New York Rangers
Tampa Bay Lightning
New Jersey Devils
Toronto Maple Leafs
New York Islanders
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
One question that has been beat into our heads and has remained unanswered this offseason is how long will Crosby be out? Pens fans shouldn’t really be that concerned in looking for an answer to that question. The Pens played the last 41 games of the season without Crosby, and still managed a 4thplace finish in the conference. It would be smart to allow Crosby to take his time and make sure that when he returns to the game, he will be 100%. Ray Shero made a smart move in the off season, bringing in C Steve Sullivan. Sullivan should be good for about 45 points on the season. As well, if Malkin can come back healthy, the Penguins are going to be one of the strongest teams in the Eastern Conference. Backup goalie Brent Johnson will not be a liability when he has the chance to give Fleury a rest. The Pens also stacked up a couple of key players on their back end, adding Martin and Michalek. Pittsburgh could be frightfully good on their back end this season. However, one question that may haunt the Penguins this year is depth. In the event of a couple key injuries, do the Pens have enough scoring to carry them through? That is where the late season trade for James Neal comes in. 6 points in 20 games isn’t going to cut it, especially after scoring 39 in 59 games for Dallas. Neal is a good young player, and he will be the player to watch for the Pens this season.
2. Philadelphia Flyers
Ever since the departure of Hextall, the Flyers haven’t had a solid number one goaltender. The net has been a constant carousel of goalies, each trying to earn the job full time. Names such as Cechmanek, Snow, Vanbiesbrouk, Boucher, Emery, Hackett, Froese, Soderstrom…I could go on forever. However, this year, as well as every other year, the Flyers believe that they have found their guy. Bryzgalov will be a consistent performer for the Flyers this season, but we will see how he can deal with the legendary Flyer fan animosity if he starts a string of bad games. We’ll see how he deals with getting his first trailer hitch thrown at him. Fans in Philly are a little more “passionate” than the average fan in Phoenix. Philly had to move some important stock in order to land Bryzgalov, and that involved moving key players such as Carter and Richards. That is going to be a lot of points that will need to be spread out amongst the rest of the team. Players such as Giroux, Van Riemsdyk and Simmonds are going to be leaned on heavily this season. However, the addition of Jagr will help them out, but one shouldn’t expect record setting numbers from Jagr. Voracek will be a helpful addition as well, and even though the Flyers lost 2 of their top 4 scorers, they won’t feel the pinch. Their back end is as solid as ever, with grey bushes Pronger and Timonen leading the show; that is, if Pronger can remain healthy. The Flyers have one of the better D-Cores in the Eastern Conference this season, and with no major changes, more will be expected. Were the GAA last year indicative of average goaltending or because of inconsistency on the back end? This year will tell us.
3. New York Rangers
The Rangers are well on their way of developing their younger players and moving forward. The addition of Brad Richards will help the Rangers see that they are not blowing as many third period leads this season. More responsibility is being placed on the Rangers younger players, and forwards such as Dubinsky and Callahan are going to asked to shoulder the majority of the workload this season. Gaborik is always consistent, but that is only when he is healthy. Gaborik missed 20 games last season, but this season he will need to be much better. Support from Stepan and Boyle will help the Rangers take the next step, but they are still a fairly young team. On their back end, players such as Staal, Girardi and McDonagh will be playing together for a few more years yet, and they will continue to improve as the season develops. If only Del Zotto can shake off a forgettable sophomore year, he will emerge and help round out one of the best top 4’s in the East. How are the Rangers going to be in the nets this year? One word…Lundqvist. Quite simply, one of the best in the game and he can carry this team through many games this season, just like he has in the past. With Biron as a backup, he is capable of playing huge minutes in relief of Hank, but honestly, can anyone see him taking a stretch of games off? Henrik played over 4000 minutes last season, and was just shy of the numbers that would qualify a Vezina nomination. The player to watch this season on the Rangers will be newcomer Mats Zuccarello. Zuccarello will be seeing more ice time this season, and lets see what kind of numbers he can put up in a full NHL season. Bottom line for the Rangers is this…getting knocked out by the Caps in the playoffs could be the best thing to happen to this young team.
