Monday, September 13, 2010

Pre-Season Predictions: Eastern Conference

With training camps just around the corner, now seems like a good time to start jumping into the shark-infested waters that are pre-season predictions. Of all the years to try and predict finishes in both conferences, this year easily feels like the most absurd. We're coming off a year where Phoenix & Colorado, almost unanimously picked by everyone to finish 14th & 15th in the Western Conference, finished 4th & 8th, respectively. I'd like to sit here and tell you that I was the one guy who picked them to make the playoffs last year, but I'd be lying.

So let's go ahead and admit to ourselves this very well may be a pointless exercise. As long as we get that out of the way, it's still fun to try and see how close we came to picking the final standings, even (or maybe especially) when we're hilariously wrong.

I'm not going to go into a ton of detail on these picks, as we'll have episodes of CIA Radio coming up (season 3 starts very very soon!) to go into detail on each conference. I'll just briefly state why I think they'll finish at that spot, and what could happen to make them finish higher or lower instead. We'll have both an Eastern Conference preview show and a Western conference preview show before we get the season rolling, so there will be plenty of time to go in lots of detail. I also collected picks from my co-hosts Emily & Quinlan, and I'll share those first; though you'll have to wait until the shows to get any explanations out of them.

Eastern Conference


1. Washington Capitals
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
3. Buffalo Sabres
4. New Jersey Devils
5. Philadelphia Flyers
6. Boston Bruins
7. Ottawa Senators
8. New York Rangers
9. Carolina Hurricanes
10. Montreal Canadiens
11. Tampa Bay Lightning
12. Atlanta Thrashers
13. New York Islanders
14. Toronto Maple Leafs
15. Florida Panthers

1. Washington Capitals
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
3. Boston Bruins
4. New Jersey Devils
5. Ottawa Senators
6. New York Rangers
7. Tampa Bay Lightning
8. New York Islanders
9. Philadelphia Flyers
10. Montreal Canadiens
11. Carolina Hurricanes
12. Buffalo Sabres
13. Atlanta Thrashers
14. Toronto Maple Leafs
15. Florida Panthers

John (THAT'S ME!!!)
1. Washington Capitals

Why They'll Finish First: San Jose East will roll through another ho-hum regular season of 115-120 points and a flawless home record, and it won't matter one bit. It's all about the playoffs for this team, and unless Carlson & Alzner are ready to take a huge step forward and take ownership of their defense ahead of proven playoff zero Mike Green, I don't know if things will change too much. But as far as the regular season goes, it'll be another easy road to first overall in the East.

Why They Could Finish Higher: Uh....they can't. Yeah.

Why They Could Finish Lower: It's impossible for me to come up with any scenario where this team doesn't win the Southeast Division. Like if you told me last year that Phoenix & Colorado were both going to make the playoffs, I would have found that more possible than Washington not winning the Southeast. So they can't finish any lower than third. I could see a Pittsburgh or Boston overtaking them for first overall if they come out of the gates slow with their shoulders drooped, but honestly this team is so young and hungry I don't see that happening. But I suppose it's possible.

2. Boston Bruins
Why They'll Finish Second: I really like the moves the Bruins made this off-season. Nathan Horton sounds rejuveniated at the idea of playing in a traditional hockey market like Boston, and should hit the 30-goal mark easily. 35 to even 40 goals should not be out of the question, especially if a healthy Marc Savard is feeding him the puck all year long (remember the chemistry he had with Kessel two years ago?). Obviously that was the one thing Boston was missing last year; they were 2nd in the league in goals-against average (GAA) but dead last in goals per game (GPG). Tyler Seguin could be an impact player in his first year, even on the wing. And even if Tuuka Rask has a Steven Mason-like sophomore jinx, 2009 Vezina trophy winner Tim Thomas is waiting in the wings.

Why They Could Finish Higher: If Horton hits 40 goals, Seguin has a Calder-worthy campaign, and Rask and/or Thomas are as good as they were the past two seasons, they could get back to first overall. Remember, they were just there in 2009.

