As we stated in our recent New York Islander and Ranger previews, the NHL is coming off a solid 2008-09 season as network ratings were up, overall league attendance was up and the annual outdoor Winter Classic has caught fire and found a solid ratings home on New Year’s Day afternoon – despite the college football bowl bonanza that day is annually dedicated to.
For the 2009-10 season the buzz for the outdoor game has already started as the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers are scheduled for a frozen fight in historic Fenway Park. Exciting stuff for sure but we think the league should have saw to it that Alex Ovechkin and his Caps were the scheduled opponent – particularly after the commotion Ovie caused with his 2009 playoff heroics.
Other positive developments for the NHL heading into the new season include the fact the league now has strong franchises is some the nation’s biggest markets as Chicago, Boston and Philly now field legit Cup contenders and there’s even a solid young team brewing in LA – though still a few years away. If the New York Rangers can get their act together the network ratings can only continue to grow and perhaps a stronger TV partner than Versus will emerge.
The Winter Olympics take center stage February 16th. 2010 in Vancouver, B.C. and once again replace the annual NHL All Star game and skills competition. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has stated in the past that he’s not sure what the future holds for the NHL and the Winter Olympics but with the 2010 games being held in one of Canada’s crystal cities, that’s a topic that’s certainly off the table for now.
All that being said, the most interesting happenings continue to be those that occur when blades, sticks and pucks hit ice so let’s rundown the ‘09-10’ season with a peek at the suddenly powerful Eastern Conference (we’ll examine the Western Conference next week).
(Teams reviewed in predicted order of finish)
Repeat for Cup Carrying Pens?
After winning the third Stanley Cup in franchise history and the fist since Mario Lemieux led them to back-to-back titles in 1991-92, the Penguins essentially stood pat this off season. That’s likely to change as the season rolls along.
No club in the league is deeper up the middle than the Pens with Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin, Jordan Staal and Stanley Cup finals hero Maxime Talbot.
Still a little thin on the wings, expect GM Ray Shero to be shopping for help here as the season moves along. Late blooming Matt Cooke could finally have a break out season and veteran Petr Sykora will flirt, as always, with 30 goals but the drop off after this might be significant.
At 39, you have to wonder how much is left in the tank for Bill Guerin and the organization doesn’t have any real young guns waiting in the wings. Tyler Kennedy, at 23, could provide some much needed help here as he showed some promise with a 15 goal season last year.
With the departure of emerging star Rob Scuderi to Los Angeles and power play specialist Ryan Whitney to Anaheim, the Pens lost two of their best all-around defensemen and for a club that wasn’t that deep on the blueline to begin with the departure of these two anchors will have a major impact.
With veteran Sergei Gonchar set to begin his 15th year in the league and coming off a season plagued with shoulder and knee problems you have to wonder if his best years are behind him. Considering all this, the club has to be concerned about asking youngsters Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski to carry the load.
Between the Pipes
Marc-Andre Fleury certainly silenced the critics with his performance in both games 6 and 7 of the 2009 Cup Finals but those same critics are wondering if the Pens caught lightening in a bottle getting those remarkable games out of the heretofore wildly inconsistent Fleury. With Brent Johnson as their back-up, they better hope lightening strikes twice.
A Cup contender once again for sure, but a repeat will be a tall order in Steel Town this season.
Flyers Fearsome Again
If not for the unfortunate draw of running into (and getting KO’d by) the Penguins the last two years, the Philadelphia Flyers could have been playing for Lord Stanley’s Cup either one of the last two seasons. No team in the league is as deep as Philly is up front.
With Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Daniel Briere down the middle and the likes of Simon Gagne, Mike Hartnell and young Claude Giroux on the wings, putting the biscuit in the basket will be no trouble for this club. With speed, finesse and size, the Flyers match up well with any team in the league on offense.
Almost as deep is the Flyer blueline where newly acquired Chris Pronger joins veterans Kimmo Timonen, Derian Hatcher and Randy Jones. Add blossoming Matt Carle and rising star Braydon Coburn and Philly has the necessary size, speed and snarl needed for a long playoff run.
Between the Pipes
If there’s a problem in the City of Brotherly Love it could well be here in goal. The solid Martin Biron is gone and KHL (Russian League) exile Ray Emery is in. An upgrade? Not so sure and with journeyman Brian Boucher as backup you wonder what GM Paul Holmgren is thinking.
