang might take some of the scoring load off Kovalev’s shoulders, but he is the consolation prize in the Mats Sundin sweepstakes. Still, Montreal is the most complete team in the East.
The good: Strength down the middle with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal (if he doesn’t play on the wing), goaltending, a year’s worth of experience for the youngsters.
The bad: Injuries already taking a toll on the blue line, comparatively weak wingers, the potential for the Stanley Cup loser swoon.
Outlook: Much is made of the Penguins losing Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney for extended periods. While both are somewhat underrated in the defensive end of the ice, neither is the most important ingredient there. And, since the power play essentially runs through the Crosby/Malkin axis, the Penguins should be able to tweak their power play to accommodate the loss. However, the Penguins cannot any repeats of “high ankle sprain syndrome.” If Marc-Andre Fleury goes down, this becomes an iffy playoff team. What might scare Eastern conference opponents is the “anything you can do, I can do better” exchange between Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin won the Calder three years ago; Crosby won the Hart, Ross, and Pearson two years ago; Ovechkin won those three and the Richard last year. It’s Crosby’s “turn.”
The good: The Caps’ history had been one of earnest defense and lunch pail forwards who checked teams all over the ice. Well, not this team. The Caps could have three point-per-game players (Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom – all of whom are under 25) and half a dozen players with more than 50 points.
The bad: Uncertainty in goal. Jose Theodore won the Vezina and Hart Trophies in 2002, but has been very inconsistent since. He has to achieve a higher level of consistency for the still-young Caps to make the playoffs and go deep. And, that youth is still an issue, especially on the blue line, where four of the six roster defensemen are 25 or younger.
Outlook: The Caps are, in general, a lot like last year’s team, and not because they return virtually everyone (the notable exception being the rental goalie, Cristobal Huet). Last year, we noted that the Caps would be much better late than they would be early, and this was true (much of it owing to the installation of Bruce Boudreau to unleash the fury of the Caps’ precocious offensive talent). They will be, once more, better late than early, a product of their still-developing youth core. And, they get Chris Clark and Michael Nylander back from injury, which, compared to the team that finished the season, is like getting two free agents of importance.
4. New Jersey
The good: It all still starts with Martin Brodeur, who while he gave some indications late last year (a five-game losing streak in late March) that 75-plus game, 4,000-plus minute seasons are not wise at this stage of his career, is still the gold standard for performance and consistency. New Jersey won 46 games last year with a goal differential of 0.07 goals/game. Brodeur knows how to play on thin margins of a lead. That won’t change.
The bad: They will still have to find scoring from somewhere. John Madden – a checking center – was fourth on the club in scoring last year. Brian Rolston – returning to the Devils this year – had 30-plus goals in each of his three seasons in Minnesota. He’ll need to contribute something close to that this year, or the Devils might find themselves on the short side of that thin margin.
Outlook: It’s already something of a war of attrition in the Atlantic – Philadelphia is seeing its blue line decimated, Pittsburgh has lost Gonchar and Whitney, there are questions about Henrik Lundqvist’s knees in New York. The Devils could win this division merely by staying healthy and holding on when (if?) the others get healthy. Nevertheless, their defensive orientation will keep them in just about every game they play. There shouldn’t be much in terms of long losing streaks…unless, perhaps, Brodeur is inching over that 75-games played pace again.
The good: Despite the signing of Daniel Briere in free agency last year, the Flyers became Mike Richards’ team. He is one of the most complete players in the league, who more than doubled his point output last year from the 2006-2007 season. Add to that the likes of Jeff Carter, Scott Hartnell, Joffrey Lupul, and Scottie Upshall – all of whom are 26 or younger, and it is a formidable and young group of forwards that should improve.
The bad: Defense – three defensemen (Derian Hatcher, Ryan Parent, and Randy Jones) are all injured. Steve Eminger, who couldn’t get into a Caps game without a ticket last year, might be a top-four defenseman on this club for the foreseeable future. And, there is the matter of backup goaltender Antero Niittymaki, who had hip surgery in September.
