Alright, going to try to hammer this out tonight considering hockey season is only 3 short days away!! =)
Admittedly, the East is usually the Conference I have the greater grasp on, given my seeing all the teams play my team, some as many as six times a year. Should give me an advantage, no? Well last season it did, as I correctly picked 7 of 8 playoff teams. But this year, I'm afraid, I've no more insight than anyone else.
The Better, the Worse, the Even...
Boston - EVEN to BETTER
Despite a few nay-sayers, Boston has done nothing in the off-season that indicates to me that they'll be any less dominating this season than they were the last. What they lose in Kessel, I do not see how they don't gain at least 60% of that with a healthy Marco Sturm. And assuming even half as good a season from everyone else - Krejci, Wheeler, Savard, Lucic, Chara, Thomas - I don't see why they won't be tops in their division and in the entire conference. They're my pick, mock if you will. Key Questions: How do they rebound from last year's success - individuallly and as a team? Do they even miss Kessel?
Toronto - BETTER
Hard to say TO will not be better, with a few nice additons to the team, in Kessel (when he gets back healthy), Komisarek, and Beauchemin. Oh yeah and Colton Orr. ;) But I immediately asked the question all you asked - just how will they possibly score? Grabovski and Ponikarovsky can only do so much until Kessel arrives, and even he is not the master solution. But I'd like to think the defense, with what I hope to be a great followup sophomore season for young-un Luke Schenn, and Vesa Toskala, if he can remember what it was like back in San Jose, will steal a few games. I'm just not sure they'll crack what's going to be a very tight playoff race in the East. Key Questions: Will Komisarek grow to be loved in Toronto? How much playing time will "The Monster" see and how will he perform?
Buffalo - EVEN to WORSE
I don't know what to expect from Buffalo, because they...well, they never do anything much to change my mind. Miller, when healthy, is a fine goalie. And scorers like Vanek, Pominville, and Roy have been known to put up fine numbers. But is it enough? Unless they put all the pieces together and are able to re-gain a glimpse of that former glory of a few years ago, I just don't think so. I have them missing; perhaps making it close, but missing. Key Questions: How will Ryan Miller, presumably, being on Team USA, affect a Sabres late season push?
Ottawa - EVEN to WORSE
Despite nice additions of Kovalev, and Michalek and Cheechoo, I can't see why the ship that has gone so horribly adrift will automatically right itself so soon. If I had to guess, there was more going on in that locker room than Ray Emery. And more going on than Dany Heatley. But that's just a guess. My biggest problem with Ottawa is in goal. I mean no disrespect to Pascal Leclaire, who in Columbus actually put up some nice numbers when healthy, but he need to be healthy and more to make this team a contendor. They still boast the Phillips/Volchenkov pairing, but that tandem might not be as great as it once was, and even if they are, two defensemen can only play so much. Overall, I would like to think this team will score, but if they haven't truly addressed their "problems" I don't know what we can say about them. Key Questions: Is Leclaire up to the task? Do Spezza and Alfredsson mourn or thrive without their long time linemate? Does Kovalev finally find the one thing that alludes him - consistency?
Montreal - EVEN to ????
Montreal, like the Rangers, went a huge overhaul in the off-season. Perhaps even bigger. New ownership, new coach, and new entire "top" line. It'll be interesting. The one steady difference I see though, is in nets. The Rangers seem pretty certain; Montreal, however, does not. Until someone can prove to me that Carey Price is the real deal, I will still think them stupid for wasting a perfectly better and perfectly willing goalie in Jaroslav Halak. But they've made their decisions and they are the ones that have to live with them. On offense, Cammalleri is my favorite pick-up for them. But surely you wonder where it'll go from there. Their second line tails off big time after that, with no #2 center. And if we're calling Gomez the #1 center, well, I think I've made my opinion on him pretty clear. Look, they'll either fall flat on their faces or surprise us all. Again, like in Ottawa, I question whether in their "house cleaning" they got all the bad parts out. Key Questions: Can the still young Carey Price live up to the hype? Is this team so small they'll get knocked out of the rink on any given night?
I see no reason why last year's embarassing Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh will not motivate the young team. The previous year, a game 7 loss in the 1st round made them hungrier. They responded. I don't see why the same won't play out. Ovechkin, one of the, if not the, best in the league, needs to be their best player, and make everyone else around him rally to the cause. If anyone can, he can, in my opinion. Their question, too, will be in nets, but Varlamov proved, to more than a few people, that he's a very good goalie. If they have to go to him, and they might, he'll be up for it. Overall, on a team that mostly stood pat - lost Federov to Russia and gained a nice pick-up in Mike Knuble - I believe they'll be where they were last year, on top of the division and at the top of the conference. Key Questions: Will Ovechkin's disappointment over last year serve as a motivator? Does Varlamov steal the #1 job from Theodore?
