Eastern Promises

Northeast Division

2011 – 2012 Results

  1. Boston Bruins (49-29-4, 102 pts)
  2. Ottawa Senators (41-31-10, 92 pts)
  3. Buffalo Sabres (39-32-11, 89 pts)
  4. Toronto Maple Leafs (35-37-10, 80 pts)
  5. Montreal Canadiens (31-35-16, 78 pts)

Not much has changed in the Northeast landscape since the close of last season, but the major stories entering this abbreviated season start with the defending division champion Bruins.  All-star goalie, 2010-11 Conn Smyth winner and Stanley Cup Champion Tim Thomas decided to step away from the team because he “didn’t feel like playing hockey right now.” Thomas is a strange dude, but what the hell does that even mean?  He hasn’t retired, so Boston still has his $5 million salary hit against the cap, but he will not figure into the Bruins’ fate this year.  Luckily for Boston many think Tuukka Rask has the tools to be as good as or better than Thomas.  This will be his first season as a feature goaltender in the NHL, and while he has shown flashes of brilliance as the backup, it’ll be interesting to see how he performs throughout the year.  The other major change from last year involves the Toronto GM position.  Shortly before the season concluded, Toronto fired head coach Ron Wilson and replaced him with Randy Carlyle; however, GM Brian Burke remained despite an ownership change.  Then, 3 days before a very abbreviated training camp, boom Burke is out and replaced in house, with Dave Nonis.  Of course this could have no effect on what the Leafs do on the ice, but it stands to reason that a bad team with a 1st year GM taking over a week before the season will result in a lot of Ls for the Leafs.  Buffalo is coming off a disappointing season but unfortunately it’s not likely to improve in 2013.  They lost their top scorer to free agency, and while the top line is full of talent, scoring depth on the roster is a major concern.  Add that to underperforming big money players like Christian Ehroff and a general lack of toughness that last year resulted in injuries to all-star goalie Ryan Miller, it’s hard to see how the Sabres find success with a condensed division heavy schedule.  Montreal will hope to get an effective year out of top defenseman Andrei Markov, who hasn’t played 50 games in a season in 4 years, but question marks surround their scoring ability as well.  Carey Price has displayed greatness at times but seems to have just as many awful games.  The Habs will need a career year out of him to have a shot at the playoffs.  Finally, Ottawa vastly overachieved in 2011-12, as many projected a last place finish from the Sens.  But first time Coach Paul McClean quickly created a winner, and a lot has to do with who I think is the best player in the entire division, Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson.  Karlsson’s ability propelled the Senators to an excellent season, and nearly took down the top seeded Rangers in the first round of last year’s playoffs.  Goalie Craig Anderson is a proven winner, and the fact that the Sens had 8 players playing in Europe during the lockout opens the door for a fast start (they’re already 3-0-0 on the year). 

Projection:

I think the Northeast sends two teams to the playoffs, with Montreal just on the outside looking in.   The Senators will win the division, with Boston as the runner-up.  Both teams are coming off 1st round exits, but the Senators took the top seeded Rangers to 7, while the Bruins blew it at home to the 7th seeded Caps.  Ottawa’s younger, faster, and has better goaltending.

 

Atlantic Division

2011 – 2012 Results

  1. New York Rangers (51-24-7, 109 pts)
  2. Pittsburgh Penguins (51-25-6, 108 pts)
  3. Philadelphia Flyers (47-26-9, 103 pts)
  4. New Jersey Devils (48-28-6, 102 pts)
  5. New York Islanders (34-37-11, 79 pts)

