Man, did I keep my promise or what? As soon as I predict Anaheim finishing ahead of San Jose, they go out and get Heatley. Obviously Doug Wilson was afraid of how ominous my predictions were, and he knew he had to get Joe Thornton the highest scoring Canadian player in the game to slot on his wing. Well there go my predictions for at least one division in the West, as just a couple of points lost by Dallas and gained by San Jose over the course of the season could see Dallas on the outside looking in, and San Jose walking away with the president's trophy once more... [sigh]... And of course Nashville picked up Bouillon, which if you listen to some media reports out of Quebec will vault them into the playoffs somehow. This year the East kind of leveled off, the bad teams got a bit better, and the teams that were amazing last year like Boston and Washington got a little thinner. Here goes another round of predictions that are sure to be wrong!
15th New York Islanders - I don't think anyone is going to disagree with me here. I could have been bold and said something like, the Penguins or something, but this is the safe choice because the Islanders are basically an AHL team masquerading as the NHL's worst club. The addition of John Tavares is going to be nice in the future, but as for putting W's in the win column I highly doubt he'll have much of an affect this season. Like Stamkos last year, I'm guessing that Tavares will have a bit of trouble adjusting to the big league and it'll take some time for him to build the necessary muscle to compete every night. I'm guessing he'll get somewhere in the range of 45 points, probably with 25 goals as he'll start to score in bunches near the end of the season. The fact that this will probably sit him at first on the Isles' forwards in goals, and probably second in points behind Kyle Okposo, is exactly why this team sucks. Too many young players who've been rushed along all on the team at the same time, throw in a couple played out veterans and you have the worse version of the Phoenix Coyotes, only with a better powerplay anchored by Mark Streit. Streit is definitely the high point for this team, and to be honest I didn't think there was a chance in the world that he was actually as good as he looked two years ago in Montreal, but offensively he is magic, especially on the PP. The craziest thing about Mark, is that he was a plus last year on the league's worst team! The goaltending still perplexes me, one day they sign Dwayne Roloson to a contract that's a bit hefty for his age and pedigree, and then the next they sign Martin Biron to a really nice looking contract. It seems to me like management is extremely worried about the health of Rick DiPietro on a long term basis. DiPietro has missed 101 games to injury in since he signed his massive mistake of a contract in the summer of '06, and I can see why the Islanders are worried. Chronic knee, groin and concussion issues have surfaced and I'm going to predict that DiPietro will play less that 5 more years of his contract before being forced into retirement. With Roloson and Biron the Islanders will no longer need to have the revolving door of AHL goaltenders that we've seen the last couple seasons, but neither are top flight goalies that are going to consistently steal games, especially with a defensive corps that boasts it's second best guy is Andy Sutton (also injury prone).
14th Florida Panthers - Jay Bouwmeester is gone. Olli Jokinen is gone. It's rumoured that Nathan Horton wants out. What is wrong with this team? Florida has been pretty much downright terrible since it's unlikely cinderella cup run in 1996. There are bright spots on the roster with Horton, Booth and Weiss making up a pretty solid first line, while Cory Stillman is still a solid player about half the games he plays in. It went unnoticed by most, but Michael Frolik actually put up very respectable numbers as a rookie, it's too bad for the Panthers that after 4 seasons in the NHL Rostislav Olesz does nothing but decline. Theoretically the Panthers could have a nice top 6 group of forwards if all these guys have good seasons, but it's very difficult to imagine. On defense it's a veritable hodgepodge of 3rd and 4th defenders Offensively Ballard and McCabe are not bad options, but the defense doesn't have any true top pairing defensemen in the remaining corps of Seidenberg, Leopold, Koistinen, Allen, Skoula (tryout), or Backman (tryout). To me the defense looks good for a lackluster or listless game, with enough puck movers to make the first pass and play out the time remaining, but when pressure is applied the only guy that's really defensively sound is Seidenberg, and he's really only had one good season! Vokoun in goal is another bright spot, as he seems to excel on teams that are fighting for the playoffs, but not making it. As a Canadiens fan however, I'm excited to see how the loss of goaltending coach Pierre Groulx effects the goaltending in Florida. I guess the gist of what I'm saying about the Panthers is, your logo is one of the coolest in pro sports, but if the best you can muster is an identical record to the Canadiens when everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong in Montreal last year, you suck.
