2012 NHL Season Preview: Eastern Conference

 

Washington's FA steal: Tomas Vokoun

Relevant links:

Comprehensive NHL Season Preview

Western Conference Contenders Preview

There are a number of good teams in the NHL today; in fact, there are so many that you’ll often hear analysts say that you can’t rule anyone out. Once the playoffs begin, anything can happen. They point to Philadelphia’s 2010 run to the finals and Edmonton’s in 2006 (both from 8th place), as evidence that the road to NHL glory is sudden and unpredictable.

But with the exception of 2006 (unpredictable after a year’s layoff), that’s not true. Each year, there are a handful of teams – perhaps as few as 4 – with true cup potential. I can’t tell you with any certainty which of them will win the Stanley Cup, but I’m confident that I can narrow it down to a handful of eligible candidates. They are The Contenders.

Let’s begin in the East.

NOTES:

  • Key players are in bold
  • Players who are bolded and underlined are considered franchise players
  • Players in italics may be traded or otherwise not make the team

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Washington

While they have long been thought of as the most talented team in the league, most people agree that the Washington Capitals are finally the real deal. After another disappointing playoff loss, Caps GM George McPhee brought in quality veterans in Tomas Vokoun, Roman Hamrlik, and Jeff Halpern, and size and grit in Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer. Early reviews have him as GM of the year.

From top to bottom, their line-up may be the most impressive in the entire league. They have ample scoring from the likes of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Green, Laich, Brouwer, and others. They have six quality NHL defencemen who would play in many teams’ top-4. And they have an excellent Czech goalie tandem, led by a solid veteran and his talented young apprentice.

Here’s a projection of what their line-up might look like:

Head Coach: Bruce Boudreau

Forwards:

Ovechkin-BackstromBrouwer

Semin-Laich-Knuble

Chimera-JohanssonWard

Beagle-Halpern-Hendricks

King

Defencemen:

Green-Hamrlik

Carlson-Alzner

Wideman-Schultz

Erskine-Poti (IR)

Goaltenders: Vokoun-Neuvirth

2011 Regular Season: Division: 1st | Conference: 1st | Overall: 2nd

2011 Playoff Loss: 2nd round (Tampa Bay)

Significant additions: Vokoun, Hamrlik, Ward, Brouwer

Significant losses: None

Areas of Concern

Former long-time Cap Matt Bradley said what many have suspected for years when he called out Alex Semin for his lack of effort and indifferent attitude towards the game. Semin is a prolific talent with easily the best wrist shot in hockey, but he’s become known for his long bouts of inconsistency. Furthermore, another former Cap – Dave Steckel, agreed with the claim. (Though he didn’t add further comment). While the Caps are sure to light up the regular season again this coming year, they’ll need all hands on deck come playoff time if they’re to realize their potential. It’s possible that the Caps might actually be better off without Semin, but it would take a very gutsy move from McPhee to cast aside a player with such talent unless he can get a very good player in return.

Washington’s only current roster need is that of an established second line centre. Brooks Laich is a good two-way forward, but he’s better on the wing, and promising sophomore Marcus Johansson may need more time to ease into the role. The Caps have several young prospects to use as bait should they wish to address this at the trade deadline in late February.

2011-2012 Standings Projection: 1st in the South-East Division | 1st in the Eastern Conference

Playoff Projection: Stanley Cup Finalist

 

Buffalo

On February 22nd, 2011, billionaire Terry Pegula purchased the Buffalo Sabres. In so doing, he ushered in a new era for Buffalo hockey fans, which led to immediate results on the ice. The Sabres were sitting outside the playoff picture prior to the purchase, but went on a torrid run, going 16-4-4 to end the year in 7th place. Not only did Pegula bring fresh energy and a strong desire to win, but his financial backing allowed a perennial small market team to shed their budgetary constraints and spend more freely.