Why They Could Finish Lower: I don't like a lot of the moves the rest of the Northeast Division made, but I suppose the Bruins might have trouble winning the division if Horton is at his Panthers worst; i.e. oft-injured and rarely looking like he gives a damn on the ice. The defensive corps also look like they're another top-4 NHL defenseman away from being a real good unit; while Dennis Wideman played pretty badly last year, his minutes will still need to be replaced, and none of the top 6 in Boston after Chara really look like sure things.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins
Why They'll Finish Third: It's amazing to think that the Penguins haven't won the Atlantic Division since 2008. That trend should end this year. Their defense looks even better than the 2009 Cup-winning team's blueline with the additions of smooth puck-mover Paul Martin and the shot-blocking prowess of Zbynek Michalek more than making up for the loss of Sergei Gonchar (who looked downright bored at times last season, when he wasn't on the IR that is). Throw those two in the mix with young and yet already Pens veterans Brooks Orpik & Kris Letang, as well as the even younger talents like Alex Goligoski, and you have what has gone from the Penguins' weakness in 2009 to a huge, huge strength in 2010. And of course, that Sidney Crosby guy still plays here too. I hear he's pretty good.

Why They Could Finish Higher: I'm thinking they'll battle it out with Boston for the second seed right down to the wire, but I see Boston just barely pulling it out (thanks mostly to the Bruins playing in the far weaker Northeast Division). But they could conceivably get all the way to first place in the conference for the first time in almost 20 years if the blueline is even better and Malkin has a huge bounceback year. Another guy to watch out for is Mike Comrie; he's coming off a disappointing year in Edmonton, but who was good in Edmonton last year? There's serious potential there if he gets to play on Crosby or Malkin's wing, which he probably will.

Why They Could Finish Lower: Marc-Andre Fleury melted down in Game 7 of the second round with Montreal last season, putting an exclamation point on what was a pretty terrible year for him after the Cup win. His dedication was questioned as well when he showed up almost a half-hour late for a pre-game meeting during that same playoff round. If he hasn't rededicated himself over the summer, it could conceivably cost the Penguins not just the Atlantic, but home ice in the first round as well with division rivals Philadelphia & New Jersey sure to be hot on their heels.

4. Philadelphia Flyers
Why They'll Finish Fourth: There's no doubt that the Flyers wildly underachieved last year in the regular season, then overachieved during the playoffs. So which team will show up for the 2010-2011 NHL regular season? It's questionable how much they've improved during the off-season, as longtime (yet oft-injured) sniper Simon Gagne was sent to Tampa to make room for the talented (yet enigmatic) Nikolai Zherdev. Replacing the awful third defensive pairing of Krajicek & Parent, who were so bad and fell so far out of favor with the coaching staff that they were playing around six-to-eight minutes a night by the time the Cup finals rolled around, is a huge plus. Veteran Sean O'Donnell was good in a limited role for the Kings and provides more locker-room stability to a team that probably needed it at times last season, and Andrej Meszaros will come over from Tampa with a chip on his shoulder. They have probably the best top 6 in the Eastern Conference, and are a strong contender for best defensive corps in the entire NHL as well. I think it will be a very close race between the Flyers, Penguins, and possibly the Devils, but I see the Flyers falling just a tad short of their cross-state rivals. Still, this will be a very, very good team.

Why They Could Finish Higher: Zherdev is the ultimate X-factor here. If he's come back from the Kontential league in Russia (and it's important to note that while he was okay there, he didn't exactly tear it up, either) foaming at the mouth in anticipation of his last real shot in the NHL, the sky could be the limit for this team. At the very least you would expect him to be ultra-motivated whenever they're playing the Rangers, but if he can put up a 70- to 80-point campaign (and he has the talent to do it, no doubt about that), they will almost certainly win the Atlantic division.

Why They Could Finish Lower: One word- goaltending. After how the Stanley Cup Final ended, with Michael Leighton allowing that infamous goal by Patrick Kane from that awful angle, everyone expected the Flyers to go look for a veteran like Nabakov or Turco. Instead, the Flyers have stuck with Leighton & Boucher and will hope they can take them at least as far as they did last season. It's a risky chance to take, and it could come back to bite them very badly if Leighton returns to his pre-2010 form and Boucher can't pick up the pieces this time.

