Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Your Peerless Prognostos for the 2009-2010 Season -- The Eastern Conference

We’ve covered the Capitals in some detail, now it’s time to get to the 2009-2010 league prognostications. First up, the East…

1. Boston

The good… They are perhaps the team most equipped in the East to lose a 36-goal scorer like Phil Kessel. Even with that loss, they are the deepest, most balanced team in the East. That is reflected in the fact that they had the largest goals-for/goal-against differential last year (+0.97/game) and return just about all of their team. The reason they had such a large differential wasn’t so much their offense, but their defense. And with the unorthodox Tim Thomas coming back in goal, Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman returning on the blue line, the Bruins should rank highly in the goals allowed category once more.

The bad… Thomas played in only 54 games last year. The Bruins got 28 games of quality relief from Manny Fernandez (16-8-3, 2.59, .910), who has been replaced by Tuukka Rask, an unproven, if very promising rookie. Can Thomas duplicate last year’s numbers getting 60-65 games or more? His high in games played is 66 in a season, and he had a 3.13 goals against that season.

The key… The Bruins are a largely known quantity. But in goal, while Thomas is the guy on whom the Bruins will depend in the playoffs, in the regular season they have to get 20 or so games worth of quality play out of Rask. If they don’t, it’s likely to be the difference between a one-seed and a five- or six-seed. The East will be that close.

2. Washington

The good… The Caps are good enough to be the highest scoring team in the league. They could be that rare team in the past decade to top 300 goals. Alex Ovechkin will enter the season as a favorite to win his third consecutive Hart Trophy, but Alexander Semin could top 40 goals, and Mike Green could top 30 again (he had 31 last year). Nicklas Backstrom could finish with 100 or more points. And the power play, which finished last season with the second highest success rate this decade, is likely to be – on paper – even better with the addition of Mike Knuble.

The bad… The goaltending situation is unsettled, which might not be a crippling problem in the regular season, but it would be in the playoffs. Jose Theodore has not been a model of consistency and was pulled after one game in last year’s playoffs in favor of Semyon Varlamov and his six games of NHL experience. Varlamov played in 13 playoff games and was brilliant early. Later?... not so much. Were weaknesses discovered that other teams could exploit this year? The third man in this play – Michal Neuvirth – might have the best long-term potential, and he won a championship at Hershey last year. But he starts the season injured and will play, for now, in Hershey again. As for the defense, it is deep, but that doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” There are a lot of NHL-capable defensemen, but not a single shutdown defender in the bunch.

The key… Can the Caps’ defense and goaltending come together over 82 games to make them a formidable playoff team? Can they solve their maddening tendencies toward undisciplined play and the occasional lack of focus that allows teams back into games that should not be competitive? If not, they will be susceptible to the same sort of forechecking and shot making onslaught that the Penguins used to success last spring.

3. Philadelphia

The good… The snarl is back. Teams have personalities, and that of the Flyers dating back to the 1970’s has been one of a team that would just as soon beat you up as beat you. The Flyers will employ three of the top penalty minute accumulators from last year – Daniel Carcillo, Riley Cote, and Ian Laperriere. Braydon Coburn and Chris Pronger are hardly shrinking violets on the blue line. Even goalie Ray Emery will drop ‘em. Despite that edgy sort of personality, the Flyers finished last year fifth in the league in scoring, and they return their top four scorers. And, the Flyers led the NHL in shorthanded goals last year. The group that led that effort – Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Simon Gagne (15 of the 16 shorthanded goals) returns.

The bad… The Flyers were second in the NHL in total shorthanded situations faced last year. They seem to have spent the offseason intent on overtaking Tampa Bay for the league lead. Philly finished sixth in penalty killing last year (83.0 percent). They’d better be at least that good this year. Then there is the matter of goaltending, long an Achilles heel with this franchise. Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki have been swapped out in favor of Ray Emery and Brian Boucher. We are not thinking that is an improvement, but more a sideways sort of move.

