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By UltimateCapper.com Contributing Writer, Mike Ivcic
Lost in the conference reshuffling, baseball playoffs, and NFL hoopla is the return of my absolute favorite sport â hockey. The last four years have been an absolute boon for the game, as three original six teams (Detroit, Chicago, and Boston) have all claimed Stanley Cups, with the other going to the team with arguably the best duo in the league of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. All four of those teams should once again be considered for the Cup this year, but there are certainly a bevy of other teams that can make the run to Lord Stanley’s Cup. Have Philadelphia and Washington finally found goaltenders to lead them to the promise land? Will Roberto Luongo use the sting of last year’s game 7 finals loss to propel Vancouver over the hump? What about San Jose and Anaheim, two teams with some aging stars that might be running out of chances? Or will teams like the Rangers, Lightning, Kings, and Predators be able to put together two months of great hockey and topple the big boys en route to the championship. So many questions, which is why we’re here to (hopefully) bring you some answers.
Today we’ll take a look at the Eastern Conference, and Friday we’ll preview the Western Conference. A look at the playoffs will be after the conference previews, and we’ll give you the Cup winner tomorrow. Each team will be listed in their predicted order of finish in the conference, with last year’s record in parentheses. The second line will have their predicted order of division finish, followed by their odds to win the Stanley Cup. A complete look at those numbers, along with even more odds, can be found throughout UltimateCapper.com.
1. Washington Capitals (48-23-11=107)
1st, Southeast Division â 7/1
The top team in the conference each of the last two seasons now needs to learn to finish in the postseason. The idea is that Thomas Vokoun will be the answer in goal, but quite frankly, goaltending wasn’t this team’s issue. Granted, Simeon Varlemov didn’t play exceptionally well, but the bigger need is getting someone besides Alexander Ovechkin to show up offensively. There should be no question to this team having the most talent in the conference, but after watching Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Boston all win the conference under their watch, it’s about time the Capitals and their coaches step up and make the leap, or the one year reprieve they all got this past offseason will come to a crashing halt next offseason.
2. Philadelphia Flyers (47-23-12=106)
1st, Atlantic Division â 11/1
Like their I-95 brothers above, the Flyers might finally have solved the revolving door that is their goaltending situation. Ilya Bryzgalov is a legitimate top-tier goaltender in the likes of Roberto Luongo, Evgeni Nabokov, and Henrik Lundqvist. They have all played spectacularly at times, even in the postseason, but no one on that list has won a Cup just yet. The Flyers will have to replace the scoring of both Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, but this is finally a team that resembles those that have won the Cup in recent memory as opposed to the 1980’s Edmonton Oilers. Like Washington, this team has also had their share of playoff heartbreak, but only one will end their suffering this year â and I’d be really surprised if they’re not the final two teams standing in the East this season.
3. Montreal Canadiens (44-30-8=96)
1st, Northeast Division â 25/1
There might be some head scratching as I take the Canadiens over the Bruins, but it’s a good bet that Boston will start slow this season after playing into June to win the Cup last year. Thus, expect the Canadiens to start faster and open a bit of a division lead before Boston can recover from their Cup-winning hangover. These have been two very tightly-matched teams over the past few years, and Montreal is just hoping they don’t have to see the Bruins in the postseason.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning (46-25-11=103)
2nd, Southeast Division â 18/1
The Lightning quietly built a very good team last year that beat two of the perennial powerhouses in the East in Pittsburgh and Washington last postseason. No one will be surprised to see Tampa at the top this season, still being led by the stars of their ’04 Cup in Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. They’ve added Steven Stamkos, however, which has given them two very good lines and the ability to play with the elite in the conference. They’ll likely be good enough to earn home ice this season, but if their draw works out like I think, it might be a very short postseason compared to last year’s run.
5. Boston Bruins (46-25-11=103)
2nd, Northeast Division â 10/1
Last year’s Stanley Cup winners will look to become the first repeat champions since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings, but to do so they’ll have to navigate a very difficult conference. Combine that with the continued doubt surround Marc Savard and whether he’ll ever return from his nasty concussion, and this team might not be able to duplicate their success from last year. That said, this team did have the best goal differential at +58 last year, so it’s not as if that Cup run was a fluke. Tim Thomas is the key, and while I don’t expect him to play like he did against Vancouver all year long, he’ll only have to be somewhat close to that level to get Boston back into the playoffs.
6. Buffalo Sabres (43-29-10=96)
3rd, Northeast Division â 18/1
The 2010 year was one of the longest in the career of Ryan Miller, who almost singlehandedly won the United States an Olympic gold medal before upping the stakes with his performance in the ’10 playoffs. You can almost excuse his “shaky” play (by his standards) last season, since there’s no question fatigue had to have played a factor. With a longer offseason, expect Miller to be back on top of his game, and that can only mean good things for Buffalo this season. They’ll only go as far as he’ll take them, and for my money, that will likely be the second round of the postseason.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins (49-25-8=106)
2nd, Atlantic Division â 10/1
You might have been wondering when I was going to get to Pittsburgh, and here they are. Why? Regardless of how well Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Penguins can play, they will only go as far as Sidney Crosby can take them â which means the entire organization is hoping and praying that their captain and face of the franchise will be healthy enough to return to action when the regular season begins. That’s highly unlikely, though, and the longer he stays out, the worse this team will finish. Ultimately, they’d be the most dangerous seven-seed in NHL history, especially if Crosby is healthy at that point, but getting to the postseason will be the tricky thing for this group. They will, though, because there’s simply too much talent not too, Crosby or not, but I wouldn’t take those 10/1 odds without the assurance that Sid the Kid will be playing in the 2011 postseason.
