2) To simplify things we will do each conference separately. Unlike last year when we gave each team a range, we will simply stick with the one number concept. The other was too 'busy' and feed back from readers said it wasn't helpful, so we'll go with the traditional point total. We will rate them 1-15, placing division winners in their appropriate top 3 ranking.
3) WE believe as its been the last couple of seasons that there will be a huge fight for the last 1-2 spots, with all but 1-2 teams in it until the last couple of weeks/days.
- Ottawa- 110 Essentially has their Cup Finals team returning. They possess one of the most lethal top lines in the league. Though Spezza needs to shed his deserved 'perimeter/soft player' label. Their defense lost Preissing and replaced him with Luke(not good)Richardson, but they remain one of the better sets of rear guards in the league with Volchenkov coming into his own last spring. That said, we can NOT get passed Mr. Puice suit, Ray Emery. He's not going to carry this team to a Cup(see last spring), but overall the team is good enough to win the relatively weak East.
- Pittsburgh- 108 Like the Senators, this team returns most of their team that surprised most(including us) last season. Most believed they'd be better, but few thought this fast. MVP/Ross winner Crosby leads a very formidable array of forwards that are only in their literal infancy. Along with an improved back line, they should be tough to beat. Also like the Sens, their possible Achilles heal is their goalie. Though highly touted, and looking great in spurts last year, Fleury has yet to demonstrate that he is a top tender. Without a decent backup this year, he will be thrown to the fire. They should be able to outscore most opponents so this deficiency won't be a huge issue until playoff time.
- Carolina- 98 This team way under achieved last year. At least they better hope they underachieved, else they're in trouble as they are returning the same team this year. An extended Stanley Cup hangover was blamed, along with a few injuries. Rutherford must have believed that this was true, as he made few big changes outside of reacquiring Cullen from the Rangers. With their roster from 05 back, and being hungry again, we can see them regaining their form and winning the weak SE division
- Philadelphia- 105 The Flyers can't be accused of trying the old we're going to 'rebuild' nonsense that other teams use when they have a God-awful year. They went right at trying to get back to the playoffs when they made huge splashes to acquire Hartnell, Timonen, Briere. We're not enamoured with their defense anchored(literally) by Derrian Hatcher, but the additions of Timonen and Jason Smith should help. They also tried to upgrade their goaltending win Marty Biron. We're not yet sold on him as a #1, but if he plays to expectations the Flyers could be the most improved club in the NHL. They have no place to go but up!
- Buffalo-104 After losing both their captains(Drury/Briere) as well as having to over pay to retain RFA Vanek, it wasn't a good off season in upstate NY. That said they still possess a very young, talented lineup with a top goalie in Miller, and decent defense corps. The key to look for is will Vanek produce now that the pressure of his salary will be upon him? Overall, while a fall from the elite is likely, they have enough talent, and are coached well, so we still see them as a legitimate playoff team to not be taken lightly.
- Rangers- 100. While many looked at their big UFA acquisitions of centers Gomez and Drury as huge upgrades, the losses of Nylander and Cullen in favour of the highly paid duo should be an improvement up front, but not as huge as some may have over stated. As Ranger fans painfully know, Higher paycheques do NOT = increased output. Meanwhile most prognosticators ignore a lack of improvement with their biggest weakness; their defense. Lundqvist, now a legit star, can cover for many miscues, but not all, so that's why we don't have them winning the division, but should be solidly a playoff team.
- Toronto- 96 The Leaf nation will be happy to see their squad rebound from a non playoff year in TO. Jason Blake should give them an added weapon up front. While another 40 goal campaign is unlikely, chipping in 30 and his added tenacity on the PK will help. Vesa Toskala has shown in spurts that he is capable of being a #1 goalie, though has yet to have to do it long term. He will get that chance if he can out duel the underwhelming Raycroft in camp. Definitely an upgrade to the two-some the Leafs had last season. We believe those 2 factors should push them over the hump and back into the post season.