The key… Emery. If he’s the 2007 version of the model (33 wins, 2.47 GAA, .918 save percentage), the Flyers are likely to be a Stanley Cup contender. If he’s the 2008 model (12 wins, 3.13 GAA, .890 save percentage), the Flyers could find themselves battling just to get into the postseason.

4. Pittsburgh

The good… Twice defending Eastern Conference champion, defending Stanley Cup champion, and the none of the core of their team – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal – have yet reached the age of 25. They boast a formidable offense (sixth in the league last year), and yet their gifted offensive players also play with a sense of defensive responsibility. This is a team that now plays for the spring.

The bad… They will not be as good defensively as last year. Dress it up, pretty it up any way you want, but Jay McKee and Alex Goligoski is not an upgrade over Rob Scuderi (departed for Los Angeles) and Hal Gill (Montreal). Is it a large drop-off? No, although the loss of Scuderi will be felt. The Penguins could use a healthy year out of Mark Eaton, who has played in at least 70 games in a season only once in nine seasons (he’s missed 107 games in three years with Pittsburgh). Oh, and the power play needs to be more like the one they had in the playoffs (20.6 percent) than the one they had in the regular season (17.2 percent).

The key… the blue line. The Penguins are deep at forward, and they have a good balance of skill and grit up front. Fleury is now a battle-tested goalie, not the playoff averse netminder who disappointed early in his career. But the defense? They have offensive skill in Sergei Gonchar and an emerging Alex Goligoski. But they do not look to be as sturdy in their own end, even if they did sign Martin Skoula today.

5. New Jersey

The good… One would be hard pressed to find any team in all of professional team sports as consistently excellent as the Devils. They have reached the 100-point mark in the standings in ten of the past dozen seasons (they finished the other years with 95 and 99 points). They have been in the playoffs in each of those last dozen years, and they’ve been to the Stanley Cup finals three times (winning twice). Winning is a habit in New Jersey. Last year, even with goalie Martin Brodeur held to 31 games due to injury, the Devils finished with 106 points. They might be the sexy pick to experience a drop-off, but we’ll believe it when we see it.

The bad… Martin Brodeur logged more than 4,000 minutes in ten consecutive seasons before missing most of last year with a torn biceps in his left arm. He came back and finished a respectable 13-7-1, 2.67, .916. He was 3-2, 1.76, .947 in the first five games of the opening round of the playoffs against Carolina. Then he imploded. Eight goals on 68 shots, two coming in the last 80 seconds of the season, as the Devils lost games 6 and 7, and the series. Is Brodeur, after all this time, finally mortal?

The key… Yann Danis. You heard right. The Devils are skilled, balanced, professional, well-managed. In the past dozen years, it’s been wind ‘em up, watch them get 100 points. It’s also been watch Marty get 40 wins (seven times in ten years until last season). But, is Marty at that point in his career where he needs his minutes dialed down? And that brings us to Danis and his 37 games of NHL experience. Actually, he was quite respectable for a gawd-awful Islanders team last year (10-17-3, 2.86, .910, two shutouts). If he can give the Devils 15-20 games of quality relief (no Devil backup played in more than 13 games until last year since Mike Dunham played in 26 games in 1996-1997), the Devils could get more out of Brodeur in the spring.

6. Carolina

The good… Nine members of the team that skated around the ice with the Stanley Cup on the last night of the 2006 playoffs are still skating for Carolina – Rod Brind’Amour, Erik Cole, Matt Cullen, Chad LaRose, Eric Staal, Ray Whitney, Aaron Ward, Niclas Wallin, and Cam Ward. They are a veteran group that knows that the season is a marathon, not a sprint. They had 19 players with at least ten points last year (21 the year before that), nine with at least ten goals (the same as the previous year), indicative of a philosophy that emphasizes a certain amount of balance.

The bad… The flip side of having all of those players from the 2006 Stanley Cup championship team is, well, they’ll be four years older next spring. Brind’Amour will be 39, Whitney will be 38 if the Hurricanes make it deep into the playoffs, Wallin will be 35. This sort of thing seems to work for the Detroit Red Wings, but we’re not so sure it works here. Besides, Brind’Amour finished 884th among 885 skaters last year in plus-minus. Plus-minus might be an overworked number, but finishing 884th of 885 in anything can’t be good.

