A new season is finally upon us an with it are my first ever official predictions.
The Eastern Conference looks to be wide open this year. Last year's champs, the Penguins, loss several key players, none bigger than Marion Hossa who played a huge part in getting the Penguins to the Cup. Injuries have hit them hard this pre-season, with Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney expected to miss games with injuries. If the Penguins can't repeat, who will end up as the Eastern Conference champs? Look no further, my guess is as good as any other.
Each prediction includes an impact player (someone who is not considered to be the team's best, but will possibly be the most important during the year) and the key additions during the off-season.
1. New Jersey Devils
As much as I hate to say it, this could be Martin Brodeur's season. He is 13 wins away from tying Roy's win record and is a mere 8 shutouts away from breaking Sawchuk's record. Last season, however, he played 77 games and the Devils subsequently made a quick exit in the Playoffs. The Devils need to make sure his workload goes way down this year. Want to know why I really like them? No matter what cards they're dealt, they always find a way to win and are always competing for the top of the East. Don't underrate them.
Key Additions: Brian Roslton, Bobby Holik
Impact Player: Zach Parise (Must improve on his career-high 62 points)
2. Montreal Canadiens
Even though this might be Brodeur's season to shine as an individual, no team is set up for more success than the Habs. It's their 100th season and they'll be hosting the All Star Game. Heck, they even have their own special team in NHL 09. Goaltending will dictate how their season goes. If Carey Price begins to suffer, expect Jaroslav Halak to do the job between the pipes. Losing Mark Streit and Ron Hainsey was a blow to the defense, so Andrei Markov will need to steup up his game.
Key Addition: Alex Tanguay
Impact Player: Alex Kovalev (Was last year just a fluke?)
3. Washington Capitals
If there were one team to be excited about in the East, the Caps are it. After last season's unbelievable run, the Caps are back this year with a maturer, slightly more experienced group. The fireworks will be lead by Alex Ovechkin, who scored a mere 65 goals en route to a Hart Trophy, Art Ross, Lester B. Pearson, and Maurice Richard Trophy. He'll be centered by sophomore Niklas Backstrom. On the blueline, Mike Green will try to justify the big contract he received in the offseason. The biggest question, however, comes in goal. Can Jose Theodore keep the momentum he had in Colorado and carry it over to Washington? If not, well, Brent Johnson isn't going to win them the division.
Key Additions: Jose Theodore, Karl Alzner
Impact Player: Alexander Semin (Someone needs to provide secondary scoring. Can he stay healthy?)
4. New York Rangers
No Jagr. No Shanahan. How is this team possibly going to compete? Two names. Henrik Lundqvist. He's been one of the most consistent goalies during his career, registering at least 30 victories in each of his first three seasons. King Henrik lead the league in shutouts (10) and gives the Rangers a chance to win every night. Filling that depth on the offensive side is Markus Naslund, the recently acquired veteran from Vancouver. Naslund's production has gone steadily down the past couple of seasons and he will look to rejuvenate his career in New York. For the defensemen, Marc Staal should be looking at 20+ minutes each night as he looks to take a step into leading the Rangers this season. He'll have help from newly acquired Wade Redden, who needs to prove that his ridiculous contract during free agency was well-deserved.
Key Additions: Markus Naslund, Wade Redden, Nikolai Zherdev
Impact Player: Chris Drury (With the absences of two big scorers, he'll be looked at when it's time to score)
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
I'll go on record right now. There is absolutely no way this team wins the Stanley Cup. Though, they will contend. When you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal as your top three centers, it's hard not to. It feels like the Pens lost half of their team. In a way, they did. They took a gamble with a rental player and came up short of the ultimate goal. Now, they don't have Gary Roberts, Ryan Malone, or Colby Armstrong. They've been replaced with Miroslav Satan (past his prime), Ruslan Fedotenko (never really in his prime), Matt Cooke (so what?), and Eric Godard (why?). That's not exactly an impressive group of wingers. Gonchar needs to get healthy very quickly and Brooks Orpik and Daryl Sydor will have to step up on the blueline until they return.
