NHL: 2010-11 Eastern Conference Playoff Picks
With the regular season just a few days away from commencing there are still a lot of roster decisions to be made. That said, for the most part, the top three lines on most NHL rosters are all but set, which makes it all the easier to make some solid predictions for the upcoming 2010-11 season.
The following is a look at the Eastern Conference teams and where I see these teams finishing.
After an excellent regular season which saw the Capitals earn the Presidents Trophy and set all kinds of franchise records along the way, the Caps fell victim to Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak’s superb goaltending in the first round of the playoffs. Consdering just how poorly the Capitals season ended, you just got to believe that the Capitals will come back with a vengeance in 2010-11.
A top line featuring the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom is just about as good as it gets in NHL circles. All three of these players has the potential to score between 90-100 points, with Ovechkin expected to lead the way in the goals scoring department with as many as 60 goals this season.
On defense, youngsters John Carlson and Karl Alzner will be asked to step up their games and contribute, night-in, night-out.
Mike Green should continue to emerge as a Norris Trophy candidate, but don’t expect him to win it until he finds a way to marry his potent offensive game with his lack of defensive prowess.
The Caps goaltending looks to be solid with Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth expected to share the duties between the pipes.
Varlarmov looks to have the inside track on the starter’s role, but don’t be surprised to see Neuvirth knock Varlarmov off his pedestal should Varlarmov falter early on or at any other point in the season.
Last season the Caps managed to finish the season with a 54-15-13 record, owned the best offense in the league, the best power play in the league (1st overall), but struggled to keep the puck out of the net (16th overall) and on the penalty kill where the team was a pathetic 25th overall.
Look for head coach Bruce Boudreau to put more of an emphasis on defense this season in the hopes that one of his top three pairings will emerge as a genuine shut-down threat, perhaps Alzner and Jeff Schultz (who owned an exceptional plus/minus rating of plus +50 last season).
The outlook is exceptional for the Caps as they look like the frontrunners to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals and perhaps even take the Presidents Trophy home with them for a second straight season.
Look for the Caps to finish with a record of 52-18-12, good enough for 116 points.
Any line that features the likes of Sidney Crosby down the middle is enough to scare most NHL defenses and give many NHL goaltenders the shakes. A line that features both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is enough to make most NHL teams sick to their pants!
With the Pittsburgh Penguins looking to ignite their offense (5th overall in 2009-10) the likelihood of seeing both Malkin and Crosby on the same line at some point in the season is very real.
Unfortunately, it appears as if any thoughts of uniting Crosby and Malkin will have to be put on hold until Jordan Staal returns from his ailments, which may take a few months to heal.
Without Staal down the middle, the Pens offense will take a hit, as will their penalty kill, where Staal thrives.
The Penguins used their off-season to address their backend, bringing in the likes of Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin, two excellent rearguards that should help the Pens both offensively and defensively.
The loss of veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar has been greatly off-set by the signing of Michalek and Martin, as well as the emergence of Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang as legitimate offensive threats.
In net, Marc-Andre Fleury will see the lion’s share of the load. While many NHL pundits have prosecuted Fleury for a sub-par 2009-10 season, nobody is expecting him to struggle in 2010-11, especially when you consider the defensive upgrades the Pens have made.
Led by Crosby, Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and agitator Matt Cooke the Pens should emerge as a very solid team, more than capable of making a long run in the playoffs, and perhaps another Stanley Cup victory.
Look for the Pens to drop off a bit from last season, at least in the win column, but nothing serious. If the Pens can adapt to not having Staal in the lineup they should finish second overall in the East with a record of 45-25-12 for 102 points.
Boston Bruins: Prediction- Third overall in the Eastern Conference
The Bruins finished the 2009-10 season ranked a dismal 30th overall in scoring, with a paltry power play ranked 23rd overall to boot.
On the flip-side, the Bruins did have a very successful campaign defensively, finishing the 2009-10 season with the second best defense and third ranked penalty kill.