The key… Eric Staal. At some point, this will be his team. It might be now, even though Brind’Amour still wears the “C” in those parts. Statistically, he hasn’t matched in any of the past three years his 100-point season of 2005-2006, but he might be a more rounded player at both ends of the ice at the age of 24. He is a formidable goal scorer (40 last year, the first time he’s done that since 2005-2006), was a plus player for the first time in his career (plus-15, best on the team), and he had his best year on faceoffs (although at 45.3 percent, he could stand to improve). He’s likely to need a bigger year if the Hurricanes are going to make much noise this year.

7. Buffalo

The good… Even though Ryan Miller missed 13 games last year to an ankle injury, the Sabres finished only two points out of a playoff spot. Even though three of their most important cogs at forward – Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, and Jochen Hecht – finished the year each having at least ten fewer points in 2008-2009 than in 2007-2008, the Sabres finished only those two points out of the playoffs. They remain a balanced team (five of the six players with more than 40 points return from last year’s team and all four of their 20-plus goal scorers).

The bad… The Sabres decided pretty much to hit rewind on their roster. They could feel the loss of defensemen Jaroslav Spacek and Teppo Numminen, if only because they didn’t do much to replace them. It will put pressure on those forwards mentioned above to rebound, and on Miller to repeat, if not improve upon, what was for him a career best last in GAA (2.53), save percentage (.918), and shutouts (five).

The key… Miller. If he’s healthy, the Sabres are a marginal playoff team. If he’s not, they might not be the best club in the state of New York, and in a state that includes the Islanders, that’s a problem.

8. Montreal

The good… The East is pretty weak once you get past the top-six. Frankly, that’s the only realistic hook on which the Canadiens can hang their hope for the playoffs. Having looked at the wreckage of the 2008-2009 season, the Habs decided to sweep it all away and more or less start over. In doing so, they brought in players who do have a history of performing – Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri. They will get offense from the blue line in Andrei Markov (since the lockout, Markov’s ranking in scoring among defensemen has jumped from 20th to 17th to sixth to second).

The bad… Montreal has the look of having exchanged disappointment (Alex Kovalev) for disappointment (Gomez), of size (Mike Komisarek) for size (Hal Gill), of scoring (Alex Tanguay) for scoring (Cammalleri). In other words, they look like they are marking time with different names on the backs of the jerseys. And the one constant from last year – Carey Price in goal (who turned 22 only last month) – needs to start realizing the potential he had when he was winning a Calder Cup championship.

The key… Bob Gainey. He sure can’t be faulted for being conservative. But one gets the impression that this club just isn’t quite, well, there in terms of the 2009-2010 season. If this club is close in February, it’s what Gainey does next that will be key.

9. New York Rangers

The good… The Rangers have one of the most skilled forwards in the game in Marian Gaborik. On a per-82 game basis, Gaborik has averaged 36 goals over his career. The Rangers haven’t had anyone score that many goals in a season since Jaromir Jagr netted 54 in 2005-2006. Before that, you’d have to go back to Eric Lindros and his 37 in 2001-2002. The Rangers still employ Henrik Lundqvist in a goaltending capacity. Durable (at least 70 games in the last three seasons), consistent (GAA of 2.43 or lower in the last three seasons), and often spectacular (save percentage of at least .912 in each of the last three seasons), he’s the foundation for this team.

The bad… Gaborik has missed 121 games over the past four years, including 65 games last year. Lundqvist, when he had to be the rock to protect a 3-1 games lead in last year’s playoffs, cracked. The Rangers’ blue line could be the weakest in the Atlantic Division (yes, weaker than the Islanders). And there is that Atlantic Division thing. 18 games against Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh is going to be difficult as a means to high conference standing.

The key… Gaborik. If he plays in 75-plus games, the Rangers are likely to be a playoff contender. Not a sure thing, but a contender. If he plays closer to his average the last four years (52), the Rangers have no hope, not unless Lundqvist’s GAA is around 1.50.