Will compete for the Atlantic Division title and are certainly a Cup threat with all that depth on D and up front but Emery and Boucher provide some doubt in the crease
New York Rangers
The Blueshirts have looked like a dangerous team at times the last few years but have always come up short when that big goal was needed. The coaching change from tight vested Tom Renney to the emotional John Tortorella has changed the culture on Broadway for sure – but for the better?
One of the lowest scoring clubs in the league last season, the Rangers addressed that weakness with the addition of free agent sniper Marion Gaborik. He’ll get help up the middle from either veteran Chris Drury or the emerging Brandon Dubinsky. Feisty winger Ryan Callahan might be poised for a big year as well. Chris Higgins should replace Scott Gomez, for whom he was traded, and the mayhem and muscle will come from returning Sean Avery and menacing Donald Brashear.
This is where it all falls apart for the Rangers as veterans Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival don’t inspire much confidence after sub-par seasons in 2008-09 and after budding superstar Marc Staal the Blue Shirts appear to be relying on several untested kids. If Bobby Sanguinetti and/or Hobey Baker Award winner Matt Gilroy aren’t ready, returning Dan Girardi will be asked to handle a heavy load.
Between the Pipes
The uber-consistent Henrik Lundqvist is back and will do his thing once again, stealing enough points to keep the Rangers in playoff contention once again.
Beyond that, GM Glen Sather has some work to do to get this group past the fist round.
New Jersey Devils
Devil in the Details
Is this the year it finally falls apart for brilliant GM Lou Lamoriello and the New Jersey Devils? Could be, as the departure of both Brian Gionta (Montreal) and John Madden (Chicago) along with the curious resignation of coach Brent Sutter (Calgary) would appear to have left the Devs reeling. The way they exited the fist round last season might have a lasting effect as well – remember – two goals in the last 80-seconds in game seven. Ouch!
With new/old head coach Jacques Lemaire back in the saddle the fear among some New Jersey faithful might be what effect Lemaire’s defense-first style will have on the dazzling Zach Parise. It best have no effect as Parise will be asked to carry the offensive load for Jersey’s pop-gun attack. While newly signed Travis Zajac should put up nice numbers, can the Devils really be expecting big seasons out of aging veterans Patrick Elias, Brain Rolston Jamie Langenbrunner and the returning Brendan Shanahan?
Jersey should get another solid if unspectacular season from this veteran group led by Johnny Oduya, Mike Mattau, and the consistently improving Paul Martin. Niclas Havelid and Bryce Salvador are getting a bit long in the tooth but both add a steadying presence on the Jersey blueline.
Between the Pipes
The same question that’s been asked the last few years will arise once again – how much longer can Marty Brodeur do it? The Devils have their fingers crossed that the answer doesn’t lie within the aforementioned last 80 seconds of their game 7 loss in the first round last season.
The playoffs might be just out of reach as the rebuilding will begin at The Rock.
A Beacon of Hope
They should be playing the Who’s The Kids Are Alright a lot at the Nassau Coliseum this season but the feeling is that Zeppelin’s Dazed & Confused might better sum up the goings on at ice level.
Lots of potentially exciting youngsters will be given the chance to shine here led by 2009 number one pick John Tavares along with former first rounders Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey. The problem for the Islanders is the supporting cast is very thin as you’re looking at veterans Doug Weight (38), the disappointing Trent Hunter, and journeymen Jon Sim and Richard Park. After that, more youth is served from a group that hasn’t exactly dazzled at the NHL level to date – Sean Bergenheim, Frans Nielsen, Blake Comeau, et al. Where are the goals going to come from?
There’s a bit more stability here with returning vets Mark Streit, Brendan Witt, Andy Sutton and Radek Martinek. They’ll need some support from the less battle tested Bruno Gervais and Jack Hillen.
Between the Pipes
The Isles turned some heads with the signings of veteran netminders Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron. What exactly does the future hold for the Sultan of Surgery Rick DiPietro?
Another number one pick might be in the offing here but the sun may be beginning to rise again over the beaches of Long Island.
Big & Bad Once Again in Boston
Despite the stunning second round loss to Carolina this past season, the Boston Bruins will be one of Beasts of the East with a top to bottom roster as deep as any in the league. They are probably one of the few team sthat could afford to lose a player of Phil Kessel’s stature and render it merely a slight body blow. Getting a first and second round pick next year and another first rounder in 2011 will help ease the pain as well.
Lots of horses here, even with Kessel gone, as the likes of Milan Lucic, Marco Sturm and Blake Wheeler will wear you down physically while Marc Savard, David Krejci, Michael Ryder and Patrice Bergeron light up the scoreboard. This group can skate, they can hit and there’s plenty of scoring touch. Chuck Kobasew had a solid season as well and young winger Maxime Sauve had a great camp.
