2006/2007 Season Preview: Eastern Conference
by Mike Sawaryn(NHL)
Posted on October 5, 2006, 3:23 PM
Hello NHL fans! Itís been a long offseason and...ok, no it hasnít. Hockey JUST ended and already the new season just began. But hey, who am I to complain? It may not have been a long offseason, but it doesnít mean it wasnít a busy one. Every team made some moves to help improve their team, and then there was the New York Islanders who provided us with great comedy. Except if youíre a fan of them. Then Iím very, very sorry. Anyways, this is a beast of a column, so letís get right to it, shall we?
I think everything here is pretty self-explanatory. And if youíre just going to cheap out and see what I have for standings, theyíre at the end. Oh, and keep in mind I did most of this several days ago, so some of the things for some teams may have changed since I wrote this. Particularly New Jersey and Pittsburgh. But my predictions still stay the same pretty much.
Boston Itís hard to believe just how much this team has changed from the one a couple seasons ago that was by far the best team in the East, and maybe the league. Itís been pretty sad seeing them fall so far so fast. But thereís reason to be optimistic in Boston this year I believe. While I still think the Thornton trade was the second stupidest hockey decision since the lockout ended (see my Islanders preview for the stupidest!) they do have a bit more depth because of it. And if Phil Kessel becomes the player he was hyped to be for a couple years now, the future is very bright in Boston.
The Good: Kessel could very well become a star, they signed Zdeno Chara to instantly have a top notch D-man, and they could very well have another future goaltender in Hannu Toivonen now that they lost Raycroft. Add Partice Bergeron and Marco Sturm, and youíve got a young lineup that could be great for years to come.
The Bad: Now the bad side of Kessel, his stock dropped a pretty incredible amount over the last season or so. He went from the next Ovechkin or Malkin to people wondering if heís actually the next Daigle. Which one will really show up? And personally Iím not sold on the goaltending just yet. Yes, Toivonen could be good, but I think heíll take a couple years to grow into the number one role. And Tim Thomas? Iím leaning towards the side of a once in a lifetime season last year. Heís 32. Where were these signs before?
Prediction: Much improved over last year, and if all goes right they could be the most improved team in the league. However theyíre in a very tough division, and I think by the end theyíll be battling Montreal for 3rd place there and perhaps for the final playoff spot.
Buffalo Yeah, talk about a team that came out of nowhere last year to look great. Thereís not a team that benefited more from the new rules than the Sabres. They donít even have a superstar player anywhere either, itís just 4 lines, solid D and a solid goalie combining to do nothing but win games. They kept most the key components together for this year and added a great powerplay guy in Jaro Spacek. Was last year a flash in the pan? Iím thinking not at all. They could be solid for a while to come.
The Good: Ryan Miller was fantastic in goal and should continue to improve. Spacek gives them one more weapon, and everyone saw how good he could be last spring in the playoffs. Basically everyone is back and they should continue to grow off last year.
The Bad: They wonít catch anyone off guard, and as a final four team, everyone knows how dangerous they are. And those new uniforms, good freaking lord. Slugs do not look good across a hockey playerís chest. Or is that Barney Rubbleís hairstyle? I canít tell. Honestly. WHAT?? ITíS SUPPOSED TO BE A BUFFALO?? WTF??
Prediction: Well, obviously my bad stuff isnít that bad. With Ottawa a little less dangerous, I think theyíll fight for the division title and be right there near the top of the East this year.
Montreal Who would have ever thought before last year that Jose Theodore would be gone from Montreal by this season? But with the way Huet played last year, I guess it was a move they figured they could make. The Habs surprised me last season, I didnít figure them for a playoff team. And I still donít really this year to be honest. Hot goaltending carried what is a somewhat subpar lineup all last year, and although they did improve in a couple areas...Iím just not sold, what can I say.
The Good: Depth at goaltending is pretty nice here. Aebischer is an above average backup. Samsonov should fit in very well with the sort of lineup they have and the style they play. Young team with a bright future if they stay together.
