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Eastern Conference Preview



Free agent signing Tomas Vokoun will put the Washington Capitals over the top


Free agent signing Tomas Vokoun will put the Washington Capitals over the top

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#15   Winnipeg Jets

Skinny: Luckily for the Jets, their fans will be so thrilled to finally have a team back in Winnipeg that the team’s on-ice results this season will be excused.  This franchise has tumbled down the standings since being swept by the Rangers in 2006 and there’s no reason to believe this season will be any better.  Even though the Dustin Byfuglien-led blueline is solid and Ondrej Pavelec is underrated in net, there’s just not enough depth up front to compete.  A terrific preseason from 2011 seventh-overall pick Mark Scheifele should be an encouraging sign of things to come for Winnipeg and Scheifele could quickly become the Jets’ best offensive player if he sticks with the team.

Bold Prediction: 20-year-old left wing Evander Kane will score 30 goals this season and just might approach 40.

Fact or Fiction: The Jets should return Byfuglien to forward.

Fiction.  For the offensively-challenged Jets, the idea of turning Byfuglien back into a bruising power forward is tempting.  But before the club went into its tailspin last season, Byfuglien’s two-way play from the blueline was one of the key reasons the Thrashers were in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.  It took just 31 games for Byfuglien to break the franchise record for goals in a season by a defenseman and with a year to get re-acclimated to his new position, Byfuglien will do more to help Winnipeg’s offense from the blueline than he would up front.

#14 Florida Panthers

Skinny: If you watched this team play last year, you’ll have a difficult time recognizing the 2011-2012 version of the Panthers.  Florida has one of the deepest farm systems in the league and the Panthers will begin introducing a new wave of youngsters this season including 2010 third-overall pick Erik Gudbranson.  In addition Florida brought in several expensive free agents like Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Kopecky and Ed Jovanovski because the club needed to reach the cap floor.  The revamped roster has more talent top-to-bottom, but losing goalie Tomas Vokoun via free agency will make things very difficult for the Panthers.  Still, they’ve acquired some very solid players and have a host of exciting prospects on the cusp, so as soon as top goalie prospect Jacob Markstrom is ready the Panthers could begin to turn things around.

Bold Prediction:  Jacob Markstrom will be the Panthers’ No. 1 goalie by Valentine’s Day.

Fact or Fiction: The new-look Panthers will be much-improved.

Fiction.  On paper, the Panthers have injected a ton of talent into the lineup.  But it’s going to take a while for all these new players to mesh and several of them will be asked to assume more responsibility than they’ve ever had before.  The team should get better as the year goes on, but the bigger problem is that Florida lost Vokoun to free agency and replaced him with the subpar tandem of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen.  The Panthers have some of the best prospects in the league so they’re heading in the right direction, but until those players have an impact and Markstrom takes over in net, this team will have a tough time.

#13 Ottawa Senators

Skinny: The 2007 Stanley Cup Finals appearance is a distant memory as this franchise attempts to reload on the fly.  Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson are still dangerous, but no one knows what to expect from the rest of the forwards.  Ottawa is certainly a team in transition, but the Senators will be adding a few intriguing youngsters to a group that has woefully underachieved in recent years.  A revamped defense that will include two rookies in addition to sophomore All-Star Erik Karlsson could turn into a strength, but may struggle at first.  New Coach Paul MacLean has his work cut out for him, but the Senators have the talent to surprise.

Bold Prediction: Nikita Filatov finally begins to fulfill his potential and nets 40+ points this season.

Fact or Fiction: Signing Craig Anderson to a four-year deal was a wise decision.

Fact.  Anderson was awful for the Colorado Avalanche for most of the 2010-2011 season before coming to Ottawa, but he played lights-out in net for the Senators, who signed him to a multi-year deal after just a month with the team.  Anderson is not among the league’s high-profile netminders, but he did put up sparkling numbers for Colorado in 2009-2010.  He might not be able to sustain that level of play for the duration of his contract, but at least he provides the Senators with stability in goal.  Top defensive prospects David Rundblad and Jared Cowen should join Karlsson - who put up 45 points as a rookie - in Ottawa this year to strengthen a unit that includes NHL veterans Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips and Matt Carkner.  There are better goalies than Anderson, but having him in net for the next four seasons gives Ottawa the chance to develop its other young talent without having to worry about uncertainty in goal.

