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Lets Get Puck’d: NHL Eastern Conference Preview

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The puck drops on yet another NHL hockey season this week, and with so much anticipation and expectation building about our local Bruins team, it felt like quite the long summer having to wait it out before the B’s get their chance at erasing the painfully embarrassing playoff exit last spring.

Boston has retooled their lineup slightly, but so has every other team in the league. No major moves in the off-season by any team, really… just a lot of roster tinkering. The good teams from last year should be good again, and the bad teams, well… they will probably be just as bad, if not worse. That being said, every year there seems to be a surprise team or two that emerges. Last year, it was the Phoenix Coyotes who came out of nowhere to put up a 100-point season. Who could be the Coyotes of 2010-11? That’s the fun of NHL hockey… we won’t know until it happens.

Now, we begin our skate around the league with the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference, taking a brief look at each team and their outlook for the upcoming year. I’ll rattle off the teams in the order I’m predicting them to finish in each conference… that way when the season’s over, you can come back to this article and tear me a new one for all of the things I screw up. Sound like a deal? Fantastic. On we go with the show…

Eastern Conference

#1 Washington Capitals

With yet another early playoff exit last season, the Caps are quickly becoming the “San Jose Sharks of the East.” Ovechkin, the two-time defending league MVP, has all the talent around him to put together a legitimate Cup run, they just have to put up or shut up when it comes to the playoffs. They’re in a cupcake division which should help them contend for another Presidents Cup trophy, but another postseason flop might lead to major off-season roster turnover heading into 2011-12.

#2 New Jersey Devils

It took a while, but the Devils were eventually able to sign winger Ilya Kovalchuk to a long… really long… term contract heading into this season. Having the point-a-game potential of Kovalchuk in their arsenal should help the Devils rise to the top of the loaded Atlantic Division, but not without heavy competition from both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Having future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur in net never hurts your cause either.

#3 Boston Bruins

There’s no doubt that the loss of Marc Savard to start the season will surely hurt the team’s offense, especially their power play production, but hopefully the additions of rookie Tyler Seguin and winger Nathan Horton can mitigate that loss until Savvy can return to the lineup. The defense will still be rock solid and the B’s probably have the best goaltending tandem in the entire league. If this team can stay healthy, there’s no reason why they can’t rank atop the Northeast Division and be up there with the rest of the East’s elite.

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens boast one of the top forward duos in the NHL, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin able to light up the scoreboard with relative ease each and every night. Their supporting cast took a bit of a hit in the off-season however, with Alex Ponikarovsky, Bill Guerin, Jordan Leopold, and Sergei Gonchar, among others, hitting the road and changing sweaters for the upcoming year. The team’s biggest change though comes by way of their new home arena, the Consol Energy Center, as they say good-bye to the old “igloo,” Mellon Arena. There’s no doubt the Pens will want to bring a lot of playoff hockey to their new confines come springtime.

#5 Philadelphia Flyers

Bruins fans know this Flyers team all too well now, after their improbable come-from-behind series victory in the second round of last year’s playoffs. The Flyers went on to eventually fall to the Blackhawks in the Cup Finals, but the run they made through the playoffs was nothing short of miraculous, as a lowly #7 seed, no less. This season, they enter with plenty of talent on the front end, but they’ll hope that the hands of their two goaltenders remain hot, as Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher are set to try and make another deep playoff run. Can they do it again? I’m not so sure… but Philly’s got just as good a chance as anyone else in the deep Atlantic Division.

#6 Buffalo Sabres

Last year’s Northeast Division winners, the Sabres were ousted in the first round by the Bruins, after a regular season for the record books for their netminder Ryan Miller. Miller will have to carry this Buffalo team yet again if they have any real hopes of a deep playoff run, as the offense just isn’t that solid overall. They’ll need top scorer Thomas Vanek to elevate his game even further, reigning Calder Cup trophy winner Tyler Myers to continue his development in his second pro season, and new blue line additions Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrisonn to be an upgrade over the departing Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman. This is a playoff-caliber team, but I don’t see them being better than Boston this year to top the division.

#7 New York Rangers

Unlike so many other off-seasons, the Rangers had a remained relatively quiet over the summer, refraining from making the huge splash in the free agency pool that they tend to make so often. Instead, the Blue Shirts made some quality small moves to fill out their roster, adding proven goaltender Martin Biron to take some of the workload off star goalie Henrik Lunqvist, signing the towering Derek Boogaard to a four-year deal, and adding sniper Alexander Frolov. New York missed the playoffs by a single point last season… they won’t be on the outside looking in this year.

