06 April 2007

shame-faced Eastern review

On the verge of the playoffs, I thought I should get this out of the way now. Since I'd be sure to trumpet any/all great picks I might have made back in October, here's my (mostly) full mea culpa in reviewing how I thought the standings would look at the end of the year - all picks and quotes are mine from back on October 4th:

15. Washington Capitals

The cliché is that this team is Alexander Ovechkin and nobody else, and it’s not too far off from the truth...
Pretty much nailed this one (of course it's all downhill from here...) as by the end of a long year Ovechkin began to take out his frustrations on and off the ice. They need Nicklas Backstrom to make an impact next year and even then they'll need to work hard to find themselves competitive anytime soon.

14. New York Islanders

This franchise is running in place...

Going into the final weekend with two games to play, the Isles still have a shot at making the playoffs. Even though it's virtually impossible to quantify such a thing, the impact that Ted Nolan had on this team has to be considered. After a rocky and understandably pressure-filled start to the season, Rick DiPietro played great in goal until his concussed-ending to the season. Unfortunately I still believe this is a team that could fall right back next year with the impending free agency of a number of players including Ryan Smyth and Jason Blake.

13. Atlanta Thrashers

....But after [Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Kari Lehtonen, Slava Kozlov]the cupboard is dreadfully bare...
I admit this one looks bad but I stand by it - I think the Thrashers got a bit lucky this year, despite stretches (mostly early in the year) where they did look like a quality hockey team. Despite residing atop the Southeast division, they still were outscored this year and only have two more wins than division-mates Carolina. They're also recipients of 11 loser-points. At their best they play a good fast team game where their sum is greater than their parts. At their worst they float about and are not defensively conscious.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins

...They’re not there yet, but in a few years look out.
Heh - way off, but I'm far from alone with this pick. The team started slow but everything began to come together over the winter, culminating in a 100+ point season and an impending first-round clash with Ottawa that could be one of the more entertaining series in recent memory. Their timetable is about two years faster than I anticipated and if they can shore up the defence next year they could be even better.

11. Toronto Maple Leafs

...Mats Sundin is the best 70 point player in the league...
He still is (73 points in 74 games), and if he had jusssst a bit better linemates it may have made a difference. Sound familiar? Andrew Raycroft was mostly fine in net this year but defensive breakdowns. This pick was pretty close as The Leafs fall in that rather large middle-mediocre bunch in the East: not bad, not great.

10. Montreal Canadiens

...Will Sergei Samsonov ever be more than a 60 point player?
That was answered pretty emphatically this year, at least. The Habs suffered wild fluctuations this year - they were challenging Buffalo for first place in early winter, then dropped so far so fast after Cristobal Huet went down. Rookie Jaroslav Halak filled in nicely in the late-season run for the playoffs, but the lack of depth proved Montreal fit nicely in the mediocre pack of the East.

9. New York Rangers

...they have a prize in net with Henrik Lundqvist and he certainly could be the difference to vault them into that 6-8 range...
First of all, I do admit to cherry-picking some of my quotes (feel free to have a look at the original for the full truths...). Lundqvist was indeed the difference this year in being arguably the best goalie in the East over much of the final three months.

8. Tampa Bay Lightning

...[Vincent] Lecavalier and [Martin] St. Louis in particular need to elevate their games and justify superstar status...if [Marc] Denis excels, Tampa wins this division...
Done and done on the "Big Two" - both hit the 100 point mark this season. A classically front-loaded team - with a damn good front - their goaltending was indeed an issue all year as Marc Denis did not, in fact, excel and needs to be addressed for the future.

7. Boston Bruins

...A team that I think will show big improvement...I didn’t think the Joe Thornton trade was a complete disaster – the deal created payroll flexibility...
Way off. The Bruins did make a strong push in late winter only to fade pathetically over the final few weeks. My analysis of the Thornton trade proved faulty in part that the Bruins' front office acts like a six-year old in need of Ritalin - reacting too quickly to short-term results. They dealt away their main take in the deal - Brad Stuart - because they felt that they couldn't re-sign him, and dealt Brad Boyes to Boston due to a rough second year. Now comes word that players are disgruntled with coach Dave Lewis and it seems obvious that GM Peter Chiarelli's job is just beginning here...

6. New Jersey Devils

...Zach Parise will be a star... Martin Brodeur is past his peak...but they don’t have the defence to make a playoff run...
As far as the player predictions: almost...and not even close. Brodeur arguably has had his best season as a pro and is again the biggest factor in another division crown for the Devils. Allow GM Lou Lamoriello to introduce...himself...as coach. Will it be enough to give the team the spark he feels they need to succeed in the playoffs? And will he ever gain the trust of whomever he hires to replace him?

5. Carolina Hurricanes

...Out to prove that last year’s magical season was no fluke...
Giving fodder for anti-southern-hockey fans everywhere, the 'Canes proved to be a one-and-done story as they go from scoring 3.5 goals per game last season to just over 2.9 per game this year. Eric Staal in particular fell way back this year from 45-55-100 to 29-38-67.

4. Ottawa Senators

...Ottawa gets little respect for such an elite team, due to their high-profile lack of success in the playoffs but this team is still second to none in overall talent...
Second to Buffalo in the entire NHL in goals scored this year, their talent is immense. Last year's playoff scapegoat Ray Emery proved himself a solid number one goalie this year after Martin Gerber failed in his bid to grab that slot. Perhaps not being the top dog for the first time in years may play into the Senators' hands in the postseason...

[brief pause before pasting the next two....ok then...]

3. Florida Panthers

My Eastern surprise...This pick does hinge on Alex Auld...
My tendency to fall in love with the young/rebuilding teams failed me again (see also my future confession on Kings, Los Angeles with cross-references to Dan Cloutier) although in the close (weak) Southeast division just five more wins would have put them in first place. Auld suffered through a bad season before hanging up the pads for the season in early February, while - surprisingly to me - Eddie "Billion-Dollar" Belfour played quality goal down the stretch, giving Panthers fans faint hope that they could make the playoffs. I still like much of this team (Nathan Horton, Oli Jokinen, Jay Bouwmeester (scoring depth, goaltending) to give them the consistency) but there are/were too many holes they needed to make the top eight.

2. Philadelphia Flyers

[former GM] Bobby Clarke may make a move as he might not be comfortable with Robert Esche as his number one goalie...their stable of forwards will be fun to watch...The Flyers’ Achilles heel is still their defence...
A funny thing is that I didn't read my own writings here. Goaltending and defence were positively miserable from game one on and the team imploded following an early-season blowout at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres (9-1 pasting that could have easily been 14 or 15 goals given up). Their stable of young forwards either didn't take the next step forward (R. J. Umberger) or suffered injuries (Jeff Carter, Mike Richards). A complete disaster but yet in the end one I believe will be a blip in their history - good deadline trades helped to rebuild for the future and an impending lottery pick should help to bring the Flyers back to playoff contention next season.

1. Buffalo Sabres

four fast lines and a great power play, a defence that is six-deep and a potential franchise goalie...the time is now for the Sabres.
If you look past the once-again bizarre injury parade they suffered this year, everything else seemed to go right for Buffalo this season, storming out of the gate in winning their first ten games and leading the conference wire-to-wire en route to their first President's Trophy for finishing first overall. All that's left to do is bring home the big shiny trophy, because make no mistake: anything less will be a disappointment.

coming next: the Campbell review

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