4. New Jersey Devils
Entering this season, there are 2 major questions that need to be answered; can the Devils rebound from a simply horrific start to the 2010-2011 season, and is it time for the Devils to start thinking about life without Brodeur? There were lots of factors that could be blamed for the Devils poor start. How much of the blame can be placed on the injuries to Parise and Brodeur? How much can be placed on the teams lack of response to head coach John MacLean? And finally, if Kovalchuk stumbles out of the gate once again, will the same pattern be repeated? However, in light of all of these occurrences, the Devils still turned it around and were in playoff contention in mid March. What the Devils accomplished in the second half was pretty remarkable, and that deserves some accolades. However, one fact remains true; the Devils have only won 1 playoff round in the last 5 seasons. Unlike Brodeur, Kovalchuk is going to be around for much longer. Why Jersey would allow a player such as Parise to go to arbitration is beyond me. Parise is one of their premier players and Lamoriello needs to ensure that he is around long term. Hopefully the arbitration process didn’t shake Parise’s faith in the organization too dramatically. Unlike the division rival Rangers, the Devils are an aging group and time is running out on this group to win it all together. The Devils will need to score more than 174 goals this season, which was the lowest goal scored total in the league last season. Elias can still be counted on to be a regular contributor, but players such as Zubrus and Zajac will have to do better than their 44 and 30 point seasons respectively. A healthy Parise will add to the goals scored total, but at the same time, they will need to improve on a 14.4% power play goals as well, which garnered them 28thplace in the league last season. Aside from a solid top 2 d-men in Tallinder and Volchenkov, there isn’t much depth on their back end as they need. Sure they only allowed 209 goals last season, but this may be the opportunity that Adam Larsson needs to crack the lineup and be a full time Devil
5. New York Islanders
Believe it or not, things are starting to shape up on the Island. The Islanders will be better this season, and GM Snow has slowly and quietly been putting together a solid core of young players. Sure, drafting a player of Tavares’ talent makes it much easier to build a team, but Snow has done a fairly remarkable job. For the Isles, the tough part of the rebuild may be completed. Now, it is time to build on last year and show steady gains year to year. Players such as Grabner, Moulson and Tavares may be three of the most talented young players on one team. There, I said it. Throw in players such as Parenteau, Nielson, Bailey and Comeau, and the future is starting to look bright on the Island. The Isles have also quietly built up their farm system, and have drafted some prospects that could make the Islanders forwards an elite group within 5 or 6 years. If Snow can keep this current group of forwards together, they may be reminiscent of another group of young forwards that remained together in the 80’s until Bruce McNall got involved. And no, I am not alluding that any member of the Islanders is close to being of 99 status. It is just a reference to an extremely talented young group. One thing that has plagued the Isles year after year is the health of DiPietro. However, when DiPietro does get injured (and he will), it will be up to Al Montoya to carry the bulk of the workload. Once upon a time, there were two amazing US Born Goalie Prospects named Montoya and Dipietro. Montoya worked hard every day and even did his evil step-brothers chores, but no matter how hard he worked, he always remained in the shadows of his charismatic and fragile step-brother. Sounds like a fairy tale, but the whole concept of an oft-injured DiPietro is a nightmare for the majority of the Isles fans. One thing that the fans can count on though, is that Montoya will be a more than suitable replacement for DiPietro. Throw in the possibility of Nabakov being in the mix, and an injury to DiPietro may be the best thing to happen for the Islanders goalies. On the back end, they were hit with numerous injuries that allowed quite a few depth players to see some ice. For such a young team, dealing with the news that they would miss Streit for last season, was quite the blow. If Streit can return at 100%, there is still a hodgepodge of d men back there. Players such as Hamonic, Eaton and Mottau are going to be counted on to provide some much needed stability and security. The Islanders are moving forward ever so slightly, but they have a number of shining stars in their future.