The Bad: Like Tim Thomas in Boston, Iím not sold on Huet being permanently as good as he was last year. Again, where were these signs before? They got a couple good scorers, but I donít see too much depth there. And when some of your top players are guys like Souray and Koivu, injuries are always a very realistic possibility.
Prediction: Pretty much the same team as last year, pretty much the same prediction. Theyíll be either near the bottom of the East or fighting for that 8th playoff spot. In this division I canít see them going much higher.
Ottawa This team confuses me. Theyíve fully earned their reputation of choking in the playoffs, so they (smartly) get rid of Hasek and bring in...a guy who played a great regular season and showed nothing in the playoffs. Well, I guess Martin Gerber is a perfect fit in that case. If I was the Sens I would have gone after Marty Biron, JS Giguere or Vesa Toskala/Evgeni Nabokov before I went after Gerber. Ah well, not my team. But even though they lost some guys, this is going to be a carbon copy Sens team pretty much...again. Expect probably not as good during the year. Last year should have been their year, no doubt.
The Good: Scoring, scoring scoring. Good depth on forwards, defence and even goaltending. I think Priessing is going to prove to be a great acquisition for this team as well.
The Bad: Regular season, not so much. Go to the playoffs and everything good, just reverse it. This is always a fantastic regular season team that chokes when it counts. And theyĎve done nothing IMO to improve that situation.
Prediction: Same as every year. Theyíll be right at the top of the East. Although I think theyíre not as good as last year, and theyíll have to fight much harder to hold off Buffalo this time around. Maybe thatíll teach them something for the playoffs, who knows.
Toronto The Leafs are going to win the cup this year, right? Well, the Leaf fans I know already seem to know it. Just as they did last year. And every year before that. Blah. I feel bad for JFJ and the smarter Leafs fans that know what this team REALLY needs: a good rebuilding phase. They need to just go young, get some good draft picks, and build up a good team for years to come. But with the money in potential playoff games and the pressure in Toronto, you just canít do that. Every year theyíll plug in some older guys that MIGHT help them sneak into the postseason. They wonít win the cup, but thereís a chance of making the playoffs year after year. It would drive me nuts if it was my team, really. The core of this team will not win a cup, and they need an overhaul. Will they get it? Probably not.
The Good: By adding Mike Peca, theyíve got a guy thatíll be gold in the playoffs. I do like getting Raycroft on this team a lot, heís a huge step up from Belfour and is at least something to build on for the future. Thereís a few younger guys in the lineup that will be solid contributers.
The Bad: None of those young guys are going to be future stars to carry this team once a guy like Sundin retires. Peca will be great in the playoffs, but wonít help them much during the year if last year was any indication. And the money they spent on McCabe is just silly for one really good year.
Prediction: Hate to sound like a broken record, but theyíll be about where they were last year. Fighting near the 8th spot, but I donít see them making it. Actually I have them coming in last in the division. And theyíll probably fire JFJ before or after the year for it as well.
New Jersey Love them or hate them Lou Lamoriello is one hell of a GM. Heís had this team consistently contending for a long, long time now. And just yesterday he managed to pull off a pretty cunning deal, sending a retired player to the Sharks who will have to eat up his salary for this year. But, I have a feeling the good times are starting to slow down in the swamp. Jersey looked average for most of last year until an amazing run in the second half of the season. And now theyíre in all sorts of salary cap trouble, and any of holes they have this year, they wonít be able to patch up with strong deadline moves like theyíve made in the past. However, on paper, going into this season the Devils are still looking like a strong team with great depth up front.
The Good: Again, forward lines are looking very strong all the way across. Brodeur doesnít seem to age, like ever. They play a smart game that fits their style and always find a way to win.
The Bad: Obviously the salary problems, and they may have to still unload a player or two to really fit it under. Their defense which has always been the trademark just isnít the same without Niedermeyer or Stevens. Which team will show up, the bad first half team or the amazing second half team?
