Thursday, October 7, 2010

Eastern Conference Preseason Preview Plus

Eastern Conference Preseason Preview +

As our New York Islanders enter the 10-11 season, there’s no doubt they are currently one of those teams in the NHL that the media of the hockey world simply continues to have little interest in. Surely the presence of a one Mr. Tavares puts us in a certain spotlight that we haven’t had in recent memory, but what will happen if he doesn't start off this season something like Steven Stamkos did for the Tampa Bay Lightning last year? Expecting him to do so may be little more than wishful thinking on our behalves, even though the possibility is still there. Speaking of expectations, our team is promptly experiencing preseason placement in the lower 10th of the overall standings with nary a publication expecting more than a spot amongst the league’s worst eight teams.

Now, publications are at least giving this franchise credit for taking a conservative and promising path to better competitiveness. In addition, whereas the team made more humble splashes in the course of this summer and may have failed to improve certain on-ice weaknesses (scoring winger/center???), there is no doubt that the acquisitions of Eaton, Wisniewski, Jurcina and Mottau as well as the return of Martinek has this blueline looking deeper than it has in quite some time. A faceoff guy and some fists in Konopka added to real pugilists in Gillies (should be here) and Yablonski (only in very, very, very special cases) gives us a legitimate toughness faction, especially considering Martin should spend some time on the Island this season too. There's reason to hope for Islander fans, but the loss of Okposo and Streit for a good 15-60 games (respectively) gives every pundit the right to see this team as a bottom-feeder this year.


Other teams in the conference are entering (and have in some cases already entered) the season with their fair share of question marks as well. All have done things to improve in some areas, but every team seems to have a glaring weakness or two. With this in mind, here’s a short look at where I BOLDLY predict the teams in the Eastern Conference, and NHL overall, to finish this season!

1) Washington – Last Spring's failure should only make them stronger! Ovechkin has so much to prove after not coming through at the Olympics, in the POs and even in getting a bittersweet silver at the WC. Lots of skill, considerable depth and again, many youngins with much to prove. Still the best overall team in the East.
Topscorer: Alex Ovechkin with 51-55-106
Keep an eye on: Nicklas Backstrom, definitely the league’s most underrated, if not best, playmaker.
Best newcomer: Me thinks John Carlson will make an impact at some point this season.

2) Pittsburgh – Crosby, Malkin, Fluery, Staal… well, at some point when Staal returns. Four key figures few teams can match. The defense is still solid, if not better and Fleury will want to rebound. Crosby does it all and the team really only needs a few wingers to step it up in roles next to Crosby and Malkin or both, at the same time. Hasn't really been done in 3 seasons though. Like him or not, there's hardly a sole out there who can match Crosby as an overall player.
Topscorer: Sidney Crosby with 48-58-106
Keep an eye on: Alex Goligoski, who will surely be given a good period of time to step into Gonchar's (offensive) footsteps.
Best newcomer: If healthy, Paul Martin WILL have his best statistical season to date.

3) Buffalo – This pick is done for two reasons only: Miller and a lack of overall challenge within the division. I actually see several other Conference contenders being ahead of them in the win-loss column. This team lost some good players and again, is asking some kids - a few not too big - to make an impact here. Luckily, Miller is one of maybe 5 goalies who can win you a bundle of 2-1 contests. Expect it. Also expect Tyler Myers to experience a drop of sorts this season and again, if Connolly get concussed, they could be outside the PO picture.
Topscorer: Derek Roy with 23-42-65
Keep an eye on: Tyler Ennis, who is being looked to as the next internal scorer to follow in the career footsteps of Roy, Vanek and Pominville. He may just be that good!
Best newcomer: Jordan Leopold has joined a blueline desperate for a lefty-shooting QB presence. It's now time for him to get back to 35+ point land.

4) New Jersey – I refuse to doubt the Devils, because they prove me wrong every doggone year. But there's excitement now with Kovy and Volchenkov. In addition, Parise is the real deal. No matter who they lose in the next few days, the team will find a way to be amongst the conferences top three overall teams. Lou is just somehow down with geetin' that done. There may be some initial struggles with a new coach, but at the end of the day, there are just too many cogs to be anything but a top 5 in this conference.
Topscorer: Ilya Kovalchuk with 42-47-89
Keep an eye on: Travis Zajac, a fine young player who isn't by any means your classic No. 1 center, but is primed for big points between Kovy and Parise.
Best newcomer: Anton Volchenkov, who brings the toughness and shotblocking that will answer Brodeurs prayers.