The Sabres carried all kinds of momentum into the off-season, signing two of free agency’s biggest prizes in defenceman Christian Ehrhoff and winger Ville Leino.  But their biggest acquisition was that of former Calgary defender Robyn Regehr, who will be the perfect defensive partner for franchise cornerstone Tyler Myers. The Sabres will also have #1 centre Derek Roy back and healthy this year after he missed over 50 games last year with a torn tendon in his left quadriceps.

Unlike the Caps, the Sabres don’t have many elite skaters on their roster. But for what they lack in top-end talent, they make up for with incredible depth. As it stands, they have capable offensive players on all four lines, and one of the best groups of defencemen in the league. And on top of all that, they have one of the top goaltenders in the world – 2009 Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller.

Head Coach: Lindy Ruff

Forwards:

Vanek-Roy-Pominville

Leino-Ennis-Stafford

Kotalik-Hecht-Boyes

GerbeGaustad-Kaleta

McCormick-Ellis

Defencemen:

Myers-Regehr

Ehrhoff-Leopold

Sekera-Weber

Gragnani-Morrisonn

Goaltenders: Miller-Enroth

2011 Regular Season: Division: 3rd | Conference: 7th | Overall: 15th

2011 Playoff Loss: 1st round (Philadelphia)

Significant Additions: Regehr, Ehrhoff, Leino, Roy (from IR)

Significant Losses: None

Areas of Concern

The only thing stopping the Sabres right now is time. Apart from Ryan Miller, their most important player is Tyler Myers, a young defenceman who may win a Norris Trophy one day. Fortunately for other teams, the 6’8 phenom is still just 21, and years away from his prime. Same thing with Tyler Ennis, a small, 22-year-old fireball who skates and handles the puck a lot like Patrick Kane. When these players mature, there may be no stopping the Sabres.

Also worthy of note – the Sabres are currently over the NHL salary cap by $3.5M. Candidates for departure include Brad Boyes ($4M), Jochen Hecht ($3.5M), Ales Kotalik ($3M), and Shaone Morrisonn ($2.1M).

Standings Projection: 1st in the North-East Division; 2nd in the Eastern Conference

Playoff Projection: Eastern Conference Finalist

Boston

Just prior to last season, not many people expected the Boston Bruins to win the Stanley Cup. Everyone knew they had great goaltending and solid defence, but their offence was in question. But Peter Chiarelli made an astute off-season acquisition, getting Nathan Horton from Florida, and Brad Marchand developed into an unexpected source of offence. He also added great depth at the deadline, adding Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly, and the rest is history. (Tomas Kaberle is purposely omitted, as his play was unimpressive through most of playoffs).

But apart from the Stanley Cup making its celebratory rounds across the country, it wasn’t the best off-season in Boston. Michael Ryder departed via free agency and Mark Recchi retired. Tomas Kaberle left for Carolina, replaced by Joe Corvo (ironically, from Carolina). Brad Marchand remains unsigned, apparently unhappy with the contract offers put forth to date. Almost all the key pieces are still in place, but losing that bit of depth may hurt as it was their depth that made them successful in the first place.

Forwards:

Head Coach: Claude Julien

Lucic-Krejci-Horton

Marchand-Bergeron-Seguin

Pouliot-Kelly-Peverley

Paille-Campbell-Thornton

Defencemen:

CharaBoychuk

Seidenberg-Corvo

Ference-McQuaid

Goaltenders: Thomas-Rask

2011 Regular Season: Division: 1st | Conference: 3rd | Overall: 7th

2011 Playoff Loss: Stanley Cup Champion

Significant Additions: Corvo

Significant Losses: Ryder, Recchi, Kaberle

Areas of Concern

The road to the Stanley Cup is long and gruelling, and usually takes its toll on a team the following year. The only Stanley Cup winner since 2006 who reached the finals the year after their victory is Detroit, who did so in 2009. Every other team lost in the 1st or 2nd round, and Carolina even missed the playoffs in 2007. I don’t think Boston will suffer as much as some teams of the past since they didn’t lose any key players to free agency, but I believe the long season and short summer will cause injuries which will hurt their chances come playoff time. And while they have kept their core together, the lost depth will magnify the effect of any injuries that do occur.

