Here we go again, only two sleeps until the start of another NHL season. And seeing as I am a glutton for punishment, I've decided to give the prediction game another go this year.
Last year, I hit on only 10 out of the 16 playoff teams, which is not a great batting average. I picked the Flames to miss the playoffs, the Blues to finish last in the West and the Habs to finish second in the East. Not great.
But nevertheless, I'm going to give it another shot starting with the East today and the West tomorrow, though I think everyone knows by now that these predictions are useless and generally a big fat waste of time.
1. Washington Capitals
Though I believe the Caps will be an improved team this year, that is not why I am picking them to win the conference. When I made the same pick last year, I got a bunch of snide remarks about what I was smoking when I made my predictions. Well, the concept is not quite so laughable this year. The Caps will benefit from the continued improvement of Alex Ovechkin (frightening thought), Nick Backstrom, Alex Semin and Mike Green, though the departure of Sergei Fedorov will probably hurt. Mike Knuble was a great pick-up to play with AO, though I'm not quite sold on Brendan Morrison. The Caps will need to solidify their situation in goal, but I feel they will beat up on the division rivals, giving them the conference's top seed.
2. Boston Bruins
The departure of Phil Kessel and his 36 goals hurts, but I think you'll start to see stories emerging from Boston in the coming weeks about what a bad teammate he was (here's one about his work ethic), and so his might be a case of addition by subtraction. The Bruins will need David Krejci to come somewhere close to what he produced last year, and I feel he may be in for the kind of rude awakening Tomas Plekanec had last year when teams started to focus in on him a little more. Still, the Bruins represent the class of what is a relatively weak, yet competitive, Northeast Division. I don't think they'll run away with the division crown, but they should win it pretty comfortably.
3. Philadelphia Flyers
The addition of Chris Pronger in Philly makes the Flyers a pretty daunting opponent. I still don't understand how, year after year, this organization does not look at goaltending as being a key component to victory. Ray Emery comes with some heavy baggage, though I'm sure a year in Russia will be plenty motivation for him to keep his nose clean in Philly. Up front, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Simon Gagné, Scott Hartnell, Daniel Brière and Claude Giroux will make a pretty formidable top-6, while the trio of Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn will eat a ton of minutes on the back end. That depth of talent should make up for the shaky situation in goal.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
This should be a dogfight for the division crown with the Flyers, but I feel the Pens are a little more susceptible to a big injury than Philly is, and that gives them an edge. Still, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal getting a year older, and in theory better, this should be a pretty formidable team. Losing your top shutdown defensive pairing in Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill hurts, but Marc-André Fleury is ready to be more of a difference-maker this season.
5. Montreal Canadiens
Yes, I think the chemistry experiment will work. I think Andrei Kostitsyn will have a breakout season. I think Tomas Plekanec will be closer to the player he was two years ago. I think Carey Price will have a huge bounceback year, as will Scott Gomez. I think Max Pacioretty could become a real force. I think Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre will form an incredible third line. I think the defence is vastly improved. And I think Jacques Martin's structured system will produce wins. Essentially, all those things have to come to pass for this prediction to be right. And I think they will.
6. Carolina Hurricanes
Tough to take the Eastern Conference finalists this low in the standings, but their defence still doesn't have me convinced, especially after losing the threat of Dennis Seidenberg on the power play. After Eric Staal, this is a team of elite role players with great balance, and that formula is a great one for playoff success. But over an 82-game schedule, I feel they simply don't have the horses to win the marathon.
7. New Jersey Devils
No, I don't think the loss of Brian Gionta will be this painful, but the loss of Patrik Elias for the first six weeks of the season plus an adjustment to the coaching style of Jacques Lemaire could lead to a slow start. In this Olympic year, a slow start will be very punitive because of how compressed the schedule is. A poor October will hurt far more this year than last. Zach Parise should build on his coming out party from last year, but otherwise I don't know if the Devils really scare anyone. Still, Parise and Martin Brodeur should get them into the playoffs, where they would become a nightmare match-up for one of the division winners.
