Eastern Conference Outlook

Eastern Conference Outlook

As we enter the doldrums of summer, we’ll take a look ahead at where our favorite teams might be headed after a tumultuous off season that saw several big names move, ownership change hands, and several proverbial torches get passed.

  1. Pittsburg Penguins – A front office shakeup that included both Head Coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero’s walking papers, and some additions (Patric Hornqvist, Christian Erhoff, and Steve Downie) and subtractions (James Neal, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen) give this Penguins team a different feel. If healthy, the number one team in the east.
  2. Boston Bruins – They fall back a bit thanks to the departure of Jarome Iginla. They haven’t addressed his loss, and with RFA’s Torey Krug and Reilly Smith still unsigned, this team has more questions than answers.
  3. Tampa Bay Lighting – A team that’s relying on its young players continued development to help push them to the next level. Ben Bishop looks like a stud in net, and if Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat trend upward, then this explosive offense could make life difficult for the relatively soft East.
  4. Montreal Canadiens – A team led by young superstars P.K. Subban and Carey Price, Montreal shocked a lot of teams by beating the Bruins in the playoffs. Although Elite status is just beyond their reach, the future is bright as their core is locked up for several years.
  5. New York Rangers – The little team that could found its way into the finals on Henrik Lundquist’s shoulders, and the stout, team first attitude in front of him. The pre-deadline deal that sent Ryan Callahan to the Lightning for Martin St. Louis should continue to pay off into the 2014 season.
  6. Philadelphia Flyers – Could be a spot up on my list if they had reliable goaltending, but Ray Emery and Steve Mason are not a Jennings threat in net. Claude Giroux returned to form after a sluggish start, and young stars like Wayne Simmonds continue to show signs of breaking out. If they continue to get solid goaltending, their offense will carry them to a playoff spot.
  7. Washington Capitals – Despite overpaying Brooks Orpik to the tune of 5 million plus per year, the addition of Matt Niskanen surely helps shore up Washington’s biggest weakness: its blue line. If the expensive gamble works on the back end, the top tier offense provided by Alex Ovechkin, and the better than average goaltending of Brayden Holtby should be enough to get them into the playoffs.
  8. Columbus Blue Jackets – Coming off what should be considered a successful year for a rather unsuccessful franchise, the Blue Jackets continue their ascension into the top half of the Eastern Conference. Scott Hartnell is an underrated signing for a team trying to play a more physical brand of hockey, and if Brobovsky can show signs of what won him the Vezina in 2012, the Blue Jackets will make the playoffs again.
  9. Detroit Red Wings – Sadly, this will be the year the Wings playoff streak comes to an end. Despite the emergence of Gustav Nyquist, they did little to address their aging forward group, and when your biggest signing is overpaying to resign Kyle Quincey, you have problems on D. Another year removed from the primes of Datsyuk and Zetterberg, not even the return of Alfy will make a difference.
  10. Toronto Maple Leafs – This team is constantly on the rise, but never seems to get there. This year should be no different. A middle of the road team with only one true superstar in Phil Kessel, the team is hoping that the young players they’ve stuck by in recent years finally blossom into the top 6 players they’d hoped for all along.
  11. Ottawa Senators – After acquiring prolific scorer Bobby Ryan, the hopes were high that the Sens would finally make a push at Stanley’s Cup, but the brass broke down, and finally moved Jason Spezza. The deal included several young players, as well as blue chip prospect Alex Chiasson, but the return won’t be felt until next year at the earliest. With as many young players, the growing pains will outweigh the positives for this rebuilding squad.
  12. New Jersey – The Devils are a team moving in the wrong direction. After Kovi left town, it’s been left to aging veterans like Jaromire Jagr and Michael Ryder to steer the ship, but despite making a push late, fell short of the playoffs. Without much being added to the roster in the offseason, the odds they finish in the bottom half increase with each passing day.
  13. New York Islanders – With as much talent this team has at the top of its roster, I feel bad listing them this low in my rankings, but players like Grabovski and Kulemin aren’t going to push them over the hump. If Halak doesn’t return to the form he showed in net for Montreal years ago, this team won’t find pay dirt.
  14. Carolina Hurricanes – Who is this team’s starting goaltender? Cam Ward has become something of an enigma. The myth of a starting goaltender that can’t stay on the ice. The Staal brothers are nice players for sure, but the days of them moonlighting as elite NHL players is over, and Carolina’s hopes for a playoff berth with them.
  15. Florida Panthers – Ever the under achievers, Florida made waves when they acquired Roberto Loungo. Too little too late I’d say. A roster of NHL castoffs and over paid “get to the floor” players, this team will look good for stretches, but ultimately find nothing but a lottery pick at the end of the year.
  16. Buffalo Sabres – Let the rebuild begin! A wealth of young players, this team might have cause for optimism, but only if the fans realize they won’t compete for anything but the number 1 pick this year.

