Breakdown: By far the toughest division in the NHL. The top four teams made the playoffs last year and could make it there again this season. New Jersey, the defending champs, lost some offense with the departure of Winger Brian Gionta (Montreal), but still have a healthy Martin Brodeur to make them contenders. Philadelphia received standout Defensemen Chris Pronger from Anaheim in the offseason. New York received a gift in Marian Gaborik (Minnesota) in free agency. Not to mention Henrik Lundqvist is still in net for them. The Islanders got the supposed savior John Tavares in the Draft, but it won’t be enough to get out of the cellar this year. The defending Stanley Cup champs Pittsburgh are in line to repeat with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the way. They have to fend off the losses of Rob Scuderi (Los Angeles) and Hal Gill (Montreal) on defense. Plus the rest of the NHL to win.
Storyline: Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending. That has to be in this division. The Islanders had ten goalies in camp it seemed. Who will they settle on between Martin Biron, Dwayne Roloson or Rick DiPietro? Philadelphia is going with Ray Emery. Yes, RAY EMERY. Good luck with that. The Rangers have the best in net with Lundqvist. Jersey has Brodeur to get them at least 30 wins. Can Penguins goalie Marc Andre-Fleury continue on the success of a Stanley Cup championship in net?
Player to watch: John Tavares NY Islanders. Being the first pick brings a lot of unnecessary pressure. And boy does he have pressure. The Islanders haven’t mattered in a long time. Tavares is being thrown into the ocean without a life vest. A good, all be it young core is in place, but the powers that be need to be patient and not rush to judgment on this team and its coach. Aka the Lightning from last year.
5. Maple Leafs
Breakdown: You could argue this was the most disappointing division last year. Ottawa was expected to contend and Buffalo was better than they played. Boston finished with the best record last year in the conference, but could be the third best team this year. Trading Phil Kessel to division rival Toronto will hurt, but not in the long haul. The Leafs still have some holes, but are a year or two away from contention. Francois Beauchemin was a great pickup for Toronto by the way. The Bruins did add Defensemen Derek Morris and Tim Thomas is, well still Tim Thomas last I checked. Having Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara is not bad either. Montreal reloaded getting Gionta (New Jersey), Mike Cammalleri (Calgary) for the offense to replace Alex Kovalev (Ottawa) and Alex Tanguay (Tampa Bay). On defense they did add some good ones in Gill (Pittsburgh), Paul Mara (Rangers) and Jaroslav Spacek (Buffalo). The Sabres are going with the youth movement and are counting on another 40+ goal performance from Thomas Vanek. A healthy goalie in Ryan Miller wouldn’t hurt either. Ottawa got rid of the cancer to be in Dany Heatley (San Jose) and received Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek in return. Kovalev wasn’t a bad pickup either.
Storyline: Will a someone dethrone the Bruins? Highly doubtful, but anything is possible. With all the spending the Canadiens did this offseason and the moves Toronto made. Ottawa getting rid of the leftovers and Buffalo healthy. This could be a very competitive division. Key word “could.” I like surprises and that would be a surprise to me. Next year though, not so much.
Player to watch: Carey Price Montreal. After that great rookie season two seasons ago, the pressure got to him with all the bicentennial celebration of the franchise. It showed in his play. He has to bounce back and help them show all that spending was not for a 7th or 8th seed in the playoffs. 23-16 with a 2.83 GAA and a save percentage of .905 will not cut it.
Breakdown: The Capitals are the class of this division. It starts with Alex Ovechkin and pretty much ends with Ovechkin. Washington will miss Viktor Kozlov, but Mike Knuble (Philadelphia) was a great veteran addition. Carolina surprised everyone making it to the conference finals last year. They have taken two huge steps forward and can’t afford to take any steps back. Goalie Cam Ward needs to remain the rock for this team and the offense needs to improve on last years success at the end. Florida will be hurt without Jay Bouwmeester (Calgary) on defense. He was the best player they had, but this young team needs to improve upon the fact that they almost made the playoffs. Unfortunately for Florida, Atlanta and Tampa Bay made moves that improved their chances. Atlanta signing Nik Antropov (Rangers) and trading for Pavel Kubina (Tampa Bay) were huge moves. Ilya Kovalcuk is happy and might stay if Atlanta can contend with the likes of Washington and Carolina. The Lightning, after a disastrous start last year, have one thing on their side. It can’t get any worse from here on out. Signing Mattias Ohlund (Vancouver) and Alex Tanguay (Montreal) were great additions and this young team will be looking to prove everyone wrong about last year.
