Welcome to my Eastern Conference predictions for this, the 2008-2009 NHL season. Without fear of mockery or hatred, ribbin or worse, I present to you..., well, probably the most unfounded and un-based in fact predictions ever given. We'll I guess I honestly feel they are based both in my reason and with my own little hunches in mind. But do not go taking these to any pools, all right.
This year I approached the challenge a little differently. I did not read any other predictions - my Hockey News, ESPN.com, TSN.ca or the like. I went through all the teams in the East in my head and asked myself if I thought they'd be better, worse, or about even with last year. And from that, I hazarded to guess which teams would be playoff bound. So first:
PHI - better
NJD - even
NYI - worse
PIT - even
NYR - crapshoot! Uh I meant even.
WAS - better
CAR - even to worse
ATL - worse
TBL - even to worse
FLA - better
TOR - worse
MTL - better
OTT - are we going on the start of last season or the end of it - eh - even
BOS - better
BUF - worse
And now, to analyze a little:
Flyers - after finishing the 2006-2007 season dead last, not many expected the 2007-2008 team to be as good as they were. Credit coach John Stevens and GM Paul Holmgren with making some good moves. Philly performed better than expected and I expect no different this year. Marty Biron and Danny Briere will have a year under their belts. New captain Mike Richards will continue to develop. A batch of young guys who stood up when key players went down with injury last year will be expected to take on bigger roles. Simon Gagne has hopefully been given enough rest. If this team doesn't compete for or win the division, I will be shocked.
Devils - Last season I picked NJ to miss the playoffs entirely, only to have them squeak in ahead of NY by a point. I think they will gain some points on last year even if only because I just do not see them taking as few points as they did from the Rangers and Islanders last year. Isles will be worse and NJ did not like being the Rangers punching bag, and that’s enough incentive right there to win more games. Do I like the signings of Bobby Holik and Brian Rolston - yes. Do I think they make them a remarkably better team - no. But Brodeur is Brodeur (first round of last years playoffs and Sean Avery antics aside) and until that is no longer so, I cannot bet against NJ sneaking in.
Islanders - Can they forfeit now? Uh. I feel badly for them if Rick DiPietro is a) seriously hurt or b) ruined for his career. The management at large made a lengthy commitment to their guy in nets and to be honest I have no clue who is waiting in the wings. While the Isles were giving away draft picks on draft day, maybe they should have been preparing for the days after DP - and they might have come sooner than we all think. Although one pre-season game does not a season foretell and maybe DP will be fine. But DP or not - Dougie Weight, the biggest of-season name to join the Isles, is not a savior. There might not be too much to cheer about in Isleland this season. NYI - here are you tickets to the Jonathan Tavares sweepstakes. Don't lose 'em! Many will enter, few will win.
Penguins - To bet that the Penguins will not be a high scoring and playoff bound team would be absurd. Its not as if both Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby will forget how to score. And last year even when Crosby went down with his high ankle injury, Malkin stepped up and over the bar. Plus they still have guys like Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis. I think their defense will suffer a bit though. Ryan Malone is gone and Sergei Gonchar, who is very underrated, will miss the entire season. Brooks Orpik cannot do it alone. And no. Miroslav Satan may not be the answer. But - the team will not be bad. They can't be. They will score plenty. And Marc Andre Fleury, who got me to be a believer in last year’s playoffs, will keep them in games. He can't do it alone, no. But he shouldn't have to. There will be playoff hockey though in the Steel City, rest assured.
Rangers – Honestly, I think the Atlantic division will be the toughest and will have the most representatives going to the playoffs of any in the East. But my questions start and end with this team in NY. My team. I am putting aside the first two games in Prague. Basket them. They will probably mean nothing in a week anyway. Do I think this team will score more goals than last year? Last year there weren’t many goals to speak of and a power play to embarrass even the best of us all, but, it’s hard to say that they will score less with guys like Markus Naslund and Nik Zherdev, and hopefully a re-energized Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. So I’d have to assume that unless everyone has an awful year, they will score more. And if they score more, and some of these guys hit their strides in NY, they’ll be dangerous. Do I think we’ll be as defensively strong as last year? They better be, if they want to win 2-1 games. But, yet, I’m still not sure how I feel about Wade Redden and Dmitri Kalinin, and although I like Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, I'm not sure they can carry this team yet. And carrying only six defensemen? I wanted Corey Potter on this team. Think that might be a mistake for the Bluehsirts. And yet despite all that, I think guys like Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, and Lauri Korpikoski can flourish under this new system of speed and energy. But, eh. Honestly this is my hardest team to predict because if I had to guess, I’d say they have both the potential to be the best team in the East and the potential to fall flat on their faces. So, to be fair, I’ll go somewhere in between. The Rangers will be a playoff team, but they will not crack the top four.
