Thursday, October 3, 2013

2013-14 NHL Season Preview: Eastern Conference

Fall is here, I caught a cold which developed into a bronchitis - and that means hockey season is here. Like just about every year, I'll go with my predictions; I was pretty spot-on in some cases last year, and very off-the-mark in just as many. Time to get my beak wet...

The NHL went nuts and changed their divisions and playoff format, introducing the concept of a ''wild card'' in which three teams from each division is guaranteed to make it to the post-season, and the remaining two spots in each conference will go to the best two remaining, regardless of division.

Because I think it will actually be used, I'll just jump forward to the meat and bones:

Eastern Conference:

The Adams Atlantic Division:

1. Boston Bruins

Perennial contenders fresh off a Stanley Cup Finals berth, the Bruins have tinkered with their roster this summer more than in years past, retaining most of their core players but upgrading in character. At his age, Jarome Iginla won't score 40 goals, but he can sure replace Jaromir Jagr and even be more physical; Loui Eriksson is as consistent as they come for a typically-Bruins-y 60-70 points per season, which any player on their top two lines can get to. It's the type of team Tyler Seguin could never fit into, so his trade to the Dallas Stars was addition by subtraction. Tuuka Rask is a top-10 goalie and the defense if young, brutal and can pinch in offensively. The best-balanced team in the NHL.

2. Ottawa Senators

How do you replace the team's heart and soul when the captain decides to leave as a free agent? Acquire a consistent 30-goal man like Bobby Ryan who could reach the 40-goal plateau with a master passer like Jason Spezza. Erik Karlsson remains a force on defense, and paired with Marc Methot, could play upwards of 25 quality minutes per game. They have one of the best goaltending duos in the game in Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner to go with a very bright coach. They're also tough enough to resist playing Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia.

3. Detroit Red Wings

The Wings in third? Well, yeah. The offense is a mix of ''very experienced'' and ''unseasoned kids'', and though the veterans are World-Class players, they can't play all 60 minutes of every game. The defense may have over-achieved last year (probably thanks to coach Mike Babcock, the best in the business), and I have a feeling they may hit some rough patches this year, in a full 82-game schedule. They'll evolve into a great time by the time the youngsters take over for the veterans, and they're among the very good teams in the NHL, but they are sitting between chairs at the moment. Lucky for them, Jimmy Howard is a steady presence in front of the net.

4. Montréal Canadiens

Their core group of youngsters is among the league's most promising, chief of which being reformed bad boy, team player, Norris Trophy winner and possibly (who would've thought just two years ago?) the best choice for next captain, P.K. Subban. Sniper Max Pacioretty is barely 24, and Alex Galchenyuk is a 19-year old phenom. Lars Eller could further develop into a 60-point two-way center, and Brendan Gallagher's career may not last over 10 seasons because he plays all-out, but they'll all be memorable. Add Jarred Tinordi as a possible ox on D and you've got the cornerstone of a decade-long contender. The present's not bad either, with one of the best and most consistent two-way centers in the world in Tomas Plekanec and one of the league's top-5 defenders of the last decade, Andrei Markov. Of course, all they require is that Carey Price show why he's the highest-paid player in team history, which so far he has been unable to. But watching him during training camp, I can say that he's been looking like an NHL goalie for the first time in three or four years; sure, that goalie is Stéphane Fiset, but you've got to start somewhere. If Price can't get it done, Zach Fucale will, in 4 years.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs made it to the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade last season, and they had better not get used to it. They'll be the most affected by the Wings moving into their division, and while they do have an elite sniper in Phil Kessel, they lack secondary scoring and forward depth.

6. Tampa Bay Lightning

Though I think Ben Bishop will end up being the solution in front of the net, and Steven Stamkos will probably score 50 goals per year for the foreseeable future, the current-day NHL requires a much stronger top-6 up front and a much more consistent, accurate, physical top-4 on defense. It looks like Victor Hedman is coming into his own, but he needs help.

7. Buffalo Sabres

Who knows what this team will look like after the trade deadline, as a major rebuild is under way and more veterans could be sacrificed.