5. New Jersey Devils
Why They'll Finish Fifth: It's a little hard for me to fathom that the addition of a full year of Ilya Kovalchuk will actually see the Devils *drop* three spots, but when I look at what Boston, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia have done, I have to put them here. I also don't really like what the Devils have done with replacing Paul Martin with Volchenkov & Tallinder. Neither is anywhere near as good as Martin at moving the puck up the ice, and if a guy like Andy Greene takes a step back from his career year last season, then they'll really be in trouble. And let's not forget they still have to shed around $3.5-4 million dollars of salary (they're $3 million over the cap right now, and they have to have at least league-minimum replacements for whoever they do decide to move) thanks to the Kovalchuk deal. But this is still the New Jersey Devils, and I'm still not picking against them to finish well inside the top 8 of the very weak Eastern Conference

Why They Could Finish Higher: A full year of Kovalchuk could be an even bigger boost to the Devils than I'm anticipating. Plus, Zach Parise is in a contract year. That could be an off-season headache for the Devils, but as far as this season goes, it should be a huge positive. If the new defense gels and Marty plays like Marty, they could easily climb back to their third straight Atlantic Division title.

Why They Could Finish Lower: Does Kovalchuk really want to win, or is he content with his $100 million? Could the loss of Paul Martin hurt even more than we're anticipating? Is this FINALLY the year Marty starts to play like his age? It would take an awful lot of bad things happening for me to see the Devils missing the playoffs, but a drop into the 6th-8th range seems possible if enough things go wrong for them. Make no mistake about it, there are question marks about this team, big-time.

6. Tampa Bay Lightning
Why They'll Finish Sixth: Stevie Y has done an admirable job since taking over as GM in Tampa. He practically robbed the Flyers for Simon Gagne and then made a pair of very astute signings in bringing in goalie Dan Ellis to push the often-underachieving Mike Smith as well as bringing back former playoff hero Pavel Kubina to help Tampa's weak blueline (and replace the wildly ineffective Andrej Meszaros). Adding Gagne to what they already had up front should make for one of the most dynamic and exciting top-six forward groups in the entire NHL.

Why They Could Finish Higher: I don't expect Vinny Lecavailer to have a monster bounce-back season or anything, but if he does then Tampa could climb up even higher. And there's also Victor Hedman, who could build off a so-so rookie campaign with a very good sophomore season. If one or both of those thing happen, maybe they'll be in the mix for the fourth seed and home-ice in the first round.

Why They Could Finish Lower: The blueline, although improved with Kubina, is still not going to be confused with anything resembling a defensive powerhouse. This is a team that will live and die by its goal-scoring, and if Steven Stamkos can't build on his huge sophomore season, the Lightning could struggle mightily. Goaltending is still a huge question mark as well, as Dan Ellis has been good, even great at times with the Predators, but the fact remains that he lost his starting job in Nashville. And Mike Smith has been nothing short of a disaster since coming over from Dallas.

7. New York Rangers
Why They'll Finish Seventh: I know I'm going to be accused of homering here (and wait until you see my West picks!), but I really think this is a playoff team. Frolov should be a man possessed on a one-year deal with a spot in the NHL on the line, and as non-committed and checked-out as he may have seemed at times with the Kings last year, people forget that he scored his 19 regular-season goals while largely in a checking-line role. On a first- or second-line role with the Blueshirts, he could easily get back to being a 30-goal scorer. Even at 25, this team could sneak in. The way blueliners Marc Staal & Michael Rozsival played during the Rangers' frantic race to the finish line is very encouraging; if they can translate that over and play that way consistently this year, the Rangers should be in good shape to avoid a second straight season without playoff hockey.