#12 New Jersey Devils

Skinny: After a decade and a half as a perennial powerhouse, New Jersey’s window for contention has finally slammed shut.  There are already whispers that goalie Martin Brodeur, 39, will retire after the season and his decline has been magnified by a weak defense.  New Jersey lacks talent across the board and there aren’t many reinforcements on the horizon.  A healthy season from Zach Parise will be a huge help and Ilya Kovalchuk should bounce back with a strong season, but the Devils are still woefully thin both up top and along the blueline.  New Jersey has allowed most of its veteran leadership to depart in an attempt to infuse young blood into the lineup, but the Devils just don’t have too much help on the way.

Bold Prediction: Kovalchuk outscores Parise en route to a 40-goal season.

Fact or Fiction: Adam Larsson was the steal of the 2011 draft.

Fact.  The Devils lucked out twice; first when they won the draft lottery and then when Larsson fell into their laps with the fourth pick, giving the franchise at least one blue-chip young player to build around.  The defense was embarrassing last season and was the root cause of the first-half train wreck.  They picked it up in the second half, but Larsson might step right into this lineup and become the team’s best defenseman by year’s end.

#11 Toronto Maple Leafs

Skinny: The Maple Leafs missed on their No. 1 free agent target, center Brad Richards, but they made a couple of other high-risk, high-reward additions down the middle that could push the franchise back into the playoffs.  Ex-Sabre Tim Connolly can be a point-per-game player when healthy, but he’s struggled to stay on the ice in recent years.  Still, Connolly and defenseman John-Michael Liles should immediately bolster Toronto’s power play, which ranked 22nd a year ago.  Toronto also added Matt Lombardi, who played in only 2 games for Nashville last season after scoring 53 points for Phoenix in 2009-2010.  Lombardi’s recovery from a concussion has been a slow process, but he’s feeling better and could quietly have a big impact this season.

Bold Prediction: The Maple Leafs cling tightly to the eighth and final playoff spot before sputtering in a three-game homestand against Carolina, Philadelphia and Buffalo at the end of March.  With three games remaining, Toronto is unable to fight its way back into the playoff field.

Fact or Fiction: Rewarding James Reimer with a new deal after just 37 games in the NHL was another foolish move by a team desperate to settle on a goalie.

Fiction. Reimer came out of nowhere to win the starting job for good last spring and he led Toronto on a huge late-season run that got the Leafs within striking distance of the playoffs.  No one knows if Reimer can handle the workload of being a full-time starter, but he has the calm demeanor and professionalism to thrive in hockey-crazy Toronto.

#10 New York Islanders

Skinny: The Islanders have long been one of the laughingstocks of the NHL, but that may not continue much longer.  The goalie situation is still a mess, but the Islanders have developed a deep, talented group of prospects.  John Tavares was just rewarded with a six-year, $33 million contract and is set to take the next step towards being one of the best offensive players in the league.  He’s joined by youngsters with pro experience like Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner and the club will continue to add top forward prospects like Nino Niederreiter over the next couple of seasons.  On the blueline, the Islanders desperately need a healthy season from new captain Mark Streit, but injuries have forced young players like Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic into bigger roles where they thrived last season.  There are a number of other solid defenders on the way and as long as the Islanders can find a permanent home and continue to expand their payroll, better days are on the horizon.

Bold Prediction: Thanks in large part to an improving supporting cast, Tavares breaks 80 points this season.

Fact or Fiction: Nino Niederreiter will win the Calder Trophy.

Fact.  Niederreiter played well before being returned to juniors last fall and will only benefit from another year of development.  He’s a gifted power forward and before long he’ll be scoring goals in bunches alongside Tavares.

