Ok, let’s break it down. Here are my predictions on how the Eastern Conference is going to lay out from worst to first. Since the top three spots are reserved, those will be my picks for Division Champs. The list is ranked much like it would if it were the end of the season and we would see who’s in and who’s out of the playoffs. Again, worst to first.
#15 - Florida Panthers. This team just traded what could be considered the heart and soul of their team to Phoenix. Olli Jokinen lead the team in points, goals and assists. Now they don’t have anyone to replace that production. The Panthers are still stuck somewhere between an experienced team and a young team. Richard Zednik, Tomas Vokoun, Jay Bouwmeester and Corey Stillman seem to be the statesmen and they have extreme potential in young guys like David Booth and Shawn Matthias. The team will have to find it’s identity early, or find themselves at the bottom of the barrel.
#14 - New York Islanders. This team has the tools to do great things, but the way this team changes course so many times, it’s leaving not only the players and coaches heads spinning but the fans too. The Islanders looks like they are going to go the youth route with bringing Kyle Okposo into the fold late last season and shedding some older players in the process. Depth is a problem for the Isles, especially in net. If Rick DiPietro can stay healthy and the rest of the team can hold together, maybe it can be a different fate.
#13 - Atlanta Thrashers. There is no denying the Thrashers have a potent offense. That is not the problem. Their defense still waddles along with head hunter Andy Sutton, Ken Klee and Garnet Exelby on guard on the blue line. If you add recent addition Mathieu Schneider into the fold and it improves a little, but the whole blue line is starting to age and show it. Ilya Kovalchuk will get his goals, but if the rest of the team isn’t scoring behind him, the Thrashers will alienate their fans even more after their playoff appearance in what seemed like a lifetime ago.
#12 - Toronto Maple Leafs. Ron Wilson is just a coach. Not a miracle worker. This team is still in the process of being stripped so they can rebuild. However, with most of the heavy contracts now gone, so too does the talent go. If the Leafs are hoping that Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, and Jiri Tlusty to carry the burden, then only Wilson’s good name keeps them from falling to the bottom.
#11 - Buffalo Sabres. This team is going to do the same thing they do every year, look good, then look bad, then look good, then look bad. Lindy Ruff’s system will have to be bought in by every one in order for this team to go anywhere. Just about the only good thing to come out of this off season maybe a healthy Teppo Numminen.
#10 - Philadelphia Flyers. This team had to reach deep down to barely make the playoffs last season. They were 2 points of just missing it if the Penguins hadn’t thrown the last game. The Flyers still have issues on the blue line to contend with and they can’t depend on Marty Biron to carry them through the season like they did through the playoffs. This team will also have to depend on some scoring instead of muscle to win games. They are guilty of taking a penalty or two too much. If Simon Gagne is fully healthy and Mike Richards shows he can be a good leader, then maybe they can sneak in again. If Pittsburgh lets them.
#9 - Tampa Bay Lightning. I do think this team can do well. If the team can find the right chemistry and if Barry Melrose knows what he is doing. If not, it could be a big disappointment for Lightning fans. Yes, on paper this team looks very, very good. But the game isn’t played on paper. Tampa needs the pieces to fall into place with the mix of youth and experience. Although there are too many veterans on this team to totally count them out.
#8 - Boston Bruins. Tim Thomas is like a coin flip, he can either be spectacular or very bad. Good thing Manny Fernandez is back healthy. However, it’s not whose in net that is going to help or hurt the Bruins. It’s going to be their lack of offensive production that give them fits this year. One good thing on the horizon for the B’s will be getting Patrice Bergeron back into the line up. With Zdeno Chara still manning the blue line, they should be able to sneak back in to the playoffs, where they have proven they can make a little noise.
#7 - New York Rangers. Tom Renney is going back to basics. After losing one of the league’s best scorers to the KHL, he has to focus now on what he has. And what he has is a pretty good defensive core. With the offensive prowess gone, the Rangers will have to pick up the slack defensively. Newly acquired Wade Redden will help in that regard. Also off season pick up Markus Naslund will help to fill in Jaromir Jagr’s goal tallies. As long as Henrik Lundqvist stays sharp, the Rangers may back their way into the playoffs.
#6 - New Jersey Devils. Every time you count them out, they make it in. This will be a very tough team again this year defensively (as always). Start with Marty Brodeur and work your way out if you want examples of a competitive team. The only way this team will falter is if the offense goes to sleep. This team will always find a way to get a playoff spot, they always seem to get it done.
#5 - Carolina Hurricanes. This team had the playoffs in their hands last season, only to lose the final game of the season. Instead they watched as the Washington took the Southeast crown. If that isn’t motivation for this team to have a better year, I am not sure what will be. But the ‘Canes have already started out rocky, several injuries on the out set could set them back.
#4 - Ottawa Senators. When the Senators are healthy, they are a force. If they are not 100%, they are soft. The return of the big three, Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Danny Heatley will win you some games. The defensive core, that needs to find some cohesiveness, will lose you the rest. At least there will not be any Days of Our Lives drama with Martin Gerber in net. This team is still too good to miss the playoffs.
#3 - Pittsburgh Penguins. What? Not number one in the Eastern Conference? Yes. While you still have superstars Sid “the Kid” Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, this team should return as Division champions. However, with some key components missing this year, I figure the battle for top spot in the Conference with the still very hot Canadiens and Capitals would be a stretch for this team. The Penguins are still very dangerous, no doubt about that.
#2 - Washington Capitals. Did you think I wasn’t going to pick them for Division champs? If the Capitals play in any way, shape or form of how they ended last season, then this team is not only dangerous, but a contender for Conference champions as well. Bruce Boudreau will lead a team very similar to the team they ended with in April. The only question marks about this team is the Caps perceived “weak” defense and a new face between the pipes in Jose Theodore.
#1 - Montreal Canadiens. In their one hundredth season, the Canadiens are going to make it special. It finally seems they have put the pieces together and riding a young phenom goaltender in Carry Price has this team on the top of everyone’s charts. Quite simply, this team has 3 solid scoring lines with solid defense to back it up. Alex Kovalev must have a repeat season for them to win, but there are no signs to doubt he won’t. Guy Carbonneau has his team playing the right system.