The Gauntlet’s NHL 2007-08 Season Picks: Eastern Conference

By Ryan Pike

<Ottawa Senators

The Senators had a breakthrough season in 2007, besting Buffalo in the conference finals before falling to the Anaheim Ducks in the Stanley Cup Finals. Despite the setback, Ottawa retained the majority of their core from last season to keep expectations high. Luckily for Senators fans, the team seems up to the challenge. Ottawa’s offence is centered around snipers Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza. Their defence boasts Andrej Meszaros, Chris Phillips and Wade Redden, while their goaltending tandem of Ray Emery and Martin Gerber is one of the best in the league. Should their key players remain healthy, the Sens should challenge for the Cup yet again.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Sidney Crosby may be the best hockey player in the world. Before escaping his teens, Crosby was named the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. The Penguins have long been the laughingstock of the league. The addition of Crosby and other rookies, combined with bringing in key players like Gary Roberts, has transformed the crappy Penguins into a playoff threat. Assuming Crosby continues his ascent to greatness and his supporting cast perform adequately, the Penguins should handily win their division.

Florida Panthers

Sick of spending their springtime playing golf instead of playing hockey, the Florida Panthers jettisoned goalies Alex Auld and Ed Belfour, recruiting star netminder Tomas Vokoun from Nashville. The Panthers also retained their core of young players, including Nathan Horton, while adding veterans like Richard Zednik and Radek Dvorak to ease the burden on the youngsters. If Vokoun can deliver the goods like he did in Nashville, Florida should coast to the top of the Southeast Division.

New York Rangers

Since the dawn of time, the Rangers have annually underperformed and attempted to change things by throwing big-money contracts at free agents. This summer’s winners of the Big Money Rangers Contract Lottery are Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. The Rangers’ approach hasn’t always been successful, but it also resulted in their 1994 Stanley Cup win. Given that last year’s Rangers were a playoff threat to begin with, the addition of Gomez and Drury may push them over the top.

Buffalo Sabres

It’s easy to feel bad for the Buffalo Sabres. This off-season, they lost long-time players Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, while a contract war with the Edmonton Oilers meant they have to pay young Thomas Vanek $10 million this season. Losing stars like Drury and Briere will force Vanek into the spotlight, placing the success of the team on his expensive shoulders. Even with a successful 2007 season under their belts, the time for the Sabres to contend for the Cup may be passing.

Washington Capitals

Some people think Sidney Crosby is the greatest thing to hit hockey since sliced bread. If Crosby is bread, then Alexander Ovechkin is Nutella. In the past, Ovechkin has been surrounded by a mish-mash of compadres consisting of rookies, grinders and Olaf Kolzig. This year’s Capitals promise to feature wisened rookies, fewer grinders and… Olaf Kolzig. The additional help recruited for Ovechkin–a particular rookie Nicklas Backstrom–should push the Caps to their first playoff appearance since 2003.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils will only ever go as far as Martin Brodeur will carry them. Over the years, many other Devils have made the load lighter for Brodeur, allowing him to carry them further than many would suspect. The loss of key players like Brian Rafalski and Scott Gomez will make the load much heavier for Brodeur than in recent years, but they should remain a playoff threat for this season.

Montreal Canadiens

Though the NHL’s oldest franchise, the Habs haven’t been a playoff contender since the mid ’90s. There was a lot of player movement in the off-season–the Canadiens ditched Radek Bonk, Sheldon Souray and Sergei Samsonov while bringing in Bryan Smolinski, Roman Hamrlik and Patrice Brisebois. The moves were rather lateral, making the Canadiens–at least on paper–as good as they were last year. This will probably result in another playoff berth for Montreal.

The rest

9. New York Islanders

10. Boston Bruins

11. Atlanta Thrashers

12. Philadelphia Flyers

13. Tampa Bay Lightning

14. Toronto Maple Leafs

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