Monday, February 4, 2013

2013 NHL Season Preview: Eastern Conference

After a lengthy, nearly 3 month delay, the NHL regular season has arrived – a shortened one at that.  We will see over 700 games across 30 teams played in less than 100 days – talk about jam packed wall to wall hockey!  Is that a good or bad thing many will ask?  I find the 48 game regular season just about right where I would want to see it versus the typical 82 game slate.  If I were commissioner of the NHL I would set up a 59 game regular season laid out as such:
  • Play each of your divisional rivals 6 times (3H/3A) for 24 games
  • Play each team in other two divisions of your conference home and home for 20 games
  • Play each team in the other conference once, rotating home/away every other season for 15 games
That would set up a schedule of 59 games.  I would also start the season later around Thanksgiving and have it run through early April as it currently does.  I would keep the playoffs as is, 8 teams per conference, and have that run from early April through early June. I would play strictly every other night, so with 4 rounds going that would be maximum 60 days. I would target ending the Stanley Cup Finals before the NBA Finals start so as to not compete with the NBA for viewers.
Either way I believe this upcoming season will be extremely exciting with all the action in a short period of time, which will lead to potentially interesting playoff matchups with some underdog teams having an increased chance of reaching them, and younger legs potentially offering an advantage as the season goes on and the playoffs arrive.
Let’s set that aside and get into the nitty gritty – I will project each division’s final standings with a thought or two on each team, forecast the playoff seeds (* indicates projected playoff team), play out the playoffs and tell you right here who will lift Lord Stanley’s Cup sometime in mid-June.
Eastern Conference
Atlantic Division
  1. *Pittsburgh Penguins: the team is finally healthy heading into the new season.  C Sidney Crosby has only played in 63 combined regular season games over the last two seasons including just 22 in 2011-2012.  Last year’s NHL MVP and top scorer C Evgeni Malkin is also ready to roll and build off his 109 point / +18 rating season.  The Pens enter this season with a poor taste in their mouth following their crushing loss to in-state rival Philadelphia in the opening round of last year’s playoffs.  Expect a fully healthy Penguins squad to make a lot of noise come May.
  2. *New York Rangers: last year the Rangers made their first Eastern Conference Finals since the Gretzky/Messier led Blue Shirts of ’96-’97.  And once again just like that year it ended with a bitter defeat to a divisional rival, this time the New Jersey Devils.  The addition of LW Rick Nash will help the top line, but they gave up some depth to acquire him.  Its Stanley Cup or bust for the Rangers in 2013, and in order to take that next step they will need stronger goaltending in the spring from Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist, like they got last season, along with more goal scoring especially on the PP which hopefully Nash and a 100% Ryan Callahan can add.
  3. *New Jersey Devils: showing the depth and quality of the Atlantic division, the reigning Eastern Conference champion Devils I project to finish 3rd, but in the playoffs once again.  Their run through the EC last season came as a surprise to many, but they got a favorable draw, took advantage, and played some of their best hockey of the season at the right time.  G Martin Brodeur continues to defy father time, but how long can he continue playing at a high level – and what impact will the compacted season have on his performance?
  4. *New York Islanders: in an out of the ordinary projection I have the Isles escaping the Atlantic division basement for the first time in 5 years, mostly driven by the younger roster, talent offensively, and the return of G Evgeni Nabokov to 100% after missing half of last season injured.  One key area for the Isles will be to improve their performance vs. divisional rivals: 8-13-3 last season will not cut it for them to take that next jump and compete for a playoff berth.  Matter of fact, the Isles have not gone above .500 in divisional play since the ’06-’07, not coincidentally the last time they finished out of the basement, and also reached the playoffs.  Hopefully their younger, presumably fresher legs can compete vs. the Pens, Rangers, Devils & Flyers – which is the only way they will earn a playoff spot.
