If you stopped by the site earlier this week you saw that I posted my NHL Western Conference Power Rankings going into the 2010-11 season. I meant to give the Eastern Conference the same treatment sooner, but as usual, life interfered. I finally got around to finishing up my predictions for the East, so without further ado, here are my 2010-11 NHL Power Rankings for the Eastern Conference:
15 – New York Islanders
Long gone are the glory days of Al Arbour’s dynastic New York Islanders. Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin and Billy Smith have long since retired, and the franchise has never been the same since they left Long Island. The drafting of John Tavares last year with the #1 overall pick generated some much-needed buzz around the club, but as good as he will one day be he cannot carry this franchise on his back just yet. Goaltender Rick DiPietro is back between the pipes, but after a long layoff due to injury it will likely take awhile for him to find his form. If the Isles didn’t have it tough enough serious injuries to #1 defenseman Mark Streit and up and coming forward Kyle Okposo in pre-season play have seriously hurt the club’s chances of challenging for a playoff spot. Instead, in my opinion, they will have their work cut out for them just staying out of the Eastern Conference cellar.
14 – Atlanta Thrashers
Though the Thrashers did benefit from the Chicago Blackhawks’ fire sale during the off-season, they are still far from a playoff contender. Following the departure of Ilya Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils the Thrashers are now a team that doesn’t boast a single star player, let alone a superstar. Nik Antropov, Niclas Bergfors, Evander Kane and Rich Peverley – hardly household names – will anchor the offense. On D the team looks a little more solid, with Tobias Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien (who also plays right wing), Ron Hainsey, Johnny Oduya and Zach Bogosian all highly capable blueliners. In net, Chris Mason will take the reins as #1, and though he has been consistently good throughout his career, he lacks the game-stealing capability of the NHL’s best keepers. Utlimately it will be a severe lack of offense that will cripple this team and keep them well out of next spring’s playoff race.
13 – Florida Panthers
Speaking of anemic offense, the Florida Panthers certainly fit that description. They were far from an offensive juggernaut to begin with and the loss of sniper Nathan Horton to the Boston Bruins won’t help matters in the goal scoring department. David Booth will be back in the line-up this season, but it remains to be seen how effective he will be following a devastating concussion he suffered last year after taking a brutal hit from Mike Richards of the Philadelphia Flyers. Booth’s offensive output will be supplemented by contributions fromveterans Cory Stillman, Radek Dvorak, Stephen Weiss and Steven Reinprecht, and youngster Michael Frolik will be looking to improve a solid campaign last year. On defenseman the picture is even bleaker. Bryan McCabe and newcomer Dennis Wideman will anchor the blueline, but after those two the depth chart dips alarmingly. The lone bright spot for the Panthers remains between the pipes, where they boast one of the league’s most underrated keepers in Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun put up stellar numbers last year, including a .925 save percentage and 7 shutouts. He’ll have to at least match those stats to give his team a shot of challenging for a playoff spot.
12 – Toronto Maple Leafs
Brian Burke may be slowly turning the ship around in hockey-mad Toronto, but his job of building a cup contender like he did with the Anaheim Ducks is a daunting task yet. Landing Kris Versteeg from the Blackhawks and Colby Armstrong, formerly of the Thrashers and Pittsburgh Penguins helped shore up their offense a little, but aside from sniper Phil Kessel this team doesn’t boast much in the way of offensive firepower. Though coach Ron Wilson’s offense might give him headaches this year, his blueline should help alleviate the pain. Toronto boasts one of the most solid defensive cores in the league now, with new captain Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, and young star Luke Schenn anchoring the back end. In net the Leafs should be better than in recent years, with J.S. Giguere providing a steady presence and back-up Jonas Gustavsson (AKA: The Monster) looking to improve upon a solid, if unspectacular, rookie campaign. Sorry Leafs fans, no post-season for your beloved Buds this year, but if Burke can rustle up some more offense, and keep his All Star blueline together the club has a bright future ahead.
