The National Hockey League drops the puck on another season tonight, but all headlines will be dwarfed by news of the death of Steve Jobs at age 56.
In the spirit of an open culture, and to avoid being a hindsight oracle, here are my picks for order of finish in the eastern conference, which will be followed by a blurb, mainly meant to explain changes from my premature projections over two months ago.
- Washington Capitals
- Philadelphia Flyers
- Boston Bruins
- Pittsburgh Penguins
- Buffalo Sabres
- New York Rangers
- Tampa Bay Lightning
- Montreal Canadiens
- Carolina Hurricanes
- New York Islanders
- Toronto Maple Leafs
- New Jersey Devils
- Ottawa Senators
- Winnipeg Jets
- Florida Panthers
Eastern Conference Blurb:
Over the summer I took the Flyers for third in their own division. But now that I’ve seen some preseason games and had a look at all of the teams, I think Philly’s stable of defensemen is deeper than Pittsburgh’s or New York’s, especially after the Pens traded Alex Goligoski to Dallas and the Rangers are having to start the season with their best blue liner, Marc Staal, on the IR with post-concussion syndrome.
In net, I think all three Atlantic contenders are as solid as can be, with starters that can contend for awards and backups that can fill the gaps. It should be noted that Philly is weakest at backup goalie, as Sergei Bobrovsky fell off at the end of his rookie season last year, while Brent Johnson held the Penguins together at the start of last year when Marc-Andre Fleury was dealing with a serious lack of form. At MSG, Henrik Lundqvist should have the luxury of resting more this season thanks to a healthy Marty Biron, who posted a nasty 2.13 GAA before breaking his collarbone last season.
And offensively, the acquisition of Jaromir Jagr already looks like a winner. He ripped up the Rangers in a preseason game and is said to have budding chemistry with Claude Giroux, which given their physical statures might be worthy of a Rocky and Bullwinkle reference. I expect James van Riemsdyk to come good this season, and the added physical presences Wayne Simmonds and Max Talbot bring to a team that already has Scott Hartnell up front should give the Flyers enough offense to compliment their exceptional top five defensemen (Pronger, Timonen, Meszaros, Carle & Coburn) and newfound stability in net (Bryzgalov).
I think the Sabres will finish right around where everyone expects them to: second in the division and about fifth in the conference. The additions have been talked about for a while now, but I want to reiterate that I think the most important player that Buffalo will have this year that they didn’t for last year’s playoff run is a guy who was already on the team and scoring at a point-a-game pace, center Derek Roy. While everyone else fawns over Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr, watch Roy closely. He has the speed and agility to be amongst the second tier of leading scorers in the league (read 80 – 90 points).
The Rangers themselves are tricky, because I want to love their growth and development together with guys like Staal, Dan Girardi, captain Callahan, Brian Boyle and all of the other, more offensively gifted forwards. On top of that, they have the goalie I believe to be the best in the world in Lundqvist. And then there’s the Brad Richards signing. But a lot of my belief that the Rangers are an up-and-coming team is dependent upon their big-minute players actually playing, and this Staal concussion thing has me skittish. We all have seen what has transpired with Sidney Crosby, and now I’m hearing the term “five-hour migraines” attached to Staal’s name. If the man is unable to play for long stretches of the season, a whole lot more will be asked of Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and new guy Tim Erixon. Although I love players with big hits and blocks totals, I did notice Girardi putting passes on the wrong side of the tape in that game against Philly over a week ago. There’s a time and a place to put the puck on a teammate’s backhand, but it’s not when their standing still with their hips squared up to you. That’s just what I saw.
Regarding the Lightning coming in seventh, I think their division is a little bit better than last year (how could it not be), and I’m also a little concerned about their depth on defense and in goal. Trading for Eric Brewer at the deadline was brilliant, and Victor Hedman should take a big step forward this year. But I don’t see the depth on this blue line that some of the other teams in the east have. I mean, Washington’s starting with a third pairing of Dennis Wideman and Mike Green. I’ve been very critical of Green in the past, but that was largely based on this assumption that he’s a great defenseman and a top-liner. Once upon a time Dennis Wideman was thought to be that very same thing with Boston. But as a team’s fifth and sixth defensemen, that’s a hell of a group, and that’s something that I don’t see with Tampa Bay in the Matt Gilroys, Brett Clarks and Bruno Gervaises of the world. But hey, what do I know?