Prediction: I see them falling a bit, probably still challenging for a playoff spot but itís not a sure thing like it used to be. You would think Brodeur would eventually have an off year, last year we saw some signs and this one might be the one.
NY Islanders BWAH HA HA HA HA!! I canít even think about this franchise without laughing. Here they are, saddled down with a horrible 10 year contract to Alexei Yashin. You would think ďlesson learnedĒ, until they sign their unproven goalie to a FIFTEEN YEAR CONTRACT. Jesus Christ. I could only imagine how it feels to be an Islanders fan. You FINALLY start off the summer with hope, bringing in Ted Nolan and Neil Smith. Hey, weíre getting out of the gutter, right? Then Smith is gone a couple weeks later, for your BACKUP GOALTENDER to run the team. Then he isnít even part of the 15 year contract signing! You canít write this comedy. Someone needs to just blow up this team and let them start again. But they canít...for at least FIFTEEN YEARS.
The Good: Hey, if DiPietro becomes the next Brodeur, stays healthy, stays motivated and honors this contract without holding out along the way, they signed a great deal! And I guess Ted Nolan might be ok.
The Bad: FIFTEEN YEAR CONTRACT. And everything else, this organization and the team is a mess. Heck, two of their prospects left to play in Russia. That says something.
Prediction: Whoís the next big draft pick? Consider the Islanders in the running for the (insert top draft pick name here) sweepstakes.
NY Rangers Well, they certainly turned things around in a hurry. The team that has been spending money like thereís no tomorrow finally has to deal with a salary cap, and they finally make the playoffs. Thatís just funny. But the biggest problem I think they had the past few years was lack of solid goaltending. Richter was injured towards the end of his career and everyone else in there, well, sucked. Now Lundqvist comes out of NOWHERE and stands on his head all year and plays great. Jagr finally playing like a MVP again certainly helped, and young guys like Prucha contributed a lot. Now they finally feel like theyíve got a contender in Manhattan and are trying to build on that. Instead of loading up on every big name in the game, theyíve built an actual team and itís working.
The Good: Lundqvist was amazing last year and could be even better the second time around. Adding Brendan Shanahan who doesnít seem to get older wonít hurt either. And if Lundqvist really IS the future, they could even trade Al Montoya for some extra help on D if they need as well.
The Bad: As with most goalies who have one hot year, can Lundqvist do it again, or will he suffer a sophomore jinx? And which Jagr will come out this year, the best player in the league one, or the most overpaid player ever one? Plus the depth of this team is a bit iffy at best.
Prediction: As long as they stay healthy and motivated like last year, theyíll be right near the top of the East. Should win the divison this year.
Philadelphia I honestly donít know how this team was as good as they were last year to be honest. I watched a couple of their games, and they had no way to match up with speedy, skilled teams (which obviously in the new NHL is the emphasis). Theyíre full with big, slow, ugly (ok, maybe just Darien Hatcher) guys...and Peter Forsberg, whoís a walking injury. But they found a way to win until the playoffs, when Buffalo really showed how lacking Philly really was. And what did they do to improve on that? Not very much.
The Good: If Forsberg is healthy, heís as good as they come. Nittymaki and Esche make for a VERY solid 1-2 punch in net I think. Although Iíd commit to making Nittymaki the number one guy. Top to bottom, forward lines are pretty solid.
The Bad: That is not a championship caliber set of defensemen, and although the forward lines are decently deep, itís not quite enough to carry them through.
Prediction: Theyíll probably get into the playoffs on the lower half of the bracket this year, but I donít see them winning even a series unless they improve of the defense, especially speed wise.
Pittsburgh How many top picks can a team possibly get?? This team, if they can stick together, is going to be absolutely unbeatable in about 5 years. Although knowing the Penguins luck the past few years, theyíll fall apart and keep having #1 picks every season, who knows. The future is extremely bright in Pittsburgh, but how about this year? Last year everyone hopped on the bandwagon thinking they could contend, but they fell flat with the exception of Sid the Kid, who came exactly as advertised. This team probably wonít win that many games, but with Crosby and Malkin, damn theyíll be fun to watch. Expect some 9-8 scores every night out of this team!