13th Atlanta Thrashers - I feel bad placing the Thrashers so low, because for the first time since they became a team they seem to honestly be trying to improve in the long run, and not patch up holes just so they can fill up a roster. Kovalchuk is the second or third best sniper in the league, above or below Heatley depending on who you ask, and he still doesn't have an elite playmaker to help him out, but the players around him are finally getting better. The ageless Slava Kozlov is back again, and I don't know how long he can keep up his offensive prowess but he shows no real sign of slowing down. Bryan Little is likely to either improve or stay about the same, and he has some better players surrounding him in Nik Antropov and likely the streaky but insanely talented Maxim Afinogenov. Rich Peverley is likely to fill out the top six after finding chemistry with Kovalchuk last season after coming over from Nashville. It's not a great top two lines, but it's better than Atlanta has seen since the Heatley days. The defense has gotten MUCH stronger in the offseason, and I would have said this even if they hadn't gone out and Pavel Kubina for Garnet Exelby (who sucks, no matter what Leafs fans like to think, he's a crappy hockey player, period exclamation point). The reason I think the Thrashers defense is so much better is that they have a one year older, healthy Zach Bogosian. As an 18 year old last season this kid was able to out muscle most opposing forwards, and offensively keep up and develop chemistry with Ilya Kovalchuk. He is one talented kid, and at 19 I think is probably the best defender on the team, ahead of Kubina and Ron Hainsey. In goal Kari Lehtonen doesn't win me over. His reputation for a lack of conditioning reminds me of Pasi Nurminen, which is a very bad thing. Groin issues have already become a major recurring problem, as have back injuries. And speaking of back injuries, I just checked Lehtonen's TSN page and guess what I've found? He just had back surgery and is out indefinitely! 200 games in 4 years since he was supposed to be Atlanta's starting goaltender doesn't impress me. Speaking of being unimpressed, despite being constantly touted as the best teammate in the NHL, Johan Hedberg at 36 is not even close to good enough to become the starter on this team for an indefinite amount of time. In fact he was one of the worst goaltenders in the league last year, and I doubt his capabilities to even be a back up. I'm guessing this is why Manny Legace and his noted attitude problems is on a tryout with this team. I notice I've been writing a lot more on the Eastern conference teams so far, and this is why it's taking me forever to get this post out, I guess I pay more attention to the East Coast!
12th Buffalo Sabres - Because of the evening out of the East during the summer, this is where the playoff fight starts, and almost everything I write is probably bullshit. A single point either way could move a team up or down a few space, so if you're a fan of any of these teams that don't make the dance, try not to be offended. I've heard countless predictions this September about how the Sabres are going to make the playoffs and finish second in the Northeast division. What I'd like to know is... how? Buffalo seems to have a policy to lose it's MVP every season or two, and that happened this offseason when Jaroslav Spacek darted to divisional rival Montreal. Two seasons in a row Buffalo has lost it's #1 defenseman, and they haven't brought in anything special to replace this void. If you want to know how badly the Sabres did this offseason, here's an easy way to sum it up: NHL.com had a little daily quiz last week, which Buffalo Sabre is the best new addition? Mike Grier, Cody McCormick, Steve Montador or Brad Larson. Look over those names for a second. A 4th liner, two AHLers and a 7th to 8th defenseman. These are the replacements for Ales Kotalik, Jaroslav Spacek, Maxim Afinogenov, and Teppo Numminen? And you think you're going to make the playoffs? Are you @#$%ing kidding me!?!? But, Sabres fans will say; Tim Connolly will stay healthy this year, and he's a legitimate top line player. Bull. Tim Connolly will not stay healthy, it just isn't gonna happen, try again. But, Ryan Miller is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, and the only reason we missed the playoffs last year is because he got injured! Ryan Miller is a pretty good goaltender, but he's vastly overrated and I haven't seen anything from him that impresses me that much. As for his injury being the only reason Buffalo didn't overtake Montreal last year (which I've heard non-stop all summer from Habs haters), is complete bullshit. Miller missed 17 games all season, Price missed 16, and had lingering injuries from January onward because he rushed back. It doesn't matter WHEN the injuries occur, just because Miller was injured at a crucial part of the season doesn't mean his 17 games was any worse of a loss than Price's 16. Any way you look at it, Buffalo is banking on severe increases in production from a number of young players this season, and the team is weaker both at forward and defense than last season.
