Thursday, April 29, 2010

First Round Prediction Standings

With the first round in the books, it's time to take a look at where the three hosts of CIA Radio ultimately stand. Needless to say, many of the gigantic upsets took us all by surprise, as you'll see in just a moment.

Now, the way I'm doing this scoring system is simple: each of us gets 1 point for getting the winning team right, and then another point if we also got the amount of games it took right. In each round the stakes will go up: in the conference semis, it will still be 1 point for the winner but now it will be 2 points for getting the game number, 2 points for the winner & 2 points for the game # in the conference finals, and finally 3 points for the winner & the game # in the Stanley Cup final.

Eastern Conference

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens
Actual Result:
Habs in 7
John: Caps in 4 (+0)
Emily: Caps in 4 (+0)
Quinlan: Caps in 4 (+0)
Thoughts: The only series where we were all in complete agreement in both the winning team & the number of games, and of course we were all 100% incorrect. To say this came as a shocker would be an understatement; even before Game 6, I remember remarking to both of them that all of us would pick up 1 point here. No one saw the Caps' epic collapse coming, but considering it was a record-setting collapse at that, I don't think anyone can really blame us.

(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers
Actual Result:
Flyers in 5
John: Devils in 5 (+0)
Emily: Devils in 5 (+0)
Quinlan: Devils in 6 (+0)
Thoughts: We're off to a fantastic start, aren't we? Again all three of us got this one wrong, too, as we all put too much stock in the goaltending and not even stock in the Flyers' 5-1-0 regular season record against the Devils. At this point, I think I'm going to have to adopt a rule for the Devils- don't pick them to get out of the first round until they actually manage to do it again, no matter how good their regular season was.

(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins
Actual Result:
Bruins in 6
John: Buffalo in 5 (+0)
Emily: Buffalo in 7 (+0)
Quinlan: Buffalo in 5 (+0)
Thoughts: In another series where we were all wrong, I suppose you can say Emily was the closest to being right; on the podcast when we were discussing this series, she kept insisting it would be a very, very close series while Quinlan & I thought it would be a cakewalk for the Sabres. The fact is, Boston found some goal-scoring at the best possible time, and considering how good defenesively they were already that makes them pretty scary.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators
Actual Result:
Penguins in 6
John: Ottawa in 7 (+0)
Emily: Pittsburgh in 7 (+1)
Pittsburgh in 6 (+2)
Thoughts: Leave it to me to pick my only upset in the only Eastern conference series that DOESN'T HAVE AN UPSET. Of course, Emily & Quinlan played it safe and picked the favorite again, and they finally have a correct prediction as a result. Crosby turned up his play by about seven-million times and Fleury & the defense seemed to get better as time goes on, which was enough to squeak by a fired-up Ottawa squad.

Western Conference

(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Colorado Avalanche
Actual Result:
Sharks in 6
John: San Jose in 4 (+1)
Emily: San Jose in 4 (+1)
Quinlan: Colorado in 7 (+0)
Thoughts: Even though Emily & I both pick up a point and Quinlan gets nothing, in a way his prediction was probably closer to being right than ours was! We thought it would be a four-and-done situation, while Quinlan thought it would be a very close series, and he turned out to be right. Unfortunately, Colorado didn't have what it took to take advantage of some very, very good bounces and finish off the Sharks, who managed to get that monkey off their back somewhat with a huge win.

(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators
Actual Result:
Blackhawks in 6
Chicago in 6 (+2)
Emily: Chicago in 5 (+1)
Quinlan: Chicago in 5 (+1)
Actual Thoughts: Yeah, my first two-pointer! I had a feeling this series was going to be a close one and it certainly was, and the Predators have nothing to be ashamed of when they were oh-so-close to a 3-1 lead. The Blackhawks simply had too much talent in the end, but they can't afford to not show up for a game in the next round like they did against the Preds in Game 3.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings
Actual Result:
Canucks in 6
Vancouver in 7 (+1)
Vancouver in 6 (+2)
Vancouver in 7 (+1)
Thoughts: Speaking of teams who were very, very close to a 3-1 lead, my poor Kings almost pulled off the upset, but they simply did not have the goaltending in the end to get it done, despite a great start from Jonathan Quick. The third-period collapse in Game 4 was obviously the turning point, and it all went downhill for the Kings from there.

(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
Actual Result:
Red Wings in 7
Detroit in 5 (+1)
Emily: Detroit in 4 (+1)
Phoenix in 7 (+0)
Thoughts: Here's yet another series where we get a point each and Quinlan gets nothing, but Quinlan was probably closer to being right than we were. We both thought this would be an easy out for the Wings, but Quinlan had this as a very close series and he turned out to be right. The Red Wings had way too much talent to go out in the first round, but the 'Yotes put up a hell of a fight.

Standings After First Round
1. Emily - 6 points
2. John - 5 points
3. Quinlan - 4 points

Alright folks, there's your standings after one round. For now Ms. Emily Gee is our leader, but there's still plenty of hockey left to be played, and thus plenty of more bad predictions to be made too. Tonight we'll be back on the air with CIA Radio, where all three of us will make our picks for the second round! You can join in on the fun by clicking here starting at around 7:00 pm EST to join our live chat. There's a number on there where you can call in and talk to us on the show as well. We'll be starting at 7:30 pm EST. Hope to see some of you there!

Monday, April 12, 2010

CIA Radio Returns! Plus, listing everyone's playoff picks

CIA Radio returned tonight with 90+ minutes of hockey talk! Along with my co-hosts Emily Gee & Bryan Quinlan, we broke down all of the playoff matchups as well as talking about the changes in Tampa Bay. Check us out! From this point forward, we will be on the air each and every Monday night at 9 pm EST to talk about the playoffs as they go on and make more predictions each round. I'll try to remember to post the link on here so you can join our live chat, listen to us live, and even call in and talk with us if you want.

While I listen back to the show, I'm taking down everyone's predictions (and yes, I know I changed a few of mine from my blogs, I think only LA-Vancouver actually but maybe I'm wrong) so I can keep track of it and see who got it right and who got it very, very wrong. After the first round I'll update our standings and see who came closest to getting it right as far as who won and in how many games (since many of our predictions ended up being the same other than how long it would take).

Eastern Conference

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens
Caps in 4
Emily: Caps in 4
Quinlan: Caps in 4

(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers
Devils in 5
Emily: Devils in "5 or 6" (I'll call it 5)
Quinlan: Devils in 6

(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins
Buffalo in 5
Emily: Buffalo in 7
Quinlan: Buffalo in 5

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators
John: Ottawa in 7
Emily: Pittsburgh in 7
Pittsburgh in 6

Western Conference

(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Colorado Avalanche
San Jose in 4
Emily: San Jose in 4
Quinlan: Colorado in 7

(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators
Chicago in 6
Emily: Chicago in 5
Quinlan: Chicago in 5

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings
Vancouver in 7
Vancouver in 6
Vancouver in 7

(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
Detroit in 5
Emily: Detroit in 4
Phoenix in 7


Special Guest Mr. Sean Williams!
Washington over New Jersey in 5 games
West: Detroit over Chicago in 7 games
Cup Finals:
Washington over Detroit in 6 games

Washington over Buffalo in 5 games
West: Chicago over Vancouver in 7 games
Cup Finals: Washington over Chicago in 7 games

Washington over New Jersey in "5 or 6" (once again, we'll say 5) games
West: Chicago over Detroit in...uh....she forgot to say. I'll get it out of her.
Cup Finals: Chicago over Washington in "blank" games.

Washington over New Jersey in 4 games
West: Chicago over Detroit in 5 games
Cup Finals: Chicago over Washington in "5 or 6" (oh no I caught the Emily disease! we'll say 6)

Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference & Final Picks

Continuing where we left off, let's dive into the East...then I'll make my final predictions for who wins each conference and ultimately, the Stanley Cup.

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadians
(Season series was split, both teams went 2-1-1)

As insane as this is for me to even type, a friend of mine who is a huge Habs fan claimed to have actually been rooting for this match-up. This isn't something he just threw out there after it was already official, either; he actually made this statement before the Rangers-Flyers game that ultimately sealed the Habs' fate. A fate that will more than likely see them get swept right out of the playoffs for the second year in a row.

Now, of course, I suppose it is possible that the Presidents' Trophy winners get upset two years in a row. But likely? Not very. The Capitals score goals in bunches and have showed over the past few weeks that they are at least trying to play better defensively heading into the playoffs. Watch a Capitals game recently and you'll see players occasionally doing crazy things like- GASP- back-checking! Now, no one is going to confuse this team with, say, the New Jersey Devils. But this is still the overwhelming favorite in the East who rolled through the regular season, and even a minor defensive adjustment should be enough to take them far through the playoffs. Barring a complete and total breakdown from both of their goaltenders, the Caps will take this one easily. And to be quite frank, I'm not even sure both their goalies' breaking down would be enough for the Habs to win this series, either. Short of a meteor striking the location of a Capitals practice, I'm not sure anything would be.

Prediciton: Caps in four.

(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers
(Flyers won season series 5-1-0)

As any New York Rangers fan could tell you, there's nothing we enjoy more than watching the Devils lose. Last year was a particularly fun time, as the Devils won the Atlantic and promptly flamed out in the first-round for the second year in a row, in spectacular fashion. And there's nothing I'd love to do more than tell you it's going to happen again this year. But I can't. And the reason why is called Ilya Kovalchuck.