Outlook: The Flyers do get Simon Gagne back, and his contribution will be important to the Flyers, especially early as they try to weather the storm of injuries on the blue line. Martin Biron took a big leap forward as a number one goaltender last year, and he is going to have to play at a similarly high level for the Flyers to keep within reach early in the Atlantic.
The good: The Miller Watch is over. Gone is the speculation of his returning to Michigan to play for the Red Wings, his having signed a five-year, $31.5 million contract. The removal of that distraction should be enough to enable Miller to avoid the ever so slight slip in production he had last year over his 2006-2007 season. And speaking of focus, a year removed from a big new contract might allow Thomas Vanek to rebound from a year that saw his production drop by seven goals, 20 points, and -52 (no, that’s not a misprint) from the previous season).
The bad: One of the hallmarks of recent Sabre teams that were successful was their balance. Two years ago, they had eight players with at least 50 points and defenseman Brian Campbell with 48. Last year – with Daniel Briere, Chris Drury gone, and Brian Campbell shipped to San Jose at the trading deadline, the Sabres had only three players with 50-plus points. The Sabres, despite Vanek’s high-end contract, don’t really have any high-end offensive talent -- Vanek has to show he wasn’t a one-year wonder, and Maxim Afinogenov has to show that last year’s 28 points in 56 games was an aberration. Derek Roy and Jason Pominville both had 80 or more points, and could be those high-end talents. But the Sabres seem a bit thin after that.
Outlook: The Sabres are a good, not great team with a very good coach leading them in Lindy Ruff. That, by itself, should be sufficient to get a top-eight spot. But there isn’t an indication that the Sabres have enough opportunity for improvement from their current roster to make a bigger leap. They are not the team they were two years ago, although they will be better than last year.
The good: Carolina lost Rod Brind’Amour and Matt Cullen for 23 games apiece, and Ray Whitney for another 16 games, and still came within an eyelash of winning the Southeast. Those are three solid pros who can only make the Hurricanes stronger this year, provided they are healthy. They added some punch on the blue line in Joni Pitkanen and some grit up front in Dan LaCouture. Carolina is a team of pros who might not have much in the way of long winning streaks (one five game winning streak last year), but neither will they have long losing streaks (one four-game streak last year).
The bad: Health. Justin Williams is already on the shelf for 4-6 months with a torn Achilles tendon, this on top of missing 45 games last year to a torn ACL and a back injury. Brind’Amour had knee surgery in September, but was available to start the season. In goal, Cam Ward is not a “bad” goaltender, but he has not quite lived up to the Conn Smythe level of performance he had in the playoffs three years ago. If the Hurricanes are to make the post-season, his level of play has to come up a notch.
Outlook: Carolina is a team that is likely to spend the whole season in the weeds, lurking around that eighth spot in the conference. An injury here, a slump there, and they fall below the line. If they suffer no other key injuries, if Eric Staal is truly a point-a-game player, if Brind’Amour – something of a fitness freak of nature – returns to his career form, this is a playoff team. Ultimately, though, it might come down to a guy like Sergei Samsonov, who gave no indication in Edmonton, Montreal, or Chicago that he could reclaim the production level he had in his early years in Boston, but who had 14 goals in 38 games for the Hurricanes. If that wasn’t a fluke, the Hurricanes make the playoffs. But if it was…
8. Ottawa Senators
The good: They have the best first line in the NHL. Since the lockout, Dany Heatley (47-50-97, +31), Daniel Alfredsson (37-56-93, +29), and Jason Spezza (29-61-90), have had average annual production unmatched across the top forward line. In Mike Fisher and Chris Neil, they have the grit that Senator teams of the early part of the decade seemed to lack, and provide adequate production as well. They added a little more sandpaper with professional annoyance, Jarkko Ruutu, who will no doubt leave in his wake a number of towns crying foul at his style of play.
