The thing that strikes me first about the “new” NHL is the fundamental unfairness of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 teams in the Western Conference.
Even Major League Baseball, at the risk of running a schedule with at least one interleague series going on all season long, decided to balance their divisions and leagues starting this past season.
This is bad news not only for the East’s playoff bubble teams – like the Flyers – but it really makes the gauntlet of running through the East to get to the Stanley Cup Finals a tougher task because the top-to-bottom quality of the eight playoff teams in the East figures to be a notch better than the group from the West.
A silver lining for the Flyers is that the “other” division in the East (the Atlantic) looks just that much more stacked than the ridiculously named “Metropolitan” division that the Flyers will call home.
The top three teams in each division make the playoffs, with the next two teams with the most points, regardless of division, making the playoffs. The wild card teams will face the first-place teams in the first round of the playoffs, with the second-and third-place teams squaring off. The playoffs will continue within each division, without any reseeding, as in years past. The teams that emerge from each division will meet in the conference finals.
Here’s my take on the 30 NHL teams for 2013-14 and how I think they’ll fare (Eric Fisher’s predictions are below Ron’s predictions):
1. Boston Bruins When Andrew Ference leaves and becomes a captain elsewhere, it should tell
you how good this team was. The have subtracted firepower in Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton, but adding all-star Loui Eriksson and future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla should lessen the sting.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs A perennial laughing stock in the league over the last decade, the Leafs finally became a playoff team in the abbreviated 2012-13 campaign, only to blow a first-round series to eventual Eastern Conference champion Bruins. By adding former Devils standout David Clarkson, Cup-winning goal hero Dave Bolland from Chicago and rescuing Jonathan Bernier from another year behind the best goalie in the league (Jonathan Quick), Toronto will prove that last season was not a fluke as it moves from playoff bubble team to Stanley Cup contender
3. Detroit Red Wings The Wings are now in the East, after a “gentlemen’s agreement” made long ago was repaid by the league by moving Detroit into their time zone as part of the recent realignment. On one hand, the lighter travel schedule should benefit the older Red Wings. But, on the other hand, the more physical style of play in the East could take its toll on Detroit’s older bodies. It’s hard to see the Wings missing the playoffs, but they are still closer to a bubble team than a Cup team.
4. Ottawa Senators (1st wildcard) Daniel Alfredsson is a Red Wing (huh?), but Bobby Ryan is perhaps the new sheriff in town. The firepower-plus-goaltending (Craig Anderson) formula should keep Ottawa in the playoff mix.
5. Montreal Canadiens (2nd wildcard) Unlike Toronto, which looks squarely like a team ready to build on a successful season, the “other” capital of hockey in Canada is experiencing perhaps a more uncertain renaissance. Montreal had a hugely successful regular season in the notoriously
abbreviated 2012-13 campaign, finishing second in the East, but ran out of gas late and was taken apart by Ottawa in the first round. The team on paper is not much different – subtract Michael Ryder and add ex-Flyer Danny Briere. The question is whether they played above their heads defensively last season so much so that we may see them drop in the standings – not to dead last in the East, as they were the full season before, but to somewhere in between.
The likely bottom 3 in the Atlantic looks like this:
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
7. Florida Panthers
8. Buffalo Sabres
1. Pittsburgh Penguins The Pens would probably finish third or fourth in the Atlantic, having lost a huge chunk of character forwards from their third and fourth lines (Brendan Morrow, Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke). The Penguins also lost “rental” Jarome Iginla, with their biggest addition being getting Rob Scuderi back from his successful run in L.A. So there is more pressure on the top 6 forwards, including Sidney Crosby (left) to produce – and if they stay healthy, they should be able to rise to the occasion. So too should Marc-Andre Fleury after his playoff meltdown.
2. New York Rangers Not much is different on the ice (subtract Ryan Clowe and add Benoit
Poulliot), but it’s like night and day behind the bench after the Blueshirts dismissed the acerbic John Tortorella and insterted the calmer, but underachieving-in-his-own-right Alain Vigneault after Vigneault put the Canucks through enough playoff torture. Many think that with a coaching change that brings in someone who won’t breathe down various players’ necks on a daily basis, the team will play looser and more up to its talent level. The Rangers are a very likely playoff team. Whether they are also a Cup contender remains to be seen. it would probably take nearly every player, most notably the core group of Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Brad Richards,
Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi logging huge ice time and having career years. The Rangers will miss the speed of Carl Hagelin and the grit of captain Ryan Callahan, who are both recovering from shoulder surgeries. The Rangers need them back – and figure to have them both back sometime in November – if they are to have any semblance of the depth needed to succeed.
