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NHL Eastern Conference Preview and Predictions

The salary cap has made the NHL incredibly competitive and balanced. While also making it unpredictable.  The Eastern Conference has 13 teams that have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs.   The NHL is stronger than ever. Every team has at least one terrific player that is entertaining and engaging.  Now, I realize I just said the NHL is unpredictable, but here are my official 2011-12 Eastern Conference predictions.

15. Ottawa Senators:

Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies– Andy Dufresne “Shawshank Redemption”

It’s hard to believe that the Sens were the 5th seed in the east only two short years ago.  Poor cap management, a depleted farm system, and a core group of stars that aged rapidly led to a sharp decline for the former Eastern Conference power.  The outlook for the Senators is bleak heading into 2011-12, but the team has stocked piled draft picks and another year in the lottery is exactly what Ottawa needs.  One step backwards this year and a leap forward in years to come.

Must See Star: Defenseman Erik Karlsson. Karlsson is a smooth skating offensive defenseman who is truly dynamic on the powerplay and in the transition game.  His +/- rating of -30 indicates that he needs to be more responsible in his own end, but that number may look worse than it really was since the Sens were terrible as a team defensively.

Best Case Scenario: The Sens need more young talent so their best case scenario is to be on the clock.  Ottawa needs a new generation of great players, and the best thing overall for the franchise is to put themselves in a position to get either Nail Yakupov or Alex Galchenyuk.  In the mean time, the Sens and their fans need to remain hopeful that better days are ahead.  The Senators young players show some flashes of brilliance that inspire dreams of a brighter future

Worst Case Scenario: The Sens finish dead last, and show little fight or signs of life.  Players like Zibanejad are rushed and are unable to handle the transition to the NHL and cause the Sens to reevaluate their organizational depth.

Point Total: 72

14. Florida Panthers:

“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just… do things.” The Joker “Dark Knight

Sometimes I wonder about Dale Tallon.  I am forever grateful for his role in constructing the 2010 Blackhawks Stanley Cup team, but I just don’t really see a plan down in Florida.  The Panthers have a few nice players, a few nice prospects, a few former Blackhawks, and like Tallon’s former team…a lot of bad contracts.  The failure to get any compensation at last year’s deadline for goaltender Thomas Vokoun was also a major error.  The Panthers seem to be a team that is drifting between rebuilding and trying to be competitive.  If the team is going to get better, they need a real plan.

Must See Star: Defenseman Brian Campbell. Bryan Campbell didn’t get a fair shake from the fans in Chicago because he couldn’t live up to his lofty contract.  However, how many players are truly worth 7.14m a year?  Maybe like 5 guys in the entire league justify that contract.  It wasn’t Campbell’s fault that Tallon overpaid him.  Watching Campbell skate and move the puck in transition and on the powerplay is like poetry.  He is as graceful as a figure skater and has the vision of an all-pro quarterback.  He is a unique talent and will be a treat for dozens of South Florida hockey fans.

Best Case Scenario: The collection of veterans that Tallon signed over the summer mesh well with Panther mainstays Stephen Weiss and David Booth and the Panthers challenge for a playoff spot.  Rookie goalie Markstrom earns starting job over journeyman Jose Theodore and lives up to the hype.  The local fan base remember that hockey exists in South Florida when Lebron James and Dwayne Wade are playing basketball in Europe.  They start showing up and crowds consist of more than just wives, girlfriends, and parents of Panther players.

Worst Case Scenario:  Average players signed over the summer play average.  The Panthers are just barely good enough to stay out of the lottery, but never really contend for a playoff spot.  The Panthers miss out on the playoffs again, and miss out on a top draft pick.  Relocation rumors swirl.