Storyline: Scoring. I foresee some high scoring games from these teams this year. No disrespect to the goalies, but all five of these teams can score. We know about Washington with Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Mike Green. Carolina with Eric Staal, Erik Cole and Chad LaRose. Tampa Bay with Vincent Lecavalier, Ryan Malone and Martin St. Louis. Florida with David Booth, Nathan Horton and Michael Frolik. Atlanta with Kovalchuk, Colby Armstrong and Rookie Evander Kane. Those are some pretty interesting scoring lineups. Scary good.
Player to watch: Alex Ovechkin Washington. There really isn’t anyone else. The most electrifying hockey player today is darn near impossible to stop. Will he finally get the Capitals into the conference finals this year? Could very well happen. They have to avoid the goalie problem they had last year and not look tired and out of it at the end. You shouldn’t lose a Game 7 at home and they unfortunately did. Against the soon to be champion Penguins and rival Sidney Crosby. Ovechkin I’m sure is looking to get back and take the cup this time.
1. Red Wings*
3. Blue Jackets*
Breakdown: We all know who the class of this division is. Chicago is right on the cusp of taking over though. Detroit lost two players to Chicago in free agency. Marina Hossa will be a great addition to the offense that includes Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Adding John Madden (New Jersey) will help for the Hawks defense and penalty killing. No one knew if they could replace Martin Havlat (Minnesota), but they did with Hossa. Detroit also lost Mikael Samuelsson (Vancouver), but picked up Todd Bertuzzi (Calgary) and Patrick Eaves (Hurricanes). With Niklas Lidstrom leading the defense, Detroit should be in line for another playoff berth. St. Louis shocked the hockey world by blowing past everyone for the 6th seed last season. The young core of Erik Johnson on defense and Patrik Berglund on offense should be ready to capitalize on the early success. Goalie Chris Mason was a nice surprise, but they must keep his minutes down. Hence the addition of backup Ty Conklin (Detroit). Columbus didn’t go all out in the offseason, but made the smart moves. Locking up star Rick Nash was huge. Adding Sami Pahlsson (Chicago) was a subtle move, but will prove to be a big one come playoff time. Goalie Steve Mason can’t have a sophomore slump for Columbus to contend. Nashville might have the worst record in the league this year. Defensemen Shea Weber is the lone star of a roster that lacks the offensive explosion to compete in this division. The team is in financial turmoil and it could be their last in Nashville.
Storyline: Can Chicago dethrone Detroit? Last years conference finals were really a pre cursor to what is going to happen this year. The Blackhawks will have it go down to the wire for who wins this division and maybe the conference. Will Hossa be in his third straight Stanley Cup final with a different team? Another intriguing plot line in this season long scenario.
Player to watch: Cristobal Huet Chicago. It’s his job to lose now. Khabibulin is out of the picture now Huet has to prove he is the man. Chicago is a potential cup contender this year. The only weakspot is with the goalie. A 30 win season would be a tremendous accomplishment. It is possible with Brian Campbell, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in front of him. Don’t be too fancy, just do enough not to lose the game. Like they say with rookie quarterbacks. Just manage the game.
Breakdown: It’s really going to be a fight between Calgary and Vancouver for this division. The Flames have probably the best trio of defenders this year in Bouwmeester (Florida), Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr. Captain Jarome Iginla leads the offense with goalie Miikka Kiprusoff the constant winner in the net. Vancouver lost Mattias Ohlund (Tampa Bay) on defense, but gained Mikael Samuelsson (Detroit) for their offense. The Sedin twins came back and with the best goalie in the NHL Roberto Luongo in net, the Canucks will be back in contention. Minnesota added Martin Havlat (Chicago) who is coming off a career year. The Wild lost their star player Marian Gaborik (Rangers) in free agency. The new regime will let loose the conservative attitude in Minnesota and let Owen Nolan, Andrew Brunette and Havlat run Wild (pardon the pun). Edmonton lost a piece of their offense in Ales Kotalik (Rangers). With the rumors of getting Dany Heatley in the offseason, they now have to focus on coming together for new coach Pat Quinn. Defensemen Sheldon Souray is the one constant on both sides of the ice. New goalie Nikolai Khabibulin (Chicago) will look to make the Oilers contenders. It is a full on rebuilding mode for Colorado. Joe Sakic has retired. Ryan Smyth (Los Angeles) was traded. The future lies with first round pick Matt Duchene to succeed Sakic and Paul Stastny could very well be a great player for many years.