With 5 teams in 3 states, the Atlantic is brutal.  Four of those teams reside within 120 miles of each other (only Pittsburgh is longer than a 2 hour drive away).  Boundaries are blurred and fan bases are piled on one another.  Add to the fact that no division combined for more points than the 5 teams in the Atlantic; and with a scheduled packed with divisional games, expect a war of attrition to decide who makes the dance in May.  The Rangers made the big splash, fed up with what was deemed as a lack of scoring, particularly on the power play, they went out and got one of the best shooters in the game with the addition of sniper Rick Nash.  And while a top line featuring Nash-Brad Richards-Marian Gaborik is fearsome, the question surrounds the ability to play for Coach John Tortorella.  Tortorella can only be politely described as a drill sergeant out of Full Metal Jacket.  He drives his players harder than any coach in hockey, is incredibly demanding, and no one is ever safe.  Nash comes from the cushy position of “big fish in a small pond,” he was the bona fide star in Columbus: the captain, best player, and leader.  He was given whatever he wanted on a team with no hope for postseason success and under very little pressure.  Now he joins a New York team steaming over an Eastern Conference Championship loss, and all the eyes and scrutiny that goes with playing in the Big Apple.  No matter the team, no matter the sport, New York as eaten and spit out more star athletes than most cities combined.  Can Nash handle such pressure?  The answer to that will determine where the Rangers go this year.  Then of course there’s Pittsburgh. The darlings of the hockey world.  I challenge you to find one person that covers the game nationally (not the biased local folks) that doesn’t just think the world of Crosby’s crew.  Every year they’re picked to win it all, every year Crosby will win the Hart Trophy and every year Malkin will win the scoring title.  Why not just make coach Dan Bylsma the COY from now until he retires?  I’m not buying it.  The Pens can score, they’ve always been able to score, but what got them last year was defense and goaltending.  In their first round matchup with the Flyers, the scoreboard flashed numbers more often seen at football games.  Marc-Andre Fleury had an incredible 4.63 goals against average in the playoffs, and the Pen did nothing to improve in this area!  Yes, they’ll make the playoffs.  They are too good and there are too many bad teams they’ll play for them not to.  But, what got them last year will get them this year, unless GM Ray Shero makes some midseason moves, expect another playoff exit.  The Flyers suck, will always suck, and that’s all I have to say about them.  It’s the same old story in New Jersey.  Another great player drafted, another great player leaves to free agency.  Zach Parise took his 31 goals, his captain’s C, and fled to Minnesota, leaving NJ wondering where the scoring will come from.  But even more alarming are the intangibles that Parise brought to the ice, a nonstop motor from the instant he stepped on the ice that was contagious through the rest of the locker room.  The teams leaders will have to duplicate that.  In particular the pressure is on C Travis Zajac, who signed a 5-year, $46.5 million contract (the max under the new CBA) immediately after the lockout.  Zajac missed nearly all of last season, returning for the last 2 weeks and the playoffs, and it will be up to him to replace Parise more so than anyone else on the roster.  NJ’s age is also worrisome.  Both, I repeat BOTH, goalies are 40 years old.  With an increased number of back-to-back games, the old pros abilities to stay healthy will determine where this team ends up in May.  Finally, the Islanders are on the rise!  As they prepare for their move to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the team has some wonderful young players led by Jonathan Tavares.  They are close, closer than they’ve been in a decade, but not quite there.  If they weren’t in the Atlantic their chances would be better, but the division is just too stacked right now for them to find a way into the playoffs, but don’t be surprised if this team finishes over .500 and ends up being 3rd or 4th when it’s all said and done.

Projection:

Expect three teams from the Atlantic, down from the four last year.  It will be a tight race, but the Rangers have the chance at a division crown.  They have an offense second only to Pittsburgh, but have the best defensive talent, and the best goaltender playing right now.  Those things simply add up to too many points.  Pittsburgh will finish second, and (homer pick) I’m thinking NJ squeaks in as a 7th or 8th seed.  The Flyers are talented, but riddled with major injuries to top players, and there are still a myriad of questions surrounding their goaltending position that I think they’re hurt by the shortened season, so much so that the Isles might  even end up ahead of them.