Point Total: 75

13. Montreal Canadiens

“Those were the great old days,you know… And we was like the Roman Empire…” Frank Pentangeli Godfather Part II

Every year the Montreal Canadiens’ roster looks unimpressive on paper, yet every year they surprise and make the playoffs.  That streak ends this year.  Other than Andre Markov getting hurt seemingly every season, the Habs have had relatively good health.  They are a team that lacks elite top 6 talent, and any injury could derail Montreal.  Eric Cole is a nice addition, but the Canadiens overpaid for him and he could be a guy that struggles with playing in a pressure cooker like Montreal. Hopefully he doesn’t speak French.  The Habs have a few nice young pieces, but a year near the bottom of the standings wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.  The Canadiens haven’t had an elite forward in a very long time and perhaps a top draft pick will help Montreal get back to the top sooner rather than later.

Must See Star: Defenseman P.K. Subban.  P.K. Subban has his fair share of critics around the league.  He seems to be a guy that chirps too much and doesn’t respect the game.  He is aslo absolutely electric.  His skating ability is mesmorizing and he does a great job finding soft spots in the defense to line up his lethal one-timer on the powerplay.  He is the most skilled player Montreal has had in a long long time.

Best Case Scenario: The Habs fool me for a third straight year and squeak into the playoffs behind another Hart Trophy worthy performance in net by Carey Price.

Worst Case Scenario: Gomez is somehow even less productive and undersized forwards Brian Gionta and Mike Cammallari suffer from injuries and aging and the Habs have their worst season in recent memory.

Point Total: 82

12. New Jersey Devils

“So in the end, was it worth it? Jesus Christ. How irreparably changed my life has become. It’s always the last day of summer and I’ve been left out in the cold with no door to get back in. I’ll grant you I’ve had more than my share of poignant moments. Life passes most people by while they’re making grand plans for it. Throughout my lifetime, I’ve left pieces of my heart here and there. And now, there’s almost not enough to stay alive. But I force a smile, knowing that my ambition far exceeded my talent. There are no more white horses or pretty ladies at my door.” –George Jung ‘Blow’

You have to give the Devils credit.  They put it all on the line when they signed Ilya Kovalchuk to that massive contract.  They wanted to stay a contender for the last stretch with legendary goaltender Marty Brodeur.  But, Brodeur is 39 years-old.  The Devils are cash strapped, thin down the middle, no real scoring outside of Parise and Kovalchuk, and are playing in maybe the deepest division.  If the Devils start slow again this year they may be forced to move Parise at the deadline.

Must See Star: Winger Zach Parise. Parise is one of the best in the NHL.  He has tremendous speed and a nose for the net, but his greatest attribute is his competitiveness.  Parise is an undersized forward, but battles just as hard as any player in the league.  He is a great role model for all young players.

Best Case Scenario: Marty Brodeur stays healthy and keeps bathing in the fountain of youth.  The games missed last season allow him to remain fresh throughout the season.  The Devils get over 90 points from both Kovalchuk and Parise and the Devils return to the playoffs.

Worst Case Scenario:  The wheels come off completely.  Brodeur doesn’t have any tape left on the role, the young defense corps isn’t ready for the nightly grind of the NHL, and the Devils are forced to trade Parise at the deadline after contract negotiations go nowhere.

Point Total: 84

11. Winnipeg Jets

“Is this heaven?”

“It’s Winnipeg”

“-Winnipeg?”

“-Yeah.”

“I could have sworn it was heaven.”

“Is there a heaven?”

“Oh, yeah. It’s the place where dreams come true.”

“Maybe this is heaven.”–John and Ray Kinsella ‘Field of Dreams’

Ok, so a slight alteration to the quote to make it work, but both the Winnipeg players and their fans will both view this season as a little slice of heaven, regardless of how well the team plays.  The players have longed dreamed of playing in front of a packed building where people love them and care about them, and the Winnipeg hockey fans have dreamed that one day they would have team to call their own again.  So in this regard, Winnipeg is the place where dreams come true.  Hockey fans everywhere are glad to have the Jets back in the NHL.

Must See Star: Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.  When motivated, Dustin Byfuglien can be a truly dominating player.  Big Buff is a surprisingly fluid skater considering his size, and also possesses very quick hands.  Byfuglien seemed to check out last season after getting his big contract.  Hopefully playing in front of a passionate fan base close to his hometown will keep Byfuglien well conditioned mentally and physically.  When Buff is on, he can impact the game in all three zones.

