Tuesday, October 02, 2007

2007-2008 NHL Season Preview Part II: The Eastern Conference

Once again by projected order of finish... The West was earlier...

Atlantic Division:

New Jersey Devils (49-33; 107 points; 1st Atlantic Division, 2nd Eastern Conference, 7th Overall; Lost in the Second Round of the playoffs):

One of these days, the New Jersey Devils will collapse. However, if the past couple of seasons have proven anything, it is more likely to come with the departure of Martin Brodeur from the Joisey swamps. The Devils are nowhere near as good as they were when they won three Cups in nine seasons. But they remain respectable and dangerous in spite of the mass exodus brought on through the various means of Genius Manager Lou Lamoriello because of Brodeur. However, Brodeur isn't getting any younger and the Genius Manager has finally figured out that he needs to employ a backup who can actually play at the NHL level on a consistent basis. Rangers cast-off Kevin Weekes may or may not be exactly what the Genius Manager was after but he brings more promise than the collection of stiffs who backed up Brodeur previously. The Devils open a shiny new arena and unless the crowds improve it won't mean a thing. Bottom line though for the Devils, they're still the Atlantic Division Champions and until somebody knocks them off, that is where they are going to stay. The division overall is rather weak so they should be ok. Just hope the Genius Manager doesn't decide to fire new head coach Brent Sutter two weeks before the playoffs start.

Pittsburgh Penguin Scum (47-35; 105 points; 2nd Atlantic Division, 5th Eastern Conference, 10th Overall; Lost in the First Round of the playoffs):

Coming out of nowhere and beating up on a weak division, the Penguin Scum surged into the playoffs and promptly flamed out in five games. Now comes Act II and can the Penguin Scum go further this year? Well, a more favorable first round match up is a distinct possibility simply because the Atlantic Division is so weak. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see the Penguin Scum win the Atlantic Division. However, the Penguin Scum did little to address their no showing in last year's playoffs. They got career backup Dany Sabourin to backup career choker Marc-Andre Fleury. Peter Sykora was brought in from Edmonton to provide more scoring punch and Darryl Sydor looks to shore up an inexperienced and somewhat ineffective blueline. The Penguin Scum however have to be concerned that Sydor holds up and that Evgeni Malkin-Lindros' flame out was only fatigue from a long season. While the NHL brass would love nothing more than to see the Canadian Diving Team Captain, Secondary Assist Cindy Crosby, skate with the Cup, it isn't going to happen anytime soon and another second place finish could end up leading to another quick first round exit.

New York Rangers (42-40; 94 points; 3rd Atlantic Division, 6th Eastern Conference, 15th Overall; Lost in the Second Round of the playoffs):

So let me get this straight, one of your best players is a temperamental player who only plays well when he's happy and surrounded by friends. You decide to let a friend go and replace him with the "free agent flavor of the month" and think you've improved your hockey team? Well, if Jagr takes a quick shine to Chris Drury or Scott Gomez the Rangers have. But his comments after the departure of Michael Nylander leads one to believe it is pouting time again for Jagr, at least for the first month or so of the season. The Rangers returned to their old ways of spending without thinking this summer and instead of trying to keep certain pieces in place, they sought to purchase the most expensive ones out there. We've seen this before and we all know how it turns out. Sure the Rangers could win this division because it is so weak but if Jagr isn't happy, pouts all year, and doesn't play well and Lundqvist blows up, they could easily become this year's Philadelphia Flyers. The worst part for the Rangers is that they've capped themselves out and have some contracts that will make any reclamation project a big chore. Win or lose, it will be an interesting year to watch on Broadway as the Rangers foolishly thought they were on the verge of something big.

Philadelphia Flyers (22-60; 56 points; 5th Atlantic Division, 15th Eastern Conference, 30th Overall; nowhere near making the playoffs):

In a Gary Bettman era of point inflation along with 82 game schedules, one has to admire the Flyers accomplishment of setting a new franchise record low for standings points. The 22 wins were the fewest since 17 wins in 1969-1970 which set the previous point low of 58. Getting Martin Biron out of Loserville...er...Buffalo was a good start on the long road back to respectability. But leaving Derrian Hatcher on your roster as your #1 defenseman along with viciously overpaying Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, and that scumbag Danielle Briere doesn't improve upon that at start at all. The Flyers should score more goals but you have to hope that pride and maybe a couple of clothespins for Biron will allow the Flyers to move out of the cellar. They should only because there's actually a worse run organization than themselves in their division.