  5. Philadelphia Flyers: the last time someone other than the NYI finished in last place was the ’06-’07 season – and it was the Flyers. I feel like history will repeat itself this year as Philadelphia didn’t do enough to improve their squad over the extended offseason – and they still have questionable goaltending in the name of Ilya Bryzgalov.  The Flyers were only 11-11-2 vs. the ATL last season; they picked up most of their points vs. the rest of the NHL including 11-5-2 in inter-conference play – which will not be an option this season.  I am picking the Islanders to finish above the Flyers mostly because of goaltending, the compacted season, and the fact I feel Philly will struggle more than NYI vs. the rest of the Atlantic.
Northeast Division
  1. *Boston Bruins: although B2 suffered an early exit from last year’s playoffs defending their Stanley Cup championship from the year earlier they are well positioned to again be a high seed in the East, and excel in the playoffs.  The goalie position has been handed over to Tukka Rask after a solid run for Tim Thomas, which should only help as Rask put up better numbers compared to Thomas recently.  In a bit of irony, the Bruins struggled vs. the SE division last season – very odd considering that is the lightest division in hockey.  I feel they is significant upside there, which will be somewhat offset by them not quite reaching 19 divisional wins this year – but it will all add up to one of the best records in the NHL, and the B’s seeking their 2nd Cup in 3 years.
  2. *Ottawa Senators: a tough second round elimination by NYR last season should only serve as fuel on the fire, and a launching point for the young Senators.  The key to them narrowing the gap vs. the Bruins is division performance: last year BOS was 19-4-1 while OTT was just 9-12-3 – that is an 18pt difference between the two teams, and OTT wound up 10pts behind division winner BOS.  Look for the divisional play, especially this season when the schedule is even more weighted towards such, to tell the story as to how far the Senators have come.
  3. Montreal Canadiens: the ’11-’12 campaign was a hugely disappointing one for MON as they finished in last place with just 78 points – the worst mark in the Eastern Conference – which followed 4 straight seasons of playoff berths.  In order to get back to the tournament they must improve a PP unit that finished last in the Eastern Conference and 28th in the NHL scoring just 14.3% of their chances.  If they can do that, their goal differential wasn’t horrendous last season meaning many close losses – a few PP goals here and there could be the difference between making the playoffs and missing for the 2nd straight season in a tough Eastern Conference.
  4. Buffalo Sabres: like MON, BUF missed the playoffs last season but had a respectable goal differential of (12) – that mark was 7th best in the Eastern Conference.    While they enjoyed moderate success vs. divisional opponents posting the second most points in the NE only behind BOS, there is some cause for concern considering the Sabres went 9-1-1 vs. the Pacific and Northwest last year – two divisions they will not be playing this season.  Quite simply G Ryan Miller needs to bring his game back to the top of the NHL – the gap between his performance and Vezina winner Lundqvist was larger than ever as Miller posted a GAA of 2.54 vs. Lundqvist’s mark of 1.97.  Buffalo isn’t talented enough on the blue line to make some serious noise this season unless Miller can get his GAA below 2.25 – and so far it hasn’t been a good start posting a 3.11 through 8 games.
  5. Toronto Maple Leafs: I have seen many a preview magazine projecting big things for the Leafs this season – but I frankly do not see it with this team.  Last year TOR finished just 2pts ahead of 15th place MON in the East, and I didn’t see enough moves in the offseason to justify projecting them to reach the playoffs in this strike shortened season.  One of the biggest areas to focus on when projecting team by team records this season is performance last year in divisional games because they will have an even bigger impact this year as mentioned above – and last year the Leafs picked up only 19pts in divisional play, worst in the Northeast & only behind the Islanders and Lightning in the Eastern Conference.  Also of note for TOR is their terrible goals allowed figure, which was 264, good for 2nd worst in the Eastern Conference.  With the top of this division strong as ever with Boston Stanley Cup contenders, the Senators as a solid playoff team, and Montreal a talented club on the fringe – considering the depth in the Atlantic with all five teams having a shot at making the playoffs, I do not see many scenarios that include the Leafs come late April.
