Ever read an expert's NHL prediction column and thought "heck, I could do better", or "what in the world was that person smoking"?
With training camp finally underway, I figured now is a perfect time for the Rink Rats to weigh in with OUR predictions of the final 2010-11 NHL standings. Why let the professionals have all the fun? Sure some NHL rosters will change between now and opening night, but to do this right, and allow ample time for debate, we should get started.
Every couple of days (or so), I'll post a new poll, with teams in alphabetical order. A brief summary will be featured for each team, and will include last year's results, key off season moves, and a look at some of the questions or issues facing that team. As teams get voted in, they'll be removed from the subsequent polls. The brief write ups for each team will be featured in each post for easy reference.
At the end of the regular season, a follow up fan post will compare our predictions to final results. Keep in mind we're voting based on predicted "seeding". That means the top 3 seeds should be the 3 division winners.
Corey Masisak has done a great job previewing Eastern Conference team’s from a Capitals perspective here and I referred to his work to double check my own tracking of off season movement around theleague. Definitely worth a look if you didn't click through his recaps over the past few weeks.
But now....it's our turn.
Atlanta Thrashers (35-34-13, 83 points, 2nd in the Southeast, 10th in the Eastern Conference in 2009-10)
Key additions: Dustin Byfuglien (trade, Chicago), Nigel Dawes (UFA, Calgary), Ben Eager (trade, Chicago), Andrew Ladd (trade, Chicago), Chris Mason (UFA, St. Louis), Freddy Meyer (UFA, Islanders), Fredrik Modin (UFA, Los Angeles) Patrick Rissmiller (trade, Rangers), Brent Sopel (trade, Chicago)
Key losses: Maxim Afinogenov (UFA, SKA St. Petersburg, KHL) Colby Armstrong (UFA, Toronto), Evgeny Artyukhin (UFA, unsigned), Johan Hedberg (UFA, New Jersey), Slava Kozlov (UFA, unsigned), Pavel Kubina (UFA, Tampa Bay), Clarke MacArthur (UFA, Toronto), Marty Reasoner (trade, Chicago), Todd White (trade, New York Rangers)
Anybody who thinks the Thrashers are dead in the water in the post Kovalchuk era should think again. Atlanta finished the year a respectable 7-5-2 in their last 14 games without their departed captain. A flurry of off-season activity saw them add goalie Chris Mason, several players from the Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks, and a handful of other servicable NHL vets. Despite the heavy player turnover, their most important off-season move may have been "promoting" long time GM Don Waddell to a different front office position.
While they lack elite talent up front, but the Thrashers have added size and grit to the lineup that will make life difficult for opposing defensmen. Atlannta boasts a respectable young blue line that could surprise, and a capable tadem in net with a likely platoon of Mason and Andrej Pavalec. They might not be the most talented team in the East, but they should be able to hang close and give teams with superior skill fits throughout the course of the season.
Boston Bruins: (39-30-13, 91 points, 3rd in the Northeast, 6th in the Eastern Conference in 2009-10)
After scoring the second most goals in the league in 2008-2009, the Bruins finished 2009-2010 second to last in goals for. Their leading scorer? Patrice Bergeron with 19-33-52 in 73 games, which would have been good for 7th overall on the Capitals. The Bruins underperformed from top to bottom, but injuries to Marc Savard (41 GP) and Milan Lucic (50 GP) were a significant part of last seasons goal scoring problems. With recent reports that Savard is suffering from post-concussion syndrome, should Bruins fans fear the worst? Or will #2 overall draft pick Tyler Sequin pick up some of the slack.
The Bruins are led defensively by Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Charra and Dennis Seidenberg, but look a little thin in the bottom two pairings. Tuukka Rask took over the starting goal tender position from Vezina winning Tim Thomas, who looks to rebound from a disappointing season. Thomas had off season hip surgery but should be ready for camp.
