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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Eastern Conference 2008-09 Breakdown

Well a new season is upon us finally. As you all know, I’m a Penguins fan so that’s why you haven’t heard from me in a couple months.

I spent the summer in seclusion searching for answers on how to get over the sting of seeing the Stanley Cup paraded around on our home ice. What I came up with is that NHL 09 is the greatest hockey game ever created. Seriously, if you haven’t played it yet go get it.

Until that came out I did my very best to avoid all things hockey to try and forget that series with Detroit even happened. The girlfriend tried to offer condolences, but there’s not much worse of a feeling than seeing your team come that close only to come up short.

Now that the season officially begins this weekend and with the pain almost fully subsided, it’s time to look ahead and see how this season may turn out. I’m going to try something different this year and go by each division and rank the teams in the division.

Let’s start in the Eastern Conference:

Northeast Division

#1 Montreal Canadiens – The defending regular season Eastern Conference champs are back with some new toys. The Habs were able to bring in very solid scorers in Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang. They also added tough guy Georges Laraque in a move I as a Pens fan wish would not have happened.

In net, Carey Price returns as the number one guy after taking a stranglehold on the job last year. They also have a capable backup in Jaroslav Halak so there shouldn’t be as many question marks in net this season.

With a playoff run under Price’s belt there’s no question the Habs are the favorite to win this division.

#2 Ottawa Senators – This might be a sucker’s bet considering how well they’ve done over the past couple seasons. The vicious cycle may once again repeat, but when you have guys like Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza in a weak conference, it’s not a bad pick.

One thing that has changed with Ottawa is the defense corps. Jason Smith comes to town to fill the void left by Wade Redden who bolted to Broadway. Also new to the team are Filip Kuba and Alexandre Picard. I must say, I’m still not shaking in my boots about that defense and it still leaves a lot of questions to be answered.

The goaltending situation is still a bit of a mystery as well. Martin Gerber will no doubt be the number one guy, but with Ray Emery out of the picture Gerber might actually be able to focus on playing net and not worrying about Emery’s shenanigans. That can only be a good thing for a streaky goalie like Gerber.

#3 Buffalo Sabres – Yes, I’m serious. This team could very well turn heads this season. They have a very strong core of guys with Maxim Afinogenov, Thomas Vanek, Steve Bernier, Derek Roy and Jason Pomminville.

They brought in Craig Rivet and re-signed Teppo Numminen who is out to prove he’s still capable of playing at this level.

NEWSFLASH: The Sabres retained a highly valued free agent for once. Ryan Miller is locked up for another five years. Rejoice Sabres fans, things may be changing in Buffalo.

This is a team that missed the playoffs last season by four points. With a pretty solid defense corps and a maturing offense, this team could very well make the playoffs this season.

#4 Boston Bruins – Ok ok, I know they made the playoffs last season as the 8-seed and almost knocked off Montreal in the first round. It was a valiant effort. Really, it was. However, what did these guys do to improve the weakest areas of their team?


Their defense is still atrocious and their goaltending situation isn’t much better. Granted Manny Fernandez is back, but if history repeats itself he’ll be out for the season by the end of October and the load will fall squarely on the sometimes broad shoulders of Tim Thomas.

Zdeno Chara is a great asset to have on offense, but he’s a major liability against the rush. He is a great player don’t get me wrong, but there’s other guys I would rather have who can actually skate.

A positive for this team though is who they did bring in. Michael Ryder has been an absolute stud in Montreal and will no doubt be productive in Boston. Another positive for the Bruins is that Patrice Bergeron is back and ready to go for opening night. His return will provide an emotional lift which could take this team places. Especially if they decide to bring in a top tier defenseman.

#5 Toronto Maple Leafs – Sorry Cheech, but even you know this is a forgone conclusion. As of right now, Mats Sundin still hasn’t decided if he wants to return for another season. My guess is if he needs the money, he’ll be back. If not, he’s heading home.

The Leafs do have a lot of young raw talent, but like the Penguins a few years back, it’s largely under developed. The next couple of seasons will be rough in Toronto, but the future is quite bright.