Montreal- 95 They improved by just ridding themselves of the Samsonov distraction! We think they over paid for Hamrlik, but he may prove to be a decent replacement for Souray. They also returned Montreal native Patrice Brisebois to their backline. The wild card in Hab-land is the development of their younger players led by Long Island natives Chris Higgins and Mike Komisarek as well as, Andrei Kostitsyn, Guillaume Latendresse, Maxim Lapierre, and Tomas Plekanec. If they continue their development and take big strides, we believe the Canadians can surprise. In goal, the team seems set. Having jettisoned disappointing David Aebischer, prized prospect Carey Price is waiting in the wings should Cristobal Huet falter.
- Tampa- 94 We may finally see John Tortorella burst that gasket he always seems so close to blowing when his team fails to execute. They barely got into the post season last year, and we see no significant upgrades so it will again be a battle that they may fall short of this time around. They went into last season unsettled in net, and they did nothing to change that. That most of all is why we don't see them in the big dance in April, and the inevitable rumors that one of their big three will be traded.
- Atlanta- 92 Many see their first entry into the post season last year as a stepping stone. We do not. Their failure, and the manner in which they were dismantled may carry over, especially in goal where Kiprusoff wanna-be, Kari Lehtonen had his confidence shattered by coach Hartley with an early yank in their dreadful series. Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk needs to step up his game, and Marian Hossa needs to forget about the playoffs where he wasn't even the best Hossa on the ice. We can see them stumbling out of the gate and falling short of the post season.
- New Jersey 91 Yes, yes, we know we predicted their demise this time last year and were proven wrong, but if not for a Hart/Vezina-like season from Brodeur they would have been in bad shape. Marty may be one of the best ever, but he's not superhuman, and even a slight decline this season combined with the lost offense(Gomez/Rafalski) could be enough to have the boys from Newark(Geez thats difficult to say!) sitting home in April
- Boston 88 Chiarelli hopes to have fixed what was an obvious problem for his team last year with the acquisition of netminder Manny Fernandez. The B's seem to have a new starter every year. Perhaps Manny will finally solidify this problem position for them. We're not convinced. He was inconsistent after being handed the No. 1 job in Minnesota last year, losing that role to newcomer, Backstrom. Some have said that their relatively quiet off-season will allow the team to come together. They may be better than last year, but, this doesn't quite look like a playoff team to us.
- Florida 86 Prognosticators like to point to new comer goalie Tomas Vokoun as the key to the Panthers making the playoffs. They fail to look at their starter last year, Ed Belfour, and see he actually had a good year. We don't see Tomas therefore as an upgrade. Up front,their captain Olli Jokinen is one the game's most underrated centres. Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss could be ready for break-out years. The blue-line depth is thin after Jay Bouwmeester, Mike Van Ryn and Ruslan Salei. Overall, we see the Panthers no better or worse than last year, and not playing come mid April
- Washington 83 While many especially in the Belt-way believe this team is ready to compete for a playoff spot we're not yet sold on that. Too many question marks to make that a safe bet. Can a 19 year old shy rookie be the answer to their center problems? Is Semin for real or was last year an aberration,etc.? Their defense should be better with maturation and the addition of Poti, but Kolzig is getting long in the tooth, and if he goes down for any stretch, the team will falter significantly. An improved version from last go around to be sure, but this is not yet a playoff calibre team.
- Islanders- 80. While many of our Islander supporters won't be happy with this prediction, and those same folks will undoubtedly point to us missing the mark with Nolan's team last season, we were not too impressed with their off season. Way too many question marks going in to the season. One area where there is no question is between the pipes, where DiPietro has become a top 10 goalie. If his predilection for injuries continue though it will be a long season in Uniondale. If this team makes the playoffs Nolan has done the job of a magician and hopefully would be recognized for his efforts with an Adams win, if not nomination. Unlike last years obvious snub!
4) Those numbers are of course assuming no major injuries to key players which is always the unknown going in. We welcome our readers who don't have their own blogs to offer up their own predictions. get 'on the record' so we can all laugh at how badly we did next April! LOL
Look for our West Conference Predictions upcoming Wednesday, followed by our preseason playoff/Cup champ predictions by the weekend. As always, keep it here for the latest!!