Thirty Teams, Thirty Thoughts: Part 1 - The East
With the NHL playoffs just around the corner, NHL teams are beginning to clinch playoff spots, or fall out of the race completely. When the 2010-11 regular season is finally in the books on April 10th, sixteen teams will look to face off for the top prize in hockey, while the other twelve will take an early look ahead to the 2011-12 season, and hope they can salvage their bad season with a good draft, as well as some trades and free agents.
So where do all these teams stand, with only a handful of games left in the regular seasons, and staring right down the eyes of the demon that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs? To try and answer this question, I offer my nearly-post-season version of "Thirty Teams, Thirty Thoughts". We start today with the Eastern Conference, using the current rankings of all 15 East teams, prior to this weekend's NHL action:
- Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers will lose the top spot in the East and fall to fourth place, but that will not stop them from dominating in the playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup. Bold prediction to start things off, eh?
- Washington Caps: The Caps are a much stronger and much better team defensively than last year. They will once again face the Canadiens in the first round, and they won’t let themselves be embarrassed by the Habs, as they were last year, not to mention a fourth straight playoffs in a row. But will allow another series to go to seven games? Are they confident with another rookie goaltender backstopping them heading into the playoffs? Can Bruce Boudreau finally get the job done behind the bench? I'm afraid beyond that first round, the Caps still have more questions than they do answers, and they're about the same as they've always been in recent times.
- Boston Bruins: Much controversy has surrounded the Bruins as of late. They will get what’s coming to them in the first round of the playoffs, kind of like how they got what was coming to them in the second round last year. Can you tell that I'm bitter today?
- Pittsburgh Penguins: I don’t want to predict whether Sidney Crosby will come back from the playoffs or not. It’s unfair to toy with a man’s health like that. But with or without him, and with or without this late-season surge, the Pens are not meant for a deep playoff run this year. Another second round exit for the Pens, but assuming that Crosby, Malkin, Orpik and all the rest can stay healthy for the next season, the immediate future is bright for this team.
- Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts have been one of the great stories of the season. New GM, new coach, new players have made them a legitimate team. They are not, however, ready to compete with the big time players in the East. But I’m calling it now – Steve Yzerman will make two or three great moves in the summer, and they WILL be a contender in 2011-12. But 2011 may be a tad too early for coach Guy Boucher and his troupes.
- Montreal Canadiens: The Habs will do just enough so that Pierre Gauthier and Jacques Martin won’t have to be fired, and most of the expensive players on the Habs won’t have to be dealt with. Yet again. Sigh.
- New York Rangers: The Rangers are in 2011 what the Habs were in 2010. An underdog built for the playoffs. They have an even better goaltender than Jaroslav Halak was last year. They have a forward who can be as much of a gamebreaker as anyone else in this league in Marian Gaborik, like Cammalleri was last year. Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan and (if he can return) Chris Drury are much more interesting down the middle than what the Habs had last year, and Ryan Callahan is playing the best hockey of his career. That's not to mention a very interesting blueline with McCabe, Girardi, Staal, McDonagh, Sauer, Gilroy, and others. Despite some early struggles this year, they have a line-up that may surprise many in the playoffs, and in my opinion, that will lead to a win over the Bruins in the first round, and the Penguins in the second round, before falling to the Flyers in the Eastern finals.
- Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres will be too exhausted after a tooth and nail fight to make the playoffs, and the Penguins will run all over them in the first round. But it will still be a moral victory for their players, management, and especially new owner Terry Pegula, who will ensure that they won’t have to fight for 8th place next season. The Sabres have nearly $20 million i cap space for next year, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Pegula let Darcy Regier use all of it. This might be a stretch, but if I had to make a prediction, I would say that in six months, we will be seeing Brad Richards in a Sabres jersey.
- Carolina Hurricanes: The Canes last play on April 9th, and their tragic post-season fate will be decided on that night. They will miss the playoffs, but I can’t see them improving too much on that 7th to 12th positioning they seem to be stuck in. Consolation prize? Calder trophy for Jeff Skinner.
- Toronto Maple Leafs: The Toronto Maple Leafs will not make the playoffs. This year or the next. Problem?
- Atlanta Thrashers: I honestly can't think of anything interesting to say about this team. Don't get me wrong, they have some good players and potentially a good future ahead of them now that the Ilya Kovalchuk era is in the books. But meh?
- New Jersey Devils: Notice how no one's talking about that ridiculous Ilya Kovalchuk contract anymore? Also, notice how he leads all forwards in the NHL in ice time, despite having a really rough first half? I don't have the stats in front of me, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that he was one of the league's best players in the second half of the season. The guy has 9 game winning goals, tied for second in the league, an incredible stat all things considered. Yes, the contract still sucks and we'll likely be blogging a lot more about it in the dog days of summer, but all in all, gotta say that Lou and Ilya managed to silence the critics. Oh, and Lou will find a way to sign Zach Parise this summer. Sorry, Isles fans.
- New York Islanders: The Isles have been playing good hockey as of late. Probably enough to ensure they won’t be getting the top pick this year, and by the looks of it, they’ll barely have a lottery pick at all. But it will be a summer of positives for the Isles. Garth Snow will make a big splash either via trade at the draft or by signing a big ticket player in July. The Isles will start the season healthy, with Rick DiPietro, Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo all in their line-up game one of the 2011-12 season. There will also be a strong competition for starting goaltender between DiPietro and Al Montoya, and potentially even Evgeni Nabokov. Where the Isles will end up is anyone’s guess, but there’s more reason to be positive than not.
- Florida Panthers: If you’re a fan of the Panthers, however, I’m not so sure you should be looking forward to much. Dale Tallon is right in the middle of a firesale, with the little assets the team has left, and I don’t see all that much in the prospect tank – at least not as much as there should be. My prediction? Gary Bettman will finally break on the relocation issue, and the Florida Panthers – NOT the Phoenix Coyotes – will be the first team to find a new home.
- Ottawa Senators: Remember in 1993, when the Sens drafted a French Canadian forward first overall, and proceeded to ruin him? Ya. Sean Couturier as French Canadian as Alexandre Daigle was, but close enough.
Tune in Monday for part 2, the Western Conference, and don't hesitate to debate me to death on these thoughts in the comments below!