Guest writer: Chuck Heldridge
1. New York Rangers: With Gaborik healthly again added to the addition of Rick Nash, there is no excuse for a failure to score goals. Their D is solid, Lundqvist is at least a top 5 goaltender, and they have a couple of great young forwards in Kreider and Hagelin. It’s Cup or bust for these guys.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: Forget Crosby for a minute, get excited about seeing Malkin and Neal together again. I’m still angry at Dallas for trading away Neal, no matter how well Goligoski plays. The real question on this team is their defense corps and goaltending. Their playoff performance last year was an abysmal failure, exacerbated by the fact the Flyers flopped in the second round after demolishing the Pens. Goal-scoring is not enough; if Pittsburgh wants to contend they need Fleury to regain his championship form.
3. Philadelphia Flyers: Their offense could be amazing enough to singlehandedly snatch a postseason berth, but that alone will not make them contenders. They may have failed to attain Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but I love the trade to acquire Luke Schenn from the Leafs. This defensive needs some younger defensive talent, and hopefully he can provide that. Bryzgalov is undoubtedly the real question for this team: will Holmgren’s bold move pay off? It certainly hasn’t so far, considering that Richards and Carter just won the Cup in LA less than a year after being traded.
4. New Jersey Devils: Eastern Conference Champions? Yes. Contenders next year? No. The loss of captain Zach Parise dooms this team, as do their ancient goaltenders Brodeur and Hedberg. The bright side for this team is young players Adam Henrique, Adam Larsson and Jacob Josefson. They all need to take another step forward this year if the Devils want to have any chance of being competitive in the Atlantic Division. Another painful indicator for this team: rampant rumors are circulating that Ilya Kovalchuk would rather stay in the KHL rather than return to New Jersey. Ultimately, he’ll likely rejoin the Devil’s club, but they need his heart and mind with the team, not back in Russia.
5. New York Islanders: Just buy DiPietro out this offseason. What a terrible contract. Lubomir Visnovsky is determined to play anywhere but Long Island this season, and who can blame him? Tavares is likely a superstar, but that won’t be anywhere near enough for this team. Maybe they can put together a decent lockout-shortened season, but the early indications are that this team is doomed to hover near the bottom of the standings once again.
1. Boston Bruins: This team is loaded, definitely the top team in this division on paper. However, can Tuukka Rask adequately replace Tim Thomas? The talent is there, but that doesn’t guarantee things will work out. Boston should handily make the playoffs and win the division even with the shortened season, but can they avenge last year’s first-round exit?
2. Buffalo Sabres: This team now has the grit they’ve desperately needed. With the acquisition of Steve Ott, easily the most effective agitator (and perhaps most hated player) in the league, they need to step up. Also, no more letting opposing teams hit Ryan Miller without making the trainers scrape up the offender’s remains off the ice before the game is over. Derek Roy is a big loss, but this team is out of excuses and needs to make the playoffs.
3. Ottawa Senators: Can they make the playoffs again? Karlsson may be a superstar, Alfredsson is back for at least one last year, and Jason Spezza is in his prime. However, the team lacks proven depth and their goaltending is once again a concern. Was last year a fluke or can they claw their way back into the playoffs?
4. Montreal Canadiens: Can we say Jaroslav Halak? Carey Price needs to step up now. They have some good young talent, but with Markov, Gomez, Gionta and Cole reaching into their mid-thirties, this team cannot afford to wait forever.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs: Best fan base in the league, most profitable organization in the league, worst team in the league. Phil Kessel is a great player, but they’re going to lose him in two years if they don’t improve quickly. Will JVR provide the extra young talent that offense needs? Is Reimer the answer in net for both the present and the future? Or are they going to make another colossal mistake and trade for Roberto Luongo? GM Brian Burke was just fired, but will that translate to any real changes for this constantly underachieving team?
1. Carolina Hurricanes: Sure, they overpaid for Jordan Staal. Sure, they are taking a risk with Alexander Semin. But this team now has a very talented offense with brothers Eric and Jordan, shootout-extraordinaire Jussi Jokinen, young and talented Jeff Skinner, and the disgruntled free-agent Alexander Semin. With a decent defensive corps highlighted by young Justin Faulk, and a great goaltender in Cam Ward, this team could be the favorite to win a suddenly competitive Southeast division.