Led by Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara, the Bruins’ D plays a physical style but this group can move the puck as well. Dennis Wideman is coming off a great season and if free agent pick-up Derek Morris can rediscover his “A” game, the Bruins will recover nicely despite losing Shane Hnidy and Aaron Ward.
Between the Pipes
Tim Thomas returns after emerging as one of the league’s premier puck-stoppers in 2008-09, nabbing the Vezina Trophy last year. No reason to think a repeat performance isn’t on the way.
If the Penguins are to be dethroned after two straight Eastern Conference Championships, this is the team most likely to do the job.
Sensational to So-So
What has happened in Canada’s capital city the last few years? A perennial Stanley Cup contender, the Senators have fallen off the playoff radar. Dany Heatley has been shown the way to San Jose, Daniel Alfredsson has lost his touch and they’ve never been able to land a standout in goal.
The trade of Heatley only works if Jonathan Cheechoo can find his game in Ottawa. The one-time 50 goal scorer fell off badly last season netting only 12. The swift skating Milan Michalek could be a diamond in the rough. He’ll need to be. One thing is certain, the team needs a rebound year from Alfredsson and more consistency from star Jason Speeza. Free agent addition Alexie Kovalev will add some scoring but at 36 he appears to be slowing down. The supporting cast is solid, if unspectacular, with gritty two-way forwards Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly and Nick Foligno adding some depth and Jarko Ruutu bringing along the sandpaper.
With all the talent Ottawa has on their roster at this position it was surprising to see them struggle so defensively last year. Chris Phillips slipped mightily and has to bounce back along with the hard hitting Anton Volchenkov. Last year’s first rounder Erik Karlsson will get a long look at camp and youngster Alex Picard looked good during his abbreviated stint last year. These kids will push veterans Filip Kuba, Chris Campoli and Jason Smith for spots.
Between the Pipes
Is Pascal Leclaire the answer for Ottawa? They are banking on it after last year’s late season deal bought the 26-year-old over from Columbus. Without a veteran back-up to start the season they will sink or swim with Leclaire.
A return to the playoffs isn’t out of the question for the Sens but too many questions still abound in Ottawa.
Hab Nots For Now
It’s been an odd last few seasons in Montreal when you consider the NHL’s, and certainly Canada’s, showcase franchise has had somewhat of an identity crisis of late. An essentially rudder-less crew, the Canadiens have added and subtracted so many forgettable faces in the last few seasons yet somehow manage to squeak into the playoffs every Spring.
Lots of movement once again as gone are Alexie Kovalev, Alex Tanguay, Saku Koivu and Chris Higgins and now wearing the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge are Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri. Is that a wash? We’re not sure. The Kostitsyn’s (Andrei and Sergei) are back and Guillaume Latendresse is another young gun the Habs will be leaning on as the rest of the roster up front is simply underwhelming.
Much more impressive is this group as returning are veterans Patrice Brisbois (unsigned), Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik. They will be joined by free agent signings Hal Gill, Paul Mara, and Jaroslav Spacek. Lots of experience but perhaps, other than Gill, not the most physical bunch in the league. Expect a deal early on to address that need.
Between the Pipes
When you consider the history this team has had with great goalies, (Plante, Dryden, Roy) it’s odd to see the position remain so unsettled for so long now. Carey Price and Marc Denis aren’t exactly taking anyone down memory lane in Montreal.
There might be just enough there to battle for the 8th seed but that’s simply not good enough on St. Catherine Street.
A Double-Edged Sword
What direction does the pendulum swing this season in Buffalo? A team that just a few seasons ago was a legit Cup contender now seems to be a difficult bet just to make the post season. Losing D Jaroslav Spacek and Fs Maxim Afinogenov and Dominic Moore as free agents didn’t help the situation.
Thomas Vanek appears to be the team’s only true sniper, though Derek Roy’s 28 goals last year proved he can score as well. Much of what the Sabres do up front will depend on whether or not center Tim Connolly finally emerges as the offensive force everyone thought he’d be. He seemed to finally find his game late last year.
Jason Pominville is coming along nicely as is Drew Stafford (unsigned). A big boost could come from hulking Paul Gaustad who showed solid potential last season. A bounce back year from disappointing Jochen Hecht wouldn’t hurt either.