The bad: The Senators are a team without a clear bona fide number one goaltender. Martin Gerber has one 30-plus win season to his credit in five years in the NHL. Alex Auld, ditto, in three full seasons. In Auld’s case, he has only one season playing more than half his team’s games (60 appearances in Vancouver in 2005-2006). Is either the guy to shoulder the load for the Senators?
Outlook: Ottawa had a disappointing year last season, going 27-28-8 in their last 63 games and a sweep out of the first round of the playoffs (by Pittsburgh) after a 16-3-0 start. One would think that this is an experienced enough team with enough professional pride to make amends for that kind of a finish. They will be able to score, and they have a decent blue line group. But the iffy nature of their goaltending will have them hovering around that eighth spot all year.
9. New York Rangers
The good: Addition by subtraction. For all his talent, Jaromir Jagr held the NHL franchise of soap opera diva episodes. There was too much attention paid to him by the media, and perhaps the club itself, to the detriment of what is ultimately a team exercise. Scott Gomez and Chris Drury – both of whom have Stanley Cup rings – can assume the leadership roles on the ice, and coach Tom Renney doesn’t have to worry about what will offend or otherwise set off his moody star.
The bad: We’re not sold on the off season acquisitions – Wade Redden, Nikolai Zherdev, Markus Naslund. It smacks too much of the indiscriminant buying up of assets earlier in the decade. And, there is the matter of Henrik Lundqvist. There were reports of knee problems in the summer, and while he might be fine for the moment, that’s a warning sign. Steve Valiquette, who did get 13 games of work last year, performing very well in his role, will have to assume at least that level of work this year. And, this is a club that performed rather poorly in the absence of uber-pest Sean Avery last year. It is not a tougher team this time around.
Outlook: This is a club that, with a more settled group last year, finished only five points to the good in the playoff race. They had an odd finish in that nine of their last 16 games went to extra time (they were 4-5 in those games). If those five extra time losses were lost in regulation, the Rangers would not have made the playoffs. That was how tight the East was last year and how tight it is likely to be once more. We just don’t see this team, as it is constructed, being better than last year’s.
The Good: Boston was better than the sum of its parts last year. They made the playoffs having been outscored by ten goals over the course of the season. Peter Chiarelli and Claude Julien did a fine job. Much of that team returns, and the Bruins regain the services of Patrice Bergeron, who played in only ten games last year due to a concussion. Zdeno Chara will be a Norris contender once more.
The Bad: Playing better than the sum of your parts can work for awhile, but it is tough to maintain that level of effort with a collection of talent such as Boston has. It is a group that doesn’t have a lot in the way of high-end talent, and the Bruins will struggle to score. They had only one player last year with more than 35 assists (by way of comparison, the Caps had four, and Michael Nylander might have been a fifth had his season not been cut short).
Outlook: The Bruins probably overachieved last year. This year’s club will, just as it did last year, depend a lot on goaltender Tim Thomas. Thomas was superb down the stretch, going 5-2-2 in his last nine games, 1.87, .933. It’s likely he’ll have to be just as good, if not better, given the Bruins’ talent mix and the fact that the backup – Manny Fernandez – is coming back from missing vitually the entire 2007-2008 season. The Bruins will battle, but they just don’t have the horses.
The good: The defense and goaltending should be very good, better, in fact, than an also-ran might be expected to have. Jay Bouwmeester will anchor the blue line for 60 games or so (we’ll get to that). The Bryans – Allen and McCabe – will provide some solid play there, too. Tomas Vokoun, who struggled at times over the first two thirds of the season, finished strong and still managed to post the second best save percentage of his career.
The bad: It’s hard to avoid hearing that clock ticking – the one counting down the days until Bouwmeester is traded, and that could hang over the Panthers all year. Plus, one has to wonder where they will get their scoring from. The Panthers have one returning 50-plus point producer (Nathan Horton). You’re thinking Richard Zednik’s return will matter?...he’s never had a 50-plus point season. Cory Stillman isn’t going to fill the void left by the departure of Olli Jokinen.
