Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Eastern Conference Preview and Predictions

Today I take a look at the Eastern Conference and make my  predictions for the season. It's not looking good for Canada's team out East!!!

Eastern Conference

1) Washington Capitals - There is little doubt that the Caps are a better team then they were a year ago but the question if they'll be a better playoff team still remains. The edition of an upper echelon netminder in Tomas Vokoun is something this organization hasn't had since the heyday of Olaf Kolzig...but Vokoun has never done anything of note in the playoffs so he may not be able to get Washington where they want to go. The addition of  Troy Bower will add much needed size upfront and he should be at his best come playoff time. Look for a rebound season from # 8 as he nears or tops the 100 point barrier again in 2011-2012.

Breakout Player:  John Carlson - The young defenceman was impressive in his rookie campaign. He took a regular shift on what was a very ordinary blueline in Washington  but he managed to put up 37 points with little to no help on the backend. The kid has only scratched the surface on the talent he possess...look out in a couple of years.This season will be his first step towards stardom.

Pressure Is On: Mike Green - After injuries and poor play derailed what Green was hoping would be another stellar season with the Capitals, the blueliner has a lot prove. Green is hoping that last year was aberration and will not become the norm. The 25 year old defenceman  was such a major cog in the juggernaut that was the Caps offense and that is what made last years performance even more surprising. If Green doesn't show signs of being able to rebound, look for Carlson to start carrying the mail. 

2) Boston Bruins - Many feel the Bruins might be looking at suffering from the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover...I just can't see that happening. Boston has kept all their key players from last seasons run, with the exception of Tomas Kaberle and they replaced him with power play specialist Joe Corvo..call it even. The biggest challenge they'll have this season, will be a repeat performance from Tim Thomas, which I can't see happening. However, look for young Tuukka Rask to push back and try regain his position as the clubs starting goalie, much like Thomas did last season.

Breakout Player: Tyler Seguin - Look for the sophomore to be given a much bigger role in the coming campaign, which will allow him to develop his game. Playing, for the most part, on the teams fourth line not much was expected from the 19 year old rookie when it came to production. They just wanted him to get his feet wet in the NHL and see how things went. Now the youngster will be given the opportunity to see what he can do...do not be surprised to see Seguin light the lamp between 20-25 times.

Pressure Is On: Brad Marchand - The feisty winger will have to prove that his 21 goal season was not a fluke. The thing that was even more impressive, is that the little shit disturber was able to up his game come playoff time. He scored 11 goals in the post season and it seemed each goal was more important then the next. No one expected this type of performance out of the 5'9" winger so the pressure will be on for him to show he can do it again...I wouldn't bet against him.

3) Pittsburgh Penguins - If Sidney Crosby can remain healthy, the sky is the limit for the talented Penguins. Even with Crosby out of the lineup, the team proved they can play with anyone in the East but they found it difficult getting over that hump without # 87. The Pens didn't add much in the off season but the return of a healthy Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is more then anything the club could expect via trade or free agency. They are strong defensively and have one of the best money goalies in the league in Marc-Andre Fleury. There is little doubt that Pittsburgh will be one of the better teams in the East but a little health and luck, could make them the favourites.

Breakour Player: James Neal - The talented winger is entering his first full season as a Pen and playing alongside either Crosby or Malkin, will see his number take a huge spike. Neal has the ability to finish and playing with either of the Penguins stars should result in him pushing the 35, if not 40 goal mark.

Pressure Is On: Kris Letang - Coming off a 50 point campaign, you would think the defender wouldn't have much to prove. Problem being, after Crosby went down, his point production dried up. He put up only 18 points and was -7 after Sid was hurt and that simply isn't good enough. He is counted on heavily by Pittsburgh and they need to see a rebound in his production.

4) Buffalo Sabres  -The additions of  Christian Ehrhofff and Robyn Regehr make the Sabres defence a whole lot better and look for Ryan Miller to be more consistent because of it. While Miller wasn't poor last season, he did have a few stretches of uneven play and in order for Buffalo to compete with the big boys, he has to eliminate that from his game. The Sabres have an exciting group of forwards up front but they due lack some size in their top six. They brought in what they are hoping will be a major piece, in Ville Leino.

Breakout Player: Ville Leino - The former Flyer is coming off  a 53 point campaign and look for him to possibly push the 70 point mark with his increased role in Buffalo. The Finn is a great all around player and is an absolute joy to watch on the ice. It's rare that the Detroit Red Wings make a mistake on a player but they did just that when they let Leino leave town.

