NHL Season Preview- Part 3

Last time, I finished up the rest of the Western Conference and now, we’re moving to the east. Here are my projections for the Southeast and Atlantic divisions.

Southeast Division:

(#3)  1. Washington Capitals

Top Forwards: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich

Top Defensemen: Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Mike Green, Roman Hamrlik

Goaltenders: Tomas Vokoun, Michal Neuvirth

The Caps are quite the enigma. Their postseason success has been limited despite routinely finishing at or nearly at the top of the conference. Traditionally, the Caps were heavy favorites to the win the cup because of their high-octane offense. Unfortunately, their defensive play left much to be desired and they were quick outs because of that. Last season, head coach Bruce Boudreau and the team committed themselves to playing a more defensive style of play and that yielded a similar result to past years both in the regular season and the playoffs. The Caps struggled to score goals come playoff-time last year and were crushed by the Lightning in the 2nd round. The only reason they even got that far was that they played the Rangers who were an even more pathetic offensive team. So the question is what have they done to rectify their problems from last year? Frankly, not that much.

The most notable move that they made was signing elite goaltender, Tomas Vokoun on the cheap for a year, but goaltending wasn’t the issue for them last year. The moves they made up front and on defense were lateral ones. Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley, and Eric Fehr are gone, Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward, and Troy Brouwer are in and on defense Scott Hannan is out and Roman Hamrlik is in.  The only other additions that could help will have to come from within in the form of forwards Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault. Essentially, the front office is giving the old guard another chance to lead the Caps to the promised land. What’s the old saying…The definition of insanity is repeating the same decisions over and over again expecting different results. I don’t expect a different result from Washington this year.

(#7)  2. Tampa Bay Lightning

Top Forwards: Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, Ryan Malone, Steve Downie

Top Defensemen: Victor Hedman, Mattias Ohlund, Pavel Kubina, Eric Brewer

Goaltenders: Dwayne Roloson, Mathieu Garon

This was definitely a surprise team last season. No one expected the Lightning to gel like they did and nearly make the Stanley Cup Finals after so much roster changes via free agency last year. People will look at the obvious and say that Stamkos and St. Louis were the main reasons why the Lightning succeeded. They certainly racked up points, but those two alone putting up monster numbers doesn’t guarantee anything. There were three main reasons for Tampa Bay’s great success last year: head coach, Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 system, which allowed for easier puck retrievals for Tampa’s not-so-fleet-of-foot blueline, Roloson’s performance in goal, and adding role players like Sean Bergenheim, Jeff Halpern, Dominic Moore, Nate Thompson, and Teddy Purcell who helped improve the forward depth and became a large part of their playoff run.

For this season, Boucher’s system will remain in place, but they’ve lost Halpern and Bergenheim, which will hurt their forward depth a bit, and Dwayne Roloson is another year older. Mathieu Garon and the defense, specifically Victor Hedman will need to be able to step in and be able to take a good chunk of the load off of Roloson or there will be trouble. Rookie, Brett Connolly is an X-factor here. It would be huge if he could provide 40-50 points for them on the cheap. Bottomline though, this is a team that is better suited for the playoffs than it is for the regular season. I expect to see a slide for them this year. How much of one remains to be seen, but I think they’ll have enough in the tank to get in the playoffs and from there, who knows what can happen. They certainly have the pedigree.

(#10)  3. Winnipeg Jets

Top Forwards: Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, Alexander Burmistrov, Bryan Little, Nikolai Antropov

Top Defensemen: Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, Zach Bogosian, Mark Stuart

Goaltenders: Steve Mason, Ondrej Pavelec

The players of the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers had quite a tumultuous year with all of the threat of the franchise moving looming over their heads all of last season. Going off on a tangent for a moment, I personally think the NHL should see the move from Atlanta to Winnipeg as a tragedy. Sure, Winnipeg probably has great fanbase, but the fact is that the NHL failed in a major US market for the 2nd time and has now moved to a really small market up north. Anyways, back to the preview. The Jets have an interesting blend of talent at every position. Little and Burmistrov could end up being a potent 1-2 punch at center and their already talented wingers have some room to grow.

On defense, Byfuglien was a pleasant surprise on defense after switching to the position after being a forward and has emerged as one of the team’s leaders. What could really help the Jets make a playoff run this year is for Bogosian to fulfill some of the promise that made him one of the top picks in the ’08 draft (This was the same draft that Tyler Myers, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Luke Schenn, Eric Karlsson, John Carlson, and Luca Sbisa came out of). As you can tell by that list, that was a great draft for defensemen and all of those guys are already or will be the leaders of their respective team’s blueline. Bogosian showed a glimpse of that promise in his rookie year, but he has regressed ever since then. Their goaltending situation is solid. Mason and Pavelec should see pretty close to an even split in games, which could also pay dividends as the season wears on.

The only reason I’m not putting them in the playoffs is because this group hasn’t seen much success, but they certainly have the potential to snag one of those bottom-seeds.