3. Philadelphia Flyers Is it too optimistic to move the Flyers into the last playoff spot in the
Metro Division? Ahead of the solid Capitals and the upstarts in Columbus and on Long Island? Frankly, a lot would have to break right to get this team into the playoffs. The goaltending play of Ray Emery and Steve Mason would need to eclipse that of the bought-out and inconsistent Ilya Bryzgalov. On top of that, the timeshare that could work well in the regular season is not generally a recipe for success in the playoffs. Emery is expected to take the heat of being the “number one” early, but says here that Mason needs to take over the lion’s share of the playing time by March if the Flyers have serious Cup aspirations. Emery is good, but with the traffic this team allows in front of the net, the goaltending will need to be great. Mason is the guy with the potential to be just that.
Other keys are whether the defense can kick-start what was a woeful transition game last season, and get the puck productively out of the defensive zone, with speed and control, to let the forwards do their thing in the offensive zone. Sophomore slumps by Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier have to be replaced by a third-year breakout for each. Scott Hartnell has to keep playing with the high motor we’ve seen from him so far in the preseason. Hartnell’s not one to lead the rush into the offensive zone, so thee key to his success is that his linemates need to gain the zone and get the puck in deep to set Hartnell up in the shooting lanes near the net and with rebounds. Ditto for Wayne Simmonds, who has a bit more skating skill than Hartnell, but also relies on his teammates to feed him the puck.
Finally, newcomers Mark Streit and Vincent Lecavalier – both longtime captains on their former teams – need to come as advertised and provide strong leadership both in word and in deed. Each brings a graceful game that is rare on this team built on the muck-and-grind, and each figures to be a key part of the Flyers’ power play.
4. Washington Capitals They’re not in Kansas anymore. The Washington Capitals have been at or near the top of the Southeast Division for a long time. Not only was that division perennially weak, the unbalanced schedule left them in their own universe, fighting amongst themselves for the division title and likely No. 3 seed, while the points boost across the division occasionally snuck a second and undeserving Southeast team in riding the bubble to a 7th or 8th seed. Not that the Capitals are bad. They are a talented team – on paper – and after rediscovering themselves in the 2012 playoffs under interim head coach Dale Hunter, seem to have found a groove under ex-Flyer Adam Oates.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets How could Sergei Bobrovsky win a Vezina trophy? In fairness, he was always exceptional at lateral movement, but often committed early and couldn’t stop the high shot. With that flaw apparently fixed, and free agent Nathan Horton in the fold, it’s possible that the NHL postseason will say “Hello, Columbus” after the Blue Jackets’ near-miss last season.
6. New York Islanders Is youth served in the team’s last season on Long Island before their move to Brooklyn? Or will the team miss captain Mark Streit and miss the playoffs after making
it last season and hanging tough with the Penguins before losing in 6. A lot will come down to whether John Tavares progresses as one of the best forwards in the league, or takes a turn for the worse along the lines of last season’s Claude Giroux, with the whole league keying on Tavares when they play the Isles.
The likely bottom two in the Metro looks like this:
7. Carolina Hurricanes
8. New Jersey Devils
Bruins over Senators
Maple Leafs over Red Wings
Maple Leafs over Bruins
Penguins over Canadiens
Rangers over Flyers
Rangers over Penguins
Eastern Conference Finals
Maple Leafs over Rangers
1. Chicago Blackhawks You were expecting the Blues? Captain Jonathan Toews (left) and the Blackhawks seem better positioned to avoid a letdown similar to the one they experienced after winning their previous Stanley Cup.
2. St. Louis Blues Show us that you’re better than the Blackhawks, and maybe you’ll get more respect. At least with the Red Wings gone, St. Louis is a clear No. 2 in this division….or are they?
3. Minnesota Wild The Wild re-entered the playoffs with their big Parise/Suter splash of a year ago. But making the playoffs isn’t why they committed around $200 million to two players. The bigger question is whether enough of a supporting cast can be developed to propel this team from playoff bubble to Cup contender. The trend is positive, but the prize may yet be a few years away.
