Wednesday, September 29, 2010

2010-11 Season Predictions - Eastern Conference

So here we are, eight more sleeps until the start of the 2010-11 season. We've endured one of the slowest offseasons in recent memory and I'll be the first to say, that puck couldn't drop on the season soon enough.

While the offseason may have been a slow one, a few major things happened that have reshaped the league's landscape. Chicago's roster got retooled by the salary cap, San Jose let go of their franchise goaltender, Carolina continued to get younger, Montreal's epic goaltending went questionable, and much, much more.

So now that the dust has settled (for the most part) and teams are making their final decisions on their opening night rosters, it's time to take a look at how I think things could finish this year. It's always tough to make predictions because I am well aware that players who I expect to perform will have off-years or get hurt. Over the coarse of the year, we'll see unpredicted management changes, trades and even free agent signings that rock the NHL's landscape once again. Even so, it's fun to make preseason predictions as to what might be:

Eastern Conference

1. Washington Capitals

It was a quiet offseason in Washington, but the team that will step on the ice next week will be much of the same that went out in round one to the Montreal Canadiens. The Caps knew they hit a hot goalie and were smart to not retool too much. Jose Theodore is gone, but a healthy Simeon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth will give the Caps one of the best young goalie tandems in the league. Washington remains the league's most explosive threat up front and while I'm not sold on their defensive ability, I think the Caps will be just fine.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins upgraded their biggest weakness this summer: their D. While losing Gonchar hurts, the additions of Michalek and Martin make Pittsburgh's overall defensive depth better. This should create more room up front for their offensive stars while giving Marc-Andre Fleury an easier time in net. The Penguins still could use some secondary scoring up front, but I expect both Crosby and Malkin to do just fine carrying the offensive load for these birds.

3. Boston Bruins

I didn't necessarily like the offseason the Bruins had, but it's a no-brainer that these bears really underachieved last season. Losing Dennis Wideman on the blueline will hurt, but the offensive additions of Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin (should he get proper minutes), as well as a healthy Bergeron, should make the Bruins the best team in the NorthEast. With a weaker blueline, however, the pressure will be on both Rask and Thomas. If one of these goalies can't stand out and steal the number one job early, Boston could struggle.

4. New Jersey Devils

With Parise, Kovalchuk and Zajac up front, the once defensive first Devils should be a serious threat up front. While Brodeur is getting older, the veteran netminder still should be solid enough to make New Jersey a top threat in the East. On defense, the loss of Paul Martin will hurt, but kudos to the team for somewhat replacing him with Anton Volchenkov, who will be surely missed in Ottawa. Andy Greene should continue to develop into a top-line defenseman and the Devils should stay neck-and-neck with the Penguins all season for their division.

5. New York Rangers

The Rangers will continue to get better with time, as young players like Dubinsky, Del Zotto and Callahan will get more dangerous as they develop. Frolov should add more offensive punch up front while I expect a bounceback year from Lundqvist. I think Derek Steppan could turn some heads should he get the opportunity with the big club. The East is wide open from about fifth to 12th, but the Rangers have every opportunity to be the best of that bunch.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Bolts finished the year off strong last year and that should carry over into 2010-11. This team got retooled during the offseason and the additions of Gagne, Kubina and Ellis make this team better in all three areas. I expect Lecavalier to have a bounce back season while the sky is the limit for where Steve Stamkos could take his game.

7. Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers post-season run last year isn't fooling me; I still don't think they're that good. This is a team in desperate need of goaltending, especially after Michael Leighton will miss the next month due to injury. With that said, this team has a great mix of youth and veteran leadership and should be right in the thick of the playoff race all season long. Like I said, it's going to be close between five and 12, the Flyers need to stay healthy and get quality goaltending if they want to be playing at the end of April.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs

I think this is the season the Leafs squeak back into the post-season. While there is no doubt that the Leafs need another top-line forward, their defense has the potential to be one of the best in the league. The Leafs are a much improved team from the one that started 09-10, with better goaltending, more offense and a stronger blueline. It will be a battle all season, but if Kessel, Versteeg, Bozak and Gustavsson continue to improve as they have, the Leafs should finally be playing meaningful hockey this spring.

9. Ottawa Senators

The Sens were very up and down last season and I expect much of the same this year. I'm still not sold on LeClaire and Elliott in net, which scares me more this season without Volchenkov patrolling the blueline. I love the addition of Gonchar, but this team will miss Volchenkov and Sutton's defensive ability. Spezza needs to bounce back and hard if this team has any chance at making the post season.

10. Carolina Hurricanes

The first time I made this list, I had Carolina in the playoffs, but upon further review, I think it will take one more season. This team is full of future stars and will be a lot of fun to watch over the next few seasons. I love guys like Bowman, Sutter, Boychuk (very disappointed they sent him down this morning). A healthy Cam Ward and further progression from these young guys and the Canes could make things interesting down the stretch.