Buffalo Sabres: (45-27-10, 100 points, 1st in the Northeast, 3rd in the Eastern Conference)
Ryan Miller had an outstanding season en route to his first Vezina trophy, Tyler Myers had an outstanding rookie season en route to the Calder trophy, and the Sabres spread the scoring around in a season that saw 12 different players on their final roster finish with double digits in goals. Tim Connolly finally stayed healthy and put up 65 points in 73 games after playing in only 98 games total over the previous 3 seasons.
Still, there were points of concern for the Sabres. Thomas Vanek regressed, scoring 12 fewer goals and 11 fewer points than in 08-09 (in only 2 fewer games), and saw his PPG production cut in half from 20 to 10.That's not the type of production you want to see from your $7.143 million dollar man. After failing to qualify the previous 2 seasons, the Sabres lost in the first round of the playoffs, despite Ryan Miller's .926 save %.
The fowards remain essentially intact this season from last, while the blue line will have a new look with Leopold and Morrisonn replacing long time Sabres Tallinder and Lydman. What impact will the new look D have on Ryan Miller?
Carolina Hurricanes: (35-37-10, 80 points, 3rd in the Southeast, 11th in the Eastern Conference)
The Hurricanes have missed the playoffs for two consecutive years. Can they reverse the trend this year? Despite their overall lack of success in the standings, the Hurricanes have given the Caps a pretty hard time as both teams finished last season 3-1-2, after Carolina finished 3-2-1 against the Caps in 08-09. With the loss of Ray Whitney, the Hurricanes appear to be trending slightly dowards offensively as their only significant off season addition up front is the recently signed Patrick O'Sullivan.
Among the returning forwards, Jussi Jokinen easily had his most productive season of his career leading the team with 30 goals, and was especially deadly on the power play with 10 goals and 14 assists with the man advantage. Eric Staal struggled but managed to average exactly a point per game thanks to a particulatly strong finish with 9 points combined in the Hurricane's 80th and 81st games of the season before a goose egg and -4 in the season finale against Boston.
Defensively the Hurricanes remain pretty solid with the return of Anton Babchuck from the KHL. Joe Corvo also hit the reset button, after a forgettable stint in Washington. While power play quarterback Joni Pitkanen notched 19 points on the power play, he'll look to rebound from an unimpressive -11. Tim Gleason should continue to be a steady stay at home presence in front of goalie Cam Ward, who must remain healthy for the Hurricanes to have a shot at the playoffs.
Florida Panthers: (32-37-13, 77 points, 5th in the Southeast, 14th in the Eastern Conference)
New GM Dale Tallon takes over after serving as the Blackhawks GM from June 2005-July 2009. He inherits a roster that is surprisingly over $50 million considering the lack of "big name" players beyond goalie Tomas Voukoun. That salary figure starts to make sense when you realize a player like Rotislav Olesz signed a 6 year, $18.5 million contract after the 07-08 season, his reward for a putting up 26 points in 56 games as a 22 year old. Olesz followed that "breakout" season with 9 points in 37 games in 08-09 and 29 points in 78 games in 09-10. He's on the books through 2013-2014.
Still, the Panthers have some decent (albeit not All Star level) young talent on the roster. David Booth is only 25, Stephen Weiss is 27, and skilled blue liner Dmitry Kulikov averaged over 17 minutes a game as a 19 year old. They also have the aforementioned Vokoun in net, who gets a lot of well deserved love around these parts, and is sure to be a hot commodity around the trading deadline if the Panthers are out of the running for a playoff spot.
It will be interesting to see what happens if the Panthers are hovering around the playoff bubble at the end of February. Will the front office roll the dice as they did with Jay Bouwmester and shy away from a trade in pursuit of a playoff spot, or will they look to the future and trade their stud goalie for picks and prospects?
