The NHL’s Eastern Conference was a very top-heavy group last year. The Washington Capitals were the runaway winners of the President’s Trophy, and the bottom four teams in the conference all came into the post-season with records that would have left them out in the cold had they played in the West.
This season, the usual faces will be out in force once again. The Penguins and Caps (who will meet on January 1st in the Winter Classic) will both be forces to be reckoned with, and the Devils should once again be high up in the standings. Does the conference have any surprises in store? Read on to find out.
Last Year’s Finish:10th Jim’s Prediction: 8th
Last year was a tumultuous one for the Thrashers. They started the season on the brink of re-signing superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk, and the team’s prospects were really beginning to look up. Things quickly went south in those negotiations, however, and Kovalchuk ended up in New Jersey and a new youthful movement ratcheted up in the Deep South.
The Thrashers have also gone a different direction behind the bench and the GM’s desk as well, with Rick Dudley taking over the GM duties, and Craig Ramsay came over from Boston to replace John Anderson as head coach.
The team on the ice will have a different look too, as the Thrashers made some significant moves during the off-season. They brought in Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel from the Blackhawks to shore up their blue line, and they also brought in forwards Ben Eager and Andrew Ladd to provide some veteran leadership and grit to their offense. They added Chris Mason to add some consistency to their crease-minders.
With all of these new players and coaches, the franchise could very well take half the season just to gel and miss the playoffs once again, but with all of the Stanley Cup experience brought by the players acquired from Chicago, as well as the continued development of youngsters like Evander Kane, now is as good a time as any for the Thrashers to make the leap and become a playoff contender.
Last Year’s Finish: 6th Jim’s Prediction: 6th
The Bruins’ offense last season was about as deadly as a newborn kitten last year. They scored 206 goals, and their leading scorer only had 52 points, an abysmal total for a team that considered itself a Stanley Cup contender. Their defense did pick up the slack extremely well, and their goaltending situation is one of the best in the league, with Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas tag-teaming their way to a conference finals appearance for the B’s.
During the off-season, the Bruins made some solid strides forward in terms of improving their offense. They acquired Nathan Horton from Florida, and they also added rookie forward Tyler Seguin in the Entry Draft.
On the defensive side of the puck, the Bruins will look to continue their dominant ways, as they maintained the status quo for the most part. Zdeno Chara is still one of the best blue liners in the league, and he will look to help solidify the back end along with Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk this season.
The fate of the Bruins this season may not rest with their goaltending or their defense, but within the confines of Marc Savard’s head. Arguably the Bruins’ best offensive player, if Savard is unable to make a full comeback from the concussion that ruined his season last year, the B’s could find themselves as a first round playoff team and nothing more in a competitive division.
Last Year’s Finish: 3rd Jim’s Prediction: 3rd
After missing the playoffs in 2008-09, the Sabres retooled a bit heading into last year. They had a healthy Ryan Miller, which certainly helped matters, and they also had a very solid defense behind youngsters like Tyler Myers and Craig Rivet. Their offense also had a good season, with Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy both producing good numbers.
This year, the ultimate success or failure of the Sabres will rest on the continued development of their young players, as well as the continued success of their special teams. Last year, the Sabres ranked 2nd in the NHL on the penalty kill, and they ranked around the middle of the pack on the power play. If they can stay around those ranks, they will have an excellent chance of winning their division.
The main obstacles that the Sabres will face will be from within their own division. The Bruins are going to still present a significant challenge to Buffalo, and the Canadiens and Senators are still going to be very competitive as well.
Another potential concern for Buffalo could be the ability of Ryan Miller to play a high number of games. When he was injured two seasons ago, the team suffered greatly and missed the playoffs. Last year he was healthy and the team made the post-season. Clearly, he is the biggest component to the team’s success, so if he can stay on the ice, the team will stay competitive.
Last Year’s Finish:11th Jim’s Prediction: 11th
Last year’s Carolina Hurricanes were one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL. A year removed from making the Conference Finals, the Canes took a huge step backwards, giving up 256 goals and suffering through a season rife with injuries. Cam Ward missed significant time, and even the always-healthy Eric Staal missed some games.
This year, the Canes will not only have to deal with keeping guys off out of the medical ward, but also some dramatically improving teams within their own division. The Thrashers have improved quite a bit during the off-season, and the Panthers and Lightning have followed suit by bringing in new GM’s and personnel.