11th Ottawa Senators - Gone are the days of one elite line in the nations capital, and finally for the first time in team history there seems to be the promise of a balanced scoring attack. Dany Heatley was finally traded, most likely just to screw with my last batch of predictions, and in comes Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo. Michalek is a nice pickup for Ottawa, and it seems like he'll slot into the top line with Alfredsson and Spezza. Michalek to me is a slightly more consistent but less talented Andrei Kostitsyn. He's put up some solid numbers in his short NHL career, but let's be honest, he's been playing with Joe Thornton! Jason Spezza is a good playmaker, but he's not near the same level as Thornton. Michalek has likely hit his peak as a 55-65 point player, and while that's nothing to spit at, it's not Dany Heatley. Cheechoo is interesting, but by all accounts a throw in and salary dump for San Jose. There's no way than anyone, even Ottawa expects him to get back to 50 goal form, but a 20 goal season is likely expected. The problem with this new balanced scoring or so it's assumed in Ottawa is that their second line is entirely 'ifs' and 'maybes'. Cheechoo could theoretically bounce back and get 25 goals and 55 points, but with a 3rd line checking center getting paid and getting the minutes of a 2nd line center in Mike Fisher, and the always enigmatic Alex Kovalev as linemates it seems unlikely to me. Both Fisher and Kovalev are prone to extended scoring droughts, and Kovalev's constant back and forth between invisibility and dominance is hard on linemates, and with no real passer or even elite player on the second line, it's going to be a long year of Kovalev attempting to go in all alone against four defenders, and either putting himself or his linemates offside, or losing the puck altogether. The third line is pretty good with Foligno and Ruutu rotating at left wing, Kelly at center and Neil on the right. It's not a bad line, but I don't see many goals being chipped in. Pascal Leclaire is a definitive upgrade in goal over Gerber and Auld, but his tendency toward injury should be a troubling thought for Ottawa fans when Brian Elliot is all you have to replace him. The defense is also troublesome, as it's filled with 2nd pairing defensemen and one top pairing guy in Anton Volchenkov, who might be the best defensive defenseman in the East. Chris Phillips is supposed to be in his prime at 31 but has been forced to play too many minutes and is slowing down. Chris Campoli is a bargain at his salary and a lot of upside, but he's still young and inconsistent and would be best served on the 3rd pairing and on the powerplay. As pointed out by the venerable Mike Boone, Brian Lee sucks. AHL defenseman at this point. Same goes for Alex Picard. Filip Kuba is probably a little underrated, but he's by no means a top pairing guy. He's very soft in his own end and despite a good start last year, isn't as good offensively as his number would lead you to believe. Inconsistency will be the mark of the Senators this season as the second line will alternate with dominance and complete invisibility.
10th Tampa Bay Lightning - The Lightning improved drastically in the offseason. The addition of Hedman and Ohlund to the defensive corps is just what the doctor ordered, and putting Tanguay on the top line with his fellow French Canadians Lecavalier and St. Louis makes for a very intimidating top end offense. This is assuming that Lecavalier and Tanguay are both healthy this year, which is far from guaranteed. Kurtis Foster is also an underrated pickup on defense, and it's about time the Lightning rounded out their defense since it was atrocious last season. Steven Stamkos will likely improve quite a bit this coming season, and having the grit of Ryan Malone beside him on a line will really improve his numbers. Offensively this team should theoretically be very dangerous, with a bunch of capable puck movers on the back end in Hedman, Ohlund, Meszaros, Ranger and Krajicek, the powerplay should have little to no problem lighting the
lamp on a regular basis. The problems I see here, and the reason I don't feel right putting them in the playoffs start with coaching. Rick Tocchet wasn't worth much as an assistant coach in Phoenix or Colorado, and he only looked good last year compared to Barry Melrose, who was 20 years behind the game. Even in Tampa's best games last year, there was no semblance of a system. This organization has made several critical mistakes in the last couple years, allowing Len Barrie to be involved in the organization in any capacity, letting go of Jay Feaster, and firing John Tortorella. Torts is an excellent coach and motivator, and he's the kind of guy you need to whip a young team into shape. Aside from the coaching problem there's the goaltending situation. Every year it seems like Tampa Bay has a new goaltender or even a new tandem. Mike Smith was alright last year in the limited playing time he got before being concussed, but Kari Ramo is nowhere near close to ready for NHL duty. Antero Nittymaki was brought on board to give Mike Smith a solid backup, but I don't see
9th New Jersey Devils - As far as I know, I'm the only person who's predicted that the Devils are going to miss the playoffs, I guess you could call me bold, or stupid. It seems ridiculous to count out the Devils with Zach Parise becoming one of the best players in the NHL, along with one of the best scorers, but I have a few reasons. Brent Sutter is a fantastic coach, and he fled to Calgary to be closer to his family, to be replace by Jacques Lemaire. Brodeur may like the new coach, but I'm going to venture a guess and say that most of the young forward corps really won't. This team had finally started to shake off the reputation of a boring trap team with an electrifying top line of Parise with Zajac and Langenbrunner, and then they bring in the guy who basically created the trap. The defensive corps in NJ is no longer elite as it was when Lemaire was last there, it's a ragtag group of average and blew average defenders with Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya being the only really good players, but both probably better suited to second pairing duty instead of first. Colin White is intensely overpaid as he's just too slow for the post-lockout NHL, and he's also become a little injury prone. One of the common themes in New Jersey seems to be aging, as in this team's core is aging. Brian Rolston showed last year that he'd lost a step, and will