It was just three months ago that the Boston Bruins and Zdeno Chara specifically, emphatically hoisted the Stanley Cup, which led to what will forever be known as the Vancouver riots.
Now, after a busy off-season we try and put the pieces back together and decide who fits in where in the Eastern and Western Conference. Without further adieu our NHL Eastern Conference predictions.
1. Washington Capitals: The Capitals added depth up front and on defense with Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Roman Hamrlik, but their biggest acquisition was between the pipes. Adding Tomas Vokoun finally gives the Capitals a goaltender who they can rely on. Although he didn’t get any playoff experience over his four seasons in Florida, the 35-year-old put up impressive numbers on a team that didn’t win many games. With this roster it could finally be the Capitals year, but the teams fate really lies in the hands of Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom who need to have bounce-back seasons. Otherwise it could be another disappointing finish in Washington.
2. Boston Bruins: The Bruins are bringing forth the same roster that led them to the Stanley Cup just months ago and the only thing stopping them from a repeat is the same thing that stopped the 11 defending champions before them - it's not easy to repeat. The Detroit Red Wings were the last team to accomplish that feat doing so in 1997 and 1998. That being said the Bruins bode arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference. But for Boston to maintain their ground in the East they need to hope for another great – not brilliant just great – season from Tim Thomas and a healthy top-six up front.
3. Philadelphia Flyers: The entire makeup of the Flyers changed when franchise focal points Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were shockingly traded early in the off-season, and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov was acquired. Rather than a team built upon two strong front-line centers, Flyers management decided – after years of playoff disappointment – that it was time to center the team around its goaltender. Up front the team is now led Claude Giroux and Danny Briere, and youngster James van Riemsdyk. Not to mention the comeback of Jaromir Jagr and a healthy Chris Pronger to lead the backend. While it may have seemed at the time that the Flyers shouldn’t of let go of both Richards and Carter, looking at their roster now, it may be better built for a Cup run than ever.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins: Without two of the biggest stars in the game, the Penguins finished with a heaping 106 points last year. Even with the future of Sidney Crosby completely uncertain, the Pens have a healthy Evgeni Malkin who has proven in the past that he can lead the Pens without number 87. In 2008 when Crosby played just 53 games due to injury, Malkin led the Penguins to 106 points and second place in the Eastern Conference. With the likely that Crosby misses at least the first half of the season it's Malkin's chance to put the Pens on his back.
5. Buffalo Sabres: For a team that had a top-10 powerplay, adding a piece like Christian Ehrhoff is only going to improve their offensive game with the extra man. The 29-year-old defenseman was the Sabres biggest acquisition over the off-season along with forward Ville Leino. With Derek Roy back and healthy and Ryan Miller still considered a top-five goaltender, there’s no doubt that Buffalo has the potential to make a jump in the Eastern Conference standings.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning bode a nearly identical roster to the one that finished with 103 points last season minus Simon Gagne who was picked up by the Los Angeles Kings. The Lightning were an underdog heading into the 2010-2011 playoffs however they upset the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals prior to being eliminated by Boston in the Conference Finals. Tampa Bay should be a playoff team again this season, however if Dwayne Roloson’s play declines – he turns 42 in October – and their offense can't pick up the pieces then the Lightning could be in trouble.
7. New York Rangers: If only Marian Gaborik can stay healthy, he and Brad Richards could be one of the most dominant duos in the NHL. In goal, Henrik Lundqvist puts up exceptional numbers year in and year out and Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky are two of the more offensively talented defensive forwards. All things considered the Rangers shouldn't have a problem getting into the post season as one of the bottom seeds, but if health becomes a concern there's no guessing where the Rangers could end up.
8. Montreal Canadiens: Special teams was the Canadiens bread and butter last season finishing seventh in the NHL in both powerplay (19.7%) and penalty kill (84.4%). A similar roster to last season Montreal added winger Eric Cole and defenseman Andrei Markov is returning after nagging knee injuries only allowed him to play a combined 52 games over the last two seasons. If he and P.K Subban can connect, and Mike Cammalleri can stay healthy, the Canadiens powerplay could be one of the more dangerous in the league. In goal Carey Price put up the best numbers of his career and stole back the Montreal faithful, just one season after losing his starting job to Jaroslav Halak. We’ll see if he can continue to build upon his success in 2011-2012.
