NHL Preview: The East

By Lawrence Bailey

1. Ottawa Senators

There is no team in the National Hockey League with the top-to-bottom talent of the Senators. They boast a pair of Norris-caliber defensemen with Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara, a trio of forwards capable of finishing in the top 10 in league scoring with Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, and one of the greatest goalies of all time, Dominik Hasek, who has something to prove and an incredibly well-rested body.

In the playoffs, question marks abound to be sure, but this is a team that will dominate the regular season like no other, win every shoot out they find themselves in and may challenge the 1976-1977 Montreal Canadiens’ record for most points in a season (132).

They are the class of the NHL.

2. Philadelphia Flyers

Can they stay healthy? Can Robert Esche hold his own? Can their defense adapt to the new NHL? There are some real questions surrounding the Flyers this season, but rest assured that even without Peter Forsberg (should he be injured) or with mediocre netminding, this is a club that will do very well in an incredibly weak Eastern Conference.

Two of the year’s more dynamic rookies will figure prominently in the Broad Street Bullies’ success as both Jeff Carter and Mike Richards are more than ready to contribute at an NHL level. And slick defenseman Kim Johnsson will be a revelation in the new NHL.

3. Florida Panthers

Yeah, that’s right, the Florida Panthers. Why? Four reasons: leadership, coaching, goaltending and a combined 24 games against the Canes, Caps and Thrashers.

Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk bring diminishing skills to South Florida, but they also bring a work ethic and a knowledge of what it takes to win in the NHL. Other veteran additions like Martin Gelinas and Jozef Stumpel further bolster a phenomenal core of young forwards, and I would be stunned if General Manager Mike Keenan doesn’t add a legit top four defenseman to this club before Christmas.

Top that off with one of the league’s best coaches, Jacques Martin, and the second best goalie in the world, Roberto Luonguo, and the Panthers will surprise a lot of people. Did I mention they play the Caps and Canes eight times apiece?

4. Tampa Bay Lightning

As they look to defend their Stanley Cup title, the Bolts have a pair of black marks against them.

First off, they are the hunted; as defending champs, they have a big ole bullseye on their back. Last season, they were dismissed by many as a free wheelin’, high scoring club that wouldn’t get it done in the post-season. Guess what? They won. Teams won’t be caught off guard this year, even if their style of play is tailor-made for the new NHL.

Second, the Bulin Wall moved to the Midwest and replacements John Grahame and Sean Burke have never been more than adequate starters. The Bolts will be blessed with the same good fortune as the Cats–having three of the league’s worst teams in their division–but will be riddled with holes when matched up against offensive powerhouses like Ottawa, Philly, and Pittsburgh.

5. New Jersey Devils

Damned Devils, they always find a way to compete. That said, they won’t be quite as dominant this year as in years past–losing Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens will knock you down a peg, as will having Patrick Elias out with hepatitis until around Christmas.

But, don’t forget Martin Brodeur. Some goalies will see a drop off as they adjust to new equipment, new rules and the like, and Marty will likely get some penalties for handling the puck, but he is still far and away the league’s top netminder and he will win games for you on his own.

Also, with a wonderful stable of good, cheap, young talent to hedge against the injury bug, the Devils are poised to have another solid campaign.

6. Montreal Canadiens

Last NHL season, the Habs were a plucky bunch of kids who played over their heads and relied on netminder Jose Theodore to bail them out. That said, they made the playoffs and knocked off the second-seeded Boston Bruins once they got there.

This year, they have Alexei Kovalev, a dazzling array of exciting, fast, skilled young talent and an underrated defensive corps that will be well suited to the emphasis on skating and sound positional play in the new NHL.

The most successful franchise in league history will be alright this year and is a couple seasons away from being a powerhouse in the East.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins

What a delicious enigma this club will be: Lemieux, Palffy, Crosby, Leclair, Recchi, Gonchar. The offensive talent is unreal; the best collection since, well, the Penguins of the early 1990s. That said, Jocelyn Thibault is no world-stopper and Steve Poapst, Josef Melichar and Lyle Odelein don’t instill faith as regulars on the blue line.

Look for the Pens to lose as many 7-5 games as they win. But with the proven leaders they boast up front, the Pens’ faithful should get their first taste of post-season hockey since Jagr, Kovalev, Lang, Straka and Mario led them there in 2000-2001.