 

Southeast Division

2011 – 2012 Results

  1. Florida Panthers (38-26-18, 94 pts)
  2. Washington Capitals (42-32-8, 92 pts)
  3. Tampa Bay Lightning (38-36-8, 84 pts)
  4. Winnipeg Jets (37-35-10, 84 pts)
  5. Carolina Hurricanes (33-33-16, 92 pts)

Carolina, coming off their worst season in a while (says something when that season is a .500 year), made a lot of noise in the offseason.  They traded for C Jordan Staal from Pittsburgh, teaming him with brother and Captain Erik.  They signed the talented, yet enigmatic (hockey buzzword) Alex Semin as a free agent out of Washington.  They have a number of young stud skaters led by RW Jeff Skinner, and a Conn Smyth winning goalie in Cam Ward.  This is a team used to success, and made moves this offseason looking to get back to the top of the division.  One team in their way is defending division winner Florida.  I’d say it’s unlikely that Florida repeats last year’s success.  They got 18 points from OT/SO losses, something that’s hard to duplicate.  Even though some of those will turn to wins, its likely many will be regulation losses.  Compounding that is the general improvement in the division.  Carolina got better, Tampa Bay somewhat underachieved last year, and longtime division king Washington also had a subpar year by their standards.  All of this opened a door for Florida that they ran through, but I expect that door to close this year.  Florida has already lost its top 2 players to injuries, and questions abound with their goaltending as well (unless they end up trading for Roberto Luongo).  Washington was in trouble early last year when the fired Bruce Boudreau and brought in Dale Hunter as coach.  The team immediately responded to Hunter’s defensive system and was able to get back into the playoff picture, losing a very hard fought series to the top seeded Rangers in the second round.  But then, somewhat unexpectedly, Hunter decided not to return to the team, leaving GM Geogre McPhee to fill the void.  He chose former Capital player Adam Oates, and gave him his first gig as a HC.  Oates is a gifted offensive mind coming from a philosophically defensive organization in NJ.  He understands solid defensive play while also being a top power-play mind.  The hope in Washington is that Oates will get Ovechkin to return to form as a top scoring threat in the league.  However, the key to this teams success rests with on Nicklas Backstrom.  This team will go where he takes them.  But he’s got help, Washington has the deepest group of goalies in the Eastern Conference and maybe the entire league with 2 NHL level starters in Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby.  Goalie depth will be of utmost importance with the high number of back to back games, and Washington’s depth gives them a great advantage in this department.  Tampa is looking to rebound, and that was evident in GM Steve Yzerman’s move to get Nashville backup Anders Lindback, answering a major question from last season.  The lightning upgraded the blue line as well with the additions of Matt Carle and Sami Salo, hoping to add more balance on the defensive end of the ice.  As for their scoring?  Well, they have the best sniper in hockey with 60 goal scorer Steven Stamkos, and thanks to Yzerman’s keen hockey sense, expect a much more balanced and tough team around Stamkos than he had last year.  Winnpeg is full of questions, particularly at the goalie position.  Ondrej Pavelec signed a 5-year $19.5 million contract, thus paying him like a franchise goalie.  However, it seems most of the hockey world isn’t sure he is one.  Unless he proves otherwise, it’ll be another last place finish for the Jets.

Prediction:

I expect a very tight race in the competitive Southeast with the Capitals edging the Canes by a couple of points.  Sometimes, 2 good goalies are better than 1 really good one, and 2013 may be one of those seasons.  I expect Florida to fall after last year’s surprising run, and Tampa will sneak into the playoffs as the 3rd team from the southeast.

 

2013 Eastern Conference Playoffs:

  1. New York Rangers
  2. Ottawa Senators
  3. Washington Capitals
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins
  5. Carolina Hurricanes
  6. Boston Bruins
  7. New Jersey Devils
  8. Tampa Bay Lightning

Round 1

Rangers over Lightning in 6 games, Devils over Senators in 7 games, Capitals over Bruins in 7 games, Hurricanes over Penguins in 7 games

Round 2

Rangers over Devils in 6 games, Hurricanes over Capitals in 7 games

ECF

Hurricanes over Rangers in 7 games.