Clearly, while the Bruins seem to have their defense figured out they will need to improve on their overall offense if they want to compete with the Eastern Conference’s elite teams.
Fortunately for the Bruins the Northeast Division looks pretty weak, with Toronto still trying to figure out their top-six forwards and the Montreal Canadiens still trying to figure out why the hell they got rid of Jaroslav Halak in favor of Carey “Red Light” Price.
The Buffalo Sabres should be solid on the backend, but with limited offensive tools, I suspect they will be outclassed by the Bruins in 2010-11.
Tyler Seguin looks to be the real deal, but will need some time to adjust to the NHL game. A centre by choice, look for Seguin to bounce around from wing to centre until the Bruins can determine the best fit for the youngster.
Nathan Horton should elevate the Bruins offense dramatically and if the Bruins can get a decent season from the oft-injured Marc Savard, they are gold!
A healthy Milan Lucic should also make a huge difference, both offensively and in the physical department, something the Bruins lacked last season.
Look for the Bruins to have a very solid season, finishing third overall in the East with a record of 43-27-12 for a total of 98 points.
Now that all the Ilya Kovalchuk hoop-la is over with, it’s time for the Devils to get back to what they do best, win.
Even with a few changes likely lurking before the start of the 2010-11 season, the Devils look poised to have yet another successful regular season.
The emergence of Travis Zajac and Zach Parise as legitimate all-star caliber players, the consistency of iron man goaltender Martin Brodeur between the pipes and an improved defense that will see the heavy hitting Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder join an already solid cast of characters should bolster the team’s chances of making a decent run in the playoffs.
No matter how well the Devils do in the regular season, fans, management and pundits alike will judge the Devils on their playoff success, which has been spotty at best for the better part of a decade.
The return of Jason Arnott should bring some much needed accountability to a roster that tends to play in spurts. Arnott, a tremendous leader and veteran presence, should benefit from a change in scenery and, while a return to his old form is unlikely, a solid 60-70 point season playing between Patrick Elias and David Clarkson is not out of the question “IF” he can stay healthy, which has been an issue in the past.
If not for the Penguins, I would suggest the Devils would finish first in their Division, but I suspect the Devils will struggle to find their overall chemistry at the beginning of the season, which will cost them when everything is said and done.
Fourth overall in the East looks about right to me, finishing with a record of 44-30-8, for a total of 96 points.
With the Philadelphia Flyers expected to be without their starting goaltender Michael Leighton for a good portion of the season, the Buffalo Sabres looking weak offensively and the rest of the Eastern Conference teams looking very much like the definition of parity, I like the Lightning’s chances to make a huge jump this season.
The addition of Steve Yzerman as general manager is already paying dividends as, for the first time in years, there seems to be a sense of optimism, accountability and a return to winning by the Tampa Bay management, coaching staff and players.
Steven Stamkos emerged as the NHL’s most potent scoring threat last season and there is no reason to believe he will not light the lamp another 50 times in 2010-11.
The additions of Simon Gagne up front, Brett Clark on the backend and the return of Pavol Kubina on defense as well, should help the Lightning in the depth department and equate to more scoring from both ends of the rink.
In between the pipes the Lightning will feature two goalies with something to prove. The odds on favorite to take the starters role heading into the regular season looks to be Dan Ellis, but don’t expect Mike Smith to roll over for him. Smith will have a bounce back year and should benefit from the healthy competition he and Ellis should have this season.
Martin St-Louis looks as solid as ever and should have another 90+ point season. Vincent Lecavalier should benefit from having Yzerman around and with so many pundits writing him off the past few seasons the pressure is off the ultra-talented centre to have a big season centering the likes of Steve Downie and Ryan Malone with an outside chance of playing with Gagne.
An improved penalty kill (Tampa finished ranked 27th in that department in 2009-10), better defense and improved goaltending should keep the Lightning in most games, and with their powerful offense, expect the team to emerge with a few more wins this season.
