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!

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