Capitals – Oh to be young, Russian, and in the American capital city. Whooo! I am very excited to see this year’s Capitals team. With reigning scoring champion Alex Ovechkin and supporting crew of Mike Green, Nick Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Sergei Federov returning, look out! A healthy Michael Nylander will be an improvement over last year. My only question is in goal – one Jose Theodore. But, you know, I really think Washington is one of those teams that can and might have to depend on winning 5-4, 6-3 games this year. And they can do it. I think the Capitals are going to be better than last year and definitely win the division. They might even challenge for one of the top two spots in the East, especially since I think they'll garner a lot of points playing against the likes of Tampa and Atlanta. So, game on in the nation’s capital. Game on!
Hurricanes – Obviously Carolina came within a game and a night of making the playoffs last year. But that felt like the longest distance for them, I'm sure. A year should be enough to turn the team around, but with key injuries to Justin Williams and Scott Walker it will be tough. Erik Cole has departed to Edmonton. The team doesn’t look that different but it seems miles away from the Cup win in 2006. I just don’t know. I can’t argue with Rod Brind’Amour’s leadership or Peter Laviolette’s style or even what I assume to be a great year for Eric Staal, who has just shored up a long, new contract to remain in NC. But… I just don’t think they have enough in them to knock someone out of the East. Hope it’s competitive though and hope I get down to RBC again this year. Beautiful arena and the best burgers ever!
Lightning – Oh, boy. Where to begin? In short, I think Tampa will not struggle to score goals. A healthy Vinny LeCavalier and a new stud named Steven Stamkos should be enough alone to ensure goals are scored. Add in a Martin St. Louis and a Vinny Prospal. They will most likely score goals. And despite my earlier uncertainty, their goalie situation seems to be in very good hands. Six to be exact – two each of Mike Smith, Karri Ramo, and the veteran Olie Kolzig. However, and I touched upon it in my last blog, there seems to be no plan on defense. And that will kill you in a defensively stingy East. Do I think they’ll entertain – yes. Do I think they’ll be better than many think – yes. Do I think they’ll make the playoffs – no. Not this year in Tampa. But at least we all have Vinny L to stare at. And, hey, although massively underage, Stamkos is not bad either. And probably the most eloquent rookie I’ve seen in a long time. His interview when the Rangers went down to Tampa – highly impressive. Tampa will be good. Just not that good so soon. Oh but as if #4 and #91 weren't enough reason to watch - you have coach Barry Melrose behind the helm. Those post game interviews will pay the price of admission alone.
Thrashers - Hard to pick a team I feel worse for than Atlanta. I really cannot think of one bright spot, besides Ilya Kovalchuk, that will get fans through this long, long season. Slava Kozlov should toss in a few goals. And it will be interesting to see how and if young Zach Bogosian stays with the big club this year. The only other thing of note is that Mathieu Schneider will provide some veteran leadership on D. But for a team that lost Marian Hossa at trade deadline and that must know they are just one or two more bad seasons from losing Kovalchuk as well, it’s hard to smile. I’ll also be curious to see how the goaltending tandem of Johan Hedberg, who I love, and Kari Lehtonen, who has shown flashes of brilliance and shocks of reality, fare. The first every playoff appearance and subsequent four game sweep at the hands of the Rangers might as well have been a decade ago. There will be no hockey playoffs in Georgia this year.
Panthers – Despite picking Florida a year or two ago (or perhaps every year) to make the playoffs and consistently being given a dose of reality, I am going to go out on a limb and say that, yes, they will be better this year. Tomas Vokoun is going to have a better year and he might have to carry them. As long as Jay Bouwmeester remains in South Florida – a big TBD – he will be a better player. And yes, captain Oli Jokinen has gone to Phoenix. But. . .maybe they’ll be better for it. Something was always missing in Florida. Just one or two small pieces. Maybe they’ll be better, by addition through subtraction. But I feel it. If it can happen to the Tampa Rays, why not to the Florida Panthers. Playoffs in Florida? Maybe!
TOR – Oh Luke Schenn. Welcome to the Blue and White and welcome to what should be a disappointing year in the GTA. And no, not for you. I’m excited to see you play. But for the rest of that team, I have no idea what to think. Insulting their captain Mats Sundin to the point he has no clue whether he is coming or going, although be sure, he is not coming back to Toronto. Long time defenseman Brian McCabe has bailed for Florida. Mike Van Ryn steps in. When Ryan Hollweg and Jeff Finger are two of your only acquisitions in the off-season, well, it’s going to be a long year. Familiar sight on Ontario ice – Curtis Joseph for the Leafs. One more time with the Matthew Wilder lyrics “oh, no, Cujo. Maple Leafs gonna keep on losing. . .” Kidding Cujo, kidding. Well, no, they will keep on losing, but I sadly don’t think there is anything you or Vesa Toskala can do about it.
