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Eastern Conference Preview

Marcus Robbins asked:

Training camps opened across North America this past week and hope is abound. The Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers will be leaving shortly for the Czech Republic and the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators will be heading for Sweden to open their seasons. All teams are contenders in September but by February after their mettle has been tested, some will resign themselves to not making the playoffs. Here is how the Eastern Conference Standings look heading into the season.

The Division Winners:

1. Montreal Canadiens – The Habs will celebrate their 100th season by winning the North East division and finishing atop the East conference for a second consecutive year. Montrealers suffered through a long rebuild but with a cocky swagger, Montreal is near the top of the league again. Montreal will seek its 25th cup and end its longest drought ever on the back of sophomore goalie Carey Price. Price is a sure bet to fill his mantle with Vezina trophies in his career. Newcomer Alex Tanguay will provide extra scoring punch in the Habs top 6. The only loss of significance was power play point-man Mark Streit.

2. Washington Capitals – The Capitals will again come out on top in the increasingly competitive south east division. The goaltending combination of Huet and Kolzig that ended the season has been replaced by former league MVP Jose Theodore, who bounced back with the Avalanche after a few down years. Rookie defensemen Karl Alzner is a strong bet to make the team this season as a 19 year old. Look for the steady stay at home blue liner to be paired with future Norris Trophy winner Mike Green and for Green to have the green light to jump into the offensive rush more frequently. Oh, and the Capitals have this kid named Ovechkin who is more effective than General Electric at lighting the lamp.

3. Philadelphia Flyers – The Broad Street Bullies era has been revived in Philadelphia. The Flyers are led by courageous captain Mike Richards. The team guts out wins and are backed by the competent goaltending of Martin Biron. The team is 4 lines deep with players that can score, hit, and defend. Braydon Coburn is emerging as an excellent two way defensemen, similar to Dion Phaneuf. Two years ago the Flyers were last in the NHL but after shrewd moves by GM Paul Holmgren have made a remarkable turnaround. The most significant loss in the off season was Captain Jason Smith, clearly on the downside of his career. There is plenty of youth to make up for his departure.

Playoff Teams:

4. Pittsburgh Penguins – It was a tumultuous off season for the Stanley Cup finalists. The team lost many key free agents, including playoff rental Marian Hossa, local kid Ryan Malone, grizzled veteran Gary Roberts, Pest Jarkko Ruutu, enforcer, Georges Laraque, and back up goalie Ty Conklin. Luckily for GM Ray Shero he was able to retain the services of steady stay at home defensemen Brooks Orpik to prevent the summer from being a complete loss. Pittsburgh less than adequately replaced these players with aging Miroslav Satan coming off a down year with the Islanders and solid 3rd liner Ruslan Fedotenko who will get a shot with Crosby. Crosby, Staal, and Malkin will lead the Pens up front, while veteran Sergei Gonchar, the always improving Ryan Whitney, and blue chip prospect Kris Letang will shore up the blue line.

5. Ottawa Senators – Last year the Sens come out of the gate and had the best start to an NHL season ever before the wheels fell off. Troubled goalie Ray Emery got into fights at practice when he showed up on time. Injuries hurt the Sens and Coach John Paddock was fired in an attempt to shake the team out of its funk. Ottawa was too dependent on Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, and Jason Spezza for goals last season and not much has changed. Young players like Antoine Vermette, Chris Kelly and Mike Fisher will be joined by Nick Foligno as forwards being counted on for secondary scoring. The biggest change for Ottawa will be on the blue line where long time Senator Wade Redden left via free agency after 2 disastrous seasons. Ottawa also traded Andrej Meszaros after his contract demands were too steep for GM Bryan Murray. New to the Sens blue line will be Filip Kuba and promising youngster Alexandre Picard acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay as well as former Oilers and Flyers Captain Jason Smith. Alex Auld replaces Ray Emery as back up to Martin Gerber the unquestionable (for better or worse) number 1 goalie this year. Expectations are as low in Ottawa as they have been since 1995.

