Monday, September 5, 2011

Eastern Conference Wild Gues...err...Preview

Another crazy season in the East
The previews continue here on GootzHockey as I am going to widen the scope a little bit here and focus on the entire Eastern Conference which will have many story lines. Spent about 45 minutes looking at this list and going over it in my head but I have finally come out with a list I think I am happy with...not sure everyone will be quite happy is a recap of last season's final regular season standings:

New Jersey

But that was last season. We now have a whole new game. Lets take it from the bottom

15. Ottawa Senators
      Key Additions: Nikita Filatov, David Rundblad, Zenon Konopka, Alex Auld
      Key Departures: Ryan Shannon

It isn't going to be a fun year in the Canadian capital as it seems the Senators organization has committed to starting from scratch. Whether the rebuild will be starting a little further on than most other rebuilds remains to be seen but it looks like the Senators will be looking up at the Eastern Conference for most of the season. Having retained Jason Spezza and veteran captain Daniel Alfredsson means the Senators aren't completely hopeless. There are some young stars who could possibly add to hopes as Filatov and Rundblad and considered high end talents, joining a cast of youth which includes Nick Foligno, Peter Regin, and Erik Karlsson. Having veterans like Sergei Gonchar, Chris Phillips, and Filip Kuba makes for a solid veteran backend to help mentor some of the kids. Craig Anderson in between the pipes will help keep some games close, and may steal one or two, but its going to be a long season in Ottawa.

      Threat to NYR: Alex Auld: If there is one guy in the entire NHL that I would hate to see the Rangers play any given night, it isn't going to be Sidney Crosby, or Ovechkin, the Sedins, or any other superstar. Nope...its going to be Alex Auld. We all know the unbelievable talent of NYR to turn backup goalies into Ken Dryden. In this case they have with Auld. His career averages overall? 2.77 GAA, .905 save percentage. However, when it comes to the New York Rangers, this guy has put up hall of fame type numbers. In seven career games against NYR (six starts) Auld is 4-0-2 with a 1.02 goals against and a .963 save percentage. To be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if the Rangers don't even see the mask of Craig Anderson this season. If that is the case, I wouldn't be surprised at four losses to the Senators.

14. Winnipeg Jets
      Key Additions: Eric Fehr
      Key Departures: Anthony Stewart, Radek Dvorak, Eric Boulton

The celebration of a team returning to Winnipeg may still be going on right now but things are going to quickly change. A young team that has potential will be on the ice but the growing pains will be very evident. A youthful core including Evander Kane will need to find a way to vastly improve their numbers if Winnipeg has any hope of success. Veterans such as Andrew Ladd and Nik Antropov will help provide some veteran leadership up front. Zach Bogosian needs to have a bounce back season while Dustin Byfuglien will have to be as good if not better than last season as he will be key in trying to lead the team. Duties will be split in net between Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason but they will be counted on to stop a lot of shots, especially in the high-powered Southeast division.

13. New York Islanders
      Key Additions: Brian Rolston, Marty Reasoner
      Key Departures: Radek Martinek, Bruno Gervais, Zenon Konopka

A team budding with youthful talent will suffer another year of growing pains as this young core grows together. It won't be as bad as a stretch during last season where they lost 21 of 22 games. But there are many questions abound. John Tavares needs to take the next step if he is going to become the kind of player Islander fans are hoping he becomes while Matt Moulson will be counted on to provide another 30+ goal season. Michael Grabner's breakout season will need to be repeated. Can Josh Bailey bounce back after a low season along? Can Blake Comeau and PA Parenteau be counted on as consistent offensive threats? Those remain to be seen but the Islanders will gain two players who were gone for almost the whole season last year in Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit. Adding them into the mix will help support the other players.

On the blueline, Streit will lead the way while Mark Eaton and Andy MacDonald will have to provide some support. Can Travis Hamonic have a good sophomore season? As always the concern in net is there. With no more Dwayne Roloson, the burden will fall to Rick DiPietro and Al Montoya. We all know about DiPietro's injury problems so the burden will probably fall to Montoya. Is he going to get tattooed with goals? Sorry...couldn't resist.