2. Washington Capitals: Adam Oates will certainly make this team more exciting to watch, but will he make them better? Their offense will likely improve under his oversight, but how will their defensive game fare? One has to assume that Braden Holtby is the man in Washington after his stellar postseason and the subsequent trade of Vokoun to Pittsburgh, but can he take the next step? Their defense was quite stingy last year, and that must continue. The draft day acquisition of Mike Ribeiro will provide much needed depth for their offense and even a fallback option if Backstrom is injured again this season. Washington is at the least a southeast contender, but if Oates can reignite their offense and Holtby proves last season was no fluke, then this team could win it all.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning: Stamkos is a superstar, St. Louis can still get it done at 37, and LeCavalier is still in his low thirties: this offense is as dangerous as any. However, will the additions of Nashville’s backup Anders Lindback and former-Flyers defensemen Matt Carle be enough to lower last year’s awful 3.39 goals against/game? Both were good pickups and should definitely help this defensive group, but it won’t be enough. Tampa will be competitive for a playoff spot, but will fall short.
4. Florida Panthers: Let Jacob Markstrom play already! Theodore and Clemmensen are old and nothing special, let the kid play. Can Peter Mueller stay healthy for once? How will their older vets fare this year after the lockout? Guys like Fleischmann, Weiss, Versteeg and Campbell will certainly make them competitive, but their division just got a whole lot better last offseason. It seems doubtful that this team will be able to repeat as southeast champs.
5. Winnipeg Jets: Their youth need to step up if this team wants to have any success this season. Pavelec needs to earn his contract (and avoid drunk driving charges) this season and beyond. Olli Jokinen is a good player, but he’s past his prime and I don’t see him improving this team significantly enough to make a difference. This team also needs to learn how to win an occasional road game this year.
1. St. Louis Blues: They may have overachieved last year, but I’m convinced this team is legitimate. Halak and Elliot comprise perhaps the league’s best 1-2 punch in net, their defensive corps is as young and exciting as any, and they have some underrated talent up front in Oshie, Backes, and McDonald. Sure, they were dismantled by the Kings in the postseason, but who wasn’t? This team will take the next step and become a contender.
2. Chicago Blackhawks: Perhaps the only real question here is Corey Crawford. This team will certainly make the playoffs, but can they overcome their glaring disadvantage in net? If Crawford plays well in the postseason, they are among the most dangerous teams in the league.
3. Detroit Red Wings: Never count on Ken Holland. Yes, Detroit has seen better days, but Ken Holland will always keep this team competitive. Datsyuk and Zetterberg may be getting old, but they’re still superstars and the Red Wings will again be dangerous. I wouldn’t be surprised if this team managed to put together a postseason run this year.
4. Nashville Predators: Not a fun offseason for this team. Suter is gone, Radulov is back in the KHL, and Shea Weber just received a ridiculous contract thanks to the Flyers. Still, this team is not a bad defensive unit, and 22 year old Roman Josi may be able to blossom into a worthy defensive partner for Weber. Rinne will definitely steal a few games singlehandedly, but the goal support could be lacking this year.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets: Well, it’s a good thing they don’t actually have any fans to disappoint. Rick Nash is gone, and they don’t have many inspiring prospects to get overly excited about. Poor Jack Johnson is the new Rick Nash. This team needs guys like Ryan Murray, Derick Brassard, and Nick Foligno to blossom into stars if this team has any future in Columbus.
1. Vancouver Canucks: Two amazing regular seasons, two President’s trophies, a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, and a continued inability to win when it really matters. They still have a great team, but they need to win NOW. They’re going to run into major salary cap problems very soon (especially if they can’t manage to ditch Luongo) and they’re not getting any younger. Can Schneider be the man in Vancouver?
2. Minnesota Wild: No more excuses for this team. They’d just better hope that Parise and Suter and worth the $96 million contracts they each signed this offseason. Backstrom can certainly play, and this team now has the needed talent up front to make a legitimate run. Mikael Granlund is at the least a very good AHL player, but can he make the jump to playing in the NHL? Ultimately, this team needs to make the playoffs after their heavily scrutinized offseason.
3. Colorado Avalanche: This team might be really good, especially with the shortened season. They have loads of young talent, including Calder Memorial winner Gabriel Landeskog (youngest player to ever be named team captain). With other exciting young players such as stud defender Erik Johnson, Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, and goaltender Semyon Varlamov, this team could become good in an extremely short amount of time.
4. Edmonton Oilers: Lots and lots of upside in potential superstars Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle (25 goals, 51 points in 34 AHL games this year!), Justin Schultz (48 points in 34 AHL games), Calder nominee and World Junior star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and this year’s first overall pick Nail Yakupov, Edmonton’s offense could become elite. They also have other good young players in Magnus Paajarvi and Sam Gagner to fill out their future depth. Their defense should at least be competent, if not exciting. Goaltending? Not so much. Devan Dubnyk and 39 year old Nikolai Khabibulin don’t exactly spell out a bright future for this team’s netminding, but Edmonton will certainly have the trade assets to fix this problem.