New York Islanders (40-42; 92 points; 4th Atlantic Division, 8th Eastern Conference, 17th Overall; Lost in the First Round of the playoffs):

Remember all the predictions of impending doom for the Islanders last season? Well, they were a year early. Making the playoffs on the final day, Head Coach Ted Nolan made the most of his return to the NHL coaching ranks. Now say what you want about Nolan and his techniques, but he does get the most out his players that he can. However, as the late-great-first ever Caps beat writer for the Washington (Com)Post Bob Fachet used to say "you can't make chicken salad out of chicken feathers." Or maybe I should invoke former Caps Head Coach Jim Schoenfeld who after saying "having another donut you fat pig!" said "you can't open a can of beans with a banana." The point to all this filler is that while you can expect the Islanders to give you everything they've got, there just isn't for them to give. The truly goofball management has led to a lack of talent on Long Island that will make for a long season for the Islanders. Adding insult to injury are truly ugly uniforms that will make them larger laughing stocks.

Northeast Division:

Buffaslugs (53-29; 113 points; 1st Northeast Division, 1st Eastern Conference, 1st Overall; Lost in the Eastern Conference Finals):

Once again after a strong regular season where they ran away with their division and won the President's Trophy, the Buffalsugs turned in a disappointing playoff performance. The Buffaslug's performance in the Eastern Conference Finals was so bad that Loserville...er... Buffalo fans were actually rooting for Ottawa in Game 4 to put them out of their misery. The Buffaslugs followed that up by letting that Scumbag Danielle Briere and Chris Drury jump ship. They got tied into salary cap knots by Kevin Lowe through Thomas Vanek. In spite of the disheartening loss, the rising questions about goaltender Ryan Miller, and the continuing bleeding of talent, the Buffaslugs still have the best chance of winning this division simply because who else in the Northeast improved as much as the Buffaslugs regressed? They're still a team to be reckoned with, but they're a long way away from being the juggernaut they appeared to be in the early months of last season.

Ottawa Senators (48-34; 105 points; 2nd Northeast Division, 4th Eastern Conference, 9th Overall; Lost in the Stanley Cup Finals):

You'll have to forgive me, but for some reason when I look at the 2006-2007 Ottawa Senators, I think about the 1997-1998 Washington Capitals. Here's a team that had a reputation of being a playoff disappointment surprisingly getting the breaks they never got and landing in the Stanley Cup Finals before being totally outmatched. And after getting further than they ever have before, they do nothing to improve the roster. They even let go of players that they brought in for the playoff run. While Bryan Murray moves from behind the bench to the Press Box, he's still involved with the organization. However the biggest mistake is standing pat. That move hardly ever works out for anybody and the odds that the Senators are going to change that are slim. Especially with goaltender Ray Emery still nursing a bad wrist.

Toronto Maple Leafs (40-42; 91 points; 3rd Northeast Division, 9th Eastern Conference, 18th Overall; Did not qualify for the playoffs):

One point. Just one more point is all the Maple Leafs needed to make the playoffs last season. One more gimmick win, one more OT goal, one more last second game tying goal. Yet the Leafs couldn't pull it off and the Leafs are once again looking to rebuild everything with quick fixes and patches. Criminey, they're counting on a guy who was a regular healthy scratch in Washington (Bryan Muir) to solidify their blueline. Vesa Toskala could help them out in goal but he'll have to stand up much better to the pressure on the ice and off than Andrew Raycroft did. It also would not hurt if the Leafs found somebody younger than Mats Sundin to lead their offense. But that could be asking too much of the Leafs who I could easily see being passed by the Bruins if they aren't careful.

Boston Bruins (35-47; 5th Northeast Division, 13th Eastern Conference, 23rd Overall; Did not qualify for the playoffs):

Once again the Bruins search for a new goaltender after another disappointing season. This year's contestant is Manny Fernandez who lost out in Minnesota to Nichlas Backstrom. Fernandez is without a doubt a good goaltender but is he good enough to get the Bruins back into the playoffs? Not unless he can score goals too because like most teams that did not make the playoffs, the Bruins had a hard time putting the puck into the net. While their 289 goals allowed was alarmingly high, they did nothing to address their goal scoring problems. But I guess you try to solve your problems one at a time. Boston better hope that Phil Kessel and Brandon Bochenski have breakout seasons, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Fernandez wouldn't mind further improvement from the blueline too and Andrew Alberts will need to accelerate his learning curve.