#8 Tampa Bay Lightning

There is a LOT to like about the ‘Ning this season, and it starts with new GM Steve Yzerman. “Stevie Y” has added some great pieces to an already talented batch of players, bringing in Pavel Kubina, goalie Dan Ellis, and former Flyer Simon Gagne to compliment the likes of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Ryan Malone, and emerging superstar Steven Stamkos. Goaltending will certainly be this team’s major concern, with Ellis being brought in to help incumbent Mike Smith man the Tampa crease. This Tampa team might be another year or two away from rising to the ranks of the East’s elite, but they’re certainly headed in the right direction.

#9 Montreal Canadiens

On the heels of an improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals a season ago, the Habs come into the 2010-11 season with more questions than answers. Was last season’s playoff run the real deal or just an anomaly? Can Carey Price elevate his game to be a legitimate #1 goalie, with no Jaroslav Halak to fall back on? And who is going to put the puck in the net for a team that ranked 26th on offense last season? I really feel like this team has “letdown year” written all over it. Sure they’ll win some games, but I think come springtime they’ll be on the outside of the East’s “great eight.”

#10 Ottawa Senators

Ottawa surprised many of us last season by earning a playoff berth, as high as the fifth seed, no less. But Ottawa enters this year with several issues, namely health and goaltending. Two-thirds of their top forward line are coming injuries, with Daniel Alfredsson recovering from hernia surgery and Milan Michalek coming off knee surgery. In net, the Sens hope that Pascal Leclaire can rise to the occasion, especially with him being in a contract year. If he doesn’t, the “Plan B” is Brian Elliott, who got a lot of action last season while Leclaire struggled. Sure, they added Sergei Gonchar to the roster, but I think the loss of physical blueliner Anton Volchenkov is going to hurt Ottawa more than they realize. The Sens slip down the standings, back to mediocrity this year.

#11 Carolina Hurricanes

The youth movement is in full effect in Raleigh, with veterans Ray Whitney (to Phoenix) and Rod Brind’Amour (retirement) missing from the ‘Canes roster for the first time in a long time. Carolina started last season with a brutal 5-17-5 record through the first two months, but pulled themselves back to respectability by season’s end, even peeking their heads into the playoff picture for a short while. It will be interesting to see if these young Hurricanes can withstand another swoon like that. I think Carolina might be in for a season full of growing pains, unless stars like Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward can have career years. I don’t see it happening.

#12 Florida Panthers

The Panthers are hungry for a playoff spot, not having been there in about a decade now, but I think Florida fans (are there any?) will be left starving for yet another season. Florida is rebuilding their team once again, as new GM Dale Tallon flips the roster to bring in new blood to South Florida. He somehow sees something positive in Dennis Wideman, acquiring him and two draft picks from Boston for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell. The only impressive addition made by Florida in the off-season was their third overall draft choice, defenseman Erik Gudbranson. Loads of question marks up and down this Florida lineup lead me to believe that the Panthers have little to no chance contending for a playoff spot this season. If not for the Thrashers, and maybe if not for an above-average Tomas Vokoun in goal, the Panthers would be the Southeast Division’s cellar dwellers, for sure.

#13 Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto’s Stanley Cup drought stands at 43 years now, and I’m counting on it reaching at least 44 by season’s end. The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since before the lockout, and they’ve still got a long way to go before they even sniff the playoffs, never mind reaching Cup contender status. They have some nice pieces in place, with top line forwards Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak, newly acquired Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong, and solid defensemen Tomas Kaberle, Dion Phaneuf, and Mike Komisarek. But questions in goal, with a past-his-prime Jean-Sebastien Giguere teaming up with young, unproven Jonas Gustavsson, plus a lack of overall offensive depth, have signs pointing to another lackluster, playoff-less season for the Leafs. This team is heading in the right direction though, if that’s worth anything.

#14 New York Islanders

Beyond second-year standout forward John Tavares, the Islanders are just plain no good. They have very few pieces on their team that point to anything but a very disappointing 2010-11 season on the Island. Mark Streit is their best defenseman, Kyle Okposo has some potential up front, but beyond that, this is a minor league team, more or less. It’s going to be a while before the Islanders return to their glory days of the 80’s.

#15 Atlanta Thrashers

Taking on a handful of former Blackhawks in the off-season might be a recipe for success in some minds, but not this mind. Atlanta acquired a trio of Chicago’s castoffs early in the off-season, bringing in Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, and Brent Sopel in a three-team, nine-player deal. They also grabbed Andrew Ladd from the ‘Hawks, swapping prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy to the Windy City. So they have four Cup winners on their roster… that’s got to be a good thing, right? Not this year, I’m afraid. This team’s roster is really ugly. With no Ilya Kovalchuk to bury the puck, I’m not sure who will score on this team. They have two promising youngsters in Evander Kane and Niclas Bergfors, but really, there’s a reason that Atlanta’s not a hockey town, and the Thrashers are that reason.

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