Storyline: Roberto Luongo vs. Miikka Kiprusoff. Every time the Calgary Flames play the Vancouver Canucks, it will be a low scoring affair. Kiprusoff had 40+ wins last year and Luongo is capable of matching Kiprusoff in wins and saving over 92 percent of shots coming his way. Luongo is hands down the best goalie right now. In his prime and with a new extension. Kiprusoff is one of the best, but can he overthrow Luongo for the crown. It will interesting to see.
Player to watch: Olli Jokinen Calgary. When he was acquired last year at the trade deadline, everyone assumed the Flames would run away with the division and possibly pass Detroit for the second seed. It didn’t happen though. In large part to a stumbling Jokinen and company that couldn’t buy a goal. They got kicked out of the first round by Chicago as the 5th seed. Jokinen needs to have a good season in Calgary or that defense and goaltender will be under enormous pressure to win for the Flames.
Breakdown: GM Doug Wilson said he would not dismantle the team after finishing with the best record in the NHL and getting knocked out in the first round. Instead he added another piece with the acquisition of Dany Heatley (Ottawa). Rob Blake and Dan Boyle are still the mainstays on defense. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are both the leaders on offense. Evgeni Nabokov is still a solid goaltender that gets you 30+ wins. The Ducks have perhaps the best starting line in the game. Ryan Getzlaf in the middle with Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan on the wings. These three gave the Sharks and Red Wings fits last year in the playoffs. J.S. Giguere will battle emerging goaltender Jonas Hiller for the starting job, but who ever wins, the Ducks have a great tandem. Los Angeles is the dark horse here. Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty emerged last year as future stars that will get the Kings to the postseason sooner rather than later. All they need is for Jonathan Quick to take hold of the goaltender spot and they’ll be in. Acquiring Ryan Smyth (Colorado) and Rob Scuderi (Pittsburgh) were the best moves of the offseason. Dallas is not quite rebuilding, but retooling is more like it. A new coach and new style are in place. An uptempo system that relies on the defensemen to push the puck up the ice more. Captain Brenden Morrow needs to stay healthy and goalie Marty Turco needs to rebound from a dismal season. Phoenix has had a tumultuous summer. With all the court hearings and whether or not Wayne Gretzky would coach has come to an end for now. Gretzky is gone and replaced with former Dallas coach Dave Tippett. A great move considering this is a lost year for them. Captain Shane Doan might be trade bait from the jump and the young stars might take a few steps back after showing such promise.
Storyline: Will Phoenix be able to compete with all the distractions? Regardless of the what happened and didn’t happen in the offseason, the players still have to play. Shane Doan is all but gone. Youngsters Peter Mueller and Keith Yandle showed great skills the last two years under Gretzky, but they couldn’t get Phoenix to the next level. Tippett should be able to do that, but how long will he be around? Things look to get worse for this franchise. The NHL need to do what’s best for Phoenix and not the league.
Player to watch: Dany Heatley San Jose. He got his wish. Now he needs to just stay low and play hockey. The Sharks are counting on him being a contributor not the centerpiece in their offense. His 35 playoff points in 34 career games are what San Jose was after. Heatley has not performed well under pressure in his career. San Jose is a small market, but they have been a disappointment the last couple seasons. Doug Wilson is betting his job that Heatley will get the Sharks out of the first round and possibly into the conference finals. They are still contenders with or without him, but a lot of blame will come his way if they don’t get out of the first round.
Chicago vs. Detroit
Pittsburgh vs. Washington
Chicago vs. Pittsburgh