The Eastern Conference is so much harder to predict than the west this season for one hugely important reason: goaltending. I don’t think there has been such a concentration of high end talent in net in either conference before. If you made a list of the top ten starting goaltenders in the NHL you’d probably find seven on your list from the eastern conference, and likely two of the top three backups as well. That one position can be the difference between a team that does good and does great.

Southeast division:

Florida Panthers hands down the most remade team in their division. They are certainly better than they were last year but there’s not a lot of hope of chance of them getting to the playoffs.

Carolina Hurricanes, these boys were right there all season and with the off season tweaks to their roster they should be a better team.  If they are going to make it in someone else needs to falter or they need to all hit their peak at once.

Tampa Bay Lightning, Roloson and Lecavalier will be the players who make the difference in how far this team goes. Playoff bound is not really a question, quite likely they will be second in the division.

Winnipeg Jets are victims of their ownership issues. They drafted Scheifele, Alexander Burmistrov will be in his second season, and the venerable and creaky Evander Kane will enter his third season in the NHL. They have plenty of upside but they need consistency more than anything.  Bubble team if they are inconsistent and other teams falter, playoff team if they put it all together.

Washington Capitals have, on paper the chance to run away with the regular season points race at least in the east and possibly league wide. Great new goaltender, good defense, and an offense that’s capable of otherworldy numbers. Easily the best of the division.

Atlantic division

This one is hard to call because of the number of changes made by some of the teams.

The New York Islanders have a scary amount of very young talent, a questionable amount of elder statesmen and the most likely to be injured goalie brigade in known history. They will be entertaining to watch.

The New Jersey Devils are a very curious team after the injury bug was evicted from their locker room and a coach lost his job they went on a strong run. Zach is back to lead the pack, but the defense is another question mark, as is curiously enough the goaltending. May be the third team to sneak into the playoffs from this division.

The Philadelphia Flyers are a chemistry experiment conducted in the dark and behind the back of the mad scientist in the GM’s office. Some huge potential was brought in, some huge talent, and Brian Boucher were sent packing. Given the age and injury history of some of the key components to this team theres a lot that can go wrong on a trip to not winning the division but playing into a 5-8 slot.

New York Rangers, mama Staal is probably even more disgusted at the injury to Mark, caused by Eric than Tortarella is. Mark is still suffering the post concussion effects from last spring, and if he should have a long recovery time the Rangers are sunk before they start. If he comes back reasonably healthy soon its a whole different story. With Brad Richards in the lineup, and Gaborik (hopefully) healthy, a lot could happen for this team.

Pittsburgh Penguins. Marc-Andre Fluery had a career year last year, and was the teams second best goalie. All three top centers missed about half the season. On the plus side James Neal came over late and will be in town the whole season, Malkin is ready to go, Jordan Staal looked great from his return to the end of the year, and the defense is surprisingly potent. Even if Crosby doesn’t return a very strong team.

Northeast division

If you count Rask you have four of the ten best goaltenders in the NHL in this division. Not surprisingly the three teams in this division with great goalies will probably make the post season if they play in their normal range.

Ottawa Senators, this could be a very entertaining team to watch skate to last in the division.

Toronto Maple Leafs, some deceptively good low level moves by Burke in the off season and late last year should see this team notably improved if they can get all the misfit toys to march in the same direction. Phaneuf, Kessel, Komisarek, Lupal all need to pull their weight this season for the team to succeed. Will bite at the heels of whoever is third in the division.

Montreal Canadiens, not much change in Habsland.  Wiesnewski out and Cole in. Odd, but ok. Maybe the have better health from their players, but they essentially stood still while the Sabres got better. They should still be a playoff team but its not gonna be pretty.

Buffalo Sabres, have changed a lot since Pegula took over mid season last year. New forwards, new defensemen, and best of all, Ryan Miller still in the crease. The defense should be more reliable, the forwards are hoped to be more durable and creative than some of the the players they replaced. A lot of people have made picks for coming out of the east, I have yet to hear anyone pick this team. Anyone surprised if they are in the eastern conference finals or beyond.

Last night was a fairly physical, not very sharp game from both teams. Two fights, Nathan Horton vs Craig Adams and Shawn Thornton vs Mike Rupp. Given that the Bruins and Penguins are two of the top three teams for fighting, only two fights is something of a surprise.