Les Canadiens - I hear a lot of chatter from Montreal. And no one wants or needs the team to be better than the fans of this, hockey's most storied franchise. And, of course, in this, their 100th season, the pressure has never been greater. They will need another banner year from Alex Kovalev, a solid effort from captain Saku Koivu, good years from young ones, Tomas Plekanec, the Kostitsyns, Christopher Higgins, Michael Komisarek and Guilluame Latendresse, and of course a stellar year from young goalie of the new millennium, Carey Price. In a year where there will be many ceremonies, including a banner raising for one Patrick Roy, the team will need to be sharp to keep the fans and the city happy. And, honestly, with minimal additions – Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang and Georges Laraques– and minimal departures – Mark Streit and Michael Ryder – I don’t see why they won’t. Montreal will easily, in my opinion, win the Northeast, and contend again for a top two spot in the conference.
Senators – The team I am not going to give as much credit to as I probably should. And here we begin. I would never want to bet against a team that has the trio of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Dany Heatley. I for one think Heatley will have a career year. I really do. But, we've seen what happens when that one line stops scoring. Disaster! And I am not convinced Marty Gerber can get it done in nets. Although Alex Auld was impressive in what I’ve seen of him. And their defense boasts an Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips pairing that cannot play all 60 minutes. And I’m not as impressed with their other D. When Vonchenkov was injured, the Senators felt the loss of their top shot blocker. And I’m not sure who steps in. Maybe it’s the memory of the monumental collapse that has my view skewed, but I am not sure this team makes the playoffs. If they do, they are a seven or an eight seed. And maybe that’s short-sided, because I do think they’ll obviously gain points from the less than stellar years I assume Toronto and Buffalo will be having, but Montreal and Boston are surely going to take it to them. You just can't rely on one team and one defensive pairing. Not in this league. I see them perhaps coming just short this year.
Bruins – Last fall I told people in Boston that their team would improve. Maybe not as much as I thought and certainly not with the goalie I thought (Manny Fernandez went down with injury pretty early on) but they did make strides. And whether fans of the Habs can admit it, they were VERY close to being sent home at the hands of this Boston team. I seriously think, whether it’s Fernandez stepping in, Tim Thomas standing pat, or Tuukka Rask stepping up, this team can make it in nets. And Marc Savard as well as Marco Sturm are poised for high point totals this season as they did last year. Patrice Bergeron being back and thankfully healthy will only help. Their defense is not full of big names, but I’ve watched these guys shut down the Rangers time and again. I feel good about Boston’s chances. I think it’ll be a good year and people will be surprised.
Sabres – While I don’t feel as bad for the Sabres as I do for the Thrashers, I still feel for them. Almost two and a half years removed from a Eastern Conference Finals appearance to missing the playoffs entirely. It hasn’t been good in Buffalo, financially or otherwise. Thankfully, they still have Ryan Miller and Derek Roy. Miller, when on, is one of the better goalies in the league and can help them win. Roy had a monster breakout season last year and I’m counting on this year to be more of the same. However, that might be the two most exciting things to mention. Pretty much all the names are the same, and yet the feeling that surrounded this team two years ago is gone. I just don’t see where the firepower will come from. I hope it’s a better year for Buffalo, but I think they’ll fall just short again. Here’s hoping Tim Connolly and Teppo Numminen have good healthy years though.
Okay, yes, I know, I got wordier than I wanted to. But, without further ado, my playoff predictions are:
1) Montreal Canadiens
2) Washington Capitals
3) Philadelphia Flyers
4) Pittsburgh Penguins
5) Boston Bruins
6) New York Rangers
7) New Jersey Devils
8) Florida Panthers
The order, of course, I am not so sure about. As if I’d am sure about any of it – ha! These are merely guesses. Probably some safe ones, but some risky ones (Florida over Ottawa) as well. But I’ll take it. Just don’t you take it to the bank!
Stay tuned for the Western preview and predictions at some point in the next day or two.
**Authors's note: If you get the chance to catch XM204's Hockey Confidential with Kevin Weekes, do so. What a GREAT interview. Maybe I'm biased because I always liked the guy, but he's as eloquent as they come. A great obeserver of the game, with a great attitude. And such a genuinely nice and charitible person. Good for him. **