Eastern Conference Playoff Race

The Olympics are over and the trade deadline has come and gone without any hugely significant trades made on deadline day. With every teams rosters set I figured it was time to take a look at the remainder of the season and into the playoffs. Let’s start with the Eastern conference and next week I’ll tackle the west.

Washington Capitals – The Captials appear to be the class team in the east as they currently hold a 14 point edge on second place Penguins. They added some role playing depth up front and skilled Joe Corvo on defense. I thought they could have used more of a shut down defenseman but I guess that isn’t the style of game the Capitals play. They are definitely an offense first team and Corvo fits more into that role. The questions I have are, can that style of play win in the playoffs and can their goalies give them enough consistencty to win. The 2010 Capitals are much like the 1980’s Oilers.

Pittsburgh Penguins – I think the Penguins are clearly the second best team in the eastern conference and adding Ponikarovsky and Leopold only solidify that. They are probably a better defensive team than the Capitals and have more reliable goaltending but may not have the scoring from the wings that the Capitals have which is where Ponikarovsky should help.

New Jersey Devils – New Jersey made the big spash before the Olympics by adding superstar Ilya Kovalchuk which will give them a much needed boost in the offensive zone. He and Parise give opposing teams two extremely skilled players to worry about which should open up more room for the Devils second tier forward. For me, the Devils defense is just average but they play such a good team defense that maybe that is good enough. The key for the Devils come playoff time is Martin Brodeur who is still a great goalie but has shown a bit of his age recently. Does he have enough left in the tank?

Ottawa Senators – Coach Cory Clouston has the Senators playing pretty good team hockey this year and it shows in the standings. I honestly don’t think they are this good and am still a little skeptical at their success but they haven’t fallen apart yet. They came close in November/December when they went through a lengthy slump and fell back into the playoff bubble crowd of teams but a superb January and early February led by stellar goaltending and a hot Spezza gave them a comfortable lead on the chase pack of teams. But, I am still not sold on their goaltending and we have seen how fragile that can be as Elliot and Leclaire have each been pulled in the Senators past 2 games. In my mind the Senators are an average team which if some things go right could pull a first round playoff win, but aren’t a true contender.

Buffalo Sabres – When it comes to the Sabres, success or failure usually begins and ends with Ryan Miller. So long as Miller is playing at the top of his game, the Sabres will have a shot at winning any game. Their offense is adequate as is their defense but there isn’t too much special there.

Philadelphia Flyers – The above 5 teams barring a significant slump are likely to be playoff teams. Starting with Philadelphia I think we are getting into bubble team status. As far as the Flyers are concerned, I think they have to be the big losers of the trade deadline because they didn’t address their most glaring need, goaltending. Now they didn’t really have the cap space to do so nor was there necessarily any quality goalies available but I just don’t think you can be that confident in having Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher as your goalie tandem. Leighton has been great for the Flyers so far this year, but he is Michael Leighton. The Flyers should make the playoffs but I am not convinced they can be the serious contender they hoped they would be when they acquired Chris Pronger prior to the season.

Boston Bruins – I got a lot of flak before the season when I predicted the Bruins would take a significant step back from their 116 points and end up with just 98 this year. They are currently on pace for 88 so I may have underestimated their fall. Almost everything went right for them last season from stellar goaltending to far better than expected seasons from Krejci, Lucic and Wheeler. I figured that wouldn’t happen again and with the loss of Kessel it would hurt them significanty. All that and then some has come true and the Bruins have been downright dreadful offensively and Tim Thomas hasn’t been as good (though generally the Bruins have had very good goaltending). The Bruins are probably a playoff team, but that is far from a certainty with 20 games left.

Atlanta Thrashers – The Thrashers currently sit in 8th spot in the eastern conference tied with the Rangers and Canadiens but with 2 and 3 games in hand respectively. So far they have survived life without Kovalchuk quite well and have points in their last 6 games (4-0-2). I kind of like their chances at a playoff spot now that they are clearly the ‘underdog’ having been forced to trade Kovalchuk. Keep an eye on the Thrashers, they are an interesting team to watch in this playoff race.

New York Rangers – Poor contract decisions (Redden, Drury, Rozsival, etc.) have really taken away any chance of the Rangers becoming the elite team that it could considering they have one of the best goalies in the league and some good young players in Dubinsky, Callahan and Staal. It’s unfortunately because a good team in New York is good for the league. But, I think the Rangers might be on the outside looking in come playoff time.

Montreal Canadiens – I can’t completely call the Canadiens a mess of an organization but they might be close. They are not a bad team, but they certainly are not a good team either, and with a salary budget that is nearly tapped out, it is hard to see them ever becoming more than a middle of the road team in the next few years. Maybe their only out is to find a way to parlay one of Price or Halak into another high end forward or defenseman. They may make the playoffs, they may not. That is the story of Montreal for the next couple years.

Tampa Bay Lightning – You gotta love Stamkos and the season he has had but Lecavalier isn’t earning his big paycheck nor are several other players (Tanguay, Meszaros) and Hedman is not yet a stud on defense. They might stay close but I don’t see them making the playoffs.
Florida Panthers – The Panthers signed a number of their younger players to long term contracts at higher than market value expecting that they would continue to progress and would in fact end up being bargains. It’s a viable gamble but not one that has paid off for the Panthers particularly in the case of Olesz who hasn’t been very good and Booth who been injured. They are also shorthanded in that they can’t spend close to the salary cap.

New York Islanders – The Islanders for much of the year were a bit of a surprise team being right in the playoff race, but the reality is setting in that they just aren’t that good. Tavares has just 1 goal in 2010 and they just don’t have the depth of talent to compete without him being a star. Maybe next year Islanders fans, and you will get another high draft pick, probably top 5, this year.

Carolina Hurricanes – The Hurricanes are one of the hottest teams in the league and are on a seven game winning streak. Unfortunately, it might be the worst thing to happen to the franchise because they could have used a top 5 draft pick to draft another super talented player that they could definitely use to replace some of the veterans they have traded off this past week.

Toronto Maple Leafs – This has been an unexpected lost season or the Maple Leafs. Most thought they would at least be a playoff bubble team, even if they didn’t think they would make the playoffs. But it has been a downright horrible season led in large part by bad goaltending and some bad luck (1-12 in overtime?). But when the season is over I think the Leafs will be able to look back and claim some positives. Kessel really does look like a 35+ goal scorer. Phaneuf could be a stud on defense for years to come. Bozak looks like he could develop into at least a second line center. Kulemin may have found his role as a defensive checking forward. Carl Gunnar son looks like a keeper. And they will find out more about Stalberg, Hanson, Caputi and others over the course of the remainder of the season. Oh, and Leaf fans have seen the last of Blake and Toskala so that has to make many happy. Seriously Leaf fans, if one year ago I told you Burke would acquire Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf without having to trade his best asset Kaberle, and being able to trade Blake’s contract, would you be satisfied with that progress? Probably, so forget about the record and forget about the draft pick headed to Boston. This team has made significant strides forward.

Prediction on Final Standings:
1. Washington
2. Pittsburgh
3. New Jersey (4th seed)
4. Buffalo (3rd seed)
5. Ottawa
6. Boston
7. Philadelphia
8. Atlanta
9. Montreal
10. Carolina
11. NY Rangers
12. Tampa
13. Florida
14. NY Islanders
15. Toronto

Yeah, not too much change at the top of the standings. Conference finals will be Washington-New Jersey with Washington advancing to the Stanley Cup.