Montreal Canadiens: (39-33-10, 88 points, 4th in the Northeast, 8th in the Eastern Conference)
Key Additions: Alex Auld (UFA, New York Rangers), Dustin Boyd (trade, Nashville), Lars Eller (trade, St. Louis), Jeff Halpern (UFA, Los Angeles), Alexandre Picard (UFA, Carolina), Kari Ramo (trade, Tampa Bay)
Key Losses: Jaroslav Halak (trade, St. Louis), C Dominic Moore (UFA, Tampa Bay), D Paul Mara (UFA, Anaheim), C Glen Metropolit (UFA, EV Zug, Switzerland), LW Sergei Kostitsyn (trade, Nashville), G Cedrick Desjardins (trade, Tampa Bay)
The Canadiens shocked the hockey world last April by....well, let's not dig up those old memories. In a surprise move, Montreal shipped RFA goalie (and 2010 playoff hero) Jaroslav Halak out of town, and handed Carey Price sole ownership of the starting goalie position that the two had shared over the past couple of seasons. They also locked up Tomas Plekanec for 6 years, and expect rookie defenseman PK Subban to make a run at the Calder trophy this season.
Speaking of defense, Andrei Markov is recovering from knee surgery to replace a torn right ACL, suffered during a hit by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke. Markov appears to be aiming for a December return, about two months earlier than expected. How Montreal fares defensivley in Markov's absence in the meantime will be interesting to watch, although they managed well enough with him only suiting up for only 45 games last season.
Which Montreal team will we see on the ice this season? The team that caught fire en route to the conference finals, knocking out the Eastern conference's two most hyped teams in the process? Or the team that backed into the playoffs with a pair of overtime losses? Oh and Scott Gomez is making $8 million this year. Seriously.
New Jersey Devils: (48-27-7, 103 points, 1st in the Atlantic, 2nd in the Eastern Conference in 2009-2010)
Key losses: Paul Martin (UFA, Pittsburgh), Rob Niedermayer (UFA Buffalo), Yann Danis (UFA, unsigned), Matt Halischuk (trade, Nashville), Mike Mottau (UFA, unsigned), Martin Skoula (UFA, Omsk, KHL), Cory Murphy (UFA, VSCLions, Switzerland), Andrew Peters (Buyout, Florida)
The drama surrounding Ilya Kovalchuk's contract extension was the story of the summer. What is often overlooked is the coaching change that saw Jaques Lemaire replaced by long time Devils player (and assistant coach from 02-09) John MacLean. Given the long history and familiarity with Maclean, goalie Martin Brodeur doesn't see the switch from Lemaire to MacLean as a big change. However, given their $102 million dollar investment in Kovalchuk to go with speedy Zach Parise, the Devils may end up playing a more attacking style than opponents have seen in the past.
The blow of losing of Paul Martin, who only played 22 games last year due to injury, has been softened by the acquisitions of Volchenkov and Tallinder. While the Devils still have a very respectable blue line, Brodeur is now 38 years old and has played in more games than any other goalie in NHL history. If he breaks down, will Hedberg be able to hold down the fort?
New York Islanders: (34-37-11, 79 points, 5th in Atlantic, 13th in the Eastern Conference in 2009-2010)
Key Additions: Mark Eaton (UFA, Pittsburgh), Andy Hilbert (UFA, Minnesota), Milan Jurcina (UFA, Washington), Zenon Konopka (UFA, Tampa Bay), Nino Niederreiter (Draft), P.A. Parenteau (UFA, New York Rangers), James Wisniewski (UFA, Anaheim)
Key losses: Sean Bergenheim (UFA, Tampa Bay), Martin Biron (UFA, New York Rangers), Richard Park (UFA, Geneva-Severette, Switzerland), Freddy Meyer (UFA, Atlanta)
The John Tavares era began last season on Long Island. Tavares started the season strong with 19 points in his first 21 games, finished strong with 18 points in his final 13 games, but had a forgettable middle portion of the season. Overall, his 54 points in 82 games was respectable but not spectacular for a rookie, though his strong finish to the season should give Islander fans hope that he'll continue to progress this season.
Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and the awesomely named Nino Niederreiter give the Isles some talented young forwards to go with Doug Weight, who is retuning for a 19th NHL season. There is also Matt Moulson who came from nowhere to score 30 goals last season, and Mark Streit who had a solid all around year on the blue line, averaging nearly 26 minutes a game, adding 49 points and an even plus/minus on a team that got outscored by 42 goals last season.
If Rick DiPietro can stay healthy, and if the Islander's youth movement continues to progress, can this team surprise the NHL? Even if he is healthy, will DiPietro be anything close to the player he once was, after playing in only 13 games over the past 2 seasons?
New York Rangers: 38-33-11, 87 points, 4th in the Atlantic, 9th in the Eastern Conference in 2009-2010
Key Additions: Martin Biron (UFA, New York Islanders), Derek Boogaard (UFA, Minnesota), Steve Eminger (trade, Anaheim), Alexander Frolov (UFA, Los Angeles), Tim Kennedy (UFA, Buffalo), Todd White (trade, Atlanta)
Key losses: Olli Jokinen (UFA, Calgary), Alex Auld (UFA, Montreal), Donald Brashear (trade, Atlanta), Jody Shelley (UFA, Philadelphia), PA Parenteau (UFA, New York Islander), Aaron Voros (trade, Anaheim), Patrick Rissmiller (trade, Atlanta), Stephen Valiquette (UFA, HC CSKA Moscow, KHL)
This was one of the rare free agency periods that the Rangers did not make a ton of noise, aside from the collective groans you heard over the 4 year, $7 million contract given to Derek Boogard. The Rangers recently took care of their off season priority by signing RFA Marc Staal to a 5 year extension. The signing of Biron also gives the Rangers the best backup goalie Henrik Lundqvist has ever had. Will Lundy get a little more rest this season, or will he continue to play 70+ games?
The addition of Frolov should help give their offense a boost. A top line of Frolov, Prospal, Gaborikis certain to put up some points. The second line featuring Dubinsky and Callahan is always tough to play against.
The biggest question facing the Rangers right now is how to get under the salary cap. After finalizing Staal's extension, Cap Geek has the Rangers at slightly more than 4 million over the salary cap. Will Wade Redden be given the Michael Nylander treatment? Will he just be sent outright to the AHL? Or will the Rangers make a different move, and keep Redden around?
Ottawa Senators : 44-32-6, 94 points, 2nd in Northeast, 5th in the Eastern Conference in 2009-2010
Key additions: Sergei Gonchar (UFA, Pittsburgh), David Rundblad (trade, St. Louis), David Hale (UFA, Tampa Bay),
Key losses: Anton Volchenkov (UFA, New Jersey), Matt Cullen (UFA, Minnesota), Andy Sutton (UFA, Anaheim), Shean Donovan (UFA, unsigned), Jonathan Cheechoo (UFA, Dallas)
The Senators played the Caps tough in the regular season finishing 3-1-0 (the Caps were 1-1-2), and gave the Penguins a run for their money in the first round of the playoffs. They'll start the 2010-2011 season with a roster very similar to their pre trade deadline roster from last season. Ottawa essentially swapped Volchenkov for Gonchar on the blue line, and allowed trade deadline acquisitions Cullen and Sutton to walk, along with Cheechoo who was bought out by the team in June.
The goaltending situation will be fun to watch. Brian Elliot won the starting job and played well enough in the regular season, but was replaced midway through game 4 of the playoffs by Pascual Leclaire, who also started games 5 and 6. Leclaire had a poor regular season in 2009-10, but could create a goalie controversy with a strong camp, although injuries have always been a concern for the former Blue Jacket.