11 – Ottawa Senators
What a difference a few years makes. It doesn’t seem like long ago that the Sens were perennial Stanley Cup contenders, consistently topping the 100 point plateau in the regular season and reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007. Since then they’ve seen several key players, including sniper Dany Heatley, leave town, and have had to readjust their goals from winning the Stanley Cup to simply making the playoffs. On the front end they will once again be led by captain Daniel Alfredsson, along with Jason Spezza, Alex Kovalev and Mike Fisher. On defense they made a pretty big splash in the free agent pool this past summer, landing prized blueliner Sergei Gonchar during the free agent feeding frenzy. Unfortunately, beyond the 36 year old Gonchar and Chris Phillips the team’s defensive core more closely resembles that of an AHL franchise, particularly with #3 man Filip Kuba out with long term injury. However, the Sens’ biggest problem is between the pipes. Pascal Leclaire showed flashes of brilliance during his time with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but is almost as injury-prone as Sami Salo of the Vancouver Canucks, and has yet to have a really healthy stretch in Ottawa to show what he can do. Backup Brian Elliott has been good when called upon, but his lack of experience as a true #1 is a concern should Leclaire get bitten by the injury bug again. If the tandem can provide solid goaltending this year, the Sens might challenge for a playoff spot.
10 – Carolina Hurricanes
Is there a more up and down franchise in the NHL than this one? If you read the Canes’ recent history like a stock chart the peaks and valleys would be enough to scare off even the boldest investor. Though the team boasts some of the game’s best players in Eric Staal and Cam Ward a lack of depth is their biggest downfall. Beyond Staal’s contributions the offensive production drops off precipitously, with players like Tuomo Ruutu, Erik Cole, Jussi Jokinen and Sergei Samsonov – who’d be third line role players on most other teams – expected to contribute as first and second line offensive weapons. The blueline is nothing to write home about either. With a top three that features Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason and Joe Corvo their depth on D suffers in comparison to most teams around the league. Staal and Ward will have to be at their absolute best for this team to reach the playoffs, and even if they do it is hard to imagine them surviving a 7 game series against any of the Eastern Conference superpowers.
9 – New York Rangers
Though he had a nice run with the Oilers in the 1980s it seems the wizardry of Glen Sather has long since fizzled out. The Rangers GM has struggled mightily in a post-salary cap era, and a string of bizarre signings has left the team too financially handicapped to compete with the best teams in the East. Recently veteran defenseman Wade Redden – another Sather signing gaff – was assigned to the Hartford Wolfpack of the AHL to free up cap space. Unfortunately for the Rangers they are still on the hook for Redden’s 6.5 million dollar annual salary, for four more years! The two keys to the Rangers success will be goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and superstar Slovakian forward Marian Gaborik. Lundqvist will need to be magical and Gaborik will need to stay healthy all season – a rare feat for him – if the Rangers are going to challenge for the 8th and final playoff spot in the East.
8 – Montreal Canadiens
Despite the fact that the Habs made it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals last year before bowing out to the Philadelphia Flyers I have a hard time picking them to finish any better than eighth place this go-around. You have to remember they barely squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed last year, and it was mainly the goaltending brilliance of Jaroslav Halak – since traded to the St. Louis Blues – that was the reason for their Cinderella run. However, the return of Andrei Markov – one of the NHL’s most underrated defensemen –, the maturation of P.K. Subban, and another year for Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta to build chemistry does give reason for optimism. If Carey Price can avoid crumbling under the immense pressure of playing in Montreal, and can recapture the brilliance he showed in his rookie campaign this team could surprise many naysayers around the league.
7 – Tampa Bay Lightning
The Steve Yzerman era begins in Tampa Bay, and I believe the Lightning will reach the playoffs under their new Hall of Fame manager. The Lightning boast a forward core that is the envy of most of the league. Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis have been one of the most dangerous hockey duos for years now, and Steve Stamkos, co-winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy last year, has swiftly emerged as one of the best snipers in the league. The addition of Simon Gagne certainly doesn’t hurt either, and superpest Steve Downie showed last year that he has a fair bit of offensive flash to go along with his grit. On D the additions of Pavel Kubina and Brett Clark will be a big boost, and former 2nd overall pick Victor Hedman should improve. In goal Dan Ellis brings some depth to the position. Ellis is capable of taking over the #1 spot should Mike Smith falter. Overall there is a lot for Lightning fans to be excited about, and if they start firing on all cylinders this club could finish significantly higher than the seventh spot I’ve pegged them at.
6 – Buffalo Sabres
When you look at the Sabres roster the phrase, “playoff contender” probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, at least before you reach Ryan Miller’s name. The defending Vezina Trophy winner was brilliant for the Sabres last season, and if he can duplicate that performance the Sabres should comfortably secure a playoff spot. Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers will anchor the blueline, and after packing on 15 pounds of muscle in the off-season will be even more intimidating to opposing forwards than he was in his rookie campaign. Up front the offense will be by committee, as has been the case for years in Buffalo. Coach Lindy Ruff will squeeze a surprising amount out of Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Tim Connolly, Derek Roy and crew, and they will score just enough goals in front of Ryan Miller’s stingy goaltending to win those all-important tight games.
