Did somebody order Eastern conference predictions? No? Nobody? Tough, you're getting them anyway.
But first, remember the prediction guidelines, as set out in our last column:
1. Our beer intake during the decision-making process was capped at 20 per cent of a 12-pack (not including performance bonuses).
2. Neither Â“the creamÂ” nor Â“the clearÂ” was utilized for prediction-enhancing purposes.
3. However, Barry Bonds-level orneriness is detectable throughout the column. Consequently, The Hockey News' staff physician/dope-tester is investigating.
4. If you honestly believe the predictions were slanted because we harbor a grudge against your favorite team/player/city/reggae artist, snap out of it.
5. If you plan to wager significant sums of money based on our predictions, continue on snapping out of it.
Also, remember predictions are made based on total team points, not actual conference standings. Got your gongs? Then on with the show:
1. Ottawa One of the reasons Jacques Martin isn't coaching the Sens anymore is because he didn't play Jason Spezza enough. New boss Bryan Murray won't be so slow to learn; Spezza made grown men look silly last season in the AHL, and 90 per cent of the league thinks this is the year he makes the jump to NHL star. If that happens, if Dany Heatley can return to form and if Dominik Â“The Voice Of The New NHL? Let's Hope NotÂ” Hasek hasn't fooled two franchises into paying for failed comebacks, few teams can compete with this slick-skating crew. The playoffs, though, are a whole Â‘nuther story.
2. Tampa Bay Bolts GM Jay Feaster's summer Â– re-signing Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St-Louis to long term deals, plugging the hole left by his top goalie's departure with the addition of solid vet Sean Burke Â– qualifies as a minor miracle on par with the current touring capabilities of Starship featuring Mickey Thomas. Dan Boyle is underrated, Brad Richards is playing to be rewarded with a new contract next summer, and John Tortorella is still running the ship. Khabibulin, Shmabibulin. These champs ain't goin' nowhere.
3. Philadelphia Everybody loves the Flyers, and why not? Peter Forsberg's presence alone makes them Cup favorites, while their small army of prospects Â– including Jeff Carter, Antero Niittymaki and Mike Richards Â– is as talented as any other team's. But coach Ken Hitchcock has some work to do, as Philly's penalty killing in 2003-04 alternated between shamefully horrendous and horrendously shameful. And some of this team's key cogs are players who have provenÂ…how to put itÂ…delicate of body. Mr. Injury Bug could re-familiarize himself with many of them, crushing the Flyers' playoff hopes in the process.
4. Atlanta Not only have the Thrashers added Marian Hossa, Greg de Vries, Bobby Holik, Peter Bondra, Scott Mellanby and Jaroslav Modry since the last Stanley Cup final, but they also have to look forward to 16 games this season against division patsies Carolina and Washington. That said, if Thrashers GM Don Waddell can't come to terms with developing superstar Ilya Kovalchuk on a new contract, this Southern Belle of a squad turns into a pumpkin real quick.
5. Boston Harry Sinden is already aching for the good old days of obstruction, but his Bruins should hope the penalty parade continues throughout the season. With elite offensive talents such as Alexei Zhamnov and Brian Leetch added to the team, Boston is poised to make a run at Ottawa for the Northeast Divison title. But what's this? A Bruins player (Nick Boynton) in a contract dispute with management? When does this type of thing get officially proclaimed One Of The Signs The Fall Season Is Upon Us?
6. Pittsburgh Let's start with the negatives: Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury still isn't ready for the NHL. Also, three or four years from now, Pens GM Craig Patrick may regret signing defenseman Sergei Gonchar to a five-year deal. That's about all we've got. The upside is, there's far more upside to this franchise than there was as recently as June. And let's give Patrick some credit for foresight Â– he signed Andre Roy and Ryan VandenBussche, knowing full well one would have to replace the other during the fighting-related suspensions that are but an inevitability (Roy's already working on No. 2, and the season hasn't started yet).
7. Toronto By now, nobody's more sick of Leafs talk than we are. Most already know their season hinges on a bunch of Â“ifsÂ” Â– if Jeff O'Neill mounts a successful career revival; if Eric Lindros and Jason Allison can stay healthy; if Mahatma Domi's request for a ceasefire with the media lasts a day, let alone a season Â– and most know you can say the same thing about the fate of every team. But the news nobody wants to report is the golden opportunity Leafs ownership isn't taking advantage of: the chance to reach out to Toronto's thriving Jamaican community, via the creation of a mascot for the hometown Marlies, their newly relocated AHL affiliate. Think about it Â– you'd be kissing goodbye to the marketing opportunity of a lifetime if you didn't name it Bob. Bob Marlie. Ahem.