6. New York Rangers – The Rangers were very active in remaking their roster this summer, and their big move is still likely to come. It is believed that sometime before November the Rangers will add former Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin. If/when Sundin if inked look for Scott Gomez to be dealt for a defensemen to shore up the blue line. The Rangers will also welcome Nikolai Zherdev, Markus Naslund, and Dan Fritsche up front and Wade Redden and Dmitri Kalinin to their blue line. Gone from New York are former captain Jaromir Jagr, Veteran leader Brendan Shanahan, super pest Sean Avery and Fedor Tyutin. Despite all the re-jigging, the Blue shirts will go as far as goalie Henrik Lundquist will carry them.

7. Carolina Hurricanes – Injuries have prevented the Hurricanes from making the playoffs the past two seasons and already the Hurricanes are having health issues. Winger Justin Williams was injured in the team’s first work out and will miss 4-6 months. Most of the roster is intact from last season with Joni Pitkanen being the only newcomer of consequence. Pitkanen was acquired in a trade for Erik Cole. Defensemen Bret Hedican and Glen Wesley retired in the off season. The Hurricanes will again be led by Eric Staal and by goalie Cam Ward. Carolina will need to win their divisional games to have a shot at the playoffs as Florida and Tampa will be breathing down their necks.

8. Boston Bruins – The Bean towners returned to the playoffs last season by playing a strong defensive game under new coach Claude Julien. The team was without its best player, Patrice Bergeron for the majority of the season after a hit from behind resulted in a terrible concussion. Michael Ryder is the only acquisition of consequence while long time Bruin Glen Murray was bought out. Improvement will come from within with Bergeron returning and youngsters like Milan Lucic, Phil Kessel, and Chuck Kobasew being counted on for greater contributions. Goalie Manny Fernandez will return from injury to challenge Tim Thomas for the #1 role, with both watching over their shoulder as Tuukka Rask is expected to challenge for a roster spot.

On the outside looking in:

9. New Jersey Devils – Lou Lamoriello has kept the Devils in contention for the past 15 years despite losing players to free agency and attrition. This may finally be the year where Lou’s magic wears off. The team lost no players of consequence and repatriated former Devils Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik, but that will hardly keep them up with the powers of the Atlantic division. Having to play the young upstarts from Pennsylvania (Flyers and Penguins) 12 times as well as 6 games against the Rangers may be enough to keep the Devils out of post season action. Also working against the Devils is Martin Brodeur is aging and doesn’t seem as capable of playing 75 games a season anymore. He looked ordinary against the Rangers and let Sean Avery rattle his cage. If Brodeur shows any signs of failing the bleak shot at a playoff spot will dissipate.

10. Tampa Bay Lightning – No team made more changes than the Lightning this summer. The team has new owners, new GM, new Coach, and almost a completel
y different roster than the one that opened the 2007-08 season. Program sale
s should reach an all time high in St. Pete. Only one star player was removed from the roster that finished last overall in 2007-08 and that is Dan Boyle. He was traded in a package that landed young defensemen Matt Carle. The team also traded Alex Picard and Filip Kuba for Andrej Meszaros giving the Lightning two building blocks for the blue line to go with the young talent up front. Superstars Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis will be joined by 1st overall choice Steven Stamkos. The Lightning was active in free agency adding Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi, Radim Vrbata, and Vaclav Prospal. Despite all these acquisitions, the Lightning’s fortunes hinge on the play of goalie Mike Smith. Smith was acquired at the trade deadline from Dallas and still needs to prove that he is capable of handling number 1 duties. He will be backed up by aging veteran Olaf Kolzig, acquired via free agency after a lengthy career in Washington.