Why They Could Finish Higher: It's all about the kids. The Rangers have quietly amassed a pretty decent crop of young talent, probably the best group of kids this organization has had in almost two decades. If one or more of the Derek Stepan, Evgeny Grachev, or Ryan McDonaghs of this team can grab a roster spot and have a great rookie campaign, this team will be surprisingly good and may even battle for home-ice in the first round. Michael Del Zotto will need to avoid a sophomore slump and continue to improve his all-around defensive game for that to happen too, but there's a lot of young talent who could surprise people.

Why They Could Finish Lower: There's still a lot of question marks here. If Frolov underwhelms and the offense stays cold, they will miss the playoffs for a second-straight year. And if Marian Gaborik's dreaded injuries return, this is almost undoubtedly a draft lottery team.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs
Why They'll Finish Eighth: Ah, and now for my first real ballsy prediction. The prediction that has gotten the exact same reaction from everyone I've told it to so far ("WHAT?!")- the Toronto Maple Leafs, after five long and horrible seasons, will finally return to the playoffs. I'm making this prediction assuming that, like Colorado & Phoenix last year in the West, something wacky and unexpected will happen. And I don't think it's too much of a stretch to suggest that a full year of new captain Dion Phaneuf & goaltender J.S. Giguere will help improve the Leafs' defensive fortunes drastically. Sure, they're gonna have trouble scoring goals, but they've made progress there too with the additions of guys like Kris Versteeg & Colby Armstrong. I really think Phaneuf will have a huge, bounceback year; maybe not quite to the level of his Norris-nominee early Calgary years, but at least closer to it than his last couple of seasons were. Also helping the Leafs is that I believe the rest of the teams in the Northeast, outside of Boston of course, have all taken significant steps back (but we'll get into that later). Playing in a weakened Division never hurts your playoff chances. So with all that said, I think this team will surprise people.

Why They Could Finish Higher: If any of their forwards catch fire and gives them more goals than I'm expecting, they could conceivably climb up a few more spots. Realistically speaking, sixth is about as high as they're probably capable of, but I'm sure even that would have people doing backflips in Leafs Nation. Kris Versteeg, with all the ice-time he's likely to get, may have enough talent to be a 30-goal scorer. And Nazem Kadri may have a Calder-type season.

Why They Could Finish Lower: Of course, it's very possible that none of those things happen and the Leafs are still awful. Maybe Versteeg pouts, or Kadri is a training camp bust, or Phaneuf takes another step back (or even sideways; he must be better than last year if this team is going to make the playoffs). The Leafs are, of course, far from a lock, and if none of the pieces come together they will be out of the playoffs yet again.

9. Montreal Canadiens
Why They'll Finish Ninth: Everyone seems aware that the Habs grossly overachieved last season in the playoffs and that they traded away playoff hero Jaroslav Halak. What's getting less press, at least to me, is the number of other performers the Habs let walk as free agents. Glen Metropolit, he of the 10 regular-season power play goals, ended up in Europe. Why you wouldn't re-sign a guy who was tied for the team lead in PP goals, especially when almost all of your offense came from that 2nd-place power play (they were one of the worst teams in the league at scoring 5-on-5), I honestly have no idea. It couldn't have cost you very much if he ended up having to take a European deal. Also allowed to walk were useful center Dominic Moore and power play specialist Marc-Andre Bergeron. The Habs are counting on young players being able to step in and fill those roles right away. I personally think there will be some growing pains. Andrei Markov being out until at least November and possibly into December will hurt too; the Habs are 195-115-41 with him in the lineup, but just 19-35-7 without him. So I think this team will just barely miss the playoffs, obviously hugely disappointing to the fans of Montreal after the run they had last season.

Why They Could Finish Higher: If PK Subban is ready for prime-time and can step up and fill the early void of Markov, as well as the void of Bergeron on the power play, then the Habs will make the playoffs. Of course, Carey Price must play better too, but that's not as big of a factor as people think. While Price's win-loss record was bad last season, he still had a 2.77 GAA and a .912 save percentage. Neither are bad numbers. If the team gives him some goal support this year, he'll probably be fine.

