Thursday, October 06, 2005

NHL Eastern Conference Preview

#1. Philadelphia - My first instinct was to give Ottawa the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. But, upon second thought, I'm going with the Flyers. Ottawa has 24 combined games against Toronto, Boston, and Montreal. I consider the Northeast to be the toughest division in the league, as even Buffalo is not going to be an easy matchup, given the way Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek have been playing so far this year.

Anyways, the Flyers have assembled a very solid offensive cast - I consider the Flyers to have the strongest forward group in the league. When he's healthy, Peter Forsberg is the most dominant player in the league. If Forsberg can remain healthy for at least 65 games this season, the Flyers should finish first in the Eastern Conference during the regular season.

Rookies Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Antero Niitymaki will play a significant role for the Flyers this season. Carter, a former Soo Greyound, led the AHL in scoring with 23 points in 21 games during the post season, after being called up when the Greyhounds were eliminated. Carter will play on the Flyer's first line with Forsberg and Simon Gagne. Carter was held soreless during the preseason, although rumor has it that he is currently suffering from a bout of mono.

Mike Richards finished a close second behind Carter in AHL playoff scoring last season, and managed to collect 9 points in only 7 games during the preseason. The duo of Richards and Jon Sim lit it up during the preseason, although word has it that Sim is known to regularly dominate during the preseason, and fade quickly after the regular season begins.

In Goal, rookie Niitymaki, who put up great numbers in the AHL last season, will server as backup to Robert Esche. Goaltending is really Philadelphia's biggest question mark, as neither Niitymaki or Esche have experience as a full-time starter in the NHL, although Esche did split the 2003-04 season, playing 40 games for the Flyers.

#2. Ottawa Senators - The Ottawa Senators have perhaps the most complete lineup in the NHL. The top line of Heatly, Spezza and Bochenski is potent. Spezza and rookie Brandon Bochenski played together for Binghampton in the AHL last year, and teamed up with newcomer Danny Heatly for perhaps the most explosive line during the preseason.

The Sens have a dominant defensive unit, with Norris runner up Zdeno Chara, Wade Redden and Chris Phillips.

The Senators goaltending tandom is ultimately going to decide the fate of the Ottawa Senators. After playing on 14 games in the last three years, 40-year old Dominik Hasek may still have what it takes to be the most dominent goalie in the league, although he will likely play in somewhere around 60 games this year, given his age and his most recent injury-plagued season. The Sens are also going to rely on rookie backup goalie Ray Emery, who will likely play between 20-25 games this season.

#3. Atlanta Thrashers -
I am tentatively giving the Thrashers the third playoff seed, with the assumption that Ilya Kovalchuk will be signed sometime soon. If Kovalchuck is not signed, Tampa Bay will win the division, and Atlanta will fall all the way to the ninth seed, with Florida moving up to the eighth and final playoff spot.

The Thrashers have quietly assembled a playoff calibur roster, but they will look silly if they fail to sign Kovalchuk after spending too much money signing Bobby Holik. The Thrashers traded away one of their young franchise players in Danny Heatly, but were able to pick up star Marian Hossa and Greg De Vries in the trade. Atlanta has some decent depth at forward, with Marian Hossa, Peter Bondra, Marc Savard, Bobby Holik, and Slava Kozlov. If you Kovalchuk to this mix, they start to look pretty dangerous.

The Thrashers defense is decent, but nothing spectacular.

In goal, Thrashers fans have reason to be excited, as the much anticipated 2nd overall draft pick from 2002, Kari Lehtonen, will share goaltending duties with Mike Dunham. Lehtonen has put up amazing numbers playing for Jokerit in Finland, and the Chicago Wolves in the AHL.

I will reiterate - the fate of the Atlanta Thrashers lies entirely in how they handle the Kovalchuk signing. Kovalchuk is one of the top three players in the league. After spending $4.25 million per year on Holik, there is no reason not to offer Kovalchuk the league maximum $7.8 million salary. If Kovalchuk is not signed, the Thrashers do not make the playoffs.

#4. Toronto Maple Leafs - There are a lot of question marks surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. The Leafs lost Roberts, Mogilny, Niewendyk, Nolan, Leetch, Renberg and Reichel during the offseason. In response, the Leafs signed Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, Jeff O'Neill, Alexander Khavanov, and will also rely heavily on rookies Alexander Steen, Mikael Tellqvist, Andy Wozniewski, Carlo Colaiacovo, and Kyle Wellwood.