A key addition to the Lightning’s defense is all that is stopping this team from being considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, but with a little luck, a dedicated compete level from all players and some good coaching from rookie head coach, Guy Boucher, should see the Lightning emerge as this seasons “surprise team”.
Look for Tampa Bay to finish fifth overall in the Eastern Conference with a record of 40-28-14, good enough for 94 points.
After an up and down 2009-10 season, the Philadelphia Flyers emerged as the NHL’s Cinderella team, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they eventually lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, partially due to significant injuries to their roster and simply being outclassed by the depth of the Blackhawks roster, which was considerable.
The Flyers are taking a huge risk on the wing, electing to trade Simon Gagne in favor of Nikolai Zherdev, who spent last season in the KHL, scoring 13 goals and posting 39 points in 52 games.
The move was partially necessitated by the Flyers salary cap issues, but also due to Gagne’s penchant for getting injured, which often hurt the club’s chemistry and offensively.
With a defense that features the likes of Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn and newcomers Sean O’Donnell and Andrej Mezaros the Flyers look very solid on the backend.
That said, in order to keep up with the Jones’ the Flyers will have to rely on Jeff Carter to be more consistent and for Claude Giroux and James van Reimsdyk to emerge as genuine offensive threats.
Another quagmire will be the play of Ville Leino, who emerged as one of the Flyers best players in the 2009-10 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but has yet to show he can do it over an entire 82-game season.
In net the Flyers will likely go with a duo of Brian Boucher and Johan Backlund between the pipes until Michael Leighton returns from injury.
Goaltending has always been the Achilles heal of the Flyers success, or lack thereof, that is until Leighton arrived mid-season and, in my mind, played exceptionally well for the Flyers both down the stretch and throughout the playoffs.
Look for the Flyers to struggle in the early goings, but make the playoffs on grit, passion and determination, all the qualities you’d expect from the Orange and Black.
I have the Flyers finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference with a record of 40-33-11, for a total of 91 points, three points better than last season.
Buffalo Sabres: Prediction- Seventh in the Eastern Conference
As bad as the Buffalo Sabres offense may be you cannot discount the heroics of goaltender Ryan Miller who has quietly, yet justifiably, earned the title of the NHL’s best goaltender in many people’s eyes.
Finishing the 2009-10 season with the fourth best defense and the second best penalty kill was a huge accomplishment for a team that, outside of Tyler Myers (who was a rookie last season) and Craig Rivet, features of roster of lesser-known defensemen on the blue line.
Up front the Sabres feature a group of players that always seem to bring a high compete level, yet seem to come up short on more nights than not on the score sheet.
Tomas Vanek must return to his old form, as his 28 goals in 2009-10, while good, was not good enough for most Sabres fans.
Derek Roy, Tim Connolly and Paul Gaustad make up a formidable threesome down the middle, but with little support along the boards they will need to find ways to create offense.
Many pre-season predictions have Tyler Ennis amongst the pundits’ favorites to do big things this season. His speed and creativity helped Ennis to score nine points in ten games last season, but he failed to score in his six playoff games, as did many of the Sabres forwards!
Jordan Leopold joins the Sabres on defense, while veteran centre Rob Neidermayer should make an already excellent defensive team that much tougher to play against.
Look for the Sabres to finish seventh overall in the Eastern Conference, finishing with a record of 41-31-10, for a total of 91 points.
Deciding the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference was a tough job. The New York Rangers were the only Eastern Conference club that missed the playoffs in 2009-10 but also had a positive goals for/goals against differential with a plus four rating.
While the Rangers struggled to put the puck in the net most of the 2009-10 season they did finish the season strong, going 7-2-1 down the stretch and missed the playoffs by just one point on the last day of the season.
