Eric and I are big hockey fans and Flyers fans – that’s really how we started our sports dialogue back in high school. Eric went to Flyers games regularly as early as the late 70′s; I would go occasionally, and then went “all-in” for season tickets in 1985 (after buying playoff strips each of the prior 3 seasons). I’m not that old – I was a season ticket holder as a college student – but it is still hard for me to believe that I have been a season-ticket holder well more than half of the team’s existence.
We have enjoyed a lot of close-but-not-quite moments at the Spectrum and the Corestates/First Union/Wachovia and now Wells Fargo Center (for me 2 losses in the finals in each building –Eric also went in 1979-80). While the mention of Leon Stickle puts every Flyers fan from that era into an instantaneously sour mood, mention Dave Newell and Eric is likely to frown nearly as much (From Eric: I actually liked Dave Newell. Now Bruce Hood … that’s another matter). Rather than tell you why, I’ll give you the chance to guess, via comments – let’s see if we are on the same page.
One place I will not be on the same page with many Flyers fans is my playoff predictions. While I feel that the Flyers will have an easier time making the playoffs, and I enjoyed the ride last season as much as anyone, the truth is that – like two years prior and the run to the conference final against Pittsburgh in 2008 – the Flyers enjoyed the benefit of some very favorable matchups this past spring. You can’t count on that every year.
The team is very good – but not quite at elite status. Defense is deeper, but scoring depth and goaltending remain issues which carry over from last season.
I see the Flyers making a second-round exit this season, once they draw a higher seed.
I hope I’m wrong.
The silver lining: I think Sergei Bobrovsky will learn a lot this year and take over as the #1 goalie going into the 2011-2012 season. Which will be marked with a parade of a certain very large silver chalice down Broad Street – sometime in June 2012.
In the meantime, here are my predictions for 2010-11 (Eric’s predictions are at the bottom of this story):
NHL EASTERN CONFERENCE:
5 who will:
Capitals (1) – return most everyone and while division is improving, no one in the South can touch these guys
Bruins (2) – this is an underrated team in a division in the midst of a power vacuum
Penguins (3) – Someone has to win this 3-deep division; the other two teams are playoff shoo-ins, playing for seedings. Penguins’ achilles heel – lack of role players willing to do the heavy lifting – will again keep them from going very far in the playoffs. Plus the power play – which wins them a fair number of games – may drop a notch without Gonchar
Flyers (4) – team on the rise in terms of not sweating out a playoff appearance this year, but a Cup final repeat is not something you can expect – only hope for
Devils (5) – As long as they have Brodeur, they will be a playoff team. How far they go depends on more than the goalie. And will Dan Carcillo put Anton Volchenkov in the hospital at some point this season? Volchenkov will seriously challenge Bobby Holik as the all-time Dirt(iest) Devil
4 who won’t:
Panthers (15) - Bad mix of veterans in decline and youngsters not ready to shine
Maple Leafs (14) – Best players are Americans (Phil Kessel and Mike Komisarek); I wonder how that sits in Canada’s top hockey market?
Thrashers (13) – Dustin Byfuglien will fight a lot and probably get suspended at least once as the frustration builds
Islanders (12) – improving team with young nucleus, but missed the “could” list because of the strength of the top 3 teams in their division.
6 who could:
Sabres (6) – hard to pick against a team with Ryan Miller in goal, though losing backliners Tallinder and Lydman will hurt
Lightning (7) – core returns of once-great team (Lecavalier and St. Louis); add Pavel Kubina, Simon Gagne, Brett Clark and goalie Dan Ellis to a team in a weak division and a playoff spot is very much within reach
Hurricanes (8) – they buried themselves early last year, but played very well in the second half. Weak division gives them an edge over the Northeast Division hopefuls. Maybe only one Staal will miss the playoffs this year.
Canadiens (9) – With Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis, it’s up to Carey Price to carry the torch from the failing hands of Vezina, Hainsworth, Durnan, Plante, Worsley, Dryden, Roy, Theodore and Halak*. Yeah, right. This team has some bright spots, including a trip from 8th seed to the conference finals last season, but the Habs are due for a “correction”
Senators (10) – last year was a fluky season with highs (like an 11-game win streak) and lows (wins drying up in final weeks and an early playoff exit). Expect how it ended last season to be a more predominant theme this season
Rangers (11) – hard to say they won’t because you can’t get any closer than last year, and the team had few personnel changes. Still, something tells me that the Islanders could push the Rangers to the cellar, and the playoffs should be a solid 10 points or so out of reach
*that list of 9 goalies covers 84 of the last 100 seasons. Pretty amazing, huh?