5) Philadelphia – SC appearance followed up by a line-up with no proven goaltender and without Chris Pronger. Gagne is gone as well, although Zherdev should replace his offense. I don't care what the set-backs are, I believe in Lavy and he's got enough tools here to have this team not only get to the offseason, but be everyone's worst nightmare once there..
Topscorer: Mike Richards with 27-48-75
Keep an eye on: Ville Leino, because you can't just be THAT awesome and dominant a playoff player and then disappear, right?
Best newcomer: Much to our chagrin, expect Nikolai Zherdev to put up 60 points and add a clever offensive dimension to this club.

6) Tampa Bay – Although they let me down the past two seasons (from a projection standpoint), I think Yzerman is on to something. In addition, the offensive ability available here along with the growth a few Dmen made last season have me thinking that this team will be in the POs this season. In addition, between Lecavalier, St. Louis, Stamkos, Malone, and Gagne, I just don't see more than maybe 5 clubs in the league scoring more goals than the Lightning. Can the goaltending keep them in it?
Topscorer: Martin St. Louis with 35-67-102
Keep an eye on: Steven Stamkos, whose eyes will be fixed on his 2nd 50 goal season and maybe a push towards 60.
Top newcomer: Believe it or not, Sean Bergenheim, who I suspect will find his niche on a team that could really use his aggressiveness and hustle.

7) Carolina – The team that was pretty doggone hot to finish off last season is the team we'll see this year. They'll once again be a little engine that could and this group of boys will leave some more highly touted clubs in their dust. Staal and Ward remain studs. The workers and depth players can get the job done.
Topscorer: Eric Staal with 36-37-73
Keep an eye on: Brandon Sutter, who may end up being one of the teams top 5 scorers and emerge as an underrated No. 2 center.
Best newcomer: Jamie McBain, who should put his name in the ROTY award hat.

8) NY Islanders – I know, I know, just not the chic pick. How could they even make it if everyone were healthy, much less now without Streit and Okposo? The Isles will earn this spot based on a commitment to their system, continuity and even more solid goaltending. They’ll still not be the prettiest team to watch, but the level of competitiveness and the improvements the kids make will be visible, will have them fighting long and hard for spot 8, and will show the NHL that this team is finally ready to bear the fruits of its work. They'll hover around .500 until Okposo and then Streit give them that shot in the arm to knock off the other spot 8-11 competitors in the conference, even if it'll pretty darn close.
Topscorer: John Tavares with 33-38-71
Keep an eye on: James Wisniewski, who is heading right into the situation of expectations and responsibility he claims he's always dreamt of.
Best newcomer: Michael Grabner, another kid who just wants to score goals and is now on a team that needs just that.

9) Boston – My crystal ball tells me that they'll play some good hockey, but that the lack of Savard as well as one or two other key injuries will see them just outside the playoff picture late in the season. I know, tough to imagine, but this team still has much to prove. Still like a lot of the younger guys and this team could easily switch places with Carolina, should things go well.
Topscorer: Tyler Seguin with 20-53-73
Keep an eye on: Dennis Seidenberg, who looks primed to take on a boatload of responsibility this season.
Best newcomer: Nathan Horton, who'll return to 30 goal land with a new lease on life.

10) Atlanta – Is getting there, although losing Kovalchuk is and must be seen as a step backwards. There will be no one man replacement, but this team needs to be, well, more of a team. Now they're damned to be just that and honestly, they seem deeper than they have in years. Goaltending questions linger and Byfuglien on the blueline may not be the best decision. They’ll make things interesting, but we'll have to see if the goals-by-committee can get done in hot Georgia.
Topscorer: Bryan Little with 32-29-61
Keep an eye on: Zach Bogosian, who is immensely talented, a thoroughbred Dman and now has even more PP responsibility with Kubina in TB.
Best newcomer: Dustin Byfuglien, who is one of many, but who just seems to be a monster in both size and PO importance.

11) Ottawa – Until proven otherwise, the goaltending and blueline will ultimately be this team's death knell on too many nights. In addition, the Senators must pray that quickly processed knees on Kovalev and Michalek don't suffer any set-backs, which ultimately happen more often than not. If you've got Campoli eatin' up considerable minutes, then playoffs shouldn't be seen as a serious goal. Alfredsson and Spezza can control a lot, but there are just too many teams in this conference with a tick more 'umph'.
Topscorer: Jason Spezza with 38-46-84
Keep an eye on: Peter Regin, one of the leagues best kept secrets and a kid poised to enter 50+ point land.
Best newcomer: Sergei Gonchar, who'll be asked to log lots of PP minutes in a QB function and thus, should remain a 45+ point Dman.

