Friday, April 21, 2006

NHL Eastern Conference Review

In case it gets buried beneath this gigantic post, I posted my predictions for the NBA & NHL playoffs below.

Oh the humanity! As good as my predictions were in the Western Conference, that’s how bad they were in the East. Actually, bad doesn’t begin to cover it. Check out two of the top three for instance:

1. Boston Bruins (actual finish 13th, 39 points out of 1st):
Might as well just go in the tank right from the start. This team had 100+ points two of the last three seasons, and brought back almost everyone from a team that finished 2nd in the East before the lockout.

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.

Isbister didn’t do anything, the net of the Joe Thornton trade (Sturm, Stuart, Primeau) didn’t match what Thornton alone put up, Andrew Raycroft was awful and ended up getting benched and almost traded. Boyes and Bergeron were the only bright spots of this season for the team from Beantown. I’m really still not sure what happened to this team.

2. Ottawa Senators (actual finish 1st, 1 point out of second):
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

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.

And there you have it. This was probably the most accurate thing that I wrote in the Eastern Conference preview. Heatley/Spezza/Alfredsson went a quarter of the season without failing to net points. Smolinski, Redden, Phillips and Volchenkov had great years and Chara was a darkhorse candidate for the Norris. Hasek was outstanding until he got hurt (shock me shock me) and with him out and with Emery struggling as of late, this promising season might go up in smoke for them, as predicted. If Hasek’s back, they can win it though.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins (actual finish 15th, 43 points out of 3rd):

Please don’t read the following paragraph if you want my predictions to have any sense of credibility in the future:

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.

What I meant to write was this: ”The NHL’s biggest disappointment without question. They added Recchi, Gonchar, Palffy, LeClair, Thibault and Crosby. Sid the Kid will live up to expectations, Gonchar, Recchi and LeClair will have good years (though Recchi will be moved at the deadline), Palffy will retire midseason along with Lemieux, and Thibault will be waived after starting 1-9 with a 4.5 GAA.”

Only a couple late losses by St. Louis kept my “Contender” from being the worst team in hockey. Plain and simple, this team just couldn’t keep the puck out of their own net and they didn’t have enough scoring depth (Crosby was in on almost half this team’s goals). With Lemieux and Palffy for the whole year they probably would have won some more games (as both were on a point-a-game pace), but the defensive problems would have remained. Pittsburgh needs Erik Johnson bad. With Malkin coming over, either of the top forwards would be a major luxury. They need defense in the worst way.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (actual finish 8th, 18 points out of 4th):
Calling this team “still loaded” may have been a little strong, but they did bring back Richards, Lecavlier, and St. Louis, and Prospal returned to Tampa. I never would have believed that St. Louis’s numbers would have fallen off by 30+ points with the new rules being implemented. If Gionta is going for 40+, there’s no reason that St. Louis should have only netted 31 this year.

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.

Goaltending was in fact a big part of the problem as neither Sean Burke nor John Grahame provided anything positive in net. The Bolts allowed the most goals of any playoff team. Not that Khabi did well in Chicago this year, but you gotta believe they wish they had filled the hole in goal better.

5. Philadelphia Flyers (actual finish t-3, 5th after the tiebreaker):
A second surprisingly accurate pick. I didn’t buy into the preseason hype of the 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.

Forsberg was excellent for them, even though he missed his required 20 games due to injury. Hatcher wasn’t the pylon I thought he’d be, Rathje had a very nice year, and Mike Knuble (who is MUCH better in real life than he is on NHL2k6) put in 34 goals for them.

The goaltending wasn’t so good though. Both Esche and Olympic sensation Niittymaki posted 2.97 GAAs, and neither cracked .900 in save percentage. Simon Gagne wasn’t mentioned in my preview, and he knocked in 47 goals this year, and led the league for a fair amount of time.

6. Atlanta Thrashers (actual finish T-9, 10 points out of 6th):
This position appears like it was very optimistic for them, but when you take into account that starting goalie Kari Lehtonen missed upwards of 40 games due to a groin injury and they replaced him with Steve Shields, Adam Berkhoel, Mike Dunham, and Michael Garnett you have to start to think that maybe this team could have made the playoffs at the very least.
Kovalchuk, Hossa, and Savard nearly matched Ottawa’s top line in production, and Slava Kozlov had a very nice year as well.

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

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

Bondra was in fact good for them, putting in 21-18—39 in 60 games. Lehtonen was impressive in net, but the group that filled in while he was hurt pretty much killed any chance this team had of making the playoffs.

7. New Jersey Devils (actual finish t-3rd, 8 points out of 7th):
A late season run of 11 straight wins elevated the Devils up to the 3rd seed from the playoff bubble. This team started the year horribly, but after the resignation of their coach and after Elias returned from a bout with Hep A, they caught fire. The top seeds in the conference breathed a sigh of relief that NJ ended up winning their division, because no 1 or 2 seed wanted to face them in the first round.

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.

Gionta’s a good player. Yeah. Or he’s gonna go ahead and almost score 50 goals. Who saw that one coming? Mogilny missed a ton of time but did manage to put in 25 points. Elias averaged over a point per game after he returned. The defense is still a question mark. Rafalski was great for them and Paul Martin had a good season, but beyond that there’s probably not anyone that would dress for the Red Wings as more than a #6 dman. Though when you have Martin Brodeur, sometimes things like that don’t matter.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs (actual finish 9th, 2 points out of 8th):
The natives can’t be happy about this one. The face of Canadian hockey (well, one of the two highest profile Canadian franchises) out of the playoffs.

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

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 at all.

Lindros didn’t make it through the season, only playing 33 games. Allison did however, and he put in the expected 60 points.

