Monday, October 10, 2005

NHL Preview: Eastern Conference

A few days late, but here goes nothing. Full disclosure: No Eastern Conference games were viewed after opening night, and even then I only watched a significant part of Toronto/Ottawa. The standings were not consulted.

  1. Boston Bruins: They had a ton of free-agents and managed to get most of them signed. Hilbert wants out, and Boynton isn’t signed, but the B’s managed to lock up pretty much everyone else. They lost Gonchar and brought in Leetch. Brad Isbister is a player that you never hear a ton about but still puts up some pretty decent numbers. They’re a team that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with, but when you look at the rosters, it’s quite possible that they’re the best team in the East. Deep up front, decent defense (though if they get Boynton signed, they’re set on the blue line), and a proven goalie. They return almost everyone from a team that finished 2nd in the East before the lockout.

Biggest Gain: Leetch for Gonchar is pretty much a wash, so I’m not listing either of them. Alexei Zhamnov is my pick here. He’s 35, but since he’s broken into the league he’s had between 49-72 points every single season but 2003-04 when he had 36 in just 43 games. Great choice as a second-line center.

Biggest Loss: Since he’s not signed, Nick Boynton is the obvious choice. Great young defense prospect, and without him they’re only decent back on the blueline. With him, they’ve got a pretty formidable corps.

Biggest Question Mark: Can they do it in the playoffs? They’ve had 100+ points 2 of the last 3 seasons and haven’t gotten out of the first round. In fact, they’ve won just 2 playoff series since the 91-92 season.

  1. Ottawa Senators: A solid all-around team that finally has a goalie capable of taking them to the Cup (if he stays healthy of course). Heatley/Spezza is one of the best young duos in the league, Brandon Bochenski had a great year in the AHL last year and Daniel Alfredsson/Bryan Smolinski on the second line isn’t a bad thing. Redden, Chara, Phillips, Volchenkov is a nice top four back on D. Ottawa is a new start for Dany Heatley and he could thrive in his new environment.

Biggest Gain: Dominik Hasek. I know they signed him before the lockout, but because he didn’t suit up for the Sens before this season I feel ok listing this as a gain. When healthy, he’s a huge upgrade from Patrick Lalime. There’s only a few active goalies that have won the Cup as a starter and Hasek is one of them.

Biggest Loss: Radek Bonk. I’ve thought about it and I guess it isn’t fair to list guys like Pronger & Brewer as their teams’ biggest losses when the guy they brought in for them compensates for it. Thus it’s not fair for me to list Hossa as Ottawa’s biggest loss, because they brought in Heatley. Bonk has been a solid player for them for awhile, and of the rest of the guys they didn’t bring back, he’s the one they’ll miss most.

Biggest Question Mark: Dominik Hasek staying healthy. If he’s playing, the Senators are a legit threat to win the Cup. If he’s out, they’re not. That simple. And with Hasek’s history, it’s a major question mark if he’ll make it through the year.

  1. Pittsburgh Penguins: The NHL’s most improved team without question. They go from laughing-stock to contender by adding Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John Leclair, Jocelyn Thibault, and oh yeah, some guy named Crosby. Lemieux has had a year off to rest and he should be ready to go. Their defense isn’t real deep, but Thibault is used to that, having played in Chicago and fared pretty well in the process. What he never had in Chicago was this kind of offensive firepower.

Biggest Gain: The NHL salary cap. Everyone wants me to say Sid The Kid here, but even with Crosby this team wouldn’t be in a position to contend without the Cap.

Biggest Loss: None. Seriously. You wanna pick one out of JS Aubin, Matt Bradley, Michal Rozsival, and Kris Beech? I don’t.

Biggest Question Mark: If you spend too much time Jocelying your Thibault, will you go blind? T-Bo has only played 14 games since the end of the 2002-03 season. Is he healthy? Can he stay healthy? I know it’s a copout to keep questioning the health of the team’s starting goalie, but it’s a legit question.

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning: Still loaded up front, still pretty decent on the blueline. This time with no Khabibulin to save them. Sean Burke brings a nice veteran presence to the team and John Grahame has shown flashes. But neither one is the Bulin Wall. That said, Prospal, Lecavlier, St. Louis, Modin, Richards. They’re going to score goals.