11. Buffalo Sabres – The good news for Sabres fans is that the team locked up Ryan Miller who could have been a free agent at the conclusion of the upcoming season and almost assuredly would have left the Sabres. The bad news is that the team is still reeling from the departures of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere in the summer of 2007 and will again miss the playoffs. The depth of the minor league system kept the Sabres competitive last year and will again this season. Derek Roy and Jason Pominville stepped up, but a thin blue line proved to be too much for the Sabres to overcome. No losses or acquisitions of consequence were made by GM Darcy Regier whose future with the Sabres was only solidified this week when he signed a contract extension. No major changes will result in the same result as last year.

12. Florida Panthers– Two big changes this season for the Panthers. The first is that leader Olli Jokinen was traded to the Coyotes on draft day for defensemen Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton. The second is new coach Peter DeBoer replaces Jacques Martin who served as Coach and GM last season and was told by ownership to pick one job. Veteran Cory Stillman was also signed and Bryan McCabe was acquired in a trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Mike Van Ryn. Any improvement from the Panthers will result in strong interdivisional play and continued development of their young players: Jay Bouwmeester, Steve Weiss, and Nathan Horton. If Florida is nowhere near a playoff spot in February expect Bouwmeester, who is growing tired of losing, to be moved in a trade because he will be eligible for free agency next summer and would be lost for nothing.

The Tavares Sweepstakes:

13. NY Islanders – It was another interesting off season for the Islanders. Ted Nolan lost his power struggle with GM Garth Snow and was abruptly replaced as coach. The bone of contention was the direction of the team. Nolan wanted to continue utilizing veteran players and attempting to make the playoffs whereas Snow decided it was time for a full fledged youth movement. The team was in the hunt until an all star game injury sidelined starting goalie Rick Dipietro and without the team’s franchise player their playoff aspirations were dashed. Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan were two veterans that were let go, while the team signed power play spark plug Mark Streit away from Montreal and added Doug Weight from Anaheim via free agency in a pair of curious moves. Blake Comeau, Kyle Okposo, Jeff Tambellini, and Sean Bergenheim are youngsters who will see their role increased with the team. A nice mix of vets and young players on the blue line will combine with Dipietro to help keep the Islanders in some games but lack of fire power will prove to be the Achilles heel.

14. Toronto Maple Leafs – The Leafs had a solid run from 1998-2004 contending for a playoff spot and making some noise. They haven’t made the playoffs since the lock out and will enter 2008-09 in full rebuild mode. Gone are long time Leafs Mats Sundin, leading scorer in franchise history, Bryan McCabe, and Darcy Tucker. Joining them in the march out of town were chronic underachiever Kyle Wellwood and flash in the pan Andrew Raycroft. The Leafs brought in veterans Jeff Finger and Nicklas Hagman to provide veteran stability at extremely high pay rates. They also coaxed Curtis Jospeh out of retirement with a post playing job with the team. The Leafs were pushovers last season and added Ryan Hollweg and Jamal Mayers in trades to provide some grit and toughness. Hope for Leafs’ fans is years away but the first steps are being taken as Nikolai Kulemin joins the team from Russia and “The Human Eraser” Luke Schenn was drafted 5th overall. The team will be younger, tougher, and solid defensively but will struggle to score in the first season under Ron Wilson as coach. The team is waiting for Brian Burke to arrive from Anaheim to take over as President and GM in 2009. The biggest hope is that the moves lead the team to the league’s basement and the chance to draft local phenom John Tavares.

15. Atlanta Thrashers – New coach John Anderson inherits a team with superstar Ilya Kovlachuk and not much else. Some depth was acquired when Marian Hossa was traded but the team lacks top 6 forward talents and has a very thin blue line. Ron Hainsey and Jason Williams is 3rd tier free agents added in the summer while aging players Bobby Holik and Alexei Zhitnik were shown the door. Frequently injured and always inconsistent Kari Lehtonen enters the year as the starting goalie but will be challenged by Ondrej Pavelec. Bryan Little and this year’s 3rd overall pick Zach Bogosian will challenge for roles on this talent deficient squad. It will be a long year for the rookie coach in his long overdue first opportunity at the NHL level

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