A return to form from Craig Rivet is vital as injuries slowed the veteran blueliner last season. The team is also hoping that youngsters Chris Butler and Mike Weber are ready for prime time after impressive cups of coffee last season. Signing Steve Montador away from Boston was a slick move as well and former Duck Cody McCormick will mix it up for sure, but there are too many question marks dotting the Sabres’ backline.
Between the Pipes
Buffalo was certainly in the thick of the race last season til Ryan Miller went down with an injury. Reports are that he’s healthy and ready for training camp this year. Simply put, as he goes, so goes this club.
Another team on the bubble with regard to the playoffs as any key injuries will spell doom for a roster that’s simply sabre thin.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Turing Over a New Leaf?
What a mess in the Mecca! Hockey-mad Toronto is simply dying for a Cup contender and while you certainly can’t fault Leafs’ management for trying, Lindsay Lohan’s career is more stable than the current situation in Toronto. The Phil Kessel deal is a great start but there are holes elsewhere that need patching.
So Phil Kessel will bring his speed and scoring touch to an offense that desperately needs it – but who’s going to get him the puck? Center Jason Blake bounced back from an awful 2007-08 season to have a solid run last year (25g, 63p) but at 36 he appears to be wearing down. Returning wingers Alex Ponikarovsky and Niklas Hagman can be counted on for 20+ goal seasons, but you wonder where the rest of the offense is going to come from in Toronto? Is Kessel good for 40 in Toronto withthis supporting cast? With Nik Antropov now long gone and none of their recent picks ready to step in it’s difficult to see how the Leafs are going to scare anyone offensively. Are Matt Stajan and Lee Stempniak going to explode? The Leafs better hope so.
If significant improvement is going to be evident anywhere this season in Toronto it will be on D. The team has added bruisers Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin and Garnet Exelby who’ll join emerging star Luke Schenn and offensive wizard Tomas Kaberle. They’ll all need to be better than good to offset the punchless attack up front.
Between the Pipes
“The Monster” is taking over in goal – and by that we mean Swedish sensation Jonas Gustavsson who the Leafs signed to a one-year deal earlier this summer. The kid won’t exactly be handed the starting job as veterans Martin Gerber and Olaf Kolzig will provide some insurance.
The playoffs seem like a remote possibility but if Gustavsson stands on his head and they somehow find a few goals from unexpected sources…and Daryl Sittler comes out of retirement, who knows?
Ovie! Ovie! Ovie!
Those lucky fans in D.C. – they get to see the Alexander Ovechkin Magic Show 82 times. That tough second round loss to the Pens might have been all the extra motivation Ovechkin needs as this club may be poised for a serious run.
What can you say about Ovechkin that hasn’t already been said. Well, you can start with the word unstoppable. The Wild Russian will light it up again and the supporting cast should only get better as well. After Ovie’s 60 goals you’ve got superstar in waiting Nicklas Backstrom, fellow Russian sniper Alexander Semin and solid two-way wingers Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischman and Dave Steckel. The addition of gritty Mike Knuble will easily replace the departing Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Federov.
If there’s a weak link on this club, you might find it here. Mike Green will compete for the Norris Trophy once again but the Caps appear to be relying heavily on the swift development of young defenders Karl Alzner and John Carlson. The recent signing of impressive Milan Jurcina was vital as he’ll help steady things along with the returning Tom Poti, John Erskine and Brian Pothier
Between the Pipes
The emergence of Semyon Varalamov in last season’s playoffs helped solidify what was a shaky situation in goal. Jose Theodore’s inconsistency was troubling late last year but the 21-year-old Varalamov now looks like the long-term answer.
A Cup contender for sure, if only due to Ovechkin’s will to win, but they’ll have to shore up the D to make that journey a reality.
Canes Are Able
After an exciting run to the Conference Finals last season the Canes appear to be bringing back essentially the same roster for the 2009-10 campaign. Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen. After all, this team was 80 seconds away from losing in the first round.
Led by Eric Staal, the Canes seem to have just enough scoring up front but their line-up isn’t striking much fear into opponents either. Erik Cole needs to rebound after an off year and another consistent scoring threat needs to emerge from a group that includes veterans Ray Whitney, Rod Brind’Amour, Matt Cullen, Sergei Samsanov, Chad Larose and playoff hero Jussi Jokinen. They are hoping 2008 first rounder Zach Boychuk is ready to produce.
Veterans Joni Pitkanan, Frantisek Kaberle, Aaron Ward (via deal with Boston) and Dennis Seidenberg form a solid foursome. The trade with Ottawa for Joe Corvo last season was a key as he stepped in and performed magic on the Canes’ struggling powerplay.