(#11)  4. Carolina Hurricanes

Top Forwards: Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, Jussi Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu, Brandon Sutter

Top Defensemen: Joni Pitkanen, Tomas Kaberle, Jamie McBain, Bryan Allen

Goaltenders: Cam Ward, Brian Boucher

The Canes roster doesn’t exactly have a lot of sizzle when you look at the roster, but they manage to compete and be in playoff hunts. They haven’t had too much postseason success after their 05-06 cup-winning season (FYI, that still really stings) though. Last year, they finished just two points out of a playoff spot, thanks Eric Staal, Cam Ward, a surprise contributor in Jeff Skinner, and a, ehrm, uncanny ability to draw penalties and score on the power play. This year, the song remains the same for the Canes outside of a few augmentations. Erik Cole is out and Alexei Ponikarovsky is in and they also added Tomas Kaberle on defense. Personally, I don’t think they’ve improved that much and I think Eric Staal, Cam Ward, and their power play will have to have exceptional years for them to make the playoffs. Their scoring depth needs work and their defense while being mobile is soft and will crumble when they play more physically-aggressive teams.

(#15)  5. Florida Panthers

Top Forwards: Stephen Weiss, David Booth, Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Kris Versteeg

Top Defensemen: Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski, Dmitri Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson

Goaltenders: Jose Theodore, Scott Clemmensen

Florida is definitely a team in transition with the former mastermind of the Chicago Blackhawks, Dale Tallon taking over as GM and Kevin Dineen taking over as head coach. Sabres fans will remember Dineen from his time coaching the Sabres’ prospects down in Portland. With this duo in place, I have no doubt that the Panthers will finally become a franchise worth rooting for. Florida has several elite prospects that have bright futures and the organization has a GM that knows how to build a team, but fans will have to play the waiting-game for now.

As for this year, this roster is mainly comprised of cast-offs from other teams. There are a few good pieces here, most notably Campbell and Weiss, but what this team is lacking is high-end talent at forward and defense. I suspect they’ll deal a decent amount of these guys for picks/prospects and let the young guys play more towards the end of the year. The goaltending is subpar with Theodore and Clemmensen manning the crease, but they have a can’t-miss goalie prospect in Jacob Markstrom that will be arriving on the scene very soon. They may finish with an awful record this year, but you can bet that they’ll play hard every night with Dineen on the bench, so they should a pretty endearing team.

 

Atlantic Division:

(#1)  1. Pittsburgh Penguins

Top Forwards: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, James Neal, Chris Kunitz

Top Defensemen: Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik

Goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury, Brent Johnson

Pittsburgh was a team that was expected to go far and have a really good chance at getting another Stanley Cup last season. Unfortunately for them, all three of their top centers (Crosby, Malkin, and Staal) all missed significant time last season. A funny thing happened though. On the strength of their defense and goaltending, the Pens grinded out win after win and they were only one point away from winning the division. Their lack of scoring punch cost them against the Lightning in the playoffs last year though, so what lies in store for this year’s team.

The Pens have everyone healthy, except for Crosby, who’s concussion problems have been well-documented. He’s on injured reserve right now, but unlike the NFL, he’s eligible to come off of it during the season. The timetable on his return is very much up in the air because you don’t really know how long it’s going to take him to get back that last little bit of his health to get back to 100%. Pittsburgh still has a very good team without him though. Malkin and Staal are the farthest thing from slouches at center and they’ve got a nice top-6 group of wingers in Neal, Kunitz, Sullivan, and Tangradi.

On defense, the Pens are deep and they are talented. Their top-4 of Martin, Michalek, Orpik, and Letang are all first-pairing calibur defensemen and Matt Niskanen and Ben Lovejoy are good enough to play on the 3rd pairing. Overall, it’s a good blend of grit, offense, and defense that they have on the blueline. As for their goaltending, Fleury has had his ups and downs throughout his career, but on the whole, he’s still a very good goalie who’s capable of helping this team win a cup. The kicker here though is that they have Brent Johnson as their backup, so the Pens will have to really be on their game to win the majority of the games that he’ll start, which will probably be in the neighborhood of 15-20 games. After what I watched last season, there’s no way I can go against these guys in the division and they seem like the best bet to snag the #1 seed in the East. If Crosby is playing like himself going into the playoffs, the Pens should be the favorite to go the Stanley Cup Finals from the East .

(#5)  2. NY Rangers

Top Forwards: Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Derek Stepan

Top Defensemen: Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Sauer, Ryan McDonagh

Goaltenders: Henrik Lundquist, Marty Biron

In typical New York fashion, the Rangers made the biggest splash in the free-agency market last year by signing Brad Richards. Richards is that bonafide #1 center that teams were clamoring for and he will definitely help that team out, but how much will he improve the offense of a team that was embarrassing in the offensive-end of the ice last season.

The answer is that he’ll help it enough to make this team more of lock for a playoff spot instead of being a bubble-team. Marian Gaborik has to be thrilled about having a guy like Richards here to feed him the puck. This move also helps take away some of the pressure for the young guys like Stepan and Anisimov to produce. Ryan Callahan is the heart and soul of that team though. He provides leadership (as evidenced by getting the C this year), scoring, hits, and good two-way play.

