Okay, the other day I put together my rankings and 2009-10 NHL season predictions for the Western Conference. I managed to get that one in under the wire before the puck drop October 1st. However, I have been pretty busy watching, listening to, reading about, and basically living hockey for the past few days so I am a few days behind on getting my Eastern Conference preview up. Sorry 'bout that.
Keep in mind that these rankings don't necessarily reflect how I expect the actually standings to wind up. The NHL's silly rule that division winners are automatically ranked in the top 3 in the conference will mess with the standings. This list simply ranks the teams from best to worst (in my opinion). Without further ado, here are my NHL Eastern Conference power rankings.
Though it may come to a surprise to some to find the Capitals ranked at the top of the heap I believe this is the year that Alexander Ovechkin will really establish himself as a true leader. He has been an NHL superstar since game one of his rookie season, and no one can question his desire to win. However, I think that watching Sidney Crosby lead his team to a Stanley Cup victory last season has taught Ovechkin that it will take more than his incredible individual skill to capture hockey's ultimate prize. I think he will be a better leader both on and off the ice, and he will elevate the intensity and will to win of fellow stars like Mike Green, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom.
The one big question for Washington is their goaltending. If Semyon Varlamov can live up to the potential that he showed in last year's playoffs this Washington team will really be a force to be reckoned with and has to be considered one of the most dangerous Stanley Cup contenders.
The team that was the "Beast of the East" last season slips to number 2 in the rankings in my mind. Not necessarily because they are any worse, just that I think Washington will improve significantly. However, the Boston Bruins had a lot of things go right last season, including an incredible year by goaltender Tim Thomas and unexpected contributions from guys like David Krejci and Blake Wheeler. If Thomas can duplicate his Vezina Trophy winning season, Zdeno Chara can continue to be a force at both ends of the ice and their young players like Milan Lucic, Krejci, and Wheeler can continue to improve the Bruins will once again be a handful for any team that matches up against them.
The loss of budding star Phil Kessel is an area of concern for Bruins fans. He led the team in goals last year with 36. However with a healthy Marco Sturm, and with Patrice Bergeron fully recovered from the devastating concussion he suffered a few years back the loss of Kessel might be insignificant.
In my mind there really isn't anything to choose between the Flyers and the team I have ranked 4th (spoiler: It's the Penguins), and the two could easily be reversed. I do believe the Flyers will be significantly improved from last year, for several reasons.
First and foremost in the acquisition of former Norris and Hart Trophy winning defenseman, Chris Pronger. Yes, Pronger is on the downslope of his impressive career, but he is still one of the league's premier rearguards, is a physical force, and plays huge minutes in all situations. Between Pronger, Kimmo Timmonen, and up and coming star Braydon Coburn the Flyers are solid on the back end.
Up front they are looking just as good. Their young stars like Mike Richards and Jeff Carter will be even better this season, and established stars like Simon Gagne and Daniel Briere will give the Flyers plenty of offensive depth that will give opposing coaches nightmares if they try to match lines.
The big question mark, as it always seems to be with the Flyers, is in goal. The off-season acquisition of Ray Emery did little to ease the minds of frustrated Flyers fans, who've been waiting since the days of Ron Hextall for the team to acquire a bona fide star goaltender. However, Emery has taken a team to the Stanley Cup Finals in the past, and he has the skill set to get the job done. His problems tend to be of the off-ice variety and it remains to be seen if he can focus on the job at hand without being a distraction for his teammates.
There is little question that the top half of the Eastern Conference standings will be a logjam, and any of the 4 teams I've listed so far could finish on top. The Pittsburgh Penguins are of course the defending Stanley Cup champions, and boast not one, but two of the game's biggest superstars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Both of these guys will be in a battle with Ovechkin for the Hart and Art Ross trophies this season.
With a supporting cast that includes Jordan Staal, Sergei Gonchar, Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz the Pens have plenty of firepower and should have no problem putting the puck in the net. Scoring has never really been the issue in Pittsburgh though. When they've stumbled the past few years it has always been the inability to keep the puck out of their own net that was the cause.
With his clutch performance in game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals last year, Marc-Andre Fleury has almost certainly banished any demons that had been haunting him since the early days of his career. He is arguably the most athletic goalie in the league, and with some structure and better positional play he has matured into one of the NHL's premier goalkeepers. As long as there is no backslide to his game this season the Pens have to be considered a strong threat to repeat as Stanley Cup champs.
With Martin Brodeur between the pipes the Devils are going to be a threat each and every night. With the most regular season wins in NHL history, Terry Sawchuk's record for career shutouts firmly in his sights, 3 Stanley Cup rings and 4 Vezina Trophies on his mantle Brodeur is making a strong case as the best goalie of all time. However, no matter how good a goalie is he needs some help and though the Devils might not be the most offensive talented teams on this list, stars like Zach Parise, Patrick Elias, Travis Zajac, and Brian Rolston the Devils should score enough goals to squeak out plenty of victories this season.
With the return of defensive guru Jacques Lemaire as their head coach the Devils should be even more adept than usual at keeping the puck out of their net. Look for Brodeur to have a stellar statistical season this year.