NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Predictions

As per usual, I enjoy taking a look at each and every team and evaluating them from a completely unbiased standpoint. I enjoy researching each team’s prospects and past stats. I don’t claim to be a wizard and know everything, but these are my predictions for the Eastern Conference. Enjoy and let the disagreements begin:

Metropolitan Division:

1. Washington Capitals – New bench boss Barry Trotz is just what the doctor ordered for the grounded Caps. If there is one thing Trotz loves, that would be offense… Say what? It’s crazy to think, what with coaching the paint-drying Preds for the last 14 years, that coach Trotz would in fact like offense more than defense. The Capitals on the other hand have struggled mightily over that same time frame at defending their own goal. So in summary, an offensive powerhouse hires a defensive genius but of course there is no God. Now obviously Trotz didn’t bring Shea Weber and friends but Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen should suffice. Washington’s beloved captain Alex the Great had a good season last year, but his lack of passion and defensive prowess was MIA for the most part. However, Trotz is no stranger to cracking the whip, just ask Alex Radulov. Defensively, the Caps look solid on the blue-line but the real question lies in net; Braden Holtby has the demeanor of Carey Price some nights but on other nights he looks as fragile as a Penguins’ netminder. Consider the weapons the Caps already own, Backstrom, Green, Laich, Kuznetsov, and Ovechkin; this marriage between Trotz and this roster, in my opinion, is East title worthy.

Rookie to watch: Evgeny Kuznetsov – This Russian star holds all the tools to become an offensive dynamo in this league. It’s hardly fair to call this guy a rookie as he’s been playing in the KHL for the past 3 seasons. Barry Trotz has visions of Evgeny centering the second line this year. It’s rather unfair to coin the phrase “Russian factor” on a player who developed in his own country only to come over to North America on a significant pay cut. Kuznetsov is a gritty, young star that sometimes lets his emotions get the best of him. He needs to learn how to focus all that energy to his game rather than the game within the game. It should be interesting to watch him this year; there could very well be a Calder trophy in his near future.

Photo: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

Photo: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

2. Pittsburgh Penguins – A new coach and GM bring in many questions along with brand new answers. “The real deal James Neal” is now a Pred, while Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling will suit up for the Penguins. Pascal Dupuis should be healed after recovering from season ending knee surgery, suffered last season. All three forward lines now look healthy and happy, as there is more depth. Crosby has his linemates, Malkin has his right-handed sniper, and Sutter now has some skill on his wing. Meanwhile, the defense and goaltending are still the issue in the Steel City. Orpik and Niskanen packed their bags with to Washingtion, leaving Olli Maatta headlining some top-notch defensive prospects but the Penguins blue-line appears rather weak. Hopefully Kris Letang can remain healthy. Goals against usually do not haunt the Penguins until the playoffs but Marc-Andre Fleury has became the most consistent inconsistent netminder in the game today. Offensively the Penguins again are among the best in the league, but this year could be very difficult for the black and gold on the defensive side.

Rookie to watch: Scott Harrington – The Kingston, Ontario native is probably the most NHL ready prospect in the Penguins’ system. Scott is well sized at 6’ 2” 210lbs and is essentially a mistake-free defender who plays such an effortless game, giving him the ability to eat up a ton of ice-time. Scott isn’t overly gifted on the offensive side of the game, which may keep him off the Penguins opening night roster, but come injuries, Harrington will likely be the first call up.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets – Ohio runs on Officer Bobrovsky, as the Vezina winner stops pucks, the Blue Jackets win games. Please also take into account that I believe Ryan Johansen will in fact be ready to go on opening night. But of course the sides still remain millions apart on a new contract. It could get very nasty in the coming weeks as training camp quickly approaches. The fact though still remains that Columbus is a team full of workhorses, which makes them very successful in their division. Scott Hartnell will help them form the identity that makes them a threat to the rest of the Eastern Conference. I also could see the BJ’s begin the season with a new captain named Boone Jenner; that kid is what us hockey players call a “beauty”. Columbus is also a very deep team at every position. The prospect shelf is fully stocked for the Jackets as well, so the injury bug might not even bother them this year.

Rookie to watch: Michael Chaput – At 6’ 2” 200lbs, this centerman may be just what the doctor ordered, especially with the absence of Ryan Johansen to begin the season looking more and more likely with each passing day. Chaput isn’t a dominating offensive threat but he is a solid two-way centre who prides himself in his defensive game. The offense in Columbus will take a massive hit without Johansen, which will send ripples throughout the lineup. Chaput will likely slide in as the 3rd line centre position; this will either make or break his development.


