Welcome to the first ever IWP NHL Preseason Prognostication! A version of this post was originally planned for September or October but then that lockout thing derailed nearly all hockey content on the blog. But praise Baby Hockey Jesus, the lockout has ended and it’s time to make preseason guesses at what this shortened season will bring.
Today I’ll take over for the Eastern Conference Preview (stealing Matt’s format, because it worked so well). Check out his Western Conference Preview here.
15. New York Islanders // Why I’ll Be Right: Question marks in goal and on defense won’t help the Islanders improve on the third worst goals against in the Eastern Conference last season, and the continued lack of support for the top line will keep the goal scoring amongst the worst in the conference. Couple this with a schedule extremely heavy on Atlantic Division opponents and it is a recipe for last the the East (and maybe the NHL). Why I’ll Be Wrong: The Islanders do have strong young talent in Tavares/Grabner/Okposo/Moulson and rising young defenseman Travis Hamonic. If they post great seasons across the board, and the goaltending issue sorts itself out, the Islanders could rise in the standings (while still falling short of the playoffs).
14. Montreal// Why I’ll Be Right: Montreal is just a bland team. They aren’t terrible, with the 9th best goal differential in the East despite their last overall finish in 2011-2012, but there just isn’t much there to like overall. Carey Price and PK Subban are bright spots in a boring, low upside team. Why I’ll Be Wrong: If Carey Price puts the team on his back, PK Subban continues his development, and rookie Alex Galchenyuk has a great season the Canadians could make a run at the lower end of the playoffs.
13. Toronto // Why I’ll Be Right: Toronto allowed more goals than any team in the East last season outside of Tampa Bay. While they may have performed addition by subtraction in trading away Luke Schenn, there isn’t much there to suggest improvement by the defense. Adding JVR will help an already potent offense, but scoring was never the issue here. Why I’ll Be Wrong: If the Leafs are able to trade for Roberto Luongo (as some persistent rumors have been suggesting) and add another competent defenseman or two the Leafs offense is playoff worthy.
12. Winnipeg // Why I’ll Be Right: The Jets didn’t do much this offseason, and I don’t see much there to change last year’s formula of mediocre offense and mediocre defense leading to a non-playoff season. Why I’ll Be Wrong: If Evander Kane continues improving, Alexander Burmistrov starts to fully utilize his talent level, and “Pavelectric” has a career year the Jets could make some noise.
11. New Jersey // Why I’ll Be Right: I know the Devils were in the Cup Finals last season, but they have some serious question marks going into this year. How will a goaltending duo where the younger half is 39 work out? Does an already middle of the pack offense have enough firepower without Parise? The Devils still have the structure to compete, but the talent just isn’t there up front to be a playoff team. Why I’ll Be Wrong: If Brodeur can stay healthy all season, and someone steps up to replace the two way presence of Parise, the Devils could work their way into the bottom of the playoff picture. Or major injuries to the goalies could lead to a very forgetful year for Devils fans.
10. Florida // Why I’ll Be Right: Florida won their division last season. They also had the worst goal differential of any playoff team in either conference at -24. That goal differential would have put them at 11th last season, which is more indicative of their true talent level. Why I’ll Be Wrong: Florida won last year with a strong defense and an offense tied for the worst in the East. If top prospect and likely Calder contender Jonathan Huberdeau can come in and ignite the offense the Panthers could be a factor again in the playoff picture. On the other hand, the defense could fall apart and Florida could free fall back to the bottom of the conference.
09. Ottawa // Why I’ll Be Right: Ottawa is an adventure in the defensive zone, but the offense is very good. Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson led the fourth best offense in the NHL last season, and the key scorers are all back. The three headed goaltending monster (Craig Anderson/Ben Bishop/top prospect Robin Lehner) could improve the position or could cause headaches as no one gets into a rhythm. Why I’ll Be Wrong: This team hinges on the defense and goaltending. The addition of a good rearguard or two could do wonders for this team and propel them upwards in the standings. The flip side is that regression by Milan Michalek (among other forwards) could cause the offense to falter, putting further pressure on the poor defense.