8. New York Rangers (44-33-5=93)
3rd, Atlantic Division â 30/1
Each of the past two seasons, the Rangers have had to play the final game of the regular season to determine their postseason fate, losing to Philadelphia in a shoot out and missing the playoffs two years ago before inching out Carolina last year. Without any major upgrades to their roster this season, the Rangers will likely once again have to gut out any postseason berth right down to the 82nd game â and do so on the back of Lundqvist. It will likely be another one-and-done for New York, and that’s if they even get there. The new salary cap has not been kind to teams like the Rangers, who had been used to simply overpaying for superstars to build their club. They’re now wasting the career of one of the league’s best goalies because they can’t put enough offense in front of him to take this team from the middle of the pack to the top tier of the conference.
9. Carolina Hurricanes (40-31-11=91)
3rd, Southeast Division â 45/1
They were the odd team out last year, and look like they’ll be in a dogfight for that position once again. Cam Ward in goal can be a difference-maker, but just based on the talent on the roster, this team is not as close to the postseason as the Rangers or Sabres. Sure, that means that the playoffs will include the same eight teams as last season, but hockey isn’t football â the parity isn’t as quickly accomplished because the careers of the players are longer, especially the good ones. This is still a young and talented team that is quite capable of getting as high as third in this conference, if they can surprise Washington and Tampa Bay. But again, preseason predictions are made based on paper, and I think eight teams are better on paper than the Hurricanes, so we’ll take them ninth and see what happens.
10. New York Islanders (30-39-13=73)
4th, Atlantic Division â 80/1
It’s not a playoff pick, but this is my sleeper team this season because of all the young talent that’s been stockpiled in Uniondale. Without an arena deal, this certainly has the potential to be the final season for this team on Long Island, but they have a chance to make some noise in the East for the first time in almost a decade. Now, if only they could get rid of that brutal contract for Rick DiPietroâ¦
11. Toronto Maple Leafs (37-34-11=85)
4th, Northeast Division â 50/1
This is another team that’s finally going in the right direction, but the issue for Toronto is that they play in a very difficult division. They’re simply not as good as Buffalo, Boston, or Montreal, and playing those teams six times each leads to an extremely difficult schedule that really makes it hard to see this team earning a playoff spot above the likes of Tampa Bay, Carolina, New York, or Pittsburgh. That said, the NHL desperately needs this team to be good again, because teams in hockey hotbeds are vital to the success of the league â and there isn’t a bigger hockey hotbed in the entire league than Toronto, bar none. Slowly but surely, this franchise is on the rebound, and that only means good news for commissioner Gary Bettman and the rest of the league offices. And mark it down now, you heard it here first â the Toronto Maple Leafs will be playoff bound in 2013.
12. Winnipeg Jets (34-26-12=80) *as Atlanta Thrashers
4th, Southeast Division â 60/1
Welcome back, Winnipeg! Now you get to play one year in a division that includes Carolina, Washington, Florida, and Tampa Bay. Frequent flier miles, anyone? Ultimately, the NHL will realign and but the Jets into a division with the likes of Minnesota, Colorado, and the two Alberta teams, but until then they’ll still be treated to the Atlanta Thrashers schedule, which means there will be some long nights of travel in the Jets’ first season. Part of the reason hockey didn’t succeed in Atlanta (for a second time) though, was that the team wasn’t all that good. The talent didn’t suddenly get better because the franchise moved to Canada. It eventually will, and the NHL did a nice job of getting another team back to our northern neighbor, which is only good news for the sport.
13. New Jersey Devils (38-39-5=81)
5th, Atlantic Division â 30/1
Martin Brodeur is a shadow of his former self, so there’s not a whole lot left to cheer about in Newark. Well, except for the building, as the Devils play in one of the best venues in the league in the Prudential Center. The Devils have lost so much talent since the turn of the century, when they were a playoff lock and Stanley Cup favorite every season. They still have more talent and ability than the two teams below them, but it won’t be enough to leapfrog a number of teams that have begun the upswing (Maple Leafs, Islanders, and Hurricanes) as well as some teams on the way down that haven’t fallen to this point just yet (Rangers, Sabres). Devils fans were so accustomed to winning that they haven’t really figured out how to react to a tough spell recently, but this franchise is led by one of the best in Lou Lamiorello, so they won’t be bad for too long.
14. Ottawa Senators (32-40-10=74)
5th, Northeast Division â 75/1
Since Toronto has begun their rebuilding quest, someone has to finish last in the division, which leaves Ottawa holding the back. Soon the Senators will also have their chance to rebound and rise back to the top of the East, which they won in 2007 before losing the finals to Anaheim. Daniel Alfredsson, who will turn 40 in 2012, is a lot like Brodeur â not quite what he was, but still a solid player capable of producing if the right pieces are surrounding him, but just like Marty, Daniel has very little to work with outside of Jason Spezza. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ottawa try to trade Alfredsson at some point this year to get something back to help the rebuilding process, which might stun some fans in Canada’s capital. This is one of the youngest teams in the league, so unloading older players that won’t be around when the team is good again would be a smart move.
15. Florida Panthers (30-40-12=72)
5th, Southeast Division â 75/1
On the short list of teams likely to move in the next couple of years, Florida is at or near the top (Phoenix being the only leading candidate). With the Marlins getting a new stadium and the Heat on pace for seven champiâ¦ errâ¦ whatever, the Panthers are clearly the backseat team in a city not at all short on things to do. The team is bereft of any real stars (Scottie Upshall is probably the most well-known player on the roster) and the goaltending with Jose Theodore, Scott Clemmensen, and three youngsters isn’t going to steal a playoff spot. This club needs some quality drafts quickly to rebound in the East, or Miami won’t have a hockey team for much longer.
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