NHL: Eastern Conference preview/predictions

The New York Rangers finished atop the Eastern Conference standings during the 2011-2012 season. With the acquisition of Rick Nash to help boost the offensive attack, the Rangers have an excellent opportunity to finish where they did last season in terms of regular season standings.

With the great parity in the NHL, mixed in with unexpected injuries and trades during the season, anything is possible. It is very unlikely to predict what will happen and where teams will finish in the standings due to those reasons, as well as this season being a short 48-game schedule adds even another dimension of thought.

Lets take a look at the Eastern Conference and how I expect things to play out this season.

15. New York Islanders – The funny thing is that I believe the Islanders are on the rise long-term, but this season will be a minor setback in terms of short-term success. The key word of course that I always use is parity. I have the Islanders in the basement of the east, not because I think they are that bad, but I just believe other teams have fewer question marks. John Tavares will continue to show why he is one of the best young goal scoring forwards in the game and they have a nice collection of prospects that might make an impact or are at least are getting closer to joining the roster. They gave up a significant asset (2nd-round draft pick) to acquire veteran offensive defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky thinking he would help the power play, but Visnovsky wants to stay overseas.

14. Toronto Maple Leafs – With the unexpected firing of general manager Brian Burke last week, new general manager Dave Nonis now has the difficult task of getting this club back on track. Up front, the Leafs have some nice pieces, although like many teams they lack a true number 1 center. If Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupol can perform the way they did offensively last season, that will be a significant plus. The addition of James van Riemsdyk can pay nice dividends as long as the power forward can stay healthy.  Like their forward group, the Leafs defense corps actually doesn’t look too bad on paper, but still has many questions as a group. The big question of course surrounding this club is goaltending. Of course they are in the market for a legitimate number 1 netminder, but if no deal is made, they will have to rely on James Reimer and Ben Scrivens. If Reimer can return to his 2010-2011 form, the Maple Leafs will have a shot at contending for a playoff spot.

13. Montreal Canadiens – The Canadiens have a new general manager in Marc Bergevin and a new head coach in Michel Therrien. They acquired some much needed veteran leadership and grit in the offseason with signings of Colby Armstrong and Brandon Prust. That alone should help this club, although, like the Islanders and Maple Leafs, there are some significant questions. On the backend every year the main question is regarding the health of Andrei Markov. If he can put together an injury-free season and the club gets restricted free agent P.K. Subban under contract without missing any or significant time, this will go a long way towards the team competing for a playoff spot. With Carey Price in net, the team has a solid number 1 goaltender, that is capable of stealing games when he is on. Up front, the Habs will need Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty to produce like they did last season. It would also be a huge plus if somehow Rene Bourque can return to form offensively.

12. Winnipeg Jets – The Jets did not make any significant changes during the offseason, but they did add some decent depth to their forward corps in veterans Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Perhaps young center Mark Scheifele will be ready to make the jump and provide an immediate impact. On the blueline the Jets feature a couple of outstanding offensive defensemen in Tobias Enstrom and big Dustin Byfuglien. A huge key will be when Zach Bogosian returns to the lineup from his wrist injury. If the former 3rd overall pick can continue his strong play from last season, that will really help to solidify the Jets struggling defensive core. Number 1 goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has the ability to steal games and is one of the league’s best kept secrets.

11. Buffalo Sabers – The Sabers had high expectations going into last season, but were unable to meet those. While they did play much better the last few months of the season and they do have a ton of young talent both on the roster and coming up through their system, I still don’t see them being able to jump back into the playoffs quite yet. Of course if Ryan Miller is on his game in net and other pieces/youngsters fall into place, the Sabers might prove me wrong. The Sabers did address their need for grit and a pest with the acquisition of Steve Ott from the Dallas Stars.While they do have a good amount of talent among the forwards core, they do lack size down the middle.

10. New Jersey Devils – The loss of Zach Parise is big, but not something that I want to fully overblow. That being said, yes I do have the Devils on the outside looking in, but strictly due to my favorite word, PARITY!  The Devils do have solid depth on the backend and of course in net Marty Brodeur is still solid. This is a tough ranking, because I know the Devils will find a way to get into the playoffs, yet I can’t seem to change my prediction. They need huge seasons offensively from Ilya Kovalchuck, Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac.

9. Florida Panthers – This will be an all out battle until the very end for the final playoff spot(s), but ultimately I believe the Panthers will fall just short. Yes, they won the Southeast division last year and potentially we will see top forward prospect Jonathan Huberdeau make the jump this season. I also believe if healthy, the signing of free agent forward Peter Mueller will turn out to pay huge dividends. The issue at hand is that while Jose Theodore is a decent number 1 goaltender and Scott Clemenson is very good in a backup role, I don’t think it will be enough this season. Yes, top goaltending prospect Jacob Markstrom is waiting in the wings and they do have a nice collection of young talent across the board. Take nothing away from what this team did last season, but they also lucked out in the fact that their division was terrible. I just believe that in the short-term a few of their division rivals, (which we will get to shortly in these rankings) have caught up to the Panthers and will not only knock them out of their division crown, but also out of the playoffs.