Now, I know what some are going to point to: one point in four games when his previous team was getting swept out of their only playoff appearance (by the Rangers, ironically enough). But being on a bad team that only got into the playoffs on the utter weakness of their division isn't enough to make Kovalchuck a Thornton-level playoff choker. You can't form a pattern from such a small sample size. And on this Devil team, Kovalchuck doesn't have to do it all. He just has to be good, as good as he's been for them while they quietly wrestled away the Atlantic crown from the Penguins and then held off the Sabres for second in the conference on their final day. And I think he will be.

The Flyers, of course, squandered a huge lead for a playoff spot and needed to beat out those same Rangers in a shootout on the very last day of the season just to get in. So they're not exactly coming in on a hot streak. And really, when it comes right down to it, Cam Ward and Henrik Lundqvist out-dueling Martin Brodeur over the past two years is one thing. But Brian Boucher? Think about this for a second: are the Flyers' group of forwards or defensemen really so much better than New Jersey's that you think they'll make up for the fact that their goalie is BRIAN BOUCHER and Jersey's goalie is MARTIN BRODEUR?! The answer you're looking for is a resounding "no."

Prediction: Devils in five.

(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins
(Bruins won season series 4-2-0)

Some people are already pointing at this clash of Northeast division rivals as perhaps the East's only potential for an upset this year, and I must vehemently disagree (on a couple of fronts, actually, but we'll get to that in a second). I know everyone had gotten all caught up in the story of these plucky Bruins battling their way into the playoffs, setting a new record for most short-handed goals on someone else's single power play in the process (nevermind the fact that it came against an eliminated Carolina team that actually appeared to somehow be skating around in their sleep at the time), but let's get real here. This is still the team who finished the NHL regular season dead last, 30th out of 30 in the NHL in scoring. I don't care how great they are defensively, this team simply does not score. Now we're taking that team and expecting them to score enough goals against Ryan Miller to win a 7-game series? Yeah. Not bloody likely.

Now, with all that said, if Tuuka Rask keeps standing on his head like he has all season long for them I suppose anything is possible. And of all the first-round match-ups, this one definitely has the most potential to go into multiple-OTs. It reminds me a little bit of that Vancouver-Dallas series from a few seasons ago: neither team could score to begin with and both goalies (Marty Turco and Roberto Luongo) were feeling it, so we had seemingly another seven games played in extra periods. But when two elite goalies playing at the top of their game play each other in a seven-game series, what usually happens is they simply negate each other and the better, more talented team wins out in the end. It happened then with Vancouver beating Dallas, and it will probably happen again this year with Buffalo beating Boston.

Prediction: Buffalo in five.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators
(Season series was split, both teams went 2-2-0)

Ah yes, now it's time to pay off that bit of foreshadowing from earlier: I said I disagreed with the majority opinion of Boston-over-Buffalo being the East's only potential upset, right? Well, here's the other reason why: I think if there's going to be an upset at all in the remarkably top-heavy East this year, it's going to come in this series. And make no mistake about it, this battle of the defending Stanley Cup champions against a team that has been the definition of inconsistency all season long is FAR from your typical 4-5 matchup. Whereas usually the two teams are very close and the series can be reasonably called a toss-up, this year Pittsburgh will enter as the overwhelming favorites in the eyes of many. However, peel back a few layers here and you'll begin to realize that all is not well in the NHL's favorite city. Sidney Crosby's reinvention as a goal-scoring machine this season has been a feel-good story, and that feel-good story has allowed them to cover up some huge holes that suggest the Pens are not in for anywhere near that deep of a run this season. In no particular order, those holes are:

-Malkin's drop-off from his Art Ross season to an injury-plagued and utterly disappointing campaign.

-Marc-Andre Fleury's less-than-stellar play in goal; he's been pulled in seemingly every-other Pens game I've seen this year en route to a paltry .905 save % and 2.65 GAA.

-The Pens as a whole being unable to win big games against good teams all season. Against the top two teams in the conference, the Caps & Devils, the Pens failed to win even a single game in ten tries, and it was their epic run of futility against the Devils in particular that ultimately cost them the Atlantic.

-Their power play hovered around ten percent without Sergei Gonchar in the lineup for most of the season. No, that's not a typo- TEN PERCENT. Gonchar is back again right now from yet another injury, but who knows how long that will last?

Add all that up together and you've got a team that is on very shaky ground, in my opinion. They just looked tired for a lot of this year, and you know what? Who can really blame them? They've gone to back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, and that has to take its toll at some point. That's why I just don't see how they could possibly have another long playoff run in them.

With all that said, I can certainly understand why most everyone will pick them over Ottawa. But I'm willing to stand out on this limb all by myself. I think it all comes down to Brian Elliot first-and-foremost. All season long, for the most part, the Senators have gone as he has gone. When he's played well (and at times he's played VERY well this year), the team rattles off franchise-record win streaks. When he's played not-so-well, they lose 6 games in a row. They play a very tight-checking game in front of him and the roster has largely "bought in" to coach Cory Clouston, even (surprisingly) guys like Jason Spezza. Losing Alex Kovalev to an ACL tear hurt, sure, but there were many a night this year where they might as well not have had Alex Kovalev in the line-up anyway and they still found a way to win plenty of games. I believe that, no matter what, this series will be a lot closer than most people are expecting. But in the end, I really think the Senators can get it done, and send the NHL's poster boys home very early. Don't cry, Mr. least you'll still have the Caps.

Prediction: Senators in seven.

Alright, with all that said and done, I'm gonna make my final predictions for the rest of the playoffs. As a reminder, before the season started I went with Pittsburgh over Washington and Chicago over Vancouver for my conference finals, and ultimately Chicago over Pittsburgh for the Stanley Cup. Obviously I'm changing that prediction now if I'm telling you the Penguins are going home in the first-round, so without further ado....

Eastern Conference: Washington over New Jersey
Western Conference: Chicago over Detroit

Stanley Cup: Chicago over Washington

I'm sticking with my pick in the West and ultimately for the Stanley Cup, but I'm changing up some of the finalists in the process. Some of that's just due to logistics; if the first-round go as I predicted it, Chicago would face Vancouver in the conference semis. But in the East, I think it's clearly become Washington's to lose.

Alright folks, that'll do it for now. As a reminder, tomorrow night at 9 pm EST we'll have a special playoff preview edition of CIA Radio, so if you've got any comments of your own the link will be here (and on Facebook & Twitter) for you to call in and share your thoughts with us. I'll be live with my two co-hosts as we break down all these playoff matchups all over again. Until then, enjoy these two days off, because on Wednesday it's time to start playing for Lord Stanley's hardware!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Playoff Preview: Western Conference

It's a sad day for yours truly. Not only were my Rangers knocked out of the playoffs with a heartwrenching 2-1 shootout loss to the hated Flyers, but my Blackhawks lost to the Red Wings 3-2 in overtime. That not only meant that the Hawks will finish second in the conference and have to play a much tougher Nashville team instead of the Colorado Avalanche, but it also pushed my Kings down from 5th to 6th. Of the four teams at the top of the West, the ONLY team I really wanted the Kings to avoid playing was Vancouver. We'll get into the whys of that in a second, but just about everything that could go wrong today did.

The meaningful games are almost over; we're waiting on the result of a Buffalo-New Jersey game that's in progress as I type this to decide who gets 2nd in the East. The West, however, has been decided, and finally we can break down all the match-ups heading into the playoff excitement. So in search of anything to distract me from the heartbreak, let's dive right into it and make some predictions!

(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Colorado Avalanche
(Sharks won season series 2-1-1)

First of all, I'm not listing anyone's regular season records, because in my opinion you can throw that out the window once we get to the playoffs. How the teams did against each other back in that regular season is at least a little bit interesting, but I wouldn't read too much into that, either. As we all know, the playoffs are a whole different animal: more tight-checking and physical than regular season hockey could ever approach.

You can't talk about the San Jose Sharks without mentioning their playoff failures, most recently as the first seed against the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks. However, no one in San Jose should be too worried about history repeating itself this year. Colorado is almost an exact opposite of the Ducks team that knocked out the Sharks last year: the Ducks were a veteran team who got off to a poor start and then turned it on in a major way down the stretch to get again. They were a better team then their record showed, and they proved it by nearly eliminating the Red Wings in the second round. Colorado, on the other hand, is an incredibly young team who almost backed into the playoffs. They picked up a few big wins over the last week, including over the Sharks themselves, but the teams they beat were largely playing for nothing (or at least close to it). When the chips were down and the Avalanche had to beat the Calgary Flames to hold onto their spot last Friday, they lost. Only by getting some help from other teams did they hold off the Flames for the eighth and final playoff spot.

The Avs getting into the playoffs was clearly a great story. But I don't see how they can hold off a Sharks team that is hungry and out for blood (pardon the pun). There's simply no way this San Jose team will be anything but ready to play in the first round after what happened last year. I don't think the Sharks have what it takes to make it through the rest of the playoffs, but they shouldn't have much trouble here.

Prediciton: Sharks in four.