Best Case Scenario: The franchise experiences home-ice advantage for the first time ever and rides it into the playoffs.  Andrew Ladd continues to set a great example as captain and builds upon his career year from last season.  Evander Kane emerges as a legit NHL power forward, and Bogosian finally starts to live up to his pre-draft hype.  A first round loss for the Jets is wildly celebrated as a success.

Worst Case Scenario: Big Buff spent the summer doing nothing but 12oz curls is actually as fat as he looked in offseason photos and his contract becomes one of the worst in the NHLPlayers who had career years last season take a step back as the pressure of playing in a hockey mad city is too much for the team to handle.  The Jets end up in the lottery….again

Point Total: 85

10. New York Islanders

“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads”Doc Brown ‘Back To The Future”
The Islanders have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.  They have many pieces in place that will have them eventually competing for Eastern Conference supremacy.  Tavares is ready to take the next step and become a 30-40 goal scorer. Grabner, Okposo, Moulson, Josh Bailey, and Nino Niedereiter(among others) have the potential to bring the Isles back to their glory years when competing for Stanley Cups was an expectation, not a pipe dream.  The Isles are still young and have goaltending and blue line concerns, but they are definitely moving in the right direction.

Must See Star: Forward Michael Grabner. Grabner came out of nowhere last year and scored 34 goals.  Grabner’s tremendous speed often makes him look like a blur going through the neutral zone.  He is the Islander that both fans and opposing teams need to be watching at all times.  Look for the speedy Czech winger to be over 30 goals again this year.

Best Case Scenario: The Islanders find some sort of consistency in goal between Montoya, DiPietro, and Nabakov and the team dramatically reduces their goals allowed.  Captain Mark Streit plays a full season and shows the same form that made him a prized UFA signing several years ago.  The Islanders’ young stars take the next step in their developement and the team makes the playoffs.  Fans rally behind the team and a ground swell of support creates the public support needed to keep the NHL on Long Island.

Worst Case Scenario:  Team is again plagued by injuries and poor goaltending.  The Islanders are again at the bottom of the NHL standings, play in front of a half-empty building, and chatter increases about the team leaving for Quebec City, Kansas City, Seattle, and others.

Point Total: 88

9. Carolina Hurricanes

“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary”– John Keating ‘Dead Poets Society’

Carolina always looks weak on paper, but they always seem to be in the thick of the playoff chase late in the season. They seem to get the most out of their talent, seizing every day. This season won’t be any different.  If the Hurricanes can get continued progression out of young stars like Jamie McBain, Jeff Skinner, and Brandon Sutter, Carolina might have just enough to get back into the playoffs.

Must See Star: Jeff Skinner. There is a continuing trend here among the must see stars…they can all really skate.  Skinner is no different.  Much has been made about his background as a figure skater, but he is definitely not soft.  Skinner is nimble and graceful with his feet, and produces magic with his hands.

Best Case Scenario: Eric Staal and Cam Ward lead the ‘Canes as always.  They get enough production out of journeymen players like Stewart, Ponikarovsky, and Kaberle to go with bright young stars and the Hurricanes make the playoffs.

Worse Case Scenario: The chemistry is never quite right and the Hurricanes miss the presence of Erik Cole immensely.  Skinner and other young players experience a sophomore slump and Carolina simply doesn’t have enough talent on their blue line to make up for lack of scoring punch.  The team regresses and moves towards the bottom of the Southeast division.

Point Total: 91

8. Toronto Maple Leafs

“If you start out depressed, everything’s kind of a pleasant surprise.”–Lloyd Dobler ‘Say Anything’

Oh boohoo Seguin looks like a stud, boohoo Kessel is fat and lazy, boohoo we didn’t get Brad Richards.  Hey Toronto…don’t look now, but in spite of all of those things…you may just have a playoff team on your hands.  Brian Burke has made some questionable trades, but he has also put together some nice pieces.  This is by no means a Stanley Cup contender, but it’s a team that should challenge for a playoff spot for the first time in years.