Montreal Canadiens (42-40; 90 points; 4th Northeast Division, 10th Eastern Conference, 19th Overall; Did not qualify for the playoffs):

Saku Koivu said that the Canadiens were not going to win the Cup and he was almost crucified as a heretic by Habs fans. Saku was only speaking the truth as the Canadiens let their Power Play quarterback depart and picked up a bunch of journeymen spare parts in turn. The first order of business for Montreal is to figure out how all these new parts will fit. While the names are certainly familiar, Roman Hamrlik, Bryan Smolinski, and Patrice Brisebois, they have been around the block a few times and their usefulness is deteriorating. While Saku publicly retracted his statement, there's no doubt that he was right the first time. How far out of the running Montreal will end up remains to be seen but I don't like their chances if they can't sort out who will be in charge in goal.

Southeast Division:

Tampa Bay Lightning (44-38; 93 points; 2nd Southeast Division, 7th Eastern Conference, 16th Overall; Lost in the First Round of the Playoffs):

In a division as fluky as the Southeast, it is tough to call just who is going to win it and who is going to lose in it. Last year I didn't think Ning Head Coach John Tortorella would last the season but he somehow did. Will he get through this year? Well, that still remains to be seen. The Ning are undergoing an ownership change and once Doug MacLean takes over, how long will Tortorella last? One thing you can't fault Tortorella for is that Tampa is still trying to figure out how to work the salary cap. Their Big Three still occupy too much space and the blueline and goaltending suffers as a result. I happen to think that a coaching change could help stabilize the goaltending situation but until the Ning can figure out a way to balance the salary sheet, they're going to have a tough time contending for the Cup again. However, that doesn't mean they can't win the Southeast Division.

Carolina Hurricanes (40-42; 88 points; 3rd Southeast Division, 11th Eastern Conference, 20th Overall; Did not qualify for the playoffs):

So which Carolina Hurricanes team will show up this year? The one that landed in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002 and 2006 (winning it in 2006)? Or the one that couldn't make the playoffs in 2003, 2004, and 2005? The Canes once again return the nucleus that won the Cup and made a few changes on the edges. Obviously they believe that they still have the talent to continue to be a contender and I happen to agree. Their biggest obstacle however seems to be themselves. Sure they could use some better stability in goal but Ward is only 23. It does raise the question is he a flash in the pan, but the rest of the Canes had a Cup hangover too so you can't blame him for the bad season. However something tells me that if he gets off to another slow start, he'll be the fall guy rightly or wrongly. Who the Canes get to take his place is anybody's guess but I can't see them missing the playoffs by very much this year.

Atlanta Thrashers (43-39; 97 points; 1st Southeast Division, 3rd Eastern Conference, 12th Overall; Lost in the First Round of the playoffs):

Actually, that should read, "Flamed out spectacularly in the first round of the playoffs." Or maybe "didn't bother to show up in the first round of the playoffs." Last year the Thrashers went "all in" just to make the playoffs. Well, they also got a Division Title out of it but that's it. The Thrashers got smoked, badly, in the playoffs last year and to add insult to injury, just about everybody they brought in for the playoff push is gone. The Thrashers were left to shore things up with guys like Ken Klee and Joel Kwiatkowski because of their cap situation. Atlanta will have a hard time repeating last year's run and the only hope that they will is goaltender Kari Lehtonen. They'll need Bobby Holik and Steve Rucchin to play like they are in contract years (which they are BTW) as well. But except for Ilya Kovachuk, Pascal Dupuis, and Marian Hossa, all of their top forwards are over 30. Their blueline is old as well. This is a team that needs to miss the playoffs and make the lottery in order to restock their system.

Washington Capitals (28-54; 70 points; 5th Southeast Division, 14th Eastern Conference, 27th Overall; Did not qualify for the playoffs):

You don't honestly think I'm just going to write some pithy paragraph for main subject of this blog do you? Feel lucky I even included them in this post.

Florida Panthers (35-47; 86 points; 4th Southeast Division, 12th Eastern Conference, 21st Overall; Did not qualify for the playoffs):

A team reeling from the (mis)management of Mike Keenan, the Panther took a step in the right direction by getting Tomas Vokun out of Nashville via a trade. However, I don't understand the rest of the moves. Richard Zednik? Radek Dvorak? While Vokun is an upgrade in net, there hasn't been enough improvement of the rest of the team to warrant any kind of optimism that the Panthers will be better this season than last. Make no mistake, Vokun is NOT Roberto Luongo and Luongo was unable to get the Panthers into the playoffs by himself. Vokun will be in the same boat here. There is some good young talent on this team but it is going to take some more time before things are put together. If there is a team in the Southeast that the Caps can pass this year, it is Florida.

Tomorrow and Thursday I'll tell you about the Caps...



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