The problem with picking the Rangers is that they have made very little changes to their roster and, despite saving a ton of money by sending Wade Redden to the minors, the loss of his skills and experience will hurt the club, no matter what anyone tells you.
There is also the Marian Gaborik factor, which suggests that, despite his 76 game performance in which he scored 42 goals and registered 86 points last season, may be due for an injury filled 2010-11.
Of the teams that missed the playoffs last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Atlanta Thrashers look to have made the most dramatic improvements.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will start the season with a number of new faces in the lineup, including defensemen Brett Lebda and Matt Lashoff and a number of changes to their forward unit, including Colby Armstrong, Kris Versteeg and perhaps the likes of Tim Brent and/or Nazem Kadri.
But the changes don’t stop there for the Leafs. Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke made a number of changes towards the end of the 2009-10 season and at the deadline, bringing in veteran goaltender J.S. Giguere from the Anaheim Ducks, newly elected team captain Dion Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames on defense, Pesky forward Luca Caputi over from the Pittsburgh Penguins and defensive specialist Fredrick Sjostrom over form the Calgary Flames as well.
When you look at all the changes the Maple Leafs have made over the past six months you can clearly see that the 2010-11 edition of the team is nothing like the underachieving team that “graced” the Air Canada Center in 2009-10, quite the contrary.
This years Maple Leafs will be tougher, faster, deeper and should compete for the final playoff spot in the East.
A solid offensive lineup that includes Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn should ensure the Canadiens are competitive throughout the season, but I suspect the loss of veteran defenseman Andrei Markov will hurt this team to start the season.
In a Conference that is thought to be very evenly matched, the injury to Markov and the ever questionable play of Carey Price should be enough to ensure the Habs miss the playoffs…barely.
The Carolina Hurricanes are always an interesting team to consider for the playoffs. Led by Eric Staal up front and Cam Ward between the pipes, the Hurricanes have as much of a chance of making the playoffs as any other team in the East.
The problem with picking the Hurricanes is that this team has been so inconsistent that they are, as Forest Gump would say, “like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get”.
Brandon Sutter looks poised to have a career year. That said, there are a number of questions up front including whether or not Chad Larose can bounce back from a terrible 2009-10 season? Can Sergei Samsonov return in time to make a difference on the second line? Will Erik Cole play with confidence and poise or fall flat again this season? And where, if anywhere, does Jiri Tlusty fit into the Hurricanes plans?
On defense Joe Corvo returns, which should help the ‘Canes power play, which finished the 2009-10 season ranked 20th overall. Bobby Sanguinetti also joins the Hurricanes, which will give them some much needed depth.
Question is, are the additions of Corvo and Sanguinetti enough to improve on the Hurricanes defense, which finished the 2009-10 season ranked 26th overall and/or their penalty kill unit, which was amongst the leagues worst, ranked 19th overall?
Answer: probably not— this is why I am picking the Hurricanes to miss the playoffs in 2010-11.
The New York Islanders look destined to finish last in the East. Fact is, they simply do not have the horses to compete with their Eastern Conference foes, night-in, night-out and, given the severity of the injuries to defenseman Mark Streit, their chances just got dimmer.
The Florida Panthers have been getting a lot of support for making the playoffs, but I think those predictions are both short sighted and foolish.
It is clear that the Panthers will try their best to execute a re-build this season, with an emphasis on shedding salary and stocking up on draft picks in order to solidify their future.
The Panthers future is a lot brighter than today’s roster will ever measure up to be, as such, expect veterans such as Bryan McCabe, Steven Reinprecht, Cory Stillman and goaltender Tomas Vokoun to be gone by season’s end, if not sooner.
Offensively the Panthers were horrible in 2009-10, ranking 28th in total offense and 29th on the power play.
The loss of veteran forward Nathan Horton will only hurt their “offensive game”, which was grim to begin with.
Sophomore defenseman Dmitry Kulikov should emerge as the Panthers’ best defenseman by seasons end, although Dennis Wideman may have something to say about that.