Pressure Is On: Christian Ehrhoff - While Ehrhoff's cap hit is a very manageable at $4 million, the German defender will be taking home a cool $10 million for the 2011-2012 season...can you say pressure!!! There will be a lot expected of the former Canucks player and the presence of Tyler Myers should make the adjustment easier. He played in all situations and logged a ton of minutes in Vancouver...not much will change in Buffalo.

5) Philadelphia Flyers - The Flyers will be an interesting team to watch. They decided to move their captain and their top goal scorer in trading away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter but were able to acquire a top notch goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov on the opening day of free agency.  The question now is, did they give up too much of their core? Acquiring young Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds from L.A. were solid moves yet it may not have been enough of a return for Richards. The health of future Hall of Famer Chris Pronger remains a huge concern for Philadelphia. In recent years the former Oilers defenceman has had the injuries start to pile up and when the big man is not in the lineup, he simply can not be replaced.

Breakout Player: James van Riemsdyk - A lot will be asked of  the young forward in 2011-2012 and look for him to produce 30 plus goals. The aforementioned departures of Richards and Carter means the Flyers will have to pick up those numbers somewhere. The addition of Jaromir Jagr will help upfront but Philly's success will depend on what Claude Giroux and van Riemsdyk are able to do.

Pressure Is On: Ilya Bryzgalov - I have no doubt that Bryzgalov will have a stellar season in Philadelphia and will likely be nominated for the Vezina at seasons end. All that is great but his performance during the playoffs will determine if the boat load of money the organization decided to give the Russian netminder was well spent. Bryzgalov has been money for years in Phoenix but never showed much when the Coyotes reached the playoffs. This signing could very well blow up in the Flyers face.

6) Tampa Bay Lightning - The Lightning did not add a whole lot in the off season but were able to retain trade deadline pickups Eric Brewer and Dwayne Roloson. Both were key players in helping the Bolts reach the Eastern Conference semi finals and bringing the two back was a wise move on Steve Yzerman's part. The club is led by the big three upfront - Steven Stamkos, Martin St.Louis and Vincent Lecavalier and that won't be changing anytime soon.After a torrid start to the season, Stamkos cooled off and was unable to reach the 50 goal mark but that should not be the case this season.

Breakout Player: Victor Hedman - The young Swede took his first step towards becoming a star blueliner last season and look for that trend to continue in 2011-2012. Hedman is solid in all three zones and he has started to use his hulking frame to his advantage in the Tampa's end of the ice. He put up 26 points last season and look for the total to possibly jump all the way up to 40.

Pressure Is On: Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon - The reason I list both of the Lightning goalies instead of just Roloson, is that Roli is 41 years old and will not be asked to carry the load during the regular season. Look for a 50/30 or a possible 40/40 split if Garon brings his game back to the level he showed in Edmonton during the 2007-2008 season. Make no mistake, Roloson is the starter but the Bolts are hoping Garon will allow the old man to rest up and be ready to go come playoff time.

7) New York Rangers - The Rangers landed the big prize of the free agent pool in Brad Richards but the question remains if they are a better team for it? New York has a lot of talent upfront, be it young guys or vets. The problem the Rangers have, they are not deep on the backend and their best defenceman Marc Stall is still suffering from post concussion symptoms. As usual, a lot will be asked from Henrik Lundqvist in the Rangers goal but the standout Swedish National Team goaltender has yet to take the team on his back and push them to sort of playoff success.

Breakout Player: Brandon Dubinsky - The gritty Rangers forward is one of the teams heart and soul guys, along with Ryan Callahan, but he is a handful for teams to deal with on any given night. If Dubinsky can stay away from the nagging injuries he suffered the last two years, it should surprise no one to see him with 65-70 points at seasons end.  

Pressure Is On: Marian Gaborik - The talented forward is one of the premier goal scorers in the league when healthy. Unfortunately, when it comes to Gaborik you just don't know what player you'll get season to season. The guy should be a lock to score 40 goals a season and playing with a guy like Richards, 50 goals would not be out of the question. That being said, him playing 40 games and scoring 20 goals could be just as likely.