Standings Projection: 2nd in the North-East Division; 4th-5th in the Eastern Conference

Playoff Projection: 2nd round

Pittsburgh

The Penguins head into 2012 with a lot of uncertainty. No one knows how long Sidney Crosby’s concussion problems will keep him out of the line-up, (and that might include his own doctors), but I think it’s safe to assume that he’ll be in the press box come opening day. The news isn’t all bad, as Evgeni Malkin is back to full health after a knee injury hobbled him for most of last season.

Beyond the constant Crosby rumours, the off-season was pretty quiet in Pittsburgh. There were only two significant moves, as Max Talbot left via free agency, (joining their inter-state rival, Philadelphia), and Steve Sullivan was brought in to add scoring depth on the wing. Otherwise, the roster is virtually identical.

Head Coach: Dan Bylsma

Forwards:

Kunitz-MalkinSullivan

Neal-Staal-Kennedy

Dupuis-Letestu-Cooke

Jeffrey-Adams-Asham

IR: Crosby

Defencemen:

Letang-Orpik

Martin-Michalek

Engelland-Niskanen

Lovejoy

Goaltenders: Fleury-Johnson

2011 Regular Season: Division: 2nd | Conference: 4th | Overall: 4th

2011 Playoff Loss: 1st round (Tampa Bay)

Significant Additions: Sullivan, Malkin (from IR)

Significant Losses: Talbot

Areas of Concern

Until proven otherwise, the sun in Pittsburgh will rise and set on Sidney Crosby. Make no mistake, the Penguins are a good team without Crosby – they already proved that last year, finishing with 106 points despite losing he and Malkin for half the season. Fleury is an excellent goalie, their defence corps is well above average, and Dan Bylsma is an excellent coach. But they don’t have enough scoring to keep up with the very best teams. They could still win their division, but I don’t think they have any chance of winning the cup without Sid.

Standings Projection: Top-2 in the Atlantic Division; 3rd-6th in the Eastern Conference

Playoff Projection: 1st round sans Crosby; 1-2 rounds further if he’s fully healthy come playoff time

Philadelphia

The Flyers underwent the biggest off-season makeover of any team, dealing away star forward Jeff Carter, and their heart and soul, captain Mike Richards. Through these, and other related deals, they acquired #1 goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, talented youngsters Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn, and forward Wayne Simmonds. Then they made two unexpected free agent signings, acquiring former Pen Max Talbot, and former scoring champ Jaromir Jagr from Russia. If nothing else, it will be an interesting year in Philadelphia.

Head Coach: Peter Laviolette

Forwards:

Van Riemsdyk-Briere-Hartnell

VoracekGiroux-Jagr

Talbot-Schenn-Simmonds

Nodl-Betts-Shelley

Defencemen:

Pronger-Meszaros

Timonen-Coburn

Carle-Lilja

Bartulis

Goaltenders: Bryzgalov-Bobrovsky

2011 Regular Season: Division: 1st | Conference: 2nd | Overall: 3rd

2011 Playoff Loss: 2nd round (Boston)

Significant Additions: Bryzgalov, Jagr, Talbot, Simmonds, Schenn

Significant Losses: Richards, Carter

Areas of Concern

While the Flyers are still loaded with talent, there are two main questions with the roster. One obvious issue is chemistry –can a team which experienced so much turnover gel in time to make an impact this season? But the greater concern lies with the awkward mix of aging veterans and unproven youth on the roster. There’s no doubt that Jaromir Jagr was once great, but it’s hard to say how much he can produce at age 39, three years removed from his last NHL season. Chris Pronger’s age may be catching up with him too, as he suffered a number of injuries last season which limited his effectiveness. Meanwhile, youngsters like Voracek and Schenn have bright futures, but probably aren’t ready to contribute to a championship run just yet.