8. Ottawa Senators
Before you ask, I haven't taken to smoking crack. I just feel that the addition of Pascal Leclaire will solidify the team's goaltending situation for the first time in years, and with Alex Kovalev, Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo replacing the departed Dany Heatley the team will be a lot more balanced up front. The defence leaves something to be desired, but every other remaining Eastern Conference team has its weaknesses. I just feel the Sens weaknesses are the least weak of the bunch, if that makes any sense.
9. Florida Panthers
Not too many teams could absorb the loss of Jay Bouwmeester and not take a huge step backward. Acting GM Randy Sexton did well to grab Jordan Leopold for Bouwmeester's rights, because at least it brought in a capable body to replace him, even though the two players will never be confused for one another. The defence is still strong with Keith Ballard, Nick Boynton, Bryan McCabe and the newly acquired Ville Kositinen. For this team to succeed, Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss will have to become legitimate top-line players.
10. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres lost their No. 1 defenceman in Jaroslav Spacek and replaced him with Steve Montador. Not exactly an ideal move. But the team has up and coming d-men in Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler, while Toni Lydman is one of the more underrated blueliners in the league. Still, the d-corps is nothing to brag about in Buffalo. Goaltending is in good hands with Ryan Miller and the forwards are intriguing, particularly if Tim Connolly can manage to stay healthy for a season and if Drew Stafford busts out of his shell. Still not a playoff team, though.
11. Tampa Bay Lightning
Alex Tanguay should mesh pretty well with Vincent Lecavalier, giving the Lightning two dangerous lines assuming Steven Stamkos picks up where he left off last season, when he had 25 points over his final 28 games. The additions of Mathias Ohlund, Matt Walker and Victor Hedman solidifies a porous defence, while Mike Smith is a legitimate No. 1. This team could be in the playoff picture, but will come up a bit short, which will still be a huge accomplishment.
12. New York Rangers
Does anyone honestly believe Marian Gaborik will play more than 50 games this season? I guess Glen Sather does, but without Gaborik this team will struggle to score goals, and I can see him missing more games than he plays. Even with Gaborik, there's no legitimate top-line centre on the team, while the defence is paper thin after the promising young pairing of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi.
13. Toronto Maple Leafs
Yes, Brian Burke has made huge strides over a single summer, completely re-shaping the identity of the team. But even when Phil Kessel returns in November, the forwards are really a pretty sad bunch. The Leafs somehow managed to pot 244 goals last season, but allowed a league-worst 286. While the defence is way better, the goaltending is not, Monster or no Monster. So this should be another year out of the playoffs in Leaf Land, but if Burke is able to re-make his forwards next summer the way he did his defence this year, it won't be too much longer before Toronto is back in the post-season.
14. Atlanta Thrashers
They should be better than last year, but not by a very wide margin. Nik Antropov is the best centre Ilya Kovalchuk has had since Marc Savard left town, but he's not exactly going to set the world on fire in Georgia. Todd White can't really be the player who notched 73 points last season, and I doubt Maxim Afinogenov will completely return to his form of two or three years ago. The top-4 on defence look pretty good, with Zach Bogosian looking poised to have a breakthrough year (11 points over his final 16 games), but there's not enough depth of talent up front for this team to contend for anything.
15. New York Islanders
It's a long road back from oblivion for the Islanders, and they're probably just about halfway there. John Tavares has undeniable talent, but he's not yet a complete player. I love Kyle Okposo's game and people seem to be genuinely excited over Josh Bailey. But that's about lal there is up front, and it gets worse on defence aside from Mark Streit. The situation in goal should be alright with Martin Biron and Dwayne Rolosson, but what's laughable is that Garth Snow needed to sign these guys while Rick DiPietro is still under contract for another 12 seasons.