8. Florida Panthers

Sure, adding Tim Thomas and a rag-tag team of misfits who passed their tryouts and ended up signing at a great bargain makes them look better than they did three weeks ago, but the Panthers 4 years and 4 top-5 draft picks away from contending for the playoffs again. They'll score more goals than last year (and that they were looking at just a month ago), they'll let in less, except instead of losing 5-2, they might end up losing a lot of 3-2 and 2-1 games. Sucsess often comes through struggle, and these kids will get more than their fair share this season.

The Metropolitan Division:

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens have the actual best player in the world (Evgeni Malkin) as well as the guy most people think is the best in the world (Sidney Crosby); they have a pure sniper who could eventually crack the 50-goal plateau once or twice and is a sure-shot to score 40 any year in James Neal; they also have a slew of imposters who would struggle to find powerplay time and second-line duties on other teams but fare extremely well in Pittsburgh because they're fed by elite players (I'm looking at you, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis). The defense isn't what it was when they won the Cup, though they did bring back an older Rob Scuderi, and the man between the pipes has gone from a blue-chip Olympian to one of the league's biggest question marks. Still, the top-heavy Pens should win their division, as they're rested from three straight early playoff exits.

2. New York Rangers

Possibly the most talented team in the league, the Rangers are perennial under-achievers. They undoubtedly have the best defense in the league, the best (or second-best) goalie in the world in Henrik Lundqvist, and a potent offense that boasts a past Rocket Richard winner (Rick Nash), a Conn Smythe winner as the third (!) center (Brad Richards) and enough talent to have six 60-point players, especially if Alain Vigneault takes their leash off; they also have enough character to go deep in the playoffs.

3. Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin is back to his old ways, Niklas Backstrom is good for 75-85 points, Mikhail Grabovski is good for 60 and a couple of selfish distractions, and their top-3 on D is pretty good. Braden Holtby is also looking good between the pipes. I don't know about playoff success, but I'm sure getting there won't prove too difficult.

4. Philadelphia Flyers

With all the tweaks GM Paul Holmgren applied this summer, the Philadelphia Flyers are one player away from Stanley Cup contention. Unfortunately, that player is soon-to-be-retired Chris Pronger, but other teams will have top d-men available before long. The farce in nets will be fun to watch, but it shouldn't hinder the team's hopes too much. Plus, Ray Emery will find his stride.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets

I don't see them regressing too much, but getting through in the East will prove to be too much of a challenge for the Jackets. They simply lack the resources and talent, and are an injury to Marian Gaborik away from being bottom-feeders. Their defense is promising, though, and they may just sacrifice one of their-top two to make room for (possible Calder winner) Jacob Trouba and trade for some help at center.

6. New York Islanders

Sure, they have an MVP candidate in John Tavares, and a decent finisher in Matt Moulson. But they lost their best defenseman (Mark Streit) to Philly and their goaltending is just too old and/or questionable.

7. Carolina Hurricanes

Lots of promising prospects, decent middle-to-high level scorers (Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner), a Conn Smythe winner in nets (Cam Ward), but almost every team's line-up is better than the Canes'. Simply put: all teams improve each year (well, 28 out of 30, anyway), it's those who improve more than the others do that can leap forward. The Canes just can't.

8. New Jersey Devils

Lose a World-Class superstar forward? Check. Start a goalie who should have retired two seasons ago? Check. Financial troubles stop you from spending money on top-end free agents over the summer? Check. A year removed from losing captain Zach Parise to free agency, Ilya Kovalchuk bolts. That's 150 points gone with no return. Say what you will, but Travis Zajac isn't the player who'll pick up the slack, and neither is Michael Ryder. Damien Brunner and Jaromir Jagr should perform admirably considering they're practically alone save a rebound season from Adam Henrique. The defense is suspect, and the best goalie will start the season warming the bench - and that's discounting the fact that he's still unproven. If you thought Newark was already depressing, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Playoff picture:

Boston (1B) - Montreal (7)
Ottawa (2) - Detroit (3)
Pittsburgh (1A) - Philadelphia (8)
Rangers (2) - Washington (3)

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