Yes, it’s time for my pre-season predictions – the time when many of you write in angrily accusing me of hating your team (or jinxing it by praising it too much) and when I giggle quietly to myself at the lather many of you have worked yourself into.
If there’s one thing I know about predictions, it’s this: they aren’t any guarantee of the way the standings will look at season’s end. Rather, they’re about the expectations hockey people (at least the ones I’ve spoken with) have for each organization. Said expectations can be met, fallen short of or surpassed, which is why they play the games. But for now, here’s my sense of how the 2011-12 campaign will shake out in the Eastern Conference. (My Western Conference picks were posted last week.)
One way or another, big things are coming to Washington this season. Either the serious off-season changes GM George McPhee made (including the addition of goalie Tomas Vokoun, forwards Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern, and defenseman Roman Hamrlik) pay off in spectacular fashion with a deep playoff run, or Caps coach Bruce Boudreau becomes ex-Caps coach Bruce Boudreau and McPhee looks at even more significant roster alterations. On paper, this is the strongest Capitals team ever. But although paper covers rock, it does not beat scissors and certainly doesn’t win Cups. Time to put up or blow up.
It is a testament to the group Ray Shero has built that the Penguins not only withstood the twin blows of injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin last season, but played virtually as well: prior to the loss of their captain, the Pens had a 26-12-3 record; the rest of the season, they went 23-13-5. That’s in large part due to one of the league’s best defense corps, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the guidance of coach-of-the-year Dan Bylsma. Steve Sullivan and Jason Williams are the veterans du jour who’ll augment Pittsburgh’s big three of Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal. Lucky for them, that’s all they’ll be needed for. The core is more than up to the challenge.
There were times last season when the Bruins looked disheveled, demoralized and desperate – why else would GM Peter Chiarelli have made that terrible deal for Tomas Kaberle? – but obviously they came together, leaned on the otherworldly performance of Tim Thomas and won a championship. With ostensibly the same lineup this season, I don’t doubt they’ll experience some bumps in the road again. But there is too much top-end talent and depth at each position for Boston not to rise to the top of their division. Whether or not they can peak at the right time again is another story altogether.
As I wrote in a recent edition of The Hockey News magazine, I was like millions of others in that I thought the Flyers needed to address their goaltending after last season’s playoff debacle. But they went entirely too far after signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a way-too-long contract. GM Paul Holmgren had to move Jeff Carter to free up money for Bryzgalov, but there was no need to deal captain Mike Richards, no impetus to go with a far younger group of forwards who likely won’t fully blossom until Chris Pronger has been fitted for dentures and handed a shuffleboard stick. Now, does that mean Philly won’t be better than most teams in the league? No. However, something tells me this will be a transition year mainly for the forwards, but also for the franchise.
5. Tampa Bay
Some sucker MCs sneered derisively last season when I picked the Lightning to finish sixth in the East. Well, I was wrong – they finished fifth. And really, nobody should’ve been surprised. Their top-end talent is as good – and hungry – as any in the game; their defense has a wealth of experience; and we all saw what a demon Dwayne Roloson was between the pipes in the playoffs. With the stars of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman still on the ascent and Guy Boucher likely to be a perennial coach-of-the-year contender, there’s no reason to assume the Bolts won’t be just as dangerous in 2011-12.
The Sabres got better the instant Terry Pegula took over as franchise owner in February. His clear passion for the sport infused the organization with a new sense of purpose – and the belief he’ll do anything to win a Stanley Cup was underscored this off-season when he made it rain money on unrestricted free agents Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff (as well as acquiring veteran blueliner Robyn Regehr). Overall, there’s no disputing Buffalo now has all the components to be a serious Cup threat. But if I were a Sabres fan, I’d temper my expectations with the knowledge it might take a year or two for the team to fully gel.
7. New York Rangers
Yet again, the Rangers are coming off a season in which they looked good at times, but ultimately fizzled in the first round of the playoffs. The reason for that is simple: they had a world-class goalie in Henrik Lundqvist and impact forwards including Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky – but they didn’t have enough depth to keep pushing when injuries struck Gaborik and Callahan. Bringing in Brad Richards and Mike Rupp will help in that regard, but their defense still seems like a work-in-progress – especially with troubling news about Marc Staal and his post-concussion symptoms – and that could, once again, be enough to make them a one-series-and-done playoff team.