The key for Carolina to re-emerge as a playoff threat will be to improve their special teams. Last season, they finished 22nd in the league on the power play, which obviously will not get the job done in an NHL that demands teams punish their opponent’s mistakes. They also finished 19th in the league in penalty killing, but at least a portion of the blame for that can be laid on the absence of Ward.
If Carolina can stay healthy, the PK unit should be able to right itself to more respectable levels of performance, but unless they can fix their power play issues, they aren’t going to make any headway this season in a conference full of confident young upstarts.
Last Year’s Finish:14th Jim’s Prediction: 14th
Last season was an abysmal one for the Panthers. They only scored 208 goals as a team, and outside of Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton, their offense was completely inept. They weren’t much better defensively, as they gave up 244 goals and served as a punching bag for teams within the Southeast division, going 8-13-3 against their divisional foes.
The off-season didn’t bring much immediate relief from the woes of last year, but the changes that GM Dale Tallon has begun to put into place should have some long-term effects. Unfortunately, the team’s draft choices won’t be looked to for much production this year, and the players they picked up in the Nathan Horton and Keith Ballard trades don’t push them over the top in any discernible way.
The only area that the Panthers seem to be pretty solid in would be their goaltending. Tomas Vokoun is a franchise goaltender of the highest order, but he can’t do everything by himself. The team’s defense has to improve, and getting rid of Ballard certainly won’t help that area.
Overall, it’s hard to see the Panthers doing anything but treading water this season, and while there certainly is hope on the horizon, the road ahead is still littered with potholes. It’s looking like it will be another long season in South Florida.
Last Year’s Finish: 8th Jim’s Prediction: 12th
There isn’t another market in the entire league that puts as much pressure on its players than the city of Montreal puts on its beloved Habs. Last season, they had a magical run through the post-season, with Jaroslav Halak leading them all the way to the conference finals and vanquishing the Capitals and Penguins in the process.
Even with those accomplishments when the calendar flipped to April, the fact of the matter is that the Canadiens squeaked into the playoffs, and they tossed the primary force behind their playoff run out of town due to his restricted free agent status. They gave their vote of confidence to the inconsistent Carey Price, and that could be a kiss of death for their playoff chances.
The team’s offense struggled often last season, finishing 26th in the NHL in goals scored per game, and they really didn’t add any firepower during the off-season that could help matters. Tomas Plekanec and Michael Cammalleri should still produce some solid numbers. Ironically, the team wasn’t considered a top-echelon offensive club, but they had a top-tier power play unit, finishing only behind Washington in that category.
Their power play should still be solid, but unless Price can bounce back to the form that he had in his early games in the NHL, the Canadiens could suffer a fall from grace this season. Needless to say, their fanbase wouldn’t be too happy if the team takes a step back this year, so it could be a long winter in Montreal.
New Jersey Devils
Last Year’s Finish: 2nd Jim’s Prediction: 5th
No team had a more eventful off-season than the Devils did, and they really didn’t do that much. They did lose defenseman Paul Martin to free agency, but they also held onto the services of superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, who will team with winger Zach Parise to form one of the best 1-2 offensive punches in the NHL.
Obviously, the team’s goaltending will remain a strength, as Martin Brodeur has proven himself to be the most consistent goalie in the league. Their defense also remains strong, as they will rely on newcomers Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder to anchor a group of youngsters who will look to mature more this season.
Ultimately, this team’s fate may not be sealed by their own play, but by the quality of play by the other team’s within their own division. The Penguins will be a force to be reckoned with after a long off-season of rest, and the Flyers did make the Stanley Cup Finals last year, so the road to the playoffs will be a tough one for the Devils.
Needless to say, this team at the very worst stayed the same, and best case scenario is that they improved enough to remain a viable Cup contender. When push comes to shove, however, they will probably not repeat in the division, but they will still be a force to be reckoned with come playoff time.
New York Islanders
Last Year’s Finish:13th Jim’s Prediction: 15th
Last year was a decent year for the Isles, who got some much-needed production out of their young forward duo of John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. They also had the steady veteran hand of Mark Streit to help both on defense and the power play, but they still could not keep Rick DiPietro in the crease often enough to justify his enormous contract.
Things were really looking up for the Islanders, but injuries have derailed their chances right from the start. While Tavares will undoubtedly take a step forward in his development this year, the team has already lost Okposo for two to three months and Streit for up to six months. Those two injuries alone will be enough to cripple the team’s chances for advancing past last year’s finish, but there are still positive angles to look at for this team.