Biggest Gain: Vaclav Prospal returns to the team from Anaheim after he missed the Cup run, but set a career high in points in the process. He’ll like playing with Lecavlier and St. Louis again.

Biggest Loss: Nikolai Khabibulin was a difference-maker in net and there aren’t too many teams that can say they have one.

Biggest Question Mark: Once again, the goaltending in Khabibulin’s absence. They’re going to score goals. We know that. Can they keep them out of their own net? We’ll see.

  1. Philadelphia Flyers: All anyone wants to talk about in handing the Flyers the 2006 Stanley Cup are the acquisitions the team made in the offseason. Forsberg, Hatcher, Rathje, Knuble. Bobby Clarke did a great job, no doubt. But they also lost Roenick, Burke, Zhamnov, Leclair, Recchi, Amonte. That said, if you look at their roster, they’re in really good shape. Add the above acquisitions to top-prospects Mike Richards and Jeff Carter along with an exisiting solid group and they’re going to fare pretty well this year. Just maybe not as well as everyone seems to think. Esche has done pretty well for them so far, but I’m not sold on him as a Cup-winning-caliber goaltender.

Biggest Gain: Peter Forsberg. The oft-injured flopper is still arguably the NHL’s best player when he’s healthy. Mike Rathje was an excellent signing as well.

Biggest Loss: They lost a lot of guys—and a lot of good players at that—so I’m going to go with Jeremy Roenick here. If Forsberg does get hurt, the Flyers suddenly don’t look so good up front anymore.

Biggest Question Mark: Can Esche do it? The Flyers didn’t bring Sean Burke back and so he’s playing goal without a safety net basically. Philly is yet another team that looks primed to make a Cup run, but might not have the goaltending to do it.

  1. Atlanta Thrashers: Healey’s out, Hossa’s in. Kovalchuk’s signed now, and he comes back to a team that added a slew of pieces in the offseason including Bobby Holik, Greg de Vries, and Peter Bondra. The learning curve for Kari Lehtonen in net has been accelerated with Pasi Nurminen having to retire because of a knee injury. Mike Dunham is there to mentor him, however, and after a great season in the AHL, he should be ready. They’ve got a great young team and will be a force in the years to come. They may be a year away from being a true-contender, but the years of the Thrashers being a joke are over. The one thing they’re missing is a true #1 defenseman.

Biggest Gain: Peter Bondra. He didn’t perform like Ottawa hoped, but I think he’s got another year or two in the tank and they got him for a bargain price.

Biggest Loss: The only one of note was Dany Heatley, and they got Marian Hossa in return. The Thrashers did a great job in the offseason.

Biggest Question Mark: No-name defense and a young goalie. How will they hold up? Lehtonen is a stud prospect, the defense is more iffy.

  1. New Jersey Devils: I said it about the Avs and I’ll say it here. My how the mighty have fallen. You look at the roster and it’s still pretty solid, but losing Niedermayer, Stevens, Hrdina and Friesen is a huge blow to this team. You don’t lose your 2 best defenseman and not feel it. Not to mention the new rules mean no more neutral zone trap. Elias is out with Hep A and Mogilny was a nice signing but is an injury question mark. That said, Gomez, Kozlov, Madden, Parise is a nice group of centers, Elias will be back, Rafalski is still around and he should do very well with the new rules, and Mogilny, Langenbruner and Gionta are good players as well.

Biggest Gain: Alex Mogilny. He can still light it up when he’s healthy, and the Devils are going to need some scoring with Elias out and Niedermayer gone.

Biggest Loss: Their defense. Niedermayer is one of the top 2 or 3 in the league (if not the best) and Stevens was the face of the team for years. Not to mention they lost the trap.

Biggest Question Mark: So, was it the players or the system? We’ll see.

  1. Toronto Maple Leafs: Toronto is another team that I have no clue where to put. Belfour had a great year in 03-04 and brought them a 4th place Eastern Conference finish. He’s 2 years older now (which makes him about 70 by my count). I want to like this team, but I just can’t. The defense corps looks shaky, they look good up front for now, but what if Lindros and Allison don’t make it through the season? The East is pretty solid all-around, and I feel like any team that makes the playoffs has a chance to come out as conference champs, but I think the Leafs are closer to the bottom than the top in the conference.