8) Carolina Hurricanes - The Canes seem to be in the hunt for the last playoff spot every year and it should be status quo for the coming season. Led by Eric Staal upfront and sophomore Jeff Skinner, Carolina will need a repeat performance from Tuomo Ruutu and a bounce back season from young Brandon Sutter in order to stay competitive in the high flying Easter Conference. The addition of Tomas Kaberle to the backend basically offsets the departure of Joe Corvo and look for Cam Ward to start at least 65 games this season. The team must decide what to do with pending free agent Tim Gleason, if they can't sign him long term they have to look at moving him before the deadline.

Breakout Player: Brandon Sutter - The young forward took a step back from a scoring standpoint last season but he was still a solid two way player for the Canes. The centre played all season long with a nagging injury but still managed to suit up for all 82 games...not surprising from a player with the name Sutter. Look for his scoring touch to return, while playing his usual solid all around game. A 20 goal season should be in the cards for Sutter.

Pressure Is On: Tomas Kaberle - After being nothing more then average with the Bruins, Kaberle comes to Carolina with something to prove. While never a great all round d man, Kaberle was always a stud on the power play in Toronto but that wasn't the case in Boston. The Canes are banking on getting the Maple Leafs Tomas Kaberle and I am not sure they will.

9) Montreal Canadiens - The Habs continue to be too small upfront and are hoping Max Pacioretty will help in that regard but I can't see it being enough to reach the playoffs. Carey Price will keep the Canadiens in the playoff hunt all season long but for this team to have any hope, they must have a healthy Andrei Markov all season long. When healthy, Markov is one of the best defenders in the league and he runs a power play like no one else. 

Breakout Player: P.K. Subban - As good as Subban was last season, the exciting young defenceman should be even better in year two. While he still makes the odd bonehead play, they usually occur because he is trying to create something  for the Canadiens. Many do not like Subban and his swagger but I find him to be a breath of fresh air in a league that is in dire need of characters. With the return of Markov to the fold, P.K. could surpass the 50 point mark with ease.

Pressure Is On: Michael Cammalleri - The Canadiens sniper had a dreadful season in 2011-2012. He missed a bunch of games because of a shoulder injury and manged to only score 19 goals. The Habs count on Cammalleri to score at least 30 goals a season and anything below that will be a major disappointment. It is concerning that he has missed double digit games in both his seasons in Montreal...is he becoming an injury concern?

10 New Jersey Devils - The addition of a healthy Zach Parise will make the New Jersey Devils a better hockey team but not nearly good enough to finish above the playoff cut line. The Devils have a talented core of forwards but it is not nearly deep enough and the club is no longer the defensive juggernaut they once were. Goaltender Martin Brodeur is nearing the finish line of his Hall of Fame career and can not be expected to carry the load for Devils.

Breakout Player: Adam Larsson -  The Swedish defenceman fell all the way down to the number four slot at this summers entry draft and the benefactors for the next number of years will be the New Jersey Devils. While Larsson is only 19 years of age, I fully expect the young man to take his place on the Devils blueline immediately. One can't expect a ton from him offensively in year one but look for him to be solid in his own end and become the Devils best defencemen, in very short order.

Pressure Is On: Ilya Kovalchuk - It is very simple when it comes to Kovalchuk, 30 goals and -26 is not good enough. There is no reason for the super talented Russian to not push the 50 goal mark every season, as he did in Atlanta. Granted, he has a lot more pressure on him because of his contract but he has to find a way to elevate his game. Anything short of 45 goals and 85 points would be considered a major disappointment.

11) New York Islanders - While the Islanders have collected quality young players for a number of seasons, they still have not been able to sneak into the playoffs. With John Tavares leading the way upfront the Isles have become a very exciting team to watch and will push for the playoffs this season but ultimately fall short. The return of a healthy Mark Streit to the lineup will help on the blueline but they are still to thin to compete with the defensive group they  currently have.

Breakout Player: Kyle Okposo - Missing a big chunk of the season after recovering from shoulder surgery, Okposo only managed to put up 5 goals and 20 points in 38 games played. To say his season was underwhelming is being kind. The talented winger is at the point in his career where it is time for him to take two steps forward to make up for the step back last season. Look for him to finally crack the 20 goal mark and possibly push for 25+ if he can remain healthy.

Pressure Is On: Rick DiPietro - When you consider health and contract, there may be no bigger bust in the league then DiPietro. A highly skilled goaltender, DiPietro is unable to stay healthy and because of it the New York always falls well short of making the playoffs. With the club bringing in veteran Evgeni Nabokov to Long Island, the former first overall selection has to prove he can stay healthy or he might looking at becoming the Islanders assistant GM in order to earn his contract.