Bottom line: The Panthers are not making the playoffs, and are probably looking at another lottery pick.
This leaves us with the final two teams that will compete for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference: the Atlanta Thrashers and the Ottawa Senators.
First up: the Ottawa Senators.
Trouble is, with Gonchar looking every bit his age and succumbing to injuries at a nauseating pace the past few seasons, there is a lot of risk associated with the 36 year-old native of Chelyabinsk, Russia.
Needless to say, the loss of hard-nosed defenseman Anton Volchenkov will hurt the Sens, especially in the physical and shot blocking department where he was so effective for the Sens last season and throughout the playoffs.
The bright spot on the backend would have to be Erik Karlsson, but it is always tough to ask the kids to be your best defensemen, night-in, night-out.
Another question mark on the backend is how much Chris Phillips has left, but I digress. You get the picture, I am not a fan of the Senators defense, nor their goaltending…well, maybe the goaltending will be “ok”???
Jason Spezza, Alex Kovalev and, to a lesser degree, Milan Michalek were all disappointment in 2009-10. If the Senators are to improve offensively all three of these players will have to be better.
Daniel Alfredsson (the heart and soul of the Senators) will likely lead the Sens offensively, but he too could have a setback this season, which would kill the Sens chances of making the playoffs.
In between the pipes the Sens have question marks, but they are not as serious as everyone makes them out to be.
Brian Elliot displayed a terrific work ethic last season and with the benefit of a decent playoff behind him, he should continue to emerge as the Sens number one goaltender going forward.
Pascal Leclaire is expected to be healthier in 2010-11, which should see his numbers improved dramatically.
Keeping the puck out of the net will be the Senators biggest challenge, and with the Eastern Conference putting more of an emphasis on scoring this off season it appears as if the Sens will have their work cut out for them on a nightly basis.
Last on the list are the Atlanta Thrashers, who have made a number of improvements to their roster and look poised to be one of the most improved teams in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire NHL.
Anytime a team losses the services of a perennial all-star talent it is bound to hurt your team. That said, given what the Thrashers have collectively added in light of losing Ilya Kovalchuk last season, I think the Thrashers will be a much deeper/better team overall.
The Thrashers will ice a first line that should feature Nik Antropov, Nik Bergfors and Bryan Little up front— not a terrific threesome, but adequate nonetheless.
Newcomers Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and Dustin Byfuglien should help the Thrashers in the depth department, even if Byfuglien is expected to start the season on defense.
Let’s face it, no matter where the hulking Byfuglien is playing shift-to-shift, the Thrashers would be foolish not to park his butt in front of opposing goaltenders on the power play, right?
The selection of Mike Ramsey as head coach along with the departure of Kovalchuk should see the Thrashers employ a much more defensive-minded strategy going forward, which should help their young defense.
With Chris Mason and Ondrej Pavelec in between the pipes the Thrashers look to have two capable crease beasts, both of whom are capable of playing heavy minutes and going on tremendous win-streaks.
Mason should emerge as the teams number one goalie and his veteran leadership and calm demeanor should rub off on the entire team. Simply put, Mason is a winner and it’s been a while since the Thrashers have employed a winner in the nets.
Brent Sopel should also help the Thrashers out on the backend, as will Johnny Oduya, who played just 27 games with the Thrashers last season, but looked good, scoring one goal and adding eight assists for a total of nine points.
Look for Oduya to have a better year, emerging as one of the Thrashers go-to guys on the backend.
Depth, goaltending, a change in philosophy, the addition of four Stanley Cup winners via the Chicago Blackhawks and a general manager that embraces change has made me a believer that the Atlanta Thrashers will be the eighth seed in the East, making the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history.
Look for the Thrashers to finish the season with a record of 39-32-11, for a total of 89 points, narrowly edging the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs out for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
***Be sure to check back for my Western Conference picks, coming soon….***
Until next time,