Biggest Gain: Jeff O’Neill. He had a down year in 03-04, putting up just 14 goals after scoring 25, 41, 31, 30 in the previous four years. He’s still only 29 and he adds a nice scoring threat to the lineup. I think last year was a fluke and he’ll fit in nicely as the #1 center (or is it centre?) on Toronto.

Biggest Loss: Brian Leetch is getting long in the tooth, but wouldn’t their defense look a lot better with his name penciled in?

Biggest Question Mark: Eric Lindros and Jason Allison were bargain signings, but they’re boom or bust players. If they’re both healthy all year, Toronto gets a pair of 60+ point players for under 3 million combined. If they get hurt, as has been the case (Allison hasn’t played since 02-03 and Lindros is a concussion waiting to happen) Toronto doesn’t look good up front (Ed Note: And this is BEFORE Sundin went down) at all. Another good question would be exactly what happened with Owen Nolan anyway?

  1. Florida Panthers: They were a busy team in free agency, landing Sean Hill, Eric Cairns, Joe Nieuwendyk, Chris Gratton, Jozef Stumpel, Gary Roberts, and Martin Gelinas. They’re also loaded in young prospects and have one of the best goalies in the league in Roberto Luongo. They’re a playoff team in a conference that has 9 of them. Sadly, there are only 8 spots in the postseason. It won’t be long. They just don’t have that dominant scorer to put them over the top.

Biggest Gain: Sean Hill is a top 3 defenseman who can put up 30-40 points a season. Good signing for the Panthers. He’ll fit in nicely with Boumeester and Van Ryn in front of Luongo. Those are some nice pucking moving guys who should flourish in the new NHL.

Biggest Loss: Mathieu Biron could end up being a pretty darn good player someday. Thankfully they’re loaded on prospects so it probably won’t matter.

Biggest Question Mark: Can one of the young forwards step into a big-time scoring role on this team? If someone can, they just might make the playoffs.

  1. New York Islanders: They’re another team that had quite a bit of turnover in the offseason, bringing in 5 or 6 solid veteran players, but also saying goodbye to Roman Hamrlik, Adrian Aucoin, Michael Peca, Mariusz Czerkawski, and Dave Scatchard. Satan and Mike York should offset some of that loss in scoring (Zhitnik can help too).

Biggest Gain: Miroslav Satan. He’s a nice scorer and Satan is a nice compliment to the Vampire, Alexei Yashin.

Biggest Loss: Roman Hamrlik. He’s been a solid defenseman since he came into the league, and in the new rules that emphasize puck movers, he should really help the Flames.

Biggest Question Mark: Even though DiPietro may turn out to be a really good player, don’t you think they wish they had kept Roberto Luongo? Another question would be how the hell does Mike Milbury STILL have a job?

  1. Montreal Canadiens: So who exactly are these guys? After you get past Kovalev, Koivu, and Theodore they’re a mix of no-namers and young prospects with some depth players (Zednik, Dandenault, Souray, Bonk) thrown in for good measure. Ryder is going to be a good player, as is Rycroft, even though I think he’s a flopper. They cycled a lot of guys in and out in free agency but nothing jumps out good or bad really. Can’t see them in the playoffs this year unless Theodore has a Vezina-caliber season.

Biggest Gain: Mathieu Dandenault. That says something.

Biggest Loss: Patrice Brisebois isn’t a great player, but they have no true #1 (or #2) defenseman. He isn’t one, but he could’ve helped a lot. It never hurts to have a 70 game-a-year guy who can chip in 30-40 points.

Biggest Question Mark: No. Seriously. Who are these guys?

  1. Carolina Hurricanes: They did a nice job in the offseason recovering from the losses of Jeff O’Neill and Ron Francis. Ray Whitney disappeared with the Red Wings, but might thrive when he can get some more ice time. Eric Staal is a very nice young player and the defense corps looks very solid. Martin Gerber put up great numbers in goal for Anaheim, but hasn’t been tested as a full-time starter. They could challenge for a playoff spot much of the year, but they’re going to come up short because there are too many teams that are just better than they are.