Atlanta - EVEN
Well, again, I feel for the Thrashers. I would have loved to see Kovalchuk get to play with both Zherdev and Antropov - that would have been a sight. Instead he gets only one Nik, the latter, in hopes that together they'll provide some Solviet magic. I'm more curious to see if the young guys are able to step up and step in - Bogosian in a second season and Evander Kane in a potential first. There isn't much to play for in Atlanta, sadly, so it'll be a case of small victories, one at a time. Key Questions: Does Evander Kane make the team and make an impact? Does Kari Lehtonen regain some of his former promise?
Tampa Bay - EVEN to BETTER
Hard to think Tampa will not be a better team than last year. They may have finally gotten some defense to go along with all their offensive weapons. Add #2 draft pick Hedman, and Vancouver's journeyman Ohlund, and they've got a better team. A sophomore year for Stamkos where I expect him to further grow. And always two of the potential top players in the league - St. Louis and Lecavalier. Tanguay, who had a good year for Montreal, and Niittymaki, who was good at times for Philly, should be good pickups. I'm not sure it's enough for the playoffs, but they should be much improved. Key Questions: Does Stamkos have a sophomore slump? Can Smith get the job done in nets?
Florida - EVEN
Everyone seems to think Florida will sink to the depths without Jay Bouwmeester. I may be going against the grain, but I don't think that'll happen. I'm not saying they are going to be a playoff team (although I almost want to and will root for them to have a good year), but they won't be the worst team either. They made strides these last two years, and it was a horrible disappointment to just narrowly miss out last year. Their biggest strength is in nets, with Vokoun and Clemmensen, coming off a great year in NJ in covering for the ailing Marty Brodeur. I don't think that'll be their problem. The rest of the team, I am not so sure about. But again, I'll root for them, even if I think this may not be the year they just sneak in. Key Questions: Just how much will losing J-Bo really affect this team?
The Hurricanes shocked me, with their end of the season and post-season push last year. Took me by surprise, and perhaps a few others as well. This team seems to find magic by taking pieces of their 2006 Stanley Cup winning team and bringing them back home - like Cole last year, and perhaps Aaron Ward this year. They added Kostopolous from Montreal, which I think could be a nice little pickup. I think Paul Maurice, et al, deserve a lot of credit here, even if only for creating an environment that is seemingly the only environment than Sergei Samsonov can play in. ;) I'm kidding. I'm a big Paul Maurice fan and wish him well. I think if Staal plays like he can, and Cam Ward's back does not act up, this team can be a playoff team again. They have all the pieces, old and new. Key Questions: Does Cam Ward enter contention for Team Canada, and does it affect this team?
Not as bad as some may thing, and gosh will it be fun to finally see Tavares (although not so fun if he makes the Rangers his personal punching bag) up close and personal. As predicted, the Islanders won the sweepstakes and they now have the #1 pick to have the fans come in bunches, even if small bunches. Either way, it's a good thing, but it may be the only thing for the time being. The team is young and guys like Bailey and Okposo need time to grow. Defense will be led by Mark Streit and, thanks to Tavares, he may not have to be the leading scorer on the team this year. Goal, inevitably, is where it is going to be interesting. Both Roloson and Biron can be good to great, and will need to be if the Islanders want to get out of the basement. Both surprising, but good pickups, in my opinion. Wait, what, you say, the Islanders have another goalie. Hmm. Oh, yeah, right. I'll believe it when I see him play. (No disrespect Ricky; I wish you a speedy recovery to health). Key Questions: See above. How long before Rick D.P plays a game - or does he?
Pittsburgh - EVEN
As much as it pains me to say, the Pens will be fine. They've got two of the best players in the league, a goalie that finally proved himself when it counted, a pretty steady core coming back. They'll be a top team in the division and in the conference, barring any major injury. This, does not however, guarantee some sort of repeat. They may have the heart but not the energy after going the distance (and coming away on both sides of the equation) for the last two springs. But in the meantime, with Scuderi (although important he was) their biggest loss (well, although technically wouldn't Hal Gil be the biggest, by default), I don't see them being in too much trouble. Key Questions: It's pre-season and Sid the Kid is injured - will he stay healthy this year? Can Malkin build on last year's super campaign?