(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators
(Blackhawks won season series 4-2-0)

The Hawks are an interesting team to talk about right now. They followed the exact same pattern as last year: awful in March, really good in April. Of course, that doesn't guarantee they will have a post-season like last year's, and most fans of the Hawks will tell you that simply a trip to the conference finals won't satisfy them this year. It's Cup or bust for these Hawks, but to get there they have to get through a very tough Nashville team. Nashville is a fantastic defensive team, and one of the big problems the Hawks have had all season long is getting through the neutral zone against teams who know how to play that 1-2-2 style well. Those problems are only increased when you consider the fact that the Hawks are missing their best puck-carrying defenseman, Brian Campbell, for what will likely be this entire first-round (and perhaps the second-round as well, should they get that far). There's also the question of how rookie goaltender Antti Niemi will hold up under the playoff pressure, a valid question to be sure.

With all that said, I don't think the Predators have enough firepower to hang in there with the Hawks in a seven-game series. I've told you a lot of reasons why the Hawks might not win, but now let me tell you even more reasons why they will win: Jonathan Toews. Patrick Kane. Marian Hossa. Patrick Sharp. John Madden. Kris Versteeg. And on and on and on. This is by far the deepest group of forwards in the Western conference, and only Washington can perhaps compete with them when it comes to being able to roll four lines and always have someone who can score on the ice. Nashville is a pretty great defensive team and Pekka Rinne has been stellar for them in net, but I don't see how they can shut down all four of the Hawks' lines for an entire series. The Hawks will have some problems, maybe even send the (suddenly very sizable) fanbase into a panic by losing game 1 at home, but in the end they'll pull it out.

Prediction: Blackhawks in six.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings
(Vancouver won season series 3-1-0)

Like I already mentioned, of all the four opponents the Kings could have played in the opening round, this is the only one I really wanted them to avoid. With the sole exception of their recent 8-goal pummeling of the 'Nucks in LA, the Kings have almost always played horrible against Vancouver. They're probably the only team who have a line that's better on the cycle than the Kings (though their overall cycle game is still probably stronger), and considering it's largely on the strength of their cycle they got here in the first place, that would in fact be a problem. Vancouver had won a staggering seven games in a row against the Kings before LA finally snapped that streak.

Another problem for the Kings is the play of starting goalie Jonathan Quick, who has gone 0-3-3 in his last six games of the season. The Kings in general have played OK in front of him, sometimes better than others, but Quick has failed to lock it down even when the Kings were heavily outshooting their opponents. Quick's role as franchise goaltender of the future is suddenly in question with the rise of Jonathan Bernier, but unless Quick gets injured or really gets shellacked it will probably be his ball to run with (for this year, at least).

There's really not much else to say here. Vancouver will enter as overwhelming favorites with the best offense in the Western conference. Barring a meltdown from Luongo (who has been known to melt down in the playoffs before) and/or a complete drop-off in play from the Sedins, there's no reason to believe that the Canucks won't be able to handle the Kings with ease. Kings fans can take solace in the fact that their young team will likely be back, and the Vancouver team who will likely eliminate them is perhaps an early favorite to take the Western conference crown.

Prediction: Vancouver in five.

(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
(Detroit won the season series 2-0-2)

It's a shame for the Coyotes that it's come to this. Phoenix has had a fairytale season this year, turning from a team everyone had left for dead due to their off-season, off-ice woes into everyone's favorite underdog story. Their 107-point campaign was a new franchise record, including all those years in Winnipeg. But now their magical regular season, full of shootout wins and gutsy performances from guys having career years, must enter the playoffs and face reality. That reality is a Red Wings team that has lost only 1 game in regulation since the Olympic break, a Red Wings team that is healthy for the first time all year. And they are ready to pounce.

If Phoenix has any shot to win this series, they need to get out to a strong start and win both games in Phoenix. If they can really put some pressure on the Wings and their rookie goaltender Jimmy Howard, perhaps they can pull off the upset. We also don't know how this Detroit team will handle starting on the road in the playoffs for the first time in decades. But unless Phoenix has a lot more miracles left in them- and more late-period and overtime goals since there's no shootout to dominate in the playoffs- they will see their dream season come to a nightmare end. We all know how important special teams becomes in the playoffs, and Phoenix has one of the worst power plays in the NHL

Prediction: Detroit in five games.

Alright folks, that's it for the West. I'll be back later tonight breaking down all the matchups in the East, and don't forget we'll have a podcast talking it all over for you tomorrow night at 9 pm EST.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

On the Road to Nowhere, Part 2: The Western Conference

Welcome back to Center Ice Addict! A few days ago we talked about all the non-playoff teams in the East, giving them all one last look before everyone completely forgets their existence (barring any GM or coach firings, of course). Many of the outlooks for the Eastern teams looked particularly grim; of the 5 teams we covered, only the Carolina Hurricanes were rated as having a High chance of returning to the post-season next year. Tampa Bay & Toronto came in with Moderate ratings, while Florida & the Islanders were rated Low. Today, as we look at the non-playoff teams in the West, we will once again see how the conference is so much better than the East. Consider this: the Dallas Stars, who are 12th in the West, would be tied for the final playoff spot in the East. The 9th place Calgary Flames would not just be in the playoffs, but would actually be in 6th! This of course speaks to the dominance of the West in intra-conference play this season. When you consider that the West has a staggering FIVE teams with at least 100 points and the East only has one, it makes it all the more impressive.

Of the teams who missed last year, almost all of them save maybe Edmonton will have a decent chance to make it back to the playoffs. That’s little consolation to the players, but they can be rest assured, next year they could be playing playoff hockey again instead of golf. Of course, you also have to wonder, of eight teams who are in this year, who is going to miss next year? The powerhouses (San Jose, Chicago, Vancouver, even Detroit who would have been higher without all the injuries) all have their franchise players locked-up for the foreseeable future. The rest of the teams are, for the most part, very young teams who are only going to get better. Of course, we all said the same things last year about St. Louis & Columbus and both of them managed to drop out, so anything can happen. Still, when you look at that top 8 and try to think who might miss next year, there’s really no one who jumps out at you, and that’s a problem for all of the teams we’ll be talking about today.

We’ll be looking at three areas for each team: first, before we can discuss their future prospects, we’ll take a look back at just went so terribly wrong this season. Then, we’ll look at what they SHOULD do to try and get things turned around in the off-season. Finally, we’ll rate their chances of making the playoffs next year as either High, Moderate, or Low.

Calgary Flames
(40-31-10, 90 points, 9th in East, 4th in Northwest, 29th in Offense, 4th in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: This team is by far the easiest when it comes to why they won’t be playing playoff hockey this year. Simply put, the Calgary Flames could not put the little, round black object into the big white net, and considering that’s the point of this sport of ours, that would in fact be a problem. Calgary’s GM Daryl Sutter made blunder after blunder, starting with trading away Matthew Lombardi and their first-round pick to Phoenix for Olli Jokinen at last year’s trade deadline. To justify his decision to trade for Jokinen and allow him to sign free-agent defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, Sutter then allowed Mike Cammalleri (he of the 39 goals) to walk right on over to Montreal for nothing in free agency. Of course, losing 39 goals is hard enough for any team to overcome, but Sutter probably assumed a full year of Jokinen and acquiring Bouwmeester (who hit the elusive 15-goal mark for a defenseman 3 times in Florida) would equal, if not surpass, Cammy’s totals. Guess what? He was wrong. Jokinen had just 12 goals before he was shipped off to the Rangers just before the Olympic break, in exchange for another forward who lost his scoring touch in Chris Higgins and the 3 million dollar-a-year-for-2-more-years Ales Kotalik. The deal was even more absurd when you realize that Kotalik had been a healthy scratch for almost 10 games in a row prior to the deal; Rangers fans rejoiced that 6 million dollars came off the books in exchange for a pending-UFA, while Flames fans groaned.

It was not the first time Flames fans had groaned that weekend, either. Dion Phaneuf, he of the NHL 09 cover and the Norris trophy nomination at just 20 years old, was traded to Toronto. In exchange for Luke Schenn, maybe? The rights to Nazem Kadri? No, that would imply Toronto gave up something they had an intention of keeping. Instead, Calgary received the proverbial bag of pucks. For a guy who, despite a couple of so-so seasons, still carries with him the potential to be a franchise defenseman, the Flames took third-line center Matt Stajan, woefully inconsistent scorer Niklas Hagman, aging 4th liner Jamal Meyers, and a decent but undersized defenseman who was admittedly having a career year in Ian White. Of course, Calgary was so impressed with this package of free agents Burke had no intention of resigning anyway that they threw in one of their best prospects and a very useful third-to-fourth liner too. The excuse given was they wanted to finally find a center to play with Jarome Iginla; in response to this explanation, Flames fans everywhere asked “So why in God’s name did you trade for MATT FRIGGIN’ STAJAN, dipshits?” Of course, Stajan didn’t come close to playing well with Iginla, and for this abject failure he was swiftly punished with a 14-million dollar contract, only about 13.5 million more than any sane person would give to Matt Stajan.

You’ll notice that we’ve yet to mention Jay Bouwmeester since we talked about his signing. That’s because the 15-goal man currently sits at just THREE goals in his first year with the Flames, going scoreless from November to March. Calgary’s defensive system choked all of the offense right after him, and suddenly the Flames found themselves, at 6.8 million, paying him almost 2.5 million per goal! Even poor Jarome Iginla finally cracked, coming up dry in 9 straight games down the stretch.