 

Dark Horse: Washington Capitals – I feel as though the moves they made are high risk/high reward, and that high reward could be a top seed in the east if all the chips fall their way.  Ovechkin is still a top 5 NHL player and my choice for the Rocket Richard trophy, and if the defense shores up, they could put a beating on the weak teams in their division.

Panic Button Team: As a Bruins fan, it pains me to say this, but we’ll know early on in the season if it’s time to hit the panic button. With players like David Krejci and Johnny Boychuck up for contracts at the end of this year, and a huge cap crisis now, it’d be hard to see this roster maintaining a semblance of its self unless they’re at the top of the standings.

Beast of the East: I’m picking the Penguins to win the East soley on the fact that Crosby and Malkin are the most dangerous 1-2 punch in the league, and as hot and cold as Marc Andre-Fluery is, he can still steal them games in net. The East is looking weak this year, and I’d expect them to be front runners most of the year.

Game 7: Kings vs Sharks

The East Finals are set, the West is wrapping up, but we still have the question of who will be playing for the right to represent the Conference in the Finals.

Game 7 of the tightly contested Western semi between the 5th seeded LA Kings, and the 6th seeded San Jose Sharks is being played this evening at the Staples Center. Can the Sharks be the first team in the series to win on the road? Can LA continue it’s home dominance and close out the series?

In LA, the Sharks have been out scored 9-3, and aside from a one goal lead in game two, haven’t had much success beating Kings goalie Jonathan Quick. LA on the other hand, has ridden it’s 2012 Conn Smythe trophy winner in Quick to a round 1 victory and some stoic round 2 performances.

San Jose has the firepower to topple the defending Cup champs, though. With veterans Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle all searching for their first Stanley Cup, you can bet the energy will be high to start the game.

If Quick can continue his stellar playoff performance, and the Kings can weather what will likely be San Jose’s best efforts early, the Kings will advance to face the winner of the Detroit and Chicago.

My Prediction 3-1 Kings.

March to the Finals

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If one thing can be certain going into what will be the final two Western Conference games before the Conference Finals are set, is that we cannot be certain what will happen, or who will win.

With such high end talent that has been on display, it’s nearly impossible to predict with any modicum of success who will win. The hockey landscape entering the first round looked decidedly different entering the second. In the East, the 2nd seeded Montreal Canadiens, and the 3rd seeded Washington Capitals fell to teams who squeaked into the playoffs. If it weren’t for a final frame miracle, the Bruins would have been ousted by the 5th seeded Leafs! In the west? Of the higher seeded teams, only the Blackhawks survived as the Ducks (2), Canucks (3), and the Blues (4) were all ousted by lower seeded teams.

We find ourselves entertaining the thought that the 4 combatants for the cup in a few days are the 4 consecutive previous cup winners. (LA -2012, Boston-2011, Chicago-2010, Pittsburgh-2009). Afterwards? All bets are off.

Biggest Winners (and losers) So Far…

I know the free agency period is still really young, but many of the big names have already moved, and a number of high profile trades have gone through. It’s as good a time as any to examine our 5 Winners and Losers of Free Agency (so far).