The Good: Their forward lines read like a hockey future scouting report. The offence is going to be amazing, and I can just imagine the powerplay from this team. Easily the most exciting team to watch.
The Bad: Marc-Andre Fleury was supposed to be the future of this team at one point, now rumor is he might not even make it this season. By this point he should be the undisputed starter of the team, or at least more than ready to split time with a veteran. And the defense? WHAT defense? As strong as the forward lines look, their defensemen look just as weak. Theyíll score a ton, but theyíll probably get scored on even more.
Prediction: Another high draft pick (hopefully they can find a blue chip D-man this time). However I do think theyíll improve quite a bit from last year. All the pieces are there, itíll just take a couple more seasons for them to start falling into place.
Atlanta So, will there be another playoff guarantee from the GM this time around? Last year I didnít think they were a playoff team, this year I think they should easily make it however. Theyíve done a good job of slowly building this team up much like the Nashville Predators have out west. A few rough years are going to be soon forgotten if this team can stick together for a while. I think theyíre a team much like Pittsburgh in that they have some great forward lines, but the defense is very iffy. But Kari Lehtonen is starting to become a star, and the better he becomes, the better this team will be. They almost scraped in with a late run last year, and if Kovalchuk can stay healthy this time around, they should win a lot more this time.
The Good: Holik, Kovalchuk, Hossa. Thatís a hell of a first line. Even the second line has some punch to it. If Lehtonen can carry the load and become a workhorse this year with the flashes he showed last year, theyíll be solid in goal
The Bad: Defense isnít overly strong at all, and the depth isnít fantastic. Take Kovalchuk or Hossa out of the lineup, and youíre right back towards the bottom of the East.
Prediction: I can easily see them in the playoffs, somewhere below the 4th seed though. I wouldnít quite go so far as guarantee it though, thereís a lot of mid-level teams in the conference battling for those spots.
Carolina Sigh. Do I have to review the...*gulp*...champs? It hurts. Iíll try I guess. Obviously they canít improve on too much from last season, itís trying to repeat what they did. Now that I think of it though, trading Jack Johnson will compete with the Thornton trade for the second worst transaction in the past couple years. I mean, if they traded him for an older D man like a Rob Blake or a Chris Pronger, Iíd understand! It would push them right back to contend again! But Tim Gleason?? No sense, none at all. They also lost Weight and Recchi who were obvious rentals anyways, but they were good without them beforehand. Not to mention Eric Cole is apparently back and healthy.
The Good: Forward lines are about as good as they come, all the way across the board. Theyíre young for the most part too, and should only continue to improve.
The Bad: They beat the Oilers. Thatís terrible. Oh, and the defense, like last year, isnít strong. However, the style they play protects that, so they should be able to get away with it. Cam Ward was terrible in the regular season and unreal in the playoffs. This team rode Gerber a ton during the season but obviously canít do that this time around. Which Ward will play this year? If itís the bad one...look out. If itís the playoff one they should be just fine.
Prediction: Along the same lines as last year, fighting for the top of the conference. Not quite as strong a team as they were in the finals though with less depth in net and no Weight or Recchi.
Florida They did what they had to do in getting rid of Luongo, who really looked like he was going to leave anyways (I donít care what he says really, if he constantly refused extensions there and signed right after he got to Vancouver, that says something). And I like the trade for them. They get a guy who is still one of the better power forwards in the league, and Alex Auld who was very solid in a high pressure situation last season. And he comes with a much smaller price tag which helps. But then they go out and sign Ed Belfour. WHY. 10 years ago, sure. He was a fantastic goalie. Last couple years though? Showed that he shouldnít be starting anymore, and should probably retire in fact. Well, now that I think of it, having the old Canadian men like Belfour, Roberts and Niewendyk is just fitting in Florida...