11. Atlanta Thrashers

Call me crazy, but I like the Atlanta Thrashers. Nobody benefited more from Chicago's blow up than the Thrashers, while the addition of Chris Mason gives the Thrashers the best goaltending they've ever had. Yes, this team would be much better with Kovalchuk, but I like what Atlanta did this season and think they could push for a playoff spot right until the final few weeks of the season.

12. Montreal Canadiens

If Montreal kept Halak, I'd have Montreal probably fifth. With that said, I can't put much faith behind Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens. I think full, healthy seasons from Gionta and Cammaleri will make this team more dangerous up front, but I can't help but fear this team's defensive ability and questions in goal.

13. Buffalo Sabres

Ok, I'm going to take a lot of heat on this one. Yes, the Sabres finished with 100 points last season, but if ANYTHING happened to Ryan Miller's game last season, the Sabres were a marginal team at best. The Sabres will go with a younger lineup this season and I think this could be the one year they take a step back to get better. The Sabres are a couple of years away from being VERY good, but I think the Sabres miss the post season this year while they learn a little.

14. New York Islanders

The injury to Streit hurts NYI's already thin defense, while DiPietro and Roloson is even more questionable than Price/Auld. The Islanders have the best young forward group in the league, but their defense is a big grey zone. Another high draft pick is coming New York's way, let's just hope they don't waste another pick on a forward.

15. Florida Panthers

The Panthers started to retool this offseason and I expect that to continue throughout the season. Vokoun will likely be dealt, Weiss isn't untouchable and the Panthers seem destined to be picking in the top three in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Latest + 5 up/5 down

With less than a month until the start of the regular season, things are finally picking up around the NHL. We'll start in Carolina, where rumours are floating that the Canes are speaking to several veterans about try out contracts, including Bill Guerin and Owen Nolan. Carolina will be icing a very young team this season and would love to add a couple of older bodies to add leadership.

In New Jersey, the team faces a larger cap crunch than any other team. A couple of players are being rumoured back to their old teams, with Salvadore being linked to St. Louis and Rolston being linked to Minnesota. Both will be very tough sells due to their contracts and the Devils will have to sweeten the pot with a decent prospect or high pick going along with their respective veterans.

The Bobby Ryan saga continues in Anaheim, with the two sides still not close on a contract to end their summer-long stalemate. The Ducks would love to have Ryan signed to start training camp but at this point, it seems unlikely. It was almost a year ago that Kessel was dealt to Toronto after being unable to come to terms in Boston. It will be interesting to see how long the Ducks wait before they start seriously shopping the very promising winger. No folks, Toronto is not in the running for Bobby Ryan, they simply don't have the tradable assets needed to bring him in.

Talk out of San Jose is that the team still has one more move up their sleeve, with a puck moving d-man still being their number one target. The Blue Jackets are also looking for the same thing. Despite his NTC, Kaberle's name continues to surface, as does Sheldon Souray's. Whispers around the league suggest that both teams have asked the Rangers about Marc Staal, but the Rangers have no intention of dealing him, despite the contract battle currently going on with him.

Now for a look at the five teams who I think improved the most over the off-season, as well as the teams who I think took the biggest step backwards:

5 Up

5. Atlanta Thrashers

The fact that they basically got all of Chicago's leftovers is significant. Adding Sopel, Eager, Byfuglien and Ladd will make this team better both up front and on defense, while Chris Mason is the best goalie this franchise has had yet. If some of the younger players like Kane and Little can step up their games, the Thrashers could surprise and compete for a playoff spot this season.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs

If you look back at the Leafs from the start of the season last year, they are significantly better. Between puck drop and their first tee-off of the offseason, the Leafs added Phaneuf, Giguere, Sjostrom and Caputi, while they promoted Bozak and Gunnarsson to the big club, with both excelling. Pair those additions with healthy, full seasons from Kessel, Komisarek and Gustavsson and the team the Leafs finished the year last year nowhere resembled their place in the standings. While the Leafs failed to address their biggest need in the offseason, that being a number one centre, they did make their team better overall by adding Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong, Clarke MacArthur and two depth d-men in Lashoff and Lebda. Add that to Bozak, Gustavsson, Kulemin, Schenn, Gunnarsson and Caputi all being another year older, and I think this Leafs team is significantly improved from one year ago.