With a new ownership that has loosened off the purse strings, the Sabres have to be considered a legitimate threat this season. The Sabres were the hottest team going into the playoffs this past spring, winning 16 of its final 24 games to enter the playoffs with the number 7 seed. The Sabres were always a piece or two short of completing the puzzle, and after trading for Regehr and signing Ehrhoff long term, the Sabres have one of the strongest blue lines in the Conference. Tyler Myers is going to be counted on to improve on last years numbers, and he will have lots of opportunity to see the ice this season. Finally, the Sabres have an ownership that is willing to go out and spend money on players. Last season, Stafford and Ennis made strides in becoming pivotal pieces in the future of the Sabres. In 2010-11, only three teams in the Eastern Conference scored more goals than the Sabres, and let’s remember that they did that even while missing Derek Roy for the majority of the season. With a healthy core group of forwards, the Sabres have a balanced and legitimate attack with skaters such as Hecht, Pominville, Boyes, Vanek and others. In nets, Ryan Miller is capable of stealing multiple games this season. Remember, Miller is only one season removed from a Vezina winning campaign. Jhonas Enroth will get a chance to start some games, but not very many. With Miller starting in 65 games last year, Enroth still found time to win 9 games for Buffalo. With Lindy Ruff at the helm again this year, this Sabres team is going to be one of the most entertaining teams to watch this season. Count on Ruff to ensure that the Sabres do not underachieve.
2. Boston Bruins
One can only watch in amazement when Thomas is working between the pipes. Thomas has been oft-criticized for being an unorthodox goalie by numerous analysts, but he has done what many of them couldn’t; win a Stanley Cup and multiple Vezinas. The Bruins managed to maintain their core group of young players, and aside from Recchi retiring and Ryder renting a U-Haul bound for Texas, the Bruins are still the same team. With Savard regrettably on the shelf for the duration of this season, it puts a hole in the Bruins that can easily be filled. Last season, Krejci and Bergeron filled in admirably in his absence, and Krejci will be leaned upon lots this year. Seguin will continue to develop, and playing on this Bruins team will help him immensely. Just remember, that head coach Claude Julien will continue to expose Seguin to different situations slowly. There will be some questions about Horton after his concussion in the post season, but if he can come back healthy, he will be relied on to provide some additional scoring to help plug the hole left by Recchi. Big things are going to be expected from the little sparkplug that is Brad Marchand. Marchand was pivotal in the Bruins championship run last spring, and he will be expected to pick up where he left off. On their back end, any d-core that is led by Chara is going to be strong and steady. Other d-men such as McQuaid, Boychuk, Ference, Corvo and Seidenberg will round out a very strong back end. For being the best goalie in the world right now, Thomas reminds me of someone you’d bump into in line for a beer. Thomas posted record numbers last season, and he isn’t showing any intention of slowing down. Rask will get the opportunity to play in plenty of games this season, and head coach Claude Julien has already stated that the Bruins are entering the season with 2 number 1 goalies. Adam McQuaid finished a remarkable +30 last season, and with an increase in ice time possible, he will improve on last seasons numbers.