What will be interesting is how the defense will get along without Marc Staal who will be out about a month. Staal is without a doubt the best defenseman on that team and his presence takes the pressure of their other guys who are good defenders in their own right, but there isn’t one guy on that team who can even come close to filling his shoes. The forwards will have to be on their toes defensively while providing sufficient offense and Lundquist will have to be excellent in goal. I’m definitely not worried about Lundquist playing well though. I didn’t include Biron because he probably won’t play enough during Staal’s injury for his play to really affect their place in the standings.

I do think that this team will be able to tread water while Staal’s out and then they will take off from there. Once the playoffs hit, these guys will be as dangerous as any one in the East.

(#6)  3. Philadelphia Flyers

Top Forwards:  Claude Giroux, Danny Briere, James Van Riemsdyk, Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds

Top Defensemen: Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timmonen, Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros

Goaltenders: Ilya Brysgalov, Sergei Bobrovsky

Out of all the teams in the NHL, the Flyers definitely had the biggest shake-up this offseason. The front office decided to move on from former captain, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter and shipped both of the talented centers out to LA and Columbus respectively. They did get some good pieces back though in Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier (courtesy of Columbus’s 1st round pick).  Giroux and Briere will be leaned-upon to be the team’s top-6 centers and they should be up to the task. As if their offseason wasn’t interesting enough, the Flyers picked up Jaromir Jagr and goaltender, Ilya Brysgalov. Signing Brysgalov was the sign of a paradigm shift in Philly seeing as that team hasn’t had a reliable starting goaltender for what seems like an eternity. The ironic thing though is that the guy they signed to be the answer to their problems in goal has shriveled up come playoff time during his tenure in Phoenix, so there’s a decent chance that the end result won’t change all that much.

What worries me the most about this team though is the defense. Pronger has had injury problems and is another year older and Timmonen is another year older as well. Both of those guys are getting up there in years and the other guys on the blueline (Carle, Meszaros, Coburn, and Walker) aren’t capable of stepping-up to fill the void on defense should those guys slow down a bit this season.

I still think that this is a good team though. They will score enough and Brysgalov will be good enough to help this team get to the playoffs. What happens from there though is anyone’s guess. A lot of it will depend on how good Pronger and Timmonen are by then.

(#8)  4. NY Islanders

Top Forwards: John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson, Frans Nielson

Top Defensemen: Mark Streit, Travis Harmonic, Steve Staios,  Andrew MacDonald

Goaltending: Evgeni Nabokov, Rick DiPietro, Al Montoya

Here is my surprise playoff team in the East. There seems to be a team or two that comes out of nowhere to contend for a playoff spot in each conference and the Isles are my surprise team for a few reasons. The first reason is that they didn’t have trouble scoring last season and they are bringing the same group back with the addition of rookie forward, Nino Niederreiter. The second is that they will have some more stability in goal with Nabokov there in addition to the oft-injured DiPietro and Montoya, which is huge. The third is that they have  Mark Streit back in the lineup fully healthy. Streit is a bonafide #1 defenseman who does everything on the back-end. His presence alone will make that solid group on defense better.

Of course, there are things that could derail this projected Cinderella-esqe season. The most likely thing that could happen is that things turn sour with Nabokov which would really derail things since DiPietro and Montoya aren’t exactly a reliable tandem. I have faith though that at least for this year, that won’t happen though. It would be nice to see this area have a playoff team again. They do have a solid fanbase that has been through a lot of stuff. The most recent thing was that “Lighthouse Project” that got shot down in a vote which has put the team’s future in Nassau very much in question. Perhaps that could be the kind of thing that could motivate these guys to really give it their all this season.

(#12)  5. New Jersey Devils

Top Forwards: Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Patrick Elias, Dainus Zubrus

Top Defensemen: Henrik Talinder, Anton Volchenkov, Adam Larsson, Andy Greene

Goaltenders: Marty Brodeur, Johan Hedberg

Oh how the mighty have fallen. You could usually pencil in the Devils for a top spot in the East, but that is not the case anymore for a few reasons. One is that Brodeur is finally starting to show signs of slowing down in net which isn’t good for a team that relies upon their goalies so much. Another is that the defense doesn’t have anyone who can really contribute in the offensive game and this group as a whole is on the slow-side. 1st round pick, Adam Larsson will need to grow-up fast to help turn things around on the blueline. When you aren’t getting much offense from your blueline, that puts even more pressure on the forwards to produce and the Devils just aren’t a deep team up front. Parise, Zajac, and Kovalchuk can’t do it all and their young guys aren’t ready to contribute just yet. To this day, I have no idea why they signed Kovalchuk to that monster contract. It is going to hamstring this team for a long time, even though he is a good player because of that cap hit.

The best-case scenario I can see for this team is just barely sneaking in the playoffs if Larsson steps up, Brodeur gets his game back to where it was, and the top forwards on that team really produce.

 

Look for my preview of the Northeast Division and the Sabres in part 4 tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Response to NHL Season Preview- Part 3

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