Mike Richards will try and captain the Flyers to an Eastern Conference championship this season. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
"I confess that in 1901, I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for 50 years…Ever since, I have distrusted myself and avoided all predictions." – Wilbur Wright, co-inventor of air travel
Like Wilbur, I also have a fair amount of self-distrust going on – usually, when certain alcoholic drinks are blended into my bloodstream with other certain alcoholic drinks.
Much as I’d prefer to, though, I can’t avoid predictions. Goes with the gig. And anyway, it’s become something of a guilty pleasure to watch readers completely wig out and wish multiple plagues upon me after reading something into a passage I likely never intended when I wrote it in the first place.
Before I reveal my pre-season selections for the Eastern Conference (Western Conference picks can be found HERE) – which include an optimistic and cynical assessment of each team’s fortunes –a quick note: these are my selections, arrived at by me and me alone. They therefore do not necessarily represent the picks/views of The Hockey News magazine, other THN staffers, Transcontinental Media Inc. (THN’s parent company), city of Toronto, province of Ontario, country of Canada, other signatories of the North American Free Trade agreement, or Gary Bettman. But if those people/entities are smart, they do.
1. Philadelphia Flyers
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: Hey, I’m as shocked as anyone that I’m picking the Flyers to win the conference – especially now that J-S Aubin will serve as Martin Biron’s backup in net until Antero Niittymaki is healthy. But look through that lineup and tell me there’s a weakness discernable to the naked eye. I can’t see it, which is why Philly should be able to sneak past a Penguins squad with more superstars, but also less depth.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: I repeat: J-S Aubin will serve as Martin Biron’s backup in net until Antero Niittymaki is healthy. Do you know the last two teams Aubin played for? That’s right, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings. The prosecution rests.
2. Montreal Canadiens
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: While I work diligently with my team of attorneys to get my 2007-08 pre-season prediction for the Habs permanently sealed in the name of national security, allow me to sing the praises of this year’s edition: They’re fast, super-skilled, smart in their own zone and plutonium-level deadly with the man advantage. Still not completely convinced they’re built for the playoffs, but this is no one-year wonder we’re dealing with here.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: For a team that needed a serious grit infusion last year, Georges Laraque may not be the entire answer. Also, will the white-hot hoopla of the Canadiens’ 100-year anniversary serve as motivation, or distraction?
3. Washington Capitals
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: My man-crush on Alex Ovechkin isn’t a secret. However, there’s no shortage of Caps-related things to get all gushy about after the reigning league MVP: from “Slick” Nick Backstrom to Mike “Always Bet On” Green to Alexander “No, It Rhymes With ‘Em’” Semin, Washington GM George McPhee has done his owner proud and built a surefire contender until at least the next U.S. presidential race.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: Jose Theodore might deserve two minutes for lookin’ so good, but he also could be assessed a Chris-Simonesque-suspension for his consistent inconsistencies over the previous five seasons of his career. If he can’t get it done for Bruce Boudreau, the next best option – Brent Johnson and his career .902 save percentage – doesn’t inspire an appropriate amount of confidence.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: Having Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury on your team means never having to say you’re (a) sorry (excuse for an NHL team). Sure, Marian Hossa, Gary Roberts, Ryan Malone, Jarkko Ruutu and others are gone, but I can guarantee you just about every GM in the game would still swap rosters with Pittsburgh.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: As recently as early September, I was prepared to anoint the Pens as my No. 1 pick in the East. This, in spite of numerous personnel changes, as well as a serious injury suffered by top defenseman Ryan Whitney. But I gave up after Sergei Gonchar’s shoulder was dislocated from the rest of him in a pre-season game. They’ll still go far, but it’ll take a lot more out of them to get there than it would have were all their hands on deck.
5. New Jersey Devils
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: I’m not going to pretend to know how the Devils stay in contention year after year when other franchises can’t get it right once in a decade. Maybe there’s a voodoo element to it. Maybe there’s a hidden section of the farmer’s almanac only New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello knows to look out for. Whatever the explanation, I’ve had it with picking them to finish outside of the playoffs, only to watch them make it. So I’m picking them to make it. My apologies in advance to people who see the previous two sentences as a clear indication the Devils’ 11-year streak of post-season appearances will end this April.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: If this organization rode Martin Brodeur any harder, they’d need to first clear it with PETA. And few teams are as willing to drop the guillotine on their coach as the Devils; ask not for whom the bell tolls, Brent Sutter…
6. Boston Bruins
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: For Bruins fans accustomed to watching their team stumble and bumble enough over the past decade to qualify as a vintage Peter Sellers comedy, the team’s lunch-bucket, blood-‘n’-guts effort in ’07-08 was a welcome change. Coach Claude Julien and his burgeoning charges will prove it was no fluke.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: I’ve riffed enough on Michael Ryder’s logic-defying contract this off-season, so instead I’ll point out the fact only three Bruins amassed 40 points or more last year. Defense can win you a lot of playoff games, but as the Canadiens demonstrated against Boston in the first round, offense can get you some crucial ‘W’s, too.
