Another NHL season is upon us after a summer that was filled with more Buffalo hockey news than you could shake a stick at. The entire Eastern Conference saw a shake up over the summer and the conference could see a similar playoff race, with seeds 7-12 all within shouting distance of each other. I think the same playoff cast will return this season, but with a few minor changes:
1. Washington Capitals – The Caps made significant upgrades in areas they have been lacking in past playoff exits. Tomas Vokoun will shore up any question marks in net and Joel Ward brings a ton of character to a lineup that is primarily built for the regular season. I think the Capitals will challenge for the President’s Trophy this season, with a good chance of winning it.
2. Boston Bruins – The looming threat of a Stanley Cup hangover will likely plague the Bruins at points during the season. However, if there is a team better suited for a playoff run I challenge you to find it. Boston is tailor-made for the NHL postseason. They will have trouble getting out of one of the toughest division’s in the conference but will be deadly in the postseason yet again.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins – A healthy Sidney Crosby and a healthy Evgeni Malkin and a healthy Jordan Staal equals some difficult matchups. Crosby may miss a few games to start the season, but he will still score a ton of points. Marc-Andre Fleury has proven that he is a legitimate top-10 goalie and will be among the NHL’s best all season. The Pens will take the Atlantic walking away.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning – Some are arguing that Dwayne Roloson won’t have anything left in the tank after his brilliant playoff run. If that turns out to be true Tampa is screwed, Mathieu Garon is nothing short of a sieve. Still, Stamkos, Hedman, Brewer, Lecavalier, St. Louis, the list goes on. The Lightning are stacked with talent and will have to outscore their opponents to go on another deep run. Expect Stevie Y to make a deadline deal for defensive help in March. That will bolster their run.
5. Buffalo Sabres – Darcy Regier got a new platinum card courtesy of Terry Pegula. He promptly went out and got some shiny new toys. Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr will bring a serious upgrade to the blueline, while Ville Leino is expected to step in and add some offense. Scoring could prove to be elusive for this squad, but the upgrades will certainly equal an improvement in the standings.
6. Montreal Canadiens – Carey Price had his second coming out party last year. After a brilliant rookie campaign, Price regressed before stealing the show in 2010-11. The Canadiens expect Erik Cole to be a major cog for this season, I am not too sure about his upside. Still, Mike Cammalleri is a dangerous weapon and should produce points yet again. No reason to think this team returns to the playoffs if they stay healthy.
7. New York Rangers – Brad Richards is expected to help turn the Rangers fortunes around. Still, the Blueshirts remain shortsighted. They have a world-class goaltender and excellent skill in the top six. However, they have little depth and that will hamstring them. Still, their upgrades should get them to the postseason.
8. Philadelphia Flyers – Much like Buffalo, the numerous new faces in Philly have many questioning the chemistry that will exist. I worry that replacing your two top forwards with an aged superstar and a marginal European is how you win hockey games. Chris Pronger and the defense will remain the focal point of this team as Ilya Bryzgalov brings an instant upgrade to the crease. Still, for all the movement you have to worry how the team will react.
9. Florida Panthers – Dale Tallon spent about as much money as he possibly could in order to get his team to the salary cap floor. He traded, he signed free agents and he is now hoping that these marginal talents will get his team to the playoffs. Unfortunately, he didn’t bring in any serious players, that will kill the Panthers over the course of the season. The makeover will help, just not enough.
10. Carolina Hurricanes – If history acts as a barometer, the Hurricanes will make the playoffs. However, they didn’t add much to their depth – rookie Justin Faulk may make the team – and Tomas Kaberle was their big offseason addition. While Ward, Staal and Skinner will need to carry the team, I doubt the remaining cast can do much to support their efforts.
11. Toronto Maple Leafs – The Toronto Maple Leafs are getting very close to being a playoff team. That really sucks. Brian Burke is a masterful GM and his squad is coming together. David Steckel was a brilliant acquisition, he will be valuable to the Leafs. Still, I don’t trust Tim Connolly to provide what they’re looking for, or stay healthy enough to prove me wrong. The Leafs will be in the hunt, but will fall just short.
12. New York Islanders – Eventually all of this young talent will come together to form a playoff contender. This will not be the year. They will hit some sort of skid this year and again dash any hopes of making the playoffs. They will still be a scary team, they have plenty of weapons and promising goaltenders.
13. New Jersey Devils – This is far too low for me to rank this team. If I could do it over I would put them around the playoffs. However, this is my word and I’m sticking to it. I think the Devils could be in trouble because of the loss of Travis Zajac, the trade of David Steckel and the aging of Marty Brodeur. Without any great additions I think this team will miss the playoffs again.
14. Ottawa Senators – It is serious rebuilding mode in Ottawa. Craig Anderson could bust out a great season and steal the Sens some points. However, their stars are aging and they have zero depth. Zero. They are missing a few pieces before they can find their way back to the playoffs.
15. Winnipeg Jets – Having hockey return to Winnipeg is going to be totally awesome. However, it seems as if the Jets weren’t interested in getting any actual hockey players to play for them. Unless Ondrej Pavelec turns into Dominik Hasek it will be a very long season for the Jets.
Eastern Conference Champion: Montreal Canadiens – While this may cause a stir north of the border, I think the Canadiens are a good bet to come out of the East. They were one shot away from beating Boston last year, has they scored that goal who knows how far they would have advanced.