#9 Montreal Canadiens

Skinny: For each of the last three seasons the Canadiens have fought down to the wire to sneak into the playoffs and they’ll inevitably be in a race till the end again this season.  Carey Price’s first full year as the starting goalie couldn’t have gone better and defenseman P.K. Subban looks like a star in the making, but once again star defenseman Andrei Markov is dealing with injuries and the offense is extremely thin.  The Canadiens have a well-established reputation for dressing small forwards, so signing Erik Cole was a great move but Cole, like Markov, has trouble staying healthy.  The top line of Michael Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta is strong but after that Montreal is relying on Cole, Max Pacioretty - who’s attempting a comeback after suffering broken vertebrae from a vicious Zdeno Chara hit last season - Scott Gomez and Andrei Kostitsyn to provide supplemental offense.  Price can carry the Canadiens, but they may have trouble scoring when it counts.

Bold Prediction: Price makes 70+ starts again but is unable to match his numbers from his sterling 2010-2011 campaign.

Fact or Fiction: Gomez’s career-low 38 points last season were a fluke and he’ll bounce back in a big way.

Fiction.  The Rangers were thrilled to dump Gomez and his $7 million+ salary on Montreal in 2009, because even then Gomez was nearing the end of the line.  Gomez relies on his skating to make plays and he’s clearly lost a step in that department.  The Canadiens desperately need him to anchor a strong second line; without any production from Gomez they’re woefully weak down the middle.  Unfortunately, Gomez has nothing left to give.

#8 Carolina Hurricanes

Skinny: Carolina missed the playoffs by just two points last year and like Montreal, the Hurricanes should be fighting for a postseason spot until the final days of the season again this year.  Losing Erik Cole was a big blow, but the Hurricanes managed to retain two other key free agents, Joni Pitkanen and Jussi Jokinen, to prevent the team for taking a major dip.  Carolina also added Anthony Stewart, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Tomas Kaberle, which should give the Hurricanes a deeper squad than in years past.  The real boost could come from a bounce-back season by Eric Staal, continued growth by Jeff Skinner and the success of a few more NHL-ready young talents including Ryan Murphy, Justin Faulk and Zac Dalpe.

Bold Prediction:  Sophomore Jamie McBain ends up with more points than both Kaberle and Pitkanen.

Fact or Fiction: The improving offense, led by Staal and Skinner, is the key to Carolina’s success.

Fiction.  Though the Hurricanes are in line for a bump in scoring, they will continue to succeed or fail based largely on the play of Cam Ward.  His supporting cast has fluctuated over the years, but Ward has long been the underrated rock that Carolina can fall back on.  He’s had a quietly brilliant career and is a perennial darkhorse candidate for the Vezina Trophy.

#7 Tampa Bay Lightning

Skinny: First-year Coach Guy Boucher led the Lightning all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals and within a game of the Stanley Cup Finals last season with his patented new 1-3-1 system.  Tampa Bay lost some key supporting players, but the big guns – Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Teddy Purcell, Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman – all return.  The Lightning will score goals in bunches, but the team is asking an awful lot from soon-to-be 42-year-old netminder Dwayne Roloson.  He was great during the team’s playoff run, but at some point father time will catch up with him and if it does, Mathieu Garon is the team’s only security blanket.

Bold Prediction: Stamkos finally puts a full season together and makes a serious run at 60 goals.

Fact or Fiction: Boucher, one of the brightest young coaches in the game, helped this team overachieve a year ago.

Fact.  Boucher did a great job of getting mediocre players to fit seamlessly into his system.  The Lightning has a few all-NHL talents, but after that this team is comprised of cast-offs and no-names.  Boucher will try to get the most out of them again, but other teams have now had an entire summer to figure out how to beat the 1-3-1 and the Lightning may pay the price.

#6 New York Rangers

Skinny: Everyone’s talking about the signing of Brad Richards, but the real key to the Rangers is the continued development of young players.  Richards will help the offense and power play, but if the Rangers are really going to take the next step it will be because members of the young core like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Derek Stepan increase their offensive production and the versatile defense continues to play like a group of 10-year veterans.  The Rangers have flirted with the playoffs in recent years with a much less talented group than this one thanks in large part to all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist, but this team now has the pieces to move towards being a legitimate contender.