One positive is that Vesa Toskala is patrolling the crease. Don’t let his mediocre numbers from last season fool you. He has the ability to be an elite goalie in this league. He just needs a half decent team in front of him to do so. Seeing Bryan McCabe leave can’t help matters even though he’s been criticized for his defensive play and sometimes categorized as only an offensive defenseman.

Of all the decisions I had to make with this division this was the easiest by far.

Atlantic Division

#1 – Pittsburgh Penguins – Is this a homer pick? Of course there will be people out there who say that, but that’s fine. If you look at this team even with the injuries to two of our top defensemen in Ryan Whitney (foot surgery, out until at least December) and Sergei Gonchar (shoulder surgery, out just as long if not longer), they are still arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference.

I won’t go into particulars here because I just spent a ton of time working on a full season preview for the Pens for a couple different sites. You can find that article here.

#2 – New York Rangers – This one was a bit tougher for me to pick. The Rangers added some more offensive weapons, but in my mind they still need some solid defensemen. The addition of Wade Redden is nice, but he’s more offensive minded. Marc Staal is a solid young player, but it just seems to me that defense should have been a priority.

The defense was instantly improved with the departure of Marek Malik who was much maligned during his tenure in New York. (Just ask Gopher, he’ll tell you. In fact here’s a direct quote: “We would’ve been better if he was playing defense for the opponent during our power play... that way when he centered the puck in the defensive zone we could’ve benefitted.”

Goaltending may be an issue here and I highly stress the word “may.” I’ve been hearing and reading rumors that Henrik Lundqvist may have an undisclosed knee injury that may require surgery. According to Eklund, the Rangers may be in talks with the Blackhawks to acquire Nikolai Khabibulin who has just been placed on waivers. Stay tuned and hold your breath Ranger fans.

#3 –Philadelphia Flyers – If this team didn’t have as many injuries as they did last year, they could have easily finished second or third in the division. They are fresh off an Eastern Conference finals loss to the Penguins so you know these guys are not the laughing stock they were two years ago.

On defense Mike Rathje and Derian Hatcher are both on the long term injury list. That alone makes the defense corps better. The brought in Ossi Vaananen which can only help out as well.

Their offense should still be very productive and if Simon Gagne can stay healthy, these guys could be fighting for the division title.

The major question is whether or not Martin Biron is the real deal or not. I tend to think he is, which is why he’s also on the fantasy roster this season.

#4 New Jersey Devils – The major knock against this team last season was a lack of offense. So what did the Devils do in the offseason? Not much. They went out and brought back former New Jersey cup winners Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik.

Holik is coming off a 34 point (15G 19A) season and yes he played all 82 games. Granted it was with Atlanta, but I’m pretty sure they have Ilya Kovalchuk and had a guy named Marian “Judas” Hossa until the Pens landed him at the deadline.

The other factor I weighed in this decision is that Martin Brodeur is another year older. If you watch his games closely over the past couple years, you can see a change in his play. He’s still probably the best puck moving goalie in the league, but shots from the point seem to find twine more often now. He seems to be losing pucks in crowds more than he used to and you can see him get visibly rattled at times, which you never saw before.

They may still fight for a playoff spot despite this low ranking because I still feel that this is the best division in the Eastern Conference.

#5 New York Islanders – This team could turn heads. Could. Should the young core of players they have, led by Kyly Okposo, learn quickly and mesh together this group could fight for a playoff spot.

They added defenseman Mark Streit, which is a brilliant pick up. They also added gritty veteran Doug Weight to join Bill Guerin. The biggest problem for this team is that they lost one of their best scorers and one of their best two-way players in Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko. Both went to Pittsburgh to play with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The other question will be the health of goalie Rick DiPietro, who’s signed until the next century. DiPietro had hip surgery, again, and all eyes will be on him. If he can stay healthy, he has shown signs that he can carry a team.

There is a youth movement happening on the Island, but I still think they are a couple years away from contending.