12) Toronto Maple Leafs - The Leafs are at the point where they have to make the playoffs to keep both fans and media off their backs. Unless something changes drastically upfront and in goal, this team has no chance to make the playoffs this season. They are good on the backend but that fact that they are riding their season on James Reimer tells me they are grasping at straws. GM Brain Burke has built Toronto in such a way that they are nearly impossible to fix in the short term. Too many holes to fill and this will likely be the last season for coach Ron Wilson in Toronto.

Breakout Player: Cody Franson - Burke was able to steal Franson from Nashville because they were willing to take on Matthew Lombardi, his contract and cloudy head space. Franson has the skill set to  be a good power play quarterback but was never given that chance by the Preds because of the horses they already had in their stable. The Leafs would be wise to make the most of picking up a player with the upside of Franson.

Pressure Is On: James Reimer - While Reimer's strong play in the second half of the season put Toronto back in the playoff race, his play dipped greatly down the stretch as the Leafs fell out of contention. Frankly, from what I've seen from the young Leafs netminder, he isn't good enough to be an NHL goaltender. He doesn't have great rebound control and has a god awful glove hand and has the tendency to let in bad goals at the worst time possible. Simply put, the over hyped James Reimer will not be able to get the job done.

13) Winnipeg Jets - It is awesome to have hockey back in Winnipeg but sorry Jets fans, it will be a long first season for the former Atlanta Thrashers franchise. They have nice young players in place like Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian and the Jets first round selection Mark Scheifele but they do not have the players necessary to make a serious push at the playoffs. They will compete on nightly basis but the lack of scoring upfront and a less then stellar tandem in goal will make it tough. Lets be honest, this team could go 0-82 this season and the people of Winnipeg would be thrilled!!! That won't be the case in year two but they can get away with it for now.

Breakout player: Evander Kane - The gritty forward took a big step last season in his game and that should continue in 2011-2012. Kane scored 19 goals last season and look for the youngster to push the 25 goal mark while becoming even more of a presence in the physical side of the game. He has the chance to become the teams top player in very short order and could make a dynamic duo with Scheifele for years to come.

Pressure Is On: Dustin Byfuglien - After a torrid start to his season, the big defenders play dropped in the second half but he still managed to put up an impressive 53 points in his first year with the Thrashers. A lot will be expected from the hulking defenceman and he will have to get used to playing in a hockey crazy market. His off season issues better be a one off because the media in Winnipeg, while not massive, will still eat him alive.

14) Ottawa Senators - The Sens are in all out rebuild mode and it will be a long season for fans of the Senators. This could be the season that Daniel Alfredsson finds his way to another organization come trade deadline day and Ottawa should get a nice package in return for the Sens all time best player.The addition of Craig Anderson last season has solidified the teams situation in goal and will allow youngster Robin Lehner time to develop in the AHL.

Breakout Player: Bobby Butler - Look for Butler to hit the 20-25 goal mark in his first full season in the nations capital. He meshed nicely with Jason Spezza last season and look for the duo to continue to develop chemistry. The 24 year old winger displayed the ability to finish last season and was very good in tight on the opposing teams goalies.

Pressure Is On: Sergei Gonchar - While season one wasn't great for the former Capitals and Penguins standout, age seems to have caught up to the defenceman. While no longer the threat he once was, he must know take on a leadership role in Ottawa and help bring along  the very young defensive core in Ottawa. The club signed him to a poor contract but there is nothing they can do about it now.

15) Flordia Panthers - The Panthers had to spend a boatload of money  in order to reach the salary cap floor. They acquired some good players but this mix mash unit will find it hard to compete on a nightly basis. After having the steady influence of  Tomas Vokoun in goal for the last few seasons, they will now have to go to war with Scott Clemmensen and Jose Theodore...can't see that working out to well for Panthers. 

Breakout Player: Dmitry Kulikov - The young Russian rearguard has the potential to be a stud offensive defenceman and the addition of Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski will do nothing but help him with his game. With less pressure 5 on 5 look for Kulikov's numbers to take a spike, while improving on his play in the defensive zone.

Pressure Is On: Brian Campbell - The multi talented Campbell became the forgotten man in Chicago playing behind Keith and Seabrook. The defenceman will be the guy with Florida which should allow him to reach the 40 point plateau again. He along with Jovanovski, will have to help bring along youngsters Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson. Florida should be a pergect fit for Campbell to hit the reboot button on his career. 

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