Bold Prediction: Henrik Lundqvist wins the Vezina Trophy.

Fact or Fiction: Marian Gaborik’s 22-goal season was an anomaly and the Slovakian winger will bounce back.

Fact.  Gaborik may not be quite the same player he once was, but he’ll be in a great position to succeed with Richards feeding him the puck.  Expecting Gaborik to stay healthy over the course of an 82-game schedule or to score 40 goals may be wishful thinking, but he’s still got the talent to be one of the league’s premier goal-scorers.

#5 Buffalo Sabres

Skinny: Last season Buffalo surged to the sixth-seed despite not having its best offensive player, Derek Roy, for more than half the season.  This year Roy will be back and better than ever and he’ll be joined by key additions Ville Leino, Robin Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff and a full season from spring pick-up Brad Boyes.  The Sabres are always tough to play against and have often overachieved, but they’re starting to really load up on talent.  Goalie Ryan Miller is among the league’s best and now that he finally has some help the Sabres may really begin to rise up the standings. 

Bold Prediction: Buffalo gives the Bruins a serious run for their money for the Northeast Division crown.

Fact or Fiction: The Sabres overpaid Ville Leino with a six-year, $27 million contract.

Fact.  Two years ago Leino was a Detroit cast-off without much of an NHL future ahead of him.  But in 2009-2010 Leino began to emerge as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers before breaking out with 21 points in 19 playoff games.  Last season Leino again produced with 19 goals and 34 assists.  Some believe that Leino was aided by his linemates, Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell, but Leino is simply a late-bloomer.  He’ll be back at center with the Sabres so he might need an adjustment period, but Leino will put up solid numbers and has proven that he plays best when it matters most.

#4 Philadelphia Flyers

Skinny: The Flyers shocked the hockey world in June when they dealt franchise cornerstones Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in the same afternoon.  The pieces Philadelphia got back are unproven, but the Flyers picked up some big-time talent.  Philly might experience a minor setback, but in the end the additions of Jaromir Jagr, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier could make the Flyers an even deeper team up front.  New Captain Chris Pronger is among the best defenders in the league when he’s healthy and he’ll anchor a unit that returns five solid veterans and adds former Red Wing Andreas Lilja.

Bold Prediction: Claude Giroux and James Van Riemsdyk outscore Carter and Richards.

Fact or Fiction: Reshaping the roster to sign Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract was the right decision.

Fact.  After a while, enough is enough.  Yes, the Flyers gave a 31-year-old a nine-year deal and yes they traded away Jeff Carter to make it happen.  But Philadelphia has been tripped up by its goaltending so many times over the last 15 years that it was high time the Flyers invested heavily in a franchise netminder.  Perhaps signing Tomas Vokoun to a one-year deal before giving Sergei Bobrovsky the starting gig would have been a wiser decision, but Philadelphia is obviously confident that Bryzgalov is the right man for the job.  His playoff numbers in 2010-2011 weren’t great – and that’s been a focal point of Bryzgalov’s detractors - but overall he’s got a .917 save percentage and a 2.55 goals against average in 27 playoff games.  Bryzgalov won’t play out his full deal, so lengthening the contract was just a way for Philadelphia to reduce Bryzgalov’s cap hit.  The Flyers invested a lot of money in Bryzgalov, so they’d better be right, but it’s about time Philly took its goaltending situation seriously.

#3 Pittsburgh Penguins

Skinny: The only question surrounding the Penguins is the biggest one in the league: when will Sidney Crosby play?  Pittsburgh showed last spring that it is a tough team even without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but if they had played the whole season the Penguins may have ousted the Bruins en route to another Stanley Cup.  Malkin is healthy but his playing level has dipped over the last couple of seasons; if he has a monster season then Pittsburgh might not even need Crosby to win the division.  This is a Stanley Cup contender, but only if Crosby is healthy.  Luckily for Pittsburgh, the team will gain home-ice advantage whether Crosby plays early in the year or not.