Atlantic Division:

Photo: Francois Laplante, Freestyle Photography/Getty Images/AFP

Photo: Francois Laplante, Freestyle Photography/Getty Images/AFP

1. Montreal Canadiens – Lack of leadership you say? Two major letter dawners have packed their bags and headed south, leaving the Canadiens with the challenge of finding two new sweaters to sew the important letters on them. The Eastern finalists fell to the Rangers in 6 games last spring in a series that was a lot less competitive than what the amount of games would suggest. Carey Price went down to injury but young stud Dustin Tokarski did more than just fill in, he shone between the pipes. The Habs were just outmatched at every position. Head coach Michel Therrien rode his veterans instead of the young kids who led the way in the two prior series. Now the Canadiens have turned the page on many of those who have long-served and will be looking to their young core of emerging stars. Led by a healthy Carey Price, Norris winning PK Subban and a goal-scoring Pacioretty as well as the kids, Gallagher, Galchenyuk and Eller, the future is definitely bright in Montreal. Not to mention the remaining veterans in Plekanec and Markov, all of who could easily wear the C on their jersey. This team swept the Lightning and overcame a 3-2 series deficit against the Bruins, eliminating them in game 7 on their own turf. This team is tried and tested and ready to climb to new heights.

Rookie to watch: Nathan Beaulieu – There may not be a more effortless skater than Beaulieu. The Strathroy, Ontario native is expected to be the 5-6th defenseman on the Habs blue-line this season as well as man the powerplay unit. Nathan’s skating gets him out of a lot of bad situations whether he coughs the puck up or makes a bad pinch; his skating is his saving grace. He is a great visionary on the point who is not afraid to create offense. However, with creating offense, sometimes Nathan forces plays that aren’t there and they come back to haunt him. He needs to learn to make smarter decisions with and without the puck. This will definitely come with playing time, something that Therrien awarded him with during the playoff run.

2. Boston Bruins
– One of the slowest teams in the league on defense is going to be a whole lot slower if they can’t put pen to paper on a Torey Krug contract; however, if the Bruins do not shed some salary (a good chunk of money) in order to sign the young blue-liner, much of the offense will be lacking. The B’s will also be without their veteran leader Jarome Iginla this season. It’s hard to pencil out the B’s with only losing Jarome, but it sends a ripple down the line up as he and his scoring touch will be missed. Age has also started creeping in on some of the players. Hopefully Denis Seidenberg will be able to start the season since suffering knee surgery. Boston is still one of the strongest teams in the East but without Krug and Iginla to begin, it could be a rocky start to the season.

Rookie to watch: Justin Florek – The kid that scored the game 4 winner in overtime of the Eastern conference semi-finals against the Canadiens proved right then and there that he is a guy who shows up when it matters most. Justin’s frame is almost pattened to that of a Bruin, with boasting a 6’ 4” 200 pound structure. The knock on Florek however is that his game is underwhelming considering his size, but he does possess some decent offensive skill. He is a coachable young guy that provides great depth at forward for the B’s.

3. Florida Panthers 
– Big, mean fighting machine is the phrase that comes to mind when talking about the Panthers. Florida has the biggest team in the entire NHL. Their towering blue-line consists of Colby Robak, Erik Gudbranson, Alex Petrovic, Willie Mitchell, Dmitry Kulikov, Dylan Olsen, Brian Campbell, Greg Zanon and Aaron Ekblad. The centres are big and mean too; Barkov, Bjugstad and Bolland. Now factor in a two-time Gold medalist goaltender in Roberto Luongo. Goal scoring could perhaps be of some concern but with a year of experience under their young belts added to an offensive-minded coach Gerrard Gallant, the Panthers should be playing hockey into late April.

Rookie to watch: Aaron Ekblad – Without question, the top pick in the draft this year is a towering force on defense. Names such as Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara and Brent Seabrook come to mind when talking about the Panthers prize prospect. Aaron is gifted in all aspects of the game; he stands 6 foot 4, weighing in at 216lbs. This monster is also a tremendous skater who also enjoys jumping in on offense. He should be a top rookie of the year candidate.