10. Atlanta

The good… Well, they still have Ilya Kovalchuk, for now at least. They have an emerging cornerstone defenseman in Zach Bogosian and a fine defenseman in his own right in Tobias Enstrom. Slava Kozlov did put up 76 points last year. Todd White finished with more points than did Dany Heatley. Coach John Anderson installed a style that allowed the Thrashers to take advantage of their offensive skills to finish ninth in scoring (and give the Caps fits by winning two of three games in Atlanta last year).

The bad… At some point, goalie Kari Lehtonen is going to have to deliver on his considerable potential and provide cover for an offensively-oriented team. In four full seasons, he has played in as many as 50 games once and has never finished with a GAA below 2.75. Part of the latter is a lack of talent in front of him, but the defense shows signs of improvement. It’s not like Lehtonen has played like Roberto Luongo in front of some bad Florida Panther teams, stopping everything in sight and still losing games.

The key… Kovalchuk. Lehtonen is what he is (and what he is at the moment is injured…again, still recuperating from offseason back surgery). But Kovalchuk can play happy – on a team that is contending for a playoff spot, playing a style that agrees with him, and that is trying to resign him. Or he can play unhappy – on a team mired in the basement, looking up at the playoffs through the fall and early winter, marking time until the Thrashers move him. But he has the look of a more mature player the last couple of years, and he can make things happy for the Thrashers and himself more than any other player.

11. Ottawa

The good… Heatley’s gone. After watching the slow bleeding abscess that was Jaromir Jagr over a year and a half of unhappiness here in Washington, we can appreciate that Ottawa is probably better by elimination by moving Dany Heatley to San Jose. They still have offensive talent in Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, and they will be players that opponents will still have to game-plan for. They added Alex Kovalev, who perhaps could benefit from the change in scenery from Montreal, and Milan Michalek from San Jose, who has 20-plus goals in each of the past three seasons.

The bad… The Senators are coming to the end of a generation. The very gifted teams of the early part of the decade are giving way to time. Heatley is gone. Alfredsson is 36. Spezza could be trade bait later this season (although a $7 million cap hit through 2015 would be quite a lump to swallow). Their goaltending is weak, which is not something we might have thought when newcomer Pascal Leclaire was posting nine shutouts in 2007-2008 with a weak Columbus team. Defensively, the Senators had only one blueliner who missed fewer than ten games last year (Chris Phillips). They’re not strong enough to deal with instability on the blue line.

The key… Leclaire. Somebody has to stop pucks. Last year Leclaire missed 48 games to an ankle injury, and Steve Mason took over for the Blue Jackets when presented with the opportunity, making Leclaire expendable. If he’s healthy, he will be an improvement on last year’s trio of Alex Auld, Martin Gerber, and Brian Elliott. If he’s not, this will be a long, long season for the Senators.

12. Florida

The good… Geez, can you name two Panthers? That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as once before there was a “no-name defense” playing in south Florida, and they won a championship. Such lofty ambitions are probably out of Florida’s grasp, but they do bring back nine of their top 11 scorers from last year. They added Scott Clemmensen to the goaltender roster (he of the 25 wins in relief of injured Martin Brodeur in New Jersey last year) to back up Tomas Vokoun.

The bad... Even with nine of their top 11 scorers coming back, they bring back no one who had more than 61 points. Nathan Horton has not yet lived up to his lofty number-three overall pick in the 2003 draft. Despite having a solid group of defenders, you can’t lose a Jay Bouwmeester and be better. Vokoun had a career year last year in save percentage (.926) and shutouts (six), and still the Panthers finished ninth (albeit only a tiebreaker out of the playoffs).

The key… Keith Ballard. With Bouwmeester and his 27 minutes a game gone off to Calgary, someone has to take his minutes. Ballard is likely to fill in much of the 3:24 in penalty killing time Bouwmeester skated last year, not to mention the 3:14 Karlis Skratins – now in Dallas – had (Ballard had 2:25, third on the team). He had better be up to it. Florida finished 17th in scoring last year and might not be better.