4. Nashville Predators (wild card) A team with Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne always has a shot. With the addition of Filip Forsberg, maybe the Preds will find the scoring punch they need to get themselves past the playoff bubble and into the Cup mix.
The likely bottom 3 in the Central looks like this:
5. Winnipeg Jets
6. Dallas Stars
7. Colorado Avalanche
1. Los Angeles Kings Still the cream of the crop in this division, even after subtracting Dustin Penner, Rob Scuderi and Jonathan Bernier.
2. San Jose Sharks Never a problem in the regular season, this team seems to always fall flat in the playoffs.
3. Edmonton Oilers Why not? Their succession of high draft picks is ready to take the next step, not unlike the Nordiques/Avalanche of about 20 years ago. After the Kings and Sharks, there is no one who can guarantee that the rest of the division is better than Edmonton.
4. Vancouver Canucks (wild card) It’s easy to foresee a horrible start for Vancouver while they get used to John Tortorella’s antics. This team won’t score a lot of goals, but they should be strong at keeping the puck out of the net, which should keep them in the playoff hunt. But if they want to return to playoff elite status, the Canucks may have to move a prized defenseman for a top center … could a trade with the Flyers possibly take place?
5. Anaheim Ducks This team is the “anti-Canucks” – it will light the lamp regularly, even without Bobby Ryan, but will probably lose more one-goal games than it wins, and that will be enough to keep the Ducks out of the playoffs.
The likely bottom 2 in the Pacific looks like this:
6. Phoenix Coyotes
7. Calgary Flames
Blackhawks over Predators
Blues over Wild
Blackhawks over Blues
Kings over Canucks
Oilers over Sharks
Kings over Oilers
Western Conference Finals
Kings over Blackhawks
Stanley Cup Finals
Kings over Maple Leafs
(Eric Fisher’s predictions)
1. Boston Bruins Towering defenseman Zdeno Chara (left), goalie Tuuka Rask and center Patrice Bergeron form the Bruins’ backbone, but the Bruins’ chances of returning to the Stanley Cup Finals may depend on the development of young defensemen Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton.
2. Ottawa Senators The Senators overcame a ton of injuries last season to make the playoffs. They have everyone back healthy, including defenseman Erik Karlsson and forward Jason Spezza. Daniel Alfredsson is gone, but Bobby Ryan is patrolling the wing.
3. Detroit Red Wings The Wings added Daniel Alfredsson, who could flourish in a subordinate role to Wings stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. The Red Wings have qualified for the playoffs in 22 straight seasons. Their streak should reach 23.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs (wild card) An overachieving team last season, the Leafs may fall back a bit this season. Picking up Kings backup Jonathan Bernier to team with James Reimer in goal gives the Leafs a solid 1-2 punch.
5. Montreal Canadiens Like the Maple Leafs, the Canadiens experienced surprising success. But they might fall just a step short of the playoffs.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning How does a team with Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos miss the playoffs? By allowing far too many goals. The Lightning may allow fewer goals, but that’s not quite enough to get them into the playoffs.
7. Buffalo Sabres If the Sabres are out of the playoffs, as I expect them to be, could the Flyers put together a package to get forward Thomas Vanek?
8. Florida Panthers Expectations were probably set too high when the Panthers made the playoffs two seasons ago. They have since returned back to earth.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins The Pens are the best team in this newly configured division. With a mediocre defense and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury coming off two sub-par postseasons, it’s fair to question how far the Penguins will go in the postseason.
2. New York Rangers New coach Alain Vigneault doesn’t have a very good track record in the playoffs. There’s no reason to believe that will change with a change of scenery. Wait a second. Yes, there is a reason: Henrik Lundqvist.
3. Philadelphia Flyers Depth at goalie, center and defense will enable the Flyers to overcome any injuries. The key to how far the Flyers go depends on the development of Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn and whether veterans such as Scott Hartnell can return to top form. I still don’t see any wings who should scare opposing goalies. The Flyers’ Stanley Cup aspirations could receive a boost from a trade deadline addition of a forward (Thomas Vanek?).
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (wild card) With free agent Nathan Horton added to the lineup and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky playing with confidence, the Blue Jackets could build on their terrific finish last season and make the playoffs.
5. Washington Capitals The Capitals can’t beat up on the Southeast Division anymore. Alex Ovechkin is terrific, but, remember, the Capitals needed a 15-2-2 run to make the playoffs last season. It won’t be as easy in the Metropolitan Division.