DiPietro is finally looking like he will be the guy in net for New York this year, as he has had a mercifully uneventful pre-season and is primed to start game one. They also have some talented young players getting ready to make a big mark in the big leagues, with guys like Blake Comeau and 2010 first round draft pick Nino Niederreiter coming into the fold.
Even with the youngsters and Tavares’ continued development, this Islander season may very well be over before it even started. It was going to be difficult for them to function without Streit, but losing Okposo for an extended period is going to make it nearly impossible for New York to avoid digging themselves a hole they can’t get out of.
New York Rangers
Last Year’s Finish:9th Jim’s Prediction: 11th
As is usually the case in the Big Apple, the Rangers came into last season looking to make some serious noise. They brought in the oft injured Marian Gaborik, and they also had a couple of youngsters make a major impact on the roster. Unfortunately, the Rangers couldn’t quite clear the playoff hurdle, as they lost a potential playoff spot by losing a shootout to the Flyers on the final day of the season.
There were plenty of signs of hope for the Blueshirts though. Gaborik stayed relatively healthy all season, scoring 42 goals and notching 86 points total. Michael Del Zotto notched 37 points last year, and while he did finish with a minus-20 on the year, he did show some pretty good defensive skills at times. Vinny Prospal also showed that he has some life left, scoring 20 goals and adding 38 assists.
During the off-season, the Rangers continued to be handcuffed by their cap-space sapping contracts, most notably that of the criminally under-producing Chris Drury. They did add physical forward Derek Boogard and defenseman Steve Eminger from Anaheim. They also lost Wade Redden by demoting him to Hartford in a cost-cutting move.
The Rangers are certainly capable of making a playoff run, considering they have such an outstanding goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist, but with a team that really didn’t improve much during the off-season, they will probably finish on the outside looking in when April rolls around.
Last Year’s Finish: 5th Jim’s Prediction: 9th
The Senators looked like a team that wasn’t sure of its identity when last season began. There were rumors swirling that they were trying to unload the contract of Jason Spezza, and they traded Dany Heatley before the season began in a blockbuster deal with San Jose. Even with all of that drama, they still managed to get into the playoffs as the fifth seed.
During the off-season, the Senators weren’t the most active team, but they did make a strong push to improve their power play unit (ranked 21st in the league last year) by signing defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who had six power play markers for the Penguins in limited action last year. They’ll also be looking for the continued development of forward Mike Fisher, who scored a career high 25 goals last season.
This season, the keys for the Senators will be improving upon their abysmal power play numbers last year, and also to continue to get solid goaltending from Brian Elliott. He did finish the year with a 29-18-4 record, and he looked pretty good during most of the campaign, but when the playoffs rolled around, the Pittsburgh Penguins made him look downright pedestrian.
It was this performance that has Sens fans on edge about their goaltending situation, and if he can’t replicate his stats from last season, there is little doubt that the Senators could be in a world of trouble if they are serious about making the playoffs again.
Last Year’s Finish: 7th Jim’s Prediction: 4th
After making it into the playoffs last season by the skin of their teeth, the Flyers ended up making a marvelous post-season run, including a stunning comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the second round against the Boston Bruins. While they did lose to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals, they still looked like the team that a lot of people had picked to make some serious noise last season.
This upcoming season shouldn’t be much different from the Flyers. They still have one of the better offensive groups in the NHL, loaded with talents like Mike Richards (31 G, 31 A), Jeff Carter (33 G, 28 A), and Danny Briere, who had a surprising 30 points in the postseason last year. The Flyers also added Nikolai Zherdev in the off-season, and he has looked like he hasn’t missed a beat after playing in Russia last year.
Defensively this team is excellent as well, with Chris Pronger anchoring the blue line with a stellar offensive presence (10 G, 45 A), and a great physical style of play to boot. They also brought in Sean O’Donnell and Matt Walker to up the physicality quotient of the defensive group, and also have youngsters like Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle waiting in the wings to make an impact as well.
Overall, this team is loaded for another deep playoff run, and if the Michael Leighton/Brian Boucher combo can hold down the fort in net, they are definitely a force to be reckoned with in the East.
Last Year’s Finish: 4th Jim’s Prediction: 1st
Coming off of two straight Cup Finals appearances and a title in 2009, the Penguins were looking to continue building on one of the greatest resurgences the league has ever seen. Despite Evgeni Malkin missing 15 games, Sergei Gonchar missing 20, and several other players missing significant time, the Penguins still managed to finish 4th in the East.