9. Carolina Hurricanes: The Canes were just out of the playoff picture last season and I see them on the bubble once again this year. If the Rangers and Canadiens falter, there could be room for the Hurricanes to squeak in. However if Jeff Skinner hits a sophomore slump and Tomas Kaberle brings to Carolina what he brought to the Boston Bruins Stanley Cup run – nothing – then Carolina will without a doubt be on the outside looking into the playoff picture.
10. Toronto Maple Leafs: There’s no denying that the Leafs end-of-season run last year was impressive, but to consider them a playoff team because of a couple of months of solid play wouldn’t be realistic. The Leafs season is one big IF. If James Reimer can play a full season of lights-out hockey; If Tim Connolly stays healthy and meshes well with Phil Kessel; If Dion Phaneuf continues to return to his rookie-season form; If the Grabovski, Kulemin, MacArthur line is more than a one-year wonder and if John Michael Liles can quarterback a successful powerplay. IF all those things come to fruition then yes the Leafs are a playoff team, but until then I rest my case.
11. New Jersey Devils: To count out the New Jersey Devils completely would be a mistake. The Devils finished in 11th in the East with a 38-39-5 record – an impressive conclusion considering at the All-Star break they were an abysmal 16-30-3. With the return of Zach Parise to the lineup the Devils add a whole new dimension to their offense, that wasn’t available in 2010-2011. Between the pipes, while Martin Brodeur turns 40 this coming May it doesn’t change the fact that he’s a more than capable NHL goaltender. He may not be the Brodeur of old who could play Vezina-worthy hockey for 70-plus games, but he's still a top-10 goalie and with Johan Hedberg as his backup the Devils goaltending situation is far from concern. Their defense is perhaps their biggest question mark. Adam Larsson is perhaps there most talented d-man, but is the soon to be 19-year-old ready to compete at the NHL level? For the Devils, 2011-2012 is likely to be a non-playoff year, but if things click like they did after the All-Star break last year, there is a chance this team is dangerous as a playoff sleeper.
12. Winnipeg Jets: It’s an exciting time for the city of Winnipeg with the Jets returning, but to complete the comeback with a playoff birth in their “first” season is very unlikely. Winnipeg essentially inherited the 2010-2011 Atlanta Thrashers roster, and while it’s a team with a lot of positive pieces, it’s not one that is ready to win just yet. With Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom leading the backend, Ondrej Pavelec between the pipes, and a plethora of young talent on forward there’s no doubt that with a few more high draft picks and a little money spent, the Jets will be a playoff contender soon. But not in 2011-2012.
13. New York Islanders: It’s sad to look at a team like the Islanders because they are a franchise with so much promise. I’m sure general managers around the league would love to have their young nucleus of forwards along with over $15-million in cap space. The Islanders have the foundation of a winner, but without a supportive fan base to fill a stadium it’s impossible for ownership to spend closer to the cap in an attempt to build a winner. John Tavares’s rookie contract expires at the end of this season, and if the Islanders don’t show they’re willing to take the necessary steps to building a winner, and he continues to progress then re-signing in Long Island at the end of the season might not be his first choice.
14. Ottawa Senators: It can’t get much worse than it did last season for the Ottawa Senators franchise – 74 points and 13th place in the East. Incredible to think that in just five seasons a team can go from competing in the Stanley Cup Final to one that finished two points out of last place in the Eastern Conference. On forward, once you get past an aging Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza the Senators are essentially an AHL forward unit. And unlike the Islanders who at least have youngsters with promise, beyond Mika Zibanejad the Senators have nothing. It’s going to take a while for this team be in the playoff hunt again.
15. Florida Panthers: And we’ve hit rock bottom in the Eastern Conference. I don’t need to explain in detail why this team is going to finish in last, just take a look at their roster. But here are a few tidbits in chase you're wondering. General Manager Dale Tallon did a good job taking on some big-contract players in order to hit the cap floor, but none have very much value in terms of the rest of the NHL. Losing Thomas Vokoun leaves a gaping whole in net that's going to be filled by Jose Theodore and their defense core is led by 35-year-old Ed Jovanovski who only played 50 games last year and Brian Campbell who is potentially the most overpaid player in the game. If there are any positives to this team it's up front, but their top-six is filled with injury plagued players and underachievers. Dale Tallon is on the right track, but the Panthers are entering a tunnel with no light at the end.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com