Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Day Two-Hundred Sixty-One: The Beasts are in the East

First, a retraction: I incorrectly stated last night that the St. Louis Blues almost made the playoffs. They did, in fact, make it after one heckuvan impressive showing the last half of the year. I blame this ineptitude on the fact that I was rushing through to finish my blog before auditions last night.

I blame any errors tonight on the fact that it's 4:17 p.m. and I am just now sitting down to eat my lunch.

As I look at the teams I think have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup next season, I realize that most of them are Eastern Conference teams. In the West, San Jose and perhaps Anaheim are built to make it through the regular season, Olympics, and then the two-month marathon that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (The Sharks should be nice and rested after so many consecutive early-round exits...Seriously, what is WRONG in San Jose??) In another year or two, Chicago and Saint Louis will probably be added to that list while Anaheim is poised to fall off sooner than later. Vancouver and Detroit have outside shots to emerge from the rubble victorious. But the teams that have the best blend of skill, grit, character, desire, and experience seem to lie within the fifteen teams that are crammed into within roughly two hundred square miles of one another. (Slight exaggeration)

Here are my predictions (without, of course, taking into account the things that are impossible to predict: injuries, coaching changes, starting goalies inexplicably tanking, the stuff that always screws up everyone's predictions every year)

I'll start in the Southeast; it's probably the easiest to try to predict.

1. Washington Capitals
The Caps are a team that pushed the Stanley Cup Champs to a game seven, and losing in that sort of experience for a brash team of youngsters like the Caps almost always makes the team come back more focused and pissed off the next time around. I expect that out of Ovie's boys in 2009-10. Alex Ovechkin is a monster, there's no other way to describe him. He's easily the most gifted and driven goal scorer in the league today. He's so good, his entire supporting cast disappeared for him in the playoffs and he almost single-handedly beat the Pens. Once you get past the top two dynamic scoring lines, however, there's a serious drop-off in talent. I don't know that the Caps have the depth to get it done, either up front or on the blue line. Admittedly, they have enough top-end talent that depth may not be necessary. However, I'm also not sold on Seymon Varmalov. He played great in the playoffs last year, but will he be Ken Dryden or Johan Hedberg? My inclination would be to lean toward the former, but we have yet to see how he holds up through an entire season. At any rate, the Caps are good, and given that they play in the Southeast they've got the inside track at the top seed.

2. Carolina Hurricanes
I'd say the Canes were one of the most underrated teams in the East last year. Like a lot of the teams who made noise in the post-season, the Hurricanes had a great surge to end the season and unseated perennial power New Jersey and conference champion Boston before running into Evgeni Malkin and scurrying home in four short games. The Canes are good, though. Their roster is actually still surprisingly similar to the one that won the Cup in 2006 (and missed the playoffs in 2007), so it's always hard to tell exactly what this team is going to do. They're solid in pretty much every area without being really spectacular in any of them, but in this division that's going to be good enough.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning
It's popular sport to pick on the Lightning on NHL message boards all over the web, but I think they've done a pretty good job at addressing their problems from last season, assuming goalie Mike Smith is healthy and plays at the same level as last year. The blue line, which was horrid last year, will be better, though still a step away from being "good." There's more depth at forward, though the team is still lacking one more true top-six forward. The bottom six aren't as pathetic as they were. The team has a capable backup in Antero Niittymaki, something they lacked all last year (when Smith went down for just about the entire season with a concussion). This year will be a step in the right direction for TB.

4. Atlanta Thrashers
I think Atlanta made some good moves this summer, but depth has been an issue for this franchise since day one. If they want to return to the post-season (I believe they've been once, MAYBE twice), someone besides Kovalchuk will have to be a consistent offensive threat, Enstrom and Bogosian need to take big steps forward to lead the blue line, and either Lehtonen's going to have to stay healthy (and play better) in goal, or Ondrej Pavelec's going to need to have a Steve Mason-like season and take the #1 job. Otherwise, the crowds will continue to dwindle in Atlanta. (They may continue to dwindle anyway, who knows?)

5. Florida Panthers
There is not a lot to be excited about in Miami. A couple of good young forwards, and a decent defensive corps, IF they can stay healthy. A solid starting goaltender. Not a ton of depth in any area. The team really should have unloaded Jay Bouwmeester at the trade deadline last season. Most of the vets on this squad are NOT on the upswing of their careers.

1. Boston Bruins
No-brainer. They've got difference makers at every position and the right mix of skill players and role players to win in the playoffs. Tim Thomas is past solid in net. The loss of Phil Kessel will hurt, but if youngsters like Krejci and Wheeler take their games up a notch, no one will really notice. I'd love to see a seven-game series between the B's and the Caps at some point. That'd be fun.

2. Ottawa Senators
The rest of this division is kinda a crapshoot. I'm going to give the Sens the edge for #2 under the assumption Pascal Leclaire returns to form. (Not a given. The Senators have a history of killing goaltenders' careers) Even without Dany Heatley, I think the Sens have better forward depth than most of the rest of the Northeast--once again, assuming Alex Kovalev plays like he has the past couple years, and not the couple before that. It's all very enigmatic. Their defensemen don't inspire me, but they're not bad. There are a lot of if's here.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs
Perhaps a surprise pick, I think the Leafs will be better this year. I like the moves they've made this off-season. I think that, if Jonas Gustavsson can unseat Vesa Toskala early enough to be #1 in net, this team could challenge for the playoffs. Their defensive core is going to be tough to play against. Kessel adds instant swagger to an offensive unit that has plenty of 20-goal threats, but not any 30-goal threats. As a team, however, the Leafs scored a surprising number of goals last season, so an improvement on defense should make them competitive night in and night out.

4. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres are decent. Vanek is a bit overpaid, but he's still good. Tim Connolly has really come into his own of late (when he's on the ice). Pomminville and Roy can chip in on the scoresheet. The blue line is decidedly veteran, but decently hard-nosed. Ryan Miller is a good #1 goalie. There's nothing really to not like on this roster, but then again there's not really much to get too excited about, either.

5. Montreal Canadiens
Man, does Carey Price ever need to have a good year between the pipes! Montreal has some skilled scorers, but they all come with question marks. Scott Gomez hasn't produced up to his standards for a couple of years and is hoping a change from Tom Renney's New York system will get him back on his game. Mike Cammelleri put up a lot of goals last year, but that was playing with Jarome Iginla. He won't have a teammate of that caliber around anywhere. The team's lack of size up front is well-documented, and the majority of the blueliners are on the decline. Hamrlik? Mara? Hal Gill?? Serviceable, all of them, but all shadows of their former selves. Markov is a stud, but aside from him, this season has the makings of a potential disaster in Montreal. Granted, if Price becomes an elite goalie, if Gomez and Cammelleri and Gionta tear it up on the scoreboard, things could be very, very different. (Sensing a theme in this division?)

Here, my friends, is the winner! The Atlantic may even trump the Central for the best division in hockey. Picks #1 and 2 are pretty much interchangeable, as are picks #3 and 4, while the Isles...well, they're on the right path. They should be scary-good in the not-too-distant future. (Hopefully they're not playing in Kansas City at that point in time)

1. Philadelphia Flyers
The Broad Street Bullies are back, big time. The Flyers should be the meanest, nastiest, dirtiest team in the entire league--and possibly the most lethal combination of skill and toughness we've seen in years. Adding Pronger, Tollefsen, and Laperriere to this particular assembly of players was an act of war upon the rest of the East, particularly some cross-state rivals who skated around with a bit silver trophy last July. It'll be miserable playing the Flyers, but I think they'll be beatable come playoff time due to some discipline issues the team has shown in recent past. One question mark is said to be in goal, where Ray Emery is back from a forgettable year in Russia (which followed a forgettable year in Ottawa), but most forget that Emery carried a one-line team to the Cup Final in 2007. With a competent defense in front of him, he should be fine.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins
There may be a bit of Stanley Cup hangover for the Pens, but this team is largely intact after their victory parade last summer. Sid, Geno, Fleury, and the crew have shown themselves to be fierce competitors. Remember: before last season, the previous ten Stanley Cup losers had combined to win one playoff round the following year; the Pens battled back from 10th in February to win the whole dang thing on the road. Pittsburgh gets a bum wrap for being a soft team among many NHL fan bases, but the fact is they do what it takes to win, whether that means mucking it up in the corners or the Crosby-to-Guerin one-timer (executed flawlessly multiple times in the playoffs last spring). The Pens are a fun team to watch and are a good team for the game of hockey. They'll be back.

3. New Jersey Devils
Write whatever you want about the Devils every year, because there have been plenty of reasons the past few seasons that they should have tumbled away from the league's elite, but the bottom line is: they win. Somehow. Every year. For the first time in fifteen years, Marty Brodeur went down with an injury for half the freakin' year last season. Didn't matter. The team has gone from a blue-line featuring multiple future Hall-of-Famers to one that doesn't even boast an all-star. Didn't matter. The team went from low-scoring trappers extraordinaire to one of the most prolific scoring teams in the league and back. Doesn't matter. They still win. They'll be good. I can't say exactly why, but they will. They're the Devils, and somehow that's enough.

4. New York Rangers
I loved what John Tortorella did with the Lightning. (Had a bit of success with his system there, too) I love the way he's helped re-shape the Rangers for 2009-10. I expect a lot more up-tempo hockey in the Big Apple this year. If Marian Gaborik stays healthy (I know, I know, but it has happened before!) I think this team may be able to challenge for home ice in the first round of the playoffs. It'll all come down to how well the players buy into Tort's system, and whether the psycho American head coach can scream the same sort of results out of these guys as he did a 2004 Cup-winning team that inexplicably included the likes of Nolan Pratt, Martin Cibak, and Dmitry Afanasenkov. While the top-end talent of that Tampa team was better, I think Torts has more to work with (overall) here.

5. New York Islanders
Man, are these guys going to be good someday. Tavares, Okposo, Bailey, Comeau, and the newly-acquired Rob Schremp will develop into a core you can build a scoring team around. Interestingly, the team has three legitimate NHL starting goalies under contract this year. It'll be fun to see who actually plays. I think expectations are pretty low on the Island this season, and that's okay. They're doing what a team in their position has to do at this point in its development: suck now, give your younger draft-pick studs a chance to learn, stock up on assets so you can make the deals to bring in the vets to complete the puzzle in a couple of years, then start winning your Cups. Worked for the Pens, working for the Caps and Hawks, and the Blues, BJs, Kings, and Bolts should be joining the list of "success stories" fairly soon as well.

So there we go! That's how I think it'll all shake down; now, for the injuries, the trades, the out-of-nowhere rookie who leads his team out of the ashes, the free agent flop, the Olympic break, and everything else that will throw all my common sense out the window.

In short: let's just play hockey, eh?