Why They Could Finish Lower: Now with that said, Price could still be a complete disaster, crumbling under the immense pressure of the Halak trade. If that happens, the Habs could be a draft lottery team.

10. Carolina Hurricanes
Why They'll Finish Tenth: The Hurricanes are going young and cheap out of necessity, and it's disappointing to see one of the NHL's few Southern markets where you can really say there's usually a sense of excitement for the team have to go in this direction. Still, there's good pieces in place in Carolina, obviously starting with Eric Staal and Cam Ward. But the Canes' defense is ultimately too heavy on offensive types without any real defensive studs to shutdown the other teams' top players, and that will probably be what costs them a playoff spot.

Why They Could Finish Higher: Well, picking the Canes to miss the playoffs this year is dicey if only because they've followed a pretty specific good year-bad year-good year-bad year alternating pattern for the past few seasons. If the pattern holds up, they'll make the playoffs this year. And it wouldn't shock me to see this team get hot enough to do it with some of the great young talent they have, especially up front with guys like Brandon Sutter & Drayson Bowman. By picking them tenth I think they'll be in the mix right up until the end, so I could easily see them squeezing out a playoff berth.

Why They Could Finish Lower: That blueline really is terrible. Tim Gleason is a #4 defenseman on 25 or 26 other teams, and yet he's playing #1 minutes for Carolina. Joe Corvo looked positively awful for the Capitals in his own end at times last year after he was traded, so I'm not so sure re-signing him is a positive. And Anton Babchuk will be great for the Canes' power play that was 20th in the league last year, but he is an adventure in his own end. Throw in Cam Ward's recent injury troubles and you have a recipe for a possible draft lottery team if enough things go wrong.

11. Buffalo Sabres
Why They'll Finish Eleventh: I think a better question to ask is, how did this team ever finish third last year? At times in their first-round playoff series, they looked completely out-matched and out-played by a sub-par Boston Bruins squad. They have a collection of forwards who have largely underachieved- not a single one of them strike fear into opposing goalies' hearts (maybe Thomas Vanek on his best days, but those seemed to be few and far between last season). They got things done largely on a solid, if unspectacular, team defense. So of course they allowed 2 of their top 4 D-men to walk in unrestricted free-agency. And they replaced them.....with 1 guy. Whose name is Jordan Leopold. Yeah. Good luck with that, Buffalo. This is not a playoff team....

Why They Could Finish Higher: ....unless Ryan Miller stands on his head again. Which is, of course, always possible. But I'm one to think he might take a slight step back this season. How could you not, if you're Ryan Miller, be incredibly disappointed with what the team has done this off-season? How could you feel amped up to play behind this team? Especially after the exhausting year he had last year, I would not be shocked to see Miller look positively uninterested. But if he really does decide to stand on his head again, the Sabres will be right back in the playoffs and maybe even back in Northeast contention (though I really don't think they can keep up with the Bruins).

Why They Could Finish Lower: If Ryan Miller gets injured for any serious length of time, this is a draft lottery team.

12. Ottawa Senators
Why They'll Finish Twelfth: The Senators were another team that wildly overachieved last season, at least as far as the regular season goes (they put up a decent fight against the Penguins in the playoffs, but I wouldn't call that overachieving per say). Their off-season was an interesting one, losing several spare parts that came over at the trade deadline and did have a positive impact (C Matt Cullen & D Andy Sutton), as well as the massively disappointing Jonathen Cheechoo. But perhaps no loss will sting as much as losing shot-blocker extraordinaire Anton Volchenkov. Remember, this is an Ottawa team that has a lot of question marks in goal. Neither Pascal Leclaire or Brian Elliott was consistently able to play well for the team last season; both had serious up and down swings. Having the huge Volchenkov out there blocking shots like a madman was only a positive. Without him, the goalies will be asked to do even more, and that's asking too much of them at this point. The addition of Sergei Gonchar will probably help last year's anemic power play, but one needs to only look at how horribly Gonchar played defensively for the Penguins in last year's playoffs (at one point he let a Habs forward literally walk around him, like in slow-motion) to see why that could be a complete disaster in Ottawa. They won't know how important Volchenkov was to this team until it's too late and they're back to being a non-playoff team.