The question marks concern the health of aging veterans Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, and 40-year old goaltender Ed Belfour. The Leafs backup goalie, Mikael Tellqvist, has played well in international play for Team Sweden, but does not have significant experience at the NHL level. Belfour is a fierce competetor, but due to nagging back problems, the Leafs will likely call upon Tellqvist to play about 20 games this season. Lindros, Allison and O'Neill all signed with Toronto because of lifelong dreams of playing for the Maple Leafs. As such, these players are all driven to play the most inspired hockey of their careers.

With captain Mats Sundin leading the way, the Leafs are the most stacked team in the league at center, with Sundin, Lindros, Allison, Matt Stajan, and Kyle Wellwood. Since a team can only play four centers, there is a chance that one of Lindros or Sundin may be moved to the wing to make room for Wellwood on the fourth line.

On defense, the Leafs have perhaps the most offensive lineup in the League. In the last NHL season, the Leafs led the league in points from defenseman, and with offensive-minded newcomers Khavanov and Carlo Colaiacovo, that trend is not likely to change. WIth the new offensive orientation of the league, the Leafs have the potential to lead the league in team scoring. With Belfour in net, the Leafs may give up a lot of shots, but the combination of scoring depth and goaltending will be enough to keep this team playoff-bound in the competitive Northeast division.

#5. Boston Bruins - The Bruins made a lot of roster moves in the offseason. The Bruins signed Brian Leetch on defense, and forwards Alexei Zhamnov, Shawn McEachern, and Dave Scatchard, while trading for Brad Isbister. Joe Thornton, Sergei Samsonov, and Glen Murray will continue to dominate the league offensively, as one of the most dominant lines in hockey. Sophomore Patrice Bergeron showcased some amazing talent during the preseason, and scored two highlight reel goals on the shootout.

In Goal, the Bruins will have a one-two punch of Andrew Raycroft and rookie Hannu Toivonen. Toivonen, along with Lehtonen, continues the trend of higly touted Finnish goaltenders, started by Mikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala a few years back. Raycroft played well in his last season with Boston, and will likely continue a high level of play this season.

Boston will play in the highly competitive Northeast division, and will likely finish neck-and-neck with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

#6. Tampa Bay Lightning - I dropped Tampa Bay back a few spots, since they were unable to retain the services of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. Tampa Bay has perhaps the most exciting young roster in the league, with the amazing trio of Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and MVP Martin St. Louis. It was the expense of maintaining this explosive trio that led the lightning to lose the true MVP of the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs, goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin.

I fully expect the Tampa Bay Lightning to play the same brand of exciting hockey that led them to win the Stanley Cup in 2004. Coach John Tortorella sure knows how to motivate this young team.

Goaltenders Sean Burke and John Grahame are both capable NHL starters, but neither can steal the show quite as often as the 'Bulin wall did during the 2003-04 season. Sean Burke has had a very succesful career up to this point, and should help keep the Lightning competitive. Again, if Atlanta fails to sign Kovalchuk, I believe the Lightning will win the Southeast division, and move up to the 3rd playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference.

#7. Pittsburg Penguins - Mario Lemieux finished with 11 points in only 4 preseason games, and looks to be playing his most inspired hockey in almost a decade. Lemieux is 40 years old, and is likely playing the last season of his career. With the role of mentoring rookie sensation Sidney Crosby, look for Lemieux to give his all during perhaps his farewell NHL tour. With free agent signings Zigmund Palffy, John Leclair, Mark Recchi, and Sergei Gonchar, the Penguins have an amazingly potent offensive lineup. The Pens may well lead the league in goals for.

There are big questions marks on defense, but I feel this team will try to win every game by simply outscoring the opposition, instead of trying to play defense. Goaltenders Jocelyn Thibault and Marc-Andre Fleury will share starting duties, and should play well enough to keep this team in the game. Expect a lot of exciting 5-4 games.

#8. Montreal Canadians - With Goaltender Jose Theadore in net, the Canadians will be competitive in every game the play. The Canadians have a young, fast team, led by captain Saku Koivu, talented winger Alexei Kovalev, and former Senator Radek Bonk.

Unfortunately for the Canadians, 24 of their games will come against the Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins, and Toronto Maple Leafs. Something has to give, and, the Canadians will likely get the short end of the divisional stick. Montreal should have what it takes to make the playoffs, but will have to final for one of the final playoff spots with Pittsburg, New Jersey, Buffalo, and Carolina.

#9. New Jersey Devils - It might appear that I have the perennial playoff-bound Devils ranked a little. Maybe it's my preconceived prejudice against the defensive-oriented approach of the Devils, but I just don't think they are going to thrive in the new NHL. With the loss of the Scotts (Neidermeyer and Stevens), the Devils have a couple huge holes to fill.