Philadelphia Flyers: 41-35-6, 88 points, 3rd in Atlantic, 7th in the Eastern Conference in 2009-2010
Andrei Meszaros (trade, Tampa Bay), Nikolai Zherdev(UFA, Atlant Moscow, KHL), Matt Walker (trade Tampa Bay), Sean O’Donnell, Jody Shelley (UFA, New York Rangers),
Simon Gagne (trade, Tampa Bay), Arron Asham (UFA, Pittsburgh), Riley Cote (retired), Ryan Parent (trade, Nashville), Ray Emery (UFA, unsigned)
A season that began with high expectations, saw the Flyers sneak into the playoffs at the last day of the season...in a shoot-out no less. The Flyers got hot, took care of the Devils in 5, erased a 3 games to none deficit against the Bruins in round 2 and played all the way to the Stanely Cup Finals, before losing 4 games to 2 to the Chicago Blackhawks. 3 of those 4 losses were by a single goal.
What Blackhawks team can we expect in the regular season in 2010-11? The trade of Simon Gagne to Tampa Bay was offset by the addition of Zherdev, who is on the hook for 3.25 million less this season than Gagne. Mesazaros may be overpaid, but the Flyers bottom pair will be better this season than last, and the defense as a whole should be among the best in the league. With Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher as this season's goaltenders, the D better live up to the hype.
The Flyers should remain strong up front, with 3 lines that can score on any given shift. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards look to bounce back after mildly disapointing seasons from an offensive standpoint. Daniel Briere may not be living up to his contract, but he's still a threat to score every game he's healthy enough to suit up for. After playing in 75 games last season, Briere may have put the injury bug behind him.
Pittsburgh Penguins: 47-28-7, 101 points, 2nd in the Atlantic, 4th in the Eastern Conference in 2009-2010
Key Losses:Mark Eaton (UFA, New York Islanders ), Ruslan Fedetenko (UFA unsigned), Sergei Gonchar (UFA, Ottawa), Bill Guerin (UFA, unsigned, invited to Philadelphia camp), Jordon Leopold (UFA, Buffalo), Jay McKee (UFA, unsigned) Alexi Ponikarovsky (UFA, Los Angeles)
Key additions:Aaron Asham (UFA, Flyers), Mike Comrie (UFA, Edmonton), Paul Martin (UFA, New Jersey), Zybnek Michalek (UFA, Phoenix)
Defense was the story of the off season for the Penguins. On the first day of free agency, Pittsburgh grabbed 2 of the most coveted UFA d-men and waved goodbye to longtime power play quarterback Sergei Gonchar. The penguins top 4 D will match up well against any team in the league, with Goligosky and Lovejoy rounding out the bottom pair.
Offensively, the Penguins are looking for a bounce back year from Evgeni Malkin. Malkin did not look like the same player that won the Conn Smythe in 2009, but still managed 77 points in 67 games. The game of musical chairs continues on the wings with Mike Comrie signing for the league minimum for the chance to play with Crosby and/or Malkin, as Guerin, Fedetenko and Ponikarovsky head elsewhere.
Goaltending duties will be shared again by Marc-Andre Fleury and
Capitals sleeper agent Brent Johnson. What else is there to say? The Penguins are still strong down the middle, have an improved D and should continue to be among the top teams in the East.
Tampa Bay Lightning: 34-36-12, 80 points, fourth in the Southeast, 12th in the Eastern Conference
Key additions: Sean Bergenheim (UFA, Islanders), Brett Clark (UFA, Colorado), Chris Durno (UFA, Colorado), Dan Ellis (UFA, Nashville), Simon Gagne (trade, Philadelphia), Pavel Kubina (UFA, Atlanta), Dominic Moore (UFA, Montreal), Marc Pouliot (UFA, Edmonton), Mathieu Roy (UFA, Florida)
Key losses: Brandon Bochenski (UFA, Barys Astana), Todd Fedoruk (UFA, free agent), Kurtis Foster (UFA, Edmonton), David Hale (UFA, Ottawa), Zenon Konopka (UFA, Islanders), Andrej Meszaros (trade, Philadelphia), Antero Niittymaki (UFA, San Jose), Alex Tanguay (UFA, Calgary), Dan Ellis' Twitter Feed (Greg Wyshynksi & fan backlash)
The Steve Yzerman era begins in Tampa Bay. The top two scoring lines are as good as any in the league, though the bottom two lines are nothing to get excited about. Still, if you're a Tampa Bay fan, you have to like the direction the team is heading. Adding Gagne, while moving the Mesazaros contract was a steal for Tampa Bay, assuming Gagne can stay healthy. Stamkos was a breakout player last year, and will continue to rack up the goals as long as opposing penalty killers leave him wide open for one timers on the power play. If the Lightning want to crack the playoffs, they'll need Lecavalier to show some life and start living up to the huge contract extension he signed two summers ago.