likely struggle to get anywhere close to his minnesota numbers that earned him his more-than-what-Martin Havlat-is-making contract. Brendan Shanahan may improve a bit when he has the advantage of playing a full season, but 20 goals and a top six forward spot at 40 is a lot to ask. While those two elderly chaps taking top six forward spots is troubling, they don't compare in the least to an aging Martin Brodeur. At 37 it's extremely clear that Brodeur is no longer at the top of his game. He can still steal games often, and put on spectacular performances from time to time, but he's slowing down visibly. New Jersey hasn't made it out of the first round for two years running, despite having home ice advantage both times. More troubling than that, they haven't made it out of the second round since the won the cup in 2003. I pay attention to playoff hockey very closely, and every year at the least since the lockout, but the postseason Martin Brodeur looks very tired. He's struggled in the playoffs lately when it's been his reputation to shine during them. At this point in his career Brodeur has to make a choice, either play 70+ games and be useless by the end of the regular season, or knock it back to 55-60 games and give yourself a chance at the post season. It's apparent that with the signing of Yann Danis, the Devils see no apparent problem and are looking to start Brodeur in another 70+ game season. The Devils continually hemorrhage talent, and they've managed to stay competitive through good drafting, but things are starting to wear a little thin. Ilkka Pikkarainen was brought over from Finland to replace Brian Gionta, and although he scored 24 goals in 54 games for Helsinki he also had 149 PIM, which is not a positive.
8th Toronto Maple Leafs - And now it's time to get some bashing from fellow Habs fans. Yes my friends, the Leafs have a good shot of making the post season this year. It's undeniable that the defense has become much more solid with the marquee additions of Komisarek and Beauchemin. Despite the insistence of many fellow Montreal fans, Komisarek does not suck. He had an off year after lingering injury, much like Michael Ryder did the year before. He turns over the puck a lot, but he's a punishing bruiser who blocks tons of shots. Beauchemin might be overrated, we don't know yet because he's had the advantage of playing all his best years with Scott Niedermayer, who happens to be the second best defenseman in the NHL over the last 10 years. Scott could have made him look better than he actually is, as Markov did with Komisarek, but it's up to both of them to prove people wrong. Either way though, Komisarek and Beauchemin are unfathomably better than Jonas Frogren and Jeff Finger. Jonas Gustavsson is very clearly the most overrated free agent signing of the year, as Fabian Brunnstrom was last season, but to be honest, there is no way in hell he could possibly be worse than Curtis Joseph. So that's a big improvement in the goaltending department. Speaking of goalies, mark this prediction down in your notebook of things to throw back in my face later, Vesa Toskala will be a lot better this season. Vesa has played his best hockey when someone was there to challenge him for the starting job, and he hasn't had that in Toronto between Raycroft and Joseph. With an improved defense and offseason surgery to repair lingering injuries, expect Toskala to return to numbers similar to what he posted in San Jose. I wouldn't be too scared of taking Toskala in a fantasy league even, that's how much better I think he'll be. Up front is where Toronto should face some questions, but they always seem to score goals, likely at the expense of defense. Mikael Grabovski will hopefully prematurely retire after Travis Moen hits him at open ice and sends him flying 20 feet, but I doubt it. It's likely that the mostly young forward corps in Toronto will continue to gradually and slowly improve, with underrated players like Lee Stempniak, Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman and Alexei Ponikarovsky supplying most of the scoring until Phil Kessel returns from injury. There aren't many players on the Leafs that can qualify as top line talent, the only one I really like other than Kessel in this regard is Ponikarovsky, who has a ton of size and isn't as shy as his old buddy Nik Antropov in using it around the net. There are a few people who've suggested that the Leafs might have trouble scoring this season with the loss of Antropov and Phil Kessel being out until at least November, but I don't see much of a loss. Some players will likely step up and the defense is much tighter, so they won't need to score as much. And outside Antropov who have they really lost? Dominic Moore? Who cares. Jason Blake will likely be top 5 in the league in shots fired again this season, and absolute bottom in shooting percentage. I don't see him as much more than a stop gap measure to fill out the top six while Toronto rebuilds in the coming years. Speaking of rebuilding, what happened to that? Phil Kessel was brought into Toronto at a very steep price, two 1st round picks and a 2nd rounder. It's interesting to me that I read an article in the Toronto star the other day about this very phenomenon in Toronto, a new GM comes in, promises to build the team the right way, slowly through the draft, then promptly trades away a bunch of first round picks for anything but sure bets. Some have suggested it's not a big loss because Toronto sucks at drafting anyway, so does that mean Luke Schenn, Nazem Kadri and Tuukka Rask suck? I saw Rask play just the other night, and I can easily vouch for him being a talent that could easily oust Tim Thomas from the crease in Boston this year. Toronto's bad drafting is a bit of a myth, the problem is that they ship off all their good prospects for Owen Nolan every once in awhile. Burke has fallen into the trap that every Leafs GM falls into, and Kessel will not be a 40 goal scorer in Toronto without an elite playmaker like Marc Savard feeding him game in and out. Kessel has elite speed, shiftiness and an elite wrist shot, but he apparently has a bad attitude, and his stats were definitely inflated by a dominant Bruins team and two elite playmakers in Savard and Krejci centering him all season. Toronto has no such player to help him out. The Leafs are going to make the playoffs this year, but they aren't going anywhere, and it's at the expense of the future. Why is it that whenever Toronto makes the playoffs it's ALWAYS at the expense of the future?