Wildcard:

1. New Jersey Devils – These Devils look complete this season. Marty is finally gone, and the net is now solely owned by Cory Schneider. With the addition of Michael Cammalleri and Martin Havlat, the Devils should be a threat offensively on all four lines. Jaromir Jagr needs to again defy the age factor and produce at a wicked pace. Pete DeBoer as the Head Coach makes light work of his defense by encouraging quick breakouts while using their speed. New Jersey isn’t towering at any position but Deboer’s team uses it’s speed and skill well by keeping pucks away from Cory Schneider. I expect the special teams to both improve significantly this season as well which should solidify their playoff spot.

Rookie to watch
: Reid Boucher – The silky smooth winger from Lansing, Michigan spent most of the season in the AHL with the Albany Devils and 23 games with New Jersey. Boucher has excellent vision and can really take over the pace of a game with his puck handling skills. It will be expected of Reid this year to engage in more battles along the boards for the puck. He is relatively undersized for the NHL but he makes up for it with his offense. Boucher also has a bag full of tricks in the shootout. New Jersey is loaded in NHL calibre forwards so unless Boucher can win a spot outright, he will most likely begin the season in the AHL.

2. New York Islanders
– One of the most improved squads in the NHL this offseason, of course without seeing them play on ice just yet, but on paper, this looks like a solid team. Tavares has had a lengthy stretch of rest, and with the additions of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Jaroslav Halak to add to the young core already on Long Island, these “Brooklyn” Islanders should make a push to be back in the playoffs. Quality secondary scoring and a top tier netminder have haunted the Islanders for years, and with these additions, the Isles could make a case at being a top team in their division.

Rookie to watch: Anders Lee – A big power-forward who can score is the type of player any team wants, and that is whom the Islanders have. Anders was a force in the AHL last season scoring 22 goals and 41 points in 54 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. This output resulted in receiving the call to Long Island, where he continued to produce offensively by scoring 9 goals and 14 points in 22 games. Expect Lee to play like a veteran this year on Tavares’ wing; can he score 30?

On the Outskirts:

1. Tampa Bay Lightning – An offensive powerhouse no doubt is Tampa Bay, but a defensive blunder is equally correct. Many would suggest the fact of Ben Bishop’s absence in last year’s playoffs as the sole reason for Tampa’s 4-game exit, however, let’s discuss this further. For much of those 4 games, the Canadiens literally manhandled the Lightning; outshot, outhit outplayed. Stamkos and company made the most of their limited opportunities but they were no match for the Habs. If Bishop were available for that series, then a case could be made that the series could have lasted a bit longer but at the end of the day, Montreal feasted on turnovers and bad reads as well as lit up Anders Lindback. Going into this season, Tampa now has even more offensive weapons with Drouin coming into the mix, but unless Bishop can stand on his head all season, Jon Cooper’s defense will mightily fail… again, regardless of the additions of Garrison and Stralman.

Rookie to watch: Jonathan Drouin – This offensive dynamo has all the tools to take over the league by storm, especially if Jon Cooper slides this kid in on a line with Steven Stamkos. Drouin has never been an overly big guy but he has never shied away from physicality. There is no question on whether or not Jonathan is in Tampa Bay this fall, the only question is what line to slot him into.

Photo: BEN PELOSSE, QMI Agency

Photo: BEN PELOSSE, QMI Agency

2. New York Rangers – Every little thing fell into place for the Rangers last year, heck last spring. Everything that made the blue shirts successful last season fell on the back of King Henrik; who in my opinion played the best hockey I have seen him play in his entire career down the stretch. Can he duplicate? Brad Richards, Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman and Benoit Pouliot are gone and although those players weren’t exactly integral pieces, each served as key depth players on Vigneault’s roster. I’m not sold on their offseason acquisitions that were brought in. Dan Boyle comes in to add some offense to the blue-line while sacrificing size and defensive prowess. Lee Stempniak adds some secondary scoring in the bottom 6 forward group, and Tanner Glass adds some grit to the 4th line. The Rags are still small and fast while every other team in their division is bigger and stronger. The will to win and succeed this past year was top notch, if the whole team can duplicate that will this season then I guarantee they will make the postseason dance. However, I just don’t believe this team can duplicate their magic from last spring. Many other teams took one if not multiple steps forward while New York seemed to stay status quo.