Defensively, Kubina replaces Mesazaros, which is a step up for Tampa Bay. Victor Hedman won't be able to drink legally until December 18th of NEXT year, but will continue to eat up over 20 minutes a night. Still 19 years old, the number 2 pick of the 2009 draft played reasonably well in his rookie season, and should continue to get better.
In goal, the Lightning will be rolling a capable tandem of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis. Smith has battled injuries, inconsistency (and puck handling) since arriving in a trade with Dallas. Ellis is no stranger to playing in a platoon after spending 3 years averaging 36 games a season in Nashville. While Smith is the presumed starter, it wouldn't shock me to see the two goalies essentially split starts through the first couple months of the season.
Toronto Maple Leafs: 30-38-14, 74 points, 5th in the Northeast, 15th in the Eastern Conference in 2009-2010
GM Brian Burke continues to rebuild the Maple Leafs, who appear to be going "thin and green" at center. Versteeg is a quality second line player, and Armstrong will add some character (and flying elbows) to the lineup. Rookie Nazem Kadri could wind up as the second or third line center this year, and his attempt to jump into the NHL will be the story to watch in Toronto this training camp.
As you would expect from a Burke built team, the Leafs are solid defensively, but need newly minted captain Dion Phaneuf to improve and re-gain the form that made him one of the most talked about young d-men in the game. Luke Schenn is another young and promising blue liner looking to take a big step forward. Schenn won't turn 21 until November, and saw improvement from his rookie season but was still plagued by the inconsistencies that you'd expect from a young defenseman. The subject of nearly constant trade rumors, Tomas Kaberle is still a Leaf and will continue to rack up points on the power play. 2009 free agent acquisition Mike Komisarek only managed to play in 34 games last season, and had a rough start pverall to his career in Toronto, but may benefit from having Phaneuf in town to take some of the pressure off.
In goal, J.S. Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson will be splitting time between the pipes. Giguere has been up and down for the past couple seasons, but is expected to begin the season as the starting goalie. Gustavsson arrived from Sweeden with a lot of hype, but had a season derailed by a heart ailment. He appears to be in good shape heading into camp.
Washington Capitals: 54-15-13, 121 points, 1st in the Southeast, 1st in the Eastern Conference
Key additions: D.J. King (trade, St. Louis),
The team that finished as last season's President's trophy winners, and most disappointing playoff team, return largely intact. Varlamov and Neuvirth, two young and promising goalies that are still on their entry level (cheap) contracts, will be splitting time in net.
The offense will be led by perennial MVP candidate Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who topped the 100 point mark for the first time in his career last year. The Caps will be rolling 3 lines that can score on any given shift to go with a solid fourth line, but have much publicized questions at center beyond the first line. Mathieu Perrault vs Marcus Johansson will be a training camp battle to watch as both young players are fighting to take one of the team's final foward roster spots.
On the blue line, two time Norris trophy nominee Mike Green and 2010 +/- leader Jeff Schultz lead the way. Youngsters Karl Alzner and John Carlson are expected to be start the season with the big club with veteran Tom Poti in the mix as well. With John Erskine and Tyler Sloan battling for the 6/7 slots, there are questions about the bottom pair defensively, but nothing that should significantly impact the team's regular season finish