Add all this up and you have possibly one of the most disastrous years in the history of any franchise. Yeah, 9th place is certainly respectable in a conference where the 8th place team has 94 points, but now the damage has been done. The Flames are stuck with a team that can’t score, very little room under the cap to solve the problem, and a cupboard that isn’t just bare but has spider webs hanging inside. This is a team that has all the potential to be one of the worst teams in the NHL for a good half-decade. Only by the grace of Miika Kiprusoff (who might as well be God as far as the Flames fans are concerned) and his Vezina-like season did the Flames avoid finishing much, much worse.

What should they do now?: Well, now that I’ve finished writing a small book on Calgary’s horrific season, I suppose it’s time to discuss what they should do next. First of all, they must satisfy the Flames’ passionate fanbase and their thirst for blood. GM Daryl Sutter being shown the door should be a given, but there should be a good, long look taken at letting his brother Brent go as head coach as well. While it’s true he only had a single season to work with this team and they never seemed to buy 100% into his system, the fact remains that his system is a problem to begin with. We are currently in the middle of the most wide-open era in NHL hockey since the early ‘90s; defense-first just can’t get it done anymore. If you look at the top 10 defensive teams in the NHL as far as the GAA/per game goes, most of the top 10 are there not because they play a waiting, clog-up-the-neutral-zone kind of game. Rather, almost everyone has copied Detroit. Puck possession is preached above all else, with the idea being very simple: if you’re always in their end taking it to them offensively, how are they ever going to score? Of course the argument is always there that they don’t have the personnel to play that kind of game, and it’s true to a point. But I guarantee you that if Jay Bouwmeester was given the opportunity to join the rush and make plays the way he was in Florida, he would be right back at that 15-goal range. Considering it’s generally not a good idea to sign defensemen to 6.8 million dollar deals for three goals, getting him going again should be a huge priority.

Regardless of what happens to the coach, once Daryl Sutter is fired and someone else is brought in, patience must be stressed and chance must be made. This is a team that has spent the past 5 years living off the reputation of their magical 2004 run from 8th place to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. While they’ve made the playoffs every year since then, they have also been knocked out in the first round every single one of those years. Coaches have been changed more often than some people change underwear. The fact that they finally took the next step down and missed the playoffs entirely this year should really come as no surprise, even though many pundits picked them to do more. The Phaneuf trade was a partial admission that something about that locker room just wasn’t right, but it’s clearly not enough. Considering they will go into this year’s draft without picks in the first two rounds and next year’s draft without a first-rounder as well, it is time to tear this thing down and rebuild. Without their draft picks this will have to be another Toronto-style unconventional rebuild, and they are not in the same position as Toronto to be able to sign coveted undrafted free agents. Instead, it’s time to do what was previously unfathomable and trade Jarome Iginla. Not only would you give the 32-year-old a legitimate shot at winning a Stanley Cup (something it doesn’t look like he’ll have anytime soon in Calgary), but you’d hopefully recoup a first-round pick and/or a top offensive prospect, as well. With all that sad, I highly doubt anything like that will happen. The Flames will point to how close they were and stand pat, a mistake in the long-run.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Moderate. Like I said, I’m expecting them NOT to go down the rebuild road, even though that’s what they really need for the long-term health of the franchise. Assuming there’s no rebuild (yet), any team with Miika Kiprusoff will always have at least a decent shot at making the playoffs. But considering how many good young teams there are in the West, I wouldn’t place any bets on it.

St. Louis Blues
(40-32-9, 89 points, 10th in West, 4th in Central, 17th in Offense, 13th in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: Of all the teams who missed the playoffs this year, in both conferences, the Blues are perhaps the toughest ones to figure out. St. Louis rallied late in the season last year to make the playoffs as the single best team in the NHL in the second-half of the season, got swept by the Canucks in the first round, and promptly came out of the gate almost as slowly this year. The weirdest thing of all is they had one of the best road records in the NHL, and yet the single worst home record. It was this home record that got Andy Murray fired as head coach despite finishing as a runner-up for the Jack Adams award just one season earlier. After rookie coach Davis Payne came up from the minors, he turned the team around somewhat in the same way other young coaches have found success all over the NHL, but ultimately there just wasn’t another magical second-half run in this team. Too many of their rookies who were so great last year had the traditional Sophomore Jinx (which should probably have Colorado Avalanche fans scared considering they’re the team in the top 8 carried primarily by rookies this year), and not enough of their aging veterans played well enough to make up for it.

What should they do now?: Not a whole hell of a lot, actually. Their kids will get every chance to rekindle that rookie magic next year, and until they start having a weak third year it’s not time to panic and assume they won’t be able to do it. They have one of the best one-two punches in net in the entire league, a young defenseman who looks like a star in the making in Erik Johnson, and a prospect cupboard that is still stocked pretty well from all their years of being bad-to-awful. Keith Tkachuk has already confirmed his retirement following the season and a few others could follow, opening up more roster spots for those young players. Their best plan of action is to probably write this season off as an anomaly and give their young guys another shot to get it done before making any drastic changes. It’s not like they even missed by that much this year, anyway.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Moderate. It’s going to be really hard to get a High out of me for any team in the West, just because of how strong the conference is top-to-bottom, but of all the moderate-ranked teams the Blues are the closest to High. If they get the kind of goaltending they got this year plus a quick and painless shaking-off of the various sophomore jinxes, they will not only be back in the post-season next year, but they should be able to make a bit more noise this time, as well. Unlike another team who’s missing with the word “Blue” in their name, last year wasn’t a mirage. This is still a good, young team with a ton of upside.

Anaheim Ducks
(38-32-11, 87 points, 4th in Pacific, 11th in West, 12th in Offense, 22nd in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: Everyone knew the defense of Anaheim, legendary in its stinginess that largely carried them to bring the entire state of California its first Stanley Cup in ‘06-07, was going to take a huge hit with the trade of Chris Pronger. But can anyone honestly say they expected this team to drop all the way down to TWENTY-SECOND in the league defensively? That’s not just a drop, that’s a freefall. All year long this team failed to maintain leads and lost games they should have won at home, and ultimately it cost them a playoff spot. This year wasn’t a total bust, however. Giguere’s monstrous contract was taken off the books thanks to Toronto and when all three were healthy, the Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry line was one of the best in the NHL. This is a team that struggled to find secondary scoring all year long, but when Teemu Selanne & Saku Koivu were both actually in the lineup at the same time, they largely managed to rekindle their Finnish Olympic team chemistry after a slow start, giving them a second-line threat down the stretch to the point where Teemu managed to hit the 600-goal mark and surpass childhood idol Jari Kurri (which for Ducks fans used to being in the playoff hunt this time of year was a welcome distraction). By then it was too little, too late, but there’s still plenty of reasons to like this team’s chances going forward. That is, of course….

What should they do now?: …..if their veterans want to come back and play one more year. No indication has been given one way or another if the trio of Scott Neidermayer and the aforementioned Finnish Flash & his Finnish Friend will return. So really we have to give two answers here: if they come back, again this is a team I don’t do much to outside of the odd tinker here or there. With a full year of secondary scoring and trade deadline pick-up Lubomir Visnovsky (who played really well for them down the stretch), I would expect this team to make the playoffs. If the triumvirate of indecision decides not to come back (and I fully expect there to be a domino effect here where if one announces their retirement, the other two will quickly follow, and vice-versa), however, it’s probably best to unload some of their other veteran pieces and make a go at a real rebuild here. Considering they will have two picks in the first round of the next two drafts thanks to the Pronger trade, it doesn’t have to be a lengthy rebuild, either; especially if prospect Luca Sbisa, picked up from Philly in that same trade, is ready to go at the NHL level full-time within a season or two.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Look above at the same two-pronged answer: High if the aging trio comes back, Low if they don’t. I just don’t see how this team replaces the secondary scoring of Selanne & Koivu and the veteran presence of Neidermayer in one summer, and even with all three of them they narrowly missed this year. If they keep them and Selanne & Koivu have healthier campaigns, they will more than likely be a playoff team again. If they decide to walk away, because the prospect cupboards are relatively bare, it will probably be a long season for them. But again, with two picks in the first rounds of the next two drafts, they’d be in pretty good shape to start filling those cupboards up relatively quickly.

Dallas Stars
(36-31-14, 86 points, 5th in Pacific, 12th in West, 11th in Offense, 23rd in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: A lot of the same things that went wrong for Anaheim, actually. This is another former defensive powerhouse that suddenly found themselves in the bottom-third of the league in GAA/per game. Despite a good offense, they couldn’t overcome their problems defensively and their incredible inconsistency. Dallas was the only team in the entire NHL who failed to have at least a three-game winning streak at any point in the season. They were the definition of mediocrity; win two, lose two, win one, lose one. It went on like that for the entire season. The fanbase, once looked at as a shining example of the NHL’s success in the south, largely stopped caring, and both live attendance and TV ratings suffered greatly. The problem is, Dallas is a HUGE market with a ton of options for fans’ sport & entertainment dollar, so a hockey team that’s nearly 8 million dollars below the salary cap and clearly not doing all it can to win right now is going to turn many of them off. The problem is, owner Tom Hicks is having serious financial difficulty and suddenly finds himself unable to maintain his previous commitment to winning (and spending the money it takes to do so). In the end, Dallas had some good pieces, but they seem to have been stuck all season long in a limbo between a young and hungry team and a complacent veteran team. Not a good place to be, to be sure.

