Eastern Conference Preview


Written on 10/01/2009 by Jim Cerny

Goaltender Ray Emery (photo left) just might be the wildest of wild cards heading into the 2009-10 NHL season, what with his erratic background which led to a one-year stint playing in Russia last season.

But a focused on-point Emery just might be talented enough to backstop a deep Philadelphia Flyers team past Eastern Conference favorites like Washington, Boston, and the defending champs in Pittsburgh, this year.

So here's a look at how I see the East breaking down this season (with all teams listed in alphabetical order):

Playoff Locks (4): Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington.

These four teams are head and shoulders better than the remainder of the competition in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champions, and have played in two straight Cup Finals against Detroit. That level of experience just can't be bought, especially with cornerstones Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marc-Andre Fleury still so young. Pittsburgh will be a beast for years to come, and still very well may end up an NHL dynasty. This year, though, I think they will finish second in the tough Atlantic Division, and get bumped off in the playoffs. The popular bet to win the East, and the Cup, this year is Washington. The Caps will be looking to build upon two straight playoff appearances led by a hungry superstar in Alex Ovechkin and the immensely gifted offensive defenseman Mike Green. Goaltending will be the question mark here. Can Jose Theodore bounce back and reclaim the top spot? And if not, is rookie Semyon Varlamov prepared to shoulder the load throughout the regular season and the playoffs? It's a lot to ask, especially with the Caps defense still a question mark. Boston features a stifling defense anchored by Zdeno Chara and backstopped by Tim Thomas, with talented rookie Tuukka Rask expected to make 20-25 starts between the pipes, as well. The big question for the B's will be if they will score enough come playoff time, especially with Phil Kessel now in Toronto. The Flyers, quite possibly, are deeper---both up front and on the blueline---than any of the three other Beasts of the East. The play of rookie Claude Giroux, the ability for Emery to play well and keep his composure, and the health of oft-injured Danny Briere and Simon Gagne are vital for Philly this year. I love captain Mike Richards---even coming off double shoulder surgery. I love the addition of Chris Pronger---who will make defense partner Kimmo Timonen an absolute stud this year. And Scottie Hartnell is one of my favorite heart-and-soul players in the entire league. This team is going to be mighty good this year.

Playoff Teams (4): Carolina, Montreal, New York Rangers, New Jersey

The Canadiens and Rangers both completely made-over their respective teams this past off-season, even helping one another in that respect with the Scott Gomez-for-Chris Higgins trade. It will certainly take time for both clubs to jell, but I believe that both are good enough to remain playoff teams. Gomez and Brian Gionta are seeking bounce-back seasons in Montreal, and so, too, is young goaltender Carey Price. How he handles the off-ice pressures in Montreal will be nearly as important as how he stops the puck this season. The Rangers will be a more exciting team to watch this year, with John Tortorella fully implementing his favored up-tempo puck-control style of play, and with the additions of proven goal scorers like Marian Gaborik, Ales Kotalik, Vinny Prospal, and Higgins. Rookie defenseman Matt Gilroy will be fun to watch rushing and distributing the puck from the back end on Broadway, as well. But as has been the case for five years now, the Rangers fortunes will rest squarely on the play of goalie Henrik Lundqvist. There were very few changes made in Carolina during the off-season, the biggest news being goalie Cam Ward's multi-year contract extension. The 'Canes are a solid team, but they might have to struggle just a bit to finish in the Top Eight. Speaking of struggling, the Devils will do exactly that all year. Despite a really incredible run in the regular season a year ago---especially considering that Martin Brodeur missed most of the year due to injury---New Jersey is a team heading south. With Patrick Elias missing from the lineup to start the season, life will be even more challenging for the reigning Atlantic Division champs. I say 8th place, and just barely for the Devils.

Not Quite in the Playoffs (4): Buffalo, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto

I think all four of these teams will contend for a playoff spot, and just miss out in the final week or two of the regular season. My surprise team is Tampa Bay, and if I had more guts, I would have slotted them into a playoff spot. The Lightning made some solid moves over the summer, not the least of which were signing free agent Mattias Ohlund and drafting stud Viktor Hedman to play on the blueline this year. Don't forget that this club still has Vinny Lecavalier---free from trade rumors this season---and Martin St. Louis leading the offense. And the real key to this team's rise in the standings will be Steven Stamkos, the first overall pick from a year ago who erased a slow start with a very impressive second half to his rookie campaign last year and who is set to put up much bigger numbers in '09-'10. I like Ottawa to really make a run, as well. Free from Dany Heatley and his battle with coach Cory Clouston, the Sens still boast a very talented group of forwards. The addition of Pascal LeClaire in goal will provide a huge boost, too. Though I think the world of Lindy Ruff as a head coach, I just can't see his Sabres making the playoffs. They just are not good enough or deep enough. And though Toronto grabbbed quite a few headlines during the off-season and during training camp, the bottom line is the Leafs will be much tougher to play against this year, but they are still not a playoff team. Games between the Maple Leafs and Flyers, pitting the two most physical clubs in the NHL this season, will be must-see throwback-type events.

No Way Jose (3): Atlanta, Florida, New York Islanders

Many experts have the Panthers pegged as a playoff team. I do not see it. The Panthers made a spirited run into 9th place a year ago, but I see this team finding its own water level and slipping back in the pack this year. There's not enough depth up front, and losing Jay Bouwmeester on the back end really hurts. The Islanders---the NHL's worst club last season---will be more competitive and more fun to watch this year. Adding No. 1 overall pick John Tavares to a young mix that includes Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau, and the recently-acquired Rob Schremp makes for something worth watching on the Island. And credit GM Garth Snow for picking up veteran goalies Dwayne Roloson and Marty Biron so that a string of AHLers are not tending goal (like the past two years) while Rick DiPietro rehabs yet again from injury. There's a good chance Atlanta finishes behind the Islanders this year. The Thrashers have loaded up on Russian talent---perhaps to appease impending unrestricted free agent-to-be Ilya Kovalchuk---but it will be a sinking ship in Atlanta. It will be interesting to see where Kovalchuk ends up prior to the trade deadline.

Predicted to Represent the East in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals: Philadelphia Flyers

Like the West, this is not an easy call. But I feel the Flyers have so much quality depth, and Emery is like catching lighning in a bottle because this will be his last go of it in the NHL if he implodes. So to the surprise of many, I see the Caps and Penguins on the outside looking in come June.

If you enjoyed this post Subscribe to our feed

No Comment

Post a Comment