Why They Could Finish Higher: If the other defensemen step up and play well enough defensively to make up for Volchenkov's loss, the Senators could be back in the playoff mix. Good, consistent goaltending would also go a long way to making them a playoff team again.

Why They Could Finish Lower: There's a lot of injury-prone guys on this roster. Alfredsson is getting up there in age now, Jason Spezza hasn't been able to stay healthy. Neither have Kovalev or Michalek or Gonchar. Injuries could make this team fall even further in the Eastern Conference then I'm anticipating.

13. New York Islanders
Why They'll Finish Thirteenth: So the Islanders want to copy the Washington/Chicago model of building through the draft, the same model that LA & Phoenix are currently using to great success. Let's assume there's a handbook out there, "How to Build Your Team Through the Draft". Apparently when they got to the chapter titled "Now You Augment Your Core With Some Outside Players", they stopped reading at the title, put down the book, and started frantically calling every player they could think of....that was still unsigned on July 3rd. They didn't bother to get into the actual paragraph, which would have explained to them the utter pointlessness of signing guys like Rangers washout PA Parenteau, practically immobile slug Zenon Konopka, Milan 'The Blue Jackets kept the receipt' Jurcina, or rapidly aging veteran Mark Eaton. That's not augmenting your core, that's embracing a role as the NHL's witness protection program (hat tip to the Puck Podcast's Doug Stolhand for that one). As great as John Tavares may be this year, there's almost nothing else here around him.

Why They Could Finish Higher: Maybe some of their kids are ahead of schedule. If Calvin de Haan is ready to make this team out of training camp, that would give the Isles at least a playoff-caliber top 3 D-men, behind veteran Mark Streit and recent pick-up James Wisniewski. And if Swiss junior wunderkid Nino Niederreiter is a year ahead of schedule too, they could make one young and dangerous top line with Tavares & Matt Moulson. But I tend to believe these kids are still another year away. I know, Isles fans, it must suck to be told "wait until next year" year after year. But they're getting there. Just very, very slowly.

Why They Could Finish Lower: If Matt Moulson's 30-goals were a mirage after all, this team could be even worse than I'm expecting.

14. Atlanta Thrashers
Why They'll Finish Fourteenth: I have no idea what's going on in Atlanta. You pick up one of the best young power forwards in the game from the defending Stanley Cup champions because of their salary cap issues, and then you immediately move him back to defense?! Ridiculous. One only needs to watch Brent Sopel's interview after getting traded to Atlanta to figure out that these ex-Blackhawks are not exactly happy to be headed south, either. And lost in all the Blackhawk bonanza is all of the players from last year's near-miss squad that are gone, many of them huge offensive contributors. Long-term this team is headed in the right direction, but one has to wonder just how long they may even have left in Atlanta.

Why They Could Finish Higher: If I'm wrong about the ex-Blackhawks and the Byfuglien-to-defense experiment ends quickly, maybe they can get back in the playoff race. I still don't think this is a playoff team, though.

Why They Could Finish Lower: I need to give a reason why they could finish 15th instead of 14th? Uh....because they're not a very good hockey team, maybe?

15. Florida Panthers
Why They'll Finish Fifteenth: Dale Tallon has done a remarkable job tearing apart this team of underachievers in record time. Now comes the hard part: asking these poor fans to sit through another year of losing hockey. At least it's for a good cause this year, and at least they know it's coming.

Why They Could Finish Higher: I guess they could move up a few spots if Chris Higgins finally finds his long-lost scoring touch, Steve Bernier remembers what a "power forward" is, and Michael Grabner plays better after he's taken out of the Vancouver fishbowl. But even if everything goes right for this team, I can't see them possibly making the playoffs. Then again I'm sure people said that last year about Phoenix & Colorado, so I guess anything's possible.

Why They Could Finish Lower: If Tomas Voukon gets injured, this team is in so much trou....oh, uh, nevermind.

Back with the West soon!