What should they do now?: Rebuild, and that’s exactly what it appears first-year GM Joe Nieuwendyk is doing as we speak. He traded for the injury-prone but still full of potential former 1st overall pick Kari Lehtonen from Atlanta, clearly indicating veteran backstopper Marty Turco won’t be back next season. Other veterans like Mike Modano (who had a very touching tribute shown on the screen during the Stars’ last home game Thursday, resulting in a nearly three-minute-long standing ovation from the 18,000 fans in attendance that brought him to tears) are strongly considering retirement. Now it’s time to trade away some of the guys with attitude problems (yeah, that’s you Mike Riberio) and some of the underachieving veterans, and really tank next year. It’s the right move and I fully expect it to happen. There just isn’t enough talent or youth on this team right now to compete in a Western conference that’s suddenly become about young talent over everything else.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Low. Like I said, it will likely be a rebuild year for these Stars, and that means not coming even this close to making the playoffs. Don’t let their point total fool you: they were almost never really in the race since December or January. The only thing they did was lessen their own draft position, and next year they will probably look to avoid that by stripping this team down and starting over.

Minnesota Wild
(38-36-7, 83 points, 4th in Northwest, 13th in West, 20th in Offense, 21st in Defense)

What went wrong?: Before we talk about the season that was in the State of Hockey, it’s important to get a few disclaimers out of the way first. This team was pretty much the exact opposite of Dallas: where Dallas’ record looked better than it actually was, Minnesota’s looked worse. They were battered by injuries down the stretch and lost more games than they probably would have if so many of their top guys weren’t out injured. Many will point to the way former coach Jacques Lemaire guided the Devils towards another Atlantic division title while Minnesota’s new offense-first approach failed to ignite it past 20th and crippled their former defensive prowess. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Devils won the Atlantic before Lemaire got there last year, too; the real test of his mettle in 2010 as a coach will come in the playoffs, where the Devils and their defense-first philosophy has struggled since the lock-out (two 2nd round exits followed by 2 1st round exits). Stressing offense and puck possession is clearly the right way to go long-term, but to do it successfully you need your best player to have a much better start than Martin Havlat did. Letting Marian Gaborik, injury-prone as he may be, walk for nothing to the Rangers certainly hurt them too; he set a new career-high in points (86) and matched a career-high in goals (42). Add those numbers to Minnesota’s offense, which was bolstered significantly by the renaissance of former Hab Guillaume Latendresse, and they’d be one goal ahead of the San Jose Sharks for 4th in the West in goals for/per game. Without Gaborik and with Havlat’s early-season struggles (he picked up his play in a big way in the second-half after coming back from an injury), they simply did not have the firepower to get it done in the Western conference.

What should they do now?: Look around and find some more offense in the off-season. Cam Barker was a great pick-up from the Blackhawks at the trade deadline- he’s a young, offensively gifted defenseman, just the kind of guy the Wild desperately needed on their blueline. He’s been injured for most of his stay with the Wild so far, but I think with a full year of him playing first- or second-pair minutes, you can count on him to chip in 10 to 15 goals. Add another top 6 forward through either trade, free agency, or their own (slowly restocking) system, and this becomes a team that’s at least knocking on the door of a playoff spot. Luckily for the Wild, goalie Nicklas Backstrom’s numbers didn’t drop off nearly as badly as some people thought they would without Lemaire’s trapping system in front of him, so at least they can be reasonably confident they’ll get the goaltending they need to make a run at it again next year.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Moderate. The biggest concern for the Wild will be finding that top 6 forward they need, as it’s a pretty weak free-agent class this year. Signing Ilya Kovalchuk is probably not financially feasible even if he wanted to come to Minnesota (and he doesn’t), and there’s simply not a lot of pure goal-scorers behind him. If they manage to get that top 6 forward, a full year of Barker, Latendresse doesn’t turn out to be a one-hit wonder, and Havlat gets off to a better start, they will likely be a playoff team. Problem is, those are way too many ifs to give them a High ranking, but I like their chances. Certainly the rabid hockey fans of Minnesota, who have kept the insane sellout streak at Xcel Energy Center alive even with back-to-back lost seasons, deserve it.

Columbus Blue Jackets
(32-35-15, 79 points, 5th in Central, 14th in West, 19th in Offense, 24th in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: After teasing this team as a mirage when talking about the Blues all the way back at 10th, now I can explain just why the Blue Jackets flamed out in far more spectacular fashion. Like their Central division counterparts from St. Louis, the Jackets also went from surprise playoff team last year to missing the post-season this year. However, the similarities between the two teams are far outweighed by the differences. To understand why the Blue Jackets missed the playoffs this year, one has to understand why they made the playoffs last year, and his name is Steve Mason. The NHL’s Calder trophy winner last season, Mason had an amazing rookie season. While Ken Hitchcock, coach of the team at the time, got a great deal of the credit for guiding the Jackets to their first playoff berth in their decade-long existence, in actuality we can see now that almost all of that credit belonged to Mason. The problem is, rookie goaltenders have a long history in the NHL of having incredible rookie seasons and then dropping off the face of the Earth for the rest of their careers. There’s a reason why no one in Washington remembers Jim Carey and the people of Toronto are still trying to forget Andrew Raycroft (who, to his credit, played probably his best season since his rookie campaign backing up Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, which probably has a great deal to do with the utter lack of pressure that position comes with). Both goalies had fantastic rookie seasons and immediately followed that up with horrible year after horrible year. When it comes to goaltenders, it can often be more than your typical sophomore jinx. Rather, for whatever reason, there’s a long pattern of goalies never getting close to the level they played at in those magical rookie seasons.

Now, with all that said, once Hitchcock was finally fired and all the pressure of having even a shot in hell at making the playoffs was off Mason’s shoulders, he did play a LOT more like the rookie sensation for the rest of this season. The problem now is no one knows whether or not he’ll be able to get back to that level when the games start again. What we all learned is a lesson we should have all known as hockey fans to begin with: goaltending is not just the most important position in hockey, but arguably the most important position in all of sports, and it can provide a mirage of an overall team game that’s a lot better than it actually is. True, the Jackets bought into Hitchcock’s defense-first system somewhat better than they did this year, but that kind of defense-first mentality is going to end up falling on deaf ears on your skilled players anyway. This is especially true when the aforementioned message is delivered ham-over-fist by one of the most legendarily hard-assed coaches hockey’s ever seen. For a team that has drafted pretty badly for most of the decade, it’s ill-advised to drive off your latest first-round pick, especially when they have as much raw offensive talent as a Nikita Filatov. But Hitchcock rode Filatov hard throughout the first-half of the NHL season for not playing well defensively, overlooking the dynamic offensive presence he could have (and arguably SHOULD have) brought to a hockey team that desperately needed it. Add that up to an even more significant sophomore jinx than usual for young center Derrick Brassard, who went from averaging more than a point-a-game in his injury-shortened rookie campaign to falling to around 30 points during a full season, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a disastrous year. The team in general played better once Claude Noel was brought up for the minors to replace Hitchcock on an interim basis, but going from a hard-ass coach like Hitch to a player’s coach like Noel is always going to result in an early jump. This is especially true for a team whose playoff hopes were already fantasy by then. No one’s fooling for the mirage this time.

What should they do now?: Honestly? I haven’t the slightest idea. The Jackets are one of the most poorly-run franchises not just in hockey but in all of major sports. Their drafting and talent-developing has been awful. You’d think that a full decade out of the playoffs other than last year (and it’s not like they were picking 29th overall when they were promptly swept out of the first round by the Red Wings, either) would have resulted in more than one franchise player, and unless Mason completely reverts back to his rookie form (which as we mentioned is, historically, highly unlikely), you’d be wrong. This is a team that is screaming out for a franchise blueliner, and yet none of their homegrown talent would crack one of the first two pairings on a good team. Barring a miraculous return to form for Mason & Brassard next year, they will probably have no choice in what they do next. They will continue to be a bad team, and they will try to get better mileage out of their high draft choices. The problem of that is, being in the West is going to hurt where they draft, since the West is always so much better than the East. Even though they are second-to-last in the Western conference, if the season ended today they would likely be drafting 6th overall. Luckily for them this year’s class is fairly deep in talent, but the top 5 is still the strongest we’ve seen in probably 5 years, and barring a draft lottery shocker, they would likely just miss out on it. Not a good thing for a team in desperate need of some young talent. The fans in Ohio want to support a good hockey team, but there’s no reason to believe this franchise won’t continue to leave them out in the cold.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Low. I just don’t see a way for this team to leapfrog all of the other teams above them who AREN’T in the playoffs this year, let alone any of the top 8. I suppose it’s possible if Mason & Brassard both rebound and they can get production from their backend (one of the most important parts of being a good team in today’s NHL, and the Jackets rank in the bottom 5 in the league), but it’s definitely far from likely. This is just a hockey team that’s not particularly good at anything, offense or defense, and that’s a recipe for disaster when you play in the same division as the powerhouse Blackhawks, the still-great Red Wings, the solid-as-a-rock Predators, and the young and hungry Blues. I can’t see this team making it back to the playoffs anytime soon.