12) Montreal – Last season was something special. That playoff run was just lights out. Problem is, the guy who did the most was sent packing in an admittedly calculated decision. But at what Price? No pun intended, of course, but this Habs team enters this season with a boatload of questions and requiring, once again, a lot of small men to play big roles. There's talent, but the buck will stop with Price's ability to win, because he is gonna see shots and at the moment, it's not looking like this kid can bloom in this city. Welp, another 81 games to go to find the answers.
Topscorer: Mike Camalleri with 34-33-67
Keep an eye on: Carey Price, because not a goalie in the league will have THIS many critics to satisfy, including the ones he sits next to in the locker room.
Best newcomer: Jeff Halpern, who's certainly not a 'sexy' center, but will be the spine of the lower lines and PK unit.

13) NY Rangers – Lundqvist and Gaborik remain awesome. There's more talent, but the word 'inconsistant' is applicable in describing just about any and everybody on this team, aside from the two megastars mentioned above. They should fight for spot 7-10, but I'm going out on a big limb (OK, not that big) and say that one - if not both - of the King and Gabby are gonna spend considerable time on the IR. Once that happens, kiss the POs goodbye, because what's currently there ain't gonna cut it. And uhhh, what are they doing up the middle?
Topscorer: Alex Frolov with 26-34-60
Keep an eye on: Derek Stepan, who his highly touted and is practically being force-fed responsibiltiy.
Best newcomer: Martin Biron, because the team simply MUST find a way to rest Lundqvist and he's their best answer yet.

14)Toronto – Unbelievable the attention given to whether Kadri makes the roster or not. Heck, that kid ain't Kane, Stamkos or even Tavares. But so goes it in Leafland, where things are microanalyzed after being microanalyzed. Thing is, they're still looking to be more competitive this season than they've been for a while. The goaltending looks solid and the blueline features many NHL-capable Dmen. If Burke turns Kaberle+ into a bonafide top center, then I'll have to change this prediction, but for now, this team just doesn't have the proven, consistant offense to guarantee a playoff spot. Still they should only finish 10 or less points from spot 8 in the conference.
Topscorer: Phil Kessel with 44-25-69
Keep an eye on: Dion Phaneuf, who needs to be this team's best overall player and a 50 point Dman.
Best newcomer: Kris Versteeg, who should inject some jump and excitement into a club that desperately needs his 50 points.

15) Florida - Just not enough there. Goaltending is fairly intact, but the defense is merely average. The attack will likely be the worse in the NHL, even though someone will likely have a career year. Far too much would have to go right for this admittedly rebuilding club to even come close to spot 8 in the conference. At least they had an interesting draft. Still, they'll likely bite a few teams in the behind along the way, so no one should take them too lightly.
Topscorer: Stephen Weiss with 24-32-56
Keep an eye on: Michael Frolik, who’s still not called “baby Jagr” for nothing!
Best newcomer: Dennis Wideman, who'll look to get his career back on track and should be given plenty of opportunity to do so.

1) Vancouver Canucks – Solid and simply needing to produce/perform.
Topscorer: Henrik Sedin with 24-82-106
2) Chicago Blackhawks – Will be ready come playoff time and are still exciting.
Topscorer: Patrick Kane with 33-55-88
3) Detroit Red Wings – Still have all the ingredients.
Topscorer: Pavel Datsyuk with 28-56-84
4) San Jose Sharks – Mature star power and fresh look in goal.
Topscorer: Joe Thornton with 22-63-85
5) LA Kings – Ready to make life tough on the opposition - even in the POs
Topscorer: Anze Kopitar with 36-48-84
6) Calgary Flames – 2nd time around is the charm, right?
Topscorer: Jerome Iginla with 36-42-78
7) Nashville Predators – Good, solid club with a great blueline. STILL needs scoring.
Topscorer: Matthew Lombardi with 26-37-63
8) St. Louis Blues – Stagnated last season; kids ready to pick things up!
Topscorer: David Perron 25-39-64

9) Anaheim Ducks – Team needs to rebound, but defense must respond.
Topscorer: Ryan Getzlaf with 29-53-82
10) Colorado Avalanche – Need too many kids to be real good - again. Doesn't happen.
Topscorer: Paul Stastny with 25-50-75
11) Phoenix Coyotes – Don't see them repeating? Count me in...
Topscorer: Wojtek Wolski with 27-42-69
12) Dallas Stars – A bit of a rebuild in place despite some strong players.
Topscorer: Brad Richards with 21-51-72
13) Edmonton - Lots of fun young guys to watch. Something to enjoy.
Topscorer: Ales Hemsky with 18-48-66
14) Minnesota Wild – Their time in limbo looks to continue.
Topscorer: Martin Havlat with 26-39-65
15) Columbus Blue Jackets – Limboland not only Minnesota's domain.
Topscorer: Rick Nash with 42-36-78