Bruins over Capitals
NHL WESTERN CONFERENCE:
4 who will:
Canucks (1) – this team has been building toward something special for a few years now, and with the partial dismantling of the Blackhawks and aging of the Red Wings, this could finally be the year in Vancouver – after 40 years of waiting
Sharks (2) – another strong Cup hopeful, letting Evgeny Nabokov go to Russia and replacing him with the Finnish duo of Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki is a major eyebrow-raiser. Maybe Niemi ends up in the right place at the right time yet again.
Blackhawks (3) – gone are Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, John Madden, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd and Adam Burish. Marty Turco takes over for Antti Niemi in goal. While the star power is still there, that’s too much turnover to count on a flawless transition. With apologies to business author Jim Collins, a book on this Blackhawks season could be titled “Great to Good”
Red Wings (4) – very talented team is aging in some key areas. They have 14 guys over 40 years old on the roster, half of whom are 37 or older. Adding 40 year-old Michigander Mike Modano is sentimental, but will it benefit the team? Ruslan Salei may turn out to be the more important newcomer – he’s only 35.
5 who won’t:
Oilers (15) – maybe even younger than the Panthers. It could take a few years, and they will take their lumps, but this group could follow the Blackhawks’ blueprint of conference-worst to first
Stars (14) – this team is bad and, unlike the Oilers, will not even be interesting to watch
Blue Jackets (13) – they still haven’t given Rick Nash any semblance of support (and no, R.J. Umberger doesn’t count)
Wild (12) – this team is just so…BLAND. If clutching and grabbing were still allowed, I’d give them a chance. But since it isn’t, they are hard-pressed to figure out how to stay in the game with such little firepower.
Predators (11) – this team managed 100 points with a dead-even goal differential, while in the same division, St. Louis was +2 and finished with only 90 points. Time for a correction. Losing defenseman Dan Hamhuis, goalie Dan Ellis and captain Jason Arnott won’t help. At least they still have star blueliners Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
6 who could:
Kings (5) – what a revelation this team was last season, led by Jonathan Quick (what a great name for a goalie!), defensemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson and forward Dustin Brown. Quick, Johnson and Brown were all 2010 US Olympians. The Kings are young and on the rise and the 3 Americans are after a different kind of silver hardware.
Blues (6) – another young team on the rise led by US Olympian Erik Johnson on defense and newly acquired Jaroslav Halak, who was sensational for Slovakia in the Olympics and for the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Coyotes (7) – surprise playoff team last season, will not surprise this year – but still should make the playoffs
Ducks (8) – Chris Pronger left last year and now Scott Niedermayer retires. Most experts are writing this team off. Not me. I say they stay in the hunt, and I went ahead and picked them for the last playoff spot in the West.
Flames (9) – like the Ducks, some experts would call this team a “won’t.” I give any team with Jarome Iginla – one of the most underappreciated players in the NHL – a chance.
Avalanche (10) – Like Phoenix and Los Angeles, Colorado was another surprise playoff team last season. They will contend, but I don’t think a return to the playoffs is assured.
Canucks over Blackhawks
Stanley Cup Final:
Canucks over Bruins. As Towel Power carries Vancouver to victory, somewhere Roger Neilson smiles and earns a small piece of the Stanley Cup glory that eluded him in his lifetime
Eric Fisher’s NHL predictions
I have a slightly different take than Ron. I agree that playoff success frequently depends on the luck of the draw, but, with arguably the best and deepest defense in the NHL and a terrific core of centers and forwards in their early-to-mid 20s (Carter, Richards, Giroux, van Riemsdyk, Leino, Zherdev?), I like the Flyers’ chances of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals again.
See my Flyers preview for a more detailed analysis.
Penguins (1) – After last season’s early playoff exit, the Penguins will be back with a vengeance. Talent will take them to the conference top spot, but I agree with Ron that they are missing the type of role players that helped them win the Cup two seasons ago.
Capitals (2) – Amazing talent, starting with Alex Ovechkin. But their defense and goaltending isn’t good enough to win the Cup.
Bruins (3) – I’m not nearly as high on the Bruins as Ron is, but I think they’ll win the Northeast Division.