7th New York Rangers - The Rangers got rid of Scott Gomez who wasn't working out on Broadway, and used that money to overpay Marion Gaborik. Glen Sather bewilders me, one minute he pulls of a salary dump of epic proportions in shipping Gomez to Montreal, and a second later he blows the hole situation by paying Gaborik 7.5 million to play 20 games a season. Gaborik is one hell of a talent, but he doesn't take conditioning seriously and has massive problems with his groin that continue to haunt his career. Ales Kotalik, Chris Higgins and Vaclav Prospal are very good additions to the roster, and its likely that Higgins will be forced to curb his party habits with John Tortorella at the helm. The Rangers are still very weak at the center position however, because Chris Drury is not a 1st line forward, even with his leadership qualities. Dubinsky is a third line center at best, and both Prospal and Higgins are used to playing wing instead of taking faceoffs now. On the wings Avery will continue to cause havoc after he returns from the knee injury he recently suffered. Other forwards on the Rangers don't really impress, as many character guys have been lost in the off season, notably Blair Betts and Fredrik Sjostrom. In goal the Rangers are as strong as the team has ever been, Henrik Lundqvist is absolutely amazing. I have no doubts that the tandem of Lundqvist and Valiquette will continue to split the games roughly 62-20 and bring the Rangers into the postseason once more. Defense could go either way this year as there is potential for rebound seasons from Rozsival and Redden, while Girardi and Marc Staal are continually improving. Redden is less likely than Rozsival to have a rebound season, as the MSG crowd will get on him early and often. The Rangers defense is also not filled out as the 4 I've named are the only 4 that are officially on the team and signed to contracts. This means either the Rangers will have to pick the leftovers from free agency, or they'll promote a couple young guys like Michael Del Zotto or Bobby Sanguinetti. Because of the ineptitude of Glen Sather, this team is no closer to a championship than it has been since he took over, but because of Lundqvist this team continues to make the playoffs and be a potential second round team.
6th Philadelphia Flyers - How do the flyers continually draft ridiculous talent down in the bottom of the first round? It's a question no one can really answer, but because of it they're insanely deep at forward and have two of the best young centers in the game in Carter and Richards, along with another up and comer in Claude Giroux. Up front on this team is a wealth of elite centers, the previously mentioned Carter and Richards along with Daniel Briere and Giroux make up an embarrassingly deep squad. However someone needs to switch to the wing, because the offseason departure of Mike Knuble and the trade of Lupul for Pronger at the draft weakened the wings severely. Simon Gagne and Scott Hartnell are the only wingers left on the club that are certifiable top 6 guys, and although Gagne is an excellent 1st line left wing, his high salary combined with some of the centers make's it extremely difficult for the Flyers to upgrade the rest of their forward corps, which frankly is very thin. When Ian Laperriere is the best winger on your bottom two lines, at 35, you don't have much depth. The Flyers do have an option in this respect as James Van Riemsdyk seems to be ready for the NHL this season, but there are constant rumours about him being involved in a trade so who knows how long he'd be on the team should he make it. On defense the Flyers were absolutely fleeced at the draft for Chris Pronger, effectively losing 3 first round picks with the loss of Sbisa, a proven NHL scorer in Lupul, and another conditional pick. Pronger does make them better immediately however, and I guess Paul Holmgren believes this team is a Stanley Cup contender. I wouldn't disagree with him in theory, as the defense is very strong with Pronger, Timonen and Coburn making up the top three, but I just don't believe in Ray Emery right off the bat. He has a lot to prove this season but I've never liked his attitude, or his work ethic. Along with that I just don't think he's an elite goaltender, which seems to be a prerequisite to play goal for Philadelphia. When is the last time anyone can think of that the Flyers had a goalie worth his weight? I'm thinking Ron Hextall, and I'm thinking before he was traded to Quebec. That's a long freaking time. Until the Flyers wake up and get a goalie that isn't a bargain basement price and even out their lineup for once they aren't going to be winning any cups.
