And now, in what might be our biggest delusion of them all, since there are no games scheduled for the foreseeable future, we bring you the only prognostos you will ever want or need on the projected finish for each NHL team to tide you over until, well, they get around to scheduling games. First up, the Eastern Conference…
1. New York Rangers (1st in ATL)
The New York media gets its wish, a team that has no excuses. They have two solid scoring lines. They can ice five forwards who had at least 50 points last season (having added winger Rick Nash), and another – Carl Hagelin – who was on a pace just short of 50 points. They have depth on defense; they have a world-class goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist. They have a battle-tested (not to mention baiting for a battle) head coach in John Tortorella. They are this year’s “It” team.
2. Boston Bruins (1st in NE)
The Bruins might miss former Vezina/Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas at times in goal, but they also will benefit from playing in what might be the East’s weakest division, too. This is a team that has averaged 101 standings points over the last five seasons. They will be right in that area again this year. Getting Nathan Horton back on a permanent basis (he missed 36 games to a concussion last season) would help. The only question here is whether goalie Tuukka Rask is ready for a 55-60 game workload (45 games is his high, and he has only 102 games in parts of five seasons).
3. Carolina Hurricanes (1st in SE)
The Hurricanes added defense (Jordan Staal from Pittsburgh) and offense (Alexander Semin from Washington). They should have youngsters continue to improve elsewhere on offense (Jeff Skinner) and defense (Justin Faulk). They could get a full season out of Joni Pitkanen (30 games last season) on the blue line. And, the Hurricanes have the best goalie in the Southeast Division in Cam Ward, even if last season was a bit of a hiccup (his .915 save percentage stopped what had been an uninterrupted improvement over his six years in that statistic). The question here will be the mix. Adding Joe Corvo and Semin introduce a measure of unpredicatability that could upset the mix.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd in ATL)
This will be the best offensive team in the league, provided it stays healthy at center. Sidney Crosby has missed 99 games over the past two seasons to a concussion. Evgeni Malkin, a player who generally flourishes in Crosby’s absence, has been absent for 61 games of his own over the past three years. And with Jordan Staal now in Carolina, Brandon Sutter (part of the return in the Staal trade) will inherit the role of third line/fill-in-the-gaps center. The defense looks better on paper than it plays too much of the time, although Kris Letang has become a top-echelon defenseman. And one wonders whether Marc-Andre Fleury will have any aftershocks from his stunningly awful post-season in 2012 (4.63 GAA, .834 SV, both worst among playoff goalies).
5. Washington Capitals (2nd in SE)
After the top four teams in the conference (actually three, since Carolina really is not in the class of the other three), there is a steep drop-off to the next tier of teams. Washington spun the coaching wheel of fortune again, and it came up “Adam Oates.” How quickly he can install his style will go a long way to determining where this team finishes. In that sense, the Caps are one of the big losers on paper if the season starts late. One might expect a slow start as the players absorb the new principles. But this is still a team that has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, a team that solved (it hopes) the perennial second line center problem with Mike Ribeiro, a team that cut its ties with another perennial concern – the enigmatic stylings of Alexander Semin -- and that has two goalies with the potential to do very good things in Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby, each of whom has backstopped his team to playoff series wins (and losses…don’t forget the losses, Caps fans). The question here is, oddly enough, whether the Caps can get anything approaching reliable scoring out of wingers not named “Ovechkin.”
6. Philadelphia Flyers (3rd in ATL)
This is a team with huMANNNNNgous questions on the blue line. Chris Pronger’s days as an intimidating defenseman are apparently (and sadly, given the circumstances) at an end. Matt Carle went to Tampa Bay as a free agent. Andrej Meszaros, who was already coming back from back surgery, will miss much, if not the entire season, to an Achilles tendon injury. Having swung for the fences and missing on signing Nashville defenseman and restricted free agent Shea Weber to an offer sheet (Nashville matched the Flyers’ offer), it is a team that will have to squeeze another year out of 37-year old Kimmo Timonen and get solid minutes from guys like Nicklas Grossman and Luke Schenn. Then there is the goalie from another planet, Ilya Bryzgalov. But not for Marc-Andre Fleury, Bryzgalov would have had the worst goals-against average and worst save percentage among qualifying goaltenders in the playoffs. Fortunately for Flyer fans, Philadelphia might have the deepest set of forwards in the East.
7. Buffalo Sabres (2nd in NE)
Someone has to finish second in this division. The Sabres can be that team if some things happen. If Thomas Vanek can rebound from being a mid-20’s goal scorer to being a mid-30’s goal scorer. If Tyler Ennis doesn’t miss 34 games again with ankle issues. If Cody Hodgson scores more at his Vancouver pace from last season (16 goals in 63 games) than his Buffalo pace (three goals in 20 games). If Tyler Myers’ appendages are healthy (he missed 23 games to wrist and foot injuries last season). And perhaps biggest of all, if Ryan Miller can return to his 2009-2010 level of play (41 wins, 2.22 GAA, .929 SV, a Vezina Trophy). Shoot, if they do all that, they could challenge Boston for the top spot in the Northeast.
