Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Preview Time: NHL East

Let's be honest for a minute.

You're not ready for the NHL season.

It's okay. Neither is anyone else, outside of those who cover the league on a daily basis. It always sneaks up on you, no matter how much you look forward to it.

Thursday is the lid-lifter for a handful of teams, then the defending champs put a banner in the rafters and play the Rangers on Friday.

We'll start our preview with the Eastern Conference. If all goes well, you'll see the West preview Thursday. Teams are listed in reverse order from the bottom to the top. These are regular season predictions. You'll see fruitless postseason and award picks Thursday.

15. New York Islanders

There are positives on Long Island. The youth movement is going well, and top pick John Tavares takes the helm of the ship starting this weekend. Veterans Doug Weight, Mark Streit, and Dwayne Roloson provide stability, but there just isn't enough talent on either end of the ice.

14. Florida Panthers

Peter DeBoer is a good coach, and there are some quality players. However, there are also distractions off the ice, and while it's not as bad as the situation in Phoenix, there are parallels. The Panther players have to stay focused on the game, and let the business people take care of the business side of things. It's easier said than done, and it didn't work for the Coyotes last year. If Florida can pull it off, they will be much closer to the playoffs than this.

13. Ottawa Senators

The Dany Heatley saga is finally over, which should help the Senators a ton. He was going to be nothing but a huge distraction for them, especially if he didn't stay quiet on his trade demand. Milan Michalek has a chance to be the gem of that trade, as he still has some serious goal-scoring upside, and he could realize his full potential with the ice time he has a chance to get in Ottawa.

12. Montreal Canadiens

There were some huge risks taken by Montreal in the offseason. They hired retread Jacques Martin to coach the club, then brought in veterans like Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, and Michael Cammalleri. Only Cammalleri played really well last season, but he was in a contract year and on Jarome Iginla's team in Calgary. It's hard to trust Carey Price, and it's really hard to trust the team's depth.

11. New York Rangers

There is just too much money tied up in high-risk players for the Rangers to be taken seriously. Marian Gaborik is a wonderful talent, but he's getting $7.5 million a year when he hasn't proven he can stay healthy. Combine that with big money and not enough production with players like Chris Drury and Wade Redden, and you have a recipe for disaster, especially as the Eastern Conference gets more and more competitive.

10. Tampa Bay Lightning

The addition of stud youngster Victor Hedman and veteran Matthias Ohlund should help make the defense better. However, the Lightning are still a bit low on top-flight forwards until Steven Stamkos is ready to make the leap, and Mike Smith has to prove himself in goal now that he has legitimate help in front of him.

9. Atlanta Thrashers

A defense that seemed to rid itself of solid players at the trade deadline (Niclas Havelid and Mathieu Schneider) actually got better down the stretch, and the Thrashers have the makings of an exciting front line. The organization needs to make a decision on what to do with Ilya Kovalchuk, because his impending free agency hangs over this franchise. Atlanta also has to solve their goaltending issues before they can be a playoff team again.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs

Brian Burke doesn't stand for mediocrity for long. In the case of last season, he wasn't going to stand for bad, uninspired hockey. This year's Leafs won't be bad or uninspired. They'll stop people, both with sound defense and physical play. If either Jonas Gustavsson or Vesa Toskala emerge as a No. 1 goaltender, this could be a high-ceiling team. Getting Phil Kessel healthy and happily inserted onto the top line will also be huge for them.

7. Carolina Hurricanes

Last year's awesome run to the conference finals gives the Hurricanes some momentum into this season. However, they need to find Eric Staal some quality linemates before they can have a real chance for a repeat. Guys like Jussi Jokinen and Chad LaRose can provide depth if they're not suited to play with Staal. Freshly-signed goalie Cam Ward is the leader in back, having proven that 2006 was not at all a fluke.

6. Philadelphia Flyers

Call it a pick of skepticism. Chris Pronger is a great player who has caused tons of trouble in his career. Ray Emery is a roller-coaster ride waiting to happen in goal. Mike Richards is a great player with an extremely short fuse (just ask Cal Clutterbuck). The Flyers struggled to skate with the Penguins and get the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury. Trading away Joffrey Lupul isn't going to help them do either of these things.

5. New Jersey Devils

Jacques Lemaire returns, and while some fans will complain about his boring style of play, the reality is that he wins games, and he exploits favorable matchups. With guys like Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner, Brendan Shanahan, and Paul Martin on board, Lemaire should have little trouble finding advantages against opponents. Oh, and he has a healthy Martin Brodeur in goal, too.

4. Buffalo Sabres

Sometimes, standing pat can be a good thing. The Sabres chose to keep their team intact as much as possible, because they knew they were close to breaking back into the top eight. They have an elite forward (Thomas Vanek), and a top goalie (Ryan Miller) to lead the way. On the bench, Lindy Ruff is as good as they come, too. Newcomers Steve Montador and Joe DiPenta make the defense a bit more rugged.

3. Boston Bruins

The Kessel trade is just mind-boggling. While it was nice to get some high picks in return for him, the Bruins didn't get one player in the deal, and it will hurt them in the short term. You don't just flip a switch and replace a guy of his caliber on the top lines. That said, Boston still has a ton of talent. The net is well-protected, thanks to reigning Vezina winner Tim Thomas and Norris winner Zdeno Chara.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins

The defending champions have all the key players back, but will miss the scoring that a healthy Petr Sykora would have brought them. They should still be near the top of the heap, thanks to stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Fleury is one of the league's best in goal, and the Penguins will be solid on defense with youngster Alex Goligoski playing more and Brooks Orpik throwing his body around.

1. Washington Capitals

It's Alex Ovechkin's turn. He has a rugged forward (Mike Knuble) to play with up front. Semyon Varlamov might not start right away, but the Capitals know he can play if they need him to. Of course, with Jose Theodore as the starter, they'll probably need Varlamov. Mike Green needs to be better in his own zone, but he's one of the better offensive defenseman to come around in a long time. The key for the Capitals making a Cup run will be supplementing his offense with a bit more defense once the snow melts and the games really start counting.

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