12. New Jersey Devils
      Key Additions: Eric Boulton, Adam Larsson
      Key Departures: Brian Rolston, Colin White

Another year in New Jersey has led to another offseason where not much change was made from the end of the season. Rolston and White were sent out of Newark with the biggest name coming in being Adam Larsson who the Devils acquired at the NHL Draft and considered to be a top tier pick. Zach Parise will be back for a full season after losing most of last year to injury. Ilya Kovalchuk will begin another year with the Devils with plenty to go with the huge contract he signed last summer. Last year's rookies in Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby will be the focus of Devils fans as this one-two punch will be counted on to take a big step. A big problem will be top center Travis Zajac missing some time at the beginning of the season, making the development of Josefson even more critical. Veterans Dainius Zubrus and Patrik Elias round out the offense up front.
  The blueline will get Larsson in as a fresh face joining veterans like Andy Greene, Henrik Tallinder, and Anton Volchenkov. However, the bottom two spots will be up for grabs. Matt Taormina, Bryce Salvador, and Matt Corrente will vie for those spots. In goal it has always been about Martin Brodeur but as the age has gone up, things have finally started to fall. Injuries in recent seasons have slowed Marty down but he will be starting again this season with Johan Hedberg (another Ranger killer) right behind him. I have them at 12 but the Devils always seem to find a way to make things work and get the best out of their players...don't be surprised if they finish higher.

11. Florida Panthers
      Key Additions: Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Kopecky, Marcel Goc, Matt Bradley, Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski, Jose Theodore
      Key Departures: Tomas Vokoun, Rostislav Olesz, Marty Reasoner

One of the biggest shakeups in the NHL this offseason, the Florida Panthers went into the free agent market and have completely reinvented their image going from a team that wasn't highly thought of to something totally different. There are seven new faces up front with three more likely on the backend. This is going to be a team that could be a big time spoiler later in the season and may even be clawing at that eighth and final playoff spot. All the names above join a few familiar faces in Stephen Weiss, David Booth, and Mike Santorelli. Throw in the continuing young development of players like Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson, Keaton Ellerby, and Jacob Markstrom as well as a top notch developing coach with Kevin Dineen and the future is suddenly much brighter in Florida. For the record, this is where things started to get very difficult in terms of making the predictions.

10. Carolina Hurricanes
      Key Additions: Anthony Stewart, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Tomas Kaberle, Brian Boucher
      Key Departures: Erik Cole, Joe Corvo

The Hurricanes are another team in the Southeast division that really could end up anywhere. This is a team that finds ways to win behind the strength of superstar forward Eric Staal and goaltender Cam Ward. The backbone of the team, they will need more support this season with a tougher division. Last year's Calder Trophy winner, Jeff Skinner, will need to match last season, if not improve. Jussi Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu, Brandon Sutter, and Alexei Ponikarovsky will have to support up front.

It is the defense where a lot of offense will come from. Offensive defensemen like Joni Pitkanen, Jamie McBain, and newcomer Tomas Kaberle will be counted on to help spark the scoring attack of the 'Canes especially on the power play. With Cam Ward in net and a capable veteran back up in Brian Boucher behind him, the Hurricanes could be poised to make it back to the playoffs and cause some havoc.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs
      Key Additions: Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, John-Michael Liles
      Key Departures: JS Giguere

The Maple Leafs may finally be able to make it into the playoffs this season but it isn't going to be easy. They have helped bolster their offense with their key additions above as they join Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski, Nik Kulemin, and other talents to form a decent offensive group that is deep and will take some of the pressure of young players like Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak. Suddenly, the center group for Toronto looks very strong, if they stay healthy.
Brian Burke's teams are built from the blueline and he certainly has done that in Toronto. Liles and Cody Franson joins Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie, Mike Komisarek, and Carl Gunnarsson. No doubt there will be a tough battle during camp for spots on defense. Phaneuf will have more pressure to get his numbers up on offense, if there is anymore pressure that can be put on for being a captain in Toronto.
The key to this whole house is the goaltending and the hope that the Leafs have put in James Reimer. Optimus Reim came in last season and took Toronto by storm with his stellar play and lifted the hopes of Leaf fans about their goaltending prospects. If Reimer can get off to a good start and be the consistent starter Toronto has been looking for in recent years then there is no reason the Leafs can't jump up into the top eight.

8. Montreal Canadiens
      Key Additions: Erik Cole
      Key Departures: James Wisniewski, Roman Hamrlik, Jeff Halpern, Benoit Pouliot, Alex Auld

Montreal didn't make too many changes this offseason except adding some offensive depth up front with Cole. The familiar faces like Mike Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec will lead the charge up front with a small but speedy forward corps. that includes Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, and the recovered Max Pacioretty. The real power of the Canadiens is from their back end however and the return of Andrei Markov will be key to the success of the Canadiens. They have consistenly had one of the best power plays in the league and Markov is a big reason. PK Subban will be counted on to raise his level of play as he has now become a guy people are going to go after. Josh Gorges and Hal Gill will play key shutdown roles but the most concern will come down to Carey Price and whether or not he can replicate his stellar season from a year before. They will have a tough time hanging onto the last spot and even have a chance at missing the post-season.