Biggest Gain: Martin Gerber. He may or may not be the answer, but Irbe and Weekes definitely weren’t. Bringing Tverdovsky in was another good move by Jim Rutherford.

Biggest Loss: Jeff O’Neill put up solid numbers for this team ever since they moved from Hartford. I’ve always liked him as a player. They didn’t bring in a “name” player to fill the void left by him ending up in Toronto.

Biggest Question Mark: Why do they like Danny Richmond so much?

  1. New York Rangers: No team should be happier to see the salary cap come into the picture. Now they can’t overspend for average players and get nothing out of them. No more Bobby Holik, Valeri Kamensky, Eric Lindros signings in NYC. They should welcome that. They did manage to add Straka and stole Steve Rucchin from the Ducks. The defense is iffy with Tom Poti as their best defenseman. Kasparaitis may be completely useless in the new NHL. Goaltending is a question mark as well. They have great prospects, but Kevin Weekes is currently the starter. That ain’t gonna get it done.

Biggest Gain: Straka is the sexier pick, but I really like Steve Rucchin and they didn’t have to give up a whole lot to get him. A nice move by Glen Sather.

Biggest Loss: Mark Messier. Maybe not even as much for his production as of late as his leadership abilities. The game said goodbye to one of its greats.

Biggest Question Mark: Will the lower-priced free agent strategy work for a team that has historically spend a ton on players who ended up underachieving? Which goalie prospect will end up grabbing the reins as the future? Lundqvist or Montoya?

  1. Buffalo Sabres: They weren’t good last season and they lost their two best forwards in the offseason (Satan and Zhitnik). Drury is a good player, but he’s not going to carry the offensive load for anyone. The defense corps doesn’t look good despite the acquisition of Teppo Numminen. At some point don’t they have to do something with one of their three goalies (Biron, Miller, Noronen)? Thomas Vanek of tainted 2003 OT goal against Michigan fame is in the lineup full-time now, after a great year in the AHL.

Biggest Gain: Numminen. As mentioned in the Dallas preview, he kind of disappointed there, but he’s still a guy that can put up 30-50 points and play pretty decent defense in the process.

Biggest Loss: Could it be…..Satan?

Biggest Question Mark: How long til next season?

  1. Washington Capitals: Also known as the Alex Ovechkins. They tore their team apart before the lockout and amassed a bunch of prospects, but until they come around this team is going to struggle. Olaf Kolzig better be ready to face some pucks, because they’re going to be coming and apart from the top line, he’s not going to get a lot of support. Jeff Friesen was a nice acquisition, as were Chris Clark, Ben Clymer, and Mathieu Biron. There’s really not a lot of proven talent on this team though. The blueline is almost completely youngsters.

Biggest Gain: Since he hasn’t played a game for them before this season, I feel ok picking Alex Ovechkin. As much hoopla as Crosby has gotten, Ovechkin would have received just as much if he were Canadian. He’s kind of the forgotten man, because he went #1 overall and then didn’t get to play in the NHL that year. He single-handedly ruined Jim Howard for the second half of a season based on his performance at World Juniors a couple years back.

Biggest Loss: The only players they technically lost were Chris Hajt and Trent Whitfield. They tore most of their team apart before the lockout. The biggest loss is Robert Lang. He was on pace to lead the league in scoring most of the 03-04 season and they didn’t get all that much for him from Detroit.

Biggest Question Mark: Can Ovechkin steal the spotlight from Crosby in their rookie years?


Anonymous said...

never miss an opportunity to bash "Anny Richmon" :)

Tom said...

I'm intrigued that you have the Pens so high. I've been watching them a lot this first week to see Crosby and I'm having a really hard time deciding whether this team resembles the Red Wings or the Rangers from a few years ago. I could really see these guys going either way. They have some aging stars and some young studs but I just don't know how that is going to work. I think that more than anything, the success of this team depends on Orpik and Jackman on the blueline and whether they are legit top-4 d-man. Either way, I think that you would be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining team that hasn't won yet. 3 OTL's in 4 games is a lot.