WINNERS

5. Florida Panthers
This is a fringe pick in my book, partly because they were so under the cap they needed to make some signings in order to reach the cap floor, but this being said, Dale Talon has done an admirable job in wooing free agents to play in what is the NHL equivalent of a graveyard. Trading for Campbell and Kopecky, and signing solid two way forwards in Sean Bergenheim and Scotty Upshall will help this squad immensely. Whether we buy into the hype is another story, but all of these guys did. Bonus: The Panthers lost franchise goaltender Tomas Vokoun to greener pastures (Washington Capitals) but were able to replace him with a veteran presence in Jose Theadore. Much maligned, Theadore will have a chip on his shoulder to prove his doubters wrong.

4. Edmonton Oilers

Another team that had some money to burn, Edmonton seems to have addressed many of their key needs through free agency and trades. None of the names stand out more than the rest, unless you consider Ryan Smyth a standout (he’s slightly past his prime here people), but they got back solid returns on their investment with guys like Cam Barker, Eric Belanger, Ben Eager, and Ladislav Smid. With the immense talent pool this team has to play with, it’s a pretty safe bet they won’t be playing for a lottery pick this season. Bonus: With all of the big names out there, Edmonton opted to go the rout less travelled, and stick with their marquee guys. The only big name coming in would have to be Ryan Smyth, and it’s a move made out of reputation. Smyth was certainly deserving of picking a home to retire in, and the Oilers will welcome him back with open arms.

3. Buffalo Sabres

I toyed with the idea of bumping them up, but the majority of their moves came through trades, so we’ll keep them here at 3. At first glance Buffalo is a hard team to put a finger on. If you’re a die hard fan, you’ll find the words come easy, but for those of us who follow other teams, it was hard to imagine how Buffalo was able to thrive with such underwhelming rosters.  The easy answer? They had a ton of character, but lacked formidable skill. What they did add was an underrated set up man in Ville Leino, and trade for some above average defenders in Robin Reghere and Christian Erhoff. Bonus: This team managed to compete for a playoff spot this past year despite dealing with injuries and a lack of scoring punch. Without losing much, they were able to bolster both their blue line, and add a decent facilitator up front in Leino. They’ll be back in the mix early in the North East.

2. Los Angeles Kings

This may seem strange to many of you, considering they haven’t had much movement over the last few days, but in all reality, finding a way to add to your roster without any subtraction is mighty impressive, especially considering who they were able to get. This team has a nice mix of veteran leadership and youth ready to break out, it’s a wonder they didn’t make a deeper run last year until you consider the injuries.  Somehow fleecing Philadelphia for Mike Richards, the Kings added captain material while shipping out a few slower developing prospects (Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn) and they were able to add a proven playoff contender in Simon Gagne as well. When Anze Kopitar returns 100%, this team will be a scary one out West. Bonus: Considered early contenders for the services of Brad Richards, the Kings stood down and made moves that made a ton more sense. The 9 million dollar contract he signed wouldn’t have allowed them as much flexibility to improve.

1. Chicago Blackhawks

One year after blowing up the team due to poor cap management, the Blackhawks were back at it, signing a wealth of solid players to improve an already dangerous team. The one thing lacking last year as they were bounced from the playoffs by Vancouver? Size and physicality. Carcillo, Mayers and Brunett bring size and pop,  but don’t hurt them offensively. Simultaniously, while adding through free agency, they were removing a cancerous contract from their books in the form of Brian Campbell. Don’t take this the wrong way, Campbell is a solid defenseman, someone who will compete with the best of them, but the amount of money tied up on the blue line was hamstringing this team. This will be a huge addition by subtraction for the Hawks. Bonus:  How in the world does one convince a team to trade a 1st round pick for a guy whose averaged less than 40 points a season for 3 NHL seasons? Troy Brouwer, while still maintaining a lot of upside, wasn’t worthy of Washington’s first round pick, yet here we are.

Honorable mention: Toronto Maple Leafs. This has less to do with any moves Burke made, but more with the fact that he didn’t make any glaringly awful ones. It seems this time each year we’re shaking our heads at some hard to understand trade or signing. Maybe this speaks to better days in Toronto.

