2009-2010 NHL Season Preview and Predictions – Eastern Conference

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By UltimateCapper.com Contributing Writer, Mike Ivcic

After two years of Penguins-Red Wings, it might be that the sun is finally dawning on a new day in the NHL. No, Pittsburgh isn’t going to fade away and collapse, and for that matter, neither will Detroit. That said, this could be one of the best Eastern Conferences in years, with at least seven teams entering the season thinking they can reach the Stanley Cup finals with a realistic vision. Rather than go team by team, this preview will throw out some small nuggets of facts and then lay out a prediction for the season. I was about 50-50 with baseball back in April – let’s see if October is any kinder.

One of the biggest things about a new season is discovering all of the moves every team made and who was signed and traded. For starters, a handful of acquisitions standout, so let’s get into those now:

An interesting aspect of this offseason specifically was the trade for defenseman Chris Pronger by the Flyers. The move will certainly help the backline, but this is a team that’s in a stacked division that still lacks the one crucial component to a championship – a discernable, bonafide number one goaltender. Martin Biron is good and signing Ray Emery was smart, but neither is outstanding, and the Flyers are in a division with possibly the best goalie ever (Brodeur), a gold-medal winner (Lundqvist), and now a Stanley Cup champion (Fleury). Sure, they will score in bunches, but this franchise has yet to figure out that in order to win a Cup in the modern NHL, the single biggest factor is goaltending, and until they do, they’ll be a good, but not great, team.

Another deal that just recently developed was Boston shipping Phil Kessel to Toronto. Fans and management in Boston both seemed to feel as though something was missing from the extremely talented Kessel, so much so that they elected to trade him to a division rival. The flip side is that Toronto is clearly in rebuilding mode, and a player like Kessel brings youth and excitement to a team that has lacked both in the past. For the Bruins, it shouldn’t be hard to fill the void offensively, and the haul of picks they received in return should help keep them at or near the top of the Northeast for a while.

One big storyline this entire season and into the next postseason will be how the Capitals respond to a Game 7 blowout in the semifinals to Pittsburgh. Adding Mike Knuble, who played a major role in ending the Capitals season TWO years ago while with the Flyers, is a great addition. Like Philadelphia, though, the biggest question mark is in net. Semyon Varlamov played extremely well in the postseason as a totally raw rookie, but Jose Theodore is virtually useless as a backup after his confidence was complete shot. If Varlamov can prove himself to be at the same level as Fleury in Pittsburgh, this team is the best in the East. If he’s not, they’ll be lucky to even win the division.

A number of other storylines about this season – a number of questions that everyone will be asking. Here are the most common 5, along with my own personal response.

1. Can the Pittsburgh Penguins repeat as Stanley Cup champions?
In a word, no. The East is too tough and there’s too big of a target on their backs. They will likely win the Northeast but look for a second round exit.

2. Will the New Jersey Devils continue their amazing run of success?
It depends on the definition of success. They’ll make the playoffs, yes, but the attrition has been too much over the years for them to beat three or four top tier teams to win another Cup.

3. Are the New York Islanders the worst team ever assembled?
It’s tough to call any team the “worst ever” before a season starts. That said, if there was ever a team poised to take a run at that label, this might be it.

4. Will either team make the playoffs from the Sunshine State?
In a division with Washington and Carolina, it will be difficult for either Tampa Bay or Florida to finish second, meaning they’ll likely have to squeeze in as the seventh or eighth seed. It’s possible, but more likely for the Panthers than the Lightning.

5. Who will win the East?

And that brings us to our preview:

Atlantic
Pittsburgh (1)
NY Rangers (4)
Philadelphia (6)
New Jersey (8)
NY Islanders (15)
The defending champs are the best team in the division, and any time that happens they get the division in the preseason. The three teams behind the Pens should all make the playoffs, especially with more games against the Islanders than the rest of the conference. Look for the Rangers to be better than Philly based on goaltending, though it’ll be a great race.

Northeast Division
Boston (3)
Buffalo (7)
Montreal (10)
Ottawa (12)
Toronto (13)
Sure, it might look like I just ordered the teams alphabetically, but that’s also how I see them stacking up. Boston is a cinch for the postseason, but should be pushed at least somewhat from both Buffalo and Montreal, but only the Sabres will join the B’s in the playoffs. Likewise, the two Ontario teams will miss out, once again leaving hockey’s hotbed without a championship contender.

Southeast Division
Washington (2)
Carolina (5)
Florida (9)
Tampa Bay (11)
Atlanta (14)
As mentioned above, the Caps are the most talented team in the division, and should beat out the Hurricanes for the top spot. Florida is close but just doesn’t have what it takes to beat out New Jersey or Buffalo – yet. Ditto with the Lightning, but they’ll beat out Atlanta, a team still trying to recapture the magic from their one good season.

Playoffs
Pittsburgh over New Jersey
Washington over Buffalo
Philadelphia over Boston
NY Rangers over Carolina

Philadelphia over Pittsburgh
Washington over NY Rangers

Washington over Philadelphia

So the answer to question number five – the Washington Capitals.

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