Southeast Division
  1. *Tampa Bay Lightning: TB has only reached the playoffs in just one of the last five seasons, which has to be considered extremely disappointing and underachieving when taking into account all the offensive talent the ‘Ning feature, combined with playing in the worst division in all of hockey.  One of the main statistical culprits for missing the playoffs last season was PK – any mark sub 80.0% needs some work, and TB checked in at 79.3%, 2nd worst in the Eastern Conference (only behind TOR) & 26th in the NHL.  As mentioned above their offense is there, although some would argue it too underachieves – but they did lead the SE scoring 235 goals last year.  The clear problem was a defense that allowed a whopping 281 goals last season!  Just how bad is 281 goals allowed?  Last year’s Stanley Cup Champion LA allowed more than 100 less goals checking in at 179; last year’s Eastern Conference #1 seed NYR allowed almost 100 less @ 187; its 35 more goals allowed than 2nd worst in the SE WIN – you get the picture.  I didn’t see too many impact moves made on the back line but I feel this offense is waiting to make a big splash, and in the Southeast Division, I am calling for the “long shot” Lightning to win it.
  2. *Carolina Hurricanes: although the Canes are coming off a last place finish they were only 2pts behind 3rd place TB in ’11-’12.  CAR played some solid hockey vs. most of their opponents last year, but the rugged ATL division was the culprit leading to their last place finish – a 3-14-3 record will be impossible to overcome, even with a very strong 13-3-4 mark vs. the NE.  There were no glaring standouts as far as statistics go explaining why CAR struggled last year, which could be a sign of improvement in this campaign.  A definite good sign was their performance under new HC Kirk Muller – the Canes earned points in 37 of the 57 games played when he was the head man.  Also, they did improve via free agency adding F Alexander Semin & C Jordan Staal – Jordan will re-unite with his older brother Eric, who is one of the better under the radar players in the league.  If G Cam Ward can bounce-back from last year’s disappointing season where he posted a 2.74 GAA (his worst since the ’07-’08 campaign), and if the defense can hold up a little better, they should be right in the mix for a playoff spot considering the boost along the front line.
  3. Washington Capitals: it has certainly been a sluggish start to the 2013 campaign for the Caps, but it’s still relatively early although 9 games is the equivalent to 15 games in a regular 82 game season.  So there is some cause for concern with WAS sitting in the basement, earning just 5pts in 9 games played, along with the worst goal differential (12) in the NHL – but there is a lot of season left, especially playing in the SE division.  To this point defense has been their Achilles heel allowing 3+ goals in 7 of 9 games, and allowing 2 goals in the other two!  You will not fare well allowing 3+ goals per game in the NHL, we all know that.  Last season the Capitals played well against the Eastern Conference picking up 34 of their 42 wins there – that was good for best mark in the SE & disregarding the dominant ATL division was only behind BOS in the East.  The Caps always have one of the best home ice edges in the NHL, and it was solid once again last season as WAS posted a 26-11-4 record, which only trailed PIT (29) & NYR (27) in home ice wins.  But on the road they were only able to muster 16 wins – to be a true challenger and achieve a solid seed 6-8 more road wins are needed; and this season hasn’t started any better in that area as the Caps are 0-3.  WAS has the offense to compete with the East’s best teams if fully healthy – the entire key to their season will once again, as it always seems to be with the Caps (and Flyers for that matter) is goaltending: rookie Braden Holtby was stellar in the playoffs last season and appears to have a very bright future in front of him – which brings a huge smile to the face of Cap fans – maybe they FINALLY, after all these years searching for a goaltender to replace their last solid one which seems like it was Pete Peters from ages ago, have found their man.  G Braden Holtby, all of 23 years old, will be the key to their season.
