Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals finished 18 points ahead of the next-best East team last season, but lost in the first round of the playoffs to Montreal. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)
Sometimes, when I feel as if I haven’t been sufficiently denigrated (or had my mom’s marriage status at the time of my birth questioned) by denizens of cyberspace, I remind myself, “Proteau, hang tight for a few more days/weeks/months, because soon enough, it’ll be pre-season prediction time.”
Lo and behold, that time has arrived. As always, these predictions are mine and mine alone (i.e., they shouldn’t be confused with THN’s official predictions made in our Yearbook). They reflect the expectations I have for each franchise, after talking with NHL GMs, players, coaches and scouts.
Furthermore, in no way am I suggesting that any team isn’t capable of surpassing, or falling below those expectations. Finally, please understand that these picks are meant as fodder for debate. I don’t believe any member of your family, nuclear or extended, wears Army boots, so do some lightening up before you read on.
(Eastern Conference this week; West next Thursday.)
Everybody understands the Capitals have the talent, speed and coaching to dominate – at least, during the regular season. However, after last year’s sheet-soiling playoff exercise against the Montreal Canadiens (OK, against Jaroslav Halak), they’ve officially entered San Jose Sharks territory – the place where nothing you do as a team during the regular season really matters to anyone anymore. Let’s see how that pressure sits with O(vechkin) & Co. between now and mid-April.
I know, I know, the Bruins were a big-time letdown for many people last year. But have a gander at their depth – especially at forward – and tell me they shouldn’t be favored to win the Northeast Division and challenge for top spot in the East. They’ve got so many talented players with something to prove – most notably, Nathan Horton, Tyler Seguin, Marc Savard, Milan Lucic and both Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask – that the pressure on any one player shouldn’t be a problem.
Well, it was a real toss-up here for me between the Penguins and Flyers for the pilot’s position in the Atlantic. In the end, I think the additions of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to the Pens blueline corps will have more of an impact than any player Philadelphia added this summer. And remember – the 2009-10 Penguins finished with six more wins than that Flyers squad.
Let’s face it – the Flyers squeaked into the playoffs largely because of a certain New York Rangers coach and his choice of shootout participants. Now, that doesn’t mean Philly didn’t have the talent to finish much higher than they eventually did. But when your two biggest off-season acquisitions – Nik Zherdev and Andrej Meszaros – weren’t being hotly (or even tepidly) pursued by the rest of the league, the chance you keep pace with your intra-state rivals isn’t a good one.
As I’ve said for the past few years, betting against the Devils (and on their seemingly inevitable decline) is akin to betting against the house in Vegas: sure, eventually the odds will reward you, but you’ll have a lot of losing to do before then. Whether or not Ilya Kovalchuk landed there, the Devils always seem to find a way to get all players drinking the Lou Juice and securing a playoff spot – and I’d imagine this season is no different.
That’s right, sixth. Test me for performance-inhibiting substances if you must, but I believe in (a) their GM; (b) their new goaltender; (c) their coach; and (d) their astounding talent on the top two forward lines. Don’t let me down, (a), (b), (c) or (d).
The seventh seed is actually higher than we had the Canadiens in our Yearbook (they were eighth). To hedge my bet here, though, I’ll say I wouldn’t be completely shocked if the Habs also missed the post-season by a slim points margin. They’ll require all hands on deck to consistently compete, but if Carey Price doesn’t go bananas (or, just as likely, Koo Koo Bananas, if you get my drift) as the clear-cut No. 1 goalie, Montreal should be respectable.
The Canes are another team I think has the wherewithal and top-end offensive talent to carry them to a playoff berth – and the second half of last season proved it. That said, I’d imagine coach Paul Maurice’s charges need to put pedal to metal from the start of the season on; that so-so defense corps might not hold up for the entire campaign.
Listen, incensed Senators fans: I know it can’t be fun seeing your beloved team slotted here. But as GM Bryan Murray said, I think the underdog role is an ideal place for the Sens to be; the complacency that can come with being regarded as a surefire contender won’t be there for this team and I think good guys like Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips will benefit from a little added fire and desperation in their bellies. The line between playoffs and draft lottery is as thin for this franchise as any in the league.
I really wish I could find something to be happy about in terms of the Sabres’ off-season. I can’t, though – not when Rob Niedermayer was their most notable addition and not when Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman’s departures from the defense corps was filled by the oft-traveled Jordan Leopold. If Ryan Miller can repeat his MVP-worthy performance from last year and almost single-handedly drag Buffalo into the playoffs, he might be able to win “America’s Got Talent” without appearing on that show.
The Leafs are another team I can see contending for a lower playoff seed. Based on their, um, interesting group of forwards, they’ll likely have to do so winning a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games. But I do like their blueline and their goaltending enough to picture those two Hefty-Hefty-Hefty units carrying the Wimpy-Wimpy-Wimpy scorers and being right in the post-season mix until the end of the regular season.
Don’t get me wrong, I think GM Rick Dudley may have had the best off-season of any NHL GM. Bringing in as many big, ornery players as he did – as well as hiring one of the league’s best teaching coaches in Craig Ramsay – should pay immediate dividends for the Thrashers. Still, I can’t put much stock in those potential results until I actually see it.
Ah, the Rangers – a franchise I’m regularly accused of loathing. It isn’t true, but that doesn’t mean I can convince myself a team that brought in notorious non-difference-makers Alexander Frolov and Derek Boogaard will somehow have its fortunes boosted by them. Martin Biron is an upgrade behind Henrik Lundqvist; what isn’t clear at all is whether a team that was softer than melted pudding last year has suddenly grown a heart.
Ah, the Islanders – a team I’m regularly accused of not giving enough credit to. It isn’t true – and their third consecutive fifth-place finish in the Atlantic bears out my cynicism. In a league where the Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche can come out of nowhere to make the playoffs, no one can count out the Isles with complete confidence. But sooner or later, their core group of players will have to break through or else they’ll be in the same situation as my pick for 15th was last year.
Panthers fans have rightful cause for being optimistic about their franchise. But to be optimistic about this hodge-podge of veterans (most of whom are, if not over the hill, then at the top of it looking down) and still-blossoming youngsters is to be optimistic to an unrealistic degree. Godspeed, Dale Tallon.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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