Key Additions: Matt Cooke, Ruslan Fedotenko, Miroslav Satan
Impact Player: Marc-Andre Fleury (No more Ty Conklin, Pittsburgh's hopes begin and end with this guy)
6. Toronto Maple Leafs: Haha, just kidding.
6. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers have a lot to look forward to this year after their surprising run in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Martin Biron returns as the team #1, Mike Richards has been named the new team captain, and there has not yet been a quota set to see how many injuries they can cause before Christmas. If there's a weak point for this team, it's the defense. Besides Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, there is a lot of inexperience in the defensive zone. Randy Jones and Ryan Parent will spend this year trying to solidify their spots permanently in the NHL while Ossi Vannanen, Lasse Kukkonen, Steve Eminger, and possibly Hatcher, fighting for the last two spots.
Key Additions: Steve Eminger, Aaron Asham
Impact Player: Daniel Briere (With Umberger gone, Briere can no longer afford to be inconsistent)
7. Ottawa Senators
Hooray! No more Ray Emery! That step boosted Ottawa from 9th to 6th on my board. Newly hired coach Craig Harsburg leads a team that desperately needs an identity. They only have one line (Alfredsson-Spezza-Heatley) and if you can take them away, they're left with nothing. Andrez Meszaros is gone, Wade Redden is gone, Martin Gerber is still on the team, and things aren't looking much better for the Sens this season. They have too much talent to not make the playoffs, but they don't have enough to actually be significant.
Key Additions: Jason Smith, Filip Kuba, Alex Auld, Jarkko Ruutu
Impact Player: Chris Phillips (The defensive responsibilities will fall on his shoulders. Can he perform?)
8. Buffalo Sabres
Want a non-issue? How about the fact that Ryan Miller isn't going to be running off to Detroit after this season? Want a leading candidate for the bounce-back season award? Who better than Thomas Vanek, who had a 36 goal season which was considered a "disappointment." The Sabres barely missed the playoffs last season and it's my believe that this season, without the distractions of Brian Campbell, will sneak in ahead of Boston and Carolina. They're a young group, but behind Derek Roy, Maxim Afinogenov, Drew Stafford, Ales Kotalik, and Jason Pominville, they have loads of potential.
Key Additions: Craig Rivet, Patrick Lalime
Impact Player: Drew Stafford (A sophomore, Stafford will look to build on a great rookie season and provide secondary scoring.)
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9. Boston Bruins
They have a very good team, but they allowed way too many shots last season. If they can limit the shots and get strong play from Ward, look for them to possibly leap frog the Sabres.
10. Carolina Hurricanes
Any team with Joni Pitkanen is not set up for success. Maybe it's just me, but I've never liked this guy. Eric Staal and Cam Ward provide a great backdrop for success, but it Rod Brind'Amour can't get healthy, they aren't making the playoffs.
11. Tampa Bay Lightning
No defense. Barely any goalies. At least they'll be exciting to watch. (May I suggest the MULLET CAM?)
12. Florida Panthers
Thomas Vokoun is a good goaltender and their new look defense (McCabe, Ballard, Boynton, Ellerby, along with Bouwmeester) should help limit the shots against. The offensive side looks bleak, though. Nathan Horton may or may not be ready to step up to the #1 spot. Either way, this team isn't going to improve after losing Olli Jokinen.
13. New York Islanders
Mark Streit will help them, but Doug Weight and Bill Guerin were meant for the 90's. The only thing that keeps them from the the bottom two is Rick DiPietro.
14. Atlanta Thrashers
Their job will be to give other teams confidence. Ilya Kovalchuk must feel lonely and they better do something before they lose him, too. Zach Bogosian and just-acquired Schneider will make for an interesting, if not way-below-average blueline.
15. Toronto Maple Laughs, er, Leafs
They stink. Plain and simple. The Leafs made a good move in hiring Ron Wilson to right the ship and getting rid of McCabe and Tucker was smart. So what happened when they signed Finger for 14 million dollars? The problem with this selection is, the Leafs usually find a way to be just good enough to miss the lottery, but bad enough to miss the playoffs.
Eastern Conference Champion - MONTREAL CANADIENS
The Devils will win the conference, but the Montreal Canadiens will advance to the Stanley Cup.
Who will it be from the West? Coming soon.