  4. Florida Panthers: the defending SE division champs – yes, after not finishing ONCE above 3rd place in the weak SE division this century since realignment, the Panthers rallied the troops last year to win their FIRST DIVISION TITLE since joining the NHL in the 1993-1994 season!  Hard to believe it took that long, but it did – and it was a short lived playoff losing in the opening round to the eventual Eastern Conference champion NJ in 7 games.  The Panthers have only reached the playoffs 4 times in their existence – and only won playoff series’ in one of those instances, ’95-’96 when they advanced to the Stanley Cup finals only to lose to the Avalanche; in their other 3 appearances they lost to the Rangers in 5, and twice to the Devils (last year and in ’99-’00 were swept).  Can they build off last year’s “magical” run?  The answer is most likely no, but it’s certainly possible as in this division I feel everyone is alive and has a chance to win it – look no further than last year. There are however numerous red flags rising from the Panthers heading into this year – the main one is their negative goal differential (24) last year!  How rare is a negative goal differential for division winning teams?  It has not happened outside the Panthers last year this century – the two closest times it came to occurring were coincidentally (is it a coincidence or just another sign of the SE division being poor) a pair of SE division winners as the ’06-’07 Thrashers were just +1, and the ’01-’02 Hurricanes were 0.  But with all this negative talk what does bode well for the Panthers is a record last year vs. the Eastern Conference of 33-19-12 – only the Rangers had fewer losses.  And with this year’s schedule featuring only games vs. the East that should help the Panthers some – but a correction is overdue based on goal differential, which likely leads to the Panthers going back to where they are used to – missing the playoffs.
  5. Winnipeg Jets: this franchise has missed the playoffs for five straight seasons and frankly there is little reason to believe that will change this season.  The Jets did post the best record amongst the division in divisional matchups last year going 14-6-4 – so it’s hard to believe the team only posted 84 points in a 4th place finish (only 2pts ahead of last place CAR).  With last year’s move north of the border, a city that used to have an NHL franchise (now the Phoenix Coyotes), I am sure some of the emotion that was in the building night after night will be downgraded some – which will not help this team.  Defense & goaltending are typically problems here, and with that in mind they re-signed G Ondrej Pavelec to a 5yr deal this offseason, hoping he will be the long term solution.  The problem is he has not posted a GAA below 2.73 in 3 years of playing full time – and at 25 years old, although he still hasn’t reached his peak presumably, the question has to be will he ever turn into that big time goalie that is needed to be a true Stanley Cup contender?  I have my doubts for sure.  There is also concern with their top goal scorer, Evander Kane, who has done some nice things on the ice including scoring 30 goals last year & improving his points every season since joining the lineup; but his off the ice issues are rubbing some of his teammates and management the wrong way.  He does not appear to be the leader this team is seeking.  Considering those two players are probably the biggest keys to the Jets it’s hard to see them escaping the SE basement in 2012.

Playoff Seed Projections
#1 Pittsburgh Penguins
#2 Boston Bruins
#3 Tampa Bay Lightning
#4 New York Rangers
#5 New Jersey Devils
#6 Carolina Hurricanes
#7 Ottawa Senators
#8 New York Islanders

Semifinal Round
#1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #6 Carolina Hurricanes
#2 Boston Bruins vs. #4 New York Rangers

Eastern Conference Final
#1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #2 Boston Bruins

Eastern Conference Champion: Pittsburgh Penguins

That is a preview of the Eastern Conference for 2012!  I see the Penguins and Bruins being the best EC teams all year long, and those two will not trip up early in the playoffs this season like last & will face off with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals going to the winner.  So long as the Penguins remain healthy I believe they will win the East in a very hard fought series. 
It will be a very exciting season with so many games jam packed into consecutive nights!  Also consider all the divisional contests that will be taking place over the 48 games – should be many exciting games, with tons of short fuses, physical play & rivalries heating up all over the NHL these next two months!
Check back towards the end of this week when the Western Conference is posted.

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