Bold Prediction: Crosby is back by November and back to normal by Thanksgiving.

Fact or Fiction: This is the best supporting cast the Penguins have had.

Fact.  The Penguins fortified their blueline via free agency last summer and the result was a sixth-place finish in team defense.  If Crosby and Malkin were healthy and producing all year, the Penguins would have also easily finished higher than 13th in team offense.  In other words, this team is stacked and the acquisition of Steve Sullivan and the late-season trade for James Neal will give Pittsburgh’s superstars even more to work with.

#2 Boston Bruins

Skinny: The only key losses for the Stanley Cup Champions were Tomas Kaberle, Mark Recchi and Michael Ryder, none of whom are irreplaceable.  Tim Thomas is coming off a season for the ages and is the best goalie in the world right now and the defensive group in front of him, led by Zdeno Chara, is versatile and battle-tested.  Boston has a reputation for struggling to score at times but the Bruins actually finished fifth in goals scored last year and Tyler Seguin’s first full season in the NHL should only help in that area.  This team may not put up the same number of points as Washington or Vancouver during the regular season, but the Bruins proved last year that there is not a more resilient team in the postseason.

Bold Prediction: Tuukka Rask helps spell Tim Thomas en route to the Bruins’ second William Jennings Trophy in the last four years.

Fact or Fiction: The Bruins will experience a Stanley Cup hangover

Fiction.  Unlike the Blackhawks last season, Boston returns a nearly identical team to the one that captured the Stanley Cup last spring.  They lost a veteran leader in Recchi, but they’ve still got a strong leadership group and ample young reinforcements in the pipeline.  Boston has an elite goaltending tandem, a deep offense that plays well in both ends of the rink and a seemingly impenetrable defense.  But most importantly, players like Thomas, Chara and Patrice Bergeron won’t be satisfied with the accomplishments of last season and will keep this team focused from day one.

#1 Washington Capitals

Skinny: The Capitals still have many unanswered questions in the playoffs, but there isn’t a better regular season team in the league.  Washington’s commitment to defense last season resulted in an offensive hit, but the team gave up 36 fewer goals than it did in 2009-2010 en route to a fourth-place finish in goals against.  In year two of the more balanced system Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin and company should return to form.  The Capitals made the most critical signing of the offseason by bringing in Tomas Vokoun from the Florida Panthers, where Vokoun had dominated despite the awful team around him.  He’s in Washington to stabilize the goalie position for the postseason where he’s been iffy in the past, but Vokoun is still a huge upgrade over some of the inexperienced netminders Washington has trotted out in recent years.

Bold Prediction:  The Capitals win the Eastern Conference by 20 points despite another injury-shortened season for Alex Semin.

Fact or Fiction: The Capitals, as currently constructed, won’t win it all.

Fiction.  Washington has become “that team” that can’t win in the playoffs, a title that belonged to San Jose for the last several years.  The Capitals have underachieved, but this is still an extremely talented group.  Washington’s most crucial pieces happen to be younger players, so it’s no wonder it’s taken them awhile to get over the hump.  Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have matured as players, but the Capitals depended on two rookies on the blueline - Karl Alzner and John Carlson - as well as two young goalies, Michael Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, to carry them last season.  That the youngsters played well is a positive sign, but the team still had some maturing to do.  Enter Vokoun and one of Washington’s biggest problems has been solved.

 

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2011-2012 season preview:

Eastern Conference Preview > (10/3/11)

Western Conference Preview > (10/4/11)

Experts Predict Where The Rangers Will Finish > (10/5/11)

NY Rangers Season Preview > (10/5/11)

 

 

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Posted by Kevin Baumer | October 6, 2011 at 11:15 am
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New York Rangers VS Carolina Hurricanes
Saturday, December 20, 2014

  1 2 3 OT F
Rangers 0 0 2 1 3
Hurricanes 1 0 1 0 2








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