And then there’s Montreal. I picked them eighth solely because I’m sick of telling people that I think they will fall off every September only to see them punch above their weight and get into the playoffs. And often times it doesn’t stop there, as we saw last year when they went to overtime in the seventh game against the eventual champs. Or the year before when they eliminated Washington and Pittsburgh en route to the eastern conference finals. I’m sick of picking them to miss the playoffs and looking like a moron, so I’ve got them eighth.
As far as hockey goes, the Habs have two key new faces this year in winger Erik Cole and D man Andrei Markov. I know, Markov’s not new, but he didn’t really play last year, so give me the Derek Roy Corollary here and let’s add him to what the Habs already accomplished last season. Carey Price was fantastic in net last season, and I don’t foresee a huge dropoff. On a positive note, he’s no longer backed up by Alex Auld. The downside is that he now starts in front of Peter Budaj. It seems the Habs are vehemently against the idea of allowing Price to rest for more than 12 games a season, after trading away Jaro Halak and giving Price the likes of Auld and Budaj. I think there is upside with this team, and they could go as high as probably fifth. More importantly, they are playoff tested and know what it takes to win important games. Montreal will be a tough opponent 70 times this season; in other words, the games that Price starts.
Carolina lost Cole to Montreal and didn’t really replace him, but they have a lot of young players who are supposed to be good, and the league leader in games played between the crease. While Cam Ward can be counted on to play a million minutes again this year, he (unlike Carey Price) may not have to. The Canes added Brian Boucher, who as a backup is not a bad option at all. Carolina also added Tomas Kaberle, who should help the team offensively at least. Up with Kabby are hitter/blocker extraordinaire Tim Gleason and one of the best D men in the league that nobody talks about, Joni Pitkanen. And to be clear, he’s both one of the best D men in the league and a player that nobody talks about, not just “the best of the rest.” But if I’m going to call out Tampa Bay’s defense as thin, then it would be irresponsible not to note the same caveat in this Carolina team. And this team doesn’t have the luxury of a dynamic offense like Tampa does, although Eric Staal remains one of the best centers in the NHL.
The New York hockey Islanders. This one is probably the one that will draw me the most criticism, and I understand why. Over the summer, I bashed team owner Charles Wang and said that while the team had the pieces to be good, that no group of men could succeed under that kind of leadership. Well, I studied up and put the Isles’ roster up against New Jersey’s, and I actually think there’s a good chance NYI finishes ahead of NJ. The Isles have a ton of young talent at forward, led by John Tavares, and at least “options” in net in Al Montoya, Evgeni Nabokov and Rick DiPietro. I know those three don’t inspire Stanley Cup visions, but if they can find their one good one, and it could end up being Montoya, then that would just be another problem solved for the club that has had so many in the last decade. But the two players to watch if you want to see how to positively impact hockey games from the back are newly-anointed captain Mark Streit (who, like Markov, is returning from a missed season) and huge Slovakian national Milan Jurcina. If both Streit and Jurcina can stay healthy for the most part — which it should be noted is something that neither accomplished last season — then the Isles will be so much the better for it on both ends of the ice.
And regarding the Devils, there are certainly ways that they can make the playoffs this season. Marty Brodeur could return to Vezina contending form; Zach Parise could get happy with the franchise and start inspiring his teammates to do their best Montreal impression; Ilya Kovalchuk could play two-way hockey. But ultimately I don’t like the smell coming from that direction, and Parise being on a one-year deal with the ability to become an unrestricted free agent next summer is kind of akin to granting someone a pity date. Sure, maybe the date will go amazing and the loser will raise his game and convince the hot girl to date him again, but more likely is that the date will come and go, the loser will act either defeated or desperate, and the whole thing will be a scene from a memory for the one granting the pity date. Let’s get the cast straight here — Parise is the one granting the pity date; the Devils are the ones who know this is it, now or never.