5th Carolina Hurricanes - For some reason Eric Staal only seems to fulfill his potential when Erik Cole is on the team. Well good news for Staal (and the Hurricanes by association), they're both playing in Raleigh this year. Carolina is one of the teams I hate the most in the NHL, first because they're Stanley Cup was basically given to them by horrid officiating and crucial injuries to star players against every team they played against, and secondly because they terrorize the Canadiens and it always seems the calls go their way. But there's no denying that this team found some great chemistry last season, and they have great potential. Jussi Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu and Sergei Samsonov are all successful reclamation projects by the Hurricanes, and they add to a potent, balanced attack up front that also features the ageless wonders Ray Whitney and Rod Brind'Amour. Rod had a tough year last year, suffering through lingering injuries he could never get his fitness level to where it usually is and where he's comfortable, so when he usually would have had more endurance than other players he was getting exhausted and caught making mistakes which led to his big negative +/- rating. This season a healthy Rod should be reinvigorated and ready for action leading to a deeper Hurricanes offense. Some grit was added in the offseason with Tom Kostopoulos and Stephane Yelle coming in for seemingly 4th line duty, and I can't praise Kostopoulos enough, despite his hands of stone. The defense as always in Carolina seems to be a strength in numbers kind of thing, although the currently injured Joni Pitkanen has developed nicely in Carolina into their #1 defenseman. When he returns to action the defense will be much stronger on the powerplay and at even strength. The biggest strength for the Canes this year however is their goaltender coming into his prime years. Cam Ward struggled with the lofty expectations after his unlikely Stanley Cup championship in 2006, but finally last year was able to break out as one of the better goaltenders in the NHL. This is also an important year for Ward as he attempts to compete for a spot on the 2010 olympic team for Canada. He should be healthy and very motivated to prove himself to Steve Yzerman and company.
4th Boston Bruins - Boston has been tabbed by everyone I've read to repeat as champs of the Northeast division, and by many as Conference champions. Oh how familiar Boston's situation is. David Krejci, meet Tomas Plekanec. Tim Thomas, meet Carey Price. Blake Wheeler, meet Sergei Kostitsyn. Matt Hunwick, meet Ryan O'Byrne. Claude Julien, meet Guy Carbonneau. Yes expectations are booming after a dominant season in Boston, and my intuition tells me that there are way too many "ifs" for Boston to remain dominant this season, as lets face it, for a large portion of last season they had a horse shoe up their collective asses. Up front Marc Savard will turn in a similar season, as he's solid as a rock statistically, although his assist numbers have been going down, and might go down more with the departure of Kessel. Blake Wheeler is likely to suffer a sophomore slump, and his place in the depth chart might be overtaken by a healthy (for the time being) Marco Sturm. David Krejci will also be hard pressed to repeat his performance with line mate and sole 30 goal scorer on the Bruins Phil Kessel darting to Toronto. It's very common for a player who signs a contract right after a break out season to suffer a slight drop in production and a frustrating season, especially with a big salary increase (see Vanek, Thomas). Michael Ryder is looking at a bigger role this season, and probably more time with Marc Savard, especially on the powerplay. In fact he's the only Bruins forward I expect to have a better season this year statistically (aside from Marco Sturm obviously because he'll play more than 20 games this year). The departure of Kessel leaves Ryder and Sturm as the only natural goal scorers on the team. Recchi is ageless in his playing ability, but the production he displayed upon landing in Boston last season is unreasonable to expect this season. Chuck Kobasew will likely continue to chip in now and then and provide good complimentary scoring as usual, while Patrice Bergeron will continue to struggle to reacquire his scoring touch after too many major concussions. Bergeron is interesting to me, because he has the talent and smarts to be a 1st line player, but he's stuck in Boston behind Marc Savard and David Krejci, so he's forced to play a defensive role (which he also excels at), but is unable to get the ice time in offensive situations necessary to regain his former status. On defense Zdeno Chara will probably be just as good, as I see him as the best player on this team bar none, and a great leader. He always seems to score a goal at crucial times, and that shot of his is scary. Dennis Wideman is also an elite defenseman, but I'm inclined to believe it will be very tough for him to equal his output from last season. Part of the reason his totals were so high is because this team was rolling for almost the entire 82 game schedule, tons of chemistry and goals just seemed to flow into opposing team's nets. This year will be a bit tougher. Salary restrictions have hurt this team over the offseason, and the two key losses are Kessel and Axelsson. While Axelsson's offensive production is limited, he's an excellent penalty killer and role player. Boston overall just isn't as deep this season. Another focal point for regress is Tim Thomas, here's the biggest chunk of the horse shoe that was previously mentioned. Thomas' "style" of goaltending is very similar to Dominik Hasek, in that it's primarily based on flopping around aimlessly and counting on your unpredictability confounding the shooter. With a dominant defense that cleared out every rebound you could muster this seemed to work wonders last year, but Thomas was less than stellar against Carolina in the playoffs, and his career so far tells me that his luck was mostly due to the power of the Bruins and not his own play. Luckily for the Bruins, they have an NHL ready Tuukka Rask ready to take the helm should Thomas fail, so there's really nothing to worry about in goal, it just won't be as spectacular as last season. It's important to remember for Bruins fans that I'm not saying your team will be crap, I'm very worried about how good it still is, I just see too many similarities to Montreal of last season to follow the party line and predict another conference championship.