LOSERS

5. Phoenix Coyotes

They find themselves on this list for one reason and one reason only. Ilya Bryzgolov. Not only did they do very little to resign one of the best goalies in the NHL for consecutive years, they let him go for far less than he was worth. And to make matters worse, they acquired often injured perennial backup Mike Smith to replace him. This team, despite the encouraging last few years, is now even further away from any kind of sustained success.

4. Montreal Canadiens

Here’s a team that for years has done nothing but try to improve through addition both via trade and free agency. Yet in an offseason that’s seen their biggest rival win the Stanley Cup, and many of their divisional opponents improve, they’ve done nothing to improve their own club. Overpaying for Erik Cole (4.2 million a year? Are you joking?) and letting a huge chunk of their roster walk for various reasons, it remains to be seen if there’s enough left out there to make them contenders again.

3. St. Louis Blues

I don’t understand how a franchise consistently on the bubble can continue to justify that kind of existence. Whenever this team is one or two pieces away from contending, they seem to try and get older, and wiser. If only they could improve the latter in the front office. Although they added a few significant pieces is Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, none of the additions screams we’re better! So it remains to be seen if they’ll have a positive effect, but with cap space that was available to them, it’s egregious that they didn’t make a single move on an elite or high level player.

2. Dallas Stars

Some may argue that they did everything they could to replace fleeing superstar Brad Richards, but in the end, Dallas fans will be left wanting. Richards is a special player on the ice, and all they could do to supplant him is to overpay on again, off again Michael Ryder (2 years, 7 million). Sure he can play in the playoffs, but the way the Stars look, there’s no guaranteeing they’ll even make it.

1. Philadelphia Flyers

There will be two very differing sides to this argument, and I must agree that with this much change comes uncertainty, and they can absolutely improve going forward. But the one thing I can’t understand is that they traded their two most consistent and beloved players (Mike Richards and Jeff Carter) for guys that aren’t going to help them win NOW. With the team smaller and less physical than ever, it remains to be seen if they can still compete with the big guys in the East. I personally think aside from the Bryzgolov trade, they got fleeced left and right. Think Montreal circa 2008. Things won’t end well with them.

Honorable Mention: Carolina Hurricanes. Yet another team overpaying for so-so players. As a Bruins fan I can tell you Kaberle is a hot and cold player, and despite that he probably deserves a second chance, to swing with a 3 year deal worth 4.3 million will probably become a point of contention in Raleigh. Unfortunately, to add to the dysfunction, they seem to have built a roster with as many Toronto cast off as they could… and if I remember correctly, Toronto wasn’t very good for a pretty long time.

Building a Blockbuster

I’ll keep this quick and short, mostly because I have a new golf swing I’m eager to test out.

It’s come to my attention through various media sources that the NHL is on fire. No, not literally (not that you’d fall for that anyways) but proverbially. It seems as though all the wheeling and dealing we missed at last years deadline finally spilled over into the offseason as a few HUGE trades have gone through, and a few more seem to be festering in front offices around the league.

The largest of which has to be the Philadelphia Flyers sending Captain Mike Richards to LA and perennial allstar Jeff Carter to Columbus. Granted, much has been made of the trades, but in all honesty, getting young players full of potential like Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds back and making room for goalie Ilya Bryzgolov was a great idea for a team not getting it done.

Oh, and LA and Columbus thank you Philly!

That being said, a few others have gone down: Robyn Rehger is now a Sabre, Filatov was shipped to Ottawa, and a few others were traded during the first and second rounds of the Draft over the last 48 hours.  It begs the question, will this kind of trade fervor hold up for a while, or will we see a steeling of the collective resolve of NHL GM’s across the continent.

My guess is the former, as the NHL has been stupendously reactionary over the last few years. I expect trigger happy franchises like the Leafs and Devils to move a little to try and shore up issues and maybe get younger, and don’t be surprised if even the “standing pat” Bruins bite on a trade or two. (Maybe even a sign and trade? *cough Kaberle cough*)

NHL Draft

Oh, you’re an NHL fan and you’ve been living under a rock? Let me catch you up.