8. New Jersey Devils (4th in ATL)
How does a team replace a captain who had 31 goals and 69 points last season, who was the heart and soul of the club as it rolled to the Stanley Cup finals? They probably do it with a philosophy that does not rely on individuals as much as it does a style that has been its trademark for a couple of decades. Not that the New Jersey Devils cannot score. In fact, they might be underrated in this regard. Ilya Kovalchuk had 37 goals last season. Patrik Elias had 26. For heaven’s sake, David Clarkson had 30. But in an odd way, Clarkson’s numbers might be an indicator. He became a goal scorer when Adam Oates advised him to make changes to his stick. Those are the little things a coach who pays attention to detail can do. Oates is now in Washington in his first head coaching gig. The question is whether they will miss him more than they do Zach Parise, who is now in Minnesota with his 31 goals and 69 points.
9. Ottawa Senators (3rd in NE)
Ottawa snuck past Buffalo by three points last season to secure the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. It was not for lack of trying to blow it. The Senators went 5-6-2 down the stretch, and had the Sabres gone 3-1-1 instead of 1-3-1 in their last five games, they would have had that eighth spot. Well, this year Ottawa does not sneak in. They got in last year with the worst defense of any playoff qualifier (24th in goals allowed per game). They were the fourth best offense in the league last season, but it seems a stretch to think they will get 46 goals combined out of Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson again.
10. Tampa Bay Lightning (3rd in SE)
The Lighning finished eight points out of a playoff spot last season, but getting that close was no thanks to their defense or goaltending. Tampa Bay finished dead last in goals allowed (almost a quarter-goal more than 29th place Toronto), and their goal differential of minus-46 was second worst in the East (to the Islanders). Anders Lindback is likely to get a chance to improve on one problem. Last season the duo of Mathieu Garon (38th in GAA, 39th in SV) and Dwayne Roloson (45th and last in both categories) made for the least effective goaltending duo in the game. Roloson is gone, and Garon seems likely to get early baseball cap duty until the Lightning figure out whether Lindback can handle the workload of a number one goalie. Since he has only 38 NHL games on his resume, it is an open question.
11. Florida Panthers (4th in SE)
Talk about doing it with mirrors. The Panthers were 27th in offense, 12th in defense, 25th in penalty killing, 25th in winning percentage when leading after one period, tied for 27th in winning percentage when leading after two periods, only four teams had fewer wins in extra time, and yet they won the Southeast Division (feel better, Caps fans?). How? Easy…they earned (for lack of a better word) 18 standings points when losing in extra time, either by overtime goal or Gimmick. Almost a fifth of their total standings points (94) came by losing. It would not be unreasonable to think Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, and Stephen Weiss could repeat their 20-goal seasons. But for those thinking that perhaps Peter Mueller could contribute that much? It is possible, but perhaps not the way to bet. After a rookie year of 22 goals, he has gone from 13 to 13, then to seven in only 32 games last year (he missed 41 games to a concussion). It could come down to those Bettman points. If they finished with half of those points from losses last year, Florida would have had 85 points and been on the links in April. This year, they get a dose of that.
12. Montreal Canadiens (4th in NE)
This year’s slogan is “Raise the Torch.” Well, they need something to light a fire under their derrieres. Despite two 30-goal scorers last season (Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole) the Habs were 19th in scoring. Only three other players playing with Montreal all season recorded more than ten. Brian Gionta should do the trick if he’s healthy (eight goals in 38 games last year, a biceps injury doing him in for the rest). In goal, one would have thought Carey Price would have finished better than 18th in GAA and 20th in save percentage. He will have to for the Canadiens to improve enough to be in the discussion of playoff teams.
13. Toronto Maple Leafs (5th in NE)
The thing about Toronto last season, they were not boring either on or off the ice. Tenth in offense, 29th in defense, you could be assured of lots of goal-scoring in Maple Leaf games (only Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay featured more). And there is the ongoing drama in Toronto that would make for must-see prime time viewing if it was put to television. What do they have this year that they didn’t last year to give them hope? Well, James van Riemsdyk is new, sent to Toronto by the Flyers for defenseman Luke Schenn last June. He improved on his rookie year goal production in his second year with Philadelphia (from 15 to 21) but dropped to 11 in 43 games (most of the games missed due to…yup, concussion). What else do the Leafs have to instill hope? Pretty much visions of Roberto Luongo in goal.
14. Winnipeg Jets (5th in SE)
Brand new city, brand new attitude, and as the brand new calendar turned over to 2012 the Winnipeg Jets were 19-14-5 and in a playoff spot. Then things took a turn. It would be the last time the Jets were five games over .500 until March 5th, at which point they were back in the playoff mix, three points ahead of Washington for eighth place. But the Jets finished 5-8-2 over their last 15 games and dropped to 11th by season’s end. With the bloom off the rose, so to speak, now we will see what Winnipeg has. They added Olli Jokinen to a team that finished 11th in scoring last season but have not done nearly enough to improve a team that was 26th in scoring defense.
15. New York Islanders (5th in ATL)
Someday this team will be pretty good. Really, they will. It just will not be this year. Their attitude seems to be “slow and sure wins the race.” Their forwards are not much different from last season, relying on development of young guys like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo as the engine for improvement there. On defense they did add Lubomir Visnovsky, but he comes to Long Island with his offensive production in 2011-2012 (6-21-27) sliced by more than half from his 2010-2011 production (18-50-68). And their goaltending appears to be a battle between the oft-injured Rick DiPietro and the 37-year old Evgeni Nabokov. The waiting continues.