7. Tampa Bay Lightning
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: The Bolts’ new owners gave the on-ice roster a makeover this summer that would put Tyra Banks and her merry band of vapid next top models to shame. And really, after the singular disaster that befell Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St-Louis last season, who can blame them? They still need Mike Smith to come through for them in goal if any of the other moves are to pay off, but Andy Moog, Smith’s former goalie coach in Dallas, thinks he’s ready for prime time. So do I.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: When your defense was the worst in the league as Tampa’s was last year, there’s really nowhere to go but up. Or is there? The Lightning’s still-developing defense corps may put that theory to its biggest test.
8. Buffalo Sabres
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: The Sabres finished four points out of the 2008 playoffs, thanks in part to a lukewarm showing by goalie Ryan Miller, as well as off-years from Maxim Afinogenov and Tim Connolly, both of whom are playing in the final year of their contracts. All it should take is a better performance from one or more of those three, plus tighter play from their blueliners, and Buffalo should be back on the playoff scene.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: About that defense – not quite the second coming of the 1978-79 Montreal Canadiens, are they? Also troubling, considering some of the Sabres’ more recent salary-related departures, is the prospect of losing another top talent to the annual summer bidding wars. For that reason, Afinogenov or Connolly could be dealt midway through the year, adding another potentially sorry chapter to a book Buffalonians have grown weary with.
9. Ottawa Senators
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: Jason Spezza + Daniel Alfredsson + Dany Heatley = Lots of goals. Even better: this guy has been banned from Scotiabank Place for good.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: I understand there are Sens fans out there who will look at any prediction that puts their team out of the playoffs, raise the back of their hand to their forehead, and steady themselves with their free hand in an effort not to faint. To them I say: After a sterling 15-0-2 start to the ’07-08 season, Ottawa went 28-29-8 the rest of the way, then folded like a jittery poker coward in the first round of the post-season. You really think it’s a gargantuan stretch to imagine them falling two places in the standings?
10. Florida Panthers
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: Did any goalie duo in the league last season do as quietly excellent of a job as Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson? Not if their NHL-best .922 combined save percentage is any indication. And they should be all the more stingy now that GM Jacques Martin has put one of the East’s best collection of defenders to protect them.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: The Panthers ranked 20th overall in offense last season – and addressed that issue by bringing in…er, Cory Stillman? There’s no doubt he’ll contribute, but if he’s the sum total of your additions up front, what you’re really saying is you’re depending on a more or less identical forward unit. Again. I’m sorry, but until Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and Jay Bouwmeester step up and drag this team into the playoffs, they don’t get the benefit of the doubt.
11. New York Rangers
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: Perhaps new faces Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev and Wade Redden will prove their efforts last season were pockmarks on the face of their careers. And perhaps rookie winger Lauri Korpikoski will make fools of those who mistook him for being one of Richie Cunningham’s girlfriends on Happy Days.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: If Brendan Shanahan doesn’t return to the Blueshirts, that’ll be 10 members of last year’s team jettisoned in favor of new faces; that won’t make for the most cohesive unit right out of the blocks. Should Zherdev continue his current career trajectory, he’ll soon arrive at the ‘Boots’ del Biaggio level of fraud-dom. And welcomed into the NHL ownership community shortly thereafter.
12. Carolina Hurricanes
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: Producing goals wasn’t the Canes’ problem last year and likely won’t be this year, even without the injured Justin Williams and departed Erik Cole. Meanwhile, provided he can stay healthy, Joni Pitkanen gives them their best long-term solution on defense since Glen Wesley was acquired from the Bruins in the mid-90s.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: Even with Pitkanen on board, Carolina’s defense is about as small, soft and injury-prone as it ever was. As well, with Peter Laviolette’s name bandied about as one of the first coaches on the chopping block, the pressure to produce could have Carolina’s players squeezing their sticks throughout the season. With a trio of up-and-coming Southeast Division teams (see above) bound to bear down on them, that internal and external pressure could be enough to knock them further down the Southeast’s pecking order.
13. New York Islanders
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: After many before him had failed, Islanders GM Garth Snow convinced owner Charles Wang to build the organization with patience, which is exactly what will be needed while youngsters such as Kyle Okposo and Ben Walter find their NHL legs.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: No NHL team scored fewer goals last season than the Isles; Streit and Weight (which sounds not unlike a high school abstinence program) will help somewhat in that regard, but not nearly enough.
14. Toronto Maple Leafs
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: Toronto’s defense corps actually is one of the better ones in the Eastern Conference. Vesa Toskala doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody anymore. In addition, watching new coach Ron Wilson interact daily with swarms of swarthy local media should be more fun than Leafs games themselves.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: The only way there could be less offense generated by the forward unit is if they took away their sticks. And don’t think that notion won’t cross Wilson’s mind at many points this year.
15. Atlanta Thrashers
Always-Look-On-The-Bright-Side Adam Says: New coach John Anderson never has helmed a losing team in the 13 years he’s been a professional bench boss.
Always-Assume-The-Worst Adam Says: Where to begin? The fact no team took fewer or allowed more shots last year than the Thrashers, who essentially didn’t change for this season? The fact a franchise that finished in the bottom third of the league in offense, defense, power play and penalty kill in ’07-08 added only Jason Williams, Marty Reasoner and Junior Lessard to their forwards, and former waiver wire-rider Ron Hainsey to their defense? The fact Colby Armstrong is their top right winger?
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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