The Boston Bruins won the cup, Corey Perry won the Hart, and the Oilers selected Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with the first overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft.

That’s correct, after selecting winger Taylor Hall with the #1 pick last year, the Oil added another offensive weapon in Nugent Hopkins who was the consensus #1 pick. Although coming to the NHL with far less fan-fair than his counterpart Hall, Nugent-Hopkins has the tools to be a very good NHL player.

Sadly, outside of a certain few prospects my knowledge is fairly limited. Because they have a better grasp on this kind of thing, follow this link here to the TSN.ca article to find out a bit more. If you’re as lazy as I am, here’s a few highlights from the first round.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is selected 1st over all.
Adam Larsson finds himself the first defensive player off the board.
Do they know how to Dougie in Boston? Dougie Hamilton falls all the way to 9th for the Boston Bruins.
Speaking of Defense, how does Ryan Murphy fall all the way to 12th? Oh yea, he’s like 9 years old or something.
Since we’re making fun of NHL fans out of touch, the Winnepeg Jets select Bobby Hull Mark Shiefele with their first pick in franchise history… Oh yea, and the Winnepeg Jets are back.

Off Season: Vancouver Canucks

After examining the NHL Champion Boston Bruins recently, it’s only right we look at the team they beat, the #1 team in the regular season; the Vancouver Canucks.

Building off as phenomenal season as the Canucks had this past season is never an easy task, but the last three winners have found a certain amount of success (if not just regular season) in the following season. (Detroit in 07-08′, San Jose in 08-09′, Washington in 09-10′)

That being said, it’s not easy, and it will take another phenomenal off season by GM Mike Gillis if the Canucks want to repeat their success.  The biggest challenge to Vancouver will be to figure out it’s free-agent issue. Of the 24 players whose numbers counted against the cap last year, only 13 of them are under contract this coming season. With 11 UFA and RFA players, this team has some huge holes to fill.

With the new cap bump, Vancouver has 18 million to sign these 11 players, so I fully expect them to stick to resigning their players rather than dabbling heavily in free agency. The keys to success in the resign phase will be to first, resign Kevin Bieksa. In a series that saw more than its fair share of soft play, Bieksa was a stud and his effort echoed his hard words throughout. They’d be far worse off by losing him. Second, I’d expect them to bring back Raffi Torres and Chris Higgins. You can’t put a value on what guys like that bring to a team. If you can score goals, play physical, and get under your opponents skin, you have a place on any NHL team.

Third, this team is going to have to add to their defense through the Draft and through free-agency. With 4 players under contract (Hamhuis, Edler, Ballard, and Rome) and 5 entering some form of free agency (Bieksa, Sweatt, Salo, Erhoff, Alberts) there’s little chance they can resign all of these players. With Ballard and his 4.2 million dollar contract all but guaranteed for 4 more seasons, Gillis will have to get creative to fill a top 4 squad. Salo, Erhoff and Bieksa all made 3 million plus a piece last season, and will more than likely demand around the same amount.

Bieksa will be back for close to 4 million, meaning Salo and Erhoff are probably cost prohibitive. Alberts is a steal at under 2 million so expect him back, but that means they have to resign 2 players for less than 4 million combined (unless they want to hamstring the offense).  If it were me (and it’s not) I’d look to sign a big physical defenseman like Anton Babchuk for around 1.5 million, and add a responsible D-man with a good amount of upside. I’d take Andy Greene for less than a million.

Now, these are pie in the sky proposals, and odds are both guys will be swooped up by their own teams, but that being said, my analysis of their holes remain.

If they deal with those issues, Canucks fans will only have to bite their fingers and hope that their superstars can build off their 2010 campaign and sustain in the playoffs. For my money, I have the Canucks finishing 3rd in the West, and only about 10-15 points ahead of the Wild and Calgary.