The Devils signed defensemen Dan McGillis and Vladamir Malakhov, along with talented right winger Alexander Mogilny. At a glance, it appears that the Devils may have overspent on all three contracts, putting them over the maximum salary cap by several million dollars. For now, the Devils are below the salary cap, but as soon as Patrick Elias is ready to return, the Devils will need to unload a couple players to get back below the salary cap. Look for the Devils to unload winger Jeff Freisen and Viktor Kozlov later this season for next to nothing, as they will be put in the unfortunate situation of being forced to deal to get under the cap.

With the best goaltender in the NHL over the past decade in Martin Brodeur, the Devils will remain competitive, and Coach Larry Robinson will do his best to adapt his team to the new-look NHL. This team has been perhaps the most competitive team in the NHL over the past decade, and they may well remain near the top of the Eastern conference, but I feel that this team will need to change their strategy to a more offensive approach in order to do so.

#10. Buffalo Sabres - The Buffalo Sabres could perhaps squeeze into the final playoff spot if they were to play in a less competitive division. Given that 32 games will be played against one of the Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, and Montreal Canadians, the odds are stacked against this team.

This team was explosive during the preseason, finishing with a 6-2 record. Explosive rookies center Thomas Vanek and goaltender Ryan Miller will go a long way in determining the success of the Buffalo Sabres. Miller had a great preseason, with a .945% save percentage, and a 4-0 record.

The Sabres have a lot of speed up front, with Daniel Briere, Vanek, Chris Drury, Maxim Afinogenov, J.P. Dumont, and Jochen Hecht. The Sabres have a young, exciting team, and should be competitive in the new look NHL.

#11. Carolina Hurricanes - Carolina is another young and exciting team that will be competitive in the new NHL. This team is lead by youngsters Joseph Vasicek, Eric Cole, and Eric Stall, along with veterans Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney, Glen Wesley and Rod Brind'Amour.

The goaltending tandom of former Anaheim backup Martin Gerber and rookie Cam Ward is sure to be tested this season. Gerber put up some good numbers while playing behind J.S. Giguere in Anaheim, and we will quickly learn how much that had to do with defensive system of the Mighty Ducks. Cam Ward had an amazing season with Lowell of the AHL last season, and will have a chance to impress at the NHL level this season.

#12. Florida Panthers - The Panthers are a bit of a puzzle to me, and they could end up finishing anywhere between eigth and thirteenth in the conference. Led by Olli Jokinen, along with newly signed veterans Jozef Stumpel, Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk, the Panthers have an intersting mix of veteran leadership and youth.

Starting in goal, with Roberto Lungo, along with defencemen Jay Bouwmeester and Mike Van Ryan, along with forwards Kristian Huselius, Nathan Horton, and Anthony Stewart, the Panthers have perhaps the most talented group of young players in the league.

With Mike Keenan coaching this team, there is no telling whether this team will succeed under his direction, our implode under the pressure of Iron Mike.

#13. New York Islanders - The Islanders really don't have a lot going for them. The signing of winger Miroslav Satan, Center Mike York, and defensemen Alexei Zhitnik should help this team somewhat, but the losses of Adrian Aucoin, Michael Peca, Roman Hamrlik, David Scatchard and Mariusz Czerkawski are likely to more than offest the additions.

In order for the Islanders to go anywhere, young goalie Rick DiPietro and underacheiving center Alexei Yashin will both need to play to their talent levels. I'm sorry, but there really isn't anything much to be excited about here.

#14. New York Rangers - The Rangers are the perenial whipping boys of the NHL. Gone are the days of the $80 Million payroll. Instead, the Rangers will need to learn how to rebuild using the draft and rookie development. Gone are Bobby Holik to Atlanta, Eric Lindros to Toronto, Mark Messier and Pavel Bure to retirement, and young goalie Dan Blackburn, who retired due to injury.

Jaromir Jagr will lead this team, which, on paper, looks a lot less talented than the New York Rangers we were used to throughout the nineties. Rookie defenseman Fedor Tyutin should provide some excitement for Rangers fans, although it doesn't look like there is much else to be to happy about.

#15. Washington Capitals - The Capitals have the best chance to spoil Sidney Crosby's bid for Rookie of the Year, in Alexander Ovechkin. Washington failed to make any major offseason moves, and really doesn't have an NHL-caliber roster. There are probably some AHL teams that could give the Capitols a run for their money, and I'm not really sure what this organization is planning.

Goaltender Olaf Kolzig will probably be traded at some point during the season. We may not see very many trading deadling moves this year, given the salary cap restrictions, but I really don't see the Capitols holding onto Kolzig through the entire season, once it is apparant that the season is lost.