During the off-season, the Penguins did lose a couple of really gifted players in Gonchar and Alex Ponikarovsky, but they also gained a couple of very talented blue liners in Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin. They also picked up Mike Comrie in a very smart move, and he will be looked at to hold down the fort while Jordan Staal recovers from the tendon injury that slowed him at the end of last year.
A key area for the Penguins during the 2010-11 season will be improving their lackluster power play last year. The injuries to Malkin and Gonchar didn’t help, but they still looked pitiful at times, and were frankly lucky to finish 19th in the league in conversions with the man-advantage.
If the Pens can keep Malkin healthy, and get another productive year out of Sidney Crosby (which seems pretty likely), then there is absolutely nothing stopping the Penguins from snatching the division title out of the hands of the Devils, and possibly even winning the President’s Trophy this year. They are one of the few sure-fire Cup contenders in the league, and it will be fascinating watching them this season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Year’s Finish:12th Jim’s Prediction: 7th
The Lightning’s season was pretty much defined last season by the stellar play of second year player Steven Stamkos. He scored 51 goals last year, and improved by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately for the Bolts, Stamkos couldn’t play goal for them, as they gave up an appalling 260 goals and finished fourth in a relatively weak division.
Offensively, this team should be just fine. In addition to Stamkos, they also have one of the best passers in the league in Martin St. Louis, who notched 65 assists last year. They also have Vincent LeCavalier’s 70 points back in the fold as well. Outside of those three, the team is going to need some more production from other sources. Simon Gagne could be one such player, and they are going to need to get some better numbers from Ryan Malone as well.
On the defensive side of the puck, the Lightning did go out and make some moves to improve things. They brought in veterans Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina to bring some old-timer know-how to the proceedings, and they will be hoping for some continued development by Victor Hedman as well.
Add a new goaltender into the equation in Dan Ellis, as well as a GM with a propensity for winning at whatever he does (Steve Yzerman), and the Lightning have all the pieces in place to make a big time move in the standings this season.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last Year’s Finish:15th Jim’s Prediction: 13th
Having been a laughingstock for the past few seasons, the Maple Leafs finally started making some moves that panned out last season. They acquired Phil Kessel in a blockbuster trade with Boston before the campaign, traded mid-season for defenseman Dion Phaneuf and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and they also may have finally found a good keeper in Jonas Gustavsson.
Even with all of these moves in the right direction, the Leafs were still a team in disarray for much of the year. They allowed 267 goals last year, and they only had one player clear 20 goals (Kessel). Their lack of offensive punch was a huge issue last year, and things may only get marginally better this year. Acquiring Kris Versteeg from the Blackhawks will certainly help, but other players like Phaneuf and Colby Armstrong are going to need to really up the ante in terms of production for the team’s offense to improve enough to warrant consideration as a playoff contender.
In order for the Leafs to have a realistic shot at the post-season, they are going to need a healthy Kessel to lead the way, and improving their defense will be a huge need as well. When you throw Gustavsson into the mix, this team has more questions than answers, and while some prognosticators are really looking at Toronto as a team on the rise, they are still likely nothing more than a long-shot to make the playoffs.
Last Year’s Finish: 1st Jim’s Prediction: 2nd
There are many words to describe the 2009-10 Capitals. You could point to their insanely good power play and say “potent”. You could look at their roster and say “stacked”. One word that stands out among all the others, however, is “disappointment”. The Caps won the President’s Trophy last year, but were ousted from the playoffs in seven games by the upstart Montreal Canadiens in the first round.
After that stinging defeat, the Capitals made some minor tweaks to their roster. The biggest move of all was letting go of Jose Theodore, paving the way for the Varlamov/Neuvirth era in DC. Several of the team’s “hired guns” from last season were also let go, with Joe Corvo and Eric Belanger among those finding new addresses.
The upcoming season is going to provide Washington with an interesting opportunity. They have been the butt of jokes all summer, and Alex Ovechkin has been ripped particularly hard by folks around the hockey world. The Caps will have a chance to redeem themselves in a big way this year. They brought back the core of their offense, and with a very similar defensive set-up, the team should benefit from the high amount of chemistry they have.
While the real test of the Capitals will be the gauntlet of playoff hockey, they will still be a force to reckon with during the regular season as well. Will Ovechkin show the stripes of a leader and prove all of the doubters wrong this season? Time will have to tell.