Edmonton Oilers
(26-46-8, 60 points, 5th in Northwest, 15th in West, 27th in Offense, 30th in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: The real question when it comes to the 2009-2010 Oilers is, what DIDN’T go wrong? This was not a particularly great team to begin with- they had one Cinderella run in the 05-06 season coming out of the lockout, going in as the 8th seed and going all the way to Game 7 of the Cup finals (ironically the very same thing their southern Alberta rivals in Calgary did in 03-04 right BEFORE the lockout). Thinking this was a team he had to keep together so they could make another run at the Cup in the future, then-GM Kevin Lowe went utterly insane, signing everyone he could to bloated, ridiculous contracts. Now, there should be a disclaimer here: people really do not want to play in Edmonton, so the fact that they had to overpay to keep guys like Shawn Horcoff coming out of their Cup run should come as no surprise. The problem is, this core wasn’t worth keeping together to begin with, and without stud blueliner Chris Pronger (who reportedly forced the hand of management to deal him to a warmer climate in order to appease his wife, making her the most hated woman in Edmonton in the process; Pronger, of course, went on to immediately help the Anaheim Ducks win the Stanley Cup) this was just not a very good hockey team. They proceeded to miss the playoffs every year since, though it was usually by a narrow margin.

Now take that mediocre team and give half of them the swine flu, have their newly signed starting goaltender injure his back mere weeks into the season and miss the entire rest of the campaign, and have their star forward tear his ACL in November for good measure. Guess what that equals? If you said “the worst team in hockey and very nearly the worst team in franchise history”, you’re right! If you said “aforementioned goalie gets a DUI”, well, you’re right too. There isn’t much else to say about the Oilers. They were not a good team. About the only bright spot was Dustin Penner FINALLY scoring at the same pace he scored at for Anaheim when Lowe made the offer-sheet that would get him ridiculed by Brian Burke (then GM of the Ducks, of course) for years to come.

What should they do?: I’m sure you’re tired of hearing this answer by now, but it’s rebuild time in Edmonton. Luckily for Oiler fans, they already have a bit of a head start. Several of their prospects are already turning heads in the lower leagues and competitions. Jordan Eberle dazzled for the Canadian team in this year’s World Junior tournament, while last year’s first-round pick Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson is having a good rookie campaign in the Swedish Elite League playing with men. In addition, the Oilers will finish the season in 30th, so they will likely pick first and will definitely pick no lower than 2nd should another team win the lottery. That means no matter what happens, they will get a chance to draft a rookie sensation in Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, two players who are expected to jump into an NHL lineup and immediately make them much, much better. They are being called possibly the best 1-2 to go in a draft since Ovechkin and Malkin in 2004, so obviously there’s a ton of potential there. Of course, if they draft first and have to choose between them, that’s a choice that will be second-guessed for years, especially if the one they don’t pick clearly outperforms his counterpart in the first few seasons. But this is still a team with a lot of good, young prospects, and more help is clearly coming.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Low. Of all the teams in both conferences, the only one I can look at and say “You will not make the playoffs next year.” is the Oilers. You can point at Colorado and Phoenix rising from 15th and 14th into playoff position this year all you want, but the fact of the matter is, neither of those two teams were tied down with utterly ludicrous contracts like this Oilers team. They are paying a bunch of third- and fourth-line guys first- and second-line money, and that’s a recipe for disaster in today’s salary cap world. The Oilers will be hard-pressed to move any of those contracts, and they don’t have the financial muscle of a Toronto team required to bury these contracts in the minors. Even if they had money to spend, last year’s Dany Heatley fiasco reminded everyone that almost no one ever chooses to play for the Oil, which also necessitates a slow, in-house rebuilding project. Next year may see some immediate improvement from adding Hall or Seguin, hopefully getting the Bulin Wall rebuilt, and getting Ales Hemsky back in their lineup. But asking this team to go all the way back to the playoffs for the first time in five seasons coming off this disastrous campaign is likely asking more than a little too much. Still, those contracts will start to come off the books in a few seasons, and once those awful deals and bad veterans have been flushed out of their system, this could be the next young team to build a contender through the draft in the same vain as the Penguins, Capitals, Blackhawks, and others who are on their way there already. Two to three years from now, the Oilers may finally become the Northwest division-winning team many had pegged them to be going into the 08-09 year.

Alright folks, it’s rejoicing time, because this incredibly long blogumn (that’s John Buccigross’ saying and I kinda love it) is finally over! I hope you’ve learned something about the 7 teams who are not going to be in the playoffs in the Western conference this season, because barring a major firing, they will likely never be spoken of again here until it’s time for next season’s preview.

The playoffs are almost here, and I’m sure you can all taste it. To help you gear up for the nonstop thrill ride that is playoff hockey, we’ll be back with a new blog as soon as the playoff match-ups are set (late Sunday). I’m also excited to announce the return of CIA Radio, a podcast I briefly headed up last season. We’ll be returning Monday night at 9 pm EST, and I’ll make sure to post the live Talkshoe link on here and on my Twitter & Facebook accounts so you can join us to talk all the playoff match-ups. You’ll hear not just my opinion on who’s going to the Cup final, as we’ll have a three-man (well, two men and one woman) booth to break it all down for you piece-by-piece. Until then, enjoy the last two days of regular season hockey!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Today's Games to Watch 4/6

Welcome back to Center Ice Addict, as we really get ready to get rolling on towards the playoffs! Tonight, we've got a huge 11-game schedule to preview, so let's not waste anytime and get right into it. As always, these are the awards we'll be handing out:

Marquee Match-Up: The biggest game of the night, the game you absolutely need to see, featuring the biggest stars and/or the best rivalries.

The Runner-Up: Basically the same criteria that applies to the Marquee, just not quite as big of a deal as the night's biggest game.

Under the Radar: This is a game that, for whatever reason, just wouldn't normally jump out at you if you're taking a quick glance at the day's schedule, but upon taking a closer look, this should probably be a great game.

I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: With the Winter Olympics fresh on everyone's mind, I'm naming this dubious "award" after the Olympics' most craptastic event that NBC tried to push off on us all in lieu of actual figure skating. Please do yourself a favor, don't watch this game.

Once those four picks are done with, I'll go through The Rest and tell you which of those games just might be worth your time as well. Even if you don't have Center Ice, I'll make sure to note which (if any) of these games are available on national TV in the US & Canada.

Tuesday, April 6th
11 games, headlined by the ever-popular battle of this sport's two biggest stars. But don't look past the rest of this schedule: there's some other big games mixed in with the usual clunkers.

Marquee Match-Up: Washington Capitals (52-15-12, 116 points, 1st in Southeast, 1st in East) at Pittsburgh Penguins (45-26-7, 97 points, 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in East)
7:30 pm EST/4:30 pm PST
National TV: Versus (US) & TSN (Canada)
Like I need to explain why this is the marquee game? It's Ovechkin vs. Crosby, people. It's the Pens and the Caps, by far the NHL's most exciting rivalry. The only thing you might argue that could take away from it is the fact that the Caps really don't need anymore points, having wrapped up the Eastern Conference lead AND the President's Trophy already, while the Pens are in the middle of a dogfight for top spot in the Atlantic with the suddenly hot New Jersey Devils. But if there's any game that Ovie & the Caps can still get up for, it has to be the Penguins, and putting a kibosh on the Pens' division winning hopes has to have them salivating. Of course there's still the Rocket Richard trophy sidestory, too, as Crosby is trying to hold onto a slim one-goal lead over the two-time defending champion Alex the Great. How many more storylines do you need, folks? Watch. This. Game.
Prediction: Pens 5-4 (OT)

Runner-Up: San Jose Sharks (48-20-11, 107 points, 1st in Pacific, 1st in West) at Calgary Flames (40-30-9, 89 points, 3rd in Northwest, 9th in West)
9:30 pm EST/6:30 pm PST
National TV: TSN (Canada)
This is a big game for both of these teams, as the Sharks can clinch the Pacific division title with a win here, while the Flames MUST win this game to keep their already-slim playoff hopes alive. A loss by Calgary tonight in regulation and a win for Colorado in their game against Vancouver would offically eliminated Calgary from the playoff race. This is a game that, to be quite frank, they have to have. Unfortunately for Calgary, the team they're playing isn't exactly taking those 2 points lightly. Besides the Pacific clinching possibilities, the Sharks clearly want to finish first in the conference for the second year in a row, and they have just a 2-point lead over the Chicago Blackhawks (with the Hawks having a game in hand). This game will be a big test for both teams, and if Calgary can find a way to battle back into 8th place, it could very well be a playoff preview, as well.
Prediction: Flames 3-2

Under the Radar: Los Angeles Kings (44-27-7, 95 points, 3rd in Pacific, 7th in West) at Anaheim Ducks (38-31-9, 85 points, 4th in Pacific, 11th in West)
10:00 pm EST/7:00 pm PST
At first glance you might not expect much of this game, but there's a few things to keep in mind, other than the obvious SoCal/Freeway Face-Off rivalry between these two teams. First of all, the Kings were NOT at all happy with how they played at home against the Ducks on Saturday, ultimately losing 2-1 in overtime. They want to come out with a much better effort against their crosstown rivals to wrap up the season series tonight. Second of all, the Kings have the chance to officially eliminate the Ducks and end their admittedly beyond-slim playoff chances. Don't underestimate what that might mean to this team, especially those of them who have been around for a while and remember how the Ducks dominated the hockey scene in the wake of their 2007 Cup win (and all those years when, at the same time, the Kings were out of the playoffs). The Kings are still looking to move up in the Western conference standings despite having already clinched a playoff spot, as they're just 3 points back of 5th place Nashville with 2 games in hand. This should be a typically nasty game between these two rivals.
Prediction: Kings 4-2