Must See Star: Forward Phil Kessel. Now I realize that I just called Kessel fat and lazy…but that’s only because he is. He is also one of the most talented players in the entire NHL.  I saw Kessel play in person against the Blackhawks and the 4 shifts or so that he gave a good effort, he dominated.  Finished with two goals. Both of which were absolute snipes.  If he had a 1/10th the heart of Ruettiger he coulda made all-american. Who knows though, maybe playing with Connelly will wake up Phil the Thrill and he will contend for a Rocket Richard trophy

Best Case Scenario: The Leafs get great goaltending from Reimer, and their powerplay becomes very dangerous with Kadri and Connelly added to the equation.  Kessel plays with consistent effort, scores 50 goals, and the Leafs make the playoffs.

Worst Case Scenario: Tim Connelly’s concussion issues persist and he isn’t able to be the top 6 center the Leafs desperately need.  Being under the microscope of the Toronto media is too much pressure for young players Kadri and Colbourne.  Many of the players who had career years for the Leafs offensively last season come back to earth and Toronto never really contends for a playoff spot.  Burke is fired, and the rebuilding process is back to the drawing board.

Point Total: 93

7. Tampa Bay Lightning

“I know what you’re thinking… Did I fire six shots or only five? To tell you the truth, I forgot it myself in all this excitement. This here’s a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and it can blow your head clean off. Now, you must ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?”– Dirty Harry

Did Tampa Bay fire all their shots last year…St.Louis refuses to get old, Vinny got his game back a little, Rolosson played strong, and they got great production out of role players…well does the Eastern Conference feel lucky?  The Bolts still have the best pure sniper in the game, and enough pieces around him to keep their division rivals nervous.

Must See Star: Forward Steven Stamkos. Stamkos is special.  One of the top players in the game.  Tremendous shot.  Seems to be able to score from every angle.  Great skater and probably the best pure goal scorer in the NHL.  If he is on TV, you need to be on your couch.

Best Case Scenario: Veterans Marty St. Louis and Dwayne Rolosson continue to keep father-time at arms length and lead the Lightning to a division crown.  Stamkos scores 55 and wins the Hart and Rocket Richard trophies.

Worse Case Scenario: The bottom six forwards for the Lightning don’t produce, St. Louis sees his production slip, and Rolosson plays like a goalie in his 40s.  The Lightning miss the playoffs and the players are forced to have an involuntary staring contest with an angry GM Steve Yzerman…who’s lifetime record in staring contests 1242305395-0-1…tie coming against a mirror.

Point Total: 97

PS: I hate the new Lightning logo…looks like they are the Tampa Bay Fighting Gatorades

6. Philadelphia Flyers

“Attitude reflects leadership…Captain.”–Julius ‘Remember The Titans’

The Flyers made huge shock waves this summer when they traded Captain Mike Richards to LA and cornerstone sniper Jeff Carter to Columbus.  Word on the street was that the chemistry problems of the 2010-11 Philadelphia Flyers made the 2011 Boston Red Sox look like Pleasantville.  With a healthy Chris Pronger now the captain the Flyers should be able to come together as a team this year.  Chemistry may not be an issue, but talent could be.  Giroux and JVR will be under tremendous pressure to lead the Flyers offensively.

Must See Star: Forward Claude Giroux.  It’s hard to believe, but it seems like Giroux is seldom mentioned when people talk about bright, young NHL stars.  Giroux is a tough, two-way center with tremendous skill.  Giroux will perennially be a point per game player.