7. Philadelphia Flyers
      Key Additions: Ilya Bryzgalov, Jaromir Jagr, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jakob Voracek, Maxime Talbot, Andreas Lilja
      Key Departures: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Kris Versteeg, Ville Leino, Sean O'Donnell, Danny Carcillo, Darrel Powe

What a summer it was in Philly as it was time for an overhaul. Whatever reason Paul Holmgren decided to do this there is a lot of uncertainty into how the season will play out. If there is anything that is certain, its that the expectation to be a top team in the Eastern Conference hasn't changed. Up front has been overhauled and has pushed young stars like James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux to the top of the list when it comes to production. The return of Jagr to the NHL has many people interested. Based on talent, Jagr will find a way to be productive but the extent to which he will be is unknown. Schenn and Simmonds come over from a deep roster over in Los Angeles and will now have the chance to be apart of the spotlight and a major part of the offense.

The defense did not change too much with Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen leading the charge. The real pressure will be behind them in Ilya Bryzgalov. Coming over from Phoenix, the Flyers are hoping they have finally found that number one goaltender that will get them over the hump. Fans will be expecting it with the big contract Bryz garnered. How will he fare in a system that is much more open than that of Dave Tippett in Phoenix?

6. New York Rangers
      Key Additions: Brad Richards, Mike Rupp, Tim Erixon
      Key Departures: Matt Gilroy

A team that scratched and clawed its way into the playoffs on the last day of the season (with some help) has added a couple of pieces and is hoping to do better. Richards I have talked about and the combination that is hoped will be created with Marian Gaborik. The core will be back with Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, and the rest of the supporting cast. Eyes will be on rookie Derek Stepan and whether or not he can improve on a solid rookie season. Rupp joins Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust, and Sean Avery as guys who bring jam and will be charged with shutting down the opposition along with Ruslan Fedotenko. Wojtek Wolski will get a chance to be on the top line. Erik Christensen and Mats Zuccarello will also be fighting for spots in the forward corps.

The defense is young but solid enough. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are the top pairing while Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer will form a sophomore pair that is looking to be even better. It is assumed that Erixon will gain a spot with veteran Steve Eminger and Michael Del Zotto fighting for the final spot.

Goaltending is Henrik Lundqvist and Martin competition there. Just have to hope Biron does not get hurt this season and will be able to spell Lundqvist down the stretch.

Tried to keep NYR short as I will be going into further depth on them but a small piece.

5. Boston Bruins
      Key Additions: Joe Corvo, Benoit Pouliot
      Key Departures: Michael Ryder, Mark Recchi, Tomas Kaberle

The defending Stanley Cup champions were not big spenders this offseason. If Recchi had not retired he may have even re-signed with the team which would have kept them much more the same. It will still be the similar cast of characters. Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron will be the big leaders on offense with Nathan Horton returning from a concussion and Tyler Seguin certainly getting a larger role. The supporting cast of Daniel Paille, Chris Kelly, Greg Campbell, and Rich Peverley will have to be consistently effective at shutting down the opposition while Shawn Thornton provides the muscle.

The blueline will be an anchoring force once again with Zdeno Chara providing the calming presence. Him and Dennis Seidenberg have formed an effective two-way pair. Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference, and Adam McQuaid will be providing some tough defense as well but offense from the blueline will be at a premium this year. The reason being Chara and Boychuk already have bombs from the point. Adding Corvo to the mix adds yet another weapon and another power play specialist.

In net Tim Thomas will be reappearing and while it will be difficult to replicate what he did last season during the playoffs and regular season people will expect good things. Tuukka Rask will have to wait another season before getting the starting job. Can this team repeat? I will say yes because they do have the talent and personnel again but I am not counting on it.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning
      Key Additions: Ryan Shannon, Matt Gilroy, Bruno Gervais, Mathieu Garon
      Key Departures: Simon Gagne, Mike Smith, Sean Bergenheim

Another high scoring member of the Southeast division the Tampa Bay Lightning will be looking to get over the hump of the Eastern Conference Finals and back to the Cup. With Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Vincent Lecavalier leading the way, there is no reason to think they can't do it. The Lightning were really about unsung heroes during the playoffs with players like Dominic Moore, Teddy Purcell, Nate Thompson, and Steve Downie showing their worth.