I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: Ottawa Senators (43-31-5, 91 points, 2nd in Northeast, 5th in East) at Florida Panthers (31-35-12, 74 points, 4th in Southeast, 13th in East)
7:30 pm EST/4:30 pm PST
Of the few games involving playoff teams vs. non-playoff teams, this game strikes me as by far the most skippable. It certainly doesn't help that it starts at the same time as the Caps and the Pens, while the Sens are probably the team playing for the least. While they aren't officially eliminated from the Northeast crown, it's really almost impossible for them to catch Buffalo at this point. At the same time, they're probably not going up or down in the standings, either; they're not catching 4th place Pittsburgh and 6th place Montreal isn't catching them. They know where they're going to finish. Of all the non-playoff teams, Florida has come out with the least passion on most nights, so add it all up and you've got the potential for two teams coming out flat. Or, on the other hand, maybe the Sens just feel like pounding the Panthers into submission like the Rangers did in the 3rd period last Saturday. Either way, not an entertaining game.
Prediction: Sens 2-1

The Rest
Rangers @ Sabres, 7:00 pm EST: The Rangers are of course still desperate for every point they can get as they try to chase down the Flyers and Bruins for one of the last two play9off spots, and they've gone 5-0-1 in their last 6 games. They'll try to keep that momentum going against a Buffalo team that's lost their last 2 in a row, and yet can still clinch the Northeast division with a win tonight. These two teams always have a tendency to play each other tough, and tonight should be no exception. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time

Canadiens @ Islanders, 7:00 pm EST: (National TV: RDS, French only) The Habs can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a loss by either the Rangers or Flyers tonight. That should give them all the motivation they need to pound the Islanders, who were officially eliminated from the playoffs earlier in the week. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time

Flyers @ Maple Leafs, 7:00 pm EST: Obviously this is a huge game in that race for 8th in the East, and it's funny how things work out sometimes with the Leafs having a huge say in which one of these two teams will finish above the other (they head into MSG tomorrow night to take on the Rangers). A loss here for the Flyers would be devastating to their playoff chances, especially if the Rangers can get at least a point out of Buffalo. The Leafs continue to play fantastic hockey; now let's see how they do against a team far more desperate than they are.. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Devils @ Thrashers, 7:00 pm EST: The Devils are playing good hockey right now, bouncing back from giving up another last-minute goal against the Blackhawks in losing in a shootout on Friday by pounding the Hurricanes 3-0 in Carolina the very next night. They're neck-and-neck with the Penguins for the all-important Atlantic division crown, and a win here over the Thrashers would go a long way towards cementing that, since they have the tiebreaker. The Thrashers, meanwhile, are fading back a bit and watching the Rangers overtake them in the race for 8th. A loss here would all but end their playoff chances, so if they can come out playing desperate they might have a shot. Of course, it might be worth watching this game just to see Ilya Kovalchuck (who's suddenly playing really, really well for the first time in Jersey) back in another uniform, for the first time ever. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time

Hurricanes @ Lightning, 7:30 pm EST: Our only game of the night between two teams already eliminated from the playoffs, this game could be a fun one just because they'll both be playing super-loose and wiling to trade chances up-and-down the ice. However, the downside is of course that this game means virtually nothing. So your choice on whether or not that's worth watching, I guess. Probably not when it's up against the Caps and Pens head-to-head, but hey, that's your call. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Blackhawks @ Stars, 8:30 pm EST: Chicago needs these two points to catch the Sharks, and they've been playing much better hockey on their 3-game win streak. Dallas is officially eliminated and looked like a team that knew that in their last outing. Yeah, this one might not be pretty. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time

Avalanche @ Canucks, 10:00 pm EST: (National TV: Versus) The Avalanche are suddenly back in control of their own destiny, bouncing back from their loss to Calgary last Friday with a huge overtime win over the Sharks on Sunday, while those same Flames were losing to the Blackhawks for the eighth-straight game. A win by the Avs would give them a chance to clinch tonight should Calgary lose to the Sharks, and even if Calgary manages to pull that game out, a win here from Colorado would definitely put them in a great position to get the playoff spot locked-down by virtue of their tie-breaker (and having an additional game left doesn't hurt, either). The Canucks aren't playing for much and are playing like it, so if the Avs are going to take advantage, this is the time to do it. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

As always folks, enjoy the hockey as we gear up for the post-season! This is the time of year we all wait for!

Monday, April 5, 2010

On the Road to Nowhere, Part 1: The Eastern Conference

Alright folks, after a week off due to copius amounts of sickness (don't worry, I still watched plenty of hockey, just didn't write about it), I'm back. Today's Games to Watch, however, is not, due entirely to the fact that it's a three-game lineup tonight, and two of them involve teams that are out of the playoff race. So consider the Bruins @ the Caps your Marquee game (virtually a must-win for the B's with all the pressure the Rangers are putting on them) and the Jackets @ the Blues (a re-match in the BATTLE OF BLUE~) & Wild @ Oilers your first-ever Ice Dancing co-winners. Okay, with that out of the way....

It's not yet time for our Eastern Conference playoff breakdown just yet, and that's just because the East is wayyyy too up-in-the-air to do such a thing. Literally the only guarentee for the East is that those aforementioned Capitals will finish 1st; the Devils, Penguins, & Sabres will finish in some order of 2-3-4, but in what order that will be, I have no idea. The Senators will probably finish 5th, and after that you've got 5 teams playing musical chairs for the last three playoff spots. So it's tough for me to write any kind of playoff breakdown until all the seeds are a little more clear, and that very well may not be until the regular season is over, anyway. Then of course it will be time to break down all eight of the playoff series and make predictions, so I guess what I'm trying to tell you is there may very well never be an Eastern Conference playoff breakdown.

Here's the Cliff Notes version, folks: the Caps look unstoppable, the bottom half looks uninspired (and that's the nice way to say it), and this may very well end up being the weakest Eastern Conference first-round since the lockout. Once the various dead weights and pretenders are out of the way- and other than maybe the Sens upsetting the 4 seed, this year has all the makings of a complete sweep of the top four seeds moving on to the next round- it does set up for what should be a very exciting second round & conference final. But I'm telling you folks, that first round could be very, very underwhelming. No matter who among that Habs/Flyers/Bruins/Rangers/Thrashers five-headed monster actually locks down the last three playoff spots, can you honestly see any of these teams being capable of a first-round upset in the top-heavy East? Nope, me neither. And that makes the prospect of writing the kind of playoff breakdown I did for the West (in which I could seriously see a Detroit, LA, or Nashville upsetting the top seeds) very underwhelming, much like the first round itself.

So with all that out of the way, we get to the actual point of this blog. We're in the middle of the last week of the NHL season, and almost all of the attention will be on the teams fighting for playoff position (deservingly so). Realistically, only the Rangers (who have a very good shot) & Thrashers (who have an outside, but still decent shot) in the East and the Flames (who probably has slightly less of a shot than Atlanta) in the West can still really be looked at as playoff hopefuls outside the current top 8s. They will still be in the conversation all week long, provided of course the playoffs remain a realistic possibility. The rest of the league's teams will be virtually forgotten this week, afterthoughts relegated to the back of their town's sports pages and that horrible last 15 minutes of NHL On the Fly where they stick the non-playoff teams this time of year. They will of course largely remain out of the conversation until after the NHL playoffs, save for any early shock-firings of their GMs or coaches.

So before we forget all of these teams exist for a while, I thought it might be a good idea to go through each of them, team-by-team, and discuss what went wrong with their respective seasons. With all the teams in the NHL who bounced-back from non-playoff years last year into solid playoff positions this year, we'll also rate each team's bounce-back potential (High, Moderate, or Low), looking at their respective chances of being next year's Coyotes, Kings, or Senators. Of course, any such pick is very early to make without knowing what they do in the draft or free-agency, but it's still fun to guess, right? Okay, we'll start today with the Eastern Conference, since they got shortchanged in the whole playoff breakdown thing.

Eastern Conference

New York Islanders
(33-35-10, 76 points, 11th in East, 5th in Atlantic, 22nd in Offense, 24th in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: Not a whole lot, actually. This is a very young team in the second year of a full-scale rebuild, and some of their young players took a big step forward this year. Last year's 1st overall pick John Tavares had a strong rookie campaign that was hurt by a long scoreless drought, which is kind of parallel for the team's season as a whole. If you take out a couple of long stretches where they just couldn't get it done, they would probably have been a playoff team, but that has to be expected out of such a young team. They improved somewhat on what was a league-worst offense last season, but the biggest concern for any young team is always their defensive play. 24th is not as big of a disaster as one might expect for such a young team, but that's with 40-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson playing out-of-his-mind on a lot of nights, something this team can't expect year-after-year.

