Here are my eastern conference predictions:
1. Washington, 109pts – This is a bit of a gamble that the Capitals are going to get good enough goaltending from Theodore and Varlamov, but if they do, 109 points is easily within their reach. They had the pure offensive stars last season and I think that the singing of veteren and more physical winger Knuble will be one of the best free agents signings of this past summer.
2. Philadelphia, 104pts – They lost a bit of scoring up front with Knuble signing in Washington and Lupul traded to Anaheim but a healthy Briere and the progression of youngsters Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk and Pronger gives them a true stud on defense. Like Washington they are going to need better than average goaltending to obtain these lofty point totals but if they get it reaching 104pts shouldn’t be a problem.
3. Pittsburgh, 99pts (fourth seed) – They won the Stanley Cup and they are a great team, but even as a great team they have been streaky from time to time over the past couple seasons and that will probably continue and will stop them from reaching 100+ points. But they will still be a tough team to beat come playoff time.
4. Boston, 98pts (third seed) – The Bruins are going to drop off a fair bit from last season simply because I don’t really think they are really as good as they performed last year. A lot of things went really well for them and not many didn’t, plus they lost Phil Kessel and that will hurt their depth a little. But they are still a good team with Thomas in goal, Chara on defense and several very good forwards.
5. New Jersey, 97pts – New Jersey is no longer the elite team it one was largely due to a far more average defense group than they have in the past, but with some solid offensive players combined with a good team defensive system and elite level goaltending they will once again be middle of the pack of eastern conference playoff teams, right there between great and mediocre.
6. Toronto, 95pts – Now I know a lot of people will scream bias at this prediction but I truly believe that 95 points is relatively easily obtainable if they even get average goaltending. Maybe I shouldn’t assume that but with a healthy Toskala, a promising prospect in Gustavsson and a more than decent third option in Joey MacDonald not to mention one of the best goalie coaches in the game in Francois Allaire getting average goaltending is certainly within reach. They also have a good and deep defense and a significant number of forwards capable of scoring 20-30 goals so they should produce enough offensively. Goaltending is key.
7. NY Rangers, 93pts – The Rangers desperately need Gaborik to remain healthy if they want to make the playoffs. Furthermore, they could definitely use another experienced defenseman or two and I expect we’ll see them address that at some point. They have elite level goaltending and that should be good enough to get them in the playoffs so long as Gaborik can be mostly healthy.
8. Buffalo, 92pts – One could easily argue that if Ryan Miller didn’t get injured and miss several weeks last year they the Sabres would have made the playoffs. The reality is there is enough talent on this team that they could finish as high as 5th in the conference if not challenge Boston for the team lead. I am just not sure their defense is good enough right now so I’ll say they will finish in 8th spot.
9. Montreal, 90pts – If anyone says they are certain what Montreal will do this season they are lying. It is nearly impossible to figure out what Montreal will do because of all the changes they have made. They have bought in some good players in Gomez, Gionta and Cammellari, but they lost some good players too. They are skilled, but very small, especially up front. Their defense is acceptable, but their goaltending is a bit of an unknown quantity, possibly great, possibly subpar. In some ways I compare this Canadiens team to the 2008-09 Tampa team in the sense that they just went though a massive overhaul of players. Now I think the players Montreal got are a better fit for each other but one still really doesn’t know how it will all work out. I don’t see them ever being good enough to be a top 5 team in the east, but could finish anywhere between 6th and 12th so I’ll slot them right in the middle.
10. Carolina, 89pts – Carolina has a history of good year, bad year going for them though I am not sure what last year was as it was a bad first half and a great second half for them. I don’t really know what to expect from them. Their defense has always been unspectacular and yet the seem to get the job done. They have a number of unspectacular players up front that also get the job done. In goal, for the first time Cam Ward showed to me that he might just be an elite level goalie in the second half of last season, but is 3-4 months enough to call him a sure fire great goalie in 2009-10? Not sure. Either way, expect the Hurricanes to be right on the playoff bubble, either a couple points in or a couple points out.
11. Florida, 88pts – Just as Florida’s young forwards are coming into their own they lose their star defenseman Jay Bouwmeester not to mention that they don’t even have a general manager. Up front there are some really good things happening with their young players but I am just not sure how the team will come together as a whole.
12. Ottawa, 86pts – If a lot goes right for the Senators they will have a shot at the playoffs but as it is they are starting a rookie as their second line center (Peter Regin), and their starting defense consists of a 19 year old and very small (Karlsson) and a career AHLer (Carkner) who played right wing last season on defense. Call me a skeptic but you can probably count on one hand the number of small 19 year old rookie defensemen that have ever made an impact at the NHL level. They will have a good first line of Alfredsson, Spezza and Michalek and Kovalev and Fisher should provide some decent secondary scoring but beyond that there isn’t a lot to get all that excited about. Goaltending should be OK as well but not good enough to take a mediocre team to the playoffs.
13. Atlanta, 83pts – The additions that Atlanta has made should make them a better team. They should be able to put out a decent 3 lines and not too shabby of a top 4 defense. The problem is in goal where Kari Lehtonen just can’t remain healthy enough to put together a good season and they don’t have a backup that is good enough to fill in. They will be better but not good enough and may be forced to trade their star Kovalchuk by the deadline.
14. Tampa, 78pts – I am not sure what to think of Tampa. They have some great players in Lecavalier and St. Louis and Malone and Tanguay are good secondary guys and I expect Stamkos to have a big breakout season, but in the end I am just not sure about this team. Ohlund and Hedman will make their defense better but their defense isn’t deep and their third and four lines are questionable and their goaltending is a guessing game as to how good they will be. If some things go right they could end up higher in the standings but I still don’t see them as a great team. They have to show me first.
15. NY Islanders – They may be heading in the right direction with some good young talent up front and they improved their goaltending even if DiPietro doesn’t play, but they are still a bad team not yet ready for prime time. I expect they will be in a season long race with the Avalanche for last spot in the NHL.