 

  1. No one really stepped up, several players had decent games with Krejci finally breaking double digits for goals, and Chara opening the scoring, Seidenberg had a fairly good night as well, and Peverley looked good filling in for Bergeron in some situations. That said without Patrice Bergeron who is the teams magic smoke, they were frequently disjointed.
  2. It was not a high scoring game, but there were seventy shots on goal, and thirty one blocked shots. Many of them were poor shots, but mostly the game came down to scrambling and turnovers.
  3. The top goalies were in net, and both did well.
  4. Jordan Staal played a leisurely 20:42 with one goal and and even split in faceoffs.
  5. Special teams was a draw, the Bruins kept the Penguins to zero shots during a penalty kill, but neither team did anything remarkable.

With each teams top two centers out today, the Penguins and Bruins faceoff. Both teams are chasing the Flyers, who are facing the hungry and reinforced Buffalo Sabres. If Buffalo wins today when the Bruins and Penguins take their first shifts the Bruins would have the chance to get within one point of the conference leader, and the Penguins could get to within four.

 

  1. Who steps up for the Bruins, Patrice Bergeron is a huge part of the Bruins winning equation and he joins Marc Savard on the outside looking in today.
  2. With two of the top defensive teams facing off, will this stay a defensive battle as one might predict or will it become a run and gun game like the Bruins Buffalo game of New Years Day?
  3. Which goalies will we see? Both Thomas and Fluery will need to be well rested for the playoffs, but this is a big game.
  4. How many minutes will Jordan Staal play? He’s topped 29 minutes since the down-checking of Crosby and Malkin at least once.
  5. Who wins the special teams battle? Neither team has an impressive PP this year, while the Penguins have the top PK which they employ a bit more than they probably want to.

See you at game time!

While Savard is a nearly peerless playmaker who can make passes that only a handful of other men can, I’m not convinced his loss is fatal to the playoff hopes of the Bruins. In 25 games he was a -7 and put up just 10 points. Unlike last year or the year before he did not contribute to the penalty kill, and even with him the power play wasn’t stellar. That said, as of right now the Bruins still lead the northeast division, have a great PK, and a solid record against most of the other top teams in the east. They have won their last three against Carolina, have won against Washington, have a shutout over Philly, and have beaten the Penguins, the Lightning have been grounded, and Atlanta fell apart after their last meeting with the Bruins. It is true that the powerplay will become more of an issue in the playoffs, but even there we can look forward to some growth.

Potential replacements for the center position currently filled by Zach Hamill could be either a 1st line production center, of which their are very few, and fewer still on teams that would be willing to part with them. Or they could be a third line checking center. Bergeron can fill either of the two roles, and Krejci is best suited to being the secondary scoring line role.

For either position, given the deficiencies of the team and its playing system this center should have a few qualities:

  • At least 3 trips to the playoffs.
  • a faceoff percentage over 50%
  • the ability to play on both sides of the puck
  • drive to thrive

Some possible candidates are:

  • RJ Umberger, former Flyer, current Blue Jacket has seen action in the playoffs, on two different clubs.  Plays both center and left wing. Umberger is also a big body at 220 and would give the center position much needed size.
  • Brooks Laich, will be a UFA this summer, plays the PK, blocks shots, hits and has been a 20+ goal scorer three times.
  • Vladimir Sobotka, already familiar with the Bruins system, good at faceoffs, was important for the Bruins in the playoffs last year, is fearless and will be able to stand the media attention here in Boston.
  • While the least likely prospect, if the Penguins decide to pull the plug on the season with no time table for Crosby’s return, and Malkin due back about the same time as Savard, Jordan Staal would give the Penguins cap room, and probably get them either a roster player and a probably a 1st round pick and prospect in return. With this they could address their chronic weakness on wing, and their cap crunch.
  • Patrick Sharp, is probably on the team with the most ability to pull the plug on the season and not have a huge fan backlash. While he’s slightly below 50% in faceoffs, he’s got 51 games of playoff experience, a cup ring, 26 goals, and is on pace for a career points year despite the draw down in talent around him.
  • By the trade deadline, despite my preseason pick, the LA Kings could fall out of the race. In which case both Jared Stoll and Michael Handzus might serve the team better by serving someone else for a draft pick. Both are UFA’s either this summer or next and while neither is a number one center, they could fill the third line role admirably. Both have extensive playoff experience as well.

Of them all only Handzus has a no movement clause, Staal is probably a pure pipe dream or too expensive, and that leaves Umberger as likely being the easiest to get with the highest ceiling. I’d be kinda shocked to see anyone of these guys land here, but Chiarelli did say he’d be busy this trade season so all things are possible.