3rd Montreal Canadiens - Finally!! It took forever but we finally get to our Montreal Canadiens! Is this a homer pick? Absolutely. Do I care? Not in the slightest. The more of this team I see, the more I believe that this conclusion to the regular season is possible, even likely. Massive turnover will likely lead to a bit of a rocky start, although it seems like all our new guys are working well both together and with players from last year. I predicted about two weeks ago on Habs I/O that Brian Gionta would be the next captain of the Montreal Canadiens, and I'd like to reiterate that prediction here. When first acquired I wasn't so sure about Brian, but since seeing him play both on TV and live against the Penguins, I'm completely convinced that Gainey knew what he was doing this summer. This guy is a player, absolutely tenacious, wins every puck battle and possesses speed that kills. Gomez is growing on me greatly despite his hefty trade cost and salary cap room, he's a smart player that although it pains me to admit it, is probably better over the 82 regular season games to have in the lineup than Koivu at this point in both their careers. Gomez also has very good playoff numbers, which is a huge plus for me. Mike Cammalleri has been solid in the preseason, but in my opinion has yet to find his groove despite some really nice plays. I think he can and will be much better. Plekanec looks like he's been reinvigorated finally, and we won't be seeing the "little girl" anymore. Andrei Kostitsyn has displayed some chemistry with Cammalleri but there's room for improvement, I believe Kostitsyn will be the one who improves most in the first 20 games. The young Kostitsyn brother has really impressed me in limited preseason action. Against Boston in Quebec City he was one of the best players on the ice the entire game, and played like he knew he could lose his spot. Latendresse has improved his foot speed in the off season, and he's been laying out big hits left and right, and not putting himself out of position to make said hits, which is a new development in his game. D'agostini seems to be working much harder on the forecheck, and despite looking lost a little still, is coming back to backcheck more often than last season. His ability to get off a quick, hard wrister at high speeds and in traffic is going to be a valued commodity in Montreal this season. Maxim Lapierre has had a bit of an average camp, but seems to be getting better and is apparently nursing a bit of an injury. Travis Moen has also had an average camp, but his forechecking ability has been displayed well. Metropolit has had a solid camp and he's probably ensured that he'll keep his spot as the 4th line pivot. To me there's only one more forward spot up for grabs, on the 4th line, and it's a dogfight between Laraque, Stewart, Chipchura and Tom Pyatt. Personally with Moen in the lineup I'd like to see Laraque, his ego, his self righteousness and his salary shipped the hell out of town, and Stewart sent to Hamilton to muck it up there in favour of giving Chipchura a shot at the bigs (probably his last in Montreal), and keeping up Tom Pyatt as he's a better 4th line energy guy than either Laraque or Stewart. Pyatt has really impressed me in camp with his stick work, skating and all around tenacity on the puck. He seems to win puck battles constantly. On defense we've improved over last year despite what the talking heads on the Toronto Sports Network would like to think. As Topham of Lions in Winter has noted, Komisarek of 2007-08 would be a big loss, but last year's Komisarek is easily replaceable. Paul Mara does a better job on average defensively than Komisarek did last season, and he can actually make a first pass out of the zone which Komisarek either can't do, or doesn't have the confidence to do when playing with Markov. This is going to save Markov some energy and some hits as the season wears on, which bodes well for us. Spacek is an extremely solid pickup but offensively and defensively. It's nice when you can take a division rival's best defenseman and slot him into third on the depth chart! Spacek will hopefully inspire Hamrlik, as for once he'll have a very talented line mate, and one he's familiar with to boot! Spacek will allow Hamrlik to focus more on defense, and play a few less minutes a game, which will help him during the season as well. With those two pairings we're also able to bring Gorges down from 22 minutes a game to 20 or under, which he's more suited to. Paired with Hal Gill, Gorges is also likely to take less physical abuse. Gill is far from mobile, but from what I've seen so far I love his stick work and his play in front of the net on the penalty kill. The player who's impressed me the most this year in camp and preseason besides Gionta happens to be former goat, Ryan O'Byrne. Ryan has come in stronger and more focused, with a mean streak and sound defensive play. He's even jumped into the play to shoot a few times. I like the way he's developed over the summer. Our defense also becomes twice as potent since we don't have the sacred Breezer anymore. In goal there's absolutely nothing but promise. There are many who feel the need to be negative to either Price or Halak to boost the other, but I see no reason. Both are promising young goaltenders who will likely play in tandem this year, splitting the games about 52-30. Two young goaltenders who have the skill to be starting goaltenders in the NHL is a commodity most organizations can only wish for, we should stop being so pessimistic about it.