What should they do now?: The next step for the Isles and sophomore coach Scott Gordon is to come in next year and teach a more defensively sound system, similar to what Terry Murray did last year with the LA Kings. This will hurt their offensive production in the short-term and probably result in them missing the playoffs again next year, but once they've got their shots-against down they can rise up into the top 15 in goals against/per game, and that's the kind of structure you can build off of into winning more games and, ultimately, a playoff berth for years to come. They don't have the kind of offensive firepower to play a more wide-open system the likes of Washington & Pittsburgh play, and the sooner Gordon realizes that, the sooner the Isles can get back to the post-season. They made some strides this year, to be certain.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Low. You just don't go from 22nd in Offense & 24th in Defense to a playoff berth the following year without major changes. The Isles don't have the kind of money to spend in free-agency, and no one in the system screams "I'm gonna come in and turns this team around". Calvin de Haan, their "other" first-round pick last year, is probably a few years away, and they likely won't be picking high enough to grab a guy who can step right in and make a difference like Johnny T did. As for Tavares himself, many people will probably predict him to have a huge second year like the previous year's first-round pick, Steven Stamkos, has had this year, but I tend to see something more along the lines of a traditional "sophomore slump" for him next year. If I'm wrong and he takes a huge step forward next year, maybe they can sneak into the playoffs. But the best thing for this franchise would be to follow the LA model and take a year to preach defense, even if it means another year outside the bubble. Of course, you also have to keep in mind that making the playoffs is more difficult for the Isles than it is for the rest of these teams just because they play in what is almost always the East's strongest division.

Carolina Hurricanes
(33-36-10, 76 points, 12th in East, 3rd in Southeast, 15th in Offense, 25th in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: Injuries, injuries, and more injuries, in that order. Few teams in this league are going to make the playoffs in a year where their best player (Eric Staal) AND starting goaltender (Cam Ward) missed HUGE stretches of the season. The fact is, the Canes were top 5 in the league in the second-half, but just couldn't make up enough ground after their beyond-awful first-half of the season. This is still a really good team, and by being relatively bad this season it gave them the chance to trade away some of their veterans and bring up some relatively overdue prospects, almost all of who played well. Brandon Sutter, for instance, has quietly topped the 20-goal mark with 21 goals in just a 69-game rookie campaign.

What should they do now?: Stand pat. If they start next year healthy and with the same core intact, they will easily be a playoff team. Not much to say here.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: High. Again, without all the injuries that doomed the start of their campaign, they would easily have compiled enough wins playing in the incredibly soft Southeast division to make the post-season. They are kind of destined to be the St. Louis Blues to Washington's Detroit Red Wings this decade: they will also benefit from playing in an incredibly soft division (yes, children, the Central used to be very, very bad), but unless Washington, like Detroit before them, has an injury-riddled campaign, they won't have much hope at a division crown. Still, they showed last year they don't need to win the division to have a good playoff run, and when a team's got Eric Staal & Cam Ward, I still give them at least an outside shot at having another one.

Florida Panthers
(31-35-12, 74 points, 13th in East, 4th in Southeast, 28th in Offense, 20th in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: Some pundits are trying to lay the blame for the Panthers' woes on injuries, pointing out that they lost two of their top offensive players in David Booth & Nathan Horton (who was FINALLY having a breakout year) for extended periods of time throughout the season. However, unlike the Carolina excuse, this time I don't buy it. Let's compare them to the Canes: the Hurricanes lost their starting goalie, by far the most devastating position you can lose, for long stretches of the season, and still managed to stay competitive even when they were long since thought to be out of it. The Panthers at times managed to stay around the hunt, and really only dropped out of it after the Olympic break, when they played some of their most uninspired hockey of the season (they're 3-5-2 in their last 10!), by the way WITH Horton & Booth (until recently) both in the lineup. This is just a team that doesn't play with any heart whatsoever, and that's why the Panthers' new owners recently wrote an unprecedented letter to their fanbase explaining why they had decided to tear it all down and start rebuilding yet again. This letter was necessary because we now officially hit the ten-year anniversary of the last time the Panthers were in the playoffs. Oh, and they haven't won a playoff series since 1996.

What should they do now?: Exactly what they apparently plan on doing: tear it all down and start over. Be really bad for a few years, pick high, and make sure your picks pan out this time. Other than a great starting goalie in Tomas Voukon (who is obviously wasting some of the best years of his career playing in South Florida), there is almost nothing here to build around right now. The Panthers have a goalie prospect in the system who they are very high on, so it's time to trade Voukon this summer at the draft and see what you can get for him. Anyone else other than maybe your youngest of kids should be traded too, and that includes Horton, who one good season that included a decent-length injury doesn't make up for the years of disappointment. See what you can get for him and the others, tear it all down, and try to go the Pens/Caps/Hawks route. Hey, it worked for them, right?

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Low. Even if they don't do a full-scale rebuild, there's nothing here to suggest next season will go any differently. How much better can Voukon play? The fact that he's near the top of the league in Save % and the team is still just 20th defensively tells you all you need to know about this defense corps, which needs to be blown-up and started over. The 28th-ranked offense obviously isn't getting it done, either. There's nothing in the system that's going to turn this disaster around: their best prospect is a goalie, and goaltending is probably the only thing you can point to on this team and say you DON'T have a problem with.

Tampa Bay Lightning
(31-35-12, 74 points, 14th in East, 5th in Southeast, 26th in Offense, 26th in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: I'd love to tell you, because I honestly have no idea how this team was this bad. They've got Steven Stamkos currently sitting tied with Alex Ovechkin for second in the league with 46 goals, yet somehow they're 26th in Offense. They've got Nittamayki who at times played great for them in goal, and yet somehow they're 26th in Defense. The fact that they've got matching stats in both categories is kind of amazing, actually, and probably tells the story. This is just a bad hockey team, plain and simple. At this point, with so many guys having great years (Martin St. Louis is 5th in the league in points with 90) and others having certainly at least average years, you have to put a great deal of blame at the feet of the head coach.

What should they do now?: Fair or not, I do believe the new ownership will step in and fire both the GM Brian Lawton and head coach Rick Tocchet, and it's probably worth a try at this point. At that point, ownership must resist the urge to deal Vinny Lecalvailer and give him another year to try and bounce back, possibly without a head coach who he reportedly feuded with this season. A one-two punch at center of Stamkos & a more on-his-game Lecavailer is, quite frankly, terrifying. A small upgrade to their defense is probably also a good idea, but nothing that will break the bank like the unadvised signing of an over-the-hill Matius Ohland did.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Moderate. If their defense gets better (which it should as last year's second-overall pick Victor Hedman will probably have a stronger year next year as he gets used to the North American style) and their goaltending & overall team game is a little more consistent, this is a team that will probably make the playoffs. Of course, those are big ifs. But I definitely like their chances.

Toronto Maple Leafs
(29-36-14, 15th in East, 5th in Northeast, 21st in Offense, 29th in Defense)

What Went Wrong?: Clearly GM Brian Burke made the all-too-common mistake of overrating his own team, as he traded his first- & second-round picks this year and first-round pick next year for Phil Kessel, then promptly watched his team get off to an awful 0-7-1 start that made finishing near the bottom and thus giving up a lottery pick to Boston virtually inevitable. Despite that, there is hope for the sizeable fanbase that comprises Leaf Nation. Dion Phaneuf was picked up from Calgary and gives the Toronto team a bonafide blue-chipper on the blue-line. His time in Toronto so far has been a mixed bag (6 assists in 14 games which is certainly not bad for a defenseman, but his big crowing point was supposed to be his huge shot and he has yet to score a goal as a Leaf), but everyone will judge him on what he does at the start of next year, anyway. Some cautious optimism is actually floating its way into the fanbase by way of how well some of the young kids are playing since they came into the lineup late in the year; Tyler Bozak in particular has been a revelation, playing very, very well with Kessel and giving the Leafs a real top-line threat for the first time since Mats Sundin left. Still, the Leafs always seem to play well after they're out of it. The youth is why some fans and pundits are arguing it's different this time, but ultimately that remains to be seen.

What should they do now?: Probably exactly what they will do: after Tomas Kaberle's no-trade clause runs out this summer, trade him to another team for a draft pick or a top-6 forward. If they can get a legitimate top-6 forward to add to their young mix of Kessel, Bozak, Stalberg, and probably last year's first-round pick Nazem Kadri, this will be a much-improved Toronto team. Having Mike Komisarek, who missed most of this year with his recurring shoulder injury, back next season will probably help their lowly defense, which is probably better than the statline says anyway. Goaltending was their real problem, but getting JS Giguere from Anaheim and moving out Vesa Toskala in the process seems to have finally fixed that problem.

Playoff Hopes for Next Year: Moderate. It pains me to believe in what a Leafs team is doing in March & April, but I'm really going to give them a shot to carry this over into next season without automatically writing them off, because of all the youth. I really like how Tyler Bozak has meshed with Phil Kessel, and I like the chances of Dion Phaneuf having a real good first full year in Toronto. If the forward group is just a little bit better and the defense really comes together with a full season of Dion to go with a healthy Komisarek, this is a team that could easily sneak into the playoffs in the seemingly always-weak Eastern conference.

Alright folks, we're done with the East. I'll be back with the West at some point, but tomorrow we've got a huge schedule of big games so it'll probably have to wait until after another edition of Today's Games to Watch. As always, enjoy the hockey, and remember the playoffs are almost here!