The defense is stacked as it is the same from the playoffs and it isn't short on size. Eric Brewer, Victor Hedman, Pavel Kubina, and Mattias Ohlund will be towering over the opposition to form the top four. Marc-Andre Bergeron is always the lethal power play weapon while Brett Clark, Matt Gilroy, and Bruno Gervais will be rotating into the last spot.

Dwayne Roloson will be starting again and hopefully can have another stellar season. Much like the Bruins, a poor season for Roloson will mean tougher times for the Lightning. However, with their offense, it should not be a concern as Roloson will not have to stand on his head like he has in the past.

3. Buffalo Sabres
     Key Additions: Ville Leino, Ales Kotalik, Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff
     Key Departures: Tim Connolly, Rob Niedermayer, Chris Butler, Steve Montador

With a new owner and a much larger checkbook, the Buffalo Sabres made some splashes as they ramped up the pressure to try and become a big force in the Eastern Conference again. Leino replaces Connolly and will be surrounded by many familiar faces to Sabres fans. Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, and Drew Stafford are the front line offense along with Leino. With them are young stars Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis who, despite their small statures, are finding success at the NHL level. Brad Boyes had a resurrection after being traded to the Sabres and will be counted on for goal-scoring as well.

The blueline is where Buffalo has improved most with the additions of Regehr and Ehrhoff. They join veteran Jordan Leopold and the big Tyler Myers who is looking to rebound from a rocky season. Andrej Sekera will be a defensive stalwart with the sixth spot open to a kid in the system. Toughness won't be missing from this back line.

Ryan Miller in net which won't be anything new. What the Sabres are hoping for is a bit of a rebound from last season after the stellar season before. He will not have to play as many games though with Jhonas Enroth proving last season he is a capable goalie in the NHL and a possible future starter.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins
      Key Additions: Steve Sullivan
      Key Departures, Eric Godard, Maxime Talbot, Mike Rupp

In a nut shell, the hope of the Penguins all depends on whether Sidney Crosby comes back to the lineup healthy. Offseason reports have suggested he will not be back in time and may have long term effects. If Crosby misses a significant amount of time, the Penguins will have to be creative and will then be leaning on Evgeni Malkin for offense with Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Jordan Staal, and Steve Sullivan providing support.

The defense is the same as last season with Kris Letang leading the blueline. Another strong offensive season from him will certainly get him into the Norris conversation and he will be backed up by Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, and Brooks Orpik. Matt Niskanen and Ben Lovejoy will round it out.

Marc-Andre Fleury was a big reason the Penguins finished as high as they did last season and he will be counted on again to provide stellar goaltending, especially if Crosby misses significant time.

1. Washington Capitals
     Key Additions: Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik, Tomas Vokoun
     Key Departures: Semyon Varlamov, Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm, Eric Fehr, Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon

The Capitals went through a little overhaul themselves but they have come out a much better team for it. Add the new additions to the usual cast of Alex Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, and Alex Semin and the team has become much deeper which may help them get over the playoff hump. After a down season for Ovechkin, know he will be back out with a vengeance and looking to solidify himself back atop the NHL when it comes to scoring.

The defense added Roman Hamrlik to help shore up the back end but it will rely on a young pairing in John Carlson and Karl Alzner to be the anchor. Of course Mike Green will provide much offense with Dennis Wideman, Jeff Schulz, Tom Poti, and John Erskine being cycled in based on the need of the team.

Tomas Vokoun has been on teams that were good and didn't quite make it while in Florida it was all his show. In Washington, Vokoun took less money and will be looking for a Stanley Cup. If he can play at his usual high level, he will win more games than he ever has with a strong offense in front of him.

So there you have it folks. After hours of deliberation, writing, re-ordering, and banging my head against the wall I came out with this. Am I going to be right with all of these? Nope. But hopefully it will give you a taste of what is to come this season. One thing I do know for certain is that these standings could end up in a completely different order by the time the season ends in April. The conference has tiers to it in terms of talent but how those tiers pan out by season's end is anyone's guess at this point. Its a mess.

Hope you enjoyed. I am always looking for feedback and want to hear your opinions as well. Also, if you would like me to write about a certain topic I would be happy to entertain any suggestions.

1 comment:

Debbi said...

great article..will like to see how your article compares with THN's when they publish theirs...