Flyers (4) – With Peter Laviolette in charge from the start of the season, the Flyers won’t have to wait until a shootout in the final regular-season game to secure a playoff berth. They’ll challenge the Penguins for the Atlantic Division title.
Lightning (5) – Simon Gagne will fit in nicely on a skilled team that already has Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis). The Lightning solidified their defense and added a dependable goalie in Dan Ellis.
Sabres (6) – Ryan Miller might be the best goalie in the NHL. That’s enough to earn the consistent Sabres another playoff berth, but it’s not enough to get them through the playoffs to the Cup finals.
Devils (7) – Ilya Kovalchuk didn’t fit the Devils’ system last season. I don’t think he will fit in much better this season. Furthermore, his contract is killing the Devils in terms of the salary cap. Anton Volchenkov, who delivered dirty hits to Simon Gagne and Dan Carcillo in the same game last season, will add some fire to the rivalry with the Flyers. Oh yeah, they have that Brodeur guy between the pipes.
Canadiens (8) They either barely make the playoffs or are this year’s version of the Rangers, missing out on the playoffs on a final-game shootout. If the latter happens, Carey Price will be lucky to make it out of Montreal alive.
The rest of the East:
Hurricanes – Will try to build upon last year’s strong finish. Should be in playoff contention.
Rangers – If they make the playoffs, Henrik Lundqvist gives them a puncher’s chance against anyone. That’s if they make the playoffs.
Senators – Capable of making the playoffs, but even if they do, it seems there’s an intangible missing with this club.
Islanders – I agree with Ron. Playing in the toughest division in hockey means the Islanders’ improvement may not be reflected in the standings.
Maple Leafs - What is the plan in Toronto? I have no idea.
Panthers – Who are the stars on this team? They certainly don’t have enough of them.
Thrashers – It will be difficult to muster enthusiasm playing for a franchise whose future is in doubt.
Eastern Conference finals
Flyers over Penguins, making opening night a preview of the conference finals
NHL WESTERN CONFERENCE:
Canucks (1) – The Canucks have something to prove. The Sedin twins and goalie Roberto Luongo lead the way. But they just traded for former Flyer Ryan Parent. How good can they be?
Blackhawks (2) – Lost some pieces from their Cup-winning team. They’ll be fine during the regular season, but will miss the role players they lost due to salary-cap considerations when the playoffs roll around.
Kings (3) – Ron Hextall is helping the Kings assemble a terrific team. Do yourself a favor and stay up late a few times this year to watch defenseman Drew Doughty and forward Dustin Brown. In a bit of an upset, the Kings supplant the Sharks atop the Pacific Division.
Sharks (4) – I kind of like the symmetry of the Finnish goaltending duo of Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki. But I don’t know that either one is what the Sharks need. Niemi is more spectacular; Niittymaki is steadier. The Sharks missed their window to win the Cup.
Red Wings (5) – Are they old? Yes. But they’re still the Red Wings.
Blues (6) – Like the Kings, the Blues are a young team on the way up. Acquiring goalie Jaroslav Halak is a huge boost for their fortunes.
Predators (7) – Barry Trotz always finds a way to make the Predators competitive. They don’t have the talent to be great, but they’re good enough and consistent enough to make the playoffs.
Coyotes (8) – The Coyotes won’t sneak up on anybody this season. But they don’t need to sneak up on anyone to win. This “feel good” story continues.
The rest of the West:
Avalanche - It’s tough not to pick the Avalanche to return to the playoffs. But somebody has to miss out in what I expect to be a tight, multi-team battle for the final playoff berth.
Flames – Jarome Iginla is the shining star. But he needs more help.
Ducks – Another team that will contend for the final playoff berth until the final days of the season.
Stars – With Mike Modano (Detroit) and Marty Turco (Chicago) gone, there’s a changing of the guard in Dallas.
Blue Jackets – One day this team will get it together. But that day hasn’t arrived yet.
Wild – The lack of offense continues to tame the Wild.
Oilers – I may eat my words, but this team has no chance to make the playoffs. They sent veteran defenseman Sheldon Souray to Hershey.
Western Conference finals
Canucks over Kings
Stanley Cup Final:
Flyers over Canucks
Yes, Ron, Roger Neilson will be smiling as one of his former teams earns a piece of the Stanley Cup glory that eluded him in his lifetime – but you’ve got the wrong former team.