Between the Pipes
It’s the Cam Ward Show as the Canes rode the hot 25 year-old all the way to the Conference Finals in 2008-09 before being swept away by the Pens. They’ll look to do the same in 2009-10.
In a tough Eastern Conference standing pat might translate into a step back in Carolina.
On the Move in Miami
To say the Panthers will miss Jay Bouwmeester would be an understatement but there’s still lots of young talent on this team and they should continue to move, albeit slowly, in the right direction this season.
Lost of exciting young forwards to shine a light on here and the Panthers will need to speed along their development if they are going to fight for a playoff spot. Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, David Booth, Michael Frolik and Rostislav Olesz give Florida a handful of young snipers to build around. Add veterans Cory Stillman, Richard Zednik and Radek Dvorak and the Cats should be fine offensively
Tough to replace a presence such as Bouwmeester but getting Jordan Leopold from the Flames as part of the deal will help. Veterans Bryan McCabe, Keith Ballard, Jassen Cullimore and Steve Eminger will be counted on heavily as the Panthers aren’t exactly stocked with young talent on D.
Between the Pipes
A return to form from Tomas Vokoun would provide a big shot in the arm and former Devil Scott Clemmensen was a smart pick up.
The Panthers will certainly hang around in the playoff race but whether or not they get in will depend on how well their defense holds up.
Hopeful in Hot-lanta
After an exciting 2007-08 season that saw Atlanta make the playoffs for the first time in their history, the team slipped badly last year. Too much of the burden fell on Ilya Kovalchuk’s shoulders and he simply couldn’t go it alone.
There is some exciting young talent to go along with Kovalchuk as Bryan Little, Todd White and Colby Armstrong all emerged with solid seasons last year. The addition of Nik Antropov will help but how much gas is left in Slava Kozlov’s tank? They might be forced to rush this year’s first rounder Evander Kane as the Thrashers are a little thin up front.
Young Zach Bogosian looks like a potential star and Tobias Enstrom has progressed nicely as well. Ron Hainsey is solid and Pavel Kubina is a consistent veteran who will help stabilize the D for sure. However, they will miss Garnet Exelby’s nightly nastiness and depth is an issue.
Between the Pipes
The talented Kari Lehtonen will carry the load here and the Thrashers fortunes truly rest the young Fins’ shoulders as 36-year-old journeyman Johan Hedberg is the back-up.
This club could surprise as Kovalchuk remains one of the most dangerous forwards in the league and some of the teams other youngsters could make big contributions. They’ll have to plug some holes on D however as their goals against average was the second worst in the league last year.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Moving in the Right Direction
A curious team ever since winning the 2004 Stanley Cup as the Lightning have gone backwards ever since, culminating in last season’s nightmare finish. The only direction left now is up and there is certainly still lots of talent on this roster to get this team back in the hunt.
Trade rumors continue to swirl around veterans Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis but if they are sticking around they still give the Bolts their usual solid one-two punch up front. 2008 number one pick Steve Stamkos dazzled in the second half and the team needs continued progress from him. The addition last season of Ryan Malone was a good one but he still needs to produce more offensively. The recent signing of veteran Alex Tanguay to a 1-year deal will help take some the scoring burden off of Lecavalier and St. Louis. After this, the jury is out as a mix of uninspiring veterans and untested kids will be getting plenty of ice time – and in some cases probably too much.
Fist round pick Victor Hedman will step right in and contribute mightily – and he’ll need to. After free agent pick-up Mattias Ohlund Tampa is rather thin on the blueline. Paul Ranger looks promising and former first rounder Vladimir Mihalik might be ready but it’s fingers crossed after this.
Between the Pipes
Speaking of crossing fingers – Antero Niittymaki will be handed the starting job here as the Bolts are still waiting on youngsters Riku Helenius and Karri Ramo.
More than likely another rough year in Tampa but with Hedman and Stamkos, along with trading chips like Lecavalier and St. Louis, the Bolts are headed in the right direction…finally.
1 – Bruins
3 – Caps
4 – Flyers
5 – Canes
6 – Panthers
7 – Sens
8 – Rangers
So there you have it, a look at the Eastern Conference of the NHL. Keep in mind there are several key restricted and unrestricted free agents still on the market (Brad Richards, Nik Zherdev, Maxim Afinogenov, etc) that could quickly change the fortunes of several teams in both conferences. Stay tuned.
Next week we head out West for a peek at how the 15 teams in the Western Conference stack up for the 2009-10 season.