Belfour had a horrible year and Tellqvist didn’t fare much better. Toronto had something going with JS Aubin in net though. He was 9-0 in 11 games with a 2.21 .924, and nearly sparked a run to get the Leafs into the postseason. Too bad they weren’t able to trade a bag of pucks for Zetterberg like Toronto fans seemed to think they could.

9. Florida Panthers (actual finish 11th, 5 points out of 9th):
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.

Their free agent signings were very good ones. Only Eric Cairns didn’t help, and he was moved to Pittsburgh. Hill didn’t do as much as they probably expected. They still need to give Luongo a little bit more help back on defense, and that’s probably the reason that they missed the playoffs. Olli Jokinen developed into an excellent player and it was a great move for the future of the franchise to get him locked up long-term. Horton and Bouwmeester are developing nicely.
(Still waiting for #2 seed Carolina? Keep reading!!)

10. New York Islanders (actual finish 12th, 12 points out of 10th):
Miro Satan did come in and help the team, but Yashin is still underachieving. His contract may be the worst one in pro sports right now, and they missed their chance to get out of it last year with the buyouts. He did put in 66 points, but for the amount of money they’re paying him, he needs to be up in the 90s.

DiPietro had a decent season, but as I said, you have to believe they wish they hadn’t moved Luongo in one of the more curious trades we’ve seen. Finally Mike Milbury has moved on, and maybe this franchise will get back to respectability. I can’t believe he lasted as long as he did.

This is where it gets fun:

11. Montreal Canadiens (actual finish 7th, 8 points out of 11th):
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 [Ed note: This should have read Ribeiro], 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.

Well, Theodore had far from a Vezina-caliber season and was eventually moved to Colorado in what might turn out to be the most irrelevant big-names trade in history. Cristobel Huet took the reigns and was the goalie that, with some more ice time, would have been in the running for the Vezina. He led the league in save percentage and posted 7 shutouts in just 29 decisions. So it did in fact take a super effort out of a goalie to get this team in the playoffs. I just didn’t have the goalie right.

Ryder had a great year, leading the team in goals, and Ribeiro joined the 50-50 club (50 points, 50 dives). Chris Higgins burst onto the scene for 23 goals.

I think I had this team pegged pretty well, despite being 4 spots off on their finish.

12. Carolina Hurricanes (actual finish 2nd, 34 points out of 12th):
Yikes. I did not have this team pegged as a potential Presidents Trophy candidate (though I’m sure not many people did). I actually had some nice things to say about the team:

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

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.

Whitney did in fact have a nice year for them. Calling Eric Staal a “very nice young player” was the understatement of the year. He had 100 points and 45 goals. Gerber was solid in net, and much better than Weekes and Irbe. Tverdovsky didn’t do a ton for them. Erik Cole was a big loss for this team when he went out with an injury. Brind’Amour had a helluva year for them.

13. New York Rangers (actual finish 6th, 26 points out of 13th):
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.

Holy Jagr! The season off obviously did him some good, scoring 123 points and 54 goals throughout the year. They were pretty much a two-line team, but those 2 lines were good enough when combined with stellar goaltending out of Henrik Lundqvist, who deserves all the credit in the world for his performance this year (both in the NHL and the Olympics). A 2.24 and a .927 out of a rookie goalie? Yeah, they’ll take that.

Which goalie prospect will end up grabbing the reins as the future? Lundqvist or

I guess we have an answer to that one!

Rookie Petr Prucha put in 30 goals as well, and added a nice scoring threat to their second line. Rucchin helped out, as I thought he would, and Straka had 50+ assists. Kasparaitis wasn’t as useless as I thought he’d be—actually ended up on the + side of the +/- stat, which I never would have imagined. The defense was solidified by Marek Malik (who had one of the prettiest goals of the year in that lengthy shootout) and Michal Rozsival. Peter Sykora was a nice midseason pickup as well. Their front office did a very nice job this year turning a perennial underachiever into a team that nearly won the division.

14. Buffalo Sabres (actual finish 4th, 40 points out of 14th):
Yes you did read that right. 4 straight playoff teams in my 11-14 spots including the 2 and 4 seeds (and nearly the 3rd seed as well).

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

Biggest Question Mark: How long til next season?

Ugh. Well I did have a few things right. Numminen put up 30-50 points (actually dead in the middle of that). Drury didn’t carry the offensive load, but I didn’t see this team spreading things around as much as they did with 6 20 goal scorers, and 11 in double-digits. They did finally do something with Noronen at the deadline, and he didn’t help the Canucks as much as he didn’t help the Sabres this year.

Ryan Miller was awesome in net, and the USA has to wish they would’ve put him on the Olympic roster.

Like the Red Wings, they are a team that is hoping and praying the referees call the game in the playoffs the way they did in the regular season, because their special teams were outstanding this year.

15. Washington Capitals (actual finish 14th, 12 points out of 15th):
They were in fact the “Alex Ovechkins”. Alexander the Gr8 scored 106 points and led his team by an incredible margin of 49 points. He was in on roughly half of his team’s goals this year. Even though Crosby had a great year, it would be a travesty if Ovechkin doesn’t get the Calder (I could live with Lundqvist getting it as well).

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


So I was much worse in the East than I was in the West. I hit on just 4 of the 8 playoff teams, and 2 of my top 3 teams in the conference didn’t get in—and one of them just missed out on being the worst team in hockey. I was within 1 position on just 4 of the 15 teams in the conference, and was double digit points away from their correct seed on 9 of the teams.

Overall I don’t think picking 10 of the 16 playoff teams is all that bad in a year with this much turnover on rosters and two full rookie crops coming into the league. I obviously did better with the conference that I follow more closely. I do feel good that I had the Wings still pegged as an elite team when almost no one game them a chance.

I’ll try to do better next year!

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