Philadelphia - BETTER
I like Philly. No, not in the I want them to win it all type of way, although goodness knows I'd like that better than watching Pittsburgh hoist it again. (I still have nightmares when that commercial comes on to buy your merchandise - seriously, still??) I thought last year they'd be in the Eastern Conference Final. And they probably would have been, if only they could have gotten out of their own way against Pittsburgh (and oh how different it all would have been!?) They have the offensive tools, a group of 20+ goal scorers that makes any team in the league jealous, even with losses of Lupul and Knuble. If rumors are proving right, James van Riemsdyk could be a super gain for the team, if he plays. They got nastier with Chris Pronger and Ian Laperriere. The big question (again) is in goal. Isn't it always the question for Philadelphia? If Ray Emery can keep his head in the game and play like he did in the playoffs the a few years back, Philly will be fine. It's a big if, though. Me, I'm thinking Philadelphia has the best chance to win the divison. Key Questions: The only question - the one in net. Oh and will Chris Pronger be able to use his elbow on this side of the Mississippi river?
New Jersey - EVEN
I can't go as far as to say they'll be better, with losing Gionta, and Madden, and a bunch of backup goaltenders (Weekes and Clemmensen), but I won't say they'll be worse. Because if they struggle, Lemaire and Lou will pull some magic out of the puck bag and we'll be treated to the days of the trap - again. I smell some 1-0 and 2-1 games. Ooh, now where is Tom Renney when you need him? (joking, joking... eh, not really so funny). If let go, this team will depend on Zach Parise and Travis Zajac to score, and would benefit if Elias had a good year this time around. Their defense never looks impressive, but, with a system and soldiers to follow it, is hasn't mattered yet. Every year I want or expect it to finally be the year they are out, but I'm just not sure I can say this'll be the year. Key Questions: Does Jacques squash the scoring out of Parise, now officially a powerhouse in this league? If Brodeur is #1 for Canada, can the Devils depend on Yann Danis to do for them what Clemmensen did last year?
Rangers - EVEN to ?????
I saved the best for...well, never mind. The biggest question, second year and running, is with my favorite team - and this year I'm even more stumped than last. The Rangers are a better team with the coach they now have - with his go-go-go attitude and his hatred for anything less than 100% effort. This team may finally come to know what accountability means. However, we may all come to soon find, there isn't enough talent, just yet, to get the job done. Contracts to Redden, Rozsival and Captain Mumbles (Drury) will continue to haunt the team because they simply are not worth their places on the team and keep other more worthy people from being on it. The defense is very young, beyond the two just mentioned, although they have the potential to be very good. Gilroy and Del Zotto make me smile. They and Staal are the future of this team. But they may not be there just yet. The Rangers offense improved by gaining Gaborik, but Gaborik brings the biggest question mark of them all. Guys like Anisimov, Lisin, Prospal and Kotalik, should all impress, and improve the goal totals, namely, one would hope, on the powerplay. But is it enough? The biggest assests to this team - Gaborik and Lundqvist, can be their biggest detriments. Both depended upon to lead their countries in Vancouver in 2010, an injury to one or both will end the Rangers season in February. They are better, but, not that better just yet. Key Questions: Can Gaborik stay healthy enough to be top 10 caliber in this league? Is the supporting cast enough?
La, la, la. Okay, I've put it off enough. And in some ways, I hope I am wrong about the below. Just want to clarify that.
6) New Jersey
Sad reality, I wasn't sure I was going to put the Rangers in and went back and forth a bit. I'm very sure of the Top 5, and not whatsoever sure of the bottom 3. Again, assume NJ is in until you are proven otherwise. And I think the Rangers are, indeed, better than they are being given credit for. But teams like the Rangers are really crapshoots. They can thrive or stumble. I'm gambling on experience of the last few years getting them just there, and just in. After all, the East has kinda proven in the last few years that it doesn't "vary" that much, and there has to be someone really good to knock a perennial team out. As much as I'm not sure NJ and NY are great teams, I'm even less sure another team is good enough to knock them out. Narrow misses, if I had to guess - Tampa, Toronto, perhaps Montreal (who I did wrestle with having in there), and maybe Buffalo, with Atlanta and the Islanders near the bottom of the Conference.
But who am I to say? I just write the blog. =)
Stay tuned - hopefully - for a mini Rangers and Coyotes preview before they take the ice this weekend!