3. Montreal Canadiens
The Habs definitely have some speed to burn up front, but it’ll take more than speed to make this a contending team. One would have a hard time stomaching the high priced contracts handed out to the likes of Gionta, Gomez, and Cammalleri. The Habs did not get their moneys worth from their highest paid players. The addition of Erik Cole will help with secondary scoring, but the majority of the Habs wins this season are going to come from low scoring games. Last season, Montreal finished with 44 wins, but they only scored 216 goals. Players such as Gomez need to score more, simply put. Young players such as Lars Eller is ready to be the offensive contributor that Gauthier thought he was trading for when Halak was moved. On the back end, the Habs felt the pinch when Gorges and Markov both went down with injuries. Subban was able to step up and fill in when needed, and now that the Habs have seen what he may be capable of; the expectations will be considerably higher this year. Montréal’s d-core should be fairly solid this year, with Weber and Yemelin chomping at the bit for more ice time. If Montreal can make it through this season relatively injury free, they may be in the position to move some assets to help their scoring, or lack of as it will be. In the nets, Price will be a workhorse once again. After starting in 70 games last season, he set career numbers in GAA and SV%. Peter Budaj will continue to be the reliable backup that he has been throughout his career, but realistically he shouldn’t be expecting to get a lot of work.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto is developing and acquiring some talented young players. Grabovski is coming off career highs in every important category, but will he improve again this year? There has been a fair bit of pressure placed on youngsters Bozak and Kadri to develop and produce right away, but the emergence of MacArthur and Kulemin provided the Leafs the chance to ease off on Kadri and Bozak. The Leafs hope that Connolly will be the center that Kessel needs, but as always, his health is an issue. On defense, Phaneuf will be the workhorse on the blue line, with Schenn and Aulie slowly emerging as a legitimate threats. The bottom line is that the d-core needs to be better and improve on their 251 goals allowed last season. The acquisitions of Liles and Franson will help them on their back end, but their goals against would have been much worse if it wasn’t for the emergence of James Reimer. Reimer is going into this season as the number one goalie for the Leafs. After starting in 35 games last season, Reimer is going to shoulder the workload this year. However, if he starts to slip, the Leafs will not have much of a choice but to turn to Gustavsson, who has been hampered by a heart condition the last couple of seasons. If Gustavsson is unable to go or performs subpar, the Leafs are going to have to go to the well that is the Marlies for a call up.
5. Ottawa Senators
As an outsider looking in, I watch in amazement and wonder how Bryan Murray has been able to keep his job. Numerous quality coaches have been sent down the river in years past, and the next man in the breach is Paul MacLean. MacLean will have a fairly young team to work with this year, with players such as Fisher, Kelly, Ruutu, Kovalev and Elliot gone. After using 6 goalies (Brodeur, McElhinney, Leclaire, Elliot, Lehner, and Anderson) during the 2010-11 season, the Sens are hoping that they finally have their man in Craig Anderson. As well, the only players that can tell people that they had a good year and keep a straight face were Karlsson and Spezza. The Sens have a fairly young team this season, and Paul MacLean is hopefully the right man for the job. Alfredsson needs to come back at 100% after his injury, and prove his worth to the Sens this year. A young team will need his veteran presence in the locker room. Young players such as Bobby Butler and Nick Foligno need to improve on last seasons numbers, and they are going to have plenty of opportunity to do just that. Last year, the Senators allowed 250 goals against. That is simply horrific, and the Senators only had 2 of the d-men that they used all season finish on the right side of the +/- category. Defensemen such as Phillips (-35) and Kuba (-26) simply need to be better. This is going to be a long season for the Sens, but if certain players continue to develop and improve on seasons past, many Senator players will reach career highs.
1. Washington Capitals
Life is good in Washington. They have a great team, a supportive and rabid fan base, and a couple of the most exciting players in the game today. Regardless of regular season achievements, until the Capitals do something, they are on the same page as the Sharks; playoff pretenders. Washington has drafted extremely well over the years, and they are going to continue to reap the benefits for quite a few years. Players such as John Carlson (yes, I’m still upset over his amazing goal in the WJHC), Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perrault are going to continue to develop at the NHL level. McPhee made a couple of moves in the off season, bringing in Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer. The Capitals will recover from a low scoring 224 goal (by their standards) season and will continue to improve defensively. Players such as Backstrom and Semin (especially after he was criticized in the press for his unambitious play) need to increase their offensive production. With Green missing significant time last season, Carlson emerged as a player capable of handling the minutes. Washington further bolstered their blue line by adding Wideman and signing Hamrlik to a d-core that already had Green, Poti, Alzner, Erskine and Schultz. With the off season moves that the Caps made in their nets, Vokoun will handle the workload nicely and should be expected to play between 50 and 60 games this year. If Vokoun begins to struggle, Neuvirth has shown that he is more than capable of stepping in.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
By making it into the third round of the playoffs last season, the Lightning grew in leaps and bounds. Key younger players such as Stamkos and Purcell had an extra long drink at the post season fountain. Let’s remember that this was the team that came back against the Crosby-less Penguins and then sweep the Capitals last season. Guy Boucher had his team motivated and ready for success last season and new GM Steve Yzerman put some key elements in place. Any team that can put players of the caliber of Lecavalier, St Louis and Stamkos together has to be considered a serious threat. Throw in some secondary scoring support from Moore, Downie, Purcell and Thompson, and the Lightning can be extremely offensive. If Gilroy can become the type of player that Yzerman thought he was when he went after him as a free agent and if Hedman continues to develop, the Lightning can have a very strong defensive team as well. Throw in Brewer, Kubina, Ohlund and Clark, it would appear that the Lightning are very deep in their own end. Roloson enters the season as the number one goalie, but if he starts to show his age, look for Garon to start to take the majority of the starts away. The Lightning have many of the pieces in place to compete in the playoffs.
