Having covered the Caps’ previews, what about prognostications for the rest of the league? Glad you asked. We’ll start with the…
1. Washington Capitals
Salary caps, the draft, free agency all contribute to a sense of parity in the league, and one of the ways that is reflected is in raising questions about even the best teams on paper. The Caps are one of those teams, and this is arguably the best team they have ever iced – on paper, especially since they inked (in Tomas Vokoun) the lights-out goalie they haven’t had since Olaf Kolzig was carrying the team to a Cup final in 1998. But disappointing exits in the last three years have uncovered a lack of killer instinct in this team. The Caps have lacked the “f*** you and the horse you rode in on” gene. Whether they have changed their genetic makeup with the additions of Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik, and Vokoun, and/or whether that missing gene can finally express itself in the person of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, or Alexander Semin is the question about this team. It really is the only thing that could be lacking. They have the most talented team in the East – on paper.
2. Buffalo Sabres
Two things will conspire to make the Sabres the number two seed. First, they are deeper than they have been in recent years with the additions of Robyn Regehr, Ville Leino, and Christian Ehrhoff. None of them, by themselves, are game changers, but they could do the same kinds of things for the undercard of the Sabres lineup that the additions the Caps implemented might accomplish. And that might take some pressure off goalie Ryan Miller to be the man every night. The other thing is the Stanley Cup hangover. You know the drill… no team has repeated as Cup champion since the Red Wings did it in 1998. But there is more, starting with the Detroit Red Wings’ Cup win in 2002, the Cup winner of the previous year failed to get out of Round 1 the following year five times, and one other team (Carolina) failed to qualify for the playoffs. Only once did a team go past the second round. Boston will not be immune to that effect and Buffalo will be the beneficiary in the Northeast.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins finished with the fourth highest point total in the league last season without the services of Sidney Crosby for 41 games and Evgeni Malkin for 38. It speaks to the motivational talent of head coach Dan Bylsma and the virtue of hard work. Crosby’s return is assumed, but the precise details are iffy. Malkin is coming off a significant knee injury. So, for the Pens, the question is, can they muster up that level of effort again? They’ll have to as they wait for James Neal to be that scoring winger the club has lacked. In a division having teams with more question marks than the Pens have, they should win a battle of attrition to finish atop the Atlantic and a three-seed.
4. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers will be the best of a tightly grouped lot in the middle of the other conference playoff eligibles, but not because of anything they do. Rather the difference between themselves and the Rangers for second in the Atlantic, behind Pittsburgh, will be the absence of Ranger defenseman Marc Staal for the foreseeable future. They’ll be that close. We do not buy into the notion that Ilya Bryzgalov is going to take South Philly by storm, or that a team losing Mike Richards and Jeff Carter and gaining a soon-to-be 40-year old Jaromir Jagr as a first line forward is an elite team. They’ll be good and hard to play against, but not in the top-tier of clubs.
5. Boston Bruins
Yes, they are the defending Stanley Cup champions. They also finished the 2010-2011 regular season with a so-so 8-6-4 record and were an overtime from being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Score one for timing and resilience. But it does not make them the class of the East. Tim Thomas, though, probably keeps his position as class of the East in goal. Everything springs from him. He had a 1.40 goals against average in Bruin wins last season. Boston lacks an elite offensive player, but made up for that with balance last season – 12 players with at least ten goals, eight with at least 40 points. It was a successful formula last season, but it might have too many moving parts to swim upstream against a Stanley Cup hangover, especially early.
6. New York Rangers
These are not your father’s Rangers, if by “father’s,” you mean circa 2000. This is a gritty, nail-spitting group that plays good defense and has world-class goaltending in Henrik Lundqvist. Adding Brad Richards and the further development of players like Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, and Artem Anisimov might have meant a 10-12 point jump in the standings. But with Marc Staal still suffering the after effects of a concussion sustained last February, the loss of the cornerstone of their defense will be a big hole in that lineup. If Richards and Marian Gaborik find some instant chemistry, it could mitigate that loss.
7. Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay had five skaters play all 82 games last season and another seven play at least 75 games. Health was not an issue. Not all of those players return, but if the Lightning are to keep pace with the Caps they will have to have a similar run of good luck concerning health. This is a team that could finish anywhere from a top-three seed to out of the money altogether. What determines that is whether Dwayne Roloson can fend off Father Time another year in goal at age 42. If Roloson falters, it will take all of the considerable offensive gifts of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis to qualify for the post season.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
Yup, they’re back. David Steckel is the last piece. OK, we’re kidding, but the Leafs showed signs of improvement late last season with a 10-7-2 finish after March 1st (that’s a 95-point pace). A lot of that was rookie goalie James Reimer, who won 20 games for Toronto last season, all of them in the 2011 portion of the season. If the Leafs get improvement from Mikhail Grabovski (58 points last season), Phil Kessel (32 goals), and Nikolai Kulemin (57 points), the Leafs could surprise some folks and make their first playoff appearance since before the lockout. What might hold them back is an injured Nazem Kadri (knee), who otherwise has had difficulty justifying his seventh overall pick in 2009.
9. Montreal Canadiens. Small and quick with a veteran defense and good goaltending gets you to the playoffs. But lose one of those legs of the stool, and it falls over. Losing Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski will hurt, not to mention Hal Gill (36) and Jaroslav Spacek (37) being another year older.
10. Carolina Hurricanes. They always hang around with guys like Eric Staal and Cam Ward in the lineup, and Jeff Skinner was a find last year as a rookie. But they are not deep enough, especially on defense, to crack the top-eight.
11. New Jersey Devils. Last season was like a sandwich with a tasty filling made with moldy bread. They had that 23-3-2 run in the middle of the season that got them into contention, but before that they were 10-29-2, and after it they were 5-7-1. A year later, it is a team with a new coach (Peter DeBoer) and a team that is not all that different from the one that finished dead last in offense. And while it might not be the last year for the legend in goal, Martin Brodeur can see it from his crease. Pride will get them this far.
12. New York Islanders. This team is not that far away from being a playoff contender. The arc of their season might resemble that of the 2006-2007 Capitals, a team that was in the thick of it for 30 games but faded when health issues and lack of talent caught up with them. The most entertaining story might be how they handle the Rick DiPietro/Evgeny Nabokov/Al Montoya goaltending carousel. Right now, they are light a forward on the roster, choosing to carry all three goalies.
13. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets will come flying off the runway as the adrenaline of a new city and rabid fans bear them up. But they will run out of fuel by Thanksgiving. They are still the Atlanta Thrashers – 20th last year in scoring, 29th in defense, 27th in penalty killing, one player with more than 20 goals. They just are not deep enough to challenge over an 82-game schedule.
14. Florida Panthers. Florida is where all the retirees from the north settle to spend their golden years. Seems the logic applies to the hockey team, too, in a way. Tomas Kopecky, Jose Theodore, Scottie Upsall, Ed Jovanovski, Marcel Goc, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, and Matt Bradley. Free agents all, forsaking more northern latitudes to settle in south Florida. Nice try, but that’s not going to be enough to move the needle a lot higher than the 27th-ranked scoring team last season.
15. Ottawa Senators. 29th in scoring last season, 24th in defense. They were the worst even strength team in the league. They had 11 players who were minus-10 or worse, three at worse than minus-25. They had one 20-goal scorer and one 50-point player. Both happened to be Jason Spezza, who also happens to have missed 42 games the last two seasons. And Daniel Alfredsson’s games played has gone from 79 to 70 to 54 the last three years. He will be 39 in December. It will be a long winter in Ottawa.