Rookie to watch: Jesper Fast – Just as his name suggests, this kid can skate. He also has a great set of hands along with a terrific sense of the game on offense. His frame isn’t small but he does shy away from contact especially along the boards, which may hinder him along the way. Now the young Swede played 3 games in the playoffs last year and didn’t look out of place, so look for Jesper to make the Rangers out of camp.

3. Philadelphia Flyers – When I say atomic bomb, what would you say? The Flyers blue-line perhaps? I feel you Flyers fans, and for Kimmo himself, I will definitely keep him in my prayers. But about the hockey team itself, in terms of being an elite team, it’s just not the year for Philly. Trading Hartnell away for Umberger really took me off-guard, especially when there were talks of Columbus buying him out. Much of the identity of the past Flyers was alive and well when Hartnell was in the orange and black, and I’m not sure Wayne Simmonds can enforce enough Broad Street bullying by himself. The way the Flyers preformed last spring was hardly impressive, and personally I expected much more from Mr. Giroux, what with being snubbed by Team Canada and wearing the C and all. I certainly expected a monster but all I saw was an angry chipmunk that wants more nuts. Vinny Lecavalier has proved to be a major overpayment thus far. The Flyers just look unorganized and there are far too many players that just seem to be placed in roles that they clearly will fail in. Steve Mason has solidified the Flyer’s annual goalie grave, which is an answer to prayer to all of Philadelphia; let’s hope he continues to play well.

Rookie to watch: Scott Laughton – A comparable to Scott would be ex-Flyers captain Mike Richards, a feisty, solid two-way leader that leaves it all on the ice. Laughton captained Team Canada’s junior team last Christmas and also captained the Oshawa Generals of the OHL the past two years. Scott is a Flyer at heart and unless there is no room for him come opening day, look for him to be a top injury call-up.

4. Carolina Hurricanes – One of the biggest stories heading into the lockout two seasons ago was the Staal brothers (Eric & Jordan) both playing for the Hurricanes; fast forward to this summer and there’s much concern to whether either player can ever regain star status. Both Eric and Jordan (including the rest of the team) struggled mightily last season for Carolina. Losing Joni Pitkanen to a freak skate injury was just the first of many dominoes to fall on the Canes dreadful 2014 season. Cam Ward couldn’t find his game and just when Anton Khudobin solidified the net, he went down to injury. All these things eventually gave Coach Kirk Muller the boot. Ron Francis brought in penalty killing ace Jay McClement to help shore up the special teams. Bill Peters should be a welcomed fresh voice in the dressing room but with most of the same looking roster as last year, it’s hard to see the Canes making up any spots in the playoff race.

Rookie to watch: Victor Rask – After a solid year in the minors, this big Swede will be looking to crack the roster and make the jump to the NHL. A second round pick in 2012 looks well on his way, if not this year then certainly next. Expect Victor to be first on the injury call-up list.

5. Detroit Redwings – I just want to point out how amazing it is to have so much chemistry on one team with only one right-handed shot off the stick of Riley Sheahan. Every year these guys seem to pull it out in the end, but surely that luck has to run out sometime, no? Detroit has a lot of guys in their later years and always take time off, but the depth guys are always able to step up and fill the absent skates. Special teams were not the strong suit of the Wings last year as they had in years prior; due to injuries and lack of consistency, but nevertheless both the PP and the PK need to be better than they were. The big guns need to be in uniform a lot more than in the press box this season if Detroit is to have any success this season. 50 is the number of games that Datsyuk, Helm, Zetterberg, and Ericsson did not get to, and Franzen played in only 54. Perhaps the only reason the Wings made the playoffs were because of young stud Gustav Nyquist’s 28 goals; he’ll be on trial this season to prove he is the real deal. The issue this year is that the Wings are good if they stay healthy but too many other teams are better than they are.

Rookie to watch: Anthony Mantha – This guy absolutely annihilated the Quebec league this past year, both physically and on the score sheet. This kid is 6 foot 5 and 205 lbs, he scored 57 goals in 57 games and then 24 more in the playoffs in 24 games. He was a man amongst boys. Now the Red Wings have always brought their prospects up slowly through their farm system, but they just might have to make an exception for this guy. If he makes the squad, watch for him to produce like a 5-year veteran.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs
– Welcome to the David Clarkson show ladies and gents! But on a real note, how terrible were the Leafs last season after the Olympic break? The circus that lead Toronto last season will be back again on a new contract extension. Yes, Randy Carlyle is back again to steer the blue and white into the iceberg. Yes, that means getting outshot nightly and scoring goals at an unbelievable shooting percentage. Regardless of how skewed the numbers are for the Leafs, GM Dave Nonis made quite a few moves regarding players that nobody thought were even a part of trade discussions. The entire bottom six forward group is different from last year, and James Reimer is still a Maple Leaf. Their respective clubs swapped Carl Gunnarsson and Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas also came in to solidify the blue-line which rounds out the most notable changes in Leaf land on the ice. Are these changes enough to change the culture? No, that more has to do with the guys upstairs, such as Dubas. Unless Carlyle can change his style and teach his defense how to do their job properly, then it’s another lost cause for Toronto.

