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.