Anyways, this team is kind of confusing. Part old timers, part young guns, part rebuilding, part trying to compete right now. They really donít seem to have an identity.
The Good: Bertuzzi could help their top line become one of the top in the conference if he can return to form in a new setting. Their young player should take another step this year and contribute solidly, plus learn from the older guys. Iím sure Ed Belfour will be injured sooner or later, and Alex Auld starting should be a step up from there on out.
The Bad: With new surroundings, Todd Bertuzzi SHOULD return to old form, but thereís no promises. If he doesnít and the elderly contingent of the Panthers doesnít play well, this team doesnít have the depth to compete for a playoff spot.
Prediction: I think theyíre a better overall team that they were last year, but thereís way too many question marks. If all goes right theyíll compete for a playoff spot, but I think theyíll be on the outside looking in.
Tampa Bay You know, I look at their projected lineup this year and itís almost hard to believe that they won the Stanley Cup just 2 seasons ago. They kept their main guys locked up in Lecavalier, St. Louis and Richards, but it was the strength of role players like Kubina and Modin that helped this team win. But now theyíve literally got almost half their salary cap on their three top forwards, leaving very little for anything else on this team. I understand the money they gave Lecavalier, heís the franchise guy. St. Louis? Alright, I can see that too. But the contract they gave Richards was ridiculous. Heís a good player no doubt, heís not THAT good at all though for that kind of money. And last year the big problem seemed to be goaltending and lack thereof. Marc Denis comes in this year, and really, Iím not sold on him being that much better. Iíve seen him play many games with the Jackets, and not once have I seen him really steal a game. Heís been alright, but I donít think heís the savior in net at all. The Lightning fell quite a bit from glory last year, and I think the tumble continues this year.
The Good: With the big three forwards, they should still be able to score goals. Defense is pretty solid all the way through. Torterella is a coach who will demand the best of this team. Seriously. Heíll probably start kicking asses if he doesnít get it.
The Bad: Goaltending could be about as shaky as last year. The role players are gone, and if the top three stop scoring at all, is there anyone else to do it? Anyone at all?
Prediction: The big three MIGHT carry them barely into the playoffs if Denis plays well, but I donít see it. I think theyíll be on the outside looking in, probably rethinking all the big contracts next summer.
Washington Well, Ovechkin lived up to the hype surrounding him before he came into the league and gives this team a true superstar to build around for the future. Is it enough for now though? I really donít think so. I look at their lineup and all I can think it ďwho are these guys??Ē Right now the Caps have Ovechkin...and thatís about it. Well, Kolzig is still solid in goal, but the question is for how long? I think an ideal situation for them is get a future starting netminder in there right away as a backup at least, just to slowly learn the ropes from Olaf in his last couple season (which seem to be coming up). Then you have your goalie of the future, your superstar scorer, and you can slowly put the other pieces into place and make this team a contender again. But, as of now, itíll be another long season. But thereíll be lots of highlight reel goals for their fans to watch at least.
The Good: Ovechkin. And sadly it ends about there.
The Bad: Everything but Ovechkin. Ok, not really. To be fair they have some decent players on the team, but I donít think itís nearly enough to make a run at the playoffs at all.
Prediction: Most likely theyíll have another high draft pick to get another building block for the future.
Ok, now that Iíve gone through every team, guess Iíll do my predicted standings. Although I guess you could figure it out though stuff Iíve already said, but hey.
Northeast 1. Ottawa
Atlantic 1. NY Rangers
2. New Jersey
4. NY Islanders
Southeast 1. Carolina
3. Tampa Bay
Eastern Conference 1. Ottawa
3. NY Rangers
6. New Jersey
10. Tampa Bay
14. NY Islanders
Overall should be an exciting year in the east. On the lower end there should be a lot of competition for the final few playoff spots, and really I can see any of those top 12 teams getting in.
The Western Conference preview is in progress right now, and will be up shortly. Perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow. So keep an eye out for that. Until then, Go Oilers.