8. Ottawa Senators – The Sens surprised the hockey world last season by not only making the playoffs, but by pushing the New York Rangers to a game 7 in their first-round playoff matchup. With Craig Anderson and Ben Bishop in net, the Sens have nice depth at the NHL level and prospect Robin Lehner waiting in the wings. Up front the Sens were 4th in goals scored last season and should once again boost a very good offensive attack led by top center Jason Speeza.  The acquisition of solid defensive defenseman Marc Methot will help the backend, especially with the injury to youngster Jared Cowen. Last season’s Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson is poised for another outstanding season from an offensive stand point.

7. Carolina Hurricanes – The Canes had a huge offseason, beginning of course in June at the NHL Entry draft, when they acquired center Jordan Staal from the Pittsburgh Penguins, to play with his brother Eric Staal. Another key addition for the club was the signing of free agent winger Alexander Semin. While Semin struggled last season with the Washington Capitals, scoring just 21 goals, his lowest since his rookie season in 2003-2004, there is hope that the talented sniper can regain his 35-40 goal form with the change of scenery. Of course over a short 48-game season, 21 goals would average out to be right around where the Canes would like his production to be. In net, Cam Ward has the ability to stand on his head if needed. On the backend youngster Justin Faulk leads the way.

6. Tampa Bay Lightning – After making it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010-2011, last season the Lightning fell short of making the playoffs all together. In fact they were dead last in goals against, allowing 278 goals on the season. That should change this year with the addition of netminder Anders Lindback from the Nashville Predators. The 24-year old giant of a goaltender will finally get a chance to become a number 1 in the crease. He has all the tools to succeed. The Lightning also added some much needed depth to their defensive corps, in free agent additions Matt Carle and Sami Salo. The improvements to the defensive side of things, mixed in with their talented offensive core led by Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, should be enough to get the Lightning back into the playoffs.

5. Philadelphia Flyers – The Flyers can score with anyone, but of course the issue surrounding this club is their defensive play and inconsistency in net. They signed restricted free agent defenseman Shea Weber to a mammoth offer sheet, but that was matched by Weber’s team the Nashville Predators. The Flyers biggest move was their acquisition of defenseman Luke Schenn from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for young power forward James van Riemsdyk. If Schenn can return to his form of a few seasons back, perhaps this move can help the Flyers backend. Of course up front the Flyers are led by Claude Giroux, who very well should be a Hart Trophy candidate as league MVP. The biggest question of course will be if goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov can return to form as a top 10-15 goaltender. True, the Flyers need to play some defense in front of him, but if they can shore it up, they need Bryzgalov back on his game to have any chance at advancing far in the playoffs.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins – The Pens will begin the season at full force as Sidney Crosby is fully healthy. Last season of course, they began the year without Crosby, who missed significant time throughout the year with concussion issues. They got a very nice return in the Jordan Staal trade, which included center Brandon Sutter, who of course should fit in nicely as the 3rd line center. The acquisition of veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun should help take some pressure off of number 1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. While the Penguins aren’t as complete as a team from top to bottom as the New York Rangers are, they will score a ton of goals and will be fighting the Rangers for the Atlantic division crown for most of the season.

3. Washington Capitals – The Caps had a rough regular season in 2011-2012. While they didn’t play up to expectations, they did still make the playoffs and upset the Boston Bruins in round 1. Under new head coach Adam Oates, I expect the Caps to bounce back and capture the Southeast division crown. The club needs superstar Alex Ovechkin to return to his offensive form that made him one of the top 3 players in the world. The acquisition of the talented Mike Ribeiro will help their 2nd line. On the backend, they need Mike Green to stay healthy and return to form as a premier offensive defenseman. In net, the young duo of Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth should provide solid goaltending. Holtby was very strong for the Caps in their playoff run last spring.

2. Boston Bruins – The Bruins came up short in their attempt to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions last spring as they got knocked out in round 1 by the Capitals. That being said, this is a very deep, talented squad. The Bruins have a ton of depth among the forward core, as they can role out four solid lines. They have a nice blend of talent as they have good size, can score, skate, hit and play a defensive responsible game. On the backend, the huge and talented Zdeno Chara leads the way. Expect Chara to once again be in the running for the Norris Trophy, as the leagues top defenseman. In goal, Tuukka Rask will finally get his chance as the number 1 guy, with veteran Tim Thomas deciding to sit the season out.

1. New York Rangers – As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Rangers of course finished 1st in the Eastern Conference during the regular season. Defensively, this club is stacked and in net of course with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvuist, this team should once again have no trouble keeping the puck out of their own net. The Rangers did have some issues putting the puck in the net and now that appears to be addressed with the acquisition of superstar winger Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets. With Nash joining Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, the Rangers have legitimate top line talent to go along with their overall depth up front, as they can roll out four solid lines. The Rangers are as complete a team you will see in the east and should without a doubt contend for the Stanley Cup.


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