13. Toronto

The good… Well, the Maple Leafs will be entertaining. In 2003-2004, the Leafs won 45 games and reached the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Since then, they’ve won 41, 40, 36, and 34 games. See a trend? Enter Brian Burke as general manager. Presto-change-o, and in a matter of a few months, the Leafs are transformed, adding Phil Kessel, Wayne Primeau, Garnet Exelby, Colton Orr, Mike Komisarek, and Francois Beauchemin. Then for good measure, he added a goalie with the nickname, “The Monster.” Yup, they’ll be entertaining.

The bad… But will they be good? Perhaps eventually, but there are so many new parts from so many places, it’s hard to see a way for Toronto to improve by the dozen or so points they will need in order to make the playoffs. More to the point, will the additions drag Toronto out of 30th place in goals against per game or 30th place in penalty killing last year?

The key… Jonas Gustavsson. If the Leafs have any hope of playoffs this year, Gustavsson had better be a monster, because neither Vesa Toskala, nor Joey MacDonald are going to have “Monster” attached as a nickname. Last year, playing for Farjestad in Sweden, Gustavsson had a 1.96 goals against average in 42 games, then followed that up with five shutouts in 13 playoff games.

14. Tampa Bay

The good… They can’t be worse than they were last year, can they? 25th in scoring, 27th in goals allowed, 19th on the power play, 26th in penalty killing, and on, and on. But in all of that, the Lightning found a hockey player in Steven Stamkos. He had points in 17 of his last 22 games (13-8-21) and became a mainstay with at least 20 minutes of ice time in five of his last six games. Tampa Bay will be strong down the middle with a healthier Vincent Lecavalier and a more experienced Stamkos. They seem to have used more of their brains in signings, getting Mattias Ohlund and Alex Tanguay (at least it has the look of a plan instead of just emptying their checkbook); and drafting Victor Hedman.

The bad… Depth. The Lightning lack it, despite having 46 skaters dress last year. They get little scoring from the blue line. Steve Eminger led their defensemen in scoring last year. Let’s leave aside that reading such a sentence as that will cause your eyes to spin in their sockets… he’s gone (Anaheim). They don’t figure to get anyone, either from returning players or new acquisitions, to fill in the gaps.

The key… Martin St. Louis. He led the Lightning in scoring last year (30-50-80), but after a three-point effort against the Caps, he coasted into a 1-2-3 finish in his last seven games. If he has another 80-point season, the Lightning might have two decent scoring lines and might challenge for a playoff spot. He’s been remarkably durable for a smallish player (he’s missed a total of two games over the last six seasons). He needs to continue that iron-man sort of play for the Lightning to have any chance at contending for a playoff spot.

15. New York Islanders

The good… Winning the lottery. It was by far the Islanders’ biggest win of the year, allowing them to draft John Tavares. They also have Kyle Okposo, who might have finished with only 39 points last year (second on the team), but that’s likely to be a career low. Mark Streit was seventh among all defensemen in scoring. The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum did not collapse in the middle of a game.

The bad… For now? Just about everything else. The Islanders look like the 2005-2006 Caps… a few promising youngsters – Tavares, Okposo, Josh Bailey – and lot of guys who won’t be there two years from now.

The key… Tavares. He’s provided enough hope to get Islander fans at least interested. Now, he has to perform to keep the momentum, spare as it is, going. This isn’t Stamkos in Tampa last year, playing in a smaller market but with at least a dim memory of a Stanley Cup. This is New Freakin’ York, with all the attendant attention and impatience, and the Islanders haven’t won a playoff series since 1993 (that’s when there was still a “Patrick” Division). The good will won’t last too long.

1 comment:

Diane said...

At worst, Boston will be third seed, given that they're in the North Least Division. In other words, they should win that division title by default no matter what. I don't exactly have confidence in either Buffalo or Montreal beating them out. And as for Ottawa and Toronto....

Great analysis overall. Boston will probably get one of the best regular season records in the Conference.