Note: I am not breaking these teams down in depth because that was what our season preview was for. These are just predictions for where each team will finish in 2008/09 and a short reason why.
1. Montreal Canadiens: The Habs won the Eastern Conference last season and improved over the off-season. Sure they lost Mark Streit, but they added Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang and Georges Laraque. Combine that with maturing youngsters like Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec and Carey Price and you have the recipe for a repeat champ.
2. New Jersey Devils: The Devils continue to fly under the radar year after year. This off-season they made a little splash in the free agent waters by adding Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik to the fold. These two signings solidify the team’s strong depth up front and should allow for some of the team’s players to play in more fitting roles this season. The defense isn’t terrific but it is solid and with Brodeur in net, they will surprise some and win the Atlantic.
3. Washington Capitals: The Capitals will claim the three seed by beating up on their weaker division opponents. Even with the NHL schedule lessening the amount of division games played, the Capitals still play the Thrashers, Panthers and Hurricanes eighteen times. With the amount of offense Washington possesses, it will be a high scoring year in the U.S. capital.
4. Philadelphia Flyers: Sure they have defensive questions but their offense is good enough to make up for it. With Simon Gagne returning to the fold and a boatload of depth up the middle and down the wings, the Flyers should gain home-ice advantage in the first round.
5. Buffalo Sabres: Lindy Ruff has a young and talented team that is very hungry after the disappointment of 2007/08. With Ryan Miller signed long-term, this may be the year the Sabres’ netminder claims the Vezina Trophy. We know they can score up front, but the shrewd trade for Craig Rivet will pay off all season long; the Sabres’ defense is better than people think.
6. New York Rangers: The Rangers may be a little worse up front this season however they are improved on defense and have one of the best goaltenders in the world playing 70+ games for them. With Chris Drury and Scott Gomez leading the way, the Rangers will work hard and take after their two cornerstone players.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins: I know, I know, you think I am crazy for having the Penguins this low. That is fine, but I just don’t think this team has enough to be better than any of the aforementioned six teams. The Penguins lost too much talent over the off-season and were then ravaged by injuries. The replacements up front aren’t as good as their predecessors and the replacements for the injuries on the back-end are young and inexperienced. That said, this bunch is talented enough to sneak into the playoffs and if Gonchar and Whitney return to form, I wouldn’t want to be the high seed that has to face this team come playoff time.
8. Ottawa Senators: I think the Senators will battle it out with the Bruins for the 8th and final playoff spot with the Senators just coming out on top by a hair. Ottawa’s new coaching staff and increased ruggedness should mesh well with the exorbitantly talented first line they have. Sure the defense isn’t what it once was offensively but this crew can still block shots and keep opponenets off the scoreboard.
9. Boston Bruins: It’s not that the Bruins are a poor team; it’s just that the teams ahead of them are just a tiny bit better. Obviously the return of Patrice Bergeron will work wonders, but will Michael Ryder turn out on the top line? Can Tim Thomas play as well as he did last season? Is there enough talent on the team’s defense to make the playoffs? That’s a lot of questions and I think there are just too many for me to lock them into a playoff spot.
10. Tampa Bay Lightning: They had the most entertaining off-season in a long, long time. Unfortunately for Bolts fans that does not exactly translate onto the ice and there should be a fairly steep learning curve for this group. With a new coach and about 140 new players added to the roster, the Lightning isn’t going to suddenly become a team over night. Add in the fact that they are extremely young on defense and this could be an up and down season in Northern Florida.
11. Florida Panthers: The hiring of Peter DeBoer to handle the bench looks like it was the right move, as you can expect this Panthers team to play up-temp, in-your-face style hockey. They are young, energetic and very talented on defense. Sure they may be a little shallow up front but they are young and have potential. In 2009/10, I see them as a playoff team but for now, they will probably fall just short.
12. Carolina Hurricanes: Things looked promising for the Hurricanes until they came to training camp and lost arguably their second-best forward, Justin Williams, to a serious leg injury. The loss of Williams makes the Canes a little bit thin up front, and there is no telling if they will be strong defensively or not. If they contend for a playoff spot it will be because Cam Ward has a huge year in between the pipes.
13. Atlanta Thrashers: John Anderson has nowhere to go but up with this group. Atlanta is lacking talent up front and has a talented but injury-prone netminder between the pipes. I realize that the team improved on defense with Schneider, Bogosian and Hainsey but this team just doesn’t have enough to compete for a playoff spot.
14. New York Islanders: The Islanders aren’t any worse than the Thrashers they just play in a far more difficult division. This team is heading in the right direction but there are learning curves along the way and too many of the Isles’ young players will have up-and-down seasons for them to finish far from the bottom of the standings.
15. Toronto Maple Leafs: Ron Wilson is an entertaining coach and I expect that entertainment to be consistent through this tough season in Leaf land. I believe that, given time, he can eventually turn it around; however, there just isn’t anything close to enough talent to think that will occur this season. Let the John Tavares countdown begin…
For Illegal Curve, I’m Richard Pollock.