2nd Pittsburgh Penguins - The Stanley Cup champions lost a bit of depth up front in the off season with Petr Sykora and Miroslav Satan moving on, but with Kunitz and Guerin playing the whole season, the forward roster is actually better than last year. Keeping in mind that both Sykora and Satan were entirely useless in the post season, and the losses seem even less significant. Crosby will finally have a season with linemates that can convert on his passes, so look for him to post career highs this season. Malkin will likely miss Sykora on the second line, but seemed to find very good chemistry with Fedotenko last year. One top 6 forward spot seems to be open to competition and there may be a revolving door on Malkin's right wing with Tyler Kennedy, Matt Cooke, Maxim Talbot, Pascal Dupuis and Ryan Bayda if he signs all getting time on there. Next year Eric Tangradi may take this spot and excel, but this year it's unlikely. On defense Pittsburgh is set for a full year with Sergei Gonchar, which will drastically improve the powerplay, as well as the production of the forwards as Gonchar makes the transition game of the Penguins twice as good. Gonchar missing time last year ended up being a blessing for the Penguins, as Kris Letang was forced to step up in a big way offensively and he met the needs of the team head on. His development allowed Pittsburgh to trade Ryan Whitney for Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi. Alex Goligoski has also improved steadily and will be in the opening lineup for the Pens, which gives them three good to excellent puck movers. Brooks Orpik, Mark Eaton and Jay McKee round out the top 6 on defense. Despite the hype that occurred about him in the offseason, Rob Scuderi was an average defenseman at best, and is easily replaced by the veteran McKee, and at bargain basement price. Eaton is probably around the skill level that Hal Gill possesses, but he's a bit smaller so the penalty kill my take a slight hit, but with Gonchar healthy while Letang and Goligoski a year older and more mature they can afford a slight dip in penalty kill efficiency when the power play will be much better. In goal Marc-Andre Fleury continues to improve his consistency, and he's become a top tier goaltender for the Penguins. Backup Brent Johnson is a decent option, but he is an injury risk. Luckily it seems like the next option in goal for Pittsburgh, John Curry, is good enough to be an NHL backup. It also doesn't hurt this team that Sidney Crosby has become the best all around player in the NHL.
1st Washington Capitals - The Capitals managed 50 wins last season with a very inconsistent Jose Theodore and an oft injured Brent Johnson. This season it's likely that Simeon Varlamov will split time with Theodore on a close to equal balance, however I think Theodore will play more games because he is a veteran and despite his frequent bad play, has the ability to take over games single handedly. Fedorov and Kozlov have fled to Russia, and have been replaced by Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison. Knuble offers a net presence on the top line of Ovechkin and Backstrom, and despite aging seems to consistently have better and better seasons. It's not unlikely at all that Knuble will bang in 30 of Ovechkin's 400+ shots. On the second line Alex Semin will be under pressure to have as good of a season as last year, hopefully with less injury. Tomas Fleischmann and Brooks Laich will likely both see time with Semin which will increase their capabilities of putting up points exponentially. Washington's offense is something to behold in sports today, when they turn it on it's absolutely magical. As Crosby is the best all around player in the NHL, Ovechkin is easily the most electrifying and most talented offensively. This team is only going to improve with age, let's all remember that Nicklas Backstrom was only 20 last year. The defense hasn't changed in the offseason, and that's both good and bad. Good in the respect that Mike Green will likely again run an amazing power play and score close to 30 goals and 80 points if he stays healthy, but bad in the fact that the defense in Washington is no where near elite defensively. Washington has what it takes to dominate teams in the regular season, but until they're able to tighten up defensively Bruce Boudreau to me is still an overrated coach who just lets his abundance of creative, offensive players run their own show without much of a system. At this point, until the Caps add a legitimate shut down presence I can't see them getting to the finals.