8. Buffalo Sabres

Buffalo will fly under the radar for much of the season for one simple reason: they aren’t going to be flashy. They could well be one of the few teams with no 30-goal scorers, although they might boast the most with 20 goals.

A quick glimpse at the Sabres roster on opening night will show you that from the first-line forwards to the third pairing D men and the masked men between the pipes, Buffalo is a very, very solid team.

I expect the battle between them and the Boston Bruins to come down to the wire, however, closing out against the Leafs and the Canes will make or break the Sabres.

9. Boston Bruins

One of the long off-season’s great questions was what the Bruins were going to look like come October 2005. They had only six players under contract, meaning there was a lot of money and a lot of freedom when it came to building a new-look club.

One problem: the Bruins are one of the most god-awful franchises at money management in the history of pro sports.

After nearly losing on ice leader and captain Joe Thornton due to contract quibbling, the Beantowners low-balled 2004 rookie of the year goalie Andrew Raycroft, forcing him to miss the beginning of training camp, and have yet to sign solid young blueliner Nick Boynton.

On paper there’s a lot of talent here, but a blueline boasting a current top four of Brian Leetch, Ian Moran, Hal Gill and Jiri Slegr is going to kill any post-season aspirations they may have had.

10. Atlanta Thrashers

There is one huge question mark when it comes to Atlanta: his name is Ilya Kovalchuk. As it stands, he is in Russia and, surprise surprise, wants a buttload of cash to come back to Georgia. Whether he does or not, the Thrashers will still be a potent offensive team with the likes of Hossa, Bondra, Savard and Holik, but Kovy is obviously a huge piece of the puzzle.

I think Kovalchuk will ultimately be in Atlanta this year, as both the front office and ownership are hell bent on having him there, but the real X-Factor in my mind is rookie netminder Kari Lehtonen. He is, by all accounts, an absolute stud. But the question is whether or not he can play at the NHL level right away. The Thrashers hedged their bets, picking up veteran Mike Dunham to back him up.

But their biggest bright spot? They are essentially spotted 30 points from their games against Carolina and Washington.

11. New York Islanders

The NHL’s version of the Power Puff girls summarises this year’s Islanders. The new NHL may favour skill and speed, but no team in any league would be well served with Alexei Yashin as captain and “born leaders” like Miro Satan and Mark Parrish lending a hand.

Poor Mike York. I’ve always liked the guy, but he will be hating life come January. Maybe he can get a nice little injury to keep him from suffering too much on the Island.

Also, how is it that Mike Milbury still has a job?

12. Carolina Hurricanes

Poor Carolina. Even when they were in Hartford they were awful. Now they’re awful and have no fans. “Hartford? The Whale? They beat Vancouver once, maybe twice in a lifetime!”

Yeah, yeah, they added soft inconsistent scoring forwards Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman. What? Was Val Bure taken? He was?!? Wow…

Thank God for Mike Commodore’s hair and the Caps. Without that, Carolina’s 4,000 faithful might get bored.

13. Toronto Maple Leafs

So it has come to this. The Leafs still get a lot of love from Canadian media simply because they know who pays their bills. But seriously, when three of your key players (Eric Lindros, Jason Allison and Eddie Belfour) are good bets to spend more time in the hospital than on the ice, what kind of damage will you actually be able to do?

Even if by some miraculous turn of events the Leafs avoid the injury bug, this just isn’t a very good team. I remember a few years back I had a friend who used to yell “put another Iggy on!” at Flames games. I’m saying it will be about mid-November when we see the first “Clone Mats” sign at the ACC.

14. New York Rangers

You know what? The Rangers are finally doing what they should have done six years ago, and they are going to be a much better team and franchise for it.

But not this year. Whoa nelly, not this year.

If Jaromir Jagr is still putting in an effort in calendar 2006, I will be stunned. This team will be baaaad. Poor Kevin Weekes. He’s like the Shareef Abdur-Rahim of the NHL–a good player who always ends up on bad teams.

15. Washington Capitals

Their second line, as it stands, is Brian Willsie, Jeff Halpern and Dainus Zubrus. Chris Clark is a key part of their third line. They have no NHL caliber defensemen beyond Brenden Witt, Shaone Morrisonn, and Steve Eminger (and Witt has asked for a trade while the other two are rookies).

At least they’ll be able to add Phil Kessel next season to flounder along with Alexander Ovechkin. Granted, with their luck, they’ll lose the draft lottery.