Southeast Division

#1 Washington Capitals – The Caps are fresh off a playoff appearance and a division title. The first of many I’m sure for young Alexander the Great. They pushed the Flyers to seven games before bowing out in front of their own fans. There is a buzz in D.C. now about hockey that hasn’t been there for many many years.

As far as offseason moves go, the Caps didn’t do a whole lot. They locked up some of their younger players and core players to keep the team intact. The move that puzzles me the most is the goaltending situation.

At the trade deadline, the Caps dealt for Cristobal Huet from the Habs. This gave them two very capable goalies as Olaf Kolzig was already in town. For some reason unknown to me, both Huet and Kolzig left the nation’s capital and the Caps brought in Jose Theodore. Personally, I would have kept Huet as Theodore hasn’t been himself since he left Montreal.

The Caps on paper are the clear favorite to win this division again and the Penguins proved that a little playoff experience can go a long way. If Theodore returns to form, the Caps could be raising some big silver trophy in June.

#2 Carolina Hurricanes – This division is still the weakest in the East and might even be the weakest in all of the NHL. That said, the Hurricanes are not going to forget the collapse they suffered last season when they missed out on the playoffs by two points.

The Canes blue line will look a lot different this season as Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican are gone. They shipped Erik Cole to Edmonton for defenseman Joni Pitkanen and signed Josef Melichar and Anton Babchuk.

They also locked up Eric Staal long-term (not as long as the lifetime deal DiPietro signed, but long enough).

The Canes are very capable of winning this division, don’t get me wrong and it could come down to goaltending. Cam Ward returns and if he plays anything like he did during the Canes Stanley Cup championship run, it could very well happen.

#3 Tampa Bay Lightning – This team had a major overhaul this offseason. New coach, plethora of new faces and the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft.

Starting with the coach, Barry Melrose gave up his cushy 1 hour a week of on-camera work at ESPN to return behind the bench as a coach in the NHL. I am very happy to see him back and will miss his insight on the off-chance ESPN remembers that hockey exists.

As for the new faces, three Cup runner ups from this past season migrated south. Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts and Adam Hall. I think the Bolts overpaid for Roberts and Malone, but more power to them. All three of those guys will fit in well, but I still don’t see these guys making the playoffs this season.

Steven Stamkos will make his NHL debut against the Rangers in the NHL’s tour d’Europe to start the season. This kid is electric and very well could make a lot of fantasy owners cringe that they passed him up.

Goaltending remains a concern as Mike Smith will be the main man with Kolzig backing him up. Smith is more than capable, but he’s never been the starting guy. If he passes the test the Bolts will be the most improved team in the league. Shouldn’t be hard after an NHL worst 31 wins and 71 points.

#4 – Florida Panthers – Where to begin with this mess? How about the departure of captain Olli Jokinen who was sent to the Coyotes for Nick Boynton and Keith Ballard. The Panthers also brought in McCabe to help out the blue line.

They may have one of the best blue line corps in the division, but depth up front might be an issues. Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton will be the focal point of the offense now with Jokinen gone and I don’t think those guys are ready to carry a team yet.

In goal Tomas Vokoun will be a rock like usual. Don’t expect a monster win total, but his GAA and save percentage should be nice for a backup fantasy goalie. The Panthers are still a couple years away, but they do have a solid core to build around and could become a force in this weak division soon.

#5 Atlanta Thrashers – Oh boy. Outside of Kovalchuk what is there on this team? I feel bad for Erik Christensen and Colby Armstrong who were traded for “Judas” Hossa. The Thrashers brought in Jason Williams and Marty Reasoner, but outside of those guys who can score?

Tobias Enstrom was a pleasant surprise on the blue line last year and can only get better. This team is in shambles right now with no depth to speak of and seeing star after star leave town by trade or free agency.

In goal Kari Lehtonen is a solid choice and will keep his team in games, but any goalie facing upwards of 40 shots a night can only do so much. There’s not much to say about this team other than, I hope there’s a lot of fan giveaway nights in Atlanta or else there’s going to be a lot of empty seats in the Philips Arena this year.

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