Standings Projection: Top-2 in the Atlantic Division; 3rd-6th in the Eastern Conference

Playoff Projection: *1st/2nd round

*If Crosby is healthy, Pittsburgh wins the division; Philadelphia finishes lower and loses first round. If Crosby is hurt for most of the year, Philadelphia will finish higher, face a weaker 1st round opponent, and make it to the second round

Tampa Bay

In May of 2010, new Lightning owner Jeff Vinik made the first, and best hockey move of his life, hiring Steve Yzerman as GM. Yzerman then hired the most sought after head coaching candidate at the time, the fiery motivator Guy Boucher. With these key management pieces in place, the Tampa Bay Lightning exceeded all expectations, playing a relentless attacking style that left them just one win away from the Stanley Cup final.

Unfortunately this past off-season wasn’t as inspiring. Forwards Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim left via free agency, and media outlets reported that winger Ryan Malone had shoulder surgery which will keep him out for several months. (Though Malone claims he’ll be ready for opening day). The only additions were goaltender Mathieu Garon, who will serve as back-up to Dwayne Roloson, and a few depth defenders.

Head Coach: Guy Boucher

Forwards:

PurcellLecavalierSt.Louis

Malone-StamkosDownie

Thompson-Moore-Tyrell

Pyatt- Hall-Jones

Ritola

Defencemen:

Brewer-Kubina

Hedman-Ohlund

Clark-Gilroy

Bergeron-Gervais

Goaltenders: Roloson-Garon

2011 Regular Season: Division: 2nd | Conference: 5th | Overall: 8th

2011 Playoff Loss: 3rd round (Boston)

Significant Additions: None

Significant Losses: Gagne, Bergenheim

Areas of Concern

With the departures of Gagne and Bergenheim, the Lightning are exposed up front should injury befall any of their top-6 forwards. And while they did add depth on the back-end, their defence pales in comparison to conference rivals like Washington, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. They’re still set up well for the future, but I can’t envision a scenario where they equal their playoff performance from last year.

Standings Projection: 2nd in the South-East; 5th-7th in the Eastern Conference

Playoff Projection: 1st round

 

New York

Apart from the Buffalo Sabres, the New York Rangers are the most improved team in the Eastern Conference. The addition of Brad Richards will increase Marian Gaborik’s production, but it may be even more important for another reason. Though he falls a bit under the radar, 21-year-old centre Derek Stepan is a star in the making. He showed flashes of brilliance in his debut last season, potting a hat-trick in his first NHL game. Playing behind Richards will take pressure off of Stepan and allow him to develop at his own pace. And if all that weren’t enough, it also allows Tortorella to spread his talent, forming a very good second line. With three time Vezina nominee Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes, the Rangers are definitely a team on the rise.

Head Coach: John Tortorella

Forwards:

WolskiRichards-Gaborik

Dubinsky-Stepan-Callahan

Anisimov-Boyle-Fedotenko

Avery-Christensen-Rupp

Prust

Defencemen:

Staal-Girardi

Sauer-McDonagh

Eminger-Del Zotto

Erixon

Goaltenders: Lundqvist-Biron

2011 Standings Placing: Division: 3rd | Conference: 8th | Overall: 16th

2011 Playoff Loss: 1st round (Washington)

Significant Additions: Richards

Significant Losses: None

Areas of Concern

Defence. There it is. The Rangers might have the youngest defence corps in the entire league, and that is never conducive to success, particularly in the playoffs. If rosters were fixed for the entire season, I wouldn’t have even included them in an article about ‘contenders’. However, should they play well during the regular season, Glen Sather might decide to add a few veterans at the trade deadline, making  the Rangers a true contender.

Standings Projection: 3rd in the Atlantic Division; 6th or 7th in the Eastern Conference

Playoff Projection: 1st round

 

———————————–

For their part, teams like Montreal and New Jersey are legitimate contenders for a playoff spot. However, I don’t think they have the potential to making a serious playoff run this year. As it stands, I don’t think Tampa Bay or New York do either, but I included them because they’re most of the way there, and could improve drastically by filling a few holes.

Tomorrow: The Western Conference contenders

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