08. Carolina // Why I’ll Be Right: The Hurricanes bulked up on offense this offseason. With the additions of Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin, the Canes offense should be much more formidable. Adding two 50 point-20 goal scorers will be enough for the Canes to squeak into the playoffs despite their defensive shortcomings. Why I’ll Be Wrong: Staal and Semin (yes Semin) are effective defensive players, and could help the Canes on both ends of the rink. In addition the young defensive core for Carolina could make progress in their own end. The shortened season could hurt the Canes if Staal and Semin are slow to grasp their new team’s system/gel with their linemates.
07. Philadelphia // Why I’ll Be Right: The Flyers made their living last year as a very good offensive team with a middling defense. Questions about if Scott Hartnell can repeat his career best season and how much of a hit the defense will take with the loss of Matt Carle to Tampa Bay knock the Flyers down a few notches for the upcoming season. Why I’ll Be Wrong: If Ilya Bryzgalov puts up a “humongous big” season and proves he wasn’t merely a function of Phoenix’s system the Flyers could outperform, if Bryz implodes though….
06. Buffalo // Why I’ll Be Right: The Sabres will be better this year, helped by a healthy defensive corps that will finally have a chance to gel. The offense will get a boost from a full year of Tyler Ennis, along with the addition of rookie Mikhail Grigorenko. Why I’ll Be Wrong: If Grigorenko fails to make the team, and injuries strike the defense again, the Sabres could struggle to live up to expectations.
05. New York Rangers // The Rangers made the flashiest move of the offseason when they acquired Rick Nash from the Blue Jackets. While he will help improve an offense that was merely middle of the pack last year, the Rangers will slip in the standings due to the loss of the defensive efforts of Dubinksy and Anisimov (and regression from Lundqvist’s career best .930 SV%). Why I’ll Be Wrong: The Rangers could easily finish at the top of the conference again if Lundqvist can repeat his sparkling save percentage, or injuries could push down a team that traded depth for Rick Nash.
04. Tampa Bay // Why I’ll Be Right: The Lightning’s biggest issues last year were on the back end, and they addressed both the defense (adding Matt Carle and Sami Salo) and the goaltending (adding Anders Lindback and Mathieu Garon). The offense isn’t a concern here, with an all star lineup of scorers, and an AHL lineup stacked with NHL ready scoring prospects. Why I’ll Be Wrong: The untested Lindback could falter, leaving Tampa Bay with a real problem in net.
03. Pittsburgh // Why I’ll Be Right: Returning Art Ross winner Evgeni Malkin will team up with a healthy Sidney Crosby once again, making the Penguins the odds on favorite to repeat as the NHL’s highest scoring team. The loss of Jordan Staal won’t hurt as much as some expect, as Brandon Sutter is a capable defensive replacement (and a full year from Crosby will make up for the offensive downgrade). The addition of Thomas Vokoun will shore up the goaltending. The two big questions for Pittsburgh, which hold them back from first place, revolve around the defense: Can Brooks Orpik can bounce back from a subpar year? and who will be the third paring? Why I’ll Be Wrong: Injuries to Malkin/Crosby will hurt more with Staal’s departure, and continued struggles from Orpik would put a big hole in the top 4 defensively.
02. Washington // Why I’ll Be Right: The Capitals struggled all around last season, leading to the firing of head coach Bruce Boudreau during the year. Despite all the talent up front, the offense finished only 10th best in the East and Washington posted a negative goal differential while barely squeaking into the playoffs. A healthy year out of Backstrom, a bounce back by Ovechkin, and the playmaking abilities of new addition Mike Ribero will propel the Capitals back to the top of a weak Southeast Division . Why I’ll Be Wrong: Maybe the league has figured Ovechkin out, and he won’t return to the best player in the NHL discussion, and the Caps may realize that Alex Semin was a better two way player than he was given credit for.
01. Boston // Why I’ll Be Right: The Bruins finished last season with the best goal differential in the NHL at plus 67, and with very few changes they will remain a force in the Eastern Conference. While Tim Thomas has retired (or is taking a year off or whatever) Tuukka Rask has shown himself to be nothing short of an elite starter so far in his career. While any of the top five could win the conference, the Bruins enter the season with both a strong track record and the fewest question marks. Why I’ll Be Wrong: Injuries could hurt the Bruins (as with any team), in particular if Rask goes down who will play goal? Pittsburgh/Washington are riskier, but higher upside teams which could pass the Bruins.