Best Case Scenario: All of the high-risk-high-reward moves made by the Flyers this summer pay off.  Bryzgalov finally gives Philadelphia the elite goaltending that have been searching for since Ron Hextall left in the 1990s.  Jagr proves that he can still play at a high level and makes the Flyers powerplay very dynamic.  Pronger stays healthy and the Flyers finish the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Worse Case Scenario: Pronger can’t stay healthy and the Flyers are left with a void their locker room and on their blue line.  JVR gets lazy again after signing his big contract and fails to live up to his potential as a former #2 overall pick.  Jagr’s skills decline more than expected after his 3 year hiatus in Russia and Giroux’s production declines as he is now facing the opposition’s top defensive pair on a nightly basis.

Point Total: 98

5. New York Rangers

“SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!”–Rod Tidwell ‘Jerry McGuire’

The Rangers really got aggressive this summer by signing Brad Richards as well as many of their own RFAs.  Richards should help the Rangers score many more goals which has been their Achilles in recent memory.  Richards on a line with Gaborik could be extremely dynamic.  It’s a tandem that should bring out the best in both players…if they can remain healthy

Must See Star: Goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Everything Henrik Lundqvist does, he does at an exceptional level.  His angles are nearly perfect, his instincts are great, and he is very athletic.  He even has some serious style.  He is the Don Draper of the NHL.  Born to play in New York.

Best Case Scenario: Richards and Gaborik both play 82 games and push each other for the team lead in scoring.  Gaborik challenges for the Rocket Richard trophy, Lundqvist is a Vezina finalist, and the Rangers win the Atlantic Division.

Worst Case Scenario: Gaborik still can’t stay healthy or stay out of Tortarella’s dog house.  The Rangers defense continually get beat and Lundqvist’s heavy workload from the past several seasons finally catches up to him.  The Rangers fail to make the playoffs.

Point Total: 101

 4. Boston Bruins

“No matter how liberated this world becomes, man will always be judged by the amount of alcohol he can consume and women, whether they like to admit it or not, will be impressed.”–Brian Flanagan “Cocktails”

Its going to be tough for the Bruins to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.  Their nucleus is locked up and their most talented player is only 19 years old.  Every team experiences a bit of a Stanley Cup hangover…and in the Bruins’ case they may experience an actual hangover from Seguin and Marchand being drunk literally(figuratively) the entire summer.

Must See Star: Defenseman Zdeno Chara: It’s tempting to put Tyler Seguin in this spot, but Claude Julien will have to play him more than 6 minutes a night for him to be a must see star.  A must see star that is impossible to overlook out on the ice is Chara.  With the all-time hardest slapshot booming from the point and his all-time biggest body booming opposing forwards, Big Z is truly dominant for the entire 200 feet.

Best Case Scenario: The Bruins cohesion limits their Stanley Cup hangover. GM Peter Chiarelli uses ample cap space to acquire another dynamic forward at the deadline(perhaps Parise) and the Bruins are again in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Worst Case Scenario: Seguin and Marchand are too busy doing their victory tour through Boston bars and coed dorms to focus on the season.  The Bruins lack of fire power is brought to light when Tim Thomas is unable to reproduce the greatest season ever by a goalie. The Bruins make the playoffs, but fail to gain home ice advantage.

Point Total: 102

3. Buffalo Sabres

“I’d like to quit thinking of the present as some minor insignificant preamble to something else.”–Cynthia ‘Dazed and Confused’

Well the Sabres are definitely “new money” and were very active this offseason.  Sabres fans now have a billionaire Sabres fan calling the shots.  The way Terry Pegula spent money this offseason, its clear that he is ready for the Sabres to win now and win big.

Must See Star: Forward Tyler Ennis. The Sabres suddenly have a rich tradition of undersized, and over-skilled playmakers.  Ennis has great hands and speed.  It’s not unrealistic for him to be a point per game player this season.

Best Case Scenario: The Sabres become one of the most entertaining teams in the NHL and challenge for the league lead in goals for.  Their balanced lineup gives opposing coaches nightmares as they are impossible to match up against.  Speed kills and the Sabres have it in bunches.  Ryan Miller keeps playing at an all-world level, allowing the Sabres to turn every game into a track meet.  The Sabres win the Northeast and make a deep playoff push

Worst Case Scenario: The Sabres simply don’t have enough sand paper or leadership to beat the top teams in the rugged Eastern Conference.  Their forwards get pushed around and Miller is too often left hung out to dry.  The Sabres limp into the playoffs and whimper out.