Outlook: Florida will be a team that will be difficult to beat, given the talent on their defense and their goaltending (Craig Anderson allowed more than three goals only twice in 17 appearances as Vokoun’s backup). But this team might not score more than three goals twice in 17 games. After Nathan Horton, who will now be asked to be the go-to guy on this team, the attack is thin. Florida might hang around longer than one would expect, given that they play in the comparatively weak Southeast, but they won’t be there at the end.
12. Tampa Bay
The Good: They will have firepower in Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and rookie Steven Stamkos (although later, rather than sooner, in his case).
The Bad: Welcome to the NHL fine forward farewell tour. Mark Recchi (40), Gary Roberts (42), Chris Gratton (33), Jeff Halpern (32, and who won’t be available until December as he rehabs his knee), Vaclav Prospal (33). In an NHL that has become a young man’s game after the lockout, Tampa Bay looks to have gone the route of the NFL’s Washington Redskins of a few years ago…gathering up an all star team…from half a dozen years ago (and this isn't an all star team). Tampa Bay tried to shore up the defensive side of the ledger late in the game, but Andrej Meszaros and Matthew Carle don’t seem likely to be the answers. This looks more like a fantasy team than a real life hockey team.
Outlook: Jamie Heward might be a 20-minute-a-night defenseman on this club. When he averaged almost 22 minutes for the Caps in 2005-2006, the Caps were a 70-point team. That’s not a knock on Heward as much as it is what Tampa Bay has built around him. Maybe ownership will learn (like many before them) that sports franchises aren’t “some assembly required” kits, but it won’t be this year.
The Good: It would be tempting to say, “Ilya Kovalchuk,” and shut up. That wouldn’t be entirely true, though. The defense – with Ron Hainsey, Tobias Enstrom, Garnet Exelby, and Mathieu Schneider mentoring Zach Bogosian – won’t be that bad. Kari Lehtonen, if he stays upright, can be a very good goalie.
The bad: Outside of Kovalchuk, who scores for the Thrashers? Although new coach John Anderson will feature an aggressive style, this is a team that will have difficulty scoring more nights than not.
Outlook: Some nights, this will look like a very good team, usually when Kovalchuk is having one of his explosive efforts. But there won't be enough of them. The Thrashers are just too thin on the top two lines in scoring talent to take advantage of their coach's philosophy on a consistent basis.
The good: Vesa Toskala is a competent goalie. Curtis Joseph – at this point in his career – could be an adequate backup. After that…this team is a mess. Is Nik Antropov anything better than a 25-30-55 player? Probably not. Can Jason Blake rebound from the effects of illness and a 25-goal drop-off that he had last year? Probably not. Is Alexander Steen ready to make the next big leap forward? Probably not, not on this team. Will Jamal Mayers improve on the -19, -22, -19, and -19 he’s posted the last four years? Probably not.
The bad: Look at the team picture.
Outlook: This will be one long year of imagining John Tavares in a Maple Leaf uniform. But, true to the Leafs recent history, they’ll finish just out of the money for that pick, unless the right ping-pong ball comes up.
15. NY Islanders
The good: The June 2009 draft. No, seriously…Kyle Okposo will grow into a very good player. Ditto for Josh Bailey. Through pain is strength obtained. Rick DiPietro can still steal a game here and there.
The bad: Everything else. They were last in scoring last year, 23rd in goals allowed, 29th on the power play, 19th in penalty killing. It hardly figures that the Islanders will improve, even adding Doug Weight and Mark Streit. And as for DiPietro, he is apparently still having some lingering issues with his surgically-repaired knee. Jon Sim is back, so maybe there are four wins against Washington in there somewhere.
Outlook: The Islanders and Toronto look to be having their own pennant race of sorts – that being to get the top overall pick in next June’s draft. The Islanders look to have the inside track on this owing to Toronto’s penchant for fading late…in this case winning more often come March. Scott Gordon has his work cut out for him behind the Islanders’ bench.