5. Calgary Flames: Old and not particularly promising, this team’s immediate future may not be so bright. Iginla and Kiprusoff are still great players, but they’re aging and won’t be able to help the team too much longer. They still have a good core, but pretty much everyone is either at the end of their prime or past it already. It might be time for them to start trading away their good players for prospects before all their trade value is gone. If they were making the playoffs every year then they could keep their team intact, but they constantly finish outside the top eight and should probably just tear the team up and move on.
1. Los Angeles Kings: Move over San Jose, the division is yours no longer. The Stanley Cup Champions have their entire roster intact from last year, and with only one active player over 30 years old (Rob Scuderi, 34) they’re here to compete for a long time. They’ve got star talent, they’ve got depth, and they have a top goalie in 26 year old Jonathan Quick. This team is here to stay.
2. San Jose Sharks: This team still has a great offensive and defensive corps. The problem: they’re not getting any younger. San Jose’s championship window is rapidly closing, and they’ve shown no ability to win past the first two rounds of the playoffs. Are they a good team? Absolutely, even though they’re depending on Niemi to play well for them in the net (still convinced he’s not a legitimate playoff goaltender even though he won it with Chicago). However, they need to win now.
3. Dallas Stars: Just give Jamie Benn whatever he wants, don’t you dare lose him. Loui Eriksson is probably the team’s best player, and Kari Lehtonen looks like a legitimate goaltender. Defensemen Philip Larsen may be ready to take the next step, and they have two Derian Hatcher-like defensive monsters in 20 year old Jamie Oleksiak (6-7, 254 lbs) and 22 year old Brendan Dillon down in the minors. The free agent additions of Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney show that this team is serious about competing. Derek Roy will hopefully be able to replace Mike Ribeiro on the first or second line. Can they make it back to the playoffs for the first time since they lost to Detroit in the Western Conference Finals?
4. Phoenix Coyotes: Head coach Dave Tippett (thanks a lot Nieuwendyk for firing him) will make sure this team is competitive, but once again they probably don’t have the necessary talent to compete with the top teams (not that it mattered last year). This team desperately needs good years from young players Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Mikkel Boedker. Mike Smith needs to show that last year’s stellar performance was no fluke, or this team is doomed.
5. Anaheim Ducks: How does a team with names like Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne finish 13th in the West? They’ll need a bounce back effort this year, but this team has seen better days. Will Jonas Hiller be able to hold onto his starting job, or will a netminding change be in order for the Ducks this year?
1. New York Rangers
2. Boston Bruins
3. Carolina Hurricanes
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
5. Washington Capitals
6. Philadelphia Flyers
7. Buffalo Sabres
8. Ottawa Senators
9. Tampa Bay Lightning
10. New Jersey Devils
11. Montreal Canadiens
12. Florida Panthers
13. Toronto Maple Leafs
14. Winnipeg Jets
15. New York Islanders
1. Los Angeles Kings
2. Vancouver Canucks
3. St. Louis Blues
4. Chicago Blackhawks
5. San Jose Sharks
6. Minnesota Wild
7. Detroit Red Wings
8. Dallas Stars
9. Colorado Avalanche
10. Nashville Predators
11. Phoenix Coyotes
12. Edmonton Oilers
13. Anaheim Ducks
14. Calgary Flames
15. Columbus Blue Jackets
1) New York Rangers def. 8) Ottawa Senators (rematch!)
2) Boston Bruins def. 7) Buffalo Sabres
6) Philadelphia Flyers def. 3) Carolina Hurricanes
4) Pittsburgh Penguins def. 5) Washington Capitals
1) Los Angeles Kings def. 8) Dallas Stars
7) Detroit Red Wings def. 2) Vancouver Canucks
3) St. Louis Blues def. 6) Minnesota Wild
4) Chicago Blackhawks def. 5) San Jose Sharks
1) New York Rangers def. 6) Philadelphia Flyers
2) Boston Bruins def. 4) Pittsburgh Penguins
1) Los Angeles Kings def. 7) Detroit Red Wings
3) St. Louis Blues def. 4) Chicago Blackhawks
1) New York Rangers def. 2) Boston Bruins
3) St. Louis Blues def. 1) Los Angeles Kings
Stanley Cup Finals:
New York Rangers def. St. Louis Blues
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