5 – Philadelphia Flyers
Though they reached the Stanley Cup Finals last spring before bowing out to the Chicago Blackhawks the Philadelphia Flyers still haven’t addressed their main problem: goaltending. The duo of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher is certainly amongst the weakest in the league, and with Leighton out for at least a month with injury now, the uncertainty between the pipes is even more pronounced. However, despite their goaltending woes, with a roster that boasts Chris Pronger, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere, Claude Giroux and Kimmo Timonen the Flyers certainly should have no problems reaching the post-season. If they can find a bona fide number one goalie, or Leighton or Boucher plays well beyond expectations Philly fans could see their beloved Flyers again challenging for the cup come next spring.
4 – Pittsburgh Penguins
Stanley Cup finalists in 2008 and champions in 2009 the Penguins – after a disappointing quarter-final loss to the Canadiens in 2010 – will be anxious to get another shot at Lord Stanley’s mug next spring. However, they will have their work cut out for them. The Pens once again boast the biggest one-two punch in the league in the superstar pairing of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Jordan Staal is currently out with an infected foot, but when he returns will again be a force as one of the best two-way forwards in the league. The Pens will sorely miss the presence of Russian defenseman Sergei Gonchar on the powerplay, and Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang will have to step up and try and fill the big skates of Gonchar both with the man advantage and at regular strength. The Pens also made a couple of interesting acquisitions in the off-season, landing Paul Martin, formerly of the New Jersey Devils, and the well-traveled Mike Comrie. In net, Marc-Andre Fleury will once again be “the guy”. If Fleury plays his very best then the Pens have a shot of challenging the mighty Capitals for the title of best in the East.
3 – Boston Bruins
Despite the bad news that Marc Savard is out indefinitely with post-concussion syndrome I think the Boston Bruins still have plenty of reason to be optimistic this season. The addition of Nathan Horton from the Florida Panthers should provide a big offensive boost, and should #2 overall draft pick Tyler Seguin crack the line-up then the absence of Savard in the middle won’t be so keenly felt. Hulking winger Milan Lucic – who many feel has the potential to be another Cam Neely – will return to the lineup full time as well, after an injury-riddled campaign that saw him miss most of last season. On D the Bruins will again rely heavily on Zdeno Chara. The former Norris Trophy winner is a force at both ends of the ice, and is an absolute nightmare for opposing forwards. And in net the B’s boast one of the league’s best tandems in youngster Tuukka Rask and former Vezina winner Tim Thomas. If Rask can equal his incredible campaign of a year ago he should help the Bruins challenge the Devils, Penguins and Caps for the Eastern Conference title.
2 – New Jersey Devils
After an off-season soap opera surrounding the signing of superstar Russian winger Ilya Kovalchuk the Devils are ready to put that behind them and get down to business. With the addition of Kovalchuk and of Jason Arnott – formerly of the Nashville Predators – the Devils, always known as a stalwart defensive team, suddenly find themselves with one of the deadliest offensive squads in the league. Zach Parise is already a superstar and with Kovalchuk’s presence taking focus off him, could threaten the 100 point plateau. With Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac , Jamie Langenbrunner and Brian Rolston providing support the Devils should have no trouble scoring goals this season. One the blueline newly acquired shot-blocking machine Anton Volchenkov will lead the way, and should help 4-time Vezina Trophy winner Martin Brodeur post even stingier numbers than usual. As long as the Kovalchuk drama hasn’t upset the apple cart too much the Devils should be a force to be reckoned with in the East from wire to wire.
1 – Washington Capitals
Is this finally the Capitals year? The club is loaded with stars like Alexander Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom. This core of players led the Caps to the President’s Trophy last year, and a year older and a year hungrier there is little reason to believe they can’t repeat the feat this season. Ovechkin will once again be the key. The captain should again challenge for the Art Ross, Hart and Rocket Richard Trophies. The biggest question for the Caps is in goal, where Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Dany Sabourin will share duties. Varlamov should be #1 throughout the season, but with only 32 NHL games under his belt experience is a big concern. Even if their goaltenders struggle Washington’s offense is powerful enough that they should cruise to first place in the conference during the regular season. The playoffs, however, could be another story…