Point Total: 104

2. Washington Capitals

“Are you gonna do something, or are you just gonna stand there and bleed?”– Wyatt Earp ‘Tombstone’

For the second summer in a row the Caps decided that the status quo wasn’t enough.  They didn’t want to just stand there and bleed after getting knocked out of the playoffs early once again.  Last offseason they radically changed the way they played the game.  They became much more defense oriented which was a step in the right direction.  This past summer they wanted grit and winners for physical playoff hockey.  They got it by adding Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer.  Two guys who aren’t shy about throwing their body around.  They also added an all-star caliber goalie for basically the price of a hot dog.  Maybe, just maybe the Caps finally did enough to get out of the second round.

Must See Star: Left Wing Alex Ovechkin. Obvious choice.  He is arguably the most entertaining player in the game.  He plays at maximum effort seemingly every shift.  He is a tremendous hockey player.  He is everything you could ever want in a winger, leader, and superstar.  The Caps early playoff exits are hardly his fault as he has been a monster in terms of production in the post season

Best Case Scenario: The Caps added depth and grit propels the team to new heights.  Ovechkin leads the league in scoring, takes home another Hart Trophy, and the Capitals win another Presidents trophy.  They finally get over the hump and Alex The Great lifts Lord Stanley in June.

Worse Case Scenario: Semin is Semin…which is to say he is the 21st century Alexei Yashin…a Russian with all the talent in the world, but is still just soft as tissue paper.  The team struggles to find its identity again as it balances its roster of offensive superstars trying to play a defensive game.  Bruce Boudreau gets fired and the Caps fail to secure home-ice advantage.  The core of the team around Ovechkin is blown up in the offseason after another playoff disappointment.

Point Total: 110

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

“Bad times wake us up to the good times we weren’t paying attention to.”– Sean ‘Good Will Hunting’

I am not a Penguins fan at all, but I felt personally robbed by Sidney Crosby’s season ending concussion.  He was having what seemed to be a once in a generation type season.  His scoring streak was truly legendary.  He was the best player in the world that was on top of his game.  I marveled at it.  When he went down, I shut the Penguins off, as I am sure many hockey fans did.  What we missed was a team that may have set themselves up for a dynasty upon Sidney Crosby’s return.  Led by “Disco” Dan Bylsma, the Penguins rallied without their top two players and somehow finished in the top half of the Eastern Conference.  It was an example of why hockey players and hockey teams are truly great.  The fought for each other in the room and had a very successful season against all odds.  I am an optimist, which is why I am picking the Penguins to win the East.  No way they win the East without a healthy and symptom free Crosby…here’s hoping he is Sid the Kid we all love to watch.

Must See Star: Center Sidney Crosby. Crosby is without a doubt the best player in the NHL when healthy.  He is the perfect hockey player.  A guy who could easily score 50+ goals a year, but sacrifices some of his own numbers for the betterment of the team.  He can do anything on the ice.  I hope to see him play 70+ games this year at the level he was playing prior to 2011.  He is a generational talent.

Best Case Scenario: The Penguins get 70+ games from Crosby, Malkin, and Jordan Staal.  They demolish the rest of the league as they become one of the best teams in recent memory.  Fans will come out in droves when the Penguins come to town for the pleasure of seeing their hometown heroes get their teeth kicked in by the mighty Penguins.  The Penguins roll through the regular season like a steamroller and hockey fans get their dream Stanley Cup Finals: Chicago vs Pittsburgh

Worst Case Scenario: Not even going to say it.  It’s too terrible.  The game needs him, I don’t want to think of the sport without him.

Point Total: 114

Western Conference Preview and Predictions coming soon…hopefully tomorrow, but probably Monday.  HOCKEY IS BACK. GOD BLESS (North) AMERICA!!!

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