But even if Parise likes what he sees and buys into Kovalchuk as a higher paid teammate who plays the same position and plays inspired hockey, I still don’t think the Devils’ roster is very good. Aside from their two left wings and Patrik Elias, they don’t have a forward worth a damn in the NHL unless some of their entry-level guys show readiness from the beginning. I don’t even want to talk about their defense. Anton Volchenkov has to start earning his huge contract in year two with the Devils. Actually, no he doesn’t. And that might be the problem. Andy Greene is always going to be Andy Greene, and I’m tired of trying to convince myself otherwise. And then there’s the rest of them… prove me wrong Devils.
I want to buy into the Leafs, and I love their defensemen right now, but I think they’re just too weak systematically and in goal to rise up this season. The offense is alright, and Tim Connolly should give them something as the second-line center along with Phil Kessel. That is, if he doesn’t piss everyone off around him first. The real top line of MacArthur, Kulemin and Grabovski should be fine, although last year was the first time those guys did what they did, so maybe there’s a question of consistency. But the blue line is where this team is good, so logic would follow that they have to win games that way. Maybe they can with a rejuvenated Dion Phaneuf, freshly signed Luke Schenn and newly acquired J.M. Liles and Cody Franson (who incidentally is scratched for tonight’s opener). But in the end, I don’t predict the Leafs to have consistent above-average play in net, and until I can rely on that I can’t take them to the playoffs with the forwards in front of James Reimer & Jonas Gustavsson.
Ottawa should be a fun team to watch this season. Most people completely write them off, but those people don’t fully understand the beauty of Craig Anderson. I’ll keep saying this ‘til the day I die, but go back and watch Game 3 of the 2010 first round between Colorado and San Jose, all the way through the post-game if you can. If that isn’t enough, check out Craig’s first game with the Senators on February 19 of this year. It was a 1-0 win over the Maple Leafs, and it embodied what my brother and I have seen in Anderson for a few years now: the guy has an uncanny ability to win games with the game’s second-best group of skaters in front of him. That situation will present itself a lot this year, but watch what a professional does. And sure, he got his way out of Colorado, but can you blame him? Wouldn’t you do anything to get out of a burning building? Anderson did, and while noobs will compare Ottawa to Colorado negatively, I am 100% certain that Anderson is in a better situation now, and he knows it. The Sens are truly rebuilding, while Colorado sits without a captain, without hardly any players signed beyond this year, and without a whole lot of IQ points in the room. Anderson was too smart to be on the Avalanche, and the Senators are better off for it.
I really am saddened to pick Winnipeg for 14th, and I really can’t explain why I did so. They have a decent enough goalie in Ondrej Pavelec, some pretty good defensemen (at least on the offensive score sheet), forwards that should be good enough to at least compete for eighth, and one of the best home-ice advantages in the league. But I just don’t see enough there, and I think that once realignment is official, the team will start looking forward to next season in the western conference, when its travel will go from awful to just a lot. I really do like Pavelec as a starting goalie in this league, but I think his time is still coming, and the team may not be able to score enough goals to account for what I view as a less-than-stalwart defense.
And last but not least, the Florida Panthers. I think they’re trying, and I think there should be some more signings next year (at least there better be). I am a huge fan of winger David Booth, and I love what they did bringing defensemen Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski into a team that had to meet the salary cap floor. But as far as most of these forwards making $3 million or more on new contracts, I don’t think many of them are worth their weight in lead and I don’t see how the loss of goaltender Tomas Vokoun can be glossed over. Vokoun went out and killed it for an awful team. He kept to his grind and continually turned in top-level performances. Now, the Panthers are supposed to rely on Jose Theodore to get it done? Beyond him, there’s Scott Clemmensen, but he’s not even healthy, and to throw all-everything prospect Jacob Markstrom into the fire could do more harm that good, although I actually think he seems like a mentally strong kid who could handle a 3+ GAA.
Aside from Booth and the two new D men, one player to watch closely is blue liner Erik Gudbranson. I wrote about him in my summer predictions, but the time has come to see how much he’s improved his game. The sky is the limit for this kid, and the limit for the team should rise every year. But for purposes of this year alone, I don’t see the top-level talent or the depth necessary to compete for anything beyond a double digit finish in the east.
Picks for the west are in, and post will be up before all the action really gets going this weekend.