I'm not saying the Leafs will go from 29th to 1st, 2nd or even the top 10, but I don't believe it's out of the question to think the Leafs could compete for a playoff spot this season, probably somewhere in the 6 to 8 range...especially after looking at what some of the other teams in the East have done, or in some cases, haven't done.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins

Destined to be losing Sergei Gonchar, the Penguins already thin defense was heading into this summer facing a major crisis. Instead, the teams allows Gonchar to walk to Ottawa but replaces him with two better, younger players in Michalek and Martin, both to five year deals. The Penguins were already set up front, with Malkin, Crosby and Staal leading the way, but for the first time since the Crosby era, the Penguins have a rock solid defense core.

2. Vancouver Canucks

At the trade deadline last year I felt the Canucks needed three things: Offensive depth, a puck moving defenseman and another depth defender. The Canucks failed to add any of those parts and failed in the playoffs because of that. The Canucks, however, did use this offseason to right their wrongs, all of them.

The Canucks bolstered their blueline, making it one of the most solid defense corps in the league. After adding Keith Ballard at the draft, the team also went out and got Dan Hamhuis from the free agent market. With Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Edler also on the D roster, this is a blueline that is going to have a lot of success in 2010-11.

Up front, the team focused on adding depth forwards to complement their talented twin brothers, bringing in Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres. These two players bring grit, defensive stability and yes, even some offensive potential.

With one of the world's best goalies in net and without a doubt the world's best twin hockey players up front, the Canucks already had a solid foundation in play, but credit to Mike Gillis who addressed his team's weaknesses this offseason. I think the Canucks are a top-three team in the West.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Without a doubt, by far and away, the most improved team this season. This is a team that already featured Stamkos, Lecavalier, Malone, St. Louis and Hedman, a solid foundation for a team that should have a shot at the playoffs every year. However, a shot at the playoffs didn't seem good enough for new GM Steve Yzerman.

The Bolts adding Simon Gagne and Dominic Moore, adding both scoring and two way ability to their roster. On defense, the team further improved by adding Pavel Kubina and Brett Clarke. Finally, in goal the team once again improved by adding Dan Ellis.

With several superstars already on the roster, in addition to a few who are about to emerge, the Bolts seem destined for the playoffs in 2010-2011.

5 Down

Montreal, Philly, Chicago, Calgary, Phoenix

5. Phoenix Coyotes

Don't get me wrong, I like the Coyotes, but after making a big stride last season, I think the team has taken a step back. Losing one of their top forwards (Lombardi) and arguably their best d-man (Michalek) is going to hurt this team. The sole major addition (if you can even consider him major at this point) is Ray Whitney, who I think could have trouble finding his groove in Phoenix. The Coyotes are still young and hungry, not to mention they have a hell of a goalie (who is a UFA next summer), but I felt the team could have done more this offseason.

4. Philadelphia Flyers

I felt the Flyers really needed to address their goaltending this summer, and they had options. Dan Ellis, Evgeni Nabokov, Antii Niemi, Marty Turco, the list really goes on and on. Instead, the team decided to stick with Michael Leighton and I think that will burn them this season. The team dealt Ryan Parent only to lose the player they got in return (Hamhuis) to free agency. They gave up a second round pick for a hugely overpaid d-man in Meszaros, and they traded one of their top scorers over the past five years (Simon Gagne) for next to nothing. Getting Zherdev from the KHL could prove huge for this team, but I don't think the Flyers are even close to being able to play to the same level that got them to the cup final last season.

3. Montreal Canadiens

Halak. That's all that needs to be said. You don't trade a goalie who carried your team on his back almost all the way to the Stanley Cup finals and then trade him for "futures". Instead, the Habs turn to Carey Price, who has proven nothing as of late, and have absolutely no insurance backing him up. The offense and defense are basically unchanged, and full seasons out of Gionta and Cammy should help, but this teams goaltending will have to be spectacular for this team to edge into the playoffs.

2. Calgary Flames

After dumping Dion Phaneuf, the Flames were expected to have a big offseason. Instead, the team brought back Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay, two players who struggled mightily last season. Jokinen was dumped to the Rangers before the trade deadline last season and GM Sutter was praised for his ability to get rid of why did he bring him back? As for Tanguay, he's had not-so-great stops in Montreal and Tampa Bay since leaving Calgary, so it will be interesting to see if the former Avs sniper can re-find his game back in Calgary. Either way, this team didn't make the playoffs last season and doesn't seem poised to get into them again this time around.

1. Chicago Blackhawks

The first real victim of the salary cap, the Blackhawks really felt the pain this offseason, downgrading in every single aspect of their game. Up front, the team lost Versteeg, Byfuglien, Fraser, Burish, Eager and Ladd and replaced them all with young, unproven talent (save for Marty Reasoner). While their defense didn't suffer much this offseason, their goaltending did, with an over the hill Marty Turco and an unproven Corey Crawford replacing Niemi and Huet.

Chicago still is a very talented team, but never before in the history of the league have we seen a stanley cup champion get so dismantled the following summer. Even so, expect Chicago to compete for the West once again this season.