3. Carolina Hurricanes
Eric Staal is arguably one of the best centers in the league, and he is barely 27 years old. After missing out on the post season in their last game of the season, the Hurricanes should be expected to make the cut this year. One thing that may have hurt the Hurricanes last year was depth. Carolina simply lacked secondary scoring that was effective enough to guarantee a post season berth. Staal and Skinner are a very competent combination, and Skinner has developed faster than many thought he was going to. Players such as Boychuk, Jokinen, Larose, Ponikarovsky and Sutter are going to have to pick up the slack and provide some much needed secondary scoring this season. As well, the current group of forwards on the Hurricanes needs to be more active in their own end, and they need to be more efficient back checkers. The d-core will be anchored by Gleason and Pitkanen, and the additions of Allen and Kaberle will help out dramatically. Going into this season, Cam Ward will continue to eat up starts for the Canes, and Brian Boucher will be relegated to opening the gate for the majority of this season. Boucher can expect to get about 10 starts this season, barring any injury to Ward.
4. Florida Panthers
Heading into this season with a new head coach in Kevin Dineen, the learning curve is going to be quick in Florida this season. During the regular season, GM Dale Tallon was active (as usual) and was ready to make moves to improve his club. Tallon moved the majority of the veteran talent out of town, and quickly stocked up on draft picks and young prospects. As a result, Dineen is taking over a younger team, and essentially, a chunk of clay for him to mold. Last season, Florida’s leading goal scorer only had 23, and the team leader for points was 49, you would think that there is a lot of room for improvement. Players such as Santorelli and Bradley will be leaned upon to produce, and the addition of Bergenheim should help. On the back end, it doesn’t look much better for Florida. Kulikov, Campbell, Weaver and Jovonovski (yup…he’s still playing) on their back end, there is a lot of opportunity for Gudbranson and Ellerby to eat up some minutes. In the nets this season, Jose Theodore may emerge as the number one tender going into this season. His leash may be a little shorter this season, and if he starts to struggle, Kevin Dineen may give Markstrom an extra long look. Markstrom will be the Panthers tender of the future, but they need to be careful that they don’t burn him out early in his career.
5. Winnipeg Jets
A new home is not enough to improve the Atlanta Thrashers. Sure, the players will get to experience a circus like atmosphere with their games, which may be a new feeling for many of them that have been in Atlanta long term. Even though the Jets are a fairly young team, they are still a very talented team. Offensively, the team has Ladd, Kane, Antropov, Little, and Wheeler. Forwards such as Burmistrov, Cormier and Glass are going to be expected to contribute more offensively, while players such as Byfuglien and Enstrom will add to their offensive totals. On the back end, Byfuglien and Enstrom will be anchoring the d-core with Bogosian and Oduya providing additional support. However, last season the Thrashers finished 29thin the NHL with 269 goals against. That number is going to have to decrease dramatically before the Jets can be considered a legitimate threat for the playoffs. The Thrashers were also 20thin the league for goals scored, another stat that is going to have to improve before they can be taken seriously as a playoff threat. In the nets, the combination of Pavelec and Mason will provide to be an adequate goaltending tandem, but their numbers will have to be better.
As always, these types of prognostications always come with opinions of varying degree. Let me have it if I am right the fuck out to lunch.
And now, your hockey fight of the week. A great fight between Brian McGratton and Cam Janssen. Two great competitors.
Thanks for stopping by.