Rookie to watch: William Nylander – The Leafs top pick in the draft has some nasty hands with exceptional speed and skill. William is an exciting young talent with a young boy’s frame and it is not likely for him to stick with the Leafs but it is a possibility. A year or two in the minors would do him well in his development.

7. Buffalo Sabres
– A painful rebuild is in full swing for the Sabres. However, Buffalo is well on its way to becoming a solid franchise again with some veteran additions coming over from the Habs. Josh Gorges and Brian Gionta are both capable guys to don the C for the Sabres through this rebuild. The prospect pool in Buffalo is deeper than Mariana’s Trench. Goaltending is going to be a bit of a rollercoaster as neither Neuvirth nor Enroth have ever been a true #1 netminder, but this year both will have an opportunity to run with it. Yet, you are more than likely to see the net duties split evenly between the two until one gets hot. Perhaps the best thing going for the Sabres is Head Coach Teddy Nolan. There is never a question about his team’s work ethic, just ask team Canada about the Latvian squad. Buffalo desperately needs more offense ASAP; last year the Sabres scored 1.83 goals per game, which is almost half a goal worse than the second last team in the league, Florida, who scored 2.29 goals per game. Sophomore sniper Zemgus Girgensons will be expected to take on a major role this season while producing offensively.

Rookie to watch: Sam Reinhart – The second overall pick in the draft this past spring is an NHL ready centerman who most likely will assume 3rd line duties to begin his career behind the more established Cody Hodgson and Ennis. Sam brings terrific hockey sense, soft hands and exceptional vision with him to a team that is desperate for offense. Expect big things from this kid, he’s going to be a top candidate for the Calder trophy.

Photo: Andre Ringuette, NHLI via Getty Images

Photo: Andre Ringuette, NHLI via Getty Images

8. Ottawa Senators – Leadership has significantly changed over the course of 12 months. Not one but two captains have packed their bags and headed west to bigger and brighter cities (Alfredsson and Spezza). The leaders now consist of Chris Phillips, Chris Neil, Erik Karlsson and Kyle Turris. This is not the days of old anymore, only Phillips remembers the days of Alfie, Spezza, Heatley, Redden, Fisher and Neil. This group is going to have to dig deep and find some leaders to step up and bring Ottawa back to their Pesky Sens days. When Alfredsson left, it clearly left a giant black hole that could not be fixed. Spezza was a logical replacement but nobody could restore what number 11 did for the city of Ottawa. They now look dismantled and as easy as it is to see talented players, this team needs to become an actual team in order to win games rather than just periods. March 15th in Montreal, Quèbec was the defining moment of the Sens season last year. Up 4-1 against the Habs with fewer than 4 minutes to play and they blow the lead as well as lose in overtime. What is interesting to note is that was the second time the Sens lost 5-4 in overtime to the Habs, and in both games, the Sens had a lead in the third period. Without placing blame on Spezza or Coach Paul MacLean, the leadership clearly failed on both occasions and for much of the season. Ottawa did nothing to address that other than adding veteran centre David Legwand. It is time for the Sens to play some defense, starting most importantly with their Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson. Ottawa was 29th in the league in shots against per game 34.7 (Toronto was last with 35.9), 22nd in PK% at 80.9%, and 27th in goals against per game at 3.15. With numbers like these, it is impossible to make the playoffs, and unless the defense improves or perhaps management makes changes, then expect the Sens to be praying for a chance to draft Connor McDavid.

Rookie to watch: Curtis Lazar – He is a dynamic Memorial Cup Champion forward, capable to play any position and role asked of him. Curtis is the full package who gives his all every shift; the Sens are desperate to have more of these guys on the team. Watch for him to start out on the wing on the 3rd line in the NHL.

There you have it! I know there will be multiple disagreements, feel free to leave feedback.

 

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