Pre-season predictions are the alcohol-fueled benders of the sports journalism world: they seem like fun before you decide to engage in them and they provide moments of levity and insight while you’re in the middle of them – but once the process is over, they leave you with painful, lingering reminders of what an ass you can be.
Before I delve into my prognostications for the NHL’s Eastern Conference (the West will be posted next Thursday) in 2009-10, a couple brief qualifiers:
• The difference between eighth place and 12th or 13th place in conference standings can be less than 10 points. For instance, last year, Anaheim grabbed the West’s final playoff spot with 91 points; the Dallas Stars finished with 83 points, but that was only good enough for 12th in the conference. So picking a team to miss the playoffs isn’t necessarily an indictment of their competitiveness.
• The longer I do these, the more I like to think of predictions not as displays of psychic might, but as expressions of the expectations the hockey world – not team fan bases – has for each franchise. Some teams will exceed those expectations and some won’t come close to meeting them. But if you fervently believe the Islanders or Avalanche are using the same measuring stick for success this year as the Flyers and Sharks, you probably won’t appreciate some of my guesswork.
With that out of the way, I’ll borrow a line from Damon Wayans’ “Handi-Man” character and say, “Let’s get busy!”
1. Washington. The Capitals play in the league’s weakest division. They improved a dangerous forward unit with the off-season additions of Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison. Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom haven’t yet reached their career zeniths. I don’t care how tentative their goalie situation is – this group very well could be this season’s Penguins (only without the coaching change).
2. Boston. The fact the Bruins believe they can succeed without the contributions of Phil Kessel demonstrates just how deep this organization has become under GM Peter Chiarelli and his crack team of scouts. True, they won’t be able to sneak up on anyone anymore, but coach Claude Julien’s consistent demands on his best players means they won’t have to.
3. Philadelphia. Philly was THN’s collective pick to win the Stanley Cup this season. They’re also my personal pick to win it all. But virtually everything needs to go right – with Ray Emery and in league disciplinarian Colin Campbell’s office, to name two areas – for them to rise above the other power players in the East during the regular season. In the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division, I don’t see that happening for any team.
4. Pittsburgh. Can the Penguins push past an exhausting Cup run to stay in the upper echelons of the East? Will their blueline melt into mush after the departures of Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi? Should they be runaway favorites to repeat as champions? Might this paragraph end with only questions and a complete absence of answers? Yes, no, no and no.
5. Carolina. The can-do Canes benefited from a bounce-back year from Cam Ward and a breakout campaign from Tuomo Ruutu last season. Both will need both to perform just as well this year – and if Aaron Ward, Tom Kostopoulos and Andrew Alberts can add some saltiness to the wounds Carolina inflicts on their opponents, the Hurricanes represent the best challenge to Washington’s Southeast Division supremacy.
6. New Jersey. The Devils suffered far more departures (John Madden, Brian Gionta, and Scott Clemmensen, among others) than additions (Yann Danis and…ummm…), leaving them open to predictions of backwards steps in the standings. But now that Jacques Lemaire – the Frank Sinatra of the defense-first coaching community – is back in New Jersey – the Sands Hotel Copa Room of defense-first NHL cities – there’s little reason to suspect the Devils won’t qualify for post-season play for the 13th consecutive season.
7. Buffalo. Say what you may about the Sabres’ so-so defense corps and underachieving forwards, but the fact of the matter is they missed the playoffs by the equivalent of three stinking shootout losses last season. A fully healthy Ryan Miller, and the absence of on-ice flotsam and jetsam such as Maxim Afinogenov, ought to turn around Buffalo’s fortunes in a hurry this year.
8. Tampa Bay. Yes, yours truly picked the Lightning to make the playoffs last year. Yes, this is now an enduring point of shame for me. And yes, I’m a glutton for punishment, because I think the Bolts have got a more-than-decent shot at post-season play this year. Brian Lawton’s impressive re-casting of his defense group made my decision a whole lot easier.
9. Ottawa. Some snickered when I slotted the Sens in to finish ninth in the East in 2008-09. However, the day the season ended (with Ottawa in 11th place) was the day that laughter died. Dumping Dany Heatley relieves them of one distraction, but given the arrival of Alex Kovalev’s helter-skelter persona and the immediate and weighty expectations placed on Pascal Leclaire, Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo, it’s fair to assume another distraction won’t be far off.
10. Toronto. The old adage that “defense wins championships” should be laid to rest this season by a Maple Leafs team that (a) is stacked at the back end to a degree that would send Sir Mix-A-Lot into fits of glee; and (b) employs a group of forwards who might score less than heroin chic models in Sir Mix-A-Lot’s bedroom. Ron Wilson worked wonders in his first season as Toronto’s coach, but even if he uses a flamethrower from behind the bench, he can’t light enough lamps to prod the Leafs into the playoffs.
11. Montreal. In 2007-08, Ottawa freefell through the standings in the second half of the year and hung on to barely qualify for the post-season, then missed the playoffs the following campaign. (I suspect the smarter among you know where I’m going with this.) If Carey Price can’t shoulder the load for the Habs, they have the potential to drop even further down the standings than I’m rating them.
12. New York Rangers. The season hadn’t started for the Blueshirts in Manhattan – and already they were dealing with a flare-up from Marian Gaborik’s wonky groin, a restricted free agent holdout in Brandon Dubinsky, and John Tortorella and Sean Avery in general. There’s no doubt Henrik Lundqvist remains one of the NHL’s elite goalies, but there’s also no doubt the lineup in front of him is anything but elite.
13. Florida. The Panthers are the Sharks of the East, minus, of course, San Jose’s usual regular season successes. Steve Reinprecht – their highest-profile addition at forward – is unlikely to help them improve on the league’s 17th-best offense; and Jordan Leopold is extremely unlikely to replace the talents of Jay Bouwmeester. The Panthers will enjoy stretches where they look like a playoff contender, yet I’m confident they’ll go on a bed-soiling rampage in the spring. They always do.
14. Atlanta. Despite all the bluster about Ilya Kovalchuk signing a contract extension with Atlanta, it hasn’t happened yet. And that’s because the Russian superstar has seen this organization stink for too long to take management at its word that things will be different this year. This situation has Jay-Bouwmeester-playing-out-the-string-in-Florida written all over it. Enjoy Kovy while you can, Thrasher fans.
15. New York Islanders. For the most part, I honestly like what Garth Snow has done since taking over as Isles GM. And I understand an NHL-high 582 man-games lost to injury led to many of the problems that made this organization the league’s second-worst goal-scoring crew and third-worst goal-preventing group last season. Unfortunately, the Islanders still are paying for too many past mistakes made by previous management to dream about a post-season berth, let alone climbing out of the Atlantic Division basement.
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. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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