8. Florida South Floridians might be more interested in Shaquille O'Neal's rap career Â– shudder, twitch, etc. Â– than the job Panthers GM Mike Keenan has done this off-season, and that's a shame. There may not be a team with more promising prospects than Florida; now that they've got some of the league's most focused professionals (Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk) as well as some grit (Chris Gratton) and scoring (Jozef Stumpel), they could be good enough to convince goalie Roberto Luongo to forget about the trouncing he took during contract arbitration.
9. New Jersey That's right, ninth. Out of the playoffs. Unfamiliar territory for this franchise, to be sure, but it happens to the best of them. Don't agree? Think the losses of Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer can be easily overcome? Absolutely positive dealing away Jeff Friesen to get under the salary cap won't hurt the team at all? Completely convinced the returning Alexander Mogilny isn't an awkward stride away from having his hip explode during a game? Not us. Martin Brodeur may still be the league's top goalie, but he'll have to increase the size of his pads and shrink his own net to keep this team in the post-season.
10. Montreal The Â“glass-is-half-fullÂ” analysis of the Canadiens: They've got one of the league's fastest rosters, their prospects have a real shot at contributing this year, and their management team is second to none. The Â“glass-is-half-emptyÂ” view: Their defense is, to put it charitably, rather charitable in providing opponents with offensive opportunities; their roster doesn't lack size Â– if we were talking about the league circa 1936; and Radek Bonk remains Radek Bonk. The truth? The playoffs are out of reach, but that's the last time you'll be able to say that about the Habs for quite a while.
11. Islanders Is it possible to add a 30-goal scorer and a mobile, puck-moving defenseman without improving your team? It is if the players are Miroslav Satan and Alexei Zhitnik, the Islanders' big off-season acquisitions. Neither could pull the Buffalo Sabres out of the league's basement when they were there, so it's a little unfair to presume they'll do just that for GM Mike Milbury. Note to star goalie and budding player agent Rick DiPietro: since you were so successful in persuading Isles management to re-sign 36-year-old goalie Garth Snow to a three-year deal, do you mind giving The Hockey News Editor Jason Kay a call on our behalf?
12. Buffalo Everybody who saw the Sabres run roughshod over the opposition during the last three weeks needs to relax and remember one thing: It's the pre-season. Â“PreÂ” as in Â“pre-tendÂ”, Â“pre-dictableÂ”, Â“pre-matureÂ” and Â“pre-posterousÂ”. Now, we're not implying the team's plethora of inexperienced youngsters won't lead them anywhere close to a playoff spot, let alone a Stanley Cup. Actually, scratch that. That's exactly what we're implying.
13. Rangers Those interested in the world's great mysteries now have a new addition to the likes of the Lost City of Atlantis, Stonehenge and The Shroud of Turin: Glen Sather's continued employment with the Rangers. Try as he may Â– by bringing in high-risk, low-rewarders such as Martin Rucinsky and Martin Straka; by assembling a patchwork lineup of middling prospects and past-their-prime NHLers that is all but guaranteed of missing the playoffs for the eighth straight season Â– the Rangers GM just can't get fired. At this stage, we're pretty sure Sather could sign Lenny Wilkens to coach, Chad Pennington to run the power play, and Tyra Banks to serve as the go-to enforcer, and Cablevision CEO Jim Dolan would give him a contract extension. Different strokes for different folks, we suppose, but Rangers fans are going to be having different kind of strokes if this comedy of errors extends its Broadway run much longer.
14. Carolina The Hurricanes' offense was last in the league in 2003-04. Their penalty killing ranked 25th that season. To shore up the Â‘O', GM Jim Rutherford added Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney this summer. To shore up the Â‘D', he acquired Oleg Tverdovsky and Mike Commodore. There's a lot more shorin' to do before this franchise contends again.
15. Washington Not that anybody asked, but here's a slogan the Capitals' marketing people may want to adopt for this season: When Bad Things Happen To Good People. Glen Hanlon, Olie Kolzig and Brendan Witt, among others, don't deserve to be out of the playoff race by mid-December Â– but that's what's very likely to go down. At least Capitals fans will be able to watch Alexander Ovechkin smoke Sidney Crosby in the rookie points race.
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