Right about now, you’ve either jumped up and cheered me picking the Maple Leafs to make the playoffs – or more likely, you’ve blown whatever you were drinking through your nostrils and are wiping off the computer screen while noting I live in Toronto and drawing the false conclusion I’m a homer. That’s just not true. The Leafs may not have a superstar player the caliber of Sidney Crosby or Drew Doughty, but they do have more blueline depth than most Eastern teams, as well as some capable contributors up front. Much will ride on the shoulders of goalie James Reimer, but I’ve got a hunch – and that’s what this pick is – the Leafs will surprise hockey-watchers and squeak into the playoffs.
The Canadiens made the playoffs last year based almost solely on the goaltending of Carey Price and a patchwork defense corps that overcame season-ending injuries to Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Jaroslav Spacek. In an improved Northeast Division, that isn’t going to cut it this season, even with Gorges and Spacek back for opening night. Markov’s return date hasn’t been established, but they need his presence desperately – and more importantly, they need more offense, plain and simple. I just can’t see veteran right winger Erik Cole being the answer in that regard. Could the Habs and Leafs wind up switching places in the standings? Of course. But for now, this is the order I’m going with.
Maybe I’m picking the Hurricanes here because I remember them giving it all they had to end the 2010-11 campaign and still falling two points short of a playoff berth. Maybe it’s because I look at their defense and see a group that ranks in the bottom five of Eastern Conference defensive units. Maybe it’s because I don’t think newcomer Tomas Kaberle will do much to improve their flaccid power play. I don’t imagine the Canes will fall completely out of the playoff hunt, but all it will take is an injury to a key player or two to hamstring them enough to be on the outside looking in when the post-season begins.
11. New York Islanders.
I’ve grown accustomed to picking the Isles to finish at the bottom of the Atlantic Division, but there are too many things to like about this young team for me to do so again. Their top two lines have a whole lot of promise, and their defense, while not spectacular, has more depth than meets the eye. If the majority of the roster can stay healthy and coach Jack Capuano gets a performance out of goalie Al Montoya (or Rick DiPietro) similar to the one he posted last season, there is no reason why they can’t at least overtake the Devils and begin breathing down the neck of an aging Rangers team.
12. New Jersey
Just about everyone I know in the hockey world was bowled over by the Devils’ disastrous start to last season before GM Lou Lamoriello called in hockey’s equivalent of The Wolf from Pulp Fiction (government name: Jacques Lemaire) to clean up the mess. But Lemaire is now gone and some of the same problems threaten New Jersey’s chances this year: injuries (Travis Zajac is out for at least a couple months), a slowing Martin Brodeur (save percentage last year: .903) and a farm system that isn’t cranking out elite NHLers as it once did. You never should bet against the Devils, but I don’t see much reason to bet on them this time around.
I’m very happy the NHL is back in Manitoba full-time. But I’m afraid the joy Winnipeggers are feeling right now will have to sustain them through a season that promises to be very tough on the franchise’s still-young core. Their blueline has good depth, but their top two lines would not be top two lines on many other teams. And while Ondrej Pavelec has been brilliant at times, he hasn’t been consistent enough to make hockey people believe he can carry them the way Ilya Bryzgalov carried the Coyotes. There wasn’t enough to like about the Jets when they were situated in Atlanta – and that really hasn’t changed.
The Panthers had the NHL’s worst power play and third-worst overall offense last season. They also had a crapload of cap room, so guess what GM Dale Tallon threw all that money at? Yup, a bunch of B-level players who have shown intermittent success putting up points (i.e. Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell and Sean Bergenheim). At the same time, he replaced Tomas Vokoun’s considerable talents with the less considerable talents of veteran journeyman Jose Theodore. In other words, what Tallon giveth on one side, he taketh away on the other. And that spells another season without a playoff appearance.
When some of us dared to suggest the Senators wouldn’t be a playoff team last season, many a set of pearls were clutched in Canada’s capital city. But when the bottom fell out and the Sens didn’t get good goaltending and Sergei Gonchar came out auditioning for The Walking Dead and their lack of depth was fully and completely exposed, even ownership admitted the franchise was closer to a full-on rebuild than a post-season berth. Without a doubt, there are pieces worth keeping – including Calder candidate blueliners David Rundblad and Jared Cowen – but if you don’t agree this team has more holes than a (insert your most hated rival team’s name here) convention, you’re officially hole-identification challenged.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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