6. New York Islanders The young Islanders took a huge step forward last season when they made the playoffs and gave the Penguins all they could handle in the opening round. John Tavares is the real deal, but I’m not certain the rest of the Islanders are. Not yet.
7. New Jersey Devils You should dismiss the Devils at your own risk. But, with Ilya Kovalchuk’s unexpected retirement, the Devils don’t have much scoring beyond Patrik Elias.
8. Carolina Hurricanes The Hurricanes certainly don’t benefit from being placed in this division. The competition just got a whole lot tougher.
Maple Leafs over Bruins (Leafs get revenge for last season and turn tables on worn-down Bruins)
Senators over Red Wings (Passion play for former Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson turns out badly as Senators advance)
Senators over Maple Leafs (Senators prevail in Battle of Ontario)
Blue Jackets over Penguins (Sergei Bobrovsky outplays Marc-Andre Fleury. After latest playoff collapse, Dan Bylsma gets fired.)
Flyers over Rangers (Flyers finally able to match Rangers’ depth. Peter Laviolette wins coaching matchup with Alain Vigneault)
Flyers over Blue Jackets (Flyers beat their former goalie in low-scoring series)
Eastern Conference Finals
Senators over Flyers (Age takes its toll on some of the Flyers’ older players after two grueling playoff series)
1. Chicago Blackhawks The loss of Ray Emery won’t sink the talented and deep Blackhawks.
2. St. Louis Blues The Blues may be the best defensive team in the NHL. But they don’t score many goals. With the Blackhawks standing in their way, the Blues have a tough obstacle on their road out of the division.
3. Nashville Predators The Predators missed the playoffs for the first time in team history last season. With defenseman Shea Weber (left) and goalie Pekka Rinne, the Predators should bounce back. The underrated Roman Josi and first-round pick Seth Jones make the defense even better. But can the Predators score enough goals to do any damage during the postseason?
4. Minnesota Wild (wild card) The Wild signed the stars in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter one year ago, but there isn’t enough in the rest of the lineup to make the Wild a threat to the Blackhawks or Blues.
5. Winnipeg Jets The first year in the Western Conference does not result in a playoff berth for the Jets.
6. Dallas Stars I’m a fan of head coach Lindy Ruff, formerly with the Sabres, but he isn’t a miracle maker.
7. Colorado Avalanche The Avalanche have some good young players. But those players are far away from challenging for a playoff berth in this division.
1. Los Angeles Kings The Kings lost some key role players, but goalie Jonathan Quick and defenseman Drew Doughty are among the best in the league. Captain Dustin Brown provides tremendous leadership while Anze Kopitar and former Flyers Jeff Carter and Justin Williams are dangerous goal scorers.
2. Vancouver Canucks I’m a big fan of head coach John Tortorella, who didn’t have to wait long to find a job after being kicked to the curb by the Rangers. The personnel in Vancouver doesn’t fit Tortorella’s style, but he should be able to improve the defense and motivate an underachieving bunch of talented players. The wild card is goalie Roberto Luongo.
3. San Jose Sharks The Sharks will do all right during the regular season and then be eliminated early during the playoffs. Sound familiar?
4. Edmonton Oilers (wild card) The Oilers were one of my surprise picks to make the playoffs last season. Perhaps I was a year too early.
5. Anaheim Ducks The Ducks have a solid goalie tandem in Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth, but how much longer can senior forwards Teemu Selanne (43) and Saku Koivu (38) contribute at acceptable levels?
6. Phoenix Coyotes The Coyotes seem destined to miss the playoffs for the second straight season, although they could sneak in and grab a wild card berth.
7. Calgary Flames Jarome Iginla was traded to the Penguins (he’s now with the Bruins). Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff retired rather than return to the Flames. There isn’t much left.
Blackhawks over Wild (Blackhawks too good for Wild)
Blues over Predators (First team to 2 goals wins)
Blackhawks over Blues (Blues have a shot, but they can’t score enough to upset champs)
Kings over Oilers (Oilers just happy to be here)
Canucks over Sharks (Tortorella the difference in battle of underachieving playoff teams)
Kings over Canucks (The edge in goal is too big for Canucks to overcome)
Stanley Cup Finals
Kings over Senators (Former Flyers forward Dan Carcillo wins his second straight Stanley Cup. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Justin Williams also join the ex-Flyers Cup celebration.)